In this second project blog, the research team
reflect on how Covid-19 and the restrictions it has placed on all our lives,
has led to methodological, ethical and practical challenges in working with
focus groups on
parental buy-in for linking and analysing data
about families. They outline the challenges they face and how they’re adapting
the next stage of our project, we’re conducting focus groups to explore how particular social groups of
parents understand and talk about their perspectives on data linkage and
predictive analytics. Back in early
2020, we were optimistic about the possibility of being able to conduct these
groups face-to-face by the time we reached this stage of our research. Now though, it’s clear we’ll need to move online,
and we’ve been thinking about the issues we’ll face and how to deal
Questions we’re grappling with include:
- What might moving online mean
for how we recruit participants?
- How can we best organise
groups and engage parents with the project?
- How can we develop content for
online groups that will firstly, encourage parents to contribute and enjoy the
research process, and secondly, be relevant to our research endeavour?
What will moving online mean for recruiting participants?
Our intention was – and still is, to hold focus
group discussions with homogenous groups of parents, to explore the consensus
of views on what is and isn’t acceptable (social licence) in joining together and using parents’ administrative
We’re using the findings from our earlier
probability-based survey of parents to identify social groups of parents whose
views stand out. These include home-owning parents in professional and
managerial occupations, who have stronger social licence, and mothers on low
incomes, Black parents, and lone parents and parents in larger families living
in rented accommodation, who tend to have weak or no social licence.
Our original plan was to recruit participants
for our focus groups by contacting local community and interest groups, neighbourhood
networks, services such as health centres and schools, workplaces and
professional associations. We still plan
to do this, but we’re concerned that the pandemic is placing huge
pressures on community groups, services for families and businesses and we may
need to be prepared that helping us to identify parents to participate in
research may not be a priority or, as with schools, appropriate.
So we’ve also been considering recruitment through online routes, such as
advertising on relevant Facebook groups; using Twitter and putting
advertisements on websites likely to be accessed by parents. It’ll be interesting to
see if these general reach-outs get us anywhere.
An important aspect of recruitment to our study
is how to include marginalised parents.
This can be a conundrum whether research is face-to-face or online. Face-to-face we would have spent quite a bit
of time establishing trust in person, which is not feasible now. Finding ways to reach out and convince these
parents to participate is going to be an additional challenge. Our ideas for
trying to engage these parents include the use of advertising via foodbanks,
neighbourhood support networks and housing organisations.
And there’s the additional problem for online methods,
revealed in inequalities of online schooling, of parents who have limited or no
online access. Further, Covid-19 is affecting parents living in poverty
especially and we don’t want to add to any stress they’re likely to be under.
Enticing affluent parents working in
professional and managerial occupations to participate may also be difficult
under the current circumstances. They
may be juggling full-time jobs and (currently) home schooling and feeling under
pressure. Either way, marginalised or
affluent, we think we’ll need to be flexible, offering group times in evenings and at weekends
How should we change the way we organise groups and engage parents with the project?
We know from reading the literature that online
groups can face higher drop-out rates than face-to-face. Will the pandemic and its potential effect on
parent’s’ physical and mental health mean that we face even higher drop-out
rates? One strategy we hope will help is
establishing personal links, through contacting participants and chatting to
them informally before the focus group takes place.
We’ve been mulling over using groups
containing people who know each other, for example if they’re members of a community group or
accessed through a workplace, and groups that bring together participants who
are unknown to each other. Because we’re feeling a bit unsure
about recruitment and organisation, we’ve decided to go down both routes as and
when opportunities present themselves.
We’ll need to be aware of this as an issue when we come to do the analysis
We’re also thinking to organise more groups
and have fewer participants in each group than we would have done face-to-face
(after all, we’re not going to be confined by our original travel and venue hire budget). Even in our online research team meetings we
can cut across and interrupt each other, and discussion doesn’t flow in quite the
same way. Reading
participants’ body language and non-verbal cues in an online focus group is going to
be more difficult. Smaller numbers in
the group may help a bit, but it can still be difficult to see everyone if, for
example, someone is using a mobile phone.
We’ll just have to see how this goes and how best to handle it.
There’s also a dilemma about how many of the project team to involve in the
focus groups. We’ll need to have a team member to facilitate the group, but previous
research shows it might be useful to have at least one other to monitor the
chat and sort out any technical issues. But with a group as small as 4-6
participants will that seem off putting for parents? It’s all hard to know so may be a case of
trying it in order to find out!
What should we consider in developing content that’s engaging for parents and relevant to our research?
What we’ll miss by holding our group discussions online is the settling in and chatting and putting us and our participants at ease – how are you, would you like a drink, there’s some biscuits if you want, let me introduce you to … and so on. We don’t think that we can replicate this easily.
But we’ve been pondering our opening icebreaker – should we ask something like….
‘If you could be anywhere else in the world where would you be?’ or
‘What would be the one thing you’d pack in a lockdown survival kit?’
And we’re also planning to use a couple of initial questions that use the online poll function. Here’s an instance where we think there’s an advantage over in-person groups, because participants can vote in the poll anonymously.
After that, we’ll be attempting to open up the discussion to focus on the issues that are at the heart of our research – what our participants feel is acceptable and what’s not in various scenarios about the uses of data linkage and predictive analytics.
Ensuring the well-being of parents after focus groups is always important, but with online groups may be harder if the participants are not identified through community groups in which there’s already access to support. We plan to contact people after groups via email but it’s hard to know if parents would let us know even if groups presented issues for them. We have also given some thought to whether we could use online noticeboards for participants to post any further comments they may have about social licence after they’ve had time to reflect, but do not know realistically if they would be used.
It’ll be interesting to see if the concerns we’ve discussed here are borne out in practice, and our hopeful means of addressing them work. And also, what sort of challenges arise for our online focus group discussions that we haven’t thought of in advance!
If you have any ideas that might help us with
our focus groups, please do get in touch with us via firstname.lastname@example.org