Facilitating focus group consultations online – a resource for community organisations. Amanda Ptolomey

Amanda Ptolomey

Amanda Ptolomey shares insights from work she and Molly Gilmour collaborated on with our project partners Amina MWRC, with the support of study Co-Lead Professor Sarah Armstrong and Co-Investigator Dr. Nughmana Mirza. This blog and accompanying resource aims to support organisations involved in running community engagement activities online. It offers guidance on facilitating focus groups which can provide information for developing services, engagement or supporting research.

As well as the training resource we have included links throughout to some of the sources we drew on to design the training. If you do not have access to any of the resources we have linked to and would like to access them please contact us and we will happily email them to you.

Working together to research the impacts of COVID-19

This study has 20 third sector partners. When we began our collaboration, one of our partners, Amina MWRC wanted to build on the knowledge they had already gained about the impacts of COVID-19 from the Muslim and BME women they work with. Through telephone and online surveys, they were formulating rapid responses to meet the needs of their community. By collaborating, we have combined the existing expertise of Amina MWRC staff and volunteers, the relationship they had with their service users with the resources and research expertise of the Scotland in Lockdown study team.

This partnership has provided us insights into the experiences of Muslim and BME women during the first half of the pandemic. These insights have informed our study. We also gained the opportunity to learn more about Amina MWRC‘ s vital and innovative work, which delivers a wide range of projects and services addressing the needs of Muslim and BME women.

This blog outlines one aspect of our collaboration – the design and delivery of training to conduct online consultations using focus group methods.

Designing and delivering the training

We approached designing the training with the aim of building on the existing strengths of practitioners: facilitating the integration of new insights with the significant expertise and practice-based knowledge of staff and volunteers. This provided us with the opportunity to learn from experts ‘on the ground’ about their approaches to practice while sharing our research skills.

As researchers Molly and I are now spending most of our time working from home. To design the training in pre-pandemic times we would have worked together in a room with flip charts, pens and post-it notes. Under pandemic conditions, this was replaced with a shared online document full of tracked changes and comments to one another, based on conversations over Zoom and online meetings with Amina MWRC about their needs.

In designing the training, we used reflective practice to draw on our experiences of facilitating focus groups and feminist approaches to research, also gaining from Sarah and Nughmana’s expertise. We were also informed by a range of publications about focus groups, especially those focusing on feminist approaches which are culturally sensitive, and work which has outlined the challenges and opportunities of doing focus groups online. We also engaged with data from Amina MWRC’s previous consultation work regarding the impacts of COVID-19. This helped to ensure the training we designed would support staff to explore key concerns community members were highlighting.

Object elicitation: breaking the ice or sparking a conversation

We started the training by demonstrating object elicitation – an activity that can be used as an icebreaker or a starting point for conversations. Using this technique to spark thoughts, ideas, and memories each of us got an item from our kitchen (or used our imagination to think about an object) that conveys something about our experiences of lockdown. I chose my tea caddy full of jasmine green tea. This object represented my simultaneous feelings of connectedness and distance from my friends during lockdown – missing spending time having tea together but feeling connected through everyday rituals. Molly chose her ‘dallah’, a traditional Arabic coffee pot which evoked the disruption to her planned research in Lebanon and her sense of connection with places and people there across time and space.

Doing this activity together showed that as well as supporting us to get to know one another, object elicitation activities can spark reflections relevant to the topic of our research and Amina MWRC’s consultations – the impact of COVID-19. Together we talked about family, friendship, disruptions, everyday life, food, children, technology, news and information, learning and leisure, and many more topics which can then be drawn out through conversations to gain rich insights about experiences of the pandemic.

Benefits and challenges of online focus groups, and implications of working online

Following introductions, care was taken to discuss the benefits and challenges of focus groups as a method for consultation, building on the existing group work expertise of Amina MWRC staff. An arena may be created for a wide range of views to be discussed, but this must be facilitated with care to ensure the space is not overtaken by dominant participants. Focus groups can offer participants the opportunity to lead the conversation in directions relevant to their concerns, but without considerate facilitation time may run out before everyone can share their views. Focus groups can provide a space where participants can support one another to express themselves, however they may also be impacted by unequal power dynamics between participants who are known to one another. We also talked about confidentiality – which cannot be guaranteed since participants are aware of one another’s identities. We considered that confidentiality may be made even more difficult to protect when conducting remote focus groups as other people may be present in participants’ homes while they join in the group.

We also spent time reflecting on the practical implications of facilitating focus groups online. Some of the issues we talked about included supporting participants who arrive late, or lose connection suddenly, and supporting participants and staff to navigate issues with technology and devices. We also outlined some approaches to creating a topic guide for discussions, and the role of the moderator/facilitator. The use of translators and ways to make focus groups accessible featured in our conversations about inclusive practice. We finished the morning with questions and answers and a discussion about the next steps in our collaboration.

Using the training and resources

Amina MWRC have now carried out a series of online focus group consultations with women in their community. As one of our study partners Amina MWRC shared the findings from their consultations and survey research with our study team. Professor Sarah Armstrong has now analysed the survey data, distilling key findings including information about hate crime, finances, mental health, and humour.

Please feel free to use our training resource or ideas in your organisation and share with your networks – and let us know what you think!

Amanda Ptolomey @amandasays (she/her) is a researcher at University of Glasgow. Her work focusses on researching with people in creative and inclusive ways. As well as researching disabled people’s experiences of the pandemic with the Scotland in Lockdown project, she is working on a PhD researching everyday life and imagined futures with disabled young women using zine-making as a creative participatory method.

Molly Gilmour @MVGilmour (she/her) is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow working on ‘How can we strengthen emergency healthcare for forced migrants situated on the edges of Europe?’ She is also part of the research team on the Scotland in Lockdown study, working in the stream on refugees and asylum seekers facing destitution.

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