Lessons Learned on Pivoting to Online Focus Groups amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

July 13, 2020

by Rosario Torres, Program Officer

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced colleges and universities to pivot to virtual instruction almost overnight, many programs are wondering how to capture the critical information typically gathered through in-person focus groups. The pandemic has, in many ways, exacerbated the inequities in our higher education system, resulting in additional barriers for students, especially for students from low-income backgrounds, working adults, or student parents looking to gain a postsecondary education.  Understanding students’ needs and what will best serve them is especially critical now during this unprecedented time. But questions around how—and whether—virtual focus groups can be a useful tool for understanding student needs during and after the pandemic are beginning to be asked among researchers and higher education institutions around the country. 

Higher education institutions oftentimes use data collection through a combination of both quantitative data—such as historical enrollment trends or program participation rates—and qualitative data, typically captured through surveys, interviews or in-person focus groups to get a pulse of how students are engaging in programs designed for their success. While quantitative data provides a breadth of information, qualitative data can be complimentary by providing higher education institutions greater depth of information.

As Linda L. Garcia, Assistant Director at the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) notes, “Data tells us what is going on but focus groups tell us why.” Focus groups are a common methodology used to gain a deeper understanding of students’ experiences, allowing researchers or program administrators to dig deeper into data points that beg more understanding, especially as they relate to equity gaps. Understanding the shift the higher education community recently made from conducting in-person to virtual focus groups, we reached out to some of our partners for insight, gathering their thoughts on best practices and collecting additional resources that we could share with our larger grantee community.

The following summary of our conversations provides some important considerations, tips, and resources for conducting effective virtual focus groups.

First, determine whether a virtual focus group will give you the information you need right now.

Students are facing unprecedented disruption to their lives, not just their academic lives, but to their families, their homes, and their safety. When asking them to participate in a virtual focus group, it is even more essential now to ensure that their time and insight will be used to inform and improve services for those who are most in need.

“Just because we could do data collection at this time, should we? Just because we could, doesn’t mean we should,” says Joelle Greene at Harder+ Company, who had been conducting virtual focus groups before the pandemic. Similarly, Elisabeth Barnett at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College reminds us, “Students are scrambling during this time and, although students are eager to talk to someone, we must be sensitive to students’ situations.”

Still, students are important stakeholders and need to be included in conversations about program improvement, especially amid a pandemic that is rapidly changing how colleges deliver instruction and services. According to Faith Lewis and Seth Muzzy at MDRC, many issues that will be discussed in higher education several months down the road will be identified in conversations conducted with students now.  

Second, recognize the limitations of virtual focus groups and do your best to reach students whose voices need to be heard.

Much evidence exists of a digital divide facing students from low-income backgrounds and students of color. Without addressing this divide, shifts to online learning will further exacerbate inequities in higher education. Internet connectivity and lack of access to essential technology, such as computers or tablets, remain a challenge for the most vulnerable student groups. These hard to reach students are the exact students researchers and program administrators must invite to share their insight in order to help inform policies and programs at institutions.   

Without access to online tools, virtual focus groups will fail to capture their experiences. Coral M. Noonan-Terry, Program Manager of Special Projects at CCCSE, says colleges will “report out on the evidence of improvements made but oftentimes without having talked to students first.” Coral believes the student voice is the missing link of driving program improvement. It is through focus groups where “you hear the emotion, you hear the struggle and you hear their dreams and aspirations,” says Garcia from CCCSE.

Student privacy remains a concern, especially for those living in dense living quarters. Virtual focus group facilitators should not assume that students have a safe or quiet space to speak. An interviewer may be able to catch a glimpse of a student’s home life through video sharing, which raises additional considerations for securing informed consent from online focus group participants. Interviewers should be transparent about the type of information that the interviewer will need to report to others (in particular, self-harm or harm to others), as part of the written or verbal consent. When asking sensitive questions, facilitators can use the chat box, live polling, and additional videoconferencing features to help students answer more comfortably.

Finally, when you are ready to conduct your own virtual focus group, consider these tips and key takeaways from the experts to get the most out of the online format.

As virtual focus groups become more common, more resources and established best practices will be adapted by the field. Every expert we spoke to acknowledged that the shift online is largely a new frontier and many researchers are still experimenting with what works best.

As online focus groups are explored more and more, the uniqueness of the medium will be understood more,” says Muzzy, who points to the introduction of web surveys as an example. According to Muzzy, people assumed email would be used the same way as postal mail, but that turned out to be incorrect. Researchers should keep in mind that they may be at a similar technological pivot point, especially as the level of exposure to videoconferencing platforms increases and their understanding of the opportunities and limitations improves. While there might not be best practices yet, here are a few promising tips collected during our conversations.

Engaging participants

  • Be mindful of students’ time. According to Higher Learning Advocates, 37 percent of today’s college students are over the age of 25 and 64 percent work while in college. Students are balancing the transition to online learning with full-time work and care for loved ones.
  • Experiment with different flexible formats and timeframes to engage a larger and more diverse set of participants. Although in a virtual format participants no longer have to commute to participate, do not assume participants have more availability. Students with families are experiencing many demands during this time, especially with balancing work from home responsibilities and taking care of family members.
  • Use platform tools to engage introverts. The virtual format may make discussing sensitive topics easier for some, especially through chat boxes and polling. Have a second facilitator available to engage participants who may prefer to contribute through the chat and poll features.
  • Consider boosting compensation for participants’ time. With savings on travel, meals, and other items typically budgeted for in-person focus groups, focus group organizers can consider redirecting these funds to increase incentives for participants and help offset basic needs, especially during a time of increased uncertainty and hardship for many.
  • Keep focus groups small. Some experts suggest capping each virtual focus group at six students to keep the conversation focused and ensure that quieter students are able to contribute.

Navigating logistics

  • Choose a platform you and your participants are comfortable with. Greene from Harder+Company suggested either GoToMeeting or Zoom for online focus groups, but has found that students are most familiar with Zoom. Extra security protocols can mitigate the risk of “zoom bombers.”
  • Practice makes perfect. Setting up a dry run before launching the focus group can ensure facilitators are comfortable with protocols, questions, and delivery format.
  • Share facilitation responsibilities. Have at least two facilitators present for each focus group, including one person to ask questions and one to encourage participation in the chat box and tackle technical challenges as they arise.
  • Send consent forms ahead of time. When navigating the informed consent process, always defer to your Institutional Review Board for instructions. Experts suggest providing detailed instructions about the focus group and sending consent forms to participants beforehand.
  • Embrace the online features of videoconferencing platforms. Live polls, reaction icons, chat, and embedded transcription and recording services can open up new avenues for engaging participants and capturing their insights accurately and quickly.

Additional Resources

The list above is just a starting point. As more people incorporate virtual focus groups into their data collection, these tips, and many others, may become more formalized in practice. Please see below for additional resources that may help researchers conduct virtual focus groups.

Thank you to Elisabeth Barnett (Community College Resource Center), Faith Lewis and Seth Muzzy, (MDRC), Linda L. Garcia and Coral M. Noonan-Terry (Center for Community College Student Engagement) and Joelle Greene (Harder+Company Community Research) for sharing their insights on conducting online focus groups.

ECMC Foundation is committed to lifting up solutions that improve postsecondary outcomes for all students, particularly those students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, including low-income and first-generation college students.


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