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Conducting research fieldwork during a global pandemic.

Expert comment

Conducting research fieldwork during a global pandemic.

The DWELL project research team reflect on experiences and implications of remote data collection via Online Focus Groups during lockdown.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the delivery of many health education programmes has been paused. One such intervention is the Diabetes and WELLbeing (‘DWELL’) Programme, an innovative 12-week psychoeducational programme for people with type 2 diabetes which aims to empower participants to better self-manage their condition. The programme is being delivered across two sites in Kent and three non-UK sites (Belgium, France and the Netherlands). The evaluation of DWELL is being conducted by a team of researchers in the Faculty of Medicine Health and Social Care, led by Professor Eleni Hatzidimitriadou.

Despite the DWELL programme being on pause since March 2020, evaluation activities have continued throughout the lockdown period, requiring the research team to diversify their data collection methods.

Prior to Covid-19, focus groups were conducted with DWELL participants at the end of each 12-week programme to obtain feedback and experiences as part of the process evaluation.

One benefit of focus groups is the interpersonal interaction they allow. The dynamics obviously change when utilising an Online Focus Group (OFG) approach. Lack of non-verbal and limited advanced vocal cues may lead to misunderstanding and misconstrued feedback, and OFGs are prone to technology issues. Despite advancements in the technology of internet-based communications, collecting research data remotely may enhance ‘digital isolation’, whereby those without the means to connect are prevented from participating. OFGs also take substantial time to set up and run. Furthermore, ethics and GDPR issues need to be addressed.

OFGs can bring together participants and researchers who are otherwise geographically dispersed and can potentially reduce costs incurred with in-person data collection. Lack of social inhibition, due to the nature of OFGs may, for some participants, provide more freedom of expression and richer data. Participants are very likely to be under personal stress during a pandemic due to the disruption of normal routines, feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, privacy or domestic issues at home, or ill health. Although, with more people confined to their homes, some participants may welcome the opportunity to be part of a research project.

In the case of DWELL, the OFG approach was recently piloted with a group of participants who were finishing the 12-week programme when lockdown commenced. The production of guidance/FAQs was beneficial in supporting and reassuring for participants, as was arranging a ‘test call’ prior to the OFG, which enabled assessment of comfort with the online approach. Having a second researcher present to observe interactions was also beneficial.

Participants appeared engaged, positive and comfortable throughout the pilot. The quality of data was comparative with that obtained from previous in-person focus groups, with the added detail of Covid-19 related feedback.

Facilitation was relatively straightforward online; since all participants could be seen on-screen, body language and other visual cues were more easily observed. Since those participating (n=5) were self-selecting, it was unclear whether their views were representative of the wider group (n=19).

Moving to remote means of data collection has obvious implications for researchers and participants alike. Given that the current state of affairs is likely to continue for some time, especially for those who are vulnerable, elderly or otherwise shielding, the impact of conducting any kind of social research in a pandemic requires careful consideration. The DWELL OFG pilot offers reassurance that, despite limitations and preconceived reservations, rich data can be obtained remotely. This bodes well for future evaluations and interventions that may need to be conducted partly, or even wholly, online. However, a question remains about how to bridge the gap for those who are ‘digitally isolated’ to ensure that they can contribute to research in a world that is becoming increasingly reliant on technology.

Sharon Manship (Research Fellow) and Thomas Thompson (Research Assistant)
Research and Knowledge Exchange
Faculty of Medicine, Health and Social Care

This is one of a series of articles the Interdisciplinary Research Network at Canterbury Christ Church University is planning to publish in relation to online working as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The DWELL project has received funding from the Interreg 2 Seas programme 2014-2020 co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund under subsidy contract No 2S01-058.