Laurene Christensen and Vitaliy Shyyan on Conducting Online Focus Groups

Hi! We are Laurene Christensen and Vitaliy Shyyan from the National Center on Educational Outcomes. NCEO is a federally-funded technical assistance center that works primarily with state departments of education to help improve outcomes for students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities.

Our work often involves a national reach, including gathering information from a variety of stakeholders across the nation. That’s why we like to use online, asynchronous focus groups to gather information from stakeholders.

Hot Tip: Spread focus groups out over 3-4 days. By having a short time frame for the focus group, participants will keep the momentum going. It is important to recognize that participants will interact with the online focus group questions at the time of day that is easiest for them, so some will respond in the mornings and some will be more active with the questions in the evenings.

Hot Tip:Make sure your moderator is highly engaged. Encouraging comments and asking follow-up questions to the participants’ posts keeps everyone coming back! Participants want to know that their contributions are appreciated and an engaged moderator will know how to acknowledge them.

Hot Tip: Post only two or three questions per day. This number of questions will keep the posts manageable for participants. But, posting daily is important to keep them coming back and engaging with the focus group site. Bringing participants back to the site regularly adds to the quality of the focus group results.

Hot Tip: Encourage participation by having participants maintain anonymity and participate voluntarily. In our focus groups, we often use tree names for pseudonyms because most tree names are gender neutral. For example, in one focus group with participants from Arizona, pseudonyms included “Saguaro” and “Palo Verde.”

Lesson Learned: Online focus groups have an advantage in that at the end, you will have a transcript of the focus group without the need for a transcriber. For data processing, we use qualitative analysis software to code the content and identify emerging themes. Although preliminary findings come primarily from immediate responses to the topical questions, we found that instrumental information can also be generated through additional comments and follow-up questions from participants.

Have you used online, asynchronous focus groups in your work? Tell us more in the comments!

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

10 thoughts on “Laurene Christensen and Vitaliy Shyyan on Conducting Online Focus Groups”

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for this great post! I’m curious why the importance of having anonymity online? In in-person focus groups, there’s no anonymity as participants can see each other (and sometimes know each other). Is this so that people can’t tie what people say to a specific person that they can then go search for?


    1. Laurene Christensen

      Hi Marvin,

      We have found that sometimes, when people are participating in a focus group from the same school, they limit what they say. Having anonymity allows for all participants to have equal footing in the focus group. Plus, they seem to enjoy having the tree names!

  2. Great Post!
    I’m interested in how you recruit people to join the focus group. I’m also curious if you offer any incentives to participate, because my potential focus group participants are super busy clinical researchers.


    1. Laurene Christensen

      We did offer gift cards to participants since teachers are busy professionals. However, it is worth mentioning that when we evaluated the focus groups, most participants said that they didn’t participate for the gift cards. Instead, they were highly motivated to discuss the topic!

      We mailed actual gift cards to the participants, which took time and cost a bit in postage. But, you could also give gift cards for or iTunes, and then you could simply send a link.

  3. An online focus group – what a great idea! I too am interested in knowing what app/program you use to post the focus group questions and receive feedback.Thank you!

    1. Laurene Christensen

      We have used both Moodle and Ning. There are other options out there, though. It partly depends on how private you need the groups to be.

  4. P. Denise Long

    Thanks, Laurene and Vitaliy, for this very helpful post on incorporating online focus groups into the evaluator toolkit. I wondered how you tend to wrap up your online focus groups and what content analysis software do you find gives the richest and most nuanced data? Do you have to supplement the software analysis to ensure the fullest data collection?

    Kind regards,

    Education- & Community-focused Trauma-informed organization development and evaluation

    “Part of what we are doing in the modern world is…essentially a product of the inertia of previous generations’ good and bad decisions.” – Dr. Bruce Perry

    1. Laurene Christensen

      Hi Denise,

      Thanks for your comment.

      We wrapped up the focus groups with a concluding message and then also a link for the participants to evaluate their experiences. Our evaluations showed that they really liked the process of doing the asynchronous, online focus groups.

      We tend to use NVivo when we want to do more nuanced analyses, but we also tend to do more thematic analyses and we don’t use software for that.


    1. Laurene Christensen

      Hi Kathleen,

      The first time we did the focus groups, we used Moodle. We had access to a programmer, who was able to customize Moodle so that it was easy to use for the participants. The second time we used Ning, which is a Facebook-like site that easily creates closed groups. The kind of platform you use depends a lot on if you want the participants to be anonymous or not. It’s much more difficult to have them be anonymous.


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