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MNEA Week: Beth Robelia on Using Online Focus Groups

My name is Beth Robelia. I am the proprietor of a micro-business that focuses on STEM education research, curriculum development and program evaluation.

In evaluating the effectiveness of social media, the disbursed nature of users may make face-to-face focus groups impractical. Online focus groups can bridge the gap in geography by placing participants in an online forum. Online focus groups may draw out less assertive members by giving everyone a chance to respond to a question and reduce intimidation by perceived differences in social capital.

We used online focus groups to evaluate the impact of the Facebook application on young adults who participated in a climate change newsgroup.  Each participant chose a screen name so that identities would not be revealed. We posted guidelines for participation to encourage respectful communication. The asynchronous group lasted three days. Participants were asked to log on at least twice a day; once to answer main questions and again to answer follow up questions posted by evaluators asking for more information about issues raised in earlier posts. We created transcripts by downloading the text from Yuku. The discussion and comments were helpful in evaluating the Facebook application and enriched our qualitative research.

Hot Tip- Create a password-protected site: This helps participants feel safe. Limiting access helps ensure data privacy. We set up a password-protected group in Yuku.com.

Hot Tip- Consider the need for anonymity: If participants have been anonymous in the social media site you are evaluating you should consider continuing anonymity. You may still want to consider anonymity for honesty in answering the questions and compliance with research protocols.

Hot Tip- Write questions with the methodology in mind: Asynchronous communication via text is different than the informal exchange that may occur during a verbal discussion. You may want to have participants log in twice a day to respond to other’s comments.

Hot Tip- Warning!: Online focus groups create a tangible online artifact of the discussion that should be considered in ethical deliberations.

Rad Resources:

Burton, L., & Goldsmith, D. (2002, June). The medium is the message: Using online focus groups to study online learning. Paper presented at the  Association for Institutional Research, Toronto, Ontario.

Steward, K., & Williams, M. (2005). Researching online populations: The use of online focus groups for social research. Qualitative Research, 5, 395-416.

Watson, M., Peacock, S. & Jones, D. (2006) The analysis of interaction in online focus groups. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 13(12) 551-557.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Minnesota Evaluation Association (MN EA) Affiliate Week with our colleagues in the MNEA AEA Affiliate. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our MNEA members. 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@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

1 thought on “MNEA Week: Beth Robelia on Using Online Focus Groups”

  1. Hi there – I’m wondering if the intended use for online focus groups is ONLY to study online media/programs? That is, is it appropriate and rigorous to use online FGs to bring together geographically-dispersed groups who have not been involved with an electronic/online initiative?

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