Pre doctoral fellows, Emma Adams (Fuse – Newcastle University) and Jo Dawes (UCL) share their experience of taking part in a virtual weeklong residential summer school and challenging their perceptions on ‘hard to reach’ groups.
Starting a new post in a new institution just as a global pandemic and lockdown sweeps the UK is not how we envisaged beginning our NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) fellowships. When our training and development allowance letters came through initial thoughts were to delay booking any training until it was possible to attend in person. However, as time passed, it became clear we may be waiting some time. This realisation coincided with hearing about the “Applied Research Methods with hidden, marginal and excluded populations” course run by Nuffield College, University of Oxford.
The course is usually a weeklong residential summer school, but this year it was offered online. The idea of spending five full days sitting at home doing online learning seemed a disappointing second best to a week in Oxford and somewhat limited our enthusiasm. However, these concerns were misplaced. We could not believe how engaging the course was, with tutor Andrea Rossi doing an excellent job of varying the activities, keeping us captivated and packing the course with relevant, interesting, and interactive tasks.
Beginning with what makes a population ‘hard to reach’, we were armed with the linguistic tools to define whether our population was hidden, marginal, elusive, rare, excluded, or blurred (see Table 1 for breakdown). By breaking down populations into these different categories, we were better able to understand approaches for reaching and involving them in research.
People experiencing homelessness may be perceived as ‘hard to reach’, when in fact they might just be elusive (purposely hiding or not reporting). If we, as researchers, recognise individuals may be making a conscious decision not to report, then perhaps we need to build a foundation of trust. The responsibility a researcher has to find ways to reach the ‘hard to reach’ was one of the most important things that we learned.
With optimism that the virtual learning might not be as onerous as we had feared, we jumped into three days of research methods (both qualitative and quantitative). Challenging us to approach every technique from both the researcher and participant perspective, we were pulled out of our comfort zones and into creatively mixing research techniques.
Opportunities to transform recruitment strategies (such as respondent driven sampling) into a data collection tool for analysing social networks were explored. Learning to make the interview experience more interactive challenged our preconceptions of data collection – ever thought about asking a participant to reconstruct an important/memorable place with only items in their kitchen? Having experienced this first-hand, we both agree it was a great facilitation tool as a participant and researcher. The breadth of material in the course left us feeling that it was a week well spent, despite the initial apprehension and sitting at a computer in the blistering summer heat.
Our take home messages from the course
- Online research and learning can work well if you are creative and willing to be flexible.
- Researchers must consider reasons some populations are ‘hard to reach’ (are they rare, hidden, elusive, marginal, excluded or blurred?)
- When you recognise WHY a group of people are ‘hard to reach’, you must adapt your research methods to better reach them.
- Through mixing methods/data sources you can strengthen your understanding of ‘hard to reach’ groups
As a result of attending this course, we have already adapted how we approach our research activities. Jo was struggling to define a ‘hard to reach’ population in a patient and public involvement (PPI) paper. The course provided real clarity about this topic and helped her confidently address this definition in her writing. Emma was trying to find a way to approach recruitment and the re-shaping and framing of populations has provided me with optimism about my future recruitment strategy.
There is no doubt that by learning online instead of face-to-face, we really missed out on networking opportunities with our course peers – nothing could really replace a good natter over coffee. Conversely, the online nature of the course really opened up the cohort – we were learning with people sitting in their homes in England, Wales, Switzerland, France and Germany, while our tutor taught us from his apartment in Bangkok. Perhaps without being online, we would have been a far less international cohort.
After undertaking this excellent course, we certainly feel more positive about online learning, how engaging it can be and how – in these uncertain times – it is important to not simply wait for face-to-face learning to return as the norm. The variety of learning and research activities we used online challenged us to translate so much of what we usually do face-to-face to our ‘virtual classroom’. As a result, we developed skills in how to adapt our current methods of communication in our research.