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Using Message Boards to Conduct Online Focus Groups
Creative Commons License
The Qualitative Report Volume 15 Number 4 July 2010 1027-1036
Using Message Boards to Conduct Online Focus Groups
David Deggs, Kenda Grover, and Kit Kacirek
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA
Geographic dispersion of research subjects can make traditional face-to-
face focus groups difficult if not impractical to conduct. Online focus
groups have many advantages such as enabling researchers to save costs,
allowing for more efficient collection of data, and allowing researchers to
accommodate research subjects’ schedules. However, online focus groups
require greater skill on the part of the researcher and research subjects
alike. This manuscript chronicles the process that we recently used to
conduct an online focus group using a message board system with
graduate students enrolled in an online degree program. We explain the
processes that were followed in conducting our study and the rationale
behind the decisions that we made as qualitative researchers. Finally, we
offer guidance and insight for other qualitative researchers who wish to
utilize message boards to conduct online focus groups. Key Words:
Online Focus Groups, Message Boards, Graduate Students, Online
Degree Programs, and Qualitative Research
Focus groups, also referred to as group interviews, are "essentially a qualitative
data-gathering technique that relies on the systematic questioning of several individuals
simultaneously in a formal or informal setting" (Fontana & Frey, 2005, p. 703). The
strategies associated with using focus groups in qualitative research are based upon
methods developed in marketing research. Likewise, focus group methods have been
utilized by political parties and have been utilized to conduct sociological research.
Focus groups may take different forms, but normally include seven to ten people
(Fontanna & Frey; Rossman & Rallis, 2003). Rossman and Rallis offer the following
explanation of why using focus groups may be preferable to conducting interviews with
The interaction among the participants is the critical characteristic of this
type of interviewing. This technique assumes that an individual's attitudes
and beliefs do not form in a vacuum: People often need to listen to others'
opinions and understandings to clarify their own. Often, the questions in a
focus group are deceptively simple: the trick is to promote interactive talk
through the creation of a permissive environment. (Rossman & Rallis,
2003, p. 193)
The use of online focus groups is well established in the field of qualitative
research as are the pros and cons associated with their use. The advantages associated
with online focus groups include more efficient data collection methods, easier
management of the data, as well as the ability to include participants who may be
David Deggs, Kenda Grover, and Kit Kacirek 1028
geographically dispersed (Anderson & Kanuka, 2003). Despite the advantages of online
focus groups, there are some issues that may prove to be challenging for qualitative
researchers. The processes of identifying and inviting participants, handling human
subject issues, deciding between synchronous or asynchronous formats, communicating
effectively in an online environment, and establishing rapport require both great skill as
well as represent some of the decisions that researchers must address (Anderson &
Kanuka; Creswell, 2007; Rezabek, 2000).
Setting the Scene
Our research study included graduate students who were enrolled in an online
master of education degree at a research university in the mid-south. Students who are
enrolled in the graduate degree program completed all procedures associated with
enrollment, including but not limited to making application to the program, completing
advising sessions with faculty, registering for classes, purchasing books, and completing
comprehensive exams usually without stepping foot on the physical grounds of the
university campus. Students included in our research study communicated with faculty
and staff affiliated with the online master of education degree program almost exclusively
via email and telephone. A visit to campus to meet with a faculty or staff member was
the exception, rather than the rule.
Appropriateness of Online Focus Groups
Qualitative researchers must carefully select data collection strategies that are
appropriate for the type of research that is being conducted. Likewise, the abilities of the
research subjects to participate in the study and provide data through the selected data
collection method(s) must be considered. With this in mind, we acknowledge that online
focus groups are not appropriate for all qualitative research settings or all group
interviews. However, we present two compelling reasons why online focus groups were
appropriate for use in our study. First, our research subjects were graduate students who
were geographically dispersed throughout the state and region where we conducted our
research and our research subjects would not be able to attend face-to-face focus group
sessions. Secondly, our research subjects were working adults in an online graduate
degree program. Even if the research subjects were in proximity to the institution, the
chances of identifying a time to hold the focus groups that would accommodate all
participants' schedules would be difficult at best.
Why the Online Message Board?
The online graduate degree program in which our research subjects were enrolled
utilized a comprehensive course management system to deliver all courses included in the
degree program to students. The comprehensive course management system enabled
faculty to develop course modules, conduct synchronous and asynchronous discussions,
incorporate the use of streaming video and other forms of multimedia, send email to
students, comment to students privately regarding their assignment submissions, as well
as develop and administer assessments or surveys. The system is integrated with the
1029 The Qualitative Report July 2010
university's student information (academic records) system as well as email system and
thus student usernames and passwords are the same for all three systems.
Given that our study focused on student experiences and expectations with the
online graduate degree program, we felt it was critical to conduct the online focus group
in a safe place. We wanted students to be able to discuss their experiences in a candid
manner without fear of their comments jeopardizing their standing in any course or the
online graduate degree program. We did not want students to feel pressured or coerced to
"say the right thing" in an effort to not offend any faculty affiliated with the degree
program. Therefore, the necessity to ensure full anonymity and confidentiality of
responses in the online focus group regarding student experiences and expectations was
critically important to the design of our study.
We explored the use of the comprehensive course management system as a
platform within which to conduct our online focus group and even explored methods to
ensure anonymity and confidentiality of responses within that system with no success. In
order to maintain full anonymity and confidentiality as a dimension of our study, we
elected to use an online message board system that was independent of the course
management system. We examined a number of online message boards and selected one
that allowed participants to create a username and password of their choosing through a
self-guided registration process. The online message board that we selected was not
accessible to all web users and allowed us to invite participants by directing them to the
registration page for our online focus group. We paid a nominal fee for the online
message board we opted to use.
Online Focus Group Process
Our decision to conduct online focus groups in an environment that ensured full
anonymity and confidentiality created challenges for us as qualitative researchers. The
processes of selecting participants, developing instructions for those participants, sending
invitations, monitoring focus group dialogue, and reaching consensus required consistent
attention to detail and oversight throughout the data collection process.
We were purposeful in the selection of our research subjects. Our initial criteria
for selecting participants for the study included students who were at least half-way
through their coursework for the degree, who had maintained fulltime employment while
completing the degree, and who had been enrolled continuously upon admission to the
degree program. These criteria were based, in part, upon the focus and purpose of our
study which was to explore experiences and expectations with the online graduate degree
program among working adults who were, again, the research subjects.
However, the decision to utilize online focus groups to conduct our research study
required that we consider other factors for selecting participants. Specifically, we
selected students who were familiar with Internet technologies and who were very skilled
in communicating in a textual-based asynchronous environment. When considering
potential participants for inclusion in the study, we purposely chose to not invite any
student who had experienced repeated difficulty with the course management system.
David Deggs, Kenda Grover, and Kit Kacirek 1030
This was especially important given that participants would be required to navigate the
self-guided online registration process in order to establish a username and password of
their choosing in order to participate in the focus group via the online message board
An invitation was sent to selected students (research subjects) enrolled in the
online graduate degree program after obtaining institutional review board (IRB) approval.
The invitation was sent to students who had met the previously stated criteria. The
invitation was sent via email and advised participants that participation was voluntary and
that responses would remain confidential. We also informed them that they were free to
withdraw at any time and that deciding to withdraw would not affect their grade or
standing in any course or the degree program.
We explained that use of the message board system would ensure their anonymity
as it was independent of the online course management system. Our invitation steps that
the students would have to follow in order to establish a username and password through
the message board system. Likewise, students were advised of the duration of the focus
groups and were advised of what dates the researchers would pose new rounds of
questions. Students were also advised that they should log into the online message board
at least once a week to respond to comments from their peers. The implied informed
consent document advised students to not register or follow the link to the registration
page for the online focus group if they decided to not participate. Finally, students were
advised that they were free to withdraw from the study at any time without penalty.
The invitation included the following steps that students were asked to complete
in order to participate in the online focus group:
1. Carefully review the attached implied informed consent document
which explains rights and responsibilities as a participant in this study,
the timeline for the online focus group, and purpose of the research.
2. Follow the link to the registration page for the online focus group
through the message board system. Following the registration link to
the online message board system and completion of the registration
process implies consent for participating in the study.
3. Enter the email address that we used to send them the invitation
message. (Note: The online message board system allowed the
researchers to enter the email addresses of the invited participants and
only people with those email addresses could register and participate
through the message board system. However, the researchers were
unable to access the email addresses associated with any username or
4. Create a username and password that is different from and does not
include any part of their university-issued username and password for
the course management system, student information system, or email
system. We also advised students to not create a username that could
be used to personally identify them.
1031 The Qualitative Report July 2010
We invited a total of eleven students to participate in the online focus group and a
total of nine participated. Given that the participants had to develop a username and
password of their choosing in order to ensure their full anonymity and confidentiality, we
as the researchers do not know the identity of the two students who did not participate or
why they chose to not participate in the study. However, we feel that our methods to
identify research subjects were appropriate and registration instructions were adequate
given that 81% of those who were invited to participate in the focus group accepted our
invitation and successfully navigated the self-guided online registration process in order
to establish a username and password of their choosing.
Online Focus Group Process
The message board system was restricted to those participants whom we invited
to participate, and access to the dialogue of the online focus group was password
protected. The message board system allowed participants to view and respond to
comments from other participants in the focus groups. Participants in the research project
were encouraged to log into the message board system and participate in the focus group
as often as they wished. The online focus groups were held in an asynchronous format.
The decision to use the message board system was predicated on the necessity to utilize
asynchronous communication in the online environment due to the characteristics of the
population. A synchronous format would be difficult if not impractical for our research
subjects (students) to participate in given that they are working adults who are attempting
to balance the demands of family, career, and school.
We posed three rounds of questions to the participants regarding their experiences
in the online graduate degree program over a period of six weeks. We carefully
monitored online focus group dialogue and content throughout the data collection
process. We had three primary questions and interjected follow-up questions as
necessary. We did not wish to steer or control the content of the discussion, but rather
posed questions to participants throughout the study to clarify or expand upon topics that
were introduced into the discussion. Likewise, when the discussion got off course, we
would redirect the group to the topic of the online focus group.
We began the online focus group with a grand tour question. According to Shank
(2006), grand tour questions are "very broad and unfocused" and allow the interviewee to
lead the researcher "on a grand tour of the topic or setting" (Shank, p. 46). For our grand
tour question, we asked students to discuss their overall experience with the online
graduate degree program. During the first two weeks of the online focus group, we
followed up with questions that asked participants to explain in what ways they had been
able to apply the content that they learned in the program and to tell us if there was
something that they would like to learn that they had not learned in the program. These
two follow-up questions, which were interjected after the initial grand tour question,
were based upon participant comments. Unfortunately, the initial comments from
participants were not specific enough to provide adequate description of the experiences
they had as an online graduate student. Thus we had to use follow up questions to elicit
more information and greater feedback from the participants. We used the same
approach during the second and third round of questions.
David Deggs, Kenda Grover, and Kit Kacirek 1032
The second question that we posed during the online focus group asked students
to discuss meaningful assignments that they completed in coursework during their
enrollment in the online graduate degree program. Our follow-up questions to the second
question asked participants to discuss how technology affected their completion of
assignments and what they thought should be the minimum expectations of faculty
regarding feedback for assignments. The third and final primary question asked
participants to explain what keeps them enrolled in the online graduate degree program.
We did not interject a follow up question given that the participants provided adequate
responses to that question.
The second and third primary questions for our online focus group as well as the
follow up questions to the second question were based upon the dialogue that occurred
among participants. It is important to state that we did not intend to ask the specific
second or third questions that we did in the study. Our protocol, specifically the
questions for the focus groups, was semi-structured and we were amenable to what topics
the students would introduce provided that they related to their experiences as graduate
students in an online degree program.
We had the highest level of participation among research subjects during the first
two weeks of our online focus group when students responded to the first question
regarding their overall experiences and subsequent follow up questions. Participation in
the online focus group dropped steadily during the second and third round of questions
which came after week three. We also observed the highest level of interaction among
participants in the study during the first two weeks of the online focus group. During
round one there were 16 responses from participants to the researchers and 14 responses
from participants to other participants. During round two there were 12 responses to the
researchers and three responses from participants to other participants. Two participants
did not respond to the researchers during the second round; however, one of these two
participants did respond to another participant. During the third and final round there
were seven responses to the researches and three responses from participants to other
participants. Two participants did not participate in the third round of questions for the
focus groups. The frequency of participation among participants by each round of the
online focus group is outlined in Table 1.
As qualitative researchers we are unsure of what caused the decline in
participation in our online focus group. Our analysis of the frequency of responses
during the second and third round coupled with the length of responses as well as the
substance of those responses leads us to a couple of conclusions about what might have
caused this decline. First, we believe that enthusiasm was strongest among participants at
the beginning of the online focus group given the frequency of responses from
participations as well as their responses to each other. It seems that participants were
eager to participate and dialogue about their experiences with their peers at the beginning.
Secondly, we believe that the period of time that we attempted to run the online focus
group was too lengthy. Although we monitored participants' responses and interjected
appropriate follow up questions to elicit more detailed responses and keep the
participants engaged, we underestimated the tendency of the participants to remain active
1033 The Qualitative Report July 2010
throughout the entire process which lasted six weeks. Likewise participants were more
concerned with responding to the researchers during the second and third round and there
were far fewer responses to other participants during this time. Responses to other
participants during the second and third round were somewhat unilateral statements such
as "I agree" with little or no substance that contributed to the dialogue of the online focus
group. This was unlike the first round where participants would comment extensively
and offer examples from their own experiences in the online graduate degree program to
add to the statements from other participants. Thus the dialogue during the first round of
the online focus group contained much richer descriptions of the lived experiences among
students in the online graduate degree program.
Table 1. Participation Frequencies for Online Focus Group Participants
Round 2 Round 3
Participant Response to
Researchers Response to
Researchers Response to
Researchers Response to
Despite the fact that frequency of participation and quality of participation
declined during the second and third rounds of the online focus group, we feel that we
adhered to the appropriate methods for conducting our research study. Our focus group
ran its natural course and we remained cognizant of its lifespan by monitoring levels and
quality of participation among the research subjects. It would have been inappropriate
for us to attempt to extend the focus group beyond its natural course. Although the
online focus group ran its natural course and participation levels declined throughout the
process, we were able to reach levels of consensus and reach a point of saturation with
the collected data. This would not have been possible if we had not properly monitored
David Deggs, Kenda Grover, and Kit Kacirek 1034
the online focus group and interjected follow up questions to elicit more information and
greater detail from the participants.
Use of Message Boards for Other Online Focus Groups
As we previously stated, online focus groups are not appropriate for all group
interviews or qualitative research settings. However, we have a few observations about
the use of the message board system for our online focus group. First, the use of a
message board system was appropriate for our research given that the configuration of
the comprehensive course management system used to deliver courses for the online
graduate degree program would not allow us to ensure anonymity and confidentiality
among the participants. We were successful in getting a high participation rate among
those who we invited to the online focus group which was due to our careful selection of
individuals who were asked to participate and the efforts made to develop clear
instructions for completing the self-directed online registration process for the message
board system. Our success is also due in part to the rapport we had developed as faculty
with the students we invited, although we are unsure of their identity due to the
anonymity feature provided by the message board system. Finally, the highest quality of
data was gathered during the initial round of the online focus group. Our careful
monitoring throughout the duration of the focus group, specifically during the first two
weeks, enabled us to obtain the greatest insight from participants in our study about their
experiences in the online graduate degree program.
Based upon these observations, we offer the following as guidance for other
qualitative researchers who wish to utilize message board systems to conduct online
1. Message board systems can be an appropriate medium to ensure
anonymity and confidentiality among participants provided that those
systems enable participants to generate their own username and
password when researchers do not need or wish to know the identity of
2. Implied informed consent documents must adequately explain the
participants' right and responsibilities and state that both registration
and participation in the online focus groups indicates their consent to
being research subjects in the study. Furthermore, the informed
consent document must carefully outline the procedures that will be
utilized, the length of the study, and methods of communication for the
online focus groups.
3. Participants who are invited to participate in online focus groups
conducted via message board systems must be proficient in the use of
Internet technologies and must be accustomed to communicating in
textual-based formats. The ability to communicate in an online
environment is as important as other criteria for selection.
4. Rapport with participants should exist before the online focus group
begins. Valuable time that could be used to collect data could be lost
if the researchers have to spend time developing rapport with research
1035 The Qualitative Report July 2010
participants. Rapport can exist even when anonymous data collection
methods are utilized such as an online message board system.
5. Researchers must capitalize on synergy and enthusiasm when it exists
among online focus group participants. Because online focus group
participants are geographically dispersed, researchers must seize every
opportunity to elicit more feedback and insight from participants as the
researchers may not be aware of issues that might affect future
participation levels of the study.
6. Researchers must have a consistent presence in the online focus groups
without attempting to steer the conversation or attempting to coerce
participants. They should pose questions, follow up with appropriate
questions in order to elicit more details, and only redirect the
conversation when absolutely necessary. They must be amenable to
allowing the focus group to take its own direction, run its natural
course, and never extend its lifespan.
Message board systems can be an appropriate medium for conducting online
focus groups when both the researchers and research subjects possess exceptional skills
for communicating through Internet technologies in textual-based environments.
Instructions and expectations for participation must be clearly articulated to the research
subjects and the elements of trust and rapport are more essential to success in online
focus groups than in other interview formats. Researchers must closely monitor the data
collection process in an attempt to gauge the level of interest among participants.
Researchers should never attempt to extend the online focus group unnecessarily.
Finally, researchers should expect some level of attrition among research subjects in
online focus groups.
Qualitative researchers should be amenable to the new forms of data that are
emerging in the field which Creswell (2007) described provided that appropriate
processes are utilized to collect that type of qualitative data. Qualitative researchers
should carefully explain their approach and provide adequate rationale for their decisions
when collecting new forms of qualitative data. The latitude afforded qualitative
researchers can be the metaphorical double-edged sword if the approaches utilized and
decisions made are unreasonable or are not properly justified within the parameters of the
research study. Qualitative researchers must understand that novel approaches to data
collection are not appropriate to all qualitative research settings. The context of the study
and demographic characteristics of the research subjects determine if novel approaches
are appropriate or warranted. Qualitative researchers must provide an adequate audit trail
in order to validate the use of novel data collection methods.
Anderson, T., & Kanuka, H. (2003). E-research: Methods, strategies, and issues. Boston,
MA: Allyn and Bacon.
David Deggs, Kenda Grover, and Kit Kacirek 1036
Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five
approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Fontanna, A., & Frey, J. H. (2005). The interview: From neutral stance to political
involvement. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The sage handbook of
qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 695-727). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Rezabek, R. J. (2000). E-focus groups: Electronic discussions for research. Forum:
Qualitative Social Research, 1(1), Article 18. Retrieved April 2, 2010, from
Rossman, G. B., & Rallis, R. S. (2003). Learning in the field: An introduction to
qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Shank, G. D. (2006). Qualitative research: A personal skills approach (2nd ed.). Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Pearson - Merrill Prentice Hall.
David Deggs is an assistant professor of workforce development education at the
University of Arkansas. He teaches courses in adult education and program evaluation.
His research focuses on community expectancy and educational attainment, adult
learning and literacy, and service-learning in higher education.
Kenda Grover is assistant department head in the Department of Rehabilitation,
Human Resources, and Communication Disorders at the University of Arkansas. She
teaches courses in diversity issues and globalization, workforce behavior, and adult
education. Her research focuses on organizational change and distance learning.
Kit Kacirek is an associate professor of workforce development education at the
University of Arkansas. She teaches courses in leadership, change process, and
qualitative research methods. Her research focuses on emotional intelligence, rural
community development, and organizational leadership.
Correspondences regarding this article should be addressed to: David M. Deggs,
Assistant Professor or Workforce Development, 109 Graduate Education Building,
Fayetteville, Arkansans, 72701; Telephone: 479-575-4924; E-mail: email@example.com
Copyright 2010: David Deggs, Kenda Grover, Kit Kacirek, and Nova
Deggs, D., Grover, K., & Kacirek, K. (2010). Using message boards to conduct online
focus groups. The Qualitative Report, 15(4), 1027-1036. Retrieved from