Blog: The transition from in-person meetings to online: University of Hertfordshire Young People’s Research Advisory Group (YPAG)

This blog is about our Young People’s Research Advisory Group (YPAG) based at the University of Hertfordshire and moving our meetings online.

The group is led and hosted by the University of Hertfordshire in collaboration with Hertfordshire County Council, Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, Live Life (Herts Young Homeless) and Hertfordshire Scouts.  The group is for young people aged 13-21 who are interested in learning about research and giving advice to researchers about ideas for research and actual research projects.  Researchers from the University and other organisations come to the meetings to talk about their research plans and ongoing research being carried out which is about young people’s lives.  We hope that as time goes on the young people will have opportunities to get involved in some research studies, as members of study advisory groups or even as co-researchers.

The group was only set up at the start of 2020 and we had our first meeting face to face in January. We met at the University campus, starting at 17.30 (to allow young people time to get home from school and then to the meetings). We allowed two hours for our first meeting and had a break for pizza.

So we were a very new group of people, just starting to get to know one another, when we had to move to meeting online. As schools were closed, we decided to change the timing of the meeting to start at 15:30 and to make the meeting shorter (now back to a 17:30 start but still shorter meetings than we would have face to face). Below one of our members, Daisy (16), shares her experience of joining this group and meeting online, followed by some comments from Kathryn, who leads the group.

Daisy Cooper: When lockdown began in March, the YPAG had only had one meeting in person which meant that the transition to online, while initially still feeling slightly disconnected, did not feel as strange as with other groups, or with friends.

It is hard to move any group online and even harder to establish a strong dynamic with each other when we had only met once, and in some cases not at all! However, after a couple of meetings it began to feel normal receiving the Zoom code and logging in to see everyone’s faces on screen and the speakers for that meeting joining throughout the call to give their presentations and have a chat with us. As the meetings have progressed, we have gotten into a routine where we allow time for a quick catch up just like we would in person. This has become a regular part of the meeting and feels much less formal than some online meetings and sets up a good tone for the rest of the session meaning we can interact with each other much more easily.

I have loved how the group has continued the meetings throughout lockdown because it has meant that we have all had that normality and it is not something we are missing out on as a result of not being able to meet with many people face to face. And, while ideally, we would be meeting in person, I am enjoying the online meetings and look forward to each one just as much!

Kathryn Almack: (Chair of YPAG): It was lovely to read Daisy’s piece above. I was quite anxious about moving the meetings online when the group had only met once. More so, because I had actually missed that first meeting due to being on holiday in Florida (that seems so long ago now). But I’m so pleased we made the decision to go online.  As well as the young people, colleagues who helped set up the group have joined the meetings and youth workers from the groups these young people attend too. We have started each meeting with some general catching up, as Daisy says. I’ve had COVID and I lost my sense of taste and smell, so at one meeting, I asked everyone what was their favourite smell? At another meeting we talked about how, for some of us, our names get shortened and the benefits of having a name that can’t be played around with! We’ve also shared experiences of the impact of COVID on our everyday lives. It has helped us get to know one another and the meetings feel very relaxed while still getting on with the business of the meeting. Being a new group, we have had decisions to make about ground rules; setting up a webpage; designing a logo for our group and so on. And I know that the meetings have been really valuable for researchers to get advice and feedback from young people.

We’ve identified a number of benefits to meeting online. We’ve realised that it offers the flexibility for young people to attend from across the county; whereas travelling to meetings could be difficult for some who don’t live that near to the University. Even when we can meet face to face again, we’re thinking that we should ensure young people can stay involved by joining us by Zoom as well. Meeting by Zoom also has some advantages for young people who might feel anxious about being in meetings; Zoom has the flexibility for someone to switch off their camera and microphone so in effect someone can listen in and perhaps join in more once they are feeling more comfortable to do so. The one big drawback is that we can’t provide pizza for everyone; maybe we can find a way around that too!