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Reflecting on digital youth work research during COVID-19


This blog gives an overview of the workshop that Dr Amy Calder (YouthLink Scotland) and Kelly McInnes (Northern Star) will present in the Third Sector Research Forum Conference on 17 February 2021.

During 2019 and 2020 YouthLink Scotland, Northern Star and University of Edinburgh worked together to use an exciting and participatory research methodology called Transformative Evaluation to explore the impact of community-based universal youth work in Dumfries and Galloway and the voluntary sector in Edinburgh

Transformative Evaluation

This methodology developed by Dr Sue Cooper from University of St Mark and St John, was initially used in a national study in Scotland and involved training youth workers to collect stories of impact (called significant change stories) from young people who had engaged with their service in-person over time.  The youth worker then adds a commentary and together this forms a significant change story. Youth workers played a significant role in analysing and coding the data.

Transformative Evaluation and COVID-19

When lockdown began and youth work moved online, we felt there was an opportunity to adapt the methodology to an online setting.   Transformative Evaluation provides an opportunity to listen to what young people think they have gained from taking part in youth work. We took the view that this could be extremely helpful in providing youth workers with an opportunity to have reflective conversations with young people about the impact of digital youth work during lockdown. We worked in partnership with LGBT Youth Scotland to deliver a new study.

What did we learn about digital research?

In adapting the methodology to digital delivery, we tried to ensure flexibility whilst ensuring the integrity of the methodology. As part of the training for youth workers we discussed the importance of ensuring young people’s wellbeing during the research. Now the research has been completed and we have stopped and paused for breath, we have asked ourselves did we as researchers do enough to ensure the wellbeing of the youth workers?

The 22 young people who shared their stories with their youth workers during the study spoke of the impact of lockdown on their mental health, feeling isolated and stressed. Engaging with digital youth work helped them to overcome or at least lessen some of these challenges. But, what about the youth workers who collected these stories?

When collecting these stories in-person youth workers would usually arrange to have these conversations with young people at the youth centre in a quiet space but with others on hand. They would have the young person sitting in front of them. They could make them a cup of tea, read their body language knowing when to take a break, when not to push and when they need a hug. Some of the stories were emotional and difficult to hear.  Collecting a story online is completely different. It is much harder to read body language, you can’t know if the young person is entirely safe to share their story and you can’t make them a cup of tea or give them a hug. This is of course hard for the young person, who is always at the centre of youth work practice, but it is also challenging for a youth worker who is living through a pandemic (navigating their own personal challenges) and trying to provide as much care and support to young people.   

Though the feedback has been positive and the youth workers gained skills and confidence as research practitioners, we also appreciate the importance of ensuring the wellbeing of everyone involved in the research. This experience has highlighted to us the importance for us as researchers to stop, think and reflect more during the process of research and in the design not just when it’s completed. It has taught us to think about the wellbeing and support needs of everyone involved in the research and not just the participants. 

Find out more about the conference:

Researching well – Good practice and ethics in third sector research 2021 online conference

The 6th TSRF conference took place on Wednesday 17th February 2021, 9.30am – 2.30pm via Zoom. The conference was all about ethics and good practice in third sector research.