What is a Learning Alliance?

In this blog post, Research Fellow James Todd explores a core aspect of our research: the Relations Study Learning Alliance. The post expands on what our Learning Alliance involves, and how its members and stakeholders contribute to our work around parents who use drugs, their experiences of family life, and their interactions with health and social care services.

Introducing a Learning Alliance methodology

A ‘Learning Alliance methodology’ is a form of patient and public engagement that we use in research, particularly in Social Science of Health disciplines, to enable key voices from a wide variety of backgrounds to influence our study design, processes, and outcomes. By facilitating and bringing together groups of people connected to our work — from parents who use(d) drugs to national policymakers — our Learning Alliance allows people impacted by parental drug use, researchers, practitioners, and service providers to mix and engage in productive dialogue.

By facilitating spaces for these groups to voice and reflect on their lived experiences, together we generate new knowledge and continually re-shape our study in an iterative and responsive way. As the study progresses, we share our insights and observations with members, and engage with their responses and reflections to develop new questions, reform the way we work with parents and services, and translate our research in meaningful and impactful ways that feel relevant to members. This method allows us to reduce barriers and power dynamics between researchers and those with the lived experiences we are interested in, whilst maximising the relevance and impact of our work within key communities and services.

Unlike our fieldwork within health and social care services and with parents who use drugs and their families, members of the Learning Alliance are not study participants: rather we draw upon their knowledge and experiences as consultants, valuing the exchange of views, voices, and expertise that our Learning Alliance groups generate. In recognition of the consultation, expertise, and time that members provide and share, we offer members vouchers for their participation. However, we hope that by engaging directly in our research as it emerges in real time, meeting others with similar experiences, and sharing knowledge between and across groups more and more over time, members gain valuable opportunities to not only be heard but to have real influence and impact within our study and beyond.

The Relations Study Learning Alliance groups

The membership of our Learning Alliance – currently numbering around 50 participants — is drawn from a wide range of stakeholder communities in both England and Scotland. Members currently include:

  • Parents who have lived experience of opioid dependence;
  • Other ‘affected family members’, who include kinship carers, siblings, grandparents, and family friends;
  • Young people aged between 16 and 25, who include children of parents who use(d) drugs and other youth connected to families impacted by lived experience of opioid dependence;
  • Front-line practitioners in health and social care;
  • Senior managers of drug services and health and social care services for parents who use(d) drugs and their families;
  • Commissioners and policymakers from health and social care services who are typically involved with this population of families.

By engaging with each of these core groups, we address both their individual or shared perspectives whilst witnessing and drawing from a broader narrative that unfolds across our membership.

Adapting our Learning Alliance during COVID-19

Like many other studies drawing on lived experiences through qualitative and ethnographic work, our research has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, our original aim involved engaging Learning Alliance members together as one core group at in-person events in both England and Scotland three times each year. However, by reformatting the Learning Alliance as an online space formed of distinct groups – matching the above cohorts – that meet for around one hour every six to eight weeks on Microsoft Teams or Zoom, we have generated productive spaces that members can participate in on their own terms from wherever they are. Members are provided with support and guidance around taking part, accessing online telecommunications, and sharing their expertise before, during, and after each meeting.

In our Learning Alliance meetings that have already taken place, we have heard an array of family member and service/practitioner experiences and begun working with our groups to expand on how their perspectives can shape our upcoming ethnographic research practices. By engaging with stakeholders to explore the wider significance of their everyday lives, reasons for working in the field, frustrations, desires for change, best practice guidance, and policy influences, for example, members are now feeding into our strategies for spending time with families, being ‘present’ (albeit online) in services, translating our research into wider impact and dissemination. In sum, we are witnessing the purpose of the Learning Alliance – to involve and engage members of the public in all aspects of the study, review progress, discuss preliminary findings, and to build consensus and capacity around the translation of evidence – come to life.

Despite the great progress we have made to adapt our Learning Alliance approach throughout COVID-19, we are anticipating exciting moments in the meetings scheduled ahead. As a research team we are particularly looking forward to bringing our Learning Alliance cohorts together, both in virtual space in real time and in more abstract ways, to ensure that communication between groups grows as the Alliance and its discussions also move on and that our research is shaped by what we see and hear with(in) families and services. We have recently valued hearing our young people’s group pose questions to the other five Learning Alliance cohorts and look forward to hearing and sharing their responses with the group. We hope that this dialogue forms just the beginning in a longer, expanding set of opportunities for our members to exchange views.

Find out more and how to join

We are always looking to grow our membership to hear new perspectives! Please contact us via email at emma.coles@stir.ac.uk (for prospective members of professionals/service groups) or james.todd@stir.ac.uk (for interested family members) to find out more about the groups and to sign up to take part.

Members are welcome on any basis they feel comfortable with, and there is no obligation or expectations that they will remain part of the Learning Alliance. We hope to support members to balance their participation in the Alliance with their busy lives however we can.

You can also find out more on the Learning Alliance pages of our study website.