Providing Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Programs Virtually: Lessons from a Case Study of the ELEVATE Program in Florida

Publication Date: August 11, 2021
Cover image Providing Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Programs Virtually

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  • Published: 2021


Research Questions

  1. How were in-person group HMRE services adapted and how were program staff trained for a virtual group service format? How did program staff interact with clients during virtual workshops and what were the clients’ experiences?
  2. What challenges did staff report both in transitioning to and in implementing virtual workshops? What solutions were implemented to address these challenges?
  3. How were clients who enrolled in virtual workshops different from those who enrolled in in-person workshops? How did their rates of program retention and completion differ?

Since 2006, the Office of Family Assistance (OFA) within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has provided grants to agencies implementing healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programming for a range of populations. In large part, grantees have provided services in person to the populations they serve. In recent years, however, HMRE program developers and practitioners have explored how to take advantage of the Internet and technological tools to reach couples who would benefit from HMRE program services.

This report presents findings from a case study of how one HMRE program transitioned from providing services in person to providing them virtually. From January 2017 to March 2020, the University of Florida (UF) offered a five-session couples’ workshop—ELEVATE—to married and unmarried couples in six counties across the state. Like many social service programs, ELEVATE was interrupted in March 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent restrictions on in-person program services. After a two-month pause, UF resumed the ELEVATE program in May 2020 using a fully virtual format with no in-person instruction. The lessons that program staff learned from that experience have relevance for other HMRE program developers and providers who are considering offering virtual services.


This report presents findings from a case study conducted in spring and summer 2020 as UF transitioned from in-person to virtual programming. It describes how the transition to virtual programming affected the program’s approach to such issues as staff training, participant recruitment and enrollment, facilitation practices, strategies for retaining participants, and staff supervision and support. The report also documents the study methods and highlights key considerations for other programs that may want to offer virtual services. The study was conducted as part of the Strengthening Relationship Education and Marriage Services (STREAMS) evaluation for ACF at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • The switch to virtual programming required careful advance planning. Program leadership updated the written guidance given to workshop instructors and met regularly with the instructors about how to maintain core program components.
  • For UF, the shift to virtual programming required only minor changes to its recruiting strategies. Even before the switch to virtual programming, UF recruited about 40 percent of participants through online advertising. Over a four-month period, enrollment for the virtual program exceeded enrollment for the in-person program over the same four-month period the year before.
  • The UF program’s registration and enrollment procedures required greater adaptation than did the recruiting strategies. For the in-person program, participants had to complete a consent form and two preprogram surveys during the first workshop session. With the shift to virtual programming, the program had to develop an alternative way for participants to complete these requirements.
  • UF program staff found that one of the biggest differences between in-person and virtual programming involved the skills and strategies instructors needed to facilitate the virtual workshop sessions. Successful virtual facilitation required instructors to set clear expectations among participants regarding technology, workshop etiquette, and participation; careful planning and deliberate effort to create connections between instructors and participants; and instructors’ skillful use of the technology platform used for the workshop sessions. 
  • Participants’ attendance across the five workshop sessions remained consistent from in-person to virtual workshops. Although virtual programming mitigated some barriers to in-person attendance, other barriers continued to exist. UF implemented several strategies to encourage attendance, including weekly reminders, flexible make-up session options, and gift card incentives.
  • Transitioning from in-person to virtual programming can be challenging for new and experienced instructors alike. UF program leadership supported program instructors by providing weekly feedback on recorded workshop sessions, offering ongoing support with technology, and having new instructors shadow experienced instructors. Such continued, flexible support from program leadership was critical for instructors’ ongoing skill development.


This case study is based on data collected from multiple sources between May and September 2020. We held biweekly telephone meetings with program leadership, conducted virtual interviews with program leadership and staff, convened virtual focus groups with program instructors and participants, observed recorded workshop sessions, and analyzed program attendance and survey data. The team used an inductive, group-based process called consensual qualitative analysis to systematically identify themes and key findings across the data collection activities.


Overall, strong recruitment and enrollment numbers for UF’s program show that with careful planning and the right approach, HMRE program providers can find demand for virtual HMRE programming. Offering virtual programming may reduce barriers, such as childcare and transportation, that could prevent some couples from attending in-person HMRE classes. Other programs may want to evaluate their service delivery model to determine if virtual programming may work for their participants, even when in-person instruction is possible.


Bodenlos, Katie, Hannah McInerney, and Daniel Friend. (2021). Providing Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Programs Virtually: Lessons from a Case Study of the ELEVATE Program in Florida. OPRE Report # 2021-XX. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.