#ALTC Blog

Are we finally seeing a revolution in document creation

#ALTC Blog - 26/06/20

Dominik Lukes
Digital Learning Technologist (Saïd Business School
University of Oxford)

From Wave to Notion

It has been over a decade since Google Wave made its last splash. So much promise and excitement that ultimately didn’t go anywhere.

But now the promise is being fulfilled by new products that not only build on what Google Wave was offering but take this even further. There are many players in this space but the ones that stand out to me are:

What they do is create fully integrated and dynamic documents that combine the features of a word processor, database, spreadsheet and project management system. They each approach it from a different perspective but what they share is ease of use and focus away from standalone documents or notes.

The power of new documents

Anybody who’s ever tried to create an Access database or even embed an Excel spreadsheet in a Word document would be amazed by the power of these tools and the way in which they made it incredibly usable.

In fact, anyone who is using Excel to keep track of records, should immediately have a look at one of these tools. But they even threaten established players like Evernote or Onenote for note taking, or project management tools like Trello or Asana.

Notion: From note taking to project management

Notion is the tool that a lot of productivity experts are buzzing about. The company was founded in 2016 and the 2.0 release that put it on the map happened in 2018. It is really a project management and collaboration tool but its primary purpose is to take over from the likes of Evernote as the natural place to keep notes on one’s life. Next to Notion, Evernote looks old and tired (although it looks old and tired even on its own).

For somebody who is looking to organise their own life and is struggling to keep it all together between their notetaking app, documents and spreadsheets, Notion is the obvious choice. Notion is now firmly a part of the mix of my productivity apps. I love the keyboard shortcuts and the fact that no matter whether I start with a page or a table, I can always connect the two.

There are features that are still missing (see below) but their feature releases are frantic and their roadmap is exciting. It also helps that students and educators (ie anybody with an .edu or .ac. email address) can get access to Notion’s personal plan for free.

A passionate community of Notion users means that a lot of resources (free and paid) are available to support new users. This is made easier by a great feature by which Notion lets you create public pages that can be duplicated and reused as templates. This makes getting started much easier. Here are some of the resources I found most useful to help me get started.

The writer’s ultimate guide to Notion

The Most Powerful Productivity App I Use – Notion

Marie Poulin

Coda.io: Documents and spreadsheets reima

Coda.io is the freshest of the three, with their first release in 2019. I first came across Coda when I was looking for a better way to share dynamic spreadsheets that were essentially databases. Coda was very good at this. It can integrate tables into documents, view them as charts or boards.

The one standout feature for me is the focus on automation and many rules that can be set up. These allow for things like monitoring documents and sending automatic reminders. It also integrates with an external workflow automation systems like Zapier, although still not IFTTT.

Coda’s spreadsheet origins also show in the number of the chart views available for tables. This is very high on my list of feature request for Notion.

As all these three platforms, Coda is promoting the project management and collaboration aspects but it is a very powerful tool for individuals. However, teams may be attracted to their laudable unique pricing structure. Instead of paying the same fee for all team members, only Doc Makers are counted. This means that a team with a number of lightweight contributors can sign up for Coda and not worry about skyrocketing costs. I wish more services would adopt a similarly tiered approach.

Coda.io is the freshest of the three, with their first release in 2019. I first came across Coda when I was looking for a better way to share dynamic spreadsheets that were essentially databases. Coda was very good at this. It can integrate tables into documents, view them as charts or boards.

The one standout feature for me is the focus on automation and many rules that can be set up. These allow for things like monitoring documents and sending automatic reminders. It also integrates with an external workflow automation systems like Zapier, although still not IFTTT.

Coda’s spreadsheet origins also show in the number of the chart views available for tables. This is very high on my list of feature request for Notion.

As all these three platforms, Coda is promoting the project management and collaboration aspects but it is a very powerful tool for individuals. However, teams may be attracted to their laudable unique pricing structure. Instead of paying the same fee for all team members, only Doc Makers are counted. This means that a team with a number of lightweight contributors can sign up for Coda and not worry about skyrocketing costs. I wish more services would adopt a similarly tiered approach.

Airtable: The future of databases

Databases are hard. But walk into any office and you will see hundreds of databases masquerading as spreadsheets. This is bad in any way imaginable. Building an Access database is the next logical step but fraught with dangers. Airtable is essentially an online database that is as easy to use as Excel but has most of the features one would expect from a full featured database. Most importantly version control and data integrity.

Compared with the other two, its focus is clearly on tables although the content inside them is much richer. The one feature I wish I could find in Notion or in Coda is a form view for any table that makes it easy to enter and/or collect information.

Airtable has only been around since 2012 but next to Coda and Notion, it is the venerable elder. You can see many of its design choices replicated in how the other two solve problems. But unless databases are your primary focus, you can probably get more out of Notion or Coda and get the benefits undirectly.

Honorable mentions Onenote

Onenote has many of the same strong editing features and even some I’d like to see in Notion or Coda. For instance, it’s very easy to create a table simply with a Tab. It is also possible to create a checklist or a tag anywhere on a page and search that globally. What is missing is better list management, searchable database like structures and better page interlinking. Also, it’s lack of sharing individual pages all these years later is simply unforgivable. As mentioned above, Onenote’s mobile app is absolutely top at taking photo notes of whiteboards and in presentations thanks to its integration with Microsoft Lens technology.

Dropbox Paper

Dropbox Paper has been innovating in this space for a while, as well. It has great inline tables and lets you create a lot of embeds while collaborating with others. But ultimately, you end up with a collection of standalone documents which is where Notion or Coda beat it handily.

Google Docs

Google Docs is the pioneer and still the undisputed master of live collaboration (although Microsoft Office is catching up). It’s other strength is the ability to link to live information on the web. My favourite feature I still turn to for documents with lot of links is the live web search in the insert URL dialog. If you ever need to insert a lot of link into a blog post, it’s worth going via Google Docs just for that.

Another innovation Docs introduced was Ctrl-/, a shortcut that let me search for commands instead of trawling through menus. This is now also in Office apps hiding under the Alt-Q shortcut.

Docs pioneered the document sharing we now take for granted. But like Paper, you end up with a lot of standalone documents. Also, Docs is falling behind Word in accessibility (no built in text to speech or distraction free mode) although Google’s built in Voice Typing is a definite winner.

Fluid Framework

Microsoft Fluid Framework Preview shows that even the Office giant is aware of these trends and is experimenting in this direction. Fluid looks very much much like a clone of Dropbox Paper but it has some nice features such as inline mentions of collaborators and preset task list tables. It is clearly inspired by the other players in this space but it is still a bit too bare bones to be a true competitor.


Any list on new documents has to mention Bear which offers a uniquely strong combination of outlining, notetaking and document drafting. Its huge standout feature is inline tagging anywhere in a document which makes for an incredibly powerful tool for organising one’s notes and drafts. It is the ideal combination of a distraction-free editor and note organiser. But before you get too excited (as I did), it lives entirely in the Apple universe. Bear only has Mac and iOS apps and uses iCloud to sync between them which pretty much rules out a future Windows version. The web-based version has been in development for years now with no estimated release date.

Conclusion and future prospects

When Microsoft introduced a way to embed Excel sheets and other objects inside Word documents back in 1990, it was almost unusable. It is still barely usable now but at least it won’t lock up your computer. Twenty years later, Google Wave briefly tried to take this to the next level. But now we’re seeing the potential of these early innovation grow into something truly special.

Like many others, I’m switching to Notion. Unfortunately, I can’t completely replace all the other tools I’m using. But we always live in a hybrid world. To completely replace the likes of Onenote or Google Keep in my life, I’d like a mobile app that supports drawing and makes it a bit more seamless to take photo notes. A mobile app with better notification management, would also make it an easier decision to completely ditch TickTick (which I only recently moved to from Todoist). Here’s my Notion wishlist for anybody to contribute to.

Notion is also still working on an API that would allow me to connect it with my other apps via IFTTT or Flow to bridge some of the gaps (even though I’m happy with the import options).

But even if I still need other tools for certain tasks, what Notion (and the others) have to offer is compelling enough that I don’t want to stay away.


Notion wishlist

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

ePortfolios for educators

#ALTC Blog - 12/06/20

Article author: Sam Taylor, eLearning Specialist at Catalyst IT Europe


Earlier in the year I shared a resource I had been working on that I started to develop as part of our annual worldwide company initiative: the ‘Catathon’. Catathon is where we at Catalyst IT would down tools for the day and create something that could be classed as ‘Open’, so for technical colleagues this could be code or development of an Open Source feature (here’s my friend Peter’s recent Catathon contribution – Moodle Multiblock). Not being a developer I decided to create something else that could be useful to the edtech community – an OER, specifically one rather close to my heart, all about creating ePortfolio activities. 

And so ePortfolios for Educators was born.

Overview of the resource:

Presented in an actual ePortfolio page, this resource is based on workshops that I had previously facilitated at Cranfield University to those undertaking the PGCert in Academic Practice, mostly lecturers. It aims to showcase the various scenarios as to how ePortfolios can be used, why they are effective, and then how, as a practitioner, you can plan, design, deliver and assess an ePortfolio activity.

Modes of delivery:

This resource has been designed for two audiences;

  • Self-paced individual learning – where learners can use this resource independently for their own purposes

Workshop participants – where the facilitator can use this to deliver a workshop with multiple participants

Workshop content:
  • ‘Introductory lecture’
    H5P resource to be used to give background on current ePortfolio practice
  • Activity
    Steps to follow for successful implementation and delivery of ePortfolios for assessment:
    • Present the competencies/criteria your learners are to meet
    • Suggest/choose the portfolio presentation tools
    • Suggest examples of evidence that could be used to demonstrate competency
    • Offer reflection models where appropriate
    • Present marking criteria for learners to self-assess prior to submission
    • Identify how the portfolios will be submitted
  • Further resources
    • Downloadable rubrics for Moodle and Turnitin
    • Links to key resources for further reading
Comments and reflections

I have tried to make this resource as ePortfolio agnostic as possible, and since releasing it I have had lots of positive feedback from peers via Twitter on its usefulness, including one institution in Germany who have already started using this workshop with their lecturers. What I would like, however, is suggestions of how I can improve this resource – what do you think is missing? Anything else I can add that would make it even more useful to you or your colleagues? If you have any ideas, please get in touch and I’ll see if I can make it work.

At the time of writing, this resource had also been submitted to https://www.oercommons.org/courses/eportfolios-for-educators

Post by Sam Taylor, eLearning Specialist at Catalyst IT Europe. Currently. Twitter @samwisefox

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member.

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

Chief Executive Officer s Report June 2020

#ALTC Blog - 01/06/20
Dear Members

I want to start this report by recognising the extraordinary contribution Learning Technology professionals have made to the current crisis. Across every sector and in all parts of the UK and beyond, our Members have played a key role in supporting learners, colleagues and their institutions in unprecedented circumstances. From finding solutions to the challenges of the crisis to devising effective strategies for the next term, the work of Learning Technologists at all levels has never been needed more.

To each and ever one of you – congratulations and thank you. You have worked miracles.

When I look at this community portrait from last year’s Annual Conference I am reminded forcefully that this crisis affects all of us and that no one has any certainty about what’s ahead.

As the leading professional body for Learning Technology in the UK, ALT has long advocated for effective collaboration as a key strategy in successfully using technology for learning, teaching and assessment, and I am heartened to see how actively our Members have worked together, sharing expertise and supporting each other by sharing resources, running expert webinars, coming to weekly drop-ins and providing professional services.

I also wish to acknowledge sector bodies and fellow professional societies who have reached out to work in partnership with ALT, share best practice around conferences and governance as well as leadership and strategy. I am proud that our Association can share its know-how of online conferences, governance and events with our Members and policy makers.

As a virtually distributed staff team, we have been able to keep all core services for Members running without interruption, but that isn’t to say that we haven’t had to have a complete re-think about the year ahead, with the Board of Trustees leading reviewing our new strategic plan and setting out a revised vision for what we will do this year, to serve our Members and secure ALT’s continued success.

What’s ahead at a glance

Here is a summary of the key developments to be aware of:

  • Informing policy: ALT is working closely with policy makers to inform the UK’s response to the crisis and our long term strategy across sectors. Currently, we are seeking your input for UUK’s consultation on supporting international students with Learning Technology;
  • Effective governance: ALT’s Annual General Meeting is open to all Members and visitors and will now take place online on 24 June 2020, and give Members an opportunity to meet ALT’s incoming Chair, Professor Helen O’Sullivan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), Keele University;
  • Learning Technology Summer Summit 2020: this year’s first fully virtual Summer Summit will take place instead of our Annual Conference, 26-27 August 2020. With a packed programme over 2 days we will explore the themes of crisis, care and complexity. The Summit has an international line up of featured speakers, practical sessions and panel discussions on topics ranging from assessment to student well being. 
  • Extended deadlines for Members: across all of ALT’s activities we have extended deadlines for Members, including this year’s Learning Technologist of the Year Awards and CMALT accreditation submissions. Please get in touch if there is anything further we can support you with.

In the coming months, we anticipate more institutions and individual professionals will seek support and advice Learning Technology and we have already welcomed more new Members this year, many of whom make use of their institution’s membership of ALT to join for free as Associate Members.

I never knew what a Learning Technology emergency might look like. Now that I know, I find the reality is more heart-breaking than I could have imagined.

This crisis may be unprecedented, but we do have robust research, case studies and decades of professional practice to draw on to inform our next steps. There is no magic button to press, but there is a quickly growing number of professionals with the expertise to lead and make new strategies happen. I am proud to serve this community and lead its professional body through whatever the next months may bring.

Dr Maren Deepwell
Chief Executive

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

Audio-visual event report Technology-enhanced active collaborative learning

#ALTC Blog - 27/05/20

Post Authors – Neil Dixon (ARU) and Jennie Dettmer (University of Bedfordshire)

With testimonial contributions from Sarah Crudge from the University of Cambridge, Anna Judd-Yelland from University of Bedfordshire and Florence Dujardin from UEA. Video and photos by Neil Dixon and Jennie Dettmer.

In the video you’ll hear Neil and Jennie from the ALT East England organising committee report on ‘Technology Enhanced, Active Collaborative Learning: Challenges and Solutions’, an event held on 21 February 2020 at ARU Cambridge. 

The event started with a TWALK tour of ARU Cambridge’s learning spaces led by Andrew Middleton (Deputy Head of Anglia Learning and Teaching). The day included a mixture of workshops and short presentations, all giving innovative ideas for collaborating with technology such as sensory circuits, digital storytelling, backchannels and more. 

Watch the video (6:07 in length) on YouTube

For the schedule on the day and to view the slides please see ALT East England’s website.

Details of content and images  [00:00 – 02:09] 

Jennie starts by describing ALT East England, giving an outline of previous events held at the University of East Anglia and the University of Bedfordshire. 

Slide 1 photos (going from left to right) – Slide from Digital Games and Interaction Design for Active Learning and attendees at ARU Cambridge, Helen Barefoot, Robe Howe, Nicholas Botfield, all presenting at the University of Bedfordshire and Kari Morely presenting (with an escape room prop) at UEA. 

[02:09 – 3:48] 

Neil describes two sessions which were his highlights from the event on 21 February 2020. 

Slide 2 photos (going from left to right) – Matt East, sensory circuits, ARU logo, Lord Ashcroft building (ARU Cambridge), Faculty of Science and Technology (ARU Cambridge).

Slide 3 photo – Wendy Garnham presenting to the audience at ARU Cambridge on active essay writing.

[3:46 – 5:53] 

Jennie reads out some testimonials collected from attendees at the ARU Cambridge event which included:

Sarah Crudge from University of Cambridge said, “I greatly enjoyed the digital storytelling session, I admired the speaker for taking a hands-on approach with such time constrictions, and I’m definitely going to follow up on the technologies she used, as these seemed quite accessible.”

Anna Judd-Yelland from University of Bedfordshire said “using a digital storytelling approach is really relevant to our healthcare and social work students who are often required to write care study assignments. Using this approach allows them to also develop as digital natives embedding ILT into their curriculum in a meaningful way.”  

Florence Dujardin from UEA said, “Dr Garnham’s session on active and creative essay-writing was an inspiration. As an academic developer, I could see how I could use her approach in a workshop with lecturers, to give them ideas about supporting their students’ writing, using different technologies along the way to manage the process.”

[5:54 – 06:07]

Neil outlines ALT East England’s next online event on 11 June from 11am. Get details from ALT East England’s website.

Neil Dixon, Anglia Ruskin University
Jennie Dettmer, University of Bedfordshire

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member.

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

Compatibility in lockdown

#ALTC Blog - 25/05/20

In this blog post we have tried to carry out an interesting compatibility test! We are husband (Anshul) and wife (Swati). We’ll start by introducing ourselves:

Anshul Lau (CMALT, SFHEA): I am a Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) professional with diverse experience in the Higher Education, Armed Forces, Hospitality and Charitable Sector. My role as E-Learning Technology Manager at the University of Nottingham involves leading the innovation practice, development, management and quality assurance of diverse courses, emphasising learner-centered design. 

Swati Virmani (PhD, FHEA, ALT Associate Member): I am a Lecturer in Economics at De Montfort University, and have been teaching in HE since 2010, using varied technologies to enhance students’ learning and engagement. I am a keen learner of pedagogic approaches and am interested in accelerating digital capabilities of staff and students. 

Due to our work commitments we have always lived in different cities, and would meet on weekends, fortnightly or while on leave. Lockdown gave us an opportunity to live together, while also being confined to only one another’s company! We carried out this exercise as a fun exploration of our emotional patterns and whether we are a match. The post below is based on our data analog reflections.

Inspired by the ‘Dear Data’ project, we collected data on our emotions around activities carried out during COVID-19 lockdown. The idea was to assess our compatibility based on our mental and emotional health! We decided to accumulate data around our emotions across activities carried out each day between 30th March – 26th April 2020 (a month long), and covering every hour from 10am to 10pm (inclusive). The activities included our work-related tasks, household chores, dining, outdoor walks and tasks, entertainment, and rest and sleep. The activities we did apart mostly included our work-related tasks, some household chores and rest hours. Otherwise, we did a number of activities collectively or were together during particular hours; for instance, our outdoor walks in the evening; being together while one is cooking and the other is just accompanying. It was especially interesting to note how and whether we both differed emotionally even while conducting the same task or despite being in the exact same situation and space. 

For the entire period, we kept the data private to avoid deciphering one another’s emotional pattern and forming any prejudice. We did analog data drawing for the first week – using colours and patterns for activities and emotions. For the remaining weeks we switched to Microsoft Forms to accumulate the data; the tool has allowed us to have descriptive statistics to form a behavioural pattern for both of us. Collecting the data around emotions also enabled us to connect with ourselves and introspect our thoughts at a much deeper level. 

One benefit of the exercise was that it kept us busy during this challenging time. It allowed us to become more inquisitive about our thoughts, and also emotionally cognizant. We could connect with self and also appreciate the little things we did every day. Finally, on a more refreshing and delightful note, this was a very unique way of checking our compatibility to test our rapport after being in relationship for several years. 

Irrespective of the lockdown and our associated emotional turmoil, we are two opposite personalities. Our nature, working style, approach to situations, temperament, experiences, and behaviour do not match. Our relationship is a living example of ‘opposites attract’! So, this exercise could tell us whether at least our emotional pattern showed any similarities during times when we only had one another’s company or did we stick to our normality state of being inverses of each other! And hence forming an essential objective – finding a different strand of compatibility. 

Below are the lists of our respective main activities and emotions. Following that is the descriptive pattern of our behaviour and our compatibility assessment – the key outcome! We also showcase our analog drawings for the first week of data recording in the appendix below.

Anshul’s Activity List

  1. Work – meetings, video-chats, emailing, office tasks 
  2. ACF – army cadet force work
  3. Food – lunch, dinner, snack breaks
  4. Outdoor – campus walk, supermarket
  5. Chores – cooking, housework, cleaning, miscellaneous
  6. Entertainment – TV, Netflix
  7. Rest – relax, chill
  8. Sleep
  9. Discussion/ argument/ conversation with partner

Swati’s Activity List

  1. Work Category 1 – teaching, training, emailing/ admin 
  2. Work Category 2 – research/ CPD
  3. Food – lunch, dinner, tea break
  4. Outdoor – walk, grocery
  5. Chores – housework, cleaning, laundry, miscellaneous
  6. Entertainment – TV, Netflix
  7. Rest – relax, chill
  8. Sleep
  9. Discussion/ argument/ conversation with partner

How we felt? – List of Emotions

  1. Sad/ Nostalgic
  2. Worried/ Anxious/ Nervous
  3. Mad/ Angry/ Irritated
  4. Bored
  5. Calm/ Neutral/ Okay
  6. Quite Happy/ Joyful
  7. Productive/ Positive
  8. Silly/ Tipsy
  9. Excited
  10. Stressed/ Tired

Here are the resulting graphs:

Figure 1:  Anshul’s Emotional Score  Figure 2: Swati’s Emotional Score

And voila! Even our emotional scores, during a rather unique time, depict our opposite temperament! Comparatively, he appears more joyful, productive/positive, excited; and she is more worried/anxious, calm/neutral, stressed. While doing the same activity together, our behaviour has shown both similarity and disparity. For instance, on 30th March at 10 pm, both were doing ‘entertainment’ together and both showed the same two emotions – calm and joyful; whereas on 2nd April at 10 pm again ‘entertainment’, but this time he was quite happy, while she was irritated. There were also situations, when both had the same emotion despite doing different activities – 3rd April at 10 am, both irritated while he was doing office work and she was doing household chores. The appendix depicts these cases. 

One emotion that appeared consistent was being bored! A disparity in interpretation came in case of ‘productive/ positive’ emotion. He emphasised more on the aspect of positivity and she emphasised more on only work-related productivity – hence a reason her score is much lower for this emotion. Nonetheless, our traits suggest two distinct people – creating a rather balanced household! 

This exercise was not undertaken to reveal our individualities or bring out any negatives but to carry out an interesting task during a completely different, difficult and strange living environment. We want to depict that data collection could enable us to introspect our emotions using an offline approach where the focus is on our everyday routine. The need really was to slow down, do self-analysis, reflect and finally connect with ourselves. This exercise has not made us self-conscious or awkward of our actions, but rather has enabled us to lay importance on our emotional well-being and be more appreciative. 

Ours is only one story! Thanks to the ‘Dear Data’ project, we consider that this type of exercise has huge potential and can be carried out at an individual, pair or group level. It is a chance to not just know someone else, but also to connect to your own deeper level. The exercise could be carried out (even anonymously) between family members, colleagues or students. Especially when we are foreseeing an environment of online and virtual communication and teaching, this could be used as a reflective tool for engagement, pastoral care, well-being and community building. Probably a next stop would be to try a task with students in the introductory week!

Appendix: First week’s hand drawn data entries. Anshul’s data analog Each cell depicts the activity and corresponding emotion for a given hour during the day. Rows mention days, and columns mention time. The top shaded part of triangle depicts emotion and symbol underneath depicts activity. A different colour is identified for each emotion, and a different symbol is used for every activity. Anshul’s key to symbols and colours Swati’s data analog Each cell depicts the activity and corresponding emotion for a given hour during the day. Rows mention days, and columns mention time. Coloured lines at the bottom of rectangle depict activity and the coloured zig zag pattern running on the right-hand side (top to bottom) depicts emotion. In the top left corner of the rectangle, a single person outline suggests being alone in that hour, and two outlines suggest being together in that hour. A different colour is identified for each emotion, and a different colour is also used for every activity.

Anshul Lau is E-Learning Technology Manager at University of Nottingham. Email: Anshul.Lau@nottingham.ac.uk | Twitter: @LauAnshul. Swati Virmani is Lecturer in Economics at De Montfort University. Email: swati.virmani@dmu.ac.uk | Twitter: @swativirmani8

Anshul Lau Swati Virmani

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member.

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

Leading teams in learning and teaching: how to manage conflict

#ALTC Blog - 14/04/20

Article author: Mari Cruz García, an international education consultant whose expertise is the development of international programmes (online and blended learning).

In this blogpost, Mari Cruz García explores how to transform conflict, when it arises in learning and teaching teams, into opportunities to verbalize needs and find common ground.

My colleague Dave Baskill and I had the pleasure to deliver a webinar for ALT on ‘Leading Teams on Teaching and Learning’ and whose recording you can find here. In the webinar, we reflected on what constitutes a ‘good manager’ and how to use different leadership styles to support different team members.

But leading teams also involves managing conflict within the team. From the different techniques and approaches used to handle conflict, I use the approach of considering management as coaching. Following this approach, we need to understand first what conflict means.

Conflict is, above all, a perception in peoples’ minds. As defined by great change facilitator and motivational speaker Sherry Campbell, “conflict is a friction or opposition resulting from actual or perceived differences or incompatibilities”. If someone’s perception of a situation or person is negative, their outlook will be negative and their ability to find a solution together will be negative too. Luckily, perceptions can be changed.

From my experience leading teams in learning and teaching, the majority of conflicts are caused due to the lack of trust or personality clashes. One conflict has the potential to introduce others. That is why it is important to address conflict when the first signs of friction are visible, rather than avoiding it. Introverted managers may find this difficult but, from a coaching perspective, conflict is not always negative.

Conflict can also be an opportunity to review if the existing structures or agreements are still working or if something new needs to be introduced. Conflict teaches us to listen and to identify patterns of behaviour and what is behind those patterns. On the bright side, conflict can help managers to become better managers.

Think of a possible situation of conflict at work (or somewhere else) that you want to overcome. The first step will be to explore the so-called ‘Iceberg of Conflict’ – the visible part of the iceberg of conflict are behaviours and attitudes, but they are only the symptoms, not the causes. When a team member is showing signs of a conflictive behaviour or attitude, you need to dig into the hidden parts of the iceberg: the assumptions and the hierarchy of beliefs and values that shape that team member’s perception of reality, as shown below:

The Conflict Iceberg model

The first step is, therefore, exploring the whole conflict iceberg with the individual in a mindful conversation in which you can use the following tips:

  • Use open questions and give any space to explore assumption and beliefs.
  • Do not challenge assumptions or beliefs (not at this stage), focus on empirical evidence and facts: for example, if your team member feels that he/she has is being discriminated because of he/she is XX , ask him/her to give you examples of when this happened.
  • Set clear boundaries about the tone and style in which both of you are going to explore the conflict, in particular, if this involves a third person who is not in the room.
  • Ask for possible outcomes of the conversation: what does the person want from you?

You will see that, often, people who are upset about a situation or a work colleague do not know what outcome or solution they would want. They just need to verbalise their anger and we need to transform that verbalisation into possible outcomes or acceptable solutions. And that brings us to the next step: finding common ground, for which I will introduce the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Management Model. This model is also known as the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI®). It comprises five conflict resolution models placing them on two dimensions as the graphic shows:

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Management Model
  • Assertiveness is the degree to which a person tries to satisfy their personal goals and objectives. There is nothing wrong in being assertive and it should not be mistaken with being aggressive. Being assertive is the ability to the community in a confident manner what is important to you. How you exercise your assertiveness involves cultural elements, gender elements and, for some authors, social class and ethnicity, but this would be a topic for another post.
  • The other dimension, Cooperativeness, is the degree to which a person tries to satisfy other people’s goals.

In a situation of conflict at work, in our role of managers as coaches, we need to bring the conflict to resolution modes that involve both dimensions: assertiveness and cooperativeness; The agreement or common ground should allow the team member to ‘harmonize’ or align their own personal goals with the team goals. Ideally, agreeing with a collaborating resolution would be the best outcome but, let’s face it: we are living in changing world where nothing is perfect, so finding solutions in the compromising area of the model is perfectly valid. In my experience, the real danger is trying to keep the conflict resolution on the lower areas: either sidestepping the conflict or trying to satisfy other people’s goals at the expense of your own’s.

Although the TKI is a useful tool, managing conflict in teams is never going to be applying a mathematical formula. Although there will not always be a win-win outcome we aim to achieve an agreement in which people feel that, what it is most important to them (usually their personal values) is being honoured.

Our challenge, as managers and coaches, is to transform friction into differentiation, which in Sherry Campbell’s word is “our capacity to tell our truth and perspective as clearly as we see it, all the while remaining engaged with those who believe differently from us.” We need to nurture a work culture that supports differentiation.

Post by Mari Cruz García, an international education consultant whose expertise is the development of international programmes (online and blended learning) at Heriot-Watt University.

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member.

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

When the VLE becomes your campus: some thoughts on engaging learners online

#ALTC Blog - 14/03/20
Image by Castaway in Scotland, CC-BY-NC Switching to online delivery?

If you teach at an institution that is affected by the Coronavirus and is temporarily switching from campus-based teaching to online delivery, you may be wondering how you can help your students to engage online. This blog post offers some suggestions, based on a review of the scholarly literature on online engagement by a group of Australian academics (Redmond, Heffernan, Abawi, Brown and Henderson, 2018) – with a shout-out to the authors for making it open access!

Caveat: I am starting from three assumptions, as follows, which I know don’t apply in all scenarios:

  • You work for an institution that has a virtual learning environment (VLE); 
  • Both you and your students have access to connected devices (preferably a laptop/ tablet or computer, but at least a smartphone); 
  • Your institution will provide essential technical support.

(If you don’t have these facilities, I recommend you read Tannis Morgan’s helpful blog post, Online Teaching with the most Basic of Tools – Email, and browse through the further resources at the end of this post.) 

An online engagement framework

In the review by Redmond et al. (2018), the authors found that online engagement can be categorised under five headings: emotional, social, collaborative, cognitive and behavioural engagement. I’ll deal with each of those below, but first, it’s worth noting that there is opportunity lurking in the crisis, in that there can be some real benefits to students to learning online, for example:

  • Online learning is flexible in terms of time and place. 
  • Online learning can be more inclusive. Since there are a variety of alternative ways to participate, the students who tend to speak the most in class might be less dominant online, and the quiet learners might contribute more ideas in writing. 
  • Written records can be kept of the learning, for example in discussion forums, which students can refer back to later. 
  • Students will learn new ways of communicating and managing relationships online, which may be useful in other situations, such as in employment. 

The ideas suggested below all make the most of these advantages, while at the same time aiming to enable each of the different kinds of online engagement.

Image by 8212733 from Pixabay Emotional engagement

Your students may be feeling a sense of isolation, as well as some anxiety about learning online. You can help by setting a welcoming, inclusive tone in all your communication, and by keeping students informed about where to find things online and what to expect. You can do this by making regular (at least weekly) announcements in the VLE. You could also set up a discussion forum on the VLE for queries about the course. Let students know when you will be checking the forum (for example, from 10am to 11am daily on weekdays), so that they know when to expect your replies. Also, look for ways to tap into students’ motivations to learn and their interest in the subject area. One way to do this is by inviting personal responses in discussion forum activities, being careful not to put pressure on students to self-disclose if they don’t want to. 

Social engagement 

Social engagement is extremely important in online learning – most students want to feel a sense of belonging to a community. Opportunities for building social relationships online are therefore critical. To facilitate this, you could set up a discussion forum and invite students to introduce themselves to one another, or if they know each other already, to share something about their lives beyond the university, or their reasons for choosing to study this subject. Sometimes, students will also set up their own social media-based groups outside of the VLE. Don’t worry if they don’t ask you to join these groups – in fact, it’s generally better for staff not to go into students’ social spaces. However, you could encourage them to be inclusive and to invite all their peers if they do talk about setting up such groups.

Collaborative engagement

Collaborative engagement goes beyond social engagement in that it is more focused on learning with and from other people. You can set up discussion forums that encourage students to share their understanding and to respond to one another, or ask students to research a topic in pairs and give a joint mini-presentation in a web-conferencing session. Collaborative engagement is also about students connecting to institutional resources and opportunities, and so you might want to signpost students to library, wellbeing and employability resources. These materials may become more important for students while learning online, as they may have more time to explore and reflect on the opportunities available to them.

Cognitive engagement

Cognitive engagement is a key aspect of every student’s success, and involves skills that we usually refer to as study skills and academic writing skills. Assuming that your module assessment focuses on these skills, one way to encourage cognitive engagement is to keep the final assessment in mind in the design of any online activities you create. If you can set up quizzes on your VLE, these are a good way for students to self-assess and receive instant feedback. Discussion forums and web-conferencing sessions can be used for students to practise developing arguments, integrating ideas, and justifying decisions. Cognitive engagement is integrally interwoven with the other kinds of engagement, and so by thinking about engagement holistically, you will increase the chances of your students engaging deeply with their learning.

Behavioural engagement

In some ways, behavioural engagement may be more visible online than face-to-face. For example, you can see whether students are viewing lecture recordings or clicking on resources in the VLE. However, in much the same way that students’ attendance at physical lectures does not indicate anything about their cognitive engagement, these basic VLE analytics will not be hugely informative. This is one reason why you may want to set up other engagement opportunities. Some ideas follow.

Lecture recordings do not have to be based on the format of your usual hour-long classroom lecture. If you’re recording lectures at home, you might want to experiment with different formats, such as shorter summary lectures followed by other activities (see below). These recordings will no doubt find their way back into your teaching when you’re back on campus.

Quizzes can help students to know whether they are on track. They can be time-consuming to set up, but once created, can also be reused, even when normal, classroom-based teaching resumes.

I’ve recommended the use of discussion forums above for all the different kinds of engagement. Discussion forums tend to be inclusive, as they allow for flexible participation, and they generally don’t require much bandwidth. If you’ve not used discussion forums before, here are some tips: 

  • Avoid completely unstructured discussion forums – these are unlikely to engage learners.
  • Structure discussion forum activity by asking questions that are related to the course assessment, so that students see value in participating.
  • Ask open-ended questions, so that all students can contribute something original. 
  • Encourage students to respond to others, and not just to ‘broadcast’ their own views. 
  • Don’t set word limits – this will stifle the discussion.
  • Give each discussion forum a time frame. Topic-specific forums generally work well when run over one or two weeks. This also helps to pace students through the syllabus.
  • You don’t need to read and reply to every comment yourself – instead you could write a general response to everyone at the end of each weekly/ fortnightly discussion period.

Web-conferencing sessions are another good way to get online engagement. If you can divide your cohort into small groups (fewer than 30 students), then you can invite students to speak using their microphones. Students can also type in the chat box during the session, and this mode of communication appeals to some students. Remember though, that not all students will be able to participate in these sessions, especially if they are in distributed time zones or don’t all have good connectivity. If you think this is the case in your cohort, it is advisable to avoid web-conferencing altogether and just use discussion forums.

Concluding thoughts

If you were not sure where to start in the switch to online delivery, I hope this post has given you some ideas for engaging your students. I strongly recommend that you familiarise yourself with your institution’s guidance on how to use the VLE and its associated tools, and then schedule a chat with a learning technologist (AKA educational developer, instructional designer, etc.) in your institution if you have any questions. Try to plan for the use of unfamiliar technologies in advance, as your support team may be stretched to capacity and they may not be able to help you at short notice.

Remember you can also look for help elsewhere – for example, there are some wonderful Twitter folks offering to answer questions under the hashtags #digped and #PivotToOnline, and lots of great resources being shared there. Look for creative solutions. It won’t be perfect, and you might need to make some compromises, but who knows, you might find new ways to engage your learners that endure beyond the end of the pandemic.

To end with, here are some great sources of further guidance:

If you’d like to share your response to this post or ask a question, please use the Comment box to do so. I look forward to hearing from you!


Redmond, P., Heffernan, A., Abawi, L., Brown, A., & Henderson, R. (2018). An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education. Online Learning, 22(1), 183–204. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175 [CC-BY]

Author Info: Gabi Witthaus is a consultant at Art of E-learning. She is doing her PhD on the online engagement of refugees and asylum seekers in HE. She also works in the College of Arts & Law Digital Education Team at the University of Birmingham. Twitter: @twitthaus Blog: www.artofelearning.org

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member.

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