#ALTC Blog

Future of Online Executive Education shaped by the pandemic crisis

#ALTC Blog - 21/09/20

Gennadii Miroshnikov

Business education, and in particular Executive Education programs offered by business schools, took a significant blow from the situation associated with the coronavirus pandemic (Byrne, 2020). Nearly half of the US business school deans responding to a survey conducted by higher-education consulting and digital marketing firm Eduvantis believe that the health crisis caused by COVID-19 will accelerate the closure of business schools (Allen, 2020). Michael Horn in his Educated, Disrupted report on Disruption 2020: A Virtual Symposium, rated the damage up to 20% of revenue (Horn, 2020) and a more detailed report by UNICON’S Benchmarking Committee (UNICON, 2020) confirmed the significant negative consequences of this event.

It is important to note that before the pandemic, the Executive Education market was one of the fastest-growing. For instance, UK Executive Education enrollment was expected to grow at a CAGR of 7.8% in the next 5 years until 2023 (Bloomberg, 2019; Ken Research, 2019). While applications have been falling for MBA degrees, figures from the UK’s Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS) show that nearly nine-in-10 business schools are forecasting that their executive education business will grow over the next five years (CABS, 2017). Seb Murray in his article ‘What Next For Executive Education?’ quoting Andrew Crisp, the owner of Carrington Crisp “Executive education is the most exciting part of business education at the moment and is likely to remain so for many years to come” (Murray, 2019). The international university consortium for executive education (Unicon), which represents more than 100 business schools offering this kind of teaching, suggests the total market is worth about $2bn and has grown by 20 percent over the past five years. 

One of the main reasons Executive Education is in demand is a constant need to update skills to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving workplace. According to PwC’s 2017 CEO survey (PwC, 2017), 77% of chief executives report that a scarcity of people with key skills is the biggest threat to their businesses. A study conducted by AACSB, Chief Learning Officer magazine, and Human Capital Media, noted that lifelong learning is a crucial part of an organization’s talent strategy since it gives employees the skills they need to remain relevant while building organizational loyalty and encouraging retention (AACSB, 2018). 

As business education in general, Executive Education is dominated by face to face programs. According to the UNICON Benchmarking committee report, small business schools offer only 2.3% of programs online, bigger schools – 10%. The largest long-term impact of COVID-19 on executive education is likely to involve online educational delivery (Bisoux, 2020; Abdel-Meguid, 2020; Business Because, 2020; AACSB, 2020). 74% of respondents of the Eduvantis survey said their courses would be offered at least slightly more towards distance learning, but only 17% said courses at their schools would be “tilted substantially more” towards distance learning. There are different concerns regarding a more radical adoption of online delivery despite some of its benefits including environmental impact (Roy, Potter, Yarrow, Smith, 2005). As one of the examples is a comparison of offline vs. online delivery with visiting a new place vs. watching a video (Lau, Yang, Dasgupta, 2020). Mike Malefakis, an associate vice-dean at Wharton Executive Education, says “The ‘netflixisation’ of executive education is going to happen”, referring to the way the streaming-media company has challenged the dominance of traditional broadcasters “But there is a difference between the deep learning we can provide and superficial learning” (Moules, 2019). It seems to be the main concern for business schools is ensuring that the online courses provide the same quality and level of experience to participants as traditional face to face programmes. One of my colleagues compared attending Executive Education programmes with a VIP travel tour, including accommodation in a 5-star hotel, dining in the best restaurants of the city and professors of history or geography as private tour guides (for whom such events are a source of extra income) who directly on the spot tell and show about certain events or historical figures. The most frequently repeated adjectives used by organisers to describe their Executive Education programs are top-class, impressive, and exciting. Another factor of the importance of “experience” for the participants of Executive Education programs is that some of them receive participation as a reward from their employers and this sometimes creates a ‘holiday mood’ and appropriate expectations. To preserve these characteristics when transferring delivery to the virtual space, simple “onlinification” of face-to-face lectures will not result in positive experiences for participants. Dominik Lukes in his article (Lukes, 2020) looked at the challenges of moving events online from the perspective of different types of affordances. His findings are pretty much applicable to the situation with Executive Education.

A holistic approach should be the main principle in the implementation and expansion of online delivery of programs, which is still a new field for most business schools. This approach should include training of lecturers, research in the field of adaptation of pedagogical methods and customer experience, redesign, careful selection and implementation of the necessary systems and technological solutions, a continuous cycle of analysis of results, and adjustments. Creating working groups consisting of professionals from academics, learning designers, customer experience teams, market specialists, analytics, and learning technologists will be a decisive factor for success.

During the weakening of some senses, the others intensify. In the case of online delivery, the loss of physical contact is replaced by an increase in the requirements for visual contact, both between the participants and the lecturer, the participant and peers, as well as the content. One of the catalysts for rapidly increasing requirements for video is the development of HD standards and the growth of content producers and the quality of their work on video platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, Youku, etc. Video bloggers install lighting equipment, a green screen for recording, use video production software, and special effects that can work even on mobile devices. Thus, a lecturer sitting in a poorly lit, cluttered room recording a lecture through the camera of his laptop and struggling to switch between PowerPoint and other applications, loses dramatically from the viewpoint of visual quality. The charisma of the lecturer, fluent use of basic applications for recording video and conducting video lectures, a smooth transition from presentation to answering questions from the chat, conducting quick polls and confidence in front of the camera (along with understanding the principles of creating a video composition where light, appearance, and background have important value) become new mandatory characteristics for the faculty and should be included in the training. For redesigning traditional lectures, the most common solution is splitting long lectures and mixing them with other activities (Q&A, group discussions, etc.) (Moldoveanu, Mihnea, Narayandas, 2018).

Going further, the next critical moment will be the enhancement of the learning experience, using new systems, applications, and tools and based on pedagogical models. Underpinned by constructivism and collaborative learning theories, new virtual learning environments could include group editing of shared documents, group project works and discussions, and even immersive learning using AR and VR (INSEAD, 2020; University of Cambridge, 2020). The latter can also solve the problem of learner distraction, since wearing VR glasses may allow learners to better focus on lectures or case studies watching via this device, but it will be effective only if the VR learning experience is seamlessly integrated into the whole programme and its connection with the programme objectives is clearly indicated. Otherwise, it will remain in the memory of the participants as one hour of playing with an exquisite toy.

Thus, the most important factor here is the organic integration of these elements in the educational process, the development of interfaces for the smooth interaction of systems. It becomes clear that a single system (only VLE / LMS, online library or Video Conference System) is unlikely to become a solution to the problem, and at the moment those solutions that call themselves integrated and multifunctional have not been widely adopted and implemented, and rapidly increasing requirements and expectations make me believe that there will always be something missing in these solutions. It will also be important that business schools address accessibility issues, providing equal opportunity for participating in the program.

Post-pandemic reality is likely to change international travelling at least for a while, which means that business schools need to be prepared for fewer participants attending their face-to-face programs, and these programs should provide an opportunity to participate online with the deployment of blended auditoriums and labs (similar examples already exist using Zoom Rooms, Mashme, etc.). At the same time, blended learning spaces should not cause a feeling that online participation is a cheap version of face to face programs. And here the question arises of creating a fundamentally new level of quality for online delivery of programs. In contrast to the large number of MOOCs where participants often have a sense of being lost, lonely, having a gap between a participant and their peers and often even the organisers of the course, effective online delivery should create a sense of concern and promote social networking, creating favourable conditions for reinforcement of learning. Online facilitation should be designed in a way to ensure a smooth start of the program, with an explanation of the main aspects of participation, necessary assistance in preparation, and advice. As an opposite to generic, dry emails, the concept of a personal assistant and consultant, available any day, flexible in using the most convenient means of communication (email, phone, WhatsApp, etc.) should come. Bullet points on how to access should be replaced by instructions in several formats, video with subtitles and audio-transcription, as well as a text version. Participants should be offered an opportunity of training on how to use the system (especially when new technologies and applications are involved) before the programme starts (and not at the last moment), the ability to set reminders and calendar invites in different formats. Training and tips on how to combine work and study, how to study effectively from home or office will also be very useful. The same concept of a personal assistant for the first point of contact, accessible at a convenient time, and solving logistic and technical problems (interacting with responsible teams) should be maintained throughout the program. At the same time, during the program, the role of an online facilitator or learning manager arises, welcoming participants, representing lecturers, taking questions from the chat, and taking responsibility for smooth inter-sessions activities, group work, and creating communities within the audience. Understanding the audience by this facilitator (knowing who is who, their background, the main reasons for participating in the program, expectations). This role holder must be a subject matter expert in the programme topic as it is critical for the overall success, for creating an effective Community of Practice (Lee, 2018) and facilitating communication and collaboration even after the programme ends. An indisputable advantage will be to find ways to support their participants after the programme finishes by organising coaching, helping with the implementation of acquired knowledge and skills in their organisations.

Another highly important criteria for organizing virtual spaces is a data-driven approach, the ability to get and analyse data from different sources: educational activities, data from CRM systems regarding participating engagements and interests, data from the university websites, social networks, and digital marketing platforms. The ability to consolidate data obtained from multiple sources will allow both to improve and personalise training, and to stimulate relevant customer interest with other educational products (Westerbeck, 2019).

As a consequence, caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, unemployment is likely to turn into a short-term educational challenge as individuals and organisations will have to consider upskilling and reskilling strategies as a part of their path forward if they are to adapt and evolve (Serrato, 2020). This can create a great opportunity for Executive Education providers and online programs could be the right solution. But how effectively they can use this opportunity depends on how well they begin to prepare now and learn from the current pandemic crisis.

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

i-improve e-learning with i-pencil

#ALTC Blog - 16/09/20

Dr Shonagh Douglas
Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University

Apple’s iPad and iPencil(1) is a powerful tool as we increasingly move to online learning.   This article shares the experience of simple but effective use of this in online learning by the Accounting and Finance department at the Robert Gordon University.

Back to the Future for the Trusty Whiteboard

Online learning has seen significant development in the range of instructional technology used but some aspects of the classroom are hard to replicate with the traditional whiteboard (or OHP, flipchart or smart board depending on where you are on the technology spectrum) being a good example.  In accounting education, calculations are an inevitable part of teaching and the ability to write out and annotate calculations, or indeed narrative, has been difficult to replicate in the online environment. 

The iPencil allows for seamless videos to be prepared to replicate how an explanation would be provided when aided with a whiteboard.  I have used (the free) Doceri app.  This is a whiteboard set up with a simple record button which then can be shared as a video.  The whiteboard can start completely blank or can be pre-set up with annotations which are then added to (which prevents long pauses for writing).  Pictures (or word etc files saved as a picture) can be used as a background to annotate on and iMovies can be used for basic editing (cutting out the postman coming to the door mid recording…).   A similar result can be achieved through screen recording in GoodNotes or similar note taking apps.   This will involve a little (and simple) editing to top and tail the produced video as it records everything on the screen including you starting and stopping the recording which you will probably want to take out.

An extension to this static presentation, the iPencil is also a useful addition to live online discussions.  Online classrooms, allowing two-way discussion, are frequently used on online courses and Blackboard Collaborate is a common platform for the provision of this.   In a face to face tutorial setting, the trusty whiteboard can play a key role in facilitating this discussion.  For myself, going back and forwards with discussion until a calculation is understood but also, and perhaps of more relevance to many other disciplines, was the ability to replicate what you would use the white board for – perhaps writing out a mind map or theory or writing key points from a discussion.

Whilst Blackboard Collaborate does offer a whiteboard, those of you who have used it with a mouse will know it is clunky and really of little value in complex calculations or indeed writing narrative.  The iPencil is a game changer.  To operate, the presenter should open Blackboard Collaborate as normal, most likely from a main computer, and also join the classroom from the iPad via the app.  Duel operation is required due to the iPad app having limited controls that the presenter may require.   The app used has a ‘quirk’ in that the volume automatically switches on when in use.  This gave feedback in keeping with a Bon Jovi concert the first time used for online discussion (I can only imagine their disappointment when I switched the app off and we were back to financial statements).  A simple solution (which took me more than a few days to work out) was to use headphones in the iPad so no shared noise between the two machines.

By Dr Shonagh Douglas, Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University.

(1)  This article is based on the authors personal experience of the iPencil.  Similar outcomes could most likely be used with other brands.  However, having tried out a number of the much cheaper stylus which are compatible with the iPad I have found these to be much inferior and some what frustrating to use at the level of detail required.

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

Chief Executive Officer Report September 2020

#ALTC Blog - 11/09/20
Dear Members

Since my last report to you in June, much has happened in our community and the Association. From senior leaders to new recruits, everyone in Learning Technology has been working flat out to prepare for the start of the new academic year and continuing to cope with the impact of the pandemic. 

Whilst it is gratifying to see the importance of the profession coming to the forefront in many organisations across sectors, the challenges we continue to face are enormous and the stakes are high for staff and learners alike. 

Even without the usual preparations for our Annual Conference, we have had an exceptionally busy few months supporting Members, sharing expertise and providing input to policy makers. 

Here is a quick summary of key developments:

  • ALT’s Annual General Meeting on 24 June 2020 was well attended and Members met ALT’s new Chair, Professor Helen O’Sullivan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), Keele University and President, David White, Head of Digital Learning at the University of the Arts London. Members welcomed ALT’s Annual Report and audited accounts, which you can also view on the Charity Commission website
  • ALT has supported Members launch the Open Covid Pledge for Research in Education which has gathered support from over 150 signatories, including UCU, Creative Commons and a growing number of institutions and researchers. I urge you to sign the pledge and support it if you can;
  • ALT is also providing input to UUK’s Task & Finish Group in Transnational Education as well as Jisc’s Learning and Teaching Reimagined initiative, for which the next workshop hosted by ALT is on 16 September;
  • ALT’s first Summer Summit meanwhile attracted 281 Learning Technology professionals from 24 countries, providing access to resources and new research which will soon be  available to all Members and the wider community. 

To support Members through the start of the new term, we have a full programme of events and activities planned for autumn, including: 

We are seeking input from Members to ALT’s response to the Sir Michael Barber Review of Learning and Teaching Online, and if you would like to contribute, please email me ceo@alt.ac.uk .

Looking a few months ahead, we will be holding our usual Online Winter Conference, which this year will celebrate the Learning Technologist of the Year Awards. By popular request we are establishing a very special community award for all Learning Technologists, so save the date. On Thursday, 17 December everyone is invited to collect their award at our virtual awards ceremony!

Dr Maren Deepwell
Chief Executive

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

What is the future in FE for TEL and Digital Pedagogy Thoughts from the bike by an FE Teacher Educator

#ALTC Blog - 08/09/20

Jamie Heywood, Bedford College Group @jamiewheywood

What will Covid-19 mean for TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) and Digital Pedagogy in our beloved FE sector? Well, the truth is, no one really knows due to this extraordinary and unprecedented situation. As an FE teacher educator, looking ahead to the new academic year, I am curious on how digital pedagogy (the approach and method of digital elements to change ways of delivering teaching and learning) will look when courses begin again, students are back, and another cycle begins where teaching and learning will undoubtedly be under the microscope more than ever before. I am particularly interested on whether the perception of TEL has been moulded, how teaching has been transformed and what the perennial impact of Covid-19 will be. Teacher knowledge change, belief change and culture change are all needed to implement a new definition of effective teaching (Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, 2014) but have these concepts been developed? I have experienced first-hand how diverse the responses have been from FE lecturers, with some struggling to adapt to the new demands of online delivery to others who have thrived; will these experiences make long lasting influences to their deep rooted teaching beliefs?

One personal benefit that has come from the lockdown is the chance to get out on my road bike more and this is often the time I reflect and consider what the new landscape may look like. Cycling and using TEL actually have some similarities: the inexperienced need some support at first and the more you do it, the better (and faster) you get! Please forgive me for using a couple of cycling analogies here!

Personal Bests

Many educators have been thrust into an unknown reality, and after the initial pandemonium, have become dependant on TEL. Like riding without stabilisers for the first time, this can be daunting at first (and can result in a few falls) but as ever, the resilient FE workforce, can adapt and thrive. The SAMR model provides a four stage TEL framework from Substitution (TEL acting as a direct substitute, with no functional change) to Redefinition (TEL allowing for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable) (Figure 1). Where many practitioners pre-Covid may have defaulted to the substitution stage, I have seen genuine examples of redefining learning as a result from having to change gear, trying something new and becoming more confident.

In cycling, riding with others is easier as you can share the workload and cover further distance, and it is no different when in education. Promoting group cohesion and opportunities for collaboration is something we emphasise in our teacher training courses but most teachers struggle to generate the same dynamic on their VLEs. Moving from blended learning to interactive blended learning is a long-needed change, where practitioners create a bustling VLE with opportunities for connectivity, not just a content repository. I have experienced teachers harnessing this in innovative ways, for example using discussion boards to enable reflection and creating online platforms for group work and believe this pedagogical change has been accelerated.

Flat Tyres

Unfortunately, these are inevitable along the journey. Some teachers may be less reluctant to embrace change and have regressed back to didactic teaching through tyring (sorry) lecture-style remote delivery. Teachers who would never dream of delivering a full two-hour lecture in a F2F classroom, as it would not be reasonable to expect a learner’s attention span to last that long, but in contrast, are content with adopting this approach for online delivery.

Being in a sector which experiences change in policy perpetually, the FE workforce have become accustomed to adapting. Another concern is that some teachers will regress exactly to before and will not be willing to go through further change. They may not have embraced TEL and will go back to riding with stabilisers. There are also potential potholes relating to security and infrastructure which may struggle to cope with the increased demand.

Finish Line

I applaud those teachers, making positive change, trying new approaches, being innovative, and going out of their comfort zone, however small it is at first. It will be fascinating to see how teaching and learning changes over the next decade. I truly believe we will look back at 2020 as a pivotal juncture – similarly to being at a crossroads when cycling and deciding whether to push on or go back.

Comments welcomed and extra points for bike puns!

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

What makes a Learning Technologist Part 4 of 4: Best-part challenges

#ALTC Blog - 02/09/20

A post by Daniel Scott, Digital Practice Advisor at Nottingham Trent University. Twitter: @_Daniel_Scott

Background to the series

Inspired by topical discussions on the diversity, complexity and uniqueness of Learning Technologist roles, myself (Daniel Scott, Nottingham Trent University) and Simon Thomson (University of Liverpool) invited the ALTC community to share their stories of becoming a ‘Learning Technologist’ in all its guises and across a range of educational contexts.

In-conjunction with ALT, a short questionnaire was created to capture the community’s stories.  We have now pulled together these stories and are presenting them as a series of ALT blog posts entitled: “What makes a Learning Technologist?”. Submissions were made anonymously and credited where necessary – we are only publishing those who have given us permission to do so. Even if participants did not what to have their story published via the blog, we encouraged them to consider completing the form so we could capture the breadth of journeys to becoming a Learning Technologist. We hope this will prove a valuable source of information for the ALT community, that aims to articulate the often-debated, ambiguous and multi-faceted role.

The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) defines Learning Technology as the broad range of communication, information and related technologies that can be used to support learning, teaching and assessment.  Our community is made up of people who are actively involved in understanding, managing, researching, supporting or enabling learning with the use of Learning Technology.  We believe that you don’t necessarily need to be called ‘Learning Technologist’ to be one.

Setting the scene

This is the fourth and final instalment in the “What makes a Learning Technologist?” blog series.  In the first post, Daniel Scott explored the plethora of job titles we often see associated with being a Learning Technologist.  The second post, Karoline Nanfeldt looked at the career paths taken by Learning Technologists (LTs).  The third post Simon Thomson explored the “duties” that Learning Technologists take on in the course of their work.

In this final post, a book-end to the blog series, we will explore the best parts of the Learning Technologist job and the associated challenges that people face in fulfilling it.  As with all these blog posts we often use direct quotations from the submissions and where participants have asked not to be named these are indicated as anonymous quotes.  Again, many thanks to those who shared their stories with us – 38 responded to our questionnaire.  This helped us to tell the very unique stories they shared with us and have been revealed throughout the whole series.

“From when the survey originally went around, things have obviously changed – at least where most of us work have! We hope this blog post will bring a smile to your face and remind you of the great things Learning Technologists do.” – Karoline Nanfeldt

The impact of COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought the role of “Learning Technologist” fully into the spotlight. However, we have existed in many guises’ decades before this.  Before many of us might’ve been considered as “hidden heroines and heroes” suddenly we have a chance to shine as we are more in demand than ever before as we support colleagues from across our institutions to initially help them make the move into remote teaching and now to a pivot to online for the start of the academic year 2020/21 and longer-term into more hybrid models of delivery.

It is clear that through this entire pandemic that Learning Technologists across the country have been at the forefront of ensuring that students are able to continue with their studies and academic staff have been supported in their work to continue teaching and plan for what lies ahead. What has been most impressive (but in no way surprising) has been the way that Learning Technologists have demonstrated what an amazingly supportive community we are, sharing experiences, resources and ideas through mailing lists, blogs and social media. Whilst the data we captured for these blog posts took place way before any of this pandemic took place, the themes that emerge from the data demonstrate just how important Learning Technologists (in their guises) are in supporting institutions to make the very best use of the digital tools and technologies they have invested in.

Presenting the data & telling the stories

As the previous blog posts revealed the Learning Technologist role can be extremely varied, as is the enjoyment and fulfilment of different aspects by each post holder.  Below is a summary of the best parts they enjoy about their role (in no particular order).

  • Working and collaborating with like-minded people
  • Contributing ideas to improve learning and teaching with digital technology
  • Problem-solving
  • Helping others to realise and achieve their ideas
  • Making, maintaining and mediating professional relationships
  • Sharing and signposting expertise and practices
  • Freedom to explore, research, create and innovate
  • Variety of tasks, projects and challenges
  • Contributing ideas to improving new ways of working
  • Learning from others and their own work
  • Working with academics and pedagogy
  • Helping people overcome fears and confidence with digital technology
  • Making courses and resources that better suit the needs of learners and that are enjoyable participate/use
  • Opportunities to extend learning experiences
  • Opportunities to get involved in projects outside your typical sphere of work, i.e. non-academic and organisational initiatives
  • Encouraging and helping academics and learners to develop their digital skills at their own pace and comfort
  • Encouraging and helping academics to understand and apply Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) at their own pace and comfort
  • Sharing joy and success with academics when things have worked with their learners and in their programmes
  • Rewarding when observing successful TEL applied as a result of something I contributed to
  • Ability to network and collaborate with like-minded external individuals and organisations

A key theme which emerges here is the collaborative nature of the role and the extent to which supporting and helping others to achieve their goals is often at the core of all of our work.  As mentioned above in the COVID-19 experience, this reinforces the message of togetherness where we have reached out to support one and another.  The ALT Mailing List (and many other online communities) has proved invaluable in this situation.  The following are some notable quotes from respondents that reflect this.

“Having a certain level of freedom to explore and research the wider field of technology, looking for ways they could be used to help support teaching and learning.”Sonya McChristie

Freedom is an important factor as it allows Learning Technologists to explore wider issues and meanings in different contexts, adding to more diverse ways of thinking and practices.

“The variety of tasks and challenges.”Anonymous

Yes!  For some, the sayings go ‘every day is different from the next’ and ‘variety is the spice of life’.

“Working with so many awesome and inspiring academics. I love enabling people to do new and awesome things that they couldn’t do without my input. Seeing student involvement really helps too!”Matt East

“it’s really rewarding. I love it when I’ve helped someone and they come back to tell me that it was a success.”Leanne Fitton

“Seeing the improved offerings, and experience from students when lecturers adopt our supported learning and guidance.”Anonymous

I think these quotes sum it up for most of us – it’s more fulfilling when the feedback loop is completed in knowing the conversations, research, planning, supporting and evaluating had tangible impact.

As you might have expected, the positives have been slightly outweighed by the challenges Learning Technologists encounter.  Not all are to be viewed negatively but as positive challenges that can bring about purposeful change.  Below discusses the challenges they face in getting their job done.

The Cambridge dictionary surmises the noun challenge as “difficult job” and defines it as:

“(the situation of being faced with) something that needs great mental or physical effort in order to be done successfully and therefore tests a person’s ability”

There is no doubt that the role of Learning Technologist is indeed one of the most difficult of jobs, but there is something about the constant challenge of it that makes us keep doing it (despite the often limited reward or recognition). It would be quite fascinating to undertake a personality profile of Learning Technologists to understand any “traits” which might be prevalent and this series of blog posts has given us some insights into what they might be.

There is one word that comes to mind which seems to very much sum up the strength of Learning Technologists and that is “resilient”. Our ability to bounce back from any and all situations and to keep driving forward innovation and offering our support in even the most adverse situations. The survey asked our community to identify the challenges they face in their role and we were able to theme these into the following categories:

  • Process – whereby processes or procedures (often referred to as bureaucracy) restrict us in our work or slow us down to the point of being disruptive.
  • Resource – this could be budgetary or people, but ultimately we are often asked to achieve goals that would benefit from more “resource.
  • Time – this might be our time or the time of colleagues across our institutions. Although time in itself is not a very tangible commodity, it can certainly be a barrier to achieving success.
  • Culture – It’s hard to pin down, but for anyone who has worked in different institutions will know there is a “culture” that exists that can be difficult to navigate.
  • Structure – Again this is very much talking about an institutional structure, in terms of how the institutional is organised and where decision making happens

Below you will see that we have collated all examples provided into the table and mapped them to a single main theme (although there are some that could easily be mapped across a number of themes).

What this highlights is the complexity of the challenges we face, but ultimately demonstrates how effective Learning Technologists are at overcoming these challenges which is a true testament to the generosity of the community as we share these challenges and solutions.

CategoryExampleProcess– Unnecessary bureaucracy, governance, politics and red tape inhibit productivity, creativity and innovation.
– Time-consuming Subject Matter Expert feedback cycles.
– Working around academics Subject Matter Experts schedules as early as possible to allow for iterations and delivery choicesResource– Lack of sufficient budget
– Lack of sufficient resources to improve digital and online learning
– Inequality of pay in similar job roles within and outside the organisationTime– Lack of dedicated time for academics to explore possibilities and solutions provided by the Learning Technologist, so they can plan and implement them effectively
– Constant ad hoc requests affect main parts of the roleCulture– Unnecessary debates, there is a place for them, but often stifle productive meetings
– Lack of vision and understanding by budget holders/leaders can reverse the purpose of the role
– Colleagues resistant to change their mindsets and practices
– Understanding complex curriculum/academic requirements 
– Innovation fatigue, innovating with no real purpose
– Failure in colleagues engaging with learning technology choices
– Encouraging colleagues to consider pedagogy before the affordances of technology 
– Lack of involvement and input in organisational policies and strategies – makes it difficult for mainstream initiatives as a result
– Competing or conflicting interests affect decisions, deployment, engagement and support of technology
– Finding appropriate ways to engage academicsStructure– Negative perceptions/interpretations of the Learning Technologist role and being confused with general Information Technology support
– Vast variety of challenges and the different types of workload and communications attached to them can be overwhelming 
– Decentralised organisational structures and remits that are not clear to the community

To add to the examples above, the following quotes from respondents express the challenges they experience.

“Ad hoc support required can derail any plans for your day – work on chunky projects has to be put off to fix staff/student practical technology issues.”Anonymous

“Managers having the vision to invest in the use of technology and the ongoing support needed to keep colleagues up to date learning new methods and evolving new techniques for solving problems.”Anonymous

“Being treated as an equal partner in clarifying what’s required and designing effective solutions.”Madeline Paterson

“People still think that I just ‘fix’ IT things. Communicating that I am able to advise on a wide range of academic ‘problems’ and use technology to come up with solutions is a tough message to get across.” – Ros Walker

“Being seen as the one who does the work (using the technology) rather than the one who can facilitate others achieve.” – Anonymous

Lack of understanding for the Learning Technologist role and/or the context we work within is a common challenge.  This is discussed more in-depth in Daniel Scott’s separate blog post ‘Describing my learning technologist role’.

“Getting people to put the pedagogy first, not the technology – but to use the technology where appropriate, rather than continue what they’ve done for 10-20 years without reflection.”Richard Oelmann

“Finding time for academics to engage enough to look beyond the traditional methods they grew up with. Without time to engage, investigate and experiment they tend to fall back on the easy methods from the past.”Anonymous

A key theme that runs throughout these responses is that the Learning Technologist role is weaved across a variety of contexts and situations, to which they help or hinder the creative and collaborative environment that they need in order to fulfil their roles effectively and successfully.


As we can see in the detail above, the Learning Technologist role is far from simple and one-dimensional.  It consists of intricate and multiple layers of specialisms, knowledge, skills and behaviours in order to engage academics and stakeholders and ensuring the purpose and success of digital technology.  Yet a Learning Technologist remains steadfast and resilient in making positive changes and innovation in education, learning, teaching, working and organisational culture.  Digital and online practices are in a cause for evolution and no doubt will the Learning Technologist role be critical in steering and shaping what is aptly named ‘the new normal’.

Closing thought:  What best parts and challenges do you resonate with in your job?  To what extent has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your job?  How do you see the Learning Technologist role evolving in your organisation?  Please tell us in the comments.

Thank you for reading this series of “What makes a Learning Technologist?”.

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Emily Armstrong; Sonya McChristie; Duncan MacIver; Tom Buckley; Matt East; Craig Campbell; Madeline Paterson; Teresa MacKinnon; Richard Oelmann; Sarah; Leanne Fitton; Ross Ward; Ros Walker; Vicky Brown; Rae Bowdler; Simon Wood; Daniel Scott; Andy Tattersall; Rachel Hartshorne; Chris Melia

Daniel Scott is a Digital Practice Advisor at Nottingham Trent University. Twitter: @_Daniel_Scott

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

Becoming President when everything is online

#ALTC Blog - 05/08/20

‘President’ is a loaded term, but my Tweets are of a higher standard than that American one, so I think it’s ok. My first ALT conference was in 2004. I remember it was at Exeter University and that I didn’t know what I was doing. Since then, I’ve learnt a few things and the ALT community and events have been extremely important to me. The conference was where I connected with the first people outside of my office. They became the kernel of a network I still rely on today, including Martin Weller who I pick up the President’s baton from (there isn’t an actual baton but I might try to get one instated).

The opportunity ALT gave me via an invited talk at ALT-C in 2010 was a turning point for me. The positive response to that talk gave me a lot of confidence, especially in the Visitors and Residents idea which was very new back then. Since 2010 I’ve seen ‘edtech’ and ‘elearning’ rapidly move from the fringes of institutions to become central to how they run – even if some institutions still haven’t quite realised this yet. 

(Youthful Dave on the ‘big’ stage in 2010)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/h-l-n/4982145291/in/pool-daveowhite/ CC heloukee
Advocating for the community

I applied to the President role because I had to admit that I was no longer one of the ‘new’ people in Digital Learning. Having managed, and advocated for, people in Digital Learning roles for 17 years I can clearly see that it can be a bumpy ride and, even today, institutions do not always recognise the valuable expertise Digital Learning folk contribute on a day-to-day basis. I’m looking forward to helping ALT provide events, advice and opportunities for the growing Digital Learning community in the same way it has supported me over the years.

Since applying for the role, COVID-19 has hit, and I find myself President at a time where online is the sole location of the institution for just about all of us. It has been an exhilarating, stressful and occasionally frustrating time. Suddenly everyone is interested in what we have to offer in terms of technology, if not always expertise. Educational institutions have been walking a difficult line between pedagogy, safety, politics and student expectations. I have seen some academics and journalists discussing approaches to online learning which we have been developing for circa 20 years as if the topic hadn’t existed pre-COVID. We have also seen standard-issue entrepreneurial proclamations about ‘revolutionising’ education by attempting to remove teaching as a practice, or by simply being as exclusive as our most retrenched institutions, but this time online…

It’s been busy…

The one thing that I’m most certain about during COVID is that ALT and everyone in Digital Learning has been working harder than ever before doing what we do best, including:

  1. Making sure the wheels don’t come off
  2. Supporting colleagues in developing their digital teaching practices 
  3. Supporting students in developing their learning and getting the most out of what is available
  4. Developing all the ways in which we can make digital spaces safe and inclusive 

That is why I so pleased that ALT is planning the community award, which goes to all those working in the field as an acknowledgment of the community’s labour and commitment over 2020. Personally, I deeply miss being co-present in physical spaces. Materiality and embodied discourse are just a couple of the reasons I chose to work at the University of the Arts London. What I found over Lockdown is that it’s important to remind people that we are where we are not because digital has taken over but because it’s the only safe option.

As to the future, I’m hoping that physical co-presence for teaching is treated with respect, in that we most-often use those rarefied moments for that which doesn’t have a close equivalence online. That will involve a significant culture-shift, but I am certain that our institutions will continue to operate significantly online even as COVID-19 becomes part of history because students will not want to lose the positive aspects of teaching during lockdown. Given that, I’ll be working with ALT to create spaces where we can discuss the value and direction of Digital Learning not as a process of ‘solving’ or erasing teaching but as a context with it’s own practices and opportunities.

You can find out more about David by visiting his website.

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

6 papers on education to read this summer to prepare for blended teaching and learning: Ideas for a journal club

#ALTC Blog - 14/07/20

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


As the post-isolation summer heaves into view and worries about teaching in uncertain autumn come front of mind, it may be a good idea to review some of the principles we can draw on as educators to help students learn under non-traditional conditions with little guarantee to be the same from week to week. Remote teaching, blended teaching or self-learning – all of these will be a part of our repertoire going forward.

Here is a list of 6 articles that may form a good curriculum for a summer reading club or just anybody’s personal reading or re-reading list. They cover 6 areas that seem relevant to teaching in these times but are really just about good teaching in any context:

  1. Engagement
  2. Cognitive processing
  3. Feedback and formative assessment
  4. Peer instruction
  5. Deliberate practice
  6. Connectivism

Even though the papers come from relatively different traditions of thinking about education and mostly don’t even engage directly with each other’s research, they all build upon one another and put each other in a useful new perspective.

All these papers are concerned with education theory but they are also full of practical ideas. I believe that one can read each one of these papers and find in them something about which they will say “You know, I think this is a good idea, I will try to do that.” In fact, I used some of them in creating a little checklist for online course design. I found it easy to map them onto very practical activities and tools.

In the list below, I provide a very brief summary of why I think the paper is worth reading and provide some alternatives or elaborations. But one thing they all have in common is that they summarise previous work and provide ample references for further reading. Where I could find them, I also point to related YouTube videos or blog posts.

I also created a list of “5 books on knowledge and expertise” that may provide relevant readings.

1. Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education.

Redmond, P. et al. (2018). An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education’. Online Learning, 22(1). doi: 10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175.

This is a good place to start because it summarises the literature on student experiences of online learning and builds a useful framework for thinking about it through 5 modes of engagement: 1. Cognitive, 2. Behavioural, 3. Collaborative, 4. Emotional, 5. Social. These are not mutually exclusive or always clearly delineated but it is easy to see how we often focus on some to the exclusion of others.

This paper was also summarised with some practical tips in a recent blogpost on the ALT Blog by Gabi Witthaus. Recording of a webinar with the paper authors is also available.

An alternative view of engagement that is complementary can be found in Tanis (2020) who draws on the famous ‘Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education’ by Chickering and Gamson (1987) and shows how they are seen by students and faculty in an online course.

2. Cognitive engagement and ICAP Framework.

Chi, M. T. H. and Wylie, R. (2014) The ICAP Framework: Linking Cognitive Engagement to Active Learning Outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49(4), pp. 219–243. doi: 10.1080/00461520.2014.965823.

I think of the lessons of this paper as best summarized by “There is no learning without engagement but there is engagement without learning”. It takes the ‘cognitive’ mode of engagement mentioned in Redmond et al. and drills down into what kinds of engagement make for learning. Its central theses is that the four kinds of engagement Passive, Active, Constructive and Interactive build on each other and progressively lead to more learning expressed by the formula I > C > A > P.

The greatest strength of this paper is that it is supremely practical and brings together decades of research on learning in a way that makes good sense. It can be used to design classroom activities, the entire curriculum but it also is a great framework for interpreting results of research. It can also be used as a way of interpreting student behaviour in and and out of the classroom.

The follow up paper Chi and Menekse (2015) which looks more deeply at effective student interactions is also well worth reading.

A complementary view from Fiorella and Mayer (2016) provides more examples of engagement activities that lead to learning.

Michelene Chi talks about the framework in a public lecture and Richard Mayer talks about his cognitive learning framework related to multimedia learning in this presentation.

3. Feedback, formative assessment, and distance education

Gibbs, G. and Simpson, C. (2005). Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1(1), pp. 3–31.

Gibbs and Simpson provide another perspective on the need for active engagement with the content of teaching by the students. They identify 10 conditions under which feedback can be effective based on a survey of research into feedback and formative assessment. Their main message is that feedback can only be effective if it is relevant to student improvement. This will be seen as even more important in Ericsson et al. (1993) the fifth paper on the list which sees actioned feedback as the main characteristic of deliberate practice.

Graham Gibbs expressed this message most starkly in a lecture on this topic with the slogan: “Feedback doesn’t work because the teachers give it, it works because something goes on in the students’ head.” (min 20:26). Surely, this could be said about instruction in general. (For a quick look, slides from the talk are available.)

4. Peer instruction

Crouch, C. H. and Mazur, E. (2001). Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics. American Association of Physics Teachers, 69(9), pp. 970–977. doi: 10.1119/1.1374249.

Taking the theme of interaction and engagement even further is this paper on peer instruction based on Eric Mazur’s famous work at Harvard. Crouch and Mazur summarise the key outcomes of research into this technique that relies on peer explanations to promote understanding. Astute and non-astute readers alike will note that sections of this paper basically describe the flipped classroom before video. There is also a clear parallel to peer instruction in the famous ‘hole in the wall’ experiments summarised in Mitra and Dangwall (2010).

Going further, Balta et al. (2017) conduct a meta analysis of research in Peer Instruction and find the positive effects can also be moderated by cultural differences. As a complement to this, Nokes-Malach (2015) provide a more uptodate summary of research on student collaboration and provide a framework for thinking about when it does and does not work.

Eric Mazur talks about Peer Instruction in this lecture and examples of what this looks like are shown in a video from Harvard. Sugata Mitra describes his experiments in a famous TED Talk and talks about it in more detail in this lecture on the Future of Learning.

5. Deliberate practice

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T. and Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), pp. 363–406.

Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice (made famous by Gladwell’s 10,000 hours) does not often get mentioned in the context of education. And reading this paper, you could be forgiven for questioning its relevance. It spends most of its time talking about exceptional expert performance being the result of years of training. It also looks at examples from sports, musical performance and typing rather than doing well on a history exam. But the framework for thinking about practice as developing mental representations through a focused effort supported by feedback is very much complementary to the four previous papers. It rethinks the role of the teacher as a coach which is also very relevant but ultimately, it places emphasis on learner effort, which puts it directly in line with all the other papers on this list.

Ericsson (who sadly died earlier this year) also described the framework in more detail in the popular book Peak (Ericsson and Pool 2016).

There is a video of an interview with Ericsson that ranges over some of these subjects and a 7 minute video summary of Peak that highlights the key points.

6. Rhizomatic education and connectivism

Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 4(5). Available at: https://www.learntechlib.org/p/104239/ (Accessed: 20 June 2020).

This paper is the most theoretical of the 6 and has the least in it that is practical. It is programmatic and speculative. But I think it opens up an interesting question about the nature of knowledge that the other papers left mostly alone. It’s contribution is it the central metaphor of contrasting a view of knowledge as a tree, orderly, mathematizable, with clear roots and knowledge as a rhizome, distributed, interconnected, ever-changing and even anarchic. While the other papers mostly stayed within the bounds of traditional education with something added, this one imagines possibilities of rethinking the structures which we take for granted.

This key note lecture by Cormier is a very good complement to the paper. Dave Cormier also blogs about his work and teaching and his book in progress on the subject is publicly available. What’s more, to see this in practice, the skeleton of the the course on rhizomatic learning conducted in a rhizomatic fashion (#rhizo14) is available on P2PU.

It is useful to contrast Cormier’s vision with things that can happen when it is put into practice. Mackness et al. (2016) describe the experiences of students who took part in #rhizo14. Many of the lessons they outline apply even to traditional courses.

An alternative formulation of Rhizomatic learning has been put forward under the heading of “connectivism” (sometimes heard when people mention connectivist MOOCs (or c-MOOCs) which were the original MOOCs run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Siemens and Conole (2011) are a good overview of the approach.

List of videos

Pro tip: You can listen to these videos as podcasts on your favourite podcast player via the free service Huffduffer. I’ve already Huffduffed some of them on my channel.

AERA 2017: Distinguished Contributions to Research in Ed Award (2016) Address: Micki Chi (2017). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-y9wFA0gj0&t=138s (Accessed: 21 June 2020).

Dave Cormier. The rhizomatic lense – ICERI2015 Keynote Speech (2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROkbPHyb1D0&t=1s (Accessed: 21 June 2020).

Designing Multimedia Instruction to Maximize Learning – Dr. Richard E. Mayer Lecture (no date). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5i3f9E53Og (Accessed: 21 June 2020).

Embracing Uncertainty – Rhizomatic learning (2012). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJIWyiLyBpQ (Accessed: 21 June 2020).

Eric Mazur, Harvard University. Peer Instruction (2014). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UJRNRdgyvE (Accessed: 21 June 2020).

Eric Mazur shows interactive teaching (2012). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wont2v_LZ1E (Accessed: 22 June 2020).

How to Master Anything: PEAK by Anders Ericsson | Core Message (2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoUHlZP094Q&t=5s (Accessed: 21 June 2020).

‘Improving student learning through assessment and feedback in the new…’ (2012). Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/city-ldc/improving-student-learning-through-assessment-and-feedback-in-the-new-higher-education-landscape (Accessed: 21 June 2020).

New experiments in self-teaching | Sugata Mitra (no date). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk60sYrU2RU (Accessed: 22 June 2020).

Online learning beyond the technology: Reconceptualising online engagement | Association for Learning Technology (2020). Available at: https://www.alt.ac.uk/civicrm/event/info?reset=1&id=507 (Accessed: 22 June 2020).

Professor Graham Gibbs at the Learning @ City Conference 2012 (2012). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbzMTXRBcQk (Accessed: 21 June 2020).

Skill Mastery & Peak Performance via Deliberate Practice with Psychologist Anders Ericsson (no date). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiBne5EGBQ8 (Accessed: 21 June 2020).

Sugata Mitra: The Future of Learning (2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-e9WRMWcdI (Accessed: 22 June 2020).


Balta, N., Michinov, N., Balyimez, S., & Ayaz, M. F. (2017). A meta-analysis of the effect of Peer Instruction on learning gain: Identification of informational and cultural moderators. International Journal of Educational Research86, 66-77. doi: 10.1016/j.ijer.2017.08.009

Chi, M. T. H. and Menekse, M. (2015). Dialogue Patterns in Peer Collaboration That Promote Learning’, in Resnick, L. B., Asterhan, C. S. C., and Clarke, S. N. (eds) Socializing Intelligence Through Academic Talk and Dialogue. American Educational Research Association, pp. 263–274. doi: 10.3102/978-0-935302-43-1_21.

Chi, M. T. H. and Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP Framework: Linking Cognitive Engagement to Active Learning Outcomes’, Educational Psychologist, 49(4), pp. 219–243. doi: 10.1080/00461520.2014.965823.

Chickering, A. W. and Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin. Available at: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED282491 (Accessed: 8 June 2020).

Cormier, D. (2008) ‘Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum’, Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 4(5). Available at: https://www.learntechlib.org/p/104239/ (Accessed: 20 June 2020).

Crouch, C. H. and Mazur, E. (2001). Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics. American Association of Physics Teachers, 69(9), pp. 970–977. doi: 10.1119/1.1374249.

Ericsson, A. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. London: The Bodley Head.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T. and Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), pp. 363–406.

Fiorella, L. and Mayer, R. E. (2016). Eight Ways to Promote Generative Learning’. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), pp. 717–741. doi: 10.1007/s10648-015-9348-9.

Gibbs, G. and Simpson, C. (2005). Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1(1), pp. 3–31.

Hay, D., Kinchin, I. and Lygo‐Baker, S. (2008). Making learning visible: the role of concept mapping in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 33(3), pp. 295–311. doi: 10.1080/03075070802049251.

Mackness, J., Bell, F. and Funes, M. (2016). The rhizome: A problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32(1). doi: 10.14742/ajet.2486.

Mitra, S. and Dangwal, R. (2010). Limits to self-organising systems of learning—the Kalikuppam experiment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(5), pp. 672–688. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01077.x.

Nokes-Malach, T. J., Richey, J. E. and Gadgil, S. (2015). When Is It Better to Learn Together? Insights from Research on Collaborative Learning. Educational Psychology Review, 27(4), pp. 645–656. doi: 10.1007/s10648-015-9312-8.

Patchan, M. M., Schunn, C. D. and Correnti, R. J. (2016). The nature of feedback: How peer feedback features affect students’ implementation rate and quality of revisions’. Journal of Educational Psychology. 108(8), pp. 1098–1120. doi: 10.1037/edu0000103.

Redmond, P. et al. (2018). An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education. Online Learning, 22(1). doi: 10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175.

Siemens, G. and Conole, G. (2011). Connectivism: Design and delivery of social networked learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3).

Tanis, C. J. (2020). The seven principles of online learning: Feedback from faculty and alumni on its importance for teaching and learning. Research in Learning Technology, 28. doi: 10.25304/rlt.v28.2319.

Categories: #ALTC Blog, ALT

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

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