Things 3 - Working better online: tools to enhance collaboration and productivity


Teresa Phipps, Swansea University

After the upheaval and restrictions of the last two years, we are all used to working and meeting online. It’s likely that for many individuals and organisations, online working will remain in some form, with hybrid working becoming more normal even when we aren’t restricted as a result of the pandemic.


But now we are all familiar with the basics, it’s worth exploring some of the many online tools that can take your online working – whether with colleagues, peers, supervisors or students - to the next level. By using different interactive collaborative tools, you can increase the effectiveness of your meetings, allow everyone to share their ideas, and keep people engaged – and perhaps even make meetings enjoyable! You can also use these tools on your own to plan your work or projects or brainstorm ideas. As well as allowing collaboration, the fact that everything is stored online means you will never lose your notes or need to search through a notebook again.

In this Thing, we’ll explore some common online tools with some suggestions of how and when you might use them. You can use all of these platforms in connection with online meeting software such as Zoom or Teams to collaborate in real time, or as standalone tools to use outside of meetings. I’ve experimented with various platforms over the past few years so will be sharing has worked well for me so far. I’d also be really happy to hear of any alternative suggestions or platforms that aren’t covered here as I’m always keen to learn more!



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Why use online collaboration tools or platforms:

● Give your meetings focus and purpose – you can use different tools like an agenda and as a way to make sure you focus on key issues or questions

● Allow everyone to contribute – including those who might be less confident to speak up or have disruptions in the background

● Ensures that people are engaged and keep your meetings interesting by giving people a task to do

● Helps to deal with dominant speakers or the awkwardness of people talking over each other online

● Creates a record of the discussion and allows the group to easily read others’ ideas

● An easy way to store your ideas remotely – and people can refer back to them at a later point or continue adding ideas outside of a ‘live’ meeting


When might using online collaboration tools be useful?

● Team/group meetings

● Event or project planning – e.g. planning a conference

● Collaborating on a presentation or publication

● Brainstorming research ideas (on your own or with others)

● Conferences or workshops where you want to interact with the audience through questions or tasks


Many of these tools and ideas are also relevant for online teaching or training as a means to allow students to collaborate and share their ideas, as well as keeping them engaged. I find that mixing things up and using different platforms to engage with students/participants can really help to keep people focussed.


Three platforms to get started with…

Google Jamboard

Part of the Google suite, this allows you to create virtual whiteboards to which ‘sticky notes’ or text can be added to share or collate ideas. By sharing with others and allowing editing permissions, you can collaborate on one Jamboard, either ‘live’ during a meeting or in your own time. Sticky notes can be moved and colour coded to organise ideas into themes or categories. Jamboard doesn’t have as many design options as other platforms, but this means that it’s quick to set up and intuitive to use, allowing you to focus on ideas over design.

How can you use it? Jamboard is great for when you want people to share ideas quickly and in real time. Here’s an example of how I’ve used a Jamboard in a training session to share ideas on good teaching.


Padlet

Padlet allows you to create virtual ‘bulletin boards’ or walls which can be used collaboratively (or on your own) to collate ideas, resources and links. It works in a similar way to Google Jamboard but offers a wider range of layouts and designs that can be used to structure your ideas. As well as the standard ‘wall’, you can arrange content in a top to bottom ‘stream’, in rows (a grid) or columns (a shelf) as well as maps or timelines to allow you to illustrate geographical or chronological insights. You can also add backgrounds, images and customise fonts. This makes Padlet a good option for both ‘live’ collaboration and for creating resources that you might want to share with others. You can change the permissions so that others can edit your Padlet (if you want to collaborate) or just view it.

How can you use it? The flexibility and customisation that Padlet offers means you can use it for anything, from a group brainstorm to creating extensive teaching resources. I’ve used it in project planning meetings to focus the discussion under key areas, and have asked people to continue adding their ideas after a meeting too, so it becomes a longer-term resource bank. View a wide range of example Padlets here.


Slido/Menti/Kahoot (and other online quiz/polling platforms)

There are a large number of similar platforms that allow you to run quizzes or polls with a group or audience. These can be a good way of boosting engagement as they require participants to be actively involved, for example by answering multiple choice questions or by typing their answers. Participants can take part using a mobile phone or tablet (by scanning a QR code that you show on the screen) and this change in format can also help with engagement, especially if people have spent a considerable period of time looking a computer screen. You can use a traditional quiz style to gauge knowledge on a topic, or you can use formats such as a word cloud to gather ideas or feelings relating to a particular issue. Each platform has slightly different rules about what you can do using a free account (how many polls or quizzes you can make, or how many people you can share them with), so it’s worth exploring these to see what might work best for you. So far, I’ve found Slido to allow the most flexibility with a free account and haven’t needed to pay for any upgrades despite using it regularly.

How can you use it? In discussions about public engagement, I’ve used the word cloud feature to invite people to collate as many different ‘public’ audiences as they can. I’ve also used it to create a quiz about the rules relating to postgraduate supervision within the university – more interesting than simply listing these rules, and there’s scope for people to ask questions relating to each answer. Slido have also collated 10 ideas for interacting in small meetings.



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Other platforms

Trello: for project management and team working, with lots of options for creating to-do lists, tracking tasks, deadlines and calendars, either for individual or team projects.

Slack: for instant messaging between teams or groups, as well as one-to-one messages. Messaging can be organised under different channels and you can also share files and call your contacts.

Google: share and edit files across a team in Google Docs, Sheets or Slides, with changes saving automatically. Set up a shared Google Drive folder and use it to store files that you want others to view or collaborate on and say goodbye to email attachments!


Accounts, subscriptions and payments: some things to consider

All the tools in the Google suite are free to use and don’t need institutional access, just a free Google account. Most other platforms require an account and only allow limited free usage, or offer monthly/annual subscriptions to access more features or unlimited use. It’s worth experimenting with a few different platforms before deciding if you want to pay for any enhanced memberships. If you are affiliated to a university or institution, you can also check whether you have any institutional memberships before creating an account of your own.

If you are collaborating across a team and want to regularly use online platforms to aid your work, you will probably want to avoid using multiple different platforms for different purposes. You might want to choose a platform that can fulfil multiple functions or has plug-ins for other applications you are already using. This will help you to avoid having multiple accounts for different purposes. You may need to spend a bit of time discussing how you want to work together across your team/group, but this should pay off in the long run in increased efficiency and easy sharing of ideas.


Next steps: collaborating in practice

Within your pod, arrange a time and date for your next meeting. Ahead of the meeting, have a go at using one of the platforms discussed above (or another one you might have come across) to interact with other pod members. This could be as part of a ‘live’ discussion or something you circulate in advance of the meeting (or both!). Some ideas to get you started:

● A Jamboard to share your key research questions (in terms that everyone will be able to understand) so you can understand more about each other’s specialism

● A Jamboard where you share your highlight or little win of the week to serve as a conversation starter

● A Padlet with where everyone can share why they have signed up for 23 Things, what they are hoping to gain or what they are looking forward to. You could use a column for each of these questions.

● A Slido quiz on any topic to break the ice!

Let us know how you get on, and if you have any other favourite platforms that you use in your work.



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