Supporting the values of student-staff partnerships through technology

Reflections on the tools used to support the Micro-sprint process in a student-staff partnership project

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash

In May 2020, the i3HS Hub launched a new, open-access course called Antibiotics and You: An introduction to antibiotic resistant infections. This was the first project that used an approach called Micro-sprints in a co-created curriculum project that aligned the values and principles of student-staff partnerships with those of an agile framework. You can read more about that in a recently published paper that explores how the agile approach can help address imbalances of power between students and staff in higher education. The results show that the approach ‘increased confidence in co-creating teaching and learning and fostered a positive team relationship, although some reflections indicate that assumptions of power are deeply embedded within the structures and roles of higher education’.

Technology has been a key role in supporting the Micro-sprint approach and promoting the values of partnerships to facilitate a productive and transparent team working environment. You can read more about the role of technology to support the approach in this blog post. In this project, we used five cloud-based tools to support the Micro-sprint process, each tool with a specific purpose in the project. Here is a list of the tools we used and how they relate to the Micro-sprint model:

Micro-sprint model

Capture

1. Airtable — Airtable is a spreadsheet-database hybrid. This was used to capture the outputs of the learning design process (we used the ABC Learning Design framework in this project)

Coordinate

2. Trello — a project management tool for teams

3. Zapier — an integration and automation tool used to move data from Airtable to Trello

Collaborate

4. Google Drive — a collaboration tool for the team

Communicate

5. Slack — a communication tool for the team

We chose these tools because of their cost (tools 1, 2, 3 and 5 operate on a freemium model, 4 is free), their familiarity, their interoperability (all 5 tools have sophisticated integration and automation features), their flexibility (all 5 tools are cloud-based and do not require downloads) and necessity (Office 365 was not available in our institution at the time of the project).

In this blog post, we assess the strengths and weaknesses of the technology used in this approach through staff and student reflections captured during the project at the end of each Micro-sprint, with the aim of further improving the process. We look at how this could be applied in broader teaching and learning contexts and how we have further refined and adapted the process based on this feedback.

Strengths and weaknesses

The reflections captured during the project indicate that the team valued the tools, most notably Trello and Slack, for project transparency, accountability and inclusivity:

The use of Trello and Slack made it easy for people to keep track of the project and jump in and out. It also allowed individuals to work remotely if unable to attend sessions.

The team found that the tools helped them to ‘keep organised’ and ‘on top of things’. This was extremely important for this extra-curricular project as the students in the team were volunteering their time. The tools enabled team productivity inside and outside the sessions with a clear overview of the whole course as well as individual tasks.

The use of Trello and Slack helped us to understand what tasks needed to be completed in each session so that we were able to work together to complete the tasks.

The tools were set up so that the team all had the same roles and permissions, which was one of the biggest advantages of using third-party tools. Tools supplied centrally by universities often have predetermined staff and student roles that can present a barrier to innovation in teaching and learning practices, especially when the solutions presented are technology-led rather than pedagogically driven (Kirkwood, 2014). The removal of roles and permissions supports the agile principle of self-organising teams, flattens hierarchies and helps challenge assumptions of power in student-staff relationships (Owen and Wasiuk, 2021) and helps foster inclusive learning communities (Healey and Healey, 2019).

However, there were some challenges to this approach. Firstly, the team needed to get used to several new tools in a short amount of time. This required signing up for new accounts, setting them up on their laptops (bookmarking or downloading the desktop app) and becoming familiar with the tools. Although all tools were cloud-based, the desktop versions often provided more functionality.

Most of the team were able to use the tools, however, sometimes they were not using them effectively for teamwork. For example, some students were uploading Word documents to Google Drive when they could have created a Google Doc or converted their Word documents to Google Docs.

During the development stage, we had issues because some members of the team didn’t know how to use Google Drive, which caused some problems when it came to building the resources.

This made collaboration harder than it should have been. We addressed this for the next project by dedicating more time to a hands-on induction to the tools. Additionally, we have introduced more automation and integration between the tools to support the workflow. For example, automatically creating a draft Google Doc for each task captured in Airtable so there is less room for manual error. These digital challenges support the findings of the Student Digital Experience Insights Survey (Jisc, 2020), which suggest that students who have grown up in the digital era don’t often have the opportunity to engage in active and collaborative digital learning practices.

Secondly, we would have preferred a more open and self-organised team approach to select the project tools. Unfortunately, this wasn’t possible due to project time constraints, therefore we needed to use the staff expertise within the team to select the tools. Adopting a team-based approach to determining the tools would have been more inclusive and perhaps resulted in students choosing tools they were already familiar with. This would have required less setup and induction with the potential for greater innovation but may have resulted in a different project outcome where a different set of tools might not produce the same efficiencies and benefits. The tool selection is therefore a fine balance between the experience of staff in the team with the values and ethos of partnerships.

Application for teaching and learning

This approach to using a range of cloud-based tools has the potential to make student-staff partnership projects more inclusive. It presents an opportunity for a wider range of students to be involved in partnership projects as it supports synchronous and asynchronous working, either in an online, face-to-face or hybrid context. Removing time and location barriers to participation incorporates a wider diversity of experiences and voices in student-staff partnerships and increases representation in the broader student body. This approach can also adapt quickly to future global disruptions caused by the pandemic so that projects can move quickly online if students and staff cannot meet face-to-face.

Since Covid-19 we have witnessed a paradigm shift in the way we connect and communicate online — a trend that is unlikely to be reversed once the pandemic ends. This way of working can help develop student and staff digital skills and confidence, as well as enhance student employability by providing practical experience of digital tools and modern project methodologies.

Conclusion and further developments

The tools used in this project played a key role in increasing team productivity and project transparency. The technology effectively supported the Micro-sprint process to ensure a successful outcome of a student-staff partnership project. The approach has already been adopted more widely within the institution to support student-staff projects and we have provided support and guidance in its implementation, demonstrating the value in this approach for partnership work.

However, as identified, there is room to simplify the approach using fewer tools and providing more practical support in their use for further improvements in subsequent projects. Since this project, we have simplified the process using Airtable (replacing Airtable, Zapier and Trello). You can access the resources here. Google Drive and Slack can also effectively be replaced by Teams, therefore reducing 5 tools down to 2.

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Exploring how student partnership practice can be embedded in higher education

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Catherine Wasiuk

Catherine Wasiuk

Freelance Digital Learning Designer

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