Using technology to write and publish a master’s dissertation

Last month, I found out I’d passed the final dissertation part of the MSc I’d been studying for at Sheffield Hallam University: Technology Enhanced Learning Innovation and Change.

What I learnt between 2009 and now can wait for another blog post (or two), but given my role at Netskills it makes sense to talk about how I used technology to help put my dissertation together.

If you’re interested, I’ve made my dissertation available online under a creative commons license.

This isn’t an exhaustive account. I used many more tools but these are the ones that I really relied upon.


Screengrab of the dissertation

Dissertation homepage

Our tutors encouraged us to consider something more innovative than producing our dissertations as PDF documents. I wanted to make mine openly available on the web, in a format that was right for the medium and might actually be read. One of the course alumni had submitted their’s as a Google Site back in 2011 but I saw this as an opportunity to finally get to grips with WordPress (after sitting in on Steve’s workshop a number of times).

I bought my own domain and web space (with Vidahost) for the first time as I wanted to have more control over finished article and had been stung previously (see Posterous below). I chose the Responsive theme as I wanted an attractive landing page and the look and feel was about right. I didn’t monkey around with the CSS so it still looks fairly vanilla.

The challenge was presenting it a way that made it reasonably easy for a reader to navigate. I used nested pages to create drop down menus, which is great for dropping in and out of sections.

However, it was being assessed as a whole document so it needed to flow as a linear document as well. The bundled “call to action” button on the home page became a “start here” point which jumps to the start of the introduction pages and I went through a very time-consuming process of creating “next” and “previous” links on each page. It’s a compromise but works OK.

It took time to put together but I like the finished article. More importantly, so did my tutor, who said that he “… felt that the mode of presentation makes it a model of its kind.”

Chuffed at that.


Posterous was the casualty that had to be abandoned on the field of battle.

Posterous, missing in action

Posterous: missing in action

Sheffield Hallam uses Blackboard and we were given blog space to post our reflections, but I really didn’t want to use it. The blogs are behind the institutional barricade and a pain to use. I wanted to be more open, inviting comments on my progress posts from people beyond the course.

I chose Posterous as this was what I was using for my other blogs. It had been nice and simple to manage and easy to read.

Sadly but inevitably, following Posterous’s buyout by Twitter, it was closed before I got to the end of the dissertation. Thankfully, it happened just at the point where I was setting up my WordPress site, so exporting the data over to that was a breeze.

It brought home to me the importance of why I didn’t want to rely too heavily on third parties for hosting the dissertation (hence why not or Google)


I have the memory of gold fish and the filing system of a…erm…howler monkey?! They’re not known for their filing.

Keeping track of the dozens of papers and books I was reading (honestly!) was always going to be a problem. I’d started using Evernote, but it’s not really set up for this sort of thing.

I can’t remember where I heard about Mendeley, but it became my new best friend for the duration of the dissertation. Just about all of the literature I read was from online journals so I could use Mendeley to store the PDF’s I’d downloaded and tag them up so it was easy keep track of the references. It’s cloud-based, accessible via the web, desktop client and mobile app.

Not to be underestimated is the time-saving function of being able to cut and paste the citation straight into my references page. I reckon this saved me over two hours work.

Mendeley screengrab



Using Dropbox was a no-brainer. The thought of losing my master document (especially as it neared it’s final word count of a word-limit-ignoring 20,000) filled me with utter dread. I’m a slow writer so I didn’t want to be in a position of having to rebuild whole sections of the dissertation following a hard disc meltdown.

Dropbox made peace of mind as easy as ctrl+S. Having the document on the cloud also meant that I wasn’t reliant on memory sticks and email attachments to work on different machines.

Adobe Premiere Elements

I did plan to pepper the whole dissertation with digital media to illustrate uses of digital storytelling and to capture personal reflection but, in the end, lack of time meant I had to scale that ambition back a bit.

I created two pieces specifically for the dissertation, a video abstract and a reflective digital story. It made sense to demonstrate some of the techniques I was talking about. Here’s the video abstract:

It’s partly out of habit, but I use Adobe tools for media work. I’m lucky enough to have CS6 Production Premium in the office but use the budget Elements packages for Premiere (video) and Photoshop (images) at home.

For the types of video I created, the Elements software allows me to do pretty much what the pro level software does except for a few aspects of workflow. It’s my recommendation for anyone wanting to do digital storytelling seriously, at least on a PC.

I did consider doing the whole dissertation as a series of interlinked pieces of media, but in the end I chickened out and went for something less risky.

And my arch enemies…

I mentioned Blackboard but this was a pretty benign presence throughout. Pure evil came in the form of Dawsonera’s ebook viewer! If there’s a way to design a service that is so completely geared towards the needs of a publisher that the reader’s needs feel like an afterthought, Dawsonera’s discovered it. I found it unwieldy, inflexible and worse, it made reading difficult. This was a shame as some of my key texts were only available online.

A final shake of the fist goes to Temple Run 2 at which I have excelled at the expense of scholarly quality. I’m blaming that for all the dissertation’s shortcomings.

Temple Run

Damn you, Temple Run!