The importance of listening – building the community around our CPD tool

BCE CPD tool pilot workshop

In late 2012, we launched a major national resource for Business and Community Engagement (BCE) professionals. Just over a year later and we’ve just rolled out version 2 with user-feedback based improvements and are witnessing a fantastic response in the BCE community.

What’s exciting about the resource that it’s the first of its kind – a professional development diagnostic tool encompassing all the various roles that fall under BCE.

Extensive national collaboration

The lead-up to the launch was hectic. Producing a new, nationally agreed framework had us collaborating with a huge number of stakeholders and BCE professionals across the UK.

We were also busy designing and building the self-assessment tool which lets users to map their skills against the national framework and find resources based on their individual results to help on their professional development journey.

But the work didn’t stop there. In the past two years, we’ve kept ourselves busy making sure the tool is a success and have been working to improve it even further.

New features benefit appraisals process

Throughout 2013, we travelled around the UK running a series of workshops to promote the tool and to listen to feedback from the people working in various BCE roles – the real users of the tool.

BCE CPD tool pilot workshops

The message that came out loud and clear was the desire to keep a history of the diagnosis results to track personal development and to act as an aid in the appraisal process.

Once we were back in the office, work began on enhancing the tool to incorporate this new feature together with other improvements such as enhanced security, an easier registration process and the ability to print out your diagnosis results.

Enhancing the development resource bank

We launched version 2 of the tool in December 2013 to an extremely positive response. Both user registrations and visitor numbers have increased by around a quarter during the short period since we launched.

We’re also continuing to see BCE staff realise the benefit of the tool both individually and in their teams.

Following a demonstration of the tool in Manchester during December, an entire BCE team are now using the tool and will be sharing their experiences with colleagues across the North West of England next month.

We’re extremely pleased with the response to the enhancements we’ve made but won’t stop there. Work is already underway to encourage suppliers of training and professional development resources to include their products on the site, and we’ll continue to promote the tool to BCE staff across the UK.

Sprechen sie mobile? Language learning with Duolingo

Duolingo logo

The Duolingo Owl

Lunch times at Netskills took on a slightly more cosmoplitan flavour last week. We’d collectively stumbled across Duolingo, a novel language-learning app, so conversations were peppered with people randomly blurting out sentences in various European languages followed by a confirmatory “ding!”.

I chose to learn German, mostly because I think it’s a fascinating language that sounds really beautiful (despite what many people would say about it!). Also, my experience of learning it at school wasn’t great (or effective) so I felt I had something to put right.

I’d overindulged on Clumsy Ninja over the Christmas break. I had slogged my way to the end of the game and was astonished at my capacity to waste so much time and had very little of value to show for it. It had stopped being fun round about level 25 so by level 53 I was mindlessly going through the motions.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was something that harnessed that bizarre willingness to compulsively work through repetitive tasks for small rewards but actually meant you got something useful out of it at the end?

Well, step forward Duolingo.

“Comment ça marche?”

Rather than use the model of tutorial-test-tutorial test, Duolingo just throws you in at the deep end with a series of translation, speaking and listening tasks (it does give hints to help you out). It starts easy and gets progressively harder; simple game design technique. For every task you complete you are awarded experience points and “lingots”, rewards that can be traded in to customise your in-game coach’s appearance.

More complicated levels are “unlocked” as your experience grows.

As you’d expect, it’s easy to make progress early on but you need to put more effort in as the game moves on.

Screengrab from Duolingo 1 Screengrab from Duolingo 2

As a piece of learning design it’s deceptively simple but also very clever. There’s a lot that people who are creating their own elearning could emulate as part of their instructional design. It also uses the affordances of mobile technology really well. You can access everything via a useful desktop site which also has more background information and comments threads linked to individual questions, but even with this extra functionality it’s the convenience of the app that is the real hook here.

“Ist es perfekt?”

I certainly know a lot more than I did when I started and it’s great to be able to learn at my own pace and revisit the things I’m not confident with.

But no, “es ist nicht perfekt”, there are frustrations.

Ironically, I’ve found myself wanting to revert back to how I was originally taught languages and check verb tables as I can’t get these to stick regardless of how many times I do the tasks. But that’s because learning languages is tricky, so I shouldn’t complain. Having this information available on the website is probably the best place for it, otherwise the app would end up too cluttered.

More importantly, I’m missing the social interaction. I’m not sure I feel that I’m actually learning a language yet. There’s a big difference between completing these abstract tasks and properly engaging with a language.

It might have helped if all of us doing this at Netskills had chosen the same language to learn!

I have come across some language apps that have a real, live tutor that you can converse with but that’s not going to be feasible for a free app like Duolingo.

Not all learning activities will fit this games-based model. It suits introductory language learning but if you want to understand the language properly then you’re obviously going to have to start reading properly and finding someone to talk to.

Is the gamification of the process motivating me to continue? I’m not sure how much the functionality of the app would spur someone on who isn’t motivated to start with. There is a world of easier distractions out there. On the other hand, I’ve been wanting to rediscover German for years but hadn’t done anything about it till now, so I think there has to be a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation going on. Nothing extraordinary about that, though

As for whether it’s still fun, I’m now on level 7 and have about 700 XP’s to my name and I’m not feeling bored yet. Time will tell if I ever get to the same semi-hypnotised state I had with Clumsy Ninja.




Becoming a storytelling organisation

2 people in conversation at a conference, by Ed Yourdon

Image: Ed Yourdon CC-BY-SA

There’s a temptation to view organisations as machines; a series of inputs with a number of people in a particular structure performing certain tasks to achieves a desired outcome. Anyone who works in an organisation of any size knows that that is much too simplistic. Life at work is messier than that!

I’m interested in how stories might be a way of capturing and communicating some of that vibrant messiness.

Back in November, I got to wear the funny hat and gown and walk across a stage to receive the handshakes of the dean of faculty and Prof Robert Winston for passing my Masters. I’d done my dissertation on digital storytelling in organisations.

I’ve now had over six months to reflect on what I’d written and I’m in a good position to judge whether what I wrote about was something worth doing.

Thankfully, I’m confident the answer is still yes. This is a short video summary of what I did:

Stories are an integral part of any organisation.

Much management activity goes into increasing productivity and reducing risk and unpredictability, especially in the work force; making “the machine” work more effectively. Many strategic and day-to-day decisions are made that rely on an understanding of an organisation that is based on systems thinking.

If you try to look at organisations as a collection of things like structures, roles, mission statements and the balance sheet you are only ever going to get a small part of the picture. Authors like Boje (2008), Gabriel (2000) and Reissner (2010) point out that the real situation is much more complex than that.

Organisations are made up of people who form relationships and make decisions based on how they come to understand the world around them. It’s stories that form the basis of that understanding, helping us to establish meaning about events (Bruner, 2004).

Stories and storytelling play numerous roles in an organisation:

Leadership – stories can be used deliberately as a tool to clearly communicate a vision as a way of motivating people. Nancy Duarte talks about this in her Thinking Digital conference talk from 2011.

Dealing with change – work is a balance between routine and disruption, and disruption is difficult to deal with on a personal as well as a corporate scale. Change affects what we do but also how we see ourselves. We deal with these upheavals by trying to make sense of how they fit into the bigger picture and our own personal narratives. Reissner (2010) writes about how a person’s ability to cope with change comes down to the types of narratives they create about their experiences.

Communication – we’ve been using stories to communicate complicated ideas for a long time now. Stories can play a role in bridging gaps and developing understanding between different groups in an organisation or with the people outside it.

What Netskills is doing

At Netskills we like to “walk the walk” and storytelling is becoming a big part of how we do things here. We’re trying to find new ways to talk effectively about what we do with the outside world and also to better understand ourselves as a team. In addition to the workshops and projects we do around digital storytelling here’s how we’re approaching it:

  • We’ve made storytelling one of our strategic priorities. Change like this has to take place right through an organisation, not just at the personal level. We’ve created a strategic priority around storytelling and digital storytelling so that we can encourage activity in this area and hold ourselves accountable for how well we do with it.
  • Stories in quarterly meetings. We still do the traditional thing in our quarterly reviews of looking at achievement against objectives and how well the finances are doing, but a big chunk of our quarterly meetings is given over to hearing about the experiences of colleagues working on various projects.
  • The Voices blog. Storytelling is about opening up and showing a human face which we hope we’re achieving with this blog. Our vision was to create an “open kitchen” where people could see behind the scenes on the things we were doing and talking about.
  • Developing our skills. There’s a lot of interest around the team about storytelling for teaching and learning, public engagement and personal reflection. Three of us run training sessions and conference presentations on digital storytelling. Two of our colleagues have been through the 3-day Digital Storytelling Masterclass and I hope more will follow. Even if we don’t produce many digital stories, it still helps with learning to communicate in more effective ways.

Much of what we do is about helping others to develop their own practice so it’s really important that we can point to our own experiences, showing that we have confidence in our own ideas.

Real, demonstrable change will happen over the long term but it’s really interesting to see how using storytelling approaches is already changing the way we work together and the support we give to others.


Boje, D. M. (2008). Storytelling organizations. Sage Publications Ltd, London.

Bruner, J. (2004). Life as Narrative, Social Research 71(3), 691–711.

Gabriel, Y. (2000). Storytelling in Organizations: Facts, Figures and Fantasies. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Reissner, S. C. (2010). Change, meaning and identity at the workplace. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 23(3), 287–299.


Merry Christmas

netskills team

We’re about to pack up the office  for the Christmas break but before turning the computers off we wanted to send a quick Merry Christmas into the bitverse.

Looking back on 2013, we’ve had a great year. We’ve done training, attended various conferences and collaborated with interesting people to deliver exciting projects.

We’ve also kept pushing ourselves, developing as individuals and as a team and – perhaps above everything else – had tons of fun.

We are lucky to have such a fantastic team but we’re also lucky to be able to work with equally amazing people across the education community.

So thanks to everyone who’s helped to make 2013 such a success. Here’s looking forward to making 2014 even better!

Beyond workshops – how can we *really* help you?

As Christmas is closing in, this Autumn’s public workshop programme has been wrapped up and we’re all back at the Newcastle HQ. It’s time to round up the troops for reflection.

In the past eight weeks we’ve run workshops on ten different topics – digital storytelling, e-learning, web writing, blogging, screencasting and online facilitation to name a few. We’re been in Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and online and helped over 90 people acquire new skills.

face to face training

But we don’t like to rest on our laurels. The time has now come to adapt our traditional approach to training because of changing demands from our community and the arrival of new technologies.

Changing training landscape

We’ve been training people to use technology in education since the early days of the internet. Ok, not all of us, but even the newest ones of us have seen big changes happen both in the worlds of education and technology during our time at Netskills.

For a long time, a lot of the training was focused on using different software, writing code…  ‘do this and this will happen’ sort of training.

In the past few years, this has changed dramatically. We still do some of that, but even in software training, there is an increasing demand for something more. It’s easy to learn to push the right buttons, but how to use the system/software/approach well? How to make the best of it in your particular context?

Training has become as much about best practice, reflection and supported development as it used to be about which buttons to push.

What did they learn?

The standard length of our workshop (with a few exceptions) is one day. Usually, a nice day, by the end of which everyone seems to have learned or achieved something new.

But from the trainer’s point of view, sometimes one day just isn’t enough.

The best kind of feedback we get is when an attendee gets in touch months or even a year later to say ‘look, this is what we did after your workshop’. Whether it’s selfish or altruistic, we want to know we helped make something real happen. That the attendees got more out of the workshop than just a nice lunch.

So lately, we’ve been doing something a bit different to try to meet the new demands of the changing training landscape and make good use of the new technologies that have become available to us since our early days.

online training

Hybrid approach

Taking the learning one step further, we’re increasingly arranging a short online session after the workshop – to give people a chance to try things out for real and come back with questions and reflections.

Depending on the topic, we’re also there to give feedback if they’ve produced a podcast or written a blog post for example.

We’re also looking at ways of helping teams of people within the same institution more effectively. It’s an alternative to them sending a few people on our public facing workshops and then feeding back to the rest of the team.

Instead, we can work together with the whole team in a more tailored way. Making it a mixture of facilitation and supported development rather than just training. And with an online follow-up, we can help to implement the skills in their real working environment as well.

So far we’re doing this with topics like blogging and digital storytelling but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work with our other workshops as well.

The ‘hybrid’ (f2f/online) approach is also being used on two of our newest workshops as well, Excellence in Online Teaching & Training and Are you an Online Visitor or Resident?.

Fine-tuning your storytelling

Manuscript by Seth Sawyers on Flickr

Manuscript by Seth Sawyers on Flickr CC-BY

Writing stories is difficult. That’s especially true if you’re used to writing in other formats, particularly in the academic world.

I recently went through a process of script development with friend of Netskills Dave White from Oxford Uni and thought the process was worth passing on for people who might be trying to do something similar.

The story Dave was producing was about his perspective on the innovative public engagement work that he and his team had been doing over the last year or so.

The script (take 1)

Here’s Dave’s first draft (click to open the PDF)…

Dave White's Script - 1st draft

Dave said that it felt like an unfamiliar approach to writing for him. He said his natural style for something like this topic would be akin to a blog post. While blog posts can tell brilliant stories, a digital story needs something quite specific. I think that’s something that many people encounter. We’re trained to write in particular ways and writing stories, with their overt reliance on personal experiences can feel very uncomfortable for most people.

Dave said later:

“The main thing for me was that I wasn’t used to talking about my *personal* experience of a project. I went into promoting-project mode.”

I thought it would be useful to explain some of the feedback I gave him that led to his final version. It’s difficult when you’re giving constructive criticism on something this creative and personal but Dave’s a good egg and was very open to it.

The feedback

It’s a good piece of writing. It’s very clear in it’s explanation of the importance of the work Dave’s group had been doing. That’s usually where we suggest people start. Having a clear idea of what your story is about helps with the process of what to put in and, sometimes more importantly, leave out.

What we wanted to help Dave create was something that was very strong in its storytelling. Although there are elements of a story in the first draft they come quite late on when he talks about Pi Day Live and Maths in the City. These were the main pieces of feedback I gave him:

  • The focus should be on something that happened, an event or conversation so I suggested he reorder things so that mention of these comes first. This makes the anecdotal side of the story more prominent.
  • Just deal with one event. The draft mentions 2 projects and the risk is that the story loses impact by trying to do with 2 separate things. It’s much better to pick one.
  • Start by talking about a crucial moment like a point of no return or where there was a sudden moment of realisation. This creates a feeling of tension that hooks the audience and you can resolve later.
  • The story doesn’t have to be told in chronological order. You can start with that crucial moment, use “flashback” to explain what brought you to there and then jump forward to show how it all turned out. Done well it creates quite a rich narrative when doing a simple beginning, middle and end structure doesn’t create enough interest.
  • Include something about the impact of what you did. Stories are about change so it helps if you can point to something that shows what you did made a difference.
  • Nail the first and last sentences. They are the ones that grab the attention, set the tone and then leave the audience with something memorable that resonates after the story has finished. Dave’s done a really interesting trick of using his last line as his title as well which bookends the story and brings it full circle.
  • Talk about people and talk about yourself. People can relate to other people much more than they can to facts, ideas or opinions.
  • It’s OK to talk about how something felt. People expect that in a story bit this can feel very uncomfortable if you’re not used to it in this sort of context.

The story

Here’s the finished article

The video Dave produced is a highly polished bit of media, beyond what many without his skills and resources would be able to create easily but it’s the strong story that’s the basis for it and which could quite happily stand alone without the visual elements. Try just listening to the story without the visual accompaniment.

The other reason I really like the script that Dave arrived at is that it uses a sort of “dip in and out” structure. He spends a bit of time telling the story of something that happened, then explains a bit of context, then back into the story, then a bit more explanation and so on. It’s a good technique for maintaining the audience’s interest.

Compare this video with the first draft draft of the script when you watch it. What else do you notice Dave has changed?

It makes an interesting companion piece to the video Hanna produced for us, describing Netskills’ involvement in the same project. It’s very different in terms of style; more journalistic. Hanna blogged about it a while ago.

So, how would you tell the stories of what you do?

How to make a democratic choice within a team

This Christmas, we’re taking our merry party to Tyneside Cinema – a wonderful local independent screen. We’ve rented their Digital Lounge (which we thought sounded suitably techy/geeky) where they’ll serve us some Christmasy cocktails and screen a film of our choice.

Now, to understand why that caused some concern, you need to know that our team of 17 consists of 17 film lovers and 17 strong-willed individuals.

But as we are a training organisation that helps others with things like institutional change and other fairly substantial challenges, we were confident we would find a way to solve the situation.

After a careful consideration, this is what we did.

Forming the shortlist and voting arrangements

Christmas film voting cards and ballot box.We gave each team member a chance to nominate two films from a list of about 1000. This was optional, you still got to vote if you chose to opt out in the nominating stage.

The nominated films probably tell you everything you need to know about our team if you’re into DIY psychology. The range varied from Airplane to Life of Pi to Son of Rambow to Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

In this stage, we had only a little mutiny with one person insisting of submitting three choices. Due to his high position in the team (and the fact someone else had nominated one of his choices) we let this one go unpunished.

First round, each team member voted for their top three choices which translated into points. Top scoring two films made it to the second round where a simple majority would secure a victory. The first round took place with real ballot cards and a voting station, the second round using Outlook’s voting system.

Post-election refection

While this may sound straightforward, there was careful consideration being put into each decision throughout the process. What was the best number of choices in the voting stage? How many shortlist submissions to give people? What was the right amount of points per each choice?

Having never done anything like this before, we could only hope we got the balance right.

As a team working closely with tech and web tools, we were a bit ashamed not to make more of those in the process. We toyed with the idea of creating a web page for the shortlist with plot blurbs, embedded trailers and IMdb links but, as we do still have a few other things to do within a working day, decided against it.

If you know of any useful tools/applications for this kind of stuff, we’d love to hear your suggestions.

Oh, what film are we watching?

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. Clear top choice in the first round, tight winner in the second round.

Google Glass Guinea Pigs – volunteering as research participants

guniea pig wearing glasses

Usually, when I get a work email with the subject “Exciting opportunity” I expect to feel let down on opening it. Last week however, one arrived that lived up to that billing in offering a chance to participate in a research project involving Google Glass and being paid to eat.

“We are currently looking to recruit 40 participants to test Google Glass as a means to record the food people eat. To participate you will need to wear Google Glass while eating a meal that we have prepared on four separate days. If you are interested in participating, and to get four free meals and £20 as a reward, we would really appreciate your help.”

As an ex-researcher, I felt it was my duty to help out (nothing to do with the other incentives, obviously), so immediately went to sign up. When I did, I found just one other name already on the list – my colleague Chris Thomson 🙂

So, over the next few weeks we’ll be dining on four classic dishes while wearing glass:

  • Baked beans and toast with scrambled eggs
  • Chips with fish fingers and peas
  • Vegetable soup with bread
  • Spaghetti Bolognese with grated cheese

The meals will be served, rather fittingly, in the university’s “ambient kitchen.”

That’s about all we know so far. We didn’t need much persuasion to sign up to try tech that we otherwise might have to wait a long time to get hold of. We’ll report back on our experiences with Glass, as well as the research, in a later post.

I still have a lingering doubt that we might have inadvertently volunteered to be part of an art installation or reality TV show. So I’m off to practice eating. Just in case!

Photo credit: “Guinea Pig Glasses” by RubenWardy (CC BY-NC-SA)

Helping Newcastle University become more digitally literate

Today, everyone in the office seems to have a digital hangover. We’re recovering from an exceptionally busy day yesterday at the Newcastle University event “Go Digital – Thriving in a Digital World” which was all about showcasing the breadth of the digital stuff people do across campus, sharing ideas and inspiring each other.

It was a great event to be part of. There was some really innovative research presented by the Digital Institute around using technology as a tool for social inclusion, as well as work in health, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and putting “big data” into actual use.

We were there to help bridge the gap between that kind of cutting-edge research and the day-to-day practice of staff, which is basically our job. Chris, Hanna, Will and myself gave two presentations each on augmented reality, digital storytelling, academic blogging, better e-learning and taking “awesome” photos (guess who did each of those?) These sessions were the ideal format for us – think intimate gig, rather than keynote – and gave us chance to get lots of audience interaction. Lisa also, rather brilliantly at an IT event, did a talk about cake. That is, how she used social media to support the activities of the “Clandestine Cake Club.”

We also ran a stand, which can sometimes be a pretty dull experience. However, my pride at standing in front of displays showing the digital stories and training videos we’ve made recently made me unusually keen to grab passers by and tell them how we could help them with this kind of thing.

As an aside on the stand, I now suspect Chris Young fancies being a roadie. He was a keen volunteer to set it up and looked very happy surrounded by wires, screens and speakers. I’m thinking of donating the mini-Marshall amp I have on my desk as a Secret Santa gift this year.

What also stood out for me about this event was that it was a team effort. Some of us are frequent conference goers, but we’re usually away on our own. So it was a nice experience to have all of us there working together. And to catch up with some ex-Netskills people who’ve moved on to work elsewhere in the university, but are still closely connected to us digitally.

As always, Hanna was busy taking photos, some of which you can see below. I’ve edited out the ones in which I’m pulling daft faces in front of my slides (which was about 95% of those I featured in.)

Project to be proud of

Quick start guides for online diagnostic toolWorking with educational institutions, we’ve seen how difficult it can be to make real change happen.

So helping colleagues with a project that has achieved that on a large scale has been quite exciting.

Within Netskills, we host a small dedicated sub-team that works with Business and Community Engagement (BCE). They help universities and colleges do more with external businesses and the communities they are part of (the clue’s in the name really!).

New national framework

One of their biggest projects recently has been around Continuous Professional Development (CPD). The BCE team has co-led a project that has created the first ever national development framework for external engagement which covers all the different job roles within the education community that have a BCE aspect in them.

Helping out with comms and publicity materials, I’ve had a prime position to observe the good work. It’s not every day we get to be involved in a project that brings together nearly a hundred national stakeholders to create a pioneering national framework.

And that’s not all.

With the help from the Netskills team (Ant and Carl in particular in this case) the BCE team also developed an online tool making most of the framework instead of leaving it to gather dust.

It’s free to use and it has a cool self-assessment feature that people can use to identify what professional development they need in their specific role and identify relevant resources to improve their skills.

Netskills’ skills in action

The framework and tool were launched a year ago, but the work didn’t stop there. The BCE team have kept themselves busy with showcase workshops around the country, helping users to a) find out about the tool and b) make the most of it. They’ve been also collecting user feedback to develop the tool further making it even more relevant.

Other team members’ skills have also been put to use. Steve and Chris developed and produced a handy screencast for people to get started using the tool.

I designed a paper-based quick start guide as an alternative.

I’ve also been snapping away at the showcase workshops, creating materials for publicity. My main brief was to produce a short video that explains the project and features some initial comments from the users.

Now, if that sounds straightforward, you’re not familiar with the BCE world. Squeezing the essence of an ambitious three-year project into a 3-minute video isn’t the easiest thing to do.

This is my attempt.