In this resource I present a tool called Notion which I used to project manage an online Change Laboratory (CL) project that lasted 4 months and where participants were from two organisations, a university computing department and a secondary school. The key aims behind what I was trying to accomplish with Notion was to keep all CL resources together in one location and to allow people to access those resources throughout the CL process. In subsequent sections of this document, I give a brief overview of this Change Laboratory, my needs when choosing a platform to manage this project, an overview of Notion, followed by practical examples of how I used it. I conclude with a link for readers to access a demonstration site.
This Change Laboratory project, undertaken as part of my PhD work, involved supporting partners to co-design an outreach initiative to attract female students into Higher Education Computer Science. Using this formative-interventionist approach, I wanted to build a partnership between a university computing department and a secondary school and explore how the experiences and insights of a diverse group of participants from the partner institutes could be leveraged to design an outreach intervention appropriate to the problems identified locally. I conducted six Change Laboratory sessions online with 15 participants who included faculty, students and management from the university computing department and teachers from the secondary school. My aim with this research project was to trace and describe the design process of the outreach initiative and to provide important insights into any tensions that emerged during its design. I also wanted to know how the participants perceived their newly designed outreach initiative as meeting the needs analysed by the stakeholders involved. This approach is different to existing initiatives across the globe which according to the literature, are run by educational institutions, industry or voluntary organisations and are imposed top-down or come about as an idea by a small homogeneous group such as university faculty. Furthermore, where initiatives are seen as interesting, they are often copied between settings in ways that fail to replicate the perceived success that was achieved in the original location.
Prior to the first session of this online Change Laboratory, my focus was on identifying the right set of technologies that would enable me to effectively host and manage my project in an online space, without confusing participants by using multiple tools. It was my opinion that such an online venue would require a platform that had the functionality for real-time collaboration and provided the ability to create, organise and share content, track tasks, and allow for workshop scheduling and team management. In short, I needed a tool where I could keep all CL resources in one location and allow participants to access those resources throughout the project. In my quest to find a tool that met my needs, I began with searching the web for project management and online collaboration style tools and testing the functionality provided by multiple solutions that I found. Testing these involved evaluating each solutions’ support for a variety of file formats such as text, statistics, documents, images, audio and video, and if they would enable people to carry out tasks such as creating lists, sketching, filling in activity system diagrams, among other things. At a minimum, I wanted to create an online space where participants had an appropriate range of tools readily available to them to collaborate online.
Notion is a productivity application that is targeted at individuals and teams for planning and managing projects. It is a cloud-based platform, meaning it is accessible through a browser in addition to dedicated desktop and mobile apps. When I came across Notion during my search, I immediately became enthusiastic to try it out and evaluate whether or not I could complete the list of tasks I envisioned as needing to be able to do, as shown in Table 1.
I had read that this tool allows users to design custom dashboards tailored to any kind of project, therefore I began by seeing how it could be used to create and design a custom workspace that would work for my CL project. I began by creating a private workspace and within this familiarising myself with many of the templates it offers. In addition to this, I also experimented with the option to create single interactive pages that allow the integration and combination of elements such as wikis, databases, documents and spreadsheets from different sources. I found that Notion offered me a way to create a single interactive page for each workshop, where I could add the session’s agenda and upload or create the mirror-data resources needed for the tasks I was designing. I could see it was possible to integrate “live” documents, where participants would be able to collaborate on activities and get creative all in one place. During my testing phase, I noticed that Notion might require some payment, however this not did deter me from choosing to use it. In my opinion, Notion ticked all the boxes for what I thought I needed to do for my project – I could see that it would allow me to keep all CL resources in one location and allow my participants to access those resources throughout the project.
Does this tool have the functionality to do the following?
Yes / No
To create a custom workspace to manage the overall project online
To create a single interactive space for each workshop
To create a space for each task and link tasks to the relevant workshop(s)
To embed files of various formats (text, statistics, documents, images, audio, video etc.) for mirror-data and first-stimulus
To share access to my projects overall workspace and its individual spaces with all participants
To hide spaces from participants during session and task preparation and release access to them on a needs-be basis
To provide customisable spaces for participants to collaborate online in real-time (viewing, editing, commenting).
Table 1: Evaluation of Notion’s capabilities to meet project needs
To get an idea of how Notion was used for a Change Laboratory project, I will provide some examples of how I used it for my research-intervention, by demonstrating examples corresponding to the first four items listed in Table 1. I plan to contribute further resources to this website to describe the other three items listed.
I began by creating a new workspace which would be dedicated for my research-intervention. This involved a short setup process of letting Notion know how I planned to use Notion i.e., with a team or for personal use, followed by providing a name for the new workspace. At this point there was an option to invite participants or teammates immediately, however I chose to carry out this task later to give me time to set up the structure of my workshops (as shown in the next example) and be ready for the first scheduled workshop.
After setting up my overall workspace, I was presented with a Getting Started page with instructions on what to do next as illustrated in Figure 1. It was from here that I began setting up each workshop and task as demonstrated in subsequent examples.
I added a new page, which would act as a single interactive page to manage and keep track of all workshops, while organising them clearly as shown in Figure 2.
I felt that this was the best way to organise and present details of all workshops with participants who had access to this page. Notion has a vast array of pre-made templates for a variety of project types which I could have used but I chose to build my own custom page. I added a database to display this information clearly, as illustrated in Figure 2. The first column lists the name I gave to each workshop e.g., Workshop 1. The second column lists the dates each workshop was scheduled (as shared with participants prior to starting). I designed the third column in such a way that I could select from a set list the expansive learning actions for each workshop. Notion is highly versatile and allows for the creation of multiple columns of varying formats (i.e., text, numbers, date, URL, multi-select). In addition to the simple spreadsheet view of the database, I could also filter, sort and search through the data or easily change the layout to a Kanban board, timeline, gallery, calendar view and more.
The names in the first column are configured as hyperlinks, meaning when they are clicked on users are redirected to a separate page containing that workshop’s content as illustrated in Figure 3. I demonstrated how this worked to participants during the first workshop when introducing them to this platform. Figure 3 shows how I structured workshop 1 (with identifying information blurred out) as a wiki page, which includes the name of the workshop, the date, headings, colours, bullet lists, quotes, emojis, and a link to a task’s dedicated space as demonstrated later (in Figure 5).
Similar to how I setup a single interactive space to organise and present details of all workshops to participants, I also created an interactive page to create and manage all tasks in a database as illustrated in Figure 4. The layout I chose is similar to Figure 2, however the main difference with this page is that I configured it in the page’s settings to hide it from participants. Instead, they were granted access to the individual pages of each task from within the relevant workshop wiki page as shown in Figure 3 for Task 1A. My reason for designing it this way was to allow me to adapt my initial design of tasks in-between sessions as the project evolved, allowing for participants to exert transformative agency.
The first column lists the name I chose for each task e.g., Task 1A signifies that this task is the first (A) task of the first workshop (1). The second column identifies which workshop each task is linked to. The third column shows the date of the workshop containing the particular task. I designed the fourth column to keep track of the status of each task, because I felt it would be useful to remember when a task was in one of the following states; “to-do”, “in progress” and “completed”. I updated these as we progressed through tasks and workshops. The fifth column was useful for me when tracking the expansive learning actions of the project.
Similar to how I set up the workshops, each task name was configured as a hyperlink so that, when clicked, users would be directed to a separate page containing that task’s content. Figure 5 demonstrates a task that I had designed and set up prior to workshop 2. I initially set up this page to be hidden from participants (in the pages settings) until the day of the workshop. My reason for this was to allow completion of in-between session tasks following workshop 1. As shown in Figure 5, the task was designed around four questions, two for each of the partner institutes for this CL project. This sample task shows how I had the page created, with relevant details and questions and skeletal bullet lists underneath each question ready for population during participant discussions.
Similar to this task, I prepared all other tasks on Notion in a similar fashion ahead of each workshop, making them readily available to make visible to participants when required.
I found that Notion supported the integration of files of any format I tried to embed into my project workspace.
For example, when planning my first workshop I really wanted to embed a podcast audio file I had sourced as appropriate mirror-data to present practice problems to participants. Figure 6 illustrates how that was successfully embedded on a workshop wiki page.
Figure 7 shows two screens. The left window shows a sample list of documents which were uploaded to the workspace and were made available to participants on a dedicated page. The window on the right shows the selected document (second item in list) in more detail on a separate wiki page, exactly as it was shared with participants. This document was being shared from my Google Drive. When choosing to embed this file, Notion offers a variety of views, I chose the option that shows the document title, the first couple of lines of its content, an image of what the file content looks like and the shared link to the google doc. Notion has the functionality to connect to and embed files from other well-known external tools also, such as OneDrive, Zoom and Slack.
Another example of connecting with Google Drive includes my integration of blank Activity System diagrams that I had previously created in Google Sheets. During my CL project I wanted to embed these diagrams into a wiki page. Figure 8 shows how I successfully did this. The benefit of doing this was participants could edit it directly through Notion, avoiding the need to ask participants to use an additional tool and therefore keeping all resources in one single location.
If you would like to get a feel for Notion, I have created a demo workspace which you can visit and look around at how I have created wikis, databases and other pages to organise and manage a fictional Change Laboratory.
The demo workspace can be accessed via the following link: https://bit.ly/3DYMxCO
I believe Notion might be useful for other people who would also like to project manage their Change Laboratory sessions from one single location. Keep in mind that the examples I have provided show how I used Notion to manage my project. Thanks to the flexible nature of Notion, you can sculpt it to the unique needs of any project. Another benefit is that you can always tweak and update your implementations as your project evolves. My use of Notion has been sculpted around the needs of my project and my workshops; other people’s use of Notion could be completely different.
Fiona Redmond is a Computer Science lecturer in the Department of Computing in the Carlow campus of South East Technological University in Ireland. Fiona is PhD student on the programme Higher Education: Research, Evaluation and Enhancement at Lancaster University. Fiona has a deep commitment to Computer Science Education, with a particular emphasis on broadening participation and diversity in the field. Her PhD project, under the supervision of Dr. Brett Bligh, includes supporting partners to co-design an outreach initiative to attract female students into Higher Education Computer Science using the innovative Change Laboratory methodology.
Email: [email protected]