Team working in higher education during the pandemic

Andy Jolly, Laura Caulfield, Rachel Massie, Bozena Sojka, Steve Iafrati, & James Rees

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Collaborative and cooperative research across academic disciplines and university administrative boundaries can be challenging even in less uncertain times. In an attempt to understand and propose solutions, researchers at ICRD have developed a paper, published online today, to test an innovative combination of methods to generate and evaluate ideas and strategies; and to write about the findings using collaborative online methods. Researchers came together in sessions designed as a hybrid of World Café and Delphi techniques. The findings were written up drawing on insights from the use of massively authored papers (also known as ‘massively open online papers’, MOOPs), and online tools to enable remote collaboration. The paper presents details of the process, the findings, and reflections on this collaborative and cooperative exercise.

As this process was being completed, higher education institutions in the UK and around the world began responding to the Covid-19 pandemic by beginning a process of moving to remote and online working and so the authors completed this paper through entirely online means. In light of the current pandemic and the increased need to work remotely, we hope that the paper offers academics useful strategies for meaningful and productive online collaboration, prioritisation and consensus building. The method has a range of applications both within and beyond academia, such as writing papers, developing team strategies and writing funding applications. However, we recognise that for many, the move to home working presents additional difficulties, particularly for those with caring responsibilities or home situations which are not conducive to productivity. Our intent is not to pressurise or guilt readers into being more productive, but to offer our reflections on our experience of collaborating and writing remotely using everyday technology.

The core approach underpinning this project was a hybrid ‘Café Delphi’ technique. The project took place across three days, on the first, information was elicited using Mentimeter to facilitate the Café Delphi workshop. On the second, Google Docs was used to write the article collaboratively in real time, and on the final day, Microsoft Teams was used to simultaneously review and redraft the paper.

Participants had not used the method together before as a single group, but all those who took part were previously known to each other. The method was chosen in the hope that it would maximise the generation of ideas and dialogue that could be taken forward and then formally written-up via the ‘massively distributed authorship’ approach illustrated by this paper. During the three stage process, the shared intention was to learn and practice the approach in order to apply it in other similar projects, and potentially in other settings. The first step was to conduct an exercise that in effect was a hybrid combination of a ‘real-time’ Delphi panel process and a World Café, which lasted for approximately one hour in total, and was carried out in the room where the researchers were gathered (all researchers were physically present — but this could be adapted for use remotely using video chat software). In keeping with the World Café approach the setting was informal, and food and drink was provided. In its most basic sense, the approach consisted of a group ‘brainstorming’ discussion in order to surface ideas, the outcomes of which were shared on a large wall mounted video screen using Mentimeter; followed by a second stage in which the first round ideas were ranked in perceived order of importance. Mentimeter allows users to ‘vote’ on the options in order to establish the final ranking. Overall, the schedule employed was as follows:

The group-sourced answers to each question were displayed on the screen so that the group could see the emerging ideas, but these were anonymised and unattributable to individuals (unless they chose to highlight that they have supplied a particular answer, which in this case no-one did). At this point there was no ranking or any other method of highlighting or distinguishing the ‘quality’ or popularity of the ideas — they are treated as equal at this stage. The next step of the exercise however is to rank the ideas, an implicit recognition or judgement of the relative merit of each idea.

These ‘findings’ were then taken forward into the writing process carried out through massively distributed authorship using Google Docs. In the transition from the ‘Café Delphi’ phase, decisions were made as to which answers to prioritise and discuss in more detail. The quantitative ranking suggest that the top four challenges were worth further exploration; and the top five ranked solutions came out well above the following options (see Figure 2 and 3). In the findings we focus on these top four challenges and top five solutions.

After reflecting on the process, we were in agreement that Delphi and World Café research could be considered complementary tools, and expert consensus can work well with group consultation. This hybrid method allowed for both defining the discussion and moving forward to propose and rank challenges/solutions in one session. It was good to have participants in the same room for the purpose of sharing opinions and a combined sense of brainstorming, however, we believe the method is flexible enough to involve wider participants in discussion and ranking activities from a distance. The method was also suitable for bringing together disparate perspectives, given that all suggestions are considered equal during the discussion phase, before anonymous expert ranking took place.

The use of technology (in this instance Mentimeter) was particularly useful — it was intuitive; inclusive, allowing ideas and thoughts to be suggested simultaneously in real time; and unfiltered by the facilitator, encouraging equal voice. On a more practical level, we felt that future implementation would be easier having now been through the full process. In particular, we felt that there was a need for a clear briefing email to all participants in advance of the first session, so that they were fully aware of the process and could participate fully in the workshop and the subsequent multi-authored paper session.

During the drafting and writing up stage, the positive, supportive peer environment led to a focused effort and rapid formation of a draft paper and for us, this was the main advantage to writing a multi-authored paper. There was a palpable sense of achievement at the end of a one hour session, and a feeling of positive social pressure when seeing others contributing to the content in real-time which helped them maintain their own focus. Having identified a dedicated time for all group members to participate in this shared activity, was a good corrective to the procrastination and ‘writer’s block’ which can bedevil lone working (and particularly lone home working). In particular writing sections of the paper in small blocks of time, and agreeing a deadline contributed to the timely completion of writing tasks. Furthermore, the agreed approach was for individuals to draft sections separately, so as to avoid duplication and ‘over-writing’, then to ‘swap’ in the next block of time and to edit or add to other participants’ previously drafted sections. This led to rapid refinement of text and the overall progress of the paper. Overall we felt that this method of multiple authorship was easily applied to report writing.

Despite having a clear report structure in place, one limitation of multi-authored papers was the various writing styles of different authors resulting in a poor flow to the paper and/or discrete sections of the report, though this can clearly be an issue with traditional multi-authored papers. It is really important to outline the style and focus of the report and to have identified an editor who will take responsibility to pull the draft paper together more coherently at the end.

Later in the process of completing the paper the Coronavirus crisis intervened and we were forced to distance ourselves physically. We therefore found it invaluable to move to Microsoft Teams in order to discuss changes to the paper in real time and particularly in order to agree wording and final edits. We used google docs throughout and recommend this way of working as a way to prepare and complete MOOPs at distance.

Our paper, is an attempt to put into practice the collaborative writing of a ‘massive open online paper’ (MOOP), we want to demonstrate that this is an approach that can work well for looser groups of academics to collaborate at distance. This is particularly useful at a time when people are being required to work at considerable physical distance from each other as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Given that this approach was quite novel for us both individually and as a collective, we also saw it as a good opportunity to think more reflectively about what we had learnt. In conclusion, we recommend the following for others seeking to use this method for planning or writing:

● Encourage some time to become familiar with each other’s communication styles and the relevant technology

● Select software solutions that work for you and your collaborators, in this case we used Mentimeter, Google Docs, and MS Teams, but there are a variety of tools available online

● Selecting a time when every member of the team is ‘present’ and free from distractions is important

● Working in short timed bursts on sections of the paper, and then rotating in turn to edit each other’s writing was found to be particularly effective

● Further Delphi panels for each ‘solution’ to explore and unpack in greater detail

The full paper is available online at ResearchGate, and was written by researchers at Institute for Community Research and Development (ICRD) at the University of Wolverhampton. ICRD works with and in our local communities to deliver effective community-based transformational projects, drive policy developments, and promote social mobility.


Here are links to the online tools we used in the work described above. Other similar tools are available.


Google Docs

Microsoft Teams

ICRD is based at @wlv_uni, we care about social justice, positive change, evidence-informed policy and practice, working in partnership to improve lives.