Delivering my first conference keynote – (Re)connection: The importance of space/place & interaction in higher education

Space and place are the major focuses of my research. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote session for the Winter Symposium at the University of Hull. The conference was titled Building and Supporting Positive Learning Relationships, with a broad focus on how we build connections with students both within and beyond programmes. This was a perfect opportunity for me to discuss space and place. I had just under an hour, so split my time between presentation and discussion: covering the relationships students have with spaces and places. This took the discussion beyond the purely social relationships between students, and between students and staff.

Spaces are containers – the sites of activity and interaction. When we develop a relationship with a space, it becomes a place for us. Not just a university – but my university. Not just a course – but my course. I argue much more focus is needed on the development of universities as places. How do we support students to make the spaces of higher education, places that they belong? That they feel included? I think this is a vital component of the inclusion jigsaw – and something that is often forgotten when focusing on the relationships between people. Obviously, the connection between people is important – but it is only part of the story of success.

Leave you thoughts in the comments below – and check out the slides below or via SlideShare.

LEGO Serious Play starter kit for research & teaching

LEGO Serious Play was an essential aspect of my research method, getting participants to ‘build’ their answer, not just talk it through. I’ve also used it as a teaching facilitation tool to support critical and divergent thinking. LEGO is one of my most favourite research and teaching methods, as you can let people work through answers with the use of LEGO, and then capture the salient points when they share their build. It not only saves a lot of data processing for the researcher, but it is a lot more fun for participants. For teaching, it supports different forms of thinking and really gets ALL students involved. While LEGO Serious Play is a distinct facilitation approach and you can get trained to use it, there are also some helpful books to get you started. I recommend Blair and Rillo’s SERIOUSWORK as a good place to start.

To use LEGO for any aspect of research or teaching, you first need to buy some! This blog highlights the choices I made to build my budget LEGO Serious Play kit.

LEGO Serious Play sets are awesome! But expensive. There is a range of sets available on the official LEGO shop, but they were beyond my budget as a self-funded doctoral student. I had to improvise. This article will introduce the sets I purchased and how I think they worked for research and teaching use.

My haul

The LEGO sets I purchased for my LEGO Serious Play kit

LEGO classic

LEGO Classic sets are a brilliant way to bulk out your LEGO Serious Play kit. You get a lot of brick for your money, and the variety of colours is fantastic. I’m so jealous of children today – LEGO had about five colours when I was a child. I already had a Large Creative Brick Box (10698) – so bought a couple more to serve as the baseline of my LEGO Serious Play kit. The plastic storage boxes they come in are also the perfect place to keep the LEGO stored away between uses. In addition to these larger sets, I also bought a couple more classic sets, one featuring lots of windows and doors (11004) – the other featuring lots of wheels (11014).

The available sets vary over time, but I have found they usually have a classic set on offer with extra wheels and another with windows and doors. These are useful additions to any LEGO Serious Play kit so I’d advise investing in such sets. Windows and doors are not only useful in a literal sense, but they work well for metaphors. Wheels work well for movement, vehicles and more. I’ve also seen a set with extra roof tiles which I think could be useful. It’ll certainly be part of my next LEGO purchase.

Interesting bricks

Next up I wanted to add a set with some different/interesting bricks. To be honest, any set would do for this – but I wanted to avoid anything licenced. I felt items like a Star Wars brick or a Spiderman Minifigure would not serve as universal references, so wanted to avoid them. I think Minecraft LEGO sets are particularly useful as they have lots of transparent tiles and colourful bricks. At the time I purchased my kit, LEGO was celebrating its 60 year anniversary and had launched some special Building Bigger Thinking sets. I purchased World Fun (10403), which contained some useful pieces like a treasure chest, eyes, columns, helicopter and a couple of Minifigures. I also chose Ocean’s Bottom (10404) which has more eyes, wings, wheels and transparent bricks.

All these LEGO classic sets built the bulk of my LEGO Serious Play kit. This gave me lots of standard bricks, including windows, doors, wheels and more. The next pieces I used to build my collection were all a matter of choice. For example, baseplates can be useful for a lot of LEGO Serious Play kits – but they were not something I needed for my particular research. As such, I decided to forego them. If you need to facilitate collaborative builds then baseplates are the perfect way to bring this together.

Pick a Brick

To top off my LEGO Serious Play kit, I wanted to choose a few additional bricks. To help with this, I used the Pick a Brick station at a LEGO store. I focused on extra eyes, small tile pieces and anything else small. This would allow participants to build intricate/small/detailed models – should they wish.


Minifigures can be a bit of a divisive topic when considering their use in LEGO Serious Play. They can lead participants to focus on people (which may not be a bad thing) when they’re building their answers. For my research, I felt participants would benefit from Minifigures. Libraries are inherently social spaces – and people are part of that. I didn’t want participants wasting time in my research sessions ‘building people’ – so Minifigures it was!

Again, I felt the best place to get these was through a LEGO shop. There are build-a-Minifigure stations in LEGO shops allowing you to build three custom figures per pack. Four packs (12 figures) covered my needs.

Preparing the LEGO

The worst thing you can do is walk into your first LEGO Serious Play research or teaching session with a load of new boxes of LEGO. It’s worth spending some time unboxing and unbagging it to ensure it is ready to use. I also spent time assembling a few elements to make them ready for use. For example, adding tyres to wheels, putting wheels on axels, putting panes in windows and adding doors to their frames. While participants are free to switch things around, it does mean the bricks are ready for use without needing to combine these pieces.

From the unboxing photo below, you can see there was a lot of plastic bags to ditch. I also wanted to find a way to layout the LEGO without getting it everywhere – so I used the cardboard box lids from printer paper boxes. It worked really well to stop LEGO falling all over the floor during my research sessions.

Ready to go!

With all the LEGO purchased, unpacked and ready to go, I was able to start using it for teaching and research purposes. I still keep the LEGO stored in the big yellow boxes that came with the larger sets. I also bring a load of those empty box lids to pour LEGO out and stop it from getting everywhere.

LEGO works as a wonderful research and educational tool. I took this snap from one of the first sessions I facilitated three years ago. I can’t wait to share some more of my reflections on this.

LEGO, the LEGO logo, and the Minifigure are trademarks and copyrights of the LEGO Group. ©2021 The LEGO Group.

Rocketbook Panda Planner for work/life/study productivity

This post introduces the Rocketbook Panda Planner, a new tool I’ve been trying to help manage my work/life/study. When I first returned to work from parental leave, I needed to get my head back into the world of work. I’d tried lots of different tools to keep myself focused and help me plan and prioritise my weeks and days. For the most part, I had something that worked. However, I had to acknowledge I needed something different now I am a father to three! Something that would help me plan life — with the perspectives of fatherhood and a busy career.

I’d decided I wanted something handwritten as opposed to something digital. Mobile phones, tablets and laptops are doorways to a world of distractions. I knew that if I used an app, I would inevitably get distracted by the many other things in my devices. Probably email or Twitter — the two usual culprits.

So! I needed something to motivate, plan and prioritise. Plus it must be ‘paper-based’.

Introducing the Rocketbook Panda Planner

The Rocketbook comes with a high quality microfibre cloth and Pilot Frixion pen.
My newly unboxed Panda Planner

After some research, I came across the Rocketbook Panda Planner. Described as a planner for ‘those who want an endlessly reusable planner to last for years, if not a lifetime. The Rocketbook Panda Planner gets you organised so you can focus and hit your goals.’ That sounded just like what I needed.

The planner is split into a number of different page types to help you plan:

The Rocketbook Panda Planner has a number of sections to help you organise yourself.
Panda Planner page types

More importantly – it is reusable. I’d never considered a ‘re-usable’ notebook (and wasn’t aware they existed). It is however a fantastic idea. The entire book is essentially wipe clean. It’s a bit like a whiteboard meeting a book. This means there is no guilt from having another diary that will end up in a recycling bin. The real selling point of this wasn’t clear until I actually used it. The beautifully therapeutic moment you wipe away days and weeks of plans, achievements and reflections (there is an app to help you retain a digital copy).

Rocketbook allows you to write and organise your work before scanning it into the app and then wiping the book clean for reuse.
The Rocketbook process

Using the Rocketbook Panda Planner

I very much enjoyed the process of using the Panda Planner. I first worked through the goals and roadmap sections to plan the next quarter (3 months). I set out a number of ambitious work, research and personal goals. It also gave me a valuable opportunity to reflect on potential barriers. Here I noted that my three little ones may become barriers to progress – but it also helped me concretely write that it didn’t matter. As a parent – I needed to juggle that new balance and the Panda Planner helped me navigate this. It was helpful to pen some of this down and get to grips with my life’s new priorities. I am, perhaps, guilty of focusing on work too much – and the Panda Planner helped me bring some balance to that.

With the quarter prepared, I then moved towards weekly and daily sections. I particularly liked how they provided opportunity to undertake routines as part of the day. The daily planner (below) starts off asking what you are grateful for, and excited about — three items for each list. It also provided space for a daily affirmation. Not something I’d usually go for, but with three adopted children moving in, I was writing ‘I can do this’ a fair bit. For the evening is an opportunity to reflect on the day. Here you can record the wins for the day and take note of any opportunities to improve. The rest of the page is very much what you’d expect of a daily planner: priorities, schedule, tasks and notes.

The layout of a daily page

What I’m using

I’d recommend giving the Rocketbook Panda Planner a go. I’ve since expanded to utilise a standard Rocketbook for my general notes. You can write on them with any of the Pilot Frixion line of pens and markers. I’ve found the Frixion fineliners much better than the rollerball ones as they put less pressure on the Rocketbook pages. I think this has to work in favour of longevity.

‘Normal’ or ‘New normal’ —Reflections on getting back into in-person teaching

Written on a train on a phone – so forgive any typos. I’ll tidy up later!

Since 18th March last year (2020), all of my teaching has been online. Obviously, this was the right thing to do. Society closed. We didn’t really know much about the novel coronavirus first identified in 2019, we didn’t know much about transmission and vaccines were still a dream. The situation also developed rapidly. The government told us not to be worried about the virus, that it was of little concern. Two weeks later, we were in lockdown. For everyone in higher education, this led to a monumental pivot online. Like every university, Hull responded and followed governmental guidelines.

When the lockdown hit, I felt lucky to be based in the Skills Team at the University of Hull. As a team, we all had experience of teaching online. We also had the software, the tools and training to deliver a good online experience. Nothing needed to be procured. No training was needed. We just picked up and got on with things. I’m not saying that the switch to online teaching wasn’t challenging — but we had somewhat of a head start.

As the pandemic evolved over summer 2020 and cases plummeted, we were able to open our library — the Brynmor Jones. This was done with an abundance of caution, following all safety guidance and with a lot of risk assessing. We were one of the first HE libraries to re-open, recognising not all of our students had access to the technology or connection they required to be successful at home. The library formed an important part of social and cultural capital for some students — helping provide what they may not readily have. While open, as a library we also focused on safety, still delivering our support digitally. This meant that our service points were not staffed in the same way and we focused on self-help, live chat and query management. The library was primarily open for socially-distanced study.

While the library was open, teaching and appointments we’re still off the agenda. At the point of initial opening, we still kept these online. This doesn’t mean I’ve been working from home all this time. As soon as the Library re-opened last year, I was in the occasional day, usually once a week. I figured that if our frontline staff were in – I should show face too. I eased myself in. By January 2021, I committed to three days a week.

For most of the year, while I was on campus, my students weren’t. All classes will still online. In May 2021, we were able to offer face-to-face appointments again. It was strange (but lovely!) to see students again. I felt connected to my work again. It reminded me why I love my job — I’d missed that interaction more than I realised. While appointments slowly ticked over, class-based teaching, workshops and lectures face-to-face were still some time away. At this point, it meant that while none of us stopped teaching, many lecturers hadn’t ‘lectured’ or taught on campus for over a year. That’s a long time!

My timeline now lands on last week. The 6th September. My first on-campus teaching for over a year and a half.

I was a bit nervous. Not going to lie.

Was teaching in a room like ‘riding a bike?’. That is to say — can I easily pick it up again despite all this time away? As I walked over to the Cohen building, the nerves melted away to make rookie excitement. I was so excited I took a selfie to make the occasion – but decided to do this outside the building so the students didn’t think I was odd before I even started teaching them.

Yup! Me stood outside Cohen.

A quick photo later, I found myself stood in a room much larger than needed to facilitate some social distancing, I looked over a sea of faces (well… 25 faces), and I began to teach.

Thankfully. It was like riding a bike. I just fell back into that comfortable space at the front.

It struck me how odd it was being able to move and use body language again. It was surreal! I didn’t realise how limiting a webcam could be until I was freed from those constraints. I could gesture. I could easily point to my slide visuals. I wasn’t trapped behind a screen. Teaching in-person went beyond this freedom. It was easier — and I hope — better!

I was in the middle of explaining a model of criticality, and my students looked puzzled. I’d not explained it effectively. I’d lost some of the room. Immediately — I was able to change track and reframe my explanation. I could see the metaphorical lightbulbs switch on. They’d understood what I said. I’d explained better. I have missed that more than anything with online teaching. The tendency for students to not turn on webcams removes this valuable tool from educators. We can’t see how our students are doing. This, more than anything, I had missed.

It isn’t just about understanding or not. There are other visual queues to respond too. There were some clear points at which I could see students were a bit overwhelmed, worried or even frightened of the expectations ahead. However, in seeing this, I was also able to reassure them that we would support them to get there. They have a wall to climb, but we’ll help them build a ladder.

My final reflection focuses on energy. I’m well used to being on campus with my regular three days now part of my schedule. I had previously found it a tiring transition when I first adjusted from vegetating at home to being in the office. But I was past that. At least the main hit. Teaching, however, did exhaust me more than I expected. It takes a lot of physical energy. Standing, gesturing, thinking, watching, projecting my voice — as much as I loved my first session, I was sure tired after!!!

My advice to anyone easing back into campus is to be prepared. Getting out of the home for working is tiring. It’s an even bigger hit when you throw in some lectures.

I did get to get to the ball [ALDinHE Conference 2021]. Kinda.

The journey to ALDcon

My journey to the ALDinHE Conference (ALDcon) was a bit different this year. In any normal year I’d have been using public transport to travel cross-country to visit another university for three or four days, staying in the nearest Premier Inn. COVID-19 put a stop to any such business travel for everyone. ALDcon, however, was not to be defeated and returned in a fully-online format for 2021. Despite that, this opportunity was not assured.

I didn’t think I’d make it to ALDinHE this year. The time of year I would usually submit a proposal and make my intention to attend known was overtaken by life. As me and my partner were in the process of adopting, we had no idea what 2021 would hold or how the timeline would work. As it turns out it was February and March that I took my mix of paternity and adoption leave. ALDcon was a possibility.

Had this year’s event been face:face, I probably wouldn’t have made it. The booking would have been closed, the train tickets would have been expensive and I may have struggled to get accommodation. None of this was an issue with an online conference. I didn’t sign up until the week before. The only pang of regret I had was not presenting on something myself – or at least submitting a poster. I think it might be my first ALDcon without at least taking a poster.

So how was the online conference?

The sharing of ideas, gaining of inspiration and abundance of LD love were all very much there. I’ve come away energised – particularly regarding work to make LD practice more inclusive. I’ve also gained some valuable insight into how we may support reading and have already committed to deliver a new workshop at Hull based on what I have learned. By committed – I mean it’s bookable by our students now. Now that is instant conference impact!

As for the other conference elements, sadly, much like any other online conference it lacked the casual talk. The conference was not socially lacking by any means. Sessions were active. There were lots of social events too! However, none of those small conversations over coffee or a pint happened. I often find these are the most impactful to my thought processes and learning.

I also didn’t realise how valuable conferences are for time away. As a parent, I was mobbed every lunchtime and at the end of the day. I never realised how valuable conferences are for thought, reflection and writing. The journey there and back, the breakfasts, the time alone in the hotel room – all chances for me to type or pen my thoughts and make firm actions from what I have learned. This isn’t to say the conference had no impact. Not by any means. But I didn’t get as much time to process it all as I would like. I also had the inevitable creep of meeting and emails over the conference now allowing me to commit 100%.

So what did I learn?

This year I decided to approach my note creation and synthesis a bit differently. I continued to write notes in each session – handwritten, typed or mind mapped as I felt appropriate. However, I added an additional step – journaling each day to reflect on what these sessions taught me and how I would take it forward. Here are my thoughts:

  • It’s possible for professional services to share space, if not line management (Northampton).
  • I really dislike the work ‘skill’. I’ve not liked it for some time, but have been able to cope. Now, I wonder how much longer I can put up with it.
  • It is possible to run a reading ‘bootcamp’ in a short, two-hour session. I’ve already written the plan for the Hull version and made it bookable. (Sandra Eyakware)
  • A ‘resource in a box’ may be a manageable way forward for us to offer some engagement with local schools in a way that is realistic and scalable. (Amy West)
  • Magic and teaching have a lot more in common than you would think. (Will Houstoun)
  • Community, narrative, interaction, and journey is a beautiful way, to sum up the literacies of online learning (Carina Buckley).
  • I was not ready to talk about lockdown 1. I had honesty buried in my mind just how stressful and depressing the whole thing was. Admittedly, I was writing up my doctorate and was chained to my home desk for 16 hours a day which made things worse.
  • ALDinHE has revolutionized its web presence. A newly designed website, a dedicated conference website, the relaunch of LearnHigher – wow!

Did you say magic?

Yup! The day two keynote was delivered by Dr Will Houstoun. The session was titled Pedagogical Prestidigitation: Magic in Educational Contexts and beautifully drew comparisons between magic and teaching. Oh! And there was magic. Of course…

Magic is about an interaction. It is a performance. It has a narrative. There is a need to direct (not necessarily misdirect) attention. The parallels to teaching were beautiful. You can check out my notes on this one below:

And then there was decolonisation

This is a hot (but not uncontested) issue in higher education right now. There is some real concern that LD practice can propagate dominant ideas and structures if left unchecked. If LD is there to help students adapt to HE, are we not civilising students into higher education – reducing their cultural identity to make them confirm?

Difficult stuff.

Uncomfortable stuff.

I’ve spoken about this a fair bit at Hull. Higher education is generally too old, male, western and stale. I’m always cautious of decolonisation itself. Not because it isn’t important – but because a general approach of inclusive education is a better goal. While much of this is subsumed into decolonisation, I think an inclusive approach is distinct. We should teach in a way to ensure everyone is included and successful, no matter their race, religion, class, gender, sexuality, background – and so on.

There was some interesting stuff from Liverpool John Moors on this, and I’m happy to share my notes again!

That’s a wrap!

Well. It’s almost midnight now. I’ve only been able to write as everyone is in bed asleep – but even for a ‘normal’ ALDcon my train would have gotten me home by now. Definitely time to turn in for the night. ?

Wahoo & Boo: I’m no longer a student

Today my student card finally expires.

My student email will close.

I’ve been enrolled as a student in higher education since 2007. Today, for the first time in over a decade – I am no longer enrolled at a university for study. While this represents a tragic end to student discounts, it does mean I have FINALLY finished my Doctor of Education. While I passed my Viva Voce in summer 2020, completed my amendments in autumn and graduated in winter, I never got around to blogging about this. I blame the pandemic. It has consumed much of my life!

It feels fantastic to finally be Dr Fallin EdD. It represents the conclusion of years of reading, writing and research. Above all, I am incredibly proud of my thesis: Reading the Academic Library: an exploration of the conceived, perceived and lived spaces of the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull. My main goal is to now try and adapt some of it for publication. I think my findings are really timely given the changes COVID-19 has brought to library spaces. Lots for us all to think about as we see more returns to campus over the future months and years. My biggest personal challenge will be getting this writing done alongside parenthood. Coffee and late nights I think?

I should briefly take time to thank my dedicated supervisors Dr Ruth Slatter and Dr Josef Ploner. They were super support through the whole journey. I also had the benefit of three awesome examiners that really helped my improve the final thesis so thanks also go to Prof. Helen Walkington, Dr Kirsty Finn and Prof. Andy Jonas.

With my thesis over, I really need to get back to blogging more. Hopefully writing that makes it a reality…

Cultural transformations, geography, and my thesis

Thanks to the University of Hull Alumni Fund I received support to attend the Cultural transformations conference, which focused on the evaluation of Hull City of Culture 2017. The conferenced asked What’s next? and focused on the learning points from the evaluation of Hull 2017. This may seem like a bit of a segway from my interests – but it really wasn’t! My thesis focuses on the Brynmor Jones Library, one of the venues for 2017. Culture, the art gallery and the exhibitions we hosted also emerged as themes within my data. Furthermore, I am a massive geography nerd, and the talk of culture, place, economics, and impact on something so spatially bound is fundamentally human geography.

Instead of boring you all with paragraph after paragraph of text, I’ve decided to share the raw notes from four of the sessions. These notes represent an eclectic representation of what different keynotes, speakers and presenters said, also representing the debate and questions along the way. By its very nature, what I present, how I phrase it and how I connect it together perhaps is the best representation of my thoughts.

Local Identities, City Image, and Pride

This session made me one happy geographer! I loved reflecting on the issues of image and place at the city level and how they are reflected within my own thesis at the scale of a building (the library!).

Economic Vitality, Equity, and Sustainability

It’s always hard to tie figures and finances from a series of mega-events to wider socio-economic impacts – but it was certainly interesting to see some possible correlations emerge. When looking at economic development in such a bounded space it couldn’t be anything but strongly geographically related.

Wellbeing, Social Capital, and Learning

This session beautifully made the case for the link between wellbeing and culture as well as learning and culture. In particular, I found the need to evaluate not just individual impact but the impact on groups and communities particularly important. This session also made a staunch defense of qualitative research but in particular the need for such research to expand beyond narrative alone. As someone using quite innovative methods myself, this certainly chimed with my experience.

Can Culture Bring Us Together?

This session had some great debate within it. Funnily enough, there were plenty of people suggesting culture (in some way) can bring people together, but the devil is always in the detail huh!? We could certainly say culture does build civic identities, strengthen communities and improve individual wellbeing. Phew!

Beyond this conference, I should note my significant lack of blogging is very linked to thesis progress. I need to go now and lock myself away to do some more writing. My thesis is due March and hopefully, I can get blogging back soon! I certainly feel like I need to provide some updates on my progress – but in short, it’s good!

Engaging wider audiences on Twitter

A participant in The Digital Researcher – a course I am running this week raised an excellent point about Twitter engagement and I’ve decided to elaborate on it further here.

When trying to engage with wider audiences, it is really important to use relevant hashtags # and perhaps event @tag in other relevant accounts.

This is essential, particularly when you are trying to engage with wider audiences from an account without many followers – or without followers from the right demographics. A typical example may be that all of your followers are academic peers – and not the public you want to engage. So how do you reach new audiences?

A lot of this comes down to identifying the right hashtags that link posts on similar topics together. Hashtags can be:

  • Based on a subject: #HigherEd #Geography
  • Topical/news-based: #HumberFloods #Brexit
    • Check out Trendsmap to see what is happening where you are
  • Event based: #ALDcon #DigiResHull
  • Tweet-chat based: #LTHEchat #MSFTEdu

While people may not follow you, they may be searching for these hashtags, or using apps to follow them. It’s is therefore important to identify hashtags that your target audiences may be using. Hitting Google for this isn’t a bad idea, for example, a search for: Best hashtags for education provides some excellent results. There are also some useful websites focused on helping you with this:

One prime way to build your audience is with the use of topical hashtags. For example, if you research in politics and you have conducted some research relevant to it, #Brexit is an excellent choice (event if you hate the hashtag). These tags don’t have to be very broad. For example, the last set of flooding in the Humber estuary used #HumberFloods – an excellent tag for hydrologists, geographers and anyone else working in related fields.

Local or specialist media is an excellent way to identify topical discussions here you are based. For us in Hull, the Hull Daily Mail and the Yorkshire Post may be good places for you to start. If you can apply your research to a topic here – you’ll be reaching a new public audience. Directly replying to posts from such media channels, including television is an excellent way to identify yourself as an expert. A lot of big news channels now traul Twitter to recruit experts rather than approaching university departments.

You just need to remember to use them!

My digital workflow: Office 365 processes & tools for doctoral students

I thought I would take some time to share the invaluable Microsoft tools that I use as part of my thesis and research. I think the usefulness of Microsoft Office Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook is without question. These programs are an essential part of my work, but I will focus on other tools that I use to support my research.

Pixaline / Pixabay


OneNote is a note taking application. OneNote is like my second brain. It stores my notes for absolutely every situation. Instead of a mixture of apps and notebooks, I take a great effort to keep everything in one place. The availability of OneNote on iOS, MacOS and Windows means I can access OneNote on all of my devices: iPad Pro, iPhone, MacBook Pro and Windows 10 computers. This means I can also access my notes anywhere and pretty much on every device. I’m a big fan of handwritten notes and there is a lot of evidence that demonstrates they’re the most effective way to take notes. The awesomeness of the iPad Pro and Pencil mean I can handwrite on-screen just as well as on paper. For any situation in which I do use paper, I scan documents in or use Office Lens (see below).

Technicalities aside, I use OneNote for:

  • Lecture notes, keynotes, conference notes
  • Supervision meeting records
  • Thoughts, thinking, general notes
  • Notes on reading
  • Field notes
  • Shopping lists, recipes and pretty much everything else!

The reason OneNote works so effectively is the wide range of media it supports. Not only can type or hand written notes be used within OneNote, but it supports drawing, maths, images, audio, video, tables, embedded files and a whole range of other special applications. Notes are easy to find as they are organised into sections and notebooks. Everything is searchable, tagable and easy to find.

FirmBee / Pixabay


OneDrive is a cloud storage platform. This means it stores files on a remote server as opposed to any one device. This means you can access anything you store on it anywhere you have internet. I use OneDrive to store all of my important files, with the exception of anything personally identifiable, like research data. While OneDrive achieves the same as Box, DropBox, iCloud Drive, Google Drive or any of platform, the deep integration with Microsoft Office makes OneDrive the most useful. It is also the cheapest platform as you get 1 TB for free included in Office 365, including the edition most universities provide students with.

Not only does OneDrive let you store your files and make them available, it also lets you connect to any computer you’re synced to and pull any file from it. This is really useful if you ever forget to take a file with you. As you’d expect, everything is searchable – but it is important to carefully consider your organisation system. I take great care to never get lazy when saving files otherwise it quickly ends up an unusable mess.

OneDrive is accessible within Office 365 programs, allowing you access to save directly to your OneDrive from within the software. The very latest versions of some even automatically – and constantly save to your OneDrive, ensuring your work is always safe. OneDrive can also be used for collaboration, allowing multiple people to edit an office file in real-time. This can be done with in-browser and in-program. Most people will recognise this functionality from Google Docs/Sheets – but its a lot more powerful in Office.


Office Lens

Office Lens is an amazing app for phones and tablets. It allows you to use the devices camera to take photographs, and save them directly to OneDrive, OneNote, your camera stream, PDF, Word or PowerPoint. What makes Lens so special is it’s ability to work with documents, whiteboards and business cards. When pointing Lens at a document, whiteboard, television, projector screen, book or whatever you want to capture, Lens detects the edges automatically and removes the background. This makes it a pretty impressive scanner! For whiteboards it also filters the photo and enhances the picture.

Most of my Lens shots end up getting stored within OneNote, embedded within whatever notebook I am working on at the time. I use it to capture a lot of projector screens – essential for lectures and conference. I also like using it for documents so I can take a photo/image of it away with me digitally rather than  needing to carry a lot of paper. As I suggested above, it is this feature that also lets me digitise any handwritten notes I may take. While I don’t use it, Lens works with Microsoft Immersive Reader so it is fantastic for accessibility purposes.

helloolly / Pixabay

Other useful tools

While I don’t have space to go into too much detail, there are some other essential apps:

Microsoft Translator

Microsoft Translator is a free, personal translation app for 60+ languages, to translate text, voice, conversations, camera photos and screenshots. You can even download languages for offline translation for free to use when you travel!


Microsoft Visio

Microsoft Visio is a diagramming software package. It lets you easily draw a whole range of processes, diagrams and maps. It is a lot easier to use than Microsoft Word for making diagrams, with special tools to help you keep elements in line and linked.


Microsoft To Do

Microsoft To-Do is a simple and intelligent to-do list that makes it easy to plan your day. Whether it’s for work, school or home, To-Do will help you increase your productivity and decrease your stress levels. It combines intelligent technology and beautiful design to empower you to create a simple daily workflow. Organize your day with To-Do’s smart Suggestions and complete the most important tasks or chores you need to get done, every day. To-Do syncs between your phone and computer, so you can access your to-dos from school, the office, or the grocery store or even while you’re traveling around the world.