How often have we heard the advice that doctoral students should ‘manage their supervisors’ – well, this blog from Adam Blake may well help make that advice a reality. We loved reading about Trello – it almost sounds too good to be true! Let us know how you find it. And, good luck with those ducks… Claire.

Adam teaches and supports staff at the University of Auckland in making good use of technologies to enhance learning and teaching. Adam is also undertaking a part-time PhD on ICT for development (ICT4D), focusing on the effectiveness of communication and collaboration projects that employ technologies to empower people in low and middle income countries to enhance their quality of life.

I’m an academic always looking for ways to manage my work and writing more effectively. I’m also in the thick of my PhD. For both of these I can recommend a very intuitive (and free!) web-based project management tool called Trello.

Until recently, email has been the default tool my supervisors and I have used for written communication and feedback. But a senior colleague mentioned to me that he had been using Trello as the platform for communicating with a small class of post-grad students. He was also impressed at the way Trello enabled his students to post their work and to collaborate on it.

Within a couple of days of trying Trello, I realised its potential for enabling me to keep track of my PhD tasks, and as a vehicle for communicating with my supervisors and gaining feedback from them. I was at the point of needing supervisor input on my proposed research design, so I set up a Trello project ‘board’ to summarise the theory underpinning my design, and to set out the research tasks and timings. Using Trello’s ‘lists’ and ‘cards’ approach I was able to set up topic lists with cards for each of the main ideas and tasks. I was able to add links to my research proposal and ethics application documents, and to cross-link between cards if needed. The short description for each card served as its title, but if I wanted to provide more information or a link to a document, or add a checklist, tags, or a due date, I could click on the card to flip it over and enter the additional detail. If I toggled to a calendar view, those cards with due dates assigned to them displayed on the relevant dates. It was also easy to include graphics depicting conceptual frameworks.

Untitled(Attribution: Sheila MacNeill source https://www.flickr.com/photos/124486874@N08/16305895394/)

The image above provides a generic display of Trello lists and cards. Below is my own (de-identified) example of how I use Trello for my doctoral project.

Untitled2I then invited my supervisors (one of whom insists she is a technophobe) to access the Trello board, and waited to see what would happen next.

My supervisors took to the software like ducks to a pond. They used Trello’s comments feature to add their questions and feedback on the ideas and tasks in individual cards. I was notified of the comments by email, and was then able to respond, adding into my responses links to other cards if these provided relevant detail. Rather than going back through an email trail to trace the conceptual thread of feedback and responses, conversations with my supervisors relating to a particular point are now recorded directly where that point is set out in the Trello board. Each of us can go back and review the ideas and feedback at any time, and add more. Having had an enforced break from working on the PhD recently, the summary of ideas, tasks and communication encapsulated in the project board makes it easy for me (or my supervisors) to pick up where we left off.

I understand that Trello was first released in 2011 (here’s an early review) and it has since garnered a large following. For an excellent summary of its features by a fellow academic, see this overview by Sue Frantz.