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10 Posts

Ready for departure

Posted by cg1ns Apr 25, 2012

We have reached a very exciting point in the Well Connected project as we now have a populated website that we will be launching (in a beta version) very soon. This has been the result of many hours of hard work by a group of dedicated people to produce a website that will provide University of Sheffield students with access to well researched, well reviewed and engaging content to enable them to improve their mental health and wellbeing.

As we are about to go live with the website it seems an appropriate time to reflect on what has been achieved. We have carried out a comprehensive scoping review of 15 major topics affecting students and assessed the quality of current online resources available. We reviewed over 1000 web pages and have taken the best bits from the web to help inform the creation of the content on Well Connected. Over 100 pages of content have been written but as we were never intending to re-invent the wheel most of our pages contain links to some of the excellent existing support and information available on the web.

It has been hard task to write just enough content to make Well Connected a helpful destination while also being a mental wealth hub linking students to further resources. We have had some amazing student consultants tell their own powerful stories of university life and we are looking for more from the resilient University of Sheffield students to really make this resource something by them for them.

Is what we have created any good though? Well we connected with our colleagues at the university and in the health service to peer review the content and they have been broadly agreed with the content. Our next task is to take on board their comments and edit accordingly. A well researched, well written website sounds good but it will only be a success if University of Sheffield students are motivated to use it and find what it has to say useful. To ensure this is the case we are running 3 focus groups to check their responses in May and we will also be adding a survey function on the beta version so we can collect feedback to improve the site.

Websites, similar to any train station (see previous blogs) provide lots of information for people in many formats helping you work out how to get to where you want to be. This assumes though that people know where they want to go. For many young people, especially those currently struggling with a set of difficulties they do not necessarily know where they want to go, or what is wrong or even what might help. All they know is they don’t want to be in the place they are right now. Imagine how hard that must be if you were desperate at a train station not knowing where to go to feel better but knowing you need to get away from where you currently are. This is why Well Connected has included a Self Check for students to take. This Self Check is a reliable, valid and well used psychological outcome measure called the CORE OM

To explain how it works once a student (or staff member) completes the Self Check (and no the information is not stored by the system) then a personalised response is produced. Based on the answers given the response will offer advice and useful links or contacts for the issues the Self Check has raised. A website that helps you decide which journey may be healthiest for you. If only National Rail could do that as well!

Oh and just to toot our own horn (do trains still do that?) some of the project team are going to a national research conference in Edinburgh in a few weeks to present the early stages of the Well Connected project. We also presented Well Connected to Student Services staff at the Staff Briefing and this presentation seemed to go down well. You can view the presentation on this link   (you only need to watch the first 3 or 4 minutes of each video except the last one which you are allowed to smile and tap your feet at all the way to the end!)

We have had a really healthy number of staff approach us about the project which has been really gratifying. It has certainly made us think about how we should join the dots a bit more to all the other excellent work going on in the University of Sheffield Student Services Department.

so all aboard we're nearly ready for departure.


On track

Posted by cg1ns Feb 12, 2012

In a previous post I had compared the Well Connected project to that of building a new train station. As I’m clearly running out of steam in choosing new analogies I thought I’d chug chug chug along with my rail comparison to let you know that Well Connected is still on track.


Well Connected is intended as both a hub and a destination and we have a number of the platforms built now. Nine of the topic groups have been written. These have now gone out for expert review to a number of different professionals within the University of Sheffield. It is beyond doubt that their comments will improve the strength of the content, but as we undertook prior research into the best advice and information to give I hope the platforms’ foundations are strong enough  upon which to build each platform/topic.


A shiny new station is no good if no one knows that it exists. Our Twitter and Facebook campaigns are growing ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ especially as we begin to link the information we send out to current themes. Revision tips were sent out in early January followed in the last two weeks on links to managing exam anxiety. As National Eating Disorder week is on in February so the Well Connected tweets and posts will focus on this issue. It is good to know that people whose attention we grab through social media then investigate the project more through our student facing blog. One retweet we had was prefaced with the words ‘All roads lead to JISC’ as we make clear the support we receive from JISC as the consultant architects of the Well Connected station.


As we receive more visitors so the word of our existence will spread. Through our focus groups Well Connected learnt that we must not neglect traditional forms of media and human contact. We now have some shiny posters encouraging students to contribute to the project and we held a video event in the Information Commons over the exam period. We set up a video and asked students to write or verbally tell us their best exam tips. We had a number of people volunteer to do this and this has now been edited into a video on You Tube. The surprising thing was that of the 15 people who contributed all, bar one, were male and we had a lot of international students provide their advice. These two groups are traditionally underrepresented in seeking help so their participation was a nice surprise.


As has been said in previous posts the big challenge now is to turn the website away from one created by professionals into one attractive to students because it is full of the student voice. We now have our ethical approval in place to capture the student voice through a variety of media. Attracting and supporting students to contribute is key and this process is already underway but it is our biggest challenge.


Having already met a number of students who have expressed an interest in contributing I have been amazed at how powerful hearing a students’ story has been. With the student consultants I have had the privilege of meeting what they had to tell me, while not necessarily finished, was a compact story with a beginning, middle and a current end. In a short space of time I heard about the problems they were facing, and yes the emotions poured out at this point, the struggles they had and were managing and, crucially, what they had done to make their own lives better. Sometimes this was to seek professional help, sometimes it was using the internet for resources but always it involved the student consultants tapping into their own inner resourcefulness to make changes that helped. The process of telling a story for the benefit of helping others seemed to really help the narrator. If Well Connected can capture this in an engaging, respectful way then students will listen.


While the Well Connected website is almost formed now the journey to discover and disseminate student inspiration is only just beginning


Well Connected - the benefits

Posted by ad1apx Dec 13, 2011

At a recent 'cluster meeting' of JISC projects we were encouraged to blog about the benefits that we were already beginning to realise. I'm going to do this in three parts, focusing on the benefits we anticipated when bidding for project funding. We had three areas in mind:


  1. A new range of web-based products and services
  2. Learning about digital communications strategy
  3. Learning about student engagement.


Today I'm going to talk about the first of these.  So how far have we got with this so far? I think that we've made lots of progress.


First of all we have a really good website in the making. Our partnership with Rckt, the website developers, has been very productive and they have designed something for us which is very clear, colourful and attractive. Our student focus groups liked it very much and thought that it was both good to look at and 'trustworthy' in character, the sort of place you'd go to for reliable information.


We hope to have a beta version of the site available to view before Christmas and we'll post a link so that our project friends and stakeholders can give us feedback. It's very exciting to have something on screen at last and I can't think of any another website quite like this in the HE world - it's very innovative. Naturally, there'll be a smart phone version.


Nic has been very busy writing material for the site and this will be categorised under 12 headings (each a 'presenting issue' like depression or anxiety for example). There will also be links to other websites and sources of information The development of this material is based on an extensive review of available self-help material carried out by Nic and Liz Brewster earlier in the project. The material looks good but we're going to put it out to expert review just to make sure we haven't missed anything. The final step, other than completing the writing, will be to overlay and interweave it with student stories, which we'll be collecting in the coming months.


Finally, Kim Dent Brown has developed an online questionnaire or 'self-check' on psychological well-being, based on the well-known CORE instrument. this looks very good and will mean that any student can complete the questionnaire online, whenever they like, and get personalised feedback, which will also direct them to the most appropriate sources of help and support. Again, this is very innovative and we look forward to assessing it's impact.


So that's where we are in this area - the benefits are definitely beginning to take shape, on screen in fact! And in my next blog I'm going to say something on what we're learning about digital communication strategy.


December reflections ho ho ho

Posted by cg1ns Dec 13, 2011

Through the development of digital media the world is changing and how people learn is changing. This applies to mental health promotion and wellbeing as well. No longer is it necessary for a student to recognise they need help and then pluck up the courage to ask an expert for help. As we know many never do ask.  Many students probably use the internet to find information, self help and perhaps find online support.


Maybe this asynchronous learning (i.e. not real time) is the default preference digital natives adopt rather than the real time experience of talking to someone. Some might argue that this should be the case, that students should exhaust all online options before considering the traditional synchronous face-to-face support. This might be appealing to accountants, as information online is cheaper to provide than human interaction, but it is also discombobulating because it leaves the university with little control over the support or information students’ can access.


The ‘well connected’ project was never intended to replace existing real time human student support services. Rather its purpose is to complement them by reaching out to the digital native and making them aware a mental health and wellbeing strategy exists and helps them recognise that support, of all kinds, is available when they require it. It is fortunate then, that in all three of the student focus groups that we have just completed, all groups stressed the need for information about the project, and information within the website to be made available in more traditional ways; posters, leaflets, entries in official university literature and through human interactions. All of the facilitators were quite surprised at how important traditional media remains in the consciousness of the student body. The focus groups re-inforced what we already knew that a digital communication strategy needs to be just one component of a bigger communication plan.


As the web is not designed (usually) for a linear learning experience so the university needs to ensure its online presence and information it provides is relevant and engaging. This is why we began with a systematic exploration of existing online content which was then reviewed and rated. A large chunk of the content has now been written and has gone out to be peer reviewed. Once this is done, corrections will need to be made, and in early 2012 the content and the website will be reviewed by the end users themselves.


‘Well connected’ is both a destination and a hub and we know that students will very quickly find themselves in sites not owned by the University of Sheffield.  The insertion of links is a key feature in almost all forms of digital communication, just think Twitter, Facebook, web articles, Wikipedia etc, which allows the reader to bounce around the web adding depth and relevance to the information found at their initial starting page. The open access of the web does mean that it is possible to find conflicting opinions on everything, including presumably whether it is possible to find conflicting opinions on everything! This is why our original scoping was so important to ensure our signposting goes to excellent resources. Links within social media are commonplace and as social media is a way of sharing experiences and knowledge with a wide range of friends and weak-tie acquaintances so it allows people to recommended links. Another of our challenges is to be part of this university social media ecosystem so we can both collect and disseminate timely and relevant student support information.


Another of the finds from our focus groups was that perhaps we had underestimated the continued importance of text based information to our students. This should not really have been a surprise. After all digital natives use text all the time. Some might say there has been a renaissance in reading and writing among young people.  They send text messages, BBM, IM, Facebook lots of times every day. Usually they are choosing to communicate using text over more intimate means of communication such as telephone or a face to face service such as Skype.


What we are learning from our research and the student feedback supports what we see happening on ‘You Tube’. It is not desirable to replicate normal face to face interactions on video. Less is more. This is one of the projects main challenges; how to produce quality content that is only as long or as detailed as it needs to be. To help with answering that both the ‘well connected’ content and the student stories we are collecting are framed to provide ‘know how’ rather than ‘know that’. By that I mean the project is providing strategies and answers rather than simply explanations. Will this be what the students want? The answer will become clearer when we ask them to assess our beta version of the website content in early 2012.


World Mental Health Day

Posted by cg1ns Oct 10, 2011

We are poised excitedly, like a conductor stood proudly on his podium, or a director reading nervously through her screenplay, as this project is now ready to leap off the paper. Text has been written, web designers chosen, student consultants found. It seems appropriate that, on world Mental Health Day 2011, the project moves into its next stage. After all the project planning, meetings, discussions, research and writing carried out by the 'sensible and staid' professionals the project development now moves into the hands of the real experts, the people who will bring it to life – the students.


We have always had student consultants on the steering group, so listening to students is not a new aspect to the project. In fact we asked the students what we should be called through a naming competition. The result is the project is called Well Connected. Do you like it? It was the winner because it emphasises the importance of the need to feel connected to feel good about ourselves. A university is a great place to make life long connections and the student services department here at the University of Sheffield work very hard to help students do just that.


What’s in a name? It is the beginnings of an identity and a brand and a message. Our web design team are working hard on that. Well Connected is now present in the worlds of Twitter and Facebook and we are being followed and liked in equal measure so far. This allows us to spread the word about Well Connected, to engage further the digitally native student. Each day a tweet or two sings out links to support and information about mental health, to encourage co-operation and contributions.


Not all connections are being made virtually. Meetings with student groups mean Well Connected will be represented at their World Mental Health Day celebrations in the Student Union this week. Thanks to the support of our more technical colleagues Well Connected are able to offer training and equipment for the students to capture their Mental Health Day event on camera. For the first time one of the project goals – for students to create content that is relevant and interesting to them – will be tried. No wonder there is a sense of exhilarated apprehension running through the Well Connected collaborators.


The World Mental Health Day event is just the start of the co-creation process. As Well Connected becomes known, and more students express an interest, so the project has more talent upon which to draw upon ensure that the messages and mediums created work for the right people at the right time. While the draft text for the support topics continues to be developed the focus of the project just now is the push for student engagement. The positive support we have had from staff and students alike means that already we are doing well at making the right connections.


Yesterday a group of us met with two website developers - Rckt and HMA - to choose a partner for the development of the new student mental health website. We chose Rckt. Both companies had worked with the university on various projects before and were obviously very competent but, apart from issues of cost, we felt Rckt 'got' the concept of student engagement that we're working with in a clearer way than HMA. The decision to choose Rckt was unanimous.


Anyway, this is an exciting decision to have made and it marks a key point in the project, in that before too long - during the autumn - we should see something appearing on screens. We're very keen to have them work collaboratively with Kim and Nic on the online referral and online content aspects of the project and also of course to have them work alongside students, which they're keen to do.


If you'd like to see examples of their work you can go to their website at: With the University they've been involved, amongst other things, in the Project Sunshine and Money Tools websites:



That's it for now. Hopefully we'll be meeting up with them in early September to establish a more detailed plan for working together.




Digital communication strategy

Posted by ad1apx Jul 25, 2011

One of the things we've promised to do in this project is to produce some thinking on  'digital communication strategy', so I'm just posting a few ideas of my own as an invitation to others to join in .


Two caveats to begin with.




One is that we're sure to develop our thinking on this as the project progresses. Nic's blog post on 'Being St Pancras' shows one aspect of this, in the shift of thinking from 'website as destination' to 'website as hub'. Another has been the greater emphasis on student engagement that we decided upon almost as soon as the project started.




The second caveat is that I personally feel, like others I'm sure, that I'm only just beginning to grasp the full ramifications of embracing digital media in our work. It clearly has a transformational potential but just what that potential is in the context of our work is difficult to be clear about right now.


So the ideas I'm about to set out are simply starters and I'd appreciate it if other colleagues on the project could contribute some ideas too - our collective thinking is bound to be more powerful than the thinking we do alone.


So here are a potential strategic themes as 'starters for 10':


  • Student engagement seems very important, in two ways. One is that we can simply learn more about students' wants and needs through these media but, more than this, the essence of social media is co-creation. We're about to experiment with co-creation in this project, where we'll be working with students to create content. Depending on how far we took this idea, it could be quite transformational.
  • Developing services based on these media. We've already moved towards putting some existing processes online (like appointments and registration) but the technology also allows us to think about online referral, providing advice and signposting online, providing self-help material online and maybe even e-counselling...
  • Making information available online. I mentioned self-help information above and to that we could add mental health promotion, helping students to gain a better understanding of mental health and well-being and of their own mental states. This can both be co-created with students and take advantage of the vast quantities of online material. We don't have to have everything on our own website, as Nic points out in 'Being St Pancras' - we can think about it as a hub rather than as a destination.
  • Creating online dialogue with students - or underpinning face to face dialogue with digital exchanges - how would that look?
  • Marketing services -  we can learn from the Students' Union by marketing some of our services through social media. Something like Skills for Life workshops could be advertised through the Union's Facebook and Twitter feeds for example.


And of course all of these are what we're experimenting with in this project.


I notice that the most exciting, different and potentially transformational themes on the list are underpinned by the idea of relationship. The biggest changes in this field are those where social media are involved and where a different sort of interaction is made possible between service provider and service user. That's both exciting and challenging for us.


The question I've addressed here is 'how can we use digital media to achieve our our strategic goals in student mental health?' but in thinking about digital communications strategy there is another question, namely 'how can we become better at using digital media?' I'll come back to this in another blog but anyone interested might like to look at a framework which Nic put me on to , which you can find at this link:


There have been a number of interesting and challenging findings uncovered as we have been beginning to use our scoping exercise to create the content for our website. The scoping has been very thorough and systematic and we have not just limited our search to just the UK. Yet even when virtually venturing to different continents we have been surprised how consistent the ‘advice’ provided has been [so far we have begun creating content for Sleep Difficulties and the wide area of Academic Pressures]. Also surprising, for this writer at least, has been how boring the websites viewed have been. Virtually every bit of content has been plain text based. There have been some audio files, the very occasional video and one or two neat interactive elements but otherwise the world is supporting its students through the medium of website based text.


This disappointing discovery has been both encouraging and worrying.  I am encouraged because the project we are undertaking, if successful, will be something very different to what else is out there. I’m discouraged because at the moment I’m trying to create or signpost to content that on its own looks a bit dull. Because it is in text, in a word document (I tried Powerpoint and I don’t have Publisher) with some clip art for illustrations. It doesn’t look good even if the advice is good and is delivered humorously. That piano playing cat on You Tube could have designed it better. Although I doubt the cat could spell procrastination. She would probably have been okay with purr - fectionism though.


This creative process led then to our other discovery -  that the content and the design of the site actually go hand in hand. They feed each other, which is difficult when they’re holding hands, but that’s what happens when you mix metaphors. To achieve a site that supports students in ways of their choosing we need to have student created content. The content that is emerging from this scoping exercise will feed the content students will develop but we will also need to change and adapt our content to fit in with what students contribute and what they tell us they want.


The initial idea was that by then end of summer 2011 we would have some content to showcase to students and canvas their opinion. This will still be the case but what we are learning is that for this project to be really successful the content needs to be created collaboratively. This collaboration is precisely what the social media generation expects.


The development of successful social media strategies is something else I am learning lots about. I recently followed the ‘Third Sector Social Media Convention’ via its’ twitter feed which was fascinating. I’m waiting for the presentations to be posted to their website before blogging about my experience of, and learning from, this conference. Is waiting to view presentations on powerpoint slideshows a sign of my social media reticence? No it’s a recognition that any social media strategy needs to co-exist with mainstream means of communication. Besides I can then print out the presentation,s which may be ecologically unfriendly, but it does help my dwindling eyesight.


Till then




Being St Pancras

Posted by cg1ns Jun 24, 2011

When I expressed an interest in this project I thought it my contribution would be quite contained. I offered to lead on developing the content for the unified Sheffield student wellbeing and mental health website. I suppose I originally saw the website as the end goal of the project, something that, once completed would with regular updates, exist ready for interested students to access it.

What I have rapidly learnt is that the website isn’t the end of the project. It isn’t even the beginning. It is a large cog in what needs to be a wider and more complex digital communication strategy.



I’m now viewing the website now like a shiny new railway station, a bit like the new St Pancras. It is a beautifully crafted building that has kept much of its’ old grandeur, yet is dynamic and modern. You can go to St Pancras and enjoy it for what is there – shops, delis, restaurants, street theatre, stalls, mini exhibitions. It is a destination. Yet its’ main function is that it is a hub. It is a place that people enter into in order to depart from. St Pancras provides information about destinations and facilitates people getting on the right track. In this sense it is a transition point. This is exactly the trick that our new website needs to achieve. We need a website that is both a destination - offering people enough relevant and useful information that they require at that time, and a hub – a starting point for someone’s journey that helps people to navigate the best route for them.. The website needs to be a place that delivers enough accurate, engaging content to the many whilst signposting the many to more in depth information that addresses their  personal needs.


Our ‘railway station’ needs to be welcoming and relevant so it has something that attracts people to it, has enough  information that encourages people to stay , and the right amount of information that directs people to leave down the line that will most help them. It is a bigger challenge than I certainly envisaged.


Look at the range of destinations our St Pancras needs to offer people. How many stations offer links to Paris, Brussels, Sheffield and Flitwick? Yet our task as ‘station’ designers is to offer a comprehensive timetable to a wide variety of places where people find support with their particular and personal issues. As people are different each problem destination needs to be able to be helpful to a range of people; from those interested in improving their wellbeing to those with more complex mental health problems.

Constructing the infrastructure and content as described above is really important, but it is not sufficient. We also need to develop a variety of modes of transport relevant to our students so that the information they require is available for them when they want it, how they want it and at the right time for them.


The website needs to be just one part of the digital communication strategy. Providing information through Facebook, Twitter, My Space etc requires, from this writer at least, a whole new set of ‘engineering’ skills.


My biggest learning so far from the project has been that to make this project successful we need to fully engage with the students who we want to use the site. This engagement in itself is a vital part of the digital communication strategy.

We will be asking students what they want to know, how they want to receive information and when they want that information to be delivered. The very process of engaging students and asking these questions is itself part of the mental health promotion strategy. Aside from providing the development team with information it raises awareness of wellbeing and mental health issues in our community.


After all it is no use having a sparkly railway terminal if no-one knows it exists.


Getting off the ground...

Posted by ad1apx Jun 9, 2011

This is my first blog post and it marks the completion of what feels like a significant phase of the project, namely getting things off the ground. It has been hard work for a number of people most closely involved in the project and a steep learning curve. But the project is off the ground and well underway, with a detailed project plan now submitted to JISC.


A very significant piece of learning for me has been the difference between having an idea for a project (albeit a detailed one in this case) and then turning that into a real and active reality. (In fact 'gulf' might be a better word than 'difference'!) Things have to be thought through in fine detail, possibilities tested, ambiguities ironed out, people have to commit to carrying things through and detailed timelines and outcomes have to be agreed. As someone who tends to be more big picture than detail conscious, this has been quite a challenge!


I'm conscious too that by its nature every project is to some extent emergent and therefore there's a tension between committing to specific actions and outcomes and leaving things open to change. (I'll give an example of this shortly).


In concrete terms Nic Streatfield and Liz Brewster are well into the scoping work that forms the first part of their contribution to the project ('Developing Online Content'). They've also come up with lots of really interesting ideas for engaging students in the project and enabling their voices to be heard throughout.


Kate Tindle and I have also had very useful discussions with Kim Dent Brown to clarify the nature of the 'online referral process' and he is now in the early stages of that work.


I'll be turning next to the web site development element of the project, hoping to engage a developer by the start of the new academic year. We've already made contact with some likely providers.


Possibly the most interesting development so far has been around student engagement, which the project group decided to make a much stronger element of the project than first envisaged. We've invited two 'student consultants' to sit on the project group, as well as the Students' Union Welfare Officer and this has already been useful in its own right. But Nic and Liz have also been thinking about how to involve students through blogs and focus groups and we've talked to Brendan Stone about asking his third-year English students to work with their fellow students to create and record 'narratives' of their experiences of mental health issues, which can then form part of our online content. Our aim is to have students almost as 'co-designers' in the project, so that the eventual product really reflects their needs and preferences.


All very creative and thought-provoking but....because of lots personal nature, this has then led us into the realms of research ethics approval, a task we hadn't really anticipated. None of this was really planned; hence my comment about 'emergence' above.


Finally, it's been quite striking to me just how much we've got from the project team, even at this early stage. Nearly everyone has been able to make a significant contribution already, which is really encouraging.


I'll be adding regular updates to this blog and I'd encourage other members of the project group to blog about their experience and learning too.


Alan - 9 June 2011