How we put our VLE at the heart of teaching

The online space has always been part of  on-campus teaching at University of Edinburgh. Our Learn Foundations Project aims to make all the courses in the Learn virtual learning environment (VLE) more usable and consistent to provide a better student experience in the online teaching and learning space.

The events of recent weeks have highlighted a need for robust institutional responses to maintaining teaching continuity. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Edinburgh undertook a ‘digital pivot’ when it moved all on-campus course delivery to ‘remote’ teaching from outwith the campus in response to the national lockdown.

Learn Foundations establishes for the University an institutional standard for the use of Learn. In the past there was inconsistency across courses which contributes to a poor student experience. Students studying across subject areas, Schools, and Colleges, inevitably struggled to find their course-specific resources placed in different folders, and often called different things. Studies by our user experience experts in ISG demonstrated that many students were finding it difficult to use courses in Learn and were therefore having a poor learner experience. Agreeing on an institution-wide standard course structure and consistent course terminology, alleviated needless confusion caused by basic inconsistencies.

LTW Response to Teaching Continuity

Blackboard Learn is the online teaching hub / VLE/ LMS  for all on-campus courses at the University; it is where students  find their lecture recordings, resources and reading lists, submit assignments and receive feedback, and engage in blended learning activities.

In the March 2020 teaching continuity response to the COVID-19 our remote teaching strategy was to focus training on a core toolset (Learn, Collaborate, Media Hopper Create, and Replay) with Learn positioned as “the heart of teaching your course” (https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/learning-technology/more/teaching-continuity/teaching-online). Online training sessions were delivered alongside drop-in sessions providing evidence-based advice about online teaching based on the University’s many years of research and practice in the area of online education (https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/learning-technology/more/teaching-continuity/tips). Key to the message was that academic staff should consider on-campus teaching activities being moved online into Learn for a short period of time to see out the final three weeks of teaching, rather than a full online course redesign.

We saw a huge spike in usage across all our core learning technology services and  in response to a targeted comms campaign, 800 academic staff at University of Edinburgh tuned in to this training as part of the emergency response.

It was clear that those schools who had already adopted the Learn Foundations standard were in a better position to pivot teaching online than those who hadn’t.Those colleagues who had experience of recording their lectures and making their own edits had a headstart too. The largest demand and biggest training need was for using virtual classroom tools ( Collaborate).

Learn Foundations should be considered a fundamental component of Edinburgh’s remote teaching model, delivering a consistent and improved student experience and supporting Schools to use Learn effectively. It improves the staff experience of creating course content so it is easy to upload and straightforward for students to access.  It improves the student experience of carrying out learning tasks and accessing relevant learning materials.

Teaching Continuity – Academic Year 2020/21

Edinburgh University has committed to continuing  taught programmes, where possible, at the start of academic year 2020/21. Whether or not we do something fancy with new undergraduates, this still means thousands of courses online. This will mean a hugely increased focus on Learn as the online hub for teaching activities for on-campus courses. It remains unclear what government guidelines will be in place at that time in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and whether students and staff will be able to access campus buildings. At the very least it is highly likely that some students will not be able to attend campus in September due to travel restrictions and / or relaxed levels of social distancing. We should also be prepared in the coming academic year for full social distancing restrictions to be imposed again at short notice.

Even if the on-campus learners return, this is not a one-off, they will need reassurance that they can go home, if called home and still complete their studies.

All courses should therefore be ready for an online pivot and all teaching staff should be trained to teach elements of their course online. Even if the terminology of being ‘fully online’ is not being used, these remotely taught courses will need all their elements to be available at a distance if needed.

In order to build a consist and usable learner experience into a teaching continuity strategy we propose to include within the scope of Learn Foundations a mapping of all first semester on-campus teaching activities onto online equivalents to enable both online pivots, and remote students to continue to engage with teaching.

Mapping on-campus teaching to pivot online: a simplified hybrid approach

As well as Learn Foundations, a number of existing elements can be repurposed to support academic colleagues and learning technology support teams in the design of an Edinburgh Model of hybrid courses:

  • The on-campus timetable and curriculum should be considered the basis for a mapping of online activities. Where possible these should focus on the core online teaching toolset (Learn, Collaborate, and Media Hopper).
  • Lecture recordings and resources lists provision should be reviewed for gaps in coverage– particularly in first year courses.
  • Audits of accessibility of learning materials will continue and each School will be provided with reports to support improvement in access and inclusion online.
  • Learning designs will be repurposed from ELDeR sessions to inform modes of online teaching which have been tried and tested at University of Edinburgh, giving a firm grounding in appropriate pedagogy.
  • Online ABC sprints, led by school-based learning technologists and under guidance for the ISG learning design service, will lead teaching staff quickly through the process of customising the learning designs for individual courses.
  • The ‘An Edinburgh Model for Online Teaching staff development programme be offered to all teaching staff as an introduction to online teaching, and to give staff the experience of being an online student with a focus on communication, community and care that is important for all online teachers.
  • The learning technology training programme as part of the Learn Foundations project will focus on supporting the delivery of teaching online and the programme of remote training developed in March 2020 will be re-run intensively over the summer. Cross-references and supplemental information from the ‘Edinburgh Model’ course will provide ongoing support for using the core technologies required.
  • Local learning technologists in Schools will support colleagues in making discipline specific decisions about materials online.
  • Communications around the support available for academic colleagues in making this shift in pedagogy will be co-ordinated with IAD.
  • Copyright advice and training for colleagues moving their materials online will be provided by the Library and our Open Educational Resources Service.

We will also continue to offer tools and support for teachers who want to innovate and stretch beyond a core set of tools into using video, blogs, computational notebooks, wikimedia tools and virtual labs. A rush to online delivery by many universities will see skillful course design for accessibility, quality and learning communities become key.  Interoperability, licensing, copyright, IP, technical standards and open development will be as important for sharing, interchange, reuse, local adaptation of materials  as they always have been.

Fingers crossed.

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