Category: People, Place and Work

strategic review of VLEs

Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic –, CC BY-SA 4.0,

It’s been a big year for our VLE, Blackboard Learn.

We have had Learn at University of Edinburgh for a long time. VLEs are not a particularly new technology, they’ve been around for more than 20 years. In other countries VLEs are known as LMSs: learning management systems.   In the UK virtual learning environments (VLEs) suffer from a branding which often makes them sound more immersive and dynamic than they are.

Given the size and scale of our curriculum Learn does a lot of heavy lifting which may have gone largely unnoticed by the majority of teaching staff until this year. Every course has a place on Learn to manage learning materials and groups. The learning platform is integrated into other core systems and the timetable. It draws together data from across the university to ensure that the right people have access to the learning materials and communication tools that they need.  Every year in June it rolls over and all the course spaces are replicated, ready to be filled with new materials for new students. The older course spaces stay put and students retain access to the materials and discussions from previous years to aid their revision and progression.  Many of our library resources are lisenced only for course groups and Learn makes it possible for us to make those available to select groups.

The history of VLEs at Edinburgh is characterised, as with so many areas of the university, by a proliferation of local solutions which were unsustainable and confusing for users. In the past our distance learning courses were offered on 13 different platforms, each with their own technical teams and support requirements. As the platforms aged Knowledge Strategy Committee recognised the risk of this technical debt and and in order to sustain the online distance learning activity  which brings the university thousands of learners each year we have migrated all that distance learning to Learn through our VLE consolidation project. We are now able to support this aspect of university business through a single helpdesk and the 70+ online distance learning masters level courses are now delivered on Learn.

The work on the VLE consolidation project occupied all of the effort of our ISG technical teams for several years. This left us frustratingly far behind other institutions which have been investing in their undergraduate VLE.  That began to change in 2019 when we embarked on our Learn Foundations project in an attempt to tackle the aspects of confusion and inconsistency which were badly impacting our students’ experience.  The Learn Foundations project now involves 21 Schools and we have worked closely with local learning technologists, teaching offices and student interns to deliver this change. 4,000 students have been involved in our user research and 40+ interns have worked to map, analyse and improve course areas online. The work has been shared in reports, presentations and posters  at University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching conferences and has won awards within the global community of Learn institutions.

In the last 2 years we have engaged with thousands of Edinburgh students in the biggest co-design exercise the University has ever carried out on its VLE.  We have built up a very rich and detailed picture of what students and staff need to do in Learn, and why.  The detailed UX work we have done as part of our Learn Foundations project has given us a hope of being able to optimise our support services to support a broadly similar template.   The schools who have been part of that project have benefited from support in migration, accessibility and training.

We moved Learn to ‘the Cloud’ before the pandemic and I hope to  move it to the next version (Ultra) soon. This year the amount of activity in the VLE has grown considerably and both the license and storage costs have increased. It is even more important now that colleagues ensure that they consider course design to make the best use of the platform for teaching. Training in all aspects of using Learn is available to all and we offer a bespoke programme of support for ‘An Edinburgh Model of teaching online’.

If we were ever to move VLE it is this work on Learn Foundations which would make that even possible.  I hope that in the near future we will have support from across the university for a more root and branch overhaul of our main teaching platform.  It would be a huge, multi-year project involving every course leader, every school office, every local learning technologist, large IT teams, changes to all the training, integrations, helpdesks, student handbooks, support pages and changes to teaching practice, but I think that the lessons learned from teaching this year and the institution-wide work on curriculum review will be a great place to start.


It would be expensive. And it would take years. We’d be running systems in parallel for years, so its hard to see this as a cost effective option.



The Vice Principals rolled out BB  across the board. Except that it didn’t go across the board, 13 local VLEs were spun up by the groups who were delivering distance learning with Distance Education Initiative (DEI ) funding. It was a worthy strategy of supporting local innovation but it resulted in a huge technical debt which CMVM swiftly transfered to Information Services  and we have spent years sorting out.

Over the last 5 years those 13 local VLEs have decayed and failed, and in order to sustain the activity the university has invested heavily in migrating that distance learning to Learn ( VLE consolidation project) . Circa 70  online distance learning courses are  now delivered on BB Learn for University of Edinburgh.

The roll-out  of Learn across UG teaching wasn’t managed consistently either.  Every course leader and school did their own thing, leading to years of user confusion from students as they moved from course to course.

In the last 2 years we have engaged with more than 4,000 students in the biggest co-design exercise the University has ever carried out on its VLE.  We have built up a very rich and detailed picture of what students and staff need to do in Learn, and why.

The detailed UX work we have done as part of our Learn Foundations project has given us a hope of ever being able to optimise our support services to support a broadly similar template.   The schools who have been part of that project have benefited from support in migration, accessibility and training.

If we were ever to move VLE it is this work on Learn Foundations which would make that even possible.  It would still be  a huge project involving every course leader, every school office, every local learning technologist, large IT teams, changes to all the training, integrations, helpdesks, student handbooks, support pages. It would be expensive. And it would take years. We’d be running systems in parallel for years, so its hard to see this as a cost effective option.

We moved Learn to ‘the Cloud’ before the pandemic and I hope to  move it to the next version ( Ultra) soon. Hopefully that will improve the interface and  make colleagues happy ( er).

This year we had an embarrassing 240 minute outage at the start of term. Learn wasn’t actually down, we just couldn’t access it, which is basically the same thing.

Other than that we had 39 minutes down for a whole year.



learning cultures

You’ll have seen that the university’s current stated position for next year is :’ We currently plan to deliver a mix of in-person and digital teaching for the academic year starting in September 2021’. Teaching and learning in 2021-22 | The University of Edinburgh. Ryan has been interrogating our training data and it looks like in some parts of the university fewer than 2% of the academic staff came to any training on how to use the tools they needed for their teaching this year. We must think creatively about how to create a culture of learning amongst our colleagues so that they can do it better next time.

The students who are often disabled by the  physical teaching environment are concerned that ‘Accessibility and the way that it is being dealt with is currently being seen as a side effect or a consequence of the pandemic. However, the resistance from staff to online teaching is frustrating and doesn’t give hope for post-Covid ‘. We must think creatively about how to ensure that accessibility is seen less as a technical issue but more one of inclusion.

what do you do all day?


I am sometimes surprised by how passionately academic colleagues will demand to be ‘allowed’ to teach using Teams when for many years they have insisted that only tools designed for educational use were suitable for their pedagogy.

Microsoft sell a lot of software to universities and I am sure they are keen for us to use it in all kinds of ways, a lot.

When the university is considering the future of work and colleagues lobby to stay at home, it is worth getting up to speed on the surveillance tools in business software and reading the fine print of your contract carefully.

Do you have the right to a private life?

Here’s a good podcast:

Virtual Burns Night 2021

a drunk woman looked at a thistle.

I am a fan of Burns night and I’ve hosted a few spirited and toasted lassies.

This year I have invited my teams to a virtual Burns night on Monday.

‘Please bring your favourite poem/ song/dance by Burns or any of his contemporaries or similar Scottish music. Burns was prolific and one of the joys of his work is that you can find a poem or a view from him on just about anything.  If you can find his view on Brexit ‘While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things’, COVID ‘Tae a virus’ , lockdown ‘Here’s friends locked doon on baith sides o’ the firth’, working from home, social distancing ‘Gin a body meet a body, catching Covid, Aye?’,  face coverings ‘Fair fa’ your honest, covered face…’, well-being, hobbies, black lives, sourdough, furlough, home-schooling ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’,  Teams ‘To see oursels as others see us!’ or elearning  you’ll win a fab prize.’

Haggis is just haggis, a smile is just a smile.

Our virtual Burns Night featured beautiful music performances from Lauren (Wild Mountainside) and Lorraine ( The Silver Tassie), and the suggestion that we all upload pictures of our haggis dinners to Wikipedia.

During the evening a number of lost Burns manuscripts were given their first public performance. A selection is curated below:


Tam O’2020

When chapman billies leave the street
And drouthy neebors video meet
As Waitrose delivery is running late
An’ folk begin to accept their fate;
While we sat boozing at the telly
And getting fou and awfy smelly
We think na on the lang Scots miles.
The fit bit steps we tracked with smiles
That lie between us and our hame
Whare sits our sulky sullen dame
Gathering her brows like gathering storm
Nursing her Deliveroo to keep it warm.

So, Shall Distance

This tale o’ truth  I shall read,
woman and mother’s son take heed;
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or social joys run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy joys for now
But wi’ mair pox horrible and awfu’,
Three lawyers says it is unlawfu’.

Argyle Epistle

We think na on the lang Scots miles, 
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles, 
That lie between us and our hame in argyle house, 
Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,  
To think how many counsels sweet,  
How many lengthen’d, sage advices,  
The workers wish the boss, consise is.

Hoppers Lament

That dreary hour she opens Teams in;
On such a night she was online in.
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Karen did na mind the storm a whistle.
Till first ae system, syne anither,
Gave up working  a’ thegither,

And roars out, “Media Hopper doesnae work!”
And in an instant all was dark: 
And scarcely had she Liam rallied, 
When out the hellish legion sallied.

As bees bizz out wi’ angry fyke,
When plundering herds assail their byke;
As eager runs the market-crowd,
When “Catch the thief!” resounds aloud;
So Karen runs, the witches follow,
Wi’ mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.

To LISC  Ah, Karen thou’ll get thy fairin’!
In ITC they’ll roast thee like a herrin’!
And KSC awaits thy commin’!

The Cotter’s  Night Locked In

O Scotia! my dear, my native soil!
For whom my warmest wish to Heaven is sent,
Long may thy hardy staff of IT toil
Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet open content!
And O! may Heaven their simple lives prevent
From covid’s contagion, weak and vile!
Then howe’er crowns and coronets be rent,
A virtuous populace may rise the while,
And stand a wall of fire around their much-lov’d isle.






menopause and homeworking

My collection of workplace fans.

You’ll remember that in the hot, hot offices of ISG on campus we had a bit of discussion about menopause. It was quite ‘the talk of the Steamie’ after I presented about it at the ISG all-staff meeting in Gordon Aikman Lecture theatre.

I’ll be presenting about it again at the upcoming  Advance HE EDI conference in the Spring.  I’m also presenting about  ‘tempered radicals’, but that’s a different story. Or perhaps not if it is all about heat.

In order to be up to date though we’d have to be thinking as employers about the different experience for menopausal women of working from home. During Covid, but perhaps for longer by choice.

Mary reminded me to update my thinking.

Working from home may infact be the best thing to happen to menopausal women as we now have choice, flexibiity and control over the temperature, number of cushions and our layers of clothing.

There was some evidence previously that working from an office while female and menopausal was so horrible that we lost women from our workforce at just the moment that they are at their most wise. Perhaps now we will be able to keep them.

Is anyone researching this? Of course they are!

Working from home: can it impact on menopause?

The health and socioeconomic impact on menopausal women of working from home

Supporting employees through menopause when working remotely

digital internships

A picture of some of our interns in previopus years. Picture not taken by me. Original at:

In common with many other universities we worked with students over the summer  to prepare for hybrid learning and teaching.  LTW recruited and managed 44 student interns who migrated over 3000 courses from 20 schools into the institutional template in our VLE.

The Learn Foundations project team is experienced in employing student interns to support business requirements generated as a result of the implementation of the Learn Foundations approach.  This year however, the number of interns working with the team and School colleagues was quadrupled and the students all had to work remotely as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

From the support provided by the student interns, the following was achieved:

  • Over 3000 20/21 courses migrated onto the Learn Foundations template;
  • Over 1000 of the above courses supported with content migration;
  • Over 100 academics liaised with directly regarding content migration;
  • Over 600 courses were mapped with over 80, 000 items reviewed to allow for an institutional baseline for Learn courses to begin to be created;
  • Undertook over 16, 000 accessibility checks across circa 2000 19/20 Learn Courses to understand ‘how accessible’ content and courses are within Learn;

Careful thought went in to supporting the interns to bond as a team and structure their days with a mix of work, set breaks and social activities to keep them busy, motivated and refreshed.  A daily briefing session was held to discuss tasks, review progress and allocate activities, this also provided the interns with an opportunity to come together as a team.  These sessions have been positively evaluated by the students who valued the structure and sense of purpose they provided.  They also enabled students to raise questions with team members about technical questions and other issues.

“Having a set time for a call each morning was great as it provided a structure and set out the tasks. It also allowed us to feel more a part of the team.”

In addition to the morning briefing, the team instigated a twice-weekly social hour for students to come together and have a bit of fun.  These served to support team bonding and break up work flow.  These were managed by the project manager and project administrator and were positively evaluated by the students.

“The social hours were great to allow us to bond as a team. It created a healthier atmosphere and made us more comfortable working with each other.”


With such a large number of interns working remotely there was a risk that the coordination of task allocation and delivery could become fragmented and messy.  Microsoft Teams was used as a work platform with one central channel for all students and latterly, additional work specific channels were created for those students involved in certain tasks.

“I think working on Microsoft teams, having dedicated channels and a daily meeting worked well.”

There were challenges in managing workflow throughout the internship as a result of the large number of students involved and rapidly changing business requirements as a result of the speed with which School colleagues were adapting and adjusting to new ways of working.  When there was a break in workflow, students were encouraged to use LinkedIn Learning as a tool for professional development.

Hardware, software and the internet

Students were offered hardware to ensure they were able to deliver their work from home.  In previous years, computers and laptops would have been available from an office base.  Some of the students experienced a delay in receiving hardware which had an impact on their ability to get started straight away with their work.

The students commented on the challenges of remote working.  Some experienced periods of isolation and felt separated from their colleagues; most appreciated the effort that went in to building a team and keeping them involved and busy.

“It was tough doing this remotely as you couldn’t really get to know your colleagues. The social hours helped but I think it was often tough to organise fun activities with each other and people often backed out.”

“It was really nice that we were given so much social time, as it felt especially isolating working from home and not meeting other people.”

“It was challenging for a start to bond online however after a few weeks our team became quite close.”

The team was aware that technical and internet issues may impact on workflow and took positive steps to support the interns with hardware and software advice.  These issues were taken account of in the work flow to ensure the students were not placed under pressure or disadvantaged as a result of these factors which were out of their control.  This was appreciated by the students.

“The team was very understanding of technical or internet issues which was great because that could have been stressful.”

Remote working

Despite the challenges of engaging with such a large number of student interns working from home, the experience of remote working seems to have been valued by them.  They identified the challenges but most also commented on how beneficial the experience had been to them.

“It was a really developing experience because I think I learnt more about working in a team virtually than when working in the office! The number of emails and messages sent also made me much more comfortable with working online in a professional setting.”

“The opportunity to work remotely in a team has been a valuable experience. Because of this, I believe that my communication skills and confidence in working independently have improved.”

Investment and outcomes

Whilst the students have highly evaluated their internship experience, the investment required from the team to support such a large number of students and provide them with a high quality experience, was high, especially by the project manager and project administrator.  It is estimated that between them, the project manager and project administrator, invested the equivalent of 4 months of work over the internship period to supporting the students with additional resource from Colleges for supporting students allocated to them.  That said, the students delivered a collective equivalent of 21 months of work (based on the hours worked by each intern over the period).  This represents a four-fold return on investment.  The student interns effectively provided a focused resource boost, at scale, over the 5 months that they were employed.

Whilst this larger number of students has had to be carefully managed, the return has far outweighed the investment, although should this approach be adopted next year, consideration may need to be given to the appointment of an internship coordinator to ensure a continuing positive experience for the students and the ongoing quality of their work.  Feedback gained from School colleagues has been unanimously positive about the work completed by the student interns.

Without the considerable impact of the student interns, the project would not have been able to ease the burden from Schools of taking on the Learn Foundations approach, especially at such a business critical time, nor would the project have been in a position to work at such a granular level to ensure courses were effectively migrated to Learn Foundations.

With the dedicated support of the Learn Foundations team, the student interns have become ambassadors for Learn Foundations, widening the positive impact of the approach and demonstrating the value of student as partners in the delivery of University-wide activities.

Thank you, All.

about the place

I keep meaning to go back to this blog post and update it with further steps but in the meantime I have been out and about online while staying safely at home.

I was on the ALT Summer Summit Opening Plenary panel, ‘Learning Technology in times of Crisis, Care and Complexity – the Strategic view’ , 26th August 2020

I spoke at the University of Stavanger, Norway edtech event KnowHow EdTech, 23rd September

I gave a keynote  ‘Design For Life’ at the AACE Innovate Learning Summit,  November 3-5, 2020

I presented ‘The Value of Wikipedia Editing’ at the conference “Wikipedia’s Women Problem” – Università degli studi di Padova,  9th November 2020

and I’m scheduled to speak in Sheffield Hallam in December.

I was supposed to be at OEB in Berlin but I missed the email deadline to switch from Christmas markets to online.



‘Gradually, then suddenly’ as Hemingway would say.

Tassel shop in Madrid for all your matador needs. Picture taken by me, no rights reserved.

In The Sun Also Rises* one character asks another how they went broke. The reply is ‘Gradually, then suddenly’.  I am reminded of this when people ask me about the progress of digital education at scale at University of Edinburgh.  We have been world-leading in online masters courses for many years and our previous Principal invested heavily in digital innovation and technology for education. I am a  grateful beneficiary of this in working with such a large learning technology group.

We have, for many years been persuading, inspiring and supporting colleagues to make use of online technologies to do their teaching in different and new ways.  It was a long term, gradual, endeavor with 2 year, 5 year and 10 years plans.

And then Suddenly Last Summer**  we have lifted and shifted the entire, enormous, unwieldy, UoE undergraduate offering online.

It is perhaps challenging for online learning leaders and learning technology aficionados to come to terms with the fact that we did not deliver this change through careful support, inspirational argument or the power of convincing evidence. We had to do it  in ways we never anticipated. We have been forced to do things we hoped we would never have to do. We have put in place systems and support for rushed replication of on-campus delivery online.  We have become middleware.  We are at the same time  essential and largely irrelevant. And we are caught in a crazy world in which students and staff who would previously have mounted barricades to resist the use of technology in their teaching are balloting their unions and lobbying management to insist on it.

How will this play out? If students do well in their exams this year will we hail the lift and shift as a success? Perhaps all our previous insistence on planned, careful design was unwarranted. Are exam results the measure of good teaching and learning? If so, it’s a good thing each institution has autonomy in assessment and everything is open to interpretation. In whose interest is it for the shift to online story to be told as a huge success or a massive failure? A truth serum may be what we need.


*Ernest Hemingway

** Tennessee Williams

This post inspired by Vicki and Robyn who are missing a bit of gothic.




Shofar, so good.


We’ve been having a bit of a rocky time with some of our platforms as the activity ramps up wildly toward the start of semester and the head of the year.  We now have 92,995  items in Media Hopper Create,  8300 of those have been uploaded since the 1st of September.

That’s on top of the 63,000 items we have in our Replay Lecture recording system. That’s a huge collection of home grown, born digital content. Worth blasting and shouting about.

3470 of the items in Media Hopper have the open, creative commons licenses on them. I think we could do better on this.  If you have ideas how to encourage  more colleagues to choose that  option to make their materials open educational resources (OER) for others to use, that will help the university towards its commitment to the UN sustainable development goals.

Have a sweet new year.

*Update: after writing this post on 18th Sept our media platform ground to a halt and our VLE crashed. I assume this is my comeuppance and must duly atone.


to gather data about equality in university IT teams

Front Cover Issue 9 – Image of woman with household items: iron, thread etc. Usage terms: © Estate of Roger Perry Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence – See more at:

In February 2018 an attempt was made from within UCISA to gather data about gender equality in university IT teams and to understand what focus there was on gender equality. An email survey of 20 questions gained 126 responses from 53 institutions.

The results are not formally published but have been presented at UCISA events in 2018 and influenced the decision to have a focus on gender equality at the UCISA leadership conference in 2019.  While recognising the limitations and unscientific nature of the email survey study it serves to highlight the need for further research and practice to support equality and diversity in IT departments in higher education in the UK.   Many of the respondents indicated that they did not think that their institution had in place policies to support gender equality and that in their workplace they could see that gender diversity was not widespread across teams, with project management and helpdesk teams having more women than other areas.

In the UCISA study the majority of respondents were concerned about gender equality and diversity in the IT profession – 80% indicated ‘definitely’ or ‘probably yes’ they were concerned, 11% were ‘not concerned’. 48% of respondents said their institution did not have any gender equality policies in place, and 57% reported that their IT departments did not have specific policies in place to support gender equality. (Fraser-Krauss & Priestley, 2018 unpublished?)

In their 2018 book ‘ Professional and Support Staff in Higher Education’ the authors note the absence of input from any digital, HR or IT professionals and suggest that there is more work to be done in integrating the contribution of these groups to leadership and scholarship:

“we (as contributors, colleagues, and more broadly as institutions) must take some deliberate steps to promote greater inclusion amongst authors contributing to research regarding professional and support staff, especially those who do not currently see themselves as part of the scholarly conversation. Professional and support staff within higher education are diverse, their roles multifaceted, and their contribution and experiences under-examined.”(Bossu et al., 2018b, p. 460)

The UCISA survey, however informal,  further informed the need for further, ongoing work to understand the experiences and perceptions of staff in university IT departments in relation to equality and diversity practice.

Here’s some data from University of Edinburgh IT Services Dept which we can add to the endeavour. EDI ISGReport Summary Report 2020