Enhancing Our Use of The Learn VLE in Different Teaching Settings

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A new Learn Foundations Academic User Group chaired by Dr Paul Norris from the School of Social and Political Sciences will ensure that the work led by the Learn Foundations project is shaped through user research and evaluation activities.  In this post, Stuart Nicol, Head of Engagement and Digital Education in ISG, chats to Paul about his hopes and aspirations for the group as we continue to navigate unchartered waters and set our sights on increasing normality over the coming 12 months…


For the last few years, Edinburgh has been working to improve the way that Learn, our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), is used for learning and teaching. The Learn Foundations approach aims to:

  • make Learn easier to use for both staff and students;
  • ensure courses are more accessible and inclusive;
  • encourage more consistent use of terminology related to learning and teaching.

Working to deliver these aims through the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in more rapid progress than anticipated.  Learn Foundations was identified by the ART Estates and Digital infrastructure group as an existing piece of service improvement work that could be repurposed as a scalable solution to support and enable hybrid teaching.  Taking account of this, the project employed over 40 student interns over the summer in 2020 to provide additional resource to Schools at a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty.

Learn Foundations is currently supporting 20 Schools and Deaneries, helping colleagues to introduce a more standardised approach to how courses are delivered in Learn. The approach removes from Schools and Deaneries the burden of getting the basics right so that focus can be given to the delivery of teaching in a hybrid context.

Learn Foundations was developed following extensive user research which highlighted the muddled approach to course creation across the institution, leaving students in many instances, struggling to find their course related materials.  Work will continue to review the effectiveness of the Learn Foundations approach in partnership with School and Deanery partners.  The newly established Academic User Group forms a core part of the ongoing process of improvement and an important way for the project to engage with academic colleagues directly.

Stuart: What are your hopes for the Learn Foundations Academic User Group?

Paul: I would like to see the group encourage dialogue between academics and learning technologists to allow academics to make full use of Learn to deliver engaging teaching.  One of our aims is to exploit what Learn can do to in different teaching settings and provide a forum for academics to share their experiences of what has worked effectively when delivering teaching in different styles and situations.

Stuart: One of the reasons Learn Foundations was created was to introduce basic standards to course presentation on Learn, what are your observations about this and how do you think it is being received across the institution?

Paul:  There are multiple perspectives on this.  We are already seeing some feedback from students that greater standardisation of Learn sites enables them to more easily navigate and engage with their teaching, particularly when taking courses from several schools and colleges.  However, one of the focuses of the Academic User Group over the coming months will be how to maintain the benefits of that while not stifling academic innovation or the ability to meet the needs of teaching on specific courses.

Stuart: My observation is that there are wide variances in how the capabilities of Learn are used and this impacts on its efficacy, what do you think about this?

Paul: Learn can be a very powerful platform, however gaining an understanding of the full range of tools provided can require substantial effort and time for individual academics. The Academic User Group will hopefully not only provide a forum for existing best practice in the use of Learn, but can provide a means of dialogue for thinking how best to help academic users in fully exploiting the functionality of Learn.

If you would like to find out more about Learn Foundations, visit their SharePoint site: Learn Foundations – Home (sharepoint.com)

Find out who your representative in on the Learn Foundations Academic User Group: Academic User Group (sharepoint.com)

The Learn Foundations Academic User Group has the following aims:

  1. To act as a focus group for the Learn Foundations project representing the views and interests of academic colleagues.
  2. To provide insights that can be used to shape the continuous improvement of the Learn service.
  3. Champion the improvements being created and implemented via the Learn Foundations project and communicate with colleagues.
  4. To provide guidance on the pedagogic impact of the Learn Foundations service improvements in relation to all work streams.

    Photo of the authorDr Paul Norris

    Dr Paul Norris is Convenor of the Learn Foundations Academic User Group.  He is Dean of Quality Assurance and Curriculum Validation in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences.  His teaching focuses on the teaching of quantitative methods in the social sciences and involves a range of digital teaching technologies.

    Photo of the authorStuart Nicol

    Stuart leads the Educational Design and Engagement section in Information Services Group (ISG), responsible for delivering a number of key strategic services to the University, including: advice, consultancy, and training for learning technologies; learning design; support for online course production, including MOOCs; and support for open education resources. Stuart has worked as a learning technologist for over 20 years and joined the University of Edinburgh in 2007, initially in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, moving to ISG in 2011. He has a master’s degree in Digital Education from the University of Edinburgh and continues to have an interest in critical approaches to online and open education and practice.

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