Supporting student transitions into online learning


Online and distance learning programmes offer many benefits for students and can be a privileged mode of learning, with distance being a positive principle and not a deficit (Manifesto for teaching online 2016). As well as being aware of the opportunities that online learning offers students, we should also be aware that students have varying confidence levels when using online tools. Although some students may be competent in navigating the online world they are familiar with, they can often lack experience of the online environment in an educational context.

To help support student transitions into (and through) online learning, I had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative project earlier this year funded by QAA Scotland as part of their transitions work.

Online student transitions: Project themes and resources

The project aims included the creation of a set of high quality resources that could be used by online learners independently or with tutor guidance.

The project partners shared existing resources and identified gaps in support which resulted in the identification of four themes:

  • Being an effective online learner (topics covered included academic time management, independent learning, motivation and self-regulation);
  • Working with others online (how learners work online in groups, how do they communicate effectively with their peers and tutors);
  • Learning effectively with technology (enabling leaners to understand what technology can do for them to benefit their learning);
  • Being a responsible online learner (practical guidance to help learners manage their digital identity in the online educational environment);

The full set of resources are available on the Enhancement Themes website.

Student partnerships

An important aspect of the project was to include the student voice and we took a student partnership approach. The University of Edinburgh developed resources for the Being a responsible online learner theme, and the tutor guide (outlining how the resources could be used). These were co-created by Ros Attenborough, a PhD intern who found the Digital Footprint project and MOOC valuable sources of information.

As well as creating the resources, Ros also conducted a small-scale evaluation of the resources resulting in positive feedback from online and distance learning students. The reflective activities were engaging, with some evaluators acknowledging that the resources had raised issues that they had not previously considered.

In total, five students were employed during the project and they benefited from collaborating with each other, and with the project partners.

“It was a privilege to work on this collaborative project to develop resources for students transitioning to online learning. It was an enjoyable project to be involved in because the staff leads were positive and constructive in their approach, and made it clear they valued our involvement in the project” – Student intern

Project reflections

The project had a fairly short time-line and benefited from regular online meetings with project partners. This enabled us to share existing practice and to gain a deeper understanding of student perceptions of online learning across the partner institutions. We also had a face-to-face meeting when the student interns were given an opportunity to present their draft resources and received constructive feedback from the project team and QAA representatives.

We did encounter barriers in employing students during the project, however the benefits of student involvement far outweighed the small hurdles all project partners encountered when employing student interns. The students worked collaboratively and creatively to co-create a valuable set of high-quality resources which will be of benefit to staff and students involved in online learning at the University of Edinburgh and beyond.

Project team:

Queen Margaret University (Dr Susi Peacock)

University of Edinburgh (Dr Donna Murray and Celeste McLaughlin)

University of Glasgow (Dr Vicki Dale and Prof Jo-Anne Murray)

University of the Highlands and Islands (Prof Keith Smyth)

Student Interns:

Rosalind Attenborough, University of Edinburgh; John MacMillan, University of the Highlands and Islands; Lauren McDougall, University of Glasgow; Jordan Phillips, Queen Margaret University; Hannah-May Todd, University of Glasgow


For more information on the project, see the following resources:

Supporting student transitions into and through online learning

Student transitions: staff leaflet

Manifesto for Teaching Online

Celeste McLaughlin

Celeste McLaughlin is Head of Academic Development for Digital Education, based at the Institute for Academic Development (IAD). She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and is course director for the Digital Education course, an optional course of the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice programme. Her remit includes supporting the Online and Distance Learning community by convening the Online Learning Network. Her interests include open education, and digital assessment practices.

Rosalind Attenborough

Rosalind Attenborough is a PhD student in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. In 2017 she worked as a Student Transitions Intern – initially with Academic Services and the IAD to produce a guidance leaflet for staff, and then with the IAD and collaborators to support student transitions to online learning. Her PhD work is about the meaning of new trends towards “openness” in science. She initially graduated as a biologist and has spent three years working for PLOS, an open access scientific publisher.

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