Teaching in the online space

Julie Freeman, University Graphics Design Service

In this post, Melissa Highton, reflects on the development of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) at Edinburgh and how it is evolving. Melissa is Director of Learning, Teaching and Web in the Information Services Group and Assistant Principal for Online Learning. This post is part of May-June’s ‘Hot Topic’ series:  “Teaching and Learning during a Pandemic: Lessons and reflections from the last year”

It’s been a big year for our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), Blackboard Learn.

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 needed.

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 licenced only for course groups and Learn makes it possible for us to make those available to select groups.

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.

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 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 that were badly impacting our students’ experience. The Learn Foundations project now involves 22 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 two 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 that 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 the 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.

photograph of the authorMelissa Highton

Dr Melissa Highton is Assistant Principal Online Learning and Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services (LTW) in Information Services Group. Melissa leads services and projects in support of the University’s strategic priorities for digital and distance education on global platforms, blended learning on campus, virtual learning environments, technology enhanced learning spaces, the digital student experience and use of the web for outreach and engagement. She has particular interests in digital skills, open educational resources, equality and diversity and online media. Follow her on Twitter @HoneybHighton

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