Professor Gunter Saunders is a Professor at the University of Westminster and has worked in Higher Education for over 30 years. His focuses are teaching and research in Microbial Genetics and developing approaches for the integration of technology into teaching. Federica Oradini is an expert in distance learning and provides advice and guidance in technology-enhanced learning at a number of UK and European universities and Schools. We heard from them about how digital learning can enhance the teaching and student experience.

University of Westminster

Never before has it been so essential for university teaching staff to be able to exploit digital tools to drive the way that they teach. The COVID-19 pandemic has ‘thrust’ both academic colleagues and students into the digital world of working in ways that no ‘engineered’ institutional or sector-wide initiative has ever been able to (Watermeyer et al., 2021).

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was clear that more and more employers expected their students to be ‘work-ready’ and digitally capable across a wide range of capability areas including, for example, digital content creation, content curation, communication, collaboration and participation (Valenti 2015). Pre-pandemic, most institutions were paying attention to the need to ensure that students graduate with greater digital fluency by providing a range of often extra-curricular courses to help them prepare for employment. However, at this time, the penetration of digital tools into mainstream teaching in universities was minimal with most academic staff at best, using email and uploading relevant electronic files into the institution’s virtual learning environment (VLE) (Glover et al., 2016, JISC 2020). The pandemic has changed this, helping teachers at universities as well as institutional leaders, appreciate more not only the significance of digital tools and VLEs for teaching (Flavin 2020), but also the degree to which students may welcome the flexibility of being able to learn some of what they need from their university experience at a pace and time that is convenient for them.

Despite the arguments for the greater inclusion of digital approaches into university curricula, derived both from the pandemic and also from employability imperatives that were with us pre-pandemic, there is a risk that universities will slip back to old practices now that stakeholders are increasingly returning to teach and be taught face to face in physical classrooms. To mitigate this, it is essential that the real affordances of digital learning and teaching are drawn clearly out (Crick 2021), alongside the focused development of the digital teaching skills needed to best deliver the opportunities that have arisen.

This case study will outline the staff development in digital teaching best practice offered to academic colleagues at the start of the pandemic at the University of Westminster. It will show how this has changed and enabled some academic colleagues to develop more flexible teaching approaches when compared to what was typically done pre-pandemic.  

Staff development in digital teaching approaches

A. Pre-pandemic

Prior to the pandemic most staff development in digital teaching was focused on ensuring academic colleagues were able and capable of exploiting the institution’s virtual learning environment (VLE). The predominant curriculum delivery model involved mainly using the VLE as a content repository to support face to face classroom teaching. In most cases, content related to a timetabled class was only made available to students at or after the time of the timetabled classroom session and the exploitation of blended learning approaches was minimal. The other main use for the VLE, at this time, was for the collection and online marking of coursework.

B. Pandemic staff development

Once the decision was taken to move all teaching online as lockdown started in March 2020, it became imperative to provide academic colleagues with advice, development and support on how best to teach the classes remotely. The University had Blackboard Collaborate (BC) as its supported synchronous delivery platform, which integrates seamlessly with the Blackboard Learn virtual learning environment (VLE). Prior to the pandemic Blackboard Collaborate was hardly ever used. In a typical week no more that 100-200 users used the BC system, with a handful of live sessions scheduled. This reflected the on-campus nature of teaching at the University and the use of the Blackboard VLE to primarily support face to face delivery.

Having witnessed the number of active users in the BC system climb, within 7 days of lockdown, from the low 100s to over 15000 unique users per week, it became clear that the immediate response from the majority of our academic colleagues, was to effectively try as best they could to reproduce what they had planned to do face-to-face, live online. The greatest immediate demand for guidance and support was how they could teach students ‘live online’.

In light of this, during the final weeks of the second semester of the 2020/2021 academic year, the LIDE team focused on providing a significant amount of ‘just in time’ training in delivery of synchronous online sessions. In addition, as the semester ‘ran out’ the LIDE team provided as much ‘hands-on’ support as it could. This involved trying to ensure that, whenever possible, an academic colleague using the synchronous teaching platform for the first time, was always supported in that session by a member of the LIDE team.

At this time, our knowledge, experience and understanding of best practice in online distance learning told us (LIDE), that over reliance on live online teaching was not the best solution for teaching previously campus-based students through online methods. Not only is it very difficult to easily engage students in too many live online sessions, the digital poverty issues, faced by an appreciable number of students (no suitable computer, poor wifi and/or expensive mobile phone costs) also took its toll on the effectiveness of live online delivery. This view was quite rapidly supported by initial feedback from students, and indeed academic staff, suggesting that the over reliance on a live online approach was leading to dissatisfaction from both groups of stakeholders.

As a consequence, LIDE rapidly compiled a 2-week asynchronous online course for staff called ‘Getting Started with Online Learning’ and offered this out to staff in late April of 2020. A primary goal of this short course was to help academic colleagues ‘air’ and exchange their worries and concerns about suddenly having to teach online. In addition, we wanted to help build some confidence in both the systems and support that the university had for, effectively, distance learning. The course comprised 3 main sections which are summarised in the table below:

Section of CourseMain Purpose of Section
A. Thinking about teachingTo critically consider what contributes to good teaching and effective learning.
B. Delivering Online LearningTo examine the main approaches taken for effective distance teaching and learning and relate these to best practice for effective teaching and learning
C. Supporting our Students OnlineKey steps to take/measures to put in place in order to best support students in learning online.

Over 200 academic colleagues joined this course and attended the 2 synchronous sessions, provided to support them in working through and engaging with the asynchronous materials and activities that comprised the bulk of the course. A key conclusion from the feedback received about this course was that academic schools needed urgent ‘how-to’ training and support for the delivery of asynchronous forms of learning and approaches, such as the flipped classroom method, which could potentially be used to help make live online synchronous sessions more student-centred and engaging. In addition, it was agreed that schools would generally welcome more in-depth training and support over the upcoming summer. prior to the start of the 2021/2022 academic year. in the development and implementation of effective distance teaching approaches.

Accordingly, LIDE, in collaboration with academic colleagues with an oversight role for learning and teaching development in their respective schools, compiled a longer (this time 4-week) online course called ‘Planning and Implementing an Online Course’. The focus for each week of the course is summarised in the table below:

WeekTopic and Activities
1Some Guiding Principles and Models for Design
2Building a Learning Community and Communication
3Content Creation, Curation and Engagement
4Assessment and Collaboration

Again, the course was primarily designed for asynchronous online learning with one 45min live webinar each week for clarification and discussion purposes on any of the main topics of each week. The asynchronous materials for each week were made up of short videos and/or audio recordings, interactive e-learning packages designed for independent learning and online discussion boards for sharing, peer support and community building. Full engagement from a participant in the course required between 4-6 hours of study time.

Unlike the first course, this one was offered out to each school separately to enable, where possible, customisation for local and/or subject context. In addition, external experts were brought in to offer additional live workshop sessions on areas identified by a school, (such as student engagement, assessment and feedback online etc). Of the 9 schools across the University, 7 engaged with the course to varying degrees. In one case well over 70% of staff within that School played some part in the course but in others, (the majority), active participation was lower (ranging from 15 – 40%).

An example of one of the pages from an interactive e-learning package within the course is shown below:

C. Impact of Pandemic staff development

Both of the courses briefly described in Section B emphasised, through the model of delivery, the significance of asynchronous forms of online learning and promoted a balance between asynchronous and synchronous for effective online learning. In addition, this model guided staff towards using asynchronous options for information delivery plus related activities, followed by live online for value added discussion, debate and activities which were often group based.

Despite the attempts to guide schools along this best practice informed path for online learning (Gutierrez 2006; Tanis 2020) and digital capability development (JISC Digital Capability Framework; EU Digital Competence Framework 2.0), from the start of the 2021/2022 academic year it became rapidly clear that the level of synchronous delivery was, if anything, growing relative to the start of the pandemic. Student feedback at around this time was again, not surprisingly, that much of their online learning was not very engaging. Overall, the feedback from staff that began to emerge towards the end of the first semester of the 2021/22 had a similar vein running through it, with many stating that students simply did not engage in online synchronous sessions. Academic colleagues were increasingly feeding back that they felt over-worked by all of the live online sessions that they had had to deliver, alongside all of the 1:1 student support they were also providing online.

Contrasting with this gloomy picture of pandemic learning and teaching, it is clear from student feedback that there were ‘pockets’ in all schools where some online teaching practices were receiving more positive feedback and outcomes. However, in only one school, the Westminster School of Media and Communication (WSMOC) was there a sense that there had been a consistent impact arising from the staff development on how the online curriculum was being delivered, manifested in a clear strategy adopted by the majority of academic colleagues in that school.

In the WSMOC, the online teaching strategy was focused on providing students with recordings of lectures and synchronous live sessions were used only when there was clear ‘value-added’ in doing so. The school also created a solid community of practice, led by their learning and teaching director who was also central in ensuring that ways to ‘connect’ recordings to live online sessions were fully explored in a ‘blended online’ teaching strategy. Alongside this, the school focused on using learning tools supported by the institution and had a clear strategy to guide and induct students into the approach that was being taken and why.

An evaluation survey revealed that staff in the WSMOC, whilst stating that workload was still a significant concern, had, through the staff development being offered changed their role as a teacher in response to the need to provide their courses wholly online. In addition, they felt that their concerns related to online delivery were being listened to and they felt ‘recognised’ for the work that they were doing. In the National Student Survey (NSS) results for the 2020/2021 academic year the WSMOC was the only one that had managed to maintain its historical NSS ratings (Specht et al., 2021).

Conclusions

Best practice for distance learning shows that a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning provides better learning experiences. During the pandemic, a great deal of teaching online was characterised by teachers seeking to replicate what they normally did face to face on-campus through live synchronous sessions. This led to poor feedback from students on how engaging the teaching was. In contrast, academic colleagues who had engaged in staff development in digital teaching practices and as a consequence, re-designed what they normally did face to face for the online environment, achieved higher satisfaction ratings in the NSS for their school (Specht et al., 2021).

Crick, T. (2021) Covid-19 and Digital Education: a Catalyst For Change? ITNOW 63, Issue:

1, 16-17.

Flavin, M. (2020) Re-imagining Technology Enhanced Learning: Critical Perspectives on

Disruptive Innovation. Springer Nature. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-55785-0

Glover, I., Hepplestone, S., Parkin, H.J., Rodger H. and B. Irwin (2016) Pedagogy first: Realising technology enhanced learning by focusing on teaching practice. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47 (5) 993-1002.https://bera-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/bjet.12425

Jisc (2020) Teaching staff digital experience insights survey 2020 UK higher education (HE) survey findings. Jisc: London.

Mortera-Gutierez, F. (2006) Faculty best practices using blended learning in e-learning and face-to-face instruction. IJEL, 5, (3) 313-337.

Specht, D., Chatterton, P., Hartley, P. and G. Saunders (2021) Developing Belief in Online Teaching, JPAAP, No 2 – Special Issue, Transition to Remote and Blended Learning. https://jpaap.napier.ac.uk/index.php/JPAAP/article/view/486

Tanis, C.J. (2020) The seven principles of online learning; Feedback from faculty and alumni on its importance for teaching and learning, ALT-J, 28, 1-25.

Valenti, M. (2015) Educause Review July/August 2015, 31-38, https://er.educause.edu/-/media/files/article-downloads/erm1542.pdf

Watermeyer, R., Crick, T., Knight, C. and J. Goodall (2021) COVID-19 and digital disruption in UK universities: afflictions and affordances of emergency online migration. Higher Education, 81623–641. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00561-y

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In this article, Professor Gunter Saunders, Associate Director for Digital Engagement at the University of Westminster discusses how improving teacher digital literacy can enhance student learning.

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