The University of the Highlands and Islands comprises 13 colleges and research institutions in communities across the north of Scotland, with its Head Offices in Inverness. The University was granted full university status in 2011, with the unique designation as a tertiary institution, offering both further and higher education in face-to-face, blended, online, and distance formats. Students can choose vocationally-oriented further education, with one-year certificates, two-year diplomas, and other certification options provided by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. They also can enrol in higher education, with four-year and graduate degree programs.
While the 13 colleges and research centres previously operated independently, the University of the Highlands and Islands structure brings opportunities to share programs, services and provide a much wider range of choices and opportunities for students throughout the region. The University combines locally-based institutions with a regional structure, offering what is described by Dr. Gary Campbell, Dean of Science, Health and Engineering, as “the chance for everyone in the region to go as far as they can in education”. His favourite example is a student who first enrolled for a certificate in Chain Saw Operation and eventually graduated with a Master’s in Forestry.
Other articles in the International Pockets of Innovation Series describe the strategic organizational approach as well some of the core services and units at the University of the Highlands and Islands working to achieve this vision:
- Building a Partnership of 13 Colleges and Research Institutes for Higher and Further Education at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland;
- Creating Policies and Initiatives at a University with 13 Partner Institutions: Academic Development at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland; and
- A Hub for the Enhancement of Educational Practice, Scholarship, and Research at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland.
In 2008, funding from the European Community supported development of The Learning Enhanced and Research Network (LEARN) at the University of the Highlands and Islands, with the goal of enhancing the student experience of learning through increased use of blended and networked approaches to learning. The project objectives included: innovation in learning design; staff skills development; establishment of procedures; and creation of a platform and systems for blended and networked learning. Results included a LEARN Toolkit, offering resources for delivery options, student support, staff development, resources development, as well as planning and networking functions and a resource repository.
Building on experience from LEARN, the University of the Highlands and Islands Educational Development Unit (EDU) was established in 2011 to:
- Enhance student learning through increased use of blended learning;
- Enhance areas of the curriculum by developing blended teaching resources in collaboration with relevant stakeholders;
- Develop staff skills in the delivery and modification of blended learning resources; and
- Increase employer satisfaction with the skills of University graduates by engaging them in the curriculum development process.
The Education Development Unit serves each of the five categories of program delivery models at the University, developing resources and skills for use in technology-enhanced, blended, and/or online learning, including:
Local Programs: These programs are usually delivered face-to-face at one institution for local students, with technology-based resources used to enhance learning. To enhance sustainability, the programs may include some courses shared across partner colleges through videoconference, allowing students to attend lectures at their local colleges.
Learning in the Field: These are site-specific programs that take advantage of specialized staff and resources specific to a location. Examples include Archaeology programs from bachelor to PhD level which combine face-to-face and videoconference lectures, with resources and exercises in the Blackboard virtual learning environment. The Archaeology Institute in the Orkney Islands provides much of the expertise, in addition to national and international experts. North Highland College offers a program in Gamekeeping with Wildlife Management attracting students from all over Scotland (and beyond) for face-to-face study, enhanced with an experiential learning placement on an estate. Online resources are provided for students during this placement as a way of maintaining and furthering learning while in the field.
Multi-Campus Delivery: These networked programs are offered on multiple campuses, with lectures from teaching staff at one or more partner colleges. Courses are delivered mainly through videoconferencing, enhanced with resources available through the virtual learning environment. Engineering, Scottish Cultural Studies and Computing are programs offered through this networked provision.
Off-Campus Programs: Fully online degree programs include bachelor and masters degree in Chid and Youth Studies, Health, Sustainability and Education.
Each of these program delivery models benefits from the resources and expertise in EDU in curriculum development, quality improvement, pedagogical research, and learning from involvement in external projects.
Curriculum development projects and quality improvement initiatives work hand-in-hand during the creation of teaching and learning resources, as projects have interlocking planning, production, and impact phases that support and feed into each other. This is enhanced by extensive stakeholder involvement. Showcase is the web link that presents some of the online resources developed in EDU to support teaching and learning across the curriculum.
As an example of the development process, one recent nine-month project created online materials to be used before, during, and after face-to-face courses which are part of Childcare Practices and Social Services programs. Project outcomes include online materials for 16 courses, with more than 50 reusable learning objects and three multi-scenario case studies applicable in several programs.
A shell in the virtual learning environment was constructed for development of further units and teaching staff were trained in use of a writer’s template for preparation of online materials. New resources are designed to be usable on mobile devices. This project is a preliminary step in the development of a full flipped classroom model, with interactive content materials online and face-to-face sessions used for more active learning.
The core of this development activity is an iterative process for resource development, using clear and agreed guidelines established by program and EDU staff. The resource writer, often one or more teaching staff from the program, prepares draft materials, including text, image selection, and graphics, which are then subject to peer review for content and ‘pedagogy’ review by EDU staff, with ongoing revisions and review until the materials are finalized.
The materials are then converted to HTML5 or other format for online use and reviewed and revised again by EDU staff before being finally uploaded. EDU prepares tutor guides to support the delivery of each course, as teaching staff may differ from those involved in development. EDU also supplies online revision forms for ongoing reporting of any problems encountered by staff and students in use of the resource and suggestions for improvements.
Involvement in external projects informs and expands research and strategies used by EDU in working within the University. For example:
- A current European Community project focuses on developing online materials on management and leadership to better train those working at remote northern airports.
- Another project, in cooperation with Keith Smyth, Professor of Pedagogy and Head of the Learning and Teaching Academy, is assessing the viability of the University becoming an e-text publisher. Two short texts were developed to assess the process and its success in reaching global audiences and extending staff experience in writing and publishing. There are plans to e-publish outstanding student dissertation.
- Working with the National Health Services in the Highlands, EDU is using technology to deliver training to staff in remote and rural locations, as a partial replacement for face-to-face delivery. Initial training was developed, delivered and positively assessed; a second cohort is now being trained and materials are being adapted for national delivery.
Jacky MacMillan, the Head of EDU, says her experience convinced her that collaboration and inclusion are critical success factors for any project. Engaging multiple stakeholders is complex and demanding but offers the best results in terms of learning, resources, training, and quality. Effective communication, use of templates and guidelines, and reliance on strong technical skills are also essential components of success.
Outcomes and Benefits
The key benefit is enhancement of the student learning experience and quantitative data are starting to show improvements in retention, attention, and outcomes.
Development of resources and online courses is important for establishing equivalency across partner institutions, broadening program offerings and options for student learning.
Teaching staff are making better use of technology and learning resources are improving in both number and quality. As usage expands, EDU staff can see how resources are used for delivery and structure the Blackboard virtual learning environment to be a more effective support for current and evolving applications.
For some programs, including employers as part of the team for developing delivery models and resources supports integration of more problem-based learning, policy implementation issues, and other workplace realities.
Resources were created for student induction into the virtual learning environment, online learning, and use of online resources. More than 10,000 users of online materials are being tracked through analytics.
Challenges and Enhancements
As the EDU leads projects through collaboration rather than management authority, the tasks are not always a priority for teaching staff. Securing academic time for projects is a challenge.
Teaching staff need ongoing support and clarity on issues for working in the digital environment, such as choice of copyright-free images and provision of complete references. EDU developed resources addressing these issues and support materials for teaching staff writing for online learning are available.
The University is working to open access, but academics have some concern about offering their resources in an open environment.
As the University of the Highlands and Islands is a tertiary institution with staff in both further and higher education, teaching staff are at different levels of familiarity and competency in training needs and priorities. EDU offers a full range of learning resources to address this.
Videoconferencing continues to be the most frequently used technology, but teaching staff are broadening the choice of resources offered to students. More than 500 resources are available and their number, diversity, and technological sophistication continue to grow. Virtual tours and interactive maps, for example, are proving to be valuable resources in a number of programs.
For Further Information
Head of Educational Development Unit
University of the Highlands and Islands