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 role of 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 new 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. Gray 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;
- Enhancing Student Learning, Curriculum Resources, Staff Development, and Employer Satisfaction in the Educational Development Unit 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 a new university with 13 colleges and research centres, offering a blend of further and higher education in several formats, there is an ongoing requirement to develop policies and shared approaches to organization-wide challenges and opportunities. To fill this need, Andy Brown takes on multiple and varied projects as Head of Academic Development.
The Academic Development portfolio covers a wide range of activities responding to such issues as organizational change; process and technology assessment and planning; and development of new academic initiatives, including a project to develop a Business Higher Education Certificate program to be offered through the OERu, a network of institutions offering free online courses for learners worldwide.
Certificate in Higher Education (Business): The University of the Highlands and Islands is working with Thomas Edison State University in the United States and Otaga Polytechnic in New Zealand to develop an open resource six course (referred to as ‘module’ in Scotland) Higher Education Certificate Program in Business, which is equivalent to first-year of a university program. The program, to be launched via OERu, offers free courses aimed principally at those unable to attend traditional universities. As the accrediting institution for the certificate, the University of the Highlands and Islands develops and offers three required courses - Introduction to Business, Operational Management, and Customer Centred Business. Students choose additional courses from options prepared by partner institutions in topics including Entrepreneurship, Communications, Project Management, and Learning in a Digital Age. Courses have internal formative assessment exercises, with electronically generated responses encouraging learners to go back to particular points in online materials for clarification.
Online courses are free; learners may choose to pay for assessment. The fee for service at the University is ₤150 per course for marking and feedback. When learners complete 120 credits, they can choose to pay an additional ₤50 for to cover costs for certification, making them a graduate of the University of the Highlands and Islands.
In March 2017, the University of the Highlands and Islands validated the Certificate as an accredited offering, subject to conditions that must be in place for launching the award. Andy Brown prepared the validation proposal for this new approach to educational offerings.
Among essential resources for success of the program is a detailed Learner Handbook which she prepared and revised with support of her colleagues. As the target market consists of learners who are studying on their own with no ongoing communication with institutions beyond course materials, the Handbook needs to be clear, accessible, comprehensive, and provide information, skills, and encouragement for online learners.
The Handbook includes:
- Technology: information on computer requirements, course software, accessibility software, and health, safety and security issues with computer use.
- Learning Skills: access to tutorials and short courses from the University and other sources such as the UK Open University offering guidance on strategies for online learning, assessing online resources, academic writing, critical thinking and other skills needed to be ready to start and succeed in the program.
- Academic Information: description of the University, the program, each course, applying for assessment and certification, and possibilities the certificate offers for employment and academic progression.
OERu offers learners access to a forum so they can discuss, offer support, answer questions, and ideally feel less isolated in their study. Andy Brown plans to monitor this forum to prepare a sheet of Frequently Asked Questions to be added to the OERu wiki page.
Improving Assessment Strategies: In a recent National Student Survey, a UK-wide government survey of final year B.A. and B.Sc. students, the University determined its scores in ‘assessment’ needed improvement, as they aim to exceed the Scottish average. Each of the 13 member institutions has a policy for assessment; one was needed for the University as a whole. A group of college representatives discussed needs and possibilities; a draft was prepared, reviewed and finalized. It was then sent to colleges to be implemented.
In offering a workshop on policy implementation, Andy Brown recognized a need for basic information on assessment – what it is and how best to do it. In a project with the Educational Development Unit, learning needs were clarified and resources developed. Resources looked at both feedback and feed forward – which provides comments to the students aimed at helping them to improve their next assignments. Open source videos, theme cards with multiple choice questions and answers on the reverse, and other materials provide ideas on better assessment.
Faculty are also encouraged to use an e-portfolio to record their progress and reflections.
The initiative is being widely implemented, including a requirement for students to get feedback, feed forward, and marks on their assignments within 15 working days. Faculty are also asked to provide students with a sheet to give feedback on how they used feedback and feed forward in the preparation of their next assignments.
Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) Review: Every 10 years, the University schedules a review of its Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), also known as a learning management system, looking at where they are, want to be, and the tools necessary to move forward. A team at the college in Perth was awarded funding through the Learning and Teaching Academy to undertake research with staff and students throughout the partnership on use and potential of the VLE. Three working groups – on pedagogy, quality and technology – are to make recommendations based on what they learn. Andy Brown is spearheading this review, in collaboration with John Alexander Smith, Head of Integrated Technologies and Resources in Learning and Information Services.
Assessment on Synchronous Communication: Videoconferencing (VC) for synchronous delivery of courses is widely used, with all VC studios booked to capacity. Building more videoconferencing space is expensive. A study, spearheaded by Andy Brown and John Alexander Smith, is looking at alternate technologies for synchronous communication, assessing strengths, weaknesses, and potential of each. In addition, faculty are being asked what they want to achieve pedagogically. The project goal is to match pedagogical needs with appropriate technology and develop guidelines that link each form of interaction with its recommended tools.
Benefits and Outcomes
Development of the Higher Education Certificate in Business program for worldwide delivery on OERu is a new venture for the University, offering new perspectives and experiences on course development, delivery, support and outreach.
In 2019, the University’s contract with its current Virtual Learning Environment provider expires. The institution-wide review will guide the assessment of VLE systems, ensuring perspectives and needs of students, faculty, staff, and senior management are considered.
The Synchronous Communication study introduces faculty to alternatives to expensive videoconferencing which may be more effective pedagogically, less expensive, and more flexible for both students and staff.
Challenges and Enhancements
Challenges are centred on organizational change, especially in a university made up of 13 previously independent colleges and research centres. Each institution has a unique character and specific mission, reflecting the unique environment, landscape and culture of their specific location.
Diversity can also be seen as a strength as continuous efforts ensure each institution is consulted so their needs, concerns, and experiences are valued and integrated into development of policies and initiatives.
Now that validation is complete, the next step for the Higher Education Certificate in Business (OERu) is preparation of materials. The University of the Highlands and Islands courses intended to be part of the Certificate are currently part of the Business and Golf Management degree programs. In addition to re-structuring and re-writing them for fully online delivery, current learning materials, with associated costs, need to be replaced by open educational resources. The Scotland focus of the materials is also to be broadened to a more global perspective, as registrants are likely to be from around the world.
A rolling release is planned, with three courses released at a time, at two-month intervals. All courses are planned to be online by the end of 2017.
For Further Information
Head of Academic Development
University of the Highlands and Islands