The University of the Highlands and Islands comprises 13 colleges and research institutions in communities across the north of Scotland, with its Head Office in Inverness. The University brought together the 13 existing institutions and 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; they can move between the two levels with transfer credits.
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
- Enhancing Student Learning, Curriculum Resources, Staff Development, and Employer Satisfaction in the Educational Development Unit at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland.
Offering faculty and staff opportunities to develop knowledge and skills, exchange expertise, undertake research, and innovate is core to the university mission. The Learning and Teaching Academy, under the leadership of Professor of Pedagogy Keith Smyth, develops, shares and recognizes excellence, innovation and research in pedagogic practice.
Professor Smyth describes the Learning and Teaching Academy (LTA) as “a hub, not a department or a staff development unit. Staff can access collaborative projects and consultation, professional development opportunities, and funding and resources, and a framework for professional recognition.” The LTA Forum, with representatives from all 13 academic partners, as well as students, library, student support, educational development and other university units, shapes LTA and its strategy to ensure shared relevance.
There are several key LTA services available.
ALPINE (Accredited Learning, Professional Development and Innovation in Education), is an institutional framework for professional recognition of good practice. The United Kingdom Higher Education Academy (UKHEA) developed a Professional Standards Framework, offering three levels of membership – Associate Fellow, Fellow and Senior Fellow, with recognition of these awards devolved to academic institutions. ALPINE is the framework outlining the University’s requirements for achieving these awards, meeting UKHEA’s standards while contextualizing the program to the University.
The University of the Highlands and Islands is the only tertiary university in the United Kingdom – combining both further and higher education in the same institution. To reflect this structure, University faculty, support staff, and academic leadership in Higher National Certificate and Diploma programs (further or vocational education) are eligible to apply for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, as are those working with degree-program levels.
Fellowship at one of the three levels can be achieved through completion of the Postgraduate Certificate in Tertiary and Higher Education or submission of a portfolio of professional practice including:
- Statement of future aspirations;
- Extensive reflection on professional practice;
- Statement of support from referees; and
- Links to digital artefacts.
The digital artefacts are made available to colleagues so good practice can be shared; over 40 new resources are now accessible. Applicants become proficient at using Mahara e-portfolio software to submit their materials, offering them a new skill for their practice.
The University’s goal is to have all eligible colleagues recognized or working towards HEA Fellowship.
LTA Connect Webinars and Workshops: A series of monthly webinars features internal and external presenters addressing topics of interest to faculty. Recent presentations include designing and assessing collaborative work; inclusivity, curriculum content, and attainment gaps; and a consideration of the broad implications of “open” for a university. This event on “open”, featuring experts from Open Educational Practices Scotland, brought together faculty, staff and management and provided input to the LTA Strategic Plan.
Supporting Research and Scholarship: Faculty at all levels are supported in undertaking; sharing, publishing, and applying scholarship and research. For example, a Master’s level workshop on curriculum development encourages and exemplifies implementation of teaching and learning strategies derived from evidence-based research.
Research projects are supported through funding and mentoring; recent topics include effective use of videoconferencing, flipped classrooms, curriculum for excellence, and re-purposing and re-use of digital resources. Faculty, especially new researchers, are encouraged to publish in journals such as Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, an open access publication offering direct advice and support for academics looking to publish their first paper. A special issue of this journal, dedicated to Learning and Teaching in a Distributed University, contains numerous articles from academics.
A three-year project seeks tpublishero enhance research-based learning for students, helping faculty to design research activities in their courses so students participate in creation and sharing of valuable knowledge.
A three-month online course on Writing for Publication in University Practice – WriteUp – is offered in cooperation with other universities, to take academics from research idea to publication in a journal. Faculty submit a proposal for admission; the course includes four online workshops, supplemented with peer-to-peer and tutor support. Course delivery is designed to highlight good practice in use of technology for teaching, sharing, and communication.
Sharing of Ideas and Good Practice: An LTA blog highlighting critical perspectives offers new slants on accepted ideas. Reflecting one college’s location, a recent posting was on Learning Styles: The Loch Ness of Education. Research digests and good practice case studies considering assessment, teaching practice, student support, and social network software are highlighted on the website.
Benefits and Outcomes
Engagement in activities, opportunities and exchanges is widespread, with no shortage of attendees.
Natural alignments occur among activities; for example, Senior Fellows from Alpine lead LTA Connect Webinars. Projects funded and supported through the Learning and Teaching Academy support work in other areas; one LTA-funded project involves the assessment of the Virtual Learning Environments undertaken by the Academic Development unit.
The ALPINE initiative was carefully designed to make it inclusive of faculty from both further and higher education.
Faculty, staff and management benefitted from recognition, sharing, and encouragement of good practice.
Challenges and Enhancements
Professor Smyth describes one of the challenges as “the need to do things collectively and collegially – and to be perceived as doing things this way”. He offers the LTA Forum, described above, as an example of this. Initially conceived to consist of 6 to 8 members, it was quickly realized representatives from every partner, as well as students, and key support services are essential. This structure is beneficial as members act as emissaries to their institutions and become involved in projects of interest to them.
It is sometimes difficult to maintain the Learning and Teaching Academy’s function as a ‘hub’ as there are expectations for services like basic training in functions of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Instead, LTA offers workshops on more specific and good practice-related topics, such as enhancing practice in the VLE through use of collaborative software.
The Learning and Teaching Academy will be supporting research in emerging trends such as 3D printing, games-based learning, and applications of virtual and augmented reality. The Learning Lab space at Inverness Campus is already technologically equipped to support this work.
A new Learning and Teaching Enhancement Strategy is to be launched at a Learning and Teaching Conference in June 2017. The Strategy is built around presenting and developing a common language for 12 core values such as “harnessing open educational opportunities” and - as well as demonstrating how each value impacts practice using evidence-based examples. The goal is to make these values and their achievement a common language of the institution, part of all teaching, learning, policies and plans. The Strategy highlights existing good practice, in addition to encouraging improved future practice. Once the Strategy is approved, all activities in LTA are to be aligned with the values expressed.
For Further Information
Professor Keith Smyth
Professor of Pedagogy and Head of the Learning and Teaching Academy
University of the Highlands and Islands