Specialist Area 2 Supporting online learning for willing and unwilling participants

It is fair to say that COVID 19 has changed the world. It changed my world quite considerably and in particular my relationship to work. Everyone was forced to learn how to do things remotely, and if you have read my reflection on my relationship to the organisation running up to the crisis you will know my opinion was we weren’t remotely close to being ready. We were stuck. The crisis unstuck certain elements and one of these elements was my ability to address issues directly with an executive that was more attuned to why the issues I highlighted were important. For a time at least. The university listlessly rolls between two modes, complacency and panic. For my second specialist area I wish to highlight my experience of supporting distance / online learning. Firstly for those keen on it prior to the crisis and over the last few months for those not really up for it.


2016 Supporting Digital LearningAs you may have read from earlier in the portfolio I have experience supporting many distance / online / heavily blended endeavours. Early on in my career I worked on a heavily blended Pharmacy programme at the University of Bath. I have worked with various different health programmes at postgraduate and foundation level within the University of the West of England. Particularly this involved the use of a local tool set to support distance endeavours. For example our MSc in Environmental Health and Nuclear Medicine was heavily reliant on a combination of the VLEs native functions and a rapid authoring tool called iSpring Presenter.

More recently the growth area for programmes with a heavy online provision has been professional programmes and usually apprenticeships. We have a large and varied apprenticeship offering the spreads a large geographical area. Covering a range of topics from Occupational Therapy, Advanced Clinical Practice to the Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship. To support these endeavours there are no pedagogy focussed training offerings from the centre of the University for online learning. This is still the case in August 2020. All training offered centrally was focused on certain technologies and the keystroke competencies associated.

At UWE As a matter of process a senior member of the learning technology team would be involved in the programme creation process and may have lead sessions on particular technologies or approaches. These endeavours were usually programmes that were struggling for numbers and wanted to diversify there offering or were trying to create new markets. Although all the programmes had some members that weren’t signed up for the move to online by enlarge they were grateful for the help given. Flash forward to Spring 2020…

COVID – The pivot

The last chopper from ‘sigh, go on’

When COVID became a pressing issue in March of 2020 our institution was not in a great place to deal with it. We had various issues but generally a lack of available hardware and a general low level of digital competence in the skill mix of our academic base. We set up two ‘field hospitals’ on each of the campuses. These went on to be called ‘TEL clinics’. Through this bandwidth we provided certain hardware, mainly headphones and microphones but latterly laptops, and ‘on demand’ for small groups training. We fell back into supporting the core toolset and only the core tool set. The need to socially distance and clean spaces more often became apparent over the two weeks this was in place. I was very proud of the work done by our team to prepare our programmes to transition across to digital for everything yet I still occasionally have nightmares about putting my team in harms way.

TEL Clinic

When I wasn’t manning these drop in spaces I was fighting internecine conflicts that raged in the background. Topics revolved over who was in charge of the response and what could be done to support staff. I was caught between doing a lot operational work and a wider function that was not operational. There was an afternoon where I was centralised although it was never mentioned again.  One of the innovations of this period was the ending of a 24 month conversation about web presences for Faculty teams and a central website. However, the response quickly became anarchic and people were either carrying on with previous projects as if nothing was happening or trying to stop my unit from solving issues which should have been solved from the centre of the university. It was a frustrating period but in a sense a terrific period, one that highlighted to the highest and widest audience issues within the support for digital education. Issues that had been ignored for too long. We got to a stage where we had a sanctioned space for Faculty strategies to have a front end.


Whiteboard from TEL clinic

So I was now empowered with an online space and a ‘ignore barriers’ remit. During the evenings and weekends in the weeks leading up until lockdown I worked up a site curating resources for our core toolset and specific guidance on adapting assessments for digital. I was a small but important cog in convening a consistent and supportable message to staff without our Faculty.

Same as it ever was

The work we have done this summer has been more focussed on consolidation and reflection. With moments of being able to push the distance learning envelope forward a little. My role has continued to be operational, strategic and pedagogical in nature. I have gone from setting up processes and risk assessments for creating video content on campus to orientating reflective sessions on OSCEs, our crisis efforts and feedback on local departmental strategies.

The website(listed below) has swollen and now includes Faculty expectations, advice and preparation for continuing in the new normal. Unless otherwise stated the website is all my own words with some editing from a plethora of stakeholders. We aren’t empowered to do much more than maintain our ‘keep it simple’ message from the arrival of the crisis but we have been able to define quality and other elements.

Bristol Graphic Art

In August 2020 we were slightly marooned again. Substantively our offering and approach hasn’t changed since April. However a sudden lurch back towards face to face teaching as we approached clearing complicated matters. It lessened the driver to engage with online learning about and beyond what was needed for May. As an institution we have taken a long time to do very little and within the Faculty we are starting to address gaps and hoover up responsibilities as they don’t get addressed elsewhere. Some of that is a structural issue within our institution and some of it is just he facts of living in an uncertain time with an incompetent government. Not an uncommon position in the sector I imagine.

The evidence I would like to provide below tells the story of this move from distance learning for the willing to remote teaching for the desperate through various documents.


Poster evidencing engagement with distance learning prior to March 2020

Email pertaining to digital assessment citing this tweet chat and this contextualised for UWE / document created for UWE / Methodology Support

The website for supporting Faculty COVID endeavours

Interim Associate Dean Supporting statement for COVID period

Exemplars created for course design 1 / 2 / 3 / 4

Articles of written to support the different ways of using the core toolset to deliver distance experiences and briefing notes for my staff:


Usually if people haven’t elected to do something it is harder to engage them. During the PIVOT this wasn’t the case. 6 months on this statement has slowly started to ring true again. I am hearing alot of ‘I don’t care’ statements or a things that make me feel like people are not transformed into more modern practitioners merely moonlighting in modernity because of circumstance. I will take forward three lessons from the pandemic and supporting distance learning.

Lesson 1. Change is possible with a shared sense mission. We moved mountains when we had a shared external driver, an end goal we could understand and time sucking power seekers were sidelined. These changes are now baked in and we can do things at a distance we couldn’t before. This was due to people doing things rather than people talking about things and having clear objectives that everyone was geared to achieve. We can’t go back to low (productivity) and slow (or none existent) change.

Lesson 2. Strategy is important. Even at a national level policy we can see where centralising and standardizing is important but also has weaknesses. People need to know there is a direction and have an opportunity to influence locally. They are then far less likely to be anxious. Sometimes these strategies have to arrive before the certainty so you need to make them loose enough to adjust but you have to be the first to make a move sometimes.

You can’t wait for certainty to be succeed, you need to shoulder risk. This is actually the role of the learning technologist. To help share the risk burden. So they should be involved in more strategies!

Putting into place a clear strategy and sticking to that message with discipline is reassuring to people. It gives them certainty in uncertain times. Engaging in gatekeeping, long conversations about the future of the lecture or whether blended or online learning is the more appropriate term to use is not reassuring. In our instance local leaders took forward ways to support staff and build out a strategy from a crisis.

Lesson 3. Investment in skill development rather than automation may seem risky and inefficient but it builds resilience. We had some projects that focussed on automating processes such as lecture capture. Things that made some short term productivity gains for academics. We would have been better off building and re-enforcing a strong skill mix within our academic community. This empowers academics to make better choices in their teaching and learning. We certainly need to make some processed more efficient but outsourcing skilled digital work is not in our best interest. We were certainly disadvantaged by seeing digital capability as ‘nice to have’ for a decade whilst we made our digital environment more and more complicated.