The future use of digital technology and remote learning in Higher Education

I gave a talk in July at the Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference ‘The future use of digital technology and remote learning in Higher Education’. It was good to be invited to sit on a panel of experts talking about digital course design.

Image by Brigitte makes custom works from your photos, thanks a lot from Pixabay

Slightly edited transcript of my talk

This talk is about the design of online courses. Leading in the design of online courses at my institution the most common questions I get from colleagues in the sector are ‘How much does it cost?’ and ‘How long does it take?’ to design an online course. I’m going to explore that a bit.

The institution I work at offers all its Undergraduate and Postgraduate degree and apprenticeship degree programmes entirely online. We have been providing ‘remote’ education – a term I will revisit, for over 100 years. Providing online, flexible, scalable academic and vocational learning journeys is what we do. In the past we did this by post, now we do it via the internet.

How many of you are over the age of 30? That’s largely who our online learner community are – working professionals who are upskilling and want to stay up-to-date with developments in their field, or students who may have missed out on conventional pathways to higher education seeking to achieve career or academic goals. Long periods of full time learning are unsuitable for these cohorts  – 96% of our students opt to study part-time.

"The experience of supported online education fits perfectly with the digital era of our day-to-day life. Access to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) from my phone, iPad, laptop or work computer allows me to listen to webinars or participate in discussion forums any time of the day.“

Ayesha Azar, MSc Real EstateGraduate Surveyor, Valuation Agency, London, UK

What Ayesha says here is representative of why most of our students choose to study with us – because of the flexibility we provide. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we have not had to make significant adjustments to learning and teaching because the support for flexible study was already embedded into our educational model.

In terms of designing online courses, I do not believe that we should be adapting what exists in an on-ground or blended setting. If an aim of developing provision is to reach new cohorts, to widen participation, to make education accessible to more people, to scale up ,we need to design afresh for the learners whom we want to engage, not those we have traditionally had. Comparative studies of campus and online experiences over the pandemic is not enough for the scaling of education the UK is looking to achieve, and we need to separate online learning from emergency teaching. There are different challenges to overcome, different needs and different expectations. What distinct value can we offer our learners so that they progress and succeed?.

UCEM have an educational framework that grounds the design of our online courses and reflects our strategy to provide a flexible, consistent, relevant and accessible student experience. For us this means designing learning to be outome-led to support our students’ goal-orientated focus. It has meant adopting experimental pedagogies and removing all exams, a process of reconstructing assessment to be authentic, developing the competencies and skills to support end point assessments, professional practice and workplace skills. Flexible assignment dates, resubmissions, retakes are automatically available to all as we know study often can’t be a top priority for our students.

There is a consistent VLE interface with a small suite of learning tools integrated with signposting regarding time required for learning activities, and all learning resources, student instructions and teaching narrative is quality assured and accessible – whilst learning does not necessarily have to be easy, it needs to be simple to be inclusive and support those transitioning into higher education and to keep them there.  

Designing in multiple opportunities to be present with subject matter experts, academic support tutors and other students is key to developing a learning community. We should not be designing education to be ‘remote’ or at a ‘distance’ we should design to be co-present. Online is still a place – it’s just different. Creating that online community is a really knotty challenge we have to address. To enable flexible study we must let go of the notion of contact hours and instead adopt a multi-layered approach to presence with asynchronous methods becoming a key space for learning and teaching exchange. A student comment on a weekly evaluation really stood out to me, they said ‘I can really feel the teaching in this module’ – yet there had not yet been any synchronous or recorded teaching sessions made available at that point.

All this needs to be supported by a rich course narrative and opportunities to connect individually. The balance of workload for teaching teams must be a priority, online is teaching is intensive, active and focused.

The design of online courses requires a range of expertise that goes beyond what the traditional university faculty can offer. All those involved are educators – the academics, the subject matter experts, the learning designers, the technologists, the media producers, quality control, the accessibility experts, the librarians, data analysts, support tutors – we are all responsible for student achievement, outcomes, and retention. This unbundling is necessary. It requires long term strategic investment and needs to be supported across all institutional operations.

Asking how much does it cost and how long does it take to develop an online course can only be answered by ‘it depends’ and this is a necessary evil.

Investing more upfront in the production of a course that is unlikely to change for many years and can be facilitated by subsequent faculty makes sense. Investing little and often in the production of a course that has volatile content, requires specialist teaching and frequent updates is wise.

Ultimately though I think it is the wrong question. The question should be what is the return of investment of a course over its lifetime.

If designed well, fully-online provision has the potential to return more than is invested. We can respond quickly to changing markets through curating and thematically pulling together different digital course components into new offerings. If designed with scale in mind, student numbers can be significantly increased. Ultimately this means that we can reach more learners with a diversity of needs at a point when people are being encouraged to access training and education throughout their lives. I find it ironic that as an educational professional at a leading provider of Built Environment education we will see our online architecture become more important than university buildings.


Mid-Point Design

This is a post I’ve been contemplating for a while now. Over the past year the dialog around online learning has very much focused on supporting the pivot to online, and rightly so. However as a result of this the voices from fully online have become lost. As many institutions start to explore the possibilities that online can provide beyond the pandemic it’s important that we consider the differences between modes of online learning, especially when online is being identified as a way to reach more students (teaching at scale) or to support access and participation plans. This post is about the key principles for designing award bearing fully online education and introduces the concept of mid-point design as a focus for the application of new institutional strategies.

Mid-point design: A design approach used in the production of a credit-bearing module or course that is offered fully online, implements active pedagogy and can be scaled to increasing student numbers.

Whether it has been the pandemic or otherwise that has led to an increased appetite to provide fully online higher education experiences is up for debate. What is clear is that things are picking-up with a number of Russell Group universities advertising senior roles to lead new initiatives to develop online, award bearing, provision. These roles must harness acute business acumen, years of experience in pedagogic design, astute technical knowledge and the ability to lead change across academic practice. However, look to institutions with significant experience in providing fully online programmes of study (for instance UCEM, Open University, Derby Online, London Worldwide) and you will see that these roles are teams, unbundled to provide the required level of expertise to scope, produce, manage, and run fully online learning experiences to meet strategic goals – be that profitability, widening access or entering new markets. The disjuncture between the two largely rests on perceived notions of what a fully online provision is and what it entails to create and teach it. The points of reference for these are emergency remote teaching at one end of the scale, and large scale self-serve online courses such as MOOCs on the other. They are not accurate points of reference for the design of high quality online education that meets academic standards of validation, and the requirements set by bodies such as the OfS or OfSted.

Between mirror & MOOC

The pivot to emergency remote teaching has largely seen courses being run as a mirror of on-ground educational practice, with appropriate-to-discipline contact hours scheduled, lectures provided either synchronously or in recorded format and learning resources made digitally available on the VLE. We have seen a boom in blended-in teaching practices made possible through digital technologies, such as flipped classroom, online assessment and collaborative learning which are likely to remain. Even so, student numbers, teaching ratios, academic autonomy and workload models largely stayed as they were pre-Covid. This form of course design largely sits within existing frames of reference for academic practice. It is very much dependent on a single point (the academic teacher) to be successful, it is resource intensive to run and is difficult to scale. Whether this type of approach would work well beyond the need for emergency remote teaching is questionable. It has struggled in terms of student satisfaction, simply because students on these courses chose to physically go to university, they did not choose to be online learners with all that entails. To replicate this model would require quite a specific purpose and business case.

On the opposite end of the continuum, many universities have established suites of short online adult education courses (CPD or for interest), with the emergence of MOOCs as opportunities to reach many more thousand learners. A hallmark of these types of learning experiences is that they often come with a very specific purpose – for instance to generate income, as a recruitment strategy, or as a public engagement arm of a research project. Whilst academic staff may be involved in their authoring, these types of courses often sit apart from an academic department, they do not fall under the regulation of the Office for Students, OfSted or QAA although it is not unusual for them to support the requirements of professional bodies. They are designed in a way that does not harness a lot of academic time when they are run for instance by using computer marked assessments, or with limited opportunities for staff-student interaction – may be embedding forums facilitated by PhD students or associate tutors. This enables these courses to be run at scale, with many hundreds or thousands of learners enrolled. However these largely self-serve, and unsupported learning experiences are costly to develop – often requiring significant media production and web design and development as well as subject matter experts, editorial and learning designers. Unless designed as required CPD the costs for enrolment are relatively low and any profitably may take a number of runs to realise.

Seven principles of mid-point design

Enabling increases in student numbers through the provision of fully online education requires neither the approach of a mirror or a MOOC. Like a MOOC pre-design is key to enable larger cohorts of students to work through at their own pace (a requirement for many students who choose online for its flexibility). This makes production costs still high. However academic presence is imperative along with adopting an active and participatory pedagogical design required for academic study. The below principles highlight how these can be brought together into mid-point design.

  • Upfront, outcome led, design. The ability to study anytime anywhere makes online learning the key attraction for students who require flexibility to participate in higher education, often due to also working or having other life responsibilities. A key characteristic I have observed in fully online students is that they are very goal driven, education is not so much a path of discovery but more of an intentional act of becoming – there is a specific thing they want to achieve through their commitment to study. This may be career progression, a career change or something more personal. But the intention is there. In mid-point design the approach is intentional. A course is designed from the learning outcomes (at UCEM we call this Student Outcome Led Design), both in terms of the content that will be taught and also how students are supported in their learning through specially developed learning activities and by academic staff. The module is made fully available to students from the point they start their studies to work through at their own pace. Within this structured approach, opportunities for discussion, collaboration and feedback are designed in to enable students to participate in their learning, to leave space for the emergent ideas and questions that come along the way and provide opportunities for students and teaching teams to be copresent. Flexibility is supported in mid-point design but it is part of an intentional plan on how to meet those learning outcomes. This goes much further than recording synchronous sessions, it moves into designing experiences where everyone can participate as opposed to watching back. For instance students may choose whether to take part in a discussion asynchronously on a forum or within a scheduled teaching event, both can be summarised by the module team in an activity wrap-up with cohort feedback helping learners in their next steps. For fully online this is inclusive hybrid teaching its not a matter of dual mode teaching, it flows.
  • A different form of academic practice needs to be adopted. Mid-point design does not slot neatly into existing academic practice and how we turn up to the classroom is quite different from an on ground course on an online mirror of it. The costs of production are too high for it to be under the custody of one academic, and the expertise required to develop quality online learning comes from a range of individuals including learning designers, learning technologists, accessibility experts. media producers etc. At my current institution the learning designers have responsibility for pedagogy and learning design, my academic colleagues own the subject matter expertise. Many others also work on the module – media producers, editorial, quality controllers, library staff, accessibility experts. Expertise is interwoven to create an learning journey.
  • Many factors affect costing. I often get asked ‘How much does it cost to produce a module?’ along with ‘How long does it take to design a module?Many factors influence how long and how much resource it takes to design an online learning experience. For instance 1 HE unit of learning can take anything between 10 hours and 40 hours of academic authoring, or even more, depending on complexity of the subject area and the learning resources to be created. It is possible to use academic staff as consultants and have others skilled in writing educational web resources undertake the body of work. Learning design, editorial, quality control, technical build, testing etc often far exceeds the time of authoring. Know the factors that influence cost, and putting mechanisms in place to analyse what these are when scoping the work of any new production is key.
  • Design for online presence, not contact hours. Contact hours are a staple of mirror designs, and rarely exist in MOOCs. In mid-point design there is a shift in focus to creating spaces where the academic team are visible, present and available employing more asynchronous engagement strategies and cohort feedback to enable scalability. This does not equate to lower quality, if done well it is incredibly powerful but attention must be given to ensuring that students understand what this different form of teaching is and its value.
  • Consistency is key. Develop a suite of learning design resources and tools including quality standards, study time calculators, authoring templates, house style guides, standard text for student instructions etc. These all enable consistency which is key in online spaces that lack the materiality and tangibility of on-ground education. Simply using a University style or referencing guide is not sufficient, materials must be produced with a clear idea of who the students are and that they will be working on the Web which in particular has specific requirements in terms of accessibility and cognitive load.
  • Workload modelling is everyone’s responsibility. This is not just about implementing an academic workload model that can be scaled with student numbers. It is also part of the responsibility of the learning designer and quality control to ensure the way that a course and its assessment is designed supports both academic and student workloads, the latter of which is essential for retention.
  • Put in place retention strategies. Online courses have higher attritional rates than those held on-ground, with a conservatively reported a 10-20% higher retention failure (Bawa 2016).. This can largely be attributed to characteristics that lead to many learners choosing online – they may be more mature, study part-time, be in work and have other life responsibilities. But there are other factors too such motivational, sociological and technological, with strategies to address digital poverty key. Online courses If an aim is to keep students on programme or to convert them into learners elsewhere, a series of planned and supportive interventions are required.


Bawa P. Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review. SAGE Open. January 2016. doi:10.1177/2158244015621777

KARE-ful pedagogy in online education: a conference talk within a pandemic

Amid a global Covid19 shutdown, homeschooling two kids, and  working full-time, I presented something resembling a conference presentation at this year’s (moved online thanks to the great team @A_L_T) Open Educational Resource Conference (#OER20).

I found this one difficult to prepare for. With the current climate there was a lack of head-space to craft it in, then I suddenly found myself within a sea, no an ocean of voices advising on how to teach and learn online. In a blink the whole world is shifting into the Web. We are more connected and networked than ever before – even if it is at a physical distance. It’s getting difficult to have a USP in edtech! I had to give myself a wee talking to (with the support of colleagues) that our work still has an important message and the experience and learning I have done for the past 20 years in this field has an important role today.


I wanted to stay true to my original abstract submission, but also connect with the wider extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in right now.  The built environment provides many opportunities for educational metaphor – scaffolding, foundations, construction. At a time when we are shifting our residence into virtual spaces, relocation felt like an apt strand to weave into my presentation. I’ve always been fascinated with the 1960s movement to clear city slum housing and move residents collectively into high-rise estates, or as they were called ‘streets in the sky’. We had two such projects in Sheffield (my home town) that have gone full circle from utopian vision, to dereliction, then onto gentrification. Moving an on-ground community into the the sky will only work if that community is cared for, the fabric that they reside in is maintained and improved over time, and if differences in ways of being and becoming are recognised and supported.

Commentators from the HE sector are saying that this could be our opportunity to embrace learning online, to learn how to do it well, and that this will last beyond our pandemic. But what is happening right now will not necessarily work a few years down the line, or even come next academic year. Students lives are changing, teachers lives are changing, the spaces we engage in are changing and we need to navigate those critically. Our educational practices will need to reflect all this. Ultimately this needs to come from a place of understanding, collaboration and an activism to ensure we are present in new ways. It is teaching, not technology, that has an urgent role to play.


The recording of my talk is now on YouTube. I hope you enjoy all the images (CC-licenced of course) of Sheffield’s Park Hill flats.

Learning designs for design thinking


This winter I participated in the ALT Winter Conference. It’s a really great (and elegantly free) event – perfect for anyone who wants to edge into the conference circuit, and make a start presenting through the screen rather than in a conference hall. Or to test a new idea (me!).

My talk was on something a bit out of my comfort zone, creativity as a pedagogical device. I believe creativity isn’t just for the arts and I wanted to show how it can be applied to other disciplines. Creativity, at its core it is a problem-solving tool that can be applied to explore and resolve messy scenarios and move forwards when you are stuck. It is at the roots of innovation and the generation of new ideas. To build creativity or design thinking intentionally into the curriculum can support student success, no matter what the subject. My talk presented two learning designs developed for two specialist profession-focused universities, one fully online (mine) and one providing blended delivery (another), and demonstrated the role that digital spaces can play in the development of design thinking skills. We also messed around with paper clips.

You can watch the recording of my webinar on the ALT programme page.

Image of a learning design sequence - reflect and connect - define - create and test

Beyond the course team: an #LTHEChat blog

Or, We are all educators now: the unbundled faculty


Back in June I hosted a workshop at the Academic Practice and Technology Conference to explore the shifting roles of academic faculty and professional staff in technology-infused education. I’ve been meaning to write up the workshop for a while, but it’s been one of those things I just haven’t managed to get around to yet. However, I was spurred into action by catching the end of one of the weekly Twitter #LTHEChat’s. If you are not familiar with @LTHEChat (Learning Technology in Higher Education Chat), go check it out on Twitter 8-9pm GMT on a Wednesday evening. Each week focuses on a different topic run by someone in the sector with questions posed to the Twitter learning tech community with discussion ensuing. I always enjoy and learn from them.

The topic in question was titled ‘Beyond the course team‘ and put forwards some questions that have given me structure for this blog post. So many thanks to the University of Liverpool Centre for Innovation in Education who hosted the chat, for reminding me to get this blog written.

Q1) If you were to build the ideal team to support a course team who (what roles) would it include and why?

The premise of the ‘unbundled’ faculty is not that academic faculty are supported, rather than education is disaggregated into component parts which all support each other as a holistic whole.

Components of a college or university courseFor example, in the development of a fully online course the subject expert supports the learning designer to build the course by providing content and discipline knowledge, and the learning designer supports the subject expert to deliver the course through designing activities that implement the most appropriate technologies and pedagogies and set the framework for teaching. This is certainly not to say that the academic is not experienced in how students learn, or that the learning designer not experienced in the subject matter, but it is likely that over the course of their careers they built more expertise in a specific field rather than all.

This was one of the activities that we undertook in the APT workshop. Divided into groups, each had a different course scenario to create a team for. The scenarios were:

  1. A fully-online BA course with 400 part-time students
  2. A blended degree apprenticeship with 120 students looking to enhance their knowledge, skills and improve their prospects within their workplace.
  3. A blended MSc course at a research-intensive university.
  4. An fully-online foundation programme with 60 international students without British A levels and without English as a first language.​

The word cloud below shows the roles that appeared, some stretched acoss scenarios – Course Leader, Student Rep. All had an aspect of educational development expertise (Learning Designer, Learning Technologist, Academic Developer). Some were more specific to the particular course such as Online Tutors, Research Lead and Estates.

wordle 3

It’s clear that different flavours of coure may require a different make-up of individuals, but on the whole we are looking at bringing together academic, professional and learner representatives.

Q2) Can you give us an example of where you have seen real value being added to curriculum design from people outside of the immediate course team? 

In the workshop I did a very brief presentation on the ‘Design Jams’ that we run at at my institution. These curriculum storyboarding sessions bring together those charged with designing, making, running and supporting a course – ideas are bounced off each other, best practice shared, and sequenced learning activities take shape. A series of tasks are then set in motion to move from the storyboard to the VLE. If the immediate course team is considered to be the academic faculty then this level of curriculum design would be difficult as it requires the practice of a number of different professions. In our case the practice of the academic and subject expert, the practice of the learning designer or learning technologist, assessment expert, librarian, student experience etc. As the end point of many of our programmes is accreditation, industry professionals are also vital to engage in the development of the learning experience.

I’m unsure if this degree of unbundling at all stages of educational design and implementation is common or rare in the sector, and if it is present is it always the case that equal value is attributed to each role? I do however believe it to to be 100% necessary for the design of fully-online education with every role aligned equally. Every learning design decision, every piece of scaffolding, every resource is visible and up for scrutiny on the course website. Committing to offer flexible access for students as we do (to learn at their own pace), means that changing resources or student instructions is risky – we can’t presume all students are at the same place in their learning. Pre-delivery design needs the best decisions to be made by those best placed to make them.

Q3) What approaches have you used and found effective in building relationships and trust quickly in interprofessional programme teams? 

Trust comes from an awareness and understanding of our colleagues practice, roles, and value in achieving shared goals – our students development and success. We need to learn from, then put aside, any past experience we have of collaborations that have not been positive, and start from a point of equality as we all hold responsibility for the education that we design and deliver.

I’ve written before about my experiences of being regarded as, and even called, a ‘servant’ to the academic institution. Setting up components of a University as service departments can reinforce this perspective. The discipline of education and everything it entails is as much of an academic practice as that of classics, or physics or economics.  This is why it is so valuable to have subject experts, academic developers and learning designers working side by side – our different practices enable us to focus on what we do best and blend as educational provision. It is alchemy.

When I run workshops or host course design meetings for the first time, I ensure that everyone in the room understands why they are there, why their expertise means it is valuable that they are there. No one’s role is to know better than another, nor should anyone have to defend their practice. I have steered away from implementing rules, as I have done for other workshops such as change hacks, it’s more delicate in this context where vulnerabilities may be present for past experiences. We are there to ask questions, constructively challenge and collaboratively build a student experience.

A few devices we have used to successfully aid this relationship have been:

  • A design conversation activity to understand the course, its learning outcomes, rationale, and the tutors passion for the subject. Included in this is discussion are threshold conceps, student feedback from previous runs and
  • Developing a roles a responsibilities document to make visiable ares of expertise and expectations in terms of the course team.
  • Collaborative workshops, such as the Design Jams mentioned above that bring together a range of practices in hands-on design

In a prevous role I also found that providing spaces to develop a community of practice such as user groups, teaching forums, show and tell events, and teaching awards (inclusive of all those involved in designing and delivering teaching) also helped enormoulsy to break down barriers and reformat relationships. I hope to explore possibilities of doing this now, but these things take time, and can require a cultural shift, and often some resource.


Reaching through the screen: KARE as a new scaffolding for online education

I had a paper accepted for ALT-C this year to talk about scaffolding fully online education, how it has been implemented in the past, and how we need to think about it differently going forwards. I am posting here a written summary of my talk, but if you would rather watch than read, it is is available on the recording below (start at 25:53).

Start at 25:50 minutes (talk is 20 minutes long)

The slides can be downloaded.

Before my summary it is definitely worth noting that the day was pretty exciting for me for two reasons. Firstly Jesse Stommel gave the keynote, which was an absolute pleasure to be at as Jesse and Critical Digital Pedagogy has been a huge critical frame of reference for me in my own teaching philosophy. Secondly, I gave my talk in McEwan Hall, perhaps the most stunning venue I have ever presented in. I thought it would be intimidating but actually it turned out to be quite a calming influence. Being surrounded by architectural beauty, and considering the institution I am a part of, it gave me a quiet sense of assurity that what I had planned to say meant something in the world.

Painted dome and inscription of McEwan Hall, Edinburgh
The dome of McEwan Hall. Painted from the hand of William Mainwaring Palin, the central piece of art depicts a great number of philosophers and students. It is inscribed ‘Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding. Exalt her and she shall bring thee to honour’. (Proverbs 4:7).

Talk Summary

I am here today to talk about scaffolding education, specifically scaffolding in fully online education. I am going to talk quite a bit about the institution that work in, our values, and our students, as these are central to the support we are embedding in the curriculum to help our learners to be successful in their studies. I’ll then talk about what that support looks like, and give an example of how it’s being applied. This is very much a work in progress and we welcome any feedback.

The University College of Estate Management, was established in 1919 .This year we are celebrating our centenary year. Originally sited in Lincolns Fields in London the institution initially provided free technical education in real estate and related areas for the sons of those who had been killed, injured or impoverished in World War One. This was amid calls for improved building standards and living conditions, including for city slums to be replaced with better quality housing. By the 1940s UCEM was providing largely correspondence courses including to the military,  prisoners of war and the Women’s Land Army. In late 1960s we became associated with the University of Reading, building premises on campus and Reading validating degrees, with students studying on site and via correspondence. In 2013 we received our own degree-awarding powers and in 2016 left Reading campus and moved into a renovated building in the centre of town. With the exception of our apprenticeship programmes we are now a fully online University, offering 13 programmes of study from level 3 to level 7. Our provision is flexible, with multiple entry points, and flexibility in the number of modules studied at any one time. UCEM works closely with the leading professional bodies in the built environment to ensure that our programmes provide the knowledge and understanding required to achieve chartered status and approach the challenges we are facing in the industry.

Those challenges are not insignificant, to outline just three:

  1. The housing crisis – too few homes are available, the population is rising, and those homes that are on the market are far too costly.
  2. Sustainability – urban growth and rising population is putting a lot of pressure on our built environment and it’s resources. We need to explore ways to protect biodiversity, increase green space, reduce waste production and CO2 emissions.  Construction materials that are packed full of  chemicals are not sustainable, and we need to explore new types of housing, for instance if 200 000 homes were built a year out of timber we could take 3.8 billions tonnes of CO2 out of the air.
  3. Health and wellbeing – places need to be designed for wellbeing, air quality, active travel, food provision, cohesive community. Operationally, in the built environment sector mental health has be named ‘the silent epidemic’ – mental health has been named the silent epidemic of the BE.

Who are our students?

Who are our students? Here are some stats:

At UCEM we:

  • Teach 4000 students at any one time
  • from 100 countries
  • 3% are enrolled full-time, most students study part-time and are in work
  • 20% of our students are on apprenticeship programmes
  • 90% of students are over 21 years (average age 31)
  • and 30%  female
  • We have 25% from BAME (10% Chinese)
  • 10% have a declared disability

Not only do our students face tricky problems in their work in the sector, they more than often have complex lives due to their other commitments and have difficulty dedicating the time or motivation they would like to their studies. In her essay ‘Professions for women‘ Virginia Woolf uses the figure of an angel to represent the ‘many phantoms and obstacles’ looming in the way of those who wish to pursue their own interests in opposition to roles they already hold – parent, employee, carer. Woolf talks of killing the angel to become true to themselves. Our students have angels to kill, or at least have to give them a good dose of concussion to study. But this is hard, and attrition rates continue to be much higher for online learners than those in face-to-face or blended contexts (Bawa, 2016). And whilst online provision gives more access to education, once enrolled those learners can find that they are in-fact more disadvantaged and that achievement gaps are widened (Moore & Greenland, 2016; Kizalic & Halwala, 2015).

Scaffolding online education

Scaffolding has been proposed as a way to support students in their learning, providing additional instruction and support in the early stages of new types of learning activity until they are able to undertake that task independently. The definition of scaffolding in construction is not dissimilar:

In online education four main types of scaffolding have been identified.

  1. Conceptual scaffolding: helps students decide what to consider in learning and guide them to key concepts
  2. Procedural scaffolding: helps students use appropriate tools and resources effectively
  3. Strategic scaffolding: helps students find alternative strategies and methods to solve complex problems
  4. Metacognitive scaffolding: assists students reflecting on what they have learnt

These mechanisms if designed well do just that, scaffold the learning. But we teach students not content. The reasons why students struggle online can also be down to personal, social and motivational issues amongst other things. These are not necessarily things that can be supported through the types of scaffolding identified and not things that can be supported easily at the scale of fully online education where staff to student ratios can be low.

UCEM Educational Framework

For the past year I have been engaged in a process of transforming how we design and provide education to our students, taking into consideration who they are, the challenges they face engaging in their studies and challenges they face within industry.

We have adopted a learning design model that works backwards from the learning outcomes to ensure all learning is aligned. Assessments are more scenario-based and reflect real-world applications of knowledge. We provide plenty of opportunities to practice online activities to increase confidence, and design content that learners can connect to their everyday lives. We have increased opportunities to connect synchrously and asynchrously with tutors and peers, as well as opportunities to receive, give and act on feedback. The pedagogies we are employing are active and participatory to reflect the connected world of the built environment industry, they are situated and problem-based to ensure relevance.

But there is another layer required, a scaffold to support students to be a successful online learner and become part of a wider support network that operates beyond the capacity of a tutor. To borrow another analogy from the built environment, we need support them to ‘place-make’ in the digital space.



The KARE scaffold implements Kindness, Awareness, Reflection and Engagement. Its aim is to support the online learner to find their place, sense of belonging and confidence in their online programme. It starts by modelling kindness to students and starts from a place of trust – we trust that they will engage and be open, we put ourselves in a position where they will trust us. To create cohesion and community we develop awareness – self-awareness of basic needs,  awareness of people in our immediate contexts, awareness of the world around us and the bigger issues. Then to support students to take this into learning scenarios we design engagement opportunities and activities with peers, tutors and the wider professional community.

A simple example of the implementation of KARE on a ‘Digital technologies’ module.

When we teach online, we have to build both the programme of study and the classroom within which it takes place. The classroom sapce is problematic if it’s fixed permanently in advance as it does not account for who students are, what their own personal learning journeys may be, or emerging group dynamics and power structures. KARE is a scaffolding that enables the learning space to be constructed with, and navigated by, students.

Whilst scaffolding is a temporary structure, it needs to remain in place until our work is done.


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