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.


Bawa, P. (2016) ‘Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review’, SAGE Open. doi: 10.1177/2158244015621777.

Kizilcec, F., & Halawa,S. (2015). Attrition and Achievement Gaps in Online Learning. In Proceedings of the Second (2015) ACM Conference on Learning @ Scale (L@S ’15). ACM, New York: ACM, [57-66].

Moore, C., & Greenland, S. (2017). Employment-driven online student attrition and the assessment policy divide: An Australian open-access higher education perspective. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 21(1), [52–62.].

Woolf, V. (1942). The death of the moth : and other essays. New York :Harcourt, Brace and company.

Design Alchemy


Over the past few months I have been working on the development of a framework to guide the transformative design of online education at my institution. To date the institution has been using a Learning Design model that focus’ on backwards design which is a neat and elegant approach for the design of online courses. Yet, Learning Design models are pedagogically neutral, and omit the art of teaching and learning (pedagogical principles and approaches), and the roles of the players (students, educators, community). Our transformation is from a largely transmissive approach to a  participatory approach that puts the learner at the heart of what we do. Moving from content-based to outcomes-based ensures our assessments reflect the skills and knowledge students need for the workplace, and they will learn through solving problems, generating knowledge, inquiry, critical thinking and application of concepts. They will be given opportunities to work collaboratively and contextually, bringing their experience of the world into the modules they studying and undertaking tasks and reflections in the world as part of their learning activities. It is essential to build a clear pedagogy within our framework, and give attention to how educators and students are present and active online. In doing so we will be able  to design in a way that is current for our time.

This is where the alchemy metaphor comes in. We need to blend a variety of elements to create a design framework for developing an institutional education experience. It’s not a term that’s new to the field of learning design, and I’m happy to reuse it here as an appropriate way to describe how we can turn our base metals into metals of more value.

The framework we have arrived at can be found on the UCEM Online Education Blog, it will no doubt evolve as we go through interactions of implementation. I thought it would be interesting to post some of my workings on how we got there below:

Annotation of the Learning Design Conception Map (from the Larnaca Declaration on Learning Design) was a starting point:

Thinking about the elements we needed to blend with our Learning Design model:

The point at which we felt we could implement the framework through design sessions:


Hacking who we are


I recently ran my second ‘Changehack’. A changehack is a method developed by Peter Bryant, Donna Lanclos and David White for ‘Future Happens‘ to bring together people to develop innovative and workable ideas to make change happen. Like a technology hack-a-thon participants dive into problems, define them, and ‘nut them out’. A changehack uses similar principles of time limited activities, specific rules of participation, and is led and engaged in with positive energy.  The model works because it seeks to challenge head on and examine only what we have the autonomy to change, avoiding some of the standard blockers that prevent real and productive debate and solutions to a problem: systematic moaning, resistance to others ideas, the excuse ‘Oh, its a great idea, but it won’t work here’ or ‘that’s someone else’s problem’ .

The first hack was a 40 minute activity which I ran with learning technologists from Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University. It looked specifically at how express our value as experts in a variety of scenarios. The second hack was a day-long workshop with online education colleagues to evaluate and propose solutions to challenges faced in a programme of work we are undertaking. Despite the different foci, both hacks followed the same structure apart from one activity, and they worked incredibly well. I won’t relay the structure here as it’s not mine to tell, it can be found on the Future Happens site (via Web Archive as it has disappeared).

Images of Burnt activity post-it notes
Outputs of the ‘Burn’ activity in which participants wrote post-it notes on their experiences in a learning technology role to ‘clear the air’: Pink: The worst things that have happened: Blue: Hopes and dreams: Yellow: Success stories.

A theme that came up in both hacks is the challenge we experience in defining what we do, thus getting buy-in for the work and projects we undertake. Be that from our colleagues in the more technical and business side of the institution, academic colleagues, or those involved in organising teaching and learning.  ‘Learning Technologist’, ‘Learning Designer’, ‘Online Education Developer’, ‘TEL Advisor’, ‘Instructional Technologist’…. no matter the title of our role, what we do always seems to be shrouded in mystery and this causes problems when it when it comes to expressing our expertise, giving authority to our practice, and keeping control of the scope of what we are responsible for: ‘Oh that’s a job for the LT?’ or ‘Can you fix the lecture capture?’ are common nags.

In the sector the role of the person who works at the intersection of teaching, learning and technology is not clearly defined. It is a role that can be moved across a continuum of technological and pedagogical. Some colleagues are more one than the other – some have PhDs in education, some are qualified teachers, some have come from an information science/systems, editorial, or digital media background. Everyone tends to have a degree of coaching and change management experience, most have managed a project or few. However, when expert roles exist for many of the areas we absorb into our own practice (Project Manager, Business Analyst, Business Change Manager, Educational Consultant, Digital Media Officer, Web Developer etc), it becomes very difficult to express our own expertise in what is a moving and bitty context: ‘Well I do a bit of everything, and when one thing is needed more than the other I become that person’ said one of me team to me once. If we were animals we would be chameleons.

At Oxford I presented the learning technologists in the team as ‘experts in teaching and learning who focus on how digital tools and spaces can be used to enhance the student experience.’ This quite often had the dual effect of confusing my colleagues in the IT department we were based due to our lack of compatibility with ITIL frameworks, and giving us a degree of credibility ‘out there’ in the wider University. AT UCEM we are a different flavour, we are much more involved in the design of learning before it gets to the digital tools and spaces stage, with less focus on tech support. I imagine that in a move from any institution to another I could experience the same job title but quite a different role.

The collective solution proposed in both hacks was to create a clearer understanding of what we do, our responsibilities, our value and our part in realising the institutional vision for teaching and learning. Practical solutions include: publishing blog posts to raise awareness of what we do; producing a roles and responsibilities document when working as academic teams on learning design; more regular show-and-tell events with other teams;  and, undertaking a roles audit to understand where responsibilities lie across a process and communicating that effectively.

I strongly believe that one of the issues we need to overcome is a lack of confidence that we deserve authority and autonomy as experts in the field, experts who have a professional practice that is of no lesser standing than another field. Expressing what we do in clear plain English, and being able to advocate the benefits of what we do for the institution will support that.