Community's Central: Building Sustainable Communities for Digital Learning

Christian Stevens, Digital Learning Manager at University of Wales Trinity Saint David | Thursday, February 10, 2022

Wednesday 23rd June 2021 – For the first time in fifteen months, I walk into my office in Swansea’s Innovation Quarter, and it feels strange. Jacket on chair, stained coffee cup (even more than usual) and, most poignantly, the 2020 calendar on the wall displaying the month of March.

In those first few weeks of lockdown in the UK, digital learning was thrust into the mainstream of higher education, and we saw an overnight transformation of provision to wholly online delivery. The buzz word was continuity and as the academic community rapidly upskilled to make this happen, there was also widespread recognition that this was a temporary solution, becoming commonly known as “Emergency Remote Teaching”.

During this period a common theme was emerging in both the traditional and social media that the most significant impact on learners was loss of community. Learning content was still available, teaching was still going ahead but feelings of isolation, lack of collaboration and constructivist learning opportunities and difficulty in developing social bonds was severely hampering the learning experience.

Concurrently, the impact on staff of an immediate change in working practices was also becoming evident. The blurring of home life and work, the cognitive load required to adapt to so much change so quickly and, in particular, the physical isolation of home working not only put a strain on the mental health of many, but also made collaboration and networking far less natural, fluid and human. Again, there was a need to reinstate community.

The last eighteen months at UWTSD has been transformational in how we support and deliver high-quality digital learning across campuses, disciplines, and delivery models. The beginning of academic year 2020-21 saw the implementation of our Digital Framework for Blended Learning with its guiding principles steering all aspects of learning and teaching:

We have made a commitment at UWSTD to embed blended learning at the centre of our teaching and learning approach. This provides flexibility to both our communities: our students can access their learning at a place, time and pace that suits their needs, and our educators have the flexibility to adopt a delivery model that utilises the blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences that best meets the needs of their discipline, learners, and outcomes.

The ethos underpinning our Framework is “People by Default, Technology by Design” highlighting the focus on our communities and as part of this we have put in place several specific initiatives to put community at the centre of our teaching, learning and collaborative working practices:

Digital Teaching and Learning Standards

In summer 2020, we introduced a reference resource for our academic staff to support the development of online delivery from Emergency Remote Teaching to effective online learning.

It provides a checklist to support creating an effective online learning environment in the VLE and advice on good practice in digital pedagogy. Central to the advice is the importance of planning for peer-to-peer communication, instructor presence and collaborative active learning opportunities to ensure that students learn together, even when physically apart.

Digital Skills Framework

Also in summer 2020, we launched our Digital Skills Framework for staff and students with the JISC Digital Capabilities Framework at its heart. We have established a dedicated Digital Skills Centre to provide training, advice and guidance for staff and students to support their progress through the Framework. Further enhancing this service are institute-based digital champions ensuring that digital skills development is at the heart of our learning communities.

In addition to the Digital Skills Framework being created, the University was the first in Wales and one of only three in the UK to sign a Shared Goals Agreement with Microsoft to enable UWTSD to harness Microsoft’s world-leading tools and resources to transform the University’s technology enhanced learning and teaching and to embed such innovation into its curriculum. Our students and staff benefit from courses focused on areas such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and data science, while also having access to LinkedIn Learning, Microsoft’s AI Business School and technology learning courses, GitHub, and industry certifications.

Blended Learning Advisory Groups

We have established two working groups with representation from across our campuses and institutes to guide, inform and influence our approach to blended learning, specifically in the areas of teaching and learning and technology. These groups ensure a whole community approach and ownership of how we effect our blended learning delivery.

Curriculum and Learning Design

Our new dedicated Digital Learning team works closely with academic staff to plan, design, and build curricula which maximise learner engagement, equity, and employability. Learning designers and technologists work side-by-side with subject-matter experts to identify opportunities for learners to develop digital skills and work together online and in hybrid settings, as well as building asynchronous learning content to support an active, collaborative and constructivist blended learning delivery.

Hybrid Learning Spaces

We have invested in upgrading our learning spaces to facilitate the delivery of hybrid/hy-flex learning sessions providing opportunities for our students to study flexibly whilst maintaining the sense of community within their class as remote and in-class learners learn, communicate, and collaborate as one.

Equitable Access to Digital Learning

We are fully aware that many learners may face obstacles to fully accessing digital learning and accordingly we provided a digital bursary scheme to remove such obstacles in the way of providing devices and access to support and resources for Welsh Government grant funding for areas with poor broadband connectivity.

At the time of writing, social distancing measures across the UK are ending and the welcome sight of busy and vibrant campuses is returning. Our learning, teaching and social communities will grow again. However, alongside those communities we now have equally valuable digital communities which will underpin accessible, flexible, and rewarding study for a sustainable future.

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