Connected education: Reflections on an online journey

F_Rennie1When I got my first email address at Aberdeen University in 1977 we thought it was SO cool. We actually said, “This is great, but what can we use it for?” We finally used it to keep in touch with student parties – the earliest online social media?

When I returned to Lewis in 1982, I began to work with Rurtel, a text-based online conferencing system developed by the University of Guelph in Canada. My introduction to it was through my involvement with the Arkleton Trust for rural development and I still remember the excitement in the house when we first saw the messages coming in on our international conference.

Delivering our first online courses

When I delivered the first online course from Lews Castle College UHI in 1993, it was Rurtel that we used. That EU-funded course was on ‘tourism and heritage for rural development’ and the participants were (specifically) young women drawn from every area of the Highlands and Islands. We thought that we were very advanced (and so we were), but the online connectivity that we have today is like comparing NASA with stone-age technology. Nevertheless, it was a successful proof of concept and though the University of the Highlands and Islands did not exist in its present form, it helped to establish the subsequent thinking for the developing network of colleges.

2011 prospectusVery soon after this, when the word wide web became publicly accessible, we began to develop digital resources for the university’s first networked degree, our undergraduate programme in rural development studies. Those first online modules were uploaded straight onto the new web, with no ‘Blackboard’ or ‘Brightspace’ and no password protection required! The web resources and navigation were rudimentary (remember Netscape?), but essentially it did most of what we do today, although not quite as smoothly.

Two things happened very quickly: local students began working from home (or the college library) and attendance at lectures became pretty relaxed and optional. Secondly, we began to get requests for places on the course from further and further afield. Fortunately, as the embryo University of the Highlands and Islands was flexible and innovative on scant resources, this move online was regarded as an institutional opportunity, rather than a threat. The rest is the detail of history.

Coronavirus – adjusting to the new normal

In the late Spring of 2020, as we sit at home trying to work online, it has become a different environment entirely. Suddenly there are fewer options for learning and teaching. Suddenly, even colleagues who have been reticent to put anything online are seeing the advantages of being able to use educational technology to communicate in a semi-normal way with students and other staff members.

HomeThe massive changes and challenges of responses to COVID-19 are facing millions of individuals, businesses and organisations, but, unlike most, the University of the Highlands and Islands has a long history of adapting to the culture-change that is required for online design. This is a crucial issue, for surprisingly the technological matters are relatively easy to resolve, but the ability (and willingness) of many people to make the cultural adaptions to new ways of thinking is notoriously more difficult.

As I move into my eleventh week of working from home, I have made several key observations. Firstly, most of my workload continues as normal (without the commute and chats in corridors) as much of what I normally do is online anyway. All my teaching is through our virtual learning environment, Brightspace and most tutorial discussions with research students are by video conference, as are most of my network meetings and committees. The frequency of video conference meetings has stepped up a notch, because there are few other options, but the flexibility and the brevity of (most) meetings is better and more focussed. There are occasional ‘catch-up’ meetings with colleagues in the university and other institutions that would normally rarely happen, as many people are reaching out to colleagues to check how they are and to replicate in some form the randomness of chats over the group printer or the office kettle.

There are three BIG changes that have happened over the last couple of months, almost without us noticing them (unless they affect you directly!)

Online learning is becoming mainstream  

VC videoconference class in progress, archaeology, Orkney, NovemFirstly, tutor online learning communications with students, between the students themselves and among groups of education professionals has (almost) become normalised. From being an ‘alternative’, it has become mainstream and some of the anticipated demons and obstacles have faded or disappeared. True, there are individual technology glitches and online design issues that remain to be resolved, but the sting has been taken out of the tail. Every week we see universities across the globe rushing to consider moving their work online. Some will manage this successfully, others will crash and burn because they are not prepared, culturally or technologically, for such a move.

The University of the Highlands and Islands has the advantage that many colleagues have been embracing online delivery for many years. We have seen the future and we know that it can be a very effective, worthwhile and enjoyable experience, both for students and staff members (and not just academic teaching staff). Radically, students are setting up their own networks and even inviting their own guest lectures. The prospects for personal development and heutagogy (self-determined learning) have never been better.

News opportunities for connection and collaboration 

earth-2254769_1920Secondly, the shift online means that I am now even MORE connected with the wider world of academia than I was previously. Colleagues in many disciplines have opened up their seminars, shared their guest lecturers (both internal and external to the University of the Highlands and Islands) and encouraged interdisciplinary contributions in a way that has rarely happened before on such a networked platform. In the past month I have sat in on a dozen interesting sessions on topics that are not my mainstream discipline and, in most of them, I have received (and contributed) knowledge in ways that have inspired me.

There is now a realisation that this interchange of ideas does not need to end with the cessation of lockdown. We have the technology, we have the will and now we have the cultural capacity to engage in new ways of thinking and working that can be both specialist and interdisciplinary. With some careful planning and an open attitude, the University of the Highlands and Islands may be able to take academic networking within the Highlands and Islands (and beyond) to unprecedented levels of accomplishment.

Online meetings support geographical inclusivity

Thirdly, there have been several discussions on social media which note ruefully that the road from south to north seems longer than the same road from north to south – similarly from west to east. The geographic argument of population numbers and transport links that make Inverness, Edinburgh, and Glasgow (to name but three cities) venues of convenience for meetings of physical networks and committees, is now destabilised.

iStockphoto ImagesWhile colleagues in the Central Belt, London or even Inverness, can ‘pop into’ meeting rooms to benefit from collegial meetings, those of us who live in the islands and the decentralised mainland are effectively handicapped by high fares and high time costs. (I am often surprised that colleagues who are so empathetic to equality issues in other ways are so blind to geographical exclusivity). Most full-day meetings on the mainland require at least one overnight (adding to the cost) and need to be considered carefully for the cost/benefit ratio. Although many mainland venues may have the video conference facilities, they only rarely prioritise this option for access (and frequently have such poor awareness of video-conferencing training that any benefit is ruined).

Now many are on the fast-track to learning the new online etiquette as universities, small businesses, third sector organisations and even governments are being compelled to use this means of communication if their members are going to meet at all. Many are finding it incredibly efficient and cost-effective. Whether this revelation becomes sufficiently embedded to survive and thrive beyond the immediate lockdown will be interesting to observe.

For my part, as an early convert, I would prefer not to regress to old ways.


UHI Learning and Teaching Conference 2020, Inverness Campus, Jan

Professor Frank Rennie

Professor of Sustainable Rural Development

Lews Castle College UHI

Twitter: @frankrennie



One thought on “Connected education: Reflections on an online journey”

  1. Certainly, the forced moved to online learning opens up exciting opportunities: greater connectedness, a more egalitarian geography and – best of all – shorter meetings. Yet I can’t help thinking ‘but …’. The key phrase is “there are fewer options for learning and teaching”. For some students (and staff) there are in fact no options. A combination of factors – no access to appropriate technology (for instance students with only a smart phone, or those who don’t even that), insufficient time or space given their childcare responsibilities, anxiety and other psychological problems exacerbated by economic uncertainty – make online learning impossible for some students at the moment. Of course, some of these issues are temporary and can be eased after lockdown, but others will remain and may become worse. For some learners who have never found education very accessible – whether for social, psychological, health or other reasons – the mandatory shift to online learning provides yet another, possibly terminal barrier. The new normal will see winners and losers: for many of those who have missed out on many educational opportunities I fear there will now be even fewer than ever.

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