These Scotland university lecturers are experts of 'remote learning' after doing it for decades - here's how they do it

University education has been forced to shift online since Covid-19 swept across the globe closing lecture halls and classrooms. But in some communities, virtual lessons have been a way of life for decades.

Educators at Scotland’s University of Highlands and Islands (UHI) have provided online courses since the early 90s which makes many of them highly experienced in ‘remote learning.’

So much that in the wake of the pandemic, UHI lecturers said they have received requests from other universities asking for advice on the online structure that their careers have survived on for decades.

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Dr Eilidh Macphail, who lectures in sustainable development at Lews Castle College UHI, has been teaching remotely for more than ten years.

Picture of Professor Frank Rennie (left), Eilidh Macphail and Ruth Barclay Patterson picture: supplied

Speaking to The Scotsman, she talks about methods she deems vital for successful online learning.

“Filming what you do in a face-to-face lecture and putting it online is certainly what not to do,” she said.

“Remote learning requires careful planning and practice and is not as simple as people think.

“Our job as online teachers is about curating material each week to make sure it’s presented in an engaging way.

“The next step is to then guide students through it and arrange for regular assessments and discussion forums to boost engagement.

“Having someone lecture you for an hour on a screen isn’t helpful, and I don’t fully support this style of teaching anyway.

“We moved away from the lecture hall side of things at UHI a long time ago.”

Keep it simple

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Simplicity and consistency is another one of Dr Macphail’s top tips.

With the shift to online already presenting a significant adjustment for some, clarity is key.

“It’s really important to use a simple system for sharing material that is easy to navigate,” she said.

“Since homeschooling my children, who are 5, 9 and eleven, I have noticed the amount of platforms that there are to promote online learning and how many different ones are being used by schools.

“I can see why teachers want to explore various types of software, but too many can get confusing.

“I am realising this issue with homeschooling my children and how important it is to keep it simple.

“Simplicity and consistency is essential for the teacher and the student to follow a course, especially for those having to adjust to this new way of digital learning.”

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UHI, which delivered its first online degree programme in 1993, uses a software called Brightspace which, according to Dr Macphail, presents material in a way that is easy to digest.

Know when to switch offline

The mother-of-three also highlighted the importance of establishing boundaries when working remotely to others.

“Managing expectations of students and staff is really important,” she said.

“When teaching online, and especially now that everyone is doing it from the comfort of their own homes, it’s surprisingly easy to be available 24/7. But you will burn out, so remember to put that out of office on.

“There are a lot of stressed people out there, so it’s important to spell out what exactly the student needs to do and to establish what the lecturer can manage.

“The biggest drawback that students report is that you have to do a lot yourself, but that’s what happens at university level, regardless of classes being online or not.”

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Professor Frank Rennie, who works for UHI from his home 20 miles north of Stornoway, Lewis, has been teaching online for more than three decades.

The professor of sustainable and rural development, who delivered his first lecture at UHI in 1995, said the shift to online is going to take universities time to adapt.

“Every week we see universities across the globe rushing to consider moving their work online,” he said.

“Some will manage this successfully, others will crash and burn because they are not prepared, culturally or technologically, for such a move.

“It takes careful planning, designing and flexibility.

“We know this at UHI because we have been doing it for years.”

Guidance on material

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Professor Rennie said with the new shift to virtual learning happening globally, university material is prolific with more lectures and classes being circulated for students to access.

While this is a positive move for expanding resources, he said it is imperative that educators learn to guide students on how to be critical of different sources to make sure they are reading reputable material.

“There is already so much content online for students to sift through,” he continued.

“As the world of education is shifting, it will be our job as teachers to make sure the students are reading the right stuff, not the ‘fake news’ of education.

“Our job is and will be not to lecture content, but instead to guide students through material and teach them how to be critical of sources that they find online.

“It’s important now more than ever for universities to be more flexible with their teaching, putting control over learning in the students hands and guiding them through material.”

A student’s response

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Ruth Barclay-Paterson, 37, completed a Masters in Health and Well-being last year at UHI and is currently enrolled in a PGCertificate - both of which are online courses.

The student, from Ayrshire, said she felt “in the hands of experts” while completing her degree remotely.

“UHI has really invested a lot in online teaching services,” she said.

“It’s efficient and sets a great example for what other establishments should be aspiring to be like since the pandemic forced education to shift online.”

Ruth said remote learning was one of the main reasons behind why she applied for UHI given other commitments in her life.

“Even before the pandemic it was appealing for me to do an online-only course because I have a wee one and a full-time job, it allowed me to be flexible,” she said.

“But UHI also has the infrastructure to teach online well given the lecturers’ experience. My dissertation adviser was in Stornoway, but it didn’t matter given the university is well-established in remote learning.”

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