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HEi-know Good Practice Briefing: UK universities describe "amazing" shift to online delivery

Universities across the UK have rapidly moved their learning, teaching and assessment online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented overhaul of traditional teaching practices has presented a major challenge to institutions, staff and students. In this Good Practice Briefing, HEi-know shows how some universities have responded to the situation.


Research shows that academics can feel unprepared for this new digital world and many require substantial support.

An online survey designed and distributed at the end of March by academics at Bristol and Swansea Universities garnered 1,013 respondents from the UK higher education sector. The findings reveal that fewer than half of UK academics (47.5 per cent) felt prepared for moving all learning, teaching and assessment online.

Their confidence lagged behind international colleagues, with 62.5 per cent of survey respondents in the US and 81.5 per cent in the EU reporting feeling prepared to deliver courses online.

Academics referred to the difficulty in balancing home demands with a sense of now being permanently on-call to students.

Some also reflected on how being “constantly inundated with electronic contact is overloading and mentally exhausting”.

Similar findings were revealed in a Coursalytics.com survey of 100 faculty members from 40 business schools in 11 countries, conducted in March/April. Many educators (33 per cent) reported no or very little experience of teaching online until April 2020.

Institutions are acutely aware of the need to provide support to staff and students to try and make the switch as smooth and pain-free as possible.

The university case studies and input from Jisc below show that technology tool selection is one of the key components of the transition. Academic staff and students are using a wide variety of tools in all kinds of combinations, with Zoom being particularly popular. Well-known instruction-specific solutions, such as Canvas, Moodle and Blackboard are also important with academic staff make use of them beyond their pre-Covid-19 applications.

Ensuring student engagement is one of the most pressing concerns. Solutions and recommendations to handle that include: clear communications, particularly of expectations; adjusting course content; using the most engaging student assignments; employing virtual breakout rooms to make sure that students actively participates in classroom discussions.

As term draws to a close and the exam season begins, online assessments have become the norm and require not only very responsive tech backup but also support for student mental health and wellbeing.

Going forward, universities are planning for a number of scenarios. Online delivery of teaching and learning is certain to be a much more prominent feature of higher education in the next academic year. In the event of lockdown or socially distancing restrictions remaining in place, it may be the component that dominates the student experience.



According to Jisc, the challenge that many universities face is scaling up at pace, and remotely. How well they manage that depends largely on the range of support and training mechanisms that they already have in place for delivering teaching and learning online.  

Being able to “deliver" online is not just about uploading content: it means having the skills and capabilities to design online learning that is effective and enhances the student experience and ensure this content is accessible, Jisc experts say.

Increasingly, lecturers are being asked to design the whole curriculum and develop it in a way that is engaging and encourages interaction with the students.

At some institutions, the physical timetable has been almost directly translated into a virtual one using remote delivery and collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Universities are also making use of asynchronous tools.

“Different universities are taking different approaches,” said James Clay, Jisc’s head of higher education and student experience. “Which model they pick depends on the students, staff, and subject, as well as how far the course has progressed, and how much online platforms and tools have been in use prior to the Covid-19 crisis.”

Student engagement and communication are key and need to be delivered at appropriate times and through a range of channels, and by varying departments and individual staff.

Universities are posting key information on their websites and updating it on a regular basis. Departmental information is often posted to the respective learning platforms or on tools such as Teams or Google GSuite. Individual staff are using email as well as the other tools and platforms.

Universities are also ensuring that their pastoral support services are available online and are signposting these to their students.

Academic staff have had to quickly adapt and adjust, not just to delivering teaching online - sometimes using unfamiliar platforms - but also having to do this during a lockdown, in the family home with all the added pressures this brings.

“The fact that academics are, despite all the pressures, delivering remotely to students across the UK, and internationally, is an amazing achievement,” said Clay.

Online assessment is also being widely adopted. Even universities with previous experience of designing and delivering online exams are unlikely to have attempted it at the scale or at the unprecedented pace now required.

Concerns about online exams raised by Jisc members include: maintaining the academic standard and quality as they translate and convert existing practice into online modes; ensuring staff have the necessary digital skills and capabilities to successfully deliver online assessment; and transforming multiple modes of assessment to online versions at scale and at pace.

Practice and lab-based assessments, such as creative and performing arts and the sciences, present a particular challenge. However, feedback from universities indicates they are mitigating the impact through cancellation, deferment or assessment based on work done so far.

Student wellbeing is also important: “Consideration has to be given to maintaining student engagement and wellbeing through the assessment process, as they continue to socially isolate and study remotely,” said Clay.

Plagiarism and cheating are still major concerns, and some universities and professional bodies are looking at online invigilation (proctoring). Others are using a “code of honour” approach with their students or using assessments which make plagiarism less likely.


University of Derby


Derby has been a leader in online education for two decades and this expertise has been invaluable in the transition from campus based-learning to remote teaching.

Dr Margaret Korosec, Head of Digital and Enterprise Learning, points out that the facilitated remote learning which institutions are working to have in place in September, is very different to specifically designed online degree programmes.

“That nuance is quite significant,” she said. “There’s a very different design and development process if a programme is fully online: the student experience is very different.”

Students studying online programmes have access to all their resources at the start of term, for instance. The programme has a very activity-led design and students engage independently synchronously and asynchronously with academics rather than coming on campus for synchronous or asynchronous provision. The programmes are validated as online degrees.

The distinction between fully designed online programmes and the remote learning that has been necessitated by the Covid-19 lockdown is an important one that has been lost in the current chatter about the wholesale transformation of degree courses online.

However, some of the core principles of Derby’s online programmes are helping to underpin the different approach to teaching and learning, now and potentially into the autumn.

Work at the university over the past year and a half, which has trained over 90 academic staff in the process of bringing college-owned programmes online, has created a staff base with an authentic experience of the online space and of translating that into a facilitated remote learning scenario.

The shift in pedagogic practice that is required for successful remote learning is a key focus at Derby, with online delivery teams exploring how to help traditional campus academics understand and develop collaboration, engagement, synchronous and asynchronous provision and a broader use of online tools.

Using the VLE in the way it is used for campus teaching, often as a repository for uploading recorded lectures, power points and opening a discussion thread, is a good start but it is not enough, says Korosec.

“Some of the important questions we’ve been considering at Derby are ones that the whole sector should be asking: how are you engaging your students at a distance? How are you creating or designing activities that engage students and how are you making your student visible when you are not seeing them in the classroom? They need to ask: what is the student doing in that remote space and what are they doing with that information? What is the community or peer group that are all learning remotely and how are they engaging with each other?”

Academics have an important role to play in fostering discussions remotely, considering how and when to intervene - “weaving and threading” the conversation in a way that is not just responding but moving learning along.

As the university prepares for a number of possible scenarios in September, one of the benefits of the transition to remote delivery is the upskilling of academic staff, giving them the opportunity to become more familiar with the tools and to explore their pedagogic principles for engaging students remotely.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the change management required to undertake this shift,” said Korosec. “Ultimately students and academics are both learning in this space. It is OK to have an attitude where you may not get it right first time and do it differently next time.”


University of Leeds


Like all higher education institutions, Leeds’ response to the Covid-19 lockdown was to move to online learning and teaching very rapidly to deliver the rest of the current academic year.

To ensuring that the digital tools were in place to make that possible, Leeds worked with their systems suppliers including Blackboard, the university’s virtual learning environment (VLE), to make sure it could deal with the volume the university was about to put on the platform.

Advice, guidance and support to staff on using the best tools in each scenario was swiftly put in place.

“Because everyone was asked to move so quickly, we didn’t want staff having to reinvent the wheel,” said Dr Megan Kime, Head of Digital Student Education. “We were keen to reduce the load on people so we gave clear guidance on what tool to use in which scenario and clear instructions about how to use it.” 

As well as enhanced guidance, teams of staff were established to support colleagues to deliver live sessions, especially to large groups of students. This buddy system meant staff were available to provide online, real time technical assistance to academic staff, which proved immensely valuable, particularly for staff delivering a live virtual classroom session for the first time.

“The feedback shows it helped to reduce the anxiety that comes with using something for the first time in quite a high stakes situation,” said Kime.

One of the biggest challenges across higher education is moving programmes online that involve lab work, and findings solutions to this is something universities are working on.  At Leeds, staff in physics have been exploring options for utilising virtual labs in the academic year ahead.

With the threat the lockdown poses to wellbeing, student engagement is arguably even more important in the current climate. Leeds is enhancing existing mechanisms to try to give students the support they need.

Student success officers work proactively with groups who may be at higher risk of non-continuation. The Lifelong Learning Centre works with part-time and mature students, who are more likely to have caring responsibilities which can make studying challenging, and to have issues with access to the right equipment and wifi. In some cases, these students are receiving one-to-one support.

The personal tutor system has also been stepped up a level, with students hearing from their tutors every couple of weeks.

The transition to online teaching and learning brings pros, as well as cons. Flexibility is one of the benefits for students, allowing them to engage with asynchronous provision at a time that suits them. Online assessment can make it easier for students with certain disabilities who may have issues accessing exam halls.

For students with English as an additional language, participating in online interaction can be less daunting than the face-to-face variety. In some normal seminar scenarios, a small number of students can dominate, with less confident classmates reluctant to participate. Online engagement can lead to a more even mix because the fear of “speaking in front of people” is diluted. Online content can also add variety, allowing better use of images and animation, for instance. 

Going forward, the university is preparing for a number of different scenarios, all of which entail balancing access and flexibility with maintaining standards and rigour.

“Everybody has been working incredibly hard and we have also felt the benefit of already doing quite a lot of digital education and online teaching and having a service in place that is there to support staff to do this. Investment in advance has paid off in this situation,” said Kime.


Staffordshire University


Weeks before lockdown, Staffordshire University began planning its delivery of a “virtual university” with staff across the institution.

As the first university in Europe to migrate entirely to cloud-based services, the transition to remote working has been made that much smoother. Many of the university’s staff and students were already using technology such as Microsoft Teams which has been invaluable for keeping connected while working apart.

Acting early ensured staff had access to the equipment needed to work remotely, such as laptops, and it also enabled the university to set out its expectations. Assistance to staff includes “how to” videos with clear instructions for the delivery of pre-recorded lectures, assessment and engagement with online activities and live online teaching.

On many courses, digital learning materials are made available for students to access when it suits them, such as pre-recorded lectures and presentations or interactive tasks which students can do in their own time. Students with a lack of equipment have been identified and where necessary, provided with laptops.

Staff have been communicating with students throughout the lockdown through the website, student app, newsletters and social media channels, in a bid to keep them fully informed and signposted to where they can get course specific information, as well as access other help and support during the lockdown.

Channels of communication have been kept open and academics are available digitally, via email or through video calls.

Students are expected to complete all assessments and progression is dependent on a demonstrable level of engagement. Students experiencing genuine difficulty, however, can use the exceptional circumstances process. Student wellbeing and support services remain available for anybody requiring additional non-academic support.

 “This is a difficult time for all involved,” said Andrew Proctor, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Digital). “Lecturers and students working from home may have other competing responsibilities and distractions including caring responsibilities and home schooling their children. Lecturers and students do not have access to the specialist equipment and resources we have on campus. Equally some students are struggling with motivation and being isolated. We are doing what we can to keep them engaged in their studies and supporting their progression to the next level.”

Staff have demonstrated real innovation, with ingenious ways of homeworking and remote learning, said Proctor. These are being shared and celebrated as examples of ‘good practice’ across the University. For example, researchers from the forensic fibre and microplastic group have created “lockdown labs” at their homes equipped with microscopes, camera set-ups and audio to record lab sessions and create learning materials while analysing fibre and microplastic samples.

The university has also run virtual open days for prospective students from across the world.

“Regardless of the location of our students and staff, we believe we are maintaining a real sense of community,” said Proctor.


Swansea University


Swansea University is making the lives of students and teachers as easy as possible in the transition to online delivery by making some simple substitutions: Zoom is used for face-to-face teaching and tests and assessments have moved online.

Since lockdown there is increased use of lecture capture, as well as keynote topic pre-recording, followed up by online Zoom seminars. Lecture recording is a useful back-up in situations where students have difficulty accessing live content. To minimise problems, the university digital team has chosen tools that are low bandwidth and work well globally, especially in China.

Going forward, more prerecord will allow students to work at their own pace, as will more use of a flipped classroom model, where the material is explored in advance and fixed sessions and seminars consolidate it.

Mike Day, chief digital officer, said: “This needs to be the prevailing model, because we don’t know when things might get back to normal, if they ever do. We see the opportunity in the current circumstances and not just the very considerable downsides.”

Keeping students engaged has entailed a proactive communications initiative via many and various channels. Engagement analytics, which log when students access course material for example, are still valid when on-campus attendance is no longer available as an indicator.

According to Day, there is very little evidence of a downside on online delivery so far, with some teachers and students suggesting they actually prefer it. However, the main drawbacks are the loss of the campus experience, student engagement with each other, and living and working with others from different cultures and backgrounds.

There are real challenges in students accessing practical sessions, especially lab-based work and specialist software and systems, for example in science, engineering, and medicine. Providing practice experience and placements, especially in those subjects that require placements to become qualified professionally, is also a difficult area.

“We can deal with these short-term through rescheduling and reorganising delivery,” said Day. “But we will need to go beyond this, if things are going to take longer to resolve.”

The main challenges institutions are facing in relation to online assessment include scaling up systems to cope with the volume of submission; having systems that can deal with complex test requirements in some subject areas such as maths; and remote invigilation for exams.

The digital team at Swansea is exploring AI-based robotic invigilators for the longer term and summative assessments.

“Our technology, staff and students have adapted remarkably well. We now need to consider how a hybrid or more blended approach becomes the new normal for new students from September onwards and for a protracted or extended period,” said Day. “We are designing against a range of scenarios that start to augment, modify and even replace established practice rather than just substituting like for like.”


University College London


UCL’s buildings may be closed but the university is not. Teaching, supervision and pastoral support continues as academic teams turn to digital solutions to stay connected with their students and minimise disruption to learning and progression.

The university’s main platform is Moodle and it hosts a range of supported activities and tools that are proving invaluable in the lockdown: Blackboard Collaborate can facilitate real-time online classes, while Lecturecast enables recording of short video clips that can partially or fully substitute for lectures.

With the need to move teaching online, digital accessibility becomes ever more important. Small things can make a difference to student access, such as providing original, editable content so that users can make their own adjustments rather than converting text into a PDF document.

One important consideration is that many of UCL’s students are in different time zones. Heads of departments and programme and module leaders are being supplied with data that shows the number and proportion of UCL students who are based outside Greenwich Mean Time locations, which can be filtered by level of study, department or programme. Traffic to Moodle shows about seven thousand users connecting from outside the UK, primarily from China, Hong Kong, France and the US.  

Understanding how many students are hours ahead or behind UK time helps staff plan their approaches to teaching and student support. Relying solely on live – or synchronous – teaching is not an option with such dispersed cohorts. 

 “There are multiple considerations that will impact upon how staff design courses and content,” said Samantha Ahern, learning technology project officer. “One of them is ‘where are your students?’ They may be in different time zones, so staff are using asynchronous activities using forums, blogs, or wikis (website/database that allows collaborative editing), where staff and students?participate when and from where they can.”

In the absence of face-to-face contact, clear communication to students of how online teaching will work and the expectations of their tutors is essential, said Ahern. Staff outline to students the teaching approaches that will be used, such as expected availability and response times; how, when and where students are expected to participate; how students should engage with each other; and where students can access technical and academic support.

“When teaching online, academics need to be seen as present,” said Ahern. “This doesn’t mean being available all of the time, but trying to be visible by modelling engagement in the tools and approaches they have selected. It might mean announcement forums to communicate key information, but also two-way channels for both discussion and feedback.”

Like other universities, UCL has introduced alternative assessments to replace invigilated exams. These include timed 24-hour online exams and the submission of coursework as a replacement for traditional exam papers. A “no detriment” principle recognises student performance so far and ensures that academic outcomes cannot be negatively affected by the alternative assessments put in place in the lockdown.

First years will participate in “capstone assessment” – submitting a single short piece of work reflecting on their learning across their programme over the year. It will be marked on a pass or fail basis and students will be required to pass to progress to the second year.



This Good Practice Briefing was first published by HEi-know on 15th May 2020