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Connecting learners across a digital network

As a network of geographically dispersed colleges, UHI has an established blended learning framework that supports local access to Further and Higher Education, including Initial Teacher Education. We have undergraduate degrees in Gaelic and Home Economics Education (with an RMPS teaching degree in development), PGDE programmes in Primary, Secondary and GM Education as well as a teaching qualification for those working within the independent sector.

Throughout our Teacher Education programmes we build a familiarity with the online environment. Blended learning is embedded in our programmes, allowing our students to see the potential for use with their classes and for establishing and maintaining professional relationships with their peers.

Examples of this include students problem solving – using digital platforms to overcome connection issues and how to work remotely on collaborative tasks.

Whilst we aim to develop our students’ digital literacy skills we are mindful that the range of platforms and online resources available to teachers can seem overwhelming for student teachers (and indeed vary across the large number of Local Authorities that we cover). We aim to develop our students’ confidence in working with digital tools and model effective blended learning pedagogy.

Synchronous Engagement – builds participation and maintains ‘live’ nature of lectures.

We use video conferencing to bring together large groups of students for lectures – these are ‘live’ and include dispersed groups of students being in the same room. It feels like a real lecture, participants can ask questions and interact with the presenter.

At other times the video conference is used to share the results of group discussions across the network, allowing groups to see each other and to interact. This allows students to build on the relationships that have been established at the start of the programme, during the residentials that bring together each cohort.

Presentation and Co-ordination – interactive and spontaneous, etiquette agreed at the start of the year.

The presenter can share their presentation across the digital platform, with slides on the full screen whilst they are talking, switching to views of individual groups at times when questions or discussions are invited. This requires co-ordination, ensuring that each group of students has an opportunity to share their opinions or discussion outcomes. It also requires an established protocol to ensure, for example, that students in the same room are not talking over those ‘on screen’.

Through their engagement with the sessions, students are learning new skills in working with Video Conferencing and seeing how this is different from being there in person. One of the PGDE assignments is a presentation that Students deliver across the network, being marked by tutors in another location.

Virtual Classrooms

We use a virtual classroom platform to bring smaller (class sized) groups of students together from across the UHI network in an interactive space that can be facilitated by a tutor or used independently by a seminar group.

Functionality – breakout groups and timer, polling, whiteboard, status, share screen and chat.

At the beginning of the year, or with larger groups of students, we use breakout groups to allow smaller groups to discuss and rehearse their answers to questions, the timer is useful in bringing groups back with a ‘volunteer’ to share key discussion points in the main room. As the year progresses and confidence grows, seminar groups are provided with more autonomy in structuring discussions and experience in taking turns.

A polling function and interactive whiteboard facility allow students to anonymously share their ideas (an example of this is when they are asked to ‘rate’ their own confidence in numeracy). Similarly, an emoji style ‘status’ symbol allows them to indicate if they are happy with the tutor instructions or pace of delivery.

The tutor can model classroom instruction by sharing their screen, including their browser tab, to allow for example a ‘walk through’ of an online task.

The live ‘chat’ function allows students to type comments as the session progresses, for example to provide useful links for their peers. This is an important function for students with audio connection issues or who might be joining the session from a public space or library. Whilst there is a video connection option this is generally turned off following an initial ‘hello’ to preserve bandwith. Students are encouraged to share a photo of themselves as their user icon, again to maintain relationships established at the induction residential.

Building relationships and agency – a ‘safe space’ to rehearse ideas and build professional connections across our geographical region.

Our students are engaged in rich discussions, where they need to make connections and listen to each other. The ‘hands up’ function helps to model the turn-taking that would be used in a classroom, with tutors responding to and encouraging discussion.

This interactive approach gives students permission to rehearse their ideas out loud and to agree or disagree with each other’s comments.

Discussion Boards

Facilitates asynchronous engagement, at a time that suits students.

Discussion boards allow for development of threads and strands on a theme, over a longer period of time. It’s a good way of setting a task for out-with a live session, allowing time for students to work on it and post their findings. Students can come back to the threads and posts at a later date for reference. Students can also attach resources that they have created.

Students share experiences and ideas, examples of critical writing – can invite comment from peers and tutors.

The tutor can comment and encourage dialogue, for example by posing an additional question, again modelling classroom pedagogy. They can also observe the on-going discussion and change it’s direction. The sharing of examples of writing allows students to craft a piece more confidently over time, with the tutor providing learning points on referencing or criticality.

Discussion boards can also be used as a collaborative tool, with students building on each other’s comments and engaging with each other’s responses.

Other tools

Student spaces – reflective journals, ePortfolios and informal spaces. Other digital tools include an online journal as a space to record key learning