It has been a busy time across the University as colleagues rally together to prepare for the possible impact of the coronavirus spread.  With Heriot-Watt University campuses, learners and partners spread across the globe, we’ve been acutely aware of the rapidly changing context.  From a learning and teaching perspective, we have been focusing on how to help colleagues move at speed – should they need to – to support learning in an online environment.

Initially we were called on to offer tailored guidance to colleagues who were due to deliver face-to-face teaching in China. This week, however, we see our Dubai campus move temporarily to supporting student learning online.  Responding rapidly to events and being prepared for a shift to teaching online is something we now all need to consider.

Such a shift can seem daunting.  It is important, though, to keep a focus on what remains the same – the continuity of people, continuity of learning, and continuity of commitment to supporting your student community.  Remember, it is not the technology that does the teaching, it is you.  Look for the simple solutions that will allow you to continue to keep in touch with your students and continue to share your resources and passion for your subject.


The Rapid Response Toolkit

Heriot-Watt’s Learning and Teaching Academy, in conjunction with colleagues in the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Service, has produced a rapid response toolkit on Supporting Student Learning Online. This is designed to help colleagues continue to support their students in the event of having to move rapidly to online teaching.

The Toolkit can be accessed on the Learning and Teaching Academy website:

The Toolkit is designed to help colleagues rapidly respond to the move to online learning, potentially for the first time. For those colleagues who are already making extensive use of the University’s virtual learning environment, Vision, the toolkit will provide some useful reminders.

The central message in the Toolkit is to be pragmatic about what you and your students will be able to engage with in the current context. At a time of rapid change and uncertainty, the key priority is to ensure students feel supported. Knowing how to contact the course team and access course materials are key to this.


What’s in the Toolkit?

Supporting Student Learning Online covers basic tools to maintain communication and support for learning. It is not intended to provide a comprehensive guide to learning and teaching online, but it might spark your interest to learn more.

The Toolkit begins with a Checklist for Course Teams.  This outlines key areas to consider about how you work with each other as well as how you will engage with your students to support their learning.  Working through this as a team will help you get ready for online delivery.

It then offers a set of guides to:

  • Help you prepare and use your Vision site, share resources and communicate with students;
  • Teach online via live webinars;
  • Use Microsoft Teams as a communication tool.

The Toolkit is being continually developed. It is worth bookmarking the site and checking back regularly.

Additional support materials on topics such as podcasting, voice-over PowerPoint, screencasting, and use of Turnitin for submission, marking, and feedback will also be available.   And there’s a programme of live online support sessions to answer questions and give you clear guidance and walk-throughs of the tools available to you.


New Learning Environment, Same Learning Community

The key message in any shift to supporting learning in an online context is to keep the people, the learning, and the community at the heart of thinking and practice.  We often jump to concerns about the technology as this is where the ‘new’ and daunting lies for us.  – Will students engage? Will I remember what buttons to press and when?  However, in a time of uncertainty, focusing on what remains the same – the people and the pedagogy that you are familiar with – will make the shift to online much more manageable.

So five key tips:

  1. Keep things simple. Focus on maintaining communication and support using tools that are familiar to you and your students. Email and even the trusty telephone will have their place.  Most importantly, the course page on your institutional VLE will be critical, with its capacity to host forum discussions and an online webinar room (or rooms) for staff and student interaction.
  2. Use your time wisely – focus the limited time you have on the interactions that matter. Use tools you are familiar with, share resources you have already developed. Ensure that your online interactions capture your voice and the approach to teaching that students are familiar with. This will be far more important to students than superbly produced, whizz-bang new resources. And make time for virtual office hours, space for students to come and ask questions or seek reassurance.
  3. Ensuring learning stays active. Even with a large class, you can use the spaces available to you for interaction and activities that encourage students to work together.  Make use of discussion forums, ask students to ‘meet’ together and feedback into the main discussions, encourage people to engage with each other’s input.
  4. Informal interactions matter. Moving online doesn’t mean you have to lose the informal interactions, the light-hearted encounters that light up any teaching space and bring your learning community together.  Keep your teaching voice authentically you, whatever medium you use.  And consider an informal space for your group – a forum for general chat, a virtual coffee break. This is as important for staff as it is for students: online working can be lonely, unless you build space for informal encounters.
  5. Experiment, but don’t worry if things don’t work. If you find yourself suddenly having to work in an online space, there will be a lot of trial and error – from you and your students.  That’s absolutely fine.  And remember, there is plenty of support out there to help you in this new space – colleagues who have already experimented with a particular tool or approach, learning technologists who will be happy to share their expertise, as are colleagues in the Learning and Teaching Academy (LTA) and Learning and Teaching Enhancement Service (LTES).  You may be increasingly working online, but you are not alone.


A Team Effort

It’s been a busy period, as we have worked across the University to develop and share these resources.  Throughout, this activity has been characterised by an enormous sense of collegiality, kindness and care for colleagues and an overwhelming commitment to supporting our students.

We hope you find these resources useful.  Do let us know what you’ve found helpful and what further topics you need support with. There are colleagues across the university here to support and guide you.