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29 September 2021

Sustaining and Enhancing Digital Learning Pan-Wales


Professor Claire Taylor
Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Education at Wrexham Glyndŵr University.

Project Lead HEIRF LTN Collaborative Project: Sustaining and Enhancing Digital Learning Pan-Wales.

Twitter: @ProfCTaylor

Professor Claire Taylor is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Education at Wrexham Glyndŵr University and has executive oversight for learning and teaching, the student experience and civic mission. Professor Taylor is a member of HEFCW's Student Opportunity and Achievement Committee, Jisc Learning Analytics Cymru Steering Group, and Chair of Universities Wales Learning and Teaching Network.

Professor Claire Taylor presented at the Higher Education Investment and Recovery (HEIR) Fund: QAA Sharing Practice event on Wednesday 15 September on the £2.7m pan-Wales HEFCW HEIR-funded project. Professor Taylor also chaired several conference sessions, including a panel discussion focused on looking ahead to the future of digital/blended teaching and learning, and sharing potential opportunities for digital/blended teaching and learning in the future from the perspective of students, sector bodies and internationally.

In this blog, Professor Taylor tells us more about the £2.7m pan-Wales HEFCW HEIR-funded project and its impacts.

The Higher Education Investment and Recovery (HEIR) Fund was established in Wales during 2020-21 in order to support universities to maintain vital capacity and aid economic recovery in the context of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to this, a £2.7m pan-Wales HEIR-funded project was developed collaboratively by members of Universities Wales Learning and Teaching Network (LTN) working with students' unions, Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, NUS Wales and QAA.

The aim was to collectively secure the sustainability of digital curriculum development capacity across the sector, gather and evaluate student perceptions on the efficacy of their digital learning, share and celebrate best practice, and establish a sector-wide digital learning enhancement plan that we could sustain collaboratively beyond the immediate investment.

A number of key guiding principles underpinned the bid for funding, and the subsequent project.

Firstly, this was a sector-wide approach that embraced the support of digitally-enabled learning including through the medium of Welsh through partnership working with Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. Although new approaches to digital learning had been developed autonomously and successfully by universities across Wales as part of the ‘pandemic pivot’ during Spring 2020, we wanted to build a connected and coherent community of practice together, building on previous nationwide projects such as Learning Analytics Cymru (facilitated by Jisc) and our collective commitment to a pan-Wales approach to quality enhancement, working with QAA.

Secondly, our approach was student-centred. This meant not only finding ways to secure key teaching and support roles in order to retain capacity and continuity for quality teaching and learning for student benefit, but we also built into the bid a bespoke research project that focused on student perceptions of their digital learning experiences. This also ensured that the project was evidence-based (our third principle) by collecting student feedback and also through commissioning a Wales-wide QAA thematic review around digital learning.

Fourthly, our approach was aligned with university strategies, thus being cognisant of specific university contexts and environments. Therefore, it was important to take account of, and build upon, existing university strategies in relation to digital learning when designing and delivering the project as a whole. This also encompassed our fifth principle of facilitating institutional autonomy around the deployment of core funds according to local needs analysis.

However, the overriding principle was that the approach embraced short-term action with long-term thinking. The project was designed to take forward advances in blended learning and flexible working and address the short, medium and longer-term challenges for Wales and universities as providers of higher education in the light of the pandemic.

In the short-term, curriculum development investment aimed to protect the immediate student experience and this appears to have paid off as evidenced by student feedback. For example, in the 2021 NSS overall student satisfaction scores were ‘down’ across the UK HE sector, but Wales has continued to track at or slightly above the UK average for overall student satisfaction and other key question groups, maintaining the trend of recent years.

In the medium-term, the project provides a platform for further innovation in relation to digitally-enabled curricula. The funding enabled us to secure current and ongoing digital curriculum development resources within each of our institutions, focused on maintaining and developing key staff roles such as learning technologist, educational developer and digital developer. Such staff deliver frontline services and support in the form of:

  • digital learning resource development - researching and implementing technologies and approaches such as virtual learning environments, online learning, flipped classroom, social media for learning, lecture capture, polling.
  • digital curriculum review, learning design and development - assisting academic staff and course teams in optimising the use of digital technologies as they design new programmes or revise existing ones, with the overall aim of enhancing the student learning experience.
  • academic staff development - crucial to the long-term embedding and sustainability of this project as it is by enabling the academic community to grow in skills, knowledge and confidence that gains in blended delivery will be secured, embedded  and enhanced.

Looking to the future, investment has provided an opportunity for us to develop a longer term enhancement programme related to digitally-enabled learning pan-Wales, informed by student feedback and the QAA thematic review and capitalising on the opportunities offered by technological advancement and digital innovation.

We look forward to sharing this work further and more widely beyond Wales and can already point to immediate project outputs such as:

  • a QAA-led ‘sharing practice’ event reflecting on key findings from the thematic review and student perceptions project
  • the development of institutional impact case studies
  • a suite of Welsh-medium digital learning resources.

Going forwards, we have secured a small amount of follow-on funding for the student perceptions project and have committed to using the JISC Digital Experiences Insights Student Survey for the next two years across all universities in Wales in order to build up our student voice evidence-base. We will shortly be starting work to co-create a pan-Wales Digital Learning Enhancement Plan (drawing on the QAA thematic review and student perceptions) which will be progress reviewed during Summer 2023.

Overall, this project underlines the gains that can be made through true collaboration across the higher education sector and how we are able to work together highly effectively within Wales for the benefit of the student experience overall. Key to success has been a shared vision and purpose coupled with a healthy respect for institutional autonomy, and critically a desire to exercise agility to execute short-term action but always with a commitment to long-term thinking for sustainable impact.