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30 June 2021

Going Digital - there is no going back!


Professor Alastair Robertson
Director of Academic Development and Student Learning, Glasgow Caledonian University

In this blog post, Professor Alastair Robertson, Director of Academic Development and Student Learning, Glasgow Caledonian University, expands on his keynote session at the Innovations in Digital Student Communities event, which took place on 25 May 2021.


In March 2020, Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) had to move to Emergency Remote Learning in an incredibly short space of time, just like almost all other universities around the world. It was a pivot point but also accelerated a direction of travel we had already begun. Supporting staff and students to build and sustain engaged learning communities in a digital environment has been a significant challenge. Over the last few decades, numerous studies have shown that engagement, a strong sense of belonging and feeling part of a learning community with their peers and academic staff are all important factors in determining students’ likelihood of completing their course and attaining their potential. Further, a higher education experience is not just about academic achievement and getting a degree, it can have a transformative lifelong impact on learners.


These aspects of higher education were all found to be key ‘intangible assets’ in a 2019 QAA national Enhancement Theme funded project I led with Professor Elizabeth Cleaver (Buckinghamshire New University) and Dr Fiona Smart (Edinburgh Napier University) entitled Beyond the metrics: identifying, evidencing and enhancing the less tangible assets of higher education, and yet these are all aspects that universities have found challenging during the pandemic and move to emergency remote learning. Clearly, universities that are able to offer a high-quality blended student experience in the future need to overcome these challenges and embrace their intangible assets!


Key to our approach has been partnership working with our student body and all other stakeholders across the University; academic and professional services. For academic year 2020-21 we developed a new strategic framework, GCU Going Digital, that comprises a set of principles for digital learning at the University and four enabling pillars:


  1. Guidelines for quality and standards of digital learning
  2. A set of core tools to support digital learning
  3. Building digital learning capabilities of staff and students through a range of development activities, guidance, networks of academic champions and sharing of emerging good practice
  4. Evaluation strategy.

    We have embraced the opportunities afforded by COVID-19 to transform our digital provision over the last 15 months but we are not alone in our vision. For example, Edinburgh Napier created a Digital Support Partnership that also involved key stakeholders across the University, staff and students, and similarly developed a set of principles for their online learning and teaching.


    An important approach at GCU has been to promote student-led activities to sustain digital communities, enhance engagement and instill that vital sense of belonging within an academic community. Some examples from both the curriculum and our student societies include:


    1. Peer support/buddy systems, for example, Peer Assisted Learning Schemes (PALS) (GCU). Use of emerging tools for networking/’speed friending’ for example,
    2. Book clubs, pub quizzes (subject-based and general), bingo, yoga classes, etc.
    3. Various social media channels to keep in touch, wellbeing, promote support services, etc.
    4. Photos/video clips of ‘pet of the week’- sharing positive feelings and mental health.

    In partnership with our Students’ Association we have learned a number of lessons in engaging our students and supporting strong digital learning communities. These include:

    1. Let the community decide what tools are right for them to ensure appropriateness and also enhance community ownership. Clearly this is easier for co-curricular, student-led communities that are not constrained by institutional platforms.
    2. Digital communities offer the opportunity to reach a more diverse group of students, particularly those that have found it hard to engage in on-campus activities in the past, for example, mature students, part-time students,  international students, and those with caring responsibilities. Through the use of digital, there are no longer geographical barriers (although there are still time zone considerations) and we have found it has been much easier to facilitate collaboration across campuses and transnational partners.
    3. In terms of synchronous and asynchronous activities and support, it is not a question of either/or but rather the need to use both. The exact blend will vary upon the activity, needs of the community, and so on.
    4. Finally, and this is a really important point, online collaboration no longer needs to be considered an inferior option. Indeed, there are a growing number of digital tools that can replicate, augment or even improve face-to-face practice and student engagement.

    GCU has recently approved a new Strategy for Learning 2030 that has blended learning and learner agency at its core, whilst retaining our mission as the University for the Common Good and a leader in social innovation. Moving forward, we are enhancing the support for students as online learners and have created a new one-stop-shop for all associated resources (GCU Getting Online, GCU-GO). We are actively piloting new technologies that can engage and strengthen diverse learning communities such as the use of hybrid or ‘hyflex’ learning that allows students in class on campus and online to collectively interact and learn simultaneously.


    For me, I feel there is no going back for our sector and we need to capitalise on the significant advances made and lessons learned over the last 15 months. A blended approach to all aspects of the student experience will be critical, not just for the new academic year, but for opening up significant opportunities for innovation and more flexible access, marking a new era for higher education as we weave our way out of the pandemic.


    You can read more about the sector-wide Resilient Learning Communities Enhancement Theme, as well as explore recordings from the Innovations in Digital Student Communities event on the project webpage.