Reimagining digital teaching in higher education

A primer for university leaders on how to harness the opportunities digital offers to improve teaching practices.


“Historically, academics might have been brought up using an overhead projector and their parchment notes. Teaching and learning has very much changed since then. However, for newer academics, then being dropped in at the deep end and expected to be able to do all of this sort of stuff is quite an ask.”

Guy Daly, deputy vice-chancellor (education and students), University of Coventry

Teaching is a core part of the university business and covers a range of activities, from lecturing, workshops, and seminars, through to individual and group tutorials. Digital and online technologies can enhance existing teaching practice, as well as enable new ways of teaching that take advantage of the opportunities that digital offers.

One of the challenges is to ensure staff don’t just have the technical skills to use digital tools in their teaching, but also have an understanding of how as well as the potential that these tools can have in supporting delivery.

Impact of digital teaching

Effective use of digital and online technologies to support teaching can:

  • Enhance the student experience
  • Widen participation and improve accessibility and inclusion
  • Create opportunities to expand the university beyond the campus
  • Develop staff skills, knowledge and understanding of digital across learning, teaching and assessment

However, there are also risks and challenges:

  • Challenges of reconciling the inconsistent experience which results from the differences between the physical and virtual student experience
  • Poor student experience due to insufficient skills and capabilities across staff and students
  • Underutilising the transformative potential of digital, scratching the surface of what is possible

Overview of digital teaching in the sector

Universities are in a continual process of planning and delivering programmes of study. However, the landscape has now fundamentally changed, and universities are looking to mitigate risks while ensuring continued high-quality provision and a positive student experience, despite uncertain times. 

Effective use of digital technology in teaching is seen as fundamental in helping to ensure continuity of learning, adhering to social distancing requirements, and engaging positively with students.

Universities across the UK are delivering hybrid blended curriculum models, inviting students to participate in a combination of on-campus and online learning. Working in this way requires specific skills for both learners and staff, and a well-planned, blended learning programme which effectively integrates a range of techniques and resources. 

Simply moving content online is not sufficient, though staff may instinctively feel more comfortable with automating their established styles of delivery and content. Translating established techniques onto new platforms without altering design and delivery is not enough. It requires real transformation, which demands an adjustment in thinking and sufficient staff confidence to shift to new ways of teaching.

The higher education landscape has been impacted by COVID-19 and as a result existing curriculum models may not be appropriate or practical. Universities will need to reflect on how teaching will need to be transformed.

It is tempting when discussing technology-enhanced learning to focus on the digital technology element, not least because of the cost and challenge of learning how to use it. However, we are very clear that the pedagogic considerations are vastly more important. All successful education and training requires close attention to learning design and content creation, and technology-enhanced learning is no exception. The imperative to start with the learning outcomes and work back to the teaching inputs has never been more important than in this period of digital transformation.

Just as there are great lectures and poor lectures, there is good and bad online learning and teaching. No amount of good technology can ever rescue poor learning design, content, presentation, and teaching.

A vision for digital learning

Effective digital and online teaching are focused on the learning experience and outcomes before considering the technology. Effective digital and online teaching emphasises active participation over consumption of content.

Teaching staff will need a range of pedagogical and technological skills to be effective and inspirational online and digital teachers.

Digital learning action plan

A wide range of elements need to be considered:

  • Do you have a clear understanding of what good online or digital teaching looks like, including how this aligns with requirements for assessment and quality assurance? How is this understanding communicated and shared within your institution?
  • What does good online or digital teaching look like in the context of the complete student experience? What else needs to change or be adapted to ensure that the teaching is effective?
  • What digital and pedagogical skills are required by staff to deliver effective online and digital teaching? Universities should invest in building staff digital skills and reward and recognition frameworks as part of professional development to increase the quality of technology-enhanced learning.
  • Universities should be aware of the changing needs of staff in this uncertain and unsettling period of digital transformation. Enabling staff development and progression as expectations change, and having the right environment to do this, both culturally and structurally, is vital.
  • Have institutional policies (eg GDPR, accessibility, online safety, complaints and wellbeing) been updated to reflect the change in how courses are delivered?
  • How will staff and students be made aware of the information that is relevant to them?


Universities should ensure they have strategies for maintaining high levels of staff and student motivation and engagement as a core feature of the use of technology and digital in teaching, learning and assessment.


“The sheer number of staff who are now completely skilled up in a number of critical digital platforms has been an absolute godsend for me as the CIO of the university,”

says Gavin McLachlan, vice-principal chief information officer, and librarian to the University of Edinburgh.

When lockdown was looking almost inevitable in early 2020, the university, like all higher education providers, was rapidly preparing to take learning and teaching off-campus and online.

Gavin explains how despite the importance of sound infrastructure for a rapid transition, it was the people who made it so successful.

"We felt that we were in good shape going into lockdown when, like everyone else, we made the swift and sudden move online. We had good underpinning infrastructure, had just moved our virtual learning environment into the cloud, and had recently completed a large programme of digital transformation and skills training.
"One of the biggest challenges we faced in the rapid move to remote and online teaching was the digital skills of staff. Although we had thousands of online students even before the crisis, most staff weren’t trained in modern online digital pedagogy or how to use the digital infrastructure and tools. But they came rapidly up to speed. It has to be said, the willingness of staff in a crisis to take digital skills courses was truly impressive when ordinarily it would have been way down their to-do list."

"The lecture as a one-hour exposition is not viable and what we’re trying to do with staff is to get them to break up lecture content into small bite-sized chunks and then, as a stimulus to further reading, discussion and reflection, to aim for five, 10 minutes maximum around threshold concepts, and build in exercises around that. Break it up with small group and individual reflections using polling, quizzing and that sort of thing, rather than just doing the traditional one- hour stand-up regurgitation of ideas."

Richard Walker, head of programme design and learning technology, University of York

Help and support

There are many ways sector organisations like Jisc can support you in transforming the student experience though the use of blended learning and supporting digital technologies.

Advice and guidance




Edtech insights

  • Digital learning rebooted - this report highlights a range of responses from UK universities, ranging from trailblazing efforts at University of Northampton with its embedded 'active blended learning’ approach, to innovation at Coventry University which is transforming each module in partnership with learning experience platform Aula

Learning and teaching reimagined

This primer has been designed to be used with other resources created as part of the learning and teaching reimagined initiative.

This guide is made available under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND).