Reimagining digital learning in higher education

A primer created for university leaders examining the current and future use of digital learning in the sector.


Technology-enhanced learning or digital learning encompasses a wide variety of learning models and approaches, digital technologies, and services. In essence, a teacher engages digitally with a learner in the context of a pedagogic framework and the outcomes are monitored and measured using an assessment strategy.

The use of digital tools to enhance and support learning can occur before, during or after a session, and support a variety of pedagogic purposes.

Impact of digital learning

Well-developed learning, enhanced and supported with digital tools, can:

  • Enhance the student experience
  • Potentially improve student outcomes
  • Widen participation
  • Improve accessibility and inclusion

There are however also risks with adding a digital element to learning that could result in: 

  • Challenges reconciling the inconsistent experience resulting from the differences between the physical and digital student experience
  • Impact on connectivity and bandwidth on the experience
  • Technology displacing effective practice
  • Poor experience due to insufficient skills and capabilities across staff and students

Overview of digital learning in the sector

Digital learning is an opportunity to rethink the way we design and deliver university courses from the ground up. Many universities will aim to provide a parity of experience to all students, whether they study online or in person, locally or from abroad. Students, in turn, will benefit from a greater choice of pace and place of learning.

The wide adoption of digital learning will mean that our ideas of what it means to belong to a university community will need to be reconsidered. Personalised and proactive, digital learning could help build and nurture lifelong relationships for both students and staff but they will also need support to develop the digital skills, confidence and resilience required to succeed in the new environment.

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

The higher education landscape has changed, will continue to change and as a result existing models of learning may not be appropriate or practical. Universities will need to reflect not just on how blended, hybrid blended, and online learning can be used to deliver modules, but how existing curriculum models will need to be adjusted to fit this new future. 

A systemic approach to digital learning will help to break down the silos between different tools, adopting instead an ecosystem-based approach. Emphasising the importance of an intuitive and consistent experience (alongside reliable and secure) will enable students and staff to make the most of the promise of digital learning.

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. To start with the learning outcomes and work back to the teaching inputs has never been more imperative than in this period of digital transformation.

“The features, definitions and models that we associate with active blended learning are the same as those in active distance learning, with the exception of campus-based contact. Everything else, for example personalisation, time on task, sense-making, knowledge construction, critique and student centeredness remained exactly the same. The fact that we shifted to active distance learning did not mean a shift back to teacher centeredness, to stand up and deliver, stand up and spout. On the contrary, all the key pedagogic principles remained.”

Alejandro Armellini, dean of learning and teaching, University of Northampton

A vision for digital learning

Effective programmes are focused on the learning experience and outcomes before considering the technology.

Good learning has clear aims, objectives, and assessment points. Effective learning emphasises active participation and engagement over consumption of content.

Digital learning action plan

A wide range of elements need to be considered to support effective blended learning programmes:

  • Do you have a clear understanding of what good online or digital learning looks like, including how this aligns with requirements for teaching, assessment, and quality assurance? How is this understanding communicated and shared within your institution?
  • How will learning look in the short term and how will it look in the medium term and long term?
  • What digital and pedagogical skills are required by learners to fully engage with effective online and digital learning?
  • 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?

Technology-enhanced learning can amplify physical and mental wellbeing issues and should be carefully considered throughout changes to the patterns and modes of learning.

Learning design is a critical part of digital and online learning and student involvement is essential; universities should ensure they have strong design capabilities and actively involve students in curriculum changes.

Given the diverse nature of the student body, universities should adopt accessible and inclusive approaches to technology-enhanced learning from the outset of learning design.

Consider how your university is prepared for the potential future of personalised adaptive learning. What underpinning foundations are required to enable this to happen and what planning is needed to ensure that these are in place.


Universities should ensure they have strategies for maintaining high levels of student motivation and engagement as a core feature of the technology-enhanced learning experience.


Case study: Coventry University

Coventry University has been engaged with digital and blended learning for some time on a small scale, alongside and embedded within campus-based learning and teaching. In 2017, it established Coventry University Online, using the FutureLearn platform, and offering a portfolio of courses that covers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees online. In March 2020, Coventry moved to fully online delivery, and is now developing its digital approach in a sustained way for the future.

Leaders at Coventry took the decision to work with Aula on a new approach to learning design, fully transforming all of its programmes for online learning in just four weeks, ready for the May semester. Once complete, 75% of these programmes were described as ‘well designed’ in line with Coventry’s teaching and learning principles.

The university has developed a set of teaching and learning principles for online learning that deals with delivery and ensures that academics design assessments, deliver sessions, and facilitate learning aligned to its strategy.

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





  • 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).