Member storyTwo students discuss an unseen laptop screen in a library.

A Teesside University and Jisc collaboration is at the heart of a digital learning toolkit

When Teesside University embarked upon a new piece of work to create a framework for digital learning, the team didn’t quite envision the scale of the project.

The Digital Learning Design Framework and Toolkit was originally created to help course leaders design more effective programmes of study and improve the staff and student learning journey.

Work on the toolkit started in 2019 as part of a strategic transformation change project at the university. Assistant director Ann Thanaraj was tasked with implementing online learning across the institution and knew that designing a coherent online delivery model would be key, both from a business and a pedagogic perspective:

Headshot of Ann Thanaraj

“The original version of our current toolkit was known as the academic transformation programme and it looked similar to the way it does now, with a lot of the same components. Putting together a pedagogical journey for online learning is very different to planning content for campus-based or even hybrid learning. So, we used the toolkit as part of our CPD programme to upskill colleagues throughout the university and support them in designing that experience.”

With the arrival of the pandemic in 2020 came the sudden need for the sector to move to remote learning. Teesside was faced with pivoting around 3,000 modules in about six days from in-person learning to online.

“Our team members absolutely have the skill sets but bringing 800 staff on a digital journey to move their courses fully online very quickly was still a huge challenge,” Ann recalls. “So that's when we came up with the idea to use the toolkit we already had for online learning as something to build on.”

Key collaborations

As the teaching staff settled into online delivery, Ann, along with Paul Durston, digital learning manager at the university, started CreatorLab, a staff and student collaboration scheme with two main aims. The first was to allow staff and students to work together on projects to research and develop new resources for use in the curriculum. The second to explore proof of concept projects, giving the staff and students the chance to explore new ideas and future considerations.

For one such project, Ann and Paul worked with a student who did extensive research into benchmarks in online learning, looking at Canada, Australia, and the US. This allowed them to review the similarities and differences, and understand what the gaps were, which enabled them to build on and further develop the existing toolkit.

Having both previously attended the digital leaders programme and found it valuable, it was at this point that Ann and Paul decided to approach Jisc. It’s a collaboration they still consider to be instrumental in the ongoing success of the project. Paul says:

Headshot of Paul Durston

“What Jisc really helped with was the reach that we wouldn't have been able to achieve on our own. Jisc was able to bring the national scale and give a bird's eye view of what every institution is grappling with, which as just one institution we didn’t have. It gave us the opportunity to spot the gaps and fill them through the toolkit.”

Working with Jisc allowed the university to further develop the toolkit, using the wealth of knowledge Jisc has of the education sector’s needs. It has now been published by Educause and is used by more than 80 organisations within the education sector and beyond.

Ann adds:

“It's available now for anybody to access, so businesses outside of education have taken it and adapted it into their quality assurance processes which is a really interesting dynamic. There’s such a range of organisations that have taken the toolkit and used it to influence their work that it feels like we've made a really good contribution not only to the sector, but globally.”

As the toolkit continues to build, both Ann and Paul are keen to ensure that people can access the information they need to use it fully, with a focus on developing digital confidence. Paul says:

“This toolkit helps us to really expand the learning ecosystem. We know our staff are doing dynamic things in the classroom and we’re really keen to enhance that digital empowerment. We want to upskill and grow the digital confidence of both staff and students. A big part of that is helping staff to reimagine the academic practice and the toolkit has allowed us to do that.”

Continuously improving the learning experience

The next steps for the project are clear to Ann and Paul; to continue to develop the toolkit and to also improve the way it’s presented to really showcase its potential.

Paul says:

"We know it’s a great resource but only if there’s someone facilitating the discussion beyond just looking at the toolkit slides and not really knowing what it has to offer. We need to work on developing it so we can present it with the context that will help people to fully engage with it. If we can find out how people want to use it, what they need help with, what they want to achieve, then we can present them with a more useful set of considerations tailored to their needs.”

Ann thinks of the toolkit in an interesting way. She says:

“I think of it as the beating heart of our online learning programme, with the other digital transformation projects as the vital organs. We need the heart to function as well as it possibly can to keep everything alive, and the toolkit allows for all the other organs to function at their optimum pace.”

Ultimately, education providers want to continuously improve the way students learn, and enhance their university experience. While new technology undoubtedly aids progress, the real change comes from staff who are empowered to use it to enhance their teaching, and Teesside’s toolkit is supporting that journey.

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