When I got my first email address at Aberdeen University in 1977 we thought it was SO cool. We actually said, “This is great, but what can we use it for?” We finally used it to keep in touch with student parties – the earliest online social media?
When I returned to Lewis in 1982, I began to work with Rurtel, a text-based online conferencing system developed by the University of Guelph in Canada. My introduction to it was through my involvement with the Arkleton Trust for rural development and I still remember the excitement in the house when we first saw the messages coming in on our international conference.
Delivering our first online courses
When I delivered the first online course from Lews Castle College UHI in 1993, it was Rurtel that we used. That EU-funded course was on ‘tourism and heritage for rural development’ and the participants were (specifically) young women drawn from every area of the Highlands and Islands. We thought that we were very advanced (and so we were), but the online connectivity that we have today is like comparing NASA with stone-age technology. Nevertheless, it was a successful proof of concept and though the University of the Highlands and Islands did not exist in its present form, it helped to establish the subsequent thinking for the developing network of colleges.
Very soon after this, when the word wide web became publicly accessible, we began to develop digital resources for the university’s first networked degree, our undergraduate programme in rural development studies. Those first online modules were uploaded straight onto the new web, with no ‘Blackboard’ or ‘Brightspace’ and no password protection required! The web resources and navigation were rudimentary (remember Netscape?), but essentially it did most of what we do today, although not quite as smoothly.
Two things happened very quickly: local students began working from home (or the college library) and attendance at lectures became pretty relaxed and optional. Secondly, we began to get requests for places on the course from further and further afield. Fortunately, as the embryo University of the Highlands and Islands was flexible and innovative on scant resources, this move online was regarded as an institutional opportunity, rather than a threat. The rest is the detail of history.
Coronavirus – adjusting to the new normal
In the late Spring of 2020, as we sit at home trying to work online, it has become a different environment entirely. Suddenly there are fewer options for learning and teaching. Suddenly, even colleagues who have been reticent to put anything online are seeing the advantages of being able to use educational technology to communicate in a semi-normal way with students and other staff members.
The massive changes and challenges of responses to COVID-19 are facing millions of individuals, businesses and organisations, but, unlike most, the University of the Highlands and Islands has a long history of adapting to the culture-change that is required for online design. This is a crucial issue, for surprisingly the technological matters are relatively easy to resolve, but the ability (and willingness) of many people to make the cultural adaptions to new ways of thinking is notoriously more difficult.
As I move into my eleventh week of working from home, I have made several key observations. Firstly, most of my workload continues as normal (without the commute and chats in corridors) as much of what I normally do is online anyway. All my teaching is through our virtual learning environment, Brightspace and most tutorial discussions with research students are by video conference, as are most of my network meetings and committees. The frequency of video conference meetings has stepped up a notch, because there are few other options, but the flexibility and the brevity of (most) meetings is better and more focussed. There are occasional ‘catch-up’ meetings with colleagues in the university and other institutions that would normally rarely happen, as many people are reaching out to colleagues to check how they are and to replicate in some form the randomness of chats over the group printer or the office kettle.
There are three BIG changes that have happened over the last couple of months, almost without us noticing them (unless they affect you directly!)
Read on at www.uheye.wordpress.com