Guest Blog: Building the Foundations for a Better Student Experience Online


This post was guested authored by Stuart Nicol, Head of Educational Design and Engagement in Information Services at the University of Edinburgh and 2020 Blackboard Catalyst Award Winner. For more information visit:

Stuart is Head of Educational Design and Engagement (EDE) in Information Services at the University of Edinburgh. EDE are responsible for providing advice, consultancy, and training for: learning and teaching technologies; learning design (ELDeR); online course production (including MOOCs); and open education resources. Stuart has worked as a learning technologist for over 20 years and joined the University of Edinburgh in 2007, initially in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, moving to what is now EDE in 2011. He has a master’s degree in Digital Education from the University of Edinburgh and continues to have an interest in critical approaches to open education and practice.

Little did we know in 2018 that our three-year project to transform the online learning space at the University of Edinburgh would become the primary means by which our teaching is being adjusted to accommodate the uncertainties and challenges posed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our project, Learn Foundations, has been repurposed as a scalable solution for moving all on-campus courses into a state where simplified hybrid teaching can take place. This means that our students can be held close, and we can maintain community to sustain the continuation of studies. Blackboard Learn is quite simply the beating heart of our teaching continuity strategy.

Why Learn Foundations

Learn Foundations’ genesis was a messy virtual learning environment (VLE) with little cohesion across the institution and many frustrated students. The University’s Vice Principal of Online Learning, Melissa Highton, tasked the Learn Foundations team with redesigning Learn to provide our 40,000 students with easy access to lecture recordings, online reading lists, and all their course-related materials.

Our vision, created in consultation with students and staff, Courses in Learn are accessible, and relevant information is easy to find by students; staff find Learn easy to use and are well supported to make and deliver rich courses online.  In short, a mandate to build a better student experience online.

Ambitions and goals

To deliver on this vision, our goal is to minimise time spent searching and maximise time spent learning by providing our students with everything they need for their learning simply, quickly, and efficiently.   In a nutshell, we aim to make Learn easier to use for both staff and students, ensure courses are more accessible and inclusive and encourage more consistent use of terminology related to learning and teaching.  To ensure the biggest impact, the approach is being implemented institution-wide to ensure student experience consistency, especially for students who study across courses.

These are lofty ambitions, especially since Blackboard Learn, as a centrally supported service, is our biggest VLE. As such, it is already deeply embedded in the teaching design and delivery mechanisms of most of our 24 Schools and Deaneries.  Learn Foundations’ task was not just to design an institution-wide solution, but to embed practice change and sustain this for longer than the duration of the project.

User research and co-design processes

Through collaboration with our user experience team, we carried out a comprehensive programme of user research to gain insights into both student and staff needs when using Blackboard Learn.

We used a variety of methods, including:

  • Open interviews with both students and staff
  • Regular cycles of usability testing with both students and staff
  • Staff and student user groups
  • Various quantitative studies to gain additional insights and test our hypotheses:
    • Top tasks survey
    • Card sorting
    • Tree test
    • First click test

You can find out more at our user experience blog.

Directly observing users to understand their needs is one of the most valuable activities we have undertaken.  This process has enabled us to build a rich and detailed picture of what students and staff need to do in Blackboard Learn, and why — and how staff members can improve students’ experience in Blackboard Learn. In other words, we now have a better idea of how to design behind-the-scenes processes, to better support what’s happening backstage and front stage, to ultimately meet the audience’s needs.  The insights we gained were used to co-create a new Learn template to enable us to offer a solution to meet our vision and goals.

Collaboration, communication and conversation

As Blackboard Learn is a mature and established service, years of customising and tailoring the Blackboard Learn interface by Schools has led to multiple versions, leading to an inconsistent experience for students.  This was one of the major challenges faced by the project team.

In addition to the practical element of rolling out the new Learn structure for courses (the technical stuff), the team has promoted a change in culture by influencing the practice of using the VLE, through training and support, and encouraging adoption of the new standardised template and approach.  We have supported colleagues to move away from local variations for the more significant benefits to students of an institution-wide approach. 

In fact, agreeing on an institution-wide approach to basic course structure, and course terminology, is helping to alleviate needless confusion caused by these basic inconsistencies. It also means there is still the required flexibility to structure good teaching within courses meaning that more attention can be paid to the teaching elements without having to think about where to put links and resources that are a basic requirement. 

To achieve this culture shift, the team has adopted a proactive approach to collaborating and engaging with colleagues, setting out the rationale and evidence for change, co-designing the solution to ensure ownership, and communicating at grassroots to listen to concerns and talk about the benefits.

We learned how to harness these conversations and build collegiate collaborations, to introduce change in partnership with colleagues.  We paid careful attention to lessons learned and adopted an iterative process to improvement and development, learning from School colleagues as well as shaping the transition to the new approach.

The project was planned over three years, with year one targeting the most receptive Schools and years two and three seeing adoption across the whole of the University with year one early adopters acting as ambassadors for change. 

With the onset of Covid-19 and the impact of this on teaching for the foreseeable future, the benefit of an institutional approach to using the VLE has become more relevant and pertinent.  At the beginning of the year, our team was working with 6 Schools.  We are now working with 20 Schools, all of which will have adopted Learn Foundations for teaching in semester 1 (academic year 2020/21).  Colleagues are planning their teaching practice in the knowledge that they are using a carefully researched template which supports all our centrally available services, tools and resources.

Students as co-workers and beneficiaries

From the outset of Learn Foundations, we have been committed to engaging with students to deliver this new approach.  After all, our students are the primary beneficiaries of the improvements.  Student voices have formed a major element of our user experience work. Still, we identified a need to provide Schools with additional capacity to support the transition to the new approach.  

We created student internship opportunities and employed ten students in our first year to provide assistance with content migration, course accessibility reviews and other associated tasks.  That was a huge success, and this year we have employed over forty students to work directly with the project team and alongside colleagues in our three Colleges to provide additional assistance with the transition to hybrid teaching.

Students are diligent, and thoughtful workers and this innovative response to the provision of extra resource and assistance offers the following benefits:

For students:

  • Safe and equitable employment
  • Opportunity to learn new work skills

For Learn Foundations:

  • Ability to offer schools additional resource to support implementation and adoption
  • Willing and knowledgeable workforce, the ultimate beneficiaries of the improvements

For Schools:

  • Students deployed based on study interests, minimising errors due to existing knowledge of course/s and the University
  • Students supporting academics in course preparation using recommended Learning Technology tools.

We know how much our students are benefiting from Learn Foundations through a process of a formal evaluation and informal feedback.  Here’s what two of our students have to say:

“In first year, if you find a course that’s well organised, it would save your life”

“[When a course has been well organised], it’s definitely had an impact on how I feel, and like I’m ready to do this, and I feel like I’m well supported with the necessary materials.”

Future-proofing our teaching continuity strategy

Learn Foundations walks a tightrope, balancing diversity with consistency.  Our aim is not to stifle teaching practice or innovation; in fact, the reverse is true.  The Learn Foundations approach establishes for the University an institutional standard for the use of Learn and integrates with our core services, tools and resources.

Without any intention to homogenise richly-diverse disciplinary practices, Learn Foundations works with colleagues in Schools to define an appropriate, institution-wide outline course structure and consistent course terminology, transforming the student experience.  It provides Edinburgh with a sustainable model for improvement and development, effectively future-proofing our teaching continuity strategy. 

VLE’s are not often associated with innovation. However our approach is inspiring staff to re-think how they use Blackboard Learn, shifting the conversation from the VLE as a simple online repository to a dynamic area for the facilitation of learning.  It’s also empowering students to have their voices heard and influence the shape of their active learning space.  I hope some of these ideas and practices will stimulate you to have a closer look at your VLE.

As we navigate an uncertain future and seek to maintain our quality of teaching in the face of this global pandemic, attending to the basics of our online learning spaces is critical.  Putting our students’ needs at the centre of our solutions provides for us a springboard to ensure students can continue to learn in these very difficult and volatile circumstances, while also delivering on our commitment to offering high quality teaching within a welcoming and coherent community of scholarship.

We are proud winners of a 2020 Blackboard Catalyst Award for Optimising the Student Experience.