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As a result of the University’s Active Blended Learning strategy, some teaching staff are considering using some contact time to support learners in the online environment as well as in the classroom. There are many reasons why you might choose to do this: perhaps you want to increase the flexibility for your cohort so they don’t have to travel; perhaps you need to help your students develop their digital literacy; perhaps running a teaching session online allows you to do something you couldn’t do in the classroom (like including a guest speaker, or allowing students time to draft and revise before sharing their thoughts). Or perhaps you just want to add some more structure, guidance and feedback to regular independent study activities.

Whatever your motivation, there are some tips that can help you think about how to use that contact time well, and make online learning a rewarding experience for you and your students.

Transparent pedagogy and clear expectations

Recent research with our students highlighted that they don’t always feel prepared for independent study, and often come to university expecting to ‘be taught’ rather than to have to work things out for themselves (the full report can be downloaded here). Scaffolding the development of independent learning skills is a gradual process, with implications for online as well as classroom teaching – particularly as this way of learning may be new to your students too (at least in formal education contexts). So how do you avoid students feeling like they’ve been ‘palmed off’ with online activities, when national level research tells us that many applicants expect to get more class time than they had at school?

It’s worth setting time aside early on to have frank conversations about how learning works at university level, and about how the module will work, but also about why those choices have been made. Students can sometimes be unaware of the level of planning and design work that goes into a module, so it helps to explain why you’re asking them to do the tasks you’ve planned – in the discussion forum, for example, why is it important for them to engage with opinions or ideas shared by other students? You don’t need to be an expert on social constructivism to explain that learning to research, communicate and collaborate online are crucial skills for graduates. And if it’s the first time you’ve tried something, don’t be afraid to say so, and acknowledge that you’re learning together! Keeping the conversation open for feedback on teaching approaches will help improve them in the future.

In conversations about pedagogy, be sure to make space for your students to talk about their expectations and previous experiences. This might help them identify aspirations and areas for development, but it will also inform your planning, and a shared understanding of responsibilities will make the learning process run much more smoothly. Consider co-creating a ‘learning contract’, exploring issues like how often you expect them to check in on social learning activities on NILE, and how (and how quickly) they can expect to get responses to questions they pose there.

Building relationships

A key element of success in any learning environment is trust. This doesn’t just mean students trusting in you as the subject expert, and trusting that the work you’re asking them to do is purposeful and worthwhile (see above). It also means trusting that your classroom (whether physical or online) is a safe space to ask questions, and that feedback from peers as well as from you will be constructive and respectful. Some of this can be explicitly addressed with a shared ‘learning contract’, as above, but it also helps to reinforce this through the learning activities themselves. In the online environment, introducing low-risk ‘socialisation’ activities early on can help to build confidence and a sense of community, which will be invaluable in the co-construction of knowledge later on (see Salmon’s five stage model for more on this). Simple things like adding the first post to kick off a conversation, and explicitly acknowledging anxieties about digital skills, can make all the difference.

Trust also means students trusting that their contributions in the learning space will be acknowledged and valued. Many online tools, such as blogs and discussion forums, are specifically designed with student contribution as the focus, but with live tools, like Collaborate, you may need to plan activities specifically to support this, so that it’s not just you talking. After all, you wouldn’t expect a discussion forum to be composed of one long post from you, so with live sessions, the same principles apply! (see Matt Bower’s Blended Synchronous Learning Handbook for ideas).

On the flip side of this, you also wouldn’t expect a student who was speaking in a live webinar to keep trying if they didn’t get a reply. So using the same principles, if you’re planning asynchronous (not live) learning activities, make sure you schedule teaching time to review your students’ views and ideas, whether online or in the next face to face session.  Online, techniques like weaving (drawing connections, asking questions and extending points) and summarising (acknowledging, emphasising and refocusing) are invaluable, both for supporting conversation and for emphasising that you are present in the online space (see Salmon 2011 for more on these skills).

And if some of your students haven’t contributed, don’t panic! There could be lots of reasons for this. It may be a bad week for them, or a topic they don’t feel confident in, in which case chances are they will still learn a lot from reading the discussion. It may be that someone else already made their point – after all, if you were having a discussion in the classroom, you wouldn’t expect every student to raise a hand and tell you the same thing (if you need to check the understanding of every single student, maybe you need a test or a poll instead of a discussion). If participation is very low though, it may be that you need to reframe the question (as a starter on this, this guide from the University of Oregon, although a little outdated in technical instructions, includes some useful points about discussion questions for convergent, divergent and evaluative thinking).

Clarity, guidance, instructions, modelling

Last but by no means least, with online learning it helps to remember that students need to learn the method as well as the matter. A well-organised NILE site, clear instructions and links to further help will go a long way, but nothing beats modelling. Setting aside time in your face to face sessions to walk through online activities and address questions will save you lots of time in the long run.

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I want to change my programme structure…

I want to include a placement / work-based learning / a Changemaker challenge…

I want to use a particular assessment or technology…

I want to ensure an equivalent experience for students at other sites…

What do I need to do?

The Learning Design team have collated a document listing the most frequently asked questions from CAIeROs and consultations over the past two years, along with answers provided by the appropriate support teams. Hopefully the guidance here can help you identify the processes and teams that are in place to support you with a range of course design issues including quality assurance, assessment, distance learning and technology issues.

The list has been added to the Sharing Higher Education Design (S.H.E.D.) site on NILE. You can access the site at, but you will need to be enrolled to view the document.

We’ll keep this document updated as new questions and answers come up. Want to submit a question that we haven’t covered? Just email it to the Learning Design team at

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Dr Terry Tudor, Senior Lecturer in Waste Management, introduced structured online learning activities (e-tivities) into his Masters modules after attending a CAIeRO for individuals course development workshop. Read the case study to see how these activities have helped to link his distance learning students with his learners on campus – and also helped them to improve their writing skills.

View the full case study here (PDF, 620KB)

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Karl Flowers, Senior Lecturer, Institute for Creative Leather Technology assesses his students through presentations and has often found that it is difficult to schedule face-to-face time slots where all the required parties can make it. Allowing his students to independently record their presentations and submit them through NILE’s video streaming tool, Kaltura, overcomes scheduling issues, enables more use of technology for the students and enables sharing good practice between year groups.

View the full case study here (PDF, 419KB)

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calendarGreat learning design and quality assurance are two sides of the same coin. When you make changes to a module or programme, there are a range of QA procedures that might apply, and it helps to understand how these processes interlink – particularly when planning ahead.

New programmes or modules

When writing a new module or programme, a CAIeRO workshop can help you with everything from writing the learning outcomes, to choosing the assessment and creating the learning activities. The first day of the workshop will help you set the foundations, and the second day helps ensure these are workable in practice.
New programmes and modules are subject to validation, and as part of this process you will be required to write a rationale for the new offering. The planning work you do in the CAIeRO can help you complete this, as it includes consideration of strategic goals, the student experience, and resource and training requirements. The CAIeRO process can also help you firm up your curriculum documentation (also required for validation), and make decisions about the allocation of teaching and learning hours, assessment strategy and more. In addition to documentation, the CAIeRO can help you get started creating sample teaching materials, which are required for validation of distance learning programmes.
At the University, many validations can be completed online, but some (particularly those involving PSRBs) require a validation event. For these programmes, validations usually take place in the Spring term. For a new programme starting in September, you should aim for validation early in the term to allow the maximum possible time for development of the course materials (if you want the course to start the following January, you might aim for validation later, in March or April). This means you should be scheduling your CAIeRO in the previous Autumn term.
For more on the validation process, see the validation page of the website, which has information and links to the handbook..

Periodic subject reviews

Stepping Stones 2PSRs are a chance to reflect on what has worked well in your teaching over the previous five years. It is also a great opportunity to use those reflections to define the future direction of the programmes involved. The CAIeRO process can be used to support this process in a number of ways: as a ‘health check’ or review of a programme; to target specific issues you may have identified; and/or to plan how to implement changes you’d like to make.
For PSR you will be required to submit a Self-Evaluation Document (SED). This document will ask you to reflect on things like alignment with frameworks and standards, the currency of the curriculum and student achievement and feedback. All of these elements can be considered within the CAIeRO process, to help you complete the SED form and prepare for any questions during the PSR event.
At the University, PSRs usually take place in the Autumn term, and the documentation is submitted in advance. CAIeROs for PSR can be scheduled at any point in the year (although you may want to note the Change of Approval guidance below when considering timing).
For more on the PSR process, see the PSR page on the website, which has information and links to the handbooks.

Ongoing review of delivery

170/366 - bright ideasOf course, adjusting and adapting your teaching and assessment practice happens all year round, and is not dependent on big events like those listed above. You might have taken over a module or programme, or be considering a more blended approach, or just want to try a new idea you’ve heard about. You can book a CAIeRO for issues like this at any time in the year, but you should be conscious of timing the implementation of these changes, and the possible impact on the student experience.
Wherever possible, you should avoid making big changes that will affect current delivery of a module or programme part way through. In addition to this, for level 5 and 6 modules, be aware that students need to know what to expect when they make their module choices. Any changes made after students have chosen the module should be made in consultation with those students.
Changes to existing modules and programmes are achieved through the Change of Approval process, which recognises three levels of change (based on degree of impact). Type B and C changes (more substantial than Type A) must be submitted well in advance of the proposed delivery, and for levels 5 and 6, in advance of the publication of module information to students. For 2015/16 delivery, the deadline for change of approvals for these modules is 13 January (for levels 4 and 7, the deadline is May).
For more on this process, see the Change of Approval page on the website, which has information and links to the handbooks.

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A number of staff are designing e-tivities (online learning activities) that require students to undertake some independent research and then share a link to the online resource with peers who can then click on the link and view the article for themselves.

If the article has been found and accessed through NELSON and the link shared with students who are not already authenticated through the University systems then they will be faced with either a dead link or an ‘Access Denied’ message.

In this situation the solution is as follows:

  • Ask students to include the full reference for the journal so that potential viewers can access the article themselves via the Library ‘Find My Reference’ tool. By using this route, students will be prompted to login with their University login in order to get access to the article.

If this applies to you, please change your e-tivity instructions to ask for articles to be shared using the University of Northampton Harvard referencing style. Include this link to a Skills Hub video that shows quickly how to use the ‘Find My Reference’ tool. You might also want to include an example of how to reference a journal using the Harvard journal – guidance is available from the Help Tab in NILE.

The added bonus for the students, of course, is practice in Harvard referencing!

With thanks to Hannah Rose, Academic Librarian for helping us with the solution

You might already know that the University has plans to extend our portfolio of high quality blended and online courses. These plans aim to help us meet market demand for flexible, scalable study options, as well as allowing us to bring the campus experience into the 21st century, helping students and staff make the most of valuable contact time. The plans are outlined in more detail in this paper on The University of Northampton’s future online and blended offering, which was approved earlier this year.
In the past few weeks, a key element of this has been put in place with the appointment of Learning Designers, a new role with a remit to help programme teams design effective courses for online and blended learning. The new team is based in Library and Learning Services, working closely with Learning Technologists and CfAP as well as the Institute of Learning and Teaching. Watch this short video to find out more about their role:

(or access the transcript here)

There are three Learning Designers in the new team: Rob Farmer, Rachel Maxwell and Julie Usher. The team will offer a range of design support services, including team CAIeROs and one-to-one support.

Each of the six Schools have nominated priority courses for (re)development, and the team will focus primarily on these in the first instance. If you’d like to find out how the team could support your programme or module, or you have some good practice or learning designs to share, please send initial enquiries to Rob Howe, Head of Learning Technology (

Library and Learning Services (LLS) have produced a document detailing LLS on-campus, off-campus UK and off-campus overseas service provision. This document provides information on the alternative but equivalent services to students who are not on site.
It is expected that the contents will be of use in any planning, development or curriculum review meeting to enhance student experience.

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Business School lecturer Maggie Anderson is a recent convert to the benefits of using Discussion Boards in NILE to increase her efficiency by vastly reducing the amount of email traffic she receives from students about module related issues, particularly where there is a large student cohort.  During a CAIeRO session Maggie commented on the difficulties of repeat email traffic.  Her case study reflects on the successes of introducing a Frequently Asked Questions forum and how she has adopted this approach more widely in other modules.  She also reflects on the wider pedagogical benefits she observed as a result.  Read her case study to find out more!

Have you ever wondered if students bother to read the feedback that you so carefully provide them with?  Have you ever been overloaded with providing formative feedback that students can use without necessarily engaging more deeply with your advice?

In this case study, Maggie Anderson, Senior Lecturer in Human Resources Management in NBS, reflects on how addressing this issue through the CAIeRO process changed her pedagogical approach to the provision of formative feedback/feedforward and how the Journal tool can be used to encourage earlier student engagement and increase individual learner responsibility.