‘It’s not just about the IT’ – Retaining and enhancing institutional identity in the move to online

Posted on: 2020-07-17

Universities’ fears about the quality of online learning and retaining an institutional identity when moving resources online have won a lot of column inches since COVID-19 changed the world we live in.

Solutions, however, are available to ease the growing pains of moving to online if institutions speak to one another and pass on expertise that can be heeded to avoid mistakes being made.

University College of Estate Management (UCEM) is the leading provider of supported online education for the Built Environment. With more than 4,000 students across nearly 100 countries, the institution delivers apprenticeships and undergraduate and postgraduate programmes to help aspiring or current construction and real estate professionals gain degrees which gets them closer to the holy grail of Chartered status.

How does UCEM’s online learning work? And how does this relate to institutional identity?

Kate Lindsay is UCEM’s Head of Digital Education – a role which sees her lead the development of teaching content which goes on to the institution’s VLE [virtual learning environment].

Kate Lindsay

‘A time to come together’

“It’s not just about the IT,” she says. “Having previously worked for a Russell Group university, I’m fully aware of the difficulties institutions are experiencing because what they do cannot be easily translated into an online space. Now, more than ever is the time for the higher education sector to come together and share expertise.

Online learning is different

“Where online education excels is that it’s flexible, ensuring students can study when and where they want. At UCEM, entire modules are released on to the VLE from day one, aiding this flexible model. Everything is front-loaded, but with clear guidance about how students can manage their time and opportunities to connect with each other and the module team of Tutors and Academic Programme Support Tutors through their studies.”

But it is not just the delivery model that makes online learning different.

The importance of student support

“The danger with online education is that you supply the learning materials and stop there,” Kate explains. “Yes, it is flexible but it is also hard and students need encouragement and, crucially, support to progress through their studies. Looking at a computer screen all day is tiring and this has to be recognised. Many of us are all too familiar with this now in a COVID-19 world of Zoom meetings.

“It is often the situation that students will log in to their VLE to undertake their studies and nothing more – they reside mostly on their module and programme pages. It’s important to flag in these spaces the presence of the university’s student support services such as disability and wellbeing, study support, careers, etc. Students are not walking down a hallway to the library and seeing the posters and the flyers advertising these services.

Presence not contact hours

“Online teaching does not just happen in timetabled contact hours. Teaching happens in the narrative and context provided around study resources, in the guidance provided to students on what learning activities to undertake and why, in the discussion forums or other asynchronous communication tools. Tutors and students have different spaces that they can be co-present in and these do not have to be real-time presence. Consider carefully the benefits that a live lecture brings as opposed to a recording with tutor-led discussion on the ideas covered in a forum where students have more time for reflection, and scheduled online drop-in surgeries for students who are struggling.

Consistency is key

“From an institutional point of view, being fully online makes everything you do more seen and more visible. Ultimately, this greater transparency makes you more accountable so more considered learning design, more quality control is required with the help of online learning specialists which wouldn’t have been necessary before when a tutor can walk into a lecture hall and teach without any hoops to go through.

“These ‘hoops’, however, are important on a VLE in producing consistent materials which, in turn, can reflect institutional identity in this space. UCEM has produced templates and guides to aid this and made some of these available to the sector in our Learning Design Centre.

Institutional identity

“There are approaches to reflecting institutional identity in your online offer. This is achieved through learning design. At UCEM, we know who we are and what we want to achieve. We are the leading provider of supported online education for the built environment and our core purpose is ‘to provide accessible, relevant and cost-effective education, enabling students to enhance careers, increase professionalism and contribute to a better Built Environment’. Sustainability is at the core of our learning provision and we want as many people as possible to benefit from our programmes.

Know your audience

“We know our core student demographic. The vast majority work full-time and are seeking to study with us part-time to gain qualifications which can lead to chartered status in the sector. Whilst the majority of our students are UK-based, we cater for students from almost 100 different countries which accounts for around 30% of the total number.

“This tells us that our students are goals-oriented and time-poor – information which drives the work we do in creating our learning materials. When designing learning experiences, therefore, we ask ourselves: what do our students need to do to be able to succeed? We work backwards, starting with the learning outcomes then moving on to the design of assessments through to the creation of learning activities and study resources. This ensures everything included in the module is relevant and the learning journey follows a logical path.

Participatory learning

“We are in the process of moving fully into participatory learning where students become active participants in the process rather than more passive receivers of transmitted information. In this way, students are able to focus on their own personal goals and needs. Approaches such as problem-solving, social learning, authentic learning and situated learning are important for students on our programmes where reflecting on experience is a big part of improving their knowledge base. The same could be said for other disciplines where, like us, the learning is more vocational.

“UCL’s Professor of Learning with Digital Technologies, Diana Laurillard did some important work on learning types which we have adapted to align to the types of learning we need our students to undertake and this is a helpful guide in the design process. Alongside this we have adapted UCL’s ABC learning design methodology to bring together tutors, subject experts, online learning and accessibility specialists, and the library to ensure we have the right blend of expertise to create a high-quality learning experience. It’s incredibly important too that everyone’s practice is equally valued. Creating module development teams in this way ensures that the student experience is at the heart of what we do.

“Because of the need for a level of consistency we have developed a quality baseline that outlines the key elements that need to be present. This is not so much a rubric to rank how good a module is, or a straightjacket that means modules can not have their own identity, but a framework that enables flexibility within it to capture the character of the subject being taught and the voice of the tutor.

Technological considerations

“The final consideration is the technology itself. We think about the technology to host and enable the assessments, the learning activities, and the spaces where students and the module team can discuss and collaborate. It’s all about finding tools to map to the learning types we defined.

“We are also increasingly looking to use tools that reflect those our students will use in industry – Slack, MS Teams, VR – their relevance is important. Technology plays an important role in mediating the student experience.”

The people driving UCEM’s supported online education

Kate manages the evolution of UCEM’s supported online education, monitoring and enhancing the provision to keep the institution’s learning experiences updated and the very best they can be. She was recruited from the University of Oxford where she was Head of Technology Enhanced Learning and completed an MSc in Educational Research and a PgCert. Kate also gained a Distinction from the University of Sheffield for her MSc on Information Systems and is a member of several online learning organisations, including the JISC Senior Technology Enhanced Learning Group, the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and the Learning Design Cross-Institutional Network (LD-CIN).

Kate’s appointment in October 2018, first as Senior Learning Designer before taking up her current role as Head of Digital Education a year later is symptomatic of the care and attention UCEM affords the continued improvement of its supported online education offer. The building blocks for creating an online environment maintaining UCEM’s institutional identity were put in place with the appointment of Lynne Downey as College Academic Offer Programme Manager in 2014.

Lynne Downey

Phase 1

Arriving at UCEM with experience of running project management and learning design teams at the Open University and within the e-business and gaming industries, Lynne was tasked with transforming UCEM’s largely paper-based distance learning model into wholly online delivery. Within 15 months, having assembled a team comprising instructional designers, content developers, project managers, learning technologists and development editors, Lynne accomplished the first phase of an all-encompassing VLE which would over time usurp the paper-based courses which had already begun.

Reflecting on those 15 months and describing what went into it, Lynne says: “It was a huge project. At the time, we invested £3m in the process of transforming the modules. At that time, we had 75 modules and at its peak, we had more than 80 people involved in the project.

“It was a huge logistical task to get it done and it’s fair to say that there was some disbelief within the institution that it was possible to get it up and running in time.

“So it was about change management and changing the culture of the institution as well as developing the modules.

“Over the 15 months, we developed 8,000 individual learning items and we used a combination of existing staff and contractors where we needed to for extra support. We started with a blueprint of how a module should look and then we worked incredibly hard as a team to ensure that it was a success.”


Such is the speed of development in online learning that, no sooner had UCEM’s online-only programmes been released, that Lynne’s team immediately started to review the delivery and carry out a continuous enhancement programme. The constant updates and reviews of UCEM’s online provision makes it a dynamic area to work in, always innovating to keep up with the latest technologies and analysing learning theory, as Kate described above, to bring about the best outcomes for its students. Lynne now oversees a department which includes Kate’s Digital Learning Team, as Vice Principal – Digital Education and Professional Services, using her experience and expertise to provide counsel and work on a strategy for the department.

“We’ve come a long way over the past six years,” Lynne reflects. “As a result of the first project, we were able to develop a Digital Education Team, a Learning Technology Team and now, we are lucky enough to have our own Media Production Team. Through the project, we were able to identify the right mix across those teams and support UCEM going forward.

“We have been able to take feedback from our students and understand what they find really helpful and what aspects of online learning they find challenging.

“We’ve introduced some new technologies. We moved from Blackboard Collaborate to Zoom, we’ve introduced online marking and now, we are into the next phase.

“Each year, we look at enhancements we can make thinking about how our students can be best supported with an emphasis on making it as easy for them to access the learning resources as they can. We’ve learnt a lot about our students – about how they are time-poor and therefore, how critical it is that they can get into their learning as quickly as possible.”

Student feedback

Feedback from students is a vital consideration in developing UCEM’s online learning offer. There are opportunities for students to leave feedback each learning week on the VLE and any suggestion which results in a change in the way UCEM operates is recorded on its ‘You said, we did’ webpage to demonstrate the importance of the student voice.

Students and alumni often cite how much they enjoyed learning online in testimonials and the institution was delighted to achieve an 83% student satisfaction rate in the National Student Survey (NSS) earlier this week. The significance of this achievement is best summarised by UCEM Principal, Ashley Wheaton’s article where he points out that the score is on a par with the sector which indicates that the institution’s students are as satisfied with studying online, part-time with UCEM as the average student is at a face-to-face university. The NSS result flies in the face of criticism of online learning and is a huge testament to all involved in transforming the institution into the wholly online university it is today.

Collaboration across the sector

Whilst UCEM’s focus on producing a world-class online learning experience has enabled it to operate well under the current circumstances, the lessons learnt are not a secret and the institution is happy to provide support to other universities to help them negotiate the tricky move to online. As Kate wrote in a recent column for Construction Manager: “There are opportunities to collaborate – with others who already have purpose-built online curriculums, and as subject communities to develop them… There are opportunities to enter into a dialogue about reusing and expanding the existing educational products we have. In doing so we can become much more sustainable as a sector, and resilient against future disruption.”

Moving to online and maintaining your institutional identity can be done. More than that, it can enhance how you are perceived by students with greater visibility of your learning expertise on show, and provide a more flexible, accessible route to gaining qualifications.

If you would like to have a conversation about how UCEM can help your institution with your online learning, email our Director of Commercial and Business Development, Stephen Bartle, on s.bartle@ucem.ac.uk.