Demand for the latest skills in digital teaching is increasing as lockdown returns and educators are turning to Lews Castle College UHI, one of the smallest colleges in Scotland, and part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, which has over 25 years’ experience of delivering and designing online teaching. 

Its first fully online degree started in 1993 with the first graduates emerging in 1998 with a Bachelor of Science in Rural Development Studies.

In 2016, Lews Castle College started up an online postgraduate programme in digital pedagogy (the teaching of education).

According to course leader, Dr Gareth Davies there is a misconception that digital learning is merely a reproduction of what happens in a physical classroom.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," he continues. "Classroom and digital learning are very different disciplines. Digital pedagogy requires new and different skills. A digital teacher needs to think very carefully about what they do and how they deliver guidance to students so that they can then go off and read all about the topic."

He says: "The way we deliver education, like everything in society, has been changed by this pandemic and we are never going to go back to how it was before in education. That includes schools and universities.

"Education hasn't just taken a leap forward, it has been pushed forward. Everyone who is based out of Lews College Castle UHI have vast amounts of experience when it comes to teaching students online all over the world on our courses.

The university and others have developed multiple online programmes. Innovation and development has continued apace but COVID-19 has forced a rapid acceleration of the pace of that change. Throughout the world, schools, colleges, and universities have moved from face-to-face delivery of programmes to online delivery in a matter of a few short months.

Dr Davies adds: "Effective teaching also requires teaching expertise, and this is different in the digital learning space. Making the change from face-to-face to online or digitally based learning requires careful thought and planning."

One of the earliest exponents of technology to assist learning was Frank Rennie, Professor of Sustainable Rural Development at Lews Castle UHI. Professor Rennie started teaching at the University of the Highlands and Islands in 1993 and delivered his first online lecture in 1995.

Although it was early days in terms of the world wide web, a slow and steady shift towards using technology in education had already taken root across the Western Isles.

He explains: "In the early 1980s, a dial-up computer conferencing system called Rurtel, developed by the University of Guelph Ontario, Canada and used in agricultural education by farmers across the Great Prairies, was used across the Isles.

"Despite the speed being so slow, that users could see letters appearing individually on the computer screen when someone was online, almost immediately, it gained traction across the Western Isles. Those working in education and rural development, which included myself at that time, were among the first to pick up on it."

Over the last 25 years, Professor Rennie and his colleagues across the university partnership have developed a wealth of expertise in distributed learning, with students on courses from all over the world across many time zones.

"The reach of the Lews Castle College is phenomenal and time zones are not a problem for us. We can customise for individual students, many of whom are working and studying at the same time so this suits them.

"In the wake of the pandemic, University of the Highlands and Islands is getting requests from universities asking us for help. That puts the emphasis on innovation and that's where our new Centre for Online Research and Education comes in. After this pandemic, the way education is delivered will never be the same. The world will never be the same."

The college also offers an M.Ed. Digital Pedagogy. Students from afar afield as the Falkland Islands have studied with Lews Castle College UHI to date.