"Teaching is never saying the same thing the same way twice - each time you teach, students and the world have reconfigured."

Professor Sue Hamilton, Institute of Archaeology

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E-learning strategy

UCL's E-Learning Strategy for 2012-2015 (see below or download as a Word document) draws on the UCL Council White Paper 2011-21 and the Institutional Learning and Teaching Strategy 2010-15, but has also been informed by input from UCL students and staff, by a review of current and emerging themes in the use of technology to enhance learning, and by a review of e-learning practice and provision at a sample of top-100 global universities. Excerpts and examples from this background work are available in a media-enriched, online version of the strategy. 

Context and rationale for change

The distinctive attributes of a UCL education are well-established; it is interdisciplinary and research-based, and aims to produce highly employable graduates with a mix of ambition, entrepreneurialism and idealism who are prepared for leadership roles. The UCL Council White Paper and the Institutional Learning and Teaching Strategy commit to education for global citizenship and add a new, ambitious commitment to raise the profile of teaching and to invest in teaching innovation, ultimately establishing UCL as the hub of an international network of research-led institutions that foster excellence in teaching and learning.

However, UCL operates in a competitive global environment within which high quality educational content is available online, on demand, and free of charge to anyone. During 2012 for example there has been a step change in the visibility of open, online education provided by elite US institutions led by Stanford, Harvard and MIT. These institutions are using shared platforms to offer open versions of selected courses free of charge. The future impact of these MOOCs (massive open online courses) is hard to judge. To date only a couple of UK institutions have joined but there is a rapid influx of new partners. There are certainly immediate opportunities for such initiatives, if successful, to raise the e-learning profile of an institution and help the marketing of income-generating programmes. Some institutions use their open online materials to support their campus students, and open courses can serve as exemplars, raising awareness amongst lecturers of what is educationally possible. Whether MOOCs flourish or fade, a consensus seems to be emerging among top US institutions that innovative, high profile use of e-learning can enhance their ‘teaching brand’ and may even be a market discriminator to attract the very best students and teachers globally. A significant secondary effect of the opening of online courses by our competitors is that our students have ready access to quality-assured e‑learning resources from other top universities. This may raise students’ expectations of UCL’s e-learning provision, and drive us to be more ambitious in our approach to e-learning. Thus the current global e-learning environment presents both rich opportunities and challenges to UCL’s educators.

Readily available technologies not only have the potential to enhance traditional 'classroom' teaching but, with appropriate learning design, can also support more interactive, creative and constructive learning. Some colleagues are already using technology to support new interdisciplinary and international approaches, to prepare for classroom activities, and to extend and reinforce learning beyond the classroom. Others need support and encouragement if they are to realise the benefits of technology to enhance student learning within and beyond the classroom.

Students likewise often have difficulty realising the potential of the digital environment for their studies and professional development. The array of technologies and information now available to them from outside the institution means that students’ abilities to identify, evaluate and use information to develop their understanding are becoming both academic and career-critical skills. Approaches to developing and enhancing digital literacies and technical skills are variable across the institution; the Personal and Professional Development (PPD – formerly ‘key skills’) initiative provides a solid institutional basis but better uptake and engagement with such resources is needed if students – and staff – are to thrive in new and dynamic digital working environments.

The development of e-learning provision at UCL

E-learning provision and practice at UCL has developed rapidly in recent years and there is now in place a robust technological environment alongside an established support and advisory service. However the rapidly changing external digital environment, in which both staff and students expect to be able to choose and personalise the devices and tools they use in their own working and learning environments, presents new challenges to educators and support services. There are now many flexible and popular external services competing with institutional services and we need to recognise this new reality and be able to work with, rather than resist, it.

Reliable, easy-to use and well-supported systems such as Moodle, Lecturecast and Turnitin have been the core of e-learning at UCL. They have proved critical to engage mainstream users as they are easily adopted by individuals and departments and can support traditional teaching and assessment practices; they are seldom abandoned once adopted. However there are significant opportunities to develop the technological and information-rich environment available to us and so to move from the mainstream to the leading-edge excellence we seek. An example is Moodle. Although now ubiquitous across UCL, it is mostly used to provide access to files and static resources (termed ‘baseline’ use) rather than to support exploratory and participatory learning (‘enhanced’ used). Similarly the use of Lecturecast to record face-to-face classes has proved hugely popular with students and recording is now possible in most lecture theatres, but we must increase our consideration of how this can reshape the lecture experience into a more interactive one. Technology also has remarkable potential for increasing the diversity of assessment but, to date, it has been used at UCL mainly for e‑submission, plagiarism checking of coursework and quizzes.

UCL now has an enhanced media-rich learning environment designed to enable academics to explore interactive methods of teaching including classroom technologies, flipping of lectures (pre-recorded presentations allowing classroom time to be used for richer discussion or activities), and ‘enhanced’ Moodle. Technology can support new approaches to learning design – technologies such as e-portfolios, peer assessment and collaborative working tools are known to have a significant impact on learning both for campus-based and distance learners, but are rarely used at UCL. New initiatives such as the Arts and Sciences BASc and our distance-learning and continuing professional development (CPD) programmes offer important exemplars of how Moodle and other learning technologies can be embedded within curricula to enrich the student experience.

If UCL is to establish itself as a hub of excellence and innovation in teaching and learning, there needs to be a radical change in the use of technology to enhance mainstream learning, and a stronger focus on agility, innovation, integration and evaluation. This document outlines how technology can support these commitments and how it can ensure and sustain a distinctive, high quality, ‘UCL learning experience’. E-learning is a rapidly evolving area and it is unrealistic to plan too far ahead; thus this document includes longer term aspirations, but the detailed implementation plan covers the next three years. A review of the strategy and development of an updated plan in 2015 will be timed to coincide with the next update to the Institutional Learning and Teaching Strategy.

Mission and vision

UCL's mission is to develop and support a digitally rich teaching and learning environment to extend and enhance the effectiveness and reputation of the UCL teaching and learning community.

A recurring theme in the background research was that of fluidity – of spaces, devices technologies and modes of learning – and of the changing nature of boundaries both within and beyond the institution. The vision below looks at how technology can contribute in this environment, and can empower the learner, giving them more control of and responsibility for their learning and development. Developing a fixed vision in such a rapidly evolving environment is unrealistic, but it is thought that these broad themes will endure.

1. Raising UCL’s profile as a global educational leader – technology will make the voices and ideas of UCL experts available to a global audience, enhancing the digital identity of UCL as provider of both excellent research and education. Distance learning and continuing professional development programmes will increase our global presence, highlight our unique expertise and connect to new audiences. Open educational resources will enhance our educational identity and profile.

2. Connecting students, academics and ideas – technology will increase opportunities for students to connect and interact with each other and with academic staff, to learn about their work, and to foster collaboration across the institution and beyond. Technology will also help build links with communities and enable input from the public, alumni and employers.

3. Opening education within UCL – online courses and resources will where possible be opened to students across the institution supporting a more interdisciplinary experience, and a stronger sense of UCL’s leading edge research; technology is uniquely able to do this.

4. Preparing students and staff for the future – students and staff will be supported in developing the skills and literacies needed to thrive in new and evolving learning and working environments.

5. Technology-enabled learning spaces and places – the UCL campus will accommodate diversity in teaching and learning approaches, including traditional lecturing, facilitated group work, project activity, individual working and social spaces with integrated technologies and support for bring-your-own devices .

6. Seamless use of technology – students and staff will be able to use a range of institutional technologies together with their own choice of devices and external services to create their own ‘personal learning/working environment’ for study, collaboration and communication.

Guiding principles

The principles underlying the aims presented in this document are that:

  • Students will expect to have contact with UCL staff directly, via online media and as participants in virtual environments and communities. Ensuring the high quality of all these touchpoints will be crucial in defining the student experience before, during and after their time here.
  • Sound learning design based on established educational good practice, research and evaluation should underpin all use of technology.
  • Technology can enrich the student learning experience providing opportunities for more participatory and active learning and assessment, both online and in informal and formal physical learning environments.
  • It can also provide flexibility of access to learning resources and activities in terms of time, place and modes of access and engagement, and can give access to experiences beyond the campus. From use of digital objects and datasets to remotely controlled experiments and simulations, it can bring professional and discipline activities into the virtual classroom in an authentic way, and can support a richer diversity of meaningful assessment.
  • UCL needs to be effective, flexible, innovative and at the forefront of developments in the use of technology to support student learning and the broader student experience. Where possible what we do should be informed by user input, research and evidence-based practice.
  • The diversity of approaches to teaching, learning and assessment across UCL means that one size cannot fit all; whilst quality is essential, how best to use technology to enhance learning will vary and will depend on the local context. Nonetheless there should be parity of online experience across different disciplines.
  • E-learning can enhance learning opportunities for disabled students and can provide a more inclusive environment than is sometimes afforded by conventional teaching; however it also has the potential to exclude some learners if not designed carefully. It is essential that the needs of all leaners are considered where fully online activities are introduced into courses.
  • Although increasing numbers of students own laptops, smartphones and tablets, it cannot be assumed that all students possess these devices, or are willing to bring them to the classroom. Students who do not bring their own devices to UCL should not be at a disadvantage.
  • We cannot assume all our students will be able to take immediate advantage of the growing and complex range of online services, resources and portable devices now available to them to support and organise their studies and professional development. Students may need orientation and skills development to optimise their use of the online environment.

Strategic aims

The following aims address the themes outlined in the vision of educational leadership, openness and connectedness, seamless technology both online and in the physical learning environment, and improved digital literacies for staff and students.

1. Quality enhancement: Review the quality of e-learning provision and lead a move from baseline[1] to enhanced[2] use of e-learning in all disciplines – a move which will enhance quality, raise the expectations and aspirations of students and staff, and help to connect students and staff in a digital community.

2. Technical environment: Design, develop and evaluate an enhanced, ‘seamless’ technical e-learning environment, influenced by the student and staff 'voice', in which core systems and services are better integrated and designed to provide a more supportive, intuitive and collaborative learning environment.

3. Learning spaces: Improve the quantity and quality of technology-enabled learning spaces, and integrate, evaluate and promote the use of technology within – and to extend – the physical classroom.

4. Distance learning: Develop e-learning guidance and support for departments who wish to develop distance and blended learning provision and introduce more public-facing e-learning courses to showcase the best of UCL’s academic endeavour, to provide a ‘shop window’ for taught programmes, and to support short courses and continuing professional development (CPD).

5. Opening education: Encourage and pilot approaches to the opening and sharing of UCL’s online educational resources within the UCL community and beyond to promote interdisciplinary learning and share good practice and to facilitate engagement with external communities.

6. Digital literacies: Promote and provide opportunities for staff and students to develop the skills and digital literacies needed to thrive in new and emerging work and learning environments.


[1] Core and supplementary learning resources online but no requirement for students to engage with them or with each other

[2] Technology used to enhance learning through communication, activity and interaction 

Implementation plan

Achieving these aims involves a number of improvement actions which are presented in the table overleaf. Underpinning much of this are two key enablers:

Departmental engagement and local champions, working with and supported by staff from E-Learning Environments (ELE) and the Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT). Departments and divisions will be encouraged to debate and explore the use of technology to enhance learning and to develop their own ‘position statements’ which articulate their philosophies, approaches, standards and support requirements. This local ownership of the e‑learning agenda has been shown elsewhere to increase buy-in and help embed good practice.

A new central support and governance structure for e-learning. E-learning support will continue to be provided from within Information Services Division by ELE but as part of the Smart IT reorganisation the group has expanded and diversified. ELE will continue to manage and support core e-learning services, but will also provide distance learning support; schools-facing support (in partnership with CALT); a focus on learning spaces (in partnership with UCL Estates); and a new ‘innovations and evaluation’ function to trial and evaluate different technologies and educational approaches and identify and enable best practice. Governance of the work of ELE, and progress against this implementation plan, will be through the Learning and Teaching Information Services Group (LTISG) which is chaired by the Vice-Provost (Education) and includes faculty tutors, academics, and representatives from CALT, Library Services, UCL Estates and UCLU.

The implementation plan outlines where we are now, where we want to be, and the steps we will take to get there. The current and desired future situations for each of the six strategic aim are assigned a maturity level as follows:

Beginning - May not exist; if it does then immature and probably incomplete

Developing - Exists and has been developed but not yet fully complete, mature or consistent

Performing - Complete, mature and consistent but could be improved

Outstanding - Operating at the highest level, recognised across the sector as world-class

In each case we we seek to raise one level on this scale through the improvement actions listed.

Page last modified on 13 dec 12 12:39


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