Learning Design in the School of Mathematics

Learning Design in the School of Mathematics

A record of work of the first Learning Designer in the School of Mathematics

Moving swiftly to online teaching

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This post is inspired by an article by Michael Seery (School of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh) in the hope that it might help other departments facing similar challenges in the near future.

There were a lot of other things happening in addition to what is summarised below, including communication with students. This post is specifically about preparing teaching staff for remote teaching.


The Principal announced in the week of 9 March that teaching would be paused during the week 16-20 March and would recommence online on Monday 23 March. He also announced that all pre-honours exams would be cancelled.

This gave staff a week to (among other things) put plans in place and support colleagues to prepare for remote teaching. 

The summary below describes some of what happened in the School of Mathematics during that time.

Assessing course preparedness

Goal: To determine the readiness of each course for remote delivery.

A team of people (including academic staff and administrators) contacted each Course Organiser (member of academic staff in charge of a course) to talk through their course against a set of criteria. They gave each course a red-amber-green rating against each criterion. These were:

  1. Course materials – are lecture notes ready to be made available online and is there a plan for online delivery?
  2. Workshops (tutorials) – are question sheets prepared and a method of delivery planned?
  3. In-course assessment – are these all written and ready to go online, is online submission set up?
  4. Exam (less urgent) – how much would the existing exam have to change if it is to be made open-book?

The ratings and notes were recorded in a shared spreadsheet. Over the course of the week, the spreadsheet was gradually populated and updated. It helped the team to keep track of progress, and highlighted where there were issues to follow up.

Preparation of guidance for course organisers

Goal: To produce practical advice to support colleagues prepare for remote delivery.

While the conversations to assess course preparedness were taking place, a separate team worked on preparing guidance for teaching staff.

The content was designed to help course organisers move to a green rating in the course preparedness assessment. It was based on existing guidance where possible, but trimmed down to focus on a simple menu of options. 

Towards the middle of the week, a link to the main guidance document was sent to all staff. Updates to it were made as people made suggestions or constraints changed.

The following documents refer to University of Edinburgh systems and not all the links will be publicly accessible.

Moving to green

Goal: To support course organisers move to green.

Towards the end of the week, I started working through the list of courses to follow up with lecturers of courses flagged with red or amber. Often, this just needed me to point out relevant parts of the guidance (e.g. how to record lecture screencasts) and answer any follow-up questions

At this point, the focus was on getting the online teaching ready. Some lecturers did have questions about how exams would work, but these issues will be addressed in the coming weeks.

Questions to think about next

This is obviously a busy time, and my focus has been on making sure colleagues are supported to switch their teaching online at short notice.

I do want to try to keep in mind the bigger picture, though. In particular, I am wondering:

  • Once the immediate challenges are overcome, how can we use this experience to improve teaching, learning and assessment in mathematics?
  • What can we learn from the experience of remote teaching, that might make us think differently about how we deliver courses in the future?
  • Will the use of remote exams, and discussions about how we can modify questions to suit this format, prompt us to move away from relying on traditional closed-book exams?

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