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The University of the Highlands and Islands

Reaching all student communities

The University of the Highlands and Islands delivers consistent online learning experiences to a broad student base.

    As a federated university, UHI had the additional challenge of implementing its virtual learning environment (VLE) across its partner colleges and institutions. An early adopter of technology, the University has always invested in ensuring a consistent online teaching and learning experience. Brightspace supported UHI’s consistent learning environment goals across multiple institutions.


The University of the Highlands and Islands

  • D2L Brightspace
  • Flexible integration pathways
  • Synchronous and asynchronous teaching

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The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is an integrated institute of learning encompassing both further and higher education. Based in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, UHI is a partnership of 12 independent colleges and research institutions that offers 35,000 students a choice of where to study–at one of 13 sites, over 70 local learning centres, or online from wherever they are. In 2018, UHI implemented the D2L Brightspace platform to support students accessing learning from anywhere and to further the provision of effective online learning spaces.


  • John Smith, Head of Integrated Technologies and Resources
  • Keith Smyth, Professor of Pedagogy
  • Jacky MacMillan, Head of Educational Development Unit
  • Andy Brown, Head of Corporate Systems Compliance



  • Reaching all students across a wide geographic area
  • Teaching and learning maintained during COVID-19 pandemic
  • Staff engaged in creating learning experiences
  • Positive student feedback on learning platform features

Over the years we’ve seen a change in how staff use the VLE from providing learning materials to building learning spaces.

Jacky MacMillan, Head of Educational Development Unit, UHI”


To enable network delivery of study across UHI sites

As UHI has such a wide geographic reach, online and blended learning, which combines face to face and online, provides an ideal way to reach all student communities. Online also enables the University to enrol students from outside the region.

“One of the University’s remits is to widen access to further and higher education in an area that previously didn’t have a dedicated university presence,” explains Keith Smyth, Professor of Pedagogy at UHI. “We also have students who come from elsewhere to study with us, and we have a growing number of fully online postgraduate programmes.”

As a federated university, UHI has the additional challenge of implementing its virtual learning environment (VLE) across its partner colleges and institutions. An early adopter of technology, the University has always invested in ensuring a consistent online teaching and learning experience.

“Technology has always played a very important role in the delivery of learning and teaching because of our distributed nature and to facilitate engagement with the curriculum,” adds Keith.

A key feature of UHI’s learning and teaching landscape is network delivery – a means through which undergraduates and postgraduates can access programmes of study from anywhere within the UHI network. Keith explains: “Engineering, for example, is mainly delivered out of Perth College UHI but if a student in Orkney, over 250 miles away, wanted to study Engineering they can do so from Orkney College UHI. They can access the lectures and seminars being delivered on site at Perth College through video conferencing, alongside working within the VLE and using other technologies to access resources, collaborate with classmates and more.”


Flexible learning to reach all students

Since 1995, UHI has grown its use of technology. As the biggest higher education user of video conference technology in Europe, UHI was already delivering synchronous teaching in this way. For the past 20 years, it has also delivered asynchronous online tuition.

“Online breaks down geographic constraints,” says John Smith, Head of Integrated Technologies and Resources. “While asynchronous teaching provides flexibility in the time of delivery.”

Over the years, the University saw an increase in staff using components of the VLE, but there was still a broad spectrum of overall VLE use. When the time came to review its learning platform, the University wanted to build on flexible forms of delivery and the creation of engaging learning materials.

Following a formal procurement exercise using the APUC framework agreement for VLE solutions and associated services, D2L Brightspace was selected.

“We selected Brightspace because we could see that it would align with our Learning and Teaching Enhancement Values and Strategy,” explains Keith. “This was developed through extensive consultation and review across the university, to complement and extend learning and teaching policy and practice within and across the academic partners of the university. It provides a means to both recognise existing good practice and to develop our future practice.”

The flexible learning platform supports the University in reaching its geographically dispersed student communities. D2L Brightspace is now used across all degree programmes and extensively across Higher National Diploma (HND) and Certificate (HNC) courses. During any given semester, around 5,000 modules are active in Brightspace.

During the transition, the team found Brightspace’s capability to integrate with other technologies particularly helpful. “We made extensive use of the flexible integration pathways to integrate the video conferencing system and other technologies we use,” says John. “We’ve also been able to embed video libraries, working with the technical team at D2L.”

We are really well supported by D2L. We feel part of a bigger community through the D2L users’ group, not just in the UK but in Europe and beyond.

Jacky MacMillan, Head of Educational Development Unit, UHI”


Creating student learning experiences

The extensive use of D2L Brightspace across UHI’s staff and student base equipped the University to maintain learning during 2020’s COVID-19 crisis. “Staff members and students were already enrolled in the VLE, and the modules were also available there and from other technologies,” explains John. “So, in March 2020 we had no scaling up to do. We didn’t have to play catch-up.”

A comprehensive support site for staff was set up by the academic development team. This supplemented the existing portal and online Q&A facility that staff use to help them further their use of Brightspace. An active ‘Champions’ group also provides vital coordination across the centres, and input to the University’s ongoing evolution of its online learning.

“We also introduced benchmarks for the use of technology in learning and teaching with Brightspace,” adds Keith. “These define the threshold, developed and exemplar categories of VLE presence and provide evidence-based examples for how Brightspace could be used.”

We’ve seen a huge change over the years from the VLE as a content repository to where we are now, with staff engaged in creating learning experiences for students.

Jacky MacMillan, Head of Educational Development Unit, UHI”

UHI uses several metrics to measure VLE success. These include responses to questions in the National Student Survey on resources, technologies, and facilities. Also, end of module surveys which consider content and delivery, teaching, and availability of resources. A student experience survey of over 1,000 students from four partners revealed the main characteristics of Brightspace that are liked –

  • access on mobile/off campus,
  • comprehensive content/everything in one place,
  • easy to find/access content,
  • a pleasant user interface/look and feel,
  • specific tools (assessment, calendar, communication, notifications)
  • and that the platform is simple/intuitive to use.

“Students are positive about Brightspace and the features within it,” says Keith.

The digital skills of UHI staff have increased, and tutors now create interactive learning resources themselves, freeing up the educational development team to focus on more technical deliverables such as building virtual tours.

Throughout, the team has valued the strong working relationship with D2L. “From the beginning, we liked the sense of partnership,” says John. “We have a really good, positive, working relationship with D2L.”

An early adopter of technology, UHI recognises the value of a learning platform in helping it provide consistent, reliable, and flexible access to learning. The University’s well-established network delivery of study, enabled through online and blended learning, placed it in a strong position to maintain tuition throughout the pandemic. Working with D2L, UHI continues to evolve its use of the learning platform to enhance the student and staff experience and deliver successful learning outcomes.

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