Taking Academic Language and Literacy Courses Online

Dr Karin Whiteside, ISLI


Alongside its embedded discipline-specific provision, the Academic English Programme (AEP) offers a range of open sign-up academic language and literacy courses each term. This case study outlines the process of rapidly converting the summer term provision online, and reports student feedback and reflections on the experience which will help inform continued online delivery this autumn term.


Our aim was to provide academic language and literacy support which, as far as practicably possible, was equivalent in scope and quality to our normal face-to-face offering for the same time of year. In summer term, our provision is particularly important for master’s students working on their dissertations, with high numbers applying for Dissertation & Thesis Writing, but courses such as Core Writing Skills and Academic Grammar also providing important ‘building block’ input needed for competent research writing.


Prior to the COVID crisis, our face-to-face courses on different aspects of written and spoken Academic English have been offered for open application on a first-come-first served basis, with a rolling weekly waiting list. With a maximum of 20 students per class, we have been able to offer interactive, task-based learning involving analysis of target language and communicative situations in context, practice exercises and opportunity for discussion and feedback within a friendly small-group environment.


Within an extremely tight turnaround time of four weeks to achieve this, we determined a slightly slimmed down programme of five ‘open-to-all’ online courses –  Academic Grammar, Core Academic Writing Skills, Dissertation & Thesis Writing, Essays: Criticality, Argument, Structure and Listening & Note-taking – and replaced our normal application process with self-enrolment via Blackboard, meaning uncapped numbers could sign up and have access to lessons.

Time restraints meant we had to be pragmatic in terms of where to focus our energies. Conversion of course content online needed to be done in a way that was both effective and sustainable, thinking of the potential continued need for online AEP provision going into 2020/21. We predicted (rightly!) that the process of initially converting small-group interactive learning materials to an online format in which their inductive, task-based qualities were retained would be labour-intensive and time-consuming. Therefore, for the short term (summer 2020) we adopted a primarily asynchronous approach, with a view to increasing the proportion of synchronous interactivity in future iterations once content was in place. In terms of converting face-to-face lessons to online, we found what often worked most effectively was to break down contents of a two-hour face-to-face lesson into 2-3 task-focused online parts, each introduced and concluded with short, narrated PowerPoints/MP4 videos. We determined a weekly release-date for lesson materials on each course, often accompanied by a ‘flipped’ element, labelled ‘Pre-lesson Task’, released a few days prior to the main lesson materials. We set up accompanying weekly Discussion Forums where students could ask questions or make comments, for which there was one ‘live’ hour per week. Apart from Pre-Lesson Tasks, task answers were always made available at the same time as lessons to allow students complete autonomy.

Moving rapidly to online delivery meant not necessarily having the highest specification e-learning tools immediately to hand but instead working creatively to get the best out of existing technologies, including the Blackboard platform, which prior to this term had had a mainly ‘depository’ function in AEP. To ensure ease of navigation, the various attachments involved in creating such lessons needed to be carefully curated by Folder and Item within BB Learning Materials. Key to this was clear naming and sequencing, with accompanying instructions at Folder and Item level.

Impact, Reflections and Follow-up

Positive outcomes of taking the summer AEP provision online have included noticeably higher uptake (e.g. in Academic Grammar, 92 self-enrolments compared to 30 applications in summer term 2018/19) and noticeably higher real engagement (e.g. with an average of 11 students attending the 2018/19 summer face-to-face Academic Grammar class, compared to a high of 57 and average of 38 students accessing each online lesson). Running the courses asynchronously online has meant no waiting lists, allowing access to course content to all students who register interest. It also means that students can continue to join courses and work through materials over the summer vacation period, which is particularly useful for international master’s students working on Dissertations for September submission, and for cohorts overseas such as the IoE master’s students in Guangdong.

In survey responses gathered thus far, response to course content has been largely positive: “It provided me an insight into what is expected structure and criticality. Now that I am writing my essay, I could see the difference”. Students appreciated teacher narration, noticing if it was absent: “I would prefer our teacher to talk and explain the subject in every slide.” The clarity of lesson presentation within Blackboard was also noted: “I think the most impressive part in this course is the way these lessons were arranged in BB as every lessons were explicitly highlighted, divided into parts with relevant tasks and their answers. Thus, I could effectively learn the content consciously and unconsciously.”

There were a range of reactions to our approach to online delivery and to online learning more generally.  52% of students were happy with entirely asynchronous learning, while 48% would have preferred a larger element of real-time interactivity: “Although this lessons ensured the freedom in dealing with the material whenever it was possible, the lack of a live-scheduled contact with the teacher and other students was somewhat dispersive.”; “I prefer face to face in the classroom because it encourages me more to contribute”. In normal circumstances, 34% of students said they would want entirely face-to-face AEP classes, whilst 21% would want a blended provision and 45% would prefer learning to remain entirely online, with positive feedback regarding the flexibility of the online provision: “it’s flexible for students to do it depending on their own time.”; “Don’t change the possibility to work asynchronously. It makes it possible to follow despite being a part time student.” Going forward, we plan to design in regular synchronous elements in the form of webinars which link to the asynchronous spine of each course to respond to students’ requests for more live interactivity. We also plan to revisit and refine our use of Discussion Forums in Blackboard. Whilst engagement of lesson content was high, students made limited use of Q&A Forums. It is hoped that more targeted forums directly linked to flipped tasks will encourage greater engagement with this strand of the online delivery in the future.


The AEP website ‘Courses, Workshops and Webinars’ page, which gives details of this summer term’s courses and what will be on offer in autumn: http://www.reading.ac.uk/ISLI/enhancing-studies/academic-english-programme/isli-aep-courses.aspx

Still Learning Together

Professor Cindy Becker, School of Literature and Languages


One of the most difficult aspects of lockdown has been the sense of disrupted conversations: the students you wanted to remind about how to plan an essay, the query you heard in a seminar discussion that you want to answer now that you have thought about it. For me, this was more troublesome than the empty corridors as students started to leave.

As lecturers, our whole lives are run to the rhythm of academic terms, and so to have ‘term’ still happening when I was stuck at home seemed like a daily set of missed opportunities, which led, inevitably, to increased anxiety about how my students were doing and how they could prepare well for the challenges ahead. Of course, I was not alone in this; we all felt it and found different ways to resolve that niggling feeling of unfinished business.

What was needed?

I realised that I needed to find a way to stay in touch with students, not just those who I would meet online as part of online teaching and formal meetings, but also those who might be worried but who would not know quite where to turn. Perhaps more important than that, I wanted to reassure students that we are still here, we still want to teach them, and we are as keen to stay in touch as they are.

From a teaching perspective, I also saw this as an opportunity to help students with some of wider aspects of learning and of assessment, rather than focusing just on subject specific material.

How I responded

I set up a YouTube channel, called Still Learning Together, and then, over the course of a month, I uploaded short screencasts to the channel three times a week. I thought it important that we stayed in touch when there were no scheduled activities, so I ran this project over the Spring vacation.

The screencasts covered a range of areas:

Still Learning Together: Eight things we do not need in an unseen exam answer

Still Learning Together: Five memory techniques

Still Learning Together: Ten things at the start of an exam

Still Learning Together: Seven fixes for writer’s block

Still Learning Together: Six rehearsals for a great presentation

Still Learning Together: Four thoughts on primary and secondary sources

Still Learning Together: Three fixes for a comma splice

Still Learning Together: Six steps to calmness

Still Learning Together: Five ways to conquer reading lists

Still Learning Together: Six things you need not include in your essay

Still learning together: Four steps to semi-colons

Engaging with students

Because I could not know which of our students might be feeling isolated or anxious at any point, I wanted to reach the widest range of students for each screencast. I used BB announcements, with email, for each year of each programme in our School. I also asked students to let me know if they would like me to make any screencasts especially for them, so some of those listed above were produced on request.

Students engaged with the resource, with more than 870 views of the channel since I created it, which I found pleasing. I am keeping my ears open for any requests for guidance from students that might be answered through future screencasts.

Looking ahead

Our Outreach Officer, Dr Neil Cocks, sent links to the channel to some local schools with which we have relationships and received a positive response (especially to the grammar help!). We have also added them to our Literature Launchpad YouTube channel.

I am planning to develop the channel later in the summer with our Foundation Degree students in mind, so that we can put links to the channel on their central BB sites. I am also trying to think of other ways in which we might develop and use the material. We might, perhaps, include links to the screencasts as quickmarks on turnitin, or perhaps have the links as a central resource on our BB sites…

I would also like to continue to involve students, and to help them remember that we really do want to stay close to them and to keep developing their learning skills with them. I am considering how to do this, including asking students for more suggestions and boosting usage of the YouTube channel over the summer and just before the Autumn Term.

I am enjoying mulling this over from time to time, and happy to hear any suggestions from colleagues about how I might develop the channel. As with everything to do with Teaching and Learning, as soon as you think a project is finished you find a little thread leading you on to the next part of the path…one of the joys of our profession, even in lockdown.

Update 31/07/20

It occurred to me that, if students have to self-isolate in the coming months, they could be left feeling a bit lost, especially if they had assumed that they would be on campus throughout the year. With this in mind, I created the following document which shows students where they can go for some instant help and support. I produced three clips and put them on the Still Learning Together YouTube channel and, although they are not the final word on online learning, they might reassure our students that we are ready to help.

If you become aware that one of your students is having to self-isolate at any point this year, you might like to send them this document. 

Word document download

Virtual Field Classes


Professor Nick Branch and Dr Mike Simmonds, SAGES.



The rapid closure of universities and cancellation of outdoor activities as part of the COVID-19 precautions prior to Easter 2020 led to widespread adjustments to teaching delivery methods across the university sector. Seemingly overnight, lectures were given online, meetings were migrated and everyone (slowly) became experts in video calling. In Geography and Environmental Science, we also faced an additional problem, how to provide our students with the field-based teaching elements of their courses, when access to the sites was restricted. Geography and Environmental Science run four Part 2 fieldtrips to Europe (Almeria, Berlin, Crete and Naples), a Part 3 fieldtrip to Nanjing in China and a MSc trip to Devon across the end of the Easter vacation and the start of the summer term, so the timing of the lockdown meant we needed to find a new way of teaching these important geographical and environmental science skills to our students. We needed to find a delivery method that would allow students to explore the outside world whilst they were at home, with tasks and activities designed to enable them to collate, analyse and present their findings. The ‘Virtual Field Class’ (VFC) was born.


It quickly transpired that one of the key elements for the VFC to be successful was imagery, with enough required so that the students could fully explore those regions we would traditionally visit on the field classes. Google Maps Street View was chosen for this, as it provided an excellent, expansive, and high-quality array of both street level imagery and 360-degree photospheres which would allow students to explore at their own pace, and in their own direction. However, without a clear and coherent narrative accompanying these images, this was clunky, convoluted and it difficult to envisage a high level of engagement or student satisfaction. Field class leaders also wanted to be able to showcase images, videos, maps, and other content alongside Street View imagery, so a better framework was needed to host this range of VFC content. Based on previous experience, it was decided to use Esri Story Maps to act as the framework for this array of material.  Nestled within the Esri suite of apps and programmes, Esri Story Maps is a powerful online tool, which staff and students can access through our Esri agreement (there are two versions; Esri Story Maps (classic) and ArcGIS StoryMaps – both provide similar functionality). Story Maps provides a platform for text, images, maps and other multimedia content to be hosted in an engaging narrative, which can be followed in a pre-determined order; much like a traditional field class. Another important consideration was ease of use of the platform, due to the limited time available to assemble these VFC’s, and again Esri Story Maps were ideal here, with field class convenors quickly understanding the key elements of the platform with minimal training.


The methodology used to create the VFC has not only provided a temporary substitute for face-to-face field-based training but also highlighted the value of using this digital resource as part of our research skills teaching. Our usual pre-field class assessment consisted of a short essay or PowerPoint screencast. This was intended to familiarise the students with aspects of the human and/or physical geography of each field class location. Whilst these forms of assessment have their benefits, in future a modified version of the VFC will be used because it permits students to visually and interactively explore the wider rural and urban geography before departure. It will enable students to integrate textual and visual sources, contextualise key secondary data, collect geospatial data, and improve cartographic skills, knowledge of geospatial technologies, and general ICT abilities. Excellent preparation for a successful field class.


The process of designing and running the VFC using Esri Story Maps as a platform has made us reflect on its wider application. First, modified versions of the VFC can be used for recruitment and applicant engagement events. For example, we are currently designing three online undergraduate events for Geography and Environmental Science (GES) of varying duration: 1 hour for current applicants, 2 hours for individuals or groups from schools/colleges, and 3 days for a Reading Scholars summer school. Secondly, laboratory-based practical classes could also utilise Story Maps. For example, we are exploring capturing images of specific microscopic (e.g. pollen grains and spores) and geological specimens used in GES part 1 teaching as a guide to identification and linking these to other online textual and visual resources. The guide will be used as a preparatory exercise for a practical examination.

Take-home exams: gauging the student experience

Dr Alison MacLeod, Lecturer in Physical Geography and DSDTL, SAGES

This piece presents the view of students from one module in the University, it is not suggested that this view is shared by all students in the university.


For context, this post relates to an Autumn term module, with 130 students which is assessed 100% by examination (part seen, part unseen). Delivery went well, student feedback was positive and we’d finished with an information session about the exam and the promise of an additional revision session early in the summer term to help them prepare.

Fast forward 3 months, we’re in lockdown, the University is preparing blanket extensions, safety nets, the circumstances impact process, take-home exams and much more.  Students and colleagues are apprehensive about how it will all work.  For me, this number of students taking an exam for 100% of their module in unfamiliar circumstances, and not having had any face-to-face contact since December was concerning.  Students were prepared as well as possible, given the situation, with a full set of recorded lectures, journal articles, videos, podcasts, screencasts, Q & A forums, assessment literacy guide, sample answer structures and a promise that advice would be available during the exam to respond to queries about question wording, as an invigilator would.

The seen exam question was released on a Wednesday and unseen the following Tuesday. There were a few student queries here and there – referencing, citations, inclusion of figures, clarification of wording etc. but all students adhered to the rules and didn’t push for responses to questions I was unable to answer under exam conditions.

So exam done. How did it go? What was the student opinion? Did they hate it? Would there be a mass protest?


The following results emerged from 37 respondents to a BB survey (as of 15/05/20):

Clearly ensuring students are able to concentrate on their work in whatever setting they are in is important to producing their best work.  The responses to this question generated perhaps a more variable response than some of the other questions, with some students finding it very difficult but others feeling more settled.

Figure 1- Ease of working at home

Further exploration of the reasons for this would be valuable to see if there was any way we could advise or support those students more effectively, and to examine if there is any correlation between their response and their exam performance. Some quotations from the students are as follows:

“I found revising at home very difficult.”

“It was better than I thought it was going to be….”

“Found it difficult to concentrate mentally because of personal circumstances etc, but the exam was clearly and practically explained so was easy to format correctly/submit and access.”

How long were students spending on their exams?  Guidance was that they should spend about the same time as they would on a standard exam.  For this module it was more complex as there was a seen and unseen component.

Figure 2- Time spent on both the seen and unseen component of the exam – the seen question was released 4 working days in advance of the exam and the intended formal duration of the exam was 2 hours

Analysing the data in Figure 2 as a whole, it is clear that a large majority of the students are spending significantly longer than recommended on the papers.  From the free comments associated with the survey, this can possibly be put down to them appreciating the lower stress situation and having the time to be more thoughtful with their writing, however there was also a hint that this meant that there research/writing was less focused due to the extra time.

 “Also, as most exams rely on memory, it felt rewarding that instead of simply regurgitating information, I was confident applying it and explaining it in more detail.”

 “……. but I also found that because we had so long to answer the question, it made it quite difficult to write concisely and the extra time we had to check our answers, change things and add things etc. meant that my original ideas may have become convoluted.”

“I liked the fact that there wasn’t timed pressure, it felt more relaxed and I felt I wrote a better answer than I would have in a ‘normal’ exam.”

In this same vein, students appeared satisfied with the length of time they had available to them to complete the unseen component of this exam – with the caveat also that many modules may require students to complete two questions in this time rather than just one.

“a 23 hour time limit allowed me to properly formulate and deliver ideas I wouldn’t have had time to come up with in a regular exam.”

Figure 3- It was interesting to find out whether the students felt they had been given sufficient time to answer the question – this differs from Figure 1 in that it may be an indicator of how well they were able to balance this exam and other commitments

Something that could also have been problematic was the availability of resources – be that the general ability to access to the internet or more extensively to resources like, journal articles, books, perhaps even things like Q and A forums.  Figure 4 demonstrates that in this instance, students were dominantly satisfied with the availability of the resources for this module, however there were a portion who found it more challenging.

“Revising was difficult without the access to the library”  

“all the resources were easily available and the voice recordings of the lectures were really useful when revising”

Figure 4- Availability of resources to the students.  It is noted that this includes a wide range of resources specific to this module but also incorporates access to things like e-books and journals.

In addition to this, students were also asked to comment on aspects like instructions provided for completion and submission of the exams.  This was again very positive but with some clarity requested by some in relation to instructions:

“the instructions on how to submit the online exams were really clear and there was a lot of support provided to help with this”

“Submission via Turnitin was easy as usual, no problems.  Maybe more clarity on what needs to be included on the document (e.g. candidate number over student number, module code)…”


Overall this response was a pleasant surprise given the context that the students were working within, however there are some clear areas where it would be valuable to see if we can provide additional support or advice in advance of the Autumn term resits – studying at home being one.  Only a small sample of the written quotes have been included here as an example.

Dr Alison MacLeod

From Face to Face to Online in two weeks – Changing the delivery mode of the Academic Practice Programme

Angela Buckingham and the APP Team


This account explores how the Academic Practice Team re-designed three full days of face to face teaching from the Academic Practice Programme into two mornings of synchronous online teaching using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra (the webinar tool in BB) plus a series of asynchronous self-access sessions.

It is important that as practitioners we reflect on the lessons learnt at each stage: this narrative is an attempt to capture what informed our decision-making processes at the time, and what the impact was.


Our objectives were clear: we needed to move the APP from F2F to online delivery within a short time frame, supporting our participants who teach and support learning and trying to retain the ‘heart’ of our programme, whilst designing resources that would enable everyone to engage as flexibly as possible with the materials.


Due to COVID-19, during March 2020, it became increasingly obvious that delivering the next three taught days of the APP at the London Road campus, as we usually do, was not going to be possible.

Currently sixty-eight participants are enrolled onto EDMAP1 and forty-five on EDMAP2, the first two modules of the UoR’s Academic Practice Programme (the APP). The APP is credit-bearing at Level 7 and is an Advance HE accredited programme. Successful completion of the relevant modules results in Associate and full Fellowship (AFHEA and FHEA) and is linked to probationary requirements for many of our colleagues.

Postponing or cancelling the APP was therefore not an option: it is an institutional requirement. Any changes we needed to make had to be balanced against the requirements of meeting the Assessable Learning Outcomes and alignment with the programme’s Advance HE accredited status.


We felt that we were standing on shifting sands: we would pin down one idea, only for the context to change rapidly and the next day for it to seem unfeasible.  Our initial ideas around creating an online teaching conference, with live forum tasks facilitated by our team and a range of online classrooms for staff to drop into were rather ambitious. At one point, sitting in the library cafe, brainstorming ideas, we assumed academics would ‘just be at home anyway, with this time set aside in their diaries’. The following day we began to realise the extent to which everyone, ourselves included, would be juggling caring responsibilities, home schooling, anxiety over the safety of loved ones and of income streams, sharing workspace, bandwidth and devices. Friends got sick. We realised we might get sick. Everyone was adjusting to new roles and priorities. The day after that, we packed up our laptops, left Blandford Lodge and began working from home.

We looked at the original schedule for the three taught days. We realised that ‘finding the best technological tools’ was a red herring and that it was definitely not a matter of transferring a two-hour session at eleven o’clock into a webinar at that time instead. We returned to our defining pedagogical principles. We stopped looking at timetabled ‘sessions’ and returned to our Learning Outcomes and ALOs. We re-read our module handbooks. We asked, what had to be covered? What couldn’t be altered? What is precious about the APP and what do our participants tell us again and again they value most? We held many virtual meetings and we drew up new plans.

We realised it was essential to be pragmatic. We had very little time. We recognised the value of keeping it simple.

The workload was shared out. We designed webinars to allow active learning tasks to be retained. We all shared our notes so that if someone couldn’t make a session, we had the skills to cover it. Within the team we had expertise in facilitating webinars using Blackboard Collaborate, making screencasts, audio-narrated PowerPoints and designing and moderating Blackboard discussion forums, and those with expertise were able to provide guidance to others. Most importantly of all, we reminded ourselves how to create and nurture a social community online by using announcements, by emailing our tutees, by creating e-tivities and by skilled use of the webinar tools. We kept returning the Learning Outcomes.

We were also committed to retaining the APP ethos of incidental learning and sharing that occurs in our ‘community’ when academics from across the University all meet together in one space. On the first day, we opened our webinar ‘doors’ early, referred to it as the coffee room, and our participants came in and shared their news, some bringing their children and pets on camera, showing us where they were working from, greeting each other from the ‘other side’. We put on our ‘teaching clothes’ and came on camera, to be a visible, welcoming and reassuring teacher presence.


What worked? There were fewer technical issues than we expected and everyone appeared to have headsets. We set up and moderated our own webinars and the engagement was incredible: we had many participants active in the chat box and on mic. We used a collaborative, constructivist, dialogic approach just as we do during our face to face delivery.

We successfully modelled a broad range of tools and techniques for online learning, including Application Share and the Breakout rooms on a large scale in Collaborate, and a number of tools referred to above for self-access learning. We used polls, voting, wikis. We scaffolded offline tasks as much as we could and realise now that even more signposting would have been helpful.

The feedback has been incredibly positive and shows that the participants really appreciated the work we had done in a short space of time to move the APP online. For us, it was hard work but so rewarding and we were delighted to find such a strong sense of community and camaraderie in the online space.


We are aware that longer term, it can be challenging to build an online community, particularly when participants have not already met each other and bonded: this cohort had already spent two full days together in January.

We felt lucky to be catching everyone at the start of lockdown, when online meetings, Teams, Zooms, webinars etc were still something of a novelty. But we still noticed how tiring it is to sit in a webinar, have a break and go back into another one. We encouraged participants to get away from screens wherever possible and to walk around. We tried to follow our own advice.

We do not yet have a sense as to what extent the participants engaged with the self-access materials which would normally be an integral part of our taught days. Blackboard analytics may be helpful here, but will not provide a full picture. Some participants have been in touch to say they have found them very helpful, but we have to accept that, for a range of reasons, others may never engage with them.

Follow up

The planning continues. We have four more taught days to re-design: two in July and two in September. We worry about workload for our participants and we keep in touch with Advance HE. We still have a lot of meetings online to discuss next steps. Our mantra still revolves around going back to the Learning Outcomes, thinking about student and teacher presence and keeping it simple.

We keep notes, save emails and try to keep a record of what we’ve done. We know that this is evidence-informed reflective practice.

We hope you find this account useful to prompt your own reflection. Good luck and stay safe.

The APP Team

Clare McCullagh Programme Director

Jackie Ward FLAIR Administrative Manager

John Knight EDMAP1 Module Convenor

Angela Buckingham EDMAP2 Module Convenor

References and Links

https://www.gillysalmon.com/five-stage-model.html (accessed 07/05/2020)

Anderson, T., L. Rourke, D.R. Garrison and W. Archer (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5 (2).

Beetham, H and Sharpe, R (2019) Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: Principles and Practices of Design Third edition. Routledge

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.