Innovating in digital and open education


Digital Education experts have transformed online, distance learning within and beyond the University of Edinburgh, creating vibrant networks of learners around the world.

What was the problem? 

Easy access to digital environments has changed the face of distance learning. Being able to deliver a course or programme on the internet means that educators can now reach much larger, and more geographically dispersed, groups of students than is possible in a fixed, campus space.

The challenge in teaching at a global scale is in fostering a sense of collegiality, where learners feel part of a supportive and responsive community. This is true of the University’s entirely web-based postgraduate programmes and also of the free, high-profile short courses education providers have been running in recent years; Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

What did we do? 

Building on our research expertise in online and distance learning, the Digital Education group at the Moray House School of Education developed one of the first UK MOOCs early in 2013. Launching on the Coursera platform, the course has now run three times with over 70,000 enrolled learners. E-learning and Digital Cultures (EDCMOOC) invited participants to think critically and creatively about digital education, both as a process and as a topic of study.

The course was aimed at teachers, learning technologists, education policymakers and people with a general interest in online learning. Moving away from video lectures, it instead provided participants with online access to resources in a range of formats, including film, and asked them to reflect on their learning through blogs, images and other digital media.

One of the most innovative aspects of the course was the emphasis placed on participants’ use of social media to build learning networks and share experiences and ideas. By the time the MOOC ran for the third and final time in spring 2015, this concept had been developed to provide learners with an automated, Twitter-based tutor known as ‘teacherbot’, a playful experiment in human and non-human co-teaching.

The development of creative, critical and social approaches to learning at scale was particularly innovative.
What happened next? 

E-learning and Digital Cultures (EDCMOOC) was a practical exploration of the potential of digital teaching and learning, combining the research, development and knowledge exchange expertise of the Digital Education group. The emphasis placed on strong social networks for learning at massive scale was particularly innovative.

The University of Edinburgh now offers a broad suite of MOOCs, several of which are delivered in partnership with external organisations.

A number of these collaborative MOOCs have involved the Digital Education group; Warhol, for example, which was developed as part of Edinburgh College of Art’s ARTIST ROOMS Research Partnership with Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland and which, with 26,000 sign-ups, has been one of the most successful arts-based MOOCs to date.

The group has also worked with the Education team within National Museums Scotland to develop its first ever MOOC, Photography: A Victorian Sensation, coinciding with its major summer 2015 exhibition of the same name.

Following an employee’s positive experience of EDCMOOC, the World Bank approached the Digital Education group to advise on its first MOOCs on climate change and development.

Through a six-month fellowship in 2013-2014, we helped the Scottish Parliament instigate a MOOC on wellbeing, which is now being taken forward with colleagues in the School of Social and Political Science.

Working with the Open University’s private enterprise, Futurelearn, and the UK Higher Education Academy, we have shared knowledge on the MOOC landscape at the critical point where courses have seen a step-change in levels of development and take-up. This has built capacity within the organisations themselves, and within a wider, international network of policymakers and practitioners.

Our most recent research, The Changing Pedagogical Landscape, is informing digital education policy across Europe.

About the researcher(s)

Vice-Principal Digital Education
Senior Lecturer
Lecturer in E-learning
Lecturer in Digital Education
Personal Chair of Digital Education

Research unit

Subject area:
  • Digital Education


  • The University of Edinburgh

Related study programmes