Creating an Online Community: A Pre-Pandemic Initiative

by | Apr 22, 2021 | General, Guest Posts | 0 comments

Professor Marjory Harper won the 2020 RHS Jinty Nelson Award for Inspirational Teaching and Supervision in History. Here, she reflects on the process of planning an online Master’s Programme in Scottish Heritage in 2017.

Launching in July 2023, the Jinty Nelson Teaching Fellowships are a new RHS funding programme to support History teaching in UK Higher Education.


Creating on Online Programme

In 2017, we set out to create an entirely virtual Master’s programme in Scottish Heritage. None of us could have anticipated the way in which a global pandemic three years later would completely reshape the experience of education, turning a relentless spotlight on the challenges and rewards of online teaching and learning. We wanted to offer a programme that was explicitly multidisciplinary, and it currently includes courses in history, art history and philosophy, as well as a methodological course on approaches to archives and other sources. Most – but not all – courses are team-taught.

My own specialism, the Scottish Diaspora, focuses on four broad themes: causes and consequences of migration; mechanisms and experiences of relocation; typologies of movement; and the interpretation of oral and written testimony. It takes students on a journey from the 1707 parliamentary union to the present, via the American Revolution, Highland and Lowland clearances, the neglected story of migration to England, the controversial and changing tactics of recruitment agents, the perils and pleasures of an ocean passage, the impact of return migration, and tales of adventure and anguish penned or voiced by the emigrants themselves.


A screengrab of the front page of an online module landing page. Three weeks are shown, each with a thumbnail image, title and brief description of the topic for discussion.

The front page of the Scottish Diaspora Module. Courtesy of the author.


In devising a programme with entirely online delivery, the objective was to offer maximum flexibility to students from a wide range of backgrounds, for whom this type of asynchronous, non-campus-based study was particularly appropriate or attractive. For students, the ability to take charge of their studies, engaging at their own pace, both with the teaching and learning materials and with each other, has been highly effective, and it has been exciting to see the way in which the students have created mutually supportive, collaborative networks across countries and continents. It’s been particularly heartening because of the very real challenge of offering meaningful academic and pastoral care in a potentially de-personalised online environment.

Technology has the capacity to impede, rather than improve, communication, and the loneliness or panic of the long-distance student is a malady that can easily be missed if we don’t keep our ears and eyes open.


Pedagogical Strategy

Our students come from all walks of life, from a range of backgrounds, and from all over the world. They generally take one course per semester, and if they opt for the full MLitt Programme, they emerge at the end of three years with four core courses and a dissertation to their name. But the flexibility means they can exit at various other points with a diploma or certificate, or simply take a single short course.

What is the pedagogical strategy? From the very outset we have striven to inject variety, providing visual and verbal sources, as well as written teaching and learning materials, alongside a mix of traditional and innovative exercises and assessments. The package for a typical week might include a short illustrated written lecture summarising that week’s subject; a Powerpoint presentation, video or podcast that focuses on a particular theme; a discussion between two academics; and a selection of readings from primary and secondary sources. These are accompanied by discussion notes, further reading suggestions, and the submission of a brief reflective journal.


Spaces for Discussion

Each week’s overview page also has a link to a discussion board forum, where the students are encouraged to upload responses to approximately six questions, engaging in the sort of conversations that would take place across the table if they were on campus. They are strongly advised to limit each post to no more than 100 words, in order to encourage maximum participation of the whole group and prevent the uploading of mini-essays (which was a problem in the initial roll-out of some courses, and a deterrent to full engagement). Course co-ordinators contribute to discussions in the middle of the week, mainly in order to answer specific questions, limiting their interventions so that the voice of the tutor does not dominate or inhibit.

Last year I began to add an occasional end-of-week video feedback, in which I reviewed and summarised the results of the discussion board traffic, sometimes adding a few extra observations. Following positive encouragement from students, I now record this feedback as a weekly feature. Another Friday afternoon addition is a real-time chat session, at which students can meet online and discuss the week’s studies. I initiate the meeting, and participate for a time, before withdrawing and leaving the students to chat amongst themselves, in lively sessions which often last for 90 minutes or more. These conversations are recorded, so that those who are unable to attend or prefer to engage more passively can listen later, at their leisure. This live chat facility is, of course, also useful for one-to-one discussions.

Finally, none of this could have been achieved without the unstinting expertise and enthusiasm of the University of Aberdeen’s online learning team. It is to these exceptional colleagues that I owe – and dedicate – the honour of the 2020 Jinty Nelson Award.


Further Reading


About the author

Marjory Harper is Professor of History at the University of Aberdeen, and Visiting Professor at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. She directs the University of Aberdeen’s online Master’s Programme in Scottish Heritage. Her research focuses on British (particularly Scottish) emigration since 1800. Two of her monographs have won international prizes and she has recently published an audio book based on her large collection of interviews with emigrants.



Further posts on teaching are available via the RHS Teaching Portal, and include recent articles by Dr John Cooper (York), runner-up in the 2020 Jinty Nelson Award for Inspirational Teaching on ‘Teaching the Tudors on a Two-Way Street’, and Dr Jessica van Horssen (Leeds Beckett), a winner of the 2020 RHS Innovation in Teaching Award, on ‘The Future of (Teaching) the Past’.



HEADER IMAGE: The Emigrants Statue, Helmsdale, Sutherland, Scotland. Credit: Dave Connor via Flickr. Reproduced with thanks under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License.





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