5. Specialist Area 2 – Learning Design

As this second specialist area was not required for CMALT there is no comparison to make with my previous portfolio.


Learning design has been a core of my work in education technology. At the beginning this was focused on individual pieces of elearning and has developed over the years until present day where I am now the institutional lead for rolling out curriculum design workshops, including writing learning outcomes, programme and course design. For the purpose of this portfolio I am going to focus on my learning design through the lens of student engagement as this was the most recent work to draw on throughout the pandemic period and had wide impact.

Prior to the pandemic one of my mantras with colleagues preparing any online material was ‘are you present in the resources?’ as can be seen on my About Me page on my blog:

I have been working in edtech for nearly twenty years and I am mainly found to be nagging anyone who will listen into giving online presence more attention – bringing the human to the digital and criticality viewing technology.

Ulster icon, a bright blue periodic table imageWriting this in 2016/2017 turned out to be very prescient. During the initial stages of the pandemic in the first half of 2020 nearly all of the focus was on the technical elements of moving all teaching and learning online. How to record lectures, how to work synchronous platforms, how best to send communications to students, how to upload content to the VLE (incredibly – or not – the number of colleagues who had not been doing this before the pandemic were significant) and more.

Sector wide one of the key issues from student feedback (refs here) was the feeling of isolation and need for social and community building activities built into the formal teaching offering. Internally, this was what I was hearing from colleagues as well and so I devised and facilitated sessions during summer 2020 which focused on this aspect in online spaces, asynchronous and synchronous.

The success of these led to other institutions approaching and I then collaborated with colleagues running workshops externally. The links to these are included within the evidence section below. One of these collaborations, with Kate Molloy, then led to our reflections becoming two separate book chapters and conference contributions around learning design and a human presence in the online space.

Heriot-Watt icon, a dark blue periodic table imageIn my current role I have been involved in adapting ABC / Viewpoints openly licenced resources to the Heriot-Watt University branding and context, which still ensures that socialisation and inclusion are key elements of the curriculum design process.

Over the coming months I will lead on these workshops as an institutional offering, including training colleagues within schools and professional services to have all the knowledge and tools they need to facilitate local workshops. Over the last two months I have drafted the demo design for the Heriot-Watt branded version of the ABC learning type cards, presented the new learning design resources at multiple senior level meeting and will be facilitating a train-the-trainer workshop at the beginning of June to empower colleagues to scale up the roll out of the work locally within the schools. Overall my support will include: facilitating learning design workshops, training colleagues to facilitate, co-ordinating the requirements of the workshops through a consultancy contact form, continue to engage with teaching staff across the institution to raise awareness of this new project.

I wanted to feedback that I felt the walk through of the resources and process for course and preprogramme (re)design was really helpful, clear and exciting.“, Associate Professor, Heriot-Watt

This work is one element of the large curriculum transformation work which is addressing many elements of the current Heriot-Watt teaching and learning strategy. In addition, to the ABC learning types for course design the workshops will also embed identification of our graduate attributes and Global Changemaker Curriculum Framework. These latter will ensure colleagues will be prompted to consider and reflect on inclusion, wellbeing, sustainability, creativity and more. This work is also in parallel with the implement of a new curriculum software system so I will be collaborating closely with the Quality Assurance team to reduce the number of queries from teaching staff about what needs to be entered in the updated version.


This is an area where being able to draw on experiences myself as a learner better informed not just my own designs for online engagement but then supporting colleagues to design in active and engaging elements to their teaching. Therefore, my participation in MOOCs such as OcTEL (ALT) and EDC MOOC from the University of Edinburgh were invaluable. I learned about effective discussion forum approaches, how to facilitate connections between participants, how to structure didactic content with formative activities etc (CV1).

I then enrolled on the Digital Education programme (with the same team as that that ran the EDC MOOC) and further refined and developed my skills at designing in presence. At that time I was able to bring this new knowledge into the Medical Education Portal through blog posts, short welcome videos from teachers etc. Yet it was the pandemic period that I made the most impact as I was the lead within our department on this topic and after the first wave of reactive design, over summer 2020, I facilitated several webinars with this focus with a supporting Sway with key links and exemplars. As I see learning design and inclusion as entwined these also gave me the opportunity to discuss how to include active AND inclusive activities.

Taking on the lead of the learning design workshops at Heriot-Watt feels like an extension of my learning design work and I am so glad that our internal graduate attributes and Global Changemaker Curriculum Framework brings these important elements to the fore to easily empower me to open, what can at times be difficult, conversations around engaging students online (and offline), inclusion, wellbeing and more.

Writing about my lived experiences of learning design with my colleague in Ireland, Kate Molloy, has been both a healing experience after pandemic work and has enabled me to transition from digital support in learning design to lead (CV4). It was a joy to draw on my heroes, bell hooks and adrienne maree brown as lenses to view our learning design work (CV3). In the case of HE for Good, being included was an especially valued privilege due to the highly competitive selection process. Both chapters are to be published imminently and I am excited to be reading and learning from all of co-authors (especially the updated chapters that I reviewed). Giving workshops and talks on the topics also helped us hone and develop our writing (examples are linked below).


Book chapters – upcoming

Molloy, M. and Thomson, C. (pending) 2023. Humanising Learning Design: Digital Pragmatism. In: Cronin, C. and Czerniewicz, L. ed. HE for Good.

Thomson, C. and Molloy, K. (pending) 2023. Humanising Online Learning: Through the Lens of Engaged Pedagogy. In: Jaffer, T., Govender, S. and Czerniewicz, L. ed. Learning Design Voices (see book website)

I attended an excellent session you ran at ASME on engagement and socialisation in virtual spaces. I am a GP who also works as a teaching fellow. I would love to share my learning from that session with them at one of our monthly team meetings. I was wondering if you be happy for me to have a copy of the slides to share with them?“, External conference attendee

Clare has been very supportive regarding my multiple questions and queries, and her leadership and supervision in the area of digital education is very valuable to the team in the Centre for Medical Education. Clare’s constant stream of enthusiasm and new ideas is also very inspiring and has certainly led to a change in my practice on many occasions.”, Senior Lecturer, Medical Education, Queen’s University Belfast

In terms of my own work, Clare worked with me to develop a blended learning biostatistics module shared by two MSc courses. Clare provided guidance in translating a face-to-face module into one suitable for delivery online, drawing on models of good practice and educational theory. Also, I was able to reflect on my own educational practice and challenged myself to adapt/incorporate new practices, through Clare’s leadership and encouragement, which was beneficial to both myself and my students.”, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Experimental Medicine, Queen’s University Belfast

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