College shortlisted for more Awards

We’re absolutely delighted to announce that West Highland College UHI is one of several partners of the University of the Highlands and Islands to be shortlisted in the CDN College Awards 2021.

The College Development Network (CDN) Awards, recognise the talent, innovation and achievement demonstrated by colleges, their staff and their learners.

West Highland College UHI has been shortlisted in two of the 12 categories:

  • Digital Learning Award – West Highland College UHI, North Highland College UHI and Inverness College UHI – for our Virtual Schools, Virtually Anywhere initiative
  • Learning and Teaching Colleague of the Year Award – Katy MacDonald, Supported Learning Programme lecturer

Fiona Grant, Director of Academic Affairs said:

“Our staff have always embraced innovative practices to get the very best results for our students and we are delighted that being shortlisted for these two categories shows how valuable their contribution is. Our Virtual School programme has been driven to success by the hard work and forward thinking of our own staff and those of our colleagues from other colleges within the University partnership. Virtual School is a remarkable testament to the benefits that such collaboration, combined with digital expertise, can bring to young people in even the smallest Highlands schools in remote and rural locations.

And we are so pleased and proud that Katy has been shortlisted for teaching colleague of the year. This is recognition of the amazing work that Katy and her team of lecturers and support workers have done for supported learning students during the pandemic. What’s more, this year her students have the best of both ways of learning.  Groups come into college and whilst others continue in online classrooms, joining students from Lochalsh, Skye, Lochaber and Wester Ross.”

The winners will be announced at a celebration ceremony at Radisson Blu, Glasgow on Thursday 9 December 2021.

Further Information:

 Map of Scotland with Highland Council area shaded and pointers marking North Highland College UHI, Inverness College UHI and West Highland College UHI

Digital Learning Award – Virtual School, Virtually Anywhere

The Virtual School (VS) is a collaboration of West Highland College UHI, North Highland College UHI and Inverness College UHI, Highland Council and the 29 High Schools in their geographical area and is designed to ensure that Highland pupils who live in remote and rural areas have access to a wider curriculum choice and high quality, interactive learning experience using digital technologies.  Several years ago, Senior Phase pupils had a limited choice of curriculum compared to pupils elsewhere in Scotland. Some pupils endured lengthy travel to attend college courses, often hampered by poor winter weather.

The Heads of Curriculum and Head Teachers, together with colleagues in Highland Council have developed a common, Highland-wide, timetable to allow more and more pupils to engage without affecting their other subjects in the way that travelling to college for a day might have done in the past.  The pupils choose subjects from a bespoke VS website which lists courses and explains how teaching is delivered so that pupils, parents and carers know what to expect.  Virtual Open Days, standardised online applications and online interviews with staff all help to promote the programme and engage with schools across Highland region.

There is now a significant range of around 20 subjects available including Business Skills, Computing, Music Business and Aquaculture as well as Foundation Apprenticeships in a range of disciplines and involving some remote work placements.

Pupils say they benefit from a greater subject choice relevant to their chosen career, progression routes into college programme and learning with like-minded pupils from far afield so that they learn about cultural differences.  They have also had the opportunity to engage with industry experts and specialists in a highly interactive way and have attended virtual conferences outside the Highlands.

VS is also available to home schooled pupils and to pupils with issues attending school on site so that it builds development of their communication, meta-skills, digital skills and confidence and helps prepare them for further study or for a career.

And, of course, during lockdowns, VS pupils continued enjoying a high-quality learning experience in their online-classrooms and successfully achieved their qualifications without serious disruption or deferrals, unlike many other subject lessons.

For the Highlands, Virtual School is particularly valuable as it can help retain more young people here at home during their senior phase at school, where traditionally they may have felt they needed to move away in order to study their chosen subjects.  It also means that lecturers have the flexibility to be based wherever they enjoy living but can still contribute to the education of our young people.

Virtual School was the winner of the ‘Outstanding Use of Technology in Delivering Remote Teaching and Learning’ Award at the Tes FE Awards on Friday 28 May 2021:

“West Highland College UHI, North Highland College UHI and Inverness College UHI’s Virtual School model is a perfect example of collaboration and cooperation between FE providers in the Scottish Highlands, using technology to engage and empower learners remotely.” Bob Harrison, Tes FE Awards 2021 lead judge.

Screenshot of student seminar on teams

Learning and Teaching Colleague of the Year Award – Katy MacDonald

In 2019/20 The Skills and Learning Programme at the college supported 100 students with significant and complex learning support needs in five different college centres spread across an area half the size of Wales.  Most learning focused on independent living skills, health and wellbeing and practical activity. There was limited digital learning or use of technologies.

The challenge of lockdown

At the beginning of March 2020 lockdown, the main concern was for the health and well-being of SLP students, as they were at a greater risk from Covid than the general population.  Whilst students were contacted by phone, the usual university virtual learning environment (VLE) was not suitable for Katy’s students because of their complex communication needs.  Student began to dis-engage and contact became limited. There was added pressure on their carers (often parents) who were also doing their best to support learning in addition to their caring responsibilities. This group of people were fast becoming excluded from learning as well as having to isolate from society.

Innovative beginnings

Having set up a private Facebook page in April 2020 with appropriate guidance for carers and the students, Katy’s team realised that this was much more successful in engaging with the students and used it for discussion, suggested activities for outdoor learning and gave regular, accessible COVID guidance updates. Students were sent out individual learning packs to use along with Facebook and they responded well. However, Katy felt that something else was needed.


In June 2020, Katy seized the opportunity for the SLP team to take part in an MS Teams pilot. Because MS Teams is not the university core teaching technology, it did not have routine training resources and support.  Katy worked on a plan of developing teaching materials, training for staff and advice for carers as well as one-to-one physically distanced inductions, so that everyone was ready to start in September 2020.

Katy said “Student engagement exceeded our expectations. For many of our students online-classes were the first time that they had seen their friends since lockdown. I feel that this was and remains a huge motivator for many.”

She went on “Early classes focused on learning how to work online. We established ground rules the same way that we would in any class. Novel rules included agreeing a dress code and always having cameras on (unless connectivity issues) as it is better to see each other.”

The timetable and curriculum were completely re-modelled to suit this new way of learning; practical classes were re-designed to work around easily accessible materials or experiences from home.

Katy had originally thought that online learning may create barriers especially for those with profound support needs. She said “I honestly did not stop to consider the positive impact that it could have. For many, online-classrooms have cut out long journeys to and from college, it has provided something to focus on during a difficult time. For several students online-classrooms remove the anxiety students feel about attending a busy college centre. Students are able to access classes and make new friendships with students at different locations (some centres are 3hrs apart). Online-classrooms have ensured that we can all stay connected, and in that way, we are not worried about another lockdown.”

Katy has now shared her practice with other staff at the college and inspired many staff to adopt similar approaches.  She has also shared with her peers through CDN Virtual Bridge, and through articles in sector educational magazines.  Meanwhile, her students have gained independence as well as acquiring new digital skills. “I now regularly log in to find my students already in their classroom catching up on ‘I’m a Celebrity’! My students have amazed me - they are coping with living though a pandemic, many are thriving in the online environment.”