Remote learning from Shetland: empowering aquaculture

by Tom Morton -

The University of the Highland and Islands’s NAFC Marine Centre campus at Scalloway in Shetland is an internationally-renowned powerhouse of training, research and development. And now its courses are being opened up online to a potentially worldwide student body.

The NAFC (formerly the North Atlantic Fisheries College) offers a variety of courses for the full range of maritime industries (including the merchant navy, fishing and aquaculture), shore-based engineering, and recreational sailors. Now it is becoming a centre for remote learning, fuelled by demand in particular from the aquaculture industry. It began with students based in the outer Shetland islands like Unst and Yell, but spread to Orkney and mainland Scotland, as well as people working difficult shift patterns. Now students worldwide are able to benefit from courses delivered online.

“It’s gradually built up over the years,” says Stuart Fitzsimmons, NAFC section leader for aquaculture training. “People in remote areas who had trouble getting to college or who were working inconvenient shifts asked for more flexible learning, and it’s then been a case of developing our course material to fit around that.”

Remote learning using digital media platforms is not a new concept, but had never been tried by NAFC for short course delivery until 2017. An industry employer’s staff needed mandatory fish welfare training in order to obtain compliance certification.

“The problem was that staff were on well-boats, different shift patterns and in remote locations,” says Stuart. “So the standard face-to-face classroom based teaching was not a feasible option. Putting our collective minds together I got our resident IT guru Sathappan (Saro) Saravanan to develop the classroom course into an online course – he was already delivering this course so he knew the content well and had also developed other longer online courses in a different format.”

Time was a major issue for the employer concerned, so according to Stuart it was “all hands to the pumps” to get the necessary online course developed. Marketing and promotional assistance was obtained from JISC, formerly known as the Joint Information Systems Committee, the UK’s national body for developing digital academic services in further education.

People in remote areas who had trouble getting to college, or who were working inconvenient shifts, asked for more flexible learning

One challenge was developing an enrolment process around a one day course as this had never been done before. The process has been repeated for another one day online course in Fish Containment - the prevention of stock escapes from fish farms - and the longer SVQ L4 Aquaculture Management. In these courses all materials, teaching and assessments are online.

Stuart: “There is no requirement for these students to actually come to NAFC physically. In fact we have enrolments from all over the world. The SVQ L4 is a combination of written assessment and work-based competency assessment but can be delivered nationally. It all seemed to snowball from this and more and more companies have got on board.”

The technology, based on the UHI’s own Blackboard software, works on desktop computers, laptops, tablets and even mobile phones, and has been proven to function effectively everywhere.

“We haven’t had any issues, “ says Stuart, “other than students needing assistance sometimes to log in, which Saro has always been able to sort out very quickly. One of the biggest benefits of using UHI Blackboard is that students have full access to UHI library facilities including e-books and electronic journals. That’s a tremendous benefit.”

Stuart himself is proud to call Shetland his home, though he was brought up and educated in Queensland, Australia. He first worked in Shetland in 1995, and has since then been involved in commercial aquaculture, academic research, teaching and environmental management, mostly in the islands but also in his native Australia.

For the NAFC, the future of flexible course delivery could increasingly be online.

cleardot.gif“Currently, we’re offering Introduction Fish Welfare, Introductory Fish Containment, and SVQ L4 Aquaculture Management. We have plans to get more courses online this year as we have had enquiries to extend nationally and internationally. Really, the world is our oyster!”

Really, the world is our oyster!

This video, made for JISC, gives a glimpse of Stuart's work as well as the overall role of the NAFC

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