The Open University; meeting the challenge of distance learning in the COVID-19 age

Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme
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The Open University is one of the world’s largest leading providers in online education with over 175,000 students studying with us. The OU delivers courses in social sciences, business, technology, humanities, and it is almost entirely online. Since our inception in 1969, we have always had a diverse student population with a broad array of needs and circumstances – over 2 million people have achieved their learning goals by studying with us.

Remote study is a popular way to gain new skills and a qualification, and there are many advantages to online learning; flexibility, work anytime, study anywhere, work on mobile devices. Academics and developers at the OU design courses for digital presentation and interaction from scratch, rather than re-version face-to-face courses for on-line delivery - which many learning providers are doing because of the Covid-19 crisis.


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One of our most successful partnerships is with the Arab Open University (AOU) which has seen over 38 thousand students graduate. This partnership began in 2002 when Arab Open University campuses in Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon were approved for delivery of OU validated programmes. Since then it has expanded and now includes approved sites in nine sovereign states: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan and most recently Palestine. There are currently 30 thousands students enrolled across 9 middle east states.

Man distance learning. (Supplied by The Open University)
Man distance learning. (Supplied by The Open University)

The blended learning model with daytime and evening classes allows students to learn whilst they earn and has proved popular across the region. Furthermore, the AOU’s flexible learning model caters for students with caring responsibilities, in particular female students who often outnumber male students in programme enrolment.

The OU welcomes this diversity and is constantly striving to adapt to change to achieve the best possible outcomes for students, whatever their background. To help do this the OU commissions an annual report into emerging pedagogies to help improve connection and collaboration between students and teachers.

The Open University graduation. (Supplied by The Open University)
The Open University graduation. (Supplied by The Open University)

The ninth edition of the ‘Innovating Pedagogy’ report has just been launched (January 2021) looking at new ways of teaching, learning and assessment. The report is the result of a collaboration between the Institute of Educational Technology at the OU and colleagues at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Working together they combined their expertise and ideas about emerging trends and practices. The findings introduce ten innovative pedagogies that either already influence educational practice or offer opportunities for the future.

Fair chances, greater opportunity

Several pedagogies in the report are concerned with providing fair chances and enabling greater student participation. In open and distance learning contexts, these have long been cherished aims and have led to innovations such as openly available online courses taken by very large numbers of people who would otherwise miss out on learning opportunities. Equity-oriented pedagogy has a focus on inclusivity, going beyond opening up access to education and asking how every student in a class or cohort or programme can achieve similar positive outcomes, regardless of their background and characteristics such as gender, disability or ethnicity.

The Open University, Berrill Building. (Supplied by The Open University)
The Open University, Berrill Building. (Supplied by The Open University)

Study on the move

Younger students have been brought up with mobile technology and embrace educational resources available on mobile platforms. Mobile devices and smart phones are the main players in enabling individuals to access various resources at any time, from anywhere in a flexible manner. Hence, courses and programmes, which can be accessed through mobile technologies, have the edge over traditional courses, since their reach is much larger to a bigger audience and clientele.

Being so established in the online learning environment means, The Open University can offer our students courses based on sound scientific foundations, with high quality resources, and teachers who are experienced in delivering at scale through digital platforms - using the latest pedagogies. The OU has been a world leading pioneer of online learning for many years, enriching and transforming many lives. This method of teaching and learning is popular with students and in the post Covid era is set to grow even more.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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