A unique mix

Jonathan Wylie, Director of Academic Services at The Open University talks about providing the best student experience for a unique mix of learners

What best illustrates the excellent student experience you are offering?

At The Open University (OU) we pride ourselves in offering a unique mix of flexible, all-inclusive, supportive and social teaching that enables our students to succeed, regardless of their background or personal circumstances.

OU students have the freedom and flexibility to work wherever they want at times that fit around them and their busy lives. Students can study at home or at work, on the move or on the beach – reading, watching and listening, doing activities and assignments, taking part in debates and discussions. Our course materials are available in a variety of different ways such as via video, podcast and interactive apps – all of which are harnessed to the full in OU Anywhere app and through ITunes U. 

Throughout their study, OU students get regular support from a dedicated tutor and Student Support Team. In addition to this, there is a vibrant online community of OU students, meaning that though students are learning online they are able to get together with other students online, at group tutorials and through informal study groups.

We have more disabled students than any other university in Europe. The flexible nature of OU study and our experience in harnessing enabling technologies to support learning means over 20,000 people with a wide range of disabilities – including mental health issues – choose to study with us each year. We offer a comprehensive range of support and adjustments for disabled students, such as talking books, voice recognition and ergonomic furniture. In addition, both our tutors and our student support teams are highly trained in supporting students with disabilities. 

For those who have been out of education for a while and need some support to build their skills and confidence, we offer Access modules which are an ideal way to prepare. Access modules help you: build confidence and study skills, try out the OU’s style of learning, get a taste of your chosen subjects and increase your chances for success in future study. 

For people who aren’t sure if distance learning is right for them, the OU offers a variety of ways to access course materials for free. Our home of free learning – OpenLearn – aims to break the barriers to education by reaching millions of learners around the world, providing free educational resources and inviting all to sample courses that our registered students take – all for free. We also created FutureLearn – the first UK-led platform provider of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), offering free online courses from top universities and specialist organisations across the globe.

What recent developments at your campus best show your commitment to boosting student experience? 

At the OU we don’t have students on campus, but we’re continually developing new ways – often by embracing new and emerging technologies – to enhance our students experience with us.  

Developments in technology have allowed us to deliver our courses online in a variety of ways such as via video, podcast and interactive apps. Such variety means that our academics and tutors work with new technologies to find the best ways to deliver key areas of course materials. For example, we use learning analytics to help us identify those who are struggling and intervene at an early stage with the help of our tutor network.

Another example is our Open STEM Lab which won Outstanding Digital Innovation of the year at the THE Leadership & Management awards 2017. The Labs are a global centre at the cutting-edge of practical science teaching – operated entirely online. Although operated entirely online, users are able to access data from real physical instruments and equipment, enabling them to carry out authentic and rigorous science investigations.

Importantly though, OU students just like their predecessors still have the support of their tutor and support services for information, advice and guidance and can, if their course allows, use traditional print materials and attend face-to-face tutorials.

We know that our students make use of various social media to network and socialise during their course, so in response to their feedback we have created the OUmoji app, a fun project which they have embraced and engaged with, and which helps illustrate how they are feeling. Being an OU student is a HE experience different to any other, so this app really helps them articulate how their studies are going. We’re not aware of any other university having an App such as this.

Looking ahead, we have recently embarked on an extensive programme of redesigning our operations to further improve our provision for students. This radical overhaul includes significant investment in our digital services, ensuring that we continue to anticipate and meet the needs of students today and in the future.  

With tuition fees continuing to rise, how might students’ expectations change?

As universities we need to remember that students are our consumers, and like in other areas of life, they have a wide range of choices available to them so we can’t stand still – we have to move with the times.  

Today’s students rightly expect a high quality education for their fees across everything from how they are taught to how their course is administered, and their employment prospects post-graduation.  

As a distance learning university, digital technology is one of the key components of our engagement with our students so it is crucial that the service we provide meets the expectations of an increasingly tech-savvy world. We already do this at the OU, however, with technology changing at a rapid rate, we know that we need to do more to ensure that we are agile enough to respond to change as quickly as possible. This is why we have embarked on a programme to overhaul our digital offering, putting the student’s experience at the centre of our new provision.      

Finally, how would you sum up the best ‘student experience’?

The best student experience is one that fits with that individual student. Flexibility on how and where and even when you study; the ability to network with your peers online and face to face, a great tutor relationship and a clear idea of where you are headed all contribute. Our students at the OU don’t miss out because they aren’t physically on a campus – many are in work and employers are able to gain too from their student experience, straight away.


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