Work to do

As an academic it is always great to see students developing their own ideas. Very often these days it seems the only goal of education is to pass exams. Whilst exams will always loom large in the psyche of students (and staff), it is probably true to say that no academic chose their career because of a love of exams. In fact, there is no more demoralising sight than a huge pile of exam scripts waiting to be marked!
That is why it has been such a revelation working with Open University students who will be presenting at the Student Connections Online Conference. I’ve written about the conference previously, but in case you’ve forgotten….
The Faculty of Social Sciences at The Open University describes itself as “a vibrant social science community”, but this is often conceptualised in terms of its research culture. Students have been, in the main, recipients of knowledge which we choose. This is hardly surprising given the size and dispersed nature of our student body.
But for those of us involved in teaching and learning innovation it has also been a source of regret that we have not been able to foster a more vibrant student culture. This is where Student Connections comes in. The idea behind the Student Connections conference is simple enough. Host an online conference to allow students and academics to present their work and ideas alongside one another as equals.
In order to encourage and support student presenters we have, since March been running a series of online one-hour Activate Workshops. These were designed to be fairly loose in structure with the emphasis on encouraging students to think about themselves as presenters. At the first couple of sessions attended by around 30 students in total our focus was simply on encouraging students to think about what interested them. Using the interactive whiteboard, a feature of Blackboard Collaborate, we just asked students to write up anything that interested them. This produced a list of ideas ranging from the missing Malaysian plane, to whether video games were harmful to what motivates distant learners.
Over the next few weeks these ideas were honed down to a series of presentation titles and students were encouraged into groups to work together. There has been an inevitable drop out as some people felt that it was too much pressure on top of their other studying and, of course, some tensions appeared in groups as the more enthusiastic members found themselves doing all the work. But these minor hitches aside it has been instructive how well students at different levels and on different degree paths have worked together.
We are some way off seeing the final results but the Student Connections conference will have at least 10, possibly more, presentations by students who a short while ago had not even imagined themselves as anything but recipients of knowledge.
In the process we are hoping that the students will have made new friends and contacts, increased their confidence and been able to apply all that social science knowledge that we have been pouring into them.
One particularly impressive project is being led by Rachel McLeod (with Nicky Strouts and Moira Corline) who are conducting a survey which they are blogging about here.
The main point to take here is that until 6 or 7 weeks ago Rachel, Nicky and Moira had never met. Even now they have only ever met online. Yet, here they are about to present their work together at a conference in front of, potentially, hundreds of students and academics. The other point to note is that this is undergraduate students exploring their disciplinary boundaries not for an exam or a forthcoming assignment but for the sheer pleasure of discovery, discussion and debate.
And, final point, a while back we decided that the conference would be free not just to Open University students and staff, but to everybody in the social sciences community. If that includes you and you have some time to spare between June 30th and July 4th, then why not register here.

Survey link and project overview for making distance learning more friendly: a student exploration

This is part of a project connected with the Open University’s forthcoming Student Connections Conference. As part of the project we invited students to join online Activate sessions (I am blogging separately about them), where we encouraged them to work in small groups. This is one of the most successful groups so far, though it is still early days, and I fully endorse their survey.