The Struggle is Real: Missing Opportunities in Higher Education

“We are told we lack aspirations. No, we don’t. We lack opportunities.”

                                                                                   –Sumeya Loonat, 2021

The Open & Inclusive Special Interest Group from OpenTEL featured presentations from two external speakers in an online seminar on Wednesday, March 24th, 2021. The speakers covered interrelated topics about language, race, mental health, and financial hardship in higher education. Sumeya Loonat, a senior international student lecturer in the Business and Law faculty at De Montfort University, was the first to deliver her presentation on ‘Language and Learning: Breaking Barriers to Success’. Sumeya’s experience as an English teacher for Academic Purposes who provides academic support for international students has contributed to her research on the intersectionality between language and race. Under the Equality Act 2010, race can mean colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins. Sumeya’s PhD focuses explicitly on students of colour who use English as an additional language within a teaching and learning context.

She has identified key barriers bilingual students of colour face in higher education, including:

  • lack of support and opportunities to integrate with other students,
  • hesitance to ask questions in class,
  • low teacher expectations,
  • discriminatory attitudes towards linguistic capability.

These findings are even more significant, especially when students of colour make up approximately 54% of De Montfort University’s student body. Although they have been framed as a single community under the trending term ‘BAME‘ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), Sumeya argues that “the mainstream framing of these students is usually viewed through a deficit model which is harmful as it perpetuates negative stereotypes“. The value of these findings runs the risk of not being taken seriously through the lenses of a frame that creates differences among students instead of an inclusive learning environment.

Consequently, Sumeya studies how language is used in regular learning and teaching practices to explore alternative approaches that might enhance the student sense of belonging. She points out that academic language has become the language of power; it has marginalised and excluded speakers who do not use standard English. So, she encourages teachers to revisit and adopt, for example, the careful use of specialised vocabulary and the integration of contextualised academic support into their teaching practices. She also suggests:

  • learning students’ names and correctly pronouncing them; don’t anglicise them because it may have an adverse bearing on students’ identity,
  • using discussion boards and breakout rooms to tackle language anxiety,
  • allowing plenty of time for students to reply; don’t pressure them into giving quick responses,
  • supporting students to tell their stories about their struggles and success; use diverse voices to stimulate personal reflection.

During the presentation, she mentioned the opportunities she has had to hold workshops and liaise with module tutors on academic issues related to the teaching and learning of international students. She aims to embark teachers into these ‘linguistic’ approaches to facilitate inclusive learning environments for students. Her outstanding work is now part of the ‘Decolonising DMU project’, seeking to build a more welcoming university for international students.


The second speaker of the seminar was Dan Holloway. He is head of Administration and Finance in the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics at Oxford University, presenting Closing the Gap: Financial Hardship and Poor Mental Health in Higher Education. In the session, Dan emphasised the intersection between poor mental health and problem debt, with particular reference to university students. Research shows that people experiencing mental health difficulties are three and a half more times likely to be in problem debt than those who are not. Financial hardship can also affect students’ intellectual performance, a negative consequence discussed in Scarcity, the book by behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir.

Dan also outlined the recent report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, Mind the Income Gap, which highlighted that those with a mental health problem face an income gap of 25 to 30%. He then added:

The message is clear and stark. If you are in financial difficulty as a student, you are more likely to experience poor mental health – which may lead to an income gap throughout your life that has a further detrimental effect on your mental health –  and if you have poor mental health as a student, it could affect your finances not just during student life but for the rest of your life.

Sometimes being told: “You’ll be fine. Just work hard” is not enough. Dan himself heard those words once as a student, but he was never told how to start working hard for his future. He said he dealt with financial difficulties during his studies and “the result is that I continue to break, at fairly regular intervals, and each time I break it is slightly harder to build back to a slightly lower level than before”. Many people can identify with Dan’s story, which exemplifies the relationship between poor mental health and financial difficulty.

Accordingly, these two complex aspects should not be treated as two separate issues. Higher education institutions need to acknowledge, understand, and address this interrelation. Dan suggested bringing other perspectives from different people to explore other ways of support far from the same forms of thinking and “the same ways of experimenting that led to the problems in the first place”. When it comes to mental health and financial issues in higher education, we need:

  • better protection of mental health,
  • better accessibility for disabled students,
  • better financial support – and providing that even on a low level will have massive long-term benefits for those involved and for society.

By the end of his talk, Dan shared the following resources that offer debt advice and specialise in debt advice for people who have mental health problems:

If you want to learn more about the relationship between language and race presented by Sumeya Loonat or the link between mental health and financial hardship covered by Dan Holloway, you can watch the seminar recordings here.

FLAN: FutureLearn Academic Network Meeting

FLAN Meeting
Wednesday 17th March 2021
14:00 – 17:00

The meeting of the network was hosted by The Open University in conjunction with OpenTEL last Wednesday.

The international research event gathered a total of 39 people, including researchers, PhD students, course developers, educators and practitioners who were interested in learning about five presentations on the following themes:

  • Supporting people who are learning at scale
  • Training and supporting educators working at scale
  • Assuring the quality of MOOCs and microcredentials

Here’s the event agenda:

We shared the highlights of the presentations on Twitter throughout the event. If you missed it or if you want to relive the exciting talks, you can have a look at these using the #OUFlan.

Lastly, the OpenTEL team was glad to know the programme brought in a new audience, which hopefully will extend the network’s reach in future FLAN events!



Dear reader… “It’s okay to play.”

Academics, researchers, and PhD students have to search, select, and submit their work to peer review journals and conferences to disseminate their research to the world. “Think of your audience”,—they say, but how often do they think of making their research projects and findings more accessible to the targeted audience? Regardless of their disciplinary specialisms, they forget to play with how they share their work beyond academia. “It’s okay to play” were the words Dr Martin Glynn told us during his seminar last Wednesday hosted by OpenTEL. Before scrolling down to find the recording of his talk, allow me to give you an intro of Martin’s background and how he ended up writing a book on ‘Data Verbalisation for Researchers’.

Martin came to academia late. In the beginning, he did not harmonise with academics because he did not understand their world. Working with prisoners and the community was his reality. Nevertheless, he pursued a PhD because, as many academics, he saw in education an opportunity to make a difference. “When are you going to publish your findings?” —people used to ask him. Well, the truth was that he was never comfortable with the subtle pressure around attending x number of conferences or having his work published in academic journals.

Communication, on the other hand, was always important to him. So, he decided to take the risk and innovatively present his research during one of the world’s biggest conferences. The American Society of Criminology conference witnessed the transformation of Martin’s keynote speech about the mass incarceration of black men into 12 minutes of rhymes about his work. Radio stations shared his track everywhere; colleagues asked him to do the same with their articles. Even the Guardian interviewed him to know more about the ‘Data Verbalisation’ method, which consists of communicating research data using performance approaches and techniques.

Martin’s creative ideas fit nicely with the OU Strategic Goal One: extending our reach and offer to include even more people from all parts of society in lifelong learning. His message also adds value to the university Strategic Goal Three: achieving impact in the four UK nations and globally through research and the development of knowledge and skills. By reaching more people, you increase your impact! So, we have gathered some tips based on Martin’s talk to help you verbalise your work in today’s technology-mediated society:

  1. Think of the legacy you want to leave behind by the end of a research project.
  2. Explore new ways to communicate your research beyond the comfort zone of academia.
  3. Connect your data with the people who need to hear about it.
  4. Find a voice that represents who you are and your audience (e.g. PhD students are already giving it a go with the ‘Dance Your PhD’ contest and ‘The OU Student Bake Your Research’ competition).
  5. Collaborate.

*Bonus: Jazz it up, and don’t let your work remain silenced!

At this point, you might be tempted to jump straight to the recording or perhaps google his book published by Routledge to find out more. But before you go away, dear reader, we invite you to share your future research and examples of creative dissemination with us. We are open to people and ideas– it’s in our mission, after all.

CALRG 2020 Evaluation Report

The Computers and Learning Research Group (CALRG) held its 41st annual conference solely online for the first time in 2020. With some funding from OpenTEL, CALRG were able to collect extended feedback on the experiences of organisers, presenters and participants about attending an online conference. The findings have been compiled into a short report with practical recommendations that you can find here CALRG 2020 Evaluation Report!

Recommendations include:

  • For organisers: Take accessibility into consideration when selecting the platform for your conference and in the options given to presenters (e.g., some may prefer to send in a recording of the presentation and just take live questions)
  • For presenters: Set a timer next to your screen as it is hard for the facilitator to give you a discrete reminder about reaching your time limit.
  • For participants: Mute your mic when not speaking.

The ongoing pandemic will mean that CALRG2021 is likely to be held at least partly online. This report will inform the planning and running of the event, and the organisers will use this report’s evaluation methods as a starting point for an upstream evaluation approach to understanding the benefits and challenges of CALRG2021 (scheduled for 15-16 June 2020).

Summary of Student Voice Event

Open & Inclusive SIG- Student Voice Event Summary Report
By Emily Coughlan

As part of the Open and Inclusive Special Interest Group, the team coordinated and delivered the first online student voice event on the 20th January2021. The event was intended to give students the opportunity to speak freely and openly about different topics, as put forward by both staff and students, and stimulate discussion around current and emerging issues regarding accessibility at the OU.

The event was attended by over 40 participants which included staff and students from different disciplines and areas within the OU. The event included three interactive workshops where students and staff were able to share their own experiences, discussing challenges they face and areas of concern as well as positive experiences.

The three workshops focussed on the following areas of interest: Continue reading