Agent Based Modelling and Scholarship

By Kevin Amor

Recently I have started to use Agent Based Modelling (ABM) in my finance research.  It occurred to me to wonder whether it had a place in scholarship work. A very quick search found some listings for ABM in school-level education work but very little with applications for scholarship within higher education. With that in mind I thought I would set myself the task of designing and running a small  experiment. The experiment outlined below is not at all rigorous academically and is instead designed to illustrate the potential of ABM to this blog’s more creative readers.

What is agent based modelling and how is it done?

Per a leading scholar  in the subject (and architect of the Netlogo software we discuss below), “Agent-based Modeling (ABM) is a methodology that enables modelers to create models that connect the micro and macro level. They represent the micro-level as agents with characteristic behaviors and as the agents execute their behaviors, macro-patterns emerge. Thus they enable a natural representation of “emergent phenomena”,  which are notoriously difficult to comprehend. With ABM, we can model a wide variety of phenomena,  such as the emergence of galaxies from the interactions of stars, the emergence of traffic jams from the behaviors of drivers, economic patterns from the behavior of buyers and sellers, spreading of diseases from individual contacts on a network” (Wilensky, 2017).

For example in my current research I am using ABM to explore how financial markets in developing markets should be encouraged to develop to optimise their efficiency. I am also using it to explore the impact of imperfect labour markets.

In ABM we design a model by establishing a set of rules that our ‘agents’ will follow. In the demonstration below, the agents are students and tutors, for example. We then allow the agents to interact with each other subject to given parameters and where appropriate varying elements of randomness. After the system has developed we can collect the desired data and run it again and again, each time either sticking to the same value of parameters or changing them in some specified manner. Due to the element of randomness each run will present a  different set of results, which we can then collate and analyse.

A leading software package used for this task is Netlogo, written by Uri Wilensky. This is a free open-source package maintained by the Northwestern University (

An example experiment

I shall take you through the steps of a very simple experiment. This took me about 3 hours to design, write the code and run. The experiment wants to examine the role of collaboration in improving learning in tutorials. It models learning achieved in a tutorial  (take a deep breath here – I promised something not particularly academic!) as occurring due to a combination of the ability of the tutor (however that is defined), the latent ability of the student (ditto) and the sum total of ability of fellow students in a randomly allocated breakout group.

First then, five tutors are created and assigned a random ability ranging from 50 to 100. These can easily be varied during the multiple simulations.  This ability is distributed uniformly but normal distributions are possible in the software. Each tutor  is allocated 20 students, who themselves are randomly allocated an ability, ranging from 30 to 100. The students within each group are then allocated randomly into a breakout group with a selection of fellow students.

We then model the attainment as being a weighted combination of all of the above influences, with the user choosing the weightings. The formula used is:

Attainment = (weighting of tutor x tutor ability) + (weighting of student x student ability) + (weighting of student x sum of ability of fellow break-out students)

We can then run this over and over with different random allocations of abilities, and tutor-student allocations and breakout etc to assess how many students reach a pre-determined user-set attainment level. Finally the software will dump the results into a spreadsheet for further analysis.

The model in Netlogo

Set up

First we set up the groups and subgroups (figure 1). The students are all linked to the tutor (in the middle) and are then linked to fellow students in the same breakout group. All students in the same breakout group share the same colour.

Figure 1 Group allocation


Next we set the various parameters which we wish to use (see figure 2). There is no limit to these and they can be varied.

Figure 2 The parameter selections

In this simple model we only vary the weighting given to the tutors’ contribution (40% in this run), students’ contribution (25%) and the target level of attainment (80%).


An important strength of Netlogo is its ability to show a system developing. With our model the students are shown as people (see figure 1) whose colour symbolises which break-out group they have been allocated.

However once the tutorial has occurred the model shows those students who have exceeded the set attainment benchmark as a smiley face and those who have not as a sad face. See figure 3.

Figure 3 The students’ attainment at the end of the tutorial


Next we decide what outputs we would like. For this experiment I am going to add:

a) a histogram of student ability at the start of the tutorial;

b) a histogram of their attainment at the end;

c) average ability at the start;

d) average attainment at the end;

e) average tutor ability;

f) proportion of students who have exceeded set benchmark.

See figure 4 for a typical output after a run.

Figure 4 A typical set of outputs

Multiple runs

Because of the random nature of the model (various allocations of ability, tutor groups and break-out groups) we need to be able to run the model numerous times to arrive at a reasonably sized data set from which to infer behaviours. Netlogo has an extra set of software, ‘behavior space’ that allows us to run the model as many times as we like whilst also changing the parameters in a structured manner.

Figure 5 Netlogo’s ‘behavior space’ for multiple runs

In figure 5 you can see that each iteration will comprise 1,000 runs and the tutor weighting will be varied from 0.5 to 0.6 in increments of 0.1 (so 2,000 runs)  and student weighting from 0.3 to 0.4 in increments of 0.1 (an additional 2,000 runs). The target understanding figure has been kept at 80.

The screenshot also shows the four measures that will be collected (mean student and tutor ability, mean student attainment and the proportion of those greater than the target  value. All of this data (4,000 runs) will then be dumped into a spreadsheet, as a csv file. This spreadsheet can then be used to undertake some simple analysis in Excel or imported into a statistics package such as R. The 4,000 runs took about 2 seconds to run on my Open University (OU)-provided laptop. Hence you can see that a vast amount of data can easily be generated once a useful model has been designed.

The analysis may take a bit longer though….


Hopefully this play experiment has been useful for those not familiar with the idea of ABM or the software available to support it.  There is a reasonably steep learning curve in getting to grips with the code needed to generate the models within Netlogo; however, as with everything there are helpful resources on the internet. These include sites where researchers have shared their existing models on an open source basis, which one can take as a basis for extending their work. Alternatively ABM models often have applications in very different disciplines – a model of fire spreading through a forest has applications in epidemiology, for example. For such shared models see for example, or .

Happy modelling!


Wilensky, U, 2017,  What is agent-based modelling and why might it be useful?,Northwestern%20University&text=Agent%2Dbased%20Modeling%20(ABM),behaviors%2C%20macro%2Dpatterns%20emerge , accessed 11 May 2022

Kevin has a masters degree in online and distance education and has published papers to the OU’s scholarship repository exploring different aspects of the students’ experience of studying accounting and finance. He is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

Posted in Business School, e-learning, e-teaching, HE, online learning, Online teaching, Open University, research, SCiLAB, Uncategorised | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Law Graduates’ Use of Extra-Curricular Activities to Get Started in the Legal Professions

By Andrew Gilbert and Jessica Giles

This blog arises out of our SCiLAB-funded project, ‘An Exploration of the Use of Extra-Curricular Activities by Law Students and Alumni’, which we carried out during 2020-21. The project aimed to explore Open University (OU) law student engagement in extra-curricular activities (ECAs) and to understand how OU law graduates have used the experience of their ECAs to secure professional-level employment.

We surveyed level 2 (level 5 on the RGF) law students using an online survey and undertook semi-structured interviews with 8 OU law alumni currently in professional legal work or training. This report covers the findings of our alumni interviews. The results of our undergraduate survey were discussed in an earlier blog.


Alumni interviews

The alumni who participated in the interviews were identified through our existing networks. Interviewees graduated between 2016 and 2020. During undergraduate studies, 7 students were in full-time or part-time employment or had caring responsibilities. All had since obtained professional level training or employment: 2 as practising barristers, 1 as a pupil barrister, 2 as practising solicitors, 2 as paralegals with plans to be solicitors or barristers, and 1 as a future solicitor with a training contract who was about to commence the Legal Practice Course.

We aimed at a representative sample but ended up with females being overrepresented, most were aged between 34 to 45, and none identified as having a disability. Of the 7 participants who completed a diversity monitoring form, 6 identified as white English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British and one as black Caribbean.


What ECAs did they do, for how long, and why?

Half the participants had undertaken non-law related ECAs – such as horse riding, gym, life drawing classes, yoga – at least once or twice a week as undergraduates. Others had caring responsibilities or focused on paid employment, study and law related ECAs. All participants undertook some form of legal work experience placement (solicitors’ firm or barristers’ chambers) or law related voluntary work such as Citizens Advice or Streetlaw. They had all done at least one activity from mooting, the clinical legal education module W360 Justice in Action or Citizens Advice, with some doing more than one.

We found widespread variation in the time spent on activities. Some, such as looking after a home and young children, pervaded the individual’s life and were not easy to quantify. Others were regular and of a fixed duration, such as exercise classes. Whereas others were periodic, such as mooting competitions or mini-pupillages, but took up substantial, concentrated blocks of time. To varying degrees, all participants made time for ECAs, although some individuals were more strategic and deliberate in their choice and pursuit of them.

Interviewees undertook ECAs for a variety of reasons. Regarding non-law ECAs, motivations included mental and physical wellbeing, resilience and enhanced concentration, and – concerning employment and caring responsibilities – out of necessity. Regarding law-related ECAs, motivations included enabling students to decide what they did and did not want to do (which led to some changing their aspirations from barrister to solicitor or vice versa), refining public speaking skills, meeting professionals and building networks, enhancing a CV, building peer support groups, being a more credible candidate for pupillage and developing and embedding legal knowledge and skills. As one interviewee put it: ‘Aside from good or outstanding academic qualifications in general, you need to have all the extra things as well to bump up your CV.’ (Cerys, paralegal)


Skills and personal qualities developed by ECAs

In line with other studies, e.g. Buckley and Lee (2021), participants reported that ECAs helped to develop skills and qualities such as:

  • how to structure arguments
  • how to communicate effectively with different audiences
  • how to distill complex and lengthy judgments into short statements
  • interpersonal and social skills
  • clarity and brevity of expression
  • confidence and boldness
  • adaptability and dealing with unpredictability
  • resilience, specifically the ability to bounce back from application rejections
  • learning to work and collaborate with other people, which involved compromise
  • demonstrating drive and ambition
  • how to organise huge amounts of information
  • acquiring the cultural capital of the legal professions, such as learning the language of law, spending time with barristers, and ‘just learning the etiquette and the ways of professionals’. (Sarah, barrister)


What were the most useful ECAs in your personal development and career progression?

One of the most valuable aspects of ECAs is the opportunities they can provide for students to develop their social capital through forging links with legal professionals. Emily (barrister) confirmed this: mooting ‘puts you in touch with people who are already in the job, could potentially be a future employer’. Participants also identified other effective ways of growing professional networks such as through LinkedIn.

Law-related ECAs, such as mini-pupillages and law firm placements, were useful for helping to work out future career directions. Emily’s (pupil barrister) two mini-pupillages and a week with a law firm confirmed that she was more suited to a career at the bar rather than as a solicitor, which was not what she expected beforehand.

Both of the practising barristers spoke at length about the importance of mooting: ‘I would say it was that, if I could point to anything extracurricular that certainly gave me an edge, made me a more credible candidate for pupillage it would be that.’ (Samuel, barrister) Samuel added that the experience of mooting successfully against people from prestigious universities ‘demystified’ his perception that those people were much better, which gave him more confidence in interviews.


What advice regarding ECAs would participants give to a law student just starting their degree?

Some respondents thought it was not just what you do, but also how hard you work at it, which made a difference. Cerys (paralegal) advised students ‘to say yes to almost anything’, while Rebecca (future solicitor) said ‘I just think the more experience you can get, I think it’s got to be the top priority.’ On the other hand, others thought that ‘it’s so important to have some kind of downtime and relaxation to be able to just switch off’ (Emily, pupil barrister).

Alumni also thought it was crucial to articulate effectively to potential employers how ECAs have equipped students for the roles they apply for, which mirrored the findings in Clark et al (2015). Interviewees advised students to be clear about why they are doing things and putting them on their CV: ‘everything you mention I think you want to think about how could this, what does this show about me, what skills does this highlight … So it’s down to you to draw that out.’ (Matthew, solicitor)

A number of alumni advised that LinkedIn, virtual work experience, attending law fairs and joining legal webinars can be a good way of developing professional networks and growing social capital.

One interviewee emphasised the importance of not delaying career planning: ‘[S]tart early with stuff. It’s never too early. […] The earlier you start the easier it is because, you know, you find certain things harder than others initially and it’s only through that development that you start to get more comfortable with it.’ (Matthew, solicitor)


Conclusion and next steps

Conversations with alumni have highlighted how important it is to be intentional and strategic in the use of ECAs because they are essential to success. Although it is not necessarily what a student does that counts, but more what they gain from it and then how they articulate that to a future employer. It is important to spend time doing things for individual health and wellbeing, but even these could be ways of developing skills and qualities which will help to realise career ambitions or to grow and capitalise on professional networks. There are situations where some ECAs are more useful than others. Our findings show that mooting is really important for aspiring barristers, although one alumna, who previously worked in sales, studied W360 and undertook at least one mini-pupillage, showed that it is possible to succeed without it.

The research has presented opportunities to link the findings with work undertaken by the Employability Team in PVC-S and with the Careers and Employability Team (law) within Academic Services, Student Support. It has provided evidence to encourage colleagues to engage with the excellent student led work within the OU student law society which runs the student mooting at the OU. The research will also enable the W360 team to articulate the high impact that studying the module can have. A number of the alumni indicated a keen willingness to give back to the OU – perhaps through mentoring – having had such a positive experience with us.

Finally, while this study has focussed on ECAs and professional legal work, it would be helpful to understand whether ECAs are as key for law graduates going into careers outside the legal professional roles of barrister and solicitor.

* Pseudonyms are used for participants throughout this report.


Buckley, P. and Lee, P. (2021) ‘The Impact of Extra-Curricular Activity on the Student Experience’, Active Learning in Higher Education, 22 (1), pp. 37-48.

Clark, G., Marsden, R., Duncan Whyatt, J., Thompson, L. and Walker, M. (2015) ‘”It’s Everything Else You Do…”: Alumni Views on Extracurricular Activities and Employability’, Active Learning in Higher Education, 16 (2), pp. 133-147.


Andrew is interested in the broad spectrum of academic and vocational legal education. He leads the law school’s Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) curriculum development work and has blogged on why the SQE can’t guarantee competent solicitors and law schools’ responses to the SQE. Andrew is a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Law Teachers and a peer reviewer for the leading legal education journal, The Law Teacher.

Jessica is a Law Lecturer, SFHEA and Barrister.  She is Director of the Project on Interdisciplinary Law and Religion Studies at the OU.  She is a valued member of the SCiLAB working group representing the Law School.

This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

Posted in feelings, General, HE, Law School, motivation, onlinestudent, Open University, SCiLAB, students, Uncategorised | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Law Students and Extra-Curricular Activities in a Time of Pandemic

By Andrew Gilbert and Jessica Giles

This blog arises out of our SCiLAB-funded project, ‘An Exploration of the Use of Extra-Curricular Activities by Law Students and Alumni’, which we carried out during 2020-21. The project aimed to explore Open University (OU) law student engagement in extra-curricular activities (ECAs) and to understand how OU law graduates have used the experience of their ECAs to secure professional-level employment.

We surveyed level 2 (level 5 on the RGF) law students using an online survey and undertook semi-structured interviews with 8 OU law alumni currently in professional legal work or training. Given the timing of the research (early 2021), the impact of the pandemic on law student engagement with ECAs was explored. We also gathered demographic data to better understand differential engagement and outcomes. This report covers the findings of our work with level 2 students. The results of our alumni interviews will be discussed in a later blog.


The online survey

We sent an online survey to 1,046 level 2 law students. 114 completed surveys were received (11% completion rate). The survey asked about time spent engaging in seven types of ECAs, whether engagement has been affected by the pandemic, and motivations for participation in the activities. It also asked about legal work experience, and gathered demographic data about the participants.

Sixty students completed questions asking about their characteristics and backgrounds, showing:

  • 73% (n=43) identified as white English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British. Five respondents (8%) identified as black African, black Caribbean or mixed ethnicity.
  • 58% (n=34) were female; 42% male (n=25).
  • 95% (n=53) were mature students.
  • 28% (n=17) indicated some form of enduring health problem or disability.
  • In terms of class backgrounds, 52% (n=31) were from professional or managerial origins, 22% (n=13) from intermediate origins and 15% (n=9) from working-class origins.
  • 20% (n=12) had been eligible for Free School Meals at some point during their schooling.

This sample of 60 respondents, which was self-selected, was not far from a representative sample overall compared to the 2019-20 OU UG law cohort.

We used the bivariate Pearson correlation to look at the relationship between the general population sample and various participant groups (e.g. women, working-class origin, disabled) to see if a group’s experience is typical of the general sample.1 The confidence with which some statements can be made about the data is limited by the relatively small sample size.


ECA engagement

Of the seven types of ECAs (see Table 1 for list), the most popular were sports, games or exercise (61 respondents), paid employment (54 respondents) and unpaid voluntary work (39 respondents).

In terms of general levels of ECA engagement, there was a strong correlation between the experience of the whole sample and students with the following characteristics: women, men, disabled, free school meals, and mature students. Values for working-class origin (r=0.76) and ethnic minority students (r=0.44) were less strong, which is consistent with the findings of differential engagement in Blasko (2002) and Stuart et al (2011). However, the sample sizes for these two groups are too small to draw safe conclusions from the data and further investigation is needed to establish if the lower levels of engagement with ECAs are true across a bigger sample. Recent evidence from The Sutton Trust (Montacute and Holt-White, 2021) has shown less engagement in some ECAs by working-class students, with a widening gap between those students and middle-class students apparent during the pandemic. Given the known benefits of ECA participation, it is important to ensure as equitable access to them as possible (Winstone et al, 2020).

Students were asked to state why they do an activity, selecting as many reasons as relevant from a list of ten. The table below shows the top three reasons selected for each ECA. The results suggest students are altruistic and community minded, as well as being concerned about their own health and wellbeing. Developing skills is also a common theme, but – perhaps surprisingly – enhancing CVs and employability do not feature highly.

 Table 1: Top 3 reasons why students undertake each ECA (highest first)



Pandemic impact

The pandemic did not impact ECA engagement uniformly (Figure 1). Around a quarter of respondents had spent significantly less time doing unpaid voluntary work, paid employment or sports, games or exercise as a result of the pandemic; while a third had spent significantly less time engaging in religious activities or running their own business. Other studies of UK undergraduate students have also reported much lower levels of ECA engagement during the pandemic (Montacute and Holt-White, 2021). By contrast, 27% of OU respondents had spent significantly more time, and a further 24% spending slightly more time, caring for family or friends.

Of those doing an activity significantly or slightly less due to the pandemic, working-class origin and ethnic minority students seemed to show the weakest association between the pandemic and a negative impact on their engagement with ECAs, i.e. those students were least adversely affected by the pandemic. However, Montacute and Holt-White (2021) found that working-class students experienced greater falls than middle-class students in the level of their ECA engagement, with the exception of paid work which was unaffected.

It is widely known that caring responsibilities have been significantly affected by the pandemic, with some sources reporting more of an adverse impact on women than on men (United Nations, 2020; Newson, 2021; Pugh, 2021), although not all studies have found this (Aldercotte et al, 2021). Amongst OU law students an increase in time spent caring for family or friends correlates most strongly with the experience of women and less strongly with the experience of other groups. Conversely, our study showed that a positive impact of the pandemic has been more students have spent time doing sport, games or exercise than the number of students who have had such activities curtailed by the pandemic.


Legal work experience

The responses from students to the question about the period of their legal work experience suggests that many of them who responded affirmatively are working in legal roles already. Nevertheless, a minority of second-year law students had undertaken such experience (39% of respondents). Of those who had legal work experience, it was unpaid for 57% of students. While experience in a solicitors’ firm was the most common, students had a broad range of experience across the justice and legal advice sector (Figure 2).

Only 10% of placements had been obtained through a friend or family member (Figure 3). This could be read in two ways, which are not mutually exclusive: students have low levels of social capital or students are successful through other means and have no need to mobilise social networks to obtain work experience.



Part 1 of this project has been invaluable for understanding what types of ECAs level 2 students are engaging in and why, as well as how the pandemic has impacted them. The survey revealed that working-class origin and ethnic minority students might be engaging in ECAs less than other groups. Given the unreliable sample size, further work should be done to investigate this. Our data also suggests that students are not primarily seeing ECAs instrumentally in terms of their careers, but as part of a broader project of self-actualisation and altruism. While this broader approach is not to be discouraged, it might imply – in contrast to the strategic approach of alumni successfully working in legal professional roles – that students need further guidance on how best to engage in ECAs during their studies and in particular at an early stage. In addition, they need to learn how best to articulate their experience when seeking employment opportunities. Further thought should also be given to what could be done to remedy any pandemic-induced deficit in preparing for future careers.

Given the value placed on legal work experience in stories of alumni success (see our next blog), it is concerning that only a minority of second-year law students had undertaken such experience. There is cause for optimism though as many students will go on to acquire clinical legal experience in their final year through W360 and some are likely to obtain work experience before they graduate. Our recommendation is, in addition, that it is important to find ways of increasing the numbers of students with legal work experience overall and of enabling students to engage in their career aspirations at an earlier stage in their studies so they can better compete for legal jobs.



1  The bivariate Pearson correlation measures the strength and direction of linear relationships between pairs of continuous variables. The test produces a sample correlation coefficient, r. An r value of -1 is a perfectly negative linear relationship; 0 is no relationship; +1 is a perfectly positive linear relationship; 0.1-0.3 is a small/weak correlation; 0.3 to 0.5 is a medium/moderate correlation; 0.5 to 1 is a large/strong correlation.



Aldercotte, A., Pugh, E., Mcmaster, N. and Kitsell J. (2021) Gender Differences in UK HE Staff Experiences of Remote Working. Available at: (Accessed: 18 August 2021).

Blasko, Z., Brennan, J., Little, B. and Shah, T. (2002) Access to What: Analysis of Factors Determining Graduate Employability. Bristol: HEFCE.

Montacute, R. and Holt-White, E. (2021) Covid-19 and the University Experience. Available at: (Accessed: 25 February 2021).

Newson, N. (2021) Covid-19: Empowering women in the recovery from the impact of the pandemic. Available at: (Accessed: 25 August 2021).

Pugh, E. (2021) Building Back Better for Gender Equality in Higher Education. Available at: (Accessed: 7 September 2021).

Stuart, M., Lido, C., Morgan, J. and May, S. (2011) ‘The Impact of Engagement with Extracurricular Activities on the Student Experience and Graduate Outcomes for Widening Participation Populations’, Active Learning in Higher Education, 12 (3), pp. 203-215.

United Nations (2020) The Impact of COVID-19 on Women. Available at: (Accessed: 25 August 2021).

Winstone, N., Balloo, K., Gravett, K., Jacobs, D. and Keen, H. (2020) ‘Who Stands to Benefit? Wellbeing, Belonging and Challenges to Equity in Engagement in Extra-Curricular Activities at University’, Active Learning in Higher Education, pp. 1-16.

Andrew is interested in the broad spectrum of academic and vocational legal education. He leads the law school’s Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) curriculum development work and has blogged on why the SQE can’t guarantee competent solicitors and law schools’ responses to the SQE. Andrew is a member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Law Teachers and a peer reviewer for the leading legal education journal, The Law Teacher.

Jessica is a Law Lecturer, SFHEA and Barrister.  She is Director of the Project on Interdisciplinary Law and Religion Studies at the OU.  She is a valued member of the SCiLAB working group representing the Law School.

This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

Posted in feelings, General, Law School, motivation, onlinestudent, Open University, SCiLAB, students, Uncategorised | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Badge attitude

By Terry O’Sullivan

CREDIT Peter Keegan / Hulton Archive / Getty Images / Universal Images Group  Rights Managed / For Education Use Only

Have you joined the badgerati yet? Are you one of the growing number of people whose social media profiles, electronic resumes and even email signatures feature attractive little lozenges commemorating skills and accomplishments? I bet you’ll have got one by the end of the year if you haven’t already.

Digital badges celebrate great things. I notice ‘mental health first aider’ is a popular one on email signatures. Seeing it cheers me up that it’s becoming more acceptable to acknowledge mental health as something that affects everyone. I must find out how to get one of those. One of the nice things about badges is that they send a message that skills are cool. Good news for educators everywhere.

The Open University has been a pioneer in digital badging since the first Badged Open Courses appeared on OpenLearn in 2015. Today you can take your pick from more than 70 of them on topics like mentoring, critical thinking and becoming an Open University student (a badge worth having). Over 200,000 elegantly hexagonal OpenLearn badges have been earned to date.

Badges aren’t just a pretty face, though. The advantage of being digital is that they carry information about what they’re for, who has awarded them and who they belong to. The term for this is ‘baked in’, which makes them sound more like biscuits than badges. It underlines the durability of the data. This makes badges eminently mix-and-matchable into customised credentials as unique as you are.

My interest in badges dates from a couple of years ago. My colleagues and I had been wrestling with how to get students on an online module to engage more fully with their learning activities. These don’t carry any credit, but they build towards assignments which do. Moreover, they develop valuable skills supporting the OU Employability Framework. Research suggests badges motivate student ‘co-curricular activity’, like volunteering or getting involved in student organisations (Coleman, 2018). Perhaps a badge for skills development within the module would encourage my students to go the extra mile and really commit to the activities. The B206 Badging Employability Pilot project was born – taking badging into the realms of a credit-bearing module, building on the great work already going on within non-accredited learning on OpenLearn.

With my colleague Dr Carmen Mal as co-investigator I applied to SCiLAB, the Faculty of Business and Law’s scholarship centre, for the cost of five days’ project assistance and a basic subscription to an external badging platform, Open Badge Factory. I chose an external provider to avoid confusion with OpenLearn (as this was a pilot project). To earn a badge students had to write brief reflections on learning activities that helped them develop any five of the ten elements of the OU Employability Framework. The module introduces a reflective assignment early on. The FutureYOU tool (which provides a reflection template for learning activities) was already available to students.

We worked with some amazingly creative colleagues in Learner and Discovery Services to design the badge graphic and make a souped-up version of the relevant FutureYOU page so that the student reflections could be seen by a verifier (the project assistant) and badges issued as appropriate. I also found some more amazingly creative colleagues in Learning Experience and Technology to help close the loop to and from Open Badge Factory. Scholarship is a great way of meeting people.

Students were emailed a link to a ‘how to video’ I’d made on my computer, as well as brief instructions. We waited to see what happened. After three months the badge offer finished and I ran an evaluation survey. Top line figures demonstrate that 6% of respondents had earned the badge, which was encouraging. Less happily 70% hadn’t heard of the offer – I guess students get a lot of emails. But while news of this particular badge only reached the minority, two thirds of respondents were keen on the idea of earning digital badges in connection with Open University modules in future.

So don’t be surprised if your students start badgering you for badges soon.


Coleman, Jonathan D. (2018) ‘Engaging undergraduate students in a co-curricular digital badging platform’, Education and Information Technologies, Vol.23 No. 1, pp.211-224

Dr Terry O’Sullivan
Department of Strategy and Marketing, Faculty of Business and Law
The Open University

This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

Posted in Business School, e-learning, e-teaching, General, HE, motivation, onlinestudent, onlineteacher, Open University, SCiLAB, Skills online, students, Uncategorised | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Professor Suzanne Rab Takes a Critical Look at Critical Thinking

By Professor Suzanne Rab

Critical thinking is a vital skill at university, and in life.  Despite its frequent endorsement in education, there is no clear consensus about what it means in practice.  Rather like the elusive search for a definition of obscenity[1], “we know it when we see it”. But it can be hard to define what critical thinking is and even harder to nurture this  skill.  I will focus on some reflections from the 2021 Level One Law Conference where I presented this topic to students transitioning to level two law studies.

The term ‘critical’ comes from the Greek word ‘kritikos’ meaning discerning.  So, critical thinking is a deeper kind of thinking in which we do not take things for granted but where we question, analyse and evaluate what we read, hear, say or write.  It is a general term used to identify mindsets, skills and behaviours that contribute to effective decision-making.

Before looking at a definition of critical thinking, it is helpful to emphasise what it is not.  It is not an automatic response; it is not attained overnight (it requires practice and hard work) and it is not simply being (highly) critical of everyone else’s thinking but your own.

However, it is useful to try to define it (if only to illustrate the limitations of definitions which are not ends in themselves).  I find helpful the working definition that: “Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.  It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.” (Paul and Elder, 2008).

I try to encourage students not to trust your first response by using an easy puzzle that invites an answer that is intuitive, appealing and wrong:

A bat and a ball cost £1.10

The bat costs £1 more than the ball

How much does the ball cost?

The intuitive answer that immediately springs to mind is “10p”   About 80% of university students give the answer “10p”.  BUT it is wrong!

If the ball were to cost 10p, the bat would cost £1.10 (i.e. £1 more), and then the total cost would be £1.20, rather than the required £1.10.  The correct response is “5p” (i.e. the bat costs £1.05).  The explanation for the widespread “10p” bias is that people substitute the critical relational “more than” statement by a simpler absolute statement.  That is, “the bat costs £1 more than the ball” is read as “the bat costs £1”.  Hence, rather than working out the sum, people naturally separate £1.10, into £1 and 10p, which is easier to do.  People are over-confident and it takes time and effort to think and check.

The puzzle is taken from Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow adapted for a UK audience where the bat and ball problem is used as an introduction to the major theme of the book: the distinction between fluent, spontaneous, fast ‘System 1’ mental processes, and effortful, reflective and slow ‘System 2’ ones.  The explicit lesson is that we are too willing to lean on System 1, and this gets us into trouble.

Critical thinking done well meets high standards of reasoning.  Universal intellectual standards are standards which when applied to thinking provides a means of checking the quality of reasoning about a problem, issue, situation, or question.  Thinking critically entails knowledge and application of the standards: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness.

If students are ambivalent about critical thinking, it can be helpful to anchor its value in the world beyond academic study.  Critical reasoning tests, also known as critical thinking tests (CTTs), are psychometric tests commonly used in graduate, professional and managerial recruitment.  These high-level analytical tests are most commonly encountered in the legal sector, but other organisations such as the Bank of England also use them as part of their selection process.  I have found it useful to explain the relevance of critical thinking beyond university studies, in terms of employment opportunities in law and elsewhere and in life more generally where critical thinking is indispensable to thrive.

[1] The phrase was used in 1964 by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).


Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2008) The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools. Santa Barbara: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Further reading

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux.

Novak, J. and Canas, A. (2008) ‘The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them’. Available at: (Accessed: 25 March 2022).

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2014) The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies. Available at: (Accessed: 25 March 2022).

Useful websites

Bloom’s Taxonomy –

Foundation for Critical Thinking –

Learn Higher –

Mind maps –

Universal Intellectual Standards –

Professor Suzanne Rab is an associate lecturer at the OU and a barrister at Serle Court Chambers. She maintains a number of academic positions including at the University of Oxford and Brunel University London. Suzanne has wide experience of EU law and competition law matters combining cartel regulation, commercial practices, IP exploitation, merger control, public procurement and State aid. Suzanne’s practice has a particular focus on the interface between competition law and economic regulation. She advises governments, regulators and businesses across the regulated sectors including in the communications, energy, financial services, healthcare/ pharmaceuticals, TMT and water sectors. Suzanne has significant experience of advising on the development, implementation and application of new competition laws and regulatory regimes in line with international best practices, including in emerging markets. She is a member of the UK Regulators Network (UKRN) Expert Advisory Panel. Suzanne Rab was recognised by The Lawyer as one of the “Hot 100” lawyers for 2022, most notably for her work for public bodies including in relation to net zero, competition law and subsidy control.

This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

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Teaching Student Police Officers: Breaking down barriers between academia and operational practice

By Ahmed Kadry and Jo Lambert

In 2016, the College of Policing, the professional body in England and Wales that oversees training and development of police officers, introduced a new training delivery plan for all new police recruits: The Police Education Qualification Framework (PEQF). The PEQF laid out three new entry routes for new police officers, namely, the Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship (PCDA), the Degree Holder Entry Programme (DHEP), and the Pre-Join Degree. The College of Policing state among the purposes of the PEQF is to “standardise the learning provision across all forces, in particular the initial learning for newly recruited officers”.

PEQF Controversy

However, the introduction of the PEQF has not been without controversy and criticism. In July 2019, the Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Constabulary, Bill Skelly, sought judicial review over the introduction of the PEQF which he claimed would lead to fewer police officers on front-line duties because part of their work time would need to be allocated to their degree study. The legal challenge was dismissed in December 2019. More recently, Chief Constable of Northamptonshire, Nick Adderley, was critical of the PEQF, stating that it was harming retention rates. He has since clarified his comments in a series of Tweets.

As the PEQF is still very new, research into the impact of the PEQF has so far been limited. One recent study, however, highlighted some disconcerting findings, albeit a small sample size of students at one police force. The research found that 30% of those interviewed felt like “not being able to transform their academic learning into operational practice”, while more concerningly, 100% of student officers interviewed felt the programme was “disjointed due to poor relationships between policing and academia”.

The PEQF at the OU

In 2019, the OU won the contract to be the university provider to North Yorkshire Police (NYP). Scholarship and research projects are underway to gain an understanding of our current strengths in delivering and areas for improvement. But after 22 months of our very first cohort starting, we have begun to identify areas of success along with the challenges that lay ahead in ensuring students and police forces utilise the full value that the PCDA can offer.

One recurring theme we have found is that students can feel overwhelmed with the task of learning everything they need to know as new police officers (think legislation, officer safety training, various IT systems and criminal databases, and a whole lot more), coupled with needing to stay on top of their degree studies, including Tutor-Marked Assignments (TMAs) across two modules each year and many Interactive Computer Marked Assessments (iCMAs). In short, they have a lot going on in their professional lives. Built into the PEQF and in our partnership with NYP is a 20% allocation of work time where students can focus on their PCDA study. However, this time alone is unlikely to be sufficient for students to complete everything they need to, especially in the first year where they will be less efficient at completing assignments.

Figure 1: Student officers have to balance their operational practice and their degree studies. Image provided by our policing partner, North Yorkshire Police.

Another challenge we have observed is that student engagement with their Academic Tutor can be limited where some student officers are engaging with their degree study from the practical perspective of completing TMAs and iCMAs when they are due, but no more. Tutor Group Forum activities for example have thus far tended to be populated by three or four students from a cohort of fifteen, with the remaining students only engaging with their Academic Tutor when an assignment is due.

We have had a similar observation in relation to scheduled day schools where a select few are actively participating, with some students emailing ahead of time requesting permission to not attend. That is not to say that those who don’t engage on the forums or ask about not attending a day school don’t score good marks on their assignments – some clearly do, but they are very much focused on what is needed from them rather than the maximum they can get out of each module, part of which will be through discussion and engagement with their Academic Tutor.

We have begun to see student officers understand how they should view their degree study and operational practice as one entity rather than two separate vacuums. Part of this has been achieved by ensuring that TMAs require students to apply their degree study into their own workplace, allowing for specificity for each student officer to apply their learning to real issues in the communities they police. For example, the first TMA in their year 1 academic module requires students to identify an issue or crime in their local area and create a stakeholder map that highlights the actors and agents needed to alleviate or resolve the issue. Rather than a student focusing on Anti-Social Behaviour for example in theoretical terms, they must localise the issue and provide a rationale for how they wish NYP and relevant partner agencies in the area to address the specific problem.

Another encouraging sign has been the partnership with NYP and their help in ensuring that assignments do not sit solely in the vacuum of students completing their degrees but where possible, can have a direct impact on their police force. For example, a TMA in year two asks them to evaluate NYP’s internal threat assessments in relation to future threats in policing. However, beyond the mark awarded to each TMA, NYP have also expressed an interest in being given sight (with student permission) of the TMAs that provide a thorough critique of the threat assessment as an avenue of feedback for those who have produced it. For example, have students identified an issue which hasn’t been included but should be? Have the documents highlighted an issue which may be national but will likely not impact North Yorkshire?

The partnership element is perhaps the key to maximising the student officer experience. With the two organisations working closely together, a continuous feedback loop has arisen where the OU’s degree component and NYP’s operational component speak to each other, which in turn should make it clearer to the student officers how their degree studies enhance their ability to fulfil their role as police constables, now and in the future.

Ahmed Kadry is the Qualification Lead for the Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship.

Jo Lambert is the Teaching Director for Policing.

This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

Posted in e-learning, e-teaching, feelings, General, HE, Open University, School for Policing, Uncategorised | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Supporting Tutors in Adobe Connect

By Carol Edwards & Andrew Maxfield

In this blog we plan to share how we supported our new and less experienced tutors to deliver successful online tutorials during the Covid pandemic. As the leading provider of distance online learning, it is often assumed Open University (OU) tutors would not have any issues transferring to online tutorials when Covid hit. However, this was not the case.


In the pre-covid world most modules in the LLB at the OU take a blended approach to delivery.  Our students had the choice of attending either face- to- face or online tutorials (or any combination of these they wished).  On many modules our tutors also had a choice, subject to business needs, of delivering either face- to- face or online tutorials.  So, when Covid hit we were faced, as many other institutions were, with tutors having to move online quickly and use learning spaces they are not familiar with (Rapanta, Botturi, Goodyear, Guardia & Koole 2020).

Under normal circumstances tutors are provided with a wealth of training regardless of their choice of tutorial delivery.  All tutors are expected to attend the excellent cross faculty training provided on Adobe Connect (our online platform) to ensure they have the basic skills and knowledge to deliver a tutorial.  Tutors can then elect to attend further ongoing training to develop advanced Adobe Connect skills. Further support is provided via a tutor forum where they can seek peer support.  Technical help is by the computing helpdesk.  Each module tutorial will have a set of guidance notes written for either online or face-to-face delivery.

Due to the changing nature of the pandemic the OU took the decision to deliver all tutorials online for the 20J presentation.  As Student Experience Managers (SEMs) we were faced with the challenge of moving face-to-face tutors to online delivery.  In addition, we had a large increase in student numbers, so we had to appoint several new tutors who had very limited experience of delivering tutorials online.  This combined with the lack of confidence of some of our face-to-face tutors resulted in our putting forward a proposal for Adobe Connect Champions (Champions).

The proposal

From a separate scholarship project relating to online pedagogy an unexpected theme emerged.  This was how student engagement in online tutorials could be impacted by lack of tutor confidence in the online environment.  From our own experience as tutors, and undertaking observations as SEMs, we know tutors can be less interactive with the students because they are focused on the technology.  If tutors are confident with the technology, the focus can be on the tutorial content resulting in a more engaged tutorial.

Based on our findings we put forward the idea of Champions for law modules with a blended delivery approach.  The Champions would provide practical help and guidance to new and existing tutors who found themselves working in the Adobe Connect environment and felt they lacked confidence.   We identified three key duties for our Champions:

  • Providing Adobe Connect 1-2-1 or small group support.
  • Running a forum thread on the relevant module tutor forum about Adobe Connect addressing questions and concerns raised and giving top tips.
  • Looking at the tutorial materials in advance to identify potential Adobe Connect issues and identify how support could be provided.

The proposal for funding was successful and we advertised for Champions across all levels of the LLB. An advertisement was sent to all tutors explaining the role and identifying the key skills required (two years’ experience of delivering the module, fluent in using the full Adobe Connect Toolkit and good communication skills).

The Champions in operation

Once appointed the Champions were provided with a briefing for their role and asked to contact the lead SEM of the module for further guidance.

Each Champion set up a thread on the module tutor forum offering advice, guidance and answering questions.   Tutors could contact the Champion via the thread or via personal email to arrange individual support sessions.  Some Champions offered drop-ins and small group sessions.

Evaluation methodology

There were three strands to our evaluation:

  • An analysis of the number of posts on the forum threads.
  • A questionnaire to tutors.
  • A focus group with the Champions.

A questionnaire was used because it would provide us with the opportunity to obtain a wide range of views quickly.  We used closed questions, either yes or no or rated using the Likert scale.  These were combined with open questions to allow for wider explanations of answers.  We had a set of prepared questions for the focus group to structure the discussion but were willing to digress to explore interesting and relevant points.

We took a thematic approach in analysing the results, identifying themes individually and then re-evaluating considering our discussions.


The questionnaires were sent to 209 tutors and were completed by 30 tutors giving a 14% response rate.

  1. Forum Threads

In all tutor forums, the Adobe Connect Champion thread was the most active. For example, 181 posts across two threads on W101, 53 posted on W102, and 62 posts across two threads on W203.

88.9% of the respondents had read the Adobe Connect Champion thread in the tutor group forums with 83.35% finding it useful.  For example, one tutor commented, “I read the forum thread and … found it provides all I need”.

  1. Questionnaire to tutors

70.9% of the respondents confirmed they had made use of the Champion. Several reasons for accessing the Champion were given including to gain confidence in Adobe (particularly breakout rooms), uploading slides and finding tools.  One tutor commented that the Champions “had excellent comprehensive knowledge and an awareness of resources that could help”.

29.9 % of respondents had not accessed the Champion and confirmed this was because they do not need to or any questions were already answered in the forum either by the Champion or other tutors.

Of the 70.9% responding, 88.9% felt the Champions provided valuable support.  One tutor commented on how “it helped develop my confidence” and said they would not have publicly posted their concerns.  There were a lot of comments on how useful the Champion was for new tutors, how the 1-2-1 support was invaluable with the technology and many felt it was useful to have someone to ask.  One tutor commented, “it is good to know someone is there”.  While another tutor commented “in addition to the advice and expertise, …. the Champion provided a good focal point of interaction and sharing about Adobe Connect”.

A few experienced online tutors did question whether a Champion was necessary considering the mentor and SEM support available.

  1. Focus group

All Champions attended the focus group.  They had all taken the same approach by running and moderating a forum thread where they posted advice, updates, and shared tips.  One commented on “how they had found it useful to work with the other Champions to exchange knowledge and ideas”.   A number of common themes were identified regarding the support requested, this included using breakout rooms, screen sharing, dealing with technical problems within the session, setting up the room, uploading slides and tidying the room afterwards.

The Champions found the role enjoyable and felt it had challenged them to develop their skills within Adobe Connect. One Champion commented that the “silver lining” for them of undertaking the role was that in helping another to use a YouTube clip it enabled them to develop this skill themselves, thereby creating a more engaging session for the students of both the Champion and the tutor.

Some Champions commented that some tutors were confused about the role believing they were technical experts who could solve IT problems.   Further discussion established this could have been how they had been introduced on the tutor group forum.

Champions noted that new tutors needed a lot of support, often they had not attended the formal training session, had not engaged with the induction process and some mentors passed the new tutor on to the Champion for initial Adobe support.


From the evaluation of this project, we have concluded that the Champions were of value to both new and existing tutors.  Many tutors found it re-assuring to be able to contact someone who had knowledge of the module materials and experience of delivering them in the online room.

We are aware that the formal training, when taken up by tutors, for Adobe Connect provides tutors with the ability to use the online tools.    However, we feel a key benefit of having a Champion is giving new or inexperienced tutors confidence to use the tools effectively for the module specific learning outcomes for the individual tutorials, thereby enhancing the student experience.

An unexpected outcome of the project was that the Champions developed their own skills and learnt from the tutors.   Champions commented on how much they had enjoyed working with tutors and providing the support.

This project took place during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and, we hope this offered an additional opportunity for social interaction between tutors working from home during lockdown.

We feel we have been able to establish a key benefit of the Champion is supporting new and less experienced tutors to develop Adobe Connect skills and to have the confidence to utilise fully the tutorial materials for their module.  Because of the positive response received by both tutors and Champions we are very grateful to the Faculty on their agreement to provide additional funding for Champions for the 21J presentation.  We are aware that the possibility of replicating this project is being investigated in other Schools.


Rapanta C, Botturi L,  Goodyear P,   Guàrdia L &  Koole, M, 2020, Online University Teaching During and After the Covid-19 Crisis: Refocusing Teacher Presence and Learning Activity, Postdigital Science and Education (2020) 2:923–945

Carol Edwards is a Lecturer and Student Experience Manager within the Open University Law School. She joined the OU as an associate lecturer in 2015 and became a Student Experience Manager in 2018. She is a Fellow of the HEA and a member of the Law School’s Peer Mentoring Project.   Carol’s research interests  include tackling student isolation via such programmes as online mentoring.  She is also actively involved in scholarship relating to online teaching pedagogy and assessment feedback.  Before joining the OU Carol worked in further education and is still actively involved in the quality management of Open Access courses.

Andrew Maxfield is a Lecturer and Student Experience Manager within the Open University Law School. He joined the OU as an associate lecturer in 2016 and became a Student Experience Manager in 2018.  Andrew’s research interests included student engagement with online learning.  Andrew is a solicitor and has practiced in family, charity and property law.  He has also worked in further and higher education over a number of years.

This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

Posted in covid19, e-learning, e-teaching, feelings, General, Law School, motivation, Online teaching, onlineteacher, onlineteaching, Open University, SCiLAB, Skills online, Uncategorised | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Nurturing employability at British universities – entrepreneurship education as a vehicle

By Carolin Decker-Lange (The Open University) and Knut Lange (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Since the 1980s, British universities have been under increasing scrutiny, accompanied by changes in regulation, funding, governmental surveillance and performance appraisal in research and teaching. As a result, universities operate in a ‘quasi-market’. On the one hand, they must compete with other universities to attract students and generate income to ensure financial sustainability; on the other hand, they are expected to widen the access to higher education and nurture social mobility (Bowl, 2018; Bowl and Hughes, 2016). This explains universities’ vital role in promoting graduate employability, defined as ‘the skills and competencies that a student gains as they progress throughout their higher education programme to ultimately enhance their chances of finding meaningful and sustained employment’ (Office for Students, 2022). However, our knowledge about what universities do to nurture employability is limited.

Our study

Addressing this gap, we engaged with scholarship of teaching and learning entrepreneurship (SoTLE) (Neck and Corbett, 2018). We conceptualised university-based entrepreneurship education as one potential driver of employability. The link between entrepreneurship education and employability is not apparent, especially if the purpose of entrepreneurship education is narrowly defined as new venture creation. However, students exposed to entrepreneurship education develop skills that are useful in diverse professional contexts (von Graevenitz et al., 2010). Technological advancements and the increasing digitalisation of operations provide opportunities for start-up entrepreneurship; they also affect the availability and content of jobs and require new forms of work and mobility across established organisations and industries (Kornelakis and Petrakaki, 2020; Mikelatou and Arvanitis, 2018).

From September 2020 to March 2021, we conducted online interviews with 45 experts in employability and/or entrepreneurship education across the four nations, including academics and educators, academic-related staff, professional services, and internal consultancy. We also included business owners and experts in HEI consultancy. The interviewees and their respective employers were accorded pseudonyms for confidentiality reasons. We analysed the anonymised interview transcripts to identify approaches to fostering employability involving entrepreneurship education. What did we find?

Entrepreneurship in universities’ employability strategy

Entrepreneurship is “on some universities’ agendas” [Eve, academic subject leader] though to different degrees. At some universities, entrepreneurship is fully integrated into the employability strategy. Others separate entrepreneurship and employability strategies. Whether entrepreneurship is embedded in the employability strategy can be driven by, for instance, sectors and students’ aspirations. The creative and cultural sector is a case in point. Students who aim to work in this sector tend to become freelancers and should thus prepare for self-employment or starting their own venture.

A reason for a lack of embeddedness can be that employability teams and entrepreneurship teams work in different parts of the university. Entrepreneurship is often concentrated in the business school, and collaboration with careers services or other central services is not actively encouraged by university leaders:

“(…) they just don’t talk to each other. They may collaborate, but often that’s not actively managed and encouraged. They’re just living different spaces and places.” [Albert, former senior university leader]

Employability in the curriculum

Employability can be added to the curriculum, for example, by fostering employability skills in modules. Universities can also integrate employability on the programme level by aligning dedicated activities with the subject area:

“(…) maybe even in the assessments and in the actual teaching itself, we’ll incorporate employability into the subject, rather than just having it as a stand-alone.” [Matthew, Professor in Entrepreneurship]

Some interviewees point out that entrepreneurship modules are beneficial in nurturing employability if entrepreneurship is understood broadly:

“(…) there may be students on that (module) that have never really thought about entrepreneurship before, and actually their career path is your bigger companies etc. etc. So we do make sure that we bring in that entrepreneurial thinking, and we bring in intrapreneurship with an ‘i’ really as well. So that we’re showing that what they’re learning here isn’t just something that if they want to start a business, but it’s something they can use in their management career going forward.” [Finn, Senior Lecturer in Management]

Some universities must embed employability in their curriculum. For instance, universities with a vocational focus integrate employability in all their programmes in terms of work-based learning or placements. For universities providing online, remote learning, the curriculum is the best place to foster employability, because only a relatively small number of students would use co- or extra-curricular activities on campus.

Taking or making a job

Extra-curricular entrepreneurship events, such as student competitions, are often unexpected opportunities for employers to get in touch with promising students and offer them graduate jobs:

“The enterprise team, they do this start up school. (…), it was a bit like Dragon’s Den. The students came up with their own business idea and they did the research, they went through all the motions of starting the business in teams. (…). And then at the end of it they were pitching their ideas to a panel and an audience as well. And people in local companies and organisations that could feedback to them. And potentially cherry pick employees.” [Genevieve, Work-Based Learning Coordinator]

Many if not most universities offer central employability and entrepreneurship services. These services are not always provided by separate organisational units. They can also be offered by combined enterprise and employability teams, reflecting the view that employability encompasses activities associated with both taking and making a job.


Our findings clarify that entrepreneurship education prepares students for different pathways and nurtures the development of versatile skills that can be applied in various contexts. Employability does not necessarily involve that graduates are recruited by large companies with famous employer brands. In some fields, such as the creative and cultural sector, it is crucial that students are prepared for freelancing or self-employment.


Bowl, M. (2018). Differentiation, distinction and equality – or diversity? The language of the marketised university: an England, New Zealand comparison. Studies in Higher Education, 43(4), 671-688.

Bowl, M., and Hughes, J. (2016). Fair access and fee setting in English universities: What do institutional statements suggest about university strategies in a stratified quasi-market? Studies in Higher Education, 41(2), 269-287.

Kornelakis, A., and Petrakaki, D. (2020). Embedding employability skills in UK higher education: Between digitalization and marketization. Industry and Higher Education, 34(5), 290-297.

Mikelatou, A., and Arvanitis, E. (2018). Social inclusion and active citizenship under the prism of neoliberalism: A critical analysis of the European Union’s discourse of lifelong learning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 50(5), 499-509.

Neck, H.M., and Corbett, A.C. (2018). The scholarship of teaching and learning entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship Education and Pedagogy, 1(1), 8-41.

Office for Students (2022). Employability. (accessed on 2nd January 2022).

von Graevenitz, G., Harhoff, D., and Weber, R. (2010). The effects of entrepreneurship education. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 76(1), 90-112.

Carolin Decker-Lange is a Senior Lecturer in Management at The Open University Business School and Deputy Director (Business) of SCiLAB. Her research interests include organisational development and change, interorganisational relationships, and entrepreneurship. She has been involved in several scholarship projects and has chaired the production of the MBA elective BB851 Entrepreneurship in Context. In her scholarship work Carolin aims to generate insights for the design of new materials that stimulate entrepreneurial thinking and help students to apply this in diverse professional contexts.

Knut Lange is a Senior Lecturer in International Business at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research interests include comparative country studies, institutional theory, family businesses, emerging markets, entrepreneurial education, and innovation. He is an experienced educator in the fields of international business and entrepreneurship. He enjoys designing new teaching materials that help students establish a connection between recent research and current issues in international business and policy.

This blog represents the views of the individuals, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

Posted in Business School, e-learning, e-teaching, HE, Online teaching, onlinestudent, onlineteacher, onlineteaching, Open University, research, SCiLAB, students, Uncategorised | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Supporting care experienced students: Piloting a project in the Faculty of Business and Law

By Grace Allen, Catherine Comfort, Daniel Coxon, Sarah Henderson, Christine Mera & Joanna Mirek-Tooth

Higher Education (HE) is a vast and different world to navigate for any new student wishing to access it. For a student who is a care leaver, this journey can be even more daunting, especially if undertaken without the consistency and reassurance of support networks that many other students benefit from. Indeed, this can affect students who have experience of the care system at any point in their past and not just those considered ‘care leavers’.


“Can you ever be on the same playing field? Can anywhere replicate that network? Probably not, but we have to try to build something different that works instead.”

OU Student, 2021


Across the UK, the number of children in care continues to rise with a larger increase during the pandemic (Barnardo’s, 2020). As these children move from care and become a ‘care leaver’, 13% are known to access HE (compared to 43% of non-care leavers), with half of these students then withdrawing from their studies. Care leavers are one of the most underrepresented groups within HE (Office for Students, 2021).

There is growing recognition across the HE sector that while they cannot influence factors in these young people’s early lives, HE Institutions (HEI) should provide additional support to students who have experience of care (Murphy, 2020). At The Open University, unlike most HEIs, the student body is drawn from students of all ages, with a high proportion being above 25 years old. Therefore, the term ‘care experienced’ is used rather than ‘care leaver’ to be inclusive of all students who have had experiences in the care system whilst growing up, no matter when this was.

The Open University’s mission is to be open to people, places, methods and ideas. We promote educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential (The Open University, 2021). In line with our mission, and targets to support care experienced students in the Access and Participation Plan, we are piloting a project within the Faculty of Business and Law (The Open University, 2020). The project team, comprising of Lecturers and Student Experience Managers from across both the Business and Law Schools and the Apprenticeship team, have been working together to consider the appropriate additional support for care experienced students and pilot a service to provide that support.

The data shows that within the Faculty of Business and Law, since 2015/2016, 525 students have declared themselves as being care experienced, with 130 of these students currently studying. However, a challenge facing the university, like others across the HE sector, is knowing who all our care experienced students are. One known barrier in the sector to providing such support is low declaration rates. This can be for a variety of reasons, such as wishing to move on from these experiences once they become adults and can live and study independent of the care system, others are concerned with being labelled or judged and the stigma this may cause, or simply that students who left care some time ago do not realise this support applies to them (Baker, 2017).


“I have very little faith in the system and people in positions of authority.”

OU Student, 2021


This project takes this context into consideration and provides a support mechanism that is open and accessible to all students within the Faculty, allowing those who relate to seek extra support regardless of whether they have made a declaration (Cotton, Nash and Kneale, 2014). This strategy was supported by students with care experience who reviewed the project proposal.

We have been supported by the Care Leavers Association (CLA), who have run a set of workshops focusing on developing a stronger understanding of the needs of students who have experienced care. The CLA shared with us their insights and research, highlighting that a sense of belonging within the academic community is particularly important due to instability and potentially disruptive past experiences.

This research then informed the design of the pilot project. It places our Associate Lecturers, who spend the most time with our students, at the forefront of the project. Therefore, three Associate Lecturers, who successfully demonstrated their past experiences (either professional or personal) with young people, disadvantaged groups or care experienced individuals, joined the project team to take on the key role of delivering support.

The project aims are:

  1. To provide a champion or role model to support and inspire students who have experiences within care.
  2. To inform the development of practical support mechanisms and materials within the faculty which meet the requirements of care experienced students and empower them to succeed.
  3. To provide opportunities for care experienced students to voice their experiences of HE study and the challenges they face with the aim of furthering our understanding of student needs.
  4. To equip care experienced students with knowledge of internal and external resources they can draw on during their studies.

The project launched in April 2021.

In relation to aim 1, tutors are now on hand to support students in a one-to-one environment who request this mentoring service. We have referred to these roles as care champions and provided an online profile on each tutor with a profile picture to make them feel accessible to students.

These profiles sit on webpages developed to meets aims 2 and 4. It was important to the team to build awareness rather than just measure uptake of the service.  Therefore, these pages also contain useful information, links to OU Student Support specialists and signposts to further OU and external resources for care experienced students.

From our interactions with students and the CLA we are aware that many care leavers may wish to access information anonymously rather than proactively seeking one to one support. It was therefore important to demonstrate through the webpages a visible commitment to this group of students, even if they did not wish to initiate contact. Since their launch, these webpages have been visited 100 times by 93 different students.

A full communications plan to raise awareness to all OU stakeholders followed the project which included both internal communications with the help of the Associate Lectures through tutor group online forums, as well as external communications. The project team worked with the FBL social media team, and launched a full FBL social media campaign, which raised awareness of the initiative through the online platforms of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

The uptake of tutor calls has been slow, which is to be expected in a group of students who are often reluctant to identify themselves. We are, therefore, planning to continue to offer this support, at the same time as building on student feedback and working to develop a sense of community. Students have made it clear that consistency in services offered is important in gaining trust, rather than evaluating and making changes too swiftly and before students have had a chance to become aware of, and gain trust in, the provision. Therefore, this project has been extended to support this provision and raise further awareness moving into the new academic year.


“We need to build our own networks and having support groups and clubs in place to support us; and following initiatives like this one can ensure that we aren’t going through this alone. We can build back stronger and better, because with initiatives like this one here in FBL we have found our own network, and it works.”

OU Student, 2021


Several students suggested that a network or peer support group would help care experienced students to feel more embedded within the wider university community. We have therefore worked with Learner and Discovery Services to create an online forum for students to connect and a dedicated online space for virtual networking sessions.

In addition, the team will be developing a staff resources page and guide to spread awareness further within the Faculty of Business and Law and make sure due consideration is given to care experienced students within the curriculum development, delivery and support.

We look forward to updating you next year on our progress.

SEM project Team: Grace Allen, Daniel Coxon, Christine Mera, Joanna Mirek-Tooth, Catherine Comfort, Sarah Henderson

Our AL champions: Kristina Burton, Mary Shek, Rose Stringer

Our SST champions: Lorraine Gregory, Kathryn McAnulty

With special thanks to the Care Leavers Association (CLA)


Baker, C. (2017) Care leavers’ views on their transition to adulthood: A Rapid Review of the Evidence. Available at: (Accessed: 09.11.2021).

Barnardo’s (2020) Barnardo’s declares ‘state of emergency’ as number of children needing foster care during Coronavirus pandemic rises by 44%. Available at: (Accessed: 09.11.2021).

Cotton, D., Nash, P. and Kneale, P. (2014) ‘The Experience of Care Leavers in UK Higher Education’, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 16(3), pp. 5-21. Available at: (Accessed: 09.11.2021).

Murphy, S. (2020) Learning on the margins: Care leavers in higher education. Available at: (Accessed: 09.11.2021).

Office for Students (2021) Care experienced students and looked after children. Available at: (Accessed: 24.6.2021).

The Open University (2020) Access and Participation Plan 2020-2025. Available at: (Accessed: 24.6.2021).

The Open University (2021) Mission. Available at: (Accessed: 24.6.2021).

Grace Allen is a Lecturer and Assistant Head of Student Experience (Law) in the Faculty of Business and Law. Grace is also an Associate Lecturer on the business programme and Practice Tutor.

Catherine Comfort is the Academic Lead for Access, Participation and Success in the Faculty of Business and Law.

Daniel Coxon is a Lecturer and Student Experience Manager (Apprenticeships) in the Faculty of Business Law.

Sarah Henderson is the Head of Student Experience for Law programmes. Sarah is also an Associate Lecturer in Law.

Christine Mera is a Lecturer and Student Experience Manager (Business) in the Faculty of Business and Law. Christine is also an Associate Lecturer teaching business and marketing on the business programme.

Joanna Mirek-Tooth is a Student Experience Manager (Business) in the Faculty of Business and Law. Joanna is also an Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies.

This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

Posted in e-learning, e-teaching, feelings, General, HE, Law School, motivation, onlinestudent, onlineteacher, onlineteaching, Open University, students, Uncategorised | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Integrating online learning provision: What will schools take forward post-pandemic?

By Katharine Jewitt

An 18-month research project is seeking to identify what online learning innovations schools can and will be keeping post-pandemic. Dr Katharine Jewitt reports on preliminary findings:

As Covid restrictions are lifted, school leaders are beginning to plan strategies and allocate resources to ensure that their school’s digital learning environment meets the needs and manages the expectations of staff, pupils and parents/carers beyond the pandemic.

School leaders are building scenarios for a future that incorporates online learning, recognising that there are positives to take forward out of the pandemic. They recognise that their role is to remove barriers and support online learning, ensuring that it evolves in a manner that is sustainable and robust.

A useful approach is to look at capability and capacity, the potential of pupils and staff to take advantage of online learning, and for school leaders to make it happen. Changes need to be measured, appropriate and relevant.

Leading School Learning Through Covid-19 and Beyond is an on-going 18-month research project being led by The Open University looking at how secondary school leaders in England strategically manage and plan for online provision of learning, through the pandemic and beyond.

As we look ahead, there are a number of elements to emerge from our preliminary findings about online learning that schools can take forward…

Wider curriculum offering

Online learning provides an opportunity to offer a wider curriculum to year 9 to 11 pupils. There are inevitable clashes with timetables and pupils cannot always choose the subjects they want to study.

It is possible for students to take a subject online so that they can study what they want and avoid timetable clashes. Where running a class is not viable, for example if a small group wanted to study an additional language, online learning also enables schools to run that part of the curriculum online. There is the possibility of schools collaborating to co-run curriculum subjects, too.

There is scope for flexibility within timetables, offering a mix of online and face-to-face delivery. Schools can look beyond standard class numbers by running some classes online. During Covid, schools have been teaching whole year groups and whole school assemblies have been reported to work well.

Online Saturday support classes

Before Covid-19, staff and pupils used to have to come into school for Saturday classes. But due to Covid, schools have been running Saturday classes online, which stops them having to be open physically out-of-hours. It is kinder to staff, too, who would have had to travel in just to run a one-hour class. Saturday classes have proved popular during Covid. One school reported 80 per cent attendance for Saturday support classes between 9am and noon.


Schools are recognising that online learning can provide personalised learning that can be responsive, bespoke and tailored to pupils’ development.

Pupils with different physical, sensory and educational requirements also need different tools. Online learning is generally more accessible to pupils who use assistive technologies (Daulby, 2019), but there are many ways content and learning activities can be designed to offer better support.

Schools have reported that online learning has resulted in a more inclusive environment and that some SEND students have mostly had a better experience as they have been in-school or been given one-to-one support via online break-out rooms.

Schools will continue to utilise learning platforms for learning resources – this can be of benefit to all students, in particular those with dyslexia. This can also support pupils who are too unwell to attend school. Online material can be provided to stretch students, too.

Beyond Covid, schools will continue to use online platforms so that pupils can access learning and submit work for marking. Some pupils respond well to having access to work in advance of lessons.

During the pandemic, online break-out rooms have been employed to provide one-to-one or small group work support. For example, if pupils are struggling with a concept during a live class, they can be supported and then brought back into the main room. Heads also report that some pupils enjoyed having flexibility in their school day, taking breaks when they wish and having some control and choice over the order of their day and what they learn when.

Parents’ evenings and governor meetings

Schools report that parents’ evenings have worked much better online: it puts an end to parents waiting around if one discussion overruns and it stops parents and staff having to come out in the evening after work. Parents have generally reported positively about parents’ evenings being online and there has been increased attendance. Governor and staff meetings are also reported to have worked very well online.

However, schools will still run face-to-face meetings once or twice a year, as they do not want to lose that vital element of parents visiting the school.

Multi-lateral strategies

The pandemic has brought many challenges. Skills of collaboration, problem-solving and communication have been enhanced through the use of technology and online collaboration.

Collaborating with other schools has brought about a considerable amount of innovation. Working online, schools have drawn upon their local networks, local businesses and the community.

Secondary schools have worked more closely with their local primary schools too. Often they share families and where there has been a break-down in trust or relationships, the other school has stepped in. Sometimes there are safeguarding issues and either the primary or the secondary are better placed to work with the parents.

Although schools have worked with local networks before, the pandemic has seen this work expand. Some schools have formed “communities of practice” for online learning, sharing approaches, problems, solutions etc. Schools have worked with their local authorities and drawn upon other collaborations via TeachMeets and such groups. These digital steering groups are set to continue after Covid.

In some cases, schools have involved local business leaders to facilitate online discussions, enabling pupils to access industry experts. This bringing of the workplace into the classroom through the online space is something many schools want to continue to develop, building closer ties with employers.

Some schools are working to place all of their curriculum online and are collaborating with tech companies to form collaborations and receive funding and support for a whole-school approach.

Staff development

As the use of online learning develops, school leaders need to explore how they support the development of teaching and support staff as well as how we develop pupils’ and parents’ digital skills as resources for learning. Any vision for online learning can only be delivered by staff who are equipped to provide this.

As school leaders look forward beyond the pandemic, consideration needs to be given to how skills can be integrated into the day-to-day professional practice of all staff, whatever their curriculum area or role, rather than things being left to a few specialists.

School leaders have shared how they are considering how student-facing staff are supported in their development, for example in understanding how digital technologies can support day-to-day learning habits as well as subject-specific practices.

Teaching staff need access and time to keep up-to-date with new approaches and new ways of using technology to support and record learning, wherever it takes place. Consideration also needs to be given to the IT environment and how it can be used for teaching and learning, and to appreciate the value of innovation and specialisation as well as safety and standardisation.

Remember: pupils’ confidence in online learning and their satisfaction with its use appear to be determined, to a certain extent, by the confidence of their teachers (Netolicky, 2020).

There are still barriers for staff to using and embracing online learning, not least workload, capabilities and confidence. During Covid-19, some schools have advised how middle leaders and heads of departments have embraced online learning and have been supporting staff to make online learning happen. School leaders are also considering how to equip them with coaching skills in order to help them support teaching staff.


In terms of change-management, schools within our project have been agile and flexible about changes. But any online strategy needs to be contextualised. Turning your strategy aims into meaningful terminology for staff to use in their practice is important.

A key factor is ensuring that the people who need to be engaged understand why it is happening, why it matters, what the impact is – especially when you are talking about bringing online learning into the curriculum.

Leading School Learning Through Covid-19 and Beyond

The research project is being led by The Open University Business School and is looking at how secondary school leaders in England strategically manage and plan for online provision of learning, through the pandemic and beyond. Visit

Get involved

School leaders are invited to complete a 10-minute survey and take part in an online 30-minute interview (all participants will receive a £20 Amazon voucher). For the survey, visit


Daulby: Using assistive technology to give SEND learners independence, Impact, January 2019:

Netolicky, D.M. (2020) Transformation professional learning: making a difference in schools. Abingdon, Routledge.

Katharine Jewitt is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate and Associate Lecturer at The Open University. She is Co-Chair of the UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab Education and Digital Skills E-Team. Research activities are in Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), learners’ experiences and uses of technology in learning, mobile learning environments, computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL), learning in virtual, augmented and mixed reality. Katharine is an advocate of causes such as education equality and social justice. She is particularly interested in how technology enhanced learning can help people to develop key life skills and realise their full potential. Dr Jewitt completed her PhD at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education in using virtual reality for work-based learning with apprentices in SMEs. She holds one doctorate degree, six postgraduate degrees and one Bachelor degree. She tweets at @KatharineJewitt.

 This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

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