This was the first time I had attended the OU’s Widening Participation Conference.  I found it a very stimulating two days – with a great balance of keynotes giving insights into the similarities and differences across all four UK nations.  The insights provided by Michael Hill from GSM London were refreshing in their honesty and have led me to reflect on work we are undertaking to consider the benefits and challenges of a data led approach to enhancement compared to an approach which starts by engaging those closest to students.

The Digital Inclusion session on Thursday morning was both engaging and practical. It was wonderful to gain an international perspective from Dr Cathy Stone – who also left us with the national guidelines for improving student outcomes fin online learning particularly in terms of retention and course completion rates.  A process take-away was the fabulous section in each guideline entitled “translating into action” which includes ideas and references to follow-up  Dr Karen Foley then outlined how she was succeeding in engaging distance learning students in an academic community that goes beyond module/subject boundaries.  Key learning points included the use of existing technology and the importance of a fun/social element.

Ethical dilemmas were my focus for the afternoon session. It was fascinating to hear from Scott McKenzie and Dr Hannah Bayfield about the effectiveness of area based approaches in widening participation.  Coming from Scotland where a similar area based approach to deprivation is a key focus I could relate to the dilemmas they expressed so eloquently.  It was great to hear a colleague provide encouragement that while an area based method may not be perfect – the degree of “fit” that they had found was something to be positive about.  Danielle Chavrimootoo then provided a fascinating insight into her work studying the experiences and perceptions of black, Asian and ethnic minority pupil’s considering studying geography at university.   I was struck by the consideration that been given to the “so what?” that can often be asked around a research question.  Her “so what” was around a concern that if there is a lack of diversity in those studying university level geography then this will be perpetuated in those who go on to teach geography resulting in a lack of relevant role models.

Day two led to more ethical dilemmas. Kate Lister and Dr Sam Child provided early insights into their ongoing research across a number of universities look at scaling up inclusive education within STEM.  There were fascinating insights into STEM specific barriers – such as around fieldwork and lab work and examples of how these might be overcome.  Wendy Fowle then gave us insights, based on her research, into the impact of widening participation policies on adult learners’ self-concept.  I was particularly struck by her finding that individuals generally welcomed being a widening access student but did not like the terminology WP.  It was a powerful reminder of the importance of language and being aware of how often deficit language is used – albeit with good intent – around many adult learners.

This short piece does not do justice to an interactive and rich two days. Connections were made, practice exchanged and thinking stimulated.  I’ve found the publication “Is Widening Participation to Higher Education Enough” a tremendous prompt and reminder to what was discussed over the two days and I am sure I will continue to refer to it in the weeks and months ahead.

Thanks again to Wendy, Sattie, Annie and the team for all their hard-work to deliver such an excellent event – which of course was only possible thanks to the stimulus of the presenters and the lively engagement of those in the room.

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