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Open World Learning (OWL)







Project website/blog:

What research questions the project addresses, aims & themes

Learning in the 21st century is undergoing both subtle and radical transformation as a result of the impact of digital, networked technologies. Open learning gives unprecedented access to information and education and provides support to learners across the globe. However, it is not the technologies themselves that represent the biggest change, but the opportunities for openness that flow from their thoughtful application, in the form of availability of, and access to, formal and informal learning. Without research the changes in learning may exclude the very people who most stand to benefit from them. For example, those likely to complete free, online courses tend to be qualified to degree level already. Ironically, the revolution in open learning is in danger of increasing the digital divide by privileging those with the appropriate digital and learning skills to best take advantage of it. It is this issue that the Open World Learning (OWL) programme will address, which over a period 2015-2020 will consist of 15 Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholarships funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and 3 funded by the Open University.

In October 2015, the first six out of 18 Leverhulme students have started. A wide range of topics and perspectives are currently investigated (find out more by clicking on the respective researcher):

You can watch the Leverhulme students presenting on their research topics below:

6 PhD funded Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholarships on Open World Learning are now available, and another 6 PhD scholarships will become available in 2017. Candidates for the 2016 round are expected to produce a proposal linked to one topic from that will become available on 1st of February 2016. In your application you will provide a short research proposal and explain how your proposal fits to the overall theme of Open World Learning, and how you intend to conduct research on the topic selected. In generating your proposal please refer to the additional information for each topic available at

  • Big data and open learning
  • Citizen observatories and the environment
  • Digital technology and education futures
  • Educator roles in open online courses
  • Human wellbeing, open education and technology
  • Impact of Open Educational Resources
  • Investigating Children’s Use of Open Digital Narratives
  • Mobile Literacies for Effective Open Learning
  • Rethinking student feedback in an open world
  • Social networking in language learning and teaching
  • Surveillance, Privacy and Learning Analytics
  • The role of open practices in enhancing teacher education in LICs
  • Understandings of Cultural Openness in Education and Enterprise

If you feel that the challenge of research in these exciting and interesting areas is for you and you have the drive and intellectual curiosity to pursue postgraduate research, then we look forward to hearing from you!

How the research questions are addressed by the project (methodology and activity/environment)

This evidence-based programme will approach these changes from a critical and empirically-informed perspective using the different macro-meso-micro lenses. To systematically connect these complex differences, an Open World Learning framework will be utilised (see Figure 1). In this research model, a complex web of 18 PhD projects will be generated, thereby simultaneously providing a holistic and fine-grained understanding of Open World Learning.

Figure 1: Open World Learning framework


Current activities

  • 9 March 2016: Application deadline
  • April/May 2016: Selection candidates
  • October 2016: Start of programme

Findings and outputs

The project started on 1st October 2015 and will run until 30 September 2020.

Project impact

The funding of the Open World Learning project by Leverhulme will leave a legacy in four different ways. First, the concerted efforts of a programme of research conducted by 18 students will make an important contribution to the understanding of Open World Learning in terms of learning and knowledge and to the identification of the challenges connected with this and their solutions. It will help us to find out what role technology plays in learning in an open world, and what the possible responses are to these challenges.

Secondly, the staff and student experience gained in five years of Leverhulme foundered cross-faculty working to support 18 students tackle interdisciplinary research will leave a legacy of valuable experience in constructing and working in interdisciplinary teams to think creatively and solve problems. These working practices are needed to tackle the interlinked, complex problems of the 21st century. One of the strengths of The Open University is the availability of unique laboratory facilities, such as our Jennie Lee Research laboratories, for studying and recording remote and on-site participants. These facilities will be upgraded to ensure world leading capabilities in applications such as eye-tracking and multi-angle digital recording.

Thirdly, the resources placed alongside the Leverhulme grant by the OU will fund studentships for three students from lower and middle income countries (e.g. India, Bangladesh, Ghana). This will broaden the experience of the cohort each year as well as the reach of the research programme to include geographical areas where the challenges around open learning are greatly augmented.

Finally, there will be a direct legacy of the scheme in the contribution of a total of 18 trained researchers to UK capability in researching the complex and interdisciplinary topic of openness, graduating as agents of change in an increasingly dynamic education landscape. They will also be able to multiply the impact of the OWL programme by training the next generation of researchers.

People involved

  • Dr Bart Rienties, (Programme Director Leverhulme Open World Learning)
  • Dr Anne Adams, Institute of Educational Technology
  • Prof Paul Anand, Economics
  • Prof Kirstie Ball, Open University Business School
  • Dr Elton Barker, Arts
  • Dr Tita Beaven, FELS
  • Dr Shonil Bhagwat, Social Science
  • Prof Nick Braithwaite, Science
  • Dr Tim Coughlan, IET
  • Dr Beth Erling, Faculty of Education and Language Studies
  • Dr Rebecca Ferguson, IET
  • Prof Regine Hampel, FELS
  • Dr Sally Jordan, Science
  • Prof Agnes Kukulska-Hulme, IET
  • Dr Timothy Lewis, FELS


  • Prof Patrick McAndrew, IET
  • Prof David Messer, FELS
  • Prof Patricia Murphy, FELS
  • Dr Daisy Mwanza-Simwami, IET
  • Prof Eileen Scanlon, IET
  • Prof Mike Sharples, IET
  • Dr Mark Smith, Politics and International Studies
  • Dr Ursula Sticker, FELS
  • Prof Peter Twining, FELS
  • Dr Sylvia Warnecke, FELS
  • Prof Martin Weller, IET
  • Prof Denise Whitelock, IET
  • Prof Helen Yanacopulos, International Development
  • Dr Karen Kear, MCT
  • Dr Natalia Kucirkova, FELS



The Leverhulme Trust was established by the Will of William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers. Since 1925 the Trust has provided grants and scholarships for research and education. Today, it is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing over £60m a year. For more information about the Trust, please visit

Start Date and duration

October 2015-October 2020

Research & Innovation