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Externally funded projects

Engaging Opportunities

Project leader(s): 
Rick Holliman

Engaging Opportunities was funded by RCUK from 2013-2016 as one of 12 School-University Partnerships (SUPI). A booklet summarising the key lessons learnt from the 12 SUPIs, illustrated by taster case studies, is freely available: Lessons from the RCUK-funded School-University Partnerships Initiative.

Executive Summary

Engaging Opportunities involved a partnership between the Open University and the Denbigh Teaching School Alliance in Milton Keynes. The final report from our project, which includes links to resources to support the development of school-university activities, is freely available: Engaging Opportunities: Connecting young people with contemporary research and researchers.

Informed by action research, our partnership was designed to create structured, strategic, sustainable and equitable mechanisms for effective school-university engagement with research.

Over four years our project team created engaging opportunities for 11 schools and more than 6,577 people within Milton Keynes. Students and teachers engaged with authentic practices of contemporary and inspiring research in a range of academic disciplines.

Through this work we offered opportunities to participate in mutual learning and develop relevant and useful skills and competencies in how to access, assess, analyse and respond to contemporary research.

Engaging opportunities was a collective and cooperative journey involving students, teachers and researchers. The journey can be characterised by our action research-informed approach; learning through doing (Holliman et al. 2017).

Our successes and failures are down to a small, dedicated group of university academics, teachers and support staff, with a supporting cast of many more (see the inside cover of the final report; Holliman et al. 2018), all committed to improving the aspirations and life chances of children and young people in Milton Keynes.

Our core aims for our RCUK-funded partnership remained the same throughout the four-year project. Put simply, young people are key ‘publics’ for research and they should have a voice in how research is shaped and framed. Informed by a shared mission for social justice we have engaged students from different backgrounds whilst addressing the relevance and impact of research to them.

We worked to generate awareness of the nature and challenges of contemporary research. Further, we have worked to foster and extend a culture of reflective practice around school-university engagement with research; and to embed school-university engagement with research within the OU’s and DTSA’s strategic planning on a sustainable basis.

Since the conclusion of the project we have coordinated a number of legacy projects. These projects have been built upon the links developed between the two institutions and a mutually understanding as to the benefits of school-university collaboration.


Engaging Opportunities was funded through the RCUK School University Partnership Initiative (EP/K027786/1).


If you would like any further information about the project please contact  

Image: Mark Russell

Activities to improve the engagement of international students in online teaching

Project leader(s): 
Simon Collinson and Catherine Halliwell

Online teaching enables students to study from all around the globe to produce a diverse student cohort. As UK universities expand online provision and target international students key questions arise:

  • Are there any specific issues found for the online teaching of international students compared to traditional teaching?
  • What are the levels of engagement and the experience of international students and how might we improve it?
  • What role can context based learning play?

The diverse range of students at the Open University provides a great opportunity to study these questions. Therefore this project surveyed students and academics within STEM subjects for student engagement with online courses, forums and tutorials, focussing on science students particularly in chemistry.

International students attending an Open University Science residential school were interviewed to identify barriers and aids to their successful study. Possible areas of contention involve their level of English, confusion over aspects of assessment, differences in their educational and cultural background, difficulties in attending synchronous tutorials and feelings of isolation. Also during this course several academics were consulted over their experiences in teaching international students and problems with time differences and a reluctance to talk in tutorials was highlighted. The academic literature also recognises that student engagement and numbers falls more during online courses than traditional courses.

Firstly an online international context based tutorial activity was developed focussing on trace metals in the diet and health. This was trialled in the Open University Level 3 course Metals and Life, with student and tutor feedback being obtained.

Secondly, an online forum activity was prepared where the students studied research papers dealing with salt in the diet. This latter activity targeted transferable study skills such as skim reading, critical data analysis and introduced the students to the research literature. This was also trialled with the Metals and Life course with analysis of the student engagement with the forum and student feedback obtained. Interestingly, there were many students monitoring the forum but not posting on it.
This teaching material will be made available on the RSC Learn Chemistry website.

Related documents

Collinson, S. (2013) Understanding and promoting student engagement via online interactive tutorials - development of an internationally relevant environmental chemistry and health context based learning activity. Final Report HEA Teaching Development Grant: Individual Scheme. (PDF)

Collinson & Halliwell poster (PDF)

The OpenScience Laboratory

Project leader(s): 
Nick Braithwaite

The OpenScience Laboratory (OSL) was launched in July 2013 with generous funding from the Wolfson Foundation and significant investment from the Open University. An international centre at the cutting edge of practical science teaching and learning, the OSL provides online access to laboratory and field investigations that are authentic, motivating and challenging. Guided by rigorous research, it inspires learners by allowing them access to real data, resulting in authentic discoveries and experiences. Opening up the world of science like never before, the OSL provides a unique platform from which practical science can reach universities, colleges, offices and homes across the globe.

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