CALRG Conference: 29 June 2023

Digital Education for Universities: Capacity building for impact and nationwide change in Kenya (Denise Whitelock, Fereshte Goshtasbpour, Beck Pitt, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Cross and Olivier Biard, OU UK)

In order to provide high quality access to digital higher education in Kenya, the development and enhancement of online education has been prioritised by the country’s government and is reflected in the country’s strategic plans, including the National Education Sector’s Strategic Plan 2018-22. One course of action, as suggested from the literature, is to provide capacity building activities for university staff and development of their digital competencies.

To this end, a nationwide capacity development programme (Digital Education for Universities) was designed and delivered to 254 selected educators, managers and support staff in Kenyan universities as a part of the Skills for Prosperity Kenya programme funded by Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The initiative ran across 37 public universities and was based on an existing openly licensed course “Take Your Teaching Online” which was reused, repurposed and localised to offer accessible online professional development.

This presentation presents findings from a mixed-methods evaluative study of the initiative, informed by data from a post-training survey (n=120), semi-structured interviews with participants (n=30) and focus groups with university teams (n=4), 15-18 months after the training. The study identified impacts of the capacity building programme on the digital competencies and practices of three groups of staff – educators, managers and support staff. It also identified areas in which substantial change has already emerged as a result of the training.

Key words: Open course, OER, capacity building

Introduction to Virtual Exchange and its benefits: a case study from the OU’s Online Confucius Institute (Mirjam Hauck, Qian Kan, Ligao Wu and Doris Hermann-Ostrowski, OU UK)

Virtual exchange (VE) stands for “pedagogically-structured online collaborative learning between groups of students in different cultural contexts and/or geographical locations” (O’Dowd, 2018). It combines the deep impact of intercultural dialogue with the broad reach of digital technology (EVOLVE, 2019). It is a research-informed practice and a strong catalyst in advancing the internationalisation of HE curricula, known as Internationalisation at Home (IaH) (Beelen and Jones, 2015; O’Dowd & Beelen, 2021). VE has developed over 30 years from experience in educational exchange and study abroad and can prepare for, deepen, or extend physical exchanges or – as shown by COVID-19 – it can also emulate them. Having an alternative to physical exchanges is particularly relevant as outward student mobility is still limited, with ‘7.8 per cent of UK undergraduate students … choosing to study abroad’ (UUKi, 2019), for example. Lasting on average 6-8 weeks, VEs are known to prepare students for the globalised digital workplace as they focus on transversal skills development including problem solving, teamwork and leadership, languages and communication, critical and innovative thinking, and information literacy (Crawford, 2021).

The School of Languages and Applied Linguistics (LAL) has recently piloted a joint teacher training programme between the OU’s Online Confucius Institute and Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) for OU LAL Associate Lecturers and BFSU educators. The approach is inspired by experiential modelling (Hoven, 2006) where online tools and processes educators are expected to use in their teaching are experienced from a learner’s point of view. The main aim of the training was to introduce participants to VE pedagogy, support them in finding a VE teaching partner and to inspire them to jointly design, implement and evaluate exchanges as part of their teaching practice. We report on the insights from the training and in how far they consolidate and expand findings from existing VE research.

Online professional development across European institutions and borders (Bart Rienties, OU UK)

Professional development (PD) is a key element for enhancing the quality of academic teaching. An increasing number of PD activities have moved to blended and online formats, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the desire, potential, and need for collaboration among educators to learn from innovative and best practices, several European institutions have started to pool their resources and expertise together and have started to implement cross-institutional and cross-national online professional development (OPD). The questions of what educators from one country or context need versus another, what type of OPD they prefer, what they expect, and whether educators in a cross-institutional OPD learn effectively from (and with) peers in a cross-cultural context have not been adequately explored empirically.

In this case-study across three European countries, we explored the lived experiences of 90 educators as a result of a cross-institutional OPD. Using a mixed methods design approach our findings indicated that, on average, participants made substantial gains in knowledge. In addition, cultural differences were evident in the expectations and lived experiences in OPD, as well as the intention to transfer what had been learned into one’s own practice of action. This study indicates that while substantial economic and pedagogical affordances are provided with cross-institutional OPD, cultural differences in context might impact the extent to which educators implement the lessons learned from OPD.


Bragg, L. A. et al. (2021). Successful design and delivery of online professional development for teachers: A systematic review of the literature. Computers & Education, 166, 104158.

Dille, K. B., & Røkenes, F. M. (2021). Teachers’ professional development in formal online communities: A scoping review. Teaching and Teacher Education, 105, 103431.

Lantz-Andersson, A., et al. (2018). Twenty years of online teacher communities: A systematic review of formally-organized and informally-developed professional learning groups. Teaching and Teacher Education, 75, 302-315.

Zhang, Z., et al. (2016). Hong Kong and Canadian students experiencing a new participatory culture: A teacher professional training project undergirded by new media literacies. Teaching and Teacher Education, 59, 146-158.

Energy digitisation and learning: who is interested and what do people want to learn about? (Irina Rets, Denise Whitelock, Leigh-Anne Perryman and Chris Edwards, OU UK)

Addressing the climate crisis presents humanity with one of the biggest obstacles to date, necessitating the development of innovative and collaborative approaches to tackle it. Energy digitalisation is one such approach that involves the employment of digital technologies, such as advanced sensors and data analytics, into the energy sector. Energy digitalisation aims to improve efficiency of energy use by reducing costs and risks, as well as by engaging with citizens to understand their preferences of energy use.

However, as energy digitalisation is a relatively new concept it requires a good understanding to ensure a wide uptake among all members of society. Currently, it is unclear what level of awareness of energy digitalisation is present throughout Europe and which citizens are interested in learning more about it.

In this presentation, we will discuss the emerging findings from the Every1 project ( This interdisciplinary project brings together leading experts in energy, education, and the social sciences to enable all European stakeholders to participate effectively in the digital energy transition. Our emerging findings are based on the mixed-methods analysis of 4,000 survey responses that were completed by citizens in Portugal, Sweden, Poland, and Germany, as part of the project’s data collection. Our quantitative analysis allowed us to develop a learner persona for energy digitalisation – an overview of the background characteristics of a person who is most keen to learn about energy digitalisation. Our qualitative analysis facilitated further insight into the kinds of topics that people are most interested in learning more about.

Finally, we will make recommendations about how to reach citizens who might currently be excluded from learning about energy digitalisation, and the implications that such exclusion poses for tackling the climate emergency.

Understanding student experience feedback of ethnic minority students with learning analytics (Thomas Ullman and Chris Edwards, OU UK)

This presentation explores text analytics of student experience survey data to understand educational inequalities. The UK National Student Survey has shown that ethnic minority students generally have a less satisfactory student experience compared to White students. Existing research has primarily focused on quantitative survey items in order to understand this gap, neglecting the potential contributions of student responses to open-ended questions.

To address this gap, this research presents a novel attempt to explore the richness encapsulated within these open comments, aiming to shed light on educational inequalities. The proposed methodology utilizes a two-step approach. Firstly, a key word analysis is employed to extract insights from a large dataset comprising 22,275 student comments. Subsequently, manual content analysis is conducted to examine the most salient key words pertaining to two specific UK ethnic minorities: Black or Black British African students, and Black or Black British Caribbean students.

The results demonstrate the effectiveness of this hybrid method, combining both automated and manual content analysis, in identifying a variety of specific key topics for each ethnic minority. The analysis captures both positive and negative aspects in detail. Moreover, this study highlights the feasibility and advantages of employing text analytics to provide guidance for manual analysis of open comments. Importantly, this method uncovers valuable insights into the student experience of ethnic minority students, which are often overlooked when relying solely on quantitative survey questions.

Overall, this presentation emphasizes the significance of incorporating open comments into research on educational inequalities, showcasing the potential of text analytics in enriching our understanding of these disparities and providing a more comprehensive view of the student experience.

Keywords: student evaluation of teaching, student experience, educational inequalities, ethnicity, Asian, Black, Caribbean, African, text analytics

“It offers me a future, when I don’t have anything”: Perspectives from students from refugee backgrounds associated with the Open Futures Sanctuary Programme at the OU (Koula Charitonos, Neil Graffin, Marie Gillespie, Lidia Dancu, Ahmad Al-Rashid, Olwyn O’Malley, Shannon Martin, Fidele Mutwarasibo, Mahlea Babjak and Colin Wilding, OU UK)

The paper draws on a cross-faculty scholarship project that is situated within a major institutional initiative related to providing scholarships to forcibly displaced people to study at a distance and online at the OU. This is either for studies at an undergraduate level or to attend selected Access modules on a fee waiver. The project aimed to examine the experiences of students from refugee backgrounds who joined the university in the current academic year (total of n=44 students). It also sought to investigate change in practice and gather evidence to inform future institutional developments. To achieve this, we drew on the Value Analysis Model (VAM) – adapted by the Cultural Value Model (CVM) (Gillespie et al., 2018) – that allowed a range of stakeholders in the study (e.g. students, senior management, tutors, fundraisers) to explore and reflect on the scholarships programme over time. This model supports reflection on the values and goals, procedures, and perception of success from diverse perspectives, which is critical in examining institutional change. The approach was multi-stakeholder and collaborative, putting students and their needs at the centre of the research, an essential approach in research with learners who may be vulnerable. Our presentation will outline the approach followed in the study and will primarily draw on data generated through repeated interviews with students in two phases during 2022-23. We will share student micro-portraits, we will draw on preliminary findings from the study and reflect on implications that these findings may have for colleagues who are / will be working closely with this cohort of students.

The Complex Trajectories project (Chris Edwards, Bart Rienties, Simon Cross and Mark Gaved, OU UK)

This Horizon+ project has, over the last two years, considered different aspects of the student experience of study at HE level in four European countries: France, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In each country the project was designed to involve two partner institutions. One face to face and the other, a distance learning university. The project focusses on how institutions support students coming into the institution bringing credit from elsewhere or wanting to change qualifications during their study. It has also tested different methods for exploring the actual experience of the 2012/13 cohort over several years through the data available at each of the partner institutions. This has been an opportunity to use IET’s Pathways Model and to test different forms of trajectory modelling to explore how students study, take study breaks, and complete their qualifications. The project will end in July and this presentation describes the approach, the deliverables including two MOOCs (one on university practices and the other on approaches to data), and the outcomes to date.

Creating emotionally supportive learning environments when undertaking assessed, online, group activities (Jake Hilliard, OU UK)

Over the past two decades, extensive research has underscored the significant influence of emotions on students’ learning, achievement, and overall wellbeing. Pleasant emotions, such as enjoyment, have been associated with improved task focus, the utilisation of effective self-regulation strategies, and enhanced mental wellbeing. Conversely, experiencing unpleasant emotions, such as anxiety, has been linked to increased task-irrelevant thinking, reduced motivation to learn, and diminished physical and mental health.

Despite the growing understanding of the impact of emotions when learning, there remains a dearth of research specifically focusing on the emotional experiences of students during assessed, online, group activities. These collaborative learning approaches, commonly employed at The Open University UK, encourage students to engage in group discussions, share thoughts and opinions, solve problems together, and collectively produce group products or artefacts.

While these learning methods offer educational benefits, existing research, albeit limited, has highlighted that these activities can elicit a diverse range of emotional states, including heightened levels of unpleasant emotions (particularly anxiety and frustration). Due to the potential detrimental impacts of these emotions, it is crucial that strategies for establishing emotionally supportive learning environments when undertaking online group work are identified.

This presentation consists of two parts. Firstly, it provides a succinct overview of key findings derived from a doctoral study that investigated students’ emotional experiences in assessed, online, group activities. Secondly, building upon these findings and drawing from theoretical frameworks of emotion, the presentation presents potential approaches to foster an emotionally supportive learning environment when undertaking online group work. By attending to students’ emotions, these approaches aim to cultivate healthy and optimal learning environments that nurture both cognitive and affective aspects of student development.

Keywords: emotion, online group learning, learning design

Examining OU student satisfaction and barriers to taking remote online exams (Maria Aristeidou, Simon Cross, Carlton Wood and Klaus-Dieter Rossade, OU UK)

Recent years have seen a surge in the popularity of online exams at universities, due to the greater convenience and flexibility they offer both students and institutions. Despite the growing popularity, there is still limited research that addresses student satisfaction with online exams, and in particular students in distance-learning universities. Driven by the dearth of empirical data on distance learning students’ satisfaction levels and the difficulties they face when taking online exams, a survey with 562 students at The Open University (OU) was conducted to gain insights into their experiences with this type of exam. Pre-pandemic, 24% of the OU courses ended with a face-to-face exam, which has now been replaced with mainly remote open book style exams (e.g., multiple choice questionnaires, essays, equations and numerical workings). These exam interactions range from timed exams (2-4.5 hours) to 7-day submission windows. High levels of satisfaction were reported with the environment (finding a quiet and of quality space to take the exam) and the quality of the exams (clear questions that allowed them to demonstrate their learning); however, nearly half of the students thought that the exam was harder than expected. Work commitments, expected in a university with students of a higher average age, and technical difficulties, such as unexpected software and internet issues, presented the greatest barriers. Gender, race and disability were also associated with different levels of satisfaction and barriers. This study adds to the increasing number of studies on online exams, demonstrating how this type of exam can still substantially affect students experienced in online learning systems and technologies. Nevertheless, from an institutional perspective, a number of these challenges are perfectly manageable and do not require unaffordable or not yet existing high-tech solutions.