Monthly Archives: October 2021

Cosy bedfellows? Independent learning and peer interaction online

Image – Radek Sturgolewski via Shutterstock

Independent learning is usually envisaged as something that students do alone. But on ‘A329, The Making of Welsh History’, an online distance-learning dissertation module at the Open University, the situation is quite the reverse. Launched in autumn 2017, A329 was in late 2018 the subject of a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning project supported by FASSTEST, the OU’s Scholarship Centre for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. That project looked at the efficacy of various pedagogic innovations introduced on the module and found that the two most far-reaching of these new approaches, in terms of student experience and outcomes, were: 

(1) the embedding of external found content directly into online module materials to promote independent study habits, and 

(2) the frequent use of online research activities through which students form a tight-knit community of learners by offering constructive feedback on both formative and summative pieces of their peers’ work.  

Students studying entirely online and at a distance traditionally suffer in two important respects. Firstly, they do not have access to the kinds of physical learning resources that their counterparts at conventional universities do. Secondly, the norm is to study in at home in isolation, with only occasional interactions with peers. As a result, at the Open University the standard approach to Humanities curriculum has until recently assumed that students will habitually study alone. In addition, the use of external found resources to foster independent study habits tends to be peripheral rather than central to the student experience. 

‘The Making of Welsh History’ uses innovative techniques to address these two deficiencies, using frequent online interactions to create an environment in which students help one another to develop the skills needed to successfully conduct an independently researched dissertation based on externally hosted sources and scholarship available online. The module thus successfully enables the social construction of knowledge and understanding via remote, online, and asynchronous means, built around extensive engagement with pre-existing online resources such as eBooks, journal articles and primary source databases. That is achieved by creating the conditions in which students’ feedback on one another’s arguments and interpretations, on short pieces of formative work involving found resources, and also on longer summative assignments in the earlier stages of the module. Whilst marks are always awarded for students’ own work, they also rest in some part on the extent to which students have helped their peers as well as on the quality of the academic work they produce.  

The skills gained through these bite-sized research activities, and by the ongoing rounds of peer comment associated with them and with some of the formal assessment points, equip students to produce a 7,000-word dissertation on a Welsh history topic of their own choosing. More broadly, the project examining A329 found that:  

Online learners do not need to study alone; they can access all the benefits of social constructivism and peer interaction that students at traditional universities take for granted. 

  • Online learning materials do not need to be, and in fact should not be, written from scratch. Found scholarship and resources online can be made central to the study experience in the same way as a physical library at a traditional university.  
  • Getting students to work together online, by engaging constructively with the work that their peers are doing, is an optimal way to prepare them for conducting their own research independently 

The project also found that the first presentation of the module achieved a satisfaction rate of 88%, a completion rate of 91.5%, and a pass rate of 89%. These statistics are impressive given the OU’s open entry policy and the fact that the module attracts more than 100 students each year. The figures were the highest in the OU’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for academic year 17/18 and are largely the result of the two new approaches outlined above.  

‘The Making of Welsh history’ therefore represents a potential paradigm shift, not only in how online distance learners’ study but also in terms of how they develop broad academic and subject-specific skills. The model discussed here is to an extent taken as read at traditional universities but has proved a real challenge for online distance learning. However, that challenge can now be addressed as distance learning moves away from printed materials to the digital sphere. Indeed, A329 has been the inspiration for several similar dissertation modules at the OU, in subjects such as geography, sociology, criminology and art history. Moreover, the OU is far from the only provider of distance learning in the UK, and the approaches discussed here may be of relevance to anyone teaching Humanities or Social Science subjects online.  

Richard Marsden

Richard Marsden- Director of Teaching for Arts and Humanities, FASS, Arts and Humanities

How to run engaging academic conferences online

Image by Jagrit Parajuli from Pixabay

During the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen an exponential growth in the number of online academic conferences. While the online medium has posed some challenges, it is increasingly becoming apparent that holding conferences online offers a lot of opportunities beyond the pandemic. Online conferences are more accessible for people with disabilities or caring responsibilities. They are a lot cheaper (given that there are no travel or venue costs and no catering or accommodation have to be provided for delegates) and environmentally friendly (again, because online conferences don’t require delegates to travel). Online conferences also open up a host of new opportunities for knowledge exchange and can be easily recorded and widely shared.   

However, organising and attending an online conference requires new thinking. It’s not just a question of the availability and technical knowledge of different tools and platforms, but of planning how to use these tools wisely and effectively to engage and energise participants, be inclusive, widen participation and deliver good content. At the Open University, we have a lot of experience of teaching online, and particularly with engaging people from a wide range of different backgrounds. How could this expertise be applied to running academic conferences and make them more engaging and inclusive? 

FASSTEST, the Centre for Scholarship and Innovation at the Open University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, has supported a scholarship project aiming to identify best practice in the organisation and delivery of online academic conferences in the Arts and Social Sciences. This involved a literature review (of scholarly literature on online engagement as well as of existing ‘how to’ guides on running conferences online) and semi-structured interviews with 20 colleagues at the Open University, who spoke about their experiences as organisers, attendees or support staff of online academic conferences. Based on this work, the project team have put together a guide with tips and tricks of how to run engaging and inclusive academic conferences online. This guide is now available and can be accessed here: Planning Online Conferences in the Arts and Social Sciences   

Even as we start to open up again, online conferences are here to stay – so let’s do our best to make them as useful as possible!  

Dr Stefanie Sinclair 

Dr Stefanie Sinclair | Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences ( 

What difference does it make? Embedding the teaching of good academic practices

Image Hatice Yardim / Unsplash


Between August 2011 and July 2019, I was the Lead Academic Conduct Officer for the Arts and Humanities at The Open University.  My role during this time primarily involved investigating cases of poor academic practice (aka plagiarism) which had been referred for disciplinary treatment.  As such, these cases required a formal approach, including sending students evidence of our concerns in the form of marked-up copies of their essays and asking students to explain in writing the reasons behind the lack of appropriate referencing in their assignments.  Students’ responses almost invariably brought up one or more of these issues:

  • Lack of appreciation of when and why to acknowledge other people’s work,
  • Panic and confusion around how to reference,
  • Lack of confidence in their ability to write in their own words, or to paraphrase effectively,
  • Special circumstances leading to difficulties finding time for or being able to concentrate on their studies.

The overwhelming reoccurrence of such responses soon led me to realise that plagiarism at The Open University truly was ‘the surface manifestation of complex learning difficulties’ (Angelil-Carter, 2000, p. 2).  Our open entry policy means that many of our students have limited prior educational experience and will often lack basic awareness of good academic practices.  I knew from this point that I needed to use whatever influence I had as an Academic Conduct Officer to move beyond ‘robust and transparent procedures for detecting and punishing plagiarism’ (Park, 2004, p. 294).

My early and relatively modest attempts to make a difference to students’ chances and experiences focused on ensuring that the disciplinary process was not just about issuing warnings or penalties but, also and crucially, more of ‘a place where learning can occur’ than had hitherto been the case (Carroll and Appleton, 2001, p. 30).  I complemented these reactive efforts with ongoing support and guidance to colleagues via regular staff development interventions as well as the production of a toolkit to assist tutors who are asked to deliver a study skills session.  Ultimately, my aspiration was to help introduce proactive ways of supporting students that were suitable to our part-time, distance learning model with relatively limited formal opportunities for students to meet tutors and fellow students and with formal teaching content delivered via our high-quality module materials.  And so, mindful also of the importance of relatable examples in helping students learn, I lobbied for study skills to become embedded into the teaching and assessment strategy of our modules (Lampert, 2008, p. 11)

From aspiration to reality: early indicators

The obvious place to introduce a new approach was our foundation Arts and Humanities module, which had an intake each academic year of around 4000 students, and an opportunity arose in 2015 as plans to revise our Level 1 teaching commenced.  Our new foundation module, Discovering the Arts and Humanities eventually launched in October 2019 and includes a number of innovations.  Amongst these is a unit on Academic Integrity, written by myself, which: contains practical advice and activities based on my experience of students’ struggles with good academic practices, draws directly from the module materials for examples, and is assessed via a short compulsory quiz.  The unit, whose primary concerns are with the when and why of referencing, with encouraging students to reflect on the impact of quotations, paraphrases, and summaries, and with providing some strategies to encourage them to use sources effectively, is supplemented by a larger suite of strategically placed Study Skills sessions with practical exercises on topics such as time management, note-taking, planning, and writing assignments, reading, and creating references.

Given that teaching good academic practices actively, extensively, and as part of a structured and integrated approach was new in the Arts and Humanities, I was keen to assess the impact of this innovative approach.  To this end, as part of a larger academic-conduct project I am currently undertaking, I am seeking to ascertain whether Discovering the Arts and Humanities is more effective in developing students’ skills than its predecessor module – The Arts Past and Present­ – was.  I am doing this by considering trends in poor academic practice referrals for the two modules as well as responses to a short questionnaire sent to students who have completed either module between October 2018 and September 2020 (so students from two presentations of each module).

It is admittedly difficult to link any change strictly to the modules’ handling of good academic practices.  For instance, although on average the profile of students undertaking the Arts and Humanities foundation modules since February 2018 is similar in terms of gender, age, disability, and ethnicity, it has been more likely for Discovering the Arts and Humanities students to be registered on more than 60 credits at any given time in the presentation than was the case with The Arts Past and Present­ (AA100) students (29.7% v. 19.54%). With regards to the questionnaires, also, the responses from AA100 students could well be influenced by these students’ experiences since completing the module, or by the time passed between finishing the module and responding to the questionnaire (about a year).  There is, additionally, the wider complicating factor of the Covid-19 pandemic, which will have affected all students who have enrolled on the current foundation module so far in different ways.

All of the above notwithstanding, preliminary analysis of both the quantitative and qualitative sets of data suggests that the new model is working.  On the one hand, academic conduct referral levels in the first three presentations of Discovering the Arts and Humanities (A111) are on average lower than those in the final three presentations of the previous foundation module (1.08% of all submissions were referred for poor academic practice v. 1.34%).  What is particularly noticeable, in fact, is the sharp decline in disciplinary referrals: these accounted for 16.9% of all A111 cases of concern between October 2019 and May 2021, whereas 32.3% of all referrals on The Arts Past and Present­ between February 2018 and September 2019 were for disciplinary treatment.  On the other hand, survey responses seem to indicate that the current module is providing students with more of what they need – at least judging by the number of comments (30 v. 8) picking up on the modules’ general effectiveness in developing students’ academic skills.  Appreciation for the new module’s focus on skills is repeatedly expressed in responses, often in connection to the advantage of study skills sessions being short, embedded in the module materials, and gradually released.  The Academic Integrity unit is also generally reviewed as a useful and insightful resource, helping build students’ confidence in when and why to reference.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, by far the most common response across both questionnaires when students were asked about areas their modules could have helped them more with is that referencing presents a real struggle and is something students identify as hard work.  There are some signs that this seems less acute for The Arts Past and Present­ students since they have had more practice in the area since completing this module.  Nonetheless, it is telling that referencing remains a source of concern after the foundation year, and that there are significant overlaps between the responses mentioning referencing across both questionnaires.  They highlight, for instance, that students particularly value referencing examples explicitly identified as such within the module materials (i.e., the Assessment Booklet for The Arts Past and Present­ or the ‘How to cite this unit’ pages within Discovering the Arts and Humanities).  Yet some students interestingly reflect that this promotes overreliance on these models rather than equipping students to understand how to reference, while some others in fact admit that they are still referring to the Assessment Booklet when referencing or that they felt lost once ‘How to cite this unit’ pages were no longer available towards the end of the presentation.  Respondents across both questionnaires also express their preference for more, more regular, or more structured guidance, and it is also apparent that at least some students would welcome an open discussion on referencing, tutor support being identified in various parts of the surveys as pivotal to students’ development of academic skills and, in particular, their understanding of referencing.

Next steps

Shortly after I finished writing the Academic Integrity unit for Discovering the Arts and Humanities (A111), I became the Deputy Chair for a module that in many ways follows on from it – Cultures – and was asked to take the lead developing its Study Skills strategy.  Eventually, this materialised as a suite of 8 sessions which appear at regular intervals throughout the presentation, use examples from the adjacent module materials, and build on the skills introduced on A111, with particular focus on working effectively with sources and academic writing development.  Responses to the questionnaires outlined above happily seem to confirm that these are two areas students would generally like more support with, and now that Cultures (A112) has presented twice (it launched in October 2020), we are now conducting a survey with current students as a way to test whether the study skills suite has worked in the way we anticipated.

I am also involved in Level 1-wide conversations about a number of follow-on initiatives, not least one which seeks to address two key findings from the questionnaires (the evident anxiety referencing still causes and the value students place on tutor advice and guidance) at the same time as upholding our firm belief that, at Level 1, the emphasis should be on the when and why and not so much on the how of referencing.

For further details please contact:  Encarna Trinidad, Lecturer and Staff Tutor in English


Angelil-Carter, S. (2000) Stolen Language?: Plagiarism in Writing. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Carroll, J. and Appleton, J. (2001) Plagiarism: A Good Practice Guide [Online]. Oxford: Oxford Brookes, Joint Information Systems Committee. Available at—a-good-practice-guide-by-oxford-brookes-university.pdf (Accessed 9 June 2021).

Lampert, L. D. (2008) Combating student plagiarism: an academic librarian’s guide. Oxford: Chandos.

Park, C. (2004) ‘Rebels without a clause: towards an institutional framework for dealing with plagiarism by students,’ Journal of Further and Higher Education, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 291-306.  Available at: (Accessed 9 June 2021).