Learning from one another: the value of students’ insights

Sparrows on a branch singing

Students are at the heart of our approach to learning design. We focus on helping our module authoring teams make evidence-based decisions, and insights from students form an important part of that evidence. This is the reasoning behind our curriculum design student panel (CDSP), which was highly commended in the ALT Learning Technologist of the Year (team) awards in 2019, described by the judging panel as ‘a model for others to follow’.

In fact, the panel is a little more than that now: since starting with around 500 students in 2016, we now have more than 1,800 students registered. They provide feedback on a range of module materials, from activities to new tools, and carry out numerous kinds of assignments, including interviews, surveys, user testing and critical reading. With their input, our authors can make evidence-based, student-focused decisions while they’re developing module material. This not only brings the student voice to the heart of learning design but also ensures that it’s heard early on in the process, so that it can be considered carefully and acted on well before materials enter production.

It’s not just our module teams who benefit from students’ insights. Our whole learning design team can learn too – about students’ needs, how they use module materials and different media, and how they relate to the OU.

Our approach

Module teams from across the university have made use of the student panel. They’re invited to use it as part of the regular conversations our learning designers have with course writers. For example, if a team has plans to introduce a new type of learning activity into their module, our learning designers may suggest that it’s tested by the student panel. Alternatively, a module team may be developing new interactive materials. Again, our learning designers may suggest that student panellists get involved – this time completing development testing tasks and providing feedback on their experience. It’s critical to listen to students’ voices here: we need to make sure our guidance is appropriate – we want our students to feel confident and able to study independently at a time that suits them rather than having to ask for extra support.

We also run regular surveys, gathering students’ comments on issues that could be affecting them currently. Our most recent survey explored how panel members are adapting to studying during lockdown and generated a wide range of responses. These revealed that our students have challenges across almost every area of life, from loss of access to the internet and IT equipment to dealing with changes in employment status and living spaces. Panellists also explained how they were adapting to this new normal, with several finding comfort in the certainty and structure of their OU work at such an uncertain time. Others mentioned self-care and time management skills becoming ever more important.

Keeping current

The panel itself is adapting. Since we made the panel part of our ‘business as usual’ processes in 2018, we’ve brought a panel co-ordinator on board to manage administration, develop clearer processes and monitor forum posts. We’ve also evaluated the panel annually to explore students’ experiences and to inform how we might develop the initiative further, and this exercise gave us some valuable insights.

For example, we’ve refreshed the panel’s online forum and provided extra information for new panel members, and we’ve reviewed how we communicate with panellists.

We’re also trialling a real-time feedback feature in our questionnaires. Respondents will now be able to give brief feedback on each activity they complete, rating their experience and giving us comments we can use to design future questionnaires.

The value of feedback

Our panellists’ insights are invaluable to us, not just because they present us with new perspectives but also because they help us build relationships, and we hope the feeling is mutual. Many of our members tell us that being part of the panel has given their careers a boost with some even saying that they’ve developed an interest in design of computer-mediated learning as a result of being involved. Others say they enjoy the activities, that being a member of the panel gives them a greater connection to the university and that it makes them feel that their opinions are valued.

At a time when many of us feel disconnected, it’s more satisfying than ever to know that our work is bringing people together.

Find out more about the curriculum design student panel and other opportunities OU students have to make their voice heard on the Student Voice website.