Open educational resources (OERs) are teaching and learning materials that are freely available to everyone to use. The majority of Open University OERS can be found on the OpenLearn platform and also on FutureLearn, where learners can find hundreds of courses based on Open University materials.
An espoused benefit of OERs is to widen participation in Higher Education as they enable learners to access University level courses free of charge and from anywhere in the world. However, despite the huge numbers of OERs which have been developed worldwide, there is concern that the focus on widening access has been somewhat diluted. The reality is that most OER learners are already highly educated and so although participation in HE may have been widened geographically and technologically, it has not necessarily been widened academically or socially.
In CICP we have been working on developing OERs which target a specifically widening participation audience. They are Taking your first steps into Higher Education , part of a suite of badged open courses on OpenLearn, and Get started in online learning, which is available on FutureLearn. A key feature of our approach has been to focus on skills development, including Maths, English and online learning skills, and to encourage learners to consider Higher Education as an option for them. In developing both courses we have drawn on the current Access curriculum and study support materials available so that the look and feel of the courses is similar to that which our existing Open University students would experience.
Evaluation of the learner experience on both courses suggests that these learners generally have lower prior qualifications, are slightly older and more likely to be disabled than many other OER learners. Indeed, their profile is very similar to our Open University and particularly Access students. There is also evidence that these learners are more likely to request information about or to formally register on Open University courses than those on other OpenLearn and FutureLearn courses.
Our experience therefore suggests that if the overall approach, content and structure of OERs is designed with widening participation learners in mind, it is more likely to appeal to such learners and also to encourage transition into higher education.