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OU research supports society across multiple sectors in pandemic response

Coronavirus researchers in PPE in a lab

The coronavirus pandemic presented the world with challenges which The Open University (OU) has sought to address right from the outset.

In March, a team led by the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research, Enterprise and Scholarship (RES), acted quickly to mobilise academics and resources to respond to the crisis.

RES rose to the challenge by identifying nine areas of activity where the OU could contribute and add value to the lives of staff, the general public, to professionals needing to move their services online and to the body of academic research in this field.

Early opportunities to respond came in the form of meeting a demand for hand sanitiser; joining an industry partner who was researching a test for COVID-19 and support to counsellors who wanted to move their services online

Building on our track record in online and distant learning

Not surprisingly, a key area of demand from teachers and education institutions from across the world, was and remains the provision of online learning to teachers and parents. Daily mentions of the OU’s online learning capabilities have appeared in broadcast and print media since COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, which has led to The Guardian doing regular features about teaching online.

A more recent development is The Skills Toolkit, a new online platform to support furloughed workers which features free courses from OpenLearn and FutureLearn, has was launched across each of the OU’s four nations - England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - and is resulting in wide-reaching engagement and opening up new conversations and leads and to more free courses being developed.

Continuing to support society

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to make its impact felt across the world, researchers and professional services staff across the OU are collaborating on ways to support society.

The Coronavirus Research Fund was set up by in September by the Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research, Enterprise and Scholarship, providing a rapid-response stream for projects with short turn-around and a longer-term stream for large projects.

Research capability and expertise has been rapidly mobilised including laboratory research, surveys and social science research. There are also projects on the effects of the virus on the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community, studies into the effects on children, teachers and students and the leadership challenges posed by the pandemic.

Funding has enabled the creation of a new Race and Ethnicity Hub and three more projects supporting the BAME community. One looks at the impact of COVID-19 on Black Britains; another on setting up a BAME Researchers Group, and the third one, led by the Faculty of Business and Law, assesses leadership needs among BAME leaders in Milton Keynes in the context of COVID-19.

Keeping us and others safe

A project in the Faculty of Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), is supporting a questionnaire-based survey of frontline healthcare workers to link attitudes to risk with COVID-19 test status. Another STEM project is engaged in industrial research to provide certified verification of an individual’s COVID-19 status using distributed ledger (blockchain) technology and a mobile application. Another is exploring how autonomous delivery robots can provide cities with policy options to support the needs of marginalised and at-risk populations in times of crisis. Researchers are also building on funding from the Engineering and Physical Research Council to develop a phone app to measure levels of loneliness during the pandemic and are developing a system to detect Sars-Cov2, the virus that causes COVID-19, by measuring levels in the sewage of discrete geographical areas.

Other OU STEM projects which already received external funding include an EU grant for €2.85 million involving 11 partners, including Red Cross, to track the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 on social media; research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council into how the pandemic is affecting the waste management sector and funding from Esmée Fairbairn Foundation into how it is affecting floodplain meadows. Two other grants, one from the Royal Society of Chemistry, is supporting researcher development in the chemical sciences in 2020 in the light of the pandemic and another is assisting 100 low/no income participants, including those made redundant or furloughed as a result of COVID-19 to acquire key software development skills.

Impact on society

Every facet of society has been affected by the pandemic and has needed to adapt to resuming work and play online. The OU, with its 50-year track record in learning is well placed to support these activities and several projects in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies and in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences address these needs.

A couple of projects have already had external funding: A grant from the British Academy is looking at the challenges of making theatre during the pandemic and how the experience of "liveness" can be preserved at a time of social distancing, and funding has been awarded by the Wellcome Trust to capture the experiences of women seeking an abortion during COVID-19.

The Coronavirus Research Fund is enabling a project which supports learning in Africa and another which proposes better use of technologies in collaboration with Willen Hospice Community to evaluate the use of communication technologies to optimise engagement for service users through these channels. Two more studies look at providing more equitable access to higher education for learners in Southeast Asia and the Middle East and to support marginalised children in Zimbabwe.

There is also research which focuses on the digital enabling of teachers across the world and another on adapting e-therapy. The measurement of the effect of the pandemic on various parts of society, such as on children, young people and students has also been supported, as has guidance on home schooling and another on providing creative writing for frontline healthcare workers.

A policing project also led by the Faculty of Business and Law, is researching senior policing decision-making in the context of the radical uncertainties of the pandemic.

Impact on business

The Faculty of Business and Law has already had external funding from UK Research and Innovation and the Economic and Social Research Council, to assess the effect of COVID-19 on the self-employed community and has also received a grant from Lloyds Bank to explore the way in which small charities have responded to the pandemic and the role they could play during a period of recovery. It has now also received OU funding to research the impact of the pandemic on Continuing Personal Development requirements for organisational development in the UK. It will continue to provide academic expertise on the economic effects of the pandemic.

Find out more about how the OU is supporting recovery from coronavirus

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