This article is more than 5 years old

Some students’ lives are more secret than others

If the lives of campus-based students are a mystery, then those of distance learners must be even more so. Cath Brown from the OU looks at the data.
This article is more than 5 years old

Cath Brown is President of the Open University Students Association.

If the lives of campus-based students are something of a mystery, then those of distance learners must be even more so. With distance learning no longer confined to specialist providers such as the OU, this should be an increasingly general concern in the sector.

At a superficial level, data tells us quite a lot about our current Open University students. Half of new starters are under 28, and more are under 20 than are over 60. Over a fifth have a disability, and over a third do not have the qualifications to attend a face-to-face university.  We know we have career starters, career changers, and those for whom career doesn’t come into it.  More than three quarters are in full time or part time work.

So rather than the stereotypes of old, in as far as there is a typical OU student, they are twenty-something, in work, looking to change or develop their career.  A substantial minority will also be aiming to complete their degree in three years; despite the OU being regarded as “part-time”, a fifth of our students are studying at full-time intensity, and this is particularly common amongst the young.

Obvious stresses

Some stresses on these students are obvious – they are time-poor and over-committed and the decline in economic prospects for their generation has hit them.  Often the first in their extended family to venture into higher education, they are anxious about their prospects – how certain can they feel that the time and effort doing a degree is worth it? The notorious millennial perfectionism leads them to set high expectations for themselves, and to find it tough coping with encountering academic challenges or a disappointing grade.

Another typical profile is that of the student unable to attend a face to face institution due to caring responsibilities, be that young children or elderly parents. These students may be fitting in their study by getting up at 4 a.m. or staying up past midnight, or snatching minutes here and there when their kids are going swimming.  Sometimes the study may offer these students valuable “me-time”, and be an accordingly precious part of a demanding life, but the corresponding downside is that they will find it hard to justify prioritising their study.

A pressure particularly felt by some OU students is of unsupportive friends and family. Attending a face to face university at least offers an unconfident student the reassurance that what they are doing is perceived as normal and their goals are shared by others. An unconfident student, with low prior qualifications, surrounded by those questioning their ability to achieve or the value of their goal, requires almost superhuman determination to persist.

Mental health is a growing concern throughout HE. Distance learning can be both a blessing and a curse here. Significant numbers of students join the OU – either initially or transferring in – to avoid the exacerbation of conditions such as social anxiety, and for its more flexible nature.  But the lack of immediate face to face contact will be hard on those students who are by preference social learners and prefer to rely on peer groups for support; whatever other networks are in place, there is no denying that for some, distance learning can feel very isolating.

Supporting at a distance

So what can the Open University – or any distance learning provider – do to support these students?  And what can we in our Students Associations and Unions do?

Some structural changes can help on a practical level; it is always appropriate to keep under review how the curriculum [L1] is delivered and assessed to see whether greater flexibility could be offered. Similarly, services to support mental wellbeing at a distance, such as Big White Wall or Nightline, can be put in place. But important though these are, they are not sufficient.

Perhaps no one is fully prepared for the rigours of any degree course. But trying to juggle a demanding job and/or family responsibilities, whilst fitting in that time to study and being dragged out of your intellectual comfort zone is exceptionally demanding. If you are fighting your own feelings of inadequacy, isolation and even futility, it makes it an enormous mountain to climb.  A feeling of being supported – that someone out there knows about you and your studies as an individual, will look out for you, and share your highs and lows – can make a real difference.

If you talk to a successful OU student, they will usually pay tribute to their tutors. At its best, this relationship can provide a huge amount of support, motivation and inspiration.  Some students say they’d have given up many times over without one of their tutors. So in any distance learning institution, that role has to be right, and filled by the right people – those who can pro-actively relate, encourage, develop – and, of course, teach!

OU success stories are also likely to refer to support from fellow students – often including many who have  never met face to face. Social media has its downsides, but tremendously strong and supportive communities can be formed on there, whether based on mutual interests (societies and clubs), subject studied (module or qualification groups) or just being at the same university, going through the same experiences and having the same challenges.  Alumni often say that their OU friends are friends for life, and pay tribute to that peer group for getting them through the tough times.

Sadly, not everyone, particularly in a distance learning environment,  feels confident in reaching out to others.  Developing a range of “student buddy” schemes, either academic within subjects or modules, or outside for more general support, can help ensure that a helping hand is there when it’s needed. More generally, facilitating peer-to-peer advice on near-universal problems such as how to cope with a bad mark, what to do if you get behind or how to revise for exams has great potential.

Working with other students to a common goal can also be crucial. We in the OU Students Association offer opportunities for students to initiate and lead projects in their local community, to support and run activities for other students at residential schools, and to help out at degree ceremonies.

Community is still possible

Then there is the broader community within the university – harder to define, but also important. If students feel part of “their” university – proud of its research, glad to see it mentioned, ready to stand up for it and even ready to cheer for it on University Challenge – it makes for a more positive outlook, a greater tolerance of minor setbacks and inconveniences, and that intangible feeling of being part of something much bigger than yourself can potentially make a huge difference in terms of keeping going when things get tough.

To achieve that, meaningful student voice is crucial. A student who feels they can genuinely input into the institution and be a valued partner makes for a cohesive academic community. The university’s valuing of the student’s expertise and of the diverse experiences and skills they bring to the table make for enhanced self-efficacy and sense of belonging.  Setting the institution-student relationship as an interaction between adults rather than them-and-us is desirable on many levels, and listening to the student voice is at the heart of this.

One difficulty specific to the distance-learning environment is detecting the early warning signs of problems. Without the student in front of you, how do we to pick up that they are engaging less, seeming withdrawn or depressed?  Whilst nothing can replace human instincts for something not being right, there is considerable potential for smart analytics to spot a change in behaviour that might indicate a problem coming up and allow more timely interventions. Data do not give us an answer in isolation, but at least the right questions can be asked.

14 responses to “Some students’ lives are more secret than others

  1. The lack of financial support could be improved too, I do full time hours half the year and do not get 1 month off of studies whilst being a single mum of 3 and in part time work, I would say that that is the hardest part just because I’m a distance learner I don’t count as a human who needs support

  2. I second this! If you want to study OU at full time intensity, student finance will still forcibly consider you a “part time” student and not offer you any real support for childcare and the like unless you are already starving! Also will only process your application very late in the year (sometimes only after you’ve already started studying!) This desperately needs reviewing!

  3. Great to see tutors, are, appreciated by students – many tutors in the OU go beyond their roles in order to support students on their road to success

  4. The lack of maintenance loans for part time distance learning students (except in very specific, limited circumstances) is a big issue, and one that sadly the government are not inclined to address.
    It’s not much good their talking about a flexible workforce or lifelong learning without offering greater parity to distance learners.

  5. Yes. It is as though because we are part time we are treated like the dregs with student finance. They will sort us once all the ‘proper’ students are sorted.
    And maintenance loans would help, for me it would allow me to reduce my hours in work to allow me to dedicate more time to study. In many ways, many OU students have more financial burdens then a full time school leaver as many have mortgages and families to support, but are left with no option of any support.

  6. Student buddy system or some sort of organised student support group would be helpful. I regularly read the student forums but alas not much from my course or should I say nothing? Tutors? Well the OCA documentation is rather aggressively telling us that tutors are there to grade the work and answer an odd question. Indeed I feel very on my own in my struggle. I do not have questions to ask tutor at this point but complete isolation and lack of communication with ppl on the same course is really discouraging. Maybe it is easier with some courses than others, so I feel I made a mistake choosing creative writing over say illustration as my first course, but maybe it was a mistake overall to go for distance education….

  7. Are you with the OU, Anna?
    If so, I could put you in touch with a useful network for creative writing.

  8. Hi Anna, I believe you are one of our (OCA) students and I’m sorry to hear that you are struggling. We have a number of support networks for creative writing students, and they are one of the more active groups on the forums. I will get our student services team to contact you about that. As well as the student support team we have dedicated learner support advisors who specifically work with students who are struggling. You can contact them on and they will be able to help you with access to other student networks and with ways we can support you including advice on your choice of course and study options. As well as the digital we also offer students study visits where you can get together with other students and visit places of interest related to your studies. These are organised through the student association (OCASA). It concerns me though that you are unaware of many of these options so I’ll look into it as a priority to improve the on-boarding process, any thoughts you have on that would be welcome.

  9. I think this is a key point: Without the student in front of you, how do we to pick up that they are engaging less, seeming withdrawn or depressed?
    This is a challenge for tutors, and we (the OU) must to find a way to reach out to students who need help. As Ravina says, many tutors go beyond their role to support students, but we are not clairvoyants, and sometimes frustratingly we do not know know that a student needs help.

  10. Don’t forget that student’s who are studying with the OU and who have a disability or mental health condition may be entitled to Disabled Student’s Allowance learning support – just as student’s studying at a campus university would be.
    One-to-one support can be delivered at their home, or via Skype or even at a meeting place at one of their local Uni’s for example. It is important that student’s who meet the criteria for the support are made aware it is available to them. More often than not it makes a significant positive difference to their HE experience.

  11. Would definitely echo the importance of an empathetic tutor! Currently studying my MA Ed with the OU and feedback from my tutor has kept me going.

  12. I had the most amazing tutors with the OU that not only helped me but also inspired me to see capabilities I didn’t know were there. Eternally grateful to the OU for giving me opportunities I’d never have got elsewhere, and to be where I am today. I wasn’t able to apply for any allowances but my tutors were very supportive and I owe a lot to them in building my confidence as well as my academic abilities. Face to face tutorials helped though, and there used to be so many more, it’s a shame they seem to be becoming fewer.

  13. This article certainly gets at some of the challenges facing students. In my case, I have multiple mental health disorders and cannot cope with the noise and social interactions of an in-person class any more (although I did my BA at a traditional university). Overall my experience with the OU has been good, I love working at my own pace and enjoy the online structure for the different modules. One thing that does need improvement is the contact system. I encountered a major problem after my first module and kept being transferred to different departments, being given alternate emails/phone numbers despite following what appeared to be the correct places to contact. I have a Social Anxiety Disorder and an Avoidant Personality Disorder so this was extremely stressful and I gave up. Also the complete lack of understanding about how the mental health care system works (I’m not in the UK) – I can’t just go to my doctor and get a note saying I was depressed or anxious or whatever during a certain time period. During this particular period, I had gotten the required referral from my doctor for a psych evaluation, but that wasn’t good enough. What the OU doesn’t understand is that getting that referral was the extent of what my regular doctor can do, other than prescription renewals, and after that referral, I would wait 5 months for the evaluation and a further 6 months to actual start therapy. Short version, I lost an entire module because the OU didn’t believe my previously documented medical conditions could cause the problems they do, had no easy method of reaching a point of contact to discuss the issue, and required documentation that it was not possible to obtain.

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