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.
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.