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The online student experience: more than learning online

25 Mar 2020 | Rachel Hilliam Following her talk at the Advance HE STEM conference in Manchester and with universities rapidly shifting teaching online due to Covid-19, Rachel Hilliam, Senior Lecturer in Statistics at the Open University, shares her thoughts on how to create an online learning community.

As universities, schools and colleges grapple with the task of putting their teaching and learning online during the Covid-19 crisis, it is worth thinking about how to support and enable learning communities to thrive in this landscape.

The School of Mathematics and Statistics (M&S) at The Open University (OU) has for many years provided novel ways of supporting students outside the ‘classroom’ environment. Students learn with the OU at a distance and have limited face-to-face opportunities to interact with their peers or the M&S community more generally.

All OU students are well supported to learn remotely through well designed distance learning material. This could comprise interactive quizzes, videos, computer animations and online forums where they can interact with peers and academics; plus the support of their individual tutors who provide that vital personal link.

However, wrap around support for students outside the boundaries of each individual module is less well defined. This brings particular challenges to students who can feel isolated when one module finishes and they no longer have peer support from that group of learners. There are particular challenges when transitioning between levels of study for these students.

In order to foster a community and support network, in 2017, the School of Mathematics and Statistics launched a website, the M&S Study Site. This website complemented the individual module websites and provided a place for all students to interact regardless of the module they were studying at the time.

The support provided on the website covers the entire student journey and is based on the Student Experience Practitioner Model. Staff from across the institution, including student support and careers staff, together with faculty staff are involved in providing resources and contributing to forums on the site. These cover all aspects of student life but have a specific focus on issues pertinent to mathematics and statistics. The site is split into the following areas:

  • Connect with other students and the M&S community

  • Discover, prepare for and make a head start on your module

  • Enhance your current study skills

  • Plan your studies and qualification

  • Succeed with your career or further study aspirations

Students wanting advice on what to study next can use the interactive resources for self-serve module choice advice, to revise and refresh content prior to starting study on their chosen module and make a head start in a variety of ways.

Transitions are always difficult and the site is excellent for supporting the transitions into university and distance learning from college, as well as the transition between modules.

As students come to the end of their UG studies there is also a dedicated M&S careers and employability section. This is jointly produced by the School and the OU careers service with external support from the Institute of Mathematics and its Application (IMA) and the Royal Statistics Society (RSS). There are also links to post-graduate study.

These resources are also backed up by several online forums. Some of these are for specific subsets of the M&S community such as:

  •  the Mathematics teaching and school forum which has a range of discussions regarding the teaching and learning of mathematics in school, as well as current news and developments in mathematics teaching  
  • the Postgraduate café forum, which is a key discussion space for all students studying modules on the Maths MSc, is open to all members of the OU and anyone who is interested in further mathematics study is encouraged to read and contribute.

There are also time-limited forums for student consultations and also to support online careers events.

The liveliest forum is the Mathematics and Statistics advice forum, which is the place where students can ask advice about how you can progress through their study of mathematics and statistics qualifications and modules. Students, academics and student support staff all contribute to the forum, creating a bounded learning community. Contributors discuss future study plans, how different modules may help with future careers and what it is like to study the variety of modules on offer.

Students also provide first-hand feedback on all aspects of the student experience in terms of both current and future curriculum and student support in all its forms. It creates a vibrant community of learners focused on a common goal.

While learning providers are understandably moving to distance learning methods at speed, the wider issue of wrap-around student support needs to be considered if students are to engage fully with the learning materials. It is an issue which will become ever more prevalent over the coming months.


Advance HE Connect is our dedicated online network for the HE sector. Join the Learning and Teaching Network for online teaching support, resources and discussion.

Rachel Hilliam is a Senior Lecturer in Statistics and The Open University and an active member of the Royal Statistical Society. She has an interest in mathematics and statistics pedagogy and the wider student experience.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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