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The impact of COVID-19 on distance learning universities: The Open University

The coronavirus pandemic greatly impacted traditional universities, with closures happening globally and students turning to remote learning. But what impact is COVID-19 having on institutions that historically teach mainly online? What have been their biggest challenges? Did they adopt any new strategies? We spoke with Claire Grace, Head of Content and Licensing at The Open University (OU), about the impact of COVID-19 on distance learning universities, and the OU in particular.

What have been the OU’s key initiatives undertaken during the pandemic?

Our Library Live Engagement Team created and delivered two live streamed training events for librarians at other institutions to support them with the “digital pivot.” We saw over 1,000 librarians join this session which allowed our librarians to share their expertise in teaching “library skills” online. We have also endeavoured to support partner institutions whose students have lost access to their print libraries. This has been mainly with advice and guidance, encouraging them to take up of “free” temporary access that different publishers provided to assist during lockdown. This has also got us thinking about the need to work with key publishers to come up with a better, evidence-based model for smaller print-based libraries to provide some sort of access to online alternatives for their students post-pandemic.

Claire Grace, Head of Content and Licensing at The Open University

What have been the biggest challenges and barriers for the OU as a result of COVID-19?

The fact that The Open University operates across the four nations of the UK posed challenges as four different sets of health and lockdown policies needed to be consulted when we offered support to our students. Loss of access to print was another barrier for us. Yes, even for a university that teaches mainly online, print is still important. This is especially true in the Arts and Humanities and for postgraduate students and researchers. The other impact that loss of print had was in our copyright acknowledgement work where academics had forgotten to write down the reference for the print book that they had been using in the Bodleian Library before lockdown! Thankfully the skills of our Document Supply and Inter-library Lending team could remedy this so all third-party rights were acknowledged appropriately.

In general, would you say the pandemic had less of a negative impact on the OU than on traditional institutions?

Overall yes, we’ve seen far less negative impact on what we do and how we do it because most of what we do is already online and digital. We were able to move to home working overnight and then iron out any problems that individuals were experiencing. Our students should have seen no immediate impact on their access to library content or services. However, our staff and students faced the same pressures that everyone else faced, with demands of homeworking, home-schooling, and the concern for people’s health and wellbeing during the pandemic. There has also been a very positive impact in terms of an increase in course production. While this of course is great to see, it has at times felt at odds with the focus on staff wellbeing and mental health due to the increased pressures put on our academics and various parts of library service to meet tight timescales and high workloads.

Did you notice more students joining the OU in the past year?

Yes, the OU has experienced an upsurge of interest in its courses and qualifications both for new students and from students wanting to use credit transfer from other institutions. We have yet to see how sustained this increase in student numbers might be but we are optimistic that the quality of our teaching and course design will translate into wider recognition that the OU’s method of study for Higher Education qualification is a more suitable option for many potential students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. We also saw a massive uptake of our OpenLearn Open Access course content giving it the international recognition that is has so long deserved.

Initiatives such as this help the OU fulfil its social mission “to be open to people, places, methods and ideas,” our vision “to reach more students with life-changing learning that meets their needs and enriches society,” and our commitment to be guided by the enduring OU values of inclusivity, innovation, and responsiveness. At times the demand for this content was so high that it actually impacted the efficiency of our staff network—quickly remedied by our fantastic IT teams.

Have you changed your social media strategy to support your students?

Overall there has been an increase in our use of social media as a method of engaging directly with our students in the places that they need us to be. We have open feeds in Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which are monitored by staff with the aim of directing enquiries to the most effective source and fostering a sense of belonging to the OU. Additionally, we highlighted our support for students in developing their study skills, which includes live online training, recorded training, and stand-alone activities on our website.

While we do these things already, we have made additional effort to connect with students more often during the past year. Our engagement rate has been high throughout as we provided these informational resources as well as lots of fun content for keeping spirits up and providing some levity during this stressful time. We also point students and staff to content and resources to support their mental health and wellbeing. Lastly, the Library created new social media content to offer reassurance and friendly faces with videos of library staff working from home.

Images courtesy of Claire Grace. Used with permission.

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