How well do you know your learners? With backing from Jisc, staff at the Open University co-designed a ‘learning journey’ tool that enables institutions to better understand and support their students. Kate Lister, manager for accessibility and inclusion, explains how it works.
There's a huge need for wellbeing support tools at the moment. Many students are struggling, and staff want to provide meaningful support.
At the Open University (OU), we’ve been working to create online communities and evaluate students at distance for years - and COVID-19 has forced other universities to do the same. Now, everyone needs tools to help navigate these things. It’s a very different world we’re in.
An epic journey
Learning analytics can be incredibly helpful in spotting changes in student behaviour and prompting staff to reach out. But while such data might show, for example, that a student dropped out of a module but did really well on their return, it wouldn’t explain why. So, in 2016, my colleague Tim Coughlan and I started working with students, stakeholders and software developers at the OU to create an online tool to help us understand more about students’ experiences beyond the university grounds.
It started at a summer programme for disabled students. We wanted to find out what was working well for those learners at university, what wasn’t, and what they would like to change. The point that came up again and again was how incredibly diverse their experiences and circumstances were, and how that wasn't visible to their institution. We wanted to find a way to help students represent their own journey and share it, either in an official capacity to university leaders, or informally with tutors, mentors or anybody else.
Designed through dialogue
Going to university is much more than just an academic experience, so the concept of keeping a journal to document that period of time made sense. The tool we developed recognises that going to university is a formative part of a students’ life, similar to an epic journey. It enables students to talk about anything – whether that’s family problems or breakups or issues with study.
It’s a simple design. Students create cards to represent phases of their ‘journey’ – registration, for example. Each individual chooses how many cards they want, and decides what each card represents. They add emojis to show how they’re feeling, and there’s space to write notes. They don't have to log something every week or every month, they just do as much or as little as they want.
Impact for all
The design process started with disabled students, but it soon became apparent that this tool would be useful for all students, and that there is a strong wellbeing aspect because, as learners fill in their journeys, they reflect on them, celebrate their achievements, and look at the struggles and obstacles they face.
We saw how good it was for students’ emotional awareness and personal development, and we knew the tool would support institutions too. In 2019, Jisc supported us with funding to turn it into an online tool.
At the OU, this tool gives us insight into our learners’ experiences. It allows members of staff to see their students’ journeys and create bespoke experiences for them - so if a tutor is interested in how a cohort’s first placement went, she can push that out as a prompt and see what her students are feeling and thinking. That might help her tailor sessions or plan modules. She can also go to individual student journeys, and that might prompt her to offer additional support.
This isn’t about casting educators as counsellors though – it just gives everyone permission to recognise that things that go on in a students’ life around university that may impact on their performance or their attitude to learning. It shows the institution cares, and studies have shown that is important to students.
A success story
I am really aware of the value of enhancing institutions’ understanding of their students right now, and the importance of supporting student and staff wellbeing. I’m really proud that our online tool is helpful in doing that, and the main reason for its success is that it’s something students want to use. They engage with it, wherever and however they are studying. One student was doing it in prison. One was doing it through cancer treatment. Another found it helped her get through a bereavement.
Their journeys are just incredible, and they open institutions’ eyes to the secret lives of students beyond the campus perimeter.
Jisc’s wellbeing page has guides, events, reports, and examples of effective practice, and members can register free to attend Digifest, 8-11 March, to explore ways in which technology can support staff and students.