review of the OU StudentHome: connectivity, interaction and synchronisation
The OU is redesigning the StudentHome I read on Twitter this week. That was long overdue, I thought – when guyweb asked anybody who uses the Open University StudentHome to tell him what they liked and disliked about it. Thorough improvement is imminent, I am hoping…
In brief, the StudentHome contains previous and future courses which are listed with marks, submission dates and course resources as well as links to the library, data about myself, the regional centre and the current (but not previous) associate lecturers. What I find useful and pleasant to access are the course-related sites, they were designed in a clean and user-friendly style.
However, there is no way to share items in social book-marking style among students or invite others to courses you have studied, add comments, suggestions and critiques (course reviews require approval). It very much conveys a notion of: that’s your StudentHome and you are home alone. On the left hand menu there is an empty Personal Calendar which is equipped with an export function. Students will need to add all exam dates, essay cut off dates etc themselves, and are left with an ICS file. Not sure what that’s for, the site does not provide any explanation.
There is no way to get that simply into my Google calendar – link it with Facebook events, and there is no advise as to how to synchronise with my PDA. So I do not use it. There is also a Personal Blog option which, unfortunately, won’t offer me the option to simply synchronise my already established blog and microblog. No way to add my RSS feed, no options to see other students’ blogs.
What happens if I enrol elsewhere? Will my blog expire? This must have been designed by someone who has never used a blog, and someone who does not enjoy the flow of communication. Now that’s exactly what is paramount in an OU student’s life: communication and interaction with peers. So, what I hope to see after the revamp is the following:
- Lecturers remain largely invisible apart from the odd telephone tutorial and emails sent out to non-disclosed recipients. I really hope that they learn to play a more active part in our studies. First of all, it would be good to see what academic affiliation they have got or some links to their publications, projects etc.
- As I said, we are still using old-fashioned telephone tutorials (undergraduate courses offer face to face tutorials and dayschools). The size in my current courses is fantastic, there is no more than 5 of us discussing. But we keep wondering why the OU does make no use of Skype.
- Podcasts. Courses I have studied often contain audio material with interviews, often truly excellent material. But the CDs have been protected, so I am unable to get the files on my mp3 player. For any full-time working/busy student that would be of enormous help.
- RSS feeds as well as social bookmarking would make life a lot more easy and exciting. Often, I share an article on the BBC or The New York Times in Google Reader or Delicious – other students share them on Facebook. The OU (Social Sciences), it seems, does not share at all.
- Wikis (possibly some study-relevant) and Group Blogs would be a great step forward. Not least also a step towards a stronger sense of belonging to an active student community that is keen on connectivity and sharing: blogs and wikis help gaining presentational skills and will improve a sense of authorship/dealing with plagiarism.
- The libray is now on Twitter, there is also a blog and a page on Facebook. Great. But you will need to collect the bits as it’s all very scattered and not all is relevant to non-librarians.
- The OU Youtube channel, for instance, is still not linked and you will only find it if you actually search for it. There is also a lot OU teaching and research going on in Second Life – but you will need to spend some time on finding out about it yourself. Or hear from non-OU academics what the OU is actually doing.
- As I am a Social Sciences students, the StudentHome provides me with a link to the SOCSCI-PROG Social Sciences Subject (what’s that?). There are links to a number of faculty staff blogs. Wow – but not one single link to a student’s blog. To me that conveys a sense of hierarchy, but I might be wrong – perhaps they simply do not know any student blogs. But then they announce that “Soon we will also be asking tutors to send in their selections”, which confirms my first impression.
Links to “Your undergraduate study” and “Learning Journeys” are made for undergraduates and retired learners – the one-size-fits-all might suit the OU, it definitely needs a thorough re-think.
- Now, a truly significant point is the lack of notifications we get about conferences, workshops, symposia etc. There is one single hidden link to the ESRC Festival of Social Science – it’s listed in Latest News, where I would hardly ever find it had I not followed the invite to review the StudentHome. Events at the British Academy, for instance, would be interesting to a large number of students, there is so much out there that the OU could share with their students (let’s not talk about money here and the related students=clients debate).
- There is also no link to the Ethics Committee and their procedures. When I was requesting approval for access to a dataset collected and made available by a university in the USA, I contacted my faculty who was sceptic of Master students getting involved in writing papers for international conferences. That is something PhD students would not be doing before their 2nd year. Well, thanks for the encouraging comments – I was left chasing for approval, resubmitting the explanations and obtained it eventually seven weeks later then. Now I know who is the relevant contact in the Ethics Committee and how to deal with them – but why not making that information accessible to post-graduate students in general?
- Professional associations such as BISA, PSI, SPA are listed on the StudentHome, although the number is very limited: only 10 have been selected. Neither AoIR nor MeCCSA are mentioned. There is a list of 9 think tanks and research bodies but it is just a plain list, no further advice, updates or anything else on grant applications, ethics guidelines etc.
At Birkbeck College, University of London (BBK) lecturers forward at least once a week the large numbers of associations’ newsletters, event announcements etc to their students. This is not the case at the OU, here students need to be way more proactive researchers in order to not miss out on social capital and all the vital information that helps from an early stage on to connect and grow academically.
- Finally, there is also no advice provided as to software packages more specific to our studies such as bibliographical packages, survey tools and file sharing applications. Available is, however, a range of Word-processing and anti-virus software links.
SUMMARY It’s a scattered universe, pages are not interlinked, they are not tailormade for students according to their level of study. They are compiled with a very broad picture of middle-aged student in mind probably with a working class background and rather interested in finding any job than in doing research or building a non-conventional career (the Careers link is the last resource I recommend for advice on funded PhD programmes).
The OUSA FirstClass conferencing system which is linked to the StudentHome is student-moderated and urgently requires a revamp too. OUSA states that “Our conferences span interest, hobbies and lifestyle issues ranging from the serious and sensitive to the frivolous and purely for fun. We also have study rooms so that you can meet up socially with other students doing the same course or programme.”. Over the course of 6 years I have only ever seen 2 associate lecturers posting there occasionally.
Perhaps the OU could learn from tools such as Moodle which is rooted in a constructivist approach. The application aimes at interoperability, syndication and the fact that learners and teachers both contribute to the educational experience. Simply installing new tools and making them accessible to students without rethinking the underlying assumptions, internal politics and barriers towards learning and teaching will provide us with dead tools, I am afraid.
Update on 5 April 2009: The Wikipedia site mentioned above refers to an eGov site that claims the OU is building an online environment under Moodle that will be fully operational by February 2007. More than 2 years later, there is still no sign of Moodle. Nor is there an explanation for the delay, other than that the Pro Vice-Chancellor who made those announcements then in no longer in charge.
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About Britta Bohlinger, CFEFounder and Director of RisikoKlár in Iceland. Native German, global perspective - previously in London and Berlin.
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