The Open University (UNITED KINGDOM)
About this paper:
Appears in: INTED2023 Proceedings
Publication year: 2023
Pages: 1298-1306
ISBN: 978-84-09-49026-4
ISSN: 2340-1079
doi: 10.21125/inted.2023.0373
Conference name: 17th International Technology, Education and Development Conference
Dates: 6-8 March, 2023
Location: Valencia, Spain
OpenLearn is the free online learning platform provided by The Open University (OU) in the UK. Growth to the OpenLearn platform since its launch in 2006 as part of the broader open educational resources (OER) movement has been steady, with pre pandemic visits of nearly of 13 million. Shortly after the first UK lockdown in March 2020, the platform saw a doubling of visits overnight.

Previous analyses of platform users have identified key groups using the free courses, articles, videos and educational interactives, along with their motivations to study, demographics and usability requirements. These data have resulted in a range of commissioning approaches, and technical and usability developments to better serve the OU’s own students and the body of international non-formal learners, particularly with social mission in mind.

In December 2020 a survey of OpenLearn learners was undertaken to gather new data on the massive upsurge in traffic seen during 2020 due to COVID-19, comparing this with existing knowledge and to ensure that commissioning was reaching those who needed it most. During the financial year 2019/20 there were over 24 million visits to the platform.

The 6,689 survey responses received were analysed alongside key platform analytics data which were used to provide balance and insight into the geographical location of learners and the technology used by them.

Key findings show that OpenLearn appears to be in line with its social mission in terms of reaching learners in low socio-economic groups. Further, in probing to compare with UK data overall, OpenLearn appears to be reaching a significantly greater proportion of those in low-income households. The proportion of international learners has changed to become a 60:40 international/UK split, with learners in India representing 7% of all visitors.

Efforts to support those working in education during the pandemic in 2020 were not wasted, with 20% of respondents saying they were currently working as a teacher or trainer, of whom 51% said they were working in ‘School Education’. When asked how OpenLearn had been used to support teaching online during COVID-19, 49% of ‘teachers’ selected ‘To learn how to teach online’ and 49% selected ‘To provide content to my learners’.

Under 25s were particularly positive regarding ‘Completing a course on OpenLearn (e.g. gaining a certificate or digital badge) is important to me’ and ‘Using the materials has improved my employability’.

When asked if learners were influenced by the pandemic in choosing to study on OpenLearn, 51% of respondents said that they were.

This paper reflects on these users’ stories, expanding on data behind the kind findings, showing that OpenLearn provided much needed support during the pandemic to those furloughed and unemployed, to educators and to students. It brings to life their reasons and situations and how – in discovering OER for the first time – they were able to make a positive difference to their mental health, educational and professional situations.
Open educational resources, OER, OpenLearn, pandemic, free learning, online learning, digital badging.