OpenLearn: How We're Creating Life-Changing Online Learning with Elucidat
At The Open University, we strive to make online education accessible to everyone. I’m proud to be part of that mission. Our students don't require any prior qualifications or degrees, and there are no prerequisites or grade requirements. Some of our students may have done quite poorly in school as children or teenagers, others have registered disabilities or criminal records. But, whatever the case, The Open University is a second chance for many people who want to pursue their formal education.
I also have a personal connection to The Open University, as my mum completed a degree from the university at the same time as she was raising four kids. The OU is so accessible and fits almost anyone’s needs. We have learners of all ages, and in the decade since we launched OpenLearn—our free learning platform—we've had 55 million website visitors worldwide.
It’s amazing to work for an organization that not only has an incredible mission, but also a major reach. And as we impact this many lives, we know every piece of content we develop for our free learning site needs to be high quality and thoroughly thought out. But creating exceptional content doesn’t happen without its challenges. We needed to find the right way to collaborate and make content with minimal resources.
Multiple Stakeholder Management
For the last three and a half years, I’ve worked as an Online Project Producer dedicated to editorial engagement within Open Media and Informal Learning, working primarily on the OpenLearn website. Each of our four main faculties set their priorities for the year and decide what kind of free content they want to deliver to complement our formal courses, then it’s my team that makes it happen.
We’re a small team: made up of four producers, a senior producer, a commissioner, and administrative support. The hardest part of my role is definitely balancing the needs of our multiple stakeholders. For one project alone, my day-to-day work can have me dealing with academics, media types, and third parties, all working to translate academia into something more accessible and informal. It’s a considerable challenge to herd them all together and move the project forward. Over the course of a year, I could be working on up to thirty projects, with several people requiring input on each project.
At The Open University, we put out each project for tender to different agencies that would build our interactives—working alongside our academics. It can be a long and costly process of writing briefs and then receiving and processing numerous bids until we found the right company. Then about a year ago, we put out a project tender to five different agencies, but someone in our network—Simon Greany—suggested we use instead. We loved what we heard about the company's ethos and the platform itself, so we decided to try it out.
One feature of Elucidat that had an immediate positive impact was the way the platform allowed us to collaborate. We could go in and work on the project at the same time as someone else. This may seem basic, but it was a hugely beneficial time-saver for us. For example, something as simple as text edits can be quite painful when you're trying to send the revisions over to an agency to make quick changes. This process is especially challenging when you interact with lots of different branches and stakeholders.
It was so useful to be able to author the material ourselves. We loved the way Elucidat allowed us to be more directly involved with the project. It’s a tremendous asset to make changes ourselves rather than risk incurring more costs and spending tons of time working through intermediaries to refine and perfect our materials. Since managing multiple stakeholders is such a big challenge in my job, Elucidat has been invaluable in helping to streamline our process of content production. The project ultimately went on to be shortlisted at The Learning Awards, which is amazing validation for what we could accomplish with this new workflow.
Since my job is centered around ensuring engagement, I’ve also found Elucidat’s analytics help me be more effective. Having the ability to see the number of people who have clicked on the interactive content, how many have landed on various pages, or where we lose or gain engagement, all helps us make livelier, more engaging learning experiences. We know the exact areas to improve so that the next time we make a course, it can be even better.
Expert Help at Your Fingertips
We have a really high bar when it comes to quality, something that can be a challenge for our team of four to deliver on when we have a lot of projects to juggle. This is why we’ve relied heavily on Elucidat’s Professional Services team for expert input and additional bandwidth. We’ll go to them with a nugget of an idea and through the Concept Creator service, they come back with a beautifully designed prototype, with the functionality we need set up and working. We take the project from there and are able to build out the content quickly.
Through the bundle of services we’ve purchased, we’ve come to think of Elucidat as members of our team. It’s nice to know we have someone to count on when things get hectic. Their team is very responsive to our needs, ready to jump in and help us with a project at any time. As well as Concept Creators, this could be anything from basic technical advice to building and replicating pages. Working closely with Elucidat has relieved a huge burden because we simply don’t have the capacity to work on 30 different projects all in-house.
A Creative Approach to Sensitive Subject Matter
This new streamlined approach—and the help from Elucidat team—has allowed us to make some truly powerful content. At one point, the Wellbeing, Education, and Language Studies (WELS) faculty decided they wanted to make a mental health interactive we’d call . We contacted Elucidat, and they suggested we use video to help bring the personal stories to life, and offered to help us build in interactive elements.
The problem here was that most of our previous quizzes and materials were based on yes/no, right/wrong answers. But when it comes to mental health, there are no right or wrong answers to most questions. We didn't want people thinking we were trying to provide simple diagnoses to serious mental health problems.
We came up with the concept of social polling, where participants are asked to give their opinions about a topic before and after the video, and then were shown how their views changed after being given more information and context to a situation. For example, we have a video featuring a teenage girl named Lily. At the outset, a lot of people think she's a typical teenager or that she's a victim of bullying. But at the end of the video, we learn Lily is very anxious about school. Then the viewer is given a chance to vote again on what they think of Lily, and they can see how their perceptions and awareness of mental health can change over time.
Not only was Elucidat able to help us find a unique solution, but they were also very flexible to our process. They were even willing to work with the video production company to create effective video content. I’m not sure how well the project would have worked without the Elucidat team. They helped us find a real way to educate people about a tricky subject matter.
One of our goals was to inspire people via articles or our interactive content like A Support Net, with the hope of moving learners into our free or paid courses. When we launched A Support Net, our estimated enrollment for one presentation of our formal mental health modules was 147. It ended up being 256. That’s an increase of almost 75% compared to our target. But we have to look beyond those numbers and think about the impact this course is now having on the wider public who do not study with us formally. When I think about that, it makes me remember why I joined The Open University.
Growing Healthy Learning Communities
I think mental health, in the past, has been a topic people haven't talked about that much. So it's great for us to have created an effective and accessible interactive, without financial barriers or educational requirements, to get people engaged in this thought-provoking subject matter. People often feel they lack the experience or skills to help support someone when they're unwell. Elucidat has helped us create a bridge between the people who do have these skills, our educators, and learners so they can support each other.
The core of what we do in OpenLearn is to promote the advancement and dissemination of learning and knowledge to help the general well-being of communities at large. Our content needs to be freely available, highly engaging, and useful. Now, we know it is. With every new person who visits our website, we know they’re about to embark on a new, exciting journey. We’re just glad we can be their guide.