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OpenLearn – free learning for work


Earlier this year, The Open University (OU) convened a panel discussion on free learning for work. The discussion focused on three areas in particular:

  • What free learning The Open University provides through OpenLearn
  • How OpenLearn, its free learning provision, is relevant to organisations
  • How organisations are using OpenLearn to upskill and reskill employees

There were three people on the panel:

  • James Davies, Director of Commissioning and Open Media and Informal Learning, Learner and Discovery Services, The Open University
  • Simon Tindall, Head of New Business, The Open University
  • Cameron King, Employer Adviser, Department for Work and Pensions, Kingston Jobcentre Plus
  • Martin Couzins, Corporate Learning Journalist, Insights Media, chaired the panel discussion.

About OpenLearn

The OU set up OpenLearn in 2006 as an extension of its mission to transform access to higher education. It is a free platform, with free material available to everyone, wherever they are in the world and at whatever stage they are at with their education and employment. 

At the time of recording the session, OpenLearn has received around 72 million visitors since its launch, attracting around 850,000 visitors every month. The current situation has led to visitor numbers soaring as more and more people discover the platform. “We anticipate hitting our 75 millionth visitor very soon,” said Davies. “It has been an incredible journey.” 

There are now more than 950 short courses, featuring different forms of content, and thousands of articles, videos, audios, quizzes and interactive games, on topics from Greek history to modern day politics. “And everything in between,” says Davies. Delivered in bite-sized chunks, some courses take one hour to complete, while others take 100 hours. 

The relevance of OpenLearn to business

An increasing number of employers realise the value of continuous learning and the value of platforms such as OpenLearn.

OpenLearn discussion

We have recently started organising content in OpenLearn into subject areas for life and for study. “It’s part of our commitment to deliver content with benefit in terms of the real world and real people,” says Davies. This includes a specific area on skills for work, such as team working, leadership, mentoring, effective communication, relationship management and decision making. There are courses aimed specifically at improving digital capabilities, such as digital thinking tools and cyber security, and courses aimed at specific sectors, such as the social care sector. These courses can be used to help people in their current roles and to progress to more senior positions or to new careers. 

Using OpenLearn for staff learning, training and upskilling

The OU has recently been building curations, or doorways, that organisations can use to help direct employees towards relevant learning. Some of that learning focuses on particular career paths or sectors, covering technical, career-specific skills, while some of it focuses on soft skills and life skills – such as managing family budgets, mental health and career resilience. Sometimes it’s improving basic educational skills like maths and English, skills people really need to progress further in the working world.

There are also a number of pages in OpenLearn called My Career Goal, which help people identify gaps in learning and ability and work out how to progress their current careers or move into a new area.

OpenLearn discussion

Some of the courses carry digital badges, evidence that a learner has completed a course and passed the assessments. The badges can be shared on social media as evidence of learning and development. 

The OU has links with various organisations, including Google, which has a corporate social goal to train a million people. “Rather than go and develop their own courses, they recognised that the OU was already offering these courses for free,” says Tindall. “So we worked with Google and the OpenLearn team to develop a link between the Google Digital Garage platform, which has about four million worldwide learners, and to OpenLearn, which introduced those soft skills courses on the Google platform.” We also do that for other organisations, including government organisations and private companies like Uber. 

Because OpenLearn has proved so successful, the OU is looking to expand its reach and build on existing partnerships. Tindall says the number and scope of courses is expanding all the time. The plan is to add more functionality to the platform, make it more interactive and more engaging for learners. And to hit 100 million visitors within the next few years. 

Department of Work and Pensions 

Jobcentre Plus (JCP) is part of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), providing support to working-age adults. Kingston JCP was the first to sign up to OpenLearn, but several other JCPs have followed suit after hearing how well the courses have been received, both by employees and by jobseekers. “The number of colleagues that have enthused about completing an OpenLearn course has been really, really encouraging,” says King. “It is very exciting to be able to offer customers and colleagues quality digital learning opportunities.”

Traditionally, Kingston JCP would send jobseekers to a bricks and mortar learning organisation to do a course. Now that it’s offering OpenLearn as a solution, people can choose to do that instead and access learning from wherever they like and at their own pace. And it’s not just for those looking for work – DWP is also promoting OpenLearn for in-work progression, one of its key strategic aims.

King says employees at all stages of their careers are taking advantage of OpenLearn and because the experience has been so good, those employees are promoting OpenLearn to customers. “What has been really, really good is having our colleagues buy into the continuous learning journey and now encouraging customers to do the same,” says King. “The range and breadth of courses available covers most of our customer groups, at whatever stage of their learning journey and whatever stage of their employability. I’m really excited about that.”

The partnership with OpenLearn has also helped King add value to relationships with other businesses, including Kingston JCP’s local authority and Unilever. Instead of just asking businesses for opportunities for DWP customers, King says he can suggest OpenLearn both for their employees and for some of the programmes they provide for JCP customers.

Some of the courses, such as the resilience courses and skills for life courses, are enabling JCP to help some of the hardest to help customers. The DWP is now working with the OpenLearn team to develop a guide for employees on how to help customers the best possible way.

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