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Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minority students’ study experience and awarding gap (A case study of Level 1 C&C Open University Modules)

  • Project leader(s): Dhouha KbaierSoraya Kouadri MostéfaouiAnnemarie Kane
  • Theme: Access, Participation and Success
  • Faculty: STEMFASS
  • Status: Archived
  • Dates: October 2021 to September 2023

This report explores the broader impact of COVID-19 on the learning experiences and academic performance of ethnic minority students, using Open University (OU) Level 1 Computing modules as a case study. Utilising a comprehensive mixed-methods approach, blending quantitative data analysis and qualitative focus group discussions, our study provides valuable insights into the structural and institutional factors that shape the educational journeys of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic students.

The research findings reveal the manifold challenges and disadvantages faced by ethnic minority students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Key factors include economic disparities, the digital divide, housing issues, employment concerns, racism, discrimination, and mental health struggles. While tutors may not always have direct knowledge of students' ethnicity, they unanimously acknowledge the pivotal role these structural factors play in shaping students' learning experiences, both during the pandemic and beyond.

Furthermore, our study highlights significant institutional factors that influence the educational journeys of ethnic minority students. These include systemic racism, unconscious bias, institutional policies, the lack of diversity in staff, and inconsistencies in support mechanisms. These factors underscore the need for proactive interventions to promote equitable support and foster an inclusive learning environment.

To address these challenges, we propose a range of targeted solutions and recommendations:

  • Targeted interventions: The institution should implement more targeted interventions to address the specific barriers faced by this group of students, particularly concerning awarding gaps.
  • Revisiting evidence barriers: Current evidence requirements should be reconsidered, as they often create significant challenges for students. More flexibility and exemptions for special circumstances should be considered.
  • Building community and belonging: The OU should provide opportunities for students to connect with peers from similar cultural backgrounds, fostering a sense of community and belonging. Individualised support and a single point of contact for students can help develop relationships and enhance the sense of belonging.
  • Increasing diversity: Efforts should be made to recruit a more diverse staff, including Associate Lecturers (ALs), who can better understand the experiences and needs of ethnic minority students. Module teams and central academics should also represent more diverse perspectives.
  • OUSA visibility: The Open University Students Association (OUSA) should make ethnic minority -related content and resources more visible on its platform.
  • Data analysis: Greater analysis of hard data related to ethnic minority students' experiences and needs is essential to inform evidence-based decision-making.
  • Individual learning plans: Engage with each student to create an individualised learning plan considering their unique circumstances and support requirements.
  • Revisiting tuition strategy: The current tuition strategy should be re-evaluated to encourage a sense of belonging and personal relationships for ethnic minority students.
  • Proactive focus on retention: Module teams and tutors should proactively reach out to students who face challenges, ensuring a more supportive environment.
  • Tutors' access to Voice: ALs should have access to Voice, enabling better monitoring and support for students.
  • Improved HCI: Enhance user-friendliness of the OU website, making it more accessible for level 1 students.
  • Unconscious bias training: Develop and provide more effective unconscious bias training for student-facing staff, raising awareness and sensitivity regarding the experiences and needs of ethnic minority students.
  • Cuts awareness: During the financial and jobs cuts programme, efforts should be made to ensure that EDI work and the focus on minority ethnic students are not disadvantaged.

In conclusion, the OU should continue its commitment to social justice and educational equity, ensuring that ethnic minority students have equal opportunities to succeed and thrive in their studies. By adopting these recommendations, the institution can foster a more inclusive and supportive learning environment for this group of students both during crises and as part of its long-term dedication to equity and diversity in education.

Dhouha had the opportunity to present this research at the HETL 2023 conference in Aberdeen and at ICTLE 2023 conference in Copenhagen. The presentations slides and abstracts are available under ‘Related Resources’ below.

Related Resources: 
File Dhouha-Kbaier-Final-Oral-HETL-2023.pptx2.95 MB

Project presentation.

PDF icon HETL Abstract booklet FINAL V3.pdf2.17 MB

Conference abstract.

PDF icon Kbaier-Kane-Kouadri Mostefaoui-ICTLE-Nov-23.pdf79.99 KB

Conference abstract.

File Kbaier-Kane-Kouadri Mostefaoui-ICTLE-Nov-23.pptx7.09 MB

Project presentation.