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Student Connections

A Report on the OU's First Social Science Virtual Conference, Student Connections

By Harleyjack Muckell

Life as an OU student is anything but straightforward. To start most of us aren't simply 'students', we have jobs, children to look after, volunteering and all sorts of other commitments; so unlike those at a brick university, university isn't generally our main focus.
The way we study is also non-conventional, no lectures, halls, weekly tutor sessions or 24 hour study library. We study any time we can fit it into our busy lives and location is, at times, hardly conventional; studying on buses, trains, planes, while cycling around Europe and on the side of a mountain. But for us, I'm sure we wouldn't have it any other way; it's convenient, fits in with our other priorities, allows us to gain new skills or we simply study for the enjoyment of it. 250,000 of us have decided to study this way, but it really doesn't feel like that many does it? I know myself I can name only a few people who I've seen on my modules and even those people I've seen a couple of times or spoken to on the module forums. This is generally how it is for us, but this surprisingly changed early this year for a number of students.

Earlier this year we had the first Student Connections Conference; initially mentioned on the PodMag, a weekly podcast from the Faculty of Social Science's very own Karen Foley and Dave Middleton, with the invitation to take part in an online conference with students at the centre of it all. When responding I'm sure that most of us had little idea what it really meant, but we were eager enough.
The first interaction we had was in an 'Activate Session' using OU Live, it was the first time I did something with other students that was not around studying a module, and it was a great experience. There was a fantastic variety of students there from criminology and psychology, to politics and economics and we had a casual discussion about the different questions that interested us that could also be used to make a presentation for the conference. We had some brilliant ideas for the conference and it was great to meet some new people outside the modules. A few of us even stayed on after the session had officially ended just to chat!

What's interesting about the presentations some of us decided to do is that they did not even directly relate to our studies; a group of us decided to look at video games and if they are harmful, it was something that interested us so we decided to create a presentation based on that topic. The process of creating the presentation was also enjoyable, we were looking at something we were interested in, not because we had to. We organised to use OU Live to discuss the presentation and we decided to pursue the areas of this topic that interested us the most individually, such as games and learning and addiction in gaming.

Doing this over a distance was a challenge, but we had more Activate sessions and we all supported each other in creating these presentations for the conference. The best thing was that although we were supported, we were given a lot of freedom to pursue our ideas the way we wanted. While creating the presentations we also had the opportunity to get to know each other more and we developed friendships on the way. As we were all not-just-students together, when someone couldn't attend a session or needed help, we understood because things happen and we were all in the same boat.

Going to the actual conference was another experience in itself. The whole thing was being streamed online either live or pre-recorded with the audience interacting through the live chat and different widgets. We had an array of different events throughout the conference with the student presentations, academic talks and the Dean's Quiz to name a few. The chat throughout the whole event was really fascinating but, as a lot of us commented, had two 'levels' of conversation. The first, which directly related to the presentation at that time and the second which was about anything. Most academics would moan about this in a face-to-face lectures or tutorials as us students not paying attention, but having more diverse opportunities for engagement and flexibility meant that we saw more people engaging, connecting and making contributions within this community. Keeping ourselves engaged throughout seemed to enhance what we got out of it. This meant that we came to recognise the names of people who kept coming back and joining our random conversations. People would ask a question which went out live to our speakers, further engaging with the event, but also starting new discussions with each other, all going into creating a diverse and engaged student community throughout the week.

We were really nervous about doing our presentation live, but it really helped to know that we were doing something we were interested in and we had such a fantastic community of people watching. I think what I got most out of doing the presentation is feeling part of the academic community. We're all academics to an extent with the OU, but the academic community is one of those things that seems out-of-reach while distance learning. However, once we finished putting our ideas out there on video games through our presentation it started a discussion of different ideas, contentions and notions of support for the view we presented. This is what academics is about, it's a big discussion which leads to the development of different ideas, and it's exactly what we had, in the best possible environment, with other students who wanted to be part of that discussion.

The Student Connections Conference 2014 was the first of its kind, it was a brilliant event and it's happening again in 2015! For me the event created a catalyst to bring together a community of students, to create presentations, to team-up for the Dean's Quiz, to discuss different ideas and to be a part of the academic community making an isolated OU student feeling part of the larger student body.
This article originally appeared in News and Views New Year 2015.


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