Blog Archives

Exploring barriers to participation in open, online learning

The 38th Annual CALRG conference started on 14th June 2017. During the afternoon session OEPS presented ‘Exploring barriers to participation in open, online learning’.  Across the three-years of the project our work with partner organisations has enabled us to develop a deeper understanding of barriers to participation and to consider how the literature on widening participation correlates with that on digital participation, access and literacy.

The presentation shared our learning on these issues including the key barriers to participation identified during our action research:

  • Online platforms that look / feel like a university
  • Vast quantity of information available
  • Perception that online learning means individual learning
  • Past negative experience of online learning
  • Limited digital literacy
  • Distinction formal learning v. everyday self-directed learning

We also explained our participatory design, co-creation process for developing in new open educational resources and presented two case study examples of how we have incorporated these practices and findings into free open courses hosted on OpenLearn Create.  We made suggestions as to why other institutions might find participatory design of open educational resources useful and how the barriers to widening participation in open, online learning might be addressed including through contextualised pedagogy, focusing on learners, using trusted gate keepers / facilitators to engage learners, providing opportunities to share social learning and make connections between existing skills /digital literacy and online learning.


The slides for the OEPS presentation can be accessed on Slideshare.

All the presentation slides from the CALRG conference, conference papers and poster presentations are available on the CALRG website.


Pic credits:

‘Promise of open education’, by Anna Page, CC BY NC SA 4.0

‘Tackling barriers’, by CALRGatOU


“The Gathering”

“Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos “, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina Image Source: Mariano,, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos “, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina Image Source: Mariano,, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

OEPS will be attending the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) event “The Gathering” on the 22 and 23 of February 2017 with a stall (near the entrance) and a workshop on the 23 of February at 10 am. Why are we operating in this space, after all OEPS is an HE project isn’t it?  The short answer is many of OEPS key partnerships are with Third Sector organisations, and we have something to share about our experiences. Our starting point was research in widening participation which suggests the most effective way to draw someone distanced from learning into education is through partnerships with organisations they trust – see a recent OEPS post about Barriers to participation in online learning. So, we also have plenty to learn from attending.

Rather than reflect on OEPS interest, perhaps a more interesting thing to consider is why the Third Sector is operating in this space. When we consider the role of the Third Sector, we typically think about their role in filling gaps, the spaces left by the public and private sectors, structural holes often experienced most acutely by the most vulnerable in our society. Exclusion is experienced across a range of axes, and these can layer over and accentuate each other.  Our partners tell us education is one of these, and access to good quality free and open as a resource for educators and learners is vital.

We will share our experience of partnership working and using approaches informed by participatory design to develop approaches to engaging people in the design, production and use of OER. Partners from Parkinson’s UK and Scottish Union Learn will be on hand to share experiences. However, we are also aware our experiences are partial, a snapshot.  The workshop is an opportunity for us to share the issues but also to share the questions and learn together. In particular looking at what a future which assumes education and information is free and open look like for Third Sector organisation and for learners/clients they support.

We still have a few spaces left. You will need to register for “The Gathering”  (which is free) before being able to book the workshop.

We look forward to seeing you at the event.

Ronald Macintyre

Barriers to participation in online learning

Obstacles, Umberto Nicoletti (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Obstacles, Umberto Nicoletti (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The skewed demographic of participation in online learning has been one of the central concerns of the OEPS project.  In general, rather than widening participation, the growth in provision of good quality online learning material has resulted in more options for those with experience of higher education.  In 2012, Grainne Conole noted in the Journal of Distance Education that

‘ … the ever increasing technologically rich learning environment in which today’s learners and teachers are immersed is raising issues in terms of social exclusion; the technological divide might be narrower but it is deeper—those not connected or not using these new technologies are being left behind at an alarming rate.

Conole’s observation remains true today.  In seeking to understand why open education has not had a bigger impact on lifelong learning we have worked closely with organisations active in workplace and community education to explore and analyse experience and practice.  In the open education community the focus of inquiry has been on the ways in which technology impacts on participation. However, in our work we have found the broader frame of the well-established widening participation literature more helpful as a starting point.  In this literature, barriers are classified as situational, institutional and dispositional.   For learners in community or workplace settings, who are distanced from formal education, these ‘traditional’ barriers are relevant whether education is provided online or in more traditional face to face settings.  However, where online courses are involved additional factors overlay and interact with those that are articulated in the literature.

For example, conceptions of education, and expectations of online study provide powerful disincentives to study.  Individuals, and the organisations that support them, often default to a view in which learning in a class room with a teacher is the norm.  Other models are seen a poor replacement.  So for online learning to be accepted and effective, alternative pedagogical models have to be clear and explicit.  In addition, learner expectations are often shaped by real experience. Online ‘study’, through mandatory tick-box, online training modules, is almost ubiquitous across the public and private sectors.  These modules are universally hated and colour perceptions of learning in a negative way.  In general, online is viewed as an individualised, isolated and second best learning experience.  With partners we’ve tackled this by being explicit about online as a ‘means of exchange’ and not an end in itself.  This forms the starting point for developing good practice that involves designing opportunities for social interaction and appropriate support.

We have found other ways in which individual, dispositional and situational barriers to participation are mediated in a digital learning environment.  These are explored in more depth in a forthcoming paper in the Journal Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning.  We will also be publishing a series of short good practice reports on overcoming barriers to participation during February and March.

Pete Cannell