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DIY Distance Learning

A blog post by Sarah Henderson and Ben Trupia-Melluish

Throughout the lockdown social media was littered with evidence of the DIY efforts of friends and family, many of whom would never have previously considered lifting a drill. Some attempts were notably more proficient than others but the most interesting were those which documented the process rather than just the result.

As these new DIYers watched YouTube videos, sought advice, had-a-go, received feedback, corrected errors and acquired additional and more appropriate tools, updated images evidenced the development of both the projects and the individuals. And so it is with learning. Learners begin by gathering information and then put this into action, applying their knowledge to tasks and using feedback to improve. 

For law and business students at the Open University, an important developmental tool is engagement with online interactive resources which form a key part of the course materials. These can include matching exercises, drag-and-drop activities, multiple choice questions, completion of tables and diagrams, research activities and tasks where students are required to type structured answers.

Students can use these resources to test their knowledge and try their hand at putting that knowledge into action, often applying what they have learned to a scenario or case study. Each activity provides instant automatic feedback for students to self-assess, revisit any problem areas and seek support from tutors and peers.

Sounds great right? But unlike our DIY buddies, students don’t always update us with what they have been doing.

Scholarship Project

Our recent scholarship project sought to gather detailed information on how level 1 law and business students are using online interactive resources, gathering data through a survey and then a series of student focus groups.

We were particularly interested in whether students engage in active learning or skip these activities in favour of other resources, as well as how they engage.

To what extent do students value the opportunity to learn through action and application? And does the time spent using these resources change as students become more accustomed to distance learning? 


The time students spent engaging with interactivities largely remained consistent throughout their level 1 studies. In some cases, circumstances led to a reduction in available time and affected students may de-prioritise these activities during busy periods.

Others disengaged where they felt less motivated, or the tasks were too easy. On the other hand, some students advised that they spent more time as the course progressed, their motivation increased, the tasks became more involved and they attached greater value to active learning.

Regardless of any alterations to the time applied, students overwhelmingly agreed that they found these opportunities to apply their learning valuable. Of particular worth was the ability to receive immediate feedback on performance; this reportedly accelerated learning, increased confidence and helped students to develop key skills such as writing concisely, structuring answers, library research identifying relevant information.  

With regards the activities themselves, variety was seen to be key. Students saw value in the longer activities requiring structured answers. However, they also found the shorter activities fun, reassuring, a good way to break up long study sessions and useful for filling short amounts of available time.

Different types of activities helped to maintain motivation and interest. The only area of real disagreement was in relation to the use of forum discussions and activities. Some students found these interesting and a useful way to see different viewpoints, but many found forum discussions less valuable than other activities, were reluctant to share information with peers and did not engage where no marks were attached to the activity.

It may be that students did not perceive the value of peer and tutor discussion via the forum in the same way as performance scoring and written feedback on activities.  

The most frustrating thing for students was where the technology let them down. For instance, if links had changed, or where activities were tricky to use on specific devices. 

Recommendations for course authors

  1. Variety is the spice of life! None of us like to be bored so be sure to mix up the types of activity used. 

  2. Clarity is essential. Be specific in providing activity directions. Imagine DIY without clear and specific instructions; walls would come tumbling down!

  3. Guide and structure forum activities. Students are more likely to engage publicly if they are confident that they have understood the task.  

  4. Feedback builds confidence. Students need to see why answers are correct or how they need to be improved. Use auto-feedback comments to show students where they have got answers right and can give themselves a pat on the back, as well as where they can find materials to fill any knowledge gaps.  

  5. Time is of the essence. Map the activities against other course commitments to ensure that you are not asking for long activities to be completed at busy times. Be sure to state how long each activity is intended to take so that students can plan their work and don’t spend too long on a single task. 

  6. Word limits help. While we know that word limits are the bane of every student’s life, including word limits for activities helps students to develop concise writing skills. 

  7. Make sure everything is in working order. Check links and liaise with the learning design team to ensure accessibility and compatibility with devices. DIY without adequate tools can only end badly. 

  8. For those who simply can’t get enough… consider including additional optional activities to challenge high achievers and maintain motivation. 

Next steps

After all, where would all those DIYers be without the support, feedback and advice of their friends and family along the way? 

One finding was that some students found forum interactions with peers and tutors less engaging than other aspects of their interactive experience.

We are following up with an additional project to consider the ways in which students use and value peer and tutor support through both synchronous and asynchronous means.

Our full report can be found here


Sarah Henderson

Sarah is a Lecturer and former Head of Student Experience within the within Open University Law School.

Currently working on the authoring and development of online undergraduate law units, Sarah has a key interest in the ways in which digital teaching methods can enhance the student experience and academic outcomes. Current scholarship projects are centred around the provision of feedback to distance learners and the ways in which both tutor and peer support can be most effectively delivered in an online environment.

In addition, Sarah is an Associate Lecture on the undergraduate law programme. ncerned with marketing and entrepreneurship. Ben’s scholarship and research interests cover a range of areas connected with how students learn and what motivates students to continue and progress with their chosen study paths..  

Ben Trupia-Melluish 

Ben is a Lecturer and Head of Student Experience in the Law School at the Open University. Ben has worked across both the business and law schools whilst at the Open University and is also actively engaged with the FutureLearn platform.

Ben has held many roles at the Open University including Student Experience Manager, Assistant Head of Student Experience and Module Chair.

Ben’s teaching experience and interests to date are concerned with marketing and entrepreneurship. Ben’s scholarship and research interests cover a range of areas connected with how students learn and what motivates students to continue and progress with their chosen study paths..