18 Jun 2014

Faculty of Social Sciences hosts pioneering Student Connections online conference with undergraduates taking centre-stage

The Faculty of Social Sciences at The Open University (OU) is hosting a free, online conference with a difference this month. The five-day Student Connections conference, which provides thought leadership and insight into a myriad of social science issues, places the undergraduate students at centre stage. In addition to keynote speeches from academic luminaries including Dr Meg Barker and Professor Graham Pike, over a dozen undergraduates from the OU will present on topics they are passionate about, ranging from ‘Video games: harmful or not?’ to ‘The problem with plastic bags’.

Student Connections takes place from 30 June – 4 July 2014 and anyone – whether they are students, academics, or members of the public interested in the issues being debated - is invited to sign up and participate online. The five-day conference comprises a series of keynote lectures, student presentations, live interviews and debates and workshop sessions. Dr Dave Middleton, a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences and a recent recipient of a National Teaching Fellowship from the Higher Education Academy, launched the conference as a way to connect distance learning students from the OU with one another. The conference provides them with the opportunity to network, share ideas, and, crucially, allows them to present on a subject of their choice, an opportunity usually reserved for postgraduates. The students who have volunteered to take part are doing so in addition to their studies, and whilst putting together their presentations have been preparing for their exams and completing their assignments.

Highlights of the five day conference include keynote speeches on ‘Engineering Water Bills for Financial Gain: The Case of the Thames Water £14 Million’ by Prof John Allen, Professor of Economic Geography and ‘Rewriting the rules of love, sex and gender’ by Dr Meg Barker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology. From the students, topics include ‘Video games; harmful or not?’, ‘Charging on the NHS’, and ‘Overcoming isolation and shyness’, an ambitious research project developed virtually by three undergraduates to explore the issues arising from distance learning.

Dr Dave Middleton comments: “We wanted to offer our distance learning students – who are based as far afield as Norway and Greece - the opportunity to come together and discuss issues close to their heart, across all levels and disciplines. The response we had from students wanting to take part was phenomenal and I’m thrilled that we have such a great line-up of undergraduates participating and presenting across the breadth of disciplines offered through the Faculty of Social Sciences. Higher education is evolving, and we have launched this conference in response to students’ needs, allowing our learners to interact with one another in this unique, collaborative way.”

Harleyjack Muckell is studying full time for a Politics, Philosophy, Economics degree and is presenting live with three fellow undergraduates at the conference on the topic, ‘Video games: harmful or not?’ He comments: “It was quite a risky idea, allowing the undergraduates to take control and play such a big role in the format of the conference, but everyone has really got behind the concept. The programme is really varied and broad, and I’m particularly looking forward to learning more about the disciplines I don’t touch on through my degree. I’m a bit nervous, but primarily excited and pleased that I get to play a part in Student Connections, the first conference of its kind.”

For further information on Student Connections, including the full programme, and details of how to register please visit

Notes to Editors
For further press information please contact Victoria Evans at The PR Network: / 07766 244 322.

About The Open University

The Open University (OU) is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than 1.8 million students and has more than 200,000 current students, including more than 15,000 overseas.
The OU is rated in the top five of UK universities for student satisfaction in the National Student Survey, since the survey began in 2005. In 2012/13 it had a 92% satisfaction rating. Over 70% of students are in full-time or part-time employment, and four out of five FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses.

In the UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008) The Open University was ranked in the top third of UK higher education institutions. More than 50% of OU research was assessed in the RAE as internationally excellent, with 14% as world leading.

Regarded as Britain’s major e-learning institution, the OU is a world leader in developing technology to increase access to education on a global scale. Its vast ‘open content portfolio’ includes free study units on OpenLearn, which received 5.2million unique visitors in 2012/13, and materials on iTunes U, which has recorded more than 60 million downloads. The OU has a 41 year partnership with the BBC which has moved from late-night lectures in the 1970s to prime-time programmes such as Frozen Planet, Bang Goes the Theory, I Bought a Rainforest and The Money Programme.

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