02/07/2014 08:30 BST | Updated 01/09/2014 06:59 BST

All Students Have the Right to a Sense of Community - Even Distance Learners - and Universities Have a Responsibility to Build One

Too many academics still spend too much of their time in ivory towers and not engaging their students... modern students want to change this. Academics will have to change too.

The world of higher education is changing and nowhere is that more apparent than in the world of distance learning. Whilst MOOCs may appear to be the new kid on the block, I'm lucky enough to work in an organisation that has been at the cutting edge of educational innovation for the past four decades. The UK's Open University was originally established to offer a degree level education to those who had 'missed out' earlier in life. As a 'second chance to learn' organisation, inevitably our students tended to be older than the average campus based universities. Whilst the average age of our students is still higher than more traditional universities, one thing I have noticed as I meet students around the UK is that they are getting younger. I had worried that perhaps this was just a sign of my getting older, but checking out the statistics I was interested to find out that only about 9% of our new students are over 50 and 30% of new undergraduates are under 25. In fact, over 26,500 of our current students are aged under 25. This is a significant shift in the demographic of our student population, and opens up new challenges of how to provide the best experience for students who want to study from home but still have a 'student experience'.

Although the emphasis on education remains on passing exams and gaining employment, one aspect that is frequently overlooked is the social side of the 'student experience'. When I was a student, at Cardiff University, a well-regarded traditional campus based university, I was serious about my studies but I was also serious about my leisure. I joined clubs, engaged in new experiences and had more than the odd night out in the Student Union. I never thought much about any of this at the time, perhaps I was too busy enjoying myself, but on becoming a lecturer I came to realise that students who were connected to others and had strong social networks were far more likely to succeed than those who became isolated. In a university such as the Open University, this problem of isolation and lack of community is more acute and more difficult to overcome. Attempts to foster community have been made often without much in the way of success. When students live up to 80 miles apart it is difficult to arrange a quick meet up in the local pub or coffee house. In a distance learning environment there is no equivalent of the Student Union. Virtual beer just does not have the same taste as the real stuff!

Currently, around 16% of undergraduates in the UK are distance learners*, but it is likely that this figure will rise partly as a result of the impact of tuition fees, but also as more students choose part-time study, or support themselves with part-time work. A 2013 study from the NUS and Endsleigh found that 57% of students were working part time while at university, a rise of 7% on the previous year**. It seems clear to me that this trend will deepen and part-time distance learning will become to look less like an anomaly and more the norm. As somebody who has both studied and taught at a distance, the quality of education does not need to suffer, but it is the informal learning including the building of a 'student community' that will need addressing.

It was with a view to overcoming the isolation of students in my own Faculty of Social Sciences that we launched Student Connections, which culminates in a five day online conference. This conference broadcast live brings together both students and academics to present on a variety of topics, ranging from 'Overcoming isolation in distance learning', 'Videogames, harmful or not?' to 'Where have all the plastic bags gone?'. To encourage students to become involved, myself and colleague Karen Foley ran a series of online Activate sessions which invited students to talk about anything that interested them and then through a series of workshops to take these initial ideas and bring them to fruition at a conference. We attracted students from across all levels and disciplines for the weekly sessions and watched as their enthusiasm and their ideas were moulded into viable presentations. What we should remember is that none of these students had ever presented at a conference before and none of them had ever actually met other than during these online sessions. One group met face to face just half an hour before recording a presentation, but we believe that they will have formed enduring friendships during the project.

Whilst an online conference is certainly not new, the emphasis on undergraduate presenters being treated as equal to established academics certainly is. Many of the students will visit our campus during the conference week and will interact with academics who are names on textbooks to them. We see no distinction between these two groups other than particular skillsets which the students are rapidly acquiring. What is exciting is not just the programme of events though that certainly represents a fantastic showcase of my Faculty, but that students will, for at least one week, feel very much part of a community of scholars. They will not be on the outside looking in, but right in the centre. I have said to colleagues if they can only spare the time to watch one presentation, make sure it is a student one.

Education changes lives. The Open University changes the lives of people who often have felt that they had missed out on opportunities. The Student Connections conference has already changed the lives of the 20 or so students who regularly attended the online sessions. We now aim to begin building that notion of community that will transform the lives of the 1,200 or so who have registered. Community does not stop at the Open University and really is a case of reaching out to your students. Too many academics still spend too much of their time in ivory towers and not engaging their students. The success of this project has shown that modern students want to change this. Academics will have to change too. There's never been a better time.

Dr Dave Middleton is a Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at The Open University and a recent recipient of a National Teaching Fellowship from the Higher Education Academy. He has spearheaded the first Faculty of Social Sciences' Student Connections conference, taking place from 30th June - 4th July.