An exciting new digital initiative banishes time and space to reach new groups of young people
Oxford’s launching a new website called Oxplore. The innovative digital portal, referred to as ‘The Home of Big Questions’, is aimed at young people and potential applicants. Guided by the expertise of Oxford academics, users learn about and debate some of the trickiest issues of our time. One Year 10 user has already described it as ‘totally new’ and ‘not like anything else’.
The aim is to get young people considering fresh aspects of a major question, and to encourage them to read and explore the question further for themselves.
Dr Samina Khan, Oxford’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach, says, ‘When we started this project in 2015, we realised that there is no shortage of wonderful academic resource at a University like Oxford, but how to transmit this to a younger audience was a creative challenge.’
The University met the challenge by extensively consulting with the potential audience, first in the North East, East Midlands and Wales. The process uncovered two particular requests, the first that the portal work well on a smartphone and the second that there be some element of instant engagement. Both points were taken on board – in the trial phase 56% of the app users were on a mobile device.When you open the app, you are confronted with a selection of ‘big questions’, such as whether time travel could ever be possible, yes or no; whether it is OK to ban certain books, yes or no; or do you make your own luck, yes or no. You hit a button to vote, and are taken through to more detailed talking points and the debate. Having read through half a dozen fresh considerations, all based on academic input, you vote again. By then, the answers are more nuanced than ‘yes or no’, and you might well have changed your position.
Each question goes where it pleases, typically resulting in a widely cross-disciplinary discussion. For example, ‘Can money buy happiness?’ spans history, philosophy, theology, psychology and economics.
The core journey for each question covers the main arguments. Before voting students also have the chance to delve deeper into additional resources. Around half the questions lead to suggested further reading sourced partly from existing undergraduates students.
Crucially, the resource for each question is drawn from Oxford academics. One question that came out of the consultation phase concerned the relationships between the police and black and minority ethnic communities that has inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. The question was re-cast as ‘Is it OK to judge other people’ and passed to Dr Alpa Parmar, a Departmental lecturer at Oxford’s Centre for Criminology.
In answering this question, users begin with neuroscience insight into how the brain actually works and end with a considered podcast by Dr Parmar, which directly tackles the thorny question of stop and search. She notes that ‘…there is a way of thinking about the idea, … but not necessarily an answer as such and definitely not a binary right or wrong.’
Dr Parmer also notes that there has already been a lot of feedback to the app via Twitter, suggesting that ‘It’s captivated people with its real life day to day application.’ She adds that the whole exercise was unexpectedly fruitful for her own thinking. ‘It forced me to return to and reconsider how I understand racial profiling, and why I do the research that I do.’
The structure, look and feel and content of Oxplore might challenge the expectations of an older generation. Dr Alex Pryce, Widening Access and Participation Coordinator, who helped to develop Oxplore, says that the development team were surprised at just how digitally savvy the youngsters were when asked what they wanted, and ‘how intelligent they were about the sort of ideas they wanted to debate.’
‘When we discussed their wish for a comment function, they were able to tell us when they should be able to comment, what kinds of registration or authorization there should be, and even how comments should be filtered to avoid swear words or be flagged for moderation. We took their ideas back to our technical developers.’
Khan says, ‘it is very much about Oxford’s academic expertise packaged in a way that speaks to young people, a unique combination of youth-focussed and at times populist questions.’
Now that Oxplore is up and running –with an official launch on September 20th–the feedback is coming in. A Year 8 from Dyke House Sports & Technology College in Hartlepool said, ‘It’s fun but educational too,’ and a Year 9 student from Brynteg School in Bridgend said, ‘I like that the questions aren’t just black and white. It’s a good way to view the world.’
Asked who the beneficiaries of the portal are intended to be, Samina says that the app is ‘a catalyst and not an endpoint, designed to enhance intellectual curiosity. While users may well be potential applicants to Oxford, we want it to be attractive to all young people.’
One of the broader aims is simply to foster the idea that reading and thinking outside the school curriculum is not only encouraged but necessary. This is what also sparked the enthusiasm of a single donor who has underwritten the cost of Oxplore.
With 35 ‘Big Questions’ and over five hundred individual resources, ranging from quizzes to lists and videos, articles and podcasts, there is potential for an impact that will also engage adults (Ed. note: try it!) and become borderless and international.
The goal next year is to develop the portal so there is a whole section for teachers, and then to repeat the process to engage parents the following year, 2019.
Pictures: University of Oxford