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Thrive: towards a global common good

Research at WELS/IET focuses on enabling people to realise their potential, lead healthy, fulfilling lives, create inclusive societies, and thrive in the context of change and uncertainty.

‘The changes in the world today are characterized by new levels of complexity and contradiction’ (UNESCO, 2015, p. 9) and it is within this context of complex technological, socio-political (including migration and diaspora) and environmental change that the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2015) seeks to ensure that ‘all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment’

Stating their determination to ‘ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature’ (UN 2015, p. 3), the UN is also committed to fostering ‘peaceful, just and inclusive societies’ (p. 4). A key challenge, then, is to understand how people can be enabled to realise their potential, lead healthy, fulfilling lives, create inclusive societies, and thrive in the context of change and uncertainty. Here in WELS/IET, our field-leading interdisciplinary research is shedding new light on these issues, particularly with respect to:

  1. Children and families
  2. Transformative education
  3. Languages and literacies
  4. Health, wellbeing and social care

WELS/IET have a world-class reputation for methodological innovation and the on-going development of pioneering forms of participatory research, including co-constructed, arts-based and child-led work.

Our research is designed to ensure that previously excluded/vulnerable and complexly disadvantaged members of society are not disenfranchised, and that they are enabled to participate in research that will impact decisions of significance for them and their communities.

Our researchers have special expertise in developing inclusive research practices in collaboration with children and young people, people with disabilities (including those with mental health disabilities), people with specific learning differences, migrants, second language speakers, and older members of society.

Our work is frequently intersectional – acknowledging the ways in which social identities, and allied systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination, intersect and interact. Having a voice and experiencing agency is not only important for individuals’ personal wellbeing, it is essential for the renewal of democracy and processes of democratisation.

Our work is predicated on a commitment to social justice and strong ethical values. We have special expertise in respect of research ethics – supporting the wider international research community, including practitioner researchers, to navigate the new ethical challenges emerging from shifting research practices and technological developments.  

Grounded in this innovative research and excellent scholarship, our open education offer, enhances the lives of millions of people throughout the world as we advance The Open University’s mission of social justice and social mobility for the 21st century ( 

Theme 1. Children and Families

Our researchers have established childhood studies as a distinctive field of research and study through interdisciplinary inquiries. They have generated innovative theorisations of children and contemporary childhoods in ways that impact global policy, making for better childhoods, pedagogies and experiences that enable children to thrive.
Building upon the work of our field-leading participatory, child-led research centre, our research is positioned at the forefront of contemporary thinking on childhood and early years care and education. By working in partnership with education/health professionals, and other users of research, WELS researchers design ambitious research programmes of significance and consequence for policy and practice.

Our research offers novel insights into the anthropology of childhood, childhood studies and child-development in the early years. Our research engages with the diversity of childhoods related to social, economic and cultural contexts and explores ‘different’ childhoods, including the experiences of children living with disability. Our researchers offer new understandings of diverse experiences of parenting, child protection, and child mental health; child health; youth justice; children’s geographies; and humane social care.


Theme 2. Transformative Education

It is through the creation of new knowledge horizons, shaped by mobility/ connectivity/plurality and openness (see UNESCO, p. 201), that WELS/IET research gives rise to transformative educational experiences. Our researchers are the architects of innovative, inclusive, dialogic and inquiry-based pedagogies, which are shaping future visions of education, designed to enable all learners to realise their full potential and enrich their learning journeys.

Our world-renowned Institute of Educational Technology (IET) is leading the Open University’s mission of working towards a world where all people can be transformed by learning wherever they are and whatever their situation or resources. Underpinned by our excellence in learning design and learning analytics, we attend critically to how people learn and the different contexts where learning is needed. Committed to social justice and opportunities for all, we work to make learning accessible to those facing the greatest barriers to learning and for whom learning can be life-saving – through our work on mobile and ubiquitous learning (including learning for migrants, refugees and displaced persons). More broadly, our work sheds light on the processes and practices of ‘Open Learning’ and what it means to teach and learn in an open world (where content and resources are developed, shared and remixed in a fundamentally collaborative and distributed process). Our especial expertise in social learning has informed the pedagogically-led development of FutureLearn, as a platform for MOOCs, which has 6.5 million registered users worldwide, with courses from over 100 partners.

Our research also foregrounds the power of arts-based education and the creative processes of ‘possibility thinking’; develops new forms of assessment and language- aware testing practices; investigates learner agency; examines emerging literacy identities, habits and cultures; develops novel approaches to the teaching-learning of STEM subjects; and supports new forms of inquiry and technology-mediated learning, including the learning of languages.

Excellence in our language(s)-based research has informed the development of linguistically and culturally sensitive pedagogies and ambitious, large-scale technology-mediated educational opportunities. These include the creation of pedagogically driven resources reaching and empowering large numbers of language teachers in Europe and beyond, working with the Council of Europe’s European Centre for Modern Languages; re-using Open Educational Resources (OERs) embedding them in professional practice and learning ecosystems; and the development of a MOOC designed to meet the academic needs of students in mobility programmes.

Our multiple award-winning participatory programmes of international teacher education have developed pedagogies of mutuality, and models of sustainable change, that are providing innovative solutions, at scale, to the challenges the global community faces in promoting, expanding and improving teacher education − in the UK, Europe, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, China and, most recently, in Bangladesh and India. We work extensively, and often in partnership, with international organisations such as The Commonwealth of Learning, the Department for International Development (DFID), the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the World Bank and UNESCO in the applications of new forms of ICTs and Open Educational Resources to teacher education. These pedagogies and models of change also underpin our accelerated and scalable healthcare education and training programme (HEAT) for frontline healthcare workers across sub-Saharan Africa. Through such ambitious programmes of work, we collectively co-create new knowledge and solutions to educational challenges together with other professionals.

WELS/IET research also generates important insights into the opportunities for fulfilling and personally meaningful learning beyond formal education – for instance, online, in clubs, in homes and in museum spaces. Most recently, a large European participatory, inclusive research project (deploying multi-sensory technologies) is enabling people with differences and difficulties associated with perception, memory, cognition and communication to explore cultural heritage sites – sites that had previously been inaccessible to them. A similar health-related research project is bringing together archivists with people with learning difficulties to find new ways of recording, archiving and accessing the history of learning difficulty experience and policy in the UK.

We recognise that learning is everybody’s business and we work with civil society, commercial, technical and arts organisations, policy makers and other partners in the UK and internationally to address the question of enabling all to learn. Research in Professional and Digital Learning, for instance, is impacting organisations around the world (in the Energy, Finance, Health, Police, International Development and Education sectors). We co-design research that harnesses the agency and expertise-led contributions of other professionals and our research participants are recognised as people with concerns, rather than being positioned as objects of concern. Together, then, our work can enable people to flourish through access to, and participation in, quality educational and research experiences.


Theme 3. Languages and Literacies

WELS researchers conceive of language as a social and cultural phenomenon and a powerful resource implicated in the construction of knowledge and social identities and in everyday and professional practices across the lifespan. Our use of language both reflects and shapes our understanding of the world, our cultures, our relationships, our thinking, who we are and who we are becoming. In our increasingly multilingual and multicultural world languages mediate our lives in ways that are of significance and consequence for the creation of just, inclusive societies. As WELS research makes clear, the capacity to engage competently in intercultural communication grounds the negotiation of meaning in the recognition of plurality, diversity and hyperdiversity – a process that is vital to engaged citizenship and social cohesion and sits at the heart of civic society. Our research evidences the importance of intercultural communication for all teachers, not only modern languages teachers, who work within complex and changing linguistic, social and cultural landscapes where mobilities and diasporic identities are salient and where translanguaging is an everyday practice with the potential to transform pedagogic policy and practice.

Language and communication are dynamic processes, and as technologies shift so too do the ways in which people interact with one another and the ways in which information and opinion circulate. Our innovative work concerning communication via Facebook highlights the various social and political implications that people’s everyday online actions can have and how their actions are shaping the nature of social media and allied communicative practices. Evidencing the apparent role that social media sites now play in politics and the dissemination of news and other information, our researchers are working to develop ‘critical digital literacy awareness’ such that people can benefit from their engagement with new media, whilst also being aware of the complexities associated with their use. Our work also offers fresh understandings concerning the creativity of literacy practices across the online-offline divide.

Our use of languages also shapes our contemporary working lives and practices. Our field-leading research regarding professional literacies examines the writing demands and practices associated with contemporary professional fields including social work and higher education. Our work also offers important insights into the political implications of the use of English as an academic lingua franca and as a medium of instruction in schools and universities across the globe, as well as the use of English for economic and international development. Our research in these areas highlights the important role that language can play in maintaining social injustice and inequality and looks at ways of making resources more equitably available to second language users of English.

To better understand the processes of language learning and language use, particularly in digital environments, we employ innovative methods such as cognitive and socio-culturally informed eyetracking. Our research is concerned not only with making the world of English(es) accessible to speakers of other languages through investigating and evaluating such practices as language simplification and translanguaging but also looks at the flipside of the widespread use of English, the ways in which a diverse Britain can benefit from a rich multicultural and multilingual heritage and opportunities.


Theme 4. Health, Wellbeing and Social Care

Our work on health, wellbeing and social care is underpinned by the conviction that research that explores and describes the lived experience of health and illness in all its richness and complexity has the greatest potential to transform lives and enable people to thrive. We take seriously the idea that researching good health is as important as researching illness and we recognise that the experience of illness, disability or vulnerability is not all encompassing, nor does it completely define identity or the possibilities of life. Rather good health can be enhanced, maintained, enjoyed and celebrated in the midst of illness, disability and vulnerability.

We apply this approach to researching health across the entire life course and we have particular expertise in creative, innovative and participatory methodologies designed to develop new understandings in previously under-researched, and/or sensitive topics and issues. For example, some of our most recent work explores Black women’s health and wellbeing. We have an international reputation for our work on reproduction, sexualities and sexual health. This work is predicated on an understanding of sexual and reproductive health as not merely the prevention of infection, conception, violence or risk, but also primarily concerned with sexual and reproductive autonomy, sexual functioning, pleasure, enjoyment and intimacy. Our research explores the relationship between the body, health and identity as well as the governmental possibilities of sexual and reproductive health policies and practices.

Our work on living with disability and long-term conditions has focused on the development of powerful, inclusive research methodologies and life story approaches which enable people to articulate and communicate deeper understandings of their disabilities or conditions, empowering patient groups and transforming perceptions of and meanings attached to disability.

WELS/IET research also examines the multiple meanings, and diverse experiences, of ageing across the life course. Recognising that the cultural, economic, social and environmental circumstances in which people age are changing rapidly, our work evidences how people experience ageing differently. Understanding the diversity of these experiences indicates some of the ways in which individuals believe they thrive as they age. A newly emerging programme of research in sport and fitness is examining issues as diverse as the performance of elite athletes, including a focus on their experiences of adversity, nutrition and obesity, the rehabilitation of sports professionals, and women’s sporting embodiment. Our work also considers death, dying and bereavement with a particular focus on end-of-life care, death (including all forms of reproductive and neonatal loss), bereavement, and memorialisation. Much of this work is based on in-depth ethnography and highlights the importance of relations and interactions in understanding life, care, and death.

Our commitment to research co-production and knowledge exchange allows us to work in close partnership with charities, universities, service user and provider organisations to develop impactful, innovative programmes of work designed to explore challenges and issues in respect of health, wellbeing and social care across the lifespan. A key aspect of this is our hosting of various interdisciplinary and cross sector alliances with whom we work closely such as the Carer Research and Knowledge Exchange Resource (CARER) and the Sexuality Alliance, a multi-agency collaboration to promote sexual health and rights for young people with life-limiting conditions. Moreover, our distinctive approach to health, well-being and social care research necessitates strong interdisciplinarity with shared specialisms in epidemiology, demography, applied health services research, medical sociology/ anthropology, social psychology and professional practice research in nursing and social work.



United Nations (2015) Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. United Nations. Available at

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2015) Rethinking Education: Towards a global common good? UNESCO Publishing. Available at


November 2019