Dr Donna Smith


This blog is an update on one of our many recipient of the PSA’s Research & Innovation Fund. We hope these blogs from the academics working on these research projects can shed light on what has been a truly challenging time for many in the profession of political studies over the last few years.


Dr Donna Smith goes into detail on her experience about collaborating with the UK Parliament, encouraging political engagement, and winning an Outstanding Teaching award.



How did your work with the UK Parliament begin?

In 2020, FASS partnered with the UK Parliament on UK Parliament Week (UKPW) – an event held every November that aims to spread the word about what the UK Parliament is, how it works, and how ordinary people can get involved. This partnership has since expanded and we’re now paired more generally through the UK Parliament’s Participation Partnership Network, which gives us access to a variety of individuals and departments at Westminster. As part of our partnership, we publicise UKPW and in return Parliament works with us on different activities, both student and public facing. So it’s a win-win for both of us.


As part of the partnership, you have worked on the Changemakers project. Can you tell us more about it?

Changemakers was designed with OU Politics students, and sought to engage OU students, students from other universities and schools, and the wider public in making a difference by learning about political and democratic engagement. The aim was to get everyone thinking about people who’ve made a change in our society and what impact they’ve had. It was a social media project, with nominations submitted via Twitter.

We decided to take Changemakers further for UKPW 2021 by creating a free online guide to making political and democratic change, aimed at OU students as well as the general public, partly funded by the PSA’s Research and Innovation Fund. The guide encourages people to engage with the UK Parliament in particular, as well as politics more generally, giving people the essential knowledge and tools needed to make change. We hope the guide will help people to understand how they can be a changemaker, whether big or small. Catherine McKinnell MP, Chair of the UK Parliament Petitions Committee, wrote the foreword and then ran a webinar for OU students about making change in Parliament. There was also an external event, for the wider public, run with the UKPW team.

One of the students involved wrote a blog about the event, and it was really important for us to include students as much as possible in the project, with students as partners. In fact, as well as seeking feedback from the general population of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) students, we employed two students to help with the guide, and two more to assist on the original social media campaign.


Did you encounter any difficulties and, if so, how did you get past them?

The major obstacle we addressed was engaging students as partners in design of teaching and learning, a key OU priority. When students actively engage in their learning, they feel the benefits across their studies – with a direct correlation between positive learning experiences and outcomes. Getting involved gives students a stake in the curriculum and an authentic link to learning itself, while also helping to create a community of learning and providing valuable developmental skills for greater employability. We wanted to go beyond the usual way of engaging students in design (feeding back on modules, etc.) and instead link them into the core of the design itself.

This was quite an involved process, and included negotiating University processes, ways of working, related systems, and the need to reach as many students as possible. The time and effort it involved was worthwhile, though, as we were able to engage students in the original Changemakers social media project, as well as in the design of the guide itself, running the webinars and the communications. All of this helped us foster some great one-on-one relationships with key student leaders, as well as the overall POLIS student community.


How was the project received?

We were thrilled to receive positive feedback about Changemakers from Sir Lindsay Hoyle, MP (Speaker of the House of Commons), who said:

'This year, UK Parliament Week reached almost one million people. I think this is a number that should be celebrated throughout the nations. The collaboration video – joining up Changemakers and UKPW – has had a fantastic effect, engaging OU students and many more across the higher education sector and beyond. I believe that together, we can make a mark and bring the people together to talk about what matters to them.'

I was also lucky enough to be awarded the Jennie Lee Prize for Outstanding Teaching by the Political Studies Association. The project was ‘highly commended’ by the Your UK Parliament Awards, too.


What’s next for Changemakers?

The future is exciting! I have just finished working on a free OpenLearn short course called ‘An Introduction to Making Political and Social Change’, which brings two things together: Changemakers, and promotion of our new level 1 module, Global Challenges: Social Science in Action (D113, launching in 2023). We will also link Changemakers into D113 more generally, as part of the module’s focus on active citizenship. We’ve actually expanded the focus of Changemakers for the OpenLearn course, to bring in perspectives from the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly, and international governments. The OpenLearn course was launched as part of UKPW 2022.


How does this all fit in with the wider work of POLIS?

Changemakers and the partnership with UK Parliament is part of our wider Open Politics project. This is a student-focused initiative with three clear goals: to further the Politics and International Studies OU student community, to bring politics and parliaments closer to students and, finally, to be student-led in design and scope of activities.

I would like to thank all of my POLIS colleagues for their help, particularly in relation to communications, as well as the FASS Comms and External Engagement teams, whose work has been invaluable, and the PSA for the original funding.

This blog has been adapted from an OU SSGS magazine article.



Donna Smith - Senior Lecturer in Politics


Donna has worked at the OU for more than 10 years in a variety of roles. In addition to lecturing on Politics, she is also Deputy Associate Dean Teaching and Learning in FASS, as well as Director of The Open University Tuition Programme. In 2022, Donna was awarded the Jennie Lee Prize for Outstanding Teaching by the Political Studies Association. See Donna's full profile here.