Tuesday, June 29, 2010

OU the key to future of HE?

1969 was the year we walked on the moon. It was also the year the OU was formed, now an important beacon in the academic landscape. With over 200,000 students (none on campus), it’s easily the largest University in the UK. I personally regard it as the single greatest education institution in the UK, and it’s formation in 1969 (first students 1971) as the most important 20th century achievement in UK education. Remember that’s it has a much longer pedigree than any of the 64 post-1992 Universities. It consistently rates high on student satisfaction studies and teaching excellence, and attracts tens of thousands of foreign students every year. Remember also the way it reaches out to those with disabilities, in prison, full time employment and in the armed forces. What’s shameful is that other universities haven’t taken the model more seriously in terms of technology, content, support and tutoring.

Better option for many

1 in 4 students at the OU are aged 17 to 25, as ambitious young people want a degree without being burdened with massive debts and the much exaggerated ‘social experience’. It also reflects the increasing thirst for higher education from older, part-time students. Fees are around half that of a campus-based university and a great deal of effort is made to support those who could struggle to pay. In addition, you don’t have the ‘luxury costs’ of the drunken meander through a three year degree with accommodation, living expenses and beer money.

The module, credit system is also admirable, allowing students to progress with a set of wider set of intellectual interests at a pace that suits them. The range of qualifications and sense of clear progression is another virtue. Of course, it’s not without its problems. I, personally, think that it could do without being a ‘research’ university, and its cost base in terms of curriculum development was badly managed and expensive. It also burned £20 million is a spectacularly unsuccessful foray into the US. This was all down to poor leadership and management. I believe however, that these problems have been addressed.

OU model may be copied

I had dinner with David Willetts recently, along with the excellent Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of the Open University, and several other Vice Chancellors. The OU model got a good hearing and we see signs that this government is sympathetic to the OU model being adopted, in part, by other universities. This more flexible approach to university education would save costs, provide higher quality teaching, get away from building yet more buildings and stop the whole system being fixated with the ’18 year old undergraduate intake’ model. It would drag many of our universities into the 21st century and allow us to cope with higher student numbers at a lower cost, all without sacrificing student satisfaction and teaching excellence. That would be a move towards maintaining our system as ‘world-class’.

 Subscribe to RSS

22 Comments:

Anonymous Lesley P said...

I was educated in the Scottish system. I don't know what it is like now, but it used be what was described as a 'very broad church'. I went to a selective school in Glasgow which was part of the state school system. You had to pass an exam to get in, but it was not the same as the eleven plus grammar school system that I have since come across in England...although you sat an exam, you also had an interview with various teachers at the school who asked you all kinds of questions about you....and what you were interested in not just academic stuff. Not everybody agreed with this system and it was closed down when the labour party gained a majority of Glasgow City Council in the late 1970's.

However, for me it was just an amazing experience. I met people from all walks of life so girls who came from the very poorest of council estates in Glasgow to girls who came from what can only be described as 'nice' middle class families. I made friends and mixed with people I would otherwise have met had I just gone to a school in my catchment area. We had such a broad education which included a lot of sport, academic subjects, but also included lots of what is now regarded as vocational education...so you could take Food and Nutrition, Fashion and Fabrics and Commerce along side Latin, MFL, all the sciences and humanities and as school kids, we just thought it was normal to mix and match.

So, when I had children, I really believed in the state system and wanted my kids to be part of it but it did not happen. Both my children ended up asking me if they could please go to the local independent schools. My son was the first...he moved when he was 10 and went from being in the bottom maths set to getting A levels in Maths and Further Maths as well as being encouraged to take part in Music and Sport eventually becoming Head Boy at the school. My daughter struggled through the state system, but after her GCSEs she asked if she could move because she wanted to study Classical Civilisations and Home Economics and neither the state school or the local college offered that combination.

So a long winded response....but to me what my kids were offered was diversity...and that is what the OU offers...just wish more of our state schools could offer the same.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Francis said...

Hi, Donald. look what i ahve just found:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/jun/29/open-university-young-students

8:05 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

I agree the OU is a wonderful institution and a great model of future HE. I have taken at least one module per year since the late 90s and also did a short bit of consultancy for it. It is important to realise why it succeeds. The curriculum structure, price and distance learning model are vital. Technology has almost nothing to do with it. The only technology that makes a significant distinctive contribution is printed text, e-mail and the back office technology for providing enrolments, library, despatching etc. Of course some courses require technology as part of the content e.g. statistics package or microscope - but this is the same as any university. The simulations, video snippets, discussion groups, web-sites, blogs etc make almost no educational contribution.

The other vital element is the tutor. There have been two or three occasions when I have not bothered to finish a module and in all cases it was because I couldn't get on with the tutor (most have been excellent).

The early history of the OU is an object lesson in the role of technology in education. I used to work with someone who was a course designer in its earliest days and she gave me an unsanitised account. The original idea was that people would learn through the power of television - the University of the Air. It was a disaster. Grades were appalling and drop out rates were horrendous. Then they switched the emphasis to tutors plus printed text with TV playing an increasingly peripheral element, and it became a great success story. The problem was the design process put technology (in this case TV) first. The OU still has some remnants of this approach. You will be happily reading a text, and then for no obvious reason you will have to listen to a short chunk of audio, or do a computer game, or contribute to an on-line discussion group. You spend 30 minutes loading the software, note it down in your workbook, and then get back to the real course! It almost as if there is pressure on the designers to show they have used the technology :-)

4:07 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Thanks Mark - agree with much of this.
Tutors are vital, but the remarkable thing is how good online tutoring can be. This is something which the majority of academics simply dismiss as unworkable. They're quite simply wrong.
I also agree about the damage that the BBC and the 'TV' model has done to the model. Thankfully they have totally abandoned the broadcast model, but you are spot on when you describe remnants of this hanging around in the system.
The one issue I would question is the role of technology. Strikes me that simply offering distance learning through simple technology is pretty revolutionary for most - and it is clear that most academics simply don't believe the model works and want nothing to do with it. I've always loved the OU and have experienced different testimonies from different people. More experienced learners tend to agree with you on the media mix issue, but less autonomous learners seem to relish the newer media elements. I'd be interested to see any research on this.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Lars Hyland said...

I've been a supporter of the OU model for a long while too Donald, as we've discussed numerous times. I remember talking with OU staff about the demographic changes they were experiencing last year and this appears to have accelerated. I think they have the opportunity to lead the way but could actually be overtaken by more nimble alternatives, especially if the education system fractures further. The cracks are showing, the gaps are getting wider and students are going to fall through.

I just hope the transition will be short and that there is a soft landing for the majority. But for those already reflecting on their educational options, they will realise that learning and working are fluid, intertwined and that once they take personal responsibility for their own development there are actually very few barriers for them to acquire the knowledge and skills they need. These frightening student debts are entirely avoidable if we challenge more deeply the model of learning that HE provides.

On a related note, check out the trailer for the upcoming documentary "Waiting for Superman" for a stark reflection of the failing US public school system. Would be interested in your thoughts on it.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

I've read this post, and the subsequent comments, with much interest - especially Mark's comments about the use of technology. I have always been a firm believer in what the OU stands for, and I'm proud to say that I now work at the OU.
There is increasing demand among learners for flexible content, and providing that content will undoubtedly encounter technology of some kind. Take iTunesU - the OU has just reached a milestone of being the first university with more than 20 million downloads. OU student websites, too, are increasingly being accessed from mobile devices - especially so in 2010. Things have moved a long way from the TV broadcasts of the '70s, and a lot is being driven by student demand.
Perhaps Mark had an unlucky experience of a course where the use of technology did not make for a seamless learning experience, and I can understand the frustration of that. But there are plenty of courses that do deliver a successful media mix, and there are a lot of innovative ideas in the pipeline.
One of the big challenges is how to get that media mix right. Commercial instructional designers usually have the luxury of having a closely-defined target audience and they can design the learning experience accordingly, with an appropriate blend of media. As Donald rightly points out, 25% of our students are under 25, but that means 75% are older, and many are of a generation that did not grow up with computers. One of the key drivers of the OU is to provide learning for all, and course teams must therefore find a media mix to suit all learners. I doubt there is a "right" answer to this, but Mark, don't let that put you off trying another OU course!

11:17 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Kate

Don't worry - I am an enormous fan of the OU. I have done 14 modules over the years and am doing a research module at the moment. So I have a fairly wide experience of what the OU provides. They are excellent. But there are examples in most of them where the technology has created a barrier not a help. (I am not a technophobe, I spent most of career with IBM - much of it persuading people to use technology in training).


On another tack. I think the social experience of the campus is important - at least for the school leaver. For many kids uni is their first sustained time away from home. They learn to create a life on their own, find accomodation, cook, run their own finances, etc. This is possible with a job + OU - but the temptation to continue living at home would be very great.

1:34 PM  
Blogger ctl_alt_del.geek said...

I have to vehemently disagree! My under grad and post-grad study has all been through OU since 1992.

At least 50% of my courses featured group work / collaboration projects that were facilitated through Blackboard and its pre-cursors.

While geographically distant in Cyprus for 3 years, OU provided IT based resources of animation, recorded lectures and access to past papers - all made possible through bulletin boards, CDs and downloads.

Added to this, the quality of instructional material (with the exception of a terrible book: "java for beginners") almost never gave cause for recourse to the tutor (apart from 1 memorable weekend with j-notation maths).

Much of this truly outstanding resource is now available to other learning developers through OpenLearn and labspace.open.ac.uk/.
To dismiss this material as "having to demonstrate they used IT" is frankly graceless from an OU graduate.

What I will wholeheartedly agree with is that the OU's back office model that follows registration through with effective admin is extraordinarily efficient in comparison with other distance learning facilitators. Huddersfield University's Law Degree was a trial on my patience as they repeatedly forgot who I was and what I was studying. Attempts to join a Post-Grad course with Derby University proved entirely too difficult for them to cash my cheque, while others close their doors to applicants more than 12 months in advance.

The OU's model is not without its flaws, but in spooky coincidence, I have just today sent them another cheque for an interesting new module.

Del

12:41 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Del

I am delighted that you, like so many others including myself, have had such a good experience with the OU. However, you are hardly a representative example of an OU student. You are clearly deeply knowledgeable about IT and have been following an IT curriculum for at least part of the time.

Remember that are thousands of people out there studying arts and humanities courses, many of whom find it hard to tell the difference between a left-click and a right-click. For someone in that position to be asked to participate in an on-line conference may amount to a barrier to learning. Let me emphasise that they will still get outstanding value from the OU. I just see fairly regular evidence of the technology leading the design - not the other way round.

Those of us who are familiar with IT sometimes forget how hard it can be even for very intelligent, educated people with a different background.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Interesting debate. I'd like to see some sort of evidence matching use/views of technology/media to demographic. My initial guess would be that, since 25% of students are from overseas and 25% 17-25, and the rest a very broad church, there will be a large range and variance in views. There's also the humanities v science debate. In my experience the science side doesn't really value the discussions etc. and just want to get on with acquiring the knowledge and skills.
However, I'm heartened by the fact that the OU consistently comes top or near top of student satisfaction surveys and is rated highly on the quality of teaching.

11:25 AM  
Blogger ctl_alt_del.geek said...

"There's also the humanities v science debate. In my experience the science side doesn't really value the discussions etc"

Are you being deliberately contentious?

I'm an e-learning developer by trade and choice and concede that the difficulties in providing arts subjects by distance learning is a larger challenge than maths / science processes; but the proposition that there is not an equal amount to be learned by healthy debate with one's peers (hence my presence here???) under the science and IT banner seems a little presumptious.

I would suggest that anyone who doesn't still think they have stuff to learn, and that others can't contribute isn't really subscribing to the concept of learning. (and then we can all experience learning and then reflect etc etc :-)

Despite being a fairly hard-core geek (java / actionscript / vba etc etc etc) I follow blogs, newsgroups, and RSS because you can't ever know it all - and your area of current expertise inevitably negates research in other areas which are being simultaneously exposed by others.

Yes I am happy to find stuff out on my own - but I'm certainly not above being given a leg up by those already on the path!

Just because I'm a sciency-type doesn't preclude discussion and debate!

Del

1:18 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

My 'science' comment was based, not on IT, but engineering, where I had feedback from an OU tutor to the effect taht the students hardly used the discussion at all, in stark contrast to those in the humanities.

4:15 PM  
Anonymous TL said...

I live in Hong Kong and we have a OU too, a friend of mine got a Computer Science degree there and got hired by IBM. Would not say it can replace the traditional one but it is a good alternative.

e-learning consultant
TL

2:17 AM  
Blogger satyajeet shaligram said...

Hi Donald,
Satyajeet here. LOVED some of your earlier posts and would like to correspond via email.
However was not able to find your email address (which may be intentional, and I would like to respect that).

A bit about me: I'm a graduate student from Columbia University, NY and am currently working in India in educational services. With a specialization in Machine Learning (CS) I'm currently working on building smart LMS based systems.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous WrightFlyer said...

The OU is a fabulous institution and plays an important role but is not a panacea for the ills faced by UK Higher Education.

Two main issues prevent the OU from becoming a model for all to follow:

1. The focus has to be on subjects that are cheap to teach. Subjects that require expensive technical equipment ( e.g. Medicine, Civil engineering, Aeronautics, Bio and genetic engineering, Alternative energy, etc,.. ) cannot be taught. Unfortunately for us it is skills in these areas that are going to generate the income that the rest of us will live off now that the banking sector is in retreat.

2. The focus also has to be on subjects that don't involve a practical elements. (e.g. Nursing, medicine, mechanical engineering, the 'trades', physical sciences, architecture,....). i.e. All the skills that are in short supply already!

If we adapt the OU model wholesale we will see a sharp increase in studies of business studies, law, accountancy and the humanities. Would anyone argue that this will be good for the country?

Critics also forget the role universities play in socializing young people and acting as a 'filter' for employers. The OU performs neither of these functions...

4:36 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Many of these subjects have considerable components of theory that could be handled OU style, others like teaching, nursing etc have the equivalent of clinical practice - learning best done in a place of work.
I've never been convinced that Universities do more than any other context on socialisation - those I know who went straight to work were more nature and better prepared than the students I knew. As an employer, I'd say University sheltered young people from the realities of the world and prepared them little for the world of work.

But, I hear you, some subjects need the equipment, labs and context.

5:14 PM  
Blogger D said...

I’m a current OU IT/Maths student and would like to share why I chose the OU above a bricks & mortar institution.

Fees & grants: It’s much, much cheaper to study with the OU.

Distance learning: You can work whilst you learn.

Study materials: Overall very good and engaging (available in pdf as well).

Tutors: Many are approachable and understanding (used to students from all walks of life).

Online tutorials: I’ve found these to be not only incredibly convenient but also an excellent experience though they are totally underused. I imagine there must be some resistance from tutors as one or two tutors can teach a hundred or more students at once. They are also recorded and therefore available if you missed them live. When they are available the turnout I’ve found has been massive 50+ compared to classroom tutorials. A virtual whiteboard with audio and a chat room is used so students and tutors can interact with each other whilst the tutor can easily maintain control with moderation tools. Dispersed throughout a typical tutorial are interactive questions which keep you switched on. I’ve found my retention and understanding of the material to be much improved, I believe because I am much more engaged whereas in a typical classroom it is easy to switch off. The software used is Elluminate which runs on Java (a bit clunky but it does work and is thankfully cross-platform).

OU Website & StudentHome: Very easy to get the big picture of where you are and where to go next.

Google Apps: OU is moving its calendar, email etc to Google Apps. I’d be very interested in the potential of tools such as Google Wave to promote more useful online discussions instead of wading through divergent discussion threads.

Supporting Materials: You get access to the OU’s online library which gives you access to many first-class subscriber resources for free. Also nothing to do with the OU but free resources such as iTunes U have excellent supporting material.

Changes I’d like to see: Tutors offering not just telephone support but interactive online support using tools such as Elluminate would be a godsend for Maths/Science students. With graphics tablets even from the likes of Wacom costing less than £50 I could draw a problem on an interactive whiteboard which the Tutor could then correct or expand upon.

12:10 PM  
Blogger D said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:11 PM  
Blogger D said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Seb Schmoller said...

Donald

Readers will almost certainly enjoy this keynote speech by Martin Bean, VC of the OU, from last year's ALT conference.

Seb

9:42 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

I have been an OU Tutor for the last 2 years presenting Physics courses (alongside Maths). I can compare my experiences directly with being a 'traditional teacher' having taught in two separate schools over the last 7 years. I find the course materials, blending online learning approach and student motivation completely unrivalled to any other HE institution I have experienced!
Furthermore, the support for students with additional needs is, to coin a statement, 'unparalleled'.
Yes, you can teach Science and Maths, online and from a distance! I studied my degree in a traditional University and most lectures were incomprehensible at best, and a total waste of time at worst!
When I carry out face to face tutorials, online forum moderation and Elluminate virtual classrooms, the students and I appear to benefit from each other.
Also, I am studying for my Master's degree in Education and could never have foreseen having the time or money to do so without the foresight of the OU
Suffice to say, this model has been copied almost worldwide and was a triumph of the then Labour Government, initially dismissed by the Conservative opposition as being a 'TV degree'. Let's see what damage the 'Coalition' can do to the social mobility and fairness offered uniquely by the OU!!!

8:31 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

I have been an OU Tutor for the last 2 years presenting Physics courses (alongside Maths). I can compare my experiences directly with being a 'traditional teacher' having taught in two separate schools over the last 7 years. I find the course materials, blending online learning approach and student motivation completely unrivalled to any other HE institution I have experienced!
Furthermore, the support for students with additional needs is, to coin a statement, 'unparalleled'.
Yes, you can teach Science and Maths, online and from a distance! I studied my degree in a traditional University and most lectures were incomprehensible at best, and a total waste of time at worst!
When I carry out face to face tutorials, online forum moderation and Elluminate virtual classrooms, the students and I appear to benefit from each other.
Also, I am studying for my Master's degree in Education and could never have foreseen having the time or money to do so without the foresight of the OU
Suffice to say, this model has been copied almost worldwide and was a triumph of the then Labour Government, initially dismissed by the Conservative opposition as being a 'TV degree'. Let's see what damage the 'Coalition' can do to the social mobility and fairness offered uniquely by the OU!!!

8:31 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home