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From the University of the Air to the university everywhere

Martin Weller makes the case for the massive contribution that the Open University has made to educational technology in the UK and further afield.
This article is more than 5 years old

Martin Weller is a Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University.

If we are to be honest, most university mission statements are largely interchangeable and somewhat bland.

While they advocate admirable sentiments, along the lines of everyone realising their potential in a nurturing environment, there is a whiff of motherhood and apple pie about them.

But the Open University’s mission statement is different, in that it encapsulates the institution’s widening participation function, but also the means by which it should realise this: “Open to people, places, methods and ideas”. It’s also wonderfully brief, clear and lacking in management speak, the Shakespearean sonnet of mission statements.

Becoming open

As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, the OU’s mission statement remains as relevant now as it was in 1969. It also provides a means of framing the changes over those 50 years. While each of the four elements (people, places, methods and ideas) are given equal value in the mission, it is probably true that the initial phase of the OU was focused on realising the first two in particular. Open to people equated with the removal of entry barriers with open entry to courses without prior qualification, and open to places entailed the development of a robust distance education, part-time model of education.

These two remain the central pillars of the OU’s identity, but it is the last two elements that I want to focus on in this retrospective. Being open to methods entailed finding different ways to teach other than the traditional face to face lecture. This was realised through printed units, television programmes, summer schools, home experiment kits, audio and later video cassettes. In short, through developing what we now term educational technology.

This term has become largely synonymous with digital, internet technology, but ed tech has an analogue ancestor. July this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the initial proposal for a specialist unit in the OU to research, and develop ed tech. Initially labelled the “Applied Educational Sciences Unit” by 1970 it was given the term by which it is still know, The Institute of Educational Technology (IET). The OU didn’t invent ed tech (if anyone did), but it was certainly one of the first institutions to give it such prominence. After all, for most universities ed tech was the lecture hall, laboratory and blackboard and that didn’t seem to require special attention.

Fifty years of technology

The analogue version of ed tech was focused on the effectiveness of different media (actual physical media), for example how best to incorporate audio cassettes into a distance education course. The use of print was an under-researched area also, for example framing ‘breakout’ texts, in-text questions and reflection points, and making effective use of feedback on assignments. Combined with researching how to make the best use of summer schools, the development of home experiment kits that could be reliably (and safely) used without supervison, the optimal use for television programmes and the early educational technologists were not idly twiddling their thumbs, waiting for digital ed tech to arrive.

But from the late 1980s the inexorable shift to a digital focus for ed tech in IET commenced, particularly through pioneers such as Robin Mason and Diana Laurillard. These included the first use of bulletin board systems – a clunky, but much beloved system called CoSy was used on some courses in the late 80s and early 90s. The early focus was usually courses where the additional burden of getting online and negotiating unfamiliar (and often unreliable) software was worthwhile – for example in using technology for teaching, or language learning.

Not all students (and certainly not all staff) were convinced about the possibility of this online approach to be much more than a niche interest. But the genie was out of the bottle, and from CoSy the OU shifted to a more reliable, easy to use system, FirstClass. This allowed CMC (computer mediated communication) to be viable across multiple courses, and student forums flourished. In 1999 the OU launched what might be deemed the first Massive Open Online Course. Titled “You, your computer and the net”, it attracted approximately 15,000 students annually. While not open in the sense of being free to all, it was open in the OU sense of no entry requirements, and demonstrated that the traditional OU model could be transferred online.

More than MOOCs

In 2004 the OU made the transition to online a universal feature across its provision, with all courses now required to have some online element. This was realised through the adoption of a VLE to provide a single platform. The choice of platform was itself a continuation of the mission statement, with the open source system Moodle being chosen.

Turning our attention to the last of the mission’s elements – open to ideas – this can be interpreted as changing ideas around what ‘open education’ itself means. The OU model developed 50 years ago went on to be successfully replicated around the world with the establishment of many national distance, open universities. But the arrival of the internet and digital technologies (both open by their design) caused an evolution of the term open education itself. In 2002 MIT launched what would become known as the OER (open education resources) movement by releasing all of their associate content under an open licence that allowed others to take and reuse it. The OU adapted to this idea of ‘open’ by establishing OpenLearn in 2006, which has gone on to become the UK’s largest OER repository, with over 8 million visits a year.

Similarly, the advent of MOOCs – open, online courses – in 2012 provided another interpretation of open. The OU responded with the establishment of FutureLearn, the UK’s biggest MOOC platform. The OpenSTEM laboratory are another example of this intersection between the mission statement and educational technology. This award winning project enables learners to connect online to technical equipment and to engage in remote experiments. Similarly, virtual field trips have opened up the outdoor field experience to many more students who may not otherwise attend.

The OU’s approach then is (perhaps uniquely) informed by its mission statement, and this in turn has driven its adoption of educational technology. With ‘open’ now very much seen as a catalyst for innovation in higher education as people promote open pedagogy, open science, open access, open textbooks and open data, then the anniversary of a unit such as IET focused on exploring these different interpretations is as significant as that of the OU as a whole.

3 responses to “From the University of the Air to the university everywhere

  1. The deep influence of IET research and pedagogy is unquestioned now, both in the OU and beyond. But, astonishing to relate, the OU’s first VC (Walter Perry) actually proposed abolishing the institute. He felt that it no longer needed the status of a separate identity, on the ground that its work had become mainstream. Fortunately, his recommendation was ignored, so that IET could develop as the outstanding research institute that it is today.
    And one of IET’s most distinguished professors, Robin Mason, proposed a fifth ‘open’ attribute for the OU – that it should also be ‘open as to time’, in which regard it has been conspicuously successful. OU students can study at a time of their choosing, rather than meeting the requirements of their teachers, and this has been a significant departure from conventional campus education.

  2. It’s not totally flexible in time – there are still deadlines, schedules for modules etc.
    Should we be more open-minded about that? I’m not sure, but at least we should discuss it (as Martin did in his lecture recently)

  3. A really nice piece Martin. The OU and the IET changed my life, simple as that. It allowed me to change the direction of my career and life. I was also lucky enough to meet Robin, before she was taken from us far too early. It is so interesting to me that I feel such real emotional attachment to an institution that I have visited ‘IRL’ only once, saying much about how effective the IET have been in designing and enabling a sense of belonging amoung learners. Here is too another 50 years!

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