I read with interest the following two sources this week about Open Education:
- Cormier (2013), What do you mean… open?
- Weller (2014), ‘What sort of open?’, Chapter 2 of The Battle for Open
I suppose in my mind when I talked about accessible I was really talking about equal opportunities and creating an education free from barriers, rather than supporting learning and interactive dialogue so I had the 2nd and 4th pillars in mind. Certainly, I had not given any thought to the third pillar in my image - I did not consider the OU to have transparency and sharing at its core.
Having reviewed these core values I started to think about whether the OU still holds this values and at what cost. I thought I would note down some of my views on this beginning with the ones that impact and inspire me the most:
Open Entry: For undergraduate programmes (other than those that are work-based where you must have a certain job), the OU is till completely open. It allows anyone and everyone to start studying and this creates a diverse and exciting student body. This is the defining feature of the OU to me - I can turn up to a tutorial and have all walks of life there and they all bring something to the table - they all inspire me to teach and learn. But this comes at a cost - at the moment a student with no background in an area can sign up and begin studying at final year level - the key is that the OU is open entry full stop not open entry and managed progression. This makes the lives of module teams developing programmes much harder as you cannot know when you write a final year module in molecular biology whether your students will have done a first or second year module in biology or even science in general. It also makes the lives of the tutors very hard - as is often the case with teaching 10% of students take 90% of your time and effort and at final year - this is a lot when a student has chosen to study neuroscience for the first time, despite only previously study music and literature, for example (it happens!). I think the difficulty in teaching in this context is a price worth paying - and certainly if you cannot teach - you cannot survive at the OU so a by product of this is that the teacher development is second to none.
Equal opportunities and free from barriers: When I started teaching at the OU, courses were pretty cheap and there were grants to help with things like computer costs and extra support for English and Maths skills. The climate of Higher Education has changed a lot in those 14 years and now there are definitely more financial and skills barriers as all OU study now requires a certain level of digital literacy. But those barriers are still far less than at most conventional universities and, the fact that over 25% of students at the OU have a declared disability - far higher than any other university - speaks volumes. I had the pleasure (I think) of teaching at the final few years of summer schools at the OU before the science faculty phased them out and I remember a student who arrived with a walking stick, but mid-week appearrf in the lab in a wheelchair. This presented no problem for the lab work as all this is carefully considered and planned but I remember saying to a colleague, its a good job he had the wheelchair with him and being astounded by the reply that he did not - we always brought a spare one to summer schools just in case. It is noteworthy that this summer school was held at a University around 100 miles from our base in Milton Keynes and we had transported delicate lab kit, computers, staff and a wheel chair - just in case. That example to me emphasizes the effort the university went to in order to remove barriers - and still does. I sometimes find myself so in awe of my students at the OU that I am reduced to tears thinking of their achievements (attending an OU graduation was worse than watching Marley and Me). Now, of course, they are the achievements of the students not the university, but without the unwavering support systems in place those achievements would be much harder to come by, even for the most brilliant of students.
Accessible and supported learning: I have perhaps veered into this in the discussion above so rather than focus on accessible I will comment on the support available to students at the OU. When I started as a tutor I was given a big yellow ring binder, which I still have (although the original contents is long gone). In big letters across the front it said 'Supported Open Learning'. I don't think I ever really comprehended what that meant but I did follow the guidance in it to support my students as best as I could. I knew the rules about extensions and where to point them to for general skills help and how to give extensive feedback. I also knew what staff development was available to me. In those days it was largely just the tutor and ~20 students - now we are part of a much bigger network with student registration and support teams. We have lost a little of the personal touch perhaps but I think the students still feel supported and I still feel like I develop a relationship with those I teach - I know because I still feel pride in them when they complete the courses!
Transparency, sharing and advising: Here I have saved the best and worst until last. In my mind the OU has been both far to modest but also shown too much of its hand. When the OU began, it was literally the only place in the world doing what it did and it was doing it brilliantly. So brilliantly that it was easier for the rest of the sector to see it as fundamentally different - so much so that other universities could get away with believing they could not learn from world-leading teachers and learning technologists delivering education to literally hundreds of thousands of students - a scale of education that could make the entire Russell Group weep. The OU did not shout enough - it did not make itself known as experts and education leaders - it just kept going with its brand of open education, with subtle changes over the years and confronting sector issues like fee changes in its own individual way. And then came the change - at some point everyone wanted to have distance or online learning and who was there emerging from the background with all the expertise - willing to share and being transparent - the OU, of course. As online offerings now pop up daily from conventional universities, the future of the OU may be precarious - it is experiencing competition like never before. The skill set of staff is now valued more widely across the sector, meaning they have more options available to them, and the pull of other universities, using their traditional brand of excellence is drawing students away from the OU. All that said, I am not unduly worried for this ground-breaking institution just yet. Why you might ask? Well because as all the traditional universities develop the, the OU is not static - it too is developing and if that development is true to its roots there will always be a place for the OU in the UK (and global) HE sector. There is also an air of adolescence to the other universities. They develop some online learning or a blended programme and experience that over-confidence that comes with being a teenager, forgetting that sometimes there is still much to learn. I have a fridge magnet in my kitchen that says:
If at first you don't succeed, do it like your mother told you!
Those words ring true for the OU too, other universities are up-skilling in open and online learning but there is still the wisdom in the OU that comes with being the elders in this field and that wisdom, driving innovation can sustain the university with the right business model. The worst case scenario is that the OU does not develop and innovate at the right pace and there is no government bail out - what would that mean? It is almost unthinkable for someone like me who holds the OU so dear but if it is becomes a martyr to its own openness, there are worse ways to go and maybe, that is the circle of open education.