"The support I got from my tutor was fantastic, and now the degree will help me change career." Naomi Clarke celebrating her degree at the OU's Birmingham ceremony
Supported Open Learning
The OU has developed its own style of distance learning called 'supported open learning'.
Open learning means our students work wherever they choose - in their own homes, workplace or at a library or study centre - and can plan their study around their other commitments.
Supported open learning means our students have:
- support from a tutor or online forum to help with module material, activities and assignments
- student advisers and study facilities in their own region, and
- contact with other students at tutorials, day schools or through online conferencing,online social networks, informal study groups, and events.
How we deliver supported open learning
Five key elements underpin the OU's success in delivering supported open learning:
- high quality teaching materials;
- locally-based learning support;
- first class research and scholarship;
- highly professional logistics to deliver and support courses;
- and most of all, commitment from the students.
Read our Learning and Teaching Strategy (pdf).
The arrangements for assuring the quality of academic provision, standards of awards and quality of the student learning experience in the Open University are outlined in a series of fact sheets entitled Quality & Standards in the Open University.
Our course teams develop our teaching materials
When the Open University was established, 'distance learning' was still a new concept. The University was determined to overcome scepticism about its ability to provide a learning experience for students equal in quality to that enjoyed by full-time students in conventional institutions.
Our modules are developed by multi-disciplinary course teams. These include respected academics from other universities working alongside OU colleagues; educational technologists and media specialists contributing pedagogic and technical expertise; and external assessors to ensure academic standards are consistent with other universities. This model has helped to build the University's reputation for academic rigour and quality and has since been adopted by distance teaching institutions worldwide.
A rich mix of teaching materials
Studying with the OU has always involved more than reading texts and writing essays or assignments. Virtual microscopes, interactive laboratories and online collaborations have taken the place of home experiment kits sent through the post, while late night TV programmes have been replaced by DVDs and online videos.
Our students always receive materials written specifically for the module, usually delivered as high-quality printed books. They may also include everything from text books, CDs and DVDs to extensive web-based resources.
Students are supported by tutors
Students' primary learning experience is about engaging with the course materials. They also receive support throughout the length of each module. For most modules, this comes from from a locally-based tutor.
Tutors mark assignments and provide detailed written feedback. They also offer support to students by telephone, email, or computer conferencing. Many modules include opportunities for students to meet their tutors at face-to-face or online tutorials or day schools. Tutorials are almost always optional, but most students enjoy them because they like to meet other students, obtain clarification on specific points in the materials, and get tips for success in the all-important TMAs (tutor-marked assignments) and other assessed components of their module.
In addition, our students have access to national and regional centres for advice, support and other resources. Regional teams also arrange for additional services to be provided for students with special needs, including those with disabilities.
Some tutors are full-time members of staff, but most are associate lecturers: experts in their subject who combine their work as tutors with other academic or industry jobs. The OU draws on the rest of the higher education system to help present its courses and support its students. Staff from other institutions serve as associate lecturers and examiners, and other universities and colleges provide premises for study centres, residential schools and examinations.
Some modules include residential schools
The traditional week-long residential school was once a feature of Open University study, but the increasing use of interactive media has replaced them on most modules. Residential work is a compulsory component of some of our degrees; an 'alternative learning experience' is available for students who are completely unable to attend.
To allow greater flexibility for students, the crucial science week-long experimental residentials are now offered as stand-alone modules. Some language courses still include a week-long compulsory residential course; other language residentials are offered as stand-alone modules. Many of the MBA modules include a residential school held over a weekend.
Exams on the move
Among locations where the OU has organised exams are armed forces' bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, remote UK islands and under the sea in submarines. In addition, each year indvidual exams are organised for up to 3,000 students who have non-standard requirements, mainly owing to disability.
Research and scholarship informs course development
Research and scholarship is vitally important in fulfilling the academic and educational objectives of the OU. Course materials must be authoritative and up to date and written by authors who are fully conversant with the latest developments in their field. Because our materials are central to the student experience, they must be able to withstand rigorous external scrutiny. In addition, research into teaching strategies and educational technologies helps ensure that our materials are effective and appropriate for large scale, open learning.
Getting materials to our students
At the OU's Milton Keynes headquarters, and in regional and national centres, administrative and support staff are responsible for all the organisational and quality assurance aspects of our students' experience, from appointing and training tutors through to arranging award ceremonies.
Thousands of items a week are distributed to our students in the UK and overseas from our warehouse in Wellingborough.
Students become part of an OU community
Studying at a distance, OU students have always been clever at finding ways to support each other. Many tutor groups set up their own study support arrangements outside of timetabled tutorials, while the the OU Students Association has branches and hosts events throughout the UK and beyond.
Online, our students and alumni can join more than 40,000 others in the OU's Facebook group - with hundreds of special interest groups - and stay in touch with the university and each other on Platform - the University community online, with its mix of news, features, forums, blogs and member benefits. You'll also find the OU on Twitter, the social networking and microblogging site.
Like any university, the OU also has a range of clubs and societies for all interests, from authors and entrepreneurs to volcanologists.
Supported open learning requires commitment from students
Distance learning is not an easy option. A typical module is worth 60 credit points and requires 16 hours of study each week over 9 months; equivalent to about three evenings a week and a full day each weekend.
Many students aim for our Open Degree, which is made up from 300 credit points, the equivalent of 5 years of 60 credit point courses. The BA (Honours) or BSc (Honours) add a further 60 credit points.
This sustained, dedicated effort requires commitment, organisation and self-motivation from our students as well as support from us - which is why employers value OU qualifications so highly.
Hew, a technician in the RAF, tells how he motivates himself to get the most out of his Maths and Engineering courses.