50 objects for 50 years. No 26. The Computers and Learning Research Group.

Posted on October 15th, 2018 at 2:44 pm by Daniel Weinbren

This week’s object is a Group which is marking its 4oth birthday this week.

A key activity within The Open University, as in other universities, is the generation of knowledge through research. The OU’s specialist areas include, of course, learning at a distance and open learning.

Teaching and learning are central to both these subjects. They’re supported by the use of technology – from television and radio to the Internet and virtual reality. The OU is therefore ideally placed to investigate what new technologies have to offer learners other than novelty value.

For the past forty years, the Computers and Learning research group (CALRG), based in the Institute of Educational Technology, has been linking this research and development work across the University, communicating ideas, and bringing people together. This collective effort has been linked by the group’s visions of a future when:

  • Learning is accessible for everyone.
  • Teaching is adapted to meet learners’ needs.
  • Teams can successfully teach any number of students at a distance
  • Learners engage enthusiastically with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) learning.

The OU Archives contain hundreds of resources generated by the group: abstracts from the annual conferences it has run since its foundation, videos of keynote speeches, research reviews, and research reports.

The group currently meets on a Thursday four times a month. First Thursdays are research seminars with a mixture of internal and external speakers. On second Thursdays, the group discusses how best to communicate research – not only to an academic audience but also the wider world through broadcast and social media. The third meeting of the month is an opportunity to share research with each other, and the final meeting offers a chance for general discussion over coffee and cake.

CALRG provides an opportunity to make and strengthen connections. Connections between senior and junior staff  and research students, connections between departments, and connections between academic and non-academic staff. Where possible, meetings and conferences are recorded or live-streamed, so they can be accessed by regional staff, associate lecturers, and part-time EdD students.

This week, there’s a chance to join CALRG in celebrating 40 years of research. The event on campus in the Berrill lecture theatre is already fully booked. Here, you can sign up to join online on Friday 19 October 9am-5pm. Speakers include CALRG founders Regius Professor Eileen Scanlon and Sir Tim O’Shea, Cambridge emeritus professor Neil Mercer and UCL professor Diana Laurillard, as well as some of the group’s leading current researchers.

This posting was contributed by Rebecca Ferguson. If you would like to contribute, get in touch.

50 objects for 50 years. No 25. The Family and Community Historical Research Society

Posted on October 8th, 2018 at 12:01 am by Daniel Weinbren

This week’s object is a society, the Family and Community Historical Research Society, FACHRS. Founded by OU staff and students in 1998 it has carried out collective research projects and provided members with newsletters, conferences, an internet shop, seminars, workshops, publications and CDs and a bi, later tri-annual, award-winning Journal. Its membership, largely consists of independent, that is not affiliated to universities, graduates. FACHRS’ approach has been significantly influenced by approaches to teaching and learning, particularly of history, developed at the Open University. The university’s role has been as both a producer of knowledge and as a node within a network of cultural production. Rather than assuming that the flow of knowledge was only from the institution and positioning alumni as an income stream devoid of creativity there have been mutual benefits created through the development of a network of knowledge transfer. FACHRS has been built on the ideas and activities of individuals informed by a specific module at the Open University, DA301, Studying family and community history19th and 20th centuries.

DA301 played a significant role in fostering the notion of a collective construction of knowledge. This was done by helping FACHRS members to build a sense of confidence, by foregrounding the relationship between learning and social connections and by offering realistic objectives and opportunities to share ideas and learn new skills. Two of the DA301 authors and a later DA301 team member founded and edited an associated journal, Family and Community History. One of them, Michael Drake, maintained close links to FACHRS. He had previously argued that the Cambridge Group employed a generation of enthusiastic ‘intellectual hod carriers’ but that the Project was, nevertheless, a useful model for FACHRS. Having worked with the Project and himself studied half-a-million baptism, marriage and burial records from Morley Wapentake, Yorkshire, he was able to offer his experiences of how to deal with large amounts of data. The data was stored on parish registers most of them still in churches. Access to each had to be negotiated with a different vicar. He devised a system for dealing with all this data which included persuading his wife, sister and parents to help out. This experience of a division of labour and collective, but not always equal, engagement, informed the making of DA301 and the Society. Drake, then Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, had also been central to the collation of a series of readings for D301. He made clear in his that these were ‘explorations of the past undertaken for the explicit purpose of advancing social scientific enquiry’. The module concentrated on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, periods for which there was a large amount of data, such as census material, to manipulate using social scientific methods. He wanted to focus on the lives of ordinary people but to also be clearly structured and consistent.

The longevity of FACHRS is related to its ability to act as a catalyst for learning and cognitive change. It has been where learners could teach and learn with one another and control their own learning. Just as apprentices begin learning by engaging in simple tasks and then progress towards more demanding tasks, so these communities offer opportunities to learning as part of their learning. Membership did not require people to amass transferrable knowledge. They could, as learners, ask questions, listen to the answers given to others and teach others. Members’ narratives demonstrate that they understood their formal experiences could be the basis for the creation of their own spaces for further learning.

FACHRS has also been influenced by the Open University’s methods and ideas and by wider intellectual and social developments which enabled graduates without formal post-graduate training in research skills to research, share skills and develop their own agenda. When the Society was created initially it had regional groups based on the areas of the UK covered by the 13 OU regions and nations. The East Midlands organised a conference on ‘Hosiery Past and Present’ and followed up with one on oral history. In the South-East Network Simon Fowler established a collaborative research project ‘Changes in public houses during the centuries’ which linked to the 2001 conference theme, ‘Beer and Skittles’. There was also a talk on CLUTCH, a Millennium Award scheme run in conjunction with the Knowledge Media Institute at the Open University. About 315 people worked in 60 local groups to gain computing skills via history projects. However, most of the regions were too large for meetings to be easily arranged and soon the society changed its strategy and focused on particular themes, rather than particular areas.

In 2000 Peter Wardley, of the University of the West of England, gave a paper to the FACHRS annual conference about his efforts to trace the spontaneous replacement of Roman numerals by Hindu-Arabic ones on probate inventories between about 1540 and 1700. He had devised an eight-point taxonomy for the collation of this data and sought help from people in a variety of locations so that the spread could be mapped. A collaborative project was launched by FACHRS. The Society’s subsequent reports on probate inventories and relevant contemporary documents demonstrated that geographically dispersed independent researchers could co-operate and that technology could be used for the educational dissemination and collation. Wardley’s hypothesis, regarding the spontaneous use of a different way of calculating and recording monetary values, was bolstered. FACHRS Chair Clive Leivers described the project as ‘a great success in its intrinsic content and demonstration of what the society should be about’.

The first FACHRS project to result in a book under the banner of FACHRS Publications was Swing Unmasked: the agricultural riots of I830 to I832 and their wider implications. In 2000 Essex local history tutor Michael Holland initiated the project with FACHRS member Jacqueline Cooper and later Stella Evans as the co-ordinators. This was a project not run by a university-based academic but there was academic involvement. Forty FACHRS members provided data and in Shropshire a local history tutor got his certificate students working on it as a class project. The Society also produced a CD with the database of known incidents. This attempt to record the extent of the unrest on a national basis found over 3,000 incidents, 53% more than Hobsbawm and Rude’s 1969 list. Moreover, FACHRS found incidents in 43 English counties and in Wales and Scotland. The Society called into question the original geographical spread and time frame of the events. The original study, by historians Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude, claimed this was a labourers’ movement. FACHRS repositioned the events as a series of localised struggles.

Many of the Swing rioters who were caught and put on trial were transported and 17 FACHRS members worked on a project about nineteen-century pauper emigrants. This was run by Stella Evans as Project Co-ordinator and although there was an Academic Advisor, Simon Fowler who then worked at The National Archives. He was on tap, not on top. Those involved in this project received a reading list, websites and other information. For a project on allotments, contributors met academic advisor Jeremy Burchardt of the University of Reading. This resulted in Jeremy Burchardt and Jacqueline Cooper (eds.) Breaking new ground. Nineteenth century allotments from local sources, Family & Community Historical Research Society, 2010. A companion to the book was a CD containing a database of over 3,000 allotment sites and nearly 1,000 allotment tenants. Clive Leivers, the first Chair of FACHRS, was clear that FACHRS was in charge of the ‘academic adviser’. He added, ‘we have managed to provide a way in which we can encourage and advise people in research’. The possibility of a correlation between Swing riots and allotment provision was one of the topics covered in Breaking New Ground: Nineteenth Century Allotments through Local Sources, edited by Burchardt and FACHRS member Jacqueline Cooper. Funded by two grants, one for research and another for the publication it relied heavily on members’ research. Material was considered which it would have taken an individual researcher, decades to locate and assess.

Since then there have been numerous projects and mini-projects, collecting, collating interpreting historical data. FACHRS is not the only society formed by former OU students who want to develop that which they leant on a specific module. It is one of several examples of how the boundary between knowledge accumulated for summative assessment and informal learning is porous, how higher education has much to learn from its alumni and how the OU’s impact has reached far beyond formal education and the awards ceremony.


50 objects for 50 years. No 24. The Ed Techie blog.

Posted on October 1st, 2018 at 12:01 am by Daniel Weinbren

This week’s object is, like many of the OU’s objects, online. It reminds us that the OU does not only teach students, it also engages in research and encourages dialogue about learning and teaching.

Professor Martin Weller started to record his ideas using a blog http://blog.edtechie.net/ back in 2006 and since that time the Ed Techie has been amusing and informing his readers with ideas, reviews and personal information. The Ed Techie sees himself as having been ‘a sensitive teenager in the Thatcher years’ and being ‘stupidly loyal to the OU’. He chaired the first major elearning course at the Open University, with around 15,000 students annually and has contributed a series of postings about a quarter of a century of educational technology http://blog.edtechie.net/category/25yearsedtech/

The issues that the blog addresses are about how best to support part-time, adult learners, so that they can become critical thinkers, can develop skills in groupwork, communication, reflection and, to use one of the latest buzzwords, can improve their employability.

The blog unites readers around discussions that are central to the OU. Many of the OU’s academic staff are physically separated from one another. There are OU offices in the capital cities of the four nations of the UK and some academics are designated a homeworkers. There are many others whose designated workplace is Milton Keynes but whose homes are many miles away. As the OU’s Foundation Chancellor noted, when accepting the Royal Charter in 1969, ‘Milton Keynes ‘is only where the tip of our toe touches ground; the rest of the University will be disembodied and airborne. From the start it will flow all over the United Kingdom.’ The blog captures that sense of a university which flows. It is here that what is understood by Openness at the Open University is assessed, the idea that education is broken is debunked, the notion that education is a system designed for the industrial age and unfit for the post-industrial society, is considered.

Perhaps because he offers a mix of the personal, the crowdsourced, the erudite and the witty, that Weller’s online profile is so high. This blog feels like the first place to go to find links to data about whether students who form social bonds are more likely to complete their studies that the socially isolated. Is retention lower for online-only modules than on more traditionally-delivered modules? In a world of abundant content and networked learners what are the merits of constructivism, problem-based learning, resource-based learning? How can we learn from ideas about rhizomatic learning? What have been the best ways to motivate oneself to get out and do some running?

There are other blogs available which might have been used to illustrate how the OU is open 24/7 and that engagement is not restricted to those employed at the institution. This blog indicates how, in both form and content, the online dialogue, the linking a range of ideas regarding support for learning, reflects upon and is determined by, the shifting community of scholars who form part of the body of the Open University.



50 objects for 50 years. No 23. The Award ceremony.

Posted on September 24th, 2018 at 12:01 am by Daniel Weinbren

Award ceremonies might go better with a bit of pomp, and a mace but the music is always Fanfare for the common man.


It was almost the case that the OU would not offer degrees or have a Royal Charter. The original model for the OU was to connect existing extra-mural departments, the WEA, broadcasters, correspondence courses and night classes and for degrees to be awarded by an established university. However, in April 1965, Jennie Lee, the Minister responsible for creating the OU, committed the government to ‘implementing the University of the Air’, which would be autonomous and independent, and would support open access and award degrees. Her February 1966 White Paper, A University of the Air, reinforced the idea. Some of the early students had prior qualifications and had earned sufficient points to be awarded a degree by 1973. The first ceremony was held where many OU television programmes had been made, Alexandra Palace. It was broadcast live via the BBC. The Vice Chancellor Walter Perry told the first graduates – there were over 900 of them: ‘We have come up with what is undoubtedly the most difficult way of obtaining a degree yet devised by the wit of man. [You] have exhibited not only the necessary intellectual capacity but also qualities of staying power and determination.’ Since then there have OU degree ceremonies around the world, in prisons and online.

Many find them marvellous experiences because they signal overcoming failure. They made it to the exam room, despite the fact that they had last sat , and failed, and exam, several decades  ago. Vida Jane Platt was told by her head teacher that she was unsuited to university went on to study with the OU:

When I heard that I’d got a First Class Degree I drove into town. The shopping centre turned into the multicoloured set of a musical. It took me all my time not to break into a song and dance act. Finally I could look everyone I met in the eye. I felt equal for the first time since that day in my headmistress’s study.

Many others refer to a sense of achievement and triumph as being collective. When you see the families jump to their feet when their mum takes to the stage, when you hear about juggling of childcare, jobs, family finances, the supportive babysitting grandparents, the partner who brought a cup of tea as the student sat late at night completing that TMA, you come to realise that learning is a collaboration.

Congratulations from the postie. Perhaps the postie also has an OU degree?







For a further selection of certificates and comments see

50 objects for 50 years. No 22. The Horlock Building

Posted on September 17th, 2018 at 12:01 am by Daniel Weinbren

This week’s object is a building on the Walton Hall campus named after Professor Sir John Horlock, 1928─2015.  John Horlock revolutionised transportation through his significant contribution to aerodynamics, fluid dynamics and energy and the development of gas turbines. By describing the detailed air flow in turbines and compressors in mathematical terms he paved the way for greater efficiency in jet engine design. Moreover, he was an adviser to British government and industry for decades. His contributions included being a Board member at the National Grid and, from 1979, the chair of the UK’s Aeronautical Research Council which provided advice on aeronautical research to the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Industry. He was also chair of the advisory committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations, 1984-1993. He was elected as a member of the US-based National Academy of Engineering in 1988. In addition, he was a university Vice-Chancellor for 16 years, most of those at The Open University.

John Horlock grew up in north London and had a trial with Tottenham Hotspur Juniors. He continued to support Spurs but his career took a different direction. While at St John’s College, Cambridge to read for the mechanical sciences Tripos, he became interested in gas turbines, won Rex Moir Prize (awarded to the examination candidate who demonstrated the greatest distinction in engineering) obtained a First Class degree and gained a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following graduation he worked as a design engineer for Rolls-Royce, 1949-1951. He contributed to the redesign of the compressor. Rolls-Royce funded his return to Cambridge where he taught and completed a PhD. In 1957 he won the Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ James Clayton prize, awarded for an exceptional contribution to mechanical engineering and related science, technology and invention. In 1959 he was awarded the annual Thomas Hawksley Gold Medal – the Institute of Mechanical Engineers prize for the best original paper published by the Institution during the past 12 months. Only one Gold Medal is awarded each year for each award and only if a paper is deemed worthy of the award. Aged 30 he became a professor at Liverpool and then returned to Cambridge and became the first director of the Whittle Laboratory. In 1973 the Laboratory’s extension was named after him. He was vice-chancellor of Salford University, 1974-81 where his work included administering a government funding cut of 40 per cent over three years.

He was second vice-chancellor of The Open University, 1981- 1990. Horlock presided over a policy of making savings.The capital grant from the UK government was halved in real terms in 1982 and there were further cuts in subsequent years. He also had to engage with a senior politician after the Permanent Under-Secretary at Education, David Hancock, commissioned a report by economists which found two OU course units which presented an ‘essentially Marxist’ view. This was passed to the Secretary of State for Education, Sir Keith Joseph. Sir John noted that ‘the civil servants liked to have their fingers in the Open University pie, whereas I hardly saw a civil servant in all my time at Salford’. He recalled being ‘summoned to what proved to be a very difficult interview’ with Sir Keith who, in 1985, also visited the campus. Horlock concluded that although the ‘major crisis’ over bias was ‘not overtly linked’ to funding he still felt that ‘the whole affair had clearly done us no good in the eyes of the Tory government’ He added that ‘I am sure that he [Joseph] would willingly have closed the OU down if it had been politically possible to do so, particularly after the affair of academic bias’.

Nevertheless, Sir John was able to strengthen science and engineering at the university, ensure the introduction of a taught postgraduate Masters programme, and oversee the opening of the Open Business School and the expansion of the university into Western Europe. In common with his predecessor, Walter Perry, he was committed to support for academic research. While Vice Chancellor he continued to maintain his interest in turbomachinery and thermodynamic cycles and to publish papers. Known as ‘The students’ Vice-Chancellor”, the Association of Open University Graduates’ established the Sir John Horlock Award for Science in 1991. Appointed for a decade he did not seek reappointment, but retired, aged 62. By that point he felt that the university was ‘no longer a strange new immature organisation, but a massive national resource, with a high international reputation’. The Open University named a building in his honor in 1989. It is currently home to the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS).




50 objects for 50 years. No. 21. The warehouse

Posted on September 9th, 2018 at 12:01 am by Daniel Weinbren






Wellingborough, the first and now the last remaining warehouse of the OU illuastrated by a man heaving parcels onto a conveyor belt almost half a cerntury ago and, more recently, a woman and a for-lift truck.

From its earliest years industrial-scale processes were central to the OU. It was built on the assumptions of mass production. In 1969, as the OU was opening, the government presided over the opening of Longbridge, the biggest car plant in Europe. Other universities of the 1960s saw themselves in the tradition of communities of investigative scholars. Sussex, for example, was called Balliol-by-the-Sea. However, the OU has been described by one of its first deans as ‘an industrial revolution in higher education’. It was built on industrial precedents, and this is reflected in the language developed by its early staff, with ‘lines of study’ and the ‘production’ of ‘units’ of teaching materials. Greville Rumble, who joined the OU in 1970 and was head of the OU’s corporate planning of ce in the mid-1970s and also in the late 1980s, suggested that ‘during the 1970s industrialisation came to be seen by many as a defining feature of distance education’. Two of the OU’s first deans stressed both the egalitarian ethos and the use of a systems approach at the OU. The concept of a ‘system’, a term which, along with the phrase ‘evidence-based policy’ was part of the lingua franca of the period, indicated the ambition to combine academic enquiry with assembly-line manufacture techniques to create educational materials for mass consumption.

In its first year the OU sent out 2.7 million mailings, including 33,000 home experiment kits. The students completed about 320,000 assignments: half of these were marked by tutors (Tutor marked assignments) while the other half were marked by computers (Computer marked assignments). The administration of just one OU Social Sciences module involved some 22,000 applicants, nearly 8,000 enrolments, 85,000 essays which required assessment by hand, 64,000 assignments marked by computers, 24 summer schools in five different locations, 300 study centres and over 1,000 part- time tutors. The logistical difficulties of supplying a wide range of learning materials to each student is illustrated by Lee Taylor, who recalled that ‘we had to scour London trying to find cardboard boxes of a suitable size for sheep’s brains. Eventually we found a place where I purchased something like 500 boxes, which said ‘Chanel No 5’ on them.’ Early accounts of the OU often noted its sheer size and scope. The first Dean of Social Sciences,Professor Michael Drake, referred to ‘the numbers that numb’.

Bletchley Post Office was overwhelmed by the correspondence so Post Office staff worked on the Walton Hall site and dispatched items directly to the railway station. In 1971 that a warehouse was acquired, at Wellingborough to deal with the need to supply thousands of students with books and equipment.

50 objects for 50 years. No 20. The National Extension College Gateway Courses

Posted on September 2nd, 2018 at 8:21 pm by Daniel Weinbren

The National Extension College (NEC) was founded by Michael Young in 1963 as a pilot for what he had termed an ‘open university’. He intended for the NEC to be the nucleus of an open university. The NEC would have three functions:

  • Improve the quality of distance learning courses for students taking the University of London external degrees.
  • Promote a range of learning opportunities through lectures and residential courses
  • Teach through a variety of methods including broadcasting.

The NEC did indeed go on to deliver Michael Young’s vision but that is a different article.

The focus of this posting is on the preparatory courses that the NEC developed for intending OU students in the late 1960s.


The Gateway Courses

The Open University was founded on the principle of being open to everyone, irrespective of their background. In practice, however, this could be challenging for those who had little  experience or prior knowledge of academic study. This was where NEC came in. In Autumn 1968, NEC launched three pre-degree level courses, aimed at those who were planning to enrol with the OU. In the first year, 4,380 students enrolled on the Gateway courses.

The first three courses were:

Reading to Learn – ‘designed to help you develop your powers of reading selectively and critically’

Man in Society– ‘an introduction to the methods and concepts of social sciences’

Square 2– this built on O-Level Maths.

The first students

A sample survey of 70 of the initial students was carried out in 1980. They all came from a similar socio-economic background. 90% were aged between 20-40; 90% came from non-manual occupations; and 67% had been to a grammar school, and 50% had had some form of further education.

Richard Freeman, NEC’s director at the time, offered an explanation for the difference between these learners and the ‘second chance’ learners that Michael Young had hoped to reach through the NEC. Freeman argued it was not because of a difference between NEC’s other courses and the Gateway programmes but rather the publicity surrounding the Open University. It was those that had more education who had an awareness of the OU’s existence. As awareness of the OU grew, people took the courses who had no previous qualifications. Indeed, by 1980 there was less of a difference between those who enrolled on NEC’s Gateway courses and those who signed up for other NEC courses.

The feedback from these students was positive. 87% answered that the Gateway course had helped to improve their lives either socially or materially.

The 1970s

It is unsurprising that the Gateway courses were in high demand in the 1970s. They catered for a previously unserved audience. They were of huge importance to the NEC. By the 1970s, 40% of NEC’s 8,000 enrolments came from the OU preparatory courses.

Individuals within the OU were key in promoting the courses. Naomi Sargant, who had worked closely with Michael Young, before becoming the OU’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (1974-1978), was a great advocate of the courses. Indeed, she carried out a research project in 1979 looking at the impact of the Gateway courses. The research concluded that those who had studied the Gateway courses were not only more likely to complete their OU degree but they were also more likely to receive higher grades. It was thought this was because the NEC courses prepared students well both for the degree level work but also for studying at a distance. But it could also be argued that it was the most committed and engaged students who were willing to undertake a preparatory course.

The 1980s

Still, as the OU began to mature, some of its staff questioned why they were advising people to take the NEC’s Gateway courses. NEC’s director, Richard Freeman approached the OU each year to ensure the OU continued to advocate the Gateway courses. The support NEC needed were the three lines promoting the courses in the annual OU undergraduate prospectus.

In 1980, the Gateway courses were revised. The two features that remained the same were the popular course texts and the correspondence tutor. ‘Man in Society’ was replaced with ‘The Arts: A Fresh Approach.’ This course was less academic, less densely written, and had clearer objectives.

NEC’s policy towards OU preparation had changed. Courses were now shorter, they were now more accessible, and based more on student experience. The preparation was not exclusively tailored towards the OU but to a range of possible options.

NEC  went on to develop a further set of introductory courses. These were shorter; students would typically spend 20-30 hours on them, not 40-50. One of these courses still survives in the NEC archives. ‘Preparing for Social Science’ was first published in 1982. In contrast to the previous courses, the only reference to the OU is in relation to the problems of distance learning: ‘if you are going on… to an OU course then it might be a good idea to accustom yourself to working to deadlines.’

In 1984, NEC’s three lines were removed from the OU brochure. In fact, the brochure now warned of the additional expenses of preparatory correspondence courses. Without official OU endorsement  enrolments on the Gateway courses dropped significantly. This was a major crisis for NEC because it happened suddenly and without prior warning.

This, however, was not the end of the relationship between these two providers of distance education. Applications to higher education, having dropped the decade previously, were once again on the rise. The OU received 60,000 applicants per annum for 20,000 places. Ideas for a  merger were discussed in November 1988 in order to help the OU meet demand. Other ideas were proposed  such as hosting a joint facility ‘National Centre for Distance Education and Training’.

In the end, however, bureaucracy proved too great and no formal agreement was drawn up between the two organisations. It is, however, testament to the need of distance learning at all levels, that both organisations continue to exist and thrive.

This post was contributed by Anna Gibbons. Having gained a first-class degree in History, Anna will return to Cambridge for an MPHil in Modern British History in October 2018. She worked with NEC over the summer to catalogue their archives and draw up an overview of the college’s history.


50 Objects for 50 years. No. 19. Slippers

Posted on August 27th, 2018 at 10:08 am by Daniel Weinbren

The rescue of Cinderella from poverty and abuse relies on footwear. As the tale of the use of the everyday as a vehicle for social advancement, a transformation in circumstances, can be seen as a metaphor, it is to slippers that we turn for Object No 19.

Picture of a pair of the slippers, preserved in the OU Archive

When the OU moved to Milton Keynes in October 1969, the campus site rapidly became what, as has been noted earlier, one of the earlier staff, Joan Christodoulou called ‘a sea of mud’. To protect the carpets in the new buildings, the Purchasing Officer went to Northampton and bought 100 pairs of carpet slippers for staff to use indoors. These became a symbol for the staff some of whom saw themselves as the pioneers. When the OU ran a project to collect the recollections of staff and students, the oral historian who conducted the interviews noted that the story of the slippers was one of the most frequently told tales. See Hilary Young in her article, ‘Whose story counts? Constructing an oral history of the Open University at 40’, Oral History, 39:2 (Autumn 2011). The footwear came to represent a spirit of dogged fortitude. Although he was born in 1944 Christopher Harvie, who started his OU career in 1969 as a lecturer in history, referred to the propaganda of the war when he noted that:

the campus was so covered in mud that people had to trample around in welly boots. People were issued with slippers when they went into the teaching rooms. Walter Perry greeted us like Trevor Howard in a Second World War movie. He said, ‘Some of you chaps might be wondering why you have been brought here.’

The story of the slippers appeared in an obituary of the first Vice Chancellor, Walter Perry and in the New Scientist article marking the 10th anniversary of the OU. Some staff treasured their slippers and a pair of the original carpet slippers issued to staff were donated to the Archive by Peter Price, Clerk to the Council, on his retirement in 1997.

It might attach too much weight to these items to see the slippers acting as a signal indicating the approach of the early OU to learning and teaching, that just as the sole needs to be embraced by a protective surround, so also does the soul. However, they are a reminder that the OU was opened in a hurry. It was just six years since Wilson had proposed the idea of a university of the air. A university of the air needed an earthbound embodiment but there had been little time to construct physical buildings amidst all the planning of pedagogy, the creation of organisational structures and the recruitment of staff. The slippers helped to preserve the flooring, but also indicated that this was an institution which valued the comfort of its staff. It also recognised thst it could learn from everyday experiences. Just as the OU was being beamed into living rooms via the BBC, so familiar objects from the living room were available at its headquarters. Prospective learners were offered a message that education was not provided just by aloof theoreticians in ivory towers, it was constructed by people in comfy slippers.

50 objects for 50 years. No 18. Prison

Posted on August 20th, 2018 at 12:01 am by Daniel Weinbren

In 2011, Universities UK, the members of which are the executive heads (that is vice-chancellors and principals, of UK university institutions) noted that, ‘a number of those involved in violent terrorism in recent years have been university graduates’. Nevertheless, universities have long been seen as institutions which enable social mobility. On the other hand,  prisons have long been seen as places which contribute to further lawbreaking being, to use a term attributed to Kropotkin, ‘universities of crime’. The Open University has sought to overcome this dichotomy and support socially beneficial learning within prisons.

In 1971, the OU’s first dedicated television programmes were broadcast and its first correspondence materials dispatched. Among the first of its part-time, adult, learners were 22 prisoners, 16 were in Wakefield and 6 in Albany prison. In 1972 an OU-Home Office scheme was initiated in four prisons. By 1985 150 prisoners in 31 establishments were registered as OU students and by 2012, there were 800 OU students in more than 150 prisons across the UK and Ireland studying over 200 courses.


In common with many other OU students, prisoners often started from a position of low self-esteem, having few or no prior formal qualifications. Writing in the 1990s Kevin Warner, the co-ordinator of prison education in Ireland, concluded a great proportion of those in prison were disorganised, unskilled, undisciplined ‘victims of severe social and psychological neglect’ with low expectations of success. OU students are often separated from one another and trhose in prison may have particular feelings of isolation. One lifer studying mathematics felt that his OU textbooks created a barrier between him and other prisoners. Many faced additional difficulties when studying as some teaching materials and experiences were denied to them. Prisoners could not attend residential schools (although excusal packs for prisoners were produced for some modules with residential schools) or group tutorials outside prisons (though tutors did visit prisoners). Chemicals and other items which were sent to students to allow them to perform experiments at home were not sent to prisons. Access to CDs, or the use of PCs was not always permitted. One prisoner who was studying an OU course in environmental studies noted that ‘prison has stupid rules: you’re not allowed a scientific calculator in the cells’. Even if materials were permitted there could be problems. A tutor pointed out that, ‘it is difficult for a Category A prisoner to set up an outdoor rain gauge and check the water level each day when he has to be handcuffed to a prison officer’. One prisoner noted that he moved between eight different prisons while he studied an openings course, a foundation in social sciences and a second level course, Welfare, crime and society. Many have argued that the Prison Officers resented the students. One offered an explanation as to the behaviour of some officers, ‘they work hard — horrible hours and they see you on a laptop getting a degree’. In the Republic of Ireland until 1985 it was only prisoners, not prison officers, who could study with the OU.


There were precedents for some educational provision. A legislative framework, established in 1815 and 1823, permitted education in British prisons. Although there was subsequent intermittent disenchantment with the notion of educating prisoners, the idea retained a foothold within the system. In 1885 the Chair of the Prisons Commission called Reading Gaol ‘a criminal university’ because of its record of support for the education of prisoners. The idea of studying while in prison was employed by the British elsewhere in the world. In 1944 people thought to be members of a paramilitary group which had attacked British offices, military installations and police stations in British Mandate Palestine. were sent to detention camps in Kenya, Eritrea, and Sudan. While there, some studied at British universities by correspondence and, following Israel’s independence in 1948, became political and governmental leaders there. Meir Shamgar and Shmuel Tamir studied law. One became President of the Israeli Suprenme Court 1983 – 1995 and  the other Minister of Justice, 1977 – 1980. In 1973, supported by the UK OU, Israel established its own Open University. Prisoners were permitted to study with this Open University and have testified to its benefits. A study of 18 high-profile Palestinian leaders imprisoned for their activities on behalf of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, concluded that education provided a route to disengagement and rehabilitation. While imprisoned for life the anti-apartheid activist Isithwalandwe Andrew Mokete Mlangeni studied with the Open University of South Africa. He said that life imprisonment, ‘gave me the opportunity to study and therefore prepared me for life outside prison and to be able to face the world with confidence’. Nelson Mandela obtained a Bachelor of Laws degree when in gaol. He studied through the University of London external degree programme. He passed the London Intermediate exams in 1963, but was prevented from completing his degree until a decade later.


The experience of being students can provide prisoners with opportunities to gain in self-confidence and self-belief. It can enable them to hold a mirror up to mainstream cultures and recognise the ways in which the social order could be made and remade. Courses, modules, required immersion in the subject matter and studying became a way to assert control and mentally escape. As a prisoner in Ireland noted, ‘You really don’t feel like you’re in prison, it’s just everything disappears in the background. [….] when I have the story sort of set up and lined up in the direction I want to go […] I’m in with my characters in the story and just the prison’s not there’. ‘Johnny’, who studied for his first degree and his PhD through the OU while in prison said:

I got hooked on education with the Open University. And I study now for knowledge, for knowledge’s sake, and I love it […] The single most important thing that education in prison has given me is a sense of self-worth.

‘Barry’, another prisoner, also emphasised the change in his confidence, the importance of his tutor and how he had come to realise that ‘you make your own light at the end of the tunnel’. A third concluded:

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the OU has saved my life. The change in me has come from a change in my mindset, not just my actions. The more I learned, the more I realised there was more to life

Prisoners’ educational attainment has been linked to a reduction in the rate of recidivism. It is likely that far fewer ex-prisoners returned to prison than might otherwise have been the case. In 2012 the Prison Service conceptualised OU study as ‘a vital part of resettlement and a route to reducing re-offending’.

‘Political’ OU students

H Blocks

In 1973 six political prisoners in Northern Ireland began their studies with the OU. Studying may have provided them with a sense of emancipation and equipped them with fresh tools with which to deal with issues of power and politics. By 1986 17 former OU students who had been released from the Maze were in full-time University education and there had been half-a-dozen OU degrees awarded. The following year a further five students graduated. Many of the OU graduates went on to hold positions of authority in a variety of community organisations. In 2012 five Sinn Féin Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, a Member of the European Parliament and others in a number of civic roles were OU graduates. David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson were both elected to Belfast City Council in 1997 and to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 and were former Long Kesh Compound prisoners who had completed OU degrees. Both felt that their degrees gave them political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence. The idea that studying helped people to emerge into positions of community leadership and to promote politically stable structures was acknowledged by The Times Higher. It referred to ‘the extraordinary role of Open University degrees in furthering the peace process in Northern Ireland’.

Many student prisoners and their tutors found that the nucleus for development lay in the cells, that the processes of acquiring new knowledge and learning led to personal growth and development. By learning to think differently and to reconstruct their identities they were then able to shape their wider communities.

For more about the OU and prisons see D. Weinbren, ‘Prisoner Students: Building Bridges, Breaching Walls’ in J. Burkett (ed.) Students in Twentieth-Century Britain and Ireland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.


50 objects for 50 years. No. 17. Jennie Lee Buildings

Posted on August 13th, 2018 at 12:01 am by Daniel Weinbren








There are two buildings which have been named after Jennie Lee on the Walton Hall campus. A library which she opened, now demolished and a building which is the home of the educational technologists at the OU. Jennie Lee House, Edinburgh, is where the OU in Scotland is based. Despite this recognition by the OU itself, sometimes Jennie Lee has been eclipsed. A recent article by Pete Dorey, Vol 29, no 2 2015, in the journal Contemporary British History about the foundation of the OU was entitled ‘”Well, Harold insists on having it!”The political struggle to establish the Open University, 1965-67’. The first line of the abstract reads ‘The establishment of The Open University has been widely lauded as Harold Wilson’s most successful policy achievement and his enduring legacy, a view with which Wilson himself concurred’.

One of the myths about the OU is that it has a single founding father, Harold Wilson. Promoted by Wilson himself who told a story, many times, of jotting down the idea just before settling down to that Great British institution, Sunday lunch in East 1963. The dominant narrative is of the Great Man and his swift creation, between 1963 when he penned the idea and its opening in 1969. There are precedents for such myths in many origins stories. It was clothed in classical garb by David Sewart, onetime Director of Student Services and Professor in Distance Education at the OU. He felt that the OU was ‘like Athena springing fully grown and fully armed from the head of Zeus’; it ‘appeared to have no mother and never to have had the opportunity to have been an adolescent, let alone a child’.

This categorisation of the OU as Harold Wilson’s ‘pet scheme’ (as The Times called it) marginalises the depth of its roots in the traditions of part-time education for adults, developed from the eighteenth century, correspondence courses, associated with the rapid industrialisation of the nineteenth century and on university extension initiatives, which started in the 1870s. It has also developed ideas derived from sandwich courses, summer schools, radio and television broadcasts, for which there were precedents in the twentieth century. It also marginalises the role of Jennie Lee, the OU’s ‘midwife’, to use a term employed by MSP Claire Baker. The sentence in Contemporary British History written by Pete Dorey and quoted above, goes on to say that the policy of having an Open University was ‘was mostly drafted and developed by Jennie Lee’. Dorey also adds that ‘The Open University only became established due to Lee’s dogged determination and tenacity’

In 1963, Wilson then Leader of the Labour Party, in opposition called for a university of the air. He didn’t fill in the details and, after the General Election of 1964, he was busy being Prime Minister. He handed the brief to a Labour MP who had over 20 years of experience of the Commons: Jennie Lee.

On the campaign trail in Bristol in 1943, where Jennie Lee was defeated, and Cannock which she represented 1945-70.

She became Britain’s first Arts Minister in the Labour government of 1964. She was 60, widowed for four years and fearless. She seized responsibility of making an idea of ‘a university of the air’ into a reality. Keeping well clear of the civil servants who dealt with other universities, it was she who decided on the form the new institution would take. In the face of opposition she developed a tiny sketch into a complete university. As she said to her senior civil servant, Ralph Toomey, in 1967, before the OU had opened, when its future was uncertain: ‘that little bastard that I have hugged to my bosom and cherished, that all the others have tried to kill off,will thrive’. She was able to do this because she had a clear idea of what she wanted – a ‘great independent university’ based on something like the Scottish system of higher education. A coalminer’s daughter who had received a bursary to study at Edinburgh University during the 1926 strike which impoverished her community she determined to beat the established order at its own game, to ‘outsnob the snobs’, as she put it. Her late spouse, Aneurin Bevan, had become a miner on leaving elementary school and had received little formal education, though he noted in 1952 how he valued ‘superior educational opportunities’. She mentioned him when she spoke of the origins of the Open University, recalling how they both knew ‘that there were people in the mining villages who left school at 14 or 15 who had first-class intellects’. This may have led her to create an advisory committee which did not include representatives from the principal university providers of adult education. In addition, she maintained control. She not only created but chaired the committee.

There were plenty of sceptics. Many Conservatives largely hated it. The BBC had long produced educational materials and was unimpressed by this upstart. Whitehall was also snooty and the press largely agreed. Within the Higher Education sector several critics argued that the money should be spent elsewhere. Jennie Lee produced a White Paper before the 1966 general election. Wilson recalled her contribution when the Cabinet met at Chequers 50 years ago just prior to March 1966 election. He said:

At the end of the afternoon anybody was free to speak on anything. Jennie got up and made a passionate speech about the University of the Air. She said the greatest creation of the previous Labour government was Nye’s National Health Service but that now we were engaged on an operation which would make just as much difference to the country. We were all impressed. She was a tigress.

Her Feb 1966 White Paper, ‘A University of the Air’ made it clear that “There can be no question of offering to students a makeshift project inferior in quality to other universities. That would defeat its whole purpose”. She got it into the manifesto, Labour won the election in March and, returned to office, she steered the proposed OU past the sterling crisis, past tax increases, past credit restraints & the prices and incomes standstill and towards her friend, Lord Goodman. He produced a set of figures for the cost of the OU which were a massive underestimate. The OU’s first Vice Chancellor called it ‘perhaps a fortunate accident’. Perhaps. Or perhaps it was an astute political move.

What today would derail a Minister – rudeness to colleagues, indifference to her Secretary of State, visible contempt for the department in which she was located – were her strengths. She didn’t care if civil servants, or colleagues, were offended, or wouldn’t work with her or didn’t trust her. She wasn’t building a career. She wanted an Open University. It was Jennie who decided that the OU would offer degrees, would be open to all, even the unqualified and would operate independently, separately, and with the highest academic standards. Adult education should be more than what she called ‘dowdy and mouldy… old-fashioned night schools … hard benches’. She knew that Adult Education was, as the OU’s first Vice-Chancellor, another Scot called Walter Perry, put it, ‘the patch on the backside of our educational trousers’. In 1965 she told the Commons: ’I am not interested in having a poor man’s university of the air, which is the sort of thing which one gets if nothing else is within our reach. We should set our sights higher than that.’

In Walton Hall there is a painting of Jennie Lee. She is portrayed as being in many places at once, including in the Commons, at the hustings and attending a degree ceremony. This is how it should be for, as the Founding Chancellor said when opening the OU, ‘This University has no cloisters – a word meaning closed. Hardly even shall we have a campus… the University will be disembodied’. The OU is everywhere around us and, being without its own body, it needs our bodies.

Not merely to conceive, but actually to make happen a university which sought to match the standards of the best in the sector but had no admission requirements, which attempted to employ print, correspondence and television in a way which transcended the potential of each, which made a reality of reaching every kind of learner in every corner of the United Kingdom, required a vast act of faith and a bloody-minded determination.