Archive for the ‘Students’ Category

Book about OU history. Degrees of Freedom: Prison Education at The Open University

Wednesday, November 30th, 2022

Degrees of Freedom: Prison Education at The Open University edited by Rod Earle & James Mehigan, Policy, 2019.

For half a century The Open University has provided higher education to those in prison. This book gives voice to ex-prisoners whose lives have been transformed by the education they received. It offers vivid personal testimonies, reflective vignettes and academic analysis of prison life and education in prison. It has chapters by both OU staff and former students.

Journal article about OU students

Wednesday, November 30th, 2022

‘The Open University and Prison Education in the UK – the first 50 years’, Incarceration, Journal of Prison Education and Reentry, 7, 1, 2021, (D Weinbren, J Mehigan, R Earle and A Pike).

Abstract: In 2019, The Open University (henceforth, The OU), based in Milton Keynes in the UK, celebrated its 50th anniversary. Since 1971 it has pioneered the delivery of Higher Education in prisons and other secure settings. Some 50 years on, in 2021 there is much to celebrate and still more to learn. In this article we briefly review the establishment of the OU in 1969 and explore how it has maintained access to higher education in the prison system. It draws from a collection of essays and reflections on prison learning experiences developed by OU academics and former and continuing OU students in prison (Earle & Mehigan, 2019). We begin by outlining the unique features of the OU and the circumstances of its establishment in the post-war period in the UK. We then present an account of its work with students in prison in the UK (and elsewhere) and conclude with some critical reflections on the place and prospects of higher education in an expanding Higher Education sector and an escalating preference for carceral punishment in the UK. No country on Earth can match the penal preferences of the United States, but the UK’s habit of slipstreaming behind its massive carceral bulk tends to obscure the fact that the UK punishes more people with imprisonment, and with longer sentences, than any other Western European state. It also manages to exceed the United States in rates of racial disproportionality in its carceral population (Phillips, 2013). Despite these outlier features in incarceration, a silver lining to the carceral cloud can be found in The OU’s pioneering work with imprisoned men and women.

Keywords: education, prison, prisoner, The Open University

50 objects for 50 years. No 50. The Philip Sully Building

Monday, April 15th, 2019

The focus in this posting is on the final object of 50 in the series, the people at the heart of the OU, the learners.

← President Cath. No longer a duck, she fits the bill.

It was contributed by Cath Brown. She is well qualified to write about students. She been a student  (she has a BSc in Molecular Sciences (i.e. Chemistry) and a BSc Open (mainly physics, engineering and history) and she is currently studying Computing at the OU. In addition, she has been a STEM Faculty Representative on 2016-18 Central Executive Committee, has chaired an Students Association affiliated society (OU Alchemy) held various OUSA posts and moderated an online forum. Currently she is President of OUSA.


Philip Sully with then OU Chancellor Betty Boothroyd on the occasion of the naming of the building

Visitors to the OU’s Milton Keynes campus will see buildings named after many illustrious figures – Perry and Horlock for the first and second Vice-Chancellors, Wilson and Jennie Lee for our political founders, and eminent scientists Alan Turing and Robert Hooke. But the Philip Sully building is the only one (to date) named after a student.

When the building was named in 2006, Philip had completed 61 modules, and his qualifications included two undergraduate degrees, a masters and a doctorate. I somehow doubt he has stopped studying since then – the signs of OU addiction are clear to see!

It’s good to be reminded, in this era in which education is too often seen as solely a means to an end, of the joy and the value of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The Philip Sully building thus serves as a splendid symbol of lifelong learning.

Our 50th object – the building – is here standing for Philip, and by extension all OU students, without whom there would be no university. What have these students looked like over the years?

In the early days, there were a significant number of teachers who’d taken the accelerated post-war training, but were now in search of a degree.  These days, there’s still that teaching link – it’s a particularly popular career with OU graduates – but it’s often classroom assistants looking for the degree to embark on initial teacher training.

The OU was once christened the “university of the second chance”. Being told that university was “not for the likes of you” was all too common in days gone by; in 1950 only 3.4% of young people participated in higher education, and this was only up to 8.4% in 1970 and just 19.6% still in 1990.  So  the OU was the natural destination for many whose background had hitherto prevented them pursuing that degree.  Even if they had the formal qualifications for admission to a “brick” university, part-time or flexible courses at conventional institutions were unheard of, so for the employed aspiring graduate, the OU was almost the only game in town.

In the 21st century, we are edging up to half of young people entering higher education (though who knows whether government proposals will knock that down again). So there are fewer of the “second chancers”. Today’s “typical” OU student (in so far as such a creature exists) is in their 20s, working, and aiming to improve or change their career. In a surprising move, a fifth of OU students are now studying at full time intensity.   Then we have the students with disabilities for whom the OU is a much more feasible and flexible option, and the students who are carers, who can only contemplate studying if they can fit it around the demands of their lives.  Many of these students are very time poor – fitting in study around family and work requires taking advantage of any free moment to keep up.  Back in the 70s and 80s, OU students rose early and stayed up late to catch their course TV programmes; the videos may be all online now, but just as many students are keeping those same hours to carve out some study time.

But the OU still has students from their teens to their nineties, and any broad assumptions about their motivations, their circumstances and their lives are pretty well destined to be wrong.

So are there still students like Philip around – learning for pure pleasure? Most certainly; the rumours of the death of the “leisure learner” are greatly exaggerated (There is even a Facebook group called “OU Study Addicts” with hundreds of members).   In England at least, it’s expensive for a “hobby” now, but there are still students who aim to never leave the OU, some taking advantage of the second degree funding now available for STEM subjects to keep going, others prioritising their studies over more frivolous activities such as holidays!

Of course the OU student experience, like the student experience anywhere, is not just about studying. Many OU students say they’ve made friends for life.  In the early days, the tutorial, the summer school and the unofficial local study groups were where connections were made – a fantastic set up if you happened to click with someone local to you.  The advent of widespread internet access opened up new additional ways to “meet”; students of the 2000s will remember the FirstClass conferencing system with affection, but 2019 students are more likely to speak of Facebook and WhatsApp.

OU Students Association first President Millie Marsland – clearly a force to be reckoned with! She maintained her job as a Headteacher whilst leading the Association.

Like any other student body, OU students have had their own Students Association for most of the lifetime of the university. The Association (known for many years as OUSA) has (amongst other things) pushed for students to have a greater voice in the university (resulting on representation throughout the governance structure), developed its own support service Peer Support, started its own charity for students in financial need OUSET, and supports a raft of Clubs and Societies, including the strangely named  TADpoles. This society was formed by students of the course TAD292 Art and the Environment, chaired by Simon Nicholson, which had its last presentation in 1985…. But the society is still going strong in 2019!.

The Association’s video gives a fuller picture of OUSA history.

What will the OU student of the future be like? Whilst the financial pressures of the day and the demise of the “career for life” suggests that young(ish) career-changers and promotion-hunters may come to dominate our student body, let us make sure that our university always has room for lifelong learners like Philip, and continues to offer that enriching broad curriculum that has changed so many students’ lives.





50 objects for 50 years. No 48. The Legacy Garden.

Monday, March 18th, 2019

‘A society grows great when we plant trees in whose shade we shall never see’.


This quote is carved onto a stone plaque at the centre of the legacy garden opened by Martin Bean in 2013.  It epitomises the generosity of our Alumni and donors who contribute to the Open University’s research projects and assist students in need.

The garden is dedicated to them and when you stroll through the gates you can view along the wall of the garden the plaques of dedication to the contributors to the future of the OU. These grow in number every year and the garden is often busy as family and fellow alumni attend events on Campus and view them as part of their tour.

Meticulously designed and planted, ‘the garden symbolises the generosity of donors, commencing with white perennial flowering plants, then bursting into full colour to indicate progress and fruition. As the legacy is living and long lasting, so is the garden.  White is still present throughout the flowering seasons to remind us of the gift’.

With its plants attracting wildlife such as birds, bees and butterflies it is a wonderful, peaceful place to pause for a while for reflection and rest and is enjoyed by members of staff based at Walton Hall campus all through the year.

Originally a kitchen garden providing sustenance to the former residents of Walton Hall on the original estate, it is now is a beautiful space on a campus working to feed students thirst for knowledge.

With thanks to the author, Sarah Frain, a Support Manager in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The Open University.

50 objects for 50 years. No 38. The annual Innovating Pedagogy reports.

Monday, January 7th, 2019

Naomi Sargant (later Lady McIntosh) studied sociology, worked within market research and was an associate of Michael Young on the National Consumer Council. She joined the OU in 1970, becoming Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Student Affairs; 1974–78) and a Professor of Applied Social Research. Through sample surveys and interview she brought the disciplines of marketing to education before anybody else did. Since that period the Institute of Educational Technology, which she helped to establish in 1970, has become a leading European research institute in the field of innovative education. It operates alongside teaching and strategic work at the OU and provides support for doctoral students as well as running a Masters in Online and Distance Education.

The impact of IET’s research has been far-reaching, leading to improvements in practice and policy. Its research on using mobile technology to enhance education, resulted in institutional and national policymakers signing formal declarations committing to the development of mobile learning across Europe. Its research also lies behind the OpenLearn website – now accessed by over 22 million visitors. It also works in the fields of Learning Design and Learning Analytics and its contributions for almost 50 years have led to worldwide recognition and considerable funding from a wide range of sources

Since 2012 colleagues within IET have produced annual reports outlining recent relevant educational developments. The 7th annual Innovating Pedgogy, the 2019 edition, echoes its predecessors in providing information about newforms of teaching, learning and assessment. The report proposes ten innovations that are already in currency and have the potential to provoke major shifts in educational practice. These are

Playful learning

Learning with robots

Decolonising learning

Drone-based learning

Learning through wonder

Action learning

Virtual studios

Place-based learning

Making thinking visible

Roots of empathy

Social and emotional learning



This guide to teachers and policy makers interested in making the most of interactivity reflects the values of the Open University.

1. There is collaboration. The OU worked with the Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE), University of Bergen, Norway.

2. There is co-operation. The authors include

Innovative pedagogy in the Legacy Garden, Walton Hall campus

Rebecca Ferguson,

Tim Coughlan,

Kjetil Egelandsdal,

Mark Gaved,

Christothea Herodotou,

Garron Hillaire,

Derek Jones,

Iestyn Jowers,

Agnes Kukulska-Hulme, Patrick McAndrew,

Kamila Misiejuk, Ingunn Johanna Ness,

Bart Rienties, Eileen Scanlon,

Mike Sharples, Barbara Wasson,

Martin Weller, Denise Whitelock


3. There is openness. The material is openly available on the web. Permission is granted under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this report freely, provided that attribution is made.


4. There are international links. There are versions in Chinese, Hebrew and Korean.



50 objects for 50 years. No 32. Video recordings.

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

The OU achieved national, indeed international, fame through its use of television for teaching purposes. However, it was teaching so much that the time allocated to OU broadcasts soon became inadequate. The BBC wanted to broadcast a range of materials. As noted under Object No 31, the number of television transmission slots available to the OU did not grow at the same rate as the number of OU broadcasts. By 1978  about 20 per cent of OU television broadcasts had only one transmission. The percentage of students watching the broadcasts fell and the OU’s Video-Cassette Loan Service was introduced in 1982. As only about 8 per cent of OU students had a VHS player at home, machines were distributed to the regions. OU study centres began to be stocked with collections of videos and replay machines. In 1981 students could attend centres in order to use Europe’s first ‘interactive videodisc’.

Soon the technology spread. By 1986 60 per cent of OU undergraduates had a video player in their homes. Britain had the highest ownership of video-cassette recorders in Europe, and OU students’ access to such technology was ‘well above the national rate’. A survey found that only 14 per cent of OU under- graduates could not arrange access to a machine. In 1992, 90 per cent of OU students surveyed had a VCR and 80 per cent of them recorded OU programmes. From 1993, instead of mailing video-cassettes to students, the OU arranged for the night-time broadcast of programmes for students to record.  Video-cassettes liberated students from a fixed viewing schedule. OU Professor John Sparkes argued that ‘it was a mistake to try to teach conceptually difficult material by broadcast TV. It goes too fast and cannot be slowed down to allow for thinking time.’ Using video, students could skim, pause, rewind, fast forward and search. They could integrate reflection on of other teaching media. By contrast, a third of students who watched television material focused on the details and failed to draw out the general principles.  For courses with fewer than 650 students each year it was cheaper for the OU to distribute returnable video-cassettes than to broadcast the material. he OU had its own purpose-built television studio complex at Walton Hall. This enabled it to produce a video which generated three-dimensional images of the brain for the Biology: brain and behaviour course. The OU began to produce course-specific, non-broadcast materials (for group viewing at residential schools, for example).

OU videos, unlike broadcasts, were designed for students not general viewers and could be and replayed by the students. The OU considered how best to use the equipment. Research was carried out at the OU into the effectiveness of teaching by non-academic organisations, such as British Telecom (which used interactive video to train managers dispersed throughout the UK) and Price Waterhouse (which used a videodisc-based training programme to acquaint employees with potential computer security risks). An ‘Alternatives to print for visually impaired students: feasibility project report’ was produced for The Mercers’ Company and Clothworkers’ Foundation. A team from IET worked with Rank Xerox EuroPARC in order to design effective computer-based support for collaborative learning where people were located at different physical sites and connected via various forms of technology.

The OU made a number of videos as part of its Continuing Education activities. A video for Talking with young people, P525, included forty- three sequences. Students were invited to watch in groups and consider their reactions. The constraints inherent in a 23-minute broadcast slot did not apply to a video-cassette with a number of independent sections of varying lengths. For Social psychology, D307 (1985–95), students were invited to analyse a drama by referring to letters in the corner of the screen and a grid provided in the video notes. The presenter explained:

watch the excerpt straight through first time, even if you can’t get it all down in your notes, you’ll have a chance to replay this section of the tape later on. Doing this analysis in real time will be good practice for when you do your own observation.39

Similarly, the, video associated with Matter in the universe, S256 (1985–92), included the instruction that viewers should watch it more than once and that they should address questions related to the numbers in the corner of the screen. For Engineering mechanics: Solids and fluids, T331, 1985–2004, students were expected to measure the time period of an oscillating pendulum, and then stop the tape and apply the data to an equation. The impersonal broadcast to an infinite crowd had been adapted to enable personal use by members of the OU’s student body.

By the 1990s for Studying family and community history: 19th and 20th centuries, DA301 (1994–2001), students were encouraged to develop their transferable skills by making audio and video recordings.

50 objects for 50 years. No 29. The wheelchair

Monday, November 5th, 2018

This week’s object is the wheelchair, the International Symbol of Access, because as, the former OU Vice Chancellor Martin Bean once noted ‘We’re home to more students with disabilities than any other university’. Writing in 2001 about the OU, Jagannath Mohanty concluded with perhaps some exaggeration, that, ‘As there is no basic qualification for entry to the OU and most of its students are deprived or handicapped in some way or other, this University is the most socialistic in nature and spirit’. In 1972, long before legislation encouraged other universities to accept students with disabilities, the OU appointed a Senior Counsellor with special responsibility for this field. In 1973 there were 554 students with disabilities identified in the rest of full-time higher education; by comparison the OU had about 1,200. In 1975 the OU specifically undertook to ‘continue to take all possible practical steps to enable full participation by disabled students in all aspects of University life’. A study concluded that students with disabilities had higher success rates than achieved by their non-disabled counterparts, and a drop-out rate markedly lower than for the general student population. Maggy Jones reported that she had to leave another university because of lack of wheelchair access, adding that ‘for the severely handicapped the Open University is proving to be their first real educational opportunity’. Leslie Hayward lost his hearing at the age of nine, had little schooling and counted bottles at a factory for a living. He received his OU degree in 1975 because he could read materials, rather than having to listen to lectures. One student said her choice had been made because ‘due to ill health I couldn’t take up the unconditional offers I had received from traditional universities’ and that her studies dovetailed with her work as ‘a full time Mum’. A further reason for the relatively high number of students with disabilities might be because, on average, OU students were ten to fifteen years older than conventional, full-time, students. John Cowan concluded that the students felt that within the OU they ‘had a community experience in which they cared for students with disabilities’. He recalled one summer school when, at about one o’clock in the morning, on seeing a severely disabled student arriving in a vehicle adapted to take his wheelchair, he asked the student, ‘How is it going for you?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I’ve just been to a party, and I’ve never been to a party in my life. And it was absolutely wonderful.’ Students with multiple disabilities continued to be attracted to the OU because, even though legislative changes improved access to other institutions, the OU continued to offer support across a range of disabilities. These included audio recordings and 3D diagrams for the visually impaired, large-print texts and visual descriptions for screen readers

In the early days the attraction for the housebound or those with restricted access to university campuses was the possibility of study without having to negotiate buildings which were not designed for those with a range of disabilities. After 1990 there were reforms, including the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the Human Rights Act 1998, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act 2001 and the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. In compliance with legislation, universities across the UK began to treat staff and students in similar ways.  However, the OU maintained its interest in being open to people. In 2001 it provided Disabled Student Allowances to 2,200 students with disabilities. In 2003 the Institutional Disabled Students Strategy and Action Plan was launched, having been developed in the context of both Quality Assessment Authority guidelines and the Disability Discrimination Act. Although data collated about students refers only to those who have self-declared as having disabilities, by 2013 there were over 17,000 UK-based students with disabilities, health conditions, mental health disabilities or specific learning difficulties (such as dyslexia) studying at the OU.

OU Students Association trip to Rome, 1978. There is an account of the trip in the book, Disabled students on a study tour of Rome, Have wheels: Will travel (Reading: Educational Explorers, 1976).


50 objects for 50 years. No 28. Educating Rita.

Monday, October 29th, 2018

In the 1980 play (and 1983 film) Educating Rita the OU was portrayed as a force not only for education, but for profound personal transformation of the eponymous student, who in turn changes the lives of those around her, including that of her tutor. Following a student from the time she overcomes the difficulty of entry to higher education – she is literally impeded, as she cannot open the door at the start of the play – to her final entrance and scene when she is calm and confident about her ability to succeed within the conventional academy, the emphasis was on personal liberation through learning. It positioned the OU as part of a long tradition of motivating forces within tales of women who through their own transformations transform others. Russell’s conventionally structured play echoes the tale (recounted by Ovid in the eighth century CE) of the sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with a statue he had carved. It also may have been inspired by the 1912 play by G. B. Shaw and a film, My Fair Lady, 1964. Russell did some of his research for the play at the OU and in the film course materials appear and are discussed.  OU academic Gill Kirkup noted that while the play ‘purports to show the change in a mature women student who takes an Open University course’ it revealed (if it was ‘indicative of common beliefs’ about the OU) that the OU’s teaching system ‘seems to be widely misunderstood’.  The OU’s pedagogy appeared to mimic that of the one-to-one Oxford college tutorial. Rita gains cultural capital through her trips to the theatre, does not mention watching the OU’s BBC broadcasts and is dismissive of the possibilities of learning through television. Nevertheless, the text was used to illuminate and support the OU’s mission. According to OU staff tutor Paula James, when students studied Pygmalion on the level one Arts Foundation course, A103 (which was presented 1998 to 2008), an Educating Liza sketch was presented for the arts event evening during the residential school week. ‘So Rita in one version or another has long been part of the OU fabric and culture!’

To celebrate forty years of the OU, in 2009, real-life Tutor David Heley and OU student Lisa Hubbard played Rita and Frank in a production of Educating Rita presented by the Open University in the South East with Pitchy Breath Theatre. This was part of the celebrations of The Open University’s fortieth birthday. The production toured the UK, playing in theatres, schools, community centres and prisons. In the written programme to accompany it there was information about the OU and links to the website. The Regional Director explained that although ‘Willy Russell’s play is not a very accurate presentation of Open University tutorials it does capture the excitement of learning with the Open University and the life changing experience which our courses can bring.’ Director and Actor David Heley said of a performance in HMP Swaleside that the audience there was ‘totally engaged’ and that ‘many of the prisoners said how they recognised themselves within the play’s action and meaning’.

In 1983 the play was deployed for marketing by the OU, which produced a flyer to accompany a professional performance.

Part of an advertisement in the Educating Rita programme, Derby Playhouse, 7 September – 8 October 1983


As you watch Rita’s intellect developing throughout the play you might be tempted to ask ‘Could this really happen in everyday life?’ The answer is ‘Most definitely yes’ as thousands of adults have proved during the last thirteen years of The Open University. So far more than 57,000 have graduated with a BA degree and very many more have taken single one-year courses. There are no educational qualifications for The Open University, admission is on a rst-come, rst- served basis, and study mainly involves working at home. Of 5,945 students who graduated last year 17 per cent are housewives, 8 per cent are clerical and office staff and 8 per cent are technicians. 9 per cent had left school at 15. Nearly half of the graduates were women.

In Educating Rita, as the play’s title implies, Rita is both being educated and educating others. Throughout the play there is a debate about the nature of learning and knowledge and the extent to which she is transformed by her own efforts compared to the influence of her tutor, Frank. Initially Rita feels that her mind is ‘full of junk’ and that a ‘good clearing out’ is required and that what she learns from Frank ‘feeds me inside’. She admits that she nearly wrote ‘Frank knows all the answers’ across her exam paper. In addition, she dismisses as ‘crap’ Howards End, a novel which involves co-operative learning between practical people and intellectuals. She expresses scepticism of the approach favoured by theorist Jean Piaget. She describes how at school the pupils would be having ‘a great time talkin’ about somethin’ and the next thing [the teachers] wanna do is to turn it into a lesson’.

As noted here perhaps one reason she changes is to fit into the academic world. She alters her accent from Scouse to that which the stage directions call a ‘peculiar voice’ but is then dismayed that she has become, in her words, a ‘freak’ and a ‘half-caste’. Echoing this, Frank refers to himself as Mary Shelley, author of a novel about the creation of a man-made person, Frankenstein. Having assessed the notion of learning as transmission, she then takes control of her own learning and makes only the changes that she requires. In addition, she is able to teach her tutor as well. Just as he asks questions, so does she. Asked why she did not attend a conventional university following her compulsory education she answers with a question: ‘What? After goin’ to the school I went to?’ Once Frank has suggested to her that ‘you’ll have a much better understanding of something if you discover it in your own terms’, she claims to have ‘begun to find me’ and she reverts to her previous name. She changes, but not into a typical student, at Frank’s ‘Victorian-built university’.

For her last appearance she does not, as she did before, unpack her notebook and pen. Instead she picks up some scissors and draws on her own skills, which she employs within the learning environment. She starts to cut hair. Neither Delilah nor Sweeney Todd, when Rita returns to hairdressing she wields the scissors in a more knowing fashion than at the beginning. This framing device indicates Rita’s circular route, her return to her roots, offering reassurance that, while learning changes people, the effects are likely to be positive. Rita, by taking flight from the humdrum, paradoxically took the university from where Geoffrey Crowther had placed it in his speech at its foundation, as ‘disembodied and airborne’, and brought it down to earth. In summarising its activities as ‘degrees for dishwashers’ Russell’s character domesticated the OU and placed it, reassuringly, if counter-intuitively, in front of the kitchen sink.


50 objects for 50 years. No 15. The Study Centre

Monday, July 30th, 2018

In the early years study centres were used to show students OU TV programmes.

Study centres were integral to the OU from the start. The 1966 White Paper, formally introducing the OU, proposed that a network of study centres, where tutors could meet students, should be created. The Times fretted that a university education ‘demands direct personal contacts between teachers and learners and even more, among the students themselves. It is doubtful that the network of summer schools and study centres will be able to support it.’ The first Vice Chancellor, Walter Perry felt that in order to function, the OU has to be ‘parasitic’ upon other institutions, notably the WEA and local authorities, in regard to the provision of study centres. He set Regional Directors the task of finding these places. Harold Wiltshire (who was both a member of the Planning Committee and Head of Nottingham University’s extramural department) helped Regional Director Norman Woods to find rooms in the East Midlands. In Belfast one of the first centres was in a school. The Regional Director, Ken Boyd recalled ‘adults getting their knees under grammar school pupil’s desks’. In 1977 the OU’s Dr Ken Jones proposed study centres in industrial premises and the offer of guaranteed places for industrial workers. However, largely centres have been sited in polytechnics, universities and other educational establishments. A 1996 report found that ‘all too often they are in dreary, poorly equipped schools’.

Tutorials in Study Centres. By the 1990s the idea of grouping students around tables so that they could see and talk with one another was commonplace.

Left is a table of the different types of host institution in 1971.

Perry considered purchasing 280 sets of the 27 volume Encyclopaedia Britannica  in order to equip study centres. However, it seemed more valuable to equip them so that users could access a variety of electronic and electrical items. From the first year that the OU presented modules, 1971, some mathematics courses required students to be able to access a computer terminal. On M100, the first mathematics foundation course, 7,000 students were given access to the OU’s mainframe computers via 109 Teletype terminals in study centres and 4 terminals available at summer schools. Access was limited by the scarcity of terminals. One student recalled making a forty-mile round trip ‘to set up a simple query in Basic and then wait ages for the response to clatter back’. My Mum studied M100 and had to go to a local school where students could dial up a computer 50 miles away in Manchester. She reported that she barely got a glimpse of the technology because the male students were so keen to engage with it. Over 10,000 hours were logged by students who learned, through a dial-up service, how to write programmes in BASIC.

Tutorials were often devoted to offering students opportunities they could not otherwise obtain, notably group discussions or engagement with scientific experiments and demonstrations. Study centres began to be seen as potential media resource Centres. Some were stocked with collections of videos and replay machines. Recordings of programmes were made available in study centres, and loans of playback equipment were made. In the 1970s few students had access to such equipment. In 1976 the OU set up the CICERO project with three courses (modules) with online requirements. In 1981 students could attend centres in order to use Europe’s first ‘interactive videodisc’ and there were more than 250 study centres in the dial-up network; most had with Teletype or VT100 terminals. In 1982 about 95 per cent of students lived within five miles of a study centre computer terminal. The ‘connect hours’ increased by 50 per cent due to the introduction of the courses M252 and PM252 ‘Computing and Computers’, studied by nearly 3,000 students.

In 1982 telewriting system or an ‘electronic blackboard’ known as Cyclops was introduced. A telephone line connected to a TV monitor. It enabled drawings made on screens to be seen in other locations. Eight study centres were connected in a two-year trial run in the East Midlands and funded by British Telecom. The tutor could be in a central position in one of the study centres with a group of students there, talking to little groups in another three or four centres.

A report in 1996 found that OU study centres, having begun life as ‘Listening and Viewing Centres with the express purpose of providing access to VHF radio and BBC2 and as access to BBC2 and video recordings at home widened it appeared as if ‘the future for study centres is clear … extinction’. However, face-to-face connections between students and tutors have remained popular and they are still used.

Study centres have played a variety of other roles as well. A study centre in the Netherlands was also used by the Dutch OU. In Belfast the Long Kesh Internment Centre, the Maze, had a study centre hut was established inside the prison. It was used by both loyalists and republicans. Martin Snoddon, who called himself a Unionist ‘hardliner’, met a member of the IRA in the Maze when they were both studying through the OU. They became friends and remained in contact after their release. Snoddon, when released, took on reconciliation work and helped to form a group which aimed to reintegrate former political prisoners from both sides into the wider society. Many of the OU’s prisoner students in the Maze 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.

In 1969 theorist Michel Foucault helped to found the Group d’Information sur les Prisons (Prison Information Group) and within a few years he had conceptualised (in Of other spaces) prison as a heterotopia, that is a ‘place which lies outside all places and yet is localisable’. Such a place could juxtapose ‘in a single real space, several spaces, several sites which are themselves incompatible’. Heterotopias were not utopias, but ‘other places’ in which existing arrangements were ‘represented, contested and inverted’, where individuals could be apart from the larger social group. These locations were both isolated and penetrable, their focus and meaning unfixed. When an OU student, an Irish Republican prisoner called Dominic Adams, referred to the classroom in a prison run by the British by its name in Gaelic, seomra rang, he was not naming it not as a utopia (literally meaning ‘no place’) but an OU-topia which could be almost any place in which the social order could be reevaluated. Many of those who studied with the OU while in prison were able to create a space for themselves which was beyond their day-to-day reality and within which there was a strong sense of the collective. This tendency was so marked that one interviewer noted, ‘a very strong and understandable tendency to tell stories from the collective perspective since this reflects the solidarity of the political organisation […] Sentences would sometimes begin ‘we’ not ‘I’’.

Study centres have been more than sad school rooms, they have been where students came together and, supported by their tutors, created ideas and understandings though collaborative engagement.

50 objects for 50 years: No. 11. The cup which cheers

Monday, July 2nd, 2018

These images of Student Association volunteers and that cup by the keyboard, remind me of an important aspect of the OU. The cup of tea or coffee brought by the supportive partner late at night when you are completing a TMA. An OU study, Enduring Love?  assessed over 5,000 people and found that, as researcher Jacqui Gabb noted, ‘Grand romantic gestures, although appreciated, don’t nurture a relationship as much as bringing your partner a cup of tea’.

Haven in a heartless world?

The word ‘tea’ can refer to a plant, a beverage, a meal service, an agricultural product, an export, an industry or a range of other notions but for those studying with the OU a cuppa can represent how families (in the widest sense) pay an important part in OU studies. Surveys indicate that students frequently acknowledge that their engagement was initially determined by their peers, families and communities as well as their own expectations and experiences. A number referred to how the OU broadened their horizons, increased their confidence and, by enabling them to form communities of learners, helped them become active citizens who could benefit the wider society. It is not always the case. One student recalled her husband’s reaction when he discovered her books and realised that she was studying with the OU:

He threw them all down the rubbish chute (we live on the 7th floor). I get on well with Ted the caretaker so next morning when my husband had gone to work I went to see him and said I had to go through the bins … there I was with big rubber gloves picking my way through everything but I got it all back and cleaned up. I can leave it at my pal’s flat.

One of the first graduates noted, ‘students need sympathetic families’. Asked to rate the importance of sources of external support OU students placed family and friends at the top of the list. Although some represented their decision to become OU students as individual, often accounts refer to a recommendation from a family member.  Here is the results of a survey of sources of external support.

This has adapted from Simpson’s “Supporting students online, open and distance education 2002, p. 120.

Once studying began, the support of families remained important. George Saint believed that ‘My wife shielded me from the demands of a young family’; he chose not to study for Honours because ‘my wife deserved a rest and I wanted to enjoy my children’. Emma’s comment reveals both a realisation about the unhelpfulness of a poor self-image and a changing relationship with a spouse:

Shouting ‘I’m fat and stupid’ at your husband will not make you understand the equations needed to calculate the emissions from an incinerator (though speaking to him nicely means he might just sit with you and talk it over in a very calm and patient manner).

For similar conclusions about the significance attributed to kin, see the online accounts by Charlene Buckley, Vida Jane Platt, Joanne Greenwood, Jim Bailey, Maureen Bowman, Iain Boyle and Mark Pearce. Kayleigh Carey mentioned her husband; Gwen Rowan her boyfriend, later husband; Claire Smith an OU student who was her boyfriend, later fiancé. Ian Ellson was encouraged by his wife and her family, and Patricia Palmer by her husband and children.

Study aid

Pausing for a drink might be when, as you sip you reflect on how tea, coffee and chocolate, initially exotic commodities which arrived in Britain in the seventeenth century, have become drinks of British people of all social classes. Might this help you with your sociology or history assignment? If your beverage is sweetened you might want to consult Steve Pile’s two-part guide to the ‘cultural paradox’ of the ‘geography of sugar’. You might consider the US-based Tea Party. These conservative citizens were funded by Republican business elites, bolstered by a network the conservative media and campaigned against Obama. Might be useful if you are studying politics?

To prevaricate by making one more cup of coffee before entering the ‘valley below’ of actually completing that TMA is a ritualistic delay immortalised by Bob Dylan (One more cup of coffee) who went on to note that you might find that ‘You’ve never learned to read or write. There’s no books upon your shelf’. Tea has also been presented criticised as a barrier to work.

Slogans and reminders

Despite the possibilities for wandering off the point, and not focusing on getting that essay completed, within the OU tea drinking has been encouraged with specialist mugs. This is one produced for the students’ Psychology Society. While there were also mugs made to after the OU had been open for a quarter of a century.
The ‘Keep calm’ one was produced for a staff member by a spouse during a period perceived as being a time of existential crisis for the institution. Alongside it are some cups, also for staff, which remind imbibers of the importance of the UCU trade unio

Mugs of tea cheer staff and help students storm to success. As the Kinks sang, ‘have a cuppa tea, Halleluja, halleluja, halleluja, Rosie Lea’.