Archive for the ‘Methods’ Category

50 objects for 50 years. No 16. Blue Planet II

Monday, August 6th, 2018

After people saw the Blue Planet II footage of albatross parents unwittingly feeding their chicks plastic and mother dolphins potentially exposing their new-born calves to pollutants through their contaminated milk, the campaign against the excessive use of plastic gained a lot more adherents. David Attenborough expressed that he was ‘absolutely astonished at the result that that programme has had’ and noted the impact on politicians and businesses and the reduction in people’s single-use plastic footprints. There are campaign and activities ideas.

The influential series is linked to the OU, particularly Dr Mark Brandon and Dr Philip Sexton. Listen to Janet Sumner interviewing OU consultants to the Blue Planet II TV series. There is more here  and here and you can get an OU ‘Oceans’ poster.

This is part of an OU tradition of producing widespread, lifelong learning beyond the syllabus. Its early modules, courses included material broadcast on BBC television and radio. There was initial scepticism from some academics and Conservative politicians. However, the OU was committed to using television and sought to employ innovative approaches. The programmes had to address both registered students and the wider public. The result was varied informative programmes which positioned viewers as interactive learners and presented learning as a problematising and experiential activity. As the first Dean of Arts, John Ferguson, complained, ‘It is a common delusion about the Open University that we “give lectures on TV.” We do not “give lectures” at all.’ The OU had its own purpose-built television studio complex at Walton Hall, which enabled it to produce, for example, a video which generated three-dimensional images of the brain for the Biology: brain and behaviour course. For Haemoglobin, Programme 1 of Biochemistry and molecular biology, S322 (1977–85), Max Perutz used a static model, moving graphs, equations, diagrams, a clip of an experiment and a view down a microscope as well as lecturing to camera. Robert Bell, an OU lecturer, recalled ‘seeing an early Maths programme shot on a rubbish dump, and certainly many of them involved ingenious working models that would have been unavailable then in a conventional university’. The materials for Drama, A307 (1977–81), included the transmission of sixteen fifty-minute plays. Samuel Beckett’s Endgame was given its television premiere on an OU transmission of 90 minutes in duration. Students were told ‘Do not regard each programme as definitive … you should bring your free and concentrated response and your informed critical judgment’.

Charlie Drake in a dustbin in the BBC and OU version of Endgame.

To develop students’ critical awareness of how each performance of a play was an interpretation of the text there was multi-camera work in the studio and televised scenes from Aristophanes’ Clouds, in which Socrates appears as a character. In the broadcast’s introduction John Ferguson is shown with cameras around him and there is a moment when both a Greek character – Strepsiades, played by Juan Moreno – and the Dean are in shot. Similarly, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was not presented as an uninterrupted performance. Instead academics discussed different ways of interpreting individual scenes. These interpretations were illustrated through performances by actors. How was all this received? Audrey Moore, who started her studies in 1974, recalled that the television programmes were often on early in the morning and she was ‘frequently rather tired going to work’, but one programme, on the Cuban revolution,’ inspired me to want to sing and dance all the way to work’. After nearly ten years as Vice-Chancellor John Horlock was able to claim that millions had, through the OU broadcasts, ‘obtained further education “by osmosis”’. Blue Planet II is a stunning achievement, and one built on years of experience and co-operation between the broadcasters and the educators.


50 objects for 50 years No 7. Urgent Educational Materials

Monday, June 4th, 2018

It is June and, for many of those studying 60-point modules which started last October, that means final assessment-related gloom and stress. In my household the OU student, studying two modules at once, is currently looking a little hollow-eyed and desperate. I am reminded of the donkey unable to decide between the hay of EMA deadline (Aaargg! But is due Tuesday!) and the straw of revision (Yikes the exam is on Thursday!) I can see the temptation to be fair and avoid both in equal measure. Moving on from animal fables, I’m hoping for a safe passage between Scylla and Charybdis.

In these circumstances it is time to remind ourselves of the pleasures of study.

For many it starts with the delivery of that parcel marked ‘Urgent Educational Material’. It was suggested that one of our 50 objects be the packaging sent to OU students. It tells the recipient that learning is so vital that they have immediately to rip open the cardboard and start studying. As this blogger noted in 2007:

The contents are unknown and there is room for speculation. What is inside? There have been records, cassettes, video disks, computers, models of the human brain and of course study guides. These ones are for U216.

Professor Grainne Conole, formerly of the Open University recalled, ‘I did an OU Spanish course and you get this amazing box labelled “Urgent: Educational Materials”.

And here is OU student, Carolyn Jones,

Anyone else studying with the Open University?
If you are, you’ll know that their study packs of books and DVDs arrive in cardboard boxes prominently marked Urgent: Educational Materials I’m not making fun. I really do love the idea that education – of any kind, for anyone – is urgent, important, worth making way for.

Of course if you are still in your pyjamas when the postie dashes down the street to give you the parcel, the breathless deliverer might not be fooled by any pretence that you are going to immediately do an experiment, write an essay or complete an iCMA.

Neil Anderson’s reaction was to reach for the alcohol.

Other students have described the moment. Jackie Diffey felt that when mailings arrived it was ‘like getting a Christmas present’. Vida Jane Platt wrote, ‘Oh the bliss of waiting for the new year’s course material to drop through the letter box and the pleasure in doing those TMAs’. Elinor Ashby remembered how ‘I was often so excited by the arrival of my units that I would stand over the cooker stirring home-made soup whilst avidly reading’. Here is Cathy from 2009 recalling the DHL man pounding on the door ‘bearing gifts’.

The object this week is the world of possibilities presented by the unopened package. It may even be a ‘digital’. As Jane noted on Twitter.

The act of opening the box will not release evils upon the world, in the manner of Pandora, but will enable me to acquire knowledge. Mysteriously understanding will waft out of the parcel and into my brain without any hard work from me. Having read a bit about how people learn, this might be a bit unrealistic. However, my  faith might be  useful model. As exams loom, perhaps what the OU-student-in-the-house needs is the confidence to believe that this time hope will triumph over expectations.

50 objects for 50 years. No 6

Monday, May 28th, 2018

‘I’m the self inflicted, mind detonator…I’m a Firestarter’

Each Monday I present a new object. In this weather those not frantically revising may well be enjoying barbeques. So I’ve selected an appropriate element as my object of the week. As a clue to what it is, I’ve turned to an OU module so fresh that it hasn’t even been presented. Environment and Society, DD213, is due for release in October 2018. Here is a sneak preview of the opening sentence:

Fire is both a naturally occurred chemical reaction on Earth and a tool adapted by humans. It can modify environments and serve to shape social interactions between individuals, groups of humans and the places in which they live.

The idea of something which is essential, which can modify environments and shape social relations can be applied to education.When, at its opening on 24th April 1969, the OU’s first Chancellor Lord Crowther sought an image for the human mind he compared it ‘to a fire
which can be set alight and blown with the divine afflatus’.

Crowther contrasted this idea of an inspiration, which comes from the word inspire, meaning to breathe or blow onto, with the image of the mind as a vessel into which one could pour knowledge. The OU, by providing intellectual tinder and matches, could inspire learners to light the fire in their bellies, or minds. Moreover, they were encouraged to seek out tutors and fire questions at them. It also brings to mind the legend of the phoenix, a bird which regenerates through fire. The distinctive avian pops up in the series of stories about a character who appears to have limited opportunities until his life is transformed when he attends an educational establishment, Harry Potter.

At the time of the OU’s opening a popular educationalist was Paulo Freire. Freire argued that much of what was called education amounted to ‘educational banking’. Teachers filled the heads of learners with their narratives, even if these narratives were not relevant to the learners. Treating learners as ‘‘receiving objects’, reinforced existing social relations and impeded the development of a student’s critical consciousness. It required students to be passive and did not encourage dialogue. Transmission-focused teaching prevented students from renewing cultural knowledge through thoughtful conversations. However, Freire argued, this was not the only way to proceed. If learning involved the learners and encouraged activity and non-hierarchical, dialogue, then, through that learning, people could ‘make and remake themselves’. Learners, could make their own meanings with the new knowledge they constructed being based on what they already knew and what they were trying to achieve. This idea of learning, not as pouring cold water, but lighting fires, was perhaps in Crowther’s mind when he spoke back in 1969. At the OU’s first degree ceremony, in 1973, an honorary doctorate was presented Freire.

Crowther’s image might have reminded listeners of the importance of air for combustion, how the circulation of air can ensure that thinking is not congested, how the airwaves could be used to deliver the materials and support the interactions necessary for learning. Yet, while OU broadcasts travelled through the ether, the university did not emerge out of thin air, nor were its subsequent achievements confined to the realm of the abstract.

Crowther’s image of fire may also have built on associations of fire with truth, sometimes a rather painful disruptive truth. While fire serves many other functions in stories and songs there are plenty of literary reminders of this role. These include the Biblical account of Moses who rather unwillingly received Divine Instruction from a fire, a burning bush in a desert of ignorance. Luke cites Jesus as  holding the revolutionary and disruptive view that ‘I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!’ When exiled Russian revolutionaries established, in 1900, what became the most successful underground Russian newspaper in 50 years, they called it Iskra (Spark). The name was later adopted by the OU branch of the University and College Union for its newsletter.

Fire’s association with truth was perhaps reinforced by the comic inversion of this in Hillaire Belloc’s 1907 poem Matilda Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death which [plot spoiler alert] concludes as below:

For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

While for students, education can be the lighting of a fire which provides warmth, they are also entangled in their societies, communities, families. Others around them, witnesses to the changes, can feel burned. In a play, later film, about an OU student, Educating Rita, Rita’s husband resents the time she spends studying. A genuine student, interviewed in an early study of the OU, captured the sense of the challenges provided by learning through the OU when she summarised her experience thus: ‘It messes up your whole life, but it’s worth it.’

A century before the OU Louisa May Alcott wrote her novel Little Women. In this she sets out some of the emotions you might associate with writing a TMA which can involve both inspiration and perspiration:

She did not think herself a genius by any means; but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon….The divine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her “vortex,” hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent.

Having started with the Prodigy, I’ll conclude with Elvis Costello, who reminded us that indoor fireworks while they can ‘dazzle or delight or bring a tear’ can also ‘still burn your fingers’. Education, sociable, collaborative engagement which enables you to see things in a different light, can be edgy, risky, can throw your preconceptions over a cliff or into a furnace. But that is also its pleasure.

50 objects for 50 years. No 2. The McArthur microscope

Monday, April 30th, 2018


In 1929, in need of a portable instrument for use in the jungle, Dr John McArthur conceived the idea of the light-weight microscope. He developed his concept while a prisoner-of-war and sold his first one in 1957. It had enjoyed sales of about 1,000 by the time that the OU showed an interest about a decade later. However, the OU wanted a simpler, plastic version for its Home Experiment Kits. The OU’s first Vice Chancellor felt that ‘carrying out of experiments at home by students would be a vital part of offering correspondence tuition in science and technology’, see here. The university recognised that many of its students would be unfamiliar with delicate scientific mechanisms or would find it difficult to keep their study materials safe from other family members. It did not want a delicate rack and pinion system for focusing and the objective lens had to be robust. McArthur met the deadline and about 7,000 of these tiny (5in x 3in x 1in), cheap, microscopes were to be mailed to the first students at the OU in the first HEKs. It has been called a ‘gem of a portable microscope’ and ‘legendry in its application and construction’. It has also been described as ‘an amazing little instrument… although small, lightweight and almost entirely plastic, it makes a very serviceable field instrument’.

The OU wanted its students to have the opportunity to be active learners not passive recipients, to understand that science did not require specialist laboratories or a campus. The home could become a place for university-level study. The inclusion of the microscope in Home Experiment Kits showed the OU’s commitment to putting learners at the centre and of adapting technology to ensure they were supported.

In the 1970s a large-scale project invited children to draw a picture of a scientist. Men in white coats and wild hair abounded. Instead of a university being outside the normal and day-to-day, instead of scientists being white-coated men, the OU gave scientific instruments to people, including my mum an early OU student. There was spluttering and ridicule in the press about the ineptitude of housewives but the OU persisted. The idea of a university and of who could be a student, was transformed. The OU enabled science to be more than an activity for men in white coats in labs, housewives could study in their own homes, submariners could study under the waves.

Subsequently the OU’s Virtual Microscope has been developed to allow students with internet access to explore digitized slides and thin sections in a browser window. There are several specialist microscopes. They enable OU students to gaze upon images which leading scientists and academics are also examining.

OU 70s drama: first time as tragedy. Rerun and analysis

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

On 22nd June a symposium at the University of Westminster will consider the presentation of Greek tragedies on television. The speakers include Professor Lorna Hardwick of The Open University. She will talk about the use of television transmissions for the teaching of drama by The Open University and how this has developed and changed from 1971 to the present, drawing on her personal experience working in the Department of Classical Studies during some of this period.

Other confirmed speakers: (more…)

Decades of impact: TAD292 lives on

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

TAD292 Art and environment (1976-85) was a distinctive course chaired by Simon Nicholson (1934-1990) who had studied at the Royal College of Art, London, and the University of Cambridge and between 1964 and 1971 taught at the University of Berkeley, California. It sought to develop ‘strategies for creative work’ and it dealt with

the processes and attitudes of art not so much as these were evidenced in products of art but as they underlie the very act of doing art. This can be seen already from the titles which were given to some of the units in the course: ‘Boundary Shifting’, ‘Imagery and Visual Thinking’, ‘Having Ideas by Handling Materials’.

TAD292 students were offered a range of projects on this 30-point course. These included the suggestion that the student stop activity and engage in listening. Another was to compose a score for sounds made from differently textured papers and a third was to enumerate the household’s activities and categorise these in terms of role and sex stereotyping. The aims of the course were attitudional, sensory and subjective rather than cognitive, relating to feeling rather than knowledge. They were ‘more phenomenological than conceptual in nature’. Assessment involved a student not only submitting the product, such as a self-portrait photograph, but also notes describing the process and rationale. The criteria were not specific but involved formulations including enthusiasm, imagination and authenticity. See Philippe C. Duchastel, ‘TAD292 – and its challenge to Educational Technology’, Programmed Learning & Educational Technology, 13, 4, October 1976, pp. 61-66. The course received considerable publicity. In 1976 The World  At One, a BBC radio news programme, reported on TAD292 at one summer school:

Bizarre games and happenings formed a part of experimental residential course for a group of students at Sussex University. They were encouraged to make prints of various parts of their bodies. Some made bare bottom prints, other dragged rubbish through the streets and one group appeared to be aimlessly kicking a giant rugby ball about. (more…)

Poetic brilliance and imagination trumps dreaming spires

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012
Ian Flintoff  was a language scholar at Oxford University before becoming a professional actor and director. |He started his OU career in 1989.His academic qualifications are mainly in biological sciences and he has a doctorate in science communication. He appeared on an album compiled by Richard Holliman for iTunes U, Science communication and public engagement. The album also features contributions from Alan Irwin, Jon Turney, Susan Greenfield, Vic Pearson, Robert Lambourne and Richard Holliman.Here Dr Flintoff recalls the residential element of his OU experience:
 You can never go to an OU summer school without seeing this amazing cross-section of society. The first time it brought tears to my eyes, the beauty of it … I was in an all-male college at Oxford which was mainly Etonians who were charming people, but I can’t kid myself for a moment that Trinity had anything on the majesty or poetic brilliance and imagination of the Open University.The Open University is a century or two ahead of Oxford.
Quoted in Patricia W. Lunneborg, OU Men. Work through lifelong learning, Lutterworth, Cambridge, 1997, p. 117.

Teaching the teachers

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

The need for guidance for associate lecturers (tutors) was identified in 1969 and in 1971 a briefing and training policy was introduced. This focused on briefing of new staff but in 1972 Course Tuition was introduced and in 1973 Teaching by correspondence for the OU. In 1987 a Staff Development policy emphasised the need for continued professional learning. A set of Open Teaching materials was produced to support the policy, including Open Teaching a handbook on teaching and counselling. There was also a manual, The Open Teaching File and a set of ‘toolkits’ about a variety of topics including study skills and support for disabled students.  In 1993 Maggie Coats produced an evaluation of the Open Teaching materials and the student-centred Supporting Open Learning materials followed. These were widely used and developed. A fund for personal development was opened in 1987. In 1992 this was revised to encourage continuing professional development and it was revised again in 1997 to incorporate provision for peer mentoring. By comparison induction for full-time academic staff was introduced in 1995 and a programme of staff development for them introduced in 1998.In 1999 there were approximately 7.400 part-time associate lecturers of whom 10% had no other employment and 70% worked in educational institutions and 45 of them within HEIs. In 1997 the Dearing Report recommended accreditation for HE academics and the Institute of Learning and Teaching was established. At the OU a Centre for Higher Education Practice was opened. It ran courses and produced materials.

For more on this subject see Anne Langley and Isabel Perkins, ‘Open University staff development materials for tutors of open learning’, Open Learning, 14, 2, June 1999, pp. 44-51. We would also value hearing from ALs and students about supporting open learning.

Mocked from Day 1?

Monday, February 27th, 2012

On 10th September 1963, the day after Wilson announced his plans for a university of the air, at the Labour Party conference (as part of his ‘white heat of technology’ speech) the Daily Mail’s Emmwood (John Musgrave-Wood) poked fun by reference to popular programmes of the period, including Coronation Street.

The Daily Mirror’s Stanley Franklin compared (image not featured here) the plan to the ‘hot air’ talked by the Tories, indicating if not the paper’s support for the OU then at least its continual deriding of the Conservatives. Vicky (Victor Weisz) in the Evening Standard focused on another concern of the period, violence on TV. The cartoons can be found in The British Cartoon Archive is located in Canterbury at the University of Kent’s Templeman Library and online here.

Another account of residential school studies

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Isabel Hilton, ‘In Egham, knowledge rules’ Independent, 1 Aug 1992.


‘IT’S NOT like Educating Rita you know,’ said a middle-aged woman, between mouthfuls of spicy chicken spring roll. At first glance, she seemed to have a point. In the cavernous dining hall of Royal Holloway and Bedford College, near Egham in Surrey, some 300 students at the Open University’s week-long summer school were having lunch. Most were in their first year of the Arts Foundation course, others in their third year of an arts degree. (more…)