Archive for the ‘Online teachng and learning’ Category

50 objects for 50 years. No 49. FutureLearn

Monday, April 15th, 2019

In 2013 FutureLearn,  a private company wholly owned by The Open University, launched its first courses. This Massive Open Online Course social learning platform connects the OU to many universities in the UK and elsewhere and to institutions including the British Council, the British Library, the British Museum, and the National Film and Television School. FutureLearn also works with professional bodies including the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Marks & Spencer. Learners can study and earn credits towards a degree from a UK university.


Starting with the University of East Anglia’s ‘The secret power of brands’ FutureLearn has offered courses in science, history, programming and dentistry and hundreds of other topics. It has recently started to deliver digital skills programmes as part of the Institute of Coding, a consortium of universities, employers and outreach organisations seeking to build digital talent at degree level and above. It includes ‘The IoC guide to kick-starting your career with 21C skills’ from the University of Leeds.

The first OU postgraduate qualification to be offered on FutureLearn, the PG Certificate in Open and Distance Education went live in February 2019. Students can study a free fortnight-long taster and then click through to further programs which can lead to a Certificate, a Diploma or a Masters qualification. The module H880, provides hands-on experience of a range of learning technologies. Students can explore the processes of designing, implementing and critiquing elearning and the ideas that underpin these processes.

This company does not subscribe to the OU’s statement of being open to people, places methods and ideas. Rather, ‘FutureLearn’s purpose is to transform access to education’. The company promises to ‘strive to transform education and change our learners’ lives, our partners’ businesses and the world in the process’. While the OU offers degrees, FutureLearn offers to ‘make online learning enjoyable for our learners and our partners alike’.

In addition to co-ordinating the activities of universities, specialist institutions and centres of excellence the OU is central to the FutureLearn Academic Network  a network of universities and other partners. FLAN members share their research into the design, analysis and evaluation of massive open online courses. .Activities include analysis of learning to inform design of courses, design of innovative approaches to informal open learning, different approaches to evaluation of learning effectiveness at scale and the publication of research. FLAN also holds conferences and supports new researchers.


50 objects for 50 years. No 37. Conferencing software.

Monday, December 31st, 2018


The use of technology to promote co-operative and collaborative learning goes back to the earliest days of the OU. Despite initial complaints from the GPO, which ran the UK telephone system at the time, since 1973 telephones were used to support the physically isolated, the itinerant, the housebound and the shiftworkers who were often unable to attend tutorials. Expert strategies were developed and a pack produced. Advice was offered to tutors about encouraging students to gather around a loudspeaker telephone for self-help activity ‘with the added bonus of you taking part from a distance – like an academic Cheshire cat’. Soon audio conferencing, which could involve up to eight people on telephones in different locations, was  employed as were faxes, personalised audio-cassette messages and video-conferencing.

In 1988 the OU introduced courses which required students to have access to a desktop computer. It presented Information technology: Social and technological issues, DT200, (1988–94). This used computer conferencing. By 1990 about 2,000 students were using CoSy to communicate with tutors and with other students. Programming and programming languages, M353 (1986–99) required a home computing facility, while Matter in the universe, S256 (1985–92) provided computer assisted learning for home computers and employed interactive videotape. Students were given opportunities to buy or rent computers. In 1995 twenty courses, with a total of almost 21,000 students, required undergraduates to have access to an MS-DOS machine. Conferencing enabled students to select a time which was convenient to them to respond. This did not offer the immediacy of quick-fire debate but it did provide opportunities for reflective dialogue. The large-scale use of this facility on Information technology, DT200, helped to shift the focus within the OU away from the individual learner towards consideration of how best to support social interaction. Individual students were encouraged to construct personal meaning and to contribute to their own learning and that of others through online discussion.

Information technology: Social & technological issues, DT200 (1988–94) introduced many students to computer conferencing with this electronic map of a virtual campus.


A new text-based conferencing system was developed. In 1994 FirstClass was provided for undergraduate courses following successful trials of the collaborative learning activities that it supported. It was considered to be much more intuitive a system than CoSy and within a year 5,000 students were conferencing. By 1996 there were 13,000 and soon 50,000. Initially the conferencing facility was used for interactions previously carried out by phone or letter. Tutors offered advice and responded to requests via FirstClass. The house-bound and those overseas began to exchange ideas with other students, particularly if conferencing was structured and linked to assessment. The university began to devise guidance for tutors on conference moderation and ideas about conferencing were further developed for an online course You, your computer and the net, T171 (1999–2005), which enrolled around 10,000 students in its first year and had 12,500 students by 2000. In addition to access to an extensive website students received a CD-ROM of software and set texts.

As new ways of providing interactive and individualised support for learners became possible so the importance of maintaining face-to-face contact declined. The OU study centre had begun life as ‘a “Listening and Viewing Centre” with the express purpose of providing access to VHF radio and BBC2’. Used for counselling and other purposes, many initially cost little to rent. The increased use of home video players and desktop computing cast some doubt on the value of study centres.

Typical FirstClass screen, 1996

On Discovering science, S103, computer-mediated communication was optional for students but a requirement for ALs. They used FirstClass to access a national conference at least once a week and they could also exchange messages using conferences designed for the localities in which they were based. ALs were provided with guidance as to how to teach in the interactive seminars and offered practical advice which reflected the ethos of OU teaching practices. It was suggested, for example, that they ‘adopt an informal, friendly tone. Start a message with a greeting such as “Hello” … avoid the more formal “Dear Chris”.’ In addition, they were told that ‘CMC is a medium devoid of warmth and you need to compensate for this’.

Learning was integrated with practice and students were required to submit their work electronically. They communicated not only with the central computing facility but also with one another and their tutors. Groups of about fifteen worked collaboratively on projects in their own tutor-moderated conferences. Reflection was integral to the assessment. Students were required to provide evidence of participation in online discussions. The intention was to use the new delivery modes to ensure that the OU’s environment remained congenial and supportive of the creation of knowledge by learners.

Online conferencing enabled data to be recorded for later analysis of how students learn and which were the most effective teaching strategies. Illustrations from Morris, R.M., Mitchell, N. & Bell, M. Student Use of Computer Mediated Communication in an Open University Level 1 Course: Academic or Social? Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 99, 2, 1999.










Students studying ‘Environmental practice: Negotiating policy in a global society’, D833, used conferencing software Lyceum to represent different specific countries attending a virtual United Nations. They were given the problem of constructing a shared agreement through virtual UN negotiations. Negotiation was presented as an interactive dynamic, social activity and mutual learning process. Students were encouraged to understand both negotiation and how practi- tioners deploy theory through engaging in reflection on the simulation. They were also invited to keep non-assessed negotiation journals. An evaluation of the first presentation suggested that they appreciated the sense of community engendered and the support for reflection. Some of them said that they used the negotiation skills they had acquired in other situations and that they felt empowered by the course. While this module simulated a workplace, the United Nations General Assembly, other courses written for practitioners overtly tied their practical workplace activities to their studies. See David Humphreys, ‘The pedagogy and practice of role-play: Using a negotiation simulation to teach social science theory’, Proceedings of the International Conference on Computers in Education (ICCE) ‘Learning Communities on the Internet: Pedagogy in Implementation’ (Auckland, New Zealand, 3–6 December 2002).




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

Monday, October 1st, 2018

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 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

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.



MOOC Update

Monday, December 17th, 2012

 There has been widespread coverage of the OU’s MOOC initiative and support from some of those associated wioth the OU’s roots in the WEA and Labour Party. Details have been collated here.

FutureLearn and history

Friday, December 14th, 2012

On 14th December OU Vice Chancellor Martin Bean announced on Radio 4 and also on television that FutureLearn Ltd (majority-owned by the OU) is to provide free open, online courses from the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick. The aim is to build on the OU’s expertise in delivering distance learning and pioneering open education resources and to increase accessibility to higher education. It will be headed by former BBC staffer Simon Nelson. He said that he looks forward ‘to using the OU’s proud history’. 

Former OU PVC goes online

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Coursera  calls itself a ‘social entrepreneurship company’ which aims to deliver online courses. Founded by two academics from Stanford University and funded to the tune of $22m by the computer industries, it claims to offer ‘education for everyone’ by providing courses from its partner universities. These include  the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Virginia, Rice University, UC San Francisco, University of Illinois and University of Washington and also Toronto in Canada and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Coursera does not offer degrees, but students can be awarded certificates. (more…)

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.

Abstract for World Universities Forum, January 2012

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Kiri's pic

On 8th January 2012 Dan Weinbren gave a presentation on ‘The roots and branches of the OU’s disruptive online environment’ to the World Universities Forum.

Inspired by the success of the World Economic Forum held each year in Davos, the World Universities Forum has developed into a key site for academic discussion on the current state and future possibilities of the university. Now in its fifth year the WUF enables the exchange of ideas between delegates from dozens of countries around the world, numerous academic disciplines, and a range of professional areas including research, university administration, business, and policy-making.  Read his abstract here: (more…)

More graphic than info

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

The history of distance education has been compressed into an infographic by, see here. All events prior to 1960 receive as much attention as ‘crime’ (illustrated by a poodle in a mortar board, though not this poodle). A teleological approach is implied by a number of images of evolutionary development, The Open University is not mentioned in this US-focused account and women are not considered to be of significance in this narrative.

Good to see the subject raised. Could try harder with grammar and content.

The OU is missed from this account of the history of distance education which has been produced by There are, however, links to the ‘top distance learning schools’. They are all US-based and private.

Facing the social sciences

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

As part of a pilot scheme with The Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University has launched a Social Sciences fan page on Facebook.  This new platform is an opportunity for all Social Sciences students to network outside of their Tutor Group Forums and current study module/s with other Faculty students within the Facebook community. There are nearly 6,000 fans, some of whom have commented on their learning experiences. Here, for example is one:

It’s a journey – enjoy it. I like the ‘big picture’ concepts in OU Social Sciences especially, and a thoughtful tutor, which both help us stand back from the day-to-day. (And ignore the ironing, which is waiting in my kitchen here as I write my first TMA of DD301 for tomorrow’s deadline

Othrs at the OU have used social media to support learning. The History of The Open University Project is still collecting tales from staff, students and alumni, see here  and is running a forum on student experiences, see here.