Archive for the ‘History of the OU’ Category

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

Monday, August 13th, 2018








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.

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 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 14. Milton Keynes

Monday, July 23rd, 2018

Although the Open University is situated wherever they study their materials, on the bus, online, in the living room, it is also in a number of specific locations, in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England. At the centre is the Milton Keynes site. Milton Keynes, a town founded in 1967 following the New Town Act of 1965, was itself new on the map when the OU opened. The new university had few facilities and had to use several former RAF huts and a former stud farm. Some OU activities were based in nearby villages and it was only in 1971 that a warehouse was acquired, at Wellingborough. Some staff found it difficult to find accommodation in the rural area where the new town was being built. An important role of Milton Keynes was expressed by the first Chancellor, Geoffrey Crowther. He opened the OU with the words:

This University has no cloisters – a word meaning closed. Hardly even shall we have a campus. By a very happy chance, our only local habitation will be in the new city that is to bear two of the widest ranging names in the history of English thought, Milton Keynes. But this 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 new university was welcomed by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation but Milton Keynes was never intended to be the only site for the OU which appointed a Director of Regional and Tutorial Services, Robert Beevers, in February 1969.

Milton Keynes has benefitted socially and economically from the OU. The 70-acre site was to be the hub. The spokes of the university would be the regional centres. As the Panning Committee noted: ‘it will be upon the success of the Regional Directors that the corporate spirit of the University will largely depend’. Staff sit on governing bodies, run charities, have been elected to a variety of civic posts and have spent their earnings in the town.

An acknowledgement of the university is that it features among the 106 granite pillars of the Milton Keynes Rose located in Campbell Park. Created by Gordon Young in 2014, the Milton Keynes Rose is an open-air circle with the blocks in it. This picture features an OU student leaning on the OU pillar. This object reminds us that the OU is in Milton Keynes, but is only one aspect of the town and that the university exists far beyond Milton Keynes.

50 objects for 50 years. No 13. The residential school

Monday, July 16th, 2018

Poster 2009, Sussex Residential School
OU summer schools, coinciding with the ‘silly season’ for the national press, and being run on university campuses largely empty of full-time students, have been a gift to newspaper journalists eager for salacious copy. The Times reported the case of Carol Park, who left her husband and children to live with David Brearley after the pair had met at summer school.  Tutor John Kirkaldy remembers that a journalist he escorted around a Bath summer school was disgusted when he found ‘No nookie and no pot!’ The Times headlined an account of the ‘University where a lecture begins with a beer’, while the BBC ran a story about ‘bizarre games and hap- penings’ including OU students who ‘made bare bottom prints … dragged rubbish through the streets [and] appeared to be aimlessly kicking a giant rugby ball about’. Professor Stuart Hall recalled that ‘I’ve never been anywhere else in the academic world where a husband turned up and said, “My wife’s going home … She’s coming home with me. I’m not leaving her in any longer.”’ The OU’s monthly magazine for students and staff, Sesame, fanned the flames. The September 1974 edition, for example, carried a number of post- summer-school messages. One read, ‘A. I will never forget York. The spark of affinity still glows bright. H.’ Another declared, ‘I loved you for a week, a week to t uncrowded in an hour of normal life. Now I know there are no separate compartments in the mind because I cannot lock you out. And you refuse to go.’

OU Field trip. Students attending residential schools also went to museums, art galleries and spent time in labs and libraries.

At residential schools student experimentation sometimes involved other students. Those attending Biology brain and behaviour, SD206, summer school at University of York in the mid-1990s (the module was presented 1992–2001) had the opportunity to measure nerve conduction velocity – how fast information travels along a nerve cell. A volunteer wore shorts to the class and allowed other students to administer a small electric shock to a nerve in his leg and record how long it took to reach a point further down his leg. Other practicals on SD206 involved teaching a rat to press a lever, counting the number of cheeps a day-old chick makes and investigating wood lice in a maze.

From the first presentations students at the Open University were offered residential schools. The OU hired parts of a number of university campuses during the summer. Students would be in residence for typically one week. Once there, they would attend lecturers and seminars, work in the laboratories or go on trips. The residential schools were staffed by regional and central staff and often tutors and guest lecturers.

The idea of using university facilities during the ‘long vac’ in this way dates back to at least the early twentieth century. It was reinvigorated in the 1960s when Michael Young piloted a ‘dual Cambridge’ plan to establish a ‘Battersea University in King’s Parade’. He used part of Churchill College for fifty students to attend a one-week residential course, which was extended by the use of radio, television and correspondence courses. This prefigured Harold Wilson’s Glasgow speech of September 1963 in which the Labour leader outlined his ideas for a university of the air. The BBC had broadcast educational material from the start in the 1920s and by the 1960s television companies also made such broadcasts. By 1963 ITV was broadcasting more adult education than the BBC, providing some associated written material and residential courses. Associated Television and the University of Nottingham produced a thirteen-week course, which 1,250 people completed. It included programmes, written notes, two tutorials and a residential weekend attended by 200 people.

The OU residential schools provided opportunities for clarification and consolidation of knowledge and specialised tuition.Summer schools were said to provide an opportunity to receive peer reassurance at a time when students were part way through an individual course and many were ‘floundering’, as Professor Michael Drake put it. He added that ‘a lot of students thought they were the only ones who were not coping and everyone else knew more than they did’. Tutor Sean Cubitt argued that the Popular culture, U206, summer schools provided ‘spaces where students can air their problems with the course and pursue their learning in new directions’. Students could access academic libraries and art galleries. Student Maggie Donaldson recalled that a Summer School trip around the National Gallery led by Charles Harrison ‘was such an exciting experience, and made me feel like I was a “real” student for a while, being taught by an inspirational expert on the subject. He was a class act in every way.’When surveyed in 1972, students ranked residential schools as the most helpful teaching component – ahead of correspondence tuition, television, tutorials, counselling and radio. Subsequent studies also found them to be seen as educationally beneficial.

In 1975 Christine Saxton wrote in Sesame: ‘Until summer school, never was so much adrenalin manufactured in 1 week. Never did so few hours sleep suffice over such intense activity. Never had a profusion of profound thoughts been mulled over and revelled in. Never did I realize what the old brain was capable of.’174 Her conclusions are echoed in Cheryl Markosky’s recollections, written in 1997: ‘I’ve taken in a lot of information and spent too many late nights staying up and talking. Bob Wilkinson’s sage parting advice to all is: “When you get home, and you’re looking completely exhausted, remember to have a good story.” My story is that I’ve had a good time.’ Tilly Bud’s account, written six years later, also echoes the memories of those who attended many years before her. She was so nervous of attending summer school that she planned an exit strategy ‘if it was all too much for me. It wasn’t. I had a fabulous time … a week of being a “real” student … it’s in my Top Ten List of Best Experiences Ever.’ Mark Youngman, who attended summer school in 2000, recalled both the intensity and the differences from his home life:

During the week we were kept very busy from 9 am often to 8 or 9 pm with only an hour for lunch and dinner … I couldn’t believe how quickly the week had gone by … The most satisfying thing of all was that I had been able to talk about my course with like-minded people, people who knew what I was talking about and had the same problems, fears and assignment deadlines as myself. I could never have talked to my wife or anyone else in the same way.

Although drama had been taught at the University of Bristol since the late 1940s the idea that meaning of a play had been fixed by the playwright remained a popular one.By contrast, A307 Drama, encouraged students to perform dramas for themselves while at residential summer schools. Students who studied Pygmalion on the level one Arts Foundation course, A103 (1998–2008), were treated to a staff production of an Educating Liza sketch for the arts event evening during residential school week. Martin Broadhurst, a construction worker from Derby, recalled his experiences of the residential element of an OU module, which was held at the University of Bath. He describes it as the closest I was ever likely to get to living the traditional student life – minus the instant noodles, lie-ins and cheap overdraft … The study

sessions began at 9 a.m. and ran through until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. with occasional breaks to prevent our minds from overheating … my tutors were incredibly personable and patient and gave valuable constructive feedback … Just having peers there to discuss our difficulties with was a real bene t … I was put in a study group with a great bunch of people meaning the long days were filled with a mix of insightful debate, serious hard work and full-on belly laughs … The principle bene t of attending the residential school, for me at least, was the realisation that other students were having the same difficulties that I was having. I no longer felt alone in the world of long-distance study.

The teaching staff also recalled the intensity of residential schools. Sir John Daniel, later the Vice-Chancellor, recalled his first Summer School:

that summer of 1972 in the UK was a conversion experience. I saw the future of higher education and wanted to be part of it. Everything was hugely impressive and stimulating. First there was the scale: the Open University already had 40,000 students in its second year of operation. Second came the idealism: here were people who walked the talk on access and student-centred pedagogy. Third, there was palpable love of learning: the students were unbelievably motivated by the opportunity presented to them. I went to one of the residential summer schools where students spent a full day in labs, seminars and field trips and then most of the night in the bar; continuing the academic discourse. Fourth, I was captivated by the media and technology: my key task was to help develop computer-marked assignments that tested advanced cognitive skills, but I spent every spare moment viewing the brilliant BBC television programmes. This exposure to the future of higher education infected me with the virus of open and distance learning.

From the outset the OU subjected every part of its teaching to continuing scrutiny, up to and including the summer schools which were so salient a part of its offering. While those who attended them attested to the intel- lectual engagement and motivation of students and saw a positive correlation between attendance and recruitment, retention and results, their value for money was questioned from the early 1970s. Although an early Senate resolution made attendance at residential schools compulsory, that decision was questioned by the Faculty of Technology soon after it was created. In 1974 Hilary Perraton noted ‘euphoria’ gained ‘within the social situation in which students can learn together’ but then asked ‘whether it’s as valuable as the amount of money you spend on it’. In 1975 a paper addressed the question as to which OU students were deterred by the prospect of summer school of the OU before concluding that ‘probably nobody would argue against foundation course summer schools remain- ing compulsory’. During the 1990s the Mathematics Faculty decided to rewrite its foundation course without a residential school. Studies sought to quantify the gain of OU residential schools. One considered the records of 1,500 students and concluded that ‘the value of traditional teaching components of courses taken by thousands of students each year was shown to be overestimated’.

Evidence accumulated that the residential element had little bearing on the measured achievement of students. Residential schools were expensive for students. In 1994 21,000 students paid over £4 million to attend the week-long events. The Guardian reported that ‘online tutorial groups are replacing the legendary summer schools. They’re simply cheaper’. General shifts in lifestyles made it dif cult for many students to attend. Some students felt that their families were resentful of this use of annual leave and found being away stressful. Writing in 2001, one student noted that attendance could ‘be a problem for some people who have to take time off work or nd someone to look after the kids’. Alternative learning experiences had to be created. These aimed to deliver the same core learning outcomes through a variety of methods. These have included a written assignment, an online project and computer conferencing. While these may not have delivered the breadth of learning opportunities offered by residency, they undermined the distinctiveness of the pedagogic bene ts of the residential schools. Different means of supporting learners such as the virtual microscope and other forms of online communications became accessible to students. These online activities sought to recreate aspects of the residential experience and offer an alternative to the intensive experience of face-to-face teaching. New media, the virtual reality of SecondLife for example, became popular and enabled people to exchange ideas and work together without being in the same room at the same time.




50 objects for 50 years: No 12. Beagle 2 – looking for life, saving lives

Monday, July 9th, 2018

BBC image of there dustbin-lid-sized Beagle 2

The OU’s Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, PSSRI, is the largest planetary sciences group in the UK. A founder member was Colin Pillinger, CBE FRS FRAS FRGS (1943-2014) who joined the OU in 1984. The Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute was where the Gas Analysis Package was developed. The package was a miniaturized version of the instruments used in the laboratory to analyse meteorites. It was designed to determine whether conditions were ever conducive to life on Mars.

In 2003 Professor Pillinger led a project, in collaboration with the University of Leicester, to build a craft, Beagle 2 which could be transported by the European Space Agency’s Mars Expressmission and then launched towards the surface of Mars. In the television series ‘Life on Mars’(first broadcast 2006–07) the time-travelling central character’s understanding of his situation was significantly improved through a late- night OU-style television programme which offered highly relevant knowledge. This rather tenuous connection of the OU to Mars was eclipsed by Pillinger’s efforts to work with the media. Pillinger ‘captured the imagination of the British public’ as Tim Radford noted. Beagle helped to popularise exploration by involving artists. Blur wrote a song to be used as a call sign and Damien Hurst provided a spot painting to be used to calibrate the craft’s camera. ‘Want more children to study science? Look to Colin Pillinger for inspiration’ as one headline put it. Pillinger himself appeared on a number of popular television programmes and in the press to explain his work.

Beagle 2 got to Mars but then suffered a failure which meant that it could not send data to earth. However, within a few months of the demise of Beagle 2, Pillinger was arguing for a Beagle 3. Pillinger also played a role in the Philae lander which, after his death in 2014, was used to conduct gas chromotograph mass spectrometer experiments on Comet 67P Churyumov/Gerasimenko.

During a period when cases of TB were rising to about two million fatal cases a year, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, diagnosis relied mainly on the use of smear microscopy of sputum samples, a very labour-intensive process with low sensitivity. This was expensive and slow. Working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and funded by the Wellcome Trust, the OU developed that the OU’s gas chromatograph–mass spectrometer, based on the research carried out for Mars, so that it could accurately detect TB bacteria in a lung. Tuberculosis requires rapid diagnosis to prevent further transmission and allow prompt administration of treatment. The use of  gas chromatography- electron impact mass spectrometry provided an alternative solution.


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’.


50 objects for 50 years. No 10. OU Collected texts

Monday, June 25th, 2018


From the start many OU students found access to an academic library difficult. In recognition of this collections of important articles and chapters were collated, bound and posted out to students. Some were co-published, with the OU logo on the cover.

This week’s object has been proposed by Alan Shipman. A former business journalist now teaching and researching at the OU Alan has taught (among other topics) personal finance and his research interests include Chinese multinational business and the foundations of the market economy.

In the below five bullet points Alan Shipman reflects on why Decisions, Organizations and Society: Selected Readings, edited by FG Castles, DJ Murray and DC Potter; Penguin Books in association with the Open University Press, deserves to be an OU symbol 50 years on:

  • It’s one of the ‘selected readings’ collections that gave students a whirlwind tour through the classic ideas and authors in a subject area, explained and contextualised by short introductory notes by the editors. These were widely used by other universities, and had a general nonstudent readership, thanks to co-publishing and the availability of cheap paperback editions. Authors featured in the readings include some who were rising to prominence then, and are still influential 50 years on: eg Herbert Simon (management sciences, organisational psychology, economics); Mancur Olson, Robert Dahl, Ralph Miliband (political science), Tom Bottomore (sociology).
  • It’s one of the earliest, published in 1971, and is edited by 3 prominent academics who’d already joined the OU (David Murray was Professor of Government, David Potter a Senior Lecturer and Francis Castles a Lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences).
  • It shows how the OU was, from the start, instrumental in promoting social sciences and breaking through their disciplinary boundaries – the readings focus on topics that transcend these (power, decisionmaking, organisation, hierarchy) and so they mix politics, economics, sociology, cognitive psychology, social psychology and management studies).
  • It shows how the OU’s wide audience facilitated partnerships with leading mass-market publishers, including Penguin.
  • The editors’ writing style also contains some heroic early attempts to escape the institutionalised sexism of the times. From their introductory definitions: “Two ladies meet in a dark street, whereupon one lady deliberately stops, produces a pistol and demands money from the second lady. There is decision (the first lady could have chosen to walk on down the street), and there is power (the second lady’s behaviour is controlled as a result of her relation with the first lady)…

The three editors.

As well as contributing to Decisions, Organizations and Society: Selected Readings Frank Castles also offered a critique of the organization of the OU itself. Having taught face-to-face in universities in York and Australia he had, on arriving at the OU, to adapt to the system he termed ‘Divide and teach: the new division of labour’, in Jeremy Tunstall, The Open University Opens, 1974. Castles found that the OU’s division of labour, with central academics, local tutors, educational technologists, the BBC, a variety of outside expert advisors, counsellors and specialist summer school teaching staff, led to ‘tensions… suspicion and conflict … bitter disputes … enormously increased work-load’. However, he concluded that it was such role specialization which ‘makes the Open University possible at all’.

David Potter, a Berkeley graduate BA 1954, MA, 1959, gained a PhD from the LSE (1962). He worked at Oakland University in Michigan and published on British imperialism in Asia and post-independence consequences. His first book was Government in Rural India, 1964. He then went to Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada where he earned tenure in 1969. Shortly afterwards, in the same year, 11 members of the 16-strong Political Science, Sociology and Anthropology Department were not granted tenure, which, in effect, meant that they were fired. Potter supported their protest strike and was himself fired. He came to the Open University. He was appointed as a Professor of Political Science in 1989 and had 15 of his books published by 2002, when he was designated a Honorary graduate of the university. On retirement he was made a professor emeritus.

David Murray joined the OU in September 1969 as Professor of Government. He chaired and was a member of several main OU committees before being seconded to the University of the South Pacific between 1975 and 1978. In 1980 he was made Chair of the Examinations and Assessment Committee. Between 1983 and 1988 he was a Pro-Vice-Chancellor. He then helped to set up The Open University of Hong Kong before becoming a Pro-Vice-Chancellor again in 1990–91. He subsequently worked with the Higher Education Quality Council (which became The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education) and retired in 1999.

50 objects for 50 years No 8. The Wilson Building

Monday, June 11th, 2018

As Mary Wilson died a few days ago on June 6 2018, this week’s object commemorates her family’s contribution to OU by considering the Wilson Building on the Walton Hall campus, seen on this video.

It is here that Harold’s role is outlined. He had a vision of a university of the air and, as Prime Minister, he had the clout, to ensure that his idea, voiced in 1963, was developed by Jennie Lee and others and implemented by 1969.

Mary and Harold married in 1940 and had two sons. One son, Giles, became a teacher and later a train driver. The other, Robin (born in 1943) taught at the OU. After a difficult start, as the interview panel was anxious not to be seen to favour the son of a Prime Minister, Robin was appointed. His significant academic qualifications and huge enthusiasm were soon demonstrated. He became a Professor, the Head of the Mathematics Department and a Dean of his Faculty. Despite the supercilious portrayal of an OU mathematics don called Robin by Cambridge graduate Hugh Laurie in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Robin Wilson’s innovative and supportive teaching of mathematics (he is pictured above) has been fondly remembered by many students. Numerous OU learners have memories of the frightening and incomprehensible world of school maths dispelled by Robin’s engaging ability to teach.

The Wilsons were able to see beyond party politics. Robin graciously recognised the role of Margaret Thatcher in the development of the OU, calling her its ‘stepmother’. Her role at the OU has been assessed elsewhere.  Mary Wilson attended Thatcher’s funeral. She was also present at one of Harold’s last public engagement’s, the opening of the OU building named in his honour.

Wilson’s press secretary called the OU Wilson’s ‘monument’.  The description is an apt one if the reference is to the words written for Christopher Wren, lector si monumentum requiris circumspice (‘Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you’).

The story of the Wilsons is reminder that for many families once one person becomes involved with the OU other family members become entangled. Couples married after meeting at residential schools, there are many staff who have spouses, and offspring working for the OU and many students swear that it was the support of family members which got them through their degrees. If you visit the OU’s Milton Keynes campus, when you next pass the Wilson building, give it a second glance and maybe give a nod to Harold.

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.