Archive for October, 2018

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

Monday, October 29th, 2018

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


50 objects for 50 years. No 27. ‘Learning together’

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

Ray Castell’s art work, commissioned to mark the 40th anniversary of the OU, is one of many artworks on the Walton Hall campus. The two figures, who could be men, women and of any creed or colour, have the whole world in their hands. They are discovering it and sharing it. The piece is called ‘Learning Together’ and it stands next to the entry to where the BBC building, which broadcast to the whole world, stood. The scuptor himself noted that ‘Most of my sculptures are based on natural shapes that to me are flowing and calming’ The replacement building is named after Walter Perry, the first vice-chancellor and the man who shaped the OU in its early years. He worked in Scotland, where he was born, and Nigeria before settling in Milton Keynes. It was there that he joined many local charities and where he felt so at home that when he was ennobled he became Lord Perry of Walton, the parish where the university campus stands. I see in it several ideas which are prominent at the OU. The international, ideas flowing aound the world and collaboration, because learning occurs when we engage in reliable epsitemic processes, notably listening to others, reflecting on our assumptions and sharing ideas. It is a good choice of location as it is where a state institution once stood and the OU has always been another institution of the British state, and where the Perry building now stands.

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

Monday, October 15th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 8th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.