Archive for November, 2018

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

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50 objects for 50 years. No 31. Teaching materials on the box.

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

Between 1971 and 2006 the OU used television to deliver some of its teaching materials. Initially these were not treated seriously by the OU’s critics. During the period of its creation, 1963-69, they had argued that it was not a community of scholars, that it did not serve those best served by adult education provision, that it was party political and that television could transmit trivia, but could do little else. Concerns about using television were numerous. They included

Concern that control would lie in the hands of the BBC, not the academic institution. The BBC sought to support the education of citizens and the national interest. The OU had different concerns. Sometimes there were clashes over scheduling and content.

Concern that broadcast material should not be assessed as some people were out of broadcast range (because they lived in remote areas or in prison) and some people would not be able to see the programmes (due to shift work or competition from family members, or because they could not access a television).

Concern that costs were high. For most courses (modules the OU could afford one programme of 24 minutes which included film and a second programme filmed in a studio, often consisting largely of talking heads.

Concern about the content. As it was assumed that students would see each broadcast only once. The number of television transmission slots available to the OU did not grow at the same rate as the number of OU broadcasts and, by 1978 about 20 per cent of OU television broadcasts had only one transmission. There was quite a lot of repetition in broadcasts. Moreover, as the programmes were aimed at general viewers as well as students, the material was not always focused on the module.

Concern that few academics were good at using television to aid communication and support learning.

Concern that academic critics would see the ingenious models and well-made films and conclude that the OU was an academic lightweight. Some OU programmes appear to be almost deliberately dour, perhaps to give the impression that learning is a serious matter.

Concern that as modules ran for around a decade, topicality was hard to arrange. For example the first, generic, level 1 arts module, A100 ran 1971-78. It was succeeded by A101 1978, A102, 1987 and A103, 1998.

Concern that the technology would form a barrier between learners and tutors when tutorials were used to play recordings of television broadcasts.

Although the OU did not take a linear journey from passive learning to support for active learning there was a general move away from the idea that knowledge could be transmitted to students towards the idea that through dialogue, knowledge was built by learners. While some early films featured authoritative men employing alienating language with little regard for participative learning there were exceptions. These included David Boswell’s sociology film, made in a hostel for ‘the mentally subnormal’ according to the parlance of the time, showed the group relationships through use of a hidden camera. There was little editing as the aim was that students could form their own opinions and use it as a starting point for discussion. The BBC producer explained that the programme ‘represented slowed down reality upon which the student can wreak his sociology’.

Assessing the teaching of history at the OU Arthur Marwick noted that ‘the emphasis throughout is not upon the teacher offering some kind of performance … but on encouraging the student to do the discussing, to develop the skills … We attempt not to purvey facts and opinions but to encourage the student to argue over and discuss various ideas.’ Marwick’s aim was ‘to leave each piece of film to speak for itself without being overlaid by an intrusive commentary’.

Sometimes it was difficult to strike an appropriate balance between academic and presentational ambitions. In the Science Foundation Course programme a presenter called fluorine ‘the Tyrannosaurus Rex of gases’ and thus triggered an animated cartoon form of a roaring dinosaur in a crown while a colleague employed the phrase ‘going down the scale’ and then played a recorder on screen.

Measuring the time spent by talking heads, how far the transmissions encouraged collaborative learning, if enthusiastic experts were introduced, if there was a variety of approaches and if the viewer was assigned the role of intelligent adult, curious and eager to learn, it is clear that as the size and weight to cameras fell and staff became more experienced the teaching improved.

50 objects for 50 years. No 30. The Open University in Wales.

Monday, November 12th, 2018

This is an image of some successful OU students in Wales. They are the first cohort of students to gain the Certificate of Higher Education in Social Care Practice (Wales). See here.

Wales was not always treated as such a distinctive entity.In common with many other post-war projects the OU developed out of the centralised wartime state as a unitary institution to serve the whole nation. This reflected attitudes in the 1960s when there was little interest in nationalism in Scotland and Wales. In 1971 the editor of the Times Educational Supplement, referred to ‘England’s Open University’.

The first advertisement for a Regional Director for Wales made no reference to the need to speak Welsh. A new advertisement was written. Harford Williams was appointed. He held numerous television interviews and lectures and has been credited with the rise of over 10 per cent in applications within the country. Today the OU operates on the principle that in the conduct of public business in Wales, the English and Welsh languages are of equal status. The Open University offers Welsh medium assessment, (including written assignments, examinations, projects and theses in all subject areas) to its students and provides assessment in accordance with the student’s linguistic preference.  Wales was also where telephone tutorials were developed. Heddwyn Richards established a system in Wales whereby students used free-standing loudspeaker telephones. After press reports of this, the GPO which ran the phone system, complained but later a concession was granted. It was in recognition of the importance of all the nations that the Vice-Chancellor John Daniel paid tribute to his Welsh roots and chose to be installed in Cardiff in 1990. In 2018 OU student research on Welsh History became available online. This research was conducted by students studying the Open University module, ‘The Making of Welsh History’. Today the OU operates from Cardiff and across the country as the leading provider of part-time undergraduate higher education and supported distance learning. There are 7000 students and 300 Associate Lecturers.

In the Betty Boothroyd Library on the Walton Hall campus there is a nod towards the importance of the Welsh language on the window. See image and video discussion.

50 objects for 50 years. No 29. The wheelchair

Monday, November 5th, 2018

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

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

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