When, early in 2012, Alan Tait, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Curriculum and Qualifications, received an honorary doctorate from the Moscow State University of Economics, Statistics and Informatics, one of Russia’s leading economic institutions, in recognition of his services to distance education in Europe he gave a keynote address. This was about open and distance learning in Europe. This was to an audience of rectors from universities across the former Soviet states and also to students. A former President of the European Distance and Elearning Network and the Chief Editor of the European Journal of Open and Distance Learning, Alan noted that ‘there is currently significant effort in Russia to invest in distance education’. While MESI might be interested to learn from the OU, the OU has learnt from the USSR which provided a role model for the University of the Air.
In Russia distance education began in 1870 when the Imperial Russian Technical Society supported an adult education initiative in two cities. It expanded into a national system and in 1928 the First Workers and Peasants’ University of Radio opened. University correspondence grew until a third of all students in the USSR were studying through correspondence courses. The legal status of correspondence learning was enhanced in the 1950s into what has been called ‘the first well-structured and organised model of nationwide distance learning’ (Marina Moiseeva, ‘Distance education in Russia. Between the past and the future’, The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6, 3, 2005, p. 219). Lectures were broadcast on the central TV station from Moscow and by 1965 half of all students in higher education were part-time and at a distance. The Russian system also impressed Senator William Benton (1900- 1973) who wrote an account of a trip to the USSR for Esquire Magazine about his trip and also wrote ‘I am greatly interested in the Soviet plans for the use of television in the field of higher education.’ Benton sponsored Harold Wilson’s trips to the USA and was a considerable influence on the OU.
Both Michael Young and Harold Wilson were struck by the apparent success of the Soviet model of correspondence courses and radio broadcasts followed by a year on a campus. |In his Memoirs Harold Wilson recalled that ‘during my several visits to the Soviet Union I had discovered that 60 per cent of their engineers had got their degrees in part from distance teaching’.Wilson visited Chicago’s television college’ in January 1963 and it was recorded that he ‘thought it was possible to integrate the Soviet method with U.S. visual teaching aids.