Reflections on FutureLearn, OpenLearn and the changing role of the OU

The OU has been through many ups and downs this year. There were 14 days of country-wide strike action related to the USS pension dispute. Then there was the ‘Students First Transformation’ (SFT) – a key focus of the then vice chancellor, Peter Horrocks. There was a developing growing disjoint between the executive (VCE) and the people who worked at the OU – the life-blood so to speak. This culminated ultimately in the resignation of the Vice Chancellor – well, he left before the end of his term to pursue other interests (with a £242,000 golden handshake to augment his £321,000 salary). Confidence in management was at an all time low, and I do not know of anyone who was anything other than pleased that Mr Horrocks had gone. The SFT has become so tarnished that although much good work had gone into it, the name was dropped. I think it may be now called Curriculum redesign, but I am not 100% sure. For a long time, I have lost track of the rapidly changing acronyms – what I used to know as FELS became known as WELS and now I think it is called FASS – I’ve no clue what these initials stand for any more. I have always been in IET (Institute of Educational Technology), but at some point I think I became part of LTI (academic). Somehow all these shifts and changes are supposed to help the OU do what it does best, deliver cutting edge distance learning, but I do wonder.

This brings me onto the main reason for this post. What is the future for the OU with regard to those learners who want to learn but don’t have huge amounts of money? Our traditional student-base. We traditionally provided access to higher education on a part-time, distance basis for people who had missed out. These days, there are far fewer people who miss out on education. This is great. We are still attracting students in great numbers – I think they are from a range of backgrounds, including increasing numbers of 18 – 24 year olds who want to pay lower fees, but they are all paying more than they used to.

Fees is a bone of contention for many at the OU. The OU’s fees are lower than those of other universities, but they are still much higher than most in the OU would like. And with the introduction of the ELQ restriction, where you get no govt. subsidy if you study for a qualification that is equal or lower to one you already have, the leisure learner market is badly hit. Retirees who want to learn something new, people with a first degree who have ended up on work they realise is not for them and would like to get a different degree as a pathway out. But then we have FutureLearn and OpenLearn.

The OU has put a great deal of investment into FutureLearn – which is not without its critics from within the OU. In a period of cut-backs, people find it difficult to understand why money is poured into FutureLearn which is not bringing profit back to the OU, and not into the OU’s own courses. However FutureLearn’s MOOCs seem to be very popular. OpenLearn too is full of exciting content. I’ve just signed up for an OpenLearn course “From Brexit to the Break-up of Britain” which offers a fascinating insight into how people voted in different parts of the UK, and what this means for politics. Doing this free course has prompted me to reflect a little on the changing nature of the OU.

If there are people who have missed out first time round, or if you have retired and you fancy learning something new, there is a wealth of free content out there through FutureLearn and OpenLearn. So maybe things aren’t so bad. In a funny, roundabout way, maybe the OU is adhering to its original mission and ethos. I do hope so. It is a wonderful institutions with, as was demonstrated during the recent strikes and the reaction to the Vice Chancellor’s attacks on the OU academics, it still has a special place in the nation’s heart and in the minds of the many, many alumni. If the OU can continue to change people’s lives for the better, then all is not lost.


About Gill

Having worked as a Research Fellow with the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University, I have now semi-retired but retained my association with the OU as an Honorary Associate.
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