Asa Briggs: helping people to become producers of knowledge and consumers of education

Guest takeover with Dr Dan Weinbren

Friday 7 May marks the centenary of Asa Briggs’ birth. Prolific historian and active in numerous historical societies, many may be wondering who he was, what legacy he left behind, and the impact he made during his time as Chancellor of the OU between 1978–1994.

The OU honoured Briggs with a Fellowship in 1999 and his name was subsequently given to both a building on the Walton Hall campus and a Chair in History. Much of his focus was on the Victorian period but he also wrote a five-volume history of UK broadcasting, which covers the relationship between the BBC and the OU. 

While a Cambridge undergraduate, he also attended the LSE, which was evacuated there and was awarded two degrees in 1941. Wartime Bletchley Park codebreaking was followed by academic appointments in Oxford and Leeds and a Chair at the University of Sussex.

In 1964, Labour government Minister Jennie Lee established and chaired an Advisory Committee  which developed an idea of the PM’s and produced a 1966 White Paper for a new ‘University of the Air’. Briggs sat on the Planning Committee during 1967–69 for what was to become The Open University and chaired its working group on students and the curriculum. 

To develop the accessible, interdisciplinary curriculum that he desired, Briggs drew on a sophisticated historical understanding of the OU’s role. He also built on his work on the University Grants Committee and his years as a contributor to the BBC’s liberal education series. After the Planning Committee was wound up Briggs continued to contribute to the OU. For the Arts Foundation Course, he presented a television programme, ‘Leeds: A Study in Civic Pride’. Those new to studying and with only one opportunity to watch the programme (this was before access to video playback machines was commonplace) could see an expert use film and music to place everyday lives within broader regional, national and international perspectives. 

As an academic, Briggs provided a sense of why history is important, relevant and can be created by ordinary learners everywhere. As OU Chancellor, he made support for learning central and provided learners with opportunities to construct their own understandings, and to be producers of knowledge as well as consumers of education.

Briggs employed his historical and pedagogic understandings and experiences and his heterogeneous networks to help shape and bolster teaching and support learners at the Open University.  I am confident Briggs’ important legacy within the OU still lives on in the way we continue to champion the importance of cross-generational knowledge, and make our course materials as accessible as possible.

Written by Dr Dan Weinbren, Associate Lecturer and author of The Open University. A history.

The OU at 50: Emeritus Professor Anne Laurence on History at the OU

I joined the OU in 1976 straight from doing my DPhil at Oxford, having been an undergraduate at York (the university was only six years old when I joined, as was the Open University when I joined that). The History Department, led by Professor Arthur Marwick, consisted of about seven central academics (based at Milton Keynes) and four staff tutors.

Arthur Marwick was a controversial figure in the historical profession but he had three outstanding qualities. First, he understood what good history was. Second, he was deeply committed to teaching good history and to ensuring that students learnt not just about historical periods but about the techniques of the historian—not something that was in the ‘60s and ‘70s widely taught except in rather dull historiography courses. Third, he was extremely loyal and supportive of the members of history department, keen to help younger scholars make their way, and taking pride in their successes.

By the time I joined the department, my colleagues were working on the remaining level 3 modules and contributing to the remake of the interdisciplinary level 1 module and level 2 modules. The faculty had a very limited number of modules: all students were expected to take the one level 1 module and both of the level 2 modules. The only specialisation was at level 3. There was an existing level 3 module on War and Society and, in production, two 30 credit modules, one on the Revolutions of 1848 and the other on English Urban History c.1560-1780.

The consequence of this arrangement was that virtually everyone worked on interdisciplinary modules, so we knew our colleagues (of whom there were not very many) in other departments. This had a huge benefit for us all in that we began to learn not just the subject matter but the methodologies of other disciplines. It was a terrific education for a young historian and, in my case, resulted in my working on buildings and material culture later in my career.

There was a great sense of excitement in producing modules because we were working in such unknown pedagogical territory and were learning how to teach at a distance as we went along. Arthur Marwick is credited with having invented the written tutorial, taking students through teaching material with separate readings and exercises to reinforce what students had learnt, an attempt to bridge the distance between tutor and student.

We were also experimenting with TV and radio. There was a department of the BBC which worked solely with the OU. The Arts Faculty (along with Science) made much more use of it than other faculties. We learned pretty quickly that televised lectures were not an effective way of teaching (a message that has still not reached colleagues in other universities). So each discipline in the faculty experimented in different ways: the philosophers decided that TV wasn’t for them and concentrated on radio. Our programmes had to be comprehensible to the general public as all our TV and radio were broadcast on the normal BBC television channels and radio stations. Historians concentrated on using TV for film history and discussing newsreels. In addition, both the modernists and the early modernists used it as a substitute for field trips to take students to places to which they probably couldn’t travel themselves. We walked viewers round towns and buildings to show them historical evidence on the ground. I worked with the same producers for a good many years filming sites in Britain, Ireland and France and taking students round ruins in fields, up sixteenth century towers and round the backs of palaces to show them how we could read not just the history of the place, but the social history of the time from this kind of evidence. One of the great perks was going on the recces for the filming, and having backdoor access to Versailles Palace, filming without visitors at 9 pm in the palace at Holyrood, and viewing parts of country houses not normally open at all to the public.

Another particular benefit for me was that Christopher Hill, Master of Balliol College, Oxford and the most celebrated seventeenth century historian in the country, came to work at the OU. It was agreed that he would not have to do the usual administration of a module team chair so I was appointed to see to that side of the work. As it turned out, I was also his chauffeur as he didn’t like driving and we lived near one another in Oxford. I had always admired his work but hadn’t known him when I was a postgraduate, even though we were at the same university. Over the three years he was at the OU I learnt so much more about Civil War England by chatting in the car—he talked about men I had written about in my DPhil thesis as if they were personal acquaintances. It was a wonderful education. He was also a considerable politician so I also learnt a good deal about how to get people to do what you want—which stood me in good stead later as both module chair and head of department.

It’s hard now, at a distance of 40 years, to summon up how exciting it was to work at the OU, the sense of experiment and the sense of reaching a huge body of people to whom university education had previously been inaccessible. I’m certain that this sense of mission was an important part of firing us on to try to teach better. The 1980s was a rather dismal period because, although the university was well funded, it was not well enough funded to appoint new staff and for about 10 years I was the youngest person in the department. In the 1990s we began to face much more seriously the challenges of the new technologies. Because of the need to make OU materials accessible to all students we couldn’t be at the cutting edge of teaching technologies: we had to wait for students to be able to receive BBC2 (unavailable in several parts of the country in the 1970s), then to acquire video players, then computers. I worked with IT colleagues to explore the possibilities of teaching on DVD in a non-linear fashion impossible with transmitted programmes or videotape. By the 2000s we were beginning to aquire a better understanding of these technologies. However, we lost a great deal when the OU BBC department was closed down as its producers had both pedagogic and subject expertise.

One constant in our history teaching, in all the different generations of modules I worked on, was the emphasis on trying to get students to read and understand primary sources and the ways in which historians use them. I even ventured on a rather ill-fated attempt to get history students to understand how to compile and use a spreadsheet. The new availability of online resources means that there has been a convergence of the experience of students in conventional universities with that of students at a distance. The idea of being able to have access at home to all the standard journal articles in the subject, something we now take for granted, was an impossible dream in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

Perhaps the greatest cost lay in the research careers of colleagues. Some colleagues managed to keep their research going, but the relentless timetable of module production and the demands of maintaining existing modules meant that a good many people’s research careers were slow to take off. In the early days there was no national assessment of research, so there was no external pressure, though we recruited people for their research expertise as well as for their apparent capacity to teach at a distance.

However, I count myself extraordinarily lucky to have worked at the OU during this period of experiment and innovation.

The OU at 50: Emeritus Professor Clive Emsley on History at the OU

I joined the Open University in 1970 straight from doing research in Cambridge.  I was the only Englishman in the department which had three Scots, all from Edinburgh: Professor Arthur Marwick; Christopher Harvie, a lecturer like me; and Neil Wynn, Arthur’s research student.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but the job seemed a bit of an adventure in as much as it was planned as a university that was going to teach at a distance and work alongside the BBC in preparing radio and television programmes to accompany the written material.  Arthur Marwick was a ‘character’ – he loved football, wine and women (I’m never entirely sure what the order of preference was) and he believed that he had the infallibility of a Pope.  But he had also thought deeply about the teaching of history and how it might be done at the OU.  When I went for my interview at the beginning of February 1970, he had written two units – the first ever teaching units produced, admittedly in draft but when I attended my first Faculty meeting everyone else seemed to be sitting round the table still wondering how they might write their material.

Equally important to the writing of the course were two members of the Institute of Educational Technology established at the OU and whose task it was to make us think about how to construct courses and how to make them guide students towards their degree.  Arthur was already well along this path, but it was stimulating to think of the aims and objectives of each course, each unit within the course and how they cross-referenced and linked together.  I don’t think that anyone who taught me at the University of York, where I was one of the first 150 undergraduates, good as they may have been (and several were excellent) ever considered these issues.  I felt completely thrown off guard in one of the first course teams for which I worked by being asked what I expected students to be able to do when they had read my units and the course as a whole, that they could not do before.  Most, if not all universities construct aims and objectives now, but in 1970 there were very few.

A lot of academics in other institutions were quite disparaging of the OU.  They considered that we spoon-fed the students.  Shortly after my appointment I was invited back to Cambridge for a formal dinner.  It was not my old college, but I was faced at High Table by a young Fellow historian who was clearly a critic of what the OU was doing.  After getting a smug earful from him, I couldn’t resist asking him what he expected someone to be able to do when they finished a History Degree at Cambridge.  He coughed, huffed and puffed, and finally came out with “I suppose they should be able to use a good library like the Cambridge University Library.”  Wow!

In addition, there were problems about what some people assumed our politics to be.  In 1972 we produced an interdisciplinary course called the Age of Revolutions.  A worried MP raised a question in the House of Commons about whether the Secretary for Education was aware that the Open University was recommending as a set book something written by a self-confessed Marxist, namely Eric Hobsbawm.  My colleague Chris Harvie was invited to the Commons on the strength of this. But Chris never forgave me because in the television programmes that accompanied the course, he shot a television programme in Oldham (at least I think it was Oldham) as he had written about the Industrial Revolution, whereas I got to travel to the United States and Paris as I had written about political revolutions.

In the early years the radio and television producers were members of course teams and, consequently the programmes were closely tied into the courses. The radio programmes were often there to get students to hear leading academics express their ideas and sometimes to argue with each other.  They also enabled young historians like me to meet and talk to these leading figures about their work; Edward Thompson, for example, who wrote The Making of the English Working Class – a book that had a profound influence on social history when I was an undergraduate and long after – gave me a wonderful 30-minute tutorial in a taxi from the studios at Alexandra Palace, and I stayed in touch.

The history television programmes were designed to take people to key areas and show sights that they probably would learn nothing of on a tourist trip – the traboules of old Lyon for example, covered ways between streets that enabled the city’s silk weavers to carry their precious woven cloth from their home on their master or the merchant without risk of rain damage.  In the French Revolution the same passageways were useful to counter-revolutionary murder gangs, and 150 years later during the Second World War they were used by members of the French Resistance to disappear from one street and emerge in another.  The TV programmes also enabled us to get students to think about film as an archival source, and when dealing with 20th-century issues to ensure that the film we employed was not just wallpaper but added to the issue under discussion.  It was sad to see this policy disappear as the BBC programme makers ceased to be course team members and went back to using film as wall-paper.  I recall a long and heated exchange when a director decided to cover an account of members of the German Army destroying French school-books in Alsace-Lorraine during 1940 with shots of Nazi Brown-shirts burning books in Berlin several years earlier.

Working with the BBC also opened up sources for us that we might otherwise have missed for our own research.  In the early 1990s while making a film about 19th-century Italy the director and I were talking with some officers of the Carabinieri who told us about their archive in Rome.  I manged to get the script doctored a little so that we could get into the archive and the corps museum, subsequently I was able to go back and do some serious research in the archive for a book that I had been thinking about doing on Gendarmerie-style policing in nineteenth-century Europe.  My problem when I organised my return to Rome was that the Carabinieri who ran the archive had no way of letting me pay for photocopying, but they hinted that they enjoyed a good malt whisky. I managed to get the whisky (technically under the heading photocopying) paid for out of my research grant – probably not something that you could do today and the Carabinieri have woken up to this and now the officers in charge insist on two copies of any publication that follows work in the archive, though I dare say that the bottle of single malt whisky still significantly aids the research.

In addition to the teaching units and the broadcasts, students were required to attend a one week summer school for some intensive teaching and seminar work.  Members of staff were required to do two weeks of summer school.  It was exhausting as many students sought to have a year’s worth of face-to-face teaching in six days – and some combined it with a year’s worth of partying.  But one statistic that we found interesting, at least in the History Exam Boards, was how a large number of students’ grades jumped upwards in the assignments that they did after the summer school.  I can understand why the summer schools have gone, but it is also a great loss.

I suspect that as you get older (and certainly in my case more curmudgeonly) the past has a rosy glow.  The requirement that every course be the same length is one example. I remember a directive giving precise lengths for units that were the same for History as for Maths, and I still cannot fathom this.  My best man at my wedding got a PhD in Maths at Cambridge and his thesis was about one third the size of the average History thesis.  One size does not fit all in teaching.

Arthur Marwick had individual meetings with us to find out how we were coping with the teaching, what research we were doing and how it was going, and if there was anything that we felt we needed for our work.  This was unofficial, but then came the annual appraisal which had to be signed off by the Dean and forwarded up to others not in the faculty.  The more formal annual appraisals always had a box at the end saying what would help improve your performance and that your request would be answered and acted upon.  A couple of bloody-minded individuals that I used to appraise with this form always used to write something in that box, but we never received any response.

Much of the above has shown my annoyance at the way things have developed – but it is not only the Open University where the box-ticking has become ridiculous.   Things have to change given new technologies and I am full of admiration for the material that the historians at the OU produce and the ways in which they do it.  I used to think that I had the best job in the world – I hope that they do now.

Student research on Welsh History now available online

Research into the history of Wales by Open University students is now freely available online for
the first time. These dissertations include studies of topics such as Owain Glyndwr, Welsh Catholicism after the Reformation, early modern medicine in Wales, Welsh seaside resorts, nineteenth-century mining in South Wales, and Barry during World War Two. They can all be accessed on Open Research Online.

This memorial to the 439 men killed in 1913 at the Universal Pit in Senghenydd was opened in 2013.

This research was conducted by students studying the Open University module, ‘The Making of Welsh History’. The module uses Wales as a case study to explore themes that have shaped the modern British Isles, from medieval lordship and conflict, through the spread of Protestantism and the industrial revolution, to political protest and the rise of nationalism in an era of globalization. The module culminates in a 6,000-word dissertation in which students research a Welsh history topic of their own choosing. The best of those dissertations are then made publicly available online.

‘The Making of Welsh History’ invites students to explore a huge vista of online sources and scholarship, supported by guidance from experts. It also offers those studying it the opportunity to be part of a tight-knit learning community, in which students actively help one another to develop skills and conduct research.

I was able to analyse the lives of women who lived 800 years ago and it proved to be thoroughly interesting, eye-opening and fascinating.

Natalie Owsley, student

OU student Gareth Howells, whose dissertation looked at the impact of the McKinley Tariff on the South Wales tinplate industry between 1880 and 1895, said: ‘This was the final module on my OU History degree, and by far the most enjoyable. The tutors were all fantastic, the student community was very supportive, and the course materials provided me with everything I needed to reach my potential. Writing a dissertation was hard work, but incredibly fulfilling. As a direct result of my experience on the module, I have enrolled onto a full-time MA History programme at Swansea University. I’d urge anyone to give it a go!’

Natalie Owsley, a student whose dissertation focused on the life choices available to thirteenth-century Welsh noble-women, said: ‘The module gave me the opportunity to really get involved with a topic that I found intriguing. As a non-Welsh speaker, I was initially concerned that this would inhibit the resources I could access, however I needn’t have worried. All resources were readily available in English and mostly in digital form. I was able to analyse the lives of women who lived 800 years ago and it proved to be thoroughly interesting, eye-opening and fascinating. I felt like an actual historian for the first time’.

If you would like to learn more about ‘The Making of Welsh History’, please contact Dr Richard Marsden.

Scottish History modules

OU students can also study one of two modules in Scottish History, offered in collaboration to Dundee University. They are CDDR320 Medieval and Early Modern Scottish History, 1100-1707 and CDDR301 Modern Scottish History, 1707-1997. Both are 60-point Level 3 modules which explore Scotland’s political, economic, social and cultural history through the centuries. Either can count towards a History degree. For more information on how the collaborative scheme works and on the two modules, follow the link here: