What’s next? The series finale…

Helen Cooke is a Senior Manager in the Access, Open and Cross-curricular Innovation team in PVC Students and responsible for the day-to-day running of the Open Programme. She is a Senior Fellow of AdvanceHE, based on her work supporting multidisciplinary students in an online environment.

Way back at the end of March (remember those pre-lockdown days…?), our eminent Director of the Open Programme, Professor Martin Weller, sensibly suggested that we should run a weekly drop-in session for students in response to the disruption caused by COVID-19. Less sensible, we thought, was his suggestion that the focus of the conversation could be on toilet roll hoarding and stockpiling pasta… Continue reading

Examining disruptive innovations in distance education

Hazel Church, Curriculum Manager within the Open Programme team, shares her reflections on the Research and Innovation in Distance Education Conference held in London on 13 March 2020.

On Friday 13 March, I attended the Research and Innovation in Distance Education (RIDE) 2020 Conference which took place at the Centre for Distance Education, University of London. The theme of the conference was ‘Examining disruptive innovations in distance education’ and the aim of the conference was to engage researchers and practitioners and to address current challenges and advances in distance education.

The conference took place just before the coronavirus lockdown when we were still at the contain phase of the crisis and before the real disruption to our lives started. Some of the keynote speakers were online as they were unwell. Those of us in the audience made sure we were sat socially distant from each other, although we were still able to chat and network.

I am the Curriculum Manager of two ‘Open Box’ modules. These are modules which have been specifically written to be included in the Open Qualifications at The Open University. The two Open Box modules are:

These modules offer students the chance to decide their own learning and to experience a range of subjects by enabling them to use free courses such as those in OpenLearn and together with YXM130 resources and assessment to gain 30 credits. Providing validation and accreditation for non-formal courses is one of the ways the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, Quality Education could be met, so these are very important modules for the University. These modules are my own experience of disruptive innovation in distance education.

I am in the last year of my study of the OU MA Online Distance Education (MA ODE) and my interest in this conference started with a WhatsApp message in my MA ODE group chat. One of my fellow students mentioned that her university were hosting the RIDE2020 conference. Some other students were also able to attend, so it was great to meet up with students who I have studied online with over the past two years.

The conference consisted of keynote presentations and seminars. There was a focus on Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Artificial Intelligence and Microcredentials; all potentially disruptive to distance education. I attended two great sessions, Virtual Augmented Reality as the future of Distance Education by Marco Gillies from Goldsmiths and Artificial Intelligence in Open Distance Education by Abiodun Musa Aibinu of the Federal University of Technology, Minna, Nigeria.

I joined the audience of the keynote presentations by Alison Littlejohn, Neil Morris and Dil Sidhu. In the first keynote, Alison’s presentation focused on Learning in uncertain times: Supporting Student Agency, and on balancing disruption and improving the student experience. Neil Morris spoke about  Unbundling Higher Education and talked about the impact for learners and learning. Universities buy in services from commercial providers, and this could be a tension between commercial interests and the education provider.

As Open Box modules require students to study free courses provided by platforms such as Coursera, I was pleased to hear the keynote presentation by Dil Sidhu who is the Chief Content Officer at Coursera. Dil stressed that Coursera (which was established in 2012), is a technical platform and not a content creator, and works closely with universities who provide the content for their courses. Coursera is a ‘world where anyone, anywhere can transform their life through learning’.

Martin Weller (Chair of the Open Board of Studies at the OU) was the final keynote speaker. His presentation was, Openness as a model for cooperation, not disruption. He stressed that the language we use is important, and that using words likedisruption’ carry implicit values and many negative connotations for education. He stated we should be critical of its use in education and consider if other models and descriptions might be better. Instead we should look for theories or approaches that promote aspects and values we want to see in higher education, such as:

  • Cooperation
  • Focused on problems
  • Learner centric
  • Seeking to support educators
  • A better fit with education
  • Emphasise social justice

The final session of the day was with David Baume of the Centre of Distance Education, University of London, entitled Course design and pedagogy in distance learning, starting from what we know about learning? This was an excellent end to the day and David really got the delegates engaging with each other, We discussed different aspects of our own teaching, describing and working with our own ideas and what improvements could be made. Putting into practice that it is the work learners do that generate the learning! He made a point of finishing on time too.

It was a great day meeting academics who were interested in the pedagogy of the Open Box modules as well as meeting fellow MA ODE students. We all knew it would be the last chance to attend a face to face conference for some time…

What OU Students (really really) want – and what it tells us about curriculum design

Cath Brown is President of the Open University Students Association and has been a BSc Open degree student herself  (choosing mainly physics, engineering and history modules). We loved the ‘lightning talk’ that Cath gave at a recent OU Curriculum Strategy event so much, that we asked her to write it up in a blog post for us… And here it is! 

Developing and modifying curriculum is all about students, isn’t it?

Typically, the planned curriculum is inhabited by a range of virtual students, with well-defined motivations and behaviours. They want a degree in X, a career in Y, to develop their skills in Z, and intend to study at this, that or the other intensity.  These well-behaved and orderly creatures are ready to study as directed and want a straightforward path and clear directions given – they rarely come with anything as inconvenient as pre-formed views, likes or passions.

But in truth, we real students are much more complex beasts.  For most of us, it’s not either career or interest, whatever our age – it’s a mixture of the two and that can evolve over time.

We do tend to have tastes and preferences.  That means we want choice – it gives us more feeling of control and it increases motivation, and hence improves our retention and success.  Of course, choice can be messy and costly, and we know it means a greater investment in advice and guidance.  And yes, there are some who do want a straightforward path without having to make lots of decisions. So, by all means offer those who want one a set menu, but let the rest of us dine à la carte.

The ultimate international buffet, of course, is the OU’s ‘jewel in the crown’, the BA/BSc (Hons) Open degree – its status as the most popular OU undergraduate degree demonstrates clearly how highly choice is prized by OU students. But even those who want to study a named degree will still appreciate opportunities to specialise as they progress;  to mix the culinary metaphor – even if you need us to eat up our greens at the start of our journey, at least give us a choice of desserts to look forward to as we progress.

Choice doesn’t only mean subject – it means size of study unit too. Just because increasing numbers of us want to do 120 credits a year doesn’t mean that those who’d like to do 30 credits, or just 10 credits, don’t exist.  Large units of study don’t let us flex things, they don’t let us mix and match – or in more trendy terminology, smaller units enable us to personalise our curriculum.

So, where it’s possible, why not design it so that things work well together, or separated? I think coffee and cake go well together, but coffee on its own, or cake on its own, are just the thing sometimes. OK, some things can’t be broken down too far – I don’t want to eat the eggs, flour and so on in my cake separately. But let’s start from the premise of smaller units of study with larger when necessary, not vice versa. Smaller units may cost, but that sort of flexibility could pay dividends.

Timings are also a part of choice and flexibility. Yes, some may like the conventional academic year; but for others that timing is a menace.  And we know statistically that those doing full-on concurrent study fare less well than those with partial or no overlap – smaller units of curriculum could give more flexibility here too.

It could also really impact retention too. It’s established that it’s harder to get us students back on board if we defer. But it’s also well-known that we have complex lives which may mean sometimes we can’t spare 18 hours a week. Letting us jettison part of our programme rather than all of it could keep us in the system and help us succeed.

I wouldn’t be doing the student body justice if I didn’t share what’s a big anxiety for many of us.  So many OU students, and prospective students, are really concerned how their degree will stand up compared to conventional universities.  We care about quality. We care about reputation. We care about what is in the modules we study – we want it to be the good stuff, not anything we perceive as “filler”. And while we obviously want to get good marks if we can, that doesn’t mean we like or respect things that are easy marks. We reserve the right to moan and whinge about things being hard, but we want to know we deserve our degrees.  We want you to remember the words of our founder, Jennie Lee – “Nothing but the best is good enough”.

So – what is the message from the student body?

Design for Choice. Design for Flexibility. But never ever compromise the Quality.

You can find out more about Cath and her role on the Students Association website

“You work where…?”

Philippa Costello is an Ambitious Futures Graduate Trainee, who has spent the last 6 months working in the Access, Open and Cross-Curricular Innovation team. On completion of her graduate scheme at the end of February 2020, Philippa will be taking up a role as Undergraduate Student Support Officer at Queen Mary University in London. In her final blog post for the team, she sums up her experience of supporting the OU’s flagship Open Programme curriculum. 

Planning for the final placement of my graduate scheme was a bit of a whirlwind. Over the course of my scheme, I had had the opportunity to work in central university departments, but I was yet to find myself in a curriculum-based environment. Luckily for me, I was able to secure 6 months in the Centre for Access, Open and Cross-curricular Innovation.

Before I joined the team, I was vaguely aware of the provision offered by the OU, and I knew some students who had been studying towards or graduated with an ‘Open’ Degree, but I still had a lot of questions about how it worked in reality and what on earth the ‘open box module’ everyone keeps talking about was! (It’s YXM130 and YXM830, in case you were wondering.)

From the off, it was clear I had lucked out. I was quickly introduced to the whole team, set up with a mentor, and was trusted with responsibility for my projects, which included taking the lead on recruiting students to our student shadowing scheme, and supporting the team who manage our ‘Open’ Certificate, Diploma, and Degree in developing a new form of qualification [still in development]. I was even able to represent the team at an external Careers conference – you can read more about it in my last blog post!

One thing that struck me during my placement in the Centre for Access, Open and Cross-curricular Innovation was how much the whole team is committed to providing a great student experience, which is proven by their commitment to student representation through the OU Students Association, as well as how they work with colleagues across the University to offer alternative ways of interaction between students and staff, for example, the ‘Freshers’ and ‘Refreshers’ events they host on Student Hub Live. They also speak directly to students and gain feedback through social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Representing the Open Programme with placement manager Helen Cooke at the Employability Fair in November 2019

I wanted to experience working in a curriculum area as part of my professional development, and I really couldn’t have asked for a better area in terms of gaining a well-rounded Higher Education sector perspective.

A flexible curriculum, such as the one offered by our ‘Open’ qualifications is needed now more than ever. As I write, more and more universities are starting to think about how we can bridge the skills gap in our economy and solve the world’s current and future ‘big problems’ such as global warming or water security.

What we know is that the solutions to these problems will require not only disciplinary expertise, but multidisciplinary knowledge, and at the very least, they will require teams of people to be able to work effectively in an interdisciplinary way. That’s why across the sector, we have seen departments such as the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) created at the University of Warwick, as well as the founding of the London Interdisciplinary School, a new university entirely focussed on interdisciplinary teaching and learning.

Giving students such a high level of flexibility presents enormous value; our students are empowered to take control of their learning and able to self-construct a qualification that is perfect for their needs.

Luckily for us at the OU, we’ve championed this approach to learning for the past 50 years, and we are able to set an example to the rest of the sector in terms of how a student-led multidisciplinary programme can work.

As I come to the end of my graduate scheme and make my next move in the world of HE, I know I will always keep the mission of the OU and it’s first degree with me, putting students first and championing flexibility wherever I can.

The next chapter…

The blog was originally set up in 2019 to celebrate the OU’s 50th anniversary and the evolution of the OU’s multidisciplinary “Open” qualifications since the university was established in 1969. You can find out more about the Open Programme’s history in our About section.

As the Open Programme enters the next 50 years of its history, we will continue to use this site to share blogs from a wide range of contributors to demonstrate the impact that this unique approach to personalised teaching and learning has had – and continues to have – on our students and staff.

If you would like to contribute to this blog, we would love to share your journey too. Just drop us an email at open-programme@open.ac.uk.

Sharing personal reflections of 50 years of multidisciplinary curriculum

In May 2019, the Open Programme team held a special event to celebrate 50 years of multidisciplinary teaching and learning, featuring presentations from Dr Liz Marr, PVC Students, and members of the Open Programme team. Click here to view a compilation of photographs from the event.

Professor Josie Fraser

Helen Cooke







The event was hosted by Helen Cooke, Open Board of Studies Manager and opened by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Josie Fraser, who gave the following opening address:

“Starting in 1969, when the OU first started, our BA/BSc Open degree was the only degree that you could get at The Open University and remained so for over 30 years; it wasn’t actually until 2000 that we introduced named degrees. And despite the popularity of named degrees, this unique Open qualification remains our largest degree in terms of student numbers and module choice, allowing students to construct a truly personalised qualification from a huge range of undergraduate modules across all of the faculties of the OU.

There’s something so special about that flexible study path that relates to your personal interests or your career-related skills that many, many students enjoy.”

Speakers and presentations

Click on each of the speakers names below to view their slides and presentation content.

Professor Peter Taylor – Chair of the Open Board of Studies (from 2013-2019)

Dr Liz Marr – Pro Vice Chancellor Students (interim)

Jay Rixon – Qualification Manager MA/MSc Open

Professor Martin Weller – Chair of the Open Board of Studies (from 2019-present)

Rehana Awan – Student Communications & Engagement Manager, Carol Dow – BA/BSc (Hons) Open student