Opening the ’empty box’

Dr John Butcher is Director, Access and Open, in the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Students) office, and Deputy Chair of the Open Board of Studies. 

In the 50th year of ‘Open’ curriculum at the Open University, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the innovations continue, and that our ideas around openness resonate with colleagues at distance universities across Europe.

I was fortunate to spend three days in Madrid at the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) conference. There was much talk of micro-credentials and Open Educational Resources (OERs), and the recognition of prior learning. There was also genuine interest in the way our Access Programme could help colleagues in distance universities improve retention in their undergraduate courses.

I presented a paper ‘Using an ‘empty box’ module to widen access in a distance learning Open degree’ based on Making your learning count (YXM130). Feedback from the audience was positive, with particular interest in the potential to stimulate cross-disciplinary learning and to transform previous non-credit-bearing and open learning into HE credit. European colleagues saw real benefit in a student-led/tutor-negotiated learning experience, and were impressed at the rapid production timescale. Questions included: how to select tutors with the appropriate skill set; the challenge to tutors of which OERs to ‘accept’; and the obstacles in producing such a flexible module if the institution was inflexible in its systems.

My conclusion, based on feedback from academics based in other open universities, was that there remained a genuine appetite for innovations which allow the learner a personalised experience, and that the empty box concept is one of the few areas in which ‘conventional’ universities have not stolen our clothes.

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