Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

50 objects for 50 years. No 2. The McArthur microscope

Monday, April 30th, 2018


In 1929, in need of a portable instrument for use in the jungle, Dr John McArthur conceived the idea of the light-weight microscope. He developed his concept while a prisoner-of-war and sold his first one in 1957. It had enjoyed sales of about 1,000 by the time that the OU showed an interest about a decade later. However, the OU wanted a simpler, plastic version for its Home Experiment Kits. The OU’s first Vice Chancellor felt that ‘carrying out of experiments at home by students would be a vital part of offering correspondence tuition in science and technology’, see here. The university recognised that many of its students would be unfamiliar with delicate scientific mechanisms or would find it difficult to keep their study materials safe from other family members. It did not want a delicate rack and pinion system for focusing and the objective lens had to be robust. McArthur met the deadline and about 7,000 of these tiny (5in x 3in x 1in), cheap, microscopes were to be mailed to the first students at the OU in the first HEKs. It has been called a ‘gem of a portable microscope’ and ‘legendry in its application and construction’. It has also been described as ‘an amazing little instrument… although small, lightweight and almost entirely plastic, it makes a very serviceable field instrument’.

The OU wanted its students to have the opportunity to be active learners not passive recipients, to understand that science did not require specialist laboratories or a campus. The home could become a place for university-level study. The inclusion of the microscope in Home Experiment Kits showed the OU’s commitment to putting learners at the centre and of adapting technology to ensure they were supported.

In the 1970s a large-scale project invited children to draw a picture of a scientist. Men in white coats and wild hair abounded. Instead of a university being outside the normal and day-to-day, instead of scientists being white-coated men, the OU gave scientific instruments to people, including my mum an early OU student. There was spluttering and ridicule in the press about the ineptitude of housewives but the OU persisted. The idea of a university and of who could be a student, was transformed. The OU enabled science to be more than an activity for men in white coats in labs, housewives could study in their own homes, submariners could study under the waves.

Subsequently the OU’s Virtual Microscope has been developed to allow students with internet access to explore digitized slides and thin sections in a browser window. There are several specialist microscopes. They enable OU students to gaze upon images which leading scientists and academics are also examining.

Pygmalion, Zeus and OU slippers

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

On 11th June, Jess Hughes and Dan Weinbren discussed how Greek myths have been employed to help us understand the history of the OU. Professor Sewart argued that the OU was like Athena, in that it sprang forth, fully armed, from the head of Zeus. However, Dan Weinbren suggested that this myth marginalised the longer roots of the OU in 18thC part-time courses for adults, nineteenth century correspondence courses and 20th century radio and television. It also marginalised the role of women, notably Jennie Lee, and the role of the state and the market.

We also discussed the value and uses of Ovid’s ‘Pygmalion’ tale, updated by Bernard Shaw just prior to the First World War and again in the film ‘My Fair Lady’ before there was another incarnation in the 1980s with ‘Educating Rita’.

In addition, we considered if the slippers and wellies story, now so frequently retold, was a myth of the OU. See here for the discussion.

Open to making a profit

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

BPP University College of Professional Studies which offers courses in law, accountancy, business and health course and claims to have over 36,000 students, has started to make a profit. it has been compared to the OU in that it runs postgraduate degree courses, MBAs, summer schools and training courses and has schools in a number of places including London, Bristol, Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.In addition it offers part-time programmes, accelerated course and online distance learning courses.

The OU: collective creation or top-down imposition?

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Much of the reporting of the recent development of universities laments the passing of a golden age. Sometimes these accounts are a burnished and reconstructed version of the past which portray universities as victims. However, the OU has played a more active role. (more…)

Systems and students

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Often the OU is seen in terms of systems. It also needs to be understood in terms of students. (more…)

Marxist bias?

Monday, March 25th, 2013

History, Marx argued repeats itself, ‘first as tragedy, then as farce’. At the OU there has been a rerun of the Marxist bias stories. In the 1980s it was Conservative Ministers who claimed to have found Marxists at the OU. Today it is Education Secretary Michael Gove. One hundred academics, including one associated with the OU,  signed an open letter to Gove.  The authors suggested that Mr Gove’s ideas could ‘severely erode educational standards’.  The Minister responded by categorising them as Marxists. He also suggested that those who stress the importance of communities of practice, a concept which is popular within the OU, were Marxist. He suggested a new way of categorising academics, explaining, ‘There is good academia and bad academia’.  

Mr Gove went on to propose that there is a wider left-wing conspiracy. Although the OU has not been mentioned specifically it seems that there is a group of people who ‘in and around our universities who praised each other’s research, sat on committees that drafted politically correct curricula, drew gifted young teachers away from their vocation and instead directed them towards ideologically driven theory … [The Group] operate by stealth, using its influence to control the quangos and committees which shaped policy.’ David Cameron has proposed that state education and its teachers are a “left-wing establishment’. It is not clear that such categorisations support the improvement of understandings and knowledge.

Open to satire?

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

Should a public figure or institution be brave enough to wish, with the poet Robert Burns, ‘to see oursels as ithers see us’, the cartoonist’s art is likely to remind them of another adage: be careful what you wish for. 

The British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent provides a window onto the ways in which people and organisations have been portrayed through the ages.  As a national institution, The Open University hasn’t evaded capture by the caricaturist’s ink.  This group of cartoons evokes an evolving pen portrait in which the ‘University of the Air’ lived up to its name in at least one respect: it was difficult to pin down in a visual medium.  With no substantial image of its own, the OU was not so much used as a target for satire in its own right, as a means for cartoonists to satirise some of their more ‘usual suspects’.  Groups of people and themes caricatured via their association with the OU included politicians, television, students, changing social mores and class aspiration.


End of an era, or repetition of an error?

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Many people have clear ideas about what they think that the OU has done, its history. These are reflected in their views about its future. For example, it is argued here that ‘the Open University is trying to poach full-time students from “traditional brick universities’. Competition for students was not invented by the OU and throughout its life the OU (open to people) has resisted treating students simply as objects to be poached or assumed that some adult learners automatically belong elsewhere.  Doug Clow proposed another approach and others noted that the OU was cheaper than other universities in England but the ‘thought slash blog’ continued to present the increase in fees as ‘the end of the OU as we know it — but only for students that live in England’, here. Understanding the shift in funding towards individual learners and away from taxpayers as part of a longer and wider trend could help us gain a better sense of its implications. Presenting change in terms of a drama of epochal moments may be less useful.

Bringing it all back home

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

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.


Twin tracks

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

The OU opened in 1969, which makes it almost a chronological twin of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The latter opened as the Negev Institute for Higher Education a few years earlier, had a few other antecedents, including roots in the Dimona nuclear research institute and became a university in 1969. Labour Party Prime Minister Harold Wilson promised that the Open University would support the spread of technology and in Israel it was an interest in science and technology that helped to drive the project to develop BGU. (more…)