Archive for November, 2010

Jennie Lee blog

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010
Interest in one of those closely associated with the foundation of the OU, Jennie Lee, continues as this blog demonstrates. It suggests that Jennie Lee was

extraordinarily effective [at] forcing through changes which were either deeply unpopular or of no interest to her Labour colleagues… The very existence of the Open University can be linked to Jennie’s grinding determination to see the project through on her own terms… the Open University is one of the most enduring monuments to the Wilson years, made possible by Jennie’s stubborn resistance to its abandonment or dilution.

William Benton’s papers

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

The wealthy and philanthropic American, William Benton (1900-1973) was an early enthusiast for The Open University. A staunch Democrat he played an important part in bringing down Joseph McCarthy when he challenged McCarthy’s claims that the State Department was infiltrated by numerous Communists. Despite lack of support from at least some on his side of the House Benton was victorious over McCarthy. The owner of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Benton was a keen advocate of using radio and television to support learning.  He  financed Harold Wilson’s trips to the USA and maintained a relationship with the Wilson family for many years, including with Harold’s son Robin, who later worked at the OU. He was also close to Geoffrey Crowther and met Arnold Goodman and Walter Perry.  His papers can be used as evidence as to how influential he was on Wilson’s development of the idea of what became the OU. They are housed in the University of Chicago and I’m there at present, taking a look at them. One thing I’d like to check is the statement by B. MacArthur, ‘An interim history of the Open University’ in J. Tunstall (ed.) The Open University Opens, Routledge, London 1974, that the idea of the Open University was really born at Easter 1963 in Wilson’s home in discussion with officials of the Labour Party. My suspicion is that it has longer roots and that Wilson’s connection with Benton is of significance.


Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

I’m contributing a paper about the history of the OU at this conference this week. There are a number of relevant strands and papers.  In addition to being the location for the social sciences history conference Chicago is where Al Capone committed crimes and where the adventures of the 1990s science fiction animation series  ‘Biker Mice from Mars’  occured.

However, my research will be centred on archives where papers relating to Harold Wilson and the ideas of a ‘University of the Air’ are lodged.  It should be a fascinating and useful experience  even if this focus fails to impress my nephew, a Biker Mice fan.

Visiting Canada

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

I’m visiting the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education which is part of the University of Toronto, Canada’s largest university. It is an international leader in the research, teaching and study of issues at the heart of education. Here one can study for degrees in Higher Education and also in the History and Philosophy of Education and it also runs a course in how to build a participative online learning community through online discussions and interactive learning sessions so it should be a good place to learn about the Canadian experience of distance education. A few years ago Jennifer Sumner sparked a debate within Open Learning with her ‘critical history of distance education’ , she now works at OISE and and I’m meeting her today.

Open to methods

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

The final session of Opening Up The Open University, chaired by former Scottish Director Mr Peter Syme, focussed on the University’s openness to methods.

The first speaker was Professor of Telematics Chris Bissell who gave a whistle-stop tour of the development of home computing and computer-mediated communication at the OU. Prof Bissell pointed out that, as you would expect, the OU had always been ahead of the game when it came to using computers. Its national computer network was established in 1971 with three minicomputers in Newcastle, Walton Hall and the London Regional Office and students could log on at local study centres. (more…)

Open to ideas

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

The second main session of Opening Up The Open University again offered a diverse range of persepectives on some of the ideas that have contributed to the OU’s history.

The first speaker was Professor Dave Harris from UCP Marjon who considered the OU’s impact on the HE sector. He explained the radical appeal of the OU and drew attention to the view of Brian Lewis, one of the first IET professors, that ‘irrelevant scholastic displays must be eliminated’ (1971). Prof Harris credited the OU with breaking down academic language into more simple, logical forms of communication, and highlighted the influence of individuals who moved on from the OU in introducing ‘managerialism’ to the rest of the sector. (more…)

Open to people and places

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

OU target student?

Opening Up The Open University, which took place on 3 November, was divided into three plenary sessions – Open to people and places; Open to methods; and Open to ideas – reflecting the University’s mission, as set out by Lord Crowther in 1969.

Despite the project’s best efforts to encourage contributions from the University outside Walton Hall, the first session, chaired and introduced by Project Sponsor Professor David Vincent, concentrated more on how open the University had been to people, rather than to places. (more…)

Education using television

Monday, November 8th, 2010

The BBC produced adult education television and radio programmes prior to the creation of the OU and it also produced written materials to accompany many of these programmes.  One series, aimed at farmers, was broadcast in 1968. The Agricultural Producer at the BBC explained that each programme was clearly structured, sometimes the same film was shown twice in order to explain points but that every attempt was made not to patronize. (see Educational Television International, 2, ,2, June 1968, pp122-126. The booklet, pictured, was free on request and for those farmers who gathered to watch together there were also Tutor Notes which provided both additional background material and suggested topics for discussion.


The advertisement for a commercial television company (‘Look I’m five teachers’) dates from January 1969 and illustrates one of the cases made for the use of television for educational purposes.

This medium had long been conceptualised as of significance (in 1960 William Benton, one of those who played an important part in the OU’s foundation) said that it ‘could be the greatest force ever known to deepen our understanding and broaden our knowledge’ (W Benton, Television – a prescription: a national citizens’ advisory board, Vital speeches of the day, 26, 18, pp. 571-574, (p 572).

Certainly television helped secure the OU as part of the popular heritage of the UK. Much of the popular affection for the OU might well be due to the use of television for its broadcasts during a period when there were few channels available to UK residents. When Sheila Grant studied in the popular soap Brookside it was with the OU (and yes she was accused of having an affair with her tutor) and when in Life on Mars the central character receives comforting but complicated messages from across time and space, it was via late-night 1970s Open University programmes.

Antecedents on the wireless

Monday, November 8th, 2010

The BBC had a long history of producing discussion materials to accompany educational talks on the radio. This experience of combining material presented in one medium with that presented in another was of value when the university of the air was being designed. Thanks to Allan Jones and the BBC Archives for this image.

Experimentation by correspondence

Monday, November 8th, 2010


The notion of a correspondence course was transformed when the OU started to send out home experiment kits and computers by post. 

This is HEKTOR, a ‘home computer’ dating from 1982. It could be plugged into a TV which became its monitor and plugged into a cassette recorder for storage. Initially students were encouraged to write programs in BASIC but later it was used for other purposes, including on a control engineering course.