Archive for May, 2018

50 objects for 50 years. No 6

Monday, May 28th, 2018

‘I’m the self inflicted, mind detonator…I’m a Firestarter’

Each Monday I present a new object. In this weather those not frantically revising may well be enjoying barbeques. So I’ve selected an appropriate element as my object of the week. As a clue to what it is, I’ve turned to an OU module so fresh that it hasn’t even been presented. Environment and Society, DD213, is due for release in October 2018. Here is a sneak preview of the opening sentence:

Fire is both a naturally occurred chemical reaction on Earth and a tool adapted by humans. It can modify environments and serve to shape social interactions between individuals, groups of humans and the places in which they live.

The idea of something which is essential, which can modify environments and shape social relations can be applied to education.When, at its opening on 24th April 1969, the OU’s first Chancellor Lord Crowther sought an image for the human mind he compared it ‘to a fire
which can be set alight and blown with the divine afflatus’.

Crowther contrasted this idea of an inspiration, which comes from the word inspire, meaning to breathe or blow onto, with the image of the mind as a vessel into which one could pour knowledge. The OU, by providing intellectual tinder and matches, could inspire learners to light the fire in their bellies, or minds. Moreover, they were encouraged to seek out tutors and fire questions at them. It also brings to mind the legend of the phoenix, a bird which regenerates through fire. The distinctive avian pops up in the series of stories about a character who appears to have limited opportunities until his life is transformed when he attends an educational establishment, Harry Potter.

At the time of the OU’s opening a popular educationalist was Paulo Freire. Freire argued that much of what was called education amounted to ‘educational banking’. Teachers filled the heads of learners with their narratives, even if these narratives were not relevant to the learners. Treating learners as ‘‘receiving objects’, reinforced existing social relations and impeded the development of a student’s critical consciousness. It required students to be passive and did not encourage dialogue. Transmission-focused teaching prevented students from renewing cultural knowledge through thoughtful conversations. However, Freire argued, this was not the only way to proceed. If learning involved the learners and encouraged activity and non-hierarchical, dialogue, then, through that learning, people could ‘make and remake themselves’. Learners, could make their own meanings with the new knowledge they constructed being based on what they already knew and what they were trying to achieve. This idea of learning, not as pouring cold water, but lighting fires, was perhaps in Crowther’s mind when he spoke back in 1969. At the OU’s first degree ceremony, in 1973, an honorary doctorate was presented Freire.

Crowther’s image might have reminded listeners of the importance of air for combustion, how the circulation of air can ensure that thinking is not congested, how the airwaves could be used to deliver the materials and support the interactions necessary for learning. Yet, while OU broadcasts travelled through the ether, the university did not emerge out of thin air, nor were its subsequent achievements confined to the realm of the abstract.

Crowther’s image of fire may also have built on associations of fire with truth, sometimes a rather painful disruptive truth. While fire serves many other functions in stories and songs there are plenty of literary reminders of this role. These include the Biblical account of Moses who rather unwillingly received Divine Instruction from a fire, a burning bush in a desert of ignorance. Luke cites Jesus as  holding the revolutionary and disruptive view that ‘I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!’ When exiled Russian revolutionaries established, in 1900, what became the most successful underground Russian newspaper in 50 years, they called it Iskra (Spark). The name was later adopted by the OU branch of the University and College Union for its newsletter.

Fire’s association with truth was perhaps reinforced by the comic inversion of this in Hillaire Belloc’s 1907 poem Matilda Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death which [plot spoiler alert] concludes as below:

For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

While for students, education can be the lighting of a fire which provides warmth, they are also entangled in their societies, communities, families. Others around them, witnesses to the changes, can feel burned. In a play, later film, about an OU student, Educating Rita, Rita’s husband resents the time she spends studying. A genuine student, interviewed in an early study of the OU, captured the sense of the challenges provided by learning through the OU when she summarised her experience thus: ‘It messes up your whole life, but it’s worth it.’

A century before the OU Louisa May Alcott wrote her novel Little Women. In this she sets out some of the emotions you might associate with writing a TMA which can involve both inspiration and perspiration:

She did not think herself a genius by any means; but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon….The divine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her “vortex,” hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent.

Having started with the Prodigy, I’ll conclude with Elvis Costello, who reminded us that indoor fireworks while they can ‘dazzle or delight or bring a tear’ can also ‘still burn your fingers’. Education, sociable, collaborative engagement which enables you to see things in a different light, can be edgy, risky, can throw your preconceptions over a cliff or into a furnace. But that is also its pleasure.

50 objects for 50 years. No 5. The logo

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Walter Perry, the University’s Vice-Chancellor is  said to have had the idea for the original logo in 1969 and Douglas Clark, Director of Design produced it. Something like 40 versions were produced with different proportions and different positions for the the roundel, the‘O’. Perry and Clark argued for the roundel not to be centred and won. The BBC objected, because it felt that as the logo would appear on the television the Corporation should make the decision.

Looking at the logo of the simple circle of a moon (O) in the dark sky of the U reminds me that the OU has taken over from night schools. These opportunities for part-time adult study had developed in the UK in association with industrialisation. The first opened in Salford in 1772 was aimed at for adult mechanics. Similar institutions followed as did sandwich courses at universities, university courses for non-enrolled students, and a London Society for the Extension of University teaching. Outside the HE system the WEA was founded 1903. Harold Wilson’s original idea was to connect existing extramural departments, the WEA, broadcasters, correspondence courses and night classes together to create a scheme for degrees to be awarded by an established university. He did not initially envisage an institution with a charter and autonomy but a consortium of existing universities using television and the post. When creating the OU Jennie Lee MP was keen to stay well away from that image of adult education.

We have a great tradition of adult education in this country but we have to be careful that it does not become a little dowdy and mouldy. The days when people would go out to the old-fashioned night schools and sit on hard benches are receding. They are now looking for a different kind of environment. There was a kind of passion for hair shirts from hon. Members opposite today, a passion I do not share.

 Romy Wood shares her thoughts on how University branding could help or hinder learners. She suggests that there might be people for whom the word ‘university’ is off-putting. For some it ‘might bring to mind for older people late night BBC programmes where men in corduroy jackets pointed at blackboards’.

The RP37A VHF Herald Hacker radio was issued for use in Study Centres. The OU version was blue and had the logo in place of the local stations. It had a telescopic aerial and was an FM-only radio as in the early 1970s, OU television programmes were on BBC2 and radio programmes on Radio 3 VHF.

Perhaps the O is also a globe, for the OU logo is familiar around the world and the OU is a global brand. Most other distance learning universities have the name ‘Open’ in their title. The Catalan logo echoes that of the British one.

The unlocked lock of the Netherlands also pays homage to the original. It is echoed in the Australian version.

One can see the O resting in the U in India’s version.


Pakistan’s Allama Iqbal OU might be seen to include a moon, but it is crescent not a full moon. Nevertheless it retains the word Open.

An exception is the Open University of Japan (放送大学, Hōsō Daigaku. It was, until 2007, called (in English) The University of the Air. The focus of the name was on the medium, not the message. Perhaps that swoosh might be television signals.

The OU logo has been available in a variety of media. It became mobile on the television screen, with the O turning. The image became synonymous with learning. In the TV series Life on Mars (first broadcast 2006–07) the time-travelling central character’s understanding of his situation was significantly improved through a late night OU-style television programme which offered highly relevant knowledge. It has changed over time. Here is a striped version.

There was also a 21st century, rather more glassy, variant. It still retains that  ‘O’ and ‘U’ combined reminiscent of Barbara Hepworth (whose son taught at the OU) and also  resembling the coat of arms such as one might expect from a venerable educational institution. The OU does have a Coat of Arms and that may well feature in another week.

The current version is very similar to the original. Perhaps you have memories of the introduction of the updates? There was even a signature tune to accompany it. This was the first five bars of Leonard Salzedo’s 1959 composition, Divertimento. However, that piece of music, is an object (if that is best term) for another day. Information on the history of the logo can be found in ‘Armorial Bearings of The Open University’ by N. Woods (1992).

50 objects for 50 years. No 4. The PT3

Monday, May 14th, 2018

The Open University, OU is littered with acronyms. Students may write assignments, but they submit iCMAs, or TMAs or eTMAs.  Their tutors (ALs) respond by completing an assessment comments document, or PT3. It is this last item which is the fourth object of our fifty objects.

The system is that a student passes a completed TMA to their tutor. When I was a teenager in the 1970s my OU student mother would scuttle across town to post her almost-late assignment through the letterbox of her tutor before the midnight cut-off. A decade later, when I was a tutor, I used to listen to my letterbox rattling as last-minute deliveries were made. Today most assignments are sent electronically and quite a few of them are timed in at 23.59.

The student then has a wait while the Tutor writes up to about 500 words of conversational comment and advice, looking back on the last piece of work and forwards to the next. On most work, the tutor also gives a mark. In the 1980s carbon copies of the tutor’s comments would be sent to a monitor. This person would offer ideas to the tutor as to how to improve support. Another carbon copy would go to the tutor’s manager, who would look at what the monitor had said as well as the student and the tutor. A further copy would go to the tutor and finally a copy would be stored somewhere on the Walton Hall site, in Milton Keynes. This process still continues, though the poorly reproduced carbon copies and spidery handwriting is less in evidence today. The system has been recognised as robust and supportive of learning by the OU’s Teaching Lead, Professor Claire Turner who recently told me ‘I strongly recognise the excellent feedback that ALs give to their students to help them learn.’

While many students look at their mark, others have told me that the receiving the PT3 has been an exciting, nerve-wracking and pleasurable experience. Some feel engaged in a dialogue with tutors and that there is a sense of collaboration and intellectual debate. The PT3 marks out the OU as more than a correspondence course or an institution where ‘Satis’ or ‘Could Try Harder’ will suffice. It announces that this is a place where collaborative, social, teaching and learning are central.

This object was proposed by OU graduate and OU staff member Nic. Have you got a favourite object?

OU module at centre of new book

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

This new book, The University Is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture explores the Open University as a critical point of convergence between mass media and mass education.

The book focuses on the module (course) A305, History of Architecture and Design 1890-1939, as a reference point for current discourse on open-source and online educational models.

Different aspects of A305 are analysed and there are conversations between Joaquim Moreno (who curated an exhibition ‘The University Is Now on Air: Broadcasting Modern Architecture’) and central figures involved in the creation and production of the course. These are Stephen Bayley, (interviewed here) Tim Benton, Adrian Forty, Nick Levinson, and Joseph Rykwert. There are also essays that frame broader questions of architectural historiography, media history, and the pedagogical and political circumstances of the period. These are by Joaquim Moren0 who has previously considered A305, see here. On the exhibition see  here and here. It is reviewed as an ‘alternative history of the modern movement’, here.

The A305 Course Chair recalled that the teaching materials included 24 television programmes, 32 radio programmes and a Radiovision Booklet. He has assessed the course here and here.

The book is a co-publication with Jap Sam Books, designed by Jonathan Hares (Lausanne and London).

50 objects for 50 years. No 3. Hats off or full board?

Monday, May 7th, 2018



The week’s object is present through being absent. In the 1960s new universities sought to adopt the rituals and traditions of an older establishment. Essex, which opened its doors in 1964, got Hardy Amies to design its gowns while the University of Bath was presented with a four-feet long mace at the installation of its first Chancellor in 1966. Initially the University of the Air (the original name for the OU) was to be the University of the Hair, with heads uncovered at graduations and no gowns to be worn at award ceremonies. Sir John Daniel, when OU Vice Chancellor, perhaps recalling that the OU received its Royal Charter in 1969, felt this was a reflection of the ‘free-wheeling and informal spirit of the 1960s’ when the university was founded. However, the first students to graduate, in 1973, argued that they should be permitted to be seen to be graduates, with gowns. At the ceremony, held at Alexandra Palace in London not Milton Keynes and filmed by the BBC, most of the 867 graduates elected to wear gowns. Moreover, there was a procession, accompanied by Copland’s 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man. This year the University will hold 29 degree ceremonies, in 15 different locations. Norman Woods, Regional Director of the East Midlands, recalled the graduation ceremony in a local prison: ‘You used to put on your glad rags and go and hand them their diploma and certificate, whatever. And their families used to come in. You know, it was quite good. And the prison would provide some cakes and cup of tea.’It remains the case that academic dress for wear at degree ceremonies consists of a gown and a hood. The OU website makes it clear in bold, that ‘hats (mortarboards or bonnets) are not worn at Open University degree ceremonies’. However, a concession has been offered ‘a hat (mortarboard or bonnet) may be hired for personal use during the day’. Here is an OU student in Edinburgh


Meanwhile, the Times Higher reports that the US the academic titfer has been turned into a poster site.

This is a picture from another Open University. It is the one in the Netherlands. It permits professors to don headgear, but not the (in this case a doctoral) student who is being awarded a degree. So, should the OU permit bonnets or boards, throwing into the air for the use of, to be worn during the ceremony or should it continue to demonstrate that it is not simply following tradition, it is carving its own route forwards?