Archive for June, 2018

50 objects for 50 years. No 4. The PT3

Saturday, June 30th, 2018

To the bafflement of many conversations at The Open University are littered with acronyms. Students do not simply write an assignment they submit a TMA. Their tutor (called an AL) completes an Assessment Summary file known as a PT3. It is this latter item that is Object Number 4.


As a teenager in the 1970s I well remember my mother, an OU student, scuttling across town late at night in order to deliver her TMA to her tutor by midnight. A decade later, by then a tutor, I used to lie in bed listening to the letterbox rattling as TMAs (not from my mother, she was an OU graduate by then) came through at midnight and later. Now TMAs are submitted electronically, not by post, and the PT3 forms are easier to read. The Tutor would write on the top copy, pressing hard enough for the words to be legible on the other carbon copies beneath. Copies of the comments went to the student, the Staff Tutor, the tutor and I think that there was a copy stored somewhere deep in a vault in Milton Keynes.


Teaching through the PT3 and comments on the scripts has long been an important element of the OU’s work. Students do not just get ‘satis’ or ‘could try harder’, they get maybe 500 words of considered, individually-focused material. This is a conversation about the work of the student. Many value the comments more than the mark. This object was strongly recommended to me by a former student who told me how pleasing, daunting, exciting it was to get that form back and feel that she was engaged in a dialogue with a tutor.


The comments and mark are checked by a ‘monitor’ to ensure that the tutor is supporting the learner. The tutor’s line manager then checks what the monitor, the student, the tutor have all written and offers advice to the tutor. When concerns were raised by ALs about the status of the PT3, the Teaching Framework Lead, Professor Claire Turner, stated ‘I strongly recognise the excellent feedback that ALs give to their students to help them learn’.

50 objects for 50 years. No 10. OU Collected texts

Monday, June 25th, 2018


From the start many OU students found access to an academic library difficult. In recognition of this collections of important articles and chapters were collated, bound and posted out to students. Some were co-published, with the OU logo on the cover.

This week’s object has been proposed by Alan Shipman. A former business journalist now teaching and researching at the OU Alan has taught (among other topics) personal finance and his research interests include Chinese multinational business and the foundations of the market economy.

In the below five bullet points Alan Shipman reflects on why Decisions, Organizations and Society: Selected Readings, edited by FG Castles, DJ Murray and DC Potter; Penguin Books in association with the Open University Press, deserves to be an OU symbol 50 years on:

  • It’s one of the ‘selected readings’ collections that gave students a whirlwind tour through the classic ideas and authors in a subject area, explained and contextualised by short introductory notes by the editors. These were widely used by other universities, and had a general nonstudent readership, thanks to co-publishing and the availability of cheap paperback editions. Authors featured in the readings include some who were rising to prominence then, and are still influential 50 years on: eg Herbert Simon (management sciences, organisational psychology, economics); Mancur Olson, Robert Dahl, Ralph Miliband (political science), Tom Bottomore (sociology).
  • It’s one of the earliest, published in 1971, and is edited by 3 prominent academics who’d already joined the OU (David Murray was Professor of Government, David Potter a Senior Lecturer and Francis Castles a Lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences).
  • It shows how the OU was, from the start, instrumental in promoting social sciences and breaking through their disciplinary boundaries – the readings focus on topics that transcend these (power, decisionmaking, organisation, hierarchy) and so they mix politics, economics, sociology, cognitive psychology, social psychology and management studies).
  • It shows how the OU’s wide audience facilitated partnerships with leading mass-market publishers, including Penguin.
  • The editors’ writing style also contains some heroic early attempts to escape the institutionalised sexism of the times. From their introductory definitions: “Two ladies meet in a dark street, whereupon one lady deliberately stops, produces a pistol and demands money from the second lady. There is decision (the first lady could have chosen to walk on down the street), and there is power (the second lady’s behaviour is controlled as a result of her relation with the first lady)…

The three editors.

As well as contributing to Decisions, Organizations and Society: Selected Readings Frank Castles also offered a critique of the organization of the OU itself. Having taught face-to-face in universities in York and Australia he had, on arriving at the OU, to adapt to the system he termed ‘Divide and teach: the new division of labour’, in Jeremy Tunstall, The Open University Opens, 1974. Castles found that the OU’s division of labour, with central academics, local tutors, educational technologists, the BBC, a variety of outside expert advisors, counsellors and specialist summer school teaching staff, led to ‘tensions… suspicion and conflict … bitter disputes … enormously increased work-load’. However, he concluded that it was such role specialization which ‘makes the Open University possible at all’.

David Potter, a Berkeley graduate BA 1954, MA, 1959, gained a PhD from the LSE (1962). He worked at Oakland University in Michigan and published on British imperialism in Asia and post-independence consequences. His first book was Government in Rural India, 1964. He then went to Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada where he earned tenure in 1969. Shortly afterwards, in the same year, 11 members of the 16-strong Political Science, Sociology and Anthropology Department were not granted tenure, which, in effect, meant that they were fired. Potter supported their protest strike and was himself fired. He came to the Open University. He was appointed as a Professor of Political Science in 1989 and had 15 of his books published by 2002, when he was designated a Honorary graduate of the university. On retirement he was made a professor emeritus.

David Murray joined the OU in September 1969 as Professor of Government. He chaired and was a member of several main OU committees before being seconded to the University of the South Pacific between 1975 and 1978. In 1980 he was made Chair of the Examinations and Assessment Committee. Between 1983 and 1988 he was a Pro-Vice-Chancellor. He then helped to set up The Open University of Hong Kong before becoming a Pro-Vice-Chancellor again in 1990–91. He subsequently worked with the Higher Education Quality Council (which became The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education) and retired in 1999.

50 objects for 50 years. No 9. Tied to the past

Monday, June 18th, 2018


Almost constantly the OU has been under the microscope. Its roles and its form have been subject to attention, as has the continuing relevance of its mission. Its staff, or at least its ‘TV Dons’, to employ the term favoured by the popular press, have also been scrutinised.

Since its start the OUhas been associated both with the modernity of television broadcasts and with old-fashioned evening classes and references to night school. The attire of male presenters exemplifies this dichotomy. On the one hand ties indicated respectability, a yearning for a lost world of known sensibilities and order. On the other hand, some of the gaudier versions hinted that a challenge was being made to conventions of taste, that this university was frighteningly hip to the beat. As confidence grew, so ties were on tv discarded.

After a few years of sober neckware Arthur Marwick started to sport, I think that is the best word, cravats.

The OU was cast into the mould of the 1970s and 1980s and has found it hard to escape. Creating a new image, renewing the brand, has not been aided by internal jokes which have bolstered the clichés. This Faculty Emergency Neckware Resource Centre, complete with half-a-dozen ties behind glass and a small hammer, suggests that men dominated the faculty, that the Dean of that faculty, Mike Pentz enjoyed the same status as Jennie Lee, one of the OU’s founders, and that there were at least six separate occasions when staff might be required to appear in ties but that the rest of the time, stained lab coats, worn corduroy trousers and sandals worn with socks were the norm. The OU module ‘Coaching for performance‘ BG023 tells prospective students that ‘After completing this course you will have[…] used the ‘kipper tie’ model and coaching principle and tool’.

In 1997 the Independent referred to ‘bearded men in kipper ties talking earnestly about equilateral triangles or soil erosion, flanked by equation-scrawled white boards. The image has secured an affectionate place in the nation’s folklore – ever-present, yet eternally out of date’. In 2001 one OU academic called kipper ties ‘the hallmark of what our University stood for’. By 2003 the association was so close that the Guardian could run an article on the Open University under the title ‘Bye-bye kipper tie’ and expect readers to understand the allusion. In 2005 The Scotsman reported that the OU was trying to ‘sex up’ its image. It then reminded readers that for ‘years, Open University television was associated with bearded professors sporting kipper ties and wild hair explaining complex chemistry theories in the early hours’. In 2006 the Times Higher ran an article about the last OU BBC broadcast made as part of its teaching materials under the headline ‘Goodbye to kipper ties and sideburns’.

Here is Hugh Laurie from the series which ran 1987-95, A Bit of Fry and Laurie mocking OU scientists’ broadcasting on the BBC.

With a symbolic boundary marker separating head and torso as this week’s object, we are reminded of the division between mind and body, so often associated with universities. The artificiality of that divide is perhaps foregrounded and mocked by the more outrageously colourful versions. The OU can be in your head, in your heart and on your screen. We are also reminded that this was the university which reached into people’s living rooms and set a whole nation thinking. Sadly, it might have not been ‘That was an inspirational lesson in level 3 physics’ but ‘What was he wearing round his neck?’

50 objects for 50 years No 8. The Wilson Building

Monday, June 11th, 2018

As Mary Wilson died a few days ago on June 6 2018, this week’s object commemorates her family’s contribution to OU by considering the Wilson Building on the Walton Hall campus, seen on this video.

It is here that Harold’s role is outlined. He had a vision of a university of the air and, as Prime Minister, he had the clout, to ensure that his idea, voiced in 1963, was developed by Jennie Lee and others and implemented by 1969.

Mary and Harold married in 1940 and had two sons. One son, Giles, became a teacher and later a train driver. The other, Robin (born in 1943) taught at the OU. After a difficult start, as the interview panel was anxious not to be seen to favour the son of a Prime Minister, Robin was appointed. His significant academic qualifications and huge enthusiasm were soon demonstrated. He became a Professor, the Head of the Mathematics Department and a Dean of his Faculty. Despite the supercilious portrayal of an OU mathematics don called Robin by Cambridge graduate Hugh Laurie in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Robin Wilson’s innovative and supportive teaching of mathematics (he is pictured above) has been fondly remembered by many students. Numerous OU learners have memories of the frightening and incomprehensible world of school maths dispelled by Robin’s engaging ability to teach.

The Wilsons were able to see beyond party politics. Robin graciously recognised the role of Margaret Thatcher in the development of the OU, calling her its ‘stepmother’. Her role at the OU has been assessed elsewhere.  Mary Wilson attended Thatcher’s funeral. She was also present at one of Harold’s last public engagement’s, the opening of the OU building named in his honour.

Wilson’s press secretary called the OU Wilson’s ‘monument’.  The description is an apt one if the reference is to the words written for Christopher Wren, lector si monumentum requiris circumspice (‘Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you’).

The story of the Wilsons is reminder that for many families once one person becomes involved with the OU other family members become entangled. Couples married after meeting at residential schools, there are many staff who have spouses, and offspring working for the OU and many students swear that it was the support of family members which got them through their degrees. If you visit the OU’s Milton Keynes campus, when you next pass the Wilson building, give it a second glance and maybe give a nod to Harold.

50 objects for 50 years No 7. Urgent Educational Materials

Monday, June 4th, 2018

It is June and, for many of those studying 60-point modules which started last October, that means final assessment-related gloom and stress. In my household the OU student, studying two modules at once, is currently looking a little hollow-eyed and desperate. I am reminded of the donkey unable to decide between the hay of EMA deadline (Aaargg! But is due Tuesday!) and the straw of revision (Yikes the exam is on Thursday!) I can see the temptation to be fair and avoid both in equal measure. Moving on from animal fables, I’m hoping for a safe passage between Scylla and Charybdis.

In these circumstances it is time to remind ourselves of the pleasures of study.

For many it starts with the delivery of that parcel marked ‘Urgent Educational Material’. It was suggested that one of our 50 objects be the packaging sent to OU students. It tells the recipient that learning is so vital that they have immediately to rip open the cardboard and start studying. As this blogger noted in 2007:

The contents are unknown and there is room for speculation. What is inside? There have been records, cassettes, video disks, computers, models of the human brain and of course study guides. These ones are for U216.

Professor Grainne Conole, formerly of the Open University recalled, ‘I did an OU Spanish course and you get this amazing box labelled “Urgent: Educational Materials”.

And here is OU student, Carolyn Jones,

Anyone else studying with the Open University?
If you are, you’ll know that their study packs of books and DVDs arrive in cardboard boxes prominently marked Urgent: Educational Materials I’m not making fun. I really do love the idea that education – of any kind, for anyone – is urgent, important, worth making way for.

Of course if you are still in your pyjamas when the postie dashes down the street to give you the parcel, the breathless deliverer might not be fooled by any pretence that you are going to immediately do an experiment, write an essay or complete an iCMA.

Neil Anderson’s reaction was to reach for the alcohol.

Other students have described the moment. Jackie Diffey felt that when mailings arrived it was ‘like getting a Christmas present’. Vida Jane Platt wrote, ‘Oh the bliss of waiting for the new year’s course material to drop through the letter box and the pleasure in doing those TMAs’. Elinor Ashby remembered how ‘I was often so excited by the arrival of my units that I would stand over the cooker stirring home-made soup whilst avidly reading’. Here is Cathy from 2009 recalling the DHL man pounding on the door ‘bearing gifts’.

The object this week is the world of possibilities presented by the unopened package. It may even be a ‘digital’. As Jane noted on Twitter.

The act of opening the box will not release evils upon the world, in the manner of Pandora, but will enable me to acquire knowledge. Mysteriously understanding will waft out of the parcel and into my brain without any hard work from me. Having read a bit about how people learn, this might be a bit unrealistic. However, my  faith might be  useful model. As exams loom, perhaps what the OU-student-in-the-house needs is the confidence to believe that this time hope will triumph over expectations.