Archive for July, 2018

50 objects for 50 years. No 15. The Study Centre

Monday, July 30th, 2018

In the early years study centres were used to show students OU TV programmes.

Study centres were integral to the OU from the start. The 1966 White Paper, formally introducing the OU, proposed that a network of study centres, where tutors could meet students, should be created. The Times fretted that a university education ‘demands direct personal contacts between teachers and learners and even more, among the students themselves. It is doubtful that the network of summer schools and study centres will be able to support it.’ The first Vice Chancellor, Walter Perry felt that in order to function, the OU has to be ‘parasitic’ upon other institutions, notably the WEA and local authorities, in regard to the provision of study centres. He set Regional Directors the task of finding these places. Harold Wiltshire (who was both a member of the Planning Committee and Head of Nottingham University’s extramural department) helped Regional Director Norman Woods to find rooms in the East Midlands. In Belfast one of the first centres was in a school. The Regional Director, Ken Boyd recalled ‘adults getting their knees under grammar school pupil’s desks’. In 1977 the OU’s Dr Ken Jones proposed study centres in industrial premises and the offer of guaranteed places for industrial workers. However, largely centres have been sited in polytechnics, universities and other educational establishments. A 1996 report found that ‘all too often they are in dreary, poorly equipped schools’.

Tutorials in Study Centres. By the 1990s the idea of grouping students around tables so that they could see and talk with one another was commonplace.

Left is a table of the different types of host institution in 1971.

Perry considered purchasing 280 sets of the 27 volume Encyclopaedia Britannica  in order to equip study centres. However, it seemed more valuable to equip them so that users could access a variety of electronic and electrical items. From the first year that the OU presented modules, 1971, some mathematics courses required students to be able to access a computer terminal. On M100, the first mathematics foundation course, 7,000 students were given access to the OU’s mainframe computers via 109 Teletype terminals in study centres and 4 terminals available at summer schools. Access was limited by the scarcity of terminals. One student recalled making a forty-mile round trip ‘to set up a simple query in Basic and then wait ages for the response to clatter back’. My Mum studied M100 and had to go to a local school where students could dial up a computer 50 miles away in Manchester. She reported that she barely got a glimpse of the technology because the male students were so keen to engage with it. Over 10,000 hours were logged by students who learned, through a dial-up service, how to write programmes in BASIC.

Tutorials were often devoted to offering students opportunities they could not otherwise obtain, notably group discussions or engagement with scientific experiments and demonstrations. Study centres began to be seen as potential media resource Centres. Some were stocked with collections of videos and replay machines. Recordings of programmes were made available in study centres, and loans of playback equipment were made. In the 1970s few students had access to such equipment. In 1976 the OU set up the CICERO project with three courses (modules) with online requirements. In 1981 students could attend centres in order to use Europe’s first ‘interactive videodisc’ and there were more than 250 study centres in the dial-up network; most had with Teletype or VT100 terminals. In 1982 about 95 per cent of students lived within five miles of a study centre computer terminal. The ‘connect hours’ increased by 50 per cent due to the introduction of the courses M252 and PM252 ‘Computing and Computers’, studied by nearly 3,000 students.

In 1982 telewriting system or an ‘electronic blackboard’ known as Cyclops was introduced. A telephone line connected to a TV monitor. It enabled drawings made on screens to be seen in other locations. Eight study centres were connected in a two-year trial run in the East Midlands and funded by British Telecom. The tutor could be in a central position in one of the study centres with a group of students there, talking to little groups in another three or four centres.

A report in 1996 found that OU study centres, having begun life as ‘Listening and Viewing Centres with the express purpose of providing access to VHF radio and BBC2 and as access to BBC2 and video recordings at home widened it appeared as if ‘the future for study centres is clear … extinction’. However, face-to-face connections between students and tutors have remained popular and they are still used.

Study centres have played a variety of other roles as well. A study centre in the Netherlands was also used by the Dutch OU. In Belfast the Long Kesh Internment Centre, the Maze, had a study centre hut was established inside the prison. It was used by both loyalists and republicans. Martin Snoddon, who called himself a Unionist ‘hardliner’, met a member of the IRA in the Maze when they were both studying through the OU. They became friends and remained in contact after their release. Snoddon, when released, took on reconciliation work and helped to form a group which aimed to reintegrate former political prisoners from both sides into the wider society. Many of the OU’s prisoner students in the Maze went on to hold positions of authority in a variety of community organisations. In 2012 five Sinn Féin Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, a Member of the European Parliament and others in a number of civic roles were OU graduates. David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson were both elected to Belfast City Council in 1997 and to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 and were former Long Kesh Compound prisoners who had completed OU degrees. Both felt that their degrees gave them political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence.

In 1969 theorist Michel Foucault helped to found the Group d’Information sur les Prisons (Prison Information Group) and within a few years he had conceptualised (in Of other spaces) prison as a heterotopia, that is a ‘place which lies outside all places and yet is localisable’. Such a place could juxtapose ‘in a single real space, several spaces, several sites which are themselves incompatible’. Heterotopias were not utopias, but ‘other places’ in which existing arrangements were ‘represented, contested and inverted’, where individuals could be apart from the larger social group. These locations were both isolated and penetrable, their focus and meaning unfixed. When an OU student, an Irish Republican prisoner called Dominic Adams, referred to the classroom in a prison run by the British by its name in Gaelic, seomra rang, he was not naming it not as a utopia (literally meaning ‘no place’) but an OU-topia which could be almost any place in which the social order could be reevaluated. Many of those who studied with the OU while in prison were able to create a space for themselves which was beyond their day-to-day reality and within which there was a strong sense of the collective. This tendency was so marked that one interviewer noted, ‘a very strong and understandable tendency to tell stories from the collective perspective since this reflects the solidarity of the political organisation […] Sentences would sometimes begin ‘we’ not ‘I’’.

Study centres have been more than sad school rooms, they have been where students came together and, supported by their tutors, created ideas and understandings though collaborative engagement.

50 objects for 50 years. No 14. Milton Keynes

Monday, July 23rd, 2018

Although the Open University is situated wherever they study their materials, on the bus, online, in the living room, it is also in a number of specific locations, in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England. At the centre is the Milton Keynes site. Milton Keynes, a town founded in 1967 following the New Town Act of 1965, was itself new on the map when the OU opened. The new university had few facilities and had to use several former RAF huts and a former stud farm. Some OU activities were based in nearby villages and it was only in 1971 that a warehouse was acquired, at Wellingborough. Some staff found it difficult to find accommodation in the rural area where the new town was being built. An important role of Milton Keynes was expressed by the first Chancellor, Geoffrey Crowther. He opened the OU with the words:

This University has no cloisters – a word meaning closed. Hardly even shall we have a campus. By a very happy chance, our only local habitation will be in the new city that is to bear two of the widest ranging names in the history of English thought, Milton Keynes. But this is only where the tip of our toe touches ground; the rest of the University will be disembodied and airborne. From the start it will flow all over the United Kingdom.

The new university was welcomed by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation but Milton Keynes was never intended to be the only site for the OU which appointed a Director of Regional and Tutorial Services, Robert Beevers, in February 1969.

Milton Keynes has benefitted socially and economically from the OU. The 70-acre site was to be the hub. The spokes of the university would be the regional centres. As the Panning Committee noted: ‘it will be upon the success of the Regional Directors that the corporate spirit of the University will largely depend’. Staff sit on governing bodies, run charities, have been elected to a variety of civic posts and have spent their earnings in the town.

An acknowledgement of the university is that it features among the 106 granite pillars of the Milton Keynes Rose located in Campbell Park. Created by Gordon Young in 2014, the Milton Keynes Rose is an open-air circle with the blocks in it. This picture features an OU student leaning on the OU pillar. This object reminds us that the OU is in Milton Keynes, but is only one aspect of the town and that the university exists far beyond Milton Keynes.

50 objects for 50 years. No 13. The residential school

Monday, July 16th, 2018

Poster 2009, Sussex Residential School
OU summer schools, coinciding with the ‘silly season’ for the national press, and being run on university campuses largely empty of full-time students, have been a gift to newspaper journalists eager for salacious copy. The Times reported the case of Carol Park, who left her husband and children to live with David Brearley after the pair had met at summer school.  Tutor John Kirkaldy remembers that a journalist he escorted around a Bath summer school was disgusted when he found ‘No nookie and no pot!’ The Times headlined an account of the ‘University where a lecture begins with a beer’, while the BBC ran a story about ‘bizarre games and hap- penings’ including OU students who ‘made bare bottom prints … dragged rubbish through the streets [and] appeared to be aimlessly kicking a giant rugby ball about’. Professor Stuart Hall recalled that ‘I’ve never been anywhere else in the academic world where a husband turned up and said, “My wife’s going home … She’s coming home with me. I’m not leaving her in any longer.”’ The OU’s monthly magazine for students and staff, Sesame, fanned the flames. The September 1974 edition, for example, carried a number of post- summer-school messages. One read, ‘A. I will never forget York. The spark of affinity still glows bright. H.’ Another declared, ‘I loved you for a week, a week to t uncrowded in an hour of normal life. Now I know there are no separate compartments in the mind because I cannot lock you out. And you refuse to go.’

OU Field trip. Students attending residential schools also went to museums, art galleries and spent time in labs and libraries.

At residential schools student experimentation sometimes involved other students. Those attending Biology brain and behaviour, SD206, summer school at University of York in the mid-1990s (the module was presented 1992–2001) had the opportunity to measure nerve conduction velocity – how fast information travels along a nerve cell. A volunteer wore shorts to the class and allowed other students to administer a small electric shock to a nerve in his leg and record how long it took to reach a point further down his leg. Other practicals on SD206 involved teaching a rat to press a lever, counting the number of cheeps a day-old chick makes and investigating wood lice in a maze.

From the first presentations students at the Open University were offered residential schools. The OU hired parts of a number of university campuses during the summer. Students would be in residence for typically one week. Once there, they would attend lecturers and seminars, work in the laboratories or go on trips. The residential schools were staffed by regional and central staff and often tutors and guest lecturers.

The idea of using university facilities during the ‘long vac’ in this way dates back to at least the early twentieth century. It was reinvigorated in the 1960s when Michael Young piloted a ‘dual Cambridge’ plan to establish a ‘Battersea University in King’s Parade’. He used part of Churchill College for fifty students to attend a one-week residential course, which was extended by the use of radio, television and correspondence courses. This prefigured Harold Wilson’s Glasgow speech of September 1963 in which the Labour leader outlined his ideas for a university of the air. The BBC had broadcast educational material from the start in the 1920s and by the 1960s television companies also made such broadcasts. By 1963 ITV was broadcasting more adult education than the BBC, providing some associated written material and residential courses. Associated Television and the University of Nottingham produced a thirteen-week course, which 1,250 people completed. It included programmes, written notes, two tutorials and a residential weekend attended by 200 people.

The OU residential schools provided opportunities for clarification and consolidation of knowledge and specialised tuition.Summer schools were said to provide an opportunity to receive peer reassurance at a time when students were part way through an individual course and many were ‘floundering’, as Professor Michael Drake put it. He added that ‘a lot of students thought they were the only ones who were not coping and everyone else knew more than they did’. Tutor Sean Cubitt argued that the Popular culture, U206, summer schools provided ‘spaces where students can air their problems with the course and pursue their learning in new directions’. Students could access academic libraries and art galleries. Student Maggie Donaldson recalled that a Summer School trip around the National Gallery led by Charles Harrison ‘was such an exciting experience, and made me feel like I was a “real” student for a while, being taught by an inspirational expert on the subject. He was a class act in every way.’When surveyed in 1972, students ranked residential schools as the most helpful teaching component – ahead of correspondence tuition, television, tutorials, counselling and radio. Subsequent studies also found them to be seen as educationally beneficial.

In 1975 Christine Saxton wrote in Sesame: ‘Until summer school, never was so much adrenalin manufactured in 1 week. Never did so few hours sleep suffice over such intense activity. Never had a profusion of profound thoughts been mulled over and revelled in. Never did I realize what the old brain was capable of.’174 Her conclusions are echoed in Cheryl Markosky’s recollections, written in 1997: ‘I’ve taken in a lot of information and spent too many late nights staying up and talking. Bob Wilkinson’s sage parting advice to all is: “When you get home, and you’re looking completely exhausted, remember to have a good story.” My story is that I’ve had a good time.’ Tilly Bud’s account, written six years later, also echoes the memories of those who attended many years before her. She was so nervous of attending summer school that she planned an exit strategy ‘if it was all too much for me. It wasn’t. I had a fabulous time … a week of being a “real” student … it’s in my Top Ten List of Best Experiences Ever.’ Mark Youngman, who attended summer school in 2000, recalled both the intensity and the differences from his home life:

During the week we were kept very busy from 9 am often to 8 or 9 pm with only an hour for lunch and dinner … I couldn’t believe how quickly the week had gone by … The most satisfying thing of all was that I had been able to talk about my course with like-minded people, people who knew what I was talking about and had the same problems, fears and assignment deadlines as myself. I could never have talked to my wife or anyone else in the same way.

Although drama had been taught at the University of Bristol since the late 1940s the idea that meaning of a play had been fixed by the playwright remained a popular one.By contrast, A307 Drama, encouraged students to perform dramas for themselves while at residential summer schools. Students who studied Pygmalion on the level one Arts Foundation course, A103 (1998–2008), were treated to a staff production of an Educating Liza sketch for the arts event evening during residential school week. Martin Broadhurst, a construction worker from Derby, recalled his experiences of the residential element of an OU module, which was held at the University of Bath. He describes it as the closest I was ever likely to get to living the traditional student life – minus the instant noodles, lie-ins and cheap overdraft … The study

sessions began at 9 a.m. and ran through until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. with occasional breaks to prevent our minds from overheating … my tutors were incredibly personable and patient and gave valuable constructive feedback … Just having peers there to discuss our difficulties with was a real bene t … I was put in a study group with a great bunch of people meaning the long days were filled with a mix of insightful debate, serious hard work and full-on belly laughs … The principle bene t of attending the residential school, for me at least, was the realisation that other students were having the same difficulties that I was having. I no longer felt alone in the world of long-distance study.

The teaching staff also recalled the intensity of residential schools. Sir John Daniel, later the Vice-Chancellor, recalled his first Summer School:

that summer of 1972 in the UK was a conversion experience. I saw the future of higher education and wanted to be part of it. Everything was hugely impressive and stimulating. First there was the scale: the Open University already had 40,000 students in its second year of operation. Second came the idealism: here were people who walked the talk on access and student-centred pedagogy. Third, there was palpable love of learning: the students were unbelievably motivated by the opportunity presented to them. I went to one of the residential summer schools where students spent a full day in labs, seminars and field trips and then most of the night in the bar; continuing the academic discourse. Fourth, I was captivated by the media and technology: my key task was to help develop computer-marked assignments that tested advanced cognitive skills, but I spent every spare moment viewing the brilliant BBC television programmes. This exposure to the future of higher education infected me with the virus of open and distance learning.

From the outset the OU subjected every part of its teaching to continuing scrutiny, up to and including the summer schools which were so salient a part of its offering. While those who attended them attested to the intel- lectual engagement and motivation of students and saw a positive correlation between attendance and recruitment, retention and results, their value for money was questioned from the early 1970s. Although an early Senate resolution made attendance at residential schools compulsory, that decision was questioned by the Faculty of Technology soon after it was created. In 1974 Hilary Perraton noted ‘euphoria’ gained ‘within the social situation in which students can learn together’ but then asked ‘whether it’s as valuable as the amount of money you spend on it’. In 1975 a paper addressed the question as to which OU students were deterred by the prospect of summer school of the OU before concluding that ‘probably nobody would argue against foundation course summer schools remain- ing compulsory’. During the 1990s the Mathematics Faculty decided to rewrite its foundation course without a residential school. Studies sought to quantify the gain of OU residential schools. One considered the records of 1,500 students and concluded that ‘the value of traditional teaching components of courses taken by thousands of students each year was shown to be overestimated’.

Evidence accumulated that the residential element had little bearing on the measured achievement of students. Residential schools were expensive for students. In 1994 21,000 students paid over £4 million to attend the week-long events. The Guardian reported that ‘online tutorial groups are replacing the legendary summer schools. They’re simply cheaper’. General shifts in lifestyles made it dif cult for many students to attend. Some students felt that their families were resentful of this use of annual leave and found being away stressful. Writing in 2001, one student noted that attendance could ‘be a problem for some people who have to take time off work or nd someone to look after the kids’. Alternative learning experiences had to be created. These aimed to deliver the same core learning outcomes through a variety of methods. These have included a written assignment, an online project and computer conferencing. While these may not have delivered the breadth of learning opportunities offered by residency, they undermined the distinctiveness of the pedagogic bene ts of the residential schools. Different means of supporting learners such as the virtual microscope and other forms of online communications became accessible to students. These online activities sought to recreate aspects of the residential experience and offer an alternative to the intensive experience of face-to-face teaching. New media, the virtual reality of SecondLife for example, became popular and enabled people to exchange ideas and work together without being in the same room at the same time.




50 objects for 50 years: No 12. Beagle 2 – looking for life, saving lives

Monday, July 9th, 2018

BBC image of there dustbin-lid-sized Beagle 2

The OU’s Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, PSSRI, is the largest planetary sciences group in the UK. A founder member was Colin Pillinger, CBE FRS FRAS FRGS (1943-2014) who joined the OU in 1984. The Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute was where the Gas Analysis Package was developed. The package was a miniaturized version of the instruments used in the laboratory to analyse meteorites. It was designed to determine whether conditions were ever conducive to life on Mars.

In 2003 Professor Pillinger led a project, in collaboration with the University of Leicester, to build a craft, Beagle 2 which could be transported by the European Space Agency’s Mars Expressmission and then launched towards the surface of Mars. In the television 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. This rather tenuous connection of the OU to Mars was eclipsed by Pillinger’s efforts to work with the media. Pillinger ‘captured the imagination of the British public’ as Tim Radford noted. Beagle helped to popularise exploration by involving artists. Blur wrote a song to be used as a call sign and Damien Hurst provided a spot painting to be used to calibrate the craft’s camera. ‘Want more children to study science? Look to Colin Pillinger for inspiration’ as one headline put it. Pillinger himself appeared on a number of popular television programmes and in the press to explain his work.

Beagle 2 got to Mars but then suffered a failure which meant that it could not send data to earth. However, within a few months of the demise of Beagle 2, Pillinger was arguing for a Beagle 3. Pillinger also played a role in the Philae lander which, after his death in 2014, was used to conduct gas chromotograph mass spectrometer experiments on Comet 67P Churyumov/Gerasimenko.

During a period when cases of TB were rising to about two million fatal cases a year, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, diagnosis relied mainly on the use of smear microscopy of sputum samples, a very labour-intensive process with low sensitivity. This was expensive and slow. Working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and funded by the Wellcome Trust, the OU developed that the OU’s gas chromatograph–mass spectrometer, based on the research carried out for Mars, so that it could accurately detect TB bacteria in a lung. Tuberculosis requires rapid diagnosis to prevent further transmission and allow prompt administration of treatment. The use of  gas chromatography- electron impact mass spectrometry provided an alternative solution.


50 objects for 50 years: No. 11. The cup which cheers

Monday, July 2nd, 2018

These images of Student Association volunteers and that cup by the keyboard, remind me of an important aspect of the OU. The cup of tea or coffee brought by the supportive partner late at night when you are completing a TMA. An OU study, Enduring Love?  assessed over 5,000 people and found that, as researcher Jacqui Gabb noted, ‘Grand romantic gestures, although appreciated, don’t nurture a relationship as much as bringing your partner a cup of tea’.

Haven in a heartless world?

The word ‘tea’ can refer to a plant, a beverage, a meal service, an agricultural product, an export, an industry or a range of other notions but for those studying with the OU a cuppa can represent how families (in the widest sense) pay an important part in OU studies. Surveys indicate that students frequently acknowledge that their engagement was initially determined by their peers, families and communities as well as their own expectations and experiences. A number referred to how the OU broadened their horizons, increased their confidence and, by enabling them to form communities of learners, helped them become active citizens who could benefit the wider society. It is not always the case. One student recalled her husband’s reaction when he discovered her books and realised that she was studying with the OU:

He threw them all down the rubbish chute (we live on the 7th floor). I get on well with Ted the caretaker so next morning when my husband had gone to work I went to see him and said I had to go through the bins … there I was with big rubber gloves picking my way through everything but I got it all back and cleaned up. I can leave it at my pal’s flat.

One of the first graduates noted, ‘students need sympathetic families’. Asked to rate the importance of sources of external support OU students placed family and friends at the top of the list. Although some represented their decision to become OU students as individual, often accounts refer to a recommendation from a family member.  Here is the results of a survey of sources of external support.

This has adapted from Simpson’s “Supporting students online, open and distance education 2002, p. 120.

Once studying began, the support of families remained important. George Saint believed that ‘My wife shielded me from the demands of a young family’; he chose not to study for Honours because ‘my wife deserved a rest and I wanted to enjoy my children’. Emma’s comment reveals both a realisation about the unhelpfulness of a poor self-image and a changing relationship with a spouse:

Shouting ‘I’m fat and stupid’ at your husband will not make you understand the equations needed to calculate the emissions from an incinerator (though speaking to him nicely means he might just sit with you and talk it over in a very calm and patient manner).

For similar conclusions about the significance attributed to kin, see the online accounts by Charlene Buckley, Vida Jane Platt, Joanne Greenwood, Jim Bailey, Maureen Bowman, Iain Boyle and Mark Pearce. Kayleigh Carey mentioned her husband; Gwen Rowan her boyfriend, later husband; Claire Smith an OU student who was her boyfriend, later fiancé. Ian Ellson was encouraged by his wife and her family, and Patricia Palmer by her husband and children.

Study aid

Pausing for a drink might be when, as you sip you reflect on how tea, coffee and chocolate, initially exotic commodities which arrived in Britain in the seventeenth century, have become drinks of British people of all social classes. Might this help you with your sociology or history assignment? If your beverage is sweetened you might want to consult Steve Pile’s two-part guide to the ‘cultural paradox’ of the ‘geography of sugar’. You might consider the US-based Tea Party. These conservative citizens were funded by Republican business elites, bolstered by a network the conservative media and campaigned against Obama. Might be useful if you are studying politics?

To prevaricate by making one more cup of coffee before entering the ‘valley below’ of actually completing that TMA is a ritualistic delay immortalised by Bob Dylan (One more cup of coffee) who went on to note that you might find that ‘You’ve never learned to read or write. There’s no books upon your shelf’. Tea has also been presented criticised as a barrier to work.

Slogans and reminders

Despite the possibilities for wandering off the point, and not focusing on getting that essay completed, within the OU tea drinking has been encouraged with specialist mugs. This is one produced for the students’ Psychology Society. While there were also mugs made to after the OU had been open for a quarter of a century.
The ‘Keep calm’ one was produced for a staff member by a spouse during a period perceived as being a time of existential crisis for the institution. Alongside it are some cups, also for staff, which remind imbibers of the importance of the UCU trade unio

Mugs of tea cheer staff and help students storm to success. As the Kinks sang, ‘have a cuppa tea, Halleluja, halleluja, halleluja, Rosie Lea’.