Archive for December, 2018

50 objects for 50 years. No 37. Conferencing software.

Monday, December 31st, 2018


The use of technology to promote co-operative and collaborative learning goes back to the earliest days of the OU. Despite initial complaints from the GPO, which ran the UK telephone system at the time, since 1973 telephones were used to support the physically isolated, the itinerant, the housebound and the shiftworkers who were often unable to attend tutorials. Expert strategies were developed and a pack produced. Advice was offered to tutors about encouraging students to gather around a loudspeaker telephone for self-help activity ‘with the added bonus of you taking part from a distance – like an academic Cheshire cat’. Soon audio conferencing, which could involve up to eight people on telephones in different locations, was  employed as were faxes, personalised audio-cassette messages and video-conferencing.

In 1988 the OU introduced courses which required students to have access to a desktop computer. It presented Information technology: Social and technological issues, DT200, (1988–94). This used computer conferencing. By 1990 about 2,000 students were using CoSy to communicate with tutors and with other students. Programming and programming languages, M353 (1986–99) required a home computing facility, while Matter in the universe, S256 (1985–92) provided computer assisted learning for home computers and employed interactive videotape. Students were given opportunities to buy or rent computers. In 1995 twenty courses, with a total of almost 21,000 students, required undergraduates to have access to an MS-DOS machine. Conferencing enabled students to select a time which was convenient to them to respond. This did not offer the immediacy of quick-fire debate but it did provide opportunities for reflective dialogue. The large-scale use of this facility on Information technology, DT200, helped to shift the focus within the OU away from the individual learner towards consideration of how best to support social interaction. Individual students were encouraged to construct personal meaning and to contribute to their own learning and that of others through online discussion.

Information technology: Social & technological issues, DT200 (1988–94) introduced many students to computer conferencing with this electronic map of a virtual campus.


A new text-based conferencing system was developed. In 1994 FirstClass was provided for undergraduate courses following successful trials of the collaborative learning activities that it supported. It was considered to be much more intuitive a system than CoSy and within a year 5,000 students were conferencing. By 1996 there were 13,000 and soon 50,000. Initially the conferencing facility was used for interactions previously carried out by phone or letter. Tutors offered advice and responded to requests via FirstClass. The house-bound and those overseas began to exchange ideas with other students, particularly if conferencing was structured and linked to assessment. The university began to devise guidance for tutors on conference moderation and ideas about conferencing were further developed for an online course You, your computer and the net, T171 (1999–2005), which enrolled around 10,000 students in its first year and had 12,500 students by 2000. In addition to access to an extensive website students received a CD-ROM of software and set texts.

As new ways of providing interactive and individualised support for learners became possible so the importance of maintaining face-to-face contact declined. The OU study centre had begun life as ‘a “Listening and Viewing Centre” with the express purpose of providing access to VHF radio and BBC2’. Used for counselling and other purposes, many initially cost little to rent. The increased use of home video players and desktop computing cast some doubt on the value of study centres.

Typical FirstClass screen, 1996

On Discovering science, S103, computer-mediated communication was optional for students but a requirement for ALs. They used FirstClass to access a national conference at least once a week and they could also exchange messages using conferences designed for the localities in which they were based. ALs were provided with guidance as to how to teach in the interactive seminars and offered practical advice which reflected the ethos of OU teaching practices. It was suggested, for example, that they ‘adopt an informal, friendly tone. Start a message with a greeting such as “Hello” … avoid the more formal “Dear Chris”.’ In addition, they were told that ‘CMC is a medium devoid of warmth and you need to compensate for this’.

Learning was integrated with practice and students were required to submit their work electronically. They communicated not only with the central computing facility but also with one another and their tutors. Groups of about fifteen worked collaboratively on projects in their own tutor-moderated conferences. Reflection was integral to the assessment. Students were required to provide evidence of participation in online discussions. The intention was to use the new delivery modes to ensure that the OU’s environment remained congenial and supportive of the creation of knowledge by learners.

Online conferencing enabled data to be recorded for later analysis of how students learn and which were the most effective teaching strategies. Illustrations from Morris, R.M., Mitchell, N. & Bell, M. Student Use of Computer Mediated Communication in an Open University Level 1 Course: Academic or Social? Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 99, 2, 1999.










Students studying ‘Environmental practice: Negotiating policy in a global society’, D833, used conferencing software Lyceum to represent different specific countries attending a virtual United Nations. They were given the problem of constructing a shared agreement through virtual UN negotiations. Negotiation was presented as an interactive dynamic, social activity and mutual learning process. Students were encouraged to understand both negotiation and how practi- tioners deploy theory through engaging in reflection on the simulation. They were also invited to keep non-assessed negotiation journals. An evaluation of the first presentation suggested that they appreciated the sense of community engendered and the support for reflection. Some of them said that they used the negotiation skills they had acquired in other situations and that they felt empowered by the course. While this module simulated a workplace, the United Nations General Assembly, other courses written for practitioners overtly tied their practical workplace activities to their studies. See David Humphreys, ‘The pedagogy and practice of role-play: Using a negotiation simulation to teach social science theory’, Proceedings of the International Conference on Computers in Education (ICCE) ‘Learning Communities on the Internet: Pedagogy in Implementation’ (Auckland, New Zealand, 3–6 December 2002).




50 objects for 50 years. No 36. The Briggs Building.

Monday, December 24th, 2018

I work in a building named after Asa Briggs. It is on the OU’s Milton Keynes campus. But why was he significant to the OU?

Briggs, 1921-2016, was a member of the OU’s Planning Committee 1967 ─ 1969 and chair of its working group on students and curriculum. He recalled that

Harold Wilson’s original idea was to connect existing extra-mural departments, the Workers’ Educational Association [Asa Briggs was President of this body] 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, facilities for home study, nationally-organized correspondence teaching and a structure open to a variety of people.

Briggs addresses an  OU Awards Ceremony.

Asa Briggs went on:

I was very keen that there should be some kind of gateway element, an introductory element into the courses … there should be some inter-disciplinary element and that there should be no great gap in the university between one set of courses and another. That there should be very considerable freedom to move from one course to another… that people should take as long as they liked to get their degrees. And I found all this extremely exciting… not a great deal of resistance on the Committee, but an immense amount of scepticism outside’.

Briggs also ‘believed very passionately and still do, in getting the access questions right.’ All these elements were introduced to the OU. Wilson’s ‘educational trust’ and Jennie Lee’s engagement with conventional wisdom were developed by Asa Briggs. As Ritchie Calder, a colleague of Asa Briggs on the Planning Committee said, ‘we stripped down the conventional university to its chassis and examined the essentials’.

Briggs taught modules at the OU. While the 1966 White Paper The University of the Air’ argued that OU programmes should bring ‘lecturers of distinction within easy reach of everyone’, the Planning Committee concluded that television ‘should not be wasted in the straightforward visualisation of lectures’. Asa Briggs took the opportunity to explore this idea. For the Arts Foundation Course, he presented a television programme, ‘Leeds: a study in civic pride’. Using film and music it is far more than a dry lecture to camera, or a travelogue. This is history which contextualises the level at which people lived their lives within broader regional, national and international perspectives so that those new to studying and with only one opportunity to watch the programme (this is before video playback machines were commonplace) could get a sense of why history is important and relevant to them and how it can be created by ordinary learners everywhere. Watching the programmes years after they were made you see both an expert enthusing about his subject and somebody who makes support for learning central and who wants to provide learners with opportunities to construct their own understandings, to be producers of knowledge as well as consumers of education. He also worked in some of the course teams. These comprised of academics, BBC producers and editors and created the teaching materials. He recalled that ‘sometimes I was on ones where I found myself in, to some extent, in disagreement with many other members of the same course team. But the idea of pulling together a group of people was important’.

As well as being an influential planner Briggs was Chancellor of the OU 1978 – 1994. He brought to the post his experience of work on the University Grants Committee and at the universities of Sussex and Leeds. He also used his Bconnections to well-established networks enabled him to help resolve disputes. Sir Keith Joseph, the Secretary of State for Education, 1981-1986 expressed concern at that which he considered bias in OU materials. The Vice Chancellor, John Horlock recalled being ‘summoned to what proved to be a very difficult interview’ with Joseph. He concluded: ‘I am sure that he [Joseph] would willingly have closed the OU down if it had been politically possible to do so, particularly after the affair of academic bias’. Asa Briggs was familiar with Keith Joseph ‘because I’d written a Nursing Report and when he was Secretary for Health’. When the Minister sought wanted advice about the best books on the history of his constituency in Leeds from the author of Victorian Cities the OU Chancellor used the opportunity to address ‘his fears and doubts of bias in Open University courses’.



50 objects for 50 years. No 35. Dum-dah, dum-dah, dum, dum, dum, daaaaaah

Monday, December 17th, 2018


This fanfare, the sting, the first few bars of Divertimento for three trumpets and three trombones, opus 49, was composed in 1959 by Leonard Salzedo and, from 1971, was used by the Open University as the signature to radio and television programmes. In this respect it is framed by the 60s as also are the origins of the OU. The music was also associated with the logo. The OU was announced by Harold Wilson in April 1963, developed by Jennie Lee and granted its Royal Charter in April 1969. Those few bars was the sound of my youth in the 1970s. They were a signal that my Mum was switching identities, was ceasing to prioritise being maternal and was instead to be an OU student. However, the Open University did more than disrupt my life. It enabled ‘university learning’ to enter millions of people’s homes and to transform their lives. It also disrupted the higher education sector and indeed the very idea of the university.

Those five bars can each work as a reminder of the OU to listeners and viewers. As you sat on the sofa in front of the television you were being told that the next programme was evidence of a society which wanted to improve itself, which was run by a supportive government, that was using the most up-tp-date technology and systems for social benefits and that higher education was not confined to either young radicals or the campus.

This was an affluent society. Wealthy enough to own televisions, mass literacy, mass access to broadcasts and, from 1964, BBC2. Television, it was argued could be transformative, acting as the window on the world.

This was a government, the BBC was state-run, which promoted social justice. Labour’s Nye Bevan, had opened the NHS in 1948, now his widow, Jennie Lee was expanding provision. The OU demonstrated the worthiness of the state vs commercial broadcasting pirates. Within a few months of a newspaper interview with Edward Short, the Postmaster-General, which was headlined ‘Why I’m sinking the pirates’, he became Secretary of State for Education. Questions of “education” and of “pop music” should not be treated, as separate historical topics. Nor at the time were they kept in entirely separate files. The agenda and the chronologies of education and pop music criss-cross. Educational television was, it was claimed ‘a symbol of a new type of government’.

Reaching a mass audience was a symbol of mass production business model and a systems approach. Encouraged by the Wilson government, a new car company the British Leyland Motor Corporation was formed in 1968. Within a year it employed 250,000 people at the largest car plant in the world. Most UK universities which opened in the 1960s initially catered for a few hundred students. By contrast, when the first round of applications to the OU closed, over 42,000 people had applied. There were only 621,000 students in higher education.

There was cross-party support that state should build more universities. The Robbins report of 1963 was approved by all sides. However, by the time OU opened, students were perceived as a pampered lot, wasting time and taxpayers money. ‘Youth’, lamented lecturer E.P. Thompson in regard to Warwick University where he taught, ‘if left to its own devices, tends to become very hairy, to lie in bed til lunch-time, to miss seminars’. That most of the members of the Angry Brigade, who faced trial for a bombing campaign in Britain between 1970 and 1972 had been students was not lost on the press: ‘Dropouts with brains tried to launch bloody revolution’ claimed one headline. By contrast another paper claimed OU students were ‘Short-haired students keen to work’. Those five bars told viewers and listeners that technology could be used to support learners. University studying could occur in locations which had not previously been used for such purposes. At its foundation in 1969 the first Chancellor called the OU ‘disembodied’. Students in front of the television set could rearrange the conventions of time and space. They could create a laboratory or seminar room. One space could become several. Students could hold a mirror up to the mainstream, could recognise normality by observing what it could be, what it has been and what it is not. Through broadcasting spaces in which the social order could be made and remade were created.





50 objects for 50 years. No 34. Walton Hall.

Monday, December 10th, 2018

Walton Hall in the mud as the rest of the OU campus in Milton Keynes was being constructed.

The building has medieval origins but is largely a late 17th Century manor house, extended in the 18th and 19th centuries. The University leased the building and the land from Milton Keynes Development Corporation from 1 September 1969 and subsequently purchased both land and property during the 1990s. Walton Hall is the site of OU’s foundation stone, laid on 18 May 1970 by Earl Mountbatten. In common with the OU he had links to unconventional education in that he was educated at home before he attended a school and then the Royal Naval College. After serving in the First World War he became a mature university student. He later returned to the Royal Naval College as an adult learner. His membership of the Institute of Electrical Engineers and presidency of the United World Colleges were reminders of the OU’s international and economic roles and its appeal to prescient technocrats.

The building is where the Vice Chancellors have had their offices and the entire campus is often referred to by the named of this Grade II listed building.

The Hall is also home to several portraits of Jennie Lee and many of the Vice Chancellors. The basement is where a bar is located. Following a grant from the Aneurin Bevan Memorial Trust, its cellars were converted into rooms for social and recreational purposes, in order, noted the Report of the Vice-Chancellor, January 1969–December 1970, to ‘establish friendly contacts with members of the general public and other institutions in the area’.

Through Jennie Lee the former home of the Rixbaunds, the Beale family, the Gilpins, the Pinfolds, Dr Vaughan Harley and the Earles, the building used by the Development Corporation and to house WRNS working at Bletchley Park was connected to the man credited with creating the NHS. Jennie Lee made the link to her late spouse, Nye Bevan, by ceremonially hanging his cap and portrait in the cellar bar. Bevan had become a miner on leaving elementary school. He helped to pay for his sisters to attend college and he wrote of how ‘tenaciously we clung to the hope of superior educational opportunities for those of our family who could benefit from them. Jennie Lee recalled that the origins of the OU went

back to all the years when Nye Bevan and myself were together [he died in 1960]. We knew, we both of us, from our backgrounds, that there were people in the mining villages who left school at 14 or 15 who had first-class intellects. The problem was how could you devise a scheme that would get through to them without excluding other people?



50 objects for 50 years. No 33. Blithering opponents.

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

The quotations above manage to insult the students (Spectator) the founders (Christopher Chataway) the staff (Robert Jackson) the idea (The Times) and the Scots, Welsh, Irish and others not based in England (Times Educational Supplement). This was a university which failed as:

  • it was not a community of scholars, it failed as a university
  • it strove to be a university, it failed those best served by technical colleges and adult education provision
  •  it used television, it failed to educate and only managed to transmit
  • it was party political, it failed to be objective.

These criticisms had an impact. To prove it was intellectually sound the OU made strenuous efforts to present scholarly television programmes. as a result some of them ended up speaking to academic peers, not interested learners. To prove that students were being thoroughly tested to a high standard the OU’s assessment system has long been rigorous. For many years there were external examiners for every module, not simply every degree and there is checking on the marking of tutors through a system of monitoring and tutorial visits. The accusation that it was the creature of the Labour Party shifted. Some teaching materials were accused of bias.

However, slowly, the OU came to make the transition from an ‘electoral gimmick’ (to quote Chataway) to its current status of ‘national treasure’ (in the words of the Vice-Chancellor at another university). As it became more popular, so more politicians claimed it as their own. Winnie Ewing, Scottish National Party President 1987–2005, suggested that the honorary doctorate she received from the OU in 1993 was ‘in recognition of my role in establishing it’. One Liberal claimed that, ‘the idea owes its inception to a meeting at the Liberal Party Council at least a year earlier as any Liberal pamphlet for the year 1962 can amply demonstrate’.