Unobservant journalism

 Writing on 11th November journalist Carole Cadwalladr argued

When the Open University was launched in 1969, it was both radical and democratic. It came about because of improvements in technology – television – and it’s been at the forefront of educational innovation ever since. It has free content – on OpenLearn and iTunesU. But at its heart, it’s no longer radically democratic. From this year, fees are £5,000.

Her analysis of how the OU has supposedly lost its’ way is supported by personal testimony about Coursera. This is a grouping of 33 partner universities which provides free materials and has attracted £10 million worth of funding. From January Edinburgh will offer six courses via Coursera for which 100,000 students have already signed up. Richard Herring, a 45-year-old train driver from Sheffield is quoted as saying ‘The only qualification I’ve got is a bronze certificate in swimming. I left school with no qualifications, nothing’. He was one of 36,000 who joined a ten week-long Coursera module with formal assessment. Students created self-help groups and there are opportunities to meet the tutor online. Richard added, ‘I did send off for a prospectus from the Open University, but it was too expensive. For me, it’s not about getting a qualification, it’s for the sake of learning. I’m really enjoying the forum’.

The OU has offered open educational resources since 1971, has long supported self-help groups and its experimentation with online materials goes beyond merely offering ‘free content’. Although the articel can be read as a warning about changes within the sector, when the journalist conflated ‘free to users’ and ‘radically democratic’ she implied that offering video versions of existing lectures is the same as supported open learning and the provision of material designed to support a wide range of learners. While some ‘leisure learners’ based in England will face difficulties, by framing the testimony of one person in this way the Observer has provided an unsophisticated account of the issues and failed to employ an historical perspective.

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