Systems and students

Often the OU is seen in terms of systems. It also needs to be understood in terms of students.

At its foundation the OU’s first Chancellor, Lord Geoffrey Crowther, made it clear that teaching and learning were to be at the core of the new institution. He argued that ‘the first and most urgent task before us is to cater for the many thousands of people, fully capable of a higher education, who, for one reason or another, do not get it’. His ambitious target was to support students who (unlike most of those at other universities) were part-time and mature. A significant percentage of OU students had disabilities, while others were in prison or the Services or abroad or without previous qualifications. Some opted out of their studies for a year or two, or transferred from one region to another. Some were not studying for degrees. During the 1960s about 10% of university students failed to leave with a degree after three years. Across Europe it was the case that ‘in the majority of systems the dropouts are of no concern to the teaching staff’. By contrast, there was concern that a high percentage of OU students would start but not complete their degrees. Moreover, there were thousands of them. By 1977 the total OU student body consisted of 57,820 students (of whom only 390 were postgraduate students and only 50 were full time). There were 288 central and 196 regional academics who wrote course materials and 5,262 part-time tutor counsellors and course tutors.While it may not be the case that as OU lecturer Francis Castles claimed, ‘the distinctiveness of the teaching situation stems from the sheer complexity and size of the OU teaching system’, the teaching methods of other universities, the lecture, the seminar and the tutorial which had been developed for young, full-time student with A levels, required radical adaptation. 

The systems approach was an adaptation of a model familiar within industry as ‘like most organisations of our age the Open University has a production-line system like that of the Model T Ford’ said OU educationalist Michael Macdonald-Ross. To ensure that students received high-quality teaching which was sufficiently similar, whatever their circumstances, to enable them to study assessed modules over many years in order to gain a degree, a system of linking programmed learning schemes to televised lectures appeared appropriate. The intention was that teams of academics and other specialists would centrally control the production and distribution of blend of media, notably television, print and radio.

 However, there were difficulties of operating that which one OU academic characterised as ‘a systems-based industrial model of academia’. Broadcasting, seen as ‘everyman’s classroom’ in 1972, did not enable the OU to challenge ‘the idea of what a classroom was [in] a flash’ as was claimed by Peter Mandelson. The broadcast material was seen to be lightweight by some, overweight by others and (particularly in the case of radio) unpopular with students. It was also inaccessible. Around 5% of students could not receive BBC and about 8% could not receive VHF radio transmissions. As content and transmission times were not under complete OU control, there were disputes with the sole broadcasting partner, the BBC. Television broadcasts were expensive to make and inflexible as, even with repeats, students had to work around the time of the broadcasts. One critic had concluded by 1983 that ‘Five decades of research suggest that there are no learning benefits to be gained from employing different media in instruction, regardless of their obviously attractive features or advertised superiority … The best current evidence is that media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement’.

Over the course of 20 years the initial pedagogic framework was dismissed as passive, hierarchical and resistant to supporting dialogue, the conception and design of programmed learning were deemed ‘largely male areas’ (while the materials were delivered to a large number of female students) and the course teams which produced the teaching materials came to be seen as unwieldy, long-winded and argumentative. Teaching at the OU was never simply the creature of administrative or political pressures or economic models of efficient production and nor was it ever entirely free of those constraints. Rather, there was an anti-elitist concept and a ‘systems’ approach to education. 

One way to understand the impact of the OU’s teaching strategies during its first two decades is to recognise the significance of the development of an active, student body. The OU developed strategies for teaching adults many of whom were long out of school, who often had unpleasant memories of their own formal education and who were physically separated from one another. Its student body, made up of people who were widely different in age, background and qualifications and connected to one another only through the OU, can be conceptualised in terms of Warner’s notion of a public, that is, ‘a space of discourse’. Rooted in discourse and unstable, changing and contested the OU student body came into existence when texts were circulated among strangers and enabled those people, through those texts, to organize together and to have experiences in common.

This framework highlights the specificity and generic aspects of the OU student body. It was only when the notions that a public could be sovereign, when there was mass literacy and mass access to broadcasts and when there was a university which recognized that knowledge could be constructed through educational dialogue and activity that the OU student body could be embodied. Learning through the OU involved home experiment kits, correspondence materials, TV broadcasts, tutorials in study centres and attendance at residential schools. This enabled study spaces and a distinctive student body to be created. Communities were formed through shared interests, information and competences. There was reciprocation and a flow of ideas and support. The university encouraged collaborative learning and helped people to improve their skills, confidence and motivation, to strengthen their identities as learners and to gain a clearer sense of the relationship between learning and the wider world. Tutors were urged not to concentrate only on imparting the canon of accepted knowledge but rather to encourage students to question the assumption that there was an accepted body of theoretical knowledge about which they need to learn. The significance of self-esteem to learners was recognised and there was encouragement of reciprocity and mutual respect of the life experiences of other adults. In addition, the OU promoted the development of student-directed learning groups. The changes in attitudes towards programmed and collaborative learning can be framed by attention to the shifting nature of the student body.

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