Is ‘rubbish’ distance education the future?


There were echoes of some of the debates about the OU which have occurred over the last half-century in a meeting in Brighton on 29th April 2010.  Debate about where HE is going based on an understanding of where it has been is welcome. To judge from the report it looks as if an understanding of the development of the OU could be of value to those debating the future of HE elsewhere.


Chaired and organised by Robert Clowes, a panel comprised of Dennis Hayes, Professor of Education at the University of Derby, Blay Whitby, ethicist, philosopher and University of Sussex lecturer and Donald Clark, higher education moderniser and director of the University for Industry discussed ‘What should the University be for? at Bellerbys College, Brighton. The event was organised by the Brighton Salon. In an account of  the debate Sean Bell, a local journalist and an organiser of the Brighton Salon noted that about half of the audience worked or studied at either Sussex or Brighton Universities. The below, with the exception of the comments in square brackets, is derived from his account.

Donald Clark championed distance learning and called The Open University a marvellous success which demonstrated that universities didn’t need to be physical places, as the OU was able to educate 10 times more students per year than Sussex could. Some of the audience had been involved in campaigning against the cuts at Sussex and there was little sympathy for some of Donald’s views from the university workers and Sussex students. One person, Kamil asked if Open University teachers had largely been educated at the Open University or had in fact been trained in traditional institutions. He said that in his work (not in education), he learned more from the face-to-face meetings. Another contributor, while admiring the Open University, pointed out that it did indeed have a campus [though perhaps he did not appreciate that it has offices in the regions and nations] and that, as a result of government policy, it too was cutting courses. The OU was becoming more like traditional universities in that they were all suffering, he said.

Dennis Hayes said it was an attack on knowledge to vilify the past with the assertion that “rubbish” distance learning was the future. Jamie, who is going to university next year, asked if teaching could move toward smaller groups. He saw that you could learn on the OU model but would learn more in discussion with people who know their subjects. [The OU’s online and face-to-face tutorial groups seek to do this] Steve, a believer in life-long learning who doesn’t work in education, proposed opening the universities up to everyone. The closed campus prevented the public engaging with the knowledge that was available [This latter point echoes ideas promoted by  H G Wells and,more recently, Michael Young].

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