25 Years of OU – 2019: The Open Programme

Professor Martin Weller is the Chair of the Open Board of Studies for the Open Programme which resides in and is supported by the Access, Open and Cross-curricular Innovation team in PVC Students.

My advice is have a Bryan Mathers graphic for every point you want to make.

In 2019 I became the Director of the Open programme at the Open University. The open programme covers our ‘Open’ qualifications, such as the Open degree. When the OU was founded, you could only get an open degree, there were no named ones. This was part of the deliberate policy to imagine a new type of university and education. The OU’s first VC, Walter Perry put it like this: Continue reading

Time for an Open Programme quiz? Let’s play Trivial Pursuit

Jay Rixon is a Senior Manager in Access, Open and Cross-curricular Innovation and responsible for the MA or MSc Open qualification. In this post, Jay reflects on a staff-student online drop-in session titled ‘the Open Programme quiz’ held on Tuesday 12th May 2020. 

During this season of lockdown, quizzes seem to have had a resurgence or suddenly become cool again. I’ve heard of families spending more time together who started getting boardgames out of cupboards, brushing the dust off them and playing the type of games normally only saved for post-Christmas dinner. The rise of the online quiz has also been hugely popular during this current period, with online technology saving the day: clever interactive programmes or apps enabling a community of people who can virtually gather together to play or meeting virtually by using software like Zoom, Facetime or MS Teams. I’ve played games where everyone has written a round of questions or someone has played the role of quiz master for a group of friends or a wider community.

Image of a women looking at a computer screen nervously chewing a pencil

These re-imagined quiz nights seemed like just the right thing for this period. A chance to spend virtual time with friends and family when we could not be together, but to also have a laugh, have a bit of escapist fun and for those who have the tendency to be a little bit competitive – get your game on!

Continue reading

The next chapter…

The blog was originally set up in 2019 to celebrate the OU’s 50th anniversary and the evolution of the OU’s multidisciplinary “Open” qualifications since the university was established in 1969. You can find out more about the Open Programme’s history in our About section.

As the Open Programme enters the next 50 years of its history, we will continue to use this site to share blogs from a wide range of contributors to demonstrate the impact that this unique approach to personalised teaching and learning has had – and continues to have – on our students and staff.

If you would like to contribute to this blog, we would love to share your journey too. Just drop us an email at open-programme@open.ac.uk.

Jay Rixon – Qualification Manager, MA/MSc Open

Evening, thank you very much, it’s my pleasure and my privilege to be here. I’m going to talk a bit about my personal reflection of my journey into the ‘Open’ curriculum.

I’ve always been drawn to the creative – the artistic alchemy of materials, techniques, skills and passion, the ability to visualise a piece of work, cross creative boundaries and take contrasting elements and put them together. My background is in the Arts – I did a Visual Arts degree and at the time I had no idea but I’d now call that an interdisciplinary experience. In my degree, I learned about textiles, about glass and metal work, with no barriers across these disciplines. So I could knit with wire if I wanted to, I could use fragile kiln fired glass with hand dyed plastics to produce 3D structures and, as much as I loved and valued this experience, I came out of my degree very much feeling like I was a ‘jack of all trades and a master of none’, which is often how people describe the Open degree. However, my technical repertoire was broad, and I had learned to work across so many creative disciplines, which I only really learned to value when I became an art teacher in a Further Education environment. It was in this setting that my broad creative experience really bore fruit, using techniques from one discipline and skills from another. There was little of the wide-ranging arts curriculum that we delivered there that I could not teach, and when I look back on this experience now, I recognise that interdisciplinary and the multidisciplinary methods that I used. And now I see the value of that approach and this has no doubt influenced my contentment and my passion for inter- and multidisciplinary curriculum.

That picture is supposed to represent what is going on in my head most of the time [laughter]. In the same way that I look back on my education in my teaching experience with a new level of perceived value, I can also reflect on another facet of my experience – I’m dyslexic. This was something that was never properly recognised in my formal education and I do wonder whether I respond to inter- and multidisciplinary experience because of my dyslexia.

I know that my learning journeys are often different from those around me and that sometimes I have to go through a maze to get where I want to go. And it’s also true that I sometimes get lost and end up going around four sides of the square when other people can just cut straight across it. But I also know that in my approach, there is value and there’s worth. I see what other people don’t see and I process information and tasks in a way that other people don’t.  And this transferable skill set, the ability to not think in swim lanes but across them, is not a learning difficulty. It’s not a disability but it’s an asset, both personally and professionally. Given the diverse needs of our students – we also know that we have the highest proportion of students with a disability on the Open Programme, who are bringing strategies to their learning that helps them press on with their education – our role as the Open Programme and our wider university is to help our students with this barrier to learning and unique ways of looking at the learning concept.

In the same way our students on the Open Programme often feel like they have to justify their journeys and learning experiences to friends, to family or to employers, the Open Programme team often seek to find ways and interventions to help our students explain their experiences, their reflections, and why this type of curriculum helps them stand out from the crowd in the work environment. And that this is a valid form of learning and way of exploring the world of education.

So, I feel that this type of learning makes me, and our students on the Open Programme, exactly what this visual shows – it’s the ‘t-shaped’ student. The fully-rounded learner or employee. The ready-to-hit-the-ground-running-individual, with multiple ways of looking at the world around them.

Students that participated in an Open degree consultation a couple of years ago said themselves that learning on the Open degree enables them to succeed in a wide range of disciplines, that they can also be flexible to changing jobs and the demands of those jobs as well. So, it’s great that at least some of our students are starting to recognise the importance of this, but there is, of course, much more work to do to help students and employers reach the same conclusion that our students have done.

I’m proud to represent the Open Programme and I am proud to support our students in this way of learning; this type of curriculum. And ready to champion it in the coming times, as colleagues are as well. And with the Fourth Industrial Revolution coming around the corner, this type of curriculum is more relevant than ever. So, it is absolutely my privilege to work on the Open Programme. It has also given me the chance to reflect on my education and my professional experiences and I see that the way I learn might be different from others around me; and I see that I might take a different path or route, but it is equally as valid. And my journey is endlessly rewarding, and I sincerely hope that our students feel the same way.

An Open degree “generator”

Photo of Martin Weller

Martin Weller is a Professor of Educational Technology and the Chair of the Open Board of Studies. Here, Martin takes a playful approach to demonstrating the flexibility and scale of choice available in the BA/BSc (Hons) Open degree. 

One of the exciting aspects of the Open degree is that, apart from a few excluded combinations, students can combine modules from across the range of OU offerings. This creates some interesting combinations, and it turns out that students really take advantage of the flexibility, with many different, often unique, pathways.

Over on my blog I had some fun with the metaphor generator, which randomly selected a metaphor topic from one list and applied it to a randomly selected educational technology in another list to give metaphor prompts such as: “How is your favourite film an analogy for academics use of Twitter?”. I thought I could do a similar thing with module combinations for Open degrees. So, using the list of modules currently eligible for inclusion, I created three lists, covering OU level 1, 2 and 3 modules to create an Open degree Generator. I generalised a lot of the module titles to make sense to a broader audience (we like a cryptic, clever module title at the OU), and combined a few, so it’s not an exact listing of modules. Nevertheless, all of the suggested combinations of topics can (I think!) be studied in the Open degree.

I’ve used three different sentence structures: “Your degree could be a combination of …”; “Would a degree containing … be interesting?”; and “In order to solve complex problems we need degrees that combine subjects like…”. The last is my favourite as it makes you consider how novel combinations can be used to address complex, or wicked problems.

It’s fun to see the different combinations that it generates. Sometimes the suggested mixture looks a bit random, but usually after some consideration you think “there would be some interesting connections between those subjects”. Have a play with it and see if it inspires any module combinations. And if you don’t like the mix you get, just click the Gimme Another button to get a different set. This is just for fun of course, you should explore any module in more depth before signing up for it, but the generator might act as an inspirational prompt.

[The code for the metaphor generator which I used for this is available here, and Alan Levine’s write-up on how he developed it here.]

Opening the ’empty box’

Dr John Butcher is Director, Access and Open, in the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Students) office, and Deputy Chair of the Open Board of Studies. 

In the 50th year of ‘Open’ curriculum at the Open University, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the innovations continue, and that our ideas around openness resonate with colleagues at distance universities across Europe.

I was fortunate to spend three days in Madrid at the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) conference. There was much talk of micro-credentials and Open Educational Resources (OERs), and the recognition of prior learning. There was also genuine interest in the way our Access Programme could help colleagues in distance universities improve retention in their undergraduate courses.

I presented a paper ‘Using an ‘empty box’ module to widen access in a distance learning Open degree’ based on Making your learning count (YXM130). Feedback from the audience was positive, with particular interest in the potential to stimulate cross-disciplinary learning and to transform previous non-credit-bearing and open learning into HE credit. European colleagues saw real benefit in a student-led/tutor-negotiated learning experience, and were impressed at the rapid production timescale. Questions included: how to select tutors with the appropriate skill set; the challenge to tutors of which OERs to ‘accept’; and the obstacles in producing such a flexible module if the institution was inflexible in its systems.

My conclusion, based on feedback from academics based in other open universities, was that there remained a genuine appetite for innovations which allow the learner a personalised experience, and that the empty box concept is one of the few areas in which ‘conventional’ universities have not stolen our clothes.