Speaking about the bespoke: what the Open Programme offers students

Liz Vosper, an Open degree graduate and member of staff, reflects on a session which was part of Student Voice Week that explored what the Open Programme is; what it offers; how we create and support a sense of belonging and community; where to find resources to help; and how we can support students now and in the future. This session took place on the on 17th November, led by Jay Rixon, Qualification Manager for the MA/MSc Open. 

What the Open Programme is and what it offers

The Open Programme offers you the chance to study a range of subjects and create a bespoke qualification that reflects your personal or professional interests and aspirations. Think pick ‘n’ mix – you can savour the delights of the caramel swirl and avoid the coffee creams! Okay, probably not the best analogy I’ve used as it might need a little more thought than that, but you get the idea. And like pick ‘n’ mix, the Open Programme offers a great selection too! Continue reading

What OU Students (really really) want – and what it tells us about curriculum design

Cath Brown is President of the Open University Students Association and has been a BSc Open degree student herself  (choosing mainly physics, engineering and history modules). We loved the ‘lightning talk’ that Cath gave at a recent OU Curriculum Strategy event so much, that we asked her to write it up in a blog post for us… And here it is! 

Developing and modifying curriculum is all about students, isn’t it?

Typically, the planned curriculum is inhabited by a range of virtual students, with well-defined motivations and behaviours. They want a degree in X, a career in Y, to develop their skills in Z, and intend to study at this, that or the other intensity.  These well-behaved and orderly creatures are ready to study as directed and want a straightforward path and clear directions given – they rarely come with anything as inconvenient as pre-formed views, likes or passions.

But in truth, we real students are much more complex beasts.  For most of us, it’s not either career or interest, whatever our age – it’s a mixture of the two and that can evolve over time.

We do tend to have tastes and preferences.  That means we want choice – it gives us more feeling of control and it increases motivation, and hence improves our retention and success.  Of course, choice can be messy and costly, and we know it means a greater investment in advice and guidance.  And yes, there are some who do want a straightforward path without having to make lots of decisions. So, by all means offer those who want one a set menu, but let the rest of us dine à la carte.

The ultimate international buffet, of course, is the OU’s ‘jewel in the crown’, the BA/BSc (Hons) Open degree – its status as the most popular OU undergraduate degree demonstrates clearly how highly choice is prized by OU students. But even those who want to study a named degree will still appreciate opportunities to specialise as they progress;  to mix the culinary metaphor – even if you need us to eat up our greens at the start of our journey, at least give us a choice of desserts to look forward to as we progress.

Choice doesn’t only mean subject – it means size of study unit too. Just because increasing numbers of us want to do 120 credits a year doesn’t mean that those who’d like to do 30 credits, or just 10 credits, don’t exist.  Large units of study don’t let us flex things, they don’t let us mix and match – or in more trendy terminology, smaller units enable us to personalise our curriculum.

So, where it’s possible, why not design it so that things work well together, or separated? I think coffee and cake go well together, but coffee on its own, or cake on its own, are just the thing sometimes. OK, some things can’t be broken down too far – I don’t want to eat the eggs, flour and so on in my cake separately. But let’s start from the premise of smaller units of study with larger when necessary, not vice versa. Smaller units may cost, but that sort of flexibility could pay dividends.

Timings are also a part of choice and flexibility. Yes, some may like the conventional academic year; but for others that timing is a menace.  And we know statistically that those doing full-on concurrent study fare less well than those with partial or no overlap – smaller units of curriculum could give more flexibility here too.

It could also really impact retention too. It’s established that it’s harder to get us students back on board if we defer. But it’s also well-known that we have complex lives which may mean sometimes we can’t spare 18 hours a week. Letting us jettison part of our programme rather than all of it could keep us in the system and help us succeed.

I wouldn’t be doing the student body justice if I didn’t share what’s a big anxiety for many of us.  So many OU students, and prospective students, are really concerned how their degree will stand up compared to conventional universities.  We care about quality. We care about reputation. We care about what is in the modules we study – we want it to be the good stuff, not anything we perceive as “filler”. And while we obviously want to get good marks if we can, that doesn’t mean we like or respect things that are easy marks. We reserve the right to moan and whinge about things being hard, but we want to know we deserve our degrees.  We want you to remember the words of our founder, Jennie Lee – “Nothing but the best is good enough”.

So – what is the message from the student body?

Design for Choice. Design for Flexibility. But never ever compromise the Quality.

You can find out more about Cath and her role on the Students Association website

Why the Open degree path gives me the flexibility that I need

Kirsty is a self-employed language trainer who believes it’s never too late to learn something new. She is currently completing an open degree at the Open University and this experience, along with some of the lessons she has learned through her studies, feature in her “life as a mature student” series on her blog. As Kirsty is also blind, she is passionate about making learning accessible for all. She loves good coffee, learning languages, long walks, and golden retrievers!



I didn’t go to university along with all of my friends for personal reasons that I won’t go into here. In many ways it didn’t matter – I still got a job, then after a while a better job, and eventually I decided to set up my own business. But I still wanted to go back to the idea of studying one day. You’re never too old to learn!

There was also that feeling that some people look down on you if you don’t have anything beyond a-levels. I knew that wasn’t true – you can’t measure someone’s worth just by how many qualifications they have – but I always felt that I’d missed out somehow and wanted to give it a go.

Continue reading

Rehana Awan and Carol Dowell

[Rehana Awan – Student Communications and Engagement Manager, and Carol Dowell – Open degree student]

[Rehana] We’re here today to talk to you about the importance of community, building a sense of belonging to the University and how important that is to the Open Programme, and we’re very pleased to have Carol joining us today. The way that we’d like to share that story is through using a map as a metaphor.

So, what we’ve got here is the Land of Engagement and Belonging, where our students sit at the centre. But before Open Programme students even become Open Programme students, they’ve done a whole process of thinking, using their compass about whether or not they want to be generalists or specialists; do they want to focus on interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary study, and then once they’ve decided on the Open Programme and that multidisciplinary is their way, they will start to chart their course through the map.

[Carol] Tutors provide an all-important bridge for students. Tutors are key to the student journey as they enable and support the teaching materials, provide context and feedback and are often the face of the university, as they are sometimes the only person from the university the student will meet.

The tutors treat me like a person rather than a student and encourage engagement with the core of the institution. Students can access several further key student support mechanisms, sometimes via ALs, sometimes directly. The transport methods to the ‘Mountains of Support’ illustrate the different means to access these. Here we have MILLS interventions, which are centralised email interventions sent at key points in the student journey; enrolment, TMA deadlines, moving on etc; the Student Recruitment and Support Centres, the Student Support Teams, Educational Advisers, Library Services, Careers and Employability Services. There are other student support mechanisms not shown in the Mountains which are still key, such as IT support.

[Rehana] Feeling part of this community is really important for our ALs. We’ve got the whole of the Mountains of Support there backing up students but, back at the main landscape, you’ll see again that there are some little boats crossing here – we’ve got our yachts, and they are other mechanisms and ways that we use on the Open programme to help students to feel part of this community.

We’ve got student shadowing – we’ve been really lucky this year to work with 4 other students on the student shadowing programme; we’ve also got the work that we do with the OU Students Association, whether that’s through attending the conference, running workshops there, articles in the magazine; but also we’ve got the qualifications site. The Open Programme qualifications site hosts really key resources that help students to make those links that are really important about their learning, that help them make the connections about employability skills, and how they can use and describe their degree. There are forums on there as well where students can chat and engage with each other, which we’d like to increase traffic to. But then there are also online sessions that we run for students with Careers and Employability Services, with Library Services, and we’re about to do a module choice session with Peter and Helen as well next month. So, think about all these different ways that we can kind of help students to feel part of the community. We also have the Badged Open Course – Multidisciplinary studies: the value and benefits – which is on OpenLearn, and what we’re hoping is that there’s something there for the sector as well, to help other students look at their multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary journeys, help them to look at the skills that they’re gaining and how they can help with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and describe the their degree to employers and the value of that degree.

[Carol] I feel that the OU does it’s best to try and encourage community, there are forums for modules and groups. This year my tutor has been extremely active in this and there is a lot of traffic. The destination is the Bay of Contentment where you can see retention, achievement, completion, career development, personal achievement – all of those things that students are working towards in their journeys and the things that engagement and community building can support students in attaining. However, they still need to pilot their way through the informal student communities and support mechanisms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. You can see the pirate flag flying here as a warning, because despite the positive experience I’ve had with social media, I appreciate that might not be the same for all students.

[Rehana] So, also in the Sea of TMAs you’ll see that there are some things that can throw our students off their journey getting to the Bay of Contentment – we’ve got a lack of confidence chart, we’ve got time management, we’ve got disability or health issues, work and family commitments. These are all things that our students have to face to get through to the end and it can throw them off course. But they do get there, and you’ll see that X does mark the spot.

[Carol] There are still so many exciting future possibilities in the [hot air] balloons, growing on the skills that they have gained from studying on the Open Programme. They’re ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and to have an impact to shape the world with their problem solving and hopefully carry on with lifelong learning. Studying a genre out of my comfort zone seems to have had an impact on my ability to do my job; I learn faster and I’m more alert, my brain seems to have been kicked up a gear.

[Rehana] And that’s our Open Programme student journey.

Student guest blog: If I CAN, you can…

On 28 May 2019, BA/BSc (Hons) Open degree student, OU Ambassador and YouTube vlogger, Finlay Games, attend the Jisc Change Agents Network Conference (CAN), hosted by the OU as part of his Student Shadowing experience with the Open Programme. CAN is a network for staff and students working in partnership to support curriculum enhancement and innovation. Finn expressed an interest in exploring the use of social media on the Open Programme in his student shadowing application and was keen to build on his existing skills in this area.

In the first of our student-focused blog posts as part of our OU50 Open Programme celebrations, we follow Finn on his journey throughout a very fun-packed and inspirational day (for everyone involved!). Read on to find out more…

Finn started the day with interviewing Dr Liz Marr (Acting PVC Students) who shared her experience of grief and mental wellbeing in an open and candid interview. He also caught up with keynote speakers Ruby Granger (Studytuber), writer Julian Stodd and Cath Brown (OU Students Association President). He used the interviews and pieces to camera to create the following three vlogs, which were then uploaded to his YouTube channel, FinnTheInvincible, and shared across the Open University social media channels, including the Open Programme’s Twitter account (@OU_OpenDegree).

The videos give a great behind-the-scenes view of the CAN conference, an insight into the Open University campus at Walton Hall and access to some of the team who support the Open Programme.

Have your tissues ready, it gets a little emotional! 🙂

Part one:

Part two:

Part three: