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

‘Open the Book’ Drop-in session

Ute Manecke is a Learning and Teaching Librarian at the Open University. She’s supporting modules in production and presentation including those that are part of the Open Programme through digital information literacy integration. She also runs online training sessions for students and answers enquiries at the library’s virtual helpdesk. Ute also currently studies one of the OU’s postgraduate creative writing modules and has her own blog. Other things she enjoys are walks and runs, writing and reading, tea and coffee and the company of cats.  

On Tuesday 31st March 2020, I joined Jay Rixon, Qualification Manager for the MA/MSc Open, to run the second session in the newly introduced series of themed sessions that invites Open Programme students to join in for a chat about a topic they are interested in. This session was entitled ‘Open the Book’ and was all about books and reading. Students and several members of the Open Programme team joined the session and soon a lively discussion was in full swing.

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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.

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“You work where…?”

Philippa Costello is an Ambitious Futures Graduate Trainee, who has spent the last 6 months working in the Access, Open and Cross-Curricular Innovation team. On completion of her graduate scheme at the end of February 2020, Philippa will be taking up a role as Undergraduate Student Support Officer at Queen Mary University in London. In her final blog post for the team, she sums up her experience of supporting the OU’s flagship Open Programme curriculum. 

Planning for the final placement of my graduate scheme was a bit of a whirlwind. Over the course of my scheme, I had had the opportunity to work in central university departments, but I was yet to find myself in a curriculum-based environment. Luckily for me, I was able to secure 6 months in the Centre for Access, Open and Cross-curricular Innovation.

Before I joined the team, I was vaguely aware of the provision offered by the OU, and I knew some students who had been studying towards or graduated with an ‘Open’ Degree, but I still had a lot of questions about how it worked in reality and what on earth the ‘open box module’ everyone keeps talking about was! (It’s YXM130 and YXM830, in case you were wondering.)

From the off, it was clear I had lucked out. I was quickly introduced to the whole team, set up with a mentor, and was trusted with responsibility for my projects, which included taking the lead on recruiting students to our student shadowing scheme, and supporting the team who manage our ‘Open’ Certificate, Diploma, and Degree in developing a new form of qualification [still in development]. I was even able to represent the team at an external Careers conference – you can read more about it in my last blog post!

One thing that struck me during my placement in the Centre for Access, Open and Cross-curricular Innovation was how much the whole team is committed to providing a great student experience, which is proven by their commitment to student representation through the OU Students Association, as well as how they work with colleagues across the University to offer alternative ways of interaction between students and staff, for example, the ‘Freshers’ and ‘Refreshers’ events they host on Student Hub Live. They also speak directly to students and gain feedback through social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Representing the Open Programme with placement manager Helen Cooke at the Employability Fair in November 2019

I wanted to experience working in a curriculum area as part of my professional development, and I really couldn’t have asked for a better area in terms of gaining a well-rounded Higher Education sector perspective.

A flexible curriculum, such as the one offered by our ‘Open’ qualifications is needed now more than ever. As I write, more and more universities are starting to think about how we can bridge the skills gap in our economy and solve the world’s current and future ‘big problems’ such as global warming or water security.

What we know is that the solutions to these problems will require not only disciplinary expertise, but multidisciplinary knowledge, and at the very least, they will require teams of people to be able to work effectively in an interdisciplinary way. That’s why across the sector, we have seen departments such as the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) created at the University of Warwick, as well as the founding of the London Interdisciplinary School, a new university entirely focussed on interdisciplinary teaching and learning.

Giving students such a high level of flexibility presents enormous value; our students are empowered to take control of their learning and able to self-construct a qualification that is perfect for their needs.

Luckily for us at the OU, we’ve championed this approach to learning for the past 50 years, and we are able to set an example to the rest of the sector in terms of how a student-led multidisciplinary programme can work.

As I come to the end of my graduate scheme and make my next move in the world of HE, I know I will always keep the mission of the OU and it’s first degree with me, putting students first and championing flexibility wherever I can.

Professor Martin Weller – Chair, Open Board of Studies (from August 2019)

So, I’m coming at this from a slightly different angle… My area is ‘open education’ in its new interpretation.

I did my inaugural lecture this year (despite having been a Professor for about 15 years, they finally got round to it!).  I was exploring this question ‘What does the Open in Open University mean?’ and I made the pitch that, up until the mid-90s, ‘open education’ more or less meant the Open University model. But since then, with the arrival of the internet, that definition had changed and there’d been a kind of diversification of interpretations. So, I asked the audience ‘What does the Open in the Open University mean to you’, around things like accessibility, knowledge, bringing the students in, all of the things you might expect.

But I think it’s interesting that amongst that list isn’t ‘freedom’ or ‘choice’. So then I went on to ask some other things. I explored these new definitions of open education, so ‘MOOCs (massive open online courses)’; ‘OERs’ (open educational resources, such as OpenLearn); ‘open educational practice’, which you might classify as what educators do in the Open, sharing practice, that kind of thing; ‘open textbooks’, which are openly licensed textbooks that educators and students can take and adapt; ‘open access publications’ or ‘open access data’ so anyone can take them and use them; and ‘open pedagogy’, which you might describe as using open principles and how you teach, whether that’s getting students to change things or operating in the open.

And I said to the audience on the night: ‘Pretend you are the Vice Chancellor for a year, what would you focus our resources on?’ I think, slightly to my surprise, ‘open pedagogy’ came out as the clear winner there, and I think that has a lot to say to the Open Programme.

I also put forward this model that we’ve been looking at of how universities around the globe are trying to think about openness and flexibility and we came across a number of different perspectives of that. Again, I asked the audience to think about this, so the OU scores quite well on some of those things, like having Open access to content in many ways, but not so well in other ones.

So, of the ones we [the OU] didn’t score very well on, I asked the audience what we should focus on, so it was:

  • Personalised content – so learners can get different types of content to support their needs or interests;
  • Open to further students – so a radical idea might be that all our courses are open, anyone can access them and you pay for accreditation;
  • Use of open content in production – a disappointingly low score [laughter];
  • Open recognition of assessment – so much like we do with the YXM course, enabling students to bring in learning from elsewhere; and
  • Flexible assessment – which is like allowing students to take different types of assessment and at different times.

Again, I was really pitching hard for open content in production which didn’t work at all [laughter], but flexible assessment was a clear winner, and I think, again, that speaks a lot to the Open Programme.

Where we are now in the broader Open education movement is that openness has come to refocus around re-use, being able to take other people’s content and data and adapt it for your own purposes, for the use of things like creative commons licenses; open access, whether that’s open access publications, books, data again, so you can get to the stuff; and just free, particularly MOOCs, that’s the kind of offer they make is free study.  So really, openness has meant the removal of restrictions in many cases.

And I think that’s good and worthy work, but really, it’s just the base level for interesting things to now happen and I think those interesting things are around some of the things that people responded to – around open pedagogy and flexible assessment. I spent a long time, from about 2012 to yesterday, being really annoyed with the way people discovered MOOCs as like “hey look, it’s the first generation of massive online learning” as if no-one’s been doing online learning before [laughter]. And I think there’s a real opportunity that Open choice is the next big thing; having laid that kind of ground work for Open education, I think people will now start to talk about having choice within that, for all those reasons that Liz, Peter and Jay mentioned, to that whole idea of learner agency and tackling all those problems. If you think about climate change and all of those big global problems, you need these kind of things. And I’ve seen at least one article so far, but I can bet within the next 2 or 3 years you’ll see lots of articles of like “hey, so-and-so University has developed this ‘open’ pick and mix module” and “we’ve invented it” and we [the OU] will be saying “hey, over here!”. So I think there’s a real opportunity for us to claim this ground but sometimes it’s difficult when you’ve been doing it for 50 years, you don’t see it as new. And how do you make it a new story?

So, I guess my challenge to us is how we make this seem new and innovative and to meet all those needs, but I think it’s definitely a way forward.

And so, go forth, and talk about Open choice!