My OU Studies: The Soundtrack

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 held on Tuesday 24th March 2020. 

The power of music is immense.  We turn to it in times of joy, triumph, sadness and in times of turmoil. Music can play a key role in well-being, and during this current season maintaining one’s well-being is vital. The current pandemic situation and the need to stay at home in order to take care of others and yourselves has many people reaching for music that feels safe, comfortable and reliable and which will support us during this time.

With the advance of technology, the way we play music around the home has massively expanded.  The average smartphone houses a large library of tunes, not to mention many apps that enable the user to reach a wide array of music across a range of genres. Digital devices can now play a song of choice from a wide catalogue at a simple verbal command; the musical reach we have is somewhat endless.

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Examining disruptive innovations in distance education

Hazel Church, Curriculum Manager within the Open Programme team, shares her reflections on the Research and Innovation in Distance Education Conference held in London on 13 March 2020.

On Friday 13 March, I attended the Research and Innovation in Distance Education (RIDE) 2020 Conference which took place at the Centre for Distance Education, University of London. The theme of the conference was ‘Examining disruptive innovations in distance education’ and the aim of the conference was to engage researchers and practitioners and to address current challenges and advances in distance education.

The conference took place just before the coronavirus lockdown when we were still at the contain phase of the crisis and before the real disruption to our lives started. Some of the keynote speakers were online as they were unwell. Those of us in the audience made sure we were sat socially distant from each other, although we were still able to chat and network.

I am the Curriculum Manager of two ‘Open Box’ modules. These are modules which have been specifically written to be included in the Open Qualifications at The Open University. The two Open Box modules are:

These modules offer students the chance to decide their own learning and to experience a range of subjects by enabling them to use free courses such as those in OpenLearn and together with YXM130 resources and assessment to gain 30 credits. Providing validation and accreditation for non-formal courses is one of the ways the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, Quality Education could be met, so these are very important modules for the University. These modules are my own experience of disruptive innovation in distance education.

I am in the last year of my study of the OU MA Online Distance Education (MA ODE) and my interest in this conference started with a WhatsApp message in my MA ODE group chat. One of my fellow students mentioned that her university were hosting the RIDE2020 conference. Some other students were also able to attend, so it was great to meet up with students who I have studied online with over the past two years.

The conference consisted of keynote presentations and seminars. There was a focus on Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Artificial Intelligence and Microcredentials; all potentially disruptive to distance education. I attended two great sessions, Virtual Augmented Reality as the future of Distance Education by Marco Gillies from Goldsmiths and Artificial Intelligence in Open Distance Education by Abiodun Musa Aibinu of the Federal University of Technology, Minna, Nigeria.

Image of conference presentation

I joined the audience of the keynote presentations by Alison Littlejohn, Neil Morris and Dil Sidhu. In the first keynote, Alison’s presentation focused on Learning in uncertain times: Supporting Student Agency, and on balancing disruption and improving the student experience. Neil Morris spoke about  Unbundling Higher Education and talked about the impact for learners and learning. Universities buy in services from commercial providers, and this could be a tension between commercial interests and the education provider.

Photo of conference presentation

As Open Box modules require students to study free courses provided by platforms such as Coursera, I was pleased to hear the keynote presentation by Dil Sidhu who is the Chief Content Officer at Coursera. Dil stressed that Coursera (which was established in 2012), is a technical platform and not a content creator, and works closely with universities who provide the content for their courses. Coursera is a ‘world where anyone, anywhere can transform their life through learning’.

Martin Weller (Chair of the Open Board of Studies at the OU) was the final keynote speaker. His presentation was, Openness as a model for cooperation, not disruption. He stressed that the language we use is important, and that using words likedisruption’ carry implicit values and many negative connotations for education. He stated we should be critical of its use in education and consider if other models and descriptions might be better. Instead we should look for theories or approaches that promote aspects and values we want to see in higher education, such as:

  • Cooperation
  • Focused on problems
  • Learner centric
  • Seeking to support educators
  • A better fit with education
  • Emphasise social justice

Image of a presenter in front of conference presentation

The final session of the day was with David Baume of the Centre of Distance Education, University of London, entitled Course design and pedagogy in distance learning, starting from what we know about learning? This was an excellent end to the day and David really got the delegates engaging with each other, We discussed different aspects of our own teaching, describing and working with our own ideas and what improvements could be made. Putting into practice that it is the work learners do that generate the learning! He made a point of finishing on time too.

It was a great day meeting academics who were interested in the pedagogy of the Open Box modules as well as meeting fellow MA ODE students. We all knew it would be the last chance to attend a face to face conference for some time…

“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.

What Employers Want


Philippa Costello is an Ambitious Futures Graduate Trainee, currently working within the Curriculum Innovation Team. She is currently studying towards a Certificate of Higher Education in Economics and Personal Finance with The Open University.

The Institute of Student Employers (ISE) is a member organisation that works to represent over 150 ‘student employers’ or ‘graduate recruiters’. They work with both employers and universities to provide support in all aspects of student recruitment.

This year, their HE conference was based around the topic of ‘What Employers Want’.

So, as someone who does not directly work as a Careers Advisor or within Employer Outreach, you may be wondering why I opted to make the trip to the London Business School (lovely catering FYI) on very cold November morning…

Well, the team who manages ‘Open’ qualifications (that includes all of the ‘Open’ qualifications, the BSc (Hons) Combined STEM degree, and the MA/MSc Open!) have been interested for some time about how we best equip students with the vocabulary to communicate to their existing or potential employers what their ‘Open’ qualification is. Most importantly, we need employers to understand why obtaining a multidisciplinary qualification – be your module choices be based on personal interest or a desire to up-skill or increase your employability prospects – is valuable in our current labour market.

Man standing in front of a presentation

Source: @IoSEorg

Dr Charlie Bell is Head of Higher Education Intelligence at Graduate Prospects, a UK sector agency which supports university careers services (and other interested parties) by providing universities with up-to-date research data on graduate issues, amongst other things.

Bell presented his research findings through dispelling myths, which was refreshing in a world of ‘fake news’ (or at least questionable news!). We’ve all heard them; ‘Everyone has a degree nowadays’, ‘All the jobs are in London’, and ‘You’ll have to go into a job that’s linked to what you’ve studied’.

However, research shows only 39.2% of the adult population (16-64 years) had a degree by the end of 2018, and of the workforce, this number still came in at under 50%. Bell prophesied that this may well get to 50% (of the workforce), at which point the narrative around ‘graduate premium’ may shift and become a ‘penalty’ for those who cannot or don’t want to obtain a higher-level qualification.

Bell also addressed the myth that ‘subject studied equals vocation’ (it doesn’t!), and of course, the most promising statistic of the talk was that 60-70% of employers are ‘degree blind’. That is, employers generally aren’t all that concerned with the subject(s) you have studied in non-vocational or very ‘general, broad roles’.

“The UK has a particularly flexible skilled jobs market…Degrees are designed to teach a wide range of skills as well as subject knowledge and employers understand that.”

The latest Institute of Student Employers student recruitment survey (2019) shows that only 14% of the employers who responded said that a specific subject degree forms part of their minimum requirement for graduate hires, and 22% state that they have no minimum entry requirements whatsoever.

Bar chart presenting minimum requirements for graduate hires

Source: ‘Inside student recruitment 2019’, Institute of Student Employers

So, what does this mean for supporting students studying multidisciplinary qualifications at the OU?

To help Open qualification students to feel confident in their interactions with employers, we have a range of resources* that students can access to help them identify the transferable skills they have gained as a result of studying across disciplines and to effectively communicate the variety and quality of what they have studied. We’ve also put together some useful information around Open degree module combinations and offered suggested career pathways.

The Careers and Employability Services also provides some valuable resources to help plan your career.

Don’t forget, if you’re a current student or former student who’s finished your studies within the last three years, you can request a one-to-one careers consultation!

 *OU login required

Sharing personal reflections of 50 years of multidisciplinary curriculum

In May 2019, the Open Programme team held a special event to celebrate 50 years of multidisciplinary teaching and learning, featuring presentations from Dr Liz Marr, PVC Students, and members of the Open Programme team. Click here to view a compilation of photographs from the event.

Professor Josie Fraser

Helen Cooke







The event was hosted by Helen Cooke, Open Board of Studies Manager and opened by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Josie Fraser, who gave the following opening address:

“Starting in 1969, when the OU first started, our BA/BSc Open degree was the only degree that you could get at The Open University and remained so for over 30 years; it wasn’t actually until 2000 that we introduced named degrees. And despite the popularity of named degrees, this unique Open qualification remains our largest degree in terms of student numbers and module choice, allowing students to construct a truly personalised qualification from a huge range of undergraduate modules across all of the faculties of the OU.

There’s something so special about that flexible study path that relates to your personal interests or your career-related skills that many, many students enjoy.”

Speakers and presentations

Click on each of the speakers names below to view their slides and presentation content.

Professor Peter Taylor – Chair of the Open Board of Studies (from 2013-2019)

Dr Liz Marr – Pro Vice Chancellor Students (interim)

Jay Rixon – Qualification Manager MA/MSc Open

Professor Martin Weller – Chair of the Open Board of Studies (from 2019-present)

Rehana Awan – Student Communications & Engagement Manager, Carol Dow – BA/BSc (Hons) Open student

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!