Open your mind to the world of film


Dr John Butcher is the Deputy Chair of the Open Board of Studies and Jay Rixon is a Senior Manager responsible for the MA or MSc Open qualification. Both John and Jay are part of the Access, Open and Cross-curricular Innovation team.

To support our students and our Open Programme staff at this time, ad-hoc drop-in sessions were created to be a weekly refuge for an hour where positive conversations could take place about things that inspire us and to explore things that felt familiar, comfortable and safe. So far, these weekly sessions have been a real collaboration between staff and students: music playlists have been created and a reading list has been drafted, so the next topic to be discussed after music and books was film.

Films are a topic often discussed in the Open team, sharing recent highlights or old classic movies newly discovered. The exchange of information and recommendations is often a much looked-forward-to break in a busy day and a chance to share experiences and random film trivia. The chance to discuss them with a wider group of students and staff could not be passed up.

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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…

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