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Keeping it real: how the OU succeeds in teaching Development

7 August 2020

Photo of workers in a Chinese-owned factory in Ethiopia

The world of development is changing fast. How does The Open University reflect this in its new postgraduate Development programme? We hear from Dr Frangton Chiyemura, one of the academic team responsible for the new course Understanding Global Development, starting in October.

What’s in a name? After more than 20 years of teaching International Development, the Open University is replacing its highly successful postgraduate programme with one in Global Development. 

This partly reflects how today’s world is so interconnected – but also hints at profound shifts in the global balance of power, and an increasingly contested view of what constitutes ‘development’, and how to do it.

Dr Frangton Chiyemura joined the university’s Development Policy and Practice (DPP) group in January, since when he has been involved in capturing these critical issues in the study material for the university’s new Masters in Global Development. 

Testing team of academics

To maintain a reputation for successful distance teaching this material has to be of exceptional quality, and to create this the OU has its own unique model of course production, he says. 

“To write each teaching module in the programme we bring together a team of academics who all have different expertise in the field, we discuss what themes and topics to include, and then each academic contributes material in the area they are really expert in. 

“Once you’ve started writing you share it with others who give feedback and ask questions, so that for, say, one week’s worth of teaching there will be three or four of these rounds of negotiation, and you end up with something that’s tested and solid.

“You write from your own lived experience and perspective, and because we have a diversity of experience in the team this results in a really rounded module, with something in it that’s relevant to a student in every corner of the world.” 

China or West: which is best?

The perspective Dr Chiyemura brings to the process is broad: born in Zimbabwe, university educated in South Africa, a bit of research experience in Ethiopia, then a PhD Studentship in the UK, funded by the OU’s International Development and Innovation Strategic Research Area, which he completed in 2019.

His research interest is in the highly topical area of rising Chinese influence, specifically China’s Belt and Road Initiative and investment in renewable energy in Africa, and this is what he wrote about in his contribution to the Understanding Global Development module.

“Africa has had experience of former colonisers and their conception of development, now China comes along and seems to provide what analysts have considered ‘alternative’ model of development to the one the West have been advocating since the end of World War II. 

“Which model works out quite well? Which is best? I write about this from my own experience in dealing both with Western developers and with China.

“Our team of researchers are actively involved in what they write about, because it is not enough to just understand the theory – although theory is important – we have to infuse that with real world cases—something so practical, and you can only get that by going out into the field where this ‘development’ happens.”

This blend of theory and practice means that both the academic and the practitioner student are catered for, he says.

“Students interested in an academic career may go on to finish the Masters and do a PhD, but equally those who are working or want to work in the Development sector can take a practitioner-oriented route.”

Setting the trend for online

The meticulous production process is necessary because, like all OU courses, Understanding Global Development is designed to be studied online, something that gives the OU an advantage in current circumstances, Dr Chiyemura says. 

“With the pandemic we have seen a drive towards online education and we are likely to see a lot more students coming to the study with the OU.

“They will be more comfortable with a university which has so much experience of mobile delivery and online platforms, and offers good value for money.

"Online is the future of the sector, and the OU is the trendsetter.”

Understanding Global Development is the first module in the MSc in Global Development programme, and successful completion leads to a Postgraduate Certificate qualification. The course begins on 3 October 2020, closing date for enrolments is 17 September (places subject to availability).

Photo by Frangton Chiyemura shows workers processing leather for shoe manufacturing at a Chinese-owned industrial park in Ethiopia 


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To find out more about our work, or to discuss a potential project, please contact:

International Development Research Office
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The Open University
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