October 10, 2015

Answering questions about teaching online: assessment and evaluation

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How to assess students online: remote exam proctoring

How to assess students online: remote exam proctoring (see Chapter 4.5 on competency-based learning)

Following on from my Contact North webinar on the first five chapters of my book, Teaching in a Digital Age, and my blog post on this yesterday, there were four follow-up questions from the seminar to which I posted written answers. Here they are:

Unanswered Questions

Q: ­If multiple choice is not great for applied learning assessment – could you please give us some tips for more effective assessment in the virtual environment?­

Big question! There are several ways to assess applied learning, and their appropriateness will depend on the subject area and the learning goals (Look particularly at Appendix A, Section 8). Here are some examples:

  • via project work, where the outcome of the project is assessed. (This could be either an individual or group project). Marking a project that may take several weeks work on the part of students helps keep the marking workload down, although this may be offset to some extent by the help that may need to be given to learners during the project.
  • through e-portfolios, where students are asked to apply what they are learning to practical real-life contexts. The e-portfolio is then used to assess what students have learned by the end of the course.
  • use of online discussion forums, where students are assessed on their contributions, in particular on their ability to apply knowledge to specific real world situations (e.g. in contemporary international politics)
  • using simulations where students have to input data to solve problems, and make decisions. The simulation collects the data and allows for qualitative assessment by the instructor. (This depends on there being suitable simulations available or the ability to create one.)

Q: I am finding in my post-graduate online courses the professor is interacting less and less in the online weekly forums, while I know there are competing theories as to how much they should interact with students, do you have an opinion on whether or not professors should or should not interact weekly? Personally, I enjoy their interaction I find it furthers my learning.

This is another big issue. In general, the research is pretty much consistent: in online learning, instructor ‘presence’ is critical to the success of many students. Look particularly at Chapter 4, Section 4 and Chapter 11, Section 10. However presence alone is not sufficient. The online discussion must be designed properly to lead to academic learning and the instructor’s intervention should be to raise the level of thinking in the discussion (see 4.4.2 in the book). Above all, the discussion topics must be relevant and from a student’s perspective clearly contribute to answering assessment questions better. The instructors should in my view be checking daily their online discussion forums and should respond or intervene at least weekly. Again though this is a design issue; the better the course design, the less they should need to log in daily.

Q: Can you give an example of how a MOOC can supplement a face-to-face or fully online course?

I think the best way is to consider a MOOC as an open educational resource (OER). There is a whole chapter (Chapter 10) in the book on OERs. Thus MOOCs (or more likely parts of MOOCs) might be used in a flipped classroom context, where students study the MOOC then come to class to do work around it. But be careful. Many MOOCs are not OER. They are protected by copyright and cannot be used without permission. They may be available only for a limited period. If it is your own MOOC, on the other hand, that’s different. My question is though: is the MOOC material the best OER material available or are there other sources that would fit the class requirement better, such as an open textbook? Or even better, should you look at designing the course completely differently, to increase student interaction, self-learning and the development of higher order thinking skills, by using one of the other teaching methods in the book?

Q: Would better learning analytics reports help teachers have a more relevant role in MOOCS?

Learning analytics can be helpful but usually they are not sufficient. Analytics provide only quantitative or measurable data, such as time on task, demographics about successful or unsuccessful students, analysis of choices in multiple-choice tests, etc. This is always useful information but will not necessarily tell you why students are struggling to understand or are not continuing. Compare this with a good online discussion forum where students can raise questions and the instructor can respond. Students’ comments, questions and discussion can provide a lot of valuable feedback about the design of the course, but require in most cases some form of qualitative analysis by the instructor. This is difficult in massive online courses and learning analytics alone will not resolve this, although they can help, for instance, in focusing down on those parts of the MOOC where students are having difficulties.

Any more questions?

I’m more than happy to post regular responses to any questions you may have about online teaching, either related to the book or quite independent of it. Just send them to me at tony.bates@ubc.ca

Reading between the lines: the ‘intangibles’ in quality online teaching and learning

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Teaching needs empathy, intuition and imagination, as well as technical competence.

Teaching needs empathy, intuition and imagination, as well as technical competence.

Contact North has organised a series of four webinars highlighting the practical advice and guidelines offered in my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first webinar took place last week on September 29. It covered the first five chapters in the book, which discuss:

  • the implications of the major changes taking place in education
  • epistemologies that drive approaches to teaching and learning
  • different teaching methods and their appropriateness for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society.

The aim of the webinar was not to cover the same ground as in the book,  but to provide an opportunity for participants to raise questions or comments about these issues, which was what they did. I received and answered nearly 30 different questions in the one hour. You can access the recording here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=67ca245af5fa7a21546ba37e10f306ba

In particular, there were questions about the importance of passion in teaching, whether learners today are really different, how to engage passive learners or introverts online, how to get students to take responsibility for learning, how to get students to collaborate online, and lastly whether cognitivism is an epistemology or a learning theory. I did answer all these questions briefly within the webinar.

On listening again to the recording, though, I was struck by the interest or concern of participants for what I would call the intangibles or the more human aspects in teaching and learning, such as the importance of passion in teaching and learning, dealing with learners’ ‘readiness’ or motivation to learn, building relationships between online learners and instructors, and how to encourage/develop interaction, discussion and collaboration between learners.

This brought home to me that for most instructors, teaching is not just a technical activity that can be categorized, systematised and computerised, but is a fundamentally human practice that requires empathy, intuition, and imagination. These are qualities that cannot be automated.

The next webinar, which will cover chapters 6-9 on media and technology selection, will be on November 3, 2015. For more details, click here.


Some implications of online open publishing

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One of the differences between an online open textbook and a commercial printed textbook is that developments with an open textbook are continuous rather than episodic. Since the April publication of Teaching in a Digital Age, my open, online textbook for faculty and instructors, there have been several developments around the book. Now is an appropriate time to bring readers up to date on these developments, because they indicate some broader issues around open publishing..


Demand has remained strong throughout the summer. There are roughly 200 site visits a day, where readers can read online without downloading, although this can peak up to 500 visits a day on some days. However, most people do not spend much time reading online at the web site, but prefer to download copies to their desktop or tablets. Almost 12,000 copies have been downloaded in total since April, and downloads have been averaging about 60 a day since September 1. About 80% of the downloads are as pdfs, suggesting that people still prefer a more print-like way of reading. The other downloads are for mobile learning, mainly on tablets. I have to say though that I much prefer to read the book online, on my laptop. The graphics fit much better and I can see the comments that readers have made.

Print on demand

BCcampus has this week listed the book on the BC Open Textbook web site, from where it can be downloaded, as well as from the book’s own site. It is now also available on demand in a full printed version. I am grateful for BCcampus making this possible, because there is clearly demand from many readers for a full printed version of the book, judging from the number that have downloaded the pdf version.

The cost though of the fully printed book version is high: $17 for the black and white version, and $53 for the full colour version, to which you need to add shipping costs of around $20-$25 just in Canada. And this is just a direct print and distribution cost without any profit or overheads included. I’m still waiting for delivery of the printed versions, so I can’t comment on the quality, but it is some indication of the value of having the book freely available online, especially as the printed version will not have the interactive functions of the online versions. Online versions are clearly not only a much cheaper but also a more educationally effective option than a fully printed version.

There is a lesson here for authors. The reason the printed version is so expensive is because the book is long – over 500 pages – and because of the very liberal use of colour graphics in the original web version. The cost of print-on-demand is directly related to the length of the book and the use of colour. So if you want the printed version of your open online book to be easily affordable, keep down the number of pages to around 200, and use colour graphics very sparingly or better design for greyscale images. However, I deliberately designed the book to be used as an online resource rather than as a static printed book, and the online version will be updated over time while the printed version will have to be updated at less frequent intervals. I wouldn’t expect anyone to read the book through from cover to cover, except over a longish period of time. So if you design primarily for a low cost print-on-demand open textbook, you will lose some significant educational affordances of online learning.

There is also a lesson for readers. There is a real downside to sticking to a traditional print version of an open textbook. It will cost you financially, and you will not get the same affordances that you will get by using an online, digital version. Nevertheless, clearly many faculty and instructors – and probably many students as well – still seem to need to go through a transition period before feeling comfortable reading and studying fully digitally.

Podcasts and minor editorial changes

I have been slowly adding short podcasts to the book. Their purpose is to give a personalised view on the content of each chapter. In particular I have shared some of my motivation for writing the chapter and my more personal views on some of the chapter topics in the podcasts. I have also made some minor editorial changes since April 1 as a result of feedback from readers.

Here is a summary of the changes since April 1:

  1. 19 April 2015: Podcast for Scenario A added
  2. 3 May 2015: Podcasts added to Chapter 1 on the book’s structure and on skills development, and the order of Sections 3 and 4 of Chapter 1 reversed, following reader feedback.
  3. 16 August 2015: Podcasts added to Chapter 2 on why this chapter is important and on the relationship between epistemology, learning theories and teaching methods added.
  4. 17 August 2015: Podcast added to Chapter 3 on why a chapter on campus-based teaching methods was needed.
  5. 23 August 2015: Podcasts added to Chapter 4, on the relationship between quality, modes of delivery, teaching methods and design and on some of the issues raised in this chapter. Also some editing of the text to clarify the distinction between teaching methods and design models.

However, I ran into a ‘block’ when I came to do podcasts about MOOCs (Chapter 5), not because I don’t know what to say, but because I can’t keep calm when discussing MOOCs! Each time I’ve tried to do a podcast on MOOCs, I got carried away and it’s ended up far too long and far too vitriolic for measured contemplation. However, the rain is coming back after a wonderful dry summer in Vancouver, so I will try to finish all the podcasts over the fall – including the ones on MOOCs. I will then update you again early in the new year.


This is the ultimate test of the book: who is using it and how?

It’s still very difficult to get accurate information – web analytics are useful to a point, but they don’t give you the qualitative information that you need. That comes from readers’ comments, personal e-mails, and casual conversations with colleagues (“By the way, when I was at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico a couple of weeks ago, I met a professor who was using your book with her class. Can’t remember her name now, but she was enthusiastic about it.”)

BCcampus has an online form you can fill in if you are using the book as a resource for a class. I would really appreciate it if you could fill in this form if you are using the book, either for a course or for faculty development. This feedback is being used by BCcampus as evidence of the effectiveness of their open textbook strategy in general, but completing the form will also enable me to see where and by whom the book is being used.

I know from e-mails I have received and from comments in the book itself that the book has been adopted by three universities in British Columbia for post-graduate courses on e-learning or educational technology, by faculty in several universities in the USA, and for graduate courses in universities in Africa, Europe and Asia.  Individual faculty and instructors are my main target group and it is gratifying to know that several heads of departments and deans are using it to encourage their faculty to change their teaching methods, while other individual faculty members are independently working their way through the book. However, I really need much better data and information than I am able to get at the moment, so please fill in the BCcampus form if possible.

Webinars and presentations

The book has also led to a number of webinars or face-to-face meetings on topics raised in the book, as follows:

  • BC Educational Technology Users group: Agile design (webinar)
  • Students in the Master of Arts in Learning and Technology, Royal Roads University: Thinking about theory (workshop)
  • Community of Practice, Faculty of Agriculture, Dalhousie University: Open education and open publishing (Skype discussion)
  • Contact North (These webinars are open and free. For more information and/or to register, click here)
    • September 29: Teaching with technology: best practices and options
    • November 3: Choosing media
    • December 1: Deciding on mode(s) of delivery
    • January 12: Ensuring quality in digital learning
  • Bar Ilan University, Israel (via Skype)

I am willing to offer other webinars around the book, on request, and subject to my availability and the demand.


The whole book has already been translated into Vietnamese by the Ministry of Science & Technology in Vietnam. The Ministry is printing 1,000 copies to be distributed to universities and the Ministry of Education in Vietnam, as allowed by the Creative Commons licence for the book. I have agreed to keep in regular communication to ensure any updates are available for possibly later print editions of the book in Vietnamese.

Half the book has been translated into French, but the money for the translation ran out, and I am hoping to find a sponsor to finish it. I am working on setting up a site for the incomplete French version, to which later chapters could be added as and when they become translated.

The Beijing Open University is currently in discussion with a Chinese publisher regarding a Chinese translation. This may mean finding a way to enable the publisher to recoup costs through sales of the book in Chinese. However, I don’t want to lose the open licensing arrangement for a Chinese version if at all possible, so this is still very much under discussion.

Instructors in the Faculty of Engineering at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina are working on a Spanish translation of two chapters and an appendix.

Translation however is expensive and/or time consuming. It may in certain circumstances be necessary to change the open licence for translation into another language so that the costs can be recovered by the agency doing the translation. Another strategy is to expand on that of the University of Buenos Aires, by sharing out the translation across several Spanish language universities or departments, with each university doing a chapter each.

Again it can be seen that the very real cost of translation makes it difficult to keep foreign language versions in a completely free and open licensing arrangement, unless there is a powerful sponsor such as a foreign government ministry or other non-commercial sponsor, or unless the work is broken down and shared out among many different volunteers.


Although the three commissioned external reviews are now published as an appendix to the book, I haven’t seen any published reviews yet in academic journals. BCcampus is offering a stipend of $250 for those who write and publish a formal review for an academic journal. If you know of any published reviews of the book, please let me know.


The response to the book so far has been very rewarding, but more importantly the goal of reaching out to mainline faculty and to post-graduate education students is being accomplished through this open publication. Perhaps even more importantly, the experience with my book, in less than six months, makes it clear that open publishing is both academically satisfying and has enormous potential for educational innovation and change.

Is there a future in online learning?

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Is there a future for instructional designers?

Is there a future for instructional designers?

I hope all readers of this blog in the northern hemisphere had a good break and are looking forward to a new academic year. Your focus is going to be in getting down to work on reasonably well defined tasks, such as course design, or studying for a higher degree.

Building a career

Among you though will be a few who are wondering about your longer-term future. I am frequently asked for advice about ‘next career moves’ by people working in, or wanting to work in, the field of online learning. Here are some of the questions I get asked:

  • Where are the best jobs in online learning?
  • What qualifications do I need?
  • What should my next job be after this one?
  • My position has been terminated – what should I do next?
  • How do I move into a senior management position where I can make strategic decisions about learning technology?

The answer to these questions are usually very specific. They depend on a person’s personality, qualifications, and experience. But there are also some general issues regarding a career in online learning, educational technology or instructional design that are worth discussing and which may help people to make appropriate decisions about their future.

There is no (long-term) future in being an online learning specialist

This may come as a surprise, because online learning is booming, and there is currently great demand for people with experience in online learning. However, it is a mistake to think the future will be like the past or even the present. In particular, it would be a mistake to think that online learning will be some esoteric branch of teaching and learning requiring specialism. What is happening is that, while the proportion of online learning compared to face-to-face teaching is increasing, and will vary according to context, online learning is becoming increasingly an integral part of teaching and learning. Thus, in the future, online learning will not be a separate activity, but one component within a wide range of decisions about teaching and learning.

A second reason is only just surfacing, but we have seen in recent weeks concern being expressed about the decreasing amount of resources being spent on faculty and instructors, and in turn a greater proportion of expenditure going into ‘administration’. Part of this concern is due to the growth of specialty learning technology units, which are usually staffed mainly by non-academic categories of staff, such as managers/directors, instructional designers, web designers, media specialists, student advisors, etc. Some of these units have over 60 staff and a budget of more than $10 million a year.

This is part of a much larger problem, which is the relatively low number of tenured faculty who spend increasingly smaller amounts of time teaching, and their replacement by short-term, contract or adjunct instructors. Neither type of instructors are trained or qualified as ‘teachers’ but as subject experts, which in turn has resulted in more and more non-academic support staff being hired to support them as more and more teaching moves online.

However, the dynamic of post-secondary institutions is such that this direction could and probably will change dramatically. In the future, we will need instructors who have the skills to decide when and how to use online learning as part of their jobs, and not see online learning as a specialty of someone else.

We are still a long way from that, and over the next few years there will still be demand for specialists in online learning, and there will always be a need for a much smaller number of specialists doing research and development on new technologies, but these will be relatively few in numbers. More importantly it would be a mistake to think that you can in future build a lifelong career just specialising in online learning. It will be just one of several ways of delivering teaching.

The lack of a career path

Ah, you may say, but even if online learning becomes an integral part of regular teaching, will there not still be a need for instructional designers, educational technologists and media specialists? Probably, but given that they will need to be funded from within the overall academic budget for teaching and learning, there is likely to be continuous pressure, especially from faculty, to keep the numbers of such supporting staff down. In particular, there is unlikely to be a clear career path for such support staff.

I had an enormous battle at one university to get a reclassification of instructional designers. Instructional designers did not fit into any of the HR classification systems. I wanted them classified as academic staff – because most had Ph.D.s and all had master degrees – and I wanted a career structure, so that there was an entry level (apprentice), a career level (the majority) and at least one senior level position, so that there was a chance of promotion and some opportunity for training and mentoring less experienced staff. I did not succeed in shifting the HR system which was, as so often, rigid and unyielding to changing conditions. The instructional designers remained categorised as general administrative staff, even though they were critical to the institution’s long term teaching and learning strategy (and are now being lumped in with all the other administrative costs that faculty are complaining about).

Perhaps of even greater concern is that it is extremely difficult for an instructional designer to end up as a senior manager making decisions about long-term strategies for the use of learning technologies in an institution. These positions – associate vice-presidents or deans responsible for teaching and learning – almost always go to mainline academics who may have no knowledge or experience in the use of learning technologies. The likelihood therefore of someone who is a specialist in digital learning technologies ending up as a university or college president is remote, although there are one or two exceptions.

What to do, then?

For the next five to ten years, there should be plenty of jobs for highly skilled instructional designers, but sooner rather than later institutions will be forced to ensure that their instructors are trained and qualified to teach effectively with technology. It will be a core part of their work, and as a result the demand for specialist learning technology support will decrease. The main role then will be providing some of the initial training for post-secondary instructors.

People come to learning technologies through many routes. Some are teachers or instructors who have become interested in the the use of technology for teaching. Others are web designers or print editors who have drifted into education. Some are computer scientists who started as software developers. In the future though, most teachers and instructors will need to be experts in subject areas, pedagogy, and learning technologies. These will all be integral parts of their jobs. We need to train post-graduates from the start in these areas, and to provide a two or three year probation period where they are monitored and supervised by more experienced teachers and instructors.

When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, one of my professors asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. ‘I want to do research in education’, I said, expecting him to be pleased that I was going to do a post-graduate degree. ‘You’d better get some experience then in teaching first’, he said. ‘Take a post-graduate certificate in education, and get three years teaching experience before even beginning to think of research.’ It was excellent advice. I would give the same advice to young students thinking of becoming learning technology specialists.

Get subject expertise and learn about pedagogy and learning technologies, then teach for a few years, then decide whether or not you want to specialise. For those already started on a learning technology or instructional design career, strengthen your subject matter expertise so you can move (back) into teaching if necessary, because that may well be the future.

Above all, stay flexible and continue to learn, adding new skills and knowledge as the field develops. Develop excellent inter-personal and communication skills; these will be as important in the future as subject expertise and specialist knowledge.

Over to you

Predicting the future is always hazardous. I could be totally wrong. So I would really like to hear from others as to what they think the future is for instructional designers, learning technology and online learning specialists. What advice would you give to someone starting out in these areas? Or to someone more experienced looking to their next steps in their career?


Book review: A History of the Open University

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The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had one myself).

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had a few myself).

Weinbren, D. (2105) The Open University: A History Manchester: Manchester University Press/The Open University, 274 pp + notes, £18.99, C$31.61, US$22.30 (paperback edition)

Why you should read this book

From the book cover:

This analysis of the Open University’s precedents, personalities, politics and pedagogies contextualises learners’ experiences and illuminates the change in the values of our society, our ideas about learning and our use of a variety of media.

Despite the florid writing in the publisher’s blurb, this is an accurate summary of the importance of this book, which should be read by anyone interested in open learning, distance learning, equality of access to higher education, changing pedagogies, the role of media in teaching and learning, the politics of creating radically new institutions of higher education, how higher education has changed in terms of value and purpose over the last 45 years, and, most important of all, how open learning can truly transform the lives of individuals.

What the book covers

The book is in four parts, which I will briefly summarise.

Part I: Creating a university of the air

This part covers the origins of the university within the socio-political context of Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a fascinating story in itself, of how a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Jennie Lee, his Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Education and Science, drove through their vision of a technocratic university for the masses, how the original vision was modified from a University of the Air to a multi-media university, and how the university survived a change of government which brought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power in the year that the OU opened. This is mandatory reading for policy wonks interested in how to bring about radical change in higher education.

Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the challenges, developments and successes of the university over its 45 years existence. For those without the time to read the whole book, this chapter provides a useful encapsulation of the main points covered later.

Chapter 2 provides a more detailed account of the creation of the university, covering the political, socio-economic, pedagogical, and media components. It should be noted that many commentators believe that the Open University was ‘the most original innovation in 20th century British higher education’ and a ‘national treasure.’ This chapter helps to explain why.

In this part of the book, Weinbren captures well the social and political conditions, and above all the idealism and philosophies, that underpinned the creation and establishment of the Open University.

Part II: The first two decades

It is one thing to create a new institution; it is quite another to make it work. Indeed, the author notes that other attempts at innovation in higher education, such as the UK Open Polytechnic and the OU e-University, failed dismally after being created.

This part looks in detail at the governance and administrative structures, the role of academics, tutors and counsellors, the pedagogical models, the use of media, and the regional structure.

Weinbren points out that the intention from the start was to develop a degree-granting university with the highest possible academic standards:

Jennie Lee was adamant that the OU should be comparable to other universities in terms of its academic standards, rather than merely representing an educational second chance for the marginalised.

One reason for the OU’s relatively quick acceptance by the rest of the UK higher education sector was the high quality of the course materials which were used extensively by professors (and students) in the other universities. Another reason was the widespread engagement of academics from other universities as tutors or external examiners, who were often initially surprised by the quality of work produced by OU students.

Weinbren addresses particularly well the challenges the OU faced in terms of scale and the need for learner support for students working alone all over the country. (The OU started on day one in 1971 with 25,000 students and has grown since to 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 postgraduates in 2014, with almost as many taking non-credit courses or modules.)

Weinbren, like the OU itself, struggles with integrating the competing pedagogical philosophies of behaviourist approaches to the design and development of high quality, mass-produced, course materials, and  learner-centred approaches based on face-to-face tutorials and summer schools. Overall, though, he emphasises that the fundamental pedagogical approach of the OU is focused on students developing personal meaning through interaction not only with course materials but also with faculty/tutors and other students, both face-to-face and later online. He describes with clarity how the often changing and complex learner support systems worked.

This chapter also explains why the Conservatives under Mrs. Thatcher continued to support the OU, despite concerns from some Ministers and the national press about ‘Marxist bias’ in its publicly available materials (especially the broadcasts). Thatcher had little time for traditional universities and saw in the OU a chance for reforming and galvanising the higher education system, especially with regard to improved cost-effectiveness.

This chapter also discusses the rapid development and changes in the use of media at the OU, with broadcasting over time playing a less direct role in teaching, greater use of recorded media such as cassettes, and the development of home experiment kits for science and technology courses.

Part III: The OU since the 1990s

This part is much influenced by the many changes since 1990 in the overall higher education system in Britain, and the consequent attempts by the OU at adaptation and accommodation to such changes. The key change has been the shift from direct government funding for teaching and learning to funding largely through student fees supported by loans (the OU now relies almost entirely on student fees), and the attempt by governments (both Labour and Conservative) to introduce more competition between universities and a more ‘market-oriented’ approach. This has resulted in the OU being treated as just any other university by government, rather than the special and separate treatment it received in earlier years.

Also over the past 45 years, the whole HE sector in the UK has expanded rapidly, making access at least theoretically more open to a much higher proportion of the population. Another important development has been the increased use of online learning by conventional universities. Together these have eroded some of the unique differences and advantages of the OU over the rest of the system.

The OU has responded to these changes in a number of ways, including:

  • expanding its international reach, especially but not exclusively in the rest of Europe;
  • the development of continuing education courses and modules;
  • more diversification regionally to respond to national political devolution;
  • contracts with non-commercial agencies, such as the National Health Service, as well as commercial organisations
  • leading the charge to quality assurance processes;
  • moving increasingly to online learning, and in the process, reducing dramatically the high-cost summer schools and face-to-face tutorial support; and integrating the role of counsellors with that of tutors;
  • increased use of learner-centred and project-based learning;
  • creation of open educational resources, such as FutureLearn and BBC/OU programs aimed at the general public.

Although Weinbren does a good job of covering the increasingly diverse and wide-ranging activities of the OU in the years from 1990 to the present, the OU’s unique role and place in the UK HE system becomes inevitably more fuzzy and its future direction less clear. However, the same criticism could apply to the whole of the UK HE sector, which seems to be increasingly forced back to a highly selective and tiered system, by government policies based on a more commercialised and employer-focused view of higher education. The OU’s place in such a system is by no means clear.

Part IV: Half a century of learning

This is a truly wonderful chapter about the student experience at the OU and lets students speak in their own words. This chapter helps explain why the OU is such an iconic component of British culture, and why it is so loved by students and staff alike (it consistently comes out top in student satisfaction in annual surveys of British universities). More importantly, this chapter clearly demonstrates how the OU has changed millions of students lives for the better.

Weinbren looks at several aspects of the student experience. While the OU has a very broad mix of incomes and occupations, it has opened up higher education particularly to working class families, students with disabilities, prisoners, those without high school qualifications, and above all to women. In this sense it is a truly open university, offering not just opportunities but also qualifications and realistic chances of success for everyone.

Weinbren illustrates how important the OU has been to women, particularly in the early year of the OUs, in terms of personal development and increased self-esteem. The importance of summer schools for engaging students and making them feel part of a university community is particularly well described. I also read with great interest how the OU enabled both Republican and Loyalist prisoners in Northern Ireland ‘to develop political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence’, some going on to become politicians following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Above all, this chapter provides an excellent antidote to the current market-oriented and functional philosophy of higher education now so prevalent in Britain and elsewhere. If you can read only one chapter, this is the one.

Personal reflections on the book

The OU was a very important part of my life for 20 years. I was one of the first staff appointed in 1969, and I ended up doing at one time or another research and evaluation into the educational effectiveness of different media (including the BBC television and radio programs), designing and writing course units, marking student assignments, directing summer schools, and attending endless meetings about policies, directions and the use of media. I left the OU in 1989, partly because I was frustrated that it wasn’t changing fast enough, particularly with regard to the use of online learning. It’s hard for me then to be objective in reviewing Weinbren’s book and even more so in assessing the contribution of the OU to higher education.

Nevertheless, the book captures wonderfully my lived experience of the OU, especially the student response. Weibren has blended together an impeccable range of resources, anecdotes, events and above all personal contributions from academics, staff and students at the OU into a well-written, captivating chronicle that reflects the spirit as well as the history of the OU.

There are criticisms, of course. At times, it becomes a hagiography of an institution (if that’s possible). Weinbren does describe the many criticisms of the OU, but always provides a contradictory positive contribution to offset each criticism. In particular, he could have been harsher about the OU’s increased bureaucracy and sclerosis as it has become older. True, there have been many innovations, for instance, in the use of technology, but changing its cumbersome and now outdated course development system has proved to be extremely difficult. Although it was one of the first institutions to adopt online learning, it has been a real struggle to make it a central rather than a peripheral part of the teaching system.

More importantly, Weinbren does not look into the future, yet there are surely lessons for the future from his book. The OU is facing an almost existential crisis, with many competitors, a very difficult financial situation, and massive changes and innovation going on elsewhere in the UK higher education system. What is the role of the OU in the 21st century? In what ways can it continue to provide a unique and valuable contribution? What teaching model will best meet the needs of its students in the 21st century? This is probably another book altogether, but Weinbren is particularly well placed to ask and address these issues. As I say to Ph.D. students, the conclusion is your chance to let rip and say what you really think now you have established your credentials. It’s a pity that Weinbren did not take this opportunity, but he has probably other means to let his views be known.

These though are minor caveats. Weinbren has undertaken an extremely challenging task and met the challenge superbly. I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I have. More importantly, there are very important lessons to be drawn from this book about the nature of university education, equity, and government policy toward higher education.