October 5, 2015

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.

An analysis of the e-Learning Africa 2015 report

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Refugees and iPads 2

Elletson, H. and Burgess, A. (eds.) (2015) The eLearning Africa Report 2015 Berlin, Germany: ICWE GmbH

It is difficult to do justice in a short blog post to this 130 page plus report about the state of e-learning in Africa. I need therefore to be selective. As a result, although the link between primary, secondary and higher education is critical, I will focus in this post mainly on higher education, infrastructure and policy issues raised in the report. However, for anyone concerned about development in Africa, I strongly recommend reading the whole report rather than relying on this analysis. I have put selected extracts from the report in italics.


Technology is driving change in Africa and fuelling the economic growth of African economies. There is now an urgent need for radical change. Africa is at a ‘tipping point.’ The upward momentum of the continent’s economies can continue or they can start to slip back. Much will depend on the nature of the change the continent is now prepared to embrace….

Education is the key to Africa’s future and, if it is to do what is expected of it, technology has to be at the heart of it…. 

More attention also needs to be given to the forgotten child of African education – the higher education sector…

It is time to put eLearning at the forefront of the radical change Africa needs.

The state of e-learning readiness in Africa

This chapter from Dr Aida Opoku-Mensah, Special Adviser Post-2015 Development Agenda, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) addresses the following:

Whilst eLearning services and products are freely on offer in Africa, with many interesting initiatives and projects in place, the real question is whether the continent is ready fully to benefit from this revolution….

The key question is whether governments are providing a centrally coordinated eLearning implementation programme that aligns national goals to educational reform and the use of effective technology.

An eLearning strategy should be a subset of an ICT in Education policy that:

  • lays out a roadmap for countries with an eLearning architecture
  • addresses curriculum issues
  • provides for capacity development for teachers across a nation
  • supports administration and the management of systems

Other important aspects of such a strategy should be:

  • infrastructure development that provides affordable connectivity for education
  • content development especially when it comes to procurement of eLearning content, including its contextualisation
  • exploring the prospect of developing a local eLearning business support sector that can sustain any eLearning environment, whilst nurturing innovation and creativity in this sector.

She goes on to argue that:

eLearning becomes possible when there is an integration of ICTs in the education system, which requires a policy and strategy of its own. It may be derived from marrying a national ICT policy with national education goals and strategy. Without this approach, African countries are not and will not be ready.

The neglect of higher education in sub-Saharan Africa

Guy Pfefferman, an economist by background and CEO of the Global Business School Network, points to the neglect of higher education in Africa in the 2000 United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, because of its sole focus on primary education. However, demand for higher education has exceeded supply in Africa, resulting in a rapid growth of private higher education institutions. Funding has not kept pace with enrolment growth, and as a result quality is a huge challenge.

Although HE in Africa is now back on the development agenda, Pfefferman argues that the existing institutions require major reform:

What is necessary in order to meet the need for skills and employment is radical, not gradual, change. eLearning is therefore the only way … of scaling up the reach of good and relevant higher education.

The reality of Internet and phone access in Africa

Firoze Manji, Director of the Pan-African Baraza, which is aimed at reclaiming the past, contesting the present and inventing the future, offers some valuable counter-perspectives to the type of education being offered to Africans and the romanticism about [the Internet] and telephones. 

If one looks at the continent as a whole, something like less than 14% of the population has access to the internet. If you exclude Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and South Africa, you are left with 4% with access to the internet. You are, therefore, only reaching a tiny minority by doing it this way.

With regard to phones:

The majority of people who do have phones in Africa really only use them for text messaging. The cost of sending messages, although it has come down significantly in some countries, in many places costs anywhere between 20 and 35 cents. If you’re on less than a dollar a day then that’s a large proportion.

This theme was also taken up in the article by Nnenna Nwakanma, the cofounder of The Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa.

  • Internet access is priced as a luxury good. Overall, in emerging and developing countries, the cost of entry level broadband (averaging across mobile and fixed line access) exceeds 40% of average income (in many countries it is over 100% of monthly income).
  • 500 MB per month is the minimum needed to access two or three educational videos a week, and fewer than 3% of Africans, 25% of Asians and 30% of Latin Americans, can afford a 500 MB mobile data package.
  • In some cases, schools are trying to meet the costs of eLearning programmes by introducing additional student fees, thus clearly discriminating against the poor.
  • The high cost to connect limits access to information and distance learning opportunities for women in the developing world, which is particularly worrying because the overwhelming majority of adults excluded from formal schooling are women.

Nnenna Nwakanma concludes that:

to unlock the internet revolution in access to knowledge and empowerment we need to ensure that all people can access all of the internet all of the time [and] can use it freely to express their views and seek information without political restrictions….Globally, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should include a commitment to achieving universal and affordable access to broadband internet, including the expansion of free public access facilities, as part of a larger commitment on access to infrastructure. The SDGs must also commit to upholding the rights of all to freedom of expression, information and association, both online and offline.

What is appropriate technology for e-learning in Africa?

Niall Winters, Associate Professor of Learning and New Technologies at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, looks at three rationales for the use of technology for teaching in Africa:

  • to provide students with the skills they need to take part in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century
  • for teachers to improve their teaching practice
  • a means by which self-guided informal learning will flourish.

He argues that each of these rationales require nuanced and in-depth analysis to succeed. He argues that each is ‘problematic’ and the problems that arise from using technology for these purposes need to be addressed; merely providing technology in the hope that these goals will succeed is likely to fail. He uses One Laptop Per Child and the Hole in the Wall projects as examples of the need for a more nuanced approach.

Basic data on ICTs in education in Africa

An overview of the latest ICT in education data is provided by Peter Wallet, Programme Specialist in ICT in education statistics at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The first point he makes is that there is a major data gap in ICT in education data in Africa. In fact in six sub-Saharan countries, no data at all is collected. As a result, Wallet focused on three areas:

  • electrification
  • computer density
  • Internet connectivity.

He found that electricity was available in less than 20% of primary schools in ten countries for which there was data. More than 75% of all schools had electricity in just five countries (Mauritius, Sao Tome, South Africa, Botswana and Djibouti), although in Zambia and Niger over 75% of all secondary schools also had electricity.

The learner-to-computer ratio (LCR) varied considerably across countries, but Wallet reported that computer resources are greatly overstretched in primary education in a number of countries, including the Gambia, where 214 pupils on average share a single computer and in Zambia and São Tomé there are more than 500 pupils per computer.

The primary level LCR in South Africa, Botswana, Rwanda and Mauritius is 90:1, 55:1, 40:1 and 23:1, respectively, with Rwanda’s being relatively low due to the One Laptop Per Child program. Ratios are better in secondary schools (around 54 learners per computer). Wallet comments:

While the LCR is an average, computer resources may, however, be so strained in many schools that time on task is too limited per pupil to allow a meaningful learning experience

Internet availability ranges substantially within sub-Saharan Africa. For example, internet availability is negligible in primary schools in Burkina Faso, Liberia, Madagascar, and Guinea. At the other end of the range, Mauritius has connected over 90% of all its schools, while Botswana has connected all public secondary schools to the internet.

The impact of undersea fibre optic networks on Africa

In 2009, sub-Saharan Africa began to see its first international submarine fibre-optic cable connections. Now the region has multiple cable systems on both coasts, with more countries being connected each year.

Social entrepreneur Steve Song has been working with the online community to map the history and development of African undersea cables. He shares … his continuously updated African Undersea Cables map – April 2015 version – as well as his review of the continent’s 2014 telecom infrastructure development, to paint a picture of where and how the continent is getting connected.

Africa undersea cables 2

Country profiles

The report ends with profiles of each African country.

The country profiles allow for a more detailed view on a country-by-country basis, analysing national trends, policies and best practice, highlighting how each country in Africa uses ICT for education and development.

They show the scale of Africa’s achievement, the obstacles that remain to be overcome and, in many cases, the enormous opportunities that are now within reach of so many people across the continent.

Other topics

There are also interesting sections in the report on the following:

  • Education is the first step toward peaceful societies, by Emmanuel Jal
  • The Cruise of a Thousand Clicks: A poem by Bobana Badisang
  • The power of open knowledge: How Wikimedia is transforming education
  • Teaching teacher trainers to teach online
  • Stop the education blame game and start looking at the bigger picture
  • Spotlight on eLearning in Egypt and eLearning for agriculture in Malawi
  • The eLearning Africa survey
  • Putting mobile learning into context
  • Finding funds

Each one of these is worth a blog post in itself.

My comments

I cannot praise too highly the work of the eLearning Africa project of ICWE GmbH, which also runs the annual eLearning Africa conference. They provide essential documentation and networking regarding what’s happening in e-learning in Africa.

The report highlights the tension between the enormous possibilities of the use of technology for teaching and learning in Africa, and the reality and challenges on the ground. The editors state:

It is already clear that the ambitious aims of the Millennium Development Goals have not been fulfilled. Despite some progress, universal attainment of the goals remains distant. Progress has been uneven too. Some statistics nevertheless stand out: since 1999, for example, the number of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 75% to 144 million in 2012. In the same period, the gender parity gap was halved in primary education. In the 2000’s, the percentage of countries carrying out national assessments of learning almost doubled.

Overall, I came away optimistic about the real progress that has been made and is continuing to be made in education in Africa, and the role that e-learning is beginning to play.

However, e-learning is way down the development food chain and does not exist in a vacuum. First comes political, economic and infrastructure development (particularly electricity), accompanied by investment in and the building of formal education capacity. Then comes teacher training and the development of ICT infrastructure linked to educational goals and policy. Only then is the ecological framework that enables e-learning to be successful in place.

This does not mean that e-learning cannot help bring about radical changes, but it has to be seen as just one part of many highly complex developments that are needed to reduce poverty and provide freedom and well-being to the peoples of Africa. We do Africa a disservice by suggesting that there are simple short cuts through mobile learning, free computers or online learning, although these are all developments that can help speed up change in Africa, provided that the other pieces are also being put in place.

Contact North’s quick update on online learning in Canada

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Contact North recently published a short update on the state of online learning in Canada, which gives a good overview of the following:

  • key Canadian developments and players in online learning and open educational resources
  • five hot points
  • three key trends
  • three challenges
  • three opportunities.

This would make a useful handout to visitors to Canada. Available in both English and French.

Rebuilding the First Nations University of Canada

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How the relationship between First Nations people and Canadian society has evolved over the years. © M. Dockstator

How the relationship between First Nations people and Canadian society has evolved over the years. © M. Dockstator

Tamburri, R. (2015) First Nations University poised to take on larger role in Canadian society University Affairs, June 2

As a follow-up to my last post on the role of Canadian universities in indigenous education, I’d like to draw attention to this excellent article on the First Nations University of Canada.

This unique institution has evolved into Canada’s only aboriginal, university-level institution. It underwent a near death experience in 2009, but with a new President and Board, new funding arrangements, and a new partnership with the University of Regina, it has now almost fully recovered. It has 750 full time students and a balanced budget. In addition, 4,700 students, mainly from the University of Regina, take courses at FNUC.

The issue is whether we need more institutions of this kind, as there are different aboriginal races, cultures and nations within Canada, or whether the focus should be on building up the First Nations University of Canada as a centre of excellence in indigenous post-secondary education, or whether indigenous education should be part and parcel of conventional universities in Canada (which is highly questionable, given the past failures at ‘integration’). Whatever outcome or outcomes are most desired by the indigenous peoples of Canada, the fundamental issue of ensuring greater success in high school for aboriginal students needs to be addressed for any post-secondary education policy for indigenous peoples to succeed.

What is the role of Canadian universities in indigenous education?

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First Nations University of Canada, Saskatchewan

First Nations University of Canada, Saskatchewan

Universities Canada (2015) Universities Canada principles on Indigenous education Ottawa: Universities Canada, June 29

Yesterday was Canada Day, and I am very proud to be Canadian. But Canada as a country has made an awful mess of its relationship with its aboriginal peoples, as the recent devastating report by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made abundantly clear. The big question is where Canada goes from here, not just in making restitution for past mistreatment, but more importantly in ensuring that aboriginal people can develop in ways that benefit both them and the country as a whole.

The education of aboriginal people is a key but difficult issue, as it is not just about making sure that aboriginal people have the same educational opportunities as other Canadians, but that their education reflects aboriginal values and needs. In recent years, there has been very important progress in developing aboriginal lawyers (especially important, given the many outstanding land claims and resource development) and aboriginal doctors and health workers, but I have not seen the same progress being made in aboriginal education. In particular, aboriginal education, which constitutionally is a Federal responsibility, is poorly funded, and more importantly, badly managed, partly because education is a provincial responsibility for everyone else, and partly because the Federal government oscillates between ham-fisted intervention and neglect.

I was somewhat heartened then to see that Universities Canada, in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, has issued a set of 13 principles of indigenous education. However, on closer examination, I find this yet another example of a well-meaning but ineffective response to a national disgrace. There is nothing to disagree with in respect of the 13 principles, but the document goes nowhere near to the heart of the problem.

In Canada, less than 10 percent of indigenous people in Canada have a university degree, compared to 28 percent of non-Aboriginals, but the main challenge of indigenous education is the very low numbers successfully completing high school, which results in far fewer aboriginal students qualifying for university or, more importantly, for vocational and technical education. Canada spends far less per child on aboriginal education than it does for non-aboriginal children.

Thus there are two things I would like to have seen from Universities Canada:

  • a clear statement of the reasons why there are fewer aboriginal students in universities, and what needs to be done to bring the numbers up, including more money being spent on aboriginal k-12 education and reforms to the management of aboriginal k-12 education. Without such steps, aboriginal people in Canada will continue to miss out on higher education;
  • a plan of action to improve aboriginal post-secondary education, involving a partnership between the universities and aboriginal people, in the form perhaps of a high level task force, with a defined period in which to report, and with a mandate to propose a budgeted program of actions for provincial, federal and aboriginal governments, as well as recommendations for the universities themselves.

Until then, the 13 principles will remain a pious but ineffective response. In the meantime, would it be too much to ask the main political parties in Canada, in the run-up to the election in October, what their policies and actions will be to improve aboriginal education? (Please feel free to use this space.)