November 30, 2015

Book review: A History of the Open University

Listen with webReader
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.

Privacy and the use of learning analytics

Listen with webReader
Image: from Michael Radford's movie, 1984 - Big Brother is watching you!

Image: from Michael Radford’s movie, 1984 – Big Brother is watching you!

Warrell, H. (2105) Students under surveillance Financial Times, July 24

Applications of learning analytics

This is a thoughtful article in the Financial Times about the pros and cons of using learning analytics, drawing on applications from the U.K. Open University, Dartmouth College in the USA, student monitoring service Skyfactor, and CourseSmart, a Silicon Valley start-up that gives universities a window into exactly how e-textbooks are being read.

The UK Open University is using learning analytics to identify students at risk as early as a week into a course.

An algorithm monitoring how much the new recruits have read of their online textbooks, and how keenly they have engaged with web learning forums, will cross-reference this information against data on each person’s socio-economic background. It will identify those likely to founder and pinpoint when they will start struggling. Throughout the course, the university will know how hard students are working by continuing to scrutinise their online reading habits and test scores.

The article also discusses Dartmouth College’s mobile phone app which:

tracks how long students spend working, socialising, exercising and sleeping. The information is used to understand how behaviour affects grades, and to tailor feedback on how students can improve their results.

The article also tries to get a handle on student attitudes to this form of monitoring or surveillance. Not surprisingly, students appear to be somewhat ambiguous about learning analytics and differ in their acceptance of being monitored.


What was particularly interesting is the range of justifications given in this article for monitoring student behaviour through data analysis:

  • the most obvious is to identify students at risk, so that appropriate interventions can be made. However, there weren’t any examples given in the article of appropriate interventions, highlighting the fact that it is one thing to identify a problem and quite another to know what to do about it. For instance we know that from previous research that students from particular socio-economic backgrounds or students from particular ethnic backgrounds are potentially more at risk than others. What does this mean though in terms of teaching and learning? If you know this is a challenge before students start studying, why wait for learning analytics to identify it as a problem?
  • the next argument is the need to ensure that the high investment each student (or their parents) makes in higher education is not wasted by a failure to complete a program. Because of the high cost, fear of failure is increasing student stress. At Dartmouth, a third of the undergraduate student body saw mental health counsellors last year. However, the solution to that may not be better learning analytics, but finding ways to finance students that don’t lead to such stress in the first place;
  • another rationale is to reduce the financial risk to an institution. The Chief Technology Officer at Skyfactor argues that with revenues from tuition fees of around $25,000+ per student per annum in the USA, avoiding student drop-out is a financial necessity for many U.S. institutions. However, surely there is a moral necessity as well in ensuring that your students don’t fail.

Making sense of learning analytics

The Open University has always collected data on students since it started. In fact, McIntosh, Calder and Smith (1976) found that statistically, the best predictor of success was whether a student returned a questionnaire in the first week of a course, as this indicated their commitment. It still didn’t tell you what to do about the students who didn’t return the questionnaire. (In fact, the OU’s solution at the time was not to count anyone as an enrolment until they had completed an assignment two weeks into the course – advice that MOOC proponents might pay attention to).

As with so many technology developments, the issue is not so much the technology but how the technology is used, and for what purposes. Conscientious instructors have always tried to track or monitor the progress of individual students and learning analytics merely provides a more quantitative and measurable way of tracking progress. The issue though is whether the data you can track and measure can offer solutions when students do run into trouble.

My fear is that learning analytics will replace the qualitative assessment that an instructor gets from, for instance, participating in a live student discussion, monitoring an online discussion forum, or marking assignments. This is more likely to identify the actual conceptual or learning problems that students are having and is more likely to provide clues to the instructor about what needs to be done to address the learning issues. Indeed in a discussion the instructor may be able to deal with it on the spot and not wait for the data analysis. Whether a student chooses to study late at night, for instance, or only reads part of a textbook, might provide a relatively weak correlation with poorer student performance, but recommending students not to stay up late or to read all the textbook may not be the appropriate response for any individual student, and more importantly may well fail to identify key problems with the teaching or learning.

Who gets to use the data?

Which brings me to my last point. Ruth Tudor, president of the Open University’s Students’ Association, reported that:

when the data analytics programme was first mooted, participants were “naturally” anxious about the university selling the information it collected to a third party.

The OU has given strong assurances that it will not do this, but there is growing concern that as higher education institutions come to rely more on direct funding and less government support, they will be tempted to raise revenues by selling data to third parties such as advertisers. As Andrew Keen has argued, this is a particular concern about MOOCs, which rely on other means than direct fees for financial support.

Thus it is incumbent on institutions using learning analytics to have very strong and well enforced policies about student privacy and use of student data. The problem then though is that can easily lead to instructors being denied access to the very data which is of most value in identifying student learning difficulties and possible solutions. Finding the right balance, or applying common sense, is not going to be easy in this area.


McIntosh, N., Calder, J. and Swift, B. (1976) A Degree of Difference New York: Praeger


Is the ADDIE model appropriate for teaching in a digital age?

Listen with webReader
© Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

Click on the graphic for the interactive version © Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’ In my last post I discussed the appropriateness of the classroom design model for a digital age. In this post, I explore the same issue for the ADDIE model.

What is ADDIE?

ADDIE stands for:


  • identify all the variables that need to be considered when designing the course, such as learner characteristics, learners’ prior knowledge, resources available, etc.  This stage is similar to describing the learning environment outlined in Chapter 5.


  • this stage focuses on identifying the learning objectives for the course and how materials will be created and designed (for instance, it may include describing what content areas are to be covered and a storyboard outlining what will be covered in text, audio and video and in what order), and deciding on the selection and use of technology, such as an LMS, video or social media


  • the creation of content, including whether to develop in-house or outsource, copyright clearance for third party materials, recording videos or audio, loading of content into a web site or LMS, etc.


  • this is the actual delivery of the course, including any prior training or briefing of learner support staff, and student assessment


  • feedback and data is collected in order to identify areas that require improvement and this feeds into the design, development and implementation of the next iteration of the course.

The interactive infographic above provides an in-depth, step-by-step approach to the design of learning, with lots of online resources to draw on. There have been many books written about the ADDIE model (see for instance, Morrison, 2010; Dick and Carey, 2004).

Where is ADDIE used?

This is a design model used by many professional instructional designers for technology-based teaching. ADDIE has been almost a standard for professionally developed, high quality distance education programs, whether print-based or online. It is also heavily used in corporate e-learning and training. There are many variations on this model (my favourite is ‘PADDIE’, where planning and/or preparation are added at the start). The model is mainly applied on an iterative basis, with evaluation leading to re-analysis and further design and development modifications.

One reason for the widespread use of the ADDIE model is that it is extremely valuable for large and complex teaching designs. ADDIE ‘s roots go back to the Second World War and derive from system design, which was developed to manage the hugely complex Normandy landings.

The Open University in the United Kingdom heavily uses ADDIE to manage the design of complex multi-media distance education courses. When the OU opened in 1971 with an initial intake of 20,000, it used radio, television, specially designed printed modules, text books, reproduced research articles in the form of selected readings that were mailed to students, and regional study groups, with teams of often 20 academics, media producers and technology support staff developing courses, and with delivery and learner support provided by an army of regional tutors and senior counsellors. Creating and delivering its first courses without systematic instructional design model would have been impossible, and in 2014, with over 200,000 students, the OU still employs a strong instructional design model based on ADDIE.

Although ADDIE and instructional design in general originated in the USA, the Open University’s success in developing high quality learning materials influenced many more institutions that were offering distance education on a much smaller scale to adopt the ADDIE model, if on a more modest scale. As distance education courses became increasingly developed as online courses, the ADDIE model continued, and is now being used by instructional designers in many institutions for the re-design of large lecture classes, hybrid learning, and for fully online courses.

What are the benefits of ADDIE?

One reason it has been so successful is that it is heavily associated with good quality design, with clear learning objectives, carefully structured content, controlled workloads for faculty and students, integrated media, relevant student activities, and assessment strongly tied to desired learning outcomes. Although these good design principles can be applied with or without the ADDIE model, it is a model that allows these design principles to be identified and implemented on a systematic and thorough basis. It is also a very useful management tool, allowing for the design and development of large numbers of courses to a standard high quality.

What are the limitations of ADDIE?

The ADDIE approach can be used with any size of teaching project, but works best with large and complex projects. Applied to courses with small student numbers and a deliberately simple or traditional classroom design, it becomes expensive and possibly redundant, although there is nothing to stop an individual teacher following this strategy when designing and delivering a course.

A second criticism is that the ADDIE model is what might be called ‘front-end loaded’ in that it focuses heavily on content design and development, but does not pay as much attention to the interaction between instructors and students during course delivery. It has been criticised by constructivists for not paying enough attention to learner-instructor interaction, and for privileging more behaviourist approaches to teaching.

Another criticism is that while the five stages are reasonably well described in most descriptions of the model, it does not provide guidance on how to make decisions within that framework. For instance, it does not provide guidelines or procedures for deciding how to choose between different technologies, or what assessment strategies to use. Instructors have to go beyond the ADDIE framework to make these decisions.

The over-enthusiastic application of the ADDIE model can and has resulted in overly complex design stages, with many different categories of workers (faculty, instructional designers, editors, web designers) and consequently a strong division of labour, resulting in courses taking up to two years from initial approval to actual delivery. The more complex the design and management infrastructure, the more opportunities there are for cost over-runs and very expensive programming.

My main criticism though is that the model is too inflexible for the digital age. Adamson (2012) states:

The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

In particular knowledge workers must deal with situations and contexts that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what Adamson calls a VUCA environment). This certainly applies to teachers working with ever changing technologies, very diverse students, a rapidly changing external world that puts pressure on institutions to change.

If we look at course design, how does a teacher respond to rapidly developing new content, new technologies or apps being launched on a daily basis, to a constantly changing student base? For instance, even setting prior learning outcomes is fraught in a VUCA environment, unless you set them at an abstract ‘skill’ level such as thinking flexibly, networking, and information retrieval and analysis. Students need to develop the key knowledge management skills of knowing where to find relevant information, how to assess, evaluate and appropriately apply such information. This means exposing them to less than certain knowledge and providing them with the skills, practice and feedback to assess and evaluate such knowledge then apply that to solving real world problems.

This means designing learning environments that are rich and constantly changing, but enable students to develop and practice the skills and acquire the knowledge they will need in a VUCA world. I would argue that while the ADDIE model has served us well in the past, it is too pre-determined, linear and inflexible to handle this type of learning. I will discuss more flexible models later in this chapter.

Over to you

1. Have I given enough information about what ADDIE is, by using the infographic, or do I need to cover this more fully in the text? Do I need to say something about rapid course development here?

2. What are your views on the ADDIE model? Is it a useful model for designing teaching in a digital age? Do you agree with my criticisms of the model?

3. Any suggestions about other, more flexible models that could be used?

What’s next

So far I have done drafts of the following (as blogs)

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture

Still to come:

  • Competency-based learning,
  • Connectivist models, including Communities of practice and cMOOCs
  • Flexible design models
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches.
  • Conclusion

My next post in this series then will be on the appropriateness of competency-based learning for teaching in a digital age.


Adamson, C. (2012) Learning in a VUCA world, Online Educa Berlin News Portal, November 13

Dick, W., and Carey, L. (2004). The Systematic Design of Instruction. Allyn & Bacon; 6 edition Allyn & Bacon

Morrison, Gary R. (2010) Designing Effective Instruction, 6th Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons 

Conference: 8th EDEN Research Workshop on research in online learning and distance education

Listen with webReader
Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

What: Challenges for research into Open & Distance Learning: Doing Things Better: Doing Better Things

The focus of the event is on quality research discussed in unusual workshop setting with informal and intimate surroundings. The session formats will promote collaboration opportunities, including: parallel ‘research-speed-dating’ papers, team symposia sessions, workshops and demonstrations.

When: 26-28 October, 2014

Where: Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel, Oxford, England

Who: The Open University (UK) is the host institution in collaboration with the European Distance and E-Learning Network. Main speakers include:

  • Sian Bayne, Digital Education, University of Edinburgh, UK
  • Cristobal Cobo, Research Fellow, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, UK
  • Pierre Dillenbourg, CHILI Lab, EPFL Center for Digital Education, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, Switzerland
  • Allison Littlejohn, Director, Caledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University, Chair in Learning Technology, UK
  • Philipp Schmidt, Executive Director, Peer 2 Peer University / MIT Media Lab fellow, USA
  • Willem van Valkenburg, Coordinator Delft Open Education Team, Delft University of Technology,
    The Netherlands

How: Submission of papers, workshop themes, posters and demonstrations are due by September 1: see:


EDEN research workshop on open and distance learning

Listen with webReader
Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

What: Challenges for research into Open & Distance Learning: Doing Things Better: Doing Better Things

EDENRW8 is very focussed on you the researcher and what you can learn from and with your peers.  It takes place in an intimate setting where researchers including postgraduate students can share research, connect with peers and have adequate time to discuss the challenges of their work. EDENRW8 is suitable for researchers and postgraduate students and particularly those wishing to actively connect with peers and debate

When: 27-28 October, 2014

Who: Organized by EDEN (the European Distance and e-Learning Network) and hosted by the Open University (U.K.)

Where: The Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel, Oxford, U.K.

Format: This is not your usual conference program and definitely a workshop format! ….The networking occurs as an essential aspect of your experience. Featuring small groups for deep dialogues, feedback on your research, team symposia, ‘research-speed-dating’ papers, demonstrations, poster sessions, a connect lounge, informal sessions for meet the professor for early career and postgraduate researchers, world café style facilitation and presentations along with our resident keynotes.


Call for contributions: Submissions that relate to the Workshop Scope and one or more of the Workshop Themes are welcome in the following categories by the deadline: 1 September. You are encouraged to submit your proposal earlier to support a speedy evaluation of the proposals and enhance your possibility to register early in time. Proposals submitted before summer will be evaluated within two weeks.

Online submission: Click here

Registration does not open until 1 September 2014


I really like the EDEN research workshops. They are usually relatively small (around 100 or so participants), informal and great for networking. If you have any interest in research into online learning, open or distance education, this is a must.