University of Stirling residence – Stirling was a regular summer school location for the Open University

I am writing an autobiography, mainly for my family, but it does cover some key moments in the development of open and online learning. I thought I would share these as there seems to be a growing interest in the history of educational technology.

Note that these posts are NOT meant to be deeply researched historical accounts, but how I saw and encountered developments in my personal life. If you were around at the time of these developments and would like to offer comments or a different view, please use the comment box at the end of each post. (There is already a conversation track on my LinkedIn site).

A university for adults

I am going to share some of my experience with Open University summer schools in the 1970s in the U.K., but before that I need to place my experience in context. First, the minimum age of entry for students when the OU started was 21 years old. (Most students were in fact much older). One reason for restricting OU entry to those under 21 was that the OU did not want to be seen competing directly for school leavers with campus-based institutions. In its early days, the OU relied heavily on the support and co-operation of the conventional universities.

Second, the OU offered four multi-disciplinary foundation courses, one for each faculty. Each course had between 2,000 to 5,000 students. A student had to take a foundation course before advancing further. Furthermore a foundation course was spread over 32 weeks. Courses began in late January so summer schools in July and August came just over half way through a course. Summer schools initially were mandatory. The Open University rented space for residence and for teaching from a select number of conventional universities spread around Britain when they were otherwise closed for the summer vacation. The OU summer courses were intensive, with formal classes all day for nearly six days, and cultural and social events in the evenings.

Purpose of OU summer schools

These summer schools met a range of goals. The most obvious one was to give students on the science and technology foundation courses access to university labs. (Science and technology students received through the mail a number of ingenious home experiment kits, but these needed to be supplemented with more expensive equipment that was available only in university laboratories.) A second goal was to offer forms of teaching and learning that were difficult to do at a distance, such as group experiments in social sciences, or visits to nearby archeological or historical sites in Arts. There was an emphasis on mutual support and help between students, which was often reflected in the teaching activities. A third goal was for faculty and students to meet and get to know each other in person. Faculty needed the opportunity to get direct feedback from students. The timing was particularly important. After five months studying largely on their own, many students were struggling. The intensity of the summer school  renewed and refreshed many students, carrying them through to their exams in October.

I was school director for several Social Science summer schools. The school director was not an active teacher during the summer school, but was responsible for the overall conduct of the summer school, in particular the well-being of the students and staff. In practice this meant dealing with unforeseen operational problems (like a classroom being unavailable), organising social events, ensuring that parties quietened down after 11.00 pm, and dealing with student illness or any personal problems.

A transforming experience

The OU students were older than traditional students, often married with families. For many women in particular, this was a unique opportunity to get away from domestic chores for a whole week, and to be taken seriously in terms of intellectual argument and development. (Remember, this was the early 1970s). Many of the male students worked in boring or routine manual or clerical jobs and were hoping the OU would provide an opportunity for them to ‘break out’ into something new and more exciting in their careers. Summer school provided no less for many of the students than a chance to dream about a better life. 

Not surprisingly, with so many adults thrown together, often on their own for the first time, there were sometimes romantic entanglements. The British tabloids of course made a big thing about this, with for instance the Daily Mail reporting orgies at OU summer schools, and the News of the World claiming that marriages were being ruined by the OU. Certainly, there were sexual encounters, sometimes even between faculty and students, but nothing on the scale reported by the rabid British tabloids. 

My [redacted] summer school experiences

I once had to deal with a typical case. I had just gone to sleep after doing my usual late-night walk round, when there was a hammering on the door. Bleary-eyed and in my dressing gown, I staggered to the door. Outside was a serious-looking university security guard, about 60 years old with a bristly moustache, obviously ex-military.

‘Is the building on fire?’ I demanded.

‘Sorry to trouble you, sir, but there’s a worried looking gentleman sitting in my office demanding to see his wife.’

I looked at my watch. It was just gone 2.00 am. I hurriedly threw on some clothes and followed the security guard to his office. The security guard was right: there was a very worried looking man in his office.

‘Hello,’ I said, ‘how can I help you?’

The man burst into tears. ‘I want my wife to come home. I think she’s with another man.’

‘I think that’s unlikely, sir. What’s her name?’

The man gave me a name and I said, ‘Just let me check and I’ll see which room she’s in. The file’s in my room.’

‘I’m coming with you’ said the man.

This was getting awkward. I would have to make a decision. Should I tell the man to wait in the security guard’s office, while I went to the woman’s room, or should I let the man come with me and perhaps surprise her with another man? (The OU summer school director’s manual did not help much with a situation like this).

In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. If the man’s fears were unjustified, far better for him to find out for himself. If they were justified, the man would have to deal eventually with the situation, one way or the other. ‘OK,’ I said.

We walked along to the woman’s room and I knocked on the door. A sleepy and dishevelled woman came to the door. ‘Good God, Michael, what are you doing here?’

‘Can I suggest you two have a little chat and sort things out?’ I said, taking a quick peak into the room to make sure no-one else was there. ‘But please do it quietly – everyone else is sleeping.’

In the morning, I discovered that the woman had checked out of the summer school and gone home with her husband – which I thought was rather sad, but probably wise. Nevertheless, tabloids 1, human beings nil.

On another occasion, I was summer school director at the University of Stirling, in Scotland. The OU did not have exclusive access to university facilities during summer school. Again, I had just gone to sleep when I was awakened by an enormously loud and terrifying sound. I leapt out of bed, and there on the grass quadrangle was a large bagpipe and drum band playing full blast – at 2.00 am. It was the Simon Fraser University pipe band from Vancouver, Canada, which had just won the world pipe and drum band contest in Stirling that afternoon, had been out celebrating, and had decided to have one last performance before turning in. Although loud, it was magnificent.

Conclusions

At the time, in the early 1970s, Open University summer schools were immensely important for many students. As a faculty member, you could see over the course of a week students growing and changing before your eyes. The summer school came just at the right time, mid-way through the OU foundation courses, when students were often struggling; they realised they were not alone in their academic struggles, and the summer school often provided just the right momentum to carry them forward. And for most OU students, they were also enormous fun.

No matter how good open and distance programs are, they can still be greatly enhanced by well-designed in-person experiences that bring faculty and students together for an intensive teaching experience.

This does not mean that distance courses are second-rate; without the distance component, university studies for hundreds of thousands of British students would have been impossible, and for the OU summer schools, the excellent course materials and correspondence and study centre tutoring ensured that most students were well prepared for the alternative, intense experience of working directly in-person with other students and faculty. As Martin Weller (2020) commented, they were a form of blended learning before the term was invented.

Unfortunately, for financial reasons, the OU eventually stopped doing summer schools. Students found it increasingly difficult or were unwilling to devote a whole week away from work or family. With reduced government support for the OU, even with additional student summer school fees, they were just too expensive to justify. In the end, online learning proved to be the final nail in the coffin for summer schools. Cost-benefit studies could not track a direct link between summer school attendance and improved academic performance.

However all I can say is that this was not my experience of OU summer schools. There are aspects of learning that are difficult or impossible to measure, and I am very glad I had the good fortune to experience the special nature of the OU summer schools, as I know many OU students did. To all the students at summer school who inspired me, thank you!

Up next

My next post in this series will be on how in the 1980s new media such as video discs, teledata, videoconferencing, and satellite broadcasting affected my research at the OU – and the lessons learned about why in general they failed as educational technologies. 

A further post will focus particularly on how I discovered (i.e. learned about) microcomputers and the Internet in 1982, and my involvement in the introduction of online learning at the Open University.

Be patient, though – I still have to write these!

Further reading

Weinbren, D. (2015) The Open University: A History Milton Keynes: Manchester University Press.

Daniel Weinbren has a good description of OU summer schools, their raison d’etre, and the reasons for their demise, and also some excellent accounts of the life changing experiences of students at the Open University.

Weller, M. (2020) 25 Years of OU – 1997: summer schools, The Ed Techie, June 15

1 COMMENT

  1. Another great read but as with my comment on your first post there were actually 5 Faculties and foundation courses, albeit Technology started a year later than the others. Also, for the first two decades students had to take 2 foundation courses within their degree profile, although they did not have to take both before progressing on to further study in their preferred subjects. This policy further enforced interdisciplinarity and actually made some students change direction in their chosen degree profile. It also infuriated others and I well remember having to deal with some students at summer school who did not want to be there and took their second foundation course under sufferance to be able to graduate. Further, it was not just the cost of mounting summer (or residential schools) that led to their near demise (a few do still exist where they are needed for professional body recognition) but also the increasing number of students who applied for exemption to attend for a variety of good personal reasons. Interestingly, engineering still retained residential schools, albeit as separate defined courses rather than embedded within a larger course but has had to convert these to using home experiment kits and remote labs etc due to Covid 19. However the intention is to return to a residential school IF suitable host locations can be found.

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