September 22, 2018

Woolf University: the Airbnb of higher education or a sheep in wolf’s clothing?

Broggi, J.D. et al. (2018) Building the first blockchain university, Oxford UK, April 3

You are going to hear a lot about Woolf University over the next year or so and possibly much longer. This is in some ways a highly innovative proposal for a new type of university, but in other ways, it is a terribly conservative proposal, an extension of the Platonic dialogue to modern times. It could only have come from Oxford University academics, with its mix of blue sky dreaming, the latest technological buzz, and regression to cloistered academe.

The proposal

As always, I am going to recommend that you read the original paper from cover to cover. It has a number of complex, radical proposals that each need careful consideration (the whitepaper would make an excellent topic for an Oxbridge tutorial).

I am not sure I completely understand the financial aspect of the blockchain tokens (but that probably puts me with 99.99999 per cent of the rest of the world). But the basic ideas behind the university are as follows:

  • Woolf University will issue blockchain-guaranteed ‘contracts’ between an individual professor and an individual student;
  • Woolf University will initially include only professors who have a post-graduate research degree from one of the 200 ‘top-ranked’ universities;
  • the core blockchain contract consists of an agreement to deliver a one hour, one-on-one tutorial, for which the student will directly pay the instructor (in real money, but tied to a blockchain token system which I don’t fully understand);
  • the tutorial can be delivered face-to-face, or over the Internet (presumably synchronously – Skype is suggested), but the maximum number of students per tutorial is set at two;
  • the contract (and payment) is initiated once the student ‘accepts’ the contract with a push of a button on their cell phone. If the tutor fails to deliver the tutorial, the student is automatically refunded (and offered another instructor). Instructors who miss a tutorial will be fined by the university in the form of a deduction from the next tutorial payment;
  • on successful completion of the tutorial (which will include a written essay or other assessable pieces of work from the student) the blockchain registers the grade against the student record;
  • once the student has accumulated enough ‘credits’ within an approved program they will be issued with a Woolf University degree;
  • a full student workload consists of two classes a week over 8 weeks in each of three semesters or a total of 144 meetings over three years for a degree;
  • annual tuition is expected to be in the order of $20,000 a year, excluding scholarships;
  • instructor payments will depend on the number and cost of tutorials, but at four a week would range from $38,000 to $43,000 per annum with fees in the range of $350-$400 per tutorial;
  • colleges of a minimum of 30 individual instructors can join Woolf University and issue their own qualifications, but each college’s qualification requirements must also meet Woolf University’s criteria. Colleges can set their own tutorial fee above a minimum of $150 an hour. Colleges’ instructors must meet the qualification requirements of Woolf University;
  • the first college, called Ambrose, will consist of 50 academics from Oxford University, and Woolf has invited academics from Cambridge University to set up another college;
  • Woolf University will be a not-for-profit institution. There will be a deduction of 0.035% of each financial transaction to build the Woolf Reserve to update and maintain the blockchain system. There will also be a student financial aid program for scholarships for qualified students;
  • Woolf University would be managed by a Faculty Council with voting rights on decision-making from every employed instructor;
  • Ambrose College will deduct 4% from each tuition fee for administrative overheads.

There are other proposals such as a language school, peer review, etc.

What’s to like?

This is clearly an effort to cut out the institutional middleman of university and institutional administration. Although the tutorial fees are close to the average of universities in the UK and the more elite state universities in the USA, students are getting a one-on-one learning experience from an instructor who is highly qualified (at least in terms of content).

I was fortunate to have a tutorial system when I was an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield at the UK, and it worked very well, although we had between two and four students at each tutorial, and only in the last two years of my bachelor’s degree. Such tutorials are excellent for developing critical thinking skills, because each statement you make as a student is likely to be challenged by the professor or one of the other students.

Woolf University has highly idealistic goals for democratic governance – by the faculty – and its main attraction is offering alternative and regular employment for the very large number of poorly paid but highly qualified adjunct professors who can’t get tenure at regular universities. However there is no suggestion of student representation in the governance process, and the use of faculty is demand driven – if no student wants your course, no money – which seems an even more precarious position than working as an adjunct.

Most of all, though, it is a serious attempt to provide an independent system of academic validation of qualifications through the use of blockchain which could lead to better standardization of degree qualifications.

What’s not to like?

Well, the first thing that jumps to my mind is conflict of interest. If faculty are already employed by a traditional university, Woolf will be a direct, and if successful, a very dangerous competitor. Will universities allow their best faculty to moonlight for a direct competitor? If instructors cannot get employment in a traditional university, will they be as well qualified as the instructors in the regular system? The corollary though is that Woolf may force universities to pay their adjunct faculty better, but that will increase costs for the existing universities.

Second, the tuition fees may be reasonable by the absurdly inflated cost of HE tuition fees in the UK, but these are double or triple the fees in Canada, and much higher than the fees in the rest of Europe.

Third, the tutorial is just one mode of teaching. The report recommends (but does not insist) that instructors should also provide recorded lectures, but there are now so many other ways for students to learn that it seems absurd to tie Woolf to just the one system Oxbridge dons are familiar with.  The proposal does not address the issue of STEM teaching or experiential learning. All the examples given are from Greek philosophy. Not all my tutorials were great – it really depended on the excellence of the professor as a teacher as well as a scholar and that varied significantly. (It is also clear from reading the report that the authors have no knowledge about best practices in online teaching, either). The whole proposal reeks of the worst kind of elitism in university teaching.

Will it succeed?

Quite possibly, if it can sell the substitute Oxbridge experience to students and if it can explain more clearly its business model and in particular how the blockchain currency will work with regard to the payment of instructors. What can make or break it is the extent to which traditional universities will go to protect their core faculty from being hijacked by Woolf. 

I’m somewhat baffled by the claims that this new business model will be much much more cost-effective than the current system. Academic salaries make up almost 70% of the cost of a traditional university so the savings on administration alone are a comparatively small proportion of the costs of higher education, and the proposed tuition fees are still very high. It seems to be more a solution for the problem of unemployed Ph.D.s than the problem of expanding more cost-effectively quality higher education to large numbers of students.

Nevertheless, it is a very interesting development. I am guessing that this will ultimately fail, because establishing its credentials as equivalent to the elite universities will be a hard sell, and costs to students will be too high, but much will be learned about the strengths and weaknesses of blockchain in higher education, resulting in a better/more sustainable higher education model developing in another way. It is definitely a development to be carefully tracked.

 

The current madness in online learning: case no. 1

Goldsmiths College

Coughlan, S. (2018) University offers science degree online for £5,650 per year, BBC News, March 6

If you want to know what the very opposite of an open higher education system is, look no further than that country of privilege, class, and isolationism called England. 

This is a report of a new Bachelor of Science degree being offered fully online in the United Kingdom by one of my old alma maters, Goldsmiths College, the University of London, where I did a wonderful post-graduate certificate in education that set me up for life in teaching. The new Goldsmiths B. Sc. (actually a three-year bachelor in computer science) is deliberately targeted at part-time, working students.

Great – so far. It’s good to see a full bachelor’s degree in science being made available fully online, targeted at part-time students. 

But the mad part is that the tuition cost for this three year degree is – wait for it – £16,950 (£5,650 a year). That is roughly C$30,000, or C$10,000 a year. 

What makes it even more crazy is that this is an attempt to provide a lower cost alternative to the regular fees now being paid by students for on-campus education in England and Wales, for which tuition fees alone are around C$16,000 a year. This is because the U.K. government in 2010 cut funding for the costs of teaching in English universities, requiring the universities to recover the teaching costs through tuition fees alone. In parallel, part-time students were no longer eligible for government-backed student loans.

And why, you may ask, is the University of London offering this fully online B.Sc. when the U.K’s Open University has been offering at least a distance one since 1971? (And a full science degree at that, covering all the basic sciences.)  

As a result of government policy, the UK Open University has had to triple its tuition fees over this period, to roughly – wait for it – £17,184 for its full three year Bachelor of Natural Sciences. What a co-incidence that Goldsmith’s fees for their new online B. Sc. are £16,950, just £200 below the OU’s! 

The government policies on tuition fees and student loans have been devastating for the UK OU, which is targeted mainly at part-time students, and which had no tuition fees when it was founded in 1971. Its numbers have fallen by 30% between 2010-11 and 2015-16. 

The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that part-time student numbers in England have fallen 56% since 2010, from 243,355 in 2010-11 to just 107,325 in 2015-16. In terms of economic development, this is madness in government policy. In a digital society, lifelong learning is not a luxury but a necessity, and will not just benefit the individual but the whole economy. I shudder to think of the long term implications for English prosperity in the future – even without Brexit.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? I have four grand-children living in England, but their parents, who, like me, are wealthy middle class now, are willing and just about able to support their children at university. However, in 1959 I was working full time at what would now be called a minimum wage and desperate to get any form of post-secondary education. I found out that although I was 21 and had been working for several years, because of my low salary and the low income of my parents, I was eligible for a grant from the London County Council. Not only were my fees covered, but I even got a small maintenance grant that with work in the vacations enabled me to study full time. I got a place in Sheffield University, and the rest is history. However, without that support, not only would I not have succeeded in my life, nor would my children be where they are today.

I have no problem with a minimal level of tuition fees, as in Canada, provided that there is some kind of financial support to allow those on low incomes or who are unemployed to take full advantage of post-secondary educational opportunities. But no-one should be denied the opportunity of a post-secondary education because they cannot afford it. England is more backward today than it was in 1959 in this respect, which is why I am so angry. All that blood, sweat and tears that the working class suffered during and after the Second World War – and for what?

‘It’s the rich what gets the gravy and the poor what gets the blame.’ Was it ever thus in England?

‘Why does Canada have so much online learning?’

My workshop in Denmark on the design of blended learning 

Online learning in Canada 

I was doing my usual stuff in Denmark this week, a keynote on ‘Teaching for a digital age: why blended learning is so important,’ when someone at the end of my keynote asked me why does Canada have so much online learning.

The question kind of stopped me in my tracks. My presentation was about designing courses for a digital age, not about our recent survey, but I had thrown in a couple of slides to show the expansion of online learning both in the USA and in Canada over the last 10-15 years. Our survey did indicate quite clearly the following (among other things):

  • the vast majority of  post-secondary education institutions in Canada do offer at least some credit-based online learning courses
  • the rate of growth in fully online enrolments over the last five years has been strong (between 12-15% per annum)
  • online learning now constitutes between 12%-16% of all credit based teaching
  • as well as fully online courses, a large majority of Canadian universities and colleges are moving aggressively into blended and hybrid learning
  • most Canadian post-secondary institutions consider online learning very or extremely important for their future.

Remember, this expansion is in credit-based online learning, not MOOCs. In Canada. less than 20% of institutions were developing MOOCs in the year 2015-2016.

But is this a lot? 

Well, everything’s relative. 

We tend to compare ourselves with the USA, and our results weren’t so different from the Babson and the more recent U.S. Federal government surveys, although making such comparisons are always fraught because the two systems are somewhat different. Nevertheless in comparison for instance with the U.S. public universities and two year colleges, it is likely that Canada has at least the same proportion of online course enrolments, if not more.

I’m not sure whether 12-15% of courses enrolments being fully online is a lot in absolute terms. There’s probably more room for growth yet, but I doubt if most of the existing campus-based institutions will go much over 20% of all their teaching being fully online. Where the real growth is likely to be from now on is in blended and hybrid learning.

I’m assuming from the question that Denmark does not have a lot of fully online or distance learning. However, I also came across a recent opinion piece from Richard Garrett of the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education, entitled: ‘Whatever happened to the promise of online learning?’. Garrett pointed out that in the United Kingdom:

‘distance, flexible and distributed’ students peaked at about 11% of undergraduates (c.220,000) and 10% of postgraduates (c.55,000) in 2009/10. By 2015/16, total distance enrollment had fallen by 35%, most obviously at sub-degree level but also among bachelor’s and master’s students. Over the same period, full-time students were up 9%.

This of course is completely different from what’s happening in the U.S. and Canada. So what is the explanation for this discrepancy between North America and at least two countries in Europe?

Key factors influencing growth in online learning

This is one of those questions where I think your guess will be as good as mine. This is an area where we need more facts and more research. However, here are my thoughts on this.

1. The growth of lifelong learning

With the development of a knowledge-based economy,and with the amount of research and knowledge increasing rapidly each year, more and more people will need to go on learning new things well after they finish their full-time post-secondary education. A lot of this can be done informally (such as through the Danish adult education centres or MOOCs), but there has certainly been strong growth in North America in fully online professional masters programs, for instance. Such programs will become increasingly important given the need for continuous learning in a knowledge-based society.

2. History and geography

It is important to understand that Denmark is a small, compact European country that you can drive across in five hours. Hardly anyone lives more than an hour’s drive (or bike ride) from a post-secondary institution, tuition is free, and there is an excellent campus-based higher education system – so there has probably been little demand for distance education programs in Denmark.

The University of Southern Denmark (Syddansk Universitet), Odense

Also for many, many years Scandinavian countries have had a very strong adult education movement, where both credit and non-credit courses are taken in the long, dark evenings at local adult education centres, thus catering for lifelong learners.

On the other hand, in both Canada and many parts of the USA, many provinces and states established public, land-grant universities with a mission to provide not only on-campus education, but lifelong learning opportunities, particularly in health and education, for everyone in the state or province, including or especially those living in sparsely populated areas. At such institutions, distance education was offered long before online learning appeared. Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, started offering correspondence-based distance education in the late 19th century, using the Royal Mounted Police to deliver the packages to remote areas. The University of British Columbia, one of the largest campus-based research universities in Canada, located in Vancouver, has offered distance education across the whole province since the 1930s.

When online learning appeared around the early 1990s, it was natural for the departments providing distance education in Canada to move into online learning. Our survey found that many institutions in Canada have been offering online learning for 15 years or more.

This experience in fully online learning of course is invaluable as instructors move more into blended and hybrid learning.

3. Government policy

The sudden drop in distance education (and hence online) students in the U.K. is almost certainly due to recent government policy. Garrett wrote:

The primary cause of the distance learning drop was higher tuition fees and reduced public funding for part-time undergraduates. Almost all domestic distance learners in UK higher education study part-time. Distance enrollment held up better than part-time numbers overall, which almost halved over the period.

The UK’s largest distance institution, the Open University, dropped from 209,000 to 126,000 students between 2009/10 and 2015/16. Other institutions saw distance enrollment rebound in recent years but the total is still short of the 2009/10 baseline, and some 64,000 domestic distance students are scattered across 124 colleges and universities.

In comparison several provincial governments in Canada, and federal and state governments in the USA, have encouraged online learning through targeted funding. For instance several provinces have set up eCampuses to provide funding for online courses, open textbooks and open educational resources, for faculty development opportunities, and for shared services, to encourage online learning. Although the Obama administration’s tightening of student financial aid rules has led to a large drop in online enrolments in the for-profit university sector, this has been more than compensated by increases in online enrolments in the state-funded universities and colleges in the USA. 
 
Again, given the ‘gig’ economy, the need for lifelong learning, and the increasing proportion of students who are working to keep down the debt resulting from tuition fees of $16,000 a year, the U.K. government’s policies regarding student financial support, and its impact on online learning and lifelong learning, could be considered catastrophic for the future British economy, unless it is quickly reversed.

4. 21st century skills

One other factor that is likely to increase pressure for more online or at least blended learning is the need to develop the skills that students will need in the 21st century, such as independent learning, IT skills embedded within a subject domain, and knowledge management. Online learning is particularly useful in not only helping students directly to develop such skills, but also in providing opportunities for practicing and demonstrating such skills, through, for instance, e-portfolios.

5. The negative impact of open universities on online learning

More controversially, I will argue that where there has been a large and important open university, this has resulted in slower growth in online learning, for two separate reasons.

Most open universities were designed in the 1970s around a heavy, front-ended print development model requiring a very large investment. It is common in such institutions for it to take two years or more to develop a course, with an army of support staff as well as faculty. This was possible with very large numbers of enrolments, through economies of scale.

However, such large industrial-type organizations have found it very difficult to move into online learning, and especially into more rapid, lightweight designs. Even now, there are still large numbers of either print-based courses, or print-based courses merely transferred to online delivery, in many of the open universities. As a result, enrolments are dropping in open universities, while more traditional universities have been able to adopt a more agile and low-cost but still good quality online course design and development model. Indeed, long-established open universities seem to be struggling in all countries where online learning is being developed.

Also, there was evidence from the Canadian survey that where a fully distance institution or open university operated, this seems to have inhibited or slowed down the adoption of distance and hence online courses in the campus-based institutions within the rest of the province. Thus in Alberta, the Universities of Alberta and Calgary have really left distance programs (other than MOOCs) to Athabasca University, whose enrolments have been in decline (partly because they have lost lots of students from Ontario, where online learning has been growing rapidly in Ontario universities and colleges). Similarly in Québec, the province-wide Cégep à Distance been losing enrolments without a corresponding increase in online enrolments from the other Cégeps. Open or distance universities or colleges then tend to have a negative effect on online enrolments in the overall system.

Is more online learning a good thing?

But is this general growth in online learning a good thing? For instance, will this undermine the value of the campus? As someone working in online learning, it is an assumption on my part that in general, if done well, online learning is a good thing and we could do with more of it, mainly because it suits a large number of students, giving them flexibility and easier access, but also because I genuinely believe that it can help develop somewhat better than traditional teaching the knowledge and skills that students will need in the 21st century. However, it does not suit all students or subject disciplines or topics, so it needs to be used selectively.

Furthermore, as with all teaching, it can be done well or it can be done badly. There is no or little evidence to date that online learning is any less costly than campus-based teaching, mainly because with developments spread across a large number of institutions, it is difficult to generate economies of scale. Quality online learning requires good faculty development and adequate technical and pedagogical support, and that costs money.

Nevertheless, online learning in general will probably continue to grow, especially through blended or hybrid learning, mainly for economic reasons, because online learning is a very powerful means to develop the knowledge and skills that our students will need in the future, and because of the greater flexibility and access to learning it provides for students.

Odense is the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the writer of fairy tales, such as ‘the Emperor’s Clothes’

Correction: an earlier version of this post attributed the Observatory of Borderless Education quote to David Kernohan. It was actually Richard Garrett whom I was quoting. My apologies to Richard and David.

A better ranking system for university teaching?

Who is top dog among UK universities?
Image: © Australian Dog Lover, 2017 http://www.australiandoglover.com/2017/04/dog-olympics-2017-newcastle-april-23.html

Redden, E. (2017) Britain Tries to Evaluate Teaching Quality Inside Higher Ed, June 22

This excellent article describes in detail a new three-tiered rating system of teaching quality at universities introduced by the U.K. government, as well as a thoughtful discussion. As I have a son and daughter-in-law teaching in a U.K. university and grandchildren either as students or potential students, I have more than an academic interest in this topic.

How are the rankings done?

Under the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), universities in England and Wales will get one of three ‘awards’: gold, silver and bronze (apparently there are no other categories, such as tin, brass, iron or dross for those whose teaching really sucks). A total of 295 institutions opted to participate in the ratings.

Universities are compared on six quantitative metrics that cover:

  • retention rates
  • student satisfaction with teaching, assessment and academic support (from the National Student Survey)
  • rates of employment/post-graduate education six months after graduation.

However, awards are relative rather than absolute since they are matched against ‘benchmarks calculated to account for the demographic profile of their students and the mix of programs offered.’ 

This process generates a “hypothesis” of gold, silver or bronze, which a panel of assessors then tests against additional evidence submitted for consideration by the university (higher education institutions can make up to a 15-page submission to TEF assessors). Ultimately the decision of gold, silver or bronze is a human judgment, not the pure product of a mathematical formula.

What are the results?

Not what you might think. Although Oxford and Cambridge universities were awarded gold, so were some less prestigious universities such as the University of Loughborough, while some more prestigious universities received a bronze. So at least it provides an alternative ranking system to those that focus mainly on research and peer reputation.

What is the purpose of the rankings?

This is less clear. Ostensibly (i.e., according to the government) it is initially aimed at giving potential students a better way of knowing how universities stand with regard to teaching. However, knowing the Conservative government in the UK, it is much more likely to be used to link tuition fees to institutional performance, as part of the government’s free market approach to higher education. (The U.K. government allowed universities to set their own fees, on the assumption that the less prestigious universities would offer lower tuition fees, but guess what – they almost all opted for the highest level possible, and still were able to fill seats).

What are the pros and cons of this ranking?

For a more detailed discussion, see the article itself but here is my take on it.

Pros

First this is a more thoughtful approach to ranking than the other systems. It focuses on teaching (which will be many potential students’ initial interest in a university) and provides a useful counter-balance to the emphasis on research in other rankings.

Second it has a more sophisticated approach than just counting up scores on different criteria. It has an element of human judgement and an opportunity for universities to make their case about why they should be ranked highly. In other words it tries to tie institutional goals to teaching performance and tries to take into account the very large differences between universities in the U.K. in terms of student socio-economic background and curricula.

Third, it does provide a simple, understandable ‘award’ system of categorizing universities on their quality of teaching that students and their parents can at least understand.

Fourth, and most important of all, it sends a clear message to institutions that teaching matters. This may seem obvious, but for many universities – and especially faculty – the only thing that really matters is research. Whether though this form of ranking will be sufficient to get institutions to pay more than lip service to teaching remains to be seen.

Cons

However, there are a number of cons. First the national student union is against it, partly because it is heavily weighted by student satisfaction ratings based on the National Student Survey, which thousands of students have been boycotting (I’m not sure why). One would have thought that students in particular would value some accountability regarding the quality of teaching. But then, the NUS has bigger issues with the government, such as the appallingly high tuition fees (C$16,000 a year- the opposition party in parliament, Labour, has promised free tuition).

More importantly, there are the general arguments about university rankings that still apply to this one. They measure institutional performance not individual department or instructor performance, which can vary enormously within the same institution. If you want to study physics it doesn’t help if a university has an overall gold ranking but its physics department is crap or if you get the one instructor who shouldn’t be allowed in the building.

Also the actual quantitative measures are surrogates for actual teaching performance. No-one has observed the teaching to develop the rankings, except the students, and student rankings themselves, while one important measure, can also be highly misleading, based on instructor personality and the extent to which the instructor makes them work to get a good grade.

The real problem here is two-fold: first, the difficulty of assessing quality teaching in the first place: one man’s meat is another man’s poison. There is no general agreement, at least within an academic discipline, as to what counts as quality teaching (for instance, understanding, memory of facts, or skills of analysis – maybe all three are important but can how one teaches to develop these diverse attributes be assessed separately?).

The second problem is the lack of quality data on teaching performance – it just isn’t tracked directly. Since a student may take courses from up to 40 different instructors and from several different disciplines/departments in a bachelor’s program, it is no mean task to assess the collective effectiveness of their quality of teaching. So we are left with surrogates of quality, such as completion rates.

So is it a waste of time – or worse?

No, I don’t think so. People are going to be influenced by rankings, whatever. This particular ranking system may be flawed, but it is a lot better than the other rankings which are so much influenced by tradition and elitism. It could be used in ways that the data do not justify, such as justifying tuition fee increases or decreased government funding to institutions. It is though a first systematic attempt at a national level to assess quality in teaching, and with patience and care could be considerably improved. But most of all, it is an attempt to ensure accountability for the quality of teaching that takes account of the diversity of students and the different mandates of institutions. It may make both university administrations and individual faculty pay more attention to the importance of teaching well, and that is something we should all support.

So I give it a silver – a good try but there is definitely room for improvement. 

Thanks to Clayton Wright for drawing my attention to this.

Next up

I’m going to be travelling for the next three weeks so my opportunity to blog will be limited – but that has been the case for the last six months. My apologies – I promise to do better. However, a four hour layover at Pearson Airport does give me some time for blogging!

Book review: A History of the Open University

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.