January 23, 2018

Five old educational technologies

Etherington, C. (2018) Five educational technologies, circa 1918 ELearning inside news, January 1

Despite rumours, I was not around in 1918, but this article is a very nice reminder of what was happening 100 years ago with educational technologies. The five technologies are:

  • magic lanterns
  • chalkboards
  • ink pens
  • abacuses
  • radio

When I started teaching, in 1965, in my school it was still compulsory for students to use ink pens (not ‘nasty Biros’, which were available then). This was a real problem for left-handed pupils, who tended to drag their hand across the wet ink when writing from left to right. I fought hard to get an exemption but my headmistress was adamant – no exceptions were allowed. We have made at least some advances since then regarding accessibility and accommodation to the needs of minorities.

As the article points out, radio was still a couple of years away from actually being used for instructional purposes, although it was increasingly available by 1918. The first BBC adult educational radio program was broadcast in 1924 and was about fleas: a talk on Insects in Relation to Man.

Nevertheless, these old technologies also illustrate how little has changed in many classrooms in terms of pedagogy. PowerPoint is nothing more than a merger of a magic lantern and a chalkboard, but the form of teaching remains the same.

It is much easier to identify technology changes then over 100 years but far less progress has been made on improving teaching methods –  or do you disagree?

Tracking innovations in online learning in Canada

Rue St Jean, Québec City. Temperatures ranged from -17 C to -23 C -without wind chill added

I’ve not been blogging much recently because, frankly, I’ve been too busy, and not on the golf course or ski slopes, either. (Yeah, so what happened to my retirement? Failed again).

Assessing the state of online learning in Canada

I am working on two projects at the moment:

These two projects in fact complement one another nicely, with the first aiming to provide a broad and accurate picture of the extent of online learning in Canada, and the other focusing on the more qualitative aspects of innovation in online learning, and all in time for not only for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada (which was really the creation of a new, independent state in North America) but also ICDE’s World Congress on Online Learning in Toronto in October, whose theme is, guess what, Teaching in a Digital Age (now there’s a co-incidence).

Of course, I’m not doing this on my own. In both projects I am working with a great group of people.

Methodology

My mandate for Contact North is to identify 8-12 cases of innovation in online learning from all of Canada other than Ontario. I started of course in British Columbia, early in January, and last week I visited six post-secondary institutions in four cities in Québec.

To find the cases, I have gone to faculty development workshops where instructors showcase their innovations, or I have contacted instructional designers I know in different institutions to recommend cases. The institutions are chosen to reflect provinces, and universities and colleges within each province.

Each visit involves an interview with the instructor responsible for the innovation, and where possible a demonstration or examples of the innovation. (One great thing about online learning is that it leaves a clear footprint that can be captured).

I then write up a short report, using a set of headings provided by Contact North, and then return that to the instructor to ensure that it is accurate. I then submit the case report to Contact North.

I am not sure whether Contact North will publish all the cases I report on its web site, as I will certainly cover much more than 8-12 cases in the course of this project. However, it is hoped that at least some of the instructors featured will showcase their innovations at the World Congress of Online Learning.

Progress to date

I have conducted interviews (but not finished the reports yet) for the following:

British Columbia

  • the use of an online dialectical map to develop argumentation skills in undergraduate science students (Simon Fraser University – SFU)
  • peer evaluation as a learning and assessment strategy for building teamwork skills in business school programs (SFU)
  • the development of a mobile app for teaching the analysis of soil samples (University of British Columbia)
  • PRAXIS: software to enable real-time, team-based decision-making skills through simulations of real-world emergency situations (Justice Institute of British Columbia)

Québec

  • comodal synchronous teaching, enabling students to choose between attending a live lecture or participating at the same time from home/at a distance (Laval University)
  • synchronous online teaching of the use of learning technologies in a teacher education program (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières – UQTR)
  • achieving high completion rates in a MOOC on the importance of children’s play (UQTR)
  • a blended course on effective face-to-face teaching for in-service teachers (TÉLUQ)
  • use of iBook Author software for content management for cardiology students and faculty in a teaching hospital (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke – Sherbrooke University Hospital: CHUS)
  • a decision-making tool to develop active and coherent learning scenarios that leverage the use of learning technologies (Université de Montréal).
  • Mathema-TIC: francophone open educational resources for teaching mathematics in universities and colleges (Université de Montréal).

These visits would not have been possible without the assistance of France Lafleur, an online instructor from UQTR who not only arranged many of the meetings but also did all the driving. Anyone from outside Québec who has tried to drive across the province in winter, and especially tried to navigate and drive to several parts of Montréal the same day, will understand why this help was invaluable.

Response and reaction

Faculty and instructors often receive a lot of criticism for being resistant to change in their teaching. This project however starts from an opposite position. What are faculty and instructors actually doing in terms of innovation in their teaching? What can we learn from this regarding change and the development of new teaching approaches? What works and what doesn’t?

It is dangerous at this stage to start drawing conclusions. This is not a representative selection of even innovative projects, and the project – in terms of my participation – has just started. The definition of innovation is also imprecise. It’s like trying to describe an elephant to someone who’s never seen one: you might find it difficult to imagine, but you’ll know it when you see it.

However, even with such a small sample, some things are obvious:

  • innovation in online teaching is alive and well in Canadian post-secondary education: there is a lot going on. It was not difficult to identify these 11 cases; I could have easily found many more if I had the time;
  • the one common feature across all the instructors I have interviewed is their enthusiasm and passion for their projects. They are all genuinely excited by what they were doing. Their teaching has been galvanised by their involvement in the innovation; 
  • in some of the cases, there are measured improvements in student learning outcomes, or, more importantly, new ’21st century skills’ such as teamwork, evidence-based argumentation, and knowledge management are being developed as a result of the innovation;
  • although again these are early days for me, there seems to be a widening gap between what is actually happening on the ground and what we read or hear about in the literature and at conferences on innovation in online learning. The innovation I am seeing is often built around simple but effective changes, such as a web-based map, or a slight change of teaching approach, such as opening up a lecture class to students who don’t want to – or can’t – come in to the campus on a particular day. However, these innovations are radically changing the dynamics of classroom teaching;
  • blended learning is breaking out all over the place. Most of these cases involve a mix of classroom and online learning, but there is no standard model – such as flipped classrooms – emerging. They all vary quite considerably from each other; 
  • the innovations are still somewhat isolated although a couple have gone beyond the original instructor and have been adopted by colleagues; however there is usually no institutional strategy or process for evaluating innovations and making sure that they are taken up across a wider range of teaching, although instructional designers working together provide one means for doing this. Evaluation of the innovation though is usually just left to the innovator, with all the risks that this entails in terms of objectivity.

Next steps

I still have at least one more case from another institution in British Columbia to follow up, and I now have a backlog of reports to do. I hope to have these all finished by the end of this month.

I have two more trips to organise. The first will be to the prairie provinces:

  • Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which I hope to do in mid-March.

The next will be to the Maritimes,

  • Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland, which I will do probably in April or May.

No further cases or institutions have been identified at this moment, and I am definitely open to suggestions in these provinces if you have any. The criterion for choice is as follows:

  • The focus is first and foremost on practice, on actual teaching and learning applications – not policy, funding, planning issues, descriptions of broad services, or broader concerns.
  • The interest is in applications of pedagogy using technology for classroom, blended, and online learning with the emphasis on student learning, engagement, assessment, access, etc. The pedagogy is as important as the technology in terms of innovation.
  • The emphasis is on innovative practices that can be replicated or used by other instructors.
  • We are particularly looking for cases where some form of evaluation of the innovation has been conducted or where there is clear evidence of success.

If you can recommend a case that you think fits well these parameters, please drop me a line at tony.bates@ubc.ca.

In the meantime, look out for the case studies being posted to Contact North’s Pocket of Innovation web site over the next few months. There are also more cases from Ontario being done at the same time.

Technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion

Edvard Munch's The Scream (public domain) Location: National Gallery, Norway

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (public domain)
Location: National Gallery, Norway

This is the second post on the topic of technology, alienation and the role of education, with a particular focus on the consequences for teaching and learning. The first post was a general introduction to the topic. This post focuses on how technology can lead to alienation, and provides a framework for discussing the possibility of technology alienation in online learning and how to deal with it.

What do I mean by ‘alienation’?

Alienation is a term that has been around for some time. Karl Marx described alienation as the perception by people that they are becoming increasingly unable to control the social forces that shape their lives. Ultimately, highly alienated workers come to lose the sense that they can control any aspect of their lives, whether at work or at home, and become highly self-estranged. Such people are profoundly discontent, prone to alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, violence, and the support of extreme social and political movements (Macionis and Plummer, 2012). Although Marx had an industrial society in mind, the definition works equally well to describe some of the negative effects of a digital society, as we shall see.

Causes

There are of course many different but related causes of alienation today:

  • the increasing inequality in wealth and in particular the perception by unemployed or low paid workers that they are being ‘passed by’ or not included in the wealth-generating economy. The feeling is particularly strong among workers who previously had well paid jobs (or expectations of well paid jobs) in manufacturing but have seen those jobs disappear in their lifetime. However, there are now also growing numbers of well educated younger people struggling to find well paid work while at the same time carrying a large debt as a result of increasingly expensive higher education;
  • one reason for the loss of manufacturing jobs is the effect of globalization: jobs going abroad to countries where the cost of labour is lower;
  • dysfunctional political systems are another factor, where people feel that they have little or no control over decisions made by government, that government is controlled by those with power and money, and political power is used to protect the ‘elites’;
  • lastly, and the main consideration in these posts, the role of technology, which operates in a number of ways that create alienation:
    • the most immediate is its role in replacing workers, originally in manufacturing, but now increasingly in service or even professional areas of work, including education;
    • a more subtle but nevertheless very powerful way in which technology leads to alienation is in controlling what we do, and in particular removing choice or decision-making from individuals. I will give some examples later;
    • lastly, many people are feeling increasingly exploited by technology companies collecting personal data and using it for commercial purposes or even to deny services such as insurance; in particular, the benefits to the end-user of technology seem very small compared to the large profits made by the companies that provide the services.

Symptoms

Here are some examples of how technology leads to alienation.

There have been several cases where intimate images of people have been posted on the Internet, without permission, and yet it has been impossible for the victims to get the images removed, at least until well after the damage has been done. The Erin Andrews case is the most recent, and the suicide of the 15 year old Amanda Todd is another example. These are extreme cases, but illustrate the perception that we have less and less control over social media and its potentially negative impact on their lives.

Sometimes the alienation comes from decisions made by engineers that pre-empt or deny human decision-making. I have always driven BMWs. Even when I had little money, I would buy a second hand BMW, mainly because of its superb engineering. However, I am driven crazy by my latest purchase. The ignition switches off automatically when I stop the car and automatically switches on again when I take my foot off the brake. One day I drove into my garage. I had stopped the car, and turned round to get something off the back seat. I took my foot off the brake and the car lurched forward and hit the freezer we have in the garage. If I had been on the street and done that, I could well have hit another car or even a pedestrian. The car also automatically locks the passenger doors. I have parked the car and started to walk away only to see my passengers pounding on the window to get out. I could cite nearly a hundred instances from this one car of decisions made by engineers that I don’t want made for me. In most cases (but not all) these default conditions can be changed, but that requires going through a 600 page printed manual. Furthermore these ‘features’ all cost money to install, money I would rather not pay if I had a choice.

We are just starting to see similar decisions by engineers creeping into online learning. One of the most popular uses of data analytics is to identify students ‘at risk’ of non-completion. As with the features in a car, there are potential benefits in this. However, the danger is that decisions based on correlations of other students’ previous behaviour with course completion may end up denying access to a program for a student considered ‘at risk’ but who may nevertheless might well succeed. In particular it could negatively profile black students in the USA, aboriginal students in Canada, or students from low income families.

A framework for discussion

I am dealing here with a highly emotive issue, and one where there will be many different and often contradictory perspectives. Let’s start with the ‘moral’ or ‘value’ issues. I start from the position that alienation is to be avoided if at all possible. It leads to destructive forces. In education in particular, alienation is the opposite of engagement, and for me, engagement is critical for student success. On the other hand, if people are really suffering, then alienation may well be a necessary starting point on the road to change or revolution. So it is difficult to adopt an objective stance to this topic. I want therefore to focus the discussion around the following issues:

  • what are the main developments in online learning that are occurring or will occur over the next few years?
  • who are the main drivers of change in this area?
  • what is the main value proposition? Why is this area being promoted? Who stands to benefit most from this development?
  • what are the risks or what is the downside of these developments? In particular, what is the risk that such developments may actually increase alienation in learners?

I will look at each of the following developments in the next series of blog posts within this framework, developments in online learning that have great promise but at the same time could, if not carefully managed, end up increasing alienation:

  • competency-based learning;
  • personalised and adaptive learning;
  • learning analytics;
  • online assessment methods (badges, machine marking, e-proctoring, e-portfolios, etc.);
  • unbundling of educational services

I will then end this series of posts with a discussion of ‘defensive’ strategies for learners and educators to deal with the negative impact of technology in a digital age.

References

Macionis, J. and Plummer, K. (2012) Sociology: A Global Introduction Don Mills ON: Pearson Education

Why digital technology is not necessarily the answer to your problem

The darker the shade, the higher the Internet population

The darker the shade, the higher the Internet population

World Bank (2016) World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends. Washington, DC: World Bank.

What is the report about?

This 359 page report, partly funded by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development and the International Development Research Centre, involved the work of several hundred people and was based on consultation meetings in 27 different countries (see here for more information on these consultations).
The report notes that more households in developing countries own a mobile phone than have access to electricity or clean water, and nearly 70 percent of the bottom fifth of the population in developing countries own a mobile phone. The number of internet users has more than tripled in a decade—from 1 billion in 2005 to an estimated 3.2 billion at the end of 2015.

The key question addressed by this report then is as follows:

Have [these] massive investments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) generated faster growth, more jobs, and better services? Indeed, are countries reaping sizeable digital dividends?
I can only briefly summarise this lengthy report, and if this post peaks your interest, please read the full report.

Main conclusions

Despite this vast investment in digital technologies, the digital dividend in terms of greater productivity, less inequality, more democracy, and greater wealth for all has not been gained. For instance:

  • global productivity growth has slowed;
  • labor markets have become more polarized and inequality is rising—particularly in the wealthier countries, but increasingly in developing countries;
  • while the number of democracies is growing, the share of free and fair elections is falling.

Digital divide Africa 2

Furthermore:

  • nearly 60 percent of the world’s people are still offline and can’t participate in the digital economy in any meaningful way;
  • many advanced economies face increasingly polarized labor markets and rising inequality—in part because technology augments higher skills while replacing routine jobs, forcing many workers to compete for low-paying jobs;
  • public sector investments in digital technologies, in the absence of accountable institutions, amplify the voice of elites, which can result in policy capture and greater state control;
  • because the economics of the internet favour natural monopolies, the absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms;
  • not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits, circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.

The fundamentals (‘complements’) of development are:

  • good governance;
  • a robust and open business market;
  • accountability (i.e. lack of corruption);
  • strong human capital (i.e. a well educated work-force)

In countries where these fundamentals are weak, digital technologies have not boosted productivity or reduced inequality. These poor trends persist, not because of digital technologies, but in spite of them. Thus while digital technologies have been spreading, digital dividends have not. On the other hand, countries that complement technology investments with broader fundamental reforms reap digital dividends in the form of faster growth, more jobs, and better services.

Thus the report’s main conclusion is:

The full benefits of the information and communications transformation will not be realized unless countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in people’s education and health, and promote good governance.

Barriers to success

For digital technologies to improve productivity and reduce inequality, there are important ‘analogue’ factors that must accompany or support (‘complement’) the introduction of digital technology in order to get the benefits:
  • digital technologies can make routine, transaction-intensive tasks dramatically cheaper, faster, and more convenient. But most tasks also have an aspect that cannot be automated and that requires human judgment, intuition,and discretion; the better educated the workforce the higher the quality of such human decision-making;
  • when technology is applied to automate tasks without matching improvements in other, non-digital social, economic and political activities, such as governance, accountability and education, technology can fail to bring broad-based gains;
  • the digital revolution can give rise to new business models that would benefit consumers, but not when incumbents control market entry;
  • technology can make workers more productive, but not when they lack the know-how to use it;
  • digital technologies can help monitor teacher attendance and improve learning outcomes, but not when the education system lacks accountability.

What should be done?

  • make the internet universally accessible and affordable. The internet, in a broad sense, has grown quickly, but it is by no means universal. For every person connected to high-speed broadband, five are not. Worldwide, some 4 billion people do not have any internet access, nearly 2 billion do not use a mobile phone, and almost half a billion live outside areas with a mobile signal.
  • access to the internet is critical, but not sufficient. The digital economy also requires strong regulations that create a vibrant business climate and let firms leverage digital technologies to compete and innovate; skills that allow workers, entrepreneurs, and public servants to seize opportunities in the digital world; and accountable institutions that use the internet to empower citizens.
The Internet promoted development through three mechanisms

The Internet promotes development through three mechanisms

A favourable business climate, strong human capital and good governance are standard requirements for economic growth. But digital technology has two particular roles to play in development:

  • digital technologies amplify the impact of good (and bad) policies, so any failure to reform means falling farther behind those who do reform. With digital technologies, the stakes have risen for developing countries, which have more to gain than high-income countries, but also more to lose;
  • digital technologies can enable and accelerate the impact of these standard requirements for growth, for example, by creating new jobs and business opportunities, through online learning raising the skills level of workers, and by enabling government to make evidence-based decisions.

Comment

This report is a powerful antidote to those who think digital technologies are the silver bullet for increasing equality, improving education, and reducing the gap between rich and poor. What becomes very clear is that digital technology amplifies change: if things are going badly, digital technology will make it happen worse and faster; if things are going well, digital technology will make it better. Thus digital technology is neither cause nor effect in development, but a catalyst that amplifies change.

This means of course that the hard work of making governments and business transparent and accountable, developing an educated workforce, and having an open, well regulated business environment all need to be done. Digital technology can facilitate this, but on its own it will not lead to a better world except for a very few.

One last point. There is a very interesting article in today’s Globe and Mail newspaper by Jim Balsillie, one of the founders of Blackberry, railing against the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, because it protects incumbent intellectual property holders. This gives a huge advantage to the USA, by protecting them from innovation originating in other countries with a small number of patents, relatively speaking (such as Canada). Balsillie argues that one reason digital technology has led to a greater increase in inequality is because of the distortion of U.S. patent law which makes it very difficult for new entrants to the digital technology market – although China, interestingly, has been smart enough to work around these barriers by its sheer size and more closed culture. Another barrier we see here in Canada is the power of incumbent organizations such as the three telecommunications companies who, through their control of national network infrastructure, can freeze out new competitors.

It sure ain’t a fair world out there, and digital technology is not helping. We need better regulation, and patent reform, that’s for sure, if digital technology is to reap fully its promise.

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.