April 29, 2017

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.

Privacy and the use of learning analytics

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

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

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

Applications of learning analytics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rationalisations

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

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

Making sense of learning analytics

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

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

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

Who gets to use the data?

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

 

Learn to fly – online

tony-plane-3

Warnock, C. (2014) 1,600 students worldwide take online flight classes Daily Herald, April 5

“Yeah, you’ll be telling me next that you can learn to fly a plane online – what, you can?!”

Not only that, you can get a Bachelor of Science in Aviation from the Utah Valley University, Orem, the largest public university in the state of Utah. The program has 200 students studying on campus, and the other 1,600 studying online. The program enables students to get a private aviation license, an instrument license and even a commercial pilot’s license. The 1,600 students who take classes online do their actual flying hours in airports local to them, so it’s only the theory part that is done online (although there are an increasing number of flight simulation programs now available as well, for those interested).

I have a special interest as I also have a private pilot’s license – yes, that’s me with my plane, a Cessna 172. It took me over 30 hours of night classes to get through my theory classes, and I would love to have been able to have taken that part online at the time, as it meant two hours driving from home to the airport and back for each lesson.

I’m still flying and in 2008 I flew across Canada from coast to coast (Tofino to Sydney, Nova Scotia) and back again as part of the Century Flight Club’s celebration of 100 years since the first flight in Canada. The photo below os of Black Tusk mountain, near Whistler, and was taken by my grandson, Marley, who was 14 at the time.

IMG_0012

Education across space and time: Distance Education, Vol. 34, No.2

Distance education in Australia

Distance education in Australia

This special edition of the Australian-based Distance Education journal presents a selection of papers originally submitted to the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’s 2013 summit meeting. The themes that the issue attempts to address are as follows:

  • How can we foster engaging and interactive learning with a dispersed and diverse population of students? 
  • How can we shift towards a learner-centred paradigm when institutional practices and physical infrastructures are geared towards teacher-centred delivery modes?
  • How can we enable the social and connected features of technology, when LMSs can be restrictive and clumsy…?

Sims, R. and Kigotho, M. (2013) Education across space and time: meeting the diverse needs of the distance learner:

This editorial sets the context and provides a brief description of each of the papers in the edition.

Hockridge, D. (2013) Challenges for educators using distance and online education to prepare students for relational professions

Relational professions are those which require ‘personal skills and a level of maturity.‘ This paper describes research that investigated educators’ concerns about distance and online education in Australian theological institutions. The paper in particular looks at ‘formation’, or character development, so the findings are more widely relevant than just theology. Her conclusion is well worth summarizing:

…it is overly simplistic to conclude that formational learning cannot occur in distance and online modes. Formational learning is complex and not easy to achieve regardless of the mode of study….a more productive way forward…is to be more intentional about the ways in which formation is addressed whether on campus, distance or online.

Earl, K. (2013) Student views on short-text assignment formats in fully online courses.

Short-text assignments restrict the word counts to 800 words or less. (Bit like a blog.) The study addressed two questions: how do students rate short-text assignments? How do students rate feedback provided by short text assignments? Conclusions:

assessment is more than a summative check of student knowledge and skills; it is an experience and part of the communication, and therefore relationship, between teachers and students. Short-text assignments are rated highly by students not because of a shorter word count but because students appreciated the variety and creativity aspects to these assignments. 

Note that the study was on one class of 21 students taught by the researcher.

Watson, S. (2013) Tentatively exploring the learning potentialities of postgraduate distance learners’ interactions with other people in their life contexts

Little consideration seems to have been given to the possibility that distance learners may be interacting with other people in their life contexts about their studies in a way that is making a positive contribution to their studies. The study involved semi-structured interviews of 15 Australian post-graduate students studying at a distance. Although the findings suggest that students vary widely in the extent to which they interact with others outside their course for study purposes, when they do interact, they produce identifiable learning benefits. Watson identified five types of life context interactions:

  • gathering information for assignments
  • getting help with difficult content
  • discussing the application of content to real-world contexts
  • sharing knowledge with others
  • getting feedback on assignment drafts

Watson suggests two course design implications from her studies so far:

  • encourage learners to talk to appropriate colleagues, friends or family about the application of particular theories in practice
  • encourage the establishment of mentoring relationships between learners and appropriate industry personnel

Higgins, K. and Harreveld, R. (2013) Professional development and the university casual academic: integration and support strategies for distance education

Casual academics are university instructors who are not entitled to either paid holiday leave or sick leave (such as, presumably, adjuncts and contract instructors in North America). In this study, twelve casual academics who taught distance education courses discussed their work through an in-depth semi-structured interview. The interviews revealed that these instructors managed their own professional development informally, and were sometimes unaware of the formal professional development activities available to them from the university.

Murphy, A. (2103) Open educational practices in higher education: institutional adoption and challenges

In this study, 110 individuals from higher education institutions in 29 countries participated in a survey aimed at identifying the extent to which HE institutions are currently implementing OERs and practices. The sample was focused on people with an interest in OERs; half the participants were from UK.

Main findings:

  • 23% were in organizations actively involved in the OERu network – 
  • 88% ‘knowledgeable’ about OERs
  • 29% were in institutions that were actively publishing OERs
  • the adoption of OERs and practices is still in its infancy
  • additional support such as funding and dedicated human resources are needed

Yasmin (2013) Application of the classification tree model in predicting learner dropout behaviour in open and distance learning

This study compares pre-enrollment student data with student attrition/drop-out for 12,000 post-graduate distance education students admitted to the University of North Bengal, India. The study indicated that married, employed, older, or remotely located students were more likely to drop out.

Note that the study used mainly demographic data, rather than data based on previous academic performance or the influence of factors during courses.

The paper’s main value is that it provides an analysis of drop-out factors for distance education students in a developing country, complementing the vast array of similar studies in developed countries.

Todhunter, B. (2013) LOL – limitations of online learning – are we selling the open and distance education message short?

This article questions the terminology being used to promote an institution’s programs. The author is particularly concerned that focusing on the term ‘online learning’ does a disservice to the special aspects of open and distance education. He argues it is necessary to pay close attention to the different needs of off-campus or distance learners, which can be lost in a discussion of the merits of online versus campus education. But above all, Todhunter is concerned that a focus on ‘online learning’ will put off many who are potential learners, whereas the terms ‘open’ and ‘distance’ will not only be be more appealing to some students, but may require different policies and strategies than a focus on ‘online’ learning.

Students embarking on graduate theses involving online learning, e-learning, distance education or open learning will benefit from reading this article when it comes to clearly defining what they are researching.

Comments

First, an explanation of why I have taken the time to ‘abstract’ these papers. This is not an ‘open access’ journal; you require a subscription from Taylor and Francis Group publications at nearly $40 an article. So pray that you have access to a good library, or you need to be sure that the article will be worth it to you. I have complained several times to Distance Education about a journal on open and distance education not being open access, but this is the policy of ODLAA (the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia).

Second, some of the individual articles are well worth reading, depending on your interest. From reading the journal I picked up the following points (these are my interpretations, not necessarily the author’s):

  • good pedagogy is more important than mode of delivery (Hockridge) – further evidence for my law of equal substitution (i.e. most of what applies to good teaching in classrooms also applies to online education, and vice versa. Most things that can be taught in class can also be taught online, so we need to focus on the exceptions, not the rule.)
  • we need to do far more research and development on online assessment methods (Earl)
  • we are underusing learners’ life experiences in the design of distance courses (especially important for adult learners) (Watson)
  • institutions need better policies for casual/adjunct/contract instructors, and need to pay particular attention to professional development for this increasingly important human resource in higher education (Higgins and Harreveld)
  • even amongst the supporters of OERs, actual use, and especially secondary use, of OERs is still minimal (Murphy) – how long does maturation have to take?
  • studies of drop-out that focus on the demographics of incoming students are pretty useless. These are your students: find ways to help them succeed – don’t screen them out just because they are a higher risk, especially if you are an open institution (Yasmin)
  • open and distance learning are not necessarily the same as online learning; institutions need to be clear about markets and values as well as about mode of delivery. (Todhunter)

However, I do feel for journal editors who have to try to pick the best papers and at the same time try to find a common theme. The theme and the questions set out for this edition are only partly addressed in these papers, but nevertheless the articles are well worth reading. It’s just a pity they are so inaccessible.

Los Angeles schools to issue iPads to all students

LA Watts-LACMA

Weiss, T. (2013) Los Angeles plans to give 640,000 students free iPads, CITE World, July 25

I don’t normally cover k-12 developments, but this one seems pretty significant. Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the USA, will hand out to students 31,000 free iPads in September under a new $30 million program launched by the district. The plan is that all 640,000 students in the LAUSD will receive their own iPad by 2014.

Initial focus is on the digital divide 

Mark Hovatter, the chief facilities executive for the LAUSD, reported:

“We’re targeting kids who most likely don’t have their own computers or laptops or iPads. Their only exposure to computers now is going to be in their schools. We started in schools in neighborhoods where kids didn’t have that much exposure to computers in the past. “

Pre-loaded content

Each student is receiving an iPad pre-loaded with educational applications and other programs that will be used by the students in their studies.

The rationale

1. Tech-ready workers

The most important thing is to try to prepare the kids for the technology they are going to face when they are going to graduate….Workers today in every field, including construction and automotive education, require skills with computers and related technologies, said Hovatter. “We are making sure that everyone is able to take a test electronically. Even in construction, you can’t do those jobs now without having some familiarity with computers. Whatever jobs kids want to have, technology is likely involved. You’re just not going to be able to do well in society if you don’t have some experience”

2. More interactive learning experience

Using the iPads, students and their teachers can better plan and synchronize scheduling, share reference videos and news events, use interactive lessons, and conduct digital reading tests that can be adjusted based on each student’s performance and reading levels.

3. Access to e-textbooks

digital textbooks will be delivered to the iPads through an arrangement with educational books publisher Pearson. Students will also be able to read other books for class assignments using the devices. The digital books also will help the district save money over buying traditional paper-based textbooks, but that wasn’t a main goal of the project.

Comment

These are early days, and the $30 million covers only the first 31,000 tablets. The article and other press releases say nothing about teacher preparation, which from past experience will be critical for success. So lots could go wrong.

Nevertheless, university and college instructors should ask themselves: ‘Am I ready to teach students who will arrive tech savvy and expecting me to teach in a tech savvy way?’ It won’t be long before all our students will expect this – if not already.

Thanks to Richard Pinet for directing me to this.