Open University in the UK, 40 Years After First Graduation

There’s an interesting three-minute video produced by the BBC that covers the Open University at 40. It was a ground-breaking idea, and to date over 1.8 million students have obtained degrees. The current educational technology boom and interest in online education, including the MOOC phenomenon, owes a great deal to the Open University.

As it’s too hot today to do much yard work, I might as well add transcription.

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Corduroy and calculus, kipper ties and chemistry.

The Open University was a curious, groundbreaking mix. Forty years ago, in June 1973, its first graduation ceremony took place. Frederick Lavendar is now 87 years old [was part of first graduating class].

Lavendar: “It was challenging, but it was exciting, too. Because everyone was in the excitement together.”

The Open University was a radical concept. No qualifications required, no student campus, learning materials sent through the post, lectures broadcast on the BBC2.

Professor Craig Mahoney: “The Open University provided access for students who didn’t typically have access to higher education at that time. Distance education was seen very skeptically, and people weren’t very supportive of that. So there was a big challenge.”

Q. “Did you ever worry that an Open University degree wouldn’t be seen as quite as good as a degree from a traditional university?”

Lavendar: “No. It might have been partly snobbishness, but having had previous experience with other university approaches, I felt prepared to fight my corner [for the non-British: colloquialism meaning to defend your beliefs by arguing]“.

Because students were spread far and wide, many were sent home experiment kits to help them with their studies. 70s math undergraduates got one of these in the post, a circular slide rule. Science students received a lab in a box, an experiment kit delivered to their doorsteps.

Lavendar: “Through the post they sent you a sheep’s brain to dissect.”

Over its 40 years, the OU has taught 1.8 million students. Coronation Street actress Katy Kavanagh is one of them.

Kavanagh: “I was really nervous when I started. I didn’t believe that I could do it, I didn’t believe that I could get these essays in on time. It’s really given me confidence, it’s given me something different from acting.”

The number of UK-based distance learning students has shot up by around 50% over the past decade to over 260,000, and it’s largely down to the Internet.

Q. “It’s a threat to you, isn’t it, because once you do long-distance learning you have many other ways to do so.”

Niall Sclater, Director of Learning at OU: “There are, but what we offer is a degree qualification. We’re finding that many people are signing up for our courses because it’s actually cheaper than doing going to a face-to-face university.”

“Learn and Live”, the Open University motto is the same today as it was 40 years ago. It’s image, however [shows professor with 70s clothing], is another matter.

H/T Mark Smithers

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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