PRISM Magazine On-Line  - November 1999
Distance Education the UK Way

by Thomas K. Grose

For Britain's Open University, it was a seminal moment in its 30-year fight to win public recognition for the quality of its courses and students. Last April, in a closely fought contest, O.U. defeated Oxford University's Oriel College in the final of University Challenge, a BBC-TV show similar to the old College Bowl on American television. It was the second time in recent years that O.U. won the annual battle of the brains (and no school has yet won it three times). The victories are helping the school shake its reputation as the Rodney Dangerfield of British higher education, while simultaneously showcasing the efficacy of distance learning.

If the school is only now getting the recognition it deserves among Britain's general public, educators around the world long ago discarded any misgivings that the Open University's system of "supported open learning" could deliver the academic goods. Consider this: A recent assessment by Britain's Higher Education Funding Council of the quality of teaching in U.K. universities ranked O.U. 11th out of 98 schools—ahead of such venerable institutions as St. Andrews University, King's College London, and the University of Edinburgh. More strikingly, the council gave O.U.'s technology department 24 out of a possible 24 points for the quality of its general engineering courses—higher than those achieved by Oxford, Cambridge, and London's Imperial College. It also recognized 19 subject areas in which O.U. was producing research of international quality, including educational technology, earth sciences, and architecture and design.

Open University's success is worth noting at a time when distance education is becoming the buzz phrase in academia in the United States. InterEd, a consulting company in Phoenix, Arizona, predicts that 11.6 million Americans will be involved in some sort of distance learning by next year. Virtually all U.S. universities, both public and private, already offer distance education courses. Students at nine U.S. schools, including the University of Maryland, the New York Institute of Technology, and the University of Phoenix, can obtain full degrees without ever setting foot on campus.

Indeed, this fall O.U. is opening—albeit on a very small scale—the virtual doors of an American extension, the United States Open University. And, back in Britain, O.U. no longer has the field all to itself, as many universities now offer distance education courses themselves.

O.U. was the brainstorm of former Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Set up in 1969 and accepting students since 1971, the school's premise is to allow anyone a chance to attend and, perhaps, obtain a degree—from home and on a part-time schedule. It has no admission requirements, which is part of its appeal.

An hour's drive north of London, in the town of Milton Keynes, the Open University's campus is centered in and around Walton Hall, a former manor house. Though students rarely visit, the Milton Keynes campus is home to 900 faculty members and 2,750 administrative staffers.

Technology's Pull

Since O.U.'s start, more than 2 million students have taken courses, 200,000 have been awarded bachelor's degrees and 50,000 have obtained post-graduate degrees. Cost is an important factor; on average, it takes six years and just $5,530 to complete an undergraduate degree at O.U. Today, O.U. is active in 41 countries with 125,000 undergraduates and 40,000 graduate students. An additional 44,000 people purchase the school's course materials.

Nearly 50 percent of the school's students are majoring in either technology, science, math, or computers. One two-year-old course— "Computing: An Object-Oriented Approach"—has 5,100 students, making it the largest computing course in the world. Not for long, however. Next year, O.U.'s technology department is introducing "You, Your Computer and the Net," and already 8,000 students have signed up. Both courses are mostly computer-based, though like all O.U. courses, they include written material.

Almost anyone in Britain with a TV set has probably tuned into an Open University class at one time or another. The classes are mostly broadcast in the wee hours on BBC 2, the part of BBC more like our public broadcasting stations. A few TV classes, however, like Discovering Science, have become moderately popular with ordinary viewers.

O.U. uses many media to augment its specially written textbooks, workbooks, and other printed materials. Radio, audio- and videocassettes, and CD-ROMs are all part of its teaching arsenal. And in science and technology courses, special equipment is loaned to students. Technology department dean Mike Meade says these home lab kits are a workable way to give students practical training. "When O.U. was founded, critics said, 'Okay, maybe you can teach English and social sciences, but not science and technology. You will not be able to deliver the lab experience to students.' But we've proved them wrong. We send our students substantial kits so they can set up a lab. We can deliver a lot of practical experience." And these days, CD-ROMs supplement the kits, allowing students to take, for instance, "virtual field trips."

An Army of Tutors

Perhaps the key to O.U.'s success, however, is the amount of support it gives its students. The school employs 7,000 part-time tutors. The technology department alone has 1,100 tutors and plans to hire an additional 500 to help cope with the 8,000 students taking the new computing class. The tutors schedule occasional group or individual tutorials, and are regularly available to their group of students via telephone, fax, or e-mail. Computer conferencing has also become a popular way for students to engage not only with their tutors, but with one another.

Most tutors are moonlighting academics from other universities. "They do it for a mixture of money, love, and envy—the latter is for our excellent teaching materials," says Hugh Robinson, a lecturer—the equivalent of an associate professor—in the mathematics and computing department. "But there is a lot of love involved; they are committed individuals."

Typical is Stuart Monro, who has been tutoring for O.U.'s science department since 1982. Currently on leave from the British Geological Survey, Monro is science director of the newly opened Dynamic Earth museum in Edinburgh. "Tutoring for the Open University is a wonderful way to keep a hand in teaching and it keeps me up-to-date," Monro explains. "As a geologist, I think its science department is one of the top research departments in the U.K., and their teaching materials are first-rate, cutting edge."

Indeed, so many thousands of British academics have had good experiences working as O.U. tutors that their word-of-mouth reports have helped the school gradually lose its second-class status. While the tutor network is necessary, some faculty members miss having regular, face-to-face contact with students. As a result many, like David Robinson, an assistant dean in the science department, find time to do some tutoring each year, as well.

Most technology and science courses also include time at residential schools. These are usually scheduled for a week in the summer at conference centers and universities across Britain. Residential schools allow students to intermingle, meet their profs and tutors, do lab work, or take field trips. Meade thinks the residence schools are a big reason his department's general engineering classes are rated so highly. O.U., however, in an effort to boost enrollment, is doing away with residential schools in some disciplines because many students complain that they can't attend them. But the technology and science departments are keeping theirs as a requirement for any students wanting a named, rather than a general, degree.

Different Style of Teaching

Teaching at Open University is very different from that at conventional universities. Instructors cannot just amble into a class with a pocketful of note cards and extemporize. Publish or perish takes on an even more urgent tone there. Everything to do with a class has to be written down. For broadcasts or audio/video tapings, teachers must write and closely follow their own scripts. Hugh Robinson says it all involves a lot of teamwork. Teachers must work with the broadcast production people, software developers, and editors for the printed material. Instructors write their own textbooks and workbooks. While computer use is increasing, teachers know that all core material must be available in print, because students often study in places where laptops can't easily go—like commuter trains and bathtubs. And each course must be tightly structured so that tutors can be easily trained. Not surprisingly, it can take up to four years to develop a technology or science course, at a cost of $2.5 to $3.5 million.

O.U. technology and science teachers spend about 60 percent of their time developing new courses and delivering current courses; they devote about 40 percent of their schedule to research projects. O.U. research recently gained increased recognition when its researchers played a major role in analyzing meteorites and the possibilities of life on Mars. And in August, when the final solar eclipse of this millennium cast a long shadow across parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia, O.U. researchers teamed with colleagues at London's University College on several experiments, including one measuring changes in temperature and humidity to see how eclipses affect weather.

Because teaching at Open University is so different, only those instructors willing to adapt tend to fit in. But, as Meade says, there is no shortage of top-notch candidates. "It is difficult to judge who will thrive here and who will have a tough time," he says, because the teaching is so unconventional. And even those who do well find "it takes a long time to get used to our methods." It all seems to come together, however. The Higher Education Funding Council assessment of the technology department called O.U.'s courses "broad, usually topic-based, and usually rigorous and challenging." Teaching and learning sessions, it said, were of a "very high quality . . . the great majority of sessions were well planned and structured and of appropriate pace. They reflected the enthusiasm, commitment, and ability of the staff, who utilized a wide range of innovative classroom practices . . . students participated actively and with enthusiasm."

Diversity and Opportunity

While the youngest O.U. graduate was 18 and the oldest 94, the average age of students is 35. In the technology department, students tend to be males in their 30s who are looking for second careers. Often they are technicians working on becoming engineers. Monro, the Edinburgh-based tutor, says he is constantly impressed with the ability of the students and their diversity. "They are a wide range of people from different backgrounds—surgeons to postal workers." And Meade says that when tutors meet with students at residential schools they always come away amazed. "They are used to dealing with bored students. But ours keep them on their toes. They marvel at the enthusiasm of our students." And the students, likewise, rate their own O.U. experiences highly.

A Scottish study earlier this year found 95 percent of the school's Scottish students rated course content "good" or "excellent." Among students at other Scottish schools, only 78 percent gave their courses similar scores. The school certainly makes the needs of its students paramount. "We are far more aware of our students being customers, as individuals who have made an investment," explains Hugh Robinson.

Perhaps most rewarding for Open University faculty is seeing those students who had no qualifications, who could not have gotten into any other university, graduating with degrees. "It shows that if you give students proper support and guidance, many will succeed, regardless of a lack of qualifications," Meade says. David Robinson, of the science department, recalls a recent student who was completely deaf and could only lip-read. She had been told it was unlikely she would ever be able to complete a degree program, but she succeeded at O.U. Says Robinson: "I took enormous pleasure in seeing her get her degree."


Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer in London

FAQ on O.U.

The Open University academic year begins in February and ends in October, when students take their final exams.

"Our courses are big in U.S. terms," says Hugh Robinson, computer lecturer. O.U. courses are quantified on a points basis, of either 60 to 30 points, with 60 points equal to a half-load. In U.S., a 30-point class would be worth eight credit hours, a 60-point class worth 16. Most O.U. students are part time and it takes them an average of six years to earn a degree (most British undergraduate degrees are done in three years). Those who attend full time are not allowed to take more than two classes at once.

The classes are not self-paced, as deadlines must be met. A student can, however, work faster than the time allotted. Half of a final grade is determined by how well students do on classroom assignments, and 50 percent is determined by the final exam.

Undergraduate technology degrees available are: B.S. Honors in technology; B.S. Honors in information technology and computing; B.S. Honors in environmental studies; and a master's in engineering.

The science degree is a B.S. Honors in Natural Science.

In mathematics and computing, O.U. offers a B.S. Honors in mathematical sciences; a B.S. Honors in computing and mathematical sciences; and a master's in math.

Although some of these degrees are called master's, they are considered undergraduate degrees.

The British are coming,
the British are coming!

Britain's Open University already operates in 41 countries, and now it's trying to invade America. The United States Open University will begin courses this fall on a small scale. Initially, just seven courses will be offered, including a course in computers. Only about a dozen students per class are expected to initially enroll. Headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware, the new university has applied for and is awaiting accreditation so it can eventually offer degrees.

In the past, O.U. has worked with a few other American universities and community colleges with mixed success. Several U.S. schools follow some of its procedures, but few use O.U. courses intact. When it comes to course development, most American schools like to go their own way.