27 September 2010

Further thoughts regarding the Open University.

The Open University, from the day it opened it's doors (pun intended), has resolved around compromise.  In an earlier post, I commented on one of the main compromises they made: restricting the subject to what was in their courses.  I failed to spot one far more important compromise, even though it was perhaps the most obvious: person-to-person contact time.

In the old days, most of this person-to-person contact was face-to-face, with a weekend tutorial once a month or three or four hours. This generally didn't equate to even an hour a week -- I think it only comes to about half an hour per week in many cases.  In a full year at a face-to-face uni, it's not unusual to get 6 hours of face-to-face in a practical subject -- half would be tutorials and half lab sessions. Most students on the OU are effectively half-time, so parity would predict 3 hours of contact per week.

However, the logistics of remote study made this impractical -- doing that monthly would mean having a 12 hour session, and doing 6 hours every second week would involve far too much travel for most students.
Hence the compromise of less hours.

Now there's a new compromise in the mix.  With funding cuts coming in, they're moving all their tutorials on-line to save time, travel and room hire costs.


But they forgot that the low contact hours could only ever be justified by the burden of travelling to tutorials, a burden they have effectively eliminated.

The number of contact hours may have increased slightly with the introduction of on-line tutorials across the board, but if it has, then not by a lot.  It certainly hasn't caught up with the face-to-face unis, even though the OU pitches itself in direct competition with them in its adverts in the press.

The lack of contact hours is particularly vexatious for language students (like myself), where the contact is part and parcel of the subject.  Not only is contact vital to learn the subject, but for us communication is already harder, meaning that any communication problems may be caused by the online environment are compounded.

So they've taken something that was limited by circumstance and removed the circumstance causing the limitation, but not removed the limit.  They've replaced it with something less effective, less useful, on grounds of cost, ignoring the fact that what they have is already a lot cheaper than it would be if they offered the same service as their competitors.

Maybe I'm being too harsh.  What do other distance providers offer?  For the same amount of study credit, the Sabhal Mór Ostaig offers telephone tutorials "weekly or twice-weekly" for learners of Gaelic. They're not 100% clear on the total time, but looking at their application forms, this might be as much as the 3 hours I calculated above.

On the other hand, although the University of London doesn't offer languages at distance, they still make the OU look good -- their courses are entirely self-directed, with no integral tuition.  They even have a staggeringly complicated fee structure, with not only an "exemption fee" for modules that you don't sit, but a separate "exemption application fee", which suggests you're charged for even asking for an exemption.

The London situation is not the norm though; while most universities aren't clear on exact contact time, they are clear that you are supported by a tutor.

I'm inclined to accept that the problem really is specific to languages, and perhaps it's more a problem of categorisation than anything.  We have a tendency to make a distinction between "practical subjects" -- those with labs, experiments, hands-on workshops -- and everything else.  A practical subject can't be done at distance, for obvious reasons, and for this reason the OU's science prospectus is relatively restricted (but less so than you might expect) and very few distance providers offer anything other than the so-called "soft sciences" -- the non-practical ones.

But computing is a practical subject, and we can teach it at distance, because there's no specialist equipment needed.

Perhaps just as there is a split between science, soft science and arts subjects, we need to consider the difference between practical, soft practical and non-practical subjects.  The notion of "soft practical" needs some refining, but it is a tag I would be comfortable placing on languages and computing.

However, even though I invented it today the definition is already getting muddy.  With more and more engineering done on computer, does it qualify as a soft practical subject?  Physics is sometimes derided as "applied maths", and most physics is easily simulated in computers, so can that be considered "soft practical"?

I'd stick to the boundary of if it's a simulation of the subject, the subject is still "hard" practical.

The only border case I'd have a problem with is digital photography. Hard or soft?  The picture only need ever exist in a digital form or as light, so it seems pretty soft, but a particular picture can only be taken in one place.  I would hope to see some hands-on tuition in studio set-up and the like, so I'm veering towards "hard"... but then back to "soft"....

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