19 September 2010

An open letter to an open university

The UK's Open University is perhaps one of the most important universities of the modern era.  It was founded in the late 60s and opened in the early 70s as part of an initiative to make learning more accessible through use of the TV.

They developed a world-leading methodology by coupling televised lectures and demonstrations with well written course-books and self-study exercises.  These were backed up by monthly tutorials in a nearby population centre, and in many cases a week-long summer school on the university's campus in Milton Keynes.

There were compromises to be made, of course.  The logistics and economics of printing these books meant that course choice was limited, and where a traditional university would give students 4-8 modules of their choice each year of study, the OU took a "monolithic" approach, with students typically only taking 2 large modules to cover the same amount of academic study.

The other major compromise was, ironically, learner independence.  While self-study should encourage this, there was the problem of creating a level period.  A student in a traditional university is expected to spend time in the library and investigate beyond the boundaries of the course material, but a student at the OU may not have access to an academic library, so marking has always been strictly against the material supplied by the OU.  A fair and equitable solution.

Even when I started studying with them in 2005, although the internet was getting big, they still maintained this.  Why?  Even if everyone was on the net (which they weren't at that time), there was still the question of the sailor in the nuclear submarine.  He cannot have access to the net, and the OU took pride in being accessible to this level, even (so I was told) having procedures that military officers could receive student assignments that couldn't be posted immediately and sign as witnesses to say it was handed in to the set deadline.

So the OU has necessarily found itself a bit behind the curve on the technology front, but a higher education funding crisis had been expected for some time and was starting to bite even before the wider recession hit.  The OU has been slowly moving towards online delivery, bit by bit.  First of all, email became the principle means of tutor-student interaction outside of tutorials.  This was ideal for all involved -- less intrusive than phone calls, more timely than post.  Less cost to both the student and the university than either.  Next up was the Electronic TMA (tutor-marked assignment) system to submit monthly assignments.  Again, ideal for all involved.  No more "lost in the post", no more worrying about how many days extra to give it to make sure it arrives before the deadline.  Quicker feedback, and scores logged without any additional secretarial or administrative overhead.  Alongside eTMA came the on-line course option.  Don't live close to a tutorial centre?  Chose the on-line version and get your tutorials wherever you are!  More choice for the student, and reduced costs for the university.  Perfect.

But that's where the good news ends.

Courses are now delivered by what is enigmatically titled "blended learning", a mixture of face-to-face and online tutorials.  In reality, that often means 2 face-to-face tutorials in the entire year and everything else on-line.

I can see why this is a good idea for most subjects -- we are all quite used to telephone conversations after all.  However, there's one area most of us are not used to telephone conversations, and that is in a new language.  The telephone is one of the hardest things for a learner to deal with, because we rely on seeing other people to know whether they understand or not, so opening your mouth becomes immediately more scary.  By the same token, we need the tutor to see us to know when we're confused, because we aren't always going to admit to it.
The blanket imposition of online tutorials is merely a cost-saving measure, but the cost of alienating students by applying it inappropriately may be too high.

The removal of face-to-face tutorials is to the detriment of students.  What have they given us in compensation?  Not hellish much, I'm afraid.  The course texts are given as both printed books and as "electronic texts", but live so many places, what they offer as electronic texts is a series of PDFs of the printed material, all utilising layouts that make them slow and awkward on a computer screen, and effectively unusable on a commercial e-book reader.  The video and audio for the courses is being moved from individual CDs and DVDs onto either a single CD-ROM, integrated with the learning tasks, or even onto a website.  We are being increasingly bound to our computers, where my favourite place of study was previously always in a park or halfway up a hill.  To me this is an inconvenience, but for the nuclear submariner it means he's now locked out.  The only bonus we've been given on the language courses is a simple flashcard manager, but even that is limited to the website and there are plenty of flashcard programs for free or for cheap that you can install onto your computer or smartphone to take with you when you can't connect to the web.

The Open University has had its hand forced by changes in public funding, but it cannot afford to let itself lose the openness that it prides itself on.
The move to a more "virtual" way of study must continue to increase access to education, not decrease it.

There are several ways I would suggest this can be achieved.
  1. Officially support open software.  Currently all written assignments must be submitted in Microsoft .DOC format, and every year there are TMAs rejected because the student has been using the wrong version of Word.  AbiWord and OpenOffice.org are free software, so it is no great imposition on students or tutors to ask them to use one of these for essay writing and marking.
  2. Following on from the above, there should be a standard computing environment.  As we rely on more and more computerised tools (browsers, word processors, ebook programs, media players, sound recorders etc), the environment gets harder and harder to manage for the learner and for the support desk.  With the rise in netbooks and tablets, and the availability of "live" Linux distributions (an operating system that can be run from a USB pendrive without installing anything on the computer itself), the OU could have a single master environment that would provide all the software needed for a student to follow a course.
  3. As a consequence of the above, computer-based exams could finally become a reality.  Right now we can't do our exams on computer because of the impracticality of getting that many computers, and the fact that we would be able to cheat if we brought our own.  But if there was a university standard Linux live distribution, the university could make modified versions of this for the exam.  You walk into the exam with your own computer and you are given the exam environment, questions and all, on a memory stick.  You would boot up your computer in the exam environment, do your exam and hand the USB stick to the invigilator as you leave.  Your stick would be tagged with your ID and sent back to Milton Keynes.  Plagiarism checks and marking of certain types of question could be carried out by computer, speeding up the process and saving costs.  Exam questions needing marked by human markers could be sent out electronically rather than by post, saving both money and time.  In fact, different questions could be sent to different specialist markers rather than having to have the whole script for a single student marked by the same person.
  4. Rewrite course books to be suitable for ebook readers.  This means stripping out all the layout and moving them to an open format such as ePUB.  (In the case of the current generation of language materials, this will be impractical, and it can only be done with a complete rewrite of the course at a later date.)
  5. Make more audio available for courses that use it heavily (language, music, literature).  The cost of distribution has dropped, and even the same audio can be reused in many ways if it's not trapped in individual tracks on particular CDs.
But the biggest change I would make is as follows:
With the cost of course material distribution down to zero (no books, no CDs, no DVDs) and with no real need to have a local tutor (very little contact, assignment submission that doesn't rely on the postal service) now is the time to bring the courses into line with face-to-face universities.

Diversify, offer specialisation.
 Let the local tutors deal with only the core subject, reduced to about 30 points, and fill the other 30 points with elective specialist modules with remote tutors.  Once you get to honours year at a traditional university, almost all tutorials are taken by the full-time academic staff, and I would love the chance to do this with the Open University.  Milton Keynes has some incredibly well-respected academics that right now are hidden behind the words in a book.  Use the internet to bring me closer to them.  Let me study a short module in French poetry with Françoise Ugochukwa.  Let me study English in the foreign classroom with David Graddol.

Give me those opportunities and you won't only have made up for the loss of the face-to-face tutorials, you will have produced something even better than what you were offering me in 2005.  It would be a course without compromise, offering everything a traditional university does and more.

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