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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Open University: First Impressions of a Unique Institution

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Over the summer, I was (more by luck than skill, I suspect) appointed as an Associate Lecturer for the Open University. This is the first of two posts contrasting the OU with the more conventional university at which I have taught part-time for several years. This post gives my impressions of the OU as an institution; the second will look at the differences between OU and conventional students.

I have long felt that the Open University does things differently. When I was younger, I remember our kitchen table continually covered with papers, and colourful textbooks; DVDs and software CDs would randomly drop through the letterbox; and, in the middle of the night, the video player would suddenly start whirring, recording some OU broadcast. This was because my dad took an OU course every year, finally earning his second BSc after twelve years hard slog.

Today, I stand on the other side of the OU fence. I recently got a post as an Associate Lecturer on one of the OU's English Literature courses. Having seen the way the OU worms its way into the home life and domestic environments of students sitting courses, suddenly the OU has infiltrated my own kitchen table and scattered its papers on the floor of my bedroom, as I grapple with the demands of teaching a new course, and integrating myself into the rules and procedures of this organisation.

Whilst I always knew the OU was unique among universities, I never realised until now quite how remarkable an institution it is. Over 200 000 students enrol to study with the OU each year. Of these, around 20 000 students are studying an OU course outside the UK; many are ex-pats, or members of the armed forces, but many too are foreign students who welcome the opportunity to make contact with a world-recognised institution. Over two thirds of students will be working whilst studying. 15% of students come from disadvantaged communities.

Even for those not studying formally, the OU makes itself felt. Each week, there are around 50 000 downloads of OU podcasts from iTunes. Two million people access the freely available teaching and learning materials from the Open Learn website. Millions more watch OU supported television programmes, such as the BBC's Coast.

The sheer scale of the organisation is mind-boggling, and utterly unlike any other, mainstream Higher Education institution. And yet what strikes me most as an Associate Lecturer is that at its heart lies an intimate relationship between teachers and students. The idea of an OU course is that the actual teaching is done through the carefully-prepared study materials, such as course books and audio-visual materials. The tutor is not a lecturer in the conventional sense, delivering information and setting tests. The role of a tutor is simply to be on hand to offer some pointers and clarification when a student becomes stuck, to deliver tutorials which again help to draw out some of the issues on the course, and to mark assignments with detailed feedback.

With this theoretically proscribed remit, it would be easy for the OU to offer tutor support for courses en masse. In the digital age, students could post queries on message boards, and a central team of tutors could moderate and respond to them. Largely, the student community could be self-supporting, with students offering each other advice. This does happen to a degree, with students setting up lively Facebook groups, for example. However, although the OU might be run as a purely distance learning organisation, with staff too kept at arm's length, core to student support in the OU remains the allocation of a single tutor, to one small group of students (around 20 in my case).

Students may never get to see me in person (since my students are based in Europe), but they will always know that I am at the end of an email or phone line. In that respect, the student-teacher relationship encouraged by the OU is even more intimate than in a traditional university, where a tutor might lecture to 200 students, or have dozens of small tutorial groups to supervise. Already this year I have had more "contact" with my OU students than with my students at my other, conventional university.

It is quite clear that the OU is a student-centred organisation. It has to be. Its whole raison d'etre when founded forty years ago was to widen the availability of Higher Education to students. At the same time, though, the OU has had continually to attract students in order to sustain itself. Albeit often with generous financial support available for those who could not otherwise afford it, students have always paid fees and the OU is conscious that without students, it would cease to exist. It was, in this sense, forty years ahead of the game of tuition fees, which turned students into consumers.

As I have been complaining recently on this blog, conventional universities have no room to provide more contact hours or support for students who are now paying fees, because it is still the research which brings in most money. As an OU lecturer, though, I am told that I am expected to support my students based on their needs. If a student needs additional help, there is a mechanism to reimburse me, as I can request overtime payments. By contrast at my mainstream university, if any student needs more than the basic tuition, or additional pastoral care, I have to support them at my own time and expense.

On the flip side, the OU also seems genuinely to care about its Associate Lecturers, all of whom teach purely on a part time basis, often alongside other jobs. It would be easy to pass the buck of professional development on to other organisations, or expect lecturers (who may already be established academics) to fend for themselves. Instead, from the moment I received my training pack it was clear that the OU will invest and support me, in a way that sets a good example for my own relationship with students.

For example, the OU offers a course fee waiver for Associate Lecturers, and runs a range of courses that might be relevant to teaching within and beyond the OU. Part of my salary is stipulated as professional development time, and although it is left on trust whether I will actually do any, the fact that it is highlighted as a separate payment speaks volumes. I am allocated a mentor who I can approach with the picky concerns that are not worth raising with a line manager. A sample of my essays will be double marked, and I will get to see the moderator's comments; in my other university job, by contrast, I have never been told about external examiners' reports, despite me marking half the year group for one module last year, and have had specifically to ask whether my marks had to be pushed up, down, or were just right.

But. I would not be an academic if I did not judiciously balance the positives with negatives. And although my view of the OU has been very positive thus far, and I am proud to be associated with an organisation that does so much to support those who would otherwise be disenfranchised from Higher Educations, already there are some things that gripe.

There is - what else? - that old issue of pay. The OU at least has the decency to state that I should be working for 6 hours a week, which puts to shame my other university which assumes that it takes 1 hour to prepare for a 1 hour tutorial. Joke. Even so, the 6 hours very easily vanishes. I am probably working twice that each week at the moment, because I have to learn the course for the first time, as well as to teach it. Given that students on my course should be studying for 15 hours a week...well, you do the maths. Having said that, I expect that next year, with more experience behind me, the 6 hours should become a fairer representation.

The issue which has surprised and frustrated me most, though, is the awful and incoherent IT infrastructure behind the OU enterprise. There are several different websites all doing comparable things within interfaces that all look different and un-integrated (Open Learn, Student Home, Tutor Home, Platform First Class, Intranet Home). The email and forum software belongs in a museum of early 1990s bulletin boards: there is no threading, 100 MB of storage, no search function, poor attachment support, an awful address book, no mobile or push email support. A project is underway to replace this old system with something that may live up to the vain name First Class. But we have had richly interactive websites and communication tools for the last decade, and given that part of the OU's remit is to drive forward educational technologies, it is shockingly behind the times with its own virtual learning environment (VLE).

Similarly, the way my tutorials work is ridiculously quirky. Because my students are scattered across Europe, we hold tutorials via a telephone conferencing system. This involves an operator phoning round each participant in turn, which occupies 5 to 10 minutes of a 45 minute tutorial; we then hold a conversation across a time-delayed, echoing line. I must not overrun my tutorials, since the international operator-assisted calling charges are significant. Neither must the calls go through to students' mobiles.

But there is another way of running conferencing cheaply and easily, with me in full control. You may have heard of it. It is called VoIP. It would be easy for me to install software on my own PC that would allow me to conference call students, either to their phones or computers or mobiles, for nothing more than the cost of a local rate phone call. Like all large institutions, I guess the OU must be slow to turn on to new technological opportunities. But as the one at the sharp end of a rubbish and costly phone line, who could run a VoIP conference with the click of a mouse, the rigidity of the old system is frustrating and, again, surprising given the OU's remit to promote virtual and distance learning.

To be fair to the OU, it is not alone in being a Higher Education institution that struggles with the internet age. My other university uses the god-awful, snail-slow, user-unfriendly Blackboard. However, whilst in mainstream universities such VLEs are an addendum to conventional teaching methods (lectures and tutorials), the VLE is increasingly the main face of the OU for students and, for that matter, for Associate Lecturers.

Even so, a gripe about technology should be set in the context of the fact that the OU works, and works brilliantly for a large and diverse body of students who would otherwise not have access to study. In my second blog post, I will look at how these students seem to differ from "conventional" ones who have slipped directly from college into university.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:10 am

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