Online learning and disruptive change at the UK Open University

May 2, 2018 Tony Bates

The old Walton Hall on the OU campus in Milton keynes

Sturm und Strang

I’ve was in England last week,  attending the 7th eSTEeM conference at the Open University as the opening keynote speaker, only my second visit to the OU since I left nearly 30 years ago.

The Open University, described by several commentators as one of the most successful innovations in Britain since the Second World War, is currently going through an existential crisis, which culminated two weeks ago with the resignation of its Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, following a devastating vote of no confidence by faculty and staff.

The OU is facing enormous pressure, due mainly to the policies of the recent Conservative governments. Over the last six years, the government has treated the OU just the same as other, more traditional, universities in England and Wales. The government severely cut the OU’s operating budget requiring it to dramatically increase fees, and also made all part-time students (i.e. students not taking a full annual course load) ineligible for government-guaranteed, low interest loans. It also has required students at the OU, like all other students in England and Wales, to complete their bachelor studies within three years, compressing their time for study. It is expected to have a £20 million (CS$36 million) operating deficit this year and was proposing to save £100m from its £420m annual budget by cutting courses and staff.

Since the vast majority of its 200,000 students in 2012 were part-time, working adults without a first degree and who required the maximum flexibility in their studies, it’s hardly surprising that its student numbers have dropped by more than a third since 2012. At the same time it has invested heavily in FutureLearn, a MOOC-type platform which is still struggling to find a viable business model. The recent changes mean that the whole concept of open-ness and accessibility for OU students, and its unique position in the British higher education system, are under existential threat. 

To cap all this, the university itself recognises that it needs to fundamentally change its operational model. Like many other Open Universities, it has not changed fast enough to accommodate to the digital revolution in post-secondary teaching. It is burdened with a heavy legacy of a print-based design model and an expensive regional tutoring system, despite the recent elimination of all local face-to-face operations.

“We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud, a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy,” according to Horrocks. As a result the (now leaderless) executive team is working on a ‘transformational model’ for the university, which is still a work in progress.

This is the battlefield into which I parachuted this week.

The eSTEeM conference

The Open University has offered science and technology programs since its inauguration in 1971. It initially used a combination of print, home experiment kits mailed to students’ homes, and one week residential schools in the summer. The residential schools have long since gone (too expensive) although in general students loved them and at least in the early days the residential schools provided such a morale boost for students that many who would have dropped out then went on to continue successfully.

For the last seven years, the STEM Faculty/academic department at the OU has been holding an annual conference to demonstrate the scholarship of its faculty and staff. I was the opening speaker for this year’s conference, on the topic: ‘Digital learning in an era of change: challenges and opportunities for STEM teaching and the OU.’

However, as well as the very interesting STEM components of the conference, on which I will write two separate posts, there was an almost full day, well-organised workshop called ‘Digital by Design’, which focused on what the future as a whole should be at the OU. The workshop enabled a quick and close, if incomplete, ‘parachute’ view of some of the challenges the OU is facing and how academic and regional staff are responding. In this post I will focus on these general, internal challenges that the OU still has to resolve that emerged from this and other discussions in which I participated.

Online but not digital

It is clear that many of the teaching staff have not really ‘got it’ with regard to digital learning. In many cases, print still remains the core teaching technology, and where online is heavily used, it is often just a print model moved online, with a heavy emphasis on content transmission. Many in the OU are still arguing for a ‘blended’ learning model, which in this case refers to a mix of print and online, with print having at least an equal contribution.

In particular, the OU is really weak in its exploitation of the networking and student collaboration that the web offers and in its integration of social media within the design of courses. In this it is not unlike many conventional universities, but nevertheless this realisation came as a real shock to me. This was the original open, distance university, not a conventional one.

Why I am so shocked is that one of the many reasons I emigrated to Canada in 1989 was that I got frustrated at the inability of myself and others at the OU such as Robin Mason and Tony Kaye to get the OU to take online learning seriously. We had contributed to a course, DT200, in 1988 that had an online discussion forum component that had merely been bolted on to the standard 36 week print and broadcast design. The next logical step would have been to have pioneered a fully online course, but neither the university management nor the faculty were interested.

It is important to understand that the OU has a relatively small core of permanent faculty based at its headquarters in Milton Keynes who are primarily engaged in the design of courses, in particular the choice and structuring of content, and a legion of regional staff tutors who provide most of the student learning support. There is a long-established Institute of Educational Technology, where the staff have full academic status, and conduct research as well as advise the OU’s course teams on best practices in the design of distance education.

Here I am 30 years later, and there are still arguments going on about the wisdom of going fully online. This despite the fact that Gilly Salmon, who wrote a standard text on teaching online (2011), worked at the OU for several years, and despite the fact that the OU has an Institute of Educational Technology that has excellent design models developed for online learning that it struggles to get faculty to adopt. This is so reminiscent of Athabasca University and its failure to exploit the expertise of Terry Anderson and its other distance education specialists

The fixation on print as the ‘core’ medium/technology

I participated in several discussions where I challenged the focus on printed material as the core teaching technology. First though I would like to set out some of the arguments OU staff put forward in support of print.

Arguments for print

These were made mainly by OU staff to me.

  1. The OU made its reputation in its early days in the 1970s by the very high quality of its printed materials. As well as being beautifully produced and illustrated (full colour), they were and still are extremely well structured. This was recognised immediately by many faculty in more traditional universities, and the quality of its printed materials is still much appreciated by the students. If it was effective then, it must be effective now.
  2. Access: there are still students in Britain who do not have access to the Internet or cannot afford a computer.
  3. Most OU students are working and many spend all day at work looking at screens; the OU printed material provides an essential break from being on-screen all day.
  4. Students prefer to read printed material; it’s easier for study purposes and revision than searching online.
  5. If the textual material was delivered online rather than printed, the OU would be transferring the cost of print to the students, as they would want to print out the textual material.

Arguments against print

These were made mainly by me to OU staff.

  1. Online learning provides students with the opportunity of ‘any time, any place’ discussion and interaction with each other and teaching staff.
  2. Student activities and interaction with online text is more integrated and immediate than with printed text. In particular immediate feedback can be provided through online tests or automated feedback, etc.
  3. Students are not limited by the boundaries of the printed course material once they go online. Everything on the Internet is potential study material. In particular students can access open educational resources from many different sources.
  4. In order to develop the skills students need in the 21st century, we need to focus more on skills development than on the transmission of content. Online learning can focus better on the development of these soft skills, such as communication and knowledge management.
  5. Access has always been a limitation for any technology. For instance students with visual impairment or dyslexia have difficulties with print. When the OU first started, many students did not have access to the broadcasts. Most students in Britain now have access to the Internet, although in more remote areas there are still bandwidth limitations. The OU’s policy in general has been that when access exceeds 80% of the target audience, alternatives are found for the remaining students. It is wrong to deny the benefits to the vast majority of students because of the needs of a small minority which could be met in other ways.
  6. Students need to learn digitally if they are to earn digitally. Digital literacy is now a core skill required by everyone.
  7. The costs for a print-based system are very high, not just in the actual costs of full colour printing, but in the editing, and above all, the lengthy time it takes faculty and instructors to prepare, check and revise the printed materials (many OU courses take at least two years to design). Savings by going digital could be used to reduce substantially tuition fees.

The need to think digitally when designing online learning

The issue is not whether print has educational value; it does, and there may be specific situations where students may prefer to have hard copy. However, it should not be the default medium. It’s really important when designing online learning to be open to all the media the Internet enables: text, audio, video, computing, augmented reality, simulations, social media, and so on. This requires thinking digitally when designing courses, which is difficult if your first and preferred option is always print.

Of course, this is identical to the challenge that on-campus instructors face about digital learning, but instead of print, their default option is face-to-face teaching.

This is why moving to online learning requires a major cultural change and why it takes so long. However, in the OU’s current existential crisis, it does not have the time for gradual change (that should have started back in 1989). The need for change must be embraced now, ironically, not for financial reasons but for pedagogical reasons: only this way will it better prepare its students for the future. The financial pressures merely make this devastatingly urgent.

Necessary but not sufficient

Forcing change for financial reasons is unlikely to work. Making changes that are not accepted or resisted by staff is more likely to lead to failure or collapse in an organization. Even if by some miracle the (remaining) OU staff manage to pull it off, moving to the University of the Cloud (whatever that means – some kind of heaven for students?) will not meet the needs of the nation that the former OU met.

Lifelong learning is not a luxury but a necessity in a digital age, where the knowledge base expands exponentially and citizens need to continuously learn new content and new skills. Traditional universities do not do lifelong learning well; they are not really designed for it. The OU was, but government policies of starving financial support for part-time learners and reducing the flexibility of study to fit some 1950s view of elite higher education is going to be disastrous for the future British economy. At no time has the OU been more important to Britain. Without a radical change of government policy though its future is indeed dismal, whatever else it does.

Up next

Your intrepid online learning war correspondent will do two more posts from my visit to the OU:

  • the OU’s use of learning analytics for analysing student course evaluations
  • the OU’s use of online labs

Also I will be reporting on a conference on active learning I attended this week at the Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario. Buy, busy, busy. (Don’t even ask about retirement).


Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

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