25 Years of OU: 1996 – online tutor groups

The FirstClass CMC system

When I joined the OU we still largely held f2f tutorials, but with some online support. Some specialist courses had been experimenting with totally online tutor groups. We used a system called FirstClass, and once you had your dial up modem working, it was pretty easy to use with its own software client, and it would synchronise offline so you could dial in, get updates and then disconnect. Prior to always-on broadband this was important! The History of the OU blog has a good entry on the conferencing software and courses that used it at the OU.

I got a small bit of funding to set up and evaluate a fully online tutor group on the Artificial Intelligence course I mentioned in the previous post. I think this was the first time we’d taken an existing course and tried to add online option to it, but I could be wrong. We asked for volunteer students to join this and had one volunteer tutor. It was sort of a success, but I had to step in when the tutor went AWOL. What this experiment revealed was that the technology part was the least difficult or problematic. That worked fine, what was difficult was creating the online equivalents for f2f practice in terms of contracts and levels of support.

Covid-19 bit: But ultimately what this experiment hughlighted was that students could bond in an online group as well as they do f2f, and they could get as good (if not better) support, but that admin systems set up for f2f struggle to find an online equivalent. We would crack this over the next couple of years, in an equitable manner, but this will be the type of difficulty many encounter next semester – for example, what are the asynchronous online equivalents of open office hours , or what can you reasonably expect from post-docs who previously lectured for one hour a week? But once these issues are (collaboratively and fairly) sorted, the main conclusion I drew was that ‘f2f is overrated and romanticised’. This was to be a guide for much of what was to come. Given the sort of nonsense and elitism we’ve seen since the online pivot, it’s a surprise that 24 years later, this is still so hard to grasp for many.


  1. I did a thing with Ches Lincoln once for gifted and talented kids, and we picked up on the idea of Café forums we used in courses (where general chat could happen) to include a Shed forum, where folk were allowed to be really geeky…

    1. Ha yes, I remember the shed! I don’t think I’ve ever met someone as devoted to one piece of software as Ches was to FC

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