25 Years of OU – 2019: The Open Programme

My advice is have a Bryan Mathers graphic for every point you want to make

In 2019 I became the Director of the Open programme at the Open University. The open programme covers our ‘Open’ qualifications, such as the Open degree. When the OU was founded, you could only get an open degree, there were no named ones. This was part of the deliberate policy to imagine a new type of university and education. The OU’s first VC, Walter Perry put it like this:

“a student is the best judge of what [s]he wishes to learn and that [s]he should be given the maximum freedom of choice consistent with a coherent overall pattern. …this is doubly true when one is dealing with adults who, after years of experience of life, ought to be in a better position to judge what precise studies they wish to undertake…”. (Perry, 1976). 

The Open Degree allows students to construct their own pathway by selecting from the OU’s full range of modules – there are some prerequisites for some courses, but generally they are designed to be studied independently. We are the UK’s largest multidisciplinary education provider, partly because we are freed from the constraints of timetabling. It is very difficult to create multidisciplinary degrees in most unis because they can’t schedule all lectures not to clash with at least some others. And our students do create the full range of combinations, so it is not restricted to obvious ones.

As education shifts to addressing complex, wicked problems and focuses on personalisation and choice, the Open Degree is, as the Bryan Mathers cartoon above suggests, an entity whose time has come again. If we didn’t have it we would invent it and make a big hurrah about it. Sadly, as so many things that have been around for a while it is rather under-appreciated in the OU – I mean had you heard of it? We don’t market it directly or promote its benefits.

But we do have about 20,000 students studying on the Open programme, and often they switch to it having started on a named degree with us. Either that degree isn’t what they thought it would be, or their interests or circumstances change. We also have students coming to us from other universities for similar reasons – they may have started studying one degree and found it wasn’t for them. They can transfer that credit into us (so it is not wasted), but choose from a wide range of modules. It’s really a beautiful and useful degree structure and also an aspect of ‘open education’ that gets overlooked when we talk of MOOCs, OER, etc.

Covid 19 bit: There are two elements relating to the pandemic that I think are worth identifying. The first is that in order to solve complex problems like the pandemic which have medical, social, political, educational and economic factors you need specialists AND people who can work across disciplines. The need for multidisciplinary knowledge was demonstrated by the complexity of the pandemic’s impacts.

Second, the social distancing regulations put in place in many institutions hit cross-disciplinary study hard. It was easier to maintain bubbles and track infections if students were within one discipline. Multidisciplinary study is like a little virus spreader around campus, so many such programmes were restricted or closed. Online and asynchronous study of course removes these restrictions, so the impact on multidisciplinary study is another example of the fragility of the existing higher education model.

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