25 Years of OU – 1999: e-learning works at scale!


I should stress that lots of people at the OU across all disciplines were working on online versions of courses. There were all online versions of existing courses, elements of online in blended courses, fully online postgrad courses, etc. So, the online course I mentioned in the previous post wasn’t a radical intervention that no-one else had considered. But T171 did have two things going for it – it was undergraduate, fully online & it had big numbers. The combination of these two helped settle the “is elearning for us?” argument pretty decisively.

On the experience of this course and getting into elearning I would write a book, Delivering Learning on the Net, which came out in 2002, but was developed around this time (unfortunately this was pre-open access days and I don’t have a digital copy any longer). I picked it off my shelf the other day, and some of it has dated, but given what’s been happening with the online pivot, what was telling was how relevant it still was. This was not due to amazing prescience on my part, but an absence of progression in the thinking around elearning. It has become part of the mainstream on campus in many respects but fully online learning still remains something of an exotic beast to many in higher ed. There is a chapter on debunking Elearning myths (including “elearning will mean declining standards” and “elearning is good for training and not education” which have both made a reappearance in various guises in the online pivot) and another on pedagogies for online teaching (ie not replicating the lecture online).

But what I really wanted to emphasise in this post was the scaling of the approach. I wrote about it in a paper with my colleague Ley Robinson in 2002, but in 1999 we were piloting the course while putting in place the systems for the large scale delivery in 2000. This involved recruiting around 600 part time tutors (Associate Lecturers), many of whom were new to the OU. We created a hierarchy of forums with each student having access to their tutor group forum and some region wide general forums. Tutors had access to a regional forum, and moderators of these had access to the module team forum, where they could bring issues to bear. This scaling worked well, and as I’ve argued before, refutes Downes’ claim that only connectivism scales.

As the article states, the key thing we needed to realise was the personal experience within a large scale course:

There was thus an inherent tension in the presentation of T171 for the course team. On the one hand, they had to implement large-scale efficient systems for the delivery of material, administering of computer conferences, dealing with assessment and putting in place support systems for students and tutors. They also had to ensure that the course accommodated students’ individual needs and provided an intimate, personal experience.

This was realised through the recruitment and training of the ALs, the forum structure, social forums and flexible assessment.

Covid 19 bit: The takeaway for the online pivot is that it is possible to create online learning that works, even for large student numbers. This can still be a personal, human experience and does not need to rely on a ‘large lecture hall’ model. It is however, not cheap to do so, and necessitates employing and developing good people.

25 Years of OU – 1998: “I have an online course”

By 1998 I had experimented with an online tutor group, worked at summer school sessions on HTML and produced some web pages for courses and personal use. There was a lot of interest in the use of the web for distance learning, and elearning was gathering a good head of steam. I started going to educational technology conferences at this time (they were fun back then!).

I wanted to experiment and see if it was possible to develop an OU undergrad course delivered entirely online. So using MS FrontPage HTML editor (for which, I plead forgiveness), I created a dummy. I chatted with John Naughton about it – he was one of the big internet enthusiasts at the OU and had been there since pretty much its founding. I remember showing him my mock up of a course web site and declaring “I think it’s about 80% there”. Because he knew better than to crush young enthusiasm he didn’t point out that it was in reality not even 8% there. He encouraged me to continue to develop a prototype and along with Gary Alexander we worked on a ‘skunkworks’ course project, which was outside of the formal structure. The driving principle was that all OU material would be delivered online – and if we did that, what would it look like?

Then in a meeting about the Technology Faculty’s foundation course, it was demonstrated that we really didn’t have a replacement ready and by 2000 it was going to need a serious overhaul. The staff to do this weren’t available and so we were in a bit of a bind. I can’t remember if it was John or I who said “well, we have a replacement we could have ready for pilot next year.”

I’ve blogged enough about T171, and i found some old content in Scribd. If you’re interested there are some academic publications on the use of narrative in the course here, issues of scaling up, and assessment approach. We produced it in a short time frame, it piloted in 1999 and in 2000 launched officially with nearly 15,000 students. It marked the OU’s shift to elearning in a significant way for example because we had to recruit nearly 600 online tutors, many of whom then went on to stay with the OU in different roles it increased the knowledge base of online education. It also brought a lot of new students to the OU who hadn’t studied with us before, and for a Technology/Computer course had over 50% women in the cohort. Because of the way funding worked back then, the OU were under on our projected student numbers, which meant that we would not only lose their funds but be punished in future rounds. By running a second presentation of the course in 2000 we met the requisite student numbers and brought a significant financial boost to the OU (you’re welcome).

But in 1998 we were still writing it, and being told by many people that students didn’t want to study that way, that it was unfair to students, that you couldn’t do meaningful distance ed this way, it was a fad, and so on. Which is partly why when the Times Higher run pieces like this, I get a little antsy on Twitter. What I learnt from the process back in 1998 was:

  • it really helps to have someone well respected and connected like John to absorb the institutional uncertainty;
  • sometimes (only sometimes though!) ignorance is a blessing – because I was unaware of the actual complexities of creating an OU course I could propose doing this, whereas if I had been truly knowledgeable I would’ve seen all the problems;
  • allowing room for experimentation can have big benefits – I spent time playing around developing the course before there was an official course. This was work time that could have been a complete waste of time;
  • sometimes you have to trust your instincts. Market research amongst our own students suggested online learning may not be that popular, and there were lots of limitations, but it was clear to a few of us that it would be significant. So, better to do it then that play catch up a few years later.

Covid 19 bit: The most obvious bit here is – hey you can create online courses that students like to study! Strangely, this still seems to be big news. More helpfully, I think the model we developed for T171 is pretty useful to adapt and can help speed production. We had three blocks, each based around a published book. Students were directed to read parts of that, we created some content to expand on issues, and some to fill in gaps. Then there were activities to discuss and develop skills. But use of the books really helped create a spine for the modules. You could now do this by adapting OER content, for example an open textbook from BC Campus might form the spine, or some material from OpenLearn.

I’ll cover our scaling up model in a later post, but consider this assessment: we had no final exam and instead students created websites (we provided a free WYSIWYG HTML editor) which they submitted as zip files, which we then unpacked on to a server so the two independent markers could access them. We set out what the content of the website should address but not the style – and phew, did we get a range of designs! Clipart gifs were definitely a thing back then. But what I want to stress is that if we could do this with first year undergrad students on a distance ed course back in 1999, then you can find a way to do away with an exam in 2020.

For now, let us revel in some of that GIF magic, courtesy of GIFCities:

Making the ask


I’m quite a reserved person and I also like to be helpful, so when people ask me to give a keynote or a talk, I usually say yes, particularly online. Also, when you’re from a not particularly privileged background you tend to be grateful for stuff rather than demanding. I still expect someone to tell me they’ve made a mistake in appointing me professor, and in fact I should be working in a supermarket (no disrespect to supermarket workers, I was one for years).

All of this means that I tend not to ask for anything. If I can do the talk, then I’ll do it. But since Covid-19 hit I’ve done over 20 webinars, largely for free, and I’ve started to realise that I’m not making the best use of these offers. I don’t mean to maximise return for myself (although, contributions to the vinyl collection are always welcome), but to use what little position or influence I have for something else. For example, Maha Bali, who is much smarter than I, asked for her OLC keynote to be livestreamed. I’ve just waived a fee for a talk at the Irish Universities EDTL event next week, instead asking them to donate to Black Lives Matter UK. Others have spoken for free but in exchange for places for free places (particularly in online events) for students.

This post is partly to prompt others like myself who’s instinct is to be helpful but aren’t really be thoughtful enough. I need to get better at making the ask. I would add, this is distinct from people who make a living from keynotes, you should definitely pay them and not offer payment in kind like this – it’s for those small, free, low budget talks that many academics give to each other. Indeed, waiving your fee so they can pay someone else might be a good use too. But also I wanted to sound out any other ideas for what might be in such an ask if money or places weren’t available, or that might be more useful. Any suggestions?

25 Years of OU – 1997: summer schools

OU summer school in 1995

Of course, no account of early OU life would be complete without mention of summer schools. When I joined the OU, it was part of your contract that you spend 2 weeks working at one of our summer schools. These were one week long residential courses held at a number of universities over the summer months. In many ways they were the core part of the OU identity, and had an often justified licentious reputation. Like Vegas, people used to say “what happens at OU summer school stays at OU summer school”.

I heard a story once from one of the founding staff that campus universities were snooty about the OU and didn’t want them soiling their campuses over the summer (until they realised it was a good money spinner, having boozy, hungry students occupying their empty sites all summer). So in order to progress the OU senior management seriously considered hiring cruise boats and going around the British coast hosting the summer schools. I for one would like this idea to be revisited.

I used to do the same summer school twice to meet my commitment, the Technology Foundation course one. For a distance ed university summer schools were important for three reasons:

  1. It gave students an experience of university life and helped reinforce their identity as students
  2. It gave hands-on experience of laboratories and, in a pre-digital world, many tools that you couldn’t replicate at a distance.
  3. It provided all OU academic staff with the experience and knowledge of actual students, their lives, issues etc in an intense week. This was enormously useful in developing modules later.

These summer school weeks were amongst the most exhausting and rewarding I have done in my academic career. In one of the computer sessions I used to run, we would get students to hand craft and publish HTML pages online. For many it was a revelation and they were (nearly) always full of gratitude for the experience (compare with full time campus students who are often, erm, not full of gratitude). Student surveys used to regularly show that the summer school was the thing most students didn’t want to do prior to their study, and the component they valued the most afterwards. As Ray Corrigan points out in his account, the “student as customer” approach doesn’t really allow for this kind of transformation.

Unfortunately a number of factors combined to lead to the demise of the summer school. They were expensive and as funding became a problem students would avoid courses with summer schools. It became increasingly difficult for students to get the time to attend them and the number of excusals increased. And some idiot (reader – it was me) would demonstrate by the end of the 90s that we could run OU courses online and get a lot of the groupwork experience that way.

The Covid-19 bit: What summer schools really modelled was blended learning in a way that many unis are now deploying. If you view the campus bit of the blended approach as a stretched out summer school and the online bit as the distance ed element, then it showed how you can get the benefit from both modes. Students used to come with queries and have remedial sessions on content they had struggled with, engage in groupwork, have general interest talks and also socialise, all of which then refreshed their distance ed study. Instead of viewing their blended provision as a campus course with some online bits when needed, I think educators would be well served to conceive of their courses as distance ed ones with ongoing residential provision – an extended summer school offering that complements the core provision.

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.

25 Years of OU – 1995: AI module

The T396 Electronic(!) study guide

I joined the OU to work on a course T396, Artificial Intelligence for Technology. It was chaired by Adrian Hopgood, and I was lucky to join on that particular course because it set the tone for many things to come. It was an innovative course in a number of respects:

  • It used 3rd party text books as the main study content. This meant we didn’t have to produce as much custom content and could operate with a small course team. This was a model I would borrow later.
  • It was produced relatively quickly. The OU had then a very labour intensive, laborious course production model involving large course teams and taking several years. While it was still thorough and took a good deal longer than face to face courses, it represented a more agile approach to course production that it took the OU some time to catch up with (and in some cases, it still hasn’t).
  • It was project based. It was by no means the first course to do this, but creating a different project every year was the main task. Students had to apply the AI techniques to a set project, so the focus was very much on practical application of AI.

When I tell you that Tony Hirst later joined this course team, you’ll know it was all about playing around with stuff. T396 was a good example of how innovation occurred within the conventional OU course production model. Other examples included the course THD204 which brought sociology and computing together, and experimented with online forums. When everyone talks about innovation now, it is as if it was invented by silicon valley (and it is an alien concept in universities). There is a delicate balance between maintaining the quality and systems required to produce courses that serve students well, while also allowing for innovation. Ironically in a more digital age, this is something we (the OU at least, but HE in general) have become less adept at.

The Online Pivot has made many educators rethink assessment, and particularly the reliance on the final exam. There is a lot of concern around plagiarism in distance/online ed, but project based assessment has been working well in this area since at least this time. We created a new project task every year that was sufficiently complex to not require a simple answer, and to draw upon the knowledge acquired during the course. There were a number of online activities that student contributed to, which gives their tutor a good impression of each student. The final project was double marked, with one marker being the student’s tutor. They were asked to sign a declaration along the lines of “to the best of my knowledge this is the student’s work”. It’s not full proof of course, but actually, you know what, not many students cheat. And the presence of this was both a deterrent and a reasonable catch.

A new course & the untimely demise of the MAODE

First of all, some good news. On June 8th we launch a new microcredential course – 15pts at postgrad level so not _that_ micro I grant – on FutureLearn. Titled “Online Teaching: Creating Courses for Adult Learners” it is part of the OU response to Covid-19 and has been developed by Leigh-Anne Perryman, Rebecca Ferguson and myself. It has taken 5 weeks from proposal to delivery, and anyone who has developed courses at the OU knows that is light speed. It takes that long to decide on a title usually. I hope it’ll be useful for those studying it.

Now the bad news. Since I joined I have worked on a range of courses that make up their MAODE (masters in open and distance education). Indeed, it was to work on H806, the first course produced for the U.K. eUniversity that I joined IET, moving from the Technology Faculty, to work with Robin Mason. Unfortunately a couple of years ago there was a curriculum review, and criteria were applied to cancel any course that didn’t meet them. The MAODE doesn’t have high student numbers, but it made a profit, but without consultation it was axed, and is currently in ‘teach out’.

Over the past year we have been trying to reverse this decision. With the online pivot this has become especially pressing. We are all receiving daily requests for help, and while we do what we can with webinars, and advice, people are queuing up for expertise. I prepared a plan that would incorporate our excellent new microcredentials and revise the MAODE to quickly meet this demand. However it was rejected last week by senior management, and so it seems the MAODE will definitely go.

I have particular reason to be thankful for its existence having worked on many modules. For now, let’s celebrate some of its triumphs:

  • The first fully online course – before I joined, they ran it using custom built CMC software. T171 was the first UG one, but we learnt a lot from the postgrad version.
  • First online graduation ceremony – back 2000, this would still make headlines today if another uni did it.
  • Developed a workable learning objects approach – in H806 we created the activities as largely independent of each other and learners could select from them during a weeks study.
  • Implemented an eportfolio module – when these were all the rage, we piloted the OUs custom software for a portfolio based module.
  • Implemented an end of course conference – H818, which Chris Pegler developed ends with an online conference where students present the topic they have been researching. I wrote on this and thought it would never work, but under the careful guidance of Simon Ball, it does and is amazing every year.
  • Gained scholarships for Commonwealth of Learning students. We’ve been very fortunate to have a number of places sponsored by COL. having met some of these students, it’s humbling to see how transformational the MAODE is (these scholarships will now be lost).
  • First OU course to be delivered solely in FutureLearn. Led by Leigh-Anne Perryman we developed H880, and delivered it in FL.
  • Experimented with MOOCs. Before we had FL, we ran a block of H817 as an open course on the OpenLearn platform, the results of which helped inform much of our practice.
  • Championed accessibility – over the years the expertise in designing for accessible courses in IET has been a strong element in many of our courses.

What this list illustrates (and I’ve just picked a few highlights that I’ve been aware of, there are many more) is that the MAODE has been a platform for innovation within the OU. While I appreciate the MAODE will never be a big earner, its reach is significant. Like Eno’s quote about the first Velvet’s album, only a few 1000 may have taken the MAODE but they all went on to influence ed tech in their organisations. Students really love it and talk fondly of the course and it’s impact as this twitter thread demonstrates. But let’s at least celebrate all that the MAODE has given the University and its students. I will definitely mourn its passing.

25 Years of OU

The OU archive says this was summer school 1995

I know, I know, I’m silver jubilee obsessed. As this year marks my 25th anniversary at the Open University I had the idea at the start of the year to follow the mediocre hit of 25 Years of ed tech series with a 25 years of OU one. I mentioned at the end of last year that I was having a bit of a blog identity crisis, and was worried it was becoming too self absorbed. I decided to double down on the self absorption with a whole series, but then the pandemic hit and I shelved the idea.

But I’m resurrecting it now for two reasons: the first is that I fancy having a break from writing about the online pivot all the time. Second, it is kind of about the online pivot, in that much of the journey I’ve been on over the past 25 years is representative of the sort of one many educators have to go on over the next 3 months to shift online. Which might make it relevant. Kinda. Sorta.

But mostly it is a feat of self indulgence and of little interest, with perhaps around 10% of each post relevant beyond that. As well as the online pivot resonance there are other possible reasons that might come in to that 10%. I think given the state of employment in higher ed now (and particularly post-Covid), I’m probably the last generation that will have the privilege of this type of long service, so it stands as a form of historical record to what long term employment used to be like, and some of the benefits of it. I also feel there is value in the informal institutional memory long term employees hold for a university. I’m not making it a history of the OU over this period (there’s an excellent blog for this if you are interested) but the types of projects I have been involved with will have relevance for many inside and outside the OU. But yes, it’s still 90% self-indulgence, live with it.

Also, as the image at the top indicates, 1995 seems a loooooooooong time ago – it’s already nostalgic and quaint. So join me on this magical ride down memory lane (screen goes wavy)…

It’s forever 1999 for online learning critics


One of the (many) things to surprise and disappoint me over the past couple of months has been the resurrection of so many bad takes on online learning that I had encountered in 1999 and thought we had moved on from.

There was a piece in Wonkhe that argued online worked against widening participation. Online, with assistive technologies, where the student can learn in their own environment and at their own pace was somehow much worse for WP than making people come to one physical location at set times and study in real time. Apparently only f2f can realise WP goals, which was certainly news to all the distance education universities set up over the world specifically to address the needs of people excluded by traditional education.

There have been the usual claims about the mystique of face to face lectures, for example Zimmerman claims remote learning leads to the death of charisma (no, seriously). There are also plain old prejudice takes such as:

And then there’s this car crash of an article in HEPI, which compares f2f lectures with students getting online streamed lectures and finds, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, that students prefer the f2f version. This operates solely on the assumption that the only way to teach is the lecture and that online must provide a poor replication of that. They also throw in ‘digital natives’ in case you doubted their 1999 credentials.

What most of these takes exhibit is a) privilege of the authors b) bias against any form of non-traditional learning c) ignorance of the past 20 years of online learning and 50 years of distance ed. So let’s look at some of those claims.

The first thing to note is that online learning has traditionally served a different audience. It has different affordances to f2f, particularly in allowing learners to partake asynchronously and structure their learning to their own convenience and preference. It is also worth stressing that f2f lectures aren’t all that, and indeed one of the complaints around the introduction of lecture capture was that it can lead to a decline in attendance of f2f lectures. I mean if they’re so great, why would this happen?

This may seem obvious but students who choose online prefer it, and those who choose f2f prefer that mode. So perceptions of quality are influenced by preference. This will be an issue come next semester when we will have large groups of students who have chosen and prefer f2f, being forced to study online.

Let’s look at concerns around quality and satisfaction. Sometimes distance ed comes out as preferable, and sometimes it’s f2f. The OU has been consistently high scoring in terms of student satisfaction, and our grade inflation is much lower than most conventional universities. Open University students are highly favoured by employers.

In terms of quality then and satisfaction, there is no discernible difference between modes when a reasonable comparison is made. Retention remains an issue however. This is difficult to compare, as I highlighted previously, but I’ll repeat again: Online learning is sometimes equated with MOOCs, where the completion rate is very low – about 10%. But in this case the learner has no investment in the course (they often sign up and never even attempt one element), and no human tutor or teacher support. For more carefully designed distance education courses where there is active human tutor support, the completion rate is much higher, but is still lower than conventional universities. Here there can be a number of other factors also. For instance, we operate open entry at the OU, so no entry requirements. This can mean people are not prepared for study and so completion rates are lower than for courses where there is a formal entry. But that is unrelated to the ‘online’ element.

Online and distance learning does generally require more self-motivation from the learner, away from the physical cues that prompt learning. It also requires more organization of their time and study environment and so retention may always be an issue compared to f2f. But it also offers opportunities for other forms of teaching. The least interesting thing you can do is replicate the not very effective model of the lecture. We had these discussions back in 1999, and people explored problem based learning, constructivism, collaborative learning, and then later connectivism and flipped learning. I’m not proposing any one of these approaches as a magic bullet, and some students will like them and others hate them. But different approaches are achievable and have been realised for a long time. Just because you’ve been dumped off your lectern and feel aggrieved, is no need for another ‘online learning sucks’ hot take.

Online pivot – the future


After having done past and present posts, the real surprise now is that I am doing one on the future of HE. As I pointed out in the last post, one of the real defining characteristics of the current situation is that no-one knows what will happen. So it would be foolish to have a stab at predicting the future, especially when some people are so good at being so spectacularly bad at it. According to Elon Musk human language will be obsolete in 5 years time, so I can’t compete with that level of stupid.

The biggest impact on higher ed is likely to be financial. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of the finances in the sector – over expenditure on campus buildings, reliance on international students, precarious employment, expensive student fees in countries like the UK, and so on. After the economic collapse of 2008 there were many predictions, but the real long term impacts were secondary ones. Trump and Brexit are results of the long tail of the banking crisis, which led to austerity, which caused unemployment and resentment amongst white working class which could be exploited by xenophobes and nationalists.

These kinds of effects are more difficult to predict, but if I’ve learnt anything from 2016 onwards, it’s that given a choice between reasonable & beneficial on one path and dumb and malicious on the other, dumb and malicious wins every time. I’d take this as your guide for the way HE will go when we are faced with choices over the next 5-10 years. Expect then increased use of short-term contracts, outsourcing teaching, expansion into other sectors, aggressive staff monitoring and performance measures. Like the worst elements of now, but much more so.

From an ed tech perspective, Tony Bates’s presentation at the Gasta was a very well reasoned argument I felt. Tony predicts an increase in the adoption of online learning, but I think he’s right to say predictions that every institution will go online permanently are overblown. But some will switch to a predominantly online model, so a levelling out of around 15% of institutions offering online may seem right. But he suggests far more will offer a blended model. Having made investments in ed tech, gained some of the benefits of a distributed model, and keen to build in resilience against further crises, a mixture of online and campus will be the norm. This is already the case of course, but I think it will be more akin to the sort of flipped model we’ve seen (and which arguably works better at HE level than K-12).

One thing we’ve seen recently is renewed snobbishness about online learning which we haven’t witnessed since the late 90s. Prestigious universities are likely to make this a key selling point – once the main pandemic has passed they will promote the idea that face to face is the premium experience, and they will provide the real thing. They will probably also do this while aggressively marketing online versions globally to fill the gap caused by the collapse of smaller colleges.

Investing in ed tech will be a likely outcome of this period. This could definitely be a benefit, as these units have traditionally been under-resourced and under-respected. But it could also an increase in tech-solutionism and all those tech bullshit guys getting strategic jobs. Given my rule above, I don’t hold much hope for which way it’ll go.

The short answer is: prepare for financial decisions to dominate with tech used as a prop to these.