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.

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