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.


  • Nigel

    I took the Technology Foundation summer school before it offered HTML – I think it replaced the CAD workshop that we were subjected to.

    I’m lucky enough to still work at summer school (but not this year 🙁 ) and it is still an exhilarating, exhausting and reaffirming week.

  • Tom Farrelly

    Great memories of summer school in 1997 in Bath University. Much as I love the online world, I still have very fond memories of that week long ago. Stimulating classes and engagement all day, a glass of wine as I watched the hot air balloons rise from the valley below the University. Thanks OU

  • Kathy Robinson

    This is another of my shout outs for the value of asynchronous communication. OU residential schools placed huge importance on enabling students with a disability or learning need to attend and feel comfortable. However, when an online equivalent was provided (Psychology group project) many students reported on the positivities for example; able to takefrequent breaks (students with pain problems), time to formulate an answer( students who found that others always got there before them in a face -to-face context) having an experience just like every other student (students with deafness).

  • Michele Lennox

    i went to a few summer schools with the OU and I absolutely loved them. My fav was the Geology summer school at DURham. My goodness the best week ever! Fun, laughter, booze and rocks all accompanied with a pick axe and chisel.

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