25 Years of OU: 2002 – IET


The years are blurring a bit here in my 25 Years of OU series. I joined the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology around 2001 to work on the UKeU course with Robin Mason, but I’ll put it in this year as it was when I began to get settled there.

IET was set up at the very inception of the OU, long before educational technology became synonymous with computers. The intention was to use the best media and technology available and to test the effective design of distance learning courses. Ed tech may now be largely synonymous with online, but that is still essentially the same mission.

Considering that we have probably the first such ed tech unit in the country, which has a global reputation for excellence and some well respected academics (some of whom keep blogs), the OU as an institution has often been rather puzzled about what to do with the institution. The result is that we’ve been reviewed, we’ve been reorganised, we’ve been put into a larger service unit, we’ve been taken out and put in a faculty, we’ve been taken out of there and put under the remit of a PVC. And that’s just in the past 5 years. I reckon each of these shifts commands about 25% of institutional capacity as new roles, priorities, business plans and strategies are formed (we’re quite small so there aren’t many people to go around). The OU is not alone in this – it seems to be the norm for ed tech units, as I’ve whinged about before.

But on a positive note – IET seemed like the natural home for my nomadic interest. From here I was asked to be a representative on many of the projects that will follow in later posts. OER, Learning Design, Accessibility, learning analytics, MOOCs, open access, social media, online pedagogy – these have all had an IET influence (although I would stress that many other staff around the university also developed these). I’ve flitted across many of these which would have been more difficult in a faculty.

Covid-19 bit: With the focus now firmly on online learning and the likelihood that it will be a larger part of all offerings in the future, unis will be investing (maybe?) in their equivalents of IET. This will be a mixture of IT service, academic support, research and technical advice. It will be interesting to see the formation of these and their respective directions. There will be a need to review their structure and organisation as they develop. This may be appropriate but the key here is to do it in a way that doesn’t generate extra work for those busy units. Sorting out new reporting structures and governance committees is not a good use of that personnel right now (if ever).

Much is made in higher education of “Leadership”. However, I think for many in senior management now what is required is not leadership in terms of ‘leading change’, but rather what we might term ‘supportship’. That is, ensuring the staff have what they need to do the best job they can, with the minimum of barriers and the maximum of trust. The pandemic makes supportship more significant than ever, and this is particularly the case for those working in ed tech. On the plus side, I think the current OU senior management get this, and so hopefully no more reviews are in my imminent future, but I suspect they will be a feature more generally. Approach with caution is my advice.

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