25YearsOU,  broadcast

25 Years of OU: 2006 – broadcast review


Around this time I was asked by my OU colleague Tony Walton to join the Broadcast Strategy Review, which he was leading. The OU has a long, and innovative history with broadcast, having been set up with a collaboration with the BBC. For those of a certain age, when you mention the Open University people will say “oh, I remember those programmes in the middle of the night on BBC2”. The OU programmes used to be linked to specific courses and be broadcast in the ‘dead’ time of late night, before late night TV was a thing (we’re talking the 70s here). It was often the route by which people encountered the OU, and also a means by which those who weren’t studying formally with the University engaged in a form of independent learning. These programmes were the OER of their day (if not openly licensed, but openly recorded and reused in schools and colleges).

That last comment may appear flippant, but in fact gets at the questioning the OU was having about its relationship with mainstream media in the mid-00s when the internet was clearly a thing that wasn’t going away. At the time I was the ‘academic who would go on about the internet’, which is what got me invited on to this team. The remit was to review what use the OU made of broadcast, and how best to use that resource for students, and also fulfil our public engagement remit.

What this really got at was the impact of the digital revolution which was causing much head scratching at the time. It might be obvious in hindsight, but how the relationship between traditional broadcast and the new internet possibilities would pan out was still unknown. I am rarely right about how things will pan out – but in this case I want to lay claim to Nostradamus like sagacity (except less bullshitty). The OU paid a consultant company to come back with recommendations, and after some research and a nice presentation their strong suggestion was to set up our own satellite TV channel. It wasn’t an awful suggestion, satellite TV was all the rage at the time. But I was cockily confident that the new kid on the block, the internet, was the horse to bet on. Alright, the internet wasn’t that new, but it still didn’t have the broadcast credentials that satellite did. People were still snooty about it. But Tony was of a like mind, and the outcome was a new relationship with the BBC and also the establishment of an OU internet presence which would encompass OpenLearn and more. In the long run I think this has served us well.

Covid 19 bit – the OU is unusual in its relationship with a national broadcaster, so it might seem that there is not much relevant here. But in the OU’s willingness to re-evaluate the role of broadcast, which was central to its identity, there is an echo of campus universities being forced to rethink their relationship with face to face lectures. It doesn’t have to be a complete (ahem) pivot, but like the OU’s connection to the BBC and then its own use of the internet there is an analogy. The BBC partnership focuses around joint production general interest programmes (eg Frozen Planet), and then with additional learning material online. Similarly, big lectures might be recorded but with more emphasis on supplementary activities and resources.


  • Dominic Newbould

    History, even recent history, is always being reviewed and rewritten, although only the dominant ideology wins, in the end. “History is an account written by the winners”.
    But your account will stand, I believe, because in my own experience in the OU, constantly talking to outsiders rather than insiders, I was aware of the endless curiosity about “what will the OU do next?”
    In the event, as you point out, broadcasts (radio or TV) were frequently accessed by non-OU students, and this both promoted the OU and its reputation, as well as recruiting more students.
    However, the OU/BBC relationship was always fractious, a power relationship, where one party had an audience of millions and huge financial resources, and the other party had a student body of 200,000+ (in my time), but, additionally, engaged hundreds of thousands, even millions of viewers and listeners via free-to-air broadcasts. However, it was always difficult to persuade the BBC to do anything they didn’t already plan to do, no matter how much money the OU poured into programme production, and how much academic expertise…
    The BBC and the OU have gone through blips in their progress, to express it kindly, and the BBC still has to rediscover its mojo. Maybe it will lose its licence income, under the current government, in which case the OU might need to rethink its channels.
    After all, Apple has ended iTunesOU, and the market for education content is utterly crazy and confusing – but maybe the OU still needs more independence, more autonomy and more freedom to offer its wonderful material, for credentials or not, on a wide variety of channels, maybe even a satellite channel, still.
    All things change, and change doesn’t stop, as Homer pointed out.
    No, not Homer Simpson, Martin 😬

    • mweller

      Hi Dominic – yes, the relationship was quite tense around this time (I didn’t go into that), but I think it’s found a good position now. But with Tory plans for the BBC, who knows?

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