25YearsOU,  e-learning

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:


  • Alan Levine

    Got another book in the works here, Martin? You’ve got a thing going with the 25 theme!

    I enjoyed this retrospective of what you achieved in the paleolithic web era, especially for humber of learners supported in T171. Even more impressive was the support the organization provided to do this, seemingly a rarity these days where mostly institutions look for Large Scale Systems rather than the web itself.

    But also, your post illustrates the subtlety I enjoy most about publishing outside of fancy boxes is the discovery via a curious link click, your paper on the use of narrative in T171. This was something I missed while pondering last year the idea of courses driven by narrative.

    Has there ever been an effort to follow up with those early students to see what the course experience meant to them?

    Carry on, I’m a regular reader of all the 25 year old stuff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *