open degree

Situated degree pathways

As part of my role in the OU’s open degree programme, we had a session with Bryan Mathers recently to draw out some of our key principles and vision (and get some nifty graphics of course). During this wide ranging session with the team, one of the things we talked about was the flexibility in the open degree. You can create your own pathway, but perhaps more importantly you can change and adapt it as you go along, responding to changes in your life, interest that has been sparked by your studies, topics of your study you have found less interesting than you expected, or shifts in society.

This responsive (can I call it agile?) is quite different from conventional degree structures, which may have some electives, but are largely pre-determined. I was reminded of the well known analogy Lucy Suchman uses at the start of her influential book, Plans and Situated Actions, of different forms of navigation. She uses a comparison of the Trukese and European methods of navigating the open sea – the Trukese navigator “begins with an objective rather than a plan. He sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise in an ad hoc fashion. He utilizes information provided by the wind, the waves, the tide and current, the fauna, the stars, the clouds, the sound of the water on the side of the boat, and he steers accordingly.” This is in contrast to the European navigator who plots a course “and he carries out his voyage by relating his every move to that plan. His effort throughout his voyage is directed to remaining ‘on course.’”

Suchman uses this analogy to frame how people act, and in particular what she calls ‘situated actions’, which are “actions taken in the context of particular, concrete circumstances.” Here, we are acting like Trukese navigators, taking in available information and (re)acting accordingly with an overall objective in mind. This is in contrast to when we have a definite plan and steps we follow. (As an aside someone commented on Twitter the other day, imagine how different MIT Media Lab would have been had people like Suchman been given the lead, but that’s another story).

I think this analogy works for the choice of modules in an open degree for many of our students also. This is particularly true if they are studying part-time, and thus over a longer period than the traditional 3 year full time degree. There is more chance that circumstances will change during a longer period of, say, six years, and thus the degree pathway itself needs to be flexible. As an example, look at what has happened in world politics since 2016 – you may well have started off with a plan for your degree, but have become interested in economics, or your change in career now requires some expertise in European politics, or now have an idea to develop an app for your company, and so on. This ability within the degree structure to be responsive and adaptable will be increasingly significant I feel.


  • Mark Curcher

    Hi Martin
    Thanks for your post. I do like that idea of open degrees and being able to navigate a path in the way that you describe and of course, as a graduate of OU, I am a big fan.
    Although I do see many benefits that you explain here, I wonder if one of the drawbacks of the open, flexible approach is the loss of the student relationship to a body of knowledge at the program level?
    I understand all the advantages but wonder if what is lost is an understanding of the connections and relations between ideas and concepts with a connected body of knowledge.
    I would be interested on your opinions on that.

    • mweller

      Hi Mark – it is a very good question. Creating a sense of identity and community that comes more naturally with a very tight domain is indeed a challenge. We try to run different events for the open students, and also have events aroun issues that bring different disciplines together but I have ideas of how to do more also.

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