open degree

Tracker bikes and open degrees

Style was everything…

When I was young, in the 70s/80s we used to ‘make’ our own bikes, which went by the generic label of tracker bikes. These generally consisted of a second hand frame, usually no gears, knobbly tyres, massive cowhorn handlebars, and short (or no) mudguards. They were cheap, individual and occasionally dangerous. The handlebars of one of mine sheered off at the base midway down a hill once, leaving me holding them helplessly waiting to crash (I often marvel that any child of the 70s made it to adulthood).

These largely died out with the advent of standardised versions, notably the Raleigh Grifter, and then the ubiquitous mountain bike. These, like mass produced skateboards, took their inspiration from the messy culture of home made, customised versions, which was often working class and innovated through necessity. The mass produced ones were in many ways superior, you had gears on the Grifter, they were more robust and you were less likely to die.

But the advantage of the DIY culture was a sense of ownership and individuality. When we would meet up no two bikes were the same. You would add tape, grips for the handlebars, spray it, but they also bore the scratches and dents of their history. Each was an extension of the owner’s personality. They were also affordable, and didn’t really require expertise – we weren’t bike nerds. The bespoke bicycle movement now is, I expect, a more expensive, and rarefied pursuit, and as bike production has become heavily industrialised, you can now buy a very good mass produced bike cheaply, so the need for the homemade version has dwindled.

I was talking about these to someone at ALT-C last week as a way of thinking about open degrees (it made sense after two beers). As I’ve mentioned I’m now chairing the open programme at the OU. This is an open choice. pick n mix degree programme, so students construct their own degree, choosing modules across disciplines. We’ve been looking at the module selection data, and I expected there to be a handful of dominant pathways but that is not the case. There are thousands of combinations, and students really are shaping degrees to suit their interests, circumstances, opportunities.

Now, like the tracker bike, any mass produced named degree with set choices may be superior in some ways, for example getting specific jobs. Although as this piece highlights, the large majority of employers are degree agnostic, so a specific degree may not be the boon many assume it is (unless it is very vocational focused). The open degree, like the custom track bikes are individual, each one reflecting the personality and the context of the learner. This allows for a greater sense of ownership over your learning. Additionally, one feature of our tracker bikes was that they were also very modifiable – you could add bits and change them over time because you weren’t locked in to the standard provider. The open degree similarly provides the framework for a learner to extend certain elements, and change them as they progress, often changing their plans in response to social or personal changes.


  • Alan Levine

    Living up to the blog tagline (has the “over-stretched metaphors” always been there?). It definitely works in terms of the pride factor of making something your own, and maybe for some, because there are not options or ability for the fancy store bikes. Hopefully no handlebar shearing in program.

    Ok, but which kid is you?

    • Paul Stevens

      I’m currently doing an Access course with OU hoping to start an Open degree next year (imnin my 50s)

      I’ve recently got a MTB and was reminiscing with a mate about how they are the modern equivalent of the ubiquitous (in Stockport and South Manchester anyway) “Trackers” of the early 80s. Everyone had one! Anyway it was a Google search for “Trackers” that found me this blog post. Ace coincidence! Hopefully see you (virtually) next year.

      Someone should do a thesis on Trackers! 🤣

  • Clint Lalonde

    Football, now bikes. I am definitely a fan of the over-stretched metaphors popping up on the blog these days. Just waiting for the beer one to make the perfect trifecta of education metaphors (well, at least in my world).

    On a more serious note, it struck me as I read this how closely these learners adhere to a few of Malcolm Knowles principles of andragogy, specifically the desire of adult learners to see clear and direct relevance between their learning and their life (be that career, family, whatever), and their desire to have a say in their learning. The world around us is becoming more customizable and personalized all the time, so much so that you can’t help but feel that more and more adult learners are going to be drawn to these kinds of programs for the flexibility and relevance they provide.

    • mweller

      Hi Clint, I feel like I’m blogging especially for you these days 🙂 The point you make is a good one – now that ‘non-traditional’ learners are the majority, they will increasingly want different things from HE, and degree pathways that are meaningful to them will be one.

  • Mark Gaved

    Nice metaphor – the DIY ownership aspect resonating with the idea of the ‘brave learner’ – the Open degree student having to take more chances than those who’ve gone for an ‘off the shelf’ degree with some of the risks already worked through by someone in the university. I think a colleague noted that traditional universities sometimes require higher entry requirements for combination/more open degrees due to the expectation of the additional agility in thinking required on the part of the learner.

    • mweller

      Hi Mark – yes I thought about including bravery but didn’t want to imply doing an open degree was akin to careening down a hill without handlebars. That might send the wrong message 🙂

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