OU lifer


This month marks 15 years since I joined the Open University, so indulge me in a little reflection (only ten more years and I get a letter and plaque!). 

My potted OU history goes like this:

  • Joined 1995 as a Lecturer on a course in Artificial Intelligence, in the Technology Faculty. I had just finished my PhD (in AI) and the OU had a course which was about to launch, when one of its authors left, so needed someone fast. I got lucky here, I don't think you'd walk straight out of a PhD into a lectureship now.
  • 1999 chaired T171, the OU's first major online course, working with John Naughton. I'd done some messing about with online tutor groups, and creating web sites. John was keen to try something new for our level 1 course, and with the old course ending we were in the right place at the right time.
  • In 2002 I left the Technology Faculty and joined the Institute of Educational Technology, to work with Robin Mason and H806, a masters course which was to be offered through the UK eUniversity (no, it wasn't my fault they failed). 
  • In 2004 I was asked by then PVC Paul Clarke, to be Director of the VLE project. We didn't have a VLE then, but did have lots of components of one. I spent 18 months doing stakeholder analysis, competitor review, functional specification, etc (stay awake at the back there). 
  • In 2006 I got offered a Chair at another university, and as if by magic, the OU offered me one too. Again, I think I was a bit fortunate here, I hadn't really planned this.
  • I took up Directorship of the SocialLearn project in 2008, only to hand it over to Simon Buckingham-Shum when my wife became ill.

In between these formal duties I've worked on lots of internal projects and externally funded research grants, as well as different courses. And most importantly of course, I've become a blogger.

I list this not as a mini-CV touting for business (though if you want to acquire my services…), but to demonstrate what a good place to work the OU is. There has been much talk of the 'job for life' being a thing of the past, and that everyone will have three careers from now on. I'd say it's unlikely I'd leave the OU now (unless they kick me out), but far from stagnating, the reason I would stay is because there is such variety and freedom within my job. This is an advantage of working in a large organisation, there are always different projects coming up. The OU also allows a certain degree of flexibility, and trust. I think the days of 'we haven't seen him in years' approach to academia are gone, and there is a much higher degree of accountability now than there was even 15 years ago. But, for instance, not only was I allowed to start blogging, but I have been able to increasingly make it a key component in my recognised work. 

While, like any large organisation, the OU can be slow, and sometimes frustrating, it is at its heart, a reflective organisation I think. So when you do things like blogging, or creating a large online course, there is a willingness to consider how it should adapt its practices. 

It's also a good will place to work – you're not embarrassed to say you work for the OU, unlike some jobs you might think of, generally when you tell people you get a positive reaction. So feeling like you work somewhere that is well liked and socially beneficial makes getting up in the morning easier.

And it's also an interesting place to work. Not just because there are interesting people there (which of course, there are), but because of all universities the OU is both vulnerable to, and in a good position to take advantage of, new technologies. You therefore get the feeling of being part of an organisation which is living through the zeitgeist (ok, we're not Google, but it's not Cambridge either). As an educational technologist, this goes in the 'good thing' box, unless it means the end of all universities, when it shifts rather rapidly to the 'very bad thing' box.

So, all in all, I think I've rather ridden my luck – I got a good post in the right university just as the digital revolution was hitting and I was interested in it. A few years either side and I'd be writing this blog in-between stacking baked beans tins on the shelves of a well known supermarket.

In ten years time I'll blog what it's like to be a bona fide long server, unless a) I get the sack or b) someone offers me double my salary to just blog. Hey, everyone's got their price. 


  • Janshs

    I love the OU too! Been an AL for 8 years and a student on and off for oh about 20! I think I have the best of both worlds as I love my day job in a secondary school and also the interaction with adult students and other staff.

  • Joel Greenberg

    15 years! You are still in nappies. I just passed 33 years service! If you had ended up stacking shelves, I’ll bet you would have ended up wrting the staff newsletter.

  • Martin

    @Janshs – at ALT-C Martin Bean asked the audience to raise their hands if they’ve ever had any involvement (as tutor, student, staff etc) with the OU – the number of hands that went up was probably over half which demonstrates the influence it has I think.
    @Joel – I know, still a noob in OU terms. The OU is one of the few places where a 25year service award marks you out as having completed probation 🙂

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