OU or OpenU


My colleague, Simon Buckingham Shum, raised an interesting idea the other day when he suggested we should start calling ourselves the OpenU, instead of the OU. His argument chimes with something I have been saying in SocialLearn presentations also – namely that 'open' is  a term that has gained much currency lately.

Whether it was extraordinary prescience, or just good luck, on the part of the Open University's founders, choosing 'Open' for the name has served us very well. We could have, for instance, been called something like 'the University of the airwaves' which would have dated very quickly. Back in 1969, Open meant 'Open Access'. This was revolutionary at the time and allowed many different sectors of society to have access to higher education who had previously been excluded because of two main factors: education was full time and you needed to attend a campus. By making it part-time and distance based, the limitations these placed on people were abolished, and suddenly we found there were huge numbers of people who wanted to study, but had previously been unable to.

But 'open' doesn't really mean open access anymore, because open access isn't the big deal it was. Now nearly all universities offer some part-time modes of study and many offer distance/online courses.

But if anything, open now has gained in terms of its semantic and social significance. Here's what open can mean now in education:

  • Open Source
  • Open educational resources
  • Open API
  • Open content
  • Open courses
  • Open participation

In addition there is a general philosophy of openness that pervades much of the online world – blogs, twitter, facebook – they are all about the individual being open, and as a result the social norms are those of democracy, socially oriented, bottom-up, participation, and well, openness.

So, the question I like to ask is 'if we were creating an Open University now, in what ways would it be open?' I won't elaborate on that, but have a think about it.

So back to Simon's argument – 'OU' may not mean much to a lot of people, and it doesn't really make enough significance of the Open part. So we should, at least informally, start referring to ourselves as the OpenU, which chimes with things like iTunesU also. I'm giving it a go (although it takes a huge effort not to write 'OU' out of habit).

PS – don't tell the OU OpenU brand police, they'll be after me, angrily waving several years' stock of headed notepaper.


  • Gary Lewis

    Hi Martin – OpenU … what a great idea!
    Here are a few things that come quickly to mind when I think of open in the context of universities:
    massively transparent;

  • Andy Lane

    The issue and meaning of openness is not a new one and I have mused on this in various ways and one version of that is set out below (sorry it is lengthy). I would point out though that officially (brand police again) we should always use The Open University in any external forum not OU (but OpenU has merit) as Oxford have been known to feel we are usurping their precedence on this. Also as I say in my piece below we are still unique in having complete open access to all undergrduate courses. There are not even other open universities who go as far as we do in this.
    “Definitions and names can quickly multiply and become confusing: open learning, distance learning, supported self study, informal adult learning, home study, e-learning, lifelong learning and flexi study to name but a few have all been used in different way to describe certain facets of the act of learning. The Open University prefers to use the term Supported Open Learning for its formal provision and you can find out more about this particular approach at http://www.open.ac.uk/about/ou/p5.shtml. Now we have open content, open courseware and open educational resources as additional names to conjure with.
    This diversity of names reflects the diversity of provision and modes of study and at times debates about such names and definitions can become sterile. What we believe is more important is to determine the principles upon which the provision should be based, principles that address a fundamental right of access to education on the part of all. And the most basic principles we believe that all education, not just adult learning, should follow, is that of the primacy of the learner and their context in shaping their learning experiences and the extent of openness in the provision that tries to meet those contextual needs.
    We say a bit more about the primacy of the learners and their context later but wish to comment here on the concept of openness and what that can mean for learning. The Open University was founded on the principle of openness and the mission set by our founding Chancellor, Lord Crowther, as noted above, to be ‘open as to people, places, methods and ideas’. There are many ways to interpret openness and those four opens. Our open access policy, for example, means that not having prior educational qualifications does not bar you from studying with The Open University; it removes one barrier to study and increases the freedoms available to learners (however tuition and s assessment for courses is not free to all, although there are many support schemes for those on low incomes that can drastically reduce these costs). Similarly, our work with the BBC has meant that (free to view at first then free to record) educational radio and TV programmes have been openly available through terrestrial public service broadcasting in the UK ever since we began teaching in 1971. So, people have the freedom to access and to copy this particular content but not the freedom to use for educational or public performance purposes without a licence or prior permission. Nevertheless, as we also discuss later, the physical nature of much current educational provision (tied to a particular place such as a classroom or lecture hall), bound up in a particular medium (such as text or audiovisual asset), and available only at pre-defined times (to suit employment norms), has meant that the locus of control was much more with the providers of learning opportunities – the teachers, than the users – the learners.
    The advent of digital technologies and the internet in particular is changing this dynamic because it helps remove some of these barriers, making digital content much more accessible and available and enabling new forms of instantaneous communication between people in different places and times. However, even more significant than these hard or commercial technologies, has been the emergence of soft or social technologies in new forms of licensing for (largely) digital content. This ‘some rights reserved open licensing’ (for example the Creative Commons licences) placed on new and previously ‘all rights reserved’ copyrighted content enables the free copying, sharing, reuse and remixing of that content within pre-defined guidelines. This development has been central to the emergence of OERs which go well beyond just the issue of open access, as in open access publishing of research publications, where authors can still try to control (or close down) all uses of the material not already defined and allowed in copyright law. The philosophy of open licensing and OERs is that you want people to take the content away and do things with it. In principle this gives learners (and teachers) even more freedoms as they can decide when to access it, whether they want to alter it, and how they learn from it in ways they choose.
    Openness, when looked at in terms of OERs, is therefore centrally concerned with freedoms as expressed in the open licences:
    • Freedom from paying any money to access and use the content for specified purposes;
    • Freedom to copy and make many more copies;
    • Freedom to take away and re-use without asking prior permission;
    • Freedom to make derivative works;
    • But not necessarily freedom to make profits from it.
    So, openness can be equated with freedoms, but the degrees of freedom available within a particular openness can vary (as seen in the spectrum of Creative Commons licences themselves) and can be influenced by many other factors. Schaffert and Geser (2007) have set out four dimensions or openness for OERs where they feel that all need to be present for maximum openness (Figure 1). For example, a document written with MicroSoft Word™ can easily be shared, copied and altered if it has an open licence but it does mean that you as the author and others re-using it have to have purchased proprietary software to do so.
    Figure 1 the meaning of ‘open’ in ‘open educational resources’ (Schaffert and Geser 2008)
    See http://www.elearningeuropa.info/files/media/media14907.pdf

  • Sarah

    The weird thing about saying OpenU is that you end up saying ‘Open New’. No comment on that other than me going ‘mmmm’ in a wise ‘haven’t anything more to add’ kinda way. :o)

  • Amanda

    I actually don’t like OpenU. It doesn’t really say much to me. I understand OU, and I understand Open Uni.
    I’ve seen the iTunesU (and indeed downloaded some Maths stuff for a course starting this month – thankie to the peeps that did that!). But the whole “U” concept felt a bit foreign to me. I guess it depends on where your student recruitment aims lie 🙂

  • Christian

    I think OpenU sounds a bit weird – I’d stick with either ‘Open University’ (Because then you know it refers to a university) or OU (which is the shortcut for people ‘in the know’). ‘OpenU’ sounds like it’s for amateur surgeons and is trying too much to be ‘down with the kids’ – I think it’ll date quite badly.

  • Doug Clow

    I agree with Simon that we should perhaps use ‘OU’ a lot less than we do. And I do like your arguments for ‘OpenU’.
    However, it is very US-flavoured. That’s absolutely fine in the online world, which I think is the audience that ‘OpenU’ would appeal to. As you point out, it’s like ‘iTunesU’.
    But for an ordinary UK audience (who don’t spend most of their time in the right sort of online communities), I’d worry it sounds like a jumped-up Americanism, or just plain baffling. ‘Uni’ is the UK abbreviation for university: if you talk about ‘the Open Uni’ British people will know what you’re on about. ‘The OU’ works a lot of the time, but not as often we who work there think it does, I reckon. I’ve even had people who live in Milton Keynes not instantly understand where I mean when I say I work at ‘the OU’.
    I think it’s very hard to do much better than ‘The Open University’ – as lots of people have pointed out, it has a lot of name recognition, internationally … and it gains us (nearly) all the benefits of being associated with ‘Open’ initiatives that you list.

  • Owen Stephens and Damyanti Patel

    If ‘OU’ only makes sense to ‘people in the know’, then I’m not sure how ‘OpenU’ helps – as it stresses the wrong bit (from and understanding of what the OU/OpenU is perspective) – surely for the uninformed ‘University’ is the key message that they need to know?
    Although I realise I’m one of those ‘in the know’, OU seems to me to be in common parlance (the idea that this might be mistaken for Oxford University – which is clearly known as ‘Oxford’ – is just silly)
    I say, if it ain’t broke… (but maybe it is just me who thinks it isn’t broke)

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