The Open University at 45: What can we learn from Britain’s distance education pioneer?

Forty-five years ago, when Britain’s Open University (OU) began broadcasting its first lectures over BBC television and radio, there were many reasons to discount its importance. For one thing, the concept of providing higher education at a distance wasn’t new: the first correspondence course, teaching shorthand, was offered in the 1700s; the University of London began offering distance-learning degrees to students around the world in the mid-19th century. For another, would-be reformers had a long history of over-promising and under-delivering when it came to educational technology; as far back as 1922, for example, Thomas Edison declared that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system.”

Little wonder, perhaps, that the OU’s radically democratic experiment in open access education was greeted with widespread hostility by many commentators inside and outside Britain’s traditional class-bound universities. (The shadow chancellor of the exchequer called the idea “blithering nonsense.”).

Yet somehow the OU quickly put itself on the map. When it opened its virtual doors, 25,000 students soon enrolled, at a time when the combined student population of all other British universities was around 130,000. Before long, the new institution was transforming the world of distance education by granting respected, inexpensive university degrees to older, part-time students who could matriculate without conventional qualifications. Sir Eric Ashby, a former vice chancellor of Cambridge, called the university’s creation the most significant event in the history of higher education since land grant colleges were created in the United States a century earlier.

Today, improving the effectiveness of U.S. higher education has become an urgent national priority. Access, affordability, accountability, and scalability are the watchwords of the day, together with high hopes for the educational technology that promises to make all those things possible. Against this backdrop, and early naysayers notwithstanding, the OU is a longstanding exemplar of how to serve nontraditional students who many don’t see as college material. From its revolutionary founding onward, it has shown how to combine scale with personalization, relying on technology, at a cost lower than that of conventional universities, while maintaining academic quality.

Dubbed “the University of the Air” when it was proposed by incoming Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1963, the OU from the start was built on an interactive model rather than one-way transmission of knowledge. Along with radio and TV lectures, often broadcast during late-night hours, the OU provided each student with a tutor who graded assignments and exams mailed back and forth (including, famously, self-contained science experiments). Periodic in-person meetings with tutors in regional centers and summer residential sessions were also available.

As a distance-learning university, by design the OU had no lecture halls or dormitories, because its students – largely older, part-time working adults – lived at home. It provided great flexibility, dividing degree programs into smaller modules, which students could complete sequentially or simultaneously, and by stopping and starting according to their needs. It made heavy use of computers, not initially for teaching but to grade multiple-choice tests and schedule course mailings. Instructors lacked the independence of traditional dons but worked from course materials created by a small central OU academic staff.

All this led to significant economies of scale. Academics at conventional British universities taught about eight full-time students each in 1973. By contrast, each OU academic taught some 180 part-time students (aided by a large corps of part-time tutors). To be sure, some activities were relatively expensive, notably broadcasting and face-to-face tutoring. But as a result of savings on both capital and operating costs, writes Jeremy Tunstall in The Open University Opens, “the OU is a way of producing graduates much more cheaply than do conventional British universities.”

The university’s founders tried hard to ensure that cost savings weren’t earned on the back of academic quality. Its first vice chancellor had been dean of medicine at the University of Edinburgh; an early lecturer, a former Oxford mathematics done, was a son of Harold Wilson. In the years that followed, the university earned high marks for its teaching quality, and in recent years has placed in the top 5 or 10 in national surveys of student satisfaction, alongside the likes of Oxford and Cambridge.

The OU’s pedagogical tools inevitably changed with the times. Lecturers are now offered online, of course, together with text- and video-based class discussions. The OU became an enthusiastic participant in the OpenCourseWare movement, providing free online materials for many classes, as well as free courses offered through iTunesU, which have been downloaded millions of times. Almost all study materials are still developed in-house, at considerable expense. Every text that students need is now available on mobile devices such as iPads.

On the revenue side, the university is pursuing a freemium model, attempting to turn some content browsers into paying students. For example, although the BBC no longer broadcasts OU lectures, the two institutions collaborate on blockbuster shows such as “Frozen Planet,” a series on polar exploration hosted by David Attenborough. Viewers are directed to the OU website for free content – and enrollment instructions.

For all its successes, the OU model, which has spawned counterparts around the world, from Japan to Israel, is no longer as original as it once was. Online education is now ubiquitous. Many institutions are creating better pedagogical tools for interactive learning. And new efforts are being made to cater to nontraditional students through approaches such as competency-based degrees and alternative credentials.

What’s more, the OU has been particularly vulnerable to recent education policy changes in the UK. Reforms enacted in 2010 raised tuition significantly for all British universities. Although a political compromise opened up student loans and income-based repayment for the first time to part-timers, eligibility was tight. Only about one-third of part-timers were able to take advantage of the new funding mechanism. And some who were just exploring OU offering were averse to taking on long-term debt. Enrollment fell from more than 250,000 to less than 190,000.

As a result –and also because of spending on a new MOOC, FutureLearn – the university ran a deficit of 16.9 million pounds last year. It is saving money by closing most of the regional centers, one of the settings where student have the opportunity for face-to-face contacts with tutors. OU leaders argue that despite significant controversy over the move, almost all students now prefer to learn in an online-only environment.

Still, none of these changes and challenges suggest any core defects in the OU’s model. Over 45 years it has shown an ability to innovate effectively; to serve very large numbers of nontraditional students; to pay careful attention to designing interactive classes that work at a distance; to offer degrees that are valued in the labor market; and, increasingly, to focus on the best ways to retain adult students who are balancing their studies with work and family obligations. Among the practical strategies it has used to accomplish these goals:

  • Continual change. The OU’s central mission of democratizing access to postsecondary education hasn’t shifted. But its nontraditional culture has helped it adapt quickly over the years to new technologies that make particular sense for distance learning, from tape cassettes to DVD-ROMs to YouTube to threaded web discussions with classmates, guided by tutors. (Like others, it has also learned that high start-up costs for new technology mean that it is by no means a quick money-saver. But the OU distance model nevertheless means it can offer degrees at about 60 percent the cost of those awarded by traditional universities.)
  • Recognition that part-time students’ learning needs vary enormously even within the same institution. For example, moving all OU course materials into digital formats that can be read across platforms, from laptops to iPhones, has been popular with many students. But some older learners still prefer traditional print material. For these and the many other modes of learning offered by the OU, giving students a choice – particularly working adults for whom flexibility is crucial – improves their chances of persisting.
  • Providing multiple points of entry, at no risk, to attract nontraditional students. Trying out free course materials and podcasts, and watching BBC specials co-created with the OU, requires no commitment from students who might be intimidated by formal enrollment. But what amounts to a free trial can pique their interest, build their confidence if they decide to engage with course materials, and ultimately improve the chances that they’ll sign up for degree programs.
  • Combining scale with personalization. This is probably the OU’s biggest accomplishment, one that many other universities are striving for as they try not only to enroll new students but to ensure they make it to graduation. Although in-person meetings with tutors are on the wane, the OU model permits large numbers of students to maintain regular one-on-one contact with instructors online. Crucially, tutors provide detailed feedback on course assignments. For many students, particularly those who don’t have a history of academic success and who are juggling multiple work and family responsibilities, this personal relationship with an instructor is key.

There’s little question that the rest of the world has gradually caught up with the OU’s democratizing mission, and with some of its educational techniques. And the university faces its own challenges as it it navigates a difficult funding environment and takes significant risks on new ventures like FutureLearn. But any reformer seeking to serve large numbers of nontraditional students effectively would be remiss not to pay close attention to the OU’s pioneering model.