It may not have the nightlife but as a way of accessing a flexible, quality education, I’ve found the Open University can’t be beaten
He was a flying goth with rocker looks. I was a new Open University tutor researching a play. I ventured into the OU room in Second Life, and after a few introductions (He: F04 R08. AL? Me: Yep. A363. R11), we had a long chat about non-Euclidean geometry.
Call me strange, but I found this amazingly thrilling. Living in a rural area, you don’t come across many Gauss experts. Vast academic libraries, with international journals on tap, books and courses to get your brain cranking, people who enjoy a good barney about Shakespeare’s sonnets: the OU has brought all that to my doorstep, and it’s been an absolute joy.
A quick straw poll reveals quite a few of my friends are closet OU students – they just haven’t mentioned it. All over the country, distance learning is helping students overcome not just geography, but also disability, culture, financial and family circumstances.
Susanne Lockie, a full-time mother to three children, told me the mental stimulation has made it a lifesaver: “I need to keep my skills ticking over, but I couldn’t study to a high level without that flexibility. I’ve been able to get credit for my previous full-time study in nursing, which was interrupted when I had a family. I’ve finished my Open degree now, but I need to spend more time with my parents at the moment, so I’m taking a year out before starting on honours.”
Employers tend to be supportive of OU study, knowing that OU students are likely to be unusually determined and committed. That’s why it’s all the more disappointing when you hear lazy “not a real degree, then” comments and ancient stereotypes of tweedy tutors and chalk-and-talk TV. I’ve found the quality of OU learning materials outstanding. The modular structure means you cover the ground systematically, with a clear understanding of context. Elsewhere (I studied at Oxford), I’ve found the learning experience equally stimulating, but much more haphazard.
And these days, you often find the OU logo at the end of some the BBC’s finest factual programmes, including Springwatch and Coast. Playgroup assistant Heather Marshall uses OU materials at work: “The Early learning (E100) DVDs have interviews with leading policymakers, and show professional practice in different nurseries, with diverse cultural backgrounds and much bigger numbers. My boss trained at a local college, without access to that experience. It really helps to bring the world in and broaden your outlook.”
There’s a great site full of available tasters on everything from Textiles in Ghana to Analysing skidmarks (disappointingly about mathematical modelling). But isn’t the experience all a bit – well, lonely? Isn’t university meant to have a social side? Do OU students miss out on the boozing, freshers’ week, parties, friendships? Those great late-night conversations about literature, politics, ideas? The best bits, in other words?
Many courses still have face-to-face tutorials, but more and more of the tuition is moving online. Essays are sent and marked mainly via the internet, online tutorial groups are replacing the legendary summer schools. They’re simply cheaper. My Shakespeare tutor mourned the old days, but admitted that attendance at face-to-face tutorials seemed to be down. Students didn’t have the old appetite for coming out. Intellectual exchange happens online, and tutors have to learn whole new ways to encourage interaction, moderate arguments and keep dialogue flowing, not to mention a whole new language of e-learning.
Education – and the OU – is evolving fast, and not all the changes are ideal. But as a way of accessing a flexible, quality education, it can’t be beaten. At a time when university tuition fees are expected to rise, and places and courses are being cut, it offers a real alternative. Sure, it doesn’t have the nightlife. But it does offer excellent degrees and courses at a reasonable cost, and a 200,000-strong community of students who are genuinely passionate about learning.
You wonder what Willy Russell’s Rita would make of it all. Would she feel cheated by online tutorials? How would Frank cope with marking ETMAs? What would they make of the flying maths goth? I like to think she’d be open to anything. And right now, she’d probably have finished AA316 and A207, and be thinking about A815.
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