I’ve just turned 40. My midwife was a miner’s daughter who married a Cabinet Minister, and a Prime Minister was my godfather. I’ve taught over 2 million people who might otherwise never had the opportunity, and transformed concepts of access to higher education. I’ve awarded my students more MBAs than all of the UK’s traditional business schools combined, and they’ve voted me top of student satisfaction polls twice in the last 4 years – even though the vast majority have never so much as graced my doorstep. As by-products of my work, I’m one of the biggest publishing and mailing operations in the world: as a result, I’ve had my own Post Office almost since my inception. One of my formative inspirations came from the observations of the education of Russian astronauts, and along the way I’ve turned Lenny Henry on to – and into – Othello. So who am I?

There should have been some clues in the opening paragraph, but life’s too short for endless guesswork: in this instance, the answer is that “I am The Open University”. Like many aspects of Milton Keynes, where it is headquartered, it has been the butt of many jokes over the years – principally about beards, tank-tops and sandals – but the OU (as it’s usually known) has truly transformed a significant number of lives.  And not just of its students: by challenging existing thinking on access to higher education and pioneering new ways of teaching, the OU’s influence has been felt in many millions more lives than just those of its alumni.

The role of emerging and evolving media has been central throughout the OU’s evolution. Indeed, the OU credits the BBC with first conceiving the idea:

In 1926 the educationalist and historian J C Stobart wrote a memo, while working for the infant BBC, advocating a ‘wireless university’. By the early sixties many different proposals were being mooted. R C G Williams of the Institution of Electrical Engineers argued for a ‘teleuniversity’, which would combine broadcast lectures with correspondence texts and visits to conventional universities – a genuinely ‘multi-media’ concept.”

Like many fine ideas in history, it took commitment to action – and to quality as well as to pioneering – to trigger what was, in hindsight, the actual ‘moment of conception’. The observations were those of Michael (later Lord) Young, whose ideas were taken up by Harold Wilson, who took over as leader of the Labour Party in 1963. Although it is tempting to continue the misquoting of possibly his most famous speech, the following is what Wilson really said at the 1963 Scarborough Conference:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.”

While the OU would pioneer the use of many technologies in teaching in years to come, the misquoted ‘white heat of technology’ carried both a threat and promise: without an expansion of higher education, Britain’s workforce would be ill-equipped to cope with the technological era that Wilson was (correctly) predicting. The ‘University of the Air’ – as it was known in its planning period – was an application of technology and innovation to counter some of the threats that technology and innovation might otherwise realise. Running alongside the expansion of the existing universities and the birth of the polytechnics, the impact of the OU on the expansion of higher education was enormous: its first student enrolments – in 1971 – added 20% to national student numbers.

If a University can be said to have ‘parents’, it had more than just Young and Wilson. (Though Wilson’s son, Robin, is an OU Maths professor.) It also had Jennie Lee, an MP at the age of 24 (in a year that, as a woman, she would have been judged too young to vote) and the widow of Nye Bevan. Wilson duly gave her stewardship of the OU project, and she fought tirelessly to see it to conception – and beyond. As a miner’s daughter who had been able to attend University only because of a Carnegie Trust scholarship, her commitment to opening up access to education was easy to understand. She saw the new university as offering “degrees of freedom to creative intelligence”. But she was also pragmatic and realistic enough to recognise that good intentions and novelty were not sufficient:

I knew it had to be a university with no concessions, right from the very beginning. After all, I have gone through the mill myself, taking my own degree, even though it was a long time ago. I knew the conservatism and vested interests of the academic world. I didn’t believe we could get it through if we lowered our standards.”

Apart from Lee, after whom the OU named its library in her honour, the fledgling university also had a tireless first Chancellor, Walter Perry. Arguing his case for its survival when the Conservatives were elected in 1970, he did so against the new Education Secretary, another dedicated female politician. In helping to ensure the OU survived its infancy, Perry can possibly be said to be the last man to defeat Margaret Thatcher until John Major some 20 years later. He too was committed to quality:

It wasn’t that I had any deep-seated urge to mitigate the miseries of the depressed adult; it was that I was persuaded that the standard of teaching in conventional universities was pretty deplorable. It suddenly struck me that if you could use the media and devise course materials that would work for students all by themselves, then inevitably you were bound to affect – for good – the standard of teaching in conventional universities.”

But the OU’s significance has other aspects. In many ways, it’s an organisation that has learnt as much as it has taught. In delivering high quality, academically credible learning at a distance to large numbers, it has had to research and implement the methods to do so. It has had to research the learning value of a vast range of media – television, radio, audio and video cassettes, CD-ROMs, the web, computer conferencing, counselling and tutoring by telephone and email. And it has to do so mindful of its audience: a medium may be ideal educationally, but of little value unless the students have access to it. (As a then member of OU staff, I was using online conferencing in 1987, two years before an experimental roll-out as an optional course element for one course. Today the OU has 16,000 online conferences.) The OU has had to continuously monitor social and educational trends, as well as set them. (And today, its methods – and materials – are used in almost every university in the UK, and there are ‘Open Universities’ across the world.)

While for other universities, student life has been a self-contained experience, the OU has also had to accommodate student’s realities to a far greater extent. This is reflected not just in learning materials that relate academic theory and models to everyday items and experiences (good open learning must be accessible, especially where students work in isolation and a lack of entry requirements means prior learning cannot be taken for granted), but in designing courses that accommodate real lives. Most OU students have jobs and families to fit into their time as well – indeed, having jobs and social commitments is probably why they are studying as they are. For the OU, learning is not something that happens separately to life.

In delivering distance learning, the OU has also identified a lesson for all who educate, teach or develop: that education is not simply about transmission, about handing over facts, figures, models and equations. Interviewed by Radio Four a few years ago, the current Vice-Chancellor, Brenda Gourley, was asked if the increase in colleges, universities and private companies was a threat to the OU. Her response was confident: the quality of the OU’s teaching – and it has outperformed almost every traditional university in national quality assessments – is not simply down to the content of its teaching. Students aren’t just taught, they are supported: a network of tutors, tutor-counsellors, study centres, student self-help groups (all of which have expanded as internet access has become almost ubiquitous) is a fundamental part of the experience. And they are provided for the simple reason that they work. (Another interesting interview with Brenda Gourley is available here.)

Though the OU’s extra-mural work now includes mainstream television production – you’ve probably watched Coast or Rough Science – its existence, survival and success provide many powerful lessons for us as individuals and as organisations. One of these mirrors the conclusion we drew from reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: that “those who travel furthest do so at least in part because they were given the opportunity to do so, and the encouragement to make the most of the opportunity.”

To finish, here’s Harold Wilson’s son explaining how to remember the formula for pi in a way that many of will be able to relate to.

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