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National CrossTalk Summer 1999
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An Interview: Sir John Daniel

  Sir John Daniel
Sir John Daniel is vice chancellor of the Open University of Great Britain and is president of the United States Open University. This interview was conducted by Carl Irving, a frequent contributor to National CrossTalk.

Carl Irving: How has the Open University managed to achieve such extraordinary national academic rankings in so short a time?

Sir John Daniel: It began with very strong political support, and that translated in the 1970s into relatively good resources from government. It was set up as an autonomous institution, and the original faculty were good, imaginative academics, rather than people steeped in some educational technology. Right from the start, the basic commitment to academic values -- including research -- were there.

The first class totaled 25,000 students, which had the virtue of making it politically unstoppable. These first students were real fanatics; they had waited all their lives for this. In those days they had no other opportunity, so they went for it. You could make big investments in course materials, and do effective things.

CI: Was there opposition, spoken or unspoken, from among the traditional universities?

JD: There wasn't so much hostility, as deep skepticism and even ridicule. They frankly didn't see this as a threat because the other universities had no interest in part-time or adult students. They thought all this was a big Mickey Mouse and kind of fun. Yet the first community to be converted, other than the students, were the academics -- quite opposite of what is happening in the States, with the new things like Phoenix University, where the corporate community gets on side very quickly, but the academics are digging deep, and remaining suspicious.

We have a rule to this day: to have a senior professor from another university on all our exam boards. What really changed it: By far the majority of what we call our tutors, the part-time staff, were academics at other universities. They very quickly came to the conclusion this was actually very good. They used it in their own courses extensively, and got the tremendous satisfaction of teaching our students. And so in a very few years there was no bad-mouthing coming from the other universities at all.

CI: What has been the impact of the national rankings?

JD: You're marked out of 24: They judge you in each discipline on six criteria: curriculum design, teaching, learning and assessment, student progression, student support and guidance, learning resources and quality assurance process. You can get four points on each. It's almost inevitable that the Open University does well on this, because if you're highly systematic, as you have to be to operate on such a scale, and if you operate in the public eye, you tend to make sure that your curriculum is well designed and that your teaching system works.

We now rank 11th among 100-plus universities. We are in the top elite of 18 institutions that have more than half of their provisions rated as excellent. And what's interesting is, the longer this goes on the better we do -- partly because we've got better at working the system. In the latest results, in engineering we got 24 out of 24 -- better marks than at Oxford, Cambridge or Imperial College.

CI: What is the reaction from the academic world?

JD: No one is saying that's not fair. Twenty-five years ago we established our bona fides in the academic world. Some of the universities hate this quality assessment system, no question about that. But at the end of the day, the people making these assessments are peers.

CI: Do the people at Oxford and Cambridge recognize them as peers?

JD: Oh, yes. They're taking part in it.

CI: How do these high rankings affect attracting faculty and students?

JD: There's absolutely no question that we are getting very high quality faculty applying to work with us. It's seen as an exciting place, a springboard to very top appointments. Somebody was telling me today that we've got three professors, formerly at the OU, now at the London School of Economics. I've got Oxford trying to raid me from time to time. So we're definitely seen in that network of old universities. But I think the fact we've won a televised challenge quiz between universities -- we're one of six universities that have won it twice, victories seen by audiences in the millions -- has had a big effect (on enrollment).

CI: Is twenty percent of faculty time given to research -- as at established universities?

JD: Absolutely. I wouldn't be holding the faculty I do if they didn't have research opportunities equivalent to those elsewhere. I would guess that we require rather more of our staff in terms of teaching, simply because of the way they teach. Developing course material takes more time than lecturing.

CI: Does that become a barrier to getting good faculty?

JD: No, because a lot of them enjoy that form of teaching. Paralleling the teaching assessment scheme, there's a research assessment scheme out of which we rank 30th among 100-plus. So we're lower down, but we're still in the top third, and rising. The main European place where people are doing research on the life on Mars issue is the Open University. And we have a Planetary Science Research Institute which is absolutely up there with the best world-class laboratories and many other areas of research and international excellence.

We don't cover the same waterfront as Oxford or Cambridge would in terms of trying to be top-rated research in every single field. But every faculty contains internationally recognized researchers and there is very much of a research culture around the place.

CI: How do student costs compare?

JD: Until last year, all full-time students got higher education free. They did not have to pay tuition and in many cases they did not have to pay board and lodging. However, part-time students always have had to pay fees. Last year they started to require that full-time students have to pay about $1,600 a year, no matter what they're doing. At the Open University, where all students are part-time (we don't like people to study more than half-time equivalent), it will cost around $6,000, spread over about six years, to achieve a bachelor's degree.

CI: Even though these costs aren't formidable, are you forced to exclude any promising students because they can't afford to enroll?

JD: We like to think we're not, because we recycle about $5 million a year, waiving fees for people who are unemployed or on what you would call welfare. The government now gives us extra money so that we can do that for all students on welfare. Previously we had to ration that.

CI: How successful is the OU with regard to its professed ideal of maintaining a tutorial, one-on-one faculty-student approach, in contrast to the teacher-group approach which predominates in the United States?

JD: One of the reasons that the OU has been accepted here is because the ideal that people aspire to in higher education goes back to the Oxford tutorial one-on-one. For a long time that was only effective at Oxford and Cambridge. We've moved to classroom lecturing at most universities. Nevertheless, that was the ideal. Our system is a combination of independent studies with the materials we provide.

CI: How does that work at the OU?

JD: We call it a multimedia distance teaching system with strong support. The students get a package of stuff and they study a lot of it at home, but they also get the opportunity for group meetings with their tutor. Most importantly, the tutor's main purpose is to help a student through that course by calling them to their written assignments, by being available to help and by holding these group meetings. But the group meetings, it's important to stress, are optional. The student does not have to attend those. About a third would never miss them, a third don't go too much at all, and a third are somewhere in the middle.

CI: Does it make much difference in the outcome?

JD: No. It's the students gravitating to what they need to help them get through the course. But the students uniformly say that they find the tutors extremely helpful. Even if they don't actually meet the tutors, the fact is that the tutor is ready to discuss their work on the phone.

CI: So, many students never actually see their tutor.

JD: For many students, that would be the case. We place enormous emphasis on using the commentary on the student's work as a teaching tool. We monitor that. When the tutor has marked an assignment, it comes back to headquarters. Full-time faculty review these marked assignments on a sampling basis, paying particular attention to the work of the newer tutors. They try and comment constructively to the tutor on their marking and commentary.

CI: Do you also get student feedback?

JD: Yes, because we're constantly surveying students. The two most constant results are that they find the printed material the most helpful part of the course, and also find the tutors extraordinarily helpful.

CI: Do you have any concern that you miss something important in not having every student directly meeting with tutors at one of the several hundred centers that are spread through the UK?

JD: We have never made any particular pitch to younger students. The vast majority are over 25, and the socializing function in higher education isn't something we have to worry about, particularly. We don't think that classroom teaching is very effective anyway, and we're quite happy that the students should make up their own minds as to whether to attend these group meetings.

CI: Aside from socializing, isn't there another dimension if the student and tutor are meeting in person, versus talking over the phone?

JD: No. We think that's exaggerated or at least not a one-size-fits-all solution. Having said that, we invest a lot of effort and money in training our tutors to make those face-to-face sessions valuable -- not to stand there and lecture but to draw out the students to react, create situations where people learn from each other. The residential schools, which some courses have on their own campus for a week, are the most intensive, effective sort of group work, for some, but others will never go near that. We believe adults should make up their own minds (about whether to attend).

CI: You don't see any substantial difference in terms of outcome?

JD: I was a student at Oxford, so I went through the whole tutorial system. I thought it was for the birds in my subject. I don't think it added any value. What did have value was being told to write an essay every week, which forced me into the library. But the actual feedback I got on that was much less than if I'd been an Open University student. I was in a scientific discipline. I think in disciplines like history or politics, it may have some more effect, because there's more cut and thrust of discussion.

CI: Does that show up in your enrollments? Are there far more students in the sciences than in social sciences?

JD: No. Slightly less than 50 percent are in science, math, technology, engineering and computing.

CI: How does that compare with other British universities?

JD: We do more science-based courses. The standard ratio would be 30 percent science, engineering and math.

CI: Does that indicate that you're more effective in these areas than in others?

JD: We've always got to trade off. We're trying to provide a convenient form of education. Anything we require the student to do at a particular time and place we have to be really convinced that adds value. Frankly we think most seminar discussions in most universities are not run very effectively anywhere, because the faculty aren't well trained to run them -- spending a lot of time on questions from the least well-read student and so on.

The irony is that most students who transfer to us from other universities say, to their surprise, that they are getting more personal support from the Open University than they got on their old campus.

CI: Have you had substantial influence on learning at conventional campuses?

JD: No question. Open University material will be the most well-used material at any British university library. You'll find such materials falling apart from intensive use. You'll find many British university teachers drawing heavily, with or without attribution, on our materials. When British university presidents get upset, as they sometimes do, at the idea that many of their staff are moonlighting for the Open University, and therefore working for the competition, they never end up doing anything about it, because when they go and examine it in detail, they find that their staff are getting more training from us in how to do the job of a higher education professor than they are in their own place. So we are absolutely certain we are delivering what we do.

CI: Will everyone be like the Open University in another 20 years?

JD: I don't think so. Bruce Johnstone, former SUNY (State University of New York) chancellor and now at SUNY-Buffalo, says that the death of the campus is grossly exaggerated. I think there will always be a tremendous role for campuses, particularly for young students.

I don't think we're going to rub out the campuses at all. But I do think a lot of the increase in lifelong learning will take place using our methods. And particularly in developing countries, which I don't believe have a chance of delivering what's needed, using conventional routes, I think this will be an important option.

CI: Do your UK students still seem far hungrier for degrees than their counterparts in the United States?

JD: I think it's true that people in the States expect more instant gratification than people historically did in Britain, but that's changing very fast in Britain, too. We're having to adjust as well to people who aren't willing to wait a long time to start studying with us just because the OU is so wonderful. Against that I would say there is a long tradition of mass higher education in the States. The proportion of U.S. taxi drivers I've traveled with who are taking college courses and doing things to improve themselves is certainly higher than the proportion of British taxi drivers. It's partly because when the OU began in Britain, less than ten percent of people went to the universities. So the next 20 percent in ability and motivation were desperate to get into them. In the States, you're already past 50 percent.

But what that does is produce a much larger pool, even if there's less fanaticism in being denied this opportunity. I think there are people who are eager for what is of high quality and convenience. A survey reported in Washington, for example, found that nearly 50 percent of U.S. people who got bachelor's degrees have been to more than one institution on the way. And 40 percent of that 50 percent have been to more than two. There are lots of people who are wending their way 'round, and we would like to be a good opportunity.

CI: But does this assume desire for degrees beyond the taxi drivers?

JD: Every time I'm [in the United Sates] I read newspapers reporting on the disparity in income between those who have college degrees and those who don't. So there are lots of people wanting college degrees.

CI: Do you foresee problems because of the traditional differences in course work, beginning with differences in the length of academic terms -- your 32-week courses compared with ten weeks at many U.S. campuses?

JD: A lot of Americans have said, look you do not have to do a cookie cutter imitation of what's already on offer. Many people would like to study during a longer term spread over more of the year with more flexibility. And our U.S. board says, what you guys bring is internationalism, with a curriculum which is already studied outside Britain. It would be stupid if you take your business courses and make them exactly like Americans' business courses.

But I think it will be a tough sell. Because I think America is such a huge place and, although it is easy for us outside to say how parochial it is, it is a very big parish. It's quite difficult for Americans to think outside that box. But again, we believe there will be enough who will actually find that to be quite interesting. We also look forward to two-way traffic, with courses coming back from the States being very good for us.

CI: Some in the U.S. question your courses because of cultural differences.

JD: The courses we've chosen for adaptation, for starters, are courses we think will travel. We've taken Pacific studies, America in the 20th century, rather than the governing of Britain or things that have been British based. We will find out whether courses in Renaissance art or in 20th-century literature travel or not. But just as Americans like to go abroad in junior years, we think there will be a market for people who will like to study these subjects at home.

CI: You're aware of all the squabbles that have been going on for years in the States about the study of civilization.

JD: One of the virtues of our course team approach is that they have to come to terms with these issues in an explicit way. Also, we are very conscious of the cultural baggage our courses carry. And there is always somebody on our team who is an equal opportunities watchdog, whose job is to try and see that the course is not prepared in such a way that it's making assumptions about students' backgrounds. That's extraordinarily difficult to do. It doesn't attempt to give equal time to Asia, Africa, Europe and so on; it does nevertheless allow students to get under the different cultural issues.

CI: Looking ahead at your effort in the U.S., what do you foresee?

JD: I think whatever we do, we will contribute something useful. And the nice thing about it is we don't have to achieve huge numbers to consider this a success, because we're starting off with a lot of the intellectual capital already somewhat developed. We have to adapt it, that is true, but it does allow us the luxury of operating across a fairly broad curriculum.

So, unlike places like the University of Phoenix, we don't have to go just for the low-hanging fruit and concentrate on the obvious vocational subjects like business studies and computing and so on. We will be seeking very much to spread ourselves across a wide curriculum to be an authentic university.

I'm sure we'll get some things wrong but I believe we've set things up so we can adjust and make course corrections. I think that our approach to associate faculty will have an impact in the long term on the way adjunct faculty are treated in American universities.

I hope our course team approach will provide a kind of quality benchmark for distance learning, and will help reduce some of the worries of people like the American Association of University Professors, who are digging themselves into a position of really very serious hostility to anything to do with distance learning. I think that's silly because in Britain the equivalent of the AAUP is actually run by people from the Open University. So, here they obviously are very comfortable with it.

I have a serious worry: 40 years ago distance learning was called correspondence education, and it had a poor reputation, which was well deserved in many cases, because a lot of people used it as a quick way to make money by enrolling students, not giving them much support, and by the time the students had dropped out, they were far away with the money in the bank.

I think the Open University really began the process of changing all that. And over 30 years, through its own efforts and through the efforts of other institutions that began to copy it and were inspired by it, the Open University has brought distance learning to a position of reasonably solid credibility. However I don't think it's cemented in place. And I think that with the sort of rush to electronic education, online education, particularly for-profit online education, you could very easily set the clock back to 40 years ago.

So we would like to do anything we can do to create a constituency for quality in this arena. That is part of the fundamental motivation: It's not to go in there and make a quick buck and enroll lots of students; it is to try and show that this form of education has a lot to contribute.

Photo by David Levenson, BlackStar, for CrossTalk

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