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National CrossTalk Summer 1999
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Distance Education
British Open University sets the standard worldwide

By Jon Marcus

Milton Keynes, England

  Open University tutor Dominic Newbold meets with students taking an “Introduction to the Humanities” class. Tutors are assigned to all Open University undergraduates.
  Open University tutor Dominic Newbold meets with students taking an "Introduction to the Humanities" class. Tutors are assigned to all Open University undergraduates.
THE FLAGSHIP CAMPUS of the largest university in Britain looks much like any other school. Groups of faculty, deep in discussion, stroll across manicured grass quadrangles between buildings of contrasting architectural styles. There are dining halls, a busy library, athletic fields, tennis courts and bulletin boards announcing special academic rates for magazine subscriptions. Exhaust pipes and chemical storage tanks sprout from modern science buildings. There's no place to park.

Just one thing, really, sets this peaceful place apart from more conventional university campuses: There aren't any students here. With the exception of a few doctoral candidates, the 215,000 students of Britain's Open University study at home or at work in one of the most successful models of distance education in the world. Only faculty who develop the courses, and an army of administrators, occupy this main campus in the sleepy town of Milton Keynes, about an hour north of London.

These days, there's a spring in the step of the people who traverse the quad at Milton Keynes. Open University is branching out, aggressively expanding overseas and working to reverse a recruitment slump at home, the fault in part of government budget cuts tying funding to enrollment at a time of increased competition from established schools that once derided the idea of distance education.

To meet this first goal of exporting its curriculum, OU is looking for university partners all over the world, offering the proven concept it calls "supported open learning," which marries correspondence courses with in-person human tutoring and oversight. At the same time, to meet the second goal of beefing up recruitment, the university appears to be relaxing those successful but demanding principles where they have threatened to discourage students from enrolling. It is just a means of meeting popular demand and treating students as consumers, OU administrators say in their defense.

All of this puts Open University "right in the middle of the academic debate about higher education," said Bob Masterton, director of the school's entrepreneurial arm, Open University Worldwide. "The Open University is at a crossroads. It has the opportunity to be a global player. The question is, does it have the will? My answer is, yes, it should, and we should get on with it."

The Open University colossus now contriving to straddle the globe began in its own small corner of the planet as a revolutionary notion: a means of offering a higher education to the domestic masses in an era when the British university system was particularly inbred and elitist. It was originally proposed by Harold Wilson, a member of Parliament from the Labour party at the time, who raised the idea for the first time in a speech in Glasgow in 1963. But its roots were in America, where Wilson had come to lecture at the University of Chicago and where he first encountered the televised courses of the Chicago College of the Air.

  Walton Hall, once the family home of London lawyer Sir Thomas Pinfold, now stands at the center of the British Open University campus in Milton Keynes.
  Walton Hall, once the family home of London lawyer Sir Thomas Pinfold, now stands at the center of the British Open University campus in Milton Keynes.
When Wilson became prime minister a few years later, he started pushing for a British "University of the Air," despite resistance from political opponents and the educational establishment. One MP, Ian Macleod, called it "blithering nonsense." But Wilson responded by "out-snobbing the snobs," as his arts minister, Jennie Lee, later put it.

Open University would be "open as to people, open as to places, open as to methods, open as to ideas," its mission statement said. There were, and still are, no admission requirements. Formally established by royal charter in 1969, the university had 40,000 applicants for 25,000 slots when it first began accepting students two years later.

The university settled in at Milton Keynes -- midway between Birmingham and London to the north and south, and between Oxford and Cambridge to the east and west -- which offered it the former family home and stud farm of a London lawyer named Sir Thomas Pinfold; Pinfold's manor house, Walton Hall, still stands at the center of the campus that has since sprung up around it.

Some of the early courses, broadcast on radio and black-and-white television, were crude, and Open University was the butt of jokes; one radio comedy lampooned a home-taught lawyer who, in court, could not pronounce the legal lingo. It also was inevitably likened to the private fly-by-night correspondence schools that took their students' money, sent them questionable course materials, and disappeared.

Nearly closed by the succeeding Conservative government, Open University was rescued by, of all people, Margaret Thatcher, who was education secretary at the time -- albeit with drastic and recurring budget cuts. What appealed to Thatcher and the Tories were the economic, not the social benefits: the relatively cheap cost of educating students at a distance when compared to paying their tuition at conventional residential universities.

Delivering teaching to the students proved cheaper than delivering students to the teacher. Even today, it costs as little as half as much to educate a student through Open University as at a traditional school in the United Kingdom, and one-tenth the price of an American higher education.

Limited at first to undergraduates, Open University would quickly add continuing and postgraduate education. Since 1971, it has taught 2.5 million students; of those, 230,000 have graduated, and 70,000 who took OU courses have gone on to receive degrees from other British universities.

Open University is a major reason for the sharp increase in the number of people taking college work in Great Britain. In 1970, only 14 percent of British 18- to 24-year-olds participated in some form of higher eduction. Today, the number has increased to 45 percent.

It is a group that may not have had access to a higher education otherwise. Four out of five beginning Open University undergraduates lack the minimum qualifications required for admission to a conventional university. Half are children of blue-collar workers, compared to one-fifth in British schools overall. More than 80 percent work full-time while enrolled. The average age of undergraduates is 37, and half are women, the highest proportion of any British university.

  Walton Hall, once the family home of London lawyer Sir Thomas Pinfold, now stands at the center of the British Open University campus in Milton Keynes.
  Walton Hall, once the family home of London lawyer Sir Thomas Pinfold, now stands at the center of the British Open University campus in Milton Keynes.
Students can choose from among 172 courses in the arts, social sciences, education, health and social welfare, languages, management, mathematics and computing, science and technology; just as at most full-time universities, the arts, humanities and social sciences are most in demand. There are another 124 post-graduate courses.

Half of a student's grade is based on homework assignments, half on the three-hour end-of-course examination. Courses, which last nine months, equate to 30 or 60 points toward the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) widely used in U.K. higher education; students need a minimum of 360 CATS for a bachelor's degree and 180 for a graduate degree. Although it is possible to receive a degree at Open University in three years studying full-time, the average time is six years.

The cost of an undergraduate degree is between $6,000 and $7,000, cheaper than almost any American four-year program, one-tenth the cost of many.

Unlike newer distance education programs, OU's beginnings in the days when high technology was limited to broadcast television meant it could gradually adapt the subsequent communications breakthroughs to its curriculum, rather than the other way around. "You're not developing technology solutions and then finding problems to apply them to," said Jerzy Grzeda, operations manager of the Knowledge Media Institute, the university's research and development division.

Old-timers still talk of the drawn-out debate that delayed the move to broadcasting classes in color because of concern for students who might not have had color television sets. Courses today are built around a mix of correspondence texts, radio, television, audio and video cassettes, computing and computer-mediated communication, and home kits for practical work -- a tray of rock samples for a geology course, for instance.

Television programs associated with specific courses are broadcast early on Saturday and Sunday mornings and on weekdays from 12:30 a.m. until 7 a.m., a block of time known as The Learning Zone, when they can be videotaped for later viewing. (Some students complain the university is actually too slow to adopt new technology. Course assignments, for example, are still submitted, marked and returned on paper by regular mail. Only about 30,000 of the 215,000 students are required to use computers as an element of their courses.)

The instructional materials are developed by the university's 950 faculty members in Milton Keynes, where there are also 3,350 administrators and support staff who do everything from printing textbooks to processing assignments. A typical course costs between $2.5 million and $3.3 million to produce, and takes three years; the investment is amortized over the expected eight-year life of the course. Open University's library of course materials has grown to tens of thousands of pages of text, plus 907 hours a year of television programming and 66 hours of radio. About a third of the budget goes into course development. "Just putting lecture notes on the Internet is a waste of time, because they need a human voice," said Blaine Price, a member of the faculty. "We design our content to be read."

The process is, by all appearances, exhaustive, involving peer review and, typically, three drafts of the materials before anything goes to the students. Take S-103: Level I Science. First comes a fancy loose-leaf binder with an introduction, glossary and study tips, additional articles from scientific journals and other sources, and a wall map of the earth's surface. Open University has 70 graphic artists and illustrators who design these materials -- an effort, administrators cheerfully acknowledge, to reassure students that they're getting value for their money.

Next there are 11 thin custom softcover textbooks, one for each "block." Block 2, Activity 8.5, for example, is called "An Element on the Move," and ties in with a sophisticated CD-ROM about the global carbon cycle featuring a stylized depiction of the ecosystem. Students can learn about the atmosphere by clicking on the sky, then move a carbon atom through various stages to the sea. They also can change the proportion of elements to see what happens to the climate, visualize molecules in three dimensions and take a virtual field trip to the Galapagos Islands. The accompanying television program, Discovering Science, has proven so popular that the BBC is running it on Friday nights in prime time -- opposite Top of the Pops and Coronation Street, both top-rated shows.

The heart of Open University, however, and the apparent key to its success, is not on TV or CD-ROM, or in Milton Keynes, for that matter. It is in places like Foxcombe Hall in Boar's Hill near Oxford, once the ancestral home of the eighth earl of Berkeley and now one of the OU's 13 regional centers. Here, in this genteel country manor off a narrow road lined with hedgerows, are the people who recruit and counsel students in this part of the country, and assign them some of Open University's 7,600 part-time tutors. All registered students have tutors, who also are known as associate lecturers and serve as subject specialists available to provide help and advice by telephone and e-mail, and in person at periodic non-mandatory meetings, along with other local students in a course.

This is the human element of Open University that distinguishes it from other distance education programs, a relationship made famous by the movie "Educating Rita" about a romance between an Open University student played by Julie Walters and her tutor, played by Michael Caine.

  Open University students work on their own much of the time -- with materials that are mailed or sent electronically -- but many choose to attend voluntary tutorials as well.
  Open University students work on their own much of the time -- with materials that are mailed or sent electronically -- but many choose to attend voluntary tutorials as well.
The 13 regional offices are supplemented by a network of 301 study centers in the U.K., and another 31 throughout the rest of Europe. Here recruiters review each "reservation form," or application; since there are no admission requirements, students who seem from their credentials unprepared for the level of a course they want to take are encouraged to enroll in remedial programs called access courses, generally offered by other colleges and local councils.

The Oxford regional office alone hosts 29 introductory meetings, seven "Welcome to Open University" orientation sessions, study skills workshops for 1,300 people, and test preparation classes. Each new student gets a phone call from an associate adviser, and a follow-up call if they fail to submit their first assignment on time.

If that seems a far cry from the isolated image of a correspondence school, consider this: Open University students in some courses also meet together for intensive instruction at "residential schools" on weekends or for a week during the summer, often in hotels or conference centers. Many form study groups with classmates in their towns. There is a student association that organizes social gatherings, and there are chemistry, geology, computer, sci-tech, space, football and art societies, and a university newspaper full of opinionated letters to the editor. There are Open University T-shirts, course newsletters and annual reunions. "You're not isolated if you don't want to be," said Sally Eaton, 35, who postponed academics when she got a good job designing embroidery, and now is an OU undergraduate majoring in psychology.

For that matter, the first tutorial of B-600, "The Capable Manager," in a borrowed university classroom on a Saturday afternoon in London, is downright giddy with camaraderie. "You're all sure you're in the right class? It's not hang-gliding for beginners, or flower-arranging," jokes the tutor, Peter Guildford, a personnel manager who serves here as combination drill sergeant and summer camp counselor.

"My mission as a tutor is to make sure you get through this, but you have to do the work, not me. I want you to go away from here more confident," Guildford tells the group, which includes a budget analyst, a prison officer, a legal aid attorney, a self-employed computer analyst and a building contractor. He tells them how to manage the sheaf of paperwork they had been sent from Milton Keynes, advises them to use selective shortcuts, and warns ahead about the hard parts. "You will find it is quite lonely studying by yourself," Guildford says. "If you have problems, ring me up. But you can also ring each other up." A piece of notebook paper quickly begins to circulate for telephone numbers and e-mail addresses.

No bashful freshmen, these. These students are here because they can't afford the time or cost of a conventional education. "It fits in with my life," said one, Sandy Riggien, 29. "Flexibility was the absolute key," said another, Iain Richards, 32. "I've got two kids. The flexibility it offers you is brilliant. And the electives I wanted to do, the OU had them." Peter Osborne, 33, has already gotten an undergraduate degree from Open University, and is working on a master's. "Once you've started getting a mortgage and have a house, you can't take three years off work to go and get a degree," he said.

OU's personal attention to its students is not altogether altruistic. That is because, beginning in 1993, the British government dramatically revamped the way it paid for higher education. Now all government funding is tied to enrollment, forcing Open University and other schools to increase and maintain recruitment, and to find new sources of revenue. (OU has an extra incentive for keeping its student numbers up, because the more paying students enroll, the faster it recovers the high cost of developing its courses.)

The shift in government policy had two important consequences for Open University. First, the school eased some of the demands it used to place on students, removing barriers that seemed to be dissuading them from signing up. And, second, it has stepped up its expansion into new international markets as a means of earning money to supplant lost government funding for its core activities -- a sort of Robin Hood approach to subsidizing its domestic students.

In a way, the university had become a victim of its own success. Several government studies on higher education held it up as an example, arguing that, given a choice between an elitist free education system and a mass system with fees based on income, the latter was preferred. One influential report by Sir Ron Dearing suggested that traditional universities should, like Open University, invest more heavily in technology that would allow part-time undergraduates to learn more cheaply at home.

These were flattering words. However, as for other universities, government funding for OU fell from more than 80 percent to just over 50 percent of the $354 million annual budget, and student fees rose faster than the rate of inflation, straining the "school-for-the-masses" mission. Not only that, many other universities took Dearing's suggestion and began to offer rival distance education courses. Open University recruitment slowed and, this year, the number of undergraduates was down seven percent.

In response, the university dropped the number of compulsory foundation courses from two, to one, to none, as a means of maintaining now-crucial enrollments; students today can enter at any level.

Not everyone is happy about these changes. "Open University, the shining light of progressive education, is following the general trend toward fast-track degrees in which support for individual students has been replaced by a complete open-entry system in which students purchase whatever courses at whatever level they wish," one OU tutor, Geoff Andrews, who also is a lecturer in politics at the University of Hertfordshire, observed in The New Statesman.

  Jerzy Grzeda manages the Knowledge Media Institute, the Open University's research and development division
  Jerzy Grzeda manages the Knowledge Media Institute, the Open University's research and development division.
Other tutors have expressed concern that counseling is being diminished and supplanted by technology, even though it is the balance of self-study and tutoring that the European Foundation for Management and Development found was the reason OU and other British schools lead the world in distance education. Even Grzeda, whose job is to develop new technology for learning, said, "The university needs to understand that the secret weapon of the OU are the tutors, and there is no substitute for them. You have to view the technology as a tool to augment tutoring. I'm glad the associate lecturers are raising concerns. If the choice is between new technology and human contact, I'll take human contact."

Now residential summer school -- which some students had complained was too expensive, cost them coveted vacation, and took them away from their families -- is being phased out or made optional in several courses. "The sneaking suspicion is that the OU is getting lukewarm over summer school not on education grounds, but on financial ones," said John Kirkaldy, a tutor who believes the residential schools are key not only to Open University's success, but to its charm. "Many years ago I taught a retired naval captain who sat next to a wonderful lady who was one of Britain's first female long-distance truck drivers," Kirkaldy said. "They shared a common love of poetry, and the captain was also overwhelmed on meeting a woman who could out-swear him."

Many students who have been to residential school, well, swear by it, said Pat Atkins, regional adviser in the Oxford office. "Ninety percent of the people I've talked to who have attended a residential course have said, ĎNo, I didn't want to go, but I loved it,'" she said. "And that's the sad thing, that we're taking that opportunity away from them." (Derek Prior, a former lecturer who now serves as the university spokesman, said in defense of the cutbacks, "It would be impossible to deny the fact that you have targets that you have to meet, and quotas.")

Still, the material isn't easy and the students aren't dumb. Witness, for example, the fact that Open University upset Oriel College, Oxford, in the championships of University Challenge, a sort of College Bowl that attracts an average weekly audience of 2.5 million viewers. The OU team was whittled down from more than 600 candidates by the OU Student Association over the university's computer conferencing system. It included a retired attorney and a part-time post office employee, and its average age was 46 compared to an average age of 20 on the Oriel team.

Open University also fares surprisingly well in most comparisons with other schools, including conventional British universities. The Daily Telegraph newspaper, using government statistics, put Open University 11th out of 98 institutions in the proportion of its departments rated "excellent," and Britain's Quality Assurance Agency scored the engineering program higher than its counterparts at Oxford and Cambridge.

In a 1999 study, 95 percent of OU's Scottish students rated their course content "good" or "excellent," compared with 78 percent of students at other Scottish universities; 64 percent judged student support services "good" or "excellent," compared to 17 percent for other universities.

In some areas, the school has done less well. The Higher Education Funding Council for England found that course materials in subjects including computing and applied social work were out of date, and parts of the university's primary teacher training program were temporarily withdrawn after the program was threatened with cancellation of its accreditation. Open University also suffers in another important measure: 25 to 30 percent of its students drop out, compared to 20 percent in other British universities.

Changes in government policy actually have worked to Open University's advantage in one way: They forced other schools to charge fees, creating a pool of prospects who might not have otherwise considered distance education. Government figures show that, since the introduction of tuition, students are abandoning full-time study for part-time, and more students are beginning their studies late. Both trends favor Open University. "Insofar as we're competing with the full-time student market, we're now competing on equal terms, because they now have to pay fees as well," said Prior. Some even draw comparisons to the days when Open University was founded. The only difference is that the obstacle to higher education for many students has changed from elitism to economics.

On the income side, Open University has been rapidly developing new sources of revenue. It began accepting students in Europe in 1992, and now has 8,000 in Western Europe and 10,000 in Central and Eastern Europe and Africa; partnerships in Singapore, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates account for another 12,000 students, and there are plans for additional growth in South Africa, India and the United States (see related article).

The university has licensed its course texts, audio-visual elements and other materials worldwide through a commercial subsidiary called Open University Educational Enterprises -- now OU Worldwide Ltd. -- and has made its staff available as consultants to governments and institutions contemplating distance education projects of their own. It has even issued an OU Visa card, and made a deal with an insurance company to sell home, auto and travel insurance to students, alumni, staff and friends, with a portion of each premium as a commission. "It's a business, but it's a business in support of the university," said Keith Williams, director of academic development for OU Worldwide. "We make surpluses, and they're all returned to the university."

In the vanguard of the university's expansion has been the Open University Business School, whose students are generally reimbursed by their employers and therefore can be charged much, much more. A graduate course in the humanities, for example, typically costs about $1,080, while a course toward a master's degree in business administration costs as much as $4,180. And there are 25,000 students in the OU Business School, making it the biggest distance learning MBA provider in the world. More than 25 percent of U.K. MBAs come from the OU Business School. In fact, the British have cornered the market in distance business education. British universities collectively now have 140,000 overseas students via distance learning, most of them in business courses, according to a report by Sussex University's Institute of Development Studies. That is worth $400 million a year in revenues to Open University and other British institutions, so much that the OU Business School won the 1997 Queen's Award for Export Achievement.

  Headquarters for the Open University's worldwide activities is in Milton Keynes
  Headquarters for the Open University's worldwide activities is in Milton Keynes, 40 miles north of London. There, 950 faculty members develop courses for the universityís 215,000 students.
The university has plowed much of its money into new technology, determined to hold its lead as more and more competitors line up. It created the Knowledge Media Institute, a laboratory for research and development in Milton Keynes that also does corporate research with partners including Sun Microsystems, Apple and Andersen Consulting that pay much of the operating costs in a model similar to that of the Media Lab at MIT. It is spending more than $16 million developing new distance education media including satellite broadcasting and more sophisticated CD-ROMs. It has hired more than 40 new faculty with expertise in new technology since 1995. It has developed virtual microscopes, CD-ROMs that can show images of rock samples at different angles and degrees of magnification and polarization. It has run a "virtual summer school," linking about a dozen psychology students in different countries with guest lecturers by video conference. It is developing an "Internet Stadium" capable of hosting up to 100,000 participants for mass events.

All of which position OU at the forefront of the distance education market at a time when governments are looking for alternatives to building huge new campuses, and when students are being drawn to part-time higher education to save both time and money.

The plan is to find universities in other countries that will collaborate with Open University, helping adapt the course materials to different languages and cultures and, not coincidentally, giving it quick access to new markets at low cost while making potential competitors into partners. This is what already has been done in Eastern Europe, where Open University joined with five existing schools to cooperatively offer courses. In Hong Kong, OU licensed course material to the Open Learning Institute, since renamed the Open University of Hong Kong, and still provides more than a third of the curriculum.

"What we're effectively doing is building clones of ourselves," OU Worldwide's Masterton said as a group of Eastern Europeans tutors on a training visit strolled through the commissary on the Milton Keynes campus. "What's in it for us is licensing income from a lot of different sources. Also what's in it for us is that we in effect become a joint partner."

This benefits both sides, according to Masterton. "We in effect are a turnkey university for governments that can't afford to build new," he said. "In many countries, distance learning is the only means by which to solve the problem."

Jon Marcus is a senior editor at Boston Magazine and covers U.S. higher education for the Times of London.

Photos by David Levenson, BlackStar, for CrossTalk

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