The Open University
By Daniel Weinbren 2015
Manchester University Press
Review by Jacqueline Baxter
Lecturer in Social Policy – the Open University UK
It is not the first time that someone has documented the exponential growth and development of The Open University UK (OU) – but this volume stands out as unique for a number of reasons. Dan Weinbren- the author not only has a long personal history with the OU but still works there. His perspective is unique drawing as it does not only from his own knowledge of the institution as it touched his family – but also from the unique and particular perspective of an insider- a member of staff who has, over the course of their career, taken a variety of roles within it.
These roles, alongside Weinbren’s Open University (OU) studies and extensive interviews with individuals whose involvement with the university- in some cases goes back to its inception – lend an incisive and energising quality to the account. In a volume which successfully combines the intense political intrigue which characterised the evolution of the OU alongside the myriad voices of staff and students in a vibrant medley, the book invites the reader to share the joys and frustrations that went into making up the OU experience.
Beginning with an account of the university’s early beginnings, based as they were on a corporate industrial model which reflected in many ways the national zeitgeist, the volume tracks the cultural and economic markers which so profoundly shaped its evolution. A particularly effective way that it does this is in drawing attention to the language which characterised the ways in which early staff referred to the university’s early educational offerings. Through terms such as ‘production of units’ of teaching materials and ‘lines of study’, we gain an insight of how ‘academic enquiry was combined with assembly line’ manufacturing techniques in order to create education for the masses, the like of which had not been seen up until this time.
This takes place against the backdrop of an era when internationally governments were manifesting a growing interest in the ways in which education could be employed to extend their global reach. An era during which the post war consensus on the state as moral agent was rapidly being replaced by neoliberal ideals of education as a market.
The Open University as it is today has become such an integral part of the national and international Higher Education (HE) landscape that it is difficult for us to imagine the extent of the political opposition that it encountered as the first ‘University of the Air.’ A university that fulfilled its unique promise in eradicating the entry requirements that characterised conventional universities, allowing universal access for all. But this account drives home the fact that these innovations proved to be so profoundly disturbing and troubling for politicians of both left and right wing persuasion. Many of whom considered the very idea of education for the masses to be bridge to far – a potential public and political disaster; far too radical an idea to be accepted by the British public. The idea of using television as a medium for teaching proved particularly aberrant for those on the political right who dismissed it as an election gimmick of little real substance.
The vivid description of Harrold Wilson – Leader of HM Loyal Opposition – and his boundless enthusiasm for a university that would promote social justice, aid elimination of social inequalities and drive both economic regeneration and productivity, animates the passionate idealism that drove the institution’s early development: A development combining ideals of social justice with an ambitious and innovative aim to make TV a central means by which to widen access. The creation of a university which aimed to banish the pedagogically pedestrian in its quest to seek out new ways to engage students formerly deprived of the opportunity to enter the hallowed halls of a conventional institution.
One of the most interesting threads running throughout the book is the way that the OU influenced the lives of women, infusing their lives in numerous and often unexpected ways. The volume offers a lively and engaging account of how one of the university’s most enthusiastic supporters – Jenny Lee, a coal miner’s daughter turned MP- was instrumental in bringing the dream into fruition. A woman whose determination that the OU would offer educational standards on a par with the best universities in the world and whose fortitude standing firm in the face of substantial and vituperative opposition finally won through, leading to the creation of a university characterised by high quality teaching, innovative pedagogies and a contentious reputation for left wing thinking which characterised some of its curriculum.
Drawing on interviews with early students, the account offers the reader some fascinating insights into the ways in which education influenced and often completely changed the ways in which they saw themselves and their roles. Particularly vivid accounts from female students on their experiences of residential school- full week study opportunities spent away from family and children in order to spend a week discussing and learning with OU lecturers and fellow students – illustrate to what extent OU study was indeed a life changing experience. Despite media descriptions of the university acting as a ‘haven for housebound Guardian reading housewives‘ (246).
Quotes such as, ‘it messes up your whole life but it’s worth it,’ help to illustrate the ways in which OU study challenged household structures and conventions whilst bringing hitherto unimaginable possibilities and opportunities into the lives of those it touched. The book also gives some sense of the degree to which the OU impacted on other marginalised groups – such as prisoners and the disabled- groups who would otherwise have been stellenboshed by beliefs and assumptions that HE was not for them.
One of the most interesting insights for educationalists -particularly those involved in distance learning in some form – is undoubtedly the way in which the book details the developing pedagogies of open and distance learning at the OU. The insights the book offers into the ways in which the transmission mode of teaching was challenged by new collaborative ways of working, are accompanied by case studies illustrating the development of pedagogies which placed as much emphasis on the processes engendered within the learning , as the learning itself. Using illustrative modules such as, ‘Art and environment’ Weinbren describes how, ‘the aims of the course were attitudinal, sensory and subjective rather than cognitive, relating to feeling rather than knowledge,’ – a radical departure from previous approaches to the subject. The chapter continues with an account of how from the outset the university encouraged group learning premised largely on a social cultural approach to education. An idea that had its genesis in the constructivist theories that were infusing and permeating pedagogies more generally and emerging largely in response to new technologies.
According to its history the university has always placed great emphasis on group learning which often led students to form their own support groups during or after their studies. Describing how one student initiated group known affectionately as ‘the Tadpole Society,’ named for the course code – TAD292 continued to meet long after their module was over. This in many ways exemplifies the constructivist socio cultural approach to learning which characterises not only present day OU pedagogies but much of the thinking within current day thinking around teaching and learning in the realm of distance and blended learning more generally.
In light of the rest of the book this particular chapter is rather unique in its approach – whereas other chapters detail the growth of the OU against the political and social backdrop of the times, this chapter is rather more insular in its approach; tending to focus on the pedagogies within the OU rather than placing these developments in the broader context of educational innovations internationally. It is however, perfectly understandable that Weinbren avoided this in the interests of brevity- however fascinating such an approach may be, it would probably necessitate another volume in order to do it justice.
The relationship between the OU, politicians and the media which characterised the university’s early days has continued to be a leitmotif within its evolution. As the book illustrates – the very content of the OU product was attacked for its alleged hostility to capitalism and the market economy- a fact acknowledged by David Harris writing in The British Journal of Educational Technology, quoted as stating that ‘the OU teaching system was as much shaped by political and administrative pressures as by any particular educational goals ‘(123).
Continuing in this vein the book details the often stormy and uncomfortable relationship that the OU has had with the media- particularly during the Thatcher era when the creation of such an institution was regularly portrayed as being an aberrant departure from the norm. Rich examples from a range of publications demonstrate how the media questioned the value of the university’s offering, often using the residential school experience as an eponym for an OU education’ The Times referring to it as ‘the university where a lecture begins with a beer,’ and the BBC describing the ‘Bizarre games and happenings,’ that took place as part of the learning experience (254).
Although the media proved mercurial in their descriptions of the OU experience- vacillating from the condemnatory to the conciliatory -the fact remained that particularly in its early days, media coverage of the university, its staff and students ensured that the institution was enshrined in the British consciousness as a particularly British product :quirky; a little off beat but fundamentally sound.
The principal strength of this account lies in the intimate way in which we are presented with not only the institution but the people to whom it meant so much. Stories and anecdotes from staff, students, media personal and government combine to give a sense of how the institution later became known as something of a national treasure. The fact that it is in essence an insider account offers a unique perspective of the ways in which this ‘machine’ like structure with its mechanistic forms of production and delivery developed the capacity to offer students a uniquely personal learning experience.
This history of the OU, located as it is against a changing social, economic and political backdrop, furnishes the reader with a sense of the changes that characterised the institution from inception to the present day. The challenges and opportunities that infuse its rich and chequered history not only offering an account of the past but also in many ways portending the challenges and changes that lie ahead in order for this unique institution to remain true to its original mission- to remain open to people, places and ideas- in the challenging and protean context of higher education today.