Mad-looking science professors lecturing insomniacs in the middle of the night in the privacy of their living-rooms – how antiquated. The Open University, and distance learning generally, is shedding its stereotype as the preserve of the middle-aged hobbyist and the sleepless. Enrolments to the Open University by 18- to 21-year-olds are up 36 per cent this autumn on last year (1,810 compared with 1,327), and for the first time, one in four of new OU graduates (17,255) is under 25.
One of the reasons is the recession. More young people are applying to go to university but the demand cannot be met because of limited government resources. The prospect of debt-free study through working while taking a degree probably concentrates the mind at a time when average student debt is predicted to be £20,000. And tuition fees are expected to go up whichever party is in power this time next year.
Martin Bean, the new vice-chancellor of the Open University, believes that many of today's young students, who are more au fait with technology, may prefer to study through the OU's distance learning system and reject traditional lecture rooms. "Year on year we've seen growth in the number of younger students," he said. "In August this year it was up by 36 per cent. It gives them a flexible way of studying and I think it is a sign of things to come – particularly for those concerned about debt."
It costs about £3,500 to £4,000 to complete an OU degree, compared with tuition fees of almost £10,000 through a traditional degree course.
"If you're able to be earning while you're studying, then clearly you're able to pay as you go," he said. "The concept of not having to go to university but doing their study wherever they are appeals to younger people in this digital age."
He dismisses any suggestion that they will miss the human contact of the more traditional routes, citing the National Student Survey, which has repeatedly shown the OU is top of the league table for student satisfaction with their courses.
"The technology is not less personal. They communicate much of the time through [such] technology."
The days of OU lessons being beamed out on terrestrial telly ended in 2006. Now, academics' teachings can be downloaded from the internet on to portable video or music players and mobile phones.
ITunes U, launched in 2007, hosts lectures, laboratory demonstrations and language classes on an array of subjects, from palaeontology to plate-making, by academics from the likes of Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the OU and even the Tate – to be downloaded to an iPod or iPhone, or a desktop computer.
Such prestigious institutions hand over their first-class resources gratis – MIT has put 2,000 complete courses online with the hope of enticing potential students with the quality of its teaching – although all insist that podcasts can never replace one-to-one tutorials.
Oxford University has had more than 1 million downloads in a year. One Oxford philosophy lecturer, Marianne Talbot, is known around the world after a "perfectly ordinary" lecture she gave, entitled, "A romp through the history of philosophy from the Pre-Socratics to the present day" flew to the top of the downloads, with more than 5,000 a week. "I got congratulatory emails from the [Oxford University] techie people and I was tickled pink," she explained in a newspaper interview.
She seemed startled by the scale of her success. When they told her the lecture was top of the download charts, "I started thinking: how many is that? Presumably more than 20, but is it 100?"
Apple, which runs iTunes U, insists: "Mobile learning works. Students devour engaging, customised curricula when it's delivered on the iPod or iPhone. It's a familiar and essential part of their lives. Audio and video podcasts let students study at their own pace, wherever and whenever they want."
The OU offshoot Open Learn also offers expert material, free to anyone, anywhere, without the need to register. Downloads average 400,000 a week. YouTube EDU was launched this year, a hub to aggregate thousands of videos from colleges and universities, or as YouTube describes it: "a global classroom where everyone can watch and engage". The videos' educational quality varies greatly, as one would expect from a resource reliant on volunteers. But this is all good news for anyone who has lost their job, is considering a career change ("City refugees") or simply wants to enrich their mind.
Before joining the Open University, his first post in the UK, Mr Bean worked for Microsoft in the US, as general manager with the company's education products group, trying to harness technology to provide higher-quality education. The 44-year-old Australian is confident – despite the growth in online courses being offered by other universities – that the OU can hold its own. At present, it has 229,000 studying undergraduates. "It is one of the higher education institutions that has kept pace with the technology of the present age," he said.
Tomorrow's adults, he argues, will face growing demands to reskill, upskill or opt for further qualifications as the type of jobs on offer change. "We can give them access to courses that can be really transformational for them."
The graduates Open University's alumni
Lenny Henry English
Holly Willoughby Psychology
Myleene Klass Astrophysics
Jerry Hall Humanities
Myra Hindley Humanities
Joan Armatrading History
Julia Sawalha English