Open Eye: Serving the parts that other universities cannot reach

The OU provides a vital resource for one of Britain's most remote regions. Yvonne Cook reports on the impact of distance learning techniques in Britain's far North

Shetland has more OU students per head of population than anywhere else in the UK. In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, where moving away has been the only other option open to many would-be university students, the OU has been the mainstay of higher education since the 1970s.

The Open University's mission includes a commitment to be "open as to place".

This means that the 2,000 OU students in the Highlands and Islands can expect to study any course available to students elsewhere in the UK. But when you have one student on a small island where the only way to the nearest library is by boat, special measures are needed.

Paddy Maher, OU senior counsellor in Scotland, told me how the OU reaches the places others don't - and how higher education in the Highlands and Islands is poised for its biggest changes since the OU's launch.

In remote areas teaching materials and home experiment kits arrive through the post as normal - though sometimes a little later. But what about the support?

"One of the problems is providing a tutor in an area where you have only one or two students," says Paddy. "For example, we have one tutor-counsellor for arts in Orkney, and one for social science in the Western Isles. Under those circumstances we try to look for alternatives to face to face tuition that provide the same level of support.

Since the 70s the key tuition medium has been telephone - and it remains so, despite the encroachment of new technology. Group tutorials are held by conference call.

As Paddy explains:

"If you're a student, what happens is you're sitting in your home, the phone rings, the operator comes through and says 'your conference call' and you find you're automatically connected to maybe half a dozen other people in the same tutorial..

Telephone tutorials require special techniques perfected by OU tutors over the years.

They have to be more tightly structured and focused than your average face-to-face session, says Paddy, as free-for-all discussion is less easy to manage on the phone. The tutor generally sends out an agenda prior to the session and, if it's a course such as science, relevant diagrams.

Experience has shown that the intense concentration required means people can cope with only about one hour of telephone tuition, so there's little time to waste.

There are regular training sessions for telephone tutors in the tricks of the trade. "For example, it is easier for people on the phone to stand outside the discussion, so the tutor can get round this by addressing people individually 'Claire - have you got any views?' Diagrams may have grids on them so the tutor can say : 'Now everyone go to square A2 and you will see...'"

Telephone tuition works, as years of experience have proved, but nothing can entirely replace the human desire to meet face to face. "What we have found is that telephone tutorials work better if the people involved have met each other previously, or at least know what each other looks like," says Paddy.

Many remote students never get the opportunity to attend face to face meetings, but with the rise of new technology their options are widening. As with students elsewhere in the UK, many more are now using computer conferencing.

But unlike the phone, computers are not yet ubiquitous. "In a lot of the more remote communities the average income will not be as high as it may be in cities, and you would not necessarily expect computer ownership to be high.

"On the other hand people increasingly have access to a telecroft or learning centre," says Paddy.

The exciting prospect is a big increase in access to videoconferencing over the next few years as smaller cheaper video cameras come onto the market. Some 'plug and play' video cameras now available for a few hundred pounds are small enough to hold in the palm of your hand, and are simple to plug into your PC.

"The really exciting thing new technology offers our students is much better access to library facilities," Paddy says. "Traditionally this has been a problem for remote students who don't have a university library close by - not so much for undergraduate courses where most of the materials are supplied, but for higher level students."

New technology is not the only factor driving change. Other new opportunities are opening up for remote students with the creation of the University of the Highlands and Islands Project (UHIP).

OU Validation Services is currently responsible for validating UHIP degrees. The UHIP concept is to offer higher education through a conglomeration of existing further education colleges and research institutes based in the north of Scotland, which will all be electronically linked.

These will be supported by a network of smaller learning centres. The OU in Scotland has a memorandum of understanding with UHIP and the two organisations have set up a joint working group. "We hope UHIP and the OU can combine their expertise and collaborate in offering support wherever there is benefit to students," says Paddy.

Students in remote areas achieve as good results as OU students anywhere. Paddy warns against the common misconception that those on small islands are necessarily lonely or disadvantaged.

"You can be 'remote' in London if you're a single parent in a high rise block with very little chance to get out. You may well be more isolated than you would be on Lewis."

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