Open to a new way of learning

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The Independent Online
"Do you do history A-level?" is the sort of question fielded every day by staff at the Open College. But history, or indeed any other A-level, is not on the curriculum. In fact, a lack of knowledge among the public about just what the college does is something it hopes to address this year.

The Open College was founded in 1987 by Lord Young who, along with Harold Wilson, was the inspiration of the Open University. A child of the Eighties, the college was given public funds for start-up purposes only. It had to become self-sufficient in its day-to-day running, and quickly.

If the public has heard of the Open College at all, it probably sees it as a further education version of the Open University. But, as Open College staff point out, the OU receives government funding for its core expenses, and some of its programmes attract grants. No such provision has been made for the Open College.

There was also talk of a network of local "open" colleges. Some do exist, but they are not part of the Open College itself. Instead, the organisation publishes teaching materials for distance and open learning which are used by further education institutions across the country.

In the early days, the college was involved in educational broadcasting, on similar lines to the television programmes produced by the Open University. Lectures were screened on Channel 4, but it was a very expensive way to deliver teaching material. John Trasler, managing director of the college, says: "The only way we could be self-sufficient was to come out of educational TV programmes." He describes the need for the college to pay its own way, yet also broadcast, as the "original contradiction" in the way it was set up.

After the withdrawal from broadcasting, the college moved its headquarters to Manchester and set about addressing a new market: businesses. As an educational charity, the college has the goal of promoting vocational education. But resources did not allow it to teach individuals, still less train the jobless. "To be financially viable, we focused on the corporate marketplace," Mr Trasler recalls. "We became established as a significant player using open learning."

The college boasts an impressive client list, including Marks & Spencer, Ford and Abbey National. But it has also kept a low profile, so much so that Mr Trasler admits that "the educational establishment thought we had died". Mostly, this was because its programmes were delivered through companies' personnel or training departments rather than directly to students.

The college's corporate work focuses on three main areas of vocational training: management and supervision; technical areas such as process operations; and health and care, which includes nursing. These span the full range of abilities, up to postgraduate level. Courses are assessed through the Oxford University delegacy of local examinations (UODLE), and Nottingham Trent University.

Now that it has established a corporate client base, the Open College is looking again at the personal training arena. New courses in management, using distance-learning techniques, are available to individuals. The college still expects the bulk of these students to take courses at their employers' expense. But some may pay their own way, and others may seek government funding, perhaps through training and enterprise councils.

Work with large businesses provides the resources needed to produce high- quality training, Mr Trasler says. This does not come cheap. The college prides itself on an ability to produce clear, straightforward teaching materials that make use of the best know-how in their fields. In management education, always prone to jargon, this is a difficult task. The college employs 200 leading business skills experts to develop material, with one of the distance learning programmes costing pounds 750,000.

The Open College's courses for individuals are all in management, although this may be extended to cover other areas of training in the future. The four programmes consist of a certificate in team leadership and a certificate in first-level management, and, for graduates, a postgraduate certificate and postgraduate diploma in management.

The courses last between three months and two years. All except the certificate in team leadership include a project, which can be based on a work situation, or perhaps a charity or voluntary organisation for candidates not in work. The courses use standard distance-learning techniques, including self- contained text and workbooks, and tutorial support over the phone. At present, there are no plans for residential sessions. The courses are assessed by UODLE.

The college hopes that its close links with business will attract students to the new programmes, which are being branded under the Catt name (for Continuous Advancement Through Training). The goal of each course is to eschew unnecessary theory in favour of a content that is directly relevant to work. This helps students because they gain more quickly from their new knowledge, and companies because they can see a direct business benefit.

Reading lists are issued for the courses, but the college says that students can complete the programmes successfully with just the materials provided. Tutoring aims to be proactive. When students enrol, the tutors will make the initial contact, and go over any parts of the course that are unclear. There are no set tutorial times during the period of study, with arrangements being made between student and teacher. Although some of the tutors come from universities, many have commercial or industrial backgrounds. All are qualified as tutors.

By offering courses for individuals, the Open College hopes to move closer to the sort of institution the public expect from the name, albeit with a strong vocational or business focus. But the move also reflects changes in the working environment and in the market for training, John Trasler says. "It fits in with changing work patterns, and we have something unique to offer," he adds.