Open Eye: This year, give the gift of learning

Vouchers for taster courses could offer loved ones the boost they need
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Still searching for that perfect Christmas present? If you've done the designer underwear and the hot-air balloon flight, how about a treat for the mind? The Open University has just launched a range of gift vouchers which can be redeemed against any of its 158 courses. Available in units of from £10 to £100, they will, the university hopes, introduce more people to the joys of learning.

"It is about extending our reach to people new to the Open University, people who perhaps have been thinking about studying - and really don't want any more socks," says OU marketing co-ordinator Julie Wilkinson. " We also expect existing students may request vouchers for Christmas to support their study. It's a gift that will last long past Boxing Day."

Voucher recipients can choose what they want to study and will be able to talk to an OU advisor to help them decide if a particular course or level is right for them. The scheme is possible because the OU has a good choice of entry-level courses designed for people without academic qualifications. They must be 18 or over when their course starts.

Costs currently start at £99 for some of the taster courses; prices generally include not only high-quality teaching materials but personal tuition. For those who don't know where to start, here's a few suggestions chosen from courses the university expects to be popular in 2007; in brackets are course codes to search under on the website.

Introducing Environment

(Y161) If you've ever wondered whether chucking bottles in the recycling bin really does any good, this is the course for you. It's one of the university's introductory "Openings" courses and so suitable for people with little or no scientific background, and will help you unravel topics such as biodiversity, sustainability, ecological footprint and so on. Ideal for enquiring minds or anyone who really wants to make a difference.

Digital Photography

(T189) A new course which is not just aimed at those baffled by their new camera but also at more practised snappers who want to improve artistically, as well as technically. More practical than your average university course it features weekly hands-on assignments and the chance to share your work on one of the web's fastest-growing photoshare sites. And in case your portfolio is a bit lacklustre, the course shows you how to manipulate your images with Adobe Photoshop software. Perfect for talented and less-talented photographers alike.

Start Writing Fiction

(A174). If that book that's said to be inside all of us has yet to emerge from you, this short course can help liberate it. Or if your talent doesn't flow in the direction of a novel or short story, there are also the courses Start Writing Poetry, Plays and Family History. 2007 could be the year you finally get round it.

Design and the web

(T183) Everybody's doing it and if you've haven't already thought about building your own website, the chances are you know someone who has. It's not just for "techies", but techies who want to learn about design will enjoy it. Tailor-made for anyone who wants a nice-looking website, but doesn't want to pay a lot of money for an expert to do it.

You and your money

(DB123). For those who need help with their personal finances after Christmas, this course won't tell you how to win the lottery, but it will help with budgeting, mortgage and pension planning and other decisions that can seriously affect your wealth. It also shows how the wider economy impacts on you. A useful course for almost anyone.

More details, including the university's online prospectus, are at