Open Eye: TV that broadens viewers' horizons

The Open University is making more programmes - and they're not just for students

Coast exemplifies the new style of Open University broadcasting - interdisciplinary, interactive, making use of the internet and linked activities to appeal to an audience which is by and large not committed to formal study. How do you classify a series whose presenters include a geographer, a journalist, an expert in human bones, a zoologist and an archaeologist, or which involves viewers using their mobile phones to provide an interactive guide and commentary as they walk around the coast? According to Dr Smith, who is an Open University lecturer in human geography, the series brings together social and natural history, ecology, technology, science of environmental change "and more". "If you want to make sense of the coast you've got to take this kind of rounded view," he says.

It is programmes like Coast which represent the future of Open University broadcasting; as the volume of old-style late night OU programming has shrunk, its peak-time broadcasting has grown. The process began in 1996 with just one peak-time series, The Chemistry of Almost Everything. By 1998 this had grown to three series; over the last year the tally is around 20 peak-time series with OU involvement, including such acclaimed programmes as the award-winning Rough Science, a sixth series of which is about to be made.

Dr David Robinson, currently head of the Open Broadcasting Unit, which is responsible for the OU's side of the longstanding Open University/BBC partnership, says things began to change when technology opened up new ways - such as CD-Rom and the internet - to reach students.

"The Open University took the decision that delivering programmes late at night for viewers to video was no longer the way to get material into the students' hands," Dr Robinson says.

"The way ahead has been to work with the BBC to produce very high quality programmes, to get involved in co-productions and really big projects, and to support what we do on air in other ways - online, in print."

The high quality strategy seems to be paying off, with Open University programmes garnering a clutch of awards over the last 12 months: most recently the Stardate broadcast, Transit of Venus, has won a Royal Television Society Award for lifelong learning and multimedia.

Coast, like many of the OU's most high-profile programmes, is a co-production, funded by both the university and the BBC. Other such series include BBC 1's Child of Our Time and the groundbreaking Someone to Watch Over Me, which followed child social workers in Bristol. The OU produced the 10-minute regional programmes for the hugely successful British Isles: A Natural History; as well as a short course to complement the Blue Planet series about life in our oceans. The OU has made programmes to tie in with BBC campaigns such as Comic Relief and the current Africa season, which features an OU/BBC series, entitled African School.

The latest venture for the OU is the Creative Archive Project. Although the university will cease broadcasting within the late-night Learning Zone slot in 2006, by the end of this year it should be possible not only to watch, but to acquire, material from past OU programmes. Along with its Creative Archive partners, the British Film Institute, Channel Four and the BBC, the university plans to make some of its archive material available over the internet for anyone to edit and use, free of charge for non-commercial purposes.

So if you hanker after a clip from Rough Science, go to http://creativearchive.bbc.co.uk for more information about the initiative. The OU anticipates its material being used for educational purposes, but not just in school projects; the possibilities are endless - you could insert clips from art programmes to inject culture into your Italian holiday video.

The OU has also broken out of its traditional home on BBC2 to screen on all BBC television channels. And it has returned to radio, after an absence of several years, with programmes on BBC Radio Three, Four and the World Service. It is currently working on its first ever broadcast for Radio One, a programme on sexual health aimed at young people. It's a programme that demonstrates how much broader the university's approach to broadcasting has become, according to Dr Sally Crompton, who takes over as head of the Open Broadcasting Unit in September . "It is a two-way process in which we learn as well as the listeners," she says. "We are using the programme to find out where sex education isn't working, and to enable us to produce material which is more relevant to the target audience. It is about opening up a dialogue with an audience to do some research."

The Open University academic's role has changed too. "With Coast, we don't just have an academic team involved with the ideas and checking the scripts; we have academics designing activities, working in an interactive way on the website and attending the public walks," Dr Crompton explains.

Learning is still the raison d'être of the OU/BBC partnership; its performance is judged on its ability to draw viewers and listeners further in learning. The Broadcasting Unit's mission statement enjoins it to "widen participation in education", and "help people make the transition from being passive viewers to becoming active learners". This means more than getting people to sign up for the OU's courses; it is about encouraging learning of all kinds, from formal study with the OU or other education providers, to taking part in activities like coast walks, museum visits or exploring the learning resources of the internet.

Here the OU/BBC website, www.open2.net, plays an important role; viewers can follow up their initial interest in a programme through a variety of links taking them to forums for debate, in-depth articles and interviews, other relevant websites and hands-on activities such as The Great Snail Hunt or Make Your Own Catapult (as featured in the Hollywood Science series).

From the BBC's point of view, the partnership with the OU fits well with its own mission to transform viewers and listeners into active learners, according to BBC's Controller of Learning, Liz Cleaver. "The OU has a tremendous amount of experience in getting people into deeper learning - more experience than we do. If you use the model of the 'learning journey', the OU is an end point. We can take people so far along the journey and deliver them into that end point."

The new broadcasting environment offers greater opportunities for the OU to reach wider audiences, but it is also challenging because the programmes are in competition with the rest of mainstream television. Judging by the growing number of its programmes on air, the OU is rising to the challenge. "The Open Broadcasting Unit has been very successful," says Dr Crompton. "We are being invited to take part in more and more projects with the BBC."

OU broadcasts are now being seen by more people than ever. Its programmes in subjects ranging from science, technology through to history and philosophy have been translated and sold in over 40 countries worldwide.

So what remains for the OU student? Although less strictly course-related, the programmes provide an enrichment to study, says Dr Robinson, and the Broadcasting Unit contacts students to alert them to forthcoming broadcasts relevant to their course.

"Everything we do on TV is for our students too," he says. "In campus-based universities there is a stream of people coming through giving lectures and conferences; our students get excellent TV which widens their education."

'Coast' is on BBC2 at 9pm on Fridays and Sundays from 22 July. Check listings for details. You can join in any one of 39 Discover Your Coast walks around Britain. Twelve (in Portsmouth, Plymouth, Falmouth, Cardiff, Caernarfon, Liverpool, Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Whitby, Hull, Great Yarmouth) are mobile phone interactive walks, allowing you to receive information via your mobile phone en route. There are also guided walks led by OU academics and Coast presenters. To find out more about Coast, and all OU/BBC programmes, see www.open2.net

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