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Education: Kipper ties no, cyberspace yes: the Open University takes to the Internet and goes global

State-of-the-art technology, always beloved by the Open University, is propelling it into a virtual world that - paradoxically - may deny access to many students who cannot afford the equipment, or survive the course without one-to-one tutoring. Lucy Ward reports on a dilemma.

Lucy Ward
Wednesday 24 September 1997 23:02 BST

Anyone who has stayed up all night with a crying baby, or tottered in late from the pub, thinks they know what the Open University is all about. Slumped bleary-eyed in front of early-hours television, they have witnessed bearded men in kipper ties talking earnestly about equilateral triangles or soil erosion, flanked by equation-scrawled white boards. The image has secured an affectionate place in the nation's folklore - ever-present, yet eternally out of date.

The OU, however, has a few surprises for the tipplers and the nursing parents. While by night some of its programmes have, admittedly, offered viewers just a little more Seventies nostalgia than ideally it would have liked, it has by day been engaged in one of the most ambitious and technologically advanced development programmes of any university in the UK - perhaps in the world.

Visitors to the OU's pleasantly wooded Milton Keynes campus are proudly shown into a gleaming new building boasting not only self-regulating air conditioning, complete with automatic windows, but a futuristically titled Knowledge Media Institute (KMI).

Here, among banks of state-of-the-art computers, IT researchers are developing learning technologies undreamt of when Harold Wilson first floated his vision of a "university of the air" in 1963.

On screen are CD-Rom-based virtual microscopes allowing students to view "slides" through a myriad of different angles and degrees of magnification; here are experimental virtual classrooms and lecture halls, designed to allow tutors to run seminars and discussion groups at the touch of a key, without need to gather time-pressed students - most of whom combine OU courses with employment - in one place.

There is even a prototype on-screen version of one of the OU's allegedly racier features - a virtual summer school, using Internet video conferencing, bulletin boards, e-mail and, astonishingly, a virtual disco.

Such innovations prove that, despite its TV image, the OU has come a long way since it first began teaching in 1971, when students were told they needed to be able to receive VHF radio and BBC2 and, for some courses, were lent a cassette recorder to allow them to listen to audio-tapes.

Though the OU first turned to other media, such as video and computers, in the mid-Eighties, its march to the forefront of developments in distance- learning technology came under its third and current vice-chancellor, Sir John Daniel.

He arrived in 1990, and just over two years ago launched a pounds 10m programme to promote new teaching technologies, and talks with missionary zeal of the revolutionary educational potential of on-line learning and assessment techniques.

In 1997, aided by the growing availability and decreasing cost of computers in high street stores, the Daniel vision is beginning to come true. About 30 OU courses involve computing in some way, requiring some 50,000 students - about a quarter of the total annual numbers - to use a computer and around half of those to access networks. On one computer course this year, 4,000 British students are learning via the Internet, receiving tuition and submitting work on-line.

Developments in new technology are also designed to push forward the other major change to affect the OU in the Nineties under Sir John's stewardship - dramatic expansion overseas. The university, affected at home, like any other, by a cap on numbers, now has 25,000 students taking its courses outside the UK, from 7,000 in Hong Kong to 5,000 elsewhere in the European Union and more than 9,000 scattered through the former Soviet bloc.

At present, OU courses abroad are run much as in Britain, where local tutors offer students back-up and support on the ground. But, as electronic learning and assessment grow increasingly sophisticated, the vice-chancellor ponders: "How soon do we say we believe we can provide such a good experience by this method that we will let people enrol even if they are in the middle of Australia, when we have no intention of setting up local tutors there?"

Once that step is taken, he acknowledges, "the earth will move, because there will be a fear that we are changing the system in Britain, which we will have to do. The challenge is to move over on to the Web all the uniqueness and quality which we think are our distinguishing features."

Here is the difficulty the OU faces as its brilliant IT specialists forge ahead with virtual classrooms and on-screen microscopes. While it must be ready to make the most of new learning technologies, the university immortalised in Educating Rita cannot afford to leave behind the ordinary student, stuck behind an early Apple Mac with no up-to-the-minute CD-Rom drive. As it expands overseas to stay ahead in a market that universities worldwide will soon be battling for, it must not forget less glamorous domestic concerns.

The dilemma, Sir John admits, "really catches us in the pit of the stomach - there is a great idealism here about access". For a university that tries to remove barriers to learning, not build them, requiring students to gain access to a computer costing pounds 1,500 or more could prove tricky.

The vice-chancellor and fellow OU academics, however, are adamant that the Open University will remain open to all. The reality is that, in the next five or 10 years, its courses in Britain are likely to move on-line, with students studying, then submitting and receiving assignments by computer rather than, as now, by post. But by then, OU projections show, 90 per cent of its students will have a networked computer at home, and it hopes others will have access to one either at work or in a local study centre.

Even assuming that students have the right equipment, though, who is to say they will take to e-mail communication with tutors and the replacement of some tutorial group meetings with video-conferencing? Might not those returning to education after a long time away crave supportive human contact?

Professor Diana Laurillard, pro-vice chancellor with responsibility for technology, points to the experience of those OU students already studying via the Internet. They enthuse over the chance to discuss course troubles and successes with fellow students by e-mail and delve into advanced scholarly study more quickly with the aid of sophisticated CD-Roms. Early problems, such as tutors disappearing under mountains of e-mailed questions, are beginning to be sorted out. Some tutors have felt threatened and apprehensive, but most, claims the university, are enthusiastic.

Even so, according to Professor Laurillard, there are categorically "no plans to lose the face to face contact of tutorials and summer schools. These are where a tutor conveys their passion for their subject."

While there have been some tutors who have opted not to continue their OU work in a mainly virtual environment, the university seems to have convinced the champions of the non-traditional student.

Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education and a government adviser on lifelong learning admits to initial apprehension at the Daniel global vision. But, he says, "there has always been a tension within the OU between `open' and `university', but the idea of openness to all and the idea of anyone being capable of learning is very much enshrined.

"The OU is about using technology but gradually building it around human interaction, which is critically important. It makes technology an invisible tool."

If the vision of lifelong learning outlined in Sir Ron Dearing's report and loudly endorsed by the Government is to come into being, traditional universities will increasingly have to follow the OU's model of part- time and distance learning. They may be queueing up to share the technology behind sophisticated CD-Rom-based learning materials and virtual lecture halls.

The BBC, which now draws hundreds of thousands of casual viewers with up-to-date OU taster programmes without a kipper tie in sight, knows that the multimedia developments at its Milton Keynes centre are the most advanced in the corporation.

For Alan Tuckett, the OU's main problem in reaching non-traditional students will not be off-putting technology, but the financial struggle such students still face. He calls for more investment.

"We have this world-class institution, and could do more to support the climate for its message to spread."

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