The idea of an Open University is not a new one – many countries have one or more universities with an “open door” academic policy – that is, there are no entry requirements. In fact, perhaps the first such university to be established was the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, founded in 1794 in revolutionary Paris. Louis Pasteur was among the eminent graduates of this institution, which is still committed to its motto Docet omnes ubique – teaching everyone, everywhere.
Fast forward to 20th century China, which by the mid-1960s already had some 50,000 students studying using television as the medium for following classes at the Shanghai TV University. In 2008 the Shanghai TV University won a top UNESCO King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize for ICT in education for its project on building digital lifelong learning systems.
Meanwhile, a group of impassioned and dedicated people, some of whom had themselves fought to gain an education, were working hard to set up The Open University (OU) in the UK. This was the period when the term “meritocracy” was born, envisioning a new society where people could improve their standard of living on the basis of their own abilities and efforts, rather than restricting wealth to those privileged by accident of birth.
OU courses were designed to be delivered mainly by distance learning. Students received course materials by mail, sometimes including alarming-sounding science home experiment kits. The OU also used television as a virtual classroom. Lectures were delivered at night to cater for working people whose free time to study was restricted to the hours when the owls hoot and the tomcats wail. These programmes became ingrained in the national consciousness, gently poking fun – who on earth would sit up at 2 a.m. and listen to a man with giant spectacles and a kipper tie talking about quantum mechanics? But many people clearly did.
In 1971 when the OU opened its virtual doors, 24,000 students enrolled – at a time when the student population at the “traditional” universities was around 130,000. Since then, more than two million students have passed through the Open University. Of some 250,000 current students, more than 20,000 are from overseas. 10,000 have disabilities – more than at any other European university.
Today, interactive media has made OU programmes even more flexible, obviating the need for students to attend occasional residential schools so that most courses can be followed exclusively through distance learning. The teaching method that has evolved is called “open supported learning”, meaning that even if the student never attends a campus he or she still has the benefit of a support network provided through a number of channels, including social media and other forums.
As well as thousands of people studying for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, students can now opt for short courses as an introduction to independent learning. Alternatively, those ready to embark on doctoral studies can choose to join over 290 full-time researchers at one of the OU’s respected bricks-and-mortar institutes.
Open University degrees, although still very much designed to reach sections of society experiencing barriers to access to education, are by no means seen as a “poor man’s degree”. An OU degree is viewed as a badge of self-discipline and independent achievement. Studying at the OU may simply be the most viable option for busy professionals: the OU Business School educates more MBA students than all other UK business schools put together – and is one of a select group of institutions worldwide with MBA programmes accredited by three bodies. Student satisfaction surveys rank the OU in the top three universities for teaching quality, and in 2010 the OU shared joint second place with Oxford University.
In the spirit of Open Education, much OU material is available online for free, although students must formally enrol in order to obtain a qualification. Free learning material is provided at the Open Learn website or via iTunes U, Apple’s educational content portal.
Given its success, it’s no surprise that the Open University model has been adopted and adapted in many countries. To name but a few:
- The Open Universiteit opened in the Netherlands in 1984, and currently has over 26,000 students, more than 30% of whom have not participated in higher education before.
- The Open University of Japan, also established in 1984, at the last count (2008) had almost 80,000 students.
- The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain was founded in 1994 as a technical university providing lifelong learning opportunities, regardless of time and location constraints. It currently has over 54,000 enrolled students.
- The Indira Gandhi National Open University is the largest university in the world with 3.5 million students. It offers 338 programmes of study at undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral level, supported by open course material available on the eGyankosh website.
The UK Open University already has a publicly accessible repository for its research output, Open Research Online, and has just announced progress in its Linked Open Data project, LUCERO (Linking University Content for Education and Research Online). This will be a technological platform making it easier to search, extract and make use of all educational and research material stored at the OU, contributing to creating a world academic and research network that will be one step closer to the way it was envisaged by the Internet’s creators.
For more information please also see the International Council for Open and Distance Education.