Open University Professor Andy Lane on Being an Open-Learning Pioneer

Edited by Stacy Redd

Andy Lane Open University

The Open University is a distance-learning institution in the United Kingdom that has been opening higher education to a wider student population since 1969. Professor Andy Lane is the Director of the Open University's OpenLearn initiative. He's worked for The Open University since 1983, and has been able to observe just how much online learning has affected the open education movement.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about what the Open University is?

A. The Open University is a distance learning institution. We don't have students on campus. We tried to redefine distance learning as supported open learning. That means we produce many self-study resources, educational materials for students to study and work with wherever they want to. We then provide those students with tutors to help guide their studies.

We're very used to producing lots of educational resources. A lot of that is printed texts but we also do a lot in rich media. On that side, we've been going for 40 years. Ever since we started in 1969 we've had a relationship with the BBC, so we've always had some free broadcasting of the audio-visual materials that was initially targeted just at students. In the early days, some of this programming went out in the very early hours of the morning, outside the normal BBC schedule. Now we do major series and programs with the BBC which go out in primetime and aimed at everyone. We get very large audiences. In a typical year, just in the U.K., we have a hundred million viewers.

Q. What kind of topics do you produce videos on?

A. It could be on almost anything that's related to what we teach. We cover most subjects: the arts, humanities, social sciences, business, law, science, technology.

Q. What kind of response do you get from students who see the videos?

A. Because they are designed as an integral part of a course, students in those courses find them very valuable. Those materials are providing them information that might not be possible otherwise. There might be virtual experiments you can't get in the lab. There's time to think things through. We can show industrial processes. We can do animations. We can show the things they can't see otherwise.

What we don't do now, although we did it in the beginning, is just do a video of the lecture. They were fine in the beginning. Because of the technology now we're doing a lot more online. You can get streaming video. A few years ago we were shipping two million DVDs a year because there was so much content to provide.

Q. Other than the fact that Open University students can stream videos, is there anything else that's changed for them now that the Internet has really taken over?

A. Both with printed physical materials and broadcasting, it was always very much a one-way process. You got some communication back in assignments and things like that. The Web's providing two-way communication. The Internet has exposed us to a much broader audience. It's just enormous. We have about 300,000 downloads a month from iTunesU, 33 million downloads since we launched just over two years ago. People like this type of material, particularly if it's been structured in a way which makes people think. You can listen to what it's saying more clearly. You can go back through things. You can run through them and want to view them again.

Q. And people can access the Open University videos on iTunes?

A. Yes. But often when we provide resources, they're a combination of media. Quite a bit of the resources we provide on our OpenLearn site have video embedded in the text. You can now get the e-book versions of that on iTunesU.

Q.Open University has been sponsoring correspondence learning much longer than it's been in vogue. How do you think it's impacted the other institutions that are moving into that arena via the Internet today?

A. There are many other distance teaching universities around the world that offer that and they don't all follow the same model that we developed in the U.K. But certainly I think institutions new to it are looking at a lot of the techniques and the technologies and the ways we're doing it. Sometimes they get frightened at the cost. There's an investment required to do it and it's a different scale. Many campus courses you can run with tens of students, perhaps going into the hundreds. We have hundreds of students going into the thousands.

We're certainly willing to help others. In the past we've been instrumental in helping many other universities get set up in open education. It's about sharing the content, it's about sharing experiences, sharing the best practices, sharing knowledge. We all feel we can benefit from that because at the end of the day it costs a lot to invest in all these resources. If we could somehow share those costs it benefits us all.

Q. Is there anything coming up for Open University we should be watching for?

A. We're developing things all the time. Much that we're doing is trying to integrate the different strands of what we've been doing through our own OpenLearn platform, iTunesU, YouTube and more. A lot of it's trying to provide different channels but also find better ways of people being able to use them. We're trying to be experimental, both ourselves and allowing other people to work with the material. We don't always have all the answers here. There's a lot of work that needs to be done.

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