On the Open highway in search of serious money

April 7, 1995

Twenty-five years have passed since the Open University was given its charter and offered home-based higher education to the British public. The early image of long-haired lecturers on television with flared trousers was quickly replaced by one of an institution with a multimedia approach to distance education.

Computer technology played an important part in this approach and by 1979, long before the notion of an "information superhighway" had reached the general public, OU students were logging up 47,000 connect hours to central computers via dial-up access over the public telephone network.

While this access was provided from several hundred terminals situated in remote study centres around the United Kingdom, by the late 1980s thousands of students were accessing the university's computer-mediated conferencing system from their homes. The microcomputer, the forerunner of today's personal computer was in use by students both in the home and at residential schools by 1980.

In 1984, the OU produced its first interactive videodisc application and students got an early look at the potential of integrated multimedia teaching material.

By the time the 25th year celebrations began, thousands of OU students were accessing course texts from CD-Roms at residential summer schools. With an increasing number of students owning personal computers and with numerous programmes and articles about the Internet and multimedia fuelling their expectations, what has the university got planned for its second quarter century?

To start with, the university is entering the new information technology age from a pretty solid foundation. More than 30,000 OU students are already providing their own access to personal computers as part of their studies on a range of courses. More than 40,000 students will be using computers at the university's residential and day schools this year. Applications include simulation and modelling activities, computer-assisted learning material and problem-solving software.

The university's new information technology course went live this year with about 1,000 students having access to email, computer-mediated conferencing and the Internet. These students also receive a resource library of published papers and abstracts on CD-Rom and as you might have guessed, they all have modems and CD-Rom drives connected to their personal computers. A number of small-population courses are being taught almost totally electronically, either through conferencing or over the Internet.

Research and development work in multimedia technologies has already yielded a number of excellent products which have been successfully trialled with students. A "virtual microscope" uses a database of thousands of high resolution photographs of rock samples to simulate the workings of a microscope in the study of earth sciences (see Marc Eisenstadt, left). The Homer Project has created an integrated multimedia learning environment based on audiovisual material from an existing course on the works of the Greek poet Homer and their archaeological context.

Collaborative learning environments have been created. They have been used by students unable to attend a psychology summer school and an international group of students with an interest in renewable energy technologies.

To move any university forward in the use of new technology requires serious money. The OU is prepared to invest about Pounds 10 million in the Instill project (Integrating New Systems and Technologies Into Lifelong Learning) which is due to be formally launched.

A new blood scheme for staff renewal will bring into the university some 25 younger staff at Lecturer A level and a number of technical support staff. The hope is that these new staff will increase the pace of technological change and move the use of new technology higher up the academic agenda.

Funding has already been made available for various academic units to demonstrate how CD-Rom based multimedia applications can enhance the student's learning experience. Funding for projects of this type will continue, and they should eventually percolate through into the mainstream of OU teaching.

The creation of a Knowledge Media Institute is described in Marc Eisenstadt's article. The hope is that a more focussed and coordinated research and development programme will broaden the knowledge base underpinning the work of the university's multimedia courseware development teams.

Other funding will be directed at a satellite broadcasting project, work on improved Internet access for OU students, a laboratory to showcase OU technological expertise and loan schemes to help students with the purchase of personal computers when they begin studying with the university.

So the start of the OU's second quarter century holds out the promise of a new type of distance learning, with the university at the forefront of the application of educational technology. It will be driven to a large extent by an increasing student awareness of the potential of the new technologies and supported by a revitalised and enthusiastic academic community.

Joel Greenberg is the Open University's educational software manager. He can be reached at J.Greenberg@open.ac.uk or through the World-Wide Web at http://www.open.ac.uk/OU/Admin/ACS/ESG/people/greenbrg.html.

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