A chance meeting with Michael Young, founder of the Open University, at the University of Botswana's extra-mural department in 1975 sealed the fate of Mary Thorpe, who is the new and first female director of the OU's Institute of Educational Technology.
As the OU celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, so too did the insitute, which was founded soon after. It is testament to the importance placed on technology and education. Ms Thorpe wants to build on this heritage and says: "Technology is always discussed in a long term, apocalyptic way, but not everyone has access to modems and the Internet. So we have to get a balance between ensuring access now, and facing interesting challenges to compete with others at the cutting edge of technology."
Educational technologists at the IET are not constrained by ties to a particular department but are responsible for finding innovative and effective ways of using multimedia, and then disseminating this information throughout the university and elsewhere. This role is central to the OU because research and evaluation of course development is pivotal to the success of open access teaching, and helps generate research funding.
Ms Thorpe joined the OU as a researcher in tutorial and counselling services and ended up lecturing on adult learning courses, which suits her perfectly for the OU's modus operandi - open and distance learning. As she takes over her post and her staff of 120 she is well aware that the university's learning organisation philosophy must be improved. Hundreds of institutions in the United Kingdom are running access courses and part-time courses which compete for potential distance-learning students.
Making OU teaching as interactive and responsive as possible is a particular goal of the new director. "We are trying to make studying more reflective, by introducing the idea that some study time should actually be away from the text and materials, as students still find it difficult to appreciate how beneficial a break from passive learning is," says Ms Thorpe. Exam results and course assessments are routinely monitored and she hopes to end the misconception that distance teaching is inflexible. A recent Higher Education Funding Council for England quality assessment judged teaching in six out of 11 OU subjects excellent, far higher than the national average.
Another area that the IET will develop is computer-assisted learning in the humanities, in the belief that such technology should not be reserved for the sciences. The Department for Education and Employment has provided the resources to investigate this approach.
Ms Thorpe welcomes the go-ahead for a new masters course in the theory and practice of distance learning. The OU already has the most comprehensive database about literature, courses and institutions available in this field.
She also aims to raise the profile of the IET and the OU - the concept of catering for the needs of 200,000 students is a gargantuan task as difficult to imagine as the principle of distance learning. But things have progressed since the then education secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, went to visit the OU in Milton Keynes, and, pointing to a series of functional looking buildings, exclaimed: "So, that must be where the student residences are."