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Open University to be ‘first university of the cloud’

Open University to be ‘first university of the cloud’

For those who don’t know it, Britain’s Open University is something of a national treasure. Its abiding image is of bearded professors with questionable fashion sense delivering maths and computer science lectures on grainy black-and-white TV sets in the early hours of the morning when airtime is cheap. Established in 1969, the OU delivers degree and postgraduate courses to mainly remote students, though it does have a campus in the city of Milton Keynes. With 250,000 students enrolled it is the largest academic institution in the UK and one of the largest in the world.

Teaching methods include audio, the Internet, disc-based software and TV programmes on DVD. It has an online MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) branch called FutureLearn, and runs what some say is the world’s largest instance of Moodle, the open-source learning management system, which it customises heavily for its teaching. The TV lectures ceased in 2006, and since then the OU has lost a third of its students in five years, partly due to the introduction of higher education tuition fees in 2007 and partly due to uncertainty in the higher education sector. It has become clear that the OU needs to adapt with the times.

Consequently, a major overhaul has now been announced that will constitute the biggest set of changes in the Open University’s 48-year history. The move is strongly towards digital, with the OU aiming to become, in its own words, the first ‘University of the Cloud’.

Peter Horrocks, vice-chancellor, said “We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud — a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy.”

“A revitalised and redesigned OU should be at the heart of the digital revolution by becoming a leading exponent of the use of digital technology for teaching and supporting students; by helping educate the digital citizens of the future; by undertaking research that can help equip society for a digital world.”

The OU is to become a digital-first university, then, which it says will save £100m from its annual budget of £420m – and will entail significant job cuts as technology is updated (concrete details are scarce on that), curricula redesigned and staff retrained. As the OU fully enters the digital age, many will remember the grainy night-time TV lectures with nostalgia.