Following my previous post about the varying topography of the responses to Covid-19, here is a sudden ascent. As the first lockdown began at the end of March, traffic on the Open University’s OpenLearn site jumped fivefold, reaching a peak in the final week of April.
OpenLearn was established in 2006 as the University began to move its commitment to be ‘open to people, places, methods and ideas’ into the digital age.
From its foundation, the OU had deployed the leading communications technology of the time to reach an audience far beyond its student body. Programmes supporting its courses were broadcast on the BBC late at night, attracting an audience not just of paid-up undergraduates, but large numbers of insomniac self-improvers. It has continued to maintain a relationship with the BBC, sponsoring a wide range of television and radio programmes.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, it was becoming evident that there were new channels for reaching an audience for higher education. The OU was awarded $10m by the Hewlett Foundation to develop a platform that would make freely available its quality-assured learning materials to a global audience. Structured extracts from a wide range of programmes were posted online.
The object was both outward facing, in that it would allow anyone in the world to engage with university-level learning materials, and inward facing in that it would be a means of attracting students to the OU who could make a preliminary trial of particular subjects to establish whether they wanted to commit themselves to a full-length course (one in eight of University’s students now enter the institution by this route).
According to its newly-published Annual Report,* OpenLearn had an audience of 13.5 million visitors over the last twelve months.. Just over half the users were from the UK, the rest from around the world. Set against the followers of digital influencers, this may be small change [Kim Kardashian, I note with bemusement, has 189 million followers on Instagram and 30 million on Facebook]. But in the context of the deeply constricted higher education system, the numbers are astronomical.
A typical Russell Group University will employ world-class researchers to teach classes of perhaps fifteen or twenty students at a time (or devolve the task to post-docs). Oxford and Cambridge were still offering one-to-one teaching in parts of their curriculum before the crisis. Faced with the lockdown, these institutions are struggling to film their lectures and seminars for viewing in their rooms by students who are paying over £9,000 a year plus accommodation costs for the privilege.
OpenLearn was ready and waiting for the sudden upsurge in demand for digital learning. It responded to those with time on their hands who wished to explore new fields of knowledge. It rapidly devised units to enable people to acquire recreational skills, and to provide support for those experiencing mental-health difficulties. It provided materials for sixth-form students whose teaching and exams had been disrupted. Its pedagogic capacities were made available to the many educational institutions which were having to pivot towards online learning at great speed. Those whose occupations had suddenly ceased to exist were set on the road to re-training.
OpenLearn was devised for less stressful times. But this is its moment.