From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: OpenLearn

November 3

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.


from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: On Isolation and Hunger

July 2. Those of us in lockdown feel, of course, isolated from our friends and family.  We count the days, which in the present uncertainty stretch before us without limit, until we can share our lives with them.

This fragmentation of the population is reflected in other dimensions.  Sitting inside our houses, patrolling our weedless gardens, we don‘t see, literally don’t see, anything of how the rest of the country is experiencing the pandemic. Amongst the consequences of confining to their homes the fit and active of seventy and over is depriving the community of a host of active volunteers who could  both witness and respon to cases of need.

It is very easy to turn off our sensors and concentrate solely on our own misfortunes.  One effect of the lockdown is to throw attention onto the most trivial grievances.  The major event last Saturday in my household was the failure of Sainsburys to deliver the supplements in the weekend papers we had ordered.  No book reviews, no television guides.  It quite spoilt the day.

If you look for it, however, there is evidence that out there people are going without more than just newsprint.  There are those deprived of their income because they don’t qualify for the furlough payments.  There are the daily increasing numbers who are being fired in anticipation of the closure of that scheme.  There are those who legally have ‘no recourse to public funds’ because they have a right to live here but not to benefit from the welfare state.  There are those who had been barely getting by in the gig economy who are now wrestling with intricacies and inadequacies of universal credit.  There is the group described by the money expert Martin Lewis as experiencing a ‘financial catastrophe’ as their businesses have failed leaving them with no safety net of any kind.

The consequence is not just some kind of social poverty, but basic physical deprivation.  The Food Standards Agency has just published a report showing that since the pandemic began between 6.3 and 7.7 million adults had reduced their meals or missed them altogether because of lack of money, and that between 2.7 and 3.7 adults sought charity food or used food banks.*   The food banks themselves have found it difficult to meet the increased demand, despite a ‘Food Charities Grant’ the government has established to provide them with short-term assistance.

Just now, my wife and I are living in a two-person fenced community.  We must be grateful, I guess, that so far the material sufferings of so large a minority seem not to be reflected in the crime figures.

Add Mss 4.  OU brings down French Presidential candidate.  Further to yesterday’s discussion of the work of the Open University, the verdict has just been reported in the trial for embezzlement of the former French prime minister and presidential candidate, François Fillon, and his Welsh-born wife Penelope.  Up to a million euros were paid to Penelope over a number of years for office support that she never undertook.  The offence first came to light in a newspaper interview with Penelope back in 2007, when she admitted in passing that she was too busy to work for her husband.  The reason she gave for her lack of time was that she had just started an OU course in English literature.  She told the journalist that she was studying for a second degree because ‘her five children viewed her as “just a mother.”  She wanted to show them she was “not that stupid”’ (my own mother, in her time, took an OU degree in her sixties for much the same reason).  Both action and motive seem more than sufficient to acquit Penelope Fillon of the charge she faced.  As it is, she has been given a suspended sentence of three years.


from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Telling the Numbers

July 1.  My job as a Pro Vice Chancellor at the Open University, working with Brenda, covered many areas, as befitted so protean an organisation.

Two of my responsibilities, ten years on, still influence all our lives.  I inherited the task, central to the OU from its creation, of working with the BBC to promote learning across society at large, as well as our own students.  And in what had become a digital age, I initiated the transfer of OU learning materials to a free-to-use site we called Open Learn.

The Radio 4 programme, More or Less, has just finished a series which has coincided with the coronavirus outbreak.  Its brief is to interrogate and illuminate the figures by which we understand our lives, some official, some generated by other organisations.  The programme is sponsored by the OU and listeners can follow up its broadcasts by going to the Open Learn site and engaging with further learning materials.

This morning, More or Less conducted a retrospect of its coverage of the pandemic from the first cases in Britain.  The emphasis was exclusively on what has gone wrong, particularly in England.  Data published in the last few days has demonstrated beyond doubt that we have the worst record in Europe, and over the long run are likely to be overtaken only by the disastrous populist regimes of Brazil and the United States.  The programme both summarised official data and demolished claims made along the way by Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson, particularly with regard to the tragedy in the care homes, which have accounted for 43% of all excess deaths.

Throughout the crisis ministers have sought to postpone any historical reckoning until some later date, when a leisurely public enquiry can accumulate the evidence and reach a conclusion long after the guilty parties have left office.  We are supposed to focus only on the future.  The More or Less programme was broadcast the day after Boris Johnson’s ‘New Deal’ speech in which he attempted to re-set the agenda of public debate, shifting the narrative away from the pandemic towards the glorious ‘bounce forward not bounce back’ economic agenda.  It’s not going to work.  We are all of us historians now.  We want to understand what went wrong, and, critically, we have multiple channels for helping us do so, including, directly and indirectly, the OU.

Amongst the comparisons made in any retrospective is with China, whose response, after a critical delay, has ultimately been much more effective that the UK’s.  The vast difference is in the level of public debate.  It is more than possible that in free society, the outbreak in Wuhan would have been spotted before it escaped to infect the rest of the world.  And there is no prospect whatever of Chinese citizens now discussing what long-term improvements should be made in the management of pandemics.  For all its ramshackle systems the British state is still exposed to the informed, Radio 4-listening, OU-studying, public.  

Much of the More or Less programme focussed on the missing fortnight in March, when the government failed to act on the information that was building up in Europe.  It concluded, however, with a new scandal, the failure to inform local health officials of test results in their areas.  The Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted today: “Our local public health teams, council, NHS doctors & managers in Wakefield have had to fight for months to try to get this data. In public health crisis, most important thing is knowing where infection is. Appalling & incomprehensible that basic info hasn’t been provided.”  Indeed, it is. 

A functioning democracy needs debate not just at the national level but in local communities, which in turn requires the appropriate data to be made available at that level.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Distance Learning in a siege …

April 22. A few years ago, I was sent by the British Council to give some lectures to the Al Quds Open University in Palestine on new developments in distance learning.  At their site in Bethlehem I was introduced to the heads of the different sections, except the vice-rector for Gaza.  It was explained that because of the siege, he only ever attended meetings online.  Nonetheless the Gaza branch was flourishing.  Of all the higher education offerings in the territory, it was much the best suited to a life of long-term shut-down interspersed with outbreaks of violence.   There was no need for a permanent physical presence.  When the bombing got too bad, the university could close for a few weeks and the recommence its online courses supplemented with small-scale face-to-face tuition.

Britain is not under that kind of siege, but there is a sense that the form of learning pioneered by the Open University half a century ago is ideally suited to the present circumstances.  The University has had to make emergency changes to its examination and tutorial support systems, but is not faced with anything like the disruption forced upon conventional universities.  Its Open Learn site, which delivers selections from validated courses free to any user, has seen a fourfold increase in traffic.  It has no residential income at risk, no overseas student fee-income to lose. 

In the short-term, the whole sector has embraced on-line learning.  My son-in-law, a philosophy senior lecturer at a research-led university, is currently running tutorials from his spare bedroom, emerging from time to time to quieten his boisterous children.  This kind of improvisation is necessary and inevitable towards the end of an academic year which when it started last autumn can have had no expectation of such a circumstance.

The critical question is whether higher education’s enforced embrace of distance education continues once the crisis is over.  Already there has been a dispute at Durham, where the UCU (the lecturers’ union) claimed the university ‘wants to slash face-to-face teaching by as much as 25%, and outsource its online learning to private providers.’  Durham’s management denies this, but there is no doubt that conventional institutions are paying much more attention to the potential of online learning to cut costs in a future when budgets are going to be under severe pressure.

The problem is that high-quality distance education cannot be done on the cheap.  The Open University did not invent remote learning.  Its innovation half a century ago was to create sophisticated multi-media courses supported by person-to-person tutorial support.  This required technical imagination and pedagogic expertise, and could only pay its way at scale.  Putting a camera in front of a lecturing academic and otherwise leaving small groups of students to their own devices guarantees a third-rate education.

For conventional universities, what may work to complete this academic year looks much more risky in the long term.  The UCU is right to attack the threat to the role of its members.  The Office for Students should be in pursuit of institutions which seek to embed the emergency devices as permanent practice.  And in what is in the UK an open market, school-leavers are surely going to think twice about spending, or borrowing, £27,000, plus accommodation costs, for so remote a learning experience.  Still more so, the overseas students whose enhanced fees are critical to many universities, including those at the forefront of the Coronavirus response, are hardly likely to travel to the UK just to look at lectures on computer screens.