As 2019 draws to a close, so too does the 50th anniversary year of The Open University.
Since its inception back in 1969, the OU’s raison d’être has been to make education available to all. And what a huge success it has made of this, educating students across 157 countries and becoming the largest academic institution in the UK.
As I reflect upon my own OU experience, I’m proud to say that I have been, and continue to be a part of this inclusive and life-changing institution.
Like many British people who grew up in the 1980s and 90s, I can recall occasionally glimpsing some of The Open University’s educational material broadcast on the BBC late at night. This was my first taste of the OU, and I have to say, my initial impressions were somewhat sketchy! It all seemed so very academic and esoteric, to my teenaged self at least. But little did I know that, fast forward another 15 or so years and I’d be enrolled on the OU’s distance learning MBA course.
My experience of further education up until this point had been pretty traditional; I completed my A-Levels, went to a bricks and mortar university and obtained a Bachelor’s degree. I then went on to do a PhD at another bricks and mortar university. Being so familiar with the standard system of higher education in the UK, why then did I consider the OU’s alternative model, when looking at embarking on further study? The answer is multi-faceted;
I also felt that, in this specialised domain of distance-learning higher education, other institutions didn’t have a patch on the OU’s wealth of experience.
The OU is of course, not the only provider of distance-learning postgraduate qualifications, but it was the first one that sprang to my mind, when I remembered (with some fondness!) the TV programmes of my adolescence. I also felt that, in this specialised domain of distance-learning higher education, other institutions didn’t have a patch on the OU’s wealth of experience. After much comparison and deliberation, I finally signed myself up and started in the autumn of 2011. What an experience it was set to be!
I started the OU MBA with a fair amount of higher education experience under my belt. Unlike some of my fellow students, I was relatively unfazed by research, assessments and exams (which the OU’s learning services provides excellent support for, as it happens). That said, I felt that my OU journey took me to new places and stretched learning muscles that I didn’t know I had. That’s not to say that the course was terribly academically difficult – no, however it required me to significantly develop my repertoire of skills and capabilities.
I’m a scientist by training. My undergraduate degree is in biological science and my PhD in biological chemistry. Science and the ways of studying it, researching it and writing about it were all I really knew. How to structure a discursive essay, for example, was a distant memory from English classes at school. Likewise, qualitative research – I knew what it was but didn’t have any experience of it.
As it turns out, I’d have plenty of opportunity to develop both of these skills throughout my studies. I can clearly remember receiving the results of my very first TMA (the OU’s modular system of assessment). Being somewhat of an academic geek, I’ve generally always done well in assessments. Not this one. I think I got a little over 50%. It was a pass, but I was crestfallen. I immediately started to doubt myself – I thought I knew what I was doing when it came to study, but apparently not this time. And so began my learning journey. It was a sobering start, but I was determined to do well. After all, it was costing me enough time and money each month (I was unable to apply this same logic to my gym subscription though!)
I decided that instead of snoozing or scrolling through social media on my commute, I’d read my textbooks. It’s surprising how much you can get done, even standing up on a busy train.
Aside from the academic skills I gained, there are many other capabilities that my OU experience developed. Not least, my organisational skills. This sounds pretty vague, so let me explain. To study for a Master’s degree part-time, whilst working full-time and maintaining all other areas of your life in a reasonable semblance of order, takes some organising. I didn’t appreciate how much, until I started and realised that unless I did some serious forward planning, I wouldn’t get it all done. Likewise, creative problem-solving skills. How was I going to tackle all of the reading required? I decided that instead of snoozing or scrolling through social media on my commute, I’d read my textbooks. It’s surprising how much you can get done, even standing up on a busy train.
And I must mention cultural communication skills. Again, I thought I was pretty experienced in this area, having lived and worked in the Philippines, Malaysia, France and now Switzerland. But I built upon this experience hugely as part of my OU MBA journey. Not only did an (elective) module cover the subject of intercultural management explicitly, but the diversity of students I studied alongside was huge. I met a Russian army doctor turned entrepreneur, the ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, a UN peacekeeper from Bosnia and a German CEO of a multi-national company (amongst many others).
The opportunity to learn from people with approaches shaped by different cultural experiences was invaluable. You see new ways of doing things and break away from your (often subconscious) constrained ways of thinking.
The opportunity to learn from people with approaches shaped by different cultural experiences was invaluable. You see new ways of doing things and break away from your (often subconscious) constrained ways of thinking. This isn’t unique to the OU experience – most MBA courses are international – but I think it’s important to highlight that this aspect isn’t missing from the OU’s distance learning approach. On the contrary, it’s perhaps enhanced due to the flexible approach which appeals to people everywhere.
As one of the hoi polloi, without the cushion of a wealthy family or an old school tie network, my OU experience has given me the practical skills - but more importantly - the courage and confidence to pursue the things that really matter to me in life. It’s been a priceless gift. And this is the heart of the OU experience; it is education for all of us, regardless of our start in life, our sex, our race, our nationality, our age or our social class.
Our societies are better for everyone if we all have the opportunity to access education. Whether you’re a mum of three in Doncaster or young man in Delhi, we all deserve the chance to follow our dreams. This is the OU. This is the future of learning.
Dr Zoe Lawson is a member of the OUBS Alumni Council.
You can find out more about Zoe and meet the other Council members here.