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The Open University. For anyone who grew up in Britain in the '70s, these words evoke memories of television programmes featuring men with wild hair and specs, wearing dodgy flares and spouting about quantum mechanics. The OU's early broadcasts may have been the butt of endless jokes, but 30 years after its foundation the university that was designed to be open to anyone, regardless of qualifications or personal circumstances, finds itself suddenly the height of fashion. With 3 decades of experience under its collective belt, there's not much this institution doesn't know about distance education.

If you were going to base a unique new university anywhere in the early '70s, where better than the new town of Milton Keynes, with its endless roundabouts and concrete cows? The OU's HQ is home to academic staff and research students just like any 'normal' university. But the point about the OU is that its physical location is meaningless, as it covers the whole of the British Isles ... and beyond. There are 13 Regional Centres--in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and 10 across England--and 330 regional study centres catering for around 165,000 students. This is a university that comes to its students literally, not just virtually.

And its openness is more than geographical. For undergraduate courses there are absolutely no entry requirements. This means, according to Regional Director for East Anglia Roger Mills, that they "start with a very mixed intake." About one-third of the students have some form of previous higher education experience (it is possible to arrange credit transfer from other universities), one-third have 'A' levels or equivalent qualifications, and one-third have no traditional matriculation qualifications at all. This open door policy, explains Mills, "imposes on us a real responsibility to ensure that it doesn't become a revolving door." They do this by putting significant investment into "effective advice and guidance at the entry stage," says Mills, explaining that the Regional Centres employ staff whose job it is to give careful counselling to prospective students. But "in the long run it's the student who decides whether they want to join us." This means that teaching staff also have to make a special commitment to nurturing adult learners, including many that have little experience of studying.

For the academics based at Milton Keynes, life is very much that of the conventional academic, comprising a mixture of teaching and research. But whereas in most universities teaching might mean standing up to give a lecture, at the OU it means writing course material. Academics form into course teams to write a new course and work with other employees such as editors to ensure that the words are delivered in a user-friendly format. Traditionally a new course would take about 5 years to devise, but "increasingly they're coming very much quicker," says physicist Sally Jordan. Although home experiments tend to be done on CD-ROMs, the OU believes that practical lab experience is vital, so all students are encouraged to attend a residential school. And that is where most of the full-time academic staff do their contractual minimum 2 weeks of face-to-face teaching a year.

For most OU students, though, their major contact with teaching staff is with the OU's army of part-time Associate Lecturers (ALs). In the East Anglia Region there are usually between 100 and 150 science ALs employed at any one time, each responsible for between 15 and 25 students. In 1998-99, the OU employed a total of 7157 ALs. So there is always work to be found.

Jordan began her career with the OU as an AL teaching a science foundation course. She became a full-time member of the science faculty a year ago, but remains in East Anglia. Each faculty has a couple of members based in each of the Regional Centres whose job is to act as a link between the faculty at Milton Keynes and the staff and students in the region. In this role, Jordan is responsible for appointing and overseeing the work of the ALs in her region, and the day I spoke to her she was interviewing 10 prospective new ALs, for three or four jobs. She says that there are essentially three types of people who apply for these jobs. Firstly, people with time on their hands who are looking for a way back into work. Another significant group is people who have some kind of full-time teaching job already, be it in HE, FE, or school teaching, and who work for the OU for the extra income and the extra interest it provides. And finally, an increasing group, people who are "looking at an academic career, they've probably finished a PhD but only fairly recently," and they want to learn how to teach. The appeal of the OU for this group, says Jordan, is that its "staff development is really very good."

Jordan explains that there are three facets to an AL's job. "The major part of an AL's work" is correspondence tuition. Students' assignments are not simply 'marked'. "It's not tick, cross, tick, cross in red ink," she says, but about providing detailed feedback. This is critical, because "you can't assume you will ever meet or ever speak to all your students," she says. "I've tutored in prison, you tutor people who are working offshore," she points out, and reckons she spends about 2 hours on each script. Because work has to be returned within 10 days, this puts a lot of pressure on tutors.

Although "there's not a lot of face-to-face contact," a second facet of the AL's role is to give tutorials, in person, at the regional or study centres. But simply standing up in front of a group of students and talking is not part of the OU philosophy, which is all about active learning. So, "We encourage people to get students doing things--maybe working on questions, some people do some simple practical work," explains Jordan. And finally ALs are expected to be available for their students, who can contact them by phone or e-mail with personal or subject problems. But, "We never expect somebody to be there 24 hours a day," reassures Jordan, and students do respect that.

Once hired, all new staff take part in an induction day and are given a mentor and training in things like how to do correspondence tuition. In addition, there is on-going staff development training, some of it course specific, but also on general issues such as how to tutor in prison, how to be an exam counsellor, and tutoring by phone or by e-mail. Another important aspect of staff training is guidance on how best to assist the OU's disabled students. 6000 students with disabilities studied with the OU in 1999, and Jordan explains that each Regional Centre has staff with responsibility for disabled students who run training events and will "make sure ALs are aware when necessary of people's disabilities." Disabilities are not always physical--the OU has a significant number of students with dyslexia or exam anxiety who are often failed by conventional education.

Despite its unusual delivery style and entry requirements, the OU competes for funding alongside the other UK universities, and the staff are clearly proud of their achievements. Mills points out that in the last Daily Telegraph Higher Education league table, the OU came 10th out of 104 institutions for the quality of its teaching and learning.

And although the OU is largely defined by its unique teaching philosophy, research is very much encouraged. Jordan confirms that between 30% to 50% of science faculty members in the regions do bench research, and approximately half have research interests in science education, like Jordan herself, who is now doing a PhD in this field (part-time with the OU, of course!). Chemist James Warren is a member of the technology faculty, also based in the East Anglia Region. But after his PhD he spent several years working in the automotive industry in the field of catalysis before joining the OU in February. Although his job at the OU involves managing the work of 45 ALs, the OU offers Warren "a lot of opportunities to continue with research," in his case in the field of future transportation systems.

The OU is appealing in other ways, too. Warren admits that when he started looking to move into academia, "I didn't have my heart set on the OU necessarily." But he found that they made him an offer he couldn't refuse. "The package is really good," he explains, and compared with other universities "the benefits are much better, there's much more academic and study leave, and timetables are much more flexible." Another advantage is that working from home is "nearly taken for granted--as long as you produce results." And he finds the OU an ideal environment for the type of research he wants to do now, which is looking at technology not just from the point of view of new products, but "how does society cope with it, what's the economic and political ramifications?"

So with distance education now such hot news, what's the OU's role, as the grandparent of a revolution? Mills sees "a lot of convergence" with the conventional universities, which are increasingly using resource-based, flexible learning methods on campus. He also sees a shift toward part-time Higher Education and believes that the competition is "good for us." The OU has been at the forefront of developing a theory of distance education, through its Institute of Educational Technology and Knowledge Media Institute. OU students can study for a Master's in Open and Distance Education. And Jordan believes that many aspects of the OU's teaching style are transferable to conventional education, for example, "working alongside people with activity-run tutorials" and teaching learning skills as well as subject knowledge. So if you're open-minded and interested in teaching, an opening with the OU could be just the way to further your career.