Distance Education the UK Way
Grose, Thomas K., ASEE Prism
For Britain's Open University, it was a seminal moment in its 30year fight to win public recognition for the quality of its courses and students. Last April, in a closely fought contest, O.U. defeated Oxford University's Oriel College in the final of University Challenge, a BBC-TV show similar to the old College Bowl on American television. It was the second time in recent years that O.U. won the annual battle of the brains (and no school has yet won it three times). The victories are helping the school shake its reputation as the Rodney Dangerfield of British higher education, while simultaneously showcasing the efficacy of distance learning.
If the school is only now getting the recognition it deserves among Britain's general public, educators around the world long ago discarded any misgivings that the Open University's system of "supported open learning" could deliver the academic goods. Consider this: A recent assessment by Britain's Higher Education Funding Council of the quality of teaching in U.K. universities ranked O.U. 11th out of 98 schoolsahead of such venerable institutions as St. Andrews University, King's College London, and the University of Edinburgh. More strikingly, the council gave O.U.'s technology department 24 out of a possible 24 points for the quality of its general engineering courses-higher than those achieved by Oxford, Cambridge, and London's Imperial College. It also recognized 19 subject areas in which O.U. was producing research of international quality, including educational technology, earth sciences, and architecture and design.
Open University's success is worth noting at a time when distance education is becoming the buzz phrase in academia in the United States. InterEd, a consulting company in Phoenix, Arizona, predicts that 11.6 million Americans will be involved in some sort of distance learning by next year. Virtually all U.S. universities, both public and private, already offer distance education courses. Students at nine U.S. schools, including the University of Maryland, the New York Institute of Technology, and the University of Phoenix, can obtain full degrees without ever setting foot on campus.
Indeed, this fall O.U. is opening-albeit on a very small scale-the virtual doors of an American extension, the United States Open University. And, back in Britain, O.U. no longer has the field all to itself, as many universities now offer distance education courses themselves.
O.U. was the brainstorm of former Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Set up in 1969 and accepting students since 1971, the school's premise is to allow anyone a chance to attend and, perhaps, obtain a degree-from home and on a part-time schedule. It has no admission requirements, which is part of its appeal.
An hour's drive north of London, in the town of Milton Keynes, the Open University's campus is centered in and around Walton Hall, a former manor house. Though students rarely visit, the Milton Keynes campus is home to 900 faculty members and 2,750 administrative staffers.
Since O.U.'s start, more than 2 million students have taken courses, 200,000 have been awarded bachelor's degrees and 50,000 have obtained postgraduate degrees. Cost is an important factor; on average, it takes six years and just $5,530 to complete an undergraduate degree at O.U. Today, O.U. is active in 41 countries with 125,000 undergraduates and 40,000 graduate students. An additional 44,000 people purchase the school's course materials.
Nearly 50 percent of the school's students are majoring in either technology, science, math, or computers. One twoyear-old course- "Computing: An Object-Oriented Approach"-has 5,100 students, making it the largest computing course in the world. Not for long, however. Next year, O.U.'s technology department is introducing "You, Your Computer and the Net," and already 8,000 students have signed up. Both courses are mostly computer-based, though like all O. …