Open by Degrees: A Case of Flexibility or Personalization?

Open by Degrees: A Case of Flexibility or Personalization?

Helen Cooke (The Open University, UK), Andy Lane (The Open University, UK) and Peter Taylor (The Open University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5255-0.ch008
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This chapter focuses on the history, development, and perceived value of The Open University UK's BA/BSc (Hons) Open degree (hereafter referred to as “OUUK Open degree”) over the past half-century in the context of changing external pressures and addressing debates around the coherence and acceptance of such a personalized program of study. It touches on the changing views of “openness” over time, from the origins of The Open University's “open entry” policy, through to ideas around flexibility of study, open education, and personalized learning. The chapter concludes with recommendations for other higher education institutions wishing to introduce a multidisciplinary open degree into their portfolio of curriculum.
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Almost all Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) offer subject-specific degrees whereby students have to follow a more or less prescribed set of courses or modules, with this internal prescription often influenced by external quality frameworks, such as subject benchmark statements set out by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the United Kingdom (UK)1. Open degrees provide a valued alternative to subject-specific degrees by offering students the opportunity to study a flexible, personalized degree, where they can choose the modules they wish to study, constrained only by the need to study a required number of credits at each level or stage of study2. This approach provides students with access to a wide variety of subjects that match and build on their existing skills and knowledge to develop a personalized curriculum that reinforces their existing experience to meet their vocational needs and personal interests.

Unlike most other universities in the UK, The Open University started with a single BA Open degree. Only later was a BSc option added to the Open degree and, subsequently, specific, named degrees (see Figure 1). The Open University UK (OUUK) was established as the UK’s first solely distance teaching university in 1969 and the first students were enrolled in January 1971.

Figure 1.

Event to celebrate The Open University gaining a Royal Charter in 1969

© 2017 The Open University. Used with permission.

The University’s mission is to be “open to people, places, methods and ideas”. The OUUK therefore has an open entry policy to students with no previous educational achievement requirements. It is “open to places” in that anybody in the UK, Europe and more recently globally can study with the University. It is “open to methods” in that it started life as a correspondence university based on written texts backed up by radio and television broadcasting and has developed into one of the most internationally acclaimed e-universities, where all teaching, learning and personal interactions can be achieved online (Weinbren, 2014). At the time the OUUK was founded, only about 10 percent of the UK population went to university and widening participation was very much part of the government’s agenda. The creation of the OUUK’s awards was strongly influenced by the personal experiences of the University’s first Vice-Chancellor, based on the interdisciplinary, four-year degrees that were common in Scotland at that time. This was also the time when the UK was looking to train more scientists and technologists and a recommendation was made to the UK government in the Swann Report that:

To prepare for and assist in this change there should be a detailed study of current curricula in science, engineering and technology in University education and of the balance between specialized and more general studies in relation to career needs… (Committee on Manpower Resources for Science and Technology (1968), cited in The Open University Planning Committee (1969))

In response to these developments, The Open University Planning Committee (1969) also proposed the idea of “a broader type of education than that provided by a usual degree and an interdisciplinary one”:

The degree of the Open University should, we considered, be a “general degree” in the sense that it would embrace studies over a range of subjects rather than be confined to a single narrow speciality. In our view the Open University should not set out to compete with the established universities which can so much more efficiently provide “special” degrees for students who can spend three years of full-time study in the laboratories and libraries of their specialist schools. Rather should the Open University degree be complementary, providing for the part-time student a broadly based higher education, for which the teaching techniques available to the Open University are particularly suited. Furthermore we were aware of the great need and demand in the country, emphasised in the Swann Report, for an extension of facilities for such general degrees. (The Open University Planning Committee, 1969)

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