Digital Learning = Open learning

I’ve participated in online educational courses from the Open University several times throughout my life.

The Open University is a high quality online University available for UK residents to study and achieve degrees online comparable to degrees achieved via traditional brick and mortar university.

The courses work on a modular basis, you build up a set of specific set of modules and are awarded the applicable qualification. It’s worth mentioning that the modules themselves can be studied on their own without any intended course path in mind. I studied both broad humanities and mathematics via the Open University and am currently working towards achieving a engineering degree via a composite of my completed mathematics modules and short ‘brick and motor’ practical engineering courses yet to be completed.

My experience of this online education has lead me to two conclusions:

Firstly module courses supplied by the OU specifically are low cost in comparison to the those supplied via traditional university.

Secondly, the quality is directly comparable to the quality of teaching supplied by traditional university and in some cases higher.

On a side note: It opens up a educational path more fitting for those that the traditional methods have failed.

Expanding on these points:


You can achieve from the Open University a named BA (Hons) for roughly a third of the price of a brick and mortar university education within England.

Recently the cost of a university education in England has increased dramatically. England is now the most expensive place in the world to get a degree. This has unsurprisingly lead to fall in university applications. The Open University has also increased it’s fees (Important to note that the OU raise was forced onto them by the government) but it still remains around a third of the cost of a brick and mortar degree. My prediction is that this forced raise to OU degree will price out those who previous studied via the OU (For instance, people traditional education has failed, and life long learners) and break the business model, but we shall see.

The benefits of cheap education to society are multitude.


Having studied at both a brick and mortar university and the Open University I would say that, perversely, I received more tutor contact and feedback from the OU.

When studying via the OU, I went once a month to an optional evening class to meet the tutor, as well as having phone and frequent email contact.

I also had access to an online forum in which I could meet and discuss with others on the course, as well as my tutor. The quality of contact was also higher, I felt more able to ask specific questions and was more confident that the questions would be fully resolved.

I believe that a digital education can not only be comparable to a physical one, but in many ways surpass that given by a brick and mortar university. If I was given the choice again, to go to a physical university, or to invest more in digital learning, I would have choose without hesitation digital learning via OU. It initially allowed me an education, as the traditional establishments failed in my circumstance. It now continues to allow me to pursue knowledge freely and low cost (comparably) whilst leaving me free to work and play in my own time.

If properly managed, a high quality education can be delivered digitaly. Such establishments have the potential to be cheaper and more flexible, increasing access to those that otherwise would miss out.

So are digital learning establishments the future? Maybe. I would certainly like to see more of them.

Forced fees?

Hi Karl, thans for sharing your experiences around the OU. Have you tried using the qualifications you got from the open university in e.g. professional contexts (formal applications)? I’m curious about how they are percieved…

Also I don’t understand the bit about the governement focing fees on them…do you know what you are supposed to pay for that you weren’t paying for, or were paying less for before?

Forced fees

University courses have had a reduction in funding (including the Open University) which led to them having to increase fees to cover costs.

Here is a short article with a little information:

As to how well they are perceived within the workplace, since the qualifications offered are BA (hons) or MA’s that are parity checked and standardised throughout the UK they are looked on as any other degree would be.

In fact I’ve been told it’s in your favour to mention you studied with the OU as it shows you are self-driven and have some willpower. I was told this by the OU itself (obviously) but also separately through the job centre (when i was unemployed) and in discussion with a business advisor.

I’m happily self employed now and when it comes to employing more people a year or so down the line I know it’s something I will look favourably on.

“As to how well they are perceived within the workplace, since the qualifications offered are BA (hons) or MA’s that are parity checked and standardised throughout the UK they are looked on as any other degree would be.”

It’s certainly true that an OU degree is, by its standards and the law, equal to a degree from any other institution - but it’s not true that all employers view all degrees from all institutions as being equal (which isn’t what you said, I know, but is possibly implied).

The name of your institution is going to be more or less relevant depending upon the sector that you’re looking at; employers in engineering, for instance, are likely to be rational - but in some sectors, the ‘category’ that your institution falls into (Oxbridge, Redbrick, Russel Group, ex-polytechnic) may be more important.

OU degrees are perfectly well regarded and will be perceived perfectly well by most prospective employers; but elitism (unfortunately) does exist within the mind of some prospective employers with regards to all universities - OU included.

Karl - I’ll post some more thoughts on this tomorrow. Interesting thoughts! The digital era has democratised access to knowledge stores, in the participatory sense (the recent demise of Brittanica is testament to this); access to education should naturally follow.

Good stuff

Excellent testimony, Karl, very clear and even provocative-without-provoking. It may be that there is a lot of rhetoric about real vs. virtual (to imply OU is an “unreal” educational establishment), and a lot of handwaving about human contact and socialization. I have very few fond memories of my days in educational institutions. Human contact between teachers and students is mediated through a power relationship; as for socialization, it is a relatively rich space, but it contains a lot of stuff I did not value (like the obligatory commentary of football matches on Monday mornings in the Uni café).

I am giving you +50 extra reputation for independent thinking. Way to go!

Interesting point on socialisation there, Alberto, especially interesting with regards to the power relationship that you mention between students and tutors.

First of all, I think that socialisation at university is a strong force in the favour of brick-and-mortars. For many young people at university, the period of study at university has a strong positive effect upon their confidence due to their shared experiences with peers - this was certainly true with regards to myself.

In a sense more of professional development, as well, brick-and-mortar universities offer chances to participate in clubs and societies and these can make good entries on a CV. In my case, I was a founding member and equipment officer at one society and secretary of another - both experiences are listed on, and bolster, my CV.

True enough that socialisation at university can get wearisome if you find your shared interests with your peers waning (in your case, football; in my case, drinking, partying, etc.) - but we can all weather that, eh? :slight_smile:

With regards to socialisation and the power-relationship between student and tutor - for many young people, this will be the first chance they have had where they can socialise with someone who has a superior position to them in terms of power-relationships. When students get to know a lecturer well, the power-relationship becomes demystified and the superior party humanised. In future, this will hopefully allow them to be more free-thinking and expressive around figures in their life with a higher power relationship (managers, for instance), rather than being easily cowed into silence when they have something useful to say.

That being said, I think that most students who have been to college (rather than sixth-form, which I don’t believe offers the same social experience) will have had such experiences anyway.

This experience, I think, can be offered at a distance-learning institution. If you ever have had acquaintances with whom you have been in contact for a long time solely through email/forums/phone, and with whom you eventually met in person, then you may recognise that the act of meeting does change your experience and interactions with that person. Regularity of meeting helps with this.

I don’t think it’s an insurmountable barrier, but neither is it one that can be easily overlooked.

Main question on this note is whether or nor socialisation is an actual part of the purpose of university. If it is not, then it isn’t something that needs be worried about with regards to distance-learning institutions (or digital, or virtual, or remote).

If it is, then it’s unfair to easily dismiss such concerns as handwaving.

My view? Conflicted.

The economist speaks

Joe, let me be an economist here: the point is really not “which model is better”. The point is “which model delivers better value for €”. In the UK, university now costs 9K£ a year; for that kind of money I expect a VERY good service - you can’t afford a miss. And that’s not even taking into account state expenditure in tertiary education.

i am no expert, but I do suspect a very serious case of Baumol’s disease in education. We just have to look at cost. So, to score even with OU, brick-and-mortar has to be three times as good (whatever that means) than OU, not just “better”.

I agree, really

Ah, yes, you’re right. The point is not “which model is better” and I’m sorry if I came across such that I was arguing that way. I’m really just riffing on Karl’s question “So are digital learning establishments the future?”

If they are the future or they might be a larger part of the future, then the differences between the two models need to be split into those differences necessitated by the model (my concerns for vocational subjects and subjects requiring access to expensive equipment), and those which can be resolved through the application of emerging technologies (socialisation, access to resources which can be virtualised).

But I suppose that’s actually a different discussion!

I’m inclined to agree with you that the value of the advantages that a brick&mortar has are likely to be considerably less than 2/3 of the fee paid! For academic subjects, especially, the value of the difference may be €0 or approaching €0; I see no reason actually why the digital/remote model can’t be or isn’t already superior in this respect.

Dual future?

I like your distinction between academic and “hands on” subjects, it makes a lot of sense. I guess online learning qualifies for being a (much) larger part of the future: hands on subjects will still call for brick-and-mortar; also, rich people might wish to buy expensive facetime. But I think EU policy should make a mighty push towards broad acceptability of online education, to give some space to youth trapped between the rock of very expensive brick-and-mortar edu establishments and the hard place of a lack of qualifications.

BTW, I am speaking from experience here: have you seen the other Classroom on the wire mission reports? Access from here. My own mission is here - on math, way, way better than anything I have ever had in a classroom.

I think tutor-student communication can be categorised in two ways: synchronous contact and asynchronous contact - where ‘asynchronous’ refers to contact/communication that takes place before or after sessions of work/study, and where ‘synchronous’ refers to contact/communication that takes place during.

To my mind, synchronous contact is most useful when in a workshop environment or when tackling new vocational materials in a classroom/lab; in short, during situated learning. At these times, it is useful to have an experienced tutor at hand who can assist with equipment or provide assistance at the time when an obstacle is encountered.

Situated learning is most useful with regards to more vocational subjects (arts), or subjects with a large vocational component (sciences, engineering).

The secondary useful part of synchronous contact is in the lecture environment. It is normal for a student during a lecture to, when an ambiguity or lack of clarity arises in what the lecturer is saying, immediately ask for clarification. It is also normal for some lecturers to encourage participation through questioning (a kind of socratic dialogue).

This, at least, can be addressed through the proper application of technologies (video-conferencing), but still faces challenges due to that high-speed Internet access is not yet 100% proliferated in this country.

It’s notable that your experience with the OU is on courses which are classically academic (rather than vocational) - mathematics and humanities - and they have excelled when it comes to asynchronous contact, which is great. Do you have any thoughts on what the OU can do and already does do with regards to synchronous contact?

Did you choose academic subjects intentionally because of concerns along these lines?

Good point

One minor point:

Whilst the lecture based synchronous communication you mentioned exists, I’m not sure it would be useful for it to take on a larger role in an institution such as the OU where the focus is on flexibility and the asynchronous communication is such high quality. It’s also worth remembering that you can get this kind of communication via the regular optional evening classes (and I suppose via phone) if you feel more is required.

That being said, more hands on degrees do require larger amounts of synchronous contact, it’s telling that the OU offers less of these courses.

Did I choose my subjects because of such concerns? It might have played a role. I’ll be doing a few engineering modules soon, several of these modules require travelling to a three-week residential school as such synchronous communication is a necessity for the subject.

Will I feel I’ve received enough synchronous communication for such a hands-on subject after completing the modules? I suppose I will have to wait and find out.

I have studied sculpture within a brick and mortar university, and even if the course had been offered online, i would likely do so again.

As you say, for some subjects (the minority) situated learning is essential. (at least at current technology levels)

Hi Karl,

Thanks for the

Hi Karl,

Thanks for the response. I agree with you - technology is the answer here if, indeed, an answer need be found. You are right to say that for some subjects situated learning is essential, but it is probably also possible for at least some of those subjects that the situation itself can be virtualised - it will be important in the next few decades for distance learning institutions to grasp every opportunity that new technology presents.

The transition from distance learning to digital learning is something that we may look forward to. :slight_smile:

I’m currently studying with the Open University, and would agree with most of the points above.

I’m working towards a degree in “Design and Innovation” & am currently on module 3 of the 6 I need. Because I’m classed as being on a low-income, the course fees have been subsidised and I’ve paid about £800 so far for half a degree. The funding structure is different now due to forced government changes. It’ll still be cheaper and the OU fought for the right of their new (part-time) students to be eligible for loans with the same terms as “normal” students, but I don’t think I would have probably started studying if I’d had to sign up for that much debt.

The disability services are great too, much better than at any IRL educational establishment I’ve attended. The teaching standard has been excellent, the materials are very well designed (I wish there was a way to buy the resources without necessarily doing all the courses) and I really don’t have any complaints.

I even got a computer grant when I started, as I didn’t have one of my own.

The module websites & forums are the most valuable for me, but it does make a significant difference if you attend the tutorials/day schools. I did much better from the start on the courses where I could attend them, something about feeling part of the community & it being easier to interact with tutors that you’ve met rather than starting cold. There are online tutorials using Elluminate between physical tutorial sessions, using conferencing software which I also find useful.

There are super helpful (unofficial) Facebook groups as well, running parallel to the course forums. I only bothered looking recently & must have missed out significantly for my first course as there’s a lot of valuable discussion there.

Re synchronous contact - for the design modules, there’s been a focus on practical skills like technical drawing, photography & prototyping alongside the more academic, and I haven’t felt limited by the tuition format. There have been companion manuals/workbooks to work through which have been helpful, and for me the main benefit of this kind of study is that it is self-directed. We’re run through things at tutorials sometimes, and can phone tutors, but I think it’s more valuable to learn these kind of things by trial and error rather than being shown & getting it right first time. Maybe that’s just how I learn best but I’ve been surprised by how well me & my coursemates have got on with “harder” skills. I don’t know if the OU attracts people who prefer to work in that way or if the materials are that good, but I haven’t heard any complaints on that front.

The use of technology in course delivery & design is pretty innovative, the first course I did won some sort of award for this. Lots of video, audio files, realtime communication, interactive systems (we had an online portfolio/design studio for one, so we could all feed back on each other’s work). I think this is a large part of what makes it effective.

Socially, I feel part of a community & we seem to all support each other well. I think the fact that the majority of us are not stereotypical students & have to juggle other responsibilities makes us all quite respectful and encouraging. Everyone seems to have perspective & their eyes on long-term goals, which is satisfying. People are (generally) studying for explicit reasons rather than doing it because it seems like what you’re meant to do.

I wouldn’t have been able to get into a “proper” university or afford to so this might be slightly rose-tinted, but I’ve had a wholly positive experience with the Open University.


Hello hec, thanks for this very valuable testimony. It is very clear. Just a question: you speak of disability services being good. Can you elaborate on that? What does it mean in the context of mostly online learning?