Open University


I cannot recommend this organisation highly enough. It allows people who cannot or are unwilling to take conventional full-time courses to further their education. The course material is excellent, and far better than that provided by any other university or college I have had any contact with.

My own opinion is that the traditional lecture method of teaching as it appears in most universities is a very poor one. There is a joke which reads "a lecture is a method of transferring the lecturer's notes to those of the students without going through the brains of either". Although humorous, there is a serious point here. There are a limited number or methods in which information can be transferred from lecturer to student:

The latter method seems to be the most common, and is a dreadful waste of human effort. The need to keep up with the lecturer's writings allow little time for thinking about the information presented. The other methods avoid this, and allow time for the students to consider and attempt to understand what is being taught. Open University course material removes this tedious and time-consuming copying task.

Notes for Students

With Open University (OU) study, most of the study time will be spent alone. For this reason, the course material has to be largely self-contained. Various media are used where suitable. The bulk of the course is generally supplied as a large number of slim A4 booklets ("units"), which are well-written and divide the material into manageable chunks. I found it useful to take one of these to work with me, so that I might read a page or two in any spare time. Some things are better explained by means of a television programme or audio tape and these are used where appropriate.

Many people seem to think that OU students get up very early in the morning in order to catch the television programmes. Of course not - re-scheduling broadcast television is one of the things that video recorders are very useful for. One thing I did notice is that the most interesting programmes are always for courses other than the one you are doing. Perhaps I took the wrong courses... People sometimes poke fun at the programmes presented by long-haired lecturers with kipper ties. Well, it's true, some of them are. A few of the courses haven't changed much since the early days of the OU and so the programmes are still appropriate. This was particularly noticeable with some of the mathematics programmes, which reflects that fact that basic mathematics hasn't changed much in the last few decades.

As with any organization working in a complex field, a certain terminology has developed. Don't worry, you'll soon be familiar with "TMA"s (Tutor Marked Assignments) and the like.

One mistake I made early on was to try to study every word of the units. After a while, I learned to quickly "skim" through the paragraphs relating to a subject once I understood it. The skill of picking up important points from a block of text is a useful one in all sorts of aspects of life, and is particularly applicable here. Of course, when grappling with some new and difficult subject every word is useful.

To get the best from the audio and video tapes, use the "rewind" function a lot. It often took me nearly an hour to watch a twenty five minute programme for this reason.

Far from simply "a degree by watching television", this is not a quick or easy way to get a degree. It took me about eight years to obtain an honours degree, with lots of hours put in at lunchtimes, late at night and the occasional entire weekend. I have met quite a few people with maintenance and support jobs that study with the OU. They make use of slack periods at work (when nothing has gone wrong) to study. This is much more useful than reading "The Sun" or talking about their favourite football team.

It is better not to choose courses that have not yet run for a couple of years. Sometimes this is difficult to avoid in fast-moving fields such as computing. In this case you are likely to receive copious errata sheets and have the chore of making up the units. That said, it doesn't take long if you just get on with it. Tutors are better equipped for courses that are well-established, and there are more past exam papers available.

My approach to exams was to obtain a few past papers. Some people seem to think that this enables you to predict what is coming, which is clearly not true. It does, however, give you the general flavour of the questions and is a very good revision guide. If there is something in a paper you don't understand, that is something you should revise.

Some people think that the university should abandon examinations altogether. I am against this, because although the experience is painful for students it does lend credibility to the universities degrees.

You are not just given a pile of books and told to "get on with it". Regular "tutorials" are arranged and give you opportunities to ask questions of your tutor. You can also telephone you tutor, fellow students or specialists at Walton Hall (the home of the OU). Contact with other students is encouraged for both study and entertainment purposes.

If you decide to study in this way, I wish you every success. Click here for the Open University web site.

Merlin P.J. Skinner, B.Sc.(Hons)(Open) Dip.Comp.(Open)