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Is the OU really behind part time learning?

I don’t normally talk about the OU in my blog but today I have a burning issue that I feel I just need to express. In fact I’ve got a few but I’ll see what I manage to express here and save the rest for later.

Why is the OU so afraid of the very thing it was created to push? distance learning. Why is it so sheepish in promoting something that should be a fundamental part of our daily lives.

Why am I so frustrated and being so blunt is probably what you’re thinking? Well… despite the OU’s well publicised success in delivering a world leading Online learning environment, delivering on itunesU and mobile and countless other fronts I say one thing. The OU doesn’t use any of these tools and services in its internal day to day delivery. Customers use it but for some reason staff don’t in their jobs. As a customer I’d say this means the OU tools can’t be very good. You don’t see Steve jobs using a google phone to make calls. Fords CEO hardly drives around in a Honda. You get the point. If you sell something then you’d expect to use it within your organisation where it’s supposed to be used.

The tools we provide for teaching and learning cover just about every espect you need in daily life. You can chat and debate with people through forums and chat tools. You can share documents. You can assess things. Why, as an OU employee can I not use this stuff day to day to get my job done. Why is it reserved for students and course teams. If, en masse we used these things internally we’d damn well ensure they were market leading tools that got the job done. Most importantly we’d all be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. We’d consider carefully how we developed and delivered them because we depend on them.

Right now there is a huge disconnect between what we use to deliver and experience and those who experience what we deliver. As a customer I only go with companies who use their tools and understand them in depth. I just bought a new phone. I had very specific requirements a smart phone (android not iphone) with a keyboard from an android expert (htc desire z ). From the online store ( to the network (t-mobile) I wanted people who knew their stuff. I ignored all the companies that tried to tell me an iphone or an htc hero would be good enough. They clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t take the time to understand me and fit the solution to me. the companies I chose do. I’ve always been like this as a consumer and I’ve found I’m not the only one.

Right now there’s no major competitor to the OU but I keep hearing that’s set to change. I certainly feel that it’s not that hard to replicate what we currently do. It’s been difficult to replicate us at scale for decades but the barriers are falling like leaves in autumn and right I don’t genuinely feel there are any real barriers to replicating our model. the biggest challenge the OU faces is changing its mindset. Internally I find vbery few if any meetings and discussions that take place solely on line. The choice is always face to face meetings or chatting on the phone. That’s just not good enough. We’re telling our customers they can do everything they need online but doing the exact opposite in real life.

Any one who wants to tell me that it’s just not possibnle to do everything sitting at your desk using the net and a decent phone setup should be warned that I worked for 2 years just down the road in Linford wood working in a callcenter for an it helpdesk. We didn’t just have one contract we had a few thousand. We ran 24 hours and basically solved any technical question a customer could ask round the clock. Even christmas day. We handled it all from our desks. Occasionally we’d walk over to nearby control panels but 99% of our jobs could be completed where we sat. I fixed problems for customers in the US and europe and had conference calls when needed. Would you believe this was 10 years ago when dial up was still common. So in 2010 things have moved on drastically. The tools I used then are still available. they’re even easier to use now.

Back then when a customer phoned up to chase an issue I could find out everything that had been done or said in relation to the issue. I could get up to speed really quickly, then help them appropriately. I was also used to fixing the customers issues without actually seeing the problem itself. Just by listening carefully, asking appropriate questions and being patient I could fix issues I’d never come across before.

These skills are the same skills you need for teaching. Helping a human understand something that previously made no sense to them. to do the job well I needed good training and support. I also needed experience using the tools but it was possible then. So why isn’t this already being done, online at scale already. That’s my real bone of contention. From the day I arrived at the OU I could see the relation between

it and my first real job, the helpdesk. In both instances one human is trying to help another. The tools and skillsets required are all about enabling humans to do what they do best, solve problems and learn something in the process.

The OU doesn’t believe that part time learning provides a competitive advantage because it doesn’t encourage its staff to do so during work time. Google do and 3m do and they’re not the only companies that do. Google is famous for it with their 20% times and flagship products like Maps have come from this initiative. Yet the OU, the official flagship for part time learning in the UK don’t support part time learning for their employees during work hours. How can the OU sell the idea of part time learning as a good to a company if they openly don’t believe in it. You see my frustration.

I’m a self directed learner. I make a point of learning something every day. So naturally I search for the best, most advanced and cost effective tools for the job. I don’t use the OU tools because they’re not up to it. I act like a customer and I expect a return on the investment I make. The OU considers itself successful because it has over 200,000 students but all I see is the students they turn away or those that won’t study with them. I’m hoping that in the next 5 years they’re looking at ways to reach 2 million.

Ok, you can see I’m venting so don’t think I dislike the OU because I love it. They are a wonderful company to work for an do an excellent job. I’m just saying some of the things that I feel are important. I have felt these things from the day I started so I have finally got to get them off my chest. The OU do a wonderful job and are a credit to the education community but I feel they can be so much more. I feel they’re the shy self conscious kid who does wonderful work and gets straight A’s but no one really notices because they’re still struggling to fit in.

Every year the environment is getting more and more suited to part time learning. All I see is opportunity for the OU. There are lots of threats but, being an employee, I know how good they are so I know they’ll get through because they’re good. But I do see things that I think other people see. The elephant in the room so to speak and I don’t think it helps to ignore.

edit 15th November 2010
I just found a quote by Bill Clinton that I can easily adjust to fit what I’m saying here.

I ask you to join in lifelong learning. We need to empower our learners so they can take more responsibility for their own lives in a world that is ever smaller, where everyone counts…. We need a new spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together, or the Dream of lifelong learning will continue to wither. Our destiny is bound up with the destiny of every other learner.

the point to me is that learning happens everywhere and so does teaching. It is not confined to place, time or any other boundary. It is just human to human because that is really all you need. We really need to start getting out of the way and get back to the human activity of helping others achieve their dreams. Open their world up to new possibilities through passing on what we know and make it an intuitive everyday process. Not something that’s only available if you fit certain criteria. Only then is learning truly open and the Open University can truly justify its name.

My point is that we can do this now. We are in fact doing it at a basic level. But I can’t openly say that I do it. It seems to be frowned upon and that, to me, seems the wrong way round.

Enough talking. How about a video :-0. Well check out this short video on what motivates us. See what you think and how it might apply to learning and to work. 

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