The Open University was originally conceived as a ‘University of the Air’. Television and radio were always seen as central to its activities. Since 1971 it has been broadcasting course-related television programmes, mostly through the night on BBC2. These programmes, often presented by the academics who had written the relevant course materials, had a cult following amongst insomniacs, people feeding babies in the middle of the night, and shift workers as well as among the students they served and the independent autodidacts who recorded them religiously. Many who began as accidental viewers became addicted and ended up taking the courses that they supplemented.
Some of these programmes were decidedly amateurish; others highly professional. The caricature of the Open University professor with a kipper tie and bizarre facial hair pontificating incomprehensibly about differential equations was quite useful to the University in one way: through comic sketches it kept awareness of Open University broadcasts high.
Anyway, that era (in which I’ve played a very small part with my ‘A103, Philosophy in Action: Debates About Boxing’ ) will come to an end on 16th December at 5.30 a.m when the last course-related programme , 'A103 Art: A Question of Style, Neoclassicism and Romanticism' will be broadcast.
This isn’t the end for Open University television. The University is now funding prime time television with an educational angle, including series such as Coast and a forthcoming analyis of humour Lenny’s Britain. Other course-related audio-visual material is now being put onto DVDs. New media will provide more efficient ways of delivering course content. For example, on A207 From Enlightenment to Romanticism, the students receive an interactive CD-ROM that provides a virtual tour of the Sir John Soane's Museum with hundreds of hotspots showing close-ups of objects and providing information about them.
Actually the Open University has never been close to being a university of the air: we have always used a range of teaching strategies and media of delivery, and for most of its life, the University has been far more a university of the postbag than of the airwaves. This is changing too now that email and online course content are possible. Audio-visual course material will undoubtedly be available online too. Even Jennie Lee, widely recognised as the driving force behind the Open University's creation, wanted to move away from the idea that we would be simply a university of the air:
'I hated the term 'University of the Air' because of all that nonsense in the Press about sitting in front of the telly to get a degree'
I will be discussing the OU’s changing use of media live on BBC Radio 4’s The Message this Friday afternoon (15th December) with television critic Chris Dunkley…the programme goes out from 1.30pm - 2pm (repeated on Sunday at 8pm).