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Wow the Open University is 50 years old today!

This snuck up on me! Fifty years ago, today, the Open University received its Royal Charter. I’m a huge fan, and thought I’d reflect a little on the extra chances the OU gave me. The OU is a much venerated UK university, that set out from the start to support part-time distance learning at home, giving people a chance who might otherwise be unable to study at university level.

The OU gave me a second chance after I dropped out of my science PhD, after falling seriously ill with a MS-like illness at just 22. Once I was finally diagnosed properly and started life saving chemotherapy treatment it made me nauseous and vomit for up to 8 hours every day, every single day, for years. I had to try something to take my mind off it, so started studying part-time with the Open University. The OU support staff thought I was too disabled to study with them by this time, but I tried. When I went to St Andrews University in 1990 I had wanted to study two subjects: Scottish history and computer science. But I could only do one, and was qualified for the latter, so stuck with that. But history – and especially Scottish history – was unfinished business for me. Now was my chance!

My first course in 1998 saw me jump straight in to second year history, and a course on Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600. Renaissance history basically. I loved it! It was phenomenally hard. I’d skipped the foundation year that teaches you to write academic essays, and analyse historical sources, and do art history and literature. So I didn’t make things easy for myself. Didn’t get the best course result, because of these circumstances. But oh it was brilliant. It also made me fall in love with Venice, and I went there later that year for the first time.

The next year I studied a course on family and community history. Yes that was good for me, a lifelong genealogist! I was able to use my family history stories in the essays for it. So, for example, I wrote an essay looking at my 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner running a rather posh boarding house in West End Edinburgh in 1871. At the other extreme I analysed the poor relief records for a 4xg-granddad John Hall, in 1860s Hawick, From my husband’s family I did a mini project looking at the extent of interbreeding (yes there was a lot!) in two Suffolk parishes where his ancestors lived. And for my final big end of year project I analysed Coldingham baptismal witnesses.

By this point I was well on my way to a history degree, and with credit transfer from my Computer Science BSc(Hons) I had extra points to shorten the amount I needed to study. But I took a big swerve in my final year, veering towards classical studies, with two courses. The first looked at the Roman Empire, particularly regarding power and identity. That was fascinating. Archaeology, mixed with written sources, visual images of gravestones and stuff, from all over the Roman Empire. I loved that. At the same time I studied a course on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which combined the literary works with the archaeology of Troy. Which I had a family connection with. That 3xg-granddad John Usher Somner was a nephew by marriage of Charles Maclaren, first editor of The Scotsman newspaper, who first pinpointed Hisarlik as the likely location of Troy.

Throughout my OU studies I studied from home, using course materials – published books, course books written by the course team, handouts, etc. – sent to me in regular chunky postal packages. This was supplemented by face to face tutorials, but for much of the 3 years I was too ill to attend those, even the ones nearby in Dundee (I lived in Cupar at this time). I was also too deaf at this time from my neurological disease, so couldn’t chat to a tutor by phone. So I was extremely isolated. But the course materials were almost all superb. The course books, written by the course teams, particularly wowed me. These were written collaboratively, to a very high standard. And were much better quality, in overall terms, than many science lectures I’d attended as an undergraduate student at St Andrews. In addition I had contact with other students through the FirstClass online computer networking system, which made me feel less isolated, and helped build up a community. 20-odd years on, long after the demise of FirstClass, I’m still in touch with OU friends I made then. The OU supported disabled students brilliantly, long before the Disabled Students Allowance started, and long before many other universities made any kind of provision.

I studied with the OU between 1998 and 2000, and by the end of my classical studies courses I had enough credits to earn a BA(Hons), joint history and classical studies. This then provided the foundation on which I studied further at Dundee, doing a taught MPhil and a PhD, both part-time, both in history (mainly Scottish). My OU degree was very well regarded by the lecturers at Dundee, and they particularly valued how it showed independent learning.

In more recent years funding changes by the UK government have slashed revenue to the Open University, and reduced the financial support for part-timers to extremely low levels. This is especially the case in England, where it is very unaffordable now to study with the OU, especially if, like I was, you already have a first degree. But I was retraining, in a totally different subject area, so needed a second chance. And many people are keen to study lifelong. The OU is at great risk now, but I will always be grateful to it for the support it gave me. And it’s an institution that should be very proud.

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I’ve just been reading an article in The Observer about university lectures, where two academics debate their pros and cons. And a few weeks ago I read a blog post by classicist Mary Beard on the same subject.

I was a full-time undergraduate science student at St Andrews University between 1990 and 1994. We had very variable lectures. Some were massive, hundreds of students in the lecture theatre, particularly in earlier years before students specialised for honours. Others were smaller, often a few dozen students, or even in the case of one of my honours courses just me and the lecturer!

The biggest problem I had with the traditional large-room university lectures is that they varied hugely by quality of lecturer. With an experienced lecturer they could be a lively stimulating experience, inspiring the student and communicating ideas effectively. Although the student could still end up at times fleeing from the room, running to the nearest academic bookshop to buy a textbook so they could further understand the subject! I remember doing that after the very first cosmology lecture in my first year astronomy course with Dr Carson. But with poor lecturers, especially beginning ones, it could be very different.

In my second year computer science course a new lecturer, not long after finishing his PhD, was assigned to teach the C programming course. In many ways this was the most fundamental course that we studied that year, the one we would need to understand best of all to be able to prosper in the subsequent honours years. And the lecturing was appalling. The new lecturer mumbled all the way through, and did not project himself to the class, who were only sitting a foot or two in front of him. We couldn’t understand what he was teaching, and we were not learning how to do C programming. As always loads of us had to rely on textbooks, me buying Kernighan and Ritchie to teach myself. But we should not have had to do this. In many ways I’d have been better if I hadn’t sat through those lectures – and I never missed a lecture in any course – and just taught myself.

Indeed the experience was so bad that it led to a student rebellion in the 1991/2 Second Year computer science class. A few students, me included, acted as spokespersons for the whole class, and sat through a debate (which was quite intimidating) in the John Honey building with all the computer science staff, putting our concerns. I think they took on board what we were saying, but by then it was too late for that year of students, and masses who should have carried on to honours computer science switched to other subjects instead. As a result there were only 3 honours students in my class: 2 single honours, 1 joint honours with another subject. That was the lowest number of computer science honours students at St Andrews for a very long time.

Another bad experience with lectures is where the lecturer – and this happened in one of my senior honours computer science courses – forbade us from taking notes, saying we would get the lecture slides at the end. He was really insistent about this. And of course he didn’t give us the slides, until we went round and demanded them, explaining he had promised them, and had told us not to take notes. He’d completely forgot about it. Well again what was the point of sitting through those lectures? Did we really engage properly with what he was saying?

After leaving St Andrews I started studying history part-time with the Open University. I couldn’t even attend many tutorials held locally at Dundee, so was managing on my own at home. And although the teaching there had to be primarily through pre written course books, I found it to be of generally a much higher standard than the variable lectures in my science degree.

Now small seminars, they’re a totally different matter. I’ve sat through excellent examples of those, including in teaching context, in my postgraduate history Masters at Dundee University. There you can have good quality interaction between teacher and students. But the numbers must be small. Even with a relatively poor lecturer the students can help to stimulate the discussion.

But I guess I’m not a fan of traditional one to many lectures!

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The Guardian today posted a gallery of old map images, to tie in with a book newly out looking at maps charting the development of cities. There’s also a related podcast, where map experts Simon Garfield and Jerry Brotton talk about Maps from Ptolemy to Google.

I used maps a lot in my taught postgraduate MPhil degree which was studying Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. Maps are a wonderful tool for viewing changing urban layouts, and understanding how towns worked in the past, figuring out the relationship between different areas and different functions, and also the relationship between a town and its surrounding hinterlands. Of course we relied on maps being created in the first place and still surviving today. I remember once finding a reference in the town council minutes to a map created of Montrose in Angus in the 1740s, but the map couldn’t be found now in the local archives. It may be lurking somewhere still though, as part of the unprocessed Montrose burgh collection held locally, and if it survived would be a fascinating glimpse into what the town looked like then.

There are lots of collections of old maps online. As a Scottish researcher I particularly like the National Library of Scotland’s digitised maps collection. This includes large area maps, for counties and countryside, as well as town plans, such as John Wood’s famous ones from the 1820s. Wood’s town plans capture Scottish towns in a period of considerable change, where old medieval structures and roads were often being transformed to a new urban layout. He also surveyed a number of more recently-established towns, which had quite a different physical layout from those with a medieval legacy.

I studied an Open University senior honours art history course last year, purely for fun, and for my end of course project I analysed Barbari’s groundbreaking plan of Venice circa 1500. There are various surviving prints of this map around the world. I saw one in the Museo Correr in Venice, the civic museum in the Piazza San Marco. And my jaw hit the floor when I walked into the room. This is a map on a massive scale, spread across six printed sheets, over a total area of 135 by 282 cm. The level of detail is staggering, but hard to appreciate when you’re standing at a distance from the map. Luckily there is a good digitised copy, thanks to a modern Venetian architect. I would recommend checking this out.

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