1A special issue of the Distance Education journal dedicated to the ‘past contributions and possible futures’ in the field of education (Smith, 2005) reported that despite the context of convergence between traditional and distance education, distance education institutions were strong and still making a ‘unique contributions to the development of individuals, communities, nations, and the economic circumstances of mankind’. Ten years later, a special issue of the same Distance Education journal dedicated to the ‘Growing capacities for sustainable distance e-learning provision’ reported that distance education may be facing serious difficulties. Prinsloo (2016) notes that the impact of advances in and the affordances of technology have ‘left distance education less uniquely distinguishable’ than it was before as the boundaries between traditional on-campus and open and distance learning (ODL) institutions have become more blurred and traditional universities have started to offer a wider range of blended teaching and learning methods. In his report of his study examining ten specialist ODL universities in the Commonwealth, Garrett (2016) argues that distance and open education institutions have to defend their relevance, if not, for some, fight for their survival. Guillemet (2016), for example, exposes the challenges that the Quebec distance education institution TÉLUQ is facing due to the lack of government support combined with the development of e-learning provision in the traditional Quebec University UQAM. He also states that the tentative partnership to combine the two modes of study between the two institutions has not been successful. Like any other distance education institution, the Open University (OU), UK, - the largest provider of open and distance education in the world (circa 180,000 students in 2015) has to adapt to new political, educational and technological contexts. This paper gives an overview of the challenges faced by the OU and reports on a few of the latest developments the institution is proposing to ‘reinvent itself again’ as Peter Horrocks the vice-chancellor of the Open University puts it to the Times Higher Education (25 August 2016).
2According to Rumble (2004) cited in Orivel (2006), for many ODL institutions across the world, one of the main challenges, resulting in a reduction in student numbers, is the new competition coming from traditional universities which are now able to offer online courses. Lamy (2011) states that, for the Open University, it is the introduction of tuition fees and the government’s restrictions on student finance for those who already have a higher education qualification that have contributed the most to the drop in enrolments. The loss of government funding for Equivalent or Lower Qualifications (ELQ) in 2008 and the subsequent lifting of the tuition fee cap to £ 9,000, which came into force in 2012, signalled a fundamental change in the way Higher Education was funded in England, moving away from government funding to a system where the costs are borne by the students through a student loan scheme. Although this scheme was opened to part-time students, the two conditions imposed for a student loan, namely to be registered on a qualification, and to be studying at a higher level than any previous qualifications, prevented a substantial number of potential OU students from qualifying for it. This shift in funding therefore presented a considerable challenge for the OU particularly, as the vast majority of OU students up until then were studying on a modular basis rather than being enrolled for a whole qualification, and a significant number of learners did not aim to complete a full qualification, and also because, traditionally, the institution catered for students in need of up- or re-skilling—students who now fell within the scope of the ELQ restrictions. Consequently, the OU, like other part-time and distance providers, saw a decline in student numbers. According to The Times Higher Education (3 March 2016), the OU’s student numbers have dropped by a third in six years.
3The changes in government policy on funding described above, an increased focus by employers on skills, the growing impact of technology on education and the emergence of alternative models of education are the main factors that the Open University has identified as influencing significantly the environment in which the institution will have to operate in the next five years and beyond. Despite the national collapse in part-time study, the OU was able to retain the largest market share of part-time students in the UK and recently the organisation has been operating major changes to attract new students and retain its existing ones.
4The university was founded in 1969 to provide a degree-level learning experience to people who had not had the chance to attend traditional campus universities aged 18, or who did not hold any qualifications required for entry in other universities. While it has continued to operate under the same open entry policy, the organisation has had to align more with traditional UK universities : in 2012/13 there was a major shift to encourage students to register on qualifications rather than studying on a modular basis to respond to the changes in the funding system. Consequently, students’ needs and expectations have since transformed. The pedagogic implications are that distance teachers and support staff in general, combined with content and services increasingly being delivered online, have had to shift their role from teachers to facilitators of learning to ensure progression from module to module and to improve completion rates within a qualification.
5Like in any other ODL universities, retention rates at the OU have been lower than in conventional universities. Simpson (2013) gives a series of reasons for this : open entry, students transferring to other institutions to complete their degrees, students aiming for intermediate qualifications such as Certificates or Diplomas in Higher Education, and students juggling with the demands of work, illness, bereavement and other life experiences. Simpson (2013), however, does not consider these factors to be the most significant causes for lower completion and retention rates. Instead, he suggests that the main issue is students losing their motivation to study. Simpson (2013) points out that it is paradoxical that one reason for dropout in distance education may be the focus and effort that goes into teaching and materials rather than other kinds of support. He cites Anderson (2006) who believes that student dropout is largely due to one factor : ‘the loss of motivation to learn’. He quotes Anderson (2006) who says: ‘The best predictor of student retention is motivation’ and who explains that student self-referral does not work since students who need services the most refer themselves the least.
6The OU has been reviewing its student support system for a while and in 2014, a new scheme of student support was launched. With the view to provide as seamless a journey as possible from recruitment to graduation, the organisation introduced the Model for Integrated Learning and Learner Support (MILLS). New support teams are made up of academics and support staff and have a remit to manage and provide induction, on-course and pathway support to students based on their subject or qualification over the lifetime of their relationship with the university. Using learning analytics and working closely with tutors, support teams reach out to students by taking a proactive role in building and maintaining motivation with students through timely interventions.
7Massive open social learning is an element of the ‘Innovative pedagogy’ report (Sharples et al., 2014) exploring new forms of teaching, learning and assessment to guide educators and policy makers. It exploits the ‘network’ effect which means that the value of a networked experience increases as more people make use of it. The aim is to engage thousands of people in productive discussions and the creation of joint projects to share experience and build on previous knowledge, with educators linking the conversations with the learning content, enabling learners to review each other’s assignments, and comment on one another’s answers. This approach is used in OU modules via student-wide or tutor group forums to foster the collaborative nature of learning, a challenging goal in ODL where the learning experience has traditionally been a lonely and individual affair. This approach assumes that what is advocated by Garrison (2009), who believes that communities of inquiry based on collaborative constructivist principles are currently transforming higher education, is true. Garrison (2009) suggests that ‘transformation of teaching and learning at a distance can happen by fundamentally rethinking the collaborative nature of higher education’ (p. 98).
8When MOOCs appeared in the Higher Education environment, they were perceived as presenting new opportunities for learning in an informal context, and as a potential threat to Higher Educational institutions; they represented ‘promises’ and ‘perils’ (Krause & Lowe, 2014). Distance providers of Higher Education were seen as particularly threatened by the MOOC movement. The OU chose to seize this as an opportunity, and founded the UK’s first MOOC platform, FutureLearn, in 2012. In May 2016, FutureLearn entered a new phase and launched its first programmes allowing students to earn credits towards a university degree. The two partner universities who took part in this venture are the University of Leeds (UK) and the Open University (UK). Under this initiative, learners can sample higher education courses on a ‘try before you buy’ basis, and be entitled to skip part of their first year and potentially receive a discount in their tuition fees if they then choose to embark on a full degree. The OU vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks described this initiative for the Times Higher Education (26 May, 2016) as being a ‘brigehead’ between social learning and the more traditional degree system’. He also said : ‘We think it will be extremely attractive to learners and we also think it will have a very significant effect in helping to transform UK higher education’.
9The Open University also launched three degree apprenticeship courses this summer, responding to a UK government push to develop large numbers of new higher apprenticeships across the country. Students on the OU apprenticeship degrees work towards a full OU degree, combining their studies with working for their employer who will pay their full tuition fees. With more to follow in the coming months, the Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, told the Times Higher Education (4 August 2016) : ‘[this] could amount to a ‘significant reorientation’ of the OU’s activities’. In response to the criticism from UK ministers and some traditional universities, Mr Horrocks declared that these degrees could become very compelling for employers seeking the sort of value that apprenticeship degrees would add and for students in search of more cost-effective ways of obtaining a degree. He also reassured the public that apprenticeship degrees should not be considered as second-class degrees as students will have to meet the learning outcomes and all the rigorous quality assurance standards of higher education qualifications.
10The Open University, like most distance education institutions around the world, has been affected by changes in political and financial contexts. However, advances in technology have allowed the OU to fully embrace the OER movement and develop the OpenLearn repository used worldwide and develop innovative ways of learning with MOOCs. Technology has also enabled the OU to think about what human interventions are possible to leverage best practice in teaching and learning at a distance.
11It is too early to evaluate the impact of the MILLS and to see how far such a new mode of contact act on the students’ learning motivation. However, Simpson’s study (2013) suggests that there is clear evidence that proactive contact increases student retention. It is hoped that the new model of support integrated in the new ‘Student First’ overall university strategy will have a positive impact on student retention and progression through qualifications. Further research into learners’ perceptions of learning collaboratively and more informally needs to be undertaken to seek further evidence that this mode is suitable for all distance learners, and in particular for Open University learners studying for a formal degree. The effects of MOOCs as a way into formal higher education qualifications are unknown and it remains to be seen whether these kinds of MOOCs and apprenticeship degrees will have an impact on students taking up OU degrees. However, the latest developments listed in this paper demonstrate that the OU can still be at the forefront of innovations in teaching and learning.
12According to the Open and Distance Education Policy briefing paper (2013), ODL is one of the most rapidly growing fields of higher education and training globally and may be the only way of meeting the growth of anticipated future student demands for flexible learning opportunities. It is hoped that the recent initiatives launched by the OU have relevance for students who seek to enhance their job prospects and have relevance for meeting the demand for higher education and the creation of a global, knowledge-based, networked society. Nevertheless, all stakeholders need to promote a better and deeper understanding of the role and contribution of open and distance learning for meeting societal challenges and a higher participation in higher education. Particularly, there needs to be government support to ensure financial stability and allow providers to deliver social impact. Collaboration across institutions and across borders will be necessary and should be encouraged to create a robust framework for open and distance learning in order to allow it to release its full potential and meet the increasingly complex and diversified demands and needs of students and society.