When Open University television broadcasts began on January 3 1971, Doctor Who nemesis The Master was on the cover of that week’s 1 shilling/5p Radio Times, and Top of the Pops featured the Number One song Granddad by Dad’s Army actor Clive Dunn. And the very first of The Open University’s course-related broadcasts went out on BBC 2 at 11am.
Over 300 programmes were made with the BBC initially to cover four foundation courses for the new UK University. Television as a new higher education tool grew from there.
Early OU programme
A measure of its success can be seen at the OU library in Milton Keynes, where the archive of scripts for the tens of thousands of OU course-related programmes ever made measures 92 metres, the length of a football pitch.
Fast-forward almost 36 years to December 16, 2006 at 05:30 am when the last Open University course-related TV programme will be broadcast. A103 Art: A question of style, Neoclassicism and Romanticism has been a stalwart since it was first broadcast in 1998.
It’s not a television The End though, just a change of delivery for The Open University. As technology has fast-forwarded from VCR to DVD and from analogue to digital, so has the way the OU delivers its distance learning. There’s no need for that course material to be broadcast any longer when students absorb it by podcast, DVD and virtual learning environments of the 21st century. Nor is it the end of The Open University programmes on BBC TV and radio, for the OU has evolved into making television series of broad appeal for viewers, peak-time programmes such as Coast, Child of our Time, Stardate, Battle of the Geeks, and next year, Lenny’s Britain.
A lot of people have insomniac memories of OU programmes, even if they weren’t OU students, because for years it was all that was on telly at that time.
When the end comes, the audience is likely to be the same cast of characters as for the thousands of other OU programmes in science, technology, maths, physics, languages, education, social science, business, art, literature and computing that have preceded it –students, insomniacs, night workers, early risers in all forms of people from feverish babies keeping mothers awake, to the elderly for whom the blue-grey glow of the box is a companion.
“It was all there on offer in those 35 plus years – higher education for the watching for anyone who had a TV,” says Sally Crompton, Head of the Open Broadcast Unit. “Whether course-related material, or our current schedule, the OU logo has always meant intelligent programming.”