I have been studying with the Open University (OU) since 1995 and should complete my BSc in Natural Sciences (Hons) this year (assuming a successful exam result). I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience of the OU and thought that a synopsis of my experiences might be useful to anyone considering this route to Higher Education.
WHY THE OU?
As a teenager, I was predicted straight A’s in my A Levels (Physics, Maths and Chemistry) unfortunately, I was distracted by new-found interests including part-time work, parties and the opposite sex and hence squandered my chances! My A Levels were nowhere near good enough to get a place on the courses that I wanted at a traditional university and so I left full-time education for the daily grind of the nine-to-five – my first real lesson in the results of lack of prioritisation!
Some years later, I began to wonder whether I had it in me to study at undergraduate level and I began to research my options. I found that the OU offered a number of attractive options. There was flexibility of study - essential in my professional life, there were no pre-entry requirements other than commitment, and costs were reasonable. The subjects on offer were closely aligned with my interests and student support seemed good; the reputation of the Summer Schools was legendary...
And so my decision was made...
A degree with the OU is awarded after earning a number of points – 360 points is the minimum total currently required for a degree. Each individual course counts towards that total, courses can be worth 60, 30 or 10 points. Be aware that the number of points awarded is an indication of the amount of work/time required for that course, not the intellectual challenge involved, for example a 60-point course requires around 15 hours of study per week and a 30-point course 8 – 9 hours of study per week. For convenience, OU students refer to a 60-point course as a Whole Credit and 30-point courses are Half Credits; lesser point awards tend to be given for attending Summer Schools.
Courses are organised into Levels. Level 1 courses are probably the equivalent of Foundation Courses in mainstream education and, broadly speaking, take you from GCSE Level to first-year degree level in pretty short order. Level 2 courses equate to second year study at a traditional university and Level 3 courses equate to the final year of studies. Courses may or may not have a 7-day Summer School associated with them – some Summer Schools are compulsory, others are not. As a general rule, attend them if you can – they are invaluable as a learning aid, a good revision tool and an excellent social opportunity – do be warned however that courses with summer schools are usually much more expensive (around double the cost) than courses without.
I have found that the number of hours required per course is accurately reflected in the literature provided by the OU – this was a shock as previously I had been used to the types of course where 5 hours work was crammed into 3 days! To succeed you must be self-disciplined, well organised and have a very understanding family! This last point cannot be over-emphasized – 15 hours per week does not sound like much time but it is 2 hours per night, combine that with full-time work, a family and house-hold chores etc. and you begin to see the problems – burning the midnight oil can be very common especially as deadlines approach.
Assessment is generally by a combination of methods. There are Computer Marked Assignments (CMA’s), usually these are in the form of multiple choice question and answer sessions. Tutor Marked Assignments (TMA’s) are written assignments and, although structured, allow freedom to develop individual lines of thought and reasoning. Lastly, there may be an end of course assessment, either in the form of a written examination or a project (or both) depending on the course.
The choice of course subject available from the OU is vast and not all are at degree level, there are certificate and diploma courses as well as undergraduate courses. In general, combining related subjects will result in a course profile that allows the award of a degree in a named subject – useful if studying for professional or career reasons. On the other hand, as long as you have the required number of points, a general degree can be awarded; this allows you to follow a course of study in subjects purely out of interest rather than with a defined goal. This freedom of choice, I think, is one of the major advantages of OU study, but it is also one of the pitfalls. There is a danger of ending-up with an eclectic mix of subjects that may not be of any practical use or that do connect or relate to each other in any way – this connection is very useful, especially at higher levels where the intellectual demands may be more demanding. There is professional advice available to assist in course choices should you require it.
TEACHING / STUDENT SUPPORT
Whilst I have no direct experience of traditional universities, many friends and colleagues have. Drawing on their comments on what they have seen of the OU study materials and from what I have read or experienced, I feel that the standard of teaching is high within the OU environment. Written material is very good, it is up to date and regularly reviewed; even the TV programmes are of high quality with hardly a beard, flares or open-toed sandal in sight! There are audio and video tapes available to enhance the learning experience and an increasing number of courses are embracing the internet as a medium for students and staff to get together in online conferences etc. It is also worth pointing out that you are no longer denied the facility of an academic library since all students with internet access can utilise the OU's own library online. You are assigned your own tutor who is never more than an e-mail or telephone call away. You can be as sociable as you like! The only thing that I would say is that support is better during Level 1 courses than at higher levels – presumeably part of the degree process is an increased independance.
On the whole, I have thoroughly enjoyed my studies with the OU. I have studied courses that I wished to study and will be awarded the degree that I wanted to get. The support and advice that I have received from the staff at the OU has been good. I already have a great feeling of satisfaction from my studies and have picked-up a Certificate and Diploma along the way. Hopefully, my positive experience will place me in a good position whent it comes to career and job hunting. That said, studying with the OU requires dedication, commitment, persistence and discipline, it is easy to give up since no one badgers you for that late assignment or asks you to justify non-attendance at lectures. Nevertheless, I thouroughly recommend the OU to anyone whether studying for reasons of enjoyment, career or challenge.
I love studying with OU, now on my third course. This is a very good review explaining clearly to anyone who is thinking of registering exactly what is required of them.
LR_17 20.03.2004 21:48
Nice review of the OU. I've just started to study with them this year for a degree in music. I love the fact that it is flexible, no pressure involved and the support is there if you need it. Good luck with what you decide to do...Leila :)
blackswann 26.01.2004 22:45
Great review! I am doing an OU Degree in Mathematical Sciences... wish me luck! All the best.. Lee