Sunday, 1 July 2012

Beginner’s Blindness: Higher Education - The Open University

Two years after I lost my sight, friends and relatives were concerned about what I was going to do.  The only sport I enjoyed was skiing and with a lot of time on my hands they implied that I ought to do something.  The Open University was suggested and with some basic facts found for me, I gave them a call.  An advisor was curious when I said I did not want to study a science.  After I explained that I already had a PhD from a Scottish university (1583 founded) we discussed various options.  So it was that I embarked on 5 years of study at the OU in Arts and Humanities.  I wanted to find out if I could learn anything. 

As an alumnus of the OU, newsletters appear in my In Box and one such arrived encouraging me to spread the word about the OU.  I questioned the OU about their facilities for visually impaired people saying that I had found quite a few obstacles when I studied there.  After a few exchanges I agreed to write a post encouraging people with visual impairments to consider the option of study at the OU.  My exchanges have been with the alumnus relations team and the links given below   are given in good faith.

Information for Blind or partially sighted students:

Details of financial support and disabled students allowances:

Details about OpenLearn - how we can make some of our resources available on the web for free:

OU on the BBC: Secrets Of Our Living Planet:

So, if you (or a relative or friend) find you’re having to live with a life changing disability, the OU could be a worthy challenge if you want to consider higher education.  There are many ways of accessing the OU: through their programmes with television, Open Learn, individual courses or a formal degree programme.   

Distance learning has its pluses and minuses.  Many people still have impressions of the OU from old TV programmes, summer schools and catering for the “Lighthouse keeper in the Western Isles”.  However, much has changed and even during the years that I studied with the OU, many changes occurred in legislation, technology, funding and accessibility issues.  The transition from audio cassettes to other formats was clunky and not well handled when viewed across different level courses.  Thus, earlier courses still had material on VHS video tape when DVD had long been around and courses at higher levels had extremely limited access.  Things appear to have changed, but I would advise prospective students to make enquiries to satisfy themselves.  Technology may have made material much more accessible though awareness of blindness should be apparent in practice and not just a politically correct mantra. 

On a personal level, doing the courses provided a focus, and the coursework and assignments a discipline and structure to my time.  It was also an opportunity to study something different.  I was fortunate to have had some very supportive tutors with one even taking the time to read onto cassette tape some of the required readings.  He had effectively saved me from buying 7 cassette players and connecting them in series.  (No, I’m not joking!) 

However, study with the OU is challenging and it is not a soft option.  Depending on the course you choose, the amount of material “to read” can be substantial.  Also, completing the written assignments and preparing for the end of year exam can be daunting, though not insurmountable.  As for costs: when I studied, the fees were moderate at a few hundred pounds and a Disabled Student Allowance was available to cover costs of computer with assistive technology, note taking and essay typing and administration and reading.

I am able to comment on some aspects of the Open University.  Distance Learning may not help in isolation problems though social media is now ideal for discussions on items if you cannot attend tutorials in person.  I found contact with the tutor and other students a significant part of the education programme.