CIO Profile: The Open University's David Matthewman on the business of education

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The Open University, established in 1968 and headquartered close to the centre of Milton Keynes, is a campus without any students.

It was envisioned from the start as a College-of-the-Air and has close links with another great British institution, the BBC stemming from its earliest days.

In the otherwise stuffy and exclusive higher education environment within the UK, the OU has managed to garner a reputation for turning out high-calibre graduates, even though traditionally they have come from backgrounds where university is not thought of as a natural life choice.

CIO David Matthewman, who joined less than a year ago, is at pains to point out the difference between the OU and other remote-learning institutions.

Students do much of their study at home, alone with reading materials, but this is supplemented with online learning programmes, video content and face-to-face tutorials on a regular basis.

He says: “It’s not just books in the post, it’s much more flexible and much more supportive learning environment than most people associate with correspondence-type courses.”

Matthewman is a typical example of the sort of person who excels with an OU degree, as he also directed a lot of his own education by his own hand.

It’s easy to see that he has the ambition of someone who knows what is possible when you’ve pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps.

The OU itself is an organisation that isn’t bounded by the traditional constraints of red-brick university thinking. It’s broken new ground in flexible and open learning and with 260,000 students, it’s the biggest higher education establishment in the UK by a long way.

Other education organisations have seen how well the OU has become established and want a piece of its market, so it’s even more important that it stays ahead of the competition. That’s where Matthewman comes in.

Along with the domestic student population, the OU also participates in a couple of overseas development projects. One, Teaching Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) recycles teaching materials to over 360,000 teachers in the region. Another provides pre and post-natal guidance to expectant mothers in Ethiopia.

With its students in such a flexible and distributed environment, communications and powerful data-crunching technology is required for the university to function.

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