An history of new technology at the Open University

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This page provides a (growing) account of the history of how new technologies have been used and developed within The Open University (OU) in the UK

Please feel free to add to this history


Jan 2022: New data platform Titan

"Titan, our new data platform, gives us the ability to utilise detailed data about our prospective and current students' engagement with our website, our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), the Library, tutorials, and much more. Work is taking place to provide our students and learners with a suite of solutions that will enhance personalisation for our student interventions. These data solutions will improve our staff experience too, by providing automation when supporting our students in achieving their goals."

2013: FutureLearn opens

01 January 2009: New Second Life islands

OU takes delivery of new islands on Second Life Main Grid.

November 2008: New Vice Chancellor

Martin Bean (General Manager responsible for product management, marketing and business development for the Worldwide Education Products Group at Microsoft) is appointed to be the university's fifth Vice Chancellor. Outgoing VC, Brenda Gourley, commented, 'I am delighted that Martin has been chosen and know that his tremendous record of success in technology enabled education is going to be of inestimable benefit to the future of this University.

8 August 2008: OUView YouTube channel opens

OU View YouTube channel contains over 300 videos plus links to other OU resources such as Open Learn

February 2008: OpenLife replaces CETLment in Second Life virtual world

CETLment was replaced by OpenLife as the main OU island in Second Life virtual world. OpenLife was located adjacent to SchomeBase as they seemed to offer complementary foci - with OpenLife being focused on 'formal OU teaching' (eg tutorials associated with OU courses).

March 2007: Digital Audio Project

The OU begins work on the Digital Audio Project. The project is a three-year programme to investigate, create and distribute digital talking books (DTBs) from OU course materials by utilizing the technological innovations created by the new international standard - the Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY) leading to a wide range of educational materials being made available to print-disabled students in a high-quality alternative format. For further information, please visit: <a href="<a href=""

October 2007: First OU Facebook app

For more details on the Course Profiles app, see

December 2006: Last course programme broadcast

The last of the course programmes was broadcast on BBC 2's late-night Learning Zone in December 2006. The OU continued to work with the BBC on 'peak time' programmes that were of general public interest (as well as including academic content).

SchomeBase materialised

SchomeBase was the Schome Initiative's island in Second Life virtual world. See The SchomeBase bliki on this site for more info.

Digilab opened is a showcase within the OU library for tools, technologies and resources illustrating how today's technology can nurture tomorrow's learners. User guides explain how engaging interactive materials achieve successful learning outcomes.

31 October 2006: Launch of eLearning Community

Established by then-PVC Paul Clark to share experiences and support informal discussion around elearning for staff at the OU. See eLC Knowledge Network pages for further info and past presentations on elearning (OU staff only).

25 October 2006: Launch of Open Learn

June 2006: OU's first island materialised in Second Life virtual world

The OU's first island in Second Life virtual world was CETLment. It was set up by Jacquie Bennett, a CETL Teaching Fellow and AL on some OU courses in Technology.

November 2005: OU chooses Moodle

The OU announced that it was going to use Moodle as the basis for its own VLE. Dougiamas, M. (2005) Open University chooses Moodle! Press release in the Moodle forums.

April 2005: VLE Business case approved

The VLE Business Case identified two potential solutions: Option A – in-house development to integrate existing services and implement systems for missing functionality. Option B – integrate as part of an open source consortium, using existing open-source components where possible and develop and release new systems as open source. It went on to recommend that the OU implement a VLE based on:an open architecture and, where possible, to ensure that our systems and production processes are compliant with open, internationally recognised standards; a web services approach that will enable standards compliant elearning, systems and tools to be detached and added as required; current systems and tools, amended as necessary to conform appropriately to identified standards; gaps in functionality and services filled by appropriate commercial, open-source or, exceptionally, in-house developed systems. Its fifth recommendation was that Option A (in-house development) be adopted. (OU VLE Team 2005 pp4-5)

February 2005: Revised eLearning Policy

The revised eLearning Policy set out the commitment to levels of usage of new technologies within OU courses and student support which (it claimed) were agreed by Academic Board in 2004

November 2004: VLE Phase 1 Report

The VLE Phase 1 team, led by Martin Weller (soon to become Prof Weller) recommended that the OU set up a VLE based on: an open, service oriented architecture based around web services; appropriate learning technology standards; the 50 functional requirements identified in section 7, fulfilled through a mix of currently implemented systems and new tools developed in-house, bought-in or developed as Open Source products.(Weller et al 2004 p.6)

July 2004: Revised eStrategy

"In July 2004 Academic Board adopted a modified policy that requires universal provision of ICT based T&LS and administrative services by 2005 (as stated in the previous version of the policy) but relaxed the start date of mandatory online access for all students to January 2007" (OU 2005 p.9). This commitment required that by January 2005 all programmes should have integrated compulsory ICT-based activity, all courses have some ICT-based activity, either required or optional depending on the course,and that by the 1st January 2007 programmes will make meaningful (as opposed to token) use of eLearning, involving progressive development of ICT and eLearning skills along a pathway to a named degree or other qualification, 60% of Level 2 courses and 75% of Level 3 courses will contain compulsory eLearning elements, students can expect that courses will include attractive and pedagogically effective uses of eLearning, students will be provided with resources to develop their ICT skills to the appropriate level for the courses they are taking; (progressive training opportunities to match eLearning requirements by level) (OU 2005 pp.12-13)

2004: New technology stats

"In 2004, we had around 300,000 registered users (and 160,000 active users) of our computer-conferencing system, 350 courses that make use of some form of digital material or communications and 178 courses that require online access. We have produced around 2,000 e-text files of course materials across 185 courses. The OU supports some 60,000 computer conferences and 1000 conferences that are moderated by OU students, and in 2004 around 100,000 assignments were submitted, marked and returned to students electronically." (OU 2005 p.9)

September 2003: OU Production Centre closed

The OU Production Centre – which produced TV programmes, closed. This reflected the shift towards the use of CDs and DVDs rather than broadcast for courses' audio-visual materials. Due to the penetration of CD and DVD players into (potential) students' homes there was a shift away from broadcast TV (and radio) towards providing audio-visual materials for courses on CD or DVD.

2002: Lyceum used in Language courses

According to Wikipedia, Lyceum was developed at the Open University and was introduced into language tutorials in 2002. Lyceum is a synchronous form of computer-mediated communication that allows groups of people to speak to one another in real time over the Internet using Voice over IP conferencing. It also offers an interactive whiteboard, a concept mapping device, a word processor and a written text chat facility.

June 2002: New eStrategy

"In June 2002 the OU adopted a strategy for the expansion of elearning that included the expectations of online access by all students (by 2005) and Associate Lecturers (ALs) (by 2004). There was a complementary expectation that all course teams will assure the provision of useful elements of online teaching and learning by 2005." (OU 2005 p.9)

2001: CD and DVD production stats

In 2001 the OU produced 773,000 CD-ROMs and 3000 DVDs (OU 2005 p.9)

2001: Intranet launched

Press release: 'The first version of the OU Intranet was developed and launched in 2001'

October 2000: ProMISES established

Funding agreed for the Project for Management of Integrated Scaleable Electronic Services (ProMISES) "to provide systems, tools and procedures that will enable a large number of course teams to develop and maintain a basic online presence to support their teaching and learning activities. In the project’s first iteration, an online presence will consist of a course homepage area, links to ROUTES, some basic CMC, and a simple online course calendar." This became the 'eDesktop' which provided a standard course website/interface for students. Until then every website could appear very differently - there was no standard design across faculties, or even within faculties. The development team were Stephen Bradley (LTS), Dave Meara (LTS), Chris Pegler (then LTS), Andrew Remely (IET), David Wardell (LTS) and David Wilson (LTS). The initial target was to roll this out over 113 courses (by 2004 there were 270+ eDesktop sites).

2000: First virtual graduation

Some OU students, including those from the MA in Online and Distance Education (MAODE) were able to graduate at a distance. See for some interesting (and dated) views on where the OU thought it was going then.

2000: e-moderating

Kogan Page published the first edition of E-moderating: The Key to Online Teaching and Learning by Gilly Salmon who was, at that time, a member of the Centre for Information and Innovation at The Open University Business School .

1999: T171 The first fully online undergraduate course

'T171 You, your computer and the net' was the first fully online undergraduate course at the OU. However, this 30-point course did have printed materials, including a course guide and three set books. The 1999 presentation was a trial, with the first full presentation in 2000. The course was developed from scratch in 12 months. Martin Weller was the course team chair and Ernie Taylor was the course manager.Ches Lincoln provided the following account of the development of T171 (via email to PeterT on 1-Feb-2010): EMERG did indeed completely produce the T171 website. ACS didn't have any capability in the web production area at the time. EMERG investigated content management engines, but John Naughton, one of the course authors (John Naughton, Martin Weller, Gary Alexander), decided we should use something called Frontier, which was a web content production engine but not a content management engine. The design studio produced the page designs using DreamWeaver. We then stripped the cr*p out of those and turned the bones into the code lines required by the Frontier engine to produce pages. As we got content from the authors we put it through the engine then passed it to an editor, who would fiddle with it a bit, then mount it on the experimental site. Ideally the content should have been amenable to being rejigged by the engine, but the hand editing meant this wouldn't work. The website was mounted on FirstClass server 2, and made use of some of the internal functions of FirstClass. In 2000 we handed everything over to LTS, who had employed some staff by then. They moved to a ColdFusion engine. Will Woods wrote a report on the whole process. See Lunsford, J. (2001) T171: You, Your Computer and the Net' an ITLO case study. Milton Keynes: The Open University.See also Case Study T171: Interview with Martin Weller, Course Team Chair, and Ernie Taylor, Course Manager.

1998: H802 First fully online postgraduate course

First presentation of IET's H802 'Applications of IT in Distance Education' as part of its MA in Open and Distance Education programme. This was the first of the OU's web-based courses. No books and used the eBBS (electronic bulletin board system) developed in IET by Matthew Stratfold and others. Course chaired by Robin Mason (IET). Some question about whether or not DM863 was the first fully online postgraduate course in 1993 - though it did have a set book (and I'm not clear when DM863 was first presented)

1998: The Learning Schools Programme (LSP) started

The initial team working on the LSP moved to Coffridge Close in Stony Stratford sometime in 1998. LSP was a collaboration with Research Machines plc to provide training for hundreds of thousands of teachers in the UK – as part of the NOF training scheme.Parts of the LSP website are archived at At its peak, the Primary first class conference had over 20,000 active contributors, and the SEN conference had over 6,000 (all using firstclass through a web interface).

img src="/wiki/images/1/12/OU_website_1997.png Archived view of The Open University website from 1997. Available at<br title="Archived view of The Open University website from 1997.

1997: Bulletin board system

The Masters in Online and Distance Education used a bulletin board system, eBBS, that worked via the web and had been developed in-house.

‎1996: Personal Computing Policy

The Personal Computing Policy was approved (replacing the second Home Computing Policy) - (source email from Roger Moore dated 2/1/09)

1996: First undergraduate use of the WWW

We think that the first undergraduate use of the World Wide Web was as part of the Infosystems activity at T102 Summer School in 1996.

1995: The New Technology Recruitment Initiative

The new technology recruitment initiative (NTRI) saw the appointment of 33 staff across the OU, all of whom were selected because of their expertise in the pedagogical uses of new technologies. The aim of the NTRI was to enhance the OU's use of new technologies in its own teaching.

1995: Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) set up

KMi was set up in recognition of the need for The Open University to be at the forefront of research and development in a convergence of areas that impacted on the OU's very nature: Cognitive and Learning Sciences, Artificial Intelligence and Semantic Technologies, and Multimedia.

1995: Technology Foundation Course integrates CMC

"The Big Bang was in 1995/6. In 1995 the Technology Foundation course decided it wanted an online discourse element and was wavering betwen CoSy and FirstClass. It seemed fairly clear that CoSy - which was struggling anyway - wouldn't meet the course needs and was unlikely to be able to carry the load (5000+). It was no longer being maintained by Guelph who produced it and the main coding support person (remember Paul Hare?) had left. Whatever T102 (foundation) did was going to be followed by at least two other Tech courses, one pretty large. So three more servers were set up to support the three T courses. During 1995 we devised and delivered cascaded training to tutors (sorry ALs). Then in 1996 we went live, something like 7-8 thousand students." (quote from email from Ches Lincoln 3-Nov-08)

1994: PGCE starts integrating FirstClass

The PGCE was the first course/programme within the OU to be supported by ACS in using FirstClass as an integral part of its 'presentations' ... Students on the PGCE were provided with a computer and modem (which were left with their host school at the end of the course) "Then in 1994 the new PGCE insisted on using FirstClass, They wanted to anyway, but the thing that forced everyone's hand was a) that they were using Macs, having got hefty help from Apple and b) Ashmount, the authors of the Wigwam PC graphical interface for CoSy were commissioned to write a Mac equivalent but proved unable to do so. This was the point at which ACS set up their first FirstClass server (with a bit of help from our team). Laury Melton was in charge." (quoted from email from Ches Lincoln 3-Nov-08)

1994: Virtual Summer School trial

In August and September 1994, a" Virtual Summer School (VSS) for an Open University undergraduate course enabled students to attend an experimental version of summer school 'electronically', i.e. from their own homes using a computer and a modem. VSS students were able to participate in group discussions, run experiments, obtain one-to-one tuition, listen to lectures, ask questions, participate as subjects in experiments, conduct literature searches, browse original journal publications, work in project teams, undertake statistical analyses, prepare and submit nicely formatted individual or joint written work, prepare plenary session presentations, and even socialize and chit-chat, all without ever leaving their homes. The term 'Virtual Summer School' was used to mean that the software packages supplied to students emulate many aspects of a residential summer school, but without requiring physical attendance. In 1994, this was an experimental option for a dozen already-excused students on D309, which gave a low-risk entry in order to assess the viability of the approach.

October 1993: First compulsory use of FirstClass

The first compulsory use of FirstClass was on Tone Hasemer's LISP course (DM863). This was hosted on the Phoenix server (ie the EMERG team's own server) and played a part in helping to persuade ACS to support FirstClass. "The first OU course to use it [FirstClass] wasn't in Technology, it was DM863 - Introduction to LISP programming for Artificial Intelligence, which had previously been using CoSy. In 1993 they went over to FC. Incidentally, DM863 was also the first completely online course - no f2f tutorials and no printed materials other than the set book. Not the current model of online presentation, of course (Course units in a less readable form <g>) but more of a classroom/seminar room model, where discussion was paramount." (quoted from email from Ches Lincoln 3-Nov-08)

1993: The Homer CD-ROM

The Homer CD-ROM was the OU's first venture into multi-media. It was used as part of 'A295 Homer: Poetry and Society'.<p>See Chambers, E. & Rae, J. (1999) Evaluation of the Homer CD-ROM: Final Report. Milton Keynes: Open University.

Homer CD-ROM main menu.jpg" alt="Homer CD-ROM main menu.jpg" title="Homer CD-ROM main menu.jpg"

1993: Rethinking University Teaching

The book Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology was first published by Routledge. It was written by Diana Laurillard, thenProfessor of Educational Technology and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Learning Technology and Teaching at The Open University. The book covered lindividual teaching methods and media, including non-interactive media (lectures, print, audio, etc.), hypermedia (CD-ROM, etc.), and interactive media (simulations, modelling programs etc.)

October 1993: Course presented entirely using CMC

From October 1993 to January 1994, an eight-week experimental course, XT001 Renewable Energy Technology, was presented entirely through computer-meidated communication. This involved 24 students and 13 staff. The course was run on the FirstClass converencing system. (Ref: 'Open and Distance Learning Today (1995)edited by Fred Lockwood.) Former OU Vice Chancellor John Daniel remembers : "In 1992 the OU Student Association was pretty hostile to the Home Computing Policy, taking the egalitarian view that "if everyone can't have it no-one should have it." They said we were moving too fast to require people to have computers. Two years later they were criticising us for moving too slowly." "

1992: Second Home Computing Policy

The second Home Computing Policy (HCP2) was approved (source: email from Roger Moore dated 2/1/09)

The book Collaborative Learning Through Computer Conferencing: The Najaden Papers, edited by Anthony Kaye, was published by Springer. The book examines the ways in which computer conferencing can be used for collaboration and group learning in the contexts of distance education, adult learning, professional training, and organisational networking.

1992: JANUS Project set up FirstClass Server

"We set up the first FirstClass server in 1992, for the JANUS project. In order to trial it we got many technology staff to use it for their mail (we previously had MSMail but it was before the days of Exchange, of course) and coursework authoring – and random people in other areas of the university also signed up to try it out. We also ran some smallish pan-european courses for the JANUS project." (Quoted from email from Ches Lincoln 3-Nov-08)

1990: OU courses on tv change timeslot

Due to changing viewing patterns - largely driven by the penetration of video recorders into (potential) students' homes - the timing of OU programmes moved from evening and weekend slots to the BBC's overnight Learning Zone, which students had to record to watch later (or stay up into the early hours of the morning). M357 was the first course to break the computing specification for HCP1 because of the demanding requirements of the database package, it needed 2 floppy disk drives instead of just one! (Don't forget, these were machines without a hard drive. Home Computing now got established. T102 was the first foundation course to expect students to work on their computers at home. Jake Chapman and Phil Butcher led the development of some exciting and innovative educational software using the Gem user interface available on these machines. M353 was the follow on from M205 and further developed the Computing courses syllabus. M372 was the partner to M371 and again used some groundbreaking interactive multimedia software. Student numbers on the program now about 15,000 and University support systems had to ramp up to accommodate this.

1989: Mindweave

The book Mindweave: communication, computers and distance education, edited by Robin Mason and Anthony Kaye, was published by Pergamon Press. Its chapters covere many aspects of technology use at the OU, including one on 'An Evaluation of CoSy on an Open University Course'.

1988: The first Home Computing Policy

The first Home Computing Policy was introduced (HCP1). This policy was driven by a number of far-thinking people including Norman Gowar, Jim Burrows, John Naughton and others. A substantial grant was raised from the Department of Education which allowed us to set up a loan scheme with about 2,500 computers. The computer specification was: 512 kB RAM, single 5.25" DD floppy disk drive, CGA mono monitor and MS-DOS 2.1 with Gem version 2. Effectively this meant an Amstrad 1512. We cut a deal with Alan Sugar to allow OU students to purchase this machine, with a printer for £500. (Probably about five times that in 2009 prices?) The first three courses were DT200, and M205 and M371. There were about 5,000 students and 47,000 floppy discs were distributed in this first year. DT200 – Chaired by Nick Heap, this was a groundbreaking course. Enormously popular, in its first few years it had around 2000 students. Geoff Einon & Steve Majithia were key players in the software development. Not only did it introduce students to the basics of what we now call Office software: First Word Plus, Lotus-123, DacEasy Base, Gem Paint, it also used the budding Internet. Students communicated with each other using the CoSy conferencing system. In addition they had to carry out a survey, enter the results into DacEasy base and use Kermit to send it out to the University. Here, we had developed a system to collate all the students data. They then downloaded this collated data and at the write a TMA comparing and contrasting some aspect of the survey.

1987: Online library search

From Open House, the OU’s staff newspaper: in this month (February) in 1987, a Liaison Librarian describes helping users with “on-line library searches”. Answers returned “from computers in London, Rome and Palo Alto” within minutes – the average search cost “under £20”!

1986: Staff using CoSy

Staff at the OU started to use CoSy, an asynchronous text based communication application, in 1986. There is a write-up of this in 'Empowering networks: computer conferencing in education' by Michael D Waggoner (1992)

1986: World's first online university course runs in Canada

The first totally online credit course delivered entirely via the Internet was taught in January, 1986 at the University of Toronto, through the Graduate School of Education (then called OISE: the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education).

1985: Video cassettes made available on loan

1983: Lightweight VT recording

In 1983 the OU Production Centre pioneered the use of lightweight VT recording for non-news programmes.

1981: Trials of Cyclops telewriting system for remote tutoring

With funding from British Telecom, a two-year trial of the Cyclops telewriting system was carried out in the East Midlands Region. Students at fifteen OU study centres used a Cyclops system installed on a trolley to connect with other students and a tutor for remote tutorials. The tutor displayed pre-prepared graphics at each study centre which the students could annotate, by drawing on the screen with a 'light pen', and discuss.

1981: Study centres in dial-up network

There were more than 250 study centres in the dial-up network mostly with teletype or VT100 terminals.

1980: Computers and Learning research report

Max Bramer wrote the "CAL Research Group Technical Report No.1" entitled "Using Computers in Distance Education: the first 10 years of the British OU",

January 1980: Opus HEK

TM221 "The Digital Computer" used an Opus HEK. DD303 A cognitive psychology course use the Artificial Intelligence language SOLO, devised by Mark Eisenstat and implemented by Adam Gawronski.

1976: Development of Cyclops telewriting system

First experimental developments of what became the Cyclops system – then called a telewriting or audio-graphic system but nowadays would be called a shared whiteboard system – under two separate teams in the Faculties of Mathematics (Read and Bacsich) and Technology (Pinches and Liddell) – the first team focusing on storage on cassette tape of digital data to drive visual displays; the second focusing on transmission of handwriting over telephone lines.

1976: SCS replaced the Hewlett-Packards with three DEC2040 computers

These had 192 KWords of memory (abt. 1MB) & two 100MB disc drives. Each could have 32 simultaneous users. M351 "Numerical Computing" started this year.

1973: Computer terminals provided in OU study centres

Courses using this service included M251: "An Algorithmic Approach to Computing" and PM951 "Computers and Computing"

December 1971: OU signs agreement with BBC

The OU and BBC signed a formal agreement which involved OU programmes being broadcast on BBC 2 and Radio 4 (for up to 30 hours per week)

January 1971: McArthur microscope

The University's first four courses are launched. Students receive their home experiment kits though the post - including the award-winning McArthur Microscope - a handheld microscope adapted for the University by the designer. Adaptations included the use of moulded plastic - more economical to make and cheaper to send through the post to the students.

1970: Student Computing Service established

Student Computing Service started in 1970 as a sub unit of the Faculty of Mathematics to serve the M100 course. There were three HP 2000 computers, one each in Newcastle, London and Milton Keynes. They were dedicated to run BASIC.

1969: Institute of Educational Technology (IET)

The Institute of Educational Technology (IET) opens. Its importance was recognised in the speech of the university's first chancellor, Lord Crowther, at the OU inauguration on 23 July 1969. "The world is caught in a communications revolution, the effects of which will go beyond those of the industrial revolution of two centuries ago. Then the great advance was the invention of machines to multiply the potency of men's muscles. Now the great new advance is the invention of machines to multiply the potency of men's [sic] minds. As the steam engine was to the first revolution, so the computer is to the second. It has been said that the addiction of the traditional university to the lecture room is a sign of its inability to adjust to the development of the printing press. That of course is unjust. But at least no such reproach will be levelled at The Open University in the communications revolution. Every new form of human communication will be examined to see how it can be used to raise and broaden the level of human understanding. There is no restriction on techniques."

23 July 1969: The inauguration

Other histories of the OU

Weinbren, Daniel, 2015. The Open University: A History. Manchester University Press.

The Programme on Learner Use of Media (PLUM) – which was produced within IET – provided a 'complete' history of the use of media in the OU up until about 2005.

History of the OU on the International Institute of Management LINK (viewed 2-Oct-2008)


Issroff, K. & Scanlon, E. (2002)  Educational Technology: The influence of theory. Journal of Interactive Media in Educaiton, 2002 (6). ISSN: 1365 893X (Viewed 2-Oct-2008)

OU (2005 eading the Learning Revolution: The eLearning Policy of the Open University. February 28th 2005, Version 2.1, Milton Keynes: Open University.

OU VLE Team (2005) OU Virtual Learning Environment Project: Business Case v2.0 (composite). July 2005, Milton Keynes: Open University.

Remely, A. (2000)The ProMISES Plan – A PLUM discussion paper. PLUM No 136. Milton Keynes: Open University.  (viewed 2-Oct-2008)

Weller, M. et al (2004)  OU Virtual Learning Environment Project: Phase 1 Report. November 2004, Milton Keynes: Open University.