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Education & Development
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OU 40th anniversary lectures: The quest for a happy ending

Updated Friday, 19th June 2009

In this third and final of the 40th anniversary lectures, Lord Puttnam suggests that The Open University is well placed to play a major role in correcting the follies of the twentieth century – and avoiding the problems of the future.

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Interestingly, I've been working with a group of people on a - as Brenda mentioned earlier - on a climate change game. And one of the things we discovered in testing it, particularly at primary, is the very first thing the kids do is blow up the planet – immediately. They then, second time around, blow up the Planet but in a more complicated way and they take a bit longer doing it. And only when they’ve blown up the Planet twice do they really start to ask the serious questions about what it might take not to blow up the Planet.

This is probably the experience we've all had throughout all of our lives but it is a very, very interesting way of beginning to get young people to address what are, to many of them, impossible problems, to even begin to get their heads around.

Here's another example and I know I've mentioned this before. The eminent historian Niall Ferguson suggested that he’d write all of his books somewhat differently in future, and perhaps rather more sensitively, having immersed himself in interactive games such as “Making History”, which have allowed him to subjectively engage with historical scenarios that he’d never previously considered.

By that he meant that he did a very good book on the Munich crisis – and was extremely condemnatory of the role of Chamberlain, the decisions that Neville Chamberlain took. He said only when he came to play a game which forced him to look at the options available to Chamberlain in 1936, ’37,’38 did he begin to have some sympathy and understanding for actually the way those decisions occurred.

It's all very well, he said, to look past the incident and very clearly know what the outcome is and then make a judgement about the foolishness of the decision. It’s something quite different when you're forced to actually look at the options available to you. What a wonderful weapon to offer young people as part and parcel of their learning process! Because this is the way they will have to encounter, and deal with, and make judgements about their own lives.

But my very real concern is, if we fail to embrace the potential of these digital applications we run a very serious risk of relegating education itself, at least in the minds of young people, to a form of second class status in the information age. We need, amongst other things, to take a deep collective breath and accept the increasing centrality of the moving image at the heart of learning.

And it's this one moment when I wish I'd never been in the movie industry because I know that at least some of you will be saying, “well of course he would say that wouldn’t he?” To recognise that this is no longer simply about the power of narratives absorbed at the cinema or on television but also about the power of image-supported information, downloaded on phones, computers, iPods, on Xboxes, in fact on every conceivable and convenient device that’s possible.

We already live in a world absolutely saturated with moving images. They're rapidly becoming the dominant means by which people - many, many people, understand, learn about and begin to make sense of the world. Consider this: 15 hours of video, both professional and user-generated, are uploaded to YouTube every single minute. That’s a years’ worth of content every ten hours.

Is this – are the YouTube users (I have to put my hand up. I am a YouTube user!) – are we seeking education? Are we seeking stimulation or are we seeking enlightenment, entertainment or just passing time? I guess the truth is a little, or maybe a lot, of each.

But, as the Vice Chancellor and I have said once or twice, I would have given my eye teeth – and I mean it - my eye teeth if just the web site and the concept of TED had been invented here and was beamed out of here to the rest of the world every single day. I think – I can think of no one single leap in the last five years that would have transformed the attitudes of the outside world to this particular institution.

It doesn’t mean we can't do it but it does mean that someone else got out there ahead of us. And there's been a fifty per cent increase in the rate at which content has been uploaded in just the last twelve months with every sign that this is only going to grow exponentially. Now, what I believe this helps underline is that young people in particular are surrounded by a plethora of audio-visual content and the learning opportunities that come with it.

And, while they may be extremely competent technically, rather more intuitively competent than most of us I suspect, there remains considerable challenges around helping them to sort the wheat from the chaff and in helping them to understand ways in which moving images don’t merely reflect but at times even shape the world around us.

One of the more interesting challenges facing the OU is the precise manner in which it decides to formally interact with the private sector. With global expenditure on education now running well into the trillions we would be kidding ourselves to believe that the corporate world is for long going to keep its paws off our world.

In fact, a recent University UK report indicated that already one in three students are with private providers. A decade ago I don’t think that figure would even have been measurable. But, unless we are wilfully complacent or compliant, none of this need be a bad thing and, if handled well, it could even represent a very great opportunity for this institution. After all, as incumbents, we've an enormous amount going for us.

One the one hand the corporate world doesn’t yet know how to “do” education, and anyone serious will quickly realise the need to seek out the best possible strategic partners. The vital concern of the OU must be to maintain the integrity of it's educational ethos as all of this develops around us; not to roll over and simply become a valuable facility through which can be expanded the commercial ambitions of the Murdoch’s, the Microsoft’s or the Google’s. But to sustain as it were the moral position of learning within society.

Now my instinct would be to enter into a series of productive, learning centred, non-exclusive arrangements with those organisations which are best able to tick at least three important boxes.

The first being that the platform that they were offering us was suited to the best possible delivery of the OU’s output.

The second would be that the price point fixed for that offering remained affordable to the core audience for the OU’s learning ambitions.

And the last would be a commitment to some kind of transparent and enforceable purpose statement that explained why the partner had decided to go into business with the OU in the first place.

From the word go there has to be a clear harmony of interest. Thirty years in the movie industry taught me that you can't create successful partnerships with people who have even a marginally different set of objectives.

In fact we need to consider educators, technologists and arguably the students themselves as joint stakeholders in the design and delivery of whole new learning environments, environments which respect and complement the complexity and the importance of the educational process, environments which exploit to the full the extraordinary range of resources that are now on offer, not all of which are technological, and some of which will inevitably involve the co-creation of new educational goals.

Some of you might quite rightly ask why should we go to all this trouble? Isn't there a real danger that we could end up throwing the baby out with the bath water? The truth is, certainly in my judgement, we have no choice but to engage, no choice, that is, if we want the reach and the resources to ensure that we develop and nurture every last scrap of talent that we can find to take on what may prove to be the most difficult challenges mankind’s ever been required to face. This time, as Harry Truman warned us, we will we are going to sink or swim together.

Please believe me – as we grapple with the fallout from the current financial crises of what we now know to have been the result of twenty five years of financial folly, it will be as nothing, nothing compared to the whirlwind we are likely to reap from two hundred years of environmental folly. And that’s what makes today’s educational challenge so much more urgent than any that’s ever gone before.

We reached – all of us – an economic tipping point on September 15th of last year. We know we will reach a similar environmental tipping point within ten years at the outside. To deal with the impact of both of those tipping points I believe we've reached an educational tipping point right now. And, should this present generation of decision makers be foolish enough to settle for the “do nothing” option, then our children and our children’s children will be required to pay a truly crippling price, a price that will make a mockery of the comforts and pleasures that most of us were brought up with and which today we take entirely for granted. And those who follow us will have every justification whether to curse us for having been educationally and environmentally irresponsible in jeopardising their future happiness.

The time frames affecting nations and regions might well be a little different but, as the Archbishop of Canterbury did very well to warn us a couple of weeks ago, “God does not guarantee happy endings.” Only the collective efforts and sacrifices of every one of us will bring this Planet to a safe, or at least a safer, place. I'll go a little further. Should we fail, later this year in Copenhagen, to act on all the societal and environmental warnings we've been given, should we fail to get to grips with these impending crises there will be no need to ask for whom the bell tolls. It will be tolling for every man, woman and child on this once beautiful Planet and, as I say, this time around we will only have ourselves to blame.

If I may, I'd like to finish with something I picked up in the New York Times just a couple of months ago. It's a short quotation from the book The Great Gatsby, in which the narrator, Nick Caraway, assesses the brutal world of the principle characters, Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

He says: “They smashed up things and people and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness and let others clean up the mess that they'd made.” Now, to me this vividly describes our present situation with regard to the financial crises that we've unquestionably largely brought upon ourselves. But how much more serious will it be if one day this also accurately describes the way in which the actions of my, of our, of your generation, have succeeded in smashing up our Planet?

In every sense what lies ahead will involve an unprecedented degree of collective responsibility, an entirely new understanding of the consequences of each and every one of our actions. A level of understanding that can only be achieved through a quality of broad educational offering that has thus far proved somewhat beyond us. I also happen to believe that the Open University is uniquely equipped to play a really significant role in addressing what is, in anyone’s terms, a series of colossal challenges. That’s why I signed up two years ago and I don’t for one moment believe I made a mistake.

This institution is a result of its reputation; as a result of the people who work here; as a result of the commitment of their entire lives that they’ve given to the place and as a result of the reach – that’s the most important – the reach we have, to – as the Heineken ad says, “those places that are hardest to reach”.

As a result of that reach we can make a vastly disproportionate contribution to correcting the many, many follies of the Twentieth Century. And I hope I will be here for a good long while and that very proudly I will be able to stand here – who knows how many years from now - and congratulate you on the extraordinary contribution you have made.

Thank you very much for listening to me.






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