(A note from the Editor. From 2006-2008 I worked with an outstanding team (Ian Roddis, Nicky Waters and Jed Cawthorne) on the development of a new intranet and the selection of a new search application. In the course of the user interviews I realized my view of The Open University as just a distance-learning provider was completely wrong and there was a very substantial commitment to research. This year the OU celebrates its 50th Anniversary and I asked Stefan Rueger, Professor of Knowledge Media (and Chair of the IRSG) to outline the mission of the university and describe some of its research interests.)
The Open University has turned 50 this year. In April 1969 its Royal Charter came into existence, laying the foundation of the UK’s, and perhaps Europe’s, most inclusive university. Its objectives are, as with any other university, “the advancement and dissemination of learning and knowledge by teaching and research”, while its mission is to be open to people, places, methods and ideas. The OU is unique in the UK in the way that it combines its mission for widening access to higher education and social justice through distance learning with research excellence.
The poster below illustrates some of the achievements of the OU as a distance learning university through its journey over the last 50 years.
OU 50 timeline (pdf link, page 23)
While the OU has a faculty structure with research programmes that look like that of any other university it is the distinct foci in research that set the OU apart:
Citizenship & Governance researches the changing current relationships between citizens and authorities from global issues like migration to the increasing scrutiny of private lives.
International Development research focuses on ‘inclusive innovation’ with a view to working with poor and marginalised people developing their own solutions.
Space Exploration at the OU is ranked among the top three university space science centres in the UK. OU research is instrumental to space missions, such as Rosetta, the first comet landing.
Health & Wellbeing research centres around evidence-based interventions to reduce the disease burden, prevent ill-health and promote wellbeing.
Technology enhanced learning is where The Open University is the undisputed European leader for innovations in learning technologies which have worldwide influence and deliver education at scale. This ambition led to the foundation of a multidisciplinary R&D lab, the Knowledge Media Institute (KMi), in 1995 within the OU that carries out blue sky research to innovate distance learning: KMi, for example, deployed the first web page at the OU; devised video conferencing tools (flash meeting) before Skype came along; produced the first webcast at the OU; researched and developed collaboration tools, eg, a social network for learners; was instrumental in enabling remote activity for mobility impaired students to fully participate in fieldwork learning activities. and
Research projects have also contributed to a range of activities of the OU’s OpenScience Labs, enabling remote investigations based on on-screen instruments, remote access experiments and virtual scenarios using real data. It has enabled the OU to be UK’s first university with a linked open data representation and is the UK’s only university that uses data analytics in its OU Analyse project to help identify students at risk of failing at early stages when interventions are most efficient.
Unsurprisingly, Citizen Science research at The Open University is particularly strong. This is research that is partially conducted by nonprofessional scientists. For example, the OU runs a social network of over 70,000 global nature enthusiasts, who have recorded more than 1.5 million images of 750,000 nature observations of organisms (birds, fish, mammals, plants, …). The iSpot network has helped identifying around 30,000 groups of organisms (more than 80% at species level). The university recognises iSpot as an exemplar of cutting-edge learning technology, where citizen science plays a role in the journey from informal to formal learning. iSpot has been integrated in a number of courses and modules. iSpot data sets are important research tools for investigations of biodiversity and have been making contributions to national strategy and policy, for example, to define a National Pollinators Monitoring Scheme.
Two projects at the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute, draw on iSpot data sets (and that of other European Biodiversity Monitoring platforms) to research and develop deep machine learning methods, automatic image recognition and advanced mobile app interfaces to improve the data and information quality of automated biodiversity monitoring. One of the two projects, COS4CLOUD , creates (semi) automated processes based on data models and data protocols validated by traditional science. The other project, Human-Computer Collaborative Learning in Citizen Science, explores the potential for collaborative learning between humans and machines within the framework of environmental citizen science. Both projects draw heavily on image and information retrieval to fulfil their objectives. This is no co-incidence, as information retrieval has been a research area of importance to the OU for a long time. ECIR 2010, for example, was hosted there with a memorable banquet at Bletchley Park. The large range of the current “hot” 46 projects within the Knowledge Media Institute in the space of Future Internet, Knowledge Management, Multimedia & Information Systems, Narrative Hypermedia, New Media Systems, Semantic Web & Knowledge Services and Social Software give a good indication of the width and depth of our current areas of research in my lab, let alone The Open University.
Certainly, I feel blessed to be working in such a thriving research environment and have never for a single day regretted moving from one of the most exclusive UK universities (Imperial) to one of the most inclusive universities 13 years ago.