Early BB studio

Since the early days of Open University broadcasts by the BBC, we now have a multitude of tech alternativesPhoto: The Open University

Written at a hotel in Dartmouth, Devon, and dispatched to silicon.com via a coffee shop wi-fi service at 6.2Mbps in Taunton, Somerset, the next day.

In the 1970s I would attend college during the day and watch Open University (OU) lectures on BBC television at home in the early hours. These programmes were free to air and available across the UK – and a revolutionary route to education at the time.

As a science, mathematics and engineering student, I found the OU a rich seam of additional explanation and enlightenment.

Big hair, kipper ties, flared trousers, tight shirts and cardboard animations didn’t detract from the learning process.

And it was clear that the OU lecturers had put in an awful lot of effort to communicate effectively during their TV time slots.

My other streams of augmented learning involved dropping into lecture courses to which I had never been assigned, but which were nonetheless of potential interest to me. And in those days lecturers and administrators didn’t keep a close tally of who exactly was in a particular room or lecture theatre.

I would also hang out with those individuals and groups doing interesting and challenging things across a wide range of disciplines.

Although I never formally signed up for any OU course, I was an avid early-morning TV student, and years later – during the late 1980s – I joined the ranks of professionals who took time out to teach through that very same medium. But by this time I was getting a sense that something new and fundamental was…


…in the offing – the internet and interactive online education.

Fast-forward to today and the OU is still alive and well with ever more students signing up worldwide, but there are also a multitude of alternatives springing up across the globe.

Everything from lecture notes, slide sets and videos can be found for free or for a fee. But best of all, the internet is where busy individuals really have the time to consume. It is no longer necessary to sit up half the night at the behest of the TV schedule.

Here are a few samples across a range of some very interesting fields:

And then there are the talented and very capable individuals who operate outside the education system and open their own academies and minds online. Among their ranks you can find some outstanding presenters and materials:

Open University students may have been online since 1988, but Stanford has now gone a step further and is offering a free e-learning course. Standford’s artificial intelligence course attracted thousands of students in the first day and over 100,000 during the first month.

While I no longer take complete courses in anything, I do dip in and out of topics to gain new insights, and use knowledge refreshers that of course pertain to the problems I happen to be addressing. And I still hang out with interesting individuals and groups.

Perhaps this really is the start of just-in-time education and the rise to the top of the very few who really understand topics in great depth, and have the rare facility to communicate clearly and effectively.

If so, it will spell the end of the mediocre lecture by the many who get by just skimming the surface of knowledge and understanding by conveying the contents of books in their own style.

For me, the precursor to all these developments was sitting in a darkened room in the 1970s watching 8mm films of physics lectures delivered by Richard Feynman.

That was the closest we could get to a Nobel laureate and one of the best minds on the planet. Although I have since met many of Feynman’s friends, I never met him – but I still gained a lot from his virtual presence.

Education is being changed by technology. With so much being wrong – or at least so very poor – in the way it has been delivered in the past, it is hard to see why all this change cannot lead to some very big improvements.