altWang Zhongfeng, Associate Professor, Vice Dean, Shaanxi Open University
Overseas Based University: the Open University
Advisor: Paul Knight
Study Area: Computer-assisted language learning, teaching and learner support


A Brief Report of My Life and Study in the Open University



First of all I'd like to extend my cordial thanks to Professor Naylor, Mrs. Ely and other trustees of the Sino-British Fellowship Trust for your generous support which enabled me to come to the UK for a four-and-half-month research study from March to July 2004.
At the same time I would also like to thank the China Scholarship Council, Mr. Yang Zhongbo and other officials from the Education Section of the Chinese Embassy in London, Professor Liu Dailin, Director Li Yawan and other colleagues from the OUC and Shaanxi Open University for their help and assistance to my study in the UK and for their commitments to my share of work while I'm away.
My final gratitude goes to Dr. Joan Swann, director of the Centre for Language Studies and Communication (CLAC), the Open University, Mr. Paul Knight, Mrs. Helen Boyce, Dr. Barbara Mayor, Mrs. Pam Burns, Ms. Rosemary Wilson, Mr. Ormond Simpson and other staff members at the Open University headquarters and its regional centres for their friendly and generous help and cooperation during my stay in the UK.

What I Have Done in the UK

For the first two months after my arrival in Milton Keynes I stayed in one of the OU staff's place and later moved to my present living place in Netherfield, which is really an international family with two Ghanaians and another Chinese. Actually I've had two different ways of life here.
In the past few months I've been keeping strictly to my proposed study plan, the teaching and learner support service in the Open University. To achieve this goal I've done the following things:

1. Visited the Open University in the East of England, Cambridge
According to the schedule of my activities prearranged by my supervisor Paul Knight, he drove me to Cambridge, where The Open University in the East of England is situated, early on the morning of the second day of my arrival in Milton Keynes, the Headquarters of the Open University, for there's going to be a tutorial session for OU students on Saturday and a training session for Associate Lecturers (tutors) on Sunday. Arriving at the regional centre, Paul introduced me to Rosemary Wilson, a CLAC Staff Tutor at the centre and then my interview and observation started. During that weekend, I

  • Interviewed Rosemary Wilson, the staff tutor in education, listening to her description of the procedures of their support to both students and associate lecturers
  • bserved two face-to-face tutorial sessions (qualitative analysis and quantitative analysis) for post graduate students of Research Methods in Education and Educational Technology, one of which I observed as a participant
  • Observed how the staff tutor helped the study centre organize tutorial sessions
  • Observed a training session for associate lecturers and talked to some ALs as to how induction has been done and how they see staff development in open and distance education
  • Had a group discussion with Rosemary, Mr. Ormond Simpson, deputy director of the regional centre and director of the OU Centre for Student Support and Retention and Mrs. Guo Qingchun, an OUC academician doing a research study at the centre after the field work, exchanging our views on teaching and learner support in the OU and in our home universities

2. Attended course meetings at Walton Hall, the OU Headquarters

  • Attended the course meeting of the German Language Group in the Department of Languages which was a feedback meeting of the reflections on the previews meetings. Because it was the first meeting of the kind I've ever attended, I was very curious about the "how" and "what" of the meeting. From the meeting I got some idea about how courses are produced in the Open University
  • U210 course meeting was the first English course meeting I've attended since I arrived at the OU. Since it was a course in English and it is a course exploring the English language which is of interest to me, so I joined the group as an external member and expressed my opinions on the drafted course-materials
  • U212-Teaching about English. I joined both a planning meeting and a regular course meeting of this course. All these have deepened my understanding of the production of OU courses.

3. Individual interviews

  • Interview with Joan Swann, Director of the Centre for Language and Communication talking about my study plan at the OU
  • Interview with Alan Tait, Dean of the Faculty of Education and Language Studies
  • Interview with Cristina Lloyd, Director of Teaching and Learner Support, Student Service, who introduced me the general structure and operation of teaching and learner support in the OU headquarters.
  • Interview with Karolyn Mary from the German Language Group of the Department of Languages. She first introduced me how language courses are delivered, how students are learning and how they are assessed in the Open University. Finally she showed me how online classes are organized and how tutors and students are interacting by using Lyceum, an OU-Developed Online Language Learning Programme.
  • Informal interview with Will Swann, Director of Student Service
  • Interview with Roger Mills, Director of the Open University in the East of England, who recommended me several academics or researchers both at Walton Hall and in regional centres to talk about student support and student retention in open and distance learning. Then we exchanged views on the said issues.
  • Interview with Ormond Simpson, deputy Director of the Open University in the East of England and Director of the OU Centre for Student Support and Retention. We mainly exchanged views on learner support and on how to keep students.
  • Interview with Dr. Janet Macdonald, E-learning Co-ordinator of the Open University in Scotland. She introduced me her research into e-learning and student retention, and the blended method in open and distance education.
  • Talk with Helen Boyce, Course Manager of the Centre for Language and Communication. She told me how OU courses are produced and the responsibilities of different members in a course team.
  • Talk with Ian Spratley, Project manager of the Centre for Language and Communication, about the responsibilities of project managers and the differences between a course manager and a program manager.

4. Attended academic activities

  • Seminar on technology-enhance learning of language and culture by Dr Robin Goodfellow, Institute of Educational Technology, which was an anatomy of virtual learning environment
  • Seminar on online literacies by Dr Robin Goodfellow, Institute of Educational Technology
  • Seminar on the dimensions of online communities by Dr Robin Goodfellow, Institute of Educational Technology
  • Seminar on professional development organized by Human Resources Department
  • Seminar on academic literacy by Ann Hewings
  • Seminar on students' performance in IELTS by Barbara Mayor

5. Attended the graduation ceremony in the OU in the East of England

  • Corresponded with Roger Mills about the possibility to attend the ceremony
  • Corresponded with the secretary of the organizing committee of the ceremony about my itinerary
  • Helped robe the graduates
  • Attended the evening ceremony session
  • Attended a feast sponsored by the regional centre addressed by the regional director in praise of the work done by the staff
  • Made a tour of the city of Cambridge and visited some colleges and museums there

6. Studied the OU website and visited the library

  • Collected materials from the OU Intranet and the OU library for later research back home
  • Studied the structure and content of the OU website for the purpose of improving the website of my own university

7. External social-cultural activities

  • Visited to the church and observed church services both by Chinese and local Christians
  • Helped Helen Boyce work with the charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, by collecting donations in front of Tesco, a super market
  • Visited the Sunday market in Cambridge and in Central Milton Keynes
  • Visited a fete in front of the local church of Simpson
  • Attended church singings
  • Visited the local pubs and watched Morris dances which are quite traditional English and impressive
  • Visited local country households and farms
  • Been invited to Sunday meals in three households


  • Done a systematic study of the OU teaching and learner support system with a good knowledge of what teaching and learner support mean, how the system is constituted and who are involved in the work. This is crucial for the equivalent departments in Chinese distance teaching institutions to change their stereotype views and attitudes of teaching and learning support in open and distance education in China.
  • Broadened my horizon both professionally and academically. Professionally I'm a teacher of English and I've been teaching English for both adults and conventional undergraduate student either f2f or using modern technology. But due to various unknown reasons, we haven't made the best of modern technologies and many of the facilities are just for appreciation in reality. Interactions between tutor and learner, learner and learner, and learner and materials are quite limited. The majority of the learning activities are confined to f2f tutorials. This, I think, is mainly due to the inappropriate understanding and conceptions of open and distance learning by upper middle level leadership. This is the result of inefficient internal and, especially, external learning for professional development. Therefore their notions of open and distance learning still remain what they obtained from their previous knowledge or just literary.
  • Improved my English language skills and gained more confidence in using English as a learner and teacher of English. For lack of authentic English environment and practice in China, I'm not confident enough to use English in communication. Even for written communication, I'm still not quite sure of the English equivalent of Chinese terms I use. After frequent visits to public places and activities, I found my English is not so bad and I can communicate almost as genuine as native sparkers. And I realised how important confidence is for both ordinary people and teachers as well.
  • Deepened my understanding of English society and its culture. This short visit updated my knowledge about the British culture and society that I obtained from the stereotypes of those in the textbooks I read more than 18 years ago. I have a feeling that, for an English learner, a day in the UK is more worthy than a year in a university of languages in China, and this experience can never be replaced.
  • Did a systematic study of research methods in education and in the social sciences. I've attended some lectures on research methods either in education or in linguistics research and I've done many research studies in China while working at Shaanxi Radio and Television University. But it is when I was at the Open University that I did a holistic and thorough reading on research methods in education and in the social sciences. I believe I'll benefit greatly from this period of time spent on research methods here in Britain, which is impossible for me to do in China when fully engaged in daily routine work at different posts and where there isn't such good research environment and facilities.
  • Collected a substantial amount of materials both on open and distance learning and on English language teaching for further research back home in China. By studying the OU website, I began to know how the OU is constituted and how it works. At the same time, I found I have extended my field from narrow English language teaching to adults to a variety of English teaching groups and different branches of linguistic research. Authentic English resources in China are very rare, but there are abundant in the OU. Therefore a large share of my work here is to surf the OU website and download materials of my interest for my later research back home in China.
  • Finished an article entitled "Better Student Support to Improve Student Retention in Open and Distance Education", which has been submitted to a distance learning journal in China for publication. This paper is mainly a literature review of learner support in open and distance education together with a field questionnaire and interview of open and distance learners at my university and another open and distance teaching university of the same kind as mine in Xi'an by my colleagues. It discusses the importance of learners support services in student retention by analyzing the background, reasons and stages of dropouts in distance learning and by providing workable solutions to the problem, that is, to improve learner support services.
  • Envisaging an article entitled "Teaching and Learner Support in Open and Distance Education and the Constitution of the System". This paper is one I've been thinking about for a long time, even before I came to the UK, for I have been wondering at such questions as what teaching and learner support mean, what should be done and who are to be involved. It shouldn't be just to provide learners with course books, supporting materials, opening hours of libraries, etc. I believe the finished article might be a brainwash for some open and distance learning practitioners in China for there are some misunderstanding or ignorance of teaching and learner support.

Reflections on OU Culture, People-friendliness

  • OU elevators-All buildings at the OU headquarters, no matter tall or low has got an elevator, many talking, mainly for the convenience of the disabled, and for postmen, attendants and people carrying heavy load as well. This is something of a dream or impossible in my institution unless the building is more than eight stories high, which is a state standard.
  • OU showers-Nearly every building has got a shower. I was told that it is for people who come to work by bike or those who feel like tired or sleepy when working. All changing rooms have got showers, too. This appears to be very convenient and with that you just feel like doing sports.
  • OU post-room-Every department has got a post room equipped with a photocopier, a printer and a post box delivering and collecting posts four times a day. This creates an easy and people-friendly working environment especially convenient and beneficial for academics and researchers.
  • OU secretaries-One thing impressed me most is the OU secretary. In the deanery's and the department office you can see personal secretaries busy doing service and secretarial work for the dean, the director or for academics, which saves more time and energy for them to carry on more professional work. While for teachers like me, we have to do everything by ourselves from the beginning to the end of every job we do individually.
  • OU laboratories-OU's teaching quality was ranked the fifth for the last National Teaching Assessment, many of its research centres five star. For a distance teaching institution, this achievement is unimaginable. Many departments have been equipped with world top-class laboratories. Research and laboratory work are two weaknesses of distance institutions in China.
  • OU playing fields-OU playing fields seem to be big, spacious, green, flat and carpet-like. This is really a luxury for nearly all other distance teaching institutions around the world.
  • OU clubs-The Open University at Walton Hall has organized a number of clubs, such as the Table Tennis Club, the Go Club, the Tennis Club, the Film Club, the Squash Club, etc. This provides a variety of colourful activities for both the staff and students.
  • OU campus-The OU campus is clean, green, harmonious, well-planned and well-organized.
  • OU attendants-Everywhere you can see attendants cleaning the toilet or the kitchen, mowing, watering or fertilizing the lawn.
  • OU kitchens-Every department has got a kitchen well-equipped with a boiler, a hot and cold water tapped sink, a toaster, a microwave oven, kitchen ware and cooled bottled drinking water. This makes it possible and convenient for those who live far away to cook and prepare lunch.
  • OU e-mails-It seems to me that the most important job for OU academics is to read and answer e-mails. If you walk past their offices, what you hear is only the clicking of the keyboard. OU people make the best of the e-mail. They use it to transmit information, exchange ideas, make enquiries, collect information and suggestions, and post notices. Just in one word-they do anything they can via e-mail, which is direct, fast and time-saving.
  • OU services for the disabled-Everywhere in Walton Hall you can see specially designed services for the disabled, including talking elevators, automatic doors, special toilets, and reserved car park place. Disabled people enjoy equal opportunity and better services here in the OU.
  • OU swipe card and the security-All OU doors are automated and every member of the staff uses a swipe card prepared by the security to open the door. If you forget to take the card with you, just ring the security and they will come in a few minutes to open the door for you. Every day after work the security will have a check tour of all the buildings and during weekends the check will double, even triple.


The four and a half months study is short but fruitful for me. I might start a new life when I'm back home with the new knowledge, experiences and inspirations gained here in Britain. Because of the short stay in Britain many of my world views and values have changed, which might enable me to be a better academic, employee, father, husband, citizen, and so on. I would welcome the opportunity to come back to the UK again if there is another chance for me, longing for a longer stay, say, one year, with more maintenance.