So What Do the OU’s Lifelong Student Demographics Look Like?

In last week’s “state of the OU” presentation, mention was made of the OU’s rich history in innovation as something we could look back on, plus supporting “lifelong learning” as a (renewed?) commitment for the future.

Which got me wondering about what stories some of the OU’s historical data might have to tell us?

For example, for each of the last fifty years, I’d like to see some charts (for example, ggplot charts faceted by year) showing the distribution of:

  • students who joined the OU that year, by age;
  • the age distribution of *all* OU students that year;
  • the age distribution of OU students graduating that year;
  • the age distribution of the sum total of OU graduates over the life of the university, up to a particular point in time.

I’m probably completely wrong, but I’d guess the  shapes may have changed over the years. Depending how they’ve changed might help us tell ourselves some stories about what’s been going on over the last 50 years.

For example, imagine if the populations looked like this originally:

and looked more like this now?

Plotting all 50 years, in a 5 x 10 facet using the same x and y axes would tell at a glance how the university student body has evolved.

Animating the charts would tell another story.

Using a population pyramid (which typically contrasts gender by age range), we could look at the relative make up of the OU compared to other UK HEIs perhaps:

Again, doing this by year and animating may tell a useful story. Using absolute numbers rather than percentages would tell another. And again, these charts could be generated for each year’s intake, graduates, overall population, and accumulated graduates.

The charts might also help show us what lifelong learning has meant for OU populations over the last 50 years. I suspect that we’ve had two sorts of lifelong learning students over that period: students who mid-life signed up for their first degree (sometimes characterised as “second chancers who missed out the first time around”) and students who took one or two very specifically chosen modules to learn about a particular topic that might help with promotion or met a particular skills gap,

I’ve never really understood why the OU regime of the last 10 years have been hell bent on competing with other institutions for signing 18 year olds up to full (named) degrees. To support lifelong learning, don’t we need to provide upskilling in particular areas (one off modules, no entry requirements), lifelong support with access to all OU content for self study over the course of a career (or maybe a “lifelong” degree where you take a module every couple of years to fit in with career or “professional amateur” interests”,  or intense conversion courses to help with mid-career transitions?

Whatever – I’m guessing looking at some pictures and telling some stories off the back off them could provoke other ideas too… Not sure if the data is available in a handy form though?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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