Small country with a big history

Trevor Herbert says an Open University course on Welsh history is proving a world-wide hit

In 1970 the distinguished zoologist Harford Williams, from Meidrim in Carmarthenshire,  took the reckless step of resigning from a comfortable post in the Marine Laboratory at Aberdeen University to become the first Welsh Director of an institution that was enshrined in doubt and controversy. It was, after all, an experiment of the most daring kind, one based on nothing more than idealism, optimism and faith in the fragile notion that a significant proportion of the UK adult population would find the prospect of tagging ‘BA’ to their moniker particularly alluring.

Forty years and two million students later (nearly 100,000 of them in Wales), the level of scepticism generated in those early days is but a faint memory. Paradoxically, much of the success of the OU in Wales actually came from the abundance of academics from traditional Welsh institutions who, rather than opposing the idea, embraced it enthusiastically by becoming its first cohort of part-time tutors. This was important, for Wales was always a challenge for the OU centrally: it made something of a mess of the University’s carefully devised ‘regional’ strategy, because it occupied the second largest land mass (after Scotland) of its thirteen regions, but had the second smallest number (after Northern Ireland) of the potential student base. Other challenges, such as the one of dealing fairly and economically with a highly distributed student population, kept the Wales operation on its toes, but devolution introduced issues of a somewhat different flavour.

In 2004 the anomaly that the University’s Welsh operation was funded by the Higher Educational Funding Council for England came to an end, and it aligned with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. An expectation quickly and quite reasonably emerged that the OU should demonstrate how it was to be perceived as a distinctively Welsh institution. It could make justifiable utterances about its service to various employment sectors in Wales, but more challenging was the idea that it would deliver a Welsh curriculum. From the beginning, the course production endeavour has been based in the central Milton Keynes campus, and the curriculum aimed not at apparently small-scale, ‘local’ markets, but at courses that would be subscribed to in industrial proportions. How could a Welsh curriculum be developed, and who in any quantity would want to study it anyway?

Croeso: Beginners Welsh was presented online in 2008 and recruited well, but somewhat surprisingly it drew most of its students from outside Wales. Yet more surprising was the response to the OU’s initial curriculum offer in Welsh history. Welsh history has been a part of the OU’s interest in Wales for some time, but never part of its formal curriculum. In the 1980s, with Professor Gareth Elwyn Jones, I co-edited a series of books sponsored by the Welsh Office and published by the University of Wales Press. It played on two related features: essays about different topics and periods in Welsh history, and a persistent scrutiny of the nature of history and the way that historians do their work.  The books drew contributions from almost forty major historians and enjoyed significant success. This project was revived for the OU course Small country, big history: themes in the history of Wales, which was written in, and is taught entirely online from, Wales.

The legacy of the 1980s project follows through to the new course in that it too is about the nature of history, the way that historians use historical sources and the impact of the work of historians on issues of national and cultural identity. This type of emphasis allowed the rejection of a chronological approach in favour of one that is entirely thematic. After a brief introduction through an examination of the techniques and motives of eighteenth-century Welsh historians, the students are introduced to a number of topics grouped under three themes:

  • Culture: based on material from post-war Wales, the Rebecca Riots, Wales and religion.
  • Society: 19th Century migration and women in Wales between the wars.
  • Nationhood: the Edwardian conquest and a study of Lloyd George and Wales.

The presentation of chronologies has never played much of a part in the OU’s curriculum, partly because, leaving aside the fact that chronologies – or at least the selection of what goes into them – are themselves not unproblematic, the OU has always been relaxed about the order in which courses are studied anyway.

Allied to the course is a large, richly resourced, multi-media, free-access internet site which carries the original book series title: Welsh History and its Sources. This site is part of the OU’s Open Educational Resources offering, which has rapidly become one of the most important aspects of its public engagement. The idea was developed in the USA where the Hewlett Packard foundation provide MIT with funds to place most of its teaching materials online for free and open access across the globe. The OU was next on Hewlett Packard’s list of beneficiaries, and it produced the massive portfolio of free-access learning material under the generic title OpenLearn.

The remarkable and so far unexplained phenomenon of the OU’s Welsh history material is not simply that its impact has been much greater than anticipated, but that the impact has been most apparent outside Wales. Small country, big history: themes in the history of Wales attracts about 250 students a year. This is more than any other institution that teaches Welsh history – but, of course, for just one module. Only about 25 per cent of these students live in Wales. The rest are spread very widely across the world. Contrary to expectation, the anecdotal evidence is that they are not ex-patriots, but just people who have long harboured an interest in the history of Wales.

Yet more interesting is the data that emerges from the OpenLearn unit.  The measurement of ‘hits’ on the Open Educatioal Resource sites is important, because it provides some indication of curriculum markets and directions. There were some murmurs early on that the Welsh history site was doing well, but it soon became clear that it was doing better than anything else that the OU had to offer, in any subject. It has consistently been the most visited OU site, with most visits and (critically) re-visits coming from outside the UK.

Everyone who professes any expertise in the measurement of internet sites recommends against too much enthusiasm, because internet audiences are famously promiscuous and fickle. This is probably good advice. However, even at this stage it prompts thoughts about the potential of the OU in Wales as an agent for the internationalisation of the country’s culture. The Welsh history project also emphasises the rude health of the partnerships that the OU has struck in Wales. The present curriculum and the materials on which it is based exist only because the OU has recognised both its strengths and its limitations and built on the legacy of co-operation with the wider Welsh academic community that was established four decades ago.

Professor Trevor Herbert is an Arts Faculty Staff Tutor at the Open University in Wales.