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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 May, 2004, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Late-night OU broadcasts to go
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

Preparing for an early OU lecture
Beards were not compulsory, even during the 1960s

Insomniacs and shift-workers are to lose a much-loved - and often rather hairy - late-night companion.

Open University lecturers, famed for their bushy beards and leather elbow-patch jackets, will disappear from BBC Two in 2006.

Instead, 185,000 students will rely on newer technology - such as DVDs, CD Roms and the internet - to access the information needed for their home-based degree courses.

Meanwhile, the OU will concentrate on creating more "mainstream" science and arts programmes for BBC One and BBC Two, to encourage a wider audience into higher education.


This follows the success of recent productions, such as Child of Our Time, presented by the moustachioed Professor Robert Winston and What the Industrial Revolution Did For Us, fronted by the smooth-chinned Adam Hart Davis.

Both attracted audiences in the millions.

OU spokesman Gary Spink said: "When the OU started, the question was how could we best reach a mass number of students. TV was the easiest way at the time.

"It was modern and innovative for its day. In the last five years or so, that hasn't been the case. Coursework material now has more interaction, with the rise of DVDs and CD Roms.

"Most people who are doing courses have access to these, so there's no need for them to watch lectures late at night or to record them."

More of the new TV programming, aimed at a mass audience, will go to air at peak time.

Adam Hart Davis
Adam Hart Davis is looking to the future

Next month, Mr Hart Davis presents The Transit of Venus, to coincide with the rare occurrence of the planet passing directly between the Earth and the Sun, on BBC Two.

Mr Spink said: "The government wants to get 50% of young people involved in higher education by 2010.

"It's good that we are getting so many people involved already, but there are many others who aren't going to university at the moment because they don't consider it.

"Those who are not middle-class or who belong to an ethnic minority are far less likely to go.

"Mainstream broadcasts on BBC Two get two or three million people watching. On BBC One it's even more. This brings a whole new audience to engage in the type of thing we do."

The OU, founded in 1969, used programmes made at Alexandra Palace, north London, to widen exposure to higher education.

Its presenters soon gained a cult following, becoming as famous for their attire as subject matter like advanced calculus and social anthropology.

Five-year shelf life

These days, the late-night/early-morning slot is called the Learning Zone.

Mr Spink said: "In reality, those old sorts of programmes, involving lots of men with beards, haven't been broadcast for 25 years.

"Even the late-night broadcasts have changed. They have a shelf life of only about five years anyway, as course requirements alter.

"But people are still thinking of how it used to be. When the late-night broadcasts first came on-air, they were completely different to what most people had ever seen. It was, for many, a first glimpse of higher education.

"The programmes had a real impact and I don't think people have forgotten them.

"Things are much more advanced now, though. The learning experience is far more interactive and sophisticated than just looking at a lecturer in a studio."

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