Public education through an Open University-BBC collaboration
Submitting InstitutionOpen University
Unit of AssessmentHistory
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Collaboration between The Open University (OU) and the BBC on the
landmark series Empire led to enhanced public understanding about
a contested past. Empire was informed by research by Dr Karl
Hack, Senior Lecturer in the History Department and Director of the
OU's Ferguson Centre.
The series attracted up to 2.96 million viewers per programme '[text
removed for publication]' and 53% of respondents to an OU survey reported
they had `learned a lot' from watching. Additional impact was achieved
through linking the series to an OU `Learning Journey', including a print
item devised by Hack (63,700 requested by July 2013, including 2,700
downloads). OU Empire content had 98,660 unique visitors online by
Hack's research has emphasised shifting patterns of imperial power and
influence and has highlighted Britain's `managed' decolonisation of
Southeast Asia (Defence and Decolonisation in Southeast Asia: Britain,
Malaya and Singapore, 2001). This was broadened into an attempt to
categorise and describe contrasting imperial systems (notably Chinese,
British and Japanese), types of colony (settler, mixed, occupation,
entrepôt and informal), and shifting power systems [3.2]. He has been able
to demonstrate that this process of decolonisation had impact around the
Hack's research projects place emphasis on oral history at every level
(using interviews with Europeans, Malays, Chinese, Eurasians and Indians),
including interviews with insurgents [3.3].
The underpinning research has also focused on a broad range of types of
memory and the representation of empire and colonies. In Singapore
from Temasek to the 21st Century [3.5],
Hack stressed the significance of changing conceptualisations and
representations of Southeast Asian territories across time through maps,
advertising and other media, terminology and narrations. This expertise
was influential in the free education materials prepared by Hack to
accompany the BBC series Empire.
Key research findings have highlighted, for example, the way British
strategies naturally led to an acceleration of the process of
decolonisation, and that the previous emphasis on `winning hearts and
minds' in the British way of counterinsurgency had been vastly
exaggerated. They included a broad understanding of how contrasting
communities' memories (contrasting by ethnicity, class, and ideology) had
an impact on public and historical interpretation of events from the Fall
of Singapore to the end of empire.
References to the research
1. Hack, K. and Blackburn, K. (2012) War Memory and the Making of
Modern Malaysia and Singapore, Singapore, NUS Press.
2. Hack, K. and Rettig, T. (2006) `Imperial Systems of power, colonial
forces and the making of modern Southeast Asia', and `Demography and
Domination', in Hack, K. and Rettig, T. (eds) Colonial Armies in
Southeast Asia, London, Routledge, pp. 3-38 and 39-104.
3. Hack, K. and Chin, C. (ed.) (2004) Dialogues with Chin Peng: New
Light on the Malayan Emergency, Singapore, NUS Press.
4. Hack, K. and Blackburn, K. (2008) `The Bridge over the River Kwai
and King Rat', in Blackburn, K. (ed.) Forgotten Captives in
Japanese-Occupied Asia, London, Routledge, pp. 147-171.
5. Hack, K. and Margolin, J. (eds) (2010) Singapore from Temasek to
the 21st Century: Reinventing the 21st
Century, Singapore, NUS Press.
Details of the impact
Historians in History generate impact with their research through The
Open University's unique, four-decade long partnership with the BBC. The
two partners collaborate to ensure that academic expertise informs
programme-making, and jointly-produced series are linked to an OU
`Learning Journey'. The programmes end with a `call to action' that
invites viewers to access specifically developed OU online material via
the OU's unrivalled OpenLearn public education site (free, online,
quality-assured, outcome-specified learning materials which attract nearly
6 million visitors a year), and to request free print items with academic
content (in the case of Empire, a double- sided A1 poster which
shows how the Empire was re-invented as a Commonwealth, and explores how
the idea of empire was sold to a nation, the colonies and the world).
Visitors are also offered pathways to appropriate OU study.
The reach of such programmes is translated into public understanding of
the past through this learning journey. In this example, the impact
strategy was designed to ensure that a large audience would understand the
complexities of the history of empire and be able to study the topic
further. This was achieved by Hack shaping the making of the programme
from the inside, and by designing a `Learning Journey' that linked the
programme with educational tools made freely available to viewers.
The OU and BBC series Empire, fronted by Jeremy Paxman, drew
extensively on the research expertise of Hack who was bought out from
other duties to serve as adviser for the series. Hack's research on the
British Empire impacted on both the content and scope of the series,
contributing to the quality of BBC historical programming/public service
broadcasting. This was achieved by introducing specific themes, locations
and approaches, as well as ensuring balance and accuracy.
Regular meetings between Hack, the BBC Series Producers, the main BBC
researcher, and the Series Executive Producer, Julian Birkett [5.1], were
held from programme conceptualisation in late 2010 until the final editing
of rushes, allowing Hack's research to feed into the programme throughout
the production cycle. Birkett commented after the production process:
Input from the OU academic was crucial from day one [...] we had
discussions with them, both before and after filming. There were several
areas where we shifted our emphasis accordingly. Perhaps the biggest one
was the sense that the Empire was predominantly a commercial rather than a
political phenomenon (the latter being a commonly accepted view). Another
was that we were persuaded that relations between the ruling and the
subject races could be a complex and subtle affair, and we tried to show
this in the programmes.
Hack also countered the non-specialist presenter's impression that the
Empire was all but over by 1948. This resulted in a more realistic
portrayal of ongoing struggle informed by academic research which was made
accessible to a general audience in order to enhance public understanding
of this sensitive and controversial historical topic.
The OU's involvement in the series led to an expansion from the planned
four to five episodes. Hack's regional research expertise also informed
the selection of sites in Singapore as a location, and his expertise
ensured nuance, rigour and accuracy, particularly in the Egyptian, South
Asian and decolonisation sections.
For the OU (and the BBC), a rigorously-produced television series is the
starting point for creating impact on people's understanding and views. To
be judged a success, a series must also persuade tens of thousands of
viewers to begin a longer `Learning Journey', seeking out and using
directly-produced OU educational materials based on our research. Hence
the series' `call to action' directed viewers to the OU's online and print
resources prepared to accompany the programme, and to further OU teaching
and research materials related to Empire (such as on the Bengal
history/the-legacy-empire-the-bengal-famine], Slavery [http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-
arts/history/the-rise-and-fall-the-slave-trade], Dundee, Jute and
section-0]), as well as to history research more generally.
Public understanding of a complex and contested historical topic was
achieved. For example, by March 2013, 63,700 hard copies of the printed
poster Empire had been requested, with a further 18,000 copies
available for future distribution [5.4]. The poster combines content,
written by Hack, with visually stunning and sophisticated representations
of the British Empire at its height in the 1920s, compared with the modern
Commonwealth. Additional free digital downloading was also provided, to
continue for up to 10 years (2811 downloads to end of July 2013).
Since the series aired in 2012, Hack has further expanded the online
material by adding six freely- available `Selling Empire' lectures [http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/world-
history/selling-empire] (702 unique visitors between January and
July 2013), with an annotated and hyperlinked bibliography [http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/world-
history/selling-empire-further-resources]. Public interest in the
topic was also engendered by an online Empire Game (c. 2200 unique
visitors), which was available throughout the screening of the series. The
print item and online lectures remain freely available via the OU's
This landmark series attracted an audience of up to 2.96 million viewers
per episode when screened from February to May 2012. Between 8% and 11% of
the adult viewing population watched at least one episode in this series
on the BBC. The BBC iPlayer recorded 1.2 million additional views. '[text
removed for publication]' and impact was also measured with OU surveys of
viewers who have watched at least one episode of a series. Immediate
impact is evidenced by the fact that 53% of respondents to such an OU
survey felt they had `learned a lot' from the series [5.3].
Longer-term impact is evidenced by the high demand for print items and by
the fact that 98,660 unique visitors have viewed some part of the Empire
content on OpenLearn [5.3] and were thus motivated to find out more about
Empire with the OU as a result of this series.
The programmes will continue to be available on worldwide DVD, and the
print item and lectures will remain freely available for up to a decade,
ensuring enduring impact, outreach and accessibility.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- BBC Empire series producer (email to OU)
- Summary of viewer's responses to a BBC survey
- Open Media Unit Data about Empire Series (Newsletter)
- The Open University `OpenLearn' evidencing public access and having
learned from related content, e.g.: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/social-economic-history/order-your-free-empire-poster;
- BBC websites evidencing further partnership dissemination of online
and print material: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00p138b
- The Empire website has made its way into popular culture, e.g.
it is the most cited source on the `Empire Marketing Board' Wikipedia