The Open University in London runs two professional development conferences per year, one at its regional offices in Camden town, the other at the London School of Economics. Saturday 22 March was a busy day; it was the day I ran my first staff development session at this venue. (I had previously run sessions in the Camden centre, but running a session in an external venue had, for some reason, a slightly different feel to it).
This blog post aims to summarise a number of key points from the session. It is intended for anyone who might be remotely interested, but it’s mostly intended for fellow associate lecturers. If you’re interested in the fine detail, or the contents of what was presented, do get in touch. Similarly, if you work within any other parts of the university and feel that this session might be useful for your ALs, do get in touch; I don’t mind travelling to other regions.
The aim of the session was to share what I had discovered whilst figuring out how a tool called the ETMA file handler works. Students with the university submit their assignments electronically through something called the Electronic Tutor Marked Assignment (ETMA) system. This allows submissions to be held securely and the date and time of submission to be recorded. It also allows tutors to collect (or download) batches of assignments that students have submitted.
When assignments are downloaded, tutors use a piece of software called the ETMA file handler. This is a relatively simple piece of software that allows tutors to get an overview of which student has submitted which assignment. It also allows tutors to see their work, allowing them to comment (and mark) what they have submitted.
There are three things that a tutor usually has to do. Firstly, they have to assign a mark for a student’s submission. They usually also have to add some comments to a script that has been submitted (which is usually in the form of a Microsoft Word document). They also have to add some comments to help a student to move forward with their studies. These comments are entered into a form that is colloquially known as a PT3. Please don’t ask me why it’s called this; I have no idea – but it seems to be an abbreviation that is deeply embedded within the fabric of the university. If you talk to a tutor about a PT3 form, they know what you’re talking about.
Under the hood
Given that the tutor marked assignments constitutes a pretty big part of the teaching and learning experience in the university, the ETMA file handler program is, therefore, a pretty important piece of software. One of my own views (when it comes to software) is that if you understand how something works, you’ll be able to figure out how to use it better.
The intention behind my professional development session was to share something about how the ETMA file handler works, allowing tutors to carry out essential tasks such as make backups and move sets of marking from one computer to another. Whilst the university does a pretty good at offering comprehensive training about how to use the file handler to enable tutors to get along with their job of marking, it isn’t so good at letting tutors know about how to do some of the system administration stuff that we all need to do from time to time, such as taking backups and moving files to another computer (hence my motivation to run this session).
One of my confessions is that I’m a computer scientist. This means that I (sometimes) find it fun figuring out how stuff works. This means that I sometimes mess around with a piece of software to see how to break it, and then try to get it working again. (Sometimes I manage to do this, other times I don’t!) During the session I focussed on a small number of things: how the file handler program knows about the assignments that have been downloaded (it uses directories), how directories are structured, what ‘special files’ these directories contains, and where (and how) additional information is held.
Here’s what I focussed on: the directories used to download files to, the directories used to return marked files from and how the file handler reads the contents of those directories so it is able to offer choices a tutor. Towards the end of the presentation, I also presented a number of what I considered to be useful tips. These were: the file hander software is very stupid, the file handler software needs to know where your marking is, form habits, be consistent, save files in the same place, use zip files to move files around, and be paranoid!
Whilst I was writing the session, I thought to myself, ‘is this going to be too simple?’ and ‘surely everyone will get terribly bored with all this detail and all the geeky stuff that I’m going to be talking about?’ Thankfully, these fears were unfounded. The detail, it turned out, seemed to be quite interesting. Even if I was sharing the obvious, sometimes a shared understanding can offer some reassurance.
There were parts that went right, and other parts that went wrong (or, not so well as I had expected); both represented opportunities for learning. The part that I almost got right was about timing. I had an hour and a half to fill, and although the session had to be wrapped up pretty quickly (so everyone could get their sandwiches), the timing seemed to be (roughly) about right.
The part that I got wrong wasn’t something that was catastrophically wrong, but instead could be understood in terms of an opportunity to improve the presentation the next time round. We all user our computers in slightly different ways, and I have to confess that I became particularly fixated in using my own computer in quite a needlessly complicated way (in terms of how to create and use backup files). As a result, I now have slightly more to talk about, which I think is a good thing (but I might have to re-jig the timing).
There is one implicit side effect of sharing how something is either designed, or how something works. When we know how something works, we can sometimes find new ways of working, or new ways to use the tools that we have at our disposal. Whist probing a strange piece of software can be a little frightening it’s sometimes possible to find unexpected rewards. We may never know what these are, unless we spend time doing this.
If you’re an associate lecturer, do try to find the time to come to one of the AL development events; you’re always likely to pick something up from the day (and this applies as much to the facilitator as it does to the tutor too!) As well as being useful, they can also be good fun too!
After the session had been completed, and the projectors and laptops were turned off, I started to ask myself a question. This was: ‘what can I do for the next conference?’ Answering this question is now going to be one of my next tasks.