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Writing a TMA: one approach

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This year I’m studying A230 Reading and Studying Literature from the OU Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. I’ve recently submitted my first TMA for A230. I quite enjoyed the process. I have no idea how I’ve done, but I’m hoping I’ll get a pass. 

This blog is a short summary of the approach that I took to write my first TMA. Without realising, I’ve adopted quite a structure approach which seemed to work for me. 

In some respects, this blog follows on from an earlier blog that reflects on my studying of an arts module: Unpacking a TMA question: tips from A111.

Part 1: The journey to the TMA

I began by a bit of productive procrastination. What I mean is that I began by sorting out all my study notes.

I have a A230 folder (a physical one) which is broadly organised in terms of time and weeks of study. I have a copy of the materials which I have ordered through the OU print on demand service. I like to have materials to look through, so I can take materials to a café without having to take my laptop and worry about internet connectivity. Plus, it’s easier to underline points with different colours of pen if I need to. 

At this point, I’ve read through the materials once; the weekly guides, the chapters in the blocks (the books that were sent to us), and the sections of the set text that we’ve been asked to read. In the case of A230, we’ve also been asked to read a copy of Othello, published by Oxford World Classics.

I create a fresh copy of the TMA question, by copy-pasting the TMA text from the assessment guide into a new Word document, and printing the whole document. I now have something I can annotate.

It’s time to create my word processing files.

On my laptop file store (which is backed up to the cloud), I have a folder called ‘modules’, and then a folder for each module that I’m studying. Within my A230 folder, I have one folder for each TMA. I also use this folder to save materials that have been sent to me by my tutor, so I have everything in one place. I create a blank TMA document, following the “submitting arts TMAs” guidance, making sure I have the right header, font size, and line spacing.

With my paper notes all sorted and an electronic submission file ready to go, it’s nearly time to get properly prepared to answer the TMA question. Before I do this, I have a sit down, have a read of the TMA (along with the set text), and make a whole set of pencil notes.

Part 2: Getting prepared

With my new TMA document open, following guidance from my tutor, I add a title and a references section, and make a note of the word count at the end of the document. Doing these things first ensures that I don’t forget the obvious.

My next step is to split the submission document into some temporary sections, even though the essay will be submitted as one main section (with an additional references section). These sections represent the three parts of the TMA question that I’m answering. I also made a note of the word budget for each of these sections, so I can get a feel for if I’m writing too much or too little.

I quickly re-read the module materials, playing particular attention to key headings, topics, and activities. The module activities there to help us to prepare for the forthcoming TMA. Although we can skip to the answers, it is a good idea to try to do them. I add some keywords that are used within the activities into the body of my solution document, just so I don’t forget about them.

My tutor has sent his tutor group a couple of useful documents that highlight some of the topics featured within the module materials. I copy these documents into my solution document, and edit them aggressively, distilling them so I have a summary of themes that may be useful to remember (or need to address) when writing my TMA. 

There are reasons why tutors run activities and talk about certain concepts during tutorials; they’re sometimes trying to give us a helpful steer. When attending tutorials, I tend to make loads of notes, most of which end up being unreadable. I look through these, and pick out the ones that look to be the most important, adding these next to the other points I have added to the TMA document.

I’ve done all this to pull a set of notes into one place; this way I don’t have to go looking for them when I start writing. I have three key headings, topics from the module materials, and heavily edited notes from tutorials, and a TMA covered with pencil scribble. To help to navigate my way through the Word document using the document navigator tool, I use the Word inbuilt headings.

My next step is to sort my references out. I add a set of references at the end of my TMA, getting the structure of each resource right by looking at the CiteThemRight website. It’s okay if I don’t use everything; I can always delete any references I don’t use or need. Besides, it’s good practice putting everything in the Harvard format.

Finally, I make a copy of my combined TMA submission document and notes document, so I can refer back to them later on if I need to.

Part 3: Writing the TMA

It’s time to start moulding the TMA. My tutor has given me some clear instructions. For the first TMA, it isn’t necessary to provide an introduction or a conclusion, but I might need to provide these with later TMAs.

I remember a bit of feedback from my A112 EMA, which was to make use of the PEEL technique for writing essays. 

PEEL is an abbreviation for Point, Evidence, Explanation and Linking sentence. I remember my EE811 tutor offered a similar bit of guidance about academic writing. Given the nature of their first assignment I’m writing, I don’t think I can (yet) make use of this specific approach, but if I were, I would be sketching out a set of points within my draft TMA document.

I refer back to the module materials, look through the set text again, and refer to some video materials that my tutor mentioned. I make sure that I reference everything carefully within the body of the TMA.

When I address a point that finds its way into the TMA, I delete my accompanying notes.

After quite a few cups of tea, and a bit of grocery shopping (a walk can help to put my thoughts in order), I think I’m done. I have three headings (one for each bit of the question), no remaining notes, and a TMA answer. I remove the three headings, leaving the ‘references’ section heading.

Part 4: Reviewing and submitting

After a couple of days have passed, I get a double spaced printout of my TMA (which is the format that the arts faculty suggest we adopt when we submit our TMA). I settle down at my desk, with another cup of tea, and a set of my favourite coloured pens and read everything back.

I correct a whole load of sentences that don’t make grammatical sense, scribbling on the paper, whilst resisting the temptation to rewrite everything.

When I’m done, I go to the word processed version and enact all the changes that I’ve noted. I make a note of the word count, save the document and then upload it to the eTMA system a couple of days before the TMA cut-off date.

The reason I submit it a few days before the cut off date is to take account of the potential of Sod’s law, which is: whatever could go wrong, will go wrong. 

Reflections

One thing I have done, but haven’t spent a lot of time on is the learning outcomes. Sometimes they are mentioned within a TMA in addition to being found within a module block. It’s important to revisit these too. Connection between the module learning outcomes and what the TMAs are assessing should be pretty clear. 

If I were doing a larger piece of writing, there would probably be a whole other section about structuring of my TMA (or EMA). With bigger bits of writing, I would have to find a way to structure my notes and to find quotes. I would also more vigorously apply the PEEL methodology. I might even give mind mapping a go, but that is not an approach I tend to gravitate to: I tend to prefer lists rather than spider diagrams. It all comes down to whatever works best!

Resources

There’s a whole host of resources about assignments, writing and study which can be found on the OU website. Here are some useful links.

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4th School of Computing and Communications AL Professional Development Conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Nov 2022, 16:29

On Saturday 19 November 2022 I attended the 4th School of Computing and Communications AL Professional Development Conference. Like recent years this event was held online, entirely through Adobe Connect. The event was attended by over 60 Associate Lecturers and was opened by opened by Jim Gillen, who introduced the theme of the event, “new directions”.

What follows is a blog summary of the sessions that I attended. I’m sharing this blog so I can remember what happened during the day, as a record of some of the continuing professional development that I’ve carried out over the year but also for anyone who might be interested in what was covered during this event. 

Welcome and introduction

The first session was presented by Robin Laney, Head of School, and John Woodthorpe, Director of Teaching.  The school supports the equivalent of 4700 full time students and around 200 degree apprentice students. The school delivers 53 modules. These relates to 5 undergraduate qualifications and 3 postgraduate qualifications.

Robin shared the school mission, which is to “empower our students and wider society through life-changing learning and excellent research in computing and communications technologies”. 

The computing curriculum is informed by research carried out by the 6 research groups (school website). The school’s research mission is “to advance digital technologies in ways that enhance the human experience”. The research vision of the school is to place people at the centre of research, to focus on context as much as technology, and to creatively (and positively) disrupt across discipline borders.

John Woodthorpe spoke about some recent changes and plans, such as introduction to the new R60 BSc (Hons) Cyber security degree, which is now up and running. Tutors responded to a request to carry out some paid continuing professional development (CPD) and the school was able to appoint more tutors. The school needs to find a way to develop CPD to enable tutors to teach on TM311 Information security and develop a rolling programme of CPD to help tutors to move onto new modules.

Another new(ish) qualification that was mentioned was R62 BSc (Honours) Computing with Electronic Engineering. The qualification has modules from the OU Engineering and Innovation school, which includes T212 Electronics: sensing, logic and actuation and T312 Electronics: signal processing, control and communications. The mathematics for this module is provided through T193 Engineering: frameworks, analysis, production and T194 Engineering: mathematics, modelling, applications

Another qualification that was important to highlight to tutors was R38 BSc (Honours) Data Science which is led by the School of Mathematics and Statistics. This qualification contains TM358 Machine learning and artificial intelligence. This technical module contains materials about neural networks, deep learning, unsupervised learning and adopts a case study approach. Students are also able to choose TM351 Data management and analysis. The mathematics for this qualification is provided through M140 Introducing Statistics, MST124 Essential mathematics 1 and M348 Applied statistical modelling (amongst others).

Concluding the presentation about qualifications, there are two new higher technical qualifications: W19 Diploma of Higher Education in Network Engineering, and W20 Diploma of Higher Education in Software Engineering. These qualifications give students experience of higher education study and provide a pathway to a degree.

The school has a five year curriculum plan. There are plans to redevelop the popular TM112 Introduction to computing and information technology 2, a plan to develop a new 30 credit level 1 module with more programming (since some students may have gained programming experience during earlier study at school), provide a route to recognise prior experiential learning, enhance skills development across all levels, plug gaps in curriculum, and make better use of research within modules. Since there is an increasing amount of focus on AI, the school is also looking to develop a second level AI module, which will potentially open up a pathway through one of the school’s named degrees.

I made note of a couple of questions. One of them was: how can tutors get involved with the work of the research groups? Tutors were encouraged have a look at the research group websites, and also look at the publications that these groups have produced through the university’s Open Research Online (ORO) website, and should feel free to contact individual academics. Also, another route to research is through the university’s STEM scholarship centre, eSTEeM. I also remember a follow up question which related to the terms and conditions of the AL contract. An important point to note is that although tutors are now, quite rightly, permanent employees of the university, their role primarily relates to teaching and student support, rather than research.

Another question related to “filling the gaps” in computing degrees, and how tutors may be able to influence the content of degree programmes and modules. The answer was: speak with module team chairs, and also have a chat with our Director of Teaching.

Parallel Session 1: New and future Curriculum Developments

The first parallel session I attended had the title “AI and Machine Learning, from TM358 to TM470, an overview and experiences tutoring” and was facilitated by Michael Bowkis and Trevor Forsythe. As highlighted earlier, TM358 is the school’s new AI module. TM470 is the undergraduate computing capstone module.

The session is said to present “the motivations behind why AI and ML are featuring in the C&C curriculum”. It began with a definition of AI, which was said to be “the capacity of a computer or other machines to exhibit or simulate intelligent behaviour” (Oxford English Dictionary). Michael shared some instances where AL and Machine Learning (ML) was featured in the news. He shared a video that introduced the concept of deep fakes, and then asked the question: can we design a way to determine what is a deep fake? We were introduced to a deep fake detection platform called FakeCatcher from Intel. There are, of course, other contexts. AI can play a role in defending against Distributed Denial of Service attacks (which is a topic which links to the cyber security curriculum). There is a link here to employability. AI is a subject that features in data science, transport, media, telecoms, banking, healthcare and so on.

Onto a question: what is it like to be a tutor on TM358?

TM358 aims to teach a range of ML techniques by adopting an engineering approach. Tutors need to become familiar with a complex and fiddly software stack (which is a hosted platform on Amazon Web Services). TM358 makes use of Python, Jupyter notebooks, and Tensorflow, which is a library of machine learning tools. The module also emphasises social impact and ethics; students are asked to consider how the AI could be used and misused. Some tips for tutors include: make sure you get the TMA dates into the calendar, learn the Jupyter notebooks system, since it is used for assignments and teaching. Tutors are not expected to run the cloud computing platform, but they are expected to understand how students have used and responded to the platform. Do feel confident in seeking help from other tutors.

There are three TMAs and an EMA, which is a mini project which can help to develop skills for TM470. The module adopts a single component assessment strategy, where the EMA accounts for 60% of the overall module result. By the end of the module a student won’t be an AI expert, a Python expert, or a Tensorflow expert, but will have some introductory knowledge which is a very helpful starting point.

AI has changed. TM358 is unrecognisable from what I studied when I was a computer science undergraduate. When I studied the subject, neural networks were mentioned in passing, and the focus was on algorithmic searching. AI is continuing to change; every day there is something new.

I asked a question to Michael, Trevor and all other tutors: have you had many TM470 projects that have used TM358? Students are only now beginning to base their projects on TM358. A challenge is when some students study TM358 and TM470 at the same time. The TM470 staff tutors try to help, and do their best to ensure that students who express an interest in basing their project on TM358 are assigned to tutors who have machine learning and AI expertise. 

Parallel Session 2: eSTEeM and Research

The next session I attended (and facilitated) had the title “Continuing professional development: Approaches and Opportunities”. The aim of this session was to get everyone talking about what is meant by CPD, and to help everyone to understand how it might be changing.

Here’s the abstract that introduces the session: “The new tutor contract not only changes our terms and conditions, it also means there is change in our relationship to the university, and the university school (or schools) that we teach for. …  Due to the new contract, continuing professional development (CPD) will become a closer collaboration between a tutor and staff tutor. This session aims to ask a series of questions about CPD with a view to sharing experiences, practice, and what opportunities might exist as we move towards more fully implementing the new tutor contract.”

I began the session by highlighting some relevant sections from the new tutor contract terms and conditions; the section that describes Academic Currency and Professional Development, and the new Academic Currency and Professional Development Policy. Different elements make up our academic currency time, AL led time, and time that is agreed with a staff tutor. Importantly, the amount of time everyone has for CPD is different, and depends on what everyone’s FTE is. There are other bits to the AL contract and CPD picture that haven’t (yet) been worked out yet, such as the connection between the skills audit and the AL Career Development and Staff Appraisal (CDSA).

Before putting everyone into one of four different breakout rooms, I posed some questions. The collated results from each breakout room are presented below. Where appropriate, I’ve provided either weblinks or a bit of additional commentary.

What CPD have you done as an AL?

  • Mandatory training; also known as compliance training, which includes GDPR compliance, safeguarding and equality essentials.
  • Applaud; becoming an associate fellow or fellow of AdvanceHE (which used to be called the Higher Education Academy)
  • Scholarship projects and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; ALs can participate in eSTEeM projects.
  • Cyber Security/Cisco; completion of Networking Essentials and other Cisco courses to prepare to teach on other OU modules; older Cisco certification, such as Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT).
  • Carbon Literacy Training; an Open Learn course facilitated by the OU in Wales. Participants are required to attend synchronous events, and consider two pleges.
  • AL development conferences; such as this school event, or events run by the professional development group.
  • STEMbyALsforALs events; tutor led events that aim to share practice and experience.
  • Module study/fee waivers; studying an OU module, either an individual module, or to work toward a qualification.
  • Used in house resources from my "day job" that are relevant to the OU modules that I tutor.
  • Practice courses; Adobe Connect and a forums practice course
  • Programming with an online lab tool called Replit; used in TM112 online lab research.
  • Ethical Hacking CPD for TM359.
  • Written papers for presentation at the European Conference on E-Learning and presented at AdvanceHE conferences.

What CPD would you like to do?

How can your staff tutor or the university help?

  • Provide induction training for new tutors; the STEM faculty now runs various events for tutors who are joining the university, but perhaps there might be an opportunity to offer a further welcome into the school
  • During the skills audit (and later), the staff tutor could offer pointers to resources, or help to provide resources.
  • The staff tutors could flag modules where there is a shortage of tutors and organise training to help tutors become aware of those modules.
  • Provide CPD in quiet times during the year, such as during holidays, e.g. between June and September.

Discussion points

There were a number of discussion points to emerge from the online session, and the notes that every focus group made during their session. One striking point was a question about the extent to which climate education could be embedded within the curriculum. There is also the importance of how to best embed accessibility and inclusion into the curriculum, 

There were also comments and discussion about the AdvanceHE certifications which are available through the OU’s Applaud scheme. Although the Senior Fellow scheme does require evidence and demonstration of leadership, this is certainly something that can be demonstrated through the AL role. Examples of this might include taking a lead during day schools, online tutorials, or leading with the management of cluster forums. If anyone is interested in creating evidence that can contribute to a higher level AdvanceHE fellowship claim, do have a discussion with your staff tutor.

A question that came out of the discussion notes was: what is SEDA? SEDA is an abbreviation for an organisation called the Staff and Educational Development Organisation. SEDA is a professional organisation that is there to support people who are involved with the professional development of education professionals, typically within higher education. Like the HEA scheme, it has different levels. As a rule, the university doesn’t provide funding for membership of professional organisations, since membership of professional bodies is a personal decision.

It is worth highlighting something called the AL development fund which I understand still exists. The Associate Lecturer Development Fund “is available to support Associate Lecturers (ALs) professional development activities in their role at The Open University (OU) as an AL where no other source of funding is available. Examples might be a non-OU course, module of study or a relevant conference. We ask that all applications show a demonstrable link to development of an AL in their role as a tutor at the OU”. The fund is limited to a relatively small amount of money, and you can only submit claims over a certain period of time. You might, for example, wish to use it to take a professional exam, or have the fund cover part of the cost of a conference. All the university will ask in return is a short report.

One theme that emerged was concerned with research and scholarship. Scholarship of teaching and learning, or scholarship about professional practice is easier to facilitate than disciplinary research which must align with school research objectives. If you’re interested in this area, do get in touch with your friendly staff tutor, who will be really happy to help.

A final bit of CPD that is worth mentioning is the opportunity not only to take OU modules using a fee waiver, but also to carry out doctoral study too. More information about what this might mean is summarised in an earlier blog post, Doctoral research: a short introduction.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Introductory Plenary

After a lunchtime poster showcase Rehana Awan, Lecturer in EDI Implementation in Computing and Communications, gave a keynote presentation about equality, diversity and inclusion. 

Rehana spoke about her background and connection with the university. She began as a regional coordinator, became an AL for the access programme, and then an AL for DD102 Introducing the social sciences. She then worked as a staff tutor for Open and Access, and became co-chair of the black and minority staff network. As well as being a lecturer in the school, she is a third year doctoral researcher, looking at the awarding gap for black and brown students.

She asked herself a question, which was: “what is preventing me from moving forward in my career?” Barriers to progress might be physical (in terms of where we live), education, or skills. Having been trained as a social scientist, Rehana asks questions about how society is structured, to further understand what barriers might exist. I made a note of her words: “it is important to think of people’s background and contexts. If we have a better understanding of who people are and where they come from, we can better adapt our teaching, and how to address inequalities”.

Another question was asked: why is EDI important? EDI is now embedded within the University’s strategic plan. It is also a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010. Also, since the university is made up of a community of scholars, everyone has a responsibility to carry out research (and professional development) to ensure that effective teaching is provided to all students. This links with the university’s student access and participation strategies and plans.

I made a note of a striking statistic. In the UK, there are 22k professors. Out of this figure there are only 41 black women. Just looking at these raw figures, there is clearly a systemic issue that needs to be understood and addressed. A further point I noted down was that we need to develop more representative teaching and research communities. Role models are important.

Rehana emphasised that EDI is everyone’s responsibility. She said that her role is to offer advice about research, awarding gaps and progression rates. In response to some of these challenges, Rehana has set up an awarding gaps implementation group, which consists of colleagues from across the school.

Parallel Session 3: Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Following from Rehana’s keynote, I chose to attend the penultimate session of the day, Decolonising computing - what that might mean? This event was facilitated by Zoe Tompkins, Steve Walker and Ray Corrigan.

Steve Walker presented the background context: some Universities are considering how to decolonise their curricula. In C&C a Decolonising Computing eSTEeM project is exploring what this might mean for our school, led by Mustafa Ali and members of the critical information studies research group. This has raised some questions: Is the history of colonialism important to the discipline?  If so, what are the implications for how and what we teach?

Terms are important. Some key terms are colonialism, postcolonialism and coloniality. Colonialism is defined as a period of European political domination that formally ends with the national liberation and independence movements of the 1960s; postcolonialism relates to a legacy which has outlived formal colonialism and has become integrated within structures, and coloniality refers to persistent structures.

Decolonising computing education is important across the whole sector, since the QAA subject benchmark suggests that it is necessary to acknowledge and address “how divisions of hierarchies of colonial value are replicated and reinforced within the computing subject”. Since students will be creating social structures of the future, it is important that they have an awareness of some of these concepts.

One argument used is “computers don’t have colour”, but computing can be considered as a social practice, since computing is made by people. Social values can be embedded within software, and these values can be replicated by and within society. There is an interaction (which can be called sociotechnical) between the people and the machines (and software) that is created and used.

Two perspectives were highlighted: historic and contemporary.  The historic perspective highlights that technology is implicated in the development of colonialism. The contemporary perspective is that current practices and artefacts continue to perpetuate colonial impact.

It was said that computing is often viewed as a subject without a history, but this is something I disagree with. It is true, however, that the history of computing is not readily taught in computer science or information technology qualifications. 

An interesting case study that reflects a historic perspective was highlighted, the history of the telegraph in India. In terms of the contemporary perspective, asking the question “where do computers come from?” leads us to further case studies. To create the iPhone, rare metals and minerals are needed to be mined, and these can come from countries that are still enduring a continuing legacy of colonialism. There are links to questions about what happens to electronic waste, and the increasing visibility of green computing and the importance of climate justice.

Another question to ask is: who is involved with establishing technical or computing standards? Also, who (or which organisations) provides and supports infrastructure?

Zoe spoke about a survey that was used to gather answers to the question: what do you think it means to decolonise the computing curriculum? Zoe shared a range of different responses from participants. Challenges to progressing this work may include misunderstanding what the goal is, potential lack of interest, lack of resources, and how to ensure representation.

Closing Plenary

Jim Gillen facilitated a short closing plenary, where some questions were shared, such as how do we continue to engage with some of the topics raised, such as equality, inclusion and decolonisation? Another important question was asked about how the subject of sustainability could be further embedded with the curriculum. 

I have no easy answers to these questions, but making representation is an important thing to do, whenever and wherever we can. Following on from the COP27 conference, I have heard that the university is running a university wide event about sustainability. Having completed some CPD about carbon literacy, one of my commitments is to find likeminded colleagues in this school, and the School of Engineering and Innovation, who share interests in green computing.

Reflections

AL professional development events are always fun events, and this was no exception. I did miss being at a face-to-face venue, so we could share tips and stories over a sandwich. This said, the benefit of an online even is that I get to speak with colleagues that I wouldn’t have otherwise spoken to before. A challenge with these online events is, of course, the digital environment that we use; we’re all at different places and within different physical environments which might present their own barriers.

There were, of course, quite a few sessions that I couldn’t go to. I couldn’t, for example, attend the session about the student support team, or Rehana’s second presentation.

From the session that I facilitated, it struck me that there was a lot of CPD going on! Due to the new tutor contract staff tutors are likely to be taking on even more of a listening role in the future in order to do our best to facilitate the opportunities that everyone needs.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Jim Gillen and to Sharon Dawes who led the planning of the event, our colleagues in ALSPD, and all the members of the AL development planning group that helped to organise this session, which included Michael Bowkis, Ray Corrigan, Christine Gardner, Nigel Gibson, Alexis Lansbury and David McDade. On the Friday evening before the event, Ray delivered a lecture, which I’ve heard was very well received. Further acknowledgement are extended to Sharon, who kindly proof read an early version of this summary.

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CISSE Cyber Security Education and Employability Forum: November 2022

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 21 Nov 2022, 15:48

On 16 November 2022 I participated an online Cyber Security Education and Employability Forum, which was hosted by CISSE, the UK chapter of the Colloquium for Information Systems Security, and facilitated in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Roehampton School of Arts and Digital Industries and the OU School of Computing and Communications.

The forum was described as “an opportunity to share your knowledge and experience with the cyber education community, and to informally network with colleagues in other institutions who are involved with cyber security learning, teaching and employability.”

Since the event was not recorded, this blog aims to present a summary of what was discussed within the event. It is broadly intended for the 40 delegates who attended the session, but it might be of interest to anyone who may have an interest in cyber security. In some ways, this event follows on from an earlier CISSE Cyber Security Education Workshop that took place in 2021. This blog can also be viewed alongside other OU cyber security blogs.

The event began with an introduction by Charles Clarke, from the University of Roehampton.

Cyber Springboard

The first session was presented by Alex Collins, who presents a tool called Cyber Springboard. Clicking on this link takes you to a page which clearly summarises the aim of Cyber Springboard, which is to help students to “build and evidence the skills to get a job in cyber security”. The site also presents “activities and ideas for you to get curious about to build fluency in cyber skills”. 

Alex told us that he sits on certification panels, and his work on Cyber Springboard comes from 20 years of working in industry.

Alex made some important points that were reflected throughout the session. He emphasised that cyber is more than pen testing (penetration testing), more than forensics, and more than risk management; a career in ‘cyber’ is more than one of those things. An interesting reflection is that each of these areas have different stereotypes, in terms of the type of work that is performed within each area. The point is clear: cyber is broad. There are 21 Knowledge areas within the cyber security body of knowledge, the CyBOK; it’s a broad area. 

Cyber Springboard enables users to find what they like and don’t like. I made a note that there are 301 cards and activities which are connected to the CyBok knowledge areas. When registered, users can tick off cards. Each card contributes to a shape of a cyber knowledge profile, which can be shared on a personal profile or a CV. The next steps are to consider courses and pathways, developing improvements to the structure of Cyber Springboard, and increasing Cybok coverage.

Alex was asked an interesting question about how it is possible to move to cyber security. The question was answered in terms of building practical skills, finding time to learn what you enjoy, and evidence what you have achieved. An important point was: demonstrate enthusiasm. Also, consider providing a Github link on your CV. Sharing something will give you something to talk about in an interview.

Routes into cyber education: discussion and sharing

Next up was an informal session by Phil Hackett and myself, facilitated by Charles Clarke. The aim of the session was to discuss routes into cyber security teaching through a discussion, and sharing of resources.

One of the themes to emerge from this session was the notion of transitions. Phil began as an OU student, and then became a computing teacher at a secondary school. From there, he had ‘crossed the floor’ to work within the university, where he is involved with modules such as M269 Algorithms, data structures and computability.

My own story is a bit different. I moved from the university sector (where I carried out some research which was about the practice of computer programming), to industry, and back again. One thing that Phil and I have in common is that we’re both tutors; he teaches on M269, and I tutor on a Java module that has the title M250 Object-oriented Java Programming. Another commonality is that we have both had to deal with different types of cyber security incident. These incidents connect to the importance of having knowledge of controls and technical knowledge.

One thing that is common to transitions is the importance of evidence, and having a story; points which relate nicely to Alex’s presentation about Cyber Springboard. In terms of moving from industry to academia, one thing that we didn’t have time to share was a short Badged Open Course, which helps potential applicants understand more about the role of an OU tutor: Being an OU tutor in STEM. Anyone completing this course will be providing evidence that they understand what it means to be a distance learning tutor.

Another point that I think I made was about the important contributions industrial professionals can make to teaching. Importantly, and significantly, their industrial experience can help to make module materials come alive.

I made a note of two questions that were asked. The first question was about how to gain access to internships. Some thoughts were: make sure you have a good LinkedIn profile, know what you’re interested in, and don’t be afraid to be cheeky. What I mean by this is: don’t be afraid to get in touch with people and companies.

The second question was an interesting and challenging question: is it really necessary to have strong publication record if you want to be in academia? There are different roles within academia, and different institutions have different requirements. The short answer is: no, it isn’t really necessary, but you may have to choose where to apply to, and what you wish to do. Just like with cyber jobs, evidencing experience is really important. I’ll conclude by saying that becoming an OU tutor is a really great way to evidence your cyber teaching skills, and is a great way to join academia.

CyberFirst

The penultimate session was by Patrick from CyberFirst which is a part of the UK Government National Cyber Security Centre.

CyberFirst aims to “identify and nurture a diverse range of talented young people into a cyber security career”. As well as providing activities to “inspire and encourage students from all backgrounds to consider a career in cyber security”. CyberFirst also offers bursaries to undergraduates and degree apprenticeship students. (As an aside, the OU also offers cyber security analyst digital technology solutions degree apprenticeships for employers who want to support the development of their workforce).

For those working within the schools sector, CyberFirst is divided into a number of UK regions. CyberFirst is “working on ways to build a diverse and sufficient talent pipeline into the cyber sector (in all its forms) no matter what students have studied before”. Linking to the earlier presentations, some related questions are: how do we get people to use Alex’s tools, and how do we encourage students to study cyber security (and related subjects) at the OU?

An important point Patrick made was that “every job is a tech job” and that “our skills gap is pretty much everyone in the UK” given that technology is so interwoven into our lives. There are some fundamental issues that need to be address, such as 80% of cyber security employees are male. It is important to address how to increase the diversity in the sector.

In earlier presentations about cyber security, the ‘leaky skills’ pipeline was highlighted. In this presentation, Patrick offered a brief summary that explains this. If computer science was the only gateway subject into cyber security, it would begin with 300k students going through KS1 through 4. Looking towards the secondary sector, 12% of students study computer science, and only 9% of those are girls. Overall, only 2.5% of students then move on to study computer science at A level.

One way to begin to address diversity is to make people aware of the different career structure that makes up cyber security (which, again, connects to the earlier Cyber Springboard presentation). This of course, links to the earlier question posed in the last session: how do learners get to have a go ‘at some stuff’ to find what they’re good at?

Faced with these challenges, Patrick suggested that it might be instructive to look to other domains to see what they do, such as sport and medicine. A question is: how do you find out what things people are good at? In terms of sport, the answer might be to let people have a go at something and then coach and train people to their full potential. For medicine, give students the time to make informed choices and after they’ve tried different things, only then do learners move into specialism.

A rhetorical question was: what do we do in the security cyber space? How might a “sports model” be applied to cyber? There is a diversity of people, and many of them have not studied computer science. There are non-techies with a little cyber awareness, techies with limited cyber awareness, and techies with a genuine interest in cyber.

Patrick shared an idea of a talent pipeline, which begins with scale and diversity, moved onto learners and people making their own decisions about the subject, engagement and learning, and then directed activity which leads into employment, roles and responsibility.

Towards the end of this session, there was a reference to something called the CISSE UK problem book, which is intended to help educators not just in terms of education and teaching, but also for outreach and engagement.

In the question answer, I noted down two questions. The first question was: “does a degree title matter? How important is the label?” His response was: “we don’t mind the degree title, but it’s more about what the degree enables you to do. Your degree may well help you into the next step; knowing things about yourself is important”. A further point was: it is really important do show and demonstrate passion in an interview. 

The second question was about experience: “as a post-graduate student now doing a part-time masters’ in computer science with cybersecurity, what sort of work experience can I gain whilst doing this degree and where would I look for these opportunities?” In the context of the OU, and other universities there are the career services, which students should feel free to consult. Also, if you want to move into cyber it is possible to do your own thing to build evidence and demonstrate capability. Look to see if there’s some open source projects you can get involved with. Find a way to build a narrative that you can take to potential employers. As was mentioned earlier, consider adding a link to a GitHub repository on your CV, to give yourself something to talk about during interviews.

Academia and industry certifications aligned: An Open University case study

The final presentation of the day was by Lee Campbell from the OU. Lee is the module chair of TM359 Systems Penetration Testing which is due to be presented for the first time in February 2023. TM359 is a part of the OU BSc (Honours) Cyber Security. Lee takes us through a set of slides which presents the background context and much of the rationale for the module.

Why create a penetration testing module?

Business have a skills gap; they need more people with cyber security skills. Plus cyber security issues is a UK government tier 1 threat to national security. Also, students have been requesting a penetration testing module, and there is a need to complete the OU cyber security qualification. 

A really interesting aspect of both cyber security and pen testing is that they cover so many different areas of computing, such as programming, databases, and networking (which are all aspects which have been studied, in one form or another, during earlier modules).

OU options to build a pen test module

There are two key choices: build something in house, or outsource. One key need was to create (or to find) a technical environment that would be used by 600 students that would be separated from the OU technical environment. There are, always challenges; these were the resources that were available and the time.

The key considerations (or requirements) that I noted down from Lee’s presentation were costs, student access, the need for a web-based solution (to avoid the use of virtual machines), ease of integration with university education systems, and scalability. In light of all these considerations, a decision was made to look around to find a solution from an external supplier.

Lee made a point about education philosophy: both education and training is needed “to develop and adapt to society’s needs”. As an aside, training is about how to do things, whereas education is about when and why to do things. Any solution must amalgamate both perspectives.

Why align with a certification body?

If the decision is to outsource, which provider should the university go with? Lee highlighted a number of certifications that relate to pen testing and ethical hacking, such as CompTIA PenTest+, CPSA, Offensive OSCP, and Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH). There are also a number of laboratory tools, such as HackTheBox, TryHackMe and NDG Netlab+.

In the end, the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) from EC-Council was chosen, which is one of the leading certification bodies and is one of the top 10 certifications that relate to the subject.

There are a lot of CEH resources. There are up to 20 modules, and each module relates to a subject area. Each module has a dedicated video that presents an overview. There are eBooks, and a browser based lab called iLabs. There is also something called the CyberQ platform where students can carry out a pentest.

Integrating the new module

The TM359 module has integrated many of these resources over 31 weeks of study to enable the materials to be delivered through the OU VLE. Significantly, TM359 covers most of the areas in Cybok 1.1. Also, efforts have clearly been made to ensure the module is clearly about education rather than training.

Students study a module per week. Every week begins with an introductory video, and there are additional materials and tools to help students to make notes. There are five blocks. Block 1 is an introduction to the module and the subject; block 2 concerns reconnaissance, scanning and enumeration; block 3 is about system hacking, gaining, maintaining access and clearing tracks; block 4 concerns stakeholder engagement and automation; block 5 covers countermeasures and mitigation.

Question and Answer session

I made a note of three questions. 

The first question relates to the challenges that accompany using a vendor certification within an undergraduate programme. Lee emphasised that the materials explain important concepts and it is hoped and expected that there is a good balance between developing technical understanding and academic learning. A further reflection from this question is that the OU already has substantial experience of linking academic study and appropriate vendor qualification through its connection with Cisco, through the modules TM257 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 1 and TM357 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 2.

A follow up question relates to how the module team deals with iterations or changes. The university has a formal process following the launch of any module. Some of the changes occur through the vendor, and there are clear benefits in using a web-based platform in the sense that the extent that changes can be managed.

The final question was more of a comment. Rather than seeking an industrial provider, one alternative may have been to facilitate a greater level of collaboration with other higher education institutions to facilitate sharing of resources. A challenge that had to be faced was, of course, timescales. A further reflection is that the CISSE community may well have a role to play in facilitating the understanding of needs for cyber security educators.

Plenary discussion and next steps

During the forum, through a link shared in text chat, participants were encouraged to share something about their background and to say something about priorities for the community. Students made up the biggest group, with 19 participants. The other participants were academics, tutors, or members of government.

The priorities were ranked as follows: 

  1. How can we ensure students get access to work experience?
  2. How can we improve the quality of learning resources in academia?
  3. How do we get more cyber security lecturers in academia?
  4. What are the alternatives to placements and internships?
  5. Alternatives to CVs?
  6. What should be in a cyber education problem book?
  7. How can job descriptions be improved?
  8. The significance of cyber learning hubs between institutions

Regarding the first point, academics have a responsibility to speak with the careers teams or department, to make sure they are fully aware of the diversity of cyber security roles. 

Another important priority, which reflected earlier discussions, is the need to increase gender diversity within cyber security. This led to a discussion about the lack of women computer science teachers. Some accompanying questions were: why is this the case? Also, what can we do to change that? One reflection concerned the language used in job descriptions is an issue. For example, adverts which contain references to “rock star developers” might be attractive to one group, and not another.

The final point I noted down was about cyber security recruitment. Here is the final paraphrased question which I think was presented by Patrick: “how do we get recruiters to engage with the person, rather than asking the technical questions that need to be asked?”.

Perhaps the answer is to take the technical questions out of the interview, leaving space and time for the important question of: which aspect of cyber security do you feel you are best suited to?

Reflections

What was significant about this event was the practical focus of some of the questions that were asked, and also how each of the sessions linked to each other. A key question was: how do I go about gaining practical cyber security experience? There are different ways to answer this: network to gain contacts, be bold when it comes to asking about opportunities, seek advice from your university’s career service (if this is an option open to you), and try to find ways to develop and demonstrate your skills on your own terms.

The lack of gender diversity was a theme that emerged a number of times. Within the OU there is a plan to setup a new OU Women in STEM conference. Linked to this is the importance of role models and teachers which was mentioned by one of the speakers.

The biggest take away point that I took away from this event also related to diversity, diversity of roles that exist within cyber security. Looking to future CISSE sessions, it will be interesting to learn how this aspect of diversity can be expressed and embedded within the ‘problem book’ that the community is working on.

Acknowledgements

This blog post has morphed from a set of notes I made whilst attending the forum. Subsequently, many of the words presented within this blog come from each of the speakers, who all gave fabulous presentations. The idea for running this event came from Charles, who proposed themes, managed the registrations and worked through all the idiosyncrasies of MS Teams to make for a successful event. Thanks are also extended to Charles for his excellent proofreading. Finally, Jill Shaw helped with some of the technology admin on the day.

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Access to cyber security day

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 19 Nov 2022, 14:01

On 9 November 2022, I attended an online webinar that was entitled: the real reason for the cyber skills shortage. The webinar was a part of larger event facilitated by CREST International that was about access to cyber security. 

The event was presented by Matt Lawrence, Head of Defensive Security from an organisation called JUMPSEC.  What follows is a set of notes that I’ve made during the session, which have been roughly edited together.

This blog can be viewed alongside other OU blogs that relate to the subject of cyber security.

The real reason for the cyber skills shortage

A point I noted down was that the “skills shortage cannot be solved by bringing more people into the industry. Instead, we have to work smarter and treat current industry professionals better”. Cyber security seeing significant expansion, which means that many organisations are feeling the strain. This expression of concern was reflected in a slide that contained the words “the root of the problem is not the availability of incoming candidates, but the ability to retain skilled and experienced employees”. 

Some striking numbers were shared: the cyber security workforce shrank by 65k people and 1 in 3 cyber security professionals looking to change their role; clearly this is highly unsustainable. (I should add that I don’t know about the source of these numbers). Further comments were made, such as unhealthy working environments, and the unsustainability of operating models which relies on manual analysis of security events and alerts, and organisations going through acquisitions, which puts strain on security controls.

An earlier point that was mentioned that is worth emphasising was that no certification programme is a substitute of hands-on experience.

How do we deal with the skills shortage? I noted down the words: “sustainability is key; compromise is inevitable.” I also noted down “we can’t predict timing and severity” of attacks and events. Professionals “must prepare for the worst, and be ready”.

How are cyber threats evolving?  There were interesting points about ransomware, the practical inadequacy of cyber insurance, gaps of existing control gaps, or lapsing of expected controls. There will always be mistakes: users will accidentally respond to phising emails and there can be inadvertent lapses in permissions; the basics can go wrong. Put another way, “it is the fundamentals that really matter; this goes for organisations and people”. Significantly, applying more technology isn’t necessarily a solution: “before you invest in new security technology, are you making best use of what you already have”. Matt shared a compelling metaphor: don’t make your cyber security haystack bigger by getting more tech.

Paraphrasing some key points about challenges: responders (to cyber events) may have little or no network visibility, and not be able to respond due to a lack of preparations and too may assumptions. Within an organisation there may be “technical debt”, which is a metaphor I have not heard before. Technical debt (Wikipedia), essentially, means shortcuts. In terms of cyber security, this might mean that services might being adequately patched, or infrastructure might be misconfigured. From an organisational perspective, different employees may have misaligned expectations, there may be few checks and balances, and little understanding of threat and available attack paths.

A further slide summarised some of these challenges that were emphasised in the webinar. Some key points include: cyber security operating models may lead to monitoring approaches that are not fit for purpose, and this may lead to the focus on cyber products (which is a technical fix), which may then in turn lead to other issues, such as a potential lack of accountability.

Principles

How do we deal with all this? There are, of course, no immediate or simple answer. A set of principles were shared, which appear to share knowledge and experience.

  1. Augment people with technology. Don’t consider fancy solutions
  2. Be pragmatic and detect what matters (most relevant to the organisation).
  3. Respond on the front foot. Planning, what are the opportunities to respond.
  4. Avoid dependency to enable progress. A security provider is only as good as the organisation they are protecting.
  5. Be visible and transparent. Evidence of services performing as intended.
  6. Be flexible and adaptive.
  7. Embed continuous improvement. Small steps are better than big leaps.

Reflections

I learnt quite a few things through this seminar, and it certainly got me thinking.

Over the last few years, partly due to lots of changes within the OU, I’ve started to become fascinated about organisations, particularly in terms of how they are structured and how they work. The most important element within any organisation is, of course, people. When it comes to cyber security people are, in my view, the most important element. It is people who respond to cyber security incidents, and it is people who setup and maintain controls.

Some of the points mentioned within the webinar reminded me of previous study of a module that goes by the code M889 Information and Data Security. This module has become M811 Information security, which helps students to think about controls, checks, and balances. This subject can also be found within the OU’s undergraduate cyber security named degree, within the module TM311 Information Security.

Acknowledgements

A big acknowledgement goes to the webinar speaker, Matt. I don’t know Matt; I’ve never met him. I also have no connection with either CREST International, who facilitated a series of workshops and events during the day. The really interesting topics highlighted here comes from the event. Where possible, I’ve tried to quote directly. Apologies for any misrepresentations or getting the wrong end of any sticks. 

Finally, I found out about this event through an email that was circulated to the school. I have no idea who sent it, so I have no idea who to thank. So, whoever you are, thanks for sending it through! 

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A230 Journal - September 2022

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 13 Nov 2022, 09:55

I’m studying again! This time I’m studying A230 Reading and studying literature (OU website)

When I was at school, something clicked in place when I was studying from my English Literature GCSE. I had moved up from a remedial English group to a higher stream, where I managed to get a pretty respectable score. It was a subject I quite enjoyed.

When I was taking my exams, I didn’t have much confidence. I didn’t think I would get sufficient scores to take A levels (which sounded pretty intimidating), so I opted for a vocational subject that I hoped would lead to employment. You would say I’ve ‘dabbled’ in the arts, but I’ve never properly studied it.

This blog series follows earlier posts that relate to earlier study of A111 Discovering the arts and humanities (blog) and A112 Cultures (blog).

Some of the links shared within this blog are likely to be only available to either current students, or students studying the module, but it is hoped that any accompanying descriptions are helpful to anyone who might be interested in any of the modules that I've mentioned.

10 September 22

The module website is open before the official start date, so I’m starting to have a look around. 

I find the welcome letter from the module team (which I got in the printed pack), and eyeball the study calendar. I note that the weeks where there is a cut-off date are highlighted in orange. I have a watch of the introductory video. Key points: critical awareness, tutorials, tragedies, cities, the theme of home and abroad, assessments and accompanying resources. 

Next up: the module guide, which introduces the six parts. Key concepts I’ve noted from the guide: context, the author, the reader and reading, period, and literatures. Another important point I’ve noted is that there is an expectation of studying for 14 hours per week. There are five TMAs, and an EMA, and there are some skills tutorials that you need to complete before working on TMAs 2 and 3. It looks like there are five face-to-face day schools (if they are running, I’ll try to go to as many as I can), along with online equivalents.

After returning to the module website, I start to look through the welcome forum, and discover the English Literature toolkit https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1859527 There are two big headings in this toolkit: how to study English literature, and how to write an English literature essay. 

This first section looks pretty big, so I’m going to go back to it later. An important bit looks like ‘learning to be a critic’ since I feel as if I’m okay with time keeping and making notes (but I need to go through those too). Another link is the English subject page. I note that there’s a section about bridging material, called Moving onto Stage 2

Key tips from a video: the pace of the materials, being more critical, spending more time online in different forums, attend tutorials, the materials are more in depth, plan your essays, do your referencing. 

There was a video summary of A233 Telling stories: the novel and beyond, which I couldn’t resist viewing. After returning to the forum, I saw a post to a BBC programme: The Duchess of Malfi: BBC Arts at the Globe (BBC iPlayer) which looks like a good watch (when I get to it in the materials).

Onto the week 1 study guide. I’ve ticked off the welcome letter, video, and module guide. The aims are to read the first part of the module text, and focus on Act 1 of Othello, and then read chapter 1 of the module book. I now know what I need to do! I’m going to make notes when I get to the activities, but for now, I’ll continue to look through the materials. 

I scan through the Resources section, the Downloads section, and the glossary.

A final action before stopping; I’ve found a place to store all my notes, and I’ve got a pad of A4 paper, and set of pens. This means I’m ready to go!

11 September 22

I’ve read the introductory section of the book, and have completed the first activity, but I found it pretty hard going. The text of Othello is very dense, and there’s a lot of take in during the first 80 lines. To complete the activity, I’ve made a few notes.

Continuing my look around on the module website, I have a quick look at the assessments. TMA 1, which is all about analysing a fragment of text, doesn’t look to be too difficult. The TMA sends me off to look at section 4 of the assessment guide, which is in the same section where the TMA is located. Since I need to take all this in, and closely follow the assessment guidance, print out the assessment handbook, and file it in my new folder.

14 September 22

There was a bit of chat in the module WhatsApp group, where students were sharing the initials of tutors they had been allocated to. Noticing this, I logged into the module page to see if I was allocated a tutor, and I had! I think I recognise the name from tutorials from an earlier module, but this is not a tutor that I’ve had before. 

I managed to read three pages of the assessment guide. 

15 September 22

I’ve noticed that the tutorial dates are now available. I book into as many as I can, saving events to my Outlook calendar. 

17 September 22

I get an email from my tutor. I send him a quick reply.

I return to reading the assessment handbook, and get as far as TMA 2. This takes me to two other sets of pages, both of which I’ve printed out: assessment information for arts modules, and the drama skills tutorial. I also head off down a resource that is all about employability, which is called FutureYou. I’m introduced to OneFile, which I don’t tend to use, and there’s an accompanying template that I look through. I made note of the OU employability framework, since I feel that it might be useful later. It’s interesting to see that there’s a place to store reflections against each element in the framework, and there’s a section that is specific for the English Literature qualification pathway. 

When looking through FutureYou, I get as far as the Identifying and planning section. I’ve not really done much in the way of reading or looking at texts, but one other good thing that I’ve done today is that I’ve organised my bookshelf. I’ve got rid of some books, and there’s now space for all my literature books. 

One thing I’m thinking of is, whether I could start to use OneNote to make a study log.

18 September 22

Back to looking at the employability framework. I found an assessment tool, where I could rate myself on each of the 10 items on the employability framework. I found this interesting, but I did question whether some of the items were immediate relevant to what I was studying. I also discovered a page that relates elements of the framework to the TMAs, which offered a suggestion about some of the activities I would be carrying out later on during my study.

I’ve decided not to use OneNote, for the reason that I’ve got my own methodology, which makes use of paper based notebooks. I also tend to create different files (sets of notes) for different things. I find I learn when writing things down, and I use my visual memory to recognise papers which I’ve written on. Whilst I could more easily search for things in OneNote, I’m happy with my current study approach. For other forms of note taking and writing, I use Word documents.

It’s back to the reading of the assessment handbook. I’ve read the assessment information for arts modules, and I’ve found the EMA question.

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Doctoral research: a short introduction

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 26 Oct 2022, 17:22

This blog is about doctoral research, a little bit of what it entails, and the different routes that are available to students who are studying in the UK. This post might also be useful for international students too.

This post begins by asking the question: “what is a doctorate?” It then goes onto describe two different routes to doctoral study: a disciplinary route and a professional route. This is followed by a very broad sketch of what doctoral research involves. 

The post concludes by sharing some of my own experiences, and offers a summary, which includes some links to some useful resources.

One thing I should add is that I don’t work for the university graduate school, but I do supervise some doctoral students. Do always check with the OU graduate school if you need further information, or the equivalent unit that is likely to exist within your own institution.

The fundamental questions

What is a doctorate and why would I want one?

A doctorate says that you have done, and are capable of carrying out original research. It also says that you have been trained to carry out research, and you are capable of advanced critical thinking. 

A doctorate is also something that can be useful if you would like to have a career in academia. Whilst it can be considered to be useful, you can, of course, still be a lecturer, and still carry out substantial research without having a doctorate. 

A related question is: will it get me a higher salary? My answer is: don’t do it for the money; do it for your subject, and also do it for yourself. 

Another answer to this question is: it all depends. It depends on the discipline, and also depends on the job opportunities that are available. Academia is notoriously and brutally competitive, and there are never any guarantees.  

Another question to ask is: would you be prepared to work for at least 4 years on a low income? During that time, your peers may well become established in parallel careers, and have spent that time continually increasing their earning potential. As mentioned above: do it for the subject, not for the money.

Do you need a masters?

For the OU professional doctorates, applicants should “normally hold, or be expecting to obtain before the start of the degree”. I’ll say something more about professional doctorate a bit later. For disciplinary doctorates, you don’t necessarily need have to have one, but they can certainly help. It may depend on the subject and the institution that you're applying to.

Do you need to be super smart?

I used to think of people who held doctorates as being a whole other species of human. I remember my chemistry teacher at school. He had an air of cleverness about him. He regularly wore a white chemist’s coat. I assumed that everyone who was called doctor was super smart. After a fortuitous sequence circumstances, I found myself having “done some stuff” and “having discovered” some things that were deemed to be suitably original enough to be given a doctorate. 

The thing is, I’m not super smart. 

What I would say is that I was passionate and interested in what I was doing to be able to find sufficient determination (and time) to really focus on a narrow area of study. Being smart is important (as is being humble), but determination matters more. You must be motivated, and maintaining motivation over an extended period of time isn’t easy.

How big is a contribution?

Doctoral research is all about carrying out original research, which broadly means discovering something new that no one had ever discovered before. This sounds like a big deal. Another fallacy that I had when I was a kid was the view that these “doctors” must have discovered something huge during their studies; something that could change the world or the course of history.

The reality is, conversely, a lot more mundane. 

One way to think of academia is to think of it as a community in which the academics contribute to a huge set of on-going debates. Everything is mostly very polite since the academics argue with each other, through the medium of academic articles and formal presentations. Academics might, for example, argue about the role and importance of the topics that make up their discipline. Doctoral students learn how to contribute to that massive debate; they’re elbowing their way in, to say: “hey, have you thought about, looked at, or seen this?”

The contribution to one of these debates can, in fact, be really small, but it can still represent a contribution.

I am a big fan of social science methods, particularly ethnography. Ethnography is all about writing about people and communities. Ethnographers write about what people do, and how their communities operate. A doctorate in the social sciences which applies ethnography might study what happens in a particular community over a period of time. Communities (and cultures) come and go, and are influenced by the events and circumstances that surround them. The very act of writing and describing a potentially short lived community represents a contribution, which other academics can look to, study and examine. In sharing your contribution, you contribute to wider debates about societies and how they work.

In computing, my home discipline, researchers might go about building software, or combining new bits of software in a unique way to demonstrate a new concept or idea. A new software tool might be a very modest contribution, but someone else might pick it up and take it into a whole new creative direction. 

Although the phrase “making an original contribution to human knowledge” sounds pretty intimidating and very grand, the contributions that doctoral researchers make can be modest. This said, some doctoral students can also be fundamental in facilitating breakthroughs. Also, it isn’t just the output from a doctorate that is important; the process is important too.

Types of doctorates

Within the OU (and other institutions) there are, broadly, two types of doctorates: disciplinary doctorates, and professional doctorates. I’ll begin with disciplinary doctorates.

Disciplinary doctorates

Disciplinary doctorates, simply, are doctorates that take place within a discipline! There are a number of routes to a disciplinary doctorate. These differ in terms of how the research question, or problem. A disciplinary doctorate might begin with a specific problem that needs to be solved, or it might begin with a research question from a student.

Doctoral research roles

Some doctoral students may carry out research as a part of an established funded research project or programme. In some ways, gaining a doctorate this way is a bit like having a job. Programmes of this kind are usually full-time, where students get paid a modest salary (or stipend), rather than having to pay the university for registration and supervision fees.

The funding for these opportunities might come from a funding council (or research funding body), which has decided to fund a project that has been proposed by a professor or a team of academics. 

Alternatively, the funding for some doctoral jobs may come from industry. In these cases, a company or business might have a very particular research and development problem that may have never been solved before, and one way to solve it would be to set up a project which may involve doctoral students. The outcomes from the project would give the business an insight into how to solve a problem, and give a doctoral student experience of carrying out research into a technical domain, and writing a thesis.

In the UK context many of these research opportunities are advertised on a well-known academic jobs board (Jobs.ac.uk). It is quite interesting and useful to have a look at some of these to see what kinds of qualifications, experience and characteristics research groups are looking for. This board also sometimes advertises opportunities in other countries too. When I last had a look I saw positions available in Sweden, Germany and Hong Kong. For an even broader international perspective, another site that is worth visiting is Find a PhD (website). 

Doctoral scholarships

Some of the roles that you may see on those PhD job board may be quite varied. You might see positions that address a very specific research problem. On the other hand, you might sometimes see scholarships which are more loosely to a subject or a topic area.

The school in which I am affiliated with advertises a couple of PhD scholarships per year. Whilst some of these scholarships might be connected to certain industrially funded projects, the school also advertises a list of research topics (OU School of Computing and Communications). 

It is also worth looking at how a university structures their doctoral research programmes. Through wider funding schemes, which are aimed at certain subject areas and facilitating collaboration, there is also something called doctoral training partnerships (OU website) which is also worth looking at.

Choosing your own research path

Sometimes you might have a disciplinary research idea or an interest that is entirely legitimate, but doesn’t immediately fit with any advertised funded PhD role or scholarship that is currently being advertised. If this is the case, you still may well be able to become a doctoral student, but you may have to handle the financial bit from your side. 

The way I understand things, there are two broad approaches: you can either find a source of funding yourself, or you can pay your own registration fees from your own pocket, or through a doctoral loan (GOV.UK website).

I’ve recently heard of something called Commonwealth PhD Scholarships for those looking to study at UK universities. Also, individual universities, such as the OU, Kings and UCL sometimes offer scholarships for students from minority backgrounds.

Gaining funding is only a part of the story. The other part is, of course, developing an idea. A suggestion is to draft a short proposal, and then look for a supervisor: someone who shares similar research interests.

Begin with the research questions, and ask yourself: what is it that you would like to find out. Also, start to find out, using any academic library you may have access to, whether anyone has tried to answer this question before. Doing this might, potentially, lead you towards an institution and a supervisor.

If you do decide to go down this route, there are other questions that you need to answer. Are you looking to do it full time, or part time? 

In the OU context, there is a bit of advice about part-time doctoral study (OU website). Also, do have a look at the fees, and ask the questions: can I really afford this, and am I really in a place where I can generate the determination required to just focus on one thing for anything between 3 and 6 years (depending on the doctoral programme, and the intensity of your research)?

Professional doctorates

Professional doctorates are slightly different to disciplinary doctorates. The OU supports the delivery of two professional doctorates: a doctorate in Education (EdD), and a doctorate in Health and Social Care (DHSC) (OU website).

These are described as follows: “a professional doctorate provides the opportunity for you to develop your own practice-based research in a structured and supportive environment. A professional doctorate differs from a PhD in that one of its key aims is to make a contribution to practice or policy, as well as to theory.” A big difference to the disciplinary doctorate is that you’re already likely to be working in the setting that will play an influence in guiding and informing your research. In other words, “they offer you the chance to enhance your career at doctoral level, enabling you to make a unique contribution to your profession or area of practice while continuing to work and progress in your field.” (EdD/DHSC website).

The EdD programme is described as being appropriate for “professionals in education, including school leaders, teachers and trainers, but also other professionals working in any educational context in formal and non-formal settings including the public, voluntary and private sectors.”

Working within a particular setting is important, since it provides you with a context which can be explored and studied. Every educational situation is different, and this means that there is an opportunity for EdD students to find out something about it, and how it works, and the kind of educational activities which might, potentially, make a positive difference to learners or those involved in delivering education. Finding out something about your own context in a systematic and rigorous, and academically respected way enables researchers to contribute to educational academic practice and debate.

In the OU, there is quite a difference between what happens within a disciplinary PhD and an EdD. Within a PhD, students are left at the mercy of their supervisors, in the sense that they will help them to gain an understanding of what needs to be done to learn about how to do research within their particular discipline. 

The EdD, on the other hand, has a structured taught component, which helps students become aware of the different stages of academic research. This component will introduce students to the importance of research questions, the literature review, and introduce important terms, such as epistemology, ontology, and methodology. For a detailed description of what is entailed in EdD study and research, the blog post about the Components of the EdD Professional Doctorate Programme may be useful. It is also typically expected that students should have completed an MA in Education, which may have helped to explore some early research questions.

As a brief aside, the university employs associate lecturers (who are, arguably, the most important people in the university) who deliver tutorials and provide correspondence teaching. The university provides something called a module fee waiver scheme for associate lecturers, which could be used on doctoral programmes, such as the EdD. If you are an associate lecturer, and are reading this blog, and have sometimes wondered about doctoral study, do have a chat with your friendly staff tutor.

One point that is common between a disciplinary doctorate and a professional doctorate is that you need to have a clear research idea, ideally presented in the form of one or more research questions. The more specific they are, the better. It isn’t enough to say that you’re interested in doing research into a particular area: you need to be specific about what you’re going to be looking at, and have some beginning of an idea about how you might do that.

To get onto the EdD programme, you need to write a short proposal, which will then be scrutinised by a small group of potential supervisors. Those students who have written proposals that look promising will then be invited to take place in a short interview. Typically, this will be with one of the potential supervisors.

When it comes to doctorates, students find their supervisors, but on other occasions, supervisors find their students. What everyone has in common is interests in the subject, and the process of carrying out research.

PhD by Published Work

There is a final route to gaining a doctorate, and one that isn’t as common: gaining a doctorate through publication. 

This is sometimes appropriate in cases for academic staff who may have already carried out considerable amount of research over an extended period of time, and just never been in a position to enrol to a doctoral programme. 

Through this path, a body of work may be collated together, and submitted, along with a narrative that presents each of the publications (or constituent) papers as a cohesive whole. 

The act of getting published, and engaging completely with the research process can serve as significant evidence of having worked at a doctoral level. Like with other forms of doctorate, candidates who choose this approach also have go through the viva process.

In my own experience, I don’t personally know of anyone who has gone through this route, but I do know that it exists! There is a bit more information about this approach on Find a PhD.

Doing a PhD

What everyone does on a day-to-day basis is, of course, different. 

There’s going to be reading, attending of seminars (to get an idea of how everything in the academy works), perhaps doing some lab work, maybe doing some field work, perhaps even interviewing people and collecting data. In other context, you might be writing some computer code or managing data files. Essentially, you’ll be applying whatever tools you have in your own discipline to answer your research questions.

In all of this, you’ll gain skills: you’ll develop your critical thinking skills, your writing skills, and your presentation skills. 

Posters and presentations

A lot of sharing takes place at disciplinary conferences or workshops. These are great opportunities to share your work with an interested audience and to meet with academics and students who are studying a similar subject. When you’re a PhD or EdD student, there might only be a couple of people studying the same subject that you are studying. Conferences and workshops are a useful opportunity to seek those people out and network with them. If you’re looking towards a career in academic, conferences and workshops are a really good place to find potential future collaborators.

Before you get to a point where you share your results, doctoral students are sometimes able to submit what is known as a poster. A poster is exactly what you imagine it to be: it is a poster that summarises your research aims and intention. During the breaks during a conference, delegates may wander up to your poster to find out more. This is a great opportunity to share an elevator pitch about your research. 

Publishing

I’ve heard it said that a very good master’s degree project should be at a level that a version of it could be theoretically published as an academic article. The difference between a master’s and a doctorate is that of originality. When it comes to doctoral research it is a good idea to always have one eye on publication, in terms of what you might publish, and where you might publish it. After having carried out a literature review, you should have some idea about where you might be able to share your research findings.

Going through the experience of writing, submitting, and reviewing a formal article, and being able to contribute to the ongoing academic debates within your area is a part of the doctoral training experience. Although it is possible to gain a doctorate without publishing a journal article, publications certainly help. It tells the examiners that other experts (through the peer review process) have assessed the quality of your work.

Writing your thesis

The thesis is one of the most important products of doctoral research. The thesis summarises the aims of your research, the reading you have done, the methodological approaches you have adopted, and is used to present your results, and should be no longer than 100k words. In contrast, my MA dissertation was limited to 12k words.

The OU has something called a ‘writing up’ year which some students may use, during which students may pay a reduced fee. Students must submit their thesis on time. When a submission has been made, the university graduate school will organise a viva.

Viva

A viva is an oral exam. It is a bit like a really intense interview, where the subject of the interview is the research that you have carried out. There are likely to be two external examiners, and a chair. One of your supervisors is likely to be present. You’re likely to know, in advance, who the examiners are, and may well have referenced some of their work in their thesis. There is a nice article in Prospects Magazine: Five tips for passing your PhD viva.

There are a number of outcomes following the Viva, ranging from passing without changes, through to different amounts of changes that may be necessary. A supervisor will only let a student get to the viva stage if they are confident about a positive outcome.

After the doctorate

Assuming that you’ve passed, and you’ve graduated, what next?

As mentioned earlier, academia is notoriously competitive. A doctorate is an indication that you’re capable of carrying out original research. To gain experience, and to secure an academic job, doctoral researchers sometimes look for post-doctoral research posts. These are often connected to specific research projects or programmes, which may have been set up by professors or lecturers with funding gained from research councils or funding bodies.

A personal perspective

My doctorate is in an area which could be loosely called The Psychology of Computer Programming. 

Whilst I was an undergraduate, I was really interested in how come some people found computer programming easy, and others found it difficult. To learn more about this, I managed to find a MSc course which had modules from both computing and psychology.

A chance job application to the University of Manchester (which I found in Prospects Magazine) led me to meeting my future supervisor. My research interests were combined with my future supervisor’s research interests. Subsequently, my thesis topic, studying the maintenance of object-oriented software, was born.

My original contributions have been modest. After spending considerable time finding my way through cognitive psychology papers, and learning how research was done and discussed, I noticed that there were some interesting cross-overs with research that was emerging from researchers who were studying software engineering. I realised that there was a gap. 

After doing a bit of empirical work, my contribution was a new model of software code comprehension (ResearchGate). Working on this model, also led me to a small side project, where I worked on a set of software metrics (ResearchGate), which were inspired by the psychology (and neuroscience) papers that I spent a lot of time reading. This points to one of the interesting thing about doctoral research: sometimes there are surprises along the way.

All this work was compressed into quite a short period of time since I had limited amount of funding. I didn’t return to my subject until quite a few years after graduating since I later realised that I had burnt myself out. 

There’s another aspect that is important too: I found it a very lonely experience. Other doctoral students, however, might have a very different experience, especially if they work within an established community of researchers. To counteract this potential of isolation of loneliness, my advice would always be: make sure you seek out a community within the institution in which your research is situated. I do know that the School of Computing and Communications at the OU tries to create a strong research community, so students don't feel disconnected or isolated. Also, make sure you have a break from the study and research; fun stuff is important!

After working in industry for a few years, I picked up a post-doctoral post, working on an EU funded project. Although this wasn’t in the exact area that I had studied as a doctoral researcher, I was pleased I could get stuck into something interesting that would make use of some of the skills I had acquired.

Summary

A doctorate isn’t only about discovering something new in the world. It is also about developing skills, and becoming familiar with what it means to carry out research. It also means that you become a trained researcher and communicator. It can be something that is hugely rewarding, but it is also hugely demanding. It requires commitment and determination.

This blog represents a summary of different bits of information about doctoral study that I’ve picked up over the last few years whilst starting to work as a doctoral supervisor. 

There are a lot of other resources available which might be helpful. A good place to go to is the Vitae website.

Just as teaching is a skill which can be enhanced through professional development, Vitae is described as a “global leader in supporting the professional development of researchers”. To help researchers, there is something called the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (Vitae website). One article that might be of specific interest is: Are you thinking of doctoral research? (Vitae website). A further article, which can be found within Prospects Magazine: PhD Study.

Finally, if you're looking for more information about how research degrees work within the OU, you can also visit the Research Degrees website, which contains a wealth of information.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks are extended to Marian Petre, who has suggested some really helpful changes to this blog. Marion also runs a blog about PhD research: Pragmatic PhD, which has the subtitle "craft skills for students and supervisors". She has also written a book, with Gordon Rugg, entitled "The Unwritten Rules Of Phd Research" which I thoroughly recommend. I might have had an easier, and less confused journey if I had read it whilst I was studying for my own doctorate.

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Considering employability

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 5 Oct 2022, 12:49

Over the last few days, I’ve been having a look through some materials about employability which have been published by AdvanceHE, specifically the recent 2016-2021 employability literature review (AdvanceHE). I’ve also had a read of a couple of edited collection of papers, also from AdvanceHE. The first is called Employability: breaking the mould (AdvanceHE) and the other is a compendium of case-studies (AdvanceHE).

I’ve also done a couple of other things. Whilst studying A230 as a student, I’ve been reading about the OU employability framework, through a set of pages called FutureYou (which is mentioned in the first collection of papers that I’ve mentioned). This, in turn, led me to look through the OU employability website which has taken me to a useful booklet called Your Career Planning Guide (pdf).

There is also something called the OU Employability Hub (OU website), which provides a wealth of free Open Learn courses which connect to the “ten components of the OU’s Employability Framework”. Users of this hub can filter on each of the ten components to get to resources which relate to each of these components. I’ve mentioned the Employability Hub in an earlier blog a few years ago, and it is great to see how many resources there are available.

Whilst looking through all these different resources, reports and summaries, I asked myself a question: how can I make sense of the topic of employability? 

One way to do this is to think of the whole area in terms of dimensions. Different papers, articles, initiatives, or frameworks could be characterised as a point on a number of different dimensions. What follows is a summary of those dimensions. 

These dimensions are, of course, fully open to debate and scrutiny. As I learn more, and debate more, these may well adapt and change, but I do feel that they are a useful way to think about the employability landscape. These ideas have emerged, in part, through reading through the resources that I’ve mentioned above.

Dimension 1: Embedded/non embedded employability

This dimension refers to the extent to which the topic of employability, or the provision of employability services are embedded within a programme or study, or a module. 

Services might be embedded in the way that they are in during the start of the module I’ve been studying, or they might be entirely external to a module, such as the provision of an information and advice services through a careers service.

Dimension 2: Programme/module integration

I think this second dimension can be through of a subset of the first dimension. To what extent is employability information embedded within a specific module, or does it feature across and between modules or a broader programme of study? Is there, for example, a separate module that relates to employability, with all the other modules presenting academic material, or is it functionally embedded within all the modules that a student may study? There may, of course, be differences between how this manifests itself between disciplines.

Dimension 3: Self-directed/facilitated

This dimension might also be a sub-dimension of the first dimension. One of the themes that is pretty evident is the development of reflection skills, specifically in relation to employability planning and personal development. Some of these planning activities can be carried out on our own, as a personal reflective activity. Other activities might be interactive workshops, which might go some way to sharing perspectives and understandings.

Dimension 4: Domain specific/Domain agnostic

Some employability skills are specific to a particular job, role, or activity. My home discipline is computing, in which students might need to master a specific programming language or tool. When a student masters a programming language, they may also develop of broader problem solving strategies and skills, which may be transferrable to other contexts. Similarly, there are wider and broader employability skills which can be developed, such as planning, reflection. Some of these skills relate back to the OU employability framework.

Dimension 5: Student voice/employer voice

This dimension relates to the question of whose voice, or perspective, is prioritised. If the student voice is prioritised, there may be activities which interrogate current skills, knowledge and abilities, and activities may be taken to develop those skills, knowledge, and abilities. If the employer voice is emphasised, the employer (or employer community) might emphasise the need for the development of particular skills to meet particular needs.

Dimension 6: Internally directed/externally directed

This final dimension relates to the locus of control. If employability related activities are internally directed, they are informed by the organisations in which students are situated. In other words, the HEI makes the decisions about the frameworks that they use and any initiatives that they apply. If employability is externally directed, initiatives may emerge from industry. An interesting example is, of course, industrial certifications. 

In reality, an institution's approach to employability is likely to be neither one nor the other.

Reflections

This rough set of dimensions (which can be criticised and debated) is a simple framework that can be used to understand and to characterise the different kinds of employability development activity that can take place.

The literature review that I’ve mentioned earlier emphasises the relationship between the broad notion of employability (which can, of course, be subject to criticism), and different conceptions of capital. 

When considered at a surface level employability is easily equated to the gaining of jobs, paid employment and successful graduate outcomes. Whilst it can immediately be related to economics and economic success, it can also be related to social and cultural capital. Getting a job might mean gaining a role that makes an effective and positive contribution to a community.

There is also a link between the notion of employability and the notion of mindset. Key points that I’ve noted from the AdvanceHE documents include coping with uncertainty, identifying opportunities, the ability to make things happen, manage risk, learning how to network with others, solving problems in a creative and strategic way, and being able to act independently. From this perspective, you can also consider “employability” in terms of skills which enable students to apply their learning from their chosen area of study.

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DTSP PT Training: KSBs, Skills scan, planning, action and impact

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On 9 September 22, I attended a Digital and Technology Solutions (DTS) degree apprenticeship practice tutor (PT) training event, hosted by Chris Thompson from the School of Computing and Communications. I attended this event as a degree apprenticeship practice tutor.

What follows is a brief set of notes from the event, which might be helpful to fellow practice tutors, or any other colleagues who play a role within the DTS scheme.

For reference KSB refers to: Knowledge skills and behaviours. 

PT job description

One of the first slides reiterated the PT job description. 

Key points of the role include: to support each learner; to be a key point of contact; to prepare and support learners to commence their studies; maintain relationships between different stakeholders; to conduct review meetings; to coach and develop each learner to integrate academic learning with their professional work; and to guide each learner to develop a portfolio of evidence to demonstrate their technical competencies as required by the apprenticeship framework. 

When speaking to apprentices and employers, I emphasise my role in very similar terms, referring myself as being a bit of ‘glue’ between the academic study, and the apprenticeship.

ESFA requirements

ESFA is an abbreviation for the Education and Skills Funding Agency. We were directed to the Further Education and Skills Inspection handbook (pdf).

A point was made that each progress review should cover points p60.1 through to p60.7. These relate to: checking of progress against agreed actions; gathering of off-the-job training evidence; checking progress against a training plan; provide an opportunity to update the training plan; discuss concerns; discuss changes of circumstances; and agree and document actions, and have the progress review signed by all parties.

Inspection

Each degree apprenticeship programme is potentially subjected to an inspection. We were directed to another resource: the education inspection framework (pdf).

Ofsted are particularly interested in the impact of education and will look to evidence of progress. One of the notes I made during this section was about looking for evidence of where the apprentice started, and where are they heading to. One aspects of the practice tutor role is, of course, to be the glue, and to integrate everything together.

Practice tutors need to know core skills apprentices should be working towards gaining, and what is being taught through the academic content. If the work that the apprentice is currently carrying out doesn’t relate to the academic modules, it is a responsibility of the practice tutor to speak with the apprenticeship team.

Skills Scan

The skills scan is a document. Some apprentices may have completed their skills scan when they have started, and this should have been uploaded to the ePortfolio system. If a skills scan document doesn’t exist, it is important that a practice tutor asks the apprentice, or the APDM, if one has been completed.

One of the roles of the PT is to take what has been written on skills scan and relates it to the modules they are studying and the work the apprentice is performing. The skills, in turn, are related to the KSB criteria, and the PT needs to check through a skills scan document to make sure that everything makes sense.

Module briefing documents

PTs have access to something called module briefing documents. These summarise what KSBs are taught in which module. There is also a mapping of learning outcomes to modules, since some LOs are repeated across the curriculum. There is also a summary of what happens and when. In any 12 week progress review, there will be some items that have been covered since the last tripartite review meeting.

Tripartite meeting preparation

The first tripartite reviews is to take place within 4 weeks of an apprentice starting the programme, and the second one is expected to be face-to-face (unless good reason not to), another one within the 12 weeks. Over a period of a year, there should be 5 progress reviews within a year (which are fully documented within the ePortfolio tool).

The university is going to be publishing some further guidance about tripartite meetings, and more detailed will be provided within forthcoming PT training. The expectation is that all PTs will be expected to carry out to cover the same kinds of topics.

I made a note of suggested agenda items for a review. These included: actions from previous review, TMAs and EMAs, recording off the job time, KSBs, and English and maths skills. 

Key actions during the meetings included: updating the skills scan based upon their development of the knowledge, skills and behaviours (ticking things off); encouraging the apprentice to reflect on their role, responsibilities and progress (to add value for the employer); clarification of agreed actions to be completed by all, before the meeting. Also, connect employer targets to the apprenticeship programme. 

Other actions during the meetings may also include discussing any changes to working hours, career development, leave and opportunity for reflections, and ensuring that timesheets are completed and signed off.

Main tasks of the tripartite meeting

The PT must understand what KSBs apprentice needs to demonstrate to become competent at work and find ways to enable them to do this. Specifically, a PT must ensure that everyone has a good understanding of what is involved. The skills scan is considered to be the apprentice’s starting point, and is a tool used by the PT to find out about the progress they are making. 

During the meeting, the review meeting, the role of the PT is to discuss with the employer about possibilities in which they may be able to apply the KSBs, and achieving these should be evidenced in the ePortfolio tool.

Induction materials

The Computing apprenticeship team has been updating the induction materials that are available to new apprentices. There is a new area called “your study plan” which emphasises what needs to be done within the first 12 weeks of study. It also offers an introduction to each year.

Summary

The takeaway points from this session reflects the title. The main takeaway point is about KSBs; knowledge skills and behaviours. These need to be demonstrated in an apprentice’s 80% of workplace time, rather than the 20% of their academic study time. This also connects to the point that PTs play a fundamental role in ensuring that academic study is linked to work-based learning.

Another point is that the skills scan document plays an important role in relating what is done to the KSBs. On reflection, I need to make sure that I bring the skills scan document into my own practice. This will help me to gain evidence of an apprentice gaining their KSBs, which then, in turn, must be recorded within the ePortfolio.

A couple of new things for me were the module briefing documents, and the new induction materials. Before my next tripartite review, I plan to look through all these materials, to make sure I can share these with both employees and apprentices.

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TM470 Understanding the Literature review

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One of the important components of the TM470 EMA is your literature review.

The literature review component serves a number of purposes:

  • It tells your examiner what you have read, and enables them to understand where you are coming from. In other words, what you present in a literature review enables the examiner to understand, broadly, what your project is all about. 
  • It enables you to demonstrate to your EMA examiner your research and critical thinking skills. 
  • It allows you to demonstrate your writing and communication skills. Just as your TM470 EMA is a narrative of your entire project, the literature review within that broader narrative (or story) presents a narrative  (or story) about your reading and your research.

The literature review can be primarily linked to the following TM470 learning outcome:

LO4: Gather, analyse and evaluate relevant information to complete the project successfully.

It can also be linked to the following learning outcomes:

LO3: Identify, list and justify the resources, skills and activities needed to carry out the project successfully. Identify and address any associated risks.

LO7: Communicate information, ideas, problems and solutions clearly

A really important rule of thumb is: if you use a resource in the body of your report, that resource should be introduced within the literature review section. A resource might be any number of different things, depending on what your project is all about: it might be some module materials, a textbook, an academic paper, or even some software. Also, if you have something in the references section, it should have been ideally in the literature review section (although it is okay to occasionally break that rule, if it helps with the writing and presentation of your project report).

What follows are a set of what I hope to be useful ideas about how best to complete a TM470 project literature review.

Starting the literature review

An important question to ask is: how do I start my literature search? The biggest tip I can offer is: begin with what you know. This might be the specifics about a project, or maybe beginning with some of the level 3 module materials that you have previously studied. If you have studied TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience, for example, a really good place to start is the module materials, and the accompanying set text. The textbook contains a lot of references which you can look to, and you can find many of these resources in the university library.

The OU library is also a great place to start too. It contains a whole host of useful resources, such as eBooks, and hundreds of thousands of academic articles that have been published in academic journals. When starting out to look at a subject they have not looked at before, some researchers carry out searches of library databases using a systematic approach, making notes of what keywords they have used, and what they have found.

Another tip is: if you find an interesting paper in the OU library it is sometimes possible to find out how many times a paper or article has been referenced, and what papers have referenced the paper that you have found. Looking at the popularity of papers, and chains of referencing can enable you to find out what papers or bits of research have been influential in a subject area. Sometimes, it is also useful to look to see what other papers a particular author has written about.

A final tip in carrying out a literature search: ask your tutor! The TM470 module team try to match students and student projects with tutors who have a particular specialism. After having an initial discussion with your tutor about your project, it is completely okay to ask the question: do you have any suggestions?

Criticality

During the course of your TM470 project, you might look at a lot of resources. Whilst it might be tempting to show everything that you’re read or looked at whilst working on your literature review, please don’t. You need to be selective, and you need to do this to demonstrate your critical thinking skills. 

More information about what this means is available in the OU booklet about Thinking Critically.

In terms of TM470, it is important to ask: how does this resource influence, affect, or relate to my project? A good literature review will introduce some concepts or ideas, which are referenced. These concepts or ideas are then used or applied within the body of a report to solve a particular problem.

Resources

In TM470, there are a number of useful resources that you may have seen, that you should be aiming to revisit whilst you work on your project.

The two key bits of module materials that you must review have the title: Preparing a Literature Search, and Reviewing Literature. A recommendation is to get a printout of these resources (by using the “view as single page” option), and work through each of the activities. You should also have a listen to the Finding and using research podcast. 

From the Preparing a Literature Search resource, do pay particular attention to the four stages of a literature search. The Reviewing Literature resource offers a set of useful pointers in the introduction which helps you to look at resources. 

Regarding this second resource, the following bit of advice is important: “This template isn’t always applicable, not least because it can become monotonous to read. You will need to make your own decisions about which elements should be included and which omitted.” These two sentences relate to the point about criticality, and the need to write a literature review that is appropriate for your own project.

On the subject of writing, a good resource to look to is the OU’s pages about Developing academic English. I also recommend The Good Study Guide, which is available to download as a PDF. Chapters that may be particularly useful when writing the literature review (and your EMA report) are Chapter 9, Researching online, Chapter 10, Writing the way ‘they’ want, and Chapter 11, Managing the writing process.

Referencing

If you use, or write about a resource in your project report, you need to make sure that you reference it correctly. In your TMAs and EMAs, there are two key bits to think about: the first is how to reference something within the body of your report (when you’re referring to something), and the second is how to provide a reference to a resource within the references section towards the end of your EMA. Another rule of thumb is: if you are writing about a resource, you need to reference it. Similarly, if you quote from a resource, you definitely need to reference it. 

The OU makes use of the Harvard referencing system, which is both comprehensive and flexible. Using this system, you can reference just about anything. Not only can you reference books and journal articles, you can also reference art works, web pages, and software. The OU has a subscription to a web resource called CiteThemRight. If you’re unsure how to reference something, do have a look at this website. 

When referencing papers or textbooks, a firm recommendation is to make sure that you also include page numbers. The reason for this is simple. Including page numbers clearly demonstrates attention to detail, and gives your EMA examiner further evidence of your depth of reading and understanding.

Finally, do make sure that you reference (and demonstrate an understanding of) earlier OU modules you have studied. This is a really efficient way to demonstrate to your examiner what topics or subjects your project relates to. You can reference any OU module material, whether it is a module website, a PDF, or printed module block. If you’re unsure about how to reference materials from any of your earlier studies, do ask your tutor.

Common Questions

Do ask your tutor any questions that you might have whilst carrying out a literature review. Here are some answers to some common questions, which might be useful.

Q: How many references should I provide?

A: There is no hard and fast rule for this, since every TM470 is different. You should choose enough resources to demonstrate the reading that you have needed to do, to complete a project that shows technical skills and knowledge you have gained during your degree studies. If pushed, I would say that a distinction quality EMA report might reference as many as 20 resources, but these resources must be important, relevant, and applied within the body of your project. In other words, your chosen resources should have influenced the work that you have done.

Q: How much time should I spend on the literature review?

A: Again, there is no hard and fast answer to this one. Some EMA reports are all about carrying out research. In a research focussed EMA, you might spend more time doing a literature review than you would for a very practical EMA. Overall, the literature review section contributes towards 20% of the overall EMA mark, but this doesn’t mean that you should only spend 20% of the time. A suggestion is to approach the literature review iteratively. For example, whilst trying to solve a technical problem, you might have to do more reading, which means that you might have to go back and to edit your literature review section.

Q: How long should the literature review be?

I’m afraid I’m going to give you a similar answer to all the others: it depends on your project! The TM470 module guidance suggests that you should be able to write everything you need to write within the 10k word limit. Given the importance of the literature review to a number of learning outcomes, I would say that the literature review is quite a substantial section within your EMA: it sets the scene, and goes a long way to demonstrating your critical thinking and problem solving skills (through the resources that you choose). Some project will have longer literature review sections than others. It should be as long as it needs to be, given the aims and objectives of your project.

Summary

This blog has shared bits of advice (and some links) that might be useful when it comes to writing your TM470 literature review.

One of the most useful bits of advice about report writing that someone gave me was: make sure it is interesting. 

Although this bit of advice related to EU project deliverables, it is just as applicable to your TM470 EMA. 

Your TM470 EMA is a technical narrative (a story) about your project. The literature review section within your report is a narrative within a bigger narrative; it is the story of your reading. It is a story which introduces resources which you will then go onto apply later on within your report. It is an important section which demonstrates the depth of your reading, and shares what you know about with the examiner.

Other blog posts that relate to the study of TM470 can be found through the TM470 blog tag.

Good luck with your literature review, and remember to make good use of your tutor, by asking them lots of questions.

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Digital Technologies Solutions Professional (DTSP) PT Training

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 27 Jul 2022, 11:21

In my capacity as a degree apprentice practice tutor, I’m invited to a regular professional development and update meeting which currently takes place on the second Friday of each month. At the time of writing, these meetings are hosted by two colleagues: Chris Thompson and Andy Hollyhead.

This blog post shares a set of notes that were made during a PT training meeting that took place on 8 July 22. The key points on the agenda were, broadly:

  • The OU Quality Improvement Plan (QIP) and our response
  • F2F meeting update
  • Good academic conduct for apprentices

ePortfolio update

The university is introducing a new ePortfolio tool, moving from the current system, which is called OneFile, to a different product. Accounts are currently being created, and training will be provided in September 22 with a view to using it from the beginning of October, when new groups are created. Files and records, such as timesheets will (I understand) be moving between the systems.

Quality improvement plan

A quality improvement plan has been put together by the university following the production of an OU annual self-assessment report (which is an internal evaluation about the quality of the degree apprenticeship provision).

Some key points that are to be looked at as a part of the plan include:

  • Targeted CPD throughout the year, which includes the further development of a supportive observation process to help develop practice, to ensure all PTs and ALs are provided with development opportunities to enable others to become outstanding. Practice tutor meetings are being observed.
  • An intention to link observational practice and improvement to the tutor CDSA process to ensure all apprentices are identified (or presented) in terms of having a RAG status (red, amber, and green), and have individual action plans.
  • Increasing the frequency of contact for learners who are red or amber: If an apprentice is flagged as being amber or red, there’s an additional meeting (which can be claimed back as an additional support session) and there is an action plan that is to be completed, and another follow up meeting in a month’s time.
  • Review all apprentice progress monthly, including a review of individual plans where apprentice progress is rated red or amber.
  • Ensure practice tutors use ‘starting points’ to inform learning plans: the next intake, aim to get a skills audit and commitment statement early, so students can speak about them during the early meeting, to gain a detailed understanding of the needs of students.
  • Practice tutors will begin to discuss ‘next steps’ with apprentices, to understand what their intentions beyond their apprenticeship. I have noted down the point: start picking up at each progress review, to facilitate a career related discussion.
  • Upskill practice tutors to ensure that knowledge, skills and behaviours are reviewed throughout all stages
  • Ensure attendance of apprenticeship mentor (line manager/supervisor) at all Tripartite Review meetings: someone who represents the organisation, needs to be at the meeting. If this doesn’t happen, there should be referrals to the university apprenticeship programme delivery managers (ADPMs).
  • Improve the recording of off the job training: apprentices are told to record their timesheets. This is known to be a contractual obligation. The employer line manager and apprentice has to know that timesheets need to be recorded. If they are no doing this, this needs to be escalated, through the APDMs. If no responses, then the processes for removal from the programme may be instigated. There needs to be an entry every 4 weeks, to show that the apprentice is in learning.
  • Ensure all apprentices receive the minimum number of reviews regularly: every apprentice must have 4 reviews. The only exception is if they have a break in learning.
  • Enhance supportive measure to keep apprentices in learning: develop better monitoring of apprentices, between modules.

A return to face-to-face review meetings

From 1 August 2022, practice tutors are allowed to return to face to face reviews. There should be one face to face every year, and a maximum gap of 15 weeks between each review, and evidence of the planning of the next review (which should be captured on the ePortfolio).

Apprentices returning following a study break

A study break is, simply put, a period of time when an apprentice is not studying their academic of work-based modules. A break in learning might occur due to personal commitments. Apprentices should have the review within 4 weeks of returning to study. Also, a conversation is needed early on during the apprentice’s study of a programme to ensure they are on the right programme.

For the formal part of the meeting, the apprentice, line manager, and the practice tutor must be present. If it is a face-to-face meeting, and there isn’t a line manager, try to find a delegate. It is a funding requirement that these meetings take place. They should, ideally be scheduled two weeks in advance.

If there are students returning from a break in learning, get in contact with them two months before their restart, to make sure they feel they are ready to start learning. Also, ensure they are recording on the job timesheets to provide evidence of study.

Lone working guidance

The university has now prepared some new guidance about lone working, which is appropriate for when practice tutors visit an employer. There’s a checklist, and an accompanying risk assessment, for visiting locations. Practice tutors must review this official guidance when planning a first progress review meeting.

Good academic conduct for apprentices

Good academic conduct is important. In the apprenticeship context, a group of apprentices might start working at an organisation at the same time. Whilst it is certainly okay that peers gain support from each other, and collaborate closely on work tasks, peers should not collaborate with each other when it comes to working on and submitting academic assessments (unless group work is specifically required on an assessment task).

During this session Andy Hollyhead shared a number of slides from a fellow Practice Tutor, Stewart Long. The presentation (which could be shared with apprentices) covers the topic of plagiarism and the difference between collaboration and collusion.

Further information about study skills is available through an earlier blog post and also from the OU Study Skills website, which provides links to some really useful booklets.

Reflections

One of the good things about this session is that it offered reassurance about the things that I am doing well and also offered some helpful guidance about what I should be doing, and ought to be doing more of. 

A particularly interesting point is the link between the apprentice, the employer, and their wider career aspirations. I’m very much a subject specialist, rather than a careers specialist, but I’m certainly draw on my own knowledge of roles and opportunities with the IT and Computing sector and bring them into discussions with apprentices. This said, I do feel that this is an area that I need to develop, or get a bit more knowledgeable about.

I was particularly encouraged that I was doing the right things, in terms of planning for review meetings with employers and apprentices. One thing I do need to do is expose more of the actions that I am taking. Just as the apprentice must record off the job training, in the form of timesheets, I also need to make sure that the scheduled review dates are recorded within the ePortfolio, to ensure that colleagues within the apprenticeship team can see what is scheduled. I have all the dates in my Outlook calendar. I need to transfer them to OneFile (and, eventually, the new ePorfolio system, when it is introduced).

More information about the OU degree apprenticeships are available through the OU Apprenticeship pages.

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Components of the EdD Professional Doctorate Programme

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 21 Jun 2022, 17:38

This blog post aims to summarise aspects of the OU’s professional doctorate (EdD) programme, placing particular emphasis on the topic of education.

What has been presented here has been collated from a number of different resources. My primarily aim of preparing this post was to help me to get familiar with the new structure of the taught part of the programme. I’m also sharing it since it might be useful for either existing or prospective students, or for students who might also be studying for a disciplinary based PhD, since the EdD materials offer some helpful pointers

The programme that is roughly summarised here is different from previous years, since it contains a substantial and important taught component to help students prepare for their research that follows. Although the programme contains a number of really important residential schools, I’m highlighting the academic subjects that are explored.

Year 1

The programme guide introduces the first year as follows: “Year 1 … will focus on getting you started with your research, with a particular focus on contextual background of your research and the literature review. Year 1 includes an induction residential weekend, four modules of study with four accompanying online seminars, and the completion of two formative assignments and one summative assignment."

Module 1: Getting started

This first module is about setting the scene. Drawing on the module guide, this first module “will help you get started with your doctoral studies. The module covers what is involved in studying for a PD, time management, supervision, and the Researching Professional Development Framework.” It is intended to be studied within the first couple of weeks of starting the programme. The first section introduces the notion of the professional doctorate, and this is followed by a section about planning and managing your research project. A bit of advice (for students) that I’ve read was: “think about your doctoral studies as a project”.

Section 3 is entitled your development as a researching professional. It introduces the Researching Professional Development Framework (RPDF) (Vitae website), a tool designed to help your development during your doctoral studies.

This is followed by section about Professional Academic Communication in English (PACE), and introduces students to some useful some online resources, where students share their experiences of academic writing.

Supervision is an important element of an EdD programme, and also becoming familiar with the research process. The final section of this first module is entitled “Making the most of your supervision”. Students are directed to the Code of practice for supervisors and research students, and other resources such as the university’s research degrees handbook.

Module 2: Context for educational research

This second module will “guide you through exploring the specific context of your research, including the international, national, institutional and individual context within which your research is located. It also covers the importance of your professional identity, and the standards and principles for good quality research within your area” (EdD programme guide, p.9). 

This module is split into three sections. The first is further understanding the context for research. Students are asked to consider different perspectives of their research: macro-level, meso-level and micro-level. A further aim is to identify who the different stakeholders might be.

The next section, the professional as a researcher is all about “exploring the concepts of professional identity, agency, structure and reflexivity”. Reflection and reflexivity is explored as a key topic, which emphasises how important it is to relate our own position and identities to the research that is taking place.

The final section is entitled “standards for good practice in research”. This section is about ethics, the importance of ethical guidelines, power imbalances and how they might influence research, the student voice and co-research.

When a student has completed this section, it is roughly time to submit the first formative assessment. As well as introducing a research project, students are required to consider the context of the research, and the role of the researcher.

Module 3: Reviewing the literature

The literature review is one of the really important outcomes from doctoral research. This module, which is scheduled to begin in the new year “provides guidance to conducting and writing a literature review, including searching for literature, reviewing literature, referencing and reference management tools, and writing the literature review” (EdD programme guide, p.9). Key topics that are explored include what it means to searching for literature, review literature, reference literature, write a literature review, and to write critically. There is also a section that introduces the concept of a systematic literature review. Whilst carrying out reading within a subject, students may find a number of systematic literature review papers that offers a summary of a similar or related topic.

Module 4: Principles of research design

This final module of the first year introduces students to key terms and research concepts. It “aims to stimulate further thinking about your research design and covers topics such as ontology, epistemology and research paradigms, logics of enquiry and an introduction to quantitative and qualitative research” (EdD programme guide, p9).

Moving to year 2

During this first year, students will be required to carry out a number of assessments. During the time where there is no formal study scheduled, students will be expected to be carrying out reading and study.

Year 2

As well as having a taught section, students attend a residential weekend. In November 2021, this was hosted as an online event, where students were able to attend various sessions. Resources shared from this event, and earlier events are available online.

Module 5: Considering a research methodology

This first second year module “provides guidance about different research methodologies including experimental quantitative research, ethnography, grounded theory, case study research, action research, phenomenology and narrative inquiry”. There is a section for each of these methods, which also provides a set of resources, which can be useful to understand more about a particular method. If studying these materials, a suggestion is to only go digging for resources which you think are most appropriate for your particular project. A lot of resources are highlighted.

Module 6: Approaches to data collection

In some senses, this module follows on from the previous module about methodology, but it succinctly summarises the different approaches that could be adopted. From the programme guide, this module “will help you start thinking about the practical aspects of your research project by introducing common data collect methods and sources of data. Topics covered includes interviews, focus groups, observations, questionnaires, visual and creative methods, secondary data and documents and artefacts. As with the previous module, each section provides a very detailed references section that enables students to get a more detailed introduction and insight into different approaches.

Module 7: Professional conduct and research ethics

When it comes to EdD and PhD research, ethics is one of my favourite subjects. This module is said to “encourage your ethical thinking and assist you in developing a robust application for ethical approval for your planned research. Topics covered will include professional conduct, close to practice research, making an OU ethics application, …. and research data management.” Two sections are notable: there is a section about ethics and educational research, and ethics about health and social care research; students should choose whichever strand is most appropriate. One section that I must emphasise is the section that relates to academic and research conduct. There is also encouragement to carry out what is called a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA), if personal data is kept and retained.

Module 8: Qualitative data analysis and presenting results

Qualitative data is rich non-numeric data that can be interpreted to provide meanings and explanations. This module will introduce “methods of qualitative analysis, including thematic analysis, discourse analysis, document analysis and multimodal analysis.” If a student is interested in carrying out interviews with participants to gather interests and perspectives, this section offers a really helpful guidance about how to begin to make sense of data that is collected. Such data, of course, must be made sense of in light of the reading that has been carried out, and also the perspective of the researcher. During data analysis, a student might use a tool such as NVivo to organise qualitative data.

Module 9: Quantitative data analysis

Quantitative data is all about numerical data. This final module introduces “various methods of quantitative analysing including testing for differences between means, correlation analysis, linear regression and logistic regression.” Specifically, “this module will require you to use SPSS, and you will need to download this onto your computer before starting the module”. If a student is going to be carrying our survey research, or is to be carrying out experiments to test hypothesis, this section is going to be really important. It is also important to recognise that methods can be mixed. For example, an interview study could reveal themes that could be studied in greater depth through a survey. Conversely, a survey may reveal an unexpected situation that can only be further understood by asking questions.

Moving to year 3

Year 2 marks the end of the formal study part of the EdD. Students will be invited to make a poster presentation to outline their research plans, and move to the second stage.

Years 3 and 4

The EdD program guide summarises years 2 and 3 as follows: “during stage 2 you will follow a more independent and individual programme of work with the continuing support of your supervisors. During year 3 there will be formative assessments at spaced intervals in order to help you progress and to provide formal opportunities for feedback.” (p.11).

A number of useful resources are provided on the EdD websites (there is a site for year 3, and another site for year 4). Highlights include a document that attempts to answer the question “How many qualitative interviews is enough?”, which has been prepared by Baler and Edwards, and a couple of video resources that have the title “stories from the field”. 

Reflections

Many of the themes and topics mentioned within the taught aspect of the EdD programme reminded me of themes and topics that were explored within the OU’s MA in Education programme, which offers a “lead in” to this programme. Although MA students may find some of the material familiar, I hold the view that the taught section is really useful in terms of setting the groundwork for the detailed data gathering and analysis that takes place later during the later years of study and research.

I came to the EdD programme from the discipline of computing, where I completed my own doctoral studies in the late 90’s. One thing I’m struck by is the thoroughness of the EdD programme. It is only by having gone through the OU MA in Education, and having done my own doctoral research do I really appreciate the detailed discussions about epistemology, ontology and methodology. 

It is also really interesting that the softer side of computing applies many of the methods and approaches that Education does; the commonality lies with the adoption of methods from the social sciences. A lot of computing and education research is all about people, what they do, and what they learn.

At the same time as being a supervisor for a current EdD student, I’m also a supervisor for a disciplinary PhD student. The approaches are quite different, in the sense that although there is more supervision for the PhD candidate, there is less structure, in the sense that there isn’t the taught component. One of the things that I am going to do is direct my PhD student to look at some of the materials that are exposed through the EdD modules. The cross over between the two is, of course, people.

References

The Open University (2020) Doctorate in Education (EdD) Programme Guide.

Acknowledgements

All these sections have been summarised from different resources from the EdD programme. Acknowledgements are specifically extended to Dr Carol Azumah Dennis, EdD Programme Leader and Dr Philippa Waterhouse, DHSC Programme Leader.

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Supporting EdD/PhD students through the thesis and the viva

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On 14 June 22, I attended a CPD session about helping students through their doctoral studies. I attended this session since I support a couple of doctoral students; one through a PhD programme, and another through the EdD programme. More information about the EdD programme that if offered through the Well-being Education and Language Studies (WELS) faculty are be available through this blog.

This session was facilitated by Dr Sara Spencer (Head of Research Degrees, Graduate School) and Dr Sarah Sherlock (School of Physical Sciences, chair of research degrees committee). It seemed to be a relatively popular event, with 23 delegates.

The key headings for the event were: the thesis, mock viva, and post-viva support. I noted down the words, “at this session we will look at common concerns that student’s voice about thesis submission and the viva voce examination and consider possible strategies for overcoming these concerns.”

From the event description, the session had the following objectives:

  • To explore students’ expectations and concerns about completing their doctoral thesis and how they will perform during their viva voce examination
  • To share ideas and practices that can be used to support students during the writing-up phase
  • To share ideas and practices that can support students to prepare for their viva
  • To identify sources of help and support offered by the Graduate School Network and the OU Library that can support students during the writing-up phase 

The Thesis

‘Write up’ is a HESA status as well as a university status; a status that applies for one year only, which is available to students during their fourth year of study. This means that students pay a lower fee during a ‘write up’ year. If they go over the write up year, they may be liable for full fees.  An important difference is that students on Professional Doctorates (such as the EdD programme) are not eligible for writing-up fees.

During the session, I made a few notes from some of the slides.  A key point was that the thesis must meet the requirements of the research degree regulations. Interestingly, things have changed since I submitted my own thesis. Students no longer need to submit a paper copy; it can be submitted electronically. (I remember having to get mine bound by a book binder who worked in the town of Chichester!)

A key point is that a thesis is a monograph. In other words, it presents a single coherent narrative. Also, students can make their own decision about whether they wish to submit. A student doesn’t have to expressly seek permission from the supervisor (but, it is probably a good idea to check with them, just to make sure they think that a student is likely to make a worthy submission). Another important point is that if a student is funded to carry out their research, and to write their thesis, a student will no longer receive a stipend when they make their submission.

One interesting point that I did learn (which was something that I already probably implicitly knew about, but didn’t really know what it was called, since I haven’t needed to think about it) was that a thesis can also include a ‘non-book’ component. In addition to submitting a textual monograph, a student may send in other forms of material to accompany a piece of research. In computing, this might be a software artifact. In design or engineering, this might be some architectural drawings. In the arts, this might even be a video of a performance. 

Mock Viva

The assessment of a thesis was described as taking place in three phases: 1) a preliminary assessment, 2) defence of the thesis at the viva, 3) re-examination of the thesis following revision. Some students have the opportunity to take part in a mock viva which is set up by the supervision team. 

The aim of the mock is, of course, to enable students to be as prepared as they can be to be robustly questioned when they defend their work. Since the viva can be a stressful exercise, a mock can help a student get a sense of what happens in the real thing. I remember when I participated in one: the different supervisors took on different roles. One asked question about the big picture, and the other supervisor asked very specific questions about the details of the text.

An important point was made, which was that examiners can get nervous too! Mocks are also helpful for the supervisors as they are for students.

Exam Panel Nomination

A request was shared to all delegates: please think about the exam panel to ensure that nominations are submitted in good time. This suggested reminded me of something. Whilst my student was carrying out their literature review, I remember saying the following: “do look for people who are doing similar research to what you are doing; they might well become potential examiners”.

The exam panel must be approved by the research degrees committee. It was also said that allocating examiners is one of the most important things that the university does (in terms of the doctoral research process). It was noted that there needs to be a minimum of two examiners. Usually, this should be one internal, and the other should be external (in some cases, they can be both external, if there isn’t the internal knowledge within the school or department). The make-up of the whole panel is important. The experience should be distributed across the panel.

Something that I didn’t (formally) know is that a doctoral examiner works according to a contract; there needs to be an offer, this needed to be accepted, and there needs to be consideration (which means that they are paid for their work). The contract is there to avoid ambiguities, and to enable a route to resolve difficulties if they were to arise.

When an exam panel has been chosen, a good tip (for a student who is going to be examined) is to read the papers that have been written by the examiner. This may give a student some insight about what perspective they might be coming from. For example, they might prefer one set of methods over another.

The Viva

The viva begins with a pre-viva meeting with the chair and the examiners. Observers may only be asked to the pre-viva meeting if there is a specific question that the examiners may wish to ask. In the meeting, the examiners may have a discussion about what the approach is going to be, and what questions to ask.

During the viva, some candidates may be encouraged to give a short presentation of the work to the chair, the examiners, and the observers. The viva may, generally, last between 2 and 3 hours, but will depend on the subject that is being examined. A viva will go on for as long as is needed. Breaks can be requested via the chair. Different examiners may take different approaches. Some may go through a thesis a line at a time; others may take a different approach, asking more broad questions. 

A bit of advice I once gained from a colleague in terms of examining a viva was, obviously, to look to the research questions, and then look to the methodology to learn how a student had tackled a question, and justify their choices.

A comment made during this part of the event was: questions to students might explore their knowledge from across the discipline of study, not just the very specific detail of the text that is being the focus of the exam.

The next step is the post-viva meeting, which takes place between the chair and the examiners. This is where the student has to be left on their own whilst the deliberations take place. If this meeting takes a while, this may not necessarily mean a bad outcome. There is also a bit of administration to complete, such as, the completion of forms, which also includes the agreeing of corrections, and what the panel needs the student to do to pass. All this admin can take a bit of time.

The outcome from the panel is a recommendation that goes to a committee. It is also important to note that a recommendation is different from an outcome.

Post-viva support

There are a range of outcomes from a viva (which are based on the quality of a submission) ranging from student being awarded the degree, resubmission, and re-examination, getting an alternative award (such as an MPhil), through to a student not being awarded the degree and not being able to resubmit (and a couple of other options in between).

Extensions to the correction period are not possible, and students who do not submit by the deadline will fail, unless there are clear mitigating circumstances. To repeat, students are not allowed extensions, as otherwise they will fail. Corrections have to be done on time.

Reflections

Having been through this process from beginning until the end, a lot that was presented within this session that was familiar to me. I was familiar with the various phases, but I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the finer detail, such as the roles of the committees, and what observers can and cannot do. Although I think I had once heard that students are not permitted to submit their corrections late, it was good to be reminded of this!

During the discussions at the end of the session, a really helpful comment was “it [the thesis] doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be good enough”. This has reminded me of another bit of advice that I was given about doctoral study. I once thought a PhD was gained by uncovering ground-breaking new bits of knowledge, but this was a misunderstanding about how knowledge generation works. The aim of doctoral research is to add to the sum of human knowledge in some form, and it is certainly okay if a contribution is a small one. Contributions are built on.

Another perspective is that doctoral study represents an extended form of academic apprenticeship. It demonstrates that you can do research, and that you are capable of creating something that is original. Reflecting the above comment, research also builds on the work of others.

Acknowledgements

Very many of these words have been summarised from comments from Sara and Sarah, and the slides that they shared during their really helpful CPD session.

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Degree apprenticeship: cross-faculty CPD event for Practice Tutors, 10 June 22

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On 10 June 22, I attended a continuing professional development event for degree apprenticeship practice tutors. I’m a practice tutor for the OU’s Digital and Technology Solutions degree apprenticeship scheme. The university also runs schemes that relate to business, nursing and policing.

This blog post is a short summary of some of the themes that were discussed and explored within this event. It is primarily intended as a record of my own CPD, and I’m sharing it more widely just in case it might be of interest to other delegates, and colleagues who are responsible for the CPD of the degree apprenticeship programme.

The aim of the event was the develop the quality of practice tuition and to share best practice. The event began with an overview, and some definitions. I was surprised to learn that there were 400 PTs (or PT contracts) being managed across the university. Regarding the definitions, a PT was a practice tutor, who is someone who works with apprentices and employers. An AL is an associate lecturer, or a module tutor. 

Quality assurance of practice tuition

The aim of this first session, presented by Anna Colantoni and Barb Cochee was to help practice tutors gain an understanding of the aims of the quality assurance project, and its project deliverables, also providing an opportunity for discussion. 

I noted down that the quality assurance project contained 6 project deliverables which were managed in 2 strands. The first strand was about technology and data strand, which included eportfolio implementation, data infrastructure, and technology infrastructure. The teaching support and quality improvement strand included deliverables relating to practice tuition, governance, apprentice and employer guidance and support.

We were presented with some definitions through a question: what is quality assurance, and what does it involve?

  • “quality assurance is the act or process of confirming the quality standards are being met”.
  • “A programme for the systematic monitoring and evaluation of the various aspects of a project, services, or facility to ensure that standards of quality are being met”.

Examples of activities that relate to quality assurance include the monitoring of marking, gathering of feedback from apprentices or employers, mentoring from staff, and carrying out observations of practice tutor meetings and tutorials.

I noted that there was a difference between quality assurance and quality enhancement. Enhancement means: “improvement of quality brought about through cycles of continuous improvement and innovation”, with the point that there isn’t a final end point, and culture can play a role.

During this session, I also made note of some project outputs. These included the practice tutor quality framework and accompanying papers. These papers relate to tripartite meeting standards (meetings between a practice tutor, apprentice, and the apprentice’s line manager), the tripartite meeting observation process, and a PT professional development framework. Further development activities includes a review of the apprenticeship hub review; a dedicated VLE site, which is used to share information.

Progress review meetings –what should good look like?

The aim of this second session, facilitated by Jo Bartlett, Vicki Caldwell and Lucy Caton (Academic Leads, Practice Tuition, Apprenticeships Change Programme) was to share updates about good practice guidance, share details of the observation of progress review meetings, and to share ideas about good practice and challenges of progress review meetings.

This session explored the tripartite progress review meetings, which take place between an apprentice, an employer and a practice tutor. The meetings were described as “complex, cross boundary working”.

I noted down the following from a summary: the role of the practice tutor is to oversee the work based-learning that takes place; sometimes this can relate to programme requirements, or regulatory requirements. Key tasks can include setting of learning plans, setting of objectives, applying academic learning to academic setting, encouragement of reflecting, opportunities to shadow others. Also, the meetings help the practice tutor understand the work setting and help the apprentice and the employer understand their study and learning programme.

I also noted that it is important that our student (apprentice) feels well supported, and engage in a wide range of activities. In the apprenticeship, the employer has a role of providing opportunities to help learner apply and develop the academic learning.

During this session we were put into different breakout rooms. There was a room about “encouraging reflection”, a room about “addressing barriers to learning”, and two more about “ensuring relevant learning opportunities” and “setting SMART objectives”. We were given a direction: share good practice and something that you may have done to overcome some challenges.

I was put into the “encouraging reflection group”, and found myself amongst a group of PTs who work with nursing and police apprentices. 

A key point was: students need to be encouraged, to understand and develop a reflective mindset. A couple of frameworks were shared and mentioned, such as the “what, so what, now what?” by Rolfe et al. Other models were mentioned, such as those by Gibbs and Kolb. We were directed to the University of Edinburgh reflective toolkit and some OpenLearn resources were mentioned, such as Learning to teach: becoming a reflective practitioner which highlight different reflective models.

Back in the plenary room, we gathered feedback from the different rooms. I’ve managed to summarise feedback from two of the groups.

Barriers to learning opportunities: this group discussed the importance of the learning environment, organisational culture, organisational understanding, and requirements. Other points included he importance of the line management engagement, and ensuring off-the-job time. A PT has the opportunity to emphasise the benefits of the degree apprenticeship to the organisation in terms of student progress and development.

Setting SMART objectives: get the employer to create 3 objectives, which are then used within the discussions that are used within the meeting discussions. Consider how they may be linked to the educational objectives.

Reflections upon supporting learners to apply theory into practice 

Following on from our breakout room discussions about reflections, the next session was facilitated by Sarah Bloomfield (Lecturer in Work based Learning, FBL), Evelyn Mooney (Lecturer, Adult Nursing, WELS) and Anthony Johnston (Staff Tutor, STEM). Rather than focussing only on reflections, this session also emphasised work-based learning, and the role that it plays in a degree apprenticeship.

We were presented a question: what is work based learning? It could be considered to be learning for work, learning at work, or learning through work. A comment was that these definitions relate to a framework that is used within the degree apprenticeship standard, which is about the development of knowledge, skills and behaviours.

Next up was a presentation of an adaptation of Kolb’s reflective cycle, which featured experiencing issues in practice, taking action and trying something new, using theories and concepts to think differently, and reflecting on practice (or, what has been done). Theories can be thought of as tools, or a lens, which can be used to how to look at problems or how things are done.

Another question was: wow can PTs help with the work-based learning? There are, of course the quarterly reviews (which can be tripartite meetings), but also practice tutors can facilitate progress reviews.

In my own work as a practice tutor, I make extensive use of a review form. It was mentioned that on these forms, it would be useful to emphasise which new knowledge, skills and behaviours have been gained. Also consider asking: has there been anything that is new and interesting?

Just like the previous session, we were put into breakout rooms. We were asked two questions: (1) What strategies do you use to help learners apply theory/knowledge into their practice? (2) What challenges do you face in doing so?

During our room, we held the view that it might be useful for practice tutors to have a discussion with a module tutor to understand not only where the student is, but also to get a more detailed appreciation of the module materials.

During the plenary session, the use of forms or prompts to help to draw out conversations were discussed. A useful question could be, “tell me something that you have read that has informed your practice”. Also, asking open questions is important, such as, “tell us about what you are doing at the moment?” Pinpoint something that is helpful for them to focus on. 

Effectively supporting learners with additional needs

This session, facilitated by Michelle Adams (Senior Manager, Disability Support Team) and Claire Cooper (Manager, Disability Support Team) was less interactive, and was more about the providing of information to practice tutors about the support the university provides to students with disabilities.

A student may disclose a disability at any point. If a student discloses a disability to a tutor or a practice tutor they are, in effect, disclosing a disability to the university. When this happens, the disability support team creates a student profile through the use of a disability support form. If appropriate, students are encouraged to apply for the disabled students allowance, and can apply to the access to work scheme.

Disabled student allowances is externally funded by the government, and there are four types of award: specialist equipment, non-medical helper support, general allowance, travel allowance. The university also provides an auxiliary aids team and a small equipment loan scheme to bridge the gap between applying for support, and receiving support. The university provides different interim loan kits. The exact composition of the scheme differs according to the needs of students.

The New AL Contract: your questions answered

I split my time between the last two sessions. I began with the session about the new AL Contract, which was facilitated by Dan Sloan (Senior Manager, AL Services/AL Change Programme) and Sam Murphy (Implementation Programme Lead), and then moved to the other session about peer support.

This session began with some definitions that tutors and practice tutors might see on their contract details. Some key terms and topics were about FTE, and the differences between contracted FTE, delivery FTE, and allocated TRA days.

If you are reading this blog as someone who is internal to the university, you will be able to find a set of resources and posts that relate to the new AL contract. A notable post is one that summarises how your FTE if calculated.

Developing opportunities for peer support

This final session was facilitated by Barbara Cochee (Senior Manager, PT Training and Development, ALSPD) and Olivia Rowland (Content Designer, ALSPD). To facilitate the discussions, we were asked who our peer were, what does peer support look like, what might benefits of peer support might bring, and what support might you need to make this happen?

This session featured quite a wide ranging discussion. We discussed the importance of face-to-face meetings, and the role of module tutors.  It was acknowledged that, for some programmes, there can sometimes be a distance between the academic tutors and the academic assessors. For some apprentices (such as those within nursing programmes), students need to pass the academic studies as well as their practice studies (or, practical skills that they need to master).

A thought that I did have is that, in some ways, practice tutors represent a bit of administrative and academic glue in a degree apprenticeship programme. They exist as glue between academic modules and tutors, glue between employer and programme, glue between the apprentice and the work-based learning, glue between academic and work-based learning, and offer pointers to additional resources, and connecting together different aspects of support together. 

In terms of the practice tutor community that I’m a member of, perhaps the best form of peer support comes from a school perspective, and linked to a particular degree apprenticeship programme that I’m helping to support. I don’t know very many other practice tutors. It would be great to know a few more, if only to more directly understand that I’m offering the right kind of support.

Reflections

I think this was the first event of its type that I’ve been to. It was a large event; there were around 100 delegates. I was a little grumpy about the earlier sessions about quality assurance. I have the view that quality emerges from the relationships that exists between people – specifically, colleagues, tutors, and students.

Hearing about the perspectives from other faculties was helpful, especially in terms of hearing different views about the role of the practice tutor, and what they contribute during the tripartite meetings. Overall, I found the discussions the most helpful, and I would welcome the opportunity to participate in more of these events.

One thing that I would like to hear more about is more stories: stories from the employers, stories from tutors and, most importantly, stories from apprentices.

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Academic writing in TM470

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One of the questions I’m regularly asked regarding TM470 is: “how should I write my TMAs and the EMA? Should I write it in the first person or in the third person? Should I say ‘I did this and I did that’, or should I say ‘the author did this, and the author did that’?”

First of third person?

I recommend using the first person, rather than the third person, since you are doing the project, and you are learning from the experience of completing it. The reason I say this is because of the importance of writing clearly, and that it does sound a bit weird (and adds a whole load of extra words) if one refers to oneself in the third person, referring to oneself as the author. 

I consider that the first person is more accessible to the TMA marker and the EMA examiner. Clarity is important, since the EMA report at the end of the module is all about presenting what I consider to be a "technical story" or narrative. All this said, the TMAs and EMAs should be written in quite a formal and academic way. In other words, your submissions shouldn’t be too chatty, and should adopt an academic tone, whilst clearly drawing on materials and sources in a critical way.

What does “being critical” mean?

I understand “being critical” as “showing that you have through about something” and demonstrating that through your writing. It can mean understanding that there is an argument to be unpicked, or it could also mean choosing (or summarising) resources that will then be used and applied (in a critical, or thoughtful way) later on during your project.

In an earlier blog I wrote, I dug out a number of links to a some OU study booklets which are really helpful. I do recommend that you have a quick look at Thinking Critically. The section Writing with a Critical Voice, might be useful too. Section 3.4 on page 22, getting critical thinking into your writing, is also useful too. Also, before you get to the writing bit, there’s also a booklet about Reading and Taking Notes.

Another booklet called Preparing Assignments also offers a bit of guidance about writing introductions and conclusions, writing paragraphs, paraphrasing, quoting and referencing.

Referencing

Talking about referencing, it is important to spend a bit of time looking at the CiteThemRight website. This offers guidance about how to reference anything and everything. It contains sections about referencing academic papers, textbooks, internal reports, bits of software, and even personal correspondence. Reference everything that may have influence your thinking. Also, do be specific in your referencing. Do include page references to really demonstrate the extent and the depth of your reading.

My colleague Charly Lowndes also provides A one minute reminder of where to get advice on the OU CiteThemRight citing and referencing style (YouTube).

The project isn’t just about what you do. It is also about what you have learnt, and you can demonstrate that by the extent and the quality of your writing and referencing.

Other resources to look at

Finally, a few other resources that might be useful.

I’m a big fan of a book called The Good Study Guide. I was sent a copy of it when I started my OU studies back in 2006 or 2007. I remember thinking: “if I had read this when I was an undergraduate, I might have gained a higher degree classification”.

I’ve also written this short blog about academic writing (OU blog), which offers a summary of some of the points that a fellow tutor gave me when I was studying.

Whilst working on the project, it is helpful to have a project log. To help to get a view on what is needed, I have written a short blog, but about how to create and structure a TM470 project log (OU blog).

Finally, looking longer down the road to the EMA, I have written a blog that offers a suggestion about a TM470 report structure (OU blog). Since very project is different, these are not hard and fast rules. It is more important to hit the learning outcomes than to try to follow this structure.

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Unpacking a TMA question: tips from A111

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 16 Feb 2022, 15:34

As well as being a tutor, and a staff tutor, I’m also a student. At the moment, I’m studying the arts and humanities, and I’m part way through the equivalent of my first year. I’m really enjoying it, and I can certainly say that I have learnt a few things.

This short post summarises some really helpful hints and tips about responding to a TMA question. These key points have been taken from from the A111 Discovering the arts and humanities study skills materials, written by Judith Rice. During my studying of this module, these points have really stood out in terms of being helpful. These tips may be relevant for other subjects and disciplines, not just the arts and humanities. 

Question words: how, why and what?

This tip emphases that “questions like these are asking you to make a judgement of some kind”. For the arts and humanities modules, there is “the expectation is that you use evidence from the sources or module book to support your answer”, so make sure that you reference module materials, and quote judiciously to demonstrate your understanding, and to show your reading. 

Compare and contrast

The essence of this tip is as follows: “if an assignment asks you to compare two sources, you are expected to look at ways in which they are similar and ways in which they are different. If the word ‘contrast’ is in there too, you should look especially hard for differences between them”. This is all about demonstrating your thinking as well as demonstrating your knowledge of the materials. 

Describe

This keyword “indicates that you are being asked to talk about what you see in a picture, hear in a piece of music, or read in a text; it could also indicate that you should give an account of what happened over a period of time.”

Explore

Explore isn’t a word that I’ve seen very regularly in TMAs, but when explore is used “you are being asked to look at an issue or an idea in a balanced manner, probably across a number of different examples. A definite ‘answer’ is not required but you will need to examine the evidence to look out for patterns.”

Consider

Like explore, this isn’t a TMA word that I’m very familiar with. The module materials offers a bit of guidance: “the task here is very similar to the one signalled by the word ‘Explore’, but there is slightly more emphasis on weighing up the evidence in order to reach some kind of balanced assessment in your conclusion.”

Assess

Simply put, assess is all about making “some kind of judgement or measurement, and to think about various aspects of a source or collection of sources.” Again, do reference any appropriate module resources.

Explain

Finally, “explain” is all about giving “reasons for something.”

Preparing to answer TMA questions

When answering a TMA question, I have started to adopt a particular way of working. 

I begin by flicking through all the module materials, making a note of the significant headings. I then take a bit of time to review some of the key bits of module materials to make sure that I haven’t missed anything. When I have reacquainted myself with everything with the main themes that the module team are trying to convey, I then have a good look at the key words to get a feel for what they are fishing for.

Another approach that I’ve adopted, depending on the question, is to make sure that I have all the references in order before starting the writing. To do this, I do a bit of digging into the CiteThemRight website to remind myself how to reference everything I might need to reference, such as module materials, set texts and anything else.

Other tips, resources and blogs

TMA questions are connected to module learning outcomes. In addition to focussing on the TMA questions themselves, it is sometimes useful to have a good look into what the module team are looking to assess. Put another way, by looking at the learning outcomes and the accompanying activities may well help you to “get into the head of the module team”.

There are a range of other resources that can be useful. Some of these are summarised in earlier blogs about study skills. I also regularly recommend the Good Study Guide (pdf).

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Preparing for A230

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 16 Feb 2022, 15:14

Over the last two years I’ve been studying A111 Discovering the Arts and humanities and A112 Cultures. I’ve really enjoyed both of them, especially the literature sections. The next module I intend to study is A230 Reading and studying literature

One recommendation that I have read from the module reviews has been: get ahead! Specifically, do try to read as many of the set texts as you can. 

A couple of years ago, I bought a new eReader since my original version of the Amazon Kindle gave up the ghost. I’ve written a couple of articles that relate to eReaders. Remembering these articles, I realised that it might be possible to download some of the A112 set texts from Project Guttenberg which would allow me to get started. I wouldn’t be able to benefit from the notes that accompany the recommended editions that go with the module, but I could buy those separately if I needed to.

What follows is a summary of all the set texts I can find from Project Guttenberg, listed in alphabetical order. 

I download each book to the desktop of my laptop, connect my eReader, which then appears as USB device, and copy the epub file into the reader’s filestore. It’s clear that I have a lot of reading to do!

There are three other books I need to get: a book by Friel, another by Selvon, and a further one by Sebald.

Where should I start? I read Charlotte Bronte whilst studying A112, so I might start with Emily. I then go onto Shelly, and then onto Joyce. After that, I'm not quite sure.

Good luck to everyone who is studying A230!

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TM470 Project report structure

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When studying TM470, students are required to design, plan and carry out a short project that will enable them to show off the skills and knowledge that they have gained from their earlier level 3 students. To pass this module, students have to submit a detailed project report, which can also be thought of as a dissertation.

Since student projects can take many different forms, the TM470 module materials offer general guidance that need to be interpreted by students. A suggested report structure might work well for one type of project, but not for another. Students might decide on a research project (looking into a very specific problem in a lot of detail), an evaluation project (comparing one product, tool, system or approach to another), or an implementation project (choosing to design and implement code that solves a well-defined problem).

In absence of some very specific guidance about how to structure of project report, this blog post offers a summary of some of the guidance that I have offered (and continue to offer) during some of my TM470 EMA preparation tutorials. After my tutorials, I also share a link to this blog post to the TM470 students that I am supporting.

I must offer a disclaimer: this guidance will not fit all projects. Students must decide about whether the below suggested structure it is appropriate for their own project. Also, they must also decide on whether their report demonstrates that the TM470 learning outcomes have been met.

Before summarising the suggested structure, I have three tips for students:

  1. Ensure that your report is as readable as possible (but do make sure it remains a formal report). The project marker may be unfamiliar with the subject that you are writing about. Take time to set the scene and explain concepts that may be unfamiliar to a reader.
  2. Do have a look through the OU Skills for Study resources (OU website). In particular, I’m a fan of The Good Study Guide which you can find through the OU study booklets page (OU website). The Good Study Guide offers some really helpful advice about researching and writing.
  3. Think of the project report as a ‘technical narrative’, or a ‘technical story’. It is also a story that can contain other narratives. There is a story about your planning, a story about your reading, a story about what has been done, and what has been learnt. Make your technical story as interesting as you can.

1. Introduction

In this section, present a really short introduction to the whole project. Try to summarise it in a couple of sentences. Then, provide the reader with a pointer towards what they can expect to see in the next sections. This will ‘prime’ them for what is coming up in the next section. You might also want to allude to what you have achieved, but don’t tell them everything; this is presented in the next sections.

2. Problem description

In this section, go into a bit more detail about what your project. You might want to explain a bit more about the project context or setting. Background information will help the EMA examiner to understand what your project is all about. In some ways, think of the opening sections of the report as a ‘spiral’, where you gradually lead the examiner towards the detail of what you’ve done. In some way, you’re teaching the reader about your project.

3. Preparation and planning

In the previous section, you’ve told the examiner what you’re going to do. This section is all about how you’re going to do it. Since sharing detail about your project plan is important, it is a good idea to split this section into a number of subheadings.

3.1 Project Model

A suggestion is to begin by telling the examiner about the project model you’ve chosen. Do have a look at the module materials about this, and what this means. In other words, you could use this section to summarise the project planning approach that you have chosen, and why it is appropriate. 

3.X Resources, skills, activities, risks, plan…

What might follow is a series of subsections about resources that you need, skills, potential risks to the project, and also something about this high level plans. Do say something about what you’re going to be doing, and also what tools you might have used to decide on what you’re going to be doing and when.

4. Legal, social, ethical and professional issues

Legal social ethical and professional issues (LSEPI) are important, especially in TM470. As future Computing and IT professionals, it is important to be mindful about the impact of a project or development on wider society, and any implications it might have. Also, if a project involves working with people to uncover requirements, it is important that you treat everyone in an ethical way. The module team offers a bit of guidance about this topic, but for further inspiration it might be a good idea to have a quick look through the British Computer Society Code of Conduct (BCS website).

5. Literature review

This section is all about showing the examiner what you have read or studied, and how this has influenced the project work that have done. I’ve suggested it comes at this point, after the LSEPI section, since the identification of some legal, social, ethical or professional issues might raise questions that can only be answered by further reading.

There are different ways to structure a literature review. Two ways are: by theme, or by time. In other words, by the subjects that you have read about, or the order in which you have read things. I always prefer thematic literature reviews since they enable the writer to adopt a more critical approach. This means you can more directly and easily compare and contrast different opinions from different sources.

In this section, do try to reference as widely as possible. Do take the time to reference other modules you have studied (including textbooks and module blocks), any technical text books you might be using in the next section, and also do a bit of digging into the OU library (which all students have access to).

Fellow tutors have offered the following guidance: “show you understand the importance of a source; show you recognize the limitations of your sources; show how the literature has influenced the direction of the project and informed your thinking, and show how the literature has justified decisions”.

6. Project work

This is one of the most important sections of the report. It shows the examiner what you have done. It should ideally be a series of case studies that presents a narrative (story) of what you have done, and should relate back to the plan that you have described. To structure everything, it is a good idea to separate everything out into a series of subheadings; one for each mini case study.

Drawing on comments from fellow TM470 tutors, the examiner needs to get a feel for the project as a whole, the solution you created, and whether you solved the problem. Importantly, this section should demonstrate your technical and presentation skills, and should be concise.

If you have a project where you have generated a lot of materials, such as interview scripts, survey results, source code, or diagrams, you need to make a choice about what goes in this section, and what you choose to put in an appendix. One way to answer this question is to ask yourself: is this an example of my best work? If so, put something in this section.

7. Review and reflection

By the time you get to this section, you would have prepared a plan, have done some research, and have carried out some project work. This section is all about telling the examiner what you have learnt from the experience of running your project. 

To help you to begin to answer this question, think of those “WH” questions: what, how, when, and why? Ask yourself the following questions: Did you follow your plan? Did you learn the right thing, and the right time, to solve the right problem? How did what you learn help or hinder your project? Also, how did you expand on your level 3 studies?

The more thoughtful your review and reflection section appears, and the more that you appear to have learnt by completing the project, the more evidence there will be that you have obtained some of the TM470 learning outcomes.

8. Summary

To wrap everything up neatly, I tell students to write a short summary. A suggestion is: to offer a reminder about what the project was all about, what project model was chosen, summarise what has achieved, and then to share three things that have been learnt by completing the project. In some senses, this final summary should mirror the introduction section.

9. References

Clear referencing is really important. The aim of this section is to enable the examiner to find an original source, report, textbook, or anything else that has helped you with your project. It also offers a neat summary of all the reading that you’ve done.

For TM470, you only need a references section, not a bibliography and a references section. If you use a resource in the body of your text, make sure that you refer to it in this section. Make sure that you present everything in alphabetical order, and mention dates of publication. If you’re unsure how to format any resource, book, paper, technical report, or bit of software, do refer to the CiteThemRight website.

Appendices

A project report can have any number of appendices. You can use an appendix to share supplementary materials to help the examiner to get a feel for what you’ve done during the course of your project. 

There are no hard and fast rules about how many appendices you should have since every project is different. You might use them to show excerpts of source code, diagrams, consent forms, and data that you might have collected during the course of your project. Whatever works best for you. You should, however, always reference each appendix from within the body of the report, just to make the examiner aware that this may be an important part of your report.

Although you must try to limit your project report to 10k words, there is no limit to how many additional words you can provide within the appendices (but the module team does encourage everyone to be reasonable).

Acknowledgements

You can include an acknowledgement section in your project report, along with a glossary if you feel it is appropriate to include one. 

This acknowledgement section is for this blog post, rather than for a project report. I would like to acknowledge Chris Thompson and Karl Wilcox, who have been very generous in sharing their tutorial resources with me. I would also like to acknowledge Alexis Lansbury, who is my TM470 line manager.

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English DTS degree apprenticeship: work-based learning modules

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 2 Oct 2021, 13:12

The OU is also a provider of English, Scottish and Welsh degree apprenticeships.

This blog provides a summary of some of the important work-based learning modules that Computing and IT students study as a part of their English degree apprenticeship programme. It has been prepared a simple ‘summary article’ that I can share with English degree apprentice students and their employers.

More information about the OU degree apprenticeship schemes can be found on the OU Apprenticeships pages where further links to nation specific programmes can be found. Further information, that is specific the English scheme, the DTS programme for English degree apprenticeship students’ page offers a useful summary of the scheme.

This post was collated during the summer and autumn of 2021. Since modules, programmes and qualifications are always subject to enhancement and review, it is important to check the latest information that is available.

Acknowledgements are extended to the module chairs, module team members and curriculum managers who helped to prepare the following descriptions. I have taken the liberty of editing some of the words and headings to create a single article.

Work-based learning modules

Degree apprenticeship study takes approximately four years. Student study a combination of academic modules, and a set of work-based learning modules. Toward the end of the programme, students must complete a work-based project, which is also summarised towards the end of this article.

An important aspect of the degree apprenticeship programme is that students are encouraged to continually reflect on how their university study relates to and links with work-place activity. An import part of the work-based modules is to encourage and develop that reflection.

Here is a list of the work-based (and project) modules that are summarised in this post:

  • TXY122 Career development and employability
  • TXY227 Change, strategy and projects at work
  • TMXY350 Advanced work-based learning
  • TMXY475 Apprenticeship computing & IT project

During study of each of these modules, students will be allocated an academic tutor, who marks their assessments, and will be supported by a practice tutor.

TXY122 Career development and employability

One of the first modules that English degree apprentice students study goes by the module code TXY122. Students are also likely to study this module at the same time as a more academic module, TMXY130, which introduces some important topics, such as mathematics for Computing.

The aims and objectives of TXY122 are as follows: 

  • To enable students to develop their ability to learn from the workplace through reflective practice.
  • To enable students to apply their skills, understanding and knowledge within the workplace.
  • To develop students’ understanding of their organisational context and their role within it.
  • To equip students with the skills necessary to carry out research within their organisation.
  • To introduce the concept of professional standards and to enable students to map their existing skills and knowledge against relevant occupational standards.
  • To enable students to evaluate and develop their personal / professional / employability skills.
  • To give students an understanding of how to align their own personal and career development needs with the business objectives of their organisation.
  • To facilitate the production of a coherent learning and development plan.

Like many OU modules, the materials are divided into a number of blocks.

Block 1: Laying the foundations

Block 1 is called Laying the foundations and it is designed to help students to develop a sound understanding of what it means to learn in order to ensure that they get the most out of this module and, indeed, any other learning experience undertaken in the future. When we talk about learning we aren’t simply talking about traditional academic studies, because that is not what this module is about. 

Block 1 is focused on learning from experiences at work, the type of learning that will enable students to perform more effectively as they learn how to reflect on your experiences and acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to improve learning and performance on a continuing basis. 

The following themes are introduced:

  • laying the foundations for studying
  • thinking about how adults learn
  • learning in the workplace
  • managing your learning and development.

Block 2: Exploring the workplace

Block 2 contains two main sections. In the first section students will be introduced to elements of research design, including methods and sources used for gathering and analysing data and information, and students will learn how to distinguish between quantitative and qualitative data. In the second section the focus will shift to reporting the results of research in a clear and structured way and learning how to use various graphical devices to present data and information effectively.

The following themes are introduced:

  • research concepts, tools and techniques
  • reporting the results of your research
  • effective ways of presenting data and information.

Block 3: Personal, academic and career development planning

This block is designed to help students to take stock of their current position, decide where they want to go and plan how to get there. Students will look in detail at the principles and processes involved in personal and career development planning, and receive advice and guidance on how to reflect productively on their skills, knowledge and experience before being encouraged to think about their personal and career aspirations. Finally, they will be given practical advice and guidance on how to develop/update their personal and career development plans.

The following themes are introduced:

  • determination of role and skills set
  • benchmarking against occupational standards and frameworks
  • future goals and career development.

Block 4: Personal, academic and career development planning – the organisational context

Block 4 helps students to see where you fit within their organisational context. They will spend some time analysing where their organisation is heading and understanding how they can contribute to the success of their organisation while moving forward with some of their career development aspirations. Students will receive advice and guidance on action planning for personal, academic and professional development and look at how they can seek support from within their organisation for their continuing professional development proposals.

The following themes are introduced:

  • What is the business context and how do I fit within it?
  • What are the key trends and challenges facing the business?
  • What are my professional development needs?
  • Aligning business needs with career and academic development aspirations.
  • Planning for the future.

Assessments

The module is assessed through 3 Tutor Marked Assessments (TMAs) and an End of Module Assessment, which is the university’s equivalent of an end of module exam.

TXY227 Change, strategy and projects at work

Students will typically study TXY227 as their third second level (second year equivalent) module. 

The module will help students to:

  • gain an understanding of how social, technological, economic, environmental, political, legislative and ethical factors drive and enable change in the workplace.
  • develop knowledge, understanding, confidence and competence in project working and related employability skills
  • evaluate, develop and review personal, academic and professional skills
  • apply skills and knowledge to planning and presenting a project proposal that is capable of being implemented in their workplace.

During this module students are encouraged to integrate work and study by drawing on and investigating workplace resources, systems and experiences. There is therefore less ‘learning material’ than in a traditional OU module. Students are expected to do approximately 12 hours of study per week, in addition their apprenticeship role. Also, during the first 6 months of study, students are also likely to be studying two other degree apprenticeship modules.

Block 1: A changing world

This first block focusses on the topic of change. Key areas of study for this first block include, amongst others: understanding perspectives on change; different types of change; readiness to change; leading change and preparing for change. In terms of topics that relate to a work based context, themes include: knowing where you’re going; doing analyses; understanding internal external contexts; identifying the way forward and carrying out a Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis.

Block 2: Projects in your workplace

This second block explores the concept of a project. It begins by asking the question:  What is a project? Other themes (amongst others) include: time, cost and quality; changing a routine process; the project life cycle; your workplace learning, work-based projects; generating ideas for your work-based project; project stakeholders and meetings; project scope, constraints, risks and contingencies; managing risk and contingency planning.

Block 3: Project planning, organisation and completion

Block 3 continues the topic of work based projects by presenting the following themes (amongst others): project teams; team roles; resource planning; project budgets; project scheduling techniques such as networks and Gantt charts; project management roles, skills and attributes; project monitoring and reviewing, and project closure, evaluation and learning.

Block 4: Reviewing and presenting your work-based project proposal

Finally, block 4 is all about reviewing and presenting your project. Key topics include: reviewing your work-based project proposal, presenting your work-based project proposal, planning and preparing your presentation, practising and delivering your presentation, and evaluating your presentation.

Assessments

The module is assessed through 3 TMAs and an EMA

TMXY350 Advanced work-based learning

This module will build on students’ learning and experience from previous work-based learning modules, and prepare them for the proposed capstone project module (TMXY475), as well as for the Digital and Technology Solutions (DTS) apprenticeship End-Point Assessment (EPA). To complete the degree apprenticeship, students need to complete both. 

The module will help students with:

  • developing knowledge, skills and experience of workplace/work role investigation
  • knowledge, skills and behaviours mapping against relevant standards and frameworks
  • portfolio development
  • project planning and evaluation
  • report writing
  • interview and presentation tools and techniques
  • alignment of personal and career development needs with the business objectives of the organisation
  • production of coherent learning and development plans.

Block 1: Understanding learning outcomes and planning

In this short first block, which occupies five weeks, student will: carry out an initial mapping exercise against the relevant apprenticeship learning outcomes/core skills; extend their knowledge of project implementation, handover, closure and evaluation; explore some ideas for a final work-based project; and develop the initial version of a work-based learning plan (WLP) detailing resources, support and scheduling related to specified WLP objectives.

Block 2: Reviewing progress, requirements and project ideas

In this second block, which occupies eight weeks, students will: review progress against the WLP and produce an updated version; study the common causes of project failure and learn more about project review and evaluation; assess knowledge and understanding of apprenticeship requirements; further develop one idea for the final project.

Block 3: Updating your work-based learning plan and refining project ideas

In this third block, which also lasts eight weeks, students will: review progress against the WLP and produce an updated version; develop a feasible proposal for the final project; practise and evaluate skills in applying interview techniques and verbal communication skills. To help students, block resources will include: worksheets containing information, advice and guidance; provide resources for developing a final project proposal; resources relating to the application of interview techniques and verbal communication skills.

Block 4: Preparing a project proposal and a final work-based learning plan

In this final block, which is also an eight week block, students will: review progress against the WLP and produce an updated version; prepare for their end of module assess by producing a final project proposal, demonstrating the application of interview techniques and verbal communication skills, and producing evidence to show how demonstrating the achievement of selected learning outcomes. The module will provide resources to help with producing a final project proposal, along with an associated business case, and provide resources relating to interview techniques and verbal communication skills.

Assessments

Assessment is through 3 TMAs (which relate to blocks 1 through 3) and an end of module TMA (which is similar to an EMA) which relates to block 4.

TMXY475 Apprenticeship computing & IT project 

The final module, TMXY475, the Apprenticeship Computing and IT Project will enable students to complete their degree apprenticeship. It gives students the opportunity to make use of their knowledge and skills they have built up earlier, and to demonstrate these in a work-based project.

Students are to choose a project in the area of their specialism using knowledge, skills and behaviours learned in their modules to date especially the specialist Level-3 modules.

They will first be required to develop a project topic to suit their individual purposes, interests and skills by an iterative process of refinement towards a more narrowly-focussed area of study. This refining process will be moderated and guided by contact with their tutor and in collaboration with their employer, entailing increasing research as they proceed. In this way they will be laying the groundwork for their project as they home in on their final topic.

Arriving at an agreed project title and aims will include a consideration of its background (through a literature search), its feasibility and a definition of its scope. Assessing this is the task of TMA01 which will also require evidence of Interaction between student, tutor and employer. Students will then be expected producing a project plan and detailed project outline as their second TMA before writing-up a complete first draft of part of their project report which is submitted as TMA03.

The EMA has two parts. The final project report is submitted as the EMA part 1. Students will be asked to complete a 30-minute presentation/interview with an assessor and their employer following the submission of the project report for EMA part 2.

Throughout the module students are asked to reflect critically on how they undertook their project and how they might do things differently in the light of their experience. Students will be expected to produce a large proportion of their work independently and without close supervision.

To summarise, students will be expected to:

  • confirm and justify your choice of project (either the one you picked in TMXY350, or a new one if your critical evaluation leads you to change your project topic)
  • define what the outcomes of the project will be
  • plan how you are going to achieve these outcomes
  • research the background and state of the art of the subject area of your project
  • complete the project
  • produce a report describing the project and reflecting on both the project itself and the way you went about it.

The module is divided into a number of phrases, which are similar to the blocks that students would have seen in previous modules:

Phase 1: Project approval

During this phase, students will be working with their module tutor and employer to refine their project idea so that it meets the requirements for the apprenticeship and organisation.

Phase 2: Setting the project context

During this phase, students will be investigating the context of their project. This will involve tasks such as: refining requirements, understanding previous professional and academic work done in the area of your project both inside and outside of your organisation, and making progress on appropriate practical elements.

Phase 3: Practical report

During this phase, students will complete the bulk of the practical work. By the end of this phase, students should have an incomplete draft of your EMA project report which provides the basis for TMA 03.

Phase 4: Completing practical work

During this phase, students will complete all remaining practical work, and address any major issues identified in TMA 03.

Phase 5: Reviewing and evidencing learning

During this final phase, you will complete your EMA project report and prepare it for submission. There will also be an opportunity to review and act on any feedback from the Gateway/Professional Practice meeting.

Assessments

The module is assessed through3 TMAs, which reflect different phases of the project, and there are 2 parts to an EMA, one of which is a presentation.

Reflections

One thing that really struck me, when editing together this blog was how thorough the programme is. It is, for a moment, useful think of the degree apprenticeship as having three components: the academic study, the actual work that takes place in the workplace, and these work-based learning modules. In some senses, these modules represent a bit of useful glue, that links the academic study together with what takes place within the workplace.

Reviewing a part of this degree apprenticeship programme has made me reflect on my own professional context and work setting. It has helped me to ask some useful questions about my situation, such as: what learning should I be doing to either develop myself or to improve my performance? Another question is: where is my main work focus? Also, if I want to change my focus, what should I start to be doing so I can get there? By asking these questions, and writing this section I am doing something that is emphasised throughout all these modules: engaging in critical reflection.

Acknowledgements

This post has been compiled and edited together from a variety of different sources. Thanks are extended to Andy Hollyhead, who plays an important role in the delivery of the DTS degree apprenticeship scheme in England and provided some of the useful text for the project module. Thanks are also extended to the module chairs and curriculum managers of all the modules that are mentioned in this summary; their words, through project descriptions and summaries, have found their way to this post.

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Cyber Security Education Workshop ‘21

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 22 Jul 2021, 18:12

On 17 June 21, the OU School of Computing and Communications in collaboration with CISSE UK, the UK chapter of the Colloquium for Information Systems Security ran its first online workshop on cyber security education. 

This post offers a rough summary of the event for anyone who wasn’t able to attend. This article also shares links to accompanying resources. The structure of this post reflects the structure of the event, and offers a set of reflections and potential next steps.

The event covers two broad themes: employment and skills, and curriculum. During the second theme, the event splits into two streams: one for higher education, and another for participants who are related to CyberFirst, which covers the 11-17 age group.

One thing that I will mention is that I only managed to attend three quarters of the event, and had to leave before the final panel discussions. This said, co-presenters and delegates, have shared with me some links and themes that were raised during the final discussion session.

Introduction and Overview

Arosha Bandara and Chitra Balakrishna, from the OU, and Phil Legg from the University of West of England and CISSE opened the workshop. Chitra stated that its aim workshop was to bring together different stakeholders, to gain a common understanding of key challenges in cyber security education and to focus on curriculum, curriculum delivery, and skills development.

Phil took the opportunity to share something about CISSE UK. It aims to bring together cyber security educators across the UK, it aims to share and collaborate, and to find ways to do things better. Phil made the point that institutions are all trying to learn how things are done in the distance learning context.

After the introductions and welcome, it was time for two keynotes from colleagues from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).  

Keynote 1: NCSC - Cyber Growth Academia Team

Chris E introduced the NCSC, which is the National technical authority for cyber security. It has what is known as a Cyber Growth Academia Team. The NCSE has a strategy to develop skills and support education and does this by having an interest in developing graduates and apprentices. I made a note of the point that: “everyone should have access to high quality cyber security education”.

An important resource for anyone interested in this area is the Cyber Security Body of Knowledge (Cybok.org).

There was references to different pathways, such as master’s degrees, integrated master’s, bachelor’s degrees, and degree apprenticeships. Universities are also introducing combined courses, where cyber security is combined with another subject. 

There are a number of NCSE certified degrees (NCSE website) and Academic Centres of Excellence in Cyber Security Education (ACEs-CSE) (NCSE website).

Themes that were important for cyber security study include: reach, availability of resources, expertise, and building for the future (sustainability). Another note I made was the point that further education (post 16 education) is producing a lot of really good people, but there are questions of what we might be able to best support them. During this event I recognised the familiar metaphor of a “leaky pipeline” regarding cyber security skills. This means that some students might not become cyber security professionals.

Returning to some of the themes of the workshop, an important question to raise (and discuss) was: is there a need to tweak the accreditation guidelines to take account of the current global pandemic? Perhaps assessments need to be adjusted and students need to be pushed and tested when materials are delivered online.

Keynote 2: NCSC - CyberFirst Team

This section keynote, presented by Patrick B, had an intriguing subtitle: cyber defence against the dark arts. This immediately begs some questions: what is meant by dark arts, and what is meant by ‘cyber defense’? 

Patrick is the CyberFirst (NCSC website) school and college education lead. CyberFirst is described as “developing the UK's next generation of cyber professionals through our student bursaries, courses for 11-17 year olds and competitions”. The focus is, of course, to develop secondary school students.

A question I noted was: “What can CyberFirst and the academic eco system do for each other?” Implicit in this question is another question of how can they collaborate and more directly align with each other? A further question to ask about concerns which issues schools are asking for help with.

A challenge, of course, lies with differences. The school sector is, of course, very different to the higher education sector, and there are different education systems, partly due to different devolved education authorities. Whilst students can specialise (in cyber security themes) at post-18, it is harder for students to understand and appreciate the significance of these specialisms at an earlier level. Given that cyber security needs specialists, there is the question of how we signpost the routes to different pathways.

Keeping with the theme of difference, I also noted down the words that “we need to make our sector more inclusive”, and the point was made that there is a gender imbalance. Patrick later made the point that 94% of girls don’t study computer science GCSE. The important need to address the theme of difference was also expressed in the words: “we need more of different types of people”.

Some of the challenges were expressed by Patrick in terms of “in tray” problems: how do we make young people more cyber aware? Also, how do we help teachers with their own cyber security? And finally, how do we showcase cyber as a career and study pathway?

In terms of the first problem, how do we make young people cyber aware? I noted down the view that whilst e-safety might be covered as a subject within schools, young people don’t get formal support about cyber security. Perhaps there needs to be learning by doing to fully understand cyber hygiene, and to also convey the safe use of cyber security tools.

Regarding teachers and school staff, Patrick made the point that Ransomware is becoming an issue, and some groups of students may need support to understand “what is legal and not” in terms of computer use and misuse. Also, teachers may also need help to understand the different types of attacks that may appear within the school setting and how to respond to them.

In terms of showcasing cyber as a career and study pathway, it is important to recognise and emphasise diversity with the Cyboc. During Patrick’s talk I noted that there “are 16 different cyber security roles, as defined by cyber security council”.  These roles are connected to a variety of disciplines, such as law, history (in terms of being able to carry out research), data science, computing, and mathematics.

One suggestion might be the concept of eMentoring, which could be related to the setting up clubs, cyber activities, and reaching out to industry. There was also a call for cross institution and cross discipline conversations and collaboration.

The final slide of Patrick’s presentation has the title of: “the hope”. It was hoped that this first conference would bring communities together, that it would facilitate cross institutional conversations and collaborations. There was also the point that: “we need all parts of the eco system to be pulling together, if we wish to effect change”.

After the event, a couple of resources were shared. The first is some STEM Learning Resources (stem.org.uk) This site presents some teacher guidance, activity sheets, and some links to further resources. The second link is to the National Centre for Computing Education website for resources and support (teachcomputing.org) which presents some lesson plans for key stages 1 through 4.

Introducing CISSE UK

Natalie Coull from the University of Abertay, Charles Clarke from Kingston University, and Phil Legg from the University of West of England jointly introduced CISSE UK (website), which is an abbreviation for “Colloquium for information systems security”. Charles described CISSE as national network of cyber security education professionals. CISSE UK is inspired by CISSE USA. What follows is a set of notes that were made during the CISSE presentation, and points taken from slides which were shared after the event.

Charles’s presentation had the subheading: collaborate to innovate. He introduced the CISSE vision, which was to: “to establish a culture of outstanding innovative and state of the art cyber security education (CSE) in the UK”. An important point I noted down was: can’t do everything our own, and that CISSE is a part of a rich and diverse CSE ecosystem which comprises of government (NCSE teams), industry (through stakeholders such as practioners, employees and employers), academia (students, educators, IT teams) as well as other groups such as professional associations and community organisations.

CISSE hosts events and has an impact programme. A related issue and question is: how is it possible to make a community or an organisation such as CISSE sustainable? CISSE look to encourage and extend engagement by developing .an outcomes driven membership initiative, which launches in 2021. 

Events themselves are not enough; members will have ways to evidence engagement. Members will be able to quantify and evidence engagement in a way that can be recognised across government, industry and academia. Evidence may take the form of attending CISSE recognised events, publishing in the area of cyber security (which can take different forms), providing mentoring, and service on NCSE certified degree panels. There might also evidence of engagement within projects that aim to enhance cyber security employability amongst students.

I noted down a 6 point call for action: (1) more input from industry to inform and validate programme and student employability, (2) mentoring in academia, (3) CSE events, (4) CSE publication – we need people to share their publications, (5) involvement in cyber security education experienced-centred projects, and (6) recording evidence of involvement in NCSE certified degrees or impact panels.

The presentation concluded with a point about the importance of collaboration between colleagues from different institutions. If you are interested in cyber security education, you were encouraged to get in touch.

Theme 1: Employment and skills

This first theme, which was available to all delegates, was about employment and skills. Each presentation was delivered through a short 5 minute video recording, and was followed by a facilitated panel discussion, aimed at further exploring some of the themes that were highlighted by the presenters (who were also present during the presentation section).

What follows is an edited version of the abstracts that accompany the presentation. Although the words have been prepared by the presentation authors, their words have been edited for brevity, for this blog. 

Presentation 1: Do we need industry certifications within Computer Security Degrees?

The first presentation was from Chaminda Hewage from Cardiff Metropolitan university. Chaminda’s presentation aimed to ask a number of important questions that relate to industrial certifications: “Can students obtain the industry certifications upon graduation? Or obtain them from elsewhere while they study for the degree? Do we need to force students through a series of certifications? Is it really necessary? Do they provide the required knowledge? Do employers expect you to graduate with industry certifications?”

Chaminda’s abstract states that “computer security degrees aim to provide the required theoretical underpinning, fundamentals and provide the required knowledge and skills to prepare the students for future employment. To this end QAA and subject specific organizations such as NCSC, BCS, CIISec and CyBok provide guidelines and best practices to achieve the essential and desirable graduate qualities”

He goes onto state that he “believe[s] that educators need to find a right balance between the theoretical concepts and industry focus[ed] content” Chaminda “would like to find the answer … [to]  how much employers really value these industry certification at entry level” and holds the view that “a wider discussion should take place on this to identify the impact and issues associated with integrating certifications in cyber security degree programme[s]”

There are some clear tensions that are worthy of explanation. In his abstract, Chaminda asks whether students “need to chase endless industry certifications by different vendors?” and poses an important issue, namely that “students may be sacrificing the main ethos of higher education by following a series of vendor specific training.” He concludes with a question: “perhaps, there is no escape from industry certification due to the nature of the discipline?”

Presentation 2: An Investigation and Evaluation of Cyber Security Graduate Job Roles for Improving Students’ Employability Skills

The second presentation, by Simrandeep Kalsi, Mastaneh Davis and Nabeel Khan from Kingston, complemented Chaminda’s presentation really well. Simrandeep’s abstract emphasised the following points: “The cyber security skills in the UK labour market study conducted by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (Gov.uk, 2021), has indicated there is an increased demand for cyber security professionals in all sectors of the industry, however, significant numbers of these job roles remain unfilled.” Further information can be found by visiting the Cyber security skills in the UK labour market 2021 publication (Gov.uk).

To further understand the situation, “an investigation was conducted into whether the experience of searching for cyber security job roles can be improved; and if the clarity, accuracy, and relevance of job search outcomes can be enhanced in a manner that proactively informs an aspiring cyber security practitioner’s career decision. Quantitative analysis was conducted on cyber related job descriptions … in order to identify the attributes that students and graduates need to develop in order to match employer needs and improve their employment prospects.”

 “Results obtained from the analysis conducted on the job descriptions show that 49.8% of the job roles from the 472 analysed were for university graduates, and 6.6% also stated that they would accept candidates who have completed graduate apprenticeships. … A very surprisingly finding was that 89.4% of the job descriptions did not specify the need for experience.”

“The result of this study highlighted important key employability skills including having a positive attitude to continuous development and lifelong learning, listening skills, and the desirability of being a proactive individual, the latter potentially being a standout point amongst many recruiters. … These results are illustrated through 6 infographics, which could be of considerable value for higher education institutions for monitoring and addressing the cyber employability skills gap, and to enhance the experience of students when searching for cyber security job roles.”

Presentation 3: Cybersecurity apprentices – practice makes perfect? 

In some senses, degree apprentices have the potential to bridge the gap between academic study and the development of practical skills. The third presentation of the morning, by Kay Bromley, David Parry and Steve Walker present their “initial experience with the OU’s Scottish Graduate Apprenticeship in Cyber Security, and in particular the experiences of practice tutors.”

They introduce their presentation as follows: “as well as meeting the requirements for an Open University degree, apprentices also need to demonstrate the ‘core skills’ for cyber security specified in the Skills Development Scotland/Scottish Funding Council’s framework. Practice tutors provide a link between the University and its taught curriculum, the apprentice and the employer. They meet regularly with apprentices and employers. For the Scottish apprenticeships. Students do one of four Professional Practice modules, one each year, on which the practice tutor is also a module tutor.”

The professional practice modules, which are supported by a practice tutor aim to: “help students to integrate taught material into their workplace activities; develop independent learning skills, and study specialist content not covered elsewhere in the taught curriculum.”

They also offer some reflection on the practice tutor experience on the professional practice modules. It is important to note that “the pandemic has been a major issue for employers and apprentices, generating unanticipated workload for some, slowing communications within employer organisations, or apprentices being furloughed; At introductory levels apprentices and employers have tended not to take advantage of the flexibility available to them. There is a substantial overhead in learning about the structure of the apprenticeship and how to link this to the workplace; Cyber security is a sensitive subject for employers.”

More information about the Scottish Graduate Apprenticeship in Cyber Security can be found by visiting the Apprenticeships.Scot website.

Presentation 4: Opportunities and challenges of a CyberEPQ - Making basic skills in cyber security education accessible to both adolescents and adults

The final presentation of this section was by Konstantinos Mersinas and Caroline Moeckel, who consider skills from a broader perspective, whilst also returning to the themes of education and qualifications that were addressed in the first presentation. They “have created the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) in Cyber Security to target age groups which have received relatively less focus in cyber security education. These groups are adolescents (14 to 18 year olds) and adults, often working in the industry, but not necessarily in cyber security.”

They offer a useful summary: “The EPQ is built in line with the National Occupational Standards (NOS) and its educational materials are aligned with the Chartered Institute of Information Security (CIISec). We have designed an educational curriculum to align it with the NCSC Cyber Security Body of Knowledge (CyBOK). … Our achievements include, on the one hand, the provision of a basic set of cyber security skills and knowledge to school students to allow them to proceed with studies in higher education. In that sense, the programme acts as a bridge between GCSE Studies and a university degree. On the other hand, we provide CPD to adults and professionals in the industry who can enrich their skills and employability, and advance their careers further.”

As a qualification, the EPQ appears to be interesting. They go onto write: “We believe that our initiative is accessible to almost everyone as it does not require previous knowledge of cyber security, is financially affordable and has always been delivered fully online, supported by regular web conference calls and meetings. We firmly believe that the programme has been successful in introducing cyber security to the younger generations and providing important cyber security knowledge to adults and professionals over the last 5 years, with learners moving into related university courses or securing (entry level) employment in the area”

Employment and Skills Discussion

A short discussion session was co-chaired by Natalie Coull and Charles Clarke. They began by asking Chaminda the question: “what are the best practices?” The answer I noted was in terms of the need for discussions between certification authorities and employers. Also, academics should be involved, since there is the need to gain clarity about what to focus on. 

Natalie asked all presenters whether industrial qualifications or certifications were able to successfully evidence hands on skills. A related question was: to what extent should universities be providing hands on skills, and what is the role of certification bodies in this? Put another way: will employers just take our word for it if a student has the necessary skills if they hold a particular qualification?

Charles asked another question, which was: do certifications add experience? Chitra added that it is necessary to consider the purpose of qualifications, how much are vendor driven and how much knowledge and experience driven. A point was also made that the skills landscape that is always evolving and changing.

Another point I noted was Charles’ reflection that it is important to include employers. There is also the importance and significance of industrial placements, but these are limited in numbers. A reflection was that Simrandeep’s research into the job market, should it be done continually.

The discussion moved onto the topic of pedagogy. Konstantinos suggested the role of a weekly meeting with students to discuss a current topic, which may include activities to review journals and then to reflect on what has been learnt. 

A final question I noted down, that again relates to the topic of education and training, or certificate and qualification: to what extent do certificates play a role in getting through or past a HR gateway? They might well be used in this way, but it is important to consider, more broadly, the effectiveness of cyber security recruitment within organisations.

Theme 2: Curriculum

The second presentation session was split into two strands, a Higher Education Breakout, which is summarised below, and a CyberFirst Breakout (NCSE website). CyberFirst is described as “a programme of opportunities to help young people aged 11 - 17 years explore their passion for tech by introducing them to the fast paced world of cyber security”, which is supported by the NCSE and CISSE events. 

Presentation 5: OWASP Open Application Security Curriculum Project

The first presentation of this second theme was by Adrian Winckles, from Anglia Ruskin university. Adrian’s presentation began by introducing OWASP’s main purpose, which was to “be the thriving global community that drives visibility and evolution in the safety and security of the world’s software.” Some further context is provided: “a common problem with many security education programmes (whether cyber or InfoSec) or even traditional computer science programmes is that they do not address application security adequately, if at all.” More information about OWASP, the Open Web Application Security Project is available through the OWASP.org website.

Adrian highlights that there is an opportunity “to pull together its wide-ranging expertise, projects, and dedicated volunteers to engage in these types of education programmes and initiatives by developing an educational strategy for undergraduate and postgraduate students. This could take the form of an open “Standard” curriculum template which can be adopted and adapted by diverse educational partners and organisations.”

Presentation 6: Enhancing the Cyber Security Curriculum Through Experiential Learning

Andy Reed and Christine Gardner from the School of Computing and Communications present a different perspective, focussing on an important aspect of teaching. This presentation connects the earlier discussion about whether graduates (or certificate holders) have the appropriate skills. Andy and Christine highlight that the “landscape of cyber security develops at a considerable pace, so too does need to provide adaptive teaching and learning experiences, to assist learners in developing transferable practical skills”. The development of student skills relates to the use of “various virtual learning tools and techniques”

Different tools are mentioned, such as Netlab+ from NDG and the Cisco Packet Tracer tool which is used with various OU Cisco modules. For teaching and doctorial research. Other tools were mentioned, such as NS2 and NetSim, which can be used to simulate large scale networks. Research students can share outputs from these tools their research community, 

Presentation 7: Cyber Education during Pandemic: Approaches and Lessons Learned

Thomas Win and Phil Legg, both from the University of West of England, shared some recent experiences of teaching cyber security: “the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated a radical paradigm shift in cyber education and the delivery of modules therein, both in delivering lectures and practical sessions. We experimented with different means of delivery during the 2020/21 academic year and aim to share our perspectives and lessons learned as we navigated around the challenges posed to our module delivery.”

During their presentation, they mention “MS Teams to facilitate interactivity and gauge student understanding” and have used “real-world case studies in delivering subjects such as Ethical Hacking. In a session on memory-based exploits students were asked to research on the recently-discovered Google Chrome vulnerabilities. Coupled with breakout rooms on MS Teams, they were able to engage in peer-learning alongside research-informed learning.”

They shared some aspects of their pedagogy: “we also used physical hardware such as Micro:Bit devices in programming practicals. We further extended this in a trial running of online capture-the-flag exercises linked to physical IoT devices the behaviour of which can be observed over an online video call, and also offered some reflections: “we have found … the opportunity to explore and adopt a new teaching paradigm in cyber education pedagogy.”

A concluding reflection is that: “online interactions have changed how we - both staff and students - will interact in the future. What is important to recognise, is that in many cases, establishing offline connections first means that we can have more meaningful interactions when moving to online - the same is true for how student groups interact. As we move into 2021/22, we will want to ensure we keep sight of these lessons from the previous year to continue to improve cyber security education.

During Thomas’s presentation, I also noted down the points that contact time with students was more valuable, and contact time is important to understand where students are in terms of understanding the lecture materials. A tentative conclusion is that: blended learning is here to stay.

Curriculum Discussion

This second discussion session, which was centred around curriculum, was also chaired by Natalie Coull and Charles Clarke. Natalie opened up with a question to Andy and Christine: is it time consuming to set up the experiential learning activities? 

In the OU there is a support team that manages the physical NetLabs hardware and infrastructure. In the OU context, a module team is often able to reuse an experiential design year on year. It is possible to see what students have done by asking students to share their configuration files and by reviewing live logs. A related point is that teaching also tries to draw on the student’s context.

Natalie asked Thomas about building relationships with students. A reflection was that some students may lose confidence when speaking in the classroom. It is also important to consider how to encourage students to return the classroom. Different approaches might be to create non-traditional activities such as assignment workshops, or use approaches such as gamification.

Thomas was asked a particularly challenging question: how to you engage students who don’t engage with pre-recoded videos. The answer I noted down was in terms of building or presenting incentives, such as providing an overview, or a summary, or give them a “cliff hanger”, and link recordings to assessments. 

Being a cyber security tutor

The penultimate session of the day, which was about the advantages and benefits of becoming a cyber security tutor in higher education (specifically within the OU) was presented by Arosha Bandara and Ian Kennedy.

Arosha began by outlining the role of a tutor. Through distance learning, students have opportunities to study materials in their own time (but must complete important assessments by certain dates). Tutors act as a guide and facilitator, helping students to make sense of the module materials that have been prepared by module teams. In some ways, tutors adopt what some consider to be a ‘flipped classroom’ approach, where students work through materials in advance of a tutorial, which are all currently delivered online. 

Tutors also provide correspondence tuition to students, which is an important aspect of distance teaching. Students are given tailored feedback and guidance, to help them to understand how to further understand module concepts, understanding and skills.

More information about the role of a tutor (including a cyber security tutor) can be found by visiting this free Badged Open Course (BOC): Being and OU Tutor in STEM: Computing and Communications (OpenLearn). There are also a series of videos, entitled Teaching on TM352: Web, Mobile and Cloud Computing (YouTube) which might be of interest to prospective OU computing tutors.

Arosha and Ian answered the important question of: who might become a tutor? Tutors have varying background. They might be academics from other institutions (HE or FE), post-doctoral researchers, or they might be practioners working in industry. The industrial experience of tutors is both welcome an important as whilst academics may have theoretical knowledge, they may lack practical experience at the “cyber security coal face”. Another perspective is that it is hard to get practical experience whilst working an academic context.

The advantages work both ways. From an industrial perspective, a practioner background is very useful to an academic community. Conversely, an academic role does give some practioner-tutors the opportunity to “dig deep” into certain topics and develop a higher level academic perspective to augment what is a very important and pragmatic approach to problem solving.

If you are interested in potentially becoming a tutor within the OU, do visit the OU tutor recruitment site and select the "Faculty of Maths, Computing & Technology". You should then be able to find a list of modules that are currently being advertised. More information about how to apply can be found through the How to Apply page. A big tip for anyone who is considering applying is: always ensure that you provide sufficient evidence to show that you meet the person spec criteria. For OU modules, there are two parts: a generic bit (which is about teaching), and a module specific bit. A suggestion is to copy all the points from each part of the person spec onto your application form, and provide at least 3 sentences of supporting evidence underneath, so everything is as clear as possible for whoever makes the recruitment decisions.

Panel discussion: how do we enhance and support diversity in cyber security? 

The workshop concluded with a panel discussion that was chaired by Ian Kennedy, a cyber security lecturer from the OU. Member of the discussion panel included delegates from Deloitte, Accenture Security, and the UK Cyber Security Council.

Although I wasn’t able to attend this final session, I heard that there were discussions about how and where to embed cyber education in the school sector. After the event, I was also sent a couple of links that were highlighted within the final session. The first link has the title “Why the Seven Personae of Cyber?” (CyberEQA.org) which explores diversity of roles that can exist within the broad subject of cyber security. Relating to the importance theme of gender within cyber security, there was also a reference to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (Seejane.org)

Reflections

One of the themes that really struck me was the richness of cyber security as a subject, which reflects an important link to the theme of diversity, which was emphasised by the workshop. On one hand, there are the really hard core technical bits. On the other there are other subjects that have a softer, and essential human edge to them. There are different tools that need to be understood and appreciated: there are technical tools, and there are institutional practices and policies. All these aspects are, of course, mediated through people, organisations and structures. All this suggests that cyber security professional need different skill sets, and may gravitate towards the subject from different directions.

Another theme that struck me as being significant was the importance of cyber security within schools the schools’ sector. I noted down that there was a clear difference between the importance of safety awareness and detailed cyber security education. There are clear debates that surround the extent to which it should be embedded within teaching.

I enjoyed the diversity of the presentations, and I do encourage anyone who is interested in this subject, and this event, to view the short presentation that can be accessed through this blog. I especially liked Simrandeep’s qualitative study. Cyber security is a fast moving subject, and her study represents a practical and useful snapshot of the needs of the sector at a particular point in time.  It would be interesting to carry out a replication in a few years to see what had changed.

Another highlight was the summary of CISSE. UK A reflection is that collaboration and support between institutions whilst working in a fast changing sector is both important and helpful. After hearing Charles’ description of what it is, and how it works, I’m now very tempted to sign up. 

Finally, it was great to see how many colleagues were interested in this event. 87 delegates attended the event, but there were over 200 registrations. Looking forwards, it would be great to run a similar event again. We have a lot to learn from each other.

Acknowledgements

Many of the words and themes presented within the blog come from a range of different sources: from the speakers, from their presentations and from their abstracts. Acknowledgements are extended to colleagues who read early versions of this blog.

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Degree apprenticeship practice tutor development event May 21

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In addition to being a staff tutor and module tutor, I’m also a practice tutor (PT) . A practice tutor is someone who supports the delivery of the university’s DTS (digital and technology solutions professional) degree apprenticeship programme. There is an important difference between the PT and an OU academic tutor. In the DTS scheme, PT is one of the key individuals in the student’s journey. The role of the PT is to provide a consistent link between the apprentice’s world of work and academic study.

On 15 May 21 I attended what was called a practice tutor development day. The aim of this event was to provide further training and development for practice tutors, and to enable practice tutors to share experiences with each other and the apprenticeship delivery team.

This blog presents a sketch of what was covered during the day. I’m sharing these notes just in case it might be useful for fellow delegates (and fellow practice tutors), or anyone else who might be interested in how the OU is supporting its degree apprenticeship programme. It also represents a summary of one of the useful CPD events that have taken place over the year.

Preparing for Ofsted

This first section was facilitated by Andy Hollyhead, Chris Thomson and Craig Jackson, but much of the material for this session was delivered by Craig, who began with a question: what would the result of a negative inspection be?

Craig presented a broad summary of the Ofstead assessment process, saying something about what happens when an assessment takes place. I noted that four areas will be judged: the quality of education, behaviour and attitudes, personal development, and leadership and management. Craig mentioned that “some inspectors will look at specific areas, such as leadership and management”.

Different types of documents may be scrutinised to gain a sense of what is happening and how learners are progressing. Inspectors may scrutinise how improvements are measured and made and may speak to different members of staff, including apprentices, practice tutors, line managers, central academics, managers and leaders from the ‘training provider’. A decision about a rating will be made via trangulation; looking at different bits of evidence to come to a final decision.

Before moving onto the next session, I noted down a few relevant points that were made by Chris: the role of a PT is to map academic wok to job activities. I also noted that work based learning modules are focussed on work based skills that are not technical in nature, such as project management and personal management.

Tripartite meetings: good practice

This next session, which was about facilitating meetings with apprentices and employers, was facilitated by Alison Leese. Alison began with an important question: why are the review meetings important? They can be used to manage expectations, establish and review individual learning plans, set and plan to achieve success, to share perspectives, they can be used to identify challenges, and to provide feedback.

For the first meeting, it is important to scheduled and prepare for it, and it should be an opportunity to finalise an individualised learning plan and prepare for the first review.

In normal circumstances, there should be one face to face meeting per year. The first meeting is likely to take place face to face. During this fort meeting, there should be the sharing of roles and responsibilities; a discussion about what everyone does, and the introduction of the concept of the module (academic) tutor, and highlighting other roles that exist within the background, such as a staff tutor (a practice tutor line manager), and the Apprentice Programme Delivery Manager, who liaises with the employer or line manager. I noted down the point that the line manager must provide sufficient diversity within a job role to ensure that sufficient experience is gained to enable the learning outcomes of the DTS scheme to be met.

For each progress review, it is important to effectively schedule and prepare. Progress should be documented (currently through the university ePortfolio system) and objectives reviewed. An apprentice’s individual learning plan should be updated should there have been any changes in the apprentice’s situation, such as working location or accessibility needs. After every quarterly review, everything should be finalised within a 10 working day period.

Some points I noted down during the session were: use an initial meeting agenda/checklist, and for each progress review have a review checklist or agenda which may contain points such as: update ILP, objectives and gateway requirements (such as English and Maths skills). I also noted down that there was some cross-faculty induction material that was available on the apprentice hub, such as a summary of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle.

Practice tutors should refer or apprentices if an apprentice is not making sufficient progress, needs additional support, requests change of study programme, or isn’t being provided with the very important 20% off the job time (Gov.uk website), there is a change in job roles, or the line manager is not engaging sufficiently.

Safeguarding at the OU

Safeguarding is the process of protecting children and vulnerable adults from neglect. This is an important subject since the university has over two thousand registered students who are under the age of 18. The OU safeguarding team works with the OU student’s association, the student support teams, and the student resource and support centres (SRSC).

At the start of the section we were asked: how might PTs have contract with safeguarding in their roles? There might be phone calls or emails, or disclosures that take place in other ways, such as through assessments or one to one support sessions.

The university has a responsibility to support its students, and their children, or any vulnerable adults who a student might be looking after. The terminology used to refer to a vulnerable adult is different in different parts of the UK. In Wales the term is: an “adult at risk”. In Scotland, the term is “protected adult”.

An important point was made during this session, which was: “working with apprentices means that they [the student or the apprentice] are supported not just by the OU but also by their employer”.

To refer a student, an email could be sent directly to the safeguarding team, or a webform could be submitted.

Apprentice onboarding, on programme support and offboarding

This session was jointly facilitated by Nathalie Collins, Jackie Basquille and Charlotte Knock. Jackie began by speaking about the functional skills team. Degree apprentice students must gain the equivalent of A* to C, or scores 4 to 9 in Maths and English by the end of their studies. During the onboarding process (or, induction, as I call it), students will carry out a skills audit, will be interviewed, and there will be a review of their job role.

The onboarding (induction) process was summarised as follows: an information advice and guidance seminar, sharing of evidence of a link between job role and a chosen apprenticeship scheme, a core and specialism skills audit (the core skills audit refer to essential knowledge, skills and behaviours), a one to one discussion with an apprenticeship programme delivery manager, and the checking of prior qualifications. All this leads to a signed commitment statement and apprenticeship agreement (which gets stored to the ePortfolio system). When this is done, there is then an induction webinar.

Sometimes apprentices may require breaks in learning; a subject covered by Charlotte. There is an important difference between a break in learning (BiL) and a deferral. A deferral is a postponement of an exam or an equivalent assessment. A break in learning is possible due to a recognised number of reasons, such as (1) an economic reason, (2) long term sickness, (3) maternity leave, (4) religious trips, and (5) Covid related reasons.

The process for a break in learning begins a discussion with a practice tutor, who then speak with an ADPM, who then contacts the organisation apprentice lead. Whether a break is possible or not may depend on exactly where the apprentice is in their studies. An apprentice lead within an employer organisation will need to “sign off”, or approve a break in studies.

Building practice

The final part of the day was all about sharing experiences. We were put into small breakout rooms (with approximately 6 colleagues, mostly fellow practice tutors) where we began to share experiences of facilitating review meetings. We also looked at a short case study, and then went on to discuss the challenges we uncovered in a plenary room.

Resources

During the event, I collected some links to useful resources that were shared through the text chat channel.

Apprentices who are enrolled within the Digital and technology solutions programme are able to access the Apprentices studying the DA DTS site. Practice tutors can also access this page to get an understanding of what students can see.

Practice tutors can access an interactive mapping template (OU apprenticeship pages), which shows the connection between modules, apprenticeship specialisms and the criteria of the qualification. This page also provides a link to a more detailed mapping tool (OU apprenticeship pages).

Reflections

In my very early days of being a practice tutor, I wasn’t entirely whether I was doing the right thing. I enjoyed my first meetings with the new apprentice students and their employers. To prepare, I arrived with meetings armed with a summary of the programme, and I talked everyone through the principles of OU study and what it meant, and then summarised the programme that an apprentice was about to start. Although I seemed to be doing the right thing, I wasn’t completely sure whether I was doing everything right.

I found this session really helpful, since I felt it consolidated some of my knowledge and understanding, emphasised the importance of certain deadlines and activities, and also gave me a steer towards some useful resources which I could use with apprentices during some of their meetings. During the next meetings, I’m definitely going to take the apprentices through the mapping tool, either during online or during face to face meetings.

There were a couple of tools that I heard about that I didn’t know too much about: there were the checklists for the meetings that I need to find, and there’s the practice tutor eTMA system, where we can get more of a view about how an apprentice is getting along. On this point, I need to be clear about boundaries and responsibilities: my role is to help apprentices connect their assessments and academic study to work activity.

One activity that I need to do is to get a more thorough and detailed understanding of the work-based learning modules. I guess that every practice tutor has slightly different levels of understanding of the different modules that their apprentice students’ study. Being an academic tutor on one of the modules on a shared pathway, I feel as if I’ve got a pretty good (if broad) handle on the academic modules. I do feel as if I need to find the time to really nail down my understanding of some of the later work based learning modules. Perhaps this will be the subject of my next apprenticeship blog.

Acknowledgements

This event was organised by the Computing and Communications English apprenticeship team, which comprises of Andy Hollyhead and Chris Thomson. Acknowledgements are also extended from the wider university apprenticeship team who are based in the Business Development Unit (BDU).

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M250 Object-oriented Java programming: update briefing

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 11 Jun 2021, 16:34

M250 Object-oriented Java programming (OU website) is changing. On 25 May I attended a short module briefing which summarised some of the changes to existing M250 tutors which will be introduced to the 21 J (October) presentation of the module.

One of the reasons for the need for a change is that earlier modules, namely TM111 and TM112 now have more programming content, and there is a need to ‘beef up’ M250 to help students when they move onto a sister module: M269. The new version of M250 will be more practical.

A good place to visit to find out about Computing and IT modules is through the Computing and IT subject siteWithin this site, there is a page that is all about M250 Object-oriented Java programming where students can access some sample exam questions, some M250 'prequel' materials, and complete a really helpful Self-assessment quiz.

It is expected that chapters 1 to 3 of the module materials (probably in ePub form) will be available as 'taster' materials for the module. There are also some links to library resources. M250 students can also access discounts from certain Oracle certification exams (but I don’t know to much about this). Students who are fully registered on the module will, of course, have access to an ePub version of all the materials.

Key changes

The key M250 learning outcomes remain unchanged. The new version of the module will be based around Objects First with Java by Barnes and Kölling (book website) which will be used with BlueJ version 4.1.3, which comes with JDK 8. Students will, of course, be sent a copy of this textbook. This set text will be supported by material known as chapter companions and extension materials for those students who want to study further. Unlike the previous version of the module, students will not be using bits of software, such as the object microworlds, or the OU workspace.

An important point I noted down regarding the set text is that students are not (immediately) expected to understand everything that they see. There will also be some more video materials to support students.

There will also be some style changes. The keyword ‘this’ is not going to be used as much, or emphasised, and the new version of the module will make use of some more standard terminology. There will be a couple of new things, such as try-with-resources (which I don’t yet know anything about), using the hashcode method, and doing a bit of computational modelling (which is covered in chapter 12).

Assessments

Just as before, the module will have 3 TMAs. TMA 1 will address the foundations of object-orientation, classes, objects, and introduce the ArrayList. TMA 2 will cover packages and import statements, collections and access modifiers. TMA 3 will cover the more advanced concepts of inheritance, polymorphism, interfaces, exceptions, and file input/output.

Students must gain an overall score of 40%, and must pass the examinable component with a score of at least 30%. There are no threshold requirements for the continually assessed part of the module (the TMA bit, which is known as OCAS).

The way that the marking will be done is going to be slightly different. There will be points for different categories, and tutors will be encouraged to highlight where mistakes have been made.

Reflections

Another thing I have heard is that the way that tutorials are being organised is also going to change. The number of clusters (groups of tutors) across the UK is being reduced, which means that there will be larger numbers of tutors working together to deliver tutorials. There is, I understand, a plan for groups of tutors (or individual tutors) to present a tutorial that focuses on certain chapters of the Objects First set text. I think this is a really good idea, and should increase the teaching and learning opportunities available for students.

One change that I am curious about is the way that the TMAs are assessed in the new version of the module. It strikes me that tutors will be given more freedom to assign marks for work done, whilst working within guidelines provided by the module team. The current M250 marking guidance is very prescriptive, but sometimes students do provide worthy (and interesting) answers that have not been thought of by the module team. In some ways, the new way of working will enable us to make more academic judgements about the work that has been submitted. Perhaps this change also represents an interesting opportunity for scholarship.

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What can we learn from distance learning? One day conference, April 2021

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On 1 April 2021 I attended an online half day conference, ‘What can we learn from distance learning?’ which had the subtitle ‘Supporting teaching in the post-COVID world’. The conference was organised by the University of Kent eLearning group and was introduced by Phil Anthony. An accompany hashtag for the event is: #DigiEduWebinars (Twitter).

What follows is a short blog summary of the event which may serve a number of purposes: it is to share a set of accompanying resources and links in one place, to more widely share the conference to anyone who might be interested, and to remember what I did during 2021.

This summary also contains links to the various presentations, but I do expect that these links will age over time, and are likely to be available for a relatively limited amount of time. To complement the links, I’ve also shared some rough notes that I made during the event (which are provided with accompanying relevant web links). 

Going beyond ‘blended learning’ – re-imagining digital learning for higher education

The first presentation was by Professor Chie Adachi, from Deakin University, Australia. It was interesting to hear that Deakin was founded as a distance education provider.

A range of different tools are available within LMS systems. These tools can be mapped to activity types, such as knowledge acquisition, inquiry, collaboration, discussion, production, and assessment. I also noted that video has become a means to connect students, and this leads to the reflection that the concept of blended learning exists on a spectrum.

Technology and pedagogy are intrinsically connected. There was a reference to the concept of ‘critical digital pedagogy’ which relates to the idea of care, and how to embed caring within online learning. There was also reference to something called the “CloudFirst learning design principles” was said to be building on something called a “Digital First” approach. There are five learning principles: learning is supported, activity focussed, social, feedback focussed and scaffolded.

Blended learning is a concept that can take account of time, place, work and life. In terms of time, interactions can be synchronous or asynchronous. In terms of work, the blend could be a combination of professional or ‘performed self’. In terms of place, learning could take place at home, on campus, or anywhere. A broader question is: how can we create caring communities online?

Finally, we were directed to a FutureLearn Mooc called: transforming digital learning: learning design meets service design (FutureLearn).

Lessons for assessment in a post-Covid world

Next up was a presentation by Sally Jordan from the Open University, who spoke about assessment. Sally began by presenting an overview of the OU; it was founded in 1969, has around 169k students, mostly studying part time, and 30k students have declared a disability. 8k students are studying outside of the UK.

Sally is interested in assessment analytics and demographic differences and assessment. She mentioned a related presentation: Computer marked assessments: friend or foe? There was a reference to assessment strategy in the sense that students have to get over a particular threshold, and that VLE or MLE systems (such as Moodle) can make use of different types of question, such as those that make use of pattern matching. 

The themes of Sally’s presentation were the importance of fairness, clarity, that assessments should be engaging, authentic, and sustainable. An interesting reference to follow up on was provided in the session text chat: Butcher, P. & Jordan, S. (2010). A comparison of human and computer marking of short free-text student responses. Computers & Education, 55(2), 489-499.

What can we learn from distance learning?

The third presentation was by Dr Mark O’Connor who was from the University of Kent. Mark works as a Distance learning technologist, who also works with FutureLearn (FutureLearn partner link).

In response to the title question: “What can we learn from distance learning?” the answer was: pretty much anything. Course design can enhance flexibility. A point I noted down was: if something is good practice for distance learning this helps with on campus learning too.

A couple of links to note is the e-learning at the University of Kent portal and The good Moodle guide (pdf).

Different types of courses were mentioned. There was something called an ExpertTrack, which leads to a digital certificate, and microcredentials, which leads to academic credit which could be used on an official academic programme. The OU is also delivering a number of microcredentials (OU website) in combination with FutureLearn.

Microcredentials is an interesting subject. There are advantages and disadvantages, and questions about equity and access which need exploration and debate. There’s a question of how they may practically fit in and complement existing institutional programmes, and their wider role within the higher education sector.

Teachers collaborating to improve blended learning

This session, about collaboration and blended learning, was delivered by Professor Diana Laurillard, from UCL. The aim of the presentation was about helping teachers and offering them support. The presentation centred around a tool: A visually structured approach to learning design (UCL).

The aim of the tool was to help teachers to collaborate with each other to create and share pedagogic designs. Through the tool, teachers can browse existing learning designs, edit, adapt and ultimately share them. A detailed representation of a learning design can be produced as a document, and a design could be analysed in terms of what was planned. A short summary was offered: tutors do enjoy working with the learning designer, they see the point of sharing and peer review, and arguably there is the potential for improvement if ideas area shared.

Following a theme from earlier presentations, reference was also made to a FutureLearn MOOC. The one that was mentioned by Diana was called Blended and online learning design (FutureLearn)

I always find presentations about tools really interesting, partly because I used to have a full time job as an educational technology developer. Looking to recent educational technology history, there have been instances of initiatives that have aimed to create repositories of resources. Perhaps this new tool reflects an increased understanding that is isn’t the detailed content that is the bigger problem, but instead the pedagogy and the learning design. Outside any tool usage is, of course, the establishment of a culture that relates to its use within a learning community.

How are students experiencing learning online?

This important question was introduced by Sarah Knight, who joins us from JISC. The full title of Sarah’s talk was: How are students experiencing learning online? What the data from our digital experience insights 2020-1 student surveys is telling us.

Sarah’s talk referenced a recent Office for Students report that was entitled Gravity assist: propelling higher education to a brighter future. I noted that this report emphasises co-designing digital teaching and learning at every point in the design process, and the student voice should inform strategic planning.

The question is: what was the students’ experience? Data from 30k students was collected from October to December 2020. Most students were studying within home environment. Many students had difficulty of connectivity, mobile data cost, and a space to study. 36% of HE students agreed they had a choice of being involved in learning design.

There are questions about technology, use of technology, digital skills. Some further questions are: what can we do now: get basics right (connectivity), make sessions interactive, record lessons, train and support lecturers, consider the pace of deliver, create opportunities to ask questions, provide timely individual group support and feedback on assessment activities. Some of these points connect back to the topic of pedagogy which was highlighted in the previous presentation.

Another important question to ask is: how do you facilitate student engagement through academic staff? One answer might be to look at mechanisms to replicate a feeling of connectedness, and perhaps this links back to the notion of blended learning, and the different ways in which it can be considered.

On the subject of Jisc, I learnt about the following recent Jisc report at another event I attended: Digital at the core: a 2030 strategy framework for university leaders which has the subtitle ‘a long-term digital strategy framework designed as part of the learning and teaching reimagined initiative’. An obvious reflection is: there’s always things to catch up on, and always new things to read. 

Cutting the Rubber Band of Practice: Developing Post-COVID Pedagogies

Dr Chris Headleand, from the University of Lincoln, shared a metaphor: if you pull a rubber band back too far, it might break, or not go back to the same form. This begs a question that relates to the current experience in higher education: when everything returns back to normal, will everything snap back to normal, or will there be a lasting change? An important point is that academics and organisations didn’t really have a choice when it came to a rapid transition to online learning, and that change was pretty universal.

There are some important questions: have some things been stretched too far? Also, what changes might continue? Will there be on going changes in the use of physical space, transitions to new practice, and changes to infrastructure?

A tip I noticed down was: “engage student proactively, share practice often and with a wide audience”. A blog that might be of interest has the title: Preparing for the New Normal: Change Planning for the Future of Higher Education. Another reference was: A Framework for Innovation Management and Practice Development.

Help! I have not left yet. Engaging staff in transition journeys to online delivery – reflections from an emergent motorway analogy

Another metaphor was presented by Andrew Clegg, from the University of Portsmouth. Andrew drew on motorway analogy. On the outside lanes there were those driving quickly, who had high levels of competence, high levels of pedagogic and digital literacy. In the middle lane, there were staff working consistency, sometimes trying things out. There was also the inside lane: those who were slow to start, but were getting there and gaining confidence. An important point was that it is necessary to have a journey plan, and have opportunities for communication and sharing practice.

Other points I noted down were that blending learning is, of course, a spectrum. There is also a link between engagement and innovation.

Dealing with dissonance: digital education in crisis and beyond as a challenge to mindset

Associate Professor Martin Compton from UCL was interested in what works, and draws on a context of institutional cultures and leadership. A reflection was that departmental cultures can frame and shape what is done. The rapid shift to online learning represents a challenge of identity to those who may have teaching as a performance, and appreciation of the familiar: lectures and examinations.

Martin draws on the familiar and important ideas of cognitive dissonance and fixed and growth mindsets. When faced with new challenges the concept of cognitive dissonance is connected to anxiety, since there can be dissonance between what we know and what we do.

Keeping it good and simple

The final presentation of the day was by David Baume (personal website), from the University of London. I noted that graduates should be competent, communicative, collaborative, creative, critical, comfortable with complexity, conscientious, confident and computer literate. David referred to a paper called: what the research says about learning co-authored with Eileen Scanlon from The Open University.

The notes I made represents a nice summary of some really important themes about teaching and learning. Learning ‘well’ requires a clear structure and framework, the expectation of high standards expected, and the ability for learners to acknowledge their prior learning. Also, learning is an active process where learners spend time on task. Learning is also (ideally) a collaborative activity, and learners use and receive feedback on their work.

I also noted down some key elements that related to simplicity: activity should be aligned to attractive learning outcomes (I know this as the notion of constructive alignment), there should be pointers to good resources, opportunities to gain peer support, and the provision of helpful feedback. A paraphrased concept that I noted down was: “give them interesting stuff to do, and ask them what it means for them”. That “stuff”, of course, should aim to develop key skills, knowledge and behaviours. 

Reflections

What I liked about this online event was there was emphasis on sharing of practice between institutions, but there was also space to ask those important searching questions about the characteristics of higher education teaching and learning. I also appreciated the metaphors that were presented in a couple of the papers since they facilitate reflection and sharing. 

There are clear and direct implications of moving teaching online. One of those is about mental health, both of students and of teachers. 

It’s also always important to remind oneself that it’s never only about the technology, but always about how the technology is used, and in what context. A further question is also: who is the technology used with? This applies both on the student side as well as the educator side. All this links back to an option that I have always maintained: it is always people that matters most, never the technology.

I would like to acknowledge Phil Anthony, the University of Kent, and all the speakers. It was a really thought provoking event. It will be interesting to see the extent to which the rapid shift to online teaching and learning has ongoing and lasting consequences for the sector.

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A111 Journal - May 2021

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 20 May 2021, 17:50

1 May 21

It was a quiet day, so I settled down to read the final two chapters of the final book: the chapter about Buddhism and the chapter about philosophy. I got part way through the Buddhism one, and then needed a sleep! I don’t think this any reflection on the quality of the writing or the topic, but rather that I was tired from a very busy week.

I also noticed an interesting article in the Saturday newspaper: Germany first to hand back Benin bronzes looted by British. Although I expected I would focus on the theatre and music question, I feel drawn to the history and art question. I think I’ve made my mind up about what I’m going to do for TMA 6.

2 May 21

I finished my first read of the final two chapters of the Crossing Boundaries book. I’m a little unsure about what “the noble eightfold path” in Buddhism means in a practical sense, but the chapter was more about informing students about different traditions and leading students onto a chapter on philosophy. I enjoyed the section which described Hume, and the descriptions about rationalism and empiricism.

It’s got to a point where I need to be strategic. 

My next steps are to work through the online materials that relate to the history of Benin, and art history, and make a bunch of notes. I then need to make a TMA plan and start writing since I need to submit my TMA 6 early. Although I understand that I may have technically passed the module due to my averages, going through the TMA writing process may well help me learn a few more things (and develop a few more skills). I’ve decided to set myself a target: to get everything done in two weeks, which is a week before the cut-off date.

13 May 21

I’ve read though the online materials, with the exception of listening to the audio materials.

Today I’m going back over some of the printed materials whilst on a short holiday in Dorset. As well as reading a couple of chapters, I’ve managed to get a couple of walks in. Although I didn’t read very much, it was helpful remember what bits I can find where when I begin to pull everything together.

16 May 21

After a day and a bit of marking TMAs, it’s back to study again.

I have five objectives today: to listen to the audio material, to listen to a video that was shared on the A111 Facebook group, to finish my re-reading, re-read the TMA question a couple of time, and then to start the essay. I’ll also have a look around to see if there are any recordings of tutorials that might be useful too. 

Just before I settled down to write my TMA, I decided to have a quick look at the module website just to make sure I had ticked everything off, and there wasn’t anything further I needed to look at. I realised I had missed a unit! I worked through the materials, made a bunch of notes, revisited my previous TMA feedback, and looked at some notes about preparing the final TMA. Finally, I had a good look at the EMA question again, making a couple of notes about what I need to include.

I had planned on writing the whole TMA in a day, but instead, I was scuppered by finding more materials to study. It was time well spent. Now that I worked through the additional audio and video material, I feel as if I’m just about ready to go with the writing.

18 May 21

The writing begins. 

Writing directly into the word processor, I laid out a set of headings that related to the broad structure of the essay, ticking off some points I had written on a physical piece of paper as I go. 

When the broad structure was settled, I crafted the opening paragraph, the introduction. I then started to flesh out different sections, and asked myself the question: “why didn’t I bookmark the chapters with post-it notes?”

I turned my attention to an important aspect of the essay: describing one of the artworks that were mentioned in the module materials. After a couple of hours of editing, writing and re-writing, I started to get tired, so I decided to call it a day.

19 May 21

The writing continues. 

I reminded myself of the headings I had set out, and then tackled the historical text bit of the essay, reviewing one of the primary sources from the module materials. I then moved onto referring some of the materials that were features on the module website. After a bit of restructuring, I wrote the conclusion. I hope I wasn’t going too far, but I also shared a personal opinion. My thinking was that an opinion would help to personalise the essay, and also express some of the ideas I had been learning.

After a few more hours, I felt that my TMA 6 was pretty much there and ready to go.

20 May 21

A bit of proof reading, and a small number of corrections. I’m about 100 words short of the word count, but I’m happy with what I’ve written, so it’s going in.

It’s done. A111 finished.

What’s next?

I need to buy the set texts for A112. That’s going to be my summer reading.

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A111 Journal - April 2021

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 2 May 2021, 12:41

2 April 21

I’ve got my TMA 4 results back and I felt that the marking was fair, and the feedback was really detailed and thorough.

I discovered that whilst I tried to answer the essay question, I did go a bit ‘off piste’. In other words, I was trying to be too clever, and moved away from some of the key themes and topics that were presented within the module materials. That’s okay, though. Other than the first TMA, I’ve never really written an arts essay before, so I should be pleased with my score.

I’ve finished reading the chapter about the play called The Island, which I enjoyed. I learnt a lot about the history of South Africa, and the way that a play can transcend different boundaries. I’ve read half of the next chapter: Music and Protest in South Africa. What I need to do now is to go back over the online materials; there is half of the Antigone materials to work through, and all of The Island materials to work through. I feel as if I’m just about keeping up, but by the skin of my teeth.

I’ve reminded myself of the next TMA cut-off date, which is coming up in around three weeks. Next week I have a plan to prepare my TMA document, and then have a very good look at the questions. 

In other news, I’ve also registered for the follow on module, A112.

5 April 21

My registration for A112 has been confirmed. It’s going ahead! Now, all I’ve got to do is to complete TMA 6.

To prepare for this final TMA, I did a bit of reading yesterday. I read over the chapter that was about South Africa, protest and music quite quickly. I do plan to spend a bit more time working through the online material in a lot of depth, since I think this might be my focus on TMA 6. I got a bit further than I had expected, and got to the chapter about the art of Benin. There’s such a lot in this new chapter that I don’t know about. I guess I’m balancing studying in a strategic way with studying with the intention of making sure I learn about new things that I don’t know about, and might help me understand new perspectives.

Aware that I need to get a move on, I’ve started to prep for TMA 5.

I’ve created a new document and have added the reflective question that I need to answer. I have also copy/pasted in the assessment criteria, and a summary of all the question points that I must address.

My next step: to review the very useful feedback that has been given by my tutor, and to review all these blog posts.

16 April 21

Between this post and the last post, I have been doing a bit of reading, but not as much as I should have been. 

Today I re-read a chapter about the looting of Benin, a chapter about the way the Benin bronzes were perceived and presented, and then got to a chapter about the relationship between the bronzes and modern art. I found this last chapter really interesting, although quite difficult to read; some of the text was quite dense.  

During this last chapter, I learnt about the connections between modernist art and modern art, and the way that the notion of ‘primitive’ art had been challenged by the technical precision of the Benin bronzes. Whilst I was studying, I took a couple of pictures (using my mobile phone) of what I thought were key paragraphs about the way in which the bronzes were understood and viewed.

17 April 21

Two days to go before the TMA 5 cut-off date. I’ve started it, putting all the main ingredients together. I now need to go back to my document, edit it all together (drawing on the activities that I have completed), and get a submission together. 

A few days ago I reviewed the module assessment strategy after reading some questions from a fellow student, who asked: “do I have to submit TMA 6?” I know that TMA 5 accounts for 10% of the overall score, and TMA 6 accounts for 20%. Although it looks like I can get away with not submitting the final TMA and still pass the module, I’m going to submit it anyway.

At this stage, I’m torn between doing the literature and music question, and the history and art question for TMA 6. I think I’m going to do some re-reading before I decide.

Meanwhile, on to TMA 5.

27 April 21

I found a bit of time to attend the only tutorial I’ve managed to go to for TMA 6. The tutorial focussed on the Benin bronzes. When I started, there were about 12 students online. By the time it finished, there were about 4 or 5. The tutor did a great job talking us through the different materials, and there were three practical activities which connected to something that we had to do in the TMA.

30 April 21

I’ve got my TMA 5 result, which I’m really pleased about. 

I’ve read through the feedback, but I need to read through it again. A reflection is: I need to review the guidance about writing an assignment, which was given to me with my TMA 4 feedback, since that looks to be really helpful.

I’ve been really busy at work recently, which means that I’ve not done as much as I had hope to do. I need to do a bit of catching up.

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Adventures of a staff tutor

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Over the Christmas break I managed to acquire a new affliction: ‘Netflix back’. It’s a short-term physiological condition that is caused by lolling about on the sofa watching too much telly.

I really needed a break from everything over Christmas, and thankfully I was able to get a bit of downtime, which involved watching loads of Scandinavian crime dramas.

In my last column I wrote about feeling on the edge of burnout. The feeling of “just about getting everything done” returned within a couple of weeks.

It has now been over a year since I have last physically seen my staff tutor colleagues. The last time was at an event about the new AL contract which took place in Leeds. In normal times, we would be regularly meeting in the Computing and Communications staff tutor room at Walton Hall. In that room (a real one) we would regularly chat about what is going on, find out about what has been said in various meetings, and collectively solve all kinds of little problems and glitches.

Those friendly but essential informal meetings over a cup of coffee that we used to have (or ‘hub chats’ as some of us call them) have become a whole lot more formal. A chance encounter and a quick catch up has morphed into a complex multistage process, which begins with an email, moves on to a diary check, moves on to another email, and then finally on to a virtual meeting. This partly reflects the significant increase in emails I have been receiving over the last year.

We’ve discovered some new phrases.

The most obvious one is: “you’re on mute”, followed by the slightly more esoteric “is that a legacy hand?”, which refers to a spurious virtual hand that had been raised in either MS Teams or Adobe Connect meetings.

In the last few weeks, some staff tutor colleagues have been sent some very sensible queries by tutors that we ought to be able to answer, but are not equipped to answer, such as “what does my projected FTE contain?” and “what are my additional duties?”

All this confusion led to one thing: anxiety.

At the heart of this was a fundamental issue: I had no understanding of how I might be able to support tutors under the terms of the tutor contract, and everyone was telling me that the new tutor contract was to begin in October.

At the beginning of March, the new tutor contract project team appeared to have finally woken up to the fact that they need to understand what staff tutors and student experience managers actually do. To help to unpack this puzzle, they asked staff tutors from each of the faculties to sign up to an impressive number of workshops. From my perspective, it was almost impossible to participate since I’ve been busy preparing for an April presentation.

Amidst all my day to day activities, the emails to tutors, the online conferences, the induction events, and grade appeals, the new tutor contract occupied my thoughts and worries.

I was anxious since there were questions that I couldn’t answer. I was anxious because I didn’t know what tools and systems I might be using to make things work. I was anxious because I want to do the best possible job I can to help all my tutor and staff tutor colleagues but I didn’t know how to do this.

I started to have trouble sleeping, and I know this wasn’t down to all those Scandinavian crime dramas I’ve been watching on Netflix.

On 22 March, I received an email from the university secretary, Dave Hall, saying that the implementation of the new tutor contract had been paused.

The challenge for us now is to encourage the project team to take stock, and begin to consider how we can all practically realise the contract in a way that is pragmatic, sensible and realistic. Any future implementation plan must also be incremental and inclusive.

The university will be a better place when ALs are on permanent contracts. We need to continue to make the case for sensible tools and processes. From a staff tutor’s perspective, we’ve got a lot of work to do to make that happen.

This article first appeared in Snowball Issue 99, March 2021. Snowball is the newsletter for Open University associate newsletters and is published quarterly.

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