In more usual times, I would probably be attending a face-to-face AL development conference. Since everyone in the university is working at home, the university ran an online cross-faculty AL development conference on Thursday 4 March 2021.
What follows is a set of edited notes I made during the event. It’s intended as a rough record of the event, so I can remember what happened. Wherever possible, I tried to directly quote some of the speaker, but I won’t promise I’ve got all their words spot on. This said, I do hope I have honestly reflected points that were shared during the sessions.
Keynote: Marcia Wilson
The event kicked off with an opening keynote from Professor Marcia Wilson, Dean of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Here are some notes that were sent around in advance of Marcia’s presentation (which have been edited down for brevity): “Prior to the OU, Marcia worked at the University of East London for 12 years where she established the UK’s first Office for Institutional Equity (OIE) … . Her work includes equality projects with Universities UK to tackle racism in higher education institutes. … Marcia has spent 30 years teaching and conducting research in higher education and is a multiple award winner for her leadership and equalities work.”
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to this very first session due to work commitments, but I must refer to an earlier presentation that was given by Marcia at an event called Dismantling Racial Inequalities in Higher Education which I found to be really through provoking.
AL Contract Change Programme Update
Bruce Heil and Carey Stephens, from UCU and the AL contract programme management team, presented updates about the contract implementation. This was a popular session, attracting 108 delegates.
Bruce highlighted a period of accelerated negotiations that were on going at the time of the conference. He emphasised that there was an aim to build a stable tuition workforce, to enable better future planning and emphasised that a step-by-step approach was taken “to make sure we get the changes right”.
Bruce emphasised that this will be a permanent contract, rather than a piece work contract, and one would encompass module tuition appointments, annual leave, and tuition related activities, such as TMA monitoring, EMA marking, and time that relates to academic currency (which means: keeping up to date with your subject). Benefits for ALs include security and certainty. Benefits for the faculties includes “simpler processes for allocating work now to maintain AL FTE” and longer term planning and development. The benefits for university include opportunities to enhance student experience.
Regarding the implementation, the plan is to migrate to new contract in October 21, and phase in the ways of working over a period of 2 years. I noted down that there would be 4 phases of change: prep to migration, development of processes and procedures (up until 22J), and in 23D the deployment of a workload management system.
A key difference between the old and the new contract is that tutors will no longer need to apply for contracts. Instead, there will be a discussion between a tutor and their line manager (staff tutor or student experience manager), and this will give security and certainty. Spare or unused capacity can be allocated to extra students or modular work, and tutors will be working to a defined FTE figure that relates to an annualised salary which will be paid over 12 months rather than just for the period of the contract. There is also a longer term idea, which is that tutors will have one line manager.
Other updates include that the FTE for practice tuition has been agreed, and the provisional FTE (which is currently calculated from October 20) will be updated with any further appointments that have been made.
Cary stated that the new contract will bring ALs in line with other staff, and the FTE score represents the workload rather than the tasks. Tutors can expect an agreed FTE value to be maintained.
From this session, I noted down some questions and answers, such as: how can I increase my FTE before the official start of the new contract? The answer was: you will need to apply to modules as you did before. Also, how can I decrease my FTE before the start? There will be a query and appeals process which can be used before the start of the contract.
An important question was: what is meant by historic tuition related activities? These are additional duty contracts, which are all gathered together, and averaged out over a 3 year period between August 17 through to July 20.
Key workload areas (in terms of making the contract work) includes a new capability procedure, a skills audit process, and prioritising conversations with ALs whose modules are coming towards the end of their presentation. There is also the need for guidance to help faculties to maintain a tutor’s FTE and developing workload allocation processes to manage workload fluctuations
A good question was: will I have the same flexibility to decide what work I will take on? “There may be occasions where you have capacity and are reasonably requested to take on a piece of work that you can do but would not normally consider.” There will be a conversation where you may be asked to take on a piece of work.
Also, rather than taking a personal leave of absence, tutors will be able to submit an “agile working request”. Another important point is that if student numbers fall, tutors may be asked to carry out additional duties to make up their time that is expressed within the FTE score.
I made a note of the important question: how will these TRAs be managed? The answer I’ve noted down was: “we’re at the ‘how do we do this’ phase?”
Q: I have over 0.3 of historical duties. I haven’t seen any statement of what are covered and what are not. Can we have one? A: you would have to go through your payslips over the last 3 years.
Q: I want to reduce my FTE. Is there a minimum FTE? What will be the notice period of a contract? A: There is no minimum. A reduction should be a sensible one. Term of notice is not known.
Q: Will we be recompensed for IT use? A: Currently under negotiation.
Q: I’ve only had the one appraisal over 15 years. Will the time be made for this? A: We envisage an annual workload and CDSA meeting; an annual conversation; this will be a right and an expectation.
Q: Would it be possible to remain FTE and move onto a different module before October? A: speak with your line manager.
Q: Will assistant staff tutor roles and activities be counted? A: No; it isn’t in the contract.
Q: I want to get my workload spaced out better. Is this possible? A: Make sure your line manager is aware of your needs; have a chat with your staff tutor.
Q: I have a LLM that I have never met; it would be nice to meet them face to face. A: Ideally, yes.
A staff tutor’s reflection
I chose to go to this session for two reasons: the first was to add my understanding of what is going on, and secondly, to try to understand what the official UCU and management line on the contract was. The session confirmed some key fears that I have long held: that some very important aspects of the detail hasn’t yet been worked out. I have, for example, no idea how the historical tuition related activities will be managed, and nor do I know how to get an overview of which tutors are doing what, or how to get a quick summary of a tutor’s FTE score.
Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
The session provided an opportunity for STEM ALs to meet each other. It was said to be: “informal, giving ALs the chance to converse, raise questions, and discuss the priorities within the STEM Faculty”. Approximately 40 tutors were able to attend, which was great to see.
Michael Bowkis from the School of Computing and Communications and Fiona Aiken from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences gave a summary of updates to the curriculum.
For the School of Computing and Communications, Michael summarised the key qualifications that were run from the school. These are: Q62 BSc (Honours) Computing and IT, Q67 BSc Computing and IT & second subject, R62 BSc (Hons) Computing with electronic engineering (which starts this year, and has four compulsory modules: T193. T194. T212 and T312), R38 BSc (Hons) Data Science (which is technically managed by Maths and Statistics), and R60 BSc (Hons) Cyber security.
The BSc (Hons) Cyber security (R60) started in 2020, and is a specialist qualification that is aligned with industry certification (CompTIA Security+, CeH (Certified Ethical Hacking) and is accredited by the British Computer Society (BCS). It comprises of 3 new modules: TM256 Computer Security and Digital Forensics, which starts in February 2022, which addresses aspects of systems security and introductory concepts of digital forensics. There is also, TM311 Information security, which is linked to InfoSec standards for cyber security analysts. TM311 starts in October 2021. There is also TM359, System penetration testing, which is concerned with building secure systems, testing, ethical hacking methodology including certification as ethical hackers. This final module begins in February 2023.
On the postgraduate front, there is a new qualification: F87 MSc Cyber security. GCHQ certification and BCS accreditation will be applied for. An important module will be: M817 Cyber Security Fundamentals, which will complement M811 Information Security, and M812 Digital Forensics. Also, advanced networking qualifications are being withdrawn, but networking will remain as a pathway option in the main MSc programme.
Finally, the school offers four undergraduate degree apprenticeship qualifications, and one postgraduate. These are: R24 BSc (Honours) Digital and Technology Solutions (England), R32 BSc (Honours) IT: Software Development (Scotland), R33 BSc (Honours) IT: Cyber Security (Scotland), and R40 BSc (Honours) Applied Software Engineering (Wales). The postgraduate programme has the title of: F83 MSc Cyber Security (Scotland).
What hasn’t been mentioned is also new machine learning and artificial intelligence module, TM358. The School of Computing and Communications is a busy place!
Refreshing your practice: working across disciplines to enhance the student experience
We were given a choice of what session we would like to attend, and I opted for this session, which was facilitated by Heather Richardson and Clare Taylor. I was attracted by the abstract. Here’s a section: “In this practical workshop you’ll explore how experimenting with the teaching approaches of a different discipline can help you look at your own subject in a new light. Drawing on the findings of the FASS scholarship project ‘Creative Interactions’, which brought together the disciplines of Art History and Creative Writing, you’ll first take part in some hands-on activity, and then move on to consider potential ‘interactions’ between your own and other disciplines.”
I was drawn to this session, partly because I’ve been studying an arts module, A111, and have also recently completed a creative writing assignment. I was curious about what these activities might be, and how the activities might relate to my own discipline of Computing. The abstract also went on to say: “In the first part of the workshop you will analyse and respond to a piece of visual art from the Open University’s art collection, firstly conducting an Art-Historical visual analysis of the artwork, and then being guided through producing your own Creative Writing response to the piece.” The session was related to a Faculty of Art and Social Sciences project called ‘Creative Interactions’.
There was a reference to the university art collection, which is mostly hung in corridors and shared spaces. During this session, we were show a number of works, and introduced to some terms that could be used to create (or write) a formal analysis of a piece. Key terms that we were introduced to included: scale, space and composition, viewpoint, subject matter, material/medium, line, colour and light, display and function.
There was then a shift towards creative writing. With an artwork used as a prompt, we were asked: “imagine you’re in the space that is depicted in a picture; what do you feel through your senses, and what is your emotional state?” We were asked to comment on three questions and respond through text chat: how did you respond to the image? Which approach was more helpful? What did you gain by trying two approaches?
What I got out of this session was how our online teaching tool, Adobe connect could be used, to create an interesting, and thoughtful tutorial experience. In our breakout rooms we were asked to discuss the question: what other disciplines could your own discipline interact with? In the breakout room that I attended, we discussed the connections between our own disciplines, and others.
To summarise, this was a popular session, with over 50 delegates attending. It made me reflect on how I use the online teaching tools, and consider how I might be able to draw on other subjects to (potentially) make my online tutorials more interesting and engaging.
I always get something from AL development conferences. It was useful to hear the official line about the new AL contract, and I did really enjoy the final session, which certainly got me thinking. I can’t help but feel that whilst online conferences useful and helpful, nothing quite beats being able to share tips and experiences over a cup of coffee at a face-to-face AL development conference. I look forward to a time when these can happen again.