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Finding research time

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 27 Nov 2020, 18:06

After about two years of working at the former OU London regional centre in Camden, I remember a presentation for someone; a fellow staff tutor who worked in the Arts Faculty.

“He’s been given a chair!” my colleague whispered. I must have looked confused, since this assertion was immediately followed by a further explanation: “he’s become a professor!”

I had discovered that much of my role of a staff tutor was constantly spent facilitating, co-ordinating and administrating (if that is a word). I didn’t have any time to carry out any substantial or significant research. I was way too busy with “getting things done” to do any in depth thinking and reading about and into my discipline, which was originally computer science – or, more specifically, computer programming and software engineering.

“They do things differently in Arts; they have a role called a senior faculty manager” my colleague explained. “The faculty manager does a lot of the administrative work that a staff tutor does, such as organising the timetables and carrying out CDSA appraisals”.

If we had help with carrying out some of the admin work, I could see how someone who was doing my role might be potentially able to carry out research, and potentially step onto the trajectory that may lead to a chair. 

I could see it working within the Arts faculty, but I couldn’t see how that would be possible in the Faculty of Maths Computing and Technology, as it was called then.

I remember some celebrations. I remember some speeches. I’m pretty sure there would have been some prosecco.

After the celebration and the speeches, I would have returned to my email inbox to continue with whatever admin I needed to complete.

Finding the time

The School of Computing and Computing has a number of research groups. 

There’s the next generation multimedia and networking research group, the critical information studies group, an interaction design group, an AI and natural language processing group, a software engineering and design group, and a Technology and Education group (group website). 

My research ‘home’ within the school lies within the Technology and Education group, for the simple reason that I thought it easier to carve out a research niche if I allied aspects of my work (which is within education planning and organisation) to computing technology (which is a field that I used to work in). This said, my research interests also cross the interaction design group (which I used to tutor), and software engineering (where I’ve done a bit of research into, particularly theories of software comprehension and software metrics).

Earlier this month, there was a meeting which was about how staff tutors in TERG might increase their opportunities to carry out research (if this is something that they are interested in doing). Essentially, it all boils down to how to “craft out time” from our day job. This may mean thinking about accompanying issues, such as how to gain help with important elements such as writing, or research design, or statistical analysis. It also means finding ways to set boundaries.

I remember a talk by a former colleague who used to work in the School of Maths. He allocated a day per week to carry out research. I tried that for a while, trying to allocate every Friday as a research day, but it broke down; meetings kept sneaking into my diary – the need to administrate intruded in my plans.

One way to increase research capacity is to combine it with other related activities. One activity is co-supervising PhD students. This means identifying projects, and recruiting potentially interested students. Doctoral students might mean full time students based in the school, or part time students who are studying away from the university, or even EdD students (if their research area has a significant or substantial educational focus). A point to bear in mind in that a staff tutor must network to find potential co-supervisors.

An important suggestion was that it might be possible to plan what could be termed an ‘internally supported sabbatical’, perhaps in collaboration with other staff tutors or assistant staff tutors. Perhaps time could be ‘chunked’ together. Perhaps my day a week didn’t work out, since I didn’t have enough concentrated time to work dedicate to a problem. It took time and energy to get into research, and there’s an overhead in trying to repeat that same activity every week. Momentum is important.

A related theme is the importance of buddying; perhaps sharing some responsibilities maybe one approach to gain some of the important ‘headspace’ needed to facilitate the development of research capacity.

Other points that have been discussed have included the need to be completely honest about how our time is allocated and reported to the university (using something called the Academic Workload Modelling tool). Maybe there are clever ways to gain administrative support, but effective admin support needs consistency, since that too is all about understanding and solving problems.

Since I haven’t been able to carry out any disciplinary research for quite a while, I feel I would benefit from knowing how others do research. Perhaps there’s opportunity for mentoring, or the development of practical support and guidance about how to bid for projects. Again, it comes down to knowing who is good and doing what, and who might be able to help.

During our meeting, something called PACE was mentioned, which is an abbreviation for Professional academic communication in English. PACE happens in another faculty, called WELS, the Faculty of Wellbeing Education and Language Studies. The programme looks interesting, and doing a bit more digging, I’m taken to a further set of pages about face to face doctoral training.

Director of research

Following on from our TERG specific meeting, our current director of research, Robin Laney attended one of our staff tutor meeting. I noted down four important points:

  1. Make sure you find the time to network widely across the school (but also outside of the school too). Find others who share your research interests.
  2. Do you have a research agenda? If not, try to write one. If you don’t, go to different research group meetings. See point 1; networking.
  3. When it comes to finding research students, make sure that you advertise projects not only through the school website, but also through various mailing lists and other communities. See point 1; networking.
  4. Go speak with the director of research. Our director may be able to put you in contact with other colleagues in the school with similar research interests, and support activities that could lead to research, such as conference attendance or funding of pilot project. See point 1; networking.

Reflections

I’m faced with a dilemma. 

I really enjoy research, but I also enjoy seeing the end result of what some might see as ‘admin’, such as making sure that a module timetable is set up and ready to go, or the development or co-facilitation of a tutor development conference. In some respects, I’ve tried to find a middle way, which has meant carrying out some scholarship through the STEM faculty scholarship centre, called eSTEeM.

The one thing that is common to both research and scholarship is, of course, time. It may be possible to carve and craft time from an existing work plan, but there are two other common elements that are important: collaboration and planning.

This blog can be linked to two other blogs, one which is about C&C research groups and another post which offers some pointers about research funding.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Janet Hughes who set up a meeting to discuss research amongst the staff tutors from the TERG research group. Janet kindly reviewed an earlier version of this blog. Thanks are also extended to Robin Laney, C&C Director of Research. Acknowledgements are also extended to Karen Kear, who leads the technology and education research group.

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Mental Health: a bit of perspective

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In the October 2018 edition of the associate lecturer newsletter, Snowball, I wrote the following paragraph: “When I got to the beginning of October, I sat down after a hard day of emailing and suddenly thought: “Is this what burnout feels like?” I had caught myself looking at my Outlook inbox and couldn’t find the mental energy to open up and process another email.”

In 2015, I wrote the following in a blog post that reflected on the closure of the university’s regional centres: “I’m a pretty young guy. I can deal with stuff. I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for stress, but I’m beginning to suffer from change fatigue. I’m beginning to get tired and have started to think ‘what have I got to do now?’ and ‘when will thing settle down to a steady state?’  The issue of change fatigue was something that was mentioned by another colleague.  I’m feeling the strain, and I’m getting tired.”

I had another moment like this a couple of weeks ago, but it had a slightly different character. Rather than feeling unable to open up yet another email, I realised that I was becoming increasingly grumpy. There was another aspect to my grumpiness: I also felt a little ‘flat’ emotionally. 

I then realised that I had spent three very busy and very full days at the OU campus (I’m a home worker, so it’s always a bit of an ordeal to get to the head office), plus I had worked a whole Saturday on a quite demanding TM356 Interaction Design teaching event, that also took place on campus. In between all those days, I was working at home, on my own; just me and my laptop. I suddenly realised that my “very busy week” might have had influenced my grumpiness.

I then realised that I was in need of a holiday.

Staff tutor session

On 26 February, I went to the usual STEM staff tutor meeting. The first part of the meeting was all about general university updates: new colleagues, updates about the new tutor contract, clarification about the university strategic objectives, and something about the new IT systems replacement. The second bit was different; it was all about mental health.

The second part of the meeting was facilitated by Stephen Haynes who is from a charity called Mates in Mind which has its origins in the construction industry. 

Stephen presented what was described as a ‘whistlestop well-being tour’. He began by asking us some questions: “how are you doing?”, “why don’t we talk about mental health?” and “what do we mean by mental health?” 

A simple point was made that: we all have mental health, and it’s important to think of things in terms of ‘mental fitness’. A point I noted down was: one can have a diagnosed mental health condition but can have good mental health (which was a theme that came out of another session I attended in London, which I'll mention later on).

I made some notes about something called a ‘stress response curve’, which illustrated the difference between stretch (which is a good thing), and strain (which is a bad thing). If there’s a lot of strain over a period of time, then there’s a risk of burning out.

Stephen gave us some facts: suicide in the education profession is higher than the national average, 300k jobs are lost every year due to mental health issues and 44% of all work related illnesses are due to mental health issues (unfortunately I don’t have the reference for this, but it might well have been in Stephen’s presentation). Also, 1 in 5 of us are anxious most of the time.

I noted down 5 ways (or actions) that can contribute to positive well-being. These were: connect with people, be active, give, keep learning, and take notice (ironically, I didn’t note down what ‘take notice’ means, but I assume it means to take the time to be aware of ones surroundings).

I was also interested to hear that one of the biggest drivers of employee well-being is having a good line manager. This point made me stop for a moment: I’m a line manager.

As well as being a line manager, I’m also a home worker. I made a note of a set of potentially useful tips: consider your posture and work environment (my posture needs to be better), don’t multi-task (I try not to, but there are always distractions; I need to put my mobile phone in the other room when I really need to get on with some ‘thinking work’), use a web cam when you participate in remote calls (this way I’m forced to not work in my pyjamas and be scruffy), take the time to check in with others (I miss my colleague Sue, who has recently retired), look out for each other, look out for yourself, and take the time to listen. 

Like many institutions, the university has something called an employee assistance programme or scheme; telephone support that any employee can access at any time. I have to confess that I’ve never used it. Apparently, counsellors that support these programmes can readily say: “if only I had spoken to him or her sooner”. I never used that service since “I never thought I was that bad”, but looking back, I certainly feel that there was a point in my life where I could have benefited.

One of the biggest take away from that whole session was that phrase: “if only I had spoken to him or her sooner”.  The assistance service is there to be used, and there is no reason that I shouldn’t use it if I feel stressed or upset, or down, or anxious, or emotionally “flat”. Not even a misplaced sense of ‘masculine pride’ or sense of ‘coping’ should prevent me from chatting to someone. This, I felt, was a very helpful take away point.

Resources

After the session, I remembered that I had seen a couple of resources on the OpenLearn website. One is called Work and mental health, and another has the title: Exercise and mental health

A few years back, a Mental health awareness day (OU blog) event was held in the London regional centre. During this event, the theme of mental well-being was discussed. I also remember being shown a video called I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube, World Health Organisation), which also featured in our Staff Tutor session. I remember the biggest take away point from that day was the importance of choosing to do things, or to participate in events that are positive for mental well-being.

This takes me onto the final resource, a blog summary about a Home working workshop, that was organised by HR (OU blog). One of the main messages I took away from this event was pretty stark (I’m not going to tell you what that message was, but I’ll mention that it is in the section that is about setting and management of boundaries). 

The second take away message was simple, pragmatic and helpful. It was: ‘make sure that you plan your own down time’. Thinking back to my opening paragraphs, I think this is something that I need to get better at doing.

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Taming the IT beast

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Oct 2018, 09:42

Cerberus, a three headed dog, fighting Hercules

On Tuesday 25 September I ran a short half an hour session during something called a STEM staff tutor’s meeting. The STEM staff tutor’s meeting happens around four times a year and takes place at the university headquarters, and it’s an opportunity for all staff tutors to get together, receive important updates about what is happening in the university and to share professional practice with each other. The session that I went to was all about the subject of managing some aspects of our IT.

I receive too many email messages. In September, I must be receiving anything between 50 and 100 messages a day. These can be about all kinds of different things: student issues, tutor group issues, and even messages about maintenance work happening in the campus in Milton Keynes (I tend to delete those straight away, since I’m a London based home worker!)

I also have a lot of files (which relates to different bits of module materials and various research projects I’ve been involved with) and links to a range of different websites that I need to navigate.

I chose a picture that represented the challenge of working with these three different aspects of IT; an image of Cerberus, a frightening looking three headed dog.

The session I ran had three parts: (1) How do I tame the beast, or what do I do? (2) How others tame the beast? (I asked staff tutors to share thoughts about what they did to best manage IT and information overload), and (3) What tips would you like to share to all staff tutors?

Sharing practice

During the first part, I shared something about how I managed my email by using folders. I use a lot of folders. I have folders for modules, module presentation, and also for announcements about policies and procedures that might be useful. I put emails in folders so I can remember what has been discussed and agreed. I have a whole set of folders that relate to what I’ve agreed to present at various staff development events.

I’m also a tutor on a project module. To keep track of my own tutor work, I’ve set up a rule that sends project related emails to a separate folder. To remember what I’ve said to students, and what they’ve said to me, I use folders. These folders, of course, get deleted at the end of a module presentation (due to GDPR legislation).

I obviously use lots of folders for my files and documents, and these take on a similar parallel structure as to what I’ve adopted in email. I have a folder entitled ‘modules’, and under that, I have a whole set of other folders that relate to specific modules. In these directories there might be things like tutor notes and drafts of assessment materials, and anything else that relates to a module (such as briefing presentations, for instance).

When it comes to web and application links, I adopt a really simple approach. I don’t use bookmarks, since I know that I might sometimes use different computers. Instead, I keep them a university website called TutorHome. Alternatively, I could use something called the Dashboard, but I’ve never got on with it, for some reason. I always found that I had to spend time moving things about. I’m aware that if I spend more time looking at it, that time investment might lead to a productivity pay-off. For the moment, I’m continuing to stick all the important web links that I use on TutorHome.

Sharing tips

After some group discussions, I asked everyone to share what they thought were their most useful tips. I tried to roughly note down what everyone said:

  • When it comes to email, have the confidence to delete things (I personally try to do a control-delete to permanently delete something straight away!)
  • Take the time to go on an advanced Outlook course, which is sometimes run by IT
  • To handle all your web links, an idea is to put these into a Word document, and write an accompanying narrative about what they are and how they can be used.
  • Set up rules for your Outlook email to shift emails into separate folder. This way you can choose to look at things when you want, rather than having to be forced to look at them when they appear in your inbox.
  • Use advanced Outlook features, such as tasks and organise meetings using the scheduling assistant tool. You can drag emails onto your task list, and into your calendar.
  • Put flags on emails that are likely to be tasks. You can also specify a time when tasks need to be completed by, and this appears as a task summary.
  • Ask yourself the question: does this email need to be sent. Or, put another way: would it be easier to actually speak with someone over the phone.

The staff tutors who were attending the meeting remotely provided the following suggestions:

  • Use more than one screen if possible; you can use your laptop with two other monitors.
  • Use rules to categorise on keyword, which can give you a colour coded inbox.
  • Start your day by deleting as many messages as possible from the previous day, and only keep messages that are really necessary. 
  • Have folders that relate to a module and year, rather than by presentation, this way you can delete them easily. 

A final personal tip that I once heard was: ‘if you open an email, ask the question of whether you are able to action it there and then; if you find that you can, do it, since there’s little point in closing an email and opening it again at a later point – that just wastes time!’ That tiny tip, along with asking the question of ‘can I delete this right now?’ has really helped me to manage my inbox. 

Outlook resources

After the session, I was sent a link to a training resources that related to Microsoft Outlook which might be useful. In the spirit of sharing, here are some of what I think are the highlights (which should be publically accessible):

Reflections

A thing that I took away from this session is: I really ought to take a bit of time out to see if I can figure out how to use Outlook in a more sophisticated way. I feel that knowing more would do me good. I’ve tried to use the task feature before, but for some reason, it always annoyed me since everything I flagged as being a task had to be completed pretty much immediately. I’ve since learnt that you can specify date and times for when tasks need to be completed. I’m not sure whether this will replace my own paper ‘todo’ list, though. This said, I need to learn a bit more, and I might give Outlook tasks another go. A final point is: everyone is different, and everyone has their own preferences about how to get things done.

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Nicola McIntyre for running the meeting.

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Staff tutor conference, December 2017

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 14 Jan 2018, 11:58

This post is a personal summary of a two day staff tutor conference that took place at Horwood House, Little Horwood between 5 and 6 December 2017. I’m blogging it for three reasons (1) so I can remember what CPD I’ve done when I have to do my appraisal, (2) it will help me to remember some of the important discussions that took place, and (3) it might be randomly helpful to someone!

Introduction

The conference began with a session by the outgoing associate dean of regions and nations, Steve Walker, a fellow staff tutor from the School of Computing and Communications. Steve presented a sobering description of some of the challenges that had to be addressed over the previous three years: the closure of the university regional centres, the introduction of a new tuition approach called the group tuition strategy (GTP), and the merger of faculties to create a new set of schools. A further change on the horizon is, of course, the potential introduction of a new associate lecturer contract.

Since the last staff tutor conference, I am now a home worker, there is a new student support team (SST) which is based in Manchester, and there is a venue management team that is based in Wales, and a system called the Learning Event Management system (LEM) which is (I understand) less than ideal. Also, AL development has been reconfigured (or, should I say, centralised) to create an entirely new way of working. 

Looking back to when I started in this role back in 2010, geography isn’t as important as it used to be. Support for students is instead organised in terms of curriculum teams as opposed to regional support teams. This means that the connections within schools have been strengthened and that there are more opportunities for activities such as associate lecturer development.

A number of important external drivers were emphasised:  the part time student market is receding due to government policy and fees, the student demographic is changing (they are getting younger), there are new entrants into the HE market and this means increased competition, the government has introduced the degree apprenticeship and the apprenticeship levy. There is also the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and even talk about something called the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). There has been a lot going on!

Student’s first transformation

During this period the university has defined a ‘student’s first strategy’ and has realised that it needs to address a potential income deficit due to the fall in part time numbers. In response, the ‘student’s first transformation’ programme has been set up. The programme aims to achieve a number of things: increase student retention, increase student progression and increase student satisfaction scores, whilst at the same time saving 100 million pounds (a figure that has been chosen by senior management).

To make these changes faculties have been asked to review their curriculum and other divisions of the university will be asked to review their working practices. These practices will be defined in something called a new ‘university operating model’ and the university will create a new ‘teaching framework’. Members of the university will be asked to participate in project groups and teams. Change, of course, has its own costs.

One phrase I regularly hear that is connected to the transformation programme is ‘digital by design’. A personal view is that I’m not quite sure exactly what this means; I know that students study in different ways using different technologies. Whilst I’m technologist, I’m a great believer in the usefulness of printed materials. On the point of ‘being digital’, the JISC Building digital capability project was mentioned (JISC).

During this part of the conference another point that I noted down was the term ‘sustainable academic communities’. Again, I’m not quite sure exactly what this refers to, but I did make a note of the principle that perhaps associate lecturers should be more involved and connected to schools. This discussion about associate lecturers takes us to the next part of the conference, which was about debating the purpose of tutorials.

Purpose of tutorials

Three staff tutors were asked to present perspectives about tutorials. The perspectives were: face to face tutorials, online tutorials, the use of pre-recorded tutorials and peer tutorials. I began by talking about face to face tutorials.

Face to face tutorials

Face to face classes, in my opinion, are the best and most effective way to teach. Here are some reasons why:

  1. What really matters in education is, of course, people. Face to face tuition is all about putting student’s first for the simple reason that technology doesn’t get in the way.
  2. Face to face means that learning is personalised to individual students or the group of students who are attending a tutorial.
  3. Tutors can ‘see’ the effect of their actions; they can see the learning that takes place. To assess the effectiveness of their learning tutors can quickly ask questions, and this allows them to correct and develop understandings.
  4. In adult learning, students can themselves become teachers. Students can arrive at class with significant and relevant real-world experience that can be discussed within the class. In some ways, students are their own resources. A skilled tutor can help to make connections between different students and topics.
  5. Face to face gives tutors and teachers opportunities to innovate and to try new things out since they can more directly and readily understand what students feel comfortable with. Tutors can more easily facilitate role play events, facilitate discussions and create tasks that make use of the physical space of a tutorial room.
  6. In a face to face session, a tutor can easily see if something is wrong; they can pick up on blank expressions and uncomfortable body language.
  7. Face to face tutorials benefit all students, irrespective of whether students attend the sessions. The reason for this is simple: a tutor or teacher has to have a good command of their material. 
  8. Following on from the above point, students will more readily question or challenge tutors during face to face sessions, helping themselves to understand how the teaching materials can be understood from different perspectives.
  9. Face to face tutorials are real in a way that other methods are not; tutors can offer direct and personal encouragement to students.

I understand that there are some debates within the university about the cost of certain types of face to face tutorials, since they represent a significant proportion of the tuition budget. During this session I argued that, from an educational perspective, the university can’t afford not to provide face to face tuition.

Online tutorials

The second presentation about tuition events was by Diane Butler from the School of Health, Life and Chemical Sciences. Diane said that online tutorials, like face to face sessions, help students to understand module materials, allow students to interact socially with tutors and other students and to develop skills. Online sessions allow tutors to provide tailored support and, when travelling is difficult, help to alleviate a sense of isolation.

Diane also highlighted some of the challenges: online sessions can very lend themselves to be centred upon PowerPoint presentations, and given the complexity of driving online sessions, tutors can easily rely on the simplest tools. A common issue (and one that I regularly hear of when speaking to tutors) is that students are very reluctant to use microphones. It is a rare session that tutors present a series of activities; it can also be difficult to fully appreciate the learning needs of students.

An important point was that online tutorials don’t easily lend themselves to constructivist learning. During Diane’s presentation, I made the note: ‘we put our tutors in an environment where it makes it difficult’, and ‘[there may not be] much benefit to watching the recordings versus attending live’. A point was that perhaps the module team ought to spend more time creating recordings.

Another point was: ‘we place an unrealistic burden on our tutors to facilitate group work’, and that ‘we need to take online teaching to the next level’.

Pre-recorded tutorials

Hayley Ryder from the School of Mathematics and Statistics shared her experience of creating pre-recorded tutorials for a whole module cohort. An interesting point that Hayley made was ‘students like me to make mistakes’; this can share something about what really happens when people ‘do mathematics’. By exposing the challenges that accompanying studying maths, and demonstrating things that are ‘actually hard’ may encourage students to adopt a growth mindset: if the lecturers make mistakes, then it’s okay that I make them too!

My understanding was that the module team might have prepared a set of recordings once and then rolled them out for different presentations, but this wasn’t happens: new recordings are made every presentation; different people and different cohorts get stuck on different things. 

Hayley’s videos were fun and personable; her presentation got me thinking.

Peer tutorials

The final presentation was by Katherine Leys who is from the School of Life Health and Chemical Sciences. Peer tuition and peer support is mentioned in the new teaching framework. Peer tutorials is all about having students teach each other. Examples of these might be a group of students working together to plan an experiment in an online room or a forum. To facilitate these discussions, students might adopt roles, such as leader, deputy leader and so on, but tutors do need to mediate and some students will not be able to take part, perhaps due to the need to make reasonable adjustments to take account of disabilities or impairments.

Supporting staff tutor practice

Staff tutors offer support to associate lecturers, module teams and students. An interesting question to ask is: what can we do to help to support ourselves and fellow staff tutors? Maggie King, Staff Tutor in the School of Engineering and Innovation began this session by saying that the ‘changes to our jobs have been monumental’. In some respects, our job has changed from being a job that was primarily about people (and our academic discipline), to a job that is increasingly about administration.

We were asked a question: what could we do to make things better? Some suggestions included: the need for further staff tutor staff development, and opportunities for further sharing of practice, perhaps on a monthly basis or at different ‘regions’ or ‘regional areas’ (which could be, potentially, booked and organised through the venue management system). A personal reflection is that constant and effective communication between each other is the only way that we can continue to work well and understand the changes that are emerging through the university.

External Engagement

The title of this session was: ‘it’s good to get out’. It was facilitated by Matt Walkley, Staff Tutor from the School of Computing and Communications. Matt posed three questions that guided group discussions: what external engagement have you done? What external engagement should we be doing or be doing more of? And, what actions can we commit to?

A personal reflection was that I have always struggled to understand what was meant by the term ‘external engagement’; I was always under the impression that it had a more formal definition than it had. I was imagining external engagement as sets of targeted and strategic activities that can be used to help gain insights that could feed into module production, or to make contacts with individuals within organisations that could explicitly benefit from learning can be presented through OU programmes or modules. Although all these things do fall under the topic of external engagement, they are more directly aligned to the more formal concept of ‘knowledge exchange’.

External engagement can, as I understand it, broadly mean ‘getting out there’ to make contact with people to help us learn more about our subject and also to raise the profile of ourselves and the university. In some respects, being an external examiner and visiting the occasional British Computer Society event both represent different types of external engagement.

I learnt that external engagement is an official part of our contract. This means that we can allocate between 3 and 5 days into our work plan for external engagement activities (although there was some debate about exactly how many days we might have available). A point was if we can align our own personal and professional interests to that of our School and Faculty, then so much the better.

Another point I learnt was that each school has its own external engagement officer. I had to ask who the officer for my school was. This, in turn, made me realise that since staff tutors are scattered across the UK, the staff tutor body is at an advantage when it comes to engaging with national initiatives. A thought is that it is up to schools to develop and apply an interesting external engagement strategy; staff tutors are a resource that can be used, and used effectively (when we have the time, of course, and we’re generally pretty busy).

Improving retention and progression

The subtitle for this session that was held on the second day was: what can staff tutors do? Different staff tutors summarised different aspects of their experience. What follows is a very brief summary of each presentation.

U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world

Christine Pearson spoke about U116 and its ethos: the module assumes that students don’t know anything (that they are entirely new to the subject). I made a note that the students are changing, and also have a broad range of digital literacy skills. An interesting point was that some students were invited to take place in a focus group; a key point were that there was a need for induction or some kind of ‘fresher’s week’. Subsequently, a ‘getting started’ video was made, and students were sent a postcard to help them to get online. Another ‘bit’ was a numeracy podcast. An important point was that more and more students are doing concurrent study, which might be a side effect of the loan scheme.

Impact of presentation patterns

Bernie Clarke spoke about the impact of 22-week presentation patterns, where two modules are taught back to back (which is going to be the case for the new Computing modules TM111 and TM112). Using this presentation pattern, students gain credit at an earlier point in their studies. Another change is that in the engineering curriculum the teaching of mathematics is now done within the context of the subject, rather than students being asked to study a maths module that has been written by colleagues in a different school.

M140 early start initiative

Alison Bromley spoke about the effect of enabling students to start earlier on a module (another colleague, Carol Calvert gave a presentation about this same subject at a HEA Conference in April 2017). Over two hundred students accepted the opportunity to start M140 early. Those that started apparently really appreciated the opportunity for early tutor contact. I didn’t note down the detail of the impact, but I did note down that there was a difference between students who were studying for the very first time and students who had gained further experience through study.

Learning analytics and interventions

Nicolette Hapgood, chair of S111, reported that S111 applied an assessment approach that is known as ‘single component assessment’ (which is also going to be applied on TM111 and TM112), which means that the result is based on completing only assignments and not an end of module exam or assessment. Nicolette also described the availability of a data analytics tool that is now available to all module teams; this tool enables module teams to see differences in retention between different module presentations.

An important question to ask is: what is the main role of staff tutors when it comes to improving student retention and progression? An answer I’ve noted down is: our role is to support the associate lecturers who are closest to the students. We also represent an important link between the tutors and the module teams. Some other discussion points related to the knowledge management system that is used by the SST (which is used to offer study advice), the importance of reminding tutors about study support resources (there is an earlier blog about study skills resources), the importance of induction (which remains a mystery to me), and helping module teams to write and develop module materials. 

What will the REF mean to staff tutors?

I’ve forgotten who presented this final section of the conference, which was about the Research Excellence Framework.

There are some differences between the 2014 REF and the 2021 REF. One of the key differences lies in a statement that all staff who have significant time and resources to carry out research are to be submitted into the REF. There is a clear contractual difference between different categories of university staff: central academics are required to do research as a part of their contract, whereas staff tutors are ‘encouraged’. Subsequently, there is an ambiguity as to whether staff tutors will be included into the REF submission.

The reason why staff tutors are only ‘encouraged’ to do research is simple: workload. Time that we could have spent on research is spent supporting and developing associate lecturers and dealing with a whole host of administrative issues. Over the last year, it has more or less been a full time job keeping up with institutional changes, never mind doing institutional research.

My view is that there are two things that could be done to help to tick the research box: rather than doing discipline specific research, one possibility is to do scholarship and research into teaching and learning (since this fits closely with the role of a staff tutor), and secondly, if disciplinary research is important, another approach is to team up with central academic researchers. 

Reflections

This is the second or third staff tutor conference that I’ve attended. Typing everything up helped me to look back and to put a lot into perspective; a lot has changed. As mentioned at the start, the majority of the regional centres in England have closed and the way that tutorials are organised is now very different to how it was before. 

Put another way, I’m now doing a different job to what I was doing six years ago. I’m not going to pretend that homeworking is easy: it isn’t. 

This said, putting difficulties aside, there are some good things about this new way of working that many of us have had to embrace. A final thought is: it was really useful to spend time with so many colleagues; they are a pretty fabulous group of people to work with.

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Tutorial observation guidelines

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I recently helped to run a session about tutorial observations at a meeting for all the staff tutors from the STEM faculty on 7 November 2017. The purpose of the session was to share practice and to gather information about how different colleagues organise tutorial observations for the OU associate lecturers (ALs) that they help to line manage.

What follows is a summary of a couple of slides that were prepared by my colleague Katherine Leys. Katherine prepared these guidelines as a part of a series of induction sessions for new staff tutors. The guidelines and procedures are, to me, very clear and well thought through, and may be useful for other staff tutors who work across the university (as well as other people in other institutions). For the sake of clarity, I’ve taken the liberty of removing some of institutional jargon and have added a little more description. I hope this post is useful to someone!

Guidelines

  1. An attempt should be made to observe across all appropriate modes of tuition for ALs during their probation period.
  2. ALs should have at least one observation every 4 years and useful feedback should be provided.
  3. Tutor’s lead line managers (LLMs) and tuition task managers (TTMs) should liaise with each other over which observation(s) would be appropriate. The lead line manager will ensure that at least one observation is made before a tutor’s appraisal (CDSA).
  4. An observation report should be stored on a secure server and details added to the tutor’s associate lecturer activity review (ALAR) report.
  5. A lead line manager (LLM) can ask a tuition task manager (TTM) for an observation report (with tutor permission) to prepare for a tutor’s appraisal (CDSA).
  6. A staff tutor should let a tutor’s lead line manager know when an observation has taken place

Suggested procedure

  1. Give ever tutor at least 2 weeks’ notice.
  2. If appropriate, ask tutors to prepare a lesson or a tutorial plan, and have them send it to you.
  3. Use a feedback form to prepare a report (there are various types available).
  4. Ask for reflective feedback from tutor (allow 2 weeks).
  5. Store form and reflection and record details on associate lecturer activity review.
  6. Let a lead line manager know that a visit has been made.

Reflections

After the staff tutor meeting I collected a set of notes from everyone which I now have to write up; it is clear that the subject of tuition observation yielded a lot of discussion. One question that I asked was: is there a willingness to define a standard process for observations? I suspect that the answer for this (when I analyse all my notes) is going to be: ‘no, but guidelines are welcome’.

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Day in the life of a STEM staff tutor (reprised)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 15 Feb 2017, 21:14

This blog post echoes a blog post I made in June 2015. The earlier blog was designed to accompany a presentation that I gave to the Computing and IT student support team, who were then based in Birmingham. Since I gave that talk, things have changed: the Birmingham office is just about to close and the functions have relocated to the Open University Manchester Student Recruitment and Support centre.

This post has a similar aim: to accompany a presentation that I gave to my student support colleagues to given them a feel for what Computing and IT staff tutors do. An important point is that every staff tutor has, of course, slightly different roles and responsibilities. Our exact mix of duties and responsibilities depends on our own expertise and interests. 

Another point is that every day can be very different. Here’s what I wrote last time: ‘the below narrative is a collage of aspects from different days. I’ve written it this way so give a sense of the diversity of things that we do. It’s not representative, since every day is different, but it does give a taste of what kind of things a staff tutor gets involved with’

Blitz the inbox

I wake up at any time between 7.00 and 8.00am; I often watch the travel reports whilst I eat breakfast. Now that I’m a home worker, I do find the travel reports strangely satisfying; I take a life affirming moment to reflect that I’m not in the middle of one of those huge snarl-ups on the north or south circular roads.

One of the first things I do is triage my inbox to decide what is important. The exciting thing about being a staff tutor is that anything could happen. I look after approximately sixty associate lecturer contracts (or tutor groups) across three different levels of study. To give an impression of scale, a tutor might (of course) have anything between 18 and 20 students. 

My key objective is to get to the messages that are important. So, glance through announcements about conferences and drainage issues. I delete messages that offer reminders about events in Milton Keynes, even though I’m not working in Milton Keynes. I shift-delete emails about fire alarms and electrical testing, and start to read messages, dropping updates about new procedures into folders (I don’t read things in depth if I don’t need to).

TM356 tutor telephone call

The first scheduled event was a chat with a TM356 tutor. Our tutor has been raising some really good points about the design of some online sessions; he’s also very experienced too. We shared views about how things are going on the module, and I make a note about some things that I need to bring to the module teams attention.

After our chat, I receive a delivery: it’s my new desk. To make things easier at home I’ve been reconfiguring my study area, and this has meant trying to find a bigger work area. I haul a big new desk into my lounge and start to puzzle about what the next step needs to be: my desk needs varnishing. I make a mental note.

It is a busy morning: I email a tutor about organising an additional support session, and then send off another email, this time to AL services in Manchester about transferring TMAs from one tutor to another due to a tutor being away on sick leave; a few days earlier I had found a tutor who was willing to cover.

AL CDSA

A Microsoft Outlook reminder popped up on my screen: it told me that there was an AL CDSA (appraisal) was due in fifteen minutes. I started to get everything sorted out: I opened up the tutor’s draft CDSA form that he had sent to me and the tutor’s ALAR report in a different screen (I have a two screen setup; my new desk will allow me to have three screens!) I familiarised myself with the contents of the ALAR report: turnaround times were very good, and the student surveys were very good (but like with so many student surveys, not many students had responded; this is always a problem that isn’t easily solved).

I get everything sorted out for the CDSA and give the tutor a call. He was great to talk to; he was committed and dedicated. I asked him what kinds of things I might be able to do to help him in his job, and told him to contact me if he has any suggestions about what AL staff development events might be useful.

Academic work

After a drop of lunch and a bit of TV it was onto the afternoon stint. Now that the key emergencies had been sorted out, it was time to get onto some academic work. For me, the term ‘academic work’ can mean a whole range of different things.

Over the last year and a half (or so, perhaps a bit longer) I have been a deputy editor for a publication called Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning (Routledge).

The journal has an interesting history: it began as an internal OU publication that shared information about ‘the OU approach to teaching and learning’ amongst its many staff. As time has moved on the journal’s remit has broadened, adopting a more international focus. It is still an Open University institutional publication but it is one that is more outward looking. It does, however, maintain its core focus, publishing research about distance education, technology and educational practice. 

I spend about an hour looking through the status of the submissions. I try to match up newly submitted papers to reviewers. One paper has been reviewed, and there is a positive ‘accept’, which is always good news. I read through the reviewer comments and have another quick read of the paper before making a final decision.

When this is done, I get onto editing a PowerPoint presentation for an online tutorial that is scheduled to take place later on in the day. I send a couple of pictures I have taken from my phone to my laptop, open up the PowerPoint, and then drop them in. I then convert the PowerPoint into the native OU Live format, and upload the new file as an OU Live preload, just to make I’m fully prepared.

I receive an email from an associate lecturer colleague that I’m working with. We’re working on a tutorial observation research project that is funded by something called eSTEeM, which is all about Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics education. My colleague has started work on a literature review and it looks brilliant. I look in my diary and I fix a time to have a chat about how things are going.

One of the things I really enjoy doing is AL development. I enjoy it because it’s great speaking to all the tutors. At the start of the month I ran a TM470 AL development session for purely selfish reasons: I am a tutor on TM470 and I wanted to run some tutorials, but I was also very aware that other TM470 tutors are significantly more experienced than I am. Put simply: I wanted to steal some of their good ideas, and a way to do this is to find a way to get tutors talking to each other. To do this, I ran an online staff development event.

After the event had finished, I had to do a couple of ‘wash up’ tasks. The first one was to send AL services in Manchester a list of associate lecturers who had attended. The second was to write a quick blog post about the key findings, and share that post to all tutors. I spent the next couple of hours going through the recording of the event, making notes, and putting everything into a blog summary of the TM470 AL development event (blog)

Evening

I try not to work evenings (or weekends) but sometimes you just can’t avoid it. It was one of those nights.

At the start of TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience, some tutors were worried about an event called the ‘Hackathon’. The OU group tuition policy stipulates that each face-to-face event must have an online alternative. The thing is, the TM356 face-to-face Hackathon takes an entire day, and you can’t have an online equivalent of an event that starts at 10.30 and ends at 16.30; it just wouldn’t be humane!

With a blessing from the module team, I made the executive decision to create three ‘parts’ to a longer running online equivalent. After making this suggestion, I realised that I was going to making a substantial contribution to the pedagogic design of these ‘parts’. 

The tutors were asking, quite rightly: ‘how are these sessions going to work?’ 

I made a decision: showing and demonstrating a teaching idea would be significantly easier than writing a document that tutors would then have to try to decode. I had prepped a session, uploaded a session, and I worked with a tutor to deliver a session.

My fellow tutor had some brilliant ideas; we tried a ‘dialogic approach’ to teaching, which means: ‘we asked each other questions’. Listening to two voices is always, in my opinion, more fun than listening to one.

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Regional closures: what will the impact be?

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I work in the Open University London office as a regional academic, or ‘staff tutor’ as we are colloquially known.

A couple of weeks ago the university council met. One of the outcomes from this meeting meant that the London regional centre (as we know it) will close, and the office space will be given over to FutureLearn, an Open University funded MOOC provider, who are currently housed in the British Library.

London is one of seven regional offices that are going to be shut. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that the impact of these closures are going to be very significant; significant to the university as a whole, significant in the way that we support tutors and students and significant in terms of my day job.

Here’s the most important point: I need an office to do my job.

I need a space to interview tutors. I need a space where I can have one to one chats with students who might be struggling with important parts of their studies. The university needs a space where disability and accessibility assessments can be performed. We also need a space to run tutorials and one off associate lecturer development events. We also need a space to run, and plan, regional outreach and widening participation events. We need a space where we can run our bi-annual AL development conference. We also need a space where we can work with colleagues in other higher education institutions and run academic workshops.

Without a regional centre, or an office that I can regularly use many of these activities will become significantly harder to do. Also, the way that the university supports its associate lecturers (who are, arguably, the most important people within the university when it comes to student support and retention) will be significantly impoverished. It will be harder to get tutors in the same room together, because there will be more barriers and hurdles in our way.

There are other direct impacts on those of us who are staff tutors. One significant impact is that we will have less clerical and administrative support. I work with a great bunch of people who can help me to solve problems. If I need students moved between different groups, I can ask (which means to ‘speak to’) colleagues who get things done. These great people also help us to check documents and to prepare interviews for associate lecturers. When the faculty administrative support moves to Manchester, I shall miss them.

Finally, it’s going to be hard to create and sustain a community of staff tutors. We all need to share war stories about different aspects of our jobs. We need that space to share experience: this sharing of practice is, of course, a really important part of developing excellent teaching. By excellent teaching, I’m not just talking about face to face teaching: I’m talking about correspondence teaching and everything that goes with it.

Working at home will make it harder for us to do all these things: we will lose an important human aspect to our job that is really important. Losing our regional centres will make things harder for us and our tutors. And, sadly, I fear this will also make it harder for us to support our students. 

Other blogs:

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Day in the life of a MCT staff tutor

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 17 Mar 2020, 08:26

I’ve written this blog post to complement a presentation that I have given (or are just about to give!) at a faculty student support team meeting on 17 June. The aim of the presentation was to share something about what staff tutors do on a day to day basis. Since I thought that other people within the university might find the presentation (and this summary) of interest, I’ve decided to share it more widely.

I’ve written this summary from my own perspective; other staff tutors within the Open University (and in other faculties) are likely to have very different days simply because of how their role might be split between central academic work and regional academic work.  There will be, of course, common themes: working with module teams, working with student support teams and working with tutors (and doing research, when time permits!)  We also, of course, can and do speak with students.

If you’ve accidentally discovered this post, you might not know what a ‘staff tutor’ is.  It’s a job that is half academic, and half management.  The management bit means we manage tutors.  This management bit can and does directly feeds into the academic bit: we represent the interests of the tutors during module team discussions.  A staff tutor is what is known as a ‘regional academic’. We are currently spread across the whole of the UK, and we might do a whole bunch of different things, ranging from outreach, working with local industries (if time and opportunity permits), and playing a role in marketing events.  I’m based in the London region, and work for the MCT faculty (which is the faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology).

Before I go on and describe ‘a day’, I should perhaps make a quite note on how I wrote this somewhat eclectic summary.  I began by writing what I got up to during an entire day.  I then thought about other important tasks that hadn't cropped up during the day that I sampled.  In fact, the below narrative is a collage of aspects from different days.  I’ve written it this way so give a sense of the diversity of things that we do.  It’s not representative, since every day is different, but it does give a taste of what kind of things a staff tutor gets involved with.

Blitz the inbox

I usually get up between 7 and 8 in the morning, depending on what I’ve got on.  If I’ve got to travel to Milton Keynes (the head office) I usually set my alarm clock for 6.30pm so I can comfortably catch a couple of trains.  Most of the time, however, I tend to work either at home, or in the Camden regional centre. On this day, I was up at around half seven, had some breakfast, and was in my study around three quarters of an hour later after quite a bit of early morning faffing about. 

When I boot up my laptop in the morning I usually have a single objective: to get though as many inbox messages as I can, as quickly as I can; this way I can figure out what is important and what is not.  I delete unnecessary calls for papers and scan through a ‘geek newsletter’ looking at new tech headlines.  I then delete a load of messages from Milton Keynes.  This might be: fire alarm notifications, messages about cakes and something about a pathway diversion. There is some stuff that I just don’t need to know about.

It’s important to keep everyone in the loop about what you’re doing, so one of the first things I did was to email our London faculty assistant to tell him what I’m doing.

I have a load of folders to manage my email load.  I see one email that corresponds to an on-going issue (a complaint).  I open up a folder that corresponds to the presentation of a module that I’m looking after, and I drag it in, to create a ‘virtual paper trail’ of an issue.

I see a university conference announcement that relates to an eSTEeM project.  This is a university scholarship initiative; I’m becoming increasingly interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning and I received a bit of funding to run my own project.  I read the conference call and wondered: could this conference be useful for dissemination?  Perhaps it might, but I then decided the timing didn’t work: I needed to concentrate on finishing the project which is about understanding the tutor experience of TT284.  I’ve got loads of other ideas; the challenge, of course, is trying to find the time.

One message reminds me that I need to send a message to all TU100 14J students.  One of my roles is to support the level 1 computing undergraduate tutors.  One thing that I’ve been doing is trying to encourage as many students to come along to the face to face tutorial sessions.  To do this I send them neat, concise messages about their day schools – this means they have all the information they need: information about the venue, information about travel information, and information about the room that they need to go to.  I compose a message to our faculty assistant, asking him to send it out later that day.

One email is interesting: can I help out with postgraduate events (because apparently I was some kind of IT curriculum programme lead?)  This was news to me!  I used to be a postgraduate computing student, but I’m certainly not a curriculum lead.  I sent an email to the regional marketing contact (who is always lovely) agreeing to run a ‘demo tutorial’ for any prospective students who might be interested, suggesting that we had a face to face chat when I’m next in the London office.

A colleague sent me a message that demands a response: Could I contribute to an associate lecturer’s CDSA (or, appraisal)?  Yes, I can!  He’s great!  But there isn’t much to say at the moment since he’s currently on a year out, but I’ll happily write a couple of paragraphs that might be useful.

One thing that I do in the region is help out with the associate lecturer development conferences which offer all tutors on-going professional development and training.  These events are very important: they give tutors an opportunity to meet each other, help tutors become familiar with new educational tools and approaches, and help the regional academics to more readily appreciate any of their worries and concerns. I’ve been helping to organise a session where the tutors would work with two actors who are running a session on dealing with difficult telephone calls.  After sending and receiving a couple of messages, it has been decided: the actors are going to invoice the region.

Releasing monitoring reports

It doesn’t seem like there are any really urgent crises to deal with this morning, so I decide to set another objective: to sign off all off on ALL the associate lecturer monitoring reports that have arrived into a faculty inbox over the last week or two. 

I’ve always held the view that signing off on monitoring reports is an important job.  I hold this view for two reasons: firstly, it’s a really useful way to get an understanding of the correspondence tuition that is delivered to students and secondly, as a tutor, I really welcomed the personal comments that used to come from my line manager.  Here’s what I do: I look at the comments of the monitor, and then the PT3, and then the script, and then add some ‘mediation’ comments.  Some monitoring for other staff tutors who are located in another part of the country has ended up in the London inbox, so I emailed it them a colleague who looks after those.

After a couple of hours of work, I decide it’s time for a well-earned cup of tea.

Academic stuff

During my break I idly browsed the BBC technology pages and discovered an article about a new computing initiative that uses something called the ‘Microbit’.  This takes me down the path of looking at (briefly) some of the history about the BBC’s computer literacy project that ran in the 1980s.  I start to read about someone (who is now a fellow of the royal society) who had helped design the ARM chip instruction set.  Since I often help at the London degree ceremonies in the Barbican I started to idly wonder whether this could be someone to put forward for an honorary degree. From my perspective, their contribution to computing is pretty clear.

I decide to park this, since I’ve already said I would recommend someone else to the honorary degree committee, but haven’t (yet) managed to find the time to write a biography of the candidate that I was thinking about.

A few weeks earlier I had attended an event that was run by the Higher Education Academy (HEA website).  The event was all about teaching introductory computing (personal blog), which is an interest of mine.  I also have an awareness that the faculty will soon start to consider how to replace TU100 My Digital Life (which will take a couple of years).  I’ve got this habit of writing ‘blog summaries’ so I can keep notes of interesting events and share these notes with colleagues.  I finally find the time to finish writing my summary, and I upload it to my personal OU blog after a bit of editing.

Dealing with a module issue

I receive a call from a fellow staff tutor about a student who is persistently unhappy with aspects of a module. We swap student ID numbers, and I look up the student record.  We have a chat about the student, and by looking at the student record, we figure out a way forward.  We both manage the tutors who are delivering the module in question, and between each of us we figure out what needs to be done: my colleague agrees to speak with the student to try to offer some further guidance and explanations.

I send my colleague copies of some emails that I had safely filed away.  I remember that after starting as a staff tutor, I soon realised that effective record keeping is really important.

Working with the student support team

The computing and IT student support team is located in Birmingham.  The members of the Birmingham team respond to student’s learner support queries and help students choose their next module on a programme of study.  When it comes to helping students with certain issues, we sometimes ask students to ring the SST, or we create what is known as a ‘service request’, asking the SST to give students a call: there are things that they can do that us staff tutors can’t do.

I receive a call from a colleague in Birmingham about a particular module, TT284 Web Technologies. My colleague has a very precise question about the module, and it’s a question that I can easily answer (since I work with the tutors who deliver that module, and have worked with the module team).  From my own perspective, it’s great to have that contact with someone who is offering advice to the students.  Also, I feel that due to changes in the way that tutors are managed (staff tutors are now managing smaller number of numbers), we’re able to specialise a bit more, and this will help us to more easily respond to detailed academic queries.

Towards the end of the day

As well as being a staff tutor, I’m also a tutor.  In MCT I tutor on M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  In the previous presentation of M364, I ran a module wide revision tutorial.  I didn’t have to do this (this isn’t something that the M364 module team explicitly ask tutors to do), but I thought it would be a good thing to do; plus, it would help me to get more OU Live experience.  I decided to do the same for the current presentation. 

When I announced that I was running a session, another tutor said that she would come along and help out, which was great news. After quite a few email messages, we chose a date and time. There will be two sessions, and we agreed that we would work together on both of them. Our two sessions will tackle the subject of revision in different ways.

After a bit of a delay, the first stage of the Locations Analysis is out. I discover there are a huge number of documents to read through.  I skim through the main document, which seems to be over eighty pages in length. I quickly become tired.

When I get back I check my email again. There an extension request from a fabulous T320 tutor. I’m very happy to accept their judgement, and I appreciated that they asked me about it.  I offered a couple of suggestions about what to say to our student.

It’s the end of the day.  It has been a busy one. I make something to eat, and then caught a train to the middle of London to meet up with some friends.

On the way back, at Charing Cross train station, I noticed that I had missed a call.  There was a voicemail.  It was from a student of mine. I called the student back and we had a chat.  The student was asking for an extension. I agreed to the extension, and highlighted some sections of the assignment so our student could just focus on completing what he needed to do. I also emphasised a really important point: that there are no extensions to the final TMA. 

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