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Christopher Douce

TM470: Tips from a tutor

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At the start of every presentation of TM470 I run a couple of introductory tutorials. During these tutorials, I try to conclude with a set of tips. These are things to do, and things to always bear in mind whilst studying. The tips that follow relate to the different aspects of the module. In this blog I have taken the liberty of adding one more point that relate to the writing of the project report. (On this point, do refer to earlier blogs that relate to writing and TM470, and how to structure your final project report).

Here are my (personal) tips:

Choose a project that allows you to show off your skills (and have fun): The project module is all about showing off. It should be used to show off what you have learnt, what skills you have, and what you can do. It is used to show off your technical skills, project planning skills and writing skills (which is an important graduate skill).

Think about the type of project it is: there are three types of project – research projects (you study something), development projects (you create something), and evaluation projects (you evaluate something). Depending on what you have chosen, your project might have elements of all three. Identify which bit you might be doing, and when you might be doing it.

Choose (and justify) appropriate lifecycle model: different types of project need to be managed and run in different ways. Familiarise yourself with the different lifecycle modules that are presented within the module materials and ask yourself why you need to choose one approach over another.

Spend time creating a project plan (and share a plan in each TMA): demonstrating your planning skills is a really important part of the project module. Not only should you identify a list of key tasks that you may need to complete, but you should also create a Gantt chart. A practical recommendation is: create a Gantt chart when you start the project, and take a copy of it. As you progress throughout your project, make regular updates. When you get to the end, compare your first Gantt chart with your current Gantt chart. Write about what this tells you about either yourself or your project planning. Add these thoughts to the reflection section of your EMA.

Take time to identify risks: what are they? Risk management is important. You need to take account of these within your plan, and consider how you may need to mitigate against them. Different projects will present different risks. Consider both your own role within the project, and the types of resources that you need to complete your project.

Always consider about ethics within the project: consider ethics from different perspectives – the ethics of involving people within your project, and also the ethical implications of how the outcomes of your project might impact on others and wider society.

Start your reading and researching (use the library): make good use of the university library. A part of your student fees always goes towards it, and it is a phenomenal resource. Do use it to find academic articles that help you to answer some of the problems you need to solve during your project. You can also use it to find textbooks to help to solve technical problems.

Create a project log, and send me updates every week: a project log can help you to reflect on what you have done during the course of your project. This can be especially useful when you write everything up. Sending an update email every two weeks to your tutor can also play the role of a log. Any emails that you send can also be saved as an appendix, to show an examiner that you have maintained regular contact with your tutor.

Take time to review the marking grids: in other words, make sure you understand what the TMA and EMA learning outcomes are. Once you understand these and know what they are, you can almost mark yourself. Use these grids to understand what evidence you need to provide in your assessments, and your final project report.

Pay attention to how your project report is written: when projects are assessed, the project is evaluated through what is shared in your project report. This means that your writing is important. Do your best to make your report as interesting as it can be. Make sure that it has a strong (and clear) narrative in terms of what you have done, what you have learnt, and what you have achieved. As well as your outputs and outcomes, make sure you tell the examiner how you have approached your planning. Clear writing will help your examiner identify evidence to show how you have gained the module learning outcomes.

Reflections

Although these are my personal tips, students should always refer to the module materials in the first instance. Other tutors may we have different (although hopefully) similar opinions. If you’re unsure about what you need to do, or how to present evidence within a TMA or your project report, please do seek advice from your tutor, or by making a post to the module forums.

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Christopher Douce

Object-oriented programming: seven tips

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 16 Feb 2024, 16:01

Over the last few years, I’ve been tutoring M250 Object-oriented Java programming. During some of the tutorials that I facilitate, I share set of tips with students. What follows is a brief summary of the tips, and some accompanying notes. I hope these might be helpful to anyone studying M250, or any other OU module that involves a bit of programming.

1. You can't learn programming by reading the course books. You need to do it. You need to spend serious time playing.

It’s important to spend some quality time with the language that you’re using and the integrated development environment that you’re using to manipulate that language. You can only properly learn to get a feel for both object-oriented programming, and programming constructs by using them. Get a feel for the words and the punctuation that you’re using. Also, instrument your code with print statements, and consider using a debugger to really see what is happening. Play and mess about. Getting yourself in a tangle is all a part of the process. There is another related tip is: do one thing at a time.

2. Use the examples as a starting point; then go further.

Start to play, and then to play a bit more, and see where this will take you. Invariably, you’ll end up writing more and more code. This means that you’ll get to a point where you need to think about how to make things a bit easier again. If you’ve found a problem in a textbook, think about how might alter that problem to solve a slightly different problem, or a more general problem.

3. Accept that things are going to be uncomfortable sometimes: it’s impossible to understand everything at once, things will only make sense after you've spent the hours playing and learning.

There’s a lot going on with object-oriented programming. 

There’s the key ideas of types (or classes), objects, attributes and member functions. Not to mention, of course, how objects might work with each other to solve problems. Plus, there’s constructors, libraries and iterators.

It’s all a lot of take in, and it isn’t a surprise if you start to feel a bit overwhelmed. If you see difficult things and struggle to understand what is going on, accept certain things at face value for the time being; full understanding will come a bit later.

4. Always make a backup copy.

This relates to the first tip: playing.

When you play with code, you can also mess things up and get yourself in a tangle, especially if you follow tip 2 where you build on earlier things you have earlier done. As you figure everything out, make sure you take a backup copy of your code. If you’re making lots of changes, you might want to create different versions of your code. You might create a copy, save all your files in a new directory and call it ‘version 1’, ‘version 2’ etc. 

Also, do make sure you save your files in a location that is different your computer, just in case your computer goes wrong. A bit later on, you might start to use something called GitHub.

5. Try to explain your code to someone else. (Or, get a plant, and call it Dijkstra)

Sometimes coding presents some real puzzles; sometimes there’s something that isn’t quite understood, or something doesn’t quite work as expected. As a developer, I’ve sometimes had bugs which have been both weird and persistent. When this happens, I would “have a chat with Dijkstra”.

Let me explain. I once heard that in a computer lab in Cambridge, there was a houseplant, which was named called Dijkstra, named after a famous Dutch computer scientist called Edsger Dijkstra. If a student was struggling with some code, and asked themselves the question “why doesn’t this work?” they were told to explain their code to Dijkstra. The very act of explaining your code, a step at a time, has the potential to help you to understand what is happening, and what the problem is. 

If you have a partner, sibling, or pet, they can all become Dijkstra.

6. If you keep going over the same things time and time again, don’t be afraid to step away from it. Sleep on it, and come back to it with fresh eyes.

In computing, there’s a term called thrashing, which is sometimes used to describe a phenomenon that occurs with computer operating systems. This needs a bit of explanation, so please do bear with me.

Your computer has two types of memory: random access memory, and backing store memory. Random access memory is fast and expensive, but your computer doesn’t have very much of it. In contrast, there is typically a lot backing store memory in your computer (which used to be held on a magnetic disk), which is pretty inexpensive in compared to random access memory. Your computer operating system provides programmers with a lot more memory than is actually available through random access memory. It does this by moving data between different types of memory.

Thrashing is what happens when your computer operating system causes your computer to spend all its time trying to get things done by moving data between different types of memory, rather than doing the work that needs to be done.

If you find yourself ‘thrashing’, you need to reboot. You need to step away from your code and come back to it after a break.

I remember once having an idea about how to solve a coding problem when I was having a shower. A break can do you the world of good. This point leads me to my final point.

7. Have fun, and be gentle with yourself.

Everyone learns at different speeds; learning isn’t a race, so do be gentle with yourself. It’s important to have fun too. I remember that one of my first object-oriented programs was a simulated card game that was based on a television gameshow. It was fun to write, and it was fun to play. This point about playing takes us back to the first point: you can't learn programming by reading the course books; you need to find the time to play.

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Christopher Douce

C&C research fiesta: getting research funding

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 27 June 2023, 16:03

This is the second in a short series of two posts that summarises some of the highlights of a ‘research fiesta’ that has held by the School of Computing and Communications. This post summarises some of the points that were made during a panel session about research funding.

The panel comprised of four professors (if I’ve counted correctly), a research manager from the STEM faculty, and was facilitated by our director of research, Robin Laney. Although the focus was about research funding, it could have also easily had another title: how to become a professor.

Here’s a list of some really useful tips that I noted down about gaining research funding: 

  1. Think about how you might go about forming a working relationship with a funding body. This might mean keeping an eye out for different research related events that they run. Networking is important. Take time to speak to them.
  2. To develop relationships with funders, join mailing lists, check their websites and respond to calls for advice and consultation activities.
  3. Take time to understand the motivations of a funding body and what their priorities are. Simply put, the closer a research proposal or bid fits the aims and objectives of a funding body, the higher the probability of success.
  4. As well as understanding their aims and objectives, take time to understand the processes that they use, both in terms of bid submission and also in terms of how bids are evaluated. A key tip here is: talk to colleagues who have been successful and know what the procedures are.
  5. Always try to play to the strength of the university. Each institution is unique.
  6. Consider projects or proposals that are a little ‘left field’; proposals that are slightly unusual or explores an unexpected area may cause interest and intrigue.
  7. Look for new funding programmes. Getting in early might benefit both the funder and the organisation (and project) that is funded, especially as the funding programme builds up experience and finds its distinct focus.
  8. Successful bids often have components of interdisciplinarity and collaboration. Unsuccessful bids don’t present a clear story.
  9. Find collaborators who are able to work between disciplines; these are rare people who can help with the writing of project bids and proposals.
  10. Find external stakeholders who have a lot to gain from their involvement in a project. When describing this, present a clear project narrative that others can easily understand.
  11. When working with collaborators and stakeholders, make sure that you give them plenty of time to create supporting documents, such as letters of support. 
  12. Think in terms of teams. Working with a team of people means that funders might see certain bids as being less risky. Use your team to read and review your bid.
  13. Learn how everything works. Become a bid reviewer and seek out opportunities to sit on funding panels. The experience of reviewing other bids is invaluable.
  14. Speak to your university ethics committee early (and show that you have done so).
  15. Think about creating what could be described as a portfolio of ideas to work on at any one time.
  16. Smaller grants can be important; small grants can lead to large ones. Small grants can help researchers and research groups to develop their experience and expertise.

Summary

There are lot of really helpful points here. The biggest points I took away from this session was: be strategic (consider your portfolio of interests), look at what funding bodies are doing and what they are doing, and network to find collaborators, and build a team around project bids. In essence, take a collaborative approach. 

Addendum

This is late breaking edit, to share an article that was shared after the fiesta, which has the title: 25 research tips and strategies. It is worth a look.

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Christopher Douce

Ten Forum Tips

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I spend quite a lot of time using on-line discussion forums that are used as a part of a number of Open University modules I have a connection with.  I also wear a number of different ‘hats’; as well as being an Open University tutor, I also spend time visiting forums that are run by other Open University tutors in my role as a staff tutor.

A couple of years ago, I was sent a copy of a book called e-moderating (book website) by Gilly Salmon, who used to work at the Open University business school.  The e-moderating book is really useful in situations where the discussion forums constitute a very central part of the teaching and learning experience.  Salmon offers a raft of useful tips and offers us a helpful five stage model (which can be used to understand the different types of interaction and activities that can take place within a forum).

Different modules use discussion forums in different ways.  In some modules, such as H810 Accessible on-line learning they are absolutely central to the module experience.  In other modules, say, M364 Interaction Design, they tend to adopt more of a ‘supporting’ rather than a ‘knowledge creation’ role.

Just before breaking for Christmas and the New Year, I started (quite randomly) to write a list of what I thought would be my own ‘killer tips’ to help tutors with forums.  This is what I’ve come up with so far.

1. Be overly polite

One phrase that I really like is ‘emotional bandwidth’.  In a discussion forum, we’re usually dealing with raw text (although we can pepper our posts with emoticons and pictures). 

This means that we have quite a ‘narrow’ or ‘low’ emotional bandwidth; our words and phrases can be very easily misunderstood and misinterpreted by others, especially in situations when we’re asking questions with the objective of trying to learn some new concept or idea.  Since our words are always ambiguous, it’s important to be overly polite.   

Be more polite than you would be in real life!

2. Acknowledge every introduction

The start of a module is really important.  The first days or weeks represent our chance to ‘set the tone’.  If we set the right tone, it’s possible to create momentum, to allow our discussion forums to attract interaction and conversation.

A good idea at the start of a module is to begin an ‘introduction’ thread.  Start this thread by posting your own introduction: set an example.  When other introductions are posted, take the time to send a reply to (or acknowledge) each one.

3. Use pins

Some discussion forums have a feature that allows you to ‘pin’ a discussion thread to the top of a forum. 

The act of ‘pinning’ a thread highlights it as something that is important.  Pins can be really useful to highlight discussions that are current or important (such as an activity that needs to be completed to prepare for an assignment, for example).  Subsequently, it’s important not to pin everything.  If you do, students will be unclear about what is important and what is not and this risk hiding important discussions. 

Use ‘pinned threads’ in a judicious way and regularly change what threads are pinned (as a module progresses) – this suggests that a forum is alive and active.

4. Tell your students to subscribe

There are a couple of ways to check the OU discussion forums.  One way is to login regularly and see whether anyone has made any new posts.  Another way is to receive email updates, either from individual threads or from whole discussion forums.  At the start of a module presentation, it’s a good idea to tell your student group to subscribe to all the forums that are used within a module.  One way to do this is by sending a group email.  When a student has subscribed they are sent an email whenever anyone makes a post or sends a reply (the email also contains a copy of the message that was posted).

One of the really good things about using emails to keep track of forums is that it’s possible to set up ‘rules’ on an email client.  For example, whenever a forum related email is received, it might be possible to transfer it to a folder based on the module code that is contained within the message subject.  This way, you can keep on top of things without overloading your inbox.

5. Encourage and confirm

Busy forums are likely to be the best forums.  One approach to try to create a busy forum is to do your best to offer continual encouragement; acknowledge a good post and emphasise key points that have been raised.  (Salmon writes about weaving together and summarising a number of different discussions). 

Another really great thing to do is to seek further confirmation or clarifications.  You might respond to a message by writing something like, ‘does this answer your question?’  This keeps a discussion alive and offers participants an opportunity to present alternative or different perspectives.

6. Push information about TMAs

Tutor marked assignments (TMAs) are really important.  As soon as a TMA is submitted, students will generally expect them back within 10 working days (which is the university guideline).  Sometimes TMAs are returned earlier, and in some situations (with permission from the staff tutor), it can take a bit longer.  A forum can be used to provide ‘push’ updates to students about how marking is progressing.  Once a TMA cut-off date has been met, a tutor could start a forum thread entitled, ‘TMA x marking update’. 

When you’re approximately half way through the marking, one idea is to make a post to this thread telling them.  Also, if your students have subscribed, they’ll automatically receive the updates.  This reduces pre-TMA result anxiety (for the students), since everyone is kept in the loop about what is happening.  (The thread can also be used to post some general feedback, if this is something that is recommended by the module team).

7. Advertise tutorials

Open University tutorials can be either face to face (at a study centre, which might be at a local university or college), or can take place on line through a system called OU Live.  A post to a discussion forum can be used to remind students about tutorials.   They can also be used to offer some guidance to students to help them to prepare for the session.  You could also ask whether students (in your group) have any particular subjects or topics that they would like to be discussed or explored.

After the tutorial, a forum can be used to share handouts that were used during either an on-line session or a day school.  It also offers students an opportunity to have a discussion about any issues that (perhaps) were not fully understood.  Also, during a tutorial, a tutor might set up or suggest a long running research task.

There are a number of advantages of connecting tutorials to forum discussions.  Those people who could not attend can benefit from any resources that were used during an event.  It also allows a wider set of opinions and views to be elicited from a greater number of students.

8. Provide links

A subject or topic doesn’t begin and end with the module materials.  During the presentation of a module, you might inadvertently see a TV programme that addresses some of the themes that are connected to a particular topic of study.  A forum is a great way to contextualise a module by connecting it to current stories in the media and one way you can do this is by either posting links to a news story (or series of stories), or perhaps by starting a discussion.

As well as sharing news stories, you can also use discussion forums to alert students to some of the study skills resources that have been developed by the Open University.  There are also some library resources that might be useful too.  Other resources might include OpenLearn resources, for example.  A forum is a great way to direct students to a wide array of useful and helpful materials.  You might also want to ask other tutors (using the tutors’ forum) about whether any other tutors have suggestions or ideas.

9. Visit other forums

Every tutor does things slightly different; no tutor is exactly the same, and this is a good thing.  If you tutor on a module, there’s a possibility that you might be able to view another tutor’s discussion forum.  If you have the time, do visit another tutor’s forum.  Some good questions to ask are: ‘at a glance, do the students look engaged?’ or ‘how busy is this forum?’  Other questions might be, ‘what exactly is the tutor doing?’ and ‘ how are they asking questions?’  This allows you to get a view on how well a forum is being run.  When you see a busy and well run forum, ask the question: ‘is the tutor doing something special here?’  If so, what is it?  Sometimes, of course, certain cohorts can just be pretty quiet; some years are more busy than others.

After visiting a forum, the best questions to ask are, ‘what have I learnt?’ and ‘is there anything that I could or should be doing with my forum?’

10. Form forum habits

The more that you’re active on a forum, the more useful a forum can become for students.  Find some time, every day, or every couple of days, to read through and respond to forum posts.  This will keep your forums fresh and alive; they may even acquire a ‘stickiness’ of their own and become pages that students are drawn to time and time again.

Summary

This quick blog post summarises a number of ‘forum tips’ that I’ve discovered over the last couple of years of working with different modules.  Some of these ideas have, of course, been shaped by the e-moderating book that I have mentioned earlier.  E-moderating is a book that is useful for some modules and not others since different modules use forums in slightly different ways.  Although a module team might use a forum in a particular way, it is always going to be up to you, a tutor, to take ownership of this important learning space.

Finally, if you would like to add to these tips (or even disagree with them), please don’t hesitate to let me know!

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