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Reflections on M250

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I’ve just finished tutoring my first presentation of M250 Object-oriented Java programming.

I first applied to tutor on the predecessor to this module back in 2005. At the time I was a full time Java programmer working in industry, writing software that drove some equipment that was used to teach telecommunication principles. 

I wasn’t offered a contract on M250, but I was offered a contract on M364, which was called Fundamentals of Interaction Design. I tutored M364 for a little over ten years. It was a great module; it was well designed, it had a clear structure, and gave students some practical experience of carrying out some really simple usability evaluations.

In 2019, I heard from a colleague that there was a M250 vacancy in the London region. I hesitated; I’ve a lot on. I also tutor on the project module, TM470, and have a few other OU responsibilities. Since my research at university was about object-oriented programming, I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to play a part in teaching people about object-oriented programming. I applied. I was interviewed and considered appointable.

Books

In the post I was sent three glossy looking books. In the very early stages of tutoring, I sat down and started to read them, skimming over the activities; a lot of what I was reading was already familiar to me, and I could understand the concepts that were expressed through the amphibian-related activities (frogs and toads were used to introduce the concept of objects and messages).

Through the module website, I found that there were PDF and ePub versions of books. I downloaded the ePub versions onto my eReader, just so I could carry them around with me a bit more easily.

Getting everything going

At the start of the module, I set up some introduction threads on the tutor group forum and wrote to each student telling them to subscribe to it. I also asked students to get in touch with me to say hello. For those who didn’t reply, I chased them up with a text message and a quick phone call or voicemail. 

My first tutorial

My first ever M250 tutorial took place in a seminar room at the University of Westminster. I was there to support my fellow tutor, Lindsey, who has been allocated to me as my mentor.  Two things struck me: she knew terms to describe Java that I had forgotten, and carried out almost all of her teaching using a combination of whiteboard, and pen and paper. This method of teaching programming was a method that I approved of; it forces everything to move a whole lot more slowly.

My first solo tutorial

My first ever online introductory tutorial was fun. I prepped for it by looking at what other tutors had done, using sections of the module material and sharing bits of the TMA question. 

During the first tutorial, I tried my best to emphasise the fundamental concepts of object-oriented programming. I asked everyone who came along to look around their immediate environment. We made classes out of those objects, and gave them attributes. I also compared non-OO programming to OO programming, to really emphasise why it’s an important subject. I also recorded the tutorial and did two things to follow up: I posted a link to the recording on the tutor group forum, and also sent an email to all student to let them know they could find a link to the recording by visiting the forum.

Whenever I can, I try to connect different things together; tutorials with module materials, and forums with recordings.

My first TMA

The first TMA of a new module means that you never know what you’re going to expect. I always knew that there would be a lot of support behind the scenes. I subscribed to the tutor forums (in M250, there was one support forum for every TMA), printed out all of the tutor notes (which were comprehensive), along with the TMA question. I also made liberal use of my highlighter to identify bits that I needed to pay attention to.

I quickly realised that students were asked to submit their TMAs in two parts. Firstly, there was the written part (presented within a Word document), then there was some programming code, that was submitted in a zip file. The code in the zip file was also presented in the Word document, and could add teaching comments into the Word document.

Another thing that was new to me was the BlueJ Java programming environment. I soon figured out how it worked: projects were contained within directories, and these directories contained a project file. I easily found the compile button, and figured out that there were another bunch of tools that had been created by the university: something called the OU workspace which presented a graphical display, and a way to dynamically work with Java code.

There was something that really helped me to get going in the very early days, and that was a testing tool that had been created by the module team. Essentially, you run a Java program that then compares a specified Java program (i.e. a student’s submission) against a predefined definition or specification. Essentially, it’s a tool that tells you whether a student’s code is right or wrong. The tutor’s job is to interpret everything: the tool output, the student’s submission and the tutor notes and provide some sensible teaching comments, along with a mark.

I soon realised that I could apply a familiar tried and tested marking approach to M250: I could mark one question (or question section) at a time, for all student submissions. The advantage of doing it this way is: (1) consistency, and (2) speed. When you’re doing this, you can put quite a lot of the marking guide into your head and also make sure that you provide consistent comments and feedback for each of the student submissions.

My first additional support session

After marking the first TMA, I noticed that a couple of students may be struggling to understand some of the fundamental concepts of OO programming. A tip off for this was how some of the Java code was expressed. It might have been things like students not quite understanding the purpose of member variables and how they related to member functions (for example). 

I emailed all the students who might be struggling to ask them whether they might be interested in a one to one session. A couple of students agreed.

During one of the additional support sessions, which took place in a tool called Adobe Connect, I used screen sharing. Rather than telling students what they needed to do, I asked questions to probe their understanding of some of the fundamental Java and OO concepts. I then used screen sharing, in combination with the BlueJ environment, to do what is usually called ‘live coding’. Essentially, during the tutorial, we co-created some code which explored similar concepts that were explored within the TMA questions.

I had never done any live coding before. I had certainly never done it using BlueJ and Adobe Connect. In some respects, I was taking quite a few risks, but everything seemed to work okay. Object-oriented concepts were communicated and shared through a combination of English and Java.

My first examination preparation session

During my first presentation of M250, something unexpected happened; a global pandemic. What this meant was that the expected M250 written exam was cancelled. This mean that the final assessment score was going to be calculated from the scores of all the TMAs. This was possible, since the TMAs assessed all the key learning outcomes from the module.

Exams are useful, since they enable learners to consolidate their earlier learning. Rather than running an examination preparation session, I’m going to be running what I can only call a module consolidation tutorial. During this final tutorial I’m going to be talking about what was going to be assessed, why different questions were to be asked, and how they may relate to studies on other modules. 

Reflections

I’ve enjoyed tutoring my first presentation of M250.

Tutoring the module was a bit of a surprise, in the sense that I didn’t expect to become a tutor on M250; I thought the opportunity had passed. I applied, since I felt that I had some hidden skills (knowledge of OO programming and Java) that I could use. 

I enjoyed realising that I remembered how to code and how the key parts of the language worked. I also enjoyed working with the new bits: collection classes and iterators; bits of the language that had been introduced after I had stopped using it on a daily basis.

Although the marking was hard work, it was looking at something that was familiar, which meant I was able to get into the swing of it relatively quickly. I soon learnt to accept that wasn’t going to understand everything that was in the tutor notes (tutor marking instructions) straight away. Understanding, of course, came by playing with code, and looking through the answers that students had submitted.

The real fun bits were the tutorials and the one-to-one sessions. It was in these sessions that I felt that I could really add something as a tutor.

If asked whether there was something I would change for the next presentation, it would be: I would take even more risks during tutorials. Programming has the potential to be a really fun subject. I have the tools to make it fun. It’s going to be up to me to make it so. 

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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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Different ways to use OU Live

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From time to time I use a system called OU Live.  OU Live is a software application that tutors use to deliver learning events (such as tutorials) through their computer.  It’s taken me quite some time to get used to it because teaching through OU Live is very different to teaching face to face. 

When I first learnt about OU Live it immediately stuck me that there were loads of things that that you could do in during face to face tutorials that you certainly can’t do in OU Live.  I really enjoy planning and running face to face tutorials; they are a great opportunity to share your enthusiasm about the subject that you’re teaching.  They are also a great opportunity to learn from your students and to immediately understand what aspects of your tuition works and what aspects don’t work. 

Teaching ‘electronically’ is very different: it’s harder to get a more direct connection with your students and it’s also difficult to know whether certain concepts are understood well enough so you can move to other topics: it’s more difficult to see ‘the whites of their eyes’!

Over time, I have been persuaded that OU Live offers some really great opportunities for students.  Although you can do things in face to face settings that you can’t do in OU Live, I’ve also come to see that the opposite is also true: you can do things in OU Live sessions that you can’t in face to face sessions.  I’ve also realised that one of the challenges for the university is how to share best practice in how to use OU Live not only between tutors, but also between module teams.

This blog post aims to summarise my understanding of different ways that OU Live can be used; it is a post that connects with the broad idea of ‘OU Live pedagogy’.  It aims to share some ideas about how it can be used during the presentation of an OU module.  Some of these approaches have been picked up by chatting with colleagues, and others are methods that are currently used today.  I’ve also added a couple of approaches that I’ve invented (but other people might have also thought of them too).

In essence, I’m posting this as a really rough ‘grab bag’ of tentatively named pedagogic tools that I hope someone might find useful.  If you have any comments, or have accidentally found this useful, do get in touch.

On-line tutorials

When I first started to use OU Live I used it to replace face-to-face tutorials.  There are two situations where I’ve needed to do this.  One of the modules that I tutor is completely on-line; students can be from different parts of the country (or even different parts of the world).  In this situation, face to face tutorials are obviously impossible: the only thing that we can do is to run OU Live sessions. 

Another situation was where I wasn’t able to physically get to a tutorial due to a scheduling clash.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to reschedule the event for the weekend since the new date would then be too close to the TMA cut-off date.  To get around this problem, I decided to run an evening OU Live tutorial, which I then recorded.  I was pretty surprised that a good number of students came along to the session (including some students who were never able to get to the face to face sessions).

In some respects, an OU Live tutorial can become a bit like a face to face tutorial (if you plan it well).  A tutor can present materials, do some talking, set up activities, ask for student responses, and even get students to work on a shared task by putting them into ‘breakout rooms’: there is a lot that is similar.  There are, however, some differences.  OU Live sessions can be pretty tiring for the tutor.  A tutor can’t just ‘glance across’ a classroom to see what is going on.  Instead, a tutor has to engage with a cognitively demanding interface and very regularly request students to ‘do stuff’, to ensure that their attention is maintained.  Tutors might also be faced with technical issues of challenges to contend with, i.e. some students might not have microphone headsets, they might have connected up the microphone jack to the headphone jack, or they might have set the volume setting so low that they can’t hear anything at all.

Another point is that sometimes the material designed for a face to face session might not be easily transferrable to an OU Live session because it just isn’t appropriate.  Students can’t write things on pieces of paper and exchange notes, or move to an empty space in a room (with the intention of demonstrating a physical concept or idea).  For an OU Live tutorial to work and work well, tutors (and, arguably the module team), need to come up with a learning design that is appropriate for the on-line environment.  Also, tutors and students need to be given some time so that they become familiar with the on-line environment.

I believe that an OU Live session can replace certain aspects of a face to face session, as long as they are designed with a lot of care and attention.  A final point is that an OU Live session shouldn’t go on for as long as a face to face session.  Longer sessions, for some reasons, just don’t seem to feel right.  We all need a break from looking into a screen.

Demo tutorials

A couple of months ago, I was alerted to some OU Live training materials (OU VLE) which shows how you might use OU Live during tutorial sessions (you might have to have ‘tutor permissions’ to be able to see these).  These exemplar sessions cover a range of different subjects, and they are quite short (around ten minutes), which means that you don’t have to go through an entire tutorial.  If you can access these, I do recommend them.

The first one is entitled ‘Working with metre in poetry’ makes use of highlighter and a web tour (from around the seven minutes mark).  The next session, entitled ‘Multisensory pronunciation training’ was all about learning German.  What was really nice about this one was the way that the ‘put your hand’ button was used and how the tutor used the webcam.

A subject that is close to my heart has the title, ‘Writing and running simple code’.  This makes use of the application sharing feature from around the two minute mark.  I also liked ‘Finding and using secondary sources in legal essay writing’, where the whiteboard was used from around the three minute mark.  I really like the way that ‘click and drag’ is used.

There are, of course, other exemplars.  Do have a look; it’s a really good resource.

On-line debate

A week or so ago I was chatting with a really experienced tutor who said that he really enjoys running OU Live sessions.  He told me that he had teamed up with another tutor.  ‘We have a debate’, he said.  ‘One of us takes one view, and the other tutor takes an opposing view.  Our students love it!’ 

This struck me as a whole other way to use OU Live.  TV programmes like Newsnight have a very familiar format.  OU Live not only allows us to create a ‘virtual TV studio’, but it also allows us to create a situation where the ‘virtual TV audience’ can ask the experts some questions.  Another thought is that we could potentially create situations where students can (and should) be encouraged to challenge the points of views that are exposed by the experts.

From my perspective, I would really like to see an example of how this might work.  There are aspects of technology and computing education where ‘the debate’ format might work.  Another point to bear in mind is that to get the best out of these opportunities, module teams need to be considering these opportunities when they are designing modules.

Recording a lecture

Running an on-line tutorial can be a tough business; there’s a lot going on.  You’ve got slides, different OU Live tools, students talking, problems with microphones, text messages appearing and also the need to manage and control activities. 

During the presentation of a module a tutor might discover that some students might struggle with a certain topic.  Rather than to offer comments through a discussion forum, or perhaps a group email, another approach is to run, and to also potentially record, a short lecture.  OU Live can be used to record a short session that can be considered to be akin to a ‘video podcast’.

When a session has been recorded, tutors can then refer students to the resource in their correspondence tuition, as well as during examination preparation sessions. 

I used this approach to run a revision session for M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  I kept getting scuppered by technology.  The first time I ran the revision session there was a power outage at the university which meant that students couldn’t login to my session.  The second time I ran the session, I discovered that I couldn’t use the record button, and after the session students contacted me asking when a recording would be available.   The third time I ran the session, I just made a recording; there were no students.  When I had finished the recording and I had made it available to everyone, I let all the students know by making a post to the module discussion forum.

One question is: how long should a ‘recorded lecture session’ last?  Unfortunately, I don’t have any research to back this up, but when it comes to student engagement my instinct is to try to keep them pretty short.  This is something that I ought to look into.

Focused Demo

The idea of a ‘focused demo’ pretty much follows on from the idea of a lecture.  Quite a few computing modules make use of some specialist software, such as programming environments such as Eclipse, Netbeans or Sense (you don’t have to worry about what these are, just know that they’re special bits of software).  For design and engineering modules, students might have to use tools such as Open Design Studio.  Some students might find that some of these pieces of software pretty baffling to use, especially if they’ve never seen them before.

One approach to help students is to ‘show’ them how to use a piece of software.  OU Live has got a great facility called ‘application sharing’, which means that you can show students what you see on your screen.  You might show students how to begin to use a software tool during an on-line tutorial, but there’s always the risk that things might go wrong, i.e. an internet connection might go down, or a big and complex bit of software might begin to misbehave. 

Rather than doing a ‘live’ demo (which is, ultimately, a really good thing to always try to do), another idea is to record what could be loosely called a ‘focussed demo’, i.e. you could show students how to use a particular bit of a software system by recording a quick demo using OU Live. 

If you’re teaching programming, you could also use this approach to show how to solve a particular problem.

Drop in session for students

I remember when I was an undergrad our human-computer interaction lecturer said to everyone, ‘I’ll be in my office on a Wednesday afternoon between these times… if you have any questions about anything, just pop in to see me: I’ll be very happy to have a chat’.  I thought it was a great way to encourage informal discussions about the course, and the materials.

After having a chat with my colleague from the South East region, I discovered that she used the exact same approach to support her students.  Rather than running a face to face ‘drop in session’, she ran a virtual one.

The way it worked was that she would advertise times when she would be available for a chat in her tutor OU Live room, and students could just turn up if they wanted a chat about anything. She would keep an eye on what was going on in the room whilst doing other things: exactly the same way that it used to work when I was an undergraduate.

What I really liked about this approach was how informal it is. There is no plan or agenda, but it clearly suggests to students that they can ‘drop by’ and gain some support if they need to.  I haven’t tried this approach in my own tutoring, but I am certainly going to!

Additional support session

For students who struggle with some aspects of a module the university can offer something called an ‘additional support session’.  This usually takes the form of a one to one session between a student and a tutor.  There are different ways that an additional support session could be run.  One way is to run a face to face session at a regional centre (or another venue that could be booked by the university).  Another approach might be to have a telephone session.  A third way is to run an additional support session through OU Live.

One of the main advantages of using OU Live for an additional support session is that both the student and the tutor can make use of the whiteboard.  In some cases, a tutor might decide to prepare a couple of slides so the tutor can work through some of the ideas that a student might be struggling with.  This might be particularly useful with arts subject, languages (where a tutor might write things onto a whiteboard), or even mathematics, where a tutor might take a student through how to solve an equation, or work through other mathematical ideas.

In the big scheme of things, face to face is always better than on-line, but on-line can certainly be (with adequate planning) significantly better than the telephone.  One question that should be asked if one is faced with running an OU Live session is: ‘how can I make the best use of this tool to help this particular student?’  One way to get a feel for how to approach a session is to take the time to explicitly ask the student which areas to focus on.   When we know a bit more, we can use the time that we have a whole lot more effectively.

Session between students

After recording the M364 revision session that I mentioned earlier, I noticed an interesting discussion on one of the module discussion forums.  One student proposed the idea of an ‘on-line chat’ in a module wide OU Live room.  I seem to remember that this started a short debate between tutors about whether students should be left alone in an on-line space that is operated by the university.

In a face to face university, students chat with each other in university owned common rooms and corridors all the time, so why shouldn’t this happen in an on-line space?  The tough thing about distance learning is the isolation, so it seemed like a really good idea to allow students to chat to each other about a forthcoming (or impending) exam.

I sense that different people have different views about the use of on-line spaces, but I also can see that module team members, forum moderators, or curriculum managers might be able to play a role in facilitating (or seeding) student led discussions through on-line rooms.  Plus, in some modules where group work is essential, I sense that the use of OU Live has the potential to play a pivotal role.

Final thoughts…

One of the things that I really like about OU Live is that you can record sessions which is one of the things that you can’t easily do in a face to face session: if you’ve missed a face to face session, it means that you’ve missed it.  The recording facility gives tutor the power to create new types of potentially transitory learning resources that have the potential to help students in a number of different ways.

Recording

My own (personal) view about recording is that we should record everything, since this has the potential to help the widest number of students.  Also, if a tutor makes a recording of an on-line tutor, students need be clearly told that they will be recorded: they should be given sufficient information to help them to make a decision about whether they wish to come along to a ‘live’ on-line session.

There are differing views about recording OU Live tutorials.  One argument is that if they are recorded, students won’t bother turning up; they’ll just watch the tutorial.  A counter argument to this is: if they don’t come along then they won’t be able to influence the tutorial in a way that will allow them to get their best possible learning.  A recording, I argue, should show students what they’re missing so they become suitably motivated to come along to the next live session.

Another argument is that if a session is recorded then students might be less likely to participate during a session.  This might well be the case, but I don’t see this as a very strong argument.  It’s very easy to forget that a recording is being made, and if there are exceptional points that a student wishes to share with a tutor then perhaps an on-line session isn’t the best place.

A final argument that I’ve heard is: ‘a tutorial is a tutorial; if you want to record something that students can access as a resource, then perhaps it should be recorded as just that: a resource’.  My point is that there isn’t any reason why we can’t do both.  OU Live allows us to do this, and there’s no reason why tutors can’t reference one type of resource from another.  During a ‘lecture’, you might hear the recorded phrase, ‘… and it was exactly this point that we covered during our earlier on-line tutorial’ (which students then might be tempted to go and listen to).

As far as I am aware, there isn’t yet any explicit faculty wide guidance about the recording of OU Live sessions, but I hope that there will be some one day.  When it comes to recording, my argument is very simple: we should use technology to help as many students as we can, irrespective of when and at what time they study.  Recordings of OU Live sessions can help with this, but I accept that there are important debates to resolve, especially the ethical dimension.

Module teams

One of the main points of this blog is that OU Live can be used in very different ways.  A lot can be done, but to get the best out of it, tutors (and staff tutors, who manage tutors) need a steer to understand how OU Live can be best used in the context of a module.  From the module team perspective, it’s important to offer explicit guidance to tutors about how it should and could be used.

Also, there is no reason why module teams cannot run their own OU Live sessions.  An OU Live session run by a module team should, of course, have a very different feel to any OU Live sessions that are run by tutors.  One idea is that a module team might run a series of ‘introductory lectures’ for a module: one at the start of a module, and one at the start of each major block.  This could be distinct from the sessions that tutors run which is all about small group work.

The module teams also have an important role to play in offering advice and guidance to tutors about the types of activities they consider to be useful.  At the beginning of a module presentation, the module team are the experts, and the tutors will occasionally need help in terms of understanding what to do in terms of how to effectively design a pedagogically engaging on-line tutorial.  Suggestions from the module team, perhaps working in collaboration with experienced tutors, can be invaluable.

Using OU Live for research

OU Live can be also used for research.  I’ve been recently been involved with an internal research project that has been all about understanding tutor experience on on-line modules.  The approach that the researchers (who were fellow associate lecturers) took was really interesting: they used OU Live to as a way to not only to help to facilitate a research interview, but also to record a research interview too.  The tutors managed to convert the recorded sessions into MP3 format and pass them onto me for analysis.

Group Tuition Policy

The university has recently been working on something called a ‘group tuition policy’, which is a university wide policy that aims to improve the learning opportunities that are available for students.  I’ve yet to fully appreciate the full significance of this policy, but one thing that I have heard is that students will be offered different types of session so that they will be able to attend a wider variety of learning events.  In the ‘new world’ of the group tuition policy, there may be on-line equivalents of face to face sessions.  I fully expect there to be a need to ‘group’ tutors together for on-line sessions in a way that my faculty currently groups together tutors for some face to face events.

Concluding points

This blog has considered the different ways that OU Live can and has been used.  I’ve heard it said that technology can move and develop a lot faster than pedagogy.  Put another way: we’re still figuring out how to most effectively teach using these new interactive tools.  As I mentioned earlier: you can do some things in face to face tutorials than you can in on-line tutorials.

It has personally taken me quite a bit of time to understand that there are a whole range of different interesting, exciting and dynamic opportunities that couldn’t have been possible if you only adopted face-to-face teaching.  A continued challenge that we have to collectively grapple with is how to effectively manage the important blend between the two.

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