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Christopher Douce

Curriculum

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 14 May 2023, 12:08

On 9 May 23, I attended a staff development event that had the title “Our STEM curriculum” which was presented by David Morse, Associate Dean for Curriculum, Faculty of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. 

I must admit that I was expecting a very different session to the one that I attended. I was expecting something about curriculum accessibility. Instead, I had stumbled into what appeared to a briefing about the STEM curriculum.

What follows is a set of notes that I’ve taken from this session which I’ve moulded into a summary about different types of curricula that the university offers. Although the focus on this blog is, of course, STEM curricula, there will, of course, be similarities and differences between what happens in other faculties and institutions. Hopefully what follows will be a useful summary for anyone who is trying to understand what curriculum is all about.

How everything works

There are quite a few terms to understand: modules, qualifications, and credits. You gain credits by studying modules, and modules contribute towards qualifications. A degree is a qualification, as is a certificate and diploma. There are undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications.

The most familiar qualification is the undergraduate degree. To really understand what is meant by curriculum it is worth spending a couple of minutes to unpick what it comprises:

A full-time three year undergraduate degree is 360 academic credits.

Every year, a full time student will be studying 120 worth of modules.

Students studying at half time study intensity will, of course, study modules worth 60 credits.

In the OU, modules are either 30 or 60 credits depending on the faculty, and the module. In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the modules are typically 60 credits. In STEM, they are often 30 credits. In some cases, students can study one 30 credit module after another.

Other institutions might have different sizes of modules. I’ve seen modules that are 15 credits, 20 credits or 45 credits. Some really bit postgraduate modules might be even 90 credits.

One credit is typically considered to be 10 hours of study. The term ‘study’ can refer to a whole set of different activities: it can refer to attending tutorials, reading learning materials, completing study tasks, interacting with fellow students, and completing assessments. The exact make-up of that time will depend on the module.

With 10 hours of study per credit, this means that a 60 credit module means 600 hours’ worth of study. If we assume a typical working day is 7.5 hours, this can be translated to 80 days of study time.

A traditional academic term lasts 9 months from October until June, but within this period there are the Christmas and Easter holidays, which means a break of4 weeks. This means there are 8 months of study time for full time students.

120 credits of full time study means, of course, 1,200 hours. Dividing this by 7.5 hours per day gives us 160 days of study time. Dividing this by 5 gives us 32 week of study time per year. Dividing this by 4 weeks in a month gives us exactly 8 months, which means that everything fits.

Modules are broadly categorised in terms of level, which corresponds to the year of study at a face-to-face university. A module that has the number 2 as the second number is a second year module. I’ll cover more about this a bit later.

Now that we’ve figured out undergraduate degrees, let’s turn our attention to postgraduate master’s degrees. A one year master’s degree at a face-to-face university typically takes 12 months rather than 9 months, usually running between September to September. This means there is more to study. MSc and MA degrees typically require 180 credits. When studying part time, OU students typically study for them over a three year period.

All this is enough to make our head hurt. When we look into the particulars of individual degrees and qualifications, we find a whole lot more detail.

What follows is an edited set of STEM specific notes that I made from the session. I’ve taken the liberty of adding a number of sections which shares a bit more context.

Access modules

The first elements of curricula which some students may encounter are the university’s access modules. These modules are presented as an introduction to distance learning and aim to offer students a broad overview of a subject. There are four modules, one for each faculty, each taking up to 30 weeks.

The STEM access module is split into three sections (or blocks) which have the subjects: life, water and home. The first block addresses biology and ecology, the second adopts a practical perspective, and the third begins to address design, engineering and computing.

These access modules don’t attract academic credit. They do, however, help students to gain an understanding of what is involved with university level study. Students will gain experience of writing and submitting assignments, and will receive significant help and guidance from a tutor.

Undergraduate qualifications

The faculty offers a number of qualifications: foundation degrees, undergraduate certificates, undergraduate diplomas, first degrees, postgraduate certificates and diplomas and taught higher degrees. The most popular is the first degree.

The most popular qualification in STEM is the Computing and IT BSc (Q62), followed by Natural Sciences degree (Q64), and then the Certificate in HE in Computing and IT (T12). The popularity of the certificate in Computing and IT might be explained that certificates in HE (CertHE) and diplomas (DipHE) are known as milestone qualifications, which means that students can gain these qualifications as they accumulate credit for an undergraduate degree.

The faculty also offers a number of foundation degrees, such as the Foundation Degree in Computing and IT Practice (X15). Rather than being 360 credits, these qualifications are 240 credits and cover stages 1 and 2, an contains a compulsory work-based learning element.

Students can also use something called credit transfer. There is an increasing number of students who have studied at another university and convert their foundation degree to an OU BA or BSc by using the credit transfer service. This is sometimes called a top up degree.

Most of the degrees and qualifications that the university has are what are called named degrees, which means a degree that is specifically linked to a particular subject or discipline. Named degrees are relatively new to the OU. They were introduced in their current form to enable students to apply for student loans which are available for part time study. Loans are only available to students who are studying a named degree.

Each school within a faculty ‘owns’ the qualifications that are aligned to their subject area. There are, of course, some qualifications which cross schools and faculties. A popular choice is a joint honours qualification. An example of this is the Computing and IT degree with a second subject. With this qualification, students can study Computing with Business, Design, Mathematics, Psychology, Statistics and Electrical Engineering. 

It is also worth mentioning an undergraduate qualification called the Open Degree. The Open Degree predates the introduction of the named degree. It enables students to create their own degree from any undergraduate module. It is described as follows: the Open degree “allows you to bring together different areas of study in a completely flexible way to develop knowledge and skills. … Choose from over 250 modules across 16 subject areas, to create a bespoke qualification to match your interests”. Returning to the topic of credits, students must study 360 worth of academic credit, in three groups of 120 credits, which correspond to each of the levels.

A variation of the Open degree in the STEM faculty is the Combined STEM degree where students can create their own STEM degree from the different STEM modules that the university offers. Within this qualification, there are corresponding diplomas and certificates.

Undergraduate degree classifications

In keeping with all other higher education institutions (HEIs), when a student gains their OU degree, it is assigned a classification which reflects their performance. The highest category is a first, followed by an upper second (2:1) or a lower second (2:2), or third class.

Also in keeping with other HEIs, the first level of study is all about skills development. Although the first level modules do not officially contribute to a degree classification, level 1 modules can have two overall scores: distinction, or pass. To get a distinction, students must gain an overall score of 85%, as defined by a module’s tuition strategy. This said, the exact boundary for a distinction can be slightly adjusted by a module results panel to ensure that results are awarded in a way that is consistent between different module presentations. More information about what is meant by assignment scores, module results and overall grades is available through the university help centre. 

Results from level 2 and level 3 modules (modules that have the numbers 2 and 3 as the first numbers in the module code) do contribute to a degree classification. Module results are presented in terms of grades, ranging from grade 1 (which is a distinction) through to grade 4 (which is a bare pass). The module result grades are then combined with each other to calculate a student’s degree classification. More information about the algorithm used to calculate a degree classification is also available through the university help centre.

Postgraduate qualifications

Like the undergraduate qualification, the postgraduate master’s qualifications also contain milestone qualifications which are, of course, qualifications in their own right. As mentioned earlier, a master’s degree is gained through 180 credits of study. Along with way, students can gain a postgraduate certificate, PGCert through 60 credits of study, or a postgraduate diploma, a PGDip through 120 credits of study.

The classification scheme for postgraduate qualifications are different to undergraduate qualifications. There are three different results for master’s degrees: distinction, merit, and pass. In keeping with postgraduate qualifications in other institutions, the pass mark for modules is 50%. For undergraduate modules, the pass mark is 40%.

Higher degrees, such as doctorates and MPhil qualifications are not discussed here. Further information about these qualifications are available in another blog about doctoral study.

Apprenticeships

The OU also offers a number of degree apprenticeshipsThe degree apprenticeships share a similarity with foundation degrees. Both have a compulsory-work based learning element, but with an important difference: an apprenticeship is essentially a job role, with an aspect of study attached to it. The study is aligned with the job role. Apprentices have access to module tutors, and to practice tutors. The role of the practice tutor is to help the apprentices relates their formal academic study with their work-based learning, and carry out regular reviews to evidence their learning.

The funding for apprenticeship study comes from the apprenticeship levy, which all employers of a certain size have to pay from their salary bill. Employers can gain back the value of the levy by encouraging some of their employees to participate in a degree apprenticeship scheme.

Unlike many of the other qualifications, the degree apprenticeship standards are defined by external organisation in conjunction with employers rather than the qualifications being owned by an academic school. Apprenticeship schemes are nation specific. In England, degree apprentices are defined by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education with other bodies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In STEM, there are two degree apprenticeships; a Digital and Technology solutions (DTS) qualification, and a postgraduate Systems Thinking Practitioner qualification.

Higher Technical Qualifications

Higher Technical Qualifications follow the roughly the same standard as the apprenticeship qualifications. Unlike the degree apprenticeships, these qualifications do not have the compulsory work-based learning component or have the requirement for students to be connected with an employer.

In STEM, there are two Higher Technical Qualifications, which are available in England only: one that relates to Network Engineering (W19) and another about Software Development (W20). Students studying these qualification also have the potential to use their credit from the constituent OU modules on different qualifications, if they wish to further their studies.

Microcredentials

In the OU, typical modules are either 30 or 60 credits. OU microcredentials, however, can be thought as short courses (or modules) which run between 10 and 12 weeks which attract either 10 or 15 of academic credits. In some cases, these bits of academic credit can be ‘boxed’ together into a larger unit, and can be brought into a larger qualification through credit transfer, if the learning outcomes of the microcredentials are compatible.

Microcredentials aim to appeal to a different group of students: those who are interested in upskilling, or developing an evidenced continuing professional development (CPD) portfolio. This emphasis on CPD can be seen through the computing microcredentials, which currently draw on materials from industrial providers, such as Cisco.

Microcredentials differ from other modules in the sense that students are not provided a tutor. Instead, students have to carry out self-directed learning. Technology also plays an important role in the learning experience. At the time of writing OU microcredentials are delivered through FutureLearn, a MOOC provider, which offers a social learning approach. 

Time will tell whether microcredentials will become a bigger element of the university’s portfolio of curriculum. A personal view is that they are useful for some disciplines and for some groups of students, but may not work for others. It is interesting to note that are international initiatives that support the development of microcredentials (Microcredentials.EU) and accompanying policies.

Other types of curricula

As well as formal qualifications and modules, there is also a site called OpenLearn which shares free online courses. Some of the courses delivered through OpenLearni are known as Badged Open Courses (BOCs). This means when a student completes an OpenLearn course, they are eligible to get a digital badge, and download a certificate of completion. Learners can highlight the completion of these BOCs by mentioning them on CVs and job applications. If OpenLearn learners are also OU students, completion of OpenLearn modules will also appear on their student record, which are visible to students.

The OpenLearn resources that are summarised within this section can also be called Open Educational Resources (OERs), which is a category of freely available resources which can be used and shared by educators.

There are quite a few OpenLearn courses and resources which can be useful to tutors. There are courses that enable students to gain an understanding about what is involved with online and OU study. Since a percentage of OU modules are shared through OpenLearn, there are also courses that enable students to get a flavour about what they will be studying if they are to formally enrol. Also, there are courses which can be taken as continuing professional development modules for tutors.

What follows is a sample of some of the materials that are available.

Courses about learning to study

Here are some courses that might be useful to share with students who are considering OU study, or are new to OU study:

The following courses would be helpful for students considering postgraduate study:

Courses that offer introductions to formal study

Here are some notable courses from other disciplines:

Courses that help with tutoring and teaching

The following courses can offer CPD for tutors, and help learners to gain more of an understanding of what is involved with OU teaching and learning:

STEM facts and figures

During this session, David shared some facts and figures about the STEM faculty. For 2021 and 2022, there were 47k students registered on STEM modules. Out of these, 3.5k students completed a qualification, which represents roughly 19% of all OU students graduating. Although there are three faculties, approximately a third of students graduate with an Open degree.

Out of these students, 76% of students work either part-time or full time. 69% of undergraduate students had no previous HE qualifications. This highlights that the transfer of academic credit is playing an important role in the journey for some students.

As mentioned earlier, the Q62 computing qualification is the most popular undergraduate programme offered by the faculty. In recent years there has been a decline in students registering for Q62, but there has been an increase in the number of students registering for the cyber security qualification. In terms of postgraduate study, the Mathematics MSc is the largest MSc within the faculty.

Reflections

I was initially a bit grumpy when I realised that this continuing professional development session was offering a sketch about curriculum, rather than being about accessibility. A key learning point here is: make sure you read the event description carefully.

Sometimes it’s useful to stick with things. In this case, the summary of all the different qualifications that are provided by the faculty was a helpful reminder. I also took the opportunity to really figure out the notion of academic credit, and how it relates to modules, qualifications and the academic year. 

I’ve taken the opportunity to add two complementary sections: a bit about access modules (which wasn’t really covered during the session), and a section about degree classifications. Everything is, of course, linked to each other: qualifications are linked to modules, which are linked to schools, which are liked to disciplines.

There are, of course, bits of curriculum that I haven’t mentioned. Some years ago, there used to be a number of short courses, some of which were credit bearing, but there is only one short course is run by the faculty: a digital photography course. There is also something called ‘open box’ modules, where bits of external academic credit can used to contribute to an OU qualification.

Curriculum is subject to continual change. Its structure is affected by a number of variables: academic and cultural trends, innovations in pedagogy and technology, and wider political changes, such as changes to funding. It is interesting to see the extent to which freely available materials complement formal credit bearing materials. Knowing about what free resources are available has the potential to make a real difference to the student experience.

Acknowledgements

Thanks are extended to David Morse for running such a thorough session.

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Christopher Douce

Supervisory Professionalism and Recognition workshops

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On 3 and 4 May 2023 I attended a couple of workshops that introduced a professional recognition scheme for doctoral supervisors, which is run by the UK Council of Graduate Education, which is abbreviated to UKCGE. I attended these workshops since the OU is running an accreditation pilot scheme through the OU graduate school. It’s aim is to help to guide a cohort of participants through the accreditation process through workshops, sharing of resources, and providing mutual support, with an intention of making a submission in October 2023.

This blog post summarises what I considered to be some of the key points or highlights from the workshops. Very many of the words shared in this post come from points made by the presenter, and are also reflected within the UKCGE recognition scheme which is clearly referenced. Towards the end of the blog, I have offered some reflections and have shared some accompanying resources.

A further note is that the terms ‘student’ and ‘candidate’ are used interchangeably.

Introduction

The pilot was opened by Lindsey O’Dell, Director of the OU Graduate School. She offered a summary of the pilot scheme, and emphasised that doctoral supervision is an important part of the academic role, and it is important to both recognise and celebrate it.

Both workshops were facilitated by Stan Taylor who is an Honorary Professor from the School of Education, University of Durham. Stan said that he originally learnt ‘on the job’ as a supervisor, and later moved to the area of professional academic development. He is the author of UKCGE Framework for Good Supervisory Practice and led the development of supervisor’s recognition scheme. 

Stan also mentioned some books he has had an involvement with: a handbook for doctoral supervisors, a book that referred to the making of doctoral supervisors, and publications that examines the ways in which doctoral examinations take place and how supervisors are supported in different countries.

The changing landscape of doctoral education

The first day of the workshop began with a bit of history.

Historically, doctoral supervision was “an adjunct of the research function of academics” and underpinned by the master-apprentice model. Constant change within the higher education sector has, of course, led to changes to doctoral supervision. Key changes has included increasing formalisation and diversification of doctoral programmes, the commodification of higher education and increasing movement towards competition between institutions, and an increased emphasis on the welfare of candidates.

This perspective on welfare is important. Historically, if things went wrong, it was the fault of the student rather than the supervisor or the university. The movement towards thinking of a student as a consumer has, arguably, led to a change of power balance between student and supervisor. If students are not provided with effective supervision, there has been a precedent of students seeking compensation. It is now clear that institutions and individual supervisors have more direct responsibilities towards their students.

There was a historical perspective which can be phrased as: if students paid their fees “no one worried too much about how long they took” (Taylor, citing Simpson, 2009, p.458). A review of completion rates led to the introduction of tougher measures: candidates are now typically required to complete within a 4 year period, but there are exceptions to this, such as if they are carrying out research part-time.

A term that was introduced which I was unfamiliar with was: structuration. I understand this term to refer to the extent to which structures have been created to support doctoral students and supervision. This has partly arisen due to an increase in regulation. In the UK, there is the QAA, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Countries now typically have their own national quality assurance systems for higher education and external monitoring. In response, universities have developed their own internal systems to ensure the quality of doctoral education, which can take place within supervision teams. This has necessarily led to the creation of graduate schools and accompanying units and roles. Doctoral supervisors need to understand what these units are within their own institutions and what services and support they offer. Graduate schools may also play a part in setting up of doctoral training and development alliances.

Diversity was emphasised from two different perspectives. Firstly, there has been increase in diversity of different types of doctoral programmes. In addition to a full time PhD, there are now different types of EdD programmes. There is also the possibility of a doctorate through submission, or carrying out research with an industrial partner.

The second perspective relates to the diversity of doctoral candidates. Historically, candidates were young, white, male, middle class, and studied full time. The demographics of candidates have changed: 48% of doctoral students are now women, but there has been less progress for candidates with other protected characteristics. Significantly, there is a significant underrepresentation of black candidates, which needs to be addressed.

There has been a change of perspective when it comes to the obligations that institutions and supervisors have to doctoral students. Historically, students were perceived as being responsible for their own mental health, which can present significant and ongoing challenges to students. There many be a number of issues for this, such as financial challenges, the limited number of opportunities in the higher education sector post-completion, and loneliness. Institutions are now seen as having a duty of care for students. This means that supervisors have a responsibility, but they may often lack confidence in terms of how to provide support.

Other changes include digitalisation and increasing interdisciplinarity. Whilst digital technologies can enable candidates to carry out their research at a distance, they also can present challenges too; candidates need to learn and work with digital tools and systems.

Interdisciplinarity can also lead to the emergence of barriers. Supervisors from different disciplines can communicate using different academic languages. This leads to the important question of: how do examiners from different disciplines understand what is meant by an effective contribution to a field?

Given that there are more doctoral students than full time academic posts, supervisors and graduate schools have a responsibility to offer help and guidance to candidates, to make them aware of what opportunities might be available to them after they finish their research.

This leads us to a wider question, which is: what is doctoral research for if its purpose isn’t to train academics? One answer be connected to the word capitalisation. In other words, doctoral research can have economic value as well as academic value. There is a link here to the notions of human capital and knowledge economies, and this can be linked to whatever is meant by economic growth. It could more directly argued the doctoral research helps to develop the skills and abilities of researchers. This release to the Vitae researcher development framework https://www.vitae.ac.uk/   which describes skills that researchers should acquire and develop over the course of their studies.

The UKCGE framework

Supervision has changed from an adjunct activity that takes place within a private space to a more demanding complex set of roles which are carried out and supported by supervisors and organisational units. 

What follows is a summary of the UKCGE framework. Stan was Invited in 2019 invited by UKCGE to define good supervision practice. These were combined into a draft framework which was then streamlined into 10 domains which aimed to describe the core elements of good practice. To become a recognised supervisor, applicants to the UKCGE scheme must provide evidence under each element.

What follows is a summary that has been made following the workshop presentation. The official description of these criteria can be found by through the Good Supervisor Practice Framework summary

1. Recruitment and selection

This element relates to the very start of the doctoral journey. Recruitment involves reaching out to diverse candidate populations, developing a research proposal with a potential candidate, and offering feedback to candidates.

Supervisors should publicise the areas of research that they can offer. They should also participate in campaigns to recruit from underrepresented groups, assess whether applications from candidates that are likely to make the transition to independent researchers, and assess whether a research project is realisable, and candidates have the knowledge and skills. Key tasks will include interviewing applicants, making a final decision and giving useful feedback. An important question to ask is: how do you make the decision about whether someone has the skills for independent research, and what is the evidence for this?

2. Relationships with candidates

This criterion relates to having an awareness of diversity of candidates, negotiating expectations between student and supervisor, monitoring of activities, and understanding of issues. Supervisors should be conscious of different supervisory styles and their relationship to student needs and be aware of how student needs change over time.

3. Relationships with co-supervisors

Supervision now typically takes place within teams. Supervisors need to be aware of the benefits of team supervision and issues that may arise whilst working within a team. It is important to clarify the roles of co-supervisors, important to set expectations of the project, and regularly review relationship with co-supervisors and candidates. This criterion relates to the importance and necessity of working well with others.

4. Supporting candidates’ research projects

This relates to “inducting candidates into research, advising them about how to go about it, advising on skills and issues”. In other words, helping them to become familiar with what research entails within a field of study. The involves “discussing conceptions and misconception of research, looking at threshold concepts”, discussing issues of academic integrity, choosing topics, advising on notions of theory, methodology and methods. Other aspects of support includes helping candidates to navigate through the necessity of gaining ethical approval (if appropriate to their project), and developing research skills.

5. Encouraging candidates to write and giving appropriate feedback

Encourage candidates to write “throughout their studies, not at the end of research, giving effective feedback”. Writing is something that can be practised. Although a lot of writing is typically done towards the end of a doctoral project, it is helpful to encourage candidates to write from the start of their studies to assisting their development of academic writing skills. Key points includes: create opportunities for writing, give timely, constructive and actionable feedback, and consider the suggestion and use of research diaries and writing of blogs. A point I noted down from the discussions were: ask students what they understand by the feedback they have received. Supervisors can benefit from getting feedback from their students.

6. Supporting candidates’ personal, professional and career development

This criterion links back to the earlier point that there are more doctoral candidates than there are academic posts. To help candidates with their personal and professional development, it may be helpful to offer advice and guidance about possibilities within the domain in which they are carrying out research. It is also important to be a good role model in terms of work-life balance, it would be useful to introduce candidates into disciplinary networks and activities, and supporting their development as teachers. Where possible, advice about academic careers and post-doctoral work (and challenges that accompany these roles) is helpful.

7. Supporting progress and monitoring progression

A point that was highlighted earlier was: candidates have to complete within a 3 or 4 year period. A question is: what might a supervisor do to motivate their students during this time? Also, how might a supervisor or supervision team actively monitor progress? Two suggestions could be: encouraging students to attend conferences (which can also help them to develop their writing skills and contribute to departmental seminars. From a pragmatic and administrative perspective, supervisors must help students to participate in formal progression events (in the OU context, this is called upgrade reports). This might mean the reviewing of documents before sent onto graduate schools.

8. Supporting candidate through completion and final examination

This point strikes me as being very practical. Supervisors should offer advice on submissions and examinations, and should work closely with a candidate to finalise their submissions. Some direct advice was shared at this point: encourage students to look at exemplar submission so students understand what is meant by, and what should go into a thesis. A thesis should, of course, present an argument, with accompanying evidence. Supervisors can offer some really practical help: they can help students to prepare for the viva by describing the procedures, and running a mock viva. Different supervisors from a supervision team can take on different roles. It doesn’t end with the exam: supervisors also have a responsibility to support candidates after the viva, especially if some corrections have to be made.

9. Supporting candidates to disseminate their research

This point links to some of the earlier points, which related to encouraging students to attend conferences and workshops, and thus help to develop their writing skills. Essentially, this point is all about “making work available within the community” and sharing findings with a wider audience. A useful point was: “set expectations at the start of the candidacy” about what is expected, role model the process of publication to show how its down, encourage candidates to publish as they go, and explain what is meant by co-publishing or co-authoring, and set up a post-doctoral publication plan. In some cases, it might also be helpful to consider dissemination and publication alongside the concept of research impact, which is something that postdoctoral researchers need to include into research bids and plans.

10. Reflecting upon and enhancing practice

Reflection is a cornerstone of education, and it feels right that those involved in providing supervision should not only reflect on their practice, but regularly “undertake appropriate professional development and disseminate”. A bit of advice to accompany this point was: use an appropriate mix of methods for evaluating supervision, undertake initial and continuing professional development, and contribute to the professional development of other supervisors. A further point was: professional development isn’t just about workshops; it can also be keeping up to date with reading. There is, of course, also a considerable literature about supervision. Finally, professional development opportunities may be provided by your university’s graduate school, or equivalent unit.

Writing an application

During the workshops we were offered some advice and guidance about the application procedure and the process of writing an application.

A submission is a reflective account of your supervisory practice which addresses each of the 10 headings. Applications should be 5k words in length, with a permitted 10% leeway. Two referees are required, one of which should be from a former doctoral candidate. The second referee should be a colleague who knows about your practice, but need not necessarily be someone who is involved with supervision.

Applications are read by two reviewers who are recognised supervisors themselves; all applicants receive constructive feedback. The reviewers are recognised supervisors who have completed a training programme about how to evaluate submissions. If recommendation is acceptance, you become a UKCGE recognised supervisor.

Preparing a submission

To help to prepare a submission, the UKCGE have prepared a workbook, in the form of a detailed Word document. The workbook is a template, which offers some guidance and spaces to allow candidate to comment on each of the criteria of the framework. A practical suggestion is to provide two examples to evidence your understanding and experience.

Begin with an introduction

A useful bit of advice was to begin with an introduction. Do describe your educational background, summarise the number of research students supervised and in what capacity including the number of students who have completed. Also provide other relevant information, such as whether you have experience of an examiner of research degrees, and whether you have been an internal or external examiner.

Evidence of scholarship

A question that was asked was: “are we expected to use academic references in our application, like we did for an Advance HE SFHEA submission?” The answer is: yes. Evidence of scholarship, and awareness of scholarship that relates to supervision is necessary. A practical suggestion is to provide between 8 and 12 references. A good place to look is the bibliography documents which are provided by the UKCGE. A couple of links have been provided in the resources section of this blog.

Points to bear in mind

Do include evidence that relates to all the criteria. If this is not possible, offer an explanation why not. Examples should be drawn from recent practice.

Application should relate to you, and should have a reflective quality. Write about why you did something.

As suggested above, you should show engagement with research, scholarship and professional practice, and links with professional bodies and wider communities.

You must demonstrate real and practical commitment to reflection about supervision practice.

Making a submission

In this pilot, the OU will be making what is called a group submission. The UKCGE does, of course, accepts individual submissions, which must be accompanied by a processing fee.

Reflections

Things have changed since I was a doctoral candidate. There is more structure and formality than there used to be. 

Reflecting on the framework, I’ve come to the conclusion that I had a pretty good doctoral experience. My supervisor gently introduced me to many of the principles and ideas that are embedded within Stan’s framework. There were regular meetings, I was encouraged to write and publish early, to join academic communities, and there were discussions about the role of theory in research, and what is meant by co-authoring. There was also some discussion about post-doctoral planning too, but it was done in quite an informal way.

Thinking back, it took me quite a few years to publish the final article from my doctoral research. Curiously, it wasn’t the main research that had the biggest impact. A small paper that I wrote along the way grabbed the attention of fellow software engineering researchers. This goes to show the importance of “getting things out there”. 

Two noticeable differences come to mind: I don’t remember there being a graduate school when I was a doctoral student, and there wasn’t a supervision team. 

I also remember struggling too. At the time, I was trying to do too much: I was working part time whilst I was studying full time. I should have made more time to have more fun, and to relax; that could have potentially helped me to be a bit more creative.

I’m currently a supervisor on two different doctoral programmes; a doctorate in Education programme, and a disciplinary doctorate. I’m also something called a third-party monitor for candidates on both programmes.

I like the framework since I feel that it solidifies and clarifies many of the important responsibilities of supervisors. It also implicitly connect with another (optional) aspect of my day job, which is supporting undergraduate students. With all these different perspectives, I’m definitely going to make a submission.

Resources

I have written some other blogs about doctoral study and supervision, as well as summarising some of the continuing professional development that I have participated in:

The following resources from the UKCHE are likely to be useful when it comes to making a submission:

For supervisors making submissions, the following two resources may be especially useful, depending on the context:

Supervisors should, of course, be aware of the following framework:

During these workshops, the QAA, the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education was mentioned. The following link offers a summary of the characteristics of doctoral degrees:

Acknowledgements

A substantial acknowledgement goes to Stan Taylor who designed, delivered and facilitated the workshops, with help from Soraya Tate from the OU graduate school. Acknowledgements are also given to Linsdey O’Dell, director of the graduate school, and fellow workshop delegates.

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Individual support sessions

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This blog post is about individual support sessions. It has been written from the perspective of a tutor, with the intention of sharing practice with other tutors.

If you discover that one of your students is struggling with their studies, a tutor can ask a student whether they would like to have an individual support session (ISS) to help them to get them back on track. An ISS isn’t a 15 to 20 minute telephone call in response to a student’s question, or a quick talk through different parts of some module materials. An ISS is a structured and dedicated one-to-one session to help a student to progress with their studies.

A request for an ISS can come from either from yourself, or from a student or via the student support team. A request may also come from one of your line managers. To request an ISS, you can send a request to the student support team (SST) via your TutorHome page, or you can contact your line manager, who will do this for you. It is important that ISS requests are recorded since individual support sessions are not technically a part of your module teaching time. Instead, every session needs to be accounted for since they will come from your FTE.

From the student’s perspective, an ISS typically lasts for one hour, but from the tutor’s perspective, two hours of their time is accounted for; one hour for the actual session, and one hour for the preparation time. More will be said about what it means to deliver and prepare a session in a moment.

An important point to note is that different modules differ in terms of their tuition models. A first year module may have a different model to a final year project module. In a dissertation module, where you may have a fewer number of students than typical module, an element of one-to-one tuition is likely to be built into its tuition module. For example, at the time of writing, the computing undergraduate project module has for hours of one-to-one time for every student. It is up to the individual tutor (and their students) to device how to best make use of that time.

What follows is a short summary of what might happen within an individual support session. Every session is likely to be different, since ever student and every module is different.

Identifying a need

In my distance teaching practice, I try to tie everything together. In my script comments, I refer students to my eTMA feedback summary page. In my feedback summary page, I may refer to other tutorials, earlier feedback, or module resources. In some cases, I may also suggest to students in their eTMA summary that it might be useful to have an additional support session by encouraging them to contact either myself, or the student support team. In some cases, I might even give them a ring to ask this question. 

Booking in a time

The next step is to book in a date and time that works for a student. I always ask what their communication preferences might: whether they prefer to use the phone, or use Adobe Connect, or MS Teams. At the time of writing, I prefer MS teams, since I can use my web cam, and it enables me to do some screensharing, which is especially helpful when working with a technical subject, such as computing. It can also be useful to guide students through important parts of module materials. When arranging a date and time, I also ask the important question: what would you like to get out of the session? In addition to confirming a date and time by phone or by email, I also send a digital calendar meeting invite, which would also contain a link to either a MS Teams room, or an Adobe Connect room.

Preparing

I have one hour to prepare. To keep things fresh in my mind, I tend to prepare close to the time of when the session is scheduled. Some important questions to ask include: how well has our student being doing in their studies? I answer this by looking at current progress and their study history. I also ask: where are they, or where should they be in the study of their module? To make sure I know where they are, I review the module calendar and identify which bits of module materials they should be studying. Another question is: what assessments are coming up? Is there an exam, or is there an important TMA coming up?

Since students are likely to want to become more familiar with any forthcoming assessments, a really good idea to thoroughly review the assessments, and any accompanying tutor notes. If the focus is likely to be on a TMA, I get a printout of the current TMA and any accompanying tutor notes, and go through these documents with a highlighter and pencil. I highlight which sections are important, and if there are any reference to module materials sections which are important, such as chapter number or page numbers within block materials or set texts.

Running the session

This is a summary of how I run my session; different tutors have different styles and approaches. Since the session is all about our student, I begin with the question: “what would you like to get out of this session?”, and ask any clarifying questions. Whilst I take their lead, I’m also led by another question of my own, which is: “where is our student at?” Or, put another way, where do they need to get to so they are able to reach the learning outcomes to enable them to complete their forthcoming assessments? To understand their own understanding, I ask them about their understanding of some of the module concepts, by asking questions like “how would you describe…”; I aim to establish a dialogue where they teach me what they know, which would enable me to pick up on any gaps of understanding.

If appropriate, I would use screen sharing. In my own world of computing, I would share a software environment, but I also might share an empty Word document, where we can collaborate together on a set of notes, where each of the main points are being suggested by the tutor. In some cases, this document might contain headings which reflect the themes that may for a part of any forthcoming assessment.

Asking questions is important. During the session, I would regularly check for understanding. For example, I might ask “remind me again how you would go about…” or “remind me again about how you would define…”. 

Conveying a positive perspective, which reflects a growth mindset, is important too. I would never say that an expression of an understanding is “wrong”. An expression of an idea or a principle in terms that is different to the expectation of the module team is an opportunity to further develop a student’s understanding. If an idea is expressed that has some elements that reflect learning, I would praise those elements, and add to their explanations whilst trying to lead them on a path to develop their own enhanced explanations.

Towards the end of the session, I would ask whether they have any more questions they would like to go through. I would also offer a quick summary to recap some of the points that have been discussed during the session. I would close by saying that they should feel free to contact me if they have any follow up questions, and that it would be possible to request a further one-to-one session if necessary; maintain a line of communication is important.

After the session

If any notes were made, code written, or documents shared during the session, do email them to your student after the event. 

To confirm completion of the session to the university, I send an update to the student’s record, which can be seen by the student support team. To do this, I go to the “update record” link that is next to the student’s name on TutorHome, recording the date of the session, specifying support on current module, individual support session, regular AL/student contact, and whether the event took place in an online room or over the phone. In the comments section, I write: “This is to note completion of an ISS for student” also noting the time when it took place, and highlighting that no SST action is required.

Recording the completion of sessions is especially important if students are given sessions to help them develop an awareness of study skills and good academic practice. Evidence of pro-active interventions are really important for academic conduct officers.

Reflections

An interesting question to ask is: what is the difference between providing student support during a module presentation and an individual support session? The answer depends on the tuition support model that is adopted by a module. This said, on a typical module, tutors are usually expected to respond to questions send to the tutor by their tutors. As aspect of my own practice is to regularly ‘check in’ with students between assessment points, to ask them how everyone is. Running ISSs is also one of those elements of tuition which requires collaboration with the student support team, and line manager. A final point to note is that ISSs are not typically performed by practice tutors.

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Christopher Douce

A230 Journal - March 2023

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9 March 2023

Has it really been so long since I last got my head down and did a bit of proper study? The answer is yes; there have been a few things going on, including a lot of TMA marking for the modules that I’m teaching, and also helping out my mum and dad with a few things.

Anyway, today was TMA results day! I’m very happy, and dare I say it, surprised with my results. My tutor offered some helpful comments, which suggests that I should consider the wider themes within a text when writing a thematic essay. I need to re-read his comments to really take them on board.

10 March 2023

I have a day of leave, so I’m going to do a bit of study.

There was a bit of chat in the WhatApp group about an audio book of Dubliners. Not having a subscription to Audible, and not really wanting to go through the fuss of setting up and account, and then cancelling, I’ve discovered a site called LibriVox, which has the subtitle: Acoustical liberation of books in the public domain.

It turns out there’s a version of Dubliners which can be downloaded. I’m going to give this a go.

Onto the block about The Twentieth Century. Before I go there, I’m going to have a rummage around the module website, to see how far behind I am.

11 March 2023

A day of catching up. I’ve noted the date of the next TMA. I’ve realised I don’t have much time. I briefly read the TMA question, which will help me with my reading of Dubliners.

After reading first two chapters of the blocks, I start re-reading Dubliners (which I had read over the summer), with help from LibriVox. It is going in this time; I’m making sense of it.

I also listen to a documentary about the publication of Dubliners that I found on BBC Sounds. This was both interesting and helpful. One expert claimed that Joyce uses the word ‘confused’, only once, within each of his short stories. So far, this seems to be the case, except ‘confused’ doesn’t feature within the first story, The Sisters.

12 March 2023

It’s back to re-reading Dubliners. I begin with the story, Two Gallants.

13 March 2023

It’s tutorial day! I start the day with another story from Dubliners.

15 March 2023

It’s strike day, which means I’m in a position to do a bit of uninterrupted study.

I’m now up to the final short story, which is actually quite a long story. When I’m done, I’ll then make a choice about which story to choose for the TMA.

I went on a slight study diversion, and found a web page that shares what is described as James Joyce reading from Ulysses https://lithub.com/listen-to-the-first-ever-recording-of-james-joyce-reading-from-ulysses/

I’m heading away tomorrow for a short break. I am, however, going to take my study block, and also the reading supplement. I need to get things together quite quickly, since TMA 5 is coming up quite rapidly.

18 March 2023

I spent a quite a bit of quality time with my books. I think probably four or five hours in total. I finished rereading The Dead. I read through the last chapter of the block I needed for TMA 5, and then had a good read of the poems in the reading supplement, getting through most of them. 

I really liked the New York texts; they really spoke to me. Whilst I appreciated the structure of the sonnets, I really liked the poems by Langston Hughes.

19 March 2023

A few more readings to get through, which didn’t take too long. I think I’ve chosen my texts for TMA 5.

20 March 2023

I had a quick read through chapters 1 and 2. I ask my tutor a question, who immediately responds; he offers me a helpful steer, which I am really grateful about. My next step was to create two notes files, filled with notes I’ve pulled together from all the text. There’s one for the final TMA, and another one for the EMA.

My next step: tomorrow, I’ll dig into the text of the text I’ve chosen, relating words back to the words of TMA question. I’ll begin with Dubliners in the morning, and then I’ll have another look at the texts I think I have chosen for the second part of the question. I should then have a set of ideas that I can start to mould into my TMA 5 submission.

26 March 2023

TMA writing day. A couple of days earlier I had collated a whole bunch of notes into my Word file; I have section headings, quotes from the module materials, quotes from the Joyce story, quotes from the poems, and all the references sorted out.

I begin the day with a printout of all my notes. I re-read a short story for a final time, and discovered a couple of elements that I had missed. Letting things sit with me had helped: I’m starting to get an idea what modernism is all about. Although the ambiguity that some elements are presented can be frustrating, it also become fascinating too.

I move paragraphs about, delete a whole set of quotes, write some linking text, added a couple of new bits, and write a short conclusion. I’m nearly done. I edit up the introduction, and get the word count down. I’m slightly over, but it’s okay. It’s good to go.

I go back to the website, to see what next: Sam Selvon and Lonely Londoners. I work through the video materials, which I really enjoyed.

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Object-oriented programming: seven tips

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 1 Apr 2023, 11:56

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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edsger_W._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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ChatGPT and Friends: How Generative AI is Going to Change Everything

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 2 Apr 2023, 10:37

On 23 March 2023 the OU Knowledge Media Institute hosted a hybrid event, which had the curious title: How Generative AI is Going to Change Everything. More information about the details of this event is available through a GenAI KMi site.

I think I was invited to this event after sharing the results of a couple of playful ChatGPT experiments on social media, which may have been seen by John Domingue, the OU KMi director. In my posts, I shared fragments of poetry which had been generated about the failures of certain contemporary political figures.

The KMi event was said to be about “ChatGPT and related technologies, such as DALL E 2 and Stable Diffussion” and was described as an “open forum” to “allow participants to first get an understanding of what lies underneath this type of AI (including limitations)” with a view to facilitating discussions and potentially setting up an ethical workshop.

What follows is a very brief summary of some of the presentations, taken from notes I made during each of the talks. Please do view this blog as simply that, a set of notes. Some of these may well contain errors and misrepresentations, since these textual sketches were composed quite quickly. Do feel free to contact individual speakers.

Introduction and basics of ChatGPT/GPT-3/GPT-4

The event was opened by John who described it as a kick-off event, intended to bring people together. He introduced the topic, characterising the GPT projects as a very sophisticated text predictor, with GPT3 being described as “a text predictor on steroids”. An abbreviation that was regularly used was: LLM. This is short for “large language model”; a term that I hadn't heard before.

We were introduced to the difference between the different versions of GPT. An interesting difference being the amount of text these LLMs have processed and how much text they can generate. We were told that GPT2 was released in 2018 and the current version, GPT4, can make use of images (but I’m not quite sure how).

John shared a slide that described something called the OU’s AI agents ecosystem, which had the subtitle of being an AI strategy for the OU.

There were some pointers towards the future. Some of these new fangled tools are going to find their way into Microsoft 365. I’m curious to learn how these different tools might affect or change my productivity.

What follows is a summary of some of the presentations that were made during the event. Most of the presentations were made over a course of 5 minutes; the presenters had to pack in a lot over a very short amount of time. There is, of course, a risk that I may well have misrepresented some aspects of the presentations, but I hope I have done a fair job in capturing the main points and themes each speaker expressed.

Short presentations

ChatGPT: Safeguards, trustworthiness and social responsibility

The first short presentation was by Shuang Ao from the Knowledge Media Institute. Shuang suggested that LLMs are “uncontrollable, not transparent and unstable” and had limitations in terms of their current ability to demonstrate reasoning and logic. They also may present factual errors, and demonstrate bias and discrimination, which presents real ethical challenges.

But can it make decisions?

Next up was Lucas Anastasiou, also from the Knowledge Media Institute. Lucas had carried out some experiments. ChatGPT can’t play chess at all well, but it does know how to open a game well, since it knows something about chess game opening theory. But how about poker? Apparently there’s something called a poker IQ test. I’m not sure if I remember exactly, but I seem to recall that they’re not great at playing poker. How about a stock portfolio or geo-political forecasting? We were offered a polite reminder that a computer can never be held accountable, but perhaps its users, and developers could be?

ChatGPT attempts OU TMAs

The next speaker was Alistair Willis, School of Computing and Communications. Alistair is a module chair for TM351 Data management and analysis. He asked a simple question, but one that has important implications: can ChatGTP answer one of his TMA questions? 

His TMA was a guided investigation, and was split into two parts: a coding bit, and an interpretation bit. The conclusion that was good at the coding bit (or, potentially, helping with the coding bit), but rubbish at the interpretation. Overall, a student wouldn’t get a very high score.

From the module team perspective, a related question was: could it be used to create module materials?

These questions is all very well, but if text and answers can be generated, is there a way to determine whether a fragment of prose was generated by ChatGPT? Apparently, there is a tool which can highlight which bits of text may have been written using ChatGPT.

Five key learnings from our use of Chatbots

Barry Verdin has an interesting role within the OU; he is an assistant director student support innovation. I have heard of Barry before; he keeps inviting me to meetings about systems thinking, but I keep being too busy to attend (but I do welcome his invitations!) His interest lies in supporting a chatbot that offers support to students. He shared an interesting statistic that the chatbot can answer around 80% of queries. Clearly, AI has the possibility of helping with some types of student enquiries.

Experiments with ChatGPT

It was my turn. I wear a number of hats. I’m a student, an associate lecturer, and a staff tutor.

Wearing a student hat

Whilst wearing my student hat, I’ve been studying a module called A230 Reading and studying literature. When I had completed and submitted one of my Tutor Marked Assignments, I submitted an abridged version of my TMA question to ChatGPT. The question I gave it was: “Compare and contrast Shelly’s Frankenstein with Wordsworth’s Home at Grasmere”. I admit that there was a part of me that took pleasure in asking an artificial intelligence what it thought about Frankenstein.

I found the response that I got interesting. Firstly, it was pretty readable, and secondly, it helped me to understand what I had understood when preparing the assignment. For example, it enabled me to check my own understanding of what literary romanticism was all about. Another point was that there was no way that ChatGPT could have responded to the detail specifics of the essay question, since we were asked to interpret a very specific section of Wordsworth’s epic (and we have already learnt that ChatGPT isn’t good at logic). The text that we was working with was only available to OU students in a very specific form.

My study of literature helps me to develop specific skills, such as close reading, and adopting a critical approach to texts. Students, of course, also need to show an understanding of module materials too. If large language models don’t have access to those texts, they’re not going to even attempt to quote from them. This means that a vigilant tutor is likely to raise a curious eyebrow if a student submits a neatly written essay which is devoid of quotes from texts, or from module materials.

Wearing a tutor hat

Picking up on the role of a tutor, another hat I wear is a tutor for M250 Object-oriented Java programming I confess to doing something similar to Alistair. I fed ChatGPT a part of a TMA question which instructed a student to write bits of code to model a scenario. It did well, but it did too much: it produced bits of code that were not asked for. It produced too much. This said, drawing on my experience of programming (and of teaching) I could understand why it suggested what had been produced.

From the tutor’s perspective, if I had received a copy of what had been produced, I would be pretty suspicious, since I would be asking: “where did our student get all that experience from, when this is module that is all about introducing key concepts?”

Wearing a staff tutor hat

For those who are unfamiliar with the role of a staff tutor, a staff tutor is a tutor line manager. We’re a bit of academic and administrative glue in the OU system which makes things work. We get to deal with a whole number of different issues on a day-to-day basis, and a couple of times a year academic conduct issues cross my desk.

The university has to deal with and work with a number of existing threats to academic integrity, such as well-known websites where students can ask questions from subject matter experts and fellow students. Sometimes solutions to assignments are shared through these sites. Sometimes, these solutions contain obvious errors, which we can identify.

Responses to the threats to academic integrity include the use of plagiarism detection software (such as TurnItIn), the use of collusion detection systems (such as CopyCatch), the vigilance of tutors and module teams, the referral of cases to university Academic Conduct Officers, running of individual support sessions to help students to develop their study skills to ensure they do not accidentally carry out plagiarism, and effective record keeping to tie everything together.

When arriving at this event, one question I did have was: could it be possible to create an AI to detect answers that had been produced by an AI? Alistair’s earlier reference to a checker had partially answered my own question. Further question are, of course: how should such detection tools be used within an institution, and to what extent should academic policies be adapted and changed to take account of large language models?

Bring textual wishes to life

Christian Nold from the School of Engineering and Innovation (E&I) shared some information about an eSTEeM project with Georgy Holden. Students were encouraged to send postcards about their experience at level 1 study, sharing 3 wishes. The question that I have noted down was: wow can we use AI tools to generate personas from 3 wishes? Tools such as ChatGPT integrates different bits of text together and the generation personas could help us to think differently.

Core-GPT

Matteo Cancellieri and David Pride, both from the Knowledge Media Institute gave what was pitched as a KMi product announcement: they introduced CORE-GPT. Their project aims to combine open access materials with AI for credible, trustworthy question answering. The aim is to attempt to reduce the number of ‘hallucinations’ (made up stuff) that might be produced through tools such as ChatGPT, drawing on information from open access papers. More information about the initiative is available through a blog article: Combining Open Access research and AI for credible, trustworthy question answeringMore information is available through the Core website.

ChatGPT and assessment

Dhouha Kbaier from School of Computing and Communications shared some concerns and points about assessment. Dhouha is module chair of TM355 Communications Technology. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, students are assessed through a remote exam. In their exam, students need to draw on discussion materials, and find resources and articles. Educators need to make students aware that there are tools that can detect text generated by large language models, and AI tools can create errors (and hallucinations).

One of the points I noted was: there is the potential need to adapt our assessment approaches. Educators also have a responsibility to do what they can to remove a student’s motivation for cheating. Ultimately, it isn’t in their best interests.

Can students self-learn with ChatGPT?

Irina Rets from the OU Institute of Educational Technology (IET) asked some direct questions, such as: can students learn through ChatGPT? Also, can AI be a teacher? In some respects, these are not new questions; a strand of research that links to AI and education has been running for a very long time. Some further questions were: who gets excluded? Also, what are the learning losses, and learning gains? Finally, how might researchers use these tools?

Chat GPT - Content Creation with AI

Manoj Nanda from the School of Computing and Communications also suggested that AI might be useful for idea generation. Manoj highlighted a couple of tools that I had not heard of before, such as Dall-e2 (OpenAI website) which can generate an image from a textual description. Moving to an entirely different modality, he also highlighted Soundraw.io. Manoj emphasised that a key skill is using appropriate prompts. This relates to an old computing adage: if you put garbage in, you’ll get garbage out (GIGO).

Developing playful and fun learning activities

Nicole Lotz from the School of Engineering and Innovation (E&I) sees tools such as ChatGPT as potentially useful for creative exploration. Nicole is module chair of U101 Design thinking, which is a first level design module. The ethos of the module it all about playfulness, building confidence, and learning through reflection. Subsequently, there may be opportunities to use what ChatGPT might produce as a basis for further reflection, development and refinement.

"I am the artist Riv Rosenfeld" - How ChatGPT is your new neoliberal friend

Tracie Farrell, from the Knowledge Media Institute, works in the intersection between AI and social justice. Tracie asked ChatGPT to write a paragraph about her friend and artist, Riv Rosenfeld. There was a clear error, which was that ChatGPT got their pronouns wrong. An important point is that “ChatGPT doesn’t know your truth”. In other words, the perspective that is generated by large language models comes from what is written or known about you, and this may be at odds with your own perspective. There are clear and obvious risks: marginalised groups are always not as visible. Biases are perpetuated. Some key questions are: who will be harmed, and who will be helped, and to what extent (and how) will these emerging tools reinforce inequality.

Discussion

After the short presentations, we went into a plenary discussion. It wasn’t too long before the history of AI was highlighted. John highlighted the two schools of thought about AI: a symbolic camp, and a statistical camp, and suggested that in the future, there might be a combination of the two. This related to the earlier point that these AI tools can’t (yet) do logic very well.

A further comment reflected an age old intractable problem that hasn’t been solved, and might never be solved, namely: we still haven’t defined what intelligence is. In terms of AI, the measure of intelligence has moved from playing chess, through to having machines do things that humans find intrinsically easy to do, such as assess a visual scene, and communicate with each other using natural language. The key point in the discussion was, of course: we need to ask again, what do we mean by intelligence?

Whenever a technology is discussed, an accompanying discussion of a potential digital divide is never too far away. AI may present its own unique divides: those who know how to use AI tools and can use them effectively, and those who don’t know about them, and are not able to use them. There are clear links to the importance of equity and access.

During the discussion, I noted down the words: “If you’re a novice programmer, what blocks you is your first bug”. In other words, knowing the fundamentals and having knowledge is important. Another phrase I noted down was: “It is perhaps best to view them as fallible assistants”.

Given their fallibility, making judgements about when to trust what an AI tool has produced, and when not to, is really very important. In other words: it is important to think critically, and this is something that only us humans can do.

Reflections

This was a popular event; approximately 250 people attended the first few presentations.

The presentations were quite different to each other. Some explored the question “to what extent might these tools present risks to academic integrity?” Others explored “how can these tools help us with creativity and problem solving?” The important topic of ethics was clearly highlighted. It was also interesting to learn about work being carried out within KMi, and the reference to the emergence of an institutional AI strategy (although I do hold the view that this should be thoroughly and critically evaluated).

I enjoyed the discussion section. In some respects, it felt like coming home. I studied AI as an undergraduate and a postgraduate student over 20 years ago, where the focus was primarily on symbolic AI. At the time, statistical methods, which includes neural networks, was only just beginning to make an appearance. It was really interesting to see the different schools of thought being highlighted and discussed. During the discussion session I shared the following memorable definition: AI is really clever people making really stupid machines to do things that look clever.

I confess to having been around long enough to know of a number of AI hype cycles. When I was a postgraduate student, I learnt about the first generation of AI developments. I learnt about chess and problem solving. I remember that proponents at the time were suggesting that the main problems with AI had been solved, which had the obvious implication that we would soon have our own personal robots to help us with our everyday chores.

The reality, of course, turned out to be different, since some of those very human problems, such as vision, sound and language were a lot harder to figure out. This meant there were no personal robotic assistants, but instead we did get a different kind of personal digital assistant.

Despite my cynicism, one aspect of AI that I do like is that it has been described as “applied philosophy”. When you start to think about AI, you cannot get away from trying to define what intelligence is. In other words, the machine becomes a mirror to ourselves; the computer helps us to think about our own thinking.

I once heard a fellow computer scientist say that one of the greatest contributions of computing is abstraction. In other words, when making sense of a difficult problem, you look at all its elements, and then you go on to create a new representation (or form) of the problem which then enables you to make sense of it all. I remember another computer science colleague saying, “when you get into trouble, abstract your way out of difficulty”. This can also be paraphrased as: “go up a level”.

We’ve all been in that situation when we’ve had multiple search engine tabs open, and we’re eyeballing tens of thousands of different search results. In these circumstances, we don’t know where to begin. Perhaps this is the problem that these large language models aim to resolve: to produce a neat summary of an answer we’re searching for in a neatly digestible format.

To some degree, generative AI can be though as “going up a level”, but the way you go up a level may well be driven by the data that is contained within a large language model. That data, of course, might well be incorrect. Even if you do “go up a level” you might be going up in entirely the wrong direction.

All these points emphasise the importance of taking a critical perspective of what all these new-fangled AI tools produce, but this does require those interpreting any results to have developed a critical perspective in the first place. We need a critical perspective to deal with instances where an AI tool might well provide us with not just machine generated “hallucinations” but also misinformation.

During my bit of the talk, I shared a perspective that I feel is pretty important, which is: “the most important thing in education isn’t machines or technologies, its people”. When we’re thinking about AI, this is even more true than ever. A screen of text looks like a screen of text. A teacher, tutor or lecturer can tell you not only what is important, but why, and what its consequences might mean to others.

I do feel that it is very easy to get carried away by the seemingly magical results that ChatGPT can produce. I also feel that it is important to view these tools with a healthy dose of AI cynicism and scepticism. If AI is applied philosophy, and this new form of AI enables us to more readily hold up a mirror to ourselves, it is entirely possible that we might not like what we see.

It is entirely possible that generative AI tools may well “read” this summary, and these reflections might well help these uncanny tools answer the question “how do humans perceive generative AI?” I’ll be interested to see what answer it produces.

Returning to the implicit question presented in the title of this event: “how generative AI going to change everything?” The cynic in me answers: “I doubt it”. It is, however, likely to change some things.

Other resources

A few weeks before this event, I was made aware of another related event which took place on 16 March, entitled Teaching with ChatGPT: Examples of Practice (YouTube playlist)This event was a part of a series of Digitally Enhanced Education Webinars from the University of KentThese presentations are certainly worth a visit, if only to hear other voices sharing their perspectives about this topic.

After this blog was published, Arosha Bandara sent me a link to the following article: Stephen Wolfram writings: What Is ChatGPT Doing ... and Why Does It Work? It is quite a long read, and it is packed with detail. It's also one of those articles that will take more than a few hours to work through. I'm sharing it here for two reasons: so I know where to find it again, and just in case others might find it of interest.

Acknowledgements

The event was a KMi Knowledge Makers event. Many thanks to John for inviting me, and encouraging me to participate. Many thanks to all the presenters; I hope I have managed to share some of the key points of your presentation, and apologies that I haven’t managed to capture everyone’s presentation. The event was organised by Lucas Anastasiou (PhD Research Student), Shuang Ao (PhD Research Student), Matteo Cancellieri (Lead Developer - Open Research), John Domingue (Professor of Computer Science), David Pride (Research Associate) and Aisling Third (Research Fellow). Thanks are also extended to Arosha for sending me the Wolfram article.

Addendum

A couple of weeks after the event, I was sent a note by a colleague. Someone in KMi may have asked ChatGPT to write a summary of this article. A link to that summary is available through a KMi blog. I have no idea to what extent it may have been edited by humans. This made me wonder: I wonder how ChatGTP might summarise the summary.

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Christopher Douce

A230 Journal – February 2023

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5 February 2023

I’m getting a bit behind! I start to re-read the block materials, and return my attention back to the The Sign of Four.

8 February 2023

A trip to Milton Keynes, which mean I have a bit of time on a train. I pack The Sign of Four in a bag, but I didn’t get very far, since I was distracted by thinking about a meeting that happened when I got there.

9 February 2023

I’ve finished reading the chapter about The Sign of Four, and I’ve started reading the chapter about The Beach of Falesá.

10 February 2023

It’s tutorial time! I have to dip in and out of a tutorial, which is about the two set texts, and the concept of the thematic essay. I had planned on doing a bit more reading today, but didn’t manage it.

20 February 2023

I’m getting a bit behind with my logging, and my TMA writing. Over the last few days (except yesterday) I’ve been working through both of the set texts (or, set novellas, I should say). I went through the Sign of Four whilst listening to a fabulous audio book from BBC Sounds. This really helped me to get to grips with the detail of who was who, and what was going on. Although I had found something similar for The Beach of Falesá, it was an adaption. So, I read through the chapters a second time. There was quite a bit of detail that I had not picked up on.

Today I’m going to start writing my TMA. My approach is to begin with the references (the books and the chapters), then to review the materials from the tutorials, put in a structure into my TMA, and then write about the topics that the TMA question is asking about. I’m hoping that some of the texts, and the broad pondering about the themes have gone in. 

I’ll also have a quick look through the prose tutorial, and the resource about thematic essays, pulling out some headings, which I’ll probably delete.

26 February 2023

Phew! That was a bit of a slog!

I spent the whole of yesterday trying to organise all my notes, and to listen again to a recorded tutorial. My process was to begin with a structure, move all my notes between the different sections, and then start to see whether I could form some words to link everything together. Whilst doing all this, I had to keep referring back to TMA question.

The first bit came pretty easy, but I found it quite hard work to really say what I wanted to say; the words were just not coming easily, although through the process, I found myself understanding both texts in a lot of detail.

Of course, I had too many words.

I printed everything out, did something entirely different, and then did editing with a pen and paper. What I ended up with seems to be okay, but it’s not brilliant. What it does, of course, is to show that I’ve got a good understanding of both texts that we had to look at.

Onwards. 

I’ve ticked a whole load of items on the module calendar, which tells me that I’m gradually getting there. I can scarcely believe that the EMA submission date, which takes place in May, is in sight.

Next up is Dubliners and cities. Although it’s too early to say, I think this might be my favourite bit.

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Christopher Douce

A230 Journal - January 2023

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6 January 2023

It’s tutorial day! I had one booked in for the start of this week with a different tutor, but I couldn’t attend, since I was travelling. 

In advance of the tutorial, we were sent two readings: one by Wordsworth, and another by Shelly. I have to admit that I hadn’t found the time to read either of these. 

After beginning with a brief summary of what romanticism is all about and how these different poets defined poetry, our tutor showed how he carried out close reading of passages from both of these authors. Whilst he was doing this, he showed us how to use some of the technical language that can be used to describe poetry. 

During the tutorial, I made notes, which I need to revisit. 

The next thing I need to do is highlight the technical terms that were used an applied.

7 January 2023

I’ve been ejected from an A230 WhatsApp group!

During an informal call with some A230 students, I did my duty as a tutor to emphasise that students should not be discussing answers to TMA questions.

A fellow student in the group referenced section 2.1 of the TMA assessment policy which contains the words: "discussing the material and ideas you are learning with your tutor and other students is beneficial and is encouraged. However, when you start to write your assignment you must make sure this is entirely your own work and you should not share it with other students." 

The policy is ambiguous. 

Sharing of your own work with other students could be done either textually or verbally. I sense that the policy ambiguity is deliberate since there are different ways to assess TMAs.

8 January 2023

Back to the module materials. I picked up where I left, finding my place thanks to a bookmark. It felt quite a long time since I was reading this section. I finish the section on Frankenstein, but I have made a mental note to return back again to the start of the section, so I have a good feel about the shape of the block and what it is discussing.

A glance at the module website says that I’m now a bit behind, which I’m not surprised about. I need to get back a bit more focus. 

I notice that I haven’t booked in any more tutorials between now and the TMA cut off date, and there haven’t been and recordings of the day school 2 event. Through the tutorial booking system, I notice that there is another one that I can now attend. 

My plan of action: after doing some catch up reading tomorrow morning (and making some notes), and after the forthcoming tutorial, I’m going to put all my attentions into my TMA.

9 January 2023

I’ve done what I promised myself: to re-read the two sections of the module block that we’re studying. I’ve also ticked off all the activity from week 12 that I’ve done, and I’ve found an additional PowerPoint presentation (from a tutorial) that relates to Wordsworth and Shelly in one of the module forums.

My next task (on the build up to the TMA) is to start the close reading of the texts highlighted in the TMA, and to get my head around the bigger picture of “Home at Grassmere” (which is reading 1.4).

10 January 2023

An online tutorial to attend! This would have been the second I have attended. The first, of course, was ran by my tutor. 

Although I was tired from a day of work, I found this one useful in terms of getting a feel for what the TMA is asking for.

I almost volunteered to read out some of the passages, but someone got there before me (which is what I’m telling myself).

11 January 2023

I’ve downloaded the PowerPoint that the tutor used with her tutorial, which I found very useful (I’ll look at it again, in combination with the one that my own tutor provided).

My next step of prep work: I print out the text that we have to read closely, making sure that I make the font a bit bigger. I also leave spaces between the lines, so I can scribble with different coloured pens.

I’m not doing too much today since I’m mentally addled. The final thing I do today is mark off two days: one day for TMA related reading, and another day for TMA writing. If I get my energy back tomorrow, I’m going to pour over the TMA instructions, the fragments of text used with the TMA, and the accompanying TMA guidance. I feel I’m building up a ‘head of steam’ towards the writing of the TMA (even though I don’t yet feel that I’m understanding the bigger picture).

13 January 2023

I’ve managed to get started! I’ve started to add a bunch of notes into my TMA template file, dividing it up into different sections. I’ve also read the text, and have been underlining sections with different colours; each colour relating to a different theme.

I’ve pretty much prepped part 1, which I have to write up into an answer.

My next steps: a tutorial tomorrow, transfer notes from the tutorial into the TMA document, look through all the blocks again and highlight sections that are relevant, and then re-read the texts again.

I’m hoping that the last tutorial I’ll be attending before writing the assessment will help me to make sense of Wordsworth!

14 January 2023

Tutorial time. 

In this tutorial, we looked at a further fragment of a poem by Wordsworth, relating some of the technical language to the text. A useful tip was: “refer to the glossary”.

Towards the end of the tutorial, I wanted to ask a question (which was the broad question about the aim of a poem), and another student had a question about the structure of the TMA. Unfortunately, neither of us had our questions answered, since the tutorial didn’t have a Q&A section.

Thankfully, I have managed to answer my own question by going back to the module materials.

I spend the rest of the day preparing notes, and starting to write my TMA.

15 January 2023

Everything came together! I think I figured out what Wordsworth’s poem was all about, thanks to a very obscure reference in a paper that I discovered through the university library which was a source of inspiration.

17 January 2023

Submission day. I got a printout of my TMA and read through it with a cup of coffee and a pen, crossing out various sections, and finishing some partially completed sentences. I then submit the final version through the eTMA system, and send a quick note to my tutor, saying I no longer need an extension. It almost feels as if I’m back on target again.

18 January 2023

Back to the module materials. I’ve noticed I’m now slightly behind, so I start reading The Sandman by E.T.A.Hoffman. I quite like it, but I have no idea what it is all about. I get distracted by my day job, and have to return to my email inbox.

20 January 2023

Back to catching up. 

I finish reading The Sandman, and then get a printout of two of the other short stories that we have to read. Although these don’t feature within the TMAs, there is a possibility that they might be important when it comes to the EMA (which still feels a long way away).

My aim for today (which is a leave day from my main office work, except for an hour of training I have to do) is: read those two stories I’ve just printed, have another read of the block that relates to Hoffman, and then have a look through TMA 4 to get an early idea about what it is all about.

I want to have an early look at the next TMA since one of the students on a social media group mentioned that there is a book to go through that I haven’t (yet) had a chance to read.

21 January 2023

I didn’t manage to finish reading those two printouts, but I got pretty close. There was a bit of The Automata that took a bit longer to read. I found myself looking into the concept of the Mechanical Turk which I had heard about before (through my studies of computing).

Back to catching up: I worked through the audio-visual materials of weeks 15 and 16, making a set of notes as I go. I read Wuthering Heights (for the second time) over the summer, but I do need to have a proper read through of the block materials again.

Next step: reviewing where I am on the module website (whilst optimistically ticking off the current week), and looking to what is scheduled for the next few weeks ahead. I’ve already read The Sign of Four, so I’m going to prioritise reading The Beach of Falesá, since this is the text that features in the next TMA.

I feel as if I’m on target, which is good. I’m going to take a trip over the coming days, so I’ll make sure I’ve packed the module materials, the book by Stevenson, and my laptop.

25 January 2023

I spent the night at Milton Keynes, and I got up early and have a bit of time to kill before something called a Research Fiesta. I get back to reading The Beach of Falesá, and find my way through chapter 2. I was a bit confused about what was meant by all the “tabooing”, and some of the weird sentence structure Stevenson seems to adopt, but I’m starting to really like the story. I’m beginning to see where the module team are coming from in terms of the TMA question.

27 January 2023

A day on leave from most things, apart from some study. I read the penultimate chapter of The Beach of Falesá.

30 January 2023

On Sunday, I noticed that a fellow student had shared an article about a radio production of The Beach of Falesá, entitled Why Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Sea Tales go against the tides.

A quick search of BBC Sounds reveals a 2014 BBC Radio adaptation of the same text. I’ve listened to three quarters of it, getting to the part which I still need to read. I later discovered an accompanying Guardian article that relates to the recording.

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Christopher Douce

TM470 Choosing a project

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 28 Jun 2023, 09:01

I’m a tutor for the Open University's TM470 Computing and IT project moduleTM470 is different from most other OU modules, since it is less about learning about Computing and IT concepts, and more about applying what has been learnt. 

When I was a computing undergraduate, I had to write a dissertation. I had to identify a problem, do some background reading, figure out what I needed to do, go ahead and do what I needed to do, and then write everything up. TM470 asks you to follow a similar process, whilst offering some helpful guidance.

One of the most important decisions that has to be made is choosing a project, or identifying a problem that you want to solve. 

This blog has been written for TM470 students, and aims to share some useful advice and pointers to help you with the process of choosing a project. This post accompanies earlier articles that I have written relate to TM470, which can be found by following my TM470 blog tag (OU blog). The articles about Understanding the literature reviewAcademic writingand the TM470 Project report structure might be helpful.

In essence, the project is all about showing off: showing off how you can use the skills and knowledge you have acquired throughout your studies. It is also about showing off how you’re able to plan. Finally, it is an opportunity to show off what you have learnt from the process of completing a project.

Starting points

Within the resources section of the TM470 website, there is a section called Study Materials. 

At the start of TM470, it is recommended that you have a good look through four different resource sections:

  • Study Guide
  • Project Choice
  • Sample Project Titles
  • Choosing a Lifecycle Model

Defining a project

The module materials shares dictionary definition of a project: “a carefully planned piece of work to get information about something, to build something, to improve something, etcetera.” 

It goes onto mention some of the key characteristics of a project:

  • They are unique – i.e. specific to a particular set of circumstances and not part of routine activity – and would not arise without deliberate intervention.
  • They are planned around a collection of available resources, schedules, budgets, etcetera.
  • They are self-contained around aims and objectives, and it is possible to decide when they are complete, and whether they have been completed successfully.

For TM470, the module team suggests that a project should:

  • identify a problem,
  • be practical or have a strong practical context,
  • have a proposed solution using (or related to) computing and IT,
  • include aspects of planning, evaluation and revision,
  • be broadly based on one or more level 3 computing and IT modules
  • will not be pure research but will extend and apply what has previously been learnt at level 3 to a practical problem.

Types of projects

There are, broadly speaking, three different types of TM470 project:

  • Development projects: involve creating something: processes, algorithms, software, hardware, interface design, etc.
  • Research projects: involve addressing a research question or analysing the possible solutions to a research problem, making detailed recommendations. This typically involves investigating the relevant academic area in depth.
  • Evaluation projects: are sometimes named ‘compare and contrast’. You might compare processes, analyse an implementation, assess different user interactions, etc.

The most popular type of project is the development project. This is where you build something, and then write a report that describes what you have built, and how you have built it. You would, of course, start the building after you have done some detailed planning and shared a detailed summary of all the resources and skills you need to start the project.

Sometimes, projects will not have a clear boundary between each of these categories. A development (or implementation) project might contain bits of research, and also bits of evaluation too. A project that is based on the interaction design module is a good example of this, where you might ask the question “is my design any good?”

Project choice guidelines

Your project should address a non-trivial question. The question should not have an obvious answer, and this means that it should be “reasonably difficult” (but not too difficult). It should ideally occupy the time that you have available, the resources that you have access to, and draw on many of the skills that you already have. 

Here are a set of collated and edited tips from both myself and fellow tutors:

  • Your project should ideally be based around a clear, concrete problem or scenario that needs a solution.
  • Your project must have a clear focus and ideally focus on a specific level 3 modules that have been previously studied.
  • Your project should be sufficiently detailed to allow you to achieve significant depth of analysis and reflection about what you have learnt and achieved during your project.
  • You should not attempt to do too much.
  • You should choose something that enables you to play on your existing strengths rather trying to learn an entirely new skill set.
  • You should choose something that you are interested in; this will keep you motivated. Make sure that you have fun whilst working on your project.

Starting your project

The first TMA is all about setting the scene and sharing your project ideas with your tutor. It is also used to help you to plan what you are going to be doing:

  • Choose (and justify) an appropriate lifecycle module; always ask why you have chosen the approach you have chosen.
  • Create a project plan and include this in the TMA (and all subsequent TMAs); create a Gantt chart.
  • In your plan, outline very concrete 'deliverables' (including your TMA submission dates), regardless of the type of project.
  • Take time to identify risks: what are they? Write them down and submit them in your TMA.
  • Make notes of what you have read; this can feed into your literature review, and have a look at the OU library to carry out some further research.
  • Write about the resources that you need, the skills that you need, and the skills that you need to develop.
  • Start to think about ethics.
  • Take time to review all the marking grids that are provided with the TMAs: you can almost mark yourself!

Projects connected to your workplace

If you are thinking of basing your project on something that you do in your workplace, there are a number of things that you need to carefully think about:

  • Timing: does the timing of a work-based project align with the timing of TM470? For TM470, you need to go through a complete project lifecycle, from beginning until end.
  • Who is involved: sometimes work-based projects involve teamwork. If this is the case, whatever you do on a work-based project might not be suitable for TM470 for the simple reason that everything that you do, and you submit in your project report must be all your own work.
  • Planning: are you able to do your own planning for the project? If someone else is doing the planning, or deciding on deadlines for your project work, your work-based project might not be suitable for TM470.
  • Complexity: some work-based project address a very small part of a much bigger project. Are you able to choose something that enables you to demonstrate a breath of skills and abilities?

Essentially, TM470 is all about what you do, and what you learn through the process of completing a project. Another way to choose a project is to think about what skills you might like to develop. Only choose a work-based project if all the above criteria can be met.

The degree apprenticeship version: TMXY475

There are two versions of TM470; a degree apprenticeship version, which goes by the code TMXY475, and the non-degree apprenticeship version. Although the aim and structure is broadly similar, TMXY475 has a slightly different focus to TM470. 

Apprentices who are taking TMXY475 have the challenge of identifying a project that aligns in two different ways: it connects with the level 3 OU modules they have previously studied, and also relates to some task or activity which relates to their workplace. Working with their module tutor and line manager, apprentices must choose a project that aims to address a particular business need, or to provide a clear benefit. Their project must also fit within the module timescales.

An important difference is that apprentices will need to not only write a project report, but also to prepare and deliver a presentation about their project.

Reflections

Choosing the right project at the start of TM470 is really important. If it is too simple, there might not be enough to get your teeth into; you need something that really allows you to show off your skills and abilities.

A TM470 must always link back to Computing and IT, irrespective of how technical it is.

Whilst it is often great to see technical skills demonstrated through an implementation or development project, some of the best projects I have seen have been about design. Rather than developing lots of a code, a project might share a series of detailed designs, which are then thoroughly evaluated, by applying the concepts presented through the interaction design module.

TM470 is all about sharing a technical story about what you have done within your project. Within this wider story there will be other stories, such as a story about your reading and what you know (which is presented through the literature review section), and what you have learnt (through the reflection section). 

The key bits of advice I have are: play to your strengths, and try to have fun with it. If you’re having fun with your project, you’re likely to be motivated. Also, do some thorough planning, write down potential risks, and consider the resources and skills that you need to do what you need to do.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank fellow tutors Chris Thomson and Eleanor Dare, who were kind enough to share some PowerPoint materials which offered useful advice and guidance about TM470 project choice. I would also like to acknowledge the TM470 module team, some of whose words I have creatively shared through this post. I would also like to acknowledge Alexis Lansbury, who is my TM470 line manager.

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Christopher Douce

Computing and Communications: 2023 Research Fiesta

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 31 Jan 2023, 17:02

On 25 January 2022 I attended an event called the School of Computing and Communications Research Fiesta, which took place on the university campus. One of my reasons for attending the fiesta was to try to restart my research activities, having stepped away from research due to taking on a role called ‘lead staff tutor’ for the last three years. 

The last time I attended a school research fiesta was on 10 January 2019 (OU blog) which took place at the nearby Kents Hill conference centre. Following this earlier event, I shared an accompanying post about research funding (OU blog).

This event was advertised as a “… time for us to reconvene and discuss everything research. This event is aimed to help us (re-)connect with one another and understand how we can help and benefit from each other’s research expertise and outputs” and was facilitated by David Bush from Ascolto.

What follows is a summary of the Research Fiesta, in terms of what happened during the meeting, and what I felt the biggest take away points were. This blog may of be interest to anyone who was at the event, couldn’t make it to the event, or broadly interested in the process of research (whether computing research, or research that takes place within other disciplines).

Preparation

Before the event, we were asked to prepare some cards which summarised our research interests. Although I didn’t write the card in advance, I did come to the event with some ideas in mind. Here’s what I wrote down on three cards:

  • Understanding and characterising green computing: what it is, what the boundaries and problem are, and how can we embed this theme into our teaching?
  • Storytelling, soft skills, and software engineering: what role does storytelling play or could play in software engineering practice, and how might storytelling be used to develop soft skills in the next generation of computing graduates?
  • Accessibility of web technologies: how accessible are the current generation of web-based applications, and to what extent are hybrid apps accessible with assistive technology. How useful is WAI-ARIA? It is still useful? Does it have an impact?

Later during the session, I added two more cards:

  • Pedagogy of teaching programming at a distance: innovative tutorials; how to develop tutors, and how to help them to be creative, perhaps by embedding and using drama.
  • Development of writing skills across the computing curriculum. 

This final idea emerged from discussions with tutors, following some discussions with tutors, and might form the basis of a scholarship project. The university has prepared a lot of materials about writing; the question is whether the computing programme makes effective use of them, given the writing requirements from some courses.

Activity 1: Sharing research ideas

Our first activity could be loosely called “academic speed dating”. 

I’ve done this before (both the academic version, and the non-academic version). 

In this version, we were sent to various tables, where we met up with two other colleagues. Our task was to show our cards (our research ideas) and try to create a new card that combined aspects of all of our cards. When we had done this, we had to pin our cards onto the wall to share our ideas with everyone.

Activity 2: Forming research teams

After a short break, everyone was asked to form a line based on how much research experience everyone has. On one side, there were all the new PhD students, and on the other side, there were the professors and heads of existing research groups.

Approximately 6 PhD students and early researchers were asked to review the cards that had been generated from the speed dating activity, and each had to choose a card they found most interesting.  This card (represented by one of the researchers) would then form the basis of a new team of 3 or 4 researchers.

One at a time, the rest of the researchers were ushered over to speak with the new researchers. If you liked an idea, and there wasn’t already 3 or 4 researchers, you could join a team. The longer the game went on, the harder it becomes for the more experienced researchers. Instead, they would have to make use of all the powers of persuasion to try to join an existing team, or to persuade fellow researchers to create new teams.

After some discussion and reviewing cards, I joined two of my colleagues, Dhouha Kbaier and Yaw Buadu. Two project cards were combined together to create a new project. Paraphrasing our cards, our project intended to:

Develop digital technologies to enhance engagement and participation by integrating more physical computing into the computing curriculum. 

Accompanying research questions were: what are the challenges of using physical computing in a distance learning environment, and how might physical computing devices be connected to and integrated within the Open STEM labs

This final question suggests the opportunity to explore costs and trade-offs of a physical computing approach where students use their own equipment, or share equipment with other students through a platform which is accessed remotely.

What might physical computing actually mean? One answer to this is: physical hardware used by students to learn about or to solve computing problems, as opposed to using software simulations. There is a precedent of using (and sharing) physical computing devices at the university. In earlier decades, there was the Hektor computer (computinghistory.org.uk), which was once sent out to computing students (and then later returned to the university).

A more modern and smaller (and much more sophisticated) version is the Raspberry Pi computer (Raspberry Pi website) which can be used with any number of interesting computing projects.

One other aspect that we discussed were about the stakeholders, and who might need to be involved? We identified the following groups: students, tutors, module team members, and administrative university functions.  (The members of module team may include both tutors and curriculum managers, who act as a fundamental link between the academic team and operations of the university bureaucracy). 

Impact: evaluation and presentation

The next bit of the fiesta was a presentation; a double act from two colleagues from the research school, Betul Khalil, an Impact Manager, and Gareth Davies, who is a Research Evidence Impact Manager. 

They began with a question: what is impact, and can we give an example? 

Impact isn’t the same as project outcomes. They are very different things. An outcome might be a report, or some software. An impact can refer to a change that may have led to a positive long term benefit to stakeholders. In terms of the UK Research Excellent Framework (REF Impact case studies), impact could mean a change to society, the economy, and to the natural environment. Also, a measurable change might be on a local, regional or international scale.

The message to us was clear: when working on a project bid, researchers need to proactively consider impact from the outset and define impact objectives, since gathering effective evidence to show how those objectives may have been met takes time. In some respects, impact evidence gathering is a further part of the research process.  To do it well, researchers need an impact plan to accompany a research or project plan. 

We were all given a handout, from which I have noted down some useful questions that researchers need to bear in mind. These are: 

  • Who are the stakeholders, and who might be affected by the change your project may facilitate?
  • What do the stakeholders (or beneficiaries) gain from your research?
  • Why will they engage with your research?
  • How will you communicate with beneficiaries?
  • What activities might you need to run to effect change?
  • How might you evidence change? 
  • How will you connect change to your research?

Later, Gareth talked more about what it means to ‘evidence’ impact. An important note I made from Gareth’s presentation was that “upsteam planning is important” and that the analysis of impact should be rigorous. Researchers also need to consider which methods they use to enable them to find a way to observe what is changing. 

Apparently, one of the most common forms of evidence is a written testimonial (in the form of a testimonial letter). Within this assertion lies the reflection that researchers need to make sure they have the time and the means to gather evidence.

Activity 3: How will we do our project?

Our next activity was to sit around a table to figure out how were going to do to answer our research questions.

We began by asking: what might the outputs from our project be? We came up with some rough answers, which were:

  • Guidelines about how physical computing could be embedded and used within module teams. If used within a module, tutors could then be offered some accompanying guidance.
  • Recommendations about physical kit that could be used (these kits might be bought, or borrowed, or used from a distance); recommendations about the use of software; recommendations about pedagogy and use (which is an idea that can relate to the idea of useful guidelines). 

To produce these, what needs to be done? Our team offered the following suggestions (but the exact order of carrying these out could be easily debated):

  1. Examine learning outcomes within various qualifications and accompanying modules.
  2. Explore the problem space running focus groups with stakeholders to understand how the terms engagement and participation are understood.
  3. Use mixed methods: from the focus group results, carry out a survey to more thoroughly understand how a wider population understands engagement and participation.
  4. From these different information sources (and input from the learning outcomes) facilitate a number of curriculum design workshops to understand how physical computing can be brought into the curriculum.
  5. Carry out a detailed analysis of all the data that has been captured, writing up all the findings.
  6. Implement the findings.

A further reflection was each of these activities needs to be considered in terms of SMART objectives; specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound. 

A new question that we were asked was: what impact will your project have? 

Given that students are key stakeholders, there might be broader impacts in terms of results to the National Students Survey. There might be further impacts both within the university, and to other organisations that provide distance learning. There might also be impacts that could be broadly described as the further development of computing pedagogy. This is all very well, but how might we go about measuring all this? It is this question which the facilitators from the research school may have wanted to encourage us to consider.

What happens next?

 After presenting our plan to all the other groups, we were asked a couple of final questions, which were: how excited are you about the project? Also, how doable (or realistic) is the project?

Given that we all have our own main research interests (which are slightly different to the new project that we have defined), we all had different levels of enthusiasm about going ahead with this project idea. That said, the key concepts of physical computing (in its broadest sense) and student engagement are important topics which other researchers may well be interested in exploring. Even if this particular team may not be in a position to take these ideas forward, the ideas are still worth exploring and studying.

Reflections

I really liked the way that we were asked to focus on trying to get things done. 

When thinking about research (and research projects) impact has always been something that has always been at the back of my mind, but I’ve always tended to consider it as something that is quite intangible and difficult to measure. The presenters from the research school made a really clear point. They emphasised that it is important to plan for impact before your project has started.

A personal reflection is that impact could be thought of as a way to reflect on the success of a project. In some respects, this should be something that researchers should be doing as a matter of course to further develop their professional skills. Of course, the extent and nature of this analysis will depend very much on the nature of the research that is carried out through a project. Given the collaborative nature of research, gathering of impact evidence is likely to be collaborative too. 

It is interesting to compare this Research Fiesta with the one that was held in 2019. One of the differences being that there were a lot fewer people attending this event. This might have been a factor due to the timing (some new module presentations were just about to begin) or a hangover from the 2019-20 pandemic (where so many colleagues switched to homeworking). 

An interesting difference related to the structure: this event was facilitated in a dynamic way, where the research themes emerged from the participants. The earlier event had more emphasis on sharing information about the research groups within the school, and more of the practicalities about how to gain funding for research. There is, of course, no right or wrong way to run a research fiesta. I appreciated the dynamic structure, but equally I’m always up for hearing about new concepts and ideas, and learning about what is happening within and across the school.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Amel Bennaceur for organising the event. One of the impacts has been to get to catch up with colleagues, and to learn more about them! It was a pleasure working with my fellow group members, Dhouha Kbaier and Yaw Buadu who kindly reviewed this blog article before it was published.

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STEM Education Research Group - Mixed Methods

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 26 Jan 2023, 15:48

I belong to a couple of research groups within the School of Computing and Communications; I’m trying to find my research home, after not being involved with research for a while. There’s also an informal group called the STEM Education Research Group, which explores topics that are common to some of the groups that I (occasionally) visit.

On 18 January 2023 I attended a research development event that was facilitated by Ann Grand, Senior Lecturer in Astrobiology Education, that was all about mixed methods.

An example

Ann opened with an example, which was also a research question: how are people using their allotments?

You might count how many people are growing different type of crops, or how many hours a week people are ‘using’ their allotments, or you might try to understand ‘why’ they are using their allotment. The nature of the research question might lead to you choosing different methods: you might gather numbers, or you might want to speak with people who grow things on their allotments. I made a note that there’s a difference between multi-methods to answer different research questions, and mixing of methods.

Choosing methods

I noted down a reference to Tashakari and Cresswell, where mixed methods were described as: “research in which the investigator collects and analyzes data, integrates the findings, and draws inferences using both qualitative and quantitative approaches or methods in a single study or a program of inquiry. integrate everything to produce an interpretation” (2007, p.4)

An important question is: how do decide about to use which methods to use? The answer is: It relates to the overall design of what is being studied.

An important point that I noted down was that mixed methods can often take up more time than if a researcher was only using a single method. This leads to the question: under what circumstances should we use them? What is their value?

A reflection that was made during the session is that controlling for variables in education is profoundly difficult, and therefore, it is almost inevitable that we adopt mixed methods to try to understand what the variables might be. They might also be used to mitigate against the impact of extraneous variables. Also being aware of a range of different evidence may enable you to often understand the question, before even carrying out your research.

My colleague Oli Howson made the following point: “quantitative data is lovely for drawling lines around things but humans are messy and colour/context is important”. Understanding the context can, of course which can lead to other (or related) research questions. A research project might not be about asking or understanding a sequence of questions, it may be more of a messy network of questions which exist within a wider research space.

Value of mixed methods research

Mixed methods can be used to investigate and consider bias, and add meaning to data that has been gathered. One useful quote is by Denzin, who writes: “the bias inherent in any particular data source, investigators and particularly method, will be canceled out when used in conjunction with other data sources, investigation, and methods” (p.14, 1978).

Another quote relates to the application of mixed methods, namely that a mixed approach “facilitates generalization to a wider population, especially when the qualitative sample is directly linked to the quantitative sample” (Hesse-Biber & Johnson, 2015).

There is also the importance of being aware of our own biases and being mindful or how we approach any analysis. These points are related to the subject of reflexivity, which relates to how we position ourselves in relation to any research that we do. Sometimes sharing a little bit more about us (and our position) enables us to add validity to any research that we share.

More than methods…

An important reflection is that the choice of methods is one bit of a much broader picture. Our choice of methods reflects what our research paradigm is, and can link to our philosophy of how we view truth and knowledge. In some ways, using two different sets of methods can be an attempt to bridge conceptual differences between interpretivist and positivist world views. In other words, whether truth (or reality) is subjective, or objective.

The ordering of methods is important. A researcher might use a sequential approach, applying one method after another. 

A qualitative method might be used to identify concerns held by a community, which could then be brought into a survey method to quantify, or to test the extent of concerns that might be held by a wider community. In other words, a quantitative approach could be used to validate a qualitative finding.

Looking from the other perspective, a survey (perhaps using a standard instrument) might signify some interesting or curious results. Qualitative methods could then be used to explore why a certain group of participants hold a particular perspective. In other words, a qualitative approach can be used to provide explanations to accompany quantitative findings.

During this part of the session, there was also a short discussion about the use of literature surveys. Systematic reviews can apply mixed methods. For example, a literature survey could begin with a set of themes that have been identified by a researcher. This identification of themes could be thought of as a qualitative approach. During the next step, a researcher might then to go onto identity how many papers explore or study those themes.

A further example…

Towards the end of the session, we had a look at an example of some educational research which asked the question: what impact do science shows have on attitudes to career intentions? 

I understand a science show to be an engaging demonstration or a talk. In other words, is there an effect on the career aspiration of school children who attended those shows? We had a brief look at some data captured from a research student. This included responses from questionnaires, and responses from a focus group. 

Whilst discussing the research methods applied in this study, there was a further discussion point that emerged, which was about the concept of impact. Specifically, how does ‘impact’ relate to your research questions?

Reflections

Whenever research methods are discussed, there are other broader questions which can and should be asked. These questions relate to the philosophy of research, and the nature of truth, and these discussions inform the research paradigm that you adopt. Before even getting into philosophy and paradigms, it is your research questions that should drive everything. When you know the what needs to be found out, you can then think about the how.

It was great to see Creswell mentioned. I first came across his textbook when studying for my MA in Education. Creswell presents a really detailed summary of what mixed methods research is all about and provides a lot of detail about the methods that can be used and applied.

One of the unexpected points that I took away from this session is how systematic literature reviews can both draw on the quantitative and the qualitive. Thinking back to the literature reviews that I did for my MA and other qualifications, it has struck me that I’ve been applying mixed methods research, but in an informal way. Knowing about terminology makes the informal become formal, and also goes a long way to clarifying processes and how this relates to how research is carried out.

References

Denzin, N. (1978) The research act: A theoretical introduction to sociological methods. New York: Praeger.

Hesse-Biber , S. and Johnson, R. (eds) (2015) The Oxford handbook of multimethod and mixed methods research inquiry. Oxford University Press.

Tashakkori, A. and Creswell, J. (2007) Editorial: The New Era of Mixed Methods Journal of Mixed Methods Research 1(1)3 DOI:10.1177/2345678906293042

Acknowledgements

Some of the phrases and quotes shared through this blog have directly come from Ann, who kindly shared her slides following the event. In some of the earlier sections, I’ve added some further points and reflections from other periods of study. Many thanks to Ann for running a useful session.

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A230 Journal – December 2022

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3 December 2022

I manged to find a bit of time to go through the additional Wordsworth resources. There’s a short video, and a further poem which is called “Michael: a pastoral” which I printed out. This section emphasised the connection between his cottage, his immediate environment and his poems.

I quite liked one of the activities, which was digging into a biographical dictionary that everyone can access through the OU library website. 

I discovered something really interesting. Wordsworth had been inspired to go on a grand tour, after reading a book that was written by a historian and travel writer called William Coxe (Wikipedia). I’ve barely read anything from this period, and yet I’ve read some of the words from this chap, who wrote about his travels around Poland, Russia and Sweden. It is also interesting due to the emphasis that A230 gives to travel writing.

I digress slightly.  I also learnt about a connection between Wordsworth and Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

All my notes are roughly in order, and I’ve scanned the TMA 3 question. I’ll also share the obvious, which is: never use Wikipedia in a TMA!

My final bit for the day, a forum activity.

The activity question is: what [do] you understand by Romanticism, and why you think that the forum is entitled ‘Romantic Lives’?

My reply follows:

Great question! I guess there's what I understand by the term romanticism right now, and how I might understand it by the end of the block.

At the moment (at the time of writing), I don't have (in my head) a firm definition, but a sense that it is something that is linked to the majesty of the natural world and landscapes, and how theses can instil within us heightened emotion, which can then be expressed through writing. In all this there's the notion of the individual, but I'm not quite sure where I've got this from.

In terms of what is meant by lives, perhaps it relates to how the environment influences and inspires people in different ways? I know that Shelly was inspired through a connection with the alps? I'm a bit hazy on the detail.

I discovered something interesting through the Wordsworth biography activity. He apparently went on a bit of a grand tour, inspired by reading a historian and travel writer called William Coxe, whilst he was studying at Cambridge. I have never read Wordsworth (and I'm struggling a bit, to be honest!), Shelly, but randomly I have read a bit of Coxe!

Coming back to the question, I'm mindful to look at a book called "A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory" by Cuddon, which we can access through the OU library. A key (bit of a) sentence that seems to link back to my first stab at a definition are: "the ideals of romanticism included an intense focus on human subjectivity, an exaltation of Nature ... " (p.623) (the sentence is quite long!)

5 December 2022

A visit to a dentist in Lincolnshire. I’m not having any treatment done, though; I’m a designated driver for the day.

I sit in reception and fish out the second book from my bag, and try to read the chapter about Shelly. It was difficult to concentrate over the cheerful, and very distracting music that can be found in dentists. I realise that I have briefly read all the sections that I was reading. I now need to look over the poems in the reader, and try to get back to Wordsworth, which I’m struggling with.

17 December 2022

I’ve had an inadvertent break from study; I’ve been marking some TMAs, and helping a family member.

On 10 December, I went to see a performance of Othello (Guardian review) at the national theatre. Although the date of the performance was too late to coincide with the date of my previous TMA, I did find it very interesting, especially when thinking about how it differs to the other performances I’ve seen.

The following radio programme was shared on the A230 facebook group: In Our Time, Frankenstein by Mary Shelly (BBC). To get back into study, I made a bunch of notes. 

It’s now time to return to the block materials, to remember where I was, and then get back to Wordsworth, as I had promised myself.

18 December 2022

It’s “figuring out Wordsworth” day, which means doing some reading. 

I’ve discovered I take things in more easily if I listen to them. When reading Wordsworth, I’ve found my mind easily wanders off. To help, I’ve found a number of recordings on YouTube of some of the poems that are mentioned in our readings book.

The first one is Reading 1.2, Point Rash Judgement, from line 40 onwards

The next one is a fragment from Reading 1.4, Home at Grasmere, lines 130 through 170. (I can't find a complete reading). The YouTube channel looks interesting!

A reading of Reading 1.3, The Brothers. I have no idea what version is read, but it's pretty close to the version that we have in the reader. I understand it a bit better now! (I can't help but feel the use of blank verse is a bit contrived!)

A final Wordsworth reading. This time, Reading 1.6, a section from book 5, from The Prelude (I don't think the module materials explains very well what The Prelude is all about, since I remain a bit lost). If you go to the 20 to 32 min mark, you'll find lines 450 onwards through to 557.

Finally, something a bit different. Reading 2.2: Ode to the West Wind, as read by Michael Sheen.

I’m jumping around a bit today. I finish the day by reading the block material about Frankenstein.

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PhD project: The role of storytelling in software engineering practice

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 23 Dec 2022, 11:06

Here’s a very short story.

One day, when I was a computing undergraduate in the 1990s, I had to do a high stakes programming assessment. With about twenty of my peers, I went into a computing lab, where we were all give a programming task to complete. We had to write code to solve a problem, and then get a printout of the program and all the test data we had used.

I remember that it took me a couple of hours. 

Halfway through the activity, one of my peers stood up, said he had finished and proudly announced he was going to the student union bar (it was 11:00am in the morning; we didn’t have any other classes for that day). When I finally got all my code and tests printed and submitted, I noticed there were some students who were still working on their problems.

In this moment, I asked myself a question which plagued me: how come some people find programming really easy, and other people sometimes struggle? Is there something special about coding? 

I took this question with me to my postgraduate studies, and then onto doctoral studies, where I learnt about cognitive psychology and working memory. My focus on the individual programmer and their capabilities led me to create a whole new type of software metrics.

After doing all this study, I got a job as a professional software engineer. I was keen to gain some industrial experience since if I were ever to return to the higher education sector to teach programming, having some real programming experience would give be a bit of credibility.

One of the most important things I learnt in industry was that whilst the individual programmer and their abilities is important, software engineering is a team game.

Although I’m interested in software, I’m more interested in people. I see software and computing as a tool through which we can understand more about ourselves; I see the machine as a mirror in which we can see more of ourselves.

Software and software engineering has taken me on a journey. It is a journey that began with one question and has ended with another, which is: “since communication is so important in software engineering, could the idea of story telling be useful?” I’ve been on a journey that once focussed on the individual, and have moved to a place where I’m now interested in groups of people and how they work together.

Topic Description

Software is an invisible technology created by people. To design and build software, communication is a necessity. Software engineers must communicate with stakeholders to gather requirements, they must communicate with each other during the development process, and then they must communicate with the stakeholders when software is deployed.

Since software development and engineering is a human-centred activity and communication is both a necessity and imperative, one of the tools that could be used and applied by software engineers is storytelling. The aim of this project is to uncover the ways in which storytelling practice can be either discovered or used within software development communities.

Storytelling and software engineering can be considered in different ways. It could be used to help to facilitate to the discovery of requirements, help to share professional expertise between developers, but it could also be used as a way to develop the communication skills and practices of the next generation of software engineering professionals, helping to address a perceived soft skills gap amongst computer science graduates.

In this project, you will carry out background research to identify how and where storytelling can be used to either develop, understand or enhance software engineering practice. You might be required to design and carry out empirical studies that explore software develop cultures or evaluate new and innovative methods or practices.

Skills Required

Although you may have a first degree in Computer Science or Software Engineering, this project may be suitable for someone who has studied humanities and social science subjects and have completed a postgraduate conversion degree in Computing or a closely related subject. 

Ideally, you should have a firm understanding and appreciation of quantitative and qualitative social science research methods. You should also be willing to study topics and subject that relate to the humanities, and be willing to explore different conceptions of employability within the discipline of computing.

Background Reading

Iniesto, F., Sargent, J., Rienties, B., Llorens, A., Adam, A., Herodotou, C., Ferguson, R. and Muccini, H. (2021) When industry meets Education 4.0: What do Computer Science companies need from Higher Education? Ninth International Conference on Technological Ecosystems for Enhancing Multiculturality (TEEM’21), October 26–29, 2021, Barcelona, Spain. ACM.

Rainer, A. (2021) Storytelling in human–centric software engineering research. EASE 2021: Evaluation and Assessment in Software Engineering, June 2021, 241–246.

Schwabe, G., Richter, A. and Wende, E. (2019) Special issue on storytelling and information systems. Information Systems Journal, vol. 29, no. 6, 1122–1125.

Storr, W. (2020). The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and how to Tell Them Better. Abrams.

Closing points

If this very broad sketch of a project sounds interesting as a doctoral research project, do feel free to get in touch. 

Alternatively, if you’re a computing researcher looking at a similar subject, feel free to drop me a line; it would be great to her from you - let's find a way to collaborate.

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Advice to students, from students

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 22 Dec 2022, 11:12

An interesting question to ask a student is: “what advice would you give to a fellow student about working with TMA feedback?” TMA feedback is, of course, the feedback that a student receives after collecting their marked Tutor Marked Assessment.

This question is one of several that are explored through a scholarship project that has the title Developing student use of feedback on their marked TMAs which was led by staff tutors Carol Calvert and Colette Christiansen, and Clare Morris who was the AL lead on the project. 

A summary of some of their research findings was shared to colleagues through a discussion forum. It struck me that their findings (which takes the form of practical advice) was so useful, I thought it might be helpful to share their findings more widely.

Before looking at the specific points, it is worth emphasising that TMA feedback is typically given in two different ways: through a coversheet (an eTMA form, which is sometimes called a PT3 summary) which offers students with an overview of how they have done (which is typically forward looking), and comments that have been directly provided on a submitted assignment (which is feedback that relates to work that has been done).

Here are Carol, Colette and Clare's collection of useful points:

Collecting and using your TMA feedback – advice from your fellow students

Reading the feedback on your marked TMA can be a bit nerve-racking, but it can also be a really important part of your learning. A recent survey produced a great deal of valuable advice from students, which we’re sharing with you here. All the quotes in green are taken directly from comments by students – and they’re just representative examples of topics which were mentioned dozens of times. This is the voice of experience!

Some preliminary advice – doing and handing in the TMA

  • Complete the dummy TMA [i.e., TMA00]
  • Make sure to read all the guidance about submitting TMAs well in advance
  • Attempt the TMA as soon as possible, and work on it as you go along, straight after completing the relevant unit.
  • Make sure to keep in mind when your assessments are due in, you don't want to have to rush anything.
  • Plan your time and keep disciplined! Once you fall behind, it's tough to get back on track, so don't let it happen.
  • Make a plan and keep it realistic
  • Read the question, answer the question, then read the question again! – but don’t over-think it.
  • Know that the time you spend on learning will pay off and don’t give up.
  • Do what it says on the tin and you can't go far wrong

Picking up your marked TMA…

  • Download the pack [that is, your marked script plus the summary sheet] from the website to save alongside the submission.
  • Print them so easier to refer to. Use for revision.
  • keep all feedback downloaded to use later, keep it stored

… reading and making use of the feedback…

  • Read the feedback initially then go back the next day once emotions surrounding marks have subsided. Read, and review, then revisit the comments a few days later
  • Read through the comments thoroughly and talk to a friend or family member about any mistakes you have made (or things you are particularly proud of), and how you can improve. This helps to keep the feedback in your head, so you have it at hand when tackling the next TMA.
  • Look at the feedback as soon as possible so that you can keep on top of any errors/feedback for completing the next TMA and improving your marks.
  • even if you score highly there is value in reviewing the feedback as tutors will also comment on things such as the style and formatting of the document which can be useful when setting out future assignments.
  • Focus on applying the feedback given rather than focusing on your assessment score
  • Take any general advice on board. It can provide easy extra marks throughout the rest of your studies if you fix general issues on how you show your working or answer written questions.
  • Make use of it. You might be annoyed at first to have dropped marks, but turn it into a positive and learn from your mistakes
  • Take your time to consider the feedback - then redo that part using the feedback provided
  • Take notes of your feedback to refer back to
  • go back to it as many times as needed
  • read the feedback numerous times to take it in properly to be able to use it effective in future TMA's because it is a brilliant resource to support you to improve
  • have the feedback handy for the next attempt at an TMA.

…maybe feeling a bit upset by the comments…

  • Don't take it personally, use it as fuel for doing even better in your next assignment.
  • It's for your own good. If you don't know where you are going wrong, how do you expect to improve?
  • accept it constructively, it is really helpful
  • Don't get too hung up on it
  • Try not to get too upset if your mark isn't as high as you'd hope or wanted
  • [remember] that it is given to encourage and help them
  • Making a mistake and receiving feedback for the mistake is an efficient way for an improvement. So, appreciate it rather than being disappointed
  • Take your time to process the feedback, don't allow your emotions to cloud your judgement.

And if you don’t understand something your tutor has written…

  • don't be afraid to ask your tutor for clarification, especially if you think they're wrong! (you may need help realising you've gotten the wrong idea about something)
  • Don’t be shy to ask for help from your tutor
  • Make the most of having an assigned tutor
  • If you want really clear feedback, you should ask clear questions to your tutor yourself.

Finally…

re-read the feedback from previous TMAs before submitting the next to ensure that you have learned from past mistakes and the feedback was not given in vain

And above all, remember…

TMAs are about much more than marking!

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Carol, Clare and Collette for giving me permission to share their summary. Their research was carried out within and funded by eSTEeM: the OU centre for STEM pedagogy.

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Reviewing an academic paper for Open Learning

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One of the tasks I have to do pretty regularly is to review academic papers for a journal called Open Learning, which I help to co-edit. 

This blog post is intended as a summary of my own thoughts about how I approach reviewing. This post may be useful for reviewers who are new to reviewing papers for journals not too dissimilar to Open Learning.

The blog is split into three parts. The first part is about how I approach the reading (and interrogating) of a journal submission. In this first bit there are some short cuts which I tend to apply to get a feel for a paper.

The second part is about how I approach the offering of feedback to authors. The overall aim is, of course, to try to help the author of a submission to write a better paper. For this part, I should acknowledge some of the ideas of Simon Bell, a former editor of Open Learning, who put in place a really nice framework.

The final part offers an ethical perspective. This is discussed in three different ways; the ethical responsibilities of the reviewer, ethical responsibilities of an author, and the ethical perspective that must be presented through a paper.

The blog post concludes by sharing some additional resources and sharing some further reflections about the role of the reviewer.

Before beginning, an important question to ask is: why should I review? There are a few answers to this. One reason is that is gives you insight into the peer review process. It also enables you to catch sight of the kinds of papers and research that relates to a field or discipline. Also, in some respects, academics serve the discipline that they study and teach; reviewing for journals can be thought of an extension of that service. Another reason is the practice of reviewing and writing reviews develops your critical perspective. Finally, reviewing is a way to gain academic kudos and experience. If you review for a journal, this is something that you can add to your academic CV.

Reading an academic paper

One of the first things I try to do is to get a feel for the paper as a whole. 

Getting a feel for the paper

A key question to have in mind is: what kind of paper is this?

I begin with the title, then the abstract, then the introduction, and then I immediately go to the references section. My justification for this is: if I recognise some of the references, then I may be able to get a quick (and rough) understanding of the type of research that is being presented. If I don’t recognise any of the papers, then I’ll clearly have to work a lot harder than I would if some of the papers were familiar to me.

Looking at references

Whilst I’m in the references section, I look to see whether a paper has referenced any other articles from the journal that it has been submitted to. If it hasn’t referenced any papers from within the journal, this makes me ask myself the question: is this paper appropriate for the journal?

There are two reasons why references from within the paper is important. Firstly, clearly referencing from within the journal shows that the research is placed amongst and next to existing research. This means that it is likely to be following and connected to existing debates and topics. Secondly, referencing popular papers from within the journal you are submitting to is a good strategy; it enables your work to be more easily discovered by researchers. The reason for this is that many journals allow researchers to follow links between different papers. 

Gaining a critical perspective

The next thing I would do is have a quick look through all the different sections. There are always some key headings that I look for: a section that describe methods, a results section, a discussion section and then a conclusion. If any of these are missing, I would certainly be giving the paper a closer look, and asking why the article wasn’t using these headings.

Checking out the detail

When looking through all the different sections, I would also keep an eye out for any figures or graphs. I would typically ask myself a couple of things. One question would be whether there were any figures or images that were presented in colour. The reason for this is simple: printed versions of the journal are still (currently) important. Although it is unlikely that a researcher might handle a physical copy of an issue in a university library, they may well download a PDF and print a copy out. Secondly, if there were graphs, I would check to see if the axes and titles made sense.

When I’m through with looking at these aspects, I might jump from the introduction to the conclusion. Is there a consistent message between the two sections? Doing this should (ideally) give me a good feel for what the paper is all about.  

The next bit is to read through the methods section to find whether there is a clear description of the research questions, before heading onto the methods section. A key question to ask is: “does the approach make any sense?” Another question to ask is: “is there sufficient detail to enable me to get a view about the methods?”

I must confess to being more confident with assessing qualitative papers than I am with quantitative papers. If I feel that I’m not able to make sense a paper, or feel that I don’t have the appropriate expertise to make a judgement or a proper academic assessment of a submission, I tell editor to make them aware of this. This is something that I pick up on later in the ethics section.

Commenting on a paper

When my former colleague Simon Bell started as a co-editor of Open Learning, he requested that all reviewers should be sent some guidelines.

A version of his guidelines have also been published in the System Practice and Action Research Journal (Bell and Flood, 2011). Essentially, they are a set of constructive directives that are intended to create what we called “the spirit of reviewing”. 

For sake of brevity and this blog, I summarise (and paraphrase) the directives (or guidelines) as follows:

  • Always be honest but temper honesty with kindness. Ask the question: “How would I feel if I received this review?”
  • Be constructive. Articles have been developed over time and should be read with sympathy and honour. 
  • Be fair. Always comment on what I liked as well as what parts of a paper I might have had problems with.
  • Be humble and say when I do not understand something; do not present myself as a world authority on a subject. 
  • Consider myself as a co-worker who is trying to contribute to a wiser and more exciting script. 
  • To help both the editor and the author, indicate if I like the text, say whether I would publish it, and highlight what changes could be made to make the text more enjoyable and if I think the author needs to “adapt/change/re-assess the text in some more challenging manner”.

Even before I had been introduced to Simon’s guidelines, I had implicitly devised a way of providing my own feedback to authors. The approach that I take may be familiar with colleagues:

  • Highlight what you think is good about the paper and acknowledge the work that has gone into producing it.
  • Highlight areas that you might have concerns with. Explain what could be improved, giving a suggestion about how it might be improved, and describe why these improvements are important.
  • Ask whether other papers may be useful for the researcher; offer them help and pointers where you think it is appropriate.
  • Be practical; if you feel that there is a lot wrong with the paper, highlight only three points. A thought is to say something about the content, say something about the structure, and say something about how it fits in with the discipline or the journal; this will help the editor too.
  • End on a positive note. 

An ethical perspective

It is really important that reviewers carry out reviews in an ethical way. 

There are three different perspectives that need to be kept in mind: the ethical practice of the reviewer, the ethical practice of the author of an article, and the ethical practices that are followed within an article. Each of these perspectives are covered in turn.

The reviewer

Reviewers are in a position of power and privilege; their comments can influence whether an article is published. Reviewers must bear in mind the following perspectives:

Impartiality: Reviewers should be impartial. This means that they should be aware of potential biases they may have about any aspect of a submission. A reviewer should not be familiar with the work that is being reviewed.

Expertise: Reviewers should be confident in their assessment of a paper. If they lack sufficient knowledge or expertise to make a judgement, they should either state this in the review, or let an editor know that they do not have sufficient expertise to carry out a review.

Integrity: Through their articles, authors may share new ideas. These ideas are being shared, in confidence, with reviewers. Any interesting and novel research directions that are suggested through an article should remain entirely with the author of an article. Reviewers should not directly draw on or build upon the work of papers that they review.

The author

Authors of papers must not use text, data or images from unattributed sources. Quotations that are used within a paper must be correctly presented; the source of an author should be mentioned, along with accompanying page numbers. If sources are not referenced correctly and fully, authors run the risk of being accused of plagiarism, which is a term that can be applied to not only intentional copying, but also inadvertent copying.

Authors should also be mindful of a concept known as self-plagarism. This is where an author of an article might make use of their own words which might have been used (and published in) other articles. This can occur, for example, if an author writes a paper that describes their doctoral research. The words they use within a doctoral thesis must be substantially different to the words used within an academic article. The exception to this is when authors deliberately quote their earlier work, and earlier publications.

One of the ethical responsibilities of a reviewer is to make a confident judgement that an author’s submission is their own, and to the best of their knowledge, isn’t using the words of other researchers. Reviewers should also let an editor know if they find that a very similar version of a submission has been published in another journal.

In many cases, the journal editor and publisher will also be able to make use of specialist tools to carry out further checks to ensure the originality of submissions.

The research

Since Open Learning publishes education research, many research articles make use of human participants. Whenever human participants are used, reviewers must ensure that there is sufficient evidence within a paper that suggests that research is carried out in an ethical way.

Simply put, participants must be clearly told about the aims of the research they are a part of, and they should be free to leave, or to decline participation in a study at any point. This view should be clearly presented within a section that describes research methods or procedures. Reviewers should feel free to provide comments if they find that a researcher has not provided sufficient description to enable them to decide whether an ethical approach to research has been adopted.

Research ethics is a subject in its own right, and one that has a rich history. Whilst the journal is not expecting reviewers to be an expert in all aspect of research ethics, there is an expectation that reviewers always ask the question: “has this research been carried out in an ethical way?”. More information about research ethics can be found through the British Educational Research Association Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research (BERA website).

Additional resources

The publisher of Open Learning has provided a set of reviewer guidelines (Taylor and Francis website) which may also be useful.

Taylor and Frances have also published some information about their editorial policies and plagiarism (Taylor and Francis website) which may be helpful for both authors and reviewers.

Reflections

Reviewing can be an interesting and rewarding process. Although I spend most of my time reviewing papers for Open Learning, I have also reviewed papers for conferences, workshops and other journals. One of the benefits of reviewing is that is helps to maintain a connection with a discipline. It is rewarding to see how authors respond to comments, and how reviewers can directly (but implicitly) contribute to the continuing professional development of fellow academics and researchers. I would also emphasise that is isn’t necessarily something that is easy; sometimes there are some papers that are difficult to review, and the accompanying comments can be difficult to write.

To conclude, here is a concise summary of what I perceive to be the benefits of being a reviewer:

  • It helps to maintain a link with a discipline.
  • It provides a way to give academic service to a discipline, which can be highlighted on an academic CV or resume.
  • It helps to develop skills to critically assess academic writing.
  • The process of providing feedback helps to develop (and maintain) critical writing skills.
  • It helps to further understand the peer review process.
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Christopher Douce

Upskilling for cybersecurity

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During the 4th School of Computing and Communications AL Professional Development Conference  (OU blog post) I facilitated a session about continuing professional development. In that session, some of the tutors shared experiences of what they had done before.

As mentioned in one of the keynote introductions, one area of growth within the school is cybersecurity. What follows is a summary of resources and materials that may be useful for any tutor (or student) who might be looking to move into the area. 

This blog, which is intended for existing OU tutors emphasises OU resources that are available, but useful external resources are highlighted too. Since cybersecurity is a fast moving area, the links and resources highlighted on this page are likely to age relatively quickly.

CyBok

A good place to start is something called the Cyber Security Body Of Knowledge. A recommended area to look at is the CyBok Knowledgebase

The aim of the CyBok is to provide a summary of the topics and subjects that make up cybersecurity. It presents a lot of materials and concepts. Since some of these pages can be (sometimes) quite heavy going, it might be a good idea to look to other resources to get an introduction to some of the areas. 

OpenLearn

The OUs OpenLearn platform has a wealth of useful resources, which are presented in the form of bite sized short courses. OpenLearn has a whole section dedicated to cybersecurity.

This takes us to the following courses:

OpenLearn courses can offer a helpful introduction. When you have finished working through one of these short modules, learners can gain a digital badge (if these things are of interest). You can, of course, reference completing an OpenLearn module on a CV or application form.

OU modules

One of the best ways to upskill and to gain familiarity with a subject is to study an OU module using a tutor fee waiver. Depending on your interests, you can either study undergraduate or postgraduate modules. The undergraduate named degree has the title BSc (Honours) Cyber Security.

Notable modules which could be studied on a fee waiver include:

The school offers a Postgraduate Diploma in Cyber Security which contains four modules:

Postgraduate modules do differ from undergraduate modules in the extent to which students are required to carry out their own research. Students are also required to demonstrate advanced critical thinking skills. Also, since the postgraduate qualifications have an industrial focus, students are often required to relate their work based activity to their studies.

Before studying a postgraduate module, I would recommend any potential student to work through the following Open Learn module: Success in postgraduate study.

Cisco resources

Cyber security is a dynamic subject; computing technologies are continually changing and adapting, often driven by the needs of industry. Industrial providers and businesses need people to know how to use their tools of services. This means there are a lot industry led certifications which are designed to help IT practioners to understand and master their technologies.

One of the world’s leading suppliers of networking systems and technologies is Cisco. To help the users of its systems, it has devised a set of certifications and a learning platform called NetAcad.

Through NetAcad, OU tutors can study a number of short courses that relate to networking and cyber security, gaining digital badges. These badges that can be mentioned to on a CV (and, theoretically, mentioned during an OU skills audit with a friendly staff tutor). What follows is a short summary of free online self-paced study courses that can be accessed through Cisco NetAcad. 

Introduction to CybersecurityTwo key objectives are: “Learn what cybersecurity is and its potential impact to you. Understand the most common threats, attacks and vulnerabilities.” 15 hours.

Networking EssentialsThis introductory level module is described as being able to “Develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills using Cisco Packet Tracer”. 70 hours.

Cybersecurity EssentialsTwo key objectives are: “Understand security controls for networks, servers and applications. Learn valuable security principals and how to develop compliant policies.” 30 hours. 

Introduction to IoTIoT is an abbreviation for the Internet of Things. This course is said to help learners to “understand how the IoT is bridging the gap between operational and information technology systems”. 20 hours.

NDG Linux UnhatchedThe “Start From Scratch” Linux Course, which is described as learning basic installation and configuration of Linux software and get introduced to the Linux command line. 8 hours.

PCAP: Programming Essentials in Python“Learn programming from scratch and master Python”. 75 hours.

OU development events

A final category that is worth mentioning is the continuing professional development events that are organised by the OU. In addition to regular compulsory training that all tutors must go through, there are two broad categories of events that tutors can go to: general AL development events, and school specific events. 

A personal recommendation is that you find the time to attend at least one CPD events a year, just to keep up to date with what is happening across the university. If you’re able to attend more, then so much the better.

Reflections

If you are tutor and you’re thinking about teaching cyber security, some of these suggestions might be more useful than others. One of the best things that you could do is to study a module that you might be interested in teaching, perhaps in combination with some of the other options and materials that have been highlighted.

As well as an OU fee waiver, another source of funding is the AL development fund. This is a small pot of money that can be used for on going professional development that relates to your discipline, which isn’t immediate or directly provided by the university. The fund could be used for attending conferences, or completing short courses.

When upskilling, I find it is important to bear in mind the distinction between cyber security education and training. Whilst industrial certifications have their place, they often emphasise training. Training is about how to solve certain problems. Education is (of course) about how best apply training given a set of circumstances, and to have the ability to quickly gain new knowledge after having acquired and understood some fundamental concepts. I guess my point here is: the fundamental concepts are important.

From a personal perspective, I’ve used the fee waiver to study at least three different OU computing modules. Although I’ve always found studying quite a bit of work, it has always been rewarding. It has enabled me to not only learn about a new subject, but also to learn more about the experience of a student. I’ve also registered for Cisco NetAcad, but I haven’t made much progress. Doing more Cisco self-study is something I need to do.

If you would like to upskill, a final recommendation is to have a chat with your friendly staff tutor, particularly during your CDSA or skills audit conversation. They will have some practical advice about what you can do to ensure that you’re best placed to help students to study a particular subject.

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Christopher Douce

A230 Journal – November 2022

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 17 Dec 2022, 16:09

12 November 22

I went to the London School of Economics for a face-to-face day school about prose, and two of the set texts: Candide and Oroonoko. There were two tutors on the day, and they gave us some small activities to carry out.

Our first tutor asked us to look at some bits of text, and assess it in terms of some of the technical language that was being introduced through the module. Our second tutor asked us to write on a post-it note: what was Oroonoko all about? Given that I had read Oroonoko over the summer (along with some of the other set texts), I struggled to carry out this task.

During the tutorial, I made a lot of notes.

One thing that I found really useful was that the tutors gave quite a lot of background information about the texts. I especially appreciated how they summarised the historical context. On the point about context, I noted down that there are a number of perspectives to consider: biographical context, historical context, philosophical, political and cultural.

Two things I need to look at: what the term ‘focalisation’ means, and ‘free indirect speech', which is something that Joyce uses.

The tutors were excellent! By the end of the day school, my head hurt. In a good way.

13 November 22

It’s time to catch up with some study admin. 

I sort out all my notes from the day school, sort them in order. I have some other printouts that I prepared earlier this month. I have printed out each of the TMAs, and the EMA. I put everything together in my study file in date order, so everything relates back to the module calendar. (I also look for a neat one or two page summary of this on the module website, but there isn’t one).

I review the study calendar, and realise that I’m not too far off the schedule; I had to take a week out from study to help with some family things. I tick of the various items, and realise that I need to go through the poetry tutorial materials.

I have two objectives for the week; work through the materials that relate to Oroonoko (whilst strategically very quickly reviewing the text), before moving onto the week that focusses on Voltaire, whilst also trying to find the time to review the poetry tutorial materials.

A point I remember from the day school I attended was: it’s okay if you don’t understand everything in one go; you need to return to these tutorials on a number of occasions to get a firm grasp of the concepts.

A note to self: I need to have another go to create a “first thing in the morning” study habit. 

It’s time for a break. When I return, I’m going to return to the study calendar, look at the notes for this week and next week, and then read the block materials again.

14 November 22

Well, I didn’t manage to do my studying first thing in the morning. Instead, I got onto it after resolving a few issues by email.

Yesterday my tutor had emailed me a set of notes which he had shared at the day school. Having printed them out, I worked through them, underlining some of the key concepts. I then filed them next to my day school notes.

After reviewing what I have to do for week 7, I have another look at the prose and poetry skills tutorials. I make a note of all the key concepts that are shared through these documents.

I notice that there was a reference to four audio recordings about the ‘long eighteenth century’. These recordings emphasise the historical role travel writing has during the time of empires, and how they have influenced the development of the novel. An interesting comment was how Oroonoko isn’t just a travelogue; it is also a romance. The audio clips also highlighted the role of the grand tour, and how here was a market for travel books.

As a very brief aside, around 15 years ago, I found a really interesting book (published by a publisher called ‘forgotten books’) about early travel writing in Poland. For a while, I found it fascinating, but I didn’t really know what I was reading. Although it was published in the 19th century, I can now see that the book was a part of a wider and more established tradition of travel writing.

All this discussion about travel writing has been a lovely surprise. Some years ago, I made my own very modest contribution to the genre, through a book sized blog called Meetup 101: a journey through a midlife crisis. Whilst it aims to adopt a comic mode (I’m applying terms from the skills tutorial!) It’s focus accidentally reflects some of the later themes in A230: cities.

My next bit of reading: the two chapters from the block, and then I’m going to focus on Candide, and then I might be in a good place to be set for the next TMA.

15 November 22

I’ve read the block chapters on Aphra Behn, and have read most of the chapter on Voltaire; I have a bit more to go, which I’ll hopefully manage to get through tomorrow.

In the evening, there was a tutorial! Our tutor took us through bits of the two texts from this block: Oroonoko and Candide. She introduced the context for each of these books, and we looked at some detailed passages. I made notes, and I feel a bit more confident about how to tackle the TMA.

Before getting there, I have to finish reading that chapter, and also read Candide again, now that I have more of an idea about what it is all about.

20 November 22

I have a day off from just about everything, so I settle down to read Candide again, paying particular attention to the introduction. After learning more about the context through the previous two tutorials I’ve attended I’m finding it a whole lot more interesting and enjoyable. Voltaire is funny, often through his understatement, but also (of course) his hyperbole.

My next steps: finish reading the 6 remaining chapters and then have a quick look through the notes that can be found at the back of the book. I also need to return to the module website to see what other materials I’ve got to go through.

There’s a tutorial tomorrow night, but it’s one that is recorded. I’ll try to go along if I can.

21 November 22

I had a quiet night, so I finished reading the final chapters of Candide.

It turns out that the tutorial isn’t tonight. It’s tomorrow.

22 November 22

First thing this morning I logged into the module website to see when the next TMA is due. It is sooner than I thought. This means that I need to get on and do my TMA over the weekend, perhaps on a Saturday or a Sunday.

My notes folder is getting a bit full, so I’ve moved it to a lever arch file, and have even added some dividers to separate to mark where the TMAs are.

I’m hoping to attend the tutorial this evening.

24 November 22

I transfer notes into my TMA document, and have started to analyse the text which forms the basis of the assignment. I pull together notes I made from tutorials, and points shared in documents that were prepared by the tutors.

I have three things to do before I can start writing properly: read the notes pages at the back of Candide, read the introduction again, and have another look at the block materials, making notes of certain paragraphs and sentences that will help me to summarise what a passage of Candide is all about.

25 November 22

It is TMA writing day. After making a start with the introduction yesterday, I work through the different bits of text that I’ve noticed, connecting them to some of the technical language we have been introduced to, and various quotes that I’ve noted down from Candide and the set text.

If I were writing a longer essay, I would have prepared an essay plan, but since this is quite short, and the aims and focus are quite clear, I’m winging it- My structure comes from the fragment of text that I have annotated, and the order in which I answer the questions. My results will tell me whether I’m adopting the right approach.

I finish the day by getting a printout of my TMA.

26 November 22

I begin the day by reviewing and copy editing my TMA, and then submitting it 5 days before the cut-off date.

Keeping up the momentum, I find out what I’ve got to do for week 10, and reach for Book 2: Romantics & Victorians.

I start to read some of the Wordsworth sections in the reading supplement, but I didn’t make much progress. I need a lot of concentration for Wordsworth, but I don’t seem to have this!

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Christopher Douce

A230 Journal – October 2022

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 17 Dec 2022, 16:05

2 October 22

I went to the module website, and saw a load of introductory posts. One of them was to a video of a production of Othello (YouTube). I opened it up, and then thought I would need to find some time to go through it, with the set text, like I had done with the other performance.

I found the tutor group forum, and introduced myself. It seemed that all three people (including the tutor) had studied at Birkbeck. I said I was the fourth.

I printed off a couple of attachments that my tutor had sent me: one that was a checklist for close reading of renaissance drama, and the other was a single page document that had the title: some ways of analysing renaissance drama. The checklist looks quite detailed.

Picking up where I was last, I went to the module website, made notes of questions I should ask myself whilst reading the text, and returned to chapter 1, which I have yet to finish.

7 October 22

Watched 1 hr and 20 mins of the 1990 production of Othello.

It was very different to the other production I saw, which was a National Theatre production (available through Drama Online).  I’m beginning to remember the structure, and I can see more about how Iago manipulates those who are around him.

9 October 22

Finished watching the remaining half of Othello, and then got distracted looking at Wikipedia biographies of some of the actors. A link to a production of The Duchess of Malfi (YouTube) was shared on a WhatsApp group. This is something else to look at.

Back to the module material; specifically, chapter 1 of block 1.

10 October 22

I think I might have found a study habit again: first thing in the morning! I delved into the week 2 material, and watched the two videos: the first compared two performances of Othello, and the second looked at a performance of Othello in South Africa. I then had a look at the drama study skills tutorial, parts 3.1 and 3.2. I had forgotten I had looked at these before!

There are two bits of reading I need to do this week: chapter 2 of the block, and I need to get into the introduction of the Othello set text, since it was mentioned a couple of times in some of the module materials.

12 October 22

I didn’t start first thing in the morning. Instead, I started after replying to my first group of emails. 

I got into chapter 2 of the block, which took me off to acts 3 and 4 within Othello. It has struck me that I haven’t, yet, got a really thorough grasp of what happens and when. Instead, in my memory, I’ve got a rough sketch of what happens, and who does what to whom.

I’m starting to pick up on the most important speeches, and chapter 2 has alerted me to some of the themes that I need to be mindful of. A conclusion: I need to read this chapter again, and loop back to the activities, to return to the text.

14 October 22

I suddenly remembered: had I missed any tutorials that have been recorded? There is a bit of chat on the WhatsApp group bout student enjoying an Othello tutorial. I go to the forums are, and look around for recorded tutorials, and none are available, so I haven’t missed any. 

15 October 22

I’m onto week 3! I tick all the items for week 2, to indicate that I’ve “done them” (but I’m likely to go back to doing some of them again), and then noticed a news item about “print on demand” materials, i.e., a printout of all the weekly study guides, and other information. I decide to get this, as otherwise I would be spending more than that on my own printer ink. I also need to check what I have, and haven’t downloaded onto my eBook reader.

The next two weeks seem to be all about John Webster. The key actions this week will be read the Duchess of Malfi, listen to an audio version of the play, and read chapter 3 of the module book.

21 October 22

I took delivery of the print on demand material, and put everything into my A230 file, adding my own notes. That’s about it today, but I’m feeling virtuous that I’ve got my study materials all in one place. Also, all my books are on my bookshelf, which is good news too.

I have a look at the study calendar, to remind myself of the date for the first TMA: 3 November, which isn’t too far away; I need to be a bit more strategic. I listen and make notes of the tutorial that my tutor has recorded. He covers a lot of detail, but he gives me some ideas about how I should go about tackling TMA 1.

22 October 22

A busy day today, since I’m on my own today, so eventually I get into the study zone.

I sort out an empty TMA file and print out a copy of my TMA 1. I find the text from TMA 1 within the version of Othello that we’re using, and I read bits before and after the scene, to get an idea about where it is situated within the whole of the play. I annotate my text with comments, giving me some ideas to start with.

My next steps will be to revisit the drama skills workshop, and transfer key terms from there, and from notes shared by our tutor, onto my blank TMA submission file.

Next up: I start to listen to the Duchess of Malfi radio play, whilst sitting with the set text, but I very quickly discover it is hopeless; the radio edit is very different to the version of the text that I’m using. I get up to track 15 of the first CD, after having looked at the questions from the week’s study material. I then quickly read chapter 3 of the textbook that came with the module, skipping over the activities. A note to myself: I need to read it all again, and revisit the activities, especially if I choose the drama option for the EMA. I also need to listen to the second CD; I wasn’t aware that I needed to go through both of these. These are long plays!

A strategic study plan for the week: look at the literary terms introduced in the module by looking at the tutor’s material and the drama tutorial, make sure that I’ve got the referencing of the OU module materials sorted, and then start to tackle the TMA. Also, do this first thing in the morning before I get stuck into too many emails!

29 October 22

It’s writing day! Following a direction from our tutor about the title, I update my TMA document with a new title; the old version was a bit too long. I then go about collating different notes from various documents that our tutor has shared, and find my notes from his tutorial. I transfer key points from my notes, to create new notes. I also create headings in the TMA, which I will later delete when I bring everything together. What I might do is write a short blog about organising myself.

After having organised myself, I then go onto writing the TMA, drawing on some pencil notes that I had made on a paper copy of the TMA. I also look through a whole set of pencil annotations I have made in the set text.

Eventually, everything comes together, and I have a draft TMA. I think I’ve tackled the main points, but there might well be something that I may miss, but I’m pretty happy with how I’ve expressed my understanding of the passage.

In anticipation of tomorrow’s work, I printout a version of my TMA.

30 October 22

I spend about 30 minutes reading through what I have written, and make some minor corrections on paper, and then edit these changes in my Word document. After making some minor formatting changes (changing 1.5 spacing to double-spaced, which is what the arts assessment guide suggest) I scan through it one more time, and decide that it is good to go.

Back to the module website. I notice the forum, which I haven’t really engaged with, so I have a look around, and see an interesting post about our experiences of watching Shakespeare performances. I make a posting; a short anecdote about seeing Hamlet at the cinema when I was 13 or 14.

I notice that a tutor had posted up another resource, which featured a couple of technical words I hadn’t used. I face a dilemma: should I take account of these within my TMA, or l should I let this go? I choose to let it go, since I’m pretty happy with what I’ve done, and I feel I’ve followed advice that was given by my own tutor.

My final actions of the morning: I tick of a few items from the module calendar, have a go at the quiz, and start to have a look at the materials for week 6. I’m a bit nervous about Candide and Oroonoko, to be honest. To get a bit ahead, I get stuck into reading a part of chapter 5, entitled: Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave. I then go back a bit listen to the two screen casts, before working through the key bits of terminology that are featured within the prose and poetry skills tutorial.

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Christopher Douce

Writing a TMA: one approach

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

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

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

Part 1: The journey to the TMA

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

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

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

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

It’s time to create my word processing files.

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

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

Part 2: Getting prepared

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3: Writing the TMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 4: Reviewing and submitting

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

Resources

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

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Christopher Douce

4th School of Computing and Communications AL Professional Development Conference

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

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

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

Welcome and introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parallel Session 1: New and future Curriculum Developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parallel Session 2: eSTEeM and Research

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

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

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

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

What CPD have you done as an AL?

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

What CPD would you like to do?

How can your staff tutor or the university help?

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

Discussion points

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Introductory Plenary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parallel Session 3: Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Plenary

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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Christopher Douce

CISSE Cyber Security Education and Employability Forum: November 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Cyber Springboard

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

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

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

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

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

Routes into cyber education: discussion and sharing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CyberFirst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academia and industry certifications aligned: An Open University case study

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

Why create a penetration testing module?

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

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

OU options to build a pen test module

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

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

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

Why align with a certification body?

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

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

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

Integrating the new module

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

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

Question and Answer session

I made a note of three questions. 

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

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

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

Plenary discussion and next steps

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

The priorities were ranked as follows: 

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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Christopher Douce

Access to cyber security day

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

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

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

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

The real reason for the cyber skills shortage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principles

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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

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A230 Journal - September 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 September 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 September 22

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

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

14 September 22

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

I managed to read three pages of the assessment guide. 

15 September 22

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

17 September 22

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

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

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

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

18 September 22

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

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

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

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Examining a Doctoral Thesis - the written and unwritten rules

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 28 Oct 2023, 09:55

On Thursday 13th October 22, I attended a workshop facilitated by Sara Spencer, Head of Research Degrees, and Emeritus Prof Marian Petre from the School of Computing and Communication, that was all about examining a doctoral thesis, 

The workshop was described as being intended “for research degree supervisors who are new or fairly new to the process of examining PhD and Professional Doctorate theses” and was open to both new and experienced research supervisors. 

The broad aim of the session was to provide an “introduction to thesis examination at the OU”, to provide a summary of “what is involved in examining a research degree thesis”, explore the roles of different participants in the process, and to say something about expectations in terms of what takes place during the examination process, and the role of the viva and thesis.

In some ways, this event reminds me of an earlier workshop that I attended in June 22, which had the title Supporting EdD/PhD students through the thesis and the viva (OU blog). One of the differences between this session and the earlier session, is that this session provides a bit more information about the different roles.

On the topic of blogs that might be useful, this earlier blog, Doctoral research: a short introduction published in October 2022 might be also helpful for prospective students. 

What follows are a set of (edited) notes that I made during Sara and Marion's workshop.

Session objectives

Participants were invited to contribute to an online document to share what they were looking for from the session. Some of the key points included: to learn from the experience of others, to understand what the overall process is, what to do if there are disagreements, to share general tips about how to approach examining a thesis, and how to provide feedback.

The facilitators shared some of their experiences, and begin to discuss some of the roles within an examination, and what happens. Some points I noted down were that supervisors will try to choose examiners who are appropriate (given the focus of their student’s research) and examiners should always endeavour to set their egos aside: it isn’t about them, it is about the student who has written a viva, and their research.

Roles and responsibilities

Marion made the following important points: the viva is a real examination and conducting it well matters. Also, if a student has a flawed dissertation, a student can strengthen their position through the viva process. Conversely, if a student has a strong thesis, but gives a weak defence, the outcome might not be as hoped.

Panel chair

Every doctoral examination has a panel chair. The job of the chair isn’t to ask questions, but to moderate the session, mediate communication between everyone, check that everything is going okay, ensure that procedures are followed, and ensure that everyone feels comfortable. The chair is someone everyone can appeal to if help or support is needed, and call for breaks, if necessary. Unlike the examiner, the chair may not be a subject specialist, but will be someone independent and experienced who understands the process. In contract to the chair, the doctoral supervisors are outside the examination process. 

Examiners

The examiners assess the quality of the research. There will usually be either two or three examiners, and two of those may be external. The examiners read the dissertation thoroughly in advance, and prepare a re-viva report. Under strict confidence, the chair will then share each report with each of the examiners. Examiners are also expected to be familiar with the university’s regulations and must work with the chair to prepare an examination report. They must also be willing to provide clarifications for the student if required and assess any revisions, and conduct a re-viva if necessary.

Although there is an expectation that the viva examination process a relatively short amount of time, examiners may be employed within the process for considerably longer, especially if a student is required to carry out remedial work to their viva.

Observer

An observer is allowed to come along to the viva, and it is typically the lead supervisor. The role of the observer is very limited, and the observer doesn’t speak unless invited to do so by the chair. An observer may well take notes, to help the candidate understand what happened within the viva, and to help the candidate remember some of the detail of the discussions that took place.

Candidate

The candidate is, arguably, the most important person in the room (although it might be argued that the chair is just as important). The whole event is about the research that the candidate has carried out, and to check to see whether they have a thorough and detailed understanding of what they have done, and their subject. An important point is this: there are very few opportunities in life where we have opportunities to talk to a group of other people, at length, about a subject that we are very interested and passionate about. With this perspective in mind, and it might even be possible to think of the viva as a precious and potentially even enjoyable event. A candidate can request breaks via the chair, and always ask for clarifications to any question that is asked.

The procedures

As mentioned earlier, examiners read the dissertation, and the examiners prepares a report 5 days before the viva, which are then shared with each of the examiners via the panel chair. An examiner may form an opinion which may be expressed within the form, but this need not be fixed: “the report is not a contract; it is an initial assessment”. This assessment can change depending on what happens within the viva.

Pre-viva meeting

During the pre-viva meeting, the chair and examiners meet to discuss their view and opinions about the thesis. The report helps everyone to see if there is a consistent perspective. Using the reports, the examiners will form an approach. They will discuss a plan about how ask questions.

The exact approach will be different, depending upon the examiners, thesis, and subject. On some occasions, examiners might start with some very easy questions and then work towards points that really matter. Other examiners may choose to take turns, and some will go through a chapter at a time. Sometimes the external will lead, and the internal will follow.

Before the viva, the chair will have some idea of what is going to happen, and how the thesis will be assessed. The chair also provides and offers any necessary clarification about regulations. An important note is that every organisation is slightly different.

The Viva

This is the key meeting between the candidate, the panel chair, examiners, and any observer. Typically, the chair introduces the panel and provides an overview of what is going to happen.

A viva lasts as long as it takes. It might typically last between an hour and a half and three hours; online takes a bit longer. There should be no particular end time. A point that was made: there is no correlation between the length of the viva and the outcome. Breaks can be requested by any participant, via the chair.

Post-viva meeting

After the viva, the examiners, and the chair meet. The candidate and observer are asked to leave the room, where they discuss what has happened, and what recommendation is to be made. The duration of the post-viva meeting also takes as long as is necessary. If examiners do not agree (which very is unlikely), and there is a formal procedure to take account of this. It was emphasised during this session that this a very rare occurrence: examiners tend to agree.

Recommendation meeting

Everyone meets up again, and the recommendation is shared with the student. 

During this meeting there is an opportunity for the examiners to provide some feedback. Revisions are discussed (if necessary), and the observer usually takes notes. During this meeting, the candidate may ask questions.

An important part of this process is the completion of an examination report form, which contains an outcome. The outcome is a recommendation to a university authority, and the panel offers a recommendation summarising what revisions are necessary, and why.

Outcomes

Assessment criteria for a thesis is presented on the examination report form. Points include presentation and style of the thesis (whether the candidate is able to contribute to academic debates), evidence of the work being a significant contribution to knowledge, whether the candidate show evidence of being able to carry out research in the future, and whether the thesis contain material worthy of publication. 

On the point of publication, both Marion and Sara emphasised that publication is neither necessary, nor sufficient for a PhD; the thesis is a monograph, not a collection of papers.

In the OU, there are a number of different possible outcomes: the candidate is awarded the degree, the candidate is awarded the degree with minor corrections, or the candidate has to make substantial amendments. Other outcomes include: the candidate must resubmit their thesis for re-examination, a degree of MPhil is awarded subject to dissertation amendments, resubmission of thesis for re-viva for a MPhil award, and finally, a student is not awarded the degree and not permitted to be re-examined.

Outcomes will be based on the quality of the submission, and each category has a specific timeframe, i.e., minor corrections might be required to be completed within 3 months, and major correction may have to be submitted within 6 months.

How to be an effective examiner

Towards the end of the session, there was a discussion, where participants shared tips about how to be an effective examiner. I noted down the following points from a PowerPoint slide that directed the session: “the best examiners bring out the best in the student” and “there is a correlation between examiner experience and moderation/kindness”.

Marion emphasised the point: “look for the value in the work; whether it conveys a sense of confidence and contribution” Another point was: It is about people skills, as much as it about technical skills. Also, create a rapport with the candidate before asking any tough (but necessary) questions, such as: what did you enjoy, how did you come to study this in the first place? Make sure that you listen well to all answers.

Judge the work on its own merits and make sure that you don’t impose your (examiners) framework on the candidate’s work. Break down larger questions to smaller questions, and give sufficient time to allow your questions to be answered. Importantly, reflect on your own tone and way of communicating, and potentially mention this to the candidate to put them at ease. Be very mindful of how the candidate might be experiencing stress during the viva, and encourage breaks.

A really important point I noted down was: what does “good enough” look like in your discipline? In the viva, what matters is a pass. Another comment was: very few dissertations are without flaws. Always look to what is good in a thesis.

Reflections

This session made me think about to my own viva. My viva was a positive experience. At the time, I didn’t have a really thorough understanding of what everyone’s roles were. I remember the internal examiner, and the external examiner, but I can’t remember who the chair was. I do remember the close scrutiny of the work that I submitted, and a feeling of being asked some really difficult questions. 

Interestingly, I also remember that the internal examiner really liked a certain aspect of my thesis, where I drew on materials from outside of my home discipline. In retrospect, I think this may have contributed to the assessment that I was capable of carrying out original research, which is such an important part of the process. The point here is that I remembered the nice bits, just as I remember the tricky bits.

In the next two months, I’m going to be an external examiner. Attending this session has helped me to strengthen my understanding of the process, and really emphasised what my role and responsibilities are going to be.

I remember another bit of advice I was given by a colleague when I was preparing to be an external for the first time. The advice was about how to approach the reading of a thesis: “Look to what happens within the methodology. The methodology is about what has been done. Does the methodology make sense, given the research questions?” Whilst this bit of advice is practical, the most important bit of advice from Sara and Marion’s session was: “make sure you’re approachable”.

Acknowledgements

The structure of this blog directly echoes the session that was designed and facilitated by Marion Petre and Sara Spencer. Many of the words within this blog also reflect points made by both Marion and Sara. I hope I’ve done justice to your excellent session!

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Christopher Douce

Doctoral research: a short introduction

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

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

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

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

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

The fundamental questions

What is a doctorate and why would I want one?

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

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

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

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

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

Do you need a masters?

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

Do you need to be super smart?

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

The thing is, I’m not super smart. 

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

How big is a contribution?

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

The reality is, conversely, a lot more mundane. 

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

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

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

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

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

Types of doctorates

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

Disciplinary doctorates

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

Doctoral research roles

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

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

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

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

Doctoral scholarships

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

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

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

Choosing your own research path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional doctorates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PhD by Published Work

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

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

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

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

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

Doing a PhD

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

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

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

Posters and presentations

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

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

Publishing

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

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

Writing your thesis

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

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

Viva

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

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

After the doctorate

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

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

A personal perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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