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TM470 Literature review: further tips

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 16 Apr 2024, 18:21

This blog offers some more practical tips on completing the TM470 literature review section. In some ways, it follows on from an earlier blog on the same subject.

Three points are shared. The first is some techniques about how to think about and consider papers. The second presents some useful resources about academic writing. The third offers some suggestions about how to structure your literature review section.

The literature review section of your project report does a number of things. It shared with the reader something about your reading. In doing this, it helps the reader to understand what your project is all about, and what it relates to. It also primes the reader for some of the topics that will feature within the body of your report. If you use module materials, books, articles, or software, they should be referenced within the literature review section. The reader shouldn’t be surprised, and think: “where did that come from?”

If your project report is all about showing off what you are able to do, the literature review section is all about showing of what you know.

PROMPT

The PROMPT framework that can be useful when preparing a literature review. It is introduced in an online resource called Being Digital.

PROMPT is an abbreviation for: Presentation, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Provenance, and Timeliness. It offers a structured method that can be used to evaluate any information that you find online. What follows is an edited summary of the key elements of the framework, which have been drawn from a PROMPT Checklist (PDF)

Presentation: Is the information presented and communicated clearly? Consider the language, layout and structure of the resource that you’re evaluating. Does it look ‘academic’?

Relevance: Is the article relevant to the topic you are researching? Look at the introduction, abstract or overview to find out what it is mainly about. When reading an article, to get a quick feel for it, you might also want to have a read of the concluding paragraphs. Do these relate to the aims of your project?

Objectivity: Is the article biased, or motivated by a particular agenda? Is the language emotive? Are there hidden, vested interests? In some articles, there is a section which might highlight any potential conflicts of interest, or how it is funded. This criteria is, of course, link to relevant, and to the thought of ‘does it look right?’

Method: For research articles, ask yourself whether it is clear how the data was collected. Given what you know of both the paper and the topic, were the methods appropriate and can you trust it? When evaluating a method, do have a look out for research questions. Do they match?

Provenance: Is it clear where the information has come from? Can you identify who the authors are, and who they work for? Can they be considered to be trustworthy?

Timeliness: Articles can lose their relevance. Important questions to ask are: how up to date is the material? Is it clear when it was written? Also, does the date of writing meet your requirements, or would it be obsolete? This is particularly important with fast moving areas, such as Computing and IT.

Another approach: the wheel

Ideally, the literature review chapter should be a story about your reading, sitting within a bigger story, which is your whole project. There are different ways you can present your findings: you can present it in terms of chronology (the order in which you read articles and papers), or you can structure it thematically. 

For TM470 where there is a limited word count, the thematic approach can work really well. It gives you an opportunity to highlight the connections to module materials, and then to share evidence of further reading, allowing you to show how you have ‘dug deeper’ into the subject.

A more sophisticated approach to discussing and presenting the materials that you gather during a review is expressed in the ‘the wheel approach to literatures’ blog. It adopts a model known as: And, But, Therefore.

The Wheel goes beyond what is required for TM470. You should aim at highlighting what you consider to be important, and why. The Wheel may well be helpful for students going onto postgraduate study, or students from disciplines where writing takes centre stage. The point amongst all this is: writing and structuring complex and detailed documents is a graduate skill, irrespective of what you study.

Types of literature

When working on a project that involves creating a solution to a problem, there is often a temptation to use blogs, reports or articles found on the internet. These types of articles are known as ‘grey literature’, which means they are not formally published in the way that books or academic articles are. This means they are subject to a lower level of scrutiny. When working with grey literature, a good question to ask is: is there another, more formal source? If the answers is ‘yes’, then please refer to the more formal source. By doing this, you acknowledge the articles that are contributing to academic discussions and debates that relate to a particular topic.

A good example of a resource that is really useful is, of course, Wikipedia. A reference should be something that is static and does not change over time. Since Wikipedia pages can easily change, a recommendation is to avoid using them as formal references. Instead, use them as a way to find more formal references. Look at what Wikipedia references, and then go and find those articles in the OU library.

Referencing

If something exists in the world, it can be referenced.

When writing a formal report, the most common type of references will be, of course, books and articles. You should also, of course, include clear references to module resources. Arts students can reference physical artifacts, photographs and paintings. Students studying computing and IT can, of course, reference software and technical standards.

To find out how to reference anything, visit the CiteThemRight website. The OU makes use of the Harvard referencing style, which takes the form: Author, Initial (year) Title of item, where it was published, and any page numbers (if appropriate). 

Module materials

Before preparing your literature review, it is a good idea to read through the 'Preparing a Literature Search' page. This shares four stages of a literature search, which offers a helpful framework:

  1. identifying and locating relevant materials
  2. comprehending the content
  3. abstracting the significant content, systematically recording and categorising this content and the related references
  4. synthesising the content and relating it to your project aims.

Academic writing

Every part of your TM470 project report should be written in an academic style. More information about what this means can be found by visiting the following article: Academic writing in TM470

A disclaimer: this is guidance from a TM470 tutor, rather than from a member of the module team. Always refer to the official module team guidance to really appreciate what they are looking for.

Further guidance about writing can be found in the Core Skills section of the Study Skills website and the Open Learn Write it right: seven common writing resource.

Reflections

The TM470 project module is all about showing off in a number of different ways: it is there to show off your ability to pick a sensible project idea, it is there to show off your technical skills, and it is there to show off how you go about planning a non-trivial project, and it is there is show of both your reading and your writing skills. The literature review section is a really important part of a TM470 project report, but it is very often a part of the report that isn’t done as well as it could be. It is important because it sets the scene. It tells the examiner what you know.

Here are my tips: 

  1. In your literature review, mention earlier module resources, and dig a little further.
  2. Unless you’re referring to software, do your best to use and refer to academic resources.
  3. Make sure that you spend quality time looking in the OU library and make notes about what you’ve been looking at. Use PROMPT to interrogate (or figure out) what you’re looking at.
  4. If you reference something in the literature review section, it should ideally be used or applied in the body of your report in some way or another.
  5. When you write everything up, structure your literature review in terms of themes.
  6. It is all about showing off. Because this is important do make what you write as clearly possible.

On this final point, I recently heard the following bit of advice from a fellow tutor, which was shared on an OU forum: “why choose a complicated word when a shorter word would work”. The easier your report is to read, the more secure the examiner will be in making their decisions, and awarding marks.

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Christopher Douce

Computing pedagogy notes

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I subscribe to a magazine called Hello World which is all about computing teaching and pedagogy. Last year, I read a message about a special issue, which was called the big book of computing pedagogy (BBoCP), and would I like to order a copy? I would, and I did.

What follows is a set of notes from that ‘big book’ (which is approximately 157 pages), beginning with the broad summary that is featured at the start of the book. I’ve then pulled out techniques and approaches that relates to the topic of physical computing. At the end of the post, I offer some reflections which may (or may not!) be useful.

Principles of computing pedagogy

What follows is a really high level summary, which begins on p.12. I’ve annotated key principles with some of the pedagogies and ideas that appear to get to the heart of a particular principle:

Lead with concepts: use concept maps, create learning graphs.

Structure lessons: adopt a scaffolded approach, apply universal design, use frameworks.

Make concrete: socially and culturally relevant pedagogy, learning through making, and manipulatives with computing.

Unplug, unpack, repack: semantic waves, go unplugged (don’t use a computer).

Work together: peer instruction, pair programming, collaborative problem solving and programming.

Read and explore code first: code tracing and read before you write.

Foster program comprehension: the block model.

Model everything: worked examples and live coding.

Challenge misconceptions: addressing misconceptions, use metaphors, tackle naïve conceptions.

Create projects: project-based learning.

Get hands-on: physical computing.

Add variety: apply variety in teaching and assessment, consider using art and storytelling.

Learning through making

Following on from the notion of culturally relevant pedagogy, is the idea of learning through making. This approach is about building things as a “way of learning and understanding the world” (p.36). Some key headings to note are: from concrete to abstract, affective learning (which is related to experiential and feelings based learning), and learning as becoming.

Learning through examples

A couple of related pedagogies that are worth emphasising are: the importance of worked examples, live coding, and the use of videos to demonstrate principles and ideas. I’ve highlighted these approaches with respect to physical computing since ‘watching and learning’ is an undeniably helpful approach when working with ‘bits of computers’, whether those bits are bits of physical equipment, or bits of code.

Project-based learning

The BBoCP describes project-based learning as “an approach to teaching computing in which the learning activities are organised around the design, creation and evaluation of a digital artefact”. In some cases, this digital artefact could be an element of physical computing – or, it could be a bit of code that solves a particular problem. Examples of potential problems are mentioned within the book, and this leads me to an important reflection, which is: the problems chosen should be inclusive, and be attractive to different groups of students. This links back to an important point about inclusive pedagogy.

Physical computing

There is a whole section about physical computing, which can be found on page 130. In addition to sharing a reference to a useful taxonomy of physical computing devices, four benefits are highlighted: “it provides a holistic experience …, it develops broader skills, including collaboration and design and prototyping, it connects to subjects beyond computing” (p.131). Some practical pedagogic tips are shared, which include provide interesting themes, integrate creative methods, and provide scaffolds. A reference to further reading, a doctoral thesis by Przybylla, entitled From Embedded Systems to Physical Computing: Challenges of the “DigitalWorld” in Secondary Computer Science Education is shared.

Theories

In education theories can be thought of tools to understand and think about learning.  In turn, they can be used to guide particular activities, or underpin pedagogies. What follows is a list of some of the theories that I’ve identified. I haven’t picked out everything, since there can be, of course, debate about what is (and isn’t) a theory:

Cognitive load theory (CLT) (p.20): learners have a limited working memory, which means that educators need to bear in mind when they introduce and teach new principles to learners.

Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) (p.46): help learners to move from being novices to experts.

Other theories (and theorists) that have been mentioned include the notion of the mental model (an understanding how something works), the work of Piaget (stages of development) and Papert (constructivism).

Frameworks

In computing, there are loads of software frameworks. In pedagogy, there are also a fair number of pedagogic frameworks. Think of a framework as a set of ideas that are potentially useful, and less formal than a theory. Theories can be used to potentially predict, whereas frameworks can be used to make sense of something.

Here are some of the frameworks that are highlighted in the BBoCP, along with a summary of some of their key elements:

The PRIMM approach (p.22): Predict-run-investigate-modify-make (Primportal.com); a series of steps in a lesson.

UDL framework (p.26): multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression.

Four Cs of the 21st-century learning framework (p.28): coding and critical thinking, coding and collaboration, coding and communication, coding and creativity.

Arena Blended Connected (ABC) (p.30): acquisition, collaboration, discussion, investigation, practice, discussion.

Misconceptions to understanding science (p.104): preconceived notions, non-scientific beliefs, conceptual misunderstandings, vernacular misconceptions, and factual misconceptions.

Physical computing device taxonomy (p.131): a taxonomy is an ordered set of categories. Hodges et al. (2018) attempt to make sense of a range of different physical computing devices that can be used by students.

Read, act, model and program (RAMP) (p.146): a pedagogic framework that draws on the use of storytelling and children’s literature. 

Other concepts, which might fall outside of the category of a framework, includes the notion of the metaphor.

Models

A good question to ask is: what is the difference between a model, a framework, and a theory? In some instances, a model can be a theory, in the sense that it can help you to understand something, but might lack an element of predictive power. Another difference is that a model is more descriptive, whereas a theory (in an educational sense) can be more interpretive. 

A model is different from a framework in the sense that a framework allows you to ‘do things’. A model, on the other hand, can help you to understand. All these, of course, link to and connect with pedagogy, which is what you do when you teach.

In the BBoCP, the following models that are mentioned:

The Block Model of program comprehension (p.79; p.86): this splits programs into four levels, which are (1) atoms, (2) blocks, (3) relationships, and (4) macros structure. It is interesting to compare this model with something called the Stores Model of Code Cognition (PPIG.org).

Reflections

What I really like about this magazine sized book is that in addition to being really accessible, it contains very clear references to research articles that underpin the ideas that are presented. Each of the pages are complemented with a set of hyperlinks, which often takes readers directly to the relevant article. I also really appreciated that it presented all the ideas (which were a mix of practical and theoretical articles) using a set of helpful principles. In addition to the helloworld.cc website another site to look at is csedresearch.org. If you’re doing research into CS education. When it comes to the topic of physical computing, I was struck by a few things: the taxonomy and the link to a dissertation on that explores physical computing and secondary school teaching.

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A233 Journal – November 2023

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Apr 2024, 09:51

1 November 2023

I went to a tutorial about Wharton that was led by a member of the module team and a tutor. It was fabulous! We looked at some close reading skills, which I sense is something that I need to get better at. I asked some questions about the TMA, and got quite a few tips. What I need to do is to edit my TMA template, and get started with reading, and re-reading the passages that we have to analyse.

The presenters mentioned that it is a good idea to complete the module team’s version of the study log, which offers some guidance about reading, and gives us spaces to make some notes. I need to look at this. I also need to look at the activity for week 6, which I think is coming up soon. I’m not adhering to the study calendar as closely as I feel as I ought to; I’m in a situation where I’m trying to get ahead, but ‘life’ and ‘work’ things keep setting me back.

Another comment I’ll make is that I’m nearly through reading the Blunden text for the first time. There was an interesting comment in the tutorial that Wharton also wrote about WW1.

Just to remind myself: I need to edit up a TMA template, get my coloured pens out, and complete those Week 6 activities.

Back to the day job… 

11 November 2023

I’ve done quite a bit of reading. I’ve finished reading Blunden, which I found quite heavy going, and I’ve nearly found my way through The God of Small Things

This is my second time reading The God of Small Things. I first read it when it came out. I only got about a third of the way through before completely losing my way. Although I’m finding it quite a difficult read, I am getting into it, and its description. Since we have a choice in the next bit of the module, I think I’m still drawn to Blunden, but I will, of course, make my way through the module materials, just in case I change my mind at the very last minute.

It's time to prep for the writing of my TMA. 

I’ve already created a blank document with the title. My next step is to transcribe some of the headings from my tutorial notes onto the TMA document, so I remember what is important. When I’ve finished doing that, I’m going to go onto the close reading. My approach is to scribble on a printout of samples of text, with different colours of pen. I am to do my best to get a feel for the text, and hopefully come to a view about similarities and differences.

In between doing all of this, I’m going to go to the gym!

I did have a quick look at the study log files, which have been produced by the module team. I’m a bit worried that my study approach at the moment is predominantly strategic, rather than systematic. I have a lot on in my day job, and outside of my day job, which is why I’m a bit time poor at the moment. 

I need to follow my own advice, which is: “make an appointment with your own studies”.

16 November 2023

It’s TMA submission day!

After proof-reading a printout of my assignment, I make some last minute changes, and make a submission. 

My TMA is slightly under the word count, but I’m pretty happy with what I’ve submitted. I guess I’ll find out how I’ve done in a couple of weeks.

22 November 2023

Almost a week has passed and I’ve hardly done anything!

The last thing I’ve done, which was a couple of days ago, was to look at a book club activity, which was to listen to interviews with various academics about their favourite text, and why they should choose it.

Amongst all the options, I remain drawn to The Age of Innocence, for the simple reason that I really enjoyed The Custom of the Country. I don’t know whether comparing the book club text with a book by a different author would be a good idea. I guess this is a question for one of the tutorials, or to go directly to my tutor. Either way, I need to find some time to do some serious reading of The Age of Innocence.

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Degree apprenticeship: DTS Themes

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 5 Mar 2024, 08:44

The Open University offers a Computing undergraduate degree apprenticeship for England and Wales. The English degree apprenticeship is known as the Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship.

The current version of the standard, which is defined by the institute for apprenticeships is version 1.2 (Institute for apprenticeships)

Apprentices need to pass two elements: their degree bit (the academic element), and the apprenticeship (the work based learning element). Both of these elements are broken down into smaller parts. The academic bit is broken down into academic modules. The apprenticeship is defined in terms of knowledge, skills and behaviour (KSB) attributes which are, in turn, grouped together into sets of themes. To gain their apprenticeship apprentices must provide evidence of being able to satisfy all the KSBs which make up the themes. 

Passing the apprenticeship bit is a two-step process. Apprentices must demonstrate competency across these themes before entering what is called a ‘gateway’ process, which takes them to something that is called an endpoint assessment (EPA). The EPA is a professional conversation where the apprentice speaks with an assessor.

What follows is a summary of the themes for both parts of one apprenticeship pathway: the software engineering professional pathway. Some themes can only attract what could be called a pass grade, whereas others can attract a distinction grade. For concision, only the criteria that relates to the pass are highlighted here. A further note is that the themes are split into two bits: a core set of themes, and themes that relate to a specific pathway. For detailed information, do refer to the DTS standard.

A further note is that all the themes highlighted here, and can be found within the standard, are also mentioned within the apprenticeship ePortfolio tool (which is known as MKM). Where there is a heading, there will also be a space to record evidence.

Towards the end of this summary, there is some guidance about the recording of evidence. This is important; without evidence it is not possible to pass through the gateway process, or to complete the final end point assessment.

DTS apprenticeship themes

Core themes

The Organisational Context

Reviews the roles, functions and activities relevant to technology solutions within an organisation. (K7)

Core Technical Concepts

Critically evaluates the nature and scope of common vulnerabilities in digital and technology solutions (K11)

Explains core technical concepts for digital and technology solutions, including:

  • The approaches and techniques used throughout the digital and technology solution lifecycle and their applicability to an organisation’s standards and pre-existing tools. (K6)
  • Data gathering, data management, and data analysis. (K12/K14)
  • Computer networking concepts. (K16)

Applied Technical Solutions

Demonstrates the use of core technical concepts for digital and technology solutions, including:

  • Initiate, design, code, test and debug a software component for a digital and technology solution. (S4)
  • Security and resilience techniques. (S9)
  • Initiates, designs, implements and debugs a data product for a digital and technology solution. (S10)
  • Plans, designs and manages simple computer networks. (S12)
  • Applies the principles of data analysis for digital and technology solutions. (K13/S11)

Leading and Working Together

Explains how teams work effectively to produce a digital and technology solution applying relevant organisational theories using up to date awareness of trends and innovations. (K8/S7/B4/B6/B7)

Describes the concepts and principles of leadership and management as they relate to their role and how they apply them. (K9/K10/S8)

Social Infrastructure - Legal, Ethical and Sustainability

Applies relevant legal, ethical, social and professional standards to digital and technology solutions considering both technical and non-technical audiences and in line with organisational guidelines. (K19/S15/B1/B2/B5)

Explains sustainable development approaches within digital technologies as they relate to their role including diversity and inclusion. (K20/B8)

Software Engineer themes

Underlying Principles

Describes scenarios covering all stages of a development lifecycle, identifying techniques and methods are applied in each case. (K21/SEK1)

Explains the principles of a range of development techniques, for each stage of the software development cycle that produce artefacts and the contexts in which they can be applied. (K22/SEK2)

Explains the principles of a range of development methods and approaches and the contexts in which they can be applied. (K23/SEK3)

Technical Solutions

Describes. how to interpret and implement a design, compliant with functional, non-functional and security requirements. (K24/SEK4)

Describes how tools that support teamwork can be used effectively. (K28/SEK8)

Innovation and Response

Describes how they respond to changing priorities and problems arising within software engineering projects by making revised recommendations, and adapting plans as necessary, to fit the scenario being investigated. (S20/SES5)

Explains how they determine, refine, adapt and use appropriate software engineering methods, approaches and techniques to evaluate software engineering project outcomes. (S21/SES6)

Legal, Ethics and Landscape

Describes how they extend and update software development knowledge with evidence from professional and academic sources by undertaking appropriate research to inform best practice and lead improvements in the organisation. (S23/SES8)

Preparing for the End Point Assessment

Towards the end of the apprenticeships, apprentices need to complete a significant work-based project. As well as writing a 6k word report, there must be evidence collected that relates to the following themes.

Core themes

The Organisational Context

Identifies the role digital technology solutions play in gaining a competitive advantage by adapting and exploiting them (K1)

Explains the principles of strategic decision making concerning the acquisition or development of digital and technology solutions. (K2)

Project Requirements

Analyses relevant evidence to produce a proposal for a digital and technology based project in line with legal, ethical and regulatory requirements whilst ensuring the protection of personal data, safety and security (S3/B3)

Project Planning and Resources

Produces a project plan which estimates risks and opportunities and determines mitigation strategies. (K3/S2)

Evaluates appropriate techniques and approaches that are used in creating a business case (K4)

The project applies techniques to estimate cost and time resource constraints. (K15)

Researches information on innovative technologies/approaches and investigates and evaluates them in the development of a digital and technology solution. (S14)

Solution Proposal

Analyses the business problem behind the project proposal to identify the role of digital and technology solutions. (S1)

Project Delivery

Carries out the identified solution proposal utilising a range of digital tools and standard approaches. (K5/S5)

Manages the project delivery to achieve digital and technology solutions. (S6)

Project Evaluation

Justifies their methods of research and evaluation which determined the selection of digital and technology solutions identified for the project. (K18)

Presents an overview of the project to appropriate stakeholders using appropriate language and style. (K17/S13/B5)    

Software Engineer themes

Technical Solutions

Analyses the factors affecting product quality and the approaches controlling them throughout the project development process. (K25/SEK5).

Selects and applies software tools appropriate to the Software Engineering project solution. (K26/SEK6)

Outlines approaches to the interpretation and use of artefacts. (K27/SEK7)

Innovation and Response

Identifies and defines a non-routine, unspecified software engineering problem. (S16/SES1)  

Recommends a software engineering solution that is appropriate for the project brief. (S17/SES2)

Selects and applies analysis methods, approaches and techniques in software engineering projects to deliver an outcome that meets requirements. (S18/SES3)

Demonstrates how they implement software engineering projects using appropriate software engineering methods, approaches and techniques. (S19/SES4)

Evaluates their selection of approach, methodology, analysis and outcomes to identify both lessons learned and recommendations for improvements to future projects software engineering projects. (S22/SES7)

Evidence for the themes

Evidence for all these themes must be uploaded to the apprenticeship ePortfolio. There is two types of evidence: witness statements, or evidence through the academic study. For the apprenticeship element, witness statements are considered to be a stronger form of evidence than completing tutor marked assessments. 

Witness statements can be prepared by a line manager, or a delegated mentor of colleague. They present a narrative summary of what an apprentice has done or achieved and should be anything between 100 and 150 words. These statements should be uploaded to the apprentice’s ePortfolio tool by the apprentice.

Acknowledgments

The key reference for this post is, of course, the DTS standard. The text for some of these headings have been drawn from the MKM ePortfolio.

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Figuring out Visual Paradigm

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One of the tools (or languages) I learnt as a graduate student was UML; the unified-modelling language. UML is a standard that describes a group of related diagrams. Different diagrams describe different aspects of a software system. UML is used for design, but it can also be used to document requirements, and can help with communication between developers and engineers. If you are able to use UML, you’re able to share ideas about code and software with others more fluently.

One of the tools that I learnt about was a graduate student was Rational Rose, which is now called . At the time I thought it was witchcraft. You could sketch out a diagram using a drawing tool and it would be able to generate some computer code for you.

The postgraduate module M813 Software Development introduces students to a tool called Visual Paradigm which is a tool that I’ve never heard about before. This said, it does bear some similarities with other graphical software design tools that I’ve had the opportunity to have a play with.

The aim of this post is to share some notes and weblink that I’ve collated about Visual Paradigm and other related tools.

Looking at Visual Paradigm

After installing a trial version of Visual Paradigm, I’m taken to a training page: Visual Paradigm Essentials.

From here, I’m taken to an Udemy course, Visual Paradigm essentials where apparently there are 27 hours’ worth of video lectures to attend. The introductory course is intended to help users to “learn all essential skills of software design and modeling including, UML, BPMN and SysML”.

I picked up the following points from the introduction: it can be used to create use cases, business process diagrams, user stories, and a whole host of other diagrams. It also links to agile software development practices, and can play a role in user experience and customer experience design. 

Here is an abbreviated list of diagram types it supports: user experience diagrams (wireframes and sequence visualisation), customer experience maps, software system design diagrams (UML and cloud architecture design diagrams), entity relationship diagrams (database designs) and business design diagram diagrams (such as business process tools and organization chart tools).

It was also mentioned that it could generate and reverse source code from diagrams, and could be used to generate basic code. Database creation scripts could be generated from entity relationship diagrams.

Other tools and environments

In TM354 Software Engineering students use a tool called NetBeans, a Java integrated development environment. 

After a bit of internet searching about NetBeans and UML, I found there was a NetBeans plugin called easyUML. EasyUML makes it possible to convert Java code into class diagrams. 

Whilst digging around, I found a related bit of software called PlantUMLRelated to this project, there is also a NetBeans plugin called PlantUML-NB. The interesting thing about PlantUML is that is can generate UML diagrams from relatively small bits of text which is not too dissimilar to code. The textual basis of this utility reminds me of a tool called UMLet  which I’ve written about previously

It wasn’t too long until I discovered this page: Visual Paradigm IDE integrationThis page suggests it is possible to connect Visual Paradigm and NetBeans together; potentially facilitating that bit of witchcraft that I alluded to earlier. To substantiate this suspicion, I found an accompanying video clip called Perform UML Modeling in NetBeans with Visual Paradigm (YouTube).

Whilst looking at UMLet, I noticed that there was a reference to a Microsoft product called Visual Studio Code. When I was a developer working in industry, I used Microsoft Visual Studio every day. It turns out that Microsoft Visual Studio (Wikipedia)Microsoft Visual Studio (Wikipedia) is different to Microsoft Visual Studio Code (Wikipedia)Microsoft Visual Studio Code (Wikipedia) despite having a very similar name. Clearly things have moved on since I was a full time developer. There are a few things I need to catch up on.

Whilst reminding myself about bits of the Microsoft developer toolset, I found this article, which was all about Visual Studio and Visual Paradigm Integration.

Reflections

Different modules use different bits of software. Across the computing curriculum, computing students will be exposed to Python, Java and JavaScript. This will mean that they will be exposed to different programming environments and toolsets. Getting to grips with different environments and tools is a necessary graduate skill. What I will say is that when it comes to software engineering, graphical tools are likely to be important, along with other tools. The exact make up will, of course, depend on the context of software, and the problems that they are required to solve.

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A233 Journal – October 2023

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 11 Dec 2023, 08:06

1 October 2023

The last thing I did yesterday was read though the first bit of the chapter about Wharton. I then had a cheeky look through some of the later chapters. I’m looking forward to the bit about Blunden.

I had a look at the learning journal document. I like how it is structured, but some of the headings need to be formatted.

It’s only a few more days to go before the official start date!

3 October 2023

Yesterday I got a bit ahead of myself, and started to read the introduction to the Blunden text, as well as a couple of the first section. I quite liked what I read. I’m also reminded to a recent BBC film; a biopic of Siegfried Sassoon.

Anyway, I’ve managed to get a printout of all the TMAs. For some weird reason, the printed text for TMAs 1 through 4 is smaller than the text for TMA 5. I have no idea why. I’ve also printed out the passages that form the basis of TMA 1. Another thing I’ve done is that I’ve emptied out an old A4 file.

4 October 2023

I’ve received an email notification of my place on a special study day that the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences are running at the London School of Economics in a couple of weeks’ time. It is quite curious since there is a frustrating pause on face-to-face tuition at the moment.

27 October 2023

Quite a bit of time has passed since my last entry! I have been busy, though. I’ve attended a tutorial, and have written a bunch of notes. I attended the Arts and Humanities day school and have written a summary of what happened at that event

I’ve also managed to do quite a bit of reading of the module materials. I’ve got as far as the first chapter which is about Blunden, and I’m just about halfway through the Blunden text. I’m really appreciating it (I’m using this word, since ‘enjoying’ doesn’t really seem to be the right word, given the subject matter).

I’m managing to snatch various bits of time to commit to my studies, but I feel that my day job (it is a nuisance having a day job) seems to be always pulling me in various directions. There are all these reviews and consultations that present perpetual and frustrating challenges.

I’m hoping to attend a tutorial tomorrow if I can find the time.

I also need to commit to writing a few more forum posts about Hardy. I’ve written one, which I think counts for the TMA, but I’m finding it quite difficult to engage. I think it is because the forum activities are forcing me to do a bit of work, which I think is the point.

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Christopher Douce

Arts and humanities day school 2023

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 27 Oct 2023, 20:54

On 14 October 23, I went to part of an OU Arts and humanities day school, organised by the Faculty of Arts and Social Science (FASS) which took place at the London School of Economics.

There are a couple of reasons to write this short piece. The first is to remember what happened during the event and to be able to share some of the points from the session with fellow students. The other purpose is to share with other faculties and schools what the FASS faculty has managed to do.

Although the session was run for the whole of the day, I only attended the afternoon session, which was all about literature. The morning session was all about study skills. For students who need advice of study skills, I do recommend the OU skills for study website.

Part 1: Things to know about literature

There were two parts to the English Literature strand. The first session was all about discussing what literature was all about, what is it for, and how is it studied. It was facilitated by staff tutors and cluster managers, Tim Hammond and Liz Ford.

During this session, we were asked some questions, and were encouraged to speak with fellow students to attempt to answer the question, or arrive at some definitions.

What follows is a summary of those questions, and some of the key bullet, or takeaway points that emerged from both the group and plenary discussions.

What is literature?

It is about storytelling; there are characters, plots and narrative.

It is about words, texts and the structure of language, but it can also be about oral communication, such as drama and plays.

It is also about responding to and interpreting texts. Also, a point of view is important.

Literature can be used to create new worlds.

It can also be used to develop and maintain culture.

Also, the notion of THE CANON was mentioned. There will be more of this a bit later.

What is literature for?

To entertain, to educate, and to suggest or facilitate change, to consider different worlds, and to make a record of something.

There are also some negative reasons: it can be used for propaganda.

Literature can be used to share experiences, and to expand horizons.

One point was emphasised: entertainment. Although it sounds frivolous, entertainment is important!

Why do we study literature?

To understand different ways of communication, to understand what is considered to be important (which links back to The Canon).

Through studying literature, we become more critically aware, become better writers, and can more readily contribute to academic debates.

It allows us to gain a deeper understanding of texts, and how they are constructed.

Understand different points of view.

How do we study literature at the OU?

The OU approach is to have interpretive journeys through texts. I made a note of something called reception theory, which will be explored in level 3 modules in more detail.

During the modules, there will be texts that you have never heard of, and texts that have been translated.

Students will understand how books (text) may come into being, in the sense that books exist within a context and within an economy. Texts now exist within a digital world.

Within the modules, there is a lot of optionality and choices when it comes to the assessment, leading to more flexibility in level 3.

What can you do with literature?

One of the points made in just was: you could (potentially) become a bestselling novelist! (This was made in jest, since it is very difficult to become a best selling novelist).

Due to time was short, a key point was made: do speak with the careers office; they have a wealth of advice to offer.

Part 2: Evaluating negative responses to reading in life and in fiction

The second bit of the day, presented by Shafquat Toweed, who is the chair of A334 (and has written some of the materials for A233, which I’m currently studying) had the feel of being a research talk.

Shaf’s research is all about reading in literature (which does gets mention in A233). In an EU project he mentions, members of the public are invited to send in post cards that relate to their experiences of reading.

I found Shaf’s presentation fascinating since I have never been to a research talk about literature before. I have heard that ‘presenting a paper’ in the discipline of literature is a little different to ‘presenting a paper’ in the sciences.

I learnt that there is something called the UK Reading Experience database. Shaf also mentioned an EU project, called Read-it: Reading Europe Advanced Data Investigation Tool.

Towards the end of his presentation, he took us through the plot of a story, where reading of fiction led one of the main characters to an untimely demise. One must emphasise that this was fiction, about fiction, and this isn’t anything we should be unduly worried about.

Reflections

I went to this event since I needed to give myself a motivation boost.

I have a lot on at the moment and I worry about my studying of A233 will become subsumed under everything else I need to do. I’m studying literature for a number of reasons: it may add something to the other work I’m doing, it is something that I’ve always wanted to do.

During the first session, I won an OU pencil! 

Admittedly, I won it for being “arrogant”, and was encouraged to “join the scientists” for claiming that I was able to define, without any difficulty, what literature was all about.

Upon reflection, the answers that everyone shared in the plenary discussions were a whole lot more nuanced than the answers that I gave. Whilst I do predominantly align myself with the scientists, I am aware that I need to be more comfortable with nuance and opinion.

There was a real buzz about this face-to-face event. It was also something that got booked up really quickly, which suggests that there was a lot of demand for events like these. It was also notable that these events only take place in two locations: London and Glasgow. I really liked that I was able to chat with fellow students; we spoke about levels and texts, and shared some practical study skills.

It was also notable that students who were not able to attend this event have been asking what happened during the day school. In some senses, this blog aims to act as a bit of bridge. Sharing online what happened during face-to-face sessions underlines my belief that face-to-face, when done well, has the potential to help all students, irrespective of whether or not they are able to attend.

Well done FASS for running such a useful event. One day, I hope that I will be able to run an induction session for all our new computing students. Face-to-face is important. We need it to come back.

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Christopher Douce

Bibliometrics, Altmetrics & DORA

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On 2 October I attended another of the OU’s professional development events. This time, it was an event organised by the OU library. Facilitated by Chris Biggs, Research Support Librarian, the session aimed to outline three things: “common bibliometrics, and their use and misuse”, “what are Altmetrics and where they can be found” and DORA, which is an abbreviation for the “Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)” along with the “responsible use of metrics”.

I was particularly interested in this section since I’m a co-editor of an international journal called Open Learning. Bibliometrics are sometimes discussed during the annual editorial meetings between the editors, the members of the editorial board, and the publisher, who is Taylor and Frances. During these meetings, various numbers are shared and summarised.

When I saw the title of the event, my main thought was: “I should go along; I might pick up on a point or two”. What follows is a set of notes that I made during the session, along some of the useful weblinks that were shared. One thing that I should add is that the structure of these notes come from the facilitator, Chris, and his presentation. Towards the end of these notes, I share a set of reflections.

Citations

I missed the first couple of minutes, joining just at the point when Chris was talking about the ‘the social dimensions’ of citations. Citations are all about giving credit. A useful link to look at is the page Citing Sources: What are citations and why should I use them?

One view is that the more citations an article has, the more popular it is. Subsequently, some might associate popularity to quality. An interesting paper that was referenced had the title Citations, Citation Indicators, and Research Quality: An Overview of Basic Concepts and Theories

Retuning to the notion of the social dimension of citations, one metric I noted down was that self-citations account for 12% of citations. A self-citation is where an author references their own, or earlier work. Whilst this can be used to guide authors to earlier research, it can also be used to increase the visibility of your research.

A concept that I wasn’t familiar with but immediately understood was the notion of a citation circle or cartel. Simply put, this is a group of authors, typically working in a similar field, who regularly reference each other. This may have the effect of increasing the visibility of that group of authors. Chris shared a link to an interesting article about the notion: The Emergence of a Citation Cartel

A further notion that I hadn’t officially heard of, but was implicitly familiar with, was the notion of the honorary citation. This is where an author might cite the work of a journal editor to theoretically increase chances of their paper being accepted. As an editor, I have seen that occasionally, but not very often. On a related point, the publisher, Taylor and Francis has published some very clear ethical guidelines that editors are required to adhered to.

Something else that I hadn’t heard of is the Matthew effect. This means that if something has been published, it will continue to be cited, perhaps to the detriment of other articles. Again, we were directed to an interesting article: The Matthew Effect in Science.

It was mentioned there are interesting differences in between academic disciplines. The pace and regularity of citations in the arts and humanities can be much less than, say, a busy area of scientific research. It was also mentioned that there are differences between types of articles. For example, reviews are cited more than original research articles, and methods papers are some of the most cited papers. (It was at this point, I wondered whether there were many articles that carried out reviews of methodologies).

An interesting reflection is that articles that are considered to have societal benefit are not generally picked up by bibliometrics. This immediately reminded me about how funders require researcher to develop what is known as an impact plan. I then remembered that the STEM faculty has a couple of impact managers who are able to provide practical advice on how researchers can demonstrate the impact and the benefits of the research that they carry out.

All these points and suggestions lead to one compelling conclusion, which is that the number of citations cannot be directly considered to be a measure of the quality of an article.

An important element is all this is, of course, the peer review process. Some important points were made: that peer review can be slow, expensive, inconsistent, and prone to bias. As an editor, I recognise each of these points. One of the most frustrating elements of the peer review process is finding experienced and willing reviewers. During this session, I shared an important point: if an author holds views that are incompatible or different to the reviewers, it is okay to have a discussion with an editor. Editors are people, and we’re often happy to chat.

Bibliometrics

There are a few different sources of bibliometrics. There is Scopus, Web of Science, Dimensions, CrossRef and Google Scholar. Scopus and The Web of Science offer limited coverage for social sciences and humanities subject. In contrast, Google Scholar picks up everything, including resources that may not really be academic articles. A link to the following blog, Google Scholar, Web of Science, and Scopus: Which is best for me? was shared.

There are, of course, different types of metrics. Following on from the earlier section where citations were mentioned, there is the notion of normalised citations, percentiles, and field citation ratios. Normalised citations (if I’ve understood this correctly) is the extent of an article being over a time period. Percentiles relate to how popular, or widely cited an article is. There is, of course, a very long tail of publications. Publications that appear within, say, the top 1% or top 5% are, of course, highly popular. Finally, the field citation ratio relates to the extent to which an article is published within a particular field of research.

There is also something called the h-index, which relates to the number of publications made by a researcher. During Chris’ presentation, I made the following notes: the h-index favours people who have a consistent publication record, such established academics. For example, a h index of 19 means 19 papers that have been cited 19 times.

Moving beyond metrics that relate to individual researchers, there is also something called the journal impact factor (JIF). Broadly speaking, the more popular or influential the journal, the higher its impact factor. This has the potential to influence researchers when making decisions about how and where to publish their research findings. It was mentioned that there are two versions of a JIF: a metric that includes self-citations, and another that doesn’t.

Metrics that relate to official academic journals isn’t the whole story. Outside of ‘journal world’ (which you can access through your institutional library) there are an array of ever changing social media platforms. Subsequently, there are a number of alternatives to citation based bibliometrics. Altmetrics, from Digital Science, creates something that is called an attention score, which consolidates different ‘mentions’ of research across different platform. It can only do this if there is a reference to a a persistent digital object identifier, a DOI.

Previews of AltMetric data can be seen through articles that are published on ORO, the university’s research repository. Although I’m risking accusation of self-citation here, an interesting example is the following excellent paper: Mental health in distance learning: a taxonomy of barriers and enablers to student mental wellbeing. Scrolling to the bottom of the page will reveal a summary of tweets and citations; metrics from both Altmetric and Dimensions.

There are a couple of other alternative metrics that were mentioned: PlumX, which is from Elsevier, and Overton, which is about the extent to which research may be potentially influencing policy.

Responsible metrics, the OU and DORA

Towards the end of the event, DORA, Declaration on Open Research Assessment was introduced, of which the OU is a signatory. One of the most salient point from the DORA website is this: “Do not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions”. There is also a case study that relates to the OU which can be found on the DORA website

This final and important part of the session, which had the title ‘The Idea of Responsible Metrics” was covered quite briefly. The topic of DORA is something that I really do need to look at in a bit more detail.

Reflections

I learnt a lot from this session. One thing that really grabbed my attention was the h-index. As soon as the session had finished, I asked myself a question: what is my h-index? It didn’t take too long to find it out.

After finding my h-index figure, I made a mistake; I wondered what the h-index for some of my immediate colleagues were. I found this unnecessarily and seductively interesting. I looked up h scores for professors, some fellow senior lecturers, and some newly recruited members of staff. Through various links, I could see who had collaborated with who. I could also see which of the professors were really high ranking professors.

I then stopped my searching. I asked myself another question, which was: “does any of these numbers really matter?”

It takes different kinds of people to run an academic department and a university. Some colleagues are excellent at research. Some colleagues are excellent at teaching, and some colleagues are even excellent at administration. In my own role as a staff tutor, I do a lot of academic administration and quite a bit of work which could be viewed as teaching. This means that I don’t have a lot of time to do any research. Broadly speaking, central academic staff have a much higher h-index metric than staff tutors, simply because they have more time. What research I do carry out is often applied research. This research can sometimes be labelled as scholarship, which can be considered to be research about the practice of teaching and learning.

It was interesting that one of the important points I took away was that societal impact can’t be directly measured through bibliometrics. I also found it interesting that different types of articles attract a greater number of citations. One of my biggest academic hits (I don’t have very many of them) has been a review paper, where I studied different ways in which a computer could be used to assess the quality of computer programming assessments. The articles that I have published that relate to pure research have certainly attracted less attention.

All this comes back to a broader question: in academia, what is valued? I think the answer is: different types of work is valued. Pure research is valued alongside effective and engaging teaching. The bit that ties the two together is, of course, scholarship. 

Bibliometrics are, in my eyes, are a set of measurements that attempt to quantify academic debate. It only ever tells a part of a bigger and much more complicated story. Metrics are not, in my opinion, surrogates for quality. Also, academic fashions and trends come and go.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks are given to Chris Biggs for running such an engaging and interesting session. Many of the links shared in this article were shared during Chris' presentation.

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A233 Journal - September 2023

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 9 June 2024, 11:02

I’ve read four of the set texts over the summer: Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (which maddened me a bit), Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (which I loved), Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (which I was a bit ambivalent about), and a collection of stories from Anderson (which I quite enjoyed).

9 September 2023

I’ve been reading Ali Smith’s Hotel World. I have three sections to go.

10 September 2023

I finished Smith’s Hotel World. Whilst I really liked the opening chapter, I found the stream of consciousness chapter annoying and difficult. Whilst it might have been thoroughly rewarding to write from the author’s perspective, it makes the reader really work, and I just didn’t have the patience. I know we’ll get into looking at this, but it felt indulgent. I have mixed feelings, but we’ll see what is said in the module materials.

Talking of module materials, I open the first book and start reading the introduction, and the first chapter about Hardy and characterisation. I really like how the introduction is written. I must start to have a look around the module website, and to find if there is any on demand printing service for the study guides.

I keep looking at buying another second hand e-reader; one that has a bigger screen, so I can read the block PDFs more easily whilst I’m travelling; whilst my current e-reader does the job, I’m getting older – bigger screens are better screens!

22 September 2023

I realised that there were some books that I didn’t have, and I might need to read, so I went on eBay to look for a few. I was particularly intrigued by the science fiction book that was on the reading list. I used to be a huge sci-fi fan when I was a teen.

Yesterday I started to book onto tutorials for the entire year, guessing what direction I would like to go in terms of the book club choices. Over the summer I really enjoyed the Wharton text, so I’m really looking forward to The Age of Innocence.

Another thing that has happened: I’ve exchanged messages with my tutor! I’m not sure, but I think I recognise her name from A230.

Next step: to pick up reading of the block materials, and to try to get printouts of the study guides. The only thing: I don’t have access to a printer at the moment!

Looking back over this blog: I wasn’t keen on Hotel World. I really liked the start, but it didn’t do it for me. I look forward to learning more about how the module guides us through the text.

23 September 2023

It’s back on the module block again, and a bit of directed reading from Far from the Madding Crowd. I’m stuck by how closely we have to do the close reading! I have one more chapter to go (I shall revisit those two that I have read) before getting to the chapter about Wharton.

27 September 2023

My new books have arrived! I’ve put them in a pile. I think I’m going the read the science fiction one first, and The God of Small things last, if I don’t get distracted.

Talking of being distracted, I have again been looking at large screen e-readers so I can put all of the texts (module materials, and the books) on a single device. I need to stop procrastinating and get on with some reading.

30 September 2023

I did a bit of reading of the block, skim reading the final chapter of the last Hardy chapter. I liked the section that discussed the serialisation. This was giving me another perspective on the text. I also liked the question about whether the text had any subplots. 

After doing a bit more reading in a local café (and then bailing out when a group of noisy cyclists came in), I started to go through the module website properly, ticking off all the resources I looked at. So far I have: read the welcome letter, read the letter from the lead cluster manager, module guide and the audio clip that can be found in the studying literature page. I also had a look through the two bits of the English Literature Toolkit: how to study English Literature, and how to write an English Literature essay.

One thing I learnt about was the time planner. When I was a social science OU student, my tutor ran exactly the same activity, which I found really helpful. Reflecting on this, I need to do an hour (or so) of study in the morning, after breakfast, before doing my day job, just so I can keep on top of everything. 

Two other sections look helpful: the ‘being critical’ section, and the ‘practising headings for notes’ which suggests a number of handy headings to keep in mind whilst you are reading a text. I also hadn’t heard of the study diamond approach, which is completely new to me. The headings being: effects, meaning, techniques and context. (I think I forgot to write about context, when it came to my A230 emTMA).

The section on essay writing was useful, which highlights the following keywords and phrases: analyse, assess, compare, contrast, describe, discuss, examine, explain, how far … ?, synthesise, and to what extent … ? I also remember the PEAL approach to writing essays: point, evidence, analysis and evaluation, and linking sentence back to the question. Another suggestion (in the materials) is to have a three part structure: an argument, an opposing argument, then a compromise solution.

Here's some tips about close reading: what is the passage doing?, how is it doing it?, for what reasons?, and how does the bit of text relate to the wider text?

I’ve also noticed that all the TMA questions are available. When I get home, I’m going to print them all out. I’ve noted that TMA 5 is an emTMA which accounts for 40% of the overall module score, with all the other TMAs accounting for 15%. There is a threshold of 30% on the final TMA. I’ve also noticed that we have to make some forum posts. One thing I must remember is that the assessment guide also says how the module materials can be referenced.

I had a look at the module forum, and they appear to be pretty busy (one thread has over 100 posts), so I don’t subscribe to them. I’ll subscribe to the tutor group forum when it opens.

The final bits: a very brief study of the week 1 reading guidance (noting what I need to return to), and a quick look at the careers page and the learning journal document; it looks so long! Last of all, after checking off all the bits of the block I had read, was to eyeball the OU subjects and qualifications website which I have never seen before.

Now that I’ve got into the module website, and I’ve seen what some of the key resources are, I need to start to go through everything properly, and a bit more slowly.

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Christopher Douce

Working with the SST

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On Friday 14 July 23, I spoke with colleagues who work within one of the OU’s student support teams (SSTs) with the intention of learning more about what the SST does. I also wanted to learn about what messages or words of advice they would like to share with tutors.

The aim of this post is to highlight some of the great work the SST does, and to share some practical advice to tutors. This post is intended to be one of a series of posts that aim to offer tutors some practical guidance.

Introducing the SST

Tutors are the academic face of the university. You represent the collective views of module teams, and help students to find their way through the materials they have prepared. Whilst you are expected to answer academic questions, you’re not expected to respond to questions that go beyond the boundaries of the module that you are helping to deliver.

In you are ever asked questions about the next module a student should study, what to do if a student find themselves struggling with changing personal circumstances, of have concerns about student fees, there is another group of colleagues who can help: members of the student support teams who work within what is called the Student Recruitment and Support Centres (SRSC).

It is helpful to think of us all members of an SST: tutors are a member, as are staff tutors and module team members. The SST colleagues located within the SRSC carry out a number of different roles: they may be educational advisors, senior advisors, or enrol students to modules. 

One of the roles and responsibilities of a tutor is to proactively refer students to the student support team if it looks like they need help.

At the time of writing, an article on TutorHome describes the SST as “provid[ing] specialist support such as module choice, transferring credit, regulations, disability and can make referrals for careers guidance.” It goes on to say that tutors “can refer students to the SST for detailed advice and guidance. Support teams may occasionally approach Associate Lecturers to undertake Individual Student Support Sessions (ISSSs) with students.  Referrals are made using the electronic Student Referral Form (eSRF).”

What does the SST do?

The SST provides non-academic support and information to students. The SST provides information about different modules, how study takes place, and what the various options might be for student fees. After a student has enrolled, the SST may help a student to think about how to approach their study, and even their study workload. 

The SST uses a model known as Information Advice and Guidance, or IAG, for short. IAG is a model that is applied across higher education, and in situations where learners need information and guidance about learning choices. 

Consider IAG to be a funnel, or an inverted pyramid. Students may begin by asking for information. In turn, they might have further questions about different curriculum choices, and may end up speaking with a senior advisor or an educational advisor who will be specialised in providing different types of advice and guidance.

Seventy percent of queries that the SST handles relates to study intentions. These can include changes to registered qualifications, or increasing or decreasing of study intensity, which refers to the number of modules a student might be studying at the same time. 

Other queries that the SST respond to might be about offering information about assessment and examinations, helping student to navigate university policies, and to offer guidance about reasonable adjustments for disabled students. Advisors will also help with study postponements and fee credits (after postponements), and signpost additional resources such as the student assistance fund.

SST roles

To learn more about how the SST works, it is useful to know a little more about roles of colleagues who work in a SRSC, and how these roles relate to the IAG model.

Advisors (I)

The main role of the advisors is to provide information. An advisor can be thought of as being “a bit like a GP; we need to know a bit about everything – there are specialists we can refer students to”. The advisor acts like the first stage of a filter, passing student queries onto other teams if more detailed responses are needed.

There are often a lot of queries close to, and after a TMA cut-off date. In many cases students are referred back to their tutor and sometimes queries as passed onto the faculty, which will find their way to the staff tutor. If students ask about TMA questions, these will, of course, be referred back to the tutor, and possibly the faculty.

In this first stage of the IAG model, advisors are not meant to offer advice, or guidance or discuss in depth issues that relate to student finance, but they can direct students to information that they may find helpful.

Senior advisors (A)

After the information (I) stage, an advisor might pass a query onto a senior advisor, for the advice (A) stage. It is always worth remembering that senior advisors can only provide advice about study. They can only make students aware of different options that are available to them, perhaps signposting them to different resources to help them to make decision. What they cannot do, of course, is to provide solutions or answers to students: they can only provide them with tools that help them to make decision.

Senior advisors can do a number of things: they can share information about what modules might potentially be useful to study, they might also help students to understand whether any there are any pre-requisites that need to be completed before students choose a particular path of study or module combination, and they can also say something about what is involved with OU study.

Senior advisors also make telephone calls to students if there are any concerns about their progress that may have been raised by tutors with an aim to find out if there is anything they might be able to help with. They often follow up with an email, if necessary, making records to the university student-relationship management system.

Educational Advisors (G)

Education advisors get involved with more complex issues. For example, if there are potential or persistent barriers to learning. If a barrier relates to a disability, they will work with other teams, such as the Disability Support Team. They may also refer students to specialist mental health advisors, or even to a safeguarding team.

It is worth noting that there are some differences in what happens in England, and what happens in the other UK nations. In England, the Disability Support Team works with students to write a support profile, which is available to tutors through TutorHome. They may also help students to begin to claim for the Disability Support Allowance (DSA), to help students to get their right support for their studies. In the other UK nations this support is provided by educational advisors.

Educational advisors may also gently challenge students if there is a sense that someone is taking on too much. They may also offer practical advice about how to catch up with their studies. They may also speak with students if they are finding it difficult to decide whether to continue with their study, and will offer advice about options. They can also help to manage student expectations in terms of the form and extent of support that they are likely to receive, either from tutors or, more broadly, from the university. In this sense, educational advisors can proactively help students to develop the academic relationship they have with their tutor.

The SST always aims to work in the best interests of the students. They are there to make sure students have the right information to enable them to make the right decision, that matches their needs and circumstances.

When should I refer students to the SST?

There is a simple rule: tutors respond to academic queries, and non-academic queries should be referred to the SST. An academic query can be thought of anything that relates to the study of a module. 

There are also grey areas between academic and non-academic support that tutors can proactively help with. For example, if a student is considering stopping studying of a module due to the difficulty of the module materials or the scores they are getting, a tutor should try to speak with a student to find out whether there is anything they can do to help. Sometimes an additional support session might be enough to get a student back on track. On other occasions, a discussion about their TMA feedback might help them to put their work and progress into perspective.

Tutors can also help if a student queries their marks, or asks for study advice within the context of a module. Whilst the SST is able to offer general advice about student, a tutor is best placed to offer detailed practical study advice about what a student might be able to do to maintain steady progress during a module. In a computing module, for example, this might be making sure a student is aware of the importance of getting better through practice. If you are asked some academic questions that you can’t immediately answer, consider seeking advice from the tutor’s module forum, or your staff tutor.

If a student is experiencing difficulties, and feel their personal circumstances may affect either their TMA or exam performance, tutors can and should refer students to the special circumstances form, which can be accessed through the university help centre.

You should refer a student to the SST if there is any non-academic problem that you cannot solve, or a student is asking questions that are not related to the academic elements of the module that you are teaching, or you are unable to get in contact with your student. The earlier you refer the student to the SST, the better.

You should also refer students to the SST if a student has disclosed a disability. The act of a student telling a tutor they have a disability means that they have told the university they have a disability, and tutors are obliged to pass this information on to the SST.

The SST will “usually try to respond within 2 working days, and then 5 working days during very busy periods. That is the same across the I, A and G”. When a referral or request for information or support is passed between different teams, the respond time begins whenever a new service request has been created.

How should I refer students?

Referrals can be made to the SST in a number of ways. There are two main ways that tutors need to be aware of.

TutorHome

The primary way tutors can refer students to the SST is through their student list, which is available through TutorHome. From your student group summary, click on the name of the student you wish to refer. Under the heading ‘referrals’ you should see a link that has the title: Refer to Student Support team. This will open a form which gives you a number of different options. Always ensure that you provide as much detailed information as you can, also saying what you expect to be done with the referral. If you wish to be contacted by the SST, if you have further information to share, please mention this.

Responses to a referral will either be sent by email, or you can see if there are any updates if a ‘C’ (contact history available) flag is displayed next to the student’s name in the student group summary. You can view any updates by clicking on the student’s name, and then clicking on the ‘Show contact history’ link, which provides a summary of the most recent interactions between the university and our student.

If you wish to share some additional information with the SST after a referral has been made, you can use the ‘Update record’ link, which can be found on the right of the student group summary. 

Staff tutors

Whilst working with a student, you might contact your staff tutor for support. In some situations, your staff tutor might ask you to refer a student through TutorHome, or they might get in contact with the SST to ask them for help, by sending a referral through the university systems.

Other approaches

If an issue is really urgent, tutors can also directly call the SST, but it is advised that on some occasions, the extent of actions that might be possible might be limited, due to data protection limitations. The SST finds it easier to handle written requests, since it enables them to make decisions about priority, identify who should be attending to an issue, and gives the SST time to formulate a response.

What do tutors need to know?

The most important point to reiterate is: if a query from a student is considered to be an academic query, tutors should take the initiative and respond to it as best as they can. Although colleagues within the SST know about modules, they don’t know the details of modules, or know the details of what is contained with their assessments. They do, however, know about when assessments take place and the policies that relate to assessments.

When there is a query that may sit within a grey area, such as whether a student wishes to continue with a module, tutors should feel confident enough to ask some probing questions about the extent to which an issue is one that is academic, or needs SST support. If you are unsure about where the boundaries between tutor support and SST support lie, the best thing you can to is to contact your staff tutor for guidance.

Early referrals to the SST are important, since there are dates known as fee liability points. This means that in some situations, if students defer early, they will be eligible have a percentage of their overall student fee returned. If a student is paying for their studies through a series of student loans, this will reduce the amount a student is liable for had they deferred later. From the student’s perspective, if you are unsure whether a student is engaging, it is always better to send in a referral than to hope they will return to their studies.

If a tutor has referred a student to the SST since they are having difficulty getting in touch with a student, this may mean that the SST may also have the same problem. If a “no contact” referral is made, the SST will always try to contact our student. Attempts will be always recorded, and these should be visible through the contact history part of TutorHome.

If students require advice about module choice, whilst tutors can refer students to the SST, one practical suggestion is to refer students to the OU’s subject sites. Subject sites are available for all students who are registered, and offer useful summaries, and pointers to other resources and events. SST advisors direct students to explore the subject sites.

A frequent request that will come to tutors through the SST are requests for TMA extensions, since TMA extensions are an academic and faculty issue. If there is a request for a particularly long extension which is to be approved from the faculty by your staff tutor, tutors are encouraged to speak with their students. In these cases, tutors should work with their students to establish an informal plan to ensure that they submit their TMA by the date of their new next extension, but also catch up with their study.

The following very practical point is important: since such a lot of the communication between the SST, tutors and students take place through email, it is important to remember to ensure that your Out of Office reply is turned on when you are unavailable.

Acknowledgements 

Many thanks are extended to Felicity Howe, Jamie Ireland, Anthony Short, Matthew Protz and Alexis Lansbury.

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Christopher Douce

Book review: Two novels about DevOps

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When I started to do some background reading into how TM354 Software Engineering might need to be updated, I was guided towards two curious novels. 

From October 23 I start to study A233 Telling stories: the novel and beyond, as a part of my gradual journey through a literature degree. For quite a while, I have been thinking there have been very little to connect novels and software engineering, other than obvious: the development of Word processing tools that can be used to write novels, and the Amazon cloud infrastructure used to distribute eBooks.

What follows is a very short (and not very through) review of two books that are all about DevOps: The Phoenix Project, by Gene Kim (and others), and The Unicorn Project, which is also by Kim. 

The Phoenix Project

I shall begin by sharing an honest perspective: the idea of a novel about software development did not excite me in the least. The text has a subheading that seemed to strengthen my prejudices: “a novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business win”. This is no crime drama or historical novel. The closest genre that one could attribute to The Phoenix Project is: thriller. I feel it occupies a genre all of its own, which could be labelled: IT business thriller.

The main protagonist is Bill Palmer, who has the unenviable job title of “Director of Midrange Technology Operations”. Bill works for a mysterious American company called Parts Unlimited. A lot happens in the early chapters: Bill is invited in to have a chat with a manager, who gives him a promotion. He is then asked to take a lead in getting the Phoenix Project, a new mission critical software system to work. Failure means the business would lose any potential competitive advantage, and the IT infrastructure might be outsourced, which means that people would lose their jobs.

Before Bill can get settled, he is hit by a payroll outage, which means the employees and unions are angry. He also quickly realises that the whole IT setup is in a complete state. Kim and his co-writers do a good job at attempting to convey a sense of paralysis and panic. The reason for this is expressed through the notion of ‘technical debt’, which means that existing IT infrastructure has become increasing complicated over time. Quick fixes now can, of course, lead to further problems down the line. Parts Unlimited has not been ‘paying down’ their technical debt.

An important element of the novel is the division between the Ops (operations) bit of IT, and the development division. There are other competing teams, which also play a role: there is the QA (quality assurance), and the security team. Security is important, since if an organisation doesn’t keep its auditors happy, the directors may face legal consequences.

I think I would be mean to describe the characters as one dimensional, since plot clearly takes precedence over characterisation. The main protagonist Bill is the most richly described. His organisational skills and sense of calm in the face of chaos is explained through his military background. 

Ubergeek Brent plays an important role, but I really wanted to know what made him tick. Erik Reid, an unofficial mentor to Bill plays the role of a Yoda-like mystic who provides insightful advice, who draws on his extensive knowledge of lean manufacturing. A notable character is Sarah Moulton, the Senior Vice President of Retail Operations, who takes on the unenviable role of the villain.

What struck me was the amount of technical detail that exists within the text. There are references to services, languages, and source code management. There is also the important notion of the ‘release’, which is a persistent problem, which pervades both this text, and its follow-up. Whilst I enjoyed the detail, I’m unsure about the extent to which the lay reader would grasp the main point that the book was making: to gain efficient business value from IT, it is best to combine together operations and development. Doing this enables the creation of tighter feedback loops, and reduces operational risk. Along the journey, there are these moments which raise an eyebrow. An example of this is where there is unambiguous contrition from a security manager once he sees an error in his thinking.

Bill identifies barriers and instigates change. After a “challenging” release of Phoenix, he ultimately prevails. During the updates, there is the emergence of a ‘side project’, which makes use of new fangled cloud technology to deliver value to the business. In turn, this generates income that makes shareholders happy. Political battles ensue, and Bill then gets on a fast track to a further promotion.

Apparently, The Phoenix project was popular amongst developers when it first came out, but I’ve been peripherally distant from the domain of software engineering, which means I’ve been a bit late to the party. Before providing further comment, I’ll move onto the sequel: The Unicorn Project.

The Unicorn Project

When I read The Phoenix Project, one of my criticisms was about the identity of the main protagonist. Novelists can not only use their craft to share a particular reality, but they can also have the potential to effect change. Whilst I liked Bill and the positive role that he took within the novel, given the clear and persistent gender disparities in the sector, I did feel that a female protagonist would have been more welcome. This unarticulated request was answered through The Unicorn Project in the form of Maxine Chambers, the lead protagonist in Kim’s follow up novel. 

Maxine is collateral damage from the payroll failure. Despite being hugely talented, she is side-lined; temporarily reassigned to The Phoenix Project. Her starting point was to try to get a build of all the software that was being developed, but faced persistent complexity, not just in terms of software, but in terms of finding out who to speak with to get things done.

Whilst the main project was saturated with bureaucratic burden, Maxine gradually found “her people”; smart like minded people who were also frustrated by the status quo. She also spoke with the business mystic and mentor, Erik Reid, who was very happy to share his words of wisdom. Ubergeek Brent also makes an appearance, but his backstory continued to remain opaque.

A really interesting part of the text is where Maxine ‘goes into the field’ to learn what happens in the Parts Unlimited stores. Drawing on the notion of ethnographic observations, she learns first-hand of the difficulties experienced by the store workers. Another interesting element which occurs towards the end of the novel is the movement towards embedding institutional learning, and drawing upon the creativity that exists within the workforce. In comparison to The Phoenix Project, there is more emphasis about culture, specifically, developing a no blame culture.

A key theme of The Unicorn Project is shared with The Phoenix Project: it is important to combine development and operations together, and it is helpful to perform continually integration since users can gain access to the new features more readily. A notable section highlighted the challenge of carrying out code merges during marathon meetings. If code is continually integrated, then there isn’t the need for all those uncomfortable meetings. Significantly, the Unicorn project also goes further than The Phoenix Project, since it is also about the power of teamwork, collaboration and the potential of smaller projects positively affecting and influencing others. Like Bill, the formidable Maxine is successful. 

Reflections

My initial scepticism of these novels comes from my view that novels are made from story and character, not technology. What is very clear is that although technology plays an important role, people are, by far, the most important. The novels foreground the role of teams and their organisation, the importance of sharing knowledge, and the importance of collaboration and leadership. It is clear that soft skills matter for the simple reason that software is something that is invisible; developers must be able to talk about it, and to each other. This is also why organisational culture is so important.

An important reflection is that both Bill and Maxine have difficult and very stressful jobs. They are both shown to work ridiculously long hours, often over the weekend. In the novels, IT is depicted as a difficult occupation, and one that is far from being family friendly. The families of both protagonists are featured, and they both suffer.

Although both of these novels are stories about the success of heroes battling against impossible odds, the hyperreality of the chaos within Parts Unlimited makes their success difficult to believe. Conversely, the hyperreality that is expressed through the impossible administrative burdens of the ticketing systems offers a warning to those who have to work with these systems on a daily basis.

The mystical mentor Erik is, of course, difficult to believe. He is a device use to share the pragmatic business and manufacturing theories that are central to the themes that are common to both books. I didn’t mind Erik. Like with Brent, I wanted to know more of his backstory, but with a limited work count and a lot of themes to work through, I understand why creative trade-offs were made to foreground more pressing technical topics.

Whilst I found the broader context, automotive spares, mildly interesting, I found myself becoming bored by the theme of IT being used to gain ever increasing amounts of money through the persistent and relentless pursuit of the customer. Although I accept that IT can be thought of a product of capitalism, there are more interesting ways that IT can be used and applied. Technology can be used to reflect humanity, just as humanity is reflected in technology. Whilst capital is important, there are other subjects that are more interesting. I think I would like to read an IT business thriller about cyber security, as opposed to one about a business that has found a new way to sell engine monitoring apps.

To conclude, these two novels were fun. They were also informative without being overly didactic. Although IT business thriller books is not my favourite genre, I can say that I enjoyed reading them. I’m more a fan of Victorian romances.

Epilogue

In 2004, I was working as a Software Engineer in a small company that designed and manufactured educational equipment used to teach the principles of electrical engineering and computing. 

One day in April, the manager director bounded into the office where I worked.

“We’re selling our e-learning division! This means that we won’t be able to sell our flagship learning management system anymore. We need to find a solution. We had been working on an earlier project, but that didn’t work out. So, we need you to head up the development of a new learning management system”.

That new learning management system was given an internal codename. It wasn’t very original. 

We called it Project Phoenix.

References

Kim, G. et al. (2014) The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win. 1st edition. Place of publication not identified: IT Revolution Press.

Kim, G. (2019) The Unicorn Project. IT Revolution Press.

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Christopher Douce

Digital Technology Solutions Professional 1.2 briefing (England)

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In addition to being a staff tutor, I am also a degree apprenticeship practice tutor for the OU DTS scheme, which is an abbreviation for Digital Technology Solutions. This is a standard which has a number of pathways, which takes apprentices 56 months to complete.

On 17 July 23, went to a briefing which aimed to summarise updates to the DTS programme, which has now moved to version 1.2. What follows is a summary of that briefing. An important point to note that is that all these notes only applies to England, since Scotland and Wales have their own schemes (there is no equivalent scheme in Northern Ireland).

What follows is information about the new DTS apprenticeship standard, followed by a summary of changes and a recap of the OU modules that contribute to the DTS scheme. More details are then provided about the end point assessment which ties everything together.

Where possible, to make this blog as useful as possible, I have also provided links to module descriptions. Within the OU apprenticeship scheme, module codes that contain the letters XY are used to identify which modules contribute to a degree apprenticeship programme. For practical and study purposes, there are no differences between apprenticeship and non-apprenticeship modules, other than apprenticeship modules being supported by both a practice tutor and an associate lecturer (who is an academic tutor).

It should be noted that this blog only relates to a programme that is run from the School of Computing and Communications, and is not relevant to other apprenticeship schemes run by other schools. 

The apprenticeship standard

The DTS apprenticeships are defined in terms of the duties that apprentices carry out in their workplace role, and the Knowledge, Skills, and Behaviours (KSBs) that they require to fulfil those duties. The OU provides teaching to apprentices to enable them to gain the necessary KSBs needed to fulfil the DTS standard. 

During the course of the apprenticeship each apprentice is expected to demonstrate during their normal work that they are competent in each of the KSBs. This will be recorded in an ePortfolio system, known as My Knowledge Map, and assessed through an End Point Assessment (EPA).

Apprentices, practice tutors, and employer representatives working with apprentices should be familiar with the current apprenticeship standard. One of the roles of the practice tutor is to signpost these standards to these stakeholders.

Another key role of the PT is to make sure that the apprentice and the employer (and other people who may well be supporting an apprentice) are aware of the KSBs, the learning outcomes of the different modules. They are also to facilitate the discussion of opportunities to make sure the apprentices gains sufficient learning experiences to enable them to fulfil the requirements of the KSBs. In some cases, the employer will be responsible for providing the apprentice with additional training and mentoring in the specific KSBs that apply in their workplace.

The PTs will be responsible running regular review meeting, working with employers to make sure that the apprentice has sufficient work-based opportunities to enable them to demonstrate their KSBs, and ensure that their ePorfolio is regularly updated. Regarding the ePortfolio, there are two important elements that need to be remembered: the recording of off-the-job time (to demonstrate engagement with the academic content), and the saving of assessments and materials which relate to the KSBs. The practice tutor also has a responsibility for ‘marking’ that materials have been submitted.

Main changes

The following points highlight the key changes:

  • All the KSBs have changed from the previous version of the standard. The new KSBs, however, cover the same ground.
  • Cyber specialism improved, with a module change (TMXY352 Web, mobile and cloud technologies, replaced by TMXY256 Cyber Security)
  • EPA project report is shorter, but the ePortfolio is now assessed.
  • Employers will need to ensure apprentices have the right opportunity to demonstrate KSBs in the workplace.
  • EPA date and results moved a month later to allow for modules results.
  • Rewording and enhancing of KSBs in the standard, but delivery is very similar (improved content on mobile communications added to networking specialism, new module for cyber)

Compulsory modules

What follows is a list of all the compulsory modules that an apprentice will work through, summarised in terms of the aim of each module:

During TMXY476 the apprentice should work on a substantial project (during their on the job time) which makes a positive impact on the operation of the business. This project should be substantial enough to allow the apprentice to illustrate their competency in the KSBs assessed within the project.

The programme has three modules that are intended to relate to work-based learning that takes place: TXY122, TXY227 and TMXY350, which are studied in parallel with the other modules. For TXY122 apprentices need to prepare a CPD plan which should be related to their pathway. Working with their employer and practice tutor, apprentices should aim to secure work experience that adds depth and relevance to the academic modules.

Apprenticeship pathways

The DTS scheme has four pathways. Apprentices study the following modules, depending on the pathway:

Practice tutors need to have some knowledge of all these pathways. If further information is needed, practice tutors can gain support from other colleagues who know more about specific areas.

End Point Assessment (EPA) requirements

The End Point Assessment (EPA) has become a more formal requirement. Apprentices are expected to demonstrate competence through applying the KSBs in the workplace, where their manager or a mentor confirms they are working at the expected level. Evidence is collated and stored in their portfolio. The practice tutor will help apprentices to prepare, collate and submit their best evidence through the MKM ePortfolio.

To complete the EPA, apprentices must:

  • Submit a record of six workplace experiences related to the apprenticeship to demonstrate what has been achieved. These can be examples from TMAs produced from the work-based learning modules.
  • Complete a 6000 word project report and deliver a 20 minute presentation. This is accompanied by a 40 minute question and answers session, and 60 minute professional discussion supported by the portfolio. The grading criteria for the project module will be tightly aligned to the apprenticeship grading criteria.
  • Provide a portfolio of completed assignments for all modules that have been studied, which have been approved as ‘marked’ by the practice tutor.
  • To have a clear record of off-the-job time, which is the equivalent of one day a week dedicated to study that complements the work-based element of the apprenticeship.

My knowledge map: the ePorfolio

All new apprentices will be enrolled to the MKM ePorfolio. PTs should take both the employers and the apprentices through MKM and emphasise its use. 

MKM will contain the following information:

  • Background information and documentation, such as the chosen pathway and the apprentice's skills scan document, which is a knowledge assessment of skills possessed by an apprentice at the start of the programme.
  • Details of four progress reviews that are scheduled throughout the year. A practical suggestion for practice tutors is to set them all up at the start of the year with an expectation that they might be change if necessary. One of these meetings will be face-to-face; the rest are virtual.
  • Records: of off-the job study time, which is to be recorded by the apprentice. Records of successfully completing the assignments for the academic elements.

New PTs are able to view screen share recordings to become familiar with the tool, and how it works. All PTs should have access to the tool when they are assigned a group of apprentice students.

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements are given to Chris Thomson who prepared and delivered this briefing. Much of this summary has been drawn from the PowerPoint resource that he prepared, and many of his words have been edited into a form that is more easily presented through this blog. Any errors or misunderstandings are likely to be mine, rather than Chris’s.

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Inclusive Student Engagement in Level 1 modules

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 31 July 2023, 15:31

On 20 July 23 I attended a short one hour seminar that was all about inclusive student engagement in level 1 modules. The seminar had the subtitle: “a supportive framework designed by current/recent students”. The session was prepared and presented by Catriona Bergman, Olivia Brennan, Norain Imtiaz and Owen Lucas, who were also OU student virtual interns.

The seminar had a bit which shared their framework, followed by a discussion activity. I’ll begin by sharing an abridged version of the framework, and then I’ll go on to sharing a couple of points from the discussion, then concluding with a set of reflections.

Engagement framework

If I understood this correctly, their framework shared a number of themes that relate to the student/tutor relationship. There are six key points, each of which was complemented by a suggestion, or a prompt. For brevity, I’ve edited these into a form that works with my own practice.

  1. Addressing the power dynamic: address the difference in status between tutors and students. What do you do to encourage students to reach out to gain support?
  2. Consistency of communication: regular support and timely responses. How often do you communicate with your students?
  3. Proactive communication: tutors taking the initiative to interact with students. Do you contact students before their assignments are submitted?
  4. Humanising tutors: providing an opportunity to build a relationship. Do you feel comfortable in sharing your own personal experiences?
  5. Assessing communication and support needs: in the opening letter encourage disclosure. What opportunities are there for you to discuss individualised study needs with students?

Tutor and students are unknown to each other: a two-way relationship is important. What opportunities are there for icebreaking activities for students and tutors to get to know one another?

The Hidden Curriculum

There was another useful slide during the first section which was all about the notion of the hidden curriculum. I have come across the idea through the notion of academic literacies. Put another way, this is all about knowing the hidden conventions that relate to study, a discipline, and academic communication.

  • Students might not have necessary skills from their earlier education experience. Tutors can direct students to resources that can be used to develop skills (e.g. numeracy, academic writing skills, critical thinking, IT literacy, etc.).
  • Encourage students to reflect on the skills they may need to develop, and provide (or signpost students to) appropriate resources.
  • Encourage development of TMA writing skills and inform students about the importance of good academic conduct.
  • Encourage students to develop their own study habits to support their learning, and embed this within tutorial and one-to-one sessions. Consider the environment in which study takes place.
  • For the module that you are tutoring, highlight, discuss and critique ideas and practices that can contribute to the hidden curriculum.
  • Ensure students are aware of the different avenues that could be followed to gain support (from the tutor, from the module forums, or from the student support team).

Breakout rooms: what do you share, what don’t you tell them?

It was onto a breakout room discussion, where we were asked what we share with our students, and whether we share any of our own vulnerabilities. The intent behind this was to think about the extent to we may disclose something about ourselves, to engender trust and to demonstrate empathy.

Rather than focussing on sharing of vulnerabilities, the group I was assigned to primarily discussed what information we might disclose to students when we contact them for the very first time. Some key points to share include: our qualifications, whether we have been a tutor on the module before, and something about where we are based in the country. There was also some discussion about the importance of tone, and the phrase ‘professional informality’ was shared.

Reflections

I felt this session offered me some reassurance that I have been doing (roughly) the right thing. One way to formalise some of the points mentioned in the framework would be to devise some form of communication plan. This might mean a summary of what is sent to students and when. It is, of course, important to be aware of what module teams are doing, since they may well have their own communication plan, and sets of reminders and messages scheduled.

I was drawn to the session due to the mention of inclusive engagement, since I didn’t really know what this was, or how to describe it. I found it interesting that the focus lies on facilitating inclusive engagement through sharing, and putting oneself, and sharing aspects of one’s identity to others. The aim of doing this is, of course, to attempt to remove potentially perceived barriers, such as power differences between tutors and students.

Reflecting on this further, I have certainly disclosed more personal information. When tutoring on a module about accessible online learning, I have, for example, disclosed a hidden disability. My view is that context is always really important, whether context relates to the subject, or the tutor-student relationship.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the AP student virtual interns who facilitated the session and shared their framework. I hope that the version that appears in this blog matches with its original aims and intentions.

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Christopher Douce

TM470 Project Report as a journey

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 25 July 2023, 08:55

The main output from the TM470 project module is a project report. 

The report shares what has been done and what has been learnt. The ‘things done’ bit relates to the planning, the reading (and any research that has been done), and the actual work that has been carried out. The ‘things learnt’ bit is shared in a section which is used to share reflections, or thoughts about all the work that has been carried out.

One of the bits of advice I offer students is: think of the TM470 project report as a “technical story”. When sharing this view with fellow tutors, another tutor, Kawal Banga, shared another metaphor: the TM470 project as a journey. 

Kawal shared a list of 13 really useful points which relate to actions that take place on the journey of completing TM470. The links to the module learning outcomes are, of course, associated with each of these points:

  1. You identified a real business/social problem that could be solved through an ICT solution (LO2), engaging with sponsors/users who needed a solution to the problem. 
  2. You project managed (keeping evidence of records, plans, outcomes) the delivery using a suitable project/process lifecycle (LO9). 
  3. You identified and managed risks (LO3) on the way and identified and utilised skills, resources and people you needed (LO3). 
  4. You made use of technical concepts and principles (LO1) from your Level 3 modules. 
  5. You analysed, designed and developed an ICT solution building on and extending skills from your Level 3 and other modules (or equivalent professional skills), and using any additional skills you needed (LO11). 
  6. You took into consideration any LSEPIs (Legal, Social, Ethical, Professional issues) and EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) issues and modified your project and your behaviour to deal with such issues (LO10).  
  7. You carried out a literature review using quality, credible and relevant sources in which to ground your work, and supporting your decisions (LO4, LO6). 
  8. You worked independently as much as possible and learned new skills and knowledge that you applied to your project (LO8). 
  9. You reflected on things (processes, tools, resources, studying, etc) that worked or things that didn’t work (LO5), and lessons and skills (technical, professional, academic, organisational, project management) that you learned through the project.  
  10. You replanned and rescheduled your work when things went wrong (LO9, LO3, LO5, LO8). 
  11. You communicated effectively through TMAs/EMA, reports, emails etc with your tutor and other project stakeholders (LO7).  
  12. You engaged the sponsors and/or users throughout the project journey, where appropriate, seeking feedback on interim deliverables and they evaluated your final artefact. 
  13. You can prove all of the above with solid evidence that you collected over the project journey, and can communicate this effectively to your tutor and other stakeholders.

It's really helpful to reflect on his list. 

Another thought is that the notion of stories and journeys are compatible with each other. In some respects, my advice for the TM470 Project Report Structure reflect both perspectives. This structure intends to take the EMA examiner on a journey from the start of the project to the final summary, which should clearly highlight the learning that has taken place.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Kawal for giving permission to share his list. Thanks also to fellow tutors who responded to my post about the notion of the project report being a story.

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SEAD/LERO Research Conference ‘23

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 20 July 2023, 09:56

I attended my first joint OU SEAD/LERO research conference, which took place between 4 July and 6 July 23. SEAD is an abbreviation for Software Engineering and Design Research Group a research group hosted within the OU’s School of Computing and Communications. The conference was joined by members of LERO, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software, which based in Limerick.

What follows is a summary of the two days I attended. There was a third day that I didn’t attend, which was all about further developing some of the research ideas that were identified during the conference, and researcher professional development

The summary is intended for the delegates of the conference, and for anyone else who might be interested in what happens within the SEAD research group. All the impressions (and any accompanying mistakes in my note taking) are completely my own. What is summarised here isn’t an official summary. Think of it as a rough set of notes intended to capture some of the themes that were highlighted. It is also used to share some potential research directions and areas that intend to be further developed and explored.

Day 1: Introductions and research discussions

Bashar Nuseibeh kicked off the day by highlighting the broad focus of the conference: to consider the role of software in society. Although I missed the first minutes of his opening address due to traffic, there was a clear emphasis on considering important related themes, such as social justice.

The first session was an ice breaker session. This was welcome, since I was an incomer to the group, and there were many delegates who I had not met before. We were asked to prepare the answers for three questions: (1) Who you are, including where you are based and your role? (2) What is your main research area/interest?, and (3) Something you love about your research and something you dislike. (Not bureaucracy!)

Having a go to answer these myself, I work as a staff tutor. My research interests have moved and changed, depending on what role I’ve been doing. Most recently, it has been about the pedagogy of online teaching and learning. When I was a researcher on an EU funded project, I was looking at the accessibility of online learning environments and supporting students who have additional requirements. Historically, my research has been situated firmly in the area of software engineering; specifically, the psychology of computer programming, maintenance of object-oriented software, and software metrics (informed by research about human memory). I have, however, returned to the domain of software engineering, moving from the individual to communities of developers by starting to consider the role of storytelling in software engineering, working with colleagues Tamara Lopez and Georgia Losasso.

What I like about the research is that it is really interesting to discover how different disciplines can be applied to create new insights. What can be difficult is that different disciplines can sometimes use different languages.

Invited talk: navigating the divided city

Next up was an invited talk by Prof. John Dixon from the OU’s Social Psychology research group. John’s presentation was about “intergroup contact, conflict, desegregation, and re-segregation in historically divided societies”. John described how technology was used to explore human mobility preferences. Drawing on research carried out as a part of the Belfast Mobility Project. The project studies, broadly speaking, where people go when they navigate their way through spaces, and can be said to sit within an intersection between social science and geography. Technology was used by researchers to study activity space segregation and patterns of informal segregation, which can shed light on social processes. 

John also highlighted tensions that a researcher must navigate, such as the tension between open science (where data ca be made available to other researchers) and the extent to which it is ethical to share detailed information about the movement of people across a city.

There was a clear link between the talk and the theme: the connection between software and society. This talk also resonated with me personally: as a regular user of an activity tracker called Strava, I was already familiar with some of the ethical concerns that were shared. After becoming a user of Strava, I changed a couple of settings to ensure that my identity is disguised. Also, a year ago I noticed that the activity tracker has started to hide the start point and the end point of any activity that I was publicly sharing. A final point from the part of the day is that both technology and software can lead to the development of new methods and approaches.

Fishbowl: Discussing society and software

Talking of new methods and approaches, John’s talk (and a lunch break) was followed by an event that was known as the ‘fishbowl session’, which introduce a ‘conference method’ that I had never heard of before.

In some respect, the ‘fishbowl’ session was a discussion with rules. Delegates sat on one of ten chairs in the middle of the room, and have a conversation with each other, whilst trying to connect together either the main theme of the discussion (software and society) or some of the topics that emerge from the discussions.  We were encouraged to discuss “anything where software has a role to play”.

The fishbowl discussed consequences of technology, collective education, critical thinking (of users), power of automation, concentration of power (in corporations), the use of AI (such as large language models), trade-offs, and complex systems. On the subject of AI, one view I noted down was that perhaps the use of AI ought to be limited to low risk domains, and leave people to the critical thinking (but this presupposes that we understand all the risks). There was also a call to ensure that AI tools to explain their “reasoning”, but this also implicitly links back to points about skills and knowledge of users. This is linked to the question: how do we empower people to make decisions about the systems that they use?

Choices were also discussed. Choices by consumers, and by developers, especially in terms of what is developed, and what is good to develop. Also, when uncovering and specifying requirements, it is important to consider what the negatives might be (an observation which reminds me of the concept of ‘negative use cases’ which is highlighted in the OU’s interaction design module).

I noted down some questions that were highlighted: how do we present our discipline? Do we research how to “do software” and leave it up to industry? Should we focus on the evaluation of the impact of software on communities and society? An interesting quote was shared by Bashar, which was: “working in software research is working for society”.

A final reflection I noted was that societal problems (such as climate change) can be thought as wicked problems, where there is no right answer. Instead, there might be solutions that are not very right or wrong, or solutions that are better or worse than others.

It was difficult to distil everything down to a group of neat topics, but here are some headings that captured some of points that were discussed during the fishbowl session: resilience, care, sustainability, education, safety and security, and responsibility.

At the end of the session, all delegates were encouraged to join a group that reflected their research interests. I joined the sustainability group.

Group Work 1 - Expansion of themes from the fishbowl

After a coffee break it was time to do some work. The guidance from the agenda was to “to develop some proposals for future research (problem; research objectives; research questions; methods; impact)”. 

The sustainability group comprised of four members: three from SEAD, one from LERO.

After broadly discussing the link between sustainability and software engineering, we produced a sketch of a poster that shared the following points:

  • How can we make connections and causal links between different (sub)systems explicit.
  • How can we engineer software to be holistically ‘resource aware’?
  • What is the meta-language for sustainable software systems?
  • What are the heuristics for sustainable software systems?

On the surface of it, all these points are pretty difficult to understand. 

The first point relates to the link between software, economics, and society. Put another way, what needs to be done to make sure that software systems can make a positive contribution to the various dimensions of our lives. By way of further context, the notion of Doughnut Economics was shared and discussed.

The second point relates to the practice of developing software. Engineers don’t only need to consider how to develop software systems that use resources in an efficient way, they also need to consider how software teams use and consume resources.

The third point sounds confusing, but it isn’t. Put another way: how do we talk about, or describe, or even rate the efficiency, or sustainability of software systems. Going even further, could it be possible to define an ISO standard that describes what elements a sustainable software system could or should contain?

The final point also sounds arcane, but when unpacked, begins to make a bit of sense. In other words: are there rules that software engineers could or should apply when evaluating the energy use, or overall sustainability of software systems? There are, of course, some links from this topic to the topic of algorithms and data structures (which is explored in modules such as M269 Algorithms, data structures and computability) which considers efficiency in terms of time and memory. A simple practical rule might be, for example: “rather than continually polling for a check in status of something, use signals between software elements”. There is also a link to the notion of software patterns and architecture (with patterns being taught on TM354 Software Engineering).

Day 2: Ideate and prototype

The second day kicked off with summaries from the various groups. The responsibility team spoke about the role of individuals, values, and organisations. The care group highlighted motivation, engagement, older users and how to help people to develop their technical skills. The education had been discussing computing at schools, education for informed choices, critical thinking, and making sure that the right problem is addressed. The resilience group discussed support through communities, and the safety and security group asked whether safety related to people, or to process.

A paraphrased point from Bashar: “look to the literature to make sure that the questions that are being considered haven’t been answered before” also, reflecting on the earlier keynote, “consider radical methods or approaches, and consider the context when trying to understand socio-economic systems”.

Group Work 2 - ideate and prototype

Back in our groups, our task was to try to operationalise (or to translate) some of our earlier points into clearer research questions with a view to coming up with a research agenda.

Discussing each of the points, we returned to the meaning of the term sustainability, along with what is meant by resource utilisation by code, also drawing upon the UN sustainable development goals https://sdgs.un.org/goals .

We eventually arrived at a rough agenda, which I have taken the liberty of describing in a bit more detail. The first point begins from a high level. Each subsequent points moves down into deeper levels of analysis, and concludes with a point about how to proactively influence change:

  1. What types of software systems or products consume the most energy?
  2. After identifying a high energy consuming product or system, use a case study approach to holistically understand how energy used, also taking into account software development practices and processes.
  3. What are the current software engineering practices of developers who design, implement and build low energy computing devices, and to what extent can sharing knowledge about practice inform sustainable computing?
  4. What are the current attitudes, perceptions and motivations about the current generation of software engineers and developers, and how might these be systematically assessed?
  5. After uncovering practices and assessing attitudes, how might the university sector go about influencing organisations to enact change?

Relating to the earlier call to “draw on the literature”, a member of our team knew of some references that could be added to the reference section of our emerging research poster:

Lago, P. et al. (2015) Framing sustainability as a property of software quality. Communications of the ACM, Volume 58, Issue 10, pp.70–78. https://doi.org/10.1145/2714560

Lago, P. (2019) Architecture Design Decision Maps for Software Sustainability. 2019 IEEE/ACM 41st International Conference on Software Engineering: Software Engineering in Society (ICSE-SEIS), 25-31 May 2019, IEEE. https://doi.org/10.1109/ICSE-SEIS.2019.00015

Lago, P. et al. (2021). Designing for Sustainability: Lessons Learned from Four Industrial Projects. In: Kamilaris, A., Wohlgemuth, V., Karatzas, K., Athanasiadis, I.N. (eds) Advances and New Trends in Environmental Informatics. Progress in IS. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61969-5_1 

Manotas, I. et al. (2018) An Empirical Study of Practitioners' Perspectives on Green Software Engineering. 2016 IEEE/ACM 38th International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE). 14-22 May 2016. https://doi.org/10.1145/2884781.2884810

Wolfram, N. et al. (2018) Sustainability in software engineering. 2017 Sustainable Internet and ICT for Sustainability (SustainIT). 06-07 December 2017. https://doi.org/10.23919/SustainIT.2017.8379798

(A confession: I added the Manotas reference when I was writing up this blog, since it looked like a pretty interesting recommendation, especially have previously been interested in the empirical studies of programmers).

Conference visit: Bletchley Park

The second day concluded with a visit to Bletchley Park, which isn’t too far from the campus. It seemed appropriate to visit a place where socio-technical systems played such an important role. I had visited Bletchley Park a few times before (I also recommend the computing museum, which is situated on the same site), so I sloped off early to try to avoid the rush hour to London.

Day 3: Consolidate and plan next steps

This final day contained a workshop that had the title “consolidate and plan next steps” and also had a session about professional development. Unfortunately, due to my schedule, I wasn't able to attend these sessions.

Reflections

I really liked the overarching theme of the event: the connection between software and society. Whilst listening to the opening comments it struck me that there were some clear points of crossover between research carried out within the SEAD group, and the research aims of the OU Critical Information Studies research group.

It was great working with others in the sustainability group to try to develop a very rough and ready research agenda. It was also interesting to begin to discover how fellow researchers in other institutions had been thinking along similar lines and have already taken some of our ideas further. 

One of my next steps is to continue with reading and exploring with an aim of developing a more thorough understanding of the research domain.

It was interesting that I was the only staff tutor at the event. It is hard for us to do research, since our time split in three different ways: academic leadership and management (of part time associate lecturers), teaching, and whatever time remains can be dedicated to research. For the next few years, my teaching ‘bit’ of time will be put towards doing my best to support TM354 Software Engineering.

Looking forward, what I’m going to try to do is to integrate different aspects of my work together: integrate the teaching bit with the research bit, with the tutor management bit. I’m also hoping (if everything goes to plan) to tutor software engineering for the first time.

As well as integrating everything together, another action is to begin to work with SEAD colleagues to attempt to put together a PhD project that relates to sustainable computing.

Update 20 July 23: After doing a couple of internet searches to find more about DevOps, I discovered a new book entitled Building Green Software (O'Reilly), which is due to be published in July 24. I also found an interview with the lead author (YouTube), and learnt about something called the Green Software Foundation. I feel really encouraged by these discoveries.

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Preparing for the summer: A233 reading list

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At the start of October 2023 I will be studying A233 Telling stories: the novel and beyond. I usually take a few books on holiday with me. To give myself a bit of a head start, I’m going to get through some of the books that feature on A233 reading list.

What follows are list of books that will be discussed within A233, in the order that I understand they are studied. Where possible, I’ve provided a link to a version from Project Guttenberg which can be downloaded to an eReader.

If you do make use of the Guttenberg version, do note that there may well be significant differences between the text that is officially recommended by the module team, and the downloaded version. The editorial that the officially recommended text may well be useful.

Hardy, T.: Falck-Yi, S.B. (ed) Far from the Madding Crowd, Oxford World's Classics, ISBN 9780199537013

Wharton, E.: Orgel, S. (ed) The Custom of the Country, Oxford World's Classics, ISBN 9780199555123

Smith, A. Hotel World, Penguin, ISBN 9780140296792

Blunden, E. Undertones of War, Penguin, ISBN 9780141184364

Roy, A. The God of Small Things, 4th Estate, ISBN 9780006550686

Perrault, C.: Betts, C. (trans.) The Complete Fairy Tales, Oxford World's Classics, ISBN 9780199585809

A direct equivalent to this text isn’t available through Project Guttenberg, but there is a collection that has the title: The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault by Charles Perrault

Grimm, J. & Grimm, W.: Crick, J. (trans.) Selected Tales, Oxford World's Classics, ISBN 9780199555581

I’m assuming that Grimm is read at the same time as the other texts that relate to fairy tales. A direct equivalent isn’t available through Project Guttenberg, but there is a different collection that is available: Grimms' Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

Andersen, H.C. Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales: A Selection, Oxford World's Classics, ISBN 9780199555857

Like with both Grimm and Perrault, there isn’t a direct equivalent in Project Guttenberg, but there is a broader collection which can be downloaded: Andersen's Fairy Tales by H. C. Andersen

Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber, Vintage, ISBN 9780099588115

Armitage, S. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Faber and Faber, ISBN 9780571223282

Gaiman, N. & Vess, C. Stardust, DC Comics (Vertigo), ISBN 9781401287849

Le Guin, U. The Dispossessed, Gollancz, ISBN 9781857988826

Shakespeare, W.: Orgel, S. (ed) The Tempest, Oxford World's Classics, ISBN 9780199535903

Although the raw text of The Tempest is readily available for download, it is worth nothing that the introduction and the editorial comments from these Oxford World’s classics versions are really useful in terms of figuring out what is going on.

A233 has a ‘book club’ section, where students will choose one book from the following:

Smith, A. Girl Meets Boy, Canongate Books, ISBN 9781786892478 

Sassoon, S. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Faber and Faber, ISBN 9780571064106 

Hardy, T. Wessex Tales, Wordsworth Editions, ISBN 9781853262692 

Anand, M.R. Untouchable, Penguin, ISBN 9780141393605

Wharton, E.: Orgel, S. (ed) The Age of Innocence, Oxford World's Classics, ISBN 9780199540013 

A disclaimer. I’m going on what I understand was covered during the previous presentation of A233. Future presentations may well present things differently, and use different texts.

Looking forward: when I get started with A233 properly, I’ll be using this blog to share my study log. I’m sharing this, so I can hold myself to account.

Acknowledgements: this reading list has been directly liberated from the A233 module website. 

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Sharing source code in a TM470 project report

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 15 July 2023, 11:38

TM470 projects can take many different forms. 

Some might be design projects, some might be research projects, and some might be development projects. One of the most important points that all students should bear in mind is that there is a need to share evidence of project activity and learning that takes place.

Evidence is shared only through the project report. If your project is all about software development, you are not required to upload software to a GitHub repository, or to provide examiners with a working version of anything you may have designed. You should, however, provide evidence of software development having been carried out, and must provide evidence of critical thinking you have applied. In other words, you should write a technical story that describes how your software was created. Although every project is different, your report should share the story of requirements discovery or specification, design, development, evaluation, and testing. The number of times you carry out an evaluation cycle is, of course, completely up to you.

I am sometimes asked a question, which is: how should I share code through my EMA report?

A case study approach

You don’t need to share all your code. 

You should share your code in two ways: in the body of the report, and in an appendix.

For the body of your report, choose bits of code that best demonstrates your technical skills and help to demonstrate a technical story of what you have done, and how you have done it. You should also show how you have drawn upon modules you have previously studied.

Think about the body of your report as a showcase, where you share a series of mini case studies which demonstrate your skills, abilities, and learning. Providing snippets of code in the body of your report that highlight show the important and difficult problems that you have had to resolve during the course of your project. In the body, you can then provide a pointer to one or more appendices, where you can provide more code, which the examiner can look at.

A simple rule of thumb is: provide snippets that show your work and your learning in the body of your report, and provide bigger sections of code as a section in an appendix.

Some projects might require the development of an algorithm, so showcasing its development will be a really important part of the technical story of your project. In this example, you might want to refer to M269 Algorithms, data structures and computability, or another module.

If your project has user interfaces that is coded up in a language, such as HTML, you might want to include fragments of these, and refer to modules such as TM352 Web, mobile and cloud technologies and TM356 Interaction design and the user experience.

You should also refer to texts, such as set texts, module materials, or any other resources that you have mentioned in your literature review section.

Presentation

In the body of your report, a practical approach is to share small sections of your code using tables. By using this approach, you can refer to your code using a table number, when you discuss how you created your software.

A suggestion is to present your code a font, such as Courier New, to clearly distinguish between what is code, and what is discussion. To make sure you don’t use too many pages in your project report, it is okay to make your code a bit smaller. From my tutor perspective, 8 point Courier New is a good choice. 

A fellow tutor shared a particular opinion about code presentation that has stuck with me, which was: try to avoid presenting code on a black background. The reason for this is pretty simple: if bits of your report are printed (which I don't think is likely to happen), it would use black ink or toner than is necessary. Another argument is that it might make the code harder to read on some devices.

For bigger chunks of code, you should use one or more appendices. A practical suggestion is to use one appendix for the code, dividing it up into subsections if you need to, since this way everything is in one place. You might want to use an appendix to share an entire file, or perhaps show how all your earlier code fragments look when they are combined together. You should use a font like Courier New to present your code, but you don’t need to present your code in a table, since you can refer to it with an appendix or a reference number.

Pro-tips: cross referencing and Word headings

The bigger a Word document becomes, the harder it becomes to maintain, especially if you’re starting to add in a lot of sections. To make things easier, I have the following recommendations:

  • Make use of the Word in built headings; this enables you to easily create a table of contents using a feature of Word. Also, get Word to number each section for you, since this way you don’t have to renumber everything is you need to add a new section.
  • Use the Word document navigator view to get an overview of your document.
  • Have up to 3 levels of headings, i.e. 1.2.2; too many levels will make things confusing.
  • If you add tables and figures, get Word to number them for you.
  • If you refer to a table or a figure, do so using the Word cross reference feature, since that way if you add more tables, you won’t need to mess with editing table numbers.

The final point is: if all this is a bit much, do what you need to do to get your report written. Sometimes it is best to decide to get things done. TM470 is all about OU study and running a project, rather than making a perfect Word document.

Edited 15/7/23, adding a further bit guidance about the formatting of code.

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TM470 Considering LSEPI

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2024, 10:44

In TM470 LSEPI is an abbreviation for Legal Social Ethical and Professional Issues. A good TM470 project report should clearly address these issues to show the examiner that you have thought about how these issues have impacted on your project, and what you have done to take these into account.

LSEP issues are increasingly important in computing due to the increasing impact that computing and IT has within society. When speaking with students I often a recent example: the Volkswagen emissions scandal. In this case, there are clear environmental impacts and legal implications. It is also clear that both the engineers and leaders have to make ethical decisions.

In TM470, LSEP issues are assessed through the following learning outcome: “LO10. Identify and address the legal, social, ethical and professional issues (LSEPIs) and the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) concerns that may arise during the development and use of computing and IT systems.” In the marking of the EMA, this learning outcome is assessed with LO2, which is all about the aims and goals of your project.  When just looking at the number of learning outcomes, and the marks available, the LSEPI section could account for 10 marks.

To gain a top score for this learning outcome a student: “has comprehensively identified the relevant LSEPIs and EDI concerns arising during development and use and modified their project work to take these into account and behaved professionally in all aspects of their project work”. EDI being an abbreviation for equality, diversity and inclusion.

Given the importance of both LSEP and EDI, a suggestion is to include it as a top level section in your report, just before the literature review section. The justification for this is that if you identify some issues that need to be explored in greater depth, you can then go onto provide evidence of your reading.

Module materials

At the time of writing, it takes a bit of digging to find two documents that relate to both LSEP and EDI issues. From the module website, click on the Resources heading, and then click on the Study materials section.

The LSEP document contains the following key headings: working with stakeholders, working with human participants, and asking the right questions. Do review the materials that are presented under these headings and review Appendix A Guidelines for conducting research with human participants. Related to these are two template documents: a sample consent form, and a participant information sheet.

Informed consent is the process through which researchers share the aims and purpose of their research with participants, and gain their approval that they are happy to participate in a study. The accompanying information sheet is designed to offer further information under a set of familiar headings.

When working with participants, I always remember two points. The first is that participants are at liberty to leave a study at any point. The second point is related: the participants are always more important than the research that is being carried out.

The equality, diversity and inclusion section addresses “why equality, diversity and inclusion are relevant to computing and IT professionals”, introduces the concept of protected characteristics, and “unconscious bias is and how it might affect your practice as a computing and IT professional” and what mitigations might be adopted (TM470 module materials).

EDI relates to people, and differences between people, irrespective of whether they are perceived or due to physical, cognitive or sensory impairments. Since Computing and IT products are, ultimately, used by people, it is necessary to consider EDI issues. If you design an app or a website, your product should be accessible to the widest possible group of users. The motivations for doing this are twofold: firstly, there is a legal obligation to ensure that products and systems are accessible under the Equality Act, and secondly, all users are potential customers. If a product isn’t accessible or perceived negatively, a consumer might choose another service that has a more accessible, usable, or appealing interface.

Looking at this issue from a slightly different perspective, if your project uses artificial intelligence or machine learning, it is necessary to question the extent to which biases might exist within either data that informs your project, and the extent to which bias might be potentially reinforced, or even magnified.

Questions to ask

As highlighted earlier, the LSEP materials contains a section that has the title: asking the right questions. 

Go through each of these questions in turn. 

When working through these questions, do think about the stakeholders who are involved with your project. A stakeholder can be thought of anyone who is affected by your project, either directly or indirectly. Ask yourself questions about what data might need to be held and collected, and what bits of legislation might play and impact if you were ever to deploy your project. The Equality Act was mentioned above. You might want to also consider data protection and computer misuse legislation.

If your project is a research report it is important to ask: what might be the impact of my report? If something is discovered by the report, what might be the impact of disclosing the results, or not disclosing the results? The point here is that it is important to go further than just the immediate project, but also to consider wider and broader impacts.

Differences between student projects and university projects

Before university staff can carry out research that involved human participants, they must submit project proposals through a formal ethics panel. The aim of this panel is to make sure that researchers have carefully considered everything, and any potential risks to all participants (and to the university) have been mitigated.

Unlike official university projects, undergraduate and postgraduate projects are not required to go through such a rigorous process. Rather than having an ethics panel and a lot of electronic paperwork to complete, students should think of their tutor or project supervisor as a mini ethics panel.

Interacting with your tutor whilst considering your LSEP and EDI issues should be thought of as a useful and necessary part of your project. Your tutor will be able to offer some thoughts about what needs to be considered. Plus, interactions with your tutor or supervisor can be documented in an appendix of your final reports.

Further resources

A lot of good resources about ethics are available, and some of these resources are mentioned in the module materials. Here are a collection of links that might be useful:

For those that find this subject really interesting, there is a whole suggested curriculum about Society, Ethics and Professionalism on the ACM website.

Going through the ethics bit of TM470 gives you a taste of what university researchers have to go through when they plan and design studies that involve human participants. More information about what goes on behind the scenes at the OU is presented through Ethics support for projects: Which studies need review, by whom and why? (OU blog)

Reflections

I find ethics a fascinating subject. In computing it comes into play more than you might initially expect since computing touches on so many different areas of human activity. Rather than being a subject that was once on the periphery of the discipline, I now see it as a topic that has moved to the centre. It is an important and necessary part of becoming a computing professional.

It is also interesting to reflect on how ethics has developed since I was a graduate student. There is now a lot more that has to be done, but this isn’t a bad thing. Additional scrutiny along the way helps researchers to carry out better research. For TM470 students, my key bit of advice is: speak with your tutor; they are your own personal ethics panel.

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Planning and evaluating impact of a scholarship project

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On 23 June 23, I attended an online seminar about impact and scholarship, which was facilitated by Shailey Minocha and Trevor Collins. Shailey is the School of Computing and Communications scholarship lead, and Trever used to be a director of the university’s STEM scholarship centre, eSTEeM.

The event is summarised as follows: “we will take you through the toolkit for impact of SoTL and introduce you to various resources of the impact evaluation initiative. By the end of the event, we hope that you will feel prepared to use the resources/toolkit to plan, evaluate, and report the impact of your (past, present and future) SoTL projects and interventions.” Early on in the seminar, there was a reference to a page about impact, which can be found on the eSTEeM website.

Stories of impact

One of the most notable parts of this seminar was the amount of articles and resources that were shared. One of the first articles mentioned was: Impact of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A compendium of case studies. In this publication, 16 Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) projects were analysed by something called the Impact Evaluation Framework (IEF).

Two other articles were: 

Defining impact

The UK Research Excellent Framework (REF) defines impact as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy of society”. There is a connection here with the school research fiesta which took place earlier this year: REF impact case studies are important. In terms of SoTL, impact implies demonstrative benefits to learning and teaching that are directly attributable to a specific project.

I noted a question: what has changed (as a result of a project)? What new insights have gained (from the project)? Also, how can the institution put the outcomes into use? What are the current debates that this scholarship relates to?

Impact evaluation framework

The impact evaluation framework was mentioned, but what exactly is it? It is said to contain 12 facets (or aspects) of impact, which are spread over 4 categories. During the session, I attempted to briefly summarise what they are:

  • Learning and teaching: impact on student experience; student retention; evidence of excellence?
  • Transfer to others: an influence on discipline based teaching, research, or practice; dissemination of outcomes; extent of adoption by others?
  • Stakeholder benefits: enhanced mutual understanding; facilitated personal or professional development; recognition of project team members and other stakeholders.
  • Cultural and economic benefits: has it fostered scholarship culture; financial implications (saving of money); funding opportunities.

Relating to this framework, Shailey shared a link to her blog, Impact of scholarship of teaching and learning

This article provides links to related resources, such as an executive summary, case studies, guide for educators, and two workbooks: one about impact evaluation, and another about planning for impact

Six principles (or values) of SoTL

A particularly useful resource which relates to scholarship is a free badged open course from Open Learn: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in STEM.

This short course has 6 sections, which emphasises what contributes to an effective study:

  1. Grounded in student learning and engagement
  2. Grounded in one or more context
  3. Rigorous and methodological sound research design
  4. Conducted in partnership with students
  5. Appropriately public for evaluation and uptake by peers
  6. Reflection, critical reflection and reflexivity.

Strategies for planning and generating impact

This section of the seminar shared some useful practical tips for anyone who was considering setting up a scholarship project, or thinking about impact. These have been paraphrased as follows:

  • Align scholarship with strategic priorities of institution, school and discipline.
  • Use social media to create community and connection; make use of YouTube channels, and other social media platforms.
  • Make sure you keep a clear record of evidence of impact.

Another thought I did have was: consider developing a scholarship team which has complementary skills.

Impact resources

Building on the section which introduced the impact evaluation framework, this section aimed to highlight resources and ideas that could be useful. A key element of this was the Theory of Change methodology (ToC). This was highlighted as a dominant image methodology which is used by the Office for Students https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/ . Apparently, the Theory of Change helps scholars plan a project for impact, helping them to consider pathways to impact from the start of project.

Some resources that were highlighted included a ToC visual tool, a SoTL impact evaluation workbook, and the Planning for SoTL impact evaluation workbook. There was also a question driven template, which was considered to be a project management tool.

A key point highlighted in this section: know who your stakeholders are. Without stakeholders, and without influence across stakeholder communities, there is no impact.

Reflections

A question that I always return to is: what is the difference between scholarship and research?

In some respects, the answer to this question is directly linked to the notion of impact. The way that I understand it is that scholarship relates to impact on teaching practice and activities. In turn, scholarship can have a direct impact on the student experience. Research, on the other hand, has impact on an academic discipline, or field of study. There is, of course, cross over between scholarship and research, especially within the domain of education and education studies. 

Another thought I always come back to is that both scholarship and research are important, and that academics should do both: research relates to what we teach, whereas scholarship relates to how we teach. I can’t get away from the perception that due to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that research activity is valued higher than scholarship activity. This said, there are other metrics and league tables that relate to the student experience: the student satisfaction survey, and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

This seminar was timely. I’ve just finished setting up what is called my annual Academic Workload Plan. In the forthcoming year, I’m hoping to set up a scholarship project (subject to approval, of course). An important point from this session was: build in dissemination and impact right from the start.

I thought that the tools shared during this session were potentially useful, especially the articles. The session clearly highlighted that there are challenges in planning for and generating impact: projects can often take longer than expected, and project members can become tired at the end of the project. An excellent point was made; sometimes impact could occur years after the completion of a project. This point emphasises the importance of importance of collating impact after a scholarship project has officially finished.

I once heard it said that it is very difficult to change the world by writing an academic article. I understand impact being all about what you do with either your practice or research findings. A lot of academic effort goes into finding things out and getting articles published in prestigious journals. Impact, in my eyes, is all about enabling findings to facilitate positive and constructive change.

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Christopher Douce

Working with the tutor website

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Every module has a student facing website which is likely to slightly change for every module presentation, and an accompanying tutor facing website. The ‘tutor website’, as I’ll call it, is a really important resource for any tutor who is tutoring a module.

This short blog post highlights some of the most important elements of a tutor website. Every version of a tutor website is slightly different, but is likely to contain a few common elements: one or more forum spaces, a space to access resources (which may, or may not, be also the forum areas), and a space to have online meetings (although the module team and you line managers might choose to use different rooms in some circumstances).

Tutor websites are ‘go to’ places if you have any questions about any element of the module that you’re tutoring. If you have been asked a question by a student, and you’re not sure how to answer it, you should feel free to ask for help on the tutor forum. Also, if you’re unsure how to interpret, or to mark an element of an assignment, you should also ask on the forum. Tutor websites are monitored by curriculum managers, which means they are able to quickly highlight issues to module team members, or even the module team chair.

You usually gain access to the tutor’s website through a link on the student’s version of the module website. Alternatively, your curriculum manager might send you a link, which you should then keep in a safe place. Two recommendations about how to do this are: save the email in a folder that relates your module, and save the link to the ‘your links’ section on TutorHome or to your dashboard.

Forums

Different modules will have different forums. One module might have one main forum, where all tutors exchange perspectives and experiences. Another module might have dedicated forum spaces for each of the TMAs. A recommendation is to have a look at each of these forum areas, and subscribe to each of them.

Subscribing to a forum means that you are sent an email message whenever anyone makes a post. The advantage of subscribing, and receiving an email notification is that your email account can give you an overview of what is happening and what questions are being asked. If you have a high level of email traffic, a practical suggestion is to set up an email filter, so forum messages are all sent to dedicated folders. Do refer to one of the other blogs here about effectively managing your IT. On the subject of forums, do also refer to another article that is about student facing tutor group forums.

Some modules will apply a single component assessment strategy, where module performance is assessed purely through TMA scores. If your module adopts this approach, you might have to carry out what is known as a coordination exercise, which may take place either within a dedicated forum, or on a dedicated forum thread. The aim of the coordination exercise is to ensure that all tutors are marking to the same standards. If you are unsure whether this applies to your module, do speak with your line manager.

Activity

Find an equivalent of a tutor’s café forum. A café forum can be thought of as an informal space where views, opinions and experiences can be shared. If you can’t find a café forum, go to the main module forum area. Look for a thread where tutors introduce themselves. If you can’t find one, start one by posting anew message. When you have made the post, make sure you subscribe to the forum area to you can see everyone’s reply.

On some tutor websites, there might be a forum that is used by tutors to share tutorial resources, such as PowerPoint files, and accompanying resources, such as handouts, which might be in the form of Word documents. Sometimes, tutorial resources might be shared within the resources section, or through another tool, which is known as a Wiki.

Activity

Find out whether your tutor website has a forum where tutorial resources area shared. Identify a couple of discussion threads where sharing takes place, downloading some PowerPoint resources. Open these resources, and consider how a tutor might use this PowerPoint resource within a tutorial.

Resources

As well as being a space to get help and support, the tutor’s website is also a space for the module team to share some essential resources for tutors. For every TMA there will be a set of accompanying tutor notes. These notes, which typically take the form of a Word document, offers exacting guidance about how each student’s TMA should be marked. As well as offering a summary of the marks that should be allocated, they also offer guidance about what answers are acceptable, and what kind of feedback should be offered. The tutor notes represents the offical ‘line’ from the module team about what is acceptable and what isn’t. The role of the tutor is to interpret the student’s submission, the module team’s tutor notes, and to provide constructive comments to help to facilitate learning.

Activity

Find the tutor notes for the next TMA. Download a copy of it, and then get a printout of them if you feel this is an approach that might works for you. Read through the notes, highlighting sections that you feel you need to pay close attention to. You might want to consider highlighting important parts of the marking scheme. 

When I start marking, I always begin with a new printout of the tutor notes. I usually print them double sided, with two pages on a side, just to save a bit of paper, and staple them all together. I also get a printed copy of the TMA questions, so I have them side-by-side. I highlight key sections, but sometimes add my own handwritten notes. By the time I have finished marking, my own set of tutor notes look to be a bit torn and ragged.

Some module teams use the Resources section of the tutor websites share additional resources, such as a link to a set of frequently asked questions, or FAQs, or a set of links to any other documents that may offer further background materials that might help with the marking and the provision of feedback.

Activity

Look for a discussion about one of the TMA questions a forum area. What issues are being discussed? Has the issue been resolved? Have there been any contributions by the module chair or the curriculum manager?

Tutor rooms

Since tutor websites are editable VLE websites, sometimes the module team will add an online room, which can be used to hold module wide meetings. When a module is presented for the first time, the module chair, curriculum manager and other members of the module team will run what is known as a module briefing. This is where the module team highlights some of the key elements of a module design, summarising its structure and assessment strategy.  Module wide meetings may also be sometimes. used to prepare for exam and EMA marking.

Activity

Find out if your tutor website has a module meeting room. If one is available, click on a link that allows you to view a summary of previous recordings. What recordings can you see? Do you notice a recording of any module briefing?

A note about Netiquette

The tutor websites forums are incredibly helpful. If you have a question, no matter how difficult, invariably there will be some tutors who will be able to offer some practical advice to help you out. The tutor forums only work when everyone is willing to share experiences with each other. If you post a question to the tutor forums, do be prepared to answer other questions that are posted. The effectiveness of these spaces relies on everyone being willing to contribute.

Also, if you download a tutorial resource that has been shared by a fellow tutor and wish to modify it, and make use of it in your own tutorial, do acknowledge whoever it was who created the original version. If you do make improvements or enhancements to a resource, do also consider sharing your updated version with your fellow tutors.

Reflections

The tutor website is one of my ‘go to’ places.

I access it before the start of a new presentation and find myself accessing it regularly throughout the academic year, mostly to access, review and respond to posts that are made on the tutor’s forum. I might, of course, access the site to download updates to the tutor notes. 

A tutor website is used as a repository for resources. If you need inspiration for an upcoming tutorial, the Tutor website is likely to contain presentations that have been prepared by the module team and fellow tutors.

It is a place to visit to ask questions and to highlight issues. If you notice an issue with some module materials, or marking guide, to make a post to one of the forums. Similarly, if you have a student asking questions about the module materials, or the module, that you don’t entirely know how to respond to: ask a question. There will always be a response, often within hours of sharing your point or posting your question.

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Christopher Douce

Curriculum continued

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A recent blog post I wrote about curriculum highlighted the concepts of programmes and qualifications. This blog post is a continuation of that earlier article, but introduces the various components that makes up a module. 

This article has been written for tutors who might be new to the university, but also might be useful for students too. For those of us who are experienced with OU teaching and learning, much that is presented here will be familiar.

After beginning by introducing some key concepts, I’ll talk through the ‘unboxing’ of four different modules. What is important to remember is that every OU module is slightly different, due to the role it plays with a programme or qualification.

Module components

Every module has an accompanying module website. Some modules will be presented entirely online, which means that all the module materials will need to be accessed through a computer, or a mobile device, such as tablet computer.

Other modules have a module mailing, which means there will be a package of materials that are delivered to students in the post. In some cases, a module mailing will include a number of printed books. These books might include module blocks (I’ll introduce the concept of a block in a moment) and a set of materials that must be read or studied. Sometimes, there might be other resources, such as audio CDs or DVDs, but increasingly audio and visual materials are available through the module website.

Guides

Every module contains three really important guide documents that you should read, and guide students towards:

  • A module guide offer a module specific summary of its most important elements and resources a module contains. 
  • An assessment guide offers a summary of what is assessed, and how it takes place. This can typically be found in the assessment section of the module website, but it can also be sent to you as a separate mailing.
  • An accessibility guide offers guidance for students who might need to access the resources, assessments and resources of the module in different ways.

Module calendar

A really important element of a module is the module calendar which defines the study tempo of the module, highlighting what needs to be studied and when. The module calendar also highlights when the key points of assessments are to take place. The calendar lies at the heart of the module website, and students are also typically sent a copy if it in their module mailings.

Using the module website, students are encouraged to tick off each of their study weeks. In return, they will see how much of a module they have studied, and how much further they have to go. Tutors should, of course, encourage students to regularly refer to their module calendar to make sure they are on track. You could also refer the calendar during tutorials, and within assessment feedback. 

Module books, blocks, and units

Modules are typically divided into blocks. Blocks can be thought of as a significant section of study that addresses a set of related subjects. Blocks contains numbered units, which can be thought of as topics for study.

An OU published book might be an entire OU block, or it might collate a number of related subjects together. For some modules, a block can be thought of approximately 10 points of study, but in other modules, a different structure may be used where chapters (or units) are the dominant component.

Units and chapters contains a number of important elements that tutors need to be aware of. They are typically studied at a particular time, as defined within the module calendar, and typically begin by highlighting a set of learning outcomes. These unit or chapter learning outcomes can, of course, be traced back to module level learning outcomes. It is a good idea to highlight these unit and chapter learning outcomes to students, since they are directly related to assessments.

Units and chapters also contain numbered learning activities. Although these can be easily skipped over by students, these activities are linked to the learning outcomes, and are also implicitly linked to any forthcoming assessments. The aim of the activities is simple: to give students some practice in developing the skills and knowledge that they will need to apply when they get to completing their assessment. Tutors should highlight these activities to students. They may also be useful to mention, and to draw upon, when preparing for tutorials.

Assessments

There are two main assessment components that OU tutors need to be aware of: continual assessment, which takes place during a module presentation, and the examinable component, which takes place towards the end of a module presentation.

Continually assessment takes the form of tutor marked assignments (TMAs) and interactive computer marked assignments (iCMAs). Tutors mark and to provide feedback on student TMAs, and offer help to students who might be stuck on any iCMA questions. Each TMA must be submitted by a student on a fixed date, which is known as a cut-off date. There will be other blogs about what it means to mark TMAs and to provide teaching comments.

The examinable component is either an equivalent of a written exam, or it is something called an End of Module Assessment (EMA). Think of the EMA as an extended assignment, or essay. It differs from a TMA in a few ways: it is longer, it usually accounts for a larger part of the overall module results, and it marked to higher standards than the TMAs. An EMA is typically marked by two tutors.

An OU exam used to be a written exam that took place in a physical examination hall. Due to advances in technology and changes in examination policies, an OU exam is sometimes an assessment you can complete remotely, at a set time, over a set duration.

The key differences between the continually assessed component and the examinable component is that the TMAs are sometimes though as formative assessments (where the assessment is used to facilitate student learning), and the exam bit is a summative assessment (where the assessment is used to determine what has been learnt). 

In the OU, TMAs can be both formative and summative, in the sense that although they are primarily about learning, the results that students gain from completing them also contributes to their overall score.

To pass a module, students need to technically pass both the continually assessed component and the examinable component. Just to add to the richness of this picture, there is also something called the single component assessment (SCA) module, where TMA results and exam results all combine together to form one score at the end. If single component assessment isn’t use, the student’s results is limited to whatever their highest score is across each of those two main components. Typically, the exam scores are slightly lower than the TMA score.

When it comes to module materials, tutors need to be aware of two key documents or resources that are usually found within the module website: the assignment booklet (which is a version of what tutors can see under the assessment bit of the module website), and the assessment handbook. The assignment booklet summarises the TMA, and the assessment handbook tells everyone what the assessment strategy for a module is. 

It is important that tutors know what the assessment approach for their module is, and how it works, since this is something that students will ask about, and this is something that you can mention during an introductory tutorial.

Module website

A module website is accessed through a student’s StudentHome page. The module website presents the module calendar. In turn, this provides clickable links to materials that should be studied and activities that need to be completed. 

The module website is designed to be used alongside any printed materials a student has received. Sometimes there are extra materials on the website that are not in the module materials. The exact balance of what is available online, and what is provided through printed material depends on the module. Typically, the module team uses the module website to share learning materials that are likely to change regularly.

The module website presents five clickable headings: assessment, tutorials, forums, resources and news. There is also a useful search tool which enables students (and tutors) to search for texts and terms that are used, defined and referred to in the module materials. 

Assessment

This takes students (and tutors) to pages where the TMAs and iCMAs are presented. This section also shares any additional supporting materials which students might need to complete the assessment, the module assessment strategy which students need to be aware of, and accompanying academic conduct policies. There is also information about the exam and associated revision materials. Do encourage students to look through this section, paying particular attention to deadlines.

Tutorials

This section is about online tutorials. It serves a couple of purposes. It is the route through which students access online rooms to attend online tutorials. There are different online rooms for different purposes, which will be explained a bit later on. The tutorial section also allows students to watch tutorial recordings. Tutors should encourage students to this page to attend online tutorial, and also to listen to past recordings. There is also a link between this section and the tutorial dates section of a student’s StudentHome page through something called the university Learning Event Management system.

Forums

Forums can be through of an online noticeboard where discussions can take place. The university provided online forums before the emergence of discussion and sharing spaces that are now available on social media platforms. A number of different forums can be found on a module website: there are tutor group forums, module wide forums, and even assessment specific forums. There also may be forums used to facilitate online group work. 

The exact choice and use of the forums will depend on the module team. Tutors should make use of their own forums, and encourage students to subscribe to updates. More about forums will be covered in a later section. 

Resources

The resources section enables students to access the materials that are shared through the module calendar. In addition to module materials, the resources section shares the following:

  • Guides: module guides, accessibility guides and any software guides.
  • For level 1 modules, there might be ‘getting started’ guides. These couple of pages highlight how to login to Student Home, the importance of the module website, and the study calendar.
  • Links to subject or discipline websites.
  • Useful module resources, such as indices and glossaries.
  • Links to online software tools that might be needed as a part of module study.
  • If appropriate to a module, information about how to download software and tools that students might need during their study.

At the time of writing, the module resources page offered two buttons: a download button, and a library resources button. 

The Downloads button takes students to a page where they are able to download learning resources in a number of different formats. There are typically Microsoft Word versions, different types of ePub files (which are used on e-readers), and PDF files. The reason for these formats is simple: in some circumstances, and for some students, some formats work better than others. Word versions, for example, can work well with different types of assistive technologies used by students with disabilities. Tutors should encourage students to use the different formats that are available to them, to find a study approach that meets their needs.

The Library resources page shares a set of articles that have been curated by both the module team and the library. This might include additional reading, such as academic articles, which complements the module materials.

It is worth nothing that glossaries serve a very practical purpose: they share official definitions of concepts and ideas from the module team. If an exam question asks for a definition of a term, the module team is invariably asking a student for a definition which is similar to the one that is defined in the module glossary. 

News

It is important to occasionally review the news section, and also encourage students to do so. It offers mix of helpful announcements from the university, which might be pointers towards university wide study events, and module specific announcements. A module chair and curriculum manager might use the news section to remind students about module wide lectures or tutorials, or to let students know about any issues, such as TMA or module material corrections.

Activity 1

Look through the resources section of your module website. Take a few moments to familiarise yourself with all the resources that can be accessed through the page. Click on the Downloads button. What different filetypes can you identify? How do you think you might make use of these resources with your own teaching? What might you tell students about the different types of resources that are contained within the downloads section? 

Exploring module resources

Each module uses a unique combination of resources and materials. This section takes you through a non-exhaustive list of some of the different types of resources that may be introduced to students through the module guide.

Software

Sometimes students are required to download, install, and use bits of software. For computing modules, this might include programming tools and network simulators. Design students might need to download mind mapping tools which are used to express their design thinking. Students studying electronics might need to download circuit simulation software. There is, of course, an expectation that students will be able to write their assignments using a Microsoft Word compatible word processor and submit them electronically through the eTMA submission system.

Online tools

In many cases the software that students need is available entirely online. Design and Computing students are likely to use something called Open Design Studio, which enables students to share their work with other students as a part of group projects. Computing students may use programming notebooks and reserve time to remotely configure physical networking equipment that is located on campus. Science students will be directed towards online laboratories which are made available through the Open STEM Labs. Depending on what they study, science students may also have access to virtual microscopes.

Library resources

The university library, which is accessed entirely online, is an amazing resource. Through the Library resources link, module teams may direct students to articles that are made available through the library. For arts modules, for instance, students can be directed to video archives, such as Drama Online, where they may access plays and films. Students in computing modules might be directed towards online versions of popular computing textbooks. Through the library, students can also access well known external resources, such as the Oxford English Dictionary. The library also provides access to digital versions of textbooks. If students are encouraged to carry out wider reading, do direct them towards the library.

Readers and other books

Sometimes module teams might collate resources together into a book or booklet, which may be included within a module mailing. The module materials will refer to sections in the reader, and may be used as source materials for assessments. In some cases, a published textbook will play an important role within a module. If this is the case, these textbooks will be sent as a part of the module mailing. It is likely that only certain parts of these textbooks will be used; always be directed by what guidance is offered in the module materials.

Set texts

Some modules need students to buy some additional books. This is typically the case for literature modules, where there is a reading list. Some good advice for students is: don’t buy everything in one go, since the module materials might use some books for one presentation, and a different set of books for another.

Print on demand materials

Different students have different study preferences. In the case where a lots of study materials are provided through a module website some students might be content access material directly through the module website. Other students, however, may much prefer to work with printed versions.

If a printed copy of some module materials is required, students can easily get a printable version of learning materials by clicking on a ‘view as single page’ link, and print out what they need. If someone hasn’t got access to a printer, and would prefer to get a printout of the study materials that are available through the module website, the university provides a ‘print on demand service’ where students can pay an additional fee to get a neatly printed version of the materials that are available through the module website.

Module accessibility

Accessibility is a term that can be understood in different ways; it can be understood in either a practical sense, or a technical sense. 

For a module to be accessible, students must be able to attain the learning aims that are expressed through its learning outcomes. In some cases, students might need additional support or technology to access, participate in, and contribute to learning activities.

Accessibility is a topic all of its own, and will be addressed in another section. Before this is explored in greater depth, it is important to highlight that each module has an accessibility guide. This offers practical (and technical) advice to students. To help students, tutors should also take the time to review the module accessibility guide.

Activity 2

Find the accessibility guide for your module by going to your module website. Is there anything specific to your module? If your module uses software or online tools, what does it say about them, and what elements might you have to help students with? Does the guide highlight different formats of module materials?

Examples

In this section, we look at some modules. Although these modules may be unfamiliar to you, there should be similarities with the modules that you are tutoring.

Example 1: A111 Discovering the arts and humanities

Using a university fee waiver, I studied A111 Discovering the arts and humanities, which has been produced by the Faculty of the Arts and Social Sciences. For students who are studying the humanities, this will be their every first OU module.

A111 is a 60 point module. The point scheme is explained later, but essentially 60 points means that it is worth half a year of full time study, when compared to a face-to-face university. A111 starts once a year, in October.

When opening the module mailing, I found the following items:

  • Quick start guide 
  • Welcome Letter
  • Book 1: Reputations
  • Book 2: Traditions 
  • Book 3: Crossing Boundaries  

The quick start guide is four sides of A4, which has the bold title: Read me first. It mentions the student’s university login code, provides an address to the Student Home website, and highlights the module website. It then goes onto mention many of the elements highlighted in this guide: the module calendar (which is known as a study planner), forums, the assessment guide, learning events (tutorials) and, of course, the role of the tutor.

Rather than being organised in terms of blocks, this module is divided into three sections, each of which relate to each of the published books that have been sent to students. The study is divided into weeks, where students are directed to carry out reading and complete activities to help them to prepare for the tutor marked assessments. During their study, they need to refer to chapters within the book, and the material that accompanies each study week.

Depending on their path through this module, students may need to buy up to three set texts, of which, only a relatively small element of each of the books are needed. During the module, students will be also directed to listen to some audio recordings, and watch some recordings of some plays through a service called Drama Online, which is provided by the university library.

Students need to complete 6 TMAs, which is typical for 60 point modules. Rather than having an end of module assessment (EMA), A111 has something called an emTMA; an end of module tutor marked assessmens. Each TMA, including the emTMA, contributes between 10 and 20% of the overall module result. There are also a series of iCMAs, interactive computer marked assessments. To pass A111 students need to gain a combined score of 40% or over across all the TMAs and must get an overall score of over 50% on the iCMAs.

Students can gain one of three different results from level 1 modules: distinction, pass, or fail. Students are awarded distinctions if they gain an overall score of 85%, but this exact score can vary slightly, depending on whether any statistical adjustments are made to ensure consistency between student groups. Since level 1 modules are all about the development of skills, all a student needs to do to progress to the second level, is to pass A111.

Example 2: TM112 Introduction to Computing & IT 2

TM112 Introduction to computing IT 2 has been produced by the School of Computing and Communication, which is based in the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Unlike A111, TM112 is a 30 point module. Students typically study TM112 after having studied TM111 Introduction to Computing and IT 1, which is also a 30 point module.

Like A111, TM112 students are sent three books. These are imaginatively titled: Block 1, Block 2 and Block 3. These blocks are not named, since this module structured around three repeated themes: essential information technologies, problem solving with Python, and information technologies in the wild, which are featured within each of the block.

The module website is split into weeks. Each week has a summary of online activities. These may involve reading some materials, completing quizzes, or watching video materials. Students may also be directed toward programming tasks and exercises.

Since one of the aims of this module is to introduce students to computer programming, students are provided with some quick start guides to help to get them started. There are also some additional materials to help students who might struggle with numeracy. TM112 tutors should be able to direct students towards these different resources.

Since TM112 is a 30 point module, students need to complete 3 TMAs; one for each block. To pass the module, like A111, students need to get an overall score of at least 40%. The first TMA accounts for 15% of the overall score. TMA 2 accounts for 35% of the overall score, and the final TMA accounts for 50%. An additional complication is that students do need to gain a score of at least 30% in TMA 3 to demonstrate they have met all the module learning outcomes.

Like A111, TM112 uses interactive questions, but uses them in a slightly different way. Unlike the A111 iCMA question results, which feed directly into the module results, students are asked to provide evidence of answering some of the questions in their TMA answers. Also like A111, students can gain the overall results of distinction, pass or fail, from studying TM112.

Example 3: M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming

M250 Objects First with Java is a 30 point second level Computing module. Some students who find their way to M250 have previously studied TM112. Since M250 is a second level module, module results directly contribute to a student’s degree classification. In other words, the scores they gain in this module begin to matter.

M250 students are sent a textbook: Objects First with Java. This book is well known by Java educators and is used in many other universities. Rather than having any OU published books, all the module materials that students need are presented through the module website.

Like the other modules, M250 has a clear study calendar. What differs from other modules is that students are directed to carry out reading and activities from the set text using materials which are known as chapter companions. The companion documents can be through of as an equivalent of an OU lecturer taking students through the bits of the text that they need to be familiar with.

The module and set text makes use of a bit of software called BlueJ, an integrated development environment (IDE) that has been designed for students who are learning the concepts of Java and object-oriented programming. During the course of the module, students will need to spend a lot of time using BlueJ, where they will get to solve programming puzzles and, of course, make mistakes.

The set text makes use of external resources, such as YouTube screen sharing videos, where students are shown how BlueJ and the Java programming language works. The idea is that students should be able to copy what is done in the videos to help them to develop knowledge, skills and understanding. In addition to each of the chapter companions, are required to complete a number of iCMAs. These iCMAs test understanding of key terms, and understanding of concepts that are introduced by the set text chapter, and accompanying chapter companions.

A difference between M250 and other modules is that students can submit bits of programming code to be evaluated by the module website before they officially submit section of their work through a tutor marked TMA. Students can, in turn, get an indication about whether fragments of code are likely to be correct, allowing students to build up their confidence. There are also some resources and guides that are not found in other modules, such as a software guide, and a Java language guide.

Like other modules, M250 applies a single component assessment strategy, which is summarised an M250 Assessment Strategy document which can be found under the assessment bit of the module webiste. The TMAs account for 50% of the overall module result, and the exam accounts for the other 50%. TMA 1 accounts for 15% of the whole module result, TMA 2 accounts for 15%, and TMA 3 accounts for 30%. Students must submit an exam and gain at least 30%, and an average score of 40% overall to pass the module. Curiously, at the time of writing, TMAs are marked out of a score of 150, which is converted to a percentage. The module iCMAs are formative and do not contribute to an overall module result.

Example 4: TM354 Software Engineering

As the module code suggests, TM354 Software Engineering is a level 3 module, which means that it is equivalent to final year study at a brick university. Like other computing modules, TM354 is a 30 point module.

The module is divided into three blocks, which are also printed books. Version of these printed books are also available through the resources section on the module website. The module blocks are organised into sequential themes. The first block is entitled ‘from domain to requirements’, the second ‘from analysis to design’, and the third is called ‘from architecture to product’. Each block is divided neatly into 4 units, or sections.

This module requires students to make use of a programming tool, but one that is different to the one that is used with M250. It also asks students to use something called a ShareSpace, an online tool where students are to share some of their software designs with other students, and comment on the work of others.

Like all the other modules, TM354 has a very clear study calendar, which is divided into weeks. For every week, there is a study guide, which refers students to sections of the printed text, but also guides students towards readings which have been made available by the module team and the library. All the units that are provided within the printed module materials are also available through the module website.

Students need to complete three TMAs, one for each block, and sit an end of module exam. Unlike the other modules mentioned here, TM354 does not use single component assessments. Students need to gain an average of 40% in both the continually assessed components (the TMAs) and the examinable component (the exam). The overall score is limited by the lowest score of these components.

Activity 3

What have you received in your module mailing? Open up your view of the module website and look at the module calendar. Can you see how the different components you find relate to the module calendar? Click on the resources link on the module website, and identify where you can find electronic versions of the module materials.

Activity 4

Find the assessment guide. What are the main assessment components for your module? What contributions do each of these components make? What would you say is the largest component? What does a student have to do to pass the module? Does your module apply a single component assessment strategy? Do your students need to submit their final assessment?

Reflections

This blog is one of a short series that introduces curriculum. Before this one, there was a blog about qualifications, and what these are. I do expect to be writing another one at some point. Eventually I’ll collate all these together into a bigger resource.

I’m always struck by how many resources there are on a module website.

When beginning to teach on a new module, I’m often very strategic in terms of what I look at. I make sure I know what the key dates on the module calendar are. I would then have a good read of the module guide, read through the accessibility guide, and then have a read through the assessments. This will, of course, primes my reading for when I get to the module materials. I also get printouts of these guides so I can scribble on them. A lever arch file is my friend.

As well as there being a module website, which is student facing, every module has a tutor website which is for tutors and the module team. They key elements of the tutor’s website will be the focus of another blog.

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Generative AI and the future of the OU

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 20 June 2023, 10:24

On 15 June 2023 I attended a computing seminar about generative AI, presented by Michel Wermelinger.

In some ways the title of his seminar is quite provocative. I did feel that his presentation relates to the exploration of a very specific theme, namely, how generative AI can play a role in the future of programming education; a topic which is, of course, being explored by academics and students within the school.

What follows is a brief summary of Michel's talk. As well as sharing a number of really interesting points and accompanying resources, Michel did a lot of screensharing, where he demonstrated what I could only describe as witchcraft.

Generative AI tools

Michel showed us Copilot, which draws on code submitted through GitHub. Copilot is said to use something called OpenAI Codex. The witchcraft bit I mentioned was this: Michel provided a couple of comments in a development environment, which were parsed by the Copilot, which generated readable and understandable Python code. There was no messing about with internet searches or looking through instruction books to figure out how to do something. Copilot offered immediate and direct suggestions.

Copilot isn’t, of course, the only tool that is out there. There are now a bunch of different types of AI tools, or a taxonomy of tools, which are emerging. There are tools where you pay for access. There are tools that are connected with integrated development environments (IDEs) that are available on the cloud, and there are tools where the AI becomes a pair programmer chatbot. There are other tools, such as learning environments that offer both documentation and the automated assessment of programming assignments.

The big tech companies are getting involved. Amazon has something called CodeWhisperer. Apparently Google has something called AlphaCode, which has participated in competitive programming competitions, leading to a paper in Nature which questions whether ChatGPT and AlphaCode going to replace programmers? There’s also something called StarCoder, which has also been trained on GitHub sources.  

AI can, of course, be used in other ways. It could be used to offer help and support to students who have additional requirements. AI could be used to transcribe lectures, and help student navigate across and through learning materials. The potential of AI being a useful learning companion has been a long held dream, and one that I can certainly remember from my undergraduate days, which were in the last century.

Implications

An important reflection is that Copilot and all these other AI tools are here to stay. It wouldn’t be appropriate to try to ban them from the classroom since they are already being used, and they already have a purpose. Michel also mentioned there is already a textbook which draws on Generative AI: Learn AI-assisted Python programming

Irrespective of what these tools are and what they do, everyone still needs to know the fundamentals. Copilot does not replace the need to understand language syntax and semantics and know the principles of algorithmic thinking. Developers and engineers need to know what is meant by thorough testing, how to debug software, and to write helpful documentation. They need to know how to set breakpoints, use command prompts, and also know things about version and configuration management.

An important question to ask is: how do we assess understanding? One approach is an increasing use of technical interviews, which can be used to assess understanding of technical concepts. This won’t mean an academic viva, but instead might mean some practical discussions which both help to assess student’s knowledge, and help them to prepare for the inevitable technical interviews which take place in industry.

New AI tools may have a real impact on not only what is taught but how teaching is carried out, particularly when it comes to higher levels of study. This might mean the reformulation of assignments, perhaps developing less explicit requirements to expose learners to the challenge of working with ambiguity, which students must then intelligently resolve.

Since these tools have the potential to give programmers a performative boost, assignments may become more bigger and more substantial. Irrespective of how assignments might change there is an imperative that students must learn how to critically assess and evaluate whatever code these tools might suggest. It isn’t enough to accept what is suggested; it is important to ask the question: “does the code that I see here make sense of offer any risks, given what I’m trying to do?”

A term that is new to me is: prompt engineering. This need to communicate in a succinct and precise way to an AI to get results that are practical and useful within a particular context. To get useful results, you need to be clear about what you want. 

What is the university doing?

To respond to the emergence of these tools the university has set up something called the Generative AI task and finish group. It will be producing some interim guidance for students and will be offering some guidance to staff, which will include the necessity to be clear about ethical and transparent use about AI. It is also said to highlight capabilities and limitations.  There will also be guidance for award boards and module results panels. The point here is that Generative AI is being looked at. 

Michel suggested the need for a working group within the school; a group to look at what papers coming out, what the new tools are, and what is happening across the sector at other institutions. A thought that it might be useful to widen it out to other schools, such as the School of Physical Sciences, and any others which make use of any aspect of coding and software development.

Reflections

Michel’s presentation was a very quick overview of a set of tools that I knew very little about. It is now pretty clear that I need to know a lot more about them, since there are direct implications for the practice of teaching and learning, implications for the school, and implications for the university. There is a fundamental imperative that must be emphasised: students must be helped to understand that a critical perspective about the use of AI is a necessity.

Although I described Michel’s demonstration of Copilot as witchcraft all he did was demonstrate a new technology.

When I was a postgraduate student, a lecturer once told me that one of the most fundamental and important concepts in computing was abstraction. When developers are faced with a problem that becomes difficult, they can be said to ‘abstract up’ a level, to get themselves out of trouble, and towards another way of solving a problem. In some senses, AI tools represent a higher level of abstraction; it is another way of viewing things. This doesn’t, of course, solve the problem that code still needs to be written.

I have also heard that one of the fundamental characteristics of a good software developer or engineer is laziness. When a programmer finds a problem that requires solving time and time again, they invariably develop tools to do their work for them. In other words, why write more code than you need to, when you can develop a tool that solves the problem for you?

My view is that both abstraction and laziness are principles that are connected together.

Generative AI tools have the potential to make programmers lazy, but programmers must gain an appreciation about how and why things work. They also need to know how to make decisions about what bits of code to use, and when. 

It takes a lot of effort to become someone who is effective at being lazy.

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Ethics support for projects: Which studies need review, by whom and why?

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On 15 June 2023, I went to another academic professional event. This one was all about ethics and ethical approval. In some respects, it directly follows on from the previous blog, which was all about how to write a 4* research paper.

The session was facilitated by Alison Fox, Chair of Human Research Ethics Committee, and Bart Gamber who is a Student Research Manager for the student research project panel (SRPP). Alison is based in ECYS, the school of Education Childhood Youth and Sport.

The aim of the session was to present an overview of ethics mechanisms for researchers who make use of human participants, and to share something about who, how and why things work. Another aim was to share something about the types of studies that may require ethical approval.

Introducing HREC

HREC is an abbreviation for the Human Research Ethics Committee. We were shown something called the Research Ethics Landing Page, which offered a whole set of links which relate to the different parts of the university which support both ethics and research. An important element of this was a flowchart which highlights what needs ethical review.

Different types of research were mentioned: evaluation research (of services, procedures and policies).; audit research; market research; research. Each of these might necessitate ethical consideration. If OU students are involved with any type of study, this necessitates a referral to the SRPP team. Also, if a study involves more than more than 30 members of staff, researchers must consult the Staff Survey Project Panel (SSPP).

An important point was made about the use of data. Audio recordings that are collected during a study is considered to be personal data, which means that it must be manged carefully. This leads us to consider the different places of support that we may need to draw upon. 

The teams we might consult, include:

  • Data projection team; to gain advice about how to record information assets.
  • Information security team; if wanted to use particular platforms.
  • Library research support team; to consult about how data is stored, how it can be retrieved.

A tip: apply to each of these in parallel.

Two ways to apply to HREC were highlighted. The first was a checklist, which is submitted to the committee. This has a 7 day turnaround time. If your project is a high risk application, a full HREC application can be submitted, then there is a longer 3 week turnaround since it is submitted to two reviewers.

Introducing SRPP

Next up was a summary of the SRPP, which is an abbreviation of the Student Research Project Panel. SRPP is the mechanism used by researchers to gather names and identifies of students you might wish to invite as participants to different kinds of studies. SRPP is important. It is a gatekeeper; you have to go through it to access any of the OU’s students. The reason why it exists is simple: it presents the same students from being approached time and time again. It’s function is pretty simple too: you give it a criteria, and it gives you back identities of those you are allowed to contact.

We were introduced to the SRPP internal website, and shown an online application form. This form contains section where you describe the methodology of your study, a description of the sample of students you wish to involve, a confirmation that you have engaged with HREC, and have taken into account information security, and data protection. 

As the site SRPP site develops, there is the intention of providing examples of previous submissions.

Tip tips

Towards the end of the session, we were given a number of top tips. What follows is an abridged (and edited) version:

  • Start early and expect a dialogue with the teams, and build this into any timescales and plans.
  • Contact teams before submitting applications to get advice.
  • If collecting personal information, you need an asset register.
  • Consider everything from a participants’ perspective; think about their concerns.
  • Consider what data is being collected, how it will be held, destroyed and how consent might be withdrawn.

If you are getting started with a design, visit the research journey landing page for help and guidance.

Undergraduate and postgraduate projects

During this session, then following important point was made: everything described earlier relates to research that is carried out either by doctoral students, or academic staff. 

Students who are carrying out projects that are a part of taught undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications do not need to make HREC submissions or interact with any of the organisational units that were mentioned earlier. This is all to do with insurance.

Students who are completing undergraduate projects, or are writing dissertations that may necessitate carrying out a small study must follow the ethical guidance that is presented within the modules that they are studying. 

Reflections

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a session about research ethics. It is interesting to see how things have developed. Notably, there is a lot more emphasis on securing and holding of data. This is, of course, a very welcome development. The advice “make sure you speak with each unit” early on in the research journey is good sound advice.

One the topic of a theoretical research journal, we were also introduced to a resource that was called “Research Journey”. This resource, a web page, was all about educational research with students, which is where SRPP comes in.

An interesting point that I have noted was: most scholarship projects won’t need to go down the road of HREC, but some academic publishers do require evidence of engagement with ethics panels before research is published. As a reviewer, I certainly look to see the extent to which ethics is mentioned within the articles that are submitted.

The themes and issues that have been mentioned have wider relevance. It was mentioned that both undergraduate and postgraduate students don’t need to submit anything to HREC. Being a tutor on an undergraduate module, where students are asked to consider ethics from a number of different perspectives has made me reflect that perhaps I ought to be sharing a bit more about the kinds of ethical issues they should consider. I feel another blog about TM470 might be needed.

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Writing a 4* paper for the REF

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 30 June 2023, 08:26

On 14 June 2023, I attended a professional development event that was all about the previous REF, the next REF, and the sharing of tips about how to prepare what is called a 4* paper. The event was facilitated by Rachael Luck, who is a lead for a design qualification, and Toni Gladding.

The REF is the UK Research Excellence Framework, which is a controversial system that ranks UK universities in terms of the quality of the research that they carry out. It was interesting to hear that both Rachael and Toni were both on review panels for the previous REF.

The most recent REF happened in 2021, and the next one is due in 2028. The broad aim of this session was to begin to think about preparation for the 2028 REF, to begin to consider what a 4* paper looks like, and to have a discussion with colleagues.

What is a 4* paper looks like is, of course, a highly debated and contested question.  A point was: to try to increase quality for next REF, need to be thinking about it, and talking about it early.

The REF score matters. The higher the overall score, the more Quality Related (QR) income (UKRI website) an institution gains from the government. During this session, I learnt there is a multiplier effect, which means that 4* paper attracts 4 times the funding of 3* activity. A small improvement in the number of 4* papers that are published could have a large impact in QR funding. This funding is important since it is used to fund school doctoral studentships and university facilities. This, in turn, can increase the development of the university’s research capacity.

What follows is an edited set of notes I made during the session.

What happened in REF 2021?

University has a code of practice. If someone has a certain amount of research time, has to submit at least one output to REF 2021. There is a long tail of “other colleagues” who were also included. It is the quality of the output from those colleagues who might benefit from additional support. Since the rules for the 2028 REF have not yet been defined (but will be available in January 2024), there is a possibility that a wider group of staff might be included.

In the 2021 REF, 157 universities were assessed. In the OU context (if I’ve noted this down properly), 44% of staff only had 1 output, 10% produced 5 outputs.

What is a 4* output?

Each category of quality assessment has an accompanying “quality descriptor”. A three star paper is considered to be research that “is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significant and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence”. A 4* bit of research is “beyond internationally excellent”, but I’m not exactly sure what this means.

The university strategy is to maximise QR income, to increase its overall score, to aim to gain higher QR income. A strategy for an individual unit, such as a school, may be to try to gain the highest possible score with a specific assessment area.

An output could be chapters in books, design, exhibitions, journal articles, monographs, performance. This said, the largest and most significant output across universities and all units of assessment (UOA) are journal articles.

Key components of a high quality paper

This section of the session asked the question: what does a 4* paper look like? 

One way to answer this question is to consider what the characteristics of a good journal article might be. A paper should have an eye catching title that has a broad appeal, and a clear abstract which highlights clear research questions, summarises methods, and offers a clear summary of the novel contribution made to knowledge. 

Turning to the body of the article, a paper should clear clearly state research questions, clearly describe the methods that are applied (and share clear citations that offer more detail about them), explain how the research relates to theory, describe research instruments and ethical approach taken, provide details about the data samples, and conclude with acknowledgements. Not having dealt with ethical issues will limit the journals that you can submit to.

An important tip I noted down was: “know about the journal that you’re writing for”. See whether your research or research article is an argument that fits with the aims of the journal. A phrase I noted down was: “papers are not written in the abstract, they’re written with a journal in mind”.

This section of the presentation reminded me of a blog article that I wrote some years back, which had the title Getting published in Open Learning. Open Learning is, of course, a journal that I co-edit with two other colleagues. The points that were made about the clarity of papers is really important. A suggestion for anyone who is interested in writing papers, is to get involved with the peer review process in some capacity. This way you can learn more about how everything works.

During the session, the notion journal impact factors were mentioned, which are known as bibliometrics which highlight how influential a publication is within an area of research. When it comes to the REF, it isn’t just the impact factor of the journal that matters; the assessment of quality of paper is independent of the quality (or impact factor) of the journal. This is linked to something called DORA, which is an abbreviation of: Declaration On Research Assessment (DORA website), which the OU has signed up to, along with other higher education institutions (HEIs). 

What can we change?

Research can be thought of in different ways. Research is, of course, carried out by individual researchers and academics, but since much research (especially within STEM require collaboration, a wider perspective is necessary. Individual academics should develop their own research strategies (which could be shared with others), but also strategies should be defined by units, such as schools, which then should be linked to REF units of assessment. This also links to the importance of developing a research culture.

An interesting question was: what practical things could be done?  Some suggestions include working with others to ensure thar articles are thoroughly proofread before submitting to journals, perhaps setting up internal peer review processes within research groups, writing articles with co-authors, and setting up mentoring schemes with colleagues who are new to research.

The discussion of papers led onto a discussion about the challenges that accompany getting articles published in open access journals. Open access publishing means that the readers do not pay for access to research articles. Instead, researchers and writers pay. This means that authors may be asked to pay what can amount to a substantial publishing fee. This can limit the extent to which researchers are able to publish unfunded research, such as personal projects.

A suggestion is to always consider the cost of publishing fees when writing and preparing research bids, to make sure that they are considered during the budgeting. Also, if research is funded by a UK research funding council, the university library has an agreement that they will cover publication fees. 

By way of contrast, Open Learning offers a hybrid scheme. The editors of Open Learning chooses to ‘open access’ one article per issue. Individual authors can also secure open access by submitting what amounts to a publication fee, but it is typically less than journals that adopt a completely open access funding model. The advantage of this approach is that it enables institutions that do not have extensive research budgets to disseminate their research. An important point here is: pay attention to the terms and conditions that relate to the journal that you’re hoping to publish through.

One of the final comments I noted was: there are tensions between helping those currently work on 3* papers, to help them to submit 4* paper, and helping those with little research time to start publishing. A big win for the university might be to enable a wider group of staff to be included in the REF. This also links to the tension between supporting the individual researcher, and supporting the institution as a whole to gain an overall higher rating.

Reflections

I don’t like the REF for the simple reason that terms such as quality and excellence are dangerously slippery terms. Also, research is something that takes place over an extended period of time, and certainly not across a neatly defined seven year cycle. I’m also grumpy after learning that 4* papers have a multiplier effect on research income for the simple reason that universities, schools and individuals who are already doing excellent research are likely to gain even more income to do even better research, with more resources. This multiplication factor is not progressive, and it feels far from equitable. Institutions with a lower research ranking will, of course, struggle more to make an impact in comparison to, say, Russell Group universities.

I come to this topic having struggled to build a research strategy and profile. As a staff tutor, half of my time is dedicated to academic leadership and management, and the other half is dedicated to ‘academic stuff’, which means either working on module teams or working on research. If I have module team (teaching) responsibilities, this means that less of my time is available to research, and what really helps with research is building those close collaboration with colleagues, and all this takes time.

Over the last few years, and to this day, a lot of my time has been spent dealing with internal institutional changes (mainly, the new AL contract), of which a lot still remains to be figured out and understood. Whilst this does sound a little grumpy, dealing with the practicalities of my staff tutor day job leaves very little practical time to carry out disciplinary research. Whilst I’m not contractually obliged to make a REF submission, the idea of leading a submission of an article feels current unattainable, never mind the notion of producing an article that is “beyond internationally excellent”.

What are the answers? One of the obvious answers is to work on research culture. This requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders, at multiple levels. It means facilitating conversations, and learning about the interests of others. It means getting involved and encouraging others to get involved. It means joining research groups, and being patient when listening to the perspectives, challenges, and experiences of others. This is also, of course, made harder when everyone is working at a distance.

Two thoughts that I return to regularly are as follows. The first thought come from the words of a former head of school who said: “if you have two reasons to do something, there is a greater likelihood that you’ll get that thing done”. Following this though, the accompanying thought is: “try to align everything together, into a personal strategy”. It is this alignment that I’m trying to do, and this may well mean saying “no” to some things.

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Critical thinking and writing (Intermediate)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 14 June 2023, 08:32

On the evening of 13 June 2023, I attended a university wide session about critical thinking and writing, which was delivered as a part of the Student Hub Live programme. The event was facilitated by Margaret Greenhall, study skills specialist, and OU tutor in Science, and was supported by another tutor, Nicky Mee. An edited recording to this session is available through the Student Hub Live website.

Margaret presented what could be described as a “a buffet of ideas” to help students to work through ideas and concepts they are presented with during their studies. Whilst it is intended to be a starting point, the buffet presents some really useful tools that could be used by anyone who is approaching the study of a new subject. It may also be useful for anyone who needs to do a review of a topic, or to carry out a literature review.

We were given a lot of notes to download, which shared some of the key concepts which I hope to summarise through this short blog.

What follows is my own notes from the session, which are presented, of course, from my own perspective, complete with my own understandings (and misunderstandings!)

What does critical thinking mean to you?

We were asked a question, and invited to respond by giving answers in a text box. We were then led towards a suggestion, that perhaps critical thinking could be thought of a pyramid, or hierarchy, which has a number of levels, such as:

  1. Content
  2. Validity
  3. Relevance
  4. Criteria
  5. Evaluation

These concepts could be unpacked further, by asking accompanying questions, such as:

  1. What? What is the content?
  2. Who? Who wrote it?
  3. Why? Why is it relevant to you and the problem?
  4. What? What is important with what you have found?
  5. How? How does it connect to other things and how is it useful?

In the following sections, I summarise how each of these key points were broken down.

Content: What?

A question I noted down during the presentation as: is this all about reading the information? We were also asked a question during the session: what do you do before you read the course materials? This question led to a short activity, where we were shown sections of text.

There was an important point which was made here, which is: critical thinking starts before you read the assessments; you’re gathering criteria before you start. Critical thinking before reading helps to prime oneself with respect to what things we will be looking at.

I made a note of some tips: read the TMA first, write down your own questions, look at big picture and detail, leave things overnight before reading in detail, and then go back to review the material. I might have imagined this, but I’m pretty sure that spider diagrams were mentioned too.

Validity: Who?

In other words, where did the information come from? This connects to the source of the material. Who wrote it? Did it come from a reputable source.

The tool that we were introduced to help us think about validity was PROMPT: Provenance, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Presentation, Timeliness. There is some accompanying OU materials about PROMPT on the OU website.

Another tool, which was gently rephrased as being ‘CAARP’ serves a similar purpose: CRAAP: Current, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose (University of the West of Scotland)

Relevance: Why?

Simply put, why is something important? It is very well looking at an article and thinking you know something is important, but why is it really important? 

One tool is to keep continuing the ‘why’ question 5 times over. When you get an answer to the first ‘why’ rephrase it, and ask another ‘why’ question, until you create a chain of five of them. This might be the real reason why something is studied or examined. By rephrasing question, you dig deeper into the issue.

Criteria: What?

What is important? In other words, how do you make an evaluation about whether a particular article or source (or topic) is important in the context of the problem? A meta question (questions about questions) is: what questions would you ask what is important?

An interesting tool that was shared was something called the CIA Phoenix list (Wikiversity).

Three of the first questions from this list are: Why is it necessary to solve the problem?, what benefits will you receive by solving the problem?, and what is the unknown? The idea is to use this list to try to dig deeper to evaluate a problem. There is also a list of questions that relate to evaluating a plan.

One further question was asked, which was: which question (on the Phoenix list) is your favourite?

Evaluation: How?

How does everything all connect with each other. In other words, if you have found something out, how can you use it? When it comes to being a student, an evaluation is often expressed through a tutor marked assessment, which is often in the form of an essay.

One of the tools that might be useful for essay writing is something called PEEL, which is an abbreviation for: Point, Evidence, Explain, Link. In other words, you make a point, you evidence that point (with a reference), explain to the reader what it is (and why it is important in the context of an argument), and then add some words which link to the next paragraph. There could well be one PEEL per paragraph.

Another tool was introduced was PESELS, which is an abbreviation for: Point, Explain, Support with evidence, Evaluate (for or against), Link, Signpost to the next paragraph.

Reflections

I haven’t ever come across this particular pyramid before, but I do know of another (and arguably similar) pyramid, Bloom’s taxonomy (Wikipedia) which is likely to be more useful in terms of thinking about our own understanding and learning of a topic, as opposed to surveying, and reading. 

I had heard of the PEEL approach to essay writing, but I had not heard of the PESELS abbreviation; this just goes to show that there are always things to learn! Another tool that was unfamiliar to me was the Phoenix list, which looks quite useful in terms helping to reflect on what has been found about a subject. A lot was covered in a short time, and I will certainly have come round for another pass of this buffet.

The closing points were helpful, which included: critical thinking starts before reading, it takes time, and you need to spread it out over an extended period of time; it is something that can take days, since you need time to let things sink in.

It was also a quite a busy session, with up to 120 students attending. The session is, of course, one of a series on Student Hub Live. A later section will focus on the evaluation stage of the pyramid model. It was also interesting to learn about what general study skill support is available for students. There are, of course, recordings of other sessions that are available.

A final point: please don’t use Wikipedia in formal pieces of writing; always consider the validity of your sources. Formal references from the university library presented using the Harvard format, as described in CiteThemRight is always the way to go. 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Student Hub Live, and to Margaret Greenhall who was the presenter and facilitator of this session. The structure of this blog completely mirrors what she presented. I also have quoted from her directly when preparing these notes. I did try to find references for each of the tools that are mentioned in this blog, but I haven’t managed to track these down.

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