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RSA: The power of design thinking

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 28 Sep 2017, 13:15

This blog post has come from a set of notes that I’ve made during an event that took place on 26 September 2017 at the Royal Society of Arts, London. The event was a lecture, entitled ‘the power of design thinking’ by Sue Siddall, who works as a partner at IDEO, an international design and consulting company.

My interest in a design has emerged from my interest in computing. I have been an associate lecturer for an interaction design module for ten year and before then I studied software development, specifically looking at how computer programmers maintained computer software. During my studies, I briefly stepped into the area of design: software maintenance can, of course, mean software design. Also, for a brief period of time, I helped to manage the tutors who delivered a number of design modules at The Open University, until there was a restructure, and I joined the School of Computing and Communications.

A history

Sue presented a story of a career, where she moved from the subject of law, to advertising and then into IDEO. An interesting note I made (regarding advertising) was: ‘simple ideas enter the brain quickly; if you throw ten balls at someone they won’t catch any, but if you throw one, they will catch one’. A key point regarding a transition to design was the importance of putting human beings at the centre of everything.

Examples

One slide conveyed the message that we use design to tackle complex problems, products, services and environmental issues. We were presented with two very different examples. The first example was about designing a series of nutritional products for people who had a particular metabolic condition; children didn’t want to consume products that were designed in such a way that singled them out from others. A key idea was to reframe a question from a business problem to a human centred problem. A thought was that this change in perspective could change the nature of an entire business.

The second example was uncovering ways to run, organise and structure private schools in Peru. By looking at the systems and by considering the end users point of view, curriculum was designed, teachers were supported and it was mentioned that financial models were provided.

Final points

We were left with three things to take forward: (1) the importance of asking user centred questions, (2) create movements (amongst staff and people), not mandates (to tell them to do things), and (3) be optimistic and consider the opportunity of uncovering better ways of doing things.

There were two questions that I noted down from the audience. The first was: how do you get, nurture or encourage diversity of thought amongst people [when it comes to designing products, services or systems]? This question was answered in terms of diversity of employees. As Sue as responded, I thought about different idea generation techniques that has been taught on a design module that I once studied for a while.

The second question was very interesting: can design thinking be used for bad things? Expanding on this: can designs be used to hook people into using things that are not good for them, or nudge them towards taking certain actions? At this point I remember the earlier link to advertising. A quick search reveals a whole subject area called ‘nudge theory’. The answer was in terms of people are becoming more familiar with the ways in which people are manipulated. A comment was that designers have an ethical responsibility. As this answer was given I recalled the emphasis on ethics within my own discipline by organisations such as the British Computer Society.

Links and reflections

During the talk I collected (which means writing down) a number of links. The first was to IDEO.org. Drawing on a constant habit of browsing webpages, I tried to find an about page that offers a simple summary of what this site was all about, but I couldn’t find one. Scrolling down a big page led me to the following: ‘we design products, services, and experiences to improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities’. There was also a reference to DesignKit.org,which is described as a ‘book that laid out how and why human-centered design can impact the social sector’ (IDEO website)  Another site mentioned was OpenIDEO.

From a personal perspective, I think I was expecting something slightly different from the talk. Looking outwards from my own discipline, I see that human-computer interaction has changed fundamentally as computing devices are becoming embedded into everything. It is also interesting to see the shift from HCI to the idea of user experience. I have also been curious about the onwards extension to the broader area of service design. What I found interesting was the way that design thinking was presented in terms of being able to address bigger and organisational problems. I totally agree that humans are, of course, the most important part in any system: understanding their needs, motivations and desires are paramount.

What I was expecting was more detail about exactly how ‘design thinking’ was applied in these situations. Some tools were mentioned (such as personas), but I wanted to know more. It is at this point that I thought: I need to go look at those resources.

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1st Computing and Communications online AL development conference

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One of my roles is to help out with professional development events for associate lecturers (ALs). There is a lot going on: there are a series of face to face conferences that take place across the country and there are two other subject specific events that I know of: one that is designed to help tutors who teach on undergraduate science modules and another session that is for tutors who teach on the postgraduate STEM programmes.

An interesting change has been the use and implementation of a piece of software known as Adobe Connect. This is an online conference and collaboration tool that replaces an OU branded version of Blackboard Collaborate. I quite liked Collaborate: it was oriented towards teaching, but I did find it a bit clunky, especially when it came to preparing more dynamic presentations.

Aware that there were other AL development activities happening across the faculty, I had a thought: perhaps we could run an online conference for tutors who are closely associated within our school, the School of Computing and Communication, using Adobe Connect. This blog post is a quick description about what happened, and a set of reflections of what work and what didn’t work. It’s also a place to note down ideas for future events.

Coming up with a plan

The school has a very small (and very new) associate lecturer development group which consists of myself, a fellow staff tutor, and an associate lecturer representative. Anyone in the school is welcome to join and contribute. We have a couple of regulars: a couple of central academics, one of whom plays a really important role as the connection between the school and the faculty student support team, which is based in Manchester.

A key question was: what messages did we want to get across? An answer was: since this is the first one, it might be useful to share some names of colleagues who play an important role within the faculty. Now that the concept of a region is now dissipating (irrespective of how important you think they may be as a useful idea) and university structures are becoming more aligned to schools and faculties, a key thought was: introductions could be very useful.  

There was another thought: running an online conference using a tool that you have never used before, with other people who have never used it either is something that could be considered to be quite risky: things could go wrong; it could be very embarrassing. Or, put another way, it just might not work! Another thought was: just because things might be difficult doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do them.

 The school AL development group came up with a conference agenda: 

10.00 – 10.30 Virtual tea and cake
10.30 – 10.40 Introduction and welcome: Chris Douce
10.40 – 10.55 Meet your head of school: Mark Woodroffe
10.55 – 11.10 Programme and curriculum updates: David Morse
11.10 – 11.25 Q&A with Mark and David
11.25 – 12.10 Online pedagogy: what do you do? Chris Douce
12.10 – 12.20 Online pedagogy session: Q&A
12.20 – 13.00 Break
13.00 – 13.10 Welcome back! Chris Douce
13.10 – 13.50 Working with the student support team. John Woodthorpe and Steven Wilson
13.50 – 14.20 Meet and share: meet fellow ALs. Clive Buckland

Explaining the agenda

Whilst the agenda might seem pretty straightforward there are bits that need a small amount of explanation. Firstly, what on earth is virtual tea and cake bit all about? This is, of course, a bit of informal time where everyone can meet and mingle. It is the virtual equivalent of the time when you arrive at a meeting, take your jacket off and fold up your umbrella; it’s that time when you have a moment to check to see that your microphone and headset is working okay and start to recognise a few familiar names.

The first two sessions are a bit like ‘keynotes’; they are formal ‘here’s some information’ presentations. They were designed to introduce the speakers (I learnt quite a bit about each of my colleagues), and to gain some updates about what is happening within the school. This was considered to be important, since it’s very easy to get overwhelmed with all the detailed information that comes out of the university. Those sessions were considered to be important, since they also emphasised the extent to which everyone now belongs within a school, rather than a university geographical region.

The next bit about online pedagogy was a bit ‘meta’; we were using an online tool to talk about how to teach using the online tool. This session was considered to be important since it was a subject that was very much on everyone’s minds: the university has been asking associate lecturers to complete some Adobe Connect training. I personally found the training useful: it introduced me to the various features of Adobe Connect, helping me to grasp the key concepts of pods and layouts. There were useful tips about online pedagogy too; I remember a particularly useful point about ‘leaning in and learning out’. The key point was: the more talking that you did, the more that you ‘leant into’ the laptop or the session, the more the participants would ‘lean out’ and be disinclined to participate.

A question that I had was: what are the best ways to use Adobe Connect for Computing and IT subjects? Since we’re all trying to find out feet, we don’t (yet) have very detailed answers to this question, partly because online teaching, like face to face teaching, is a skill that comes from practice: it is up to us to try to things out in online tutorials, whilst taking guidance module teams and following our professional instincts.

The online pedagogy session has a structure that was building up to a discussion: it began with a ‘talk’ bit, which was derived from an earlier session presented at a London development conference. This ‘talk bit’ aims to enumerate the different ways that Adobe Connect might be used in online teaching and learning (which has been created by speaking with tutors and observing what happens in module teams). The next bit was an interview with a colleague who had been an Adobe Connect early adopter. The final bit was an activity discussion using breakout rooms between different tutors.  I’ll mention something more about this in a later section.

After a short lunch break, there were two final sessions: the first was a ‘group session’ by colleagues in the STEM student support team. Three members of the SST from Manchester joined the conference and shared something about what they did to help students. This section was considered to be important, since sometimes other parts of the university can seem a bit of a mystery. For a long time, it was not clear what the student advisors actually did and how they worked. Plus, in recent years, there have been so many changes, so it has been hard to keep up. The SST session was there to try to emphasise the importance of collaboration between the tutors and advisors. 

The final session was an informal ‘cool down’ session; an opportunity for tutors to have a further chat with everyone and to start to gather views and opinions about the conference.

What worked

There were a couple of things that seemed to work really well. An implicit design principle was to move from ‘presentation sessions’ towards more dynamic activities. The two presentations at the start of the conference seemed to work well, as did the session that was run by colleagues from the SST.

One section that seemed to work particularly well was the part of the conference where there was an interview. I was inspired to adopt this approach by a fellow tutor who talked about using a ‘dialogic approach’ to tutorials which essentially means: ‘asking questions’. The colleague who I interviewed about the use of Adobe Connect gave some great answers mixed with some really useful practical advice such as: ‘consider your layouts a bit like parts of a lesson plan’. I would certainly use this approach again.

One thing that I was surprised about was the number of tutors who were able to find the time to attend: at one point there were over 40 who were able to come along.

What didn’t work

There was one part of the conference that clearly didn’t work: the discussions about online pedagogy using the breakout rooms. This didn’t work for a couple of reasons: lack of experience of using break out rooms, and secondly, the fact that the breakout rooms contained too many participants.

In terms of experience, there were two think I needed to work on: I need to develop a more detailed mental model of how breakout rooms work, and what the different buttons do. Secondly, before the breakout rooms are started, I need to offer very clear and unambiguous instructions about what everyone needs to do when they go to their rooms.

Another thing that wasn’t quite right was how the participants were allocated across the rooms. After some discussion, we decided to have three rooms, each room being dedicated to different levels of study. Room one was to be for level one tutors, room two of level two tutors and room three for level three, project and postgraduate tutors. The first problem was that I couldn’t easily put people in the right room using a couple of mouse clicks, perhaps due to my own inexperience. Secondly, due to the numbers of participants, the rooms were way too large.

My colleague, Clive Buckland, made breakout rooms work in a way that I couldn’t: he had a larger number of rooms, and allocated tutors to different rooms in advance of a breakout room activity. He also used the ‘auto allocate’ function rather than manually allocating everyone; this was a neat trick when working with larger numbers of participants.  Next time I shall use this approach, or ask a fellow ‘host’ to help with the ‘breakout room’ admin.

Given that this was the second time that I was using Adobe Connect in anger, I would have been very surprised if everything worked perfectly. I’ve come to form the view that it is okay if things go wrong: one learns from those situations, and you can improve the next time around. This is, of course what happens with face to face teaching: if a session hasn’t quite works, there’s an opportunity for reflection and to figure out what could be done better. 

Looking forward

A personal view is that there is a lot more that could be done in terms of school online conferences. Questions remains as to how often they should run; this is something that I’ll take to both the school planning group and the faculty planning group.

I would like to have more sessions about online, specifically regarding online tutorials at the first level, where students are introduced to programming. I would like to explore the ways that tutors might be able to share aspects of code, and encourage students to understand how to do problem solving and debugging, and maybe even do interesting things like real-time online pair programming using either OU Build (used in TM111), or Python (used in TM112).

There are also further opportunities to learn more about people in the school. Perhaps central academics or module chair could present short ‘module summaries’ to the tutors, or maybe talk about research interests and how they connect to different modules. Once I ran an AL development event that was all about exposing tutors to new developments and research in Computing and IT. There is no reason why we couldn’t do something similar in a school specific online conference. 

Closing thoughts

Running an online conference using a tool that was new to everyone was a risk, but it seemed to mostly work. I personally liked the dynamic nature of the first conference, and the informal feedback that I’ve received has been positive. An ongoing challenge is to try to get more people involved.

A personal reflection is that when running or hosting one of these events is that you’re not so much a presenter but instead you become more of a producer. I’ve learnt that being a producer has been slightly worrisome but also pretty good fun too. 

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AL development conference: 21 September 2017

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Ever since I joined the university as a part time tutor back in 2006, I have found AL development events useful: they have, essentially, taught me how to teach, and how to be an open university tutor and a distance teacher.

When I started as a tutor, I never thought that I would become someone who would be helping to organise professional development events for tutors, but this has exactly what has happened. As the university has changed and technology has developed, some colleagues have realised that there is a space and an opportunity to run 'online' professional development events, and I thought that it might be a good idea to try to run one.

The following message has been circulated to all associate lecturers who are tutors for modules have have been developed by staff in the School of Computing and Communications:

"You are invited to the first ever school of Computing and Communications online AL development conference which will be held on 21 September 2017, between 10.30 and 14.30. The event will be hosted in Adobe Connect and will be open to all members of staff in the school. The conference will be divided into a number of interactive and informative sessions; a morning session and a shorter afternoon session.

The conference will be an opportunity to meet Mark Woodroffe, head of school, David Morse, Director of Studies, and John Woodthorpe, Computing and IT student support team lead. There will be a session about teaching and learning pedagogy, and a session about our OU student support team that is based in Manchester.

If you have recently been to any AL face-to-face conferences do try to come along to this one too; it will hopefully be interesting and fun, and give you an opportunity to meet more colleagues from the school. If you can’t make it, please don’t worry: the sessions will be recorded and made available after the event (but the interactivity that we have planned will hopefully be really useful!)

Although Adobe Connect is both used and featured within this first online conference, it isn’t intended to replace any other Adobe Connect training that has been organised by the university. Also, attendance at this event will added onto your AL activity record and so will appear on your ALAR summary. After the event, we plan to continue discussions and sharing using a conference forum. We will also share copies of all resources that were prepared and used as a part of the event.

If you have any questions for either Mark, David or John about any aspect of work that takes place within the school (or other parts of the university) please email them to me in advance. The deadline for the submission of questions will be 14 September 2017. Also, if you have any additional requirements that you feel the conference organisers need to be made aware of, please do contact Chris."

Here's a planned agenda for the event:

10.00 – 10.30     Virtual tea and cake

10.30 – 10.40     Introduction and welcome: Chris Douce

10.40 – 10.55     Meet your head of school: Mark Woodroffe

10.55 – 11.10     Programme and curriculum updates: David Morse

11.10 – 11.25     Q&A with Mark and David

11.25 – 12.10     Online pedagogy: what do you do? Chris Douce

12.10 – 12.20     Online pedagogy session: Q&A

12.20 – 13.00     Break

13.00 – 13.10     Welcome back! Chris Douce

13.10 – 13.50     Working with the student support team. John Woodthorpe and Steven Wilson

13.50 – 14.20     Meet and share: meet fellow ALs. Facilitator TBC

14.20 – 14.30     Close, summary and next steps. Chris Douce

Over the last few months, the university has been running training sessions to help tutors become familiar with a teaching and collaboration tool called Adobe Connect. I thought this online conference would be a great opportunity to discuss the pedagogy of Adobe Connect, i.e. how it can be used to practically facilitate teaching and learning (as opposed to the detail of what buttons can be pushed, and in what order).

A really interesting part of this conference will be the session that is about the student support teams. A few years ago, student support was offered from colleagues who worked in regional centres. Due to restructuring, support was spread around country and concentrated in different locations (for a period of time, advice for Computing and IT students was provided from a centre in Birmingham). Student support is now provided from a team in Manchester. The afternoon session will be dedicate to learning more about the SST, and also meeting other associate lecturers who work on different modules.


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HEA 2017 Annual conference: Generation TEF

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 14 Aug 2017, 10:56

A couple of weeks after attending the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) conference, I attended a UK Higher Education Academy conference that took place in Manchester between 4 July and 6 July 2017. In some respects, it was good to attend both events so close together, since ideas from the first conference were still at the forefront of my mind when I attended the second.

What follows is a conference of report of the HEA event. Like all of these conference reports, they represent my own personal views of the event; different delegates, of course, would have very different experiences. I should add that I attended two of the days: one that concentrated on STEM education, and the other that was more general.

The second day of the conference was opened by HEA chief executive Stephanie Marshall. Stephanie noted that this was the first annual conference for three years. She also hinted at the scale of the HEA, reporting that there were now ninety thousand fellows. A key point was that ‘teaching excellence is a global ambition’ and that discussions about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been dominating recent debates within higher education. The notion of the fellowship was an attribute that can change university cultures to foreground the importance of teaching. Other issues that I noted were the importance of student engagement, student satisfaction, student retention and the idea of creating a ‘connected curriculum’.

Keynote: How digital engagement enhances the student experience

The opening keynote was by Eric Stoller. Eric has built a consultancy about using technology and social media to create digital engagement, with a particular emphasis on higher education.

I’ve noted that Eric said that there are social media skeptics and that social media is a subject that can be polarising. There was the suggestion that social media is all about learning, and the learning doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom. A point I noted was ‘life-long learning should be at the heart of the experience’; this is especially interesting since the life-long learning agenda within my own institution has been fundamentally impoverished due to government increases of tuition fees. It is now harder to study for an entirely different qualification, or to study a module or two with the intention of developing skills that are important in the workplace.

We were presented with a series of questions. One of them was: can social media be used for critical thinking? Perhaps it can. Information literacy is an important and necessary skill when we are faced with working out what news is fake, and what news isn’t. Other questions were: how do we use social media to build communities? Also, how do we connect to others when there’s one of ‘you’ and lots of ‘them’? In answer to ‘how’ you ‘do’ engagement through social media, I remembered that one of my colleagues, Andrew Smith gave a talk entitled ‘how our classroom has escaped’ at The Open University about how to use some social media tools (specifically Twitter) to reach out to computer networking students.

Another broad question was about digital literacy and capability. This immediately relates to another question: is there a benchmark for digital capabilities? A challenge about this perspective is one that Eric mentioned, which is: different people use social media in different ways. Another question was: how about addressing the subject of social media in staff appraisals?

A theme that appears regularly is that of employability. Perhaps lecturers should be ‘role modelling’ to students about how to use social media, since these can and do have implications for employability. Social media can be used to engage students as they become acclimatised to working within a particular institution, helping them through their first few weeks of study.

As Eric was speaking, I had my own thoughts: one way to see social media is a beginning point for further engagement with students; it can be used to expose issues and debates; it should, of course, be a beginning point and not be an end in itself. There are other issues: what are the motivations and incentives for the use of social media amongst different communities?

Day 2: Morning Sessions

The first session of the day was by Anna Hunter from the University of Central Lancashire. Anna’s talk was entitled: ‘What does teaching excellence look like? Exploring the concept of the ideal teacher through visual metaphor’. I was interested in attending this session since I have an interest in associate lecturer continuing professional development, and Anna was going to be talking about her work on a PGCE in HE module (which is a subject that has been on my mind recently). Some of the activities echoed my own experience as a PGCE student; activities to explore views and opinions about teaching and thinking about the notion of academic identity. I noted down a question that was about team teaching, but I didn’t note down the response; the issue of how to facilitate and develop team teaching practice remains both an interest and a question. 

Kath Botham from Manchester Metropolitan University gave a presentation that was also in the form of question: Is an institutional CPD scheme aligned to the UK PSF and HEA Fellowship an effective tool to influence teaching practice? Kath’s research was a mixed method approach that aimed to assess the impact of the various fellowship awards. Some practitioners wanted the ‘HEA badge’ to be seen and recognised as someone involved in teaching and learning’. It is viewed as something to validate practice. Also, gaining accreditation is something that can help lecturers and teachers overcome ‘imposter syndrome’. The question remains: does accreditation change practice? Accreditation can help people to engage with reflection, it can represent an important aspect of CPD and can stimulate personal skills and study development.

Day 2: Afternoon Sessions

After attending a series of short five minute ‘ignite’ sessions, I couldn’t help but attend: ‘Removing the elephant from the room: How to use observation to transform teaching’ by Matt O'Leary and Mark O'Hara who were both from Birmingham City University. This presentation directly linked to the theme of the conference and to a university funded project that is all about online and face to face tutorial observations. We were treated to a literature review, and introduced to a six stages of an observation cycle: (1) observe self-reflection, (2) a pre-observation meeting, (3) observation, (4) post-observation reflection, (5) post-observation dialog, and (6) observee and observed post-observation reflective write up. I also noted down that there was an observer training and development sessions. Another note (which I assume is about the feedback) was: ‘we chose a blank page approach; we don’t want to forms corrupting what we see’, which reflects observation reports that I have personally received. The closing points were important; they spoke about the importance of management buy-in, that there is anxiety in the process, and there needs to be time to have conversations. 

Rebecca Bushell from the University of South Wales asked: Can innovative teaching techniques effectively improve engagement, retention, progression and performance? Rebecca’s innovative technique was to ask her students to create businesses that are funded using micro-capital (student groups were given fifty pounds each). The points were that this was immersive problem based learning that allowed students to share experience. It also allowed to reflect on their experience, and it created learning situations for students on other modules; accounting students were asked to audit their accounts. For me, the take away point was: simulations can expose real challenges that can immediately relate to the development of employability skills. 

Day 3: Opening Keynote

The final day of the conference was opened by Giskin Day from Imperial College London. Giskin taught a Medical humanities course which was all about Putting medicine in a social and cultural context. It is a course that explores the connections between the arts and science, with an emphasis on creativity.

An interesting point that I noted was that much of science is about minimising risk and beating uncertainty. With this context in mind, how can we encourage students to tolerate and manage ambiguity? This, of course, is an important skill in higher education; it is something that is explicitly explored within the humanities, where students are encouraged to be ‘creatively critical and critically creative’.

Another point is that there is a change in student expectation: students are no longer willing to be ‘talked at’, which is something that was echoed within my recent blog summary from the recent EDEN conference that I attended. A question remains: how do we engage students in new ways? One approach is to consider ‘playful learning’ (the notion of games and gaming was, again, something that featured within EDEN). Games, Giskin argued, enable students to develop empathy; they allow students to enter into a safe imaginative space where failure is an option and a possibility.

We were introduced to a speed dating card exchange game that had a medical theme. As a part of her teaching, we were told about a field trip to the V&A museum that was connected to skin, sculpture and dermatology. Students had to find exhibits within the museum and had to decide whether the sculpture needed a medical diagnosis, developing student’s communication, sketching and observation skills. Other games involved role playing where students played the roles of doctor and consultants. There was talk of escape rooms and creative puzzle solving.

Giskin offered some tips about creating effective games: consider the audience, make sure that things are tested, and think about a balance of playfulness and usefulness whilst also asking questions about what would motivate the student players. Also, when planning a ‘game’, always consider a ‘plan B’, since things might change in the real world; a game-based field trip to a museum might become unstuck if a museum suddenly loans an artefact to another institution.

In some respects, Giskin’s presentation was in two parts: the first part was about games; the second part was about her research about the rhetoric of gratitude in healthcare (Imperial College). Her point was simple: grateful people want to express gratitude; it is a part of closure, and an acknowledgement of that expression. The language used with both patients, and with challenging students is very important. I noted down the importance of moving from a rhetoric of coercion to a rhetoric of collaboration.

During the question and answer session, I think Giskin referred to something called the Playful learning Special Interest group (Association for Learning Technology). I found this interesting, since the introduction to design module, U101 Design Thinking uses both the idea of play, and explores design through the development of a game. 

I enjoyed Giskin’s reference to different types of learning approaches; her references to field trips and role play echoes various teaching approaches that I have tried to adopt. During a moment of inspiration I once spontaneously ran a field trip to a university corridor to encourage a set of design students to look at a set of recycling bins! Hearing about other practitioners such as Giskin developing a systematic and more comprehensive approach to designing field trips offers real inspiration and insight into how to develop interesting and entertaining learning events. I remain wondering how to embed these different approaches into a distance learning context.

Towards the end of Giskin’s session, we were each given different postcards, and we were asked to write down the response to a simple question: ‘what teaching and learning tip were you grateful to receive?’ Our challenge was to find the same card as another delegate and swap tips. When I found another delegate that had the same card as mine, a card that had some drawings of some craft tools, I made a point of offering a grateful thank you, which was, I believe, graciously received.

Day 3 : Morning Sessions

During the morning, I moved between different sessions to catch various presentations. The first talk of the morning was by Nagamani Bora, University of Nottingham, who spoke about ‘Curriculum Design - Opportunities and Challenges’. There were references to employability, interdisciplinary and the notion of the spiral curriculum (which was recently mentioned during my PGCE in HE studies). Other points included the importance of involving students in curriculum design and introducing them to international and global perspectives. An interesting point was made about the question of programme level assessments.

Siobhan Devlin who was from the University of Sunderland spoke about ‘Engaging learners with authentic assessment scenarios in computing’. Interestingly, Siobhan spoke about the ‘demodularised curriculum’; bigger chunks of curriculum were considered to be the order of the day. A key point was that authentic assessment needs to reflect real world practices. Siobhan also referenced some of her earlier research that asked the question: what does inspiring teaching look like? Some key attributes I noted were: enthusiasm, passion, adaptability, empathy, friendliness and enjoyment. I also noted down a reference to Keller’s ARCS model of motivation (e-learning industry).

Day 3 : Afternoon Sessions

Christine Gausden, University of Greenwich, continued to touch on the authentic in her talk ‘Embedding Employability within the Curriculum’. Christine is a senior lecturer in the built environment and said that although students might have technical knowledge, they may lack the opportunity to apply that knowledge. To overcome this, practitioners were asked to talk to students, and students were asked to study real live construction project, which links to the earlier point of authenticity. 

After Christine’s talk, I switched sessions to listen to Dawn Theresa Nicholson and Kathryn Botham from the Manchester Metropolitan University talk about ‘Embedding Reasonable Adjustments in the Curriculum (ERAC): A Faculty-wide approach to inclusive teaching’, which relates to my own experience of tutoring on an Open University module called Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (Open University website). The idea was to embed accessibility in the curriculum (MMU) to such an extent so that personal learning plans could be phased out completely. A solution was to look at what adjustments were being applied, provide a set of standard adjustment and to offer staff training. An important principle was to make sure that all learning materials were available online in advance of a session. 

Carol Calvert, a staff tutor colleague from The Open University talked about ‘Success against the odds’. A key driver the research was the principle of student retention; it was hoped that the project would suggest actions to help students to complete their studies. The key research question was: ‘what can students who we think may not succeed, who have been able to succeed, able to tell us?’ Factors that might suggest challenges include: previous study success, socio-economic status, and level of prior educational attainment. Students offered some pointers: (1) that it was important to start early, (2) that it is important to share and to get network (and to tell other people that you are studying), (3) use a study planner.

To conclude, students that do succeed have a can do attitude. The important question is: how can we foster this from a distance? There were some accompanying actions: the module team could take time to introduce the module and gives students some useful study tips. Another action is to ask students whether they wanted to start study early and then try to make this happen. When asked, it turned out that half of the students on Carol’s module said that they might want to do this.

The final presentation I attended was given by my colleague, David Morse. David talked about ‘Truly virtual teams: twelve years on’. It isn’t a surprise to hear that students don’t like team working, but David made the point that group working is an important element of the QAA computing subject benchmark statement. Twelve years earlier, things were different: students didn’t have broadband, but online collaboration is more about people than it is about the details that surround particular technologies. A question is: what must students do? They must set rules, roles and responsibilities. They must also identify knowledge and skills, make regular contributions to online discussions, give and receive criticism, and apply good netiquette. A tutor needs to be a facilitator and not a manager. A tutor also needs to know when to step forward and when to step back. In response to this, David presented an interesting helical model of team working (which reminded me of a spiral model that had been mentioned earlier during the conference). 

Reflections

I like HEA conferences; they’re always well run, they are interesting and relevant, and represent a great opportunity for networking. In comparison to other HEA events that I had attended this one had a slightly different feel. I think this difference is due to two reasons; the first is the sheer scale of the event. Secondly, due to the fact that it was very interdisciplinary. Whilst I always enjoy meeting people who work in other subjects, I did feel that the sheer scale of the conference made it a more difficult event to navigate and choose the sessions that looked to be the most relevant. These things said, I did feel that the keynotes were well chosen and well presented. The second keynote stood out as being particularly thought provoking, which is exactly what keynote sessions should be.

During the workshop, I also facilitated a session about module design with my colleague, Ann Walshe. We offered a space where delegates could be creative and design their ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ module. The resulting designs were fun and playful, and make significant use of different technologies that had been mentioned during the first keynote. 

I’m going to conclude with a more personal reflection. This conference took place in the grounds of the university that was once known as UMIST, which was where I studied as a doctoral student. Wandering around the campus brought back many memories; I remembered how challenging it was. I was trying to conduct research into what was a very specific aspect of computing: theoretical models of how programmers go about understanding software code. I remembered how difficult it was having a part time job whilst at the same time as being a full time student. I also remembered how alone I felt, and this underlined the importance of community, which was also a topic that had arisen during the various sessions.

It not only struck me that community was really important for researchers, but it is also really important as a way to facilitate excellent teaching too; teachers and lecturers need to talk to other teachers and lecturers. In some ways, this was, ultimately, what the conference was all about.

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26th EDEN annual conference: Jönköping, Sweden

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 14 Aug 2017, 10:47

The 26th Annual EDEN conference was held in Jönköping, Sweden between 13 and 16 June 2017. EDEN is an abbreviation for the European Distance Education Network and it is known as an important conference for those working at distance learning institutions.

What follows is a summary of my own experience of visiting EDEN for the first time. Since EDEN was a big conference and there were many different parallel sessions, different delegates have had very different experiences to my own. Also, what I report is likely to be influenced by my own personal interests and my own institutional perspective as an employee of The Open University. This summary has been created from a set of notes that I have made during the difference conference sessions I have attended.

Day 1: Pre-conference workshop

Since I arrived at the conference early, I was able to attend a pre-conference workshop. This workshop focussed on TEL, or Technology Enhanced Learning. An important challenge is that the term TEL is very broad and can be interpreted differently by different practitioners. It is also linked to other familiar terms such as computer assisted learning, networked learning and the principle that it can have a transformative effect on teaching and learning. TEL is also related to ideas about making learning possible through technology, and increasing the reach of education. As well as debates about how distance learning universities can promote, support and facilitate TEL, delegates were introduced to the EDEN network of academics and professionals.

Day 2: Welcome and Keynote

After a small number of welcome speeches, we were treated to three keynote presentations. The first keynote was by Stefan Hratinski from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. The title of Stefan’s presentation was: online learning in one-to-one relationships.

Stefan’s made the point that the traditional one-to-many lectures have been subject to necessary criticism, leading to the point that there are other pedagogic approaches, such as collaborative and connectivist models of learning. A fundamental challenge lies, of course, with how to put these approaches to practice. One argument is that that one-to-one learning can help to develop (or facilitate) collaborative or networked learning. Furthermore, one-to-one learning can be tailored to the needs of individual students.

We were presented with an example. MathCoach is a system where a large number of maths tutors are employed to offer one-to-one tuition for students through a web based platform. The teaching touches on a number of dimensions: the development of cognitive skills, social interaction relating to the math problems, and emotional support. One of the keys to effective tutoring is to ask good questions. Due to the scale, a large corpus of interactions between students and tutors was gathered, enabling the effects of teaching to be assessed.

The second keynote was very different. Manjula Srinivas spoke about ‘diversity and media education in the schools of Mumbi’. Manjula states that in her context, in India, one-to-one teaching is impossible, going on to state that ‘if I go to a class, I teach 150 students’. This comment also implicitly connects to Stefan’s comment about many-to-many teaching and learning. Direct opinions are offered to delegates: ‘the way education has been received has changed; they want to learn through apps; they want to learn through devices’. We were told of resource challenges: there is just not the time to do classroom teaching due to the number of students.

The final keynote of the morning was by Frans Mäyrä, Professor of Interactive Media. Frans is the head of a games research laboratory and a part of his research is to study games as an art form and its role in digital culture. He spoke about the history of games, play as a cultural tradition and the role of games in society. Games, he suggested, also have an important role to play in learning; a game can be a vehicle for ‘stealth learning’. He also introduced me to the term ‘ludic literacy’ which relates to what games are, how play operates, and understanding the diversity of gamers.

Session: Diversity and ICT Enhanced Education in Context

The first session I attended related to the broad but important subject of diversity in education. I chose this session since I teach on a postgraduate module about online accessible education and I felt that a summary of this session might be of interest to some of my students and also be directly relevant to my teaching practice.

The first presentation, by Mohammed Chaib  was entitled ‘ICT supported competence development - What difference does ICT make?’ This presentation was a great first session, since it was packed with familiar and unfamiliar terms that made me think about the direction that the conference was taking. A number of research themes were introduced: leadership, life-long and adult learning, gender, equality and inclusion. These themes were connected to something called the European Certificate in Intergenerational Learning (ECIL). There were direct pointers and connections to pedagogy, such as a reference to problem-based learning, the idea of co-creating knowledge and a clear reference to Vgotsky’s zone of proximal development.

The second presentation was by Henrik Hansson and colleagues from Stockholm University, Sweden, was quite different. Their paper had the title ‘Inclusion and Integration in Sweden: Using Video Chat for New Arrivals in Sweden’. It also had the subtitle: ‘How to Learn Swedish Live with Swedes Online - Easy, Flexible, Informal, Fast, Fun’. In 2016, Sweden accepted over one hundred and ten thousand migrants. Obvious challenges for those new migrants include learning a new language, becoming familiar with customs and navigating public services. An obvious solution is to speak with native Swedish people, but how do you find people who would be happy to chat in a language that is familiar? Drawing on an earlier idea of intergenerational communication, a technological solution is to provide a service that facilitates video discussions through computers and smartphones. One of the notes I made about future directions was about the potential of gamification; a point that reminded me about the importance of effective and well design interaction design. 

The next presentation, entitled ‘Setting the Tone: Developing Effective and Culturally Sensitive Learning Resources to Improve the Integration Process of Migrants in France’, was by Simon Carolan. This presentation echoed the earlier presentation by Hansson due to its emphasis on using technology to support migrants. Simon spoke of a MOOC that has the potential to help with integration by offering information about ‘the theoretical grounding of the French republic’, its society and its culture. Simon spoke about some of the issues and challenges: the politics of assimilation, multiculturalism and bi-culturalism. Also, the importance of the migrant’s point of view was emphasised. The MOOC was provided in both French and English, and the point was made that a MOOC is, of course, one part of a wider strategy. 

Session: Innovative e-Learning Concepts

It would be remiss of me if I didn’t attend a presentation about innovation and e-learning. The first presentation of this session was made by Anne-Marie Gallen with Gerald Evans, colleagues from The Open University. They presented a paper entitled Adaptive Learning as a Tool for Supporting Diverse Students with Threshold Concepts at a Distance.

The next presentation moved towards the subject of mobility. Timothy Read from Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia (UNED) presented Toward a Mobile Open and Social Language Learning Paradigm. Looking at apps for professional language learning. Mobile, Open, Social, Language, Learning MOSLL.

Christina Keller from Jönköping International Business School presented a paper entitled Teacher Roles in a Blended Learning Materials Engineering Master Program. A key point that I noted was ‘I believe we can stop having traditional lectures’ with an emphasis on importance of discussion and the notion of presence. Different types of presence, it was argued, was needed for learning: social presence, teaching presence and cognitive presence.

The final session was also from The Open University. Gerald Evans and Daphne Change presented Collaborative Online Learning at a Distance - a Case Study and Developing the Knowledge Base. Daphne emphasised the scale, mentioning cohorts of 500 students. Importance of effective learning design. Use of tutors to facilitate the discussion of complex issues. To overcome the difficulty of distance learning students being reticent to participate in group work, one approach is to offer direct and clear explanations: collaboration is a key employability skill.

Session: Empowering the Digital Teacher

I chose this session for very practical reasons; a very important aspect of my role is to offer continuing professional development for tutors who provide distance tuition. I felt this session had the potential to offer inspiration about the design of tutor development sessions.

The opening session was entitled ‘“I wish I Had More Time” Mentor Teacher Narratives of Reflective Practice: a Case for Online Mentoring’ was presented by Helen Dorner from the Central European University, Hungary. The presentation centred upon mentoring relationships to support novice teachers, offering a connection to familiar theory, such as Schon’s work about the reflective practitioner.

There were two other notable presentations during this session. Klaus Stiller from the University of Ragensburg, Germany presented ‘Dropout in an Online Training for In-service Teachers’. Factors that could influence drop-out include student background, experience and different perspectives of learning. Points included the importance of motivation, prior knowledge, attitude and levels of student anxiety. There wasn’t one single clear finding suggesting the issue of student drop out is one that is complex.

The final presentation, by Kwok-Wing Lai was about ‘Secondary Teaching at a Distance: a New Zealand Case Study’. Working in higher education, I found a presentation about distance education at another category of education was particularly interesting. Teachers were asked to complete a detailed questionnaire. Teachers were motivated by an opportunity for personal development and altruism but faced institutional pressures and agreed that there was the need for more support. A significant challenge was the building of a good student-teacher relationship, which is an issue that I recognise from my own personal practice.

Day 3: Opening Plenary Session

The plenary session that opened the third day had a very European focus. In addition to presentations about a project about diversity and social engagement and the relationships between patents and public knowledge, Georgi Dimitrov gave a short presentation about EU perspectives on digital education. Georgi emphasises a number of themes and subjects that were important to the conference: the existence of a digital divide, inclusivity and higher education, digital pedagogies and digital makers, the use of open educational resources and the challenge of developing soft skills amongst areas where there is a skills shortage. The audience was left with three points: the need to consolidate and appreciate what has been learnt, the need to build closer ties between researchers, and the need to go beyond rhetoric and to seek and use evidence.

From a personal perspective, I enjoyed Rosie Jones’s presentation. Rosie is the Director of Library Services at The Open University. Her presentation had the title ‘The Open Library’, which relates to the question: what is meant by ‘the library’ to students who are studying at a distance learning university? Rosie emphasised that the library is both a physical building and a digital portal that enables students to gain access to resources and literature that is necessary for effective study. I noted down a comment that there is a connection between more library access and higher student results.

The OU library is an actual physical space that has virtual tours; the physicality of the library is something that can also surprise some students. There is value of a physical space; a visit to a library can engender feelings, but a question is: how can we create similar feelings for distance learners? Amidst Rosie’s talk is the understanding that the roles of libraries are changing; they represent both important learning spaces and a provider of resources and services that facilitate learning. 

Session: E-Learning Policy and Strategy Issues

The first presentation of the strategy session was a synthesis of a set of interviews of vice-chancellors and rectors of European distance learning institutions. Written by former Open Learning editor, Simon Bell, this paper draws on a series of editorials that were presented during 2016 issues of Open Learning.

The other presentations within this session touched on formal decision making strategies, learner analytics, and an analysis of ICT policies in Canadian and Australian secondary education. Working within The Open University school of Computing and Communications, I found this final presentation particularly interesting since it touched on current debates about computing education. A question underpinning this presentation related to the extent to which computing education should relate to algorithmic thinking, problem solving and programming as opposed to practical IT skills. Taking a wider perspective, I can see how this relates to the tensions in the field that relate to professional education (knowing how to do things) and education (gaining the techniques and tools to know how to learn to do things). 

Session: International e-learning Development Cases

Since there was such a choice of sessions, I split my time between two different parallel sessions: the digital learners’ needs and motivation, and MOOC panorama, before moving onto the international e-learning development cases session. I was drawn to this international session since the international dimension of Open Learning is particular important; the sharing of international perspectives allows different institutions to learn from a wider range of experiences.

There were three presentations during this session. The first was by Edith Tapia-Rangel who presented E-Learning and Multiculturality in Mexico. Echoing an earlier session about MOOCs Edith introduced us to an open access module that introduced students a module entitled: what is cultural diversity? The module presented topics such as the history of Mexico and its indigenous people and literature. A key point was that students faced challenges that are familiar to distance learners: family commitments, work challenges, and approaching study from a wide variety of backgrounds. 

Dinara Tutaeva from the Faculty of Distance Learning at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics offered us a reminder that distance learning and education can take on different forms. Dinara spoke of different groups of learners; offering learning for both young people and for seniors. An approach was to open up the university on a Saturday, and I noted down the ideas of creative weeks, learning excursions and the provision of master classes.

The final talk of this session, ‘Diversity and Digitalization as Vital Key Success Factors for Individualisation of Learning’ was by Christian-Andreas Schumann from the West Saxon University of Zwickau, Germany. Christian-Andreas spoke the idea of how a semantic network might be used to drive a path through a set of digital learning objects. His talk made me think of a project that I used to work on when I worked in industry; my role was to create learning objects and tag the objects with searchable metadata. It was interesting to hear that the terminology I was familiar with was being used in a different context.

Day 4 : Session: Socio-cultural aspects of e-learning

The first presentation of the day was by Catherine Arden from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her presentation had the title ‘From Frontier Learning to Blended Community Learning: A Phenomenography of Informal Learning in Rural Community Informatics’. Catherine’s research used the tools of phenomenography and variation theory to uncover the experiences of a learner within a community. It was a presentation that contained a number of pedagogic and technical terms, such as: learning incentives, work-based learning theory and socio-technical systems.

The next presentation, ‘Diversity: A Blessing or a Curse for Online Collaboration?’ was by Gizeh Perez Tenorio. My instinctive answer to this question was: diversity is a blessing, since problems and issues can be understand more fully since different participants may have different perspectives. 

The final session was given by Kadir Kaya from Middle East Technical University, who studied ‘Research Trends of Instructional Technology Dissertations in Turkey’. Kadir studied the emergence of different topics in the broad field of technology enhanced learning. In some respects, this final presentation echoed the theme that was introduced in the pre-conference session.

Reflections

I enjoyed my first visit to EDEN. I was surprised by the number of delegates, the size of the conference and the breadth of the presentations which touched on very many different aspects of distance teaching and learning. Diversity, in all its different guises, is a really important subject and I’m really glad that the conference organisers chose this as a focus. The personal highlight for me was the contemporary importance of the first session presentations that I attended; they show the extent to which technology can have a very practical use when it comes to facilitating inclusion and understanding.

A criticism lies with some of the keynote presentations. Whilst some presentations clearly achieved the important purpose of tone setting and inspiring thoughts amongst the delegates, I did feel that some of the sessions could have been moved to some of the parallel sessions. I also felt that there was an opportunity to perhaps have a more panel discussions that involved a number of discussants who adopt different and contrasting perspectives.

These things said, EDEN is clearly an excellent conference in terms of getting to know colleagues from a range of different learning institutions. What struck me was the diversity of distance learning models and approaches are used across Europe. In terms of this perspective, the experience of attending EDEN was invaluable.

Note: this conference report was originally written for Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-learning. A different version of this article will be submitted to this journal as an official conference report.

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Windsor AL staff development event

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In June 2017 I attended the Heathrow and Windsor staff development event. Like other events that are run by the AL support and professional development (ALSPD) team, this was a residential event, which meant an overnight stay. The evening comprised of a meal and an opportunity to network with fellow associate lecturers and to participate in a number of activities that allowed us to share practice.

Overview

The main conference day comprised of a faculty specific sessions followed by two cross-faculty AL development sessions that everyone could choose from. There appeared to be a good mix of presentations, which included a talk about professional recognition (which relate to fellowship of the Higher Education Academy), updates about a new teaching tool called Adobe Connect, and how to apply for new associate lecturer vacancies.

The faculty session began with a short talk about a professional development initiative called By ALs For ALs (which I hope to blog about later at some point). This was followed by a breakout into different rooms depending upon the ‘schools’ that tutors were affiliated to.

I led the School of Computing and Communications session, where I shared a number of updates (thanks to slides that were prepared by the head of school). Key points included plans for the updates to the Group Tuition Policy, and the recruitment for new modules. In my school, two new modules are: TM111 and TM112, which are new introduction to computing modules, replacing a larger 60 point module.

Workshop: delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly

In the afternoon, I facilitated two cross faculty workshop sessions which had the title: Delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly: is it possible and how do we do it? This session had a big and deliberately provocative title, and relates to a subject that is really important to me: I’m very mindful of the importance of delivering effective correspondence tuition.

Here is the abstract of the session: Correspondence tuition takes a lot of time. Delivering excellent correspondence tuition is both an art and a challenge, but how we can try to deliver excellent correspondence quickly? This session is open to anyone in any faculty and is all about sharing experiences and uncovering correspondence tuition techniques to make things easier for ourselves. If you are a new tutor and would like to learn some useful tips and techniques, then do come along! If you are an experienced tutor and would like to share your experience with others, you will be especially welcome too! You will hopefully come away with an armoury of techniques that you can apply with your next TMA. An outcome of the session will be a useful resource that will be shared to everyone after the AL conference.

To prepare for the session, I wrote a PowerPoint presentation. I also designed the session to be as interactive as possible since I felt that I wouldn’t have all of the answers, and that it was important to listen to the views of tutors. To give a feel for the session, here is a quick summary of all the slides that I had prepared.

Summary of session presentation

After a quick introduction, I asked a series of questions to elicit thoughts about how to define excellent correspondence:  What do you think is important? What should be included? What tone should you adopt? What really matters in your subject or module? Where does feedforward go?, and Where does feedback go?

Next up was a slide that described some research by a former colleague called Mirabelle Walker, who wrote a paper entitled ‘An investigation into written comments on assignments: do students find them usable?’ This paper was an OU study which conducted an analysis of over 3000 comments on 106 assignments in 3 modules. Different comment types were identified: content, skills development, motivating (and demotivating!), mention of future study, references to resources.

Some research

A key factor was depth of comments: indication of a problem, correction of a problem, correction along with an explanation. .Motivating comments offered identification, amplification relating to the praise, explanation as to why something is good. In terms of the analysis, these came out as indication (33.3%), amplication (56.1%), explanation (10.6%). Another type of comment was skills development comments, where were analysed as follows: indication (7.7%), correction (78.8%), explanation (13.5%)

A key point that I had on the slide was the comments aimed to bridge gaps of understanding, i.e. they are intended to move things along. I also posed a question to everyone: is there anything that your module team can help with? The implication of this is: if there is something that a tutor think that a module team can help with, then it is really important to get in touch and to let them know.

Questions

For the next bit of the slide, I presented a set of questions across two slides. The first slide had the title: How do you do your correspondence teaching? The questions were: Where do you do your marking? What do you do before you start? Do you have a routine? If so, what is it? Do you have a strategy or an approach?, and What do you tell your students?

The second slide had the title: Doing things quickly… or using time efficiently. It had three key questions: (1) What would be your biggest tip for a new tutor? (2) What would be your biggest tip for a fellow tutor? (3) What would you put in a resource for a tutor?

Tips

Towards the end of the session, I shared set of eleven personal marking tips and opinions. The idea of sharing these personal views was to consolidate all the discussions; the tips and any differences in opinions about them could facilitate further discussions. 

My marking tips were: (1) check on the tutor forum to see what other tutors are saying, and whether other tutors have any issues with the scripts that students have submitted, (2) create a TMA summary template using comments that have been given to a student as a part of an earlier TMA, similarly (3) take time to look at the previous TMA (PT3) summaries. (4) to ensure consistency, mark a question at a time (unless your module assessment structure suggests it might be easier doing something different) (5) use a computer that has multiple screens; this way you can see different views of the work more easily. (6) don’t agonise over individual marks; use your marking instincts and commit to something; you’ll invariably be right.(7) when giving feedback, explain why things are assessed (what is it assessing) (8) offer pointers beyond boundaries of the module; this may help students to understand the assessment structure. (9) Proactively tell students how marking are going either by email, or by a forum, or both! (10) Always praise effort, not the score. And finally, (11) if it is apparent that a student is having real problems, you can always recommend running a special session.

Discussion summary

During each of the two workshops, I captured some of the key discussion points by making notes on a flipchart. What follows is a brief summary of some of the main points captured from each of the two groups.

Group one: excellent correspondence tuition can mean timeliness, i.e. returning things quickly so the students can benefit from the feedback. Sign posting is considered to be important, as is being specific. It is important to acknowledge effort, and to stretch students. It is also important to manage their expectations. 

An interesting approach is to ask them leading questions, or to present a series of questions. It is useful for tutor to do some monitoring (to help with module quality control). Feedback should be personalised, and should be concise and precise. Use positive language. Other thoughts included defining what is meant by learning success, or setting a learning goal for the future. Finally, use the KISS principle, which means: keep it simple. Also use a ‘feedback sandwich approach’ that emphasises the positive.

Group two: the feedback should be personalised for the needs of students, so it can help them to progress. Feedback should be detailed, but not too detailed. It is also (of course) important that tutors follow the marking notes (and refer to the learning outcomes) that have been provided by the module team. Offer students some priorities in terms of things to work on. As well as be encouraging, give students three (positive) points of advice, and offer signposts to the things that they can do to improve.

Also, do contact the students if we need to. Offer pointers to encourage them to look forward to different parts of a module and explain how the different parts are connected together. In terms of tone, emphasise what needs to be done to move forward. Be professional, and also do comment on study skills, such as referencing. Explain module ideas and correct terminology. Offer feedforward comments with reference to the final assessment and accompanying learning outcomes.

The second group also had some very practical suggestions: tutors should encourage students to become familiar with the assignment submission process by submitting a dummy eTMA. Another point was about the use of discussion forums to share information (and, perhaps, even notes that relate to the module). 

Reflections

There was a lot of discussion that took place during both of the two workshop sessions that I facilitated. These notes are drawn from the plenary sessions that I ran. Another thought is that the points that I have presented here are, of course, influenced by my own experiences as a tutor. Different tutors at the same sessions may have come away with a very different view about what was discussed, and that is something that is okay: every time we go to one of these professional development sessions, invariably we pick up something new.

The biggest thing that I have, personally, taken away from the session is the thought of: ‘offer the students three key points when you give them feedback; offering more than three points has the risk of overloading them’. This comment relates to the assessment summaries which are used to offer feed-forward guidance, rather than feedback which is directly left on a student’s script. This is a thought that I have thoroughly taken on board within my own practice as a tutor on a Computing and IT project module.

I came away with another thought: I felt that the use of Mirabelle’s research really helped to contextualise and explain our academic practice. This got me thinking: perhaps I could do a literature review of research that relates to correspondence tuition. Whilst I certainly could do that (I’ve made a note!), there are other things that I need to get on with. One of those things is a summary of another professional development event that was held in Leeds.

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AL Development conference: Leeds, 6 May 2017

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 29 Jul 2017, 15:26

I’ve been busy this year; I’ve been to a fair number of AL development events up and down the country. The Leeds conference, which was run in May 2017, was a ‘residential’ which meant that the associate lecturers are given the opportunity to travel to the conference venue the night before. During the evening, everyone was given a simple activity about ice breakers, tutorials and running online sessions. I understand that our ALSPD colleagues will collate the results and share them with everyone when they get around to it. I look forward to reporting something via this blog!

Keynote: Josie Fraser, Executive Dean

The keynote presentation of the conference, which focused on the university redesign project and accompanying strategy, was given Josie Fraser who is the executive dean of STEM. Josie began with some personal reflections; she used to be an OU associate lecturer many year ago (which is something that is very heartening to hear), and she talked about how university study had touched members of her family.

When she started to speak about university strategy, she mentioned the funding challenges the Higher Education sector is faced with; an issue that isn’t unique to the OU. It was sobering to hear that there will be a curriculum review, and there will be emphasis on internal university processes. A message that I heard was that it is important to make things easier for ourselves (and I assume this means everyone in the university), with a view to simplifying and investing, where appropriate.

Another point was the reflection that curriculum production and development is costly, and this varies significantly across the institution. Underpinning this point is the acknowledgement that costs need to be reduced. A thought is that it might be a good idea to develop smaller chunks of curriculum (which is something that is already happening in the level 1 computing and IT programme). There will also be an emphasis on taking the cost out of non-student facing elements. The message was pretty clear: there will be change, and people and jobs are likely to be affected. 

Faculty session

After Josie’s keynote, everyone went out into our respective faculty groups. These being the faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS), The faculty of Art and Social Sciences (FASS), The Faculty of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and the OU Business School.

I went to the STEM session, where a colleague from the former Faculty of Science, Janet Haresnape, introduced an online associate lecturer programme she has helped to establish, called ByALsForALs. One of the greatest advantages of attending AL development sessions is that you have an opportunity to share practice and experience with fellow tutors. Janet’s programme has the same objective: to share experiences. Any STEM tutor can attend one of the ByALsForALs sessions, and any tutor can create a proposal to run session. I have to personally admit that I haven’t (yet) been to any of them, but all the sessions are recording, so there is a good set of resources that tutors can now draw upon – so, I shall be listing to one or more of them.

After the STEM session, we split into school groupings. During the Computing and IT school update, I talked through some slides that had been delivered at a school meeting. Some key points were recruitment for new modules was continuing, that the university is making progress in terms of its engagement with degree apprenticeships, and there will be some changes to the level 2 (and level 3) computer networking curriculum. During this session, I also remember some debate about the challenges that accompanied the introduction of the group tuition policy. 

Workshop sessions

I seem to make things difficult for myself. I seem to remember that the Leeds event may well have been the third AL development session I have given since the programme was announced, and every single session I seem to be doing something totally different!

During this session I ran two focus groups about the topic of tuition observations: I wanted to listen to tutors, and to ask them what they thought about them, and how they felt they could help their continuing professional development. The second of the two sessions was very well attended, and there were two very noisy discussion groups (and I write this meaning ‘noisy’ in a good way!) Opinions have been collected, and this will inform some university scholarship which will hopefully go some way to offering an updated set of institutional guidance about how to carry out effective observations.

My next step is to organise a focus group for staff tutors!

Final thoughts

The new ALSPD team are getting very good at running these events! From the presenter’s perspective, everything seemed to run very smoothly (but, of course, I didn’t do any of the rushing about behind the scenes). STEM session went very well; I do think it’s useful to have someone guiding the ‘all the schools from the faculty’ session, which is something that staff tutor colleagues have to work on. Also, from here I was sitting, I personally felt that the keynote speech went down very well, and the forthcoming challenges were made clear.

A final point returns to the thought that I should make things easier for myself: the next AL development session that I’m going to be running, which takes place in Windsor (or Slough, depending on your persuasion) is going to be all about delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly. I haven’t run this session before, but I’m hoping it’s going to be both useful and fun.

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eSTEeM Annual Conference: April 2017

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On 25 April I had the opportunity of attending a part of the Open University’s eSTEeM annual conference. eSTEeM is a university body that funds scholarship and research into STEM teaching and learning. More information about the projects that eSTEeM funds can be found by visiting the eSTEeM website.

What follows is a short summary of the conference, from my own perspective. I should add that all these views are my own, rather than those of the university. I’m sharing for two reasons (1) in case anyone who was at the conference might find it useful, and (2) I can remember what I’ve done at the end of the year.

Opening keynote

Due to travel connections I missed the opening address, which was given by eSTEeM director, Clem Herman. I did, however, make it in time to hear the opening keynote, which was given by Nicola Turner (blog), who works for HEFCE. 

As Nicola spoke, I made notes of key points that jumped out at me. One of the early notes I made was that 14 thousand teachers are needed. There is also a skills shortage in STEM. Apparently, 1 in 4 jobs relate to a role that is in a skills shortage area. But what skills are needed, and what skills are considered to be important. One answer is this: digital skills (in the loosest possible sense!) are considered to be important: tech, of course, is a fast growing and changing area.

Investment, of course, can benefit different parts of the country. A worrying point was that Nicola said was that there was no northern city that was a net GDP contributor (a disclaimer is that I don’t personally know where this bit of information comes from, or how you might define what ‘northern’ is). London, however, attracted a substantial amount of investment (but this isn’t much of a surprise), but there are ‘digital strengths’ in the regions. Another point I noted was that there is the need for 1.2 million skilled tech workers by 2022, and 93% of tech employers have reported a skills gap in 2016. The key question is: what can be done?

To show that I was really paying attention, some of the most sought after skills contained the keywords: developer, agile and SQL. There are also skills shortages in the area of cloud computing, big data and analytics. An important point is that workers need to be digitally literate, and this is something that links to that old education idea of ‘lifelong learning’.

If there is a skills shortage, an important question to ask is: why is the unemployment rates from computing graduates surprisingly high? This is something that is referenced in the Shadbolt review : Computer science degree accreditation and graduate employability (UK government website). There is also the Wakeham review into employability of STEM graduates (UK government website).

Nicola went onto talk about the Shadbolt review. As she spoke, I noted down a few points: that employment may come from a pool of students from elite universities and that there is low take up of work experience options (I have to confess, that this was offered to me as an undergraduate, and I didn’t take a year out in industry); this leads to a potential lack of soft skills and interpersonal skills. When it comes to computing and IT, the people side is just as important as the technology side.

I noted down some themes regarding employability. Industry is always after ‘work ready graduate’, but there is a contact challenge that industry is always changing (especially the tech industries). But what are the answers? There are things going on: there is the introduction of degree apprenticeships (of which the Open University is playing a part), ‘200 million in STEM teaching capital’, and government strategies.

There is something called the National Cybersecurity Strategy (UK government website), which is linked to degree apprenticeships, a digital skills strategy (UK government website), and an industrial skills strategy. 

The digital skills strategy was defined as a collaboration between employers, educators and government. There was also a reference to the creation of new institutes of technology, and a national college for digital skills (college webite), which is based in London. Interestingly, the focus appears to be at sixth form students. I have to confess to being perplexed. The website says things like: ‘We develop the mindsets, skillsets and character needed to be a pioneer’ and says that students will ‘join a cutting-edge community of digital-thinkers’.

Another point I noted was about something called the Institute of Coding (HEFCE). A key paragraph on the website appears to be the one that reads: ‘The Institute of Coding initiative aims to create and implement solutions that develop and grow digital skills to meet the current and future needs of the industry’.

One thing is very encouraging: the comment that ‘lifelong learning’ is becoming trendy again. A personal reflection, and one that is echoed in the presentation, is that lifelong learning is an idea comes in and goes out of fashion depending on the government. The OU is, of course, good at delivering supported lifelong learning, but much of its provision has been substantially eroded by the increase in fees.

A connected point is that other higher education institutions are investing in distance learning. There is competition within the sector. At the same time, there may be opportunities in terms of ‘new customers’, which has been something that has been touched on in the current OU strategy.

Paper session

I attended one of the short presentation paper sessions, which consisted of four presentations. 

ByALs-ForALs: an online staff development programme in the STEM faculty

This first presentation was by Janet Haresnape, Fiona Aiken and Nirvana Wynn. I made a note of a point that ‘staff development is often us (the university and its representatives) telling people about things, but it should be more about sharing practice’. I totally agree with this. A personal reflection is when I do staff development, I try to get a balance between the two, but I’m sure I don’t always get it right.

The idea is simple: create an environment where ALs can actively share their experience through a programme of online staff development events. If an AL wants to give a presentation or facilitate a session, they submit a proposal. If they are successful, they will be paid for running the session. Tutors can register to attend different sessions by registering using a simple Wiki, and this feeds into an official professional development record.

A total of 500 associate lecturers have been to the various sessions, with attendance varying between 5 and 54, depending on the topic and the time of day. Interestingly, day time appears to be more popular than evening sessions. Every session is recorded, which means that anyone who wasn’t able to attend can benefit.

Following the merger of the Science and MCT faculties, the programme has been extended to all undergraduate and postgraduate ALs in the new STEM faculty (which now consists of over 1500 tutors). I have to confess to not having been to any of these sessions, but I do know of them, and I always put them in my diary! Two questions were: could this approach be rolled out to other faculties, and secondly, would it be possible to do something similar for the school that I work in? Funding may come from the AL professional development and support team. This is certainly something to think about.

Understanding and supporting the career pathway of mathematics and statistics associate lecturers

This presentation was by Rachel Hilliam, Alison Bromley and Carol Calvert, and related to the Maths and Stats submission to Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit website). The presentation was looking at the gender differences between tutors, and asking the questions: do we support tutors in the right way, and what career development is necessary? A mixed method was used: a focus group and a survey.

Some interesting findings between men and women were shared. On average, men had more experience (in terms of tutoring years) than women, and were more likely to have a greater number of tutor contracts.

One area that has interested me for some time is tutor motivation, and this research touches on the reasons why tutors do what they do. Some interesting reasons included: career, challenge and family. A really interesting statistic is that 60% of ALs who responded viewed their AL work as their main job. I also noted down that there was concern about a lack of face to face possibility for staff development.

Success against the odds and the follow through

The presenter for this session was Carol Calvert, from Maths and Stats, but the other contributors to this presentation are: Rachel Hilliam, Linda Brown and Colin Fulford (if I’ve noted this down properly!) The subheading for this talk is: ‘the interesting routes student feedback can open up’.

The interesting aspect of this research is that it adopts the innovate approach of actually speaking to students. To do this, researchers have to find their way through a panel called SRPP, which protects students from being ‘over researched’.

I made a note of top tips and themes that all contributes towards success: the importance of a ‘can do’ attitude, the importance of getting organised, and the need to get ahead. I made a note of another reference: the RSA Animate video entitled How to help every child fulfil their potential (RSA).

Tutorial observations

During the final session I spoke about a project that has been set up to study different approaches to tutorial observations and to ask the important question of what kind of observation or tutorial report would help tutors to develop their teaching practice? At this stage of the project, I don’t have too much to report. So far, a literature review has been completed, and a two focus groups with tutors have been carried out. The next step in the project is to run a focus group for staff tutors (who are, of course, line managers for those tutors).

Workshop: bridge over troubled waters

After taking a bit of time out to attend a module team meeting, I attended an afternoon session that explored the concept of a ‘bridging course’.

A bridging course is a short course that helps student build up their skill and confidence levels before they undertake another module. A bridging course might run between or before modules. An example of a bridging course something called the ‘programming bootcamp’ which helps students to prepare for TU100 (which is to be soon replaced by TM111 and TM112).

The workshop began with a question: ‘would your students benefit from a bridging course to help them transition to the second year?’ There is, apparently, something that is known as a ‘second year slump’. The second year of a degree is where things start to get really serious. To convince us that this was an important issue, Frances Chetwynd presented some evidence, citing research by Douglas and Attewell (American Journal of Education).

So, what things are important, with regard to student progress? Key points include: time management, familiarity with written assessments, unrealistic expectations (which influence drop out), critical thinking skills, and understanding the need to conduct independent research. My notes tell me that Frances also referenced the work of Conley, who has written about college readiness (Education Policy Improvement Centre, PDF). Key points were: cognitive strategies, content knowledge, academic behaviours (which include time management and what it means to be a student), and college knowledge (understanding of how the institution works).

With the scene set, it was time for group discussions. We thought about what our bridging course might contain. An hour isn’t a lot of time. Key points that we chatted about were the importance of tutors and the use of digital materials (and the familiarity of digital materials). A theme that we kept returning to was that of ‘programming’. Another important issue is, of course, study skills.

Closing keynote

The closing keynote, which was entitled ‘is there a role for pedagogy in enhancing the STEM student experience?’ was by Michael Grove, a reader in STEM education. My instinct was to answer this question with a definitive ‘yes’, but to add to this perspective, Michael presented up with a definition of pedagogy from the Oxford English dictionary: pedagogy is ‘the art, occupation or practice of teaching, also the theories or principles of education; a method of teaching on such a theory’.

Underpinning this is definition are the ideas of: preparation, design, development, delivery, evaluation, reflection and dissemination. This helps us to consider other questions: how do you share good practice and encourage wider uptake?

Looking at pedagogy means that we also look at research. An interesting point was made that pedagogy, research and scholarship all blur together, and could all come under the title of ‘education enquiry’. But how does this work? There are approaches that are used, such as case studies, action research, studies that draw on theories and the use of quasi-experimental methods.

I noted an interesting use of terms. To be scholarly means that we inform ourselves, whereas scholarship means that we’re informing a group and using local knowledge. Research, on the other hand, is about disseminating findings to a wider audience. All this is, of course, linked with changes in the HE sector. A particular issue is the development of teaching only contracts, which separates out teaching activity from research activity.

Michael directed us to a document entitled Getting started in pedagogic research within the STEM disciplines (Mathcentre, PDF). It was a document that was mentioned at another presentation, and it looks pretty useful. It contains sections about writing for publication, and list of journals that can be used to disseminate STEM education research. (I also recommend a journal called Open Learning).

In some respects, the original question should have been: ‘is there a role of research in STEM pedagogy?’ I’m instinctively inclined to answer ‘yes’ to this alternative question too. Michael also asks a question about why we should do this. He also offers an answer: it represents an important aspect of our personal academic identify (and also our commitment to our discipline).

Reflections

Although I missed a couple of bits of the conference, I felt the opening and closing speeches worked very well in terms of contextualising the pedagogic research that is done within the university. It is also a reminder that there is a lot to do: not only do academics have to teach (and write module materials), many of them conduct research, and also conduct research into the effectiveness of their teaching strategies and approaches. 

This emphasises that we’re a busy lot: we’re busy reading, writing, thinking and talking pretty much all the time. The event also emphasised how much work is going on, and discussions with others helps us to set our own personal priorities, and learn how we can work with others too.

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AL Development Conference, Leicester, April 2017

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Over the last few years I have been becoming more involved in AL development activities for the simple reason that it’s something that I really enjoy. Since regional centres have been disbanded, I have been contributing to the centrally organised AL development events that have been run by our ALSDWG (AL staff development working group) colleagues. This is a quick blog post about the residential AL development conference that took place in Leicester, April 2017.

Keynote: Peter Horrocks

Peter began by presenting a set of PowerPoint slides that had been shared to Senate, an academic university wide steering group that comprises of staff from across the university. During Peter’s talk I noted down a reference to the students first strategy, the importance of academic excellence, and the importance of student employability, career progression and digital innovation. Peter presented a slide entitled ‘a strategic narrative on a page’ alongside a mission statement: ‘to create educational opportunities and social mobility for all who seek to realise their ambition and fulfil their potential’.

A very important point was that university is starting a new programme called OU Redesign. A set of thirteen ‘big shifts’ (or directions) have been devised which will focus attention in the ways that the university might change (or develop) some of its way of working. Some of these points have a pragmatic feel to them: ‘we will have a single design authority to ensure a high quality and consistent user experience’. Others points are, however, a little harder for me to grasp on a first reading, since they require an in depth understanding of university processes.

Towards the end of this first session Peter ran a question and answer session. The questions from associate lecturers were about the potential of staff reductions, how to address worries that students have, how finances are taken account of across the university, and some of the challenges that have accompanied the introduction of the group tuition policy. I noted down some of the responses, but there was an underlying point that the university needs to make changes to ensure the institution is on a firmer financial setting.

Although this summary sounds negative, Peter opened his presentation in a very positive way: he began by acknowledging the hard work of the associate lecturer community; it was a comment that both myself and others appreciated. 

AL development sessions

I didn’t have the opportunity of attending an events during this conference since I was too busy running my own. Just to make things difficult for myself, I have developed this unfortunate habit of doing something entirely different for every conference. For this event, I ran a session I wrote in 2014, which was looking at the inner workings of a really important university tool: the AL file handler. I called the session: ‘eTMAs and the eTMA file handler: under the hood’.

Just so I remember, here is a summary of the abstract: ‘Are you someone who knows how to use the eTMA file handler, but would like to know a little more about how it works?  Would you like to know (and to share) some tips and techniques about how to use it better?  Would you like to know how to take backups and your marking between different computers?  If you’ve answer yes to any of these questions, then this session could be for you.  During this session we will be looking at the detail of how the OU eTMA file handler works.  Knowing how it does its job will help you to use it with a greater level of confidence.’

When I first ran this I was surprised with how interested and useful some tutors found it. The idea was simple: understanding how something works allows you to create, or correct, a user’s mental model. In doing so, you can build confidence, and uncover new ways of working.

What was really interesting, from my perspective, was how everyone differed in terms of their own experiences and understanding of the ETMA tool. I was also interested to learn that different tutors have slightly different practices when it comes to marking.

Closing points

AL development conferences are always interesting and fun; there is also always something to learn. It was also good to hear from senior representatives of the university. From my side, I can see that the AL development group are doing a great job at running these events. I look forward to the next one!


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Making a TM470 log by using a blog

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TM470 is the Computing and IT project module. The project module allows students to draw on skills and ideas that they have studied and developed during earlier level three modules. It enables students to demonstrate skills across a more substantial piece of work.

This short blog post is basically a bunch of ideas that might be useful for fellow TM470 tutors, but also for any TM470 student (and anyone else who might be involved in a project module).

A really important part of TM470 is the end of project report which summarises everything that has been done. The report requires students to present a description of the outcomes of the project, and what has happened during the project.

The project log

TM470 project can last up to eight months. During that time, a lot can happen. To keep track of things the TM470 module team recommend that students create something that is called a project log. Here’s an excerpt from the module materials that offer a bit of guidance:

"Keeping a project log is similar to keeping a diary. It is a useful aid in helping to manage a project. In a project log, ideally you should make a log entry each time you have a work session.

Whether recorded on paper or electronically, your log is where you keep details at regular intervals of salient events or facts that have occurred in your project. The log differs from your plan in that it provides more detail of things you have done, whereas the plan is a schedule of what you are or should be doing. The log is purely historical information; it can contain facts about your project but probably more important is writing down reflections about what you are doing."

The module team suggests that a log serves three purposes:

  1. They provide a reminder of how your project developed; this will be useful when it comes to writing your TMAs and EMA.
  2. They help you when in discussions with your tutor because they provide a record of how you planned your project, how you managed your time, how you tackled the tasks and how you dealt with any problems.
  3. Using the log sheets on a regular basis will help you to keep to your schedule, and may suggest changes to your schedule. 

Students are told that they should be spending approximately ten hours per week on their project. The project log also enables students to keep track of how much time they’re spending on the project. 

Students are also encouraged to submit excerpts of their blog to their tutor, to keep them informed about how their project is progressing.

The OU VLE

The module team suggests that a log might be recorded on paper, or recorded electronically. An accompanying question is: what form might an electronic log take? One approach is to use a word processing document. You could have a day for every page. One idea is to record a ‘session number’, record a date, record how long was spent working, and also a summary of what was done during that session, and perhaps some thoughts about what the next steps might be. In some ways, this kind of log has parallels to a ‘work log’ that a researcher might keep.

Rather than using a word processing document another idea is to keep a TM470 log in the OU VLE blog.

Every OU student is given their own blog, which is hosted in the university virtual learning environment. The OU blog is useful because it provides a number of useful features:

  1. It allows students to automatically record the date and time of any entry that is made.
  2. It allows students to add ‘tags’ against particular blog entries. A tag, of course, is a useful word that can be used to help find things again. Using the OU blog you can quickly find blog entries with the same tag (in the way that the tag for this post is TM470).
  3. Students can any log entry with other TM470 students, and they can share their TM470 log entries with you. Blogs can be easily shared with a tutor, enabling them to more directly understand progress on a particular project.
  4. The blog can be accessed easily through a web browser: you don’t have to use the same word processing software every time.
  5. The blog is automatically backed up by the university, which means that you don’t have to worry. 

Another feature of the OU blog is that students can choose who sees what is posted. 

The OU blog has three settings: students can keep every blog (or log) post private; this means that a blog can be a bit like a private diary. Another setting is that blog posts are only visible to people within the university. This setting is useful for sharing blog posts to other TM470 students. The final setting is to make a blog post visible to the entire world. In terms of TM470, I personally recommend that this first two options are used.

An accompanying question is: how can students begin to use their blog? The answer is to look for their VLE profile. They will soon find a link that allows them to begin posting a blog.

Note taking advice

Whilst the TM470 module team offers some great advice for creating a log, the university also offers other advice which might be useful too, such as note taking techniques which is available on the skills for study website.

Also, the following three useful points (Making notes strategically) have been adapted from Northedge (2005) from his book The Good Study Guide, p.155:

  1. Take an active and enquiring approach to study. Ask yourself questions, such as ‘what is this about?’, ‘what do I want to remember?’ and ‘what do I want to say?’ and writing down the answers.
  2. Flexibility. Make sketched notes or detailed notes according to need. This can be particularly useful when making note to support creativity. These notes could then be ‘written up’ and used within the project log. Plus, having them in a blog form allows them to be searched.
  3. Reflection. Looking at notes and ask: ‘are they doing the job I want?’ and ‘could I be using my time more effectively?’ Or, put another way: are these the right kind of notes.

Sharing blogs with other students

The best way to share blogs with fellow students is to share links to the blogs in the module discussion forums. Once you have a link to a blog, you can then add it to something called a ‘blog feed’, to receive a notification whenever a new update has been made. Another advantage of a blog is, of course, students will see that they’re not alone; that there are others who have to contend with similar challenges.

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Study Skills Resources: what is available?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 12 Sep 2017, 17:40

The Open University provides a lot of study skills resources, but these are scattered across a number of different sites. This blog post is intended to provide a quick 'summary page' of some of the resources that might be useful for anyone is are studying with the OU (or, in fact, studying at any other universities).

Firstly, a book

After enrolling for my first OU module, I was sent a textbook called The Good Study Guide by Andrew Northedge. I didn't ask for this book, and I had never seen this book before. In fact, I was really surprised to get an unexpected book!

I found the time to sit down and read it, and this was time well spent; it offered a wealth of study tips, resources and strategies. The book has a companion website that helps you to get a flavour of what it contains.

If you're an OU student and you don't have this book, then do get a copy. If you're an existing OU student, then do make the time to look over this book time and time again: its really useful.

I think I have once written that I hold the view that if I had learnt about this book during my undergraduate days, I might have got better scores in both my essays and my exams!

Skills for Study: a really useful resource

There are some really useful resources that are available online. I particularly recommend that everyone visits the Open University Skills for Study website.

There are two really useful parts of the site (which is separated into tabs): a section about preparing and writing assignments and another section that is about revision and examinations. The preparing and writing assignments is particularly useful; it offers ideas about how to begin an assignment, to create a draft and think about how to edit what has been written.

There are also a set of downloadable study skills booklets. Key topics include: thinking critically, reading and taking notes, and develop effective study strategies. One particularly useful booklet is: preparing assignments (PDF). It contains some really useful sections are about paraphrasing, quoting and referencing, and improving your written English.

Library resources

The OU library is massive: it enables students to access papers and publications that are about anything and everything. The library have developed a set of useful study skills resources, but these are not very easy to find. 

In the help section, there is a link to a section that is all about Referencing and Plagiarism (OU Library website) it contains a really nice animation that explains things. One thing to remember that plagiarism is a term that can be pretty emotive. A key point is that it's important to make sure that you reference all the sources that you use, and that appropriate referencing does two things (1) it shows your tutor how much you've been reading, and (2) shows how you are becoming familiar with what it means to do academic writing.

A further links leads to something called the avoiding plagiarism pathway (OU being digital). This is one page of a wider set of library resources called Being Digital (OU Library services site) which is all about developing digital literacy skills. These pages contain a set of really useful interactive activities (OU being digital) that aim to develop computing, IT, and digital literacy skills.

The library also provides a link to something called the OU Harvard referencing guide. This shows you how to refer to any kind of resource: books, academic papers, conference proceedings, blogs, news articles and videos. If you're not sure whether you can reference something, do check out the OU Harvard guide; this should offer a bit of useful guidance.

Developing good academic practice

The library resource about Referencing and Plagiarism links to a short course that is called Developing Good Academic Practice (OU DGAP website). Although this is a short resource, it is very useful. It helps you to understand what good academic practice is and why it is important.

English language development: Open Learn resources

Some programmes aim to integrate English language development and skills into their modules; this is what Computing and IT does. Other subjects or programmes are slightly different: there is a module called L185 English for Academic Purposes which some Science students might study. Business studies students might study LB170 Communication skills for business and management.

One really cool thing that the Open University does is make a small percentage of its modules available to everyone for free though a site called OpenLearn (OU OpenLearn website). Up to ten percent of all OU modules may be available through OpenLearn, and it also makes some older modules available too.

Essentially, OpenLearn offers free courses. There are a series of English language skills courses (OpenLearn site) that anyone can access. One course, entitled English: skills for learning looks to be particularly useful. Here's a description:

“This course is for anybody who is thinking of studying for a university degree and would like to develop the English reading and writing skills needed to succeed. You'll be introduced to academic reading and effective note-making strategies. You'll develop your essay writing. You'll look at academic style and vocabulary-building strategies. You'll also enhance your understanding of sentence structure and punctuation. You will learn through a range of engaging activities aimed at extending your existing language skills.”

Resources from other institutions

Students in other universities face exactly the same challenges faced by students in the OU. Since study skills and writing are important issues other universities have developed their own resources. A small sample of what is available is given below. 

One thing to add is: if you're an OU student, do look at the OU resources first before looking elsewhere. It's not that other institutions will offer bad or wrong advice (I always believe that different perspectives can be really useful in terms of understanding things), it's more a matter of terminology: the OU loves its abbreviations and sometimes has a certain way of doing things.

Final thoughts

This post contains link to many different resources and it might feel a bit overwhelming. The trick is to figure out what you need, to consider how you learn, and to then to have a look at some of the resources to see if you find them useful. If you need additional help in figuring out what you need, you should then also consider giving your subject student support team a ring.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Tricia Cronin and Ann Matsunaga; I have drawn on some of the links they have provided in their Resource to support students with English as a second language document.

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Homeworking workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 17 Mar 2017, 15:26

On Monday 13 March 2017, I attended what I think was the first ‘home working workshop’. It was held at on the university campus in Milton Keynes. Since the regional centres have closed, many staff tutors and faculty managers have become ‘designated home workers’. I’m sharing this quick blog of the event for two reasons: (1) so I remember what kinds of things were covered, and (2) on the off chance that anyone else might find it of interest.

Workshop objectives

Before the workshop we were asked to reflect on a set of key questions (which I’ve briefly edited for brevity): (1) what boundaries do you currently set to separate work from other parts of your life (e.g. having a designated workspace at home to which working is limited)? (2) how we implemented these boundaries? (3) how effective do we find these boundaries?, (4) Have we experienced difficulties with setting boundaries, and what makes them challenging?

The objectives for the workshop were to: identify strategies for managing the potential adverse impacts associated with homeworking, to consider the importance of recovery and switch-off time, and the implications for setting boundaries when homeworking. Other objectives were to help us to reflect on our own patterns when using technology, with a view to setting up effective practices. In essence, it was all about finding a way forward.

Thoughts about home working

Home working isn’t a new thing. Over four thousand part-time associate lecturers are already home workers. It is, however, a new thing for full time staff (like myself) who used to be office based. 

I have to admit to being a bit grumpy about the whole thing: I miss my colleagues. A month or so into being a home worker, and I’m beginning to feel pretty isolated and ‘semi-detached’ from the university, and I'm spending a disproportionate amount of time looking at motorcycles on eBay.

On a more serious note I am, however, beginning to really appreciate the flexibility, but I haven’t yet fully started to take advantages of the flexibility that it affords. I do have a worry too: I can’t help but feel that there are some days that I seem to work too much; I know that I shouldn’t be still looking at email at nine o’clock at night (but I do justify this by talking to my inner ‘time guilt clock’ after taking a couple of hours off to go shopping).

I attended the workshop since I was curious: what could the facilitators in the workshop tell me? Also, were there any words of advice that would help me to settle into a new way of working?

Group discussion

The first activity was a group discussion, where we were asked to discuss the positives, negatives, and thoughts about anything that could be done to overcome issues that we might face. I made note that ‘switching off can be a problem’; that you could work all the time, but (as mentioned above) it gives you flexibility. A particular challenge might be if you’re new to the job: you might not be necessarily exposed to all the machinations of the university and have a reduced opportunity to ask questions.

A particular theme was the fear that we might become invisible; others might not know what we do. Also, because we’re not ‘in the office’ there is a fear that things that we do might not be valued.  Another theme related to support: ‘watercooler’ chats don’t happen anymore; you can’t just pop your head above a partition and talk over potentially difficult issues with colleagues.

There are some key points: HR, Faculty and School policies need to be clarified. Also, I can’t help but feel that the subject of home working will become more important if the discussions surrounding the new associate lecturer contract comes to pass.

Personas

The next activity was to have a chat about two hypothetical members of staff, or personas. One member of staff was very experienced, whereas another member of staff was new. We were asked two questions: what would you say to the people in the personas? And, what advice would you offer to someone who is about to become a home worker?

Our group came up with some good advice: agitate (positively, and within your school or department) as much as you can, do be cheeky (since that can get you recognised), and attend meetings that are relevant to you and your job (whether they are face to face or online). Other thoughts are: be visible; volunteer for things, tell other people what you’re doing (maybe have a blog?), and don’t be afraid of asking questions. 

Setting boundaries between work and private life

The next part of the workshop was a short talk by Svenja Schlachter, a PhD student at the University of Surrey. As Svenja talked, I made notes of points that jumped out at me. This bit of the blog is an edited transcript of the notes that I made.

A question is: ‘how do people recover from work?’ A point is: you need to be active in setting your own boundaries, and you need to be active in terms of planning your own recovery from work. If you don’t ‘recover’ properly, there are implications, such as: fatigue, mood, sleep problems, reduced performance, and risk of cardio-vascular death (I remember that Svenja supported this final point with some references).

We’re faced with a challenge: how was we properly recover from work when we’re surrounded by way to ‘get to’ work (such as, through our mobile devices and laptops)? The answer might lie in the concept of boundary management: there are different domains in our life, and we need to maintain mental fences for ourselves.

There is the idea of different boundary management styles. One idea is that there is a continuum: on one hand there are people who use segmentation (keep work and different domains separate), but on the other hand there might be people who integrate work with everything that they do. 

Segmentation means that it is easier to switch off from work and there might be less work-life conflict. Integration might mean longer hours but the possibility of work-life enrichment; the argument is that if you keep things apart, you prevent good things that happen in the work domain permeating to other aspects of your life (I’m guessing that the opposite is also true). Interesting, there is also the concept of ‘cyclers’ (or cycles), where you might move across the boundary continuum depending on what is happening at a particular point. A really important point is that it is important to feel in control of things; feelings of control influences well-being.

We were given some questions: how do you set your boundaries, and how do you separate your work from other things? Also, how do you implement your boundaries? An implicit point was that having an office or designated workspace was a natural way to manage work-life boundaries; we were now faced with the challenge of rethinking how to do things. These thoughts led onto a discussion about different types of boundaries.

Space-based boundaries: this could be a dedicated working space at home. A point was: avoid working in a living space (such as using a dining room table). This was a really good point; I have this habit of moving from my study to the dining room table simply to have a ‘change of scene’. On reflection, this might not be such a good idea.

Time-based boundaries: the thought behind time-based boundaries is to set firm work hours, and find ways to keep tags on the hours that you do (and establish working times with other). This was also thought provoking: I think I have an internal ‘work clock’, which means that if I stop working within my work hours to go do something else, I try to make those hours up a bit later on (or at another time). A reflection point is: I need to work on figuring out my time-based boundaries.

Technology-based boundaries: the idea here is ‘use different devices for different boundaries’, i.e. perhaps think of taking a non-smartphone on holidays so you’re not tempted to access your email. Other tips might be: turn off function, such as data connectivity, during ‘down times’. Use features such as out of office reply to tell others when you’re not working.

Psychological boundaries: the key point is ‘don’t spend the whole day in your pyjamas, even if you are able to do so’; consider ‘getting dressed for work’. Consider having a ‘wind down routine’, and take time to plan your non-work time (social gatherings, exercise, hobbies; whatever it is you like to do outside of work). A really important point was that this planning of non-work time is important; if you don’t plan and just end up watching nonsense on the television, your mind might wander back to work issues.

Reflections

A key point I took away was one about difference: everyone’s situation is different, and everyone chooses to work in different ways, and everyone places different emphasis about how work features in our lives. 

I, personally, found the discussion about different types of boundaries most useful. The discussion about the different ‘segmentation strategies’ within these boundary types was thought provoking. I have also concluded that I am a ‘cycler’, and this is down to what I need to do within my job at different times of the year.

The biggest take away point, for me, is that I need to work harder at planning my non-work time. I don’t think this is necessarily such a bad thing.

References

Kossek, E. E. (2016). Managing work-life boundaries in the digital age. Organizational Dynamics, 45, 258-270.

Zijlstra, F. R. H., & Sonnentag, S. (2006). After work is done: Psychological perspectives on recovery from work. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 15, 129-138. 

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Open Learning first editorial

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 16 Mar 2017, 08:11

In 2013 I became a deputy editor of Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning. Open Learning is a journal that began at a internal OU journal that shared information about distance education practice. As distance and open learning became more established, the Journal changed to adopt a more international and wider outlook.

Ever since being appointed, I have been busily working behind the scenes, getting papers reviewed and contributing to editorial discussions. It has been a lot of work, and really good fun. I also feel blessed, since the lead editor, Professor Simon Bell, and editorial assistant, Maria Relaki have been great to work with.

For the January 2017 edition (which is also colloquially known as Volume 32, Issue 1), Simon asked me to write my first editorial, and I'm really pleased with the result; the journal contains some really interesting papers. A copy of the editorial is given below. I finish this post with a resolution: 2017 is going to be the year when I start to do more to 'get out there' and to promote the great work that is published in Open Learning.

Editorial: Open Learning, Vol 32, Issue 1

Welcome to the first 2017 issue of Open Learning. Not only is this the first issue of a new year, it is also my first editorial as deputy editor. I would like to thank our editor, Simon Bell, for giving me this opportunity to introduce this edition.

This issue begins with a short interview with Paulo Dias, Rector of Universidade Aberta, Portugal by António Teixeira and Sandra Caeiro. This is the last in a series of interviews with senior leaders at European Open and Distance learning institutions. This series began with an interview with Peter Horrocks, the Vice Chancellor of the UK Open University in Open Learning Vol. 31, No.1. Our next issue will contain a paper that will present a synthesis of key themes and points that have emerged from all these important interviews. As I write, I know that various authors are working on this synthesis. From my personal perspective, this is a paper that I’m very much looking forward to reading.

This issue contains six substantial papers. The first paper is entitled ‘Towards a pedagogical model for science education: bridging educational contexts through a blended learning approach’, written by José Bidarra, who is also from Universidade Aberta and Ellen Rusman, from the Welten Institute, Open University of the Netherlands. Their paper introduces a compelling model called the Science Learning Activities Model, which is abbreviated to SLAM. Their model is compelling because of its simplicity; it highlights three key concepts: context, technology and pedagogies. The model also contains a set of dimensions called ‘seamless dualities’ which address themes such as openness, collaboration and formality. In some respects, Bidarra and Rusman’s paper can and should be used to facilitate debate, but it can also be used as a tool to think about our own teaching and educational practice. Although their paper has a science and technology focus, they are keen to emphasise the importance of wider disciplines, underlining the importance of arts in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Their reflections about storytelling, gamification and the notion of the personal learning environment are all worth studying.

The second paper by Pankaj Khanna, entitled ‘A conceptual framework for achieving good governance at open and distance learning institutions’ has some similarities with the paper by Bidarra and Rusman; it is also about a framework or a model, but it considers an entirely different but complementary perspective: university governance. Drawing upon the work of earlier scholars, Khanna proposes a framework that comprises seven distinct principles. Some of the key principles include the importance of accountability, transparency and openness. Other principles include the importance of freedom of information and expression, and the necessity for sound financial management. Just as Bidarra and Rusman proposed a set of dimensions to add depth to their model, Khanna offers us a set of important governance practices. These practices include the assigning of clear responsibilities, ensuring capacity and capability, and the need to make well-informed decisions with full information, advice and support. Khanna’s paper is one that is necessarily provocative; it tells university management what they should be doing, whilst at the same time notes the complexity of university life and comments on the challenges of balancing the essential importance of academic standards, the need to ‘bring in business, maximise student satisfaction and develop partnerships’.

A complementary perspective is offered by Ngoni Chipere from the University of the West Indies. Chipere’s paper is titled ‘A framework for developing sustainable e-learning programmes’. Not only does Chipere present a framework, but also offers a detailed description of how 18 degree programmes were delivered. From my perspective, the strength of Chipere’s framework lies with its simple pragmatism; it consists of three key points: the importance of stakeholders, cost effectiveness and operational efficiency. Those involved in the delivery and management of online and distance education will benefit from reading the details, lessons and warnings that are presented in this paper.

Moving from the practical to the pedagogic, Kim Becnel and Robin Moeller from the Appalachian State University write about ‘Community-embedded learning experiences: putting the pedagogy of service-learning to work in online courses’. Service-learning was not a concept I had heard about before, which meant I was very intrigued. Becnel and Moeller’s paper is an interesting case study which applies an approach that could be loosely described as a variant of blended learning. In their research, their students work in a community library, where they learn how to offer services to the library and its visitors. After a period of practical work, students are asked to participate in online course meetings to reflect on their experiences. The strength of the case study lies with how technology can facilitate the productive sharing of learning experiences.

This issue concludes with two studies. The first is by Isla Gemmell and Roger Harrison who studied whether there are differences in the extent to which students access support materials and experience technical difficulties when studying a Masters of Public Health programme. Two student groups were of primary interest: UK national students and transnational students. Their paper is recommended to anyone who is interested in studying issues that relate to differences in a study population.

The final paper, by John Richardson, titled ‘Academic attainment in students with autism spectrum disorders in distance education’ also explores differences. Based on data from the UK Open University Richardson compares three groups of students: non-disabled students; students with autism spectrum disorders and students with autism spectrum disorders who also have additional disabilities. Richardson’s statistical methods and conclusions are very interesting and are worthy of detailed study. Whilst Richardson states that distance learning may be of benefit to particular student populations, he is also mindful of the importance of ensuring that disabled students are supported through effective teaching and learning environments. On this token, I would like to remind readers about Vol. 30, No.1 of Open Learning, a Special issue on the ‘Accessibility of open, distance and e-learning for students with disabilities’.

This issue emphasises the international scope of open and distance learning and the diversity of methodological approaches that can be used to contribute to this field. The concluding papers also offer us an important reminder about the importance of the diversity of the students that we all collectively endeavour to support.

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Computing Education Practice Conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 27 Feb 2017, 10:44

On 11 January 2017 I had the opportunity to attend a one day computer science education conference that was held at the University of Durham. It had been a long time since I had been to Durham. The last time had been in the late 1990s when I attended a workshop on program comprehension; other than the cathedral, I wondered whether I recognised any of the streets or landmarks. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to explore; it was a packed day.

What follows is a personal ‘take’ on the conference. It is, by its nature, selective; the conference attracted loads of submissions and had a number of parallel sessions. By the end of the day I was pretty tired and overwhelmed, but also inspired too.

Keynote: Sally Fincher

Sally Fincher’s keynote had the title ‘how can we talk about practice?’ Sally, who is a professor at the University of Kent, made the point that academics attribute value to abstract knowledge. She gave us an example of a chemistry paper, which communicated lots of detail in a very prescriptive and defined way. Teaching practice, Sally argued, is not like abstract knowledge; you cannot easily replicate it (and you’re not rewarded if you share it). She made the point that a paper is a terrible way to document teaching.

An accompanying question is: what would a good representation of practice look like? The challenge is that teaching is knowledge that is situated and embodied. There have been some attempts to describe or formalise learning designs but they don’t have an ‘experiential section’ and they rarely systematically described practice. 

Another question is: what does it mean to describe practice? It can include the rich description of detail, or the provision of narrative. Sally referenced the work of Elizabeth Shove, a sociologist who wrote a book entitled ‘every day practices’. A description might include the integration of different elements: meanings, skills and materials. Put another way, this could also be: stories, skills and stuff. 

An issue is that most of our documents about teaching and learning relate to skills, which can be embodied into learning objectives. An important element of practice, the stories and ‘stuff’ is very easily over looked. A thought that came to my mind as Sally was talking was: perhaps the stories are case studies? 

I made the note of the following phrase: abstractions detached from practice doesn’t help. An accompany thought is and the detail of stories represent the largest challenge; meanings of stories are implicit in the context in which they occur.

Are there any solutions to challenge of sharing our teaching expertise? Sally offers her own take on this through a textbook called Computer Science Project Work (Springer). The book presents a structure that contains a number of important sections, such as a section that can be called ‘what we did’; the structure aims to present something more than the stuff and skills. (I hope I’ve got this right!) Practice, I noted, is also about know how.

Towards the end of her keynote, I picked up on a number of themes that were especially relevant during the day: employability, engagement, curriculum design, and the importance and relevance of industrial placements.

What model versus how model: an effective way to teach computing and engineering programs

The first session I attended was by Muhammad Zeeshan Shakir from the University of the West of Scotland. The ‘how’ of teaching can be achieved by using show and tell activities. These can also be used to show students the benefit of what they’re learning. I’ve made a note of the phrases: workshops, the use of a research inspired seminar, practical implementation tasks and visits to industry. Flipped classrooms, it was argued, can be used to explain the ‘what’.

During this session I noted down a reference to something called Heterogeneous Ability-Centered Team Building (IEEE Xplore), or H-ACT-B. A key issue when it comes to groups is how to assess individual and team performance. As this was mentioned, I started to reminisce about my own undergraduate experiences of group work, where we had the challenge of working on a software maintenance project. It was an experience that still lives with me to this day.

Enhancing student engagement

This next presentation, by Ashil Ali and Raj Ramachandran spoke about the issue of student (dis)engagement, especially during long lectures. A point was made that students are wedded to their devices. A suggestion was to try to get students to engage through the devices that they are wedded to. A key phrase I noted was: ‘hijack the students’ distractions’.

A framework for CS educational research practice

Sue White, from the University of Southampton, mentioned an event that I had never heard of before, but should have done: the ACM International Computing Education Research (ICER) conference (ACM website). She also mentioned an academic that I had been told about whilst studying for my PGCE: Biggs. I noted questions about who the student is, a question about what the teacher does, and what the student does. This is, of course, linked to the important subject of the student voice (and that we need to listen to it, whilst at the same time balancing the need to support and further the discipline).

Some interesting pedagogical and computing terms that were mentioned, which included Ben-Ari and social constructivism (ACM digital library), Kolb’s learning cycle, and Laurillard’s conversational framework. I was also reminded of the ACM special interest group on Computer Science Education (ACM)

A bad analogy is like a pigeonhole

Stephen Doswell from Durham asked an interesting question: how can we assess the effectiveness of our [teaching] analogies? I noted down the phrase: analogies are only effective when properly used and the source domain is familiar to a learner. I remember that Stephen talked about a popular computer security text book and considered the way that analogies had aged (and the way that some older analogies might now be difficult to understand).

This presentation reminded me of a talk that I did over ten years ago at the Psychology of Programming Interest Groups called Metaphors we program by (PPIG). I remember it being a fun talk to do, and the accompanying paper was also pretty fun to write (although its analysis wasn’t very systematic!) I think the underlying point is the importance of considering where the learner is at, and how we can best try to convey difficult concepts.

Developing responsive personalised learning

The final session of the morning was by Samina Kawal from Oxford Brookes University. The focus of the presentation was an ebusiness module that used an approach called ‘integrative assessment’. I noted down that an idea was that coursework was used across different modules. Interestingly, there were programme level learning outcomes (whereas I am more familiar with understanding learning outcomes that are at the level of the module).

Afternoon keynote: understanding the TEF

The afternoon keynote had a really pragmatic feel to it. We were asked the question: ‘how can the HEA support the quest for teaching excellent?’ The teaching excellence is, ultimately, about making higher education into more of a market place, where students are consumers. Underpinning all this is the philosophy that education has economic benefit for the individual as opposed to being a public good that can help society as a whole. The TEF will lead to ‘badges’ that allow students to very simplistically compare one institution with another. An important point is that all institutions are different because of the environments in which they inhabit. From memory, I didn't come away from this session much the wiser.

Professional ethics in education: the need for radical change

Denise Oram, from Glyndwr University was a member of the ACM Committee of Professional Ethics. Her point was simple yet very compelling: professional attitudes and ethics is very important within computing and IT since the technologies that we create and implement have impact on people. Some interesting subjects include the internet of things, intelligent machines and eHealth. Students might, of course, ask: why do I need to know about this stuff? One approach to answer this question is to make use of debates to expose issues.

During this session I made a note of the BCS Computing at School website, a reference to something called models of ethical compliance and the way that the study of ethics (with respect to computing) connects to a wide range of subject, including: law, environment, philosophy, sociology and psychology.

Sketching design using the five design sheets methodology

Design, of course, is another subjects that is connected to and associated with computing and IT. Jonathan Roberts from Bangor university presents a design method that uses five different sheets of paper which encourages users to ‘think, design, build and evaluate’. There were references to related approaches and topics, such as the idea of using ‘6 thinking hats’, the importance of sketching and the distinction between convergent vs divergent thinking. A point was made that perhaps design should feature in the CS curriculum.

During this session, I thought of a number of OU modules that I know about and have looked at, such as U101 Design Thinking, T217 Design Essentials (its predecessor module taught about different design thinking approaches), and a higher level module T317 Innovation designing for change. I also thought about TM356 Interaction design and the user experience which touches upon design thinking. More information about TM356 can be found by looking at a series of accompanying blog posts (OU blog).

Embedding cybersecurity in the computer science curriculum

Alastair Irons from Northumbria university began by offering a bit of context: that cybersecurity it important, that it is a subject that is garnering a lot of attention, and there is the view that there is a significant skills gap; I made a note that two million posts are to be filled by 2020.

To solve this challenge, government and industry are looking to schools, colleges and universities for cybersecurity talent. I made a note of a statistic: 62% of employers couldn’t fill cybersecurity jobs.

An interesting reference is a document entitled: cybersecurity principles and learning outcomes for computer science and IT related degrees (PDF) Some accompanying questions were: (1) how will or could cybersecurity be embedded in your curriculum? (2) what support is needed or would be helpful? and (3) how might practioners engage in a community of practice (CoP)? I noted that this session led to some interesting debates: should cybersecurity be an undergraduate or a postgraduate subject? Also, to what extent are institutions developing degree apprenticeship qualifications?

Success in CS education: the challenge of keeping students

Neil Gordon, from the University of Hull, emphasised a number of important challenges. Computing and IT is a popular subject but some students are performing poorly. Neil referenced something called the Shadbolt review of computer sciences degree accreditation and graduate employability (PDF). I haven’t had time to read the report (since it is very long), but the executive summary points to higher than expected unemployment of new graduates, a point which ‘is at odds with significant demand from employers and the needs of the burgeoning digital economy’ (p.3). 

Neil touched on a number of different subjects and areas, including the known gender imbalance, the Computing at School Curriculum, streaming students by programming skills, the importance of attainment and retention, using innovative pedagogies (such as gamification) and improving community engagement.

Design and implementation of a web broadcasting learning platform

The final presentation that I attended was by John Busch. It took me a few minutes to understand what John’s presentation was all about, but as soon as I grasped it, I was very interested. In essence, John’s talk was about how to use and apply technology to help with the running of very large programming laboratories.

One of the most powerful approaches to learn programming has been to watch someone else at work, and to also copy what they’re doing, so you get ‘a feel’ for the instructions, commands and constructs that can be used. You shouldn’t just watch or listen: you need to ‘do’ and build.

If you’re delivering a session in a huge laboratory with one hundred and fifty students there are two fundamental problems (1) students can’t see what you’re doing if you’re projecting code on a big whiteboard at the front of the class, and (2) everyone learns at different speeds: some students might be lost, whereas others might be bored. One solution could be to run programming webcasts that each student in the lab can see how code is made, and also provide some functionality where a student can seek help at different times.

We were told about a number of different technologies, such as open cast, Fuze, Saba, Adobe Connect and something called Screenleap. I made note of other stuff, such as Open Broadcaster Software. Other bits of tech were mentioned, such as Nginx with RTMP (Wikipedia) A system called iLecture was created that allowed students to raise ‘support tickets’ to allow a student to ask a lecturer to look at the code that was being created.

I found all this fascinating; a home grown solution made up of bits of Open Source software that allowed lecturers to enable students and lecturers to share screens, to enable students to study the nuts and bolts of programming. It made me return to thoughts about ‘programming as performance’ and the need to find some kind of theoretical foundation.

Reflections

My own talk was about something called the Open University group tuition policy. Not only does this have the potential to allow students to access a wider range of learning events (if implemented well), it also gives associate lecturers the opportunity to work more closely together through creating something like a ‘community of practice’. In some ways, the conference was about creating that same community, but for a wider group of computer science educators. 

I only went to relatively small number of presentations, since there were three parallel sessions throughout the day. I was struck by the diversity of the presentations, and was given a welcome reminder about how exciting Computing and IT is as a subject. This excitement comes from the fact that it now touches so many other subjects and disciplines.

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The Developers Group

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 19 Feb 2017, 17:19

On 15 February 2017, I attended a meeting called ‘the developers group’ that was held in a hotel in Birmingham (since the Birmingham regional centre was just about to close). This blog post is intended as a set of notes for any of my colleagues who might be interested in AL development.

The meeting was a ‘reboot’ of an earlier group called ‘developing the developers’; an event that I had been to a couple of times. From memory I remember being pretty baffled as to what these meetings were all about and how they could help me in my job. Given all the constant organisational changes, I was curious about the shape of the new group that it replaced.

Introduction

The event was opened by Toby Scott-Hughes, who heads up the university ALSPD team. I think ALSPD is an abbreviation for Associate Lecturers Professional Development. His introduction had the title ‘what is ALSPD and what does it do for you and your ALs?’ Thankfully, Toby presented some pretty clear answers. 

I made a note of the following headline, which I have loosely paraphrased: ‘it is a group that provides an opportunity for AL managers and developers to meet with one another, to run a series of constructive workshops and to pass on skills to colleagues and to help with the development of associate lecturers’. 

The group also seems to have another remit, which is that it aims to provide some staff development for staff tutors and faculty managers. A number of questions were noted, including: ‘what would be useful to upskill you?’, ‘what do you need most support or help with?’ and ‘how can we help to help you to work with your ALs?’ The ‘the developers group’ is a vehicle that facilitates targeted staff development with a view to helping the associate lecturers that we support and line manage.

Here’s a bit more description: ALSPD has a broad remit, which includes the AL representative office. ALSPD consists of a group of educational developers, administrative and management staff, and it works closely with AL services. A key point was made that they ‘are responsible for running cross faculty AL development events in locations across the UK’ as well as working with faculty specific student support teams across the country. They also fund one-off development events. Toby mentioned there were 80 events that were held in the last financial year. A really important point was made: even though offices were closing, associate lecturer CPD was not being centralised; we can still run events across the country – the key point that tutors have to live somewhere does seem to have been accepted.

As Toby was talking I was thinking of CPD topics that might really help me as a tutor. Two of which sprung to mind were: ‘how do we deliver tuition in larger groups when we’re working on line?’ and ‘how do we facilitate online team teaching, and what are the best practices?’

AL services: working with you and in the future

When I worked in the London office, the Computing and IT, Maths and Engineering staff tutors had access to two faculty assistants who did quite a bit of administrative work on our behalf. Things have changed in that we have to do slightly more admin than we used to do before, and administrative support is provided by a team that is based in one of the student support locations.

During this bit of the day we were asked the question: what is and isn’t working well?  I remember that there was some reference to an ‘operational blueprint’, but different staff tutors and faculty managers may well be working in a very different way. I asked for some training in to what this ‘blueprint’ was all about, so I could understand more about what I can expect from the new team, and what they can expect from me.

A key point was made that we need to feel a part of a larger team and there is a worry that a home worker might become ‘semi-detached’ from the university. My 'day in the life of a staff tutor' blog post, which relates to a trip to Manchester, reflects the point that steps have been taken to try to bridge the distance between academic line managers and associate lecturer services.

Support for AL management

Karen Hamilton, one of our ALSPD educational developers facilitated the penultimate session. Karen reiterated the emphasis of the group: ‘although the group is about developing the ALs, how can we do this if you’re not provided with the appropriate training and development yourself?’

We were given three cards. The first one had the title: ‘what can I offer to the developers group?’ This card had a subtitle that read: ‘skills, ideas or experience of AL development you would like to share’. The second card read: ‘what I would like to get from the developers group?’ Again, it had a subtitle: ‘things that would help me to be more involved with AL development or to line manage ALs more effectively’. The final card was slightly different: ‘something more creative’; this final card was asking us to recommend speakers and to say why the might be of interest.

We chatted in our groups and duly completed our cards. I recommended a number of speakers and wrote down titles of sessions that I had once helped to facilitate.

Introducing the replacement for OU Live: Adobe Connect

For anyone who is reading this from outside the university, OU Live is a badged version of a tool called Blackboard Collaborate that is used to deliver online tutorials. Due to Blackboard Collaborate reaching the end of its life, the procurement team has chosen to replace it with a popular conferencing tool called Adobe Connect. This final presentation of the day, made by Anne Campbell and John Slade, was my first bit of official university training about Adobe Connect.

We were swiftly taken through a set of features. We were told that it was possible to edit recorded sessions (or, specifically, cut sections of a session out). Recordings could be downloaded, and we could (at last) see how many students had seen the recording of a session (but not who had seen a recording).

There are some interesting differences; there are three types of users: host, presenter and attendee (as opposed to OU Live that had only two types: student and moderator). The concept of a panel has been replaced with the idea of a ‘pod’. Although there is the concept (as far as I know) of a whiteboard, they are a bit more limited in the sense that you can’t upload images to them. This said, Adobe Connect works better with PowerPoint files, and you can include slide transitions or animations (which means that you don’t have to create loads of extra slides if you wanted to do something similar in OU Live).

I was glad to hear that students will still be able to express themselves using emoticons (there is a compelling pedagogic argument why this is a good thing, despite this expression sounds a little strange!) Tutors can have up to 20 breakout rooms, and you can invite ‘external speakers’ into sessions.

Anne and John told us something about the training that will be offered to associate lecturers. Training will be provided by Adobe Connect people, and ALs will be given a training allowance to attend training sessions. The training will comprise of three hour long modules. These sessions will be run three times a day for five days a week. There will be a practice site and a supporting forum. I made a note that the first bit of training (for the early adopters) might take place between March and April.

Final thoughts

I left ‘the developers group’ feeling pretty encouraged. Whilst the remit of the earlier group wasn’t that clear, the remit of this new rebooted and reformed version seemed to be pretty well defined. I clearly got the message that it was about two things: (1) helping academic line managers to help tutors, with a view to (2) helping tutors to deliver excellent teaching and support to their students.

After the meeting, I felt confident enough to put my head over the parapet and agree to become (and I can’t quite believe I’m writing these words) an Adobe Connect ‘champion’.

More information about the pedagogy of using OU Live can be obtained by having a quick look through earlier blogs about OU Live. On a related note, more information about past AL development events is also available

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Newsletter acticle: bad timing

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 19 Feb 2017, 16:14

Just before our Christmas holiday, I went to an AL development event that was held in Gateshead. I had asked my colleague, Karen, whether I could be more involved with AL development activities, since it is something that I really enjoy. She replied immediately: come to Gateshead! I gave her a list of titles of events I had facilitated in the London region, and we settled on a title for a session: ‘Managing student demands’.

The Gateshead event was a particularly poignant one: it was the last AL development event that was going to be run by the Gateshead regional centre. The centre was, of course, closing at the same time as the London centre.

Although the talks had a celebratory tone, celebrating what had been achieved in the region, I also began to realise that I was attending a wake. Every region had its own character, just as every part of the UK is slightly different. One thing, of course, was consistent: the collective commitment to students and to open access higher education.

I really enjoyed delivering the ‘Managing student demands’ session to the ALs: they were a delightfully vocal lot; they had opinions, were willing to share experiences, and were very engaged. I have been looking forward to my facilitator feedback with a combination of excitement and trepidation; I hope I did a good job and they got something from it.

And then there was Christmas and New Year: a quiet time that mostly consisted of being laid up in bed with a stinking cold that never seemed to end. During the days when the university was closed, I occasionally logged into my email just to make sure there were no major crises. I also kept one eye on my tutor group forums, to make sure that all my students were OK.

I’m writing this article a day after the London office closed. To mark this occasion there was an event: a chance to meet with hard working colleagues for one last time. Like the Gateshead event, this ‘celebration’ was also a wake. Our associate director in the London region was given a resounding round of applause in recognition of her 30 years of service; all the staff tutors had contributed to a gift.

One of my fondest memories of working in the London region was being a part of a ‘diversity group’. Every year we both celebrated and embraced difference; we ran challenging events about race, culture, aging and gender. I couldn’t help but notice the timing: our closing event was on the same day that Trump was inaugurated president. This coincidence added to feeling of mild bewilderment that was accompanying all these changes.

There was something else that was nagging me. A day before the London region closed, Peter Horrocks had sent an email announcing “… an important piece of work that VCE and I have recently commissioned to redesign the University and put us in the best possible position to launch the next 50 years of the OU in just two years’ time.” Another sentence spoke about a “high-level plan, setting out how we will implement the changes required over the subsequent 12-24 months.”

From my own personal perspective, this email could not have come at a worse time.

I’m suffering from change fatigue and I’m emotionally wrought after attending two institutional wakes. My colleagues in London have all gone, and I’m unpacking boxes of books and equipment that I have taken home from the Camden office.

Over the last day or so, I’ve been thinking about what motivates me. I have several answers to this: being able to help the associate lecturers that I work with, being able to help and to work with the students that we all tutor and, finally, being able to contribute to the different academic and student support communities that I belong to.

What doesn’t motivate me is a message that tells me everything is going to change over the next two years. I’m no management consultant, but when offices are closing and new communities are being formed to respond to this institutional stress, what we really need is stability.

A version of this post was published in the January 2017 edition of the Open University Associate Lecturer newsletter, Snowball.

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

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

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

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

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

Blitz the inbox

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

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

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

TM356 tutor telephone call

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

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

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

AL CDSA

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

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

Academic work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TM356 Hackathon

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 16 Feb 2017, 14:55

Every computing and IT department in a university has its own unique focus; some might pay lots of attention to the design and development of hardware. Others may place emphasis on programming languages and the foibles of operating system design. 

The OU Computing and IT degree programme places a special emphasis on the connections between computing and people. In some ways TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience is a module that totally reflects this focus: it is all about the process of designing interactive devices and systems that allow us to address real problems that people have to face.

The TM356 Hackathon is all about design. Although a lot of OU teaching is at a distance, the Hackathon is unique in the sense that it is a face-to-face teaching event that allow students to meet with module teams and computing researchers.

But what is a Hackathon? ‘Hackathon’ comes from an obvious combination of two words: hacking and marathon. The hacking bit comes from the idea of creatively meddling with technology. The marathon bit means that the participants will expend quite a bit of (positive) energy doing this over an extended period of time.

In essence, the Hackathon is an opportunity to create some physical designs to some real world problems by working with other people over a period of a day. An important question is: why physical prototyping? Why not do some sketching (which was the focus of the module, M364, which it replaces)? The answer to this question is simple: computing is more than just a website; it has moved from the desktop computer and into the physical environment. Physical prototyping helps us to envisage new types of products and devices; it encourages participants to develop what is called ‘design thinking skills’.

What follows is a short summary of the first ever TM356 hackathon event that took place at the London School of Economics on Saturday 4 February. In this post I’ll try to give everyone a flavour of what happened. I’m writing this so I remember what happened, and also to give other TM356 students a feeling as to what might be involved.

Introduction

The day was introduced by module presentation chair and Senior Lecturer Clara Mancini. Clara said that an important aspect of interaction design is collaboration. The Hackathon event enables different students to work together to gain some practical hands on experience of prototyping. This experience, it is argued, can help students with their own TM356 projects and help them to prepare for their tutor marked assignments.

There were three key parts to the day: a tutor led discussion about projects, a series of short presentations by researchers, and the actual hackathon workshop where everyone works together on a specific theme. The event concludes with a tutor led discussion about how students might begin to tackle their assignment.

Project discussions

Since there were nearly thirty students, we were all split up into different tables to begin with our ‘project discussions’. During the module students are asked to create a prototype design for an interactive product. An important thing to note is that an interactive product doesn’t have to be a website: it could be anything, since interaction design and computing is gradually moving away from the desktop and into the environment.

The table that I sat at had some really interesting project ideas: a system for an improvised comedy group, a mobile friendly design for a government website, a remote control for people who have physical impairments, a tool to log and scan documents, and a navigation and route planning system. 

Looking at research projects

A number of OU research assistants and research students were also invited to the Hackathon. Their role was to share something about their own interaction design research projects with a view to inspiring the Hackathon project work. Researchers were sat at different places in the Hackathon room. Students were invited to meet the researchers, who were either working on their doctoral work, or on post-doctoral research contracts, to find out more about what they were doing.

There are two projects that I remember: one was about the creation of digital prototypes using electronics and cases made using 3D printers. The second project was about electronic fabrics or electronic textiles (e-textiles, Wikipedia), which could form the basis of wearable computing platforms. We were shown a camera that could be worn as a necklace, and a device that hospital patients could use to make subjective measurements of pain.  The electronic textiles were used in a research project about how to motivate groups of people who have special educational needs.

The Hackathon

The theme of the Hackathon was: ‘wearable technologies for health and well-being’. We were encouraged to think about the different ways that the term ‘well-being’ could be considered. We were also encouraged to think about issues that might affect wearable technologies, such as: demands on comfort, how we might pay attention to a product or a device that is worn, how it relates to the environment or the activity that we are engaged with. There are also practical issues to consider, such as how to organise input and output, cleaning and charging.

All the students were given access to a range of prototyping materials: this included card, paper, coloured pens, pipe cleaners, string, as well as some basic electronic devices, such as Arduinos. Marian Petre, a professor in the department made the important point that it wasn’t about the end result, it was about the thinking and the decision making that led to the creation of a prototype.

Photograph of materials that can be used to create a physical prototype

As a short aside, any student who has taken an OU module called U101 Design Thinking: creativity for the 21st century (Open University) would be familiar with some of the design thinking (Wikipedia) ideas and skills that the Hackathon and the module team were trying to expose and develop.

All the students sat in tables with either a tutor, researcher, or module team member. To get everyone going I suggested that the group should try some ‘divergent thinking’ before going onto doing some ‘convergent thinking’. To put it another way: we brainstormed what was meant by the terms ‘wellness and wellbeing’ before choosing a topic and exploring it more depth. When we had settled on an idea, we then went onto building a simple physical prototype.

Of course, our prototype didn’t doing anything: it was all about understanding the broad concept of use, and understanding the design goals and trade-offs. During the process, we would also uncover requirements and learn more about the potential user, the activity, and the environment in which the product would be used.

Presentations

At the end of the design activity all project groups were asked to make a short presentation about their prototype.

Photograph of TM356 students describing their Hackathon project

I’m not going to say anything about what each project was about since I wouldn’t want any of the design to unduly influence any thinking that might go on within any future events. Instead, let’s just say that the projects had very different objectives and they were all brilliantly creative.

Final points

Towards the end of the Hackathon and just before everyone got stuck into going through the third TMA (which was all about design), I noted down a few points that were made by the module team: the point of making makes you become aware of issues and limitations; you begin to think about electronics, materials, size of products and the environment. Design thinking is relating to uncovering the needs of the users and starting to think about practical issues. The design process is, of course, iterative. In the process of design, the prototypes become objects of communication.

The face-to-face Hackathon is complemented by a series of three online events that aim to address similar issues. The first online session presents the idea of a conceptual model and allows students to discuss prototyping approaches. The second online session enables students to speak with one another about their projects, and the final session explores different interface types. Rather than being equivalent to the face-to-face Hackathon, these sessions can be considered to be complementary; similar issues are discussed and explored in different ways.

If you are a student studying TM356, I hope this short blog post gives you some idea about what it is all about. I also hope that it will inspire you to attend the session. There is a lot to be gained by coming along!

Acknowledgements: the Hackathon was designed by the TM356 module team and run with help from research assistants and doctoral students from the School of Computing and Communications. Special thanks are given to and associate lecturers who play such an invaluable role and all the students who came along at the first TM356 Hackathon.

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TM470 AL development: should we run tutorials?

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Just before the start of the TM470 project module, I asked myself a question: should I run a tutorial? Tutorials are not compulsory but I do know that some tutors run them. I had another question: what do other tutors do? These questions motivated me to ask my TM470 line manager another question: ‘could I run an AL development session to ask tutors what tutors do? This might be something that could help other tutors’. My line manager, Keith, agreed.

This document (or blog post) is a quick summary of the key discussion points that were drawn from that AL development session. Most of these points are from two activities. Tutors were put into four different break out rooms and asked to answer a set of questions. After the discussions, we all came back to the main room and discussed our findings.

The headings below represent the questions that were asked. The comments underneath are, essentially, a quick summary of the points that were discussed.

What would be the aim [of a tutorial] and when should you run one?

Run a tutorial early in the module to give students some guidance about the way the project should be approached (coding and creating versus recording).

Mixed feedback/feedforward and used student participation.

Tutorials seem to work better if they are studying similar subject: whole cohort sessions on specific topics? The challenge is that ALs have limited time.

To discuss key skills like research and literature: this can lead to fewer repeated emails about generic questions.

To save time repeating the same information to other students?

What would you do in a tutorial?

Setting out the approach for the module.

Getting students to generate 3 or 4 PowerPoint slides, and then discuss in tutor group (getting students to do the work). Tell us what they’re doing, and an issue that they have. Be positive.

Try to get them thinking less about the technical stuff: more about project management and reflection.

Try to get them to appreciate the need to address learning outcomes.

Talk about literature reviews.

Discuss deadlines and what is required.

A drop in session to allow students to discuss things. A learning outcome should be: students should be able to present their projects to other people.

In some situations, depending on what is taught, a video from the module team might be useful.

Discussions contribute to learning outcomes.

What are the challenges and what would help you?

Getting students to attend.

A tutorial can become a monologue (lecture)

Students without audio: most will say something in the chat window.

Recordings: will students turn up? Or will students be disadvantaged?

Privacy concerns about disclosing information about student projects in tutorials.

Having enough time to run the tutorials when tutors are busy answering emails.

How do you maximise attendance at a tutorial?

Use the forum, and the group email: allude to the benefits of the tutorials, saying that they will end up doing better projects.

Take every opportunity to encourage attendance: in every chat, email or piece of feedback (TMA!) refer to the next tutorial.

‘Put the fear of God into them’; tell them they must attend – it is there for their own benefit! This is a very difficult course! Don’t miss it.

Using a Doodle poll to set an agreed time.

What are the most difficult things for a student?

Working consistently, i.e. not trying to do a TMA over the weekend.

Managing time and deadlines.

Not understanding the requirements/components of a project.

Not having the patience to fully explore the background to the problem.

It is a module without a substantial calendar: students have to plan in their own time.

Reflection.

How to plan and structure.

Finding resources.

Getting started at the right place, and knowing when to stop.

Knowing their own limitations: they need a project that demonstrates their skills and knowledge.

What common mistakes do students make?

Trying to do too much, or under estimating time required.

Not reading what is required for the TMA: read the instructions! Look out for what the module materials are asking for.

Wanting to try new toys just to add experience rather than trying to engage deeper with the subject.

A literature review that is not deep enough.

When there are projects that relate to work situations, there can be too much focus on satisfying the client’s requirements rather than the module’s requirements.

Do the students have a backup plan if things go wrong if they have a ‘client’?

Students focus on assignments and not just projects.

If you could offer one bit of advice to a student, what would it be?

It’s not about writing code.

Stick with a simple system: don’t be too ambitious.

Don’t panic!

Use the full window of time and execute each stage completely.

Keep in contact with your tutor, no matter what is happening!

If you could offer one bit of advice to a new tutor, what would it be?

Tell students to keep evidence of what they’re doing e.g. a log of activities, which is very useful for report writing.

Application of common sense when it comes to keeping students on track.

Keep talking to your students; keep contacting them if they don’t contact you.

Keep discussing with other tutors: use the forums; there is lots of experience.

Final thoughts

From my perspective, I was really surprised with how many interesting, different and useful points came out from these discussions. This session has (personally) given me some really good ideas of things to speak about in a TM470 tutorial.

One thing that I should say is that there were two schools of thoughts about whether tutorials are needed or not. I think I remember reading (or hearing) one opinion that perhaps they are useful in terms of getting students started, but then the hours that the students have could be spent on a more personal or one to one basis.

There are, of course, many different ways to support students, and this session has helped to share some really great ideas between tutors.

A final question is: what next? I felt this session has been personally really useful. Does anyone have any ideas about what else might be useful? One thought is a ‘tutor drop in’; an opportunity to discuss interesting projects and situations. Another passing thought is the potential benefit of talking about marking or correspondence tuition. I think I’ll stop at this point, and hand this discussion back to all those TM470 tutors who are significantly more experienced than I am.


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TM470 notes

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The university has been going through a lot of changes. One of the side effects of these changes is that I have now become a home worker (which I’m a bit grumpy about). To prepare for a delivery of a new desk, I’ve started to sort out loads of old papers. The process usually involves looking at a bundle of papers and thinking, ‘why did I keep this?’

I recently stumbled across a hand written form that relates to my first year of tutoring on the TM470 project module. Rather than putting it in a file (or in the recycling), I thought I would transcribe it and share it. I hope it is useful to someone!

The form is divided into four sections:

Project themes (in my tutor group this year)

The form was asking for the projects that students in my tutor group chose. I’ve decided to edit this bit and be pretty general. The project were about: an app evaluation, a database implementation, and a website redesign.

Issues encountered (and how I resolved them)

One of the challenges was projects that had a very big or wide scope. Subsequently, another issue was projects that had a really narrow scope. It was sometimes quite difficult to get hold of some students. There were many students asking for extensions. The marking (of course) was quite challenging, and on occasions I was asked to do some remarking. It was also difficult to keep students on track, mostly because everyone on the project module is different and have their own circumstances.

What I have learned (including positives)

The first item I noted was: broadness of project topics. The students can, of course, surprise you. What struck me was the importance of the literature review in the module. I learnt more about how the project module was connected to other modules in the Computing and IT programme and also how it was different to other modules. It was useful to think of the module in terms of it being an ‘extension to level 3 modules’; creating a database isn’t enough: students need to demonstrate skills and go further in terms of either their understanding principles (such as transactions or concurrency) or the application of ideas. I also learnt the importance of sending out ‘update’ emails.

Ideas for next year (things I could do differently)

Each student is given four hours of support time. Different students and different tutors may use this time in different ways. One thought is: after initial contact (perhaps even by telephone), is to run an introductory tutorial for the student group. 

Another note I made was, ‘emphasise the library screenshare’; this comment relate to a session that is run by the OU library, to help students with a literature review. Another note I made was: ‘be a bit more persistent in terms of following up; call them after their TMAs’. Another thought was an interesting one: ‘try to get students talking to each other’. A related point was: get students presenting to each other.


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