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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)


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.


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.


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.


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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RSA: Teaching to make a difference, London

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On 3 September 2016 I found the time to attend a short event at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA website) that had the title ‘teaching to make a difference’. This blog summary comes from a set of notes that I made during the event.

Over the last couple of years I have increasingly been involved with and have been thinking about how best to provide continuing professional development (CPD) for Open University associate lecturers. This RSA event was all about how to provide CPD for primary and secondary school teachers; I felt that this event might be able to help me in my day job (but I wasn’t quite sure how).

One of the first speakers of the evening was former Schools minister, Jim Knight. I noted down the sentence ‘more than 2 in 3 [teachers] don’t have any professional development’ (I don’t know the extent of whether or not this is true) and ‘most head teachers do professional development’. An interesting point is that this can be connected to regulatory stuff; things that need to be done to make sure the job is done well.

When delivering a CPD session a few months back I showed tutors different models of teaching and learning, some of which were in the shape of a triangle (which appears to be a common theme!) In this RSA talk we were presented another triangle model. This one had the title: ‘what really matters in education’. The model contained three points that were all connected together: trust (and professionalism), peer learning (learning from each other), and the importance of skills and knowledge.

Another note I scribbled down was: ‘there are CPD standards, [but are they] enough?’ I know of one Open University CPD standard or model, but this made me realise that I ought to know about the other CPD models that might exist. 

Two other notes I made were: ‘intangible assets’ and ‘long term mentoring’. I guess the point is that CPD can build intangible assets into the fabric of an organisation, and this can be closely linked to belonging to a community of people who are involved with teaching. The term ‘long term’ mentoring was also thought provoking: was that something that I unexpectedly and implicitly have been doing in my day job?

I also wrote down the phrases ‘learning from failure’ and ‘equip teachers with CPD; personally develop those teachers who stick with it’. In terms of my own teaching experience, I really relate to the idea of learning from failure; sometimes things just don’t work as you expect them to. It is important to remember that it is okay to take risks, and it is okay if things go slightly wrong. Teachers are encouraged to step back and reflect on what went well, what didn’t, and what could be improved the next time round. During the talk, I was also reflecting on the Open University strategy which has the title ‘students first’. My own view is one that reflects my own perspective: I believe in a parallel but unspoken strategy of ‘teachers first’.

Panel discussion

After Jim’s talk there was a panel discussion between four discussants. The first discussant was David Weston who I understand was from the teacher development trust (charity website). He spoke about big differences between schools. I made the note: ‘I feel alive, pushed; tears, nobody attends to my needs’ (but I’m a little unsure as to what the context was). I did note down five points: (1) help teachers learn; students’ outcomes increases, (2) evidence and expertise (I’m not quite sure exactly what this means), (3) peer support and expert challenge, (4) they need time, and (5) senior learners [need to] make it a priority. (I am assuming that ‘it’ means CPD).

The second discussant, Alison Peacock (Wikipedia) CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching (college website) spoke about CPD standards, trust, expertise and the importance of listening. An interesting thought was that ‘pedagogy is all about experiences’. I didn’t catch the name of the next discussant, but I noted down that ‘taking risks means trust’ and that good teaching means stepping into other people’s shoes.

The final discussant was Matt Hood from TeachFirst (TeachFirst website), the organisation that trains and develops teachers. A key question is: what should CPD entail? I’ve noted down: reading, watching and practice. Matt told us about a couple of interesting web resources and programmes: Teach Like a Champion and Urban Teachers.


I’ve had a busy few months: between attending this event and writing this summary, I have returned to being a student again (whilst keeping my day job): I’m studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education at Birkbeck College. I realise that I’m doing this extra bit of studying for one reason alone: to get additional CPD; to learn how to become a better university teacher.

When I looked at my notes again I’m reminded that the higher education sector can learn a lot from other sectors. I’m also reminded that I really ought to look into whether I ought to become more involved in an organisation like SEDA, the Staff and Education Development Association (SEDA website) now that CPD is quite a big part of what I do.

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AL Development: Sketching and Prototyping, London

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On the evening of 8 December 2016, my staff tutor colleague, Asma, set up and ran an associate lecturer development event for tutors who were working on a number of design modules. Incidentally, this was also one of the last AL development events that were run in the London regional centre, before it closes at the end of January 2017.

I usually take notes during these AL development events, so I can share some notes to everyone afterwards, but I became pretty busy chatting to everyone which meant that I didn’t have the time. This blog post is, subsequently, a pretty short one, since I’m relying purely on my fallible memory.

The event was advertised to design tutors in two Open University regional areas: in London, and in the South East. Although design tutors were the main ‘target group’, the event was also open to tutors who worked on a module called TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience (OU website). The aim of the event was to share tips and techniques about prototyping and sketching. These techniques could then, in turn, be shared with students during face to face tutorial sessions.

The session was really informal. It was, in essence, a kind of show case. Different activities and demonstrations were placed throughout the room on different tables, and participants were invited to ‘experience’ sets of different activities. One activity was all about sketching using shade, lines and texture (if I remember correctly). Another was a scene where we could practice still life drawing. In fact, we had a choice: a set of shells, or a set of objects which represented our location.

A collection of objects that represent London as a tourist attraction

I remember two other demonstrations or ‘stands’: one was about the creation of physical prototypes and another was a show and tell about how different drawing and sketching techniques could be used to represent different product designs. I was particularly taken by the physical prototyping demonstration: we were shown card, bendy steel wire (which could be easily bought in a hardware store), and masking tape. The wire, we were told, could be used to add structure to physical objects; pieces of wire could be bent and twisted together, and taped onto the back of segments of card, to create the surfaces of objects.

I tried my hand at sketching, but I have to confess that I didn’t get too far: I soon became engaged in discussions about how these different techniques might be useful during a longer tutorial about physical prototyping. Another thought was: how could we replicate these kinds of prototyping and interactive activities when we have to use online tools? Or put another way, how could we run sessions when students can’t physically get to a classroom. It is clear that there no easy answers; I now wish that I had made better notes of all the discussions!

Not only were we all exposed to a number of different techniques, some of the tutors also had an opportunity to catch up with each other and chat about how a new module was going.

An interesting question is: could it be possible to run an online equivalent of this session? The answer is: possibly, but it would be very different, and it would require a huge amount of planning to make it work: things don’t spontaneously happen in the online world like they can during a face to face session.

Although the office is closing, there are different planning groups that are starting up to try to make sure that essential associate lecturer development activities still continue. I’m not sure when there will be another face to face session quite like this, but I do hope we can organise another one.

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Module debriefing: M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Nov 2016, 15:16

The first Open University module that I was a tutor for was called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design. I have some faint recollections of going to a module briefing which took place in Milton Keynes. When the module finished (and I found myself on the module team) I decided to run an unofficial module debriefing. This blog post has been derived from a set of notes that I made during the debriefing that was held in Camden Town on 16 July 2016. It is a part of a larger piece of work that I hope will be useful to inform university teaching practice across Computing and IT modules. Eleven people attended, most of them were associate lecturers. There was one staff tutor (a line manager for associate lecturers), and the original M364 module chair. 

Initial comments

A really interesting point was that the module doesn’t teach what is meant by ‘justification’. This is important because the TMAs for the module don’t necessarily have right or wrong answers (instead, students might present answers that are not appropriately justified).

A comment from tutors: students who are taking M364 as a first module may struggle, especially when it comes to the writing; they can also be shocked by the amount of reading that they have to do. The four blocks ‘dart around’ the set text, which can be disorientating. 


Marking is considered to be very time consuming because tutors need to understand the material very well. Anything between 1 hour and 3 hours per assignment is reported, which is at odds with the university guidelines of 45 minutes. In my own experience over ten years, I rarely got the marking down to an hour per assignment. 


The more students that attend the day schools, the more exciting they become. It’s important to offer real world examples (I regularly used door handles).

Exam marking

One tutor reported that they loved doing exam marking since it can inform other types of marking. An interesting observation is that the marking for M364 seemed to take longer than with other modules. It was also a challenge to try ‘to read their minds’ (in terms of looking for evidence of understanding).


One observation was that there were occasional differences in the way that terminology was used within the module. There were also differences in terminology between modules, i.e. the terms ‘use cases’ and ‘scenarios’ are different in modules such as M256 (which is a Java module). Some English as a Second Language (ESL) students can find things especially difficult, since there are so many terms (especially in terms of the usability and the user experience goals).


Block 2 contains a section on culture and cultural dimensions, which hasn’t made it into the replacement module, TM356. Students sometimes took the section about culture very literally, but this aspect of the module did lead to some really lively discussions during tutorials. Even though the research about culture that is featured in block 2 can be criticised very easily, it offered a useful vocabulary.

Module team

The overwhelming view was that the module team responded to any problems and issues very quickly and efficiently. (This view wasn’t just expressed because a member of the module team was at the debrief meeting). 


During the module, monitoring was, by and large, allocated to a single monitor. Once that monitor had decided to move on, or wasn’t available, monitoring responsibility was handed over to another volunteer. There was the view that monitoring could have been distributed more widely across all the tutors. Key points were: ‘you learn more from monitoring than being monitored’ and ‘you see how others are marking’.

Tutor resources

One thing that I’ve noted down was that a roadmap of the course would be considered to be useful. Perhaps there could be more materials about the ‘mindset of correct, not correct’ answers. A challenge for new tutors is to understand the philosophy of the module, and it might be useful to convey the point that feedback to students has to be relevant to context of the tuition (or, put another way, tutor comments have to be aligned with and relate to what the students have submitted).

Something else that would be useful would be to have specimen TMA solutions: one that is very good, another that might be mediocre, to allow tutors to ‘align’ their marking.  In a similar vein, it would be useful to share different examples of marking practice.

Guidance to tutors is considered to be important: encourage new tutors to be flexible, and tell them not to be afraid of moving away from the module materials (if they find it appropriate to do so). Also, don’t expect to be perfect; this is a subject that doesn’t have perfect answers. 

Further work

During the debriefing event (which was, in essence, a focus group), I made a recording of all the discussions. My next step is to transcribe the recording so I can try to compose a distilled summary of what amounts to over 10 years of collective distance learning teaching practice of a subject that I feel is pretty difficult to teach. At the same time, I hope to present a short seminar so I can more directly share stories and experiences with some of my colleagues who teach different Computing and IT modules. I have no idea when I’m going to be able to do this, though; I’ll just try to fit it in when I can!

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TM470 New tutor day

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Nov 2016, 09:46

I first joined The Open University as a part time tutor back in 2006 where I tutored a module called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design. Knowing that this module was coming to an end I decided to apply to tutor on another module: TM470 The Computing and IT project, and I was successful!

I was invited to attend a ‘new tutor day’ which took place in the West Midlands regional centre in Birmingham (which is, sadly, closing in the new year) to learn about the ins and outs of tutoring this module. This was also an opportunity to meet my TM470 mentor, fellow TM470 tutors, and some of my colleagues who support the delivery of computing and IT modules from the Manchester and Birmingham offices. This blog post has been drawn from a set of notes I’ve made during the day, which took place on 2 July 2016.

Project choice

I’ve noted down the question: ‘what makes a good project theme?’ It’s a simple question and one that is very important: students must have a clear idea about what the problem is that they want to solve within their project. It should also have sensible limits, i.e. students shouldn’t aspire to creating the next big app for the iPhone.

Successful projects are those that draw upon practical skills that have been learnt (or studied) in previous level 3 modules. A project could also build on something that has been done before. Students should (ideally) be knowledgeable about the domain or environment in which a project relates to (so they don’t have to spend lots of time doing research into an area that isn’t familiar to them). Also, importantly, a project should be connected with something that a student is interested in doing (so they maintain their motivation).

Another bit of advice is: students should stick with using software that they know; don’t be tempted to play with new things, since it’s easy to get tied up in knots.

Sometimes students might be tempted to draw upon projects that relate to their work place. An important point is: work and TM470 have different goals; it is probably best to keep work and study separate for the simple reason that changes at work might jeopardise the project. This rule, however, doesn’t have to apply in all cases: students need to understand what is required from TM470.

Another really important point is: a project doesn’t have to have a successful outcome to submit a final project report. Students can still pass if things go horribly wrong: it is the description of the project, the learning, and the reflections that all count towards the final scores. If these are done really well, students will get a really good pass.

Another note I’ve made is all about research: ‘not really understanding what is meant by research that is academic, or what is meant by an academic literature review (and analysis)’. Some projects may be research projects, in the sense that they are an in-depth and critical study of a particular area. If students choose research projects, the need to be clear in terms of what is required of them. 

Independent learning

TM470 is different to other modules, since what really matters is being able to demonstrate independent learning; tutors will not be subject experts in all the areas in which projects are chosen from. A note I’ve made is: ‘if software breaks, it is part of your job on a project to fix it’. The role of a tutor is to push a student into this mind set.


I made a note that we discussed the importance of the introductory letter, and that we might connect this to the use of our module discussion forum.

A really important resource is the OU Library which allows student direct access to a wealth of prestigious journals. Another thought is to direct students to library tutorials (understanding eJournals) about how they can get started.

The project module doesn’t have any official tutorials, since it is difficult to run group events where every student is working on a different project (and will have different learning needs and problems). This said, some tutors do use OU Live to run some unofficial introductory tutors. 

Towards the end of the day, we discussed practicalities about end of module assessment marking, and assignment marking. Key questions that were asked were: ‘how do you do it?’ and ‘what processes do you use?’ The module has a very clear set of marking guidelines that are also known to the students. Ultimately, everything comes back to the question of whether students have met the learning outcomes.

Reflections from first presentation

Now that I have more of an idea how the module works and how it is structured, I think I will run an introductory OU Live tutorial at the start of the next presentation. This will allow me to learn more about the student’s ideas and understand more about their potential problems. I will also use this to emphasise the importance of time management.

In comparison to other modules that I have tutored on, I found the marking to be pretty straightforward once I knew how it worked. It took me a bit of time to find the forms, and then to internalise the marking criteria (but this is always the case when starting to work on a new module). One of the things that I really enjoyed was looking at the diversity of the projects, and how the students tackled them.

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Horizons in STEM higher education conference 2016

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This blog has been taken from a set of notes I made when I visited the Horizons in STEM conference at the University of Leicester on 30 June 2016. Attending an event like this, to do ‘something academic’, made me feel weirdly guilty since I had been spending so much of my time doing ‘admin stuff’.

The aim of the conference was all about developing teaching and learning in the STEM disciplines, and sharing practice about what works and what doesn’t. Two speakers gave an opening address: there was the head of STEM from the HEA, and Nick Braithwaite from The Open University. Comments were made about the student voice, commitment to the discipline and the constant importance of professional integrity. I also noted down the words, ‘we want to improve our critical pedagogy; encourage everyone to be critical’. The second keynote speech was especially interesting because it was pretty distant from my know experience and knowledge: it was about how shared laboratory and learning spaces could be used to create an interdisciplinary subject centre.

Day one: first session

The first presentation I attended had the title ‘the educational value of student generated videos’. The idea was to replace a static poster with a five minute videos. As I listened, I thought of the Open University T215 module which requires students to create a short presentation.

One of the presentations that I particularly liked had the title: ‘undergraduate eJournals’. An eJournal is an official university publication for undergraduate studies that was linked to a ten point module. Interestingly, the articles published in an eJournal can be picked up by Google Scholar and the national media. Students could adopt the roles of author, referee and play a role on an editorial board. A new term that I’ve learnt was: synoptic learning. A key point for students was: try to create a paper that links science and fun topics; wacky can be good.

Discussion session

The next session was about discussion. I made notes about issues relating to ‘normative practice’ (without really understanding that this meant), social justice and inclusion.

An interesting question that was posed was: ‘are you aware of attainment gaps [in your programmes and modules]?’ Accompanying questions were: ‘are they discussed in your module team meetings, and do you know why they happen?’ and ‘do you discuss potential solutions?’ There were a series of related points: the importance of transition between levels of study, the importance of data, and the importance of critical reflection. Inclusion was discussed in terms of inclusive curriculum; making a subject relevant to individual students.

Flexibility and Personalisation

Neil Gordon from the University of Hull spoke about two pieces of work: flexible pedagogy and attainment. Flexible pedagogy was defined as giving students more choice about when to learn, where to learn and how to learn (mode, pace and place). Some interesting points that relate to computer science: it is a popular subject, but there appears to be a mismatch between expectations, i.e. computer science does not equal information technology. There are some clear challenges: computer science was noted to be the second worse subject for awarding good degrees (I should add that I’m not sure whether this was a national perspective or an institutional perspective), and 83% of students are male (again, I’m not sure on where this figure was taken from). Are there solutions? Some ideas were: to develop interactive tutorials, to create automated assessment, and look at the transition between school and colleague, and look to community engagement.

The next presentation was by Derek Raine from the University of Leicester. My notes read: ‘personalise the content to match with the aims and objectives for students – usual approach: core, options and a capstone project’.  Other points were: ‘drivers of change include finance, non-standard providers, media, and MOOCs’. The following question could be asked in classes: ‘what would you like to be discussed in the sessions?’

Final session

The final session that I attended was opened by Simon Grey from the University of Hull who spoke about ‘Games, learning and engagement’. Simon presented a brief history of gaming followed by a summary of the concept of gamification and game based learning. I learnt that there were eight different types of fun: sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discover, expression and submission (these terms reminded me of usability and user experience goals that are found in interaction design). Other points include the importance of mechanics (rules), dynamics (the system), and aesthetics (the look and feel), before Simon spoke about the concept of flow, and that we needed to give students clear goals, immediate feedback, and challenges that match their skill.

I think it was then my turn to do a bit of speaking. I spoke about a university funded project to study the teaching of a second level module about web technologies. My key points were that students differed significantly in terms of their backgrounds and abilities, and tutors differed significantly in terms of their online teaching practice.

The next session, entitled ‘teaching programming and data analysis with a MOOC’ was given by my colleague Michel Wermelinger. Michel talked about his experience of teaching on a MOOC entitled ‘learn to code for data analysis’ which has been presented through FutureLearn. Michel mentioned some software that students could use: a Python distribution called Anaconda (Wikipedia), something called SageMathCloud (Wikipedia), and Jupyter notebooks (Jupyter website). We were also told of a blog post that Michel had written called the First Principles of Instruction (blog post). The post which presents a very brief summary of five principles of instructional design that promotes learning and engagement. These are: problem centred, activation (of past experience), demonstration (to show new knowledge), application, and integration (of new knowledge into existing knowledge or practice).

It was a good talk. I have one other memory, which was that Michel was pretty robust in his views about much workload running a MOOC actually entails from a lecturer’s perspective.

Day two: first session

The first session had the title ‘development of digital information literacy’ by Eleanor Crabb who was also from the OU. I noted down the terms ‘understanding digital practices, finding information and critical evaluation’. There was a mention of an online pinboard tool, which was a bit like Pinterest, and a presentation about different activities: an icebreaker activity and a collaborative activity where students had to summarise a chemistry paper.

The next session had the title ‘encouraging students’ reflection through online progress files’. All students were required to make comments every week on each module, which in turn, acquire marks – which is an interesting parallel with a scientist’s notebook.  Key challenges included engagement with students and staff and students knowing what to write (which was ameliorated by a set of more detailed guidelines).

A session that I found especially interesting was entitled ‘maths advice and revision for chemistry’.  A key term that I noted down was: ‘the maths problem’; some students didn’t have mathematics as a prerequisite when they started to study chemistry as an undergraduate at Glasgow University. I also noted down bit of research that one of the best indicators of success in chemistry wasn’t having studied chemistry in the past, but instead, having an existing maths qualification. As I listened I started to think about (and remember) my own experience as a computer science student where I had to attend remedial maths classes (since I didn’t study A-level). I had to attend these classes where we were given maths puzzles printed on yellow paper. In Glasgow University, students could attend voluntary labs, workshops and group tutorials. Subjects included complex numbers, vectors, matrices, differentiation and integration. I couldn’t help but feel that such an approach would have been really useful during my own undergraduate studies.

The final session had the title: ‘understanding the process by which students manage their employability’. Employability was defined as ‘personal assets, how they are deployed, how they are presented to employers, and the wider context (such as economic conditions and personal circumstances). Another thought I had was that employability also relates the information that employers might find easily discover about potential employees if they do a quick internet search (which was a theme I think I was introduced to at another HEA workshop). Much food for thought.

Keynote summary:  Future directions in teaching and learning

The second conference keynote was by Derek Raine (who spoke during an earlier session) from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Science from the University of Leicester. Derek mentioned something called the New Directions in the teaching of Physics which presents opinion pieces, pedagogic research and reviews.

Before considering the future, Raine looked to the past to consider the historic and contemporary roles of universities. As well as being centres of study for the sciences and humanities, they can also be considered to be an ‘engine of social mobility, a driver of economic growth, and a cornerstone of our cultural landscape. Points were drawn from the 2016 white paper (THES explanation), and the 1963 Robins Report in Higher Education  (Education England) which states that higher education should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue it (page 9).  

According to Raine (and my notes), the 2016 white paper cites problems: that courses are inflexible, that students are dissatisfied, and there are national skills shortages. An important point is that there is increased competition from different types of education providers which is connected with an important change in perspective. Historically, higher education has been viewed as being a public good (the view that an educated and skilled workforce helps all members of society) whereas it is now being presented as a private good (that an education helps the individual to earn money). My view, and those of others that I work with is that the first perspective needs to be protected.

Another point was that there is research that tells us something about what works in higher education teaching. Key points include: time on task, trained teaching staff, the importance and use of collaborative learning, class sizes, quality of feedback, and the sense of community (Gibbs, Dimensions of Quality, Higher Education Academy PDF).

I made a note of some pedagogies (approaches to teaching) that were mentioned: personalised lecturers (that are based on student questions), flipped classrooms (where students listen to lectures before attending a tutorial), problem-based learning, MOOCs (which I’m very cynical about), gamificiation, extension tasks and student journals. As our speaker was speaking, I made a note that I felt important: ‘an alternative division of labour where pedagogic research or scholarship plays a part’.

Another interesting idea was the importance of sustainability (of higher education, and education per se) as a fundamental idea or principle. I also noted that it is important that ‘history is linked with the present, science linked with society, and economies with social justice, and this is achieved through interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary’. I agree: connections are important since they offer us perspective.

These final thoughts inspired an interesting point during the concluding question and answer session: ‘it isn’t just about what a university is for, but also what is an economy for; it’s not just about money, it’s about culture and our place within it’. 

Final session

The first of three sessions was from three of my OU colleagues, Ann Walshe, Anne-Marie Gallen, and Anne Campbell who were studying ‘associate lecturer perspectives on supporting students through tuition in groups’. They were asking: ‘what is tuition?’, ‘what can we learn from tutors?’ and ‘are there some common understandings across stakeholders?’ The research is being carried out through workshops and telephone interviews.

The next talk had the title ‘a student monitoring and remedial action system for improving retention of computer science programmes’ by Stewart Green from the University of West of England. I noted that there was a role of a retention co-ordinator. This is someone who gets different sources of data, such as attendance data, VLE logins, and assessment results. A key task is to periodically review the data, and to choose actions supported by student support advisors. Interventions might include email messages, face to face chats, and referrals to advisors. Students may, of course, be affected by a whole range of different issues, including illness, family issues and caring responsibilities.

In some ways Stewart’s role represents a human equivalent of various learning analytics project that I have heard rumours about in the OU. I really like the human element that underlies the looking of reports about attendance and attainment; this backs up my opinion that what really matters in education isn’t technology, but people.

I also noted down a couple of useful reports. The first that I noted had the title: Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change by Liz Thomas (HEA website). The second was entitled Undergraduate retention and attainment across the disciplines (HEA website).

The final session was called ‘visualising student progress: identifying patterns in the behaviour of students learning databases’. It was given by Andrew Cumming from Edinburgh Napier. Andrew spoke about tutorial exercises, where students had to perform SQL database searches across a number of live databases. I also have made the note ‘can we tell the difference between formal and informal learners?’ but I have no idea what this means.

Concluding thoughts

By the end of the two days at Leicester, I was pretty tired: there had been loads of presentations, and a lot of take in. Even though several months have now passed since the event, I can still remember some highlights. I was particularly interested in three things: the idea of an official ‘student journal’ as a learning tool (it was an interesting pedagogic approach), the idea of a ‘retention tutor’ (retention is a theme which crops up at almost every meeting I attend), and a welcome dose of perspective given to everyone during the second keynote.

There was one theme that seemed to go through every session: the importance of connecting teaching and research. Even though some of us might work in a discipline that doesn’t change very much (such as mathematics), the context and environment in which a subject or discipline sits is, of course, always changing. This means that we must always think about, study and explore ways to engage our students.

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AL development event: researching Computing and IT pedagogy

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 21 Nov 2016, 15:12

This blog has been prepared from a set of notes made during an AL development event on 18 June 2016 which took place at the Open University offices in Camden.

Opening remarks

The session kicked off with a ‘state of the union’ address. One of the big changes that associate lecturers were told about was the merger between two faculties: the Maths Computing and Technology faculty and the Science faculty, to create the STEM, Science Technology Engineering and Maths faculty. One of the reasons cited for this change is that the new faculty will have more independence in terms of how it is able to manage its structures and finances.

There, are, however some interesting differences. The science faculty doesn’t have any face to face tutorials for second and third level modules, whereas MCT does. Another point that I’ve noted down is that science makes more use of formative assessments. I’ve made some notes about what this means, but I won’t go into it here (since I might get some of the details wrong!)

In terms of Computing and IT, there are three new level three modules (which have now started), and two level one modules that are currently being written. These two modules occupy the space where TU100 My Digital Life used to sit. Key issues that needed to be addressed included: clear study overload for students, and issues regarding the transition between levels 1 and 2, especially when it comes to computer programming.

Retention and progression

The topic of retention and progression regularly comes up. The OU faces particular challenges regarding retention and progression due to its open access policy. In response to these challenges (amongst others, of course) the new faculty has created a new role called ‘head of student success’. I personally hold the view that associate lecturers and the student-tutor relationship is the single most important thing in terms of student success, and the new ‘head of student success’ needs to know something about what happens in the life of an associate lecturer to make any impact. Like I say, this is just an opinion (but one that is very valid).

I’ve also made a note that there was some mention of the subject of ‘learning analytics’. This is the study of ‘knowing how, when and where students are clicking’ when they visit the university websites. The idea is that clever algorithms might be able to tell members of the student support teams to give students a ring to have a chat about their studies before things get too difficult. Call me old fashioned: algorithms are all very well and have their uses but when it comes to education, people and personal knowledge matter a whole lot more (and I’ve spent much of my life studying computing and IT systems).

I’ve also made the following note (but I’m not quite sure what point I was trying to make): ‘students first’ means the importance of feedback and feedforward in response to exams, i.e. ‘why did I get a particular score?’ I think I meant: ‘one of the real things that can make a difference to students is the quality of feedback; personalised feedback can (obviously) guide effective learning’.

Group tuition policy session

The university has introduced something called the group tuition policy. There are some obvious issues with it, and I think it is (by and large) a pretty good idea. It has a couple of really simple principles, such as ‘for each face to face event, there should be an online alternative’ and ‘students can attend all learning events that are available in a cluster (of tutor groups). A cluster can be made up of anything between 4 and 10 tutor groups.

I’ve made a note of some really good points that were made during this session. One tutor asked, ‘will there be 100 people turning up when we have a really big cluster?’ Experience now tells us that OU Live tutorials don’t ever get that big, but they can become fairly big. I have heard that for some sessions over forty students have logged into a single learning event. (When I have run a national revision tutorial for a module that had over 320 students, I never had more than 30 students). An interesting point was about the use of microphones: students rarely use them.

One tutor asked the question: ‘will students be able to access learning events from all clusters?’ This isn’t something that I have managed to get a definitive answer about, but I have heard the new term ‘students from alien clusters’.

Another tutor asked about OU Live rooms. We now know that students will have access to up to three different OU Live rooms, and it will be down to the module tuition strategy to say more about how they should be used. In many cases there will be a national OU Live room which the module team could use to deliver lectures. There will be a cluster wide room which will be shared by all tutors who are working in a cluster. Finally, tutors will still have access to their own OU Live room, which can be used for additional support sessions, or tutorials that are for a whole tutor group.

I’ve made a note that there was some discussion about how timetables were set. My own approach has been to use a shared wiki document that is hosted on the university virtual learning environment. The dates and times on the wiki are then transferred to a booking spreadsheet which is passed onto AL services. Something else I’ve set us is a ‘cluster forum’, which is used to communicate will all tutors who are a part of a cluster.

The final discussions were about the learning event management system. The LEM, as it is known, is used to allow students to book onto learning events. One of the features of the LEM is that it will allow tutors to send messages to all the students who have registered for learning events (perhaps to send them some information that could be useful before a tutorial).

Researching Computing and IT Pedagogy

This afternoon session was designed to highlight that the university is currently funding STEM pedagogy through its eSTEeM research project, and to emphasise its importance to tutors. A key point is that tutors are important, since they are those that are closest to students.
One note I made was: ‘what do our students find most difficult?’ One answer is writing, and one module that was singled out was T215. A point was that perhaps there could be more teaching by example: students could be given an example of a good essay and a poorly written essay to show how they were different. 

Another interesting point was: when should the subject of writing (in terms of essay and TMA writing) be introduced to students? One thought was: maybe before the start of first level modules? There is something called a programming bootcamp (Learning Innovation website) that helps students to get to grips with the ideas of computer programming; perhaps there might be a writing bootcamp? Another important issue is the importance of basic numeracy, which is something that the first level Computing and IT modules try to address.

The final note I made was about other resources that tutors could draw upon to help students. The university has its Skills for Study website, resources from the library website and the developing good academic practice website which covers issues such as plagiarism and referencing.

AL contract negotiations update

The final part of the event was about potential changes to the associate lecturer teaching contract. The university and the union have been negotiating the terms for a new contract which should, hopefully, offer associate lecturers more stability and security. Rather than being contracted to a particular module which has a certain life tutors will be given a fractional post where they may be required to undertake a range of other duties, such as monitoring, moderating forums, exam marking, critical reading, and so on. This change in the contract will represent, in my opinion, a fundamental change in how the university operates.

I understand that there has been a university project that has been looking at how to plan and organise workload for these fractional posts. This said, at the time of writing, negotiations are currently stalled due to issues that are connected with the implementation of the group tuition policy.

Final remarks

A lot was covered in quite a short period of time. From my perspective, one of the key outcomes was a renewed sense that we need to collectively conduct some research into why students don’t attend tutorials when they are offered. The more students who attend tutorials (or learning events), the more fun, dynamic and interesting the tutorials will become. As soon as I’ve finished my current pedagogy project (which is about how best to observe teaching and learning practice), the question of tutorial attendance is something that I’m definitely going to pursue, with help from tutors (of course). We need this important piece of research to get more of an insight into issues that surround retention and progression.

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AL moderators training: using OU Live

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 21 Nov 2016, 15:12

The university makes extensive use of a software tool known as OU Live, which allows tutorials to be delivered over the internet. OU Live is, essentially, a branded version of a conferencing and teaching product called Blackboard Collaborate. In the next few years or so, this tool will be replaced with something else, but before this happens tutors are regularly encouraged to attend a series of online training sessions.

Despite being relatively familiar with OU Live, I decided to book myself onto one of these sessions. This blog post is a version of some rough notes that I made during and after the ‘AL moderators’ course that I went on.  (I took these notes back in May, and I’m writing this blog in November, so I hope I can remember everything correctly!)

My main comment is: if you’re an associate lecturer, and you need to deliver the occasional OU Live tutorial, either by yourself, or with other tutors, do try to find the time to book yourself on this course. It’s a pretty useful and it won’t take up too much of your time. It’s also a really useful thing to put on an application form for any other tutoring role that might take your fancy.


There were three sessions. The first session began with a set of introductions: I really liked the approach that was taken. All participants were asked to put up their hand by clicking on the ‘hand raise’ button. This had the effect of creating an orderly queue of who is going to speak. During the intro, the facilitator got everyone used to turning the ‘talk’ button on and off (which has the effect of preventing background noise). I’m going to term this practice: ‘good microphone hygiene’.

The facilitator had prepared a number of slides and used an interesting technique to create an animation: parts of the slide were covered up with squares which could be dragged out of the way to reveal answers (or other types of information). By way of analogy, think of a big piece of paper that was covered with pieces of card. It was a neat trick!

We were shown how to use OU Live pointers. I tend to use these quite a lot, since they can make things interesting. You can emphasise different points, and move different types of pointer to different parts of a slide.

An interesting open question given to all participants was: ‘What are you looking for from this module?’ It’s a really neat question that gets us talking. Different participants had different perspectives, and the answers allowed the facilitators to create a session that was specialised to those who were attending.

A topic that is regularly discussed is the use and etiquette about recordings. The policies for recordings are not as well defined as they ought to be, but I hold the simple opinion that tutors should always make recordings. In my eyes, recordings have three uses: (1) they help students who have not been able to attend, (2) they can help students who have attended who want to listen to stuff a second time, and (3) can advertise how engaging sessions are, and what a student might miss if they don’t attend a live session. (I don’t hold the view that if you record a session students won’t bother to come along).

Regarding the third point, I remember that there was a discussion session, where the recording was turned off, and a timer was turned on. The timer is a countdown timer, which makes an audible ‘ping’ sound when the time runs out. Two thoughts were: those students who are not attending the live session will miss out on this bit, and ‘I’ve never used a timer before, and it looks like a really useful feature!’

Looking at another tutor’s OU Live session (or teaching practice) really helps you to think about your own. One thing that struck me from the Tutor Moderator’s session was how much space was given over to questions. My own practice is slightly different; I tend to ask for questions at the end (after turning the recording off, to allow students to speak freely). I don’t know whether there is a right or wrong way to do things.

One of the most memorable parts of the course was the bit about breakout rooms. Breakout rooms are virtual spaces where participants can chat between themselves, usually to discuss a predefined issue or problem. Facilitators can also share whiteboard slides to breakout rooms, and can also collate slides from breakout rooms into the main presentation; imagine giving pairs of students’ big pieces of paper which they can write onto during their chat. We were encouraged to click and drag participants between different rooms.

Towards the end of the session, we were asked to consider the difference between ‘ice breaker’ and ‘warm up activity’. I hadn’t ever heard the term ‘warm up activity’ before. I now understand it to be something that a student can do in the moments before the start of an OU Live session. An example might be a message on a whiteboard that goes: ‘write your name, and where you are from’. A warm up activity helps participants to become familiar with the OU Live interface and how it works. An ice breaker, on the other hand is, of course, might be all about talking.

The next step was to share a bit of ‘online teaching’ with someone else who was on the course. Since beginning to study for a PGCE at another institution, I’ve learnt that this kind of practice can be known as ‘microteaching’. In the context of this course, I have to confess that I found myself too busy with various admin activities to complete this bit, which is a shame. If you do this tutor moderators course, don’t repeat my mistake!

Final thoughts

A couple of interesting questions to ask are: ‘what did I get from doing this?’ and ‘where would I use what I have learnt?’

The most useful thing that I learnt was about breakout rooms. Before this session, I didn’t really know how to create breakout rooms, and I found the opportunity to practice really helpful. The idea of dragging live students around on a screen into virtual rooms is pretty terrifying, but it’s a whole lot easier if you’re doing this with a bunch of fellow tutors who are just as befuddled as you are.

Would I use the ‘using white squares to hide bits of the screen’ technique? Probably not. It was a neat idea, but my own practice is to very carefully prep some slides and to use pointers a lot. This said, it’s an interesting technique, and one that I will think about.

I really liked the idea of a warm up activity. I might give this a go.

Since attending the tutor moderator’s course, I’ve used breakout rooms twice. I ran two cluster briefings. A ‘cluster briefing’ as I call them is an online meeting where all the tutors in a group tuition cluster informally discuss tutorial plans. If you are an associate lecturer, and you’re reading this, and you would like a cluster briefing before the next presentation of your module, do ask your staff tutor to run one!

Another question is: ‘what next?’ Or, put another way, ‘what would I like to do better in OU Live?’ The answer to this is ‘team teaching’. At the time of writing, there isn’t any guidance about team teaching best practice with OU Live. Perhaps I’ve stumbled across a whole new research project… Do get in touch if you’re interested in collaborating! 

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Farewell diversity group

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 17 Nov 2016, 09:26

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been caught up in the middle of something called the group tuition policy. August and September of this year proved to be my busiest ever at the university. I have, however, found the time to write a short article for the associate lecturer magazine called Snowball (I’ll publish a version of it when it has been released). This post isn't about the trials and tribulations of the group tuition policy, but I'm sure I'll be writing about that another time.

Not long after joining The Open University in London I joined something called an ‘equal opportunities and diversity’ group. I soon learnt that the group was a throwback to an old university wide project that aimed to increase institutional awareness about equality and diversity issues. When the original project came to an end, the London group decided to continue for the simple reason: equality and diversity was considered to be an important issue in our capital city.

There was another reason why I joined: I started to self-identify with people who have disabilities (I have a stutter). Even though I’m a middle class hetrosexual white man, I started to realise that it was important to get involved. Firstly, I realised that my perspective might be one that may be of interest. I then formed the opinion that it was important to build and find allegiances with others. There was another perspective, and this was: the E&O group pretty fun group to be involved with.

This blog is, in some ways, a farewell to the group. The group is disbanding since the university has decided, in its infinite wisdom, to close the London office.  I leave the Camden office with a whole bunch of good memories.

Diversity events

Although the E&O group in London didn’t have any official powers within the university, it was charged with doing two things: representing the views of staff and students through the links that the staff have with different parts of the university, and running a ‘diversity’ event every year.

For those who prefer The Daily Mail over The Guardian, this kind of initiative might seem something of an anathema. The ideals are simple: the university has a responsibility to offer education to anyone who walks through its virtual doors. To educate as effectively as possible, we need to know about some of its students. To educate effectively, we need to become educated ourselves. The help Open University students to succeed, we need to have open minds regarding the perspectives of others.

The first event that I was involved with in 2011 was about travel. It was about sharing thoughts and impressions about places that everyone in the London office had come from, or had a connection with, or had visited. A map was put up in the café area and we were encouraged to deface it positively with string, pins, pen and photographs. Our stories and journeys criss-crossed the globe; almost every continent was touched.

The following year saw an event that was about winter celebrations and memories. We shared photographs and had a competition. The event for 2013 had a slightly different tone: it had the title ‘creative aging’; a topic that was thoroughly embraced. One reason is that our students can be of any age (and, of course, we’re all getting that little bit older).

The 2014 event had the title: ‘Open Minds: Mental Health and Diversity Matters’. This event had two different forms: a participative display that was placed in the café area, where we could share experiences and knowledge about mental health issues, and a lecture about staying mentally healthy. The lecture was given by our university mental health advisor. The message was simple: ‘we’re encouraged to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to help with our physical health, so why are we not thinking about things in a similar way about our mental health?’ It’s a compelling point. When we’re so focussed on doing things and dealing with day to day challenges, we can forget to take time out. During the lecture, we were told about an idea called MindApples, which is a London based charity.

Although I enjoyed all these events, the next one was, perhaps, one of my favourites. The 2015 event was entitled: Jokes, Language and Diversity. Humour is a really interesting topic. A good joke or a humorous story can unsettle us and challenge our prejudices (and make us laugh, of course). Humour can, of course, allow us to explore taboos and understand different perspectives. During the event, a series of different performers talked about issues relating to sexuality, race, disability and language.

The final event had the title: Equality and Diversity: Past, Present and Future. This event was centred on another participative display. As well as being a retrospective of all earlier events it also touched upon the subject of utopia: what it meant to different writers and what it meant to the different people who worked in the London regional centre. In some ways, this subject represented another perspective: diversity of thought and diversity of opinion.

The wider perspective

Even though our London diversity group unofficially dissolves at the beginning of 2017, the university has a number of informal staff networks for ‘diverse’ members of staff: there is a disabled staff network, a BME network, a LGBT network, and a women’s network. I was a co-chair of the Open University disabled staff network for a while until I got mad with the ‘network’ scheme and threw all my toys out of the pram.

The reason for my departure from this set of networks was pretty simple: I didn’t feel that the groups were talking to each other, and I felt that the senior management were not taking issues of equality and diversity very seriously. There was another difference: the London diversity group was just that: diverse; it wasn’t a silo: we could talk about anything, and we could challenge each other.

Another reason for leaving the network was down to time: I felt that I could use my time more efficiently by being outside a ‘network’ than within it. Here’s an example: I’ve been lobbying for the university to provide an equality analysis in response to its ongoing restructuring programme (which is a polite way of saying ‘redundancies’ and ‘closures’). This said, I’m not saying that a ‘network’ isn’t useful or important; they may well be very useful in terms of giving voice to some members of staff. My point is: an institutional diversity programme should go further than just having a small number of homogeneous groups.

We learnt some good things in our London group, did some good stuff, and we had some good times. I'm sad that the group is disbanding and the London office is closing (which is something that still baffles me). The success of this group reflects what is really important in the university: its people.

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Open University eSTEeM 2016 conference, 14 April 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 15:57

eSTEeM is the Open University centre for STEM pedagogy. I think this was the second or third eSTEeM conference I’ve been to, and they’ve always been pretty interesting. This blog post is a quick summary of the different talks that I went to. I’m blogging this, so I can remember what happened, and also just in case it might be useful for anyone else who was there.

Opening keynote

Andrew Smith, Senior Lecturer in networking, gave a thought provoking keynote speech entitled ‘our classroom has escaped’. He began by asking everyone who was users of different social media tools: twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Pretty much everyone put up their hands, showing how popular these tools are.

Andrew said ‘we suffer from the paradigm of monolithic learning; what happens in my classroom doesn’t leak out’, and that we are protective of our content.  His point was: things have been ‘escaping’ for some time. As soon as Andrew mentioned this, I thought of the session about Facebook that was held in the most recent associate lecturer development session (OU blog). A question is: how do people outside our classroom see what is going on?

A challenge is that social media exposes us amongst our peers, but it also offers us a way to engage our audience beyond the classroom. But how might we use these tools to teach? One approach is to automate our social media content. For instance, if you know what your content is you can ‘schedule it and plan it’. There is also the potential to engage students when modules are not running, or students are between presentations.

This is all very well, but how do we great engagement? One approach is to ask open questions. The idea is to create a community of practice, where both learners and tutors participate. There is also the importance of relevance. Social media engagement can also connect current studies to current and changing media stories. One of the roles of an educator is to create ‘sparks of interest’, to inspire, and to facilitate learning.

Would the way that you approach social media be different depending upon the subject that you teach? Perhaps. The thing with networking, is that many things are cut and dried; the situation might be very different with subjects from the humanities, for instance.

(In case you’re interested, Andrew told us about two of his Twitter streams: @OUCisco and @OUCyberSec)

Session C: Online practices

There was a lot going on, so I had to choose from one of many different parallel sessions. The first talk in the ‘online practices’ session, by Vic Nicholas, was all about student perceptions of online group work as they studied a ‘classical science module’. One finding (that was, in retrospect, not particularly surprising) was that students appear to have negative views about group work. One thing that I took away from this session was the use of email to prompt students at certain points throughout the module. (This reminded me that tutors have been requesting a ‘send text message to students’ feature for quite a while now).

The next talk took a very different tone: rather than focussing on the students, it was all about how to use technology to empower academic authors. Angela Coe told us about how a tool called OpenEdx (OpenEdx site) was used to create materials for S309 Earth Processes (OU website). OpenEdx was described as a tool that has been created by STEM developers for STEM developers.

Some interesting points were that the tool exposed more about the author and who they are. The use of the tool also encouraged an informal chatty writing style, and supported ‘in content’ discussions. I seem to remember that Angela also spoke about animations and the sharing of data sets using Google Docs. 

The final presentation in this session was entitled, ‘the trials and tribulations of S217’ (which is entitled Physics: from classical to quantum). This is a module that appears to cover some pretty hard (yet fundamental) stuff, such as thermodynamics, optics and quantum physics. An important issue that needed to be addressed in this module was the accessibility of the mathematical materials. I’ve made a note that they authors had to move Tex content to the virtual learning environment (which is a theme that was mentioned in my previous blog about a BCS accessibility conference). 

Session F: MOOCs

The first presentation of this session, entitled ‘Evaluating the design and delivery of a Smart Cities MOOC for an international audience’ was given by Lorraine Hudson from the department of Computing and Communications. The OU is a central partner in an EU funded project that is all about Smart Cities, or how the operation of cities can be supported by the use of different types of IT systems. In some senses the MOOC seems to be about how to tackle ‘wicked problems’ (problems that don’t have an immediately apparent solution). The subject is also necessarily interdisciplinary. 

Michel Wermelinger and Tony Hirst spoke about their experience of designing a MOOC about using the programming language Python for data analysis. In some respects, Michel’s presentation was a ‘warts and all’ take on designing and running a MOOC. The main point that I took away from his presentation was that MOOCs are a lot of hard work for the academics who have to run them, and there is the perpetual question of whether this is time well spent, especially when we bear in mind the fact that around three quarters of the participants already have degrees (which was a point also mentioned in Lorraine’s talk).

The final presentation was by Kris Stutchbury, who spoke about ‘Supporting the teaching of Science in development contexts: OpenScience Lab and TESSA’. TESSA is an abbreviation of Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kris’s project represented a case study, of a snap shot of what is happening within the TESSA project, which can be thought of as an important aspect to the university’s wider social mission. 

Workshop: Listening to graphs

This session was hosted by Chris Hughes and Karen Vines. Their session opened with the observation that graphs are (obviously) a really effective way of communicating a lot numerical data really easily, but how do we communicate the same information for students who have visual impairments?

There are a number of different ways: figure descriptions, the use of tactile diagrams, and the use of sonification, which means converting a visual representation to an audible one. The challenge is, of course, how do we do it? Chris mentioned that sonification has been around for quite a long time; at least one hundred years. One common example of sonification is the Geiger counter, which translates measurements of radiation of audible clicks.

There are a bunch of ‘sound parameters’ that can be manipulated. These are: pitch, timbre, time, loudness and repetition. By way of a simple introduction we were asked to draw a graph based on an equivalent auditory representation. This is all well and good, but there is a compelling research question which needs to be answered, which is: do sonifications actually work during study? Do they help students to learn?

To try to answer this question Chris, Karen and colleagues designed a study. In their study, they gave five visually impaired students and five sighted six learning scenarios: two were from science, one was from mathematics, and the remaining three were from statistics. Of course, since there was such a small sample size, the study was qualitative and (as I interpreted it) exploratory.

The workshop raised some really interesting questions, such as: how do we best teach through figure descriptions? This also emphasised the extent to which existing student knowledge can influence the interpretation of certain descriptions. The final point that I noted was: ‘we need to think of a blended approach, to use different representations; sonifications, descriptions and tactile diagrams’.

Closing Keynote

The closing keynote was by Helen Beetham, and had the title, ‘supporting lifelong learner’s resilience and care in a digital age’.  Helen began with a definition of ‘learning literacies in a digital age’: capabilities that allow an individual to thrive (to live, to learn, to work) in a digital society. There is a JISC funded project called Learning Literacies for the Digital Age (LLiDA) that accompanies this description; an associated project is the JISC Digital Student project (JISC). But what does it mean to be a ‘digital’ student? (If this is a term can ever be defined?) Perhaps it could be able developing effective study habits and specialist practices, using technology to create relationships with peers. 

A connected idea is the notion of ‘digital literacy’. To help us with definitions, there is a JISC information page called Developing students’ Digital Literacy (JISC) that offers a bit of guidance. Another thought is that perhaps ‘the digital divide might be narrower, and deeper’ with respect to how we use digital tools and consume digital learning media. There is also the notion of ‘digital well-being’, and Helen offers a number of digital well-being references (Google Doc). An accompanying idea is ‘digital resilience’.

An interesting point, and one I’ve come across before, is the importance of ‘career and identity management’ (I think I might have come across this term at a HEA event about employability): our different digital identities have the potential to blur, and knowing how we are presented ‘on-line’ is important.

Helen gave us with two other interesting phrases to consider: the notion of our ‘quantified selves’, which points to the question of how much control we have over what data is collected about us, and whether this might connect to our ‘digital capital’.


What surprised me about this conference was how much research and scholarship was going on across the university. The poster session was especially memorable. I don’t know how many posters there were, but there were at least twenty, each relating to a different aspect of teaching and learning. Some posters focussed on teaching practice, others focussed on technology.

To get more of a view about what is going on (and what was happening in the other parallel sessions), I really need to find the time to sit down with a cup of tea and work through the conference proceedings.

More information about eSTEeM funded research can also be found by visiting the Open University eSTEeM website (Open University).

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Digital accessibility in higher and further education conference, April 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 12:06

I’ve been to a couple of events at the British Computer Society (BCS) before. This one was especially interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are over ten thousand students with disabilities studying at the Open University, and it’s important to know what is going on in the field. Secondly, accessibility in higher education is central to a module that I tutor (H810 accessible on-line learning). Another reason, of course, was to catch up with colleagues in other institutions who work in the digital accessibility sector.

This blog post is intended for internal (and external) colleagues, and students who are studying this area. What follows is a quick summary of all the talks I attended. I also hope this summary might be useful for anyone who was at the conference.

Introductions and opening talks

The conference had the subheading: ‘meeting the needs of the increasing number of students with disabilities’. Lord Addington, spokesman for Special Educational Needs (SEN) at the House of Lords, introduced the event. He spoke about the political context, highlighting the importance of employers. A really important point was: ‘please make sure everyone knows what you can do, to make someone’s life slightly easier; let them know you have practical solutions when you talk to people outside this room’.

Accessibility for students with disabilities

The first speaker was Majid Kahn, who spoke about his experience as an undergraduate student who has a visual impairment. An early point that directly resonated with my own knowledge was the difficulties that can surround acquiring assistive technology through the UK Disability Support Allowance (DSA). Due to delays that are inherent in the process, Majid had to obtain a ‘loan’ computer from the RNIB, which arrived one month after the start of a course.

Majid said (according to my notes) that some software not was accessible through a screen reader. An accompanying challenge was accessing text books (and some books that published in PDF format are not accessible). A practical solution was to directly email the author, who could send a Word version (which would then be accessible). Since many documents and resources are accessed through institutional learning environments, Majid commented that ‘Moodle seems to be inaccessible at the moment’. This was a point that I found interesting, since I know the OU has been putting a work into trying to make Moodle accessible. Perhaps there might be differences between how Moodle is set up and used by different institutions.

Another key point was that the training available at university (in terms of how to use systems, products and assistive technologies) is not adequate. This was connected with the view that although things are heading in the right direction, there is a long way to go, and there is a lack of awareness. Awareness is connected to the importance of communication, and the acceptance that every student is different. In some situations, students may be reluctant to ask for help and advice, and some lecturers might be unwilling to offer additional support. To help to facilitate understanding it was considered important to share information; to help university staff to become more aware of the needs of students. 

An industry perspective on what to teach and how

David Sloan is an ‘accessible user experience engineer’. I know David through his publication on the notion of holistic web accessibility (Word doc, University of Bath). David’s job is to provide advice on how to develop and support digital accessibility, which is something that is often thought of ‘very late in the day’, or is considered as an afterthought.  Put another way: ‘organisations pay us to give bad news’. Rather than reporting on what doesn’t work, organisations and universities shouldn’t really focus on ‘evaluating and repairing’, but should instead focus on ‘improving practices and processes from the beginning’.

Some key problems include the lack of web development skills, understanding that not everyone uses a mouse for access, the use of colour, and media accessibility, i.e. offering alternative (useful) descriptions for graphics.

A fundamental problem can relate to the organisational perspective; accessibility not being connected to good experience design, or accessibility being ‘hived off’ into another part of interaction design. The key point is that accessibility needs to be built into development processes, and this relates to the idea of an ‘accessibility design maturity continuum’ (Paciello group); accessibility shouldn’t be added as an afterthought.

There are a number of challenges for educators: the importance of integrating accessibility into the curriculum, that digital literacy and accessibility communication should be embedded into all subjects (and not just information technology or computing sciences), and that it should be integrated into learning activities, experiences and assessment. It is also important to include accessibility as a core professional skill.  David went on to suggest that there might be increased professionalization of accessibility, and mentioned something called (TeachAccess website).

As David was talking, I had a thought which relates to the complexities that are inherent in accessibility. Whilst it is possible to create accessible resources and accessible software, every learner is different in terms of their personal needs and their learning strategies. Learners need to develop expertise and mastery over their tools. This is, of course, something that takes time.

Accessible STEM: Anticipating and resolving barriers

Emma Cliffe works in the accessibility resource centre in the University of Bath. Emma helps to provide accessible solutions for maths, computing, and subjects that present a lot of diagrams.

When it comes to maths, a really important point is that students are expected to produce assignments that their lecturers can read; students invariably need to show their working to demonstrate their understanding of mathematical concepts. One of the issues is that some digital formats (such as PDFs, for example) are ‘lossy’, which means that they lose some of their important semantic information when PDF documents are created.

Lecturers need to provide materials in a format that retains the ‘semantic structure’ (or meaning) of the maths that they aim to teach. Emma mentioned a range of tools and formats: structured Word documents, structured HTML documents, MathML, or Tex plus something called MathJax, Markdown, or ePub3. 

As a brief aside, Tex is a typesetting language which is used with Latex, which mathematicians often use to write technical papers. I’ve used Latex in anger only once, and found it very difficult! I hadn’t heard of something called MathJax before.

 A key question is: how do you author mathematics? The answer is: it is a skill that needs to be learnt (and, of course, takes time to master). This area is one that is rapidly changing, and is difficult for disabled support allowance (DSA) assessors to keep up.

Emma moved onto looking at a subject that that cropped up in my undergraduate studies: finite state automata, which are usually represented through diagrams (using circles and arrows). A finite stage machine is an abstract machine that moves between different states of operation. The thing is, it’s pretty difficult to describe them. To emphasise this point, we were shown different types of descriptions, some more descriptive and wordy than others.

Reflecting on David’s session, I noted that we need to help students to find a choice of tools that work for them. We also need to embed accessibility into procurement processes, and figure out how to integrate accessibility in our teaching (since non accessible students can also benefit from any adjustments that we make). Collaboration is, of course, important too.

Accessibility and MOOCs

EA Draffan from the University of Southampton spoke of a range of different issues that related to accessibility. One point (and I don’t know whether this is true) is that the majority of learners are either middle aged, or elderly.

EA made the really important point that all technologies can be assistive. Some important questions to ask those working in the academic context are: why are we using certain types of multimedia? What are its barriers for use? Do all learners need it? Is personalisation possible?

Rather than presenting research findings, the main point of EA’s presentation seemed to be: MOOC designers and developers need to be mindful about the importance of accessibility. EA went onto talk about different types of accessibility checkers. (There is, of course, the accompanying issue that it can be sometimes difficult to understand and interpret the results from these checkers).

On the subject of MOOCs, I have a couple of research questions (one of which was touched on by EA). The first one is: what do MOOCs about accessibility actually teach? And, secondly, are MOOCs themselves accessible? What are the practical barriers that learners face, and what do they do to get around them?

Parallel session: accessible and adaptable materials and content

The afternoon parallel session consisted of three presentations. The first talk was about ‘how to make PDF documents accessible in virtual environments’, and was given by colleagues from AbilityNet (AbilityNet website). The advice was simple, familiar and effective: create documents using accessible tools, know your audience, don’t use long paragraphs, use headings, use bullet points to break up text, avoid graphics of text, don’t use colours to provide information, and use alternative text for images. Importantly: always consider the semantic structure of a document.

Next up, was an accessibility consultant called Ted Page, who said there were differences between technical accessibility and content accessibility. I think this means that event though something might be accessible through assistive technology, the corresponding content, if read out by a screen reader, might not make any sense at all. PDFs are, apparently, a reasonable solution, but I was interested to hear that MathML is coming to PDF documents (which should add more semantic structure to documents). This echoes Emma’s point that this is a fast moving area.

The third presentation from this session was by Joanna Hunt, from Blackboard. Joanna spoke about a new on-line real-time conferencing system that may replace Elluminate (which is the basis of OU Live, the OU’s real-time tutorial system), which relies on a Java plug-in. This additional bit of Java software can sometimes be a barrier for users. This connects to a wider point that usability and accessibility are intrinsically connected. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a feel for how the new Blackboard system may work (and its accessibility) since it is still under development.

Closing Keynote: Employment prospects of STEM graduates with Disabilities

Peter Looms, from the Technical University of Demark addressed a range of wider issues. Not only is accessibility important in terms of learning resources and classroom activities, but equal access to social activities (of course) is also important. This point is related to the social model of disability. There should be a movement away from solving problems, to removing barriers.

Other points related to the costs of exclusion: there are societal and economic impacts. Assistive technology and digital tools can often be expensive. There are also benefits to inclusion. Peter mentioned Kyle Schwanke, a Microsoft Xbox engineer who has ASD, and touched on the importance of diversity and recruitment. (More information about Kyle Schwanke can be found in a Microsoft People article). The point is that diversity should be viewed as an asset, not a burden. 

Discussion and reflections

During each of the two parallel sessions, each group was asked to consider what might be four points (or steps) to digital accessibility.

Here is a list of the combined points: the importance of consultation (with students), professionalise good teaching practice, improve access to information, put skills before disability (and use the social model of disability), consider using game technology for educating tutors, the importance of doing things the right way, the importance of standards, the importance of involving users, training tutors, and working together.

The final discussions centred upon whether the BCS could embed more accessibility into its core mission, and the extent to which the Teaching Excellent Framework (Times Higher article) may influence practice.

My main concluding thought is that there was one aspect to the conference that wasn’t a surprise, and another aspect that was a surprise. In some respects, all of the subjects and issues that were discussed were quite familiar to me: I am aware of the challenges that surround mathematics, and that we should not be ‘retrofitting’ accessibility to digital materials (but should, instead, think about accessibility from the outset). The surprise was the feeling that there is still a long way to go when it came to educating people about the importance of accessibility.

There are (at least) two reasons why it is important. Firstly, making something accessible, makes things easier for everyone. Secondly, we a moral and a legal responsibility to do something about it. 

For those who are interested, resources from the conference have been made available on the BCS website.

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Associate Lecturer Conference: London School of Economics, 19 March 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 18 Apr 2016, 12:20

This blog is a quick summary of an Associate Lecturer development conference that was held at the London School of Economics on 19 March 2016.

There are three parts to this post: a summary of a keynote by vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks, a summary of research into the use of Facebook by students, and a summary of a session that was for Computing, Engineering and Technology students. This final session has led to the creation of a resource that could be useful for all OU associate lecturers (which has also been included).

Before going any further, one thing that I should say is that these are my own notes and reflections. Other attendees might well have viewed proceedings from a slightly different perspectives (or, understood things slightly differently). 

Keynote: Peter Horrocks

Peter began his keynote by introducing himself, saying that he was very familiar with the part of London where the AL development conference was located; it was, of course, just around the corner from the BBC World Service, where he used to be a director.

Peter talked about the OU emerging strategy and the ‘vital role that associate lecturers can play’, whilst acknowledging the contribution that the AL community makes to the success of the university.

Interestingly, Peter said that there had been improvements to the ‘political language’ that was being used in relation to part-time learning. I also made a note of some kind of review in lifelong learning that might take place, and a possible expansion of the student loan book, which was something that Peter would mention later on during his talk.

After his introduction, Peter played a video clip of Geoffrey Crowther, the founding chancellor of the university. I noted down the following quote, which relates to the university objective to ‘to cater for many thousands of people who do not get higher education’.

Peter reported that when the university was formed, higher education participation was under 15%. It is now, however, close to 50%. He went on to say it was important to understand that there had been a substantial decline in OU student numbers in recent years and this has had a significant knock on effect on the overall income to the university. A challenge was that as the university shrunk, it becomes harder for the university to continue to have a positive impact on wider society.

Peter did, however, say that there was the intention to get the university growing again. The number of students studying for diplomas and certificates had fallen, and these qualifications had not been replaced. He also reported that there was a movement towards certificates and diplomas being ‘loanable’ qualifications. A degree was considered to a ‘big’ (or ‘high’?) ‘hurdle’ to get over, and there might be the need to adjust the ‘university offer’.

Another interesting point that that profile of OU students has changed. When the university started in the 1970s, 25% of the original students were women. Women now account for 57% of the student body. (I also remember hearing anecdotal evidence that the student body is getting younger too, but I don’t have the stats to back this up).

Peter then went on to talk about his ‘students first’ strategy, which was presented through a ‘graphical device’. Key points included the importance of ‘student success’ and ‘innovation for impact’. University ‘people’ were presented as a layer at the bottom of the graphic. My own view is that the university ‘people’ should occupy a more central place in the strategy: it is people who offer students tuition, it is people who support those tutors, and it is people who write the modules and people who carry out world leading research.

Another sentence that I noted was that ‘[we have] an enormous challenge to turn around [a] steep decline in students’ and everyone is to be involved with this. There were, however, have some suggestions. A thought was to give more pastoral support for students, perhaps ‘a named personal tutor for the duration of the student’s time with the OU’. (This is an idea that reminds me to the role of the ‘tutor councillor’; a role that had disappeared by the time I joined the university in 2006). Other thoughts included having associate lecturers more involved in module and content creation (which implicitly connects to current AL contract negotiations). All these points took us to a university vision statement, which was: ‘to reach more students with life-changing learning that meets their needs and enriches society’.

After his keynote, Peter ran a short question and answer session. The first question was very direct, and addressed many concerns that were held by many of the full time staff those who were attending the event. The question was: ‘if we are going to be putting students first, why are we closing seven regional centres, where over three hundred dedicated and experienced people will lose their jobs?’ His reply was that student support will be offered in terms of curriculum, and will not be constrained by geography, and there will be benefits by co-locating different functions together. Another benefit that has been cited has been increased opening hours for the student support workers.

I see a lot of the hard work that goes on in the regional centres, and I fundamentally disagree with the way that the restructuring is taking place.  I have previously written in an earlier blog post about all the different functions that take place in the regional centres, and I seriously worry that the rate at which the centres to close creates serious operational risks for the university. One of the most important relationships that a student has is with their tutor, and regional centres, of course, play a fundamental role in helping to support our tutors.

Another question centred about why the university was investing in FutureLearn, its division that offers free on-line courses, or MOOCs (which are known as: massive open on-line courses). I’ve noted down two answers: firstly, that FutureLearn plans to be profitable by 2018 (I’m paraphrasing, since I can’t remember the entire reply). This was an interesting response, since I’m baffled by its business model. Secondly, MOOCs are in keeping with the university’s mission to be open to people, places and ideas. The availability of MOOCs is something to be applauded, but a perpetual worry is that MOOCs are very often studied by students who already have degree level qualifications. (One statistic that I’ve heard is that three quarters of MOOC students already have a degree).

If MOOCs play a role in the university’s widening participation agenda, another related worry is that the capacity to run national widening participation initiatives (perhaps supported by MOOCs?) will be diminished by dismantling the university regional network.

Other points related to the recognition of associate lecturers. One point was, ‘we’re not just vital; we’re core’. Another point was: ‘if you want success, you have got to value everyone here, and our commitment to students, society and equality’. These are all points I totally agree with. Associate lecturers are core: they are the people who offer our students one to one support.

From my own perspective, the staff in the regions play a fundamental role in the operation of the university, and it is more than ‘just a shame’ the dedicated staff in the various regions are being faced with the human trials of relocation or redundancy.

The Lure of Facebook

Every AL development conference offers tutors a choice of different events. For this conference, I attended ‘The Lure of Facebook’ by Leigh-Anne Perryman and Tony Coughlan.

The workshop opened with the suggestion that participation in VLE forums is falling, and perhaps there is a movement from formal learning space to informal spaces. There are, it seems, hundreds of student led study groups, and many of them are thriving.

Their study looked at ten groups, four disciplines, and three different degree levels. This accounted for 2600 participants. The research questions were simple: are the groups educational, do they facilitate learning, and what kinds of activities take place?

As with any kind of research that involves human participants, ethics are considered to be important. Only groups that were thoroughly open to the public were studied.


There were an ecosystem of groups. Each discipline area seems to have an umbrella group. People come and go between different groups. It is interesting that students from previous presentations pass on tips to the current generation of students. Students also belong to different life groups, such as textbook exchange groups, alumini groups, and regional groups.

Returning to the research questions, are they educational? Differences were observed between the different levels, in terms of the technical and academic content that was shared. The range of practices were interesting: there was evidence of peer guidance, emotional support, discussion of module context, and tips on how to become a student. The main conclusion was that these groups are complementary to other support that is offered by the university.


One of the thoughts that was running through my mind was the relevance of some JISC research (or a JISC meeting) that seemed to emphasise the differences between online spaces: spaces that are provided by the university, and those that are facilitated by students. I seem to recall the view that the university shouldn’t intrude on these student created spaces

This thought connected to an interesting discussion around the issue of on-line behaviours, such as trolling and bullying. Whilst the university cannot police private or external groups, students still need to adhere to policies about student conduct.

It was really interesting to hear that groups seems to have a lifecycle: groups come and go. I’m sure that this was discussed, but I was left wondering about what exactly characterised the lifecycle of a Facebook group.

Faculty session

These conferences represent useful opportunities for tutors in a particular faculty to get together and share practices and experiences (and this, of course, is one of the greatest advantages of being ‘physically rooted’ in a location). I attended the Computing, Technology and Engineering session. Rather than leading this time, I decided I would participate in my role of an associate lecturer.

The session opened by a brief update my Matthew Nelson, who is a staff tutor who works in the Computing and Communications department. Mathew shared what he knew about the group tuition policy, the associate lecturer contract, and the closure of the regional centres. 

The next part of the session was facilitated by my colleague Sue Truby. Our task was to ‘unpick’ and discuss the different aspects of the tutor role, which is a resource that is featured on the TutorHome website. In other words, we were asked to contribute to a resource that describes ‘what we all do’ as tutors.

We were put into three small groups. Each group sat at a table, and we were given between three and four sheets of paper. These sheets had a ‘headline’ activity which was taken from the TutorHome resource. During the session, we moved between different tables, adding comments to each of these pages. At the end of the session, all the sheets were collected, and a summary created. What follows is a lightly edited version of that summary which was sent to me by my colleague Sue (different tutors, of course, may well have presented slightly different answers):

Welcome students. Send a motivational group email telling them about the tutor group forum. Post a message on the tutor group forum and get them talking with an introductory question (eg say something unusual about themselves and the module). Give the students a ring, and certainly ring them if they don’t reply to the introductory email.

Identify students’ needs. Look at all the records that you have available, and look out for special circumstances (module history, age etc). Send a message to those identified, encouraging them to tell you if they need something. Other information that might be useful may include past TMA performance (and other flags).

Provide correspondence tuition. Send out reminders to students to find out if extensions are needed. Use the ETMA summary and comments on the script to offer custom advice with personalised and constructive remarks, whilst always remembering to be positive. Be sure to acknowledge the work students have done and comment on progress. Offer feedback by using a ‘praise’ sandwich.

Provide academic support. Tutors can do this by answering academic questions, referring students to the student support team, helping to develop key skills by offering direction to relevant materials, keeping on-line discussion forums focussed on the subject, and plan tutorials to include support on the most challenging parts of the module.

Provide proactive support. Contact a student if no assignments are submitted. If there is no contact, refer students to the student support team, and offer feedback on assignments for the whole group as well as individual students.

Develop students’ study skills. Tutors can help with this by encouraging students to reflect on learning. Suggest study skills resources to support development (based on individual needs). Ask students to do an activity before a tutorial. Offer exam advice and revision before the exam. During tutorials, offer advice about completing an assignment, and consider providing additional support sessions. Key skills: development of note taking, revision and examination preparation. Regarding exams, consider practice hand writing: it is physically demanding to write for three hours at a time.

Monitor student progress. Check student progress towards next TMA. Chase those students who have been awarded a long extension. Monitor which students attend on-line sessions and on-line tests (where appropriate). 

Provide study related advice. Answer student questions by email, forum, or telephone. Refer students to study skills website, and provide practical advice through correspondence tuition (ETMA summary comments, and on-script comments)

Provide feedback within the OU. Offer feedback about module units by communicating with the module team. Contribute to module forums by sharing views and experience with fellow tutors (tutor forums). Contribute to associate lecturer CDSA and staff tutor feedback. Contribute to AL development events, and ask questions that are important to be asked.

Work online. Monitor student activity by reviewing forum discussion threads. Make use of the eTMA system and other tools that are needed to support the module that you tutor on. Give students updates about how TMA marking is progressing by posting updates to marking threads.

Develop your knowledge and practice. Become a student by taking advantage of the OU fee waiver. Attend associate lecturer development events. Use associate lecturer development fund to keep in touch with developments in your field. Develop on-line skills with tools such as OU Live, by seeking out and completing training. 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all associate lecturers who contributed to creating this resource, and for Sue Truby for running this session and collating all the discussion points.

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