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TM356 new tutor briefing 2018

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On 8 October 2018 I helped to deliver an online briefing to introduce new tutors to TM356 Interaction Design and the user experience, with a number of module team and staff tutor colleagues. What follows is a really brief summary of what was covered during this session.

I’m posting this blog for a couple of reasons: (1) so I can effectively share notes with everyone who attended, (2) so I can look back to see what I did when I helped to run a briefing, and (3) so I can easily remember what I’ve done when I get to that part of the year when I have my annual appraisal!

Agenda

The structure of the briefing was as follows: begin with some introductions and an ice breaker (so the new tutors can meet each other), present an overview and background of the module, and then present a summary of the module materials. The next part was to say more about the role of the tutor and the way that the module applies something called the Group Tuition Policy, including a description of all the key learning events. At the end there was a Q&A session.

The main ‘presentation’ part of the session was recorded, but the icebreaker session and the Q&A wrap-up session was not.

Tools

One of the slides mentioned the key tools and technologies that could be used for learning. These were: Open Studio (for the sharing of designs), discussion forums (module, cluster, tutor group), Adobe Connect for online tutorials (with the tutor, cluster forums, and module wide events), and prototyping tools (such as Balsalmiq).

Module materials and philosophy

A significant part of TM356 is based around a project; students are asked to think about an interactive product, which can be the focus of their investigations. There is also an emphasis on ubiquitous computing, iteration and prototyping.

The module consists of four blocks: an introductory block, a requirements block, a design block and an evaluation block.

Block 1, the introductory block has 4 units. These have the titles: Unit 1 - What is interaction design? Unit 2 - Goals and principles of user-centred design, Unit 3 - The ‘who, what and where’ of the design context, and Unit 4: Interaction design activities and methods. 

Block 2, requirements for interaction, also has 4 units: Unit 1 - Knowing the Users, Unit 2 - Exploring activities and contexts, Unit 3 – Data gathering for Requirements, and Unit 4 - Establishing Requirements.

Block 3, design and prototyping: Unit 1 - Understanding and Conceptualising Interaction. Unit 2 - Interface Types. Unit 3 - Design becoming concrete through prototyping, and Unit 4 - Conceptual design: Moving from requirements to first design.

Finally, Block 4, evaluation, has the following units: Unit 1 – Introduction to evaluation, Unit 2 - From data to information, Unit 3 - Planning and conducting an evaluation, and Unit 4 - Module reflection.

Tutorials

The module has three clusters (groups of tutors) which are broadly split across the UK. This module does have face to face tutorials; there is one towards the start of the module, and one towards the end. Here is a summary of the current group tuition plan:

  • Interaction Design - getting you started
  • Project choice workshop (module team)
  • Preparing for TMA 2: practising skills - data gathering for requirements
  • Prototyping and the development of concepts
  • Design Hackathon (module team and some tutors)
  • Prepare for TMA 3
  • Preparing for TMA 4: practising skills for evaluating your design
  • Preparing for exam: revision sessions (one block per cluster, and shared)

The design Hackathon is an event that is organised by the module team that is intended to expose students to collaborative design work. Suitable materials and electronics will be provided, and a topic for design activity will be agreed by the team beforehand.

At the event, tutors will help facilitate the students' work and reflections, in preparation for TMA03. For the 2018 presentation, the Hackathon will take place in Milton Keynes and Edinburgh at the same time, and students who were not able to attend physically will be able to connect to an online room and view presentations from both face-to-face groups to get some idea about what happened during the event.

Q&A and wrap up discussion

I didn’t make notes during the Q&A session, but I do remember a few things. I remember using the screen sharing tool in Adobe Connect to show tutors different parts of the TutorHome page and the module website. I also remember mentioning the importance of the tutor’s forum, highlighting a resources area, and a discussion about the introductory letter.

I’m also pretty sure that I emphasised that every tutor should make good use of their staff tutor (their line manager): their job is to answer questions about anything, and address any worries that they may have.

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STEM new tutor online briefing

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When I started with the OU back in 2006 I remember visiting a school or a sixth form college in Sussex to attend a new tutor induction day. I remember that it was a very busy event; it was for all new tutors across all faculties. Since the event was held at an unfamiliar school, I couldn’t shake that feeling of going to my first day at school. It was significant, fun, but also slightly unnerving.

Fast forward twelve years and things have changed. Almost all of the OU regional centres in England have closed, and I find myself co-hosting an online equivalent of an induction session with a staff tutor colleague from Science.

What follows is a very short summary of our presentation: ten top tips to becoming an associate lecturer, which took place on the evening of 3 October 2018 for all STEM associate lecturers who joined over the past two years. Much of the credit goes to Fiona Aiken who proposed the idea of the tips.

1. Understanding the tutor role

The module materials that do the teaching, students do the learning, and it is the role of a tutor to facilitate the student’s access to the learning. Tutors are an academic contact for the module; they answer questions that relate to the module materials, run tutorials, mark assessments and facilitate online discussions.

2. TutorHome

The most important website that you will use is TutorHome. Take time to have a look through the TutorHome site. You will find a way to get a summary of your student group, access the module website that you tutor, and will find a link to download and return TMAs. 

3. Introductory email

Introductions are important. When you receive your student group, send a welcoming email to every student. A recommendation is to personalise every one. Tell them something about you and your background (how long you have been a tutor for, and maybe something about your day job). Also, set some boundaries to say how they can contact you. Finally, encourage them to email you back so you can start a dialog. 

4. Setting up your Tutor Group forum

Different modules use tutor groups in different ways. Also, modules have different types of groups, depending on how they’re designed: there can be module wide forums, cluster forums and tutor group forums. Post a welcome message to your tutor group forum and subscribe to it. Encourage students to introduce themselves. Also, take a few moments to set up your TutorHome dashboard, since this is a nice way to get a quick overview

5. Adobe Connect

Like forums, there are different Adobe Connect online rooms for live online tutorials. Different modules will use them in different ways. Some key tips for the using of Adobe Connect are: take the time to complete some Adobe Connect training, make sure that you understand what a layout is and make good use of them, deliver sessions in pairs if you can (one tutor can manage the text window and another can present), consider recording your Adobe Connect session, make sure that you have a good understanding of the aims of a tutorial (refer to the group tuition strategy), gradually build up your expertise by using different features, don’t be afraid to get things wrong (since running online tutorials is hard), always try to include an an ice breaker, expect silence since it is hard to get students to speak, have very regular activities (between every 20 seconds and 2 minutes) and finally: be brave; try things out: we’re all learning!

6. Correspondence tuition

Correspondence tuition is, perhaps, the single most important thing that you will do as a tutor.  It isn’t just marking: it is where you do some teaching and help to facilitate student learning. In many cases it is your main point of contact with all your students, and think of it as a conversation between you and your students. Some points to remember: do return your marking within a ten working day period, make sure that you understand and thoroughly know the tutor notes that have been provided by the module team, and always ask your mentor for guidance.

7. Planning your Time

Since being a tutor is, mostly, a part time role, time is important; you need to plan carefully. Ask yourself the question: what are the constraints on your time? At the beginning of a module presentation write down all the tutorial dates and times. Also, if you’re going to be away for more than a couple of days, always remember to let your students and your staff tutor know. 

8. Looking through your Student List

When you have received your list of students, do take the time to look through your student list. Do pay particular attention as to whether they have any additional requirements (also known as a DA record). Also, you should be aware that there might be certain flags against certain students to highlight particular situations, such as whether they are young students or may be held in secure units. If you’re unsure about the implications or what any of this means, do ask your staff tutor. 

9. Where to get help

Although you will be working on your own for most of the time, it’s really important to remember that you’re never on your own; there is a lot of help and support available that you can always draw on. Key points sources of help and advice include:  your staff tutor/line manager, your mentor, fellow tutors through the tutor forum, the module team and curriculum managers, the student support team (advisors) for non-academic help and advice, and  disability specialists (visual impairment, mental health). Finally, all associate lecturers can become members of the University and College Union.

10. Continuing professional development

The university treats the ongoing professional development of associate lecturers seriously. Tutors can attend a number of online and face-to-face AL development conferences, can make use of something called a staff fee waiver to study OU modules and draw on something called the AL development fund for various bits of academic professional development. Finally, the university runs a scheme called Applaud which can help tutors become Associate Fellows and Fellows of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA).

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Fiona Aiken who provided the ideas for more than half of this session, and also to Janette Wallace, who deftly managed all the text discussions.

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Open Learning journal, Editorial, November 2018

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One of my roles within the university is to help edit a journal called Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning. Open Learning is a journal that began as a internal OU journal that shared information about distance education practice. Three issues per year are published, and this year has been a busy one. There has been a special issue about blended learning, and also the journal has recently completed a reviewer audit. Every couple of days I login to the publishing website to keep an eye on how papers are progressing.

What follows is an excerpt from the journal; an editorial. In some respects, it highlights some of the interesting things happening within the area of open education and distance education. In 2019 I'll be handing over the responsibility of writing some of the editorials to another colleague. I will, however, be continue to do a lot of work behind the scenes, and hope to be carrying out some research into the early days of distance learning at the university.

Editorial: Open Learning, Vol. 33, Issue 3

Welcome to the November 2018 issue of Open Learning. This issue presents a number of interesting perspectives on subjects that are both important and current within the field of Open Distance learning. This issue explores the use of Open Educational Resources (OERs) such as open-source text books, the attainment of learning through MOOCs, online assessment and the use of language within assessment, and international perspectives on learning design.

The first two papers in this edition address very similar topics and, to some extent are complementary and could be read together. The first paper is by Virginia Clinton who is from the University of North Dakota and is entitled ‘Savings without sacrifice: A case report on open-source textbook adoption’ (Clinton, 2018). Virginia’s paper describes a large study about the acceptance of an open-source textbook within an undergraduate study. Her study is a careful one; applying the COUP framework (costs, outcomes, use, and perceptions), she compares a commercial textbook with an open-source textbook, providing us with an understanding of attitudes and some insight into how open-source textbooks may be consumed differently by their readers.

The second paper is by Caroline Kinskey, Hunter King and Carrie Lewis Miller who are all from Minnesota State University. Kinskey et. al’s (2018) paper has the title ‘Analysis of Open Educational Resources in Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’. This paper adopts a broader view of OERs and aims to explore the attitudes that students have towards different types of learning materials, which can include open-source text books.

As with Clinton’s paper, a survey is used and cost is a factor that is highlighted, but other reasons for the resource choice are emphasised. OERs and open-source textbooks are, of course, important themes within Open Learning. These themes are closely linked with another theme, MOOCs, which is explored by the third paper in this issue by Daniel Otto, Alexander Bollmann, Sara Becker and Kirsten Sander who are all from the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany. Their paper ‘It’s the learning, stupid! Discussing the role of learning outcomes in MOOCs’ has a very specific focus: to determine whether learners studying a MOOC about climate change are about to attain specific learning outcomes. The MOOC had a particular focus: it aimed to increase students’ awareness of the science, politics and economics of climate change (Otto, Bollmann, Becker, & Sander, 2018). Their paper draws a distinction between different types of MOOCs (xMOOCs and cMOOCs) and adopts a multi-method approach, drawing on the use of surveys and learner interviews. What I like about this study is its international scope, its subject focus and that it asks important questions about the role of MOOCs within education whilst clearly and directly emphasising that there are some important challenges, such as their completion and retention rates.

The next two papers move away from MOOCs into the topic of assessment. This said, everything is linked, since the learning designs of MOOCs readily and necessarily include assessments. Mustafa Bahar from the International Burch University, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Mustafa Asil from the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand ask important question about e-assessments in their paper: ‘Attitude towards e-assessment: Influence of gender, computer usage and level of education’. Bahar and Asil (2018) carry out a large quantitative study in a metropolitan university in Turkey. In doing so, they explore a number of important factors, including gender, experience of computer use and level of education.

The theme of assessment continues in the next paper, ‘Chinese whispers? Investigating the consistency of the language of assessment between a distance education institution, its tutors and students’ by Laura Hills, Anactoria Clarke, Jonathan Hughes, John Butcher, Isobel Shelton and Elaine McPherson who are all from the UK Open University. Laura and her colleagues work on the access programme which runs three different introductory courses. The aims of the courses are to enable inexperienced students to gain experience of becoming distance learners and to gain confidence. Hills et al. (2018) have two key research questions: What is the nature of the language used in guidance provided to tutors charged with marking assessment tasks? And, how consistent is this language with that used in the guidance provided to students? Their argument is that the language used in assessment materials and materials used by the tutors to carry out assessments are important. Drawing on UK quality standards, they emphasise two key principles of assessment: ‘validity and reliability’ and ‘rigour, probity and fairness’ (Hills et al., 2018).

Hills et al. study ‘the specific terms used in the assessment guides and tutor marking guidelines’. They looked at what the assessment tasks were, how assessment tasks were described, the information provided by tutors and consistency in language between what is presented to students and what is presented to tutors. From a personal perspective, their research resonated with my own experience as an associate lecturer where I have had to interpret and use assessment guidance that has been written by other academic colleagues. For new distance learning students, language is especially important. Language needs to be chosen and used carefully ‘so that it would have positive (for learning) connotations, rather than negative (of learning), connotations’.

In some ways, the final paper for this issue, ‘Learning design in diverse institutional and cultural contexts: Suggestions from a participatory workshop with higher education professionals in Africa’ by Mittelmeier et al. (2018) connect all the themes from this issue together. Mittelmeier et. al. use Conole’s definition of learning design: ‘a methodology for enabling teachers/designers to make more informed decisions in how they go about designing learning activities and interventions, which is pedagogically informed and makes effective use of appropriate resources and technologies’ (Conole, 2012).

Resources might, for instance, include using open-source text books, and activities might include studying MOOCs and completing assessments. Through ‘an in-depth participatory workshop with 34 education professionals from five African countries’ Mittelmeier et. al. ask the important question of whether ‘established learning design approaches make sense in diverse institutional and cultural contexts’. This is linked to a critical appraisal of existing pedagogic practices and approaches so it is possible to ‘move away from using colonial canons in curriculum design and move towards incorporating local knowledge and experiences in a bid to make modules and assignments more context-specific and locally relevant’. The paper presents 10 clear recommendations that have emerged from the workshop that will be compelling reading for anyone involved in learning design.

A personal opinion is that I sense that learning design is a subject that will change and evolve in tandem with learning technologies, pedagogic trends and educational practice. Learning design is a theme that has been discussed before within Open Learning (see Toetenel & Rienties, 2016) and I’m sure it won’t be long until it is discussed again in the journal.

This issue concludes with a book review by Matthew Pistilli from Iowa State University. Matthew reviews Niall Sclater’s book Learning Analytics Explained (Sclater, 2017). Matthew’s review presents both an overview and analysis of Sclater’s book, emphasising its different sections and its chapters. The review and Niall’s book make reference to the words of Bart Rientes, who recently published a paper in Open Learning about the use of learning analytics and Big Data at the UK Open University (Rientes, Cross, Marsh, & Ullmann, 2017). Like learning design, I expect that learning analytics is a theme that we will return to, as it develops, changes and becomes more defined.

Although a number of different themes are addressed in this issue, they are, of course, all closely linked and connected. As suggested earlier, OERs are used and applied in learning designs and assessments are, of course, an important component within open and distance learning, irrespective of whether they are formative, summative, formal or informal. Also, MOOCs remains an important subject of debate, and time will only answer the question of to what extent they become embedded within the Open Learning landscape.

Before concluding this editorial, I would like to share some of the actions that have been taking place within the editorial board and also highlight Open Learning’s commitment to openness. Although Open Learning is published through a commercial publisher, the journal has an agreement where selected papers from every issue are given open access status. This status means that some papers can be accessed and downloaded without charge and it gives us the opportunity of highlighting the significance of contributions that are made to Open Learning.

Moving to more pragmatic matters, between the publication of this issue and our previous issue, we have been carrying out what could be called a ‘reviewer review’. Over the last couple of months we have contacted all our reviewers of Open Learning with a view to ensuring that our reviewer database is correct and up to date. We sincerely thank all reviewers who have engaged with this process. We hope that there will be a number of benefits, to reviewers, authors and to the journal as a whole, such as our ability to more directly assign papers to reviewers based on research interests, and to respond to submitting authors more quickly. Also, if you would like to be considered as an Open Learning reviewer, do feel free to contact our editorial assistant using our journal email address, open-learning-journal@open.ac.uk, sharing something about your background, experience and research interests.

A further piece of news is that I shall be handing over some editorial responsibilities to one of my fellow co-editors, who will be leading the production of Open Learning for 2019 and 2020. I fully expect to return as lead editor in due course, and I will also continue to make contributions to the journal’s success behind the scenes for those 2 years.

Finally, I would like to extend thanks to Vicky Cole, our editorial assistant, who has played an important role in the production of this issue. Vicky has recently replaced Kate Hawkins. Vicky has been playing an important role in enhancing and improving the production workflow, and has been playing a fundamental part of the reviewer audit. I would also like to say thank you to our book reviews editor, Jenna Mittelmeier, whose research features in this issue. Jenna has played an important role in Open Learning. I thank her for her time, her professionalism, and her commitment to the discipline. With all formal acknowledgements and introductions complete, I would now like to add my final words to this editorial: I hope you enjoy this issue of Open Learning.

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TM112 Tutor briefing: number 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 2 Oct 2018, 11:46

Earlier this year I wrote a short post to summarise a TM112 tutor briefing that took place close to the Open University headquarters in Milton Keynes in March 2018. The aim of that event was to introduce the module to tutors, enable them to meet each other, and form them to ask questions.

Since TM112 Introduction to Computing and IT 2 (OU website) starts twice a year (once in April and again in October), this blog post is a summary of the second TM112 briefing.

In many respects, this briefing was really similar to the first: members of the module team introduced the different blocks of the module, I spoke about some of the ideas behind the group tuition strategy, and we looked at a marking exercise to get a feel for what kind of teaching we would be doing. 

There were three parts of the briefing that were (to me) particularly memorable. 

Python programming

The first part was a talk by Richard Walker, who is an associate lecturer and member of the module team. Richard spoke about ‘Problem Solving with Python: approaches and projects’. A point I noted down was that a common issue in the teaching of programming is a lack of emphasis on the importance of problem solving skills. Also, there is a misapprehension that programming can and should be fun, since it is an inherently creative activity. Also, importantly, students can have misleading mental models of what happens within a language. Whilst learning programming can be difficult, it is important to nurture what is known as a growth mindset; that it is possible to get better and develop through practice.

Computer Security and Privacy

The second part was presented by Mike Richards, who also gives what is called the ‘guest lecture’ on TM112. Mike introduced theme 3: information technology in the wild. He spoke about CIA: confidentiality, integrity and availability, recommended that students created what was called a diary of reading (to collect news stories about cybersecurity). He also said that the module introduces encryption, mentions the dark web and blockchain before mentioning a case study of a high profile cyber attack. He concluded by touching on wider (and important) issues of freedom of speech and the way that algorithms can potentially influence our lives and civic debates.

Tutorial planning exercise

During the briefing, we were divided up into groups, and asked to create a hypothetical plan for a tutorial that was connected to a module topic. Our group comprised of myself and two other tutors. We were given the topic of ‘location based computing’. What follows is a rough tutorial plan. If you randomly find this blog post, do feel free to borrow, modify and steal this plan!

  1. Use a poll to ask everyone their views about location based computing. Are students: happy, unhappy, worried, or don’t know.
  2. Begin a discussion to ask everyone if they have any examples of location based computing, and also to get an appreciation of what everyone understands by that term.
  3. Sharing of examples: one example that was discussed was a technology to keep track about where your child or partner is. Whilst this can help with safety, it also has privacy implications too; every technology can be used for good and bad things. Another example are the alerts on your mobile phone which appear after visiting places. Are there issues about using of social media? What is exposed when you tweet or update Facebook? There are some positive examples too, such as sharing maps of areas where you have gone running.
  4. One interesting idea is to demonstrate location based computing using some Python code. Tutors might demonstrate how pins can be added to Google maps, or there could be a service to show how far everyone is from the university head office in Milton Keynes. This could be done by screen sharing from a tutor’s computer.
  5. After a final closing discussion or a summary, the tutor could present everyone with a second (anonymous) poll to see if anyone has changed (or developed) their opinions.

Reflections

I always like tutor briefings, and I especially liked the tutorial planning activity; I can’t remember ever having been a part of this before. I also really liked the ideas that we came up with. A personal confession is that I’ve not used polls within my own online tuition practice, and that is something that I feel that I need to figure out how to do. I also need to learn how to get a more thorough understanding of how to use screen sharing too.

During my part of the briefing I said, ‘by the end of this module, tutors will be teaching in innovative ways and doing things that the module team had never dreamt of’. I firmly believe this.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the two fellow tutors who contributed to the discussions about the above tutorial plan. You know who you are!

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Taming the IT beast

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Oct 2018, 09:42

Cerberus, a three headed dog, fighting Hercules

On Tuesday 25 September I ran a short half an hour session during something called a STEM staff tutor’s meeting. The STEM staff tutor’s meeting happens around four times a year and takes place at the university headquarters, and it’s an opportunity for all staff tutors to get together, receive important updates about what is happening in the university and to share professional practice with each other. The session that I went to was all about the subject of managing some aspects of our IT.

I receive too many email messages. In September, I must be receiving anything between 50 and 100 messages a day. These can be about all kinds of different things: student issues, tutor group issues, and even messages about maintenance work happening in the campus in Milton Keynes (I tend to delete those straight away, since I’m a London based home worker!)

I also have a lot of files (which relates to different bits of module materials and various research projects I’ve been involved with) and links to a range of different websites that I need to navigate.

I chose a picture that represented the challenge of working with these three different aspects of IT; an image of Cerberus, a frightening looking three headed dog.

The session I ran had three parts: (1) How do I tame the beast, or what do I do? (2) How others tame the beast? (I asked staff tutors to share thoughts about what they did to best manage IT and information overload), and (3) What tips would you like to share to all staff tutors?

Sharing practice

During the first part, I shared something about how I managed my email by using folders. I use a lot of folders. I have folders for modules, module presentation, and also for announcements about policies and procedures that might be useful. I put emails in folders so I can remember what has been discussed and agreed. I have a whole set of folders that relate to what I’ve agreed to present at various staff development events.

I’m also a tutor on a project module. To keep track of my own tutor work, I’ve set up a rule that sends project related emails to a separate folder. To remember what I’ve said to students, and what they’ve said to me, I use folders. These folders, of course, get deleted at the end of a module presentation (due to GDPR legislation).

I obviously use lots of folders for my files and documents, and these take on a similar parallel structure as to what I’ve adopted in email. I have a folder entitled ‘modules’, and under that, I have a whole set of other folders that relate to specific modules. In these directories there might be things like tutor notes and drafts of assessment materials, and anything else that relates to a module (such as briefing presentations, for instance).

When it comes to web and application links, I adopt a really simple approach. I don’t use bookmarks, since I know that I might sometimes use different computers. Instead, I keep them a university website called TutorHome. Alternatively, I could use something called the Dashboard, but I’ve never got on with it, for some reason. I always found that I had to spend time moving things about. I’m aware that if I spend more time looking at it, that time investment might lead to a productivity pay-off. For the moment, I’m continuing to stick all the important web links that I use on TutorHome.

Sharing tips

After some group discussions, I asked everyone to share what they thought were their most useful tips. I tried to roughly note down what everyone said:

  • When it comes to email, have the confidence to delete things (I personally try to do a control-delete to permanently delete something straight away!)
  • Take the time to go on an advanced Outlook course, which is sometimes run by IT
  • To handle all your web links, an idea is to put these into a Word document, and write an accompanying narrative about what they are and how they can be used.
  • Set up rules for your Outlook email to shift emails into separate folder. This way you can choose to look at things when you want, rather than having to be forced to look at them when they appear in your inbox.
  • Use advanced Outlook features, such as tasks and organise meetings using the scheduling assistant tool. You can drag emails onto your task list, and into your calendar.
  • Put flags on emails that are likely to be tasks. You can also specify a time when tasks need to be completed by, and this appears as a task summary.
  • Ask yourself the question: does this email need to be sent. Or, put another way: would it be easier to actually speak with someone over the phone.

The staff tutors who were attending the meeting remotely provided the following suggestions:

  • Use more than one screen if possible; you can use your laptop with two other monitors.
  • Use rules to categorise on keyword, which can give you a colour coded inbox.
  • Start your day by deleting as many messages as possible from the previous day, and only keep messages that are really necessary. 
  • Have folders that relate to a module and year, rather than by presentation, this way you can delete them easily. 

A final personal tip that I once heard was: ‘if you open an email, ask the question of whether you are able to action it there and then; if you find that you can, do it, since there’s little point in closing an email and opening it again at a later point – that just wastes time!’ That tiny tip, along with asking the question of ‘can I delete this right now?’ has really helped me to manage my inbox. 

Outlook resources

After the session, I was sent a link to a training resources that related to Microsoft Outlook which might be useful. In the spirit of sharing, here are some of what I think are the highlights (which should be publically accessible):

Reflections

A thing that I took away from this session is: I really ought to take a bit of time out to see if I can figure out how to use Outlook in a more sophisticated way. I feel that knowing more would do me good. I’ve tried to use the task feature before, but for some reason, it always annoyed me since everything I flagged as being a task had to be completed pretty much immediately. I’ve since learnt that you can specify date and times for when tasks need to be completed. I’m not sure whether this will replace my own paper ‘todo’ list, though. This said, I need to learn a bit more, and I might give Outlook tasks another go. A final point is: everyone is different, and everyone has their own preferences about how to get things done.

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Nicola McIntyre for running the meeting.

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EdD residential weekend, June 2018

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 6 Sep 2018, 13:58

Between Friday 8 June and Sunday 10 June 2018 I attended an EdD residential weekend at the university campus in Milton Keynes. The EdD residential weekend was something that was new to me: I was attending in the capacity of a ‘co-supervisor’ (or ‘second supervisor’). 

The EdD qualification is a doctorate in education that is at the same level as a PhD, except for one fundamental difference: the research and contribution to knowledge carried out through an EdD is situated in the educational practice or context of the student who is carrying out the research. 

One of the things that I learnt from the weekend was that other institutions have their own EdD programmes. Since 1997 more than 370 students have been awarded an EdD through the OU’s EdD programme.

What follows is a transcription and summary of some of the notes that I made during the weekend. There are mostly from my perspective of a supervisor, but they might be of interest and use to EdD students or anyone who is interested in learning more about what EdD research and study entails.

Introduction

The event was introduced by Inma Alvarez, the university’s Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology EdD programme director. Inma emphasised that the EdD is a professional doctorate that enables students to gain skills in educational research and enquiry and be able to carry out a study that contributes to professional and practice knowledge.

The EdD takes at least 3 and a half years, with a maximum of 6 years. Students are provided with two supervisors; a lead supervisor and a co-supervisor. During the first year, students are required to design and carry out a preliminary study.

Progress on the EdD is not measured through tutor marked assignments (TMAs) but by a series of progress reports. At the end of the first year, students are required to produce a report which is assessed by an academic who is neither of their supervisors. Inma made an important point that a lot of the responsibility is down to the student; an EdD should take notes of their supervision meetings and actively manage their supervisors!

All the students were given a number of useful tips, including: treat the programme guide as your ‘bible’ and subscribe to the student forums, so students can get updates of when people post messages, updates and questions. 

The first year is all about becoming an independent researcher, which includes carrying out a literature review, carrying out that initial study, submitting 4 progress reports and the end of year progress report. The final report will contain an introduction to the project, a summary of the research questions, a literature review, a section about the methodology that is adopted, a description of an initial study, outcomes, and a detailed reference section.

In the second and third year students will ‘follow a more independent and individual programme supported by their supervisors’.

Students will have access to resources, which includes access to the OU graduate school network, the EdD programme website and online doctoral training resources. Another important message that was coming through was: ‘be responsible for your own development’, and a connected thought is to start a reflective diary. This diary can be used to keep notes about what is studied and what is learnt, help to develop academic writing and creativity.

Doctoral researchers and supervisors

The aim of this next session was to enable supervisors to meet their students and members of the EdD team. Some notes that I made from this session were about “gaining confidence in plans, getting used to critical feedback, getting some research training, understanding research ethics, talking to some EdD graduates and becoming a research professional”. 

I also made a note that there was a group discussion about the question: what is theory in education? I noted that there is the concept of ‘critical theory’, but there are other approaches and theoretical tools that could be used, such as critical pedagogy and activity theory. This said, I was also mindful that the educational research notion of ‘theory’ is slightly different to a scientific understanding of what a theory is.

Day 2: Doctorate in Education Literature Review

The second day began with a presentation by Ursula Stickler in a library seminar room. The aim of the session was to learn more about ‘how to approach a literature review, the criteria, and practical considerations, such as knowing when and where to stop’. 

We were given an activity, where we were asked the question: why are you doing a literature review? Answers included: looking at themes, examining ideas and methods, examining debates, learning about academic literacies and making sure you’re not duplicating your research. Other answers also included identifying key authors and researchers and uncovering your own view of the literature and what has been done before. I also noted down some key terms that were used in the REF, the Research Excellence Framework: originality, significance and rigour.

We were then guided to another activity, where we had to answer the question: how to best go about a literature review? Other questions that were asked included: where to start, where to finish, what to include and what to leave out. It was also important to ask the question: what are the key journals and writers? It’s also important to be clear about what the main argument (or arguments) are. Another note I made was: narrow your search, find your gap (within the research) and widen your implications (which I assume relates to the impact that your research can make).

The final activity asked the question: what are the strengths of a good literature review? I didn’t make too many notes during this part of the event, except that the discussions were focussed upon an article by Boote and Beile entitled ‘Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation’.

Session: Ethics

Ethics are important. The first session on ethics was facilitated by Alison Fox and Kris Stutchbury. I made a note that “your entire project is an ethical task” with an accompanying comment that how students choose their research projects, carry out research tasks and disseminate their research results are all ethical tasks. In this session I was introduced to an new acronym: CURD, which stands for Consequence, Ecological, Relational and Deontological.

The next ethical session was all about case studies. Duncan Banks gave a presentation that had the title: an introduction to research ethics (PDF). We were introduced to the BPS, British Psychological Society, code of ethics of human participants. Some of the key points I noted down were: respect for the autonomy and dignity of persons, that the research must have scientific value, quality and integrity, and that it must maximise benefit and minimise harm. Another dimension of ethics relate to risks, both to research participants and also to the researcher.

Day 3: Designing an initial case study

The third day of the event was organised slightly differently; we were all brought together for a plenary presentation, and then we were able to attend different parallel sessions. In some respects, the weekend turned into a mini conference! What follows is a polished and paraphrased version of the notes that I made during each of these sessions.

Opening plenary session

The opening session was presented by Felicity Fletcher-Campbell. 

Literature review

Felicity returned to one of the important topics of the weekend; the literature review. The literature review should take account of a theoretical position, the substantive area and a methodology. A literature review is ongoing, flexible, adaptable, malleable, reactive and proactive. During the literature review, students should add and remove papers, and also reconceptualise their work. It offers a means to inform your empirical work. A key phrase I noted down was “keep it slim and purposeful”, which I thought was great advice. 

The initial study

The initial study is important since students need to carry this out to complete an important assessment within the EdD. Students must write a report that must present a clearly structured framework for the whole study. In some ways, this initial study and accompanying report is used to ‘sort out’ any issues regarding theory or theoretical position. I noted that the “report shows your developing knowledge and experience of relevant theoretical traditions and literature”. It is used to critically assess where the different authors and researchers are coming from and their accompanying perspective. The report also allows students to relate the literature to their research questions. 

Felicity offered some really useful tips and pointers: “your theoretical position informs your methodology” and “buy yourself a very big box of quotation marks and inverted commas” and “be really boring and put quotes around everything and be obsessed with page numbers”. On the subject of ethics, students were told: “name your supervisors on consent forms, so they get blamed too”.

On the subject of time, “research time is different than normal time; time fills up, everything will take longer than you think they will take”. 

There’s also the need to balance everything; to balance the preparation and the doing, the data production and the data collection, and the analysis with the report writing. Also, when it comes to the writing, “the initial study will help you to explain the genesis of your main study”.

The main study

Some key points about main study were: “you need to tell a story” and to ask “what I need to tell the reader? What do they need to know? Why did you tell me this? Also, why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” From a personal perspective, I’ve internalised the point about the need to tell a story, and I’ve passed this message onto the TM470 Computing and IT project students that I help to support. The narrative that is presented to the examiner is really important. 

Parallel Session: Working with digital data

The first parallel session that I went to was by Carol Azumah who discussed the usage of digital data and resources, such as blogs and social media. Some resources, such as blogs, can be viewed as public documents. Two terms that I noted down were ‘discourse oriented online ethnography’ and ‘fast ethnography’. An important point is that ethics always need to be considered. We were directed to the Ethics pages of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR).

Parallel Session: Concept maps

Diane Harris’s session was about how to use concept maps in research. Concept maps were introduced as tools that can be used to hear the voice of participants and “for them to own what they have said to you”. Diane offered a specific example of how they were used to study music education in a school. Participants could own, add to and create maps. The resulting maps could then be analysed using thematic analysis or critical incident analysis. Regarding this second technique, Diane mentioned two researchers, Harrison and Lee (2011) (Taylor and Frances) who used the approach in medical education.

Closing session: the way ahead

After the parallel sessions, we returned to the plenary room, where we were offered some closing advice from Inma Alvarez. From what I remember and from what I’ve noted down, students were encouraged to work as and think of themselves as independent researchers. They should also think of their supervisors as critical friends. Students were encouraged to identify what skills are needed, reflecting earlier attention that was given to the importance of continuing professional development.

The concluding bits of advice were: “be open to the unexpected; you can modify the title of your study [if you need to]; work to deadlines and use frameworks to guide what you do, and be sure to manage your supervisors”.

Reflections

What really impressed me was how well the EdD weekend was planned. There were ample opportunities to speak with supervisors and fellow students between more formal events and activities. It struck me as being a really nice mix.

There were a couple of highlights. The first one was a presentation by a former EdD student who spoke of some of the challenges of doctoral study. The second was the talk by Felicity Fletcher-Campbell, which was packed filled with useful and practical advice and delivered in a thoroughly engaging way.

I never took place in a formal induction session when I embarked on my own doctoral studies. What really impressed me with the weekend was its emphasis on structure; the importance of the literature review, the importance of the initial study, the main study and how everything connects together. I think the weekend has also positively impacted on my own practice; only by writing this blog have I realised that I have started to pass on some of the tips mentioned during this weekend to some of the undergraduate project students that I support. 

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Becoming a student (again)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 16 Aug 2018, 14:47

Over the last couple of years I’ve been toying with the idea of doing some postgraduate study that could help me in role as an OU Staff Tutor.

I’ve looked at a number of different institutions, including Kings, UCL and Canterbury before discovering that the OU has an MA in Education with a specialism in Leadership and Management. After reading the module description, I decided to sign up!

As I study I hope to be doing some blogging that relates to my experience as a MA in Education student.

Introductory materials

After being formally registered, I discovered that I was able to access an introductory video (YouTube) that was recorded as a part of the OUs Student Hub Live induction event. As I listened to the video, I made a few notes about the different parts of the MA. What follows is a summary of those notes.

Stage 1: EE811 Educational leadership: agency, professional learning and change

As far as I understand things, this first module offers students with some grounding and emphasises the importance of critical thinking an analysis. A point I noted down was that with undergraduate modules, module materials are there to support the students, whereas with postgraduate modules, students are encouraged to interrogate various resources, such as policies, papers and module materials. Students should consider what things haven’t been said.

Topics in the first section include the concept of agency, the importance of professional development and concepts of leadership, such as distributed leadership and transformational leadership.

Stage 2: EE812 Educational leadership: exploring strategy

Since I’ve managed to get a credit transfer from previous postgraduate study in education, this is the module that I’m starting with. Topics will include power and culture. I noted down: unpacking leadership and management, subjects such as culture, identity, context and role.

Since there is an emphasis on strategy, I noted that there will be exploration of issues around conflict, moral leadership and democratic leadership. From the video I remember the point that there is not a formula for leadership that you can pick up from a management text book. Instead, leadership is relational (I understood this in terms of being connected to relationships between people) and context bound. I also noted that within the concept of moral leadership there is also a link to the notion of social justice.

From what I gathered, this module will also help with the development of research skills. This is a point that leads onto the final module.

Stage 3: MA Ed dissertation: leadership and management

During this stage students will have to write a dissertation. This dissertation will be a proper bit of research that has a practical focus that is based on the student’s own context. A key point that I noted down whilst the video was playing was that the topic might be something that a students might have wanted to do within their organisation for a long time. There’s also an emphasis on gathering of empirical data.

Reflections

Whenever I can I do try to look ahead and this video has got me thinking. I’ve asked myself the question ‘what could I study in the context of my own work?’ There are loads of different things, such as aspects of professional development or exploring and studying online teaching practice. Of course, I need to put these initial thoughts to one side until I’ve got stuck into the module. I haven’t formally studied Education within OU before (but I have studied other postgrad modules, such as computing and the social sciences), so I really need to walk before I can run.

One thing I have done is put all the TMA cut off dates in my diary along with the date that the module website opens (which is a couple of weeks before the module starts). From experience, I think I know how best to study, which is: get up an hour or so early to do some reading and note taking. I’ll also be hoping that I can download some materials onto my aging Kindle, so I can read materials whilst I’m travelling.

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London AL development conference, May 2018

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The 2018 London OU AL development conference took place on Saturday 19 May at the Wesley Centre, close to London Euston railway station. This blog was published after an earlier blog about the Windsor AL development conference; I seem to have got the order of the blogs mixed up!

What follows is a brief summary of the sessions that I attended, taken from the notes I made whilst I was at the conference. It represents a rough snapshot or sketch of what happened. These are entirely my views; other participants will have attended different sessions and come away with different views. 

Opening keynote: Zahra Alidina

The opening keynote was by Zahra Alidina. Zahra was the youngest person in the country to graduate with a law degree from The Open University at the age of 18, having started to study law at the age of 15.

Zahara said that distance learning provides an academic opportunity to study, but it also gives a great opportunity to become distracted; a reflection that resonated strongly with my own personal experience. There was another opportunity that was said to be important; Zahara was ‘lucky enough to go to face to face tutorials in London’ which led to further opportunities, including the opportunity to mix with other law students, who were all there for each other.

She offered an interesting reflection. I made a note that there was considered to be some stigma attached to distance learning. This stigma doesn’t make any sense, since successful distance learning students have to balance many different aspects and facets of their lives. 

Zahra’s undergraduate studies inspired further study. She said that she was currently studying for a masters and mentioned the bar professional training course at BPP University. Reflecting on her OU studies, I noted down the words: ‘I loved what I learnt and I don’t want it to end’.

Looking toward the future, her focus is on family law. I noted down another quotation: ‘42% marriages end in divorce; it’s important to get divorce right’. Zahra was asked a question about her opinion about the concept of a ‘no fault’ divorce; a topic that was being debated in the media several days before the AL development conference. It’s an interesting subject that leads to a personal reflection; the current categories can encourage divorcing partners to engineer destructive descriptions of ‘unreasonableness’ which may, in many cases, be unhelpful.

The final note that I’ll leave is her own advice for OU students. Again, I will try to quote and paraphrase Zahra: ‘the OU taught me [the importance of] breaks’; do develop a style of learning, and address the need to balance other aspects of life (and hobbies).

Session: understanding teaching through critical incidents

The first session that I attended, was also one that I facilitated. The event is described as follows:  “a critical incident is a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice; it is a useful tool that can help us to think of our own teaching and help us to reflect on how we might approach similar situations in different ways. Drawing on the ideas from Burgum and Bridge, this session presents the principle of the critical incident, shares a framework that enables tutors to further consider critical incidents and allows different tutors to discuss the different strategies they adopted to solve challenging tutoring situations. The resulting discussions will allow us to expose the ways in which tutors can approach problems and learn more about how the university can help address difficult and challenging situations. This is an interactive workshop that is designed to put the focus on sharing and learning about how to develop strategies and resilience amongst and between tutors.”

I first came across the idea of a critical incident when studying for my PGCE in Higher Education at Birkbeck College. I really liked the simplicity of the idea and the way that it helped everyone to talk about our teaching, specifically allowing us to uncover some of the more difficult situations that we might have gained some very useful experience from.

Only 4 tutors attended this session, which I was a bit disappointed with. The session began with a discussion of what is meant by the term ‘critical incident’ followed by a series of discussions. After the event, I had the sense that it didn’t quite work as planned, but all the participants were happy to share their incidents, thoughts and experiences. In some respects, given the lack of numbers, I felt that the session could have benefited from a simple case study (as a backup plan), which was something to bear in mind for future sessions.

Session: STEM faculty

The STEM session was similar to other STEM sessions that were run during other AL development conferences. The session began with an introduction of who is who in the faculty, followed with a discussion of some of terms used by the university: cluster manager, lead line manager, and tuition task manager. It was then onto an introduction of the OpenSTEM degree, and the new Open master’s programme.

The next bit was a discussion about retention and was similar to the session that was ran at the Windsor conference, everyone was asked two questions: what could the university do to help with student retention, and what can individual associate lecturers do? As everyone discussed these issues, I made some notes.

Some key points were: ensure that students are aware of the challenges of study when they are recruited, discourage students from studying a high number of points in situations where they’re not able to cope, reintroduce the concept of tutor councillors (a role that predates my joining of the university), the importance of managing student expectations, a suggestion that students can only register for more than 60 points of study if they speak to someone, create some kind of study plan tool, offer more advice at the beginning about issues such as fee liabilities.

Session: School of Computing and Communications

The final session that I attended was led by my colleague Sue Truby, who took all school participants through the various computing and IT qualifications that were offered by the school. Sue emphasised that the main qualification offered by the school had the magic code, Q62, and went by the title: BSc (Honours) Computing and IT (OU website).  Other notable programmes included a Joint Honours degree with Computing and a second subject (Q67) (OU website), such as Business, Design, Mathematics, Psychology and Statistics. A point was: it is important to choose modules carefully, since the later modules can require knowledge and experience from earlier levels. This is, of course, the Open STEM degree (R28) with offers students more of a free choice. 

Reflections

From my own perspective, the London conference was a very busy event; I played a role in three different sessions: my own, the STEM session and the school session. I would have liked to go to other sessions too, but time was limited.

I thought the keynote was very thought provoking; it emphasised what is possible to achieve, given both determination and opportunity. I felt a little disappointed by my own session about critical incidents, and felt that there was a lot more to be discussed during the STEM session. One thought was that I did feel that there is an opportunity to share more STEM specific stories within that session, but I think that can be integrated into STEM specific events that different schools will run during 2019.On this point, I’ll soon be turning my attention to planning and designing a School AL development conference which will focus on the teaching of computing and IT.

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Windsor AL development conference, June 2018

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On Friday 1 June and Saturday 2 June 2018 I attended an AL development conference that took place in a hotel in Slough, not too far from Heathrow Airport. What follows is a quick blog summary of my take of the event.

There were two keynote speakers: Gail Emms, and Susie Smith. I first heard Susie’s talk at the Bristol AL development event and Gail’s talk during the Cambridge event that took place towards the end of last year. 

Susie shared something about what she gained from studying at the OU. These included: time management, independence, discipline, multi-tasking abilities, dedication, problem solving, motivation, determination, friends and pride. She also spoke of study as a way to demonstrate employability; students need to balance a lot of different things to succeed.

STEM Session

The first event of the day was open for all tutors who were members of the STEM faculty. I made a note that the session was introduced by my colleague Sue Truby, who then handed over to Holly Hedgeland, who introduced the Open STEM degree and the new Open Masters. It was then my turn to facilitate a discussion about student and retention and progression.

During this discussion activity, two questions were asked: what can we (as tutors) do, and what can the university do? In some respects, these two questions connect to what can sometimes seem to be an unhelpful division between central academics and associate lecturers. My point is, of course, we all work together to help our students.

This said, in answer to the question: ‘what can the OU do to help?’ I noted down the following points: the importance of effective marketing and recruitment and the setting of clear expectations about what is involved with OU study, ensuring that students are not studying too much at once, importance of the tutor-student relationship and emphasising face to face teaching, facilities to send text messages to students, short courses, providing each tutor with their own online Adobe Connect room, emphasising to students the importance of interacting and speaking during online tutorials, and the importance of trusting tutors and making sure they are happy.

In response to the question: ‘what can associate lecturers do to help?’ I noted down the following: talk to other tutors and offer guidance about study skills to students.

The discussions emphasised to me how important it is to balance my different roles and identities: I’m a tutor, a staff tutor, and half of my role is as a lecturer too. Another perspective to the two question is that we all have a role to play, and all our roles are important. Another question is: what can we collectively do to work together.

Understanding our teaching through critical incidents

The next conference session was a session about ‘critical incidents’. I first ran this session at the London AL development session earlier in the year. I left the first session feeling a little deflated since I felt that the session didn’t quite work but I didn’t really know why. This said, colleagues did seem to feel free to engage in discussions, but I felt it was a little flat without knowing quite why. I faced a dilemma: I could either change something, or I could do pretty much exactly what I did before to figure out more directly what I might be improved or changed.

The idea of a critical incident is a simple one: it is an incident or moment during teaching that might have been particularly thought provoking or challenging. It might be an incident that made you stop and think, or it might have changed the way you thought about something. 

Twenty tutors came along to this second version of the event. I set everyone the same task that I carried out in my PGCE: use a form to identify a critical incident. After six or so minutes, the discussions were widened out. First, amongst the table, and then back to the entire group. The idea, of course, was to try to uncover our own critical incidents. 

This session was very different to the first: there were so many discussions taking place amongst the various tables that it was difficult to direct everyone’s attention towards a plenary session. This, of course, reflected one of the main objectives of the session, which was to get everyone talking so everyone could learn from each other.

School of Computing and Communications session

The C&C school session was led by Sue Truby. It was split into two sections. The first was facilitated by Sue who talked all the Computing and Computing associate lecturers through the current school curriculum using a series of programme posters. Sue emphasised that the key qualification in the school had the magic code of Q62 Computing and IT (OU website).

I facilitated the second part of the session which was a short workshop about the staff development and training needs for computing associate lecturers. During the session I made notes of the different points that related to the question: ‘what does a computing associate lecturer need?’

  • Adobe Connect and teaching of programming sessions
  • Industry speakers to provide more subject specific training: London Java community, cloud computing talks and AWS, maybe people from the industrial advisory group
  • Computing continuing professional development: presentations about new technology
  • Discussions about curriculum: to identify gaps and to get input from tutors, to share information about the lifecycle of a module and to understand what the board of studies group is
  • Perhaps there could be more talks from module chairs and maybe from the researchers from the school (so tutors can more readily connect their teaching to the research that is taking place within the school)
  • A question: what can we do that is innovative? 

Unconscious Bias

The final session of the day was facilitated by Angela (Gella) Richards. I’ve met Gella a number of times at the former London regional centre which used to be in Camden.

Gella opened with a question: ‘what does unconscious mean to you?’ Some tutors reported that ‘unconscious’ relates to the speed and patterns of action and responding without thinking, or applying a learnt behaviour. Gella said that sometimes ‘blame’ is a term that is sometimes mentioned. What she meant was that unconscious actions can also mean that we may seek to avoid blame.

Gella asked us another question: ‘what do the PC users in the room think of Mac users?’ This question elicited a number of interesting responses. My own responses would be: individual, wealthy and artistic. I felt the question was simple yet interesting and compelling.

As Gella was talking I noted down the comment: “If we act on our unconscious bias without knowing, it will affect our students” and “there’s a lot of different ways it could appear; not just in marks and feedback”.  Gella told us that she used to be a neuroscientist, and introduced us to a subject called cultural neuroscience. I made a note of two references: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and Thinking fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. 

We were given another question: can or why unconscious bias be useful? Again, it comes back to speed: it helps to make decisions quickly. She also gave us another reference; a paper by the Equality Challenge Unit called Unconscious Bias and Higher Education (ECU, pdf). She also mentioned something called Project Implicit from Harvard University.

An important question to ask is how can one overcome our unconscious biases? We were offered some suggestions: by stopping those automatic thoughts, by reading case studies, and by not ignoring differences. A final comment I noted down was: be curious, and this means curious about our own responses.

I enjoyed Gella’s session. It wasn’t what I expected; I was expecting something a lot more formal, direct and serious (although the whole subject was indeed very serious). It was well structured and clearly presented session. She also left us with a series of thought provoking anecdotes which illustrated the importance of thinking things through.

Reflections

I heard from a colleague who works in the ALSPD team that this was the biggest AL development session they had run. I don’t know where I got this figure from, but someone must have mentioned there were 130 tutors attending the conference.  I found the STEM and schools sessions thought provoking and the notes that I made useful. I also found Gella’s final session on unconscious bias thought provoking and challenging. I really like the take home message, which I took to be: be curious, about others, and yourself. A further personal reflection was that I was pleased that the critical incidents session ran as I had hoped it would and I now hope to take it to an AL development conference that will take place in Brighton.

Acknowledgements

This AL development conference was run by the ALSPD team. Acknowledgements are also extended to Janet Haresnape and colleagues who helped to put together and organise the STEM session.

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Teaching programming across STEM

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 8 Aug 2018, 18:07

In February 2018 I went to a 'Teaching programming across STEM' workshop that was organised by my colleague Michel Wermelinger. The aim of the workshop was to get different colleagues from different parts of the STEM faculty together to share experiences about how they teach programming, raise awareness of each other’s plans, discuss different types of provision, and to share experience and examples.

What follows is a rough summary of the notes that I took during the day, which were augmented by having a quick look at some of the slides that were prepared for the workshop (OU staff link). The aim of these notes are to help me remember what happened, and to provide a future reference for anyone who might be interested in the teaching and learning of programming at the OU. Since there was a 6 month gap between the event and the writing of the blog, I’m sure I’ve forgot some important elements and aspects, but I hope they are both pretty accurate and useful.

Introduction

The event was introduced by Michel, who said that the day was split into two parts, a morning ‘supply side’ section (which included a series of talks), and an afternoon ‘the demand side’ section, which included networking and workshop discussions. Michel kicked off the event by talking about OpenLearn materials that contain programming.

OpenLearn materials

OpenLearning is an Open University website that offers free online short courses for anyone who might be interested. It is sometimes used to share excerpts of real OU modules but it also contains self-contained short courses. If you have an interest in an academic subject, the chances are that there will be an OpenLearn course that might tell you a little bit about it. It is, perhaps, not much of a surprise that there are OpenLearn resources about programming. 

Simple Coding

Michel introduce us to something called an ‘hour of code’ introduction to programming using Python 2, also known as Simple Coding (OpenLearn). Simple coding introduces students to the fundamental concepts of variables, expressions, loops, if, lists, and function calls. It contains one problem throughout: keeping and maintaining a restaurant bill.

I made a note that this was a part of the BBC Make It Digital season. To complement this, Michel has written a short blog post about Trinkets. Finally, students are also encouraged to share their code on social media.

Learn to Code for Data Analysis

Another OpenLearn resource is called Learn to Code for Data Analysis (OpenLearn). This course started life as a 4-week 20 to 30 hour Futurelearn MOOC. It makes use of Python 3, function definitions and loops. It also makes use of the R-like Pandas library which is used for data analysis. It also uses (I’m copying from my notes here) Jupyter notebooks with Anaconda or cocalc.com.

The courses applies something called First Principles of Instruction and adopts a problem-driven approach, where students are given a weekly project to clean data, merge data and manipulate data. Students are asked to manipulate authentic real open data from organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the UN. 

TM112 Introduction to Computing and IT 2

TM112 Introduction to Computing and IT 2 was introduced by Paul Piwek, module chair. Paul explained that TM112 builds on TM111 and prepares students for level 2 study where students go onto study M250 (which uses Java) and M269 (which makes use of Python), before making their way to TM351 (which is mentioned later).

The module has three themes: essential information technologies, problem solving with Python, and information technologies in the wild.  There are 3 spiral bound books, so students can put them down next to their computer, and practice typing in code.

Students will be using turtle graphics with Python 3, Baby Pandas (a library that is used for data processing and analysis), Jupyter notebooks and an editor like IDLE. The module places particular emphasis on the teaching of problem solving skills and the construction of algorithms. Students are given programming practice and assessment by using data from the Office of National Statistics.

There are also formative quizzes with CodeRunner, which are marked for engagement to help students build mental models of what happens at an abstract level when programs are run.

SM123 Physics and Space

Jimena Gorfinkiel introduced SM123 Physics and Space which is studied after students have completed S111 Questions in Science.

Students are given 4 weeks of Python 2 programming that is based on the science they are learning. Currently, there are no other programming at level 2 and level 3 physics or astronomy pathways. The aim is to help students get a feel for programming and data analysis is all about. There is no expectation of developing specific competencies, but the aim is to help students understand principles of algorithm design.

The module design is built on ideas from other introductory materials, i.e.it makes use of Trinket (trinket.io) and the teaching approach is to scaffold the student’s learning by providing activities and examples.

TM129 RobotLab

Jon Rosewell introduced TM129 Technologies in practice, a module that has three different 10 point bits: a section on programming, a section on networking, and a section about the Linux operating system.

The programming bit has a simulator for a small Lego robot which is called RobotLab and robotics is a used as a way to introduce students to programming and to provide a useful context. It introduces basic control structures but doesn’t introduce students to data structures. Students are asked to run and watch the running of code, adapt code, and complete an open challenge.

Like Scratch, RobotLab is a drag and drop environment, but the environment can also create text programs which students see when they are expose to Python code. A comment I noted was that practical labs are important: ‘If you have simulation, and you do it well, there are opportunities for learning’.

An issue with the approach is that RobotLab is not a recognised language and is now showing its age. Support for RobotLab will finally end with the February 2019 presentation of TM129.

M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming

Anton Dil introduced M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming. In some cases, students study M250 in parallel to M269, which will be described in the next section.

M250 uses Java and adopts an ‘objects first’ approach. Students are introduced to key object-oriented (and Java) concepts, such as protocols and attributes, classes, inheritance, composition, interfaces, access levels and the catching and throwing of errors. Other topics include collections, file input and output. There are also optional sections on design by contract and assertions.

Students use a range of different tools, such as the Java Development Kit (JDK) 7 and a graphical object-interaction environment, called BlueJ which enables students to manipulate objects and visualise relationships between classes. Some of the teaching makes good use of examples, such as illustrating methods using bank accounts, demonstrating classes by creating unexpected types of frogs, and demonstrating a marionette that is made from simple shapes.

Like other OU modules, Coderunner is used for interactive computer marked assessments. An important part of the assessment is, of course, through a series of TMAs that have increasing weighting. Looking towards the future, a future assessment principle may be to have less reading and more writing code and to encourage the social dimension in programming. On this point I made a note to myself about whether the concept of pair programming might be something that could be introduced; doing it virtually and at a distance may provide some interesting but unique challenges.

M269 Algorithms, data structures, computability

Michel Wermelinger introduced M269 Algorithms, data structures, computability, a module that gets to the heart of computer science. It introduces students to data structures, queues, how searches work, sets, binary trees, hash tables, graphs, generic techniques, approximation, complexity, big O notation, heuristics, and genetic algorithms. Needless to say, it’s also all about programming. 

The tools used in M269 includes Python 3, Komodo edit, and Coderunner is used for all the TMA questions. For students who haven’t come up through TM112, it contains a Python crash course in week 2.

Given its challenging subject matter, M269 is a marmite course; some students respond well to the challenges it presents, whereas others offer more robust opinions. From a personal perspective, I remember studying a similar module when I was an undergraduate in the 1990s. I found it a challenging subject, but I later appreciated its importance and value when I became a professional software developer.

Open University Summer of Code

Neil Smith introduced an initiative called the Advent of code. Advent of Code is described as: “a series of small programming puzzles for a variety of skill levels. They are self-contained and are just as appropriate for an expert who wants to stay sharp as they are for a beginner who is just learning to code. Each puzzle calls upon different skills and has two parts that build on a theme.” Neil also told us about that there is something called the Google Summer of Code, which students can apply to.

Computing and Communications students are invited to take place in a voluntary programming challenge called the Summer of Code that is designed to give students programming practice. Students are sent a two part problem, every Monday to Friday for two weeks. All in all, there will be ten problems. An interesting observation is that if students do 2, they will invariably do all 10. Another observation was that some students were passing programming assessments but not being able to solve these problems; perhaps practice is the key and problem solving can and should be taught explicitly.

TM351 Data management and analysis

Alistair Willis introduced TM351 Data Management and Analysis. M250 and M269 are prerequisites for TM351. TM351 isn’t a programming module as such, but it does expect programming competence that is commensurate with level 3 student. The module explores the data lifecycle: the acquisition, preparation, analysis and presentation of data. Python is used for acquiring and cleaning data, and databases are used for storage. The module also demonstrates simple machine learning, statistical analysis and graph plotting.

TM351 uses Python 3, PostgreSQL, MongoDB, Pandas, Mathplotlib and Jupyter notebooks. A point that I clearly noted was that students needed to learn how to use a library and not just a language.

Like M269, it is also a ‘marmite module’ and offers students with some particular challenges. It requires students to combine different techniques together to form solutions. In some cases students don’t have adequate coding skills and may also lack critical skills so they can apply the right techniques.

An interesting point I noted was that the Python requirements for TM351 are less than what is required for A-level. Another comment I note down was: perhaps more needs to be done to help students to prepare for this module, or the preparation needs to be done differently. In some respects, this is where TM112 Introduction to computing and information technology 2 will play an important role.

Python programming in S818

Andrew Norton and Mark Jones introduced S818 Space science which is a 60 point module that forms Stage 1 of the MSc in Space Science and Technology (F77). The module presents an introduction to Space Science and Technology, Apollo 11, Gaia  and Rosetta probes, and the Curiosity Mars rover.

S818 is linked to the OpenSTEM lab. The programming that is carried out as a part of the module is linked to the physics that is applied; Python is used as a tool to work through data. Students are directed to “Learn to Code for Data analysis” on OpenLearn, that was previously mentioned by Michel.

During Weeks 1 to 6, students are exposed to Jupyter notebooks and Pandas. Examples include a section on space weather and looking at data from space weather satellites. In addition to these activities, students are asked to carry out straight line fitting to data (SciPy, matplotlib), plot data of increasing complexity (using matplotlib) and a numerical solution of Kepler’s equation in orbital dynamics (I’m not sure what this means).  Students are also expected to use Python to handle and present results, even when they aren’t explicitly asked to do so. 

Python and accompanying tools

Tony Hirst from the School of Computing and Communications gave a talk about the different tools and technologies that could be used with Python. One thing Tony did was to explain that Jupyter is an ecosystem of related bits, based on Python. One of those bits is known as iPython

Echoing earlier presentations, Tony emphasised the importance of libraries and packages. There were packages that could be used to define and simulate circuits. There were packages that related to chemistry, where users could type in the name of a compound and software would ask the web for the structure. There were packages about astronomy and also packages about music, which could work with musical representations and create playable midi files.

We were told about V-REP a Virtual robot experimentation platform, and Binder, a way to connect Jupyter notebooks to GitHub version control software.

I made a note that Tony had also been looking at running software on OpenStack, which is an important part of TM352 Web Mobile and Cloud technologies.

The demand side

After a break for lunch, it was onto a series of short 2 minute presentations by ‘various artists’ that were broadly entitled ‘the demand side’ for the simple reason: these may be modules or module that need to apply programming in some way. 

SXPA288 Practical science: physics and astronomy

Sheona Urquhart spoke about second level physics and astonomy module, SXPA288 Practical science: physics and astronomy. I made a note of some interesting words: “the thing that freaks them out is the terminal window” and “this is not a programming course … Excel is just grim”. I’m assuming that this comment is linked to the need to perform data analysis.

T312 Electronics

T312 Electronics, which was introduced by Jane Bromley, is a new module that has just started production. I noted down that there might be an opportunity to draw on the Python electronics libraries that Tony had mentioned, and Python might also be used for hands on experience of signal processing.

M346 Linear statistical modelling

This module was introduced by Karen Vines, and is currently going through a rewrite. The earlier version used to use some software called Genstat (if I’ve made a note of this correctly), but there is a plan to move to the R programming language (wikipedia) which was said to be ‘command line’. The emphasis on this module is said to be the statistical techniques rather than the software

M373 Optimization

Optimisation was introduced by Tim Lowe. The module is all about numerical computing techniques, where ‘students use commands written by module team which implement methods’. I’ve made a note that this is a module that is needed to support a new data sciences degree. 

Physical Sciences Level 3

Ulrich Kolb introduced the BSc in Physics and mentioned that students needed programming skills. Students are required to carry out some simple Python coding and carry out simple tasks for data analysis. Modules are split into 10-15 credit chunks, and these could be linked to programming.

Delivering programming tutorials

This bit of the workshop was delivered by yours truly, where I spoke from the perspective of a staff tutor. I introduced a popular model called TPAC, which categories different types of knowledge in a simple way: there is pedagogical knowledge, technical knowledge about how to use tool, and knowledge about the content or the subject that is taught. I also mentioned that tools such as screen sharing could be really useful in the teaching of programming. I can’t quite remember, but I must have also spoken about the university group tuition policy.

PG Bioinformatics and cheminformatics

The final presentation of the day was by Mark Hirst who briefly spoke about the requirements bioinformatics and cheminformatics modules. There was a need to develop data handling, data analysis and data mining skills. Perhaps where was also an opportunity to use data from genome databases and a subject that could be called ‘advanced coding for the biosciences’.

Discussion notes

The event ended with a wide ranging discussion. One theme was about whether there was the need to explicitly teach different programming paradigms and the subject of comparative programming languages (I have to confess that I might have raised this as a subject, since it was one of my favourite subjects as an undergraduate, and one that I have found really helpful as a professional programmer). Another point being it is important to acknowledge important tensions between the needs of education and the needs of training.

There were differences: one colleague insisted that we could all use C++, another said that we should use FORTRAN, and a further colleague suggested that Pascal should be used for the simple reason that strongly typed language encourages good programmer behaviours. This wide range of opinions suggested that there isn’t one language that can suit our needs. 

One interesting point was that our students are, of course, changing. There is now a new computing curriculum for schools, which is something that everyone needs to be aware of.

I also noted down the words: ‘the pedagogy of teaching computing across students is something that is common across school, and this is something that can be learnt from each other’. I made another note was about the broad subject of the teaching of programming and how students move from a novice to an expert, namely that expertise is something that you acquire by doing, and this is a point that links back to my own practical presentation about the importance of delivering programming teaching.

Some concluding questions were: ‘how do we teach programming in a cost effective way?’ and ‘should we set up a working group to co-ordinate the teaching of programming?’ A further point is that associate lecturer development is important, and as is collaboration between different development communities. 

Reflections

I learnt a lot from this event and I got thinking about different ways of doing things. Not only did I learn about virtual robots that might be used in modules like TM129, I started to wonder about the possibility of teaching through robotic kits (The Pi Hut). I also learnt about the importance of R, and emphasised the flexibility and richness of libraries.

When I worked in industry, I did some serious coding in C, C++, Visual Basic and have even enjoyed confusing myself with the very many ways to write the same expressions in Perl, but I have yet to seriously get my hands dirty with Python. Thanks to all the presentations that were made during the day, I came away feeling inspired; I felt that I now need to do more to update my programming and development skills.

Acknowledgements

The words shared in this blog ultimately come from each of the presenters. A big shout out to Michel Wermelinger who did a brilliant job putting this event together.


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HEA STEM Conference, Newcastle 2018 (part 2)

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This is the second part of a two part blog post about a HEA STEM conference (HEA website) that I attended during January and February 2018. This second post covers the second day of the conference, 1 February 2018. As before, this blog has been written from the notes I made during the various conference sessions that I’ve attended. 

Keynote: A journey into STEM

The opening keynote was by Floriane Fidegnon-Edoh who is currently an engineering student at University of Warwick. Floriane spoke about her journey into STEM, during which she emphasised the importance of creativity and design thinking, and the impact that school and early educational experience have in fostering and developing attitudes towards STEM. 

I noted down the phrase: ‘it was easy to buck the trend of my demographic’ and noted down the importance of taking studies outside of the classroom (I note down a site called Technology will save us), to move studies from a school to a different academic environment. 

Floriane offered me a reminder of something that I had heard of before, but had slipped my memory. She said that there opportunities to give back to the school sector whilst being in university, by teaching in a primary school and working as a STEM ambassador.

I noted down an interesting (and slightly challenging) quote: ‘statistically I shouldn’t be here’. We were given a challenge: higher education has an obligation to improve the pipeline (of students) from school to university. There was a reference to something called the Wise Campaign.

 and that academics who work within universities could become STEM ambassadors. Other notes I made were about the importance of targeting certain backgrounds, reaching out to families and engaging people through STEM clubs. We were presented with a final challenge: a lot of the responsibility [for engagement] rests on the shoulders of the HE establishment. This means that teaching and learning should be taken outside of the lab or lecture theatres; teaching should be connected to the real world, to make it applicable, and to make it engaging.

Creativity and Programming

Cathryn Peoples from Ulster University gave a talk entitled: Creative practical programming assignments on a Master of Science degree in Professional Software Development. Cathryn spoke about two modules: a module that taught students about the principles of concurrent systems and a module that introduced students to the concept of data structures.

In her concurrent systems module, students were introduced to concepts such as threads and deadlock; in the data structures module, students were introduced to abstract datatypes such as a stacks, queues and arrays. Students were given a challenge: to develop a social network application.

Object-based learning

I attended Dave Smith’s session, entitled ‘Object-based learning in the classroom, to engage and enthuse’ because I mistakenly thought it might have something to do with object-oriented programming, but I quickly realised that I was mistaken. Object based learning was defined as ‘a student centred approach that uses objects to facilitate deep learning’. Object based learning was all about physically handling objects and ‘interrogating’ them. We had an opportunity to handle 3D printed models of DNA and discuss the objects with whoever was sat next to us.

During the session, I realised that I had used a form of object-based learning myself; on occasions I have taken my old (and very badly designed) clock radio into a class as something that is used as a part of a role play about interaction design. I could immediately understand Dave’s points that objects can directly and immediately facilitate learning.

Dave has also written a short blog post about object-based learning where he shares a number of different resources.

Synchronous online tuition

A number of Open University colleagues, Lynda Cook, Diane Butler, Vikki Haley-Mirnar, Catherine Halliwell and Louise MacBrayne delivered one of the final sessions of the conference: Synchronous online tuition: Differences between student and teacher expectations and experiences. The background to this session was that over the last 5 years, more science tutorials have been presented online. There are, of course some questions that relate to this change, such as: what do our students think about online tutorials, and do we achieve our expectations for good tutorials? Also, do students and tutors have the same expectations?

Students and tutors were interviewed and a survey was carried out. I made a note that 88% of students surveyed used the recordings, and ‘they would go back to the recordings multiple times’. They would listen to a presentation from their own tutor to check their understanding of module concepts.

My colleagues did some further research: they listened to 74 recordings and studied the extent to which interactive tools were used. A finding was that the tutors use only few of the features of the online environment that is available but both tutors and students do seem to make extensive use of a feature that is known as text chat. Two quotes I noted down were: ‘students feel really insecure in the online room’ and ‘when the recording button goes on, they don’t talk’.

The aim of the research was to ask the question: are we achieving our aims of delivering good online tutorials? A concluding comment was that: ‘we’re not getting what we used to have face to face’ and that social constructivist learning may not be taking place. This said, it was reported that students appear to be happy but there was a concern that they were just passive recipients of recordings and the very act of recording may affect student behaviour.

The research found that there were very few instances of real time online group work. In some respects, tutorials were becoming more didactic. This reflects to a challenge that many OU tutor faces: that it is difficult to get students to speak through their microphone or using their headsets. A personal reflection is that we may need to uncover pedagogic approaches to try to solve this problem.

Collaborating with impact

The final presentation I attended was called Collaborating with Impact: Increasing student attainment through higher order engagement and was by Matthew Watkins from Nottingham Trent University. Matthew talked about a collaboration with an industrial partner that had a very specific problem: to design a cycle safe system for existing construction vehicles that is aerodynamic, is commercially viable and is suitable for off-road and urban environment. The project is a significant one, since we were told that 40% of cycling fatalities were connected to construction vehicles.

In incentivise the students, the industrial sponsor offered students two thousand pounds in prize money. As a part of the experiential learning experience, student went on field trips, got to see a construction depot and climbed into the cab of a truck.

I noted down some important take away points: students were presented with learning that was relevant, learning that took place through discovery, and learning that occurred within a particular social environment. What I also remember is Matthew’s enthusiasm about the partnership that he has established with an employer. Whilst industrial collaborations are really useful and are important, it takes commitment from both sides to make things work.

Reflections

There were a number of different things that I enjoyed from this conference. I appreciate the fact that the keynotes were relevant and appropriate: we were presented with a number of different challenges. I also appreciated that so many of the presentations were specifically about sharing practice. Whilst the conference did have (perhaps unsurprisingly) a distinct academic flavour to it, there was a clear focus towards sharing taking experiences with one another.

From a personal perspective, one of the presentations changed my practice, and another presentation extended my understanding about something that I have been doing. I appreciated the talk on blended learning, since this changed how I delivered online tutorials for a module that I teach on. The presentation about object-based learning helped me to understand that the approach that I had taken was, as I suspected, a very useful technique!

I feel that these smaller STEM specific conferences work a lot better than the big multi-discipline conferences that the HEA also run. Whilst I’m a great proponent of interdisciplinary, I did welcome the ability to listen to talks about the teaching of topics within my own discipline that I know can sometimes be challenging. An example of this is the session about how music can be connected to programming languages.

A final thought about this conference was that it was good to meet with so many of my Open University colleagues who were also delivering presentations about their own research and scholarship. Normally, we’re so busy doing things, such as preparing timetables and travelling to meetings that we rarely have the opportunity to catch up with what we are all doing and what we’re working on. Conferences also give us an opportunity and the time to share, discuss and debate.

More information about the conference can be found by visiting the conference hashtag #HEASTEM18.

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HEA STEM Conference, Newcastle 2018 (part 1)

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At the end of January 2018 I had the opportunity to attend a Higher Education Academy STEM education conference at the Centre for Life in Newcastle. The aim of the conference was pretty simple: to enable lecturers and teachers to share experiences and practice.

What follows is my summary of the event. Although the words are my own and the choices of sessions that I have attended reflected my own personal interests, a number of colleagues have implicitly contributed to this blog post by sharing with me their thoughts and opinions: a thank you to all contributors!

Keynote: Design thinking

The opening keynote was by Gareth Loudon from Cardiff Metropolitan University. His presentation had the title ‘what is design thinking?’ Gareth emphasised three top skills: complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. The point of creativity is, of course, to solve complex problems. To illustrate its importance he mentioned a creativity test by George Land (Creativityatwork) before going onto talk about his LCD model of creativity (PDF, Cardiff Met). I made a note that different factors can influence creativity: the person, the place, the process and the product. His LCD model covers different activities, such as: listening, connecting and observing. 

One aspect of his talk was familiar, and this was the broad concept of design thinking and the notion of the double diamond (DesignCouncil.org) which links to the ideas of convergent and divergent thinking. I noted down a number of elements or steps that were important to creativity: 1) the need for inspiration, which is the need to observe, capture and observe, 2) synthesis, which relates to the finding of patterns and themes, 3) ideation and experimentation, 4) implementation and then reflection.

A question to answer is: what is the connection to creativity and education? I noted down some quotes that I think have been attributed to Ken Robinson: ‘creativity is itself a mode of learning’ and ‘students learn best when they are actively learning things’, along with the view that ‘learning comes from failure’.

Towards the end of Gareth’s talk there were points about the importance of collaboration, making, testing and the use of theory and the importance of the link to industry. I noted down a closing question: how should design and creative practice be integrated with the STEM curricula? Perhaps the answer lies with connecting art with science, redesigning learning spaces and developing collaborations between and within courses and subjects.

Supporting creativity and motivation in learning programming

Chris Nas, from the University of West of England introduced us to a tool called Manhattan, which is essentially a musical instrument in the form of a programming language. It is essentially a tool that that can be used to teach programming and computation thinking, but can also be ‘played’ in some senses. 

Chris mentioned an interesting point about the context in which computing is taught: at the time of the conference some students may have a low level of technical computer literacy. This said, the situation may change following the introduction of updates to the school computing literature.  

There is another issue that is important when it comes to the teaching of programming, and that it can be hard to motivate students. Music, it was said, can be a motivator and there are now a range of different tools that relate to the teaching of programming, such as max/msp, Supercollider, Openmusic and Sonic Pi.

By wat of background, Chris also mentioned music pedagogies, which is a subject I know next to nothing about. He referenced Orff Schulwerk (Wikpedia), the Kodály method and the Gordon music learning theory (Wikipedia). Chris argued that musical pedagogy and programming pedagogy have similar aims and share a common problem: there is a high threshold of theory. The goals of coding and using a musical programming language are similar: there is a connection to the concept of end user programming.

Manhattan is apparently a style of music editor called a tracker and was described as being similar to a spreadsheet and can be used to create music from algorithms.

I really liked Chris’s presentation because I was shown something entirely new and I immediately appreciate how music could be used as a powerful vehicle to teach programming. This led to another thought. One of my favourite subjects as an undergraduate computer science student was called ‘comparative programming languages’. In the class we looked at the differences between programming languages. My thought was: I wonder whether there could be any mileage in doing a ‘comparative programming languages’ class that featured different musical programming languages. If there was one, I would certainly come along.

Utilising Backchannel software to promote student engagement

Andrew McDowell from Queen's University Belfast asked a simple question: ‘how do you engage a community with very large cohorts?’ A possible answer to this is: use back channel communication. A back channel can be defined as a ‘complementary interaction that takes place alongside another activity or event’. The potential of a back channel is that it may encourage student interaction to outside the classroom.

Andrew introduced us to Todaysmeet which is an alternative to Microsoft teams, Slack or Padlet walls. Todaysmeet was applied in a first year Java course. It allows students to send anonymous messages and respond to questions during and after classes.

How to engage students with flipped classroom resources

Beverley Hale, from the University of Chichester, shared some experiences of preparing and running flipped classrooms using recorded lectures. During her talk, I made the note: plan and prep materials, integration of and between classes. In retrospect, what I think is meant is that recorded resources represent an important and integral part of the teaching and learning approach. A key idea was to give students a recorded lecture which presents theory so the students are given the tools and then can interact with them during the tutorials. 

A challenge is that recorded lectures can become too long and students can become put off. Beverley offered some practice advice: make them shorter, include breaks to encourage students to reflect on what they are being taught, and personalise recordings to a group of students. A significant tip I made a note of was: give the students something purposeful to do during the video, and consolidate the learning in the class. Beverley offered a really nice tip that I have remembered, which is: keep it real, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

I tried out some of these ideas during in my own teaching practice: I recorded an introductory tutorial for the project module that I tutor where I encouraged students to think of how to describe their project idea in two sentences. I then ran a ‘live’ online tutorial to try to use the words that students had prepared. What I discovered was that my students did like the introduction, but it was hard to get them to carry out the preparatory work. What I’ll do next year is present some examples, and also use a discussion forum to try to get students sharing their ideas.

The effects of different text presentation media and font types on adults’ reading comprehension

Next up was a paper written by Elizabeth Newton, James Smith-Spark and Duncan Hamilton from London South Bank University. I was really interested in this topic, since as a distance learner I’ve sometimes asked myself the question: ‘do I really need to print this out?’ It also connected to an interest in language processing I had as a doctoral student when I studied the comprehension and maintenance of computer software. An aspect of the research was about dyslexia. I made a note of individual differences in reading comprehension: encoding, working memory and inference making. There are differences between fonts, i.e. sans serif fonts are easier to read for people with dyslexia (the presenters referenced the British Dyslexia Association during their talk).

The authors described an experiment. A small sample of 10 participants who were not dyslexic were asked to complete something called the Nelson-Denny Reading test (Wikipedia). The participants were asked to read passages of equal complexity that were presented in different fonts (Arial, Times new roman, and the OpenDyslexic font) which were presented in different formats: on a computer screen, on a tablet screen, and on printed paper and were asked to complete multiple choice questions.

Although it is arguably very difficult to draw any conclusions given the small sample size, there was a suggestion that there was a significant difference between the OpenDyslexic and Times New Roman fonts, and there may be an interaction between the font and the delivery media, i.e. the results for Times New Roman read on a tablet seemed to be worse. I find research like this to be both interesting and important for the simple reason that I regularly hear about students asking for printed books in preference to digital on screen materials. This said, both have an important role to play when it comes to distance learning.

Students’ perceptions of what makes teaching interesting and intellectually stimulating

The National student survey (The Student Survey, 2018), which contributes to the Teaching Excellent Framework asks a question about whether the teaching that is performed on a course is intellectually stimulating. This begs the question of: what exactly does intellectually stimulating actually mean? Jamie Taylor, University of Central Lancashire attempts to answer this question.

A focus group of neuroscience and psychology students were asked: what does ‘intellectually stimulating’ mean to you? Newer students didn’t distinguish between interesting and intellectually stimulating, and stimulating could be connected to challenging. Simulating could also be linked to practical experiences. A strong outcome from the focus group was that passive lectures were not intellectually stimulating.

A connected term or definition that I noted down was: a teacher’s ability to challenge students to promote intellectual growth. Again, how do we do this? This might come down to the importance of doing our best to make a class interesting. This also might come down to the enthusiasm and energy of lecturers, their use of language and tone of voice, classes that tailored to individual degree paths, the use of quizzes, and seizing opportunities for interaction.

Student perception of online group work: Benefits, obstacles and interactions

Victoria Nicholas and Mark Hirst, both from the The Open University, asked the question: what do students think of line group work? I made a note of a key observation: that students like practical science when it is carried out online, but they dislike online group work.

In the science group work, students propose an investigation, carry out an investigation and submit a single piece of work. In this report, students were ask to reflect on the group work that took place and also to reflect on their own contributions. 

Another question is: what might get in the way? Forums get busy, and students may be reluctant to use their microphone when using online rooms. I also noted down other important factors that influence group work, such as: knowledge of team members, time management and availability, and sharing of workload.

A final note that I made was: ‘not knowing people’ was an issue, so keeping students in their discipline group is perhaps one approach to foster a sense of familiarity; students may be able to recognise the names of others. A thought I had when summarising this blog was that I remembered the work of Gilly Salmon, whose book about forums and online activities emphasised the importance of socialisation within the online environment. 

How do students construct the nature of motivation?

The final presentation of the first day that I attended was by Bryn Alexander Coles and Sophie Meakin from Newman University. Their presentation had the title: a discursive psychological exploration of what motivates students to study?

Their talk was about students as academic partners, i.e. working together and closely with university academics on aspects of research. I remember a discussion about the difference between intrinsic (learning for the sake of learning) and extrinsic motivation (learning to gain a promotion or increase in salary). Another note is that intrinsic motivation is directly affected by self-efficacy and that other people influence personal motivation, but motivation can be obviously affected by a desire to avoid undesirable outcomes, such as gaining bad scores.

A concluding thought is that I find motivation to be a really interesting topic, and one that is linked to different aspects of teaching and learning. Not only is student motivation important, but lecturer or tutor motivation is pretty important too.

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7th eSTEeM Conference: 25 and 26 April 2018

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 25 May 2018, 09:57

The Open University runs a centre called eSTEeM which funds research and scholarship to enhance and develop STEM education. For the last few years, the centre has run a conference that serves a number of purposes: to showcase research, to create a space to get people talking (and potentially collaborating) with each other, and to offer an opportunity for academic professional development.

What follows is my own personal summary the two days of the conference. There were a number of parallel sessions to choose from. My approach to choose them was very simple: I chose the sessions that packed a lot in. This meant that I chose the paper sessions rather than the various workshop sessions were on offer. At the end of the blog I offer some very short reflections based on my experience of the session.

Opening keynote

The conference was opened by Diane Butler, who introduced the introductory keynote speaker, Tony Bates who used to work at the OU and also the University of British Columbia. Tony has recently written an Open Text Book called Teaching in a Digital Age. I made a note that Tony opened with the observation that there is ‘a lot of change’ and this has direct implications for teaching and learning at the university. One of the key forces of change is the need for skills, i.e. IT skills that are embedded within a subject area; knowing skills that are specific to a discipline. An accompanying question was: what are employers looking for? Certain skills are really important, such as active listening, speaking and critical thinking. 

Learners need to practice and develop skills and to do this they need regular feedback from experts. I made a note about that technology isn’t perhaps the most appropriate way to develop the soft skills that Tony mentioned earlier. An interesting question was posed: what does an advanced course design look like? There were some suggestions (if my notes serve me well): perhaps there might be student generated multimedia content and assessment by e-portfolios.

Tony also spoke about trends: there are new models of delivery; there is face to face teaching on one side, and fully distance learning on the other (and everything in between). An interesting point was that every university in Canada had fully online courses, with 16% of all course enrolment being to online courses and programmes. Traditional universities are moving into the space where distance learning institutions used to dominate.

An interesting new trend was the notion of hybrid learning: looking at what is best done in the classroom and what is best done online. I made a note that Tony said there was ‘no theory about what is done face to face versus online’, which strikes me as surprising.

A significant trend is, of course, MOOCs, but it was reported that there was no MOOC mania in Canada. Other trends included open educational resources and open text books. The point is that we’re now at a point where university professors offer learning support and not content and this has implications for teaching and learning. 

Tony concluded by leaving some points for the university: that technology is continually changing, that there needs to be flexible accreditation for life-long learning, and perhaps there needs to be an agile approach to course (or module) development. Also, all universities will be or are going to be digital (in some way or another). 

Paper session: Supporting students

Lessons in retention success: using video media to influence students

Jessica Bartlett spoke about her experiences working on S282 Astronomy. There are some immediate and obvious challenges: students numbers are falling and the module contains a lot of maths. An interesting point is that 50% of the students studying this module were not from the STEM faculty (which is where all the maths is studied).

The aim of the project was retain more students and help more students to pass exams. The module uses formative tutor marked assessments (TMAs) which means that the module team can reuse questions but can’t (of course) provide model answers to students. I recognised an interesting comment: ‘students don’t often look at their mark, ignoring their feedback’. The module team made videos about how to deconstruct and approach the TMA questions. I made a note of something called ‘reviewing your TMA’ activities, which encourage students to look back at what they’ve done (which sounds like a great idea). There were also weekly videos, where the filming and editing was done by the module team.

Evidence that bootcamps can help student retention and progression

Tom Wilks also spoke about S282 Astronomy but within the context of a ‘bootcamp’ that was designed to offer addition student support. Tom recorded short tutorial sessions that covered a range of topics: basic maths and physics, general OU study skills, how to use the VLE and how to use the Adobe Connect conferencing tool. 28 Adobe Connect sessions were recorded, each lasting between 2 and 10 minutes in length. These sessions were advertised to all students, who could access a forum and an Adobe connect room. Other resources include something called an ‘are you ready for quiz’ which is also used with some computing. Tom commented that tutors can refer students to his recordings if some students were struggling with certain concepts, and he also found that students did re-engage with materials when they were approaching their TMA. 

Flexible/early start M140

Carol Calvert gave a talk on her work on introducing a Flexible or Early start to M140 Introducing Statistics. I’ve heard Carol speak about this subject before, and she always delivers a great talk. Her research is based on an earlier study where she looked at students who succeed despite the odds that are stacked against them. One of the key findings of this research that one thing can really make a difference, and that is: starting early. 

Carol’s intention was to create an ‘early start’ experience that was close to a student’s experience when it officially begins. This means they have access to materials, can access the VLE site, have access to tutors, and can access to resources such screen casts and software. 400 students were sent a message offering them an invite to start early, and 200 responded saying that they would. Tutors offered sessions on study skills and tutorials on content. Another advantage is that if students do start early, they will know sooner whether they are on the wrong module, which can be really useful, since there are significant fee implications if someone finds themselves on the wrong module. If you’re interested, more information about Carole’s scholarship is available on the eSTEeM website

Improving retention amongst marginal students

Anactorial Clarke and Carlton Wood spoke about an access module: Y033 Science Technology and Maths. Access modules are important due to the university’s commitment to widening participation. Y033 is studied by 1K students per year and students who have successfully studied this module (as far as I understand things) can apply for a fee waiver. 25% of students declare a disability and access students are offered 1 to 1 telephone tutorials since previous research has suggested that sympathetic and supportive tutoring is crucial to student success. The study that Anactoria and Carlton introduced use a mixed method. They looked at the completion of S111 Questions in Science and Y033. Students who have taken the access module are more likely to stay with the module; the point being that access level study builds confidence (and emphasises the importance of access).

Paper session: online delivery, tuition and international curriculum

Synchronous online tuition: differences between student and teacher

Lynda Cook and a number of other colleagues asked a really important question: what are online tutorials really like? An accompanying question is: do we meet our student’s expectations? Students on 2nd level modules were surveyed, recorded tutorials were studied, and students and tutors were interviewed. Students reported that very few were using microphones (which isn’t a surprise to anyone who had attended an Adobe Connect session) and an analysis of recorded tutorials suggested that lots of features were not used, with the exception of the chat box.

The interviews with tutors revealed that when the recording button goes on, students are reluctant to talk. One conclusion is that students’ value tutorial recordings but students don’t like to interact. A personal note is that there is a conflict between interactive and recorded lectures and I don’t think the university has quite some way to uncovering the pedagogic opportunities afforded by online tools such as Adobe Connect (and, in some ways, this links back to some of the themes mentioned in Tony’s keynote). 

Understanding tutorial observation practice

It was time for my session. I spoke about a short project that aimed to ask the question: ‘what is the best way to observe tutorials?’ I approached this question by doing three things: carrying out a literature review (with help from a brilliant tutor colleague), and conducting two sets of focus groups: one with tutors, and another with staff tutors (the members of the university who usually carry out tuition observations).

Some of the themes that emerged from the focus groups directly echoed some of the themes in the literature. An important issue is to understand what tuition observations are for: are they for development, or are they for management? (The answer is: they should be used, in the first instance, for development; the observers can learn a lot just by observing). An outcome from the project was to uncover a set of really useful tuition guidelines that have been used and developed by colleagues in Science. The next step in the project is to formally write everything up. 

An international comparative study of tuition models in open and distance learning universities

Ann Walshe, a colleague from the school of Computing and Communications, spoke about her visit to Shanghai Open University (SOU) where she was a part of a group of visiting scholars. Ann reported that SOU emphasises vocational and life-long learning. Whilst it does offer bachelor degrees, it doesn’t offer postgrad qualifications. It was interesting to hear that SOU ‘does its own thing’ and tries not to compete with other local and national universities. It has a particular emphasis on blended learning and face to face teaching, having 41 branch schools for both full time and part time students. Interestingly, students have to attend a mandatory F2F induction.

The visiting scholar group were from a range of different institutions, including Chongqing radio and TV university, University of South Africa, the National Open University of Nigeria, Cavendish University, Zambia, Jose Rizal University, Phillipines, and the Netaji Subhas Open University, India (which apparently has 120 study centres, with more opening). Ann’s talk emphasised the importance of distance learning and its global reach.

Unpacking the STEM students’ experiences and behaviours

Jenna Mittelmeier’s presentation was about the challenges of Online Intercultural group work. I enjoyed Jenna’s talk, since it was a very research focussed talk that asked a very specific question: are students more motivated when they study materials related to their own cultural background? In other words, what are the benefits of matching content and activities to the membership of a multi-cultural group? Jenna described a randomised control trial in the context of a Dutch business school. In an activity, students were asked to look at something called the World Bank statistics dashboard and it was found that students participated more when using content from their own background. A qualitative survey suggested that internationalisation (of a study context) did improve participation but did expose tensions. There was an important point, which is that content needs to be made relevant to student’s lives and experiences.

Paper session: supporting students - STEM practice and engagement

Using a dedicated website in the continuing evolution of a statistics community of learners

Rachel Hilliam and Gaynor Arrowsmith introduced us to something called the Maths and Stats Subject Site. Before the university restructured and closed regional centres, students could attend course choice events where they could look at module materials from the regional centre library and talk to academic support colleagues and speak with other students. In an environment that is increasingly digital, an important question is: can we recreate that in an online environment? I made the note that it is (of course) important that students feel a part of a community.  There is a Maths and Stats advice forum, maths education forum, and information about professional and subject societies. There is also advice about preparing to study, revise and refresh resources, are you ready for quizzes, and early units from some modules.

Implementing additional maths support for Health Science students

Nicola McIntyre, Linda Thomson and Gerry Golding spoke about their experiences on SDK100 Science and health: an evidence based approach. An important aspect of the talk was that a maths tutorial was replaced with 18 short videos covering mathematical concepts, such as decimals, percentages, scientific notation and powers. There were also two workshops which were advertised students by email, and two tutors selected and briefed on format of the workshop. I noted an important point: it’s not enough to only provide videos, the workshops are considered to be an essential component.

Two mathematicians and a ukulele

Hayley Ryder and Toby O’Neil are module team members for M208 Pure Mathematics. The module is run through a single ‘cluster’, which means that there is only one group of tutors who teach on the module, and it has 25 hours of tuition sessions. From what I remember, there was a view that students wanted more contact with module team. 

One way to address this is to record a series of informal online tutorial sessions where Hayley and Toby talk through different mathematical concepts and also discuss what is discussed on the module forum. The idea is to convey a sense of ‘what mathematicians do’ and to build ‘mathematical resilience’, a concept that has a number of aspects: (1) the fostering of a growth mindset, (2) that maths has personal value, (3) knowing how to learn maths, (4) knowing how to find appropriate support. The sessions focussed on the first three of these aspects. 

An important point was that the presenters can easily make mistakes when doing things ‘live’ and this shows that real mathematicians can get stuck, just like everyone else. As for the ukulele, this also connects to the concept of learning; this is an instrument that Toby is learning to play (and I understand that he plays it during sessions!)

A secondary analysis of SEAM responses for programming and non-programming modules by gender

Joseph Osunde from the school of Computing and Communication studies the issue of gender disparity in computing and IT. Joseph offered an important comment during the start of his talk: ‘reasons [for gender disparity] may include learning environment[s] that convey gender stereotypes on interests and anticipated success’. To learn more, Joseph has been looking at university Student Experience on a Module (SEaM) survey results.

As a staff tutor, I regularly get to see SEaM survey results and I have my own views about their usefulness as personal development tools and sources of useful research data. This said, Joseph found that there were no significant differences in achievements between gender for modules that required students to learn about programming and those that didn’t. Joseph (with Anton Dil) looked at M250 Object-oriented Java Programming. It turned out that for modules that contained programming, like M250, men seem to be more satisfied with them. When these were again compared with non-programming modules, the result is a bit more mixed. 

Whilst this is an interesting finding, this does suggest that there is some more research to be done. A related question is: to what extend are different people motivated by modules that contain programming? Also, just as our colleague, Gerry Golding has carried out research (which I mention later on) into ‘mathematics life histories’, I do feel that there might be an opportunity to study something that might be called ‘computing life histories’ to understand the qualitative reasons for differences in satisfaction.

Closing keynote for day 1

The closing keynote by Bart Rientes was entitled a ‘critical discussion of student evaluation scores and academic performance at the OU’. Bart began by telling us that he used to be an economics teacher where his teaching performance was regularly evaluated. Drawing on this experience, he asked a significant question: ‘did my increase in my [evaluation] score mean that I was a better teacher?’  He asked everyone who was attending a similar question: ‘are student evaluations a good proxy for teaching excellence?’ Bart directed us to an article, entitled:  Student satisfaction ‘unrelated’ to academic performance – study  that was featured in the Times Higher.

We were given another reference to some published research that was carried out on behalf of the QAA. Digging into the QAA website later took me to two reports that are both connected to the themes of learning, student satisfaction and quality assurance. The first report, entitled Modelling and Managing Student Satisfaction: Use of Student Feedback to Enhance Learning Experience was by Rienties, Li and Marsh. The second report has the title: The Role of Student Satisfaction Data in Quality Assurance and Enhancement: How Providers Use Data to Improve the Student Experience was by Williams and Mindano.

Onto a personal reflection about this (keynote presentations are, of course, intended to get us thinking!) As mentioned earlier I’m very aware of the OU SEaM surveys. In my experience as a tutor line manager, tutors only tend to receive a couple of responses for a group of twenty students, and the students who do respond often have a particular cause to do so. This observation connects back to Bart’s opening point, which is: what can these measure of performance (or satisfaction) tell us? The fact is that education can be difficult and frustrating, but it can also be transformative. Sometimes we only can truly judge an experience (or feel satisfied with it) when the effects of our experience have become clearer over an extended period of time.

Paper session: Supporting students and technologies for STEM learning 

Using student analytics with ALs to increate retention

Gerry Golding spoke about some of his own research into Maths life histories, an idea that, as far as I remember from Gerry’s talk, originated from a researcher called Cobden. Gerry interviewed people to understand how adults coped when studying advanced maths topics and touched on the importance of high school experiences and maths anxiety. Maths life histories can students help to understand the cause of their anxieties and help them to think about what affected them. In turn, these reflections can be used to build and develop self-efficacy to help them through the hard times and facilitate the development of a growth mindset. In terms of this bit of scholarship, initial contact with students is important. Also, the university virtual learning environment (VLE) is not a big deal, because students are studying using books. I have to confess, that I didn’t pick up on the main outcomes of this bit of research, since I started to think about Gerry’s idea of ‘life histories’.

Analytics for tracking student engagement: TM355 Communications Technology

Allan Jones spoke about TM355 Communications Technology, an important module in the computing and IT undergraduate programme. The module has three 10 point blocks, printed books, 3 TMAs and a final exam. It is also a module that makes extensive use of the VLE. 

Students study what is meant by communication technologies and how they work, such as how you modulate waves and signals, encode data and correct errors. The module also makes use of 30 computer aided learning packages. Data analytics are used to track the use of the online parts and comparisons are made between two presentations and students are interviewed to understand their motivations. 

It’s a bit more complicated than that: STEM OU analyse evaluation

Steve Walker asked a question that was implicitly linked to Allan’s presentation: can learning analytics help students to complete modules? The answer was: no… until something is done with the data. The reason for looking at this subject was both simple and important: retention is important and there is the need to figure out what works, for whom and in what context, and why. 

Steve introduced a term that I had never heard of: realist evaluation, and directed us towards a paper by Pawson and Tilley (PDF) which is (apparently) used in medical education. Points that I noted down that sounded important included: mechanisms, interventions, outcome and context. 7 associate lecturers (ALs) were interviewed by members of a module team using something called ‘intervention interviews’. An observation is that the term ‘analytics’ is used in different ways. I also made a note of a simple model, which has the components: identify, diagnose and intervene.

Java specification checking

Anton Dil spoke about the evaluation of a prototype tool for M250 object-oriented programming tutors. M250 students need to write some object-oriented software code. This includes creating something called ‘classes’. These classes have contain a number of ‘fields’ (or data stores) and are designed to carry out certain actions which are started (or invoked) using something called ‘methods’. Student code can be automatically evaluated in a couple of ways: you could write something called a ‘style checker’ to assess what code a student has written, or you could assess its functionality through using something called unit testing. The module team have written a tool called checkM250 that could be used by tutors.

Eight tutors were surveyed and 6 tutors were interviewed. Tutors didn’t use the tool because they didn’t know about it, didn’t have enough time, or didn’t think they needed it. If they did use it, they were likely to recommend it, but they were unsure whether it could highlight things that were missed. I made note of the quote: ‘if you asked me previously whether I missed things, I would say: of course not’. Tutors did report that it could be useful. My own take on tools for tutors is that any tool may be useful (and I write that in the context of being a tutor!) 

Digital by Design: workshop

The conference workshop was, interestingly, run by a theatre group. The key concept behind the workshop was an observation that the ‘coffee break’ discussions in conferences that can be just as useful as formal presentations. Instead of having further talks, the idea was to create a long session that is, in fact, one long coffee break where participants could move between different discussion groups.

Another important idea is that anyone can propose a topic for discussion. Whenever someone decides on a topic, a delegate chose a post-it note that indicates when the topic is going to be discussed, and where in the large room that discussion is taking place. Participants can see a summary of the topics that are being discussed at any one time and participants are, of course, encouraged to move between different groups, according to their own interests. It was a neat idea.

I proposed a topic: how do we develop and support our associate lecturers to do ‘digital’ in the best possible way?’ Examples of other topics included: how should we be using social media apps to communicate with students and each other, how do we become experts in advising students at how to study onscreen, and how do we decide when digital is appropriate and when is it not?

During our ‘coffee’ conversation, I was joined with two colleagues. I soon began to think about whether there might be something that could be very loosely called the ‘digital associate lecturer capability model’. I sketched out a model that had three levels: university systems and tools (such as Adobe Connect), module tools (such as module specific computer based learning products, like there is in TM355) and common IT systems and products (such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint).

During these discussions, I was reminded of a JISC project called Building digital capability that the OU library was connected to and involved with. This also provided a useful framework that could be used to guide AL development. In later discussions, I discovered that colleagues from the OU library were already using this framework in AL development sessions.

Reflections

Everyone’s experience at a conference is, of course, likely to be different. I had a simple objective when I was attending this eSTEeM conference, which was to attend as many presentations as I could to try to get a feel for the breadth of projects that were happening across the university. In some respects, there was one commonality that jumped out at me, and that was the use of videos or personalised recorded tutors that were customised to the needs of students. Underpinning this is, of course, the use of technology.

During the conference, I heard presentations from module teams and presentation from tutors. I also understand that some students were attending too, but I didn’t get to speak or hear from any of them. This links to an important reflection that it is really important to hear the student voice; we need to hear stories about what has worked and what hasn’t worked. This said, eSTEeM scholars are always asking students questions through surveys and module teams are always looking to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

A final thought is this: I’m still not sure is meant by ‘digital by design’ but I don’t think that really matters. We access materials, write materials, and carry out our scholarship using digital tools. What I think is really important is how we use these digital tools in combination with each other. Digital technologies in their various forms might new and seductive, but ‘digital’ tools cannot be transformative if you can’t see or understand how they might be used. There’s something else that is even more important: what really matters in education is people, not machines. It is people who can show us which digital tools can help our studies.

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Warwick AL Development Conference 2018

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Warwick university campus (which I discovered was, actually, in Coventry). It was a busy weekend: I helped to co-facilitate two sessions (the STEM faculty session and a session that had been organised by the school of computing); I also ran a session that was entitled: delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly – is it possible and how do we do it?

I’m very aware that I don’t have all the answers to how to do excellent correspondence quickly; modules, tutors and students are all different.  In true workshop fashion, there was a flip chart and each table was given a set of post it notes. What follows is a summary of notes that were generated by tutors who attended the event.

Tips from the whole group

The comments below have been gathered from group discussions. They are a mix of tips from tutors about how to do things quickly, and how to offer excellent feedback.

  • Make sure that feedback is personalised
  • Focus on 2 or 3 areas that need improvement (as otherwise our students might be overwhelmed)
  • Link the ETMA (PT3) comments to the on script comments
  • Use comments to build a relationship: be positive and be clear
  • Be positive, formal, factual, clear, unambiguous and approachable.
  • Provide comments that are appropriate to the level; consider comments that stretch students
  • When marking, know when it is a good idea to stop and take a break
  • Consider using speech recognition software as a way to provide feedback
  • If you have a mentor (as a new tutor), do make good use of that mentor
  • As a tutor, know and understand the course calendar
  • Consider editing or adding to the tutor notes as a way to collect your own practice
  • Consider marking TMAs in batches
  • Use the tutor forums that the module team has provided

Comments gathered from individual tables

The following comments were from post it notes that were gathered from workshop tables. I’ve tried to group them into clusters and have excluded post it notes that are really similar to each other to avoid repetition:

  • Important: building a relationship (through feedback), timeliness (be prompt with everything)
  • What should be included: what done well, what needs improvement, student’s name, continuity from previous feedback
  • Rapport with students; take an interest and encourage
  • Tone: personal, supportive, warm, friendly by clear, supportive but firm
  • Include: opportunities to improve, access to support, suggestions about what to extend and improve.
  • Comments: forward looking on the ETMA summary, backward looking on the script
  • What matters in your subject? Science: more prescriptive, arts: more flexible
  • Provide: accuracy and precision, application of [module] concepts, approach to study
  • Feedback and comments varies according to students, but includes: accuracy, relevance and learning skills.

Reflections

I’ve run this session a few times now, and I always really enjoy them. A discovery is that every session is slightly different; this could be down to the mix of tutors from different faculties, the type of the room that we used, or the number of tutors coming along to the event. This session was the biggest and most popular yet. 

Correspondence tuition remains to be an important topic within AL development sessions because it is such an important part of the tutor’s work. I received one bit of feedback that was interesting, and this reflected an earlier comment that I received after delivering the first version of this session (which, I think, took place in Leeds): that there should be more focus on ‘speed’ rather than ‘excellence’. It is a fair criticism, and I’m thinking (on one level) that I might be trying to do too much, but I’m aware that, as tutors, we should never cut corners; there is no question that our feedback should be as good as it could be.

From memory, we did share some really useful speed up tips, such as: use more than one screen, don’t agonise over individual marks, edit your version of your own tutor notes. I feel it very much depends on figuring out what works for each individual tutor. As I mentioned above: modules, tutors and students are all different.

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TM111 module briefing: April 2018

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 25 May 2018, 10:03

On 7 April, I attended the module briefing for a new module: TM111 Introduction to Computing and Information Technology 1. I arrived a little late but got there just in time to catch Richard Walker’s talk about the importance of accessibility, missing Elaine Thomas’s introduction.

Accessibility 

From the notes I picked up after the event, Richard’s talk mentioned quite a few things. TM111 has an accessibility statement, and the module provides a range of alternative formats. There are some issues that tutors need to be aware of. One challenge that some students might have is when they come to use a package called Audacity (Audacity Team website) which is an audio recording and manipulation tool. In some cases, students might need help to use the software, and students who may have speaking difficulties can use computer generated speech.

The programming environment, OU Build, can present some challenges for students who have visual impairments. Students with low vision will need sighted assistance to drive the software. Hearing impaired students might find some of the activities a challenge, but the module team have provided alternative versions.

Block 1: The digital world

Elaine Thomas who is the TM111 module chair introduced the first block. I haven’t got too many notes from this part of the day, so I’ll summarise some of the slides. An important slide has the title: what will students be doing in block 1? The answer is: reading the module guide, reading block 1 materials, finding this way around the module website, using Open Studio, using Audacity and using Google sites. 

Block 2: Creating Solutions

This bit of TM112 was introduced by Sarah Mattingly and Richard Walker. The vision behind this block is to help students to figure out if they enjoy programming. A part of this is to help them to understand that it is a creative process, and also understand key programming concepts and problem solving strategies (which can also be transferrable between different domains and subjects). I made the note that an important aim of block 2 was to help students to appreciate algorithms. A personal view is that programming is fun! However, like anything worthwhile, it takes time and practice to master. 

The key bits from the briefing PowerPoint included an introduction to OU Build (which is a bit like Scratch), an introduction to parts 2-5 (which are all about problem solving), and part 6 which is all about algorithms.

Block 2 is also interesting since it contains a number of forum activities. Tutors were provided a set of guidance notes. A key sentence reads: ‘your role is to encourage and support engagement with this activity … please suggest to students that they comment and ask questions of other students as well as post their own ideas’.

A final note is that the block doesn’t include a comparison with other languages, introduces unnecessary terms, or place significant emphasis on more nuanced (but important) issues such as efficiency or ‘good’ style. 

Marking exercise

Christine Gardner introduced us all to a very interesting marking exercise. We were given a TM111 TMA question, given a short excerpt from the tutor notes, and an excerpt from a student’s submission. Our job was to look at everything and figure out what score we would give the student’s answer, what comments we would write on the student’s script, and what we would write on the student’s PT3 summary (with respect to that particular question).

It interesting that different tutors gave slightly different marks for slightly different reasons, but there wasn’t anything to worry about; these were all within the bounds of acceptability. What really mattered, of course, was the learning that had taken place.

I made a note of a couple of suggestions that might help with the marking: it was important to acknowledge what our student had done well. It was also useful to point our student to the relevant module sections which explain the concepts that were being assessed in the TMA question. With respect to TM111, I think someone referred to something called the ‘laminated’ sheet.

Block 3: Connecting people, places and things

The final block was introduced by Karen Kear. This block introduces students to a wider set of issues that relate to computing and information technology. There are six parts: network technologies, the internet, wireless communications, the internet of things, online communications and the networked society.

From a personal perspective, the last two sections looked to be especially interesting: the part about online communications and the section about the networked society. The network society part features some really interesting topics: the connection between the government, the state and society, identity and biometrics, and networked health. The final section in block 3 has the title: placeless power and powerless places. This section includes interviews that explore the connection between technology use and individual power. I also made a note of something called ‘social presence theory’, which also is connected to power relationships and technology.

Acknowledgements

I have to confess that I have very little to do with TM111. I did help to support the delivery of the first presentation, by interviewing and supporting tutors, but I have now handed over that responsibility to a colleague (I am now more involved in TM112, this module that immediately follows TM111). I would like to mention the names of all the authors of the module materials: Elaine Thomas (chair), Chris Bissell, David Chapman, Ingi Helgason, Alan Jones, Karen Kear, Soraya Kouadrai, Sarah Mattingly, Nicky Moss, Mike Richards, Rita Tingle and Richard Walker. I’m sure I’ve missed some names! (Not to mention all the production and editorial staff).

And finally…

As a slight aside, when I was doing a bit of research for this blog, I found another blog, which was called: a sackofcrazy (a nice title!) The blog has the subtitle: adventures in Open University Computing and IT. If you’ve accidentally found my blog and you’re an OU student, I do recommend that you have a look at Mark’s blog. A few days later, another blog was mentioned in a newsletter. This has the title: Open University, and insider’s perspective.

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C&C AL induction 2018

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On 7 May 2018, myself and Richard Walker facilitated an online induction event for new associate lecturers who had recently joined the School of Computing and Communications.  What follows is a very short summary of some of the key points that were shared during that session. It then concludes some thoughts about what seemed to work well, what didn’t work well, and what I might change if I was running this kind of session again.

Introduction

The broad aim of the session was to introduce the role of a tutor, introduce tutors to some of the OU systems, to emphasise what tutors can do to support students, and also to offer some constructive pointers about the importance of correspondence tuition.

The session was opened by Arosha Bandara, head of the school of Computing and Communications. Arosha emphasised the breadth of the undergraduate and postgrad qualifications, and also mentioned that programmes were accredited by the by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, and the European Quality Assurance Network for Informatics Education.

The role of the tutor

The first main section opened with two questions: what is the role of an OU tutor?, and how is the role different to roles within other institutions? Richard then neatly emphasised the difference that a tutor can make.

Some key (summarised) points: the role of a tutor is to monitor the progress of students on their course including making contact with students who do not submit assignments, be a first point of contact for students for course and study related advice and support, to make pro-active contact with students at a number of defined points in the course (e.g. first TMA), to use ICT to teach and support students, access information in relation to students, and to facilitate contact with academic units and University.

Resources and tools

The key bits of technology that were emphasised included the TutorHome pages (which is, of course the tutor equivalent to the StudentHome pages, which every student has access to), the eTMA system which is used for marking, the virtual learning environment (which presents module materials, forums, online rooms and module calendars), and the office suite and email tools that everyone uses.

The TutorHome page was emphasised: it provides information about students, resources and information (including information about professional development), and links to other systems, such as module websites and the eTMA system.

It was important to emphasise the different types of forums and online rooms. Students have access to tutor group forums, module wide forums, but also cluster forums (a cluster is a group of tutor groups). Students can also access module wide online Adobe Connect rooms for module wide tutorials, attend cluster group online tutorials, or meet their tutor in a tutor group room (which can be used for one to one additional support sessions).

Importance advice

The session emphasised diversity training which tutors need to complete before they are able to pass their probation period. The presentation also contained some useful tips about the introductory letter that is sent to students.

The slides encouraged some discussion about the purpose of a tutorial before going starting to explore the importance of online communication. These were very relevant topics, but there wasn’t the opportunity to explore them in any detail; this is something that I’ll come back to later.

A number of big issues were emphasised: the marking of TMAs represented the most important part of the job. It is also important that tutors do what they can to retain as many students as possible, but it was also acknowledged that the student support team can do a lot to help. It was also very important to set boundaries, which is something that can be emphasised in the initial letter.

Scenarios

The session contained five short student support scenarios. When I helped to run my first ever online induction, I seem to remember that the scenarios were role played between myself and Richard: Richard was a student, and I was a tutor. The scenarios were familiar: you can’t contact a student for some reason, a student asking for an extension, a student asking for comments on a draft assignment (which isn’t allowed), a student disclosing a disability, and a student expressing concerns about their mark.

Since there wasn’t the time during this session, we both had to skip the role play and just talk through each of scenarios.

Correspondence tuition

A key point: correspondence tuition isn’t just about marking; it is about facilitating learning. Tutors are provided with a set of tutor notes from the module team which offers some guidance about how to allocate marks and to give feedback, and tutors have to return their marking within a ten day turnaround time. I think I emphasised the point that correspondence tuition is the most difficult part of the tutor’s job. 

Broadly speaking, correspondence tuition has two bits: feedback which is generally provided on the student’s script, and forward looking (feedforward) comments that encourage the students to move forward in a particular direction. Feedforward was defined as: comments that anticipate future ‘gaps’ and help the student to see how best to close those gaps. 

An important point is that there are three different types of comment: comments on content (or knowledge), comments on skills development, and encouragement.

There’s also a simple taxonomy of comments (which, I think, might have been formulated by my former colleague, Mirabelle Walker):  

Depth 1 comments: comments on content and skills that indicate that there is a problem (e.g. ‘more needed here’ or ‘Structure needs attention’)

Depth 2 comments: comments on content and skills that correct a problem (e.g. ‘you needed to mention why this is an important issue’ or ‘your structure would have been better if you had started with an introductory paragraph’)

Depth 3 comments: comments that not only correct, but explain the correction (e.g. ‘you needed to mention why this is an important issue because by doing this you would provide a clearer context for the next section’ ….) Build on the student’s attempt or answer.

Other stuff

There was a whole range of other stuff to get through. These included subject, such as: holidays, the AL mentor, TMA monitoring, tutorial ‘visits’, the two year probation period, additional support sessions, how to deal with plagiarism (which is a subject all of its own), the process for dealing with TMA appeals, and finally AL development events and conferences (which happen across the UK). A point was clearly emphasised: tutors have a lot of support; there are always people who can help.

Reflections

This is the second time that I have helped to run an online induction session for new associate lecturers (in they olden days, these used to be face to face sessions). The main difference between this session and the previous session was that the first session was split over two evenings, whereas this session was all in a single evening. My feeling is that we crammed in too much into this one session. Although we covered everything, one key thing was missing, and that was interactivity, and interactivity is important. I felt that there was an opportunity to really showcase how Adobe Connect could be used, and the density of all the materials made it difficult to have discussions.

Another thought is that although the induction resource was updated before its use, it does feel that it has aged and it requires updating. Since we last run the session, the university has introduced something called the group tuition policy, which almost demands a session of its own. I almost feel that there should be a series of induction sessions and not just the one. Perhaps this is what we need to do. 

Acknowledgements

I couldn’t have delivered this session without Richard, who did a brilliant job at not only delivering the session, but also making some really good decisions about the timing. He kept everything to time. Also, parts of this blog comes from a PowerPoint presentation which was created by someone, but I don’t know who that was! Thanks to whoever you are. I also acknowledge Mirabelle Walker’s work on correspondence tuition.

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TM112 day schools and tutorials: a message to students

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 9 Apr 2018, 10:35

The first presentation of TM112 Introduction to Computing and IT 2 began on 7 April 2018. To help all London region students to get an appreciation and understanding what tutorials that been arranged for their studies on TM112, I prepared a short document which summarised everything in one place. This blog post is an excerpt of the first part of that document. One thing I should add is that different students in different parts of the UK might receive different messages to this one.

Welcome

On behalf of the School of Computing and Communications I would like to welcome you to the first presentation of TM112 Introduction to Computing and Information Technology 2.

This document is a summary of all the tutorials and day schools (which the university also calls ‘learning events’) which are available to you as a TM112 student. You might want to print this document out and keep it as a reminder of what tutorials are available.

For this presentation of TM112, there are two face-to-face events, which we sometimes call day schools. There are also a series of online tutorials and drop-in sessions which are delivered by your tutors through an online teaching and conferencing tool called Adobe Connect.

Purpose of learning events

Before summarising the programme, it is important to say something about all the learning events that are scheduled. All learning events and tutorials are intended to help you. They are an important component of your Open University studies. 

They represent opportunities to meet with your tutor, to ask questions, and to develop your understanding of concepts that are taught through the module materials. They are also opportunities to meet with other Open University students. Sometimes, your tutors will give you useful tips about how to complete your important tutor marked assessments. 

They are also intended to be fun and engaging. Do try to attend as many as you can, since they are an important part of your learning: they are for you. Also, do try to attend the sessions that are facilitated by your tutor.

Summary of learning events

Face-to-face events

There will be an introductory face-to-face day school at the start of the module, and another face-to-face learning event towards the end the module to help you with the preparation of your important third TMA. Both face-to-face events will take place at the London School of Economics (LSE), which is one of the OU’s study centres. The LSE is located in central London and is a short walk from Holborn underground station. More information about how to get to the LSE venue can be found at the end of this document. Both face to face sessions begin at 10.30 and end at 15.30. Although there are cafes close to the venue, it might be a good idea to bring a packed lunch. Also, if you can, do bring along a laptop (if you have one) since your tutors may plan some activities which might require a computer (but don’t worry if you don’t have one).

Online tutorials

The module team have set up a programme of online tutorials that will help your progress throughout the module. These tutorials will be facilitated by one of more tutors. You will probably see the name of your tutor against some of the tutorials on the programme that follows. The tutorials are repeated (sometimes with different tutors) to give you the best opportunity to attend a live online session; if you can’t attend on one day, there might be another later. You are free to attend as many of the online tutorials as you want. In fact, we encourage students to attend as many as possible! Remember; sometimes different tutors explain and present things in slightly different ways that work for different students.

The online tutorials can be accessed by going to the ‘Tutorials’ part of your TM112 module website and clicking on the link that says ‘online room’. When you click on this link, Adobe Connect will start, and you will join an online room. An important point is: do use a headset rather than your laptop speaker and microphone; headsets really help a lot with the quality of the audio. Before you attend, do ensure that you are in a comfortable place, such as at a desk, where you can easily make notes if you need to. An important point is: the more that you put into a tutorial, or the more that you contribute, the more you will get out of a tutorial!

If you can’t attend the face-to-face introductory event, do attend both of the online introductory events; parts 1 and 2 will introduce different aspects of TM112.

Online tutorials start at 19.30 and end at 21.00. They may be recorded, but this is currently up to the discretion of your tutor; if you don’t attend, you might miss out.

Drop-in tutorials

Drop-in tutorials are informal student-led sessions where you can discuss module related issues with tutors. Like the online tutorials, drop in tutorials start at 19.30 and end at 21.00. Unlike the online tutorials, these tutorials are not recorded. This means that if you don’t attend, you will definitely miss out! Do try to make it to as many drop-in tutorials as you can. 

Module wide online tutorials

During TM112 there will be two learning events that have been organised by the module team: a library event, and a expert lecture tutorial. The library event is facilitated by the OU library team and members of the module team. It will introduce you to the OU library, which is a resource that will be useful throughout your OU studies. To offer you some choice, two different library sessions will be run; you can attend either of the two events.

The expert lecture tutorial is an opportunity to participate in a discussion that relates to a lecture about cyber security and other themes that feature within Block 3 of the module. You will get to interact with Mike Richard’s, OU academic and speaker and discuss the connections between Computing, IT, security and society.

These module wide tutorials will take place within the TM112 Online module-wide room. You can find this room by clicking on the Tutorials link that you can see at the top of the module webpage.

Booking to attend learning events

To attend any of the day schools or tutorials, do take a moment to reserve your place through the OU learning event management system. If in doubt, do book your place. Booking means that you will automatically receive updates if any of the arrangements for that particular learning event changes.  Whenever you book onto a learning event, remember to make a note in your personal diary so you remember to attend.

As mentioned earlier, do try to make a special effort to attend the sessions that are facilitated by your tutor. Your tutor will always be pleased to see you!

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TM112 Tutor briefing

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 25 Mar 2018, 16:32

On Saturday 24 March I attended a tutor briefing for a new module TM112 Introduction to Computing and IT 2 which is going to be presented for the first time next month.

I really enjoy tutor briefings; they enable tutors to meet members of the module team, and for tutors to meet each other and their line manager (who is known as their staff tutor). They also serve another very important purpose: the briefing helps tutors to get up to speed with the concepts that tutors will be helping to teach.

I attended this briefing whilst being aware that the vice chancellor had reportedly said that: “the people who work here should be bloody well teaching”.

I have this habit of writing blog summaries of various OU events that I attend, since that way I can remember what I did during the year, and I end up with a resource that I can refer back to. This blog is no exception; what follows is a quick textual sketch of what happened during the TM112 briefing. In some respects, this blog also directly speaks to and connects with the VC’s comments; I add further comment in the reflections section that you can find towards the end. 

Introduction to TM112

Paul Piwek, module chair and Senior Lecturer in Computing and IT began with an introduction to TM112. It contains three themes: essential information technologies, problem solving with Python, and information technology in the wild. These themes are interleaved within three blocks which make up the core of the module. The module has three tutor marked assessments and a set of quizzes which feed into the assessments. Students can also use an ‘are you ready for’ quiz, and participate in a module wide ice breaker activity.

Group Tuition Policy

The next bit was mine! I worked with Paul on the Group Tuition Policy strategy for TM112. Between us we set up a design that was intended to support students at key points throughout the module. An important design objective was to create a plan that offered tutors with some constructive guidance, whilst also being adaptable. A key question that I asked Paul early on during the design process was: can we provide some tips that our tutors can use? He later directed me to some important sections that had been designed into the module materials.

An interesting part of this GTP for TM112 is that is contains two module wide events. One of these events is run by the library. The library event has the intention of helping students to become familiar with many of the resources that the university has to offer students. Being aware of the library will, of course, be invaluable when students move onto later modules.

Another module wide event is an expert lecture Q&A session. Before TM112 officially starts, a lecture that is linked to the TM112 theme of ‘information technologies in the wild’ is recorded. During the presentation of TM112 students will then be asked to watch that lecture and then attend a ‘retrospective tutorial’ where they can ask questions.

Theme 1: Essential Information Technologies

Essential Information Technologies was introduced by Lindsey Court. Lindsey told us all about materials which teach about binary and data representations, told us that the module would be teaching concepts about fundamentals of hardware and software, and then introduce important concepts of cloud computing (which can then be studied in depth in TM352 Web, mobile and cloud technologies). There were also some pointers to how ‘the cloud’ has changes (and is changing) the computing jobs market. The role of the DevOp was mentioned, along with the topic of green computing.

Other subjects in this theme included mobile phones, location based computing and a discussion about the different kinds of data help on your personal computer. An interesting note that I made was that the activities that feature within the module not only connect to the tutor marked assessments, but also to some common interview questions that are asked to candidates who are applying to work in technology jobs.

Theme 2 : Problem Solving with Python

This second theme is introduced by Paul, Robin Laney, Michel Wermelinger and Richard Walker. Paul began by telling us all that TM112 explicitly teaches programming problem solving and introduces students to a range of practice assessments before leading students towards two mini projects which are, of course, linked to the TMAs. 

An important aspect of the module design (and teaching) has been the development of animations and materials that help students to create their own mental model of what happens when a computer runs programs. To complement this, Tony Hirst, a fellow Computing lecturer, has designed a number of stretch activities to help and inspire students who may be already familiar with some of the key module concepts.

I made a couple of notes during Michel’s section, which was entitled ‘patterns, algorithms and programs’. The module guides students from problem to code. Students are encouraged to think about concepts such as allowable inputs, test data, and begin to think about things such as algorithmic templates. A key phrase I noted was: ‘practice makes problem solving perfect’.

Paul continued by talking about how the module helps students to understand the concept of functions, drawing our attention to both animations and diagrams. In the teaching of Python, there is an emphasis on experimentation; students are encouraged to interrogate the machine (drawing on the idea of a mental model) to look into the mind of the Python interpreter which runs the student’s Python programs.

Richard Walker introduced a section entitled ‘diving into data’. This part of the module offers students a taste of data analysis by using real data from the Office of National Statistics whilst making the important point: data analysis is one thing, interpretation and critical thinking is still needed. Richard said that his section also links to employability. He mentioned that he encourages students to start a programmer’s ‘lab notebook’, which is something that is very important when students get to the TM470 project module

Paul wraps up the second theme by returning to Python and mentioning an important program construct: the notion of dictionaries. I really liked the activity that he mentioned: students using the Python data structure to make a ‘flash card’ program that helps students learn key terms from the module glossary.

Theme 3 : Information technologies in the wild

This final theme was presented by Mike Richards, who also happens to be our expert lecturer. Mike co-chaired the predecessor module, along with another colleague, John Woodthorpe.

I found Mike’s presentation of theme 3 fascinating. He began by talking about the first section, which was about computer security technologies and their application; topics that have links to Cybersecurity. Mike said that the module would also be introducing students to ethical issues, such as technology and freedom of speech. I made a note that he mentioned cyberlibertarian, John Perry Barlow (Wikipedia).

The next section had the title ‘dangerous data’. One of the concepts that is featured is CIA, an abbreviation for Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability. This part of the module draws on materials from a documentary called Cybercrimes with Ben Hammersley (YouTube trailer). Mike has also interviewed people from Sophos, the antivirus protection company. Students are given a task to complete a cyber security diary, which feeds into an assessment. Mike got me thinking: how often, exactly, does my mobile telephone or laptop update with new versions of software? Also, do I really understand all the risks associated my own personal use of technology?

Confidentiality is important, and this term connects up to a section entitled ‘the secrets of keeping secrets’. Concepts such as hashes, asymmetric and symmetric key cryptography are introduced, enabling students to answer the question: ‘how can you shop securely on sites such as Amazon?’ Mike also mentioned AES encryption, Bitcoin and the Blockchain, and this leads us to an important question: ‘what does this technology do for us, or do to us?’ (I think I have noted this down correctly!) Students step towards understanding the concept of the dark web and are also introduced to key bits of legislation in computer law: the Computer Misuse Act and the Data Protection Act (as well as a new bit of EU legislation called the GDPR).

The final bits that Mike spoke to us about were connected to an important and profound question: what is technology doing to our society? There were two other follow on questions that I noted down whilst Mike talked: is there such a thing as search engine bias? And, should we allow social media organisations to dictate the content of our news?

Reflections

If I wasn’t so busy tutoring on another module, I would love to be a tutor on TM112; it seems to have a fabulous mix of practical skills development, important theoretical knowledge, and debate that encourages critical thinking. From my perspective as a staff tutor, I’m very much looking to working with the London region TM112 associate lecturers who I will be supporting. I hope they love the module, and their students love it too.

One thing that is very clear from this TM112 briefing day was that every single member of the TM112 module team did some bloody good teaching.

They did a bloody good job because it is what they do, and what they have always done. 

During my time as an associate lecturer and as a staff tutor I’ve come to realise the obvious; that teaching is about communication. Module teams are communicating all the time; they talk about their subject, and they talk endlessly about teaching and learning. Module team members teach each other and learn from each other. They go on to teach students through module materials, they learn about what works and doesn’t work, and what students like and don’t like.

Teaching isn’t just about standing up in front of a classroom; it’s also about being thoughtful, it’s about planning, it’s about writing, and it’s also about listening.


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Ten years of tutoring H810 accessible online learning

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 16 Feb 2018, 10:12

A couple of days ago I completed the last few pieces of work for a module called H810 accessible online learning. It used to be an important piece of a MA programme in online and distance education (MAODE for short) that was run from a part of the OU called the Institute of Educational Technology. These last few bits of work, which involved agreeing scores on a few EMA modules, represented the end of ten years of work. This ending represents, to some degree, a bit of a milestone.

I applied to tutor on H810 whilst I was working on an accessibility research project; the aim of the project was to explore how to create VLE systems that were more usability for people who have disabilities. I came to work on that project after having tutored a module in interaction design and having had a job developing a learning management system. H810 seemed like a perfect fit.

I remember the interview; it took place in the OU offices in Camden, which probably meant a trip from Sussex, where I was living at the time. I can’t remember what I was asked but I remembered talking about what is meant by the term ‘reasonable adjustments’ and saying something about how I supported my students. I must have said the right things, since I was given a job.

Tutors

I was one of four tutors who were appointed to the first presentation of the module. There was myself, Clive, Simon and Michelle. The numbers of students on the module changed throughout its presentation. Towards the end of the module, there were only two tutors, myself and Clive, but we were sometimes asked to take on larger groups. Simon, a tutor who I understand had a hand in the original design and development of the module returned during its final presentation. 

Structure of the module

H810 was an interesting module, since it consists of two main aspects: a practical aspect and a big theoretical aspect. When I started, I have confess that the theory bit (which I’ll come onto in a few minutes) was entirely new to me. Being more of technologist, my strengths lie in the more technical aspects; I understood some of the issues that accompanied the design of accessible web pages. I was able to apply this understandings to appreciate how someone working in higher education might begin to create accessible materials.

A really important aspect of the module was its emphasis on personal reflection; students were encouraged to continually write about their own background and relate things that they learnt on the module to their own experiences. 

The module had two TMAs (tutor marked assignments), and one large six thousand word EMA (end of module assessment). The first assignment was more of an introduction; it asked students to write about their own context and think about some of the issues and challenges that exist within it, whilst connecting to concepts that were introduced within the module such as the importance of the student voice and national legislation. It offered tutors an opportunity to steer students towards important reading.

The second TMA had different focus; it was a lot more practical: it asked students to create and evaluate an accessible learning resource. The resources itself could be about anything. What really mattered was that students gained the experience of building something and working with different tools. Through the module materials students were able to learn about and consult different resources and guidelines; students creating PowerPoints consulted documents that were produced by an organisation called TechDis; students creating web pages or blogs were able to consult W3C WCAG guidelines.

The process of building something helped students to think about how their learning designs could be used by different groups of students. They considered, for example, whether learners could easily adjust the font sizes of text and change the background. This implicitly reflected another important issue that was exposed within the module: the importance of accessibility training and how this might be provided through the institution in which they studied.

Activities

One of the interesting elements of the module was that it make extensive use of discussion forums. The module was split into three sections, or blocks. There was an introductory section, a section that related to the use of assistive technology and a block about wider issues and debates (which I’ll come onto later).

Each section was divided into a number of weeks, and weeks contained topics. Each topic has two bits: a set of pages that students needed to read and links to accompanying resources, and a topic discussion forum. The topic pages contained a series of activities. These activities could either be completed by the student themselves, or be completed by participating in an online discussion through the topic discussion forum. One of my activities as a tutor was to ‘seed’ the discussions, ready for the students for when they arrive at that point in the module. Another thing that I did as a tutor was encourage students to subscribe to each of the forums.

The aims of all these forums were simple: it was to share practices and experiences between students. One of the good things about H810 is that it sometimes attracted students from different countries. This meant that is was possible to compare and contrast practices and experiences.

In my experience, there were some students who were enthusiastic users of the discussion forums, and there were some who barely touched them. By way of an incentive, students were awarded 10% of the overall module score for online participation.

Set book, theory and the EMA

As well as the module materials, a set text accompanied the module:  E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice by Jane Seale, who is now a professor at the OU.

During the life of the module, Jane’s book changed; her second edition was very different to the first edition. I personally found the first edition a difficult read and I sensed that this was a view that was shared by some students. Despite its difficulty, it had a lot to say: it encouraged students to think about accessibility from three different perspectives; an individual perspective, an institutional perspective and a community perspective. These perspectives were connected to three different frameworks (or ‘theoretical lenses’, as I came to view them) that can be applied (through critical reflection) to help understand how accessibility is provided within the student’s own institution. 

Through the application of these ‘lenses’ students could also begin to see what changes and potential enhancements could be made. Accessibility doesn’t just begin and end by considering the technical dimension; it is a sociotechnical issue: technology can help, but people need to know what technology can be chosen and applied.

The first edition of Seale’s book introduced institutional change theory, activity theory and something called ‘communities of practice’. Coming from more of a technical tradition (as opposed to sociotechnical, or even educational position), I found all these pretty confusing. Initially, I didn’t know what to make of all these tools. A personal challenge was that the end of module assessment was all about using these tools to understand and make sense of their own institutional context.

I soon began to see how students creatively unpicked their situations and environments using the different frameworks. By thinking about concepts such as communities of practice, for instance, students could understand the extent to which people in their own institutions talk about accessibility and share experiences. This helped students to ask themselves questions, such as: how do teachers learn about accessibility, and how do disabled students begin to gain access to assistive technologies and accompanying training.

Reflections

One thing that surprised me at the start of the module is that it didn’t (initially) have any recommended or scheduled tutorials; my line manager didn’t offering me a clear or a direct steer about this. By the second or third presentation, I had made a unilateral decision that tutorials were probably needed. I introduced three tutorials: one for each TMA and another one for the EMA. By the time the university moved towards sharing of tutorials through the group tuition policy, the tutors were already working collaboratively with each other to delivery online tutorials.

Thinking back to my experience of tutoring on H810, one of the biggest things that surprised me was its approach to marking: students had access to exactly the same marking guidelines that were available to the tutors; everything was totally transparent. 

This was very different to the marking approach that I had ‘grown up with’ whilst tutoring on a computing and IT module; tutors were given extensive instruction and guidance about how to mark each individual question section, and were even provided with sample answers. H810 was different: it was entirely up to us, and this surprised me. In some respects, as tutors we were given a lot more scope and freedom to teach, but the downside was that it took a bit of time to uncover the best way to present feedback to students.

Fast forward around seven years, and things had changed: the first edition of the module set text had been replaced with a second edition. A big difference between the first edition and the second edition of Seale’s book is that the second edition no longer contained the chapters that introduced the three different frameworks that were fundamental to the EMA. This created a problem for the module team: they could either rewrite the module, use another reference, or create some other form of resource to fill the gap. They chose the latter approach: they worked with the publisher to create a special edition of the set text; the second edition with three extra chapters from the first edition. 

From what I understand, the introduction of the second edition gave way to a module refresh. By and large, the shelf life of an OU module is around 6 years; H810 had ten presentations. As well having to make way for a new set text, sections of the module materials had to be updated; there were external changes that affected the presentation of the module, such as the availability of an organisation called TechDis, which offered accessibility support to the university sector and the emergence of new accessibility standards and equality legislation. The refresh also represented an opportunity to draw on new research and publications; I was very surprised to learn that a conference paper that I had written had been explicitly used within the module materials. There is an important point here, which is that modules should be connected to and use research. 

The end of module assessment was, in many ways, the hardest part of the module for both students and for tutors. As an EMA marker, I have always been aware of how much time and effort went into each piece of writing, and I was continually impressed by the level of writing that was submitted. In the run up to the EMA, my own guidance to students had changed and developed. I emphasised the importance of demonstrating reading beyond the boundaries of the module (which is something that is required from a postgraduate module), and spoke about the importance of tone; although some people fundamentally disagree, I recommended that it was okay for students to write in the first person, as long as students adopted a relatively formal approach. 

Towards the end of tutoring on H810 I started to tutor on a Computing and IT project module that had the module code TM470. In some respects, working on H810 was the perfect training for the world of TM470 where students are required to write substantial end of project reports that were even longer than the EMAs that students were required to submit in H810. There was another difference: TM470 also had a transparent marking guide like H810. 

Final words: summing up

I know this can be said about all OU modules, but I felt that being a tutor on H810 was a very worthwhile thing to do. I write this because I have seen students come through the process of writing the EMA with a set of practical recommendations that could make a real difference to the experience of students with disabilities in their own institution. It was especially interesting to read about the ways that the frameworks are used to uncover accessibility practice within the OU.

A couple of words to summarise the experience: challenging, interesting and hard work. There’s also a touch of sadness that it has all finished. I’ll miss H810 and I’ll also miss its tutors. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that some of the topics that it exposes finds its ways into a replacement module, whatever that might be.

If you’re interested, bits of H810 can be found in the following Open Learn course: Accessibility of eLearning.

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Delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly: Cambridge 2017

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 15 Jan 2018, 13:50

On Saturday 9 December, I facilitated a session at the Cambridge AL development conference that had the title: Delivering Excellent Correspondence Tuition Quickly: Is It Possible and How Do We Do It?

Here is a shortened version of the abstract that described the event:

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

In some respects, this session trying to do two very important and seemingly opposing things: how to do excellent teaching as quickly as possible. I chose ‘speed’ as a focus since as a tutor I know how much time goes into preparing good correspondence tuition.

This blog post is intended to share a set of points that were created during the session; it is intended to the ‘that useful resource’ that might be useful for tutors.

Excellent correspondence tuition

  • TMA feedback should be, of course, useful!
  • Correspondence tuition should help students to move forward and to guide students towards improvements in their performance (and understanding)
  • Feedback should also guide students towards the next step of their studies.
  • Importantly, feedback should acknowledge what has been done well.
  • Correspondence tuition should include examples, potentially provide a concrete goal which students could aim for, it should be motivating and treat the student as a person. 
  • Comments on a TMA should provide explanations for the mark that has been given and also link back to learning outcomes that have been defined within a module; comments should have a purpose.
  • The tone that is used should be personal, conversational, engage with what a student has written and submitted, and offer encouragement.
  • It should help students to learn by broadening out or extending the context by applying existing knowledge.
  • For some modules, encourage students to use diagrams (which can be a way to efficiently share an understanding of key module concepts); some modules encourage the use of tables.
  • Enhance understanding of module materials by encouraging students to think about how module concepts relate to their own lives and their work.
  • Present feedforward (student guidance) in small increments; consider limiting advice to three things that can be improved or worked on.
  • When faced with a challenging TMA, suggest one thing that a student should continue to do for the next TMA.
  • Refer to forthcoming TMAs in the current TMA to show how assessments can be connected.
  • Refer student to skills for study website and other pages that might be helpful on their student home page.

Marking strategies

  • Take time to read through the tutor notes.
  • From a practical perspective, make sure that you have access to lots of tea.
  • Read through past TMAs as a guide.
  • Consider looking through all TMAs briefly to get an idea of the submissions.
  • Mark a good TMA first to build up confidence and understanding.
  • Return to students in batches and set student expectations in terms of when marks will be returned.

Biggest tips

Towards the end of the session, I asked everyone to share their biggest tips to a new tutor. This is (roughly) what everyone said:

  • Prepare a comment template which you can heavily customise for the needs of individual students.
  • Don’t agonise over individual marks, i.e. ‘should this get 3 marks or 4 marks?’; choose a mark (using your gut instinct, as informed by your knowledge of the module materials) and move on (since there are lots of marks to allocate!
  • Be friendly and approachable! 
  • Don’t get into the trap of spending 3 hours to mark every TMA; there lies madness.
  • Use a timer to see how long you’re spending on each script. 
  • Focus on three things that can be improved or developed.
  • Highlight important parts of scripts using green/yellow highlights.
  • Make sure that you spellcheck the PT3 summary.
  • Ask your mentor for advice.
  • Draw on a bank of handouts; sections can be copied into a script to provide feedback, or additional documents can be returned through the ETMA system.
  • Consider using a spreadsheet to keep track of student marks and your interaction with students.
  • Provide an action plan for students and offer a summary.
  • Print out a copy of the tutor notes so you have it to hand (and add your own comments to it!)
  • Provide references to the Good Study Guide book.
  • Ensure that correspondence tuition is always personalised to the needs of individual students. 

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AL development conference: Moller Centre, Cambridge, 2017

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The keynote speech for the Cambridge AL development conference was given by Olympian Gail Emms  (Wikipedia), who I understand is also an OU honorary graduate. Gail was introduced by Toby Scott-Hughes, head of ALSPD (I think that is his title!)

Gail set the tone of the conference by telling us all about her story; a journey from playing badminton in dusty sports halls, to winning an Olympic medal in Athens. Although Gail’s talk didn’t directly connect to academic ambitions, but her words certainly did connect to important themes that will be familiar to many students and tutors: the temptation to put difficult challenges to one side, the importance of practice, and the subject of failure. 

A point that I noted down was: ‘losing is where we learn the most’.  A personal reflection is what I can apply this to a teaching situation: we can learn more when a lesson goes wrong than a lesson that is perfectly planned and executed. This, of course, is linked to that familiar notion of the ‘comfort zone’.

STEM Faculty Session

The STEM AL development group had organised a series of AL development sessions that were designed for all members of the STEM faculty. The aim of the session was to give tutors an update about changes that were happening within the faculty and across the university. During this session, I played a small role in a STEM faculty session, helping to facilitate a discussion that may have been about the subject of retention. C&C Session. Other staff tutors played different roles; offering information and update, and facilitating different discussions. I remember that there was a lot of talk about, since the university is currently considering how to approach further restructuring.

Computing and Communication School Session

The next session I was playing a part in was the School of Computing and Communications workshop. This session was open to all tutors who teach on computing and IT modules, but other tutors who were interested in tutoring for modules that were designed by this school were (of course) also very welcome to attend.

Sue Truby introduced the session by sharing some diagrams that neatly summarised the various Computing and IT degree programmes whilst also sharing information about forthcoming curriculum updates.

One area that is of particular interest is the subject of Cybersecurity. The university has made a strategic decision to invest in this area. Further investment exposes the question: what can tutors do to increase their knowledge, understanding and skills in a particular area. Sharon Dawes and I told tutors about a number of different resources that may them to understand the principles of the subject. They key resources that were shared are summarised on a short cybersecurity post that can be found in this blog.

If I remember correctly, the final part of the session was all about how to best apply for different modules. Sharon had selected a series of application forms for associate lecturer posts that had been submitted by tutors, along with a copy of a module person specification. The tutors had to make a decision as to whether each candidate should be shortlisted for interview. I felt this final activity was really useful. It helped to make a really important point: make things as clear as possible for the recruiter by ensuring that applicants offer compelling evidence against each point on the person specification. 

Correspondence Tuition Session

The third session I was involved with had the title ‘delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly’. I had previously delivered this session at the Leicester AL development conference and my overriding memory of that session was that although I ran a good session about what was meant by ‘excellent correspondence tuition’, I unfortunately ran out of time, which meant that I couldn’t explore the ‘quickly’ bit as much as I had hoped! I was certain that I would do better this time and not make the same mistake again.

This session attracted over twenty tutors and what struck me was that everyone was very willing to speak and contribute to the questions of ‘what do we mean by excellent correspondence tuition?’ and ‘how can we prepare correspondence tuition in a way that is efficient?’

One of the objectives of the session was to make a set of notes that I could share with our colleagues in ALSPD. During the discussions, I made use of a flip char and have attempted to summarise all contributions in a blog post that follows this one. The blog tag ‘correspondence tuition’ may also be useful, offering a number of useful resources.

Reflections

A personal reflection is that different parts of the conference had a very different tone. I found the STEM session to have a slightly negative tone, and one of the reasons might be due to the messages that we were sharing from the university are, in themselves, quite challenging. 

Everyone in the university has been subjected to a lot of changes; regional centres have closed, the group tuition policy has been introduced, higher fees has caused changes to the student population, and technology has changed too. Given all these changes, the message that there are going to be further changes perhaps (understandably) didn’t go down too well. One of our job as staff tutors and associate lecturer developers is to find ways to help associate lecturers understand and work with those changes. Clearly there is a lot more that we need to do to make things easier.

I found the school session fun and helpful. AL development conferences always used to be opportunities to allow staff tutors meet with the tutors that they support and line manage; the school session was clearly one of the highlights. Whilst the STEM session felt a little abstract and broad, the school session had a real positive sense of community about it. Tutors were sharing subject specific practice tips with each other, and the emphasis on the degree programmes helped tutors to understand how the module that they taught related to other modules.

My personal highlight of the conference was the session on correspondence tuition. Correspondence tuition sounds like a very dry (but important) topic, but this session was anything but. Everyone in the room seemed to have opinions; experienced tutors were sharing their experiences with tutors who had just joined the university three months earlier. An achievement was that I didn’t run out of time; there was enough time to talk about not just what is meant by correspondence tuition and to share tips about how to perform marking efficiently. A useful bit of feedback that I received was that it was helpful to share something about teaching research that had been performed into the subject. This is something that I will certainly take on board when I work on other presentations in the future.

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Staff tutor conference, December 2017

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 14 Jan 2018, 11:58

This post is a personal summary of a two day staff tutor conference that took place at Horwood House, Little Horwood between 5 and 6 December 2017. I’m blogging it for three reasons (1) so I can remember what CPD I’ve done when I have to do my appraisal, (2) it will help me to remember some of the important discussions that took place, and (3) it might be randomly helpful to someone!

Introduction

The conference began with a session by the outgoing associate dean of regions and nations, Steve Walker, a fellow staff tutor from the School of Computing and Communications. Steve presented a sobering description of some of the challenges that had to be addressed over the previous three years: the closure of the university regional centres, the introduction of a new tuition approach called the group tuition strategy (GTP), and the merger of faculties to create a new set of schools. A further change on the horizon is, of course, the potential introduction of a new associate lecturer contract.

Since the last staff tutor conference, I am now a home worker, there is a new student support team (SST) which is based in Manchester, and there is a venue management team that is based in Wales, and a system called the Learning Event Management system (LEM) which is (I understand) less than ideal. Also, AL development has been reconfigured (or, should I say, centralised) to create an entirely new way of working. 

Looking back to when I started in this role back in 2010, geography isn’t as important as it used to be. Support for students is instead organised in terms of curriculum teams as opposed to regional support teams. This means that the connections within schools have been strengthened and that there are more opportunities for activities such as associate lecturer development.

A number of important external drivers were emphasised:  the part time student market is receding due to government policy and fees, the student demographic is changing (they are getting younger), there are new entrants into the HE market and this means increased competition, the government has introduced the degree apprenticeship and the apprenticeship levy. There is also the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and even talk about something called the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). There has been a lot going on!

Student’s first transformation

During this period the university has defined a ‘student’s first strategy’ and has realised that it needs to address a potential income deficit due to the fall in part time numbers. In response, the ‘student’s first transformation’ programme has been set up. The programme aims to achieve a number of things: increase student retention, increase student progression and increase student satisfaction scores, whilst at the same time saving 100 million pounds (a figure that has been chosen by senior management).

To make these changes faculties have been asked to review their curriculum and other divisions of the university will be asked to review their working practices. These practices will be defined in something called a new ‘university operating model’ and the university will create a new ‘teaching framework’. Members of the university will be asked to participate in project groups and teams. Change, of course, has its own costs.

One phrase I regularly hear that is connected to the transformation programme is ‘digital by design’. A personal view is that I’m not quite sure exactly what this means; I know that students study in different ways using different technologies. Whilst I’m technologist, I’m a great believer in the usefulness of printed materials. On the point of ‘being digital’, the JISC Building digital capability project was mentioned (JISC).

During this part of the conference another point that I noted down was the term ‘sustainable academic communities’. Again, I’m not quite sure exactly what this refers to, but I did make a note of the principle that perhaps associate lecturers should be more involved and connected to schools. This discussion about associate lecturers takes us to the next part of the conference, which was about debating the purpose of tutorials.

Purpose of tutorials

Three staff tutors were asked to present perspectives about tutorials. The perspectives were: face to face tutorials, online tutorials, the use of pre-recorded tutorials and peer tutorials. I began by talking about face to face tutorials.

Face to face tutorials

Face to face classes, in my opinion, are the best and most effective way to teach. Here are some reasons why:

  1. What really matters in education is, of course, people. Face to face tuition is all about putting student’s first for the simple reason that technology doesn’t get in the way.
  2. Face to face means that learning is personalised to individual students or the group of students who are attending a tutorial.
  3. Tutors can ‘see’ the effect of their actions; they can see the learning that takes place. To assess the effectiveness of their learning tutors can quickly ask questions, and this allows them to correct and develop understandings.
  4. In adult learning, students can themselves become teachers. Students can arrive at class with significant and relevant real-world experience that can be discussed within the class. In some ways, students are their own resources. A skilled tutor can help to make connections between different students and topics.
  5. Face to face gives tutors and teachers opportunities to innovate and to try new things out since they can more directly and readily understand what students feel comfortable with. Tutors can more easily facilitate role play events, facilitate discussions and create tasks that make use of the physical space of a tutorial room.
  6. In a face to face session, a tutor can easily see if something is wrong; they can pick up on blank expressions and uncomfortable body language.
  7. Face to face tutorials benefit all students, irrespective of whether students attend the sessions. The reason for this is simple: a tutor or teacher has to have a good command of their material. 
  8. Following on from the above point, students will more readily question or challenge tutors during face to face sessions, helping themselves to understand how the teaching materials can be understood from different perspectives.
  9. Face to face tutorials are real in a way that other methods are not; tutors can offer direct and personal encouragement to students.

I understand that there are some debates within the university about the cost of certain types of face to face tutorials, since they represent a significant proportion of the tuition budget. During this session I argued that, from an educational perspective, the university can’t afford not to provide face to face tuition.

Online tutorials

The second presentation about tuition events was by Diane Butler from the School of Health, Life and Chemical Sciences. Diane said that online tutorials, like face to face sessions, help students to understand module materials, allow students to interact socially with tutors and other students and to develop skills. Online sessions allow tutors to provide tailored support and, when travelling is difficult, help to alleviate a sense of isolation.

Diane also highlighted some of the challenges: online sessions can very lend themselves to be centred upon PowerPoint presentations, and given the complexity of driving online sessions, tutors can easily rely on the simplest tools. A common issue (and one that I regularly hear of when speaking to tutors) is that students are very reluctant to use microphones. It is a rare session that tutors present a series of activities; it can also be difficult to fully appreciate the learning needs of students.

An important point was that online tutorials don’t easily lend themselves to constructivist learning. During Diane’s presentation, I made the note: ‘we put our tutors in an environment where it makes it difficult’, and ‘[there may not be] much benefit to watching the recordings versus attending live’. A point was that perhaps the module team ought to spend more time creating recordings.

Another point was: ‘we place an unrealistic burden on our tutors to facilitate group work’, and that ‘we need to take online teaching to the next level’.

Pre-recorded tutorials

Hayley Ryder from the School of Mathematics and Statistics shared her experience of creating pre-recorded tutorials for a whole module cohort. An interesting point that Hayley made was ‘students like me to make mistakes’; this can share something about what really happens when people ‘do mathematics’. By exposing the challenges that accompanying studying maths, and demonstrating things that are ‘actually hard’ may encourage students to adopt a growth mindset: if the lecturers make mistakes, then it’s okay that I make them too!

My understanding was that the module team might have prepared a set of recordings once and then rolled them out for different presentations, but this wasn’t happens: new recordings are made every presentation; different people and different cohorts get stuck on different things. 

Hayley’s videos were fun and personable; her presentation got me thinking.

Peer tutorials

The final presentation was by Katherine Leys who is from the School of Life Health and Chemical Sciences. Peer tuition and peer support is mentioned in the new teaching framework. Peer tutorials is all about having students teach each other. Examples of these might be a group of students working together to plan an experiment in an online room or a forum. To facilitate these discussions, students might adopt roles, such as leader, deputy leader and so on, but tutors do need to mediate and some students will not be able to take part, perhaps due to the need to make reasonable adjustments to take account of disabilities or impairments.

Supporting staff tutor practice

Staff tutors offer support to associate lecturers, module teams and students. An interesting question to ask is: what can we do to help to support ourselves and fellow staff tutors? Maggie King, Staff Tutor in the School of Engineering and Innovation began this session by saying that the ‘changes to our jobs have been monumental’. In some respects, our job has changed from being a job that was primarily about people (and our academic discipline), to a job that is increasingly about administration.

We were asked a question: what could we do to make things better? Some suggestions included: the need for further staff tutor staff development, and opportunities for further sharing of practice, perhaps on a monthly basis or at different ‘regions’ or ‘regional areas’ (which could be, potentially, booked and organised through the venue management system). A personal reflection is that constant and effective communication between each other is the only way that we can continue to work well and understand the changes that are emerging through the university.

External Engagement

The title of this session was: ‘it’s good to get out’. It was facilitated by Matt Walkley, Staff Tutor from the School of Computing and Communications. Matt posed three questions that guided group discussions: what external engagement have you done? What external engagement should we be doing or be doing more of? And, what actions can we commit to?

A personal reflection was that I have always struggled to understand what was meant by the term ‘external engagement’; I was always under the impression that it had a more formal definition than it had. I was imagining external engagement as sets of targeted and strategic activities that can be used to help gain insights that could feed into module production, or to make contacts with individuals within organisations that could explicitly benefit from learning can be presented through OU programmes or modules. Although all these things do fall under the topic of external engagement, they are more directly aligned to the more formal concept of ‘knowledge exchange’.

External engagement can, as I understand it, broadly mean ‘getting out there’ to make contact with people to help us learn more about our subject and also to raise the profile of ourselves and the university. In some respects, being an external examiner and visiting the occasional British Computer Society event both represent different types of external engagement.

I learnt that external engagement is an official part of our contract. This means that we can allocate between 3 and 5 days into our work plan for external engagement activities (although there was some debate about exactly how many days we might have available). A point was if we can align our own personal and professional interests to that of our School and Faculty, then so much the better.

Another point I learnt was that each school has its own external engagement officer. I had to ask who the officer for my school was. This, in turn, made me realise that since staff tutors are scattered across the UK, the staff tutor body is at an advantage when it comes to engaging with national initiatives. A thought is that it is up to schools to develop and apply an interesting external engagement strategy; staff tutors are a resource that can be used, and used effectively (when we have the time, of course, and we’re generally pretty busy).

Improving retention and progression

The subtitle for this session that was held on the second day was: what can staff tutors do? Different staff tutors summarised different aspects of their experience. What follows is a very brief summary of each presentation.

U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world

Christine Pearson spoke about U116 and its ethos: the module assumes that students don’t know anything (that they are entirely new to the subject). I made a note that the students are changing, and also have a broad range of digital literacy skills. An interesting point was that some students were invited to take place in a focus group; a key point were that there was a need for induction or some kind of ‘fresher’s week’. Subsequently, a ‘getting started’ video was made, and students were sent a postcard to help them to get online. Another ‘bit’ was a numeracy podcast. An important point was that more and more students are doing concurrent study, which might be a side effect of the loan scheme.

Impact of presentation patterns

Bernie Clarke spoke about the impact of 22-week presentation patterns, where two modules are taught back to back (which is going to be the case for the new Computing modules TM111 and TM112). Using this presentation pattern, students gain credit at an earlier point in their studies. Another change is that in the engineering curriculum the teaching of mathematics is now done within the context of the subject, rather than students being asked to study a maths module that has been written by colleagues in a different school.

M140 early start initiative

Alison Bromley spoke about the effect of enabling students to start earlier on a module (another colleague, Carol Calvert gave a presentation about this same subject at a HEA Conference in April 2017). Over two hundred students accepted the opportunity to start M140 early. Those that started apparently really appreciated the opportunity for early tutor contact. I didn’t note down the detail of the impact, but I did note down that there was a difference between students who were studying for the very first time and students who had gained further experience through study.

Learning analytics and interventions

Nicolette Hapgood, chair of S111, reported that S111 applied an assessment approach that is known as ‘single component assessment’ (which is also going to be applied on TM111 and TM112), which means that the result is based on completing only assignments and not an end of module exam or assessment. Nicolette also described the availability of a data analytics tool that is now available to all module teams; this tool enables module teams to see differences in retention between different module presentations.

An important question to ask is: what is the main role of staff tutors when it comes to improving student retention and progression? An answer I’ve noted down is: our role is to support the associate lecturers who are closest to the students. We also represent an important link between the tutors and the module teams. Some other discussion points related to the knowledge management system that is used by the SST (which is used to offer study advice), the importance of reminding tutors about study support resources (there is an earlier blog about study skills resources), the importance of induction (which remains a mystery to me), and helping module teams to write and develop module materials. 

What will the REF mean to staff tutors?

I’ve forgotten who presented this final section of the conference, which was about the Research Excellence Framework.

There are some differences between the 2014 REF and the 2021 REF. One of the key differences lies in a statement that all staff who have significant time and resources to carry out research are to be submitted into the REF. There is a clear contractual difference between different categories of university staff: central academics are required to do research as a part of their contract, whereas staff tutors are ‘encouraged’. Subsequently, there is an ambiguity as to whether staff tutors will be included into the REF submission.

The reason why staff tutors are only ‘encouraged’ to do research is simple: workload. Time that we could have spent on research is spent supporting and developing associate lecturers and dealing with a whole host of administrative issues. Over the last year, it has more or less been a full time job keeping up with institutional changes, never mind doing institutional research.

My view is that there are two things that could be done to help to tick the research box: rather than doing discipline specific research, one possibility is to do scholarship and research into teaching and learning (since this fits closely with the role of a staff tutor), and secondly, if disciplinary research is important, another approach is to team up with central academic researchers. 

Reflections

This is the second or third staff tutor conference that I’ve attended. Typing everything up helped me to look back and to put a lot into perspective; a lot has changed. As mentioned at the start, the majority of the regional centres in England have closed and the way that tutorials are organised is now very different to how it was before. 

Put another way, I’m now doing a different job to what I was doing six years ago. I’m not going to pretend that homeworking is easy: it isn’t. 

This said, putting difficulties aside, there are some good things about this new way of working that many of us have had to embrace. A final thought is: it was really useful to spend time with so many colleagues; they are a pretty fabulous group of people to work with.

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Cyber security resources

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 12 Dec 2017, 16:26

There is a considerable amount of interest in the subject of cyber security. It seems as if a day doesn’t go by without a new story about a worrying data breach or a hack attack. New terms such as phishing has entered in the lexicon and we regularly hear references to topics such as encryption and malware. 

Cyber security is currently a hot topic within government (GOV.UK policy website) and the university is investing in cyber security teaching in the School of Computing and Communications.

With the possibility of new modules (and perhaps qualifications) on the horizon, an important question is: what can associate lecturers do to be prepared for new cyber security modules? This blog post is to summarise a set of resources that might be useful. This post is, of course, unapologetically OU centric and there, are of course, many other resources or books out there. If you do know of other resources that might be helpful, do feel free to add a comment below.

Cyber security MOOC

The OU, in collaboration with FutureLearn runs a MOOC (massive open online course) entitled Introduction to Cyber Security (FutureLearn). This is particularly interesting, since the course description states that ‘it has been developed by The Open University with support from the UK Government’s National Cyber Security Programme’.  It is presented as a ‘double accredited course’, described as a GCHQ certified training course, accredited by the Institute of Information Security Professionals (IISP).

The MOOC addresses a range of relevant topics, such as: threats, authentication (access control, passwords, two-factor authentication), malware (types of malware, attack vectors, preventing infection), cryptography, network security (firewalls, virtual private networks, intrusion detection/prevention), cyber security laws, recovering from attacks and managing risks.

Postgraduate modules

One of the great things about being a tutor is that tutors can study many OU modules as a part of their continuing professional development. If you’re interested in cyber security, tutors can choose to study two different postgraduate modules that are linked to the subject of cyber security.

The first module is called M811 Information security. M811 is relating to IT governance and management (which reflects the focus of the postgraduate programme). Here is the key part of the description: ‘In this online module, you’ll explore the professional and technical skills necessary to understand, document, manage and implement strategic and operational aspects of your organisation's information security. You’ll study topics in information security risk assessment and management, as well as professionalism, home information security, and information security research.’

Regarding M811, an important point is that it isn’t a technical module: instead, it focuses on the socio-technical and organisational issues which reflects the notion that cyber security is just not about technology: it is about people too.

The second module is called M812 Digital forensics. M812 is different to M811, since it is a lot more technical. It is described as follows: ‘This online module will help you understand how to conduct investigations to correctly gather, analyse and present digital evidence to both business and legal audiences. You will also learn how to find tools to locate and analyse digital evidence on a variety of devices, including mobile phones, and how to keep up to date with changing technologies, laws and regulations in digital forensics.’

The connection with law is particularly important and useful. It introduces learners to different aspects of legislation that relate to data and cyber security. It is technical in the sense that students are required to carry out an analysis of a digital image (data downloaded from a digital device) and write a detailed report. An interesting aspect of the module is that students (acting as digital forensic examiners) will take play in a short role play activity where they present evidence to a tutor who plays the role of a court barrister.

OpenLearn: Badged Open Courses

As well as FutureLearn, the university has OpenLearn, which offers BOCs (rather than MOOCs). A BOC is a Badged Open Course. There are three BOCs that relate to cyber security.

The most recent BOC is called Introduction to cybersecurity: say safe online (OpenLearn). The course is described as follows: ‘[it will] help you to understand online security and start to protect your digital life, whether at home or work. You will learn how to recognise the threats that could harm you online and the steps you can take to reduce the chances that they will happen to you.’ The learning outcomes are: ‘start to protect your digital life, recognise threats to your online safety, take steps to reduce the risk of online threats, understand concepts including malware, viruses and trojans, consider network security, cryptography and identity theft’.

OpenLearn also contains BOCs made from sections from M811 and M812; you can even use these BOCs to get a feel for what kinds of materials are presented in either of these modules. 

The Information security BOC (OpenLearn) is described as follows: ‘... information has become the life blood of the modern world. Given its importance, modern organisations aren’t always as careful as they could be with it. . . . In this free coursey ou’ll explore what it is about information that makes it so valuable.’ Again, the emphasis is on people and organisations, rather than technology. 

The Digital forensics BOC (OpenLearn), being derived from M812, is descried as follows: ‘Digital forensics, is an introduction to computer forensics and investigation, and will give you an overview of forensic science in general, including how it works in practice. It will introduce you to the world of digital forensics, that is, applying forensic science to the digital artefacts that we create every day through our interactions with computers, mobile phones and the unseen objects around us that encompass the so-called ‘internet of things’.

There are of course, loads of other Science, Maths and Technology BOCs available.

Other resources

FutureLearn is, of course, one of many MOOC providers. Three other providers are called EdX, Udacity and Coursera.  

At the time of writing EdX runs a MOOC called Cybersecurity fundamentals, which was 8 weeks in length (with an average of 6-8 hrs per week), and Coursera, that relates to usability security (which can be considered to be an intersection between interaction design and cyber security).


Acknowlegements: Many thanks to Sharon Dawes for providing the inspiration and motivation behind the writing of this blog, and for also sending me links to a number of related cyber security resources.

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The changing face of the computing classroom: BCS, London, December 2017

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 7 Dec 2017, 08:33

On 24 November 2017 I found some time to visit a book launch event at the British Computer Society headquarters in London. The book was entitled: Computer Science Teacher, and was written by Beverly Clarke (who is, of course, a computer science teacher). 

The timing of this event was significant: it happened a couple of days after the UK government budget where there was particular emphasis on the need to develop and computer science teaching in schools.

This blog comes from a set of notes that I made during the event. The aim of this post is to write something to help me to remember what CPD events I’ve attended during the year, and also to share a set of useful links to colleagues who might be interested in researching the subject of computing education (I know there are a couple of colleagues who have a particular interest in this area).

Introduction

The event was introduced in the context of the changing computing curriculum. It had been five years since the new curriculum for 5 to 16 year olds had been introduced in 2013. The curriculum changes occurred as a result of a Royal Society report entitled Shut down or restart? It is interesting to note that the Royal Society site has a whole section that is dedicated to the subject of computing education  (Royal Society)

Following the report and the introduction of the curriculum, there was the publication of a new report, entitled After the Reboot – Computing Education in UK School (Royal Society) which aimed to evaluate the changes.

There remain significant challenges, and it was these that were echoed in government announcements. A key point is that have to know how to teach this stuff, and it was reported at only 30% of teachers have any background in computing. A particular challenge is primary school, where I understand that teachers have to present lessons from across the curricula. There is, however, some help at hand. There is an organisation called Computing at School and, of course, there is this new BCS book which is intended to try to help by describing the role of a computer science teacher. We were told it covers subjects such as origins of the curriculum, the importance of knowledge, attitude and skills, government teaching policy, tools, points about pedagogy and issues relating to diversity and inclusion. 

Computer Science Teacher

A really interesting (and important) point was that computing gives teachers the opportunity to develop what was presented as ‘cross-curricula engagement’. From a personal perspective, I think this is one of the things that makes computing such a great subject: it touches on every subject and aspects of our lives.

The book, Computer Science Teacher, was introduced by its author, Beverly Clarke. Beverly shared a number of useful pedagogic tips, such as the use of a wall display to emphasise women in computing and practical engagement with organisations such as Cisco. There were other tips, such as making computing resources visible in classrooms and ensuring that resources that relate to the subject are clearly available in the library. There was also initiatives such as Ada Lovelace day (FindingAda). I also made a note of the idea of: students gathering and sharing stories; a pedagogic approach where students connect their studies to current and ongoing media stories.

An important question that I had was about how to extend the appeal of computing as a subject to girls. The numbers are stark: only 20% of GCSE students and 9% of A level students are female. One approach (along with increasing the visibility of role models) is for teachers to try to directly connect with the interests of learners, whatever they may be. 

Another key point was that learning about teaching doesn’t stop when you have a PGCE and have Qualified Teacher Status; there are other things to aim for, such as the National Professional Qualification for Senior Leadership (NPQSL). 

Some interesting resources were mentioned, such as Code Club which is described as ‘a nationwide network of volunteers and educators who run free coding clubs for young people aged 9-13’ and Barefoot Computing, which appears to be a part of Computing at School.

Reflections

What I really liked about this event was that there were a number of pedagogic approaches that I recognised along with others that I hadn’t really thought about: I recognised the importance of contextualising the teaching by the use of media stories, but given that I don’t work in the school sector, the importance of wall displays (and how they can offer encouragement) had passed me by. I was also struck by the number of resources that teachers can look at, not to mention those two very big reports: if you’re interested in computer science teaching, my sense is that you really need to read them.

Other than learning about the book, there were two another reason why I went to the event: the first is to learn more about the current computing curriculum (since some younger students may begin to arrive on the level 1 computing modules having studied the new curricula; to teach well, we need to know what they know). The second reason was to put the word out that the university had been recruiting for some new computing tutors; an event where computing teaching was discussed seemed like a great place to make some contacts.

A final note is that computing in the school sector remains an interest, but since I work in higher education, I feel somewhat disconnected from it. I do feel that there’s a lot that can be learnt and shared between both of the sectors. A challenge is trying to find the time to read more and to try to develop or facilitate cross sector collaboration.

Update, 7 December 2017: After attending the workshop, I visited the Royal Society website to see what I could discover. I found there was a way to receive subject specific updates. A week or so after the event I received my first email update, which contained not only a reference to After the Reboot report, but a link to a blog entitled: Improving computing education in our schools by Sue Sentance (Kings). The email update also contained a whole host of other things too! A challenge remains, of course, trying to find the time!

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STEM Postgraduate AL development conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 28 Nov 2017, 14:08

I attended my first ever STEM AL development conference that took place at The Open University in Milton Keynes between 10 and 11 November 2017. 

At the time of writing, I have been helping to support a combination of networking and data security postgraduate modules for just under a year. I think I became involved in with these modules since I had been a former OU PG computing student, studying three modules: project management, data and information security and digital forensics. I briefly toyed with studying for a MSc, before I became distracted and studied a couple of social science modules which helped me to learn more about methods that were applied in the interaction design module that I used to tutor.

What follows is a brief summary of my own take on the conference. These notes, of course, reflect my own personal interests; I accept that there was a lot more going on within the conference than am able to describe here. 

Tour and talks

The conference began with a series of talks about the new OpenSTEM lab (OU centre for STEM pedagogy) which gained a Times Higher Education award (OU website). The OpenSTEM lab is a set of online digital resources that students can use as a part of their studies. A key aspect of the lab is that it enables students to access to real scientific and engineering equipment allowing them to gather data, work together and share experiences. In some respects, the OpenSTEM lab represents a development of a ‘home experiment kit’ that was once shipped out to OU students, but with the advantage that it facilitates collaboration.

We were introduced to different aspects of the lab; we were told about an electron microscope and told that students were introduced to the idea of robotics through the use of a humanoid like robot called Baxter, and that science students could use a mock-up of a mars rover. We were also shown experiments that used agitated pendulums. There were some obvious challenges that needed to be addressed, such as the effect of network latency when gathering results from experiments. I also expect that students were asked and encouraged to book time on these different instruments.

After the talks, we all wandered over to our accommodation at the nearby Kent’s Hill conference centre. After dinner, we were treated to a talk by Mark Brandon from the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences. Mark is a Reader in Polar Oceanography. He shared experiences of working on module teams, working with associate lecturers and working on Frozen Planet, a BBC/OU co-production. Mark also emphasised the importance of the role of associate lecturers and the contributions that they can and do make to module teams.

School of Computing and Communication Session

The following day was split into two sections: the first part was a school specific session (associate lecturers are now, of course, primarily affiliated to a school rather than to a region); the second part of the day was comprised of two parallel sessions that addressed topics that were relevant to associate lecturer practice.

During the school of computing and communications session, I made some notes of some topics that were discussed and points that were highlighted. One of the themes discussed was the concept of degree apprenticeships; as well as undergraduate degrees, there are also postgraduate degree apprenticeships. As well as having an associate lecturer, there is also the role of a practice tutor. There was a comment that students might have to create a portfolio, and there was a question of how this might be carried out or managed.

Discussion points included broadband and internet connectivity amongst tutors and students, and the use of teaching tools such as Adobe Connect. This led to a short discussion about tutorials and tutorial practice; one idea is to always try to have two tutors at every online tutorial – not only does this offer redundancy if the internet for the presenting tutor goes down, but it also takes load off the main presenters and opens up the possibility of using some interesting pedagogic approaches, such as debates.

Another point I noted was that for some students postgrad study can represent a step change. For some students, the expectations of postgraduate study might be unclear; there is an increased emphasis on reflection, the use and application of literature and critical practice. One area that I think is fundamentally important is the induction period for new students. Whilst there are some induction materials, the university also has a free Badged Open Learning (BOC) course called Succeeding in Postgraduate study (Open Learn website). In addition to this there are, of course, some more generic study skills resources that are available, including a set of useful Booklets, including one that is called Thinking Critically (pdf).

During the school session, we also has a discussion about ideas that could feed into the computing curriculum update (or ‘curriculum refresh’, as it is otherwise know). Some interesting comments were: perhaps there needs to be some modules about research methods, or perhaps more materials about academic writing. It was commented that the science curriculum had a research skills module, but the computing curriculum didn’t. Another thought was that perhaps there could be a series of short 10 point modules that could be used for continuing professional development.

Parallel sessions

Tutors could choose between four different sessions. I remember what three of these were: there was a session about using and working with Adobe connect, a session that I ran about dealing with challenging situations, and another session about efficient and effective correspondence tuition.

The session that I ran was, essentially, a structured discussion which drew upon university resources and guidelines. The main objective of the discussion section was to share stories and experiences. I ran the session twice and everyone who attended participated.  

Reflections

Despite being a staff tutor for six or seven years I was interested to hear that these AL development events for postgraduate tutors run every few years. I couldn’t help but feel that there was a lot of cross over between the national AL development events and the events like this one that has a clear and distinct focus. This said, many of the important themes are shared between different tutors: everyone has to use Adobe Connect, and everyone has to offer effective correspondence tuition.

I found the school specific approach really useful: this session (and the conference as a whole) represented a really useful opportunity to get together with colleagues who we regularly work with through online rooms and virtual forum spaces. I also really enjoyed running two sessions with the postgrad students. If I could change something, it would be to, perhaps, add a bit more emphasis on the sharing of stories and how we respond to difficult situations. In some ways, this links to an idea that I was recently introduced to when I was studying at Birkbeck: the notion of the critical incident.

A final point is a series of acknowledgements: Mark Slaymaker, staff tutor of Computing and Communications, put a huge amount of hard work into organising the conference. Thanks are also extended to Mark Brandon from the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences and the STEM AL services team for their support and assistance.

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