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XTXY112 Practice Tutor Briefing

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On 24th in September I attended a new module briefing at the University headquarters in Milton Keynes. Rather than being the usual ‘academic’ module briefing, this was a briefing for new practice tutors (PTs). 

Practice tutors support degree apprenticeship (DA) students. DA students are funded by employers. They have one day a week, or 20% of their time allocated to degree level study. 

Practice tutors are a part of a 3 way relationship between the employer, the student and the university. Their role is to support the student, and to facilitate the students progress though the pathway by working with employer and university representatives. On the employer side, there is also someone called the APDM, who is known as the Apprenticeship Programme Delivery Manager, who work with all employers who have apprentices at the OU. 

One of the most significant differences between a practice tutor and a module tutor is that rather than getting a new set of students every year, a practice tutor supports a group of students over a number of years. 

What follows is a quick summary of some of the things that practice tutors have to do, along with some more general notes and facts about degree apprenticeships. One thing that I should note is that whilst the roles are clearly defined, some aspects to the degree apprenticeship scheme may change. What this means is that if you’re reading this a couple of years after its publication, it’s entirely possible that things might have moved on from what was described here.

The code XTXY112 relates to the activity of supporting Digital Technology Solutions (DTS) apprentices who are based in England.

Key components

A degree apprenticeship consists of a number of different components. 

Qualification: the result of studying a combination of academic modules and completing work based learning-modules (where a student has an opportunity to apply academic ideas and practice new skills in a real work environment).

English and Maths functional Skills: although there are no entrance requirements to begin a degree apprenticeship, there is an exit requirement. If a student hasn’t gained a certain level of English and Maths skills, they must achieve a certain level by the end of the programme.

Portfolio and work based projects: students need to complete an agreed work based project which something that relates to a business need, and create a valued body of work, which is represented by regular contributions to an e-portfolio system.

End point assessment (EPA): students need to get to this stage, which represents an assessment of the knowledge, skills, and behaviours learnt from the apprenticeship programme.

All this leads to: a recognised apprenticeship that was designed with input from industry, a recognised degree, and an opportunity (if applicable) to register with a professional body.

There are a number of different people involved: there are the academic/module tutors who deliver academic modules who assess progress and moderate forum discussions. There are also the practice tutors who check and evidence the e-portfolios, reviews progress, carry out assessment of work-based learning (if applicable), and help with the end point assessment preparation. There are also apprenticeship programme delivery managers who handle the registration, employer liaison and the EPA processes.

Introductions

Since a PT is going to be important in the life of the degree apprentice student and represent a key point of contact with the university, a positive introduction is really important. 

A face-to-face meeting is expected to take place between the beginning of the module and 6 weeks with the apprentice, the practice tutor, and the apprentice’s line manager. To arrange a meeting, the PT will (like other OU tutors) send a welcome message by email. Following the introductory email, different bits of information are shared, such as contact details, confirmation of work addresses, and telephone numbers.

The first meeting

The first meeting is all about getting to know the apprentice and their line manager. It’s also about information sharing. It’s an opportunity to introduce the apprentice to the various OU systems and ways of working. A suggestion is to bring along a laptop, or ask to have access to a computer, as that way you can use it to talk the apprentice through some various bits of the OU system, such as: the StudenHome website, the module website, where to find information about the module tutor, where to find the assessment resources, what the study calendar is, what a TMA is, what cut-off dates are, and how to submit an assessment. It’s also important to ask whether they have been through the OU study materials (studying at the OU).

Another key issue to explore or address is the importance of time and planning. Since the apprentices will be working full time and will have dedicated study time, it’s important to find out whether they are aware of the time commitment that is necessary to study, and that time is carefully accounted for.

Another important topic that must be spoken about is something called the Individual Learning Plan (ILP), which is a progress report that is also used to record at least three objectives. The ILP will be completed and signed off by both the practice tutor and their line manager. During the meeting, the practice tutor must make the apprentice aware of the ILP, what it is and highlight that it must be completed, and it will be returned to during future meetings.

An important question to ask is: what pathway are they taking? The English degree apprenticeship has a number of different pathways through it. This discussion will help everyone have an early understanding of what the different options are. (More will be covered about the pathways later).

Record keeping

An e-portfolio system called OneFile is used to keep records of the work that an apprentice does. It can be thought of a document store that can be used to confidentially store evidence of progress that can be reviewed by other people. It can also be used as a personal journal too; evidence of learning can be selectively made available by an apprentice to their line manager, or to the practice tutor. 

It is used to store copies of the module TMAs that a student submits, and also keeps a copy of the ILP. I understand that it can also be used to gather evidence to support the completion of the ‘apprentice’ part of the degree apprenticeship. 

Quarterly and end of year reviews

An important role of the practice tutor is to keep a gentle eye on the apprentice; to make sure that they’re on track with their studies. The practice tutor may also check with the apprentice’s TMA results, and also send a quick note to a module tutor to ask whether everything is going okay.

Before a visit or meeting, an apprentice needs to update their ILP. The practice tutor might also send a note to the module tutor to ask how things are going, and if there have been any problems. A key question that might be asked is: has anything changed with respect to any study plans?

Towards the end of the first year, there will be what is called an end of year review about how things have gone. Also, towards the end of the second year, the PT will have a discussion with the apprentice about the different pathway options that exist through the apprenticeship programme.

It will be important to review ILP, and to discuss the objectives that can be set on the plan. A suggestion is to use SMART targets; targets that are Specific Measurable Achievable Relevant and Timebound. Discussions may include points about progression, training opportunities, and whether it is necessary to gain exposure to different parts of the organisation. Essentially, it will be about what has happened, and what may happen. 

Functional skills and prerequisites

There are no prerequisites to start on a degree apprenticeship programme, but they need to have functional maths, English and ICT skills by the time they finish. If apprentices don’t have at least a GCSE grade 4 in English and Maths (if I understand this correctly) they can complete what is known as function skills test, a two hour exam, run by an organisation called BKSB (website). 

It is recommended that apprentices complete them within their first 18 months of study. Records of gaining the functional skills in these areas will be stored within the student’s e-portfolio.  An important role of the practice tutor will be to make sure that students do complete these exams as early as they can, so as to make room in their study schedule for everything else that they have to do.

Modules that DA students will study

In the first year, students will study the following three modules:

TMXY130 Introduction to computing technologies: this module has a bit of networking, cybersecurity and bits of mathematics that are specific to computing. Students will complete formative interactive computer marked assessments (iCMAs), complete tasks using Cisco packet tracer, and complete 3 tutor marked assessments. The final EMA covers all three components of the module.

TMXY112 Computing and IT 2: three different themes are interlaced; hardware, problem solving and computing in the wild. During the module, students are introduced to the Python language. All the topics are connected to the development of skills. There are 3 summative TMAs, each contributing an increasing percentage to the overall score. Students must also complete various block quizzes.

TMXY122 Work based learning: students must design a study planner, and consider their study skills, and write a reflective piece. There are 3 x TMAs and an EMA. TMA 2 is skills based, where students must identify an IT related issue, and consider a hypothetical research project. They must also develop a research proposal to collect data. TMA 3 is about reflection, and asks students to relate their role to a national occupations database. Finally, the EMA relates to a professional (or personal) development plan. 

Looking towards the second level, student will study MXY250 Object-oriented Java, TMXY254 Managing IT: the why, the what and the how (which is about service management, and has a bit about relational databases), and TTXY284 Web Technologies

DA pathways

There are Four pathways through the English degree apprenticeship programme (things are different for Wales and Scotland). 

Students can opt for a Data Analyst pathway, where they may study OU modules such as M269 Algorithms, Data Structures and Computability (a computer science module) and TM351 Data Management and Analysis (where students get to write programs to analyse data).

Another pathway is the software engineering route, where students may study TM352 Web, Mobile and Cloud Technologies  and TM354 Software Engineering.

The third pathway is about cybersecurity. Here students will study TM352 Web, Mobile and Cloud Technologies which has a small amount of penetration testing, and TMXY311 which is about information and security management.

The fourth pathway is all about becoming a network engineer. Here the students will study some industrial Cisco material that also enables them to gain university credit. The modules are TM257 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 1 and TM357 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 2

Tips for the Practice tutors

What follows is a summary of tips that I’ve picked up from the briefing:

  • Emphasise that they need to do programming. This makes up an important aspect of the whole programme. They need to develop their skills in level 1, since it gets a whole lot more harder in the later levels.
  • Check to make sure that they have completed their OU induction.
  • Encourage the apprentices to speak to their module tutors as soon as they need to. Emphasise the point that they are there to help. Also, a practice tutor can ask a module tutor how their apprentice is getting along.
  • Make sure that they’re using the 20% of the time that they have available and emphasise the importance of time management. Also highlight that it’s important to get a work, life and study balance right. 
  • Record keeping is important, and this means that the individual learning plan needs to be filled in for each meeting. This needs to be signed by practice tutor, the apprentice, and the line manager.
  • Suggest that the OneFile e-portfolio tool could be used as a way to gather reflections (since reflections will be important in the work based learning modules).
  • The work based project is important. If they’re not in a position to do this easily, given their current role and responsibilities, find out whether there is a way that they can be temporarily seconded to an appropriate project. 
  • When considering the quarterly review, ask the question: has anything changed such as the study plan?

Acknowledgements

This blog was prepared from notes made during a briefing day that was organised by Chris Thomson, Computing and Communications Staff Tutor who also kindly copy edited (and corrected) an earlier version of this blog. During the day, presentations were given by Christine Gardner, David McDade, Claire Blanchard, and Caroline Stephens. Contributions were also made by XTXY122 staff tutors, Nigel Gibson and Ann Walshe. I also acknowledge the important role of the three Apprenticeship Programme Delivery Managers who helped us to further understand the role of the practice tutor. 

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Reflecting on TM470

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 17 Sep 2019, 15:17

I’ve now been tutoring on TM470, the Open University’s Computing and IT project module, for three years.

I heard it once said that it takes around three years to get to grips with the tutoring of a module; I agree with this view.

After this amount of time, you’ve marked a good number of TMAs, EMAs and have a solid appreciation of what is on the module website. You also (hopefully) should have a thorough understanding of what is in the head of the module team, enabling you to respond to student queries with a degree of confidence.

Also, three years is enough time to get a feel for what makes up a good project report, a distinction level project report, and a project report that might not pass. Having that experience has also enabled me to question what I do as a tutor, and to help me offer the best feedback I can.

What follows is a set reflections that relate to what I think is important when tutoring on the project module. I’m sharing since it might be of interest to fellow tutors, TM470 tutors, but also the module team too (since they, of course, guide how we approach everything).

These are, of course, my own opinions, and I do expect that different tutors will (of course), have different views - and, of course, have slightly different practices.

Welcoming students

I feel that I started very well in my first presentation but didn’t do so well with this on my second presentation. This said, I think I’m happy with the approach that I have used with the most recent presentation.

I begin by sending each student an email to say hello. If I see that any of my students have any additional requirements, I add a sentence to each introductory email to ask them to let me know whether there’s anything I need to be aware of to ensure that I help them with their studies. This tends to open up a dialogue.

In my introduction, I also mention that it might be useful to have a quick chat on the phone. I try to do this with every student in my group, but not everyone wants to have a chat; and that’s okay. I feel it’s important to be supportive whilst not being pushy.

A final point is that I also tell students to subscribe to their TM470 tutor group forum. The reason for this is that I use the forum to send updates and reminders about various things, and subscribing enables them to get notifications about those notifications.

Keeping in touch

One of the things I do regularly is send all students regular emails. Not every tutor runs tutorial, but I do; I send them dates of the tutorials as soon as they have been scheduled. I also send them a note to remind them of the TMA cut off dates, and send them reminders to let me know that I would like to receive regular updates.

When I send reminders about a willingness to receive updates, I also make the point that everything that is sent to me can also be used and presented within the project report as evidence of progress. I hope this offers a further encouragement!

Tutorials

At hinted at earlier, some TM470 tutors run tutorials, whereas other don’t. There isn’t a requirement for TM470 tutors to run tutorials; some tutors only run one to one sessions with their students.

I find tutorials useful for a couple of reasons.

At the start of the module, I fix a date for two introductory sessions: one that takes place in the evening, and one that takes place in the day time. I send all these dates to students in a group email and post the same information about them on our tutor group forum.

I split my tutorials in to two parts: the first part that is recorded, and the part section that is not. Dividing the tutorials in this way enables the first section to be viewed by the students who were not able to attend either of the tutorials. The second section becomes an informal chat between the students who come along.

In the introductory tutorial, I talk about the assessment strategy and the first TMA and do some screen sharing to introduce students to the module materials.

I tend to run two EMA preparation tutorials which has a similar structure, but with more focus on what a good EMA might look like. I also do some screen sharing: I take the students to the referencing guidelines site, and might even take them to some Skills for Study sections materials that are about academic writing.

One-to-one sessions

Every student has four hours of personal one to one time. I don’t keep a very close tally of how much of that time is used; some of it could be roughly allocated to tutorials, whereas other bits of time could be allocated to one to one sessions.

I mention one-to-one sessions in different ways: in the TMA feedback, during tutorials, and in the keeping in touch emails. If students don’t want to take me up on the offer of a one to one chat, that is okay, but I do make it clear that this is an option that is available.

Rather than having telephone chat, I’ve tended to use the Adobe Connect tutor group room. One of the great advantages of this is that we can do some screen sharing. Screen sharing is really useful. I’ve used it as a way to get an understanding of how a student’s draft submission is coming along, or to guide students to resources that have been prepared by the module team. I sometimes give the student screen sharing permissions so they can take control of those sessions.

TMA Feedback

There are, of course, two main components of the TMA feedback: the summary page, and the on-script comments.

On the summary page, I tend to focus on offering three clear points of advice that student should work on to improve their performance on the next TMA. When I’m writing these points, I try to explain why these points are important, and how they connect to the aims and objectives of the project module.

When I’m working on later TMAs, I always tend to do a quick read back of the previous TMA summaries. On occasion, I’ve copied and pasted text from the previous TMA and have put it on the current TMA, saying: “I gave the following feedback; it is important because…”.

I also tend to conclude a TMA with a suggestion about having a follow up call or chat.

For the on-script comments, I encourage students to use the Word in built heading tools (if they are not using them already). I make the point that it enables the student to use the navigation tool (which helps the student to view the structure of their EMA). Also, increasingly I tend to offer some practical advice about the formatting of sections (showing how students can move between portrait and landscape page layouts). To help students get to grips with these elements of Word, I have also offered link to various YouTube videos to help them understand the points that I’m making.

Tutor group forum

Students don’t tend to you my tutor group forum much, but I tend to use it as a simple notice board.

Here’s a summary of how I use it:

  • Sharing dates of tutorials, and providing of links to recordings.
  • Giving updates about TMA marking. I make a post to the forum when I start marking, and then post again when I’m roughly half way through (to give students some idea about when to expect their results). I tend to ‘pin’ these posts at the top of the forum during the marking.
  • Sharing of additional resources and links.
  • A space for students to ask questions.

Staff tutors can (or may) dip into tutor group forums from time to time to see what is going on. A well populated tutor group will give a staff tutor the impression that all is well with the group.

Additional resources given to students

During this most recent presentation I prepared two really short resources in the form of Word documents that might help students:

  • A very short sample introduction to an imaginary project and project report. This sample presents a structure that is very similar to the guidance that is offered by the module team.
  • A sample table of contents, which includes an introductory section, a section that outlines the project, a literature review section, an account of project work section, a reflection section, a summary or concluding section and a series of imaginary appendices.

The aim of these two resources is to emphasise the point that the project report, and it’s overall degree of readability is really important.

Advice to students

I’ve sometimes offered the following tips at various points during the module. I might mention these suggestions during tutorials, or in one-to-one sessions:

  • Make sure that you use the features that are provided in Word well; they can help you to find you way though, navigate, and work with larger documents. 
  • Try to write the literature review as a narrative rather than a list of papers or resources that you consider to be useful for the project.
  • Think of the examiner as a friend who doesn’t know very much about the project (and subject) that you’re writing about. Subsequently, you might have to spell things out for them. Don’t worry about doing this, since this will all help to demonstrate your understanding of some important concepts.
  • Consider the reflection section, the bit in the EMA where you have to write about how things have gone, as a gift. It’s a gift because it’s all about you, and there are no wrong answers, and the examiner really wants to hear about you and what you’ve learnt. Also, don’t be afraid to be opinionated! Tell us what went well, what didn’t, why you thought that, and what you might have done again differently.
  • Provide copies of two different Gantt charts; one that was created at the start of the project, and the Gantt chart that was being used as the student got to the end of the project. These two Gantt charts gives a student a neat way to generate some interesting reflections, simply by considering the differences between what the plan was at the start, and what happened during the project.
  • Use the appendices as a way to share extra information about what project work you’ve done on the project.
  • Keep to the word count (10k words) but don’t worry too much if you go over by a little. If you’re going over by a lot, consider putting some bits into a series of appendices, but always make sure that you reference these in the body of your report.
  • Finally, find someone to proof read your report. It’s okay to do this, since you’re the one who is doing the writing, not whoever is doing the proof reading. Typing mistakes can and do happen. A friendly proof reader will be able to pick up on some of them.

EMA marking

EMA marking is hard work, and we don’t have too much time to do it in. When I start marking, whenever I open an EMA report, I turn tracking on, and highlight sections that I’ve read that really stand out to me as being good, important or significant. When I’ve read everything, I might go back and re-read sections before going to the learning outcomes that are presented in a grading spreadsheet. I then make notes, which are later copied and pasted into the OU’s grading tool.

My own approach is to do some marking first thing in a weekday morning (when I’m fresh), hopefully working through a couple of reports, with a view to doing more over the weekend.

If there is a moderation exercise, the highlighting annotations I’ve added really help me to remember what a project was all about, and why I assigned certain marks against a particular learning outcome.

Closing thoughts

TM470 has a slightly different tenor to the other modules I’ve tutored. Although there is a lot of learning to be done during the project, it is more about doing and writing (and then learning from that doing and writing).

Students sometimes ask whether they can see an example of a project, but this is something that the module team doesn’t provide. I can understand why students would like to see a sample (to understand more about what the module team expects), but I can also why the module team doesn’t provide one (they worry that the tutors would then receive a hundred or so projects that look remarkably like the sample projects).

One of the challenges (in my opinion) of being a TM470 tutor is to help students understand what the module team expects, but from the perspective of their own projects and their previous studies.

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Horizons in STEM education conference 2019

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 Sep 2019, 11:49

I’ve been to a couple of the HEA Horizons in STEM conferences. The last one that I went to was in Newcastle, which I found it to be an interesting event; it enabled lecturers and students to talk to one another about their experiences of teaching and learning. 

The event in 2019 was held at Kingston University, London between 3 and 5 July. I was looking forward to this event; I worked at Kingston for 6 months just over ten years ago on a contract to help develop some educational technology systems.

What follows is a rough blog sketch of points that I took away from the event. I’ve edited these notes together from the notes that I made in my analogue laptop (my work note book, and pen). Just as with many of these blogs, I’m sharing the post on the off chance that it might be randomly useful for someone (and so my line manager, and anyone else who knows me, can see what I’m doing with my time).

Just to put everything in one place, the hashtag for the conference is #UKSTEMconf19, where you can see pictures and opinions from delegates.

Opening and keynote

The conference was opened by Trish Reid and the opening keynote was by Nona McDuff, director of student achievement who spoke about: Closing the BME attainment gap through an institutional approach. 

Nona asked as an important question: why are the outcomes of some student groups so different? A part of her talk looked at the student journey. There are a number of arguments: BME students start university with different tariff points (points gained from various entry qualifications, such as A levels). There is evidence that suggests that the higher the entrance tariff points, the higher the degree classification. Looking at what is expected at what is expected and what is attained, it appears there’s a clear gap between BME students and white students.

Since there are many factors involved, an institutional wide approach was developed. I noted down the words that “equity considerations [are] being embedded within all functions of the institution and treated as an ongoing process of quality enhancement”. A part of this embedding has been raise awareness of diversity issues amongst course teams. Importantly, closing the attainment gap was considered as a university level key performance indicator at board level.

A publication that was referenced was “Inclusive curriculum framework” by McDuff and Hughes (2010), and I also noted down the words: “pedagogy, curricula and assessment that is meaningful and accurate”. This includes the importance of considering the broad concept of the teaching, its content, delivery methods, assessment, how to approach feedforward and feedback. 

There’s an obvious point in all this: considering diversity means using good practices for all students, since whatever is done or created appeals to a wider audience

A final note I made during Nona’s presentation was to another reference, a paper entitled: “Closing the attainment gap for students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds through institutional change” (Kingston University research repository), McDuff et al. (2018), published in Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning  (Open University).

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 1

The first session I attended was by Rebecca Barnes from the University of Sheffield, who spoke about developing a “Sense of belonging in science undergraduates”. Her talk was based on a model that had been developed from research carried out for an MA in education dissertation. 

Sense of belonging can be linked to self-efficacy, goals, relationships with others. 150 students were surveyed, focus groups were run, and there was something called a ‘free working activity’. Rebecca looked at BAME students, interactions with staff and other students, and asked the question: “what do students’ value during their induction?” I noted down points about opportunities to meet with staff informally and opportunities to gain more detail about what academic work they will be doing.

Next was a presentation entitled: “Exploring differential attainment by assessment type in mathematics, chemistry and life sciences” by James Denholm-Price from Kingston. James presented a quantitative study that asked an important question: do students do differently when they take exams in comparison to other assessment approaches. I noted down the phrase “we didn’t find much”, but the following sentences in James’ abstract is interesting: “The sample data show statistically-significant differences in the attainment of certain groups of students in some assessment modalities, but not all”.

My colleague, Anne-Marie Gallen presented the next talk: “How to develop and embed a discipline-specific accessibility expertise in your teaching”. Disciplines are different, sometimes those subjects introduce barriers, i.e. mathematics has some very specific barriers for students with visual impairments. Anne-Marie was included with a mathematics and statistics accessibility working group which comprised of different members: academics, support staff, disabled student services. Anne-Marie also mentioned module accessibility guides and production of resources, policies, goals and even a video.

The final talk of this first session was also by another OU colleague. Chris Hutton and Julie Robson spoke about “breaking barriers, building community: improving student engagement with preparation for studying online science by distance learning”. They addressed a familiar topic: how to use forums to engage students to help them to prepare for first year modules. Chris and Julie introduced something called a S112 preparation site (S112 being an in interdisciplinary science module called Science: concepts and practice). A key idea was to encourage students to participate in a social activity before the start of the module. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 2

The first presentation during this session turned out to be a workshop entitled: “Exploring ‘belonging’ at university from the student perspective: what it is and how can we facilitate it?” facilitated by Daniela Dimitrova and colleagues from Kingston. We were presented with some questions: is a sense of belonging important? Also, is a sense of belonging important to all students? This led to a discussion that it can be thought of in terms of social group, module, societies, institution, discipline or subject, and that notion of personal identity could change over time.

The next presentation had a title that presented a question that was central to an ongoing study: personal tutoring – is there one size that fits all? These questions were explored by Baljit Thatti and Nicholas Freestone, both from Kingston University who had designed a questionnaire study.

The Open University presenters in this session were Diane Butler and Cath Brown who spoke about “students as partners in scholarship in STEM open and distance learning”. Diane is an associate dean, and Cath is the president of the OU student’s association (the equivalent of the students' union). The benefits of including students are cited as being: engagement, commitment, ownership, opportunities for collaboration with staff, and contributing to an opportunity to make things better for future students. The benefits for the university includes: increased understanding of the student experience and access to authentic feedback, and the possibility of increased levels of student satisfaction and retention. There are, of course, some challenges; it’s hard to work with students at a distance.

Technology Enhanced Learning/Computer Science

Neil Gordon, from the University of Hull, began with a presentation about “Flexible approaches to teaching programming”. I seem keep bumping into Neil quite regularly; the last time I saw him was at a Computer Science education conference at the start of the year, and another time was at one of these HEA events. 

Neil made some interesting and important points: CS student numbers are increasing, but there is a poor pass rate in GCSE Computing. In Neil’s words, this represents a ‘leaky pipeline’. There are other concerns too, which are concerned with the relatively low employability rates of computer science graduates. One way to approach this is to look at the teaching of the subject. Neil introduced a CS teacher training case study that used something called Crumble https://redfernelectronics.co.uk/crumble/  (Redfern Electronics website), a programmable controller that could be used to simple robots and buggies.

A session wouldn’t be complete without an OU delegate. This session had two. The first presenter was Anton Dil, from the School of Computing who spoke about “Layered online feedback on code quality”. Anton is the module chair for M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming (OU website). Anton wants to improve the feedback that is given to students, since he mentioned that there is something that is particularly difficult about programming. Regular practice is considered to be important. How could we support tutors to test code that has been written by students? Two automated tools have been created which assesses different dimensions of code (or software) quality: whether code can compile, whether it meets the task requirement, whether it is efficient, and is presented in a way that can be read by fellow programmers (has good style). 

The second OU presenter was myself, where I spoke about “teaching interaction design teamwork at a distance”, where I drew on my experience of co-facilitating an event that is known as a Design Hackathon for TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience. If you’re interested, there’s a blog tag called Hackathon that might (or might not) be of interest. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 3

This third session took place at the start of the second day of the conference. First to present was Cristina De Mattels from the University of Nottingham, who gave a presentation entitled: “Come on into our research labs: promoting interactions of early-year undergraduates wit researchers to gain insights into the research community of practice”. Underpinning this was the idea of attempting to help undergrads to get more of an insight into what scientists actually do. One way to do this is to try to facilitate some interaction between undergrad students and researchers. I noted down that there was a programme of extra-curricular activities such as an invitation into the research labs, the making of films, and an activity called ‘sharing my bench space’.

Next was a presentation entitled: “how does a vocational qualification (BTEC) prepare students for a degree in biomedical sciences?” by Liz Hurrell and colleagues from the University of Central Lancashire. They reported that there were an increasing number of students taking BTEC courses. The consequences of this could mean a higher drop-out rate and a lower degree classifications (particularly at research intensive universities) for some students. We were told that widening participation students are more likely to take BTEC than A levels but the more applied nature of the courses can have benefits. During degree programs the point was made that some BTEC students may struggle with exams and revision in comparison to A level students, and some may have a sense of accompanying stigma if students have to attend additional classes for maths and chemistry.

I found Liz’s presentation especially interesting, since I used to be a BTEC student. I really enjoyed the course that I studied, and I felt that it equipped me well for the practical computer lab sessions that I had on my undergraduate degree. Although there was an excellent maths teacher during my BTEC, I struggled as an undergraduate. In some respects, the remedial maths classes that I attended felt as if they were an afterthought. There wasn’t much teaching. Instead, we sat in a room and worked through yellow worksheets (which I think I have kept hold of).

The next session was a workshop: what does an inclusive timetable look like in STEM? It was facilitated by Nigel Page and colleagues from Kingston. To be honest, when I saw the title of this session, I was looking for the door for the simple reason that I really don’t like planning my module timetables (and many of them are online). After five minutes into the introduction, I realised that there was no immediate escape without embarrassment for everyone. 

The facilitators looked at a number of different factors, such as commuting patterns and differences in demographics between students studying different subjects. An interesting point was that BME students have to travel further to Kingston than other groups. One of the reasons for this might be the demographics of Kingston and the surrounding areas.

It was also interesting to note that they university had a policy where student’s couldn’t arrive in class after it had started. If classes start early in the morning, and last an hour, all these individual factors have a potential to create barriers for learning. The point was made that there’s a link between timetables, pedagogy and course design. Sometimes barriers might not be obvious. Unexpectedly, this session became one of the highlights of the conference. 

Professional practice session

The penultimate presentation was by Sonia Kumari and colleagues, who spoke about ‘Pedagogy through civic engagement: three case studies from geography’. Their case studies were about the intersections between academic study, practical experience and community involvement. Students went out into the community and carried out an investigative journalism project.

The final presentation had a very long title: how could teaching observation schemes adapt to meet students’ demands of what high quality teaching is expected to be in the STEM subjects? Penny Burden and Nigel Page’s presentation was about the context of the national students’ survey and the teaching excellent framework. We were given two activities: to define high quality learning, and what it might look like, and what does a good teaching observation scheme look like?

I made a note of top 3 points that you might want to look for: checking of learning, tutors and lecturers doing different things (running activities), and delivering materials that meet the needs and culture of student groups. A further point that I noted down was: look at the whole picture, beyond the four walls of the classroom; students may appreciate guest speakers who bring the outside to the classroom. 

Closing keynote

The closing keynote was by Samantha Pugh who spoke of Re-imagining Assessment in Higher Education. Samantha spoke a 12 month project about connecting assessments between programme learning outcomes (PLOs). I was curious about this concept, since I’m more used to the world of module learning outcomes. There was a link to graduate attributes and skills, such as critical thinking skills, able to work critically with knowledge, and effective communication.

We were presented with an example from Chemical Engineering. A phrase that I noted down was: “we need to demonstrate that learning outcomes have been meet at each levels, along with programme level outcomes, but how do we do this?’ We were all asked a question: “what assessments could be used to allow students to demonstrate achievement of programme learning outcomes for your subject?”

We were directed to something called a ‘research-teaching nexus’ by Healey and a report that had been written by Samantha and published by the Leeds Institute called Teaching Excellence: A compendium of assessment techniques in higher education: from students’ perspectives (PDF).

I made a note of some conclusions: assessment is an integral part of programme design; clear programme learning outcomes help with aligning assessment to study, formative assessment should inform teaching and help student success in summative learning, and students need opportunities to revisit learning.

Reflections

Nearly two months passed between attending this conference and writing these reflections. Since the event, my work has become muddied with interviewing, quite a bit of study, and taking on a new role in the university. 

I remember that a few things struck me: the extent to which diversity was featured and discussed throughout this whole conference, the number of university colleagues that I met there, and the clear opportunity of sharing (and discussing) practice with colleagues – which is, of course, one of the great benefits and advantages of this type of event.

Also remember being impressed by Kingston and the work that they’re doing. There was a time when Kingston used to be my ‘local’ university. Rather than choosing to study there (which I could have easily have done), I went to another university in another city. 

Unexpectedly, the session that I found most interesting was also a session about a subject that I find the most boring: timetabling. I took away the point that, when it comes to education and equality, geography really does matter and that it is really important to make the effort to get to know who your students are. You can’t fully understand diversity without taking some important steps towards understanding.

Addendum

When I was sorting out my papers a couple of weeks after writing this blog, I noticed a handout that I had forgotten about. It had the title "Taxonomy of 'high quality' teaching: the students' perspective". I'm not quite sure where I got the handout from, but I think might have been Burden and Page's session. Rather than recycling the handout and risk forgetting about it, I thought it would be both worthwhile and useful to summarise it here.

The taxonomy was split into three sections: attitude, methods and scaffolding. The elements of each are summarised below:

  • Attitude: respect; ability of relate to the student experience; high responsiveness; building a rapport; enthusiasm; engagement.
  • Methods: engage students from the beginning of lectures; design of reinforcement activities; connection of past, current and future knowledge; detailed explanations during lectures; PowerPoint slides as a guide, not script; workshops to support lectures.
  • Scaffolding: updated technologies; mandatory recording of lectures (voice); exams after every semester which counts for 25%; breakdown of workload for both parties; involvement of outside resources to supplement learning.

From my own perspective, the entries under attitude and methods are really familiar (and are important to remember).

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Reflections on studying EE812: Educational leadership

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 1 Jun 2019, 17:43

Some years back I went to Birkbeck College to study for a postgraduate certificate in higher education (PGCE in HE) for the simple reason that the OU didn’t have one of its own. Rather than having a PGCE in HE, the OU has a programme (called Aspire) which enables tutors to make submissions to become fellows of the Higher Education Academy (which was something that I had already achieved through an earlier pilot version of the programme). 

I enjoyed the Birkbeck PGCE in HE. I especially enjoyed the classroom teaching where the lecturers presented some really useful background information about the HE sector that I was missing (despite having been working in HE for quite some time). I also liked the fact that it introduced really useful bits of education theory that allowed me to make sense of the design of some of the modules and courses that I had been working on. To put it simply: I found it useful.

After finishing, I asked myself a simple question: what next? Or, what else could I study? 

I did a few internet searches and found some part time master’s programmes at nearby universities. The programmes I were looking at were about higher education and education management. 

There were a few reasons why I started to look into this area: I’ve found myself in a position where I’ve been doing more and more management ‘stuff’, and I felt as if I ought to get more of a thorough grasp of what I supposed to be doing. Plus, I was inspired by one of the tutors I have been working with who appeared to have formally studied both further education and higher education as a subject. Another argument was: more education is good, right? The stuff that I learn might be useful in my job.

One institution where I didn’t immediately look was the institution in which I work. After some investigation I realised it was possible to take the credits I had gained from Birkbeck and transfer them into an MA programme (I didn’t realise I could do this!) I then realised that I could study a 60 point postgrad module that had the code and title: EE812 Educational Leadership: exploring strategy, and then finish with a postgrad dissertation module.

What follows is a quick blog summary of how things are going. I’m currently mid-way through EE812 module.  There have been some ups and downs, and I don’t (yet) know how everything will end (since I’ve yet to complete the final tutor marked assessment and the end of module assessment). 

I’m sharing all this since it might be useful for someone (and also it will enable me to straighten out some of my thoughts about what I’ve learnt). 

Preparing to study

After realising that all the study materials were only available online (and we were not going to be sent any books) I decided to order a print on demand copy of all the module materials. I also realised that there was a ‘reader’ textbook that was connected to the module. Although all the papers and readings from that book were available through the module website, I decided to order a copy of the textbook, Education Leadership: context, strategy and collaboration, from a second hand bookshop so I could have my own copy (and underline stuff easily).

After getting these two things sorted, I realised that there was something else that I could do that might be useful. 

Preparing my Kindle

About ten years ago I was given a first generation Amazon Kindle by a family member who wasn’t using it. Over the years that I’ve had it, I’ve only used it a handful of times. I remember that I once used it to download some OU module materials, but after doing this as an experiment, my Kindle sat, unused and unloved on a shelf whilst I got on with other things.

After a bit of internet searching, I realised I could download all the unit materials from the module website to my PC and then transfer them to my Kindle by sending them to an email address that was linked to the Kindle. I found out what this was by logging into my Amazon account, and clicking around until I found a section called ‘manage your content and devices’, clicked on the devices link, and then clicked on ‘Kindle’ to find the email address (which ends with ‘kindle.com’).

You can download the module materials by clicking on the resources tab on the module website, and choosing ‘downloads’. This presents different types of documents that can be downloaded, such as PDF versions, ePUBs, Kindle versions and Word documents. To download all the Kindle versions, I clicked on the Kindle ebook link, clicked on ‘select all’ to choose everything, and then clicked on ‘download selected files as zip’. 

After I had downloaded everything, the next stage was to send everything to my Kindle email address. This isn’t, however, as easy it sounds, since there is a maximum limit of the number of Kindle files that could be sent in one go. To work around this, I emailed the Kindle files in batches of 10. If you Kindle is connected to WiFi, you don’t have to do anything further; in under a minute (with my internet connection), the Kindle received and installs all the Kindle files.

The final step was to sort all the module materials that have been transferred to the Kindle into some sort of order. I like to sort everything out into ‘collections’ (which is a bit like a folder). I create a new collection called EE812. I then move each bit of module materials into this new collection. After I’ve finished doing this, I turn the Kindle WiFi off (to save power), and I’m ready to get reading.

Sorting out my study files (and stationary)

When I started, I had one lever arch file for everything: the print-on-demand module materials, and all my accompanying notes. 

After about a month of studying, I realised that this wasn’t working; I needed a second lever-arch file that could be used to hold the printouts of readings that were referenced from the module materials and downloaded from the university library. I figured out that it was useful to write the activity number for every reading on top of every paper, so I roughly know what it was. 

Figuring out a study approach

When I first became an OU student, one of my tutors set an exercise that really got me thinking: take a blank piece of A4 paper, divide it up into days of the week on one axis, and hours of the day on the other. Cross out the hours on the day that you were busy, such as doing work, travelling to work, having dinner, and socialising. The hours that you have left could (potentially) be hours where you could fit your university study in. I remember realising that there was not enough time to fit everything in, and I had to stop doing something.

I managed to be pretty organised during my first time around, but this time I’m finding it difficult to find the time to read everything that I need to, and to think about how the readings relate to the things that I do in my day job (which is a bit part of the module). I tend to ‘snatch’ periods of study, but manage to find chunks of time on the run up to the TMAs. I’ve also developed a habit of carrying the reader textbook to most places, along with the Kindle so I can read on the train as I travel to and from meetings (if I’m not too tired, of course). 

Study reflections

There used to be (and, arguably, there still is) a part of me that can easily became somewhat grumpy if the term ‘strategy’ is mentioned in a meeting. 

I think my grumpiness stems from a perception that this is one of many ‘business terms’ (or terms that sound ‘business like’) that can be used to bamboozle or obfuscate. It can also be considered to be meaningless if used in the wrong context. I may also be grumpy since it presents hints of future change, and no one likes change. 

In some respects, I feel this grumpiness is in itself changing. I think it’s changing into a curiosity that is more rigorous than is used to be before. Whenever that word is dropped into a meeting, I now ask myself (and others) the question of: ‘what do you mean?’, and also ‘why is it important?’ 

In some ways, I’m not really the perfect student for EE812, but I don’t think that matters. The perfect student might be someone who is a deputy head or a subject leader at a primary or secondary school, or a senior manager at a further education college, or some other institution. This said, the discussions and readings that are presented, do still feel broadly appropriate for higher education.

One of the things that has been really interesting is that the module has sharpened my awareness of the different management and leadership actions that are happening around me. A part of this comes from the assessment approach that the module adopts. The assessments requires you use and apply your context to demonstrate your understanding of the module materials.

The module presents different perspectives about what management and leadership is all about, and I’ve recognised some of the approaches that some of the different leaders (both current and previous) have applied.

One really interesting consequence of the study is the reason for different institutional units or initiatives are now becoming clearer to me. The module talks about professional learning communities, and I can see that these do exist (in different forms) within the institution.

Like so much of learning, study can give you a vocabulary and a framework to both explain and understanding things. If it has sharpened my thinking, it has also sharpened my ability to see the good and the not so good.

There’s also another consequence: there is a lot of change happening in the university at the moment, and some of it can seem a little overwhelming on occasions. Unexpectedly (to some degree), I’m also a part of that change too. I’m using the study as an opportunity to figure out what some of that change might mean. In doing so, I guess I may become more prepared, and more able to speak about it too.

Unpicking the challenges

Other than studying for my PGCE at Birkbeck College I haven’t done any formal study of Education before. Education isn’t my ‘home’ discipline (Computing and IT is), which means that I’ve been a bit outside of my comfort zone.

One of the hardest things has been understanding the requirements of the assessments (and I don’t think I’m quite there yet in doing the kind of writing that is expected of me), and doing all the reading.

There is a lot of reading: there’s the module materials, the set text, and all these papers, and we’re encourage to go find even more. Some of it can be pretty hard going, especially since I feel that (on occasion) I’m not especially well versed in the conventions of the discipline. There are two examples of this: the first is about what ‘theory’ is, and the second is about terminology and the use of language.

The term ‘theory’ seems to be used quite a lot. I came to the module with a scientific understanding of what is meant by theory, but I soon came to realise that ‘theory’ in this module roughly means: ‘an idea about something, or a way of looking at something’ which has been suggested by an academic or researcher. What we have to do as students is connect our own educational setting to the different theories that are presented through the module. There lies two significant challenges: doing the thinking (to make the connection), and doing the writing (to present the connection to your tutor).

One of the terms that appears very frequently is ‘normative’; anything and everything could be normative; it’s a word that seems to find its way into every unit of the module. Initially, I had no idea no real idea about what the various writers were trying to say!

A further challenge, and a fun challenge, is that we had to design and run a short pilot research project to study educational leadership and management. This bit of the module appears to begin to lead us towards the dissertation, and closer into the world of the different ‘theorists’ that are written about. In some respects, this bit of the module is all about providing us students with a bit of academic training about how to do research into this very specific field of study.

Closing thoughts

A few months ago I bumped into one of the module academics at an internal conference. I was asked whether I was enjoying the module. At the time, I had ‘module anxiety’, which meant that I was fretting about the second TMA, and this makes me fear that I might have come across as a little grumpy on that occasion.

As I move towards the third TMA, I read a paper in the reader text book which made me think: ‘actually, I quite liked that one… and there’s a lot in there that I recognise.’ Although I’ve got a long way to go before getting to the end of the module (and I’ve yet to settle into a regular study rhythm, despite having passed the half way point) I finally feel as if I’m settling into the module.

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London AL development conference: April 2019

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On Saturday 27 April, I went to the London Associate Lecturer development conference which took place at the London School of Economics. What follows is a short blog summary of the event, where I highlight some of what I thought were the key take away points.

This conference was a busy event; there were six parallel sessions. Some of the sessions covered important themes, such as the new tutor contract, supporting students with English as a second language, using the OU library, and supporting students in secure environments (such as in prisons, or in care institutions) and more.

Keynote: polar science and engagement

The opening keynote was from Professor Mark Brandon, @icey_mark a polar oceanographer, who is responsible for co‐ordinating and leading free learning and broadcast across the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Faculty, as well as being an associate dean for Enterprise and External and Engagement. 

Before taking on these roles, he carried out almost three years of field work as a as a researcher in Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey, and as part of the US Antarctic Program. Mark has also been a Principle Academic Advisor for the BBC Frozen Planet series and was a member of the Blue Planet II academic team, and is working on Frozen Planet II.

Mark’s presentation was rich with media clips, reflecting his position in the university, and the university’s 50th anniversary. On this point, he commented on a recent BBC 4 documentary that celebrated the university’s 50th birthday.

Mark played YouTube clips from S102, an introduction to science module, giving us examples of some of the very first OU productions where students were sent large home experiment kits. He took us on a journey from the past, to the present, sharing clips of OU/BBC co-productions such as Frozen Planet  (YouTube), Blue Planet II (YouTube). A notable comment was about the reach of the university. Following a TV series, 550,000 posters were sent across the country.

We were also given examples of how digital media and IT can be used to make learning accessible, explicitly drawing on S111 Questions in Science (Open University) where students could using Google Earth to look for evidence of Penguins from space. If I’ve noted this down properly, this has led to situations where students can now use real time satellite data.

Looking towards the future, we were told about some of the programmes that had connections to other faculties, or were currently under development, reflecting the breadth of the disciplines that are studied by OU students.

Throughout Mark’s talk, there were nods towards the importance of the associate lecturer (in fact, I think Mark also said that he used to be one!). There were two quotes that I noted down. These were: “associate lecturers are fundamentally important”, and “you are the difference”.

Enabling student employability and career progression

The second introductory presentation was by Marie Da Silva, from the university careers service. Marie’s talk connected to a number of university abbreviations. Two I noted down were, CES: Careers and employability services, and EECP: Enhanced employability and career progression.

An important point was that most students are motivated by career aims, which means that employability skills is something that the university takes seriously and addresses in a number of different ways.

In terms of curriculum, the university has a new employability framework which is being embedded within the curriculum with help from some associate lecturers who are mapping curriculum (qualifications) against the frameworks.

The university also has some student-employer connectivity projects, something called OU online talent connect, and even runs something called virtual career fairs. We were told about the university careers hub www.open.ac.uk/careers which can offer different types of services, such as one to one careers interview, something called a CV builder, and 100s of webinars, guides and workbooks. 

It’s important to remember that over 300k students and alumni can access the university careers service. It was interesting to hear that 25% of referrals were from ALs.

During Marie’s presentation, I remembered the recent OU careers conference (blog summary) that I went to a few weeks earlier. Another dimension was that research and scholarship was also another activity that was carried out in the university.

Session 1: Educating everyone: overcoming barriers to success

The first session that I attended (as a conference delegate) was by Rehana Awan who tutors on access modules, and Jay Rixon from LTI academic (which, I think, is an abbreviation from Learning and teaching innovation).

Rehana and Jay got us all playing a board game; a version of snakes and ladders. The snakes were learning barriers (a student might be struggling to understand the academic standards, dealing with exam nerves), and the ladders were learning enablers (such as speaking to a SST, or getting an additional support session from a tutor).

During this session, we were directed to different resources, such as a site called Can I do it? There was also an OpenLearn resource called Am I ready to be a distance learner? (OpenLearn).

Rehana is an ‘access’ tutor. Access courses help students to become familiar with what it means to become a learner again, and it represents a way to return back to study.

There are three different access courses, reflecting three different broad areas of study:

  • Arts and languages
  • People, work and society (law, business, psychology and childhood)
  • Science, technology and maths 

Each access course lasts for 30 weeks and requires students to study up to 9 hours per weeks. All students are provided with 1 to 1 telephone tutorials with a tutor. Fee waivers can be used with access modules, which means that two thirds of students will be eligible to study for free. 

One of the things that I learnt from this session was that the language of assessment has recently changed to make it simpler and easier to understand, since the language of assessment can exclude non-traditional learners. I also learnt that students were sent a leaflet about IT: how can I get online?

The final part of the session had a slightly different feel to it. We were introduced to the idea of using of maps to explain and visualise ideas, and the use of storytelling to aid communication. There was a link to an organisation called Sea Salt Learning

Rehana and Jay gave us a challenge: draw a map of potential barriers to study. I draw a map of potential barriers and challenges that TM470 students could face. The idea was that map drawing and sketching might be an activity that could be used with our own students.

Session 2: Inclusive Practice

The second presentation of the day was facilitated by Jo Mapplebeck, one of the university’s SPLD advisor. (SPLD being an abbreviation for: specific learning difficulty, and this addresses things like dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and ADHD).  Jo’s session had the full title of: ‘making the most of your student’s disability profiles to better support your students’ but it was pretty informal, and represented a useful opportunity to share experiences with each other.

During the session, we discussed how we best support students who may have disclosed that they are on the autism spectrum. I remembered a phrase from a disabled student services conference that I attended some years ago, which went:  ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, which means you’ve met one person with autism’. This ultimately means that different students need different adjustments. This led to a discussion about the information that was presented on student profiles, and how that information could be a useful way to begin discussions.

A useful tip from one tutor was: ‘if I can’t get them on the phone, I text them’. Another important point was: if you encounter a challenging student call your line manager (staff tutor), do what you can to protect your boundaries, encourage the student to speak with a student support advisor.

An important message from Jo’s session was about the role that inclusive practice can play in the student experience. If the university (and tutors) mainstream the things that make the difference for all students, all students can potentially benefit from those adjustments. A simple example of this is that a video transcript might be useful for a student with a hearing impairment, but it could also be used as a searchable textual resources that can be used to introduce important module concepts.

Different colleagues within the university make different adjustments, i.e. module teams, the disability support team can guide students to different resources, and associate lecturers can work with each other (and university colleagues) to present resources (particularly tutorial resources) in different formats.

After the session, I picked up a couple of useful handouts that Jo had provided. One had the title: top tips for supporting students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs). Some of the top tips were: read the disability profile, use the student’s preferred mode of communication, make early proactive contact, read a document called ‘dyslexia marking guidelines’, check if students understand the TMA questions, use simple language, avoid asking the student questions in tutorials, allow students to record tutorials if they need to, and be empathetic. 

Session 3: The new basics of TutorHome

One of the final sessions of the day was facilitated by yours truly. The session, which was all about the TutorHome website, was advertised in the conference brochure in a really confusing way: it had the above title, but had an abstract that related to the subject of ‘critical incidents’. Thankfully, everyone who came to the session wanted to know about the TutorHome website (which was what I had planned for!)

The session was designed to be as interactive as possible: I was the driver of the computer that was used to make a presentation, and I asked all the participants to tell me where to go and where to click. During the session, I remember that we looked at following parts of the TutorHome website, amongst others:

  • How to customise the front screen by adding useful links
  • How to customise the tutor dashboard, by adding boxes and links
  • How to find different module websites
  • How to look at a summary of some of the communications between a student and the student support team
  • How to find a tool that lets tutors look at different stats that relate to different modules
  • How to look at the Associate Lecturer Activity review, and what the different parts were
  • How to find the study skills resource links to useful PDF booklets that we could pass onto students.

The session was an hour and a quarter long, but it felt as if we only had just got going and had started to scratch the surface of the TutorHome site. An interesting thing about this kind of session is that I usually learn quite a lot too.

Reflections

One of the real pleasures of this event was that the AL development team trusted me sufficiently to welcome everyone and introduce our keynote speaker, and our careers speaker, both of whom did a great job. If was going to change anything (to the bit that I did), I would have made a bit of space for a really short Q&A session, but since everything ran exactly (and perfectly!) to the schedule, there wasn’t the time for this.

In some respects, it’s hard to choose a highlight from this conference, since there were so many great parts to the day: there was Mark’s presentation which emphasised the role of broadcasting and the reach of the university, there was Rehana’s and Jay’s presentation about the importance of access courses and that they got us thinking about tutorial activities. Jo’s session about inclusive practice gave us a space to share experiences, and the TutorHome session was fun (since everyone used the TutorHome site in slightly different ways).

Putting the sessions to one side, one of the most important aspects of these conference is, simply, the opportunity to chat to each other. In doing so, there’s opportunities to share experiences, learn from each other, and find support. When everyone is working at a distance, these types of events are (in my view) really important.

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Milton Keynes AL development conference: April 2019

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 29 Apr 2019, 11:53

I usually go to the AL development conferences that take place in London and the South East of England. I’ve never been to on that has been held in Milton Keynes before, since they have always been held at locations that have been roughly connected to the former regions. It makes complete sense to have one at the university campus since it gives tutors the opportunity to visit the place where everything happens and it is reasonably easy to get to.

What follows is a quick summary of an AL development conference that took place on Thursday 4 April 2019. The conference had a series of opening presentations, followed by three parallel session. 

Unlike some of the other conferences, this conference had a particular focus that related to the university’s Mental Health Charter. Particular themes of the day included: promoting good mental health in the OU, the role of the student voice, student mental health, and mental health strategy and policy.

Opening session: careers services

I arrived just in time to attend the end of the opening session, which was presented by Claire Blanchard from the Enhanced Employability and Career Progression (EECP) group which has teams in Manchester, Nottingham and Milton Keynes. 

Students can also access something called the Career and Employability Services (CES). Claire commented that students might study for different reasons: a career starter, a career developer, or a career changer. Increasingly students study for career change and development. The EECP group has something called an employer engagement team, carry out research and scholarship regarding careers, and offer guidance about embedding employability into the curriculum. 

Echoing a recent employability conference I attended, I noted that “all employees of the university has a responsibility to help with student employability and career progression”. To offer practical help and guidance for students, the university also runs an online careers fair, where specialists offer guidance through webcasts and webchats.

More information is available through the university’s careers pages.

How can we best support our students with their mental health needs?

The first workshop I attended was by Deborah Peat, Head of Strategy and Quality Development. I understand that Deborah was responsible for mental health strategy and poliy.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as: “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. A point was made that we all have mental health.

In the university, 24k students have declared a disability. Out of that figure 10k have declared a mental health difficulty. An interesting statistic is that 1 in 4 of people are affected by a mental health difficulty in a year.

Importantly, mental health is also considered as a priority for the UK Government Office for Students, which has led to the creation of the University Mental Health Charter (studentminds.org.uk) A point that was noted that the proposal are more suited to face to face university than distance learning institutions like the OU.

So, what kinds of resources can students gain access to? 

There is a service called Nightline which is available through the student’s association (OUSA), which is supported by trained volunteers. There is also a pilot service called the BigWhiteWall which is a service used by 30 other HE institutions. BigWhiteWall is defined as “a safe online community of people, for anyone who is anxious, down or not coping, who support and help each other by sharing, guided by trained professionals”.

BigWhiteWall has four areas: talk chat, bricks, guided support and ‘useful stuff’. The talk chat section is a bit like forums. The guided support section offers short courses for things like coping with anxiety or stress. It isn’t, however, a service for students who are in immediate distress.

Towards the end of the session we were shown two different scenarios, and asked to discuss how, as tutors, we would respond to each of them. Actions included taking time to talk to students who were expressing concerns, but also taking time to tell our line managers about any significant issue that may have arisen. An important point is that tutors can also draw on the university employee assistance programme. 

As an aside, students (and associate lecturers) can also access the university booklet Studying and staying mentally healthy  (PDF). It’s quite a short booklet, but it’s certainly worth a read. 

Critical incidents: work and well-being, sharing best practice

I’ve run this session on critical incidents a number of times before, and every time it has been slightly different. 

A critical incident is described as a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice. The session began with a number of definitions from a number of different authors:

“The critical incident technique consists of a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behaviour in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems and developing broad psychological principles.” Flanagan, cited by Spencer-Oatey, H. (2013) Critical incidents. A compilation of quotations for the intercultural field. GlobalPAD Core Concepts.

“For an incident to be defined as critical, the requirement is that it can be described in detail and that it deviates significantly, either positively or negatively, from what is normal or expected”. Edvardsson, cited by Spencer-Oatey, 2013.

“A critical incident is an interpretation of a significant episode in a particular context rather than a routine occurrence.” Bruster, B. G. & Peterson, B. R. (2012) Using critical incidents in teaching to promote reflective practice, Reflective Practice, 14:2, 170-182.

I began by asking everyone who came along to the session to think about their own tutoring practice to identify a critical incident. When they had done this, I asked them to discuss them all within a group, and then choose one to share with the whole of the workshop session.

I really enjoyed the discussions that emerged. We shared experiences and strategies that we used to respond to some of the difficult situations that we had been collectively faced with. 

Reimagining our teacher identifies in the virtual learning environment

The final session I attended was facilitated by Sara Clayson, Staff Tutor from the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport. 

Sara asked us all a question: “what does it feel like to move from face to face to online teaching?”

The answer was: it can be emotional since we’re moving from interacting with other humans to interacting via computers. We were asked further questions: why did you choose to become an associate lecturer? Did the perceptions (of the university, or of teaching) influence your decision to become an AL? What was it like when you started teaching?  

Reflection is, of course, an integral part of teaching. This means that there’s a question of how we reconstruct our identity when more of our teaching. In some respects, the university is providing tutors with training about how to teach online without explicitly acknowledging how this affects our identity as teachers.

We were given a short activity to complete. We were asked: how would you explain your teaching approach to a student?

Here’s what I wrote: “My role is to guide. Everything you need has been provided in the module materials, or on the university websites. You do your own learning, and what I do is facilitate your access to that learning. So, ask questions, send me updates, and treat me as a sounding board. I want to hear from you about what you’ve been studying, what you’ve found interesting, and what you’ve found challenging. Use assignments to show me what you have learnt, and if there are any gaps, I’ll do my best to tell you what they are”.

We were asked to think about how to answer further questions: what kind of tutor do you want to be in the VLE (virtual learning environment)? Also, how can you be the tutor you want to be in the VLE? And finally: what barriers do you need to overcome and what possibilities are there?

Sara left is with some resources, highlighting research by Anna Comas-Quinn, specifically a paper that has the title: Learning to teach online or learning to become an online teacher: an exploration of teachers' experiences in a blended learning course  (Open Research Online) and the website HybridPedagogy.

Reflections

There was a lot happening during this conference. There was a session about inclusive practice and understanding disability profiles, working online with students with hearing impairments, information a repository where tutors can share resources, how to best work with the student support team (SST), and how to provide excellent correspondence tuition. It was a shame that there were only three parallel sessions!

From my perspective, the reminder about mental health resources was really helpful. I also really enjoyed Sara’s session about teacher identity. This isn’t something that I think about very much. I feel that identity and professional practice are linked to other related ideas of respect and autonomy. 

The opportunity to discuss what our teaching identity means, and to be presented with a set of reflective questions that could help us untangle the idea further was really thought provoking.

In the middle of all this was the important question of: how can I get better? This, I feel, is what good professional development is all about.

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OU Employability conference - April 2019

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 26 Apr 2019, 12:43

I don’t think I’ve ever been to an employability conference before. The first I’ve been to took place on 3 April 2019 at the OU campus in Milton Keynes. 

Employability is a theme that crops up pretty regularly in Computing and IT. Employers, I understand, want graduates who know about certain bits of technology, know their way around a sets of subjects, and have a mastery of some important and necessary skills (such as problem solving, writing and team working). 

What follows is a quick blog summary of the event that has been taken from some notes and handouts I gathered from the event. I will add the usual blog disclaimers: these are entirely my own reflections, and I’ve probably missed a lot of really good stuff that was spoken about (especially since I had to leave the conference towards the end to attend another meeting). My apologies to any speaker if I have failed to adequately represent your work and research.

Nations perspective

I managed to miss the welcome address and the first presentation called ‘external perspective on employability’, but managed to catch the ‘nations perspective’ talk by Darren Jones who was from the OU in Wales. I was interested to hear that 48% of students in Wales are from widening participation (WP) backgrounds.

Darren talked about the types of service the OU careers service in Wales offered. Apparently this included the provision of 12 internship placements with employee partners. Darren also referred to something called Go Wales, a student focussed employability skills programme.

Building career focussed online discussions

The next talk was by Leigh Fowkes. The full title of Leigh’s talk was: Building career focussed online discussions forums for OU students in a social media age. Leigh revealed that before joining the university he worked in career service in school. This was very much a research talk, where he was exploring how and why students use forums for careers development.

His talk began with a brief literature review, which featured terms such as: career learning theory, career construction, career identity, and community interaction theory. Some interesting point was that ‘career’ is a contested topic, and there were an ‘ecology of communities’ that related to career and career studies (or advice).

I felt that this talk really addressed what the conference was all about: studying the notion and concept of career, career studies and career advice as a subject that could be studied academically. To give good advice and to understand the needs of students, it’s important to know the domain, and understand the terms, and appreciate what terms might be contested.

Assessing a student conference: S350 evaluating contemporary science

Next up was a presentation by Simon Collinson and Rachel McMullan who talked about developing an embedding employability skills within a science module: S350 Evaluating Contemporary Science (OU website).

S350 uses a tool called OpenStudio which is used in U101 Design Thinking, and a number of other OU computing and engineering modules. OpenStudio is used to share poster presentations (which are sometimes an important part of academic conferences) which have been designed by students. Student activities in the module feed into Personal Develop Plans (PDP) and the identification of SMART goals.

Students are offered a choice of topics from which they can create their poster presentations. As a part of the assessment process, students are required to offer feedback on two posters: one poster that is from their own discipline, and another one that is from a different discipline.

One of the problems that were faced is that sometimes student don’t follow instructions as closely as they should do. One way the module team responded to this is to create a set of frequently asked questions (FAQs).

I really liked this approach; it reminded me of a presentation at a HEA conference that I attended which described a module where students had to make submissions to an institutional student journal which had the look and feel of a proper peer reviewed journal. I also liked that students were asked to offer feedback to each other. 

Emotional and social aspects of career adaptability

This presentation was made by Matt Haigh from the Faculty of Business and Law. The full title of Matt’s presentation was: Career vulnerabilities in light of the UKs decision to leave the European Union. 

Matt’s presentation was very topical, given the never ending political crisis that seems to be taking place at the time of the conference. Matt introduced a term: career adaptability. Career adaptability is the ability of adapt to career change, and handle that change. It is considered to be a subjective experience and a social experience.

Another term was adaptive capabilities: curiosity, confidence, concern and control. Armed with these people can cope with change, which is also a social process. I also noted down that career adaptability was a social skill.

Matt’s presentation was also about his research. He spoke about carrying out interviews with bankers, both insiders and outsiders to the industry, asking them the question: “how has Brexit affected your career plans?” I can’t summarise the whole of Matt’s presentation, but I did also note down the words ‘there is a mixture of hope and frustration’.

Workshop: reframing digital literacies in the language of employers

Just before the lunch break, I attended an interactive workshop, facilitated by Cheryl Coveney, which was about understanding the role of different frameworks. There is something called the employability framework (HEA website), the digital and information literacy (DIL) framework (Open University) that has been created by the OU library, and the JISC learner profile. Interestingly, the old MCT faculty tried to weave DIL skills into their module designs.

We were provided with a big poster that was, essentially, a person spec for a job, and 3 sets of cards from each of these different framework tools. We had to put the cards next to each of the points on the person spec to see how each card related to the role. Soon became clear that each framework described the skills slightly differently; some fitted more easily than others.

It was a fun activity and a fun way to be introduced to these different frameworks. I was surprised to learn about how much similarity between each of them.

Developing employability through open educational resources

The first afternoon session was presented by Terry O’Sullivan’s who spoke about OERs that could offer guidance about business networking. 

A point was made that MOOCs can have a role to play in skills development. Two resources were compared: an effective networking MOOC from FutureLearn versus a short course that was run through Google Digital Garage (which was something I had never heard of before).  The digital garage led to something that was called a certificate in the fundamentals of digital marketing. The FutureLearn course MOOC had the title: Business fundamentals - effective networking. Each OER used different pedagogic approaches.

A personal reflection is that I’ve directed students to different OpenLearn OERs, and I know that there are a lot of other resources that can be used in combination with other aspects of study. (I also need to study some of them too, if only to appreciate more of the contents that they contain).

Supporting DD102 students to articulate skills, behaviour and values

This presentation was by Leman Hassan, from the Faculty of the Arts and Social Science. During this talk I noted down the use of an employability framework. The focus was on research using mixed methods action research which aimed to understand employability skills.

PDP and employability: comfortable bedfellows in postgraduate study?

The final presentation of the conference that I attended was by Gill Clifton and Alison Fox. Both presenters spoke about a couple of modules that make up the MA in Education. PDP planning is assessed during the end of module assessment (EMA) and has a focus on academic learning, professional learning and professional skills. One of the modules, EE812 Educational Leadership - exploring strategy employs ‘peer PDP coaches’ who are former students.

Students are asked to carry out a skills audit, and these are mapped against learning outcomes. Students were also told about a reflection cycle, where they had to identify, plan, act, record and review.

One of the important question that was asked was: how do you encourage students to engage with PDP planning and reflection? Also, a question that module team members who are considering using this approach need to consider how students demonstrate their skills through module activities.

Reflections

There are, of course, different view about the role of education; some view that it should be for the common good, others hold the view that it should be instrumental, in the sense that it should help the individual to get a job. The importance of employability skills as a subject (and within a subject) may well, of course, depend on your view of education.

One of the stand out things from this conference was that there were colleagues who were doing some serious academic research into the subject. All this makes sense, since there is a direct connection to the subject of careers, both in terms of research, and in terms of that there are roles where people provide careers advice.

Two other stand out points was that it was interesting to hear about different employability and skills frameworks, also the range of services that are actually offered by the university. I didn’t realise that the university worked with external organisations to provide internships.

A final comment was that I was surprised at how well attended the conference was. I estimate that there were in excess of around 60 delegates from across the university.

Links and resources

The university has an employability hub site which is open to OU students and staff. It is described as “a repository of information for OU staff to help support students to achieve their career and personal development goals”.

There is also an OU employability and scholarship Twitter feed, @OUemployscholar. The conference had an accompanying hashtag: #ouempconf19.

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Decolonising the curriculum in our distance learning environment

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On 21 March 2019 I attended a seminar that was co-organised by UCU, the University and College Union, and the university BME (black and minority ethnicity) staff network. 

I attended for a couple of reasons: firstly, I'm broadly interested in diversity having carried out research into technology and accessibility and have a hidden disability, and secondly, one of my colleagues, Mustafa Ali, was going to be giving a talk. It turns out that Mustafa couldn’t make it to the talk, but what follows is a summary of some of the key things that I took away from the event

HE sector perspectives on decolonising the curriculum

Aravinda Guntpalli, Senior Lecturer in public health defined the term decolonisation as “freeing a country from being dependent on another country”. This could be understood in terms of political, social and economic dependence. Another comment I noted was that terminology and language has a legacy which imposes a particular view about how the world works.

Aravinda’s talk also included some statistics: in the OU, only 10% of students are BME.  It’s important to note that there is a significant attainment gap between white students and BME students.

Towards the end of her presentation, we were introduced to the history of the decolonising the curriculum movement, which has its root in the Rhodes must fall campaign (Wordpress) in 2015.  There was also a reference to a UCL campaign called: why is my curriculum white? (NUS website)

I made a few notes during the Q&A session. A question that I noted down was: ‘how can we decolonise?’ A response that I recorded was that it’s necessary to consider the process of teaching, the materials that we use to teach, and the learning environment that we establish. The voices that are exposed and valued can and will differ between subjects. It is important to consider which voices are exposed.

Reflections

The most striking point that I took away from the session was the extent of the attainment gap between white students and BME students. (I’ve asked Aravinda for an official reference; I’ll update this blog when I’ve done a bit more reading and research).

I found the history of the Rhodes must fall campaign interesting. As I was listening I remembered attending a widening participation conference some year back, which I wrote a couple of blogs about: Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference blog of day 1, blog of day 2.

I remembered something about the co-creation of curriculum, a collaboration between students and a lecturer at Kingston University. This was something that I summarised briefly in the penultimate paragraph of the blog about the first day of the conference. I then had a thought: this whole subject, of relevance and potential bias within materials has a history that obviously goes back a lot further than the events of 2014.

I attended this UCU seminar after attending another seminar in the school of computing and communications. My colleague, Michel Wermelinger had been giving a talk about one of the fundamentals of computer science: algorithms. During a part of the talk, he shared a case of where a Google algorithm was misclassifying images and producing results that were considered to be deeply offensive. A popular article, entitled: Rise of the racist robots – how AI is learning all our worst impulses (The Guardian, 2017), presents a number of case studies.

I once had a call with a student who said something that was both a comment and a challenge. He said: “all the module materials are written by white people”. I started to mentally work through all the names of the academics that I knew who had worked on the module that we were discussing. I had to agree with him. He did have a point. I also understood that although computers are mathematical machines, algorithms are created by people and are fed with data, which are also chosen and created by people. Bias has the potential to affect all disciplines.

When we were into the Q&A session and delegates were discussing what we might be able to do, my mind wandered to the module that I’m currently studying (or, should I say, trying to study!): EE812 Educational leadership: exploring strategy. A question that came to mind was: was that module doing anything to consider different context? I then remembered that it had a whole series of case studies from different contexts: from England, from Singapore, from South Africa and from India. Differences in practices and perspectives were being exposed to learners so they could think about how they related to (and differed from) their own contexts. One view of difference and diversity is that is can be a constructive and a critical tool, from where we can understand and appreciate different perspectives.

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Mental Health: a bit of perspective

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In the October 2018 edition of the associate lecturer newsletter, Snowball, I wrote the following paragraph: “When I got to the beginning of October, I sat down after a hard day of emailing and suddenly thought: “Is this what burnout feels like?” I had caught myself looking at my Outlook inbox and couldn’t find the mental energy to open up and process another email.”

In 2015, I wrote the following in a blog post that reflected on the closure of the university’s regional centres: “I’m a pretty young guy. I can deal with stuff. I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for stress, but I’m beginning to suffer from change fatigue. I’m beginning to get tired and have started to think ‘what have I got to do now?’ and ‘when will thing settle down to a steady state?’  The issue of change fatigue was something that was mentioned by another colleague.  I’m feeling the strain, and I’m getting tired.”

I had another moment like this a couple of weeks ago, but it had a slightly different character. Rather than feeling unable to open up yet another email, I realised that I was becoming increasingly grumpy. There was another aspect to my grumpiness: I also felt a little ‘flat’ emotionally. 

I then realised that I had spent three very busy and very full days at the OU campus (I’m a home worker, so it’s always a bit of an ordeal to get to the head office), plus I had worked a whole Saturday on a quite demanding TM356 Interaction Design teaching event, that also took place on campus. In between all those days, I was working at home, on my own; just me and my laptop. I suddenly realised that my “very busy week” might have had influenced my grumpiness.

I then realised that I was in need of a holiday.

Staff tutor session

On 26 February, I went to the usual STEM staff tutor meeting. The first part of the meeting was all about general university updates: new colleagues, updates about the new tutor contract, clarification about the university strategic objectives, and something about the new IT systems replacement. The second bit was different; it was all about mental health.

The second part of the meeting was facilitated by Stephen Haynes who is from a charity called Mates in Mind which has its origins in the construction industry. 

Stephen presented what was described as a ‘whistlestop well-being tour’. He began by asking us some questions: “how are you doing?”, “why don’t we talk about mental health?” and “what do we mean by mental health?” 

A simple point was made that: we all have mental health, and it’s important to think of things in terms of ‘mental fitness’. A point I noted down was: one can have a diagnosed mental health condition but can have good mental health (which was a theme that came out of another session I attended in London, which I'll mention later on).

I made some notes about something called a ‘stress response curve’, which illustrated the difference between stretch (which is a good thing), and strain (which is a bad thing). If there’s a lot of strain over a period of time, then there’s a risk of burning out.

Stephen gave us some facts: suicide in the education profession is higher than the national average, 300k jobs are lost every year due to mental health issues and 44% of all work related illnesses are due to mental health issues (unfortunately I don’t have the reference for this, but it might well have been in Stephen’s presentation). Also, 1 in 5 of us are anxious most of the time.

I noted down 5 ways (or actions) that can contribute to positive well-being. These were: connect with people, be active, give, keep learning, and take notice (ironically, I didn’t note down what ‘take notice’ means, but I assume it means to take the time to be aware of ones surroundings).

I was also interested to hear that one of the biggest drivers of employee well-being is having a good line manager. This point made me stop for a moment: I’m a line manager.

As well as being a line manager, I’m also a home worker. I made a note of a set of potentially useful tips: consider your posture and work environment (my posture needs to be better), don’t multi-task (I try not to, but there are always distractions; I need to put my mobile phone in the other room when I really need to get on with some ‘thinking work’), use a web cam when you participate in remote calls (this way I’m forced to not work in my pyjamas and be scruffy), take the time to check in with others (I miss my colleague Sue, who has recently retired), look out for each other, look out for yourself, and take the time to listen. 

Like many institutions, the university has something called an employee assistance programme or scheme; telephone support that any employee can access at any time. I have to confess that I’ve never used it. Apparently, counsellors that support these programmes can readily say: “if only I had spoken to him or her sooner”. I never used that service since “I never thought I was that bad”, but looking back, I certainly feel that there was a point in my life where I could have benefited.

One of the biggest take away from that whole session was that phrase: “if only I had spoken to him or her sooner”.  The assistance service is there to be used, and there is no reason that I shouldn’t use it if I feel stressed or upset, or down, or anxious, or emotionally “flat”. Not even a misplaced sense of ‘masculine pride’ or sense of ‘coping’ should prevent me from chatting to someone. This, I felt, was a very helpful take away point.

Resources

After the session, I remembered that I had seen a couple of resources on the OpenLearn website. One is called Work and mental health, and another has the title: Exercise and mental health

A few years back, a Mental health awareness day (OU blog) event was held in the London regional centre. During this event, the theme of mental well-being was discussed. I also remember being shown a video called I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube, World Health Organisation), which also featured in our Staff Tutor session. I remember the biggest take away point from that day was the importance of choosing to do things, or to participate in events that are positive for mental well-being.

This takes me onto the final resource, a blog summary about a Home working workshop, that was organised by HR (OU blog). One of the main messages I took away from this event was pretty stark (I’m not going to tell you what that message was, but I’ll mention that it is in the section that is about setting and management of boundaries). 

The second take away message was simple, pragmatic and helpful. It was: ‘make sure that you plan your own down time’. Thinking back to my opening paragraphs, I think this is something that I need to get better at doing.

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1st Open and Inclusive Special Interest Group meeting

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 19 Feb 2019, 17:41

I was invited to give a talk at the first Open and Inclusive Special Interest Group meeting (OpenTEL blog) which took place on 11 February 2019.

The Open and Inclusive SIG is made up of two groups: OpenTEL and SeGA, an abbreviation for Securing Greater Accessibility (on a module). The event was open to member of these groups, and anyone who is broadly interested in the subjects of accessibility and inclusion. Importantly, an invitation was also extended to faculty Accessibility co-ordinators.

The group meeting had three parts: a presentation that introduced the idea of ‘universal design for learning’, a presentation by yours truly, and a group discussion that reflected on some of the issues that were raised by the two presentations. What follows is a brief summary of those three sections. I’m presenting a summary here for anyone who might find it of interest, and also to enable me to look back on what happened during the year. 

Universal design for learning

The first presenter was Allison Posey from CAST who began with her talk universal design for learning.

Allison highlighted that some of the disciplines that contribute to universal design are: architecture, neuroscience and technology. Accessibility was presented in terms of: certain adjustments are necessary for some people, but these can be good for all. An example of this is the use of closed captions, i.e. they are necessary for people who have hearing impairments, but they can be used in other situations (such as when a partner is trying to watch television, and the other one is trying to get some sleep). The link to neuroscience was presented in a simple but important way, i.e.: our capacities or our brains are not fixed; they have capacities to build new connections.

Allison presented a number of helpful analogies. One analogy was the idea of making something to eat for a dinner party; not everyone would like to eat (or would be able to eat) what you might choose to make. One solution might be to give everyone a set of ingredients to allow them to create their own dish, or to provide a buffet, to give everyone choice. 

I noted down three broad principles of universal design for learning: (1) provide multiple means of engagement, (2) provide multiple means of representation, and (3) provide multiple means of action and expression (and I understand that expression relates to how students can share their understanding of concepts). A final point is that the burden of access should be placed within the environment, rather than on the learner.

As I’m reading these back to myself, I’m also reminded of the WCAG guidelines (W3C) which use the terms: perceivable and operable.

Reflections on accessibility

My talk had the title ‘reflections on accessibility’. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract that I wrote for the session: “This presentation aims to unpack the term ‘accessibility’ and what it means in The Open University context, moving from a high level (discussions about the aims and objectives of a module) towards low level technical standards that are important to facilitate the use and consumption of module materials. …  Important themes, such as legislation, the models of disability and the challenges that accompany disclosure will also be discussed.” I also said that it would end with a set of personal reflections about accessibility and disability.

Opening questions

I began by asking a couple of questions. The first question was: what is accessibility? Some of the answers were: it is about providing equality of access for people with different impairments and ‘leveling a playing field’. My second question was: why it is important? There are good moral, legal, and economic reasons. An important point was: if we don’t make modules accessible, the university could be legally challenged.

In the next bit of the talk, I presented a ‘straw man’ module that contained some deliberate accessibility challenges: it contained a number of different assessments which made use of technology, made use of different types of materials, and contained activities that required students to participate in fieldwork. An important point was: learning outcomes are important, since these are useful tools that we can use to understand what we need to assess.

Practical considerations

Next up was a slide that asked (and tried to give answers to) a set of practical considerations. The first question was: who is responsible for accessibility? The answer is: everyone, but there is a principle that goes: ‘if you’re in a position to make a reasonable adjustment for a student, then you should go ahead and do this’. 

The next question was: how can we make our content accessible? Here I made reference to learning materials (which linked back to the previous presentation), the environment in which the material is delivered, and touched on technical standards and guidelines. I was trying to convey the message that: even if some material might be technically accessible doesn’t necessarily mean that it is practically or pedagogically accessible.

The third question relates to disclosure: how do students tell the university? If a student tells any member of the university they have a disability they are, in fact, disclosing their disability to the university.

My final question was: how do tutors know what to do? My point here is that there are lots of different types of impairments, and every student is different. To help tutors, every student has what is known as a DAR (disability and accessibility) profile which offers some top-level information that might be useful for a tutor. A tutor then can ask their line manager for further advice and guidance.

Personal reflections

During the final part of the session, I shared something about my own experiences of having an impairment (a speech impairment; a stammer) which has (at times) been disabling. I shared a story about how I became an interaction design tutor, which was a module that contained some really useful materials about the importance of designing accessible interfaces. The experience on this module helped me to join a research project at the university that was all about trying to create an accessible virtual learning environment. Off the beck of this experience, I began to tutor on a module that was about how to develop (and support) accessible online learning.

All these experiences helped transformed my own sense of identity. The social model of disability, which featured in the two modules that I mentioned, helped me to shift my perspective. It helped me to see my impairment for what it was, and accept that I had ‘an invisible disability’. This helped me understand that disclosure is a personal negotiation, and with disclosure comes power. 

Just as Allison had mentioned that universal design for learning was a subject that drew on multiple disciplines, I concluded by talking about a subject called disability studies. Disability studies is also interdisciplinary, and has connections to different civil rights movements. It’s a subject that I find increasingly fascinating, especially since it sometimes exposes me to ideas and debates that can be very different to subjects that are found in my home discipline of Computer Science.

Discussion session

At the end of the meeting, we were asked the following questions: (1) what are the main take-away messages from the talks? (2) what do you think we already do well in the OU? (3) what changes could we make, at a practice level, that would enable us to do better?, and (4) what support would we need to make these changes?

At our table we discussed recent challenge regarding the provision of alternative formats. I’ve heard that there has been a significant demand for alternative formats. Being a student myself (I’m currently studying EE812 Educational Leadership), I know that there has been delays in getting printed materials to some students.

I also noted down that there was a discussion about mental health, and not fully appreciating what the implications are for tutors. I think this is a fair point, and there is a need for more training and guidance in this area, but a thought is that the needs for every student is likely to be different.

During the discussions I remember that someone referred to the importance of legislation. This reminded me of an earlier discussion with Kate Lister, who facilitated the event, who drew my attention to new legislation that universities must follow to ensure the accessibility of learning environments (PDF, policy briefing). 

Reflections

I was really surprised at how well the two presentations complemented each other despite there being no more planning than the sharing of abstracts. Also, a lot of themes were covered in a relatively short amount of time.

In some respects, this was one of the most personal presentations I have made on this subject. I tried to connect the academic with the personal. I was initially slightly worried about it would work, or might be received.

One of the most significant points that I wanted to make was about disclosure, and now some students might have to work to interrogate the concept, negotiate their own understanding of it, and navigate their way through it. There are links here with Allison’s talk where there was a suggestion that disability (or impairment) is a state that can change. This is also my experience too.

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STUC conference: SOAS University of London

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 18 Feb 2019, 13:37

Looking back to when I was a teenager, had I sat down and thought really hard about all of the different challenges that I would face as an undergraduate student, I might not have decided to go to university.

The reason for this is that I had a severe stammer; I had a real difficulty saying my own name, or ordering anything at a restaurant or shop. These simple facts have profound implications: communication is a human necessity, and its importance during education cannot be understated.

Some of those challenges I would face at university were obvious: making presentations so I could complete assessments and participating in group work. There were less obvious challenges, such as meeting new people and participating in clubs and societies. If truth be told, there were these days that I just wanted to hide away from the world, but for whatever reason, I didn’t. I just got on with it. I got on with it, since there were no other choices.

On 19 January 2019 I attended a conference at SOAS in London by a charity called STUC, an abbreviation of ‘Stammerers through university consultancy’. STUC has a tagline, which reads: ‘supporting university students and staff who stammer’. 

STUC was formed by Claire Norman, a languages graduate. As a student Claire was struck by the lack of constructive advice that her university gave her when she was required to complete a French oral examination. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the advice was something like ‘slow down’, or ‘breathe’ (bits of advice that others have, indeed, been given me over the years). Her idea was to create an organisation that could offer help and guidance to universities with a view to (ultimately) helping their students.

The conference was the first of its kind, and was sponsored by Professor Deborah Johnston, PVC of Teaching and Learning at SOAS. It featured a series of half hour talks, and then was followed by a panel discussion. What follows is a short summary of each of the talks, followed by a quick summary of some of the points during the panel discussion, and then a set of closing thoughts and reflections.

Presentations

After a short presentation by Rachel Everard (BSA website), who is the service director of the British Stammering Association, it was onto Iain Wilkie. Iain is a former partner of the consultancy E&Y. He spoke about ‘thriving at work with a stammer’, and made an interesting point about leadership. Leadership not only involves leading, it also means addressing and discussing potential, actual or perceived weaknesses. This requires us to have courageous conversations with others, with a view to connecting and informing. Implicit in these points was the importance of understanding (and embracing) the social model of disability.

Abed Ahamed (BSA website) is a secondary school teacher, and is a PWS (person who stammers). Abed shared some phrases that resonated with me, such as ‘speak to thrive rather than survive’ and ‘talk and connect with others’. What struck me was Abed’s determination to become a teacher. I remember him saying teaching was a ‘second option’ for some of his peers, whereas for Abed, it was a primary motivator and objective. A personal reflection is that when I was his age, I had completely ruled out teaching as a career choice (only to embrace it years later when I became appointed as a part time tutor for The Open University).

Next up was Lindsey Pike from the University of Bristol. Lindsey spoke about the importance of staff networks (Bristol University) within a university that can offer support for different groups of staff. I was interested to hear that there was also a network for staff who stammer at Bristol. For a brief period of time (before other commitments needed to take precedence) I was a member of an OU network called EnablingStaff@OU (OU equality and diversity resources page). A further personal reflection was that the power of the network (of course) comes from its members, and the personal contacts that each member has. A further thought is a wider set of networks can also be gained by joining a trade union, which can help with institutional and national issues regarding accessibility and disability.

Grant Meredith gave the first talk after the lunch break. I’ve met grant a couple of times: one at a BSA conference (where he talked about being a dean at the university where he worked), and briefly during a trip to Melbourne. Since we last met, Grant has been carrying out his doctoral research that is exploring the experiences of Australian students who stutter. One of the points I noted down included the idea of ‘concessional bargaining’, which is where students might trade off potential grades against speech avoidance activities.

After Grant was Claire Tupling, Senior Lecturer in Postgraduate Studies at the University of Derby. Claire's presentation complemented Grant’s very well. Through her university, Claire gained a small amount of funding to carry out research into the experiences of university staff who stammer. Claire’s research fits into a subject that can be called Disability Studies ‘which sits between social sciences and the humanities’, and addresses themes such as how disability can be socially constructed. I noted down the phrase: “the academic workplace is frequently a key site in the construction of individuals’ disablement”. Some of the themes that I noted down from Claire’s talk included people becoming ‘accidental academics’ and there being ‘additional labour’ that accompanies (and may counter) the potentially disabling effects of stammering. 

The final talk was by Deborah Johnson who spoke about ‘stammering and inclusion in the rapidly changing context of universities’. Deborah referred to research by Boyle, Blood and Blood (2009) about the ‘Effects of perceived causality on perceptions of persons who stutter’, the challenges that accompany group-based assessment and the importance of inclusive learning and teaching. Another point to bear in mind is that, in some cases, potential pedagogic innovations may negatively affect people who stammer.

Panel discussion

The panel discussants included Claire Norman, myself, Beulah Samuel-Ogbu (SOAS Disabled students and carers’ officer), Mandy Taylor (trustee of the BSA) and Rory Sheridan (former UoA student, and visual artist).

Claire had prepared some questions for us to discuss, just in case there were silences from the audience: “(1) would any panellists like to share a university-related experiences? (2) what should students or staff do if the university’s Disability Support is not providing sufficient help? (3) why aren’t university Mental Health Support and Disability Support teams collaborating more? (4) In what ways can the Equality Act 2010 assist students and staff who stammer? (5) What would you advise if a student didn’t want to choose a preferred module because the assessment methods were heavily emphasised on speech?” Even though we all had questions, we need not have worried; there was a lot to talk about.

Some points that I noted down were: the importance of removing ‘fluency’ from assessment criteria (instead, this might be replaced by ‘effectiveness of communication’), that stammering can affect non assessed work (since students and tutors might have discussions to help with essays), and that inclusion relates to organisational culture, and thinking about inclusion for PWS can have a positive effect on all students.

Reflections

In some respects this was the first ‘academic’ conference that I’ve been to that has focussed on a single disability (I’ve put the term ‘academic’ in quotes, since although talks were given, papers were not presented, but everything that was said was linked to the academic context).

I sensed that although we had talked about many different issues and felt there was still a lot to talk about, and a lot of practice experience to share between the different groups of people who attended (parents, speech and language therapists, university staff and students). There’s a lot that can be said about assessment and how to help students become settled. Interestingly, the theme of mental health emerged a number of times (the link here is that people who stammer can sometimes be affected by mental health issues).

Attending this conference made me reflect on the good points and the challenging points of my own university experiences. Some suggestions and actions were thoughtful and appropriate: some reasonable adjustments were made without question or debate, and were very welcome. Other actions were thoughtless and inappropriate: one tutor suggested that his church might be able to offer ‘a cure’.

A personal opinion is that there may well be value in connecting up with other disability groups or organisations; I feel that more influence can be gained if different groups work together. This said, it’s important to find a way to ensure that the educators are educated and myths are dispelled. Organisations such as STUC can play an important role with both of these tasks.

For further information, do feel free to check out the STUC Twitter stream. Also, if anyone is interested, the following hashtags were used in the event: #silenceoncampus and #getSTUCin.

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C&C research fiesta: getting research funding

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 29 Jan 2019, 08:39

This is the second in a short series of two posts that summarises some of the highlights of a ‘research fiesta’ that has held by the School of Computing and Communications. This post summarises some of the points that were made during a panel session about research funding.

The panel comprised of four professors (if I’ve counted correctly), a research manager from the STEM faculty, and was facilitated by our director of research, Robin Laney. Although the focus was about research funding, it could have also easily had another title: how to become a professor.

Here’s a list of some really useful tips that I noted down about gaining research funding: 

  1. Think about how you might go about forming a working relationship with a funding body. This might mean keeping an eye out for different research related events that they run. Networking is important. Take time to speak to them.
  2. To develop relationships with funders, join mailing lists, check their websites and respond to calls for advice and consultation activities.
  3. Take time to understand the motivations of a funding body and what their priorities are. Simply put, the closer a research proposal or bid fits the aims and objectives of a funding body, the higher the probability of success.
  4. As well as understanding their aims and objectives, take time to understand the processes that they use, both in terms of bid submission and also in terms of how bids are evaluated. A key tip here is: talk to colleagues who have been successful and know what the procedures are.
  5. Always try to play to the strength of the university. Each institution is unique.
  6. Consider projects or proposals that are a little ‘left field’; proposals that are slightly unusual or explores an unexpected area may cause interest and intrigue.
  7. Look for new funding programmes. Getting in early might benefit both the funder and the organisation (and project) that is funded, especially as the funding programme builds up experience and finds its distinct focus.
  8. Successful bids often have components of interdisciplinarity and collaboration. Unsuccessful bids don’t present a clear story.
  9. Find collaborators who are able to work between disciplines; these are rare people who can help with the writing of project bids and proposals.
  10. Find external stakeholders who have a lot to gain from their involvement in a project. When describing this, present a clear project narrative that others can easily understand.
  11. When working with collaborators and stakeholders, make sure that you give them plenty of time to create supporting documents, such as letters of support. 
  12. Think in terms of teams. Working with a team of people means that funders might see certain bids as being less risky. Use your team to read and review your bid.
  13. Learn how everything works. Become a bid reviewer and seek out opportunities to sit on funding panels. The experience of reviewing other bids is invaluable.
  14. Speak to your university ethics committee early (and show that you have done so).
  15. Think about creating what could be described as a portfolio of ideas to work on at any one time.
  16. Smaller grants can be important; small grants can lead to large ones. Small grants can help researchers and research groups to develop their experience and expertise.

Summary

There are lot of really helpful points here. The biggest points I took away from this session was: be strategic (consider your portfolio of interests), look at what funding bodies are doing and what they are doing, and network to find collaborators, and build a team around project bids. In essence, take a collaborative approach. 

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Computing and Communications: Research groups

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 29 Jan 2019, 08:33

On 10 January 2019 I went to my first ever Research Fiesta that was held by the School of Computing and Communications! I’m still not exactly sure what a research fiesta is, but what I attended was a fun event.

This is the first of a two part series of blog posts about two key parts of the event. This post is a quick summary of all the research groups that exist within the school (including the one that I’m affiliated with). It has been compiled from a series of short five minute presentations that were made by the group conveners. The second post shares some key messages from a panel discussion that was about research and research funding.

Introducing the research groups

All central and regional academics (lecturers and staff tutors) can join a research group which aligns with their research interests. Looking towards the future, where the terms of associate lecturer terms and conditions may change, there may become a point where ALs may also able to become affiliated with research groups in some way (this is a hope and a reflection that is above and beyond my pay grade).

In some respects, research groups in universities come and go depending on the academics that are employed within an institution and institutional and school strategic priorities. What follows is the current configuration of the groups. If you look back on this post after, say, a decade or so, things might look very different.

SEAD: Software Engineering And Design

The SEAD group, the Software Engineering and Design research group isn’t just about researching software that runs in a computer; it also studies how software engineering relates to real world applications. The domains of application that the groups have studied has included: policing, health care, aviation, and sustainability (farming). These external domains of application are becoming increasing more important. An aim of the school is to have more PhD students.

This wider focus reflects the orientation of the school, in the sense that it is about studying and teaching about the connections between computing and people (as far as I understand it).

TERG: Technology and Education Research Group

TERG, the Technology and Education Research Group (group blog) is a large group; it has around 30 members and a third of the group are staff tutors. The focus of the group is to study the use of technology for learning and teaching. It is closely link to another research group called CALRG which is within another faculty, known as the Computers and Learning Research Group (group blog) and has hosted a number of STEM scholarship research projects that have been funded by eSTEeM, the OU centre for STEM pedagogy. TERG has recently run a number of events, including writing away days (for research publications) and workshops about methods and theories.

AI and NLP group

This group covers the subjects of artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing and also aspects of music computing. There is a movement towards an increasing amount of focus on ‘deep learning’. 

NeXt Generation Multimedia Technologies

XGMT (research group website) was formed in 2005. If I’ve got this right, XGMT has got a connection with a number of OU modules, including TM255 Communication and Information Technologies. Some of the areas of research image processing and mobile communications.

Interaction Design Research Group

Interaction design is primarily about how to design usable software systems and devices. Members of this group have got a strong connection with the module TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience and key areas of research include: digital health and wellbeing, animal computer interaction, designing future interfaces (which means looking at physical interfaces and haptic devices – devices that rely on our sense of touch), and music computing. Recent activities has included submitting research to the CHI series of conferences, and also participating in public outreach events.

Critical Information studies

The aim of this group is to interrogate and to understand the notion of information from critical perspectives. There is an important emphasis on the analysis of power, the application of ethics and the consideration of politics. Subject areas and topics that connect to this theme include artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. A critical question that the group address could be, for example, whether algorithms and the data that they use can inadvertently produce prejudice that is reflected in the data that those algorithms consume. Members of this group have contributed to both undergraduate and postgraduate modules. The group has recently run a successful conference and aims to increase their outreach activity.

Reflections

It was really helpful to hear about the different groups. A thought that immediately came to mind was: I have interests that span these different areas. 

Although I’m a member of TERG, my postgraduate research was more closely aligned to the work that goes on within the SEAD group. My own personal research (and teaching) journey took me off in the direction of interaction design which, of course, has its own group. The point here is that there are many connections and links between these different groups.

There is another link that is really important, and that is the link between the groups and the undergraduate and postgraduate modules. Research carried out within these groups can (and should) directly feed into the design, development and updating of modules that are created by academics within the school.

An important question to ask is: what was the biggest lesson that I learnt from all this? My answer would be: an increased awareness of the breadth of research that is taking place within the school. By knowing about these group and the research that takes place within them I have a more direct understanding of who might be able to help me if I had a question about, for instance, what topics are important in a subject area. In a discipline such as computing, where so much is subject to continual change, understanding who to go to is really important.

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Computing education practice conference: Durham, January 2019

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 24 Jan 2019, 10:29

I first visited the Computing education practice (CEP) conference, held at the University of Durham, back in 2017 (OU blog). I felt that it was a really nice event, with a broad range of subjects and a particular focus on opportunities of chatting to computer science educators from a number of other universities. 

What follows is a quick blog summary of the second CEP conference that I attended on 8 January 2019 along with a set of accompanying thoughts, reflections and useful weblinks. I’ve written all this so I can remember what happened, and also on the off chance that anyone else doing research in computer science education might find this of interest. 

Welcome and keynote

The opening keynote was by Andrew McGettrick, emeritus professor from the University of Strathclyde. Andrew told us all about various reports; he mentioned the Committee on European Computing Education Map of Informatics in European Schools and the US Computer Science for All initiative (ACM). There is also something called the Informatics for All Strategy from ACM Europe which presents recommendations for teacher training. Returning to the UK, the Joint Mathematical Council of the UK has published Digital Technologies and Mathematics Education (2011, PDF)

I noted down a couple of themes that Andrew highlighted, namely, the changing face of computing and the increased perceived importance of subjects such as machine learning. An importance question that was asked was: how do you help (or pressure) countries to focus on the development of computer science education?

I don’t know whether I missed it in Andrew’s talk, but I did feel that there was an opportunity to talk about the more recent work of the Royal Society about Computing Education in Schools (Royal Society website) and the Shadbolt Review of Computer Sciences Degree Accreditation and Graduate Employability (PDF)

Session 1: Projects

The first presentation, Supervisor Recommendation Tool for Computer Science Projects was by Kasim Terzic, University of St Andrews. In essence, Kasim’s talk was about a computer science project that was used to manage the allocation of computer science projects. It worked by getting different bits of information from different sources: staff advertise dissertation topics and provide information about their research interests by submitting papers to the institutional research repository. The inputs to the system were keywords and project proposals and the outputs were supervisor recommendations. Whilst Kasim was speaking, I thought of the OU project module, TM470.

Next up was Laura Heels and Marie Devlin from Newcastle University who spoke about: Investigating the Role Choice of Female Students in a Software Engineering Team Project. This presentation began by emphasising that there is a big gender disparity in STEM and computing subjects. Their research asked a simple question: what roles do students take when doing some important computing group work? In their findings, for one year more females chose programming roles, but by and large the trend is (if I’ve noted this down properly) that the males tend to choose the programming role.

I especially enjoyed this second presentation since it made me reflect on my own experience of group work as an undergraduate. I remember being thrown together in a group, and having to choose our own roles and responsibilities. I remember some of the conflicts, and the need to make pragmatic decisions for the good of the project. I also remember how the team supported me when I came to give a group presentation. I certainly felt that role identity and choice was an interesting topic to be studying.

Session 2: Pedagogy

Stewart Powell from Swansea University talked about: Teaching Computing via a School Placement. The motivation for his talk and the work that accompanied it was compelling, and directly linked back to some of the themes introduced by the keynote, namely: CS grads might not see teaching as a career path; they may lack confidence and competence. Here there is a link to the importance of soft skills, and a further implicit link to the Shadbolt report. Stewart introduced the module: it took place during one semester in year 3, and allowed students to gain an understanding of what it means to be a teacher.

The next presentation in this session, by Tristan Henderson, University of St Andrews was all about Teaching Data Ethics, a new postgraduate module. Tristan described the motivation for the module: that there are always lots of controversies; every day there is something happening. A phrase I noted down was: ‘I’ve moved away from thinking that technology is a solution for everything’. A further point that ethics can be a topic that can be difficult to teach. Subjects in the module included: privacy, aspects of law, machine learning, ethics in practice and ethics in research. We were also told about the Royal Statistical Society Data Ethics Special Interest Group.

As Tristan was talking, I thought of a related OU postgraduate module called M811 Information Security (Open University), which touches upon some of the topics that Tristan highlighted, but with a more direct focus on security. All in all, a very engaging and thought provoking presentation. I really liked the focus on the fact that Data Ethics (and Information Security) are such important contemporary issues.

Alcwyn Parker from Falmouth University returned to the theme of group work with the presentation: Nurturing Collaboration in an Undergraduate Computing Course with Robot-themed Team Training and Team Building. I noted down that ‘group work is [an] integral part of the student’s education’. I also noted down the terms: communities of practice, and cognitive apprenticeship, where students are encouraged to observe, practice and reflect. One of the things that I liked about this presentation was a very explicit link between education theory and practice.

The final presentation had the title: Papertian Mathetics with Concept Map Stories and was given by  Amanda Banks Gatenby from the Manchester Institute of Education. I’m familiar with Papert through his book Mindstorms (Wikipedia). I was interested to hear that the word Mathetics was defined as the ‘art of learning’ (which is distinct from pedagogy, which is about the art of teaching). The presentation described how concept maps are created and described by students.

Session 3: Data and data security

One of the challenges of teaching computing is that sometimes solutions to problems can be easily found through internet searches.  Rosanne English from the University of Strathclyde gave a number of suggestions about how to solve this challenge through her presentation: Designing Computer Security Assessments to Reduce Plagiarism. Two key points were: (1) create your own assessment resources (if you use photographs as data, take them yourself, since they won’t already exist on the internet), and (2) focus less on marking the code, and more on marking student reflections.

Charles Boisvert from Sheffield Hallam University gave us a ‘lack-of-progress report’ regarding the challenges of Teaching relational database fundamentals. I noted down the idea of Nifty Assignments (Stanford University) and SQLLite, which is a SQL engine that can be used within a web browser which is used within Charles’s TestSQL website.

Data Protection and Privacy Regulations as an Inter-Active-Constructive Practice was presented by Joseph Maguire from University of Glasgow. Joseph talked about active learning, the flipped classroom and ‘jigsaw learning design’. 

Session 4: Engagement

James Davenport from the University of Bath kicked off the first afternoon session. James introduced The Institute of Coding: Addressing the UK Digital Skills Crisis (Institute of Coding website). I noted down five themes, which are led by different partners and universities: (1) university learners, (2) the digital workforce, (3) digitising professions, (4) widening participation, and (5) underpinning digital skills. James’s presentation followed by a talk by an OU colleague called Patricia Charlton, who spoke about the OU’s involvement in the Institute of Coding (OU website).

James gave two presentation in this session. His second was entitled: Teaching of Computing to Mathematics Students. In some ways, this talk reminded me of my own experiences studying discrete maths as an undergraduate (which was something that I found pretty difficult). James made an interesting point, which was: ‘the debate isn’t whether the maths department should teach programming, but how it should be taught’. This phrase made me remember a blog I wrote, Teaching programming across STEM, about the different ways that programming is taught in different parts of the OU.

The final talk in this session, Improving professionalism in first year computer science students, related to a paper by Shelagh Keogh, Jill Bradnum and Emma Anderson from Northumbria University. Some key points I noted down were: professionalism is socially constructed, that it’s something that you can’t teach – instead, it’s something that students much adopt. We were told about a skills audit, students were given one to one sessions, and they were asked to rate themselves across professional competencies so students can consider (and be responsible for) their own professional development. 

Session 5: Programming

The first presentation in the final session was by Paul Piwek from the The Open University who spoke about Learning to program: from problems to code. Paul is a module chair for the module TM112 Introduction to Computing and Information Technology 2 (Open University website), and his paper (and accompanying presentation) was co-authored by Michel Wermelinger, Robin Laney and Richard Walker.

TM112 introduces students to text based programming using Python. He presented the rationale behind the module design, explaining that were was emphasis on abstraction, worked examples and patterns. Also, students were asked to use English to perform problem decomposition. Further information about the approach that is adopted has been shared through the Computing at School community site.

Neil Gordon from the University of Hull presented: A Flexible Approach to Introductory Programming. Some of the challenges that colleagues can face include the wide variety of background of students, the gender disparity in the subject, and attainment and progression. Neil directed us to Woodfield report, and I note that there is a HEA document, entitled Issues in retention and attainment in Computer Science (PDF).

The final presentation was by David Croft who spoke about Computing with Codio at Coventry University. Codio is a cloud based tool that can be used to help with the teaching of programming.

Final thoughts

As I mentioned in the introduction, this was the second CEP conference that I’ve been to. This one was slightly different than the first; rather than having a set of parallel sessions, all the presentations took place in a single lecture theatre. I also felt the event had a slightly more formal tone, since all papers presented during the conference were also published through the ACM digital library

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to formality. The tie up with the ACM provides a formal and official record of the conference, but the large lecture room takes away some of the intimacy and potential for informal debate and discussion that can be so useful for both presenters and delegates at these kind of debates.

When it comes to sharing of education practice, and talking about the challenges that teachers face when working with groups of students, I personally prefer the informal over the formal. This said, I fully appreciate the pressure that institutions and individuals face regarding publishing (which is something that I’ve alluded to in a previous blog).

These points made, I still think this is really nice conference, and even though the organisers have made a step towards formalising both the conference and the community, there is still space and opportunities to share and make connections with fellow practitioners. I also thought that the titles of the themes were well chosen.

A question I asked myself at the end of the conference was: what are the main themes or topics that are important at the moment. One thought is that there are certain areas of focus that are current and important. These include the subject of: cybersecurity (in all its various forms), data science and machine learning. Another important theme may lie in the subject of professionalisation and continuing professional development. There is an implicit links to the themes that are mentioned in the various pieces of research that were highlighted by our keynote: the significance of gender, the teaching in schools, and the development of soft skills. From a day conference, I can see that there is a lot that is going on, but I also see that there is a lot that needs to be done too.

Acknowledgements

Attendance at this event was made possible thanks to the OU Technology and Education Research Group (TERG blog). Many thanks to the group convener, Karen Kear.

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27th EDEN annual conference: Genoa, Italy

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 10 Dec 2018, 11:50

The blog shares some highlights from the EDEN Conference that I attended between 17 and 20 June 2018. (This post is a little bit delayed, since as soon as I returned from the conference, I entered into a very busy period of work) What follows is a brief summary of some of the sessions I attended. I haven’t summarised everything, just the sessions that struck me as being particularly interesting (given my own personal interests and experiences).

EDEN is an abbreviation for the European Distance Education Network and it attended by delegates from distance learning universities in Europe and further afield. My motivation for writing all this is to make a record of some of the themes that were discussed during the conference and have a resource that I can refer back to (plus, it might, incidentally, be of interest to someone).

Pre-conference workshop

The pre-conference workshop was all about an EU funded engineering education project that had the title: planning and implementing an action-based and transnational course in higher engineering education. The project has members from universities in Milan, Warsaw, Norway and Berlin. There was a focus on UN sustainable development goals and creating learning activities to help student work in international teams.

From what I remember, different universities have worked together set up engineering education university modules that taught subjects such as sustainability and entrepreneurship. One of the aims was to try to develop sustainability thinking in education and to develop an awareness of the importance of the notion of the circular economy and ‘sustainable value creation’.

Workshop participants were asked to create a tentative design of a transnational (or international) course that had a particular emphasis on sustainability, and to share the design with all the participants. 

I found this challenging, for two reasons: engineering isn’t my home discipline, and I’m not a student of design or sustainability. This said, our team, which comprised of delegates from Germany, London and Lithuania had a go. 

After the event, I remember my colleagues in the School of Design and Innovation who carry out research into sustainable design and innovation (OU website). I also remembered a module called U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world. Climate change, of course, won’t fix itself. It’s a wicked problem that requires an interdisciplinary and multi-national approach, and one of those disciplines that is very important is, of course, engineering. 

Introductory keynotes

The conference was opened with two keynotes. The first was from Georgi Dimitrov from the European Institute of Technology and Innovation. To get us thinking, a broad number of themes and topics were identified: that careers are changing, that access to higher education can be a challenge, and it is important to retain students and help them to succeed. Other topics included the use of mobile and MOOCs, digital skills and literacy.

The second keynote by Fabrizio Cardinali had the title ‘how the next industrial revolution will disrupt our workplace and skills’. Again, a broad range of themes were introduced, such as intelligent machines, ‘digital transformation’ and the need to ‘upskill vertically’. A personal perspective was that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. Plus, being a former student of artificial intelligence, I always raise an eyebrow whenever the notion of ‘conscious machines’ is suggested. Putting my views to one side, both keynotes certainly got everyone thinking.

New ICT and Media

The first presentation of the New ICT and Media session was by Margret Plank from the German National Library for Science and Technology. Margret’s presentation was entitled ‘Video artefacts for scientific education’ and began with an interesting comment, that “science isn’t finished until it’s communicated”. Scientists and researchers were asked to record video abstracts that are between 3 and 5 minutes which describe the background, methodology and results. The aim of these were to increase public awareness of science and to disseminate research. We were offered some practical tips: tools such as the Davinci video editor or iMove could be used. A popular science video workshop (filmjungle.eu) was also mentioned.

Another presentation from this first session that stood out was called ‘Assessing the Impact of Virtualizing Physical Labs’. Evgenia Paxinou from the Hellenic Open University explained that distance learning students have obvious practical difficulties accessing a science lab. To get around this challenge, Evgenia told us about Onlabs. I noted down that the lab system had three modes: an instruction mode, an evaluation mode a-nd an experimenter mode. Instructors used Skype used with live sessions and an evaluation found that students who used the lab were better prepared, gaining higher scores. Although I don’t know it at all well, this presentation reminded me of the OU's Open STEM Labs.

MOOCs: Latest Concepts and Cases

The MOOC session began with a case study of Open Digital Textbooks, which has been a topic that regularly features in the journal Open Learning (Taylor and Frances website). Mark Brown’s presentation began with a question: are traditional textbooks core to the student learning experience? The aim of the case study was to investigate current and future practice of textbooks in Irish educational practice, looking at advantages and disadvantages, enablers and barriers. Reference to something called the Irish National Digital Repository (NDLR). Another resource that might be of interest to some was called the UKOpenTextbooks case studies (ukopentextbooks.org)

Antonio Moreira Teixeira presented ‘Findings from the Global MOOQ Survey’. MOOQ is an abbreviation for ‘Mooc quality’ and is described as a European Alliance for Quality of Massive Open Online Courses. I also noted that MOOQ is also reference framework for the adoption, design and evaluation of MOOC providers.

The MOOQ survey studied 3 groups: learners, designers and facilitators. An important finding (that echoes other studies) is that the education level of MOOC users is high in comparison to the general population. The study also carried out semi-structured interviews and discovered that designers acknowledge the importance of interaction but also found that learners are more satisfied with their learning experiences than the designers were.

The final presentation I made notes on was called Assessing the Effect of Massive Online Open Courses as Remedial Courses in Higher Education and was by Tommaso Agasisti et al. An important point that was made is that MOOC can be used by students to fill gaps in their education.

Open Educational Resources

OERs is a regular, and an important topic. Les Pang from University of Maryland University College spoke about Effective Strategies for Incorporating Open Educational Resources into the Classroom. Les mentioned familiar topics, such as OER commons, MERLOT, MIT Open Courseware. The reason why OER is important is that it has the potential to save money for students, offers choices, enhances social reputation and enables students to gain a preview of the course materials. On the other hand, key challenges relate to their sustainability (whether they are maintained) and potential resistance in terms of their acceptance. A survey asked students and faculty members about benefits of using OERs. Positive comments (amongst others) included availability and cost. A concern related to the alignment with module objectives. 

Second day: opening keynotes

The first keynote was by, Alan Tait, emeritus Professor of distance learning and development from the OU. The title of Alan’s talk was: open universities: the need for innovation. Alan began with question, asking whether the open university model of the past 50 years was threatened in the next 50 years.

Alan told us that that there were now approximately 60 open universities across 50 countries. The UK OU had been innovative in its vision and mission, application of technologies and use of logistics but there was now increased competition from other universities and the social and political environment in which they exist are changing. He pointed towards new technologies: learning analytics offer promise rather than achievement, some organisations produce MOOCs, and others make use of OERs.

An important question was: how do we reinvent open universities? Embedding ICT and digital potential on a whole institutional basis, developing curriculum for sustainability in all programmes of study, since this is a subject that is relevant in all curriculum areas.

The second keynote was by Teemu Leinonen who spoke about ‘From Non- and Informal Learning to Documented Co-Learning’. I noted down a range of different terms, including an abbreviation called GLAMS, which means Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, which can play a role in both formal and informal learning.

Anthony Camilleri talked about ‘A Blockchain Perspective to Educational Management’. Blockchain was defined as ‘a digital way for people to transfer assets without an intermediary’. Put another way, it is a public, secure, decentralised ledger. One idea is that it might be possible to use Blockchain to keep records of academic achievement, and this is something that is subject to an OU project called Open Blockchain (Open University). During Anthony’s talk, I noted down a mention of something called the Woolf University, which is described as a ‘the first blockchain university’. I’m very sceptical about this, since notions of community, belonging and brand are perhaps even more important than technology alone. Plus, there are issues of national and discipline based accreditation that need to be considered.

The final talk was by Joe Wilson, who presented: Open Education in Policy and Practice - a UK Perspective. Joe mentioned the Association of Learning Technology (ALT website) and its aim to ‘increase the impact of learning technology for public benefit’. Joe also mentioned an Open Educational Resources conference (OER18) and the JISC Digital Capabilities project, which I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog about associate lecturer professional development.

Learning Theory and Implementation Practice

Paul Prinsloo from the University of South Africa presented Organisational Factors on Implementing Learning Analytics. I noted down different types of data: descriptive, diagnostic, and predictive analytics. Paul mentioned that learner data can be incomplete and provisional, plus there are links to the theme of the conference: there are macro-societal factors that can influence the data, as well as institutional factors. I also noted that there was a reference to a paper that was written by some colleagues: Research Evidence on the Use of Learning Analytics: Implications for Education Policy.

Sue Watling from the University of Hull presented Connect or Disconnect: Academic Identity in a Digital Age. Key points of this talk included the importance of building confidence of users to create digital fluency. I noted down that there was a reference to the TPAC model of teaching and pedagogy.

The final session was by Paula Shaw who presented: A Practice Orientated Framework to Support Successful Higher Education Online Learning. During Paula’s talk I noted down a few references, including the OU innovating pedagogy report 2017, and the EDUCAUSE New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report

National Digital Education Cases

The first presentation of this session had the title ‘The French Thematic Digital Universities - A 360° Perspective on Open and Digital Learning’, and was presented by Deborah Arnold. The next presentation was by Willem van Valkenbur who presented: A Collaboration & Learning Environment to Enable to be a University Leader in Education Innovation. Willem spoke of moving to a blended learning provision, and a need for a new learning management system to enhance quality and to attempt to unburden teachers. There was a reference to university governance and educational innovation. Some key terms that were used included learning analytics, adaptive earning and peer learning.

Steffi Widera, from the Bavaria Virtual University (BVU) talked about ‘Best Practice for a Network of Higher Education Online’. Steffi described organisational structure, the use of blended learning (which I think were also known as self-contained learning units), and open courses. This session was concluded by Ana Rodriguez-Groba who presented ‘Blended Learning Teaching: The Story of a Social Network with a History’. 

Socio-cultural aspects of digital learning

Mengjie Jiang from the University of Leicester presented: ‘Boundary Crossing: International Students’ Negotiating Higher Education Learning with Digital Tools and Resources’. Mengjie used various methods to study how participants (international graduate students) become familiar with a new educational environment. I noted down the use of institutional VLE systems and social media tools. My understanding is that her research tries to understand a very specific and important moment in time and how perspectives (of learning and of identity) may change.

The next talk, ‘Supporting Learning in Traumatic Conflicts: Innovative Responses to Education in Refugee Camp Environments’ by Alan Bruce and Maria-Antonia Guardiola reminded me of presentations from the previous EDEN conference which also shared case studies of how technology can help migrants. This presentation outlined a case study of from the Greek island of Lesvos.

The final presentation that I will mention is by my OU colleague Lisa Bowers who spoke about a ‘Haptic Prototype Assembly Tool for Non-Sighted, Visually Impaired and Fully Sighted Design Students, Studying at a Distance’. Lisa introduced the subject of haptics by describing its connection to our tactile senses, such as touch (through our skin) and proprioception (an internal feedback to the body where we can instinctively know where their limbs are located). Looking beyond Lisa’s immediate research a big question is whether haptic systems might be useful for students with visual impairments to more directly participate in subjects such as design or architecture.

Training of Digital University Teachers

During this session, I presented: ‘Distance Learning and Teaching: Understanding the Importance of Tuition Observations’. I spoke about a series of focus groups that I had carried out (which are summarised within this blog) and summarised some of the key themes that had emerged from a literature review about teaching observations. I also spoke about the importance of sharing teaching practice; one thing that I learnt from this bit of research was the availability of a really since set of guidelines that had been produced by colleagues who work in the science schools.

Corrado Petrucco presented ‘Activity Theory as Design tool for Educational Projects and Digital Artifacts’. Corrado gave us an introduction to activity theory, describing it as a tool that is ‘able to represent complex relationships and processes’ before going onto describing how students used activity theory with respect to their own education design project. I found this final session especially interesting since activity theory had been used as a tool within a postgraduate education module that I used to teach. 

Closing session

There were a number of speakers who spoke during the closing session of the conference. The first speaker was Sarah-Guri Rosenblit from The Open University of Israel, who presented ‘Distance Education in the Digital Landscape: Navigating between Contrasting Trends’. Some of the trends (and tensions) were: national and international priorities, industrial and digital needs, the differences between competition and collaboration, and the use of open education resources and MOOCs. I noted that there some challenges: languages and academic cultures. An important phrase I noted down was: “distance education and e-learning are not the same thing”. Echoing Alan’s earlier keynote, I also wrote down the very true observation that campus universities are now offering distance education. 

The next session was about the future of technology enhanced learning. Topics that were mentioned included data analytics, the potential use of augmented reality, new formats such as SPOCs (a small private online course) and MOOCs, and the idea of microcredentials. The final presenter, the conference rapporteur, highlighted some of the subjects that were featured within the conference, such as migrant education, vocational education, the challenge of inclusion and how technology can be used to contribute to social mobility.

Reflections

This was my second EDEN conference (the first conference was in Jönköping, Sweden), and I was again struck by its scale: there were a lot of presentations and a lot of parallel sessions. Subsequently, there was a lot to take in. One of the things that I really liked about it was the searching questions that there implicit within the keynote talks, such as: if distance learning can be provided by institutions that also offer face to face teaching and learning, will the distance-only university survive? 

My personal opinion is: yes, for two simple reasons. The way that education programmes are designed in the two contexts are different, and the way that students are supported are different too.

Although technology is always likely to be a very important theme within conference such as EDEN, one thing, however, is common between the two different types of institution that I’ve mentioned, and that is the importance and role of people – or, specifically, the educators.

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1st Computing and Communications AL development conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 5 Dec 2018, 12:20

Associate lecturer development events generally take two different forms: they are either large multi-faculty ‘generic tutoring’ events that are run at different venues across the UK, or they are small module specific focussed events. From time to time, the university runs a larger events (I remember running a computing and IT event in the London office a few years ago), but these are the exception rather than the rule.

What follows is a summary of what has been called the 1st Computing and Communications AL development conference, which took place at the university student recruitment and support centre (SRSC) in Manchester. Just as with other blogs, this is a personal summary of the event (different colleagues may, of course, have very different experiences and memories!) I’m sharing this summary just in case it might be useful for someone, and also because it will help me remember what happened when I come to do my annual appraisal...

By way of background, the event was for tutors who teach on Computing and IT modules. One of the reasons for running the event is that the subject of computing can pose some interesting tutoring challenges and it would be helpful to share experiences between tutors who teach on the same undergraduate programme. There’s also the importance of community; in recent years the link between tutors and the university department (school) to which they are related to has become more important.

Manchester was chosen as the location for the conference, since it is also home to the Computing and IT student support team (SST). The conference took place over two days: Friday 30 November 2018 and Saturday 1 December 2018. The agenda for each of these days was roughly the same, and tutors were encouraged to sign up for the day that best suited them.

Looking forward: curriculum and school updates

The conference began with a short keynote and introductory presentation by our head of school Arosha Bandara and David Morse, director of teaching. Arosha mentioned the mission and vision of the school: that it aims to ‘empower our students, industry and society, to leverage digital technologies to address the challenges of the future’ and ‘be a world leader in open, innovative distance teaching of computing and communications, founded on excellent research and scholarship’. I noted that the undergraduate degrees were accredited by the British Computer Society, that the school ran a premier Cisco networking academy, and it is playing an important role in an organisation called the Institute of Coding (IoC website). Arosha also touched on research areas that are important within the school, such as technology enhanced learning, software engineering and human-computer interaction (amongst others).

David presented a summary of the computing curriculum and degree programmes, which ranges from introductory level computing through to postgraduate MSc degrees. In collaboration with Maths and Stats, the university will be introducing a new Data Sciences qualification, and the school of Computing and Communications will be introducing a new level 3 Machine Learning and AI module. Looking further to the future, the school is currently recruiting for Cybersecurity lecturers, which might see the emergence of new modules at levels 2 and 3. 

Spot the difference: sharing your practice 

After a brief break to meet and chat with colleagues, there was a series of short 5 minute presentations by tutors about different aspects of their OU teaching. What follows is a summary of the notes that I made during those sessions. 

Some tricks to establish early contact with students 

Charly Lowndes is a very experienced tutor and former OU student who teaches on a range of different modules. One of his tips was: “send them a 2 line email, and tell them to send you a reply to say that they have got it; when you do that, I’ll send you some useful stuff”. Charly also makes an introductory video that he has recorded and uploaded to YouTube; he said that “it’s nice for them to know what you look like”.

Another tips include: if you don’t hear from a student, send them a SMS; populate the module forum with messages; use email rules to process emails (I do this too, filtering on module code). Charly also said “I don’t get stressed if they never get back to me; I had one student who was on his honeymoon” – the point is that the student support team is able to help. Another comment was: “use a range of methods; everyone is different” and use different bits of information provided by the university to try to create a picture of your student.

A strategy for recording student contacts

The second presentation in this session, given by Helen Jefferis, complemented Charly's presentation really well. Assuming that you had made contact with your student, then what? Helen offers a suggestion: use a spreadsheet. Helen begins by downloading a list of students from her TutorHome website, and then adds a set of headings, which includes a simple notes section. I noted down the sentence: “if they reply, things are ticked off; ticks to show that they’re active”. Other approaches may include using tools such as Microsoft OneNote. Also, further information about student interactivity and engagement if available from the OU Analyse tool (which is entire topic all of its own).

Teaching methods on TM470

Jay Chapman gave a brief summary of what it was liked to be a TM470 project module tutor. I found Jay’s session especially interesting since I’m also a TM470 tutor. Jay began by outlining TM470. The module isn’t about teaching technical stuff, it’s about helping students how to write a technical project, and demonstrating how they can build upon the expertise and skills they already have. An important point is that TM470 students can take on different roles: they may be the project leader, the client and the stakeholder. Also, every project is different, but there are some common challenges: planning is important and students can easily fall behind, and a big challenge is the importance of academic writing and critical reflection.

I noted that Jay sends his students an email, then a SMS (if he hasn’t heard from them), and he runs tutorial sessions using video Skype. During these sessions, Jay mentioned that he uses an agenda, and then sticks to it. An important sentence that I noted down which resonates with me (as a TM470 tutor) is: “you have to show me what you did, and how you thought about it”. 

Approaches to working with under-confident students

Jean Weston shared some tips about working with students who might not have high levels of confidence. One tip was to tell them things that they don’t have to do. One suggestion was that with some modules, students don’t need to go outside the module materials. I noted down some practical tips: read the introductory and summary sections first, and it’s certainly okay to read something several times.

When it comes to exams, Jean shared some really great tips. One tip was: write down the blindingly obvious (since the examiner might well be testing whether a student knows the blindingly obvious). Another tip was: “answer the question, the whole question, and nothing but the question”. Also, successfully completing examinations requires you to balance two resources: your brain (what you know and can apply) with the time that is available, and “and answer is better than no answer”.

Other tips are worth remembering, such as: “learn to pick the low fruit, and apply that throughout your study” (or, in other words, ‘it’s okay to be strategic if you need to be’). Also: do get help if you need it, do take the time to talk to somebody if you need to, and take time to understand the vocabulary and complete the activities (since these can directly relate to the assessment questions).

PG teaching: what's the difference?

Joan Jackson gave the first short presentation on the morning of the 1 December. Joan is a tutor on a number of modules, such as M815 Project Management, T847 The MSc Professional Project and T802 Research Project.

One of the big differences that Joan emphasised was the level of skills that can be applied. From her slides, Joan reported that “undergraduate study provides the ‘grounding’ within a field or subject and academic skills” whereas “postgraduate study allows the subject to be explored further to attain a higher level of proficiency through independent study, scholarship, research and professional practice, emphasising critical thinking, synthesis, reflection and effective academic writing”.

An important question is: how do you learn to do all these things? Thankfully, the university has some resources that can be used. I’ll highlight two free OpenLearn courses that may be useful: OpenLearn course: Succeeding in postgraduate study and OpenLearn course: Are you ready for postgraduate study

A further question is: how can tutors develop postgrad skills once the module begins? I made some notes that suggested that there are opportunities: forums can be used to run activities. Students can explore the library to uncover research or discussion papers, than sets of papers can be compared and contrasted. Also, as a brief aside, there are also some resources on the OU Skills for Study pages, such as a resource about Critical Reading.

Cisco accreditation and teaching on Cisco modules

Phil Irving tutors on a number of Cisco modules, such as TM257 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 1, an undergraduate module, and T828 Network Security a postgraduate module.

Phil gave us a bit of history about the OU Cisco Academy (and Cisco as a company) before beginning to talk about the link between Cisco material and the OU approach to study. One of the benefits of the joint approach is that students have the potential to gain an industrial qualification whilst also learning important academic skills, such as academic writing. Students are also incentivised to pass the industrial qualifications. I didn’t know this, but if students pass their Cisco exam, they get back some of their test fees.

Practice tutors: a new approach for apprentices

The final short presentation of the conference was by Christine Gardner and Alexis Lansbury who spoke about the university’s involvement in degree apprenticeships and the role of a practice tutor. Since apprentices have a lot of study to do over quite a short period of time, practice tutors can offer some advice about how to manage their workload. Practice tutors are just one of many people involved with apprentices: there are also module tutors, and functional skills tutors, and the student support team. Practice tutors visit apprentices four times in a year, typically at a student’s workplace, and they will be a consistent contact across four years of study.

An important thing to remember is that degree apprenticeships differ across the UK. There are different programmes in England, Wales and Scotland. There is also something called higher apprenticeships, which can be linked and connected to postgraduate study.

What makes a good online session?

The first of two longer presentations was given by Shena Deuchars. Shena’s presentation was all about the use of breakout rooms in Adobe Connect. A personal confession is that I’ve only ever used breakout rooms twice. The first time was using Blackboard Elluminate (or, OU Live, as the university called it), which seemed to go very well. The second time was using Adobe Connect, and didn’t go well at all (I remember a few voices in my headset saying the words: “what’s going on?!”) and feeling quite embarrassed!

Shena gave us some tips about creating some layouts that we could use to manage breakout rooms. A sequence of actions were suggested: (1) create a new layout, (2) add content to pods, and (3) create rooms. Then to get things going, (4) tutors need to click on the ‘start breakout’ button. Finally, there is the step at the end to end the breakout rooms and to bring everyone back to the plenary space.

Some of the tips were very helpful, such as: try to get people who are willing to use microphones in the same room as each other (you can do this by asking everyone to give you a green tick). Also, in anticipation of a session, a thought is to email everyone to tell everyone that they will get more about of the session if they are prepared to speak (and have a headset).

I found Shena’s session useful, and it was great that she managed to encourage everyone to login to the shared room that she had prepared so everyone could get a feel for how things work. 

During her session I thought about my own recent experience as a current OU student who was recently put into a breakout room. Initially, I wasn’t happy, especially when all of my fellow students volunteered me to summarise all of our discussions during the plenary session. This said, it was really helpful to hear how other students were getting along with their reading. One fellow student made me realise that I hadn’t read some aspects of the module materials as thoroughly as I ought to have done.

One thought I will add about breakout rooms is they take time. I’ve heard it said that a breakout room activity can or should take at least 20 minutes. This means that if you’re doing a number of things in a tutorial, it’s important to pay close attention to timing. In the case of the tutorial that I attended, I found the breakout rooms so useful, and I became so engaged, I was surprised that the tutorial was over so quickly. In retrospect, a thorough debrief or summary after my time in the breakout room would have been useful to help me return to the physical world!

Teaching of problem solving and algorithmic thinking

I’m not going to summarise Friday Jones’s presentation on algorithmic thinking directly, partly because I don’t think I can do it justice. Friday’s talk was one that encouraged us tutors to think about what it means to teach algorithmic thinking and also how we should (or could) respond to students. From my perspective, it contained a number of themes, such as whether we should teach top-down or bottom up, and how students might understand the notion of abstraction.

Some interesting phrases I noted down was: “I teach by epiphany…”, “I taught them that they could solve the problem” and “I don’t want to make tea anymore; I want to question why we do this”; ‘this’ means “they need to ‘get’ why we do what we’re doing”.

Friday’s talk reminded me of another talk that I went to that I saw at the Psychology of Programming Interest group back in September 2018. Friday said that she learnt to program ‘bottom-up’, as did Felienne. Some thought provoking words from her presentation were: “sensimotor level is syntax”, and “motivation leads to skills”. And skills, of course, can be linked to the ability to develop (and implement) abstractions.

Working with the Computing and IT student support team

This second half of the conference was opened by John Woodthorpe, our school student support team lead. In addition to a series of short presentations, tutors were able to have a tour of the SST to learn more about what happens within the Manchester office.

The first presentation was about the Careers and Employability Service (OU website). Next up was a presentation by the colleagues from the Student Recruitment and Fees team. This was then followed by another talk by the SRSC continual improvement and change acceptance team, who look at how to enhance existing student support processes. During the first day of the conference, Claire Blanchard concluded by speaking about the role of the SST from the associate lecturer perspective. Claire also emphasised the role that ALs can play in the school by applying to sit on the computing board of studies.

One thing I got from this session was an understanding of something called the Information Advice and Guidance model (which is referred to by the abbreviation IAG). Although I had heard of this before, I hadn’t really grasped its significance. 

In some senses, IAG can be understood as three progressive stages. Whenever a student calls up the SST, they may first speak with a front line advisor, who may be able to provide some general information. If the query is more complex, such as the need for study advice, the student will then be passed onto a senior advisor (the ‘A’, or ‘advice’ part of the model), who will be able to answer more specific queries. Finally, if the query is one that is both detailed and complex, the student might then begin to receive ongoing detailed guidance from an educational advisor.

Simply put: there are a lot of calls about information, and not so many calls that are about guidance (and some guidance calls can take a lot of time to resolve). 

Activity: Working through student support scenarios

For the penultimate part of the conference, Alexis Lansbury, Computing and IT staff tutor, divided the room up into tables, and gave us a series of student support case studies. Each table had a combination of associate lecturers, staff tutors, and advisors. 

For each case study, we were asked to “discuss how you would respond, what actions you would take, what you are aiming to do to help the student, and whether you would involve other people (ALs, Student Support, Employability Specialists, Staff Tutors) in both the decisions you take, and, the help that you offer”. The case studies covered all levels of study (first year through to final year equivalents), and issues ranging from requests for very long extensions through to catastrophic technical problems. This activity emphasised the importance of taking time to gather information and the need to thoroughly understand different perspectives.

AL development in the school: priorities, needs and opportunities

During the final session, I asked everyone the question: “what would associate lecturer development activities or events would help you to do your job?” Some points that I noted on a whiteboard were: 

  • How to best maintain the student-tutor link
  • Understanding, mitigating and influencing the impact of the group tuition policy (GTP) and learning event management (LEM) system
  • How to best work together in cluster groups
  • How to tailor a session to suit a module and also take account of local geography
  • More discussion and less presentation during AL development events
  • More information and further discussion about the new tutor contract
  • Information about the ‘bigger picture’ (either in terms of the university or the discipline)
  • Discussions and information about how programming is addressed across and between study levels
  • Degree apprenticeships and the potential impact on the tutor role and tutor practice

Reflections

Over two days, over 90 colleagues attended the conference: associate lecturers, staff tutors, central academics, and members of the student support team. A colleague said to me: “it’s a sign of a good conference if you come away learning something new”. I certainly agree! One of the things that I’ve gained from the event is a more detailed understanding of what the SST advisors do, and how important and essential their work is, and what IAG means. I felt that it was a thought provoking and useful event, and I hope that everyone else found it useful too. Fingers crossed we’ll be able to run another one soon.

Acknowledgements

This conference was very much a team effort (with multiple teams)! The main organising and planning group included: Frances Chetwynd, Christine Gardner, Alexis Lansbury, John Woodthorpe and Ann Walshe. Many thanks to Saul Young (and colleagues) and Jana Dobiasova (from ALSPD). Thanks are extended to all presenters, and to Shena Deuchars and Friday Jones who ran the longer sessions, and to Arosha Bandara and David Morse from the school. Thanks are also extended to Stephen Rice, Claire Blanchard, Vic Nicholas, Dawn Johnson and everyone in the student support team who were able to spare their time to come and speak to us; we really appreciate your time!

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Visit to PPIG 2018

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 4 Dec 2018, 15:00

On 7 September 2018 I took a break from timetabling and interviewing tutors for a web technologies module and visited a workshop called the Psychology of Programming Interest Group, which was being held in the Art Worker’s guild, London. The workshop took place in an amazing room which was packed with portraits. 

Due to work commitments, I was only able to attend the morning of the 7 September. Due to the shortness of my appearance, I wasn’t going to do a blog, but I was reminded of the event (and one of the presentations) due to an email that was sent to me by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). I’ll explain why later in a moment, but what follows is a very quick sketch of what happened in the bit of PPIG that I attended.

Growing Tips, Sprawling Vines and other presentations

The first presentation that I saw was by Luke Church from the University of Cambridge. I noted down the words “what does it feel like to work with the materials of notations?” (which, of course, refers to the idea of working with programming languages). Luke has previously introduced me to languages about chorography. This time he was talking about a programming language called Autodesk Dynamic Studio. He also mentioned a term that I hadn’t heard of before: diachronics in notation design; the link between time and language. I also remember that Luke showed us a series of animations that illustrated the development of software systems.

Two other presentations followed: one was about different forms of data representation, and another was about exploring how whether it may be possible to detect programmer frustration using unobtrusive sensors, so a teaching environment might be able to provide hints and tips.

Conjuring Code

PPIG is often a workshop that produces surprises; this workshop was no exception. The next part of the workshop was presented by two magicians: Will Houstoun and Marc Kerstein. I noted down the phrase: “what kind of tricks can you do in the digital space?” I learnt of a topic called ‘magic theory’. Digital magic could be considered as a combination of the analogue and digital. Code can be used to create a magic effect, or ‘magic’ could influence code in a way that isn’t clear to the viewer. I noted down an important point that was: “the magician goes to an unfeasible amount of effort to make things work”. 

Explicit direct instruction in programming education

The final presentation I attended was by Felienne Hermans. I made a note that Felienne has a PhD in software engineering but had to ‘teach kids in a local community centre’. I also noted down that she said ‘as a learner [of computing], I wasn’t taught in class…’ and also said that she didn’t appreciate how important syntax was, and that the kids in the community centre were struggling with the small stuff.

To learn more, Felienne asked an important question: ‘how do we teach other things?’ such as reading and mathematics. This question led her to the Oxford Handbook of Reading, where she uncovered different schools of thought, such as the phonics approach vs the whole language approach of language learning. In maths education, I also noted down the dilemma of explanation and practice versus exploration and problem solving. This takes us to another important question, which is: where are the controversies in computer science education? In other words: “let’s start a fight”.

During Felienne’s presentation I noted down a few more things, such as “skills begets ideas”, and a comment about the “rote practice of syntax” which is something that I had to go through as a teenager when I copied out programs that were printed in computer magazines. (An activity that helped me to develop ‘moral fibre’). Other comment that I noted down was: the “sensimotor level is syntax”, and “motivation leads to skills”.

After the event…

Two months after the event, the following note appeared in my inbox, as a part of the ACM circular that I mentioned earlier: “evidence is growing that students learn better through direct instruction rather than through a discovery-based method, where students are expected to figure things out for themselves. In general, it is possible to define direct instruction as explanation followed by a lot of focused practice. . . . In fact, direct instruction works especially well for weaker pupils. . . .  In short, they should teach students directly and reduce the amount of design and problem solving that they ask students to do."

This paragraph that relates to a Communications of the ACM blog by Mark Guzdial, Direct Instruction is Better than Discovery, but What Should We be Directly Instructing? (cacm.acm.org) This also relates directly to a blog by Felienne, Programming and direct instruction (Felienne.com)

Reflections

I really liked what Felienne said about looking to other subject areas for inspiration. As a doctoral student, I remember gate crashing a tutorial session (with permission) about the psychology of reading. The group wasn’t looking so much at how to teach reading, but more at the detail of the cognitive processes that guide reading (I was studying the area of program comprehension at the time). I also agree with her point of having a discussion or a debate about approaches to teaching and learning of programming.

When I wrote this blog, an interesting seminar entitled “The Computing Education Revolution in England: Four years on” was being hosted in the OU school of computing and communications. The seminar related to research into the recent changes to the computing and IT GCSE curriculum. This coincidence implicitly emphasises how important it is to think about not only what is taught, but also how that teaching takes place.

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Module briefing: Technology-enhanced learning – foundations and futures

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On Saturday 17 November 2018, I attended a module briefing for H880 Technology-enhanced learning : foundations and futures which enables students to gain a postgraduate certificate in Online and Distance Learning. It’s a module that may be of interest to many OU associate lecturers, but also to other online teachers or tutors in other institutions, since the module “is aligned with the Professional Standards Framework developed by the UK’s Higher Education Academy (HEA), a framework used for benchmarking success within higher education teaching and support.” The module description goes onto say that: “Students working towards HEA Fellowship will be able to use their work on the module to help them build a fellowship case”.

Unlike other OU modules, this postgrad certificate module will use the learning platform that has been developed by FutureLearn. An alternative description of the module (which is described as an ‘online degree’) can be found on the FutureLearn website as a Postgraduate Certificate in Online and Distance education (FutureLearn) 

For anyone who might be interested, a ‘taster version’ of this course available through FutureLearn, which is called The Online Educator: People and Pedagogy (FutureLearn). Also, on the OU’s own free course website, there’s a course called Take your teaching online (OpenLearn).  

What follows are some of the more interesting notes that I made during the briefing day. A point that I will add is that I haven’t shared everything for two reasons: there’s a lot I don’t know, and I also understand that the module is still being worked on in anticipation for the new students starting in February. A final point is that although I am considered to be appointable (which means that I am eligible to tutor on the module), I don’t (yet) know whether I’ll have a group of students; everything depends on student numbers. 

Pedagogic principles

During the start of the day, Rebecca Ferguson and colleagues from FutureLearn introduced us to the FutureLearn platform. I was interested to hear that there are some clear pedagogical principles that underpin the design of the platform. There are four principles: (1) telling stories, (2) provoking conversations, (3) celebrating progress (through visible feedback), and (4) developing of skills. Of these, I understand that conversations was the most significant, since there is a link to something called the conversational framework, which was something that I blogged about quite a few years ago.  

Platform differences

One of the sessions during the briefing was to talk about the similarities and differences between the OU virtual learning environment (which is based on Moodle), the FutureLearn system, and differences between the terms that are used within the two organisations. One key difference is that the FutureLearn platform is all about learning at scale, whereas the OU VLE is all about facilitating and managing small group access. Another observation is that some pedagogic approaches can be difficult (or can degrade) with scale. An example of this is you can’t apply coaching or small group methods to hundreds of students at a time (unless you have many tutors, like the OU does, of course), but you can deliver lectures to large groups of students.

This difference in scale has influenced the design of the FutureLearn platform. Rather than having a separate area where students can contribute to discussions through tutor group or module forums, students can participate in discussions that are attached to ‘articles’. Articles, in FutureLearn-speak (as far as I understand it) are just webpages, where concepts are presented or explained.

Unlike the OU system, the FutureLearn platform doesn’t have a module calendar that covers the whole period of the presentation. Instead, the course is split up into four units which take place over several weeks. The module registration page gives a bit more information: “H880 is divided into four eight-week programs: Foundations of TEL, Adapting to Contexts, Opening Up Education, and Educational Futures. Each program ends with reflection and assessment. There is a week’s break between each block.”

Assessments

During their time studying H880, students will have to use two different systems: the FutureLearn system to access the module content and to participate in discussions, and the OU system, which students will use to submit their assignments.

The module consists of 3 TMAs (tutor marked assessments), and 1 end of module assessment (which is an extended essay). From what I’m told, students will have to create a learning resource that relates to their own professional teaching practice. In some respects, this reminds me of what students had to do when they studied a module that I used to tutor on, H810 Accessible online learning, where students had to create their own accessible learning resource.

Reflections

I always enjoy module briefing events, and this was no exception. I also felt that this face-to-face meeting was important, since there was a lot of information that needed to be shared with the tutors. There were a lot of differences between the ‘OU world’ and the ‘FutureLearn world’ that needed to be understood, and this could only be really grasped by having a conversion.

A few things strike me: the first is that the module is expected to have an international reach. In my experience of tutoring on H810, there were students studying from all over the world, and I understand that this is an expectation that continues with H880. It was also interesting to learn that due to some of the differences between the platforms, students might have to use different tools to share information and resources with tutors. This, in some respects, can be considered both a challenge and an opportunity!

H880 is going to be the first OU module that will be presented using the FutureLearn platform. In many respects, the choice of the platform appears to fit with some of the aims of the module materials. I also understand that the university will be learning from the experience with the aim of potentially influencing future decisions. From my perspective as a tutor (and secondly, as a staff tutor), this looks like an important and an exciting thing to be doing.

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AL Development conference: Brighton, Saturday 10 November 2018

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Ever since I began as a part time tutor in 2006 I have been attending AL development events. A new ‘season’ of them (for me, at least) began in November 2018 when I attended an AL development conference that was held at the Hilton Metropole in Brighton.

What follows is a quick blog summary of the event so I can remember what happened. I’m sharing this just in case it’s of interest to anyone else. All the views expressed here are, of course, my own;  present my own ‘take’ on the things that I 'took away' from the conference.

Keynote: The Open Diaries

Unlike other conferences I had been to, this conference was opened by some colleagues who worked in the marketing department.

The university has recently produced 5 x 5 minute short documentaries about studying at the university as a part of a campaign called The Open Diaries (OU website). This is of wider interest to tutors, since the videos do try to present the tutor perspective. The keynote session also featured a short talk by Finlay Games who is an OU student ambassador, who is an undergraduate student who is coming towards the end of his studies.

The next part of the keynote was important, but also quite informal. It was a joint presentation by Lesly Kane who is from the UCU union and David Knight, director of academic services. Lesley and David have been involved with negotiating what is called a new tutor contract. They outlined the character of the new contract, but were unable to offer lots of the fine detail, since the negotiations are still continuing. A union vote to tutors about the new contract is due to take place soon.

The key takeaway point from the contract discussion was that the new tutor contract will (hopefully) offer tutors the possibility of greater job security; they will be employed for their skills and expertise, rather than employed to teach on a particular module.

Session 1: Dialogic feedback

The full title of this first session, facilitated by Alison Gilmour and Paul McGill was: “The end of feedback as we know it? Exploring recent developments in the literature and practical strategies we can use to develop dialogic feedback practice in a distance learning context”.

The session began with some quick fire questions, such as: What challenges do you face in feedback practice? What is good feedback? How do students want to receive feedback? And, what does dialogic feedback mean to you?

The aim of the session was to get us thinking about the dialogic feedback, not just in terms of correspondence feedback, but also with respects to tutorials and what can take place within them. The term ‘dialogic’ was described as interactive; it is a discussion, and was contrasted with uni-directional and the phrase ‘without expectation of student engagement’.

One point that I noted down was that it can be useful to consider feedback as a dialog, where both students and tutors arrive at a shared notion of understanding what the feedback is, and how it can be useful. I also noted down comments that related to good practice: the development of trust, the emphasis on social aspects of learning, and clarity around purpose of assignments.

We were given an activity. We were asked to brainstorm strategies, activities or approaches that we could use to develop our dialogic feedback practice and why we thought this would work with our students. We were asked to put our ideas on a matrix; the words ‘greater benefits for students’ and ‘more efficient for staff’ were written on the axes.

During the discussion part of the session, I noted down a few interesting ideas and suggestions. One idea was to ask students the question: ‘what are you working towards?’ to understand more about their aims and aspirations. Another comment was about the use of the telephone. Before the widespread acceptance of use of emails, tutors used to ‘ring round’ their students to remind them about their assessments. In my experience, students are always happy to speak to their tutor.

My own suggestion comes from a discussion I had with a tutor who told me about a ‘dialogic teaching approach’ to teaching, where two tutors would have a debate between themselves about a module issue during an online tutorial. Although this approach isn’t about directly understanding where the student’s understanding, it does relate to exposing discussions and debates that are a part of module materials. After trying this technique out in practice, students invariably to begin to join in with the discussions. 

Session 2: Critical Incidents

The second session, entitled “Understanding teaching through critical incidents” was facilitated by myself. Tutors were enticed to attend the session through the following abstract: A critical incident is a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice. In essence, 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.

After a round of introductions, I asked tutors to complete a form which helped them to think about their own critical incident, and then to share their incidents between themselves. Tutor were then asked to discuss their chosen incident with everyone in the session. The key questions that students were asked to complete were: “My ‘critical incident’ occurred when…, the incident happened because…, strategies that were/might have been helpful include…, and if a similar incident occurred again I would…”

A personal confession is that this activity has been directly inspired by an activity that I participated in whilst studying for a PGCE in Higher Education at Birkbeck. It was a memorable activity since it led to the exposure of so many interesting situations, circumstances and solutions.

Session 3: Digital Capabilities

The final chapter had the title: “Enhance your digital capabilities, enhance your practice” and was presented by Jo Parker. 

I was really interested in attending this session since I had informally asked the question of if we could have a session about this subject after becoming aware of a JISC project about developing and understanding personal digital capabilities (Jisc website).

The Jisc project proposes and defines a definition of what digital capability is, and also provides a framework that consists of a number of components: digital identity and well-being, digital learning and development, information and media literacies. Well-being is presented as an over-arching wrapper that is important to all these areas. Also, the notion of ICT proficiency sits at the centre of the framework.

I made a note that the aim of the project was to ensure that staff and students have digital skills for digital learning and working. The project has also created a diagnostic tool (which I understand is called a digital capabilities and discovery tool), and provides some resources and training courses.

During the session Jo led us to an activity where we were invited to map our own digital practice. We were asked to draw a triangle that had the sides: consumption, conversation and creation. We were asked to make a note of the different tools that we used, and were asked to annotate the triangle with emoticon stickers to signify how we felt. We were also asked a few questions: What do you want to change? What do you want to do more of? What do you want to do less of? And, what do you wish to do differently?

Towards the end of Jo’s session we were shown a slide that contained a set of links about digital capabilities. The slide had links to resources about the effective use of ICT, such how to best make use of Office 365 and some links about digital creation and communication. The two resources that stood out for me were: Digital wellbeing: staying safe online (OpenLearn), and the link to the OU PALS site (an abbreviation for the Peer Associate Lecturer Support).

Reflections

I always get something out of every AL development conference. For this event, there were a couple of things. Firstly, I really appreciated the opportunity to catch up with a group of Computing and IT associate lecturers over lunch. We had a lot to talk about; there were discussions about the new tutor contracts and discussions about how to effectively carry out tutorial recordings within tuition group clusters. It was interesting to learn that the South East of England TM112 cluster are considering having what could be described as ‘cluster group recordings’. This way, the interactive tutorial can be live interactive sessions which are not recorded. This way, students might be more inclined to speak and contribute to the different sessions.

The thing I got from the dialogic session was the simple reflection that discussions can lead students and tutors towards a joint understanding of feedback. I understand this in terms of the student needs (to move forward with their learning), and what explanations the tutor can offer. Also, through dialogue, tutors can actively learn about what explanations are helpful, thus helping to improve their teaching practice.

The critical incidents session that I ran had a very different feel to the other two times I had facilitated it. The reason for this lies with the fact that the session is very student led: different tutors arrive at the session with different incidents. What may be important for one tutor might not be important for another, and this is one of the really nice aspects of running a session that is quite open.

I was expecting something slightly different from the Digital Capabilities session, but being someone who studied computing as an undergraduate and postgraduate, I’m mindful that I might not be the intended audience. Although the Jisc project and tools that we were told about may well be useful, I was expecting to be presented with some case studies, or for the session to have a more direct practical focus.

All in all, an interesting AL development conference! The next one I’m due to attend is the London event in April 2019. 

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Course for External Examiners

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On 9 November 2018 I attended a continuing professional development (CPD) course for external examiners run by the Higher Education Academy (or, AdvanceHE, as it is otherwise known). The course was facilitated by two OU colleagues: Professor Mark Brandon from the STEM faculty, and Naomi Watson from the WELLS Faculty. What follows are a set of notes that I made before and during the course. A week after the course, I edited everything together so I would have a rough sketch of what happened during the event. 

The aim of the course was to further understand the role of an external examiner, develop a deeper understanding of the nature of academic standards, and to ‘use evidence-informed approaches’ to inform judgements about ‘academic standards and the enhancement of student learning’.

The course was split up into two parts an online component (part 1) and a face to face component (part 2); participants had to complete both of these parts to complete the CPD. An interesting point was that completion was also recorded by the HEA. 

During the event, delegates were given a nicely printed A4 sized book, which had the catchy title: professional development course for external examiners. During the course we dipped into the book and completed a number of activities, writing down some personal reflections and thoughts. From time to time, I’ll refer to the book, the activities, or both. 

Preparing for the face to face session

To prepare, we all had to login to a virtual learning environment and complete a couple of activities (which I summarise below). The introductory information was useful; we were referred to the Higher Education Academy's A handbook for external examiners (PDF).

I also noted down the words: “external examiners gain oversight of assessment process, provide comment about the assessment process to say whether student learning outcomes are met and to offer informative comment on good practice”.

Activity 1: External examining of student work

We were asked to read an assessment briefing paper that described principles of feedback. The briefing paper contained information about learning outcomes, the level of study, information about the task that students had to complete, and provided a marking scheme. There were three learning outcomes: one about understanding, another about designing and a final one about taking account evidence into. Students were required to write a critical review of their own assessment practice.

We had to review three assignments and judge whether the work has been given the correct marks in coordination with the scheme and write a paragraph to give feedback regarding the academic standards of the module based on the assignments.

Activity 2: The external examiner role

This second activity emphasises that external examiners have a duty to help to maintain academic standards, ensure that institution policies and regulations are followed, that standards are comparable with those in other institutions, and to share good practice, and to be a critical friend. 

We were asked to comment on a short series of scenarios: a situation where a course leader asks for help, a situation where we had to deal with differences of opinion between examiners, and to consider a situation where there was low quality student work despite institutional staff working very hard to maintain standards.

During the face-to-face session

The face-to-face session was split into 7 short components (excluding a concluding section). These components had a mixture of listening, group work, followed by individual reflection activities. What follows is a very short summary of notes from these different sections. 

Session 1: Introduction

The first session was an introduction which referred to the QAA’s UK quality code for Higher Education, Chapter B7: External Examining (pdf) Echoing the introduction to this blog, externals are required to ensure threshold standards (QAA quality code, chapter B7, p. 4), ensure that processes are followed, and also ensure that academic standards are comparable between institutions.

During this first session we reviewed the activity 2 scenarios to further understand the role of the external examiner, and to understand the tensions, and to understand how to balance the different demands of ‘the process checker’, ‘critical friend’, and the maintainer of standards.

As a brief aside, it’s important to mention that appointments to external examining posts are made by universities. Examiners are recruited either through personal recommendations (where people are encouraged to apply), or through a national mailing list, which interested academics can sign up to.

Session 2: Variability in academic standards

In the second session we looked at another scenario and were asked to think about the challenge of how we actively score assignments. During the task I asked myself about the extent to which learning outcomes can or should be linked to assessment criteria. In the context of our scenario, a question that was asked (amongst our table) was: do students have access to the marking criteria?

This session had a second task, where we were asked about what issues might lead to variability in academic standards. I made a note of differences between people, tools and the task (nature of assessment).

Session 3: People as a source of variation

An interesting point that I noted down was an assertion that standards are socially constructed. To understand more about what this meant, and the idea of variation further, we were asked to complete another exercise that began with a question: what shapes our standards? Some points that I noted down were: from our institutions, values and beliefs, but also from specialist and professional knowledge of subjects.

Another question that we were asked was: where did you get your standards from? Some answers included: 

  • Influential people and groups such as colleagues and networks
  • Experience of working with students, carrying out assessments, and working within industry 
  • Known and understood professional values and beliefs, such as the aims of higher education and values from a discipline or subject.

Sessions 4 & 5 : Tools and tasks

This activity complemented one of the online preparation activities.  We were asked to look at module specification documents and descriptions that were from different sectors, professions and institutions. We were asked to think about internal reference points, such as qualification descriptors, learning outcomes and assessment guidance and external reference points, such as subject benchmark statements. 

These discussions led to an activity: we were given a set of cards which related to different scenarios that we might observe as external examiners. We were asked to place the cards on a two dimensional grid. One axis had the title ‘internal/external’ (which related to the types of tool the care related to), and the other had the title: ‘high/low effectiveness’. After a figuring out where the cards went, we were invited to have a look at what other groups had done.

Session 6: Profession practice

This session was all about figuring out what to do in certain situations. In our groups we were given a set of different external examining scenarios, and offered 5 different choice cards. After one of the group read out the scenario, we were invited to vote on what we thought was the best course of action. After the voting, discussed why we had chosen to vote the way we did.

It was a fun exercise; there were friendly differences of opinion about what strategies to adopt. I sensed that there was no right or wrong answer, and the best course of action might depend on a combination of different factors, including the institution, subject, and the colleagues that we’re working with.

Session 7: Social moderation and collaboration of standards

The penultimate session featured a couple of videos. There was one video of exam marking of a musical performance, and another video of a project where academics from Australian universities discussed how they would mark different pieces of work. In some respects, the second video (which featured a marking exercise) very much resembled by own experience of being a project marker on a Computing and IT project module. During the co-ordination meeting different tutors would present their views and justify their marks.

There seemed to be an important point underlying this final session, which I noted down, which is: ‘you need to be talking to other people within your subject to understand what the standards are’.

Reflections

All in all, this CPD was pretty good fun! Having had some experience of being an external examiner, I found that some of the discussions directly resonated with my personal experience. 

One of the key points that I took away from the session was a differences between internal and external documents (or tools) that can help and guide the external examiners. 

Although I had an implicit awareness of the distinction, the way that it was made clear was very helpful. In my own experience, I’ve been reviewing course descriptions and marking guides (internal documents) and also having a look at different qualification outlines (external documents). I have also remembered that I have, on occasions, had a look at module descriptions from other institutions (to help me carry out a comparison of standards).

I enjoyed the interactive element and the opportunity to discuss issues with colleagues from other schools and faculties. I don’t have any suggestions about how to improve the course, since it offers a lot of tools and useful tips. The next step for me is to try my best to connect what I’ve learnt to my current external examining contract.

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Introduction to the REF

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Oct 2018, 10:42

In November 2018, I had an opportunity to attend something that was called a ‘writing retreat’. The idea behind the event was simple; it was an opportunity to take a bit of time out from day to day activities and focus on writing up various bits of research that colleagues within the school had been working on. There was another reason for running the retreat: there would be a particular emphasis on writing papers that could be submitted to the 2021 REF (the Research Excellence Framework).

What follows is a brief summary of some of the points that were made during the introductory workshop which introduced the REF. Full acknowledgements are extended to Professor Jane Seale who facilitated this workshop. Many of the words here are directly from Jane’s presentation.

Introducing the REF

A key phrase that I’ve heard ever since I’ve been working at a university is: REF submission. A submission relates to particular subjects. Some universities may focus on some submission areas over others to play on their own strengths and weaknesses.

The OU makes a number of submissions, and one of the submission areas that I am connected with is education. This means that ‘education-like’ papers will be grouped together, submitted, and then assessed by an expert panel. The outcome will be a ‘research rating’, and this is directly linked to income that is received by the university. Simply put, the higher the rating, the more research income an institution receives. 

I asked the question: “what does ‘education-like’ actually mean?” These will be papers that more than just describe something, like a system or a tool that has been designed (which is what some computing papers can be). Education research papers need to be firmly linked to an education context. They should also present a critical perspective on the literature, the work that was carried out, or both.

When?

The 2021 REF assesses research that has been published in the public domain that has been carried out between 1 January 2014 and 31 December 2020. Papers that are to be included are typically included within a university repository. (The OU has a repository called ORO).

What?

Every academic whose contract which has a significant research component should submit at least one paper, and there should be a REF average of 2.5 papers per academic (as far as I understand things!)

Publications should be of a 3* or a 4* quality. Three star papers means that a piece of research is of ‘international significance’. The education REF panel will accept different kinds of submissions, including journal papers, conference proceedings and book chapters, but there has been a historic bias towards journal papers for two reasons: they are peer reviewed, and are more readily cited. Books or book chapters should present summaries of research and shouldn’t be student focussed or summarise what is within a field.

In education, some journals contain practice papers or case studies. I noted down that education papers don’t have to be empirical to be considered for the REF. A paper might present a new practice or an innovation or development of an existing practice. A suggestion is to preface it with what you’re doing and why you’re doing something, and offer a thorough criticism of how and why something fits in with existing work. This means that it’s necessary to consider comparisons and contrasts. Descriptions are also necessary to contextualise the research, but the balance needs to be right: practice papers need to be generalisable.

Where?

A question to ask is: where should you publish? It was interesting to hear that the REF panel for Education isn’t particularly concerned with the impact of the journal where research is published; what matters is the research itself. Given that education research tends to be descriptive, a suggestion is to choose journals that have a generous word count. One such journal is: Open Learning, which is thoroughly excellent. 

How?

How are submissions assessed? The submission chair will look at the title, abstract and reviewers and match a set of papers to an expert. Every paper will get read twice, and there will be some kind of process of random sampling. An interesting thought is: ‘don’t make the reviewers work too hard’, which is advice that I also give my students who are writing their end of module assessments or project dissertations. Institutions (including the OU) may having something called a ‘mock REF’, where they try to replicate the official REF submission to get a feel for the direction where the institution is heading.

REF criteria

Papers are judged on three key criteria: significance, originality and rigour; each of these criteria are equally important.

Significance: A paper or piece of research provides a valuable contribution to the field (this relates to the ‘so what?’ question about the purpose of the research). Also, how does the research moves the field forward. The contribution can be theoretical or empirical. A point to note is that a 3* paper contributes ideas that have a lasting influence. A 4* paper has a major influence on a field.

Originality: Is the research engaging with new or complex problems? Perhaps a paper might be using existing methods but in a new way, or challenging accepted wisdom. As a point of reference, a 2* paper contributes a small or incremental development, where as a 4* piece of research is something that is outstandingly novel in the development of concepts, techniques or outcomes.

Rigour: Papers and research offers intellectual precision or robustness of arguments. Some important questions are: is there rigour in the argument, the methods and the analysis? Also, can the readers trust the claims that are made when you ask the question, ‘how have you analysed your data?’ It is also important to include researcher reflexivity (question the role that the researcher had in the analysis of the research), and to critique the work, offering a summary of strengths and weaknesses. A 4* paper is one that is exceptionally rigorous, with the highest standards of intellectual precision.

Reflections

I only have a small amount of time in my staff tutor contract to carry research; I try to do what I can when I can, but I very often get entangled in tutor and student support issues which take me away from exploring really interesting questions and topics. Plus, increasingly, I’ve been playing a role in AL professional development. Carving out time for research is difficult balancing act due to all these competing demands.

When I started the retreat, I planned to write about some of the tutorial observation research that I’ve been doing and reacquaint myself with some of the papers that I had uncovered whilst doing this research. The introduction to the event gave me some really needed context, in terms of what a very good paper actually looks like. It also gave me a bit of direction in terms of what I actually needed to do.

One of the things that I did during the retreat was to consolidate different bits of research into a single document that forms the basis of a paper. I now have a clear and distinct structure. What I need to do now is to do some further close reading of the references to more directly position it within the literature, add a more critical twist to the analysis to broaden its appeal, and to do quite a bit more editing.

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Staff tutor focus group: tutorial observations

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Oct 2018, 10:27

On 7 November 2017, I facilitated a number of focus groups for STEM staff tutors to elicit views about tutorial observations. During this session, I asked the following open questions:  (1) What is the most important reason to carry out an observation? (2) What procedure or procedures do you follow? (3) How do you record an observation? (4) What do you look for? (5) How do you share feedback? (6) Is there anything special about online observations? And (7) Should there be standardised guidelines for STEM?

This blog has taken quite a bit of time to prepare, since I’ve been involved in all kinds of other things, most notably, trying to get everything sorted for the October starts. It seems that November is a month when I can start to do other things.

In some respects, this post is a sister post to the one that I made about some tutor focus groups, that had the title: Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

During this session, each group was asked to make notes about the discussions that took place, and to summarise some of the key themes in a plenary session. What follows is a summary of some of the themes that were discussed in each of the groups, followed by a brief summary of the plenary discussion.

Since a number of discussion points were common between different groups, I have chosen to highlight sections from each group that appear to be the most significant.

Group 1

Group 1 began with the first question: why is it important to carry out observations? Observations can be linked to and connected with staff development; it can facilitate a two way process that is also linked to quality assurance. It also represents an opportunity to get to know associate lecturers. There are other reasons too, which is: staff tutors can get a feel for what is happening ‘on the ground’ and understand how distance learning materials are being used and interpreted by students and whether the tutorial strategy (which is sometimes designed by a staff tutor) is working as planned. Also, observations can help facilitate discussions during a tutor’s appraisal.

Group 2

Group 2 gave a very notable answer to question 4, what to look for: the answer will depend on the level of study, i.e. whether they had recently started at the university, or were coming to the end of their studies. For introductory level (level 1) students, staff tutors would look for: encouragement, enthusiasm, positivity, bounce, involvement, thank students for attending, and whether they were motivating. For final equivalent (level 3) students, staff tutors would look for expertise and subject knowledge, competence, confidence, ability to respond to questions encouragingly and supportively, using the question well, understand where the students ‘are’ and the range of abilities, and how to address any gaps of understanding between where student is and where a student needs to be.

Group 3

Regarding the question of procedure or procedures, group 3 mentioned that observations could relate to an associate lecturers probation period (which lasts for two years), but an observation need not necessarily take place in the first year. A related reflection is that the idea of a ‘one off visit’ to provide support or to ensure that teaching quality may be okay could now be outdated due to online tuition; it is now possible to look at a ‘bigger’ picture (and more points of interactivity).

Group 4

This group gave some reflections about online tutorials, stating that a staff tutor or line manager watching the recording can also be considered as a form of online observation. It was also reflected that online observations does offer unique challenges, in that it is very difficult to observe the effectiveness of online group work. In terms of feedback to tutors, it shouldn’t be in the form of a formal report, but there could be verbal feedback which is then supplemented by written feedback.

Group 5

Group 5 emphasised procedures. A memorable suggestion was: don’t visit the first tutorial for a new associate lecturer. Also, ask tutors which tutorial they would like their line manager to visit so they can showcase a session that they might have been particularly proud of, and also include a visit to the tutor’s tutor group forum to gain a complete picture of their online teaching. Gather observation feedback using a form and if the tutorial is good, send the form to the tutor and give the tutor a copy of the feedback form in advance, so they know what they staff tutor is going to be looking for. If there is a need for development, have a discussion with the tutor. 

Group 6

Group 6 referenced the use of peer observation, which could be used in situations where staff tutors might not have sufficient time to carry out their own observations. There were differences in terms of how tuition observations were recorded: 2 line managers used a proforma with space for qualitative feedback, 3 line managers write notes and then write a summary, and 2 line managers use of a loose proforma to provide semi-structured notes. 

Group 7

Following on from the discussion about recording observations, group 7 noted that the former Faculty of Science used a form. A form should also help to emphasise what went well (within a tutorial), what not so well, and what might be potentially improved. Like the previous group, peer observations was also referenced, in the sense that tutors could present to other tutors. 

Group 8

This final group raised many of the points were highlighted earlier, but placed particular emphasis on online tutorials. Some key points that line managers would look for included: whether or not tutors were prepared, whether they were clear vocally and had a relaxed attitude, whether they encouraged interaction from students and designed interactions. After an observation, members of this group would have an informal chat with a tutor which would be followed by an informal letter. The tone of this correspondence is important: suggestions rather than instructions for improvements would be offered. 

Plenary discussion

Towards the end of the session, there was a facilitated discussion to draw out key discussion points from each of the groups. What follows is a brief summary of the main points, any commonalities between the groups and implications for practice.

An early comment was that observations are important not only in terms of quality, but they also help to develop the line manager’s relationship with the tutor. A useful perspective was that a line manager’s view of tuition of teaching should not begin or end with an observation. Instead, an observation should contribute to a holistic view of tuition practice. One participant made reference to the concept of a ‘learning walk’. 

There were also messages that were common between the groups. In terms of practice, the importance of an informal conversation with the tutor after an observation was emphasised, followed by a letter or an email. There was also the view that there should not be a ‘ticklist’ or standard form that staff tutors should apply to complete observations. Instead, there should be guidelines rather than mandated procedures, to offer flexibility. 

Regarding online tutorials, tutor managers should look for interactivity. Since observations can also be through recordings, it was also noted that the choice of the recordings could be directed by the tutor. 

A further point acknowledged the challenge of online teaching. Online teaching using synchronous tools and live environments requires significant skill, knowledge and experience. Reflecting the TPACK model, tutors need to acquire and apply technical, pedagogical and content knowledge, and dynamically respond to the needs of students. Acknowledging these challenges, one tutor manager reported that it important to tell the tutors that it is okay not to present or deliver a session that is ‘technically perfect’, and what really matters is whether student learning is taking place. Put another way, the tutor line managers cannot only have a role in developing practice and teaching quality, they can also have a role in developing tutor and teacher confidence too.

Reflections

One of the tasks that I have to do in my day job is to carry out tutorial visits. I’ve seen a variety of different sessions, ranging from very informal sessions, sessions that are tightly structured around a PowerPoint presentation, and sessions that showed the use of software tools that are taught within an Open University modules. There have also been these occasions when I’ve been left astonished and the skills and abilities of tutors to convey technical concepts in interesting and creative ways.

In my career as a tutor, I’ve also been observed during a tutorial. I think I’ve been observed three times; once during my first year, and another occasion when only a single tutor arrived at a tutorial. My line manager did some of the things that were mentioned by my peers: there was an informal chat, there were suggestions (and not instructions) about how my teaching might be improved, and I was sent a letter that summarised the observation (and also what happened during the tutorials that I facilitated). Importantly, this always felt like a positive process. I really felt that my line manager had taken the time to listen to and respect what I had done.

I’m sure it comes across in this post that I think that tuition observations are important. My own view is that they should be about developing and supporting tutors (and teachers) first, and about institutional and organisation management second. They should also be fun too.

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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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