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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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TM112 Tutor briefing: number 2

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

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

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

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

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

Python programming

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

Computer Security and Privacy

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

Tutorial planning exercise

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

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

Reflections

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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Taming the IT beast

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

Cerberus, a three headed dog, fighting Hercules

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing practice

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

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

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

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

Sharing tips

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

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

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

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

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

Outlook resources

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

Reflections

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

Acknowledgements

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

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EdD residential weekend, June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctoral researchers and supervisors

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

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

Day 2: Doctorate in Education Literature Review

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

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

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

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

Session: Ethics

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

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

Day 3: Designing an initial case study

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

Opening plenary session

The opening session was presented by Felicity Fletcher-Campbell. 

Literature review

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

The initial study

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

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

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

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

The main study

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

Parallel Session: Working with digital data

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

Parallel Session: Concept maps

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

Closing session: the way ahead

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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Becoming a student (again)

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

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

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

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

Introductory materials

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

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

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

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

Stage 2: EE812 Educational leadership: exploring strategy

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

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

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

Stage 3: MA Ed dissertation: leadership and management

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

Reflections

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

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

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London AL development conference, May 2018

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

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

Opening keynote: Zahra Alidina

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session: understanding teaching through critical incidents

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

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

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

Session: STEM faculty

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

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

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

Session: School of Computing and Communications

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

Reflections

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

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

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Windsor AL development conference, June 2018

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

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

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

STEM Session

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding our teaching through critical incidents

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

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

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

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

School of Computing and Communications session

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

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

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

Unconscious Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

Acknowledgements

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

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Teaching programming across STEM

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

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

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

Introduction

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

OpenLearn materials

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

Simple Coding

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

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

Learn to Code for Data Analysis

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

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

TM112 Introduction to Computing and IT 2

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

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

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

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

SM123 Physics and Space

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

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

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

TM129 RobotLab

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

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

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

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

M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming

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

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

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

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

M269 Algorithms, data structures, computability

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

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

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

Open University Summer of Code

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

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

TM351 Data management and analysis

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

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

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

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

Python programming in S818

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

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

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

Python and accompanying tools

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

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

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

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

The demand side

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

SXPA288 Practical science: physics and astronomy

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

T312 Electronics

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

M346 Linear statistical modelling

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

M373 Optimization

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

Physical Sciences Level 3

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

Delivering programming tutorials

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

PG Bioinformatics and cheminformatics

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

Discussion notes

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

Acknowledgements

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


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HEA STEM Conference, Newcastle 2018 (part 2)

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

Keynote: A journey into STEM

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity and Programming

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

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

Object-based learning

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

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

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

Synchronous online tuition

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

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

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

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

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

Collaborating with impact

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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HEA STEM Conference, Newcastle 2018 (part 1)

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

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

Keynote: Design thinking

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

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

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

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

Supporting creativity and motivation in learning programming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Utilising Backchannel software to promote student engagement

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

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

How to engage students with flipped classroom resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Students’ perceptions of what makes teaching interesting and intellectually stimulating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do students construct the nature of motivation?

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

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

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

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7th eSTEeM Conference: 25 and 26 April 2018

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

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

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

Opening keynote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper session: Supporting students

Lessons in retention success: using video media to influence students

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

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

Evidence that bootcamps can help student retention and progression

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

Flexible/early start M140

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

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

Improving retention amongst marginal students

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

Paper session: online delivery, tuition and international curriculum

Synchronous online tuition: differences between student and teacher

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

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

Understanding tutorial observation practice

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

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

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

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

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

Unpacking the STEM students’ experiences and behaviours

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

Paper session: supporting students - STEM practice and engagement

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

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

Implementing additional maths support for Health Science students

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

Two mathematicians and a ukulele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing keynote for day 1

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

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

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

Paper session: Supporting students and technologies for STEM learning 

Using student analytics with ALs to increate retention

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

Analytics for tracking student engagement: TM355 Communications Technology

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

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

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

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

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

Java specification checking

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

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

Digital by Design: workshop

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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Warwick AL Development Conference 2018

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

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

Tips from the whole group

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

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

Comments gathered from individual tables

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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TM111 module briefing: April 2018

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

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

Accessibility 

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

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

Block 1: The digital world

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

Block 2: Creating Solutions

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

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

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

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

Marking exercise

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

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

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

Block 3: Connecting people, places and things

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

And finally…

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

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C&C AL induction 2018

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

Introduction

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

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

The role of the tutor

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

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

Resources and tools

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

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

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

Importance advice

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

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

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

Scenarios

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

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

Correspondence tuition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other stuff

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

Reflections

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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TM112 day schools and tutorials: a message to students

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

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

Welcome

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

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

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

Purpose of learning events

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

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

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

Summary of learning events

Face-to-face events

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

Online tutorials

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

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

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

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

Drop-in tutorials

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

Module wide online tutorials

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

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

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

Booking to attend learning events

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

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

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