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7th eSTEeM Conference: 25 and 26 April 2018

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

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

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

Opening keynote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper session: Supporting students

Lessons in retention success: using video media to influence students

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

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

Evidence that bootcamps can help student retention and progression

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

Flexible/early start M140

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

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

Improving retention amongst marginal students

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

Paper session: online delivery, tuition and international curriculum

Synchronous online tuition: differences between student and teacher

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

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

Understanding tutorial observation practice

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

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

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

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

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

Unpacking the STEM students’ experiences and behaviours

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

Paper session: supporting students - STEM practice and engagement

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

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

Implementing additional maths support for Health Science students

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

Two mathematicians and a ukulele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing keynote for day 1

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

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

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

Paper session: Supporting students and technologies for STEM learning 

Using student analytics with ALs to increate retention

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

Analytics for tracking student engagement: TM355 Communications Technology

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

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

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

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

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

Java specification checking

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

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

Digital by Design: workshop

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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Warwick AL Development Conference 2018

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

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

Tips from the whole group

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

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

Comments gathered from individual tables

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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TM111 module briefing: April 2018

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

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

Accessibility 

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

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

Block 1: The digital world

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

Block 2: Creating Solutions

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

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

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

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

Marking exercise

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

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

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

Block 3: Connecting people, places and things

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

And finally…

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

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C&C AL induction 2018

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

Introduction

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

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

The role of the tutor

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

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

Resources and tools

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

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

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

Importance advice

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

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

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

Scenarios

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

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

Correspondence tuition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other stuff

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

Reflections

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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TM112 day schools and tutorials: a message to students

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

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

Welcome

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

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

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

Purpose of learning events

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

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

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

Summary of learning events

Face-to-face events

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

Online tutorials

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

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

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

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

Drop-in tutorials

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

Module wide online tutorials

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

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

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

Booking to attend learning events

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

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

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TM112 Tutor briefing

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction to TM112

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

Group Tuition Policy

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

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

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

Theme 1: Essential Information Technologies

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

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

Theme 2 : Problem Solving with Python

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theme 3 : Information technologies in the wild

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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


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Ten years of tutoring H810 accessible online learning

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

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

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

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

Tutors

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

Structure of the module

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

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

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

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

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

Activities

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

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

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

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

Set book, theory and the EMA

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final words: summing up

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

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

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

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Delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly: Cambridge 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent correspondence tuition

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

Marking strategies

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

Biggest tips

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

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

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AL development conference: Moller Centre, Cambridge, 2017

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

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

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

STEM Faculty Session

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

Computing and Communication School Session

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

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

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

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

Correspondence Tuition Session

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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Staff tutor conference, December 2017

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Student’s first transformation

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

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

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

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

Purpose of tutorials

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

Face to face tutorials

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

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

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

Online tutorials

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

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

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

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

Pre-recorded tutorials

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

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

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

Peer tutorials

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

Supporting staff tutor practice

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

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

External Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

Improving retention and progression

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

U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world

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

Impact of presentation patterns

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

M140 early start initiative

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

Learning analytics and interventions

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

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

What will the REF mean to staff tutors?

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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Cyber security resources

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

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

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

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

Cyber security MOOC

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

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

Postgraduate modules

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

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

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

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

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

OpenLearn: Badged Open Courses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other resources

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Computer Science Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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STEM Postgraduate AL development conference

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

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

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

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

Tour and talks

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

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

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

School of Computing and Communication Session

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

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

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

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

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

Parallel sessions

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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Tutorial observation guidelines

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I recently helped to run a session about tutorial observations at a meeting for all the staff tutors from the STEM faculty on 7 November 2017. The purpose of the session was to share practice and to gather information about how different colleagues organise tutorial observations for the OU associate lecturers (ALs) that they help to line manage.

What follows is a summary of a couple of slides that were prepared by my colleague Katherine Leys. Katherine prepared these guidelines as a part of a series of induction sessions for new staff tutors. The guidelines and procedures are, to me, very clear and well thought through, and may be useful for other staff tutors who work across the university (as well as other people in other institutions). For the sake of clarity, I’ve taken the liberty of removing some of institutional jargon and have added a little more description. I hope this post is useful to someone!

Guidelines

  1. An attempt should be made to observe across all appropriate modes of tuition for ALs during their probation period.
  2. ALs should have at least one observation every 4 years and useful feedback should be provided.
  3. Tutor’s lead line managers (LLMs) and tuition task managers (TTMs) should liaise with each other over which observation(s) would be appropriate. The lead line manager will ensure that at least one observation is made before a tutor’s appraisal (CDSA).
  4. An observation report should be stored on a secure server and details added to the tutor’s associate lecturer activity review (ALAR) report.
  5. A lead line manager (LLM) can ask a tuition task manager (TTM) for an observation report (with tutor permission) to prepare for a tutor’s appraisal (CDSA).
  6. A staff tutor should let a tutor’s lead line manager know when an observation has taken place

Suggested procedure

  1. Give ever tutor at least 2 weeks’ notice.
  2. If appropriate, ask tutors to prepare a lesson or a tutorial plan, and have them send it to you.
  3. Use a feedback form to prepare a report (there are various types available).
  4. Ask for reflective feedback from tutor (allow 2 weeks).
  5. Store form and reflection and record details on associate lecturer activity review.
  6. Let a lead line manager know that a visit has been made.

Reflections

After the staff tutor meeting I collected a set of notes from everyone which I now have to write up; it is clear that the subject of tuition observation yielded a lot of discussion. One question that I asked was: is there a willingness to define a standard process for observations? I suspect that the answer for this (when I analyse all my notes) is going to be: ‘no, but guidelines are welcome’.

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Getting published in Open Learning

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 27 Oct 2017, 09:02

It’s been a few months since I have taken over being the lead editor of a journal called Open Learning (Taylor and Francis website). I’m not on my own, though: there are two fabulous co-editors and an editorial assistant to help me out (thankfully!) The aim of this short blog post is to share some thoughts that might be helpful to anyone who is potentially considering making a submission to the journal. I hope this is useful!

Tip 1: Does your research fit?

The question: ‘does my research fit with the aims and objectives of the journal?’ is, perhaps, one of the most important questions that needs to be asked. This question should be applied to any kind of research that you want to share: some journals are more likely to publish your research if it is more in keeping with the aims and objectives of that journal. Another question is: who is the audience of the journal likely to be? Stop for a moment and imagine who they might be. If you can’t imagine them, or picture what kind of research they might be working on, then you need to consider whether you are looking at the right journal. 

Tip 2: Write a clear abstract

Put another way: clarity is important. Does your abstract clearly summaries the aims and objectives of the research. Also, does it present some clear research questions? I’ve seen papers that have been submitted that do not have an abstract, or have an abstract that just isn’t clear. Although academic papers sometimes be appropriately challenge to read, I’m a great believer in respecting the reader, and a way to show that an author is doing this is simple: take time to write a good abstract. 

Tip 3: Consider what has gone before

A really important tip is to be aware of the literature and debates that presented through the journal; reference earlier debates that have been published. This enables your article to be positioned amongst others. This is important, since as a researcher, as well as looking at the title, and abstract, I regularly look at the references before I even start to read a paper to see how it fits into the work of others. If I see that there are a few papers that have been published in Open Learning before, I view this as a very good thing.

Tip 4: Not too long please!

Make sure that the size of your paper is appropriate for the journal. Open Learning has a limit of seven thousand words. In my short time as editor, I have seen papers that are longer than this. Length is very important, since the publishers (and the editors) are working to a fixed number of pages per issue.

Tip 5: Practice papers are very welcome

Open Learning welcomes papers that present case studies or summaries of professional practice. Although practice papers may not be very theoretical, descriptions of teaching practice and accompanying challenges can inspire theoretical thinking and reflections amongst other researchers. As educational practitioners, always recognise what you’re doing is important and consider writing about it; this is an important aspect of your own professional development and contribution to a community.

Tip 6: Approach the editors

Don’t be afraid of the editors. They want to be helpful, so do ask them questions; they are approachable! If you are not sure whether a paper or research is appropriate, feel free to ask. Also, if you’re interested in getting more involved in a journal (it doesn’t have to be Open Learning) don’t be afraid about being cheeky. Ask to become a reviewer; introduce yourself. Any journal contributes to an academic community, so don’t be afraid to ask to become more involved in that community.

Tip 7: Be patient and engage with the process

This is a very big tip and one that I’m sharing from my own experience. Peer review sometimes feels like a brutal process. Treat the peer review as an opportunity to engage and develop, and again, do correspond with the editor if you have concerns that your own submission has been understood or interpreted by reviewers; dialogue is important. If you ever receive what you think is a negative review, try not to take things personally; they are not criticising you; they are only commenting on what they have read. After reflecting on their comments, do engage and work with the reviewers and the editors. Very often, this can lead to a much better submission than you had ever imagined. Plus, the more that you submit papers, the more experience you get.

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Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 25 Oct 2017, 14:02

As a part of an OU funded eSTEeM research project about tuition and tutorial observations, I ran two short focus groups for associate lecturers at an Open University AL development conference which took place in Leeds between 5 and 6 May 2017. 

This blog post represents a set of notes that have been expanded from comments made on flipcharts during the focus groups. Follow on research is to run a focus group with staff tutor colleagues, and then to consolidate all findings by way of internal and external publications about educational practice.

I’m sharing a summary at this early stage, since I feel that it’s important to be open in terms of the research that has been carried out. Plus, through a blog, anyone who has any opinions about the subject or the session should be free to get in contact.

Introducing tutorial observations

A tutorial observation is, as it suggests, an observation of a university learning or teaching event. It can take place either face to face, or online. 

Ever since joining the university I have been aware that different colleagues (within different departments and faculties) have done observations in slightly different ways. One colleague in one school has used a complex form which was a bit like a questionnaire. Another colleague in my school has had a really very simple form to capture a free form description of what happened during a tutorial.

My research question is: what is the best practice that helps associate lecturers? Given that the university has recently completed a faculty merger, this seems like an ideal time to ask this question. 

Accompanying questions are, of course: what are tutorial observations for? An obvious answer is: to ensure that students are given good quality tuition. Although this may be true, a more detailed answer might be a bit more complicate and nuanced.

Introducing the focus group

In order to find out more, my AL support and professional development said that I could run a workshop that gently masqueraded as a focus group. The ‘focus shop’ had the title: Tutorials and tutorial observations: what works and what helps tutors?

The workshop had the accompanying abstract: do you remember when you last observed during a tutorial? If so, what happened, and were you happy with the feedback that you received? This session is all about the concept of a tutorial observations, both on-line and face to face. Chris Douce is leading a research project that aims to learn more about different observation practices, both inside and outside the university. The research project aims to ask two very important questions: (1) what do tutors need? And, (2) how should staff tutors and faculty managers run effective observations? Other questions include: what feedback would help you the most, and do you have any thoughts about how observations should be run when you do team teaching? All welcome and all feedback appreciated; this session can help to develop and (hopefully) enhance tuition observation and develop online and face to face teaching practices.

What follows is a set of notes gathered from both focus groups.

Points captured from the focus groups

Tutors were asking the important question of: what are observations for and what it its purpose? Is it something that is done to monitor the performance of tutors? There was a view that observations shouldn’t be done in a cursory way, or be paying lip service to an administrative process. 

There are a number of different dimensions to observations: they can range from being formal to being very informal. They can also vary in terms of their participants: they can be of an individual, or they can be of a group of tutors. There are further questions: what about recordings? The question about recordings helped us to start to consider other dimensions of observation: in addition to using discussion forums some tutors have, in the past, created their own podcasts, or used tools such as Jing. A suggestion from a tutor was to ask the question: ‘which recordings would you like me to look at?’ and ‘what would you like me to look for?’

There was an awareness that observations have the potential to be negative (or, as noted, be destructive); they can negatively impact on a tutor’s confidence. There was also the point that observations can be used as a way to facilitate a dialogue between a tutor and a tutor manager; after an observation and the receipt of an observation report, tutors may be invited to offer a ‘right to reply’. Another comment was that it should be ‘a two way thing’.

An important question was: how often should observations take place? Opinions about frequency ranged from every two years to every four years, and perhaps be connected with a tutor’s appraisal (which takes place every two years). One tutor reported that they had been observed twice in ten years; another tutor reported they had been observed two times in six months. This raises an accompanying question: now that tutor line management is a lot more complex, who is actually going to carry out an observation? (We now have tuition task managers, lead line managers and cluster managers). 

So, what about the practicalities of carrying out observation? Giving a warning, or notice, was considered to be important. There was also a practice of sending tuition plans to staff tutors in advance of a tutorial so they could see what is planned; some preparatory work needed to be done.

Accompanying the details of the tutorials and the plans, there are other important questions to negotiate; one of those challenges is the extent to which a tutor may wish a staff tutor to be involved in the actual tutorial. Staff tutors might ask the question: ‘what would you like me to do?’ as a way to being negotiation about the extent of involvement. The practicalities of engaging in a tutorial can, of course, depend on the subject and its level.

Feedback was a theme that recurred a number of times. To prepare for an observation, one tutor suggested the use of the question: ‘what would you like me to look at?’ There was also a suggestion that staff tutors should look at only a few things during a tutorial. There was also an emphasis on the importance of expectations. 

A further comment is that feedback should emphasise the good bits, and this is something that could be done immediately after a tutorial. A key phrase I noted down was: ‘how do you phrase things not to be critical?’ An immediate response was to use a ‘feedback sandwich’. 

As expected, the way in which feedback was presented to tutors differed: the school of health and social care used a form, whereas in the school of maths, tutors were sent a letter.

There were a number of other really interesting points that were raised. A question was: perhaps we should ask students what they want? Also, there are opportunities to share examples of practice, activities and reflections. This raises an interesting question about the importance and use of peer observations. This is, of course, connected to the important issue of trust between the observed and the observer. Other points were made about the connection to the importance of correspondence tuition and the role of mentoring.

There was an important acknowledgement that tutorials and tutorial observations can, of course, be stressful and a recognition that personalities play a fundamental role in shaping the teaching environment in which teaching takes place.

Summary

The two focus groups were very different in their composition, but there was a lot of crossover between the themes that emerged: both suggested, for example, the idea of focusing on a selected number of aspects, and there were different experiences in terms of how frequently observations were carried out.

These notes are influenced by one very big factor: myself. I am the researcher, but I am also a tutor, as well as a line manager of tutors. This means that I am the observer as well as being the observed. All this means is that my own views have necessarily affected how I have interpreted and presented the points that have arisen from the two focus groups. This closeness to the subject will, inevitably, cause me to emphasise some points over others.

As mentioned earlier, the next steps in this project is to run a series of focus groups for staff tutors. 

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RSA: The power of design thinking

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

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

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

A history

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

Examples

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

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

Final points

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

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

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

Links and reflections

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

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

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

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1st Computing and Communications online AL development conference

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

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

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

Coming up with a plan

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

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

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

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

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

Explaining the agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What worked

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

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

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

What didn’t work

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

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

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

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

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

Looking forward

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

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

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

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AL development conference: 21 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's a planned agenda for the event:

10.00 – 10.30     Virtual tea and cake

10.30 – 10.40     Introduction and welcome: Chris Douce

10.40 – 10.55     Meet your head of school: Mark Woodroffe

10.55 – 11.10     Programme and curriculum updates: David Morse

11.10 – 11.25     Q&A with Mark and David

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

12.10 – 12.20     Online pedagogy session: Q&A

12.20 – 13.00     Break

13.00 – 13.10     Welcome back! Chris Douce

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

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

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

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

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


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HEA 2017 Annual conference: Generation TEF

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

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

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

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

Keynote: How digital engagement enhances the student experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2: Morning Sessions

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

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

Day 2: Afternoon Sessions

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

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

Day 3: Opening Keynote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3 : Morning Sessions

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

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

Day 3 : Afternoon Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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26th EDEN annual conference: Jönköping, Sweden

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

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

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

Day 1: Pre-conference workshop

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

Day 2: Welcome and Keynote

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

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

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

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

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

Session: Diversity and ICT Enhanced Education in Context

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

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

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

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

Session: Innovative e-Learning Concepts

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

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

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

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

Session: Empowering the Digital Teacher

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

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

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

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

Day 3: Opening Plenary Session

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

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

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

Session: E-Learning Policy and Strategy Issues

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

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

Session: International e-learning Development Cases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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Windsor AL staff development conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 25 Oct 2017, 11:51

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

Overview

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

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

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

Workshop: delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly

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

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

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

Summary of session presentation

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

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

Some research

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

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

Questions

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

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

Tips

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

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

Discussion summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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AL Development conference: Leeds, 6 May 2017

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

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

Keynote: Josie Fraser, Executive Dean

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

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

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

Faculty session

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

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

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

Workshop sessions

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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eSTEeM Annual Conference: April 2017

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

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

Opening keynote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success against the odds and the follow through

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

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

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

Tutorial observations

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

Workshop: bridge over troubled waters

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

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

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

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

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

Closing keynote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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AL Development Conference, Leicester, April 2017

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

Keynote: Peter Horrocks

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

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

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

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

AL development sessions

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

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

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

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

Closing points

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


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