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Christopher Douce

Curriculum continued

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A recent blog post I wrote about curriculum highlighted the concepts of programmes and qualifications. This blog post is a continuation of that earlier article, but introduces the various components that makes up a module. 

This article has been written for tutors who might be new to the university, but also might be useful for students too. For those of us who are experienced with OU teaching and learning, much that is presented here will be familiar.

After beginning by introducing some key concepts, I’ll talk through the ‘unboxing’ of four different modules. What is important to remember is that every OU module is slightly different, due to the role it plays with a programme or qualification.

Module components

Every module has an accompanying module website. Some modules will be presented entirely online, which means that all the module materials will need to be accessed through a computer, or a mobile device, such as tablet computer.

Other modules have a module mailing, which means there will be a package of materials that are delivered to students in the post. In some cases, a module mailing will include a number of printed books. These books might include module blocks (I’ll introduce the concept of a block in a moment) and a set of materials that must be read or studied. Sometimes, there might be other resources, such as audio CDs or DVDs, but increasingly audio and visual materials are available through the module website.

Guides

Every module contains three really important guide documents that you should read, and guide students towards:

  • A module guide offer a module specific summary of its most important elements and resources a module contains. 
  • An assessment guide offers a summary of what is assessed, and how it takes place. This can typically be found in the assessment section of the module website, but it can also be sent to you as a separate mailing.
  • An accessibility guide offers guidance for students who might need to access the resources, assessments and resources of the module in different ways.

Module calendar

A really important element of a module is the module calendar which defines the study tempo of the module, highlighting what needs to be studied and when. The module calendar also highlights when the key points of assessments are to take place. The calendar lies at the heart of the module website, and students are also typically sent a copy if it in their module mailings.

Using the module website, students are encouraged to tick off each of their study weeks. In return, they will see how much of a module they have studied, and how much further they have to go. Tutors should, of course, encourage students to regularly refer to their module calendar to make sure they are on track. You could also refer the calendar during tutorials, and within assessment feedback. 

Module books, blocks, and units

Modules are typically divided into blocks. Blocks can be thought of as a significant section of study that addresses a set of related subjects. Blocks contains numbered units, which can be thought of as topics for study.

An OU published book might be an entire OU block, or it might collate a number of related subjects together. For some modules, a block can be thought of approximately 10 points of study, but in other modules, a different structure may be used where chapters (or units) are the dominant component.

Units and chapters contains a number of important elements that tutors need to be aware of. They are typically studied at a particular time, as defined within the module calendar, and typically begin by highlighting a set of learning outcomes. These unit or chapter learning outcomes can, of course, be traced back to module level learning outcomes. It is a good idea to highlight these unit and chapter learning outcomes to students, since they are directly related to assessments.

Units and chapters also contain numbered learning activities. Although these can be easily skipped over by students, these activities are linked to the learning outcomes, and are also implicitly linked to any forthcoming assessments. The aim of the activities is simple: to give students some practice in developing the skills and knowledge that they will need to apply when they get to completing their assessment. Tutors should highlight these activities to students. They may also be useful to mention, and to draw upon, when preparing for tutorials.

Assessments

There are two main assessment components that OU tutors need to be aware of: continual assessment, which takes place during a module presentation, and the examinable component, which takes place towards the end of a module presentation.

Continually assessment takes the form of tutor marked assignments (TMAs) and interactive computer marked assignments (iCMAs). Tutors mark and to provide feedback on student TMAs, and offer help to students who might be stuck on any iCMA questions. Each TMA must be submitted by a student on a fixed date, which is known as a cut-off date. There will be other blogs about what it means to mark TMAs and to provide teaching comments.

The examinable component is either an equivalent of a written exam, or it is something called an End of Module Assessment (EMA). Think of the EMA as an extended assignment, or essay. It differs from a TMA in a few ways: it is longer, it usually accounts for a larger part of the overall module results, and it marked to higher standards than the TMAs. An EMA is typically marked by two tutors.

An OU exam used to be a written exam that took place in a physical examination hall. Due to advances in technology and changes in examination policies, an OU exam is sometimes an assessment you can complete remotely, at a set time, over a set duration.

The key differences between the continually assessed component and the examinable component is that the TMAs are sometimes though as formative assessments (where the assessment is used to facilitate student learning), and the exam bit is a summative assessment (where the assessment is used to determine what has been learnt). 

In the OU, TMAs can be both formative and summative, in the sense that although they are primarily about learning, the results that students gain from completing them also contributes to their overall score.

To pass a module, students need to technically pass both the continually assessed component and the examinable component. Just to add to the richness of this picture, there is also something called the single component assessment (SCA) module, where TMA results and exam results all combine together to form one score at the end. If single component assessment isn’t use, the student’s results is limited to whatever their highest score is across each of those two main components. Typically, the exam scores are slightly lower than the TMA score.

When it comes to module materials, tutors need to be aware of two key documents or resources that are usually found within the module website: the assignment booklet (which is a version of what tutors can see under the assessment bit of the module website), and the assessment handbook. The assignment booklet summarises the TMA, and the assessment handbook tells everyone what the assessment strategy for a module is. 

It is important that tutors know what the assessment approach for their module is, and how it works, since this is something that students will ask about, and this is something that you can mention during an introductory tutorial.

Module website

A module website is accessed through a student’s StudentHome page. The module website presents the module calendar. In turn, this provides clickable links to materials that should be studied and activities that need to be completed. 

The module website is designed to be used alongside any printed materials a student has received. Sometimes there are extra materials on the website that are not in the module materials. The exact balance of what is available online, and what is provided through printed material depends on the module. Typically, the module team uses the module website to share learning materials that are likely to change regularly.

The module website presents five clickable headings: assessment, tutorials, forums, resources and news. There is also a useful search tool which enables students (and tutors) to search for texts and terms that are used, defined and referred to in the module materials. 

Assessment

This takes students (and tutors) to pages where the TMAs and iCMAs are presented. This section also shares any additional supporting materials which students might need to complete the assessment, the module assessment strategy which students need to be aware of, and accompanying academic conduct policies. There is also information about the exam and associated revision materials. Do encourage students to look through this section, paying particular attention to deadlines.

Tutorials

This section is about online tutorials. It serves a couple of purposes. It is the route through which students access online rooms to attend online tutorials. There are different online rooms for different purposes, which will be explained a bit later on. The tutorial section also allows students to watch tutorial recordings. Tutors should encourage students to this page to attend online tutorial, and also to listen to past recordings. There is also a link between this section and the tutorial dates section of a student’s StudentHome page through something called the university Learning Event Management system.

Forums

Forums can be through of an online noticeboard where discussions can take place. The university provided online forums before the emergence of discussion and sharing spaces that are now available on social media platforms. A number of different forums can be found on a module website: there are tutor group forums, module wide forums, and even assessment specific forums. There also may be forums used to facilitate online group work. 

The exact choice and use of the forums will depend on the module team. Tutors should make use of their own forums, and encourage students to subscribe to updates. More about forums will be covered in a later section. 

Resources

The resources section enables students to access the materials that are shared through the module calendar. In addition to module materials, the resources section shares the following:

  • Guides: module guides, accessibility guides and any software guides.
  • For level 1 modules, there might be ‘getting started’ guides. These couple of pages highlight how to login to Student Home, the importance of the module website, and the study calendar.
  • Links to subject or discipline websites.
  • Useful module resources, such as indices and glossaries.
  • Links to online software tools that might be needed as a part of module study.
  • If appropriate to a module, information about how to download software and tools that students might need during their study.

At the time of writing, the module resources page offered two buttons: a download button, and a library resources button. 

The Downloads button takes students to a page where they are able to download learning resources in a number of different formats. There are typically Microsoft Word versions, different types of ePub files (which are used on e-readers), and PDF files. The reason for these formats is simple: in some circumstances, and for some students, some formats work better than others. Word versions, for example, can work well with different types of assistive technologies used by students with disabilities. Tutors should encourage students to use the different formats that are available to them, to find a study approach that meets their needs.

The Library resources page shares a set of articles that have been curated by both the module team and the library. This might include additional reading, such as academic articles, which complements the module materials.

It is worth nothing that glossaries serve a very practical purpose: they share official definitions of concepts and ideas from the module team. If an exam question asks for a definition of a term, the module team is invariably asking a student for a definition which is similar to the one that is defined in the module glossary. 

News

It is important to occasionally review the news section, and also encourage students to do so. It offers mix of helpful announcements from the university, which might be pointers towards university wide study events, and module specific announcements. A module chair and curriculum manager might use the news section to remind students about module wide lectures or tutorials, or to let students know about any issues, such as TMA or module material corrections.

Activity 1

Look through the resources section of your module website. Take a few moments to familiarise yourself with all the resources that can be accessed through the page. Click on the Downloads button. What different filetypes can you identify? How do you think you might make use of these resources with your own teaching? What might you tell students about the different types of resources that are contained within the downloads section? 

Exploring module resources

Each module uses a unique combination of resources and materials. This section takes you through a non-exhaustive list of some of the different types of resources that may be introduced to students through the module guide.

Software

Sometimes students are required to download, install, and use bits of software. For computing modules, this might include programming tools and network simulators. Design students might need to download mind mapping tools which are used to express their design thinking. Students studying electronics might need to download circuit simulation software. There is, of course, an expectation that students will be able to write their assignments using a Microsoft Word compatible word processor and submit them electronically through the eTMA submission system.

Online tools

In many cases the software that students need is available entirely online. Design and Computing students are likely to use something called Open Design Studio, which enables students to share their work with other students as a part of group projects. Computing students may use programming notebooks and reserve time to remotely configure physical networking equipment that is located on campus. Science students will be directed towards online laboratories which are made available through the Open STEM Labs. Depending on what they study, science students may also have access to virtual microscopes.

Library resources

The university library, which is accessed entirely online, is an amazing resource. Through the Library resources link, module teams may direct students to articles that are made available through the library. For arts modules, for instance, students can be directed to video archives, such as Drama Online, where they may access plays and films. Students in computing modules might be directed towards online versions of popular computing textbooks. Through the library, students can also access well known external resources, such as the Oxford English Dictionary. The library also provides access to digital versions of textbooks. If students are encouraged to carry out wider reading, do direct them towards the library.

Readers and other books

Sometimes module teams might collate resources together into a book or booklet, which may be included within a module mailing. The module materials will refer to sections in the reader, and may be used as source materials for assessments. In some cases, a published textbook will play an important role within a module. If this is the case, these textbooks will be sent as a part of the module mailing. It is likely that only certain parts of these textbooks will be used; always be directed by what guidance is offered in the module materials.

Set texts

Some modules need students to buy some additional books. This is typically the case for literature modules, where there is a reading list. Some good advice for students is: don’t buy everything in one go, since the module materials might use some books for one presentation, and a different set of books for another.

Print on demand materials

Different students have different study preferences. In the case where a lots of study materials are provided through a module website some students might be content access material directly through the module website. Other students, however, may much prefer to work with printed versions.

If a printed copy of some module materials is required, students can easily get a printable version of learning materials by clicking on a ‘view as single page’ link, and print out what they need. If someone hasn’t got access to a printer, and would prefer to get a printout of the study materials that are available through the module website, the university provides a ‘print on demand service’ where students can pay an additional fee to get a neatly printed version of the materials that are available through the module website.

Module accessibility

Accessibility is a term that can be understood in different ways; it can be understood in either a practical sense, or a technical sense. 

For a module to be accessible, students must be able to attain the learning aims that are expressed through its learning outcomes. In some cases, students might need additional support or technology to access, participate in, and contribute to learning activities.

Accessibility is a topic all of its own, and will be addressed in another section. Before this is explored in greater depth, it is important to highlight that each module has an accessibility guide. This offers practical (and technical) advice to students. To help students, tutors should also take the time to review the module accessibility guide.

Activity 2

Find the accessibility guide for your module by going to your module website. Is there anything specific to your module? If your module uses software or online tools, what does it say about them, and what elements might you have to help students with? Does the guide highlight different formats of module materials?

Examples

In this section, we look at some modules. Although these modules may be unfamiliar to you, there should be similarities with the modules that you are tutoring.

Example 1: A111 Discovering the arts and humanities

Using a university fee waiver, I studied A111 Discovering the arts and humanities, which has been produced by the Faculty of the Arts and Social Sciences. For students who are studying the humanities, this will be their every first OU module.

A111 is a 60 point module. The point scheme is explained later, but essentially 60 points means that it is worth half a year of full time study, when compared to a face-to-face university. A111 starts once a year, in October.

When opening the module mailing, I found the following items:

  • Quick start guide 
  • Welcome Letter
  • Book 1: Reputations
  • Book 2: Traditions 
  • Book 3: Crossing Boundaries  

The quick start guide is four sides of A4, which has the bold title: Read me first. It mentions the student’s university login code, provides an address to the Student Home website, and highlights the module website. It then goes onto mention many of the elements highlighted in this guide: the module calendar (which is known as a study planner), forums, the assessment guide, learning events (tutorials) and, of course, the role of the tutor.

Rather than being organised in terms of blocks, this module is divided into three sections, each of which relate to each of the published books that have been sent to students. The study is divided into weeks, where students are directed to carry out reading and complete activities to help them to prepare for the tutor marked assessments. During their study, they need to refer to chapters within the book, and the material that accompanies each study week.

Depending on their path through this module, students may need to buy up to three set texts, of which, only a relatively small element of each of the books are needed. During the module, students will be also directed to listen to some audio recordings, and watch some recordings of some plays through a service called Drama Online, which is provided by the university library.

Students need to complete 6 TMAs, which is typical for 60 point modules. Rather than having an end of module assessment (EMA), A111 has something called an emTMA; an end of module tutor marked assessmens. Each TMA, including the emTMA, contributes between 10 and 20% of the overall module result. There are also a series of iCMAs, interactive computer marked assessments. To pass A111 students need to gain a combined score of 40% or over across all the TMAs and must get an overall score of over 50% on the iCMAs.

Students can gain one of three different results from level 1 modules: distinction, pass, or fail. Students are awarded distinctions if they gain an overall score of 85%, but this exact score can vary slightly, depending on whether any statistical adjustments are made to ensure consistency between student groups. Since level 1 modules are all about the development of skills, all a student needs to do to progress to the second level, is to pass A111.

Example 2: TM112 Introduction to Computing & IT 2

TM112 Introduction to computing IT 2 has been produced by the School of Computing and Communication, which is based in the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Unlike A111, TM112 is a 30 point module. Students typically study TM112 after having studied TM111 Introduction to Computing and IT 1, which is also a 30 point module.

Like A111, TM112 students are sent three books. These are imaginatively titled: Block 1, Block 2 and Block 3. These blocks are not named, since this module structured around three repeated themes: essential information technologies, problem solving with Python, and information technologies in the wild, which are featured within each of the block.

The module website is split into weeks. Each week has a summary of online activities. These may involve reading some materials, completing quizzes, or watching video materials. Students may also be directed toward programming tasks and exercises.

Since one of the aims of this module is to introduce students to computer programming, students are provided with some quick start guides to help to get them started. There are also some additional materials to help students who might struggle with numeracy. TM112 tutors should be able to direct students towards these different resources.

Since TM112 is a 30 point module, students need to complete 3 TMAs; one for each block. To pass the module, like A111, students need to get an overall score of at least 40%. The first TMA accounts for 15% of the overall score. TMA 2 accounts for 35% of the overall score, and the final TMA accounts for 50%. An additional complication is that students do need to gain a score of at least 30% in TMA 3 to demonstrate they have met all the module learning outcomes.

Like A111, TM112 uses interactive questions, but uses them in a slightly different way. Unlike the A111 iCMA question results, which feed directly into the module results, students are asked to provide evidence of answering some of the questions in their TMA answers. Also like A111, students can gain the overall results of distinction, pass or fail, from studying TM112.

Example 3: M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming

M250 Objects First with Java is a 30 point second level Computing module. Some students who find their way to M250 have previously studied TM112. Since M250 is a second level module, module results directly contribute to a student’s degree classification. In other words, the scores they gain in this module begin to matter.

M250 students are sent a textbook: Objects First with Java. This book is well known by Java educators and is used in many other universities. Rather than having any OU published books, all the module materials that students need are presented through the module website.

Like the other modules, M250 has a clear study calendar. What differs from other modules is that students are directed to carry out reading and activities from the set text using materials which are known as chapter companions. The companion documents can be through of as an equivalent of an OU lecturer taking students through the bits of the text that they need to be familiar with.

The module and set text makes use of a bit of software called BlueJ, an integrated development environment (IDE) that has been designed for students who are learning the concepts of Java and object-oriented programming. During the course of the module, students will need to spend a lot of time using BlueJ, where they will get to solve programming puzzles and, of course, make mistakes.

The set text makes use of external resources, such as YouTube screen sharing videos, where students are shown how BlueJ and the Java programming language works. The idea is that students should be able to copy what is done in the videos to help them to develop knowledge, skills and understanding. In addition to each of the chapter companions, are required to complete a number of iCMAs. These iCMAs test understanding of key terms, and understanding of concepts that are introduced by the set text chapter, and accompanying chapter companions.

A difference between M250 and other modules is that students can submit bits of programming code to be evaluated by the module website before they officially submit section of their work through a tutor marked TMA. Students can, in turn, get an indication about whether fragments of code are likely to be correct, allowing students to build up their confidence. There are also some resources and guides that are not found in other modules, such as a software guide, and a Java language guide.

Like other modules, M250 applies a single component assessment strategy, which is summarised an M250 Assessment Strategy document which can be found under the assessment bit of the module webiste. The TMAs account for 50% of the overall module result, and the exam accounts for the other 50%. TMA 1 accounts for 15% of the whole module result, TMA 2 accounts for 15%, and TMA 3 accounts for 30%. Students must submit an exam and gain at least 30%, and an average score of 40% overall to pass the module. Curiously, at the time of writing, TMAs are marked out of a score of 150, which is converted to a percentage. The module iCMAs are formative and do not contribute to an overall module result.

Example 4: TM354 Software Engineering

As the module code suggests, TM354 Software Engineering is a level 3 module, which means that it is equivalent to final year study at a brick university. Like other computing modules, TM354 is a 30 point module.

The module is divided into three blocks, which are also printed books. Version of these printed books are also available through the resources section on the module website. The module blocks are organised into sequential themes. The first block is entitled ‘from domain to requirements’, the second ‘from analysis to design’, and the third is called ‘from architecture to product’. Each block is divided neatly into 4 units, or sections.

This module requires students to make use of a programming tool, but one that is different to the one that is used with M250. It also asks students to use something called a ShareSpace, an online tool where students are to share some of their software designs with other students, and comment on the work of others.

Like all the other modules, TM354 has a very clear study calendar, which is divided into weeks. For every week, there is a study guide, which refers students to sections of the printed text, but also guides students towards readings which have been made available by the module team and the library. All the units that are provided within the printed module materials are also available through the module website.

Students need to complete three TMAs, one for each block, and sit an end of module exam. Unlike the other modules mentioned here, TM354 does not use single component assessments. Students need to gain an average of 40% in both the continually assessed components (the TMAs) and the examinable component (the exam). The overall score is limited by the lowest score of these components.

Activity 3

What have you received in your module mailing? Open up your view of the module website and look at the module calendar. Can you see how the different components you find relate to the module calendar? Click on the resources link on the module website, and identify where you can find electronic versions of the module materials.

Activity 4

Find the assessment guide. What are the main assessment components for your module? What contributions do each of these components make? What would you say is the largest component? What does a student have to do to pass the module? Does your module apply a single component assessment strategy? Do your students need to submit their final assessment?

Reflections

This blog is one of a short series that introduces curriculum. Before this one, there was a blog about qualifications, and what these are. I do expect to be writing another one at some point. Eventually I’ll collate all these together into a bigger resource.

I’m always struck by how many resources there are on a module website.

When beginning to teach on a new module, I’m often very strategic in terms of what I look at. I make sure I know what the key dates on the module calendar are. I would then have a good read of the module guide, read through the accessibility guide, and then have a read through the assessments. This will, of course, primes my reading for when I get to the module materials. I also get printouts of these guides so I can scribble on them. A lever arch file is my friend.

As well as there being a module website, which is student facing, every module has a tutor website which is for tutors and the module team. They key elements of the tutor’s website will be the focus of another blog.

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Christopher Douce

Curriculum

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 14 May 2023, 12:08

On 9 May 23, I attended a staff development event that had the title “Our STEM curriculum” which was presented by David Morse, Associate Dean for Curriculum, Faculty of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. 

I must admit that I was expecting a very different session to the one that I attended. I was expecting something about curriculum accessibility. Instead, I had stumbled into what appeared to a briefing about the STEM curriculum.

What follows is a set of notes that I’ve taken from this session which I’ve moulded into a summary about different types of curricula that the university offers. Although the focus on this blog is, of course, STEM curricula, there will, of course, be similarities and differences between what happens in other faculties and institutions. Hopefully what follows will be a useful summary for anyone who is trying to understand what curriculum is all about.

How everything works

There are quite a few terms to understand: modules, qualifications, and credits. You gain credits by studying modules, and modules contribute towards qualifications. A degree is a qualification, as is a certificate and diploma. There are undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications.

The most familiar qualification is the undergraduate degree. To really understand what is meant by curriculum it is worth spending a couple of minutes to unpick what it comprises:

A full-time three year undergraduate degree is 360 academic credits.

Every year, a full time student will be studying 120 worth of modules.

Students studying at half time study intensity will, of course, study modules worth 60 credits.

In the OU, modules are either 30 or 60 credits depending on the faculty, and the module. In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the modules are typically 60 credits. In STEM, they are often 30 credits. In some cases, students can study one 30 credit module after another.

Other institutions might have different sizes of modules. I’ve seen modules that are 15 credits, 20 credits or 45 credits. Some really bit postgraduate modules might be even 90 credits.

One credit is typically considered to be 10 hours of study. The term ‘study’ can refer to a whole set of different activities: it can refer to attending tutorials, reading learning materials, completing study tasks, interacting with fellow students, and completing assessments. The exact make-up of that time will depend on the module.

With 10 hours of study per credit, this means that a 60 credit module means 600 hours’ worth of study. If we assume a typical working day is 7.5 hours, this can be translated to 80 days of study time.

A traditional academic term lasts 9 months from October until June, but within this period there are the Christmas and Easter holidays, which means a break of4 weeks. This means there are 8 months of study time for full time students.

120 credits of full time study means, of course, 1,200 hours. Dividing this by 7.5 hours per day gives us 160 days of study time. Dividing this by 5 gives us 32 week of study time per year. Dividing this by 4 weeks in a month gives us exactly 8 months, which means that everything fits.

Modules are broadly categorised in terms of level, which corresponds to the year of study at a face-to-face university. A module that has the number 2 as the second number is a second year module. I’ll cover more about this a bit later.

Now that we’ve figured out undergraduate degrees, let’s turn our attention to postgraduate master’s degrees. A one year master’s degree at a face-to-face university typically takes 12 months rather than 9 months, usually running between September to September. This means there is more to study. MSc and MA degrees typically require 180 credits. When studying part time, OU students typically study for them over a three year period.

All this is enough to make our head hurt. When we look into the particulars of individual degrees and qualifications, we find a whole lot more detail.

What follows is an edited set of STEM specific notes that I made from the session. I’ve taken the liberty of adding a number of sections which shares a bit more context.

Access modules

The first elements of curricula which some students may encounter are the university’s access modules. These modules are presented as an introduction to distance learning and aim to offer students a broad overview of a subject. There are four modules, one for each faculty, each taking up to 30 weeks.

The STEM access module is split into three sections (or blocks) which have the subjects: life, water and home. The first block addresses biology and ecology, the second adopts a practical perspective, and the third begins to address design, engineering and computing.

These access modules don’t attract academic credit. They do, however, help students to gain an understanding of what is involved with university level study. Students will gain experience of writing and submitting assignments, and will receive significant help and guidance from a tutor.

Undergraduate qualifications

The faculty offers a number of qualifications: foundation degrees, undergraduate certificates, undergraduate diplomas, first degrees, postgraduate certificates and diplomas and taught higher degrees. The most popular is the first degree.

The most popular qualification in STEM is the Computing and IT BSc (Q62), followed by Natural Sciences degree (Q64), and then the Certificate in HE in Computing and IT (T12). The popularity of the certificate in Computing and IT might be explained that certificates in HE (CertHE) and diplomas (DipHE) are known as milestone qualifications, which means that students can gain these qualifications as they accumulate credit for an undergraduate degree.

The faculty also offers a number of foundation degrees, such as the Foundation Degree in Computing and IT Practice (X15). Rather than being 360 credits, these qualifications are 240 credits and cover stages 1 and 2, an contains a compulsory work-based learning element.

Students can also use something called credit transfer. There is an increasing number of students who have studied at another university and convert their foundation degree to an OU BA or BSc by using the credit transfer service. This is sometimes called a top up degree.

Most of the degrees and qualifications that the university has are what are called named degrees, which means a degree that is specifically linked to a particular subject or discipline. Named degrees are relatively new to the OU. They were introduced in their current form to enable students to apply for student loans which are available for part time study. Loans are only available to students who are studying a named degree.

Each school within a faculty ‘owns’ the qualifications that are aligned to their subject area. There are, of course, some qualifications which cross schools and faculties. A popular choice is a joint honours qualification. An example of this is the Computing and IT degree with a second subject. With this qualification, students can study Computing with Business, Design, Mathematics, Psychology, Statistics and Electrical Engineering. 

It is also worth mentioning an undergraduate qualification called the Open Degree. The Open Degree predates the introduction of the named degree. It enables students to create their own degree from any undergraduate module. It is described as follows: the Open degree “allows you to bring together different areas of study in a completely flexible way to develop knowledge and skills. … Choose from over 250 modules across 16 subject areas, to create a bespoke qualification to match your interests”. Returning to the topic of credits, students must study 360 worth of academic credit, in three groups of 120 credits, which correspond to each of the levels.

A variation of the Open degree in the STEM faculty is the Combined STEM degree where students can create their own STEM degree from the different STEM modules that the university offers. Within this qualification, there are corresponding diplomas and certificates.

Undergraduate degree classifications

In keeping with all other higher education institutions (HEIs), when a student gains their OU degree, it is assigned a classification which reflects their performance. The highest category is a first, followed by an upper second (2:1) or a lower second (2:2), or third class.

Also in keeping with other HEIs, the first level of study is all about skills development. Although the first level modules do not officially contribute to a degree classification, level 1 modules can have two overall scores: distinction, or pass. To get a distinction, students must gain an overall score of 85%, as defined by a module’s tuition strategy. This said, the exact boundary for a distinction can be slightly adjusted by a module results panel to ensure that results are awarded in a way that is consistent between different module presentations. More information about what is meant by assignment scores, module results and overall grades is available through the university help centre. 

Results from level 2 and level 3 modules (modules that have the numbers 2 and 3 as the first numbers in the module code) do contribute to a degree classification. Module results are presented in terms of grades, ranging from grade 1 (which is a distinction) through to grade 4 (which is a bare pass). The module result grades are then combined with each other to calculate a student’s degree classification. More information about the algorithm used to calculate a degree classification is also available through the university help centre.

Postgraduate qualifications

Like the undergraduate qualification, the postgraduate master’s qualifications also contain milestone qualifications which are, of course, qualifications in their own right. As mentioned earlier, a master’s degree is gained through 180 credits of study. Along with way, students can gain a postgraduate certificate, PGCert through 60 credits of study, or a postgraduate diploma, a PGDip through 120 credits of study.

The classification scheme for postgraduate qualifications are different to undergraduate qualifications. There are three different results for master’s degrees: distinction, merit, and pass. In keeping with postgraduate qualifications in other institutions, the pass mark for modules is 50%. For undergraduate modules, the pass mark is 40%.

Higher degrees, such as doctorates and MPhil qualifications are not discussed here. Further information about these qualifications are available in another blog about doctoral study.

Apprenticeships

The OU also offers a number of degree apprenticeshipsThe degree apprenticeships share a similarity with foundation degrees. Both have a compulsory-work based learning element, but with an important difference: an apprenticeship is essentially a job role, with an aspect of study attached to it. The study is aligned with the job role. Apprentices have access to module tutors, and to practice tutors. The role of the practice tutor is to help the apprentices relates their formal academic study with their work-based learning, and carry out regular reviews to evidence their learning.

The funding for apprenticeship study comes from the apprenticeship levy, which all employers of a certain size have to pay from their salary bill. Employers can gain back the value of the levy by encouraging some of their employees to participate in a degree apprenticeship scheme.

Unlike many of the other qualifications, the degree apprenticeship standards are defined by external organisation in conjunction with employers rather than the qualifications being owned by an academic school. Apprenticeship schemes are nation specific. In England, degree apprentices are defined by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education with other bodies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In STEM, there are two degree apprenticeships; a Digital and Technology solutions (DTS) qualification, and a postgraduate Systems Thinking Practitioner qualification.

Higher Technical Qualifications

Higher Technical Qualifications follow the roughly the same standard as the apprenticeship qualifications. Unlike the degree apprenticeships, these qualifications do not have the compulsory work-based learning component or have the requirement for students to be connected with an employer.

In STEM, there are two Higher Technical Qualifications, which are available in England only: one that relates to Network Engineering (W19) and another about Software Development (W20). Students studying these qualification also have the potential to use their credit from the constituent OU modules on different qualifications, if they wish to further their studies.

Microcredentials

In the OU, typical modules are either 30 or 60 credits. OU microcredentials, however, can be thought as short courses (or modules) which run between 10 and 12 weeks which attract either 10 or 15 of academic credits. In some cases, these bits of academic credit can be ‘boxed’ together into a larger unit, and can be brought into a larger qualification through credit transfer, if the learning outcomes of the microcredentials are compatible.

Microcredentials aim to appeal to a different group of students: those who are interested in upskilling, or developing an evidenced continuing professional development (CPD) portfolio. This emphasis on CPD can be seen through the computing microcredentials, which currently draw on materials from industrial providers, such as Cisco.

Microcredentials differ from other modules in the sense that students are not provided a tutor. Instead, students have to carry out self-directed learning. Technology also plays an important role in the learning experience. At the time of writing OU microcredentials are delivered through FutureLearn, a MOOC provider, which offers a social learning approach. 

Time will tell whether microcredentials will become a bigger element of the university’s portfolio of curriculum. A personal view is that they are useful for some disciplines and for some groups of students, but may not work for others. It is interesting to note that are international initiatives that support the development of microcredentials (Microcredentials.EU) and accompanying policies.

Other types of curricula

As well as formal qualifications and modules, there is also a site called OpenLearn which shares free online courses. Some of the courses delivered through OpenLearni are known as Badged Open Courses (BOCs). This means when a student completes an OpenLearn course, they are eligible to get a digital badge, and download a certificate of completion. Learners can highlight the completion of these BOCs by mentioning them on CVs and job applications. If OpenLearn learners are also OU students, completion of OpenLearn modules will also appear on their student record, which are visible to students.

The OpenLearn resources that are summarised within this section can also be called Open Educational Resources (OERs), which is a category of freely available resources which can be used and shared by educators.

There are quite a few OpenLearn courses and resources which can be useful to tutors. There are courses that enable students to gain an understanding about what is involved with online and OU study. Since a percentage of OU modules are shared through OpenLearn, there are also courses that enable students to get a flavour about what they will be studying if they are to formally enrol. Also, there are courses which can be taken as continuing professional development modules for tutors.

What follows is a sample of some of the materials that are available.

Courses about learning to study

Here are some courses that might be useful to share with students who are considering OU study, or are new to OU study:

The following courses would be helpful for students considering postgraduate study:

Courses that offer introductions to formal study

Here are some notable courses from other disciplines:

Courses that help with tutoring and teaching

The following courses can offer CPD for tutors, and help learners to gain more of an understanding of what is involved with OU teaching and learning:

STEM facts and figures

During this session, David shared some facts and figures about the STEM faculty. For 2021 and 2022, there were 47k students registered on STEM modules. Out of these, 3.5k students completed a qualification, which represents roughly 19% of all OU students graduating. Although there are three faculties, approximately a third of students graduate with an Open degree.

Out of these students, 76% of students work either part-time or full time. 69% of undergraduate students had no previous HE qualifications. This highlights that the transfer of academic credit is playing an important role in the journey for some students.

As mentioned earlier, the Q62 computing qualification is the most popular undergraduate programme offered by the faculty. In recent years there has been a decline in students registering for Q62, but there has been an increase in the number of students registering for the cyber security qualification. In terms of postgraduate study, the Mathematics MSc is the largest MSc within the faculty.

Reflections

I was initially a bit grumpy when I realised that this continuing professional development session was offering a sketch about curriculum, rather than being about accessibility. A key learning point here is: make sure you read the event description carefully.

Sometimes it’s useful to stick with things. In this case, the summary of all the different qualifications that are provided by the faculty was a helpful reminder. I also took the opportunity to really figure out the notion of academic credit, and how it relates to modules, qualifications and the academic year. 

I’ve taken the opportunity to add two complementary sections: a bit about access modules (which wasn’t really covered during the session), and a section about degree classifications. Everything is, of course, linked to each other: qualifications are linked to modules, which are linked to schools, which are liked to disciplines.

There are, of course, bits of curriculum that I haven’t mentioned. Some years ago, there used to be a number of short courses, some of which were credit bearing, but there is only one short course is run by the faculty: a digital photography course. There is also something called ‘open box’ modules, where bits of external academic credit can used to contribute to an OU qualification.

Curriculum is subject to continual change. Its structure is affected by a number of variables: academic and cultural trends, innovations in pedagogy and technology, and wider political changes, such as changes to funding. It is interesting to see the extent to which freely available materials complement formal credit bearing materials. Knowing about what free resources are available has the potential to make a real difference to the student experience.

Acknowledgements

Thanks are extended to David Morse for running such a thorough session.

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Christopher Douce

Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference (day 2 of 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2019, 17:29

The second day of the conference was to be slightly different to the first; there were fewer sessions, and there were a number of ‘talking circle’ workshop events to go to.  On the first day I arrived at the conference ridiculously early (I was used to the habit of travelling to Milton Keynes in time for meetings, and catching a scheduled bus to the campus).   On the second day, I was glad to discover that I wasn’t the first delegate to arrive.

Opening remarks

The second day was opened by Professor Musa Mihsein from the OU.  He presented an interesting story of how he became to work at the university as a PVC.  Musa talked about changes to funding, making the point that there has also been a change in the use of language.  There is more of a need to ‘maximise impact’.  The accompanying question is, of course, ‘how can we best evaluate projects and programs?’

A couple of points I noted down was that we haven’t got a full understanding of curriculum and its role within the institution, and that collaborations are important.  There is also a continual need to communicate in different ways to policy makers.

Keynote 4: Liberating the curriculum

The first keynote of the day was by Kelly Coate, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education, from Kings College, London.  Kelly’s talk was interesting since it spoke directly to the ‘curriculum’ part of conference title.  She has been researching about curriculum for the last 20 years and made the point that, ‘decisions about curriculum are decisions about what we can think’ (if I’ve taken that down correctly).

Here’s some of my notes: we’re accustomed to certain view of what ‘curriculum’.  The word derives from a Latin word that means to run/to proceed.  This makes a lot of sense: most participants make it to the finish line, there are often a couple of really high scorers and a couple who are, perhaps, left behind. 

If we dig around in history, the notion of curriculum used to be associated with the ‘liberal arts’.  This contains the disciplines of grammar, logic, rhetoric, music theory, astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry, with the word liberal being derived from libra, meaning ‘free’.

Kelly’s talk gave way an interesting twist.  Since she studies what people are studying, she was asked to comment on a story that Miley Cyrus was to be the subject of a university course.  If you’re interested, here’s a related news story: Back to twerk … Miley Cyrus to be studied on new university course (The Guardian).   Thinking about it for a moment, the subject of Miley can readily be used to facilitate discussions about femininity, power, exploitation, celebrity,sexuality…

A bit of theorising is always useful.  We could thing about curriculum in three different domains: knowing, acting and being. Importance of relating teaching to the now, which opens up the possibility of students considering suggesting their own curricula by performing research into how ‘the now’ relates to the broad subject area.

Another way of thinking about curriculum might be in terms of gravity and density.  Gravity is the extent to which a subject can be related to a particular context.  Density relates to how much theory there is (some subject can be incredibly theoretical).  I really like these metaphors: they’re a really good (and powerful) way to think about how a lecturer or teacher might be able to ‘ground’ a particular concept or idea.

We were briefly taken through a couple of ideas about learning and pedagogy.  The first one was the transmission model (which, I think, was described as being thoroughly discredited), where a lecturer or teacher stands in the front of the class and talks, and the students magically absorb everything. The second idea (which I really need to take some time out to look at) is actor-network theory (wikipedia).  Apparently it’s about thinking about systems and networks and how things are linked through objects and connections.  (This is all transcribed directly from my notes - I need to understand in a whole lot more than I do at the moment!)

I’ve also made a note about a researcher called Jan Nespor  who has applied actor-network theory to study physics and business studies classes.  The example was that lecturers can orchestrate totally different experiences, and these might be connected with the demands and needs of a particular discipline (if I’ve understood things correctly!)

I’ve made a note of some interesting points that were made by the delegates at the end of Kelly’s speech.  One point was that different subjects have different cultures of learning, i.e. some subjects might consider professional knowledge to be very important.  Musa mentioned the importance of problem-based learning, particularly in subjects such as engineering. 

Session 3: Innovation in design and pedagogy

There was only one presentation in the third session which was all about pedagogy.  This was entitled ‘Creating inclusive university curriculum: implementing universal design for learning in an enabling programme’, by Stuart Dinmore and Jennifer Stokes.  The presentation was all about how to make use of universal design principles within a module.  We were introduced to what UD is (that it emerges from developments in design and architecture), that it aims to create artefacts that are useful for everyone, regardless of disability.

Connecting their presentation to wider issues, there are two competing (yet complementary) accessibility approaches: individualised design and universal design.  There is also the way in which accessibility can be facilitated by the use of helpers, to enable learners to gain access to materials and learning experiences.

It was great that this presentation explicitly spoke to the accessibility and disability dimension of WP, also connecting to the importance of technology.  During Stuart and Jennifer’s presentation, I was continually trying to relate their experiences with my own experience of tutoring on the OU module, H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (OU web page)

Talking circle

I chose to attend innovation in design and pedagogy.  I do admit that I did get a bit ‘ranty’ (in a gentle way) during this session.  This was a good opportunity to chat about some of the issues that were raised and to properly meet some of the fellow delegates.  Some of the views that I expressed within this session are featured in the reflection section that follows.

Closing keynote:  class, culture and access to higher education

The closing keynote was by John Storan from the University of East London.  John’s keynote was a welcome difference; it had a richly personal tone.  He introduced us to members of his family (who were projected onto a screen using PowerPoint), and talked us through the early years of his life, and his journey into teacher training college, whilst constantly reflecting on notions of difference.

He also spoke about a really interesting OU connection too.  John was a participant in a study that gave way to a book entitled, Family and kinship in East London (Wikipedia), by Michael Yong and Peter Willmott.  (This is one of those interesting looking books that I’m definitely going to be reading – again, further homework from this conference).  ‘We were the subject’, John told us.  He also went onto make the point about the connections between lived experience, research, policy and curriculum.

I’ve made a note in my notebook of the phrase, ‘not clever, able enough’.  I have also been subject to what I now know to be ‘imposter syndrome’.  In the question and answer session, I’ve made a note about that the codes of language can easily become barriers.

Reflections

One of the really unexpected things about this conference was the way that it accidentally encouraged me to think about my own journey to and through higher education.  Although for much of my early life I didn’t live in an area that would feature highly in any WP initiatives, higher education was an unfamiliar world to my immediate family.

Of course, my journey and my choices end up being quite nuanced when I start to pick apart the details of my biography, but I think there was one intervention that made a lasting impression.  This intervention was a single speech given by a member of staff at my former college about the opportunity that university study gave.  I remember coming away thinking, ‘I’m going to apply; I have nothing to lose, and everything to gain’.  A number of my peers thought the same.

The conference presented a number of different perspectives: the importance of assessing the effectiveness of interventions and the importance of theory, how to design WP curriculum, how to make curriculum accessible, and how to make materials engaging for different groups.  One aspect that I thought was lacking was that of the voices of the students.  It’s all very well discussing between ourselves what we think that we should be doing, but I felt it would be really valuable to hear the views of students. 

An area that would be particularly useful is to hear about instances of failure, or to hear about what went wrong when students tried university level study but couldn’t complete for some reason.  There are some really rich narratives that have the potential to tell researchers in WP and curriculum a lot about what institutions (and individuals) need to do.  The challenge, of course, is finding those people who would like to come forward and share their views.

In the sessions that I attended, there were clear discussions about class, socio-economic status and disability, but there seemed to be an opportunity to discuss more about ethnicity.  Quantitative research has shown that there is an attainment gap.   There was an opportunity for some qualitative discussions and more sharing of views regarding this subject.

Another thought relates to the number of keynote speeches.  Keynote speeches are really important, and it was great that they were varied – and they are very important in tone and agenda setting, but more paper sessions (and perhaps a plenary discussion?) might expose different issues and allow more contacts to be made.

I appreciate that these final reflections sound a bit ‘whingey’; they’re not intended to be.  WP is an important issue, and from the amount of follow-up homework I’ve got to do this clearly tells me that the conference was a great success. 

In some ways I guess the conference was slightly different to what I had expected (in terms of the debate and discussions).  I was expecting it to be slightly less ‘academic’ and slightly more practitioner focussed (or oriented to those who deal with WP issues on a day to day basis).   The unexpected difference, however, was very welcome; I’ve learnt some new stuff.

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