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A111 Journal - April 2021

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 2 May 2021, 12:41

2 April 21

I’ve got my TMA 4 results back and I felt that the marking was fair, and the feedback was really detailed and thorough.

I discovered that whilst I tried to answer the essay question, I did go a bit ‘off piste’. In other words, I was trying to be too clever, and moved away from some of the key themes and topics that were presented within the module materials. That’s okay, though. Other than the first TMA, I’ve never really written an arts essay before, so I should be pleased with my score.

I’ve finished reading the chapter about the play called The Island, which I enjoyed. I learnt a lot about the history of South Africa, and the way that a play can transcend different boundaries. I’ve read half of the next chapter: Music and Protest in South Africa. What I need to do now is to go back over the online materials; there is half of the Antigone materials to work through, and all of The Island materials to work through. I feel as if I’m just about keeping up, but by the skin of my teeth.

I’ve reminded myself of the next TMA cut-off date, which is coming up in around three weeks. Next week I have a plan to prepare my TMA document, and then have a very good look at the questions. 

In other news, I’ve also registered for the follow on module, A112.

5 April 21

My registration for A112 has been confirmed. It’s going ahead! Now, all I’ve got to do is to complete TMA 6.

To prepare for this final TMA, I did a bit of reading yesterday. I read over the chapter that was about South Africa, protest and music quite quickly. I do plan to spend a bit more time working through the online material in a lot of depth, since I think this might be my focus on TMA 6. I got a bit further than I had expected, and got to the chapter about the art of Benin. There’s such a lot in this new chapter that I don’t know about. I guess I’m balancing studying in a strategic way with studying with the intention of making sure I learn about new things that I don’t know about, and might help me understand new perspectives.

Aware that I need to get a move on, I’ve started to prep for TMA 5.

I’ve created a new document and have added the reflective question that I need to answer. I have also copy/pasted in the assessment criteria, and a summary of all the question points that I must address.

My next step: to review the very useful feedback that has been given by my tutor, and to review all these blog posts.

16 April 21

Between this post and the last post, I have been doing a bit of reading, but not as much as I should have been. 

Today I re-read a chapter about the looting of Benin, a chapter about the way the Benin bronzes were perceived and presented, and then got to a chapter about the relationship between the bronzes and modern art. I found this last chapter really interesting, although quite difficult to read; some of the text was quite dense.  

During this last chapter, I learnt about the connections between modernist art and modern art, and the way that the notion of ‘primitive’ art had been challenged by the technical precision of the Benin bronzes. Whilst I was studying, I took a couple of pictures (using my mobile phone) of what I thought were key paragraphs about the way in which the bronzes were understood and viewed.

17 April 21

Two days to go before the TMA 5 cut-off date. I’ve started it, putting all the main ingredients together. I now need to go back to my document, edit it all together (drawing on the activities that I have completed), and get a submission together. 

A few days ago I reviewed the module assessment strategy after reading some questions from a fellow student, who asked: “do I have to submit TMA 6?” I know that TMA 5 accounts for 10% of the overall score, and TMA 6 accounts for 20%. Although it looks like I can get away with not submitting the final TMA and still pass the module, I’m going to submit it anyway.

At this stage, I’m torn between doing the literature and music question, and the history and art question for TMA 6. I think I’m going to do some re-reading before I decide.

Meanwhile, on to TMA 5.

27 April 21

I found a bit of time to attend the only tutorial I’ve managed to go to for TMA 6. The tutorial focussed on the Benin bronzes. When I started, there were about 12 students online. By the time it finished, there were about 4 or 5. The tutor did a great job talking us through the different materials, and there were three practical activities which connected to something that we had to do in the TMA.

30 April 21

I’ve got my TMA 5 result, which I’m really pleased about. 

I’ve read through the feedback, but I need to read through it again. A reflection is: I need to review the guidance about writing an assignment, which was given to me with my TMA 4 feedback, since that looks to be really helpful.

I’ve been really busy at work recently, which means that I’ve not done as much as I had hope to do. I need to do a bit of catching up.

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Adventures of a staff tutor

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Over the Christmas break I managed to acquire a new affliction: ‘Netflix back’. It’s a short-term physiological condition that is caused by lolling about on the sofa watching too much telly.

I really needed a break from everything over Christmas, and thankfully I was able to get a bit of downtime, which involved watching loads of Scandinavian crime dramas.

In my last column I wrote about feeling on the edge of burnout. The feeling of “just about getting everything done” returned within a couple of weeks.

It has now been over a year since I have last physically seen my staff tutor colleagues. The last time was at an event about the new AL contract which took place in Leeds. In normal times, we would be regularly meeting in the Computing and Communications staff tutor room at Walton Hall. In that room (a real one) we would regularly chat about what is going on, find out about what has been said in various meetings, and collectively solve all kinds of little problems and glitches.

Those friendly but essential informal meetings over a cup of coffee that we used to have (or ‘hub chats’ as some of us call them) have become a whole lot more formal. A chance encounter and a quick catch up has morphed into a complex multistage process, which begins with an email, moves on to a diary check, moves on to another email, and then finally on to a virtual meeting. This partly reflects the significant increase in emails I have been receiving over the last year.

We’ve discovered some new phrases.

The most obvious one is: “you’re on mute”, followed by the slightly more esoteric “is that a legacy hand?”, which refers to a spurious virtual hand that had been raised in either MS Teams or Adobe Connect meetings.

In the last few weeks, some staff tutor colleagues have been sent some very sensible queries by tutors that we ought to be able to answer, but are not equipped to answer, such as “what does my projected FTE contain?” and “what are my additional duties?”

All this confusion led to one thing: anxiety.

At the heart of this was a fundamental issue: I had no understanding of how I might be able to support tutors under the terms of the tutor contract, and everyone was telling me that the new tutor contract was to begin in October.

At the beginning of March, the new tutor contract project team appeared to have finally woken up to the fact that they need to understand what staff tutors and student experience managers actually do. To help to unpack this puzzle, they asked staff tutors from each of the faculties to sign up to an impressive number of workshops. From my perspective, it was almost impossible to participate since I’ve been busy preparing for an April presentation.

Amidst all my day to day activities, the emails to tutors, the online conferences, the induction events, and grade appeals, the new tutor contract occupied my thoughts and worries.

I was anxious since there were questions that I couldn’t answer. I was anxious because I didn’t know what tools and systems I might be using to make things work. I was anxious because I want to do the best possible job I can to help all my tutor and staff tutor colleagues but I didn’t know how to do this.

I started to have trouble sleeping, and I know this wasn’t down to all those Scandinavian crime dramas I’ve been watching on Netflix.

On 22 March, I received an email from the university secretary, Dave Hall, saying that the implementation of the new tutor contract had been paused.

The challenge for us now is to encourage the project team to take stock, and begin to consider how we can all practically realise the contract in a way that is pragmatic, sensible and realistic. Any future implementation plan must also be incremental and inclusive.

The university will be a better place when ALs are on permanent contracts. We need to continue to make the case for sensible tools and processes. From a staff tutor’s perspective, we’ve got a lot of work to do to make that happen.

This article first appeared in Snowball Issue 99, March 2021. Snowball is the newsletter for Open University associate newsletters and is published quarterly.

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2nd Annual STEM Teaching Conference 2021

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 13 Apr 2021, 08:21

On 3 March I found some time to attend an internal OU event that was called the 2nd Annual STEM Teaching Conference 2021. The event has an accompanying conference website  and a detailed programme (PDF). For those of us who were not able to attend, and can access some of the OU web pages, there are also recordings of the various sessions, for anyone who might be interested.

A further note is that this conference was a STEM Faculty event organised and sponsored by Diane Butler and Carlton Wood, who are associate deans. What follows is a quick summary of the sessions that I attended, and a short reflection section that is towards the end of this blog. I do hope this summary might be of interest to some of the follow delegates.

Keynote: Changing the attainment gap

The keynote was given by Dr Winston Morgan, Reader in Toxicology and Clinical Biochemistry, and Director of Impact and Innovation, School of Health Sport and Bioscience, University of East London. An abstract for the keynote is as follows: “Changing from the attainment gap to the awarding gap is an attempt to shift interventions away from fixing the students and their deficits; a strategy which has failed over the last 25 years, to fixing the tutor and their biases. … the presentation will show that making changes to the design and delivery of assessments and assessment practices will not change outcomes, primarily because they assume a student deficit. A more effective strategy would be to highlight the role and impact of tutor bias linked to racialised stereotypes. This is particularly important to the allocation of privileges to students which will enhance performance, the marking of assessments and who is accused of academic misconduct. Finally, the presentation will provide examples of how we can minimise or mitigate the impact of racialised bias on BAME student outcomes, particularly the awarding gap.”

We were introduced to the concept of the awarding gap, and an important question: how do you teach through a racialised world? The point was made that our biases have real impact, and denial about the gap is not an option: we have both a collective and individual responsibilities. Related to this point, I noted down the words (which I hope I’ve noted down accurately): “reflect on how much time you invest in your BAME students, and make genuine effort to engage your BAME students“.

Another point was: within your scholarly activity, seek out people from different groups. I also noted down a “take back to the classroom slide” which presented the point: we live in a racialised world, this leads to bias and inequalities, and this means that we much allocate academic privileges in a fair way.

A few days before editing this summary, I noticed a newspaper article that related to some of the themes that were presented within this keynote: I'm quitting as an academic because of racism and joining Surrey police. The following sentence jumped out at me: “I have found a serious diversity problem; I have been unable to get past overt and subtle prejudice in order to make a difference to BAME students and potential future academics.”

Proactive help for ill-prepared Level 3 students

The first main session I attended was by three colleagues from the School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences: Louise MacBrayne, Fiona Moorman and Janet Haresnape. Their session was described as follows: “A new proactive support scheme is being piloted for S317 and S315 20J. Students deemed to be ill-prepared were targeted for proactive support. This presentation will update on ongoing results and will reflect on the potential usefulness of such an approach to increase student retention and success at level 3.” For reference, S317 is Biological Science and S315 isChemistry: Further Concepts and Applications

Different criteria were used to identify students that might be potentially at risk, and may potentially benefit from support. One group was students who have a weak pass on important level 2 modules, such as S215 Chemistry: Essential Concepts, and S294 Cell Biology. Another group were students who were new to the university, having transferred academic credit from another institution, or students who may have a limited background in science. Pass rate for these group of students is less than half that of other students.

Two different groups of students were identified: one that was high risk, and another group that was a moderate risk. Students were provided proactive support through one-to-one sessions. There were further plans to develop drop in sessions.

I didn’t make notes of any firm findings, but I liked the approach of attempting to identify groups of students that may potentially benefit from additional support or guidance from tutors.

Caps, quotas and standby lists

The second presentation I attended was facilitated by my Computing and Communications colleague Frances Chetwynd. Her presentation had the subtitle of “a guide to managing student waiting lists (and reducing your stress levels)”. Her abstract description presents the challenge clearly: “with the University seeing unprecedented rises in student numbers … ensuring we have enough tutors on each module is an increasing problem.” One her (and our) aims is to reduce the student waiting list.

Frances offered a definition of a quota. It is something (a number) that limits registrations and reservations, and is set by staff tutors and module team, and is set by academic services. A quota is important since it gives university colleagues time to carry out tutor recruitment, reduces costly deferrals, and can ringfence module places for certain reasons (such as apprentices), and reduces legal challenges. The point was simple: “if you have any uncertainty over student numbers, do have a quota”.

There are a number of resources that can help (within the OU world) that can help to make decisions about the setting of quotas. There are tools called PowerBI and Ratatosk which can provide useful numbers and summarise a trend of student registrations. Also, academic services colleagues also produce weekly/daily data.

Some useful early actions include send messages to ALs about modules that may be advertised, have pre-application briefings to help tutors with their application process, ask to advertise internally and externally, and try to get adverts out to external sites.

It’s important to keep everyone informed, and trying to increase the quote all the time; speaking with staff tutors to get a handle on what potential capacity there might be. Other actions: you can ask the SST to ring around to see if they can register, and interviewing.

After final enrolment date: reserve students will drop off, so standby can be moved to reserve status. We got money to call ALs to call students to remind them to register, and the only way to register, is to ring into student registration services.

A collaborative framework for associate lecturers to enhance student and tutor satisfaction 

Next up was a presentation by my Computing and Communications colleagues Marina Carter and  Richard Mobbs, who spoke about how they provide student support through “the adoption of a collaborative framework” which “enables students to benefit from consistent, coordinated, and enhanced support and the sharing of the tuition workload among associate lecturers (ALs).” They go onto explain that “the framework involves the staff tutor working closely with ALs using tutor forums to support the collaboration.”

An important aspect of this is a tutor forum: “the tutor forum facilitates peer support amongst tutors, sharing of experience of all the key elements of module tuition, including consistency and accuracy of correspondence tuition right through to broader teaching philosophy and pedagogy issues.” Also, “the framework is enhancing student’s tuition provision by the inclusion of topic focussed tutorials hosted by subject experts. Additionally, a weekly teaching email is sent to all students (via their tutor), with one tutor responsible for composing the email each week.” Tutor also share students’ activities, “keep track of student engagement, progression and retention analytics”.

I noted down that some threads were set up on the tutor forum, such as a student cluster forum posting plan, and a TMA marking guide thread that is designed to encourage tutors to share good practices. I also noted down that working together has the potential to mean less work. Through the forum tutors are able to working together to create a set of tutorials and share tuition tasks, such as sharing what needs to be done. When reviewing tutorial attendance, those tutorials that have a focussed topic may be ones that are most popular.

Other benefits of the tutorials are that tutors can cover each other, new ALs paired up with more experienced tutors, and a team approach means that there are high registrations and attendance at tutorials. Collaboration encourages different tutors to do different things and encourages the development of a community of practice.

Producing a module outside the VLE 

Sticking with the theme of Computing modules, the next presentation I attended was given by Michel Wermelinger and Oli Howson, who are also based in the School of Computing and Communications. Michel and Oli have been working on an update to a module called M269 Algorithms, Data Structures and Computability.

Here’s how they introduce their session: “We're producing a Computing module to be fully delivered (study materials and TMAs) via Jupyter notebooks, not the VLE. We're authoring in a simple text format (not Word), automating the process as much as possible, and hosting the production materials on a version control platform to work together.”

They go onto say that: “a new edition of M269 is being authored in a different way to provide more programming practice to students  … [The module is being] authored entirely (both book and TMAs) in Markdown, a very simple and widely used text-based mark-up format. A set of scripts written by [the module team] transforms the Markdown files into Jupyter notebooks, which will be the main medium for students to study M269. … Using freely available software we convert the Jupyter notebooks to PDF and HTML to provide alternative read-only formats to students. Traditionally, the module team, students and ALs work with multiple documents: the TMA questions, the student's solution document, the tutor notes and additional code files. This leads to inconsistency errors and time overhead in authoring, answering, and marking TMAs.”

There’s a lot of technical abbreviations to unpack here, but all makes complete sense. I’ve heard it said that an attribute of a good programmer is laziness, in the sense that good programmers want to find efficient ways of solving problems. Sometimes programmers and developers create (or curate) what might be known as a ‘toolchain’ to solve certain problems. This is exactly what Michel and Oli have done.

One of the most important bits of their toolchain (since students will be using this too) is something called Jupyter notebooks (Jupyter.org). Michel and Oli describe it as follows: “Jupyter notebooks are interactive browser-based documents, allowing students to read the text, run the example programs and solve the exercises without the overhead of switching media.” In essence, can use it to play with (and learn from) a programming language.

Text for M269 is written in Markdown (Wikipedia). I found this really interesting, since I hadn’t heard of Markdown before, but it does look pretty easy to follow and understand. Markdown documents are converted to notebooks, which can also be used to create zip files, HTML and PDF files.

I noted down that they also used something called Nbsphinx which is Jupyter Notebook Tools for Sphinx. This is where everything gets a bit recursive, since Sphinx (Sphinx website) appears to be a documentation tool that is used with Python.

Everything that is created by the module team is saved to GitHub. Michel and Oli described Github as “the worlds largest repository of software; we know who has changed what and why – no more emailing around of Word files”. Plus, each Github repository has a wiki, which is used to document who has changed what.

Since learning the principles behind algorithms isn’t easy, the module team have tried to reduce cognitive load on students. Previously students have to change between different documents and resources. With the current version of the module, using Jypiter notebooks, everything is kept in a simple document. The module team also wanted to reduce the cognitive load on the tutors too. 

The takeaway points from this presentation were simple: automation is important and useful, have proper version control, use Markdown to focus on content, and consider using Jupyter notebooks for interactive content.

Plenary session

The final session of the day was facilitated by Dr Diane Butler, Associate Dean Academic Excellence, from The Open University, Dr Neil Williams, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Faculty of Science, Engineering and Computing, Kingston University, Professor Sally Smith, Head of Graduate Apprenticeships and Skills Development, Edinburgh Napier University and Dr Elinor Jones, Associate Professor, Department of Statistical Science, University College London. 

The broad focus of the plenary was about what “other STEM practitioners and institutions have experienced the last year and how they feel their teaching practices may be permanently altered as a result of the pandemic and the switch to digital delivery of curriculum”. There is an accompanying question, which is whether there have been long-lasting implications for STEM Higher Education both in traditional and distance learning institutions.

Diane began by asking all participants to reflect on the impact of the pandemic in each of their institutions, and also asked: what would you not do, what you might keep, and how has the delivery of HE changed?

A point was that everyone has become learners, since everyone has had to learn new skills. In UCL practice has changed, moving from traditional face-to-face lectures “flipped” learning. I noted down the word “trying” a couple of times: trying to replicate some of the things that happens on campus, and trying to actively facilitate peer-to-peer activities. Assessments have had to be done in a different way. There have been impact on staff. One participant reported that “some are on their knees”, but it has also driven forward staff development activities; staff know more about technology enhanced learning.

What hasn’t worked? It has been harder to ‘connect’ with students, and harder for students to connect with each other. Some students really liked pre-made materials. Difficulties exist since students often have their microphones and video turned off. 

There are contrasts: some students like working in their own time, but not everyone has faired well. There might be a gap between those who have flourished, and those who haven’t. The sudden short term change in practice might lead to a longer term change: more use of the flipped classroom.

What will happen to Higher Education after everyone returns? What is going to stay and what is going to go? I made a note of something called a “blended learning task force”. There might be more independent learning and changes to assessments. The sudden shift to online has also accelerated professional development. There is also a concern that the pandemic has magnified digital divides. 

With everyone, and every institution emerging from the pandemic, there was the suggestion that it may be necessary to find ways to give student and staff reasons to come to the campus.

A final question: is there still a place for the OU if other intuitions are now doing what the OU does? A face-to-face institution isn’t a distance learning university; it’s all about creating a blend with more materials being placed online. One of the final points was that the OU has nothing to fear, since the OU continues to innovate. 

Reflections

For this conference, I mostly stuck with the computing sessions. Looking back, I think there were two reasons for this. The first is that I wanted to support them, and secondly, there were some colleagues that I have not had much contacts with some of my colleagues over the last year, and so it is good to catch up with what they have been doing.

Like with the previous AL development conference I wrote about, I would have much preferred to attended a face-to-face session, rather than an online session. I miss the coffee chats, and when you’re actually attending a conference, you can’t get so easily distracted by emails and phone calls. In a virtual event, it’s too easy to drop out or to move away to do something else. These things said, Dr Winston Morgan’s keynote set the right tone, and presented messages that continues to resonate. I really enjoyed Michel and Oli’s presentation about M269. Finally, a very interesting plenary session.

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AL development online conference: March 2021

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 12 Apr 2021, 13:10

In more usual times, I would probably be attending a face-to-face AL development conference. Since everyone in the university is working at home, the university ran an online cross-faculty AL development conference on Thursday 4 March 2021. 

What follows is a set of edited notes I made during the event. It’s intended as a rough record of the event, so I can remember what happened. Wherever possible, I tried to directly quote some of the speaker, but I won’t promise I’ve got all their words spot on. This said, I do hope I have honestly reflected points that were shared during the sessions.

Keynote: Marcia Wilson

The event kicked off with an opening keynote from Professor Marcia Wilson, Dean of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Here are some notes that were sent around in advance of Marcia’s presentation (which have been edited down for brevity): “Prior to the OU, Marcia worked at the University of East London for 12 years where she established the UK’s first Office for Institutional Equity (OIE) … . Her work includes equality projects with Universities UK to tackle racism in higher education institutes. … Marcia has spent 30 years teaching and conducting research in higher education and is a multiple award winner for her leadership and equalities work.”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to this very first session due to work commitments, but I must refer to an earlier presentation that was given by Marcia at an event called Dismantling Racial Inequalities in Higher Education which I found to be really through provoking. 

AL Contract Change Programme Update

Bruce Heil and Carey Stephens, from UCU and the AL contract programme management team, presented updates about the contract implementation. This was a popular session, attracting 108 delegates.

UCU summary

Bruce highlighted a period of accelerated negotiations that were on going at the time of the conference. He emphasised that there was an aim to build a stable tuition workforce, to enable better future planning and emphasised that a step-by-step approach was taken “to make sure we get the changes right”. 

Bruce emphasised that this will be a permanent contract, rather than a piece work contract, and one would encompass module tuition appointments, annual leave, and tuition related activities, such as TMA monitoring, EMA marking, and time that relates to academic currency (which means: keeping up to date with your subject). Benefits for ALs include security and certainty. Benefits for the faculties includes “simpler processes for allocating work now to maintain AL FTE” and longer term planning and development. The benefits for university include opportunities to enhance student experience. 

Regarding the implementation, the plan is to migrate to new contract in October 21, and phase in the ways of working over a period of 2 years. I noted down that there would be 4 phases of change: prep to migration, development of processes and procedures (up until 22J), and in 23D the deployment of a workload management system.

A key difference between the old and the new contract is that tutors will no longer need to apply for contracts. Instead, there will be a discussion between a tutor and their line manager (staff tutor or student experience manager), and this will give security and certainty. Spare or unused capacity can be allocated to extra students or modular work, and tutors will be working to a defined FTE figure that relates to an annualised salary which will be paid over 12 months rather than just for the period of the contract. There is also a longer term idea, which is that tutors will have one line manager.

Other updates include that the FTE for practice tuition has been agreed, and the provisional FTE (which is currently calculated from October 20) will be updated with any further appointments that have been made.

Management summary

Cary stated that the new contract will bring ALs in line with other staff, and the FTE score represents the workload rather than the tasks. Tutors can expect an agreed FTE value to be maintained.

From this session, I noted down some questions and answers, such as: how can I increase my FTE before the official start of the new contract? The answer was: you will need to apply to modules as you did before.  Also, how can I decrease my FTE before the start? There will be a query and appeals process which can be used before the start of the contract.

An important question was: what is meant by historic tuition related activities? These are additional duty contracts, which are all gathered together, and averaged out over a 3 year period between August 17 through to July 20.

Key workload areas (in terms of making the contract work) includes a new capability procedure, a skills audit process, and prioritising conversations with ALs whose modules are coming towards the end of their presentation. There is also the need for guidance to help faculties to maintain a tutor’s FTE and developing workload allocation processes to manage workload fluctuations

A good question was: will I have the same flexibility to decide what work I will take on? “There may be occasions where you have capacity and are reasonably requested to take on a piece of work that you can do but would not normally consider.” There will be a conversation where you may be asked to take on a piece of work.

Also, rather than taking a personal leave of absence, tutors will be able to submit an “agile working request”. Another important point is that if student numbers fall, tutors may be asked to carry out additional duties to make up their time that is expressed within the FTE score.

I made a note of the important question: how will these TRAs be managed? The answer I’ve noted down was: “we’re at the ‘how do we do this’ phase?”

Q&A session

Q: I have over 0.3 of historical duties. I haven’t seen any statement of what are covered and what are not. Can we have one? A: you would have to go through your payslips over the last 3 years.

Q: I want to reduce my FTE. Is there a minimum FTE? What will be the notice period of a contract? A: There is no minimum. A reduction should be a sensible one. Term of notice is not known. 

Q: Will we be recompensed for IT use? A: Currently under negotiation.

Q: I’ve only had the one appraisal over 15 years. Will the time be made for this? A: We envisage an annual workload and CDSA meeting; an annual conversation; this will be a right and an expectation.

Q: Would it be possible to remain FTE and move onto a different module before October? A: speak with your line manager.

Q: Will assistant staff tutor roles and activities be counted? A: No; it isn’t in the contract.

Q: I want to get my workload spaced out better. Is this possible? A: Make sure your line manager is aware of your needs; have a chat with your staff tutor.

Q: I have a LLM that I have never met; it would be nice to meet them face to face. A: Ideally, yes.

A staff tutor’s reflection

I chose to go to this session for two reasons: the first was to add my understanding of what is going on, and secondly, to try to understand what the official UCU and management line on the contract was. The session confirmed some key fears that I have long held: that some very important aspects of the detail hasn’t yet been worked out. I have, for example, no idea how the historical tuition related activities will be managed, and nor do I know how to get an overview of which tutors are doing what, or how to get a quick summary of a tutor’s FTE score.

Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

The session provided an opportunity for STEM ALs to meet each other. It was said to be: “informal, giving ALs the chance to converse, raise questions, and discuss the priorities within the STEM Faculty”. Approximately 40 tutors were able to attend, which was great to see. 

Michael Bowkis from the School of Computing and Communications and Fiona Aiken from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences gave a summary of updates to the curriculum.

For the School of Computing and Communications, Michael summarised the key qualifications that were run from the school. These are: Q62 BSc (Honours) Computing and IT, Q67 BSc Computing and IT & second subject, R62 BSc (Hons) Computing with electronic engineering (which starts this year, and has four compulsory modules: T193. T194. T212 and T312), R38 BSc (Hons) Data Science (which is technically managed by Maths and Statistics), and R60 BSc (Hons) Cyber security.

The BSc (Hons) Cyber security (R60) started in 2020, and is a specialist qualification that is aligned with industry certification (CompTIA  Security+, CeH (Certified Ethical Hacking) and is accredited by the British Computer Society (BCS). It comprises of 3 new modules: TM256 Computer Security and Digital Forensics, which starts in February 2022, which addresses aspects of systems security and introductory concepts of digital forensics. There is also, TM311 Information security, which is linked to InfoSec standards for cyber security analysts. TM311 starts in October 2021. There is also TM359, System penetration testing, which is concerned with building secure systems, testing, ethical hacking methodology including certification as ethical hackers. This final module begins in February 2023.

On the postgraduate front, there is a new qualification: F87 MSc Cyber security. GCHQ certification and BCS accreditation will be applied for. An important module will be: M817 Cyber Security Fundamentals, which will complement M811 Information Security, and M812 Digital Forensics. Also, advanced networking qualifications are being withdrawn, but networking will remain as a pathway option in the main MSc programme.

Finally, the school offers four undergraduate degree apprenticeship qualifications, and one postgraduate. These are: R24 BSc (Honours) Digital and Technology Solutions (England), R32 BSc (Honours) IT: Software Development (Scotland), R33 BSc (Honours) IT: Cyber Security (Scotland), and R40 BSc (Honours) Applied Software Engineering (Wales). The postgraduate programme has the title of: F83 MSc Cyber Security (Scotland).

What hasn’t been mentioned is also new machine learning and artificial intelligence module, TM358. The School of Computing and Communications is a busy place!

Refreshing your practice: working across disciplines to enhance the student experience

We were given a choice of what session we would like to attend, and I opted for this session, which was facilitated by Heather Richardson and Clare Taylor. I was attracted by the abstract. Here’s a section: “In this practical workshop you’ll explore how experimenting with the teaching approaches of a different discipline can help you look at your own subject in a new light. Drawing on the findings of the FASS scholarship project ‘Creative Interactions’, which brought together the disciplines of Art History and Creative Writing, you’ll first take part in some hands-on activity, and then move on to consider potential ‘interactions’ between your own and other disciplines.”

I was drawn to this session, partly because I’ve been studying an arts module, A111, and have also recently completed a creative writing assignment. I was curious about what these activities might be, and how the activities might relate to my own discipline of Computing. The abstract also went on to say: “In the first part of the workshop you will analyse and respond to a piece of visual art from the Open University’s art collection, firstly conducting an Art-Historical visual analysis of the artwork, and then being guided through producing your own Creative Writing response to the piece.” The session was related to a Faculty of Art and Social Sciences project called ‘Creative Interactions’. 

There was a reference to the university art collection, which is mostly hung in corridors and shared spaces. During this session, we were show a number of works, and introduced to some terms that could be used to create (or write) a formal analysis of a piece. Key terms that we were introduced to included: scale, space and composition, viewpoint, subject matter, material/medium, line, colour and light, display and function.

There was then a shift towards creative writing. With an artwork used as a prompt, we were asked: “imagine you’re in the space that is depicted in a picture; what do you feel through your senses, and what is your emotional state?” We were asked to comment on three questions and respond through text chat: how did you respond to the image? Which approach was more helpful? What did you gain by trying two approaches?

What I got out of this session was how our online teaching tool, Adobe connect could be used, to create an interesting, and thoughtful tutorial experience. In our breakout rooms we were asked to discuss the question: what other disciplines could your own discipline interact with? In the breakout room that I attended, we discussed the connections between our own disciplines, and others.

To summarise, this was a popular session, with over 50 delegates attending. It made me reflect on how I use the online teaching tools, and consider how I might be able to draw on other subjects to (potentially) make my online tutorials more interesting and engaging.

Reflections

 I always get something from AL development conferences. It was useful to hear the official line about the new AL contract, and I did really enjoy the final session, which certainly got me thinking. I can’t help but feel that whilst online conferences useful and helpful, nothing quite beats being able to share tips and experiences over a cup of coffee at a face-to-face AL development conference. I look forward to a time when these can happen again. 

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A111 Journal – March 2021

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6 March 21

I didn’t make it to the TMA tutorial, but I did work through the online materials for Remembering and Forgetting in Ireland.

Since the clock is now ticking quite loudly, it’s time to get strategic.

I have two things to do during this session: go to a recording of an online tutorial about the Gothic Revival, and go straight onto the online activities.

I found the recorded tutorial interesting. Our tutor spoke about Catholicism, Protestantism, the Palace of Westminster, and the Gothic revival. He also touched on broader aspects of architecture such as modernism (specifically mentioning Le Corbusier) and the design of the Reichstagsgebäude building by Foster.

My next step was to actually look at the TMA question: “’Writing may be as important as designing for an architect.’ Discuss”. I found this immediately puzzling, but maybe the reason what I hadn’t yet been through the online materials, and had only very briefly read the module materials that had been presented in the course text.

To try to fill this gap, it is back to the materials, where I soon learnt more about the difference between a classical arch, and a gothic arch.

12 March 21

A few days earlier, I worked through the printed module materials again, making notes, in pencil, in the margins of the book. This gave me some good ideas, and a bit of focus about what to write about.

I gave the TMA a good go; I re-wrote my essay plan and then set out all the key points I wanted to make. I felt that I was responding to the question, whilst also drawing on the sources that were presented in the module materials. I was able to quote some of the phrases and terms I had identified from my re-reading of the materials. 

I got up to approximately 1200 words, which suggests that there is a little more I might be able to write about. I have some ideas.

13 March 21

I’ve done it! I’ve submitted TMA 4.

I found it difficult to answer the essay question and write about the materials that were presented within the module. I found it easier to go outside, but I hope the external materials that I’ve drawn upon are appropriate and useful, and connect well to the context (and themes) that were presented within the module materials. I tried to “bring myself back” to the examples in the module materials to try to show that I had understood everything.

Next bit: a section called Moving Forward. I can also see there’s a discussion forum that I need to have a good look at. These resources are all about making a choice about the next module, and answering the question: “what bits did I enjoy the most?” I also listened to these short audio clips of students talking about their experiences.

The moving forward section offered a strong steer towards the optional further study activities. I’m going to look at Revival of the Gothic Tradition materials (if I have the time, of course).

Having a quick look through the websites, I think the next module is going to be (providing I finish this one, of course) A112 Cultures.

16 March 21

I went to a module wide event, which was called “moving forward”, whilst I was doing a bit of multi-tasking in my day job. I was surprised to see that there must have been over 450 students attending. 

20 March 21

I have started to start reading the first chapter of the next book, Crossing Boundaries. This chapter was about Antigone (an-tig-on-nee, apparently), a Greek tragedy written by Sophocles.

21 March 21

I’ve finished Antigone. I’m don’t really know whether I liked it or not. I think I did. Spoiler alert: everyone dies.

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Considering the new tutor contract

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 18 Apr 2021, 15:04

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about something called the new tutor contract. On 22 March 21, I received an email that contained the following words: “we have concluded that we will not be ready to implement the contract changes this October. Migration of ALs to the new Terms & Conditions will therefore be rescheduled”. 

The aim of this long blog is to present a staff tutor’s perspective. It is a perspective that is very nuanced, since we’re in the middle of everything. It has been written with the intention of sharing some important background to a number of different groups of staff: senior leaders, tutors, members of the project, central academics, union members, and anyone else who would like to learn more about what has happened. 

I’ve written a number of blogs about it, I’ve participated in some of the negotiation groups from the inside, and I’ve been to a whole host of briefings and updates. I’ve taken a keen interest in it because I think it is important and right that the university employs its associate lecturer staff on permanent contracts. I’m also interested in how it is going to be implemented, so I can do my best to support tutors and staff tutors.

At the timing of writing, the “word on the street” is that the new date for the introduction of the contract might be August 2022. To get there, there is a lot that needs to be done, but there isn’t (yet) a clear vision of how we will get everything achieved by that date.

This blog isn’t a reflection of any negotiated position, and isn’t a reflection of any university policy or plan. Instead, it is intended to share some thoughts and personal opinions about what the next steps might be and highlights some of the clear and obvious challenges that remain. It is also a small chapter of a much longer story.

To make any progress, there needs to be a substantial reset of the project. It needs to be recognised that we’re not just talking about change; we’re talking about institutional reform. It is going to be really important to thoroughly understand the work and role of staff tutors and AL services. Also, the solution is not as “simple” as implementing an IT system since we’re talking creating new human activity systems. A sobering point is that the suggested date of August 22 is already optimistic; we need to get a move on if we stand any chance of making anything work.

For the time pressured, here are a list of ten things that need to be done. Each of these points are expanded in the article below:

  1. Let’s go bottom up, not top down
  2. Separate negotiation from implementation 
  3. Uncover those requirements
  4. Embed change agents within schools
  5. Be practical, be incremental
  6. Make things meaningful
  7. Look at planning, piloting and risk
  8. Structural simplicity and transparency
  9. Don’t be afraid to build
  10. Honest communication

Previous articles

In my first blog on this subject, New AL contract: Requirements workshop and C&C discussion, I summarised a very early attempt to “try to figure everything out”. A group of Computing and Communications staff tutors got in a room together in Manchester in January 2019 and asked ourselves: “so, how on earth can we make this thing work?” The truth of the matter is that we didn’t get out of the starting blocks, but we identified some of the key questions that needed answers.

After this first workshop, C&C staff tutors set up some working groups to try to answer some of the questions we had identified. No one told us to do this. We set up the groups because we wanted to be as prepared as we could be when the new tutor contract was introduced, and almost all the staff tutors in the school participated. The groups considered different aspects of the contract and what we thought we needed. It is summarised in the blog Understanding the new tutor contract: C&C working groups, and we presented what we had done to our associate dean.

We’ve always been told that although the terms and conditions for associate lecturers are going to change, the terms and conditions of staff tutors (the line managers of associate lecturers) are not going to change. I’ve always appreciated that some aspects of our job are likely to change. Being a firm believer in the benefit of scenarios, I wrote another blog to try to figure out how the staff tutor might look under the terms of the new tutor contract: A day in the life of a future STEM staff tutor

Amidst all this activity, I’ve also found the time to study a couple of modules. One of the modules I studied was a dissertation module, which was about educational leadership and management. In this module, there were some really interesting sections about institutional change. I didn’t have to think too deeply before I could see the link between an academic discussion of change and the ongoing institutional updates from the new tutor contract team. I felt compelled to write a short blog about the theories of institutional change, emphasising the importance of middle leaders in facilitating change: Studying educational leadership and management. I found the papers about institutional change and middle leaders fascinating; almost as fascinating as Computing.

Understanding complexity

It’s important to take a moment to recognise the amount of complexity that exists within the university.

The university employs around 4k part time tutors. Each tutor will have a different work portfolio. Some tutors will teach on a single module. Other tutors, on the other hand, will have a rich portfolio of modules, and will also do a whole range of other activities, such as marking exams through to helping to write assessment materials. There are also practice tutors who work on the degree apprenticeship schemes. This complexity means that there will be as many variations of the new contract as there are tutors.

Since tutors can do many different things, they may also report to different line managers (who are called staff tutors). To make sense of all this, there are two different key roles that staff tutors carry out as part of the management element of their duties. There is the role of a tuition task managers (or TTMs). TTMs look after a tutor who may be teaching on a module (a tuition task). Secondly, there are lead line managers (or LLMs). LLMs oversee everything that a tutor does, carry out their appraisal, and provide references. There is another role, which is called a cluster manager, but I’m not going to go into that here, since that really would be confusing.

On top of all this, there’s another dimension of complexity, which is: staff tutors can do different things. In my school, they work on module teams, do research and outreach, write module materials, they get involved with employability schemes and educational technology infrastructure development, are postgraduate programme managers, and work closely with the student support teams. Also, the number of tutors that a staff tutor looks after can and does vary. In my school, we are expected to look after 54 tutors as a TTM, and we should line manage around 20 as a LLM. At the time of writing, I’m currently supporting around 60 tutor contracts across all levels of the undergraduate curriculum. 

I have the impression that things are different in different schools. In STEM, some of the Science schools are a lot smaller than the Computing school. In the Faculty of Business and Law, staff tutors are not called staff tutors at all. Instead, they have the title of student experience manager.

There’s also complexity within the curriculum. Just because I don’t have enough to do, I’m currently a student in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. The introductory level 1 module A111 is very different (in terms of points, and structure) than TM111 in Computing. When you look up the levels, things are also very different too. Some schools have only undergraduate programmes, whereas others have postgraduate programmes and may also run degree apprenticeship schemes. 

It’s is also very clear that different modules apply different assessment strategies. Some use end of module assessments, some require written exams, and others use something called single component assessments and have an end of module tutor marked assessment. For some modules, the assessment marking fee is all bundled in with the salary, but this isn’t the same for other modules.

If you look a little bit further, there’s even more complexities that we need to be mindful of. Some modules may make extensive use of online discussion forums which require proactive and sensitive moderating, whereas other modules might not use very many discussion forums at all. There are also differences in teaching strategies. In non-pandemic times some engineering programmes need tutors to participate in face-to-face summer schools. Similarly, Computing networking modules had a series of compulsory face-to-face day schools that ran at university centres.

An important concept of the new tutor contract is to have a single line manager who has an oversight of all tutor’s work. To begin to move towards this ideal, it is essential to recognise that the reality is complex, messy and very interconnected. It is also important to recognise that everything is currently facilitated by people and personal relationships. To make the change to the new tutor contract, all the stakeholders that are linked to all aspects of a tutor’s workload need to be involved.

In a very early project meeting, I tried to make the point that the introduction of the new tutor contract isn’t just change; it is bigger than that. It is institutional reform. 

Reform takes time since there is a cultural dimension to it.

Recognising the inversion

Given all this complexity, it is useful to ask the simple question of: “how do things work at the moment?”

The answer to this is pretty straightforward: a tutor manages their own time and workload. 

If a tutor has capacity, and they see an interesting module, they might apply. They then might be shortlisted, interviewed, and then potentially be considered to be appointable, and then later offered a contract. Also, if they want to get involved in forum moderation, for example, they may respond to an expression of interest.

With the new tutor contract, everything is inverted. Rather than the tutor managing their own time and workload, the staff tutor becomes responsible for ensuring that the tutor’s time is used as effectively as possible by allocating them bits of work. This means that all the complexity that was previously described needs to be somehow understood and taken account of. That complexity also needs to be shared between fellow staff tutors within a school since they need to work together to solve common problems, such as tutor illness, marking appeals and student support issues. To make thing work, we need to create some form of “system” to collaborate and work with each other to make sense of all that complexity.

When I use the term “system”, I don’t mean a computer system. Instead, I mean a human activity system, of which there would be an information technology component. The humans we would interact with would include curriculum managers, colleagues from AL services, people services, and anyone else within the complex picture that was described above. What we have is a difficult problem to solve because it involves a lot of people, and a lot of information.

When considering the new tutor contract, it’s important to recognise an important inversion. Time management will shift from the tutor to the staff tutor, and this represents a fundamental cultural shift.

Imagining the next steps

At the time of writing, the work on the implementation of the new contract had paused since there was a recognition that the university would not be ready to make things work in October.

Another question I have been asking myself is: “if someone in the VCE asked me for my view about what they should do, how might I respond?”

As a starting point, and to facilitate further discussions, here are my suggestions:

1. Let’s go bottom up, not top down

One thing that I’ve realised is that top down change doesn’t really work when there are two factors at play: loads of complexity, and working with a rich community of colleagues who are free thinkers who really want to be involved. 

Staff tutors are smart people. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge. That experience and knowledge exists “on the ground” within the schools. They will be doing the work at the end of the day, so it is important to reach down to those grass roots.

2. Separate negotiation from implementation

The project team tried to negotiate their way to an implementation. It is right and proper that unions are involved in the negotiation of contract terms and condition, but the implementation of operational processes and system is substantially different. There isn’t any reason why the union need to be substantially involved (and I choose my words carefully here) in the gathering of detailed requirements. 

I’ve heard the argument “we couldn’t start the implementation because we were still negotiating” a number of times. This view doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The broad aims and principles of the contract are understood and published. All the time on the project has been used up for negotiation, and not implementation.  There is no reason why everything needs to be completely defined before the work that is needed to implement the contract could begin.

3. Uncover those requirements

In the January 2019 workshop which I referenced earlier, I spoke about using tools such as personas, scenarios and use cases as potential ways to start to uncover user requirements. Before even considering system requirements, it’s important to ask a simpler question: “what, exactly, is the work that staff tutors do?” It’s important to capture scenarios, to evaluate them, to write new ones, and to test them thoroughly because different staff tutor communities might understand similar things in slightly different ways.

A whole host of issues were uncovered during the February 2020 staff tutor new tutor contract, but these issues were not clearly shared, understood and resolved in a way that was clear or understandable. All this gives the sense “the project team” don’t really understand what staff tutors need to be doing to make the new tutor contract a reality. 

4. Embed change agents within schools

I hate the term “change agents” but at the moment I can’t come up with anything better. 

The existing project had a role that was called a “faculty rep”. The faculty rep had the unenviable job of being an interface between the faculty and the project team.  Our STEM faculty rep has done a very good job in helping a lot of staff tutors understand some of the fundamental challenges that need to be resolved. Structurally, however, four faculty reps isn’t enough people to facilitate complex strategic change when there are at least four hundred centrally employed university staff who are directly affected by those changes (I include AL services colleagues as well as staff tutors within this rough estimate of staffing numbers).

A proposal is to have someone within every school (or a part of a person within smaller schools) who help with activities such as gathering requirements, testing requirements, and sharing updates about how systems and tools will work. 

In response to queries about the lack of engagement by the project team, I’ve heard members of the project and colleagues from the union say: “we have had staff tutors in all the negotiating groups”. That certainly is the case, but there is a fundamental difference between participating in a collective bargaining and negotiating structure, and having the need to actively uncover requirements, enact culture changes and help colleagues to understand new ways of working. 

The only way to effectively make bottom up change work, is to find a way to empower those communities that will be affected by those changes. A school rep (rather than a faculty rep), along with other stakeholder reps, may be the only way to do this.

5. Be practical, be incremental

Tutors and staff tutors will be making decisions, in partnership with each other, about what bits of work need to be done. These ‘bits’ might be module tutoring, exam marking, or a broad range of additional Tuition Related Activities (TRAs), as they are called. Effective decision making can only be facilitated by the provision of effective and accurate information. 

The idea is that every tutor will have a full time equivalent percentage, which relates to their salary. A bit of this score relates to TRA activities. The thing is, we currently have no way of knowing or understanding what is in that bit of TRA time describes or relates to. Subsequently, we have no idea about how to manage it all.

The TRA bit of the FTE has been calculated by doing an average of salary data over three years. An average presents a summary of something; it doesn’t present the detail. What we need to make everything work is the detail of who has been doing what and when.

A practical suggestion is to separate out module FTE from the TRA FTE, and find a mechanism to increase a tutor’s FTE over a period of time when substantial pieces of work are needed to be carried out. Rather than guessing what work people do (which is never a good thing to do), we should rely on real data of work that is carried out. In the transition period, which could take a few years, tutors should be paid roughly the same for the same work.

This approach gives us something else that is important: equity (in terms of making sure that work is fairly allocated between tutors), and transparency. 

6. Make things meaningful

One of my grumbles was about the first skills audit pilot. Tutors were essentially asked whether they would like to carry on doing the work that they were doing. The skills audit pilot that we were presented with wasn’t the systematic discussion about the skills, capabilities, and aspirations that I had expected. In January 2019, a question was posed that still seems to be unanswered: “will tutors be able to see their skills audit summary through TutorHome?” I still don’t know whether this is the intention of the project team. 

During the course of last 18 months, a project group was set up to develop training procedures to help staff tutors to understand how to make the new tutor contract work. This is an important piece of work, and this is something that certainly needs to be looked at. The problem was that the project group were trying to define training for procedures which hadn’t yet been defined, since staff tutor work practices had not yet been defined, since requirements had not been uncovered and analysed. We couldn’t be trained in systems that had not been defined.

Some parts of the project have been baffling. The workload planning group wasn’t really about workload. Instead, it was about FTE. There was a “support solutions group” that was, actually, a group about tools and systems. 

Substantial bits of work should always have meaning, and should make sense. It is important that any overseeing board takes the time to question the activities that have been set up and are taking place. 

7. Look at planning, piloting and risk

Towards the end of the first staff tutor conference about the new tutor contract that took place in Leeds, I asked a really simple question: “what are the next steps?”

There needs to be a clear project plan that has a set of interim deliverables, and that plan needs to be published widely. That plan isn’t expected to be perfect, since change is difficult, but it needs to offer more detail than has been offered by the previous plans that have been published by the project team. 

Piloting is important, and I think this is partly recognised. I have heard rumours of a second “skills audit pilot” that had been taking place in the Faculty of Business and Law, but I have no idea what it is all about. One thing I am certain about is that the curriculum in FBL is likely to be very different from the curriculum in other schools and faculties. Piloting ideas and concepts is obviously important, since they smoke out issues, and develop understanding within the community of staff that are involved within a pilot. Pilots should be embedded within a complex change programme to ensure that stakeholders are involved.

One of the obvious criticisms that can be levelled at the current project team is the lack of clear risk planning. With every risk, there should be a mitigation. Although it seems like it, August 22 isn’t a long way away when we’re dealing with complex change. I would like to propose one from the outset, which is: “how are we going to run everything if we don’t have access to working information systems?” This “plan B”, whatever it might be, should be piloted early. 

8. Structural simplicity and transparency

When I was on the union side of a negotiating group, I wasn’t quite sure about what I could say to whom about what. There was a high level group called AL NT, another group called ST NT, another group about FTE calculation, and another couple of groups which I don’t really know anything about. There were also two sides, a union side, and a management side. Meetings took place every two weeks, and there were always no less than ten people per group. 

Within those groups, I found myself repeating the words “engagement” and “requirements” many times. There is a fundamental issue at play here: the more complicated a structure, the more difficult it can be to actually get things done, and to get your voice heard. 

Communications between parts of the project need to be better for anything to work, and the whole project structure need to be simpler. When requirements are gathered, these should be made available for scrutiny. Transparency should be a principle that is adopted for the whole of the project. 

9. Don’t be afraid to build

The OU is a unique institution amongst higher education institutions. The new tutor contract is also likely to be unique amongst contracts that are used in the higher education sector. In one of the groups I was involved with, there was a general trend towards looking at “off the shelf” solutions to keep track of who does what and when.

Given the uniqueness and the complexity of everything, it is entirely plausible that an ideal off the shelf solution might not exist. Subsequently, it’s really important that the decision makers don’t rule out the need to develop a bespoke set of tools to help AL services and staff tutors if that is needed. The university has a bespoke version of a VLE and a bespoke student management system.

As suggested earlier, when considering systems, the project leaders should always remember that when the term “system” is used, it isn’t only used to refer to “information system” or “computer system”. The system needed to make the new tutor contract work is what is called a human activity system, of which IT will play an important part.

It’s also not only true that an IT system needs to be built, the project team need to take time to build understandings amongst all the different stakeholders, and build ways of working too. Drawing on my experience of tutoring on a third level Interaction Design module, it may also be a good idea to build prototypes too. 

10. Honest communication

Finally, a call for honest communication. 

A lot of the updates coming from the project team can be described as unrelentingly positive. Some of the messages that were being conveyed were substantially at odds with my own understanding of how everything was going. Some of the communications summarised work done rather than achievements gained and conveyed a false impression of success. Also, some of the email updates appeared to suggest (in my eyes) a lack of understanding of many of the complexities that were sketched out at the start of this blog. 

If there is going to be progress, communications from everyone who has a vested interest in the new tutor contract needs to be considered and measured. There also needs to be a degree of honest directness. It is also important to listen to those who may have something to contribute, and to thoroughly consider the perspectives of others.

Final thoughts

Given how important tutors are to the success of the university, there is something very wrong if the institution isn’t able to give tutor colleagues permanent ongoing contracts which recognises their commitment and dedication. 

I have been concerned about the state of the project for some time. I think I have been concerned by some of the very important misunderstandings, or differences of opinion, that appear to exist. The first of these is the concept of: “we can’t implement whilst we’re still negotiating”, which doesn’t make sense given the extent of the change that is necessary. The second is a misunderstanding of the conception of “engagement”. Engagement within a negotiation structure isn’t the same as engaging with those who are at the sharp end of any change. Engagement and involvement must be substantial and continuous. Staff tutors sit within a confluence of complex relationships: with tutors, AL services, module teams, people services, and other stakeholders. All these groups need to be involved.

It’ll put it another way: there needs to be a substantial “reset” in the way that the project is run for it to have any chance of success in August 2022. As suggested earlier, in the complex world of IT system procurement or development, this isn’t much time at all. Also, we need more than an IT system to make everything work. Meanwhile, systemic institutional reform that needs to take place. We have, after all, a profound inversion of working practices to figure out.

A significant concern is that staff tutors don’t yet have an understanding of how they will be able to practically manage module teaching under the terms of the new contract. Given that we don’t have a thorough or detailed understanding of how to make things work for modules, the idea of managing tuition related activities with incomplete information, having no real understanding about how to deal with that incomplete information, fills me with fear. There needs to be systematic uncovering of requirements, and the topic of the TRAs need to be thought through very carefully.

I want to support tutors (and students) by allocating work in a way that is traceable, transparent and fair. By working with AL services, I also want to ensure institutional and organisation efficiency by ensuring that that public money and student fees are used and spent in a way that is appropriate and justifiable. 

I don’t want to be in a situation in 2022, where I again receive the words “we have concluded that we will not be ready to implement the contract changes”. There’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of hard decisions to be made before we get anywhere close to a workable solution. 

As an institution, we need to get a move on.

Acknowledgements

Many of the concepts that have been expressed in this blog are not my own, but have emerged through a process of extensive collective discussion of these issues of a period of many months. I would like to personally thank staff tutor colleagues within two groups, the cross faculty M-21 group, and the C&C staff tutor community. A personal thank you to colleagues who took time out of their busy day to proofread this very long article.

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A111 Journal - February 2021

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 6 Mar 2021, 10:11

21 Feb 21

This is really the first note that I’ve made in February? Unfortunately, it is. This month has been more than busy in my day job. 

I’ve gone from being a couple of weeks ahead to being a couple of weeks behind. 

I need to get my focus back again.

Towards the beginning of the week I received my TMA 3 feedback, which I was really pleased about. My tutor had read my short story really carefully, and provided some really helpful comments about how my writing may be improved. One thing I have learnt is this: don’t try to be too clever, since sometimes it just doesn’t work. In my story I sacrificed readability to deliberately create some descriptions that were ambiguous. When one has a really limited word count to play with, it’s important not to mess about.

Over the last two days I’ve been reading chapter 5, questioning tradition, which is about philosophy, and chapter 6, remembering and forgetting in Ireland, which is about history.

I’ve learnt that Socrates didn’t actually write anything, and it was instead his pupil Plato who wrote the dialogues in which he is featured. In the dialogues I’ve read, Socrates does have a habit of coming across as being really annoying, what with all his questioning!

I’ve noted down this section from the module materials: “one benefit of reading Plato is that his writings are designed to courage a kind of critical reflection, inviting us to think through the arguments for ourselves and come to our own view”. 

Some really interesting bits have been the dialogue about the nature of courage, and the difference between knowledge and opinion (and how this relates to philosophy).

In chapter 6 I’ve learnt about the notion of cultural nationalism, and have read an excerpt of speech about rediscovering the Irish language.

It’s now time to head over to the module website and start to make some notes. If I have time, I’ll also have a good look at TMA 4, which I have printed out.

28 Feb 21

I’m gradually catching up. I did a bit of reading today and yesterday.

I finished reading chapter 6, remembering and forgetting in Ireland, and chapter 7, Christianity and its material culture, and started chapter 8, the revival of the gothic tradition.

I found the chapter about Christianity, which highlighted topics of pilgrimage, cathedrals and the reformation interesting. This said, religious studies is not really a subject that I feel I can personally get really excited about.

Out of all the chapters that I have been reading in this section of the module, I have realised that I have enjoyed the architecture chapter the most. It’s a subject that I quite like even though I haven’t really thought about it in a great amount of detail before.

I have two things on my ‘todo’ list today: a quick sprint through the various online activities for these modules (if I have the time), and a look at the next TMA.

In October, I wrote 7 updates to my A111 journal. In November, I wrote 16 entries. For this month, I’ve only written 2. A final reflection: I need to up my pace of study if I’m going to keep on track.

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A short blog about academic writing

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Feb 2021, 11:43

A couple of years ago I received a shock; I received a TMA result which I was not at all happy about. 

I was initially really annoyed, but then after the annoyance subsided, I had a good look at my tutor’s comments. The main thrust of his feedback was that I needed to sort my academic writing out. He was kind enough to offer me a one-to-one chat that must have really helped, since I went from getting a score that made me really grumpy, to getting an EMA score that made me really happy.

What follows are three tips that I’ve picked up over the last couple of years. The second tip comes directly from my tutor.

Tip 1: Paragraphing

A paragraph should contain a single idea. 

It shouldn’t be too short, and nor should it be too long. My own principle is: if one is writing more than 4 sentences, then perhaps the paragraph is getting a bit big? Also, regarding the sentences, don’t make them too long.

Tip 2: Making an argument using resources

This was the killer tip that was given to me by my tutor. When doing academic writing, you might want to use the following template. Each part relates to an element of a paragraph.

Part 1: The main point

This first bit is the main point that you want to make in the paragraph; the point that you want to assert or are arguing about.

Part 2: The evidence

Introduce some evidence that supports your point. This might be a quote from something that you’ve read (perhaps a chapter from a set text, a paper, or some of the module materials).

Part 3: The connection between the two

This final bit represents almost a conclusion to your paragraph. Explain how the evidence that you’ve provided is related to the main point that you’re making. This, essentially, is the critical bit. 

When I was writing up my dissertation, I applied this pattern time and time again. I also had introductory and concluding paragraphs.

Tip 3: Referencing

One thing that my tutor was on my case about was referencing. This is important since it shows the extent of your reading, and referencing within an EMA demonstrates that you have understood the teaching from the module materials. A further tip is to make sure that your bit of writing is showing that you have met the learning outcomes that are being assessed.

My tutor was very insistent: put things in quotes, provide the name of the author, and provide a page reference. This final bit, the page reference, clearly shows how closely you’ve read (and have understood) the materials.

More information about referencing can be found by going to the OU’s Quick guide to Harvard referencing (Cite Them Right). Further information is available on the external Cite Them Right website.

Resources

There’s a whole set of resources that might be useful. One place to start is the OU Study Skills website which contains a section about writing and preparing assignments

Further advice can be found on pages about Writing for University and Writing in your own words

Another set of useful resources are the university’s Study skills booklets which you can print out, highlight sections and scribble over. A good one to look at is called Preparing Assignments (pdf)Looking back to my earlier Tip 1, part 5, which is about writing paragraphs, might also offer a good bid of advice.

Another booklet is called Thinking Critically (pdf)Again, looking back to Tip 2, part 5 of the booklet, Writing with a Critical Voice, might be useful too. The section on page 22, a process for getting critical thinking into your writing, certainly echoes some of those points that tutor told me, but presents everything in a slightly different way. Also, before you get to the writing, there’s also a booklet about Reading and Taking Notes (pdf)

Finally, I do recommend The Good Study Guide (pdf). I was sent a copy of this book when I enrolled for my first ever OU module, and when I read it, I thought to myself: “if only I had read this book when I was an undergraduate, I might have got a higher degree classification”. I have a paper copy of it on a bookshelf, next to my desk (it is that good!).

Two chapters that specifically relate to academic writing are Chapter 10, Writing the way ‘they’ want, and Chapter 11, Managing the writing process (Northedge, 2005, p.296).

The title of Chapter 10 is important, since academic writing is a skill, but one that requires the use of a whole set of hidden rules. Hopefully some of the resources presented in this blog will help to explain what some of those rules are.

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Computing and Communications AL Development Conference 2020

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On 28 November 2020, staff tutors and associate lecturers from the School of Computing and Communications ran an online AL development conference. What follows is a slightly delayed blog summary of what was roughly covered during that event.

The event began with welcome and introduction from Christine Gardner, who played a lead role in putting the event together.

Curriculum updates

John Woodthorpe, C&C director of teaching, presented what could be described as a teaching update. John highlighted a current challenge that is facing the school, reporting that “of the 30 modules that have [student registration] caps, 23 of those are in computing”.

John gave an overview of qualifications. The main qualification that is based in the school is Q62, the BSc (Honours) Computing and IT.  There is also Q67, Computing and IT with a second subject, such as maths, business, engineering and psychology. John gave an overview the Q62 qualification, mentioning that students have to do a maths module, and that there is a limited choice of modules they can choose if students wish to choose a specialism.

The school has recently introduced a new qualification, R60, BSc (Honours) Cyber SecurityThree important modules in this qualification includes TM256 Cyber security (due to be presented in February 22), TM311 Information security (October 21), and TM359 Systems penetration testing (February 23).

TM256 Cyber security contains five blocks:  Block 1: Concepts of Cyber Security, Block 2: Systems Security, Block 3: Infrastructure, Host and Application Security, Block 4: Security operations and Incident Management, and Block 5: Fundamentals of Digital Forensics. TM359 covers topics such as building secure systems, testing, and ethical hacking certification.

To help tutors to prepare to upskill for TM256, the school has secured some funding to sponsor tutors to take a dedicated short course to give tutors the basic skills to start tutoring on TM256. During John’s summary, I noted the words “we hope to get a mixed of experienced tutors who are new to the subject, and tutors who are new to teaching but are familiar with the subject”.

Another qualification worth noting is the relatively recently introduced BSc (Honours) Computing with Electronic Engineering, which goes by the qualification code R62. This qualification contains two new electronics modules; T212, T312. Students are required to study maths in modules T193 and T194.

Other qualifications to note include Computing and IT diplomas and certificate, and a  degrees and a Top-up BSc (Honours) Computing and IT Practice.

The school also offers a Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship. It’s important to note that there are different degree apprenticeship qualifications for different nations. I also made the following note: “apprentices tend to get worked quite hard; they have a full time job, and have a high study intensity”.

To complete the summary of undergraduate qualifications, John also mentioned the introduction of a new BSc (Honours) Data Science qualification which is lead by colleagues in the School of Mathematics and Statistics.

There were some updates to share about the postgraduate programme. The current version of the advanced networking MSc is currently on teach out, but a new version is being developed, reflecting changes to some of the external curriculum that forms an important part of that programme.

Finally, there’s also a new MSc in Cyber Security, which goes by the code F87. This qualification contains four key modules: M811 information security, M812 Digital forensics, M817 Systems security and T828 Network security.

A further note that I made, which I cannot emphasise enough is: “if you are interested in teaching on any of these modules, please speak with your staff tutor to find out more”.

Parallel session: Postgraduate and project tutors’ session

Being a tutor on TM470 The Computing and IT project module, I decided to go to a parallel session that was all about project modules. This session was facilitated by fellow tutor, Simon Dugmore.

I made a note of an important question: Why or where might students struggle? One answer was that students struggle to finding good literature and using it to build an argument to apply it to their work. Also, other students may find it difficult to reflect on their own approach to the project.

I noted the reflection that students can and do find some articles, but they might not do anything with them. Sometimes there are references to blog or technical articles, but they are not addressed in a critical way that adds real substance to a detailed and thorough literature review.

During this session, there was a short activity where we discussed the different types of resources student may use and the approaches that could be taken to help students understand how to best use of resources. I also noted down the point: explain what sort of resources you’re using, and why.

One of my own approaches is to show students the library website and choose some keywords after asking them about the modules they have studied, and the broad aims of their project. 

I confess that my notes are a bit sketchy at this point, but the session may have finished with a short discussion that may have tried to answer the question: how do we get them to reflect better? 

Parallel session: Level 2 tutors’ session – sharing best practice

In addition to being a TM470 tutor, I’m also a M250 Object-oriented Java programming tutor. This second parallel session was co-facilitated by Dave McIntyre, Karl Wilcox and Richard Mobbs

Karl facilitated the first section and asked the question: what are the similarities and differences between level 2 modules?

One notable difference is that M250 has quality printed materials, has had face-to-face tutorials whereas TT284 is presented entirely online. There are also differences between clusters (which are groups of tutors). I made the following note: “when teaching as a cluster, it’s much better for us, and much better for our students; that saves a lot of time, and makes best use of individual skills of tutors; it becomes a group effort.” There were different approaches, such as having two presenters for online tutorials, combining tutor forums, and using a cluster forum to share ideas and resources. TT284, unlike M250, requires a bit of writing, which can be a bit of a challenge for some students.

Next up was a discussion about how to get students to engage in tasks during online tutorials. One idea was to ask students to response to a whiteboard at the same time, giving anonymity. I made the note that it is important to carefully structure activities and that “the best tutorials were the ones that made me think; it’s the only time they meet other students and can do them together”. Tutors can also do screen sharing (I do this quite a lot), and to emphasise the importance of exams early on in a module

C&C Head of School Update

Arosha Bandara, current Computing and Communication head of school gave a short update. He began by presenting some numbers. The school is delivering teaching to 4700 students (200 of which are apprenticeship students), and this is supported by 50 central academics and 22 (now 24) regional academics or staff tutors. The school presents 47 modules, 6 apprenticeship schemes, and has 6 research groups. 

The aim of the school is to “to empower our students and wider society through life changing learning and research excellence”. In terms of research, it aims to “advance digital technologies in ways that enhance the human experience … by empowering - placing people at the centre, situate - to focus on the context as well as on the technology, and disrupt discipline borders to give fresh perspective and solutions.”

Arosha said something about the future direction of the school, which is to consolidate the current qualifications and look to further developments, such as AI, to explore what could be offered in this area.

Parallel Session: What might the AL contract mean in C&C? 

After a short break it was onto the final formal session of the day, which was facilitated by Steve Walker and Alexis Lansbury. The aim of this session was to share something about what the AL contract means for us all, to try to make it work for our advantage.

Key points of the contract include: it is a permanent fractional contract (as opposed to being tied to an individual module), the terms and conditions closer to other central university staff, and there is going to be a skills audit and workload allocation process to determine how tutor time can be best used and applied. Also, tutors become more connected to and allied to the school.

To begin to understand the implications of the new contract, the Computing and IT staff tutors set up a number of working groups: organisations, IT and data, supply and demand, and culture. 

An important question that we (as staff tutors, whilst working with tutors) is: how should things be organised ensure that everyone has the most appropriate opportunities that match their interests, skills and experience? A thought is that more regular meetings may be helpful. Geography might be also be useful way to organise everything, since a staff tutor may be able to understand the need for certain skills and resources across a certain area, and more easily collaborate and speak with fellow staff tutors.

Reflections

I always enjoy attending AL development conferences; there is always something I learn from them. I noted that 80 associate lecturer colleagues who were able to attend, which was a brilliant turn out. It was great to many colleagues.

I felt that this event was particularly welcome and useful, not only because it enabled us to share experience and teaching practice, but also it enabled us (as tutors) to meet with each other during a time when all the face-to-face AL development sessions had been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This isn’t the first online C&C AL development conference that we have held, and I’m sure it will not be the last.

Acknowledgements are given to Christine Gardner, who has been chairing the C&C AL development group, Sharon Dawes, and all the presenters who facilitated or co-facilitated the parallel sessions. Thanks are also extended to John Woodthorpe and Arosha Bandara who attended in their capacity as C&C director of teaching and head of school.

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Dismantling Racial Inequalities in Higher Education

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 20 Feb 2021, 11:52

On 28 January 21, I attended an online seminar, dismantling racial inequalities in higher education, which was organised by the OU Black and Minority Ethnic Research Group. The aim of this group is to “discuss research and scholarship around race, ethnicity, coloniality and decolonisation”.

What follows is my own brief summary of the event, which has been taken from a set of notes that I made during the session. I’m sharing just in case it may be of interest to colleagues.

The quotes that I’ve provided below are quotes from the notes that I made during the event, rather than word for word quotes from each of the speakers. 

Introductions and launch of seminar series

Delegates were welcomed by Dr Jenny Douglas, Senior Lecturer in Health Promotion and Chair of the BME Researchers Group, who also chaired the seminar.

The first speaker was Baroness Valerie Amoswho gave a short introductory presentation to launch the seminar series. Baroness Amos spoke of structural inequality in education and highlighted that the current “pandemic exacerbates disparities”.

It was highlighted that there are very few black people occupying leadership positions in HE. Academics are also faced with the pressure of working on short term contracts, and the student attainment gap is substantial. There are other issues, such as what is taught, and access to research funding and scholarships.

I also noted down some very direct points: gradual change isn’t good enough, there needs to be critical mass, and it is hard to build alliances with other staff who are themselves employed on insecure terms and conditions. An important point that I noted down, which later became one of the themes of the event was that change requires a whole institution approach. 

Interventions for closing degree award gaps

The second presenter was Professor Marcia Wilson, the OU’s new Dean of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, who spoke about “Interventions for closing degree award gaps”.

Marcia spoke about the degree award gap; there is a sector wide attainment gap between black and white students in terms of their final degree classifications. Marcia mentioned a recent Wonkhe blog Time's up for the Awarding Gap and emphasised the statistic that was contained within the following paragraph: “The white-BAME gap and the white-Black gap have each on average changed by 0.3 percentage points between 2003-04 and 2018-19. At this rate of change it will be in 2070-71 when the white-BAME awarding gap will close, and 2085-86 when the white-Black awarding gap closes.” 

The extent of the gap was also laid clear in another statistic from the same article: "The degree awarding gap was most pronounced between Black male qualifiers (of whom 54.5 per cent received a first/2:1) and white female qualifiers (82.9 per cent, a difference of 28.4 percentage points)".

An important question was asked: why the lack of progress? There was a reference to a deficit perspective; the blaming of students. Also, institutional discussions may only occur when universities are exploring how to apply to the race equality charter (Advance HE). 

Another thought was perhaps equality and attainment could be linked to other measures of institutional success, such as the Teaching Excellence Framework. A further question was asked: how come some institutions are awarded a Gold teaching excellence status, and yet no black students have gained first class degrees? A source of this data is the Wonkhe article Universities’ shame - unpicking the black attainment gap.

Another question is: what is the way forward? Some answers might be found in leadership, conversations, a diverse and inclusive environment, and trying to understand what works.

In a 2017 HEFCE report four areas of causes were highlighted: curricula and learning; relationships between staff and students; psychosocial and identity factors; social, cultural and economic capital.

There is also the importance of teacher expectations. This relates to the question of “what do we expect from our students?” The point being that we should have high expectations for all students.

An interesting reference Marcia gave was to a report by NUS, entitled “mark my words, not my name”

One of the final points I noted was leaders need to monitor the gaps; they must know their data. 

Who gets to do research?

The next talk was by Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, University College London. Professor Uchegbu made the point that diversity is good for everyone, and that diverse decision making is good for an organisation. The point is simple: where there is inequity, everyone suffers. 

A reference was made to a McKinsey and Company report entitled why diversity matters. A related point was that when a diverse team works together, it is more likely to follow evidence, rather than follow dogma. I noted down the following important words: “it’s good to talk about social justice, but also about organisational resilience”.

A reflection was that problems start at secondary school. In years 10 and 11, students are achieving at the same level. By the time students are 18, 24% of Chinese students get 3 As, whereas only 5% of black pupils get 3 As. Furthermore, 0.2% of UK professors are female and black. This was accompanied by the observation that it should be ten times this figure to be in keeping with population statistics.

One thing that I did learn is that some of these statistics are highlighted on the OU OpenLearn Race and Ethnicity hub. A question I must ask myself is "why didn’t I know about this resource?"

There is also the question of what can be done. There were a number of perspectives that need to be considered: institutional responses, organisational interventions (I hope I’ve noted this down correctly) and personal responses. There needs to be support for peers and mentors. There is the also the need to gather data, articulate what the data says, act to respond to the data, monitor the impact of change, and repeat.

Towards the end of Ijeoma’s presentation, we were directed to UCL’s statement on Race, which emphasised the need for an institutional response.

In a question and answer session, I again noted the importance of holding the view that it is organisations that have deficits, not the individuals. In this vein, the onus of positive action lies on the institution. 

Lessons from my journey

The final presentation of the day was by Professor Dawn Edge, who was from Manchester University. Professor Edge's talk  had the title: Becoming a Black Woman Professor – lessons from my journey.

Some key points I noted were the importance of understanding the roles of engagement (or, how things work within an organisation), understanding what really counts and understanding the process for applying for things. I noted down points that will be familiar to many: the creation of a CV, and gathering of supporting statements. I noted down the words: package yourself and sell yourself and “gain support from peers and allies”.

Reflections

I was immediately struck by the striking (and uncomfortable) statistics that were shared by the speakers. A number of the speakers shared thoughts about suggestions about what could be done, and that different responses need to be considered, ranging from the institutional to the personal. Following their example, I asked myself: “what can I do?” 

I’ve taken away a number of points. I need to listen (and make the time to listen) and ask questions. I should look to creating diverse teams whenever I have the opportunity to do so. I took away the point that mentoring and peer relationships are important. I should also always look to data, to see what it’s saying. Echoing the words of Professor Uchegbu: gather data, act, monitor, and repeat.

Acknowledgements: many thanks to the OU Black and Minority Ethnic Research Group for running what was a really thought-provoking event. Thanks are extended to Marcia Wilson for sending me a link to the Wonkhe blog that she mentioned during her talk.

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TM358 Tutor recruitment briefing

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On the evening of 3 Feb 2021 I attended a briefing for a new module, Machine learning and artificial intelligence (TM358), that is scheduled to begin in October 2021. 

This short blog post represents a short summary of what was covered during the briefing. I must, however, begin with a short disclaimer: some of the detail that is presented here may well be subject to change as the module moves to production.

The briefing began with Neil Smith, module team chair, who said that “machine learning has been one of the biggest changes in computing in the past 20 years”. Neil also said that artificial intelligence has not featured within the computing curriculum for 5 years. In some ways, this module fills an important gap in the computing undergraduate curriculum.

TM358 is a part of a new qualification: BSc (Hons) Data ScienceR38, as it is known, is a joint degree with the schools of Maths and Stats and Computing. To study the module, there are two important prerequisite modules: MU123 Discovering Mathematics and M269 Algorithms, data structures and computability.

From the computing side of the pathway, students can also study TM351 Data management and analysis.and TM356 Interaction design and the user experience. Students would begin their level 1 computing studies by studying TM111 Introduction to computing and information technology 1 and TM112 Introduction to computing and information technology 2.

TM358 has a particular focus on deep neural learning. I made a note that the module adopts an engineering approach and makes use of toolkits and languages that may already be familiar to some students. There is also strong thread of social impact and the importance of ethics. Key tools that students will use include the Python (featured in TM112) and Jupyter notebooks (featured in TM351). Datasets that students will be using will be provided by the module team.

Like many modules, it begins with an introductory (or foundation) section, and then subjects are introduced through a series of study blocks. 

Foundations

This first section sets the scene and also presents a historical perspective. It also introduces what is called the “compute environment”, which is the environment that students will be using and studying. This first section will introduce different types of data, mention datasets, and introduce concepts and terms which will be later explored. 

Block 1: Introduction to neural networks/deep learning

This first main block introduces artificial neural networks and some accompanying mathematics. The module offers students a handwriting recognition example. It also looks at AI and machine learning transparency challenges and what they may broadly mean to society.

Block 2: Image recognition with conventional neural networks

This block looks at limitations of traditional neural network systems. It examines the challenge of image classification. Students will be introduced to the concepts of neural network training, and data bias issues. 

Block 3: Recurrent neural networks and long short term memory networks

Some key questions that are asked by this module includes: why do we need sequential modelling, what are the differences from the previous types of learning? Applications such as a speech recognition and sentiment analysis (which is about looking at whether things are views positively or negatively) are used. Recurrent neural networks (RNNs), bidirectional RNNs, long short term memory networks (LSTM) are studied. 

Block 4: Unsupervised learning and autoencoders

I noted down a question that is addressed in this block, which is: what is unsupervised learning? Another topic autoencoders and their structure. I also made a note that there is a section about ethical issues.

Block 5: Alternatives to deep learning

Although there appears to be an emphasis on neural networks, it isn’t the only approach. This block says something about other approaches, such as, decision trees and Bayesian methods, exploring the reasons why different approaches might be chosen. Students will be using notebooks to study different datasets.

Block 6: Handling data

There is another question to answer, which is: why do we need to pre-process the data? I noted down the concept of discretisation and discretisation techniques. Another question that is addressed is: what is the effect of imbalanced data on learning algorithm performance? The block also covers solutions for the classification of imbalanced data.

Tuition and assessment model

Tutors will be required to give 10 hours of tutor or progression time. Progression time refers to time that isn’t allocated to tutorials but is used to help with student support and guidance. All tutorials will be delivered online through 2 clusters (groups of tutors). There is expected to be a tutorial to help students to prepare for each TMA and the EMA, with another tutorial for each block.

The module will use something called single component assessment, which means that the TMA results directly contribute to the final score, as opposed to students having to get distinctions in both the TMAs and an examinable component to gain a distinction.

There will be 3 TMAs (with an increasing percentage to the overall score), with an EMA contributing to 60% of the final score. For the EMA, “students be given a dataset and a task to accomplish using the techniques and tools taught in the module”.  Students will also “write a report detailing the actions taken, justifications for the actions and decisions taken, results achieved, their understanding of the results and any ethical issues.”

Reflections

I studied AI as an undergraduate student, and again as a postgrad. My undergraduate AI module contained a lot about how to solve problems by searching (we also used a fancy language called Prolog). My postgraduate studies touched on the interesting philosophical questions that thinking about intelligence immediately provokes. I also remember that the last AI module that the OU used to have, M366 (if I remember the module code correctly) had a slightly different character to it.

There were terms in the TM358 that I didn’t recognise, which suggests that things have certainly moved on a lot since I have last studied AI. Two substantial changes may include the substantial increase in processing power that we now have at our disposal, and the availability of tools that we can draw upon to analyse data.

In terms of this module, it’s practical focus clearly comes through from the briefing. It seems to be about doing stuff, understanding tools and, significantly, understanding some of the ethical issues accompany the use of these tools.

Since I have enough on as a tutor (I’m tutoring on a second level module, and a project module), I don’t have any capacity to even consider making an application. This said, I do encourage other to consider making an application, since it does look fun, and challenging too. It strikes me that there is certainly a lot to learn. 

Acknowledgements

With all tutor briefings, thanks go to all members of the module team, led by Neil Smith, who all gave presentations during this short briefing session. Some of the notes presented within this blog are drawn from a PowerPoint presentation that was made during the recruitment briefing. Acknowledgement are also given to curriculum manager, Sarah Bohn and Staff Tutors Christine Gardner and Frances Chetwynd. 

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A111 Journal – January 2021

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Feb 2021, 09:26

1 Jan 21

I have a few things I want to finish off before having a good look at the TMA questions again. The first thing is the online section about the set text: The Faber Book of Beasts.

We were set an activity: to create a mini anthology of five poems. I went over the table of contents of the book a number of times, and looked at a few, before settling on an animal related theme. 

The next bit was a discussion about the concept of conceit, and what it means in the context of poetry. I had never heard this term before (other than within the word conceited). One poem was used to demonstrate the idea that a conceit is a “turn of thought” or an “artistic device or concept” (p.182) 

The final bit was a return to the online materials, where we were introduced to the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Oxford Art Online. I had once used a physical version of the OED, but I hadn’t heard of the other two. 

That’s enough for today.

2 Jan 21

I’ve been misunderstanding things! I thought we had to answer two questions for this TMA; instead, we’ve just got to answer one of them!

In some ways, I’m relieved, but I’m also slightly disappointed that the course isn’t forcing me (in a good way) to really look at another topic in detail.  This said, there’s nothing stopping me from carrying out some independent study.

I’ve made good progress today; I’ve made a rough plan, I’ve started a story, and I’ve made some notes about what I’ve been thinking as I progress. 

9 Jan 21

It seems like I’ve had an accidental short break from everything, which coincides with my first week back at work, following the new year break.

Today is the day of a tutorial. Unfortunately, I arrived half an hour late to a session on Roman and Greek sculpture. I made a note of the phrase that it isn’t about just copying the forms of the sculpture, but recreating and engaging in a symbolic dialogue with the artefacts. There was also a discussion about how the sculptures may have been used, and what they symbolised.

Next up was a section about poetry. 

We were asked the question: what is poetry? And also: how do we recognise a poem when we wee one? We were put into breakout rooms, and asked to discuss some short poems from the set texts. A quite enjoyed this activity, and was quite surprised at the range of different interpretations everyone came up with.

I took away an important point from this tutorial: do remember to include an essay plan for TMA 3.

13 Jan 21

Another day, another tutorial. This time it was a session about creative writing and The Blues. Unfortunately, due to internet connectivity issues, the session had to be cut short. Our tutor dropped out a few times, and there was sometimes a bit of audio lag.

Key points I took away was that there are different ways to define a short story, and there are different definitions for the terms story and plot; a story relates to what happens, an event or circumstance whereas a plot is all about why something happens.

Points to bear in mind when writing a short story includes what happens (story), who things happen to (character), where things happen (place), how and why things happen (plot), and why everything matters.

23 Jan 21

For TMA 3 we have to choose a tradition and make a short post to a discussion forum. Before making my choice, I did a bit of reading, on a popular online encyclopaedia. I became quite engrossed in the subject, and started to look at the references at the bottom of each of the articles. I ended up choosing a subject that I hadn’t really thought of as a tradition before. I remembered that the tradition that I focussed on was also very briefly addressed in the previous tutorial. I’m now looking forward to seeing what other students submit.

It’s back onto my short story. I had completely forgotten where I got to. Before I begin my writing, I prepare a cup of tea to keep me going. I find that tea always helps. There’s something in it that helps you (one) to concentrate.

30 Jan 21

I’ve finished my story. I’m pretty pleased with it. A friend has kindly read it. He has given me a few comments which I’m very grateful for. The process of reflecting on those comments will feed into the reflective bit of the TMA.

I’ve spent a couple of hours revisiting the chapter on creative writing, and rereading the TMA questions just to make sure I’ve got a thorough handle on what is required. 

Although I have done some planning for my writing, it was all very informal – and I think I’m going to have to say this in the TMA. I’m also going to have to have a think about the effect of what my formal planning had on my final version of my story.

Looking back on what I’ve written, I think I’ve managed to address the key ingredients that the TMA was asking for. I’ve also managed to include a couple of surprises too.

On Monday I’m going to send a couple of replies to posts other students have made about the theme of 'tradition', choose the reply I like best, and start to pull together my TMA 3 submission.

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A111 Journal – December 2020

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 2 Jan 2021, 09:53

1 Dec 20

I divide an empty TMA document into three sections, ready for writing. With my notes now navigable, I transfer some of the key terms from the module materials into my TMA document to remember what they are. 

I begin with the Mozart section. I listen to the fragment and note down some transitions and times.

It’s time to return to my day job.

4 Dec 20

I must have listened to the sound fragment around 15 times. I quite enjoyed describing the piece of music. I realised I need to simplify my writing to reflect its structure. There was a moment where I felt I understood what the module team were trying to ask us to discover.

Next up: Dickens. I minimise Outlook, minimise my web browser and reach for the text I’ve got to analyse for the TMA question.

It’s not long before I analyse the narrative voice, and then I quickly run out of steam. I need to return to the module materials to get a few more ideas about what analysing literature means.

6 Dec 20

I print out my draft TMA 2 and do some copy editing with a pen and paper. Next step: make those changes in the Word version. As I go, I tick off all those copy edits with a different coloured pen as I go. Final step: submit TMA 2, with just under a week to go before the deadline.

12 Dec 20

Today is the day when the iCMA opens. I work through the materials on academic conduct (which I feel pretty confident about), and then dive in to have a go at it. Although I had more planned for today, I was happy with what I had achieved: completing another bit of the module. 

15 Dec 20

I had one main objective for today: to get through a section about Greek and Roman sculpture. 

Looking at the TMA 3, I’m thinking of answering the question about Blues or Creative Writing. This said, I thought it would be important to read through all the other chapters in the second book to learn some new things, and to be open to the possibility that I might become interested in the other disciplines.

I made notes about the concept of ‘traditions’, which is described in the introduction; that it is about ‘handing things over’, and relates to “customs, artistic styles, ideas, practices or beliefs”. There was also the point that traditions can “enrich our experience of the contemporary world” (p.4). 

Onto the module materials; I was introduced to a bunch of terms: Greek, Roman, Greco-Roman, Ancient and Classical. Other terms include “votive offerings” and a section entitled “kouroi and korai”. There were differences in forms, and differences in poses.

I quite enjoyed watching the videos that describe how three contemporary artists have been included by ancient sculpture.

The final bit of today: a study skills section about referencing.

Next bit; the bit that I’m really looking forward to: the blues.

19 Dec 20

I’ve spent a few hours over the last week going through the online version of the module materials that relate to the blues. 

I can immediately recognise a traditional blues song when it is played, but I was never really consciously aware of its structure. In this section we learnt about the origins of the blues, the themes that are generally explored, listened to a number of tracks. We were introduced to the concept of scales, chords, and how they relate to the 12-bar blues structure. Although I had a sketchy idea of some of these concepts, it was good to read a formal definition.

During this week there were tracks by The Beatles, Gershwin, Queen, Robert Petway, Mamie Smith, W. C. Handy, Johnny Cash, and references to B.B. King, Bessie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson. It was a really nice mixture.

Towards the end of this section, there was another bit about study skills, and how I went about planning the writing of assessments. It turns out that we have to submit a plan as a part of the next assessment.

There are two things that I want to look up. The first is: what modules are there on the music pathway; I’m curious. Secondly: what, exactly, have we got to do for the next TMA? 

I’m looking forward to the next chapter, which is all about creative writing.

28 Dec 20

I read the section on creative writing (without making notes), a few days after the above entry. I also went through the online materials. I particularly liked the audio recording of the short story. Some points from the creative writing section I need to take away: character, imagery and setting, point of view, time, and showing and telling (with an emphasis on showing, so the reader figures things out) (p.136-137). 

I feel a bit guilty about not explicitly completing the activities in the module materials (I know they’re important since they help us to prepare for the assessment), but I’m thinking I’ll go back to them if I choose the creative writing question for the TMA.

The next section is all about reading poetry.

We’re introduced to poems by Hardy, Blake, Donne, and Bishop, before I went to the online materials. Key terms I picked up on were: metaphor (obviously), simile (which was called a type of metaphor), anthropomorphism (which was also under the heading of metaphor), form, conceit, free verse, iambic tetrameter, trimeter and pentameter. 

I quite like the poetry section. I see them as descriptive puzzles that express something, which are there to be decoded and analysed. The more one studies them, the more they can speak to us.

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A111 - November 2020

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 1 Jan 2021, 16:02

1 Nov 20

I got stuck into the writing of the TMA, beginning with Cleopatra. I got quite far. I made a start on the second part, which is about Queen Elizabeth. I think it’s harder since the question may be ‘getting at’ something that I might be missing.

3 Nov 20

I have another go at writing the TMA in the morning, but I don’t get very far. I’ve identified another point that I can mention in my answer about Cleopatra, but the Elizabeth section remains a bit of a mystery.

7 Nov 20

Three days before the TMA 1 submission deadline. Today I’m going to finish it and the move to the next section. I’ve got the whole of the morning to look through the Elizabeth materials again and edit together my answer. I’m hoping that a bit of time away from the question might have helped. 

I’ve submitted TMA 1! 

After a couple of days away, I had noticed some things that I hadn’t noticed before. A question that I have been asking myself was: “why is the module team telling me this?” I’m not sure whether the form of my TMA answers is what the module team are looking for. This said, I’ll get a steer from my tutor soon enough.

At the start of the next unit, I was asked about what I thought about Mozart. I listened to 4 different tracks before being introduced to the terms: pitch, range, timbre and dynamics (I knew what pitch and timbre was from other studies). I then read something about his sister, Nannerl, before learning the definitions of new terms for genres: symphony, concerto, aria and sonata. Although I vaguely understood what these were, I couldn’t define them with confidence.

I feel I’ve achieved quite a bit today. Time to turn off the laptop.

8 Nov 20

I read about the sonata, and aspects of its structure (that it usually has 3 or 4 movements).

I also read that Mozart toured around different countries and adopted musical styles of the places that he visited and the composers that he met. I also learnt about Joseph Boulogne Chevalier de Saint Georges, who I had never heard of before. I took a few moments to listen to some tracks of his work on Spotify; this is something that I’m definitely going to go back to do.

Next up was the introduction of new(ish) terms: tutti (all), and solo (alone), and an introduction of the piano, and an activity that encouraged us to consider the difference in the tibre between the harpsichord and this new-fangled piano instrument.

My study day concluded with a couple of listening activities: figuring out the genre of a piece of music and the listening to Mozart’s 9th concerto for keyboard.

9 Nov 20

Mozart in Vienna.

In this section of the module, we had a few more listening activities. There was an activity to identify different musical genres, and an activity to listen to the interplay between soloists and the orchestra. There was also a quick look at Haydn, who I didn’t really know anything about (other than knowing his name).

The section ended with a video that explored different perceptions of Mozart’s genius, and how this is portrayed in the 1984 film Amadeus, which I have seen a couple of times (a film I recorded from television using a video recorder over 30 years ago). 

A key point appeared to be the way that he applied his talents as a musician.

11 Nov 20

Time for a tutorial. I attended part 2 of the online day school (since the face to face day school had been cancelled), which focussed on two topics: Dickens and Van Gogh. I was initially a bit confused about the tutorial schedule, since part 2 was presented before part 1, and I’ve not got through these chapters yet.

Key points that I picked up from the Dickens bit was the way you could begin to describe a text: you could refer to the genre, description, the role of the narrator, the themes, who the reader is, sentence length, and a whole host of other aspects. It’s been at least 30 years since I studied literature.

Next up was a section about Van Gogh. Some key terms (or things to think about) included: composition, brush work, tone, genre, colour, medium, modelling. An aspect of the tutorial was considering how a particular image may relate to the artists reputation.

Although I haven’t got to these sections in the module material yet, I’m finding that I’m being drawn to section about art rather than literature, which has surprised me. Things might change as I do more study.

12 Nov 20

It’s the first thing in the morning.

There’s a few more things I need to look at to complete the Mozart chapter: a read through of the summary, and two study skills section. The first study skills section is about close listening to music.

Key topics includes rhythm and metro, timbre, melody, harmony and texture. I’m introduced to a whole range of descriptive terms which could be used with each other, such as, such as contour, range, steps and jumps, pitch and transparency.

I’m not going to finish it all today, so I’m going to save the reflective task, review, and further study sections for another day.

15 Nov 20

It looks like I’ve missed the goals that I should have set during week 1. I notice there’s another activity that I need to complete, so I answered the questions about which learning outcome I feel is the most surprising, which skills or abilities I already have, and which skills I think I’ll most improve. The skill I thought would be most useful to develop is the skill of engaging critically with familiar and unfamiliar points of view; I’m not (yet) sure what “engaging critically” means in the arts and humanities. 

There’s another activity I need to complete: looking ahead to book 1, which individual are you most looking forward to studying? My answer is: Mary Wollsonecraft, for the simple reason is that I know more about the other figures than I do of her.

The last part of the Mozart: the optional further study bit. I did completed these tasks quite quickly, but I might return to them. There was a surprise at the end: we could access something called the Naxos Music Library to listen to entire piano concertos, sonatas and symphonies. I’m not sure whether this is a gift or a distraction!

After quite a bit of distraction, I finally made it onto the Mark Wollstonecraft unit, which is really topical due to the unveiling of a statue.

It wasn’t long before I got to the main section, which described her writing of “the vindication” and then got to the section about her reputation. I’ve learnt quite a few things: a bit of history, something about her link to Shelly, and the way that reputations can change over time. The next bit is going to be the online material and the additional reading before moving onto the next unit.

18 Nov 20

It’s tutorial time. I arrived late, but just in time to note down two abbreviations which relate to literature analysis: GAP, and LIST. I’m going to have to return to the recording to catch up on the bit that I missed. For the section on Van Gogh, we looked at two contrasting portraits; a self-portrait, and another portrait by Gainsborough. I liked how the tutor discussed the differences and used some of the terms from the module materials.

20 Nov 20

A day off! Back to the final sections of Wollstonecraft. I completed the final activities, read a skills section on reading, made some notes, and listened to the In our Time recording, which connected really nicely with her biography which was summarised in the module materials. There was a lot in that recording, and talk about other figures and ideas that I had not encountered before.

In other news, I’ve got my TMA 1 back! I did better than I expected.

22 Nov 20

I finally start the next unit, which is about Dickens. 

I was soon directed to a reading activity by the set text: the reading of A Christmas Carol. I’ve heard the story many times (in various different forms). It was interesting to read the . I felt that the final section (stave, as it was called) was quite short in comparison to the others.

23 Nov 20

Before a day of work, I read sections 4 and 5 in the unit text, where I noticed the following terms were written in bold: narrative voice, first person, realism, modes, and personification. One thing that I found really interesting was a reference to literature and realism, where it describes “the physical details of everyday life through precise, factual language”.

25 Nov 20

I seem to have found a habit now; studying in the morning before work.

I finished reading the Dickens unit, and have started the Van Gogh chapter. I really liked the activity where we were asked to edit a portion of text, as if we were going to read it to an audience. We were then encouraged to compare our edits, to some edits that had been made by Dickens himself. I’m not comparing myself to Dickens or anything, but I was surprised that we had edited out very similar sections. 

The unit emphasised the importance of writing and rewriting, and concluded with a question about the themes that Dickens had been drawing upon. We were also directed to optional further study work in OpenLearn: Charles Dickens: Celebrity Author.

Onto Van Gogh; who I know very little about. 

We were shown a painting, and asked to consider colour, subject matter, brushwork, lifelike qualities (or not), design, pattern and shape, and any personal associations that we may bring to the viewing of an image. Next up is the unit chapter. 

I think that’s it for today; I need to return to my day job.

26 Nov 20

I enjoyed finishing reading the Van Gogh unit.

I learnt about his link with other artists, particularly Gauguin, and how he admired a painter called Millet. I liked the activity where we had to compare and contrast the use of how Van Gogh and Monet used colour in two paintings which had a different theme. There as also an activity where we had to read a transcription and translation of a letter that he wrote to his brother, Theo. Although I had heard somewhere that he had cut off his ear, I didn’t know about the extent of his mental illness. The module materials suggested that he painted despite mental illness, not because of it (but that is, of course, a huge simplification).

Next up: the materials on the module website, and then the writing of TMA 2. I feel as if I’m keeping to the module calendar pretty closely.

29 Nov 20

I finish reading through the Van Gogh module materials and complete the activities. I quite enjoyed the online activity where we had to use some of the terms from the module to describe and analyse a selection of paintings.

I’m now faced with a choice; I need to write about two of the four disciplines that I’ve briefly studied. My choice is: music, philosophy, literature or art.

I look through the TMA.

I rule out the Mary Wollstonecraft question, not because of the subject or her philosophy, but the wording of some of the questions put me off.

I’ve decided to do the Dickens question simply because it’s been such a long time since I’ve studied literature, and that tackling the literature option might do me good.

The final choice: Mozart or Van Gogh; music or art.

Although I found the materials really interesting, there’s something about Van Gogh that annoys me that I can’t quite put my finger on. Whilst I think I can answer the question using the terms and language in the module, I quite like the idea of analysing and writing about music.

My choice: Mozart and Dickens.

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Finding research time

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Feb 2021, 17:43

After about two years of working at the former OU London regional centre in Camden, I remember a presentation for someone; a fellow staff tutor who worked in the Arts Faculty.

“He’s been given a chair!” my colleague whispered. I must have looked confused, since this assertion was immediately followed by a further explanation: “he’s become a professor!”

I had discovered that much of my role of a staff tutor was constantly spent facilitating, co-ordinating and administrating (if that is a word). I didn’t have any time to carry out any substantial or significant research. I was way too busy with “getting things done” to do any in depth thinking and reading about and into my discipline, which was originally computer science – or, more specifically, computer programming and software engineering.

“They do things differently in Arts; they have a role called a senior faculty manager” my colleague explained. “The faculty manager does a lot of the administrative work that a staff tutor does, such as organising the timetables and carrying out CDSA appraisals”.

If we had help with carrying out some of the admin work, I could see how someone who was doing my role might be potentially able to carry out research, and potentially step onto the trajectory that may lead to a chair. 

I could see it working within the Arts faculty, but I couldn’t see how that would be possible in the Faculty of Maths Computing and Technology, as it was called then.

I remember some celebrations. I remember some speeches. I’m pretty sure there would have been some prosecco.

After the celebration and the speeches, I would have returned to my email inbox to continue with whatever admin I needed to complete.

Finding the time

The School of Computing and Computing has a number of research groups. 

There’s the next generation multimedia and networking research group, the critical information studies group, an interaction design group, an AI and natural language processing group, a software engineering and design group, and a Technology and Education group (group website). 

My research ‘home’ within the school lies within the Technology and Education group, for the simple reason that I thought it easier to carve out a research niche if I allied aspects of my work (which is within education planning and organisation) to computing technology (which is a field that I used to work in). This said, my research interests also cross the interaction design group (which I used to tutor), and software engineering (where I’ve done a bit of research into, particularly theories of software comprehension and software metrics).

Earlier this month, there was a meeting which was about how staff tutors in TERG might increase their opportunities to carry out research (if this is something that they are interested in doing). Essentially, it all boils down to how to “craft out time” from our day job. This may mean thinking about accompanying issues, such as how to gain help with important elements such as writing, or research design, or statistical analysis. It also means finding ways to set boundaries.

I remember a talk by a former colleague who used to work in the School of Maths. He allocated a day per week to carry out research. I tried that for a while, trying to allocate every Friday as a research day, but it broke down; meetings kept sneaking into my diary – the need to administrate intruded in my plans.

One way to increase research capacity is to combine it with other related activities. One activity is co-supervising PhD students. This means identifying projects, and recruiting potentially interested students. Doctoral students might mean full time students based in the school, or part time students who are studying away from the university, or even EdD students (if their research area has a significant or substantial educational focus). A point to bear in mind in that a staff tutor must network to find potential co-supervisors.

An important suggestion was that it might be possible to plan what could be termed an ‘internally supported sabbatical’, perhaps in collaboration with other staff tutors or assistant staff tutors. Perhaps time could be ‘chunked’ together. Perhaps my day a week didn’t work out, since I didn’t have enough concentrated time to work dedicate to a problem. It took time and energy to get into research, and there’s an overhead in trying to repeat that same activity every week. Momentum is important.

A related theme is the importance of buddying; perhaps sharing some responsibilities maybe one approach to gain some of the important ‘headspace’ needed to facilitate the development of research capacity.

Other points that have been discussed have included the need to be completely honest about how our time is allocated and reported to the university (using something called the Academic Workload Modelling tool). Maybe there are clever ways to gain administrative support, but effective admin support needs consistency, since that too is all about understanding and solving problems.

Since I haven’t been able to carry out any disciplinary research for quite a while, I feel I would benefit from knowing how others do research. Perhaps there’s opportunity for mentoring, or the development of practical support and guidance about how to bid for projects. Again, it comes down to knowing who is good and doing what, and who might be able to help.

During our meeting, something called PACE was mentioned, which is an abbreviation for Professional academic communication in English. PACE happens in another faculty, called WELS, the Faculty of Wellbeing Education and Language Studies. The programme looks interesting, and doing a bit more digging, I’m taken to a further set of pages about face to face doctoral training.

Director of research

Following on from our TERG specific meeting, our current director of research, Robin Laney attended one of our staff tutor meeting. I noted down four important points:

  1. Make sure you find the time to network widely across the school (but also outside of the school too). Find others who share your research interests.
  2. Do you have a research agenda? If not, try to write one. If you don’t, go to different research group meetings. See point 1; networking.
  3. When it comes to finding research students, make sure that you advertise projects not only through the school website, but also through various mailing lists and other communities. See point 1; networking.
  4. Go speak with the director of research. Our director may be able to put you in contact with other colleagues in the school with similar research interests, and support activities that could lead to research, such as conference attendance or funding of pilot project. See point 1; networking.

Reflections

I’m faced with a dilemma. 

I really enjoy research, but I also enjoy seeing the end result of what some might see as ‘admin’, such as making sure that a module timetable is set up and ready to go, or the development or co-facilitation of a tutor development conference. In some respects, I’ve tried to find a middle way, which has meant carrying out some scholarship through the STEM faculty scholarship centre, called eSTEeM.

The one thing that is common to both research and scholarship is, of course, time. It may be possible to carve and craft time from an existing work plan, but there are two other common elements that are important: collaboration and planning.

This blog can be linked to two other blogs, one which is about C&C research groups and another post which offers some pointers about research funding.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Janet Hughes who set up a meeting to discuss research amongst the staff tutors from the TERG research group. Janet kindly reviewed an earlier version of this blog. Thanks are also extended to Robin Laney, C&C Director of Research. Acknowledgements are also extended to Karen Kear, who leads the technology and education research group.

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A111 Journal – October 2020

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 1 Jan 2021, 15:54

3 Oct 20

Today I found the time to listen to the In Our Time recording about Cleopatra. As it was playing, I made some rough notes (the first of which I’ve made for the module). There was a lot in this 40 minute segment. I learnt about Plutarch’s writings, and then later discovered two additional readings that were on the website. The final thing I read was a poem by Horace. There were a whole bunch of words or names that I didn’t understand, but that’s okay (there is time to learn what these are all about, right?)  I think I got the gist (and I could see that the poem got a whole lot darker as it progressed).

I jumped forward to the online section: block 2, unit 2 which is about Mary, picking up from where I left off. I am, however, mindful that I need to go back over the Cleopatra materials again, and make some notes. I made a mental note: I do need to get myself into a consistent rhythm of study (and should avoid jumping about, since I need to let what I’ve learnt ‘sit with me’ for a while).

I watched the video about a shrine to Mary in Alacala des los Gazules, Andalusia, Spain, and made a bunch of notes, which I then used to answer the activity questions. I then listened to the audio interview, also making some notes before completing the activity. Having a non-religious upbringing, I did struggle to make sense of the questions that were asked in this unit. An early reflection: I much prefer the classics than religious studies.

I get to section 7: optional further study. It’s time to take a break. I click on the bookmark button. I might come back to it in the afternoon.

I do spend a bit of time looking through the extension material later on in the day, and clicked through to a section of the Qur’an. This was all new to me, and the section that I’m taken to is pretty hard going. I certainly need to go back to if I’m going to answer the questions that are presented in the activity. I quickly browse through the remaining pages in this final section, which takes me to a page entitled: “explore Mary in art: a case study”. This takes me to a video that “explores a well-known work by the sixteenth-century artist Giovanni Bellini”. The idea of a ‘devotional image’ is now a bit clearer to me (I didn’t used to spend a lot of times looking at these images whenever I saw them in a museum or gallery), and I was intrigued by the references to painting genres, and particularly the attention that was given to the landscape.

9 Oct 20

I returned to the chapter on Elizabeth that I started reading over the weekend. 

I read the section which was about her depiction in different paintings. I quite liked the activities, which asked the questions about the paintings. These encouraged me to look a bit more closely. I wasn’t aware of how various items (such as pearls) has an accompanying meaning.

11 Oct 20

Back to Elisabeth again, this time to read about her historical reputation. The section contains the words: “Elizabeth retains a reputation of having presided over a ‘golden age’. It’s possible that you thought of her this way when you began to study the unit”. Actually, that was exactly what I had heard, and was my general understanding, but I didn’t know what was meant by “golden age”.

The section introduced the voyage of the Spanish Armada. Again, I must recognise my ignorance: there was an area that was known as the Spanish Netherlands? How did that happen? I knew about the impact on the weather, and that vessels had been shipwrecked on the west coast of Ireland. I quite liked the activities which explored the reasons for the failure of the Armada, and how different historians discuss and view the question of her succession. 

The web materials mention learning outcomes about primary and secondary sources, and introduced the notion of “the cult of Elizabeth”. There are three recordings, which are all about how different historians can explore subjects from different angles. The activities showed how one historian can draw upon and build on ideas of another, and also how existing ideas can be subject to review and reinterpretation.

Final bit: a section about the forthcoming assessment. There was a really useful page that expands on some of words used in assessments: questions words (how, why, what, can, how far, to what extent), compare and contrast, describe, explore, consider, assess, and explain. I wish I had seen something like this earlier in my studying career! 

A final comment. A day before studying this section, I went for a walk in the Kent countryside, where I found myself walking close to Chartwell; Winston Churchill’s former home. I realised that Churchill’s reputation is also subject to continual study, evaluation and re-evaluation.

13 Oct 20

Went to my first online tutorial. I was expecting something slightly different: a broader description of the module and what to expect. Whilst there was some scene setting, the focus was on looking at different sources, which was all about helping us to prepare for the first TMA which is due in November. 

I’ve chosen which figures I’m going to write about (we need to choose two out of three), and this means that I know which sections of the module materials I’m going to revisit. During the tutorial I made some notes, since I know that tutorials can offer some really useful tips about what needs to be covered.

24 Oct 20

Back to it again after a short break; I’ve been very busy at work recently. Unfortunately, I have missed a tutorial but I hope to listen to the recording if one is made is available. It took me quite a while to get back into a right frame of mind for studying, but eventually I got there. I finished re-reading the chapter about Cleopatra, and then started to re-read the section on Elizabeth.

25 Oct 20

I finished re-reading the chapter on Elizabeth and briefly looked over all the activities (but I know that I should be spending quite a bit more time on them). My next action was to create an empty document for my TMA. I created a directory on my file store for my TMA document and the feedback that I receive when it is returned to me. 

I do a bit of digging, and I can’t find any tutorial recordings. 

Next task: copy paste the essence of the questions from the TMA brief into my document; these are what I need to answer. Looking at the TMA question, it’s clear that there’s something that I need to read closely, so I get a printout of TMA 1 using the ‘view as single page’ option on the website.

After getting the printout, I get my highlighter pen going and highlight bits of the Elizabeth section of the TMA question, and then move onto the online module materials.

I make notes of the four different audio clips. Two key points I’ve taken away is: historians (obviously) build on the work of others, and they (of course) may see things in different ways.

I end the day by revisiting the study skills section which has a short bit about preparing for TMAs. It highlights three stages: (1) start gathering your material, (2) start jotting down ideas, and (3) plan your assignment. For the first step, I had an idea, but I’ll leave that until tomorrow. 

30 Oct 20

One tutorial recording had been made available. I tried to access it, but wasn’t successful. I posted to the forum to get a bit of help.

I’ve always known that the module activities help to prepare for the writing of the assessments. I also know that I’ve got a habit of rushing through them and not really spending enough time to take them in. To make me go a bit slower, I wrote a summary of each activity into my TMA document file. 

The next bit is going to be the jotting down of ideas about how to link them to the question (and the things that I’ve read).

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A111 Journal - September 2020

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 1 Jan 2021, 15:54

Over the last couple of weeks I've started to study A111 Discovering the arts and humanities, which is a foundation module for degrees in the arts and humanities. Other than having a couple of English GCSEs, I've never formally studied the arts and humanities. 

One of the recommendations is to begin what is called a learning journal. There are many different ways to keep one: long form notes that you keep in an A4 file, or a Word document. I've decided to go one step further and share parts of my learning journal on a blog, and make my posts visible by the A111 tag. I plan to post one of these a month.

I got my books in early September, and having a busy day job, I got stuck in before the official module start date. Here's what I've been up to.

12 Sep 20

I started reading about Cleopatra and quickly realised that I don’t know anything. I didn’t know about Caesar was assassinated, and that there were connections to Greece, Rome and Egypt. I was introduced to the point about different perspectives. I read the FAQ on the module website. A thought is: get a regular study pattern in the morning, and try to get ahead!

26 Sep 20

Getting ahead of myself, I started reading the chapter about the Mary (the mother of Jesus). I didn’t know that the story of the nativity comes from different gospels (Luke and another one) and that there were these other texts that were not included into the bible. I learnt about the origins of the word ‘polemic’ and also didn’t know that there were so many references to Mary in the Quran. All this stuff is new to me.

30 Sep 20

Finished reading section 4 of Mary, which was about how Mary is worshipped and can appear in apparitions. After reading the section, I realised that the different chapters of this first book relate to different disciplines. It’s really obvious now that I’ve noticed it. 

After finishing section 4, I went back to the website, and noticed that there were further module materials to go through that I hadn’t seen before.

I enjoyed the videos ‘Cleopatra in Hollywood’ and ‘Cleopatra on TV’. I had a quick look through the skills section about using sources (I must return back to this), and spent a bit of time working through the section on notes. 

A note to self: I need to figure out a way to start to make notes whilst I read stuff. I need to listen to the In Our Time clip from BBC Radio 4 that is linked to from the module materials. I learn better by listening than by reading.

Next blog takes me to the start of October.

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Studying educational leadership and management

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 26 Sep 2020, 14:40

Over the last two years, I’ve been working towards an MA in Education. I’ve studied two modules, EE812 Educational leadership: exploring strategy and EE813 MA Ed dissertation: leadership and management. I’ve blogged about some of my experiences of studying EE812 and studying EE813 before.

This blog post presents a vigorously edited fragment (or summary) of some of the ideas that have found their way into my EE813 dissertation.

I’m blogging this for the following reasons: (1) it has been a useful exercise to clarify my own thinking about bits of my dissertation, (2) to highlight authors and researchers that I found interesting to fellow students (with the thought that perhaps some might find them interesting too), and (3) to highlight bits of research that might be potentially useful when thinking about middle leadership and institutional change (which are the key themes of my dissertation).

Leadership and Middle leadership 

One of the things I asked myself was: what is the difference between leadership and management? I like the definition provided by Morrison (2013) who writes that leadership is about setting the direction of travel whilst management can be described as “ways of ensuring the vision happens in practice”.

One really interesting paper that I’ve found is by Alan Bryman. Bryman (2007) looks at research published about effective leadership in higher education and identifies thirteen behaviours. When considered as a whole, these behaviours could be seen as a simple framework. I’ve summarised them below:

  1. set a clear sense of direction/vision
  2. prepare to facilitate the direction that has been set
  3. being considerate of those who are led
  4. ensuring fairness and integrity
  5. trustworthy and personal integrity
  6. allowing open discussion
  7. communicating well
  8. acting as credible role models
  9. creating a collegial work environment
  10. advancing cause of department/school
  11. providing feedback on performance
  12. providing resources and facilitating scholarship
  13. making academic appointments that enhances reputation

Another paper that I’ve found (and one that I’ve drawn on for a lot) is by someone called John De Nobile.

De Nobile (2018) presents a model of middle leadership in his paper “towards a theoretical model of middle leadership in schools”. Schools, in his context, represents high schools, but there isn’t any reason why can’t use the same model to think about other contexts.

Reading this paper helped me in a couple of ways. It enabled me to see that ‘middle leadership’ or the study of ‘middle leaders’ was a subject in its own right. It has also enabled me to understand what a ‘theory’ looks like in the area of leadership or management studies. 

De Nobile’s model presents a ‘management-leadership continuum’. It suggests a number of inputs and outputs, and provides some suggestions about how different middle leader (or management) roles may be 'enacted'. He suggests that his MILS model could be “operationalised to guide further research into the way middle leaders operate, the influences that support or constrain them” (p.410). One thing that I would like to do is to ask some fellow staff tutor colleagues whether they also recognise aspects of De Nobile’s model, and whether it might be a useful tool to think about their role (but all that is for another day).

Change in higher education

When writing my dissertation for EE813, I drew on some ideas that were introduced during my study of EE812 (which, I guess, was the idea). One topic that I kept returning to time and again was the different ways in which change could be understand or conceptualised. 

In EE812, I was introduced to two theorists: Fullan and Kotter. 

Drawing on the EE812 module resources, Kotter presents an 8 stage change model: (1) establish a sense of urgency, (2) develop a guiding coalition, (3) create a vision of the future situation, (4) communicate the vision in different ways, (5) empower others by removing obstacles, (6) plan for and celebrate short term wins, (7) consolidate improvement and encourage the generation of further ideas, and (8) institutionalise new approaches.

Again, referencing the EE812 module materials (and my dissertation) Fullan, by contrast, presents a 10 stage model. The stages are: (1) do no assume that your vision is the one that could or should be implemented, (2) change requires those involved with implementation to work out their own meaning; a process of clarification, (3) assume that conflict and disagreement are inevitable and fundamental, (4) assume that people need pressure to change, (5) change takes time (specific innovations may take 2-3 years; institutional reform may take 5-10 years), (6) do not assume lack of implementation is outright rejection; other reasons may include time, resources or other significant concerns, (7) take steps to increase the number of people affected, (8) evolutionary planning is essential, (9) it is not possible to know everything before decisions need to be taken, (10) assume changing institutional culture is the real agenda. 

Simply put, Kotter's model can be thought of a top down (or rational) approach, whereas Fullan's broadly represent a bottom up approach. With Fullan's model, there’s an acknowledgement that change is complex. This is, of course, because people are involved, which makes change (and, specifically, education change) a socially complex process.

Bringing everything together

Another paper I discovered was by Balogun and Johnson (2004) who studied how middle managers responded to institutional restructuring. An important quote that I noted was “when senior managers redesign their organisations, they need to consider the social factors alongside the other aspects of the work settings” (p.544). Also, sense checking was also considered to be necessary “during organisational change it is essential to tap into, monitor and understand the multiple interpretations that are developing among recipients” (p.545) to track the process of change. The point being that different people or groups of people can understand things in different ways.

I discovered that some authors connected together the themes of change and middle leaders. A good example of this is where Edwards-Groves et al. (2019) wrote “middle leaders are able to reframe abstract initiatives and policies and articulate them in relation to locally realised practices in real terms” (p.331). There’s an implication here that middle leaders are important since they can act as important buffers and bridges between institutional change initiatives and the situations in which they are implemented. To become buffers and bridges middle leaders need to have the time and opportunity to understand and make sense of policy changes so they can begin to constructively interpret ways in which they may be realised.

Although they were writing about secondary schools, this is something that is explored by Bennett et al. (2007) who wrote: “there needs to be scope for discovery and creation of new ways of working from the bottom-up …  simply to demand a new role for middle leaders is not going to bring it into existence” (p.467) The role of middle leaders, it is argued, need to be discovered and interpreted. This takes us back to the work of Fullan, who suggests that “change requires those involved with implementation to work out their own meaning”. 

One thing that has struck me from all this study is that middle leadership is (using a term from EE812) relational. In other words, it’s all about relationships and interactions between people. The power of middle leaders (and thus the ability to enact change) comes from collaboration and discussion.

Reflections

All of my reading for my EE813 dissertation has been directed by the EE813 module and its predecessor, EE812. I’ve even found the time to delve into a set text for EE811 Educational leadership: agency, professional learning and change even though I haven’t studied that particular module (I was able to use 60 points of study from another institution towards my MA).

Another area that is relevant is the subject of systems thinking, which used to be featured within OU Technology postgraduate modules. Although systems thinking (as a topic) is often allied and connected with computing and information technology, it isn’t really about computers; it’s about understanding socio-technical systems. This means that it’s about understanding of human activity systems, and how different people might use and share information that might be provided by an information system. Aspects of this are touched on in the Computing undergraduate module TM353 IT systems: planning for success.

The point I’m trying to make by mentioning all this is simple: if you wish to enact change, you also need to understand that systems need to change too. This, of course, means that systems need to be understood, and that everyone who is affected by any systems change need to be involved with that change. An important starting point to look to the subject of Soft Systems Methdology (do forgive my use of a Wikipedia article in this blog)

This blog was written a week after my dissertation was submitted. I have no idea what mark I’m going to get, since I’ve never formally studied educational leadership and management before. I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll get a pass. 

This said, whilst a good mark would be nice, it’s always the learning that really matters, and I really do feel I’ve learnt a few things from EE812 and EE813. 

References

Balogun, J. and Johnson, G. (2004) ‘Organizational restructuring and middle manager sensemaking’. The Academy of Management Journal, vol. 47, no. 4, pp.523-549.

Bennett, N., Woods, P., Wise, C. and Newton, W (2007). ‘Understanding of middle leadership in secondary schools: a review of empirical research’. Leadership and Management, vol. 27, no. 5, pp.453-470.

Branston, C. M., Franken, M. and Penney, D. (2015) ‘Middle leadership in higher education: a relational analysis’. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, vol. 41, no. 1, pp.128-145.

Bryman, A. (2007) ‘Effective leadership in higher education: a literature review’. Studies in Higher Education, vol. 32, no. 6, pp.693-710.

De Nobile, J. (2018) ‘Towards a theoretical model of middle leadership in schools’. School Leadership & Management, vol. 38, no. 4, pp.395-416.

Fullan, M., Cuttress, C. and Kilcher, A. (2013) ‘Educational change: implementation and continuation’, in Wise, C., Bradshaw, P. and Cartwright, M. (eds) Leading Professional Practice in Education, Sage Publications Ltd, pp.111-123.

Kotter, J. P. (1996) Leading change, Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press.

Morrison, A. R. (2013) ‘Educational leadership and change: structural challenges in the implementation of a shifting paradigm’, School Leadership & Management, vol. 33, no. 4, pp.412-424.

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Understanding the new tutor contract: C&C working groups

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 18 Apr 2021, 15:06

The way in which associate lecturers are employed by the university is changing.

Tutors will be moving from a situation where they are employed on a ‘per module’ basis to a new type of contract where they are employed on a permanent basis.

The ‘per module’ contract currently lasts for the length of a module, which might be anything between 6 and 10 years (depending on the subject, and whether a module presentation is extended). When a module presentation comes to an end (and it is replaced by a new module) tutors have to reapply and be re-interviewed. All this takes a lot of time. 

A central tenet of the new contract is the idea of what tutors may be qualified to teach rather than a currently narrow definition of what they have specifically applied to teach. The new contract offers tutors increased security whilst also potentially providing greater flexibility for both the university and the university’s associate lecturers.

A really important question that needs to answered is: how might all this work? 

Unfortunately, such a simple question doesn’t have a simple answer. 

To help answer this question, a group of staff tutors in the School of Computing and Communications decided to create a set of small working groups to try to unpick the challenges of working with the new tutor contract. 

By way of further context, the role of ‘staff tutor’ refers to someone who will be looking after or line managing an associate lecturer. They will also be responsible for carrying out essential tasks, such as allocating workload (deciding which tutor carry out which tutoring task), running appraisals, planning tutorials and so on.

The informal working groups that were set up had the titles: organisation (how staff tutors should organise themselves to solve the problem), data and information (what staff tutors need to make decisions), managing supply and demand (what kind of reports about tutors or students are needed to help with planning), and culture (broader questions about who may have to be involved, and what needs to be done to make everything work). 

This document summarises some of the discussions that have emerged from all these groups. An important point is: we don’t have any answers, but the groups have helped us to understand more about some of the things that need to be understood, and some of the issues that need to be resolved.

Organisation

This working group was charged with understanding how staff tutors might practically organise themselves to make things work. 

At its most basic level, each tutor will have a percentage FTE (full time equivalent) which relates to the number of hours they are expected to work in a year. Staff tutor will have the task of ensuring that tutors are allocated work (and the work be different types of task) and they must also ensure that they are allocated the right amount of work.

Staff tutors have to manage dynamic situations: student numbers fluctuate between different years; sometimes they will be higher, sometimes they will be lower. Sometimes tutors resign, or retire, and sometimes they have to take time off due to illness.

An important question that staff tutors need to ask themselves are: how many people do you (generally) have to speak with to solve these kinds of problems, if you are dealing with a curriculum area? There needs to be a way to keep a track of available capacity (in terms of teaching resources or hours that can be allocated): how will staff tutors be able to do this?

To make everything work, the relationships between the staff tutors and the tutors will be really important. Also, continuity and consistency between years and presentations is also going to be important. There needs to be a way to keep records of who has been doing what, and over what period.

There’s an important question of how staff tutors might organise themselves to ensure that the communications that they have to be involved with is manageable. Should they organise themselves in terms of curriculum, or perhaps in terms of geography? One thought is to try to solve the general problem and then deal with exception cases. In the School of Computing and Communications, this might be the staff tutors who look after postgrad modules, or those who manage project modules. 

Data and Information

This group asked four key questions: (1) What information/data will we need to support the tasks we’ve identified? (2) What format do we need the data in? (3) When do we need the data?, and (4) What data is likely to be available?

In terms of the first question, what information and data is needed, this was split into three further groups: information about associate lecturers (qualifications, their full time equivalent, current workload tasks, desired FTE, areas of expertise, interest in additional duties, and recording of CPD), information about modules (who the current tutors are, what the predictions for the next presentation are) and finally, which tutors are available to complete certain tasks (and whether there was information that could help with the decision making about who to select, and in what order.

Regarding the question of ‘what format do we need the data in?’ a useful suggestion was the idea of a ‘school dashboard’ that could provide an overview of whether there are any recruitment, capacity or allocation issues. A school dashboard might also offer a summary of the CPD status of tutors. Perhaps there might also be a ‘cluster dashboard’ for staff tutors too.

As for when we need the data and information, there were a number of suggestions: a year in advance of the tutor student allocation, and in anticipation of any strategic changes to a programme, such as: when a module comes to an end, a new module starts, a new programme starts, or any other planned changes to a programme.

There is one specific example that is worth sharing.  The School of Computing and Communications has recently introduced a new cyber security programme. To plan for its introduction, it would be necessary to find out whether there are sufficient tutors with sufficient skills to tutor those modules. The accuracy of information is fundamental to long term strategic decisions about tutor capacity, as well as the per-presentation decision making and work allocation that staff tutors need to perform.

Managing Supply and Demand

The supply and demand group picks up from where the data and information group finishes. This group was asked to explore the management of available AL capacity to meet changing student demand and needs.  

Staff tutors emphasised the needs for a more robust and reliable student registration forecasting processes. An interesting suggestion was that any system could closely monitor the numbers of students who start level 1 modules, with a view to tracking how they move onto levels 2 and 3. There should ideally be a theoretical capacity buffer which could mitigate against potentially changing and challenging situations.

The problem could be understood in terms of pools: a supply pool (the available ALs), and the demand pool (students).

The allocation of work could be carried out in a number of steps, beginning with looking for the number of tutors needed and checking of skills that the tutors currently have (and facilitating staff development if necessary). This would be followed with allocation of long-term work, such as asking a tutor to teach on a a module (and allocating a number of students that matches with their FTE preference). If there was any spare FTE capacity, then additional duties (such as monitoring) could be allocated.

Another subject the supply and demand group explored was the issue of tutor recruitment. Under the new contract, a knowledge-based approach, based on groupings of modules or subject areas would be needed. A more detailed person specification would need to be created that goes above and beyond what is described in the person specifications for individual modules. All this would have to be negotiated by the union, include colleagues in AL services (who currently help to run the AL recruitment processes) and colleagues in people services.

Staff tutors can only do their job successfully if they are provided with accurate information. Colleagues from this group emphasised the need to identify trends. This means that staff tutors need to have accurate forecasting to ensure that their pool of associate lecturers (the supply side) is developed and supported as effectively as possible.

One of the conclusions from this group takes us directly to the discussions of the final group, the culture and change group: “for the long term it will also be essential to implement structural changes to our appointment, induction, training, support and staff development processes “

Culture and Change

This final group were asked to explore the extent to changes (particularly in terms of institutional culture and practices) that would need to be adopted (or adapted) to facilitate the implementation of the new tutor contract.

Put simply, the new tutor contract represents an inversion of how things are currently managed. At the moment, tutors are responsible for managing their own workload and their own continuing professional development. 

Under the terms of the new contract, it will be the staff tutors who will be responsible for the management of the workload of the tutors, and the staff tutors will be responsible for identify gaps in skills and capabilities and working with tutors to provide professional development to ensure that school (and university) objectives are met.

The relationship between the tutor and the staff tutors is going to change. Colleagues from this group explain the challenge quite succinctly: “we are moving from a volunteering for jobs situation to one in which we tell people what to do. So, the issue is what are the consequences when an AL says no! In this scenario, there is both a task issue, and a people-management issue.” The point here is that the role of the staff tutor will be changing. To facilitate that change it is also going to be important to consider what training and professional development needs to be carried out to enable staff tutors to comfortably complete their new job.

Like the previous group, this group discussed the subject of recruitment. It began to consider some scenarios which staff tutors may have to deal with, such as local issues such as last minute closure of tutorial venues, or surge in registration for certain modules.

Although staff tutors currently work in a collegiate and collaborative way, to make things work under the terms of the new contract, the extent of this collegiality may have to increase. Information about tutor capacity and tutor intentions will need to be shared between different staff tutors. Staff tutors may need to be organised in groups to make sure this information sharing is carried out efficiently.

It is also important to recognised that the change to the new terms of the contract will also impact on other key groups of staff; most significantly AL services (who have a key role in ensuring that groups are continued to be created), central academics, and the examinations teams.

Conclusions

The following points can be concluded from these discussions:

  1. Information is going to be fundamental to the implementation of the new tutor contract; information systems are needed.
  2. The information requirements of a system that will support the storage and discovery of information need to be established.
  3. Even if an information system is provided and developed, staff tutor communities across the university need to be empowered to make their own decisions about how to best organise themselves to facilitate collaboration with each other to ensure that workload is allocated and tutors are supported.
  4. The introduction of the new tutor contract will affect the roles of many staff groups in addition to staff tutors, such as: AL services, central academics, examinations, IT, and people services.
  5. All these stakeholder groups need to be engaged with the change, to gather requirements, and to facilitate understanding of those changes for the new tutor contract to be implemented.
  6. There needs to be a way to recruit new associate lecturers.
  7. There needs to be the definition of robust procedures that staff tutors can apply to resolve problems when they arise. 

Disclaimers

This summary doesn’t represent an officially negotiated or agreed position; it presents views that are entirely separate from any views held by university management or the union. This document emerged from discussions by staff tutor colleagues within the school of Computing and Communications who were asking the fundamental question: what do we have to do to make the new tutor contract work?

It is really important to recognise that different parts of the university may be very different to each other, particularly in terms of curriculum. In Computing and Communications the curriculum aligns neatly with the school, whereas in other parts of the university, some tutors might tutor on modules in different schools and in different faculties. This means that colleagues from different parts of the university may well have different requirements.

Acknowledgements

A significant number of staff tutors in C&C have played a role in these different working groups.  The organisation group was led by Matt Walkley and the contributors were Matthew Nelson and Mark Slaymaker. The data and information group was jointly led by David McDade and Anthony Johnston, with contributions from Sharon Dawes and Chris Douce. The supply and demand group was led and facilitated by Ray Corrigan with important contributions from Christine Gardner, Chris Thomson and Marina Carter. Finally, the culture change group was led by Steve Walker, with contributions from Alexis Lansbury, Andy Reed and Andy Hollyhead. This summary was compiled by Chris Douce from notes made during a presentation by all group leaders at regular C&C staff tutor meeting. 

Further information

This summary is related to an earlier event: New AL contract: Requirements workshop and C&C discussion, which took place in January 2019. Another meeting took place in early 2020.

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Reflections on M250

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I’ve just finished tutoring my first presentation of M250 Object-oriented Java programming.

I first applied to tutor on the predecessor to this module back in 2005. At the time I was a full time Java programmer working in industry, writing software that drove some equipment that was used to teach telecommunication principles. 

I wasn’t offered a contract on M250, but I was offered a contract on M364, which was called Fundamentals of Interaction Design. I tutored M364 for a little over ten years. It was a great module; it was well designed, it had a clear structure, and gave students some practical experience of carrying out some really simple usability evaluations.

In 2019, I heard from a colleague that there was a M250 vacancy in the London region. I hesitated; I’ve a lot on. I also tutor on the project module, TM470, and have a few other OU responsibilities. Since my research at university was about object-oriented programming, I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to play a part in teaching people about object-oriented programming. I applied. I was interviewed and considered appointable.

Books

In the post I was sent three glossy looking books. In the very early stages of tutoring, I sat down and started to read them, skimming over the activities; a lot of what I was reading was already familiar to me, and I could understand the concepts that were expressed through the amphibian-related activities (frogs and toads were used to introduce the concept of objects and messages).

Through the module website, I found that there were PDF and ePub versions of books. I downloaded the ePub versions onto my eReader, just so I could carry them around with me a bit more easily.

Getting everything going

At the start of the module, I set up some introduction threads on the tutor group forum and wrote to each student telling them to subscribe to it. I also asked students to get in touch with me to say hello. For those who didn’t reply, I chased them up with a text message and a quick phone call or voicemail. 

My first tutorial

My first ever M250 tutorial took place in a seminar room at the University of Westminster. I was there to support my fellow tutor, Lindsey, who has been allocated to me as my mentor.  Two things struck me: she knew terms to describe Java that I had forgotten, and carried out almost all of her teaching using a combination of whiteboard, and pen and paper. This method of teaching programming was a method that I approved of; it forces everything to move a whole lot more slowly.

My first solo tutorial

My first ever online introductory tutorial was fun. I prepped for it by looking at what other tutors had done, using sections of the module material and sharing bits of the TMA question. 

During the first tutorial, I tried my best to emphasise the fundamental concepts of object-oriented programming. I asked everyone who came along to look around their immediate environment. We made classes out of those objects, and gave them attributes. I also compared non-OO programming to OO programming, to really emphasise why it’s an important subject. I also recorded the tutorial and did two things to follow up: I posted a link to the recording on the tutor group forum, and also sent an email to all student to let them know they could find a link to the recording by visiting the forum.

Whenever I can, I try to connect different things together; tutorials with module materials, and forums with recordings.

My first TMA

The first TMA of a new module means that you never know what you’re going to expect. I always knew that there would be a lot of support behind the scenes. I subscribed to the tutor forums (in M250, there was one support forum for every TMA), printed out all of the tutor notes (which were comprehensive), along with the TMA question. I also made liberal use of my highlighter to identify bits that I needed to pay attention to.

I quickly realised that students were asked to submit their TMAs in two parts. Firstly, there was the written part (presented within a Word document), then there was some programming code, that was submitted in a zip file. The code in the zip file was also presented in the Word document, and could add teaching comments into the Word document.

Another thing that was new to me was the BlueJ Java programming environment. I soon figured out how it worked: projects were contained within directories, and these directories contained a project file. I easily found the compile button, and figured out that there were another bunch of tools that had been created by the university: something called the OU workspace which presented a graphical display, and a way to dynamically work with Java code.

There was something that really helped me to get going in the very early days, and that was a testing tool that had been created by the module team. Essentially, you run a Java program that then compares a specified Java program (i.e. a student’s submission) against a predefined definition or specification. Essentially, it’s a tool that tells you whether a student’s code is right or wrong. The tutor’s job is to interpret everything: the tool output, the student’s submission and the tutor notes and provide some sensible teaching comments, along with a mark.

I soon realised that I could apply a familiar tried and tested marking approach to M250: I could mark one question (or question section) at a time, for all student submissions. The advantage of doing it this way is: (1) consistency, and (2) speed. When you’re doing this, you can put quite a lot of the marking guide into your head and also make sure that you provide consistent comments and feedback for each of the student submissions.

My first additional support session

After marking the first TMA, I noticed that a couple of students may be struggling to understand some of the fundamental concepts of OO programming. A tip off for this was how some of the Java code was expressed. It might have been things like students not quite understanding the purpose of member variables and how they related to member functions (for example). 

I emailed all the students who might be struggling to ask them whether they might be interested in a one to one session. A couple of students agreed.

During one of the additional support sessions, which took place in a tool called Adobe Connect, I used screen sharing. Rather than telling students what they needed to do, I asked questions to probe their understanding of some of the fundamental Java and OO concepts. I then used screen sharing, in combination with the BlueJ environment, to do what is usually called ‘live coding’. Essentially, during the tutorial, we co-created some code which explored similar concepts that were explored within the TMA questions.

I had never done any live coding before. I had certainly never done it using BlueJ and Adobe Connect. In some respects, I was taking quite a few risks, but everything seemed to work okay. Object-oriented concepts were communicated and shared through a combination of English and Java.

My first examination preparation session

During my first presentation of M250, something unexpected happened; a global pandemic. What this meant was that the expected M250 written exam was cancelled. This mean that the final assessment score was going to be calculated from the scores of all the TMAs. This was possible, since the TMAs assessed all the key learning outcomes from the module.

Exams are useful, since they enable learners to consolidate their earlier learning. Rather than running an examination preparation session, I’m going to be running what I can only call a module consolidation tutorial. During this final tutorial I’m going to be talking about what was going to be assessed, why different questions were to be asked, and how they may relate to studies on other modules. 

Reflections

I’ve enjoyed tutoring my first presentation of M250.

Tutoring the module was a bit of a surprise, in the sense that I didn’t expect to become a tutor on M250; I thought the opportunity had passed. I applied, since I felt that I had some hidden skills (knowledge of OO programming and Java) that I could use. 

I enjoyed realising that I remembered how to code and how the key parts of the language worked. I also enjoyed working with the new bits: collection classes and iterators; bits of the language that had been introduced after I had stopped using it on a daily basis.

Although the marking was hard work, it was looking at something that was familiar, which meant I was able to get into the swing of it relatively quickly. I soon learnt to accept that wasn’t going to understand everything that was in the tutor notes (tutor marking instructions) straight away. Understanding, of course, came by playing with code, and looking through the answers that students had submitted.

The real fun bits were the tutorials and the one-to-one sessions. It was in these sessions that I felt that I could really add something as a tutor.

If asked whether there was something I would change for the next presentation, it would be: I would take even more risks during tutorials. Programming has the potential to be a really fun subject. I have the tools to make it fun. It’s going to be up to me to make it so. 

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Second EdD residential school

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 4 Jun 2020, 15:19

On 2 November 2019 I attended a couple of seminars from the second EdD residential school programme which took place in Milton Keynes. I’ve made these notes for the student that I am co-supervising, my co-supervisor, and for any other EdD student who might (potentially) find them useful. I have previously blogged about the first EdD residential school I attended.

At this point in their studies EdD students would have completed an initial study and have submitted some reports. A study and a research project should now be starting to take shape. It was suggested, however, that things are going to get tougher, and students will continue to refine and develop their ideas, plans and projects.

To support students who begin the second year, the EdD group offers a number of online seminars for the second year. Topics include: explaining your ethical approach to your research, demonstrating criticality (which sounds really useful), interviews (and interviewing), and being systematic in your literature review. These sessions are to help students clarify their theoretical approach, understand research methods, reflect on ethics, practice academic writing and to reflect on their development as researchers.

What follows is a summary of the two sessions that I attended. During each talk, I tried to make some rough notes, which I’ve transcribed and edited. Since these are notes, there may well be errors and omissions. I also expect slides and handouts to be made available to students after the event.  This blog post complements an earlier post I made about the first EdD residential school that I attended.

Epistemology and Ontology in Educational Research 

The first seminar was by Kieron Sheehy, Professor of Education. Kieron’s presentation was said to draw on slides that were originally created by John Richardson, and a paper that had been written by Peter Twining, a former OU colleague.

Ontology is the study of beliefs about the nature of reality. This connects to the question of whether there can be an objective reality. Epistemology is the study of how we go about finding stuff out. Unpacking this further, this is about what can be known, and how we might come to find out about the world.  The question of ‘what counts for knowledge’ drives the research. 

When discussing these things, a really important point to take on board is that not everyone thinks the same way. To demonstrate this point, we were asked to complete a short exercise where we were asked to respond to a series of statements about how we viewed research and learning.

If we agreed with a statement, we were asked to put an outstretched hand up in the air. If we disagreed with the statement, we put a fist in the air. If we held a position that was in between, we could choose to present a number of fingers, depending on how we felt about something.

In terms of differences, on one hand there was a view where experiments are important (a positivist approach) versus a view where meaning is created through social interaction, and those meaning can be subjective and different. Another point was that your own epistemological beliefs can influence what you do as a researcher. A later point was that examiners also read a dissertation or research report using their own epistemological beliefs. 

A related question was: why is all this stuff important? From a very practical perspective of being a doctoral student, it is important since a common viva question might be “can you explain your position?” along with “why have you chosen the methods that you have chosen, and how do these relate to your beliefs?” Answering these questions enable you to do your research well and having a stance enables you to tackle issues. An epistemological position directly affects your methods. If you choose a qualitative method, different people may have different realities (understand things in different ways), and meaning can be culturally defined.

Kieron presented one of John’s slides that tried to cover all these different issues in one go.  There were a number of different approaches: positivist, interpretive, critical and pragmatic. A critical approach is where you consider injustices and try to enact change. A pragmatic approach is the application of whatever methods and approaches that may be useful to solve a problem or explore a subject. A positivist approach is where you hold the view that there is an objective reality (and you can observe things), whereas an interpretivist approach means that you try to interpret the subject perspectives and understandings of others. 

It was then onto another task. We were asked to work in pairs to answer the question: ‘what is your position?’ and ‘what are you doing in your research?’ During the discussions I noted down the point that a research design, choice of methods, and ethics must all align to each other. A further point was that if we’re carrying out research into a social world, a reflexive approach is important; we need to ask ourselves how our own position has influenced the research. Similarly, it’s important to be critical and ask: are there other explanations or counter examples? Different perspectives can also be used.

During the session, I examined my own epistemology. I’m a computer scientist who sometimes gets involved in social science and education research. My background means that I’m familiar with the idea of creating systems, or employing an engineering method to solve problems. I asked myself the question: how can an engineering approach fit into the view that knowledge can either be objective (explored using a positivist approach) or subjective (explored using an interpretive approach)?

There’s an answer for this. The engineered artefacts can be studied using a positivist (experimental) approach to answer the question of: ‘does it solve the problem it sets out to solve?’ If we’re thinking about computer software (or, for that matter, any engineered or created product), the produce is used by people, and has been created by people, and people start to use, build and interact with products, all starting with different perspectives. Both epistemological perspectives are necessary to understand the full picture (which is a point which connect to the subject of mixed methods).

Keeping your promises? A focus on anonymisation

The second seminar was about ethics and was presented by Alison Fox, Senior Lecturer in Teaching and Learning. Early on during Alison’s presentation she referred to the ethical protocols that were put in place during a study. An accompanying question was: can you always keep your promises (regarding anonymisation)? 

I made a note of the concept of internal versus external anonymisation. Consider the situation of where a study was described in an academic article or report, where the action of participants is described.  That paper could be read by different groups of people: those people who know nothing of the group that was a focus of the study, or it could be read by members of the group that was the focus of the study. In some cases, participants may be able to recognise both themselves and others from descriptions. It must be asked: would this be acceptable?

CERD is an ethical appraisal framework, which is an abbreviation for Consequential, Ecological, Relational and Deontological. 

Consequential relates to a utilitarian perspective, and this involves the importance of gathering of informed consent, and the avoidance of harm. I also noted down some questions, such as: what do you hope to get from a study? Also, what is the impact in practice? Put another way, what are the consequences of a study?

Ecological relates to all the people affected by the study. This requires the researcher to consider the ‘ecology’ of a group of people, and involves considering the power dynamics, sponsors, leaders and audiences.

Relational is about making ethical decisions to maintain harmonious relations with different people. Another note I made was the importance of showing respect to everyone.

Deontological is about not treating people as tools or subject. Another note I made was that this bit of the framework refers to “necessity of obligation”, or “duties and obligations”.  It’s also important to think about how to maximise benefits from a study, who to tell about your study, and how to report your data. This idea can link back to the earlier example where participants may potentially be identified within their own context.

During Alison’s talk, I also made down a note to dig out the British Educational Research Association, Ethical Guidelines for Educational research (website).

For students who are studying on the EdD programme, I also note that Alison has made a recorded of a tutorial entitled ‘A walk through the CERD ethical appraisal framework’ which is available through the EDD-PW online room.

A brief aside (and a further resource)

As well as being an EdD supervisor, I’m current also an MA Education student with the OU.

I decided to study education (specifically higher education management and leadership) for the reason that I thought that it might help me in my day job (as a middle manager). I’m currently towards the end of my studies, having enrolled in EE813 (module description), a dissertation module, where I’ve got to carry a small amount of educational research.

To prepare students to carry out the MA level research, like EdD students, MA students are also introduced to the ideas of ontology, epistemology, methodology and paradigm. During a recent tutorial, my MA tutor mentioned a really useful video that was contained within the module materials:  David James: How to get clear about method, methodology, epistemology and ontology, once and for all (YouTube).

If you’re interested in research methods and these different ‘ologies’ I do recommend the video. James presents everything through a simple iceberg metaphor. The tip of the iceberg are the methods that you use. Just below the surface (setting the foundation of the methods) is the methodology. The ‘ology’ means that there has been a study of the methods, i.e. choices have been made, leading towards giving an approach. Then there’s epistemology: “what is knowable and worth knowing”; the ‘ology’ of knowledge (or, the debate about what knowledge is).

An interesting example was given where different ways of finding things out can lead to different conclusions, since the research methods begin with different underlying assumptions. Whilst listening to the video, the following phrase struck me: “ontology is simply any debate about being; what it is to be; what it is to exist”. A point was made that this question exists, in different forms, within any discipline. 

I really like this video, since it breaks things down really simply and carefully.  Towards the end of the video there is a reference to the idea of “the position from which you speak” (which links to the idea of reflexivity and the activity which Kieron asked us to complete), and the term ‘paradigm’.

Reflections

Through repeated exposure to all these ‘ologies’ I’m developing a more nuanced view of research methods. One thing that really struck me was the commonalities between what was discussed in the higher level EdD programme residential school, and what was taught in in the MA in education programme. The MA programme seems to do a really good job at preparing students for the EdD. (My next task is to write about ontology and epistemology in my next MA assessment)

One thing that is coming up in my MA studies is a section on Ethics, but it’ll take me a couple of months to get there. It’ll be interesting to see whether the approach that Alison mentioned will also feature in the MA materials. I found Alison’s description of the CRED framework useful, since it clearly encourages students to ask some important and searching questions about how to approach ethics when carrying out research.

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A Year in the Life of an AL

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A year ago, my colleague Alexis Lansbury gave a great presentation entitled ‘A Year in the Life of an AL’ at a STEM new tutor induction event. 

I have sometimes been asked ‘what exactly is it that associate lecturers do, other than marking assignments?’ when helping to recruit new tutors. It was at this point that I wished that I had a neat summary of Alexis’s presentation. With Alexis’s permission, I’ve prepared this summary of her talk, whilst adding my own flourishes, drawing on my own experience of tutoring for a decade.

A point to bear in mind is that this blog has been broadly written for tutors who teach on a single module which starts in October (which is known in OU speak as a ‘J presentation’; ‘A’ presentations begin in January, B in February, C in March…). 

This ‘year in the life’ for other ALs may, of course, be slightly different to the one that is depicted here. Also, there may well be slight differences in how things are run between tutors in different schools and faculties.

Another thing to bear in mind is that things are always changing. If this post is read in five years’ time, some bits may look slightly different; there might be references to new emerging processes, such as a ‘skills audit’ and ‘workload planning’. This said, the core aspects of the role should pretty much remain the same. 

An important question to begin with is: how do I become an associate lecturer with the OU? It begins with an application form.

Application, interviewing and appointment

The OU has an AL recruitment site. This site usually advertises tutor roles that are specifically linked to academic modules, but this may change in the next few years.

If you see a module that you think that you could tutor, you need to follow the following steps:

  • Download the ‘generic’ person specification which is about teaching skills, and the module specific person specification. Take a few minutes to decide whether you can meet each of the points on the person spec.
  • Download the application form.
  • Complete said application form.
  • Send completed application form to the email address that is given in the application form.

I was once offered a bit of really good advice about completing application forms: “do everything you can to convince whoever is reviewing your application that you should be interviewed”. This can be rephased to: “make everything blindingly obvious”.

The first bullet point above suggests that the AL application form has two parts: a generic bit (which is about teaching), and a module specific bit (which is about the academic skills and abilities).

The application form has two sections: a bit that is about teaching, and a bit that is specific to a module or topic. To make things blindingly obvious, a recommendation is to copy each point of the generic spec, and paste it into the generic section, and then do the same for the module specific person spec. When this looks okay, provide between two and four sentences of evidence about how you meet each of these points. 

After the application has been submitted, two staff tutors will read each application form and decide whether someone has met most of the points on the person spec, and will then be invited to interview. Interviews can take place either face-to-face, or over the phone. Depending on the role, applicants may also be sent a short task to complete. This might be a short marking exercise, or a plan for a tutorial. 

The aims of the interview are to further and more thoroughly assess whether a candidate meets all the person spec criteria. Each interview is carried out by two staff tutors. If successful, a candidate will be considered to be ‘appointable’, which means they have met all the selection criteria and are potentially eligible to receive a group of students should they be available.

Getting a group always depends on a number of different factors: the number of students who have applied to tutor on a module, the number of other tutors who have applied, and also the interview score (which is sometimes combined with the test score). 

When recruiting for new modules, interviews typically take place in July or August, but in some cases, they may well take place in September, which is very close to the start of the start of a module.

September:  Appointments, FED, TSAs …

September is a busy month. For modules that start in October, September is when the FED is, which is short for the student Final Enrolment Date.

A week or so after FED, the university will know roughly how many students have been recruited to a module. Staff tutors can often only make new appointments around or after this date. If you’re a new tutor, September is the month when you find out whether you have a group or not.

During September, your staff tutor (or assistant staff tutor) will get in touch and ask you for your timetable dates. If this is a new module, a good idea is to study the module calendar to see what happens when, and have a good look at the module Group Tuition Strategy (GTP). The GTP roughly sketches out what is in the head of the module team in terms of student interaction.

After appointment, there is something called TSA. TSA is an abbreviation for Tutor Student Allocation; it is the process where the students are assigned to tutors (it’s also a part of the year when the university is exceptionally busy!) When the TSA has been completed, you will receive an email telling you that your group of students is now available to you.

The next step is to look through your student list, paying particular attention to any flags that might be against student records. Look out for students who might have disability markers, or alerts, such as whether they might be younger students, on their records.

If you see a student who is on a degree apprentice programme, there might be the possibility that someone called a practice tutor might be in touch. Don’t worry about this; this is just someone who supports an apprentice student through the period of their studies whilst they work within industry.

Another good thing to do during this month is to make sure that your computer is all set up and ready. The university uses Microsoft Outlook to provide you with an email address, and Skype for Business to enable you to make outgoing telephone calls and easily speak with other tutor colleagues. Before the start of the module, it’s important to make sure that your IT setup is working and ready to go. 

A week or so before the start of the module, you should be contacting your students to say hello to them. This could take place by email, by text, or by phone. It’s important to make a note of who gets in touch with you. 

Every new tutor will be allocated a mentor, who is usually an experienced tutor who has taught the module a number of times before. So, in September it’s important to reach out to them to say hello. They are paid to help you throughout your first presentation of a module, and can offer a lot of practical advice.

If you are joining a new module, new module briefings typically take place in September, usually on a Saturday or Sunday, and often at the university head office. This said, sometimes briefings are also online. If you’re joining an established module, it is worthwhile asking whether there are recordings of briefings.

A really important point is: don’t feel that you need to know everything.

October: Getting organised and prepared

From what I remember, modules that begin in October tend to start on the first Saturday of the month. This sometimes gives a tutor a few days to get organised. A really important thing to do is to look through all the assessments and put all the Tutor Marked Assessment (TMA) dates in your diary. These dates (along with the timetable dates that you agree with your tutor) are really important; your students will be working to these too.

It’s a good idea to also note down the iCMA (Computer Marked Assessment) cut-off dates, and any dates of any module-wide tutorial dates that might be taking place. This way, if you see that students haven’t completed the iCMAs, you can gently chase them. Also, knowing the dates of the module-wide events can be useful too since you can encourage students to attend them.

October is also a month for getting organised with the various OU systems. As a new tutor, you might want to complete some various bits of mandatory training (TutorHome). These include learning how to use the eTMA system (electronic TMA system), completing GDPR (data protection), Safeguarding and Prevent (terrorism awareness) training. It’s also a good idea to work through the equality essentials training, since completion will be recorded on your tutor record (and this is necessary for completing your AL probation).

If you haven’t used it before, it’s also a good idea to sign up for some Adobe Connect training, which is used for online tutorials. There are some very good short introductory courses that not only introduce the practical aspects of working with the software, but they also introduce some important concepts of online pedagogy.

By the middle of the month, all your students should have responded to your introductory email. If you haven’t heard from them, a suggestion is to first send them a short text message (always remember to write ‘hello studentname’ at the start of the text, as otherwise you might not easily know who the replies are from!) If you don’t receive a text, a suggestion is to give a student a ring. Students are invariably really pleased to hear from you, so please don’t worry about calling. 

If you can’t get hold of a student, you should submit something that is called a referral to the SST (Student Support Team) to let them know that you haven’t been able to get in contact. It’s important to do this, since if a student isn’t able to study despite being registered, the longer they leave it, the more significant the fee implications for the student are.

By now, you should be becoming more familiar with the module website. If your module has a tutor group forum area, find it and subscribe to it. When I get to that area, I post an introduction. In this introduction, I ask questions like: what do the students hope to get out of the module, and whether they have any fears or concerns about anything?

During this first month, you’ll also be planning and delivering your first introductory tutorials. In these, a recommendation is to introduce who you are, get students to introduce themselves to each other, and introduce the module to everyone. A key part of this will be to explain the assessment strategy that the module uses.

To prepare, you might have a meeting with a fellow tutor, if you’re going to be running an introductory session together. You might also have a look on the tutor version of a module website to see if any useful hints and tips have been posted, and maybe use some bits out of other PowerPoint presentations that other tutors might have posted.

A recommendation is to also record bits of the first tutorial so there’s something for students to listen to if they were not able to attend. The day after a recording, it’s important to make sure that the recording is visible to students. 

November: Everyone gets going…

November is the month when everything gets going and also when everything settles down a bit.  By November, you should have completed all your mandatory training.

November is the month when the ALSD, Associate Lecturer Staff Development, cycle starts. The university ALSPD, meaning ALs Professional Development, prepare and run a series of events and professional development conferences for tutors. In November, you might want to look through the list of conferences that are scheduled throughout the year (which you can find published on TutorHome), perhaps adding one date to your diary.

There are other staff development opportunities that you might want to look into. The STEM faculty runs (or used to run) a programme called “By ALs for ALs” which is about a peer staff development and training. Sometimes there might be faculty or school specific events in this month. One year, there was an AL conference that was run for all ALs in the School of Computing and Communication. 

November may also be the month when the first TMA arrives in your eTMA inbox. You will know about this because there will be an email when students submit their TMAS, and you’ll be all ready for them because you’ll have an entry in your diary. A point to note is that you’ll have to return them within ten working days. During that time, you will have to mark them and offer some detailed correspondence tuition to help your student move forward through a module. 

December: A small amount of relaxation

If you tutor or teach on any B modules (modules that begin in February) it is possible that your staff tutor (line manager) may be in contact to ask you about tutorial dates towards the end of November and the beginning of December. A university principle is that tutorial dates should be made available three months in advance; sometimes staff tutors do this earlier, but sometimes they may ask for dates closer to the start of the module if student numbers are a bit uncertain.

During this month there may be some ALSD conferences. I remember going to a couple of AL development conferences that have taken place in December.

December is also a month for a bit of rest and relaxation. The university typically closes down for Christmas, and then opens up again in the new year, and tutors are not expected to work during this period. This said, many students will still be studying, so they may well send the occasional query from time to time. Also, even though the university might be officially closed, staff tutors (tutor line managers) are a dedicated bunch, which means that if you have any issues, you might still be able to contact them to ask for a bit of advice. 

January: Enrolments and studying

For modules that start in February, there will be a Final Enrolment Date for students which is typically in the middle of January. To prepare for a February presentation, there might be late tutor appointments (to take account of changes in student numbers) and the completion of the tutor-student allocation.

To support students who started in October there may be further TMAs submitted (depending upon the module schedule), tutorials, and the need to respond to various questions and queries from students about the module materials or the assessments.

Towards the end of January, depending on the TMA schedule, you might see your first monitoring report. A monitoring report is an assessment of your marking performance. To ensure quality, your marking and feedback is assessed by either a member of the module team, or an experienced tutor. They will look at the tone of your comments and the effectiveness of your marking. All this will get signed off by your line manager.

February: Continuing to receive and mark TMAs

If you tutor on a module that starts this month, you will need to look through your student list and write to them, and make sure that you have made a note of all the TMA and tutorial dates. 

If you are teaching on a module starting in April (D) then your staff tutor will be asking for a timetable from you. If you’re unsure what they are asking for, do ask them. Some rough guidance is available from the module Group Tuition Policy. A good rule of thumb is: try to do, roughly, what happened for the previous presentation.

During this month, students will be doing their study, and this means that there might be some TMA marking. There may also be the need to plan and run a tutorial. If you’re delivering a tutorial with a fellow tutor, you should try to get in touch with them to come up with a plan about who does what and when. One tutor might want to present half of a session, or one might be a lead presenter and the other might be a support presenter who may look after the text chat, or one tutor might ask the second tutor some questions about the module material. Tutorials are opportunities to be creative. 

March: Study progress

For modules that start in April there will be the student Final Enrolment Date, the possibility of late appointments and last-minute timetabling before you are then assigned your group (the completion of the TSA).

During all these months, it’s important to keep in regular contact with your students. If you haven’t heard from them for a while, a suggestion is to send them a quick note to ask them how they’re getting along. You can do this by sending them a group email, making a post to the discussion forum, or ideally both.

The longer a module goes on, the more tired students may become. This means that you may have to record the occasional TMA extension using the TutorHome webpage if students need a bit more time to complete their assignments. 

During March, there might be some AL development conferences running somewhere. These conferences move around the UK to different locations; you should go to the event that is closest to where you live.

April: Easter

April should be a relatively quiet month, except for those tutors who have modules that start this month. For students who started in October, everyone should be now thoroughly settled: you should have a good idea of how everyone is doing through the TMA scores, and know some of your students through the different tutorials. 

In April, a suggestion is to revisit your module calendar to remind yourself about what everyone has been doing for the past few months, and what there is to do over the final two months. The reason to do this is that your attention (and those of your students) should be gradually turning towards the exam or EMA.

May: Exam preparation

May is the month of exams and exam preparation. Exams can take two different forms: they can be either a three hour written exam, which takes place at an exam centre that is as close as possible to where a student lives, or they can be an EMA. An EMA is known as an End of Module Assessment, which is a bit like a extended TMA which takes the place of an exam. 

During May, you may be called upon to run an exam preparation session. To help with this challenging task, the module team will have provided what is known as a Sample Exam Paper, or SEP. The SEP gives a set of questions which look like the kind of questions you may be asked during the real exam. If a module has been running for a few years, students can also download some copies of past exam papers.

During the exam preparation session, you might want to talk about not only the types of questions (and topics) that students might be asked about, but you might also want to talk about exam strategy. This may be especially important if students haven’t taken written exams for some time.

One thing to be aware of is that students may sometimes ask for extensions for their final TMAs. University policy says that extensions to final TMAs are not possible. There are two main reasons for this: the first is that all the assessment dates have to be recorded by a certain date to make sure that the module results collation processes work okay (an administrative reason), and secondly students need to have sufficient time to study and prepare for their exams (a study related reason). 

May also usually means a little bit of time off or away, due to the May bank holidays.

June: Examination time

June is the month of exams. Before the exam, expect a few queries about module materials, but if you receive any queries about where students should go, do direct students to the student support team.

Depending on the module that you’re tutoring, you may also be able to sign up to do some exam or EMA marking. At the time of writing, exam and EMA marking is covered under a separate contract (unless your module uses something called a ‘single component assessment’ model).

If you are down as an exam marker you will be required to participate in what is called a co-ordination exercise. What this means is that all examiners will be required to mark a number of exam scripts that are chosen by the module chair and attend a co-ordination meeting where everyone discusses and compares their scores. The idea is that any marking scheme will be thoroughly tested, and differences in markers and marking can be ironed out before the marking takes place. 

A personal reflection is that exam or EMA marking is hard work. Markers have to pay very close attention to a marking guide, and also enter exam results into a marking database. With both EMA and exam marking, a constant supply of tea is a necessity.

There are other things that happen in June. If you’re teaching on a J (October) module, you may receive a confirmation of an appointment if it looks like there will be sufficient numbers of students registering on that module. If student numbers have fallen substantially you might be sent a letter that might warns about the possibility of redundancy, but this very much depends on the current terms and conditions of your tutor contract. 

During some of these months, you may also be working on different bits and pieces, depending on your relationship with your staff tutor and the module team. Some tutors might be doing some peer monitoring, whereas other tutors might be asked to carry out some other academic tasks, such as critical reading, checking and writing of assessments, or even the writing of new exam questions.

July and August: Holiday time (for some)

The summer means holiday time (non-teaching time) for tutors, but not for staff tutors.

The summer should also be decision time.  Every module is different. Sometimes there is a perfect match between a tutor’s skills, knowledge and experience. On other occasions, tutors might realise, after a presentation, that a module isn’t quite right for them. If that is the case, you need to decide whether you wish to continue. The best time to make that decision is in the summer time, since according to one version of the tutor contract, tutors have to give three months’ notice. Plus, this gives your staff tutor sufficient time to try to find a replacement.

If you have applied to tutor a module, tutors might be invited to interviews in the summer. Also, if you are appointable and there are sufficient student registrations for new modules, AL services may be in contact to offer you a contract.

Not only are the staff tutors thinking about recruitment, they are also starting to plan for the next presentation. Staff tutors may be in touch with you to get your ideas about timetables for the modules that start in October. To prepare for this, it’s worth considering what worked well, who you would like to work with, and what your holiday plans for the year might be.

September: Appointments, FED, TSAs …

It all begins again in September; it’s always a busy month. For modules that start in October, September is when the FED is, which is short for the student Final Enrolment Date.

In addition to everything that was mentioned earlier, there’s a couple of extra things that are important to mention. After the first year of tutoring, your line manager will be in contact to organise a first year probation meeting. The is usually pretty informal and shouldn’t be anything to worry about. The tutor probation period lasts for two years. This means after the second presentation, there will be a further meeting to finalise everything. In this meeting your line manager will check to see whether you’ve completed all the mandatory training, and if you have any worries about anything.

In addition to the probation meetings, there is something called a CDSA that takes place every two years. CDSA is an abbreviation for Career Development and Staff Appraisal. Its purpose is to facilitate a discussion about how the university might be able to help with regards to supporting you and your tutoring work. In the meeting, your staff tutor might offer some advice and thoughts about AL development opportunities. In turn, your staff tutor can influence the direction and aims of various AL development groups.

Towards the end of September, tutor-student allocation will happen. It’s time to say hello to your students again.

Closing thoughts

I started my career as an OU tutor back in 2006. The first year was tough because everything was new to me: the university, the module, where the module sat within a wider programme, the systems, and correspondence tuition. I think it is fair to say that you need to complete at least two presentations of any module before you feel completely comfortable with its aims, objectives, and what is in the heads of the module team members.

Whenever speaking to anyone who is considering becoming a tutor, there is something that I clearly emphasise, and this is: there is a lot of support that is available. Every tutor has a friendly line manager whose sole purpose is to help you with your tutoring. There are also fellow tutors, who are a great bunch of people. There is always a tutor somewhere who is able to answer your questions. Finally, there is an entire module team who is behind you, and these are represented by someone (on the tutor side) by someone who has the job title of ‘curriculum manager’.

Being a tutor can be tiring, sometimes frustrating, but undeniably rewarding. Tutors make the difference. If you’re curious about the role, do try to find the time to speak to a staff tutor. More importantly, though, do try to find the time to speak to an OU student. 

Finally, in some respects, this post complements two earlier posts which were on a slightly different topic. The first post has the title Day in the life of a MCT staff tutor and was written in 2015. A follow on post, entitled Day in the life of a STEM staff tutor (reprised) was written a couple of years later in 2017, following a series of university changes. I hope these additional posts add  to this summary of ‘a year in the life of an AL’.

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Alexis Lansbury who took the time to review this blog post, and has kindly saved very many grammatical and typographical blushes.


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XTXY112 Practice Tutor Briefing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key components

A degree apprenticeship consists of a number of different components. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introductions

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

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

The first meeting

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

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

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

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

Record keeping

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

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

Quarterly and end of year reviews

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

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

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

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

Functional skills and prerequisites

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

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

Modules that DA students will study

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

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

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

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

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

DA pathways

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for the Practice tutors

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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Reflecting on TM470

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming students

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

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

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

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

Keeping in touch

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

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

Tutorials

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

I find tutorials useful for a couple of reasons.

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

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

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

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

One-to-one sessions

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

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

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

TMA Feedback

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

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

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

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

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

Tutor group forum

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

Here’s a summary of how I use it:

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

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

Additional resources given to students

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

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

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

Advice to students

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

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

EMA marking

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

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

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

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

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Horizons in STEM education conference 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Opening and keynote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 1

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

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

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

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

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

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 2

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

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

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

Technology Enhanced Learning/Computer Science

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

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

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

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

Equality, diversity and inclusion session 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional practice session

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

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

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

Closing keynote

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

Addendum

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

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

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

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

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