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STEM Education Research Group - Mixed Methods

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 26 Jan 2023, 15:48

I belong to a couple of research groups within the School of Computing and Communications; I’m trying to find my research home, after not being involved with research for a while. There’s also an informal group called the STEM Education Research Group, which explores topics that are common to some of the groups that I (occasionally) visit.

On 18 January 2023 I attended a research development event that was facilitated by Ann Grand, Senior Lecturer in Astrobiology Education, that was all about mixed methods.

An example

Ann opened with an example, which was also a research question: how are people using their allotments?

You might count how many people are growing different type of crops, or how many hours a week people are ‘using’ their allotments, or you might try to understand ‘why’ they are using their allotment. The nature of the research question might lead to you choosing different methods: you might gather numbers, or you might want to speak with people who grow things on their allotments. I made a note that there’s a difference between multi-methods to answer different research questions, and mixing of methods.

Choosing methods

I noted down a reference to Tashakari and Cresswell, where mixed methods were described as: “research in which the investigator collects and analyzes data, integrates the findings, and draws inferences using both qualitative and quantitative approaches or methods in a single study or a program of inquiry. integrate everything to produce an interpretation” (2007, p.4)

An important question is: how do decide about to use which methods to use? The answer is: It relates to the overall design of what is being studied.

An important point that I noted down was that mixed methods can often take up more time than if a researcher was only using a single method. This leads to the question: under what circumstances should we use them? What is their value?

A reflection that was made during the session is that controlling for variables in education is profoundly difficult, and therefore, it is almost inevitable that we adopt mixed methods to try to understand what the variables might be. They might also be used to mitigate against the impact of extraneous variables. Also being aware of a range of different evidence may enable you to often understand the question, before even carrying out your research.

My colleague Oli Howson made the following point: “quantitative data is lovely for drawling lines around things but humans are messy and colour/context is important”. Understanding the context can, of course which can lead to other (or related) research questions. A research project might not be about asking or understanding a sequence of questions, it may be more of a messy network of questions which exist within a wider research space.

Value of mixed methods research

Mixed methods can be used to investigate and consider bias, and add meaning to data that has been gathered. One useful quote is by Denzin, who writes: “the bias inherent in any particular data source, investigators and particularly method, will be canceled out when used in conjunction with other data sources, investigation, and methods” (p.14, 1978).

Another quote relates to the application of mixed methods, namely that a mixed approach “facilitates generalization to a wider population, especially when the qualitative sample is directly linked to the quantitative sample” (Hesse-Biber & Johnson, 2015).

There is also the importance of being aware of our own biases and being mindful or how we approach any analysis. These points are related to the subject of reflexivity, which relates to how we position ourselves in relation to any research that we do. Sometimes sharing a little bit more about us (and our position) enables us to add validity to any research that we share.

More than methods…

An important reflection is that the choice of methods is one bit of a much broader picture. Our choice of methods reflects what our research paradigm is, and can link to our philosophy of how we view truth and knowledge. In some ways, using two different sets of methods can be an attempt to bridge conceptual differences between interpretivist and positivist world views. In other words, whether truth (or reality) is subjective, or objective.

The ordering of methods is important. A researcher might use a sequential approach, applying one method after another. 

A qualitative method might be used to identify concerns held by a community, which could then be brought into a survey method to quantify, or to test the extent of concerns that might be held by a wider community. In other words, a quantitative approach could be used to validate a qualitative finding.

Looking from the other perspective, a survey (perhaps using a standard instrument) might signify some interesting or curious results. Qualitative methods could then be used to explore why a certain group of participants hold a particular perspective. In other words, a qualitative approach can be used to provide explanations to accompany quantitative findings.

During this part of the session, there was also a short discussion about the use of literature surveys. Systematic reviews can apply mixed methods. For example, a literature survey could begin with a set of themes that have been identified by a researcher. This identification of themes could be thought of as a qualitative approach. During the next step, a researcher might then to go onto identity how many papers explore or study those themes.

A further example…

Towards the end of the session, we had a look at an example of some educational research which asked the question: what impact do science shows have on attitudes to career intentions? 

I understand a science show to be an engaging demonstration or a talk. In other words, is there an effect on the career aspiration of school children who attended those shows? We had a brief look at some data captured from a research student. This included responses from questionnaires, and responses from a focus group. 

Whilst discussing the research methods applied in this study, there was a further discussion point that emerged, which was about the concept of impact. Specifically, how does ‘impact’ relate to your research questions?

Reflections

Whenever research methods are discussed, there are other broader questions which can and should be asked. These questions relate to the philosophy of research, and the nature of truth, and these discussions inform the research paradigm that you adopt. Before even getting into philosophy and paradigms, it is your research questions that should drive everything. When you know the what needs to be found out, you can then think about the how.

It was great to see Creswell mentioned. I first came across his textbook when studying for my MA in Education. Creswell presents a really detailed summary of what mixed methods research is all about and provides a lot of detail about the methods that can be used and applied.

One of the unexpected points that I took away from this session is how systematic literature reviews can both draw on the quantitative and the qualitive. Thinking back to the literature reviews that I did for my MA and other qualifications, it has struck me that I’ve been applying mixed methods research, but in an informal way. Knowing about terminology makes the informal become formal, and also goes a long way to clarifying processes and how this relates to how research is carried out.

References

Denzin, N. (1978) The research act: A theoretical introduction to sociological methods. New York: Praeger.

Hesse-Biber , S. and Johnson, R. (eds) (2015) The Oxford handbook of multimethod and mixed methods research inquiry. Oxford University Press.

Tashakkori, A. and Creswell, J. (2007) Editorial: The New Era of Mixed Methods Journal of Mixed Methods Research 1(1)3 DOI:10.1177/2345678906293042

Acknowledgements

Some of the phrases and quotes shared through this blog have directly come from Ann, who kindly shared her slides following the event. In some of the earlier sections, I’ve added some further points and reflections from other periods of study. Many thanks to Ann for running a useful session.

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A230 Journal – December 2022

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3 December 2022

I manged to find a bit of time to go through the additional Wordsworth resources. There’s a short video, and a further poem which is called “Michael: a pastoral” which I printed out. This section emphasised the connection between his cottage, his immediate environment and his poems.

I quite liked one of the activities, which was digging into a biographical dictionary that everyone can access through the OU library website. 

I discovered something really interesting. Wordsworth had been inspired to go on a grand tour, after reading a book that was written by a historian and travel writer called William Coxe (Wikipedia). I’ve barely read anything from this period, and yet I’ve read some of the words from this chap, who wrote about his travels around Poland, Russia and Sweden. It is also interesting due to the emphasis that A230 gives to travel writing.

I digress slightly.  I also learnt about a connection between Wordsworth and Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

All my notes are roughly in order, and I’ve scanned the TMA 3 question. I’ll also share the obvious, which is: never use Wikipedia in a TMA!

My final bit for the day, a forum activity.

The activity question is: what [do] you understand by Romanticism, and why you think that the forum is entitled ‘Romantic Lives’?

My reply follows:

Great question! I guess there's what I understand by the term romanticism right now, and how I might understand it by the end of the block.

At the moment (at the time of writing), I don't have (in my head) a firm definition, but a sense that it is something that is linked to the majesty of the natural world and landscapes, and how theses can instil within us heightened emotion, which can then be expressed through writing. In all this there's the notion of the individual, but I'm not quite sure where I've got this from.

In terms of what is meant by lives, perhaps it relates to how the environment influences and inspires people in different ways? I know that Shelly was inspired through a connection with the alps? I'm a bit hazy on the detail.

I discovered something interesting through the Wordsworth biography activity. He apparently went on a bit of a grand tour, inspired by reading a historian and travel writer called William Coxe, whilst he was studying at Cambridge. I have never read Wordsworth (and I'm struggling a bit, to be honest!), Shelly, but randomly I have read a bit of Coxe!

Coming back to the question, I'm mindful to look at a book called "A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory" by Cuddon, which we can access through the OU library. A key (bit of a) sentence that seems to link back to my first stab at a definition are: "the ideals of romanticism included an intense focus on human subjectivity, an exaltation of Nature ... " (p.623) (the sentence is quite long!)

5 December 2022

A visit to a dentist in Lincolnshire. I’m not having any treatment done, though; I’m a designated driver for the day.

I sit in reception and fish out the second book from my bag, and try to read the chapter about Shelly. It was difficult to concentrate over the cheerful, and very distracting music that can be found in dentists. I realise that I have briefly read all the sections that I was reading. I now need to look over the poems in the reader, and try to get back to Wordsworth, which I’m struggling with.

17 December 2022

I’ve had an inadvertent break from study; I’ve been marking some TMAs, and helping a family member.

On 10 December, I went to see a performance of Othello (Guardian review) at the national theatre. Although the date of the performance was too late to coincide with the date of my previous TMA, I did find it very interesting, especially when thinking about how it differs to the other performances I’ve seen.

The following radio programme was shared on the A230 facebook group: In Our Time, Frankenstein by Mary Shelly (BBC). To get back into study, I made a bunch of notes. 

It’s now time to return to the block materials, to remember where I was, and then get back to Wordsworth, as I had promised myself.

18 December 2022

It’s “figuring out Wordsworth” day, which means doing some reading. 

I’ve discovered I take things in more easily if I listen to them. When reading Wordsworth, I’ve found my mind easily wanders off. To help, I’ve found a number of recordings on YouTube of some of the poems that are mentioned in our readings book.

The first one is Reading 1.2, Point Rash Judgement, from line 40 onwards

The next one is a fragment from Reading 1.4, Home at Grasmere, lines 130 through 170. (I can't find a complete reading). The YouTube channel looks interesting!

A reading of Reading 1.3, The Brothers. I have no idea what version is read, but it's pretty close to the version that we have in the reader. I understand it a bit better now! (I can't help but feel the use of blank verse is a bit contrived!)

A final Wordsworth reading. This time, Reading 1.6, a section from book 5, from The Prelude (I don't think the module materials explains very well what The Prelude is all about, since I remain a bit lost). If you go to the 20 to 32 min mark, you'll find lines 450 onwards through to 557.

Finally, something a bit different. Reading 2.2: Ode to the West Wind, as read by Michael Sheen.

I’m jumping around a bit today. I finish the day by reading the block material about Frankenstein.

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PhD project: The role of storytelling in software engineering practice

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 23 Dec 2022, 11:06

Here’s a very short story.

One day, when I was a computing undergraduate in the 1990s, I had to do a high stakes programming assessment. With about twenty of my peers, I went into a computing lab, where we were all give a programming task to complete. We had to write code to solve a problem, and then get a printout of the program and all the test data we had used.

I remember that it took me a couple of hours. 

Halfway through the activity, one of my peers stood up, said he had finished and proudly announced he was going to the student union bar (it was 11:00am in the morning; we didn’t have any other classes for that day). When I finally got all my code and tests printed and submitted, I noticed there were some students who were still working on their problems.

In this moment, I asked myself a question which plagued me: how come some people find programming really easy, and other people sometimes struggle? Is there something special about coding? 

I took this question with me to my postgraduate studies, and then onto doctoral studies, where I learnt about cognitive psychology and working memory. My focus on the individual programmer and their capabilities led me to create a whole new type of software metrics.

After doing all this study, I got a job as a professional software engineer. I was keen to gain some industrial experience since if I were ever to return to the higher education sector to teach programming, having some real programming experience would give be a bit of credibility.

One of the most important things I learnt in industry was that whilst the individual programmer and their abilities is important, software engineering is a team game.

Although I’m interested in software, I’m more interested in people. I see software and computing as a tool through which we can understand more about ourselves; I see the machine as a mirror in which we can see more of ourselves.

Software and software engineering has taken me on a journey. It is a journey that began with one question and has ended with another, which is: “since communication is so important in software engineering, could the idea of story telling be useful?” I’ve been on a journey that once focussed on the individual, and have moved to a place where I’m now interested in groups of people and how they work together.

Topic Description

Software is an invisible technology created by people. To design and build software, communication is a necessity. Software engineers must communicate with stakeholders to gather requirements, they must communicate with each other during the development process, and then they must communicate with the stakeholders when software is deployed.

Since software development and engineering is a human-centred activity and communication is both a necessity and imperative, one of the tools that could be used and applied by software engineers is storytelling. The aim of this project is to uncover the ways in which storytelling practice can be either discovered or used within software development communities.

Storytelling and software engineering can be considered in different ways. It could be used to help to facilitate to the discovery of requirements, help to share professional expertise between developers, but it could also be used as a way to develop the communication skills and practices of the next generation of software engineering professionals, helping to address a perceived soft skills gap amongst computer science graduates.

In this project, you will carry out background research to identify how and where storytelling can be used to either develop, understand or enhance software engineering practice. You might be required to design and carry out empirical studies that explore software develop cultures or evaluate new and innovative methods or practices.

Skills Required

Although you may have a first degree in Computer Science or Software Engineering, this project may be suitable for someone who has studied humanities and social science subjects and have completed a postgraduate conversion degree in Computing or a closely related subject. 

Ideally, you should have a firm understanding and appreciation of quantitative and qualitative social science research methods. You should also be willing to study topics and subject that relate to the humanities, and be willing to explore different conceptions of employability within the discipline of computing.

Background Reading

Iniesto, F., Sargent, J., Rienties, B., Llorens, A., Adam, A., Herodotou, C., Ferguson, R. and Muccini, H. (2021) When industry meets Education 4.0: What do Computer Science companies need from Higher Education? Ninth International Conference on Technological Ecosystems for Enhancing Multiculturality (TEEM’21), October 26–29, 2021, Barcelona, Spain. ACM.

Rainer, A. (2021) Storytelling in human–centric software engineering research. EASE 2021: Evaluation and Assessment in Software Engineering, June 2021, 241–246.

Schwabe, G., Richter, A. and Wende, E. (2019) Special issue on storytelling and information systems. Information Systems Journal, vol. 29, no. 6, 1122–1125.

Storr, W. (2020). The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and how to Tell Them Better. Abrams.

Closing points

If this very broad sketch of a project sounds interesting as a doctoral research project, do feel free to get in touch. 

Alternatively, if you’re a computing researcher looking at a similar subject, feel free to drop me a line; it would be great to her from you - let's find a way to collaborate.

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Advice to students, from students

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 22 Dec 2022, 11:12

An interesting question to ask a student is: “what advice would you give to a fellow student about working with TMA feedback?” TMA feedback is, of course, the feedback that a student receives after collecting their marked Tutor Marked Assessment.

This question is one of several that are explored through a scholarship project that has the title Developing student use of feedback on their marked TMAs which was led by staff tutors Carol Calvert and Colette Christiansen, and Clare Morris who was the AL lead on the project. 

A summary of some of their research findings was shared to colleagues through a discussion forum. It struck me that their findings (which takes the form of practical advice) was so useful, I thought it might be helpful to share their findings more widely.

Before looking at the specific points, it is worth emphasising that TMA feedback is typically given in two different ways: through a coversheet (an eTMA form, which is sometimes called a PT3 summary) which offers students with an overview of how they have done (which is typically forward looking), and comments that have been directly provided on a submitted assignment (which is feedback that relates to work that has been done).

Here are Carol, Colette and Clare's collection of useful points:

Collecting and using your TMA feedback – advice from your fellow students

Reading the feedback on your marked TMA can be a bit nerve-racking, but it can also be a really important part of your learning. A recent survey produced a great deal of valuable advice from students, which we’re sharing with you here. All the quotes in green are taken directly from comments by students – and they’re just representative examples of topics which were mentioned dozens of times. This is the voice of experience!

Some preliminary advice – doing and handing in the TMA

  • Complete the dummy TMA [i.e., TMA00]
  • Make sure to read all the guidance about submitting TMAs well in advance
  • Attempt the TMA as soon as possible, and work on it as you go along, straight after completing the relevant unit.
  • Make sure to keep in mind when your assessments are due in, you don't want to have to rush anything.
  • Plan your time and keep disciplined! Once you fall behind, it's tough to get back on track, so don't let it happen.
  • Make a plan and keep it realistic
  • Read the question, answer the question, then read the question again! – but don’t over-think it.
  • Know that the time you spend on learning will pay off and don’t give up.
  • Do what it says on the tin and you can't go far wrong

Picking up your marked TMA…

  • Download the pack [that is, your marked script plus the summary sheet] from the website to save alongside the submission.
  • Print them so easier to refer to. Use for revision.
  • keep all feedback downloaded to use later, keep it stored

… reading and making use of the feedback…

  • Read the feedback initially then go back the next day once emotions surrounding marks have subsided. Read, and review, then revisit the comments a few days later
  • Read through the comments thoroughly and talk to a friend or family member about any mistakes you have made (or things you are particularly proud of), and how you can improve. This helps to keep the feedback in your head, so you have it at hand when tackling the next TMA.
  • Look at the feedback as soon as possible so that you can keep on top of any errors/feedback for completing the next TMA and improving your marks.
  • even if you score highly there is value in reviewing the feedback as tutors will also comment on things such as the style and formatting of the document which can be useful when setting out future assignments.
  • Focus on applying the feedback given rather than focusing on your assessment score
  • Take any general advice on board. It can provide easy extra marks throughout the rest of your studies if you fix general issues on how you show your working or answer written questions.
  • Make use of it. You might be annoyed at first to have dropped marks, but turn it into a positive and learn from your mistakes
  • Take your time to consider the feedback - then redo that part using the feedback provided
  • Take notes of your feedback to refer back to
  • go back to it as many times as needed
  • read the feedback numerous times to take it in properly to be able to use it effective in future TMA's because it is a brilliant resource to support you to improve
  • have the feedback handy for the next attempt at an TMA.

…maybe feeling a bit upset by the comments…

  • Don't take it personally, use it as fuel for doing even better in your next assignment.
  • It's for your own good. If you don't know where you are going wrong, how do you expect to improve?
  • accept it constructively, it is really helpful
  • Don't get too hung up on it
  • Try not to get too upset if your mark isn't as high as you'd hope or wanted
  • [remember] that it is given to encourage and help them
  • Making a mistake and receiving feedback for the mistake is an efficient way for an improvement. So, appreciate it rather than being disappointed
  • Take your time to process the feedback, don't allow your emotions to cloud your judgement.

And if you don’t understand something your tutor has written…

  • don't be afraid to ask your tutor for clarification, especially if you think they're wrong! (you may need help realising you've gotten the wrong idea about something)
  • Don’t be shy to ask for help from your tutor
  • Make the most of having an assigned tutor
  • If you want really clear feedback, you should ask clear questions to your tutor yourself.

Finally…

re-read the feedback from previous TMAs before submitting the next to ensure that you have learned from past mistakes and the feedback was not given in vain

And above all, remember…

TMAs are about much more than marking!

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Carol, Clare and Collette for giving me permission to share their summary. Their research was carried out within and funded by eSTEeM: the OU centre for STEM pedagogy.

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Reviewing an academic paper for Open Learning

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One of the tasks I have to do pretty regularly is to review academic papers for a journal called Open Learning, which I help to co-edit. 

This blog post is intended as a summary of my own thoughts about how I approach reviewing. This post may be useful for reviewers who are new to reviewing papers for journals not too dissimilar to Open Learning.

The blog is split into three parts. The first part is about how I approach the reading (and interrogating) of a journal submission. In this first bit there are some short cuts which I tend to apply to get a feel for a paper.

The second part is about how I approach the offering of feedback to authors. The overall aim is, of course, to try to help the author of a submission to write a better paper. For this part, I should acknowledge some of the ideas of Simon Bell, a former editor of Open Learning, who put in place a really nice framework.

The final part offers an ethical perspective. This is discussed in three different ways; the ethical responsibilities of the reviewer, ethical responsibilities of an author, and the ethical perspective that must be presented through a paper.

The blog post concludes by sharing some additional resources and sharing some further reflections about the role of the reviewer.

Before beginning, an important question to ask is: why should I review? There are a few answers to this. One reason is that is gives you insight into the peer review process. It also enables you to catch sight of the kinds of papers and research that relates to a field or discipline. Also, in some respects, academics serve the discipline that they study and teach; reviewing for journals can be thought of an extension of that service. Another reason is the practice of reviewing and writing reviews develops your critical perspective. Finally, reviewing is a way to gain academic kudos and experience. If you review for a journal, this is something that you can add to your academic CV.

Reading an academic paper

One of the first things I try to do is to get a feel for the paper as a whole. 

Getting a feel for the paper

A key question to have in mind is: what kind of paper is this?

I begin with the title, then the abstract, then the introduction, and then I immediately go to the references section. My justification for this is: if I recognise some of the references, then I may be able to get a quick (and rough) understanding of the type of research that is being presented. If I don’t recognise any of the papers, then I’ll clearly have to work a lot harder than I would if some of the papers were familiar to me.

Looking at references

Whilst I’m in the references section, I look to see whether a paper has referenced any other articles from the journal that it has been submitted to. If it hasn’t referenced any papers from within the journal, this makes me ask myself the question: is this paper appropriate for the journal?

There are two reasons why references from within the paper is important. Firstly, clearly referencing from within the journal shows that the research is placed amongst and next to existing research. This means that it is likely to be following and connected to existing debates and topics. Secondly, referencing popular papers from within the journal you are submitting to is a good strategy; it enables your work to be more easily discovered by researchers. The reason for this is that many journals allow researchers to follow links between different papers. 

Gaining a critical perspective

The next thing I would do is have a quick look through all the different sections. There are always some key headings that I look for: a section that describe methods, a results section, a discussion section and then a conclusion. If any of these are missing, I would certainly be giving the paper a closer look, and asking why the article wasn’t using these headings.

Checking out the detail

When looking through all the different sections, I would also keep an eye out for any figures or graphs. I would typically ask myself a couple of things. One question would be whether there were any figures or images that were presented in colour. The reason for this is simple: printed versions of the journal are still (currently) important. Although it is unlikely that a researcher might handle a physical copy of an issue in a university library, they may well download a PDF and print a copy out. Secondly, if there were graphs, I would check to see if the axes and titles made sense.

When I’m through with looking at these aspects, I might jump from the introduction to the conclusion. Is there a consistent message between the two sections? Doing this should (ideally) give me a good feel for what the paper is all about.  

The next bit is to read through the methods section to find whether there is a clear description of the research questions, before heading onto the methods section. A key question to ask is: “does the approach make any sense?” Another question to ask is: “is there sufficient detail to enable me to get a view about the methods?”

I must confess to being more confident with assessing qualitative papers than I am with quantitative papers. If I feel that I’m not able to make sense a paper, or feel that I don’t have the appropriate expertise to make a judgement or a proper academic assessment of a submission, I tell editor to make them aware of this. This is something that I pick up on later in the ethics section.

Commenting on a paper

When my former colleague Simon Bell started as a co-editor of Open Learning, he requested that all reviewers should be sent some guidelines.

A version of his guidelines have also been published in the System Practice and Action Research Journal (Bell and Flood, 2011). Essentially, they are a set of constructive directives that are intended to create what we called “the spirit of reviewing”. 

For sake of brevity and this blog, I summarise (and paraphrase) the directives (or guidelines) as follows:

  • Always be honest but temper honesty with kindness. Ask the question: “How would I feel if I received this review?”
  • Be constructive. Articles have been developed over time and should be read with sympathy and honour. 
  • Be fair. Always comment on what I liked as well as what parts of a paper I might have had problems with.
  • Be humble and say when I do not understand something; do not present myself as a world authority on a subject. 
  • Consider myself as a co-worker who is trying to contribute to a wiser and more exciting script. 
  • To help both the editor and the author, indicate if I like the text, say whether I would publish it, and highlight what changes could be made to make the text more enjoyable and if I think the author needs to “adapt/change/re-assess the text in some more challenging manner”.

Even before I had been introduced to Simon’s guidelines, I had implicitly devised a way of providing my own feedback to authors. The approach that I take may be familiar with colleagues:

  • Highlight what you think is good about the paper and acknowledge the work that has gone into producing it.
  • Highlight areas that you might have concerns with. Explain what could be improved, giving a suggestion about how it might be improved, and describe why these improvements are important.
  • Ask whether other papers may be useful for the researcher; offer them help and pointers where you think it is appropriate.
  • Be practical; if you feel that there is a lot wrong with the paper, highlight only three points. A thought is to say something about the content, say something about the structure, and say something about how it fits in with the discipline or the journal; this will help the editor too.
  • End on a positive note. 

An ethical perspective

It is really important that reviewers carry out reviews in an ethical way. 

There are three different perspectives that need to be kept in mind: the ethical practice of the reviewer, the ethical practice of the author of an article, and the ethical practices that are followed within an article. Each of these perspectives are covered in turn.

The reviewer

Reviewers are in a position of power and privilege; their comments can influence whether an article is published. Reviewers must bear in mind the following perspectives:

Impartiality: Reviewers should be impartial. This means that they should be aware of potential biases they may have about any aspect of a submission. A reviewer should not be familiar with the work that is being reviewed.

Expertise: Reviewers should be confident in their assessment of a paper. If they lack sufficient knowledge or expertise to make a judgement, they should either state this in the review, or let an editor know that they do not have sufficient expertise to carry out a review.

Integrity: Through their articles, authors may share new ideas. These ideas are being shared, in confidence, with reviewers. Any interesting and novel research directions that are suggested through an article should remain entirely with the author of an article. Reviewers should not directly draw on or build upon the work of papers that they review.

The author

Authors of papers must not use text, data or images from unattributed sources. Quotations that are used within a paper must be correctly presented; the source of an author should be mentioned, along with accompanying page numbers. If sources are not referenced correctly and fully, authors run the risk of being accused of plagiarism, which is a term that can be applied to not only intentional copying, but also inadvertent copying.

Authors should also be mindful of a concept known as self-plagarism. This is where an author of an article might make use of their own words which might have been used (and published in) other articles. This can occur, for example, if an author writes a paper that describes their doctoral research. The words they use within a doctoral thesis must be substantially different to the words used within an academic article. The exception to this is when authors deliberately quote their earlier work, and earlier publications.

One of the ethical responsibilities of a reviewer is to make a confident judgement that an author’s submission is their own, and to the best of their knowledge, isn’t using the words of other researchers. Reviewers should also let an editor know if they find that a very similar version of a submission has been published in another journal.

In many cases, the journal editor and publisher will also be able to make use of specialist tools to carry out further checks to ensure the originality of submissions.

The research

Since Open Learning publishes education research, many research articles make use of human participants. Whenever human participants are used, reviewers must ensure that there is sufficient evidence within a paper that suggests that research is carried out in an ethical way.

Simply put, participants must be clearly told about the aims of the research they are a part of, and they should be free to leave, or to decline participation in a study at any point. This view should be clearly presented within a section that describes research methods or procedures. Reviewers should feel free to provide comments if they find that a researcher has not provided sufficient description to enable them to decide whether an ethical approach to research has been adopted.

Research ethics is a subject in its own right, and one that has a rich history. Whilst the journal is not expecting reviewers to be an expert in all aspect of research ethics, there is an expectation that reviewers always ask the question: “has this research been carried out in an ethical way?”. More information about research ethics can be found through the British Educational Research Association Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research (BERA website).

Additional resources

The publisher of Open Learning has provided a set of reviewer guidelines (Taylor and Francis website) which may also be useful.

Taylor and Frances have also published some information about their editorial policies and plagiarism (Taylor and Francis website) which may be helpful for both authors and reviewers.

Reflections

Reviewing can be an interesting and rewarding process. Although I spend most of my time reviewing papers for Open Learning, I have also reviewed papers for conferences, workshops and other journals. One of the benefits of reviewing is that is helps to maintain a connection with a discipline. It is rewarding to see how authors respond to comments, and how reviewers can directly (but implicitly) contribute to the continuing professional development of fellow academics and researchers. I would also emphasise that is isn’t necessarily something that is easy; sometimes there are some papers that are difficult to review, and the accompanying comments can be difficult to write.

To conclude, here is a concise summary of what I perceive to be the benefits of being a reviewer:

  • It helps to maintain a link with a discipline.
  • It provides a way to give academic service to a discipline, which can be highlighted on an academic CV or resume.
  • It helps to develop skills to critically assess academic writing.
  • The process of providing feedback helps to develop (and maintain) critical writing skills.
  • It helps to further understand the peer review process.
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Upskilling for cybersecurity

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During the 4th School of Computing and Communications AL Professional Development Conference  (OU blog post) I facilitated a session about continuing professional development. In that session, some of the tutors shared experiences of what they had done before.

As mentioned in one of the keynote introductions, one area of growth within the school is cybersecurity. What follows is a summary of resources and materials that may be useful for any tutor (or student) who might be looking to move into the area. 

This blog, which is intended for existing OU tutors emphasises OU resources that are available, but useful external resources are highlighted too. Since cybersecurity is a fast moving area, the links and resources highlighted on this page are likely to age relatively quickly.

CyBok

A good place to start is something called the Cyber Security Body Of Knowledge. A recommended area to look at is the CyBok Knowledgebase

The aim of the CyBok is to provide a summary of the topics and subjects that make up cybersecurity. It presents a lot of materials and concepts. Since some of these pages can be (sometimes) quite heavy going, it might be a good idea to look to other resources to get an introduction to some of the areas. 

OpenLearn

The OUs OpenLearn platform has a wealth of useful resources, which are presented in the form of bite sized short courses. OpenLearn has a whole section dedicated to cybersecurity.

This takes us to the following courses:

OpenLearn courses can offer a helpful introduction. When you have finished working through one of these short modules, learners can gain a digital badge (if these things are of interest). You can, of course, reference completing an OpenLearn module on a CV or application form.

OU modules

One of the best ways to upskill and to gain familiarity with a subject is to study an OU module using a tutor fee waiver. Depending on your interests, you can either study undergraduate or postgraduate modules. The undergraduate named degree has the title BSc (Honours) Cyber Security.

Notable modules which could be studied on a fee waiver include:

The school offers a Postgraduate Diploma in Cyber Security which contains four modules:

Postgraduate modules do differ from undergraduate modules in the extent to which students are required to carry out their own research. Students are also required to demonstrate advanced critical thinking skills. Also, since the postgraduate qualifications have an industrial focus, students are often required to relate their work based activity to their studies.

Before studying a postgraduate module, I would recommend any potential student to work through the following Open Learn module: Success in postgraduate study.

Cisco resources

Cyber security is a dynamic subject; computing technologies are continually changing and adapting, often driven by the needs of industry. Industrial providers and businesses need people to know how to use their tools of services. This means there are a lot industry led certifications which are designed to help IT practioners to understand and master their technologies.

One of the world’s leading suppliers of networking systems and technologies is Cisco. To help the users of its systems, it has devised a set of certifications and a learning platform called NetAcad.

Through NetAcad, OU tutors can study a number of short courses that relate to networking and cyber security, gaining digital badges. These badges that can be mentioned to on a CV (and, theoretically, mentioned during an OU skills audit with a friendly staff tutor). What follows is a short summary of free online self-paced study courses that can be accessed through Cisco NetAcad. 

Introduction to CybersecurityTwo key objectives are: “Learn what cybersecurity is and its potential impact to you. Understand the most common threats, attacks and vulnerabilities.” 15 hours.

Networking EssentialsThis introductory level module is described as being able to “Develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills using Cisco Packet Tracer”. 70 hours.

Cybersecurity EssentialsTwo key objectives are: “Understand security controls for networks, servers and applications. Learn valuable security principals and how to develop compliant policies.” 30 hours. 

Introduction to IoTIoT is an abbreviation for the Internet of Things. This course is said to help learners to “understand how the IoT is bridging the gap between operational and information technology systems”. 20 hours.

NDG Linux UnhatchedThe “Start From Scratch” Linux Course, which is described as learning basic installation and configuration of Linux software and get introduced to the Linux command line. 8 hours.

PCAP: Programming Essentials in Python“Learn programming from scratch and master Python”. 75 hours.

OU development events

A final category that is worth mentioning is the continuing professional development events that are organised by the OU. In addition to regular compulsory training that all tutors must go through, there are two broad categories of events that tutors can go to: general AL development events, and school specific events. 

A personal recommendation is that you find the time to attend at least one CPD events a year, just to keep up to date with what is happening across the university. If you’re able to attend more, then so much the better.

Reflections

If you are tutor and you’re thinking about teaching cyber security, some of these suggestions might be more useful than others. One of the best things that you could do is to study a module that you might be interested in teaching, perhaps in combination with some of the other options and materials that have been highlighted.

As well as an OU fee waiver, another source of funding is the AL development fund. This is a small pot of money that can be used for on going professional development that relates to your discipline, which isn’t immediate or directly provided by the university. The fund could be used for attending conferences, or completing short courses.

When upskilling, I find it is important to bear in mind the distinction between cyber security education and training. Whilst industrial certifications have their place, they often emphasise training. Training is about how to solve certain problems. Education is (of course) about how best apply training given a set of circumstances, and to have the ability to quickly gain new knowledge after having acquired and understood some fundamental concepts. I guess my point here is: the fundamental concepts are important.

From a personal perspective, I’ve used the fee waiver to study at least three different OU computing modules. Although I’ve always found studying quite a bit of work, it has always been rewarding. It has enabled me to not only learn about a new subject, but also to learn more about the experience of a student. I’ve also registered for Cisco NetAcad, but I haven’t made much progress. Doing more Cisco self-study is something I need to do.

If you would like to upskill, a final recommendation is to have a chat with your friendly staff tutor, particularly during your CDSA or skills audit conversation. They will have some practical advice about what you can do to ensure that you’re best placed to help students to study a particular subject.

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A230 Journal – November 2022

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 17 Dec 2022, 16:09

12 November 22

I went to the London School of Economics for a face-to-face day school about prose, and two of the set texts: Candide and Oroonoko. There were two tutors on the day, and they gave us some small activities to carry out.

Our first tutor asked us to look at some bits of text, and assess it in terms of some of the technical language that was being introduced through the module. Our second tutor asked us to write on a post-it note: what was Oroonoko all about? Given that I had read Oroonoko over the summer (along with some of the other set texts), I struggled to carry out this task.

During the tutorial, I made a lot of notes.

One thing that I found really useful was that the tutors gave quite a lot of background information about the texts. I especially appreciated how they summarised the historical context. On the point about context, I noted down that there are a number of perspectives to consider: biographical context, historical context, philosophical, political and cultural.

Two things I need to look at: what the term ‘focalisation’ means, and ‘free indirect speech', which is something that Joyce uses.

The tutors were excellent! By the end of the day school, my head hurt. In a good way.

13 November 22

It’s time to catch up with some study admin. 

I sort out all my notes from the day school, sort them in order. I have some other printouts that I prepared earlier this month. I have printed out each of the TMAs, and the EMA. I put everything together in my study file in date order, so everything relates back to the module calendar. (I also look for a neat one or two page summary of this on the module website, but there isn’t one).

I review the study calendar, and realise that I’m not too far off the schedule; I had to take a week out from study to help with some family things. I tick of the various items, and realise that I need to go through the poetry tutorial materials.

I have two objectives for the week; work through the materials that relate to Oroonoko (whilst strategically very quickly reviewing the text), before moving onto the week that focusses on Voltaire, whilst also trying to find the time to review the poetry tutorial materials.

A point I remember from the day school I attended was: it’s okay if you don’t understand everything in one go; you need to return to these tutorials on a number of occasions to get a firm grasp of the concepts.

A note to self: I need to have another go to create a “first thing in the morning” study habit. 

It’s time for a break. When I return, I’m going to return to the study calendar, look at the notes for this week and next week, and then read the block materials again.

14 November 22

Well, I didn’t manage to do my studying first thing in the morning. Instead, I got onto it after resolving a few issues by email.

Yesterday my tutor had emailed me a set of notes which he had shared at the day school. Having printed them out, I worked through them, underlining some of the key concepts. I then filed them next to my day school notes.

After reviewing what I have to do for week 7, I have another look at the prose and poetry skills tutorials. I make a note of all the key concepts that are shared through these documents.

I notice that there was a reference to four audio recordings about the ‘long eighteenth century’. These recordings emphasise the historical role travel writing has during the time of empires, and how they have influenced the development of the novel. An interesting comment was how Oroonoko isn’t just a travelogue; it is also a romance. The audio clips also highlighted the role of the grand tour, and how here was a market for travel books.

As a very brief aside, around 15 years ago, I found a really interesting book (published by a publisher called ‘forgotten books’) about early travel writing in Poland. For a while, I found it fascinating, but I didn’t really know what I was reading. Although it was published in the 19th century, I can now see that the book was a part of a wider and more established tradition of travel writing.

All this discussion about travel writing has been a lovely surprise. Some years ago, I made my own very modest contribution to the genre, through a book sized blog called Meetup 101: a journey through a midlife crisis. Whilst it aims to adopt a comic mode (I’m applying terms from the skills tutorial!) It’s focus accidentally reflects some of the later themes in A230: cities.

My next bit of reading: the two chapters from the block, and then I’m going to focus on Candide, and then I might be in a good place to be set for the next TMA.

15 November 22

I’ve read the block chapters on Aphra Behn, and have read most of the chapter on Voltaire; I have a bit more to go, which I’ll hopefully manage to get through tomorrow.

In the evening, there was a tutorial! Our tutor took us through bits of the two texts from this block: Oroonoko and Candide. She introduced the context for each of these books, and we looked at some detailed passages. I made notes, and I feel a bit more confident about how to tackle the TMA.

Before getting there, I have to finish reading that chapter, and also read Candide again, now that I have more of an idea about what it is all about.

20 November 22

I have a day off from just about everything, so I settle down to read Candide again, paying particular attention to the introduction. After learning more about the context through the previous two tutorials I’ve attended I’m finding it a whole lot more interesting and enjoyable. Voltaire is funny, often through his understatement, but also (of course) his hyperbole.

My next steps: finish reading the 6 remaining chapters and then have a quick look through the notes that can be found at the back of the book. I also need to return to the module website to see what other materials I’ve got to go through.

There’s a tutorial tomorrow night, but it’s one that is recorded. I’ll try to go along if I can.

21 November 22

I had a quiet night, so I finished reading the final chapters of Candide.

It turns out that the tutorial isn’t tonight. It’s tomorrow.

22 November 22

First thing this morning I logged into the module website to see when the next TMA is due. It is sooner than I thought. This means that I need to get on and do my TMA over the weekend, perhaps on a Saturday or a Sunday.

My notes folder is getting a bit full, so I’ve moved it to a lever arch file, and have even added some dividers to separate to mark where the TMAs are.

I’m hoping to attend the tutorial this evening.

24 November 22

I transfer notes into my TMA document, and have started to analyse the text which forms the basis of the assignment. I pull together notes I made from tutorials, and points shared in documents that were prepared by the tutors.

I have three things to do before I can start writing properly: read the notes pages at the back of Candide, read the introduction again, and have another look at the block materials, making notes of certain paragraphs and sentences that will help me to summarise what a passage of Candide is all about.

25 November 22

It is TMA writing day. After making a start with the introduction yesterday, I work through the different bits of text that I’ve noticed, connecting them to some of the technical language we have been introduced to, and various quotes that I’ve noted down from Candide and the set text.

If I were writing a longer essay, I would have prepared an essay plan, but since this is quite short, and the aims and focus are quite clear, I’m winging it- My structure comes from the fragment of text that I have annotated, and the order in which I answer the questions. My results will tell me whether I’m adopting the right approach.

I finish the day by getting a printout of my TMA.

26 November 22

I begin the day by reviewing and copy editing my TMA, and then submitting it 5 days before the cut-off date.

Keeping up the momentum, I find out what I’ve got to do for week 10, and reach for Book 2: Romantics & Victorians.

I start to read some of the Wordsworth sections in the reading supplement, but I didn’t make much progress. I need a lot of concentration for Wordsworth, but I don’t seem to have this!

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A230 Journal – October 2022

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 17 Dec 2022, 16:05

2 October 22

I went to the module website, and saw a load of introductory posts. One of them was to a video of a production of Othello (YouTube). I opened it up, and then thought I would need to find some time to go through it, with the set text, like I had done with the other performance.

I found the tutor group forum, and introduced myself. It seemed that all three people (including the tutor) had studied at Birkbeck. I said I was the fourth.

I printed off a couple of attachments that my tutor had sent me: one that was a checklist for close reading of renaissance drama, and the other was a single page document that had the title: some ways of analysing renaissance drama. The checklist looks quite detailed.

Picking up where I was last, I went to the module website, made notes of questions I should ask myself whilst reading the text, and returned to chapter 1, which I have yet to finish.

7 October 22

Watched 1 hr and 20 mins of the 1990 production of Othello.

It was very different to the other production I saw, which was a National Theatre production (available through Drama Online).  I’m beginning to remember the structure, and I can see more about how Iago manipulates those who are around him.

9 October 22

Finished watching the remaining half of Othello, and then got distracted looking at Wikipedia biographies of some of the actors. A link to a production of The Duchess of Malfi (YouTube) was shared on a WhatsApp group. This is something else to look at.

Back to the module material; specifically, chapter 1 of block 1.

10 October 22

I think I might have found a study habit again: first thing in the morning! I delved into the week 2 material, and watched the two videos: the first compared two performances of Othello, and the second looked at a performance of Othello in South Africa. I then had a look at the drama study skills tutorial, parts 3.1 and 3.2. I had forgotten I had looked at these before!

There are two bits of reading I need to do this week: chapter 2 of the block, and I need to get into the introduction of the Othello set text, since it was mentioned a couple of times in some of the module materials.

12 October 22

I didn’t start first thing in the morning. Instead, I started after replying to my first group of emails. 

I got into chapter 2 of the block, which took me off to acts 3 and 4 within Othello. It has struck me that I haven’t, yet, got a really thorough grasp of what happens and when. Instead, in my memory, I’ve got a rough sketch of what happens, and who does what to whom.

I’m starting to pick up on the most important speeches, and chapter 2 has alerted me to some of the themes that I need to be mindful of. A conclusion: I need to read this chapter again, and loop back to the activities, to return to the text.

14 October 22

I suddenly remembered: had I missed any tutorials that have been recorded? There is a bit of chat on the WhatsApp group bout student enjoying an Othello tutorial. I go to the forums are, and look around for recorded tutorials, and none are available, so I haven’t missed any. 

15 October 22

I’m onto week 3! I tick all the items for week 2, to indicate that I’ve “done them” (but I’m likely to go back to doing some of them again), and then noticed a news item about “print on demand” materials, i.e., a printout of all the weekly study guides, and other information. I decide to get this, as otherwise I would be spending more than that on my own printer ink. I also need to check what I have, and haven’t downloaded onto my eBook reader.

The next two weeks seem to be all about John Webster. The key actions this week will be read the Duchess of Malfi, listen to an audio version of the play, and read chapter 3 of the module book.

21 October 22

I took delivery of the print on demand material, and put everything into my A230 file, adding my own notes. That’s about it today, but I’m feeling virtuous that I’ve got my study materials all in one place. Also, all my books are on my bookshelf, which is good news too.

I have a look at the study calendar, to remind myself of the date for the first TMA: 3 November, which isn’t too far away; I need to be a bit more strategic. I listen and make notes of the tutorial that my tutor has recorded. He covers a lot of detail, but he gives me some ideas about how I should go about tackling TMA 1.

22 October 22

A busy day today, since I’m on my own today, so eventually I get into the study zone.

I sort out an empty TMA file and print out a copy of my TMA 1. I find the text from TMA 1 within the version of Othello that we’re using, and I read bits before and after the scene, to get an idea about where it is situated within the whole of the play. I annotate my text with comments, giving me some ideas to start with.

My next steps will be to revisit the drama skills workshop, and transfer key terms from there, and from notes shared by our tutor, onto my blank TMA submission file.

Next up: I start to listen to the Duchess of Malfi radio play, whilst sitting with the set text, but I very quickly discover it is hopeless; the radio edit is very different to the version of the text that I’m using. I get up to track 15 of the first CD, after having looked at the questions from the week’s study material. I then quickly read chapter 3 of the textbook that came with the module, skipping over the activities. A note to myself: I need to read it all again, and revisit the activities, especially if I choose the drama option for the EMA. I also need to listen to the second CD; I wasn’t aware that I needed to go through both of these. These are long plays!

A strategic study plan for the week: look at the literary terms introduced in the module by looking at the tutor’s material and the drama tutorial, make sure that I’ve got the referencing of the OU module materials sorted, and then start to tackle the TMA. Also, do this first thing in the morning before I get stuck into too many emails!

29 October 22

It’s writing day! Following a direction from our tutor about the title, I update my TMA document with a new title; the old version was a bit too long. I then go about collating different notes from various documents that our tutor has shared, and find my notes from his tutorial. I transfer key points from my notes, to create new notes. I also create headings in the TMA, which I will later delete when I bring everything together. What I might do is write a short blog about organising myself.

After having organised myself, I then go onto writing the TMA, drawing on some pencil notes that I had made on a paper copy of the TMA. I also look through a whole set of pencil annotations I have made in the set text.

Eventually, everything comes together, and I have a draft TMA. I think I’ve tackled the main points, but there might well be something that I may miss, but I’m pretty happy with how I’ve expressed my understanding of the passage.

In anticipation of tomorrow’s work, I printout a version of my TMA.

30 October 22

I spend about 30 minutes reading through what I have written, and make some minor corrections on paper, and then edit these changes in my Word document. After making some minor formatting changes (changing 1.5 spacing to double-spaced, which is what the arts assessment guide suggest) I scan through it one more time, and decide that it is good to go.

Back to the module website. I notice the forum, which I haven’t really engaged with, so I have a look around, and see an interesting post about our experiences of watching Shakespeare performances. I make a posting; a short anecdote about seeing Hamlet at the cinema when I was 13 or 14.

I notice that a tutor had posted up another resource, which featured a couple of technical words I hadn’t used. I face a dilemma: should I take account of these within my TMA, or l should I let this go? I choose to let it go, since I’m pretty happy with what I’ve done, and I feel I’ve followed advice that was given by my own tutor.

My final actions of the morning: I tick of a few items from the module calendar, have a go at the quiz, and start to have a look at the materials for week 6. I’m a bit nervous about Candide and Oroonoko, to be honest. To get a bit ahead, I get stuck into reading a part of chapter 5, entitled: Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave. I then go back a bit listen to the two screen casts, before working through the key bits of terminology that are featured within the prose and poetry skills tutorial.

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Writing a TMA: one approach

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This year I’m studying A230 Reading and Studying Literature from the OU Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. I’ve recently submitted my first TMA for A230. I quite enjoyed the process. I have no idea how I’ve done, but I’m hoping I’ll get a pass. 

This blog is a short summary of the approach that I took to write my first TMA. Without realising, I’ve adopted quite a structure approach which seemed to work for me. 

In some respects, this blog follows on from an earlier blog that reflects on my studying of an arts module: Unpacking a TMA question: tips from A111.

Part 1: The journey to the TMA

I began by a bit of productive procrastination. What I mean is that I began by sorting out all my study notes.

I have a A230 folder (a physical one) which is broadly organised in terms of time and weeks of study. I have a copy of the materials which I have ordered through the OU print on demand service. I like to have materials to look through, so I can take materials to a café without having to take my laptop and worry about internet connectivity. Plus, it’s easier to underline points with different colours of pen if I need to. 

At this point, I’ve read through the materials once; the weekly guides, the chapters in the blocks (the books that were sent to us), and the sections of the set text that we’ve been asked to read. In the case of A230, we’ve also been asked to read a copy of Othello, published by Oxford World Classics.

I create a fresh copy of the TMA question, by copy-pasting the TMA text from the assessment guide into a new Word document, and printing the whole document. I now have something I can annotate.

It’s time to create my word processing files.

On my laptop file store (which is backed up to the cloud), I have a folder called ‘modules’, and then a folder for each module that I’m studying. Within my A230 folder, I have one folder for each TMA. I also use this folder to save materials that have been sent to me by my tutor, so I have everything in one place. I create a blank TMA document, following the “submitting arts TMAs” guidance, making sure I have the right header, font size, and line spacing.

With my paper notes all sorted and an electronic submission file ready to go, it’s nearly time to get properly prepared to answer the TMA question. Before I do this, I have a sit down, have a read of the TMA (along with the set text), and make a whole set of pencil notes.

Part 2: Getting prepared

With my new TMA document open, following guidance from my tutor, I add a title and a references section, and make a note of the word count at the end of the document. Doing these things first ensures that I don’t forget the obvious.

My next step is to split the submission document into some temporary sections, even though the essay will be submitted as one main section (with an additional references section). These sections represent the three parts of the TMA question that I’m answering. I also made a note of the word budget for each of these sections, so I can get a feel for if I’m writing too much or too little.

I quickly re-read the module materials, playing particular attention to key headings, topics, and activities. The module activities there to help us to prepare for the forthcoming TMA. Although we can skip to the answers, it is a good idea to try to do them. I add some keywords that are used within the activities into the body of my solution document, just so I don’t forget about them.

My tutor has sent his tutor group a couple of useful documents that highlight some of the topics featured within the module materials. I copy these documents into my solution document, and edit them aggressively, distilling them so I have a summary of themes that may be useful to remember (or need to address) when writing my TMA. 

There are reasons why tutors run activities and talk about certain concepts during tutorials; they’re sometimes trying to give us a helpful steer. When attending tutorials, I tend to make loads of notes, most of which end up being unreadable. I look through these, and pick out the ones that look to be the most important, adding these next to the other points I have added to the TMA document.

I’ve done all this to pull a set of notes into one place; this way I don’t have to go looking for them when I start writing. I have three key headings, topics from the module materials, and heavily edited notes from tutorials, and a TMA covered with pencil scribble. To help to navigate my way through the Word document using the document navigator tool, I use the Word inbuilt headings.

My next step is to sort my references out. I add a set of references at the end of my TMA, getting the structure of each resource right by looking at the CiteThemRight website. It’s okay if I don’t use everything; I can always delete any references I don’t use or need. Besides, it’s good practice putting everything in the Harvard format.

Finally, I make a copy of my combined TMA submission document and notes document, so I can refer back to them later on if I need to.

Part 3: Writing the TMA

It’s time to start moulding the TMA. My tutor has given me some clear instructions. For the first TMA, it isn’t necessary to provide an introduction or a conclusion, but I might need to provide these with later TMAs.

I remember a bit of feedback from my A112 EMA, which was to make use of the PEEL technique for writing essays. 

PEEL is an abbreviation for Point, Evidence, Explanation and Linking sentence. I remember my EE811 tutor offered a similar bit of guidance about academic writing. Given the nature of their first assignment I’m writing, I don’t think I can (yet) make use of this specific approach, but if I were, I would be sketching out a set of points within my draft TMA document.

I refer back to the module materials, look through the set text again, and refer to some video materials that my tutor mentioned. I make sure that I reference everything carefully within the body of the TMA.

When I address a point that finds its way into the TMA, I delete my accompanying notes.

After quite a few cups of tea, and a bit of grocery shopping (a walk can help to put my thoughts in order), I think I’m done. I have three headings (one for each bit of the question), no remaining notes, and a TMA answer. I remove the three headings, leaving the ‘references’ section heading.

Part 4: Reviewing and submitting

After a couple of days have passed, I get a double spaced printout of my TMA (which is the format that the arts faculty suggest we adopt when we submit our TMA). I settle down at my desk, with another cup of tea, and a set of my favourite coloured pens and read everything back.

I correct a whole load of sentences that don’t make grammatical sense, scribbling on the paper, whilst resisting the temptation to rewrite everything.

When I’m done, I go to the word processed version and enact all the changes that I’ve noted. I make a note of the word count, save the document and then upload it to the eTMA system a couple of days before the TMA cut-off date.

The reason I submit it a few days before the cut off date is to take account of the potential of Sod’s law, which is: whatever could go wrong, will go wrong. 

Reflections

One thing I have done, but haven’t spent a lot of time on is the learning outcomes. Sometimes they are mentioned within a TMA in addition to being found within a module block. It’s important to revisit these too. Connection between the module learning outcomes and what the TMAs are assessing should be pretty clear. 

If I were doing a larger piece of writing, there would probably be a whole other section about structuring of my TMA (or EMA). With bigger bits of writing, I would have to find a way to structure my notes and to find quotes. I would also more vigorously apply the PEEL methodology. I might even give mind mapping a go, but that is not an approach I tend to gravitate to: I tend to prefer lists rather than spider diagrams. It all comes down to whatever works best!

Resources

There’s a whole host of resources about assignments, writing and study which can be found on the OU website. Here are some useful links.

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4th School of Computing and Communications AL Professional Development Conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Nov 2022, 16:29

On Saturday 19 November 2022 I attended the 4th School of Computing and Communications AL Professional Development Conference. Like recent years this event was held online, entirely through Adobe Connect. The event was attended by over 60 Associate Lecturers and was opened by opened by Jim Gillen, who introduced the theme of the event, “new directions”.

What follows is a blog summary of the sessions that I attended. I’m sharing this blog so I can remember what happened during the day, as a record of some of the continuing professional development that I’ve carried out over the year but also for anyone who might be interested in what was covered during this event. 

Welcome and introduction

The first session was presented by Robin Laney, Head of School, and John Woodthorpe, Director of Teaching.  The school supports the equivalent of 4700 full time students and around 200 degree apprentice students. The school delivers 53 modules. These relates to 5 undergraduate qualifications and 3 postgraduate qualifications.

Robin shared the school mission, which is to “empower our students and wider society through life-changing learning and excellent research in computing and communications technologies”. 

The computing curriculum is informed by research carried out by the 6 research groups (school website). The school’s research mission is “to advance digital technologies in ways that enhance the human experience”. The research vision of the school is to place people at the centre of research, to focus on context as much as technology, and to creatively (and positively) disrupt across discipline borders.

John Woodthorpe spoke about some recent changes and plans, such as introduction to the new R60 BSc (Hons) Cyber security degree, which is now up and running. Tutors responded to a request to carry out some paid continuing professional development (CPD) and the school was able to appoint more tutors. The school needs to find a way to develop CPD to enable tutors to teach on TM311 Information security and develop a rolling programme of CPD to help tutors to move onto new modules.

Another new(ish) qualification that was mentioned was R62 BSc (Honours) Computing with Electronic Engineering. The qualification has modules from the OU Engineering and Innovation school, which includes T212 Electronics: sensing, logic and actuation and T312 Electronics: signal processing, control and communications. The mathematics for this module is provided through T193 Engineering: frameworks, analysis, production and T194 Engineering: mathematics, modelling, applications

Another qualification that was important to highlight to tutors was R38 BSc (Honours) Data Science which is led by the School of Mathematics and Statistics. This qualification contains TM358 Machine learning and artificial intelligence. This technical module contains materials about neural networks, deep learning, unsupervised learning and adopts a case study approach. Students are also able to choose TM351 Data management and analysis. The mathematics for this qualification is provided through M140 Introducing Statistics, MST124 Essential mathematics 1 and M348 Applied statistical modelling (amongst others).

Concluding the presentation about qualifications, there are two new higher technical qualifications: W19 Diploma of Higher Education in Network Engineering, and W20 Diploma of Higher Education in Software Engineering. These qualifications give students experience of higher education study and provide a pathway to a degree.

The school has a five year curriculum plan. There are plans to redevelop the popular TM112 Introduction to computing and information technology 2, a plan to develop a new 30 credit level 1 module with more programming (since some students may have gained programming experience during earlier study at school), provide a route to recognise prior experiential learning, enhance skills development across all levels, plug gaps in curriculum, and make better use of research within modules. Since there is an increasing amount of focus on AI, the school is also looking to develop a second level AI module, which will potentially open up a pathway through one of the school’s named degrees.

I made note of a couple of questions. One of them was: how can tutors get involved with the work of the research groups? Tutors were encouraged have a look at the research group websites, and also look at the publications that these groups have produced through the university’s Open Research Online (ORO) website, and should feel free to contact individual academics. Also, another route to research is through the university’s STEM scholarship centre, eSTEeM. I also remember a follow up question which related to the terms and conditions of the AL contract. An important point to note is that although tutors are now, quite rightly, permanent employees of the university, their role primarily relates to teaching and student support, rather than research.

Another question related to “filling the gaps” in computing degrees, and how tutors may be able to influence the content of degree programmes and modules. The answer was: speak with module team chairs, and also have a chat with our Director of Teaching.

Parallel Session 1: New and future Curriculum Developments

The first parallel session I attended had the title “AI and Machine Learning, from TM358 to TM470, an overview and experiences tutoring” and was facilitated by Michael Bowkis and Trevor Forsythe. As highlighted earlier, TM358 is the school’s new AI module. TM470 is the undergraduate computing capstone module.

The session is said to present “the motivations behind why AI and ML are featuring in the C&C curriculum”. It began with a definition of AI, which was said to be “the capacity of a computer or other machines to exhibit or simulate intelligent behaviour” (Oxford English Dictionary). Michael shared some instances where AL and Machine Learning (ML) was featured in the news. He shared a video that introduced the concept of deep fakes, and then asked the question: can we design a way to determine what is a deep fake? We were introduced to a deep fake detection platform called FakeCatcher from Intel. There are, of course, other contexts. AI can play a role in defending against Distributed Denial of Service attacks (which is a topic which links to the cyber security curriculum). There is a link here to employability. AI is a subject that features in data science, transport, media, telecoms, banking, healthcare and so on.

Onto a question: what is it like to be a tutor on TM358?

TM358 aims to teach a range of ML techniques by adopting an engineering approach. Tutors need to become familiar with a complex and fiddly software stack (which is a hosted platform on Amazon Web Services). TM358 makes use of Python, Jupyter notebooks, and Tensorflow, which is a library of machine learning tools. The module also emphasises social impact and ethics; students are asked to consider how the AI could be used and misused. Some tips for tutors include: make sure you get the TMA dates into the calendar, learn the Jupyter notebooks system, since it is used for assignments and teaching. Tutors are not expected to run the cloud computing platform, but they are expected to understand how students have used and responded to the platform. Do feel confident in seeking help from other tutors.

There are three TMAs and an EMA, which is a mini project which can help to develop skills for TM470. The module adopts a single component assessment strategy, where the EMA accounts for 60% of the overall module result. By the end of the module a student won’t be an AI expert, a Python expert, or a Tensorflow expert, but will have some introductory knowledge which is a very helpful starting point.

AI has changed. TM358 is unrecognisable from what I studied when I was a computer science undergraduate. When I studied the subject, neural networks were mentioned in passing, and the focus was on algorithmic searching. AI is continuing to change; every day there is something new.

I asked a question to Michael, Trevor and all other tutors: have you had many TM470 projects that have used TM358? Students are only now beginning to base their projects on TM358. A challenge is when some students study TM358 and TM470 at the same time. The TM470 staff tutors try to help, and do their best to ensure that students who express an interest in basing their project on TM358 are assigned to tutors who have machine learning and AI expertise. 

Parallel Session 2: eSTEeM and Research

The next session I attended (and facilitated) had the title “Continuing professional development: Approaches and Opportunities”. The aim of this session was to get everyone talking about what is meant by CPD, and to help everyone to understand how it might be changing.

Here’s the abstract that introduces the session: “The new tutor contract not only changes our terms and conditions, it also means there is change in our relationship to the university, and the university school (or schools) that we teach for. …  Due to the new contract, continuing professional development (CPD) will become a closer collaboration between a tutor and staff tutor. This session aims to ask a series of questions about CPD with a view to sharing experiences, practice, and what opportunities might exist as we move towards more fully implementing the new tutor contract.”

I began the session by highlighting some relevant sections from the new tutor contract terms and conditions; the section that describes Academic Currency and Professional Development, and the new Academic Currency and Professional Development Policy. Different elements make up our academic currency time, AL led time, and time that is agreed with a staff tutor. Importantly, the amount of time everyone has for CPD is different, and depends on what everyone’s FTE is. There are other bits to the AL contract and CPD picture that haven’t (yet) been worked out yet, such as the connection between the skills audit and the AL Career Development and Staff Appraisal (CDSA).

Before putting everyone into one of four different breakout rooms, I posed some questions. The collated results from each breakout room are presented below. Where appropriate, I’ve provided either weblinks or a bit of additional commentary.

What CPD have you done as an AL?

  • Mandatory training; also known as compliance training, which includes GDPR compliance, safeguarding and equality essentials.
  • Applaud; becoming an associate fellow or fellow of AdvanceHE (which used to be called the Higher Education Academy)
  • Scholarship projects and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; ALs can participate in eSTEeM projects.
  • Cyber Security/Cisco; completion of Networking Essentials and other Cisco courses to prepare to teach on other OU modules; older Cisco certification, such as Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT).
  • Carbon Literacy Training; an Open Learn course facilitated by the OU in Wales. Participants are required to attend synchronous events, and consider two pleges.
  • AL development conferences; such as this school event, or events run by the professional development group.
  • STEMbyALsforALs events; tutor led events that aim to share practice and experience.
  • Module study/fee waivers; studying an OU module, either an individual module, or to work toward a qualification.
  • Used in house resources from my "day job" that are relevant to the OU modules that I tutor.
  • Practice courses; Adobe Connect and a forums practice course
  • Programming with an online lab tool called Replit; used in TM112 online lab research.
  • Ethical Hacking CPD for TM359.
  • Written papers for presentation at the European Conference on E-Learning and presented at AdvanceHE conferences.

What CPD would you like to do?

How can your staff tutor or the university help?

  • Provide induction training for new tutors; the STEM faculty now runs various events for tutors who are joining the university, but perhaps there might be an opportunity to offer a further welcome into the school
  • During the skills audit (and later), the staff tutor could offer pointers to resources, or help to provide resources.
  • The staff tutors could flag modules where there is a shortage of tutors and organise training to help tutors become aware of those modules.
  • Provide CPD in quiet times during the year, such as during holidays, e.g. between June and September.

Discussion points

There were a number of discussion points to emerge from the online session, and the notes that every focus group made during their session. One striking point was a question about the extent to which climate education could be embedded within the curriculum. There is also the importance of how to best embed accessibility and inclusion into the curriculum, 

There were also comments and discussion about the AdvanceHE certifications which are available through the OU’s Applaud scheme. Although the Senior Fellow scheme does require evidence and demonstration of leadership, this is certainly something that can be demonstrated through the AL role. Examples of this might include taking a lead during day schools, online tutorials, or leading with the management of cluster forums. If anyone is interested in creating evidence that can contribute to a higher level AdvanceHE fellowship claim, do have a discussion with your staff tutor.

A question that came out of the discussion notes was: what is SEDA? SEDA is an abbreviation for an organisation called the Staff and Educational Development Organisation. SEDA is a professional organisation that is there to support people who are involved with the professional development of education professionals, typically within higher education. Like the HEA scheme, it has different levels. As a rule, the university doesn’t provide funding for membership of professional organisations, since membership of professional bodies is a personal decision.

It is worth highlighting something called the AL development fund which I understand still exists. The Associate Lecturer Development Fund “is available to support Associate Lecturers (ALs) professional development activities in their role at The Open University (OU) as an AL where no other source of funding is available. Examples might be a non-OU course, module of study or a relevant conference. We ask that all applications show a demonstrable link to development of an AL in their role as a tutor at the OU”. The fund is limited to a relatively small amount of money, and you can only submit claims over a certain period of time. You might, for example, wish to use it to take a professional exam, or have the fund cover part of the cost of a conference. All the university will ask in return is a short report.

One theme that emerged was concerned with research and scholarship. Scholarship of teaching and learning, or scholarship about professional practice is easier to facilitate than disciplinary research which must align with school research objectives. If you’re interested in this area, do get in touch with your friendly staff tutor, who will be really happy to help.

A final bit of CPD that is worth mentioning is the opportunity not only to take OU modules using a fee waiver, but also to carry out doctoral study too. More information about what this might mean is summarised in an earlier blog post, Doctoral research: a short introduction.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Introductory Plenary

After a lunchtime poster showcase Rehana Awan, Lecturer in EDI Implementation in Computing and Communications, gave a keynote presentation about equality, diversity and inclusion. 

Rehana spoke about her background and connection with the university. She began as a regional coordinator, became an AL for the access programme, and then an AL for DD102 Introducing the social sciences. She then worked as a staff tutor for Open and Access, and became co-chair of the black and minority staff network. As well as being a lecturer in the school, she is a third year doctoral researcher, looking at the awarding gap for black and brown students.

She asked herself a question, which was: “what is preventing me from moving forward in my career?” Barriers to progress might be physical (in terms of where we live), education, or skills. Having been trained as a social scientist, Rehana asks questions about how society is structured, to further understand what barriers might exist. I made a note of her words: “it is important to think of people’s background and contexts. If we have a better understanding of who people are and where they come from, we can better adapt our teaching, and how to address inequalities”.

Another question was asked: why is EDI important? EDI is now embedded within the University’s strategic plan. It is also a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010. Also, since the university is made up of a community of scholars, everyone has a responsibility to carry out research (and professional development) to ensure that effective teaching is provided to all students. This links with the university’s student access and participation strategies and plans.

I made a note of a striking statistic. In the UK, there are 22k professors. Out of this figure there are only 41 black women. Just looking at these raw figures, there is clearly a systemic issue that needs to be understood and addressed. A further point I noted down was that we need to develop more representative teaching and research communities. Role models are important.

Rehana emphasised that EDI is everyone’s responsibility. She said that her role is to offer advice about research, awarding gaps and progression rates. In response to some of these challenges, Rehana has set up an awarding gaps implementation group, which consists of colleagues from across the school.

Parallel Session 3: Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Following from Rehana’s keynote, I chose to attend the penultimate session of the day, Decolonising computing - what that might mean? This event was facilitated by Zoe Tompkins, Steve Walker and Ray Corrigan.

Steve Walker presented the background context: some Universities are considering how to decolonise their curricula. In C&C a Decolonising Computing eSTEeM project is exploring what this might mean for our school, led by Mustafa Ali and members of the critical information studies research group. This has raised some questions: Is the history of colonialism important to the discipline?  If so, what are the implications for how and what we teach?

Terms are important. Some key terms are colonialism, postcolonialism and coloniality. Colonialism is defined as a period of European political domination that formally ends with the national liberation and independence movements of the 1960s; postcolonialism relates to a legacy which has outlived formal colonialism and has become integrated within structures, and coloniality refers to persistent structures.

Decolonising computing education is important across the whole sector, since the QAA subject benchmark suggests that it is necessary to acknowledge and address “how divisions of hierarchies of colonial value are replicated and reinforced within the computing subject”. Since students will be creating social structures of the future, it is important that they have an awareness of some of these concepts.

One argument used is “computers don’t have colour”, but computing can be considered as a social practice, since computing is made by people. Social values can be embedded within software, and these values can be replicated by and within society. There is an interaction (which can be called sociotechnical) between the people and the machines (and software) that is created and used.

Two perspectives were highlighted: historic and contemporary.  The historic perspective highlights that technology is implicated in the development of colonialism. The contemporary perspective is that current practices and artefacts continue to perpetuate colonial impact.

It was said that computing is often viewed as a subject without a history, but this is something I disagree with. It is true, however, that the history of computing is not readily taught in computer science or information technology qualifications. 

An interesting case study that reflects a historic perspective was highlighted, the history of the telegraph in India. In terms of the contemporary perspective, asking the question “where do computers come from?” leads us to further case studies. To create the iPhone, rare metals and minerals are needed to be mined, and these can come from countries that are still enduring a continuing legacy of colonialism. There are links to questions about what happens to electronic waste, and the increasing visibility of green computing and the importance of climate justice.

Another question to ask is: who is involved with establishing technical or computing standards? Also, who (or which organisations) provides and supports infrastructure?

Zoe spoke about a survey that was used to gather answers to the question: what do you think it means to decolonise the computing curriculum? Zoe shared a range of different responses from participants. Challenges to progressing this work may include misunderstanding what the goal is, potential lack of interest, lack of resources, and how to ensure representation.

Closing Plenary

Jim Gillen facilitated a short closing plenary, where some questions were shared, such as how do we continue to engage with some of the topics raised, such as equality, inclusion and decolonisation? Another important question was asked about how the subject of sustainability could be further embedded with the curriculum. 

I have no easy answers to these questions, but making representation is an important thing to do, whenever and wherever we can. Following on from the COP27 conference, I have heard that the university is running a university wide event about sustainability. Having completed some CPD about carbon literacy, one of my commitments is to find likeminded colleagues in this school, and the School of Engineering and Innovation, who share interests in green computing.

Reflections

AL professional development events are always fun events, and this was no exception. I did miss being at a face-to-face venue, so we could share tips and stories over a sandwich. This said, the benefit of an online even is that I get to speak with colleagues that I wouldn’t have otherwise spoken to before. A challenge with these online events is, of course, the digital environment that we use; we’re all at different places and within different physical environments which might present their own barriers.

There were, of course, quite a few sessions that I couldn’t go to. I couldn’t, for example, attend the session about the student support team, or Rehana’s second presentation.

From the session that I facilitated, it struck me that there was a lot of CPD going on! Due to the new tutor contract staff tutors are likely to be taking on even more of a listening role in the future in order to do our best to facilitate the opportunities that everyone needs.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Jim Gillen and to Sharon Dawes who led the planning of the event, our colleagues in ALSPD, and all the members of the AL development planning group that helped to organise this session, which included Michael Bowkis, Ray Corrigan, Christine Gardner, Nigel Gibson, Alexis Lansbury and David McDade. On the Friday evening before the event, Ray delivered a lecture, which I’ve heard was very well received. Further acknowledgement are extended to Sharon, who kindly proof read an early version of this summary.

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CISSE Cyber Security Education and Employability Forum: November 2022

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 21 Nov 2022, 15:48

On 16 November 2022 I participated an online Cyber Security Education and Employability Forum, which was hosted by CISSE, the UK chapter of the Colloquium for Information Systems Security, and facilitated in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Roehampton School of Arts and Digital Industries and the OU School of Computing and Communications.

The forum was described as “an opportunity to share your knowledge and experience with the cyber education community, and to informally network with colleagues in other institutions who are involved with cyber security learning, teaching and employability.”

Since the event was not recorded, this blog aims to present a summary of what was discussed within the event. It is broadly intended for the 40 delegates who attended the session, but it might be of interest to anyone who may have an interest in cyber security. In some ways, this event follows on from an earlier CISSE Cyber Security Education Workshop that took place in 2021. This blog can also be viewed alongside other OU cyber security blogs.

The event began with an introduction by Charles Clarke, from the University of Roehampton.

Cyber Springboard

The first session was presented by Alex Collins, who presents a tool called Cyber Springboard. Clicking on this link takes you to a page which clearly summarises the aim of Cyber Springboard, which is to help students to “build and evidence the skills to get a job in cyber security”. The site also presents “activities and ideas for you to get curious about to build fluency in cyber skills”. 

Alex told us that he sits on certification panels, and his work on Cyber Springboard comes from 20 years of working in industry.

Alex made some important points that were reflected throughout the session. He emphasised that cyber is more than pen testing (penetration testing), more than forensics, and more than risk management; a career in ‘cyber’ is more than one of those things. An interesting reflection is that each of these areas have different stereotypes, in terms of the type of work that is performed within each area. The point is clear: cyber is broad. There are 21 Knowledge areas within the cyber security body of knowledge, the CyBOK; it’s a broad area. 

Cyber Springboard enables users to find what they like and don’t like. I made a note that there are 301 cards and activities which are connected to the CyBok knowledge areas. When registered, users can tick off cards. Each card contributes to a shape of a cyber knowledge profile, which can be shared on a personal profile or a CV. The next steps are to consider courses and pathways, developing improvements to the structure of Cyber Springboard, and increasing Cybok coverage.

Alex was asked an interesting question about how it is possible to move to cyber security. The question was answered in terms of building practical skills, finding time to learn what you enjoy, and evidence what you have achieved. An important point was: demonstrate enthusiasm. Also, consider providing a Github link on your CV. Sharing something will give you something to talk about in an interview.

Routes into cyber education: discussion and sharing

Next up was an informal session by Phil Hackett and myself, facilitated by Charles Clarke. The aim of the session was to discuss routes into cyber security teaching through a discussion, and sharing of resources.

One of the themes to emerge from this session was the notion of transitions. Phil began as an OU student, and then became a computing teacher at a secondary school. From there, he had ‘crossed the floor’ to work within the university, where he is involved with modules such as M269 Algorithms, data structures and computability.

My own story is a bit different. I moved from the university sector (where I carried out some research which was about the practice of computer programming), to industry, and back again. One thing that Phil and I have in common is that we’re both tutors; he teaches on M269, and I tutor on a Java module that has the title M250 Object-oriented Java Programming. Another commonality is that we have both had to deal with different types of cyber security incident. These incidents connect to the importance of having knowledge of controls and technical knowledge.

One thing that is common to transitions is the importance of evidence, and having a story; points which relate nicely to Alex’s presentation about Cyber Springboard. In terms of moving from industry to academia, one thing that we didn’t have time to share was a short Badged Open Course, which helps potential applicants understand more about the role of an OU tutor: Being an OU tutor in STEM. Anyone completing this course will be providing evidence that they understand what it means to be a distance learning tutor.

Another point that I think I made was about the important contributions industrial professionals can make to teaching. Importantly, and significantly, their industrial experience can help to make module materials come alive.

I made a note of two questions that were asked. The first question was about how to gain access to internships. Some thoughts were: make sure you have a good LinkedIn profile, know what you’re interested in, and don’t be afraid to be cheeky. What I mean by this is: don’t be afraid to get in touch with people and companies.

The second question was an interesting and challenging question: is it really necessary to have strong publication record if you want to be in academia? There are different roles within academia, and different institutions have different requirements. The short answer is: no, it isn’t really necessary, but you may have to choose where to apply to, and what you wish to do. Just like with cyber jobs, evidencing experience is really important. I’ll conclude by saying that becoming an OU tutor is a really great way to evidence your cyber teaching skills, and is a great way to join academia.

CyberFirst

The penultimate session was by Patrick from CyberFirst which is a part of the UK Government National Cyber Security Centre.

CyberFirst aims to “identify and nurture a diverse range of talented young people into a cyber security career”. As well as providing activities to “inspire and encourage students from all backgrounds to consider a career in cyber security”. CyberFirst also offers bursaries to undergraduates and degree apprenticeship students. (As an aside, the OU also offers cyber security analyst digital technology solutions degree apprenticeships for employers who want to support the development of their workforce).

For those working within the schools sector, CyberFirst is divided into a number of UK regions. CyberFirst is “working on ways to build a diverse and sufficient talent pipeline into the cyber sector (in all its forms) no matter what students have studied before”. Linking to the earlier presentations, some related questions are: how do we get people to use Alex’s tools, and how do we encourage students to study cyber security (and related subjects) at the OU?

An important point Patrick made was that “every job is a tech job” and that “our skills gap is pretty much everyone in the UK” given that technology is so interwoven into our lives. There are some fundamental issues that need to be address, such as 80% of cyber security employees are male. It is important to address how to increase the diversity in the sector.

In earlier presentations about cyber security, the ‘leaky skills’ pipeline was highlighted. In this presentation, Patrick offered a brief summary that explains this. If computer science was the only gateway subject into cyber security, it would begin with 300k students going through KS1 through 4. Looking towards the secondary sector, 12% of students study computer science, and only 9% of those are girls. Overall, only 2.5% of students then move on to study computer science at A level.

One way to begin to address diversity is to make people aware of the different career structure that makes up cyber security (which, again, connects to the earlier Cyber Springboard presentation). This of course, links to the earlier question posed in the last session: how do learners get to have a go ‘at some stuff’ to find what they’re good at?

Faced with these challenges, Patrick suggested that it might be instructive to look to other domains to see what they do, such as sport and medicine. A question is: how do you find out what things people are good at? In terms of sport, the answer might be to let people have a go at something and then coach and train people to their full potential. For medicine, give students the time to make informed choices and after they’ve tried different things, only then do learners move into specialism.

A rhetorical question was: what do we do in the security cyber space? How might a “sports model” be applied to cyber? There is a diversity of people, and many of them have not studied computer science. There are non-techies with a little cyber awareness, techies with limited cyber awareness, and techies with a genuine interest in cyber.

Patrick shared an idea of a talent pipeline, which begins with scale and diversity, moved onto learners and people making their own decisions about the subject, engagement and learning, and then directed activity which leads into employment, roles and responsibility.

Towards the end of this session, there was a reference to something called the CISSE UK problem book, which is intended to help educators not just in terms of education and teaching, but also for outreach and engagement.

In the question answer, I noted down two questions. The first question was: “does a degree title matter? How important is the label?” His response was: “we don’t mind the degree title, but it’s more about what the degree enables you to do. Your degree may well help you into the next step; knowing things about yourself is important”. A further point was: it is really important do show and demonstrate passion in an interview. 

The second question was about experience: “as a post-graduate student now doing a part-time masters’ in computer science with cybersecurity, what sort of work experience can I gain whilst doing this degree and where would I look for these opportunities?” In the context of the OU, and other universities there are the career services, which students should feel free to consult. Also, if you want to move into cyber it is possible to do your own thing to build evidence and demonstrate capability. Look to see if there’s some open source projects you can get involved with. Find a way to build a narrative that you can take to potential employers. As was mentioned earlier, consider adding a link to a GitHub repository on your CV, to give yourself something to talk about during interviews.

Academia and industry certifications aligned: An Open University case study

The final presentation of the day was by Lee Campbell from the OU. Lee is the module chair of TM359 Systems Penetration Testing which is due to be presented for the first time in February 2023. TM359 is a part of the OU BSc (Honours) Cyber Security. Lee takes us through a set of slides which presents the background context and much of the rationale for the module.

Why create a penetration testing module?

Business have a skills gap; they need more people with cyber security skills. Plus cyber security issues is a UK government tier 1 threat to national security. Also, students have been requesting a penetration testing module, and there is a need to complete the OU cyber security qualification. 

A really interesting aspect of both cyber security and pen testing is that they cover so many different areas of computing, such as programming, databases, and networking (which are all aspects which have been studied, in one form or another, during earlier modules).

OU options to build a pen test module

There are two key choices: build something in house, or outsource. One key need was to create (or to find) a technical environment that would be used by 600 students that would be separated from the OU technical environment. There are, always challenges; these were the resources that were available and the time.

The key considerations (or requirements) that I noted down from Lee’s presentation were costs, student access, the need for a web-based solution (to avoid the use of virtual machines), ease of integration with university education systems, and scalability. In light of all these considerations, a decision was made to look around to find a solution from an external supplier.

Lee made a point about education philosophy: both education and training is needed “to develop and adapt to society’s needs”. As an aside, training is about how to do things, whereas education is about when and why to do things. Any solution must amalgamate both perspectives.

Why align with a certification body?

If the decision is to outsource, which provider should the university go with? Lee highlighted a number of certifications that relate to pen testing and ethical hacking, such as CompTIA PenTest+, CPSA, Offensive OSCP, and Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH). There are also a number of laboratory tools, such as HackTheBox, TryHackMe and NDG Netlab+.

In the end, the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) from EC-Council was chosen, which is one of the leading certification bodies and is one of the top 10 certifications that relate to the subject.

There are a lot of CEH resources. There are up to 20 modules, and each module relates to a subject area. Each module has a dedicated video that presents an overview. There are eBooks, and a browser based lab called iLabs. There is also something called the CyberQ platform where students can carry out a pentest.

Integrating the new module

The TM359 module has integrated many of these resources over 31 weeks of study to enable the materials to be delivered through the OU VLE. Significantly, TM359 covers most of the areas in Cybok 1.1. Also, efforts have clearly been made to ensure the module is clearly about education rather than training.

Students study a module per week. Every week begins with an introductory video, and there are additional materials and tools to help students to make notes. There are five blocks. Block 1 is an introduction to the module and the subject; block 2 concerns reconnaissance, scanning and enumeration; block 3 is about system hacking, gaining, maintaining access and clearing tracks; block 4 concerns stakeholder engagement and automation; block 5 covers countermeasures and mitigation.

Question and Answer session

I made a note of three questions. 

The first question relates to the challenges that accompany using a vendor certification within an undergraduate programme. Lee emphasised that the materials explain important concepts and it is hoped and expected that there is a good balance between developing technical understanding and academic learning. A further reflection from this question is that the OU already has substantial experience of linking academic study and appropriate vendor qualification through its connection with Cisco, through the modules TM257 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 1 and TM357 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 2.

A follow up question relates to how the module team deals with iterations or changes. The university has a formal process following the launch of any module. Some of the changes occur through the vendor, and there are clear benefits in using a web-based platform in the sense that the extent that changes can be managed.

The final question was more of a comment. Rather than seeking an industrial provider, one alternative may have been to facilitate a greater level of collaboration with other higher education institutions to facilitate sharing of resources. A challenge that had to be faced was, of course, timescales. A further reflection is that the CISSE community may well have a role to play in facilitating the understanding of needs for cyber security educators.

Plenary discussion and next steps

During the forum, through a link shared in text chat, participants were encouraged to share something about their background and to say something about priorities for the community. Students made up the biggest group, with 19 participants. The other participants were academics, tutors, or members of government.

The priorities were ranked as follows: 

  1. How can we ensure students get access to work experience?
  2. How can we improve the quality of learning resources in academia?
  3. How do we get more cyber security lecturers in academia?
  4. What are the alternatives to placements and internships?
  5. Alternatives to CVs?
  6. What should be in a cyber education problem book?
  7. How can job descriptions be improved?
  8. The significance of cyber learning hubs between institutions

Regarding the first point, academics have a responsibility to speak with the careers teams or department, to make sure they are fully aware of the diversity of cyber security roles. 

Another important priority, which reflected earlier discussions, is the need to increase gender diversity within cyber security. This led to a discussion about the lack of women computer science teachers. Some accompanying questions were: why is this the case? Also, what can we do to change that? One reflection concerned the language used in job descriptions is an issue. For example, adverts which contain references to “rock star developers” might be attractive to one group, and not another.

The final point I noted down was about cyber security recruitment. Here is the final paraphrased question which I think was presented by Patrick: “how do we get recruiters to engage with the person, rather than asking the technical questions that need to be asked?”.

Perhaps the answer is to take the technical questions out of the interview, leaving space and time for the important question of: which aspect of cyber security do you feel you are best suited to?

Reflections

What was significant about this event was the practical focus of some of the questions that were asked, and also how each of the sessions linked to each other. A key question was: how do I go about gaining practical cyber security experience? There are different ways to answer this: network to gain contacts, be bold when it comes to asking about opportunities, seek advice from your university’s career service (if this is an option open to you), and try to find ways to develop and demonstrate your skills on your own terms.

The lack of gender diversity was a theme that emerged a number of times. Within the OU there is a plan to setup a new OU Women in STEM conference. Linked to this is the importance of role models and teachers which was mentioned by one of the speakers.

The biggest take away point that I took away from this event also related to diversity, diversity of roles that exist within cyber security. Looking to future CISSE sessions, it will be interesting to learn how this aspect of diversity can be expressed and embedded within the ‘problem book’ that the community is working on.

Acknowledgements

This blog post has morphed from a set of notes I made whilst attending the forum. Subsequently, many of the words presented within this blog come from each of the speakers, who all gave fabulous presentations. The idea for running this event came from Charles, who proposed themes, managed the registrations and worked through all the idiosyncrasies of MS Teams to make for a successful event. Thanks are also extended to Charles for his excellent proofreading. Finally, Jill Shaw helped with some of the technology admin on the day.

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Access to cyber security day

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 19 Nov 2022, 14:01

On 9 November 2022, I attended an online webinar that was entitled: the real reason for the cyber skills shortage. The webinar was a part of larger event facilitated by CREST International that was about access to cyber security. 

The event was presented by Matt Lawrence, Head of Defensive Security from an organisation called JUMPSEC.  What follows is a set of notes that I’ve made during the session, which have been roughly edited together.

This blog can be viewed alongside other OU blogs that relate to the subject of cyber security.

The real reason for the cyber skills shortage

A point I noted down was that the “skills shortage cannot be solved by bringing more people into the industry. Instead, we have to work smarter and treat current industry professionals better”. Cyber security seeing significant expansion, which means that many organisations are feeling the strain. This expression of concern was reflected in a slide that contained the words “the root of the problem is not the availability of incoming candidates, but the ability to retain skilled and experienced employees”. 

Some striking numbers were shared: the cyber security workforce shrank by 65k people and 1 in 3 cyber security professionals looking to change their role; clearly this is highly unsustainable. (I should add that I don’t know about the source of these numbers). Further comments were made, such as unhealthy working environments, and the unsustainability of operating models which relies on manual analysis of security events and alerts, and organisations going through acquisitions, which puts strain on security controls.

An earlier point that was mentioned that is worth emphasising was that no certification programme is a substitute of hands-on experience.

How do we deal with the skills shortage? I noted down the words: “sustainability is key; compromise is inevitable.” I also noted down “we can’t predict timing and severity” of attacks and events. Professionals “must prepare for the worst, and be ready”.

How are cyber threats evolving?  There were interesting points about ransomware, the practical inadequacy of cyber insurance, gaps of existing control gaps, or lapsing of expected controls. There will always be mistakes: users will accidentally respond to phising emails and there can be inadvertent lapses in permissions; the basics can go wrong. Put another way, “it is the fundamentals that really matter; this goes for organisations and people”. Significantly, applying more technology isn’t necessarily a solution: “before you invest in new security technology, are you making best use of what you already have”. Matt shared a compelling metaphor: don’t make your cyber security haystack bigger by getting more tech.

Paraphrasing some key points about challenges: responders (to cyber events) may have little or no network visibility, and not be able to respond due to a lack of preparations and too may assumptions. Within an organisation there may be “technical debt”, which is a metaphor I have not heard before. Technical debt (Wikipedia), essentially, means shortcuts. In terms of cyber security, this might mean that services might being adequately patched, or infrastructure might be misconfigured. From an organisational perspective, different employees may have misaligned expectations, there may be few checks and balances, and little understanding of threat and available attack paths.

A further slide summarised some of these challenges that were emphasised in the webinar. Some key points include: cyber security operating models may lead to monitoring approaches that are not fit for purpose, and this may lead to the focus on cyber products (which is a technical fix), which may then in turn lead to other issues, such as a potential lack of accountability.

Principles

How do we deal with all this? There are, of course, no immediate or simple answer. A set of principles were shared, which appear to share knowledge and experience.

  1. Augment people with technology. Don’t consider fancy solutions
  2. Be pragmatic and detect what matters (most relevant to the organisation).
  3. Respond on the front foot. Planning, what are the opportunities to respond.
  4. Avoid dependency to enable progress. A security provider is only as good as the organisation they are protecting.
  5. Be visible and transparent. Evidence of services performing as intended.
  6. Be flexible and adaptive.
  7. Embed continuous improvement. Small steps are better than big leaps.

Reflections

I learnt quite a few things through this seminar, and it certainly got me thinking.

Over the last few years, partly due to lots of changes within the OU, I’ve started to become fascinated about organisations, particularly in terms of how they are structured and how they work. The most important element within any organisation is, of course, people. When it comes to cyber security people are, in my view, the most important element. It is people who respond to cyber security incidents, and it is people who setup and maintain controls.

Some of the points mentioned within the webinar reminded me of previous study of a module that goes by the code M889 Information and Data Security. This module has become M811 Information security, which helps students to think about controls, checks, and balances. This subject can also be found within the OU’s undergraduate cyber security named degree, within the module TM311 Information Security.

Acknowledgements

A big acknowledgement goes to the webinar speaker, Matt. I don’t know Matt; I’ve never met him. I also have no connection with either CREST International, who facilitated a series of workshops and events during the day. The really interesting topics highlighted here comes from the event. Where possible, I’ve tried to quote directly. Apologies for any misrepresentations or getting the wrong end of any sticks. 

Finally, I found out about this event through an email that was circulated to the school. I have no idea who sent it, so I have no idea who to thank. So, whoever you are, thanks for sending it through! 

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A230 Journal - September 2022

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 13 Nov 2022, 09:55

I’m studying again! This time I’m studying A230 Reading and studying literature (OU website)

When I was at school, something clicked in place when I was studying from my English Literature GCSE. I had moved up from a remedial English group to a higher stream, where I managed to get a pretty respectable score. It was a subject I quite enjoyed.

When I was taking my exams, I didn’t have much confidence. I didn’t think I would get sufficient scores to take A levels (which sounded pretty intimidating), so I opted for a vocational subject that I hoped would lead to employment. You would say I’ve ‘dabbled’ in the arts, but I’ve never properly studied it.

This blog series follows earlier posts that relate to earlier study of A111 Discovering the arts and humanities (blog) and A112 Cultures (blog).

Some of the links shared within this blog are likely to be only available to either current students, or students studying the module, but it is hoped that any accompanying descriptions are helpful to anyone who might be interested in any of the modules that I've mentioned.

10 September 22

The module website is open before the official start date, so I’m starting to have a look around. 

I find the welcome letter from the module team (which I got in the printed pack), and eyeball the study calendar. I note that the weeks where there is a cut-off date are highlighted in orange. I have a watch of the introductory video. Key points: critical awareness, tutorials, tragedies, cities, the theme of home and abroad, assessments and accompanying resources. 

Next up: the module guide, which introduces the six parts. Key concepts I’ve noted from the guide: context, the author, the reader and reading, period, and literatures. Another important point I’ve noted is that there is an expectation of studying for 14 hours per week. There are five TMAs, and an EMA, and there are some skills tutorials that you need to complete before working on TMAs 2 and 3. It looks like there are five face-to-face day schools (if they are running, I’ll try to go to as many as I can), along with online equivalents.

After returning to the module website, I start to look through the welcome forum, and discover the English Literature toolkit https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1859527 There are two big headings in this toolkit: how to study English literature, and how to write an English literature essay. 

This first section looks pretty big, so I’m going to go back to it later. An important bit looks like ‘learning to be a critic’ since I feel as if I’m okay with time keeping and making notes (but I need to go through those too). Another link is the English subject page. I note that there’s a section about bridging material, called Moving onto Stage 2

Key tips from a video: the pace of the materials, being more critical, spending more time online in different forums, attend tutorials, the materials are more in depth, plan your essays, do your referencing. 

There was a video summary of A233 Telling stories: the novel and beyond, which I couldn’t resist viewing. After returning to the forum, I saw a post to a BBC programme: The Duchess of Malfi: BBC Arts at the Globe (BBC iPlayer) which looks like a good watch (when I get to it in the materials).

Onto the week 1 study guide. I’ve ticked off the welcome letter, video, and module guide. The aims are to read the first part of the module text, and focus on Act 1 of Othello, and then read chapter 1 of the module book. I now know what I need to do! I’m going to make notes when I get to the activities, but for now, I’ll continue to look through the materials. 

I scan through the Resources section, the Downloads section, and the glossary.

A final action before stopping; I’ve found a place to store all my notes, and I’ve got a pad of A4 paper, and set of pens. This means I’m ready to go!

11 September 22

I’ve read the introductory section of the book, and have completed the first activity, but I found it pretty hard going. The text of Othello is very dense, and there’s a lot of take in during the first 80 lines. To complete the activity, I’ve made a few notes.

Continuing my look around on the module website, I have a quick look at the assessments. TMA 1, which is all about analysing a fragment of text, doesn’t look to be too difficult. The TMA sends me off to look at section 4 of the assessment guide, which is in the same section where the TMA is located. Since I need to take all this in, and closely follow the assessment guidance, print out the assessment handbook, and file it in my new folder.

14 September 22

There was a bit of chat in the module WhatsApp group, where students were sharing the initials of tutors they had been allocated to. Noticing this, I logged into the module page to see if I was allocated a tutor, and I had! I think I recognise the name from tutorials from an earlier module, but this is not a tutor that I’ve had before. 

I managed to read three pages of the assessment guide. 

15 September 22

I’ve noticed that the tutorial dates are now available. I book into as many as I can, saving events to my Outlook calendar. 

17 September 22

I get an email from my tutor. I send him a quick reply.

I return to reading the assessment handbook, and get as far as TMA 2. This takes me to two other sets of pages, both of which I’ve printed out: assessment information for arts modules, and the drama skills tutorial. I also head off down a resource that is all about employability, which is called FutureYou. I’m introduced to OneFile, which I don’t tend to use, and there’s an accompanying template that I look through. I made note of the OU employability framework, since I feel that it might be useful later. It’s interesting to see that there’s a place to store reflections against each element in the framework, and there’s a section that is specific for the English Literature qualification pathway. 

When looking through FutureYou, I get as far as the Identifying and planning section. I’ve not really done much in the way of reading or looking at texts, but one other good thing that I’ve done today is that I’ve organised my bookshelf. I’ve got rid of some books, and there’s now space for all my literature books. 

One thing I’m thinking of is, whether I could start to use OneNote to make a study log.

18 September 22

Back to looking at the employability framework. I found an assessment tool, where I could rate myself on each of the 10 items on the employability framework. I found this interesting, but I did question whether some of the items were immediate relevant to what I was studying. I also discovered a page that relates elements of the framework to the TMAs, which offered a suggestion about some of the activities I would be carrying out later on during my study.

I’ve decided not to use OneNote, for the reason that I’ve got my own methodology, which makes use of paper based notebooks. I also tend to create different files (sets of notes) for different things. I find I learn when writing things down, and I use my visual memory to recognise papers which I’ve written on. Whilst I could more easily search for things in OneNote, I’m happy with my current study approach. For other forms of note taking and writing, I use Word documents.

It’s back to the reading of the assessment handbook. I’ve read the assessment information for arts modules, and I’ve found the EMA question.

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Doctoral research: a short introduction

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 26 Oct 2022, 17:22

This blog is about doctoral research, a little bit of what it entails, and the different routes that are available to students who are studying in the UK. This post might also be useful for international students too.

This post begins by asking the question: “what is a doctorate?” It then goes onto describe two different routes to doctoral study: a disciplinary route and a professional route. This is followed by a very broad sketch of what doctoral research involves. 

The post concludes by sharing some of my own experiences, and offers a summary, which includes some links to some useful resources.

One thing I should add is that I don’t work for the university graduate school, but I do supervise some doctoral students. Do always check with the OU graduate school if you need further information, or the equivalent unit that is likely to exist within your own institution.

The fundamental questions

What is a doctorate and why would I want one?

A doctorate says that you have done, and are capable of carrying out original research. It also says that you have been trained to carry out research, and you are capable of advanced critical thinking. 

A doctorate is also something that can be useful if you would like to have a career in academia. Whilst it can be considered to be useful, you can, of course, still be a lecturer, and still carry out substantial research without having a doctorate. 

A related question is: will it get me a higher salary? My answer is: don’t do it for the money; do it for your subject, and also do it for yourself. 

Another answer to this question is: it all depends. It depends on the discipline, and also depends on the job opportunities that are available. Academia is notoriously and brutally competitive, and there are never any guarantees.  

Another question to ask is: would you be prepared to work for at least 4 years on a low income? During that time, your peers may well become established in parallel careers, and have spent that time continually increasing their earning potential. As mentioned above: do it for the subject, not for the money.

Do you need a masters?

For the OU professional doctorates, applicants should “normally hold, or be expecting to obtain before the start of the degree”. I’ll say something more about professional doctorate a bit later. For disciplinary doctorates, you don’t necessarily need have to have one, but they can certainly help. It may depend on the subject and the institution that you're applying to.

Do you need to be super smart?

I used to think of people who held doctorates as being a whole other species of human. I remember my chemistry teacher at school. He had an air of cleverness about him. He regularly wore a white chemist’s coat. I assumed that everyone who was called doctor was super smart. After a fortuitous sequence circumstances, I found myself having “done some stuff” and “having discovered” some things that were deemed to be suitably original enough to be given a doctorate. 

The thing is, I’m not super smart. 

What I would say is that I was passionate and interested in what I was doing to be able to find sufficient determination (and time) to really focus on a narrow area of study. Being smart is important (as is being humble), but determination matters more. You must be motivated, and maintaining motivation over an extended period of time isn’t easy.

How big is a contribution?

Doctoral research is all about carrying out original research, which broadly means discovering something new that no one had ever discovered before. This sounds like a big deal. Another fallacy that I had when I was a kid was the view that these “doctors” must have discovered something huge during their studies; something that could change the world or the course of history.

The reality is, conversely, a lot more mundane. 

One way to think of academia is to think of it as a community in which the academics contribute to a huge set of on-going debates. Everything is mostly very polite since the academics argue with each other, through the medium of academic articles and formal presentations. Academics might, for example, argue about the role and importance of the topics that make up their discipline. Doctoral students learn how to contribute to that massive debate; they’re elbowing their way in, to say: “hey, have you thought about, looked at, or seen this?”

The contribution to one of these debates can, in fact, be really small, but it can still represent a contribution.

I am a big fan of social science methods, particularly ethnography. Ethnography is all about writing about people and communities. Ethnographers write about what people do, and how their communities operate. A doctorate in the social sciences which applies ethnography might study what happens in a particular community over a period of time. Communities (and cultures) come and go, and are influenced by the events and circumstances that surround them. The very act of writing and describing a potentially short lived community represents a contribution, which other academics can look to, study and examine. In sharing your contribution, you contribute to wider debates about societies and how they work.

In computing, my home discipline, researchers might go about building software, or combining new bits of software in a unique way to demonstrate a new concept or idea. A new software tool might be a very modest contribution, but someone else might pick it up and take it into a whole new creative direction. 

Although the phrase “making an original contribution to human knowledge” sounds pretty intimidating and very grand, the contributions that doctoral researchers make can be modest. This said, some doctoral students can also be fundamental in facilitating breakthroughs. Also, it isn’t just the output from a doctorate that is important; the process is important too.

Types of doctorates

Within the OU (and other institutions) there are, broadly, two types of doctorates: disciplinary doctorates, and professional doctorates. I’ll begin with disciplinary doctorates.

Disciplinary doctorates

Disciplinary doctorates, simply, are doctorates that take place within a discipline! There are a number of routes to a disciplinary doctorate. These differ in terms of how the research question, or problem. A disciplinary doctorate might begin with a specific problem that needs to be solved, or it might begin with a research question from a student.

Doctoral research roles

Some doctoral students may carry out research as a part of an established funded research project or programme. In some ways, gaining a doctorate this way is a bit like having a job. Programmes of this kind are usually full-time, where students get paid a modest salary (or stipend), rather than having to pay the university for registration and supervision fees.

The funding for these opportunities might come from a funding council (or research funding body), which has decided to fund a project that has been proposed by a professor or a team of academics. 

Alternatively, the funding for some doctoral jobs may come from industry. In these cases, a company or business might have a very particular research and development problem that may have never been solved before, and one way to solve it would be to set up a project which may involve doctoral students. The outcomes from the project would give the business an insight into how to solve a problem, and give a doctoral student experience of carrying out research into a technical domain, and writing a thesis.

In the UK context many of these research opportunities are advertised on a well-known academic jobs board (Jobs.ac.uk). It is quite interesting and useful to have a look at some of these to see what kinds of qualifications, experience and characteristics research groups are looking for. This board also sometimes advertises opportunities in other countries too. When I last had a look I saw positions available in Sweden, Germany and Hong Kong. For an even broader international perspective, another site that is worth visiting is Find a PhD (website). 

Doctoral scholarships

Some of the roles that you may see on those PhD job board may be quite varied. You might see positions that address a very specific research problem. On the other hand, you might sometimes see scholarships which are more loosely to a subject or a topic area.

The school in which I am affiliated with advertises a couple of PhD scholarships per year. Whilst some of these scholarships might be connected to certain industrially funded projects, the school also advertises a list of research topics (OU School of Computing and Communications). 

It is also worth looking at how a university structures their doctoral research programmes. Through wider funding schemes, which are aimed at certain subject areas and facilitating collaboration, there is also something called doctoral training partnerships (OU website) which is also worth looking at.

Choosing your own research path

Sometimes you might have a disciplinary research idea or an interest that is entirely legitimate, but doesn’t immediately fit with any advertised funded PhD role or scholarship that is currently being advertised. If this is the case, you still may well be able to become a doctoral student, but you may have to handle the financial bit from your side. 

The way I understand things, there are two broad approaches: you can either find a source of funding yourself, or you can pay your own registration fees from your own pocket, or through a doctoral loan (GOV.UK website).

I’ve recently heard of something called Commonwealth PhD Scholarships for those looking to study at UK universities. Also, individual universities, such as the OU, Kings and UCL sometimes offer scholarships for students from minority backgrounds.

Gaining funding is only a part of the story. The other part is, of course, developing an idea. A suggestion is to draft a short proposal, and then look for a supervisor: someone who shares similar research interests.

Begin with the research questions, and ask yourself: what is it that you would like to find out. Also, start to find out, using any academic library you may have access to, whether anyone has tried to answer this question before. Doing this might, potentially, lead you towards an institution and a supervisor.

If you do decide to go down this route, there are other questions that you need to answer. Are you looking to do it full time, or part time? 

In the OU context, there is a bit of advice about part-time doctoral study (OU website). Also, do have a look at the fees, and ask the questions: can I really afford this, and am I really in a place where I can generate the determination required to just focus on one thing for anything between 3 and 6 years (depending on the doctoral programme, and the intensity of your research)?

Professional doctorates

Professional doctorates are slightly different to disciplinary doctorates. The OU supports the delivery of two professional doctorates: a doctorate in Education (EdD), and a doctorate in Health and Social Care (DHSC) (OU website).

These are described as follows: “a professional doctorate provides the opportunity for you to develop your own practice-based research in a structured and supportive environment. A professional doctorate differs from a PhD in that one of its key aims is to make a contribution to practice or policy, as well as to theory.” A big difference to the disciplinary doctorate is that you’re already likely to be working in the setting that will play an influence in guiding and informing your research. In other words, “they offer you the chance to enhance your career at doctoral level, enabling you to make a unique contribution to your profession or area of practice while continuing to work and progress in your field.” (EdD/DHSC website).

The EdD programme is described as being appropriate for “professionals in education, including school leaders, teachers and trainers, but also other professionals working in any educational context in formal and non-formal settings including the public, voluntary and private sectors.”

Working within a particular setting is important, since it provides you with a context which can be explored and studied. Every educational situation is different, and this means that there is an opportunity for EdD students to find out something about it, and how it works, and the kind of educational activities which might, potentially, make a positive difference to learners or those involved in delivering education. Finding out something about your own context in a systematic and rigorous, and academically respected way enables researchers to contribute to educational academic practice and debate.

In the OU, there is quite a difference between what happens within a disciplinary PhD and an EdD. Within a PhD, students are left at the mercy of their supervisors, in the sense that they will help them to gain an understanding of what needs to be done to learn about how to do research within their particular discipline. 

The EdD, on the other hand, has a structured taught component, which helps students become aware of the different stages of academic research. This component will introduce students to the importance of research questions, the literature review, and introduce important terms, such as epistemology, ontology, and methodology. For a detailed description of what is entailed in EdD study and research, the blog post about the Components of the EdD Professional Doctorate Programme may be useful. It is also typically expected that students should have completed an MA in Education, which may have helped to explore some early research questions.

As a brief aside, the university employs associate lecturers (who are, arguably, the most important people in the university) who deliver tutorials and provide correspondence teaching. The university provides something called a module fee waiver scheme for associate lecturers, which could be used on doctoral programmes, such as the EdD. If you are an associate lecturer, and are reading this blog, and have sometimes wondered about doctoral study, do have a chat with your friendly staff tutor.

One point that is common between a disciplinary doctorate and a professional doctorate is that you need to have a clear research idea, ideally presented in the form of one or more research questions. The more specific they are, the better. It isn’t enough to say that you’re interested in doing research into a particular area: you need to be specific about what you’re going to be looking at, and have some beginning of an idea about how you might do that.

To get onto the EdD programme, you need to write a short proposal, which will then be scrutinised by a small group of potential supervisors. Those students who have written proposals that look promising will then be invited to take place in a short interview. Typically, this will be with one of the potential supervisors.

When it comes to doctorates, students find their supervisors, but on other occasions, supervisors find their students. What everyone has in common is interests in the subject, and the process of carrying out research.

PhD by Published Work

There is a final route to gaining a doctorate, and one that isn’t as common: gaining a doctorate through publication. 

This is sometimes appropriate in cases for academic staff who may have already carried out considerable amount of research over an extended period of time, and just never been in a position to enrol to a doctoral programme. 

Through this path, a body of work may be collated together, and submitted, along with a narrative that presents each of the publications (or constituent) papers as a cohesive whole. 

The act of getting published, and engaging completely with the research process can serve as significant evidence of having worked at a doctoral level. Like with other forms of doctorate, candidates who choose this approach also have go through the viva process.

In my own experience, I don’t personally know of anyone who has gone through this route, but I do know that it exists! There is a bit more information about this approach on Find a PhD.

Doing a PhD

What everyone does on a day-to-day basis is, of course, different. 

There’s going to be reading, attending of seminars (to get an idea of how everything in the academy works), perhaps doing some lab work, maybe doing some field work, perhaps even interviewing people and collecting data. In other context, you might be writing some computer code or managing data files. Essentially, you’ll be applying whatever tools you have in your own discipline to answer your research questions.

In all of this, you’ll gain skills: you’ll develop your critical thinking skills, your writing skills, and your presentation skills. 

Posters and presentations

A lot of sharing takes place at disciplinary conferences or workshops. These are great opportunities to share your work with an interested audience and to meet with academics and students who are studying a similar subject. When you’re a PhD or EdD student, there might only be a couple of people studying the same subject that you are studying. Conferences and workshops are a useful opportunity to seek those people out and network with them. If you’re looking towards a career in academic, conferences and workshops are a really good place to find potential future collaborators.

Before you get to a point where you share your results, doctoral students are sometimes able to submit what is known as a poster. A poster is exactly what you imagine it to be: it is a poster that summarises your research aims and intention. During the breaks during a conference, delegates may wander up to your poster to find out more. This is a great opportunity to share an elevator pitch about your research. 

Publishing

I’ve heard it said that a very good master’s degree project should be at a level that a version of it could be theoretically published as an academic article. The difference between a master’s and a doctorate is that of originality. When it comes to doctoral research it is a good idea to always have one eye on publication, in terms of what you might publish, and where you might publish it. After having carried out a literature review, you should have some idea about where you might be able to share your research findings.

Going through the experience of writing, submitting, and reviewing a formal article, and being able to contribute to the ongoing academic debates within your area is a part of the doctoral training experience. Although it is possible to gain a doctorate without publishing a journal article, publications certainly help. It tells the examiners that other experts (through the peer review process) have assessed the quality of your work.

Writing your thesis

The thesis is one of the most important products of doctoral research. The thesis summarises the aims of your research, the reading you have done, the methodological approaches you have adopted, and is used to present your results, and should be no longer than 100k words. In contrast, my MA dissertation was limited to 12k words.

The OU has something called a ‘writing up’ year which some students may use, during which students may pay a reduced fee. Students must submit their thesis on time. When a submission has been made, the university graduate school will organise a viva.

Viva

A viva is an oral exam. It is a bit like a really intense interview, where the subject of the interview is the research that you have carried out. There are likely to be two external examiners, and a chair. One of your supervisors is likely to be present. You’re likely to know, in advance, who the examiners are, and may well have referenced some of their work in their thesis. There is a nice article in Prospects Magazine: Five tips for passing your PhD viva.

There are a number of outcomes following the Viva, ranging from passing without changes, through to different amounts of changes that may be necessary. A supervisor will only let a student get to the viva stage if they are confident about a positive outcome.

After the doctorate

Assuming that you’ve passed, and you’ve graduated, what next?

As mentioned earlier, academia is notoriously competitive. A doctorate is an indication that you’re capable of carrying out original research. To gain experience, and to secure an academic job, doctoral researchers sometimes look for post-doctoral research posts. These are often connected to specific research projects or programmes, which may have been set up by professors or lecturers with funding gained from research councils or funding bodies.

A personal perspective

My doctorate is in an area which could be loosely called The Psychology of Computer Programming. 

Whilst I was an undergraduate, I was really interested in how come some people found computer programming easy, and others found it difficult. To learn more about this, I managed to find a MSc course which had modules from both computing and psychology.

A chance job application to the University of Manchester (which I found in Prospects Magazine) led me to meeting my future supervisor. My research interests were combined with my future supervisor’s research interests. Subsequently, my thesis topic, studying the maintenance of object-oriented software, was born.

My original contributions have been modest. After spending considerable time finding my way through cognitive psychology papers, and learning how research was done and discussed, I noticed that there were some interesting cross-overs with research that was emerging from researchers who were studying software engineering. I realised that there was a gap. 

After doing a bit of empirical work, my contribution was a new model of software code comprehension (ResearchGate). Working on this model, also led me to a small side project, where I worked on a set of software metrics (ResearchGate), which were inspired by the psychology (and neuroscience) papers that I spent a lot of time reading. This points to one of the interesting thing about doctoral research: sometimes there are surprises along the way.

All this work was compressed into quite a short period of time since I had limited amount of funding. I didn’t return to my subject until quite a few years after graduating since I later realised that I had burnt myself out. 

There’s another aspect that is important too: I found it a very lonely experience. Other doctoral students, however, might have a very different experience, especially if they work within an established community of researchers. To counteract this potential of isolation of loneliness, my advice would always be: make sure you seek out a community within the institution in which your research is situated. I do know that the School of Computing and Communications at the OU tries to create a strong research community, so students don't feel disconnected or isolated. Also, make sure you have a break from the study and research; fun stuff is important!

After working in industry for a few years, I picked up a post-doctoral post, working on an EU funded project. Although this wasn’t in the exact area that I had studied as a doctoral researcher, I was pleased I could get stuck into something interesting that would make use of some of the skills I had acquired.

Summary

A doctorate isn’t only about discovering something new in the world. It is also about developing skills, and becoming familiar with what it means to carry out research. It also means that you become a trained researcher and communicator. It can be something that is hugely rewarding, but it is also hugely demanding. It requires commitment and determination.

This blog represents a summary of different bits of information about doctoral study that I’ve picked up over the last few years whilst starting to work as a doctoral supervisor. 

There are a lot of other resources available which might be helpful. A good place to go to is the Vitae website.

Just as teaching is a skill which can be enhanced through professional development, Vitae is described as a “global leader in supporting the professional development of researchers”. To help researchers, there is something called the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (Vitae website). One article that might be of specific interest is: Are you thinking of doctoral research? (Vitae website). A further article, which can be found within Prospects Magazine: PhD Study.

Finally, if you're looking for more information about how research degrees work within the OU, you can also visit the Research Degrees website, which contains a wealth of information.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks are extended to Marian Petre, who has suggested some really helpful changes to this blog. Marion also runs a blog about PhD research: Pragmatic PhD, which has the subtitle "craft skills for students and supervisors". She has also written a book, with Gordon Rugg, entitled "The Unwritten Rules Of Phd Research" which I thoroughly recommend. I might have had an easier, and less confused journey if I had read it whilst I was studying for my own doctorate.

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Considering employability

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 5 Oct 2022, 12:49

Over the last few days, I’ve been having a look through some materials about employability which have been published by AdvanceHE, specifically the recent 2016-2021 employability literature review (AdvanceHE). I’ve also had a read of a couple of edited collection of papers, also from AdvanceHE. The first is called Employability: breaking the mould (AdvanceHE) and the other is a compendium of case-studies (AdvanceHE).

I’ve also done a couple of other things. Whilst studying A230 as a student, I’ve been reading about the OU employability framework, through a set of pages called FutureYou (which is mentioned in the first collection of papers that I’ve mentioned). This, in turn, led me to look through the OU employability website which has taken me to a useful booklet called Your Career Planning Guide (pdf).

There is also something called the OU Employability Hub (OU website), which provides a wealth of free Open Learn courses which connect to the “ten components of the OU’s Employability Framework”. Users of this hub can filter on each of the ten components to get to resources which relate to each of these components. I’ve mentioned the Employability Hub in an earlier blog a few years ago, and it is great to see how many resources there are available.

Whilst looking through all these different resources, reports and summaries, I asked myself a question: how can I make sense of the topic of employability? 

One way to do this is to think of the whole area in terms of dimensions. Different papers, articles, initiatives, or frameworks could be characterised as a point on a number of different dimensions. What follows is a summary of those dimensions. 

These dimensions are, of course, fully open to debate and scrutiny. As I learn more, and debate more, these may well adapt and change, but I do feel that they are a useful way to think about the employability landscape. These ideas have emerged, in part, through reading through the resources that I’ve mentioned above.

Dimension 1: Embedded/non embedded employability

This dimension refers to the extent to which the topic of employability, or the provision of employability services are embedded within a programme or study, or a module. 

Services might be embedded in the way that they are in during the start of the module I’ve been studying, or they might be entirely external to a module, such as the provision of an information and advice services through a careers service.

Dimension 2: Programme/module integration

I think this second dimension can be through of a subset of the first dimension. To what extent is employability information embedded within a specific module, or does it feature across and between modules or a broader programme of study? Is there, for example, a separate module that relates to employability, with all the other modules presenting academic material, or is it functionally embedded within all the modules that a student may study? There may, of course, be differences between how this manifests itself between disciplines.

Dimension 3: Self-directed/facilitated

This dimension might also be a sub-dimension of the first dimension. One of the themes that is pretty evident is the development of reflection skills, specifically in relation to employability planning and personal development. Some of these planning activities can be carried out on our own, as a personal reflective activity. Other activities might be interactive workshops, which might go some way to sharing perspectives and understandings.

Dimension 4: Domain specific/Domain agnostic

Some employability skills are specific to a particular job, role, or activity. My home discipline is computing, in which students might need to master a specific programming language or tool. When a student masters a programming language, they may also develop of broader problem solving strategies and skills, which may be transferrable to other contexts. Similarly, there are wider and broader employability skills which can be developed, such as planning, reflection. Some of these skills relate back to the OU employability framework.

Dimension 5: Student voice/employer voice

This dimension relates to the question of whose voice, or perspective, is prioritised. If the student voice is prioritised, there may be activities which interrogate current skills, knowledge and abilities, and activities may be taken to develop those skills, knowledge, and abilities. If the employer voice is emphasised, the employer (or employer community) might emphasise the need for the development of particular skills to meet particular needs.

Dimension 6: Internally directed/externally directed

This final dimension relates to the locus of control. If employability related activities are internally directed, they are informed by the organisations in which students are situated. In other words, the HEI makes the decisions about the frameworks that they use and any initiatives that they apply. If employability is externally directed, initiatives may emerge from industry. An interesting example is, of course, industrial certifications. 

In reality, an institution's approach to employability is likely to be neither one nor the other.

Reflections

This rough set of dimensions (which can be criticised and debated) is a simple framework that can be used to understand and to characterise the different kinds of employability development activity that can take place.

The literature review that I’ve mentioned earlier emphasises the relationship between the broad notion of employability (which can, of course, be subject to criticism), and different conceptions of capital. 

When considered at a surface level employability is easily equated to the gaining of jobs, paid employment and successful graduate outcomes. Whilst it can immediately be related to economics and economic success, it can also be related to social and cultural capital. Getting a job might mean gaining a role that makes an effective and positive contribution to a community.

There is also a link between the notion of employability and the notion of mindset. Key points that I’ve noted from the AdvanceHE documents include coping with uncertainty, identifying opportunities, the ability to make things happen, manage risk, learning how to network with others, solving problems in a creative and strategic way, and being able to act independently. From this perspective, you can also consider “employability” in terms of skills which enable students to apply their learning from their chosen area of study.

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DTSP PT Training: KSBs, Skills scan, planning, action and impact

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On 9 September 22, I attended a Digital and Technology Solutions (DTS) degree apprenticeship practice tutor (PT) training event, hosted by Chris Thompson from the School of Computing and Communications. I attended this event as a degree apprenticeship practice tutor.

What follows is a brief set of notes from the event, which might be helpful to fellow practice tutors, or any other colleagues who play a role within the DTS scheme.

For reference KSB refers to: Knowledge skills and behaviours. 

PT job description

One of the first slides reiterated the PT job description. 

Key points of the role include: to support each learner; to be a key point of contact; to prepare and support learners to commence their studies; maintain relationships between different stakeholders; to conduct review meetings; to coach and develop each learner to integrate academic learning with their professional work; and to guide each learner to develop a portfolio of evidence to demonstrate their technical competencies as required by the apprenticeship framework. 

When speaking to apprentices and employers, I emphasise my role in very similar terms, referring myself as being a bit of ‘glue’ between the academic study, and the apprenticeship.

ESFA requirements

ESFA is an abbreviation for the Education and Skills Funding Agency. We were directed to the Further Education and Skills Inspection handbook (pdf).

A point was made that each progress review should cover points p60.1 through to p60.7. These relate to: checking of progress against agreed actions; gathering of off-the-job training evidence; checking progress against a training plan; provide an opportunity to update the training plan; discuss concerns; discuss changes of circumstances; and agree and document actions, and have the progress review signed by all parties.

Inspection

Each degree apprenticeship programme is potentially subjected to an inspection. We were directed to another resource: the education inspection framework (pdf).

Ofsted are particularly interested in the impact of education and will look to evidence of progress. One of the notes I made during this section was about looking for evidence of where the apprentice started, and where are they heading to. One aspects of the practice tutor role is, of course, to be the glue, and to integrate everything together.

Practice tutors need to know core skills apprentices should be working towards gaining, and what is being taught through the academic content. If the work that the apprentice is currently carrying out doesn’t relate to the academic modules, it is a responsibility of the practice tutor to speak with the apprenticeship team.

Skills Scan

The skills scan is a document. Some apprentices may have completed their skills scan when they have started, and this should have been uploaded to the ePortfolio system. If a skills scan document doesn’t exist, it is important that a practice tutor asks the apprentice, or the APDM, if one has been completed.

One of the roles of the PT is to take what has been written on skills scan and relates it to the modules they are studying and the work the apprentice is performing. The skills, in turn, are related to the KSB criteria, and the PT needs to check through a skills scan document to make sure that everything makes sense.

Module briefing documents

PTs have access to something called module briefing documents. These summarise what KSBs are taught in which module. There is also a mapping of learning outcomes to modules, since some LOs are repeated across the curriculum. There is also a summary of what happens and when. In any 12 week progress review, there will be some items that have been covered since the last tripartite review meeting.

Tripartite meeting preparation

The first tripartite reviews is to take place within 4 weeks of an apprentice starting the programme, and the second one is expected to be face-to-face (unless good reason not to), another one within the 12 weeks. Over a period of a year, there should be 5 progress reviews within a year (which are fully documented within the ePortfolio tool).

The university is going to be publishing some further guidance about tripartite meetings, and more detailed will be provided within forthcoming PT training. The expectation is that all PTs will be expected to carry out to cover the same kinds of topics.

I made a note of suggested agenda items for a review. These included: actions from previous review, TMAs and EMAs, recording off the job time, KSBs, and English and maths skills. 

Key actions during the meetings included: updating the skills scan based upon their development of the knowledge, skills and behaviours (ticking things off); encouraging the apprentice to reflect on their role, responsibilities and progress (to add value for the employer); clarification of agreed actions to be completed by all, before the meeting. Also, connect employer targets to the apprenticeship programme. 

Other actions during the meetings may also include discussing any changes to working hours, career development, leave and opportunity for reflections, and ensuring that timesheets are completed and signed off.

Main tasks of the tripartite meeting

The PT must understand what KSBs apprentice needs to demonstrate to become competent at work and find ways to enable them to do this. Specifically, a PT must ensure that everyone has a good understanding of what is involved. The skills scan is considered to be the apprentice’s starting point, and is a tool used by the PT to find out about the progress they are making. 

During the meeting, the review meeting, the role of the PT is to discuss with the employer about possibilities in which they may be able to apply the KSBs, and achieving these should be evidenced in the ePortfolio tool.

Induction materials

The Computing apprenticeship team has been updating the induction materials that are available to new apprentices. There is a new area called “your study plan” which emphasises what needs to be done within the first 12 weeks of study. It also offers an introduction to each year.

Summary

The takeaway points from this session reflects the title. The main takeaway point is about KSBs; knowledge skills and behaviours. These need to be demonstrated in an apprentice’s 80% of workplace time, rather than the 20% of their academic study time. This also connects to the point that PTs play a fundamental role in ensuring that academic study is linked to work-based learning.

Another point is that the skills scan document plays an important role in relating what is done to the KSBs. On reflection, I need to make sure that I bring the skills scan document into my own practice. This will help me to gain evidence of an apprentice gaining their KSBs, which then, in turn, must be recorded within the ePortfolio.

A couple of new things for me were the module briefing documents, and the new induction materials. Before my next tripartite review, I plan to look through all these materials, to make sure I can share these with both employees and apprentices.

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TM470 Understanding the Literature review

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One of the important components of the TM470 EMA is your literature review.

The literature review component serves a number of purposes:

  • It tells your examiner what you have read, and enables them to understand where you are coming from. In other words, what you present in a literature review enables the examiner to understand, broadly, what your project is all about. 
  • It enables you to demonstrate to your EMA examiner your research and critical thinking skills. 
  • It allows you to demonstrate your writing and communication skills. Just as your TM470 EMA is a narrative of your entire project, the literature review within that broader narrative (or story) presents a narrative  (or story) about your reading and your research.

The literature review can be primarily linked to the following TM470 learning outcome:

LO4: Gather, analyse and evaluate relevant information to complete the project successfully.

It can also be linked to the following learning outcomes:

LO3: Identify, list and justify the resources, skills and activities needed to carry out the project successfully. Identify and address any associated risks.

LO7: Communicate information, ideas, problems and solutions clearly

A really important rule of thumb is: if you use a resource in the body of your report, that resource should be introduced within the literature review section. A resource might be any number of different things, depending on what your project is all about: it might be some module materials, a textbook, an academic paper, or even some software. Also, if you have something in the references section, it should have been ideally in the literature review section (although it is okay to occasionally break that rule, if it helps with the writing and presentation of your project report).

What follows are a set of what I hope to be useful ideas about how best to complete a TM470 project literature review.

Starting the literature review

An important question to ask is: how do I start my literature search? The biggest tip I can offer is: begin with what you know. This might be the specifics about a project, or maybe beginning with some of the level 3 module materials that you have previously studied. If you have studied TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience, for example, a really good place to start is the module materials, and the accompanying set text. The textbook contains a lot of references which you can look to, and you can find many of these resources in the university library.

The OU library is also a great place to start too. It contains a whole host of useful resources, such as eBooks, and hundreds of thousands of academic articles that have been published in academic journals. When starting out to look at a subject they have not looked at before, some researchers carry out searches of library databases using a systematic approach, making notes of what keywords they have used, and what they have found.

Another tip is: if you find an interesting paper in the OU library it is sometimes possible to find out how many times a paper or article has been referenced, and what papers have referenced the paper that you have found. Looking at the popularity of papers, and chains of referencing can enable you to find out what papers or bits of research have been influential in a subject area. Sometimes, it is also useful to look to see what other papers a particular author has written about.

A final tip in carrying out a literature search: ask your tutor! The TM470 module team try to match students and student projects with tutors who have a particular specialism. After having an initial discussion with your tutor about your project, it is completely okay to ask the question: do you have any suggestions?

Criticality

During the course of your TM470 project, you might look at a lot of resources. Whilst it might be tempting to show everything that you’re read or looked at whilst working on your literature review, please don’t. You need to be selective, and you need to do this to demonstrate your critical thinking skills. 

More information about what this means is available in the OU booklet about Thinking Critically.

In terms of TM470, it is important to ask: how does this resource influence, affect, or relate to my project? A good literature review will introduce some concepts or ideas, which are referenced. These concepts or ideas are then used or applied within the body of a report to solve a particular problem.

Resources

In TM470, there are a number of useful resources that you may have seen, that you should be aiming to revisit whilst you work on your project.

The two key bits of module materials that you must review have the title: Preparing a Literature Search, and Reviewing Literature. A recommendation is to get a printout of these resources (by using the “view as single page” option), and work through each of the activities. You should also have a listen to the Finding and using research podcast. 

From the Preparing a Literature Search resource, do pay particular attention to the four stages of a literature search. The Reviewing Literature resource offers a set of useful pointers in the introduction which helps you to look at resources. 

Regarding this second resource, the following bit of advice is important: “This template isn’t always applicable, not least because it can become monotonous to read. You will need to make your own decisions about which elements should be included and which omitted.” These two sentences relate to the point about criticality, and the need to write a literature review that is appropriate for your own project.

On the subject of writing, a good resource to look to is the OU’s pages about Developing academic English. I also recommend The Good Study Guide, which is available to download as a PDF. Chapters that may be particularly useful when writing the literature review (and your EMA report) are Chapter 9, Researching online, Chapter 10, Writing the way ‘they’ want, and Chapter 11, Managing the writing process.

Referencing

If you use, or write about a resource in your project report, you need to make sure that you reference it correctly. In your TMAs and EMAs, there are two key bits to think about: the first is how to reference something within the body of your report (when you’re referring to something), and the second is how to provide a reference to a resource within the references section towards the end of your EMA. Another rule of thumb is: if you are writing about a resource, you need to reference it. Similarly, if you quote from a resource, you definitely need to reference it. 

The OU makes use of the Harvard referencing system, which is both comprehensive and flexible. Using this system, you can reference just about anything. Not only can you reference books and journal articles, you can also reference art works, web pages, and software. The OU has a subscription to a web resource called CiteThemRight. If you’re unsure how to reference something, do have a look at this website. 

When referencing papers or textbooks, a firm recommendation is to make sure that you also include page numbers. The reason for this is simple. Including page numbers clearly demonstrates attention to detail, and gives your EMA examiner further evidence of your depth of reading and understanding.

Finally, do make sure that you reference (and demonstrate an understanding of) earlier OU modules you have studied. This is a really efficient way to demonstrate to your examiner what topics or subjects your project relates to. You can reference any OU module material, whether it is a module website, a PDF, or printed module block. If you’re unsure about how to reference materials from any of your earlier studies, do ask your tutor.

Common Questions

Do ask your tutor any questions that you might have whilst carrying out a literature review. Here are some answers to some common questions, which might be useful.

Q: How many references should I provide?

A: There is no hard and fast rule for this, since every TM470 is different. You should choose enough resources to demonstrate the reading that you have needed to do, to complete a project that shows technical skills and knowledge you have gained during your degree studies. If pushed, I would say that a distinction quality EMA report might reference as many as 20 resources, but these resources must be important, relevant, and applied within the body of your project. In other words, your chosen resources should have influenced the work that you have done.

Q: How much time should I spend on the literature review?

A: Again, there is no hard and fast answer to this one. Some EMA reports are all about carrying out research. In a research focussed EMA, you might spend more time doing a literature review than you would for a very practical EMA. Overall, the literature review section contributes towards 20% of the overall EMA mark, but this doesn’t mean that you should only spend 20% of the time. A suggestion is to approach the literature review iteratively. For example, whilst trying to solve a technical problem, you might have to do more reading, which means that you might have to go back and to edit your literature review section.

Q: How long should the literature review be?

I’m afraid I’m going to give you a similar answer to all the others: it depends on your project! The TM470 module guidance suggests that you should be able to write everything you need to write within the 10k word limit. Given the importance of the literature review to a number of learning outcomes, I would say that the literature review is quite a substantial section within your EMA: it sets the scene, and goes a long way to demonstrating your critical thinking and problem solving skills (through the resources that you choose). Some project will have longer literature review sections than others. It should be as long as it needs to be, given the aims and objectives of your project.

Summary

This blog has shared bits of advice (and some links) that might be useful when it comes to writing your TM470 literature review.

One of the most useful bits of advice about report writing that someone gave me was: make sure it is interesting. 

Although this bit of advice related to EU project deliverables, it is just as applicable to your TM470 EMA. 

Your TM470 EMA is a technical narrative (a story) about your project. The literature review section within your report is a narrative within a bigger narrative; it is the story of your reading. It is a story which introduces resources which you will then go onto apply later on within your report. It is an important section which demonstrates the depth of your reading, and shares what you know about with the examiner.

Other blog posts that relate to the study of TM470 can be found through the TM470 blog tag.

Good luck with your literature review, and remember to make good use of your tutor, by asking them lots of questions.

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Digital Technologies Solutions Professional (DTSP) PT Training

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 27 Jul 2022, 11:21

In my capacity as a degree apprentice practice tutor, I’m invited to a regular professional development and update meeting which currently takes place on the second Friday of each month. At the time of writing, these meetings are hosted by two colleagues: Chris Thompson and Andy Hollyhead.

This blog post shares a set of notes that were made during a PT training meeting that took place on 8 July 22. The key points on the agenda were, broadly:

  • The OU Quality Improvement Plan (QIP) and our response
  • F2F meeting update
  • Good academic conduct for apprentices

ePortfolio update

The university is introducing a new ePortfolio tool, moving from the current system, which is called OneFile, to a different product. Accounts are currently being created, and training will be provided in September 22 with a view to using it from the beginning of October, when new groups are created. Files and records, such as timesheets will (I understand) be moving between the systems.

Quality improvement plan

A quality improvement plan has been put together by the university following the production of an OU annual self-assessment report (which is an internal evaluation about the quality of the degree apprenticeship provision).

Some key points that are to be looked at as a part of the plan include:

  • Targeted CPD throughout the year, which includes the further development of a supportive observation process to help develop practice, to ensure all PTs and ALs are provided with development opportunities to enable others to become outstanding. Practice tutor meetings are being observed.
  • An intention to link observational practice and improvement to the tutor CDSA process to ensure all apprentices are identified (or presented) in terms of having a RAG status (red, amber, and green), and have individual action plans.
  • Increasing the frequency of contact for learners who are red or amber: If an apprentice is flagged as being amber or red, there’s an additional meeting (which can be claimed back as an additional support session) and there is an action plan that is to be completed, and another follow up meeting in a month’s time.
  • Review all apprentice progress monthly, including a review of individual plans where apprentice progress is rated red or amber.
  • Ensure practice tutors use ‘starting points’ to inform learning plans: the next intake, aim to get a skills audit and commitment statement early, so students can speak about them during the early meeting, to gain a detailed understanding of the needs of students.
  • Practice tutors will begin to discuss ‘next steps’ with apprentices, to understand what their intentions beyond their apprenticeship. I have noted down the point: start picking up at each progress review, to facilitate a career related discussion.
  • Upskill practice tutors to ensure that knowledge, skills and behaviours are reviewed throughout all stages
  • Ensure attendance of apprenticeship mentor (line manager/supervisor) at all Tripartite Review meetings: someone who represents the organisation, needs to be at the meeting. If this doesn’t happen, there should be referrals to the university apprenticeship programme delivery managers (ADPMs).
  • Improve the recording of off the job training: apprentices are told to record their timesheets. This is known to be a contractual obligation. The employer line manager and apprentice has to know that timesheets need to be recorded. If they are no doing this, this needs to be escalated, through the APDMs. If no responses, then the processes for removal from the programme may be instigated. There needs to be an entry every 4 weeks, to show that the apprentice is in learning.
  • Ensure all apprentices receive the minimum number of reviews regularly: every apprentice must have 4 reviews. The only exception is if they have a break in learning.
  • Enhance supportive measure to keep apprentices in learning: develop better monitoring of apprentices, between modules.

A return to face-to-face review meetings

From 1 August 2022, practice tutors are allowed to return to face to face reviews. There should be one face to face every year, and a maximum gap of 15 weeks between each review, and evidence of the planning of the next review (which should be captured on the ePortfolio).

Apprentices returning following a study break

A study break is, simply put, a period of time when an apprentice is not studying their academic of work-based modules. A break in learning might occur due to personal commitments. Apprentices should have the review within 4 weeks of returning to study. Also, a conversation is needed early on during the apprentice’s study of a programme to ensure they are on the right programme.

For the formal part of the meeting, the apprentice, line manager, and the practice tutor must be present. If it is a face-to-face meeting, and there isn’t a line manager, try to find a delegate. It is a funding requirement that these meetings take place. They should, ideally be scheduled two weeks in advance.

If there are students returning from a break in learning, get in contact with them two months before their restart, to make sure they feel they are ready to start learning. Also, ensure they are recording on the job timesheets to provide evidence of study.

Lone working guidance

The university has now prepared some new guidance about lone working, which is appropriate for when practice tutors visit an employer. There’s a checklist, and an accompanying risk assessment, for visiting locations. Practice tutors must review this official guidance when planning a first progress review meeting.

Good academic conduct for apprentices

Good academic conduct is important. In the apprenticeship context, a group of apprentices might start working at an organisation at the same time. Whilst it is certainly okay that peers gain support from each other, and collaborate closely on work tasks, peers should not collaborate with each other when it comes to working on and submitting academic assessments (unless group work is specifically required on an assessment task).

During this session Andy Hollyhead shared a number of slides from a fellow Practice Tutor, Stewart Long. The presentation (which could be shared with apprentices) covers the topic of plagiarism and the difference between collaboration and collusion.

Further information about study skills is available through an earlier blog post and also from the OU Study Skills website, which provides links to some really useful booklets.

Reflections

One of the good things about this session is that it offered reassurance about the things that I am doing well and also offered some helpful guidance about what I should be doing, and ought to be doing more of. 

A particularly interesting point is the link between the apprentice, the employer, and their wider career aspirations. I’m very much a subject specialist, rather than a careers specialist, but I’m certainly draw on my own knowledge of roles and opportunities with the IT and Computing sector and bring them into discussions with apprentices. This said, I do feel that this is an area that I need to develop, or get a bit more knowledgeable about.

I was particularly encouraged that I was doing the right things, in terms of planning for review meetings with employers and apprentices. One thing I do need to do is expose more of the actions that I am taking. Just as the apprentice must record off the job training, in the form of timesheets, I also need to make sure that the scheduled review dates are recorded within the ePortfolio, to ensure that colleagues within the apprenticeship team can see what is scheduled. I have all the dates in my Outlook calendar. I need to transfer them to OneFile (and, eventually, the new ePorfolio system, when it is introduced).

More information about the OU degree apprenticeships are available through the OU Apprenticeship pages.

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Components of the EdD Professional Doctorate Programme

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 21 Jun 2022, 17:38

This blog post aims to summarise aspects of the OU’s professional doctorate (EdD) programme, placing particular emphasis on the topic of education.

What has been presented here has been collated from a number of different resources. My primarily aim of preparing this post was to help me to get familiar with the new structure of the taught part of the programme. I’m also sharing it since it might be useful for either existing or prospective students, or for students who might also be studying for a disciplinary based PhD, since the EdD materials offer some helpful pointers

The programme that is roughly summarised here is different from previous years, since it contains a substantial and important taught component to help students prepare for their research that follows. Although the programme contains a number of really important residential schools, I’m highlighting the academic subjects that are explored.

Year 1

The programme guide introduces the first year as follows: “Year 1 … will focus on getting you started with your research, with a particular focus on contextual background of your research and the literature review. Year 1 includes an induction residential weekend, four modules of study with four accompanying online seminars, and the completion of two formative assignments and one summative assignment."

Module 1: Getting started

This first module is about setting the scene. Drawing on the module guide, this first module “will help you get started with your doctoral studies. The module covers what is involved in studying for a PD, time management, supervision, and the Researching Professional Development Framework.” It is intended to be studied within the first couple of weeks of starting the programme. The first section introduces the notion of the professional doctorate, and this is followed by a section about planning and managing your research project. A bit of advice (for students) that I’ve read was: “think about your doctoral studies as a project”.

Section 3 is entitled your development as a researching professional. It introduces the Researching Professional Development Framework (RPDF) (Vitae website), a tool designed to help your development during your doctoral studies.

This is followed by section about Professional Academic Communication in English (PACE), and introduces students to some useful some online resources, where students share their experiences of academic writing.

Supervision is an important element of an EdD programme, and also becoming familiar with the research process. The final section of this first module is entitled “Making the most of your supervision”. Students are directed to the Code of practice for supervisors and research students, and other resources such as the university’s research degrees handbook.

Module 2: Context for educational research

This second module will “guide you through exploring the specific context of your research, including the international, national, institutional and individual context within which your research is located. It also covers the importance of your professional identity, and the standards and principles for good quality research within your area” (EdD programme guide, p.9). 

This module is split into three sections. The first is further understanding the context for research. Students are asked to consider different perspectives of their research: macro-level, meso-level and micro-level. A further aim is to identify who the different stakeholders might be.

The next section, the professional as a researcher is all about “exploring the concepts of professional identity, agency, structure and reflexivity”. Reflection and reflexivity is explored as a key topic, which emphasises how important it is to relate our own position and identities to the research that is taking place.

The final section is entitled “standards for good practice in research”. This section is about ethics, the importance of ethical guidelines, power imbalances and how they might influence research, the student voice and co-research.

When a student has completed this section, it is roughly time to submit the first formative assessment. As well as introducing a research project, students are required to consider the context of the research, and the role of the researcher.

Module 3: Reviewing the literature

The literature review is one of the really important outcomes from doctoral research. This module, which is scheduled to begin in the new year “provides guidance to conducting and writing a literature review, including searching for literature, reviewing literature, referencing and reference management tools, and writing the literature review” (EdD programme guide, p.9). Key topics that are explored include what it means to searching for literature, review literature, reference literature, write a literature review, and to write critically. There is also a section that introduces the concept of a systematic literature review. Whilst carrying out reading within a subject, students may find a number of systematic literature review papers that offers a summary of a similar or related topic.

Module 4: Principles of research design

This final module of the first year introduces students to key terms and research concepts. It “aims to stimulate further thinking about your research design and covers topics such as ontology, epistemology and research paradigms, logics of enquiry and an introduction to quantitative and qualitative research” (EdD programme guide, p9).

Moving to year 2

During this first year, students will be required to carry out a number of assessments. During the time where there is no formal study scheduled, students will be expected to be carrying out reading and study.

Year 2

As well as having a taught section, students attend a residential weekend. In November 2021, this was hosted as an online event, where students were able to attend various sessions. Resources shared from this event, and earlier events are available online.

Module 5: Considering a research methodology

This first second year module “provides guidance about different research methodologies including experimental quantitative research, ethnography, grounded theory, case study research, action research, phenomenology and narrative inquiry”. There is a section for each of these methods, which also provides a set of resources, which can be useful to understand more about a particular method. If studying these materials, a suggestion is to only go digging for resources which you think are most appropriate for your particular project. A lot of resources are highlighted.

Module 6: Approaches to data collection

In some senses, this module follows on from the previous module about methodology, but it succinctly summarises the different approaches that could be adopted. From the programme guide, this module “will help you start thinking about the practical aspects of your research project by introducing common data collect methods and sources of data. Topics covered includes interviews, focus groups, observations, questionnaires, visual and creative methods, secondary data and documents and artefacts. As with the previous module, each section provides a very detailed references section that enables students to get a more detailed introduction and insight into different approaches.

Module 7: Professional conduct and research ethics

When it comes to EdD and PhD research, ethics is one of my favourite subjects. This module is said to “encourage your ethical thinking and assist you in developing a robust application for ethical approval for your planned research. Topics covered will include professional conduct, close to practice research, making an OU ethics application, …. and research data management.” Two sections are notable: there is a section about ethics and educational research, and ethics about health and social care research; students should choose whichever strand is most appropriate. One section that I must emphasise is the section that relates to academic and research conduct. There is also encouragement to carry out what is called a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA), if personal data is kept and retained.

Module 8: Qualitative data analysis and presenting results

Qualitative data is rich non-numeric data that can be interpreted to provide meanings and explanations. This module will introduce “methods of qualitative analysis, including thematic analysis, discourse analysis, document analysis and multimodal analysis.” If a student is interested in carrying out interviews with participants to gather interests and perspectives, this section offers a really helpful guidance about how to begin to make sense of data that is collected. Such data, of course, must be made sense of in light of the reading that has been carried out, and also the perspective of the researcher. During data analysis, a student might use a tool such as NVivo to organise qualitative data.

Module 9: Quantitative data analysis

Quantitative data is all about numerical data. This final module introduces “various methods of quantitative analysing including testing for differences between means, correlation analysis, linear regression and logistic regression.” Specifically, “this module will require you to use SPSS, and you will need to download this onto your computer before starting the module”. If a student is going to be carrying our survey research, or is to be carrying out experiments to test hypothesis, this section is going to be really important. It is also important to recognise that methods can be mixed. For example, an interview study could reveal themes that could be studied in greater depth through a survey. Conversely, a survey may reveal an unexpected situation that can only be further understood by asking questions.

Moving to year 3

Year 2 marks the end of the formal study part of the EdD. Students will be invited to make a poster presentation to outline their research plans, and move to the second stage.

Years 3 and 4

The EdD program guide summarises years 2 and 3 as follows: “during stage 2 you will follow a more independent and individual programme of work with the continuing support of your supervisors. During year 3 there will be formative assessments at spaced intervals in order to help you progress and to provide formal opportunities for feedback.” (p.11).

A number of useful resources are provided on the EdD websites (there is a site for year 3, and another site for year 4). Highlights include a document that attempts to answer the question “How many qualitative interviews is enough?”, which has been prepared by Baler and Edwards, and a couple of video resources that have the title “stories from the field”. 

Reflections

Many of the themes and topics mentioned within the taught aspect of the EdD programme reminded me of themes and topics that were explored within the OU’s MA in Education programme, which offers a “lead in” to this programme. Although MA students may find some of the material familiar, I hold the view that the taught section is really useful in terms of setting the groundwork for the detailed data gathering and analysis that takes place later during the later years of study and research.

I came to the EdD programme from the discipline of computing, where I completed my own doctoral studies in the late 90’s. One thing I’m struck by is the thoroughness of the EdD programme. It is only by having gone through the OU MA in Education, and having done my own doctoral research do I really appreciate the detailed discussions about epistemology, ontology and methodology. 

It is also really interesting that the softer side of computing applies many of the methods and approaches that Education does; the commonality lies with the adoption of methods from the social sciences. A lot of computing and education research is all about people, what they do, and what they learn.

At the same time as being a supervisor for a current EdD student, I’m also a supervisor for a disciplinary PhD student. The approaches are quite different, in the sense that although there is more supervision for the PhD candidate, there is less structure, in the sense that there isn’t the taught component. One of the things that I am going to do is direct my PhD student to look at some of the materials that are exposed through the EdD modules. The cross over between the two is, of course, people.

References

The Open University (2020) Doctorate in Education (EdD) Programme Guide.

Acknowledgements

All these sections have been summarised from different resources from the EdD programme. Acknowledgements are specifically extended to Dr Carol Azumah Dennis, EdD Programme Leader and Dr Philippa Waterhouse, DHSC Programme Leader.

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Supporting EdD/PhD students through the thesis and the viva

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On 14 June 22, I attended a CPD session about helping students through their doctoral studies. I attended this session since I support a couple of doctoral students; one through a PhD programme, and another through the EdD programme. More information about the EdD programme that if offered through the Well-being Education and Language Studies (WELS) faculty are be available through this blog.

This session was facilitated by Dr Sara Spencer (Head of Research Degrees, Graduate School) and Dr Sarah Sherlock (School of Physical Sciences, chair of research degrees committee). It seemed to be a relatively popular event, with 23 delegates.

The key headings for the event were: the thesis, mock viva, and post-viva support. I noted down the words, “at this session we will look at common concerns that student’s voice about thesis submission and the viva voce examination and consider possible strategies for overcoming these concerns.”

From the event description, the session had the following objectives:

  • To explore students’ expectations and concerns about completing their doctoral thesis and how they will perform during their viva voce examination
  • To share ideas and practices that can be used to support students during the writing-up phase
  • To share ideas and practices that can support students to prepare for their viva
  • To identify sources of help and support offered by the Graduate School Network and the OU Library that can support students during the writing-up phase 

The Thesis

‘Write up’ is a HESA status as well as a university status; a status that applies for one year only, which is available to students during their fourth year of study. This means that students pay a lower fee during a ‘write up’ year. If they go over the write up year, they may be liable for full fees.  An important difference is that students on Professional Doctorates (such as the EdD programme) are not eligible for writing-up fees.

During the session, I made a few notes from some of the slides.  A key point was that the thesis must meet the requirements of the research degree regulations. Interestingly, things have changed since I submitted my own thesis. Students no longer need to submit a paper copy; it can be submitted electronically. (I remember having to get mine bound by a book binder who worked in the town of Chichester!)

A key point is that a thesis is a monograph. In other words, it presents a single coherent narrative. Also, students can make their own decision about whether they wish to submit. A student doesn’t have to expressly seek permission from the supervisor (but, it is probably a good idea to check with them, just to make sure they think that a student is likely to make a worthy submission). Another important point is that if a student is funded to carry out their research, and to write their thesis, a student will no longer receive a stipend when they make their submission.

One interesting point that I did learn (which was something that I already probably implicitly knew about, but didn’t really know what it was called, since I haven’t needed to think about it) was that a thesis can also include a ‘non-book’ component. In addition to submitting a textual monograph, a student may send in other forms of material to accompany a piece of research. In computing, this might be a software artifact. In design or engineering, this might be some architectural drawings. In the arts, this might even be a video of a performance. 

Mock Viva

The assessment of a thesis was described as taking place in three phases: 1) a preliminary assessment, 2) defence of the thesis at the viva, 3) re-examination of the thesis following revision. Some students have the opportunity to take part in a mock viva which is set up by the supervision team. 

The aim of the mock is, of course, to enable students to be as prepared as they can be to be robustly questioned when they defend their work. Since the viva can be a stressful exercise, a mock can help a student get a sense of what happens in the real thing. I remember when I participated in one: the different supervisors took on different roles. One asked question about the big picture, and the other supervisor asked very specific questions about the details of the text.

An important point was made, which was that examiners can get nervous too! Mocks are also helpful for the supervisors as they are for students.

Exam Panel Nomination

A request was shared to all delegates: please think about the exam panel to ensure that nominations are submitted in good time. This suggested reminded me of something. Whilst my student was carrying out their literature review, I remember saying the following: “do look for people who are doing similar research to what you are doing; they might well become potential examiners”.

The exam panel must be approved by the research degrees committee. It was also said that allocating examiners is one of the most important things that the university does (in terms of the doctoral research process). It was noted that there needs to be a minimum of two examiners. Usually, this should be one internal, and the other should be external (in some cases, they can be both external, if there isn’t the internal knowledge within the school or department). The make-up of the whole panel is important. The experience should be distributed across the panel.

Something that I didn’t (formally) know is that a doctoral examiner works according to a contract; there needs to be an offer, this needed to be accepted, and there needs to be consideration (which means that they are paid for their work). The contract is there to avoid ambiguities, and to enable a route to resolve difficulties if they were to arise.

When an exam panel has been chosen, a good tip (for a student who is going to be examined) is to read the papers that have been written by the examiner. This may give a student some insight about what perspective they might be coming from. For example, they might prefer one set of methods over another.

The Viva

The viva begins with a pre-viva meeting with the chair and the examiners. Observers may only be asked to the pre-viva meeting if there is a specific question that the examiners may wish to ask. In the meeting, the examiners may have a discussion about what the approach is going to be, and what questions to ask.

During the viva, some candidates may be encouraged to give a short presentation of the work to the chair, the examiners, and the observers. The viva may, generally, last between 2 and 3 hours, but will depend on the subject that is being examined. A viva will go on for as long as is needed. Breaks can be requested via the chair. Different examiners may take different approaches. Some may go through a thesis a line at a time; others may take a different approach, asking more broad questions. 

A bit of advice I once gained from a colleague in terms of examining a viva was, obviously, to look to the research questions, and then look to the methodology to learn how a student had tackled a question, and justify their choices.

A comment made during this part of the event was: questions to students might explore their knowledge from across the discipline of study, not just the very specific detail of the text that is being the focus of the exam.

The next step is the post-viva meeting, which takes place between the chair and the examiners. This is where the student has to be left on their own whilst the deliberations take place. If this meeting takes a while, this may not necessarily mean a bad outcome. There is also a bit of administration to complete, such as, the completion of forms, which also includes the agreeing of corrections, and what the panel needs the student to do to pass. All this admin can take a bit of time.

The outcome from the panel is a recommendation that goes to a committee. It is also important to note that a recommendation is different from an outcome.

Post-viva support

There are a range of outcomes from a viva (which are based on the quality of a submission) ranging from student being awarded the degree, resubmission, and re-examination, getting an alternative award (such as an MPhil), through to a student not being awarded the degree and not being able to resubmit (and a couple of other options in between).

Extensions to the correction period are not possible, and students who do not submit by the deadline will fail, unless there are clear mitigating circumstances. To repeat, students are not allowed extensions, as otherwise they will fail. Corrections have to be done on time.

Reflections

Having been through this process from beginning until the end, a lot that was presented within this session that was familiar to me. I was familiar with the various phases, but I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the finer detail, such as the roles of the committees, and what observers can and cannot do. Although I think I had once heard that students are not permitted to submit their corrections late, it was good to be reminded of this!

During the discussions at the end of the session, a really helpful comment was “it [the thesis] doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be good enough”. This has reminded me of another bit of advice that I was given about doctoral study. I once thought a PhD was gained by uncovering ground-breaking new bits of knowledge, but this was a misunderstanding about how knowledge generation works. The aim of doctoral research is to add to the sum of human knowledge in some form, and it is certainly okay if a contribution is a small one. Contributions are built on.

Another perspective is that doctoral study represents an extended form of academic apprenticeship. It demonstrates that you can do research, and that you are capable of creating something that is original. Reflecting the above comment, research also builds on the work of others.

Acknowledgements

Very many of these words have been summarised from comments from Sara and Sarah, and the slides that they shared during their really helpful CPD session.

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Degree apprenticeship: cross-faculty CPD event for Practice Tutors, 10 June 22

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On 10 June 22, I attended a continuing professional development event for degree apprenticeship practice tutors. I’m a practice tutor for the OU’s Digital and Technology Solutions degree apprenticeship scheme. The university also runs schemes that relate to business, nursing and policing.

This blog post is a short summary of some of the themes that were discussed and explored within this event. It is primarily intended as a record of my own CPD, and I’m sharing it more widely just in case it might be of interest to other delegates, and colleagues who are responsible for the CPD of the degree apprenticeship programme.

The aim of the event was the develop the quality of practice tuition and to share best practice. The event began with an overview, and some definitions. I was surprised to learn that there were 400 PTs (or PT contracts) being managed across the university. Regarding the definitions, a PT was a practice tutor, who is someone who works with apprentices and employers. An AL is an associate lecturer, or a module tutor. 

Quality assurance of practice tuition

The aim of this first session, presented by Anna Colantoni and Barb Cochee was to help practice tutors gain an understanding of the aims of the quality assurance project, and its project deliverables, also providing an opportunity for discussion. 

I noted down that the quality assurance project contained 6 project deliverables which were managed in 2 strands. The first strand was about technology and data strand, which included eportfolio implementation, data infrastructure, and technology infrastructure. The teaching support and quality improvement strand included deliverables relating to practice tuition, governance, apprentice and employer guidance and support.

We were presented with some definitions through a question: what is quality assurance, and what does it involve?

  • “quality assurance is the act or process of confirming the quality standards are being met”.
  • “A programme for the systematic monitoring and evaluation of the various aspects of a project, services, or facility to ensure that standards of quality are being met”.

Examples of activities that relate to quality assurance include the monitoring of marking, gathering of feedback from apprentices or employers, mentoring from staff, and carrying out observations of practice tutor meetings and tutorials.

I noted that there was a difference between quality assurance and quality enhancement. Enhancement means: “improvement of quality brought about through cycles of continuous improvement and innovation”, with the point that there isn’t a final end point, and culture can play a role.

During this session, I also made note of some project outputs. These included the practice tutor quality framework and accompanying papers. These papers relate to tripartite meeting standards (meetings between a practice tutor, apprentice, and the apprentice’s line manager), the tripartite meeting observation process, and a PT professional development framework. Further development activities includes a review of the apprenticeship hub review; a dedicated VLE site, which is used to share information.

Progress review meetings –what should good look like?

The aim of this second session, facilitated by Jo Bartlett, Vicki Caldwell and Lucy Caton (Academic Leads, Practice Tuition, Apprenticeships Change Programme) was to share updates about good practice guidance, share details of the observation of progress review meetings, and to share ideas about good practice and challenges of progress review meetings.

This session explored the tripartite progress review meetings, which take place between an apprentice, an employer and a practice tutor. The meetings were described as “complex, cross boundary working”.

I noted down the following from a summary: the role of the practice tutor is to oversee the work based-learning that takes place; sometimes this can relate to programme requirements, or regulatory requirements. Key tasks can include setting of learning plans, setting of objectives, applying academic learning to academic setting, encouragement of reflecting, opportunities to shadow others. Also, the meetings help the practice tutor understand the work setting and help the apprentice and the employer understand their study and learning programme.

I also noted that it is important that our student (apprentice) feels well supported, and engage in a wide range of activities. In the apprenticeship, the employer has a role of providing opportunities to help learner apply and develop the academic learning.

During this session we were put into different breakout rooms. There was a room about “encouraging reflection”, a room about “addressing barriers to learning”, and two more about “ensuring relevant learning opportunities” and “setting SMART objectives”. We were given a direction: share good practice and something that you may have done to overcome some challenges.

I was put into the “encouraging reflection group”, and found myself amongst a group of PTs who work with nursing and police apprentices. 

A key point was: students need to be encouraged, to understand and develop a reflective mindset. A couple of frameworks were shared and mentioned, such as the “what, so what, now what?” by Rolfe et al. Other models were mentioned, such as those by Gibbs and Kolb. We were directed to the University of Edinburgh reflective toolkit and some OpenLearn resources were mentioned, such as Learning to teach: becoming a reflective practitioner which highlight different reflective models.

Back in the plenary room, we gathered feedback from the different rooms. I’ve managed to summarise feedback from two of the groups.

Barriers to learning opportunities: this group discussed the importance of the learning environment, organisational culture, organisational understanding, and requirements. Other points included he importance of the line management engagement, and ensuring off-the-job time. A PT has the opportunity to emphasise the benefits of the degree apprenticeship to the organisation in terms of student progress and development.

Setting SMART objectives: get the employer to create 3 objectives, which are then used within the discussions that are used within the meeting discussions. Consider how they may be linked to the educational objectives.

Reflections upon supporting learners to apply theory into practice 

Following on from our breakout room discussions about reflections, the next session was facilitated by Sarah Bloomfield (Lecturer in Work based Learning, FBL), Evelyn Mooney (Lecturer, Adult Nursing, WELS) and Anthony Johnston (Staff Tutor, STEM). Rather than focussing only on reflections, this session also emphasised work-based learning, and the role that it plays in a degree apprenticeship.

We were presented a question: what is work based learning? It could be considered to be learning for work, learning at work, or learning through work. A comment was that these definitions relate to a framework that is used within the degree apprenticeship standard, which is about the development of knowledge, skills and behaviours.

Next up was a presentation of an adaptation of Kolb’s reflective cycle, which featured experiencing issues in practice, taking action and trying something new, using theories and concepts to think differently, and reflecting on practice (or, what has been done). Theories can be thought of as tools, or a lens, which can be used to how to look at problems or how things are done.

Another question was: wow can PTs help with the work-based learning? There are, of course the quarterly reviews (which can be tripartite meetings), but also practice tutors can facilitate progress reviews.

In my own work as a practice tutor, I make extensive use of a review form. It was mentioned that on these forms, it would be useful to emphasise which new knowledge, skills and behaviours have been gained. Also consider asking: has there been anything that is new and interesting?

Just like the previous session, we were put into breakout rooms. We were asked two questions: (1) What strategies do you use to help learners apply theory/knowledge into their practice? (2) What challenges do you face in doing so?

During our room, we held the view that it might be useful for practice tutors to have a discussion with a module tutor to understand not only where the student is, but also to get a more detailed appreciation of the module materials.

During the plenary session, the use of forms or prompts to help to draw out conversations were discussed. A useful question could be, “tell me something that you have read that has informed your practice”. Also, asking open questions is important, such as, “tell us about what you are doing at the moment?” Pinpoint something that is helpful for them to focus on. 

Effectively supporting learners with additional needs

This session, facilitated by Michelle Adams (Senior Manager, Disability Support Team) and Claire Cooper (Manager, Disability Support Team) was less interactive, and was more about the providing of information to practice tutors about the support the university provides to students with disabilities.

A student may disclose a disability at any point. If a student discloses a disability to a tutor or a practice tutor they are, in effect, disclosing a disability to the university. When this happens, the disability support team creates a student profile through the use of a disability support form. If appropriate, students are encouraged to apply for the disabled students allowance, and can apply to the access to work scheme.

Disabled student allowances is externally funded by the government, and there are four types of award: specialist equipment, non-medical helper support, general allowance, travel allowance. The university also provides an auxiliary aids team and a small equipment loan scheme to bridge the gap between applying for support, and receiving support. The university provides different interim loan kits. The exact composition of the scheme differs according to the needs of students.

The New AL Contract: your questions answered

I split my time between the last two sessions. I began with the session about the new AL Contract, which was facilitated by Dan Sloan (Senior Manager, AL Services/AL Change Programme) and Sam Murphy (Implementation Programme Lead), and then moved to the other session about peer support.

This session began with some definitions that tutors and practice tutors might see on their contract details. Some key terms and topics were about FTE, and the differences between contracted FTE, delivery FTE, and allocated TRA days.

If you are reading this blog as someone who is internal to the university, you will be able to find a set of resources and posts that relate to the new AL contract. A notable post is one that summarises how your FTE if calculated.

Developing opportunities for peer support

This final session was facilitated by Barbara Cochee (Senior Manager, PT Training and Development, ALSPD) and Olivia Rowland (Content Designer, ALSPD). To facilitate the discussions, we were asked who our peer were, what does peer support look like, what might benefits of peer support might bring, and what support might you need to make this happen?

This session featured quite a wide ranging discussion. We discussed the importance of face-to-face meetings, and the role of module tutors.  It was acknowledged that, for some programmes, there can sometimes be a distance between the academic tutors and the academic assessors. For some apprentices (such as those within nursing programmes), students need to pass the academic studies as well as their practice studies (or, practical skills that they need to master).

A thought that I did have is that, in some ways, practice tutors represent a bit of administrative and academic glue in a degree apprenticeship programme. They exist as glue between academic modules and tutors, glue between employer and programme, glue between the apprentice and the work-based learning, glue between academic and work-based learning, and offer pointers to additional resources, and connecting together different aspects of support together. 

In terms of the practice tutor community that I’m a member of, perhaps the best form of peer support comes from a school perspective, and linked to a particular degree apprenticeship programme that I’m helping to support. I don’t know very many other practice tutors. It would be great to know a few more, if only to more directly understand that I’m offering the right kind of support.

Reflections

I think this was the first event of its type that I’ve been to. It was a large event; there were around 100 delegates. I was a little grumpy about the earlier sessions about quality assurance. I have the view that quality emerges from the relationships that exists between people – specifically, colleagues, tutors, and students.

Hearing about the perspectives from other faculties was helpful, especially in terms of hearing different views about the role of the practice tutor, and what they contribute during the tripartite meetings. Overall, I found the discussions the most helpful, and I would welcome the opportunity to participate in more of these events.

One thing that I would like to hear more about is more stories: stories from the employers, stories from tutors and, most importantly, stories from apprentices.

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Academic writing in TM470

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One of the questions I’m regularly asked regarding TM470 is: “how should I write my TMAs and the EMA? Should I write it in the first person or in the third person? Should I say ‘I did this and I did that’, or should I say ‘the author did this, and the author did that’?”

First of third person?

I recommend using the first person, rather than the third person, since you are doing the project, and you are learning from the experience of completing it. The reason I say this is because of the importance of writing clearly, and that it does sound a bit weird (and adds a whole load of extra words) if one refers to oneself in the third person, referring to oneself as the author. 

I consider that the first person is more accessible to the TMA marker and the EMA examiner. Clarity is important, since the EMA report at the end of the module is all about presenting what I consider to be a "technical story" or narrative. All this said, the TMAs and EMAs should be written in quite a formal and academic way. In other words, your submissions shouldn’t be too chatty, and should adopt an academic tone, whilst clearly drawing on materials and sources in a critical way.

What does “being critical” mean?

I understand “being critical” as “showing that you have through about something” and demonstrating that through your writing. It can mean understanding that there is an argument to be unpicked, or it could also mean choosing (or summarising) resources that will then be used and applied (in a critical, or thoughtful way) later on during your project.

In an earlier blog I wrote, I dug out a number of links to a some OU study booklets which are really helpful. I do recommend that you have a quick look at Thinking Critically. The section Writing with a Critical Voice, might be useful too. Section 3.4 on page 22, getting critical thinking into your writing, is also useful too. Also, before you get to the writing bit, there’s also a booklet about Reading and Taking Notes.

Another booklet called Preparing Assignments also offers a bit of guidance about writing introductions and conclusions, writing paragraphs, paraphrasing, quoting and referencing.

Referencing

Talking about referencing, it is important to spend a bit of time looking at the CiteThemRight website. This offers guidance about how to reference anything and everything. It contains sections about referencing academic papers, textbooks, internal reports, bits of software, and even personal correspondence. Reference everything that may have influence your thinking. Also, do be specific in your referencing. Do include page references to really demonstrate the extent and the depth of your reading.

My colleague Charly Lowndes also provides A one minute reminder of where to get advice on the OU CiteThemRight citing and referencing style (YouTube).

The project isn’t just about what you do. It is also about what you have learnt, and you can demonstrate that by the extent and the quality of your writing and referencing.

Other resources to look at

Finally, a few other resources that might be useful.

I’m a big fan of a book called The Good Study Guide. I was sent a copy of it when I started my OU studies back in 2006 or 2007. I remember thinking: “if I had read this when I was an undergraduate, I might have gained a higher degree classification”.

I’ve also written this short blog about academic writing (OU blog), which offers a summary of some of the points that a fellow tutor gave me when I was studying.

Whilst working on the project, it is helpful to have a project log. To help to get a view on what is needed, I have written a short blog, but about how to create and structure a TM470 project log (OU blog).

Finally, looking longer down the road to the EMA, I have written a blog that offers a suggestion about a TM470 report structure (OU blog). Since very project is different, these are not hard and fast rules. It is more important to hit the learning outcomes than to try to follow this structure.

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Unpacking a TMA question: tips from A111

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 16 Feb 2022, 15:34

As well as being a tutor, and a staff tutor, I’m also a student. At the moment, I’m studying the arts and humanities, and I’m part way through the equivalent of my first year. I’m really enjoying it, and I can certainly say that I have learnt a few things.

This short post summarises some really helpful hints and tips about responding to a TMA question. These key points have been taken from from the A111 Discovering the arts and humanities study skills materials, written by Judith Rice. During my studying of this module, these points have really stood out in terms of being helpful. These tips may be relevant for other subjects and disciplines, not just the arts and humanities. 

Question words: how, why and what?

This tip emphases that “questions like these are asking you to make a judgement of some kind”. For the arts and humanities modules, there is “the expectation is that you use evidence from the sources or module book to support your answer”, so make sure that you reference module materials, and quote judiciously to demonstrate your understanding, and to show your reading. 

Compare and contrast

The essence of this tip is as follows: “if an assignment asks you to compare two sources, you are expected to look at ways in which they are similar and ways in which they are different. If the word ‘contrast’ is in there too, you should look especially hard for differences between them”. This is all about demonstrating your thinking as well as demonstrating your knowledge of the materials. 

Describe

This keyword “indicates that you are being asked to talk about what you see in a picture, hear in a piece of music, or read in a text; it could also indicate that you should give an account of what happened over a period of time.”

Explore

Explore isn’t a word that I’ve seen very regularly in TMAs, but when explore is used “you are being asked to look at an issue or an idea in a balanced manner, probably across a number of different examples. A definite ‘answer’ is not required but you will need to examine the evidence to look out for patterns.”

Consider

Like explore, this isn’t a TMA word that I’m very familiar with. The module materials offers a bit of guidance: “the task here is very similar to the one signalled by the word ‘Explore’, but there is slightly more emphasis on weighing up the evidence in order to reach some kind of balanced assessment in your conclusion.”

Assess

Simply put, assess is all about making “some kind of judgement or measurement, and to think about various aspects of a source or collection of sources.” Again, do reference any appropriate module resources.

Explain

Finally, “explain” is all about giving “reasons for something.”

Preparing to answer TMA questions

When answering a TMA question, I have started to adopt a particular way of working. 

I begin by flicking through all the module materials, making a note of the significant headings. I then take a bit of time to review some of the key bits of module materials to make sure that I haven’t missed anything. When I have reacquainted myself with everything with the main themes that the module team are trying to convey, I then have a good look at the key words to get a feel for what they are fishing for.

Another approach that I’ve adopted, depending on the question, is to make sure that I have all the references in order before starting the writing. To do this, I do a bit of digging into the CiteThemRight website to remind myself how to reference everything I might need to reference, such as module materials, set texts and anything else.

Other tips, resources and blogs

TMA questions are connected to module learning outcomes. In addition to focussing on the TMA questions themselves, it is sometimes useful to have a good look into what the module team are looking to assess. Put another way, by looking at the learning outcomes and the accompanying activities may well help you to “get into the head of the module team”.

There are a range of other resources that can be useful. Some of these are summarised in earlier blogs about study skills. I also regularly recommend the Good Study Guide (pdf).

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Preparing for A230

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 16 Feb 2022, 15:14

Over the last two years I’ve been studying A111 Discovering the Arts and humanities and A112 Cultures. I’ve really enjoyed both of them, especially the literature sections. The next module I intend to study is A230 Reading and studying literature

One recommendation that I have read from the module reviews has been: get ahead! Specifically, do try to read as many of the set texts as you can. 

A couple of years ago, I bought a new eReader since my original version of the Amazon Kindle gave up the ghost. I’ve written a couple of articles that relate to eReaders. Remembering these articles, I realised that it might be possible to download some of the A112 set texts from Project Guttenberg which would allow me to get started. I wouldn’t be able to benefit from the notes that accompany the recommended editions that go with the module, but I could buy those separately if I needed to.

What follows is a summary of all the set texts I can find from Project Guttenberg, listed in alphabetical order. 

I download each book to the desktop of my laptop, connect my eReader, which then appears as USB device, and copy the epub file into the reader’s filestore. It’s clear that I have a lot of reading to do!

There are three other books I need to get: a book by Friel, another by Selvon, and a further one by Sebald.

Where should I start? I read Charlotte Bronte whilst studying A112, so I might start with Emily. I then go onto Shelly, and then onto Joyce. After that, I'm not quite sure.

Good luck to everyone who is studying A230!

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TM470 Project report structure

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When studying TM470, students are required to design, plan and carry out a short project that will enable them to show off the skills and knowledge that they have gained from their earlier level 3 students. To pass this module, students have to submit a detailed project report, which can also be thought of as a dissertation.

Since student projects can take many different forms, the TM470 module materials offer general guidance that need to be interpreted by students. A suggested report structure might work well for one type of project, but not for another. Students might decide on a research project (looking into a very specific problem in a lot of detail), an evaluation project (comparing one product, tool, system or approach to another), or an implementation project (choosing to design and implement code that solves a well-defined problem).

In absence of some very specific guidance about how to structure of project report, this blog post offers a summary of some of the guidance that I have offered (and continue to offer) during some of my TM470 EMA preparation tutorials. After my tutorials, I also share a link to this blog post to the TM470 students that I am supporting.

I must offer a disclaimer: this guidance will not fit all projects. Students must decide about whether the below suggested structure it is appropriate for their own project. Also, they must also decide on whether their report demonstrates that the TM470 learning outcomes have been met.

Before summarising the suggested structure, I have three tips for students:

  1. Ensure that your report is as readable as possible (but do make sure it remains a formal report). The project marker may be unfamiliar with the subject that you are writing about. Take time to set the scene and explain concepts that may be unfamiliar to a reader.
  2. Do have a look through the OU Skills for Study resources (OU website). In particular, I’m a fan of The Good Study Guide which you can find through the OU study booklets page (OU website). The Good Study Guide offers some really helpful advice about researching and writing.
  3. Think of the project report as a ‘technical narrative’, or a ‘technical story’. It is also a story that can contain other narratives. There is a story about your planning, a story about your reading, a story about what has been done, and what has been learnt. Make your technical story as interesting as you can.

1. Introduction

In this section, present a really short introduction to the whole project. Try to summarise it in a couple of sentences. Then, provide the reader with a pointer towards what they can expect to see in the next sections. This will ‘prime’ them for what is coming up in the next section. You might also want to allude to what you have achieved, but don’t tell them everything; this is presented in the next sections.

2. Problem description

In this section, go into a bit more detail about what your project. You might want to explain a bit more about the project context or setting. Background information will help the EMA examiner to understand what your project is all about. In some ways, think of the opening sections of the report as a ‘spiral’, where you gradually lead the examiner towards the detail of what you’ve done. In some way, you’re teaching the reader about your project.

3. Preparation and planning

In the previous section, you’ve told the examiner what you’re going to do. This section is all about how you’re going to do it. Since sharing detail about your project plan is important, it is a good idea to split this section into a number of subheadings.

3.1 Project Model

A suggestion is to begin by telling the examiner about the project model you’ve chosen. Do have a look at the module materials about this, and what this means. In other words, you could use this section to summarise the project planning approach that you have chosen, and why it is appropriate. 

3.X Resources, skills, activities, risks, plan…

What might follow is a series of subsections about resources that you need, skills, potential risks to the project, and also something about this high level plans. Do say something about what you’re going to be doing, and also what tools you might have used to decide on what you’re going to be doing and when.

4. Legal, social, ethical and professional issues

Legal social ethical and professional issues (LSEPI) are important, especially in TM470. As future Computing and IT professionals, it is important to be mindful about the impact of a project or development on wider society, and any implications it might have. Also, if a project involves working with people to uncover requirements, it is important that you treat everyone in an ethical way. The module team offers a bit of guidance about this topic, but for further inspiration it might be a good idea to have a quick look through the British Computer Society Code of Conduct (BCS website).

5. Literature review

This section is all about showing the examiner what you have read or studied, and how this has influenced the project work that have done. I’ve suggested it comes at this point, after the LSEPI section, since the identification of some legal, social, ethical or professional issues might raise questions that can only be answered by further reading.

There are different ways to structure a literature review. Two ways are: by theme, or by time. In other words, by the subjects that you have read about, or the order in which you have read things. I always prefer thematic literature reviews since they enable the writer to adopt a more critical approach. This means you can more directly and easily compare and contrast different opinions from different sources.

In this section, do try to reference as widely as possible. Do take the time to reference other modules you have studied (including textbooks and module blocks), any technical text books you might be using in the next section, and also do a bit of digging into the OU library (which all students have access to).

Fellow tutors have offered the following guidance: “show you understand the importance of a source; show you recognize the limitations of your sources; show how the literature has influenced the direction of the project and informed your thinking, and show how the literature has justified decisions”.

6. Project work

This is one of the most important sections of the report. It shows the examiner what you have done. It should ideally be a series of case studies that presents a narrative (story) of what you have done, and should relate back to the plan that you have described. To structure everything, it is a good idea to separate everything out into a series of subheadings; one for each mini case study.

Drawing on comments from fellow TM470 tutors, the examiner needs to get a feel for the project as a whole, the solution you created, and whether you solved the problem. Importantly, this section should demonstrate your technical and presentation skills, and should be concise.

If you have a project where you have generated a lot of materials, such as interview scripts, survey results, source code, or diagrams, you need to make a choice about what goes in this section, and what you choose to put in an appendix. One way to answer this question is to ask yourself: is this an example of my best work? If so, put something in this section.

7. Review and reflection

By the time you get to this section, you would have prepared a plan, have done some research, and have carried out some project work. This section is all about telling the examiner what you have learnt from the experience of running your project. 

To help you to begin to answer this question, think of those “WH” questions: what, how, when, and why? Ask yourself the following questions: Did you follow your plan? Did you learn the right thing, and the right time, to solve the right problem? How did what you learn help or hinder your project? Also, how did you expand on your level 3 studies?

The more thoughtful your review and reflection section appears, and the more that you appear to have learnt by completing the project, the more evidence there will be that you have obtained some of the TM470 learning outcomes.

8. Summary

To wrap everything up neatly, I tell students to write a short summary. A suggestion is: to offer a reminder about what the project was all about, what project model was chosen, summarise what has achieved, and then to share three things that have been learnt by completing the project. In some senses, this final summary should mirror the introduction section.

9. References

Clear referencing is really important. The aim of this section is to enable the examiner to find an original source, report, textbook, or anything else that has helped you with your project. It also offers a neat summary of all the reading that you’ve done.

For TM470, you only need a references section, not a bibliography and a references section. If you use a resource in the body of your text, make sure that you refer to it in this section. Make sure that you present everything in alphabetical order, and mention dates of publication. If you’re unsure how to format any resource, book, paper, technical report, or bit of software, do refer to the CiteThemRight website.

Appendices

A project report can have any number of appendices. You can use an appendix to share supplementary materials to help the examiner to get a feel for what you’ve done during the course of your project. 

There are no hard and fast rules about how many appendices you should have since every project is different. You might use them to show excerpts of source code, diagrams, consent forms, and data that you might have collected during the course of your project. Whatever works best for you. You should, however, always reference each appendix from within the body of the report, just to make the examiner aware that this may be an important part of your report.

Although you must try to limit your project report to 10k words, there is no limit to how many additional words you can provide within the appendices (but the module team does encourage everyone to be reasonable).

Acknowledgements

You can include an acknowledgement section in your project report, along with a glossary if you feel it is appropriate to include one. 

This acknowledgement section is for this blog post, rather than for a project report. I would like to acknowledge Chris Thompson and Karl Wilcox, who have been very generous in sharing their tutorial resources with me. I would also like to acknowledge Alexis Lansbury, who is my TM470 line manager.

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