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A Year in the Life of an AL

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

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

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

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

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

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

Application, interviewing and appointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September:  Appointments, FED, TSAs …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October: Getting organised and prepared

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November: Everyone gets going…

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

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

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

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

December: A small amount of relaxation

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

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

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

January: Enrolments and studying

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

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

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

February: Continuing to receive and mark TMAs

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

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

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

March: Study progress

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

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

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

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

April: Easter

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

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

May: Exam preparation

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

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

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

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

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

June: Examination time

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

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

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

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

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

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

July and August: Holiday time (for some)

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

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

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

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

September: Appointments, FED, TSAs …

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

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

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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


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Professional Development Conference: London, 22 March 2014

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The Open University in London runs two professional development conferences per year, one at its regional offices in Camden town, the other at the London School of Economics.    Saturday 22 March was a busy day; it was the day I ran my first staff development session at this venue.  (I had previously run sessions in the Camden centre, but running a session in an external venue had, for some reason, a slightly different feel to it).

This blog post aims to summarise a number of key points from the session.  It is intended for anyone who might be remotely interested, but it’s mostly intended for fellow associate lecturers.  If you’re interested in the fine detail, or the contents of what was presented, do get in touch. Similarly, if you work within any other parts of the university and feel that this session might be useful for your ALs, do get in touch; I don’t mind travelling to other regions. 

Electronic assignments

The aim of the session was to share what I had discovered whilst figuring out how a tool called the ETMA file handler works.  Students with the university submit their assignments electronically through something called the Electronic Tutor Marked Assignment (ETMA) system.  This allows submissions to be held securely and the date and time of submission to be recorded.  It also allows tutors to collect (or download) batches of assignments that students have submitted.

When assignments are downloaded, tutors use a piece of software called the ETMA file handler.  This is a relatively simple piece of software that allows tutors to get an overview of which student has submitted which assignment.  It also allows tutors to see their work, allowing them to comment (and mark) what they have submitted.

There are three things that a tutor usually has to do.  Firstly, they have to assign a mark for a student’s submission.  They usually also have to add some comments to a script that has been submitted (which is usually in the form of a Microsoft Word document).  They also have to add some comments to help a student to move forward with their studies.  These comments are entered into a form that is colloquially known as a PT3.  Please don’t ask me why it’s called this; I have no idea – but it seems to be an abbreviation that is deeply embedded within the fabric of the university.  If you talk to a tutor about a PT3 form, they know what you’re talking about.

Under the hood

Given that the tutor marked assignments constitutes a pretty big part of the teaching and learning experience in the university, the ETMA file handler program is, therefore, a pretty important piece of software.  One of my own views (when it comes to software) is that if you understand how something works, you’ll be able to figure out how to use it better.

The intention behind my professional development session was to share something about how the ETMA file handler works, allowing tutors to carry out essential tasks such as make backups and move sets of marking from one computer to another.  Whilst the university does a pretty good at offering comprehensive training about how to use the file handler to enable tutors to get along with their job of marking, it isn’t so good at letting tutors know about how to do some of the system administration stuff that we all need to do from time to time, such as taking backups and moving files to another computer (hence my motivation to run this session).

One of my confessions is that I’m a computer scientist.  This means that I (sometimes) find it fun figuring out how stuff works.  This means that I sometimes mess around with a piece of software to see how to break it, and then try to get it working again.  (Sometimes I manage to do this, other times I don’t!)  During the session I focussed on a small number of things: how the file handler program knows about the assignments that have been downloaded (it uses directories), how directories are structured, what ‘special files’ these directories contains, and where (and how) additional information is held.

Here’s what I focussed on: the directories used to download files to, the directories used to return marked files from and how the file handler reads the contents of those directories so it is able to offer choices a tutor.  Towards the end of the presentation, I also presented a number of what I considered to be useful tips.  These were: the file hander software is very stupid, the file handler software needs to know where your marking is, form habits, be consistent, save files in the same place, use zip files to move files around, and be paranoid!

Reflections

Whilst I was writing the session, I thought to myself, ‘is this going to be too simple?’ and ‘surely everyone will get terribly bored with all this detail and all the geeky stuff that I’m going to be talking about?’  Thankfully, these fears were unfounded.  The detail, it turned out, seemed to be quite interesting.  Even if I was sharing the obvious, sometimes a shared understanding can offer some reassurance.

There were parts that went right, and other parts that went wrong (or, not so well as I had expected); both represented opportunities for learning.  The part that I almost got right was about timing.  I had an hour and a half to fill, and although the session had to be wrapped up pretty quickly (so everyone could get their sandwiches), the timing seemed to be (roughly) about right.

The part that I got wrong wasn’t something that was catastrophically wrong, but instead could be understood in terms of an opportunity to improve the presentation the next time round.  We all user our computers in slightly different ways, and I have to confess that I became particularly fixated in using my own computer in quite a needlessly complicated way (in terms of how to create and use backup files).  As a result, I now have slightly more to talk about, which I think is a good thing (but I might have to re-jig the timing).

There is one implicit side effect of sharing how something is either designed, or how something works.  When we know how something works, we can sometimes find new ways of working, or new ways to use the tools that we have at our disposal.  Whist probing a strange piece of software can be a little frightening it’s sometimes possible to find unexpected rewards.  We may never know what these are, unless we spend time doing this.

And finally…

If you’re an associate lecturer, do try to find the time to come to one of the AL development events; you’re always likely to pick something up from the day (and this applies as much to the facilitator as it does to the tutor too!)  As well as being useful, they can also be good fun too!

After the session had been completed, and the projectors and laptops were turned off, I started to ask myself a question.  This was: ‘what can I do for the next conference?’  Answering this question is now going to be one of my next tasks.

 

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London Associate Lecturer development day, London, November 2013

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The Open University is divided into a number of regions and twice a year the London region runs a staff development event for its associate lecturers who live in and close to our capital.  This blog post is a brief summary of an event that took place on Saturday 16 November 2013.  My own role during the day was quite a modest one (I was only required to do a couple of introductions).  This meant that I was able to wear my ‘tutor hat’ for much of the day.

Challenges for ESL students

ESL is, of course, a common abbreviation for ‘English as a second language’.  From time to time I’m asked what the university is able to do to help students who struggle with English.  There are a couple of schools of thought about this.  One school of thought is that English and writing skills should be embedded within modules (this is certainly the case within computing and engineering modules).  Another school of thought is that there should be a particular course or module that is dedicated to writing (which is the approach that the science faculty takes).  There are, of course, pros and cons with either approach.  The aim of this session was to offer tutors useful guidance about different resources and materials that could be shared with students.  It also aimed to help tutors chat about different challenges they have faced.

One skill that was considered to be important was the reading of papers, and a point was made that this is something that could be practiced.  Reading is, of course, a prelude to writing.  Although some people might argue that university level academic writing is something that is done only within the university (or academic) context, it can also be argued that learning how to write in an academic way can benefit learners in other ways, i.e. when it comes to writing for business and commerce, or the ability to distil evidence and construct cohesive arguments.

One question that was raised was, ‘how do you offer feedback in instances where students may struggle to read suggestions?’  This was a very good question, and sometimes interventions, or special sessions to help students are necessary.

Our discussions about writing led onto other discussions about plagiarism and academic conduct.  Plagiarism is, of course, a word that has very negative connotations.  In some cultures, using the words of an authority may be considered to be a mark of respect.  On the other hand, developing the ability to write in one’s own words is a really important part of distance learning; it’s both important and necessary for students to demonstrate how they are able to evaluate materials. 

The university has very clear policies about plagiarism and academic practice, and this is something that I’ve blogged about previously.  (Academic practice conference: day 1 summary, day 2 summary). From the tutor’s perspective, it isn’t an easy task to address these issues thoroughly and sensitively.  One thing that tutors could do is to run an activity (which exposes issues that relate to academic conduct).  Tutors (or module teams) could show how things should be done, and then tutors could facilitate a discussion using on-line forums, for example.

Another discussion that I’ve noted was the use of the ‘voice’.  Different modules may have a preference as to whether students can or should write in the first person.   One of the arguments about writing in the third person is that it allows other voices to be more clearly exposed.

During the session, we were all encouraged to do a bit of group work.  We were given a sample of writing and we were asked, ‘what resource would you choose to share with your students to try to help them with their writing skills?’  This was a fun activity and it emphasised that there is a lot of resources that both students and tutors can draw on.

To underline this point of resources, there were sets of study skills booklets that were available in the presentation room.  These had the titles:  Studying with the OU – UK learning approach, Reading and Taking Notes, Preparing Assignments and Thinking Critically.  If you’re interested, these can be downloaded from the Skills for Study website.

Developing resources and pedagogy for OU Live

I arrived at this afternoon session slightly late, since I was having too much fun chatting to colleagues.  OU Live is an asynchronous teaching and learning tool (which is a posh term to say that people can do things at the same time).  In essence, think ‘skype with a whiteboard’.  It allows tutors to run on-line sessions with groups of students, offering both audio and text-chat channels.  From my own experience, running OU Live can be pretty hard going, so I try to take every opportunity that I can (time permitting) to attend whatever training sessions the university offers.

This afternoon session was presented in two parts.  The first part was from the perspective of a science tutor (Catherine Halliwell), whereas the second part was from the perspective of a languages tutor.

Science perspective

I arrived in the session right at the moment when an important point was being made.  This was: ‘find a style of delivery that suits you’. It can be quite easy to use OU Live just to give ‘lectures’, but it is possible to use it to deliver dynamic interactive sessions.

One thing that tutors can do is to record their on-line sessions.  More students might use a recording of a session than there are students who are able to attend a live session.  One of the benefits of recordings is that they have the potential to become a very useful resource.  Tutor might, for example, refer students to sections of a recording when they start to revise for their exams.  Another thought is that you could explicitly refer to them when a tutor gives assignment feedback (guiding students to parts of a presentation where you have explained potentially difficulty concepts).

Catherine mentioned that her faculty had trialled the use of pairing tutors together to run single OU Live session.  Her module, a third level chemistry module, has 10 hours of tuition time.  Each session was shared; one tutor would take the lead, and the other would be a ‘wing man’.

Another aspect to OU Live pedagogy which can be easily overlooked is the importance of preparation.  Students can be asked to carry out certain activities before a session, such as completing one or more worksheets, for instance, to help to prepare students – or even performing observations, with the view to sharing data.

Catherine also spoke about some features that I had never used, but had been (slightly) aware of.  One of these features was the ‘file transfer’ facility, which could be used by the tutor to send students sets of ‘unseen questions’, perhaps in the form of a word document.  In some ways, this could be considered to be the electronic equivalent of giving everyone some handouts.  (I can also see that this would be especially useful during programming sessions, where tutors might hand out working copies of computer code to all participants).

We were given a number of very useful tips: make the first session as interactive as possible, and feel free to use a silly example.  Also, use things like voting, or drawing on a map.  Another thought is to turn the webcam on at the start so that the participants know who you are (you can turn it off after a few minutes, of course!)  Tutors should try their best to make their sessions friendly and fun.

There are a number of other points to bear in mind: some students can be reluctant to use the microphone, and this is okay.  Another approach (and one that I’ve heard of before) is to use OU Live as an informal drop-in session, where students are able to log in to have a chat with a tutor at a pre-arranged time.  It’s also important to take the time to look at a student’s profile to make sure whether there are any additional requirements that need to be taken into account.   Finally, because it’s possible to record a session, a tutor can always say, ‘I’m going to go through this bit quite quickly; because I’m recording this, you can always go back and play it back later if there’s anything that you miss’.

Languages perspective

The presentation from our language tutor was rather different.  We were given, quite literally, an A to Z tour of topics that relate to the use of OU Live, leaving us (and our facilitator), pretty breathless!

A couple of points that I’ve noted include the importance of developing routines and forcing habits (in terms of running sessions at the same time).  It’s also a good idea to send group emails, both before and after sessions (so students are aware of what is going to happen).  In terms of preparation, it’s a good idea to get on-line around half an hour before just to make sure that you don’t run across any technical problems or issues; having been confronted with the situation of Java software updates in the past this is very sound advice.

During the question and answer session at the end of the afternoon, the issue of the recording of day schools also cropped up again.  Our tutors were very pragmatic about this: recording of OU Live sessions should happen, since it allows the creation of resources that all students can use (especially those who could not attend any of the sessions).  It is therefore important to let all students know that recording is going to take place either before events, or at the start of an event.

Reflections

There’s always something to pick up from these events.   There were two main things that I gained from this session.  The first was the early discussions about language support consolidated what I already knew about the importance of academic conduct (and how the university procedures work).  Secondly, I picked up some tips about how to connect things together, i.e. connecting together assignment feedback with the use of OU Live recordings. 

The next event is to be held at the London School of Economics in March.   This event is likely to include a Mathematics Computing and Technology faculty specific session which will be held in the afternoon.  The fine detail hasn’t yet been decided on, but this too is also likely to be a good day.

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South East of England Associate lecturer conference: Kent College

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 24 Mar 2014, 14:14

Twice a year Open University associate lecturers have an opportunity to attend regional development events.  These conferences offer tutors a number of different training sessions about a range of different topics, ranging from change in university policies, through to the best way to use technology.

Each event is different and has a slightly different character.  This blog is a really simple overview of an event that I recently attended at Kent College.  In fact, I think I remember visiting Kent College to attend my first ever tutorial, which was run by my then mentor, not long after starting as an associate lecturer.  I remember getting quite lost amongst a number of different buildings and being in quite a gloomy room.  Things have changed: Kent College was unrecognisable.  Old buildings had been demolished to make way for new modern ones.  This, however, wasn't the only surprise.

Teaching through drama

Not long after arriving, we were all gently ushered into a large theatre.  We could see a number of tables set out at the front and I immediately expected to endure a series of formal presentations about changes to the structure of the university, or an update about student registrations, for example.   Thankfully, I was disappointed. 

From stage left and right, actors suddenly appeared and started to scream and shout.  It immediately became apparent that we were all in the middle of a theatre production which was all about teaching and learning.  We all watched a short twenty minute play of a tutorial, in which we were presented with some fundamentally challenging situations.  The tutorial, needless to say, was a disaster.  Things didn't go at all well, and everyone seemed to be very unhappy.  Our hapless tutor was left in tears!

When the play had finished and we were collectively shocked by the trauma of it all, we were told that it would be restarted.  We were then told that we should 'jump in' and intervene to help correct the pedagogic disaster that we were all confronted with.  Every five or so minutes, colleagues put up their hands to indicate that they would like to take control of the wayward situation.  It was astonishing to watch for two different reasons.  Firstly, the willingness that people took on the situation, and secondly the extensive discussions that emerged from each of the interventions.

Towards the end of the modified (and much more measured) play, I could resist no longer.  I too put up my hand to take on the role of the hapless tutor 'Rosie'.  My role, in that instant, was about communicating the details surrounding an important part of university policy and ensuring that the student (played by an actor) had sufficient information to make a decision about what to do.   It was an experience that felt strangely empowering, and the debates that emerged from the intervention were very useful; you could backtrack and run through a tricky situation time and time again.  The extensive audience, sitting just a few meters away, were there to offer friendly situations.

If an outsider peered around the door and saw what was going on, it might be tempting to view all this activity as some form of strange self-reflective light entertainment.  My own view is very different: there is a big distance between talking about educational practice in the third person, i.e. discussing between ourselves what we might do, and actually going ahead and actually doing the things that could immediately make a difference.   A really nice aspect of the play was that all the students (as played by actors) were all very different.  I'm personally very happy that I'm not tutoring on the fictional module 'comparative studies'!  This first session of the AL development conference was entertaining, enjoyable, difficult and insightful all at the same time.

Sessions

After the theatre production, we (meaning: conference delegates) went to various parallel sessions.  I had opted for a session that was part about the students and part about gaining more familiarity with the various information systems that tutors have access to (through a page called TutorHome).  I've heard it said time again that the only constant in technology is change.  Since the OU makes extensive use of technology, the on-line portal that tutors use on a day to day basis is occasionally updated.  A face to face training session is an opportunity to get to know parts of our on-line world that we might not have otherwise discovered, and to chat with other tutors to understand more about the challenges that each of us face.

The second session that I attended was also very different.  Three research students from the University of Surrey presented some of their research on the subject of motivation in higher education.  There is, of course, quite a difference between the face to face study context and the Open University study context.  A presentation on methods and conclusions gave way to an extended (and quite useful) discussion on the notion of motivation.

One memory of this session is the question of how it might potentially move from being strategic learners (completing assignments just to gain credit for a module or degree), to motivation that is connected with a deep fascination and enthusiasm for a subject.  There are a number of factors at play: the importance of materials, the way in which support is given and the role that a tutor can play in terms of inspiring learners.

I made a note about the importance of feedback (in response to assessments that had been completed and returned).  A really important point was that negative feedback can be difficult to apply, especially if there is no guidance about what could be done to improve.  (This whole subject of feedback represents a tip of a much larger discussion, which I'm not going to write about in this blog).

In terms of inspiration, one useful tip that I took away from this final session was that the relevance and importance of a module if a module can be connected to debates, stories and discussions that can be found in the media.  Although this is something that is really simple (and obvious), it sometimes takes conferences such as these to remind us of the really important and useful things that we can do.

Final points

All in all, a fun day!  From my own personal perspective, I enjoyed all the sessions but I found the theatre session particularly thought provoking - not just in terms of the points that were covered, but also in terms of the approach that was used.

Since I have no idea who is going to be reading this particular blog post (not to mention all the others I've written!), I guess I'm primarily writing for other OU tutors who might accidentally discover these words.  If you are a tutor, my overriding message would be: 'do go along to your regional conferences if you can make it - they are really good fun!'

If you're a student with the university I guess my message is that there are many of us working behind the scenes.  We're always trying to do the best that we can to make sure that you're given the best possible learning experience.  Another point that I must emphasise is that the instances of interaction with tutors are really important and precious (for student and tutor alike).  So, if you're a student, my message is: 'do go along to any face to face tutorials or days schools that might be available as a part of your module - there is always going to be something that you'll be able to take away'.

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