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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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London AL development conference: April 2019

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On Saturday 27 April, I went to the London Associate Lecturer development conference which took place at the London School of Economics. What follows is a short blog summary of the event, where I highlight some of what I thought were the key take away points.

This conference was a busy event; there were six parallel sessions. Some of the sessions covered important themes, such as the new tutor contract, supporting students with English as a second language, using the OU library, and supporting students in secure environments (such as in prisons, or in care institutions) and more.

Keynote: polar science and engagement

The opening keynote was from Professor Mark Brandon, @icey_mark a polar oceanographer, who is responsible for co‐ordinating and leading free learning and broadcast across the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Faculty, as well as being an associate dean for Enterprise and External and Engagement. 

Before taking on these roles, he carried out almost three years of field work as a as a researcher in Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey, and as part of the US Antarctic Program. Mark has also been a Principle Academic Advisor for the BBC Frozen Planet series and was a member of the Blue Planet II academic team, and is working on Frozen Planet II.

Mark’s presentation was rich with media clips, reflecting his position in the university, and the university’s 50th anniversary. On this point, he commented on a recent BBC 4 documentary that celebrated the university’s 50th birthday.

Mark played YouTube clips from S102, an introduction to science module, giving us examples of some of the very first OU productions where students were sent large home experiment kits. He took us on a journey from the past, to the present, sharing clips of OU/BBC co-productions such as Frozen Planet  (YouTube), Blue Planet II (YouTube). A notable comment was about the reach of the university. Following a TV series, 550,000 posters were sent across the country.

We were also given examples of how digital media and IT can be used to make learning accessible, explicitly drawing on S111 Questions in Science (Open University) where students could using Google Earth to look for evidence of Penguins from space. If I’ve noted this down properly, this has led to situations where students can now use real time satellite data.

Looking towards the future, we were told about some of the programmes that had connections to other faculties, or were currently under development, reflecting the breadth of the disciplines that are studied by OU students.

Throughout Mark’s talk, there were nods towards the importance of the associate lecturer (in fact, I think Mark also said that he used to be one!). There were two quotes that I noted down. These were: “associate lecturers are fundamentally important”, and “you are the difference”.

Enabling student employability and career progression

The second introductory presentation was by Marie Da Silva, from the university careers service. Marie’s talk connected to a number of university abbreviations. Two I noted down were, CES: Careers and employability services, and EECP: Enhanced employability and career progression.

An important point was that most students are motivated by career aims, which means that employability skills is something that the university takes seriously and addresses in a number of different ways.

In terms of curriculum, the university has a new employability framework which is being embedded within the curriculum with help from some associate lecturers who are mapping curriculum (qualifications) against the frameworks.

The university also has some student-employer connectivity projects, something called OU online talent connect, and even runs something called virtual career fairs. We were told about the university careers hub www.open.ac.uk/careers which can offer different types of services, such as one to one careers interview, something called a CV builder, and 100s of webinars, guides and workbooks. 

It’s important to remember that over 300k students and alumni can access the university careers service. It was interesting to hear that 25% of referrals were from ALs.

During Marie’s presentation, I remembered the recent OU careers conference (blog summary) that I went to a few weeks earlier. Another dimension was that research and scholarship was also another activity that was carried out in the university.

Session 1: Educating everyone: overcoming barriers to success

The first session that I attended (as a conference delegate) was by Rehana Awan who tutors on access modules, and Jay Rixon from LTI academic (which, I think, is an abbreviation from Learning and teaching innovation).

Rehana and Jay got us all playing a board game; a version of snakes and ladders. The snakes were learning barriers (a student might be struggling to understand the academic standards, dealing with exam nerves), and the ladders were learning enablers (such as speaking to a SST, or getting an additional support session from a tutor).

During this session, we were directed to different resources, such as a site called Can I do it? There was also an OpenLearn resource called Am I ready to be a distance learner? (OpenLearn).

Rehana is an ‘access’ tutor. Access courses help students to become familiar with what it means to become a learner again, and it represents a way to return back to study.

There are three different access courses, reflecting three different broad areas of study:

  • Arts and languages
  • People, work and society (law, business, psychology and childhood)
  • Science, technology and maths 

Each access course lasts for 30 weeks and requires students to study up to 9 hours per weeks. All students are provided with 1 to 1 telephone tutorials with a tutor. Fee waivers can be used with access modules, which means that two thirds of students will be eligible to study for free. 

One of the things that I learnt from this session was that the language of assessment has recently changed to make it simpler and easier to understand, since the language of assessment can exclude non-traditional learners. I also learnt that students were sent a leaflet about IT: how can I get online?

The final part of the session had a slightly different feel to it. We were introduced to the idea of using of maps to explain and visualise ideas, and the use of storytelling to aid communication. There was a link to an organisation called Sea Salt Learning

Rehana and Jay gave us a challenge: draw a map of potential barriers to study. I draw a map of potential barriers and challenges that TM470 students could face. The idea was that map drawing and sketching might be an activity that could be used with our own students.

Session 2: Inclusive Practice

The second presentation of the day was facilitated by Jo Mapplebeck, one of the university’s SPLD advisor. (SPLD being an abbreviation for: specific learning difficulty, and this addresses things like dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and ADHD).  Jo’s session had the full title of: ‘making the most of your student’s disability profiles to better support your students’ but it was pretty informal, and represented a useful opportunity to share experiences with each other.

During the session, we discussed how we best support students who may have disclosed that they are on the autism spectrum. I remembered a phrase from a disabled student services conference that I attended some years ago, which went:  ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, which means you’ve met one person with autism’. This ultimately means that different students need different adjustments. This led to a discussion about the information that was presented on student profiles, and how that information could be a useful way to begin discussions.

A useful tip from one tutor was: ‘if I can’t get them on the phone, I text them’. Another important point was: if you encounter a challenging student call your line manager (staff tutor), do what you can to protect your boundaries, encourage the student to speak with a student support advisor.

An important message from Jo’s session was about the role that inclusive practice can play in the student experience. If the university (and tutors) mainstream the things that make the difference for all students, all students can potentially benefit from those adjustments. A simple example of this is that a video transcript might be useful for a student with a hearing impairment, but it could also be used as a searchable textual resources that can be used to introduce important module concepts.

Different colleagues within the university make different adjustments, i.e. module teams, the disability support team can guide students to different resources, and associate lecturers can work with each other (and university colleagues) to present resources (particularly tutorial resources) in different formats.

After the session, I picked up a couple of useful handouts that Jo had provided. One had the title: top tips for supporting students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs). Some of the top tips were: read the disability profile, use the student’s preferred mode of communication, make early proactive contact, read a document called ‘dyslexia marking guidelines’, check if students understand the TMA questions, use simple language, avoid asking the student questions in tutorials, allow students to record tutorials if they need to, and be empathetic. 

Session 3: The new basics of TutorHome

One of the final sessions of the day was facilitated by yours truly. The session, which was all about the TutorHome website, was advertised in the conference brochure in a really confusing way: it had the above title, but had an abstract that related to the subject of ‘critical incidents’. Thankfully, everyone who came to the session wanted to know about the TutorHome website (which was what I had planned for!)

The session was designed to be as interactive as possible: I was the driver of the computer that was used to make a presentation, and I asked all the participants to tell me where to go and where to click. During the session, I remember that we looked at following parts of the TutorHome website, amongst others:

  • How to customise the front screen by adding useful links
  • How to customise the tutor dashboard, by adding boxes and links
  • How to find different module websites
  • How to look at a summary of some of the communications between a student and the student support team
  • How to find a tool that lets tutors look at different stats that relate to different modules
  • How to look at the Associate Lecturer Activity review, and what the different parts were
  • How to find the study skills resource links to useful PDF booklets that we could pass onto students.

The session was an hour and a quarter long, but it felt as if we only had just got going and had started to scratch the surface of the TutorHome site. An interesting thing about this kind of session is that I usually learn quite a lot too.

Reflections

One of the real pleasures of this event was that the AL development team trusted me sufficiently to welcome everyone and introduce our keynote speaker, and our careers speaker, both of whom did a great job. If was going to change anything (to the bit that I did), I would have made a bit of space for a really short Q&A session, but since everything ran exactly (and perfectly!) to the schedule, there wasn’t the time for this.

In some respects, it’s hard to choose a highlight from this conference, since there were so many great parts to the day: there was Mark’s presentation which emphasised the role of broadcasting and the reach of the university, there was Rehana’s and Jay’s presentation about the importance of access courses and that they got us thinking about tutorial activities. Jo’s session about inclusive practice gave us a space to share experiences, and the TutorHome session was fun (since everyone used the TutorHome site in slightly different ways).

Putting the sessions to one side, one of the most important aspects of these conference is, simply, the opportunity to chat to each other. In doing so, there’s opportunities to share experiences, learn from each other, and find support. When everyone is working at a distance, these types of events are (in my view) really important.

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STEM new tutor online briefing

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When I started with the OU back in 2006 I remember visiting a school or a sixth form college in Sussex to attend a new tutor induction day. I remember that it was a very busy event; it was for all new tutors across all faculties. Since the event was held at an unfamiliar school, I couldn’t shake that feeling of going to my first day at school. It was significant, fun, but also slightly unnerving.

Fast forward twelve years and things have changed. Almost all of the OU regional centres in England have closed, and I find myself co-hosting an online equivalent of an induction session with a staff tutor colleague from Science.

What follows is a very short summary of our presentation: ten top tips to becoming an associate lecturer, which took place on the evening of 3 October 2018 for all STEM associate lecturers who joined over the past two years. Much of the credit goes to Fiona Aiken who proposed the idea of the tips.

1. Understanding the tutor role

The module materials that do the teaching, students do the learning, and it is the role of a tutor to facilitate the student’s access to the learning. Tutors are an academic contact for the module; they answer questions that relate to the module materials, run tutorials, mark assessments and facilitate online discussions.

2. TutorHome

The most important website that you will use is TutorHome. Take time to have a look through the TutorHome site. You will find a way to get a summary of your student group, access the module website that you tutor, and will find a link to download and return TMAs. 

3. Introductory email

Introductions are important. When you receive your student group, send a welcoming email to every student. A recommendation is to personalise every one. Tell them something about you and your background (how long you have been a tutor for, and maybe something about your day job). Also, set some boundaries to say how they can contact you. Finally, encourage them to email you back so you can start a dialog. 

4. Setting up your Tutor Group forum

Different modules use tutor groups in different ways. Also, modules have different types of groups, depending on how they’re designed: there can be module wide forums, cluster forums and tutor group forums. Post a welcome message to your tutor group forum and subscribe to it. Encourage students to introduce themselves. Also, take a few moments to set up your TutorHome dashboard, since this is a nice way to get a quick overview

5. Adobe Connect

Like forums, there are different Adobe Connect online rooms for live online tutorials. Different modules will use them in different ways. Some key tips for the using of Adobe Connect are: take the time to complete some Adobe Connect training, make sure that you understand what a layout is and make good use of them, deliver sessions in pairs if you can (one tutor can manage the text window and another can present), consider recording your Adobe Connect session, make sure that you have a good understanding of the aims of a tutorial (refer to the group tuition strategy), gradually build up your expertise by using different features, don’t be afraid to get things wrong (since running online tutorials is hard), always try to include an an ice breaker, expect silence since it is hard to get students to speak, have very regular activities (between every 20 seconds and 2 minutes) and finally: be brave; try things out: we’re all learning!

6. Correspondence tuition

Correspondence tuition is, perhaps, the single most important thing that you will do as a tutor.  It isn’t just marking: it is where you do some teaching and help to facilitate student learning. In many cases it is your main point of contact with all your students, and think of it as a conversation between you and your students. Some points to remember: do return your marking within a ten working day period, make sure that you understand and thoroughly know the tutor notes that have been provided by the module team, and always ask your mentor for guidance.

7. Planning your Time

Since being a tutor is, mostly, a part time role, time is important; you need to plan carefully. Ask yourself the question: what are the constraints on your time? At the beginning of a module presentation write down all the tutorial dates and times. Also, if you’re going to be away for more than a couple of days, always remember to let your students and your staff tutor know. 

8. Looking through your Student List

When you have received your list of students, do take the time to look through your student list. Do pay particular attention as to whether they have any additional requirements (also known as a DA record). Also, you should be aware that there might be certain flags against certain students to highlight particular situations, such as whether they are young students or may be held in secure units. If you’re unsure about the implications or what any of this means, do ask your staff tutor. 

9. Where to get help

Although you will be working on your own for most of the time, it’s really important to remember that you’re never on your own; there is a lot of help and support available that you can always draw on. Key points sources of help and advice include:  your staff tutor/line manager, your mentor, fellow tutors through the tutor forum, the module team and curriculum managers, the student support team (advisors) for non-academic help and advice, and  disability specialists (visual impairment, mental health). Finally, all associate lecturers can become members of the University and College Union.

10. Continuing professional development

The university treats the ongoing professional development of associate lecturers seriously. Tutors can attend a number of online and face-to-face AL development conferences, can make use of something called a staff fee waiver to study OU modules and draw on something called the AL development fund for various bits of academic professional development. Finally, the university runs a scheme called Applaud which can help tutors become Associate Fellows and Fellows of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA).

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Fiona Aiken who provided the ideas for more than half of this session, and also to Janette Wallace, who deftly managed all the text discussions.

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TM470 AL development: should we run tutorials?

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Just before the start of the TM470 project module, I asked myself a question: should I run a tutorial? Tutorials are not compulsory but I do know that some tutors run them. I had another question: what do other tutors do? These questions motivated me to ask my TM470 line manager another question: ‘could I run an AL development session to ask tutors what tutors do? This might be something that could help other tutors’. My line manager, Keith, agreed.

This document (or blog post) is a quick summary of the key discussion points that were drawn from that AL development session. Most of these points are from two activities. Tutors were put into four different break out rooms and asked to answer a set of questions. After the discussions, we all came back to the main room and discussed our findings.

The headings below represent the questions that were asked. The comments underneath are, essentially, a quick summary of the points that were discussed.

What would be the aim [of a tutorial] and when should you run one?

Run a tutorial early in the module to give students some guidance about the way the project should be approached (coding and creating versus recording).

Mixed feedback/feedforward and used student participation.

Tutorials seem to work better if they are studying similar subject: whole cohort sessions on specific topics? The challenge is that ALs have limited time.

To discuss key skills like research and literature: this can lead to fewer repeated emails about generic questions.

To save time repeating the same information to other students?

What would you do in a tutorial?

Setting out the approach for the module.

Getting students to generate 3 or 4 PowerPoint slides, and then discuss in tutor group (getting students to do the work). Tell us what they’re doing, and an issue that they have. Be positive.

Try to get them thinking less about the technical stuff: more about project management and reflection.

Try to get them to appreciate the need to address learning outcomes.

Talk about literature reviews.

Discuss deadlines and what is required.

A drop in session to allow students to discuss things. A learning outcome should be: students should be able to present their projects to other people.

In some situations, depending on what is taught, a video from the module team might be useful.

Discussions contribute to learning outcomes.

What are the challenges and what would help you?

Getting students to attend.

A tutorial can become a monologue (lecture)

Students without audio: most will say something in the chat window.

Recordings: will students turn up? Or will students be disadvantaged?

Privacy concerns about disclosing information about student projects in tutorials.

Having enough time to run the tutorials when tutors are busy answering emails.

How do you maximise attendance at a tutorial?

Use the forum, and the group email: allude to the benefits of the tutorials, saying that they will end up doing better projects.

Take every opportunity to encourage attendance: in every chat, email or piece of feedback (TMA!) refer to the next tutorial.

‘Put the fear of God into them’; tell them they must attend – it is there for their own benefit! This is a very difficult course! Don’t miss it.

Using a Doodle poll to set an agreed time.

What are the most difficult things for a student?

Working consistently, i.e. not trying to do a TMA over the weekend.

Managing time and deadlines.

Not understanding the requirements/components of a project.

Not having the patience to fully explore the background to the problem.

It is a module without a substantial calendar: students have to plan in their own time.

Reflection.

How to plan and structure.

Finding resources.

Getting started at the right place, and knowing when to stop.

Knowing their own limitations: they need a project that demonstrates their skills and knowledge.

What common mistakes do students make?

Trying to do too much, or under estimating time required.

Not reading what is required for the TMA: read the instructions! Look out for what the module materials are asking for.

Wanting to try new toys just to add experience rather than trying to engage deeper with the subject.

A literature review that is not deep enough.

When there are projects that relate to work situations, there can be too much focus on satisfying the client’s requirements rather than the module’s requirements.

Do the students have a backup plan if things go wrong if they have a ‘client’?

Students focus on assignments and not just projects.

If you could offer one bit of advice to a student, what would it be?

It’s not about writing code.

Stick with a simple system: don’t be too ambitious.

Don’t panic!

Use the full window of time and execute each stage completely.

Keep in contact with your tutor, no matter what is happening!

If you could offer one bit of advice to a new tutor, what would it be?

Tell students to keep evidence of what they’re doing e.g. a log of activities, which is very useful for report writing.

Application of common sense when it comes to keeping students on track.

Keep talking to your students; keep contacting them if they don’t contact you.

Keep discussing with other tutors: use the forums; there is lots of experience.

Final thoughts

From my perspective, I was really surprised with how many interesting, different and useful points came out from these discussions. This session has (personally) given me some really good ideas of things to speak about in a TM470 tutorial.

One thing that I should say is that there were two schools of thoughts about whether tutorials are needed or not. I think I remember reading (or hearing) one opinion that perhaps they are useful in terms of getting students started, but then the hours that the students have could be spent on a more personal or one to one basis.

There are, of course, many different ways to support students, and this session has helped to share some really great ideas between tutors.

A final question is: what next? I felt this session has been personally really useful. Does anyone have any ideas about what else might be useful? One thought is a ‘tutor drop in’; an opportunity to discuss interesting projects and situations. Another passing thought is the potential benefit of talking about marking or correspondence tuition. I think I’ll stop at this point, and hand this discussion back to all those TM470 tutors who are significantly more experienced than I am.


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TM470 notes

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 16 Aug 2018, 14:48

The university has been going through a lot of changes. One of the side effects of these changes is that I have now become a home worker (which I’m a bit grumpy about). To prepare for a delivery of a new desk, I’ve started to sort out loads of old papers. The process usually involves looking at a bundle of papers and thinking, ‘why did I keep this?’

I recently stumbled across a hand written form that relates to my first year of tutoring on the TM470 project module. Rather than putting it in a file (or in the recycling), I thought I would transcribe it and share it. I hope it is useful to someone!

The form is divided into four sections:

Project themes (in my tutor group this year)

The form was asking for the projects that students in my tutor group chose. I’ve decided to edit this bit and be pretty general. The project were about: an app evaluation, a database implementation, and a website redesign.

Issues encountered (and how I resolved them)

One of the challenges was projects that had a very big or wide scope. Subsequently, another issue was projects that had a really narrow scope. It was sometimes quite difficult to get hold of some students. There were many students asking for extensions. The marking (of course) was quite challenging, and on occasions I was asked to do some remarking. It was also difficult to keep students on track, mostly because everyone on the project module is different and have their own circumstances.

What I have learned (including positives)

The first item I noted was: broadness of project topics. The students can, of course, surprise you. What struck me was the importance of the literature review in the module. I learnt more about how the project module was connected to other modules in the Computing and IT programme and also how it was different to other modules. It was useful to think of the module in terms of it being an ‘extension to level 3 modules’; creating a database isn’t enough: students need to demonstrate skills and go further in terms of either their understanding principles (such as transactions or concurrency) or the application of ideas. I also learnt the importance of sending out ‘update’ emails.

Ideas for next year (things I could do differently)

Each student is given four hours of support time. Different students and different tutors may use this time in different ways. One thought is: after initial contact (perhaps even by telephone), is to run an introductory tutorial for the student group. 

Another note I made was, ‘emphasise the library screenshare’; this comment relate to a session that is run by the OU library, to help students with a literature review. Another note I made was: ‘be a bit more persistent in terms of following up; call them after their TMAs’. Another thought was an interesting one: ‘try to get students talking to each other’. A related point was: get students presenting to each other.


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Module debriefing: M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Nov 2016, 15:16

The first Open University module that I was a tutor for was called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design. I have some faint recollections of going to a module briefing which took place in Milton Keynes. When the module finished (and I found myself on the module team) I decided to run an unofficial module debriefing. This blog post has been derived from a set of notes that I made during the debriefing that was held in Camden Town on 16 July 2016. It is a part of a larger piece of work that I hope will be useful to inform university teaching practice across Computing and IT modules. Eleven people attended, most of them were associate lecturers. There was one staff tutor (a line manager for associate lecturers), and the original M364 module chair. 

Initial comments

A really interesting point was that the module doesn’t teach what is meant by ‘justification’. This is important because the TMAs for the module don’t necessarily have right or wrong answers (instead, students might present answers that are not appropriately justified).

A comment from tutors: students who are taking M364 as a first module may struggle, especially when it comes to the writing; they can also be shocked by the amount of reading that they have to do. The four blocks ‘dart around’ the set text, which can be disorientating. 

Marking

Marking is considered to be very time consuming because tutors need to understand the material very well. Anything between 1 hour and 3 hours per assignment is reported, which is at odds with the university guidelines of 45 minutes. In my own experience over ten years, I rarely got the marking down to an hour per assignment. 

Tutorials

The more students that attend the day schools, the more exciting they become. It’s important to offer real world examples (I regularly used door handles).

Exam marking

One tutor reported that they loved doing exam marking since it can inform other types of marking. An interesting observation is that the marking for M364 seemed to take longer than with other modules. It was also a challenge to try ‘to read their minds’ (in terms of looking for evidence of understanding).

Terminology

One observation was that there were occasional differences in the way that terminology was used within the module. There were also differences in terminology between modules, i.e. the terms ‘use cases’ and ‘scenarios’ are different in modules such as M256 (which is a Java module). Some English as a Second Language (ESL) students can find things especially difficult, since there are so many terms (especially in terms of the usability and the user experience goals).

Culture

Block 2 contains a section on culture and cultural dimensions, which hasn’t made it into the replacement module, TM356. Students sometimes took the section about culture very literally, but this aspect of the module did lead to some really lively discussions during tutorials. Even though the research about culture that is featured in block 2 can be criticised very easily, it offered a useful vocabulary.

Module team

The overwhelming view was that the module team responded to any problems and issues very quickly and efficiently. (This view wasn’t just expressed because a member of the module team was at the debrief meeting). 

Monitoring

During the module, monitoring was, by and large, allocated to a single monitor. Once that monitor had decided to move on, or wasn’t available, monitoring responsibility was handed over to another volunteer. There was the view that monitoring could have been distributed more widely across all the tutors. Key points were: ‘you learn more from monitoring than being monitored’ and ‘you see how others are marking’.

Tutor resources

One thing that I’ve noted down was that a roadmap of the course would be considered to be useful. Perhaps there could be more materials about the ‘mindset of correct, not correct’ answers. A challenge for new tutors is to understand the philosophy of the module, and it might be useful to convey the point that feedback to students has to be relevant to context of the tuition (or, put another way, tutor comments have to be aligned with and relate to what the students have submitted).

Something else that would be useful would be to have specimen TMA solutions: one that is very good, another that might be mediocre, to allow tutors to ‘align’ their marking.  In a similar vein, it would be useful to share different examples of marking practice.

Guidance to tutors is considered to be important: encourage new tutors to be flexible, and tell them not to be afraid of moving away from the module materials (if they find it appropriate to do so). Also, don’t expect to be perfect; this is a subject that doesn’t have perfect answers. 

Further work

During the debriefing event (which was, in essence, a focus group), I made a recording of all the discussions. My next step is to transcribe the recording so I can try to compose a distilled summary of what amounts to over 10 years of collective distance learning teaching practice of a subject that I feel is pretty difficult to teach. At the same time, I hope to present a short seminar so I can more directly share stories and experiences with some of my colleagues who teach different Computing and IT modules. I have no idea when I’m going to be able to do this, though; I’ll just try to fit it in when I can!

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AL moderators training: using OU Live

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 21 Nov 2016, 15:12

The university makes extensive use of a software tool known as OU Live, which allows tutorials to be delivered over the internet. OU Live is, essentially, a branded version of a conferencing and teaching product called Blackboard Collaborate. In the next few years or so, this tool will be replaced with something else, but before this happens tutors are regularly encouraged to attend a series of online training sessions.

Despite being relatively familiar with OU Live, I decided to book myself onto one of these sessions. This blog post is a version of some rough notes that I made during and after the ‘AL moderators’ course that I went on.  (I took these notes back in May, and I’m writing this blog in November, so I hope I can remember everything correctly!)

My main comment is: if you’re an associate lecturer, and you need to deliver the occasional OU Live tutorial, either by yourself, or with other tutors, do try to find the time to book yourself on this course. It’s a pretty useful and it won’t take up too much of your time. It’s also a really useful thing to put on an application form for any other tutoring role that might take your fancy.

Notes

There were three sessions. The first session began with a set of introductions: I really liked the approach that was taken. All participants were asked to put up their hand by clicking on the ‘hand raise’ button. This had the effect of creating an orderly queue of who is going to speak. During the intro, the facilitator got everyone used to turning the ‘talk’ button on and off (which has the effect of preventing background noise). I’m going to term this practice: ‘good microphone hygiene’.

The facilitator had prepared a number of slides and used an interesting technique to create an animation: parts of the slide were covered up with squares which could be dragged out of the way to reveal answers (or other types of information). By way of analogy, think of a big piece of paper that was covered with pieces of card. It was a neat trick!

We were shown how to use OU Live pointers. I tend to use these quite a lot, since they can make things interesting. You can emphasise different points, and move different types of pointer to different parts of a slide.

An interesting open question given to all participants was: ‘What are you looking for from this module?’ It’s a really neat question that gets us talking. Different participants had different perspectives, and the answers allowed the facilitators to create a session that was specialised to those who were attending.

A topic that is regularly discussed is the use and etiquette about recordings. The policies for recordings are not as well defined as they ought to be, but I hold the simple opinion that tutors should always make recordings. In my eyes, recordings have three uses: (1) they help students who have not been able to attend, (2) they can help students who have attended who want to listen to stuff a second time, and (3) can advertise how engaging sessions are, and what a student might miss if they don’t attend a live session. (I don’t hold the view that if you record a session students won’t bother to come along).

Regarding the third point, I remember that there was a discussion session, where the recording was turned off, and a timer was turned on. The timer is a countdown timer, which makes an audible ‘ping’ sound when the time runs out. Two thoughts were: those students who are not attending the live session will miss out on this bit, and ‘I’ve never used a timer before, and it looks like a really useful feature!’

Looking at another tutor’s OU Live session (or teaching practice) really helps you to think about your own. One thing that struck me from the Tutor Moderator’s session was how much space was given over to questions. My own practice is slightly different; I tend to ask for questions at the end (after turning the recording off, to allow students to speak freely). I don’t know whether there is a right or wrong way to do things.

One of the most memorable parts of the course was the bit about breakout rooms. Breakout rooms are virtual spaces where participants can chat between themselves, usually to discuss a predefined issue or problem. Facilitators can also share whiteboard slides to breakout rooms, and can also collate slides from breakout rooms into the main presentation; imagine giving pairs of students’ big pieces of paper which they can write onto during their chat. We were encouraged to click and drag participants between different rooms.

Towards the end of the session, we were asked to consider the difference between ‘ice breaker’ and ‘warm up activity’. I hadn’t ever heard the term ‘warm up activity’ before. I now understand it to be something that a student can do in the moments before the start of an OU Live session. An example might be a message on a whiteboard that goes: ‘write your name, and where you are from’. A warm up activity helps participants to become familiar with the OU Live interface and how it works. An ice breaker, on the other hand is, of course, might be all about talking.

The next step was to share a bit of ‘online teaching’ with someone else who was on the course. Since beginning to study for a PGCE at another institution, I’ve learnt that this kind of practice can be known as ‘microteaching’. In the context of this course, I have to confess that I found myself too busy with various admin activities to complete this bit, which is a shame. If you do this tutor moderators course, don’t repeat my mistake!

Final thoughts

A couple of interesting questions to ask are: ‘what did I get from doing this?’ and ‘where would I use what I have learnt?’

The most useful thing that I learnt was about breakout rooms. Before this session, I didn’t really know how to create breakout rooms, and I found the opportunity to practice really helpful. The idea of dragging live students around on a screen into virtual rooms is pretty terrifying, but it’s a whole lot easier if you’re doing this with a bunch of fellow tutors who are just as befuddled as you are.

Would I use the ‘using white squares to hide bits of the screen’ technique? Probably not. It was a neat idea, but my own practice is to very carefully prep some slides and to use pointers a lot. This said, it’s an interesting technique, and one that I will think about.

I really liked the idea of a warm up activity. I might give this a go.

Since attending the tutor moderator’s course, I’ve used breakout rooms twice. I ran two cluster briefings. A ‘cluster briefing’ as I call them is an online meeting where all the tutors in a group tuition cluster informally discuss tutorial plans. If you are an associate lecturer, and you’re reading this, and you would like a cluster briefing before the next presentation of your module, do ask your staff tutor to run one!

Another question is: ‘what next?’ Or, put another way, ‘what would I like to do better in OU Live?’ The answer to this is ‘team teaching’. At the time of writing, there isn’t any guidance about team teaching best practice with OU Live. Perhaps I’ve stumbled across a whole new research project… Do get in touch if you’re interested in collaborating! 

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Ten Forum Tips

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I spend quite a lot of time using on-line discussion forums that are used as a part of a number of Open University modules I have a connection with.  I also wear a number of different ‘hats’; as well as being an Open University tutor, I also spend time visiting forums that are run by other Open University tutors in my role as a staff tutor.

A couple of years ago, I was sent a copy of a book called e-moderating (book website) by Gilly Salmon, who used to work at the Open University business school.  The e-moderating book is really useful in situations where the discussion forums constitute a very central part of the teaching and learning experience.  Salmon offers a raft of useful tips and offers us a helpful five stage model (which can be used to understand the different types of interaction and activities that can take place within a forum).

Different modules use discussion forums in different ways.  In some modules, such as H810 Accessible on-line learning they are absolutely central to the module experience.  In other modules, say, M364 Interaction Design, they tend to adopt more of a ‘supporting’ rather than a ‘knowledge creation’ role.

Just before breaking for Christmas and the New Year, I started (quite randomly) to write a list of what I thought would be my own ‘killer tips’ to help tutors with forums.  This is what I’ve come up with so far.

1. Be overly polite

One phrase that I really like is ‘emotional bandwidth’.  In a discussion forum, we’re usually dealing with raw text (although we can pepper our posts with emoticons and pictures). 

This means that we have quite a ‘narrow’ or ‘low’ emotional bandwidth; our words and phrases can be very easily misunderstood and misinterpreted by others, especially in situations when we’re asking questions with the objective of trying to learn some new concept or idea.  Since our words are always ambiguous, it’s important to be overly polite.   

Be more polite than you would be in real life!

2. Acknowledge every introduction

The start of a module is really important.  The first days or weeks represent our chance to ‘set the tone’.  If we set the right tone, it’s possible to create momentum, to allow our discussion forums to attract interaction and conversation.

A good idea at the start of a module is to begin an ‘introduction’ thread.  Start this thread by posting your own introduction: set an example.  When other introductions are posted, take the time to send a reply to (or acknowledge) each one.

3. Use pins

Some discussion forums have a feature that allows you to ‘pin’ a discussion thread to the top of a forum. 

The act of ‘pinning’ a thread highlights it as something that is important.  Pins can be really useful to highlight discussions that are current or important (such as an activity that needs to be completed to prepare for an assignment, for example).  Subsequently, it’s important not to pin everything.  If you do, students will be unclear about what is important and what is not and this risk hiding important discussions. 

Use ‘pinned threads’ in a judicious way and regularly change what threads are pinned (as a module progresses) – this suggests that a forum is alive and active.

4. Tell your students to subscribe

There are a couple of ways to check the OU discussion forums.  One way is to login regularly and see whether anyone has made any new posts.  Another way is to receive email updates, either from individual threads or from whole discussion forums.  At the start of a module presentation, it’s a good idea to tell your student group to subscribe to all the forums that are used within a module.  One way to do this is by sending a group email.  When a student has subscribed they are sent an email whenever anyone makes a post or sends a reply (the email also contains a copy of the message that was posted).

One of the really good things about using emails to keep track of forums is that it’s possible to set up ‘rules’ on an email client.  For example, whenever a forum related email is received, it might be possible to transfer it to a folder based on the module code that is contained within the message subject.  This way, you can keep on top of things without overloading your inbox.

5. Encourage and confirm

Busy forums are likely to be the best forums.  One approach to try to create a busy forum is to do your best to offer continual encouragement; acknowledge a good post and emphasise key points that have been raised.  (Salmon writes about weaving together and summarising a number of different discussions). 

Another really great thing to do is to seek further confirmation or clarifications.  You might respond to a message by writing something like, ‘does this answer your question?’  This keeps a discussion alive and offers participants an opportunity to present alternative or different perspectives.

6. Push information about TMAs

Tutor marked assignments (TMAs) are really important.  As soon as a TMA is submitted, students will generally expect them back within 10 working days (which is the university guideline).  Sometimes TMAs are returned earlier, and in some situations (with permission from the staff tutor), it can take a bit longer.  A forum can be used to provide ‘push’ updates to students about how marking is progressing.  Once a TMA cut-off date has been met, a tutor could start a forum thread entitled, ‘TMA x marking update’. 

When you’re approximately half way through the marking, one idea is to make a post to this thread telling them.  Also, if your students have subscribed, they’ll automatically receive the updates.  This reduces pre-TMA result anxiety (for the students), since everyone is kept in the loop about what is happening.  (The thread can also be used to post some general feedback, if this is something that is recommended by the module team).

7. Advertise tutorials

Open University tutorials can be either face to face (at a study centre, which might be at a local university or college), or can take place on line through a system called OU Live.  A post to a discussion forum can be used to remind students about tutorials.   They can also be used to offer some guidance to students to help them to prepare for the session.  You could also ask whether students (in your group) have any particular subjects or topics that they would like to be discussed or explored.

After the tutorial, a forum can be used to share handouts that were used during either an on-line session or a day school.  It also offers students an opportunity to have a discussion about any issues that (perhaps) were not fully understood.  Also, during a tutorial, a tutor might set up or suggest a long running research task.

There are a number of advantages of connecting tutorials to forum discussions.  Those people who could not attend can benefit from any resources that were used during an event.  It also allows a wider set of opinions and views to be elicited from a greater number of students.

8. Provide links

A subject or topic doesn’t begin and end with the module materials.  During the presentation of a module, you might inadvertently see a TV programme that addresses some of the themes that are connected to a particular topic of study.  A forum is a great way to contextualise a module by connecting it to current stories in the media and one way you can do this is by either posting links to a news story (or series of stories), or perhaps by starting a discussion.

As well as sharing news stories, you can also use discussion forums to alert students to some of the study skills resources that have been developed by the Open University.  There are also some library resources that might be useful too.  Other resources might include OpenLearn resources, for example.  A forum is a great way to direct students to a wide array of useful and helpful materials.  You might also want to ask other tutors (using the tutors’ forum) about whether any other tutors have suggestions or ideas.

9. Visit other forums

Every tutor does things slightly different; no tutor is exactly the same, and this is a good thing.  If you tutor on a module, there’s a possibility that you might be able to view another tutor’s discussion forum.  If you have the time, do visit another tutor’s forum.  Some good questions to ask are: ‘at a glance, do the students look engaged?’ or ‘how busy is this forum?’  Other questions might be, ‘what exactly is the tutor doing?’ and ‘ how are they asking questions?’  This allows you to get a view on how well a forum is being run.  When you see a busy and well run forum, ask the question: ‘is the tutor doing something special here?’  If so, what is it?  Sometimes, of course, certain cohorts can just be pretty quiet; some years are more busy than others.

After visiting a forum, the best questions to ask are, ‘what have I learnt?’ and ‘is there anything that I could or should be doing with my forum?’

10. Form forum habits

The more that you’re active on a forum, the more useful a forum can become for students.  Find some time, every day, or every couple of days, to read through and respond to forum posts.  This will keep your forums fresh and alive; they may even acquire a ‘stickiness’ of their own and become pages that students are drawn to time and time again.

Summary

This quick blog post summarises a number of ‘forum tips’ that I’ve discovered over the last couple of years of working with different modules.  Some of these ideas have, of course, been shaped by the e-moderating book that I have mentioned earlier.  E-moderating is a book that is useful for some modules and not others since different modules use forums in slightly different ways.  Although a module team might use a forum in a particular way, it is always going to be up to you, a tutor, to take ownership of this important learning space.

Finally, if you would like to add to these tips (or even disagree with them), please don’t hesitate to let me know!

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Ravina Talbot, Sunday, 3 Feb 2019, 15:44)
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