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TM470 Choosing a project

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 8 Feb 2023, 19:04

I’m a tutor for the Open University's TM470 Computing and IT project moduleTM470 is different from most other OU modules, since it is less about learning about Computing and IT concepts, and more about applying what has been learnt. 

When I was a computing undergraduate, I had to write a dissertation. I had to identify a problem, do some background reading, figure out what I needed to do, go ahead and do what I needed to do, and then write everything up. TM470 asks you to follow a similar process, whilst offering some helpful guidance.

One of the most important decisions that has to be made is choosing a project, or identifying a problem that you want to solve. 

This blog has been written for TM470 students, and aims to share some useful advice and pointers to help you with the process of choosing a project. This post accompanies earlier articles that I have written relate to TM470, which can be found by following my TM470 blog tag (OU blog). The articles about Understanding the literature reviewAcademic writingand the TM470 Project report structure might be helpful.

In essence, the project is all about showing off: showing off how you can use the skills and knowledge you have acquired throughout your studies. It is also about showing off how you’re able to plan. Finally, it is an opportunity to show off what you have learnt from the process of completing a project.

Starting points

Within the resources section of the TM470 website, there is a section called Study Materials. 

At the start of TM470, it is recommended that you have a good look through four different resource sections:

  • Study Guide
  • Project Choice
  • Sample Project Titles
  • Choosing a Lifecycle Model

Defining a project

The module materials shares dictionary definition of a project: “a carefully planned piece of work to get information about something, to build something, to improve something, etcetera.” 

It goes onto mention some of the key characteristics of a project:

  • They are unique – i.e. specific to a particular set of circumstances and not part of routine activity – and would not arise without deliberate intervention.
  • They are planned around a collection of available resources, schedules, budgets, etcetera.
  • They are self-contained around aims and objectives, and it is possible to decide when they are complete, and whether they have been completed successfully.

For TM470, the module team suggests that a project should:

  • identify a problem,
  • be practical or have a strong practical context,
  • have a proposed solution using (or related to) computing and IT,
  • include aspects of planning, evaluation and revision,
  • be broadly based on one or more level 3 computing and IT modules
  • will not be pure research but will extend and apply what has previously been learnt at level 3 to a practical problem.

Types of projects

There are, broadly speaking, three different types of TM470 project:

  • Development projects: involve creating something: processes, algorithms, software, hardware, interface design, etc.
  • Research projects: involve addressing a research question or analysing the possible solutions to a research problem, making detailed recommendations. This typically involves investigating the relevant academic area in depth.
  • Evaluation projects: are sometimes named ‘compare and contrast’. You might compare processes, analyse an implementation, assess different user interactions, etc.

The most popular type of project is the development project. This is where you build something, and then write a report that describes what you have built, and how you have built it. You would, of course, start the building after you have done some detailed planning and shared a detailed summary of all the resources and skills you need to start the project.

Sometimes, projects will not have a clear boundary between each of these categories. A development (or implementation) project might contain bits of research, and also bits of evaluation too. A project that is based on the interaction design module is a good example of this, where you might ask the question “is my design any good?”

Project choice guidelines

Your project should address a non-trivial question. The question should not have an obvious answer, and this means that it should be “reasonably difficult” (but not too difficult). It should ideally occupy the time that you have available, the resources that you have access to, and draw on many of the skills that you already have. 

Here are a set of collated and edited tips from both myself and fellow tutors:

  • Your project should ideally be based around a clear, concrete problem or scenario that needs a solution.
  • Your project must have a clear focus and ideally focus on a specific level 3 modules that have been previously studied.
  • Your project should be sufficiently detailed to allow you to achieve significant depth of analysis and reflection about what you have learnt and achieved during your project.
  • You should not attempt to do too much.
  • You should choose something that enables you to play on your existing strengths rather trying to learn an entirely new skill set.
  • You should choose something that you are interested in; this will keep you motivated. Make sure that you have fun whilst working on your project.

Starting your project

The first TMA is all about setting the scene and sharing your project ideas with your tutor. It is also used to help you to plan what you are going to be doing:

  • Choose (and justify) an appropriate lifecycle module; always ask why you have chosen the approach you have chosen.
  • Create a project plan and include this in the TMA (and all subsequent TMAs); create a Gantt chart.
  • In your plan, outline very concrete 'deliverables' (including your TMA submission dates), regardless of the type of project.
  • Take time to identify risks: what are they? Write them down and submit them in your TMA.
  • Make notes of what you have read; this can feed into your literature review, and have a look at the OU library to carry out some further research.
  • Write about the resources that you need, the skills that you need, and the skills that you need to develop.
  • Start to think about ethics.
  • Take time to review all the marking grids that are provided with the TMAs: you can almost mark yourself!

Projects connected to your workplace

If you are thinking of basing your project on something that you do in your workplace, there are a number of things that you need to carefully think about:

  • Timing: does the timing of a work-based project align with the timing of TM470? For TM470, you need to go through a complete project lifecycle, from beginning until end.
  • Who is involved: sometimes work-based projects involve teamwork. If this is the case, whatever you do on a work-based project might not be suitable for TM470 for the simple reason that everything that you do, and you submit in your project report must be all your own work.
  • Planning: are you able to do your own planning for the project? If someone else is doing the planning, or deciding on deadlines for your project work, your work-based project might not be suitable for TM470.
  • Complexity: some work-based project address a very small part of a much bigger project. Are you able to choose something that enables you to demonstrate a breath of skills and abilities?

Essentially, TM470 is all about what you do, and what you learn through the process of completing a project. Another way to choose a project is to think about what skills you might like to develop. Only choose a work-based project if all the above criteria can be met.

The degree apprenticeship version: TMXY475

There are two versions of TM470; a degree apprenticeship version, which goes by the code TMXY475, and the non-degree apprenticeship version. Although the aim and structure is broadly similar, TMXY475 has a slightly different focus to TM470. 

Apprentices who are taking TMXY475 have the challenge of identifying a project that aligns in two different ways: it connects with the level 3 OU modules they have previously studied, and also relates to some task or activity which relates to their workplace. Working with their module tutor and line manager, apprentices must choose a project that aims to address a particular business need, or to provide a clear benefit. Their project must also fit within the module timescales.

An important difference is that apprentices will need to not only write a project report, but also to prepare and deliver a presentation about their project.

Reflections

Choosing the right project at the start of TM470 is really important. If it is too simple, there might not be enough to get your teeth into; you need something that really allows you to show off your skills and abilities.

A TM470 must always link back to Computing and IT, irrespective of how technical it is.

Whilst it is often great to see technical skills demonstrated through an implementation or development project, some of the best projects I have seen have been about design. Rather than developing lots of a code, a project might share a series of detailed designs, which are then thoroughly evaluated, by applying the concepts presented through the interaction design module.

TM470 is all about sharing a technical story about what you have done within your project. Within this wider story there will be other stories, such as a story about your reading and what you know (which is presented through the literature review section), and what you have learnt (through the reflection section). 

The key bits of advice I have are: play to your strengths, and try to have fun with it. If you’re having fun with your project, you’re likely to be motivated. Also, do some thorough planning, write down potential risks, and consider the resources and skills that you need to do what you need to do.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank fellow tutors Chris Thomson and Eleanor Dare, who were kind enough to share some PowerPoint materials which offered useful advice and guidance about TM470 project choice. I would also like to acknowledge the TM470 module team, some of whose words I have creatively shared through this post. I would also like to acknowledge Alexis Lansbury, who is my TM470 line manager.

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

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

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

For reference KSB refers to: Knowledge skills and behaviours. 

PT job description

One of the first slides reiterated the PT job description. 

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

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

ESFA requirements

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

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

Inspection

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

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

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

Skills Scan

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

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

Module briefing documents

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

Tripartite meeting preparation

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

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

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

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

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

Main tasks of the tripartite meeting

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

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

Induction materials

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

Summary

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

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

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

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Digital Technologies Solutions Professional (DTSP) PT Training

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

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

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

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

ePortfolio update

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

Quality improvement plan

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

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

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

A return to face-to-face review meetings

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

Apprentices returning following a study break

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

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

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

Lone working guidance

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

Good academic conduct for apprentices

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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