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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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Visit to PPIG 2018

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 4 Dec 2018, 15:00

On 7 September 2018 I took a break from timetabling and interviewing tutors for a web technologies module and visited a workshop called the Psychology of Programming Interest Group, which was being held in the Art Worker’s guild, London. The workshop took place in an amazing room which was packed with portraits. 

Due to work commitments, I was only able to attend the morning of the 7 September. Due to the shortness of my appearance, I wasn’t going to do a blog, but I was reminded of the event (and one of the presentations) due to an email that was sent to me by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). I’ll explain why later in a moment, but what follows is a very quick sketch of what happened in the bit of PPIG that I attended.

Growing Tips, Sprawling Vines and other presentations

The first presentation that I saw was by Luke Church from the University of Cambridge. I noted down the words “what does it feel like to work with the materials of notations?” (which, of course, refers to the idea of working with programming languages). Luke has previously introduced me to languages about chorography. This time he was talking about a programming language called Autodesk Dynamic Studio. He also mentioned a term that I hadn’t heard of before: diachronics in notation design; the link between time and language. I also remember that Luke showed us a series of animations that illustrated the development of software systems.

Two other presentations followed: one was about different forms of data representation, and another was about exploring how whether it may be possible to detect programmer frustration using unobtrusive sensors, so a teaching environment might be able to provide hints and tips.

Conjuring Code

PPIG is often a workshop that produces surprises; this workshop was no exception. The next part of the workshop was presented by two magicians: Will Houstoun and Marc Kerstein. I noted down the phrase: “what kind of tricks can you do in the digital space?” I learnt of a topic called ‘magic theory’. Digital magic could be considered as a combination of the analogue and digital. Code can be used to create a magic effect, or ‘magic’ could influence code in a way that isn’t clear to the viewer. I noted down an important point that was: “the magician goes to an unfeasible amount of effort to make things work”. 

Explicit direct instruction in programming education

The final presentation I attended was by Felienne Hermans. I made a note that Felienne has a PhD in software engineering but had to ‘teach kids in a local community centre’. I also noted down that she said ‘as a learner [of computing], I wasn’t taught in class…’ and also said that she didn’t appreciate how important syntax was, and that the kids in the community centre were struggling with the small stuff.

To learn more, Felienne asked an important question: ‘how do we teach other things?’ such as reading and mathematics. This question led her to the Oxford Handbook of Reading, where she uncovered different schools of thought, such as the phonics approach vs the whole language approach of language learning. In maths education, I also noted down the dilemma of explanation and practice versus exploration and problem solving. This takes us to another important question, which is: where are the controversies in computer science education? In other words: “let’s start a fight”.

During Felienne’s presentation I noted down a few more things, such as “skills begets ideas”, and a comment about the “rote practice of syntax” which is something that I had to go through as a teenager when I copied out programs that were printed in computer magazines. (An activity that helped me to develop ‘moral fibre’). Other comment that I noted down was: the “sensimotor level is syntax”, and “motivation leads to skills”.

After the event…

Two months after the event, the following note appeared in my inbox, as a part of the ACM circular that I mentioned earlier: “evidence is growing that students learn better through direct instruction rather than through a discovery-based method, where students are expected to figure things out for themselves. In general, it is possible to define direct instruction as explanation followed by a lot of focused practice. . . . In fact, direct instruction works especially well for weaker pupils. . . .  In short, they should teach students directly and reduce the amount of design and problem solving that they ask students to do."

This paragraph that relates to a Communications of the ACM blog by Mark Guzdial, Direct Instruction is Better than Discovery, but What Should We be Directly Instructing? (cacm.acm.org) This also relates directly to a blog by Felienne, Programming and direct instruction (Felienne.com)

Reflections

I really liked what Felienne said about looking to other subject areas for inspiration. As a doctoral student, I remember gate crashing a tutorial session (with permission) about the psychology of reading. The group wasn’t looking so much at how to teach reading, but more at the detail of the cognitive processes that guide reading (I was studying the area of program comprehension at the time). I also agree with her point of having a discussion or a debate about approaches to teaching and learning of programming.

When I wrote this blog, an interesting seminar entitled “The Computing Education Revolution in England: Four years on” was being hosted in the OU school of computing and communications. The seminar related to research into the recent changes to the computing and IT GCSE curriculum. This coincidence implicitly emphasises how important it is to think about not only what is taught, but also how that teaching takes place.

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London AL development conference, May 2018

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The 2018 London OU AL development conference took place on Saturday 19 May at the Wesley Centre, close to London Euston railway station. This blog was published after an earlier blog about the Windsor AL development conference; I seem to have got the order of the blogs mixed up!

What follows is a brief summary of the sessions that I attended, taken from the notes I made whilst I was at the conference. It represents a rough snapshot or sketch of what happened. These are entirely my views; other participants will have attended different sessions and come away with different views. 

Opening keynote: Zahra Alidina

The opening keynote was by Zahra Alidina. Zahra was the youngest person in the country to graduate with a law degree from The Open University at the age of 18, having started to study law at the age of 15.

Zahara said that distance learning provides an academic opportunity to study, but it also gives a great opportunity to become distracted; a reflection that resonated strongly with my own personal experience. There was another opportunity that was said to be important; Zahara was ‘lucky enough to go to face to face tutorials in London’ which led to further opportunities, including the opportunity to mix with other law students, who were all there for each other.

She offered an interesting reflection. I made a note that there was considered to be some stigma attached to distance learning. This stigma doesn’t make any sense, since successful distance learning students have to balance many different aspects and facets of their lives. 

Zahra’s undergraduate studies inspired further study. She said that she was currently studying for a masters and mentioned the bar professional training course at BPP University. Reflecting on her OU studies, I noted down the words: ‘I loved what I learnt and I don’t want it to end’.

Looking toward the future, her focus is on family law. I noted down another quotation: ‘42% marriages end in divorce; it’s important to get divorce right’. Zahra was asked a question about her opinion about the concept of a ‘no fault’ divorce; a topic that was being debated in the media several days before the AL development conference. It’s an interesting subject that leads to a personal reflection; the current categories can encourage divorcing partners to engineer destructive descriptions of ‘unreasonableness’ which may, in many cases, be unhelpful.

The final note that I’ll leave is her own advice for OU students. Again, I will try to quote and paraphrase Zahra: ‘the OU taught me [the importance of] breaks’; do develop a style of learning, and address the need to balance other aspects of life (and hobbies).

Session: understanding teaching through critical incidents

The first session that I attended, was also one that I facilitated. The event is described as follows:  “a critical incident is a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice; it is a useful tool that can help us to think of our own teaching and help us to reflect on how we might approach similar situations in different ways. Drawing on the ideas from Burgum and Bridge, this session presents the principle of the critical incident, shares a framework that enables tutors to further consider critical incidents and allows different tutors to discuss the different strategies they adopted to solve challenging tutoring situations. The resulting discussions will allow us to expose the ways in which tutors can approach problems and learn more about how the university can help address difficult and challenging situations. This is an interactive workshop that is designed to put the focus on sharing and learning about how to develop strategies and resilience amongst and between tutors.”

I first came across the idea of a critical incident when studying for my PGCE in Higher Education at Birkbeck College. I really liked the simplicity of the idea and the way that it helped everyone to talk about our teaching, specifically allowing us to uncover some of the more difficult situations that we might have gained some very useful experience from.

Only 4 tutors attended this session, which I was a bit disappointed with. The session began with a discussion of what is meant by the term ‘critical incident’ followed by a series of discussions. After the event, I had the sense that it didn’t quite work as planned, but all the participants were happy to share their incidents, thoughts and experiences. In some respects, given the lack of numbers, I felt that the session could have benefited from a simple case study (as a backup plan), which was something to bear in mind for future sessions.

Session: STEM faculty

The STEM session was similar to other STEM sessions that were run during other AL development conferences. The session began with an introduction of who is who in the faculty, followed with a discussion of some of terms used by the university: cluster manager, lead line manager, and tuition task manager. It was then onto an introduction of the OpenSTEM degree, and the new Open master’s programme.

The next bit was a discussion about retention and was similar to the session that was ran at the Windsor conference, everyone was asked two questions: what could the university do to help with student retention, and what can individual associate lecturers do? As everyone discussed these issues, I made some notes.

Some key points were: ensure that students are aware of the challenges of study when they are recruited, discourage students from studying a high number of points in situations where they’re not able to cope, reintroduce the concept of tutor councillors (a role that predates my joining of the university), the importance of managing student expectations, a suggestion that students can only register for more than 60 points of study if they speak to someone, create some kind of study plan tool, offer more advice at the beginning about issues such as fee liabilities.

Session: School of Computing and Communications

The final session that I attended was led by my colleague Sue Truby, who took all school participants through the various computing and IT qualifications that were offered by the school. Sue emphasised that the main qualification offered by the school had the magic code, Q62, and went by the title: BSc (Honours) Computing and IT (OU website).  Other notable programmes included a Joint Honours degree with Computing and a second subject (Q67) (OU website), such as Business, Design, Mathematics, Psychology and Statistics. A point was: it is important to choose modules carefully, since the later modules can require knowledge and experience from earlier levels. This is, of course, the Open STEM degree (R28) with offers students more of a free choice. 

Reflections

From my own perspective, the London conference was a very busy event; I played a role in three different sessions: my own, the STEM session and the school session. I would have liked to go to other sessions too, but time was limited.

I thought the keynote was very thought provoking; it emphasised what is possible to achieve, given both determination and opportunity. I felt a little disappointed by my own session about critical incidents, and felt that there was a lot more to be discussed during the STEM session. One thought was that I did feel that there is an opportunity to share more STEM specific stories within that session, but I think that can be integrated into STEM specific events that different schools will run during 2019.On this point, I’ll soon be turning my attention to planning and designing a School AL development conference which will focus on the teaching of computing and IT.

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RSA: Teaching to make a difference, London

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On 3 September 2016 I found the time to attend a short event at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA website) that had the title ‘teaching to make a difference’. This blog summary comes from a set of notes that I made during the event.

Over the last couple of years I have increasingly been involved with and have been thinking about how best to provide continuing professional development (CPD) for Open University associate lecturers. This RSA event was all about how to provide CPD for primary and secondary school teachers; I felt that this event might be able to help me in my day job (but I wasn’t quite sure how).

One of the first speakers of the evening was former Schools minister, Jim Knight. I noted down the sentence ‘more than 2 in 3 [teachers] don’t have any professional development’ (I don’t know the extent of whether or not this is true) and ‘most head teachers do professional development’. An interesting point is that this can be connected to regulatory stuff; things that need to be done to make sure the job is done well.

When delivering a CPD session a few months back I showed tutors different models of teaching and learning, some of which were in the shape of a triangle (which appears to be a common theme!) In this RSA talk we were presented another triangle model. This one had the title: ‘what really matters in education’. The model contained three points that were all connected together: trust (and professionalism), peer learning (learning from each other), and the importance of skills and knowledge.

Another note I scribbled down was: ‘there are CPD standards, [but are they] enough?’ I know of one Open University CPD standard or model, but this made me realise that I ought to know about the other CPD models that might exist. 

Two other notes I made were: ‘intangible assets’ and ‘long term mentoring’. I guess the point is that CPD can build intangible assets into the fabric of an organisation, and this can be closely linked to belonging to a community of people who are involved with teaching. The term ‘long term’ mentoring was also thought provoking: was that something that I unexpectedly and implicitly have been doing in my day job?

I also wrote down the phrases ‘learning from failure’ and ‘equip teachers with CPD; personally develop those teachers who stick with it’. In terms of my own teaching experience, I really relate to the idea of learning from failure; sometimes things just don’t work as you expect them to. It is important to remember that it is okay to take risks, and it is okay if things go slightly wrong. Teachers are encouraged to step back and reflect on what went well, what didn’t, and what could be improved the next time round. During the talk, I was also reflecting on the Open University strategy which has the title ‘students first’. My own view is one that reflects my own perspective: I believe in a parallel but unspoken strategy of ‘teachers first’.

Panel discussion

After Jim’s talk there was a panel discussion between four discussants. The first discussant was David Weston who I understand was from the teacher development trust (charity website). He spoke about big differences between schools. I made the note: ‘I feel alive, pushed; tears, nobody attends to my needs’ (but I’m a little unsure as to what the context was). I did note down five points: (1) help teachers learn; students’ outcomes increases, (2) evidence and expertise (I’m not quite sure exactly what this means), (3) peer support and expert challenge, (4) they need time, and (5) senior learners [need to] make it a priority. (I am assuming that ‘it’ means CPD).

The second discussant, Alison Peacock (Wikipedia) CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching (college website) spoke about CPD standards, trust, expertise and the importance of listening. An interesting thought was that ‘pedagogy is all about experiences’. I didn’t catch the name of the next discussant, but I noted down that ‘taking risks means trust’ and that good teaching means stepping into other people’s shoes.

The final discussant was Matt Hood from TeachFirst (TeachFirst website), the organisation that trains and develops teachers. A key question is: what should CPD entail? I’ve noted down: reading, watching and practice. Matt told us about a couple of interesting web resources and programmes: Teach Like a Champion and Urban Teachers.

Reflections

I’ve had a busy few months: between attending this event and writing this summary, I have returned to being a student again (whilst keeping my day job): I’m studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education at Birkbeck College. I realise that I’m doing this extra bit of studying for one reason alone: to get additional CPD; to learn how to become a better university teacher.

When I looked at my notes again I’m reminded that the higher education sector can learn a lot from other sectors. I’m also reminded that I really ought to look into whether I ought to become more involved in an organisation like SEDA, the Staff and Education Development Association (SEDA website) now that CPD is quite a big part of what I do.

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AL Development: Sketching and Prototyping, London

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On the evening of 8 December 2016, my staff tutor colleague, Asma, set up and ran an associate lecturer development event for tutors who were working on a number of design modules. Incidentally, this was also one of the last AL development events that were run in the London regional centre, before it closes at the end of January 2017.

I usually take notes during these AL development events, so I can share some notes to everyone afterwards, but I became pretty busy chatting to everyone which meant that I didn’t have the time. This blog post is, subsequently, a pretty short one, since I’m relying purely on my fallible memory.

The event was advertised to design tutors in two Open University regional areas: in London, and in the South East. Although design tutors were the main ‘target group’, the event was also open to tutors who worked on a module called TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience (OU website). The aim of the event was to share tips and techniques about prototyping and sketching. These techniques could then, in turn, be shared with students during face to face tutorial sessions.

The session was really informal. It was, in essence, a kind of show case. Different activities and demonstrations were placed throughout the room on different tables, and participants were invited to ‘experience’ sets of different activities. One activity was all about sketching using shade, lines and texture (if I remember correctly). Another was a scene where we could practice still life drawing. In fact, we had a choice: a set of shells, or a set of objects which represented our location.

A collection of objects that represent London as a tourist attraction

I remember two other demonstrations or ‘stands’: one was about the creation of physical prototypes and another was a show and tell about how different drawing and sketching techniques could be used to represent different product designs. I was particularly taken by the physical prototyping demonstration: we were shown card, bendy steel wire (which could be easily bought in a hardware store), and masking tape. The wire, we were told, could be used to add structure to physical objects; pieces of wire could be bent and twisted together, and taped onto the back of segments of card, to create the surfaces of objects.

I tried my hand at sketching, but I have to confess that I didn’t get too far: I soon became engaged in discussions about how these different techniques might be useful during a longer tutorial about physical prototyping. Another thought was: how could we replicate these kinds of prototyping and interactive activities when we have to use online tools? Or put another way, how could we run sessions when students can’t physically get to a classroom. It is clear that there no easy answers; I now wish that I had made better notes of all the discussions!

Not only were we all exposed to a number of different techniques, some of the tutors also had an opportunity to catch up with each other and chat about how a new module was going.

An interesting question is: could it be possible to run an online equivalent of this session? The answer is: possibly, but it would be very different, and it would require a huge amount of planning to make it work: things don’t spontaneously happen in the online world like they can during a face to face session.

Although the office is closing, there are different planning groups that are starting up to try to make sure that essential associate lecturer development activities still continue. I’m not sure when there will be another face to face session quite like this, but I do hope we can organise another one.

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Farewell diversity group

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 17 Nov 2016, 09:26

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been caught up in the middle of something called the group tuition policy. August and September of this year proved to be my busiest ever at the university. I have, however, found the time to write a short article for the associate lecturer magazine called Snowball (I’ll publish a version of it when it has been released). This post isn't about the trials and tribulations of the group tuition policy, but I'm sure I'll be writing about that another time.

Not long after joining The Open University in London I joined something called an ‘equal opportunities and diversity’ group. I soon learnt that the group was a throwback to an old university wide project that aimed to increase institutional awareness about equality and diversity issues. When the original project came to an end, the London group decided to continue for the simple reason: equality and diversity was considered to be an important issue in our capital city.

There was another reason why I joined: I started to self-identify with people who have disabilities (I have a stutter). Even though I’m a middle class hetrosexual white man, I started to realise that it was important to get involved. Firstly, I realised that my perspective might be one that may be of interest. I then formed the opinion that it was important to build and find allegiances with others. There was another perspective, and this was: the E&O group pretty fun group to be involved with.

This blog is, in some ways, a farewell to the group. The group is disbanding since the university has decided, in its infinite wisdom, to close the London office.  I leave the Camden office with a whole bunch of good memories.

Diversity events

Although the E&O group in London didn’t have any official powers within the university, it was charged with doing two things: representing the views of staff and students through the links that the staff have with different parts of the university, and running a ‘diversity’ event every year.

For those who prefer The Daily Mail over The Guardian, this kind of initiative might seem something of an anathema. The ideals are simple: the university has a responsibility to offer education to anyone who walks through its virtual doors. To educate as effectively as possible, we need to know about some of its students. To educate effectively, we need to become educated ourselves. The help Open University students to succeed, we need to have open minds regarding the perspectives of others.

The first event that I was involved with in 2011 was about travel. It was about sharing thoughts and impressions about places that everyone in the London office had come from, or had a connection with, or had visited. A map was put up in the café area and we were encouraged to deface it positively with string, pins, pen and photographs. Our stories and journeys criss-crossed the globe; almost every continent was touched.

The following year saw an event that was about winter celebrations and memories. We shared photographs and had a competition. The event for 2013 had a slightly different tone: it had the title ‘creative aging’; a topic that was thoroughly embraced. One reason is that our students can be of any age (and, of course, we’re all getting that little bit older).

The 2014 event had the title: ‘Open Minds: Mental Health and Diversity Matters’. This event had two different forms: a participative display that was placed in the café area, where we could share experiences and knowledge about mental health issues, and a lecture about staying mentally healthy. The lecture was given by our university mental health advisor. The message was simple: ‘we’re encouraged to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to help with our physical health, so why are we not thinking about things in a similar way about our mental health?’ It’s a compelling point. When we’re so focussed on doing things and dealing with day to day challenges, we can forget to take time out. During the lecture, we were told about an idea called MindApples, which is a London based charity.

Although I enjoyed all these events, the next one was, perhaps, one of my favourites. The 2015 event was entitled: Jokes, Language and Diversity. Humour is a really interesting topic. A good joke or a humorous story can unsettle us and challenge our prejudices (and make us laugh, of course). Humour can, of course, allow us to explore taboos and understand different perspectives. During the event, a series of different performers talked about issues relating to sexuality, race, disability and language.

The final event had the title: Equality and Diversity: Past, Present and Future. This event was centred on another participative display. As well as being a retrospective of all earlier events it also touched upon the subject of utopia: what it meant to different writers and what it meant to the different people who worked in the London regional centre. In some ways, this subject represented another perspective: diversity of thought and diversity of opinion.

The wider perspective

Even though our London diversity group unofficially dissolves at the beginning of 2017, the university has a number of informal staff networks for ‘diverse’ members of staff: there is a disabled staff network, a BME network, a LGBT network, and a women’s network. I was a co-chair of the Open University disabled staff network for a while until I got mad with the ‘network’ scheme and threw all my toys out of the pram.

The reason for my departure from this set of networks was pretty simple: I didn’t feel that the groups were talking to each other, and I felt that the senior management were not taking issues of equality and diversity very seriously. There was another difference: the London diversity group was just that: diverse; it wasn’t a silo: we could talk about anything, and we could challenge each other.

Another reason for leaving the network was down to time: I felt that I could use my time more efficiently by being outside a ‘network’ than within it. Here’s an example: I’ve been lobbying for the university to provide an equality analysis in response to its ongoing restructuring programme (which is a polite way of saying ‘redundancies’ and ‘closures’). This said, I’m not saying that a ‘network’ isn’t useful or important; they may well be very useful in terms of giving voice to some members of staff. My point is: an institutional diversity programme should go further than just having a small number of homogeneous groups.

We learnt some good things in our London group, did some good stuff, and we had some good times. I'm sad that the group is disbanding and the London office is closing (which is something that still baffles me). The success of this group reflects what is really important in the university: its people.

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Digital accessibility in higher and further education conference, April 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 12:06

I’ve been to a couple of events at the British Computer Society (BCS) before. This one was especially interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are over ten thousand students with disabilities studying at the Open University, and it’s important to know what is going on in the field. Secondly, accessibility in higher education is central to a module that I tutor (H810 accessible on-line learning). Another reason, of course, was to catch up with colleagues in other institutions who work in the digital accessibility sector.

This blog post is intended for internal (and external) colleagues, and students who are studying this area. What follows is a quick summary of all the talks I attended. I also hope this summary might be useful for anyone who was at the conference.

Introductions and opening talks

The conference had the subheading: ‘meeting the needs of the increasing number of students with disabilities’. Lord Addington, spokesman for Special Educational Needs (SEN) at the House of Lords, introduced the event. He spoke about the political context, highlighting the importance of employers. A really important point was: ‘please make sure everyone knows what you can do, to make someone’s life slightly easier; let them know you have practical solutions when you talk to people outside this room’.

Accessibility for students with disabilities

The first speaker was Majid Kahn, who spoke about his experience as an undergraduate student who has a visual impairment. An early point that directly resonated with my own knowledge was the difficulties that can surround acquiring assistive technology through the UK Disability Support Allowance (DSA). Due to delays that are inherent in the process, Majid had to obtain a ‘loan’ computer from the RNIB, which arrived one month after the start of a course.

Majid said (according to my notes) that some software not was accessible through a screen reader. An accompanying challenge was accessing text books (and some books that published in PDF format are not accessible). A practical solution was to directly email the author, who could send a Word version (which would then be accessible). Since many documents and resources are accessed through institutional learning environments, Majid commented that ‘Moodle seems to be inaccessible at the moment’. This was a point that I found interesting, since I know the OU has been putting a work into trying to make Moodle accessible. Perhaps there might be differences between how Moodle is set up and used by different institutions.

Another key point was that the training available at university (in terms of how to use systems, products and assistive technologies) is not adequate. This was connected with the view that although things are heading in the right direction, there is a long way to go, and there is a lack of awareness. Awareness is connected to the importance of communication, and the acceptance that every student is different. In some situations, students may be reluctant to ask for help and advice, and some lecturers might be unwilling to offer additional support. To help to facilitate understanding it was considered important to share information; to help university staff to become more aware of the needs of students. 

An industry perspective on what to teach and how

David Sloan is an ‘accessible user experience engineer’. I know David through his publication on the notion of holistic web accessibility (Word doc, University of Bath). David’s job is to provide advice on how to develop and support digital accessibility, which is something that is often thought of ‘very late in the day’, or is considered as an afterthought.  Put another way: ‘organisations pay us to give bad news’. Rather than reporting on what doesn’t work, organisations and universities shouldn’t really focus on ‘evaluating and repairing’, but should instead focus on ‘improving practices and processes from the beginning’.

Some key problems include the lack of web development skills, understanding that not everyone uses a mouse for access, the use of colour, and media accessibility, i.e. offering alternative (useful) descriptions for graphics.

A fundamental problem can relate to the organisational perspective; accessibility not being connected to good experience design, or accessibility being ‘hived off’ into another part of interaction design. The key point is that accessibility needs to be built into development processes, and this relates to the idea of an ‘accessibility design maturity continuum’ http://uxfor.us/mature-it (Paciello group); accessibility shouldn’t be added as an afterthought.

There are a number of challenges for educators: the importance of integrating accessibility into the curriculum, that digital literacy and accessibility communication should be embedded into all subjects (and not just information technology or computing sciences), and that it should be integrated into learning activities, experiences and assessment. It is also important to include accessibility as a core professional skill.  David went on to suggest that there might be increased professionalization of accessibility, and mentioned something called TeachAccess.org (TeachAccess website).

As David was talking, I had a thought which relates to the complexities that are inherent in accessibility. Whilst it is possible to create accessible resources and accessible software, every learner is different in terms of their personal needs and their learning strategies. Learners need to develop expertise and mastery over their tools. This is, of course, something that takes time.

Accessible STEM: Anticipating and resolving barriers

Emma Cliffe works in the accessibility resource centre in the University of Bath. Emma helps to provide accessible solutions for maths, computing, and subjects that present a lot of diagrams.

When it comes to maths, a really important point is that students are expected to produce assignments that their lecturers can read; students invariably need to show their working to demonstrate their understanding of mathematical concepts. One of the issues is that some digital formats (such as PDFs, for example) are ‘lossy’, which means that they lose some of their important semantic information when PDF documents are created.

Lecturers need to provide materials in a format that retains the ‘semantic structure’ (or meaning) of the maths that they aim to teach. Emma mentioned a range of tools and formats: structured Word documents, structured HTML documents, MathML, or Tex plus something called MathJax, Markdown, or ePub3. 

As a brief aside, Tex is a typesetting language which is used with Latex, which mathematicians often use to write technical papers. I’ve used Latex in anger only once, and found it very difficult! I hadn’t heard of something called MathJax before.

 A key question is: how do you author mathematics? The answer is: it is a skill that needs to be learnt (and, of course, takes time to master). This area is one that is rapidly changing, and is difficult for disabled support allowance (DSA) assessors to keep up.

Emma moved onto looking at a subject that that cropped up in my undergraduate studies: finite state automata, which are usually represented through diagrams (using circles and arrows). A finite stage machine is an abstract machine that moves between different states of operation. The thing is, it’s pretty difficult to describe them. To emphasise this point, we were shown different types of descriptions, some more descriptive and wordy than others.

Reflecting on David’s session, I noted that we need to help students to find a choice of tools that work for them. We also need to embed accessibility into procurement processes, and figure out how to integrate accessibility in our teaching (since non accessible students can also benefit from any adjustments that we make). Collaboration is, of course, important too.

Accessibility and MOOCs

EA Draffan from the University of Southampton spoke of a range of different issues that related to accessibility. One point (and I don’t know whether this is true) is that the majority of learners are either middle aged, or elderly.

EA made the really important point that all technologies can be assistive. Some important questions to ask those working in the academic context are: why are we using certain types of multimedia? What are its barriers for use? Do all learners need it? Is personalisation possible?

Rather than presenting research findings, the main point of EA’s presentation seemed to be: MOOC designers and developers need to be mindful about the importance of accessibility. EA went onto talk about different types of accessibility checkers. (There is, of course, the accompanying issue that it can be sometimes difficult to understand and interpret the results from these checkers).

On the subject of MOOCs, I have a couple of research questions (one of which was touched on by EA). The first one is: what do MOOCs about accessibility actually teach? And, secondly, are MOOCs themselves accessible? What are the practical barriers that learners face, and what do they do to get around them?

Parallel session: accessible and adaptable materials and content

The afternoon parallel session consisted of three presentations. The first talk was about ‘how to make PDF documents accessible in virtual environments’, and was given by colleagues from AbilityNet (AbilityNet website). The advice was simple, familiar and effective: create documents using accessible tools, know your audience, don’t use long paragraphs, use headings, use bullet points to break up text, avoid graphics of text, don’t use colours to provide information, and use alternative text for images. Importantly: always consider the semantic structure of a document.

Next up, was an accessibility consultant called Ted Page, who said there were differences between technical accessibility and content accessibility. I think this means that event though something might be accessible through assistive technology, the corresponding content, if read out by a screen reader, might not make any sense at all. PDFs are, apparently, a reasonable solution, but I was interested to hear that MathML is coming to PDF documents (which should add more semantic structure to documents). This echoes Emma’s point that this is a fast moving area.

The third presentation from this session was by Joanna Hunt, from Blackboard. Joanna spoke about a new on-line real-time conferencing system that may replace Elluminate (which is the basis of OU Live, the OU’s real-time tutorial system), which relies on a Java plug-in. This additional bit of Java software can sometimes be a barrier for users. This connects to a wider point that usability and accessibility are intrinsically connected. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a feel for how the new Blackboard system may work (and its accessibility) since it is still under development.

Closing Keynote: Employment prospects of STEM graduates with Disabilities

Peter Looms, from the Technical University of Demark addressed a range of wider issues. Not only is accessibility important in terms of learning resources and classroom activities, but equal access to social activities (of course) is also important. This point is related to the social model of disability. There should be a movement away from solving problems, to removing barriers.

Other points related to the costs of exclusion: there are societal and economic impacts. Assistive technology and digital tools can often be expensive. There are also benefits to inclusion. Peter mentioned Kyle Schwanke, a Microsoft Xbox engineer who has ASD, and touched on the importance of diversity and recruitment. (More information about Kyle Schwanke can be found in a Microsoft People article). The point is that diversity should be viewed as an asset, not a burden. 

Discussion and reflections

During each of the two parallel sessions, each group was asked to consider what might be four points (or steps) to digital accessibility.

Here is a list of the combined points: the importance of consultation (with students), professionalise good teaching practice, improve access to information, put skills before disability (and use the social model of disability), consider using game technology for educating tutors, the importance of doing things the right way, the importance of standards, the importance of involving users, training tutors, and working together.

The final discussions centred upon whether the BCS could embed more accessibility into its core mission, and the extent to which the Teaching Excellent Framework (Times Higher article) may influence practice.

My main concluding thought is that there was one aspect to the conference that wasn’t a surprise, and another aspect that was a surprise. In some respects, all of the subjects and issues that were discussed were quite familiar to me: I am aware of the challenges that surround mathematics, and that we should not be ‘retrofitting’ accessibility to digital materials (but should, instead, think about accessibility from the outset). The surprise was the feeling that there is still a long way to go when it came to educating people about the importance of accessibility.

There are (at least) two reasons why it is important. Firstly, making something accessible, makes things easier for everyone. Secondly, we a moral and a legal responsibility to do something about it. 

For those who are interested, resources from the conference have been made available on the BCS website.

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Locations and equality: everyone has a place

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Feb 2016, 08:56

I have loads of different interests. Computer science, motorcycles and writing are just three of them. There is one interest that cut across different aspects of my life, and that is the academic subject of disability studies. I’m personally touched by the subject and I tutor on a module (H810 accessible on-line learning) that relates to disability and accessibility.

It’s because of this interest, that I joined a London regional equal opportunities and diversity (EO&D) group when I started working at the OU in London.

The EO&D group is a body of staff that promotes Equality and Diversity in the London and South East Open University regions.  The group was formed as a result of a university wide initiative to ensure that university staff are aware of Equal Opportunities and Diversity issues.  Following the official end of the project, the London group remained, primarily because the issue of cultural diversity is especially significant in London.

Even though the group doesn’t have any specific power or authority, it is a group that (in my opinion) is pretty important: its strength lies in the commitment of its volunteers and the networks that they have fostered. The group offers a safe space for staff to raise issues and concerns. It has also been a group that has discussed and debated the implication of university policies. The group has also been responsible for running a series of thought provoking events; we held an event to raise awareness of mental health issues, and recently held event that invited a series of speakers who aimed to challenge our perceptions about a range of different issues.

Closure of regional centres

Some members of the London and South East region equal opportunities and diversity group collectively made a submission to what the university called the locations analysis project. The submission contained a series of points that expressed concerns about what the impact on equality and diversity might be if many regional centres in England closed.

Following a recent EO&D meeting, it was decided to make this submission public. The members of the group are a great bunch: they want to support students, the university, and its mission; but like many of us, they worry about the impact that substantial organisational changes may have on the students that we work to support.

The following points are, pretty much, unedited from the original submission. One additional point has been added, and this relates to student retention, national flexibility and study support. I personally welcome the opportunity to see some of my students for additional support sessions which take place in the Camden office, and I worry that this ability to see real students might be taken away from me.

Submission to the project

This document summarises the position of some of the members of the group and requests the Locations Analysis (LA) team consider a number of very important issues that directly relate to Equality and Diversity.  These points, in turn, relate to the university as a whole. 

Members of the EO&D group rejects the notion that the locations analysis will improve the student experience and help the university to support students.  Instead, the proposals have the potential to undermine the university’s mission. During a meeting, the following points were raised:

  1. Some groups of students will be disproportionately affected. These include: students with disabilities, offender learners, students who are studying within secure institutions (such as psychiatric hospitals), and vulnerable adults.
  2. The London region is the home for an accessibility assessment centre.  In the LA proposals, this centre will be closed, requiring students to visit other centres.
  3. The regional centre is used to run examinations for protected groups of students, such as offender learners who have been released on licence, students who have disabilities, and vulnerable adults.  Since the examinations are run on the university’s premises, the academic integrity and accessibility of venues can be assured.  This facility will no longer be available if the locations analysis plans go ahead.
  4. Detailed in depth knowledge is required to match invigilators to students who have disabilities. This knowledge is based around the location of the invigilators, and the location of the student. This knowledge will be lost if the LA plans, as they stand, go ahead and staff are forced to take voluntary severance, putting the student experience and successful running of examinations at risk.
  5. Detailed in depth knowledge and personal relationships are needed to be built between the university and education officers in prisons and secure units. If these links are lost due to the LA proposals, this will directly and negatively impact on the student experience.  Allocation of tutors to prisoners and vulnerable students very much depend on local knowledge and links to faculty staff, who know about local tutors who are willing and able to support different groups of students.
  6. There will be direct impacts on the university’s ability to check, assess and validate the accessibility of examination and tutorial centres.
  7. The LA proposals will make it more difficult to ensure that tutorial centres and exam centres can more readily respond to individual and unique accessibility adjustments.
  8. Vulnerable students, and students with disabilities will no longer be able to visit the regional centre to gain first hand practical advice from faculty staff and advisors.
  9. Widening participation is both a university and a national policy. Closing regional centres in demographically diverse areas will make it more difficult to plan, instigate and organise focussed widening participation events.  In essence, the LA scheme will make it more difficult to respond to changing and unique differences between diverse parts of England. 
  10. The experience from the closure of East Grinstead clearly suggests that women are disproportionately affected purely because of the number of women who work in regional centres.
  11. The closure of the regions will significantly affect staff who have caring responsibilities.  These members of staff will be unable to readily relocate to another centre, if this option is open to them. 
  12. The following members of the EO&D group holds the view that the LA plans will significantly affect the university’s ability to institutionally take account of the national diversity within England.
  13. The university considers student retention to be a strategically important issue. Not having regional centres will reduce the university’s ability to run, plan and schedule any future nationally focussed retention or recruitment initiatives or programmes. Programmes might include face to face induction sessions and study skills workshops to support level 1 students, or students who may be struggling with different aspects of their studies.

Final points

Most of the points that are here are not about staff; they are about students. I could write a lot more about other impacts, such as our institutional ability to support our diverse group of associate lecturers. I also worry that in dismantling a lot of our organisational structures we will lose a lot of what is good about our organisation: the knowledge and expertise of those who support our students.

When this submission was made, the EO&D group requested that the locations analysis team freely publishes an equality analysis to clearly spell out how they plan to address equality issues and diversity issues. Planning for the closures is going ahead before anyone has seen sight of this analysis.

I look forward to seeing it when it is available. I hope it is available soon.

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Regional closures: what will the impact be?

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I work in the Open University London office as a regional academic, or ‘staff tutor’ as we are colloquially known.

A couple of weeks ago the university council met. One of the outcomes from this meeting meant that the London regional centre (as we know it) will close, and the office space will be given over to FutureLearn, an Open University funded MOOC provider, who are currently housed in the British Library.

London is one of seven regional offices that are going to be shut. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that the impact of these closures are going to be very significant; significant to the university as a whole, significant in the way that we support tutors and students and significant in terms of my day job.

Here’s the most important point: I need an office to do my job.

I need a space to interview tutors. I need a space where I can have one to one chats with students who might be struggling with important parts of their studies. The university needs a space where disability and accessibility assessments can be performed. We also need a space to run tutorials and one off associate lecturer development events. We also need a space to run, and plan, regional outreach and widening participation events. We need a space where we can run our bi-annual AL development conference. We also need a space where we can work with colleagues in other higher education institutions and run academic workshops.

Without a regional centre, or an office that I can regularly use many of these activities will become significantly harder to do. Also, the way that the university supports its associate lecturers (who are, arguably, the most important people within the university when it comes to student support and retention) will be significantly impoverished. It will be harder to get tutors in the same room together, because there will be more barriers and hurdles in our way.

There are other direct impacts on those of us who are staff tutors. One significant impact is that we will have less clerical and administrative support. I work with a great bunch of people who can help me to solve problems. If I need students moved between different groups, I can ask (which means to ‘speak to’) colleagues who get things done. These great people also help us to check documents and to prepare interviews for associate lecturers. When the faculty administrative support moves to Manchester, I shall miss them.

Finally, it’s going to be hard to create and sustain a community of staff tutors. We all need to share war stories about different aspects of our jobs. We need that space to share experience: this sharing of practice is, of course, a really important part of developing excellent teaching. By excellent teaching, I’m not just talking about face to face teaching: I’m talking about correspondence teaching and everything that goes with it.

Working at home will make it harder for us to do all these things: we will lose an important human aspect to our job that is really important. Losing our regional centres will make things harder for us and our tutors. And, sadly, I fear this will also make it harder for us to support our students. 

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The perfect OU Live session

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 1 Sep 2015, 11:25

This is a quick summary of a meeting that occurred on Saturday 27 June 2015 at the university's London regional centre.  The aim of the meeting (or session) was to think about a thought experiment, namely, 'what should the perfect OU Live session look like?'

If you've stumbled across this post via a search engine, then I should (perhaps) say something about what OU Live is: it's a tool that tutors can use to deliver on-line tutorials to their students.  Think of it a bit like Skype with a whiteboard and a bunch of other useful controls (such as a 'happy face' button).

This session was attended by around twelve experienced associate lecturers, all of whom had used OU Live quite extensively with their students. 

This, in essence, is what they said a perfect Computing/ICT session might look like.  (One point to bear in mind is that other disciplines might run slightly different sessions - but more about this later!)

Setting the scene

Firstly, the moment we click on our OU Live room, OU Live should open in an instant.  There should be no delay!  We don't have to download anything extra (or enter any really annoying administrative passwords).  The Java software, which we need to run to use OU Live, should always work perfectly.  We should never have to upgrade it!

With the perfect OU Live session, not only will we have a perfect internet connection (which will never go down), our students will have a perfect internet connection too!  Our connection will be really fast (with little or no latency), and none of our students will be connecting up to our session whilst travelling by train.  An important point is: there will be no delays. 

We should also assume that all students have their own microphones and headsets, all of which are perfect.  This means that there is absolutely no feedback.  Of course, our own audio setup works perfectly, and there are no other software products battling to use our computer's audio channel.

The perfect time, length and group

We decided that the perfect time for the perfect OU Live session would be towards the middle of a module presentation (or, roughly half way through).  This means that, of course, everyone is making pretty good progress, and all students are now familiar with the OU Live interface.  Also, everyone has, what I call, good 'mic hygiene'. This means that students don't leave the microphone switched on (so other students can't speak!)

One important thing to say about our 'perfect group' is that they're all willing to interact; they're all engaged.  No one has kids in the background vying for attention, and there are no cats jumping on keyboards.

A 'perfect size' for an OU Live group would be considered to be around 10-12 students.  Since there would be no technology problems, there won't be any drop outs.  Also, everyone arrives exactly on time.  There will be no one arriving half way through the session asking, 'what have I missed?', or 'could you just go over that bit?'

Ideally, all the students who turn up would belong to our own tutor group.  This way, we know who they are and what their learning needs might be.

Our view was that our perfect session should last anything between 60 and 90 minutes.

(One thing that we didn't talk about was the best time to hold the perfect tutorial)

The perfect preparation

Preparation can be considered from two different perspectives: the tutor's side, and the student's side.  A tutor might prepare by, perhaps, doing a practice run through.  A tutor could also post a copy of a draft agenda on a tutor group forum.

Of course, in a perfect situation, all students would read the OU Live session agenda, and take the time to prepare for the session, which might mean having read sections of module materials, and having some questions to ask the tutor at the OU Live session.

Another thing that we could do to help with our preparation is to ask all our students in advance what topics they would like you to cover.  Since every student reads every message you post on the forum, you're able to design a session that is just for them.

The perfect OU Live tutorial structure

Since we're running 'the perfect session' in the middle of a module presentation, we can dispense with the idea of running any icebreakers: all the students should know each other already.

In our perfect session we would present a short introduction which relates to a set of really clear learning objectives.  This would be followed with a series of short interactive activities (say, around three).  These activities, of course, would be entirely appropriate for OU Live.

Since we (of course) would have planned out everything (and have a backup plan!) we would know how long each activity should take (also, in a perfect world, we would have run the session before, so we know what to expect!)

Towards the end of our tutorial, we would ask all students if they had any questions about what has happened.  We would then do a quick recap of what has happened, and remind everyone about the next TMA cut-off date.  We would also say something about what is going to happen in the next OU Live session (or module activity).

The perfect use of OU Live features

During our session, we chatted about the perfect use of various OU Live features.  One thing we discussed was the importance of polling, i.e. asking our students to respond during a session; students clicking on the 'tick' or the 'happy face' icon.   One suggestion (which was apparently given as a part of Blackboard training, the company that has created OU Live) is to poll students every 20-30 seconds.  Polling will allow you to keep the students engaged; it enables you to check whether everybody understands all the points that you are making (which is important since there's an obvious lack of visual cues).

Even though all students will have perfectly working microphones (with no crackle, delay or feedback), the text chat channel is still considered to be useful.  Students can ask for clarifications.  It can also be used to share links and other resources.  (Such as links to the OU study guides).

During our activities, we might want to use breakout rooms.  Of course, all our breakout rooms will work perfectly!  (There won't for example, be a situation where one student has a microphone and another hasn't)  We would be able to set a timer and move between different rooms, checking on what is happening in each of the sessions.

One of the things that we can't do in breakout rooms is to make a recording.  A related question is: 'should we record our perfect OU Live sessions?'  Different tutors have different opinions about this.  On one hand, a recording of an OU Live session becomes a useful (perfect) resource (that could be potentially referred back to, perhaps during the revision period).  Alternatively, if we record a session, students might argue that they don't need to turn up.  Also, if students know they're being recorded, they would be reluctant to speak.  (This is clearly an issue that is going to be debated for quite some time; there are clear arguments either way).

All tutors have used the application sharing feature of OU Live to show students how to use features of the programming tools that they need to use.  In the case of TU100, this is the Sense environment.  In the case of TM129, this would be RobotLab.  Sharing an application can allow the tutor to ask students some questions to determine whether they understand certain concepts.  It can also be used to demonstrate what happens when you run some code, and also how to begin to use different debugging strategies.  You might also give control of the application to students, so they can demonstrate their skills.

Of course, in a perfect world, the application sharing feature is really responsive!  (One comment was that, in the real world, we might use quite a small window, since this uses less bandwidth)

After the perfect session

At the end of the session, you would post a copy of the slides to your tutor group forum, and share any other resources.  A tutor might also post a number of follow up questions or activities, and the date and time of the next session.

Closing thoughts and acknowledgements

Before running this meeting I had never explicitly asked myself the question of 'what does a perfect OU Live session look like?'  Instead, I had worked on instinct: trying something out, and then reflect on whether it seemed to work or not. 

I found it really useful to hear everyone's opinions and views about what makes a good session.

During our meeting, I remember there was a conversation about OU Live examples.  I've managed to dig out the resource I was once told about.  It's called:  Teaching with online rooms (OU VLE). The page contains a set of different OU Live examples that have been created by tutors who are working in different disciplines. For those who teach programming and computing modules, the 'writing and running simple code' is a really interesting link.  The other resources about level 1 and academic referencing, and study skills are useful too.

I would like to personally hank all the tutors who attended this session for their contributions: everyone who was at the London region on the afternoon of Saturday 30 June contributed to discussions and ideas that led to the writing of this quick blog.  Thank you all!

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Mental health awareness day: London regional centre

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 28 Feb 2019, 12:08

Every year the London region equality and diversity group runs an event.  Over the last two years we’ve run an event about ‘place, location and travel’, and have held an event about creative aging.  This year, the group ran an event on 13 November 2014 about mental health and well-being.  The day was split into two parts.

Part 1 : Participative display

A couple of months before the event we erected two display boards in the university café area.  These boards were to form what we called a ‘participative display’.  Each board had a slightly different purpose.  One board was all about sharing stories, experiences and acknowledging the contributions that people who have mental health issues have made to society.  The second display board was all about ‘resilience’; things that we can all do to ensure that we maintain good mental health.  The rear of this first board was also used to share more factual information about mental health issues.  We put up papers and articles.  I remember there was one article from Science magazine about the prevalence of depression.

When the boards had been put up, the group sent an email around the office telling everyone what the boards were all about, and how everyone might contribute.  To get the whole display, a couple of group members ‘seeded’ the display by adding some broad headings, some thoughts and some initial ideas.

The email messages and the ‘seeding’ did the trick.  As the months passed, different contributions were made.  The contributions included information about writers, academics and performers.  Other contributions had a slightly more personal tone; these were stories of people who had been touched, in some way or another, by mental illness.  The board became a catalyst for sharing.

Part 2 : Mental health and wellbeing

On the day of the event, we had asked a university colleague, Emma Greenstein, to come and speak to us.  Emma works for the university disability advisory service as the university mental health adviser.  Her job is to work with staff to help to offer support for students who have mental health difficulties.  I’ve had to chat to Emma a number of times and she has helped me out on a number of occasions.

Emma intended that her talk was to be interactive.  A part of her talk was to bust some myths, introduce us to some facts and terminology.  Emma introduced us to a model called ‘the mental health continuum’.  This was a simple model that had two axes: one axis that goes from 'diagnosis of mental illness' through to 'no diagnosed mental illness' (I should also mention that the model is about rating the severity of a mental illness).  The other axis goes from 'flourishing mental well being' through to 'poor mental well-being'.  (I have read that this model comes from a paper from Tudor entitled, ‘Mental Health Promotion’).  Here's a diagram that is pretty similar to the one that Emma used on the day:

Mental health model diagram

The model enables us to think beyond diagnostic labels, which can easily over simplify things.  A really interesting point that was raised was that we can all experience mental health difficulties.  The term ‘difficulties’ can mean feeling worries or anxiety, through to the experience of feelings of grief or loss.

Another interesting point that was made (and also emphasised) was the differences between people.  Emma said: ‘If you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia, you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia’.  It was a phrase that I’ve heard before, but in relation with students who experience different conditions.  Its use in this context emphasised the importance and need to treat and consider everyone as individuals.

During the session we were shown a short video:  I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube).  The video comes from a book that one of my favourite friends had once shown to me.  It’s a book that one of my colleagues had also brought along to the session.

We returned to the mental health continuum where we were asked two questions: ‘where are you now?’ and ‘where have you used to be?’  It didn’t take me too long to identify two points in two different places.  There was an important point here: that we can move between different points on the continuum.

On the subject of change, we were introduced a series of three short films that were made as a part of the recent Time to change campaign (campaign website).  The first film has the title speaking up (YouTube).  There are two other clips: you can recover (YouTube), and stronger, better, person (YouTube).  These videos are pretty short and pretty watchable too.

If we can place ourselves on a continuum, then a related question is: what can we do to promote our own resilience?  We were directed to a site called Mind Apples (mindapples.org) which I understand was created by a web developer.  The idea is really simple: there’s a lot of talk about the importance of eating five fruit and vegetables per day.  (I do struggle to do this, mostly due to the overabundance of cake that there seems to be at the OU office in London, but I’m not complaining!)  If we consider doing five good things for the body, why shouldn’t we consider doing five good things for our mind?  The idea is: what five things make you happy? Or what five things should you be doing that could make a positive difference to your mental well-being?  The website phrases it in a better way by asking: ‘what do you do regularly to take care of your mind?

A point I noted was that our actions and choices are important.

Final thoughts

At the end of Emma’s session, something really interesting happened: colleagues who had made contributions to our participative display were asked whether they wanted to say something about what they had added.  This gave way to a series of amazing impromptu talks about a range of different issues, worries, concerns and experiences.  Everyone took the time to listen. In that space and situation, what was said was both important and interesting. In an atmosphere of respect and mutual support, we began to talk about mental health, mental well-being and resilience.  Suddenly, these subjects didn’t seem so hard.

After the talks, we all broke off for some lunch. The equality and diversity group had made a special trip to the supermarket to buy some bread, cheese, salad, some juices and other goodies to accompany awesome home-cooked food that some of our colleagues had prepared. There seemed to be a consensus amongst those of us who helped to run the event: this had been the best, most challenging, and most useful event that we had run. Our participative display worked.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Emma Greenstein who commented on an earlier version of this post, and all my colleagues who worked on the event and made amazing contributions.

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New Technology Day - June 2014

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 8 Oct 2019, 17:42

This post is a quick summary of a New Technology Day event that took place at The Open University London regional centre on Saturday 14 June 2014.  I’ve written this post for a number of reasons: for my esteemed colleagues who came along to the day, so that I help to remember what happened on the day, so that I can share with my bosses what I’m getting up to on a day to day basis, and for anyone else who might be remotely interested.

One of the challenges that accompanies working in the area of technology, particularly information technology and computing, is that the pace of change is pretty relentless.  There are always new innovations, development and applications.  There are always new businesses doing new things, and using new techniques.  Keeping up with ‘the new stuff’ is a tough business.  If you spent all your time looking at what was ‘new’ out there, we simply wouldn’t get any work done – but we need to be understanding ‘the new’, so we can teach and relate to others who are using ‘all this new stuff’.

The idea for this day came from a really simple idea.  It was to ask colleagues the question, ‘have you heard of any new technology stuff recently?  If so, can you tell me about it?’  Rather than having a hard and fast ‘training’ agenda the idea was to create a space (perhaps a bit like an informal seminar) to allow us to have an opportunity to share views and chat, and to learn from each other.

Cloud computing

After a brief introduction, I kicked off with the first presentation, which was all about cloud computing.  A couple of weeks back, I went to a conference that was all about an open source ‘cloud operating system’ called OpenStack as a part of some work I was doing for a module team.  The key points from the presentation are described in a series of two blog posts (OU Blog)

Towards the end of the presentation, I mentioned a new term called Fog Computing.  This is where ‘the cloud’ is moved to the location where the data is consumed.  This is particularly useful in instances where fast access times are required.  It was interesting to hear that some companies might also be doing something similar.  One example might be companies that deliver pay-on-demand streaming video.  It obviously doesn’t make a lot of sense if the movies that you want to see are located on another continent; your viewing experience may well be compromised by unforeseen network problems and changes in traffic.

It was useful to present this since it helped to clarify some of my understandings, and I also hoped that others found it interesting too.  Whilst the concept of a ‘cloud’ isn’t new (I remember people talking about the magic of an X.25 cloud), the technologies that realise it are pretty new.   I also shared a new term that I had forgotten I had written on one of my slides: the concept of a devop – someone who is also a developer and an operator.

JuxtaLearn project

The second presentation was about the JuxtaLearn project, by Liz Hartnett, who was unable to attend.  Liz, however, still was able to make an impact on the event since she had gone the extra mile to make an MP3 recording of her entire presentation.  Her talk adopted the PechaKucha format.  This is where a presenter uses 20 slides which change every 20 seconds.  Since her slide deck was setup to change automatically, it worked really well.

We learnt about the concept of the threshold concept (which can be connected to the concept of computer programming) and saw how videos could be made with small project groups.  I (personally) connected this with activities that are performed on two different modules: TU100 My Digital Life, and T215 Communication and Information Technologies, which both ask students to make a presentation (or animation).

OU Live and pedagogy

The next talk of the day was by Mandy Honeyman, who also adopted the PechaKucha format.  Mandy talked about a perennial topic, which is the connection between OU Live and pedagogy.  I find this topic really interesting (for the main reason that I haven’t yet ‘nailed’ my OU Live practice within this format, but it’s something that I’m continuing to work on).  I can’t speak for other people, but it has taken me quite a bit of time to feel comfortable ‘teaching’ using OU Live, and I’m always interesting in learning further tips.

Mandy has taken the time and trouble to make a version of her presentation available on YouTube.  So, I’ve you’ve got the time (and you were not at the event), do give this a look.  (She prepared it using PowerPoint, and recorded it using her mobile phone).

The biggest tip that I’ve made a note of is the importance of ‘keeping yourself out of it’, or ‘taking yourself out of it [the OU Live session]’.  When confronted by silence it’s easy to feel compelled to fill it with our own chatter, especially in situations where students are choosing not to use the audio channel.

One really interesting point that came out during the discussion was how important it is to try to show how to use OU Live right at the start of their journey with the OU.  I don’t think this is done as it could be at the moment.  I feel that level 1 tutors are implicitly given the challenging task of getting students up to speed with OU Live, but they will already have a lot on their hands in terms of the academic side of things.  I can’t help think that we could be doing a bit better when it comes to helping students become familiar with what is increasingly become a really important part of OU teaching and learning.

It was also mentioned that application sharing can run quite slowly (especially if you do lots of scrolling) – and one related thought is that this might well impact on the teaching and learning of programming.

A final point that I’ll add is that OU Live can be used in a variety of different way.  One way is to use it to record a mini-lecture, which students can see during their own time.  After they’ve seen them, they can then attend a non-recorded discussion seminar.  I’ve also heard of it being used to facilitate ‘drop in sessions’ over a period of a couple of hours (which I’ve heard is an approach that can work really well).

Two personal reflections that connect to this session include: we always need good clear guidance from the module team about how they expect tutors to use OU Live, and secondly, we should always remember to give tutors permission to use the tool in the ways that make the best use of their skills and abilities, i.e. to say, ‘it’s okay to go ahead and try stuff; this is the only way you can develop your skills’.

The March of the MOOCs

Rodney Buckland, a self-confessed MOOCaholic, gave the final presentation of the morning.  The term MOOC is an abbreviation for Massive Open Online Course.  From the sound of it, Rodney has taken loads.  (Did he really say ‘forty’?  I think he probably did!)

He mentioned some of the most popular platforms.  These include: Coursera, Udacity and FutureLearn (which is a collaboration between the OU and other universities).  Rodney also mentioned a swathe of less well known MOOC platforms, such as NovoEd.   A really interesting link that Rodney mentioned was a site called MOOCList which is described as ‘an aggregator (directory) of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from different providers’. 

Rodney spoke about his experience of taking a module entitled, ‘Science of the solar system’.  He said that the lecturer had really pushed his students. ‘This was a real surprise to me; this was a real third level physics module’.

A really important point was that MOOCs represented an area that was moving phenomenally quickly.  After his talk had finished there was quite a lot of discussion about a wide range of issues, ranging from the completion rates (which were very low), to the people who studied MOOCs (a good number of them already had degrees), and to the extent to which they can complement university study.  It was certainly thought provoking stuff.

Assistive technology for the visually impaired: past, present and future

The first presentation after lunch was by my colleague Richard Walker.  Richard is a visually impaired tutor who has worked with visually impaired students.  He made the really important point that if an associate lecturer works for an average of about ten years, there is a very significant chance that a tutor will encounter a student who has a visual impairment.  Drawing on his previous presentation, there is an important point that it is fundamentally important to be aware of some of the challenges that visually impaired students can face.

Richard recently interviewed a student who has a visual impairment by email.  Being a persuasive chap, Richard asked me to help out: I read out the role of his student from an interview transcript.  The point (to me) was very clear: students can be faced with a whole range of different issues that we may not be aware of, and everything can take quite a lot longer.

Another part of Richard’s presentation (which connects the present and the future) was all mobile apps.  We were introduced to the colour recogniser app, and another app called EyeMusic (iTunes) which converts a scene to sound.   Another really interesting idea is the concept of the Finger Reader from the Fluid Interface group at MIT.

A really enjoyable part of Richard’s session was when he encouraged everyone to explore the accessibility sessions of their smartphones.  Whilst it was easy to turn the accessibility settings on (so your iPhone spoke to you), it proved to be a lot more difficult to turn the settings off.  For a few minutes, our meeting room was filled with a cacophony of robotic voices that proved to be difficult to silence.

Towards utopia or back to 1984

The penultimate session of the day was facilitated by Jonathan Jewell. Jonathan’s session had a more philosophical tone to it.  I’ve made a note of an opening question which was ‘how right or wrong were we when predicting the future?’

Jonathan referenced the works of Orwell, Thomas More (Wikipedia) and a vision of a dystopian future depicted in THX 1138, George Lucas’s first film.  Other subjects included economic geography (a term that I hadn’t heard before), and the question of whether Moore’s Law (that the number of transistors in a microprocessor doubles every two years) would continue.  On this subject, I have sometimes wondered about what the effect of software design may be if and when Moore’s law fails to continue to hold.

Other interesting points included the concept of the technological singularity and a connection to a recent news item (BBC) where a computer was claimed to have passed the Turing test.

A great phrase was infobesity – that we’re all overloaded with too much information.  This connects to a related phrase that I have heard of before, which is the ‘attention economy’.  Jonathan made a similar point that information is not to much a scare resource.  Instead, we’re limited in terms of what information we can attend to.

We were also given some interesting thoughts which point towards the future.  Everything seems to have become an app: computing is now undeniably mobile.  A final thought I’ve noted down is Jonathan’s quote from security expert, Bruce Schneider: ‘surveillance is the business model of the internet’.  This links to the theme of Big Data (Wikipedia).  Thought provoking stuff!

Limits of Computing

The final talk of the day was by Paul Piwek.  Paul works as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Communications at The Open University.  Paul works on a number of module teams, and has played an important role in the development of a new module: M269 Algorithms, Data Structures and Computability.  It is a course that allows students to learn about some of the important fundamentals of computer science.

Paul’s brief was to talk about new technologies – and chose to explore this by considering the important question of ‘what are the limits of computability?’  This question is really important in computer science, since it connects to the related questions: ‘what exactly can we do with computers?’ and ‘what can they actually be used to calculate?’

Paul linked the title of his talk to the work of Alan Turing, specifically an important paper entitled, ‘on computable numbers’.  Paul then went onto talk about the differences between problems and algorithms, introduced the concept of the Turing Machine and spoke about a technique called proof by contradiction.

Some problems can take a long time to be solved.  When it comes to computing, speed is (obviously) really important.  An interesting question is: how might we go faster?  One thought is to look towards the subject of quantum computing (an area that I know nothing about; the page that I’ve linked to causes a bit of intellectual panic!)

Finally, Paul directed us to a Canadian company called DWave that is performing research into the area.

Reflections

After all the presentations had come to an end we all had a brief opportunity to chat.  Topics included location awareness and security, digital forensics, social media, the question of equality and access to the internet.  We could have chatted for a whole lot longer than we did.

It was a fun day, and I really would like to run another ‘new technology day’ at some point (I’ve just got to put my thinking hat on regarding the best dates and times).  I felt that there was a great mix of presentations and I personally really liked the mix of talks about technology and education.  It was a great opportunity to learn about new stuff.

By way of additional information, there is also going to be a London regional ‘research day’ for associate lecturers.  This event is going to take place during the day time on Tuesday 9 September 2014.  This event will be cross-faculty, cross-disciplinary event, so it’s likely that there might be a wide range of different events.  If you would like some more information about all this, don’t hesitate to get in touch, and I’ll point you towards my colleague Katy who is planning this event.

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OpenStack conference, June 2014 (part 2 of 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 7 Jun 2014, 13:21

This blog post is the second of two that summarises an OpenStack conference that I attended on 4 June in London. 

This second half of the conference had two parallel sessions.  Delegates could either go to the stream that was intended for novices (which is what I did), or go to a more technical session. 

I was quite tempted by the technical session, especially by a presentation that was all about what it means to be an OpenStack developer.  One of the key points that I did pick up on was that you need to know the Python language to be an OpenStack developer, which is a language that is used within the OU’s data structures and algorithms module, M269 Algorithms, data structures and computability

Introduction to OpenStack

The first session of the afternoon was by Kevin Jackson who works at Rackspace.

Kevin said that OpenStack and Linux are sometimes spoken about in similar terms.  Both can be created from distributions, and both are supported by companies that can offer consultancy support and help to move products forward. ‘OpenStack is like a pile of nuts’, said Kevin, and the nuts represent different components.

So, what are the nuts?  Nova is a compute engine, which hosts a virtual machine running in a Hypervisor.  I now understand that a hypervisor can host one or more virtual machine.  You might have a web server and your application code running within this bit of OpenStack.

Neutron is all about networking.  In some respects, Neutron is a virtual network that has been all written in code.  There is more about this in later presentations.  If you have different parts of an OpenStack implementation, Neutron allows the different bits to talk to each other; it pretends to be a physical network.

Swift is an object store, which is something that was spoken about during an earlier presentation.  Despite my earlier description, Swift isn’t really like a traditional file system.  Apparently, it can be ‘rack or cabinet aware’, to take account of the design of your physical data centre.

Cinder is another kind of storage; block storage.  As mentioned earlier, to all intents and purposes, Cinder looks like a ‘drive’ to a virtual machine.  I understand a situation where you might have multiple virtual machines accessing the same block storage device.

Ceilometer is a component that was described as telemetry.  This is a block which can apparently say how much bandwidth is being used.  (I don’t know how to describe what ‘bandwidth’ is in this instance – does it relate to the network, the available capacity within a VM, or the whole installation?  This is a distinct gap in my understanding).

Heat is all about orchestration.  Heat monitors ‘the cloud’, or its environment.  Kevin said, ‘if it knows all about your environment and suddenly you have two VMs and not three, it creates a third one’. This orchestration piece was described as a recipe for how your system operates.

All these bits and pieces are controlled by a web interface called Horizon, which I assume makes calls to the APIs of each of these components.  You can use Horizon to look at the components of the network, for example.  I have to confess to being a bit confused about the distinction between JuJu and this standard piece of OpenStack – this is another question that I need to ask myself.

At the end of Kevin’s presentation, I’ve made a note of a question from the floor which was: ‘why should I go open source and not go for a proprietary solution?’  The answer was interesting: you can get locked into a vendor if you choose a proprietary solution.  If you use an open source solution, such as OpenStack you can move your ‘cloud’ different providers, say, from Rackspace to HP.  With Amazon web services, you’re stuck with using Amazon web services.  In some respects, these arguments echo arguments that are given in favour of Linux and other open source products.  The most compelling arguments are, of course, freedom and choice.

A further question was, ‘how mainstream is this going to go?’  The answer was, ‘there’s many companies around the globe who are using OpenStack as a solution’, but I think it was also said that OpenStack is just one of many different solutions that exist.

OpenStack and Storage made easy at Lush Cosmetics

The second presentation of the day was made by Jim Liddle who works for a cloud consultancy called Storage Made Easy.

Jim presented a case study about his work with Lush Cosmetics.  I’ve made note of a number of important requirements: the data that is stored to the cloud should be encrypted, and there should be ways to help facilitate auditing and governance (of the cloud). 

It’s interesting that the subject of governance was explicitly addressed in this case study.  The importance of ‘institutional control’ and the need to carry out checks and balances is one of reasons why organisations might choose private clouds over public clouds. In the case of Lush, two key drivers included the cost per user, and the need to keep their data within the UK.

A new TLA that I heard was OVF (Wikipedia), an abbreviation for Open Virtualization Format, and is a way to package virtual machines in a way that is not tied to any particular hypervisor (VM container), or architecture.  Other technologies and terms that were referred to included: MySQL, which is touched on in TT284 Web Technologies (OU), Apache, MemCached (Wikipedia) and CentOS.

Deploying Windows Workloads into OpenStack using JuJu

A lot of the presentations had a strong Linux flavour to them.  Linux, of course, isn’t the only platform that can be used to power clouds. Alessandro Pilotti from Cloudbase solutions spoke on the connections between Windows and OpenStack.

Terms that cropped up during his presentation included Hyper-V (a hypervisor from Microsoft), KVM (Kernel based virtual machine, which is Linux hypervisor), MaaS (metal as a service, an Ubuntu term), GRE Tunnels (GRE being an abbreviation for Generic Routing Encapsulation), NVGRE (Network Virtualization using Generic Routing Encapsulation), and RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol).

It was all pretty complicated, and even though I’m reasonably technical, this was at a whole other level of detail.  Clicking through some of the above links soon takes me into a world of networking and products that are pretty new to me.  This clearly suggests that there is a whole lot of ‘new technology’ out there that I need to try to make a bit of sense of, and this, of course, takes time.

Alessandro also treated us to a live video link that showed a set of four small computers that were all hooked up together (I have no idea what these small desktop computers without screens were called; they used to have a special name).  The idea was to show LEDs flashing to demonstrate some remote rebooting going on.

This demo didn’t quite work out as planned, but it did get me thinking: to really learn how to do cloud stuff, a good idea would be to spend time actually playing with bits of physical hardware. This way you can understand the relationships between logical and physical architectures.  The challenge, of course, is finding the time to get the kit together, and to do the learning.

Using Swift in Entertaining Ways

This presentation was made by a number of people from Sohonet a company that offers cloud services to the film and TV industry.  An interesting application of cloud computing is film and video post-production, the part of production where when recordings are digitally edited and manipulated. An interesting challenge is that when it comes to video post-production we’re talking about huge quantities of data, and data that needs to be kept safe and secure.

Sohonet operates two clusters that are geographically separate.  Data needs to be held over different timescales, i.e. short, medium and long-term, depending upon the needs of a particular project.

A number of interesting products and companies were mentioned during this talk.  These include Expandrive where an OpenStack Swift component can become a network drive.  Panzura was mentioned in terms of Swift as a network appliance.  Zmanda and Cloudberrylab were all about backup and recovery.  Interesting stuff; again, a lot to take in.

Bridges and Tunnels – a drive through OpenStack networking

Mark McClain from the OpenStack foundation, talked about the networking side of things, specifically, the OpenStack networking component that is called Neutron.  Even though I didn’t understand all of it, I really enjoyed this presentation.  On a technical level, it was very dense; it contained a lot of detail.

Mark spoke about some of the challenges of using the cloud.  These included a high density of servers, the difficulties of scaling and the need for on-demand services.  A way to tackle some of these challenges is to use network virtualisation and something called overlay tunnelling (but I’m not quite sure what that means!)

Not only can virtual machines talk to virtual drives (such as the block storage service, Cinder), but they can also talk to a virtual network.  The design goals of the network component were to have a small core, and to have a pluggable open architecture which is configurable and extensible.  You can have DHCP configuration agents and can specify network traffic rules.  Neutron is also (apparently) backed by a database and a message queue.  (I also heard that there is a REST interface, if I’ve understood it correctly and my notes haven’t been mangled in the rush to write everything down).

A lot of network hardware can now be encoded within software (which links back nicely to the point about abstraction that I mentioned in the first block).  One example is something called Openvswitch (project website).  I’ve also noted down that you can have a load balancer as a service, a VPN as a service and a firewall as a service (as highlighted by the earlier vArmour talk).

Hybrid cloud workloads

The final talk of the day was by Monty Taylor who is also from the OpenStack foundation.  A hybrid cloud is a cloud that is a combination of public and private clouds (which could, arguably be termed an ‘ecosystem of clouds’).  Since it was the end of the day, my brain was full, and I was unable to take a lot more on board.

Reflections

All this was pretty interesting and overwhelming stuff.  I remember one delegate saying, ‘this is all very good, but it’s all those stupid names that confuse me’.  I certainly understand where he was coming from, but when it comes to talking about technical stuff, the names are pretty important: they allow developers to share understandings.  I’m thankful for those names, although each name does take quite a bit of remembering.

One of the first things I did after the conference was to go look on YouTube.  I thought, ‘there’s got to be some videos that helps me to get a bit more of an understanding of everything’, and I wasn’t to be disappointed – there are loads.  Moving forward, I need to find some time to look through some of these.

One of the things that I’ll be looking for (and something that I would have liked to see in the conference) was a little bit more detail about case studies that explicitly show how parts of the architecture work.  We were told that virtual machines can spin up in situations where we need to attend to more demand, but perhaps the detail of the case studies or explanations passed me by.

This is a really important point.  Some aspects of software development are changing.  I’ve always held the view that good software developers need to have an appreciation of system administration (or the ‘operations’ side of things).  When I had a job in industry there was always a separation between the systems administrators and the developers.  When the developers are done, they throw software over the wall to the admins who deploy the software.

This conference introduced me to a new term: a devop – part developer, part programmer.  Devops need to know systems stuff and programming stuff.  This is a reflection of software being used at new levels of abstraction: we now have concepts such as network as a service, and software defined security.  Cloud developers (and those who are responsible for keeping clouds running) are system software developers, but they can also be (and have to understand) application development too. 

A devop needs a very wide skill set: they need to know about networks, hardware, operating systems, and different types of data store.  They might also need to know about a range of different scripting languages, and other languages such as Python.  All these skills take time (and effort) to acquire.  A devop is a tough and challenging job, not only due to the inherent complexity of different components, but also due to the speed that technologies change and evolve.

When I arrived at the conference, I knew next to nothing about what OpenStack was all about, and who was using it.  By the end of the conference I ended up knowing the names of some of its really important components; mists of confusion had started to lift.  There is, however, a huge amount of detail to get my head around, and one of the things that I’m also going to do is to look at some user stories (OpenStack foundation).  This, I think, will help to consolidate some of my learning.

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Professional Development Conference: London, 22 March 2014

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

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

Electronic assignments

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

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

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

Under the hood

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

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

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

And finally…

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

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

 

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Disability History Month 2013 Launch Event

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 27 Nov 2013, 18:29

It took me a good few minutes to find my way out of Westminster underground station.  When I did finally emerge to the surface, I found the houses of parliament towering above me.  After a minute or so gathering my bearings, I was on my way.  I roughly knew where I was going: past Westminster Abbey, then take a turning down one of the adjacent roads.  As per usual, I got to the site of the venue ridiculously early.   So early, in fact, that they organisers were still putting the chairs out (!)

The launch event for the 2013 disability history month was held on 19 November. I attended a similar event in 2011 (blog post), which I found thought provoking, but my diary conspired against me from attending last year.  There were a number of reasons to go along to this event: one is personal, and another is professional (a third reason could be considered to be political).

The day kicked off with Richard Raiser playing a clip from a recent BBC two part documentary which described how the lives of people with disabilities had changed.  I did manage to see the first episode, which was about the care system, but I didn’t get to see the second episode (and I had missed downloading it on iPlayer).  The point was simple: we’re on the telly, and we’ve a right to be there.

Speakers

Just like the last launch event, there were a number of speakers.  The first speaker of the day was Kevin Courney from the National Union of Teachers.  Representatives from unions featured heavily in the 2011 event, and this year was no exception.  Teachers are, of course, likely to encounter people with disabilities and they, of course, may have disabilities themselves.  Kevin drew our attention to some teaching resources that the unions had prepared for schools.

The second speaker of the day was Mike Oliver, who was introduced as a social model theorist.  By way of detail, the social model is a way of looking at disability where people disabled not by their so called impairments, but instead by the society in which they inhabit.  Mike touched upon history before speaking about themes such as choice, control and independent living.  Mike’s underlined the significance of the current economic challenges.

The third speaker was Jan Walmsley, formerly from The Open University (an institution that has now over ten thousand students with disabilities).  Jan is a part of the Social History of Learning Disability research group (a research group that I hadn't heard of before).  The group was established in 1994 and one of its objectives is to share memories and experiences by people and for people by publishing life stories. 

The two final speakers of the day were Jackie Downer and Kirsten Hearn.  Jackie described the importance of support workers and that technology can be a lifeline.  Kirsten gave an impassioned speech, emphasising the importance of rights, and echoing points earlier points by saying that it was liberating that it, ‘wasn’t me that was the problem, but the world’.

Plenary

One of the first points to be made was by Baroness Dame Campbell who emphasised the importance of political lobbying.  An audience member asked about the credibility of the social model, and whether we ought to be thinking in terms of a ‘post-social model’.  (The questioner mentioned the name of an academic called Tom Shakespeare).  This struck me as a difficult question to answer, and a quick internet search led me to a research paper (University of Leeds) that takes quite a bit of reading.  This question points us towards the growing discipline of disability studies.

Towards the end of the panel session, the issue of teaching (and teachers) was again returned to.  I seem to remember a reference to the learning resources that were mentioned during the start of the speeches.  The point for these were simple: there is a potential to ‘educate out’ discrimination, (or to normalise difference) at an early age.

An alternative perspective

The final speech of the day a speech wasn’t really a speech at all.  It was a stand-up comedy performance by comedienne Liz Carr.  I hadn’t seen Liz before, but I had heard of her work through a comedy group called Abnormally Funny People.  Unfortunately, I haven’t made too many notes during this part of the event, since I was laughing too much, but Liz did reference a recent challenge to the government’s bid to abolish the Independent Living Fund (BBC Website).  I also remember a startling gag about the right to work assessments.  This, to me, was the kind of comedy that cuts quickly to an issue and makes us think.

Reflection

There was a palpable difference between the 2011 event that I attended and this event.  The biggest difference, of course, reflects the change in the UK political landscape; there were many references to government cuts and the ways that the affect people with disabilities.  We were encouraged to reflect on history and the lessons that it offers us.  We also needed to be mindful of ‘what used to be’; stories of change, difference and individuality are important to remember and to keep.  One thing I felt was a steely will to retain rights and fight for new ones.

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London Associate Lecturer development day, London, November 2013

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

Challenges for ESL students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing resources and pedagogy for OU Live

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

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

Science perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Languages perspective

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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Gresham College: A history of computing in three parts

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 15 Oct 2019, 15:47

After a week and a half of continual exam and assignment marking, I was relieved to finally be able to turn my attention to other matters (and get out of my house).  I had an idle question: I wondered whether there were any professors or lecturers in London who shared an interest in the history of computing or technology.  Rather than trawling through university web pages (which was the first idea that crossed my mind), I decided to ask the internet, searching for the words, ‘history computing lecturer London’.

One name was clearly at the top of the list, but it was something else a bit lower down the search result that immediately attracted my attention.  It was a series of lectures entitled, ‘a history of computing in three parts’.  My first reactions were, ‘it’s probably too late’ and, ‘you’ve probably got to pay a lot of money to go along to this gig’.  All this computer history stuff that I’m interested in has to be folded into my day job which means that that it’s easier to justify time but a whole lot harder to justify expenses.

After reading the paragraph that described the event, I cast my eye back to the heading.  I realised that the date of the lecture was TODAY!  The very same day I had done my Google search, Thursday 31 October!  After a few more clicks I discovered that the event was also FREE!  Behold, it was a miracle!  I looked at my calendar; the lecture started at four in the afternoon and provided that I managed to sort out some admin stuff and have a meeting with a colleague, I would probably have enough time.

The only fly in the ointment was that it was all booked up; there were no tickets remaining.  Who knew that the history of computers was such a popular subject?  No matter.  I was looking reasonably smart – I would try to talk my way in.

Lecture 1: Pictures of computers

After a few false starts I managed to find my way to a place called Gresham College (website); navigating my way out of Chancery Lane tube proved to be quite tricky. It is only in retrospect that I realised that this was one of those places in London that I really ought to have known about.  I just know that people who I speak to about this event will chuckle, slap their thigh and say, ‘oh yes, Gresham College...’ and then will look at me as if I’m some kind of idiot if I said that I had visited there ‘by accident’.

I strode purposefully down a long alleyway and was confronted by a smartly dressed gentleman who obviously had an important role to play.  I began my attack: ‘I’m, erm, here for the lecture…’, and was swiftly gestured towards a flight of stairs without a word.   I felt deflated!  I was expecting to fight my way into the lecture!  I soon found myself in an anti-chamber filled with men (and women) in anoraks looking at a projector screen and noisily settled down to what was the first lecture by Martin Campbell-Kelly.

I joined the lecture at the point where people were being shown coloured photos of office equipment and pictures of steel filing cabinets.  The context was that computers are machines that allow us to process ever increasing amounts of data (and there’s a whole history of manual record keeping that we can easily overlook).  We were then told something about the history of the Rand Corporation followed by parts of the history of the computer company IBM.

On the subject of IBM, he mentioned someone called Eliot Noyes (Wikipedia).  Noyes was for IBM as Jonathan Ive (Wikipedia) is for Apple (if you’re into industrial design).  Martin mentioned that mainframe computers had a particular look; for a time there was a particular ‘design zeitgeist’.  I’ve made notes that Noyes used to look over catalogues from the Italian company Olivetti, and not only designed computers, but entire rooms.  We were shown photographs of various mock-ups. 

The creation of physical prototypes reminded me of some themes that are mentioned in a couple of design modules, either Design Essentials or Design for Engineers.  Martin also made reference to designer Norman Bel Geddes (Wikipedia).  He also showed us a whole host of other pictures of big machines, notably the ICL 2900 (Wikipedia) used in the Bankers’ Automated Clearing System (BACS).  (I have to confess being dragged into the depth of the Wikipedia page about that particular ICL computer.  Should I confess to such level of geekiness?  Probably not!)

Martin’s talk wasn’t really what I had expected but I found it pretty interesting (and it was a shame I missed the first quarter of it).  I was surprised by the detail that he provided about manual filing systems but I was also encouraged by the inclusion of information about designers.  The visual and industrial design aspect is an important part of computing history too.  Thinking back, one of my first computers had a very different aesthetic to the machines that I use today.  Function and fashion, combined with the wider perception of devices and machines are perspectives that are inexplicably linked.

After the lecture, it later dawned on me that I’ve actually read one of Martin’s books, ‘Computer: a history of the information machine’ which he co-authored with William Aspray.  It’s a pretty good read.  It covers a range of different strands; the pre-history, early electronic machines (such as the UNIVAC, which he touched on in his talk), before moving onto the emergence of the internet and software.  It’s tough to do everything but he has a good old go at it.

Lecture 2: Turing and his work

The second lecture of the day was by Professor Jonathan Bowen (website).  Jonathan talked about the life and work of Alan Turing (Wikipedia) and mentioned Alan Hodges’s scholarly biography, ‘the enigma of intelligence’. 

Jonathan spoke about three key areas of Turing’s work: his work that relates to the fundamentals of computer science, philosophical work relating to artificial intelligence and his later work on morphogenesis (which now has strong connections to the field of bioinformatics).  He mentioned his birth place, spoke about his PhD research which took place at Princeton University (with Alonzo Church being his doctoral supervisor), and also spoke about his work at Bletchley Park.  Other aspects of his life were touched on, such as his work in the National Physical Laboratory (NLP) in Teddington and his movement to the University of Manchester.  During his time in the NPL, he worked on the design of a computer which then became the Pilot Ace (Wikipedia).  When he was at Manchester, he was familiar with the Manchester Mark I computer (the world’s first stored program computer, and don’t let any American tell you otherwise).

What I liked about Jonathan’s talk was its breadth.  He covered many different aspects of Turing life in a very short space of time.  He also spoke of the ambiguity regarding his death, echoing what Hodges had written in his biography of Turing

At the end of his talk, we were directed to a set of web links that might be of interest to some.  Last year was the centenary of Turing’s birth, and there is a commemorative website that contains a whole host of different resources to celebrate this.  There is also a site that is maintained by his biographer, Alan Hodges (turing.org.uk).  Interestingly, we were also directed to an on-line archive of documents which can be accessed by computer scientists, historians or anyone else who might be interested.

Lecture 3: The grand narrative of the history of computing

The headline act of the night was Doron Swade.  I know of Doron’s work from the Science Museum where he headed up a project to construct a working version of Charles Babbage’s design for his Difference Engine number 2.  Babbage (for those who don’t know of him) is a Victorian inventor and raconteur whose lifelong quest was to build and design mechanical calculating machines.  During his life, he had a battle with his engineer, had the challenge of securing money for his ideas, travelled around Italy and hosted some famous parties (and did a whole lot more).

The title of Doran’s lecture was an intriguing and demanding one.  Could there really be a grand narrative about the history of computing?  If so, what elements or ingredients might it contain?  Doron told us that the history of computing is an emerging field and then posed a similar question: ‘what strings [the different] pieces together?’  He also reassured us that there was a clear narrative that appears to be emerging.

The narrative begins with methods for accounting and number systems, i.e. mechanisms to keep track of number.  We could consider the pre-history to comprise of artefacts such as tally sticks or physical devices that can be used to ‘relieve or replace mental calculation’.  This led to the emergence of mechanisms that used moving parts, such as an abacus and a slide rule.  The next ‘chapter’ would comprise of devices that embodied algorithms; their mechanisms carried out sequences or steps of calculations.  Here we have the work of Babbage and links to Hollerith (who was mentioned by Campbell-Kelly).

Doron then presented us with a challenge.  If we represent history in this way there is an implicit suggestion that there is a clear deterministic path from the past through to the present.  If I understand the point correctly, any narrative (or description of the past) is always going to be flawed, since there is so much more going on.  There could be situations in which nothing much happens.  A really interesting thought that Doron introduced was the idea of a ‘stored program’ being met with puzzlement and confusion, but this is an idea that distinctly defines what a computer is today.  (I haven’t made a word for word note of what Doron said, but this is something that has certainly stuck in my mind).

Another interesting point is that a serial narrative naturally excludes the parallel.  There is also an issue of reflexivity (to nick a posh word that I learnt from the social sciences); there is a relationship between history making machines and machines making history.  Linearity, it is argued, does a disservice.  One way to get over the challenge of linearity is to draw upon the stories of people.  These thoughts reminded me of a talk by Tilly Blyth, current keeper of technologies at the science museum, about the forthcoming ‘information age’ gallery.  Tilly also emphasised the importance of personal narratives and also cautioned about viewing history as a deterministic process.

One of the highlights of Doran’s talk was his ‘river diagram’ of the ‘history of computing’ (my ‘quotes’ at this point, since I don’t think I made a note of a ‘heading’).  Obviously, a picture is much better, but I’ll have a go at describing it succinctly. 

In essence, the grand narrative comprises of a bunch of different threads.  One thread that runs through it all is the history of calculation.  There is another thread about the history of communication.  In the middle, these threads are linked by ‘tributaries’ which relate to the subjects of automatic computation and information management.  These lead to another (current) thread of study which is entitled ‘electronic information age’.  I also made a note of a fabulous turn of phrase.  The current electronic information age emerged from the ‘fusion chamber of solid state physics’. Another bit of the diagram relates to different ways in which calculation or computation could be realised: mechanical, electromechanical or electronic. 

I also made a quick note of what were considered to be the core ideas in computing: mechanical processes, digital logic, algorithms, systems architecture, software and universality (I’m not sure what this means, though) and the internal stored program.  A narrative, it was argued, comes from a splicing together of different threads.

Returning to Babbage, Doran said that ‘[he] burst out of nowhere and confounds us with schemes that are unprecedented’; proposing mechanical calculating machines the size of rooms.  Doran also spoke about Ada Lovelace’s description of Babbage’s designs of his Analytical Engine, a machine that embodies many of the core ideas that are used in computing today: ‘a fetch execute cycle, transfer of memory form the processor, programmable, automatic execution, separation of program and memory’.

Doran ends with a question: ‘to what extent did this [Babbage’s work] influence modern computing?’  The answer is, ‘probably, not very much…’ (my quotes this time, rather than Doran’s), since many of Babbage’s discoveries and inventions were rediscovered and re-implemented as computing devices were realised in different forms, moving from the mechanical to the electrical.  Doran argued that perhaps because there is so much congruence between the different approaches, the ideas that have been rediscovered and re-implemented may well be really important and fundamental to the subject of computation.  To paraphrase from Doran’s book, Babbage isn’t so much a ‘great grandfather’ of computing, more of a ‘great uncle’.

Reflections

For me, Doron’s talk tied together aspects of the earlier talks.  Martin spoke about the history of information management and touched upon the electromechanical world of computing.  By describing the work of Turing, Jonathan spoke about and connected to the history of automatic computation.  One of the challenges that I’ve been grappling with is that there is so much history that is fundamentally interesting.  I’m interested in learning more, but it remains difficult to know which parts of a bigger picture to focus on. 

What I personally got from the day was a confirmation that my interest in related subjects such as communication technologies and the use, development and deployment of software (and algorithms) do indeed form an important piece of a ‘grand narrative’ in the history of computing and information technology.  Whilst I instinctively knew this to be true, Doran’s river diagram, for me, drew together different influences and connections in a very clear and obvious way.

Before heading home, I grabbed a brochure that had the title, ‘free public lectures’, vowing that I would have a good look  though it to see what else was going on.  After saying a few goodbyes to people I left the basement room and walked up a flight of stairs.  In the intervening hours, it had become dark; time had passed and I hadn’t really noticed.  When I reached the street I reached into by inside pocket for my smartphone to see if I had any messages.  A light was flashing.  I didn’t have any messages but I had a few alerts.  A theoretical Turing machine rendered into a physical device was alerting me to a comedy night that was to take place later on that week.  This was also a gentle reminder about how subtly technology had become entwined with my life.  Was I reliant on this little device?  That was a whole other question.

When I was heading home I asked myself, ‘how come I never knew this Gresham college place existed?’  Perhaps it is only one of those places that you hear about if you’re ‘in the know’.  London, for me, is gradually revealing some of its secrets.

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Journey: Westminster to Walworth

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:39

A number of months ago I wrote a blog about buying a smartphone (I know what you're thinking: this sounds pretty boring!)  The blog ended on a question: 'where did this device come from?'  The device I'm referring to is, of course, a computer.  Such a simple question can be answered in very different ways and one way to answer it is to think about the people who played an important role in either thinking about or creating one.

This is a follow up blog post about a trip to a part of London that I had never been to visit before, but one that I have known about for quite some time.  My quest was simple: to seek out the birthplace of someone who is known as the 'great uncle' of computing.  There are, of course, many other stories and journeys that can be connected to the one that follows, and I hope that this is going to one more in a very long series of blog posts.

A journey in reverse

April has been a month of contrasts.  The first few months were absolutely freezing, but this day was enticing.  It was a day that I couldn't resist exploring a bit of my own city; taking a journey that I had been threatening to make ever since winter had descended with certainty.  I exited Westminster underground station and looked skyward, through glorious morning sunshine, quickly finding Big Ben and the houses of parliament.  In some respects, it seemed like an appropriate starting point, since government had played an important role in the life of Charles Babbage, a Victorian gentleman, mathematician, engineer and (if we can stretch it this far) raconteur.  Babbage is famous for proposing and partially designing mechanical calculating engines that echo aspects of the inner workings of today's modern day computers.

The purpose of this blog isn't so much to talk about Babbage (although he is the reason why I am writing in the first place), but more to record the trip.  When it comes to Babbage I've got numerous books and notes and read and re-read, and I think it'll take time to understand the fine detail and significance of his inventions.  In some respects, this is a journey of contextualising, or understanding.

'Excuse me, sir... we want to take a photo...', said a voice behind me.  I peered into my smartphone, thumbing at a googlemap, trying to figure out where I was.  A few paces away, the tourist had gained her view of the London Eye, and I was off, gingerly taking my first steps towards a new (albeit modest) adventure.

Within five or six minutes of walking, I had pieced another part of London together in my head.  My knowledge of the city is fragmented across three dimensions; distant childhood memories, an improving knowledge of the underground map, and a misunderstood knowledge of the monopoly board.  I recognised streets that I have previously travelled through whilst riding on my motorbike towards my office, traversing them in a different direction.  I soon knew where I was heading: I was going towards the Elephant.

Within ten minutes, I found myself at the Elephant and Castle, a bustling inner city area serviced by the Bakerloo and Northern underground lines, a train station that heads north to Kentish Town, and bus routes I had never heard of.  Remembering a series of photographs that had featured in the London Evening Standard newspaper a couple of days before, I decided to try to find a scene that I remembered.  I dived into some walkways and emerged at a train platform that overlooked one of the most notorious housing estates of the 1960s: the Heygate estate.  I know next to nothing about architecture but I do know that they Heygate was one of a number of brutalist housing estates that were built between the 60's and 70's.  Whilst on one hand there is a certain elegance and simplicity in its structures, on the other hand the structures are inhuman, stark and impersonal.  The impersonal nature was amplified since all the windows I could see were boarded up with steel shutters.  These, I thought, looking from the outside, were places to live in.  These flats didn't look like homes, and I'm sure I would have felt the same if I had visited when they were fully occupied.

I accessed the rail platform through the shopping centre.  Built in the 1960's, the shopping centre was showing its age.  In comparison to bright and airy modern malls the Elephant's shopping centre was slightly claustrophobic.  Chain stores were the exception rather than the rule, which was something I liked.  On the second floor, I decided that a well deserved up of tea was overdue, so I popped into a relatively new Polish café I had visited once before.  It's functional manner, i.e. you had to clean your own table, seemed to be entirely in keeping with the Elephant's very functional shopping centre.  I approved.

After a few false starts, I walked past the Strata (Wikipedia) tower block, around a gentle curve in the road and onto the Walworth Road.  Within five or so minutes I had found what I had been looking for; a simple blue plaque commemorating the birth of Babbage, the 'grandfather of the computer', situated on the corner of Larcom Street.  Walking down Larcom Street I discovered another blue plaque, this time commemorating the birth of Micheal Faraday and his work on electromagnetism.  Both plaques were on the side of what is now a clinic.

I took a couple of minutes to do some more exploring.  I really liked Larcom Street.  It offered a slight bend, and then revealed a quiet tree-lined road, filled with bay fronted three level Victorian terrace houses.  The hustle and bustle of Walworth Road disappeared into the background.  Cars parked aside, it felt as if I had stumbled into an oasis of history; a time warp.  Modernity came into view again when I arrived at the end of the street.  I saw modern flats on my right, recently constructed, and there was some building work going on, diggers gouging the ground in preparation for foundations.

Ten minutes later, I was back on the Walworth Road, astonished by its busyness and the single row of shops that seemed to go on and on and on.  With Larcom Street behind me, I caught sight of fast food establishments and the wonderfully eclectic East Street market which dates back, in one form or another, to the 1880s (as another blue plaque testified).  Stall holders had just about got everything ready for the day's trading by the time I had arrived.  I also accidentally found another blue plaque which celebrated the birth of another famous resident; Charlie Chapin.

My journey home took a bit of time.  Walking back to the Elephant, I passed by a fire damaged museum, and then found a bus stop on the New Kent Road - the direction of home.  This wasn't a big or exciting adventure, but it was one that was fun and has made me slightly more aware of my own city.  Moving forwards, what I've got to do is continue with my reading about Babbage and take at least three more journeys.

The next one (about Babbage) will be to the town house where he not only dreamt of mechanical computers, but also built parts of them too.  Then there's a trip to Greenwich, which relates to a key vector of inspiration that caused Babbage to start his life long quest to make a mechanical computer, and then a visit to South Kensington, where the remnants of his computing devices are currently housed.

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Supporting students with dyslexia

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 18 May 2018, 09:04

On Saturday 5 November I attended an Open University in London associate lecturer staff development event, held in the OU's offices in Camden.  I attended two sessions.  The first session was all about developments to the virtual learning environment, and the second event was all about how to best support students with dyslexia from a tutor's perspective.

This blog post is an edited set of notes from the second session.  I'm mainly blogging this event so I can share some of the themes with my H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students group, but I also hope that these notes might be useful for other Open University associate lecturers who might accidentally stumble across them.

The supporting students with dyslexia session was facilitated by Lyn Beazley who works in the South East region, she also tutors with the university.  I also understand that Lyn is also a full member of an organisation called PATOSS which is an abbreviation for 'the professional association of teachers of students with specific learning difficulties'.

Introduction

Lyn began the session by setting the scene.  She introduced what dyslexia is by pointing us to a number of definitions.  The first one was by the British Dyslexia Association, which is, 'dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty which mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills' and that it is 'present at birth and is lifelong in its effects'.  This definition gave way to a bit of debate, which is likely to echo some of the debates within dyslexia studies itself.

The second definition was from someone called McLoughlin (cited by Tonnessen) who define developmental dyslexia as 'a genetically inherited and neurological determined inefficiency in working memory ... It has particular impact on verbal and written communication as well as on organisation, planning and adaptation to change'.

One of Lyn's slides entitled, 'a social model of dyslexia' echoes one of the topics within H810, namely, the different models of disability.  The key points that Lyn made was that the social model takes account of human diversity where difference is emphasised as opposed to deficit.  Furthermore, materials that are dyslexia-friendly are likely to be user friend (which echoes a research finding which says that accessible technology is technology that is also easy to use).  A final point was people who have dyslexia also have particular strengths.

Some of these strengths were considered to be visual thinking, entrepreneurial skills, vision, creativity and lateral thinking.  People with dyslexia face difficulties whilst studying, these include writing assignments, that it takes longer to process information, reduced confidence and self-esteem, concentration, reading effectively, writing (and also the structure of documents) and spelling.

Assessment

An important question is: what happens if you think a student might be dyslexic?  One thing that you can do is discuss things with a regional advisor who can offer some advice about what to do next.  This may initiate the process of dyslexia being formally diagnosed (or assessed, as it is otherwise known).  Assessment is something that is done by a trained assessor who is able to determine whether someone is dyslexic or whether there may be other differences that might have to be taken into account.

Lyn told us that during the assessment process, assessors measure IQ and study strengths and weaknesses of personal performance.  There are, of course, financial costs associated to assessment.  If it is done privately, the cost can be between three and four hundred pounds.  If a student is receiving financial support then the university may be able to cover the cost of some (if not all) of the assessment.  

Being recognised as dyslexic enables students to access to a range of different resources.  One part of the assessment process is to determine the nature of the difference (or its characteristics?)  Another part is to determine what technologies or support might be best suited to an individual student.  After determining whether a student is dyslexic a student may then be eligible for something called the Disabled Students Allowance (or DSA).  The DSA enables students to receive finances to enable the purchase of a computer which may be then used with assistive technologies, such as text to speech software, for instance.

One thing that I didn't know was the extent that students can be offered one to one personal support with a specialist dyslexia tutor.  Another point worth mentioning is that students might be able to make use of the alternative formats the Open University provides.  One of the most popular alternative format is the use of comb binding.  Comb binding is where the materials are bound in a slightly different way, allowing coloured overlays to be more easily put on top of each of the pages.  Also, comb bound study materials can be more easily scanned using assistive technologies, enabling the textual materials to be manipulated.  Another alternative format might be the provision of the materials in audio form.

One thing is certain: the assessment process takes time.  It can take quite a while for the Disabled Students Allowance to come through.  If a student starts the assessment process at the same time as starting a module, there is the potential that a student might not be able to keep up with the pace of study.  Even if assistive technology arrives on time students still have to master the practicalities of working with the equipment and developing a repertoire of learning strategies to most effectively make use of the technology.

This wasn't something that was mentioned in the session, but the Services for Disabled Students team do have a solution to this impasse, which is the provision of loan items.  If a student is working through the assessment process, it might be possible to loan some assistive technology items as an interim measure.

Debates

Lyn's session gave way to a number of debates, some of which relate directly to H810.  One of them linked to the notion of reasonable adjustments.  I also remember a reference to the recent Equality Act (institutions, of course, have an obligation to respond to the needs of students).  I also have memories of a short conversation about that more and more Open University materials are being made available only on-line.  Whilst this might make accessibility difficult in one sense, technology may enable materials to be potentially accessible to a wider audience.

Another interesting debate centred around the sharing of study and writing skills.  It was concluded that tutors should feel free to give guidance about how to structure documents and compose paragraphs.  Sometimes, it was argued, that sharing things that are obvious can really help people to get a better grip of what they have to do.  Such advice isn't only useful to students who have dyslexia - it can be useful to all students too.  General guidance about how to present arguments, compose paragraphs and structure essays has been incredibly useful during my own Open University study.

Summary

I've been attending Associate Lecturer staff development on and off for what must be over six years.  I still remember attending my first one, where I was overwhelmed by seeing so many people who collectively help to present a myriad of different subjects.  I sense that they try to do two key things: to give useful information and encourage you to reflect on your own practice and think about how you engage with those who are taking the module you are helping to present.  This event was no exception. 

When I was leaving the VLE session I heard someone say, 'I always get something out of these events'.  That is certainly the case.  When it comes to the second event, I've taken a note of a number of resources that some members of the Open University might be able to access (depending upon their own access permissions).

The first is a set of web pages entitled: tutor resources for disabled students.  We were also guided to a really useful document which is called Associate lecturer's guidelines for marking the work of students with dyslexia.  I had not seen this document before; new things are added to the tutor guidance pages all the time. 

Another useful link is, of course, the Skills for Study website (which can be found through the Teaching and Learning link on Tutorhome, which you will have access to if you just happen to be an Associate Lecturer). 

All in all, the general Associate Lecturer development day was useful as well as being fun and friendly.  It emphasised, to me, that there are many different types of resources that both tutors and students can draw upon to help the journey of studying.

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