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Reflecting on TM470

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 17 Sep 2019, 15:17

I’ve now been tutoring on TM470, the Open University’s Computing and IT project module, for three years.

I heard it once said that it takes around three years to get to grips with the tutoring of a module; I agree with this view.

After this amount of time, you’ve marked a good number of TMAs, EMAs and have a solid appreciation of what is on the module website. You also (hopefully) should have a thorough understanding of what is in the head of the module team, enabling you to respond to student queries with a degree of confidence.

Also, three years is enough time to get a feel for what makes up a good project report, a distinction level project report, and a project report that might not pass. Having that experience has also enabled me to question what I do as a tutor, and to help me offer the best feedback I can.

What follows is a set reflections that relate to what I think is important when tutoring on the project module. I’m sharing since it might be of interest to fellow tutors, TM470 tutors, but also the module team too (since they, of course, guide how we approach everything).

These are, of course, my own opinions, and I do expect that different tutors will (of course), have different views - and, of course, have slightly different practices.

Welcoming students

I feel that I started very well in my first presentation but didn’t do so well with this on my second presentation. This said, I think I’m happy with the approach that I have used with the most recent presentation.

I begin by sending each student an email to say hello. If I see that any of my students have any additional requirements, I add a sentence to each introductory email to ask them to let me know whether there’s anything I need to be aware of to ensure that I help them with their studies. This tends to open up a dialogue.

In my introduction, I also mention that it might be useful to have a quick chat on the phone. I try to do this with every student in my group, but not everyone wants to have a chat; and that’s okay. I feel it’s important to be supportive whilst not being pushy.

A final point is that I also tell students to subscribe to their TM470 tutor group forum. The reason for this is that I use the forum to send updates and reminders about various things, and subscribing enables them to get notifications about those notifications.

Keeping in touch

One of the things I do regularly is send all students regular emails. Not every tutor runs tutorial, but I do; I send them dates of the tutorials as soon as they have been scheduled. I also send them a note to remind them of the TMA cut off dates, and send them reminders to let me know that I would like to receive regular updates.

When I send reminders about a willingness to receive updates, I also make the point that everything that is sent to me can also be used and presented within the project report as evidence of progress. I hope this offers a further encouragement!

Tutorials

At hinted at earlier, some TM470 tutors run tutorials, whereas other don’t. There isn’t a requirement for TM470 tutors to run tutorials; some tutors only run one to one sessions with their students.

I find tutorials useful for a couple of reasons.

At the start of the module, I fix a date for two introductory sessions: one that takes place in the evening, and one that takes place in the day time. I send all these dates to students in a group email and post the same information about them on our tutor group forum.

I split my tutorials in to two parts: the first part that is recorded, and the part section that is not. Dividing the tutorials in this way enables the first section to be viewed by the students who were not able to attend either of the tutorials. The second section becomes an informal chat between the students who come along.

In the introductory tutorial, I talk about the assessment strategy and the first TMA and do some screen sharing to introduce students to the module materials.

I tend to run two EMA preparation tutorials which has a similar structure, but with more focus on what a good EMA might look like. I also do some screen sharing: I take the students to the referencing guidelines site, and might even take them to some Skills for Study sections materials that are about academic writing.

One-to-one sessions

Every student has four hours of personal one to one time. I don’t keep a very close tally of how much of that time is used; some of it could be roughly allocated to tutorials, whereas other bits of time could be allocated to one to one sessions.

I mention one-to-one sessions in different ways: in the TMA feedback, during tutorials, and in the keeping in touch emails. If students don’t want to take me up on the offer of a one to one chat, that is okay, but I do make it clear that this is an option that is available.

Rather than having telephone chat, I’ve tended to use the Adobe Connect tutor group room. One of the great advantages of this is that we can do some screen sharing. Screen sharing is really useful. I’ve used it as a way to get an understanding of how a student’s draft submission is coming along, or to guide students to resources that have been prepared by the module team. I sometimes give the student screen sharing permissions so they can take control of those sessions.

TMA Feedback

There are, of course, two main components of the TMA feedback: the summary page, and the on-script comments.

On the summary page, I tend to focus on offering three clear points of advice that student should work on to improve their performance on the next TMA. When I’m writing these points, I try to explain why these points are important, and how they connect to the aims and objectives of the project module.

When I’m working on later TMAs, I always tend to do a quick read back of the previous TMA summaries. On occasion, I’ve copied and pasted text from the previous TMA and have put it on the current TMA, saying: “I gave the following feedback; it is important because…”.

I also tend to conclude a TMA with a suggestion about having a follow up call or chat.

For the on-script comments, I encourage students to use the Word in built heading tools (if they are not using them already). I make the point that it enables the student to use the navigation tool (which helps the student to view the structure of their EMA). Also, increasingly I tend to offer some practical advice about the formatting of sections (showing how students can move between portrait and landscape page layouts). To help students get to grips with these elements of Word, I have also offered link to various YouTube videos to help them understand the points that I’m making.

Tutor group forum

Students don’t tend to you my tutor group forum much, but I tend to use it as a simple notice board.

Here’s a summary of how I use it:

  • Sharing dates of tutorials, and providing of links to recordings.
  • Giving updates about TMA marking. I make a post to the forum when I start marking, and then post again when I’m roughly half way through (to give students some idea about when to expect their results). I tend to ‘pin’ these posts at the top of the forum during the marking.
  • Sharing of additional resources and links.
  • A space for students to ask questions.

Staff tutors can (or may) dip into tutor group forums from time to time to see what is going on. A well populated tutor group will give a staff tutor the impression that all is well with the group.

Additional resources given to students

During this most recent presentation I prepared two really short resources in the form of Word documents that might help students:

  • A very short sample introduction to an imaginary project and project report. This sample presents a structure that is very similar to the guidance that is offered by the module team.
  • A sample table of contents, which includes an introductory section, a section that outlines the project, a literature review section, an account of project work section, a reflection section, a summary or concluding section and a series of imaginary appendices.

The aim of these two resources is to emphasise the point that the project report, and it’s overall degree of readability is really important.

Advice to students

I’ve sometimes offered the following tips at various points during the module. I might mention these suggestions during tutorials, or in one-to-one sessions:

  • Make sure that you use the features that are provided in Word well; they can help you to find you way though, navigate, and work with larger documents. 
  • Try to write the literature review as a narrative rather than a list of papers or resources that you consider to be useful for the project.
  • Think of the examiner as a friend who doesn’t know very much about the project (and subject) that you’re writing about. Subsequently, you might have to spell things out for them. Don’t worry about doing this, since this will all help to demonstrate your understanding of some important concepts.
  • Consider the reflection section, the bit in the EMA where you have to write about how things have gone, as a gift. It’s a gift because it’s all about you, and there are no wrong answers, and the examiner really wants to hear about you and what you’ve learnt. Also, don’t be afraid to be opinionated! Tell us what went well, what didn’t, why you thought that, and what you might have done again differently.
  • Provide copies of two different Gantt charts; one that was created at the start of the project, and the Gantt chart that was being used as the student got to the end of the project. These two Gantt charts gives a student a neat way to generate some interesting reflections, simply by considering the differences between what the plan was at the start, and what happened during the project.
  • Use the appendices as a way to share extra information about what project work you’ve done on the project.
  • Keep to the word count (10k words) but don’t worry too much if you go over by a little. If you’re going over by a lot, consider putting some bits into a series of appendices, but always make sure that you reference these in the body of your report.
  • Finally, find someone to proof read your report. It’s okay to do this, since you’re the one who is doing the writing, not whoever is doing the proof reading. Typing mistakes can and do happen. A friendly proof reader will be able to pick up on some of them.

EMA marking

EMA marking is hard work, and we don’t have too much time to do it in. When I start marking, whenever I open an EMA report, I turn tracking on, and highlight sections that I’ve read that really stand out to me as being good, important or significant. When I’ve read everything, I might go back and re-read sections before going to the learning outcomes that are presented in a grading spreadsheet. I then make notes, which are later copied and pasted into the OU’s grading tool.

My own approach is to do some marking first thing in a weekday morning (when I’m fresh), hopefully working through a couple of reports, with a view to doing more over the weekend.

If there is a moderation exercise, the highlighting annotations I’ve added really help me to remember what a project was all about, and why I assigned certain marks against a particular learning outcome.

Closing thoughts

TM470 has a slightly different tenor to the other modules I’ve tutored. Although there is a lot of learning to be done during the project, it is more about doing and writing (and then learning from that doing and writing).

Students sometimes ask whether they can see an example of a project, but this is something that the module team doesn’t provide. I can understand why students would like to see a sample (to understand more about what the module team expects), but I can also why the module team doesn’t provide one (they worry that the tutors would then receive a hundred or so projects that look remarkably like the sample projects).

One of the challenges (in my opinion) of being a TM470 tutor is to help students understand what the module team expects, but from the perspective of their own projects and their previous studies.

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Making a TM470 log by using a blog

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TM470 is the Computing and IT project module. The project module allows students to draw on skills and ideas that they have studied and developed during earlier level three modules. It enables students to demonstrate skills across a more substantial piece of work.

This short blog post is basically a bunch of ideas that might be useful for fellow TM470 tutors, but also for any TM470 student (and anyone else who might be involved in a project module).

A really important part of TM470 is the end of project report which summarises everything that has been done. The report requires students to present a description of the outcomes of the project, and what has happened during the project.

The project log

TM470 project can last up to eight months. During that time, a lot can happen. To keep track of things the TM470 module team recommend that students create something that is called a project log. Here’s an excerpt from the module materials that offer a bit of guidance:

"Keeping a project log is similar to keeping a diary. It is a useful aid in helping to manage a project. In a project log, ideally you should make a log entry each time you have a work session.

Whether recorded on paper or electronically, your log is where you keep details at regular intervals of salient events or facts that have occurred in your project. The log differs from your plan in that it provides more detail of things you have done, whereas the plan is a schedule of what you are or should be doing. The log is purely historical information; it can contain facts about your project but probably more important is writing down reflections about what you are doing."

The module team suggests that a log serves three purposes:

  1. They provide a reminder of how your project developed; this will be useful when it comes to writing your TMAs and EMA.
  2. They help you when in discussions with your tutor because they provide a record of how you planned your project, how you managed your time, how you tackled the tasks and how you dealt with any problems.
  3. Using the log sheets on a regular basis will help you to keep to your schedule, and may suggest changes to your schedule. 

Students are told that they should be spending approximately ten hours per week on their project. The project log also enables students to keep track of how much time they’re spending on the project. 

Students are also encouraged to submit excerpts of their blog to their tutor, to keep them informed about how their project is progressing.

The OU VLE

The module team suggests that a log might be recorded on paper, or recorded electronically. An accompanying question is: what form might an electronic log take? One approach is to use a word processing document. You could have a day for every page. One idea is to record a ‘session number’, record a date, record how long was spent working, and also a summary of what was done during that session, and perhaps some thoughts about what the next steps might be. In some ways, this kind of log has parallels to a ‘work log’ that a researcher might keep.

Rather than using a word processing document another idea is to keep a TM470 log in the OU VLE blog.

Every OU student is given their own blog, which is hosted in the university virtual learning environment. The OU blog is useful because it provides a number of useful features:

  1. It allows students to automatically record the date and time of any entry that is made.
  2. It allows students to add ‘tags’ against particular blog entries. A tag, of course, is a useful word that can be used to help find things again. Using the OU blog you can quickly find blog entries with the same tag (in the way that the tag for this post is TM470).
  3. Students can any log entry with other TM470 students, and they can share their TM470 log entries with you. Blogs can be easily shared with a tutor, enabling them to more directly understand progress on a particular project.
  4. The blog can be accessed easily through a web browser: you don’t have to use the same word processing software every time.
  5. The blog is automatically backed up by the university, which means that you don’t have to worry. 

Another feature of the OU blog is that students can choose who sees what is posted. 

The OU blog has three settings: students can keep every blog (or log) post private; this means that a blog can be a bit like a private diary. Another setting is that blog posts are only visible to people within the university. This setting is useful for sharing blog posts to other TM470 students. The final setting is to make a blog post visible to the entire world. In terms of TM470, I personally recommend that this first two options are used.

An accompanying question is: how can students begin to use their blog? The answer is to look for their VLE profile. They will soon find a link that allows them to begin posting a blog.

Note taking advice

Whilst the TM470 module team offers some great advice for creating a log, the university also offers other advice which might be useful too, such as note taking techniques which is available on the skills for study website.

Also, the following three useful points (Making notes strategically) have been adapted from Northedge (2005) from his book The Good Study Guide, p.155:

  1. Take an active and enquiring approach to study. Ask yourself questions, such as ‘what is this about?’, ‘what do I want to remember?’ and ‘what do I want to say?’ and writing down the answers.
  2. Flexibility. Make sketched notes or detailed notes according to need. This can be particularly useful when making note to support creativity. These notes could then be ‘written up’ and used within the project log. Plus, having them in a blog form allows them to be searched.
  3. Reflection. Looking at notes and ask: ‘are they doing the job I want?’ and ‘could I be using my time more effectively?’ Or, put another way: are these the right kind of notes.

Sharing blogs with other students

The best way to share blogs with fellow students is to share links to the blogs in the module discussion forums. Once you have a link to a blog, you can then add it to something called a ‘blog feed’, to receive a notification whenever a new update has been made. Another advantage of a blog is, of course, students will see that they’re not alone; that there are others who have to contend with similar challenges.

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TM470 New tutor day

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Nov 2016, 09:46

I first joined The Open University as a part time tutor back in 2006 where I tutored a module called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design. Knowing that this module was coming to an end I decided to apply to tutor on another module: TM470 The Computing and IT project, and I was successful!

I was invited to attend a ‘new tutor day’ which took place in the West Midlands regional centre in Birmingham (which is, sadly, closing in the new year) to learn about the ins and outs of tutoring this module. This was also an opportunity to meet my TM470 mentor, fellow TM470 tutors, and some of my colleagues who support the delivery of computing and IT modules from the Manchester and Birmingham offices. This blog post has been drawn from a set of notes I’ve made during the day, which took place on 2 July 2016.

Project choice

I’ve noted down the question: ‘what makes a good project theme?’ It’s a simple question and one that is very important: students must have a clear idea about what the problem is that they want to solve within their project. It should also have sensible limits, i.e. students shouldn’t aspire to creating the next big app for the iPhone.

Successful projects are those that draw upon practical skills that have been learnt (or studied) in previous level 3 modules. A project could also build on something that has been done before. Students should (ideally) be knowledgeable about the domain or environment in which a project relates to (so they don’t have to spend lots of time doing research into an area that isn’t familiar to them). Also, importantly, a project should be connected with something that a student is interested in doing (so they maintain their motivation).

Another bit of advice is: students should stick with using software that they know; don’t be tempted to play with new things, since it’s easy to get tied up in knots.

Sometimes students might be tempted to draw upon projects that relate to their work place. An important point is: work and TM470 have different goals; it is probably best to keep work and study separate for the simple reason that changes at work might jeopardise the project. This rule, however, doesn’t have to apply in all cases: students need to understand what is required from TM470.

Another really important point is: a project doesn’t have to have a successful outcome to submit a final project report. Students can still pass if things go horribly wrong: it is the description of the project, the learning, and the reflections that all count towards the final scores. If these are done really well, students will get a really good pass.

Another note I’ve made is all about research: ‘not really understanding what is meant by research that is academic, or what is meant by an academic literature review (and analysis)’. Some projects may be research projects, in the sense that they are an in-depth and critical study of a particular area. If students choose research projects, the need to be clear in terms of what is required of them. 

Independent learning

TM470 is different to other modules, since what really matters is being able to demonstrate independent learning; tutors will not be subject experts in all the areas in which projects are chosen from. A note I’ve made is: ‘if software breaks, it is part of your job on a project to fix it’. The role of a tutor is to push a student into this mind set.

Practicalities

I made a note that we discussed the importance of the introductory letter, and that we might connect this to the use of our module discussion forum.

A really important resource is the OU Library which allows student direct access to a wealth of prestigious journals. Another thought is to direct students to library tutorials (understanding eJournals) about how they can get started.

The project module doesn’t have any official tutorials, since it is difficult to run group events where every student is working on a different project (and will have different learning needs and problems). This said, some tutors do use OU Live to run some unofficial introductory tutors. 

Towards the end of the day, we discussed practicalities about end of module assessment marking, and assignment marking. Key questions that were asked were: ‘how do you do it?’ and ‘what processes do you use?’ The module has a very clear set of marking guidelines that are also known to the students. Ultimately, everything comes back to the question of whether students have met the learning outcomes.

Reflections from first presentation

Now that I have more of an idea how the module works and how it is structured, I think I will run an introductory OU Live tutorial at the start of the next presentation. This will allow me to learn more about the student’s ideas and understand more about their potential problems. I will also use this to emphasise the importance of time management.

In comparison to other modules that I have tutored on, I found the marking to be pretty straightforward once I knew how it worked. It took me a bit of time to find the forms, and then to internalise the marking criteria (but this is always the case when starting to work on a new module). One of the things that I really enjoyed was looking at the diversity of the projects, and how the students tackled them.

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