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HEA 2017 Annual conference: Generation TEF

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 14 Aug 2017, 10:56

A couple of weeks after attending the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) conference, I attended a UK Higher Education Academy conference that took place in Manchester between 4 July and 6 July 2017. In some respects, it was good to attend both events so close together, since ideas from the first conference were still at the forefront of my mind when I attended the second.

What follows is a conference of report of the HEA event. Like all of these conference reports, they represent my own personal views of the event; different delegates, of course, would have very different experiences. I should add that I attended two of the days: one that concentrated on STEM education, and the other that was more general.

The second day of the conference was opened by HEA chief executive Stephanie Marshall. Stephanie noted that this was the first annual conference for three years. She also hinted at the scale of the HEA, reporting that there were now ninety thousand fellows. A key point was that ‘teaching excellence is a global ambition’ and that discussions about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been dominating recent debates within higher education. The notion of the fellowship was an attribute that can change university cultures to foreground the importance of teaching. Other issues that I noted were the importance of student engagement, student satisfaction, student retention and the idea of creating a ‘connected curriculum’.

Keynote: How digital engagement enhances the student experience

The opening keynote was by Eric Stoller. Eric has built a consultancy about using technology and social media to create digital engagement, with a particular emphasis on higher education.

I’ve noted that Eric said that there are social media skeptics and that social media is a subject that can be polarising. There was the suggestion that social media is all about learning, and the learning doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom. A point I noted was ‘life-long learning should be at the heart of the experience’; this is especially interesting since the life-long learning agenda within my own institution has been fundamentally impoverished due to government increases of tuition fees. It is now harder to study for an entirely different qualification, or to study a module or two with the intention of developing skills that are important in the workplace.

We were presented with a series of questions. One of them was: can social media be used for critical thinking? Perhaps it can. Information literacy is an important and necessary skill when we are faced with working out what news is fake, and what news isn’t. Other questions were: how do we use social media to build communities? Also, how do we connect to others when there’s one of ‘you’ and lots of ‘them’? In answer to ‘how’ you ‘do’ engagement through social media, I remembered that one of my colleagues, Andrew Smith gave a talk entitled ‘how our classroom has escaped’ at The Open University about how to use some social media tools (specifically Twitter) to reach out to computer networking students.

Another broad question was about digital literacy and capability. This immediately relates to another question: is there a benchmark for digital capabilities? A challenge about this perspective is one that Eric mentioned, which is: different people use social media in different ways. Another question was: how about addressing the subject of social media in staff appraisals?

A theme that appears regularly is that of employability. Perhaps lecturers should be ‘role modelling’ to students about how to use social media, since these can and do have implications for employability. Social media can be used to engage students as they become acclimatised to working within a particular institution, helping them through their first few weeks of study.

As Eric was speaking, I had my own thoughts: one way to see social media is a beginning point for further engagement with students; it can be used to expose issues and debates; it should, of course, be a beginning point and not be an end in itself. There are other issues: what are the motivations and incentives for the use of social media amongst different communities?

Day 2: Morning Sessions

The first session of the day was by Anna Hunter from the University of Central Lancashire. Anna’s talk was entitled: ‘What does teaching excellence look like? Exploring the concept of the ideal teacher through visual metaphor’. I was interested in attending this session since I have an interest in associate lecturer continuing professional development, and Anna was going to be talking about her work on a PGCE in HE module (which is a subject that has been on my mind recently). Some of the activities echoed my own experience as a PGCE student; activities to explore views and opinions about teaching and thinking about the notion of academic identity. I noted down a question that was about team teaching, but I didn’t note down the response; the issue of how to facilitate and develop team teaching practice remains both an interest and a question. 

Kath Botham from Manchester Metropolitan University gave a presentation that was also in the form of question: Is an institutional CPD scheme aligned to the UK PSF and HEA Fellowship an effective tool to influence teaching practice? Kath’s research was a mixed method approach that aimed to assess the impact of the various fellowship awards. Some practitioners wanted the ‘HEA badge’ to be seen and recognised as someone involved in teaching and learning’. It is viewed as something to validate practice. Also, gaining accreditation is something that can help lecturers and teachers overcome ‘imposter syndrome’. The question remains: does accreditation change practice? Accreditation can help people to engage with reflection, it can represent an important aspect of CPD and can stimulate personal skills and study development.

Day 2: Afternoon Sessions

After attending a series of short five minute ‘ignite’ sessions, I couldn’t help but attend: ‘Removing the elephant from the room: How to use observation to transform teaching’ by Matt O'Leary and Mark O'Hara who were both from Birmingham City University. This presentation directly linked to the theme of the conference and to a university funded project that is all about online and face to face tutorial observations. We were treated to a literature review, and introduced to a six stages of an observation cycle: (1) observe self-reflection, (2) a pre-observation meeting, (3) observation, (4) post-observation reflection, (5) post-observation dialog, and (6) observee and observed post-observation reflective write up. I also noted down that there was an observer training and development sessions. Another note (which I assume is about the feedback) was: ‘we chose a blank page approach; we don’t want to forms corrupting what we see’, which reflects observation reports that I have personally received. The closing points were important; they spoke about the importance of management buy-in, that there is anxiety in the process, and there needs to be time to have conversations. 

Rebecca Bushell from the University of South Wales asked: Can innovative teaching techniques effectively improve engagement, retention, progression and performance? Rebecca’s innovative technique was to ask her students to create businesses that are funded using micro-capital (student groups were given fifty pounds each). The points were that this was immersive problem based learning that allowed students to share experience. It also allowed to reflect on their experience, and it created learning situations for students on other modules; accounting students were asked to audit their accounts. For me, the take away point was: simulations can expose real challenges that can immediately relate to the development of employability skills. 

Day 3: Opening Keynote

The final day of the conference was opened by Giskin Day from Imperial College London. Giskin taught a Medical humanities course which was all about Putting medicine in a social and cultural context. It is a course that explores the connections between the arts and science, with an emphasis on creativity.

An interesting point that I noted was that much of science is about minimising risk and beating uncertainty. With this context in mind, how can we encourage students to tolerate and manage ambiguity? This, of course, is an important skill in higher education; it is something that is explicitly explored within the humanities, where students are encouraged to be ‘creatively critical and critically creative’.

Another point is that there is a change in student expectation: students are no longer willing to be ‘talked at’, which is something that was echoed within my recent blog summary from the recent EDEN conference that I attended. A question remains: how do we engage students in new ways? One approach is to consider ‘playful learning’ (the notion of games and gaming was, again, something that featured within EDEN). Games, Giskin argued, enable students to develop empathy; they allow students to enter into a safe imaginative space where failure is an option and a possibility.

We were introduced to a speed dating card exchange game that had a medical theme. As a part of her teaching, we were told about a field trip to the V&A museum that was connected to skin, sculpture and dermatology. Students had to find exhibits within the museum and had to decide whether the sculpture needed a medical diagnosis, developing student’s communication, sketching and observation skills. Other games involved role playing where students played the roles of doctor and consultants. There was talk of escape rooms and creative puzzle solving.

Giskin offered some tips about creating effective games: consider the audience, make sure that things are tested, and think about a balance of playfulness and usefulness whilst also asking questions about what would motivate the student players. Also, when planning a ‘game’, always consider a ‘plan B’, since things might change in the real world; a game-based field trip to a museum might become unstuck if a museum suddenly loans an artefact to another institution.

In some respects, Giskin’s presentation was in two parts: the first part was about games; the second part was about her research about the rhetoric of gratitude in healthcare (Imperial College). Her point was simple: grateful people want to express gratitude; it is a part of closure, and an acknowledgement of that expression. The language used with both patients, and with challenging students is very important. I noted down the importance of moving from a rhetoric of coercion to a rhetoric of collaboration.

During the question and answer session, I think Giskin referred to something called the Playful learning Special Interest group (Association for Learning Technology). I found this interesting, since the introduction to design module, U101 Design Thinking uses both the idea of play, and explores design through the development of a game. 

I enjoyed Giskin’s reference to different types of learning approaches; her references to field trips and role play echoes various teaching approaches that I have tried to adopt. During a moment of inspiration I once spontaneously ran a field trip to a university corridor to encourage a set of design students to look at a set of recycling bins! Hearing about other practitioners such as Giskin developing a systematic and more comprehensive approach to designing field trips offers real inspiration and insight into how to develop interesting and entertaining learning events. I remain wondering how to embed these different approaches into a distance learning context.

Towards the end of Giskin’s session, we were each given different postcards, and we were asked to write down the response to a simple question: ‘what teaching and learning tip were you grateful to receive?’ Our challenge was to find the same card as another delegate and swap tips. When I found another delegate that had the same card as mine, a card that had some drawings of some craft tools, I made a point of offering a grateful thank you, which was, I believe, graciously received.

Day 3 : Morning Sessions

During the morning, I moved between different sessions to catch various presentations. The first talk of the morning was by Nagamani Bora, University of Nottingham, who spoke about ‘Curriculum Design - Opportunities and Challenges’. There were references to employability, interdisciplinary and the notion of the spiral curriculum (which was recently mentioned during my PGCE in HE studies). Other points included the importance of involving students in curriculum design and introducing them to international and global perspectives. An interesting point was made about the question of programme level assessments.

Siobhan Devlin who was from the University of Sunderland spoke about ‘Engaging learners with authentic assessment scenarios in computing’. Interestingly, Siobhan spoke about the ‘demodularised curriculum’; bigger chunks of curriculum were considered to be the order of the day. A key point was that authentic assessment needs to reflect real world practices. Siobhan also referenced some of her earlier research that asked the question: what does inspiring teaching look like? Some key attributes I noted were: enthusiasm, passion, adaptability, empathy, friendliness and enjoyment. I also noted down a reference to Keller’s ARCS model of motivation (e-learning industry).

Day 3 : Afternoon Sessions

Christine Gausden, University of Greenwich, continued to touch on the authentic in her talk ‘Embedding Employability within the Curriculum’. Christine is a senior lecturer in the built environment and said that although students might have technical knowledge, they may lack the opportunity to apply that knowledge. To overcome this, practitioners were asked to talk to students, and students were asked to study real live construction project, which links to the earlier point of authenticity. 

After Christine’s talk, I switched sessions to listen to Dawn Theresa Nicholson and Kathryn Botham from the Manchester Metropolitan University talk about ‘Embedding Reasonable Adjustments in the Curriculum (ERAC): A Faculty-wide approach to inclusive teaching’, which relates to my own experience of tutoring on an Open University module called Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (Open University website). The idea was to embed accessibility in the curriculum (MMU) to such an extent so that personal learning plans could be phased out completely. A solution was to look at what adjustments were being applied, provide a set of standard adjustment and to offer staff training. An important principle was to make sure that all learning materials were available online in advance of a session. 

Carol Calvert, a staff tutor colleague from The Open University talked about ‘Success against the odds’. A key driver the research was the principle of student retention; it was hoped that the project would suggest actions to help students to complete their studies. The key research question was: ‘what can students who we think may not succeed, who have been able to succeed, able to tell us?’ Factors that might suggest challenges include: previous study success, socio-economic status, and level of prior educational attainment. Students offered some pointers: (1) that it was important to start early, (2) that it is important to share and to get network (and to tell other people that you are studying), (3) use a study planner.

To conclude, students that do succeed have a can do attitude. The important question is: how can we foster this from a distance? There were some accompanying actions: the module team could take time to introduce the module and gives students some useful study tips. Another action is to ask students whether they wanted to start study early and then try to make this happen. When asked, it turned out that half of the students on Carol’s module said that they might want to do this.

The final presentation I attended was given by my colleague, David Morse. David talked about ‘Truly virtual teams: twelve years on’. It isn’t a surprise to hear that students don’t like team working, but David made the point that group working is an important element of the QAA computing subject benchmark statement. Twelve years earlier, things were different: students didn’t have broadband, but online collaboration is more about people than it is about the details that surround particular technologies. A question is: what must students do? They must set rules, roles and responsibilities. They must also identify knowledge and skills, make regular contributions to online discussions, give and receive criticism, and apply good netiquette. A tutor needs to be a facilitator and not a manager. A tutor also needs to know when to step forward and when to step back. In response to this, David presented an interesting helical model of team working (which reminded me of a spiral model that had been mentioned earlier during the conference). 

Reflections

I like HEA conferences; they’re always well run, they are interesting and relevant, and represent a great opportunity for networking. In comparison to other HEA events that I had attended this one had a slightly different feel. I think this difference is due to two reasons; the first is the sheer scale of the event. Secondly, due to the fact that it was very interdisciplinary. Whilst I always enjoy meeting people who work in other subjects, I did feel that the sheer scale of the conference made it a more difficult event to navigate and choose the sessions that looked to be the most relevant. These things said, I did feel that the keynotes were well chosen and well presented. The second keynote stood out as being particularly thought provoking, which is exactly what keynote sessions should be.

During the workshop, I also facilitated a session about module design with my colleague, Ann Walshe. We offered a space where delegates could be creative and design their ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ module. The resulting designs were fun and playful, and make significant use of different technologies that had been mentioned during the first keynote. 

I’m going to conclude with a more personal reflection. This conference took place in the grounds of the university that was once known as UMIST, which was where I studied as a doctoral student. Wandering around the campus brought back many memories; I remembered how challenging it was. I was trying to conduct research into what was a very specific aspect of computing: theoretical models of how programmers go about understanding software code. I remembered how difficult it was having a part time job whilst at the same time as being a full time student. I also remembered how alone I felt, and this underlined the importance of community, which was also a topic that had arisen during the various sessions.

It not only struck me that community was really important for researchers, but it is also really important as a way to facilitate excellent teaching too; teachers and lecturers need to talk to other teachers and lecturers. In some ways, this was, ultimately, what the conference was all about.

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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 moderators training: using OU Live

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Experiencing a T216 Cisco day school

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 20 Feb 2015, 14:13

On 17 January I found the time to attend a T216 (OU website) day school that was hosted at London Metropolitan university.  T216 is a module that is all about Cisco networking and, in some respects, it’s a little bit different to other OU modules, but it’s different in a good way. 

Students who study T216 can gain credits towards their degrees whilst at the same time taking a set of vendor exams that allows them to gain a widely recognised industrial qualification.  You study one module, and have the potential to gain two different outcomes.

Labs

Another way that T216 differs to other OU modules is that students are required to attend a number of compulsory lab sessions.  These lab sessions are opportunities for students to get their hands on real Cisco equipment: the same type of equipment that powers much of the internet.

I have to confess that I’m not a network engineer, but have been a student of networking in the past.  I first studied it as an undergraduate (when things were very different) and then briefly went down the Microsoft systems engineer certification route, but I’ve always known that the official Cisco certifications are a whole lot more demanding.

When I worked in industry, I once made a case to develop a product that could be used to help to teach the fundamentals of computer networking, using a set of tiny PC-like computers.  When I was heading to this event, I remembered these old ideas and I had two questions in my mind. The first was: what is the Cisco way of teaching networking and, secondly, what might happen in a Cisco lab.

The teaching bit

I met my colleague in the foyer of the university and I was quickly taken to teaching lab where a lecture was taking place.  I found a seat at one of the empty workstations and started to listen, hoping I would understand something.

‘How do switches learn mac addresses?’ our instructor asked.  The class was still pretty quiet: the students hadn’t yet warmed up yet.  I knew what a ‘mac’ address was: it’s a unique id that is used to identify a network node.  You can have them on either Ethernet cards and are used by wireless devices (as far as I know), but in this context, the lecturer was only talking about wired networks.  I also knew what a switch was too: it’s a device that decides where different signals (or frames) should be transmitted to.  Switches have ‘ports’, which are linked to physical cables (if I’ve got this right!)

The answer was: the switch populates the CAM tables, and if it doesn’t know where to send something, the switch transmits everything on every port by doing a broadcast, so it gets to behave a bit like a ‘hub’.  Broadcasting also happens if a CAM table gets full, and this is something that hackers can exploit.  To deal with this, there’s also something called port security.  To make things even more complicated, there are different types of port security too.

Within fifteen minutes, my head was exploding with in-depth technical detail.  I was also reminded about the different layers of the ISO 7-layer networking model (‘a switch is a layer 2 device whereas a hub is a layer 1 device’): I was being reminded about parts of my undergraduate studies.

During the teaching part of the day, we were introduced to the concept of a VLAN and its benefits, and the concept of ‘VLAN trunks’. I also made a note of the glorious phrase ‘a router on a stick’. 

On the subject of packet routing and routers (which was a ‘level 3’ device, apparently), other concepts were introduced, such as a ‘routing table’ and different types of dynamic routing protocols, which had names like: EIGRP (enhanced interior gateway routing protocol), OSPF (open shortest path first) and RIP (routing information protocol).  These protocols were different in terms of the extent to which they were connected to vendors, and the way they approached ‘cost’.  Cost, in networking terms (it seemed) could be considered in terms of networking distance, or state (or quality?) of a link.

I appreciate all this sounds pretty hard-core technical, but what does all this mean?  Routing protocols (as far as I understand) are important, since they convey the status of the network to the other magic devices that keep the internet working.  If there is a bit of the internet that stops working, it’s important that other devices know about it, so they can channel packets around the bits of it that are having problems.

During this part of the class, I had another flashback to my undergrad years, where I studied different types of computer algorithms.  One of those algorithms, called Dijkstra’s Algorithm, was all about finding the quickest path through a network.  His algorithm can be used to help your satnav to find the shortest route to a destination, or to find your way around the London Underground Tube map.  It can also be used to direct internet traffic.  If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, I recommend you have a quick look at M269 Algorithms, Data Structures and Computability.  In computing (as with networks) everything is connected (in one way or another!)

Other ‘teaching bits’ included information about something called an ‘access control list’ (which allows for network filtering), DHCP (an abbreviation for Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) and NAT (network address translation).  This connected to the point that there are two different internet standards: IPv4 and IPv6.  Please don’t ask me about IPv6, because I don’t know too much about it, but what I do know is that NAT is like a ‘fix’ to get around the problem that there are more internet enabled devices in the world than there are IPv4 internet addresses.  There’s also something called PAD, or port-address translation (but I don’t know too much about).

In essence, we were being taught about the nuts and bolts of the internet and how it worked.  It’s all very well hearing theory, but nothing beats actually playing with physical hardware.  That’s when the lab session comes in.

The playing bit

We had a task to do: we had to connect three different routers together, configure them, and get them talking to each other.  The routers (along with ancillary hardware, such as racks of switches and cabling) were situated in different parts of the lab.  After our tutors described our task, we were all encouraged to go up to the racks to try to figure out what was what: we had an opportunity to eyeball and touch real physical Cisco hardware.

I followed the cables between the different devices and asked some questions about the various interfaces.  I could see how it was set up.  I was also informed that the hardware was set up in ‘a raw state’ that meant that we had to send commands to them, to try to get them speaking to each other.

I sat down at a computer workstation.  I then figured out that a workstation had a link to one (or more) of the routers.  Each workstation was pretending to be a really old ‘dumb terminal’, which was the kind of interface you needed to use to talk to the router.

Our tutors gave us a handout, and a glossary of commands, and it was left up to us to figure out how to get the routers working together.  Thankfully, I was paired up with someone who knew how to issue the device with instructions.  Between us, we figured out how to send a ‘reset’ command and give it a name.

After quite a bit of head scratching, asking questions and mild cursing, I suddenly understood what was going on.  There were three routers.  Each router was connected to a separate terminal (or workstation) where we had to issue different sets of commands.  I was trying to be clever and think that you could do everything from a single computer – but, there were clear pedagogic reasons why it was designed this way: to keep it simple, so we could more easily figure out what was going on.  (Or, at least, this was my hypothesis!)

Half an hour later, we had all the routers (pretty much) talking to each other, which was our first assignment (which was what everyone would have done at the end of the previous day school).  Other groups in the lab session (who were more familiar with the commands that they needed to issue) were storming ahead, spotting mistakes in the script, and forging a path to the next assignment.

Since I was there just to observe and to learn, and I was becoming increasingly confused (and I had another appointment), I decided to call it a day.

Final notes

The teaching bit was great, and the lab bit was good fun, but there was a huge amount of detail to take in over a very short period of time.  I managed to understand some stuff, but quite a lot of the detail passed me by – especially when it came to working with the actual hardware.  This, of course, relates to the importance of the labs.  Nothing really beats an opportunity to work with real kit (and also to work with other students who are going through the same learning process that you are).

Although I left early, I did feel that I would be able to master a lot of what was being covered during the day school.  This made me wonder: I wonder if the other day schools might be different.  Also, since I found the stuff so geekily interesting, I had another question, which was: could I find the time to officially study this module? 

At the moment, time, is a challenge.  I’m currently embroiled in writing up three different teaching and learning research projects.  Once I get these out of the way (and another couple of side projects I’m working on), I’m sorely tempted to give T216 a go.

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