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A Year in the Life of an AL

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A year ago, my colleague Alexis Lansbury gave a great presentation entitled ‘A Year in the Life of an AL’ at a STEM new tutor induction event. 

I have sometimes been asked ‘what exactly is it that associate lecturers do, other than marking assignments?’ when helping to recruit new tutors. It was at this point that I wished that I had a neat summary of Alexis’s presentation. With Alexis’s permission, I’ve prepared this summary of her talk, whilst adding my own flourishes, drawing on my own experience of tutoring for a decade.

A point to bear in mind is that this blog has been broadly written for tutors who teach on a single module which starts in October (which is known in OU speak as a ‘J presentation’; ‘A’ presentations begin in January, B in February, C in March…). 

This ‘year in the life’ for other ALs may, of course, be slightly different to the one that is depicted here. Also, there may well be slight differences in how things are run between tutors in different schools and faculties.

Another thing to bear in mind is that things are always changing. If this post is read in five years’ time, some bits may look slightly different; there might be references to new emerging processes, such as a ‘skills audit’ and ‘workload planning’. This said, the core aspects of the role should pretty much remain the same. 

An important question to begin with is: how do I become an associate lecturer with the OU? It begins with an application form.

Application, interviewing and appointment

The OU has an AL recruitment site. This site usually advertises tutor roles that are specifically linked to academic modules, but this may change in the next few years.

If you see a module that you think that you could tutor, you need to follow the following steps:

  • Download the ‘generic’ person specification which is about teaching skills, and the module specific person specification. Take a few minutes to decide whether you can meet each of the points on the person spec.
  • Download the application form.
  • Complete said application form.
  • Send completed application form to the email address that is given in the application form.

I was once offered a bit of really good advice about completing application forms: “do everything you can to convince whoever is reviewing your application that you should be interviewed”. This can be rephased to: “make everything blindingly obvious”.

The first bullet point above suggests that the AL application form has two parts: a generic bit (which is about teaching), and a module specific bit (which is about the academic skills and abilities).

The application form has two sections: a bit that is about teaching, and a bit that is specific to a module or topic. To make things blindingly obvious, a recommendation is to copy each point of the generic spec, and paste it into the generic section, and then do the same for the module specific person spec. When this looks okay, provide between two and four sentences of evidence about how you meet each of these points. 

After the application has been submitted, two staff tutors will read each application form and decide whether someone has met most of the points on the person spec, and will then be invited to interview. Interviews can take place either face-to-face, or over the phone. Depending on the role, applicants may also be sent a short task to complete. This might be a short marking exercise, or a plan for a tutorial. 

The aims of the interview are to further and more thoroughly assess whether a candidate meets all the person spec criteria. Each interview is carried out by two staff tutors. If successful, a candidate will be considered to be ‘appointable’, which means they have met all the selection criteria and are potentially eligible to receive a group of students should they be available.

Getting a group always depends on a number of different factors: the number of students who have applied to tutor on a module, the number of other tutors who have applied, and also the interview score (which is sometimes combined with the test score). 

When recruiting for new modules, interviews typically take place in July or August, but in some cases, they may well take place in September, which is very close to the start of the start of a module.

September:  Appointments, FED, TSAs …

September is a busy month. For modules that start in October, September is when the FED is, which is short for the student Final Enrolment Date.

A week or so after FED, the university will know roughly how many students have been recruited to a module. Staff tutors can often only make new appointments around or after this date. If you’re a new tutor, September is the month when you find out whether you have a group or not.

During September, your staff tutor (or assistant staff tutor) will get in touch and ask you for your timetable dates. If this is a new module, a good idea is to study the module calendar to see what happens when, and have a good look at the module Group Tuition Strategy (GTP). The GTP roughly sketches out what is in the head of the module team in terms of student interaction.

After appointment, there is something called TSA. TSA is an abbreviation for Tutor Student Allocation; it is the process where the students are assigned to tutors (it’s also a part of the year when the university is exceptionally busy!) When the TSA has been completed, you will receive an email telling you that your group of students is now available to you.

The next step is to look through your student list, paying particular attention to any flags that might be against student records. Look out for students who might have disability markers, or alerts, such as whether they might be younger students, on their records.

If you see a student who is on a degree apprentice programme, there might be the possibility that someone called a practice tutor might be in touch. Don’t worry about this; this is just someone who supports an apprentice student through the period of their studies whilst they work within industry.

Another good thing to do during this month is to make sure that your computer is all set up and ready. The university uses Microsoft Outlook to provide you with an email address, and Skype for Business to enable you to make outgoing telephone calls and easily speak with other tutor colleagues. Before the start of the module, it’s important to make sure that your IT setup is working and ready to go. 

A week or so before the start of the module, you should be contacting your students to say hello to them. This could take place by email, by text, or by phone. It’s important to make a note of who gets in touch with you. 

Every new tutor will be allocated a mentor, who is usually an experienced tutor who has taught the module a number of times before. So, in September it’s important to reach out to them to say hello. They are paid to help you throughout your first presentation of a module, and can offer a lot of practical advice.

If you are joining a new module, new module briefings typically take place in September, usually on a Saturday or Sunday, and often at the university head office. This said, sometimes briefings are also online. If you’re joining an established module, it is worthwhile asking whether there are recordings of briefings.

A really important point is: don’t feel that you need to know everything.

October: Getting organised and prepared

From what I remember, modules that begin in October tend to start on the first Saturday of the month. This sometimes gives a tutor a few days to get organised. A really important thing to do is to look through all the assessments and put all the Tutor Marked Assessment (TMA) dates in your diary. These dates (along with the timetable dates that you agree with your tutor) are really important; your students will be working to these too.

It’s a good idea to also note down the iCMA (Computer Marked Assessment) cut-off dates, and any dates of any module-wide tutorial dates that might be taking place. This way, if you see that students haven’t completed the iCMAs, you can gently chase them. Also, knowing the dates of the module-wide events can be useful too since you can encourage students to attend them.

October is also a month for getting organised with the various OU systems. As a new tutor, you might want to complete some various bits of mandatory training (TutorHome). These include learning how to use the eTMA system (electronic TMA system), completing GDPR (data protection), Safeguarding and Prevent (terrorism awareness) training. It’s also a good idea to work through the equality essentials training, since completion will be recorded on your tutor record (and this is necessary for completing your AL probation).

If you haven’t used it before, it’s also a good idea to sign up for some Adobe Connect training, which is used for online tutorials. There are some very good short introductory courses that not only introduce the practical aspects of working with the software, but they also introduce some important concepts of online pedagogy.

By the middle of the month, all your students should have responded to your introductory email. If you haven’t heard from them, a suggestion is to first send them a short text message (always remember to write ‘hello studentname’ at the start of the text, as otherwise you might not easily know who the replies are from!) If you don’t receive a text, a suggestion is to give a student a ring. Students are invariably really pleased to hear from you, so please don’t worry about calling. 

If you can’t get hold of a student, you should submit something that is called a referral to the SST (Student Support Team) to let them know that you haven’t been able to get in contact. It’s important to do this, since if a student isn’t able to study despite being registered, the longer they leave it, the more significant the fee implications for the student are.

By now, you should be becoming more familiar with the module website. If your module has a tutor group forum area, find it and subscribe to it. When I get to that area, I post an introduction. In this introduction, I ask questions like: what do the students hope to get out of the module, and whether they have any fears or concerns about anything?

During this first month, you’ll also be planning and delivering your first introductory tutorials. In these, a recommendation is to introduce who you are, get students to introduce themselves to each other, and introduce the module to everyone. A key part of this will be to explain the assessment strategy that the module uses.

To prepare, you might have a meeting with a fellow tutor, if you’re going to be running an introductory session together. You might also have a look on the tutor version of a module website to see if any useful hints and tips have been posted, and maybe use some bits out of other PowerPoint presentations that other tutors might have posted.

A recommendation is to also record bits of the first tutorial so there’s something for students to listen to if they were not able to attend. The day after a recording, it’s important to make sure that the recording is visible to students. 

November: Everyone gets going…

November is the month when everything gets going and also when everything settles down a bit.  By November, you should have completed all your mandatory training.

November is the month when the ALSD, Associate Lecturer Staff Development, cycle starts. The university ALSPD, meaning ALs Professional Development, prepare and run a series of events and professional development conferences for tutors. In November, you might want to look through the list of conferences that are scheduled throughout the year (which you can find published on TutorHome), perhaps adding one date to your diary.

There are other staff development opportunities that you might want to look into. The STEM faculty runs (or used to run) a programme called “By ALs for ALs” which is about a peer staff development and training. Sometimes there might be faculty or school specific events in this month. One year, there was an AL conference that was run for all ALs in the School of Computing and Communication. 

November may also be the month when the first TMA arrives in your eTMA inbox. You will know about this because there will be an email when students submit their TMAS, and you’ll be all ready for them because you’ll have an entry in your diary. A point to note is that you’ll have to return them within ten working days. During that time, you will have to mark them and offer some detailed correspondence tuition to help your student move forward through a module. 

December: A small amount of relaxation

If you tutor or teach on any B modules (modules that begin in February) it is possible that your staff tutor (line manager) may be in contact to ask you about tutorial dates towards the end of November and the beginning of December. A university principle is that tutorial dates should be made available three months in advance; sometimes staff tutors do this earlier, but sometimes they may ask for dates closer to the start of the module if student numbers are a bit uncertain.

During this month there may be some ALSD conferences. I remember going to a couple of AL development conferences that have taken place in December.

December is also a month for a bit of rest and relaxation. The university typically closes down for Christmas, and then opens up again in the new year, and tutors are not expected to work during this period. This said, many students will still be studying, so they may well send the occasional query from time to time. Also, even though the university might be officially closed, staff tutors (tutor line managers) are a dedicated bunch, which means that if you have any issues, you might still be able to contact them to ask for a bit of advice. 

January: Enrolments and studying

For modules that start in February, there will be a Final Enrolment Date for students which is typically in the middle of January. To prepare for a February presentation, there might be late tutor appointments (to take account of changes in student numbers) and the completion of the tutor-student allocation.

To support students who started in October there may be further TMAs submitted (depending upon the module schedule), tutorials, and the need to respond to various questions and queries from students about the module materials or the assessments.

Towards the end of January, depending on the TMA schedule, you might see your first monitoring report. A monitoring report is an assessment of your marking performance. To ensure quality, your marking and feedback is assessed by either a member of the module team, or an experienced tutor. They will look at the tone of your comments and the effectiveness of your marking. All this will get signed off by your line manager.

February: Continuing to receive and mark TMAs

If you tutor on a module that starts this month, you will need to look through your student list and write to them, and make sure that you have made a note of all the TMA and tutorial dates. 

If you are teaching on a module starting in April (D) then your staff tutor will be asking for a timetable from you. If you’re unsure what they are asking for, do ask them. Some rough guidance is available from the module Group Tuition Policy. A good rule of thumb is: try to do, roughly, what happened for the previous presentation.

During this month, students will be doing their study, and this means that there might be some TMA marking. There may also be the need to plan and run a tutorial. If you’re delivering a tutorial with a fellow tutor, you should try to get in touch with them to come up with a plan about who does what and when. One tutor might want to present half of a session, or one might be a lead presenter and the other might be a support presenter who may look after the text chat, or one tutor might ask the second tutor some questions about the module material. Tutorials are opportunities to be creative. 

March: Study progress

For modules that start in April there will be the student Final Enrolment Date, the possibility of late appointments and last-minute timetabling before you are then assigned your group (the completion of the TSA).

During all these months, it’s important to keep in regular contact with your students. If you haven’t heard from them for a while, a suggestion is to send them a quick note to ask them how they’re getting along. You can do this by sending them a group email, making a post to the discussion forum, or ideally both.

The longer a module goes on, the more tired students may become. This means that you may have to record the occasional TMA extension using the TutorHome webpage if students need a bit more time to complete their assignments. 

During March, there might be some AL development conferences running somewhere. These conferences move around the UK to different locations; you should go to the event that is closest to where you live.

April: Easter

April should be a relatively quiet month, except for those tutors who have modules that start this month. For students who started in October, everyone should be now thoroughly settled: you should have a good idea of how everyone is doing through the TMA scores, and know some of your students through the different tutorials. 

In April, a suggestion is to revisit your module calendar to remind yourself about what everyone has been doing for the past few months, and what there is to do over the final two months. The reason to do this is that your attention (and those of your students) should be gradually turning towards the exam or EMA.

May: Exam preparation

May is the month of exams and exam preparation. Exams can take two different forms: they can be either a three hour written exam, which takes place at an exam centre that is as close as possible to where a student lives, or they can be an EMA. An EMA is known as an End of Module Assessment, which is a bit like a extended TMA which takes the place of an exam. 

During May, you may be called upon to run an exam preparation session. To help with this challenging task, the module team will have provided what is known as a Sample Exam Paper, or SEP. The SEP gives a set of questions which look like the kind of questions you may be asked during the real exam. If a module has been running for a few years, students can also download some copies of past exam papers.

During the exam preparation session, you might want to talk about not only the types of questions (and topics) that students might be asked about, but you might also want to talk about exam strategy. This may be especially important if students haven’t taken written exams for some time.

One thing to be aware of is that students may sometimes ask for extensions for their final TMAs. University policy says that extensions to final TMAs are not possible. There are two main reasons for this: the first is that all the assessment dates have to be recorded by a certain date to make sure that the module results collation processes work okay (an administrative reason), and secondly students need to have sufficient time to study and prepare for their exams (a study related reason). 

May also usually means a little bit of time off or away, due to the May bank holidays.

June: Examination time

June is the month of exams. Before the exam, expect a few queries about module materials, but if you receive any queries about where students should go, do direct students to the student support team.

Depending on the module that you’re tutoring, you may also be able to sign up to do some exam or EMA marking. At the time of writing, exam and EMA marking is covered under a separate contract (unless your module uses something called a ‘single component assessment’ model).

If you are down as an exam marker you will be required to participate in what is called a co-ordination exercise. What this means is that all examiners will be required to mark a number of exam scripts that are chosen by the module chair and attend a co-ordination meeting where everyone discusses and compares their scores. The idea is that any marking scheme will be thoroughly tested, and differences in markers and marking can be ironed out before the marking takes place. 

A personal reflection is that exam or EMA marking is hard work. Markers have to pay very close attention to a marking guide, and also enter exam results into a marking database. With both EMA and exam marking, a constant supply of tea is a necessity.

There are other things that happen in June. If you’re teaching on a J (October) module, you may receive a confirmation of an appointment if it looks like there will be sufficient numbers of students registering on that module. If student numbers have fallen substantially you might be sent a letter that might warns about the possibility of redundancy, but this very much depends on the current terms and conditions of your tutor contract. 

During some of these months, you may also be working on different bits and pieces, depending on your relationship with your staff tutor and the module team. Some tutors might be doing some peer monitoring, whereas other tutors might be asked to carry out some other academic tasks, such as critical reading, checking and writing of assessments, or even the writing of new exam questions.

July and August: Holiday time (for some)

The summer means holiday time (non-teaching time) for tutors, but not for staff tutors.

The summer should also be decision time.  Every module is different. Sometimes there is a perfect match between a tutor’s skills, knowledge and experience. On other occasions, tutors might realise, after a presentation, that a module isn’t quite right for them. If that is the case, you need to decide whether you wish to continue. The best time to make that decision is in the summer time, since according to one version of the tutor contract, tutors have to give three months’ notice. Plus, this gives your staff tutor sufficient time to try to find a replacement.

If you have applied to tutor a module, tutors might be invited to interviews in the summer. Also, if you are appointable and there are sufficient student registrations for new modules, AL services may be in contact to offer you a contract.

Not only are the staff tutors thinking about recruitment, they are also starting to plan for the next presentation. Staff tutors may be in touch with you to get your ideas about timetables for the modules that start in October. To prepare for this, it’s worth considering what worked well, who you would like to work with, and what your holiday plans for the year might be.

September: Appointments, FED, TSAs …

It all begins again in September; it’s always a busy month. For modules that start in October, September is when the FED is, which is short for the student Final Enrolment Date.

In addition to everything that was mentioned earlier, there’s a couple of extra things that are important to mention. After the first year of tutoring, your line manager will be in contact to organise a first year probation meeting. The is usually pretty informal and shouldn’t be anything to worry about. The tutor probation period lasts for two years. This means after the second presentation, there will be a further meeting to finalise everything. In this meeting your line manager will check to see whether you’ve completed all the mandatory training, and if you have any worries about anything.

In addition to the probation meetings, there is something called a CDSA that takes place every two years. CDSA is an abbreviation for Career Development and Staff Appraisal. Its purpose is to facilitate a discussion about how the university might be able to help with regards to supporting you and your tutoring work. In the meeting, your staff tutor might offer some advice and thoughts about AL development opportunities. In turn, your staff tutor can influence the direction and aims of various AL development groups.

Towards the end of September, tutor-student allocation will happen. It’s time to say hello to your students again.

Closing thoughts

I started my career as an OU tutor back in 2006. The first year was tough because everything was new to me: the university, the module, where the module sat within a wider programme, the systems, and correspondence tuition. I think it is fair to say that you need to complete at least two presentations of any module before you feel completely comfortable with its aims, objectives, and what is in the heads of the module team members.

Whenever speaking to anyone who is considering becoming a tutor, there is something that I clearly emphasise, and this is: there is a lot of support that is available. Every tutor has a friendly line manager whose sole purpose is to help you with your tutoring. There are also fellow tutors, who are a great bunch of people. There is always a tutor somewhere who is able to answer your questions. Finally, there is an entire module team who is behind you, and these are represented by someone (on the tutor side) by someone who has the job title of ‘curriculum manager’.

Being a tutor can be tiring, sometimes frustrating, but undeniably rewarding. Tutors make the difference. If you’re curious about the role, do try to find the time to speak to a staff tutor. More importantly, though, do try to find the time to speak to an OU student. 

Finally, in some respects, this post complements two earlier posts which were on a slightly different topic. The first post has the title Day in the life of a MCT staff tutor and was written in 2015. A follow on post, entitled Day in the life of a STEM staff tutor (reprised) was written a couple of years later in 2017, following a series of university changes. I hope these additional posts add  to this summary of ‘a year in the life of an AL’.

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Alexis Lansbury who took the time to review this blog post, and has kindly saved very many grammatical and typographical blushes.


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Module debriefing: M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design

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

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

Initial comments

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

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

Marking

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

Tutorials

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

Exam marking

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

Terminology

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

Culture

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

Module team

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

Monitoring

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

Tutor resources

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

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

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

Further work

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

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Different ways to use OU Live

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From time to time I use a system called OU Live.  OU Live is a software application that tutors use to deliver learning events (such as tutorials) through their computer.  It’s taken me quite some time to get used to it because teaching through OU Live is very different to teaching face to face. 

When I first learnt about OU Live it immediately stuck me that there were loads of things that that you could do in during face to face tutorials that you certainly can’t do in OU Live.  I really enjoy planning and running face to face tutorials; they are a great opportunity to share your enthusiasm about the subject that you’re teaching.  They are also a great opportunity to learn from your students and to immediately understand what aspects of your tuition works and what aspects don’t work. 

Teaching ‘electronically’ is very different: it’s harder to get a more direct connection with your students and it’s also difficult to know whether certain concepts are understood well enough so you can move to other topics: it’s more difficult to see ‘the whites of their eyes’!

Over time, I have been persuaded that OU Live offers some really great opportunities for students.  Although you can do things in face to face settings that you can’t do in OU Live, I’ve also come to see that the opposite is also true: you can do things in OU Live sessions that you can’t in face to face sessions.  I’ve also realised that one of the challenges for the university is how to share best practice in how to use OU Live not only between tutors, but also between module teams.

This blog post aims to summarise my understanding of different ways that OU Live can be used; it is a post that connects with the broad idea of ‘OU Live pedagogy’.  It aims to share some ideas about how it can be used during the presentation of an OU module.  Some of these approaches have been picked up by chatting with colleagues, and others are methods that are currently used today.  I’ve also added a couple of approaches that I’ve invented (but other people might have also thought of them too).

In essence, I’m posting this as a really rough ‘grab bag’ of tentatively named pedagogic tools that I hope someone might find useful.  If you have any comments, or have accidentally found this useful, do get in touch.

On-line tutorials

When I first started to use OU Live I used it to replace face-to-face tutorials.  There are two situations where I’ve needed to do this.  One of the modules that I tutor is completely on-line; students can be from different parts of the country (or even different parts of the world).  In this situation, face to face tutorials are obviously impossible: the only thing that we can do is to run OU Live sessions. 

Another situation was where I wasn’t able to physically get to a tutorial due to a scheduling clash.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to reschedule the event for the weekend since the new date would then be too close to the TMA cut-off date.  To get around this problem, I decided to run an evening OU Live tutorial, which I then recorded.  I was pretty surprised that a good number of students came along to the session (including some students who were never able to get to the face to face sessions).

In some respects, an OU Live tutorial can become a bit like a face to face tutorial (if you plan it well).  A tutor can present materials, do some talking, set up activities, ask for student responses, and even get students to work on a shared task by putting them into ‘breakout rooms’: there is a lot that is similar.  There are, however, some differences.  OU Live sessions can be pretty tiring for the tutor.  A tutor can’t just ‘glance across’ a classroom to see what is going on.  Instead, a tutor has to engage with a cognitively demanding interface and very regularly request students to ‘do stuff’, to ensure that their attention is maintained.  Tutors might also be faced with technical issues of challenges to contend with, i.e. some students might not have microphone headsets, they might have connected up the microphone jack to the headphone jack, or they might have set the volume setting so low that they can’t hear anything at all.

Another point is that sometimes the material designed for a face to face session might not be easily transferrable to an OU Live session because it just isn’t appropriate.  Students can’t write things on pieces of paper and exchange notes, or move to an empty space in a room (with the intention of demonstrating a physical concept or idea).  For an OU Live tutorial to work and work well, tutors (and, arguably the module team), need to come up with a learning design that is appropriate for the on-line environment.  Also, tutors and students need to be given some time so that they become familiar with the on-line environment.

I believe that an OU Live session can replace certain aspects of a face to face session, as long as they are designed with a lot of care and attention.  A final point is that an OU Live session shouldn’t go on for as long as a face to face session.  Longer sessions, for some reasons, just don’t seem to feel right.  We all need a break from looking into a screen.

Demo tutorials

A couple of months ago, I was alerted to some OU Live training materials (OU VLE) which shows how you might use OU Live during tutorial sessions (you might have to have ‘tutor permissions’ to be able to see these).  These exemplar sessions cover a range of different subjects, and they are quite short (around ten minutes), which means that you don’t have to go through an entire tutorial.  If you can access these, I do recommend them.

The first one is entitled ‘Working with metre in poetry’ makes use of highlighter and a web tour (from around the seven minutes mark).  The next session, entitled ‘Multisensory pronunciation training’ was all about learning German.  What was really nice about this one was the way that the ‘put your hand’ button was used and how the tutor used the webcam.

A subject that is close to my heart has the title, ‘Writing and running simple code’.  This makes use of the application sharing feature from around the two minute mark.  I also liked ‘Finding and using secondary sources in legal essay writing’, where the whiteboard was used from around the three minute mark.  I really like the way that ‘click and drag’ is used.

There are, of course, other exemplars.  Do have a look; it’s a really good resource.

On-line debate

A week or so ago I was chatting with a really experienced tutor who said that he really enjoys running OU Live sessions.  He told me that he had teamed up with another tutor.  ‘We have a debate’, he said.  ‘One of us takes one view, and the other tutor takes an opposing view.  Our students love it!’ 

This struck me as a whole other way to use OU Live.  TV programmes like Newsnight have a very familiar format.  OU Live not only allows us to create a ‘virtual TV studio’, but it also allows us to create a situation where the ‘virtual TV audience’ can ask the experts some questions.  Another thought is that we could potentially create situations where students can (and should) be encouraged to challenge the points of views that are exposed by the experts.

From my perspective, I would really like to see an example of how this might work.  There are aspects of technology and computing education where ‘the debate’ format might work.  Another point to bear in mind is that to get the best out of these opportunities, module teams need to be considering these opportunities when they are designing modules.

Recording a lecture

Running an on-line tutorial can be a tough business; there’s a lot going on.  You’ve got slides, different OU Live tools, students talking, problems with microphones, text messages appearing and also the need to manage and control activities. 

During the presentation of a module a tutor might discover that some students might struggle with a certain topic.  Rather than to offer comments through a discussion forum, or perhaps a group email, another approach is to run, and to also potentially record, a short lecture.  OU Live can be used to record a short session that can be considered to be akin to a ‘video podcast’.

When a session has been recorded, tutors can then refer students to the resource in their correspondence tuition, as well as during examination preparation sessions. 

I used this approach to run a revision session for M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  I kept getting scuppered by technology.  The first time I ran the revision session there was a power outage at the university which meant that students couldn’t login to my session.  The second time I ran the session, I discovered that I couldn’t use the record button, and after the session students contacted me asking when a recording would be available.   The third time I ran the session, I just made a recording; there were no students.  When I had finished the recording and I had made it available to everyone, I let all the students know by making a post to the module discussion forum.

One question is: how long should a ‘recorded lecture session’ last?  Unfortunately, I don’t have any research to back this up, but when it comes to student engagement my instinct is to try to keep them pretty short.  This is something that I ought to look into.

Focused Demo

The idea of a ‘focused demo’ pretty much follows on from the idea of a lecture.  Quite a few computing modules make use of some specialist software, such as programming environments such as Eclipse, Netbeans or Sense (you don’t have to worry about what these are, just know that they’re special bits of software).  For design and engineering modules, students might have to use tools such as Open Design Studio.  Some students might find that some of these pieces of software pretty baffling to use, especially if they’ve never seen them before.

One approach to help students is to ‘show’ them how to use a piece of software.  OU Live has got a great facility called ‘application sharing’, which means that you can show students what you see on your screen.  You might show students how to begin to use a software tool during an on-line tutorial, but there’s always the risk that things might go wrong, i.e. an internet connection might go down, or a big and complex bit of software might begin to misbehave. 

Rather than doing a ‘live’ demo (which is, ultimately, a really good thing to always try to do), another idea is to record what could be loosely called a ‘focussed demo’, i.e. you could show students how to use a particular bit of a software system by recording a quick demo using OU Live. 

If you’re teaching programming, you could also use this approach to show how to solve a particular problem.

Drop in session for students

I remember when I was an undergrad our human-computer interaction lecturer said to everyone, ‘I’ll be in my office on a Wednesday afternoon between these times… if you have any questions about anything, just pop in to see me: I’ll be very happy to have a chat’.  I thought it was a great way to encourage informal discussions about the course, and the materials.

After having a chat with my colleague from the South East region, I discovered that she used the exact same approach to support her students.  Rather than running a face to face ‘drop in session’, she ran a virtual one.

The way it worked was that she would advertise times when she would be available for a chat in her tutor OU Live room, and students could just turn up if they wanted a chat about anything. She would keep an eye on what was going on in the room whilst doing other things: exactly the same way that it used to work when I was an undergraduate.

What I really liked about this approach was how informal it is. There is no plan or agenda, but it clearly suggests to students that they can ‘drop by’ and gain some support if they need to.  I haven’t tried this approach in my own tutoring, but I am certainly going to!

Additional support session

For students who struggle with some aspects of a module the university can offer something called an ‘additional support session’.  This usually takes the form of a one to one session between a student and a tutor.  There are different ways that an additional support session could be run.  One way is to run a face to face session at a regional centre (or another venue that could be booked by the university).  Another approach might be to have a telephone session.  A third way is to run an additional support session through OU Live.

One of the main advantages of using OU Live for an additional support session is that both the student and the tutor can make use of the whiteboard.  In some cases, a tutor might decide to prepare a couple of slides so the tutor can work through some of the ideas that a student might be struggling with.  This might be particularly useful with arts subject, languages (where a tutor might write things onto a whiteboard), or even mathematics, where a tutor might take a student through how to solve an equation, or work through other mathematical ideas.

In the big scheme of things, face to face is always better than on-line, but on-line can certainly be (with adequate planning) significantly better than the telephone.  One question that should be asked if one is faced with running an OU Live session is: ‘how can I make the best use of this tool to help this particular student?’  One way to get a feel for how to approach a session is to take the time to explicitly ask the student which areas to focus on.   When we know a bit more, we can use the time that we have a whole lot more effectively.

Session between students

After recording the M364 revision session that I mentioned earlier, I noticed an interesting discussion on one of the module discussion forums.  One student proposed the idea of an ‘on-line chat’ in a module wide OU Live room.  I seem to remember that this started a short debate between tutors about whether students should be left alone in an on-line space that is operated by the university.

In a face to face university, students chat with each other in university owned common rooms and corridors all the time, so why shouldn’t this happen in an on-line space?  The tough thing about distance learning is the isolation, so it seemed like a really good idea to allow students to chat to each other about a forthcoming (or impending) exam.

I sense that different people have different views about the use of on-line spaces, but I also can see that module team members, forum moderators, or curriculum managers might be able to play a role in facilitating (or seeding) student led discussions through on-line rooms.  Plus, in some modules where group work is essential, I sense that the use of OU Live has the potential to play a pivotal role.

Final thoughts…

One of the things that I really like about OU Live is that you can record sessions which is one of the things that you can’t easily do in a face to face session: if you’ve missed a face to face session, it means that you’ve missed it.  The recording facility gives tutor the power to create new types of potentially transitory learning resources that have the potential to help students in a number of different ways.

Recording

My own (personal) view about recording is that we should record everything, since this has the potential to help the widest number of students.  Also, if a tutor makes a recording of an on-line tutor, students need be clearly told that they will be recorded: they should be given sufficient information to help them to make a decision about whether they wish to come along to a ‘live’ on-line session.

There are differing views about recording OU Live tutorials.  One argument is that if they are recorded, students won’t bother turning up; they’ll just watch the tutorial.  A counter argument to this is: if they don’t come along then they won’t be able to influence the tutorial in a way that will allow them to get their best possible learning.  A recording, I argue, should show students what they’re missing so they become suitably motivated to come along to the next live session.

Another argument is that if a session is recorded then students might be less likely to participate during a session.  This might well be the case, but I don’t see this as a very strong argument.  It’s very easy to forget that a recording is being made, and if there are exceptional points that a student wishes to share with a tutor then perhaps an on-line session isn’t the best place.

A final argument that I’ve heard is: ‘a tutorial is a tutorial; if you want to record something that students can access as a resource, then perhaps it should be recorded as just that: a resource’.  My point is that there isn’t any reason why we can’t do both.  OU Live allows us to do this, and there’s no reason why tutors can’t reference one type of resource from another.  During a ‘lecture’, you might hear the recorded phrase, ‘… and it was exactly this point that we covered during our earlier on-line tutorial’ (which students then might be tempted to go and listen to).

As far as I am aware, there isn’t yet any explicit faculty wide guidance about the recording of OU Live sessions, but I hope that there will be some one day.  When it comes to recording, my argument is very simple: we should use technology to help as many students as we can, irrespective of when and at what time they study.  Recordings of OU Live sessions can help with this, but I accept that there are important debates to resolve, especially the ethical dimension.

Module teams

One of the main points of this blog is that OU Live can be used in very different ways.  A lot can be done, but to get the best out of it, tutors (and staff tutors, who manage tutors) need a steer to understand how OU Live can be best used in the context of a module.  From the module team perspective, it’s important to offer explicit guidance to tutors about how it should and could be used.

Also, there is no reason why module teams cannot run their own OU Live sessions.  An OU Live session run by a module team should, of course, have a very different feel to any OU Live sessions that are run by tutors.  One idea is that a module team might run a series of ‘introductory lectures’ for a module: one at the start of a module, and one at the start of each major block.  This could be distinct from the sessions that tutors run which is all about small group work.

The module teams also have an important role to play in offering advice and guidance to tutors about the types of activities they consider to be useful.  At the beginning of a module presentation, the module team are the experts, and the tutors will occasionally need help in terms of understanding what to do in terms of how to effectively design a pedagogically engaging on-line tutorial.  Suggestions from the module team, perhaps working in collaboration with experienced tutors, can be invaluable.

Using OU Live for research

OU Live can be also used for research.  I’ve been recently been involved with an internal research project that has been all about understanding tutor experience on on-line modules.  The approach that the researchers (who were fellow associate lecturers) took was really interesting: they used OU Live to as a way to not only to help to facilitate a research interview, but also to record a research interview too.  The tutors managed to convert the recorded sessions into MP3 format and pass them onto me for analysis.

Group Tuition Policy

The university has recently been working on something called a ‘group tuition policy’, which is a university wide policy that aims to improve the learning opportunities that are available for students.  I’ve yet to fully appreciate the full significance of this policy, but one thing that I have heard is that students will be offered different types of session so that they will be able to attend a wider variety of learning events.  In the ‘new world’ of the group tuition policy, there may be on-line equivalents of face to face sessions.  I fully expect there to be a need to ‘group’ tutors together for on-line sessions in a way that my faculty currently groups together tutors for some face to face events.

Concluding points

This blog has considered the different ways that OU Live can and has been used.  I’ve heard it said that technology can move and develop a lot faster than pedagogy.  Put another way: we’re still figuring out how to most effectively teach using these new interactive tools.  As I mentioned earlier: you can do some things in face to face tutorials than you can in on-line tutorials.

It has personally taken me quite a bit of time to understand that there are a whole range of different interesting, exciting and dynamic opportunities that couldn’t have been possible if you only adopted face-to-face teaching.  A continued challenge that we have to collectively grapple with is how to effectively manage the important blend between the two.

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South East of England Associate lecturer conference: Kent College

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 24 Mar 2014, 14:14

Twice a year Open University associate lecturers have an opportunity to attend regional development events.  These conferences offer tutors a number of different training sessions about a range of different topics, ranging from change in university policies, through to the best way to use technology.

Each event is different and has a slightly different character.  This blog is a really simple overview of an event that I recently attended at Kent College.  In fact, I think I remember visiting Kent College to attend my first ever tutorial, which was run by my then mentor, not long after starting as an associate lecturer.  I remember getting quite lost amongst a number of different buildings and being in quite a gloomy room.  Things have changed: Kent College was unrecognisable.  Old buildings had been demolished to make way for new modern ones.  This, however, wasn't the only surprise.

Teaching through drama

Not long after arriving, we were all gently ushered into a large theatre.  We could see a number of tables set out at the front and I immediately expected to endure a series of formal presentations about changes to the structure of the university, or an update about student registrations, for example.   Thankfully, I was disappointed. 

From stage left and right, actors suddenly appeared and started to scream and shout.  It immediately became apparent that we were all in the middle of a theatre production which was all about teaching and learning.  We all watched a short twenty minute play of a tutorial, in which we were presented with some fundamentally challenging situations.  The tutorial, needless to say, was a disaster.  Things didn't go at all well, and everyone seemed to be very unhappy.  Our hapless tutor was left in tears!

When the play had finished and we were collectively shocked by the trauma of it all, we were told that it would be restarted.  We were then told that we should 'jump in' and intervene to help correct the pedagogic disaster that we were all confronted with.  Every five or so minutes, colleagues put up their hands to indicate that they would like to take control of the wayward situation.  It was astonishing to watch for two different reasons.  Firstly, the willingness that people took on the situation, and secondly the extensive discussions that emerged from each of the interventions.

Towards the end of the modified (and much more measured) play, I could resist no longer.  I too put up my hand to take on the role of the hapless tutor 'Rosie'.  My role, in that instant, was about communicating the details surrounding an important part of university policy and ensuring that the student (played by an actor) had sufficient information to make a decision about what to do.   It was an experience that felt strangely empowering, and the debates that emerged from the intervention were very useful; you could backtrack and run through a tricky situation time and time again.  The extensive audience, sitting just a few meters away, were there to offer friendly situations.

If an outsider peered around the door and saw what was going on, it might be tempting to view all this activity as some form of strange self-reflective light entertainment.  My own view is very different: there is a big distance between talking about educational practice in the third person, i.e. discussing between ourselves what we might do, and actually going ahead and actually doing the things that could immediately make a difference.   A really nice aspect of the play was that all the students (as played by actors) were all very different.  I'm personally very happy that I'm not tutoring on the fictional module 'comparative studies'!  This first session of the AL development conference was entertaining, enjoyable, difficult and insightful all at the same time.

Sessions

After the theatre production, we (meaning: conference delegates) went to various parallel sessions.  I had opted for a session that was part about the students and part about gaining more familiarity with the various information systems that tutors have access to (through a page called TutorHome).  I've heard it said time again that the only constant in technology is change.  Since the OU makes extensive use of technology, the on-line portal that tutors use on a day to day basis is occasionally updated.  A face to face training session is an opportunity to get to know parts of our on-line world that we might not have otherwise discovered, and to chat with other tutors to understand more about the challenges that each of us face.

The second session that I attended was also very different.  Three research students from the University of Surrey presented some of their research on the subject of motivation in higher education.  There is, of course, quite a difference between the face to face study context and the Open University study context.  A presentation on methods and conclusions gave way to an extended (and quite useful) discussion on the notion of motivation.

One memory of this session is the question of how it might potentially move from being strategic learners (completing assignments just to gain credit for a module or degree), to motivation that is connected with a deep fascination and enthusiasm for a subject.  There are a number of factors at play: the importance of materials, the way in which support is given and the role that a tutor can play in terms of inspiring learners.

I made a note about the importance of feedback (in response to assessments that had been completed and returned).  A really important point was that negative feedback can be difficult to apply, especially if there is no guidance about what could be done to improve.  (This whole subject of feedback represents a tip of a much larger discussion, which I'm not going to write about in this blog).

In terms of inspiration, one useful tip that I took away from this final session was that the relevance and importance of a module if a module can be connected to debates, stories and discussions that can be found in the media.  Although this is something that is really simple (and obvious), it sometimes takes conferences such as these to remind us of the really important and useful things that we can do.

Final points

All in all, a fun day!  From my own personal perspective, I enjoyed all the sessions but I found the theatre session particularly thought provoking - not just in terms of the points that were covered, but also in terms of the approach that was used.

Since I have no idea who is going to be reading this particular blog post (not to mention all the others I've written!), I guess I'm primarily writing for other OU tutors who might accidentally discover these words.  If you are a tutor, my overriding message would be: 'do go along to your regional conferences if you can make it - they are really good fun!'

If you're a student with the university I guess my message is that there are many of us working behind the scenes.  We're always trying to do the best that we can to make sure that you're given the best possible learning experience.  Another point that I must emphasise is that the instances of interaction with tutors are really important and precious (for student and tutor alike).  So, if you're a student, my message is: 'do go along to any face to face tutorials or days schools that might be available as a part of your module - there is always going to be something that you'll be able to take away'.

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