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Christopher Douce

Preparing online tutorials

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 31 Mar 2024, 21:21

Most OU tutorials are currently held online. The term ‘tutorial’ is one that can mean different things in different institutions. In the OU, a tutorial is a ‘learning event’ for a small group of students (although tutorials can sometimes be offered to larger groups of students), that has a specific purpose. The purpose of a tutorial is, of course, linked to module learning outcomes and a module’s assessment strategy.

This blog post shares a sketch of how I prepare for my own online tutorials. Different tutors (and groups of tutors) might adopt different approaches. One way to approach this article is to pick out bits and ideas that work best for you. Think of all the headings that are shared here as representing elements of a really simple framework.

In the earlier days of the university, face-to-face tutorials took place at designated tutorial venues. Depending on your module, tutors might be sent a simple tutorial title or description, such as ‘TMA 1 tutorial’ or ‘block 2’ tutorial. With this title, tutors (who are, of course, have been employed as educational professionals, who know how to teach their subject) would be required to create an event related to those titles. To make best use of the time, tutors would devise different activities to get students interacting with each other, and to help them engage with the ideas that are presented in the module materials.

When preparing online tutorials, it is important to consider the notion of an activity. A challenge with online teaching is that the online tools can themselves become a barrier to sharing and collaboration, which can make it difficult to design interactive and engaging tutorials. In some ways, the tutor has moved from being a ‘learning facilitator’ to a ‘learning producer’, where a tutor produces (or highlights) connections between elements of module materials.

The notion of online tutorial time is different from face-to-face tutorial time. Interactive activities can take much longer to get through when working online, due to the necessary administrative overheads of checking sound levels, allocating students to online rooms, and waiting for responses. On the other hand, you can get through the sharing of some difficult module concepts really quickly since you may choose to record certain elements of your tutorial and encourage students to listen back to your ‘difficult sections’ at a later date. Some aspects of pedagogy transfer well from a face-to-face setting, whereas other do not transfer well at all.

It is true to say that online teaching is difficult since online pedagogy is difficult. It is difficult to check for understanding, and it is difficult to ask questions, since different students may be using their technology in different ways, and it is difficult to run meaningful online activities. It is also probably true to say that technology has been evolving more quickly than online pedagogy.

One way to understand online pedagogy is through a framework called TPACK which is an abbreviation for Technical Pedagogical Content Knowledge. It is useful since it is pretty simple. To do face-to-face teaching well, you need to know your subject (content knowledge), but you also need to know how to teach it (which is pedagogical knowledge). Pedagogical knowledge is, of course, all about the ‘stuff’ that you do in the classroom, such as: giving a lecture, running an activity, asking students questions, or even doing a bit of role play. When we move to the online space, we need to know another bit, which is the technology bit. Essentially, we need to know what buttons to press, and when. To do this well, we need the time to acquire a mental model of how our tools work.

There’s also an added complexity to this in that we need to know how to use our technical tools in a pedagogical sensible way. Whilst we could just share a PowerPoint during a tutorial, that wouldn’t necessarily lead to a good online tutorial. To make a good online tutorial, tutors need to understand intersections between the technical, the pedagogical, and the content knowledge.

What follows is a simple framework to get you started with preparing your online tutorials. Much of this will, of course, sound pretty obvious. Before I get into the framework, here are some things to bear in mind:

  • Accept that online pedagogy is difficult; we’re all trying to figure it out. It can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming, but with time, persistence and practice, it will become easier and less stressful.
  • Think of yourself as a facilitator-producer rather than a facilitator-teacher role. This represents an important shift away from the perspective that you might have adopted previously with face-to-face tutorials. The idea of producer-facilitator (as in an event producer) is an important shift in mindset.
  • Tutorial time is elastic: during your tutorials expect that some types of interactive activities can take a long time, whereas other will take less time than expected. Be prepared to be surprised.
  • Expect silence from students, but also expect that the amount of silence that you have may depend on the online tools that are used, and the confidence of your students in using those tools. Whilst the silence can be a bit unnerving, don’t be worried or put off by it.

Use whatever features you have within your online environment to ‘poll’ your students regularly. Ask them for low demand interactions, such as clicks on buttons, or for simple responses through text chat.

Identify your tutorial dates and titles

Every module has something called a group tuition strategy (which is sometimes known as a group tuition policy). The strategy offers a sketch of what ‘learning events’ are to take place during a module presentation. To all intents and purposes, learning events are tutorials. These tutorial events take place within specified time windows. The learning events can take place for a tutor group (of up to 20 students), a cluster (of up to 10 tutor groups), or they could be module wide. Typically, module wide tutorials are facilitated by module team members or experienced tutors working in collaboration with the module team.

The strategy has a number of related objectives: 

  • It shares what is in the head of the collective module team. In other words, it describes what subjects and topics, and broadly what tutors will present.
  • If a module is delivered across a number of different clusters (which is a group of tutorial groups, all working together), it ensures that these clusters are roughly delivering the same tutorials. It aims to provide consistency to make sure that all students are provided with tutorials that cover similar materials.
  • It provides students with useful description of learning events. It will also describe whether individual tutorial will (or will not) be recorded. This enables students to make a choice about whether they attend specific sessions.

When you begin a presentation, familiarise yourself with the list of tutorials you are required to deliver, and when they are to be presented. Put these dates in your diary. Students can book onto these tutorials at the start of a module presentation, which means that they cannot easily be changed. If this is your first presentation, you may well be asked to team up with either your mentor, or other tutors, to gain experience of what is involved with online teaching. Have a good read of the learning event description; it should allude to some of the module learning outcomes that you need to cover.

Identify the learning outcomes

Irrespective of what you think about learning outcomes, they are important tools that are used by module teams. They are, of course, used to guide what materials are covered and what is assessed. Subsequently, it’s important to make sure you appreciate what you module’s learning outcomes are, how they relate to a learning event description (the group tuition strategy) and what you need to (broadly) cover in your tutorial.

A point to note is that although a learning event description might specify what outcomes you need to cover, it doesn’t always specify how it should be covered. You should apply your technical, pedagogic and content knowledge to make decisions about how you do this. 

Review your module calendar

There is a rhythm to every module presentation, and every module has a module calendar that shares that rhythm with students. Is useful to familiarise yourself with the module calendar to relate your scheduled tutorials to what is being studied and when. Pay particular attention to the dates of the student’s assessments. If your tutorials are close to any points of assessment, it is a good idea to highlight themes that relate to forthcoming assessments in your tutorials.

Prepare your materials

The big question is, of course: what are you going to do during your tutorial? Online tutorials are often structured around a PowerPoint presentation (but they don’t have to be). If you do use PowerPoint, be aware that the university updates its PowerPoint templates from time to time, so do seek out the latest version.

The exact contents of your tutorial will, of course, depend on what is in the group tuition description. Design a number of activities with varying level of interactivity. Also, plan for having different numbers of students at your tuition event: plan for either 2 students turning up, or 20 students.

Activities could include sharing interactive questions, debating an idea, indicating an opinion on a continuum by adding a mark using a virtual pen, screen your sharing with students and asking them for their direction, or putting students into break out rooms and asking students to contribute to plenary discussions.

Do begin your session with a contents and introductory slides. At the end, briefly summarise what you have covered. I remember a colleague saying to me: ‘tell them what you’re going to teach them, then tell them what you’ve taught them’.  At the end of your session, also leave a space for a question and answer session which is not recorded.

When I use PowerPoint, I like to use simple animations. I use animations to show the different parts of a slide a bit at a time. My motivation for using animations is that it can be useful to draw student’s attention to the specific themes and topics, and prevents them being distracted by what is going to be spoken about next. Although animations can sometimes be a bit tricky to work with (PowerPoint has something called an animation window, where you edit how all your animations appears, and what each trigger is to start an animation) I think it is a feature worth getting to know. A practical recommendation is: keep your animations simple. I tend to use only two: an ‘appear’ animation, and I start an animation through a mouse click.

Finally, I make use of the notes section of each PowerPoint slide. This serves a couple of purposes: it acts as a prompt in terms of what I am going to cover within the session, and provides a set of useful notes that I can share with students afterwards.

Tell your groups

Although your tutorials will be visible to students through their StudentHome page and the learning event management system, it is always a good idea to remind them that you are going to be running a tutorial. A few days before a tutorial, do send a group email to all the students in your tutor group reminding that you will be running a tutorial. If appropriate, do emphasise that you will be sharing some guidance about a forthcoming assignment. This should act as a draw, which should then increase tutorial attendance. More students, of course, make for better (and hopefully more interactive) tutorials.

Another way to increase the visibility of your tutorials is to mention their dates and titles on your introductory email and within the TMA feedback you provide. It is a good thing to join together different elements of your tuition together.

Review your registrations

A few days before your tutorial, review the list of students who have registered. Not only will you get a sense of how many students to expect, but you will be able to see whether any of those students have disclosed additional requirements.

If you do notice any students do have records which suggests that adjustments may need to be made during tutorials, it might be necessary to contact them individually in advance, to ask the question: ‘what do I need to be aware of to ensure that I can provide tuition that meets your needs?’ 

Be led by your student. Sometimes, it might be a good idea to adjust the design and layout of your PowerPoint resources, or in other occasions it might be a good idea to send your student a copy of your PowerPoint in advance, so they can read it through in before your tutorial.

Prepare your online room

If you are using Adobe Connect to deliver a tutorial it is important to make sure that your online room is prepared and set up before the day of your tutorial.

Adobe Connect uses an analogy with a real teaching space; your online room will be left in whatever state the previous occupant left it. The previous occupant may have chosen to layout your room in a way that worked for them. Adobe Connect uses an interesting and powerful idea: it uses something called a layout. You can choose your own room configuration by creating and using your own layouts. 

If your room is shared with other tutors, it is a good idea to create a new layout and put your name next to it. You may well want to create different layouts for the various activities you wish to run. Different layouts can be used to collate together text from notes gathered up from breakout rooms, for example.

When you’ve created a layout and have updated your PowerPoint resource, it is then time to upload it to a share pod (which sits within one of your layouts). When this has been done, you can move through all your slides.

If you do a lot of screensharing in your tutorials, it is important to be aware that how your screen appears to you might be different to how your screen appears to students. If you are using a computer with a very high resolution monitor, what you share might be difficult to read to some students who have an older generation monitor. If you want to do some screensharing, a recommendation is to share through a monitor or a display that is set to a lower resolution. It is a good idea to do this before your tutorial. You can change the resolution through your computer’s control panel. 

Running your tutorial

My own practice is to login to my tutorial room approximately fifteen minutes before it is due to start. After logging in I make sure that I have a glass of water, have selected my chosen Adobe Connect layout, uploaded my required PowerPoint (if I’m using one), and make sure my microphone and headset is set up correctly. If you use a laptop with a headset, Adobe Connect might ‘see’ two microphones: one that is built into your laptop, and the other one which is connected to your headset. Do make sure you ensure the correct microphone is selected.

When delivering a tutorial, I use two monitors. One monitor that is used for Adobe Connect, and another that has a copy of the PowerPoint that has been uploaded to Adobe Connect. The reason for this is simple: having two views of my presentation enables me to remember what my next slide is, and also allows me to access the notes that I have prepared earlier.

At the very start of a session, I turn my webcam on, so students get a sense of a real person behind the slides. To prepare for this, also check to make sure that my laptop’s video camera is at a good eye level, and the lighting in my room is reasonable.

After a friendly welcome to all students, I start the recording if this is something that is required by the group tuition plan. If a recording going to be made, I make a point of making all students aware that this is happening. This gives them the opportunity to drop out from the tutorial if they do not personally consistent.

During a tutorial, I might use a number of different layouts, whilst at the same time trying to keep things simple. I typically use no more than three different layouts, but more often than not, I mostly use only two. Before changing layouts, I always make sure to tell students what is happening. I also do the same whenever I’m screensharing.

If I use breakout rooms, or run activities where students are requested to share options or debate ideas, I always pause the recording. One of the main reasons for this is, of course, to encourage students participate freely. Also, if students see they may have potentially missed something interesting, they may well be tempted to come along to the next version.

Finally, if I turn up to a tutorial which is scheduled to be recorded, and no students turn up, I do the session anyway. I make what is known as an ‘empty room’ recording. Even if I don’t have any students at the allotted date and time, students may seek out a recording.

Using advanced features

Online tutorial tools have a lot of features, and these can take quite a lot of time and courage to master. Here is a summary of some of the more advanced features that are provided by some tools:

Breakout rooms: These are student led discussion rooms which can be used to discuss different themes and issues. Since participants are often reluctant to speak, only use them if your group are familiar and comfortable speaking online, or if you have a reasonably large group. In Adobe Connect you can ask students to make notes, which you can then collate on a shared layout. In turn, this can lead to a discussion.

Sharing media: You can show students interesting resources, such as audio or video clips. Make sure they are always relatively short, and make sure that you poll students (ask students to push buttons) before and after sharing a media clip, just to maintain their attention.

Asking questions: To test knowledge and to gain an understanding of experience or opinions, you can share questions in different ways.

Sharing files: Adobe Connect provides a way to share ‘digital handouts’ to students. This can be done through something called a ‘files’ pod, where you can upload any number of files you wish to distribute to students. You might share a copy of a presentation, or maybe a set of notes. Just like face-to-face tutorials, a practical tip is to share handouts towards the end of a session, to avoid students becoming immediately distracted and reading them. Also, do note that files can only be shared through a file pod during a live tutorial, and cannot be distributed through a recording.

Screensharing: Screensharing is a powerful approach to introduce and to talk about different elements of a module, particularly if a lot of module materials are made available through a module website.

Screensharing

Screensharing is a really powerful tool. I do a lot of screensharing. At the start of a module presentation, I use screensharing to give students a quick tour of the key bits of the module website to help them understand what resources available, and what resources are important. I emphasise particular weeks in the module calendar, and talk them through the module assessment strategy. For one of the modules I teach, I show students the university library website and share some tips about how to search for articles.

Screensharing can be a really powerful pedagogic tool for modules that use computer software. One of the modules I used to tutor was called M250 Object-oriented programming. This was a module where students had to learn how to use a programming language and learn how to use a software development environment. To help students to learn more about their tools, I began by providing a tour of some key features. I then took a pedagogic approach where I asked them for their direction. Students attending the tutorial could then ask me questions about the software environment, what it was for, and how it worked.

If you want to use screensharing, the following tips may be useful. Do bear in mind that these relate to Adobe Connect. Other tools, of course, will work differently.

Plan what you are going to show: Before doing any screensharing, do spend a few minutes doing a bit of run through, or practice. This will help you to remember what bits you are going to click on. Don’t worry if you click on the wrong things; your session doesn’t have to be perfect.

Select which monitor you will use for screensharing: The monitor you choose matters. If you choose your main monitor, and this is a very large screen with a very high resolution, when you share your screen, the text you will share is likely to become impossibly small for students. To avoid this happening, adjust the resolution of your main monitor so it has a lower resolution. If you have a multi-monitor setup, make sure that the monitor you use for screensharing has a lower resolution. (You can, of course, check to make sure what students can see by making a test recording).

Create a layout just for screensharing: Create a layout that has an empty share pod. When you move to this layout, you can than then immediately start to share your screen. This avoids having to stop sharing whatever you are sharing, and having to reload it again when you have finished your screensharing.

Move the text chat out of the way: If you have a multi-screen setup, if you are screensharing, move the text chat to the screen that isn’t being shared. If you don’t do this, there will be a bit of the screen recording that will be blocked out for students. Moving the text chat area avoids that happening, and helps you to interact with your student group more easily.

Make sure you have an alternative: Not all students may be able to take advantage of your screensharing. Whatever you do share, make sure your students have a different way to access the same points of learning. You might think about adding additional or complementary notes in your PowerPoint file, or sharing an additional resource which might summarise a set of steps that you illustrated.

Washup, or after your tutorial

Post-tutorial ‘washup’ is an important part of delivering a tutorial.

There are a number of discrete tasks I always aim to complete as soon as a tutorial has finished. If I can’t complete them immediately, I make a note to ensure that I carry out all these activities the following day. 

The first three tasks need to be completed if you have recorded your tutorial.

Check the recording: The key question I ask myself is: did my tutorial record okay? I do this by clicking on the recording link, and listening to a couple of seconds. To save time, I sample a couple of slides, to also make sure that my slide and layout transitions are okay.

Edit your tutorial name and description: After a recording has been made, the recording software will allocate a default title. This title will not give students any information about the aim and objectives of the tutorial. Edit both the tutorial name and description, making it consistent with what tutors have done.

Make your recording visible: Recordings are not visible by default. You have to do something to make them appear for your students. The OU VLE adopts a curious metaphor to facilitate this: it uses an ‘eye’ metaphor. If a recording is not visible, an eye will be closed. You can make a tutorial visible by clicking the eye icon to open it. If you forget to make your recording visible, students may ask you to make it available to them.

Share your resources: After a tutorial make available any resources you might have shared during a tutorial to other students. If your tutorial was a tutor group only tutorial, do post a copy of your resources to your tutor group forum. If your tutorial took place in a cluster room (where students from other tutor groups can attend), do paste your resources in the cluster forum. If your tutorial was recorded, also post a link to the recording.

Let everyone know that tutorial resources are now available: Now that all your resources have been uploaded, there are two final things to do. Firstly, send a message to all students who have attended your tutorial to let them know. You can do this by going to the ‘your tutorials’ section on TutorHome, and clicking on the ‘your past tutorials’ heading. You will then see a ‘send group email’ link. Use this link to let all students who registered for your tutorial know about the available of your resources. Secondly, let all students in your tutor group know by sending them a group email. Even if they haven’t attended, they might find your tutorial resources useful.

Working with others

All these points in this article have been written with a single tutor in mind. Tutorials are sometimes supported by two or even more tutors. Working with one or more tutors gives tutors and students some interesting advantages. Firstly, it offers redundancy. If your internet connection was to experience a temporary outage, the second tutor can immediately jump in and continue a tutorial. Secondly, it enables for an efficient division of responsibilities: one tutor can lead a session, and another tutor can be supporting the session by reading the text chat, and interacting with students. Another benefit is that students, get to hear different voices, which makes it more interesting. Finally, different tutors can facilitate interesting online pedagogies. Two tutors could, for example, argue with each other, adopting opposing viewpoints. The tutors might role-play, to demonstrate some key learning outcomes.

When working with other tutors, planning is important. Make sure you find the time to decide who is doing what some time before a scheduled tutorial. You might decide on this through a short online meeting, or you might develop a plan through an email conversation. You might also decide to work collaboratively on a presentation. Do make sure you share views about whether you have preferences in terms of covering certain learning outcomes, or have any specific technical or pedagogical skills you would like to emphasise or to draw upon. Clear communication facilitates effective collaboration.

Improving your practice

As suggested earlier, running online tutorials is difficult. It requires skills, practice, and different types of knowledge. It is easy to get things wrong, and things will go wrong. Like very many aspects of education, an important element of delivering effective online tutorials links back to the principle idea of reflection. It is important to continually reflect on your practice and aim to continually develop your skills.

When considering reflection, ask the following questions: What worked well? What didn’t work well? What bits did I struggle with? What part of the tutorial am I uncertain about? Also, what bit seemed to work well?

If you are newly appointed to a module, do make sure you have an opportunity to learn what your mentor does. Depending on your module, it might be possible to view another tutor’s tutorials. Ask your line manager and your fellow tutors if they would be happy for you to either come along to one of their tutorials, or listen to one of their recordings.

A key to developing your online teaching skills is to be comfortable taking practical risks. Online tools have a lot of features, and only a very small proportion of these features are used. Improving your practice as an online tutor means that sometimes it is necessary to feel uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to try new things out. Find new ways to interpret the aims of a learning event. Also, do seek advice from those around you.

Reflections

I used to find all kinds of tutorial overwhelming. I used to ask myself: “what happens if I’m not able to answer a question?” I now know that although this was a legitimate question, the reality is that I’m not expected to answer every single possible question. If I don’t know something, I will say “thank you, I’ll find out and I’ll get back to you”; behind the scenes there is a lot of support: there is your line manager, and fellow tutors to seek help and guidance from.

Another question that I’m sure I have asked myself must have been: “what happens if I get something wrong?” The answer is, of course, you can always share corrections and updates later on.

Online tutorials are difficult. A bit of the difficulty lies with the silence that tutors face; it sometimes feels as if we are talking to ourselves, into a machine. The reality is, however, different. I can assert this since after tutorials, students who have never spoken have sent me an email saying that they have appreciated the tutorials that I have helped to deliver.

I take a practical approach when planning and delivering tutorial; I want students to go away with something. That might be a new way to understand concepts that are presented within the module materials, or a new understanding of what is required for their next tutor marked assignment.

I’m not going to deliver a perfect tutorial every time. Sometimes things go wrong, and I won’t push the right buttons in the right order, and that is okay. After all, we’re all learning.

Acknowledgements

This blog has been written as a part of an eSTEeM project which relates to STEM teaching practice. Thanks are extended to Fiona Aiken whose comments has helped to improve this article.

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Christopher Douce

Reflections on M250

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I’ve just finished tutoring my first presentation of M250 Object-oriented Java programming.

I first applied to tutor on the predecessor to this module back in 2005. At the time I was a full time Java programmer working in industry, writing software that drove some equipment that was used to teach telecommunication principles. 

I wasn’t offered a contract on M250, but I was offered a contract on M364, which was called Fundamentals of Interaction Design. I tutored M364 for a little over ten years. It was a great module; it was well designed, it had a clear structure, and gave students some practical experience of carrying out some really simple usability evaluations.

In 2019, I heard from a colleague that there was a M250 vacancy in the London region. I hesitated; I’ve a lot on. I also tutor on the project module, TM470, and have a few other OU responsibilities. Since my research at university was about object-oriented programming, I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to play a part in teaching people about object-oriented programming. I applied. I was interviewed and considered appointable.

Books

In the post I was sent three glossy looking books. In the very early stages of tutoring, I sat down and started to read them, skimming over the activities; a lot of what I was reading was already familiar to me, and I could understand the concepts that were expressed through the amphibian-related activities (frogs and toads were used to introduce the concept of objects and messages).

Through the module website, I found that there were PDF and ePub versions of books. I downloaded the ePub versions onto my eReader, just so I could carry them around with me a bit more easily.

Getting everything going

At the start of the module, I set up some introduction threads on the tutor group forum and wrote to each student telling them to subscribe to it. I also asked students to get in touch with me to say hello. For those who didn’t reply, I chased them up with a text message and a quick phone call or voicemail. 

My first tutorial

My first ever M250 tutorial took place in a seminar room at the University of Westminster. I was there to support my fellow tutor, Lindsey, who has been allocated to me as my mentor.  Two things struck me: she knew terms to describe Java that I had forgotten, and carried out almost all of her teaching using a combination of whiteboard, and pen and paper. This method of teaching programming was a method that I approved of; it forces everything to move a whole lot more slowly.

My first solo tutorial

My first ever online introductory tutorial was fun. I prepped for it by looking at what other tutors had done, using sections of the module material and sharing bits of the TMA question. 

During the first tutorial, I tried my best to emphasise the fundamental concepts of object-oriented programming. I asked everyone who came along to look around their immediate environment. We made classes out of those objects, and gave them attributes. I also compared non-OO programming to OO programming, to really emphasise why it’s an important subject. I also recorded the tutorial and did two things to follow up: I posted a link to the recording on the tutor group forum, and also sent an email to all student to let them know they could find a link to the recording by visiting the forum.

Whenever I can, I try to connect different things together; tutorials with module materials, and forums with recordings.

My first TMA

The first TMA of a new module means that you never know what you’re going to expect. I always knew that there would be a lot of support behind the scenes. I subscribed to the tutor forums (in M250, there was one support forum for every TMA), printed out all of the tutor notes (which were comprehensive), along with the TMA question. I also made liberal use of my highlighter to identify bits that I needed to pay attention to.

I quickly realised that students were asked to submit their TMAs in two parts. Firstly, there was the written part (presented within a Word document), then there was some programming code, that was submitted in a zip file. The code in the zip file was also presented in the Word document, and could add teaching comments into the Word document.

Another thing that was new to me was the BlueJ Java programming environment. I soon figured out how it worked: projects were contained within directories, and these directories contained a project file. I easily found the compile button, and figured out that there were another bunch of tools that had been created by the university: something called the OU workspace which presented a graphical display, and a way to dynamically work with Java code.

There was something that really helped me to get going in the very early days, and that was a testing tool that had been created by the module team. Essentially, you run a Java program that then compares a specified Java program (i.e. a student’s submission) against a predefined definition or specification. Essentially, it’s a tool that tells you whether a student’s code is right or wrong. The tutor’s job is to interpret everything: the tool output, the student’s submission and the tutor notes and provide some sensible teaching comments, along with a mark.

I soon realised that I could apply a familiar tried and tested marking approach to M250: I could mark one question (or question section) at a time, for all student submissions. The advantage of doing it this way is: (1) consistency, and (2) speed. When you’re doing this, you can put quite a lot of the marking guide into your head and also make sure that you provide consistent comments and feedback for each of the student submissions.

My first additional support session

After marking the first TMA, I noticed that a couple of students may be struggling to understand some of the fundamental concepts of OO programming. A tip off for this was how some of the Java code was expressed. It might have been things like students not quite understanding the purpose of member variables and how they related to member functions (for example). 

I emailed all the students who might be struggling to ask them whether they might be interested in a one to one session. A couple of students agreed.

During one of the additional support sessions, which took place in a tool called Adobe Connect, I used screen sharing. Rather than telling students what they needed to do, I asked questions to probe their understanding of some of the fundamental Java and OO concepts. I then used screen sharing, in combination with the BlueJ environment, to do what is usually called ‘live coding’. Essentially, during the tutorial, we co-created some code which explored similar concepts that were explored within the TMA questions.

I had never done any live coding before. I had certainly never done it using BlueJ and Adobe Connect. In some respects, I was taking quite a few risks, but everything seemed to work okay. Object-oriented concepts were communicated and shared through a combination of English and Java.

My first examination preparation session

During my first presentation of M250, something unexpected happened; a global pandemic. What this meant was that the expected M250 written exam was cancelled. This mean that the final assessment score was going to be calculated from the scores of all the TMAs. This was possible, since the TMAs assessed all the key learning outcomes from the module.

Exams are useful, since they enable learners to consolidate their earlier learning. Rather than running an examination preparation session, I’m going to be running what I can only call a module consolidation tutorial. During this final tutorial I’m going to be talking about what was going to be assessed, why different questions were to be asked, and how they may relate to studies on other modules. 

Reflections

I’ve enjoyed tutoring my first presentation of M250.

Tutoring the module was a bit of a surprise, in the sense that I didn’t expect to become a tutor on M250; I thought the opportunity had passed. I applied, since I felt that I had some hidden skills (knowledge of OO programming and Java) that I could use. 

I enjoyed realising that I remembered how to code and how the key parts of the language worked. I also enjoyed working with the new bits: collection classes and iterators; bits of the language that had been introduced after I had stopped using it on a daily basis.

Although the marking was hard work, it was looking at something that was familiar, which meant I was able to get into the swing of it relatively quickly. I soon learnt to accept that wasn’t going to understand everything that was in the tutor notes (tutor marking instructions) straight away. Understanding, of course, came by playing with code, and looking through the answers that students had submitted.

The real fun bits were the tutorials and the one-to-one sessions. It was in these sessions that I felt that I could really add something as a tutor.

If asked whether there was something I would change for the next presentation, it would be: I would take even more risks during tutorials. Programming has the potential to be a really fun subject. I have the tools to make it fun. It’s going to be up to me to make it so. 

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Christopher Douce

1st Computing and Communications AL development conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 5 Dec 2018, 12:20

Associate lecturer development events generally take two different forms: they are either large multi-faculty ‘generic tutoring’ events that are run at different venues across the UK, or they are small module specific focussed events. From time to time, the university runs a larger events (I remember running a computing and IT event in the London office a few years ago), but these are the exception rather than the rule.

What follows is a summary of what has been called the 1st Computing and Communications AL development conference, which took place at the university student recruitment and support centre (SRSC) in Manchester. Just as with other blogs, this is a personal summary of the event (different colleagues may, of course, have very different experiences and memories!) I’m sharing this summary just in case it might be useful for someone, and also because it will help me remember what happened when I come to do my annual appraisal...

By way of background, the event was for tutors who teach on Computing and IT modules. One of the reasons for running the event is that the subject of computing can pose some interesting tutoring challenges and it would be helpful to share experiences between tutors who teach on the same undergraduate programme. There’s also the importance of community; in recent years the link between tutors and the university department (school) to which they are related to has become more important.

Manchester was chosen as the location for the conference, since it is also home to the Computing and IT student support team (SST). The conference took place over two days: Friday 30 November 2018 and Saturday 1 December 2018. The agenda for each of these days was roughly the same, and tutors were encouraged to sign up for the day that best suited them.

Looking forward: curriculum and school updates

The conference began with a short keynote and introductory presentation by our head of school Arosha Bandara and David Morse, director of teaching. Arosha mentioned the mission and vision of the school: that it aims to ‘empower our students, industry and society, to leverage digital technologies to address the challenges of the future’ and ‘be a world leader in open, innovative distance teaching of computing and communications, founded on excellent research and scholarship’. I noted that the undergraduate degrees were accredited by the British Computer Society, that the school ran a premier Cisco networking academy, and it is playing an important role in an organisation called the Institute of Coding (IoC website). Arosha also touched on research areas that are important within the school, such as technology enhanced learning, software engineering and human-computer interaction (amongst others).

David presented a summary of the computing curriculum and degree programmes, which ranges from introductory level computing through to postgraduate MSc degrees. In collaboration with Maths and Stats, the university will be introducing a new Data Sciences qualification, and the school of Computing and Communications will be introducing a new level 3 Machine Learning and AI module. Looking further to the future, the school is currently recruiting for Cybersecurity lecturers, which might see the emergence of new modules at levels 2 and 3. 

Spot the difference: sharing your practice 

After a brief break to meet and chat with colleagues, there was a series of short 5 minute presentations by tutors about different aspects of their OU teaching. What follows is a summary of the notes that I made during those sessions. 

Some tricks to establish early contact with students 

Charly Lowndes is a very experienced tutor and former OU student who teaches on a range of different modules. One of his tips was: “send them a 2 line email, and tell them to send you a reply to say that they have got it; when you do that, I’ll send you some useful stuff”. Charly also makes an introductory video that he has recorded and uploaded to YouTube; he said that “it’s nice for them to know what you look like”.

Another tips include: if you don’t hear from a student, send them a SMS; populate the module forum with messages; use email rules to process emails (I do this too, filtering on module code). Charly also said “I don’t get stressed if they never get back to me; I had one student who was on his honeymoon” – the point is that the student support team is able to help. Another comment was: “use a range of methods; everyone is different” and use different bits of information provided by the university to try to create a picture of your student.

A strategy for recording student contacts

The second presentation in this session, given by Helen Jefferis, complemented Charly's presentation really well. Assuming that you had made contact with your student, then what? Helen offers a suggestion: use a spreadsheet. Helen begins by downloading a list of students from her TutorHome website, and then adds a set of headings, which includes a simple notes section. I noted down the sentence: “if they reply, things are ticked off; ticks to show that they’re active”. Other approaches may include using tools such as Microsoft OneNote. Also, further information about student interactivity and engagement if available from the OU Analyse tool (which is entire topic all of its own).

Teaching methods on TM470

Jay Chapman gave a brief summary of what it was liked to be a TM470 project module tutor. I found Jay’s session especially interesting since I’m also a TM470 tutor. Jay began by outlining TM470. The module isn’t about teaching technical stuff, it’s about helping students how to write a technical project, and demonstrating how they can build upon the expertise and skills they already have. An important point is that TM470 students can take on different roles: they may be the project leader, the client and the stakeholder. Also, every project is different, but there are some common challenges: planning is important and students can easily fall behind, and a big challenge is the importance of academic writing and critical reflection.

I noted that Jay sends his students an email, then a SMS (if he hasn’t heard from them), and he runs tutorial sessions using video Skype. During these sessions, Jay mentioned that he uses an agenda, and then sticks to it. An important sentence that I noted down which resonates with me (as a TM470 tutor) is: “you have to show me what you did, and how you thought about it”. 

Approaches to working with under-confident students

Jean Weston shared some tips about working with students who might not have high levels of confidence. One tip was to tell them things that they don’t have to do. One suggestion was that with some modules, students don’t need to go outside the module materials. I noted down some practical tips: read the introductory and summary sections first, and it’s certainly okay to read something several times.

When it comes to exams, Jean shared some really great tips. One tip was: write down the blindingly obvious (since the examiner might well be testing whether a student knows the blindingly obvious). Another tip was: “answer the question, the whole question, and nothing but the question”. Also, successfully completing examinations requires you to balance two resources: your brain (what you know and can apply) with the time that is available, and “and answer is better than no answer”.

Other tips are worth remembering, such as: “learn to pick the low fruit, and apply that throughout your study” (or, in other words, ‘it’s okay to be strategic if you need to be’). Also: do get help if you need it, do take the time to talk to somebody if you need to, and take time to understand the vocabulary and complete the activities (since these can directly relate to the assessment questions).

PG teaching: what's the difference?

Joan Jackson gave the first short presentation on the morning of the 1 December. Joan is a tutor on a number of modules, such as M815 Project Management, T847 The MSc Professional Project and T802 Research Project.

One of the big differences that Joan emphasised was the level of skills that can be applied. From her slides, Joan reported that “undergraduate study provides the ‘grounding’ within a field or subject and academic skills” whereas “postgraduate study allows the subject to be explored further to attain a higher level of proficiency through independent study, scholarship, research and professional practice, emphasising critical thinking, synthesis, reflection and effective academic writing”.

An important question is: how do you learn to do all these things? Thankfully, the university has some resources that can be used. I’ll highlight two free OpenLearn courses that may be useful: OpenLearn course: Succeeding in postgraduate study and OpenLearn course: Are you ready for postgraduate study

A further question is: how can tutors develop postgrad skills once the module begins? I made some notes that suggested that there are opportunities: forums can be used to run activities. Students can explore the library to uncover research or discussion papers, than sets of papers can be compared and contrasted. Also, as a brief aside, there are also some resources on the OU Skills for Study pages, such as a resource about Critical Reading.

Cisco accreditation and teaching on Cisco modules

Phil Irving tutors on a number of Cisco modules, such as TM257 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 1, an undergraduate module, and T828 Network Security a postgraduate module.

Phil gave us a bit of history about the OU Cisco Academy (and Cisco as a company) before beginning to talk about the link between Cisco material and the OU approach to study. One of the benefits of the joint approach is that students have the potential to gain an industrial qualification whilst also learning important academic skills, such as academic writing. Students are also incentivised to pass the industrial qualifications. I didn’t know this, but if students pass their Cisco exam, they get back some of their test fees.

Practice tutors: a new approach for apprentices

The final short presentation of the conference was by Christine Gardner and Alexis Lansbury who spoke about the university’s involvement in degree apprenticeships and the role of a practice tutor. Since apprentices have a lot of study to do over quite a short period of time, practice tutors can offer some advice about how to manage their workload. Practice tutors are just one of many people involved with apprentices: there are also module tutors, and functional skills tutors, and the student support team. Practice tutors visit apprentices four times in a year, typically at a student’s workplace, and they will be a consistent contact across four years of study.

An important thing to remember is that degree apprenticeships differ across the UK. There are different programmes in England, Wales and Scotland. There is also something called higher apprenticeships, which can be linked and connected to postgraduate study.

What makes a good online session?

The first of two longer presentations was given by Shena Deuchars. Shena’s presentation was all about the use of breakout rooms in Adobe Connect. A personal confession is that I’ve only ever used breakout rooms twice. The first time was using Blackboard Elluminate (or, OU Live, as the university called it), which seemed to go very well. The second time was using Adobe Connect, and didn’t go well at all (I remember a few voices in my headset saying the words: “what’s going on?!”) and feeling quite embarrassed!

Shena gave us some tips about creating some layouts that we could use to manage breakout rooms. A sequence of actions were suggested: (1) create a new layout, (2) add content to pods, and (3) create rooms. Then to get things going, (4) tutors need to click on the ‘start breakout’ button. Finally, there is the step at the end to end the breakout rooms and to bring everyone back to the plenary space.

Some of the tips were very helpful, such as: try to get people who are willing to use microphones in the same room as each other (you can do this by asking everyone to give you a green tick). Also, in anticipation of a session, a thought is to email everyone to tell everyone that they will get more about of the session if they are prepared to speak (and have a headset).

I found Shena’s session useful, and it was great that she managed to encourage everyone to login to the shared room that she had prepared so everyone could get a feel for how things work. 

During her session I thought about my own recent experience as a current OU student who was recently put into a breakout room. Initially, I wasn’t happy, especially when all of my fellow students volunteered me to summarise all of our discussions during the plenary session. This said, it was really helpful to hear how other students were getting along with their reading. One fellow student made me realise that I hadn’t read some aspects of the module materials as thoroughly as I ought to have done.

One thought I will add about breakout rooms is they take time. I’ve heard it said that a breakout room activity can or should take at least 20 minutes. This means that if you’re doing a number of things in a tutorial, it’s important to pay close attention to timing. In the case of the tutorial that I attended, I found the breakout rooms so useful, and I became so engaged, I was surprised that the tutorial was over so quickly. In retrospect, a thorough debrief or summary after my time in the breakout room would have been useful to help me return to the physical world!

Teaching of problem solving and algorithmic thinking

I’m not going to summarise Friday Jones’s presentation on algorithmic thinking directly, partly because I don’t think I can do it justice. Friday’s talk was one that encouraged us tutors to think about what it means to teach algorithmic thinking and also how we should (or could) respond to students. From my perspective, it contained a number of themes, such as whether we should teach top-down or bottom up, and how students might understand the notion of abstraction.

Some interesting phrases I noted down was: “I teach by epiphany…”, “I taught them that they could solve the problem” and “I don’t want to make tea anymore; I want to question why we do this”; ‘this’ means “they need to ‘get’ why we do what we’re doing”.

Friday’s talk reminded me of another talk that I went to that I saw at the Psychology of Programming Interest group back in September 2018. Friday said that she learnt to program ‘bottom-up’, as did Felienne. Some thought provoking words from her presentation were: “sensimotor level is syntax”, and “motivation leads to skills”. And skills, of course, can be linked to the ability to develop (and implement) abstractions.

Working with the Computing and IT student support team

This second half of the conference was opened by John Woodthorpe, our school student support team lead. In addition to a series of short presentations, tutors were able to have a tour of the SST to learn more about what happens within the Manchester office.

The first presentation was about the Careers and Employability Service (OU website). Next up was a presentation by the colleagues from the Student Recruitment and Fees team. This was then followed by another talk by the SRSC continual improvement and change acceptance team, who look at how to enhance existing student support processes. During the first day of the conference, Claire Blanchard concluded by speaking about the role of the SST from the associate lecturer perspective. Claire also emphasised the role that ALs can play in the school by applying to sit on the computing board of studies.

One thing I got from this session was an understanding of something called the Information Advice and Guidance model (which is referred to by the abbreviation IAG). Although I had heard of this before, I hadn’t really grasped its significance. 

In some senses, IAG can be understood as three progressive stages. Whenever a student calls up the SST, they may first speak with a front line advisor, who may be able to provide some general information. If the query is more complex, such as the need for study advice, the student will then be passed onto a senior advisor (the ‘A’, or ‘advice’ part of the model), who will be able to answer more specific queries. Finally, if the query is one that is both detailed and complex, the student might then begin to receive ongoing detailed guidance from an educational advisor.

Simply put: there are a lot of calls about information, and not so many calls that are about guidance (and some guidance calls can take a lot of time to resolve). 

Activity: Working through student support scenarios

For the penultimate part of the conference, Alexis Lansbury, Computing and IT staff tutor, divided the room up into tables, and gave us a series of student support case studies. Each table had a combination of associate lecturers, staff tutors, and advisors. 

For each case study, we were asked to “discuss how you would respond, what actions you would take, what you are aiming to do to help the student, and whether you would involve other people (ALs, Student Support, Employability Specialists, Staff Tutors) in both the decisions you take, and, the help that you offer”. The case studies covered all levels of study (first year through to final year equivalents), and issues ranging from requests for very long extensions through to catastrophic technical problems. This activity emphasised the importance of taking time to gather information and the need to thoroughly understand different perspectives.

AL development in the school: priorities, needs and opportunities

During the final session, I asked everyone the question: “what would associate lecturer development activities or events would help you to do your job?” Some points that I noted on a whiteboard were: 

  • How to best maintain the student-tutor link
  • Understanding, mitigating and influencing the impact of the group tuition policy (GTP) and learning event management (LEM) system
  • How to best work together in cluster groups
  • How to tailor a session to suit a module and also take account of local geography
  • More discussion and less presentation during AL development events
  • More information and further discussion about the new tutor contract
  • Information about the ‘bigger picture’ (either in terms of the university or the discipline)
  • Discussions and information about how programming is addressed across and between study levels
  • Degree apprenticeships and the potential impact on the tutor role and tutor practice

Reflections

Over two days, over 90 colleagues attended the conference: associate lecturers, staff tutors, central academics, and members of the student support team. A colleague said to me: “it’s a sign of a good conference if you come away learning something new”. I certainly agree! One of the things that I’ve gained from the event is a more detailed understanding of what the SST advisors do, and how important and essential their work is, and what IAG means. I felt that it was a thought provoking and useful event, and I hope that everyone else found it useful too. Fingers crossed we’ll be able to run another one soon.

Acknowledgements

This conference was very much a team effort (with multiple teams)! The main organising and planning group included: Frances Chetwynd, Christine Gardner, Alexis Lansbury, John Woodthorpe and Ann Walshe. Many thanks to Saul Young (and colleagues) and Jana Dobiasova (from ALSPD). Thanks are extended to all presenters, and to Shena Deuchars and Friday Jones who ran the longer sessions, and to Arosha Bandara and David Morse from the school. Thanks are also extended to Stephen Rice, Claire Blanchard, Vic Nicholas, Dawn Johnson and everyone in the student support team who were able to spare their time to come and speak to us; we really appreciate your time!

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Christopher Douce

STEM new tutor online briefing

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When I started with the OU back in 2006 I remember visiting a school or a sixth form college in Sussex to attend a new tutor induction day. I remember that it was a very busy event; it was for all new tutors across all faculties. Since the event was held at an unfamiliar school, I couldn’t shake that feeling of going to my first day at school. It was significant, fun, but also slightly unnerving.

Fast forward twelve years and things have changed. Almost all of the OU regional centres in England have closed, and I find myself co-hosting an online equivalent of an induction session with a staff tutor colleague from Science.

What follows is a very short summary of our presentation: ten top tips to becoming an associate lecturer, which took place on the evening of 3 October 2018 for all STEM associate lecturers who joined over the past two years. Much of the credit goes to Fiona Aiken who proposed the idea of the tips.

1. Understanding the tutor role

The module materials that do the teaching, students do the learning, and it is the role of a tutor to facilitate the student’s access to the learning. Tutors are an academic contact for the module; they answer questions that relate to the module materials, run tutorials, mark assessments and facilitate online discussions.

2. TutorHome

The most important website that you will use is TutorHome. Take time to have a look through the TutorHome site. You will find a way to get a summary of your student group, access the module website that you tutor, and will find a link to download and return TMAs. 

3. Introductory email

Introductions are important. When you receive your student group, send a welcoming email to every student. A recommendation is to personalise every one. Tell them something about you and your background (how long you have been a tutor for, and maybe something about your day job). Also, set some boundaries to say how they can contact you. Finally, encourage them to email you back so you can start a dialog. 

4. Setting up your Tutor Group forum

Different modules use tutor groups in different ways. Also, modules have different types of groups, depending on how they’re designed: there can be module wide forums, cluster forums and tutor group forums. Post a welcome message to your tutor group forum and subscribe to it. Encourage students to introduce themselves. Also, take a few moments to set up your TutorHome dashboard, since this is a nice way to get a quick overview

5. Adobe Connect

Like forums, there are different Adobe Connect online rooms for live online tutorials. Different modules will use them in different ways. Some key tips for the using of Adobe Connect are: take the time to complete some Adobe Connect training, make sure that you understand what a layout is and make good use of them, deliver sessions in pairs if you can (one tutor can manage the text window and another can present), consider recording your Adobe Connect session, make sure that you have a good understanding of the aims of a tutorial (refer to the group tuition strategy), gradually build up your expertise by using different features, don’t be afraid to get things wrong (since running online tutorials is hard), always try to include an an ice breaker, expect silence since it is hard to get students to speak, have very regular activities (between every 20 seconds and 2 minutes) and finally: be brave; try things out: we’re all learning!

6. Correspondence tuition

Correspondence tuition is, perhaps, the single most important thing that you will do as a tutor.  It isn’t just marking: it is where you do some teaching and help to facilitate student learning. In many cases it is your main point of contact with all your students, and think of it as a conversation between you and your students. Some points to remember: do return your marking within a ten working day period, make sure that you understand and thoroughly know the tutor notes that have been provided by the module team, and always ask your mentor for guidance.

7. Planning your Time

Since being a tutor is, mostly, a part time role, time is important; you need to plan carefully. Ask yourself the question: what are the constraints on your time? At the beginning of a module presentation write down all the tutorial dates and times. Also, if you’re going to be away for more than a couple of days, always remember to let your students and your staff tutor know. 

8. Looking through your Student List

When you have received your list of students, do take the time to look through your student list. Do pay particular attention as to whether they have any additional requirements (also known as a DA record). Also, you should be aware that there might be certain flags against certain students to highlight particular situations, such as whether they are young students or may be held in secure units. If you’re unsure about the implications or what any of this means, do ask your staff tutor. 

9. Where to get help

Although you will be working on your own for most of the time, it’s really important to remember that you’re never on your own; there is a lot of help and support available that you can always draw on. Key points sources of help and advice include:  your staff tutor/line manager, your mentor, fellow tutors through the tutor forum, the module team and curriculum managers, the student support team (advisors) for non-academic help and advice, and  disability specialists (visual impairment, mental health). Finally, all associate lecturers can become members of the University and College Union.

10. Continuing professional development

The university treats the ongoing professional development of associate lecturers seriously. Tutors can attend a number of online and face-to-face AL development conferences, can make use of something called a staff fee waiver to study OU modules and draw on something called the AL development fund for various bits of academic professional development. Finally, the university runs a scheme called Applaud which can help tutors become Associate Fellows and Fellows of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA).

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Fiona Aiken who provided the ideas for more than half of this session, and also to Janette Wallace, who deftly managed all the text discussions.

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Christopher Douce

1st Computing and Communications online AL development conference

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One of my roles is to help out with professional development events for associate lecturers (ALs). There is a lot going on: there are a series of face to face conferences that take place across the country and there are two other subject specific events that I know of: one that is designed to help tutors who teach on undergraduate science modules and another session that is for tutors who teach on the postgraduate STEM programmes.

An interesting change has been the use and implementation of a piece of software known as Adobe Connect. This is an online conference and collaboration tool that replaces an OU branded version of Blackboard Collaborate. I quite liked Collaborate: it was oriented towards teaching, but I did find it a bit clunky, especially when it came to preparing more dynamic presentations.

Aware that there were other AL development activities happening across the faculty, I had a thought: perhaps we could run an online conference for tutors who are closely associated within our school, the School of Computing and Communication, using Adobe Connect. This blog post is a quick description about what happened, and a set of reflections of what work and what didn’t work. It’s also a place to note down ideas for future events.

Coming up with a plan

The school has a very small (and very new) associate lecturer development group which consists of myself, a fellow staff tutor, and an associate lecturer representative. Anyone in the school is welcome to join and contribute. We have a couple of regulars: a couple of central academics, one of whom plays a really important role as the connection between the school and the faculty student support team, which is based in Manchester.

A key question was: what messages did we want to get across? An answer was: since this is the first one, it might be useful to share some names of colleagues who play an important role within the faculty. Now that the concept of a region is now dissipating (irrespective of how important you think they may be as a useful idea) and university structures are becoming more aligned to schools and faculties, a key thought was: introductions could be very useful.  

There was another thought: running an online conference using a tool that you have never used before, with other people who have never used it either is something that could be considered to be quite risky: things could go wrong; it could be very embarrassing. Or, put another way, it just might not work! Another thought was: just because things might be difficult doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do them.

 The school AL development group came up with a conference agenda: 

10.00 – 10.30 Virtual tea and cake
10.30 – 10.40 Introduction and welcome: Chris Douce
10.40 – 10.55 Meet your head of school: Mark Woodroffe
10.55 – 11.10 Programme and curriculum updates: David Morse
11.10 – 11.25 Q&A with Mark and David
11.25 – 12.10 Online pedagogy: what do you do? Chris Douce
12.10 – 12.20 Online pedagogy session: Q&A
12.20 – 13.00 Break
13.00 – 13.10 Welcome back! Chris Douce
13.10 – 13.50 Working with the student support team. John Woodthorpe and Steven Wilson
13.50 – 14.20 Meet and share: meet fellow ALs. Clive Buckland

Explaining the agenda

Whilst the agenda might seem pretty straightforward there are bits that need a small amount of explanation. Firstly, what on earth is virtual tea and cake bit all about? This is, of course, a bit of informal time where everyone can meet and mingle. It is the virtual equivalent of the time when you arrive at a meeting, take your jacket off and fold up your umbrella; it’s that time when you have a moment to check to see that your microphone and headset is working okay and start to recognise a few familiar names.

The first two sessions are a bit like ‘keynotes’; they are formal ‘here’s some information’ presentations. They were designed to introduce the speakers (I learnt quite a bit about each of my colleagues), and to gain some updates about what is happening within the school. This was considered to be important, since it’s very easy to get overwhelmed with all the detailed information that comes out of the university. Those sessions were considered to be important, since they also emphasised the extent to which everyone now belongs within a school, rather than a university geographical region.

The next bit about online pedagogy was a bit ‘meta’; we were using an online tool to talk about how to teach using the online tool. This session was considered to be important since it was a subject that was very much on everyone’s minds: the university has been asking associate lecturers to complete some Adobe Connect training. I personally found the training useful: it introduced me to the various features of Adobe Connect, helping me to grasp the key concepts of pods and layouts. There were useful tips about online pedagogy too; I remember a particularly useful point about ‘leaning in and learning out’. The key point was: the more talking that you did, the more that you ‘leant into’ the laptop or the session, the more the participants would ‘lean out’ and be disinclined to participate.

A question that I had was: what are the best ways to use Adobe Connect for Computing and IT subjects? Since we’re all trying to find out feet, we don’t (yet) have very detailed answers to this question, partly because online teaching, like face to face teaching, is a skill that comes from practice: it is up to us to try to things out in online tutorials, whilst taking guidance module teams and following our professional instincts.

The online pedagogy session has a structure that was building up to a discussion: it began with a ‘talk’ bit, which was derived from an earlier session presented at a London development conference. This ‘talk bit’ aims to enumerate the different ways that Adobe Connect might be used in online teaching and learning (which has been created by speaking with tutors and observing what happens in module teams). The next bit was an interview with a colleague who had been an Adobe Connect early adopter. The final bit was an activity discussion using breakout rooms between different tutors.  I’ll mention something more about this in a later section.

After a short lunch break, there were two final sessions: the first was a ‘group session’ by colleagues in the STEM student support team. Three members of the SST from Manchester joined the conference and shared something about what they did to help students. This section was considered to be important, since sometimes other parts of the university can seem a bit of a mystery. For a long time, it was not clear what the student advisors actually did and how they worked. Plus, in recent years, there have been so many changes, so it has been hard to keep up. The SST session was there to try to emphasise the importance of collaboration between the tutors and advisors. 

The final session was an informal ‘cool down’ session; an opportunity for tutors to have a further chat with everyone and to start to gather views and opinions about the conference.

What worked

There were a couple of things that seemed to work really well. An implicit design principle was to move from ‘presentation sessions’ towards more dynamic activities. The two presentations at the start of the conference seemed to work well, as did the session that was run by colleagues from the SST.

One section that seemed to work particularly well was the part of the conference where there was an interview. I was inspired to adopt this approach by a fellow tutor who talked about using a ‘dialogic approach’ to tutorials which essentially means: ‘asking questions’. The colleague who I interviewed about the use of Adobe Connect gave some great answers mixed with some really useful practical advice such as: ‘consider your layouts a bit like parts of a lesson plan’. I would certainly use this approach again.

One thing that I was surprised about was the number of tutors who were able to find the time to attend: at one point there were over 40 who were able to come along.

What didn’t work

There was one part of the conference that clearly didn’t work: the discussions about online pedagogy using the breakout rooms. This didn’t work for a couple of reasons: lack of experience of using break out rooms, and secondly, the fact that the breakout rooms contained too many participants.

In terms of experience, there were two think I needed to work on: I need to develop a more detailed mental model of how breakout rooms work, and what the different buttons do. Secondly, before the breakout rooms are started, I need to offer very clear and unambiguous instructions about what everyone needs to do when they go to their rooms.

Another thing that wasn’t quite right was how the participants were allocated across the rooms. After some discussion, we decided to have three rooms, each room being dedicated to different levels of study. Room one was to be for level one tutors, room two of level two tutors and room three for level three, project and postgraduate tutors. The first problem was that I couldn’t easily put people in the right room using a couple of mouse clicks, perhaps due to my own inexperience. Secondly, due to the numbers of participants, the rooms were way too large.

My colleague, Clive Buckland, made breakout rooms work in a way that I couldn’t: he had a larger number of rooms, and allocated tutors to different rooms in advance of a breakout room activity. He also used the ‘auto allocate’ function rather than manually allocating everyone; this was a neat trick when working with larger numbers of participants.  Next time I shall use this approach, or ask a fellow ‘host’ to help with the ‘breakout room’ admin.

Given that this was the second time that I was using Adobe Connect in anger, I would have been very surprised if everything worked perfectly. I’ve come to form the view that it is okay if things go wrong: one learns from those situations, and you can improve the next time around. This is, of course what happens with face to face teaching: if a session hasn’t quite works, there’s an opportunity for reflection and to figure out what could be done better. 

Looking forward

A personal view is that there is a lot more that could be done in terms of school online conferences. Questions remains as to how often they should run; this is something that I’ll take to both the school planning group and the faculty planning group.

I would like to have more sessions about online, specifically regarding online tutorials at the first level, where students are introduced to programming. I would like to explore the ways that tutors might be able to share aspects of code, and encourage students to understand how to do problem solving and debugging, and maybe even do interesting things like real-time online pair programming using either OU Build (used in TM111), or Python (used in TM112).

There are also further opportunities to learn more about people in the school. Perhaps central academics or module chair could present short ‘module summaries’ to the tutors, or maybe talk about research interests and how they connect to different modules. Once I ran an AL development event that was all about exposing tutors to new developments and research in Computing and IT. There is no reason why we couldn’t do something similar in a school specific online conference. 

Closing thoughts

Running an online conference using a tool that was new to everyone was a risk, but it seemed to mostly work. I personally liked the dynamic nature of the first conference, and the informal feedback that I’ve received has been positive. An ongoing challenge is to try to get more people involved.

A personal reflection is that when running or hosting one of these events is that you’re not so much a presenter but instead you become more of a producer. I’ve learnt that being a producer has been slightly worrisome but also pretty good fun too. 

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Christopher Douce

AL development conference: 21 September 2017

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Ever since I joined the university as a part time tutor back in 2006, I have found AL development events useful: they have, essentially, taught me how to teach, and how to be an open university tutor and a distance teacher.

When I started as a tutor, I never thought that I would become someone who would be helping to organise professional development events for tutors, but this has exactly what has happened. As the university has changed and technology has developed, some colleagues have realised that there is a space and an opportunity to run 'online' professional development events, and I thought that it might be a good idea to try to run one.

The following message has been circulated to all associate lecturers who are tutors for modules have have been developed by staff in the School of Computing and Communications:

"You are invited to the first ever school of Computing and Communications online AL development conference which will be held on 21 September 2017, between 10.30 and 14.30. The event will be hosted in Adobe Connect and will be open to all members of staff in the school. The conference will be divided into a number of interactive and informative sessions; a morning session and a shorter afternoon session.

The conference will be an opportunity to meet Mark Woodroffe, head of school, David Morse, Director of Studies, and John Woodthorpe, Computing and IT student support team lead. There will be a session about teaching and learning pedagogy, and a session about our OU student support team that is based in Manchester.

If you have recently been to any AL face-to-face conferences do try to come along to this one too; it will hopefully be interesting and fun, and give you an opportunity to meet more colleagues from the school. If you can’t make it, please don’t worry: the sessions will be recorded and made available after the event (but the interactivity that we have planned will hopefully be really useful!)

Although Adobe Connect is both used and featured within this first online conference, it isn’t intended to replace any other Adobe Connect training that has been organised by the university. Also, attendance at this event will added onto your AL activity record and so will appear on your ALAR summary. After the event, we plan to continue discussions and sharing using a conference forum. We will also share copies of all resources that were prepared and used as a part of the event.

If you have any questions for either Mark, David or John about any aspect of work that takes place within the school (or other parts of the university) please email them to me in advance. The deadline for the submission of questions will be 14 September 2017. Also, if you have any additional requirements that you feel the conference organisers need to be made aware of, please do contact Chris."

Here's a planned agenda for the event:

10.00 – 10.30     Virtual tea and cake

10.30 – 10.40     Introduction and welcome: Chris Douce

10.40 – 10.55     Meet your head of school: Mark Woodroffe

10.55 – 11.10     Programme and curriculum updates: David Morse

11.10 – 11.25     Q&A with Mark and David

11.25 – 12.10     Online pedagogy: what do you do? Chris Douce

12.10 – 12.20     Online pedagogy session: Q&A

12.20 – 13.00     Break

13.00 – 13.10     Welcome back! Chris Douce

13.10 – 13.50     Working with the student support team. John Woodthorpe and Steven Wilson

13.50 – 14.20     Meet and share: meet fellow ALs. Facilitator TBC

14.20 – 14.30     Close, summary and next steps. Chris Douce

Over the last few months, the university has been running training sessions to help tutors become familiar with a teaching and collaboration tool called Adobe Connect. I thought this online conference would be a great opportunity to discuss the pedagogy of Adobe Connect, i.e. how it can be used to practically facilitate teaching and learning (as opposed to the detail of what buttons can be pushed, and in what order).

A really interesting part of this conference will be the session that is about the student support teams. A few years ago, student support was offered from colleagues who worked in regional centres. Due to restructuring, support was spread around country and concentrated in different locations (for a period of time, advice for Computing and IT students was provided from a centre in Birmingham). Student support is now provided from a team in Manchester. The afternoon session will be dedicate to learning more about the SST, and also meeting other associate lecturers who work on different modules.


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Christopher Douce

The Developers Group

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 19 Feb 2017, 17:19

On 15 February 2017, I attended a meeting called ‘the developers group’ that was held in a hotel in Birmingham (since the Birmingham regional centre was just about to close). This blog post is intended as a set of notes for any of my colleagues who might be interested in AL development.

The meeting was a ‘reboot’ of an earlier group called ‘developing the developers’; an event that I had been to a couple of times. From memory I remember being pretty baffled as to what these meetings were all about and how they could help me in my job. Given all the constant organisational changes, I was curious about the shape of the new group that it replaced.

Introduction

The event was opened by Toby Scott-Hughes, who heads up the university ALSPD team. I think ALSPD is an abbreviation for Associate Lecturers Professional Development. His introduction had the title ‘what is ALSPD and what does it do for you and your ALs?’ Thankfully, Toby presented some pretty clear answers. 

I made a note of the following headline, which I have loosely paraphrased: ‘it is a group that provides an opportunity for AL managers and developers to meet with one another, to run a series of constructive workshops and to pass on skills to colleagues and to help with the development of associate lecturers’. 

The group also seems to have another remit, which is that it aims to provide some staff development for staff tutors and faculty managers. A number of questions were noted, including: ‘what would be useful to upskill you?’, ‘what do you need most support or help with?’ and ‘how can we help to help you to work with your ALs?’ The ‘the developers group’ is a vehicle that facilitates targeted staff development with a view to helping the associate lecturers that we support and line manage.

Here’s a bit more description: ALSPD has a broad remit, which includes the AL representative office. ALSPD consists of a group of educational developers, administrative and management staff, and it works closely with AL services. A key point was made that they ‘are responsible for running cross faculty AL development events in locations across the UK’ as well as working with faculty specific student support teams across the country. They also fund one-off development events. Toby mentioned there were 80 events that were held in the last financial year. A really important point was made: even though offices were closing, associate lecturer CPD was not being centralised; we can still run events across the country – the key point that tutors have to live somewhere does seem to have been accepted.

As Toby was talking I was thinking of CPD topics that might really help me as a tutor. Two of which sprung to mind were: ‘how do we deliver tuition in larger groups when we’re working on line?’ and ‘how do we facilitate online team teaching, and what are the best practices?’

AL services: working with you and in the future

When I worked in the London office, the Computing and IT, Maths and Engineering staff tutors had access to two faculty assistants who did quite a bit of administrative work on our behalf. Things have changed in that we have to do slightly more admin than we used to do before, and administrative support is provided by a team that is based in one of the student support locations.

During this bit of the day we were asked the question: what is and isn’t working well?  I remember that there was some reference to an ‘operational blueprint’, but different staff tutors and faculty managers may well be working in a very different way. I asked for some training in to what this ‘blueprint’ was all about, so I could understand more about what I can expect from the new team, and what they can expect from me.

A key point was made that we need to feel a part of a larger team and there is a worry that a home worker might become ‘semi-detached’ from the university. My 'day in the life of a staff tutor' blog post, which relates to a trip to Manchester, reflects the point that steps have been taken to try to bridge the distance between academic line managers and associate lecturer services.

Support for AL management

Karen Hamilton, one of our ALSPD educational developers facilitated the penultimate session. Karen reiterated the emphasis of the group: ‘although the group is about developing the ALs, how can we do this if you’re not provided with the appropriate training and development yourself?’

We were given three cards. The first one had the title: ‘what can I offer to the developers group?’ This card had a subtitle that read: ‘skills, ideas or experience of AL development you would like to share’. The second card read: ‘what I would like to get from the developers group?’ Again, it had a subtitle: ‘things that would help me to be more involved with AL development or to line manage ALs more effectively’. The final card was slightly different: ‘something more creative’; this final card was asking us to recommend speakers and to say why the might be of interest.

We chatted in our groups and duly completed our cards. I recommended a number of speakers and wrote down titles of sessions that I had once helped to facilitate.

Introducing the replacement for OU Live: Adobe Connect

For anyone who is reading this from outside the university, OU Live is a badged version of a tool called Blackboard Collaborate that is used to deliver online tutorials. Due to Blackboard Collaborate reaching the end of its life, the procurement team has chosen to replace it with a popular conferencing tool called Adobe Connect. This final presentation of the day, made by Anne Campbell and John Slade, was my first bit of official university training about Adobe Connect.

We were swiftly taken through a set of features. We were told that it was possible to edit recorded sessions (or, specifically, cut sections of a session out). Recordings could be downloaded, and we could (at last) see how many students had seen the recording of a session (but not who had seen a recording).

There are some interesting differences; there are three types of users: host, presenter and attendee (as opposed to OU Live that had only two types: student and moderator). The concept of a panel has been replaced with the idea of a ‘pod’. Although there is the concept (as far as I know) of a whiteboard, they are a bit more limited in the sense that you can’t upload images to them. This said, Adobe Connect works better with PowerPoint files, and you can include slide transitions or animations (which means that you don’t have to create loads of extra slides if you wanted to do something similar in OU Live).

I was glad to hear that students will still be able to express themselves using emoticons (there is a compelling pedagogic argument why this is a good thing, despite this expression sounds a little strange!) Tutors can have up to 20 breakout rooms, and you can invite ‘external speakers’ into sessions.

Anne and John told us something about the training that will be offered to associate lecturers. Training will be provided by Adobe Connect people, and ALs will be given a training allowance to attend training sessions. The training will comprise of three hour long modules. These sessions will be run three times a day for five days a week. There will be a practice site and a supporting forum. I made a note that the first bit of training (for the early adopters) might take place between March and April.

Final thoughts

I left ‘the developers group’ feeling pretty encouraged. Whilst the remit of the earlier group wasn’t that clear, the remit of this new rebooted and reformed version seemed to be pretty well defined. I clearly got the message that it was about two things: (1) helping academic line managers to help tutors, with a view to (2) helping tutors to deliver excellent teaching and support to their students.

After the meeting, I felt confident enough to put my head over the parapet and agree to become (and I can’t quite believe I’m writing these words) an Adobe Connect ‘champion’.

More information about the pedagogy of using OU Live can be obtained by having a quick look through earlier blogs about OU Live. On a related note, more information about past AL development events is also available

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