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Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 1

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:38

Every year, the university runs an internal conference for staff who are directly involved with supporting students who have disabilities.  This is a series of two posts which aims to share my ‘take’ on the 2015 conference.

I think this must have been either the third or the fourth time I’ve been to this event.  In some respects my involvement (and attendance) is slightly accidental since the conference isn’t technically open to academic staff.  Instead, it’s open for those who help or advise students, or help academic module teams to make sure their modules are as accessible as they could be.

I’m very grateful that the conference organisers have allowed me to attend.  In doing so, I can not only share some of the conference themes to the tutors in the London region that I help to support, but also some of my students who study H810 accessible on-line learning (OU module summary).

Opening Keynotes

There were two opening keynotes: one by David Knight, and another by Tony O’Shea-Poon.  Unfortunately I missed David’s presentation, since I fell asleep on the train from London and ended up in Coventry.  I did, however, catch the end of Tony’s presentation.  One of the things that I took away from Tony’s presentation was that there are on-going changes to rules due to government policy.  Those that are affected by disablement can be the hardest hit by change.

Workshop: Improving accessibility for all

The first conference event I went to was facilitated by Adam Hyland, Atif Choudhury and Tim Blunt.  They all help to run an organisation called Diversity and Ability (website), or DNA for short.  DNA is a social enterprise created by and led by disabled and dyslexic learners for the sole purpose of providing support, strategies and assistance.

During the workshop we discussed how different apps could be useful and how students could gain an awareness of different study strategies.   We were directed to a resources page on the DNA website which presents a summary of different types of assistive technologies.   Students can uncover different ways of doing their research, composing text and answers, carrying out proof reading and taking notes during class. 

It isn’t all about technology – it is also getting people involved, and helping learners to make the best use of technology that is available to them.   It’s also about empowerment and building self-esteem.   It’s also important to connecting different aspects (or issues) together, such as the choice and use of assistive technologies and the development of study skills.  I made a note of an elephant in the room’: there are inherent anxieties that accompany working alone.

A significant part of the workshop was dedicated to looking at different tools such as Evernote and Zotero (which was recently highlighted by JISC, an organisation that supports universities).  Another tool mentioned was Calibre, which I think I might have mentioned in an earlier post that was about using the Kindle for studying.  There was also something called Orato,  an application that allows users to select a portion of text, which is then read out loud by your computer.

Different tools can be used to do different things.  Students are, of course, regularly asked to write assignments and compose essays.  To help with this there are a number of composition tools, such as iThoughts (toketaWare website) and XMind, which are tablet and Mac based.

Another important task, is proofreading.  One tool that could help with this is a product called Grammerly which can be built into Chrome or Firefox browsers.   You might also could also use Google Docs (since iOS devices have text to speech functionality), and CereProc Voices to listen to what you have written.  Apparently you can download two high quality voices: one male, another one female.

Writing and editing is all very well, but is there anything to help with the making of notes in class?  Apparently, there is.  We heard about Sonocent Audio Notetaker, which allows you to visualise different sections of a recording and add annotations sections, so you know where to find stuff.  (I can’t help but think that this might be a really useful research tool for social scientists).  Another tool is called Audionote (Luminant software).

You’ve made notes during your class and have completed all your assignments.  An inevitable part of study is, of course, the exam.  There are, apparently, tools that can help.  The presenters the workshop mentioned a number of flash card tools, such as Studyblue, Quizlet and Anki.  The one they talked most about was Quizlet, since apparently this has a text to speech feature.  Interestingly, some educators have been known to create StudyBlue decks.  As these products were described, I thought to myself, ‘why didn’t I think of creating these tools?’

Revision takes time, which means that time management is important.  To help with this Google calendar was recommended.  It was interesting to hear that Google Calendar could, apparently, be synchronised with Outlook calendars, but this isn’t anything that I have ever tried. 

Students also need to organise their files and records.  We were told of a tool called Alfred (Alfredapp website), a productivity tool for Macs.  Other tools that were mentioned included cloud storage tools, such as Google Drive, Drop Box and One Drive.

The remainder of the session was about the referencing tool Zotero. We looked at how to download a reference template (there is one for the OU Harvard format), and apply it to web links, books for which we had the ISBN number for, books that we found on Amazon, and papers from jstor.org, a ‘a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources’.

There was a lot to take in during this session.  I had heard of some of the tools and products before, but not all of them.  One really useful aspect of the session was to learn how Zotero could be used, and also to be talked through the different sets of tools that students could use.  A really important ‘take away’ point was that assistive technology, in whatever form it takes, is always changing.  There is also great value in the ‘free’ or low cost products that exist.  I began to realise that assessors (those people who offer advice for students with disabilities) have a tough job in terms of keeping up with what might be the best tools for learners.

Keynote: Autism and Asperger’s in Higher Education

The second keynote of the conference was given by Lyndsey Draper from the National Autistic Society.  Lynsdey kicked off by giving us an interesting and surprising statistic – that over the last 10 years, disclosure of autism increased by 100%.  Another interesting fact was that autism is the only disability in the UK that has its own specific legislation.

After briefly describing what autism and Asperger’s syndrome is, Lyndsey spoke about some different theories about it.  From what I remember, I understand that there is now a consensus that there is a genetic component. 

We were also given some interesting statistics: it affects 2.8 million families and 1.1% of the population.  The diagnosis of women is apparently increasing, but a diagnosis can also be masked by other conditions, such as the eating disorder anorexia, for example.  (I remember reading some research by Simon Baron-Cohen a couple of years ago about a potential link between anorexia and autism; the systematising and food obsession represents a behaviour trait that has parallels with some behaviours that can be observed in autism).

A further interesting point was that how differences can manifest themselves may depend very much on the environment.   Lyndsey made the point that the term Asperger’s syndrome was being replaced in favour of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, for short.

As Lyndey was talking, I remembered a phrase from a session that I went to the previous year.  It was: ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met only one person with autism’; the point being that everyone is very different.

So, what might the challenges be when it comes to higher education? Students may struggle with social communication, or, specifically, understanding the unwritten rules of communication.  Smalltalk, it was said, can be considered to be illogical or complicated.  Students also might find it difficult to understand the perspectives of others.

These things said, people who have ASD are known to have some key strengths: attention to detail, a methodical approach, good memory for factual information, problem solving skills, numerical skills, and are reliable and resourceful.  As well as having a different way of thinking to others, another strength can be deep specialist knowledge and skills.

From the academic perspective, we need to acknowledge the significance of the social perspective.  There is also an obvious necessity to provide clear unambiguous feedback (which should, of course, be offered to all students too!)  In terms of adjustment, an important activity could be to try to facilitate contact between students and staff, interpret academic speaking and writing, using of checklist and offer clarifications as to what is required.

Workshop: Supporting students with autism in higher education

In addition to the keynote, Lyndsey also facilitated a workshop (which I had signed up to go to).  Like her keynote presentation, it was also filled with really interesting facts.  Apparently, students who have a diagnosis of autism are less likely to drop out than other students, i.e. 6.9% versus 10%.

In terms of the disabled student’s allowance (which is funding from the government to help students to study), students who have ASD may not benefit from the use of technology than other groups of students with disabilities.   Instead, students with ASD benefit from mentors and study support.

In the workshop, we were again given a little bit of history.  We were told about Kanner or ‘classic’ Autism, and Asperger’s syndrome, and the differences between them.  We were then asked about our perceptions and understandings.   A key phrase I noted in my notebook was: ‘everyone is completely different’, and that what is ‘good practice for autism is good practice for everyone’.

In terms of training: clarify roles, such as turn taking and eye contact.  We were offered a challenge: ‘can you imagine how much effort it would be to continually control eye contact all day?’  There is also the challenge of metaphor and idiom.

Other issues that can emerge include anxiety, depression, perfectionism, single focus or attention on something.  Some students might need prompts on how best to manage their own time. 

It was time for an activity.  We were asked a question: what difficulties might students have and what strategies might be used to overcome them? On our table we chatted about getting students to talk to each other, the challenge of choosing a module, and the ambiguities of language.

A number of points were mentioned during a plenary discussion.  These were the importance of clear feedback and the need to be consistent and specific, the sharing of good practice, and how some students may need transition support between different institutions and levels of study. At the end of the session we were directed to the National Autistic Society website, should we need more information about anything.

Keynote: Education for a new me

Steve McNeice was once a triathlete.  He took us back to a day when everything in his life changed.  He was out on a swim when he realised that he wasn’t very well.  He told us that he had acquired a profoundly serious bacterial infection.  He went to hospital and fell into a coma.  He woke up seven weeks later, with both legs amputated above the knee.  Apparently 95% of double above knee amputees don’t walk.  Seventeen months later, Steve told us that he walked out of the hospital.

I won’t even try to do justice to Steve’s presentation and the effect that it had, both on myself and others who were in the room.  Here was someone who was talking about how his life had changed dramatically.  He went from being active and able bodied, to having to learn how to walk again.  Despite all this, and as he told us his story, he exuded positivity and good humour.

Apparently some people who use prostetic legs can use up to 300% more energy than able bodied people.  As he talked, he walked up and down at the front of the presentation room.  ‘I swim three times a week, and you see all kinds of people at the pool.’ Steve said.  ‘Some of them look and they think, ‘oh, what a shame’, and then I lap them’.

He told us about the seemingly innocuous challenges of going down stairs, navigating escalators and stepping over things.  All these activities that so many of us take for granted, Steve had to re-learn how to do them.  He shows us numerous video clips where he fell over, negotiating a hill.

‘While I was going through rehab, I was studying for a degree’, he told us.  He studied German.  A part of his illness meant that he became deaf in one ear, and partially lost hearing in another.  An adjustment was the request to sit on a certain side of a room.  One thing that he said he needed to work on was listening: so, he studied German.

‘I used the OU to learn about my condition.  I studied T307, designing for a sustainable future.  I designed some sockets for my prostetic limb’.  He told us that he took ownership of his lifelong condition by setting lots of educational goals.

Through these OU conferences, I’ve come to seen that having a disability can open doors to new experiences, rather than close them.  Steve told us that he has contributed to events at the house of commons and is a member of the all-party parliamentary limb loss group.

He told us that he is now studying Italian.  He also lectures at different universities to give something back to physiotherapists, the occupation that offered him so much help.  I also noted down the following words: ‘rehabilitation is an on-going process, and something could change at any point’.

Like so many of us at the talk, I was struck by his spirit of determination.  I also took away the thought that, perhaps, I ought to do slightly more to ‘give back’ to the profession that has tried to help me with my own condition or situation.   His talk also emphasised the transformative effect of education.  I couldn’t help but worry that the increase in higher fees this might potentially prevent or deter some students from studying modules and subject that may influence their lives for the better.

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Associate Lecturer Development Conference – LSE, April 2015

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This is a quick blog about an AL development conference I attended on 25 April at the London School of Economics.  I was looking forward to this event because I helped to put together parts of the programme.  Plus, I foolishly volunteered to run a session and facilitate the Mathematics Computing and Technology session.  It was destined to be a busy day.

The keynote talk was by my colleague Pat Atkins who presented a summary of some of the changes that were happening across the university.  These included a gradual alignment of associate lecturer contracts to various student support teams, and the introduction of a new group tuition policy, which is likely to substantially affect both tutors and module teams.

Other sessions

I helped to ‘pull together’ three AL development sessions during this conference.  After being inspired by ‘acting’ sessions that had been organised by colleagues from the South East region, I discovered that I knew someone who offered training to deal with difficult telephone calls.

Another session was about working with different pieces of technology (which was facilitated by two experienced technology associate lecturers). 

The third session was about working with students who have visual impairments.  I remember that the tutor, Richard Walker (who ran a similar session last year) saying that there is likely to be a high probability that every associate lecturer will have to work with a student who has a visual impairment at some point. 

Other sessions at the conference were about working with students who have English as a second language and a session about the role of the advisors in the London region.

The main purpose of this blog is, however, to present a quick summary of the session on OU Live Pedagogy that I ran.

The pedagogy of OU Live

For the uninitiated, OU Live can be thought of a bit like a version of Skype that has a whole load of other features, such as a shared whiteboard, and tools that enables a tutor to ask students different questions.  It also enables tutors to share portions of their screen, so students can see exactly what a tutor sees.

I think I was inspired to run this session by going to a number of other similar sounding sessions over the last few years.  A thought was, ‘what could I add to the debates about OU Live that I haven’t already heard’.  I had two objectives for my session.  The first objective was to share some of my own views about what it means to teach (or to facilitate learning) through OU Live.  The second objective was to share experience and practice.   Or, put another way, to learn about how different tutors use it to teach different modules.

A big part of the session was drawn from an earlier blog post where I wrote about the different ways to use OU Live.  For this session, I renamed a couple of the approaches.  The approaches that I talked about were:

  • Traditional tutorial: which is similar to a face to face session
  • Demonstration tutorial: where a tutor demonstrates something, such as a set of pages or some software.
  • Practical workshop: a session where a tutor puts a lot of focus into a product, tool, system, or activity.
  • Debate: an interactive debate between two tutors.
  • Recording a lecture: a short lecture which potentially augments materials provided by the module team, or to offer further explanations.
  • Drop-in session: an informal scheduled time where students can interact with a tutor and ask questions.
  • Student session: a scheduled but unfacilitated session that allow students on the same module to chat to each other.
  • Special (or additional support) session: a one to one session between a student and a tutor.

These ‘types’ are very informal.  I’ve created these types by trying to summarise all the different ways I’ve heard people talking about how they use OU Live.  It isn’t systematic, and it isn’t informed by theory; this rough taxonomy (of you could call it that) is more informed by the sharing of practice.

An important point that I made during the session is that, in some ways, technology moves a lot faster than pedagogy.  Tools such as OU Live offer us tutors a lot of different features.  The challenge is trying to figure out how to use them in the best possible way to make sure that students can learn efficiently.  It’s tempting to use these tools to just deliver dry lectures, where there are sets of PowerPoint slides.  The real challenge (from where we can create really engaging learning experiences) is to understand how to apply these tools to enable active learning.

Final thoughts

I always enjoy coming along to AL development events, and this one was also fun too: I enjoy running sessions!  The next conference is likely to take place in November 2015 in the Camden Town centre.

There’s going to be a couple of months off, before the conference planning group starts thinking about the next event.  (And, in the meantime, I’m going to take the liberty to visit the Oxford region to see what they’re doing).


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eSTEeM annual conference: TEL in practice

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On 16 April, I went to the first day of the Open University’s eSTEeM conference.  eSTEeM is an Open University initiative to bring ‘together academics in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to promote innovation, scholarship and enterprise in open and distance learning’.  The eSTEeM website offers loads of information about the different projects that are funded through the initiative. Before trying to summarise my ‘take’ on the whole event, I should also add that TEL (which is in the title of the event) is an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning.

Opening keynote

Due to travel timing, I missed the opening address, but I managed to get to the opening keynote, which had the title ‘Using technology in teaching and learning: it is scholarly?’ by Linda Price from the Institute of Educational Technology. My immediate instinct to this question was to say ‘yes’, but the point to Linda’s talk was to encourage us all to think about what scholarship means when it comes to TEL.

An interesting point was that educators and institutions used to be the gatekeepers of knowledge, but technology has enabled some information (and knowledge) to become open.  Two examples of this is with the availability of Open Educational Resources (or OERs), and the increase in the number of open access journals.

Linda’s talk offered us a useful caution, that ‘technology will never save us from poor teaching, it will make things worse’.   Another point was about the importance of learner motivation, and that if technology is not properly integrated into a module then there’s a likelihood that it isn’t to be used (or, used poorly).

Another thought is that technology might not be the problem, but pedagogy might be.  Or, in other words, we need to develop our understanding about how best to use new.  Three important questions are: How do we make choices (of what technology to use)?  What evidence is there? Are we looking at opinion based practice or evidence informed practice?

Connecting to the ‘scholarly’ part of her title, we were told about a number of scholarly principles.  These were: the importance of goals, preparation, methods, results, presentation and critique.  These can also be connected with different scholarly approaches, such as the need to thoroughly analyse a problem, understand the context, review the literature, setting aims and objectives, designing of teaching and learning interventions, evaluation methods, and sharing of findings.

A final point that I have made a note of was that we need to think about how theory can relate to and drive our research.  This left me with a question: which theories are important and relevant?  This, of course, connects back to the importance of being aware of current debates, issues and, of course, the literature that relates to a particular area of research.

Workshop: what do you mean by tuition?

The university is introducing something called the Group Tuition Policy which is to affect both on-line and face to face tuition.  The aim of this workshop (which was one of many different events I could have chosen) was to facilitate discussions about how we might begin to plan and implement the policy (which is something that I’ll have to do as a part of my day job).

The workshop was split into two different activities and related to two different perspectives.  The first was to discuss what is meant by the term tuition, from the tutor’s perspective.  The second activity was all about what students should expect from tuition.  For this second activity we were encouraged to draw a ‘rich picture’.

At the end of each section, we shared different perspectives.  Points that I noted down were, ‘we need to up our game when it comes to on-line [tuition]’, ‘you can’t describe on-line as tutorials’ (which was an interesting perspective), and that there is ‘no difference between watching a recording and being on-line (or, participating in an on-line tutorial)’.  It was obvious there were a number of interesting, slightly conflicting, views.

How students learn in Massive Open Online Courses

The third session that I went to was all about MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.  Allison Littlejohn, from the Centre for Learning and Teaching (and the Institute of Educational Technology) began by asking everyone how many had taught or learnt through a MOOC.  A good number of members of the audience put up their hands.

Allison spoke about a topology of learning.  This included dimensions of formal/informal, intentional/unintentional and recognised/unacknowledged.  She then went onto mention a study at Duke University which analysed 75 different MOOCs in terms of whether they adhered to good instructional design.  If I remember correctly, the results were not very positive.

 A key research question that was asked was: how do students learn in MOOCs?  A related question is: do people who are highly motivated behave differently?  To answer his question, a researcher called Barry Zimmermann was mentioned (with regards to his work on self-directed learning), and three case studies.

The first case study was about a ‘connectivist MOOC’ called SRL-MOOC (Glasgow Caledonian University) (I’m not sure what connectivist in this context means – I think I’ve made a note of the term correctly!)

The second case study was an introduction to the data sciences, and was from the University of Washington.  It ran using the Coursera platform, and had forty thousand learners.  We were introduced to an instrument called SQLMQ which was used to analyse learner behaviour, and could connect with factors such as student motivation.  (There was a lot of detail here that didn’t make a note of since this was all new to me!)

After this second case study there was an opportunity to discuss a question: how would we create a MOOC that could help self-regulated learners?  This was an interesting question that led onto quite a bit of debate, about the business models of MOOCs, how you might engage learners that were not ‘self-regulated’, and worries about their terrible completion rates.

 Allison found something interesting about self-regulated learners.  Low self-regulated learners sometimes engaged with MOOCs with the objective of getting a certificate, whereas high self-regulated learners took a more strategic approach, choosing to carry out learning that relates to a job, role or task.  Simplistically put, some high regulated learners tended to dip in and out of a MOOC, gain what they need, and then move on.

I can relate this finding with my own experience.  I have signed up to three different MOOCs, but I haven’t finished any of them.  The first one was about the history of the internet.  I completed the assessment, but then became a bit grumpy about the comments that were coming back from my ‘peer’.  Plus, I was finding there was a bit more reading to do than I expected (so I dropped out!)  My reasons to take the two other MOOCs were all about ‘checking to see what other institutions were up to’, and finding out whether I was missing anything in my teaching.  I dropped out of the first interaction design MOOC when I realised that the content was solid, and offered me some reassurance that my teaching was ‘on target’ with the overall aims of the discipline.  I dropped out of the final MOOC when I realised that the course was pretty baffling and didn’t seem to be teaching the subject in a very satisfactory way.  This relates, in part, to Allison’s opening comment about the importance of effective learning design.

The third case study was a module about clinical trials, and was hosted in the Edx platform.  I didn’t take any notes of this third case study, since I was probably still thinking about the distinction between ‘high self-directed learners’ and ‘low self-directed learners’.

A final activity of the day was to think about some form of recommendations about either MOOC design, or learning design.  Our table chose, instead, to discuss other issues, including the role and importance of face to face tuition.

Short paper session

The next session contained three short ‘paper’ presentations. 

The first was by Clem Herman, and her presentation was entitled ‘putting gender on the agenda: why gender should be a threshold concept for STEM educators’.  Clem spoke about the university’s involvement with an initiative called Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit).  

Two of the key objectives of the initiative is to ‘address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation’ and ‘to tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation’.  To be recognised by the initiative, institutions have to go through an audit process, enabling the university to gain an understanding of the state of gender representation in individual departments. 

It was interesting (and alarming) to hear that the number of women enrolling in the first level undergraduate computing module has been dropping (in comparison to Maths and Statistics, which was reported as being okay). Postgraduate registrations, apparently, have always been low.

During the question and answer session, questions were asked about engagement with external organisations (which have similar objectives), and there was a discussion about unconscious bias and the ‘stereotype threat’.  I think what is means being aware of gender related expectations when it comes to subject specific performance.

The next presentation of the day was by ‘yours truly’.  I briefly spoke about a university funded project that has been carrying out some research into the tutor experiences of teaching on a second level computing module called TT284 Web Technologies (Open University).  I won’t go into the fine detail, but a description of the project is available on the eSTEeM website, with an accompanying project poster (PDF).

The final talk of the day was from Martin Reynolds, who gave a talk entitled, ‘Designing a learning system for postgraduate recruitment and retention based on systemic enquiry’ (I may or may not have made a proper note of his title).  During his talk I remembered him telling us something about a university LinkedIn ‘systems thinking’ alumni forum, where students are continuing to share knowledge and experience beyond the boundaries of the postgraduate modules that they have been studying.

Closing keynote

 The closing keynote, entitled ‘getting data into your eye: live in the field, life in the lab, and augmented reality’ was by Peter Scott, who was from The Open University Knowledge Media Institute (KMI). 

Peter talked us through a series of EU funded projects that KMI had been involved with; I recognised the name of some projects, but not all, such as WeSpot (EU project website), The Open Science Laboratory (Open University website) and Engaging Science (EU project website) which might have been mentioned into an associate lecturer development event that I went to at the University of Sussex.  Another project was called the Field Network System (Open University website), which was about creating a portable network infrastructure for scientific fieldwork.

A big part of Peter’s talk was about applications of something called ‘augmented reality’; a topic that is featured in a module that I tutor called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design (OU website).  Augmented reality is where digital technologies can add additional information to a digital scene.  An interesting point was made is that AR can become really useful if we use it in combination with people, which leads us to the term ‘socio-technical augmentation’.

An interesting example of this can be found in a project called TellMe (EU project), an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning Living Lab for Manufacturing Environments.  We were shown a demo where a computer tool offered engineers visual guidance about how to assemble and work with components.   Another perspective is that you could potentially be guided by another engineer who is working at a distance.  During these demonstrations I thought about my own interests in teaching computer programming, and wondered about how these tools might be used in this somewhat different context.

Towards the end of his talk, we were shown a demonstration of a virtual volcano (that was spewing lava) that popped out of a text book.  We could only see the ‘virtual volcano’ is we viewed it through the screen of a smartphone, which hinted at the wide variety of different ways that technology can be used when it comes to teaching and learning.

Final thoughts

There was a lot going on during the day, and I felt that I missed out on quite a few things.  I like days like these, since they force you to sit down, listen and learn.  They are also opportunities to help you to understand what is going on, and to gather up gently clues as to how the teaching and learning of science and technology may be changing.  A connected challenge is to try to find the time to investigate what happened in the other sessions and continue to keep up with the various developments that you are introduced to.

During conference I became involved in a couple of conversations about research about introductory programming, and there was even some talk about organising what might become a mini conference.  The bulk of the talk was an objective for a couple of us (who were interested in similar topics) to try to get our heads together; to try to understand more about where the ‘state of the art’ was heading.  In some respects, this was an outcome that was as just as useful as learning about new projects.  The reason for this is that these new connections and discussions have given me a bit of much needed and welcome motivation.

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First MCT Student Support Team Conference

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I drafted this blog post some time ago, but it got temporarily shelved due to the reality of day to day work.  I never forgot about it, though!  I still feel it’s important to share, since it relates to an important (and on-going) change within the university: the development and implementation of the Faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology (MCT) Student Support Team (SST).

Introductory bit

Nineteenth of July 2014 was the date of the first ever Faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology (MCT) Student Support Team (SST) conference that was held at The Open University campus in Milton Keynes.  Although this blog is written primarily for my colleagues, fellow tutors and students might find this summary useful since everyone has been subject to different amounts of change within the university.

The SST comprises of learning support staff (who are based in Birmingham and Nottingham), associate lecturers and central academics.  The idea behind an SST is to create a grouping of people who have more detailed knowledge of how to support students who are studying a particular subject, so we can improve the way that students are supported.  The ideas behind SSTs predate the increased focus on programmes of study due to the availability of student loans for part time students.

Although the SST staff for MCT are based in two regions, all the other Open University regions remain fundamentally important to the operation of the university: they remain centres from where tutorials and day schools are run, outreach events are facilitated, and students can have additional support sessions with tutors (and students can drop in to look at module materials).  They are also essential places from where continued AL development and training occurs.  Without these centres, tutors would not have sufficient training to allow them to offer excellent teaching and learning experiences to their students.

This blog starts with a summary of the plenary or introduction session, and is then followed by a session about retention.  There is then a brief description of session that was specific to the department of Computing and Communications.  This is then followed by an AL development session about disabled student services (this might be of interest to some students who study H810).  The day ends with a session about ‘tutor staff development’.

Introduction plenary

Our former Associate dean for regions and nations introduced the conference and welcomed us all to the SST.  We were shown a bunch of graphs that gave us a bit of context.  I remember that one of the graphs was about the number of students who are studying at a study intensity that is equivalent to full time students (which is a way to allow the OU to be compared to other institution).  In terms of full time equivalent (FTE) students, the number of students in MCT is broadly similar to the number of students in the Faculty of Art and the Faculty of Social Sciences.

An important point is that undergraduate computing and IT modules currently represent the biggest group in the faculty with 60% students registering for a BSc in Computing and IT.  By way of perspective, there are 13K FTE students in the whole of MCT, whereas Birkbeck (as a whole institution) has a total of 17K students.  We were given even more mind blowing stats: there are 1,200 associate lecturers in MCT, who teach a total of 2,900 contracts.

Retention and progression (of students between different modules) is considered to be an important strategy.  One figure that I made a note of was that there was a target of 75% of all students moving to the next module (unfortunately, I didn’t note whether this was related to level one modules only).

Our associate dean also spoke about other university priorities, such as helping to design student interventions (to make study easier), the student induction process (to help students become more familiar with the process of studying) and the development of the OU virtual learning environment (to make smart use of data).  On the subject of interventions, one great intervention that I heard was the SST proactively calling students discuss their study intentions if they have registered for an excessive number of modules.

One of the most important elements of OU study is the relationship between a student and their tutor.  The situation used to be that a student was left to their own devices at the end of a module.  The SST can now talk to a student between modules.

We heard about future plans.  Apparently there is some work afoot to improve the induction process.  For quite a while, I’ve heard about a new induction website, but I really do think there’s an opportunity to do more to help students become familiar with how to ‘survive’ when being a distance learning student. 

Future university activities include an attempt to diversity income, and continuing alignment of associate lecturer services to student services.  Also, quite recently, there has been internal debate regarding a new group tuition policy (which I hope to share some information about to ALs as soon as the details have been defined).

MCT Level 1 retention review

The next part of the day was by a colleague who spoke about a retention review project.  A really interesting fact I learnt was that module presentations that start in October have slightly higher retention figures than modules that begin in February.  I have no idea why!

I’ll do my best to summarise some of the key points that were made.  A really important concern was how well students are prepared for study.  If a student comes to the university without have any prior qualifications, this means that they less likely to complete.  There might be a range of different factors that influence this, such as available study time, workload, and other points, such as a lack of confidence (writing from experience as a former OU student, it takes time to ‘figure out’ how to consume the learning resources that we get from the university.

The one really important point that that has made the difference is: our tutors.  Proactive contact with an associate lecturer can really help to improve retention.

I’ve made a note of some recommendations: it’s important to have consistent module advice, we need to have effective subject specific advice, and have a solid induction programme to incorporate the development of on-line study skills.  The characteristics of a module and its design can make a different too: module teams to consider workload, to carefully consider assessment, and study events should be designed in to the module structure.

According to my notes, the review also offered some really practical suggestions, such as the SSTs could explicitly contact students without previous qualifications (but there’s also a tension between balancing the need to answer the phone in response to incoming student queries, and the willingness to initiate positive interventions: everything has a cost, and everything takes time).

I also made a note of the importance of student support:  AL development is to prioritise soft skills training for ALs (and perhaps points such as using the phone).

Over the last year, the university has made available something called a ‘student support tool’, which brings the associate lecturer closer to the systems that the university uses.  Whilst such tools are great, there is a question which needs to be asked, which is: how can any tool be used effectively.  Again, it’s back to the importance of helping to train and develop our brilliant associate lecturers to make sure that they are as well-equipped as they can ever be to support their students.

Computing and IT session

The next session in the day was by John Woodthorpe, academic lead for Computing and IT.  John opened the question by asking us a question:  ‘Put up your hands if you’re a member of the SST!’  His point was simple: we’re all members! We all have an important role to play.

John asked a rhetorical question about what the members of the SST in Birmingham and Nottingham are doing.  He answered this by providing a long list of activities.  The helped to book and organise exams at different venues, offered study and course choice advice, wrote disability profiles, and were always developing relationships with different members of the faculty.

During the session I made note of the phrase: ‘pre-emption, proactivity, prevention’, which seems like a good way to encapsulate different important aspects of study support.

One gap that has been identified is the need to develop a more comprehensive and structured approach to resubmission support, i.e. what happens if a student doesn’t pass an exam.  At the moment, students could call the SST and request a special session, but not all students know that they may be entitled to this support.  The SST is trying to tighten up resubmission support, aiming to offer more support for students beyond the boundaries of individual modules.

Disabled Student Services

After the faculty session, we were offered a number of different session choices.  I chose a session which was all about disabled student services.  I was interested to hear how the new SST would help MCT students who have disabilities.

We were introduced to different models of disability: the medical model and the social model.  A really interesting point was that people who have disabilities can have a ‘fluid sense of identity’.  What I think this means is that some disabilities may be transitory (such as a physical injury, such as a broken leg), and others may be episodic (such as ME).

We were also introduced to the Equality act 2010, which identifies a number of protected groups.  We were also told about different types of discrimination.  These are direct and indirect discrimination (which I had heard of), but there is also discrimination by association, i.e. discrimination might arise against someone if they have significant caring responsibilities.

We had a discussion about on-line tutorial materials, reasonable adjustments, and the provision of advice and guidance (of which, module accessibility guides play an important role).  We also spoke about the importance of contacting students directly to enquire about the extent of any adjustments that might be necessary, and also the role of examination boards.

Another area that was covered was the Disabled students allowance (DSA).  The DSA covers three areas: ergonomic furniture, personal support (such as non-medical helpers), and travel.  The DSA no longer funds standard electronic devices such as computers since they are now deemed to be an essential part of academic life, but funding for upgrades are permissible.  One really important point is that DSA is only available for students who are studying 30 points and a registered for a qualification (in Scotland this is 60 points).

Non-medical helpers can be really helpful for some students; they can make the difference between a module being accessible and a module being inaccessible.  A non-medical helper always works on behalf of the student: there is a contact between the student and the helper; tutors (or the university) are not able to speak directly to a helper – this relationship is fully controlled by the student.

AL Staff Development: The art of the possible

This final session of the day was all about how we should collectively think about associate lecturer development now that we’re in the new world of the student support team.  This session was facilitated by fellow staff tutor and tutor, Frances Chetwynd.

Associate lecturer broadly takes on two types: generic development (which is about how to perform teaching and learning, to make use of technology, and to be aware of university initiatives and developments), and module specific (sharing good practice about teaching certain subjects).  Now that we’re moving into broad teams, there are opportunities in terms of large subject (or, even programme) specific events.

Like all good tutorials, Frances’s session was very interactive.  We were given sets of post it notes to propose new ideas.  Pink post-it notes were about face-to-face AL development ideas, orange post it notes were about on-line (or other) types of development sessions.  When we had written down our ideas, we stuck them on different sheets of paper that had broad different category headings.

Frances also gave us ten stickers (which were in the form of ‘gold stars’), allowing us to collectively vote for the ideas that we liked best. 

The ones that I’ve noted down are: a session about ‘coding at different levels’ (which could be like some kind of internal symposium), Teaching Sense on TU100 (apparently there is a 10% tutor churn on TU100), making sure that we Record module briefings, and sessions about qualification overviews (or, future plans for modules).  There were loads more ideas, but I haven’t noted them all down.


It was a busy day!  One thing that was really good about the conference was that it put the work of the SST and the MCT faculty in context (I had not heard of some of the numbers that our associate dean mentioned) and also helped to emphasise how much change has been going on within the university in the last few years.  It almost allowed us to ‘take stock’ of where we were. 

The session on AL staff development really got me thinking.  I came up with a number of ideas about different types of events that might potentially help tutors from across the UK who tutor on specific modules.  One thing that keeps coming to mind is that there is also more potential in terms of how the student support team members can feed directly into module teams.  I can’t help but feel that these new structures can help different bits of the university to work closer together, and that can only be a good thing.

All this said, it’s still very early days for the student support team and I guess I’m one of many who are still finding their feel in terms of what we do, how we work, and how we communicate with each other.  It also strikes me that although the university has been reorganised along slightly different lines, the notion of a geographic region or ‘place’ remains very important.  The development sessions that are run within our regional centres for our associate lecturers are invaluable.  Developments in information and communication technology has made the SST possible, which means now it’s up to us to figure out how to best take advantages of the opportunities it offers us.

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OpenStack conference, June 2014 (part 2 of 2)

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

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

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

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

Introduction to OpenStack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OpenStack and Storage made easy at Lush Cosmetics

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

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

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

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

Deploying Windows Workloads into OpenStack using JuJu

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

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

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

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

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

Using Swift in Entertaining Ways

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

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

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

Bridges and Tunnels – a drive through OpenStack networking

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

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

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

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

Hybrid cloud workloads

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OpenStack conference, June 2014 (part 1 of 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 6 Jun 2014, 17:43

On 4 June, I went to an event that was all about something called OpenStack.  OpenStack is an open source software framework that is used to create cloud computing systems.  The main purpose of this blog is to share my notes with some of my colleagues, but also to some of the people who I met during the conference.  Plus, it might well be of interest to others too.

Cloud computing is, as far as I understand it, a broad terms that relates to the consumption and use of computing resources over a network.  There are a couple of different types of cloud: there are public clouds (which are run by large companies such as Amazon and Google), private clouds (which are run by a single organisation), and hybrid clouds (which is a combination of public and private clouds).  There’s also the concept of a community cloud - this is where different organisations come together and share a cloud, or resources that are delivered through a cloud.

This is all very well, but what kind of computing resources are we talking about?  As far as I know, there are a couple.  There’s software as a service (or SaaS).  There’s PaaS, meaning, Platform as a Service, and there’s IaaS, which is Infrastructure as a Service.  Software as a Service is where you offer software through a web page, and you don’t ever touch the application code underneath.  Infrastructure as a Service is where you might be able to manage a series of ‘computers’ or servers remotely though the cloud.  More often than not, these computers are running in something called virtual machines.

These concepts were pretty much prerequisites for understanding what on earth everyone was talking about during the day.  I also picked up on a whole bunch of new terms that were new to me, and I’ll mention these as I go.

Opening Keynote : The OpenStack Foundation

Mark Collier opened the conference.  Mark works for the OpenStack Foundation (OpenStack website). During his keynote he introduced us some of the parts that make up OpenStack (a storage part, a compute part and a networking part), and said that there is a new software release every six months.  To date there are in the order of approximately 1.2k developers.  The community was said to comprise of approximately 350 companies (such as RedHat, IBM, HP, RackSpace) and 16k individual members.

Mark asked the question: ‘what are we trying to solve?’  He then went onto quote Mark Andreessen who said, ‘software is eating the world’.  Software, Mark said, is said to be transforming the economy and disrupting industries. 

One of the most important tools in computer science is abstraction.  OpenStack represents a way to create a software defined data centre (a whole new level of abstraction), which allows you to engineer flexibility to enable organisations to move faster and software systems to scale more quickly.

Mark mentioned a range of different companies who are using OpenStack.  These could be considered to be superusers (and there’s a corresponding superuser page on the OpenStack website which presents a range of different case studies).  Superusers include organisations such as Sony, Disney and Bloomberg, for example.

I remember that Mark said that OpenStack is a combination of open source software and cloud computing.  Another link that I noted down was to something called the OpenStack marketplace (OpenStack website).  Looking on this website shows a whole range of different Cloud distributions (many of which come from companies that offer Linux distributions).

Keynote: Canonical, Ubuntu and OpenStack

Mark Shuttleworth from Canonical (Canonical website) offered an industry perspective.  Canonical develops and supports Ubuntu which is a widely used Linux distribution.  (It is used, as far as I can remember in the TM129 Technologies in Practice module).  As well as running on the desktop, Ubuntu is widely used on the server side, running within data centres.  A statistic I’ve noted down is that Ubuntu accounts for ‘70% of guest workloads’.  What this means is that we’re talking about instances of the Linux operating system that have been configured and packaged by Ubuntu (that are running on a server within a datacentre, somewhere).

A competitor to Ubuntu is another Linux distribution called CentOS.  There is, of course, also Microsoft Windows Server.  When you use public cloud networks, such as those provided by Amazon, I understand that you’re offered a choice of the operating system that you want to ‘host’ or run.

An interesting quote is, ‘building your cloud is a bit like building your own mainframe – users will always want it to be working’.  We also heard of something called OpenStack Interoperability Laboratory.  Clouds can be built hundreds of times a day, we were told – with different combinations of technology from different vendors.  ‘Iteration is the only way to understand the optimal architecture for your use case’.

A really important aspect of cloud computing is the way that a configuration can dynamically adapt to changing circumstances (and user demands).  The term for how this is achieved (in the cloud computing world) seems to be ‘orchestration’.  In OpenStack, there is a tool called JuJu (Wikipedia).  JuJu enables (through a dashboard interface) different combinations of components to be defined.  There is a concept of a ‘charm’ (which was described as scripts which contain some operational coding).  If you would like to look at what it is all about, there’s a website called JuJu Charms that I’ve yet to spend time exploring.

I’ve also noted down something called a Service Orchestration Framework, which lets you place services where you want, and on what services.  There are some reference installations for certain types of cloud installations (which reminds me of the idea of ‘design patterns’ in software).

Mark referred to a range of different technologies during his talk, some of which I had only very briefly heard of.  One technology that was referred to time and time again was the concept of the hypervisor (Wikipedia).  I understand this to be a container (either hardware or software) that runs one or more virtual machines.  Other terms that he mentioned or introduced include KVM (Kernel-based virtual machine), Ceph (a way to offer shared storage), and MaaS, or Metal as a Service (Ubuntu), which ‘brings the language of the cloud to physical servers’.

A further bunch of mind boggling technical terms that were mentioned include ‘lightweight hyppervisors’ such as LXC (LinuX Containers), Hadoop, which is a data storage framework, and TOSCA (Wikipedia), which is an abbreviation for Topology and Orchestration Specification for Cloud Applications.  In terms of databases, some new (and NoSQL) technologies that were mentioned included MongoDB and Cassandra.

At this point, it struck me how much technologies have changed in such an incredibly short time, reminding me that we live in interesting times.

Keynote: Agile infrastructure built in OpenStack

The second keynote of the day was by John Griffith, Project Technical Lead, SolidFire.  John’s presentation had the compelling subtitle: ‘building the next generation data centre with OpenStack’.

A lot of people started using Amazon, who I understand to be the most successful public cloud provider, to use IT resources more efficiently.  There are, of course, other providers such as Google compute engine (Google), Windows Azure (Microsoft), and SoftLayer (which appears to be an IBM company).

A number of years ago, at an OU postgrad event, I overheard a discussion between two IT professionals that began with the question, ‘so, what are the latest developments in servers?’  The reply was something about server consolidation: putting multiple services on a single machine, so you can use that one machine (a physical computer or server) more efficiently.  This could be achieved by using virtual machines, but you can only do so much with virtual machines.  What happens if you run out of processing power?  You need to either get a faster machine, or move one of your virtual machines to another machine that might be under-utilised.

The next generation data centre will be multi-tenant (which means multiple customers or organisations using the same hardware), have mixed workloads (I don't really know what this means), and have shared infrastructure.  A key aspect is that an infrastructure can become software defined, as opposed to hardware defined, and the capacity of a cloud configuration or setup can change depending upon local demand.

There were a number of attributes of cloud systems.  I think there were: agility, predictability, scalability and automation.

In the cloud world applications can span many virtual machines, and data can be stored in scalable databases that are structured in many tiers.  The components (that make up a cloud installation) can be configured and managed through sets of predefined interfaces (or APIs).  I also made a note of a mobile app that can be used to manage certain OpenStack clouds.  One example of this is the Cloud mobile app from Rackspace.

Another interesting quote was, ‘[the] datacentre is one big computer and OpenStack is the operating system’.  Combining servers together has potential benefits in terms of power consumption, cooling and the server footprint.

One thing that developers need to bear in mind is how to create applications.  Another point was: consider scalability and plan for failure.  A big challenge lies with uncovering and deciphering what all the options are.  Should you use, for example, block storage services, or object storage?  What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of each?

Parts of this presentation started to demystify some of the terms that have baffled me from the start.  Cinder was, for example, is OpenStack’s block storage.  Looking outwards from the operating system, a block storage device could be a hard disk, or a USB drive.  Cinder, in effect, mimics what a hard drive looks at, and you can store stuff to a Cinder service as if it was a disk drive.  Swift is an object database where you can store object.  So, you might think of it in terms of sets of directories, the contents of which are replicated over different hard drives to ensure resilience and redundancy.

There is a difference between a service that is an abstraction to store and work with data, and how physical data is actually stored.  To make these components work with actual devices, there are a range of different plug-ins.

Presentation: vArmour

I have to admit that I found this presentation thoroughly baffling.  I had no idea what was being presented until I finally picked up on the word ‘firewall’, and the penny dropped: if a system architecture is defined in software, the notion of a firewall as a physical device suddenly becomes very old fashioned, if not a little bit quaint.

In the cloud world, it’s possible to have something a ‘software firewall’.  A term that I noted down was ‘software defined security’.  Through SDS, you can define what traffic is permissible between nodes and what isn’t, but in the ‘real world’ of physical servers, I’m assuming that physical ‘top layer’ firewalls are important too.

I also came across two new terms (or metaphors) that seem to make a bit of sense in the ‘cloud world’.  Data could, for example, move in a north-south direction, meaning it goes up and down through various layers.  If you’ve got east-west movement of data, it means you’re dealing with a situation where you might have a number of different virtual machines (that might have been created to respond to end user demand), which may share data between each other.  The question is: how do you maintain security when the nature of a configuration might dynamically change? 

Another dimension to security which crossed my mind was the need for auditability and disaster recovery, and both were subjects that were touched upon by other presenters.

In essence, I understood vArmour to be a commercial software defined security product that works akin to a firewall that can be used within a cloud system.

Presentation: The search for the cloud’s ‘God Particle’

Chris Jackson, who works for Rackspace (a company which has the tagline ‘the open cloud company’), gave the final presentation before we all broke for lunch.  Chris confessed to being a physicist (as well as a geek) and referred to research at CERN to find ‘the God particle’.  I also seem to remember him mentioning that CloudStack was used by CERN; there’s an interesting superuser case study (OpenStack website), for those who might be interested.

Here’s the question: if there is a theory that can describe the nature of matter, is there a theory that might explain why a cloud solution might not be adopted?  (He admitted that this was a bit of fun!)  He presented three different theories and asked us to vote on which were, perhaps, the most significant.

The first was: application.  Some applications can be rather fragile, and might need a lot of cosseting, whereas other forms of application might be very robust; they’re all different.  Cloud applications, it is argued, embrace chaos and build failure into applications.  Perhaps the precise character of certain applications might not lend it to being a cloud application?

Theory two: integration.  There could be the challenge of integration and connection with existing systems, which might themselves have different characteristics. 

The third theory is all about operations.  This is more about the culture of an organisation.

So, which theory is the reason why organisations don’t adopt a cloud solution?  The answer is: quite possibly all of them.

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Disabled student services conference 2014 – day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:39

Keynote: positive thinking

The first keynote of the day was by motivational speaker, David Hodgson.  The title of his session was, ‘the four key ways to happiness and success’ (which was a really very ambitious title, if you ask me!)  I’ve seen David talk before at a staff development day in London, where he encouraged us to reflect upon our Myers-Briggs personality profile.  Apparently, this was the focus of a later workshop that he ran later during the morning.

So, what are the four key ways?  Thankfully, I was sufficiently caffeinated to be able to take a note of them.  They are: (1) know yourself (and the great things that you’re capable of), (2) having self-belief, (3) have a plan (of some kind), and (4) have a growth attitude.   Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but, all in all, these are pretty good points to think about.

David also presented us with a quote from Abraham Maslow, who proposed his eponymous Hierarchy of Needs (Wikipedia).  The quote goes:  ‘If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.’  Maslow might have accompanied that quote with a wagging finger and the words, ‘you really need to sort yourself out’.  I had these words rattling around my head for next two days.

Workshop: Learning design for accessibility

The first workshop of the day was facilitated by Lisette Toetenel and Annie Bryan from the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology.  The focus of the event was a learning design tool that IET had created to help module teams consider different pedagogic approaches.  It has been embedded into the module design process, which means that module chairs have to signify that they’ve engaged with IET’s learning design framework.  Through my involvement with a new module, I had heard a little about it, but I didn’t know the detail.

Learning design was defined as, ‘the practice of planning, sequencing and managing learning activities’, usually using ICT tools to support both design and delivery.  An important point was that both accessibility and important areas such as employability skills need to be considered from the outset (or be ‘woven into’ a design) and certainly not ‘bolted on’ as an after-thought.

The learning design framework is embedded into a tool, which takes the form of a template that either module members or a module chair has to complete.  Its objective is to improve quality, sharing of good practice, speed up decision making process, and manage (and plan) student workload.  The tool has an accompanying Learning Design website  (but you might have to be a member of the university to view this).

During the workshop we were divided up into different tables and asked to read through a scenario.  Our table was given an ‘environmental sciences’ scenario.  We were asked three questions: ‘what exactly do students do [in the scenario], and how do (or might) they spend their time?’ and what accessibility problems they might be confronted with.

The point was clear: it’s important to consider potential barriers to learning as early and as soon as you can.

Keynote: SpLDs – The Elephant in the Counselling Room: recognising dyspraxia in adults

The final keynote of the conference was given by Maxine Roper (personal website).  Maxine describes herself as freelance journalist and writer, and a member of the dyspraxia foundation.

One of the main themes of her keynote was the relationship between dyspraxia and mental health.  Now, I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know very much about dyspraxia.  Here’s what I’ve found on the Dyspraxia Foundation website: ‘Dyspraxia, a form of developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a common disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor coordination, in children and adults. … dyspraxia [can also refer] to those people who have additional problems planning, organising and carrying out movements in the right order in everyday situations.’

I was struck by how honest and personal Maxine’s talk was.  Dyspraxis is, of course, a hidden disability.  Maxine said that dyspraxics are good at hiding their difficulities and their differences, and spoke at length about the psychological impact.  An interesting statistic is that ‘a dyspraxic child is 4 times more likely to develop significant psychological problems by the age of 16’ (from the Dyspraxia Foundation).

Some of the effects can include seeing other people more capable, being ‘over givers’ with a view to maintaining friendships, but other people might go the other way and become unnecessarily aggressive (as a strategy to covering up ‘difference’).  Sometimes people may get reactive depression in response to the continual challenge of coping.

I found Maxine’s description of the psychological impact of having a hidden disability fascinating – it is a subject that I could very easily relate to because I also have a hidden disability (and one that I have also tried a long time to hide).  This made me ask myself an obvious question that might well have an obvious answer, which was ‘are these thoughts, and the psychological impact common across other types of hidden disabilities?’ 

So, what might the solutions be?  Maxine offered a number of answers: one solution could be to raise awareness.  This would mean awareness amongst students, and amongst student councillors and those who offer support and guidance.

I noted down another sentence that was really interesting and important, and this was the point about coping strategies.  People develop coping strategies to get by, but these coping strategies might not necessarily be the most appropriate or best approach to adopt.  In some cases it might necessary to unpick layers of accumulated strategies to move forward, and doing this has the potential to be really tough.

Maxine’s presentation contained a lot of points, and one of the key one for me (the elephant in the room), was that it’s important to always deal with the person as a whole, and that perhaps there might be (sometimes) other reasons why students might be struggling.

Workshop : Through new eyes – understanding the experience of blind and partially sighted learners

The final workshop of the conference was given by my colleague Richard Walker, who works as an associate lecturer for the Maths Computing and Technology Faculty.  Like Maxine’s keynote, Richard’s spoke from his own experience, and I found his story and descriptions compelling and insightful.

Richard told us that he had worked with a number of blind and partially sighted students over the years.  He challenged us with an interesting statistic: if we consider the number of people in the general population who have visual impairments, and if an associate lecturer tutors a subject for around ten or so years, this means there is a 90% chance that a tutor will encounter a student who has a visual impairment.  The message is clear: we need to be thinking about how to support our students, which also means how we need to support our associate lecturers too.

Richard has had a stroke which has affected his vision.  Overnight, he became a partially sighted tutor.  ‘This changed how I saw the world’, he said. 

One of his comments has clearly stuck in my mind.  Richard said that when he was in hospital he immediately wanted to get back to work.  Richard later started a blog to document and share his experiences, and I’ve also made a note of him saying that he ‘couldn’t wait to start my new career’, and ‘when I got home from hospital I wanted to download some software so I can continue to be an Open University tutor’.

Richard spoke about the human visual system, which was fascinating stuff, where he talked about the working of the eye and our peripheral vision.  He presented simulations of different visual impairments though a series of carefully drawn PowerPoint slides.    On the subject of PowerPoint, he also spoke briefly about how to make PowerPoint accessible.  His tips were: keep bullet points very short, choose background and foreground colours that have a good contrast, and ensure that you have figure descriptions.

I was struck by Richard’s can-do attitude (and I’m sure others were too).  He said, ‘the whole world looks a bit different, and I like learning new stuff, so I learnt it’.  An implication of becoming partially sighted was that this affected his ability it read.  It was a skill that had to be re-learnt or re-discovered, which sounds like a pretty significant feat.  ‘I just kept looking at the lines, and I’ve learnt to read again.  You just experiment [with how to move your eyes] and you see what works’.

When faced the change in his vision, he contacted his staff tutor for advice, and some accommodations were put in place.  Another point that stood out for me was the importance of trust; his line manager clearly trusted Richard’s judgement about what he could and could not do.

Sharing experience

Richard tutors on a module called M250 Object-oriented programming (OU website).  When student study M250 they write small programs using a software development environment.    Richard made the observation that some software development environments can be ‘hostile to assistive technology’, such as screen readers.

Richard is currently tutoring a student who has a visual impairment.  To learn more about the student’s experience, he interviewed the student by email – this led to creation of a ‘script’.  With help from a workshop delegate, Richard re-enacted his interview, where he asked about challenges, assistive technologies, study strategies and what could be done to improve things. We learnt about the use of Daisy talking books (Wikipedia), the fact that everything takes longer, about strategies for interactive with computers, and the design of ‘dead tree’ books that could be read using a scanner.  After the performance, we were set an activity to share views about what we learnt from the interview (if I remember correctly).

Towards the end of the workshop, Richard facilitated a short discussion about new forms of assistive technologies and ubiquitous computing, and how devices such as Google Glass might be useful; thought provoking stuff.

I enjoyed Richard’s session; it was delivered with an infectious enthusiasm and a personal perspective.  The final words that I’ve noted down in my notebook are: ‘it’s not because I’ve got a strength of character, it’s because I love my work … you just have got to get on with it’


Like all the others, this year’s disabled student services conference was both useful and enjoyable.  These events represent an invaluable opportunity to learn new things, to network with colleagues, and to take time out from the day job to reflect on the challenges that learner’s face (and what we might be able to do to make things easier).

For me, there were a couple of highlights.  The first was Keith’s understated but utterly engaging keynote.  The second was Richard Walkers workshop: I had never seen Richard ‘in action’ before, and he did a great job of facilitation.  In terms of learning, I learnt a lot from Maxine’s talk, and it was really interesting to reflect upon the emotional and psychological impact that a hidden disability can have on someone.  I feel it’s an issue that is easily overlooked, and is something that I’ll continue to mull over.  In some respects, it has emphasised, to me, how demanding and important the role of learning support advisors role is to the university.

One question that I have asked myself is: ‘what else could be done within the conference?’  This, I think, is a pretty difficult question to ask, since everything was organised very well, and the whole event was very well attended.

One thought is about drama.  Richard’s session contained a hint of drama, where he used a fellow delegate to read a script of his email interview.  I’ve attended a number of excellent sessions in the East Grinstead region (which is now, sadly, going to be closed) that made use of ‘forum theatre’.  Perhaps this is an approach that could be used to allow us to expose issues and question our own understandings of the needs of our students.  Much food for thought.

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Disabled student services conference 2014 – day 1

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:40

I recently attended the university’s disabled student services conference held between 13 and 14 May 2014.  I think this was the third time I’ve been to this event, and every time I go I always learn something new.

This is a quick blog summary of the sessions I attended.  I guess this summary serves a number of purposes.  Firstly, it’s a summary of some of the continuing professional development I’ve been getting up to this year.  Secondly, it might be of interest to any of my students who might be studying H810 accessible e-learning (OU website).  Thirdly, it might be useful to some of my colleagues, or for anyone who accidentally stumbles across this series of two posts.

The complexities of co-occurrence

The first session of the day was presented by my colleague Jonathan Jewell, who works as an associate lecturer for a least three different faculties.  My first thought was, ‘what is meant by co-occurrence?’ - it wasn’t a term I had heard before.  I quickly figured out that it means that a person can have a number of different conditions at the same time.  A big part of his session was about what this might mean in terms of understanding a profile that contains quite a lot of information.

During Jonathan’s session I remember a debate about the terms ‘student-centred’ and ‘person-centred’.  The point was that although a student might be studying a particular module, they are on a programme, and this can, of course relate to a broader set of personal objectives that they might hold.

Every student who discloses a disability may have their own disability profile. The aim of the profile is tell a tutor something about their students to help them to understand what adjustments (in terms of their tuition) they could make.

During Jonathan’s session we looked at a sample profile and thought about it in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.  Our group concluded that the profile we were given contained a lot of information.  A particular weakness was that it contained a lot of quite technical jargon that was quite hard to understand.  A later task was to devise a ‘tutor plan of action’ based on the profile.  A clear point that was mentioned was the importance of establishing early contact with students to ensure that they feel comfortable and supported.

Towards the end of the session, I remember a debate that student profiles can change; some disabilities are temporary.  I also understand that there are now clearer university guidelines about how profiles should be written; a profile written today might be different to how it was written a couple of years ago.

Keynote: REAL services to assist students who identify with Asperger syndrome (AS)

The first keynote of the day was by Nichola Martin who I understand works for the University of Cambridge.  The ‘REAL’ bit of her presentation title is an abbreviation for: reliable, empathic, anticipatory and logical – this idea is that we should be these attributes when we work with people who identify with having Asperger syndrome (AS).  Very early on during her presentation she made the key point that ‘if you’ve met one person with AS, you’ve only met one person with AS’. 

Nichola also exposed us to stereotypes from the media, which she asked us to question.  The use of language is fundamentally important too, i.e. the term ‘condition’ is better than ‘disorder’ which suggests that something is fundamentally wrong.  Another interesting point is that the characteristics of people can change over time, a point that neatly connects back to the previous session about the changing nature of student profiles.

A big part of Nichola’s presentation was to share some findings from a research project that studied the views of students.  Its aim was to develop a model of best practice for student with AS, improve access to diagnosis, raise awareness and develop networks.

One really important point is about the importance of clear language; always be clear in what you either say or write.  An important point that I have noted is that if we make accommodations for one group, this is likely to help all students.  Stating clear assumptions in a clear and respectful way is, of course, useful for everyone. 

Another point is that institutions can be difficult to negotiate, particularly during the early stage of study.  If things are chaotic at the beginning of university study, it might be difficult to get back onto an even keel.  Some challenges that students might face can include finding their way through new social environments.  I’ve noted down a quote which goes, ‘my main barriers have been social and I find large groups of people I don’t know intimidating – as a result, I rarely attend lectures and often feel alone’.

There were some really interesting points about disability and identity which deserve further reflection.  Some students choose not to disclose and don’t go anywhere near the disability services part of the university.  Students may not want ‘special services’, since this hints at the notion of ‘othering’, or the emphasis of difference.  If people don’t want to talk about their personal circumstances, that is entirely their right.

We were told that Asperger’s and autism are terms that are used interchangeably, and this is reflected in the most recent publication of the DSM (Wikipedia, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

There were a number of things that were new to me, such as The Autism Act 2009 (National Autistic Society), and The Autism Strategy 2010 (National Autistic Society), which has been recently updated.  Another interesting and useful link is a video interview produced by the National Autistic Society (YouTube).   It was also great to hear that Nichola also mentioned OU module SK124 understanding the autism spectrum (OU website). 

All in all, a thought provoking talk.

Workshop: Student Support Teams and Disabled Students Support

The next event I went to was a workshop where different members of the newly formed student support teams (SSTs) were brought together to discuss the challenges of supporting students who have disabilities.  Again, the subject of student profiles was also discussed.

My own perspective (regarding student support teams) is one that has been really positive.  Whenever I’ve come across an issue when I needed to help a student (or a tutor) with a particular problem, I’ve always been able to speak with a learning support advisor who have always been unstintingly helpful.  I personally feel that now there are more people who I can speak to regarding advice and guidance.

Keynote: The life of a mouth artist

The final keynote of the day was a really enjoyable and insightful talk by artist, Keith Jansz.  Keith began by telling us about his background.  After being involved in a car accident, in which he was significantly paralysed, he started to learn how to draw and paint after being given a book about mouth artists by his mother in law. 

Keith spoke how he learnt how to paint, describing the process that he went through.  Being someone who has a low opinion of my own abilities when it comes to using a pencil, I found his story fascinating.  I enjoyed Keith’s descriptions of light, colour, and the creative process. What struck me were the links between creativity, learning and self-expression; all dimensions that are inextricably intertwined. 

I thought his talk was a perfect keynote for this conference.   It was only afterwards that the implicit connections between Keith’s talk and the connections with university study became apparent. Learning, whatever form it may take, can be both life changing and life affirming.

During the conference, there was an accompanying exhibition of Keith’s work.  You can also view a number of his paintings on his website.

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eSTEeM Conference – Milton Keynes, May 2014

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 20 May 2014, 09:50

On 5 May 2014, I was at Milton Keynes again.  I had something called a module team meeting in the morning.  In the afternoon I attended an OU funded conference that had the title (or abbreviation) eSTEeM (project website).

eSTEeM is an initiative to conduct research into STEM education.  STEM is an abbreviation for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics.  Since I have some connections with some computing modules, which can cross the subjects of Engineering and Mathematics, I decided to submit a proposal that had the objective of learning more about the tutor’s experience of teaching computer programming.  The aim was simple: if we learn more about the tutor’s challenges, we can support them better, and subsequently they will be able to support the students better too.

I have been lucky enough to receive a small amount of funding from the university.  This, of course, is great news, but it also means that I’ve got even more work to do!  (But I’m not complaining - I accept that it’s all self-inflicted, and it’s work that will allow us to get at some insights).  If you’re interested, here’s some further information about the project (eSTEeM website).

A 'pilot' project

The ‘understanding the tutors and the students when they do programming’ project is a qualitative study.  In this case, it means that I’ll be analysing a number of interviews with tutors.  I’ll be the first to admit that it’s been quite a while since I have done any qualitative research, so I felt that I needed to refamiliarise myself with what I needed to do by, perhaps, running a pilot study.

It wasn’t long before I had an idea that could become a substantive piece of research in its own right. I realised that there was an opportunity to run a ‘focus group’ to ask tutors about their experience of tutoring on another module: T320 Ebusiness Technologies (OU website).  The idea was that the outcome from this study could feed directly into discussions about a new module.

During my slot at the conference, rather than talking about my research about programming (which was still at the planning stage), I talked about T320 research, that was just about finished.  I say finished, when what I actually mean is ‘transcribed’; there is a lot more analysis to do.  What has struck me was how generous tutors are with both their opinions and their time.  Their views will really help when it comes to designing and planning the future module that I have a connection.

Final thoughts and links

In case you’re interested, here’s a link to the conference programme.

What struck me was how much ‘internal research’ was there was going on; there are certainly a lot of projects to look through.  From my perspective, I’m certainly looking forward to making a contribution to the next conference and sharing results from the web technologies and programming research project with colleagues.   The other great thing about getting my head into research again is that when you have one idea about what to look at, you suddenly find that get a whole bunch of other ideas.

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Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference (day 2 of 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2019, 17:29

The second day of the conference was to be slightly different to the first; there were fewer sessions, and there were a number of ‘talking circle’ workshop events to go to.  On the first day I arrived at the conference ridiculously early (I was used to the habit of travelling to Milton Keynes in time for meetings, and catching a scheduled bus to the campus).   On the second day, I was glad to discover that I wasn’t the first delegate to arrive.

Opening remarks

The second day was opened by Professor Musa Mihsein from the OU.  He presented an interesting story of how he became to work at the university as a PVC.  Musa talked about changes to funding, making the point that there has also been a change in the use of language.  There is more of a need to ‘maximise impact’.  The accompanying question is, of course, ‘how can we best evaluate projects and programs?’

A couple of points I noted down was that we haven’t got a full understanding of curriculum and its role within the institution, and that collaborations are important.  There is also a continual need to communicate in different ways to policy makers.

Keynote 4: Liberating the curriculum

The first keynote of the day was by Kelly Coate, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education, from Kings College, London.  Kelly’s talk was interesting since it spoke directly to the ‘curriculum’ part of conference title.  She has been researching about curriculum for the last 20 years and made the point that, ‘decisions about curriculum are decisions about what we can think’ (if I’ve taken that down correctly).

Here’s some of my notes: we’re accustomed to certain view of what ‘curriculum’.  The word derives from a Latin word that means to run/to proceed.  This makes a lot of sense: most participants make it to the finish line, there are often a couple of really high scorers and a couple who are, perhaps, left behind. 

If we dig around in history, the notion of curriculum used to be associated with the ‘liberal arts’.  This contains the disciplines of grammar, logic, rhetoric, music theory, astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry, with the word liberal being derived from libra, meaning ‘free’.

Kelly’s talk gave way an interesting twist.  Since she studies what people are studying, she was asked to comment on a story that Miley Cyrus was to be the subject of a university course.  If you’re interested, here’s a related news story: Back to twerk … Miley Cyrus to be studied on new university course (The Guardian).   Thinking about it for a moment, the subject of Miley can readily be used to facilitate discussions about femininity, power, exploitation, celebrity,sexuality…

A bit of theorising is always useful.  We could thing about curriculum in three different domains: knowing, acting and being. Importance of relating teaching to the now, which opens up the possibility of students considering suggesting their own curricula by performing research into how ‘the now’ relates to the broad subject area.

Another way of thinking about curriculum might be in terms of gravity and density.  Gravity is the extent to which a subject can be related to a particular context.  Density relates to how much theory there is (some subject can be incredibly theoretical).  I really like these metaphors: they’re a really good (and powerful) way to think about how a lecturer or teacher might be able to ‘ground’ a particular concept or idea.

We were briefly taken through a couple of ideas about learning and pedagogy.  The first one was the transmission model (which, I think, was described as being thoroughly discredited), where a lecturer or teacher stands in the front of the class and talks, and the students magically absorb everything. The second idea (which I really need to take some time out to look at) is actor-network theory (wikipedia).  Apparently it’s about thinking about systems and networks and how things are linked through objects and connections.  (This is all transcribed directly from my notes - I need to understand in a whole lot more than I do at the moment!)

I’ve also made a note about a researcher called Jan Nespor  who has applied actor-network theory to study physics and business studies classes.  The example was that lecturers can orchestrate totally different experiences, and these might be connected with the demands and needs of a particular discipline (if I’ve understood things correctly!)

I’ve made a note of some interesting points that were made by the delegates at the end of Kelly’s speech.  One point was that different subjects have different cultures of learning, i.e. some subjects might consider professional knowledge to be very important.  Musa mentioned the importance of problem-based learning, particularly in subjects such as engineering. 

Session 3: Innovation in design and pedagogy

There was only one presentation in the third session which was all about pedagogy.  This was entitled ‘Creating inclusive university curriculum: implementing universal design for learning in an enabling programme’, by Stuart Dinmore and Jennifer Stokes.  The presentation was all about how to make use of universal design principles within a module.  We were introduced to what UD is (that it emerges from developments in design and architecture), that it aims to create artefacts that are useful for everyone, regardless of disability.

Connecting their presentation to wider issues, there are two competing (yet complementary) accessibility approaches: individualised design and universal design.  There is also the way in which accessibility can be facilitated by the use of helpers, to enable learners to gain access to materials and learning experiences.

It was great that this presentation explicitly spoke to the accessibility and disability dimension of WP, also connecting to the importance of technology.  During Stuart and Jennifer’s presentation, I was continually trying to relate their experiences with my own experience of tutoring on the OU module, H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students (OU web page)

Talking circle

I chose to attend innovation in design and pedagogy.  I do admit that I did get a bit ‘ranty’ (in a gentle way) during this session.  This was a good opportunity to chat about some of the issues that were raised and to properly meet some of the fellow delegates.  Some of the views that I expressed within this session are featured in the reflection section that follows.

Closing keynote:  class, culture and access to higher education

The closing keynote was by John Storan from the University of East London.  John’s keynote was a welcome difference; it had a richly personal tone.  He introduced us to members of his family (who were projected onto a screen using PowerPoint), and talked us through the early years of his life, and his journey into teacher training college, whilst constantly reflecting on notions of difference.

He also spoke about a really interesting OU connection too.  John was a participant in a study that gave way to a book entitled, Family and kinship in East London (Wikipedia), by Michael Yong and Peter Willmott.  (This is one of those interesting looking books that I’m definitely going to be reading – again, further homework from this conference).  ‘We were the subject’, John told us.  He also went onto make the point about the connections between lived experience, research, policy and curriculum.

I’ve made a note in my notebook of the phrase, ‘not clever, able enough’.  I have also been subject to what I now know to be ‘imposter syndrome’.  In the question and answer session, I’ve made a note about that the codes of language can easily become barriers.


One of the really unexpected things about this conference was the way that it accidentally encouraged me to think about my own journey to and through higher education.  Although for much of my early life I didn’t live in an area that would feature highly in any WP initiatives, higher education was an unfamiliar world to my immediate family.

Of course, my journey and my choices end up being quite nuanced when I start to pick apart the details of my biography, but I think there was one intervention that made a lasting impression.  This intervention was a single speech given by a member of staff at my former college about the opportunity that university study gave.  I remember coming away thinking, ‘I’m going to apply; I have nothing to lose, and everything to gain’.  A number of my peers thought the same.

The conference presented a number of different perspectives: the importance of assessing the effectiveness of interventions and the importance of theory, how to design WP curriculum, how to make curriculum accessible, and how to make materials engaging for different groups.  One aspect that I thought was lacking was that of the voices of the students.  It’s all very well discussing between ourselves what we think that we should be doing, but I felt it would be really valuable to hear the views of students. 

An area that would be particularly useful is to hear about instances of failure, or to hear about what went wrong when students tried university level study but couldn’t complete for some reason.  There are some really rich narratives that have the potential to tell researchers in WP and curriculum a lot about what institutions (and individuals) need to do.  The challenge, of course, is finding those people who would like to come forward and share their views.

In the sessions that I attended, there were clear discussions about class, socio-economic status and disability, but there seemed to be an opportunity to discuss more about ethnicity.  Quantitative research has shown that there is an attainment gap.   There was an opportunity for some qualitative discussions and more sharing of views regarding this subject.

Another thought relates to the number of keynote speeches.  Keynote speeches are really important, and it was great that they were varied – and they are very important in tone and agenda setting, but more paper sessions (and perhaps a plenary discussion?) might expose different issues and allow more contacts to be made.

I appreciate that these final reflections sound a bit ‘whingey’; they’re not intended to be.  WP is an important issue, and from the amount of follow-up homework I’ve got to do this clearly tells me that the conference was a great success. 

In some ways I guess the conference was slightly different to what I had expected (in terms of the debate and discussions).  I was expecting it to be slightly less ‘academic’ and slightly more practitioner focussed (or oriented to those who deal with WP issues on a day to day basis).   The unexpected difference, however, was very welcome; I’ve learnt some new stuff.

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Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference (day 1 of 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 24 Apr 2019, 17:31

There are some days when I feel very lucky; lucky in the sense that my transition from school, to college and to university happened pretty painlessly.  Although my background has been far from privileged, I feel that I ended up making the right choices the exactly right time, all by accident rather than by design.

Some of these thoughts were going through my head as I walked towards the hotel where the Widening Participation through Curriculum conference was held.  Other thoughts were connected with my day job, which all about supporting the delivery of a range of undergraduate computing and ICT modules.  WP (as it seemed to be known within the conference), is something that I consider to be fundamentally important; it touches on my interactions with students, and the times that I work with members of a module team.  I also had a question, which was, ‘what more could I do [to help with WP]?’

This post is a summary of my own views of the Widening Participation through Curriculum conference that was held on two days from 30 April 2014 in Milton Keynes.  It’s intended as a rough bunch of notes for myself, and might be of distant interest to other delegates who were at the event (or anyone else who might find these ramblings remotely interesting).

Opening remarks

The opening address was by Martin Bean, Vice chancellor of the university.  He asked the question, ‘how do we ensure that widening participation is achieved?’  This is an easy question to ask, but a whole lot more difficult to answer.  Martin talked about moving from informal to formal learning, and the challenge of reaching out and connecting with adult learners in a sustainable way.  Other points included the importance of access curriculum (pre-university level study).  Access curriculum has the potential to encourage learners and to develop confidence.

Martin also touched upon the potential offered by MOOCs, or, massive open online course.   The OU has created a company called FutureLearn, which has collaborations with other UK and international universities.  A question is whether it might be possible to create level 0 (or access) courses in the form of MOOCs that could help to prepare learners for formal study (connecting back to the idea of transitions from informal to formal learning).  One thought that I did have is about the importance and use of technology.  Technology might not be the issue, but figuring out strategies to use it effectively might be.

Keynote 1: WP and disruption – global challenges

The first keynote of the conference was by Belinda Tynan, PVC for teaching and learning.  As she spoke, I made some rough notes, and I’ve scribbled down the following important points: models of partnerships, curriculum theory, impact of curriculum reform, and how students are being engaged.

Belinda touched upon a number of wide issues such as changing demographics, discrepancy between rich and poor, unemployment, and the relationship between technology and social inclusion; all really great points.

Another interesting point was about the digital spaces where the university does not have a formal presence.  We were told that there are in the order of 150 Facebook groups that students have set up to help themselves.  As an aside, I’ve often wondered about these spaces, and whether they can tell us something that the university could be doing better, in terms of either technology, interactive system design, or how to foster and develop collaboration.  Another thought relates to the research question: how much learning actually occurs within these spaces?   How much are we able to see?

A phrase that jumped out at me was, ‘designing curriculum that fits into people’s lives’.  Perhaps it is important that curriculum designers create small fragments of materials to allow students can manage the complexity of their studies.  Other key phrases include the importance of motivation, the role of on-line discussions, and the challenge of finding time.

We were shown a short video about learning analytics.  Learning analytics is a pretty simple concept.  Whenever we interact with a system, we leave a trace (often in the form of a web request).  The idea is the perhaps the sum total of traces will be able to tell us something about how students are getting along.  By using clever technology (such as machine learning algorithms), it might be possible to uncover and initiate targeted interventions, perhaps in collaboration with student support teams.

One thought that I had during this presentation was, ‘where is the tutor in this picture?’  Technology was mentioned a lot, but there was little mention about the personal support that OU tutors (or lecturers) offer.   There are many factors in helping students along their journey, and my own view is that tutors are a really important part of this.

The concluding points in Belinda’s keynote (if I’ve noted this down properly) return to the notion of challenges: the importance of the broader societal context, and the importance of connecting learning theory to student journeys.

Session 1: Measuring and demonstrating impact

Delegates could go to a number of parallel sessions about different topics.  The first paper session I dropped into was entitled ‘measuring and demonstrating impact’.  This session comprised of two presentation.

The first presentation was entitled, ‘Impact of a pre-access curriculum on attainment over 10 years’, and it was from representatives of an organisation called Asdan Education, which is a charity which grew out of research from the University of West of England.  I hadn’t heard of this organisation before, so all this was news to me.  Asdan have what is called Certificate of personal effectiveness (Asdan website).  The presentation contained a lot of data suggested that the curriculum (and the work by the charity) led to an improvement to some GCSE results.

The second presentation of the morning, given by Nichola Grayson and Johanna Delaney was entitled, ‘can the key principles of open skills training enhance the experience of prospective students’. Interestingly, Nichola and Johnanna were from the library services at the University of Manchester.  Their talk was all about revision of library resources called ‘my learning essentials’.

The university currently has something called a ‘Manchester access programme’, which includes visits from schools, and an ‘extended project qualification’ (which I think allows students to gather up some UCAS points, used for university entry).  The open new training programme (if I have understand it correctly) has an emphasis on skills, adopts a workshop format and makes use of online resources.

During this presentation, I was introduced to some new terms and WP debates.  I heard the concept of the ‘deficit model’ for the first time, and there were immediate comments about its appropriateness (but more of this problematic concept later).

Session 2: Theory revisited

I went to this session because I had no idea what ‘theory’ means in the context of Widening Participation; I was hoping to learn something!

The first presentation was by my colleague Jonathan Hughes who gave a presentation entitled, ‘developing a theoretical framework to explore what widening participation has done for ‘non-traditional students’ and what it has done to them.’  Jonathan and his colleague Alice Peasgood has been interviewing WP experts, which includes mostly professors who had been published.  Interviews recorded and transcribed, and then analysed.

Johnathan made an interesting comment (or quip) that this is a technique that can be considered to be a short-cut to a literature review.  This is an idea that I’m going to take away with me, and it has actually inspired some thinking about an idea about how to understand the teaching of programming.

His analysis is to use a technique called thematic analysis (Wikipedia) drawing on the work of Braun and Clarke.  This was also interesting: in terms of qualitative research, I’m more familiar with grounded theory (Wikipedia).  This alerted me to one of the dangers of going to conferences: that you can easily give yourself lots of homework to do.

Jonathan highlighted three main themes: the policy context (tuition fees in higher education), wider context of marketised higher education, and how policies are interpreted and operationalised.  (He has written more about these in his paper).  I’ve made a note of a comment that there are different theoretical frameworks to understand WP: one is to enable the gifted and talented to study, another is how best to meet the needs of employers, and how to transform the university rather than the students.

The second talk by Jayne Clapton, was entitled, ‘seeing a ‘complex’ conceptual understanding of WP and social inclusion in HE’.  Jane presented a graphic of a metaphor of a complex mechanism which had a number of interlocking parts (which, I believe, represent various drivers and influences).

The discussion section was really interesting, particularly since the deficit model was attacked pretty comprehensively.  To add a bit more detail, the ‘model’ is where potential students have some kind of deficit, perhaps in terms of socio-economic background, for instance.  To overcome this there is the idea of having some kind of intervention done to them to help prepare them for higher education.  An alternative perspective is to view students in terms of ‘assets’; development opportunities can represent investments in individuals.

A concluding discussion centred upon the importance of research.  Research always has the potential to inform and guide government policy.  The point was that ‘we need effective research to back up any arguments that we make, and we need to know about the effectiveness about projects or interventions’.

Keynote 2: The ‘academic challenge’ in HE: intersectional dimensions and unintended affects on pedagogic encounters

The second keynote was by Professor Gill Crozier from Roehampton University.  I’ve made a note that Gill was talking about transition; that the transition to higher education is more difficult for working class, and black and ethnic minority students.  Some students can be unsure what university was all about (I certainly place myself in that category).  Studying at university can expose students to unequal power relations between class, gender and race.

A really interesting point that I’ve noted down is one that relates to attitude.  In some cases, some lecturers are not happy giving additional support, since this requires them to ‘become nurturing’ in some senses, and some might consider it to beyond the remit of their core ‘academic’ duties.  I personally found this view surprising.  I personally view those moments of additional support as real opportunities to help learners find the heart of a discipline, or get to the root of a problem that might be troublesome.  These moments allow you to reflect on and understand core ideas within your own discipline.  In comparison to lecturing in front of a room, you need to be dynamic; you need to get to the heart of the problem, and try your best to be as engaging as possible.   I also made a note about the importance of creating a ‘learner identity’.

There was a lot in terms of content in this presentation.  Two interesting notes that I made in my notebook are, ‘social identifies profoundly shape dispositions’ (I’m not quite sure what context I’ve written this), and ‘little attention given to the experience of students at university’ (which is something that I’ll come back to in the final part of this blog).

Keynote 3: Widening success through curriculum: innovation in design and pedagogy

Stephanie Marshall, CEO of the Higher Education Academy (HEA website) gave the third keynote speech.  Stephanie began with an interesting anecdote, and one that I really appreciated.  Stephanie spoke about her early days of being a lecturer at (I think) the University of York.  She spoke to a colleague who apparently told her that ‘the OU had taught me to do all this’, meaning, how to become a lecturer by running training sessions that allows associate lecturers to understand how to run group sessions, and how to choose and design effective activities.

My ears pricked up when Stephanie mentioned the HEA’s Professional Standards Framework (HEA website).  The UKPSF relates to the HEA’s accreditation process where lecturers have to submit cases to demonstrate their teaching and learning skills in higher education.

Like so many HE institutions, the HEA has also been through a period of substantial change, which has recently included a substantial reduction in funding.  This said, the HEA continues to run projects that aim to influence the whole of the sector.  Work streams currently include curriculum design, innovative pedagogies, transitions, and staff transitions (helping staff to do the things that they need to do).

There are also projects that relate to widening participation.  One that I’ve explicitly taken a note of is the retention and success project (HEA website) (it appears that there’s a whole bunch of interesting looking resources, which I didn’t know existed).  Other projects I’ve noted connect to themes such as attainment and progression, learning analytics and employability.

On the subject of WP, Stephanie gave a really interesting example.  During the presentation of a module, students studying English at one university expressed concerns about the relevance of particular set text to the students who were studying them.   This challenge led to the co-development of curriculum, a collaboration between students and lecturers to choose text that were more representative (in terms of the ethnicity of the student body), thus allowing the module to be more engaging.  This strikes me as one of the fundamental advantages of face to face teaching; lecturers can learn, and challenging (and important) debates can emerge.

A final resource (or reference) that I wasn’t aware of was something called the Graduate attributes framework (University of Edinburgh).  Again, further homework!

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Professional Development Conference: London, 22 March 2014

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

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

Electronic assignments

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

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

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

Under the hood

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And finally…

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

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


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Associate Lecturer Professional Development Conference: Kent College, Tonbridge

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

The Open University in the South East ran one of their associate lecturer professional development conferences on the 1 March 2014.   This year, the conference was held at Kent College, Tonbridge.  I don’t know whether I wrote about this before, but this was the same where I attended my first ever OU tutorial (as a rookie tutor).  Today, the site is very different. Then it was gloomy and dark.  Now, the buildings are bright and airy, and boasted a spectacular view of the Kent countryside.

This post is a very brief summary of the event.  The summary has drawn directly from the notes that I made during the day (and these, by definition, will probably contain a couple of mistakes!)  It also contains a bunch of rough reflections.  I should add that this blog is primarily intended for other associate lecturer colleagues but it might accidentally be of wider interest to others too.

During this conference, I signed up for two sessions.  The first was entitled, ‘supporting academic writing’.  The second session was all about, ‘aligning TMA feedback to students’ needs and expectations’. 

Supporting academic writing

This first session was facilitated by Anna Calvi, who projected a set of phrases about academic writing onto a digital whiteboard.  A couple of examples were, ‘what is a semi-colon?’ and ‘I think of ideas and information as I write’. ‘Do any of you recognise these?  Which are the most important for you?’ Anna asked, challenging us to respond.  She didn’t have to wait long for an answer.

A couple of responses that I noted down were: explaining why structure is important, the importance of paraphrasing and differences between written English and spoken English.  There’s also the necessity to help students to understand what is meant by ‘written academic English’.  Some suggestions were immediately forthcoming: the choice of vocabulary, style and appropriate referencing.

One of the participants asked a question that I have heard asked before.  This was, ‘can all faculties have a module that helps students to write descriptively?’  The truth of the matter is that different faculties do different things.  In the Mathematics Computing and Technology module, writing skills are embedded (and emphasised) within the introductory level 1 modules.  Other faculties have dedicated modules.  Two key modules are LB160 Professional Communication Skills for Business Studies, and L185 English for Academic purposes, which I understand can contribute credit to some degree programmes.

During this session, all the tutors were directed towards other useful resources.  These include a useful student booklet entitled reading and taking notes (PDF) which is connected to an accompanying Skills for Study website (OU website).  Another booklet is entitled Thinking Critically (PDF).  This one is particularly useful, since terms, ‘analyse critically’ and ‘critically evaluate’ can (confusingly) appear within module texts, assignments and exams.

One of the points shared during this first session was really important: it’s important to emphasise what academic writing is right at the start of a programme of study.

What needs to be done?

So, how can tutors help?  Anna introduced us to a tool known as the MASUS framework.  MASUS is an abbreviation for Measuring Skills of Academic Students and has originally come from the University of Sydney.  We were directed to a video (OU website) which describes what the framework is and how it works.  A big part of the framework (from what I remember), is a checklist for academic writing (OU website).  In essence, this tool helps us (tutors) to understand (or think about) what kind of academic writing support students might need.  Key areas can include the use of source materials (choosing the right ones), organising a response in an appropriate way, using language that is appropriate to both the audience and the task, and so on.  In some respects, the checklist is an awareness raising tool.  The tutor’s challenge lies in how to talk to students about aspects of writing.

If you’re interested, there’s a more comprehensive summary of the MASUS framework (PDF) is available directly from the University of Sydney.  Another useful resource is the OU’s own Developing academic English which tutors can refer students to.  We were also directed to an interesting external resource, a Grammar tutorial, from the University of Bristol.

Offering feedback

After looking at the checklist and these resources we moved onto a wider discussion about how best tutors can help students to develop their academic writing.  I’ve made a note of two broad approaches; one is reactive, the other is proactive. A reactive strategy might include offering general backward looking feedback and perhaps running a one to one session with a student.  A proactive approach, on the other hand, could include discussions through a tutor group forum, activities within tutorials, sharing of hand outs that contain exercises and practical feed-forward advice within assignments that have been returned.

TMA feedback can, for example, give examples (or samples) of what is considered to be effective writing.  An important point that emerged from the discussions was that it is very important to be selective, since commenting on everything can be very overwhelming.  One approach is to offer a summary and provide useful links (and pointers) to helpful resources.

On-line tutorials

Anna moved onto the question of what tutors might (potentially) do within either face to face or on-line tutorials to help students with their academic writing; this was the part of the sessions where tutors had an opportunity to share practice with each other.  Anna also had a number of sample activities that we could either use, modify, or draw teaching inspiration from.

The first example was an activity where students had to choose key paragraphs from a piece of writing.  Students could then complete a ‘diagram’ to identify (and categorise) different parts (or aspects of an argument).  Another activity might be to ask students to identify question words, key concepts and the relationships between them. 

Further ideas include an activity to spot (or identify) parts of essay, such as an introductory sentences, background information, central claims and perhaps a conclusion.  A follow on activity might be to ask questions about purpose of each section, then connecting with a discussion to the tasks that are required for an assignment.

There was also a suggestion of using some cards.  Students could be asked to match important terms written on cards to paragraphs. Terms could include: appropriate tone, formality, alternative views, vocabulary, linking words, and so on.  There would also be an opportunity to give examples, to allow tutors to emphasise the importance of writing principles.

A further tip was to search the OpenLearn website for phrases such as ‘paraphrasing’ (or module codes, such as L185) for instance.  The OpenLearn site contains some very useful fragments of larger courses which might be useful to direct students to.

Aligning TMA feedback to students’ needs and expectations

This second session was facilitated by Concha Furnborough.  Her session had subheading of, ‘how well does our feedback work?’ which is a very important question to ask.  It soon struck me that this session was about the sharing of research findings with the intention of informing (and developing) tutor practice.

I’ve made a note of another question: how do we bridge the gap between actual and desired performance.  Connecting back to the previous session, a really important principle is to offer ‘feed-forward’ comments, which aims to guide future altering behaviour. 

An early discussion point that I noted was that some students don’t take the time to download their feedback (after they have discovered what their assignment marks were).  We were all reminded that we (as tutors) really need to take the time to make sure students download the feedback that they are entitled to receive.

This session describes some of the outcomes from a project called eFeP, which is an abbreviation for e-Feedback evaluation project, funded by Jisc (which support the use of digital technologies in education and research).  If you’re interested, more information about the project is available from the eFePp project website (Jisc).

The aim of the project was to understand the preferences and perceptions that students have about the auditory and written feedback that are offered by language tutors.  The project used a combination of different techniques.  Firstly, it used a survey.  The survey was followed by a set of interviews.  Finally, ten students were asked to make a screen-cast recording; students were asked to talk through their responses to the feedback and guidance offered by their tutors.

One of the most interesting parts of the presentation (for me) was a description of a tool known as ‘feedback scaffolding’.  The ‘scaffolding’ corresponds to the different levels or layers of feedback that are offered to students.  The first level relates to a problem or issue that exists in an assignment.  Level two relates to an identification of the type of error.  If we’re thinking in terms of language teaching, this might be the wrong word case (or gender) being applied.  The third level is where an error is corrected.  The fourth is where an explanation is given, and the fifth is clear advice on how performance might be potentially improved.

Feeling slightly disruptive, I had to ask a couple of questions.  Firstly, I asked whether there was a category where tutors might work to contextualise a particular assignment or question, i.e. to explain how it relates to the subject as a whole, or to explain why a question is asked by a module team.  In some respects, this can fall under the final category, but perhaps not entirely.

My second question was about when in their learning cycle students were asked to comment on their feedback.  The answer was that they gave their feedback once they had taken the time to read through and assimilate the comments and guidance that the tutors had offered.   Another thought would be to capture how feedback is understood the instant that it is received by a learner.  (I understand that the researchers have plans to carry out further research).

If anyone is interested, there is a project blog (OU website), and it’s also possible to download a copy of a conference paper about the research from the OU’s research repository.


Even though I attended only two sessions, there was a lot to take in.  One really interesting point was to hear different views about the challenges of academic writing from different people who work in different parts of the university.  I’ve heard it said that academic writing (of the type of writing needed to complete TMAs) is very tough if you’re doing it for the first time.  In terms of raising awareness of different resources that tutors could use to help students, the first session was especially useful.

These conferences are not often used to disseminate research findings, but the material that was covered in the second session was especially useful.  It exposed us to a new feedback framework (that I wasn’t aware of), and secondly, it directly encouraged us to consider how our feedback is perceived and used.

One of the biggest benefits of these conferences is that they represent an opportunity to share practices.  A phrase that I’ve often heard is, ‘you always pick up something new’.

Copies of the presentations used during the conference can be found by visiting the South East Region conference resources page (OU website, staff only).


A week after drafting this summary, I heard that the university plans to close the South East regional centre in East Grinstead.  I started with the South East region back in 2006, and it was through this region that I began my career as an associate lecturer.

All associate lecturers are offered two days of professional development as their contract, and the events that the region have offered have helped to shape, inform and inspire my teaching practice.  Their professional development events have helped me to understand how to run engaging tutorials, my comfort zone has also been thoroughly stretched through inspiring ‘role play’ exercises, and I’ve also been offered exceptional guidance about how to provide effective correspondence tuition.

Without a doubt, the region has had a fundamental and transformative effect on how I teach and has clearly influenced the positive way that I view my role as an associate lecturer.  The professional development has always been supportive, respectful and motivating.

The implications on the closure of the South East region on continuing professional development for both new and existing tutors is currently unclear.  My own view is probably one this obvious: if these rare opportunities for sharing and learning were to disappear, the support that the university offer its tutors would be impoverished.

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London Associate Lecturer development day, London, November 2013

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

Challenges for ESL students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing resources and pedagogy for OU Live

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

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

Science perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Languages perspective

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

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

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


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

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

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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.


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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Academic conduct symposium – Towards good academic practice (day 2)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Feb 2021, 18:57

This is the second post in a series of two about an academic conduct symposium that I attended at the Open University between 20 March and 21 March 2013.

The difference between the first day of the conference and the second was that the first day was more focussed towards the student and the essential role of the associate lecturer.  The second day (in my opinion!) seemed to be more focussed towards those who have the role of dealing with and working with academic conduct issues. Below is a brief summary of the three workshop sessions, followed by some final reflections on the whole symposium.

Student perspectives on good academic practice

Pete Smith from the Faculty of Education and Languages, was the facilitator for my first workshop of the day.  This session addressed a different perspective to all the previous workshops.  It aimed to ask the question:  'what is the published literature on the student perspective?  [or 'views' about academic conduct].  Pete presented what was, in essence, a short literature review of the subject.  I was really struck by the wealth of information that Pete presented (which means that I'm only going to pick out a number of points that jumped out at me).  If you're interested in the detail of the research that Pete has uncovered (which is almost akin to a masters thesis), it might be a good idea to contact him directly.

Some key notes that I've made from the session include the point that learners can perceive themselves in terms of different roles in terms of how they relate to issue of academic conduct.  There are also differences of perceived seriousness and attitudinal differences.  Factors such as topic knowledge, cultural influences, demographic variables, new technology and conflicting advice are all considered to play a part.

Multiple reasons for academic misconduct range from genuine lack of understanding, attempts to gain greater levels of efficiency, temptation, cultural differences and beliefs. 

When looking more deeply at the research it was commented that there was a lack of robust evidence about the success of interventions.  We don't know what works, and also we don't have consistent guidance about how to begin to tackle this issue.  One important perspective is that everyone is different and knowledge and understanding of a learner is needed to make the best judgement about the most approach to take.

What resources are available?

This session was facilitated by Jenny Alderman from the Open University Business School and another colleague who works in the Academic Conduct Office.

One of the reasons why academic conduct is considered to be so important is that there is an important principle of ensuring that all students are given fair and equitable treatment.  Jenny reminded us that there are considerable costs in staffing the academic conduct office, running the central disciplinary and appeal committees and supporting the academic conduct officers.

An interesting debate that emerged from this session related to the efficacy of tools.  Whilst tools such as TurnItIn can be useful, it is necessary to take time to scrutinise the output.  There will be some clear differences between submissions for different faculties.  Some more technical subject (such as mathematics) may lead to the production of assignments that are necessarily similar to one another.  This has the potential to generate false positives within plagiarism detection systems.

Key resources: code of practice for student assessment, university policy on plagiarism, developing good academic practice website (which was linked to earlier), and the skills for study website which contains a section entitled developing academic English (Skills for Study).

Other resources that could be useful include Time Management Skills (Skills for Study), Writing in your own Words (Skills for Study), Use of source Materials (Skills for Study) and Gathering Materials for preparing for your assignments (Skills for Study).

The library have also produced some resources that can be useful.  These include a video about avoiding plagiarism (which features 'Bob').  The library have some resources about digital literacy entitled 'being digital'.  There is also a plagiarism pathway (Being Digital, Open University Library), which contains a number of activities.  (At the time of writing, I hadn't seen these before - many of these resources were pretty new).

As an aside, I had some discussions with colleagues about the need to more fully embed academic English into either individual modules or programmes of study, and I was directed to a module entitled L185 English for Academic Purposes.  Two fundamental challenges that need to be overcome include that of will and resource.  This said, there are three sections of the L185 module that are available freely on-line through OpenLearn.  These are: Paraphrasing Text, Summarising Text and How to be a Critical Reader.

Since the workshop, I've also been directed towards a resource entitled, Is my English good enough?  This page contains a link to the English for OU study pages.

What works?

The final session, facilitated by Jonathan Hughes, was all about what interventions might successfully nurture good academic practice (and what we might be able to learn from student casework).

Connecting back to earlier debates surrounding the use of technology to detect plagiarism, the issue of spurious reports discussed.  In instances where we are unsure what the situation was, we were reminded that the right thing to do is refer cases to the faculty academic conduct officer. 

I've noted that academic conduct is an issue of education and an important part of this is sharing the university view of what plagiarism is.  It is also connected with the judicious application of technology in combination with human judgement and adoption of necessary of process to ensure appropriate checks and balances.  (Again, all this is from the notes that I made during the event).

During this session I remember a debate about whether it was possible to create something called a 'plagiarism proof assignment'.  One contributor said, 'if you write a question, if you can do a quick internet search for an answer, then it is a poor question'.  The point being that there is an intrinsic connection between academic conduct and good instructional design.

One question that arose was whether the university should be telling our students more about tools such as TurnItIn and Copycatch.  Another approach is, of course, to have students submit their own work through these detection tools and also permit them to see their reports (which is an approach that other institutions adopt). 

Final thoughts

This conference or symposium was very different to other conferences I've been to before.  It seemed to have two (if not more) main objectives.  The first was to inform other people within the university about the current thinking on the subject and to share more information about the various policies and procedures that the university employs.  The second was to find a space to debate the different conceptions, approaches and challenges which come with the difficult balancing act of supporting students and policing academic conduct.

In terms of offering a space that informs and facilitates debate, I felt the conference did a good job, and I certainly feel a bit more equipped to cope with some of the challenges that I occasionally face.  Moving forward, my own objective is to try my best to share information about the debates, policies and resources with my immediate colleagues. 

I came away with three take away points.  The first relates to the definition of what 'plagiarism' is.  It now strikes me that there are almost two different definitions.  One definition is the internal definition which acknowledges that students can both deliberately and inadvertently fail to acknowledge the work of others.  The other more common definition is where plagiarism can be interpreted (almost immediately) as maliciously and deliberately copying someone else with the clear intention of passing someone's work off as your own.  Although the difference is one that is very subtle, the second definition is, of course, much more loaded.

The second take away point lies with the policies and procedures.  I now have a greater understanding of what they are and the role of the academic conduct office.  I can clearly see that there are robust processes that ensure fairness in academic conduct cases.  These processes, in turn, help to maintain the integrity and validity of the qualifications.

The final take away point is that I am now a lot clearer in understanding what I need to do, from my perspective, to help both students and tutors deal with different types of academic conduct.

Copies of slides and videos are now available on the Academic Conduct Site (Open University staff only)

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Academic conduct symposium – Towards good academic practice (day 1)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Feb 2021, 18:58

This is the first of two posts about an academic conduct symposium that I attended at the Open University between 20 March and 21 March 2013.  I'm mainly writing this as a broad 'note for self', a reminder of some of issues that emerged from the event, but I hope it will be useful for my OU colleagues and others too.

The symposium was kicked off by Peter Taylor who spoke briefly about an academic practice project that ran in 2007 which led to the last conference (which coincided with the launch of policies) in 2009.  Peter emphasised the point that the issue of academic conduct (and dealing with plagiarism cases) is fundamental to the academic integrity of the university and the qualifications that it offers.

Each day of the symposium had three parallel sessions which comprised of three different workshops.  Each workshop covered a slightly different aspect of academic conduct.  I'll do my best to present a quick summary of each one.

Keynote: Carol Bailey, EFL Senior Lecturer

Carol Bailey, who works as an English as a Second Language lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, gave a keynote that clearly connected with many of the challenges that the symposium aimed to address. 

One of Carol's quotes that I particularly remember is a student saying, 'I never wrote such a long essay before'.  This is a quote that I can directly relate to.  It also relates to the truth that academic writing is a fundamentally challenging endeavour; it is one that requires time and experience.  To some, the process of writing can be one that is both confusing and stressful.   Students might come to study having experienced very different academic approaches to the one that they face either within the Open University or within other UK institutions - situations where the teachers provide all the resources necessary to complete study, situations where access to information technology may be profoundly limited.

When it comes to study, particularly in distance education, writing is a high level fundamental skill that is tested from the very start of a module.  Students need to quickly grasp the idiolect of a discipline and appreciate sets of subject words to begin to appreciate what is meant to become a part of a 'discourse community'.  It takes time to develop an understanding of what is meant by the 'casual elegance' of academic writing.

There is also the tension between accuracy and personal expression.  When faced with new study challenges where students are still grappling with the nuances and rules of expression, misunderstandings of what is required can potentially lead to accidental academic misconduct.  The challenge of presenting your ideas in your own voice is one that is fundamental to study within the Open University.

Hide and Seek : Academic Integrity

Liz McCrystal and Encarna Trinidad-Barnes ran what was my first workshop of the symposium.  The premise of this workshop was that 'Information is hidden and we need to seek it out'.  Encarna opened with a question, which was, 'what do you understand by academic integrity?'  Some answers included: honesty, doing it right, following academic conventions, crediting other people - all these answers resonated with all the participants.

We were then directed to some group work.  We were asked a second question, which was, 'how do you find information [about academic integrity]?'  Our group came up with a range of different answers.  Some of them were: official notes offered to tutors by module teams, the developing good academic practice site (OpenLearn version), assessment guides (also provided by the module team), helpful colleagues and representatives of module teams.

Another question was, 'when would you expect students to look at or be directed to the information?'  Answers included: ideally part of the induction process, before the first assignment, feedback from an assignment, tutorials (and associated connections with the on-line forums).  One perspective was that issues surrounding good academic practice should be an integral part of the teaching (and learning) that is carried out within a module.

A final question that I noted down was, 'is it clear what academic integrity is?'  The answer that we arrived at was information is there, but we have to actively seek it out - but there's also a responsibility by the university and for those who work for the university to offer proactive guidance (for students) too.

A useful resource that was mentioned a couple of times was Writing in your own words (OpenLearn), which contains a very useful podcast.

Plagarism: Issues, Policy and Practice

The second workshop I attended was facilitated by Anne Martin from the Faculty of Health and Social Care.  In comparison to the first workshop, this workshop had a somewhat different focus.  Rather than focussing on how to find stuff, the focus was on the importance of policies and practice.  Key phrases that I noted included: university and policy context, definitions of terms and the importance of study skills.

On the subject of process, there was some discussion about the role of a university body called the academic conduct office.  The office accepts evidence, such as reports (from plagiarism detection tools), explanations from students, script feedback, whether additional support has been arranged for a student.  An important point was made that students always have the right to appeal.

One of the (very obvious) points that I've noted is that there is no one 'gold standard' in terms of detecting academic conduct issues (there are also different ways of dealing with the issue).  The role of the associate lecturer (AL) or tutor is just as important as automated tools such as TurnItIn (website) and Copycatch. 

Technology, of course, isn't perfect, but technology can be used to highlight issues before they may become significant.

Fuzzy Lines: Determining between good and bad academic practice

The third and final workshop of the day was facilitated by Arlene Hunter and Lynda Cook.  When faced with a report from a plagiarism detection system (such as TurnitIn) it's important to ask the question of 'what has happened here?'  Very often, things are not at all clear cut.  The reports that we are presented with can be, without a doubt, very ambiguous.

During this session I was introduced to some different ways to characterise or to think about evidence that relates to academic practice.  Examples include poor paraphrasing and shadow writing, excessive use of quotations, and the use of homework sites and social networking tools.  (I now understand shadow writing to be where a writer might use different words but uses almost the same structure of another document or source).  I also remember that were was some discussion that related to the university social networking policy.   

In many (it not most) situations there is no distinct line between poor study skills and plagiarism.  A point was: if in doubt, pass it onto the academic conduct office.  On the other hand, it is an imperative to help tutors to help students to focus on developing academic writing and literacy skills.


The final session of the day was a short plenary session which highlighted many of the issues that were brought to the fore.  These included the tension between policing academic standards whilst at the same time helping students to develop good academic practices.  There was also some debate that related to the use of tools.  The university makes use of plagiarism detection tools at the module team level and there was some debate as to whether it might also be useful to provide access to detection software to associate lecturers, since they are arguably closer to the students. 

Another challenge is that of transparency, i.e. how easy it is to get information about the policies and procedures that are used by the university.  It was also mentioned that it is important to embed the values of good academic practice within modules and that the university should continue, and ideally do more, to support its associate lecturers when it comes to instilling good academic practice amongst its students.  An unresolved question that I had which related to supporting of students whose English is a second language was touched on during the second day.

All in all, it was a useful day.  Of the two days, this first day was the one that was more closely aligned to the challenges that are faced by the tutors.  What I took away from it was  a more rigorous understanding and appreciation of the processes that have been created to both support students but also to maintain academic integrity.

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Open University Disability Conference 2012

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 19 Nov 2012, 18:27

On 14 November 2012 I attended the Open University Disability Conference held at a conference centre close to the university.  The last time I attended this event was back in 2010.   I wrote a summary of the 2010 conference which might be useful to some (I should add that I've had to mess around a bit to get a link to this earlier summary and there is a possibility that this link might go to different posts since I can't quite figure out how to get a permalink, but that's a side issue...)

The conference was a two day event but due to other things I had to be getting on with I could only attend one of the days.  From my experience of the first conference, the second day tends to be quite dramatic (and this year proved to be no exception).

The legacy of the Paralympics

Julie Young from Disabled Student Services kicked off the day by introducing Tony O'Shea-Poon, head of equality and diversity.  Tony gave a presentation entitled 'A lot can change in 64 years' which described the history of the Paralympic games whilst at the same time putting the games into the context of disability equality.

During the Paralympics I remember a television drama that presented the origins of the games.  Tony reminded us that it began in 1948 at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital.  The first ever Paralympic games (with the 'para' meaning 'alongside') taking place in Rome in 1960.

One of the striking aspects of Tony's presentation is that it was presented in terms of 'forces'; forces which have increased the awareness of issues that impact upon the lives of people with disabilities.  Relating back to the origins of the games, one force is the allies of people with disabilities.  There is also the role that role models can play, particularly in popular media.

Two other forces include disabled peoples involvement and the disability rights movement.  Tony spoke about something that I had not known of before.  During the late 1980s I remember a number of public 'telethon' events - extended TV shows that aimed to raise money for charitable causes.  In 1992 there was a campaign to 'block telethon'.  This is a message that people with disabilities should have rights, not charity.  This connects with a movement away from a more historic medical and charity model of disability to a social model where people with disabilities should have an equal rights and opportunities within society. Tony also mentioned the importance of legislation, particularly the disability rights commission, explicitly mentioning role of Sir Bert Massie.

Tony brought us to the present day, emphasising not only recent successes (such as the Paralympic games), but also current challenges; Tony drew our attention to protests in August of this year by disabled people against government cuts.   Legitimate protest is considered to be another force that can facilitate change.

Deb Criddle: Paralympian

Jane Swindells from the university disability advisory service introduced Deb Criddle (Wikipedia), paralympian gold and silver medallist.  Deb gained one gold medal and two silver medals in London 2012, as well as gaining gold medals in Athens.

This part of the day took the form of a question and answer session, with Jane asking the first questions.  Deb reflected on the recent Paralympic games and described her personal experiences.  One of the key points that Deb made was that it was great that the games focussed people's attention on abilities and not disabilities.  It also had the effect of the making disability more normalised.

One thing that I remember from living in London at the time of the Olympics and Paralympics is that people were more open to talking to each other.  Deb gave us an anecdote that the games created opportunities for conversations (about and with people with disabilities) which wouldn't have otherwise happened.  

Deb said that she 'wasn't expecting the support we had'.  On the subject of support she also made an important point that the facilities and support services that are available within the UK are very different to the facilities that are available in other countries.  At the time of the Paralympics I remember reading stories in the London Metro (the free newspaper that is available ever week day morning) about campaigners who were trying to obtain equipment and resources for some of the competitors.

Deb also shared with us aspects of her personal story.  She said that through accident and circumstance led to opportunities, journeys, growth and amazing experiences.  What was once a passing interest (in equestrianism) became a central interest.  Deb also spoke about the challenge of confronting a disability.  One of Deb's phrases strongly resonated with me (as someone who has an unseen disability), which was, 'I hadn't learnt to laugh at myself'.

Deb is also an OU student.  She studied at the same time as training.  Deb said, 'study gives you something else to focus on... trying too hard prevents you to achieving what you need to [achieve], it is a distraction in a sense'.  She also emphasised the point that study is can often be hard work.

I've made a note of a final phrase of Deb's (which probably isn't word for word) which is certainly worth repeating; its message is very clear: 'please don't be overwhelmed by people with disability; people coming together [in partnership] can achieve', and also, 'take time to engage with people, you can learn from their stories, everyone is different'.


Throughout the conference there were a couple of workshops, a number of which were happening in parallel.  I was only able to attend one of them.  The one I chose was entitled 'Asperger's syndrome: supporting students through timely interventions', facilitated by Martina Carroll.  The emphasis on this workshop was about providing information to delegates and I've done my best to summarise the key points that I picked up.

The first point was that people who may have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome can be very different; you can't (and shouldn't) generalise about the abilities of someone who may have a diagnosis.   

The workshop touched upon the history of the syndrome.  Martina mentioned Leo Kanner (Wikipedia) who translated some work by Hans Asperger.  Asperger's is understood as a developmental disorder that has a genetic basis (i.e. highly heritable). Martina mentioned a triad of impairments: communication difficulties (both expressive and receptive), potential difficulties with social interaction, and restricted and repetitive behaviours.  A diagnosis will be considered to have two out of the three potential impairments.

Martina also touched upon that some people can have exceptional skills, such as skills in memory and mathematics, but again, it is important to remember that everyone is different.  Due to the nature of the triad of impairments, co-existing conditions need to be considered, such as such as stress, anxiety and depression.

A final question is what accommodations can be made for people who have autism? TEACCH (Wikipedia) was mentioned, which is an educational model for schools which has the potential to offer some useful guidance.  One key point is that providing learning materials that have a clearly defined structure (such as the module calendar) can certainly help everyone.

Towards the end of the session, there was some time for group discussions.  The group that I was (randomly) assigned to discussed the challenges of group work, how important it was to try to facilitate constant communication between different people (which include mentors and advocates) and challenges surrounding examinations and assessment. 

There are a number of resources that were mentioned that may be useful.  I didn't know this, but the Open University runs a module entitled Understanding the autism spectrum (OU website). The module is centred around a book by Ilona Roth called Autism in the 21st Century (publishers website).  Another resource is Francesca Happe's Lecture at the Royal Society, entitled When will we understand Autistic Spectrum Disorders? (Royal Society website) I really recommend this lecture - it is very easy to follow and connects very strongly with the themes of the workshop.  There is also the National Autistic Society website, which might also be useful.


The final part of the day was very different.  We were introduced to three stand-up comics.  These comics were not disabled comics, they were comics who just happened to incidentally have a disability.  Comedy has the ability to challenge; it allows others to see and understand instances of people's lives in a warm and undeniably human way.  The 'something' that we all have in common with each other is an ability to laugh.  When you laugh at a situation that is tough and challenging and begin to appreciate the absurdity and richness of life. Tough situations don't seem as difficult anymore; laughter gives you a power to rise above a situation.  In a way, the conference reflects this since it was all about sharing experience with a view to empowering and helping people.

The comics were Steve Day, Liam O'Caroll and Lawrence Clark.  All were fabulous, but I especially enjoyed Lawrence's set which I understand was a show that he took to the Edinburgh Festival.  His set had a theme based on the word 'inspiring'; he successfully sent himself up, along with others who may be inclined to use that word.


Julie Young closed the conference by emphasising some of the themes that were explored through the conference.   Julie emphasised the importance of working together to deliver a service for our students and how this is connected with equality and rights.  A key point is that the abilities our students are what really matters.  Julie went on to emphasise the continued need to listen attentively to those who we serve.

With conferences that have multiple parallel sessions you can sometimes feel that you're missing out on something, which is always a shame.  During the lunch break, I heard how other delegates had appreciated hearing from students talking about their experiences of studying at the Open University.  Personal stories allow people to directly connect with the challenges and difficulties that people face, and whilst on one hand there may be successes, there are other situations in which we don't do the best that we can or support for people doesn't arrive on time.  Conferences such as these emphasise the importance of keeping our attention on students with disability whilst at the same time emphasising that different departments of the university need to talk to each other to ensure that we can offer the best possible support.  Talking also permits us to learn more about what we can do to change things, so meetings such as these are invaluable.

I also have a recollection from the previous conference I attended.  I remember talking to someone (I'm not sure who this was) who seemed to express surprise that I was from a 'faculty' (i.e. an academic) as opposed to a part of the university that was directly involved in support of students (I tend to conflate the two roles together).  I was surprised that my presence caused surprise.  Although this year I felt that there were more faculty representatives coming along than perhaps there were before, I do (personally) feel that there should be a broader spectrum of delegates attending.

All in all, I felt that I benefitted from the day.  I met people who I had never met before and the objectives of facilitating communication, sharing practice and re-energising delegates had clearly been met. 

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HEA STEM Conference, Imperial College, London

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:05

If someone had told me that last week I would be hearing anecdotes about the Russian space programme, learning about muscle wastage in zero gravity and discovering that there is a type of rocket engine that is powered by a combination of rubber and hydrogen peroxide, I would not have believed them!

This blog post is all about a recent visit to the HEA STEM conference, held between the 12-13 April at Imperial College London.  STEM is an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  This aims to be a reflective post, to complement a live blog (HEA website) and corresponding twitter feed that was written throughout the two days of the conference.

STEM is a concept that embraces a significant number of disciplines, ranging from psychology through to the physical sciences and engineering.  I should add that I only attended the computing discipline strand (although all delegates were encouraged to be multi-disciplinary and attend others).  What follows is a summary of some of the highlights followed by an attempt (in my own relatively clumsily worded way) to present some personal reflections on what happened during the conference.


The conference was opened by Janet De Wilde head of STEM at the HEA.  This was followed by an address by Professor Craig Mahoney (Chief Executive of the HEA).  Craig emphasised the necessity of a skilled workforce and mentioned a recent enquiry in the House of Lords which aims to explore why so many STEM graduates don't end up working in STEM jobs, but industry claims that there is a skills shortage.  Craig's overriding message for the conference was to look forward, be positive and to be creative.

The final introductory address was by Professor Steve Swithenby from the Open University. Steve emphasised the importance of working between and with different disciplines and asked the question of how we might sustain both discipline based and interdisciplinary research?  The answer: talking to people.  This was expressed as an implicit (but important) theme to the conference.

First day computing presentations: morning

There were two parallel computing streams.  To get the best out of the conference I chose what to go to using a heuristic based on interest and familiarity (specifically choosing subjects that I didn't know too much about).  In the morning of the first day I opted to attend the 'innovative practice in teaching and assessment' strand.

The first presentation was by Mark Kerrigan from the University of Greenwich.  Mark's presentation was all about the use of digital tools (such as Skype, blogging tools and so on) and how they might potentially be used through different phases of a programme of study.  Mark's introduced the Google motion chart, a tool that I had never heard of before.  Other resources that were mentioned included the JISC Escape project and Mapmyprogramme.

The second presentation, 'Enhancing small group teaching and learning using online student response systems' was by Harin Sellahawa, who introduced us to the EduMecca EU project.  There are those student response systems that use dedicated hardware and those that use the hardware belonging to students (i.e. their own smartphones); the EduMecca SRS, as far as I understand, makes use of the student's own smartphone.  Some of the challenges of using WiFi enabled smartphones being that some students might not have them, not all classrooms might have WiFi signals (although I'm sure this is changing), and even if they do, there might be reliability issues.  The pedagogic issues are just as important as the technical ones; whilst SRS systems may permit anonymous voting (permitting the quieter learners to more readily participate), the use of smartphones in class has the potential to be disruptive.

Virtual worlds were all the rage a couple of years ago, mainly due to the emergence of SecondLife which enabled users to create their own worlds and environments.  Educators were quick to consider whether such a tool would be useful for teaching and learning, and it was good to see that Colin Allison gave a short talk to bring us up to date on the developments within this area.  Colin's talk covered a couple of key points. 

The first main point is that it seems that open source virtual worlds, particularly OpenSimulator (or OpenSim) appear to be maturing.  One particularly interesting fact was that there appears to be protocol and scripting language compatibility between OpenSim and SecondLife.  One of the biggest risks of using SecondLife for education is that there is the possibility that LindenLabs could change 'the rules of the world' at any time.  Another argument is that you potentially expose students to a myriad of crazy and inappropriate distractions that can be easily discovered in SecondLife.

The other main point was the potential uses of a virtual world.  Colin gave a number of examples.  These included algorithm animation, the creation of learning resources in virtual spaces (such as a 'WiFi island', to convey principles underpinning this particular technology), as well as non-STEM subjects, such as a virtual reconstruction of St Andrews Cathedral.  More information can be found through the St Andrews OpenVirtualWorlds blog.

The morning session concluded with a brief poster session, where each presenter had to give a two minute impromptu presentation about why their own poster was worth a visit.

First keynote: Project bloodhound, Wing Commander Andy Green OBE

I always sense that giving a keynote speech at a conference is a pretty tough task.  A speaker should ideally present a subject that can connect with many of the debates that may occur throughout a conference, pose some challenging questions, and ultimately leave the audience inspired and energised.

Andy Green's fundamental question was, 'is it possible to build a car that runs at 1,000 miles an hour?'   His answer was, in essence, 'there are a bunch of people who are trying to do just this, and I'm going to be the driver'.

This is all very well and good, but how does this connect to STEM?  Andy offers a multitude of answers: designing a car requires engineering (obviously), copious amounts of computing power, a good amount of satellite imagery and a generous application of many of the STEM subjects (such as physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and so on).  Much of the connections can be seen through the Project Bloodhound SSC website (SSC being an abbreviation for Super Sonic Car).

Andy asked the audience, 'to make this car work, what problems do we have to solve?'  There was no shortage of answers.  The main one was 'keeping the car on the ground'.  Others were 'how to store the fuel, how to deal with heat, how to stop it, how to build the wheels...'  Many of the problems gave way to a brief presentation of some of the hard technical issues that have to be dealt with.  Computational fluid dynamics was mentioned, along with rocket science and how tough manufacturing challenges were being addressed.

Another question is: 'why do it?'  One answer is that the existing record is currently under threat by other teams.  Another connection question might be, 'why build a car that goes 1K mph when there are other bigger humanitarian problems to be solved?'  This is a fair question, but solving any technological problem requires a degree of design and innovation.  I personally feel that it is not (always) useful to make a judgement about what is a 'good' or a 'bad' problem to solve.  The innovation that occurs in a 'bad' problem might find its way to helping to find a solution for a 'good' problem.

Bloodhound SSC is described as an education project as well as a land speed record attempt.  It achieves this by providing many aspects of the design available for everyone to see.  Another dimension of the project is that on the day of the record attempt, telemetry data will also be provided for followers to see.  Computing is a subject that features from the initial design and operation of the car through to sharing of information about the project and the data that the project generates.

I have to admit that the talk was pretty inspiring.  Am I now more interested in subjects such as materials engineering and the chemistry of rocket propulsion?  I'll be lying if I said that I didn't (I admit to being somewhat more interested than I was before Andy's talk).  The biggest impact of the keynote, for me, wasn't so much the detail about the car, but the idea about the educational aims of the project.  This got me thinking.  I asked myself, 'what kind of project could I be involved with that might inspire people to take up (my special bit) of STEM?'  With this in my mind, I guess the keynote worked a treat.

First day computing presentations: afternoon

During the afternoon I split my time between two sessions, beginning with 'enhancing the employability of computing students' and then moving onto 'innovative practice in teaching and assessment'.

The first afternoon presentation, entitled 'understanding difficulties with generic conceptions of employablity' was presented by Martyn Clark.  The key point that I took away from this presentation was a very important one.  Simply put, different organisations have different cultures; one student may more readily fit into the culture of one organisation rather than another.  This raises the problem of how do we try to prepare students for the world of work when there is extensive variability?

The second presentation in the theme of employability was entitled, 'the inspiring teacher in computing' by Alistair Irons, University of Sunderland.  Alistair's presentation connected strongly with the keynote.  This reminded me of a sub-discipline of computing which can be broadly entitled 'computer science education'.

Being inspiring is, of course, important when it comes to student retention.  If one is not inspiring, learners may lose a lot of their motivation.  Alistair challenged us to consider what 'is not' inspiring.  The bullet point list of items make for an interest read: PowerPoints, lectures that are filled with loads of facts (which may make them tough to understand), lecturers being unprepared, lecturers who talk in monotone, lectures that are boring, lecturers who give the impression that they don't want to be there, and teachers who talk down to the students.

All these points are pretty negative, so how about considering the other perspective of what makes an inspiring lecturer?  Again, I can summarise by presented a bulleted list.  Key points are: lecturers who appear to be comfortable and are enthusiastic, who know their stuff and are willing to help, are friendly and approachable, make good use of humour and make good use of stories.  There was the comment that all these points could be compressed or summarised into three key points.  These are: personality and authenticity, experience, and finally, approaches and methods used.  To me, one point stands out, and that is authenticity and its sister attribute, humility.

A change of session led me to join Thomas Lancaster's presentation about contract cheating.  Contract cheating is where you pay someone else to write your assignment for you, passing it off as your own work.  One advantage of using this approach is that because the work is original (even though it isn't yours), it will not be detected by the usual plagiarism detection systems such as TurnitIn.  Thomas presented an interesting and slightly alarming summary of his (and his colleague's) analysis of sites that offered 'essay writing services'.  It struck me that the university sector has now entered an arms race; universities need to apply ever more sophisticated technology to detect cheating that may be facilitated through new ways of using technology.

At the end of Thomas's presentation a question was asked about whether software might be able to detect a 'step change' in the grammatical and linguistic style of submissions from students.  There are a couple of challenges of such an approach.  Firstly, to do this accurately you need a fairly big sample of texts.  Secondly, the writing style of students is likely to change and develop as they gain more experience.  I feel this will remain a challenge for computational linguists for some time to come.

Karl Stringer presented, 'A googlemaps feedback system implemented with Blackboard'.  Karl described a system where exercises (for a module entitled 'using the web') are mapped onto locations on a Google map, adopting a simple metaphor of a walking trail.  One of the really good points of this approach (ignoring the Blackboard dimension of the implementation) is that it makes use of software that is free to use, and helps students to understand what the current generation of web-based tools are capable of.  It was also thought provoking in the sense that it takes advantage of how we can remember maps through our spatial and visual memory.

The final presentation of the computing strand was by Peter Thomas from the Open University.  Pete described a tool that enables diagrams to be automatically assessed.  This means that a student may draw a diagram using a tool which is hosted within the Open University's implementation of Moodle, and the resulting diagram will then be assessed against a set of pre-defined answer.  Pete commented that the system he presented could cater for many different types of formal diagrams (which could include entity relationship diagrams and spray diagrams) and the marking accuracy was as good as human markers.  He also challenged us to send him diagrams which we thought the system might not be able to handle.

Second keynote: The next small step, Kevin Wong

We were asked to consider the story of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who led an expedition which circumnavigated the globe.  Magellan began with five ships and 237 men.  Magellan didn't make it back, but eighteen men did.  In the expedition all but one ships were lost, and 80% of the crew, facts which were surprising and shocking.  This emphasised the point that exploration is difficult.  It is difficult for a whole host of different reasons.

Kevin Wong is an astrophysicist and medic who worked for NASA.  Kevin's talk focused upon the challenge of a manned space flight to Mars.  After telling us about Magellan, Kevin then went onto present a concise and compelling history of space flight, firmly situating its history in the context of the cold war.  Whilst talking about the Apollo programme, we were reminded about Kennedy's defining speech at Rice University, 1962.

Kevin presented a number of questions which he tried to answer.  The main ones that I remember are: why go to Mars?  And, what are the main problems that we have to solve?  Other than being a project that is likely to inspire and facilitate the development of new technologies there is the fundamental question of life itself.  If there is no evidence of life, of any kind, on Mars, then this makes our humble planet all the more special.

Moving onto the problems, different mission options were described to us and one of the best options is likely to take two and a half years, with some considerable time to be spent on the surface of Mars.  Spaceflight exerts a huge physiological and psychological toll.   Without gravity, muscle and bone wastage is extraordinary, not to mention the increased risk of cancer due to exposure to radiation.  Astronauts will be confined in small uncomfortable environments for considerable lengths of time without the creature comforts and the luxurious opportunity for social interaction that we have on earth.  Human exploration of space, it is emphasised, is difficult (which, of course, is an understatement).

Kevin's talk concluded with the sharing of an image of a craft that could solve the challenges that weightlessness causes: a structure the size of the London Eye that rotates around 4 times a minute, which is enough to create artificial gravity through centrifugal force.  It could be built with materials that get stronger when they are subjected to stretching forces (if my memory serves me well!)  At the end of the second keynote Kevin was asked the ultimate question, 'if asked, would you go to Mars?', to which he responded, 'I would go to the moon... but Mars is something totally different'.

Second day computing presentations: first session

For the first part of the second day, I attended a workshop entitled, 'embedding employability attributes into the 1st year curriculum' by Paula Bernaschina and Serengul Smith, both from the University of Middlesex.  We were introduced to the CBI employability skills, something that I had never heard of before.  These skills were not specific to any specific discipline or subject.  Key skills related to: self-management, team working, problem solving, application of IT, communication and literacy, application of numeracy, and business and consumer awareness.  We were given the challenge of how to create activities that address each of these points.  More information about these skills can be obtained by viewing a report that can be downloaded from the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) website. Towards the end of the workshop, a question was asked as to whether there were any other employability guidelines that module designers might potentially use.  A personal view is that any skill that is developed within a module (or series of modules) always needs to be contextualised to ensure that its purpose and use is clear and its industrial relevance explained.

Second day computing presentations: second session

The final discipline specific session of the day comprised of a series of four presentations.  The first was by Jose-Luis Fernandez-Vindel and Tina Wilson (from UNED, in Spain, and the Open University respectively).  Jose spoke about the challenges of translating Open Educational Resources (OERs), which is akin to the problem of software localisation (Wikipedia), and connected the problem to the domain of learning (or instructional) design, mentioning a design tool called Compendium LD (Open University website).

The second presentation was by two Open University colleagues, Frances Chetwynd and Chris Dobbyn.  Frances and Chris have been involved with the production of a new first level introduction to computing module, entitled TU100 My Digital Life.  Their presentation, entitled 'consistency v autonomy: effective feedback to a very large cohort' aimed to share practice and experience in relation to developing and enhancing feedback that is given to students.  Since TU100 is a first level module, the issue of skills development is considered to be very important (to aid progression to later levels). 

One of the challenges of teaching some aspects of software design and computer programming is making use of compelling examples that are rich enough to get students to think.  Nicola Whitehead from Swansea Metropolitan University shares the perspective that when it comes to teaching how to create a use case (or a set of use cases), the canonical example of a student information system doesn't really offer too much in the way of inspiration.  Nicola introduces the card game Fluxx (Wikipedia) to her students and challenges them to use it to extract some use cases.  Fluxx is cited to have the advantage that it is unfamiliar enough to facilitate debate, and complex enough to create some sufficiently challenging use cases. 

The final presentation was by Paul Neve from Kingston University.  Paul made a compelling argument that skill development in computer programming is discontinuous, i.e. it happens in 'light bulb' moment jumps, where insight and understanding is suddenly gained after periods of gaining experience and considering different approaches (or 'banging ones head against a brick wall').  Building on teaching experience gained at Kingston, Paul described a web-based system where the student is taken through a series of challenging activities and assignments.  Paul was keen to emphasise the importance of a lecture as an event that 'frames' the problem or describes the tools that are used to deliver programming activities.

Panel discussion

Much of the time left for the panel discussion was given over to the audience to raise points make contributions.  Before this occurred, representatives of 'lunchtime meeting groups' were asked to feedback on key issues that they felt relate to STEM.  I've noted down a number of key themes.  These were technology and its use and how this relates to pedagogy and the sharing of practice.  Other themes were the importance of the student experience and how to facilitate interdisciplinary research and projects.  There were was also comments about wider involvement and engagement, with reference to policy makers and industry.

One comment from the audience jumped out at me, and this related to not only to the theme of student experience but also the theme of pedagogy.  This was that we should feel free to draw upon the experience of education at other levels.  It struck me that interdisciplinary isn't a single dimension of 'subject'.  The other dimension is that of the 'level' of study.  The point being that we should learn the lessons that have already learnt by others to ensure that we can uncover and develop the best opportunities for teaching and learning.


This is the first big HEA conference that I have attended.  This is also my first STEM event, where experts in different disciplines come together, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  The computing strand contained some really good stuff, especially the session on what makes an inspiring (computing) teacher; this was certainly very thought provoking.

Two general points come to mind.  The first is that I did feel that there could have been more formal opportunities to meet colleagues from other disciplines.  The second was that there might have been more of an opportunity to share 'war stories', about challenging (or innovative) teaching practices, to learn what went well and what didn't.

I do feel that there is something positive about the notion of STEM.  The shared principle (to me) seems to be the use of knowledge and skills to solve problems and to do interesting things that may benefit industry and wider society.  The challenge (again, this is my own view) is trying to focus attention when members of different disciplines might be looking in slightly different directions (in terms of their own subjects).  This is certainly something that was reflected in the panel session with the comment, 'there needs to be opportunities to find the spaces to have conversations'.  From conversations might become focus and further opportunities to develop further ideas and learn from the experiences of our peers.

All in all, a fun event.  A good venue and cracking keynotes, all coming together to create a thought provoking couple of days.

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OU Disabled Student Services Conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:40

I've have a fun couple of days.  I recently attended the Open University's 2010 Disabled Student Services conference.  Okay, I admit, I probably gate crashed the event since I'm not a member of the DSS group, but it was certainly a very worthwhile thing to do.  On more than one occasion colleagues said to me, 'it's great to have someone like you here; we certainly need more faculty at these events'.

The overall objectives of the conference were to develop greater awareness of issues affecting the sector, to gain information about developments within the University, gain a greater understanding of the needs of specific disabilities, work towards more standardised delivery of services and, of course, to find out what each other does.

For me, this conference was all about learning about the different roles that people have, and what information needed to be shared to ensure that all our learners get the best possible service.

Tuesday 9th November

A conference is not really a conference without a keynote.  The first day kicked off with a keynote by Will Swann who is responsible for the development, promotion and evaluation of services to support the teaching of students.

The part of Will's presentation that jumped out at me was a concise presentation of the potential ramifications of changes to Higher Education funding.  One thing was clear: things are going to change, but we're not quite sure exactly how they will change.  The changes may affect those students who wish to study for personal development as opposed to choosing to study for purely economic and career development reasons.  Underneath is an interesting philosophical debate about what higher education is good for.  Essentially, Will asked us to consider the challenge of how to maintain effective provision of services in a world where change is a certainty.

First workshop

Following the keynote, we were led toward the first set of workshops.  I attended a workshop that perhaps had the longest title: Exceptional examination arrangements and special circumstances, policies and procedures.  The event was facilitated by Ilse Berry and Peter Taylor.  Peter is the chair of the subcommittee which makes decisions about very many things exam related, such as whether individual students may be able to defer exams (due to changes in personal circumstances), or whether alternative examination arrangements could be organised.

I got a lot out of this first workshop: I gained more of an understanding of the procedures and policies, and the effect that the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equality Act) has on these policies.  There was some debate about whether everyone knows everything they should know to best advise our students.  There was some discussion about Associate Lecturers, and I feel that I need to ask whether it might be possible to offer some internal staff development training to those who most closely work with students.

I also learnt quite a bit about the range of different examination arrangements that can be put in place.  I never knew that an exam could be taken over an extended period of time, for example.  It was all very thought provoking and showed me how much we try to collectively help.

Student session

I was unable to attend the afternoon event due to a meeting with a colleague in another department, but I was able to return to the conference in time to hear one of the student sessions.  Alex Wise, a student with dyslexia gave a very clear description of some of the challenges that he has faced during his educational career.  He also described some of the strategies and adaptations he both uses and has discovered.

Alex's presentation underlined a number of different points for me.  Firstly, the complexity and uniqueness of conditions such as dyslexia (I briefly studied the very broad subject of language processing when I was a postgrad student, but I was sorely missing a 'personal' perspective).  Secondly, the fact that effective strategies may only be discovered through a combination of hard won experience and trial and error.  A final point is that strategies and tools need not necessarily be high tech.

Wednesday 10th November

The second day (much like the first) was a delight.  In true academic style, I duly forgot which workshop I had signed up for, and was directed towards a session entitled, 'Sensory impairment: science course for screen readers, and D/eaf students and Openings courses - access for all?', presented by Jeff Bashton and Julie Morrison.  I was later to discover that it was two workshops for the price of one.  I had certainly chosen wisely.

Jeff works as a visual impairment advisor for the Open University.  He introduced the science project he is working on (which is a work in progress), and then he had a treat in store for all delegates.  One by one, we all donned blindfolds that Julie had given us, and we began to study two tactile diagrams (using only our touch).

I found both tactile diagrams unfathomable (which is, pretty much, an understatement!)  I could do nothing more than explore the boundaries of each diagram and get a rough understanding about its size and shape (and how the different elements were related spatially).  I couldn't make a jump from lines and bumps through to understanding a picture as a whole.  This, of course, was one of the points.  The tactile diagrams that I was presented with proved to be totally confusing without accompanying auditory descriptions.

Julie 'talked us through' each image (using our fingers!)  When I removed my blindfold, I was surprised by what I saw - it bore hardly any relationship to what I thought I was 'seeing'.

During the second part of the workshop Julie spoke about her with the British Sign Language, where she presented a small number of case studies to highlight the challenges that BSL users might face when trying to study.  To BSL users, English is, of course, a second language.  Julie's overview of the history of deaf education (and the role that Alexander Graham Bell played) was illuminating.  Thanks Julie!

This second workshop ended with a demonstration of how tough it can be to understand digital materials.  Taking a particularly accessible course as an example, Julie showed us a video without sound (it was an interview which had no subtitles of signing).  We then had a look at the transcript of the video.  The transcript contained all the peculiarities of expression that you find whenever you write down spoken language.  It was briefly considered that perhaps different learners may benefit from different versions of the same materials, which is one of the ideas embedded within the EU4ALL project I worked on for a couple of years.

A fabulous afternoon...

I struggled to give a name to the section of the conference where the delightful and charming Francesca Martinez came to talk to us for an hour or so.  It was only after just under a week of wondering did I come up with this final subheading.

I'm not joking; Francesca had us all rolling in the isles of the conference hall with laughter with a delicious mixture of political and observational stories.  There was, however, a serious tone that resonated clearly with the objectives of the conference: everyone is connected by a common thread of humanity regardless of who we are and what personal circumstances we face. 

Francesca is the best kind of comedian; one who makes us think about ourselves and the absurdities that we face.  I, for one, ended the day thinking to myself, 'I need to seize the day more'.  And seizing the day can, of course, mean making time to find out about new things (and having fun too, of course!) Linking this to studying, it is more than possible to find an abundance of fun in learning and maintain optimism about the way in which the fun present may potentially give rise to a fabulous future.


So, what were the overriding themes that I took away from the conference?  The first one was communication: we all need to talk to each other because internal policies (as well as external legislation) are subject to perpetual change and evolution.  Talk is an eternal necessity (which is what I continue to try to tell my colleagues when I sneak off to the cafe area...)

The second theme is that of information: advisors as well as students need information to make effective decisions about whether or not to take a course of study.  Accessibility, it was stated, wasn't just a matter of making sure that materials are available in different formats.  It also relates to whether or not materials can be study-able too, and this goes back to whether, for example, individual learning activities.

The final theme relates to challenges that are inherent within the changing political and economic climate.  Whilst education is priceless, it always has a financial cost.  Different ways to pay for education has the potential to affect the decision making of those who may wish to study for a wide range of different reasons (and not just to 'get a better job').

Consider, for example, a hypothetical potential student (who is incidentally fabulous) who might just 'try out' a module just to find out if he or she likes it, who then goes on to discover they are more than capable of degree level study.  A stumbling block to access is, of course, always going to be cost.  As mentioned in the conference keynote, there will be the need for creative solutions to ensure that all students are continued to be presented with equal opportunities to study.

The DSS conference has shown, to me, how much work goes behind the scenes (and how much still needs to be done) to ensure equal opportunity to study remains a reality for all.

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1st International Aegis Conference

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 Aegis project logo: Open accessibility everywhere - groundwork, infrastructure, standards

7-8 October 2010

It seems like a lot of time has passed between this blog post and my previous one. I begin this entry with an explicit statement of: less time will pass between this one and the next!

This post is all about an accessibility conference that I recently attended in Seville, Spain, on behalf of the EU4ALL project in which the Open University has played an important part. Before saying something about the themes of the Aegis conference and summarising some of the notes that I made during some of the presentations, I guess I ought to say something about the project (from an outsiders perspective).

Aegis is an EU funded project that begins with a silent O (the O stands for Open). It then continues to use the first letters of the words Accessibility Everywhere: Groundwork, Infrastructure, Standards. My understanding is that it aims to learn more about the design, development and implementation of assistive and accessible technologies by not only carrying out what could be termed basic research, but also through the development and testing of new software.

Without further ado, here is a rough summary of my conference notes, complete with accompanying links.  I hope it is useful to someone!


After Evangelos Bekiaris presented the four cornerstones of the project (make things open, make things programmatically accessible, make sample applications and make things personalisable), Miguel Gonzalez Sancho outlined different EU research objectives and initatives. It was stated that 'there must be research in the area of ICT and accessibility, and this will continue'.

Pointers towards future research included a FP7 call that related to ICT for aging and well being. Other subjects mentioned included the areas of 'tools and infrastructures for mainstream accessibility', 'intelligent and social computing for social interaction' (which would be interdisciplinary, perhaps drawing upon the social sciences) and 'brain-neuronal computer interfaces' (BNCI), as well as plans to develop collaborations with other parts of the world.

It was useful not only get an overview of the domains that the funders are likely to be interested in, but also useful to be given a wealth of information rich links that researchers could explore later. The following links stood out for me: the EC ICT Research in FP7 site and the e-Inclusion activities page.

The Aegis Concept

Peter Korn from Oracle presented a very brief history of accessibility, drawing on the notion of 'building in accessibility' into the built environment. He presented a total of six steps, which I hope I have noted down correctly.

The first is to define what 'accessible' is. This may involve the taking of measurements, such as the width of doors and maybe the tones of elevators, or the sounds that are made of road crossings. The next (second) stage is to create standard building materials. Here you might have a building company creating standard door frames or even making electronic circuits to make consistent tones and noises (this is my own paraphrasing!). The next step is to create some tools to know how best to combine our pieces together. The tools may take the form of standardised instructions.

The next three items are more about the use of the physical items. The fourth step is that you need to make a choice as to where to place a building. Ideally it should be situated close to public transport and in a convenient place. The fifth step is to go ahead and to 'build' the building. The final step is all about dissemination: the telling of people about what has been created.

Peter drew a parallel between the process of creating physical acccessibility and creating accessibility for ICT systems. There ought to be 'stock' components of interface elements (such as the Fluid component set), developers and designers should adhere to good practice guidelines (such as the WCAG guidelines), applications need to be then created (which is akin to going ahead and making our building), and then we need to tell others what we have done.

If my memory is serving me well, Peter then went onto talk about the different generations of assistive technologies. More information about the generations can be found by jumping to my earlier blog post. From my own perspective (as a technologist), all this history stuff is really interesting, but there's such a lot of it, especially when technology is moving on so quickly. Our current challenge is to begin to understand the challenge of mobile devices and learn about how to develop tools and systems that remain optimally functional and accessible.

Other Projects

One of the great things of going to conferences (other than the cakes, of course) is an opportunity to learn about loads of other stuff that you had never heard of before. Blanca Alcanda from Technosite (Fundacion ONCE) spoke briefly about a number of projects, including T-Orienta (slideshare), Gametel (the development of accessible games) and INREDIS (self-adaptive inverfaces).

Roundtable Discussion

Karen Van Isacker was our question master. He kicked off with few killer questions (a number of which he tried to answer himself!) The panel comprised of a journalist, industrialists, researchers and user representatives. The notable questions were: ' what are your opinions about the [Aegis] products that are being developed?', 'how are you going to make sure users know about the tools [that are being developed]?', 'what are the current barriers people face?', and 'can you say something about the quality of AT training in Europe?'

In many ways, these questions were addressed by many of the conference presentations as well as by the panel. Challenges relating to the development of assistive technologies include the continual necessity of maintenance and updates, that users ought to be more aware of the different types of technologies that may be available, the price of technology is significant and one of the significant challenges relating to training is the fact of continual technological change.

After a short break the conference then split into two parallel sessions. I tended to opt for sessions that focussed on more general issues rather than those that related to particular technologies (such as mobile devices) or operating systems. This said, there is always a huge amount of cross over between the different talks.

Parallel session 1b (part 1)

It was good to see a clear presentation of a user centred design methodology (UCD) by Evangelos Bakiaris. Evangelos described user research techniques such as interviews, questionnaires and something called contextual enquiry. His talk reminded me of materials that are presented through the Open University course Fundamentals of Interaction Design (a course which I wholeheartedly recommend!)

My colleague Carlos Velasco from FIT, Germany, gave a very concise outline of early web software before introducing us to WCAG (W3C). Carlos then went onto summarise some intresting research from something called the 'technology penetration report' where it was discovered that out of 1.5 million websites, 65% of them use Javascript (which is know to yield challenges for some assistive technologies). The prevalance of Javascript relates to the increasing application and development of Rich Internet Applications (or RIAs, such as Google Maps, for instance). The characteristics of RIAs include the presentation of engaging UI's and asynchronous content retieval (getting many bits of 'stuff' at the same time). All these developments led to the creation of the WAI-ARIA guidelines (Accessible Rich Internet Applications).

Carlos argued that it was once relatively straightforward to test earlier types of web application, since the pages themselves didn't change. You could just send the pages to an 'page analysis server' or system (perhaps like Imergo), which may then persent a report, perhaps in a formal language like EARL (W3C). Due to the advent of RIAs, the situation has changed. The accessibility of a system very much depends on the state in which it is, and this can change. Testing web accessibility has therefore changed into something more resembling traditional usability testing.

A higher level question might be, 'having an application or product that is accessible is all very well, but do people have access to assistive technology (AT) that enable web sites to be used?' Other related questions include, 'if people have access to AT, do they use it? If not, why not?' These were the questions that Karel Van Isacker aimed to address.

Karel began by saying that different definitions within Europe leads to different estimates of the number of people with disabilities. He told us that the AT supplier market is rather fragmented: there are many suppliers in different countries and there are also substantial differences in terms of how purchases of AT equipment can be funded. He went on to suggest that different countries applied different models of disability (medical, social and consumer) to different market segments.

Some of the challenges were clear: people were often unaware of the solutions that best meet their ICT needs, users of AT's are just given very rudimentary training, and many people may even have a computer that they have used once, and there is a high level of users discarding their AT due to low levels of satisfaction.

Parallel session 1b (part 2)

Francesca Cesaroni began the next part of the afternoon by describing a set of projects that related to the broad theme of user requirements. These included the VISIOBOARD project (which related to eye tracking) and the CAALYX project (Complete Ambiant Assisted Living Experiment).

Harry Geyskens then went on to consider the following question from the perspective of someone with a visual impairment: 'how can I use a device in a comfortable and safe way that is good as a non-disabled person?' Harry then presented different design for all principles (wikipedia) : that a product must be equitable in use, be flexible, be simple and intuitive, provide perceptable information, be tolerant for error, permit usage through low physical effort.

Begona Pino gave an interesting presentation about the use of video game systems and how they could potentially be used for different groups, whilst clearly expressing a call for design simplicity.

The final talk of the day was given my yours truly, where I tried to present a summary of four year project called EU4ALL in twenty minutes. To summarise, the aim of EU4ALL is to try to consider how to enhance the provision of accessible systems and services in higher eduction through the creation of a small number of prototype systems. A copy of my presentation and accompanying paper can be found by visiting the OU knowledge network site (a version will eventually be deposited into the Open Research Online system).

Day 2 keynote

Gregg Venderheiden kicked off day 2 with a keynote entitled 'Roadmap for building a global public inclusive infrastructure'. Gregg imagined a future where user interfaces change to the needs of individual users. Rather than presenting a complicated set of interfaces, a system (a PC or mobile device) may present a more simplified user interface. Gregg pointed us to a project called NPII (National Public Inclusive Infrastructures). It was good to learn that some of the challenges that Gregg mentioned, specifically security and ways to gather preferences were also lightly echoed in the earlier EU4ALL presentation.

Parallel session 2a: Rich RIA!

RIA is an abbreviation for Rich Internet Application. The canonical example of a RIA is, of course, Google Maps or Gmail. Web application development techniques (such as AJAX, wikipedia) that were pioneered by Google and other organisations have now found their way into a myriad of other web products. From their inception RIAs proved to be troublesome for users of assistive technologies.

Juta Trevianus gave a talk with an intreguing title: 'changing the world - on a tiny budget'. She began by saying that being on-line and being connected is no longer an option. Digital exclusion can lead to social exclusion. The best bargain is often, in my experience, one that you can find through a web browser. I made a note of some parts of her talk that jumped out at me, i.e., 'laws work when they are clear, simple, consistent and stable', but, 'laws cannot create a culture of change'. Also, perhaps we need to move from a case where one size fits all (universal design) to the case where one size fits one (personalised design, which may be facilited through technology).

Being an engineer, I was struck by Juta's quote from computer scientist Alan Kay: 'the best way to predict the futuer is to invent it'. It's not too difficult to relate this quote back to the Aegis theme of openness and open source software (OSS): freedom of code has the potential enable the freedom of invention.

The first session was concluded by Dominique Hazael-Massieux from the W3C mobile web initative (W3C). The challenges of accessibility now reach much further than the increasingly quaint desktop PC. They now sit within the hands and pockets of users.

One early approach to dealing with the explosion of new devices was to provide a separate websites: one for mobile devices, another for 'traditional' computers. This approach yields the inevitable challenge of maintenance. Dominique told us about HTML 5 (wikipedia) and mentioned that it has the potential to help with site navigation and make it easier for developers (and end users) to work with rich media.

The remainder of the day was mainly focused upon WAI-ARIA. I particularly enjoyed Mike Squillace's presentation that returned to the challenge of testing rich internet applications. Mike presented some work that attempted to codify with WCAG rules into executable Javascript which could then be used within a test engine. Jan Richards, from OCAD, Canada, presented the Fluid project.

Parallel session 3b: Standardisation and valorisation

I split my time in the final afternoon between the two parallel sessions, visiting the standardisation session first, then moving onto the coordination strand half way through. There were presentations that described the process of standardisation and its importance in the process of accessibility. During this session Loic Martinez presented his work on the creation of a tool to support the development of accessible software.

Parallel session 3a: Coordinating research

The final session of the conference yielded a mix of presentations, ranging from description of physical centres that people could visit through to another presentation about the EU4ALL project made by my colleague from Madrid. This second EU4ALL presentation outlined a number of proposed prototype accessibility information services. Our two presentations complemented each other very well: my presentation outlined (roughly) an accessibility framework, whereas this second presentation seemed to an alternative perspective on how the framework might be applied and used within an institution.


One of the overriding themes was the necessity to not only make assistive technology available to others but also to make sure the right kind of technology was selected, and to ensure that users were given ample opportunity to learn how to use it. If you are given a car and you have never driven before you shouldn't just get into it and start driving: it takes time to learn the controls, and it takes time to build confidence and to learn about the different places you might want to go to (and besides, it's dangerous!) To risk stretching a metaphor too far, this is a bit like assistive technologies: it takes time to understand what controls you have at your disposal and where you would like to travel to. As Karol pointed out in his talk: far too much technology sits unused in a box.

Another theme of the conference was about the solidity of 'this box'. Rather than having everyting in 'a box' or installed on your computer (or mobile device), perhaps another idea might be to use technology 'on demand' from 'the cloud' (aka, the internet). Tools may have the potential to be liberated, but this depends on other types of technology 'groundwork' being available, i.e. good, fast and reliable connectivity.

Finally, another theme (and one that is pretty fundamental) is the issue of usability and simplicity. The ease of use of systems will continue to be a perpetual challenge due to the continual differences between people, task and context (where the person and the task takes place). Whilst universal design offers much possibility in terms of making product for the widest possible audience, there is also much opportunity to continue to explore the notion of interface, product and system personalisation. Through simplicity comes accessibility, and visa versa.

All in all, a very interesting couple of days. I came away feeling that there was a strong and vibrant community committed to creating useful technologies to help people in their daily lives. I also came away feeling that there is so much more to do, and a stronger feeling that whilst technology can certainly help there are many other complementary actions that need to be taken before technology can even begin to play a part.

The latest project newsletter (available at the time for writing) can now be downloaded (pdf).

See also Second International Education for All Conference (blog post), 24 October 2009.

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Second International Education for All Conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 21 Nov 2019, 11:24

This blog post represents a review of the second International Education for All conference that I was lucky enough to attend in September 09.  I originally intended to post a review earlier, but mitigating circumstances (which I hope will become clear at the end) prevented this.

Like the first conference, held in '07, this conference was also hosted at the University of Warsaw.  The '07 conference represented a finale of an EU project, a collaboration between universities and other organisations from Germany, Poland, Estonia, Croatia and others (please forgive my poor memory!), but this one was slightly different.

Below I attempt to present a brief summary of some of the sessions that I attended.  There were three parallel sessions, so I had to choose carefully.  This is then followed by what I took away in terms of the themes of the conference.

Opening Keynote

The opening keynote was by Dianne Ryndak from the University of Florida.  Dianne explored the topic of inclusion, particularly the differences between generalised and specialised education.  Dianne explained how personalised support and learning activities could be provided as a part of general learning activities.

She went on to present a powerful description of two students: one who was educated within a segregated school, the other who was educated, with the provision of additional support, through a main stream (or general education) school.  I remember her saying that 'education is a service that goes to the student, not a place where the student goes' and that education should be 'only as special as necessary'.

Although Dianne's presentation primarily related to high school education the themes she highlighted can be directly brought to bear on higher education too.  Technology can be used as a way to help with the inclusion of people with disabilities main stream education.  This said, teachers have a more important role where they need to be viewed as collaborators as well as educators.

Three dimensional solid science models for tactile teaching materials

I sometimes like to visit museums.  One of the things that frustrate me is the sight of signs that say 'please do not touch!'  This strikes me as particularly unfair when I discover sculptures in art galleries.  Given that sculptors use their haptic sense when creating an object, it seems unfair to deny visitors the possibility of using this same modality.

Yoshinori Teshima, from the Digital Manufacturing Research Centre in Japan, gave an inspiring presentation where he showed a number of different models, ranging from abstract objects (such as polyhedra) through to hugely magnified representations of microscopic creatures that can only be seen under a microscope (imagine a microscoping monster the size of your fist!)

Yoshinori briefly spoke about the manufacturing methods, which included stereolithography and 3D printing using either plaster on nylon powder.  His relief emphasised models of the earth and mars were fabulous.

It struck me that his models could be used by all students, regardless of visual abilities.  It also struck me that the ultimate use of such models within the classroom depends ultimately upon the skills and the expertise of the teacher.

Talking Tactile Tablet

I have heard about tactile tablets before.  This presentation demonstrated a product that was also included within the assistive technology exhibition that was also hosted at the conference.

I came away with two points from this presentation.  Firstly, referring to three dimensional objects using two dimensional symbols is a skill that I take for granted.  Secondly, it is now possible for educators to author their own tactile materials.  We were shown how it was possible to create a small family tree.  Audio materials were recorded using Audacity (Wikipedia), which were then associated to positions on a tablet.  Corresponding tactile representations could be produced using embossers.

Opening Linux for the Visually Impaired

This presentation primarily focused upon a screen reader called Sue (Screenreader Usability Extensions) that was developed by the Study Centre for the Visually Impaired Students (SZS) based at the University of Karlsruhe, Germany.  This presentation reminded me a little of a presentation of the Orca screen reader, made at the Aegis project dissemination event that I wrote about a couple of months ago.

One of the interesting things about Sue was that it could be connected to both a refreshable braille display (Wikipedia) (visiting this page was interesting, since it mentioned a new type of refreshable display called a rotating-wheel display) and a screen magnifier at the same time.

Although Sue could be considered to be 'yet another screen reader', having multiple versions of similar products is undeniably, in my view, a good thing.  Competition between individual products, whether it is in terms of popularity or functionality can help their development and enhancement.

Distance Education and Training Programme on Accessible Web Design

I was drawn to this presentation due to involvement in the Open University Accessible online Learning and Fundamentals of Interaction Design courses.  I was not to be disappointed.  There were some strong echoes with these current courses, but I should say the curriculum is perhaps complementary.

The course was developed as a part of a European project called Accweb with the intention of creating distance learning materials that could address a need for a professional qualification or a certificate in accessible web design. The materials comprised of eighteen units which could be delivered through the ATutor VLE, amounting to the equivalent of 60 points of study.

Key elements of the curriculum included:

  • Fundamentals of web accessibility
  • Guidelines and legal requirements
  • Assistive technologies
  • Accessible content creation (which included issue such as methodology, evaluation, rich internet application and authoring tools)
  • Design and usability (themes from human-computer interaction)
  • Project development

The materials do not seem to be available through this site at the moment, but I hope they will be available in time.

Helping children to play using robots: IROMEC project experience

This presentation, by Francesca Caprino, outlined the IROMEC project, which is an abbreviation of Interactive Robotic Social Mediators as Companions and a sister project called the adapted robot project.  Francesca began by describing play: what it is, what it can do and considered the effect of play deprivation on the development of children.  Robots, it was argued, can help children with physical disabilities and other impairments participate in play activities.

The robots that were described were essentially toy robots that were modified to allow them to be controlled in different ways.  Future research objectives included uncovering of new play scenarios, considering how to adapt or modify other robots and assessing the educative and therapeutic outcomes of robot assisted  play interventions and developing associated guidelines.

Studying Sciences as a Blind Person: Challenges to AT/IT

Joachim Klaus introduced us to the Centre for the Visually Impaired Students, which seemed to have similarities to the Open University Office for Students with Disabilities (more information is available through the services for disabled students portal).

After presenting an overview of the centre, Joachim presented the ICC: International Camp on Computers and Communication.  The ICC 'tries to make young blind and visually impaired students aware what technology can do for them, which computer skills they have to have, where they should put efforts to enhance their technical skills, the level of mobility as well as their social skills'.  Using and learning to use assistive technologies can be difficult.  This international camp, which is held in different countries, can help people become more skilled at using assistive technologies, thus removing substantial barriers to access.

Improving the accessibility of virtual learning environments using the EU4ALL framework

During the conference, I gave a short talk about the EU4ALL project I am working on.  The presentation focussed on an architecture that the project has been creating and how it can improve the accessibility of services that are delivered to students.  The architecture takes into consideration a number of different stakeholders, each of which has a responsibility in helping to deliver accessibility.  My slides are available on-line through the Open University Knowledge Network (presentation information).

At the same time as my presentation, my colleague Elisabeth Unterfrauner from the Centre for Social Innovation, Technology and Knowledge, Vienna, was presenting her research, the socio-economic situation of students with disabilities, also carried out within the EU4ALL project.

Fostering accessibility through Design4All education in mainstream education

Continuing the theme of EU projects, Andrea Petz gave an interesting presentation about universal design, or Design4All.  Andrea has been involved with EDeAN, and abbreviation for the European Design for All e-Accessibility Network.  EDeAN has studied how D4ALL is covered or treated in different universities across Europe and has helped to guide the development of a masters programme.

Andrea began her presentation by saying that D4ALL is not design for the average, but for the widest possible group of users and went on to talk about the principles of universal design (Wikipedia):

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Accessible information
  4. Tolerance for errors
  5. Simple and intuitive
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

Andrea pointed us towards a conference called the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs (IICHP).

Inclusive science strategies

Greg Stefanich added two more to Andrea's list of principles, namely:

  1. Build a community of learners
  2. Create a positive instructional climate, i.e. one that is welcoming.

Greg also connected his talk to the theme of inclusive education by saying 'a person in a regular class room setting will have better relationships with the general public, family and be employed' and emphasised the view that inclusion of all students will have no real consequence on other students.  An important point is to spend time to get to know the needs of individuals so they can be effectively supported.

Foreign language courses for students with hearing impairments

Ewa Domagała-Zyśk talked about her experience of teaching English to hearing impaired students.  Her presentation made me reflect on my own experience of using the virtual world SecondLife (although Ewa's presentation was mostly about why teaching foreign languages is a good thing and what some of the challenges might be).

Quite some time ago, I was adventurous enough to visit a couple of 'Polish speaking' virtual bars where I tried to interact, using text, with some of the 'regulars' and found myself totally lost.  This experience showed me that this was an interesting and predominately unthreatening way to help to learn (and understand) written language. It did make me wonder whether virtual worlds (in combination with real-word assistance, of course), might be an interesting way to expose people to new languages.  The issue of whether such environments promote the creation of new dialects is, of course, a whole other issue.

Educational practices towards increasing awareness among academic teachers

Dagmara Nowak-Adamczyk (or one of her colleagues) spoke about the DARE project, a disability awareness project.  The project website states, 'The long-term objective of the project and the DARE Consortium is raising public awareness of disability and the way people with disabilities function in modern (knowledge-based) society'.  The project has produced some training materials which are currently being evaluated.

Access for science students with disabilities in an open distance learning institution in South Africa

I was particularly looking forward to this presentation since its title contained particularly interesting themes.  Eleanore Johannes, from the University of South Africa, spoke about different models of disability, introduced us to the Advocacy and Resource Centre for Students with Disabilities (ARCSWiD) office and spoke of some of the challenges that students face: funding, electricity, inaccessibility web pages and training.  She also described a qualitative research project that is exploring the experiences of science students with disabilities that is taking place over a period of three years.

No contradiction : Design4All and assistive technologies

Michaela Freudenfeld introduced the INCOBS web portal that provides information about assistive technologies that are available in Germany.  The INCOBS portal has the objective of carrying out market surveys of products and services, testing of assistive devices and workplace technologies, evaluating the accessibility of software applications and offer seminars for facilitators and advisors.

Understanding educational needs of students with psychiatric disabilities

Enid Weiner, from the Counselling and Disability Services, York University, Canada, gave an impressive hour long talk on the theme of mental health difficulties.  The subtitle of her presentation was 'making the invisible more visible'.

Enid spoke about a number of interesting related themes, such as different illnesses, the effect of medication and that some illnesses can have an episodic nature, which may cause the place of learning to be slower or take place over an extended period.  Accommodations are to be made on a case by case basis.

Enid emphasised the importance of a 'community of support' and said how important it is for educational providers not to 'get hung up' on an individual diagnosis and instead focus on individual accommodations i.e. what learners need to study.

Environmental influences on participation with disabilities: a Sri Lankan perspective

This was an interesting presentation since it presented a different perspective.  Samanmali Kularatne outlined the situation in Sri Lanka and then described a study that is aiming to explore the experiences of children with disabilities in mainstream schools.

The study adopts a qualitative approach.  Interviews are carried out in class rooms, which are then transcribed and subjected to thematic analysis.  The participants include children, teachers, parents and non-participative observers.  Themes identified included: attitudes, values and beliefs, support and relationships, products and technology, natural and built environment.

The conclusion was that inclusion is not really a reality and that there is a lack of resources.  The actions resulting from the study includes further communication with educational authorities, an awareness programme for parents and launching a project to try to initiate more inclusion.

How AT can help with learning maths for people who are print disabled

The presentation and manipulation of mathematical notation is a perennial problem.  When some mathematical expressions are translated into spoken language ambiguities can easily arise.  One proposed solution is to make use of the LaTeX (Wikipedia) language.

The challenge is not just technical.  Acceptance of technology relates to the willingness of learners to accept technological solutions and effectiveness of teachers to communicate their potential benefits.  It also relies upon educators having both the time and wiliness to understand different tools.

Considering different definitions of disability

Paweł Wdówik from the University of Warsaw Office for Persons with Disabilities spoke about the different definitions of disability and the differences that exist between primary and secondary education.  Paweł highlighted that through the medical model, if you don't have a medical model, then a disability is not likely to exist.  As a result, people who do have disabilities are likely to slip through the system.  Paweł emphasised that the views of the individual should always be fundamental.

Working towards inclusive education in Europe

Andrea Watkings from the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education spoke about the different agency projects and mentioned the UNESCO Salamanca statement and asked the question, 'how do we change our systems so they are inclusive from the beginning?' and made the point that inclusion needs to take account of all peoples and groups.  Amanda emphasised that inclusion is a process, not a state.

Closing Keynote

The final presentation of the conference was made by Yvonne Bonner, Reggio Emilia, Italy.  Yvonne presented a range of very thought provoking images.  She asked the question, 'why work in this area?'  She answered philosophically (and, of course, I paraphrase) that by working in this area  you are considering (and hopefully challenging others to enhance) the rights of all people.  It was a great way to close the conference.

Conference themes

One of the ways that this conference differed from the previous event was that there were more distinct themes.  Whereas the previous event focused quite a lot on an EU project that had just concluded, this conference I felt was slightly more wide ranging (but this could be cause I was more attuned to what to look out for).

One of the more prominent theme were debates surrounding inclusion or exclusion, or more specifically, how to help ensure that people with additional needs could be effectively brought into mainstream education.  This theme was clearly articulated within the opening and closing keynote speeches.  There are differences between countries (and the models of disability that are applied).  Sharing understanding of definitions was certainly a subject that was considered to be important.

Another theme was the need to listen to the individual.  I recall two projects that are aiming to learn more about the experience of individuals.

Quite a few of the presentations related to on-going projects and programmes.  Ideally I would have liked to go away with a more fuller set of conference proceedings to help me remember what was said and recall the arguments that were presented.  Hopefully, as the conference series proceeds, this may be something that the organisers may consider, but hopefully without detracting from an underlying sense that delegates are happy to discuss, share and learn from each others practice.


After the conference ended I had some free time.  It was suggested that a fun thing to do would be to go hiking in the Tatra mountains.  I had been told a lot about a town called Zakopane and how it once exerted a strong draw for artists and Bohemians, and how a special cheese was likely to be sold everywhere in the town.  I was not to be disappointed.  As well as having extraordinary mountains and restaurants, tourists walking down the main street would stumble across cheese purveyors (Wikipedia) very thirty or so metres.

My choice of words is no accident, but instead I was embroiled in one.  Rather than literally stumbling across cheese sellers, I literally stumbled down the side of a mountain and broke my arm (although I should add that the stumble was a relatively modest one of about forty or so centimetres).  Visiting the accident and emergency ward was an experience, where a sharp witted paramedic, upon hearing that I was from the UK asked, 'were you walking on the wrong side of the path?'  There were more jokes, but their charm has long since worn away!

The upshot of the accident was that I found myself temporarily disabled, my dominant arm immobilised in plaster.  It all came as a bit of a shock.  Simple tasks suddenly became trials of patience and took considerable longer, if I could figure out how do them at all.  Shoe laces became a liability and shirt buttons became almost impossible.  I had to go about cancelling events and activities that were scheduled for the time after I was to return to the UK.

Upon return to the UK, my motivation levels nose dived. I quickly recalled the universal design principles when doors became difficult to open and jars and cans a frustrating challenge. I also had entered the UK health system, but I had no real sense of who I should ask about information about things.  Whilst monolithic institutions are there to help, individuals are necessary to provide support and peace of mind.

Despite my frustrations, I still had an overwhelming desire to do stuff.  Although I wasn't able to attend a weekend meeting I was scheduled to attend, one of my colleagues from the University of Leeds helped me to participate.  Using Skype text chat, it was possible to take part in a short group discussion activity which helped to lift my mood.  This showed me what a positive impact technology can by providing effective alternative ways of communication.  It also distinctly underlined on of the conference themes: the importance (and power) of inclusion.

I think I'm on the mend now, but I understand it's going to take some time.  All in all, the trip (both to the conference, and over a part of mountain) was an interesting experience.  I've certainly learnt a few things.

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