On Saturday 24 March I attended a tutor briefing for a new module TM112 Introduction to Computing and IT 2 which is going to be presented for the first time next month.
I really enjoy tutor briefings; they enable tutors to meet members of the module team, and for tutors to meet each other and their line manager (who is known as their staff tutor). They also serve another very important purpose: the briefing helps tutors to get up to speed with the concepts that tutors will be helping to teach.
I attended this briefing whilst being aware that the vice chancellor had reportedly said that: “the people who work here should be bloody well teaching”.
I have this habit of writing blog summaries of various OU events that I attend, since that way I can remember what I did during the year, and I end up with a resource that I can refer back to. This blog is no exception; what follows is a quick textual sketch of what happened during the TM112 briefing. In some respects, this blog also directly speaks to and connects with the VC’s comments; I add further comment in the reflections section that you can find towards the end.
Introduction to TM112
Paul Piwek, module chair and Senior Lecturer in Computing and IT began with an introduction to TM112. It contains three themes: essential information technologies, problem solving with Python, and information technology in the wild. These themes are interleaved within three blocks which make up the core of the module. The module has three tutor marked assessments and a set of quizzes which feed into the assessments. Students can also use an ‘are you ready for’ quiz, and participate in a module wide ice breaker activity.
Group Tuition Policy
The next bit was mine! I worked with Paul on the Group Tuition Policy strategy for TM112. Between us we set up a design that was intended to support students at key points throughout the module. An important design objective was to create a plan that offered tutors with some constructive guidance, whilst also being adaptable. A key question that I asked Paul early on during the design process was: can we provide some tips that our tutors can use? He later directed me to some important sections that had been designed into the module materials.
An interesting part of this GTP for TM112 is that is contains two module wide events. One of these events is run by the library. The library event has the intention of helping students to become familiar with many of the resources that the university has to offer students. Being aware of the library will, of course, be invaluable when students move onto later modules.
Another module wide event is an expert lecture Q&A session. Before TM112 officially starts, a lecture that is linked to the TM112 theme of ‘information technologies in the wild’ is recorded. During the presentation of TM112 students will then be asked to watch that lecture and then attend a ‘retrospective tutorial’ where they can ask questions.
Theme 1: Essential Information Technologies
Essential Information Technologies was introduced by Lindsey Court. Lindsey told us all about materials which teach about binary and data representations, told us that the module would be teaching concepts about fundamentals of hardware and software, and then introduce important concepts of cloud computing (which can then be studied in depth in TM352 Web, mobile and cloud technologies). There were also some pointers to how ‘the cloud’ has changes (and is changing) the computing jobs market. The role of the DevOp was mentioned, along with the topic of green computing.
Other subjects in this theme included mobile phones, location based computing and a discussion about the different kinds of data help on your personal computer. An interesting note that I made was that the activities that feature within the module not only connect to the tutor marked assessments, but also to some common interview questions that are asked to candidates who are applying to work in technology jobs.
Theme 2 : Problem Solving with Python
This second theme is introduced by Paul, Robin Laney, Michel Wermelinger and Richard Walker. Paul began by telling us all that TM112 explicitly teaches programming problem solving and introduces students to a range of practice assessments before leading students towards two mini projects which are, of course, linked to the TMAs.
An important aspect of the module design (and teaching) has been the development of animations and materials that help students to create their own mental model of what happens when a computer runs programs. To complement this, Tony Hirst, a fellow Computing lecturer, has designed a number of stretch activities to help and inspire students who may be already familiar with some of the key module concepts.
I made a couple of notes during Michel’s section, which was entitled ‘patterns, algorithms and programs’. The module guides students from problem to code. Students are encouraged to think about concepts such as allowable inputs, test data, and begin to think about things such as algorithmic templates. A key phrase I noted was: ‘practice makes problem solving perfect’.
Paul continued by talking about how the module helps students to understand the concept of functions, drawing our attention to both animations and diagrams. In the teaching of Python, there is an emphasis on experimentation; students are encouraged to interrogate the machine (drawing on the idea of a mental model) to look into the mind of the Python interpreter which runs the student’s Python programs.
Richard Walker introduced a section entitled ‘diving into data’. This part of the module offers students a taste of data analysis by using real data from the Office of National Statistics whilst making the important point: data analysis is one thing, interpretation and critical thinking is still needed. Richard said that his section also links to employability. He mentioned that he encourages students to start a programmer’s ‘lab notebook’, which is something that is very important when students get to the TM470 project module.
Paul wraps up the second theme by returning to Python and mentioning an important program construct: the notion of dictionaries. I really liked the activity that he mentioned: students using the Python data structure to make a ‘flash card’ program that helps students learn key terms from the module glossary.
Theme 3 : Information technologies in the wild
This final theme was presented by Mike Richards, who also happens to be our expert lecturer. Mike co-chaired the predecessor module, along with another colleague, John Woodthorpe.
I found Mike’s presentation of theme 3 fascinating. He began by talking about the first section, which was about computer security technologies and their application; topics that have links to Cybersecurity. Mike said that the module would also be introducing students to ethical issues, such as technology and freedom of speech. I made a note that he mentioned cyberlibertarian, John Perry Barlow (Wikipedia).
The next section had the title ‘dangerous data’. One of the concepts that is featured is CIA, an abbreviation for Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability. This part of the module draws on materials from a documentary called Cybercrimes with Ben Hammersley (YouTube trailer). Mike has also interviewed people from Sophos, the antivirus protection company. Students are given a task to complete a cyber security diary, which feeds into an assessment. Mike got me thinking: how often, exactly, does my mobile telephone or laptop update with new versions of software? Also, do I really understand all the risks associated my own personal use of technology?
Confidentiality is important, and this term connects up to a section entitled ‘the secrets of keeping secrets’. Concepts such as hashes, asymmetric and symmetric key cryptography are introduced, enabling students to answer the question: ‘how can you shop securely on sites such as Amazon?’ Mike also mentioned AES encryption, Bitcoin and the Blockchain, and this leads us to an important question: ‘what does this technology do for us, or do to us?’ (I think I have noted this down correctly!) Students step towards understanding the concept of the dark web and are also introduced to key bits of legislation in computer law: the Computer Misuse Act and the Data Protection Act (as well as a new bit of EU legislation called the GDPR).
The final bits that Mike spoke to us about were connected to an important and profound question: what is technology doing to our society? There were two other follow on questions that I noted down whilst Mike talked: is there such a thing as search engine bias? And, should we allow social media organisations to dictate the content of our news?
If I wasn’t so busy tutoring on another module, I would love to be a tutor on TM112; it seems to have a fabulous mix of practical skills development, important theoretical knowledge, and debate that encourages critical thinking. From my perspective as a staff tutor, I’m very much looking to working with the London region TM112 associate lecturers who I will be supporting. I hope they love the module, and their students love it too.
One thing that is very clear from this TM112 briefing day was that every single member of the TM112 module team did some bloody good teaching.
They did a bloody good job because it is what they do, and what they have always done.
During my time as an associate lecturer and as a staff tutor I’ve come to realise the obvious; that teaching is about communication. Module teams are communicating all the time; they talk about their subject, and they talk endlessly about teaching and learning. Module team members teach each other and learn from each other. They go on to teach students through module materials, they learn about what works and doesn’t work, and what students like and don’t like.
Teaching isn’t just about standing up in front of a classroom; it’s also about being thoughtful, it’s about planning, it’s about writing, and it’s also about listening.