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TU100 My digital life: AL development event

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 8 Oct 2013, 12:15

The second TU100 development day for associate lecturers in London and the surrounding regions was held on Saturday 7 September in the London regional centre.  The overall purpose of the day was to give associate lecturers who tutor on TU100 an opportunity to share experiences and to gather some useful feedback about the module that I could pass onto the module team.  These days are often great fun since everyone is very much up for sharing and talking (and this day was no exception).  This blog post represents a quick summary of what happened (from my own perspective, of course).

I’m writing this post for a number of reasons.  The first reason is to remember what happened on 7 September (since my memory is somewhat fallible), and the second reason is to give those tutors who couldn’t attend a bit of a feel for some of the subjects were discussed.  The third reason is to try to encourage other tutors to come along to other events that we run in the region.

There were essentially three different parts to the day.  The first part was all about teaching programming and Sense.  The second was about issues relating to student retention (where we heard about a university initiative called Project Retain), and the third was a general ‘feedback (or feedforward) to the module team’ session.

Session 1 : Teaching programming and Sense

During the first session we were put into small groups and Leslie, one of our very experienced TU100 tutors, distributed a questionnaire to inspire discussion.  These had the headings: ‘how does TU100 teach programming?’, ‘how does TU100 teach Sense?’, ‘student contact hours’ and ‘marking’.  Since I’m not a TU100 tutor I didn’t contribute too much to the group discussions, but I did make some notes of some of the themes that had emerged.

It wasn’t too long before the subject of programming cropped up.  One of the comments I’ve made is that the module doesn’t contain too much about testing.  One other thought is that early on in the module it is a good idea to emphasise the importance of Sense, particularly the Sense programming guide.  Another thing that tutors could do is to emphasise the wealth of Scratch resources that are available from MIT, and that perhaps we should more explicitly brief students that Sense is an extension of Scratch.

We soon began to talk about the on-line sessions which are presented through Blackboard Collaborate (or OU Live, as the university calls it).  One of the challenges with using the OU Live software is that it takes time to hand over screen sharing control when tutors ask students to complete certain tasks. 

An interesting point is that OU Live might not only be useful for running tutorials.  Since it contains a facility to record sessions it can also be used to record how any application is used.  Tutors (or faculty staff) could use OU Live to make ‘video’ recordings to demonstrate some programming concepts.

One of the biggest challenges that tutor’s face is the marking of assignments.  Sometimes tutors come across some puzzling situations, i.e. if students submit work where a screenshot represents a correct functioning program, but the program that is submitted isn’t actually correct.  When it comes to correspondence tuition, one of the fundamental challenges is to get into the head of the student.  This led to the question of whether we might be able to record video clips to show how students could have created correct solutions.

Plenary

After around fifteen or twenty minutes of chatting, all groups were asked to report back.  This section is a quick summary of some of the key points that some of the groups mentioned. 

TU100 doesn't contain a section that is dedicated only to programming.  Instead, programming can found in different sections throughout the module.  One point mentioned by tutors was that whilst TU100 teaches coding it doesn’t say much about how to do the 'problem solving' part of programming.  Instead, students are required to spend time discovering how to program by exploring and playing with the Sense environment.

Aware of this issue, some TU100 London tutors have started to present the fundamentals of how to break apart problems into pieces that could then be used to create code (either in the face to face sessions, or on the on-line sessions).  The precursor to TU100, M150 contained some materials to introduce students to something called structured English.  This gave way to a debate about whether some additional material might be added to TU100, but the problem is that there are already lots of materials that students and tutors need to cover. 

The point is that the foundations (in terms of learning to program) are really important, especially for students who might potentially struggle with the fundamentals of programming.  One tutor said that some students never make it to the starting line on Sense and this kind of resources could be a bridge between high level thinking and programming.  Some of the fundamentals that could be covered (by tutors) include the basic constructs of programming, which includes sequences of instructions, selection, iteration, the use of variables and debugging.

One tutor said that ‘we need to emphasise that it is important that students have a go’ (so students gain an understanding of what the building blocks of software is all about).  Also, there is need for a Sense forum, something or some area that allows sharing of materials and ideas between students and tutors. 

One piece of advice to students should be, ‘go look at what people do with Scratch’.  Another comment was, ‘add a couple of YouTube type videos about program analysis’.  The interactive nature of programming does lend itself to the use of OU Live, via application sharing, but on-line asynchronous tutorials are always going to be difficult and it takes a skilled facilitator to use more sophisticated functions such as on-line break out rooms.

Another perspective was that it might help the students if there was slightly more signposting to different resources.  (I understand that this is something that the module team have been working on for the new presentation).

Contact hours, tutorials and day schools

Different regions do different things when it comes to on-line tutorials and day schools.  When it comes to on-line time, the London region has given tutors the opportunity to schedule and run individual sessions.  The south region runs join sessions, as does the south east region.

When it comes to the face to face sessions, all the London groups come together to form a series of big day schools with the intention of creating a critical mass of both students and tutors.  In other regions tutors run sessions with pair of tutors.  The differences can be down to geography, both in terms of the location of the students and the location of the tutors.  One other thought from my side is that it is also important to emphasise to all students that they are encouraged to go to any of the tutorials that they might find in the tutorial finder (so they can discover evening as well as weekend events).

Some tutors use materials that are created by the module team, whereas others create their own materials.  One example is the London region tutors creating materials in structured English, with a view to trying to ‘plug a gap’ in the module materials (regarding how students new to programming might set about splitting a program into different components).

Another approach that some tutors adopt to use their allocated on-line time is to run on-line drop in sessions via OU live.  The idea for this is that students could just pop into an on-line room to have a chat with a tutor if they had any questions.  I personally find this a really compelling way of making use of the on-line rooms, particularly when students might be wishing to chat about programming.  The breaks with the formality of a one-to-one conversation of the technology, but also allows participants to see what is being displayed on a shared whiteboard.

Working with OU Live

The first tip (for tutors) was, ‘remember to switch on your microphone’.  Another thought was, ‘can we make headsets compulsory please?’  The reason for this is simple: when students use the microphone and headset that is built into a laptop, a whole group of participants can be easily distracted by feedback, making communications a whole lot more difficult.

In some respects, participating in an OU Live session can be quite intimidating and one observation was that there are lots of students who don’t want to speak at all.  Sometimes some students prefer to use the text chat window rather than using the microphone, which can then make if quite difficult for the tutor to keep on top of everything (which is why some regions share OU Live sessions between tutors).

One point was that it is useful to ‘do something’ every 20 or so seconds.  This might be asking students questions, requiring them to respond with yes/no answers.  Another thought is to use a series of polls to assess understanding of certain concepts.  (One thing that I have personally learnt from my experience with the South East of England training is to poll students using the, ‘happy face’ button, i.e. by asking the students, ‘is everyone happy?, can you click on your happy face?’  When you regularly ask this, it helps to keep the student’s attention).

Marking of code

This section of the plenary discussion echoed an earlier point, that when it comes to communicating what needed to be done with complicated TMA questions (which involve programming), could the module team produce a video about how things should run, or have been constructed (using Sense)?

I’ve learnt that there are two different ways to add comments into Sense code.  One way is to use something called a comment window.  Another is to add some in-line comments.  I made a note of a debate about the use of different types of comments and that in previous assignments a TMA question asked students to add comments.  The consensus was that comments help; they help students to reflect on the code that is being written and help tutors to understand what has been submitted.

Project retain

An interlude between the first and the second session was presented by Maggie King, our associate dean for teaching and learning.  One of Maggie’s responsibilities has been to be a part of a university wide project called ‘project retain’.  

Project Retain is intended to increase the university’s retention (and progression) of students across different levels of study.  The project has given the university a number of recommendations, which include: offer a guide to key learning points and module materials, schedule and communicate real-time contact sessions during the first two weeks of a module (ideally through a letter), open module materials and web sites before the module starts, and make it clear when assignments are coming up (so our students are not surprised when they have to submit their assignments).  The first year of study, it was argued, is absolutely crucial.

Session 2 : Retention

Terry, one of our experienced TU100 tutors facilitated the second main session of the day, which was also about retention (which is an issue that affects student satisfaction scores, recruitment and funding). 

Terry introduced us to HEFCE performance indicators.  These include dimensions such as the national student survey and other aspects such as the measurement of research performance.   Terry also introduced the difference between retention and progression.  Progression is all about moving from one level of study to another.  In some circumstances students can defer, allow them to take a bit of time out from study and enabling them to pick up a module again at a later date.

One of the biggest changes in the university in the forthcoming couple of years will be the introduction of something called student support teams.  Since more and more students will be registering with the intention of studying for a particular qualification, student support teams will play an important role in helping students with their choices along a student pathway – it is hoped will positively impact on student retention.

Terry covered a wealth of materials, including sharing with us points from a national audit office report, drop out rates, how retention in UK HEIs compare with the retention in other countries, and how the university compares with others in the national student survey.  During his session Terry asked us to consider the causes of student drop out during different stages of study, such as pre-entry, induction, on-programme and movement to the next level.  In the university both tutors, student advisors and module teams all have an important role to play.  The final question of the day was, ‘how can the university support you in the task of improving retention in your tutor groups?’  This was an exceptionally very good question to ask and is something that I’m keen to pick up on and delve into when I have a bit more time.

Session 3 : Open Session

I have to confess that I haven’t taken too many notes about this final session mainly because we ran out of time!  Everyone was very willing to share experiences and opinions throughout the day, which was one of its fundamental objectives.

Reflections

One tutor made the comment: ‘you can make a full time job of teaching TU100’.   TU100 is, without a doubt, a very big module: there is a lot of material and there are a lot of demands on the tutor’s time.  What struck me about this day was the willingness of tutors to do their utmost to help their students along their TU100 journey and their willingness to share experiences with each other.  The event had lots of energy and there was a lot of positive talking going on, yielding some very good ideas.  From my own perspective, I certainly hope to be running a similar event next year.  I’ve already had a couple of thoughts about what we might do.

I have learnt quite a few things from this session.  I’ve learnt about the opinions that tutors have about certain aspects of the module and I’ll be happy to forward these directly to the module team.  It is also clearly apparent that some students struggle with programming and the idea of producing some video material to help to explain certain concepts might be something could be useful.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to all our TU100 associate lecturers who kindly gave up their valuable time to attend this event on a Saturday. If any of the tutors who have attended would like to add further comments, please don’t hesitate to comment below.

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