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Milton Keynes AL development conference: April 2019

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 29 Apr 2019, 11:53

I usually go to the AL development conferences that take place in London and the South East of England. I’ve never been to on that has been held in Milton Keynes before, since they have always been held at locations that have been roughly connected to the former regions. It makes complete sense to have one at the university campus since it gives tutors the opportunity to visit the place where everything happens and it is reasonably easy to get to.

What follows is a quick summary of an AL development conference that took place on Thursday 4 April 2019. The conference had a series of opening presentations, followed by three parallel session. 

Unlike some of the other conferences, this conference had a particular focus that related to the university’s Mental Health Charter. Particular themes of the day included: promoting good mental health in the OU, the role of the student voice, student mental health, and mental health strategy and policy.

Opening session: careers services

I arrived just in time to attend the end of the opening session, which was presented by Claire Blanchard from the Enhanced Employability and Career Progression (EECP) group which has teams in Manchester, Nottingham and Milton Keynes. 

Students can also access something called the Career and Employability Services (CES). Claire commented that students might study for different reasons: a career starter, a career developer, or a career changer. Increasingly students study for career change and development. The EECP group has something called an employer engagement team, carry out research and scholarship regarding careers, and offer guidance about embedding employability into the curriculum. 

Echoing a recent employability conference I attended, I noted that “all employees of the university has a responsibility to help with student employability and career progression”. To offer practical help and guidance for students, the university also runs an online careers fair, where specialists offer guidance through webcasts and webchats.

More information is available through the university’s careers pages.

How can we best support our students with their mental health needs?

The first workshop I attended was by Deborah Peat, Head of Strategy and Quality Development. I understand that Deborah was responsible for mental health strategy and poliy.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as: “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. A point was made that we all have mental health.

In the university, 24k students have declared a disability. Out of that figure 10k have declared a mental health difficulty. An interesting statistic is that 1 in 4 of people are affected by a mental health difficulty in a year.

Importantly, mental health is also considered as a priority for the UK Government Office for Students, which has led to the creation of the University Mental Health Charter (studentminds.org.uk) A point that was noted that the proposal are more suited to face to face university than distance learning institutions like the OU.

So, what kinds of resources can students gain access to? 

There is a service called Nightline which is available through the student’s association (OUSA), which is supported by trained volunteers. There is also a pilot service called the BigWhiteWall which is a service used by 30 other HE institutions. BigWhiteWall is defined as “a safe online community of people, for anyone who is anxious, down or not coping, who support and help each other by sharing, guided by trained professionals”.

BigWhiteWall has four areas: talk chat, bricks, guided support and ‘useful stuff’. The talk chat section is a bit like forums. The guided support section offers short courses for things like coping with anxiety or stress. It isn’t, however, a service for students who are in immediate distress.

Towards the end of the session we were shown two different scenarios, and asked to discuss how, as tutors, we would respond to each of them. Actions included taking time to talk to students who were expressing concerns, but also taking time to tell our line managers about any significant issue that may have arisen. An important point is that tutors can also draw on the university employee assistance programme. 

As an aside, students (and associate lecturers) can also access the university booklet Studying and staying mentally healthy  (PDF). It’s quite a short booklet, but it’s certainly worth a read. 

Critical incidents: work and well-being, sharing best practice

I’ve run this session on critical incidents a number of times before, and every time it has been slightly different. 

A critical incident is described as a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice. The session began with a number of definitions from a number of different authors:

“The critical incident technique consists of a set of procedures for collecting direct observations of human behaviour in such a way as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems and developing broad psychological principles.” Flanagan, cited by Spencer-Oatey, H. (2013) Critical incidents. A compilation of quotations for the intercultural field. GlobalPAD Core Concepts.

“For an incident to be defined as critical, the requirement is that it can be described in detail and that it deviates significantly, either positively or negatively, from what is normal or expected”. Edvardsson, cited by Spencer-Oatey, 2013.

“A critical incident is an interpretation of a significant episode in a particular context rather than a routine occurrence.” Bruster, B. G. & Peterson, B. R. (2012) Using critical incidents in teaching to promote reflective practice, Reflective Practice, 14:2, 170-182.

I began by asking everyone who came along to the session to think about their own tutoring practice to identify a critical incident. When they had done this, I asked them to discuss them all within a group, and then choose one to share with the whole of the workshop session.

I really enjoyed the discussions that emerged. We shared experiences and strategies that we used to respond to some of the difficult situations that we had been collectively faced with. 

Reimagining our teacher identifies in the virtual learning environment

The final session I attended was facilitated by Sara Clayson, Staff Tutor from the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport. 

Sara asked us all a question: “what does it feel like to move from face to face to online teaching?”

The answer was: it can be emotional since we’re moving from interacting with other humans to interacting via computers. We were asked further questions: why did you choose to become an associate lecturer? Did the perceptions (of the university, or of teaching) influence your decision to become an AL? What was it like when you started teaching?  

Reflection is, of course, an integral part of teaching. This means that there’s a question of how we reconstruct our identity when more of our teaching. In some respects, the university is providing tutors with training about how to teach online without explicitly acknowledging how this affects our identity as teachers.

We were given a short activity to complete. We were asked: how would you explain your teaching approach to a student?

Here’s what I wrote: “My role is to guide. Everything you need has been provided in the module materials, or on the university websites. You do your own learning, and what I do is facilitate your access to that learning. So, ask questions, send me updates, and treat me as a sounding board. I want to hear from you about what you’ve been studying, what you’ve found interesting, and what you’ve found challenging. Use assignments to show me what you have learnt, and if there are any gaps, I’ll do my best to tell you what they are”.

We were asked to think about how to answer further questions: what kind of tutor do you want to be in the VLE (virtual learning environment)? Also, how can you be the tutor you want to be in the VLE? And finally: what barriers do you need to overcome and what possibilities are there?

Sara left is with some resources, highlighting research by Anna Comas-Quinn, specifically a paper that has the title: Learning to teach online or learning to become an online teacher: an exploration of teachers' experiences in a blended learning course  (Open Research Online) and the website HybridPedagogy.


There was a lot happening during this conference. There was a session about inclusive practice and understanding disability profiles, working online with students with hearing impairments, information a repository where tutors can share resources, how to best work with the student support team (SST), and how to provide excellent correspondence tuition. It was a shame that there were only three parallel sessions!

From my perspective, the reminder about mental health resources was really helpful. I also really enjoyed Sara’s session about teacher identity. This isn’t something that I think about very much. I feel that identity and professional practice are linked to other related ideas of respect and autonomy. 

The opportunity to discuss what our teaching identity means, and to be presented with a set of reflective questions that could help us untangle the idea further was really thought provoking.

In the middle of all this was the important question of: how can I get better? This, I feel, is what good professional development is all about.

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OU Employability conference - April 2019

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 26 Apr 2019, 12:43

I don’t think I’ve ever been to an employability conference before. The first I’ve been to took place on 3 April 2019 at the OU campus in Milton Keynes. 

Employability is a theme that crops up pretty regularly in Computing and IT. Employers, I understand, want graduates who know about certain bits of technology, know their way around a sets of subjects, and have a mastery of some important and necessary skills (such as problem solving, writing and team working). 

What follows is a quick blog summary of the event that has been taken from some notes and handouts I gathered from the event. I will add the usual blog disclaimers: these are entirely my own reflections, and I’ve probably missed a lot of really good stuff that was spoken about (especially since I had to leave the conference towards the end to attend another meeting). My apologies to any speaker if I have failed to adequately represent your work and research.

Nations perspective

I managed to miss the welcome address and the first presentation called ‘external perspective on employability’, but managed to catch the ‘nations perspective’ talk by Darren Jones who was from the OU in Wales. I was interested to hear that 48% of students in Wales are from widening participation (WP) backgrounds.

Darren talked about the types of service the OU careers service in Wales offered. Apparently this included the provision of 12 internship placements with employee partners. Darren also referred to something called Go Wales, a student focussed employability skills programme.

Building career focussed online discussions

The next talk was by Leigh Fowkes. The full title of Leigh’s talk was: Building career focussed online discussions forums for OU students in a social media age. Leigh revealed that before joining the university he worked in career service in school. This was very much a research talk, where he was exploring how and why students use forums for careers development.

His talk began with a brief literature review, which featured terms such as: career learning theory, career construction, career identity, and community interaction theory. Some interesting point was that ‘career’ is a contested topic, and there were an ‘ecology of communities’ that related to career and career studies (or advice).

I felt that this talk really addressed what the conference was all about: studying the notion and concept of career, career studies and career advice as a subject that could be studied academically. To give good advice and to understand the needs of students, it’s important to know the domain, and understand the terms, and appreciate what terms might be contested.

Assessing a student conference: S350 evaluating contemporary science

Next up was a presentation by Simon Collinson and Rachel McMullan who talked about developing an embedding employability skills within a science module: S350 Evaluating Contemporary Science (OU website).

S350 uses a tool called OpenStudio which is used in U101 Design Thinking, and a number of other OU computing and engineering modules. OpenStudio is used to share poster presentations (which are sometimes an important part of academic conferences) which have been designed by students. Student activities in the module feed into Personal Develop Plans (PDP) and the identification of SMART goals.

Students are offered a choice of topics from which they can create their poster presentations. As a part of the assessment process, students are required to offer feedback on two posters: one poster that is from their own discipline, and another one that is from a different discipline.

One of the problems that were faced is that sometimes student don’t follow instructions as closely as they should do. One way the module team responded to this is to create a set of frequently asked questions (FAQs).

I really liked this approach; it reminded me of a presentation at a HEA conference that I attended which described a module where students had to make submissions to an institutional student journal which had the look and feel of a proper peer reviewed journal. I also liked that students were asked to offer feedback to each other. 

Emotional and social aspects of career adaptability

This presentation was made by Matt Haigh from the Faculty of Business and Law. The full title of Matt’s presentation was: Career vulnerabilities in light of the UKs decision to leave the European Union. 

Matt’s presentation was very topical, given the never ending political crisis that seems to be taking place at the time of the conference. Matt introduced a term: career adaptability. Career adaptability is the ability of adapt to career change, and handle that change. It is considered to be a subjective experience and a social experience.

Another term was adaptive capabilities: curiosity, confidence, concern and control. Armed with these people can cope with change, which is also a social process. I also noted down that career adaptability was a social skill.

Matt’s presentation was also about his research. He spoke about carrying out interviews with bankers, both insiders and outsiders to the industry, asking them the question: “how has Brexit affected your career plans?” I can’t summarise the whole of Matt’s presentation, but I did also note down the words ‘there is a mixture of hope and frustration’.

Workshop: reframing digital literacies in the language of employers

Just before the lunch break, I attended an interactive workshop, facilitated by Cheryl Coveney, which was about understanding the role of different frameworks. There is something called the employability framework (HEA website), the digital and information literacy (DIL) framework (Open University) that has been created by the OU library, and the JISC learner profile. Interestingly, the old MCT faculty tried to weave DIL skills into their module designs.

We were provided with a big poster that was, essentially, a person spec for a job, and 3 sets of cards from each of these different framework tools. We had to put the cards next to each of the points on the person spec to see how each card related to the role. Soon became clear that each framework described the skills slightly differently; some fitted more easily than others.

It was a fun activity and a fun way to be introduced to these different frameworks. I was surprised to learn about how much similarity between each of them.

Developing employability through open educational resources

The first afternoon session was presented by Terry O’Sullivan’s who spoke about OERs that could offer guidance about business networking. 

A point was made that MOOCs can have a role to play in skills development. Two resources were compared: an effective networking MOOC from FutureLearn versus a short course that was run through Google Digital Garage (which was something I had never heard of before).  The digital garage led to something that was called a certificate in the fundamentals of digital marketing. The FutureLearn course MOOC had the title: Business fundamentals - effective networking. Each OER used different pedagogic approaches.

A personal reflection is that I’ve directed students to different OpenLearn OERs, and I know that there are a lot of other resources that can be used in combination with other aspects of study. (I also need to study some of them too, if only to appreciate more of the contents that they contain).

Supporting DD102 students to articulate skills, behaviour and values

This presentation was by Leman Hassan, from the Faculty of the Arts and Social Science. During this talk I noted down the use of an employability framework. The focus was on research using mixed methods action research which aimed to understand employability skills.

PDP and employability: comfortable bedfellows in postgraduate study?

The final presentation of the conference that I attended was by Gill Clifton and Alison Fox. Both presenters spoke about a couple of modules that make up the MA in Education. PDP planning is assessed during the end of module assessment (EMA) and has a focus on academic learning, professional learning and professional skills. One of the modules, EE812 Educational Leadership - exploring strategy employs ‘peer PDP coaches’ who are former students.

Students are asked to carry out a skills audit, and these are mapped against learning outcomes. Students were also told about a reflection cycle, where they had to identify, plan, act, record and review.

One of the important question that was asked was: how do you encourage students to engage with PDP planning and reflection? Also, a question that module team members who are considering using this approach need to consider how students demonstrate their skills through module activities.


There are, of course, different view about the role of education; some view that it should be for the common good, others hold the view that it should be instrumental, in the sense that it should help the individual to get a job. The importance of employability skills as a subject (and within a subject) may well, of course, depend on your view of education.

One of the stand out things from this conference was that there were colleagues who were doing some serious academic research into the subject. All this makes sense, since there is a direct connection to the subject of careers, both in terms of research, and in terms of that there are roles where people provide careers advice.

Two other stand out points was that it was interesting to hear about different employability and skills frameworks, also the range of services that are actually offered by the university. I didn’t realise that the university worked with external organisations to provide internships.

A final comment was that I was surprised at how well attended the conference was. I estimate that there were in excess of around 60 delegates from across the university.

Links and resources

The university has an employability hub site which is open to OU students and staff. It is described as “a repository of information for OU staff to help support students to achieve their career and personal development goals”.

There is also an OU employability and scholarship Twitter feed, @OUemployscholar. The conference had an accompanying hashtag: #ouempconf19.

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eSTEeM Annual Conference: April 2017

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On 25 April I had the opportunity of attending a part of the Open University’s eSTEeM annual conference. eSTEeM is a university body that funds scholarship and research into STEM teaching and learning. More information about the projects that eSTEeM funds can be found by visiting the eSTEeM website.

What follows is a short summary of the conference, from my own perspective. I should add that all these views are my own, rather than those of the university. I’m sharing for two reasons (1) in case anyone who was at the conference might find it useful, and (2) I can remember what I’ve done at the end of the year.

Opening keynote

Due to travel connections I missed the opening address, which was given by eSTEeM director, Clem Herman. I did, however, make it in time to hear the opening keynote, which was given by Nicola Turner (blog), who works for HEFCE. 

As Nicola spoke, I made notes of key points that jumped out at me. One of the early notes I made was that 14 thousand teachers are needed. There is also a skills shortage in STEM. Apparently, 1 in 4 jobs relate to a role that is in a skills shortage area. But what skills are needed, and what skills are considered to be important. One answer is this: digital skills (in the loosest possible sense!) are considered to be important: tech, of course, is a fast growing and changing area.

Investment, of course, can benefit different parts of the country. A worrying point was that Nicola said was that there was no northern city that was a net GDP contributor (a disclaimer is that I don’t personally know where this bit of information comes from, or how you might define what ‘northern’ is). London, however, attracted a substantial amount of investment (but this isn’t much of a surprise), but there are ‘digital strengths’ in the regions. Another point I noted was that there is the need for 1.2 million skilled tech workers by 2022, and 93% of tech employers have reported a skills gap in 2016. The key question is: what can be done?

To show that I was really paying attention, some of the most sought after skills contained the keywords: developer, agile and SQL. There are also skills shortages in the area of cloud computing, big data and analytics. An important point is that workers need to be digitally literate, and this is something that links to that old education idea of ‘lifelong learning’.

If there is a skills shortage, an important question to ask is: why is the unemployment rates from computing graduates surprisingly high? This is something that is referenced in the Shadbolt review : Computer science degree accreditation and graduate employability (UK government website). There is also the Wakeham review into employability of STEM graduates (UK government website).

Nicola went onto talk about the Shadbolt review. As she spoke, I noted down a few points: that employment may come from a pool of students from elite universities and that there is low take up of work experience options (I have to confess, that this was offered to me as an undergraduate, and I didn’t take a year out in industry); this leads to a potential lack of soft skills and interpersonal skills. When it comes to computing and IT, the people side is just as important as the technology side.

I noted down some themes regarding employability. Industry is always after ‘work ready graduate’, but there is a contact challenge that industry is always changing (especially the tech industries). But what are the answers? There are things going on: there is the introduction of degree apprenticeships (of which the Open University is playing a part), ‘200 million in STEM teaching capital’, and government strategies.

There is something called the National Cybersecurity Strategy (UK government website), which is linked to degree apprenticeships, a digital skills strategy (UK government website), and an industrial skills strategy. 

The digital skills strategy was defined as a collaboration between employers, educators and government. There was also a reference to the creation of new institutes of technology, and a national college for digital skills (college webite), which is based in London. Interestingly, the focus appears to be at sixth form students. I have to confess to being perplexed. The website says things like: ‘We develop the mindsets, skillsets and character needed to be a pioneer’ and says that students will ‘join a cutting-edge community of digital-thinkers’.

Another point I noted was about something called the Institute of Coding (HEFCE). A key paragraph on the website appears to be the one that reads: ‘The Institute of Coding initiative aims to create and implement solutions that develop and grow digital skills to meet the current and future needs of the industry’.

One thing is very encouraging: the comment that ‘lifelong learning’ is becoming trendy again. A personal reflection, and one that is echoed in the presentation, is that lifelong learning is an idea comes in and goes out of fashion depending on the government. The OU is, of course, good at delivering supported lifelong learning, but much of its provision has been substantially eroded by the increase in fees.

A connected point is that other higher education institutions are investing in distance learning. There is competition within the sector. At the same time, there may be opportunities in terms of ‘new customers’, which has been something that has been touched on in the current OU strategy.

Paper session

I attended one of the short presentation paper sessions, which consisted of four presentations. 

ByALs-ForALs: an online staff development programme in the STEM faculty

This first presentation was by Janet Haresnape, Fiona Aiken and Nirvana Wynn. I made a note of a point that ‘staff development is often us (the university and its representatives) telling people about things, but it should be more about sharing practice’. I totally agree with this. A personal reflection is when I do staff development, I try to get a balance between the two, but I’m sure I don’t always get it right.

The idea is simple: create an environment where ALs can actively share their experience through a programme of online staff development events. If an AL wants to give a presentation or facilitate a session, they submit a proposal. If they are successful, they will be paid for running the session. Tutors can register to attend different sessions by registering using a simple Wiki, and this feeds into an official professional development record.

A total of 500 associate lecturers have been to the various sessions, with attendance varying between 5 and 54, depending on the topic and the time of day. Interestingly, day time appears to be more popular than evening sessions. Every session is recorded, which means that anyone who wasn’t able to attend can benefit.

Following the merger of the Science and MCT faculties, the programme has been extended to all undergraduate and postgraduate ALs in the new STEM faculty (which now consists of over 1500 tutors). I have to confess to not having been to any of these sessions, but I do know of them, and I always put them in my diary! Two questions were: could this approach be rolled out to other faculties, and secondly, would it be possible to do something similar for the school that I work in? Funding may come from the AL professional development and support team. This is certainly something to think about.

Understanding and supporting the career pathway of mathematics and statistics associate lecturers

This presentation was by Rachel Hilliam, Alison Bromley and Carol Calvert, and related to the Maths and Stats submission to Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit website). The presentation was looking at the gender differences between tutors, and asking the questions: do we support tutors in the right way, and what career development is necessary? A mixed method was used: a focus group and a survey.

Some interesting findings between men and women were shared. On average, men had more experience (in terms of tutoring years) than women, and were more likely to have a greater number of tutor contracts.

One area that has interested me for some time is tutor motivation, and this research touches on the reasons why tutors do what they do. Some interesting reasons included: career, challenge and family. A really interesting statistic is that 60% of ALs who responded viewed their AL work as their main job. I also noted down that there was concern about a lack of face to face possibility for staff development.

Success against the odds and the follow through

The presenter for this session was Carol Calvert, from Maths and Stats, but the other contributors to this presentation are: Rachel Hilliam, Linda Brown and Colin Fulford (if I’ve noted this down properly!) The subheading for this talk is: ‘the interesting routes student feedback can open up’.

The interesting aspect of this research is that it adopts the innovate approach of actually speaking to students. To do this, researchers have to find their way through a panel called SRPP, which protects students from being ‘over researched’.

I made a note of top tips and themes that all contributes towards success: the importance of a ‘can do’ attitude, the importance of getting organised, and the need to get ahead. I made a note of another reference: the RSA Animate video entitled How to help every child fulfil their potential (RSA).

Tutorial observations

During the final session I spoke about a project that has been set up to study different approaches to tutorial observations and to ask the important question of what kind of observation or tutorial report would help tutors to develop their teaching practice? At this stage of the project, I don’t have too much to report. So far, a literature review has been completed, and a two focus groups with tutors have been carried out. The next step in the project is to run a focus group for staff tutors (who are, of course, line managers for those tutors).

Workshop: bridge over troubled waters

After taking a bit of time out to attend a module team meeting, I attended an afternoon session that explored the concept of a ‘bridging course’.

A bridging course is a short course that helps student build up their skill and confidence levels before they undertake another module. A bridging course might run between or before modules. An example of a bridging course something called the ‘programming bootcamp’ which helps students to prepare for TU100 (which is to be soon replaced by TM111 and TM112).

The workshop began with a question: ‘would your students benefit from a bridging course to help them transition to the second year?’ There is, apparently, something that is known as a ‘second year slump’. The second year of a degree is where things start to get really serious. To convince us that this was an important issue, Frances Chetwynd presented some evidence, citing research by Douglas and Attewell (American Journal of Education).

So, what things are important, with regard to student progress? Key points include: time management, familiarity with written assessments, unrealistic expectations (which influence drop out), critical thinking skills, and understanding the need to conduct independent research. My notes tell me that Frances also referenced the work of Conley, who has written about college readiness (Education Policy Improvement Centre, PDF). Key points were: cognitive strategies, content knowledge, academic behaviours (which include time management and what it means to be a student), and college knowledge (understanding of how the institution works).

With the scene set, it was time for group discussions. We thought about what our bridging course might contain. An hour isn’t a lot of time. Key points that we chatted about were the importance of tutors and the use of digital materials (and the familiarity of digital materials). A theme that we kept returning to was that of ‘programming’. Another important issue is, of course, study skills.

Closing keynote

The closing keynote, which was entitled ‘is there a role for pedagogy in enhancing the STEM student experience?’ was by Michael Grove, a reader in STEM education. My instinct was to answer this question with a definitive ‘yes’, but to add to this perspective, Michael presented up with a definition of pedagogy from the Oxford English dictionary: pedagogy is ‘the art, occupation or practice of teaching, also the theories or principles of education; a method of teaching on such a theory’.

Underpinning this is definition are the ideas of: preparation, design, development, delivery, evaluation, reflection and dissemination. This helps us to consider other questions: how do you share good practice and encourage wider uptake?

Looking at pedagogy means that we also look at research. An interesting point was made that pedagogy, research and scholarship all blur together, and could all come under the title of ‘education enquiry’. But how does this work? There are approaches that are used, such as case studies, action research, studies that draw on theories and the use of quasi-experimental methods.

I noted an interesting use of terms. To be scholarly means that we inform ourselves, whereas scholarship means that we’re informing a group and using local knowledge. Research, on the other hand, is about disseminating findings to a wider audience. All this is, of course, linked with changes in the HE sector. A particular issue is the development of teaching only contracts, which separates out teaching activity from research activity.

Michael directed us to a document entitled Getting started in pedagogic research within the STEM disciplines (Mathcentre, PDF). It was a document that was mentioned at another presentation, and it looks pretty useful. It contains sections about writing for publication, and list of journals that can be used to disseminate STEM education research. (I also recommend a journal called Open Learning).

In some respects, the original question should have been: ‘is there a role of research in STEM pedagogy?’ I’m instinctively inclined to answer ‘yes’ to this alternative question too. Michael also asks a question about why we should do this. He also offers an answer: it represents an important aspect of our personal academic identify (and also our commitment to our discipline).


Although I missed a couple of bits of the conference, I felt the opening and closing speeches worked very well in terms of contextualising the pedagogic research that is done within the university. It is also a reminder that there is a lot to do: not only do academics have to teach (and write module materials), many of them conduct research, and also conduct research into the effectiveness of their teaching strategies and approaches. 

This emphasises that we’re a busy lot: we’re busy reading, writing, thinking and talking pretty much all the time. The event also emphasised how much work is going on, and discussions with others helps us to set our own personal priorities, and learn how we can work with others too.

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Open University eSTEeM 2016 conference, 14 April 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 15:57

eSTEeM is the Open University centre for STEM pedagogy. I think this was the second or third eSTEeM conference I’ve been to, and they’ve always been pretty interesting. This blog post is a quick summary of the different talks that I went to. I’m blogging this, so I can remember what happened, and also just in case it might be useful for anyone else who was there.

Opening keynote

Andrew Smith, Senior Lecturer in networking, gave a thought provoking keynote speech entitled ‘our classroom has escaped’. He began by asking everyone who was users of different social media tools: twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Pretty much everyone put up their hands, showing how popular these tools are.

Andrew said ‘we suffer from the paradigm of monolithic learning; what happens in my classroom doesn’t leak out’, and that we are protective of our content.  His point was: things have been ‘escaping’ for some time. As soon as Andrew mentioned this, I thought of the session about Facebook that was held in the most recent associate lecturer development session (OU blog). A question is: how do people outside our classroom see what is going on?

A challenge is that social media exposes us amongst our peers, but it also offers us a way to engage our audience beyond the classroom. But how might we use these tools to teach? One approach is to automate our social media content. For instance, if you know what your content is you can ‘schedule it and plan it’. There is also the potential to engage students when modules are not running, or students are between presentations.

This is all very well, but how do we great engagement? One approach is to ask open questions. The idea is to create a community of practice, where both learners and tutors participate. There is also the importance of relevance. Social media engagement can also connect current studies to current and changing media stories. One of the roles of an educator is to create ‘sparks of interest’, to inspire, and to facilitate learning.

Would the way that you approach social media be different depending upon the subject that you teach? Perhaps. The thing with networking, is that many things are cut and dried; the situation might be very different with subjects from the humanities, for instance.

(In case you’re interested, Andrew told us about two of his Twitter streams: @OUCisco and @OUCyberSec)

Session C: Online practices

There was a lot going on, so I had to choose from one of many different parallel sessions. The first talk in the ‘online practices’ session, by Vic Nicholas, was all about student perceptions of online group work as they studied a ‘classical science module’. One finding (that was, in retrospect, not particularly surprising) was that students appear to have negative views about group work. One thing that I took away from this session was the use of email to prompt students at certain points throughout the module. (This reminded me that tutors have been requesting a ‘send text message to students’ feature for quite a while now).

The next talk took a very different tone: rather than focussing on the students, it was all about how to use technology to empower academic authors. Angela Coe told us about how a tool called OpenEdx (OpenEdx site) was used to create materials for S309 Earth Processes (OU website). OpenEdx was described as a tool that has been created by STEM developers for STEM developers.

Some interesting points were that the tool exposed more about the author and who they are. The use of the tool also encouraged an informal chatty writing style, and supported ‘in content’ discussions. I seem to remember that Angela also spoke about animations and the sharing of data sets using Google Docs. 

The final presentation in this session was entitled, ‘the trials and tribulations of S217’ (which is entitled Physics: from classical to quantum). This is a module that appears to cover some pretty hard (yet fundamental) stuff, such as thermodynamics, optics and quantum physics. An important issue that needed to be addressed in this module was the accessibility of the mathematical materials. I’ve made a note that they authors had to move Tex content to the virtual learning environment (which is a theme that was mentioned in my previous blog about a BCS accessibility conference). 

Session F: MOOCs

The first presentation of this session, entitled ‘Evaluating the design and delivery of a Smart Cities MOOC for an international audience’ was given by Lorraine Hudson from the department of Computing and Communications. The OU is a central partner in an EU funded project that is all about Smart Cities, or how the operation of cities can be supported by the use of different types of IT systems. In some senses the MOOC seems to be about how to tackle ‘wicked problems’ (problems that don’t have an immediately apparent solution). The subject is also necessarily interdisciplinary. 

Michel Wermelinger and Tony Hirst spoke about their experience of designing a MOOC about using the programming language Python for data analysis. In some respects, Michel’s presentation was a ‘warts and all’ take on designing and running a MOOC. The main point that I took away from his presentation was that MOOCs are a lot of hard work for the academics who have to run them, and there is the perpetual question of whether this is time well spent, especially when we bear in mind the fact that around three quarters of the participants already have degrees (which was a point also mentioned in Lorraine’s talk).

The final presentation was by Kris Stutchbury, who spoke about ‘Supporting the teaching of Science in development contexts: OpenScience Lab and TESSA’. TESSA is an abbreviation of Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kris’s project represented a case study, of a snap shot of what is happening within the TESSA project, which can be thought of as an important aspect to the university’s wider social mission. 

Workshop: Listening to graphs

This session was hosted by Chris Hughes and Karen Vines. Their session opened with the observation that graphs are (obviously) a really effective way of communicating a lot numerical data really easily, but how do we communicate the same information for students who have visual impairments?

There are a number of different ways: figure descriptions, the use of tactile diagrams, and the use of sonification, which means converting a visual representation to an audible one. The challenge is, of course, how do we do it? Chris mentioned that sonification has been around for quite a long time; at least one hundred years. One common example of sonification is the Geiger counter, which translates measurements of radiation of audible clicks.

There are a bunch of ‘sound parameters’ that can be manipulated. These are: pitch, timbre, time, loudness and repetition. By way of a simple introduction we were asked to draw a graph based on an equivalent auditory representation. This is all well and good, but there is a compelling research question which needs to be answered, which is: do sonifications actually work during study? Do they help students to learn?

To try to answer this question Chris, Karen and colleagues designed a study. In their study, they gave five visually impaired students and five sighted six learning scenarios: two were from science, one was from mathematics, and the remaining three were from statistics. Of course, since there was such a small sample size, the study was qualitative and (as I interpreted it) exploratory.

The workshop raised some really interesting questions, such as: how do we best teach through figure descriptions? This also emphasised the extent to which existing student knowledge can influence the interpretation of certain descriptions. The final point that I noted was: ‘we need to think of a blended approach, to use different representations; sonifications, descriptions and tactile diagrams’.

Closing Keynote

The closing keynote was by Helen Beetham, and had the title, ‘supporting lifelong learner’s resilience and care in a digital age’.  Helen began with a definition of ‘learning literacies in a digital age’: capabilities that allow an individual to thrive (to live, to learn, to work) in a digital society. There is a JISC funded project called Learning Literacies for the Digital Age (LLiDA) that accompanies this description; an associated project is the JISC Digital Student project (JISC). But what does it mean to be a ‘digital’ student? (If this is a term can ever be defined?) Perhaps it could be able developing effective study habits and specialist practices, using technology to create relationships with peers. 

A connected idea is the notion of ‘digital literacy’. To help us with definitions, there is a JISC information page called Developing students’ Digital Literacy (JISC) that offers a bit of guidance. Another thought is that perhaps ‘the digital divide might be narrower, and deeper’ with respect to how we use digital tools and consume digital learning media. There is also the notion of ‘digital well-being’, and Helen offers a number of digital well-being references (Google Doc). An accompanying idea is ‘digital resilience’.

An interesting point, and one I’ve come across before, is the importance of ‘career and identity management’ (I think I might have come across this term at a HEA event about employability): our different digital identities have the potential to blur, and knowing how we are presented ‘on-line’ is important.

Helen gave us with two other interesting phrases to consider: the notion of our ‘quantified selves’, which points to the question of how much control we have over what data is collected about us, and whether this might connect to our ‘digital capital’.


What surprised me about this conference was how much research and scholarship was going on across the university. The poster session was especially memorable. I don’t know how many posters there were, but there were at least twenty, each relating to a different aspect of teaching and learning. Some posters focussed on teaching practice, others focussed on technology.

To get more of a view about what is going on (and what was happening in the other parallel sessions), I really need to find the time to sit down with a cup of tea and work through the conference proceedings.

More information about eSTEeM funded research can also be found by visiting the Open University eSTEeM website (Open University).

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Using the cloud to get to the OU campus

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 21 Nov 2019, 11:25

I get to visit the Open University campus in Milton Keynes with alarming regularity and getting there is always a bit of a trauma; I need to take three trains and then a shuttle bus.  After doing this journey for about two years, I’ve managed to get the timing down to a fine art, but sometimes things don’t go as smoothly as you hope:  I sometimes miss the shuttle bus and I have to catch a taxi. 

I can’t help the feeling that catching a taxi, on your own, is an extraordinary extravagance.  About a year ago, when my train was delayed, I got chatting to a fellow train traveller who was sat opposite me in the same carriage.  I noticed that he was rifling through some papers that contained the unmistakeable university logo.

‘Are you heading to Walton Hall?’ I asked.  It turned out that he was, and my fellow traveller, like me, was planning to catch a taxi to the campus.

‘Fancy sharing a cab?’ I asked.

I turned out that my fellow traveller, who I had never met before, had pretty much the same job as I had: he had the job title of staff tutor, but was based in Wales and worked in the Health and Social Care faculty.  He had travelled up to Milton Keynes after spending a night out with friends in London.  If I hadn’t nosily spotted his university papers, we would have incurred double the amount of expenses, and missed out on an opportunity for a nice chat.

Sharing lifts

Hundreds of people work at The Open University campus in Milton Keynes.  There are so many people travelling between the university and the train station that the university puts on a shuttle bus at peak hours - but what happens if you travel outside of peak hours?  The answer is you either catch a cab (which is costly), or you try to catch a local bus which takes ages and is pretty infrequent.

I don’t mind sharing taxi rides with colleagues.  The problem is that because there are so many of them that I don’t know who they are!  Even if I did know who they were, they might be in another carriage and have hailed and taxi and left the station forecourt before I had a chance to catch up with them.

One solution might be to loiter around the taxi rank and bellow: ‘is there anyone here who is going to THE OPEN UNIVERSITY? Does anyone WANT TO SHARE A CAB?!’ and see what happens.  The problem is that since I’m exceptionally English and doing things like this instils in me a morbid fear of being arrested.


When I was travelling to the campus one morning, an idle thought went through my mind.  I thought: ‘wouldn’t it be good if I could just take out my mobile phone, start an app, and push a button that says “I’m on the train from London to Milton Keynes – and I would be happy to share a lift to the campus if anyone is up for it…”’ 

This imaginary app would then tell me whether there was anyone else who was on the same train as me, or offer me an alert if anyone on the train would like to share a ride to my destination.  Another variation of this would be to try to find strangers to share journeys with, who might be going to roughly the same part of the city that you were travelling to.  To keep it simple, I thought, ‘no, that would just increase the complexity – let’s just think about this in terms of a single organisation’.

I imagined my app would be able to display the first name of fellow travellers, the faculty or department that they were in (which would be really useful in terms of facilitating a conversation), and also have a picture – so you know what a fellow traveller may look like when you get to the taxi rank.

There would be two obvious wins and one positive side effect.  The two wins were economic (it saves the university money), and environmental (less fuel is burnt to get to the campus).  The side effect is that you might be able to have some great chats, which might help you to keep up to date with what’s going on across the university.

Technical questions

So, how might we make this idea a reality?  Well, we need to figure out how to write an app.  Secondly, we need to figure out how to save data (so we can make a record of who is travelling on which train).  Thirdly, we need to get some data somehow (so we can get information about different trains).  Finally, we need to do a bit of ‘data crunching’ somewhere so we can be alerted as to whether there are other people on our train that we could share a lift with.

Creating an app

So, how do we go about creating an app?  The answer is: there are loads of different ways.  You can either create ‘native apps’ or you could create ‘web apps’ using HTML 5 and Javascript. 

When it comes to native apps, you might want to create an app for either an Android phone, or an iPhone.  If you’re thinking of developing an app for an iPhone, you might use xCode, which is a toolset from Apple (where there is a fancy new programming language called Swift). 

If you’re thinking of developing for an Android phone, you might consider using Android Studio, NetBeans (NBAndroid) or MIT AppInventor (I’m sure there are other tools out there!)  The problem, of course, is that some OU staff use Android phones, and some use iPhones.  To attempt to take the pain away from the nightmare of different platforms, there’s something called PhoneGap (but I don’t know too much about that… it’s all new to me!)

Storing data

Assuming that we build an app, then how do we store (and share) data?  This is where the cloud comes in.  The problem is that I don’t want to spend any money setting up services.  Plus, it’s been an absolute age since I’ve done any of that stuff.  Another solution is to make use of services from existing businesses that have already done all the hard work for you.

There are a quite a few different providers.  One of the biggest is Amazon.  Amazon offers a service that allows you to ‘plug into’ their existing computing and network infrastructure, allowing you to create and use your own virtual machines, which then can store data (since these virtual machines can host databases, like MySQL).  Rather than having to pay, host, and power a whole server (which, arguably, is likely to remain idle for quite a lot of time), you can instead pay for how much processor time, network capacity and data storage you consume.  It’s as if a server has become a utility.  Rather than having to worry about backups and whether you need to buy more processing power, this can all be looked after by a third party: you pay for what you use, allowing you to concentrate on the task of writing code and solving your problem.

Of course, you might not want to use Amazon.  If not, there are loads of other cloud data and service providers you might use.  Two of them who come to mind are that of Rackspace and Microsoft.  The interesting thing about Microsoft (and providers who are similar to them), is that you can choose where your virtual servers live.  If most of your customers are located in North America, it probably makes sense (in terms of network performance) to have your virtual servers served from that part of the world.  If more of your users are located in Europe (such as users who are travelling to and from Milton Keynes), you’re likely to want to host your virtual machines in data centres in Europe.

Another thought is: perhaps you don’t want to store your data in machines that are managed by Amazon or Microsoft.  If so, another approach could be to set up your own private cloud (providing you have your own infrastructure to do this, of course).  You might want to do this if your organisation has already invested quite a lot of capital into IT resources, or government or institutional policy dictates that you wish to make sure that your data is only within the remit of a particular jurisdiction.  Everything in life is always a compromise.  You might want to use your own private cloud as opposed to using a public cloud, but a private cloud is likely to cost in terms of hardware, power and administrative overheads.

If I were seriously writing this app, what would I do?  I would ask the IT people in The Open University to see if they have got a cloud system that I could use.  Whilst I wait for them to get back to me (which can sometimes take quite some time) I also might try to experiment and create a prototype using a public cloud provider, since some of them can give you ‘trial accounts’.

Getting data

Let’s say I’m going to a module meeting in Milton Keynes and I’m sat on the 8.46 train from London Euston.  There are two things I need to do: I need to say ‘I’m on this train’, which means storing a record so other people (meaning: other Open University colleagues) can see that I would be up for sharing a taxi, and also recording which train I was on.  The problem is: I don’t want to go through the trouble of entering ‘8.46 from Euston, London Midland’, since I’m lazy and I don’t have too much patience.  Plus, we need to iron out any ambiguity.

One way to solve this problem is see what trains are currently running (because, what happens if my train is delayed?)  Thankfully, Network Rail provides loads of data feeds (Network Rail), which we could use to choose the right train (and, I’m wondering whether we might be able to use the magic of GPS positioning too!)

As a brief aside, being a London resident, I’m a great fan of an app called CityMapper  (CityMapper website).  It gives you loads of information about different bus routes, trains, underground stations, and hooks up to Google Maps so you can see where you’re going.  An interesting question is: how does it work?  One answer lies with the availability of different data feeds, such as the data feeds that Transport for London provides (TfL data feed summary page).  

Why do TfL provide all this data?  The answer is: that TfL are in the business of providing transport, they’re not in the business of creating new apps for new-fangled computing devices: that’s not their core business.  Once feeds are made available, they can be used in new and creative ways.

Back to our ‘taxi ride sharing’ scenario: let’s say we’ve got a group of four people on the train that are prepared to share a ride to the campus, then what happens?  Who is going to make the call to the taxi company?  One thought is that the colleague who instigated a ‘taxi share request’ could do that job.  Or, alternatively, the taxi app might do it for us (if our chosen taxi company has some kind of mechanism to accept taxi bookings from recognised apps). 

Other issues

When we start to think about all this, we come up against questions of user identity and what it means in terms of a mobile device.  Some of my mobile apps make use of my Google+ account, whereas others make use of Facebook.  This can make things a whole lot easier, but it does worry me a little, mostly because I don’t know the extent to which my data is being used (we’re again back to the question of compromise: convenience traded off for ease of use).  One thing that we might want to do is to create our own ‘identity’ management system.

Another issue is that we’re beginning to step into is the currently fashionable area of smart cities (Wikipedia); the possibility that journeys through urban environments can be aided and abetted by the use and sharing of data.  (Not to mention costs and communications).

Final thoughts

Just as I was finishing this blog, the following email popped into my inbox: ‘would anyone like to share a taxi from MK station tomorrow?  I have a choice of trains, the first one arriving MK at 10:02, if that fits with anyone else’s plans?’

I remember this other time when I was travelling to the University of West of England from Paddington to Bristol Parkway train station.  When I got to Bristol Parkway, I had to catch a taxi from the station to the campus.  When I arrived on campus and started to walk where I needed to go, I recognised someone.  That someone was the gentleman who was sitting on the next row along from me.  Again, if only we had known, or had talked, or hadn’t been so English about our early morning journey, we could have shared a taxi together.

A final question is: given all the things that I’ve found out, am I going to go ahead and create this app?  Sadly, I’ve got a whole load of other deadlines to attend to, which means that I can’t afford to invest the time – but I would really like to, and I hope that someone does go ahead and creates it!  I, for one, would really like to give it a try.

In the meantime, what I have decided to do is to make more of an effort to chat to the people who catch the same shuttle bus as I do.  This way, if the train ever gets delayed, I might have more of a clue about who I could share a taxi with. 

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