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Computing and Communications AL Development Conference 2020

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On 28 November 2020, staff tutors and associate lecturers from the School of Computing and Communications ran an online AL development conference. What follows is a slightly delayed blog summary of what was roughly covered during that event.

The event began with welcome and introduction from Christine Gardner, who played a lead role in putting the event together.

Curriculum updates

John Woodthorpe, C&C director of teaching, presented what could be described as a teaching update. John highlighted a current challenge that is facing the school, reporting that “of the 30 modules that have [student registration] caps, 23 of those are in computing”.

John gave an overview of qualifications. The main qualification that is based in the school is Q62, the BSc (Honours) Computing and IT.  There is also Q67, Computing and IT with a second subject, such as maths, business, engineering and psychology. John gave an overview the Q62 qualification, mentioning that students have to do a maths module, and that there is a limited choice of modules they can choose if students wish to choose a specialism.

The school has recently introduced a new qualification, R60, BSc (Honours) Cyber SecurityThree important modules in this qualification includes TM256 Cyber security (due to be presented in February 22), TM311 Information security (October 21), and TM359 Systems penetration testing (February 23).

TM256 Cyber security contains five blocks:  Block 1: Concepts of Cyber Security, Block 2: Systems Security, Block 3: Infrastructure, Host and Application Security, Block 4: Security operations and Incident Management, and Block 5: Fundamentals of Digital Forensics. TM359 covers topics such as building secure systems, testing, and ethical hacking certification.

To help tutors to prepare to upskill for TM256, the school has secured some funding to sponsor tutors to take a dedicated short course to give tutors the basic skills to start tutoring on TM256. During John’s summary, I noted the words “we hope to get a mixed of experienced tutors who are new to the subject, and tutors who are new to teaching but are familiar with the subject”.

Another qualification worth noting is the relatively recently introduced BSc (Honours) Computing with Electronic Engineering, which goes by the qualification code R62. This qualification contains two new electronics modules; T212, T312. Students are required to study maths in modules T193 and T194.

Other qualifications to note include Computing and IT diplomas and certificate, and a  degrees and a Top-up BSc (Honours) Computing and IT Practice.

The school also offers a Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship. It’s important to note that there are different degree apprenticeship qualifications for different nations. I also made the following note: “apprentices tend to get worked quite hard; they have a full time job, and have a high study intensity”.

To complete the summary of undergraduate qualifications, John also mentioned the introduction of a new BSc (Honours) Data Science qualification which is lead by colleagues in the School of Mathematics and Statistics.

There were some updates to share about the postgraduate programme. The current version of the advanced networking MSc is currently on teach out, but a new version is being developed, reflecting changes to some of the external curriculum that forms an important part of that programme.

Finally, there’s also a new MSc in Cyber Security, which goes by the code F87. This qualification contains four key modules: M811 information security, M812 Digital forensics, M817 Systems security and T828 Network security.

A further note that I made, which I cannot emphasise enough is: “if you are interested in teaching on any of these modules, please speak with your staff tutor to find out more”.

Parallel session: Postgraduate and project tutors’ session

Being a tutor on TM470 The Computing and IT project module, I decided to go to a parallel session that was all about project modules. This session was facilitated by fellow tutor, Simon Dugmore.

I made a note of an important question: Why or where might students struggle? One answer was that students struggle to finding good literature and using it to build an argument to apply it to their work. Also, other students may find it difficult to reflect on their own approach to the project.

I noted the reflection that students can and do find some articles, but they might not do anything with them. Sometimes there are references to blog or technical articles, but they are not addressed in a critical way that adds real substance to a detailed and thorough literature review.

During this session, there was a short activity where we discussed the different types of resources student may use and the approaches that could be taken to help students understand how to best use of resources. I also noted down the point: explain what sort of resources you’re using, and why.

One of my own approaches is to show students the library website and choose some keywords after asking them about the modules they have studied, and the broad aims of their project. 

I confess that my notes are a bit sketchy at this point, but the session may have finished with a short discussion that may have tried to answer the question: how do we get them to reflect better? 

Parallel session: Level 2 tutors’ session – sharing best practice

In addition to being a TM470 tutor, I’m also a M250 Object-oriented Java programming tutor. This second parallel session was co-facilitated by Dave McIntyre, Karl Wilcox and Richard Mobbs

Karl facilitated the first section and asked the question: what are the similarities and differences between level 2 modules?

One notable difference is that M250 has quality printed materials, has had face-to-face tutorials whereas TT284 is presented entirely online. There are also differences between clusters (which are groups of tutors). I made the following note: “when teaching as a cluster, it’s much better for us, and much better for our students; that saves a lot of time, and makes best use of individual skills of tutors; it becomes a group effort.” There were different approaches, such as having two presenters for online tutorials, combining tutor forums, and using a cluster forum to share ideas and resources. TT284, unlike M250, requires a bit of writing, which can be a bit of a challenge for some students.

Next up was a discussion about how to get students to engage in tasks during online tutorials. One idea was to ask students to response to a whiteboard at the same time, giving anonymity. I made the note that it is important to carefully structure activities and that “the best tutorials were the ones that made me think; it’s the only time they meet other students and can do them together”. Tutors can also do screen sharing (I do this quite a lot), and to emphasise the importance of exams early on in a module

C&C Head of School Update

Arosha Bandara, current Computing and Communication head of school gave a short update. He began by presenting some numbers. The school is delivering teaching to 4700 students (200 of which are apprenticeship students), and this is supported by 50 central academics and 22 (now 24) regional academics or staff tutors. The school presents 47 modules, 6 apprenticeship schemes, and has 6 research groups. 

The aim of the school is to “to empower our students and wider society through life changing learning and research excellence”. In terms of research, it aims to “advance digital technologies in ways that enhance the human experience … by empowering - placing people at the centre, situate - to focus on the context as well as on the technology, and disrupt discipline borders to give fresh perspective and solutions.”

Arosha said something about the future direction of the school, which is to consolidate the current qualifications and look to further developments, such as AI, to explore what could be offered in this area.

Parallel Session: What might the AL contract mean in C&C? 

After a short break it was onto the final formal session of the day, which was facilitated by Steve Walker and Alexis Lansbury. The aim of this session was to share something about what the AL contract means for us all, to try to make it work for our advantage.

Key points of the contract include: it is a permanent fractional contract (as opposed to being tied to an individual module), the terms and conditions closer to other central university staff, and there is going to be a skills audit and workload allocation process to determine how tutor time can be best used and applied. Also, tutors become more connected to and allied to the school.

To begin to understand the implications of the new contract, the Computing and IT staff tutors set up a number of working groups: organisations, IT and data, supply and demand, and culture. 

An important question that we (as staff tutors, whilst working with tutors) is: how should things be organised ensure that everyone has the most appropriate opportunities that match their interests, skills and experience? A thought is that more regular meetings may be helpful. Geography might be also be useful way to organise everything, since a staff tutor may be able to understand the need for certain skills and resources across a certain area, and more easily collaborate and speak with fellow staff tutors.

Reflections

I always enjoy attending AL development conferences; there is always something I learn from them. I noted that 80 associate lecturer colleagues who were able to attend, which was a brilliant turn out. It was great to many colleagues.

I felt that this event was particularly welcome and useful, not only because it enabled us to share experience and teaching practice, but also it enabled us (as tutors) to meet with each other during a time when all the face-to-face AL development sessions had been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This isn’t the first online C&C AL development conference that we have held, and I’m sure it will not be the last.

Acknowledgements are given to Christine Gardner, who has been chairing the C&C AL development group, Sharon Dawes, and all the presenters who facilitated or co-facilitated the parallel sessions. Thanks are also extended to John Woodthorpe and Arosha Bandara who attended in their capacity as C&C director of teaching and head of school.

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1st Computing and Communications online AL development conference

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

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

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

Coming up with a plan

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

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

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

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

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

Explaining the agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What worked

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

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

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

What didn’t work

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

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

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

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

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

Looking forward

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

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

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

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AL development conference: 21 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's a planned agenda for the event:

10.00 – 10.30     Virtual tea and cake

10.30 – 10.40     Introduction and welcome: Chris Douce

10.40 – 10.55     Meet your head of school: Mark Woodroffe

10.55 – 11.10     Programme and curriculum updates: David Morse

11.10 – 11.25     Q&A with Mark and David

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

12.10 – 12.20     Online pedagogy session: Q&A

12.20 – 13.00     Break

13.00 – 13.10     Welcome back! Chris Douce

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

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

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

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

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


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