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Curriculum

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 14 May 2023, 12:08

On 9 May 23, I attended a staff development event that had the title “Our STEM curriculum” which was presented by David Morse, Associate Dean for Curriculum, Faculty of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. 

I must admit that I was expecting a very different session to the one that I attended. I was expecting something about curriculum accessibility. Instead, I had stumbled into what appeared to a briefing about the STEM curriculum.

What follows is a set of notes that I’ve taken from this session which I’ve moulded into a summary about different types of curricula that the university offers. Although the focus on this blog is, of course, STEM curricula, there will, of course, be similarities and differences between what happens in other faculties and institutions. Hopefully what follows will be a useful summary for anyone who is trying to understand what curriculum is all about.

How everything works

There are quite a few terms to understand: modules, qualifications, and credits. You gain credits by studying modules, and modules contribute towards qualifications. A degree is a qualification, as is a certificate and diploma. There are undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications.

The most familiar qualification is the undergraduate degree. To really understand what is meant by curriculum it is worth spending a couple of minutes to unpick what it comprises:

A full-time three year undergraduate degree is 360 academic credits.

Every year, a full time student will be studying 120 worth of modules.

Students studying at half time study intensity will, of course, study modules worth 60 credits.

In the OU, modules are either 30 or 60 credits depending on the faculty, and the module. In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the modules are typically 60 credits. In STEM, they are often 30 credits. In some cases, students can study one 30 credit module after another.

Other institutions might have different sizes of modules. I’ve seen modules that are 15 credits, 20 credits or 45 credits. Some really bit postgraduate modules might be even 90 credits.

One credit is typically considered to be 10 hours of study. The term ‘study’ can refer to a whole set of different activities: it can refer to attending tutorials, reading learning materials, completing study tasks, interacting with fellow students, and completing assessments. The exact make-up of that time will depend on the module.

With 10 hours of study per credit, this means that a 60 credit module means 600 hours’ worth of study. If we assume a typical working day is 7.5 hours, this can be translated to 80 days of study time.

A traditional academic term lasts 9 months from October until June, but within this period there are the Christmas and Easter holidays, which means a break of4 weeks. This means there are 8 months of study time for full time students.

120 credits of full time study means, of course, 1,200 hours. Dividing this by 7.5 hours per day gives us 160 days of study time. Dividing this by 5 gives us 32 week of study time per year. Dividing this by 4 weeks in a month gives us exactly 8 months, which means that everything fits.

Modules are broadly categorised in terms of level, which corresponds to the year of study at a face-to-face university. A module that has the number 2 as the second number is a second year module. I’ll cover more about this a bit later.

Now that we’ve figured out undergraduate degrees, let’s turn our attention to postgraduate master’s degrees. A one year master’s degree at a face-to-face university typically takes 12 months rather than 9 months, usually running between September to September. This means there is more to study. MSc and MA degrees typically require 180 credits. When studying part time, OU students typically study for them over a three year period.

All this is enough to make our head hurt. When we look into the particulars of individual degrees and qualifications, we find a whole lot more detail.

What follows is an edited set of STEM specific notes that I made from the session. I’ve taken the liberty of adding a number of sections which shares a bit more context.

Access modules

The first elements of curricula which some students may encounter are the university’s access modules. These modules are presented as an introduction to distance learning and aim to offer students a broad overview of a subject. There are four modules, one for each faculty, each taking up to 30 weeks.

The STEM access module is split into three sections (or blocks) which have the subjects: life, water and home. The first block addresses biology and ecology, the second adopts a practical perspective, and the third begins to address design, engineering and computing.

These access modules don’t attract academic credit. They do, however, help students to gain an understanding of what is involved with university level study. Students will gain experience of writing and submitting assignments, and will receive significant help and guidance from a tutor.

Undergraduate qualifications

The faculty offers a number of qualifications: foundation degrees, undergraduate certificates, undergraduate diplomas, first degrees, postgraduate certificates and diplomas and taught higher degrees. The most popular is the first degree.

The most popular qualification in STEM is the Computing and IT BSc (Q62), followed by Natural Sciences degree (Q64), and then the Certificate in HE in Computing and IT (T12). The popularity of the certificate in Computing and IT might be explained that certificates in HE (CertHE) and diplomas (DipHE) are known as milestone qualifications, which means that students can gain these qualifications as they accumulate credit for an undergraduate degree.

The faculty also offers a number of foundation degrees, such as the Foundation Degree in Computing and IT Practice (X15). Rather than being 360 credits, these qualifications are 240 credits and cover stages 1 and 2, an contains a compulsory work-based learning element.

Students can also use something called credit transfer. There is an increasing number of students who have studied at another university and convert their foundation degree to an OU BA or BSc by using the credit transfer service. This is sometimes called a top up degree.

Most of the degrees and qualifications that the university has are what are called named degrees, which means a degree that is specifically linked to a particular subject or discipline. Named degrees are relatively new to the OU. They were introduced in their current form to enable students to apply for student loans which are available for part time study. Loans are only available to students who are studying a named degree.

Each school within a faculty ‘owns’ the qualifications that are aligned to their subject area. There are, of course, some qualifications which cross schools and faculties. A popular choice is a joint honours qualification. An example of this is the Computing and IT degree with a second subject. With this qualification, students can study Computing with Business, Design, Mathematics, Psychology, Statistics and Electrical Engineering. 

It is also worth mentioning an undergraduate qualification called the Open Degree. The Open Degree predates the introduction of the named degree. It enables students to create their own degree from any undergraduate module. It is described as follows: the Open degree “allows you to bring together different areas of study in a completely flexible way to develop knowledge and skills. … Choose from over 250 modules across 16 subject areas, to create a bespoke qualification to match your interests”. Returning to the topic of credits, students must study 360 worth of academic credit, in three groups of 120 credits, which correspond to each of the levels.

A variation of the Open degree in the STEM faculty is the Combined STEM degree where students can create their own STEM degree from the different STEM modules that the university offers. Within this qualification, there are corresponding diplomas and certificates.

Undergraduate degree classifications

In keeping with all other higher education institutions (HEIs), when a student gains their OU degree, it is assigned a classification which reflects their performance. The highest category is a first, followed by an upper second (2:1) or a lower second (2:2), or third class.

Also in keeping with other HEIs, the first level of study is all about skills development. Although the first level modules do not officially contribute to a degree classification, level 1 modules can have two overall scores: distinction, or pass. To get a distinction, students must gain an overall score of 85%, as defined by a module’s tuition strategy. This said, the exact boundary for a distinction can be slightly adjusted by a module results panel to ensure that results are awarded in a way that is consistent between different module presentations. More information about what is meant by assignment scores, module results and overall grades is available through the university help centre. 

Results from level 2 and level 3 modules (modules that have the numbers 2 and 3 as the first numbers in the module code) do contribute to a degree classification. Module results are presented in terms of grades, ranging from grade 1 (which is a distinction) through to grade 4 (which is a bare pass). The module result grades are then combined with each other to calculate a student’s degree classification. More information about the algorithm used to calculate a degree classification is also available through the university help centre.

Postgraduate qualifications

Like the undergraduate qualification, the postgraduate master’s qualifications also contain milestone qualifications which are, of course, qualifications in their own right. As mentioned earlier, a master’s degree is gained through 180 credits of study. Along with way, students can gain a postgraduate certificate, PGCert through 60 credits of study, or a postgraduate diploma, a PGDip through 120 credits of study.

The classification scheme for postgraduate qualifications are different to undergraduate qualifications. There are three different results for master’s degrees: distinction, merit, and pass. In keeping with postgraduate qualifications in other institutions, the pass mark for modules is 50%. For undergraduate modules, the pass mark is 40%.

Higher degrees, such as doctorates and MPhil qualifications are not discussed here. Further information about these qualifications are available in another blog about doctoral study.

Apprenticeships

The OU also offers a number of degree apprenticeshipsThe degree apprenticeships share a similarity with foundation degrees. Both have a compulsory-work based learning element, but with an important difference: an apprenticeship is essentially a job role, with an aspect of study attached to it. The study is aligned with the job role. Apprentices have access to module tutors, and to practice tutors. The role of the practice tutor is to help the apprentices relates their formal academic study with their work-based learning, and carry out regular reviews to evidence their learning.

The funding for apprenticeship study comes from the apprenticeship levy, which all employers of a certain size have to pay from their salary bill. Employers can gain back the value of the levy by encouraging some of their employees to participate in a degree apprenticeship scheme.

Unlike many of the other qualifications, the degree apprenticeship standards are defined by external organisation in conjunction with employers rather than the qualifications being owned by an academic school. Apprenticeship schemes are nation specific. In England, degree apprentices are defined by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education with other bodies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In STEM, there are two degree apprenticeships; a Digital and Technology solutions (DTS) qualification, and a postgraduate Systems Thinking Practitioner qualification.

Higher Technical Qualifications

Higher Technical Qualifications follow the roughly the same standard as the apprenticeship qualifications. Unlike the degree apprenticeships, these qualifications do not have the compulsory work-based learning component or have the requirement for students to be connected with an employer.

In STEM, there are two Higher Technical Qualifications, which are available in England only: one that relates to Network Engineering (W19) and another about Software Development (W20). Students studying these qualification also have the potential to use their credit from the constituent OU modules on different qualifications, if they wish to further their studies.

Microcredentials

In the OU, typical modules are either 30 or 60 credits. OU microcredentials, however, can be thought as short courses (or modules) which run between 10 and 12 weeks which attract either 10 or 15 of academic credits. In some cases, these bits of academic credit can be ‘boxed’ together into a larger unit, and can be brought into a larger qualification through credit transfer, if the learning outcomes of the microcredentials are compatible.

Microcredentials aim to appeal to a different group of students: those who are interested in upskilling, or developing an evidenced continuing professional development (CPD) portfolio. This emphasis on CPD can be seen through the computing microcredentials, which currently draw on materials from industrial providers, such as Cisco.

Microcredentials differ from other modules in the sense that students are not provided a tutor. Instead, students have to carry out self-directed learning. Technology also plays an important role in the learning experience. At the time of writing OU microcredentials are delivered through FutureLearn, a MOOC provider, which offers a social learning approach. 

Time will tell whether microcredentials will become a bigger element of the university’s portfolio of curriculum. A personal view is that they are useful for some disciplines and for some groups of students, but may not work for others. It is interesting to note that are international initiatives that support the development of microcredentials (Microcredentials.EU) and accompanying policies.

Other types of curricula

As well as formal qualifications and modules, there is also a site called OpenLearn which shares free online courses. Some of the courses delivered through OpenLearni are known as Badged Open Courses (BOCs). This means when a student completes an OpenLearn course, they are eligible to get a digital badge, and download a certificate of completion. Learners can highlight the completion of these BOCs by mentioning them on CVs and job applications. If OpenLearn learners are also OU students, completion of OpenLearn modules will also appear on their student record, which are visible to students.

The OpenLearn resources that are summarised within this section can also be called Open Educational Resources (OERs), which is a category of freely available resources which can be used and shared by educators.

There are quite a few OpenLearn courses and resources which can be useful to tutors. There are courses that enable students to gain an understanding about what is involved with online and OU study. Since a percentage of OU modules are shared through OpenLearn, there are also courses that enable students to get a flavour about what they will be studying if they are to formally enrol. Also, there are courses which can be taken as continuing professional development modules for tutors.

What follows is a sample of some of the materials that are available.

Courses about learning to study

Here are some courses that might be useful to share with students who are considering OU study, or are new to OU study:

The following courses would be helpful for students considering postgraduate study:

Courses that offer introductions to formal study

Here are some notable courses from other disciplines:

Courses that help with tutoring and teaching

The following courses can offer CPD for tutors, and help learners to gain more of an understanding of what is involved with OU teaching and learning:

STEM facts and figures

During this session, David shared some facts and figures about the STEM faculty. For 2021 and 2022, there were 47k students registered on STEM modules. Out of these, 3.5k students completed a qualification, which represents roughly 19% of all OU students graduating. Although there are three faculties, approximately a third of students graduate with an Open degree.

Out of these students, 76% of students work either part-time or full time. 69% of undergraduate students had no previous HE qualifications. This highlights that the transfer of academic credit is playing an important role in the journey for some students.

As mentioned earlier, the Q62 computing qualification is the most popular undergraduate programme offered by the faculty. In recent years there has been a decline in students registering for Q62, but there has been an increase in the number of students registering for the cyber security qualification. In terms of postgraduate study, the Mathematics MSc is the largest MSc within the faculty.

Reflections

I was initially a bit grumpy when I realised that this continuing professional development session was offering a sketch about curriculum, rather than being about accessibility. A key learning point here is: make sure you read the event description carefully.

Sometimes it’s useful to stick with things. In this case, the summary of all the different qualifications that are provided by the faculty was a helpful reminder. I also took the opportunity to really figure out the notion of academic credit, and how it relates to modules, qualifications and the academic year. 

I’ve taken the opportunity to add two complementary sections: a bit about access modules (which wasn’t really covered during the session), and a section about degree classifications. Everything is, of course, linked to each other: qualifications are linked to modules, which are linked to schools, which are liked to disciplines.

There are, of course, bits of curriculum that I haven’t mentioned. Some years ago, there used to be a number of short courses, some of which were credit bearing, but there is only one short course is run by the faculty: a digital photography course. There is also something called ‘open box’ modules, where bits of external academic credit can used to contribute to an OU qualification.

Curriculum is subject to continual change. Its structure is affected by a number of variables: academic and cultural trends, innovations in pedagogy and technology, and wider political changes, such as changes to funding. It is interesting to see the extent to which freely available materials complement formal credit bearing materials. Knowing about what free resources are available has the potential to make a real difference to the student experience.

Acknowledgements

Thanks are extended to David Morse for running such a thorough session.

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Christopher Douce

Cyber security resources

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 12 Dec 2017, 16:26

There is a considerable amount of interest in the subject of cyber security. It seems as if a day doesn’t go by without a new story about a worrying data breach or a hack attack. New terms such as phishing has entered in the lexicon and we regularly hear references to topics such as encryption and malware. 

Cyber security is currently a hot topic within government (GOV.UK policy website) and the university is investing in cyber security teaching in the School of Computing and Communications.

With the possibility of new modules (and perhaps qualifications) on the horizon, an important question is: what can associate lecturers do to be prepared for new cyber security modules? This blog post is to summarise a set of resources that might be useful. This post is, of course, unapologetically OU centric and there, are of course, many other resources or books out there. If you do know of other resources that might be helpful, do feel free to add a comment below.

Cyber security MOOC

The OU, in collaboration with FutureLearn runs a MOOC (massive open online course) entitled Introduction to Cyber Security (FutureLearn). This is particularly interesting, since the course description states that ‘it has been developed by The Open University with support from the UK Government’s National Cyber Security Programme’.  It is presented as a ‘double accredited course’, described as a GCHQ certified training course, accredited by the Institute of Information Security Professionals (IISP).

The MOOC addresses a range of relevant topics, such as: threats, authentication (access control, passwords, two-factor authentication), malware (types of malware, attack vectors, preventing infection), cryptography, network security (firewalls, virtual private networks, intrusion detection/prevention), cyber security laws, recovering from attacks and managing risks.

Postgraduate modules

One of the great things about being a tutor is that tutors can study many OU modules as a part of their continuing professional development. If you’re interested in cyber security, tutors can choose to study two different postgraduate modules that are linked to the subject of cyber security.

The first module is called M811 Information security. M811 is relating to IT governance and management (which reflects the focus of the postgraduate programme). Here is the key part of the description: ‘In this online module, you’ll explore the professional and technical skills necessary to understand, document, manage and implement strategic and operational aspects of your organisation's information security. You’ll study topics in information security risk assessment and management, as well as professionalism, home information security, and information security research.’

Regarding M811, an important point is that it isn’t a technical module: instead, it focuses on the socio-technical and organisational issues which reflects the notion that cyber security is just not about technology: it is about people too.

The second module is called M812 Digital forensics. M812 is different to M811, since it is a lot more technical. It is described as follows: ‘This online module will help you understand how to conduct investigations to correctly gather, analyse and present digital evidence to both business and legal audiences. You will also learn how to find tools to locate and analyse digital evidence on a variety of devices, including mobile phones, and how to keep up to date with changing technologies, laws and regulations in digital forensics.’

The connection with law is particularly important and useful. It introduces learners to different aspects of legislation that relate to data and cyber security. It is technical in the sense that students are required to carry out an analysis of a digital image (data downloaded from a digital device) and write a detailed report. An interesting aspect of the module is that students (acting as digital forensic examiners) will take play in a short role play activity where they present evidence to a tutor who plays the role of a court barrister.

OpenLearn: Badged Open Courses

As well as FutureLearn, the university has OpenLearn, which offers BOCs (rather than MOOCs). A BOC is a Badged Open Course. There are three BOCs that relate to cyber security.

The most recent BOC is called Introduction to cybersecurity: say safe online (OpenLearn). The course is described as follows: ‘[it will] help you to understand online security and start to protect your digital life, whether at home or work. You will learn how to recognise the threats that could harm you online and the steps you can take to reduce the chances that they will happen to you.’ The learning outcomes are: ‘start to protect your digital life, recognise threats to your online safety, take steps to reduce the risk of online threats, understand concepts including malware, viruses and trojans, consider network security, cryptography and identity theft’.

OpenLearn also contains BOCs made from sections from M811 and M812; you can even use these BOCs to get a feel for what kinds of materials are presented in either of these modules. 

The Information security BOC (OpenLearn) is described as follows: ‘... information has become the life blood of the modern world. Given its importance, modern organisations aren’t always as careful as they could be with it. . . . In this free coursey ou’ll explore what it is about information that makes it so valuable.’ Again, the emphasis is on people and organisations, rather than technology. 

The Digital forensics BOC (OpenLearn), being derived from M812, is descried as follows: ‘Digital forensics, is an introduction to computer forensics and investigation, and will give you an overview of forensic science in general, including how it works in practice. It will introduce you to the world of digital forensics, that is, applying forensic science to the digital artefacts that we create every day through our interactions with computers, mobile phones and the unseen objects around us that encompass the so-called ‘internet of things’.

There are of course, loads of other Science, Maths and Technology BOCs available.

Other resources

FutureLearn is, of course, one of many MOOC providers. Three other providers are called EdX, Udacity and Coursera.  

At the time of writing EdX runs a MOOC called Cybersecurity fundamentals, which was 8 weeks in length (with an average of 6-8 hrs per week), and Coursera, that relates to usability security (which can be considered to be an intersection between interaction design and cyber security).


Acknowlegements: Many thanks to Sharon Dawes for providing the inspiration and motivation behind the writing of this blog, and for also sending me links to a number of related cyber security resources.

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Christopher Douce

Study Skills Resources: what is available?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Mar 2021, 17:05

The Open University provides a lot of study skills resources, but these are scattered across a number of different sites. This blog post is intended to provide a quick 'summary page' of some of the resources that might be useful for anyone is are studying with the OU (or, in fact, studying at any other universities).

Firstly, a book

After enrolling for my first OU module, I was sent a textbook called The Good Study Guide by Andrew Northedge. I didn't ask for this book, and I had never seen this book before. In fact, I was really surprised to get an unexpected book!

I found the time to sit down and read it, and this was time well spent; it offered a wealth of study tips, resources and strategies.

If you're an OU student and you don't have this book, then do get a copy. If you're an existing OU student, then do make the time to look over this book time and time again: its really useful.

I think I have once written that I hold the view that if I had learnt about this book during my undergraduate days, I might have got better scores in both my essays and my exams!

Skills for Study: a really useful resource

There are some really useful resources that are available online. I particularly recommend that everyone visits the Open University Skills for Study website.

There are two really useful parts of the site (which is separated into tabs): a section about preparing and writing assignments and another section that is about revision and examinations. The preparing and writing assignments is particularly useful; it offers ideas about how to begin an assignment, to create a draft and think about how to edit what has been written.

There are also a set of downloadable study skills booklets. Key topics include: thinking critically, reading and taking notes, and develop effective study strategies. One particularly useful booklet is: preparing assignments (PDF). It contains some really useful sections are about paraphrasing, quoting and referencing, and improving your written English.

Library resources

The OU library is massive: it enables students to access papers and publications that are about anything and everything. The library have developed a set of useful study skills resources, but these are not very easy to find. 

In the help section, there is a link to a section that is all about Referencing and Plagiarism (OU Library website) it contains a really nice animation that explains things. One thing to remember that plagiarism is a term that can be pretty emotive. A key point is that it's important to make sure that you reference all the sources that you use, and that appropriate referencing does two things (1) it shows your tutor how much you've been reading, and (2) shows how you are becoming familiar with what it means to do academic writing.

A further links leads to something called the avoiding plagiarism pathway (OU being digital). This is one page of a wider set of library resources called Being Digital (OU Library services site) which is all about developing digital literacy skills. These pages contain a set of really useful interactive activities (OU being digital) that aim to develop computing, IT, and digital literacy skills.

The library also provides a link to something called the OU Harvard referencing guide. This shows you how to refer to any kind of resource: books, academic papers, conference proceedings, blogs, news articles and videos. If you're not sure whether you can reference something, do check out the OU Harvard guide; this should offer a bit of useful guidance.

Developing good academic practice

The library resource about Referencing and Plagiarism links to a short course that is called Developing Good Academic Practice (OU DGAP website). Although this is a short resource, it is very useful. It helps you to understand what good academic practice is and why it is important.

English language development and Open Learn resources

Some programmes aim to integrate English language development and skills into their modules; this is what Computing and IT does. Other subjects or programmes are slightly different: there is a module called L185 English for Academic Purposes which some Science students might study. Business studies students might study LB170 Communication skills for business and management.

One really cool thing that the Open University does is make a small percentage of its modules available to everyone for free though a site called OpenLearn (OU OpenLearn website). Up to ten percent of all OU modules may be available through OpenLearn, and it also makes some older modules available too.

Essentially, OpenLearn offers free courses. There are a series of English language skills courses (OpenLearn site) that anyone can access. One course, entitled English: skills for learning looks to be particularly useful. Here's a description:

“This course is for anybody who is thinking of studying for a university degree and would like to develop the English reading and writing skills needed to succeed. You'll be introduced to academic reading and effective note-making strategies. You'll develop your essay writing. You'll look at academic style and vocabulary-building strategies. You'll also enhance your understanding of sentence structure and punctuation. You will learn through a range of engaging activities aimed at extending your existing language skills.”

A more recent Open Learn resource has the title: Am I ready to be a distance learner? The summary to this module says: "will help to boost your confidence. You'll explore useful skills so you can discover how ready you are to study and how to develop your study skills in six steps to become a successful distance learner." Sounds useful!

There are also a range of courses that come under the broad title of 'learning to learn'. One course that jumped out at me as being particularly important was called: Learning to learn: Reflecting backward, reflecting forward; I'm mentioning this since reflective writing is particularly important at higher levels of study.

There's also some more OpenLearn resources for postgraduate modules, called Succeeding in postgraduate study; certainly worth a look if your considering taking a MSc.

Resources from other institutions

Students in other universities face exactly the same challenges faced by students in the OU. Since study skills and writing are important issues other universities have developed their own resources. A small sample of what is available is given below. 

One thing to add is: if you're an OU student, do look at the OU resources first before looking elsewhere. It's not that other institutions will offer bad or wrong advice (I always believe that different perspectives can be really useful in terms of understanding things), it's more a matter of terminology: the OU loves its abbreviations and sometimes has a certain way of doing things.

Final thoughts

This post contains link to many different resources and it might feel a bit overwhelming. The trick is to figure out what you need, to consider how you learn, and to then to have a look at some of the resources to see if you find them useful. If you need additional help in figuring out what you need, you should then also consider giving your subject student support team a ring.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Tricia Cronin and Ann Matsunaga; I have drawn on some of the links they have provided in their Resource to support students with English as a second language document.

Updated 1 March 2021

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