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Christopher Douce

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

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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