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Associate Lecturer Development Conference – LSE, April 2015

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This is a quick blog about an AL development conference I attended on 25 April at the London School of Economics.  I was looking forward to this event because I helped to put together parts of the programme.  Plus, I foolishly volunteered to run a session and facilitate the Mathematics Computing and Technology session.  It was destined to be a busy day.

The keynote talk was by my colleague Pat Atkins who presented a summary of some of the changes that were happening across the university.  These included a gradual alignment of associate lecturer contracts to various student support teams, and the introduction of a new group tuition policy, which is likely to substantially affect both tutors and module teams.

Other sessions

I helped to ‘pull together’ three AL development sessions during this conference.  After being inspired by ‘acting’ sessions that had been organised by colleagues from the South East region, I discovered that I knew someone who offered training to deal with difficult telephone calls.

Another session was about working with different pieces of technology (which was facilitated by two experienced technology associate lecturers). 

The third session was about working with students who have visual impairments.  I remember that the tutor, Richard Walker (who ran a similar session last year) saying that there is likely to be a high probability that every associate lecturer will have to work with a student who has a visual impairment at some point. 

Other sessions at the conference were about working with students who have English as a second language and a session about the role of the advisors in the London region.

The main purpose of this blog is, however, to present a quick summary of the session on OU Live Pedagogy that I ran.

The pedagogy of OU Live

For the uninitiated, OU Live can be thought of a bit like a version of Skype that has a whole load of other features, such as a shared whiteboard, and tools that enables a tutor to ask students different questions.  It also enables tutors to share portions of their screen, so students can see exactly what a tutor sees.

I think I was inspired to run this session by going to a number of other similar sounding sessions over the last few years.  A thought was, ‘what could I add to the debates about OU Live that I haven’t already heard’.  I had two objectives for my session.  The first objective was to share some of my own views about what it means to teach (or to facilitate learning) through OU Live.  The second objective was to share experience and practice.   Or, put another way, to learn about how different tutors use it to teach different modules.

A big part of the session was drawn from an earlier blog post where I wrote about the different ways to use OU Live.  For this session, I renamed a couple of the approaches.  The approaches that I talked about were:

  • Traditional tutorial: which is similar to a face to face session
  • Demonstration tutorial: where a tutor demonstrates something, such as a set of pages or some software.
  • Practical workshop: a session where a tutor puts a lot of focus into a product, tool, system, or activity.
  • Debate: an interactive debate between two tutors.
  • Recording a lecture: a short lecture which potentially augments materials provided by the module team, or to offer further explanations.
  • Drop-in session: an informal scheduled time where students can interact with a tutor and ask questions.
  • Student session: a scheduled but unfacilitated session that allow students on the same module to chat to each other.
  • Special (or additional support) session: a one to one session between a student and a tutor.

These ‘types’ are very informal.  I’ve created these types by trying to summarise all the different ways I’ve heard people talking about how they use OU Live.  It isn’t systematic, and it isn’t informed by theory; this rough taxonomy (of you could call it that) is more informed by the sharing of practice.

An important point that I made during the session is that, in some ways, technology moves a lot faster than pedagogy.  Tools such as OU Live offer us tutors a lot of different features.  The challenge is trying to figure out how to use them in the best possible way to make sure that students can learn efficiently.  It’s tempting to use these tools to just deliver dry lectures, where there are sets of PowerPoint slides.  The real challenge (from where we can create really engaging learning experiences) is to understand how to apply these tools to enable active learning.

Final thoughts

I always enjoy coming along to AL development events, and this one was also fun too: I enjoy running sessions!  The next conference is likely to take place in November 2015 in the Camden Town centre.

There’s going to be a couple of months off, before the conference planning group starts thinking about the next event.  (And, in the meantime, I’m going to take the liberty to visit the Oxford region to see what they’re doing).

 

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Professional Development Conference: London, 22 March 2014

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The Open University in London runs two professional development conferences per year, one at its regional offices in Camden town, the other at the London School of Economics.    Saturday 22 March was a busy day; it was the day I ran my first staff development session at this venue.  (I had previously run sessions in the Camden centre, but running a session in an external venue had, for some reason, a slightly different feel to it).

This blog post aims to summarise a number of key points from the session.  It is intended for anyone who might be remotely interested, but it’s mostly intended for fellow associate lecturers.  If you’re interested in the fine detail, or the contents of what was presented, do get in touch. Similarly, if you work within any other parts of the university and feel that this session might be useful for your ALs, do get in touch; I don’t mind travelling to other regions. 

Electronic assignments

The aim of the session was to share what I had discovered whilst figuring out how a tool called the ETMA file handler works.  Students with the university submit their assignments electronically through something called the Electronic Tutor Marked Assignment (ETMA) system.  This allows submissions to be held securely and the date and time of submission to be recorded.  It also allows tutors to collect (or download) batches of assignments that students have submitted.

When assignments are downloaded, tutors use a piece of software called the ETMA file handler.  This is a relatively simple piece of software that allows tutors to get an overview of which student has submitted which assignment.  It also allows tutors to see their work, allowing them to comment (and mark) what they have submitted.

There are three things that a tutor usually has to do.  Firstly, they have to assign a mark for a student’s submission.  They usually also have to add some comments to a script that has been submitted (which is usually in the form of a Microsoft Word document).  They also have to add some comments to help a student to move forward with their studies.  These comments are entered into a form that is colloquially known as a PT3.  Please don’t ask me why it’s called this; I have no idea – but it seems to be an abbreviation that is deeply embedded within the fabric of the university.  If you talk to a tutor about a PT3 form, they know what you’re talking about.

Under the hood

Given that the tutor marked assignments constitutes a pretty big part of the teaching and learning experience in the university, the ETMA file handler program is, therefore, a pretty important piece of software.  One of my own views (when it comes to software) is that if you understand how something works, you’ll be able to figure out how to use it better.

The intention behind my professional development session was to share something about how the ETMA file handler works, allowing tutors to carry out essential tasks such as make backups and move sets of marking from one computer to another.  Whilst the university does a pretty good at offering comprehensive training about how to use the file handler to enable tutors to get along with their job of marking, it isn’t so good at letting tutors know about how to do some of the system administration stuff that we all need to do from time to time, such as taking backups and moving files to another computer (hence my motivation to run this session).

One of my confessions is that I’m a computer scientist.  This means that I (sometimes) find it fun figuring out how stuff works.  This means that I sometimes mess around with a piece of software to see how to break it, and then try to get it working again.  (Sometimes I manage to do this, other times I don’t!)  During the session I focussed on a small number of things: how the file handler program knows about the assignments that have been downloaded (it uses directories), how directories are structured, what ‘special files’ these directories contains, and where (and how) additional information is held.

Here’s what I focussed on: the directories used to download files to, the directories used to return marked files from and how the file handler reads the contents of those directories so it is able to offer choices a tutor.  Towards the end of the presentation, I also presented a number of what I considered to be useful tips.  These were: the file hander software is very stupid, the file handler software needs to know where your marking is, form habits, be consistent, save files in the same place, use zip files to move files around, and be paranoid!

Reflections

Whilst I was writing the session, I thought to myself, ‘is this going to be too simple?’ and ‘surely everyone will get terribly bored with all this detail and all the geeky stuff that I’m going to be talking about?’  Thankfully, these fears were unfounded.  The detail, it turned out, seemed to be quite interesting.  Even if I was sharing the obvious, sometimes a shared understanding can offer some reassurance.

There were parts that went right, and other parts that went wrong (or, not so well as I had expected); both represented opportunities for learning.  The part that I almost got right was about timing.  I had an hour and a half to fill, and although the session had to be wrapped up pretty quickly (so everyone could get their sandwiches), the timing seemed to be (roughly) about right.

The part that I got wrong wasn’t something that was catastrophically wrong, but instead could be understood in terms of an opportunity to improve the presentation the next time round.  We all user our computers in slightly different ways, and I have to confess that I became particularly fixated in using my own computer in quite a needlessly complicated way (in terms of how to create and use backup files).  As a result, I now have slightly more to talk about, which I think is a good thing (but I might have to re-jig the timing).

There is one implicit side effect of sharing how something is either designed, or how something works.  When we know how something works, we can sometimes find new ways of working, or new ways to use the tools that we have at our disposal.  Whist probing a strange piece of software can be a little frightening it’s sometimes possible to find unexpected rewards.  We may never know what these are, unless we spend time doing this.

And finally…

If you’re an associate lecturer, do try to find the time to come to one of the AL development events; you’re always likely to pick something up from the day (and this applies as much to the facilitator as it does to the tutor too!)  As well as being useful, they can also be good fun too!

After the session had been completed, and the projectors and laptops were turned off, I started to ask myself a question.  This was: ‘what can I do for the next conference?’  Answering this question is now going to be one of my next tasks.

 

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