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4th School of Computing and Communications AL Professional Development Conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Nov 2022, 16:29

On Saturday 19 November 2022 I attended the 4th School of Computing and Communications AL Professional Development Conference. Like recent years this event was held online, entirely through Adobe Connect. The event was attended by over 60 Associate Lecturers and was opened by opened by Jim Gillen, who introduced the theme of the event, “new directions”.

What follows is a blog summary of the sessions that I attended. I’m sharing this blog so I can remember what happened during the day, as a record of some of the continuing professional development that I’ve carried out over the year but also for anyone who might be interested in what was covered during this event. 

Welcome and introduction

The first session was presented by Robin Laney, Head of School, and John Woodthorpe, Director of Teaching.  The school supports the equivalent of 4700 full time students and around 200 degree apprentice students. The school delivers 53 modules. These relates to 5 undergraduate qualifications and 3 postgraduate qualifications.

Robin shared the school mission, which is to “empower our students and wider society through life-changing learning and excellent research in computing and communications technologies”. 

The computing curriculum is informed by research carried out by the 6 research groups (school website). The school’s research mission is “to advance digital technologies in ways that enhance the human experience”. The research vision of the school is to place people at the centre of research, to focus on context as much as technology, and to creatively (and positively) disrupt across discipline borders.

John Woodthorpe spoke about some recent changes and plans, such as introduction to the new R60 BSc (Hons) Cyber security degree, which is now up and running. Tutors responded to a request to carry out some paid continuing professional development (CPD) and the school was able to appoint more tutors. The school needs to find a way to develop CPD to enable tutors to teach on TM311 Information security and develop a rolling programme of CPD to help tutors to move onto new modules.

Another new(ish) qualification that was mentioned was R62 BSc (Honours) Computing with Electronic Engineering. The qualification has modules from the OU Engineering and Innovation school, which includes T212 Electronics: sensing, logic and actuation and T312 Electronics: signal processing, control and communications. The mathematics for this module is provided through T193 Engineering: frameworks, analysis, production and T194 Engineering: mathematics, modelling, applications

Another qualification that was important to highlight to tutors was R38 BSc (Honours) Data Science which is led by the School of Mathematics and Statistics. This qualification contains TM358 Machine learning and artificial intelligence. This technical module contains materials about neural networks, deep learning, unsupervised learning and adopts a case study approach. Students are also able to choose TM351 Data management and analysis. The mathematics for this qualification is provided through M140 Introducing Statistics, MST124 Essential mathematics 1 and M348 Applied statistical modelling (amongst others).

Concluding the presentation about qualifications, there are two new higher technical qualifications: W19 Diploma of Higher Education in Network Engineering, and W20 Diploma of Higher Education in Software Engineering. These qualifications give students experience of higher education study and provide a pathway to a degree.

The school has a five year curriculum plan. There are plans to redevelop the popular TM112 Introduction to computing and information technology 2, a plan to develop a new 30 credit level 1 module with more programming (since some students may have gained programming experience during earlier study at school), provide a route to recognise prior experiential learning, enhance skills development across all levels, plug gaps in curriculum, and make better use of research within modules. Since there is an increasing amount of focus on AI, the school is also looking to develop a second level AI module, which will potentially open up a pathway through one of the school’s named degrees.

I made note of a couple of questions. One of them was: how can tutors get involved with the work of the research groups? Tutors were encouraged have a look at the research group websites, and also look at the publications that these groups have produced through the university’s Open Research Online (ORO) website, and should feel free to contact individual academics. Also, another route to research is through the university’s STEM scholarship centre, eSTEeM. I also remember a follow up question which related to the terms and conditions of the AL contract. An important point to note is that although tutors are now, quite rightly, permanent employees of the university, their role primarily relates to teaching and student support, rather than research.

Another question related to “filling the gaps” in computing degrees, and how tutors may be able to influence the content of degree programmes and modules. The answer was: speak with module team chairs, and also have a chat with our Director of Teaching.

Parallel Session 1: New and future Curriculum Developments

The first parallel session I attended had the title “AI and Machine Learning, from TM358 to TM470, an overview and experiences tutoring” and was facilitated by Michael Bowkis and Trevor Forsythe. As highlighted earlier, TM358 is the school’s new AI module. TM470 is the undergraduate computing capstone module.

The session is said to present “the motivations behind why AI and ML are featuring in the C&C curriculum”. It began with a definition of AI, which was said to be “the capacity of a computer or other machines to exhibit or simulate intelligent behaviour” (Oxford English Dictionary). Michael shared some instances where AL and Machine Learning (ML) was featured in the news. He shared a video that introduced the concept of deep fakes, and then asked the question: can we design a way to determine what is a deep fake? We were introduced to a deep fake detection platform called FakeCatcher from Intel. There are, of course, other contexts. AI can play a role in defending against Distributed Denial of Service attacks (which is a topic which links to the cyber security curriculum). There is a link here to employability. AI is a subject that features in data science, transport, media, telecoms, banking, healthcare and so on.

Onto a question: what is it like to be a tutor on TM358?

TM358 aims to teach a range of ML techniques by adopting an engineering approach. Tutors need to become familiar with a complex and fiddly software stack (which is a hosted platform on Amazon Web Services). TM358 makes use of Python, Jupyter notebooks, and Tensorflow, which is a library of machine learning tools. The module also emphasises social impact and ethics; students are asked to consider how the AI could be used and misused. Some tips for tutors include: make sure you get the TMA dates into the calendar, learn the Jupyter notebooks system, since it is used for assignments and teaching. Tutors are not expected to run the cloud computing platform, but they are expected to understand how students have used and responded to the platform. Do feel confident in seeking help from other tutors.

There are three TMAs and an EMA, which is a mini project which can help to develop skills for TM470. The module adopts a single component assessment strategy, where the EMA accounts for 60% of the overall module result. By the end of the module a student won’t be an AI expert, a Python expert, or a Tensorflow expert, but will have some introductory knowledge which is a very helpful starting point.

AI has changed. TM358 is unrecognisable from what I studied when I was a computer science undergraduate. When I studied the subject, neural networks were mentioned in passing, and the focus was on algorithmic searching. AI is continuing to change; every day there is something new.

I asked a question to Michael, Trevor and all other tutors: have you had many TM470 projects that have used TM358? Students are only now beginning to base their projects on TM358. A challenge is when some students study TM358 and TM470 at the same time. The TM470 staff tutors try to help, and do their best to ensure that students who express an interest in basing their project on TM358 are assigned to tutors who have machine learning and AI expertise. 

Parallel Session 2: eSTEeM and Research

The next session I attended (and facilitated) had the title “Continuing professional development: Approaches and Opportunities”. The aim of this session was to get everyone talking about what is meant by CPD, and to help everyone to understand how it might be changing.

Here’s the abstract that introduces the session: “The new tutor contract not only changes our terms and conditions, it also means there is change in our relationship to the university, and the university school (or schools) that we teach for. …  Due to the new contract, continuing professional development (CPD) will become a closer collaboration between a tutor and staff tutor. This session aims to ask a series of questions about CPD with a view to sharing experiences, practice, and what opportunities might exist as we move towards more fully implementing the new tutor contract.”

I began the session by highlighting some relevant sections from the new tutor contract terms and conditions; the section that describes Academic Currency and Professional Development, and the new Academic Currency and Professional Development Policy. Different elements make up our academic currency time, AL led time, and time that is agreed with a staff tutor. Importantly, the amount of time everyone has for CPD is different, and depends on what everyone’s FTE is. There are other bits to the AL contract and CPD picture that haven’t (yet) been worked out yet, such as the connection between the skills audit and the AL Career Development and Staff Appraisal (CDSA).

Before putting everyone into one of four different breakout rooms, I posed some questions. The collated results from each breakout room are presented below. Where appropriate, I’ve provided either weblinks or a bit of additional commentary.

What CPD have you done as an AL?

  • Mandatory training; also known as compliance training, which includes GDPR compliance, safeguarding and equality essentials.
  • Applaud; becoming an associate fellow or fellow of AdvanceHE (which used to be called the Higher Education Academy)
  • Scholarship projects and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; ALs can participate in eSTEeM projects.
  • Cyber Security/Cisco; completion of Networking Essentials and other Cisco courses to prepare to teach on other OU modules; older Cisco certification, such as Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT).
  • Carbon Literacy Training; an Open Learn course facilitated by the OU in Wales. Participants are required to attend synchronous events, and consider two pleges.
  • AL development conferences; such as this school event, or events run by the professional development group.
  • STEMbyALsforALs events; tutor led events that aim to share practice and experience.
  • Module study/fee waivers; studying an OU module, either an individual module, or to work toward a qualification.
  • Used in house resources from my "day job" that are relevant to the OU modules that I tutor.
  • Practice courses; Adobe Connect and a forums practice course
  • Programming with an online lab tool called Replit; used in TM112 online lab research.
  • Ethical Hacking CPD for TM359.
  • Written papers for presentation at the European Conference on E-Learning and presented at AdvanceHE conferences.

What CPD would you like to do?

How can your staff tutor or the university help?

  • Provide induction training for new tutors; the STEM faculty now runs various events for tutors who are joining the university, but perhaps there might be an opportunity to offer a further welcome into the school
  • During the skills audit (and later), the staff tutor could offer pointers to resources, or help to provide resources.
  • The staff tutors could flag modules where there is a shortage of tutors and organise training to help tutors become aware of those modules.
  • Provide CPD in quiet times during the year, such as during holidays, e.g. between June and September.

Discussion points

There were a number of discussion points to emerge from the online session, and the notes that every focus group made during their session. One striking point was a question about the extent to which climate education could be embedded within the curriculum. There is also the importance of how to best embed accessibility and inclusion into the curriculum, 

There were also comments and discussion about the AdvanceHE certifications which are available through the OU’s Applaud scheme. Although the Senior Fellow scheme does require evidence and demonstration of leadership, this is certainly something that can be demonstrated through the AL role. Examples of this might include taking a lead during day schools, online tutorials, or leading with the management of cluster forums. If anyone is interested in creating evidence that can contribute to a higher level AdvanceHE fellowship claim, do have a discussion with your staff tutor.

A question that came out of the discussion notes was: what is SEDA? SEDA is an abbreviation for an organisation called the Staff and Educational Development Organisation. SEDA is a professional organisation that is there to support people who are involved with the professional development of education professionals, typically within higher education. Like the HEA scheme, it has different levels. As a rule, the university doesn’t provide funding for membership of professional organisations, since membership of professional bodies is a personal decision.

It is worth highlighting something called the AL development fund which I understand still exists. The Associate Lecturer Development Fund “is available to support Associate Lecturers (ALs) professional development activities in their role at The Open University (OU) as an AL where no other source of funding is available. Examples might be a non-OU course, module of study or a relevant conference. We ask that all applications show a demonstrable link to development of an AL in their role as a tutor at the OU”. The fund is limited to a relatively small amount of money, and you can only submit claims over a certain period of time. You might, for example, wish to use it to take a professional exam, or have the fund cover part of the cost of a conference. All the university will ask in return is a short report.

One theme that emerged was concerned with research and scholarship. Scholarship of teaching and learning, or scholarship about professional practice is easier to facilitate than disciplinary research which must align with school research objectives. If you’re interested in this area, do get in touch with your friendly staff tutor, who will be really happy to help.

A final bit of CPD that is worth mentioning is the opportunity not only to take OU modules using a fee waiver, but also to carry out doctoral study too. More information about what this might mean is summarised in an earlier blog post, Doctoral research: a short introduction.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Introductory Plenary

After a lunchtime poster showcase Rehana Awan, Lecturer in EDI Implementation in Computing and Communications, gave a keynote presentation about equality, diversity and inclusion. 

Rehana spoke about her background and connection with the university. She began as a regional coordinator, became an AL for the access programme, and then an AL for DD102 Introducing the social sciences. She then worked as a staff tutor for Open and Access, and became co-chair of the black and minority staff network. As well as being a lecturer in the school, she is a third year doctoral researcher, looking at the awarding gap for black and brown students.

She asked herself a question, which was: “what is preventing me from moving forward in my career?” Barriers to progress might be physical (in terms of where we live), education, or skills. Having been trained as a social scientist, Rehana asks questions about how society is structured, to further understand what barriers might exist. I made a note of her words: “it is important to think of people’s background and contexts. If we have a better understanding of who people are and where they come from, we can better adapt our teaching, and how to address inequalities”.

Another question was asked: why is EDI important? EDI is now embedded within the University’s strategic plan. It is also a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010. Also, since the university is made up of a community of scholars, everyone has a responsibility to carry out research (and professional development) to ensure that effective teaching is provided to all students. This links with the university’s student access and participation strategies and plans.

I made a note of a striking statistic. In the UK, there are 22k professors. Out of this figure there are only 41 black women. Just looking at these raw figures, there is clearly a systemic issue that needs to be understood and addressed. A further point I noted down was that we need to develop more representative teaching and research communities. Role models are important.

Rehana emphasised that EDI is everyone’s responsibility. She said that her role is to offer advice about research, awarding gaps and progression rates. In response to some of these challenges, Rehana has set up an awarding gaps implementation group, which consists of colleagues from across the school.

Parallel Session 3: Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Following from Rehana’s keynote, I chose to attend the penultimate session of the day, Decolonising computing - what that might mean? This event was facilitated by Zoe Tompkins, Steve Walker and Ray Corrigan.

Steve Walker presented the background context: some Universities are considering how to decolonise their curricula. In C&C a Decolonising Computing eSTEeM project is exploring what this might mean for our school, led by Mustafa Ali and members of the critical information studies research group. This has raised some questions: Is the history of colonialism important to the discipline?  If so, what are the implications for how and what we teach?

Terms are important. Some key terms are colonialism, postcolonialism and coloniality. Colonialism is defined as a period of European political domination that formally ends with the national liberation and independence movements of the 1960s; postcolonialism relates to a legacy which has outlived formal colonialism and has become integrated within structures, and coloniality refers to persistent structures.

Decolonising computing education is important across the whole sector, since the QAA subject benchmark suggests that it is necessary to acknowledge and address “how divisions of hierarchies of colonial value are replicated and reinforced within the computing subject”. Since students will be creating social structures of the future, it is important that they have an awareness of some of these concepts.

One argument used is “computers don’t have colour”, but computing can be considered as a social practice, since computing is made by people. Social values can be embedded within software, and these values can be replicated by and within society. There is an interaction (which can be called sociotechnical) between the people and the machines (and software) that is created and used.

Two perspectives were highlighted: historic and contemporary.  The historic perspective highlights that technology is implicated in the development of colonialism. The contemporary perspective is that current practices and artefacts continue to perpetuate colonial impact.

It was said that computing is often viewed as a subject without a history, but this is something I disagree with. It is true, however, that the history of computing is not readily taught in computer science or information technology qualifications. 

An interesting case study that reflects a historic perspective was highlighted, the history of the telegraph in India. In terms of the contemporary perspective, asking the question “where do computers come from?” leads us to further case studies. To create the iPhone, rare metals and minerals are needed to be mined, and these can come from countries that are still enduring a continuing legacy of colonialism. There are links to questions about what happens to electronic waste, and the increasing visibility of green computing and the importance of climate justice.

Another question to ask is: who is involved with establishing technical or computing standards? Also, who (or which organisations) provides and supports infrastructure?

Zoe spoke about a survey that was used to gather answers to the question: what do you think it means to decolonise the computing curriculum? Zoe shared a range of different responses from participants. Challenges to progressing this work may include misunderstanding what the goal is, potential lack of interest, lack of resources, and how to ensure representation.

Closing Plenary

Jim Gillen facilitated a short closing plenary, where some questions were shared, such as how do we continue to engage with some of the topics raised, such as equality, inclusion and decolonisation? Another important question was asked about how the subject of sustainability could be further embedded with the curriculum. 

I have no easy answers to these questions, but making representation is an important thing to do, whenever and wherever we can. Following on from the COP27 conference, I have heard that the university is running a university wide event about sustainability. Having completed some CPD about carbon literacy, one of my commitments is to find likeminded colleagues in this school, and the School of Engineering and Innovation, who share interests in green computing.

Reflections

AL professional development events are always fun events, and this was no exception. I did miss being at a face-to-face venue, so we could share tips and stories over a sandwich. This said, the benefit of an online even is that I get to speak with colleagues that I wouldn’t have otherwise spoken to before. A challenge with these online events is, of course, the digital environment that we use; we’re all at different places and within different physical environments which might present their own barriers.

There were, of course, quite a few sessions that I couldn’t go to. I couldn’t, for example, attend the session about the student support team, or Rehana’s second presentation.

From the session that I facilitated, it struck me that there was a lot of CPD going on! Due to the new tutor contract staff tutors are likely to be taking on even more of a listening role in the future in order to do our best to facilitate the opportunities that everyone needs.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Jim Gillen and to Sharon Dawes who led the planning of the event, our colleagues in ALSPD, and all the members of the AL development planning group that helped to organise this session, which included Michael Bowkis, Ray Corrigan, Christine Gardner, Nigel Gibson, Alexis Lansbury and David McDade. On the Friday evening before the event, Ray delivered a lecture, which I’ve heard was very well received. Further acknowledgement are extended to Sharon, who kindly proof read an early version of this summary.

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