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London AL development conference, May 2018

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The 2018 London OU AL development conference took place on Saturday 19 May at the Wesley Centre, close to London Euston railway station. This blog was published after an earlier blog about the Windsor AL development conference; I seem to have got the order of the blogs mixed up!

What follows is a brief summary of the sessions that I attended, taken from the notes I made whilst I was at the conference. It represents a rough snapshot or sketch of what happened. These are entirely my views; other participants will have attended different sessions and come away with different views. 

Opening keynote: Zahra Alidina

The opening keynote was by Zahra Alidina. Zahra was the youngest person in the country to graduate with a law degree from The Open University at the age of 18, having started to study law at the age of 15.

Zahara said that distance learning provides an academic opportunity to study, but it also gives a great opportunity to become distracted; a reflection that resonated strongly with my own personal experience. There was another opportunity that was said to be important; Zahara was ‘lucky enough to go to face to face tutorials in London’ which led to further opportunities, including the opportunity to mix with other law students, who were all there for each other.

She offered an interesting reflection. I made a note that there was considered to be some stigma attached to distance learning. This stigma doesn’t make any sense, since successful distance learning students have to balance many different aspects and facets of their lives. 

Zahra’s undergraduate studies inspired further study. She said that she was currently studying for a masters and mentioned the bar professional training course at BPP University. Reflecting on her OU studies, I noted down the words: ‘I loved what I learnt and I don’t want it to end’.

Looking toward the future, her focus is on family law. I noted down another quotation: ‘42% marriages end in divorce; it’s important to get divorce right’. Zahra was asked a question about her opinion about the concept of a ‘no fault’ divorce; a topic that was being debated in the media several days before the AL development conference. It’s an interesting subject that leads to a personal reflection; the current categories can encourage divorcing partners to engineer destructive descriptions of ‘unreasonableness’ which may, in many cases, be unhelpful.

The final note that I’ll leave is her own advice for OU students. Again, I will try to quote and paraphrase Zahra: ‘the OU taught me [the importance of] breaks’; do develop a style of learning, and address the need to balance other aspects of life (and hobbies).

Session: understanding teaching through critical incidents

The first session that I attended, was also one that I facilitated. The event is described as follows:  “a critical incident is a memorable or challenging situation that occurred during our teaching practice; it is a useful tool that can help us to think of our own teaching and help us to reflect on how we might approach similar situations in different ways. Drawing on the ideas from Burgum and Bridge, this session presents the principle of the critical incident, shares a framework that enables tutors to further consider critical incidents and allows different tutors to discuss the different strategies they adopted to solve challenging tutoring situations. The resulting discussions will allow us to expose the ways in which tutors can approach problems and learn more about how the university can help address difficult and challenging situations. This is an interactive workshop that is designed to put the focus on sharing and learning about how to develop strategies and resilience amongst and between tutors.”

I first came across the idea of a critical incident when studying for my PGCE in Higher Education at Birkbeck College. I really liked the simplicity of the idea and the way that it helped everyone to talk about our teaching, specifically allowing us to uncover some of the more difficult situations that we might have gained some very useful experience from.

Only 4 tutors attended this session, which I was a bit disappointed with. The session began with a discussion of what is meant by the term ‘critical incident’ followed by a series of discussions. After the event, I had the sense that it didn’t quite work as planned, but all the participants were happy to share their incidents, thoughts and experiences. In some respects, given the lack of numbers, I felt that the session could have benefited from a simple case study (as a backup plan), which was something to bear in mind for future sessions.

Session: STEM faculty

The STEM session was similar to other STEM sessions that were run during other AL development conferences. The session began with an introduction of who is who in the faculty, followed with a discussion of some of terms used by the university: cluster manager, lead line manager, and tuition task manager. It was then onto an introduction of the OpenSTEM degree, and the new Open master’s programme.

The next bit was a discussion about retention and was similar to the session that was ran at the Windsor conference, everyone was asked two questions: what could the university do to help with student retention, and what can individual associate lecturers do? As everyone discussed these issues, I made some notes.

Some key points were: ensure that students are aware of the challenges of study when they are recruited, discourage students from studying a high number of points in situations where they’re not able to cope, reintroduce the concept of tutor councillors (a role that predates my joining of the university), the importance of managing student expectations, a suggestion that students can only register for more than 60 points of study if they speak to someone, create some kind of study plan tool, offer more advice at the beginning about issues such as fee liabilities.

Session: School of Computing and Communications

The final session that I attended was led by my colleague Sue Truby, who took all school participants through the various computing and IT qualifications that were offered by the school. Sue emphasised that the main qualification offered by the school had the magic code, Q62, and went by the title: BSc (Honours) Computing and IT (OU website).  Other notable programmes included a Joint Honours degree with Computing and a second subject (Q67) (OU website), such as Business, Design, Mathematics, Psychology and Statistics. A point was: it is important to choose modules carefully, since the later modules can require knowledge and experience from earlier levels. This is, of course, the Open STEM degree (R28) with offers students more of a free choice. 

Reflections

From my own perspective, the London conference was a very busy event; I played a role in three different sessions: my own, the STEM session and the school session. I would have liked to go to other sessions too, but time was limited.

I thought the keynote was very thought provoking; it emphasised what is possible to achieve, given both determination and opportunity. I felt a little disappointed by my own session about critical incidents, and felt that there was a lot more to be discussed during the STEM session. One thought was that I did feel that there is an opportunity to share more STEM specific stories within that session, but I think that can be integrated into STEM specific events that different schools will run during 2019.On this point, I’ll soon be turning my attention to planning and designing a School AL development conference which will focus on the teaching of computing and IT.

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Teaching programming across STEM

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 8 Aug 2018, 18:07

In February 2018 I went to a 'Teaching programming across STEM' workshop that was organised by my colleague Michel Wermelinger. The aim of the workshop was to get different colleagues from different parts of the STEM faculty together to share experiences about how they teach programming, raise awareness of each other’s plans, discuss different types of provision, and to share experience and examples.

What follows is a rough summary of the notes that I took during the day, which were augmented by having a quick look at some of the slides that were prepared for the workshop (OU staff link). The aim of these notes are to help me remember what happened, and to provide a future reference for anyone who might be interested in the teaching and learning of programming at the OU. Since there was a 6 month gap between the event and the writing of the blog, I’m sure I’ve forgot some important elements and aspects, but I hope they are both pretty accurate and useful.

Introduction

The event was introduced by Michel, who said that the day was split into two parts, a morning ‘supply side’ section (which included a series of talks), and an afternoon ‘the demand side’ section, which included networking and workshop discussions. Michel kicked off the event by talking about OpenLearn materials that contain programming.

OpenLearn materials

OpenLearning is an Open University website that offers free online short courses for anyone who might be interested. It is sometimes used to share excerpts of real OU modules but it also contains self-contained short courses. If you have an interest in an academic subject, the chances are that there will be an OpenLearn course that might tell you a little bit about it. It is, perhaps, not much of a surprise that there are OpenLearn resources about programming. 

Simple Coding

Michel introduce us to something called an ‘hour of code’ introduction to programming using Python 2, also known as Simple Coding (OpenLearn). Simple coding introduces students to the fundamental concepts of variables, expressions, loops, if, lists, and function calls. It contains one problem throughout: keeping and maintaining a restaurant bill.

I made a note that this was a part of the BBC Make It Digital season. To complement this, Michel has written a short blog post about Trinkets. Finally, students are also encouraged to share their code on social media.

Learn to Code for Data Analysis

Another OpenLearn resource is called Learn to Code for Data Analysis (OpenLearn). This course started life as a 4-week 20 to 30 hour Futurelearn MOOC. It makes use of Python 3, function definitions and loops. It also makes use of the R-like Pandas library which is used for data analysis. It also uses (I’m copying from my notes here) Jupyter notebooks with Anaconda or cocalc.com.

The courses applies something called First Principles of Instruction and adopts a problem-driven approach, where students are given a weekly project to clean data, merge data and manipulate data. Students are asked to manipulate authentic real open data from organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the UN. 

TM112 Introduction to Computing and IT 2

TM112 Introduction to Computing and IT 2 was introduced by Paul Piwek, module chair. Paul explained that TM112 builds on TM111 and prepares students for level 2 study where students go onto study M250 (which uses Java) and M269 (which makes use of Python), before making their way to TM351 (which is mentioned later).

The module has three themes: essential information technologies, problem solving with Python, and information technologies in the wild.  There are 3 spiral bound books, so students can put them down next to their computer, and practice typing in code.

Students will be using turtle graphics with Python 3, Baby Pandas (a library that is used for data processing and analysis), Jupyter notebooks and an editor like IDLE. The module places particular emphasis on the teaching of problem solving skills and the construction of algorithms. Students are given programming practice and assessment by using data from the Office of National Statistics.

There are also formative quizzes with CodeRunner, which are marked for engagement to help students build mental models of what happens at an abstract level when programs are run.

SM123 Physics and Space

Jimena Gorfinkiel introduced SM123 Physics and Space which is studied after students have completed S111 Questions in Science.

Students are given 4 weeks of Python 2 programming that is based on the science they are learning. Currently, there are no other programming at level 2 and level 3 physics or astronomy pathways. The aim is to help students get a feel for programming and data analysis is all about. There is no expectation of developing specific competencies, but the aim is to help students understand principles of algorithm design.

The module design is built on ideas from other introductory materials, i.e.it makes use of Trinket (trinket.io) and the teaching approach is to scaffold the student’s learning by providing activities and examples.

TM129 RobotLab

Jon Rosewell introduced TM129 Technologies in practice, a module that has three different 10 point bits: a section on programming, a section on networking, and a section about the Linux operating system.

The programming bit has a simulator for a small Lego robot which is called RobotLab and robotics is a used as a way to introduce students to programming and to provide a useful context. It introduces basic control structures but doesn’t introduce students to data structures. Students are asked to run and watch the running of code, adapt code, and complete an open challenge.

Like Scratch, RobotLab is a drag and drop environment, but the environment can also create text programs which students see when they are expose to Python code. A comment I noted was that practical labs are important: ‘If you have simulation, and you do it well, there are opportunities for learning’.

An issue with the approach is that RobotLab is not a recognised language and is now showing its age. Support for RobotLab will finally end with the February 2019 presentation of TM129.

M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming

Anton Dil introduced M250 Object-Oriented Java Programming. In some cases, students study M250 in parallel to M269, which will be described in the next section.

M250 uses Java and adopts an ‘objects first’ approach. Students are introduced to key object-oriented (and Java) concepts, such as protocols and attributes, classes, inheritance, composition, interfaces, access levels and the catching and throwing of errors. Other topics include collections, file input and output. There are also optional sections on design by contract and assertions.

Students use a range of different tools, such as the Java Development Kit (JDK) 7 and a graphical object-interaction environment, called BlueJ which enables students to manipulate objects and visualise relationships between classes. Some of the teaching makes good use of examples, such as illustrating methods using bank accounts, demonstrating classes by creating unexpected types of frogs, and demonstrating a marionette that is made from simple shapes.

Like other OU modules, Coderunner is used for interactive computer marked assessments. An important part of the assessment is, of course, through a series of TMAs that have increasing weighting. Looking towards the future, a future assessment principle may be to have less reading and more writing code and to encourage the social dimension in programming. On this point I made a note to myself about whether the concept of pair programming might be something that could be introduced; doing it virtually and at a distance may provide some interesting but unique challenges.

M269 Algorithms, data structures, computability

Michel Wermelinger introduced M269 Algorithms, data structures, computability, a module that gets to the heart of computer science. It introduces students to data structures, queues, how searches work, sets, binary trees, hash tables, graphs, generic techniques, approximation, complexity, big O notation, heuristics, and genetic algorithms. Needless to say, it’s also all about programming. 

The tools used in M269 includes Python 3, Komodo edit, and Coderunner is used for all the TMA questions. For students who haven’t come up through TM112, it contains a Python crash course in week 2.

Given its challenging subject matter, M269 is a marmite course; some students respond well to the challenges it presents, whereas others offer more robust opinions. From a personal perspective, I remember studying a similar module when I was an undergraduate in the 1990s. I found it a challenging subject, but I later appreciated its importance and value when I became a professional software developer.

Open University Summer of Code

Neil Smith introduced an initiative called the Advent of code. Advent of Code is described as: “a series of small programming puzzles for a variety of skill levels. They are self-contained and are just as appropriate for an expert who wants to stay sharp as they are for a beginner who is just learning to code. Each puzzle calls upon different skills and has two parts that build on a theme.” Neil also told us about that there is something called the Google Summer of Code, which students can apply to.

Computing and Communications students are invited to take place in a voluntary programming challenge called the Summer of Code that is designed to give students programming practice. Students are sent a two part problem, every Monday to Friday for two weeks. All in all, there will be ten problems. An interesting observation is that if students do 2, they will invariably do all 10. Another observation was that some students were passing programming assessments but not being able to solve these problems; perhaps practice is the key and problem solving can and should be taught explicitly.

TM351 Data management and analysis

Alistair Willis introduced TM351 Data Management and Analysis. M250 and M269 are prerequisites for TM351. TM351 isn’t a programming module as such, but it does expect programming competence that is commensurate with level 3 student. The module explores the data lifecycle: the acquisition, preparation, analysis and presentation of data. Python is used for acquiring and cleaning data, and databases are used for storage. The module also demonstrates simple machine learning, statistical analysis and graph plotting.

TM351 uses Python 3, PostgreSQL, MongoDB, Pandas, Mathplotlib and Jupyter notebooks. A point that I clearly noted was that students needed to learn how to use a library and not just a language.

Like M269, it is also a ‘marmite module’ and offers students with some particular challenges. It requires students to combine different techniques together to form solutions. In some cases students don’t have adequate coding skills and may also lack critical skills so they can apply the right techniques.

An interesting point I noted was that the Python requirements for TM351 are less than what is required for A-level. Another comment I note down was: perhaps more needs to be done to help students to prepare for this module, or the preparation needs to be done differently. In some respects, this is where TM112 Introduction to computing and information technology 2 will play an important role.

Python programming in S818

Andrew Norton and Mark Jones introduced S818 Space science which is a 60 point module that forms Stage 1 of the MSc in Space Science and Technology (F77). The module presents an introduction to Space Science and Technology, Apollo 11, Gaia  and Rosetta probes, and the Curiosity Mars rover.

S818 is linked to the OpenSTEM lab. The programming that is carried out as a part of the module is linked to the physics that is applied; Python is used as a tool to work through data. Students are directed to “Learn to Code for Data analysis” on OpenLearn, that was previously mentioned by Michel.

During Weeks 1 to 6, students are exposed to Jupyter notebooks and Pandas. Examples include a section on space weather and looking at data from space weather satellites. In addition to these activities, students are asked to carry out straight line fitting to data (SciPy, matplotlib), plot data of increasing complexity (using matplotlib) and a numerical solution of Kepler’s equation in orbital dynamics (I’m not sure what this means).  Students are also expected to use Python to handle and present results, even when they aren’t explicitly asked to do so. 

Python and accompanying tools

Tony Hirst from the School of Computing and Communications gave a talk about the different tools and technologies that could be used with Python. One thing Tony did was to explain that Jupyter is an ecosystem of related bits, based on Python. One of those bits is known as iPython

Echoing earlier presentations, Tony emphasised the importance of libraries and packages. There were packages that could be used to define and simulate circuits. There were packages that related to chemistry, where users could type in the name of a compound and software would ask the web for the structure. There were packages about astronomy and also packages about music, which could work with musical representations and create playable midi files.

We were told about V-REP a Virtual robot experimentation platform, and Binder, a way to connect Jupyter notebooks to GitHub version control software.

I made a note that Tony had also been looking at running software on OpenStack, which is an important part of TM352 Web Mobile and Cloud technologies.

The demand side

After a break for lunch, it was onto a series of short 2 minute presentations by ‘various artists’ that were broadly entitled ‘the demand side’ for the simple reason: these may be modules or module that need to apply programming in some way. 

SXPA288 Practical science: physics and astronomy

Sheona Urquhart spoke about second level physics and astonomy module, SXPA288 Practical science: physics and astronomy. I made a note of some interesting words: “the thing that freaks them out is the terminal window” and “this is not a programming course … Excel is just grim”. I’m assuming that this comment is linked to the need to perform data analysis.

T312 Electronics

T312 Electronics, which was introduced by Jane Bromley, is a new module that has just started production. I noted down that there might be an opportunity to draw on the Python electronics libraries that Tony had mentioned, and Python might also be used for hands on experience of signal processing.

M346 Linear statistical modelling

This module was introduced by Karen Vines, and is currently going through a rewrite. The earlier version used to use some software called Genstat (if I’ve made a note of this correctly), but there is a plan to move to the R programming language (wikipedia) which was said to be ‘command line’. The emphasis on this module is said to be the statistical techniques rather than the software

M373 Optimization

Optimisation was introduced by Tim Lowe. The module is all about numerical computing techniques, where ‘students use commands written by module team which implement methods’. I’ve made a note that this is a module that is needed to support a new data sciences degree. 

Physical Sciences Level 3

Ulrich Kolb introduced the BSc in Physics and mentioned that students needed programming skills. Students are required to carry out some simple Python coding and carry out simple tasks for data analysis. Modules are split into 10-15 credit chunks, and these could be linked to programming.

Delivering programming tutorials

This bit of the workshop was delivered by yours truly, where I spoke from the perspective of a staff tutor. I introduced a popular model called TPAC, which categories different types of knowledge in a simple way: there is pedagogical knowledge, technical knowledge about how to use tool, and knowledge about the content or the subject that is taught. I also mentioned that tools such as screen sharing could be really useful in the teaching of programming. I can’t quite remember, but I must have also spoken about the university group tuition policy.

PG Bioinformatics and cheminformatics

The final presentation of the day was by Mark Hirst who briefly spoke about the requirements bioinformatics and cheminformatics modules. There was a need to develop data handling, data analysis and data mining skills. Perhaps where was also an opportunity to use data from genome databases and a subject that could be called ‘advanced coding for the biosciences’.

Discussion notes

The event ended with a wide ranging discussion. One theme was about whether there was the need to explicitly teach different programming paradigms and the subject of comparative programming languages (I have to confess that I might have raised this as a subject, since it was one of my favourite subjects as an undergraduate, and one that I have found really helpful as a professional programmer). Another point being it is important to acknowledge important tensions between the needs of education and the needs of training.

There were differences: one colleague insisted that we could all use C++, another said that we should use FORTRAN, and a further colleague suggested that Pascal should be used for the simple reason that strongly typed language encourages good programmer behaviours. This wide range of opinions suggested that there isn’t one language that can suit our needs. 

One interesting point was that our students are, of course, changing. There is now a new computing curriculum for schools, which is something that everyone needs to be aware of.

I also noted down the words: ‘the pedagogy of teaching computing across students is something that is common across school, and this is something that can be learnt from each other’. I made another note was about the broad subject of the teaching of programming and how students move from a novice to an expert, namely that expertise is something that you acquire by doing, and this is a point that links back to my own practical presentation about the importance of delivering programming teaching.

Some concluding questions were: ‘how do we teach programming in a cost effective way?’ and ‘should we set up a working group to co-ordinate the teaching of programming?’ A further point is that associate lecturer development is important, and as is collaboration between different development communities. 

Reflections

I learnt a lot from this event and I got thinking about different ways of doing things. Not only did I learn about virtual robots that might be used in modules like TM129, I started to wonder about the possibility of teaching through robotic kits (The Pi Hut). I also learnt about the importance of R, and emphasised the flexibility and richness of libraries.

When I worked in industry, I did some serious coding in C, C++, Visual Basic and have even enjoyed confusing myself with the very many ways to write the same expressions in Perl, but I have yet to seriously get my hands dirty with Python. Thanks to all the presentations that were made during the day, I came away feeling inspired; I felt that I now need to do more to update my programming and development skills.

Acknowledgements

The words shared in this blog ultimately come from each of the presenters. A big shout out to Michel Wermelinger who did a brilliant job putting this event together.


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HEA STEM Conference, Newcastle 2018 (part 2)

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This is the second part of a two part blog post about a HEA STEM conference (HEA website) that I attended during January and February 2018. This second post covers the second day of the conference, 1 February 2018. As before, this blog has been written from the notes I made during the various conference sessions that I’ve attended. 

Keynote: A journey into STEM

The opening keynote was by Floriane Fidegnon-Edoh who is currently an engineering student at University of Warwick. Floriane spoke about her journey into STEM, during which she emphasised the importance of creativity and design thinking, and the impact that school and early educational experience have in fostering and developing attitudes towards STEM. 

I noted down the phrase: ‘it was easy to buck the trend of my demographic’ and noted down the importance of taking studies outside of the classroom (I note down a site called Technology will save us), to move studies from a school to a different academic environment. 

Floriane offered me a reminder of something that I had heard of before, but had slipped my memory. She said that there opportunities to give back to the school sector whilst being in university, by teaching in a primary school and working as a STEM ambassador.

I noted down an interesting (and slightly challenging) quote: ‘statistically I shouldn’t be here’. We were given a challenge: higher education has an obligation to improve the pipeline (of students) from school to university. There was a reference to something called the Wise Campaign.

 and that academics who work within universities could become STEM ambassadors. Other notes I made were about the importance of targeting certain backgrounds, reaching out to families and engaging people through STEM clubs. We were presented with a final challenge: a lot of the responsibility [for engagement] rests on the shoulders of the HE establishment. This means that teaching and learning should be taken outside of the lab or lecture theatres; teaching should be connected to the real world, to make it applicable, and to make it engaging.

Creativity and Programming

Cathryn Peoples from Ulster University gave a talk entitled: Creative practical programming assignments on a Master of Science degree in Professional Software Development. Cathryn spoke about two modules: a module that taught students about the principles of concurrent systems and a module that introduced students to the concept of data structures.

In her concurrent systems module, students were introduced to concepts such as threads and deadlock; in the data structures module, students were introduced to abstract datatypes such as a stacks, queues and arrays. Students were given a challenge: to develop a social network application.

Object-based learning

I attended Dave Smith’s session, entitled ‘Object-based learning in the classroom, to engage and enthuse’ because I mistakenly thought it might have something to do with object-oriented programming, but I quickly realised that I was mistaken. Object based learning was defined as ‘a student centred approach that uses objects to facilitate deep learning’. Object based learning was all about physically handling objects and ‘interrogating’ them. We had an opportunity to handle 3D printed models of DNA and discuss the objects with whoever was sat next to us.

During the session, I realised that I had used a form of object-based learning myself; on occasions I have taken my old (and very badly designed) clock radio into a class as something that is used as a part of a role play about interaction design. I could immediately understand Dave’s points that objects can directly and immediately facilitate learning.

Dave has also written a short blog post about object-based learning where he shares a number of different resources.

Synchronous online tuition

A number of Open University colleagues, Lynda Cook, Diane Butler, Vikki Haley-Mirnar, Catherine Halliwell and Louise MacBrayne delivered one of the final sessions of the conference: Synchronous online tuition: Differences between student and teacher expectations and experiences. The background to this session was that over the last 5 years, more science tutorials have been presented online. There are, of course some questions that relate to this change, such as: what do our students think about online tutorials, and do we achieve our expectations for good tutorials? Also, do students and tutors have the same expectations?

Students and tutors were interviewed and a survey was carried out. I made a note that 88% of students surveyed used the recordings, and ‘they would go back to the recordings multiple times’. They would listen to a presentation from their own tutor to check their understanding of module concepts.

My colleagues did some further research: they listened to 74 recordings and studied the extent to which interactive tools were used. A finding was that the tutors use only few of the features of the online environment that is available but both tutors and students do seem to make extensive use of a feature that is known as text chat. Two quotes I noted down were: ‘students feel really insecure in the online room’ and ‘when the recording button goes on, they don’t talk’.

The aim of the research was to ask the question: are we achieving our aims of delivering good online tutorials? A concluding comment was that: ‘we’re not getting what we used to have face to face’ and that social constructivist learning may not be taking place. This said, it was reported that students appear to be happy but there was a concern that they were just passive recipients of recordings and the very act of recording may affect student behaviour.

The research found that there were very few instances of real time online group work. In some respects, tutorials were becoming more didactic. This reflects to a challenge that many OU tutor faces: that it is difficult to get students to speak through their microphone or using their headsets. A personal reflection is that we may need to uncover pedagogic approaches to try to solve this problem.

Collaborating with impact

The final presentation I attended was called Collaborating with Impact: Increasing student attainment through higher order engagement and was by Matthew Watkins from Nottingham Trent University. Matthew talked about a collaboration with an industrial partner that had a very specific problem: to design a cycle safe system for existing construction vehicles that is aerodynamic, is commercially viable and is suitable for off-road and urban environment. The project is a significant one, since we were told that 40% of cycling fatalities were connected to construction vehicles.

In incentivise the students, the industrial sponsor offered students two thousand pounds in prize money. As a part of the experiential learning experience, student went on field trips, got to see a construction depot and climbed into the cab of a truck.

I noted down some important take away points: students were presented with learning that was relevant, learning that took place through discovery, and learning that occurred within a particular social environment. What I also remember is Matthew’s enthusiasm about the partnership that he has established with an employer. Whilst industrial collaborations are really useful and are important, it takes commitment from both sides to make things work.

Reflections

There were a number of different things that I enjoyed from this conference. I appreciate the fact that the keynotes were relevant and appropriate: we were presented with a number of different challenges. I also appreciated that so many of the presentations were specifically about sharing practice. Whilst the conference did have (perhaps unsurprisingly) a distinct academic flavour to it, there was a clear focus towards sharing taking experiences with one another.

From a personal perspective, one of the presentations changed my practice, and another presentation extended my understanding about something that I have been doing. I appreciated the talk on blended learning, since this changed how I delivered online tutorials for a module that I teach on. The presentation about object-based learning helped me to understand that the approach that I had taken was, as I suspected, a very useful technique!

I feel that these smaller STEM specific conferences work a lot better than the big multi-discipline conferences that the HEA also run. Whilst I’m a great proponent of interdisciplinary, I did welcome the ability to listen to talks about the teaching of topics within my own discipline that I know can sometimes be challenging. An example of this is the session about how music can be connected to programming languages.

A final thought about this conference was that it was good to meet with so many of my Open University colleagues who were also delivering presentations about their own research and scholarship. Normally, we’re so busy doing things, such as preparing timetables and travelling to meetings that we rarely have the opportunity to catch up with what we are all doing and what we’re working on. Conferences also give us an opportunity and the time to share, discuss and debate.

More information about the conference can be found by visiting the conference hashtag #HEASTEM18.

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HEA STEM Conference, Newcastle 2018 (part 1)

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At the end of January 2018 I had the opportunity to attend a Higher Education Academy STEM education conference at the Centre for Life in Newcastle. The aim of the conference was pretty simple: to enable lecturers and teachers to share experiences and practice.

What follows is my summary of the event. Although the words are my own and the choices of sessions that I have attended reflected my own personal interests, a number of colleagues have implicitly contributed to this blog post by sharing with me their thoughts and opinions: a thank you to all contributors!

Keynote: Design thinking

The opening keynote was by Gareth Loudon from Cardiff Metropolitan University. His presentation had the title ‘what is design thinking?’ Gareth emphasised three top skills: complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. The point of creativity is, of course, to solve complex problems. To illustrate its importance he mentioned a creativity test by George Land (Creativityatwork) before going onto talk about his LCD model of creativity (PDF, Cardiff Met). I made a note that different factors can influence creativity: the person, the place, the process and the product. His LCD model covers different activities, such as: listening, connecting and observing. 

One aspect of his talk was familiar, and this was the broad concept of design thinking and the notion of the double diamond (DesignCouncil.org) which links to the ideas of convergent and divergent thinking. I noted down a number of elements or steps that were important to creativity: 1) the need for inspiration, which is the need to observe, capture and observe, 2) synthesis, which relates to the finding of patterns and themes, 3) ideation and experimentation, 4) implementation and then reflection.

A question to answer is: what is the connection to creativity and education? I noted down some quotes that I think have been attributed to Ken Robinson: ‘creativity is itself a mode of learning’ and ‘students learn best when they are actively learning things’, along with the view that ‘learning comes from failure’.

Towards the end of Gareth’s talk there were points about the importance of collaboration, making, testing and the use of theory and the importance of the link to industry. I noted down a closing question: how should design and creative practice be integrated with the STEM curricula? Perhaps the answer lies with connecting art with science, redesigning learning spaces and developing collaborations between and within courses and subjects.

Supporting creativity and motivation in learning programming

Chris Nas, from the University of West of England introduced us to a tool called Manhattan, which is essentially a musical instrument in the form of a programming language. It is essentially a tool that that can be used to teach programming and computation thinking, but can also be ‘played’ in some senses. 

Chris mentioned an interesting point about the context in which computing is taught: at the time of the conference some students may have a low level of technical computer literacy. This said, the situation may change following the introduction of updates to the school computing literature.  

There is another issue that is important when it comes to the teaching of programming, and that it can be hard to motivate students. Music, it was said, can be a motivator and there are now a range of different tools that relate to the teaching of programming, such as max/msp, Supercollider, Openmusic and Sonic Pi.

By wat of background, Chris also mentioned music pedagogies, which is a subject I know next to nothing about. He referenced Orff Schulwerk (Wikpedia), the Kodály method and the Gordon music learning theory (Wikipedia). Chris argued that musical pedagogy and programming pedagogy have similar aims and share a common problem: there is a high threshold of theory. The goals of coding and using a musical programming language are similar: there is a connection to the concept of end user programming.

Manhattan is apparently a style of music editor called a tracker and was described as being similar to a spreadsheet and can be used to create music from algorithms.

I really liked Chris’s presentation because I was shown something entirely new and I immediately appreciate how music could be used as a powerful vehicle to teach programming. This led to another thought. One of my favourite subjects as an undergraduate computer science student was called ‘comparative programming languages’. In the class we looked at the differences between programming languages. My thought was: I wonder whether there could be any mileage in doing a ‘comparative programming languages’ class that featured different musical programming languages. If there was one, I would certainly come along.

Utilising Backchannel software to promote student engagement

Andrew McDowell from Queen's University Belfast asked a simple question: ‘how do you engage a community with very large cohorts?’ A possible answer to this is: use back channel communication. A back channel can be defined as a ‘complementary interaction that takes place alongside another activity or event’. The potential of a back channel is that it may encourage student interaction to outside the classroom.

Andrew introduced us to Todaysmeet which is an alternative to Microsoft teams, Slack or Padlet walls. Todaysmeet was applied in a first year Java course. It allows students to send anonymous messages and respond to questions during and after classes.

How to engage students with flipped classroom resources

Beverley Hale, from the University of Chichester, shared some experiences of preparing and running flipped classrooms using recorded lectures. During her talk, I made the note: plan and prep materials, integration of and between classes. In retrospect, what I think is meant is that recorded resources represent an important and integral part of the teaching and learning approach. A key idea was to give students a recorded lecture which presents theory so the students are given the tools and then can interact with them during the tutorials. 

A challenge is that recorded lectures can become too long and students can become put off. Beverley offered some practice advice: make them shorter, include breaks to encourage students to reflect on what they are being taught, and personalise recordings to a group of students. A significant tip I made a note of was: give the students something purposeful to do during the video, and consolidate the learning in the class. Beverley offered a really nice tip that I have remembered, which is: keep it real, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

I tried out some of these ideas during in my own teaching practice: I recorded an introductory tutorial for the project module that I tutor where I encouraged students to think of how to describe their project idea in two sentences. I then ran a ‘live’ online tutorial to try to use the words that students had prepared. What I discovered was that my students did like the introduction, but it was hard to get them to carry out the preparatory work. What I’ll do next year is present some examples, and also use a discussion forum to try to get students sharing their ideas.

The effects of different text presentation media and font types on adults’ reading comprehension

Next up was a paper written by Elizabeth Newton, James Smith-Spark and Duncan Hamilton from London South Bank University. I was really interested in this topic, since as a distance learner I’ve sometimes asked myself the question: ‘do I really need to print this out?’ It also connected to an interest in language processing I had as a doctoral student when I studied the comprehension and maintenance of computer software. An aspect of the research was about dyslexia. I made a note of individual differences in reading comprehension: encoding, working memory and inference making. There are differences between fonts, i.e. sans serif fonts are easier to read for people with dyslexia (the presenters referenced the British Dyslexia Association during their talk).

The authors described an experiment. A small sample of 10 participants who were not dyslexic were asked to complete something called the Nelson-Denny Reading test (Wikipedia). The participants were asked to read passages of equal complexity that were presented in different fonts (Arial, Times new roman, and the OpenDyslexic font) which were presented in different formats: on a computer screen, on a tablet screen, and on printed paper and were asked to complete multiple choice questions.

Although it is arguably very difficult to draw any conclusions given the small sample size, there was a suggestion that there was a significant difference between the OpenDyslexic and Times New Roman fonts, and there may be an interaction between the font and the delivery media, i.e. the results for Times New Roman read on a tablet seemed to be worse. I find research like this to be both interesting and important for the simple reason that I regularly hear about students asking for printed books in preference to digital on screen materials. This said, both have an important role to play when it comes to distance learning.

Students’ perceptions of what makes teaching interesting and intellectually stimulating

The National student survey (The Student Survey, 2018), which contributes to the Teaching Excellent Framework asks a question about whether the teaching that is performed on a course is intellectually stimulating. This begs the question of: what exactly does intellectually stimulating actually mean? Jamie Taylor, University of Central Lancashire attempts to answer this question.

A focus group of neuroscience and psychology students were asked: what does ‘intellectually stimulating’ mean to you? Newer students didn’t distinguish between interesting and intellectually stimulating, and stimulating could be connected to challenging. Simulating could also be linked to practical experiences. A strong outcome from the focus group was that passive lectures were not intellectually stimulating.

A connected term or definition that I noted down was: a teacher’s ability to challenge students to promote intellectual growth. Again, how do we do this? This might come down to the importance of doing our best to make a class interesting. This also might come down to the enthusiasm and energy of lecturers, their use of language and tone of voice, classes that tailored to individual degree paths, the use of quizzes, and seizing opportunities for interaction.

Student perception of online group work: Benefits, obstacles and interactions

Victoria Nicholas and Mark Hirst, both from the The Open University, asked the question: what do students think of line group work? I made a note of a key observation: that students like practical science when it is carried out online, but they dislike online group work.

In the science group work, students propose an investigation, carry out an investigation and submit a single piece of work. In this report, students were ask to reflect on the group work that took place and also to reflect on their own contributions. 

Another question is: what might get in the way? Forums get busy, and students may be reluctant to use their microphone when using online rooms. I also noted down other important factors that influence group work, such as: knowledge of team members, time management and availability, and sharing of workload.

A final note that I made was: ‘not knowing people’ was an issue, so keeping students in their discipline group is perhaps one approach to foster a sense of familiarity; students may be able to recognise the names of others. A thought I had when summarising this blog was that I remembered the work of Gilly Salmon, whose book about forums and online activities emphasised the importance of socialisation within the online environment. 

How do students construct the nature of motivation?

The final presentation of the first day that I attended was by Bryn Alexander Coles and Sophie Meakin from Newman University. Their presentation had the title: a discursive psychological exploration of what motivates students to study?

Their talk was about students as academic partners, i.e. working together and closely with university academics on aspects of research. I remember a discussion about the difference between intrinsic (learning for the sake of learning) and extrinsic motivation (learning to gain a promotion or increase in salary). Another note is that intrinsic motivation is directly affected by self-efficacy and that other people influence personal motivation, but motivation can be obviously affected by a desire to avoid undesirable outcomes, such as gaining bad scores.

A concluding thought is that I find motivation to be a really interesting topic, and one that is linked to different aspects of teaching and learning. Not only is student motivation important, but lecturer or tutor motivation is pretty important too.

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STEM Postgraduate AL development conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 28 Nov 2017, 14:08

I attended my first ever STEM AL development conference that took place at The Open University in Milton Keynes between 10 and 11 November 2017. 

At the time of writing, I have been helping to support a combination of networking and data security postgraduate modules for just under a year. I think I became involved in with these modules since I had been a former OU PG computing student, studying three modules: project management, data and information security and digital forensics. I briefly toyed with studying for a MSc, before I became distracted and studied a couple of social science modules which helped me to learn more about methods that were applied in the interaction design module that I used to tutor.

What follows is a brief summary of my own take on the conference. These notes, of course, reflect my own personal interests; I accept that there was a lot more going on within the conference than am able to describe here. 

Tour and talks

The conference began with a series of talks about the new OpenSTEM lab (OU centre for STEM pedagogy) which gained a Times Higher Education award (OU website). The OpenSTEM lab is a set of online digital resources that students can use as a part of their studies. A key aspect of the lab is that it enables students to access to real scientific and engineering equipment allowing them to gather data, work together and share experiences. In some respects, the OpenSTEM lab represents a development of a ‘home experiment kit’ that was once shipped out to OU students, but with the advantage that it facilitates collaboration.

We were introduced to different aspects of the lab; we were told about an electron microscope and told that students were introduced to the idea of robotics through the use of a humanoid like robot called Baxter, and that science students could use a mock-up of a mars rover. We were also shown experiments that used agitated pendulums. There were some obvious challenges that needed to be addressed, such as the effect of network latency when gathering results from experiments. I also expect that students were asked and encouraged to book time on these different instruments.

After the talks, we all wandered over to our accommodation at the nearby Kent’s Hill conference centre. After dinner, we were treated to a talk by Mark Brandon from the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences. Mark is a Reader in Polar Oceanography. He shared experiences of working on module teams, working with associate lecturers and working on Frozen Planet, a BBC/OU co-production. Mark also emphasised the importance of the role of associate lecturers and the contributions that they can and do make to module teams.

School of Computing and Communication Session

The following day was split into two sections: the first part was a school specific session (associate lecturers are now, of course, primarily affiliated to a school rather than to a region); the second part of the day was comprised of two parallel sessions that addressed topics that were relevant to associate lecturer practice.

During the school of computing and communications session, I made some notes of some topics that were discussed and points that were highlighted. One of the themes discussed was the concept of degree apprenticeships; as well as undergraduate degrees, there are also postgraduate degree apprenticeships. As well as having an associate lecturer, there is also the role of a practice tutor. There was a comment that students might have to create a portfolio, and there was a question of how this might be carried out or managed.

Discussion points included broadband and internet connectivity amongst tutors and students, and the use of teaching tools such as Adobe Connect. This led to a short discussion about tutorials and tutorial practice; one idea is to always try to have two tutors at every online tutorial – not only does this offer redundancy if the internet for the presenting tutor goes down, but it also takes load off the main presenters and opens up the possibility of using some interesting pedagogic approaches, such as debates.

Another point I noted was that for some students postgrad study can represent a step change. For some students, the expectations of postgraduate study might be unclear; there is an increased emphasis on reflection, the use and application of literature and critical practice. One area that I think is fundamentally important is the induction period for new students. Whilst there are some induction materials, the university also has a free Badged Open Learning (BOC) course called Succeeding in Postgraduate study (Open Learn website). In addition to this there are, of course, some more generic study skills resources that are available, including a set of useful Booklets, including one that is called Thinking Critically (pdf).

During the school session, we also has a discussion about ideas that could feed into the computing curriculum update (or ‘curriculum refresh’, as it is otherwise know). Some interesting comments were: perhaps there needs to be some modules about research methods, or perhaps more materials about academic writing. It was commented that the science curriculum had a research skills module, but the computing curriculum didn’t. Another thought was that perhaps there could be a series of short 10 point modules that could be used for continuing professional development.

Parallel sessions

Tutors could choose between four different sessions. I remember what three of these were: there was a session about using and working with Adobe connect, a session that I ran about dealing with challenging situations, and another session about efficient and effective correspondence tuition.

The session that I ran was, essentially, a structured discussion which drew upon university resources and guidelines. The main objective of the discussion section was to share stories and experiences. I ran the session twice and everyone who attended participated.  

Reflections

Despite being a staff tutor for six or seven years I was interested to hear that these AL development events for postgraduate tutors run every few years. I couldn’t help but feel that there was a lot of cross over between the national AL development events and the events like this one that has a clear and distinct focus. This said, many of the important themes are shared between different tutors: everyone has to use Adobe Connect, and everyone has to offer effective correspondence tuition.

I found the school specific approach really useful: this session (and the conference as a whole) represented a really useful opportunity to get together with colleagues who we regularly work with through online rooms and virtual forum spaces. I also really enjoyed running two sessions with the postgrad students. If I could change something, it would be to, perhaps, add a bit more emphasis on the sharing of stories and how we respond to difficult situations. In some ways, this links to an idea that I was recently introduced to when I was studying at Birkbeck: the notion of the critical incident.

A final point is a series of acknowledgements: Mark Slaymaker, staff tutor of Computing and Communications, put a huge amount of hard work into organising the conference. Thanks are also extended to Mark Brandon from the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences and the STEM AL services team for their support and assistance.

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eSTEeM Annual Conference: April 2017

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On 25 April I had the opportunity of attending a part of the Open University’s eSTEeM annual conference. eSTEeM is a university body that funds scholarship and research into STEM teaching and learning. More information about the projects that eSTEeM funds can be found by visiting the eSTEeM website.

What follows is a short summary of the conference, from my own perspective. I should add that all these views are my own, rather than those of the university. I’m sharing for two reasons (1) in case anyone who was at the conference might find it useful, and (2) I can remember what I’ve done at the end of the year.

Opening keynote

Due to travel connections I missed the opening address, which was given by eSTEeM director, Clem Herman. I did, however, make it in time to hear the opening keynote, which was given by Nicola Turner (blog), who works for HEFCE. 

As Nicola spoke, I made notes of key points that jumped out at me. One of the early notes I made was that 14 thousand teachers are needed. There is also a skills shortage in STEM. Apparently, 1 in 4 jobs relate to a role that is in a skills shortage area. But what skills are needed, and what skills are considered to be important. One answer is this: digital skills (in the loosest possible sense!) are considered to be important: tech, of course, is a fast growing and changing area.

Investment, of course, can benefit different parts of the country. A worrying point was that Nicola said was that there was no northern city that was a net GDP contributor (a disclaimer is that I don’t personally know where this bit of information comes from, or how you might define what ‘northern’ is). London, however, attracted a substantial amount of investment (but this isn’t much of a surprise), but there are ‘digital strengths’ in the regions. Another point I noted was that there is the need for 1.2 million skilled tech workers by 2022, and 93% of tech employers have reported a skills gap in 2016. The key question is: what can be done?

To show that I was really paying attention, some of the most sought after skills contained the keywords: developer, agile and SQL. There are also skills shortages in the area of cloud computing, big data and analytics. An important point is that workers need to be digitally literate, and this is something that links to that old education idea of ‘lifelong learning’.

If there is a skills shortage, an important question to ask is: why is the unemployment rates from computing graduates surprisingly high? This is something that is referenced in the Shadbolt review : Computer science degree accreditation and graduate employability (UK government website). There is also the Wakeham review into employability of STEM graduates (UK government website).

Nicola went onto talk about the Shadbolt review. As she spoke, I noted down a few points: that employment may come from a pool of students from elite universities and that there is low take up of work experience options (I have to confess, that this was offered to me as an undergraduate, and I didn’t take a year out in industry); this leads to a potential lack of soft skills and interpersonal skills. When it comes to computing and IT, the people side is just as important as the technology side.

I noted down some themes regarding employability. Industry is always after ‘work ready graduate’, but there is a contact challenge that industry is always changing (especially the tech industries). But what are the answers? There are things going on: there is the introduction of degree apprenticeships (of which the Open University is playing a part), ‘200 million in STEM teaching capital’, and government strategies.

There is something called the National Cybersecurity Strategy (UK government website), which is linked to degree apprenticeships, a digital skills strategy (UK government website), and an industrial skills strategy. 

The digital skills strategy was defined as a collaboration between employers, educators and government. There was also a reference to the creation of new institutes of technology, and a national college for digital skills (college webite), which is based in London. Interestingly, the focus appears to be at sixth form students. I have to confess to being perplexed. The website says things like: ‘We develop the mindsets, skillsets and character needed to be a pioneer’ and says that students will ‘join a cutting-edge community of digital-thinkers’.

Another point I noted was about something called the Institute of Coding (HEFCE). A key paragraph on the website appears to be the one that reads: ‘The Institute of Coding initiative aims to create and implement solutions that develop and grow digital skills to meet the current and future needs of the industry’.

One thing is very encouraging: the comment that ‘lifelong learning’ is becoming trendy again. A personal reflection, and one that is echoed in the presentation, is that lifelong learning is an idea comes in and goes out of fashion depending on the government. The OU is, of course, good at delivering supported lifelong learning, but much of its provision has been substantially eroded by the increase in fees.

A connected point is that other higher education institutions are investing in distance learning. There is competition within the sector. At the same time, there may be opportunities in terms of ‘new customers’, which has been something that has been touched on in the current OU strategy.

Paper session

I attended one of the short presentation paper sessions, which consisted of four presentations. 

ByALs-ForALs: an online staff development programme in the STEM faculty

This first presentation was by Janet Haresnape, Fiona Aiken and Nirvana Wynn. I made a note of a point that ‘staff development is often us (the university and its representatives) telling people about things, but it should be more about sharing practice’. I totally agree with this. A personal reflection is when I do staff development, I try to get a balance between the two, but I’m sure I don’t always get it right.

The idea is simple: create an environment where ALs can actively share their experience through a programme of online staff development events. If an AL wants to give a presentation or facilitate a session, they submit a proposal. If they are successful, they will be paid for running the session. Tutors can register to attend different sessions by registering using a simple Wiki, and this feeds into an official professional development record.

A total of 500 associate lecturers have been to the various sessions, with attendance varying between 5 and 54, depending on the topic and the time of day. Interestingly, day time appears to be more popular than evening sessions. Every session is recorded, which means that anyone who wasn’t able to attend can benefit.

Following the merger of the Science and MCT faculties, the programme has been extended to all undergraduate and postgraduate ALs in the new STEM faculty (which now consists of over 1500 tutors). I have to confess to not having been to any of these sessions, but I do know of them, and I always put them in my diary! Two questions were: could this approach be rolled out to other faculties, and secondly, would it be possible to do something similar for the school that I work in? Funding may come from the AL professional development and support team. This is certainly something to think about.

Understanding and supporting the career pathway of mathematics and statistics associate lecturers

This presentation was by Rachel Hilliam, Alison Bromley and Carol Calvert, and related to the Maths and Stats submission to Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit website). The presentation was looking at the gender differences between tutors, and asking the questions: do we support tutors in the right way, and what career development is necessary? A mixed method was used: a focus group and a survey.

Some interesting findings between men and women were shared. On average, men had more experience (in terms of tutoring years) than women, and were more likely to have a greater number of tutor contracts.

One area that has interested me for some time is tutor motivation, and this research touches on the reasons why tutors do what they do. Some interesting reasons included: career, challenge and family. A really interesting statistic is that 60% of ALs who responded viewed their AL work as their main job. I also noted down that there was concern about a lack of face to face possibility for staff development.

Success against the odds and the follow through

The presenter for this session was Carol Calvert, from Maths and Stats, but the other contributors to this presentation are: Rachel Hilliam, Linda Brown and Colin Fulford (if I’ve noted this down properly!) The subheading for this talk is: ‘the interesting routes student feedback can open up’.

The interesting aspect of this research is that it adopts the innovate approach of actually speaking to students. To do this, researchers have to find their way through a panel called SRPP, which protects students from being ‘over researched’.

I made a note of top tips and themes that all contributes towards success: the importance of a ‘can do’ attitude, the importance of getting organised, and the need to get ahead. I made a note of another reference: the RSA Animate video entitled How to help every child fulfil their potential (RSA).

Tutorial observations

During the final session I spoke about a project that has been set up to study different approaches to tutorial observations and to ask the important question of what kind of observation or tutorial report would help tutors to develop their teaching practice? At this stage of the project, I don’t have too much to report. So far, a literature review has been completed, and a two focus groups with tutors have been carried out. The next step in the project is to run a focus group for staff tutors (who are, of course, line managers for those tutors).

Workshop: bridge over troubled waters

After taking a bit of time out to attend a module team meeting, I attended an afternoon session that explored the concept of a ‘bridging course’.

A bridging course is a short course that helps student build up their skill and confidence levels before they undertake another module. A bridging course might run between or before modules. An example of a bridging course something called the ‘programming bootcamp’ which helps students to prepare for TU100 (which is to be soon replaced by TM111 and TM112).

The workshop began with a question: ‘would your students benefit from a bridging course to help them transition to the second year?’ There is, apparently, something that is known as a ‘second year slump’. The second year of a degree is where things start to get really serious. To convince us that this was an important issue, Frances Chetwynd presented some evidence, citing research by Douglas and Attewell (American Journal of Education).

So, what things are important, with regard to student progress? Key points include: time management, familiarity with written assessments, unrealistic expectations (which influence drop out), critical thinking skills, and understanding the need to conduct independent research. My notes tell me that Frances also referenced the work of Conley, who has written about college readiness (Education Policy Improvement Centre, PDF). Key points were: cognitive strategies, content knowledge, academic behaviours (which include time management and what it means to be a student), and college knowledge (understanding of how the institution works).

With the scene set, it was time for group discussions. We thought about what our bridging course might contain. An hour isn’t a lot of time. Key points that we chatted about were the importance of tutors and the use of digital materials (and the familiarity of digital materials). A theme that we kept returning to was that of ‘programming’. Another important issue is, of course, study skills.

Closing keynote

The closing keynote, which was entitled ‘is there a role for pedagogy in enhancing the STEM student experience?’ was by Michael Grove, a reader in STEM education. My instinct was to answer this question with a definitive ‘yes’, but to add to this perspective, Michael presented up with a definition of pedagogy from the Oxford English dictionary: pedagogy is ‘the art, occupation or practice of teaching, also the theories or principles of education; a method of teaching on such a theory’.

Underpinning this is definition are the ideas of: preparation, design, development, delivery, evaluation, reflection and dissemination. This helps us to consider other questions: how do you share good practice and encourage wider uptake?

Looking at pedagogy means that we also look at research. An interesting point was made that pedagogy, research and scholarship all blur together, and could all come under the title of ‘education enquiry’. But how does this work? There are approaches that are used, such as case studies, action research, studies that draw on theories and the use of quasi-experimental methods.

I noted an interesting use of terms. To be scholarly means that we inform ourselves, whereas scholarship means that we’re informing a group and using local knowledge. Research, on the other hand, is about disseminating findings to a wider audience. All this is, of course, linked with changes in the HE sector. A particular issue is the development of teaching only contracts, which separates out teaching activity from research activity.

Michael directed us to a document entitled Getting started in pedagogic research within the STEM disciplines (Mathcentre, PDF). It was a document that was mentioned at another presentation, and it looks pretty useful. It contains sections about writing for publication, and list of journals that can be used to disseminate STEM education research. (I also recommend a journal called Open Learning).

In some respects, the original question should have been: ‘is there a role of research in STEM pedagogy?’ I’m instinctively inclined to answer ‘yes’ to this alternative question too. Michael also asks a question about why we should do this. He also offers an answer: it represents an important aspect of our personal academic identify (and also our commitment to our discipline).

Reflections

Although I missed a couple of bits of the conference, I felt the opening and closing speeches worked very well in terms of contextualising the pedagogic research that is done within the university. It is also a reminder that there is a lot to do: not only do academics have to teach (and write module materials), many of them conduct research, and also conduct research into the effectiveness of their teaching strategies and approaches. 

This emphasises that we’re a busy lot: we’re busy reading, writing, thinking and talking pretty much all the time. The event also emphasised how much work is going on, and discussions with others helps us to set our own personal priorities, and learn how we can work with others too.

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Horizons in STEM higher education conference 2016

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This blog has been taken from a set of notes I made when I visited the Horizons in STEM conference at the University of Leicester on 30 June 2016. Attending an event like this, to do ‘something academic’, made me feel weirdly guilty since I had been spending so much of my time doing ‘admin stuff’.

The aim of the conference was all about developing teaching and learning in the STEM disciplines, and sharing practice about what works and what doesn’t. Two speakers gave an opening address: there was the head of STEM from the HEA, and Nick Braithwaite from The Open University. Comments were made about the student voice, commitment to the discipline and the constant importance of professional integrity. I also noted down the words, ‘we want to improve our critical pedagogy; encourage everyone to be critical’. The second keynote speech was especially interesting because it was pretty distant from my know experience and knowledge: it was about how shared laboratory and learning spaces could be used to create an interdisciplinary subject centre.

Day one: first session

The first presentation I attended had the title ‘the educational value of student generated videos’. The idea was to replace a static poster with a five minute videos. As I listened, I thought of the Open University T215 module which requires students to create a short presentation.

One of the presentations that I particularly liked had the title: ‘undergraduate eJournals’. An eJournal is an official university publication for undergraduate studies that was linked to a ten point module. Interestingly, the articles published in an eJournal can be picked up by Google Scholar and the national media. Students could adopt the roles of author, referee and play a role on an editorial board. A new term that I’ve learnt was: synoptic learning. A key point for students was: try to create a paper that links science and fun topics; wacky can be good.

Discussion session

The next session was about discussion. I made notes about issues relating to ‘normative practice’ (without really understanding that this meant), social justice and inclusion.

An interesting question that was posed was: ‘are you aware of attainment gaps [in your programmes and modules]?’ Accompanying questions were: ‘are they discussed in your module team meetings, and do you know why they happen?’ and ‘do you discuss potential solutions?’ There were a series of related points: the importance of transition between levels of study, the importance of data, and the importance of critical reflection. Inclusion was discussed in terms of inclusive curriculum; making a subject relevant to individual students.

Flexibility and Personalisation

Neil Gordon from the University of Hull spoke about two pieces of work: flexible pedagogy and attainment. Flexible pedagogy was defined as giving students more choice about when to learn, where to learn and how to learn (mode, pace and place). Some interesting points that relate to computer science: it is a popular subject, but there appears to be a mismatch between expectations, i.e. computer science does not equal information technology. There are some clear challenges: computer science was noted to be the second worse subject for awarding good degrees (I should add that I’m not sure whether this was a national perspective or an institutional perspective), and 83% of students are male (again, I’m not sure on where this figure was taken from). Are there solutions? Some ideas were: to develop interactive tutorials, to create automated assessment, and look at the transition between school and colleague, and look to community engagement.

The next presentation was by Derek Raine from the University of Leicester. My notes read: ‘personalise the content to match with the aims and objectives for students – usual approach: core, options and a capstone project’.  Other points were: ‘drivers of change include finance, non-standard providers, media, and MOOCs’. The following question could be asked in classes: ‘what would you like to be discussed in the sessions?’

Final session

The final session that I attended was opened by Simon Grey from the University of Hull who spoke about ‘Games, learning and engagement’. Simon presented a brief history of gaming followed by a summary of the concept of gamification and game based learning. I learnt that there were eight different types of fun: sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discover, expression and submission (these terms reminded me of usability and user experience goals that are found in interaction design). Other points include the importance of mechanics (rules), dynamics (the system), and aesthetics (the look and feel), before Simon spoke about the concept of flow, and that we needed to give students clear goals, immediate feedback, and challenges that match their skill.

I think it was then my turn to do a bit of speaking. I spoke about a university funded project to study the teaching of a second level module about web technologies. My key points were that students differed significantly in terms of their backgrounds and abilities, and tutors differed significantly in terms of their online teaching practice.

The next session, entitled ‘teaching programming and data analysis with a MOOC’ was given by my colleague Michel Wermelinger. Michel talked about his experience of teaching on a MOOC entitled ‘learn to code for data analysis’ which has been presented through FutureLearn. Michel mentioned some software that students could use: a Python distribution called Anaconda (Wikipedia), something called SageMathCloud (Wikipedia), and Jupyter notebooks (Jupyter website). We were also told of a blog post that Michel had written called the First Principles of Instruction (blog post). The post which presents a very brief summary of five principles of instructional design that promotes learning and engagement. These are: problem centred, activation (of past experience), demonstration (to show new knowledge), application, and integration (of new knowledge into existing knowledge or practice).

It was a good talk. I have one other memory, which was that Michel was pretty robust in his views about much workload running a MOOC actually entails from a lecturer’s perspective.

Day two: first session

The first session had the title ‘development of digital information literacy’ by Eleanor Crabb who was also from the OU. I noted down the terms ‘understanding digital practices, finding information and critical evaluation’. There was a mention of an online pinboard tool, which was a bit like Pinterest, and a presentation about different activities: an icebreaker activity and a collaborative activity where students had to summarise a chemistry paper.

The next session had the title ‘encouraging students’ reflection through online progress files’. All students were required to make comments every week on each module, which in turn, acquire marks – which is an interesting parallel with a scientist’s notebook.  Key challenges included engagement with students and staff and students knowing what to write (which was ameliorated by a set of more detailed guidelines).

A session that I found especially interesting was entitled ‘maths advice and revision for chemistry’.  A key term that I noted down was: ‘the maths problem’; some students didn’t have mathematics as a prerequisite when they started to study chemistry as an undergraduate at Glasgow University. I also noted down bit of research that one of the best indicators of success in chemistry wasn’t having studied chemistry in the past, but instead, having an existing maths qualification. As I listened I started to think about (and remember) my own experience as a computer science student where I had to attend remedial maths classes (since I didn’t study A-level). I had to attend these classes where we were given maths puzzles printed on yellow paper. In Glasgow University, students could attend voluntary labs, workshops and group tutorials. Subjects included complex numbers, vectors, matrices, differentiation and integration. I couldn’t help but feel that such an approach would have been really useful during my own undergraduate studies.

The final session had the title: ‘understanding the process by which students manage their employability’. Employability was defined as ‘personal assets, how they are deployed, how they are presented to employers, and the wider context (such as economic conditions and personal circumstances). Another thought I had was that employability also relates the information that employers might find easily discover about potential employees if they do a quick internet search (which was a theme I think I was introduced to at another HEA workshop). Much food for thought.

Keynote summary:  Future directions in teaching and learning

The second conference keynote was by Derek Raine (who spoke during an earlier session) from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Science from the University of Leicester. Derek mentioned something called the New Directions in the teaching of Physics which presents opinion pieces, pedagogic research and reviews.

Before considering the future, Raine looked to the past to consider the historic and contemporary roles of universities. As well as being centres of study for the sciences and humanities, they can also be considered to be an ‘engine of social mobility, a driver of economic growth, and a cornerstone of our cultural landscape. Points were drawn from the 2016 white paper (THES explanation), and the 1963 Robins Report in Higher Education  (Education England) which states that higher education should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue it (page 9).  

According to Raine (and my notes), the 2016 white paper cites problems: that courses are inflexible, that students are dissatisfied, and there are national skills shortages. An important point is that there is increased competition from different types of education providers which is connected with an important change in perspective. Historically, higher education has been viewed as being a public good (the view that an educated and skilled workforce helps all members of society) whereas it is now being presented as a private good (that an education helps the individual to earn money). My view, and those of others that I work with is that the first perspective needs to be protected.

Another point was that there is research that tells us something about what works in higher education teaching. Key points include: time on task, trained teaching staff, the importance and use of collaborative learning, class sizes, quality of feedback, and the sense of community (Gibbs, Dimensions of Quality, Higher Education Academy PDF).

I made a note of some pedagogies (approaches to teaching) that were mentioned: personalised lecturers (that are based on student questions), flipped classrooms (where students listen to lectures before attending a tutorial), problem-based learning, MOOCs (which I’m very cynical about), gamificiation, extension tasks and student journals. As our speaker was speaking, I made a note that I felt important: ‘an alternative division of labour where pedagogic research or scholarship plays a part’.

Another interesting idea was the importance of sustainability (of higher education, and education per se) as a fundamental idea or principle. I also noted that it is important that ‘history is linked with the present, science linked with society, and economies with social justice, and this is achieved through interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary’. I agree: connections are important since they offer us perspective.

These final thoughts inspired an interesting point during the concluding question and answer session: ‘it isn’t just about what a university is for, but also what is an economy for; it’s not just about money, it’s about culture and our place within it’. 

Final session

The first of three sessions was from three of my OU colleagues, Ann Walshe, Anne-Marie Gallen, and Anne Campbell who were studying ‘associate lecturer perspectives on supporting students through tuition in groups’. They were asking: ‘what is tuition?’, ‘what can we learn from tutors?’ and ‘are there some common understandings across stakeholders?’ The research is being carried out through workshops and telephone interviews.

The next talk had the title ‘a student monitoring and remedial action system for improving retention of computer science programmes’ by Stewart Green from the University of West of England. I noted that there was a role of a retention co-ordinator. This is someone who gets different sources of data, such as attendance data, VLE logins, and assessment results. A key task is to periodically review the data, and to choose actions supported by student support advisors. Interventions might include email messages, face to face chats, and referrals to advisors. Students may, of course, be affected by a whole range of different issues, including illness, family issues and caring responsibilities.

In some ways Stewart’s role represents a human equivalent of various learning analytics project that I have heard rumours about in the OU. I really like the human element that underlies the looking of reports about attendance and attainment; this backs up my opinion that what really matters in education isn’t technology, but people.

I also noted down a couple of useful reports. The first that I noted had the title: Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change by Liz Thomas (HEA website). The second was entitled Undergraduate retention and attainment across the disciplines (HEA website).

The final session was called ‘visualising student progress: identifying patterns in the behaviour of students learning databases’. It was given by Andrew Cumming from Edinburgh Napier. Andrew spoke about tutorial exercises, where students had to perform SQL database searches across a number of live databases. I also have made the note ‘can we tell the difference between formal and informal learners?’ but I have no idea what this means.

Concluding thoughts

By the end of the two days at Leicester, I was pretty tired: there had been loads of presentations, and a lot of take in. Even though several months have now passed since the event, I can still remember some highlights. I was particularly interested in three things: the idea of an official ‘student journal’ as a learning tool (it was an interesting pedagogic approach), the idea of a ‘retention tutor’ (retention is a theme which crops up at almost every meeting I attend), and a welcome dose of perspective given to everyone during the second keynote.

There was one theme that seemed to go through every session: the importance of connecting teaching and research. Even though some of us might work in a discipline that doesn’t change very much (such as mathematics), the context and environment in which a subject or discipline sits is, of course, always changing. This means that we must always think about, study and explore ways to engage our students.

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AL development event: researching Computing and IT pedagogy

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 21 Nov 2016, 15:12

This blog has been prepared from a set of notes made during an AL development event on 18 June 2016 which took place at the Open University offices in Camden.

Opening remarks

The session kicked off with a ‘state of the union’ address. One of the big changes that associate lecturers were told about was the merger between two faculties: the Maths Computing and Technology faculty and the Science faculty, to create the STEM, Science Technology Engineering and Maths faculty. One of the reasons cited for this change is that the new faculty will have more independence in terms of how it is able to manage its structures and finances.

There, are, however some interesting differences. The science faculty doesn’t have any face to face tutorials for second and third level modules, whereas MCT does. Another point that I’ve noted down is that science makes more use of formative assessments. I’ve made some notes about what this means, but I won’t go into it here (since I might get some of the details wrong!)

In terms of Computing and IT, there are three new level three modules (which have now started), and two level one modules that are currently being written. These two modules occupy the space where TU100 My Digital Life used to sit. Key issues that needed to be addressed included: clear study overload for students, and issues regarding the transition between levels 1 and 2, especially when it comes to computer programming.

Retention and progression

The topic of retention and progression regularly comes up. The OU faces particular challenges regarding retention and progression due to its open access policy. In response to these challenges (amongst others, of course) the new faculty has created a new role called ‘head of student success’. I personally hold the view that associate lecturers and the student-tutor relationship is the single most important thing in terms of student success, and the new ‘head of student success’ needs to know something about what happens in the life of an associate lecturer to make any impact. Like I say, this is just an opinion (but one that is very valid).

I’ve also made a note that there was some mention of the subject of ‘learning analytics’. This is the study of ‘knowing how, when and where students are clicking’ when they visit the university websites. The idea is that clever algorithms might be able to tell members of the student support teams to give students a ring to have a chat about their studies before things get too difficult. Call me old fashioned: algorithms are all very well and have their uses but when it comes to education, people and personal knowledge matter a whole lot more (and I’ve spent much of my life studying computing and IT systems).

I’ve also made the following note (but I’m not quite sure what point I was trying to make): ‘students first’ means the importance of feedback and feedforward in response to exams, i.e. ‘why did I get a particular score?’ I think I meant: ‘one of the real things that can make a difference to students is the quality of feedback; personalised feedback can (obviously) guide effective learning’.

Group tuition policy session

The university has introduced something called the group tuition policy. There are some obvious issues with it, and I think it is (by and large) a pretty good idea. It has a couple of really simple principles, such as ‘for each face to face event, there should be an online alternative’ and ‘students can attend all learning events that are available in a cluster (of tutor groups). A cluster can be made up of anything between 4 and 10 tutor groups.

I’ve made a note of some really good points that were made during this session. One tutor asked, ‘will there be 100 people turning up when we have a really big cluster?’ Experience now tells us that OU Live tutorials don’t ever get that big, but they can become fairly big. I have heard that for some sessions over forty students have logged into a single learning event. (When I have run a national revision tutorial for a module that had over 320 students, I never had more than 30 students). An interesting point was about the use of microphones: students rarely use them.

One tutor asked the question: ‘will students be able to access learning events from all clusters?’ This isn’t something that I have managed to get a definitive answer about, but I have heard the new term ‘students from alien clusters’.

Another tutor asked about OU Live rooms. We now know that students will have access to up to three different OU Live rooms, and it will be down to the module tuition strategy to say more about how they should be used. In many cases there will be a national OU Live room which the module team could use to deliver lectures. There will be a cluster wide room which will be shared by all tutors who are working in a cluster. Finally, tutors will still have access to their own OU Live room, which can be used for additional support sessions, or tutorials that are for a whole tutor group.

I’ve made a note that there was some discussion about how timetables were set. My own approach has been to use a shared wiki document that is hosted on the university virtual learning environment. The dates and times on the wiki are then transferred to a booking spreadsheet which is passed onto AL services. Something else I’ve set us is a ‘cluster forum’, which is used to communicate will all tutors who are a part of a cluster.

The final discussions were about the learning event management system. The LEM, as it is known, is used to allow students to book onto learning events. One of the features of the LEM is that it will allow tutors to send messages to all the students who have registered for learning events (perhaps to send them some information that could be useful before a tutorial).

Researching Computing and IT Pedagogy

This afternoon session was designed to highlight that the university is currently funding STEM pedagogy through its eSTEeM research project, and to emphasise its importance to tutors. A key point is that tutors are important, since they are those that are closest to students.
One note I made was: ‘what do our students find most difficult?’ One answer is writing, and one module that was singled out was T215. A point was that perhaps there could be more teaching by example: students could be given an example of a good essay and a poorly written essay to show how they were different. 

Another interesting point was: when should the subject of writing (in terms of essay and TMA writing) be introduced to students? One thought was: maybe before the start of first level modules? There is something called a programming bootcamp (Learning Innovation website) that helps students to get to grips with the ideas of computer programming; perhaps there might be a writing bootcamp? Another important issue is the importance of basic numeracy, which is something that the first level Computing and IT modules try to address.

The final note I made was about other resources that tutors could draw upon to help students. The university has its Skills for Study website, resources from the library website and the developing good academic practice website which covers issues such as plagiarism and referencing.

AL contract negotiations update

The final part of the event was about potential changes to the associate lecturer teaching contract. The university and the union have been negotiating the terms for a new contract which should, hopefully, offer associate lecturers more stability and security. Rather than being contracted to a particular module which has a certain life tutors will be given a fractional post where they may be required to undertake a range of other duties, such as monitoring, moderating forums, exam marking, critical reading, and so on. This change in the contract will represent, in my opinion, a fundamental change in how the university operates.

I understand that there has been a university project that has been looking at how to plan and organise workload for these fractional posts. This said, at the time of writing, negotiations are currently stalled due to issues that are connected with the implementation of the group tuition policy.

Final remarks

A lot was covered in quite a short period of time. From my perspective, one of the key outcomes was a renewed sense that we need to collectively conduct some research into why students don’t attend tutorials when they are offered. The more students who attend tutorials (or learning events), the more fun, dynamic and interesting the tutorials will become. As soon as I’ve finished my current pedagogy project (which is about how best to observe teaching and learning practice), the question of tutorial attendance is something that I’m definitely going to pursue, with help from tutors (of course). We need this important piece of research to get more of an insight into issues that surround retention and progression.

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Open University eSTEeM 2016 conference, 14 April 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 15:57

eSTEeM is the Open University centre for STEM pedagogy. I think this was the second or third eSTEeM conference I’ve been to, and they’ve always been pretty interesting. This blog post is a quick summary of the different talks that I went to. I’m blogging this, so I can remember what happened, and also just in case it might be useful for anyone else who was there.

Opening keynote

Andrew Smith, Senior Lecturer in networking, gave a thought provoking keynote speech entitled ‘our classroom has escaped’. He began by asking everyone who was users of different social media tools: twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Pretty much everyone put up their hands, showing how popular these tools are.

Andrew said ‘we suffer from the paradigm of monolithic learning; what happens in my classroom doesn’t leak out’, and that we are protective of our content.  His point was: things have been ‘escaping’ for some time. As soon as Andrew mentioned this, I thought of the session about Facebook that was held in the most recent associate lecturer development session (OU blog). A question is: how do people outside our classroom see what is going on?

A challenge is that social media exposes us amongst our peers, but it also offers us a way to engage our audience beyond the classroom. But how might we use these tools to teach? One approach is to automate our social media content. For instance, if you know what your content is you can ‘schedule it and plan it’. There is also the potential to engage students when modules are not running, or students are between presentations.

This is all very well, but how do we great engagement? One approach is to ask open questions. The idea is to create a community of practice, where both learners and tutors participate. There is also the importance of relevance. Social media engagement can also connect current studies to current and changing media stories. One of the roles of an educator is to create ‘sparks of interest’, to inspire, and to facilitate learning.

Would the way that you approach social media be different depending upon the subject that you teach? Perhaps. The thing with networking, is that many things are cut and dried; the situation might be very different with subjects from the humanities, for instance.

(In case you’re interested, Andrew told us about two of his Twitter streams: @OUCisco and @OUCyberSec)

Session C: Online practices

There was a lot going on, so I had to choose from one of many different parallel sessions. The first talk in the ‘online practices’ session, by Vic Nicholas, was all about student perceptions of online group work as they studied a ‘classical science module’. One finding (that was, in retrospect, not particularly surprising) was that students appear to have negative views about group work. One thing that I took away from this session was the use of email to prompt students at certain points throughout the module. (This reminded me that tutors have been requesting a ‘send text message to students’ feature for quite a while now).

The next talk took a very different tone: rather than focussing on the students, it was all about how to use technology to empower academic authors. Angela Coe told us about how a tool called OpenEdx (OpenEdx site) was used to create materials for S309 Earth Processes (OU website). OpenEdx was described as a tool that has been created by STEM developers for STEM developers.

Some interesting points were that the tool exposed more about the author and who they are. The use of the tool also encouraged an informal chatty writing style, and supported ‘in content’ discussions. I seem to remember that Angela also spoke about animations and the sharing of data sets using Google Docs. 

The final presentation in this session was entitled, ‘the trials and tribulations of S217’ (which is entitled Physics: from classical to quantum). This is a module that appears to cover some pretty hard (yet fundamental) stuff, such as thermodynamics, optics and quantum physics. An important issue that needed to be addressed in this module was the accessibility of the mathematical materials. I’ve made a note that they authors had to move Tex content to the virtual learning environment (which is a theme that was mentioned in my previous blog about a BCS accessibility conference). 

Session F: MOOCs

The first presentation of this session, entitled ‘Evaluating the design and delivery of a Smart Cities MOOC for an international audience’ was given by Lorraine Hudson from the department of Computing and Communications. The OU is a central partner in an EU funded project that is all about Smart Cities, or how the operation of cities can be supported by the use of different types of IT systems. In some senses the MOOC seems to be about how to tackle ‘wicked problems’ (problems that don’t have an immediately apparent solution). The subject is also necessarily interdisciplinary. 

Michel Wermelinger and Tony Hirst spoke about their experience of designing a MOOC about using the programming language Python for data analysis. In some respects, Michel’s presentation was a ‘warts and all’ take on designing and running a MOOC. The main point that I took away from his presentation was that MOOCs are a lot of hard work for the academics who have to run them, and there is the perpetual question of whether this is time well spent, especially when we bear in mind the fact that around three quarters of the participants already have degrees (which was a point also mentioned in Lorraine’s talk).

The final presentation was by Kris Stutchbury, who spoke about ‘Supporting the teaching of Science in development contexts: OpenScience Lab and TESSA’. TESSA is an abbreviation of Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kris’s project represented a case study, of a snap shot of what is happening within the TESSA project, which can be thought of as an important aspect to the university’s wider social mission. 

Workshop: Listening to graphs

This session was hosted by Chris Hughes and Karen Vines. Their session opened with the observation that graphs are (obviously) a really effective way of communicating a lot numerical data really easily, but how do we communicate the same information for students who have visual impairments?

There are a number of different ways: figure descriptions, the use of tactile diagrams, and the use of sonification, which means converting a visual representation to an audible one. The challenge is, of course, how do we do it? Chris mentioned that sonification has been around for quite a long time; at least one hundred years. One common example of sonification is the Geiger counter, which translates measurements of radiation of audible clicks.

There are a bunch of ‘sound parameters’ that can be manipulated. These are: pitch, timbre, time, loudness and repetition. By way of a simple introduction we were asked to draw a graph based on an equivalent auditory representation. This is all well and good, but there is a compelling research question which needs to be answered, which is: do sonifications actually work during study? Do they help students to learn?

To try to answer this question Chris, Karen and colleagues designed a study. In their study, they gave five visually impaired students and five sighted six learning scenarios: two were from science, one was from mathematics, and the remaining three were from statistics. Of course, since there was such a small sample size, the study was qualitative and (as I interpreted it) exploratory.

The workshop raised some really interesting questions, such as: how do we best teach through figure descriptions? This also emphasised the extent to which existing student knowledge can influence the interpretation of certain descriptions. The final point that I noted was: ‘we need to think of a blended approach, to use different representations; sonifications, descriptions and tactile diagrams’.

Closing Keynote

The closing keynote was by Helen Beetham, and had the title, ‘supporting lifelong learner’s resilience and care in a digital age’.  Helen began with a definition of ‘learning literacies in a digital age’: capabilities that allow an individual to thrive (to live, to learn, to work) in a digital society. There is a JISC funded project called Learning Literacies for the Digital Age (LLiDA) that accompanies this description; an associated project is the JISC Digital Student project (JISC). But what does it mean to be a ‘digital’ student? (If this is a term can ever be defined?) Perhaps it could be able developing effective study habits and specialist practices, using technology to create relationships with peers. 

A connected idea is the notion of ‘digital literacy’. To help us with definitions, there is a JISC information page called Developing students’ Digital Literacy (JISC) that offers a bit of guidance. Another thought is that perhaps ‘the digital divide might be narrower, and deeper’ with respect to how we use digital tools and consume digital learning media. There is also the notion of ‘digital well-being’, and Helen offers a number of digital well-being references (Google Doc). An accompanying idea is ‘digital resilience’.

An interesting point, and one I’ve come across before, is the importance of ‘career and identity management’ (I think I might have come across this term at a HEA event about employability): our different digital identities have the potential to blur, and knowing how we are presented ‘on-line’ is important.

Helen gave us with two other interesting phrases to consider: the notion of our ‘quantified selves’, which points to the question of how much control we have over what data is collected about us, and whether this might connect to our ‘digital capital’.

Reflections

What surprised me about this conference was how much research and scholarship was going on across the university. The poster session was especially memorable. I don’t know how many posters there were, but there were at least twenty, each relating to a different aspect of teaching and learning. Some posters focussed on teaching practice, others focussed on technology.

To get more of a view about what is going on (and what was happening in the other parallel sessions), I really need to find the time to sit down with a cup of tea and work through the conference proceedings.

More information about eSTEeM funded research can also be found by visiting the Open University eSTEeM website (Open University).

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A brave new world of AL development?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 12 Apr 2016, 11:14

One part of my job that I take really seriously is associate lecturer development. I've been to loads of AL development days. It was through these days that I, essentially, learnt how to become an effective teacher and facilitator. It is true, however, that I was pretty confused and bewildered during many of these events – but, gradually this feeling dissipated as I became more experienced.

AL development has always been a regional activity. Even though many of the regional centres are closing, I have heard that the university is still committed to running these events. I do, however, worry. There are a whole bunch of unanswered questions, such as: will we be able to effectively plan things in the ‘brave new world’ without all of our English regional centres?

Back in February, I attended what was my first ever ‘STEM faculty’ (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) AL development event. It was held in Kent’s Hill Conference Centre, which is just across the road from the OU campus. Since a large proportion of the tutors had to travel, the university laid on accommodation and kindly fed us all.

What follows is a quick summary of the event, or, my main ‘take away’ points. I hope to submit a very different version of this article to the Snowball Associate Lecturer newsletter when I’ve got a moment.

STEM Faculty – why, how and where we are

The keynote was made by Anne De Roek, dean of MCT. Anne spoke of ‘shifting sands’ (in terms of developments in STEM, and in the university), and mentioned that division between subjects, such as science and mathematics is artificial. A thought that came to mind was: surely everything is Mathematics, right? I countered this with another thought, which was ‘I’m not sure the social scientists would agree…’

Anne went onto talk about jobs in STEM, the importance of engineering, security and privacy in IT, and the ethics of technology. Another point was that there were opportunities for growth: there will be new curriculum areas: an MSc in Space, modules in electronics, mechanical engineering and environmental engineering, and the availability of ‘shared research facilities’. Anne also presented a bunch of stats. One notable figure was that there are over 1,800 STEM associate lecturers in just one faculty.

The STEM faculty is being made up of the two ‘heritage’ faculties: Science and MCT. One of the arguments in favour of the faculty mergers is that faculties will then have more of a direct responsibility for retention and progression: the STEM faculty will ‘own’ their students more directly than ever before.

There is clearly a lot going on: work on the ‘student seamless journey’, work on subject specific bootcamps, a review of level 1 assessment, forthcoming changes to the academic year, and a new approach to induction. There were other changes: changes in the staff tutor contract, which means that many of us will become home workers; there are changes to governance and management of curriculum, and in the world outside the OU, there are private providers clamouring to offer degree apprenticeships.

At the end of Anne’s talk, there was a short question and answer session. One of the key points that I noted down was that ‘ALs knowledge of students is not getting through to the people in the student support teams’, with the implication that tutors are not as effectively sharing knowledge about the needs of students as they could.  Other points related to travelling time to tutorials, and the FutureLearn MOOCs (which are paid for by OU capital funds). Anne also emphasised that ‘this faculty has no intention of going on-line only’. Colleagues in MCT had been worried, because as far as I know, Science (I believe) delivers all their modules on-line.

Group Tuition Policy Implementation

The second presentation of the day introduced the Group Tuition Policy (or GTP, as it is known). It was described as being all about increasing student choice of 'synchronous teaching'. One of its aims is to publish timetables a time table of events three months in advance. Students will be able to make decisions whether to go to events, since its purpose (which is linked to module learning objectives) will be described in advance. This means, from the staff tutor perspective, timetables have to be planned five months before the module start date. I have to confess, this is a bit of a worry, particularly when we’ve got to deal with new modules.

A really good bit of the policy is the concept of an academic community. This, I understand, is going to be up to the staff tutors (with help from the module team). This may, of course require us to do some more work, but I think it is important work that needs to be done. The aim of academic community building is also in keeping with the intention of improving the student learning experience and academic success.

Learning events can be either face to face, or can take place online.  Another principle is that if there is a face to face event, there must be an online alternative. In principle, this also sounds like a great idea. The challenge, of course, is that face to face and on-line can never be directly equivalent, since they afford different pedagogies: one teaching modality will be able to convey certain learning objectives better than others.

Tutor groups will be organised in clusters of between six and eight students, and boundaries between clusters will be based on student density (I’m not sure exactly what this means, and my notes are not giving away their secrets). There may be either two or three clusters per module, and these will be managed by a ‘cluster manager’. The ‘cluster manager’ will choose venues where face to face teaching events will happen, but at the moment, I have no idea how these will be booked.

A key bit to the GTP will be something called the learning events manager, or the LEM: a new YAOUTLA (or, also known as ‘Yet Another Open University Three Letter Abbreviation’)

Group Tuition Policy Workshop

After the GTP talk, tutors were encourage to attend a number of different events. I decided to attend a GTP workshop (which I thought might be useful, since I’ll be responsible for scheduling some of the GTP events). The workshop was facilitated by three colleagues are performing some research to review tuition practice at MCT.

We were put into small groups and shared ideas about how the policy might be realised.  We chatted about the scheduling of timetables and events. Another topic that I noted was the question of whether there would be mechanisms to email a group of students who signed up to remind them about an event.

Panel session

The final session of the day was a question and answer panel session, which was run by a group of staff tutors. One important point that was discussed was the associate lecturer contract negotiations; since I’m both an associate lecturer, and someone who is a staff manager (who is the designated line manager for associate lecturers), I’m also very interested in these discussions.

I have to confess that I’m really worried about the new contract, for the simple reason that I have no idea how it will affect my role. I have, however, decided not to worry about it too much, though, for the reason that negotiations are still going on, and the final character of the new contract might be very different to the picture that is being painted through the snippets of information that I receive from time to time.

Another important theme was the impact of the regional closures. All MCT contracts are to be moved to Manchester by the beginning of January 2017, which feels like a very short timescale, especially since contracts from seven regions have to be moved to one region all in one go.

A final point that I’ve noted down was a reference to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Tutors were encourage to record any teaching qualifications they might have. I haven’t had a look into it, but there’s a possibility that the TEF might be allied or connected with Higher Education Academy (HEA) professional recognition.

The university currently supports a route to application through something called OpenPAD (an abbreviation for Professional Academic Development), which is currently being refreshed. There was some talk about that the Institute of Educational Technology’s Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice might get reinstated, but there were no clear conclusions at this point.

Reflections

This first STEM Faculty AL development event was overwhelming. I don’t know how many associate lecturers were there, but I seem to recall someone mentioning that there might have been around ‘two hundred’ attending that one event.

In terms of getting a key message out about the group tuition policy and some of the changes happening across the university, the event certainly did its job for those who attended, but I’m mindful that this event just represented the start of a new way of doing things.
I did, however, find it difficult to find everyone I wanted to chat to. I personally prefer the smaller, more defined regional events.

From my side, I’ll continue to do my best to make as much noise as I can to make sure that these smaller (regional) events still happen, but I do worry that the constant movement towards centralisation might make it harder to run the development and training events that help our tutors to make a difference.

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HEA STEM Conference, Imperial College, London

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:05

If someone had told me that last week I would be hearing anecdotes about the Russian space programme, learning about muscle wastage in zero gravity and discovering that there is a type of rocket engine that is powered by a combination of rubber and hydrogen peroxide, I would not have believed them!

This blog post is all about a recent visit to the HEA STEM conference, held between the 12-13 April at Imperial College London.  STEM is an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  This aims to be a reflective post, to complement a live blog (HEA website) and corresponding twitter feed that was written throughout the two days of the conference.

STEM is a concept that embraces a significant number of disciplines, ranging from psychology through to the physical sciences and engineering.  I should add that I only attended the computing discipline strand (although all delegates were encouraged to be multi-disciplinary and attend others).  What follows is a summary of some of the highlights followed by an attempt (in my own relatively clumsily worded way) to present some personal reflections on what happened during the conference.

Introductions

The conference was opened by Janet De Wilde head of STEM at the HEA.  This was followed by an address by Professor Craig Mahoney (Chief Executive of the HEA).  Craig emphasised the necessity of a skilled workforce and mentioned a recent enquiry in the House of Lords which aims to explore why so many STEM graduates don't end up working in STEM jobs, but industry claims that there is a skills shortage.  Craig's overriding message for the conference was to look forward, be positive and to be creative.

The final introductory address was by Professor Steve Swithenby from the Open University. Steve emphasised the importance of working between and with different disciplines and asked the question of how we might sustain both discipline based and interdisciplinary research?  The answer: talking to people.  This was expressed as an implicit (but important) theme to the conference.

First day computing presentations: morning

There were two parallel computing streams.  To get the best out of the conference I chose what to go to using a heuristic based on interest and familiarity (specifically choosing subjects that I didn't know too much about).  In the morning of the first day I opted to attend the 'innovative practice in teaching and assessment' strand.

The first presentation was by Mark Kerrigan from the University of Greenwich.  Mark's presentation was all about the use of digital tools (such as Skype, blogging tools and so on) and how they might potentially be used through different phases of a programme of study.  Mark's introduced the Google motion chart, a tool that I had never heard of before.  Other resources that were mentioned included the JISC Escape project and Mapmyprogramme.

The second presentation, 'Enhancing small group teaching and learning using online student response systems' was by Harin Sellahawa, who introduced us to the EduMecca EU project.  There are those student response systems that use dedicated hardware and those that use the hardware belonging to students (i.e. their own smartphones); the EduMecca SRS, as far as I understand, makes use of the student's own smartphone.  Some of the challenges of using WiFi enabled smartphones being that some students might not have them, not all classrooms might have WiFi signals (although I'm sure this is changing), and even if they do, there might be reliability issues.  The pedagogic issues are just as important as the technical ones; whilst SRS systems may permit anonymous voting (permitting the quieter learners to more readily participate), the use of smartphones in class has the potential to be disruptive.

Virtual worlds were all the rage a couple of years ago, mainly due to the emergence of SecondLife which enabled users to create their own worlds and environments.  Educators were quick to consider whether such a tool would be useful for teaching and learning, and it was good to see that Colin Allison gave a short talk to bring us up to date on the developments within this area.  Colin's talk covered a couple of key points. 

The first main point is that it seems that open source virtual worlds, particularly OpenSimulator (or OpenSim) appear to be maturing.  One particularly interesting fact was that there appears to be protocol and scripting language compatibility between OpenSim and SecondLife.  One of the biggest risks of using SecondLife for education is that there is the possibility that LindenLabs could change 'the rules of the world' at any time.  Another argument is that you potentially expose students to a myriad of crazy and inappropriate distractions that can be easily discovered in SecondLife.

The other main point was the potential uses of a virtual world.  Colin gave a number of examples.  These included algorithm animation, the creation of learning resources in virtual spaces (such as a 'WiFi island', to convey principles underpinning this particular technology), as well as non-STEM subjects, such as a virtual reconstruction of St Andrews Cathedral.  More information can be found through the St Andrews OpenVirtualWorlds blog.

The morning session concluded with a brief poster session, where each presenter had to give a two minute impromptu presentation about why their own poster was worth a visit.

First keynote: Project bloodhound, Wing Commander Andy Green OBE

I always sense that giving a keynote speech at a conference is a pretty tough task.  A speaker should ideally present a subject that can connect with many of the debates that may occur throughout a conference, pose some challenging questions, and ultimately leave the audience inspired and energised.

Andy Green's fundamental question was, 'is it possible to build a car that runs at 1,000 miles an hour?'   His answer was, in essence, 'there are a bunch of people who are trying to do just this, and I'm going to be the driver'.

This is all very well and good, but how does this connect to STEM?  Andy offers a multitude of answers: designing a car requires engineering (obviously), copious amounts of computing power, a good amount of satellite imagery and a generous application of many of the STEM subjects (such as physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and so on).  Much of the connections can be seen through the Project Bloodhound SSC website (SSC being an abbreviation for Super Sonic Car).

Andy asked the audience, 'to make this car work, what problems do we have to solve?'  There was no shortage of answers.  The main one was 'keeping the car on the ground'.  Others were 'how to store the fuel, how to deal with heat, how to stop it, how to build the wheels...'  Many of the problems gave way to a brief presentation of some of the hard technical issues that have to be dealt with.  Computational fluid dynamics was mentioned, along with rocket science and how tough manufacturing challenges were being addressed.

Another question is: 'why do it?'  One answer is that the existing record is currently under threat by other teams.  Another connection question might be, 'why build a car that goes 1K mph when there are other bigger humanitarian problems to be solved?'  This is a fair question, but solving any technological problem requires a degree of design and innovation.  I personally feel that it is not (always) useful to make a judgement about what is a 'good' or a 'bad' problem to solve.  The innovation that occurs in a 'bad' problem might find its way to helping to find a solution for a 'good' problem.

Bloodhound SSC is described as an education project as well as a land speed record attempt.  It achieves this by providing many aspects of the design available for everyone to see.  Another dimension of the project is that on the day of the record attempt, telemetry data will also be provided for followers to see.  Computing is a subject that features from the initial design and operation of the car through to sharing of information about the project and the data that the project generates.

I have to admit that the talk was pretty inspiring.  Am I now more interested in subjects such as materials engineering and the chemistry of rocket propulsion?  I'll be lying if I said that I didn't (I admit to being somewhat more interested than I was before Andy's talk).  The biggest impact of the keynote, for me, wasn't so much the detail about the car, but the idea about the educational aims of the project.  This got me thinking.  I asked myself, 'what kind of project could I be involved with that might inspire people to take up (my special bit) of STEM?'  With this in my mind, I guess the keynote worked a treat.

First day computing presentations: afternoon

During the afternoon I split my time between two sessions, beginning with 'enhancing the employability of computing students' and then moving onto 'innovative practice in teaching and assessment'.

The first afternoon presentation, entitled 'understanding difficulties with generic conceptions of employablity' was presented by Martyn Clark.  The key point that I took away from this presentation was a very important one.  Simply put, different organisations have different cultures; one student may more readily fit into the culture of one organisation rather than another.  This raises the problem of how do we try to prepare students for the world of work when there is extensive variability?

The second presentation in the theme of employability was entitled, 'the inspiring teacher in computing' by Alistair Irons, University of Sunderland.  Alistair's presentation connected strongly with the keynote.  This reminded me of a sub-discipline of computing which can be broadly entitled 'computer science education'.

Being inspiring is, of course, important when it comes to student retention.  If one is not inspiring, learners may lose a lot of their motivation.  Alistair challenged us to consider what 'is not' inspiring.  The bullet point list of items make for an interest read: PowerPoints, lectures that are filled with loads of facts (which may make them tough to understand), lecturers being unprepared, lecturers who talk in monotone, lectures that are boring, lecturers who give the impression that they don't want to be there, and teachers who talk down to the students.

All these points are pretty negative, so how about considering the other perspective of what makes an inspiring lecturer?  Again, I can summarise by presented a bulleted list.  Key points are: lecturers who appear to be comfortable and are enthusiastic, who know their stuff and are willing to help, are friendly and approachable, make good use of humour and make good use of stories.  There was the comment that all these points could be compressed or summarised into three key points.  These are: personality and authenticity, experience, and finally, approaches and methods used.  To me, one point stands out, and that is authenticity and its sister attribute, humility.

A change of session led me to join Thomas Lancaster's presentation about contract cheating.  Contract cheating is where you pay someone else to write your assignment for you, passing it off as your own work.  One advantage of using this approach is that because the work is original (even though it isn't yours), it will not be detected by the usual plagiarism detection systems such as TurnitIn.  Thomas presented an interesting and slightly alarming summary of his (and his colleague's) analysis of sites that offered 'essay writing services'.  It struck me that the university sector has now entered an arms race; universities need to apply ever more sophisticated technology to detect cheating that may be facilitated through new ways of using technology.

At the end of Thomas's presentation a question was asked about whether software might be able to detect a 'step change' in the grammatical and linguistic style of submissions from students.  There are a couple of challenges of such an approach.  Firstly, to do this accurately you need a fairly big sample of texts.  Secondly, the writing style of students is likely to change and develop as they gain more experience.  I feel this will remain a challenge for computational linguists for some time to come.

Karl Stringer presented, 'A googlemaps feedback system implemented with Blackboard'.  Karl described a system where exercises (for a module entitled 'using the web') are mapped onto locations on a Google map, adopting a simple metaphor of a walking trail.  One of the really good points of this approach (ignoring the Blackboard dimension of the implementation) is that it makes use of software that is free to use, and helps students to understand what the current generation of web-based tools are capable of.  It was also thought provoking in the sense that it takes advantage of how we can remember maps through our spatial and visual memory.

The final presentation of the computing strand was by Peter Thomas from the Open University.  Pete described a tool that enables diagrams to be automatically assessed.  This means that a student may draw a diagram using a tool which is hosted within the Open University's implementation of Moodle, and the resulting diagram will then be assessed against a set of pre-defined answer.  Pete commented that the system he presented could cater for many different types of formal diagrams (which could include entity relationship diagrams and spray diagrams) and the marking accuracy was as good as human markers.  He also challenged us to send him diagrams which we thought the system might not be able to handle.

Second keynote: The next small step, Kevin Wong

We were asked to consider the story of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who led an expedition which circumnavigated the globe.  Magellan began with five ships and 237 men.  Magellan didn't make it back, but eighteen men did.  In the expedition all but one ships were lost, and 80% of the crew, facts which were surprising and shocking.  This emphasised the point that exploration is difficult.  It is difficult for a whole host of different reasons.

Kevin Wong is an astrophysicist and medic who worked for NASA.  Kevin's talk focused upon the challenge of a manned space flight to Mars.  After telling us about Magellan, Kevin then went onto present a concise and compelling history of space flight, firmly situating its history in the context of the cold war.  Whilst talking about the Apollo programme, we were reminded about Kennedy's defining speech at Rice University, 1962.

Kevin presented a number of questions which he tried to answer.  The main ones that I remember are: why go to Mars?  And, what are the main problems that we have to solve?  Other than being a project that is likely to inspire and facilitate the development of new technologies there is the fundamental question of life itself.  If there is no evidence of life, of any kind, on Mars, then this makes our humble planet all the more special.

Moving onto the problems, different mission options were described to us and one of the best options is likely to take two and a half years, with some considerable time to be spent on the surface of Mars.  Spaceflight exerts a huge physiological and psychological toll.   Without gravity, muscle and bone wastage is extraordinary, not to mention the increased risk of cancer due to exposure to radiation.  Astronauts will be confined in small uncomfortable environments for considerable lengths of time without the creature comforts and the luxurious opportunity for social interaction that we have on earth.  Human exploration of space, it is emphasised, is difficult (which, of course, is an understatement).

Kevin's talk concluded with the sharing of an image of a craft that could solve the challenges that weightlessness causes: a structure the size of the London Eye that rotates around 4 times a minute, which is enough to create artificial gravity through centrifugal force.  It could be built with materials that get stronger when they are subjected to stretching forces (if my memory serves me well!)  At the end of the second keynote Kevin was asked the ultimate question, 'if asked, would you go to Mars?', to which he responded, 'I would go to the moon... but Mars is something totally different'.

Second day computing presentations: first session

For the first part of the second day, I attended a workshop entitled, 'embedding employability attributes into the 1st year curriculum' by Paula Bernaschina and Serengul Smith, both from the University of Middlesex.  We were introduced to the CBI employability skills, something that I had never heard of before.  These skills were not specific to any specific discipline or subject.  Key skills related to: self-management, team working, problem solving, application of IT, communication and literacy, application of numeracy, and business and consumer awareness.  We were given the challenge of how to create activities that address each of these points.  More information about these skills can be obtained by viewing a report that can be downloaded from the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) website. Towards the end of the workshop, a question was asked as to whether there were any other employability guidelines that module designers might potentially use.  A personal view is that any skill that is developed within a module (or series of modules) always needs to be contextualised to ensure that its purpose and use is clear and its industrial relevance explained.

Second day computing presentations: second session

The final discipline specific session of the day comprised of a series of four presentations.  The first was by Jose-Luis Fernandez-Vindel and Tina Wilson (from UNED, in Spain, and the Open University respectively).  Jose spoke about the challenges of translating Open Educational Resources (OERs), which is akin to the problem of software localisation (Wikipedia), and connected the problem to the domain of learning (or instructional) design, mentioning a design tool called Compendium LD (Open University website).

The second presentation was by two Open University colleagues, Frances Chetwynd and Chris Dobbyn.  Frances and Chris have been involved with the production of a new first level introduction to computing module, entitled TU100 My Digital Life.  Their presentation, entitled 'consistency v autonomy: effective feedback to a very large cohort' aimed to share practice and experience in relation to developing and enhancing feedback that is given to students.  Since TU100 is a first level module, the issue of skills development is considered to be very important (to aid progression to later levels). 

One of the challenges of teaching some aspects of software design and computer programming is making use of compelling examples that are rich enough to get students to think.  Nicola Whitehead from Swansea Metropolitan University shares the perspective that when it comes to teaching how to create a use case (or a set of use cases), the canonical example of a student information system doesn't really offer too much in the way of inspiration.  Nicola introduces the card game Fluxx (Wikipedia) to her students and challenges them to use it to extract some use cases.  Fluxx is cited to have the advantage that it is unfamiliar enough to facilitate debate, and complex enough to create some sufficiently challenging use cases. 

The final presentation was by Paul Neve from Kingston University.  Paul made a compelling argument that skill development in computer programming is discontinuous, i.e. it happens in 'light bulb' moment jumps, where insight and understanding is suddenly gained after periods of gaining experience and considering different approaches (or 'banging ones head against a brick wall').  Building on teaching experience gained at Kingston, Paul described a web-based system where the student is taken through a series of challenging activities and assignments.  Paul was keen to emphasise the importance of a lecture as an event that 'frames' the problem or describes the tools that are used to deliver programming activities.

Panel discussion

Much of the time left for the panel discussion was given over to the audience to raise points make contributions.  Before this occurred, representatives of 'lunchtime meeting groups' were asked to feedback on key issues that they felt relate to STEM.  I've noted down a number of key themes.  These were technology and its use and how this relates to pedagogy and the sharing of practice.  Other themes were the importance of the student experience and how to facilitate interdisciplinary research and projects.  There were was also comments about wider involvement and engagement, with reference to policy makers and industry.

One comment from the audience jumped out at me, and this related to not only to the theme of student experience but also the theme of pedagogy.  This was that we should feel free to draw upon the experience of education at other levels.  It struck me that interdisciplinary isn't a single dimension of 'subject'.  The other dimension is that of the 'level' of study.  The point being that we should learn the lessons that have already learnt by others to ensure that we can uncover and develop the best opportunities for teaching and learning.

Reflections

This is the first big HEA conference that I have attended.  This is also my first STEM event, where experts in different disciplines come together, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  The computing strand contained some really good stuff, especially the session on what makes an inspiring (computing) teacher; this was certainly very thought provoking.

Two general points come to mind.  The first is that I did feel that there could have been more formal opportunities to meet colleagues from other disciplines.  The second was that there might have been more of an opportunity to share 'war stories', about challenging (or innovative) teaching practices, to learn what went well and what didn't.

I do feel that there is something positive about the notion of STEM.  The shared principle (to me) seems to be the use of knowledge and skills to solve problems and to do interesting things that may benefit industry and wider society.  The challenge (again, this is my own view) is trying to focus attention when members of different disciplines might be looking in slightly different directions (in terms of their own subjects).  This is certainly something that was reflected in the panel session with the comment, 'there needs to be opportunities to find the spaces to have conversations'.  From conversations might become focus and further opportunities to develop further ideas and learn from the experiences of our peers.

All in all, a fun event.  A good venue and cracking keynotes, all coming together to create a thought provoking couple of days.

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