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Christopher Douce

Preparing online tutorials

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 31 Mar 2024, 21:21

Most OU tutorials are currently held online. The term ‘tutorial’ is one that can mean different things in different institutions. In the OU, a tutorial is a ‘learning event’ for a small group of students (although tutorials can sometimes be offered to larger groups of students), that has a specific purpose. The purpose of a tutorial is, of course, linked to module learning outcomes and a module’s assessment strategy.

This blog post shares a sketch of how I prepare for my own online tutorials. Different tutors (and groups of tutors) might adopt different approaches. One way to approach this article is to pick out bits and ideas that work best for you. Think of all the headings that are shared here as representing elements of a really simple framework.

In the earlier days of the university, face-to-face tutorials took place at designated tutorial venues. Depending on your module, tutors might be sent a simple tutorial title or description, such as ‘TMA 1 tutorial’ or ‘block 2’ tutorial. With this title, tutors (who are, of course, have been employed as educational professionals, who know how to teach their subject) would be required to create an event related to those titles. To make best use of the time, tutors would devise different activities to get students interacting with each other, and to help them engage with the ideas that are presented in the module materials.

When preparing online tutorials, it is important to consider the notion of an activity. A challenge with online teaching is that the online tools can themselves become a barrier to sharing and collaboration, which can make it difficult to design interactive and engaging tutorials. In some ways, the tutor has moved from being a ‘learning facilitator’ to a ‘learning producer’, where a tutor produces (or highlights) connections between elements of module materials.

The notion of online tutorial time is different from face-to-face tutorial time. Interactive activities can take much longer to get through when working online, due to the necessary administrative overheads of checking sound levels, allocating students to online rooms, and waiting for responses. On the other hand, you can get through the sharing of some difficult module concepts really quickly since you may choose to record certain elements of your tutorial and encourage students to listen back to your ‘difficult sections’ at a later date. Some aspects of pedagogy transfer well from a face-to-face setting, whereas other do not transfer well at all.

It is true to say that online teaching is difficult since online pedagogy is difficult. It is difficult to check for understanding, and it is difficult to ask questions, since different students may be using their technology in different ways, and it is difficult to run meaningful online activities. It is also probably true to say that technology has been evolving more quickly than online pedagogy.

One way to understand online pedagogy is through a framework called TPACK which is an abbreviation for Technical Pedagogical Content Knowledge. It is useful since it is pretty simple. To do face-to-face teaching well, you need to know your subject (content knowledge), but you also need to know how to teach it (which is pedagogical knowledge). Pedagogical knowledge is, of course, all about the ‘stuff’ that you do in the classroom, such as: giving a lecture, running an activity, asking students questions, or even doing a bit of role play. When we move to the online space, we need to know another bit, which is the technology bit. Essentially, we need to know what buttons to press, and when. To do this well, we need the time to acquire a mental model of how our tools work.

There’s also an added complexity to this in that we need to know how to use our technical tools in a pedagogical sensible way. Whilst we could just share a PowerPoint during a tutorial, that wouldn’t necessarily lead to a good online tutorial. To make a good online tutorial, tutors need to understand intersections between the technical, the pedagogical, and the content knowledge.

What follows is a simple framework to get you started with preparing your online tutorials. Much of this will, of course, sound pretty obvious. Before I get into the framework, here are some things to bear in mind:

  • Accept that online pedagogy is difficult; we’re all trying to figure it out. It can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming, but with time, persistence and practice, it will become easier and less stressful.
  • Think of yourself as a facilitator-producer rather than a facilitator-teacher role. This represents an important shift away from the perspective that you might have adopted previously with face-to-face tutorials. The idea of producer-facilitator (as in an event producer) is an important shift in mindset.
  • Tutorial time is elastic: during your tutorials expect that some types of interactive activities can take a long time, whereas other will take less time than expected. Be prepared to be surprised.
  • Expect silence from students, but also expect that the amount of silence that you have may depend on the online tools that are used, and the confidence of your students in using those tools. Whilst the silence can be a bit unnerving, don’t be worried or put off by it.

Use whatever features you have within your online environment to ‘poll’ your students regularly. Ask them for low demand interactions, such as clicks on buttons, or for simple responses through text chat.

Identify your tutorial dates and titles

Every module has something called a group tuition strategy (which is sometimes known as a group tuition policy). The strategy offers a sketch of what ‘learning events’ are to take place during a module presentation. To all intents and purposes, learning events are tutorials. These tutorial events take place within specified time windows. The learning events can take place for a tutor group (of up to 20 students), a cluster (of up to 10 tutor groups), or they could be module wide. Typically, module wide tutorials are facilitated by module team members or experienced tutors working in collaboration with the module team.

The strategy has a number of related objectives: 

  • It shares what is in the head of the collective module team. In other words, it describes what subjects and topics, and broadly what tutors will present.
  • If a module is delivered across a number of different clusters (which is a group of tutorial groups, all working together), it ensures that these clusters are roughly delivering the same tutorials. It aims to provide consistency to make sure that all students are provided with tutorials that cover similar materials.
  • It provides students with useful description of learning events. It will also describe whether individual tutorial will (or will not) be recorded. This enables students to make a choice about whether they attend specific sessions.

When you begin a presentation, familiarise yourself with the list of tutorials you are required to deliver, and when they are to be presented. Put these dates in your diary. Students can book onto these tutorials at the start of a module presentation, which means that they cannot easily be changed. If this is your first presentation, you may well be asked to team up with either your mentor, or other tutors, to gain experience of what is involved with online teaching. Have a good read of the learning event description; it should allude to some of the module learning outcomes that you need to cover.

Identify the learning outcomes

Irrespective of what you think about learning outcomes, they are important tools that are used by module teams. They are, of course, used to guide what materials are covered and what is assessed. Subsequently, it’s important to make sure you appreciate what you module’s learning outcomes are, how they relate to a learning event description (the group tuition strategy) and what you need to (broadly) cover in your tutorial.

A point to note is that although a learning event description might specify what outcomes you need to cover, it doesn’t always specify how it should be covered. You should apply your technical, pedagogic and content knowledge to make decisions about how you do this. 

Review your module calendar

There is a rhythm to every module presentation, and every module has a module calendar that shares that rhythm with students. Is useful to familiarise yourself with the module calendar to relate your scheduled tutorials to what is being studied and when. Pay particular attention to the dates of the student’s assessments. If your tutorials are close to any points of assessment, it is a good idea to highlight themes that relate to forthcoming assessments in your tutorials.

Prepare your materials

The big question is, of course: what are you going to do during your tutorial? Online tutorials are often structured around a PowerPoint presentation (but they don’t have to be). If you do use PowerPoint, be aware that the university updates its PowerPoint templates from time to time, so do seek out the latest version.

The exact contents of your tutorial will, of course, depend on what is in the group tuition description. Design a number of activities with varying level of interactivity. Also, plan for having different numbers of students at your tuition event: plan for either 2 students turning up, or 20 students.

Activities could include sharing interactive questions, debating an idea, indicating an opinion on a continuum by adding a mark using a virtual pen, screen your sharing with students and asking them for their direction, or putting students into break out rooms and asking students to contribute to plenary discussions.

Do begin your session with a contents and introductory slides. At the end, briefly summarise what you have covered. I remember a colleague saying to me: ‘tell them what you’re going to teach them, then tell them what you’ve taught them’.  At the end of your session, also leave a space for a question and answer session which is not recorded.

When I use PowerPoint, I like to use simple animations. I use animations to show the different parts of a slide a bit at a time. My motivation for using animations is that it can be useful to draw student’s attention to the specific themes and topics, and prevents them being distracted by what is going to be spoken about next. Although animations can sometimes be a bit tricky to work with (PowerPoint has something called an animation window, where you edit how all your animations appears, and what each trigger is to start an animation) I think it is a feature worth getting to know. A practical recommendation is: keep your animations simple. I tend to use only two: an ‘appear’ animation, and I start an animation through a mouse click.

Finally, I make use of the notes section of each PowerPoint slide. This serves a couple of purposes: it acts as a prompt in terms of what I am going to cover within the session, and provides a set of useful notes that I can share with students afterwards.

Tell your groups

Although your tutorials will be visible to students through their StudentHome page and the learning event management system, it is always a good idea to remind them that you are going to be running a tutorial. A few days before a tutorial, do send a group email to all the students in your tutor group reminding that you will be running a tutorial. If appropriate, do emphasise that you will be sharing some guidance about a forthcoming assignment. This should act as a draw, which should then increase tutorial attendance. More students, of course, make for better (and hopefully more interactive) tutorials.

Another way to increase the visibility of your tutorials is to mention their dates and titles on your introductory email and within the TMA feedback you provide. It is a good thing to join together different elements of your tuition together.

Review your registrations

A few days before your tutorial, review the list of students who have registered. Not only will you get a sense of how many students to expect, but you will be able to see whether any of those students have disclosed additional requirements.

If you do notice any students do have records which suggests that adjustments may need to be made during tutorials, it might be necessary to contact them individually in advance, to ask the question: ‘what do I need to be aware of to ensure that I can provide tuition that meets your needs?’ 

Be led by your student. Sometimes, it might be a good idea to adjust the design and layout of your PowerPoint resources, or in other occasions it might be a good idea to send your student a copy of your PowerPoint in advance, so they can read it through in before your tutorial.

Prepare your online room

If you are using Adobe Connect to deliver a tutorial it is important to make sure that your online room is prepared and set up before the day of your tutorial.

Adobe Connect uses an analogy with a real teaching space; your online room will be left in whatever state the previous occupant left it. The previous occupant may have chosen to layout your room in a way that worked for them. Adobe Connect uses an interesting and powerful idea: it uses something called a layout. You can choose your own room configuration by creating and using your own layouts. 

If your room is shared with other tutors, it is a good idea to create a new layout and put your name next to it. You may well want to create different layouts for the various activities you wish to run. Different layouts can be used to collate together text from notes gathered up from breakout rooms, for example.

When you’ve created a layout and have updated your PowerPoint resource, it is then time to upload it to a share pod (which sits within one of your layouts). When this has been done, you can move through all your slides.

If you do a lot of screensharing in your tutorials, it is important to be aware that how your screen appears to you might be different to how your screen appears to students. If you are using a computer with a very high resolution monitor, what you share might be difficult to read to some students who have an older generation monitor. If you want to do some screensharing, a recommendation is to share through a monitor or a display that is set to a lower resolution. It is a good idea to do this before your tutorial. You can change the resolution through your computer’s control panel. 

Running your tutorial

My own practice is to login to my tutorial room approximately fifteen minutes before it is due to start. After logging in I make sure that I have a glass of water, have selected my chosen Adobe Connect layout, uploaded my required PowerPoint (if I’m using one), and make sure my microphone and headset is set up correctly. If you use a laptop with a headset, Adobe Connect might ‘see’ two microphones: one that is built into your laptop, and the other one which is connected to your headset. Do make sure you ensure the correct microphone is selected.

When delivering a tutorial, I use two monitors. One monitor that is used for Adobe Connect, and another that has a copy of the PowerPoint that has been uploaded to Adobe Connect. The reason for this is simple: having two views of my presentation enables me to remember what my next slide is, and also allows me to access the notes that I have prepared earlier.

At the very start of a session, I turn my webcam on, so students get a sense of a real person behind the slides. To prepare for this, also check to make sure that my laptop’s video camera is at a good eye level, and the lighting in my room is reasonable.

After a friendly welcome to all students, I start the recording if this is something that is required by the group tuition plan. If a recording going to be made, I make a point of making all students aware that this is happening. This gives them the opportunity to drop out from the tutorial if they do not personally consistent.

During a tutorial, I might use a number of different layouts, whilst at the same time trying to keep things simple. I typically use no more than three different layouts, but more often than not, I mostly use only two. Before changing layouts, I always make sure to tell students what is happening. I also do the same whenever I’m screensharing.

If I use breakout rooms, or run activities where students are requested to share options or debate ideas, I always pause the recording. One of the main reasons for this is, of course, to encourage students participate freely. Also, if students see they may have potentially missed something interesting, they may well be tempted to come along to the next version.

Finally, if I turn up to a tutorial which is scheduled to be recorded, and no students turn up, I do the session anyway. I make what is known as an ‘empty room’ recording. Even if I don’t have any students at the allotted date and time, students may seek out a recording.

Using advanced features

Online tutorial tools have a lot of features, and these can take quite a lot of time and courage to master. Here is a summary of some of the more advanced features that are provided by some tools:

Breakout rooms: These are student led discussion rooms which can be used to discuss different themes and issues. Since participants are often reluctant to speak, only use them if your group are familiar and comfortable speaking online, or if you have a reasonably large group. In Adobe Connect you can ask students to make notes, which you can then collate on a shared layout. In turn, this can lead to a discussion.

Sharing media: You can show students interesting resources, such as audio or video clips. Make sure they are always relatively short, and make sure that you poll students (ask students to push buttons) before and after sharing a media clip, just to maintain their attention.

Asking questions: To test knowledge and to gain an understanding of experience or opinions, you can share questions in different ways.

Sharing files: Adobe Connect provides a way to share ‘digital handouts’ to students. This can be done through something called a ‘files’ pod, where you can upload any number of files you wish to distribute to students. You might share a copy of a presentation, or maybe a set of notes. Just like face-to-face tutorials, a practical tip is to share handouts towards the end of a session, to avoid students becoming immediately distracted and reading them. Also, do note that files can only be shared through a file pod during a live tutorial, and cannot be distributed through a recording.

Screensharing: Screensharing is a powerful approach to introduce and to talk about different elements of a module, particularly if a lot of module materials are made available through a module website.

Screensharing

Screensharing is a really powerful tool. I do a lot of screensharing. At the start of a module presentation, I use screensharing to give students a quick tour of the key bits of the module website to help them understand what resources available, and what resources are important. I emphasise particular weeks in the module calendar, and talk them through the module assessment strategy. For one of the modules I teach, I show students the university library website and share some tips about how to search for articles.

Screensharing can be a really powerful pedagogic tool for modules that use computer software. One of the modules I used to tutor was called M250 Object-oriented programming. This was a module where students had to learn how to use a programming language and learn how to use a software development environment. To help students to learn more about their tools, I began by providing a tour of some key features. I then took a pedagogic approach where I asked them for their direction. Students attending the tutorial could then ask me questions about the software environment, what it was for, and how it worked.

If you want to use screensharing, the following tips may be useful. Do bear in mind that these relate to Adobe Connect. Other tools, of course, will work differently.

Plan what you are going to show: Before doing any screensharing, do spend a few minutes doing a bit of run through, or practice. This will help you to remember what bits you are going to click on. Don’t worry if you click on the wrong things; your session doesn’t have to be perfect.

Select which monitor you will use for screensharing: The monitor you choose matters. If you choose your main monitor, and this is a very large screen with a very high resolution, when you share your screen, the text you will share is likely to become impossibly small for students. To avoid this happening, adjust the resolution of your main monitor so it has a lower resolution. If you have a multi-monitor setup, make sure that the monitor you use for screensharing has a lower resolution. (You can, of course, check to make sure what students can see by making a test recording).

Create a layout just for screensharing: Create a layout that has an empty share pod. When you move to this layout, you can than then immediately start to share your screen. This avoids having to stop sharing whatever you are sharing, and having to reload it again when you have finished your screensharing.

Move the text chat out of the way: If you have a multi-screen setup, if you are screensharing, move the text chat to the screen that isn’t being shared. If you don’t do this, there will be a bit of the screen recording that will be blocked out for students. Moving the text chat area avoids that happening, and helps you to interact with your student group more easily.

Make sure you have an alternative: Not all students may be able to take advantage of your screensharing. Whatever you do share, make sure your students have a different way to access the same points of learning. You might think about adding additional or complementary notes in your PowerPoint file, or sharing an additional resource which might summarise a set of steps that you illustrated.

Washup, or after your tutorial

Post-tutorial ‘washup’ is an important part of delivering a tutorial.

There are a number of discrete tasks I always aim to complete as soon as a tutorial has finished. If I can’t complete them immediately, I make a note to ensure that I carry out all these activities the following day. 

The first three tasks need to be completed if you have recorded your tutorial.

Check the recording: The key question I ask myself is: did my tutorial record okay? I do this by clicking on the recording link, and listening to a couple of seconds. To save time, I sample a couple of slides, to also make sure that my slide and layout transitions are okay.

Edit your tutorial name and description: After a recording has been made, the recording software will allocate a default title. This title will not give students any information about the aim and objectives of the tutorial. Edit both the tutorial name and description, making it consistent with what tutors have done.

Make your recording visible: Recordings are not visible by default. You have to do something to make them appear for your students. The OU VLE adopts a curious metaphor to facilitate this: it uses an ‘eye’ metaphor. If a recording is not visible, an eye will be closed. You can make a tutorial visible by clicking the eye icon to open it. If you forget to make your recording visible, students may ask you to make it available to them.

Share your resources: After a tutorial make available any resources you might have shared during a tutorial to other students. If your tutorial was a tutor group only tutorial, do post a copy of your resources to your tutor group forum. If your tutorial took place in a cluster room (where students from other tutor groups can attend), do paste your resources in the cluster forum. If your tutorial was recorded, also post a link to the recording.

Let everyone know that tutorial resources are now available: Now that all your resources have been uploaded, there are two final things to do. Firstly, send a message to all students who have attended your tutorial to let them know. You can do this by going to the ‘your tutorials’ section on TutorHome, and clicking on the ‘your past tutorials’ heading. You will then see a ‘send group email’ link. Use this link to let all students who registered for your tutorial know about the available of your resources. Secondly, let all students in your tutor group know by sending them a group email. Even if they haven’t attended, they might find your tutorial resources useful.

Working with others

All these points in this article have been written with a single tutor in mind. Tutorials are sometimes supported by two or even more tutors. Working with one or more tutors gives tutors and students some interesting advantages. Firstly, it offers redundancy. If your internet connection was to experience a temporary outage, the second tutor can immediately jump in and continue a tutorial. Secondly, it enables for an efficient division of responsibilities: one tutor can lead a session, and another tutor can be supporting the session by reading the text chat, and interacting with students. Another benefit is that students, get to hear different voices, which makes it more interesting. Finally, different tutors can facilitate interesting online pedagogies. Two tutors could, for example, argue with each other, adopting opposing viewpoints. The tutors might role-play, to demonstrate some key learning outcomes.

When working with other tutors, planning is important. Make sure you find the time to decide who is doing what some time before a scheduled tutorial. You might decide on this through a short online meeting, or you might develop a plan through an email conversation. You might also decide to work collaboratively on a presentation. Do make sure you share views about whether you have preferences in terms of covering certain learning outcomes, or have any specific technical or pedagogical skills you would like to emphasise or to draw upon. Clear communication facilitates effective collaboration.

Improving your practice

As suggested earlier, running online tutorials is difficult. It requires skills, practice, and different types of knowledge. It is easy to get things wrong, and things will go wrong. Like very many aspects of education, an important element of delivering effective online tutorials links back to the principle idea of reflection. It is important to continually reflect on your practice and aim to continually develop your skills.

When considering reflection, ask the following questions: What worked well? What didn’t work well? What bits did I struggle with? What part of the tutorial am I uncertain about? Also, what bit seemed to work well?

If you are newly appointed to a module, do make sure you have an opportunity to learn what your mentor does. Depending on your module, it might be possible to view another tutor’s tutorials. Ask your line manager and your fellow tutors if they would be happy for you to either come along to one of their tutorials, or listen to one of their recordings.

A key to developing your online teaching skills is to be comfortable taking practical risks. Online tools have a lot of features, and only a very small proportion of these features are used. Improving your practice as an online tutor means that sometimes it is necessary to feel uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to try new things out. Find new ways to interpret the aims of a learning event. Also, do seek advice from those around you.

Reflections

I used to find all kinds of tutorial overwhelming. I used to ask myself: “what happens if I’m not able to answer a question?” I now know that although this was a legitimate question, the reality is that I’m not expected to answer every single possible question. If I don’t know something, I will say “thank you, I’ll find out and I’ll get back to you”; behind the scenes there is a lot of support: there is your line manager, and fellow tutors to seek help and guidance from.

Another question that I’m sure I have asked myself must have been: “what happens if I get something wrong?” The answer is, of course, you can always share corrections and updates later on.

Online tutorials are difficult. A bit of the difficulty lies with the silence that tutors face; it sometimes feels as if we are talking to ourselves, into a machine. The reality is, however, different. I can assert this since after tutorials, students who have never spoken have sent me an email saying that they have appreciated the tutorials that I have helped to deliver.

I take a practical approach when planning and delivering tutorial; I want students to go away with something. That might be a new way to understand concepts that are presented within the module materials, or a new understanding of what is required for their next tutor marked assignment.

I’m not going to deliver a perfect tutorial every time. Sometimes things go wrong, and I won’t push the right buttons in the right order, and that is okay. After all, we’re all learning.

Acknowledgements

This blog has been written as a part of an eSTEeM project which relates to STEM teaching practice. Thanks are extended to Fiona Aiken whose comments has helped to improve this article.

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Christopher Douce

Reflections on M250

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I’ve just finished tutoring my first presentation of M250 Object-oriented Java programming.

I first applied to tutor on the predecessor to this module back in 2005. At the time I was a full time Java programmer working in industry, writing software that drove some equipment that was used to teach telecommunication principles. 

I wasn’t offered a contract on M250, but I was offered a contract on M364, which was called Fundamentals of Interaction Design. I tutored M364 for a little over ten years. It was a great module; it was well designed, it had a clear structure, and gave students some practical experience of carrying out some really simple usability evaluations.

In 2019, I heard from a colleague that there was a M250 vacancy in the London region. I hesitated; I’ve a lot on. I also tutor on the project module, TM470, and have a few other OU responsibilities. Since my research at university was about object-oriented programming, I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to play a part in teaching people about object-oriented programming. I applied. I was interviewed and considered appointable.

Books

In the post I was sent three glossy looking books. In the very early stages of tutoring, I sat down and started to read them, skimming over the activities; a lot of what I was reading was already familiar to me, and I could understand the concepts that were expressed through the amphibian-related activities (frogs and toads were used to introduce the concept of objects and messages).

Through the module website, I found that there were PDF and ePub versions of books. I downloaded the ePub versions onto my eReader, just so I could carry them around with me a bit more easily.

Getting everything going

At the start of the module, I set up some introduction threads on the tutor group forum and wrote to each student telling them to subscribe to it. I also asked students to get in touch with me to say hello. For those who didn’t reply, I chased them up with a text message and a quick phone call or voicemail. 

My first tutorial

My first ever M250 tutorial took place in a seminar room at the University of Westminster. I was there to support my fellow tutor, Lindsey, who has been allocated to me as my mentor.  Two things struck me: she knew terms to describe Java that I had forgotten, and carried out almost all of her teaching using a combination of whiteboard, and pen and paper. This method of teaching programming was a method that I approved of; it forces everything to move a whole lot more slowly.

My first solo tutorial

My first ever online introductory tutorial was fun. I prepped for it by looking at what other tutors had done, using sections of the module material and sharing bits of the TMA question. 

During the first tutorial, I tried my best to emphasise the fundamental concepts of object-oriented programming. I asked everyone who came along to look around their immediate environment. We made classes out of those objects, and gave them attributes. I also compared non-OO programming to OO programming, to really emphasise why it’s an important subject. I also recorded the tutorial and did two things to follow up: I posted a link to the recording on the tutor group forum, and also sent an email to all student to let them know they could find a link to the recording by visiting the forum.

Whenever I can, I try to connect different things together; tutorials with module materials, and forums with recordings.

My first TMA

The first TMA of a new module means that you never know what you’re going to expect. I always knew that there would be a lot of support behind the scenes. I subscribed to the tutor forums (in M250, there was one support forum for every TMA), printed out all of the tutor notes (which were comprehensive), along with the TMA question. I also made liberal use of my highlighter to identify bits that I needed to pay attention to.

I quickly realised that students were asked to submit their TMAs in two parts. Firstly, there was the written part (presented within a Word document), then there was some programming code, that was submitted in a zip file. The code in the zip file was also presented in the Word document, and could add teaching comments into the Word document.

Another thing that was new to me was the BlueJ Java programming environment. I soon figured out how it worked: projects were contained within directories, and these directories contained a project file. I easily found the compile button, and figured out that there were another bunch of tools that had been created by the university: something called the OU workspace which presented a graphical display, and a way to dynamically work with Java code.

There was something that really helped me to get going in the very early days, and that was a testing tool that had been created by the module team. Essentially, you run a Java program that then compares a specified Java program (i.e. a student’s submission) against a predefined definition or specification. Essentially, it’s a tool that tells you whether a student’s code is right or wrong. The tutor’s job is to interpret everything: the tool output, the student’s submission and the tutor notes and provide some sensible teaching comments, along with a mark.

I soon realised that I could apply a familiar tried and tested marking approach to M250: I could mark one question (or question section) at a time, for all student submissions. The advantage of doing it this way is: (1) consistency, and (2) speed. When you’re doing this, you can put quite a lot of the marking guide into your head and also make sure that you provide consistent comments and feedback for each of the student submissions.

My first additional support session

After marking the first TMA, I noticed that a couple of students may be struggling to understand some of the fundamental concepts of OO programming. A tip off for this was how some of the Java code was expressed. It might have been things like students not quite understanding the purpose of member variables and how they related to member functions (for example). 

I emailed all the students who might be struggling to ask them whether they might be interested in a one to one session. A couple of students agreed.

During one of the additional support sessions, which took place in a tool called Adobe Connect, I used screen sharing. Rather than telling students what they needed to do, I asked questions to probe their understanding of some of the fundamental Java and OO concepts. I then used screen sharing, in combination with the BlueJ environment, to do what is usually called ‘live coding’. Essentially, during the tutorial, we co-created some code which explored similar concepts that were explored within the TMA questions.

I had never done any live coding before. I had certainly never done it using BlueJ and Adobe Connect. In some respects, I was taking quite a few risks, but everything seemed to work okay. Object-oriented concepts were communicated and shared through a combination of English and Java.

My first examination preparation session

During my first presentation of M250, something unexpected happened; a global pandemic. What this meant was that the expected M250 written exam was cancelled. This mean that the final assessment score was going to be calculated from the scores of all the TMAs. This was possible, since the TMAs assessed all the key learning outcomes from the module.

Exams are useful, since they enable learners to consolidate their earlier learning. Rather than running an examination preparation session, I’m going to be running what I can only call a module consolidation tutorial. During this final tutorial I’m going to be talking about what was going to be assessed, why different questions were to be asked, and how they may relate to studies on other modules. 

Reflections

I’ve enjoyed tutoring my first presentation of M250.

Tutoring the module was a bit of a surprise, in the sense that I didn’t expect to become a tutor on M250; I thought the opportunity had passed. I applied, since I felt that I had some hidden skills (knowledge of OO programming and Java) that I could use. 

I enjoyed realising that I remembered how to code and how the key parts of the language worked. I also enjoyed working with the new bits: collection classes and iterators; bits of the language that had been introduced after I had stopped using it on a daily basis.

Although the marking was hard work, it was looking at something that was familiar, which meant I was able to get into the swing of it relatively quickly. I soon learnt to accept that wasn’t going to understand everything that was in the tutor notes (tutor marking instructions) straight away. Understanding, of course, came by playing with code, and looking through the answers that students had submitted.

The real fun bits were the tutorials and the one-to-one sessions. It was in these sessions that I felt that I could really add something as a tutor.

If asked whether there was something I would change for the next presentation, it would be: I would take even more risks during tutorials. Programming has the potential to be a really fun subject. I have the tools to make it fun. It’s going to be up to me to make it so. 

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Christopher Douce

Staff tutor conference, December 2017

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 14 Jan 2018, 11:58

This post is a personal summary of a two day staff tutor conference that took place at Horwood House, Little Horwood between 5 and 6 December 2017. I’m blogging it for three reasons (1) so I can remember what CPD I’ve done when I have to do my appraisal, (2) it will help me to remember some of the important discussions that took place, and (3) it might be randomly helpful to someone!

Introduction

The conference began with a session by the outgoing associate dean of regions and nations, Steve Walker, a fellow staff tutor from the School of Computing and Communications. Steve presented a sobering description of some of the challenges that had to be addressed over the previous three years: the closure of the university regional centres, the introduction of a new tuition approach called the group tuition strategy (GTP), and the merger of faculties to create a new set of schools. A further change on the horizon is, of course, the potential introduction of a new associate lecturer contract.

Since the last staff tutor conference, I am now a home worker, there is a new student support team (SST) which is based in Manchester, and there is a venue management team that is based in Wales, and a system called the Learning Event Management system (LEM) which is (I understand) less than ideal. Also, AL development has been reconfigured (or, should I say, centralised) to create an entirely new way of working. 

Looking back to when I started in this role back in 2010, geography isn’t as important as it used to be. Support for students is instead organised in terms of curriculum teams as opposed to regional support teams. This means that the connections within schools have been strengthened and that there are more opportunities for activities such as associate lecturer development.

A number of important external drivers were emphasised:  the part time student market is receding due to government policy and fees, the student demographic is changing (they are getting younger), there are new entrants into the HE market and this means increased competition, the government has introduced the degree apprenticeship and the apprenticeship levy. There is also the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and even talk about something called the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). There has been a lot going on!

Student’s first transformation

During this period the university has defined a ‘student’s first strategy’ and has realised that it needs to address a potential income deficit due to the fall in part time numbers. In response, the ‘student’s first transformation’ programme has been set up. The programme aims to achieve a number of things: increase student retention, increase student progression and increase student satisfaction scores, whilst at the same time saving 100 million pounds (a figure that has been chosen by senior management).

To make these changes faculties have been asked to review their curriculum and other divisions of the university will be asked to review their working practices. These practices will be defined in something called a new ‘university operating model’ and the university will create a new ‘teaching framework’. Members of the university will be asked to participate in project groups and teams. Change, of course, has its own costs.

One phrase I regularly hear that is connected to the transformation programme is ‘digital by design’. A personal view is that I’m not quite sure exactly what this means; I know that students study in different ways using different technologies. Whilst I’m technologist, I’m a great believer in the usefulness of printed materials. On the point of ‘being digital’, the JISC Building digital capability project was mentioned (JISC).

During this part of the conference another point that I noted down was the term ‘sustainable academic communities’. Again, I’m not quite sure exactly what this refers to, but I did make a note of the principle that perhaps associate lecturers should be more involved and connected to schools. This discussion about associate lecturers takes us to the next part of the conference, which was about debating the purpose of tutorials.

Purpose of tutorials

Three staff tutors were asked to present perspectives about tutorials. The perspectives were: face to face tutorials, online tutorials, the use of pre-recorded tutorials and peer tutorials. I began by talking about face to face tutorials.

Face to face tutorials

Face to face classes, in my opinion, are the best and most effective way to teach. Here are some reasons why:

  1. What really matters in education is, of course, people. Face to face tuition is all about putting student’s first for the simple reason that technology doesn’t get in the way.
  2. Face to face means that learning is personalised to individual students or the group of students who are attending a tutorial.
  3. Tutors can ‘see’ the effect of their actions; they can see the learning that takes place. To assess the effectiveness of their learning tutors can quickly ask questions, and this allows them to correct and develop understandings.
  4. In adult learning, students can themselves become teachers. Students can arrive at class with significant and relevant real-world experience that can be discussed within the class. In some ways, students are their own resources. A skilled tutor can help to make connections between different students and topics.
  5. Face to face gives tutors and teachers opportunities to innovate and to try new things out since they can more directly and readily understand what students feel comfortable with. Tutors can more easily facilitate role play events, facilitate discussions and create tasks that make use of the physical space of a tutorial room.
  6. In a face to face session, a tutor can easily see if something is wrong; they can pick up on blank expressions and uncomfortable body language.
  7. Face to face tutorials benefit all students, irrespective of whether students attend the sessions. The reason for this is simple: a tutor or teacher has to have a good command of their material. 
  8. Following on from the above point, students will more readily question or challenge tutors during face to face sessions, helping themselves to understand how the teaching materials can be understood from different perspectives.
  9. Face to face tutorials are real in a way that other methods are not; tutors can offer direct and personal encouragement to students.

I understand that there are some debates within the university about the cost of certain types of face to face tutorials, since they represent a significant proportion of the tuition budget. During this session I argued that, from an educational perspective, the university can’t afford not to provide face to face tuition.

Online tutorials

The second presentation about tuition events was by Diane Butler from the School of Health, Life and Chemical Sciences. Diane said that online tutorials, like face to face sessions, help students to understand module materials, allow students to interact socially with tutors and other students and to develop skills. Online sessions allow tutors to provide tailored support and, when travelling is difficult, help to alleviate a sense of isolation.

Diane also highlighted some of the challenges: online sessions can very lend themselves to be centred upon PowerPoint presentations, and given the complexity of driving online sessions, tutors can easily rely on the simplest tools. A common issue (and one that I regularly hear of when speaking to tutors) is that students are very reluctant to use microphones. It is a rare session that tutors present a series of activities; it can also be difficult to fully appreciate the learning needs of students.

An important point was that online tutorials don’t easily lend themselves to constructivist learning. During Diane’s presentation, I made the note: ‘we put our tutors in an environment where it makes it difficult’, and ‘[there may not be] much benefit to watching the recordings versus attending live’. A point was that perhaps the module team ought to spend more time creating recordings.

Another point was: ‘we place an unrealistic burden on our tutors to facilitate group work’, and that ‘we need to take online teaching to the next level’.

Pre-recorded tutorials

Hayley Ryder from the School of Mathematics and Statistics shared her experience of creating pre-recorded tutorials for a whole module cohort. An interesting point that Hayley made was ‘students like me to make mistakes’; this can share something about what really happens when people ‘do mathematics’. By exposing the challenges that accompanying studying maths, and demonstrating things that are ‘actually hard’ may encourage students to adopt a growth mindset: if the lecturers make mistakes, then it’s okay that I make them too!

My understanding was that the module team might have prepared a set of recordings once and then rolled them out for different presentations, but this wasn’t happens: new recordings are made every presentation; different people and different cohorts get stuck on different things. 

Hayley’s videos were fun and personable; her presentation got me thinking.

Peer tutorials

The final presentation was by Katherine Leys who is from the School of Life Health and Chemical Sciences. Peer tuition and peer support is mentioned in the new teaching framework. Peer tutorials is all about having students teach each other. Examples of these might be a group of students working together to plan an experiment in an online room or a forum. To facilitate these discussions, students might adopt roles, such as leader, deputy leader and so on, but tutors do need to mediate and some students will not be able to take part, perhaps due to the need to make reasonable adjustments to take account of disabilities or impairments.

Supporting staff tutor practice

Staff tutors offer support to associate lecturers, module teams and students. An interesting question to ask is: what can we do to help to support ourselves and fellow staff tutors? Maggie King, Staff Tutor in the School of Engineering and Innovation began this session by saying that the ‘changes to our jobs have been monumental’. In some respects, our job has changed from being a job that was primarily about people (and our academic discipline), to a job that is increasingly about administration.

We were asked a question: what could we do to make things better? Some suggestions included: the need for further staff tutor staff development, and opportunities for further sharing of practice, perhaps on a monthly basis or at different ‘regions’ or ‘regional areas’ (which could be, potentially, booked and organised through the venue management system). A personal reflection is that constant and effective communication between each other is the only way that we can continue to work well and understand the changes that are emerging through the university.

External Engagement

The title of this session was: ‘it’s good to get out’. It was facilitated by Matt Walkley, Staff Tutor from the School of Computing and Communications. Matt posed three questions that guided group discussions: what external engagement have you done? What external engagement should we be doing or be doing more of? And, what actions can we commit to?

A personal reflection was that I have always struggled to understand what was meant by the term ‘external engagement’; I was always under the impression that it had a more formal definition than it had. I was imagining external engagement as sets of targeted and strategic activities that can be used to help gain insights that could feed into module production, or to make contacts with individuals within organisations that could explicitly benefit from learning can be presented through OU programmes or modules. Although all these things do fall under the topic of external engagement, they are more directly aligned to the more formal concept of ‘knowledge exchange’.

External engagement can, as I understand it, broadly mean ‘getting out there’ to make contact with people to help us learn more about our subject and also to raise the profile of ourselves and the university. In some respects, being an external examiner and visiting the occasional British Computer Society event both represent different types of external engagement.

I learnt that external engagement is an official part of our contract. This means that we can allocate between 3 and 5 days into our work plan for external engagement activities (although there was some debate about exactly how many days we might have available). A point was if we can align our own personal and professional interests to that of our School and Faculty, then so much the better.

Another point I learnt was that each school has its own external engagement officer. I had to ask who the officer for my school was. This, in turn, made me realise that since staff tutors are scattered across the UK, the staff tutor body is at an advantage when it comes to engaging with national initiatives. A thought is that it is up to schools to develop and apply an interesting external engagement strategy; staff tutors are a resource that can be used, and used effectively (when we have the time, of course, and we’re generally pretty busy).

Improving retention and progression

The subtitle for this session that was held on the second day was: what can staff tutors do? Different staff tutors summarised different aspects of their experience. What follows is a very brief summary of each presentation.

U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world

Christine Pearson spoke about U116 and its ethos: the module assumes that students don’t know anything (that they are entirely new to the subject). I made a note that the students are changing, and also have a broad range of digital literacy skills. An interesting point was that some students were invited to take place in a focus group; a key point were that there was a need for induction or some kind of ‘fresher’s week’. Subsequently, a ‘getting started’ video was made, and students were sent a postcard to help them to get online. Another ‘bit’ was a numeracy podcast. An important point was that more and more students are doing concurrent study, which might be a side effect of the loan scheme.

Impact of presentation patterns

Bernie Clarke spoke about the impact of 22-week presentation patterns, where two modules are taught back to back (which is going to be the case for the new Computing modules TM111 and TM112). Using this presentation pattern, students gain credit at an earlier point in their studies. Another change is that in the engineering curriculum the teaching of mathematics is now done within the context of the subject, rather than students being asked to study a maths module that has been written by colleagues in a different school.

M140 early start initiative

Alison Bromley spoke about the effect of enabling students to start earlier on a module (another colleague, Carol Calvert gave a presentation about this same subject at a HEA Conference in April 2017). Over two hundred students accepted the opportunity to start M140 early. Those that started apparently really appreciated the opportunity for early tutor contact. I didn’t note down the detail of the impact, but I did note down that there was a difference between students who were studying for the very first time and students who had gained further experience through study.

Learning analytics and interventions

Nicolette Hapgood, chair of S111, reported that S111 applied an assessment approach that is known as ‘single component assessment’ (which is also going to be applied on TM111 and TM112), which means that the result is based on completing only assignments and not an end of module exam or assessment. Nicolette also described the availability of a data analytics tool that is now available to all module teams; this tool enables module teams to see differences in retention between different module presentations.

An important question to ask is: what is the main role of staff tutors when it comes to improving student retention and progression? An answer I’ve noted down is: our role is to support the associate lecturers who are closest to the students. We also represent an important link between the tutors and the module teams. Some other discussion points related to the knowledge management system that is used by the SST (which is used to offer study advice), the importance of reminding tutors about study support resources (there is an earlier blog about study skills resources), the importance of induction (which remains a mystery to me), and helping module teams to write and develop module materials. 

What will the REF mean to staff tutors?

I’ve forgotten who presented this final section of the conference, which was about the Research Excellence Framework.

There are some differences between the 2014 REF and the 2021 REF. One of the key differences lies in a statement that all staff who have significant time and resources to carry out research are to be submitted into the REF. There is a clear contractual difference between different categories of university staff: central academics are required to do research as a part of their contract, whereas staff tutors are ‘encouraged’. Subsequently, there is an ambiguity as to whether staff tutors will be included into the REF submission.

The reason why staff tutors are only ‘encouraged’ to do research is simple: workload. Time that we could have spent on research is spent supporting and developing associate lecturers and dealing with a whole host of administrative issues. Over the last year, it has more or less been a full time job keeping up with institutional changes, never mind doing institutional research.

My view is that there are two things that could be done to help to tick the research box: rather than doing discipline specific research, one possibility is to do scholarship and research into teaching and learning (since this fits closely with the role of a staff tutor), and secondly, if disciplinary research is important, another approach is to team up with central academic researchers. 

Reflections

This is the second or third staff tutor conference that I’ve attended. Typing everything up helped me to look back and to put a lot into perspective; a lot has changed. As mentioned at the start, the majority of the regional centres in England have closed and the way that tutorials are organised is now very different to how it was before. 

Put another way, I’m now doing a different job to what I was doing six years ago. I’m not going to pretend that homeworking is easy: it isn’t. 

This said, putting difficulties aside, there are some good things about this new way of working that many of us have had to embrace. A final thought is: it was really useful to spend time with so many colleagues; they are a pretty fabulous group of people to work with.

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Christopher Douce

Different ways to use OU Live

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 24 Feb 2024, 17:38

From time to time I use a system called OU Live.  OU Live is a software application that tutors use to deliver learning events (such as tutorials) through their computer.  It’s taken me quite some time to get used to it because teaching through OU Live is very different to teaching face to face. 

When I first learnt about OU Live it immediately stuck me that there were loads of things that that you could do in during face to face tutorials that you certainly can’t do in OU Live.  I really enjoy planning and running face to face tutorials; they are a great opportunity to share your enthusiasm about the subject that you’re teaching.  They are also a great opportunity to learn from your students and to immediately understand what aspects of your tuition works and what aspects don’t work. 

Teaching ‘electronically’ is very different: it’s harder to get a more direct connection with your students and it’s also difficult to know whether certain concepts are understood well enough so you can move to other topics: it’s more difficult to see ‘the whites of their eyes’!

Over time, I have been persuaded that OU Live offers some really great opportunities for students.  Although you can do things in face to face settings that you can’t do in OU Live, I’ve also come to see that the opposite is also true: you can do things in OU Live sessions that you can’t in face to face sessions.  I’ve also realised that one of the challenges for the university is how to share best practice in how to use OU Live not only between tutors, but also between module teams.

This blog post aims to summarise my understanding of different ways that OU Live can be used; it is a post that connects with the broad idea of ‘OU Live pedagogy’.  It aims to share some ideas about how it can be used during the presentation of an OU module.  Some of these approaches have been picked up by chatting with colleagues, and others are methods that are currently used today.  I’ve also added a couple of approaches that I’ve invented (but other people might have also thought of them too).

In essence, I’m posting this as a really rough ‘grab bag’ of tentatively named pedagogic tools that I hope someone might find useful.  If you have any comments, or have accidentally found this useful, do get in touch.

On-line tutorials

When I first started to use OU Live I used it to replace face-to-face tutorials.  There are two situations where I’ve needed to do this.  One of the modules that I tutor is completely on-line; students can be from different parts of the country (or even different parts of the world).  In this situation, face to face tutorials are obviously impossible: the only thing that we can do is to run OU Live sessions. 

Another situation was where I wasn’t able to physically get to a tutorial due to a scheduling clash.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to reschedule the event for the weekend since the new date would then be too close to the TMA cut-off date.  To get around this problem, I decided to run an evening OU Live tutorial, which I then recorded.  I was pretty surprised that a good number of students came along to the session (including some students who were never able to get to the face to face sessions).

In some respects, an OU Live tutorial can become a bit like a face to face tutorial (if you plan it well).  A tutor can present materials, do some talking, set up activities, ask for student responses, and even get students to work on a shared task by putting them into ‘breakout rooms’: there is a lot that is similar.  There are, however, some differences.  OU Live sessions can be pretty tiring for the tutor.  A tutor can’t just ‘glance across’ a classroom to see what is going on.  Instead, a tutor has to engage with a cognitively demanding interface and very regularly request students to ‘do stuff’, to ensure that their attention is maintained.  Tutors might also be faced with technical issues of challenges to contend with, i.e. some students might not have microphone headsets, they might have connected up the microphone jack to the headphone jack, or they might have set the volume setting so low that they can’t hear anything at all.

Another point is that sometimes the material designed for a face to face session might not be easily transferrable to an OU Live session because it just isn’t appropriate.  Students can’t write things on pieces of paper and exchange notes, or move to an empty space in a room (with the intention of demonstrating a physical concept or idea).  For an OU Live tutorial to work and work well, tutors (and, arguably the module team), need to come up with a learning design that is appropriate for the on-line environment.  Also, tutors and students need to be given some time so that they become familiar with the on-line environment.

I believe that an OU Live session can replace certain aspects of a face to face session, as long as they are designed with a lot of care and attention.  A final point is that an OU Live session shouldn’t go on for as long as a face to face session.  Longer sessions, for some reasons, just don’t seem to feel right.  We all need a break from looking into a screen.

Demo tutorials

A couple of months ago, I was alerted to some OU Live training materials (OU VLE) which shows how you might use OU Live during tutorial sessions (you might have to have ‘tutor permissions’ to be able to see these).  These exemplar sessions cover a range of different subjects, and they are quite short (around ten minutes), which means that you don’t have to go through an entire tutorial.  If you can access these, I do recommend them.

The first one is entitled ‘Working with metre in poetry’ makes use of highlighter and a web tour (from around the seven minutes mark).  The next session, entitled ‘Multisensory pronunciation training’ was all about learning German.  What was really nice about this one was the way that the ‘put your hand’ button was used and how the tutor used the webcam.

A subject that is close to my heart has the title, ‘Writing and running simple code’.  This makes use of the application sharing feature from around the two minute mark.  I also liked ‘Finding and using secondary sources in legal essay writing’, where the whiteboard was used from around the three minute mark.  I really like the way that ‘click and drag’ is used.

There are, of course, other exemplars.  Do have a look; it’s a really good resource.

On-line debate

A week or so ago I was chatting with a really experienced tutor who said that he really enjoys running OU Live sessions.  He told me that he had teamed up with another tutor.  ‘We have a debate’, he said.  ‘One of us takes one view, and the other tutor takes an opposing view.  Our students love it!’ 

This struck me as a whole other way to use OU Live.  TV programmes like Newsnight have a very familiar format.  OU Live not only allows us to create a ‘virtual TV studio’, but it also allows us to create a situation where the ‘virtual TV audience’ can ask the experts some questions.  Another thought is that we could potentially create situations where students can (and should) be encouraged to challenge the points of views that are exposed by the experts.

From my perspective, I would really like to see an example of how this might work.  There are aspects of technology and computing education where ‘the debate’ format might work.  Another point to bear in mind is that to get the best out of these opportunities, module teams need to be considering these opportunities when they are designing modules.

Recording a lecture

Running an on-line tutorial can be a tough business; there’s a lot going on.  You’ve got slides, different OU Live tools, students talking, problems with microphones, text messages appearing and also the need to manage and control activities. 

During the presentation of a module a tutor might discover that some students might struggle with a certain topic.  Rather than to offer comments through a discussion forum, or perhaps a group email, another approach is to run, and to also potentially record, a short lecture.  OU Live can be used to record a short session that can be considered to be akin to a ‘video podcast’.

When a session has been recorded, tutors can then refer students to the resource in their correspondence tuition, as well as during examination preparation sessions. 

I used this approach to run a revision session for M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  I kept getting scuppered by technology.  The first time I ran the revision session there was a power outage at the university which meant that students couldn’t login to my session.  The second time I ran the session, I discovered that I couldn’t use the record button, and after the session students contacted me asking when a recording would be available.   The third time I ran the session, I just made a recording; there were no students.  When I had finished the recording and I had made it available to everyone, I let all the students know by making a post to the module discussion forum.

One question is: how long should a ‘recorded lecture session’ last?  Unfortunately, I don’t have any research to back this up, but when it comes to student engagement my instinct is to try to keep them pretty short.  This is something that I ought to look into.

Focused Demo

The idea of a ‘focused demo’ pretty much follows on from the idea of a lecture.  Quite a few computing modules make use of some specialist software, such as programming environments such as Eclipse, Netbeans or Sense (you don’t have to worry about what these are, just know that they’re special bits of software).  For design and engineering modules, students might have to use tools such as Open Design Studio.  Some students might find that some of these pieces of software pretty baffling to use, especially if they’ve never seen them before.

One approach to help students is to ‘show’ them how to use a piece of software.  OU Live has got a great facility called ‘application sharing’, which means that you can show students what you see on your screen.  You might show students how to begin to use a software tool during an on-line tutorial, but there’s always the risk that things might go wrong, i.e. an internet connection might go down, or a big and complex bit of software might begin to misbehave. 

Rather than doing a ‘live’ demo (which is, ultimately, a really good thing to always try to do), another idea is to record what could be loosely called a ‘focussed demo’, i.e. you could show students how to use a particular bit of a software system by recording a quick demo using OU Live. 

If you’re teaching programming, you could also use this approach to show how to solve a particular problem.

Drop in session for students

I remember when I was an undergrad our human-computer interaction lecturer said to everyone, ‘I’ll be in my office on a Wednesday afternoon between these times… if you have any questions about anything, just pop in to see me: I’ll be very happy to have a chat’.  I thought it was a great way to encourage informal discussions about the course, and the materials.

After having a chat with my colleague from the South East region, I discovered that she used the exact same approach to support her students.  Rather than running a face to face ‘drop in session’, she ran a virtual one.

The way it worked was that she would advertise times when she would be available for a chat in her tutor OU Live room, and students could just turn up if they wanted a chat about anything. She would keep an eye on what was going on in the room whilst doing other things: exactly the same way that it used to work when I was an undergraduate.

What I really liked about this approach was how informal it is. There is no plan or agenda, but it clearly suggests to students that they can ‘drop by’ and gain some support if they need to.  I haven’t tried this approach in my own tutoring, but I am certainly going to!

Additional support session

For students who struggle with some aspects of a module the university can offer something called an ‘additional support session’.  This usually takes the form of a one to one session between a student and a tutor.  There are different ways that an additional support session could be run.  One way is to run a face to face session at a regional centre (or another venue that could be booked by the university).  Another approach might be to have a telephone session.  A third way is to run an additional support session through OU Live.

One of the main advantages of using OU Live for an additional support session is that both the student and the tutor can make use of the whiteboard.  In some cases, a tutor might decide to prepare a couple of slides so the tutor can work through some of the ideas that a student might be struggling with.  This might be particularly useful with arts subject, languages (where a tutor might write things onto a whiteboard), or even mathematics, where a tutor might take a student through how to solve an equation, or work through other mathematical ideas.

In the big scheme of things, face to face is always better than on-line, but on-line can certainly be (with adequate planning) significantly better than the telephone.  One question that should be asked if one is faced with running an OU Live session is: ‘how can I make the best use of this tool to help this particular student?’  One way to get a feel for how to approach a session is to take the time to explicitly ask the student which areas to focus on.   When we know a bit more, we can use the time that we have a whole lot more effectively.

Session between students

After recording the M364 revision session that I mentioned earlier, I noticed an interesting discussion on one of the module discussion forums.  One student proposed the idea of an ‘on-line chat’ in a module wide OU Live room.  I seem to remember that this started a short debate between tutors about whether students should be left alone in an on-line space that is operated by the university.

In a face to face university, students chat with each other in university owned common rooms and corridors all the time, so why shouldn’t this happen in an on-line space?  The tough thing about distance learning is the isolation, so it seemed like a really good idea to allow students to chat to each other about a forthcoming (or impending) exam.

I sense that different people have different views about the use of on-line spaces, but I also can see that module team members, forum moderators, or curriculum managers might be able to play a role in facilitating (or seeding) student led discussions through on-line rooms.  Plus, in some modules where group work is essential, I sense that the use of OU Live has the potential to play a pivotal role.

Final thoughts…

One of the things that I really like about OU Live is that you can record sessions which is one of the things that you can’t easily do in a face to face session: if you’ve missed a face to face session, it means that you’ve missed it.  The recording facility gives tutor the power to create new types of potentially transitory learning resources that have the potential to help students in a number of different ways.

Recordings

My own (personal) view about recording is that we should record everything, since this has the potential to help the widest number of students.  Also, if a tutor makes a recording of an on-line tutor, students need be clearly told that they will be recorded: they should be given sufficient information to help them to make a decision about whether they wish to come along to a ‘live’ on-line session.

There are differing views about recording OU Live tutorials.  One argument is that if they are recorded, students won’t bother turning up; they’ll just watch the tutorial.  A counter argument to this is: if they don’t come along then they won’t be able to influence the tutorial in a way that will allow them to get their best possible learning.  A recording, I argue, should show students what they’re missing so they become suitably motivated to come along to the next live session.

Another argument is that if a session is recorded then students might be less likely to participate during a session.  This might well be the case, but I don’t see this as a very strong argument.  It’s very easy to forget that a recording is being made, and if there are exceptional points that a student wishes to share with a tutor then perhaps an on-line session isn’t the best place.

A final argument that I’ve heard is: ‘a tutorial is a tutorial; if you want to record something that students can access as a resource, then perhaps it should be recorded as just that: a resource’.  My point is that there isn’t any reason why we can’t do both.  OU Live allows us to do this, and there’s no reason why tutors can’t reference one type of resource from another.  During a ‘lecture’, you might hear the recorded phrase, ‘… and it was exactly this point that we covered during our earlier on-line tutorial’ (which students then might be tempted to go and listen to).

As far as I am aware, there isn’t yet any explicit faculty wide guidance about the recording of OU Live sessions, but I hope that there will be some one day.  When it comes to recording, my argument is very simple: we should use technology to help as many students as we can, irrespective of when and at what time they study.  Recordings of OU Live sessions can help with this, but I accept that there are important debates to resolve, especially the ethical dimension.

Module teams

One of the main points of this blog is that OU Live can be used in very different ways.  A lot can be done, but to get the best out of it, tutors (and staff tutors, who manage tutors) need a steer to understand how OU Live can be best used in the context of a module.  From the module team perspective, it’s important to offer explicit guidance to tutors about how it should and could be used.

Also, there is no reason why module teams cannot run their own OU Live sessions.  An OU Live session run by a module team should, of course, have a very different feel to any OU Live sessions that are run by tutors.  One idea is that a module team might run a series of ‘introductory lectures’ for a module: one at the start of a module, and one at the start of each major block.  This could be distinct from the sessions that tutors run which is all about small group work.

The module teams also have an important role to play in offering advice and guidance to tutors about the types of activities they consider to be useful.  At the beginning of a module presentation, the module team are the experts, and the tutors will occasionally need help in terms of understanding what to do in terms of how to effectively design a pedagogically engaging on-line tutorial.  Suggestions from the module team, perhaps working in collaboration with experienced tutors, can be invaluable.

Using OU Live for research

OU Live can be also used for research.  I’ve been recently been involved with an internal research project that has been all about understanding tutor experience on on-line modules.  The approach that the researchers (who were fellow associate lecturers) took was really interesting: they used OU Live to as a way to not only to help to facilitate a research interview, but also to record a research interview too.  The tutors managed to convert the recorded sessions into MP3 format and pass them onto me for analysis.

Group Tuition Policy

The university has recently been working on something called a ‘group tuition policy’, which is a university wide policy that aims to improve the learning opportunities that are available for students.  I’ve yet to fully appreciate the full significance of this policy, but one thing that I have heard is that students will be offered different types of session so that they will be able to attend a wider variety of learning events.  In the ‘new world’ of the group tuition policy, there may be on-line equivalents of face to face sessions.  I fully expect there to be a need to ‘group’ tutors together for on-line sessions in a way that my faculty currently groups together tutors for some face to face events.

Concluding points

This blog has considered the different ways that OU Live can and has been used.  I’ve heard it said that technology can move and develop a lot faster than pedagogy.  Put another way: we’re still figuring out how to most effectively teach using these new interactive tools.  As I mentioned earlier: you can do some things in face to face tutorials than you can in on-line tutorials.

It has personally taken me quite a bit of time to understand that there are a whole range of different interesting, exciting and dynamic opportunities that couldn’t have been possible if you only adopted face-to-face teaching.  A continued challenge that we have to collectively grapple with is how to effectively manage the important blend between the two.

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