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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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A Year in the Life of an AL

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A year ago, my colleague Alexis Lansbury gave a great presentation entitled ‘A Year in the Life of an AL’ at a STEM new tutor induction event. 

I have sometimes been asked ‘what exactly is it that associate lecturers do, other than marking assignments?’ when helping to recruit new tutors. It was at this point that I wished that I had a neat summary of Alexis’s presentation. With Alexis’s permission, I’ve prepared this summary of her talk, whilst adding my own flourishes, drawing on my own experience of tutoring for a decade.

A point to bear in mind is that this blog has been broadly written for tutors who teach on a single module which starts in October (which is known in OU speak as a ‘J presentation’; ‘A’ presentations begin in January, B in February, C in March…). 

This ‘year in the life’ for other ALs may, of course, be slightly different to the one that is depicted here. Also, there may well be slight differences in how things are run between tutors in different schools and faculties.

Another thing to bear in mind is that things are always changing. If this post is read in five years’ time, some bits may look slightly different; there might be references to new emerging processes, such as a ‘skills audit’ and ‘workload planning’. This said, the core aspects of the role should pretty much remain the same. 

An important question to begin with is: how do I become an associate lecturer with the OU? It begins with an application form.

Application, interviewing and appointment

The OU has an AL recruitment site. This site usually advertises tutor roles that are specifically linked to academic modules, but this may change in the next few years.

If you see a module that you think that you could tutor, you need to follow the following steps:

  • Download the ‘generic’ person specification which is about teaching skills, and the module specific person specification. Take a few minutes to decide whether you can meet each of the points on the person spec.
  • Download the application form.
  • Complete said application form.
  • Send completed application form to the email address that is given in the application form.

I was once offered a bit of really good advice about completing application forms: “do everything you can to convince whoever is reviewing your application that you should be interviewed”. This can be rephased to: “make everything blindingly obvious”.

The first bullet point above suggests that the AL application form has two parts: a generic bit (which is about teaching), and a module specific bit (which is about the academic skills and abilities).

The application form has two sections: a bit that is about teaching, and a bit that is specific to a module or topic. To make things blindingly obvious, a recommendation is to copy each point of the generic spec, and paste it into the generic section, and then do the same for the module specific person spec. When this looks okay, provide between two and four sentences of evidence about how you meet each of these points. 

After the application has been submitted, two staff tutors will read each application form and decide whether someone has met most of the points on the person spec, and will then be invited to interview. Interviews can take place either face-to-face, or over the phone. Depending on the role, applicants may also be sent a short task to complete. This might be a short marking exercise, or a plan for a tutorial. 

The aims of the interview are to further and more thoroughly assess whether a candidate meets all the person spec criteria. Each interview is carried out by two staff tutors. If successful, a candidate will be considered to be ‘appointable’, which means they have met all the selection criteria and are potentially eligible to receive a group of students should they be available.

Getting a group always depends on a number of different factors: the number of students who have applied to tutor on a module, the number of other tutors who have applied, and also the interview score (which is sometimes combined with the test score). 

When recruiting for new modules, interviews typically take place in July or August, but in some cases, they may well take place in September, which is very close to the start of the start of a module.

September:  Appointments, FED, TSAs …

September is a busy month. For modules that start in October, September is when the FED is, which is short for the student Final Enrolment Date.

A week or so after FED, the university will know roughly how many students have been recruited to a module. Staff tutors can often only make new appointments around or after this date. If you’re a new tutor, September is the month when you find out whether you have a group or not.

During September, your staff tutor (or assistant staff tutor) will get in touch and ask you for your timetable dates. If this is a new module, a good idea is to study the module calendar to see what happens when, and have a good look at the module Group Tuition Strategy (GTP). The GTP roughly sketches out what is in the head of the module team in terms of student interaction.

After appointment, there is something called TSA. TSA is an abbreviation for Tutor Student Allocation; it is the process where the students are assigned to tutors (it’s also a part of the year when the university is exceptionally busy!) When the TSA has been completed, you will receive an email telling you that your group of students is now available to you.

The next step is to look through your student list, paying particular attention to any flags that might be against student records. Look out for students who might have disability markers, or alerts, such as whether they might be younger students, on their records.

If you see a student who is on a degree apprentice programme, there might be the possibility that someone called a practice tutor might be in touch. Don’t worry about this; this is just someone who supports an apprentice student through the period of their studies whilst they work within industry.

Another good thing to do during this month is to make sure that your computer is all set up and ready. The university uses Microsoft Outlook to provide you with an email address, and Skype for Business to enable you to make outgoing telephone calls and easily speak with other tutor colleagues. Before the start of the module, it’s important to make sure that your IT setup is working and ready to go. 

A week or so before the start of the module, you should be contacting your students to say hello to them. This could take place by email, by text, or by phone. It’s important to make a note of who gets in touch with you. 

Every new tutor will be allocated a mentor, who is usually an experienced tutor who has taught the module a number of times before. So, in September it’s important to reach out to them to say hello. They are paid to help you throughout your first presentation of a module, and can offer a lot of practical advice.

If you are joining a new module, new module briefings typically take place in September, usually on a Saturday or Sunday, and often at the university head office. This said, sometimes briefings are also online. If you’re joining an established module, it is worthwhile asking whether there are recordings of briefings.

A really important point is: don’t feel that you need to know everything.

October: Getting organised and prepared

From what I remember, modules that begin in October tend to start on the first Saturday of the month. This sometimes gives a tutor a few days to get organised. A really important thing to do is to look through all the assessments and put all the Tutor Marked Assessment (TMA) dates in your diary. These dates (along with the timetable dates that you agree with your tutor) are really important; your students will be working to these too.

It’s a good idea to also note down the iCMA (Computer Marked Assessment) cut-off dates, and any dates of any module-wide tutorial dates that might be taking place. This way, if you see that students haven’t completed the iCMAs, you can gently chase them. Also, knowing the dates of the module-wide events can be useful too since you can encourage students to attend them.

October is also a month for getting organised with the various OU systems. As a new tutor, you might want to complete some various bits of mandatory training (TutorHome). These include learning how to use the eTMA system (electronic TMA system), completing GDPR (data protection), Safeguarding and Prevent (terrorism awareness) training. It’s also a good idea to work through the equality essentials training, since completion will be recorded on your tutor record (and this is necessary for completing your AL probation).

If you haven’t used it before, it’s also a good idea to sign up for some Adobe Connect training, which is used for online tutorials. There are some very good short introductory courses that not only introduce the practical aspects of working with the software, but they also introduce some important concepts of online pedagogy.

By the middle of the month, all your students should have responded to your introductory email. If you haven’t heard from them, a suggestion is to first send them a short text message (always remember to write ‘hello studentname’ at the start of the text, as otherwise you might not easily know who the replies are from!) If you don’t receive a text, a suggestion is to give a student a ring. Students are invariably really pleased to hear from you, so please don’t worry about calling. 

If you can’t get hold of a student, you should submit something that is called a referral to the SST (Student Support Team) to let them know that you haven’t been able to get in contact. It’s important to do this, since if a student isn’t able to study despite being registered, the longer they leave it, the more significant the fee implications for the student are.

By now, you should be becoming more familiar with the module website. If your module has a tutor group forum area, find it and subscribe to it. When I get to that area, I post an introduction. In this introduction, I ask questions like: what do the students hope to get out of the module, and whether they have any fears or concerns about anything?

During this first month, you’ll also be planning and delivering your first introductory tutorials. In these, a recommendation is to introduce who you are, get students to introduce themselves to each other, and introduce the module to everyone. A key part of this will be to explain the assessment strategy that the module uses.

To prepare, you might have a meeting with a fellow tutor, if you’re going to be running an introductory session together. You might also have a look on the tutor version of a module website to see if any useful hints and tips have been posted, and maybe use some bits out of other PowerPoint presentations that other tutors might have posted.

A recommendation is to also record bits of the first tutorial so there’s something for students to listen to if they were not able to attend. The day after a recording, it’s important to make sure that the recording is visible to students. 

November: Everyone gets going…

November is the month when everything gets going and also when everything settles down a bit.  By November, you should have completed all your mandatory training.

November is the month when the ALSD, Associate Lecturer Staff Development, cycle starts. The university ALSPD, meaning ALs Professional Development, prepare and run a series of events and professional development conferences for tutors. In November, you might want to look through the list of conferences that are scheduled throughout the year (which you can find published on TutorHome), perhaps adding one date to your diary.

There are other staff development opportunities that you might want to look into. The STEM faculty runs (or used to run) a programme called “By ALs for ALs” which is about a peer staff development and training. Sometimes there might be faculty or school specific events in this month. One year, there was an AL conference that was run for all ALs in the School of Computing and Communication. 

November may also be the month when the first TMA arrives in your eTMA inbox. You will know about this because there will be an email when students submit their TMAS, and you’ll be all ready for them because you’ll have an entry in your diary. A point to note is that you’ll have to return them within ten working days. During that time, you will have to mark them and offer some detailed correspondence tuition to help your student move forward through a module. 

December: A small amount of relaxation

If you tutor or teach on any B modules (modules that begin in February) it is possible that your staff tutor (line manager) may be in contact to ask you about tutorial dates towards the end of November and the beginning of December. A university principle is that tutorial dates should be made available three months in advance; sometimes staff tutors do this earlier, but sometimes they may ask for dates closer to the start of the module if student numbers are a bit uncertain.

During this month there may be some ALSD conferences. I remember going to a couple of AL development conferences that have taken place in December.

December is also a month for a bit of rest and relaxation. The university typically closes down for Christmas, and then opens up again in the new year, and tutors are not expected to work during this period. This said, many students will still be studying, so they may well send the occasional query from time to time. Also, even though the university might be officially closed, staff tutors (tutor line managers) are a dedicated bunch, which means that if you have any issues, you might still be able to contact them to ask for a bit of advice. 

January: Enrolments and studying

For modules that start in February, there will be a Final Enrolment Date for students which is typically in the middle of January. To prepare for a February presentation, there might be late tutor appointments (to take account of changes in student numbers) and the completion of the tutor-student allocation.

To support students who started in October there may be further TMAs submitted (depending upon the module schedule), tutorials, and the need to respond to various questions and queries from students about the module materials or the assessments.

Towards the end of January, depending on the TMA schedule, you might see your first monitoring report. A monitoring report is an assessment of your marking performance. To ensure quality, your marking and feedback is assessed by either a member of the module team, or an experienced tutor. They will look at the tone of your comments and the effectiveness of your marking. All this will get signed off by your line manager.

February: Continuing to receive and mark TMAs

If you tutor on a module that starts this month, you will need to look through your student list and write to them, and make sure that you have made a note of all the TMA and tutorial dates. 

If you are teaching on a module starting in April (D) then your staff tutor will be asking for a timetable from you. If you’re unsure what they are asking for, do ask them. Some rough guidance is available from the module Group Tuition Policy. A good rule of thumb is: try to do, roughly, what happened for the previous presentation.

During this month, students will be doing their study, and this means that there might be some TMA marking. There may also be the need to plan and run a tutorial. If you’re delivering a tutorial with a fellow tutor, you should try to get in touch with them to come up with a plan about who does what and when. One tutor might want to present half of a session, or one might be a lead presenter and the other might be a support presenter who may look after the text chat, or one tutor might ask the second tutor some questions about the module material. Tutorials are opportunities to be creative. 

March: Study progress

For modules that start in April there will be the student Final Enrolment Date, the possibility of late appointments and last-minute timetabling before you are then assigned your group (the completion of the TSA).

During all these months, it’s important to keep in regular contact with your students. If you haven’t heard from them for a while, a suggestion is to send them a quick note to ask them how they’re getting along. You can do this by sending them a group email, making a post to the discussion forum, or ideally both.

The longer a module goes on, the more tired students may become. This means that you may have to record the occasional TMA extension using the TutorHome webpage if students need a bit more time to complete their assignments. 

During March, there might be some AL development conferences running somewhere. These conferences move around the UK to different locations; you should go to the event that is closest to where you live.

April: Easter

April should be a relatively quiet month, except for those tutors who have modules that start this month. For students who started in October, everyone should be now thoroughly settled: you should have a good idea of how everyone is doing through the TMA scores, and know some of your students through the different tutorials. 

In April, a suggestion is to revisit your module calendar to remind yourself about what everyone has been doing for the past few months, and what there is to do over the final two months. The reason to do this is that your attention (and those of your students) should be gradually turning towards the exam or EMA.

May: Exam preparation

May is the month of exams and exam preparation. Exams can take two different forms: they can be either a three hour written exam, which takes place at an exam centre that is as close as possible to where a student lives, or they can be an EMA. An EMA is known as an End of Module Assessment, which is a bit like a extended TMA which takes the place of an exam. 

During May, you may be called upon to run an exam preparation session. To help with this challenging task, the module team will have provided what is known as a Sample Exam Paper, or SEP. The SEP gives a set of questions which look like the kind of questions you may be asked during the real exam. If a module has been running for a few years, students can also download some copies of past exam papers.

During the exam preparation session, you might want to talk about not only the types of questions (and topics) that students might be asked about, but you might also want to talk about exam strategy. This may be especially important if students haven’t taken written exams for some time.

One thing to be aware of is that students may sometimes ask for extensions for their final TMAs. University policy says that extensions to final TMAs are not possible. There are two main reasons for this: the first is that all the assessment dates have to be recorded by a certain date to make sure that the module results collation processes work okay (an administrative reason), and secondly students need to have sufficient time to study and prepare for their exams (a study related reason). 

May also usually means a little bit of time off or away, due to the May bank holidays.

June: Examination time

June is the month of exams. Before the exam, expect a few queries about module materials, but if you receive any queries about where students should go, do direct students to the student support team.

Depending on the module that you’re tutoring, you may also be able to sign up to do some exam or EMA marking. At the time of writing, exam and EMA marking is covered under a separate contract (unless your module uses something called a ‘single component assessment’ model).

If you are down as an exam marker you will be required to participate in what is called a co-ordination exercise. What this means is that all examiners will be required to mark a number of exam scripts that are chosen by the module chair and attend a co-ordination meeting where everyone discusses and compares their scores. The idea is that any marking scheme will be thoroughly tested, and differences in markers and marking can be ironed out before the marking takes place. 

A personal reflection is that exam or EMA marking is hard work. Markers have to pay very close attention to a marking guide, and also enter exam results into a marking database. With both EMA and exam marking, a constant supply of tea is a necessity.

There are other things that happen in June. If you’re teaching on a J (October) module, you may receive a confirmation of an appointment if it looks like there will be sufficient numbers of students registering on that module. If student numbers have fallen substantially you might be sent a letter that might warns about the possibility of redundancy, but this very much depends on the current terms and conditions of your tutor contract. 

During some of these months, you may also be working on different bits and pieces, depending on your relationship with your staff tutor and the module team. Some tutors might be doing some peer monitoring, whereas other tutors might be asked to carry out some other academic tasks, such as critical reading, checking and writing of assessments, or even the writing of new exam questions.

July and August: Holiday time (for some)

The summer means holiday time (non-teaching time) for tutors, but not for staff tutors.

The summer should also be decision time.  Every module is different. Sometimes there is a perfect match between a tutor’s skills, knowledge and experience. On other occasions, tutors might realise, after a presentation, that a module isn’t quite right for them. If that is the case, you need to decide whether you wish to continue. The best time to make that decision is in the summer time, since according to one version of the tutor contract, tutors have to give three months’ notice. Plus, this gives your staff tutor sufficient time to try to find a replacement.

If you have applied to tutor a module, tutors might be invited to interviews in the summer. Also, if you are appointable and there are sufficient student registrations for new modules, AL services may be in contact to offer you a contract.

Not only are the staff tutors thinking about recruitment, they are also starting to plan for the next presentation. Staff tutors may be in touch with you to get your ideas about timetables for the modules that start in October. To prepare for this, it’s worth considering what worked well, who you would like to work with, and what your holiday plans for the year might be.

September: Appointments, FED, TSAs …

It all begins again in September; it’s always a busy month. For modules that start in October, September is when the FED is, which is short for the student Final Enrolment Date.

In addition to everything that was mentioned earlier, there’s a couple of extra things that are important to mention. After the first year of tutoring, your line manager will be in contact to organise a first year probation meeting. The is usually pretty informal and shouldn’t be anything to worry about. The tutor probation period lasts for two years. This means after the second presentation, there will be a further meeting to finalise everything. In this meeting your line manager will check to see whether you’ve completed all the mandatory training, and if you have any worries about anything.

In addition to the probation meetings, there is something called a CDSA that takes place every two years. CDSA is an abbreviation for Career Development and Staff Appraisal. Its purpose is to facilitate a discussion about how the university might be able to help with regards to supporting you and your tutoring work. In the meeting, your staff tutor might offer some advice and thoughts about AL development opportunities. In turn, your staff tutor can influence the direction and aims of various AL development groups.

Towards the end of September, tutor-student allocation will happen. It’s time to say hello to your students again.

Closing thoughts

I started my career as an OU tutor back in 2006. The first year was tough because everything was new to me: the university, the module, where the module sat within a wider programme, the systems, and correspondence tuition. I think it is fair to say that you need to complete at least two presentations of any module before you feel completely comfortable with its aims, objectives, and what is in the heads of the module team members.

Whenever speaking to anyone who is considering becoming a tutor, there is something that I clearly emphasise, and this is: there is a lot of support that is available. Every tutor has a friendly line manager whose sole purpose is to help you with your tutoring. There are also fellow tutors, who are a great bunch of people. There is always a tutor somewhere who is able to answer your questions. Finally, there is an entire module team who is behind you, and these are represented by someone (on the tutor side) by someone who has the job title of ‘curriculum manager’.

Being a tutor can be tiring, sometimes frustrating, but undeniably rewarding. Tutors make the difference. If you’re curious about the role, do try to find the time to speak to a staff tutor. More importantly, though, do try to find the time to speak to an OU student. 

Finally, in some respects, this post complements two earlier posts which were on a slightly different topic. The first post has the title Day in the life of a MCT staff tutor and was written in 2015. A follow on post, entitled Day in the life of a STEM staff tutor (reprised) was written a couple of years later in 2017, following a series of university changes. I hope these additional posts add  to this summary of ‘a year in the life of an AL’.

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Alexis Lansbury who took the time to review this blog post, and has kindly saved very many grammatical and typographical blushes.


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Reflecting on TM470

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 17 Sep 2019, 15:17

I’ve now been tutoring on TM470, the Open University’s Computing and IT project module, for three years.

I heard it once said that it takes around three years to get to grips with the tutoring of a module; I agree with this view.

After this amount of time, you’ve marked a good number of TMAs, EMAs and have a solid appreciation of what is on the module website. You also (hopefully) should have a thorough understanding of what is in the head of the module team, enabling you to respond to student queries with a degree of confidence.

Also, three years is enough time to get a feel for what makes up a good project report, a distinction level project report, and a project report that might not pass. Having that experience has also enabled me to question what I do as a tutor, and to help me offer the best feedback I can.

What follows is a set reflections that relate to what I think is important when tutoring on the project module. I’m sharing since it might be of interest to fellow tutors, TM470 tutors, but also the module team too (since they, of course, guide how we approach everything).

These are, of course, my own opinions, and I do expect that different tutors will (of course), have different views - and, of course, have slightly different practices.

Welcoming students

I feel that I started very well in my first presentation but didn’t do so well with this on my second presentation. This said, I think I’m happy with the approach that I have used with the most recent presentation.

I begin by sending each student an email to say hello. If I see that any of my students have any additional requirements, I add a sentence to each introductory email to ask them to let me know whether there’s anything I need to be aware of to ensure that I help them with their studies. This tends to open up a dialogue.

In my introduction, I also mention that it might be useful to have a quick chat on the phone. I try to do this with every student in my group, but not everyone wants to have a chat; and that’s okay. I feel it’s important to be supportive whilst not being pushy.

A final point is that I also tell students to subscribe to their TM470 tutor group forum. The reason for this is that I use the forum to send updates and reminders about various things, and subscribing enables them to get notifications about those notifications.

Keeping in touch

One of the things I do regularly is send all students regular emails. Not every tutor runs tutorial, but I do; I send them dates of the tutorials as soon as they have been scheduled. I also send them a note to remind them of the TMA cut off dates, and send them reminders to let me know that I would like to receive regular updates.

When I send reminders about a willingness to receive updates, I also make the point that everything that is sent to me can also be used and presented within the project report as evidence of progress. I hope this offers a further encouragement!

Tutorials

At hinted at earlier, some TM470 tutors run tutorials, whereas other don’t. There isn’t a requirement for TM470 tutors to run tutorials; some tutors only run one to one sessions with their students.

I find tutorials useful for a couple of reasons.

At the start of the module, I fix a date for two introductory sessions: one that takes place in the evening, and one that takes place in the day time. I send all these dates to students in a group email and post the same information about them on our tutor group forum.

I split my tutorials in to two parts: the first part that is recorded, and the part section that is not. Dividing the tutorials in this way enables the first section to be viewed by the students who were not able to attend either of the tutorials. The second section becomes an informal chat between the students who come along.

In the introductory tutorial, I talk about the assessment strategy and the first TMA and do some screen sharing to introduce students to the module materials.

I tend to run two EMA preparation tutorials which has a similar structure, but with more focus on what a good EMA might look like. I also do some screen sharing: I take the students to the referencing guidelines site, and might even take them to some Skills for Study sections materials that are about academic writing.

One-to-one sessions

Every student has four hours of personal one to one time. I don’t keep a very close tally of how much of that time is used; some of it could be roughly allocated to tutorials, whereas other bits of time could be allocated to one to one sessions.

I mention one-to-one sessions in different ways: in the TMA feedback, during tutorials, and in the keeping in touch emails. If students don’t want to take me up on the offer of a one to one chat, that is okay, but I do make it clear that this is an option that is available.

Rather than having telephone chat, I’ve tended to use the Adobe Connect tutor group room. One of the great advantages of this is that we can do some screen sharing. Screen sharing is really useful. I’ve used it as a way to get an understanding of how a student’s draft submission is coming along, or to guide students to resources that have been prepared by the module team. I sometimes give the student screen sharing permissions so they can take control of those sessions.

TMA Feedback

There are, of course, two main components of the TMA feedback: the summary page, and the on-script comments.

On the summary page, I tend to focus on offering three clear points of advice that student should work on to improve their performance on the next TMA. When I’m writing these points, I try to explain why these points are important, and how they connect to the aims and objectives of the project module.

When I’m working on later TMAs, I always tend to do a quick read back of the previous TMA summaries. On occasion, I’ve copied and pasted text from the previous TMA and have put it on the current TMA, saying: “I gave the following feedback; it is important because…”.

I also tend to conclude a TMA with a suggestion about having a follow up call or chat.

For the on-script comments, I encourage students to use the Word in built heading tools (if they are not using them already). I make the point that it enables the student to use the navigation tool (which helps the student to view the structure of their EMA). Also, increasingly I tend to offer some practical advice about the formatting of sections (showing how students can move between portrait and landscape page layouts). To help students get to grips with these elements of Word, I have also offered link to various YouTube videos to help them understand the points that I’m making.

Tutor group forum

Students don’t tend to you my tutor group forum much, but I tend to use it as a simple notice board.

Here’s a summary of how I use it:

  • Sharing dates of tutorials, and providing of links to recordings.
  • Giving updates about TMA marking. I make a post to the forum when I start marking, and then post again when I’m roughly half way through (to give students some idea about when to expect their results). I tend to ‘pin’ these posts at the top of the forum during the marking.
  • Sharing of additional resources and links.
  • A space for students to ask questions.

Staff tutors can (or may) dip into tutor group forums from time to time to see what is going on. A well populated tutor group will give a staff tutor the impression that all is well with the group.

Additional resources given to students

During this most recent presentation I prepared two really short resources in the form of Word documents that might help students:

  • A very short sample introduction to an imaginary project and project report. This sample presents a structure that is very similar to the guidance that is offered by the module team.
  • A sample table of contents, which includes an introductory section, a section that outlines the project, a literature review section, an account of project work section, a reflection section, a summary or concluding section and a series of imaginary appendices.

The aim of these two resources is to emphasise the point that the project report, and it’s overall degree of readability is really important.

Advice to students

I’ve sometimes offered the following tips at various points during the module. I might mention these suggestions during tutorials, or in one-to-one sessions:

  • Make sure that you use the features that are provided in Word well; they can help you to find you way though, navigate, and work with larger documents. 
  • Try to write the literature review as a narrative rather than a list of papers or resources that you consider to be useful for the project.
  • Think of the examiner as a friend who doesn’t know very much about the project (and subject) that you’re writing about. Subsequently, you might have to spell things out for them. Don’t worry about doing this, since this will all help to demonstrate your understanding of some important concepts.
  • Consider the reflection section, the bit in the EMA where you have to write about how things have gone, as a gift. It’s a gift because it’s all about you, and there are no wrong answers, and the examiner really wants to hear about you and what you’ve learnt. Also, don’t be afraid to be opinionated! Tell us what went well, what didn’t, why you thought that, and what you might have done again differently.
  • Provide copies of two different Gantt charts; one that was created at the start of the project, and the Gantt chart that was being used as the student got to the end of the project. These two Gantt charts gives a student a neat way to generate some interesting reflections, simply by considering the differences between what the plan was at the start, and what happened during the project.
  • Use the appendices as a way to share extra information about what project work you’ve done on the project.
  • Keep to the word count (10k words) but don’t worry too much if you go over by a little. If you’re going over by a lot, consider putting some bits into a series of appendices, but always make sure that you reference these in the body of your report.
  • Finally, find someone to proof read your report. It’s okay to do this, since you’re the one who is doing the writing, not whoever is doing the proof reading. Typing mistakes can and do happen. A friendly proof reader will be able to pick up on some of them.

EMA marking

EMA marking is hard work, and we don’t have too much time to do it in. When I start marking, whenever I open an EMA report, I turn tracking on, and highlight sections that I’ve read that really stand out to me as being good, important or significant. When I’ve read everything, I might go back and re-read sections before going to the learning outcomes that are presented in a grading spreadsheet. I then make notes, which are later copied and pasted into the OU’s grading tool.

My own approach is to do some marking first thing in a weekday morning (when I’m fresh), hopefully working through a couple of reports, with a view to doing more over the weekend.

If there is a moderation exercise, the highlighting annotations I’ve added really help me to remember what a project was all about, and why I assigned certain marks against a particular learning outcome.

Closing thoughts

TM470 has a slightly different tenor to the other modules I’ve tutored. Although there is a lot of learning to be done during the project, it is more about doing and writing (and then learning from that doing and writing).

Students sometimes ask whether they can see an example of a project, but this is something that the module team doesn’t provide. I can understand why students would like to see a sample (to understand more about what the module team expects), but I can also why the module team doesn’t provide one (they worry that the tutors would then receive a hundred or so projects that look remarkably like the sample projects).

One of the challenges (in my opinion) of being a TM470 tutor is to help students understand what the module team expects, but from the perspective of their own projects and their previous studies.

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Ten years of tutoring H810 accessible online learning

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 16 Feb 2018, 10:12

A couple of days ago I completed the last few pieces of work for a module called H810 accessible online learning. It used to be an important piece of a MA programme in online and distance education (MAODE for short) that was run from a part of the OU called the Institute of Educational Technology. These last few bits of work, which involved agreeing scores on a few EMA modules, represented the end of ten years of work. This ending represents, to some degree, a bit of a milestone.

I applied to tutor on H810 whilst I was working on an accessibility research project; the aim of the project was to explore how to create VLE systems that were more usability for people who have disabilities. I came to work on that project after having tutored a module in interaction design and having had a job developing a learning management system. H810 seemed like a perfect fit.

I remember the interview; it took place in the OU offices in Camden, which probably meant a trip from Sussex, where I was living at the time. I can’t remember what I was asked but I remembered talking about what is meant by the term ‘reasonable adjustments’ and saying something about how I supported my students. I must have said the right things, since I was given a job.

Tutors

I was one of four tutors who were appointed to the first presentation of the module. There was myself, Clive, Simon and Michelle. The numbers of students on the module changed throughout its presentation. Towards the end of the module, there were only two tutors, myself and Clive, but we were sometimes asked to take on larger groups. Simon, a tutor who I understand had a hand in the original design and development of the module returned during its final presentation. 

Structure of the module

H810 was an interesting module, since it consists of two main aspects: a practical aspect and a big theoretical aspect. When I started, I have confess that the theory bit (which I’ll come onto in a few minutes) was entirely new to me. Being more of technologist, my strengths lie in the more technical aspects; I understood some of the issues that accompanied the design of accessible web pages. I was able to apply this understandings to appreciate how someone working in higher education might begin to create accessible materials.

A really important aspect of the module was its emphasis on personal reflection; students were encouraged to continually write about their own background and relate things that they learnt on the module to their own experiences. 

The module had two TMAs (tutor marked assignments), and one large six thousand word EMA (end of module assessment). The first assignment was more of an introduction; it asked students to write about their own context and think about some of the issues and challenges that exist within it, whilst connecting to concepts that were introduced within the module such as the importance of the student voice and national legislation. It offered tutors an opportunity to steer students towards important reading.

The second TMA had different focus; it was a lot more practical: it asked students to create and evaluate an accessible learning resource. The resources itself could be about anything. What really mattered was that students gained the experience of building something and working with different tools. Through the module materials students were able to learn about and consult different resources and guidelines; students creating PowerPoints consulted documents that were produced by an organisation called TechDis; students creating web pages or blogs were able to consult W3C WCAG guidelines.

The process of building something helped students to think about how their learning designs could be used by different groups of students. They considered, for example, whether learners could easily adjust the font sizes of text and change the background. This implicitly reflected another important issue that was exposed within the module: the importance of accessibility training and how this might be provided through the institution in which they studied.

Activities

One of the interesting elements of the module was that it make extensive use of discussion forums. The module was split into three sections, or blocks. There was an introductory section, a section that related to the use of assistive technology and a block about wider issues and debates (which I’ll come onto later).

Each section was divided into a number of weeks, and weeks contained topics. Each topic has two bits: a set of pages that students needed to read and links to accompanying resources, and a topic discussion forum. The topic pages contained a series of activities. These activities could either be completed by the student themselves, or be completed by participating in an online discussion through the topic discussion forum. One of my activities as a tutor was to ‘seed’ the discussions, ready for the students for when they arrive at that point in the module. Another thing that I did as a tutor was encourage students to subscribe to each of the forums.

The aims of all these forums were simple: it was to share practices and experiences between students. One of the good things about H810 is that it sometimes attracted students from different countries. This meant that is was possible to compare and contrast practices and experiences.

In my experience, there were some students who were enthusiastic users of the discussion forums, and there were some who barely touched them. By way of an incentive, students were awarded 10% of the overall module score for online participation.

Set book, theory and the EMA

As well as the module materials, a set text accompanied the module:  E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice by Jane Seale, who is now a professor at the OU.

During the life of the module, Jane’s book changed; her second edition was very different to the first edition. I personally found the first edition a difficult read and I sensed that this was a view that was shared by some students. Despite its difficulty, it had a lot to say: it encouraged students to think about accessibility from three different perspectives; an individual perspective, an institutional perspective and a community perspective. These perspectives were connected to three different frameworks (or ‘theoretical lenses’, as I came to view them) that can be applied (through critical reflection) to help understand how accessibility is provided within the student’s own institution. 

Through the application of these ‘lenses’ students could also begin to see what changes and potential enhancements could be made. Accessibility doesn’t just begin and end by considering the technical dimension; it is a sociotechnical issue: technology can help, but people need to know what technology can be chosen and applied.

The first edition of Seale’s book introduced institutional change theory, activity theory and something called ‘communities of practice’. Coming from more of a technical tradition (as opposed to sociotechnical, or even educational position), I found all these pretty confusing. Initially, I didn’t know what to make of all these tools. A personal challenge was that the end of module assessment was all about using these tools to understand and make sense of their own institutional context.

I soon began to see how students creatively unpicked their situations and environments using the different frameworks. By thinking about concepts such as communities of practice, for instance, students could understand the extent to which people in their own institutions talk about accessibility and share experiences. This helped students to ask themselves questions, such as: how do teachers learn about accessibility, and how do disabled students begin to gain access to assistive technologies and accompanying training.

Reflections

One thing that surprised me at the start of the module is that it didn’t (initially) have any recommended or scheduled tutorials; my line manager didn’t offering me a clear or a direct steer about this. By the second or third presentation, I had made a unilateral decision that tutorials were probably needed. I introduced three tutorials: one for each TMA and another one for the EMA. By the time the university moved towards sharing of tutorials through the group tuition policy, the tutors were already working collaboratively with each other to delivery online tutorials.

Thinking back to my experience of tutoring on H810, one of the biggest things that surprised me was its approach to marking: students had access to exactly the same marking guidelines that were available to the tutors; everything was totally transparent. 

This was very different to the marking approach that I had ‘grown up with’ whilst tutoring on a computing and IT module; tutors were given extensive instruction and guidance about how to mark each individual question section, and were even provided with sample answers. H810 was different: it was entirely up to us, and this surprised me. In some respects, as tutors we were given a lot more scope and freedom to teach, but the downside was that it took a bit of time to uncover the best way to present feedback to students.

Fast forward around seven years, and things had changed: the first edition of the module set text had been replaced with a second edition. A big difference between the first edition and the second edition of Seale’s book is that the second edition no longer contained the chapters that introduced the three different frameworks that were fundamental to the EMA. This created a problem for the module team: they could either rewrite the module, use another reference, or create some other form of resource to fill the gap. They chose the latter approach: they worked with the publisher to create a special edition of the set text; the second edition with three extra chapters from the first edition. 

From what I understand, the introduction of the second edition gave way to a module refresh. By and large, the shelf life of an OU module is around 6 years; H810 had ten presentations. As well having to make way for a new set text, sections of the module materials had to be updated; there were external changes that affected the presentation of the module, such as the availability of an organisation called TechDis, which offered accessibility support to the university sector and the emergence of new accessibility standards and equality legislation. The refresh also represented an opportunity to draw on new research and publications; I was very surprised to learn that a conference paper that I had written had been explicitly used within the module materials. There is an important point here, which is that modules should be connected to and use research. 

The end of module assessment was, in many ways, the hardest part of the module for both students and for tutors. As an EMA marker, I have always been aware of how much time and effort went into each piece of writing, and I was continually impressed by the level of writing that was submitted. In the run up to the EMA, my own guidance to students had changed and developed. I emphasised the importance of demonstrating reading beyond the boundaries of the module (which is something that is required from a postgraduate module), and spoke about the importance of tone; although some people fundamentally disagree, I recommended that it was okay for students to write in the first person, as long as students adopted a relatively formal approach. 

Towards the end of tutoring on H810 I started to tutor on a Computing and IT project module that had the module code TM470. In some respects, working on H810 was the perfect training for the world of TM470 where students are required to write substantial end of project reports that were even longer than the EMAs that students were required to submit in H810. There was another difference: TM470 also had a transparent marking guide like H810. 

Final words: summing up

I know this can be said about all OU modules, but I felt that being a tutor on H810 was a very worthwhile thing to do. I write this because I have seen students come through the process of writing the EMA with a set of practical recommendations that could make a real difference to the experience of students with disabilities in their own institution. It was especially interesting to read about the ways that the frameworks are used to uncover accessibility practice within the OU.

A couple of words to summarise the experience: challenging, interesting and hard work. There’s also a touch of sadness that it has all finished. I’ll miss H810 and I’ll also miss its tutors. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that some of the topics that it exposes finds its ways into a replacement module, whatever that might be.

If you’re interested, bits of H810 can be found in the following Open Learn course: Accessibility of eLearning.

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TM470 notes

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 16 Aug 2018, 14:48

The university has been going through a lot of changes. One of the side effects of these changes is that I have now become a home worker (which I’m a bit grumpy about). To prepare for a delivery of a new desk, I’ve started to sort out loads of old papers. The process usually involves looking at a bundle of papers and thinking, ‘why did I keep this?’

I recently stumbled across a hand written form that relates to my first year of tutoring on the TM470 project module. Rather than putting it in a file (or in the recycling), I thought I would transcribe it and share it. I hope it is useful to someone!

The form is divided into four sections:

Project themes (in my tutor group this year)

The form was asking for the projects that students in my tutor group chose. I’ve decided to edit this bit and be pretty general. The project were about: an app evaluation, a database implementation, and a website redesign.

Issues encountered (and how I resolved them)

One of the challenges was projects that had a very big or wide scope. Subsequently, another issue was projects that had a really narrow scope. It was sometimes quite difficult to get hold of some students. There were many students asking for extensions. The marking (of course) was quite challenging, and on occasions I was asked to do some remarking. It was also difficult to keep students on track, mostly because everyone on the project module is different and have their own circumstances.

What I have learned (including positives)

The first item I noted was: broadness of project topics. The students can, of course, surprise you. What struck me was the importance of the literature review in the module. I learnt more about how the project module was connected to other modules in the Computing and IT programme and also how it was different to other modules. It was useful to think of the module in terms of it being an ‘extension to level 3 modules’; creating a database isn’t enough: students need to demonstrate skills and go further in terms of either their understanding principles (such as transactions or concurrency) or the application of ideas. I also learnt the importance of sending out ‘update’ emails.

Ideas for next year (things I could do differently)

Each student is given four hours of support time. Different students and different tutors may use this time in different ways. One thought is: after initial contact (perhaps even by telephone), is to run an introductory tutorial for the student group. 

Another note I made was, ‘emphasise the library screenshare’; this comment relate to a session that is run by the OU library, to help students with a literature review. Another note I made was: ‘be a bit more persistent in terms of following up; call them after their TMAs’. Another thought was an interesting one: ‘try to get students talking to each other’. A related point was: get students presenting to each other.


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