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Christopher Douce

Generative AI- AL Professional Development

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 29 May 2024, 12:36

On 23 May 24 I attended an AL development event (in my capacity as an OU tutor) that was all about Generative AI (which is abbreviated to here as GenAI). This blog sits alongside a couple of other blogs that I shared last year that also relate to GenAI and what this means for education, distance learning, and education practice.

What follows is some notes that I made during a couple of the sessions I attended, and what points and themes I took away from them. I also share some critical perspectives. Since GenAI is a fast moving subject, not just in terms of the technology, but in terms of policy and institutional responses, what is presented here is also likely to age quickly.

Opening keynote

The event opened with a keynote by Mychelle Pride which had the subtitle: Generative AI in Learning, Teaching and Assessment I won’t summarise it at length. Instead, I’ll share some key points that I noted down.

One important point was that AI isn’t anything new. A couple of useful resources were shared, one from the popular press, How AI chatbots like ChatGPT or Bard work – visual explainer (The Guardian) and another from industry: The rise of generative AI: A timeline of breakthrough innovations (Qualcomm).

An interesting use case was shared through a YouTube video: Be My Eyes Accessibility with GPT-4. Although clearly choreographed, and without any indication of whether any of this was ‘live’, one immediately wonders whether this technology is solving the right problems. Maybe this scenario implicitly implies that visually impaired people should adapt to the sighted world, whereas perhaps a better solution might be for the world to adapt to people with visual impairments? I digress.

There are clear risks. One significant concern lies with the lack of transparency. Tools can be trained with data that contains biases; in computing there’s the notion of GiGO: garbage in, garbage out. There’s also the clear potential that GenAI tools may accept and then propagate misinformation. It is clear that “risks need to be considered, along with the potential opportunities”.

A point was shared from a colleague Michel Wermelinger who was quoted saying “academic conduct is a symptom, not the problem”, which directly takes us to the university’s academic conduct policies about plagiarism.

In this session I learnt a new term: “green light culture”. The point here was that there are a variety of positions that relate to GenAI: in HE there are policy decisions that range from ‘forbid’ to ‘go ahead’.

I made a note of a range of searching questions. One of them was: how might students use Generative AI? It might become a study assistant, it might facilitate language learning, or support with creative projects. Another question was: how could pedagogies be augmented by AI? Also, is there a risk of over dependence in how we use these tools? Could it prevent us from developing skills? How can we assess in a generative AI world? Some answers to this question may be to have project-based assessment, collaborative assessment, to use complex case studies, and to consider the use of oral assessments. 

A point is that students will be using Generative AI in the future, which means that the university has a responsibility to educate students about it

Towards the end of the keynote, there was some talk about all this being revolutionary (I’ll say more about this later). This led onto a closing provocative question: what differentiates you (the tutor) from Generative AI?

During the keynote, some interesting resources were shared:

Teaching and learning with AI across the curriculum

The aim of a session by Mirjam Hauck was to explore the connection between AI and pedagogy, and to also consider the issue of ethics.

Just like the previous presentation, there were some interesting resources that were shared. One of them was a talk: TED Talk: How AI could save (not destroy) education.

Another resource was a recent book, Practical Pedagogy: 40 New Ways to Teach and Learn by Mike Sharples which students and staff can access through the OU Library.

I had a quick look at it, just to see what these 40 new ways were. Taking a critical perspective, I realised that the vast majority of these approaches were already familiar to me, in one way or another. These are not necessarily ‘new’ but are instead presented in a new way, in a useful compendium. The text also shares a lot of informal web links, which immediately limits the longevity of the text. It does highlight academic articles, but it doesn’t always cite them within a description of a pedagogy. My view is: do consider this text as something that shares a useful set of ideas, rather than something that is definite.

During this session, there were some complementary reflections about how GenAI could be linked with pedagogy: it could be used to help with the generation of ideas (but to be mindful that it might be regenerating ideas and bits of text that may be subject to copyright), play a role within a Socratic dialogue, or act as a digital assistant for learning (which was sometimes called an AIDA – an AI digital assistant).

Power was mentioned in this session, with respect to the power that is exerted by the corporations that develop, run, and deploy AI tools. The point I had in my mind during this part of the session was: ‘do be mindful about who is running these products, why, and that they hope to get from them’.

A brief aside…

Whilst I was prepping this blog, I was sent a related email from Hello World magazine, which is written for computing educators. In that email, there was a podcast which had the title: What is the role of AI in your classroom? 

There was an interesting discussion about assessment, and asking the question of ‘how can this help with pedagogy?’ and ‘how can we adapt our own practices?’ A further question is: ‘is there a risk that we dumb down creativity?’

A scholarship question?

A few times this year tutors have been in touch with me, to ask the question: ‘I’ve seen a students answer in a script that makes me think they may well have used Generative AI. What do I do?’ Copying TMA questions, or any other elements of university materials into a Generative AI tool represents a breach of university policy, and can potentially be viewed as an academic conduct issue. The question is: what do tutors do about this? At the moment, and without any significant evidence, tutors must mark what they have been given.

An important scholarship question to ask is: how many tutors think they are being presented with assessments that may have been produced by Generative AI tools?

Reflections

There was a lot of take on board during this session. I need to find the time to sit down and work through some of the various resources that were shared in this session, which is (in part) the reason for this blog.

When I was a computing undergraduate I went to a couple of short seminars about the development of the internet. When it came to the topic of the web browser, our lecturer said: “this is never going to catch on; who is going to spend time creating all these web pages and HTML tags?” Every day I make use of a web browser; it is, of course, an important bit of software that is embedded within my phone. This connects with an important point: it is notoriously difficult to predict the future, especially when it comes to how technologies are used. There are often unintended consequences, both good and bad.

Being a former student of AI (late in the last century) I’m aware that the fashions that surround AI is cyclical. With each cycle of hype, there are new technologies and tools. Following an early (modern) cycle of AI, I remember a project called SHRDLU, which demonstrated an imaginary world, where users could interact with natural language. This led to an expression that they key challenges had been solved, and all that needs to be done is to scale everything up. Reality, of course, is a whole lot more complicated.

A really important point to bear in mind is that GenAI (in the general sense) cannot reason. You can’t play chess with it. There are, however, other tools within the AI toolset that can do reasoning. As a postgrad student, I had to write an expert system that helped to solve a problem: to figure out a path through a university campus.

I’ve also been around for long enough to see various cycles of hype regarding learning technologies: I joined when e-learning objects were the fashion of the day, then there was the virtual learning environment, and then there was a craze that related to learning analytics. In some respects, the current generation of AI feels like a new (temporary) craze.

Embedding AI into educational tools isn’t anything new. I remember first hearing about the integration of neural networks in the early 2000s.  In 2009 I was employed on a project that intended to provide customised digital resources for learners who have different requirements and needs.

As the models get bigger, more data they hoover up, and the greater potential of these tools generating nonsense. And here lies a paradox: to make effective use of GenAI within education, you need education.

Perhaps there is a difference between generally available generative AI, to generative AI that is aligned to particular contexts. This takes me to an important reflection: no GenAI tool or engine can ever know what your own context is. You might ask it some questions and get a sensible sounding response, but it will not know why you’re asking a question, and what purpose your intended answer may serve. This is why the results produced by a GenAI tool might look terrible, or suspicious if submitted as a part of an assessment. Context is everything, and assessments relate to your personal understanding of very particular learning context.

Although the notion of power and digital corporations was mentioned, there’s another type of power that wasn’t mentioned: electrical power. I don’t have figures to hand, but large language models require an inordinate amount of electrical energy to do what they do. Their use has real environmental consequences. It's easy to forget this.

Here is my view: it is important to be aware of what GenAI is all about, but it is also really important not to get carried away and caught up in what could be thought of as technological froth. It’s also important to always remember that technology can change faster than pedagogy. We need to apply effective pedagogy to teach about technology. 

In my eyes, GenAI, or AI in many of its other forms isn’t a revolution that will change everything, or is an existential threat to humanity; it is an evolution of a set of existing technologies.

It’s important to keep everything in perspective.

Resources

A number of resources were highlighted in this session which are worth having a quick look at:

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the presenters of this professional development event, and the team that put this event together. Lots to look at, and lots of think about.

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Christopher Douce

A233 Journal - May 2024

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6 May 2024

I’ve been in a bit of a marking hole for a while.

The last thing I did before taking a bit of work-imposed break from study was watch a production of The Tempest that was staged at The Globe. I turns out that I have lost my copy of the text; it is either hidden amongst a pile of books, or it is at my parents place; I don’t know which. To get around this, I’ve been following a version of the text with a Project Guttenberg version that I have downloaded onto my Kindle.

I recently found out that the version of the text I had wasn’t the one that was recommended by the module team, which has now been delivered. It is the introduction to the set text that I have ordered, and it is that text that I’ve been reading today.

I’ve also emailed a bunch of additional reading to my Kindle, which I hope to go through over the next couple of days. I feel I’m building up towards the writing of the EMA. Another step towards it will be a Shakespeare lecture that takes place tomorrow. In between my day job and study, I’ll also be marking some project assignments. I have a lot to be getting on with.

10 May 2024

I’m finally doing a bit of proper study. Two days ago I went to an online tutorial that was about TMA 5 preparation, which I found quite helpful. Yesterday I listened to the remainder of a module team tutorial that was about how to go about reading Shakespeare. This morning, and also for a part of yesterday, I’ve been skim reading a bunch of additional readings I’ve found from both the module website and the OU library. I feel I’m getting there.

The Tempest is growing on me. Whilst I’ve always liked science fiction, I’ve never really liked fantasy. I found the idea of a magician creating a storm and causing mischief thoroughly boring. I can, however, see that there’s a whole lot more going on than I ever realised.

Our tutor has directed us to a site Shakespeareswords.com which looks to be pretty useful.

Next steps: finish up all my reading, and then go onto making my word processed notes from my Kindle notes and highlights, and then writing, which will hopefully take a couple of days.

15 May 2024

A couple of days ago I went to a tutorial that was run by my tutor. I think there were five of us; a lot was covered, and it was recorded. I picked up a whole load of tips on how to approach my essay.

I spent a lot of time yesterday sat in a car. I made use of over 4 or 5 hours of driving by listening to an audio book of The Dispossessed. The more I listen to it, the more there is to unpick.

To help with the unpicking, a fellow student shared the following YouTube videos, which are certainly worth a listen:

I was struck by a couple of things. I was struck by how many detailed videos the presenter of the second video had mad. I was struck by how much time and energy had been expended preparing all of these. I liked the third video; it talks about materialism vs idealism. It has helped me to reflect on the views that I previously held about science fiction. The points about roles, origins and purpose of stories are interesting too. 

19 May 2024

A busy couple of days. I managed to finish transferring all my digital e-book notes into my Word document. I had to do quite a bit of driving yesterday, so I spent 4 more hours of it listening to The Dispossessed. I think I have a few more hours of listening to go, but I know what happens, and (broadly) how the final chapters are structured.

Today has been a day of two halves. In the morning I did the bulk of my writing, building on and drawing on my notes. It turned out I was 500 words over the word count. I then went through a cycle of editing. Although I think there is still some time to go, I got to a point when I was happy with what I had written, and what I had learnt. This time I applied quite a rigorous writing process. I felt that looking for additional resources, and skim reading them was pretty helpful. I also carefully referenced every article that I downloaded. If I found I didn’t use it, I cut it from the reference list.

There is a niggling feeling that I have that I haven’t really answered the TMA question, but I really don’t think that is the case. I could have picked on more bits of realism, and more specific bits of fantasy, but underneath it all there is the need to express your understanding of the text and to express understanding of different literary terms. I’ll try not to worry. I think I’ve done this.

28 May 2024

Only two more days to go until the final TMA deadline on A233.

I’ve started to get ahead on the reading (and studying) of my next module, A334. This means working through some of the free versions of the texts that I’ve downloaded from Project Guttenberg. To conclude this A233 blog, I wanted to share two points of learning from my studies of English, and points of learning from studying this module.

The first is that I’m starting to read texts in a slightly different way. Although this sounds a bit weird, but I feel as if I’m more aware of what is written. I’m also questioning: why words were written. I found myself realising this when I was reading a popular science (or engineering) book about cloud computing; a text which relates to my day job. (Admittedly, it was a very good book).

The other bit relates to The Tempest. When I watched a production of The Tempest for the first time, I wasn’t very taken by it. I thought it was really silly; all that stuff about magic, fairies and monsters. I didn’t speak to me.

The more I read about it, not just of the module materials, but articles I found from the OU library, the more I began to appreciate it. I reflected on the characters, and the context in which it was written. Turning to an entirely different subject, I also reflected on some research presentations I had attended that were about decolonising computing, and what that meant. 

Could The Tempest be used as a lens to understand this completely different subject? Maybe software engineers could be a bit like Prospero, using all their technical books to enact digital magic. What about the other characters in the play? I will continue to mull over these idle questions.

I’m now looking forward to As you like it, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet.

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Christopher Douce

A233 Journal - April 2024

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7 April 2024

I am procrastinating in a really productive way: I’m reading ahead! I’ve been reading Startdust. It is interesting note that there are a number of different versions. I accidentally downloaded the text only version. What you do need is the illustrated version. The illustrations add a huge amount to the text, since on its own, I found the text quite hard to follow.

I’ve made it part way through the chapter that I shouldn’t be reading.

It’s time to begin to collate all my notes, to prepare for the writing of the TMA. I’ve got notes in two different places: pencil scribbles in the set text, and digital highlights on the PDF version that I’ve been reading using my Kindle. I’ll see how I get on.

12 April 2024

I’ve downloaded an audio book of The Dispossessed. Today I’m helping a friend get settled in his new house. Since it’s quite a drive away, listen to The Dispossessed whilst I’m driving. I found the first couple of chapters unfathomable, and I have no idea what is going on.

13 April 2024

I’m stuck at home with a dodgy ankle that was caused by too much running about, and the messing about with furniture didn’t’ help it one bit. Subsequently, this gives me a bit of time to complete TMA 4! I edit together a set of notes from my reading, I then have a go to edit up my story, and then cycle round a loop of editing a few times. I’m quite pleased with what I’ve written, but less happy with the reflective section, where I’m really struggling with word count. 

I really like Propp’s actants, but I feel pretty dumb, since the extent of my reflection seems to be: ‘I like them, and they have helped me’. I think I know where I’m going to let myself down in the TMA, but it has nearly got to that point where I’ve just got to submit it.

14 April 2024

It’s ‘listening to The Dispossessed’ day. I’m making reasonable progress, but it’s slow and long going. I’ve really got to concentrate to understand what on earth is going on. Since it’s all a bit weird, I don’t know what detail is going to be important, and what detail adds to the overall atmosphere. I don’t think I like it. I glimpsed at the module materials, and there is a comment that the text places demands on the reader. I’m struggling and I’m not even reading it.

It really isn’t good that I’ve fallen asleep twice. On the second occasion I slept through half a chapter. This has never happened.

15 April 2024

One hour of listening before I start work. The Dispossessed has become very weird. Let’s say: I appreciate it, but I don’t like it. I appreciate it’s difficult to predict the future, but spacemen reading books and sending letters? As for all the faux physics, that bit is really starting to grate.

16 April 2024

Another chapter first thing in the morning. The further I get into it, the more I’m drawn to it. I’m surprised at how much action there is!

It’s time to get back to studying a bit more systematically again. I’m back to the online module materials. There are bits that I’ve missed in the previous section, but I need to keep moving forward. It’s onto the video and audio material that relate to Stardust. There are interviews and videos to work through. I’ll skive off a bit of my day job, with the justification that everything I’m doing here is connected (in one way or another).

I’m on a roll: I’ve reviewed all the audio and video clips in the Le Guin weeks, making some notes. My next activity has been to prep a TMA 5 document. Noticing there’s a fair amount of supplementary material, I start to download articles from the library.

Before I’ve finished today, I’m going to have a quick look in the Shakespeare section to see if there’s any audio or video materials I can have a look or listen to.

17 April 2024

Struggling with ankle aches and pains, I join the queue to the GP, whilst listening to chapter 11 of The Dispossessed

When I get back from the queue, I make the following post to the A233 ‘laid back’ Facebook group: “I think I've done a 180 turn when it comes to The Dispossessed. I've gone from: 'this is really tedious, and is continually making me fall asleep' to 'this is really amazing stuff!'. Two chapters on the audio book to go. Keep with it; there are Urasti propetarian dividends to be had, even though it initially might sound like a lot of nonsense (if it is your kind of thing).”

I’m now browsing through the Journal of Science Fiction Studies, when I really ought to be browsing through the IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering. 

It’s all related, right?

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AL development in Computing and Communications

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 30 Apr 2024, 15:13

I work with a number of colleagues from the School of Computing and Communications AL development group. The aim of this group is to setup and organise professional development events for tutors who teach on computing modules.

What follows is a set of session titles that I shared with the group during a meeting.

The list begins with a couple of essential ‘old favourites’. I have also taken the liberty of adding a couple of headings that emerged from some of our group discussions. Due acknowledgements are provided at the end of the list.

If you are a tutor within the school, and have opinions about what might help you, then please do get in touch; a part of my role is to politely agitate for effective and useful professional development sessions.

Session titles or topics

Correspondence tuition – Providing effective feedback and marking is an essential part of the tutor’s role. Sessions that enable the sharing of practice are always helpful. In the past I’ve facilitated sessions about how to deliver quality feedback whilst at the same time working quickly and efficiently.

Delivering online tutorials – Although the university has a dedicated team that is about using Adobe Connect, it can be useful to discuss online teaching and online tutorial pedagogy from a school perspective. Tutor in computing might use screen sharing to demonstrate software and show how programming problems are solved. Speaking with fellow tutors can also spark new ideas.

Programme and qualification updates – In some AL development sessions the director of teaching or head of school have provided updates about changes and enhancements to curriculum. There are plans to introduce new programmes, and the degree apprenticeship structure has recently changed. There may also be an opportunity to talk about what is meant by the ‘computing and a second subject’ qualification.

“What do you need?” focus group – Whilst staff tutors are well placed to gather up ideas about what types of professional development might be useful, it is best to hear from tutors directly by asking the question: “what do you need?” The could be run in the form of a focus group, to gather up new ideas that could feed into future professional development events.

Exploring CPD opportunities within the school and the university – CPD is, of course, an abbreviation for continuing professional development. This interactive session would be about sharing experiences of participating in different types of CPD activities. The university can offer a lot: fee waivers, an AL development fund, selected funded study of certain modules, and the Applaud scheme which relates to FHEA membership.

Maintaining work life balance – Every tutor has a different level of workload; tutors may tutor on a single module, or may teach on a complex portfolio of related modules. Sessions which have addressed individual wellbeing and welfare have often been well received. Such a session could be about how to manage workload, especially during periods of high intensity where there can be a lot of marking to do in a short amount of time.

Making the skills audit work for you – The skills audit, which is going to be combined with everyone’s CDSA, is a process that is new to everyone. It is a way to signal your potential willingness to increase your overall employment with the university. The school has defined what is called a ‘controlled vocabulary’ which should be used to summarise your skills and abilities.

Running individual support sessions – From time to time, one-to-one sessions with students can be really helpful to get students back on track. Requests for an ISSS (as they are known) can come from the student support team, your student, or yourself. I’ve never received any training about how to run one-to-one sessions. My sense is that running a really effective individual support session is a skill. A session to share practice may well be useful to some.

Supporting transitions – What I mean by a transition is the movement from one state or level of study to another. Students transition from non-study to study when they begin level 1 studies, or move from level 1 to level 2. Equally, there may well be a state of transition from study to graduation.

Dealing with challenging situations – I’ve included this session idea, since I once attended a really useful session which took place in the former Gateshead regional centre. The session provided tutors with some tips and techniques about how to support students, and gain a sense of perspective when facing some challenging situations.

Other session ideas:

Understanding what the SST does – Some really effective sessions in the past have been sessions that have been about the work of the student support team. Member of the SST can often provide a lot of really helpful advice about how to respond to certain situations.

Introducing the careers service – The careers service is a really helpful service that students can access to, but tutors don’t often know much about the work they do. There is an opportunity with a careers centric session to discuss how modules relates to practical employability skills, and how modules (and tutors) can help to support these.

What happens in module results panels? – After the final TMAs are returned and the deadline for the examinable components (an EMA or an exam) are hit, results are collated and fed into a standardisation process. There is then something called a module results panel, which then feeds into an exam board meeting, where there is an external examiner. What happens within all these meetings? Knowing a bit more about what happens may help us to reassure students.

Monitoring – Every tutor’s correspondence tuition is monitored. Monitoring takes place at different levels depending upon how long a tutor has been working for the university for. A session about monitoring could allow students to share experiences of monitoring, and of being monitored.

Dealing with plagiarism and generative AI – This session could be facilitated by an academic conduct officer who is familiar with the OU’s polices and processes. This session could be used to share practice and experiences which relate to cases of potential academic conduct and plagiarism.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to everyone who is a part of the C&C AL development working group. There is an implicit link here to the STEM AL Induction working group, which I’m also a part of. This article can also be read in conjunction with a summary of a ‘top ten tips’ induction session that I have co-facilitated for the last few years.

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TM470 Considering resources and skills

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During the planning stages of your project, it is really important to consider resources. There is a link between the notion of resources and one of the module learning outcomes:

L03. Identify, list and justify the resources, skills and activities needed to carry out the project successfully. Identify and address any associated risks

To satisfy the requirements for a distinction level project, you need to have:

… identified the resources, skills and activities, the timely availability of which is essential. Has judged risks appropriately.

Resources can be thought of in a couple of ways. Firstly, you should draw upon and use academic resources. Your choice of these resources will make up your literature review chapter. Secondly, there are the resources that you will need to use to get your project done. There is, of course, a link between both of these types of resources and the skills that you need to apply.

There is another link to bear in mind, which is a link to the risks that you have to take account of. Some risks that you identify might lead you choosing certain types of resources over another. Whatever you do, it is going to be important to justify your decisions about what you have done within your project report. Your considerations need to be convincing.

To read more about risk, and how it relates to TM470, it is worth reading an accompanying blog, Considering project risks

Academic resources

Your TM470 project is all about building on your earlier learning and studies. This means that you need to identify what academic resource might be useful when thinking about your project. The starting point is, of course, the previous modules you have studied. 

The TM470 module materials has a resource called Preparing a Literature Search, which you should read. To offer some complementary guidance, the following blog offers a bit of guidance: TM470 Understanding the Literature review.

The library also maintains a list of links to online databases that relate to ICT which might be useful. A really important point (which I share to students) is: the OU library is your friend. It is a huge resource. Do make sure you find the time to look at it.

When working on your project, it is worthwhile thinking about the following categories of academic resources:

  • Module materials.
  • Textbooks that accompany module materials.
  • Academic articles (such as those found within academic journals).
  • User guides or instruction manuals.
  • Technical websites.

It is all very well knowing which modules, textbooks, articles and databases may help you with your project, but when it comes to your TM470 project you actually need to get on and do something. This takes us to the following section, which addresses the question: ‘what do I need to complete my project?’

Resources you need to complete your project

Your TM470 project will be typically based on a level 3 module. The TM470 module team have written a number of few short articles about what a project (which is based on an earlier level 3 module) might look like.

You might want to draw on TM356 Fundamentals of Interaction Design, for example. In doing so, you may wish to apply the interaction design life cycle. With ID projects, students should ideally carry out a number of design iterations, potentially leading to either a high fidelity prototype, or a design of a particularly implemented software tool or system.

There are many different approaches to prototyping. A prototype can, of course, being as a paper prototype, and then lead onto a series of higher fidelity prototypes. Some students have used PowerPoint, for example. There are other tools that could be used, such as Balsamiq, Adobe XD or Figma. When you have created a design, you will need to carry out an evaluation. This leads to the questions: ‘what do we do to carry out an evaluation?’ and ‘what do we need to carry out an evaluation?’.

Unpicking this further, we can identify different broad categories of resources that we might need.

Software: Software products, such as prototyping tools, software development environments, or products to help you manage information or aspects of your project.

People: Put more broadly, the people category includes stakeholders. Stakeholders can be defined as anyone influenced by or affected by a project. People might also be participants; people who might help you with the testing or evaluation of your product.

Tools: Broadly, tools are anything that helps you to do what you need to do. If you’re capturing requirements and interviewing stakeholders, you might want to use a data recorder. If you’re carrying out an evaluation, might choose to make notes about happens.

Facilities: by facilities you might think about rooms, spaces, or physical places where project related activities occur. If you’re gathering requirements and need to run a focus group, you’ll need to find a place where this takes place. If you will be creating software as a part of your project, you will need a computer and maybe some server space to get it working. If you are evaluating an interface, you’ll need to find somewhere to do that evaluation. 

Different projects will require, of course, different resources. Since your project is only small, you should only use what you have easy access to.

The link to skills

By identifying the resources you need for your project, you will begin to think about the skills you have, the skills that you need to apply, and the skills you need to develop.

As mentioned earlier, resources can be thought being in two broad types: academic resources, and resources you need to complete your project. When writing and preparing your literature review, you may well develop your academic reading and critical thinking skills. When it comes to project resources and project management, you may well need specific skills to make progress on your project.

Practical advice

The different two types of resources needed to be treated differently. Think of your literature review as a narrative (or story) of what you have read. Don’t present a summary of papers, or articles that are relevant to your project. Instead, show the examiner what you have read, what readings are going to be useful within your project, and explain why they are important. There are different ways to structure a literature review, but a practical recommendation is to adopt a thematic approach.

Let’s turn to the other type of resources: project resource. In the planning section of your report, create a table that summarises the resources you need. Give each resource a name, and then offer a brief summary of that it is and why it is important to your project. If appropriate, you might even want to provide a reference.

When you have prepared table of resources (which could include different types of software, people, tools, and facilities), it is time to write about skills. Just as you did with your list of resources, create a table that summarises the skills that you will either need to have, or need to master in order to use these resources.

Considering reflection

Identifying the resources and skills that you need is both important and helpful.

When you get to the end of your project, you will need to complete the reflection section. When you get to this bit of your project ask yourself:

  • Did you choose the right set of resources?
  • Have you developed the skills that you expected to develop?

There is always a further question to ask, which is:

  • Have there been any surprises?

There is (or will be) a whole other blog that relates to reflection, and the importance it plays in TM470.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the TM470 project team and fellow TM470 tutors. Although this blog (and other TM470 blogs) are intended to provide useful additional guidance, always refer to the module materials. If you have any questions, please do contact your tutor.

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A233 Journal - March 2024

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7 March 2024

This is a cheeky retrospective post, but I’m adding it to mark a date. In my spare time (of which, I don’t have too much!) I run a comedy night. Inspired by the TMA question, I have a go at writing a satirical and political fairy tale, called (unimaginatively) A Fairy Tale of Lewisham. After a bit of editing, and a poorly timed practice session, I read it out. It got a couple of laughs, and a round of applause. I’m glad I have done it, but I have no idea whether I can use the basis of what I’ve done in my TMA. To answer this question, I ask my tutor. 

15 March 2024

I’ve been a bit rubbish updating this study log recently, since I’ve been in what you might call a ‘valley of marking’; I’ve had to turn around the marking for two different important modules reasonably quickly. I also know that my new A233 tutor has been in a similar situation; she has since has returned my TMA 2 and TMA 3, and has provided some really helpful feedback which really got me thinking.

After what has become a mild study hiatus, I have returned to my books again. Today I’ve been working through understanding what is needed from the week 20 and week 21 online materials. I’ve nearly finished working through all the video and audio materials, which has helped me to understand what reading I’ve got to do.

I have, however, read the first couple of chapters of the module materials, but I need to go over them again, and then find my way to chapter 3 if I have any chance of keeping on track.

I think I know what TMA 4 option I’m going to do. As it happened, I had a go of writing something before I had thoroughly had a look at the TMA question.

I have four things to do. The first is to listen (and make notes about) the final audio recording in week 21. Next up (I think) is to return to the block text and return to where I was reading, and then to read a whole long list of tales I had noted down from the week 21 online materials. The final activity is to try to catch up on some of the tutorials, since I’ve missed a couple of them. I feel that my current study approach isn’t very systematic, but I feel as if I’m continuing to learn from everything.

There has been some various chats on one of the A233 Facebook groups: some fellow students are clearly enjoying this bit of the module. There are also some interesting opinions about Angela Carter. I don’t quite ‘get’ her stories yet, but other students and tutors really like her work. I’ve yet to work through the materials about Freud (which I’m a bit sceptical about, to say the least) but I’m hoping to get onto that today.

So, all in all, some progress. I am looking forward to the Shakespeare bit of the module when I get there.

30 March 2023

I think I’m getting behind since I have remained in my valley of marking for longer than expected.

I needed to decide how to spend my time. Rather than working towards writing TMAs, I needed to focus on marking TMAs. This said, a couple of weeks back, aware that thing were running away from me, I have read through a couple of chapters from the module materials – I just need to reassess where I am.

In addition to the work, I’ve had to drop everything to help my parents with a few things. This led me to ask myself another question: to help me keep on track, what can I practically do to keep on track, or to take a strategic approach with my studies? 

Knowing that I had a long car journey, I managed to listen to the audio version of Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This gave me a very good idea of what the text was all about. Completing this, I also managed to find an episode of In Our Time which covered the same text and also featured an appearance by Armitage. I this programme to be really helpful, adding a bit more context.

Aware that The Tempest is going to be featured in the EMA, I had a thought: could I adopt a similar approach? I found a Royal Shakespeare Company production in an online service called Drama Online, which all students can access. I watched the performance and tried to follow the text at the same time. Although useful, my immediate and full blown exposure to the play did cause me to miss some of the important details, such as who the characters were. My excuse being that I kept getting distracted, to view the play in a number of episodes,

There was a curious resource that was helpful: the CBeebies production of The Tempest. There also appears to be a CBeebies Radio version, which I’m mentioning here, just in case I get the time to have a listen! These links may, of course, stop working at any point.

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TM470 Considering project risks

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 18 Apr 2024, 17:05

The nature and character of risk can influence your project in a big way. 

To begin, it is perhaps useful to define what risk means. Drawing on the M815 project management module, I have found the following two definitions:

‘The potential of situation or event to impact on the achievement of specific objectives.’ (APM, 2019, p. 215)

‘An uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on one or more project objectives.’ (PMI, 2017, p. 10)

Fundamentally, risk can influence your choice of project model, and directly influence how you gather requirements. If everything is known, and you are not going to be doing anything risky, you might opt for a simplistic project model. If there are elements of your project that you know nothing about, and have never done certain tasks, you might choose an iterative approach.

When you have chosen a project model for your project, you can then start to think about how risk will potentially influence the different phases of your project. To do this well, you need to a number of things:

Write your risks down. By doing this, you will begin to create what is sometimes called a risk register. 

  • The next task is to consider how important your risks are.
  • You the need to consider how to deal with those risks.
  • In some cases you may choose to mitigate against risks. In other words, if these risks were to appear, you need to know how to respond to them.
  • After having done this, you then need to make some changes to your plan. You might, for example, choose to add more slack into certain elements of your schedule if you need to use some of your mitigations.

When it comes to TM470 you should be carrying out risk planning from the very start of your project since it can guide what you do. Importantly, LO3 directly relate to how you deal with risk:

L03. Identify, list and justify the resources, skills and activities needed to carry out the project successfully. Identify and address any associated risks

To gain a distinction, you must have

… identified the resources, skills and activities, the timely availability of which is essential. Has judged risks appropriately.

Module materials

There are a number of sections within the TM470 module materials that you should look to.

Section 2.5 Risk in project lifecycles: This section relates to the point that the structure of your project may well be driven by risks.

Section 3.2 Risk Assessment: This section encourages you to consider risk in two different ways: impact, and likelihood. There are three different levels of each. A practical suggestion is offered; you might want to think about creating a risk table (which is a bit like a mini risk register). The decision on how you present and summarise your risks is, of course, up to you. It is, of course, dependent upon your project.

Section 3.3 Risk management: This is about how you deal with the risks that you identify. Do you avoid a risk, find a way through, or accept that something is a risk?

Risk analysis

In the TM470 FAQ a fellow tutor, Karl Wilcox, has written about the notion of risk analysis, which extends what is mentioned in sections 3.2 and 3.3. Karl begins with a simple question: where do risks come from? Karl offers some practical advice:

‘One primary source is the list of resources that you need for your project (which is why we ask you to provide one). Since you have identified a need for each of those resources, the lack of any resource will affect your project plan to a greater or lesser extent. Some might be trivial but you should definitely go through all your resources and ask yourself whether each one should have an entry in your risk register or not.

The other main source of risks is "external events". Obviously, you need to be a bit sensible about this and really just consider events that apply specifically to you, so illness, illness of a family member, unexpected work commitments, etc.

Finally, there is a smaller source (that may not be relevant to your particular project) but is there a possibility that some part of your project turns to be impossible? (Or more likely, prohibitively difficult). Do you need to develop new skills? (Another reason we ask for a list of these…) What if it turns out that something just doesn't "click" and you find that skill too hard? Are there any possibly technical or legal or ethical issues that might arise?’ (Wilcox, 2024)

Karl relates a number of potential risks to the different tables that you have been asked to create. For each skill or resource, is there an accompanying risk?

How do we deal with, or mitigate our risks? Karl offers some practical advice, which I abridge for brevity:

‘These [mitigations] can take many forms, from exploring alternatives, adding in contingency time, or sometimes carrying out activities specifically to minimise risk, or at least to bring forward a better understanding of them. … Active steps include things like taking backups of all your work to mitigate the risk of hardware failure, or replacing a laptop that you know to be a bit flaky. If you need input from other people, can you at least get some time in their diaries now, rather than leaving it until later to find out they are not available?

In reality, especially with the limited timescale (and limited personnel resources!) of a TM470 project the most likely response to a risk actually arising is "do fewer things", but again you can prepare for this. Are there parts of your project that you can consider as "stretch" goals, to be achieved if everything goes well but that can be set aside if things go ill? Can you perhaps arrange your plan so that a crude "prototype" of your final deliverable can be developed early, so at least you will have something working if things fall apart at a later stage?’ (Wilcox, 2024).

Karl’s comments about ‘stretch goals’ is both interesting and useful. Another way to think of this is in terms of what a ‘minimum viable product’ might look like. Here we can see an implicit link between the project model and risk. For example, if things do go ‘ill’, we may well wish to curtail a final iteration (if we adopt an iterative lifecycle, of course).

It is worth noting that Karl takes all this pretty seriously: 

‘So I don't see the "Risk Analysis" part of TM470 as simply being a "paper" exercise, in which the construction of a risk register listing risks, likelihood, impact and mitigation for a dozen or so factors is presented in TMA01 and then ignored. That may well gain you some of the marks but it can actually be a genuinely useful exercise that will affect what you do and how you do it and give you a much better chance to complete the project to your own satisfaction and gain better marks all around!’ (Wilcox, 2024).

The Risk Register

Following on from Karl’s FAQ, fellow tutor Trevor Forsythe shared a forum post with his TM470 students, outlining what types of information that you might hold in a risk register. His post had been based the PRINCE2 approach to managing risk (PRINCE2, 2024).

Trevor began by writing: ‘this is one of those learning outcomes that is regularly reviewed, and we are looking to see how students assess and manage risk. A quick search of the Internet will identify a number of risk templates either in word or Excel formats. There is no mandated template to use so you will have to identify one that you think works for your project. As an example, a risk register could contain the following …’

What follows is an abridged and edited version of what Trevor shared (which draws on the PRINCE2 original):

  • Risk identifier: Provides a unique reference for every risk entered into the risk register, typically a numeric or alphanumeric value.
  • Date registered: The date the risk was identified. This is helpful with knowing whether the current version of the risk is the one that is up to date.
  • Risk category: The type of risk in terms of the project’s chosen categories (e.g. schedule, quality, legal, technical, learning, hardware). 
  • Risk description: The risk in terms of the cause, event (threat or opportunity) and effect (in words of the impact) e.g. "my hardware could fail and I lose all my software development".
  • Probability impact: It is helpful to estimate the inherent values (pre-response action) and residual values (post-response action). These should be recorded in accordance with the project’s chosen scales.
  • Proximity:  This would typically state how close to the present time the risk event is anticipated to happen (e.g., imminent, within the management stage, within the project, beyond the project). Proximity should be recorded in accordance with the project’s chosen scales.
  • Risk response: Actions to be taken to resolve the risk. These actions should be aligned with the chosen response categories. Note that more than one risk response may apply to a risk. For example "regular backups of software and configurations will be made into a cloud storage system e.g. OneDrive or Dropbox”.

Materials from other modules

Although TM470 is primarily intended to build on your earlier level 3 studies, if you have previously studied TM254 Managing IT: the why, the what and the how, it is worthwhile visiting Block 3, Part 6: Software quality, risk and risk management. In this block, there are three sections which have particular relevance to TM470, which are: Section 3.1 Categories of risk, Section 3.2 Risk assessment, and Section 3.3 Risk management. It is also worth noting that the TM254 module website (which you may still have access to, if you finished studying this module only a few years ago) has an extensive glossary, which defines the terms: risk register, risk mitigation, risk management, risk exposure, risk reduction, and others.

Although risk isn’t explicitly studied in TM353 IT systems: planning for success, it might be useful to review Block 3, Part 3, Part 3 – How to recover from failure: Business Continuity Planning, which includes a Business Continuity Management Toolkit.

Looking forward to the OU postgraduate module, M815 Project Management, sees the link between risk and project planning and management discussed and handled in quite an extensive way. Risk management is, of course, a subject all of its own. 

Summary

Risk can guide not only what is done, but how things are done. In TM470 LO3 indicates that you need to demonstrate your understanding of risk, and how it relates to your project. For the sake of TM470, a practical approach is necessary. It is important to keep things simple (since the project only lasts for a relatively small amount of time), but it is important to make sure that risks are clearly and carefully considered. A practical recommendation: create a risk table, and keep it updated throughout your project. When you get to the end, make sure you reflect on your approach to risk, and what you learnt from it.

References

Association for Project Management (APM) (2019) APM Body of Knowledge. 7th edn. Princes Risborough: Association for Project Management.

Prince 2 (2024) Prince2 wiki: Risk Register. Available at: https://prince2.wiki/management-products/risk-register/  (Accessed 15 April 2024)

Project Management Institute (PMI) (2017) PMI Lexicon of Project Management Terms. Version 3.2. Available at: https://www.pmi.org/pmbok-guide-standards/lexicon (Accessed: 15 April 2024). 

Wilcox, K. (2024) Risk Analysis - what makes a good one?  TM470 FAQ.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks are ended to Karl Wilcox and Trevor Forsythe whose words have directly found their way into this article. Thanks are also extended to the TM470 module team, and the other module teams that are mentioned: TM254 and TM353.

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Exploring TM354 Software Engineering

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Over the last year I’ve taken over as the incoming module chair for TM354 Software Engineering, taking over from Leonor Barroca, who has done a brilliant job ever since the module was launched back in 2014. I first learnt about TM354 through a module briefing which took place in September 2014.

What follows is a summary of the various elements that can be found within the TM354 module website. I’ve written this blog whilst wearing my ‘tutor hat’; to help students who are new to this module.

It goes without saying that two of the most important elements are, of course, the module calendar, and the assessment page which provides access to all the TMAs. One thing that I tend to do whenever I study a module is to get a printout of each of the TMAs, using the ‘view as single page’ option, just so I get an early idea about what I have coming up. You should also take some time to review the module guide and the accessibility guide.

Key resources: the blocks

TM354 is based around three printed blocks which can also be downloaded as PDFs by visiting the resources tab:

  • Block 1: Units 1-4 From domain to requirements
  • Block 2: Units 5-8 From analysis to design
  • Block 3: Units 9-12: From architecture to product

Complementing these blocks is, of course, the module glossary, which can be accessed through the resources pages.

In OU modules, the glossary is pretty important. It presents the module team’s definition of key terms. If there is an exam or an EMA question which calls for a definition, you should always draw on terms that are defined by the glossary. A practical tip is: do spend time looking at and going through the module glossary.

Software

There are three bits of software that you will need to use, and the first of these is optional:

A sketching tool: In your TMAs you will be required to draw some sketches using a graphical language called the unified modelling language (UML). UML is a really useful communication tool. It can be used to depict the static structure of software (which bits it contains), and the dynamic interaction between components (which is how they are used with each other). How you draw your diagrams is completely up to you. You can draw a sketch by hand, draw a sketch using the tools that you have in your word processor, or you can download a tool to help you. My recommendation is to use a tool that specifically helps you to draw UML diagrams. This way, the software gives you a bit of help, saving you time (although you have to spend a bit of time learning a tool). I use a tool called Visual Paradigm, which is available under a student licence, but other tools, such as UMLet might be useful. There are a lot of tools available, but if you’re pressured for time, a pencil, ruler and paper, and digital photograph will be sufficient.

ShareSpace: this is an OU tool which you will use to share some of your software designs with fellow students. Software engineering is a team sport. ShareSpace is used to simulate the sharing and collaboration between fellow software engineers. As well as posting your sketches, you will be asked to comment on the design of fellow students. When you leave comments, you will be able to see comments about your own design.

NetBeans: Netbeans is an integrated development environment; a tool for developing software. You will use Netbeans in the final block of the module to look at, and change some software code that relates to design patterns. If you’re familiar with other development environments, such as IntelliJ, or even BlueJ (from earlier studies with M250) you could use those instead.

Forums

The module has a number of forums. A practical recommendation is to subscribe to each of these, so you are sent email copies of the messages that are posted to them. 

There is a module forum, where you can ask questions about the module, and a forum for each of the TMAs. You can use these TMA forums to ask questions about the assessments if you’re unclear about what you need to do. Do bear in mind that the moderator can only offer guidance and might direct you towards relevant bits of the module materials.

There is a tutor group forum, where you can interact with your TM354 tutor. Your tutor may well share some materials through this forum, so it is important that you subscribe to it, or check it from time to time.

There is what is called a ‘online tutorial forum’. Tutorials are run in clusters. What this means is that groups of tutors work together to offer a programme of tutorials (which are sometimes known as learning events). These tutors will use this forum to share resources that relate to their tutorials. They may, for example, post copies of PowerPoint presentations that formed the basis of their tutorials, which may contain useful notes in the notes section of each slide.

Finally, there is the café forum. This is an informal area to chat with fellow students about TM354 and OU study. This area isn’t extensively monitored by the forum moderator.

One thing to note is that sometimes the names of these forum areas can and do change. The names of the forums here might not be the names of the forums that you have on your module website.

Study guides

Although most of the module materials are available through the printed blocks, there are some important elements of the module that are only available online. Within the module calendar, you will see study guide pages. To make sure you go through each of these. Sometimes, these guides are presented along side other accompanying online resources that you need to work through to answer some of the TMA questions.

Resources pages

The Resources pages (which is sometimes known as the resources tab) is a place that collates everything together: all the guides (module, accessibility and software guides), PDF versions of the blocks, online version of each of the units (which can be found within each of the blocks), and any additional resources that need to be studied:

  • Choosing closed-box test cases
  • Monoliths versus microservices
  • Introducing Jakarta EE
  • Implementing use cases

Towards the bottom of this page, there is a link to a zip file which contains some source code that is used with TMA 3, along with some NetBeans software installation instructions.

The final bit of the Resources pages that I would like to emphasise is the Download link, which can be found on the right hand side of the page. Through this link, you can access all the module resources in different formats. You can, for example, download some of the media files onto your mobile device for you to review later, or you can download ePub versions of all the study guides and units onto an e-reader.

iCMAs

TM354 also has a set of interactive marked assessments (iCMAs). These are designed to help you to learn and to remember some of the key module concepts. The iCMAs do not formally contribute to your overall assessment result.

Tutorials

Before my final section, I’ll say something about tutorials. Do try to attend as many as you can. There are tutorials that introduce you to each of the block, and help to guide you through what is required for the TMAs. There are also a series of exam revision tutorials. Do try to attend as many as you can, since different tutors will present ideas in different ways.

Reflections

There is quite a lot to TM354; there are a lot of resources, which take a lot of reading. To familiarise myself with the materials I’ve taken an incremental approach: studying a bit at a time. Although the printed blocks are central to the module, it is important to pay attention to the online materials too.

My biggest tips are:

  • Get a printout of the module guide.
  • Get a printout of each of the TMAs.
  • Make sure that you thoroughly read the module guide. You might want to get a printout of this too.
  • Do remember to regularly refer to the module glossary. These definitions are important.
  • Attend as many tutorials as you can.

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TM470 Considering software requirements

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 11 Apr 2024, 09:30

If your TM470 project is all about the developing software to solve a problem, requirements are really important. Requirements are all about specifying what needs to be built and what software needs to do. A good set of requirements will also enable you to decide whether or not your software development has been successful. They can help you to answer the question: “does it do what we expect it to do?” There is a direct link between requirements and testing.

The exact nature of your requirements will depend on the nature of your project. There are different types of requirements. Two high level types of requirements are: functional requirements and non-functional requirements. Modules such as TM354 Software Engineering provide some further information about the different types and categories, and different aspects you might want to consider. 

One thing that you need to decide on is: how to you write down your requirements? The decisions that you take will, of course, relate to what your project is all about. Some projects will need formal approaches, perhaps using Volere shells, whereas other projects may use something like use case diagrams. If your project is interaction design heavy, your requirements may be embodied with artefacts such as sketches, prototypes, scenarios and personas. To learn more about these different approaches, you need to refer back to the module materials for some of the modules you have studied. You should also consider having a look in the OU library to see what you can find.

There is also, of course, also a link between your chosen project model, and your choice of requirements. Stakeholders are also of fundamental importance: you need to know who to speak with to uncover what your requirements are. You need to make a decision about how to record your requirements, and justify why you have adopted a particular approach. Different people will, of course, understand requirements in different ways. How you speak to fellow software engineers will be different to how you speak to end users.

I recently listened to a really interesting podcast about requirements engineering from something called Software Engineering Radio, which is associated with the IEEE Software magazine. Here's a link to the podcast: Software Requirements Essentials: SE Radio 604 Karl Wiegers and Candase Hokanson.

Although this is just over an hour (and I know everyone is busy), it is worth a listen.

Some key themes and topics addressed in this podcast includes:

  • What do requirements mean?
  • What is requirements elicitation?
  • How can requirements be presented? Or, what is does a requirement specification look like?
  • Do users know what they need?
  • How much requirements analysis is needed?

The podcast concludes with a question which begins: what tips would you share for someone who is involved with an ongoing project? (The answer to this question is very pragmatic)

Reflections

An interesting reflection (and comment that emerged from this podcast) is that the requirements approach that you adopt relates to the risks that are inherent within your project, and the implications of any potential software failures. This, in turn, is linked to the LSEP issues which are starting to be explored within your TM470 TMA 2.

When you are addressing requirements, you can highlight different requirement gathering approaches in your literature review. Do use module materials that you have previously studied as a jumping off point to do some further reading about the subject by looking at resources you can find in the OU library, but do be mindful about getting sucked into various ‘rabbit holes’; requirements engineering is a subject all of its own. When it comes to your TM470 project, you need to make practical decisions, and justify your decisions.

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A233 Journal - February 2024

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Apr 2024, 09:50

17 February 2024

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been working through the two set text I’ve chosen to write about: The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence. I really like these texts. I’ve been re-reading them using my Kindle, highlighting sections, and adding some notes when have some reflections. As I read, I find earlier notes. When I read them, they looks strange: I can see an earlier version of myself reading the book, figuring out the words, settings and characters. I see earlier ideas of where the plot is moving to.

18 February 2024

It’s editing day. I have a go to make sense of all my notes. I have a set of headings, which relate to the question, which have emerged from the various notes that I’ve made from my reading.

19 February 2024

Whilst in the middle of my workday, I have another go at editing up my assignment. Although I feel I could draw on some of the additional materials, I’m starting to be roughly happy with what I’ve managed to pull together. I need to think of my word count.

I go in hard, cutting two big paragraphs which I’m really pleased with. If they don’t progress an argument, or help to emphasise any significant points, or they are tangential to the main aim of the essay, the words should go.

That’s it. My TMA 3 has gone in. It’s not my best work, but I feel as if I’ve learnt some things, which is, of course, the point.

20 February 2024

It’s first thing in the morning, before getting stuck in with my day job. I start reading the second book on my Kindle. I notice that there a couple of books that I need, but I haven’t got. Although this isn’t my preferred method of study (although I am getting increasingly used to it), I download the texts and get reading.

21 February 2024

Again, first thing in the morning, I’m reading my Kindle again. I finish reading the first chapter of the second book, and read a couple of takes from the set text. A reflection that I had was: I’m not making as many notes as I have done with other modules I’ve studied. Instead, I’m adding notes directly to the text using my Kindle, and saving more bookmarks than I’ve ever done before. I feel as if I’m learning things, but I do need to sort my notes out, now that I’m more than half way through the module. It’s hard to believe that there’s just one more TMA, and the EMA to go.

Before starting work, I login to the module website, tick off all the bits that I’ve completed, and have a quick look at TMA 4. Some students are saying that there is an option where you write a fairy tale! (Not to be confused with a fairy story; that is something that is totally different).

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Preparing for the summer: A334 reading list

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 31 Mar 2024, 09:46

In some ways, this short blog follows on from a blog I wrote last year, which has a similar title: Preparing for the summer: A233 reading list.

I’m writing this blog after having my registration for A334 English literature from Shakespeare to Austen confirmed. I'm probably getting ahead of myself since I still have a quite a lot to do on A233; one more TMA and an EMA, which I'm not really started to think about. 

Just like last year, to get ahead, I’m going to try to do a bit of reading over the summer. What follows is a reading list that I’ve liberated from the module information page. Where possible, I’ve provided a link to a version from Project Guttenberg which can be downloaded to an e reader (which is something that I’ll just before I go on holiday). Do note that the version that is linked to is, of course, different to the text that is referenced.

If you do make use of the Guttenberg version, do note that there may well be significant differences between the text that is officially recommended by the module team, and the downloaded version. The editorial that the officially recommended is often useful.

I’m clearly not going to get through all these in one summer since some of these texts are unfeasibly long. One thing that I have learnt from the study of the OU literature modules is that the reading is often quite directed. In this list there are some novels that I have always wanted to find the time to read; I’ve started reading the Austen novels a couple of times, so that is probably where I’m going to start.

I’ve adjusted the format of the reference to make them a bit more like the official CiteThemRight Harvard format which the university adopts.

Montagu, M. W. (2012) The Turkish Embassy Letters. Edited by T. Heffernan and D. O'Quinn. Broadview Press. ISBN 9781554810420

Kyd, T., (2009) The Spanish Tragedy. Edited by A. Gurr and J.R. Mulryne. (New Mermaids) Methuen. ISBN 9781408114216

Swift, J., (2002) Gulliver's Travels. Edited by A.J. Rivero. Norton. ISBN 9780393957242

Wycherley, W. (2014) The Country Wife. Edited by T. Stern, (New Mermaids) Methuen. ISBN 9781408179895

Molière (2008). The Misanthrope, Tartuffe and Other Plays. Edited by M. Slater. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 9780199540181

Austen, J. (2019) Pride and Prejudice. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 9780198826736

Austen, J. (2008) Persuasion. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 9780199535552

Mack, R.L. (ed) (2009) Arabian Nights' Entertainments. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 9780199555871

Daniell, D. (ed) (1998) The Arden Shakespeare: Julius Caesar. Methuen. ISBN 9781903436219

Shakespeare, W. (2009). As You Like It. Edited by M. Hattaway. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521732505

Rousseau, J.J. (2008) Confessions. Edited by P. Coleman. Oxford World's Classics. ISBN 9780199540037

Thompson, A. and Taylor, N. (eds) The Arden Shakespeare: Hamlet. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781472518385

Additional note: judging by the reading list it does look like both Hamlet and Julius Caesar may well be studied. I have no idea what the two Arden Shakespeare study books contain. To prepare, I’ve provided links to ebooks for both of these plays:

Shakespeare, W. (2019) Hamlet. Project Guttenberg.

Shakespeare, W. (2023) Julius Caesar. Project Guttenberg.

A final note is that I'm sure whether the link to Arabian Nights' Entertainments is correct, but I'm sure I'll figure it out when I get to the study materials.

Acknowledgements

This reading list has been directly liberated from the A334 module website. I have no connection with the module team, and it is entirely possible that this reading list may change. Always rely on the recommendations from the module team, rather than any materials that are mentioned in this blog.

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A233 Journal - January 2024

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Apr 2024, 09:50

7 January 2024

I’ve been doing a bit more than I’ve actually noted down, but this week has been quite light on the study, since I’m now back at work, and my inbox is a mess.

I began the week by receiving a reply to an email question I asked my tutor, which was about the choice of some text from Blunden to focus on. I’m mindful that I need to broaden out my choice a bit more. I then went onto read the module materials about Roy, which I found quite interesting.

This morning I’m starting to make electronic notes, which will form the basis of my TMA. I’m a bit less confident than I was the last time, since I don’t think I’ve mastered Blunden. There is so much that is going on in the text, and it feels overwhelming – which reflects, in part, what he is writing about.

I’ve started by looking at the English Literature Toolkit and have found my way to an OpenLearn resource called Approaching prose fiction. I’m going to summaries different techniques, write down some notes from my highlights, and go from there.

11 January 2024

Now that the new year has got underway, I’m now aware of a confluence of deadlines that are rapidly approaching. With these in mind, I email my tutor to ask her whether she is able to give me a potential extension, just so I have a bit of a cushion. Thankfully, that is possible. In return, she offers a reminder about TMA 3, which is coming up hot on the heels of TMA 2. I asked whether my book club choices were acceptable (they were), which was a relief.

I have a vague plan: Sunday (and perhaps a bit of Saturday) is going to be TMA writing and editing day. I have over 2k worth of words in the form of notes. I’m going to continuing to get everything down, summarising all my highlights and notes, before printing everything out, and starting to edit together an argument, and a sensible structure. Fingers crossed!

13 January 2024

There’s a ‘write now’ tutorial today. I’ve just got enough time to login to see what it is all about. Tomorrow is writing and editing day, along with a bit of further reading, of course. There were 80 students at the tutorial. I made a bunch of notes. Just before I got to the section on structure, I had to sort something out in the house; there was a birthday party going on in the background. This is one of the idiosyncrasies of online tutorials; you can slope off and do other things in the background if you need to. You can’t do this during face-to-face tutorials.

14 January 2024

It is writing day today. I spend the morning adding to my notes, and then I spend the afternoon deleting them again after realising that I had discovered a structure. Towards the end of the day, I run out of steam. All I have to do now is the conclusion bit at the end.

15 January 2024

First thing in the morning, after a coffee (which is the best time to write), I finish my conclusion, double space everything, and then get a printout.

16 January 2024

After reading through the TMA and making a few edits with a red pen, I transfer these corrections to my Word document, and send it off. I let my tutor know that I don’t need an extension. In return, she said I can upload revisions until the TMA cut-off date if I need to.

Towards the end of the day, I see that there is bit of Facebook chat about the book club choices. A fellow student has chosen the same option that I have, which is reassuring. Whilst I’ve already read my chosen text, I do need to re-read The Custom of the Country.

17 January 2024 

First thing in the morning, I access the module website and look at the TMA 3 question, and transfer an edited version of it to an empty TMA document. I create two headings, one for each text. If I were more organised, I could have just copied and pasted my completed Custom of the Country learning journal, if I had used it, to my TMA document. Looking at this again, I’m going to start to use this to prepare some notes. Despite being up to date, I’m now feeling a bit behind again!

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TM470 British Computer Society (BCS) requirements

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One of the interesting things about the OU Computing and IT (Q62) qualification, and closely related qualifications is that it is accredited by the British Computer Society (BCS).

The TM470 undergraduate project module plays an important role in that accreditation, since it enables students to gain direct experience of running and managing their own project, which is an important graduate skill.

Although I’m not (yet) a member myself, the BCS is what you call a professional association. It supports, develops and campaigns for its members. Gaining an OU Computing and IT degree means that you may be able to apply to become something called a Chartered IT Professional (CITP). If you become a BCS member, and a CITP, you can be accepted into something called a public CITP register, which is a further formal accreditation of your status and standing as an IT professional.

Universities that offer degrees that are accredited by the BCS have to go through a formal accreditation process, which is described in an accreditation guidelines document (BCS, pdf).

For those studying TM470, it is worth having a quick look at section 2.5, which is about major projects which are described as follows: “projects must include the students undertaking practical work of some sort using computing/IT technology. This is most frequently achieved by the creation of an artefact as the focus for covering all or part of an implementation lifecycle.” (p.12).

What follows is an abridged version of a summary of what a final project report should contain, according to the BCS (p.12):

  • Elucidation of the problem and the objectives of the project.
  • An in-depth investigation of the context and literature, and where appropriate, other similar products.
  • Where appropriate, a clear description of the stages of the life cycle undertaken.
  • Where appropriate, a description of how verification and validation were applied at these stages.
  • Where appropriate, a description of the use of tools to support the development process.
  • A critical appraisal of the project, indicating the rationale for any design/implementation decisions, lessons learnt during the course of the project, and evaluation.
  • A description of any research hypothesis.
  • In the event that the individual work is part of a group enterprise, a clear indication of the part played by the author in achieving the goals of the project and its effectiveness.
  • References

Looking at the project from another perspective, undergraduate students must demonstrate:

Their ability to apply practical and analytical skills present in the programme as a whole.

  • Innovation and/or creativity.
  • Synthesis of information, ideas, and practices to provide a quality solution together with an evaluation of that solution.
  • That their project meets a real need in a wider context.
  • The ability to self-manage a significant piece of work.
  • Critical self-evaluation of the process.

For TM470 students, all these elements are reflected not only in the module materials, the tuition that is offered by tutors, but also the TM470 learning outcomes (blog). There is also an implicit link here to my more practical suggestions about TM470 Project report structure (blog).

There is, of course, no compulsion or requirement to join a professional association like BCS when you have completed TM470. It is completely up to you, but it does give you a further opportunity to formally recognise your skills and abilities.

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements are duly given to the BCS. The bullet points summarised above can be found in their accreditation guidelines document, which was last accessed 12 March 2024. At the time of writing I have no formal connection or link to the BCS.

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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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TM470: Considering planning

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When considering planning, I’m minded of a familiar glib phrase: “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”. When it comes to TM470, planning is really important. Effective project planning is the backbone which holds up your project. Also, a big bit of learning that can come from TM470 is learning about planning, and how to maintain a project plan during the course of a project.

Importantly, planning is mentioned very clearly within the EMA learning outcomes, for example:

LO9. Plan and organise your project work appropriately, and keep systematic records of plans, progress and outcomes.

To get a distinction for this criterion, you must provide evidence that you have: “clearly planned and accurately managed progress in relation to the original plan” and that you understand “what has gone well and what has not gone to plan.”

In the EMA summary, it is suggested that you should provide evidence of your ability to: “plan and organise your project work appropriately, and keep systematic records of plans, progress and outcomes”.

This leads us to some questions: what kind of records do we need to provide, and how do we go about creating a plan?

To begin with, there’s a lot of practical advice within the ‘planning and organising a project’ module resource, which offers a lot of helpful advice and some helpful background information. A recommendation is to get a printout of this.

Your first TMA emphasises planning. This TMA assessment guide suggests that your first assessment should have three main sections: “preparing for and planning your project; the project work; reviewing and reflecting upon your planning and preparation, and project work”. In other words: what you are doing to do, what you have done, and what points you have to share about what you have done.

This is expanded in one of the tables that can be found within the TMA 1 guidance, which offers the following points which relate to planning: 

  • Outline of the major tasks and subtasks within the project at an appropriate level of detail to enable your tutor to assess the viability of your project.
  • Choice and justification of a lifecycle model for its management. Within the context of the chosen lifecycle model, a schedule for completing the tasks and subtasks.
  • An outline of the resources and skills needed and the methods you are considering using, taking into account the risks and how these will be minimised.

What to provide

Your first TMA (as well as your EMA), you need to provide the following:

Choice of lifecycle model: you need to justify what overall project management approach you have chosen. There is a useful resource about this in the module materials. Different projects will necessitate the choice of different models. Choose a model that works for you and your project, and justify your choice. A practical suggestion is to provide a table. Say something about each of the different modules, saying why a particular approach either is or isn’t appropriate for your project.

Table of tasks: Give your tutor a very high level of the things you’re going to do as a part of your project. You could think of these in terms of project phases. Keep it high level. Again, use a table. Give each task a name, a potential start date and end date, and a brief description, providing no more than a sentence. Your choice of project model will help you to form your task table. Your table s will help your tutor (and your examiner) to get a good idea about what you’re going to do to solve your problem. 

Table of resources: The resources you use within your project are important. Although the primary resource is yourself, you may need to get other people involved in your project. If you’re doing an interaction design project, you might need some help with the evaluation of your designs. If you can’t get hold of ‘ideal’ users, you can also use proxy users (such as friends or family members); users who are pretending to be your target users. You also might need to use software tools, or maybe even some cloud computing resources. Like with the tasks, do share everything in a table. Try to describe everything as succinctly as possible.

Gantt chart: Gantt charts are really useful tools. When you have created your task table, have a go to great a Gantt chart for your project. Aim to have two Gantt charts. Create one at the very start of your project, make a copy of it and save it somewhere. When you start work on your project, maintain a Gantt chart to reflect progress on your project. Submit a copy of your chart for your first TMA. When you get to your EMA, submit both your first Gantt, and the one that you have maintained throughout your project. By looking at the one that you had at the start, and one that you had at the end, you will be able to see the difference between what you thought would happen, and what actually happened.

On the subject of Gantt charts, you can create them in different ways. If you are working on a company, you might be able to use of products such as Microsoft Project to help you to plan your project and to create a Gantt chart. Another approach is to make use of an number of Gantt chart templates for Microsoft Excel.

What to do

There is some good guidance about planning within the module materials. In terms of creating a Gantt chart, I recommend that you do, and take account of the following:

  • Record all your TMA cut off dates as milestones. If you’re studying multiple modules at the same time, do put these in too.
  • Do make a note of time that you need to allocate to writing and submitting both your TMAs and your project report (your EMA).
  • Make a note of when you’re going to be on holiday and put these dates on your chart.
  • Make a note of any other non-working time. For example, if there are any family or work responsibilities that need to be attended to, make sure you make a note of them.
  • Begin to record high level tasks, or project phases that match your choice of project model.
  • Within those phases, attempt to break them down to one or more subtasks.
  • Consider the risks that might apply to your project. (There will a blog post about TM470 and project risks. When you get to your EMA, project planning and project risks should go into the same section).

Some accompanying thoughts are: 

  • Do expect to change your plan during the course of your project.
  • Don’t prioritise your plan over your project. If you find yourself spending loads of time on the plan, you might need a simpler plan, or find another way to plan, or choose a different tool.

Some important tip that I share with all project students are:

  • Create a project log. This could be something as simple as a Word document, which has dates for headings. Use this to make notes of what you’ve done. This could only be a few sentences; it doesn’t have to be anything very detailed. You can also use your log to make a note of what you have learnt.
  • Email your tutor regularly, ideally every two weeks, just to keep them informed of what you’re doing. You might think about emailing your tutor sections of your log.
  • When you compile your EMA, you can put a copy of your project log, or emails, or both into an appendix. Doing so relates to learning outcomes LO5 and LO6, where to get a distinction, you need to provide evidence of having “worked under own supervision, communicating regularly and accurately in respect of progress” and “sought guidance when needed, but offered own ideas when doing so”, and “has clearly recognised new skills and knowledge”.

Reflections

When you get to the end of your project and you have to write the reflection section (which accounts for 20% of the overall mark) if you have made a good plan, and have your original plan, you will be able to say something about what went well, what didn’t go well, and what you have learnt about running a project. Of course, you should also be saying something about what technical skills you have further developed too. Although project planning isn’t very exciting, it is pretty important, and it is also important to get on top of it early. One of the jobs of your tutor is to offer you some practical advice about how your plan might be further developed or improved.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the TM470 project team who have prepared some very helpful materials on choosing a project model and carrying out a project planning.

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Preparing to study TM111 and TM112

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 25 Feb 2024, 10:29

Introduction to computing and information technology 1 and Introduction to computing and information technology 2   are two important modules for students studying for a degree in Computing and IT, and related qualifications. When studied together, they are the equivalent of half a first year of degree level study. (A whole year of study being 120 points of academic credit, and each of these module accounts for 30 credits each).

Level one modules are all about acquiring knowledge and skills that are useful for second and third level (or year) studies, where the scores gained from modules contribute towards a degree classification.

Whilst these two modules are all about skills development, before you start studying either TM111 or TM112 there are some things you can do to give you the best chance of doing well. One of those things is to find some time to work through a number of free Open Learn short courses, and some accompanying study skills materials.

What follows is a summary of modules that could help you to prepare for TM111 and TM112 study. The summaries that are provided are taken directly from each OpenLearn course.

First steps

These first two courses can help you to position yourself in relation to your studies. One course introduces you to what it means to be a distance learner, and the other encourages you to think about your approach to learning and develop your learning skills. When you’re a distance learner, a lot of your study is down to you.

Am I ready to be a distance learner?

Summary: “Distance learning can open up opportunities for study. You might have not studied for a while, you might be returning to education, or you might not have had the chance to study at a higher level before. This free course, Am I ready to be a distance learner?, will help to boost your confidence. You'll explore useful skills so you can discover how ready you are to study and how to develop your study skills in six steps to become a successful distance learner.”

Succeed with learning

Summary: “Succeed with learning is an informal, introductory course for people who want to feel more confident about their learning skills. This free badged course builds on your own qualities, knowledge and skills to develop a deeper understanding of the nature of learning and of your own potential. It introduces some core ideas about learning and academic study, and some planning tools to enable you to take the next step with confidence.”

Courses useful to Computing and IT students

The courses that are introduced in this section can be useful for Computing and IT students. To begin, a section of TM112 has found its way into OpenLearn through this short course: introducing computing and IT. This course touches on a topic called computational thinking, which is all about what it means think algorithmically and how to break problems down into smaller components. This leads onto a short course about coding. Since the universe of computers is numerical, there are three courses which relate to mathematics and working with numbers.

Introducing computing and IT

Summary: “This free course, introducing computing and IT, provides a general overview of how digital technologies have come to dominate virtually every aspect of the modern world and some guidance on how to prepare for this digital life. It raises awareness of the importance of data security and online safety.”

Introduction to computational thinking

Summary: “You will learn about algorithms and abstraction in this free course, Introduction to computational thinking, and encounter some applications of computational thinking in various disciplines, ranging from biology and physics to economics and sport science.”

Simple coding

Summary: “Have you ever wanted to try out simple coding? Want to understand the basics of what it entails? This course introduces you to the skills, concepts and jargon of coding.” This course will help you to: “use programming language Python to produce code”, “understand the sequences of instructions in Python programmes”, and “understand repetition in Python programming language”. Python being the programming language used in TM112.

Another version of this useful resource is available through the link Simple Coding: An Introduction. An interesting element of this resource is that you are able to code directly within a web page. Instructions are presented next to spaces to carry out coding, allowing you to get immediate feedback.

Succeed with maths: part 1

Summary: “Does maths feel like a bit of a mystery to you? Are you looking to improve your confidence in using maths in a variety of everyday situations? If so, this free course, Succeed with maths: part 1, is for you. Beginning with the very foundations of maths, this course will start by looking at how numbers are put together, before guiding you through how to use percentages, fractions and negative numbers.”

Succeed with maths: part 2

Summary: “Following on from Succeed with maths: part 1, this free badged course will continue to develop your mathematical knowledge and skills using everyday examples. The course will guide you through measurement, scientific notation (based upon powers of 10) and roots of numbers, shapes and how to calculate their properties before finally turning to how to construct and read from tables, charts and graphs.”

Numbers, units and arithmetic

Summary: “Do fractions and decimals make you apprehensive about maths? Do you lack confidence in dealing with numbers? If so, then this free course, Numbers, units and arithmetic, is for you. The course will explain the basics of working with positive and negative numbers and how to multiply and divide with fractions and decimals.”

Study skills courses

Not only do you gain knowledge by studying for a degree, you also gain a set of graduate skills. These can include: problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, analysis skills, note taking skills, reading skills, writing skills, and what it means to contribute to academic discussions and debates. An important part of being a student within a discipline is that you learn how to learn. What follows are a set of short courses that help to develop your skills. 

Essay and report writing skills

Summary: “Writing reports and assignments can be a daunting prospect. Learn how to interpret questions and how to plan, structure and write your assignment or report. This free course, Essay and report writing skills, is designed to help you develop the skills you need to write effectively for academic purposes.”

Extending and developing your thinking skills

Summary: “Diagrams, mind-maps, tables, graphs, time lines, flow charts, sequence diagrams, decision trees: all can be used to organise thought. This free course, Extending and developing your thinking skills, will introduce you to a variety of thinking skills. Asking and answering questions is at the heart of high-quality thinking.”

Developing good academic practice

Summary: “Developing good academic practice, is intended to help you develop good academic practices in your studies and when producing assignments and completing assessments. Although designed as a course to work through, the content can also be used to dip in and out of, if you feel you need to improve your skills in a particular area.”

All my own work: exploring academic integrity

Summary: “The aim of this short course is to help you explore the issues around producing your own work for academic purposes. This course goes beyond the ‘nuts and bolts’ of referencing styles to enable you to understand what is meant by ‘good academic conduct’ and to explore why it is so important. Along the way, you will consider how you can avoid common pitfalls and difficulties.”

Study skills pages

In addition to these study skills courses, there are a set of useful study skills webpages that are worth exploring.

The Study skills: one-minute tips pages are described as a “series of one-minute animations exploring revision tips, beating procrastination, what’s involved in a remote exam and other study skills”. The Core skills pages summarise some useful topics.

TM111 and TM112 students may find the following resources helpful:

If you are a current OU student, you can access a set of useful study booklets, including a textbook called The Good Study Guide which offers some really helpful advice.

Other resources

OpenLearn isn’t the only useful resource for Computing and IT students. Another useful resource is the Learn to program in Python page from the Raspberry Pi foundationA useful resource is W3Schools which provide a Python Introduction page.

Learning to code isn’t easy. To help students who were learning M250 Object-oriented programming I prepared the following blog article: Object-oriented programming: seven tips. Although I wrote these tips whilst thinking of the Java programming language, they also apply to the languages used in TM111 and TM112.

Our TM112 module team chair has also identified the following Python resources that may be helpful:

Whilst all these resources can be useful to help you to prepare for TM111 and TM112, there is another way to find your way to study, and that is through something called an access module. An access module not only helps you to develop your skills, it also enables you to get a feel of what university study feels like. If you are draw towards STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), which includes Computing and IT, you might want to have a look at the Science, technology and maths Access module.

Reflections

Although all the introductory courses that I’ve mentioned here are free to access, you can also gain something tangible from them; free doesn’t necessarily mean without value. After completing each course you can download a certificate of participation. You can, of course, mention each course on your CV. Although they are not a formal qualification, they can evidence an interest and a commitment to learning.

One final thing to bear in mind is this: study isn’t easy. It can be difficult, and it can be uncomfortable. It can be uncomfortable since it can be transformative in the sense that it can change how you see things. It can also take a lot of time, and time can sometimes be hard to find. I have tutored on a second level programming module, and I currently tutor on a third level software engineering module. Programming didn’t come easy to me. I puzzled over a lot of programming problems. I spent a lot of time being frustrated. I spent a lot of time feeling uncomfortable. When you enrol on a module, course, or programme, you’re not just ‘taking a module’, you’re participating in a process.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the OpenLearn team who have put together a great set of resources. I would also like to thank Nigel Gibson, module chair of the ‘mighty’ TM111 module, for his suggestion to look to OpenLearn. I would also like to thank Paul Piwek, production and presentation chair of TM112 for his help and for sharing further useful resources, and Michel Wermelinger for his Simple Coding resource.

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Christopher Douce

TM470: Tips from a tutor

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At the start of every presentation of TM470 I run a couple of introductory tutorials. During these tutorials, I try to conclude with a set of tips. These are things to do, and things to always bear in mind whilst studying. The tips that follow relate to the different aspects of the module. In this blog I have taken the liberty of adding one more point that relate to the writing of the project report. (On this point, do refer to earlier blogs that relate to writing and TM470, and how to structure your final project report).

Here are my (personal) tips:

Choose a project that allows you to show off your skills (and have fun): The project module is all about showing off. It should be used to show off what you have learnt, what skills you have, and what you can do. It is used to show off your technical skills, project planning skills and writing skills (which is an important graduate skill).

Think about the type of project it is: there are three types of project – research projects (you study something), development projects (you create something), and evaluation projects (you evaluate something). Depending on what you have chosen, your project might have elements of all three. Identify which bit you might be doing, and when you might be doing it.

Choose (and justify) appropriate lifecycle model: different types of project need to be managed and run in different ways. Familiarise yourself with the different lifecycle modules that are presented within the module materials and ask yourself why you need to choose one approach over another.

Spend time creating a project plan (and share a plan in each TMA): demonstrating your planning skills is a really important part of the project module. Not only should you identify a list of key tasks that you may need to complete, but you should also create a Gantt chart. A practical recommendation is: create a Gantt chart when you start the project, and take a copy of it. As you progress throughout your project, make regular updates. When you get to the end, compare your first Gantt chart with your current Gantt chart. Write about what this tells you about either yourself or your project planning. Add these thoughts to the reflection section of your EMA.

Take time to identify risks: what are they? Risk management is important. You need to take account of these within your plan, and consider how you may need to mitigate against them. Different projects will present different risks. Consider both your own role within the project, and the types of resources that you need to complete your project.

Always consider about ethics within the project: consider ethics from different perspectives – the ethics of involving people within your project, and also the ethical implications of how the outcomes of your project might impact on others and wider society.

Start your reading and researching (use the library): make good use of the university library. A part of your student fees always goes towards it, and it is a phenomenal resource. Do use it to find academic articles that help you to answer some of the problems you need to solve during your project. You can also use it to find textbooks to help to solve technical problems.

Create a project log, and send me updates every week: a project log can help you to reflect on what you have done during the course of your project. This can be especially useful when you write everything up. Sending an update email every two weeks to your tutor can also play the role of a log. Any emails that you send can also be saved as an appendix, to show an examiner that you have maintained regular contact with your tutor.

Take time to review the marking grids: in other words, make sure you understand what the TMA and EMA learning outcomes are. Once you understand these and know what they are, you can almost mark yourself. Use these grids to understand what evidence you need to provide in your assessments, and your final project report.

Pay attention to how your project report is written: when projects are assessed, the project is evaluated through what is shared in your project report. This means that your writing is important. Do your best to make your report as interesting as it can be. Make sure that it has a strong (and clear) narrative in terms of what you have done, what you have learnt, and what you have achieved. As well as your outputs and outcomes, make sure you tell the examiner how you have approached your planning. Clear writing will help your examiner identify evidence to show how you have gained the module learning outcomes.

Reflections

Although these are my personal tips, students should always refer to the module materials in the first instance. Other tutors may we have different (although hopefully) similar opinions. If you’re unsure about what you need to do, or how to present evidence within a TMA or your project report, please do seek advice from your tutor, or by making a post to the module forums.

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TM470: Maintaining motivation

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During a group tutorial I asked students how they kept motivated. With their permission, what follows is a summary of the hints and tips they shared with each other. Their points are accompanied by some of my own thoughts:

Have a chat with your tutor: your project tutor is there to help. Do find the time to speak with them. It is important they learn more about your project idea, since then they can help and offer advice.

Speak to people: if one exists for your module, consider joining a WhatsApp group, or other online groups, since speaking to other students can be really useful. One thing to bear in mind is that these informal spaces are, of course, not monitored or regulated by the university, which means that students need to take care when participating in these spaces. Students do, however, still have to abide by student conduct policies.

Tell your managers: if you are completing your project module as a part of an apprenticeship, or there is a connection between your project and your workplace, make sure you tell your managers all about it. Get them involved, and consider how best to keep the informed about your progress, and consider what kind of help they might be able to offer.

Remember where you are in your studies: when you’re doing a project module, you’re nearly at the end of everything, and it’s important to remember this. Your project module is the pinnacle of your studies. Look back at how far you’re come, and look forward to see how far you have to go. This helps to put things into perspective.

Remember why you’re doing this: remind yourself of what you want to achieve by carrying out all your studies. It might be a better job, a change of career, or maybe a route into postgraduate studies. Reminding yourself on the big picture, and what you want to achieve, can help you to regain your motivation.

Little rewards: make sure you make time to celebrate your achievements, whatever these might be. They might be completing a plan, finding something out about an aspect of your project, revising bits of module materials, or submitting a TMA. Make sure you build in time to enjoy life.

Manage your time: although this isn’t necessarily directly about motivation, it is important to make sure you find a way to manage your time. When you have a plan, or a study habit, this will help you to internalise that you’re able to complete your project.

Break things down: there’s this expression that goes ‘how do you eat an elephant?’ The answer is: in little pieces. The same applies to your project. You should always aim to break your project into smaller chucks to make sure you can achieve the bigger goal.

Take regular breaks: stepping away from your project work can be really helpful. If you spend a lot of time working on a problem or a task, you might begin to make mistakes, and the quality of your work might go down. Consider going for a walk, completing a mindless chore that needs to be done, or watch some nonsense on television: whatever works best for you.

Understand what study or work habits work best: some of us are morning people, whereas others work best late at night. Understand what works for you, and apply this to your project work. This will make things easier.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the TM(XY)470 students who attended our introductory tutorials. Good luck with your projects!

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Reference management tools

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 2 Feb 2024, 17:09

When I was doing my doctorate I was introduced to a reference management tool called EndNote. Essentially, it’s a tool to help with your referencing. 

Refencing is a pain. Different publications require references to be done in different ways. Doing computing research took me to other disciplines, such as psychology. There was a striking difference between how referencing was done in, say, a psychology journal, and how things are done in an IEEE journal. All this can be really frustrating an annoying when you’re writing articles for different publications and conferences.

The idea is that you save records of whatever articles and resources you are using during your research (or writing), and after doing this, you can use a Word plug in to automatically generate a set of references in the format of your choice. This way, you don’t have to endlessly waste time editing and adding commas, numbers, and spaces.

It worked a bit like how the Word table of contents feature works. With table of contents, you indicate what is a heading, and then you can ask Word to generate a table of contents at the start of the document. With referencing tools, if you want to use a reference, you add in a citation. When you come to generate a set of references, it will pick up that you’ve used an article, and it will add it to your references list. It will even sort everything into alphabetical order if your referencing format needs that approach.

As well as referencing, I found it really helped my reading, and the process of figuring out what was going on in my research area. I was able to upload some notes about a paper, recording why I thought an article was important, and even when I had added it. You could add keywords, search for authors, order them (and article titles) alphabetically. When I was doing my research, I actually had these paper-based lever arch files with copies of articles I had photocopied from the university libraries. I would save the volume number and section heading in my reference database.

I recently found a floppy disk (yes, I’m that old) that contained all my EndNote references. I think I could still use the data on the disk, but I kind of stopped using EndNote, since I moved away from doing research. I’ve returned to the point where I feel as if I need to return to starting one of these tools again – not to help with my writing (although I might be doing that at some point), but with my reading.

Since I started to use EndNote, towards the end of the last century, I have discovered there are now a couple of competitors: Zotero and Menderley. The mechanisms for finding an using papers have changed: rather than going to the university library, sitting on the floor, and photocopying articles, we now have easy access to extensive online research article databases (if, of course, we are working or studying within a university). What follows are some (short) rough notes about both of these tools.

Zotero

I began by having a look at Zotero. It wasn’t too long before I found a Wikipedia page that offers a bit more information

It’s interesting to note that Zotero is run by an organisation called the Corporation for Digital Scholarship

I began by creating an account, and then downloading a bit of software that runs on my laptop. This bit of software enables me to save information about references that I’m working with (such as books, journal articles, or anything else). I also mange to install a browser extension plug in (which is called a Zotero Connector), and a Word plug in.

When I open Word, I can see a new menu, which reminds me of my old EndNote days. I can see the Zotero Connector, when I look at my list of browser extensions. I note that there’s a new keyboard extension: Ctrl + Shift + S.

There’s another thing that is interesting: a way to share resources with fellow researchers by setting up something called a group. More information about this is available through the Zotero groups page

One of the grumbles that I have heard is that it might be hard (or harder) to move between different devices (but I don’t yet know how true this is). Whether you need to do this does, of course, depend on how you work. One thing I have seen in Zotero is an extensive set of import and export formats. A long standing format that predates both these tools and EndNote is something called BibTex. With this in mind, and being told that I can move between referencing systems, makes me feel a bit better.

Mendeley

The other tool that is around is Menderley. Unlike Zotero, it is supported by a commercial academic publisher, Elsevier. Like Zotero, you need to install bits of software and some plug ins; there is a bit of software that enables you to save your references. An interesting difference is that to gain access, I needed to formally login to the publishers’ digital ecosystem through the university. It appears to be slick and relatively easy to use. From what I’ve heard, it does provide similar functionality.

Reflections

A key question to ask is: which one am I going to use? I did consider going back to EndNote, since it’s what I’ve used before, but after hearing that two of my colleagues are using Zotero, and seeing how easy it is to install the various bits of software, I’m going to try out Zotero. 

I’m going to give it a go to produce references and citations for my next TMA, which means I’ve got to figure out how to add course texts and online materials into the Zotero software that I’ve installed. I would also like to know where everything will be stored. Backups are important. I will, of course, be having a good look at the CiteThemRight guidance, to make sure that whatever set of references are automatically generated are in keeping with official university guidance.

A final reflection is that reference management tools can be useful for undergraduate students too – especially for those who are working on dissertations, end of module assignments, and substantial projects. Like everything, do expect to make an investment in time to figure it all out, and to create your own reference database. It’s very early days for me with Zotero, but I’m hoping it’ll make some aspects of my writing easier. As suggested, I’m hoping it will help with my reading too.

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Accessbility and ePubs

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OU materials are provided in different formats. 

Students studying TM354 Software Engineering, for example, students are sent three printed textbooks. These textbooks are also available as a PDF digital download, which can be found in the resources section of the module website, enabling you to view the books on your computer or tablet (which saves lugging the books around).

The TM354 module materials are also available as web pages, which you can, of course, access through the module website. If you’re a user of assistive technologies, this means you can make use of magnification tools and screen readers.

There is another format which is useful: ePubs. This is a file format that is used with eReader devices, such as the Amazon Kindle. Other types of eReaders are, of course, available. You can download module ePub files from the module website onto your computer (or tablet) and then transfer them to your eReader. You can transfer ePub files either via a cable, or (if you are using a Kindle) by emailing your ePub files to a Kindle email address which is related to your device. When you connect your device to WiFi, if everything is set up correctly, your ePub files will be automatically installed.

There used to be another format; something called a Daisy talking book (RNIB). I understand that this format is gradually coming to the end of its life, in favour of newer formats and devices.

ePubs and screen readers

I was recently asked whether there were any Daisy books for TM354. Unfortunately, that isn’t something that is available. There is, however, an alternative if you would like to listen to module materials.

I’ve discovered that my Kindle has a built in ‘screen reader’ (I’m putting these words in quotes, since in eReader world, surely this ought to be a ‘page reader’ rather than a screen?) To test it out, I synched a set of BlueTooth headphones to my eReader (my current Kindle doesn’t contain an audio jack) and started to investigate the various settings. I could adjust speech speed and speech volume, and managed to navigate my way to a block I wanted to ‘listen’ to.

Whilst figuring all this out, I found the following links, which might be useful:

I didn’t get along with the Kindle text to speech software as well as I had hoped. I couldn’t easily figure out a way to pause the reading, which is pretty important for when I want to stop to make some notes.

Another approach I discovered is that I could download something called Thorium Reader, which is available on the Microsoft App store. This Windows app provides in built ePub reading facilities, in a way that is a bit more user friendly.

If this sounds to be of interest, here’s a link to the Thorium reader download pageAlso, here’s a bit more information about the Thorium reader.

My guess is that there are other ePub reading software and packages out there. Without doing any further testing, I also assume that some assistive technologies and screen readers, would read whatever your ePub app is presenting on your screen (providing that the ePub app is sufficiently well written).

Reflections

I’m using an eReader more and more for study. The more that I use it, the more useful I am finding it, especially for my literature studies. Despite my initial reservations, I’m starting to appreciate the ability to bookmark pages, search, and go quickly across and between texts. For work, I’m increasingly using it to do a ‘quick read’ of research papers. In some ways, this blog follows an earlier one: Using the Kindle for research and studying. As hinted at about, there are other devices available. If you want to give an eReader a try for study, you can get hold one a second-hand one (from a popular online auction site) for a very reasonable price.

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Christopher Douce

TM470 Learning Outcomes

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TM470 is the Open University’s Computing and IT project module. It is what is called a capstone module, which is studied towards the end of the Q62 Computing and IT BSc qualification. It is an important element, since it is linked to the degree being recognised by the British Computer Society (BCS)

If you study this this module, you are required to carry out a substantial project which demonstrates your learning that has taken place on earlier modules. It is also used to develop your project management skills. Given the final output from the module is a project report TM470 also helps to develop your writing skills.

Like many other modules, TM470 is assessed through a series of learning outcomes. To pass the module, you must demonstrate that you have met these outcomes. This means that you need to provide sufficient evidence in your project report to ensure that the examiner can see that you meet all the criteria that are embodied within those outcomes.

A fellow tutor has described TM470 as a bit like a very long assignment (or end of module assessment). Every tutor marked assessment (TMA) is designed to help you to move towards the writing of your end of module assessment. As you study the module, it is recommended that you review the learning outcomes of each TMAs. Different TMAs will be assessing different learning outcomes. In turn, this will take you to the EMA, and its learning outcomes.

What follows is a brief summary (and my own interpretation) of the learning outcomes that relate to the module EMA, which is the same thing as the project report. A full summary of the learning outcomes and the accompanying assessment criteria is, of course, available through the module website.

Before looking at all the outcomes, I should note that these are my own notes, and my own opinions, rather than that of the module team. Always refer to the module team materials for official guidance.

Interpreting the TM470 Learning outcomes

LO1: Demonstrate your understanding of technical concepts relevant to your project

I have paraphrased this learning outcome from the original version: demonstrate and apply a systematic understanding of the fundamental technical concepts and principles relevant to your project. In other words: you need to do stuff to show what you have learnt from your earlier studies. There is an implicit link between this learning outcome, and learning outcome 11.

LO2: Identify and refine the goals and content of your project

This is all about the aims of your project. Does it solve a specific and easily defined problem that can be described in a few concise sentences? A quick check is: does it make sense if you explain your project idea to someone who doesn’t know what you have been studying? Does it solve a real need? Do refer to the module guidance about what constitutes a good project aim and idea.

LO3: Skills, resources and activities

The full outcome is: identify, list and justify the resources, skills and activities needed to carry out the project successfully. Another part of this outcome is: identify and address any associated risks. If there evidence of each of these elements? Do you consider what resources you need, such as software, or people? Also, how about risks? Is there evidence of how you have considered risks? Are these risks sensible?

LO4: Gather, analyse and evaluate relevant information

In my eyes, this theme cross cuts a couple of sections. Is there evidence of your reading in your report, by way of a literature review section? Also, when it comes to make decisions about what to do with a potential design, have you documented what you think is important. In other words, is there enough information that enables the reader of your project report to understand the story of what was done within your project?

LO5: Critically review how you have tackled the project

This outcome is one of the two outcomes that is all about reflection. If you don’t get everything working as you had hoped, or things didn’t go to plan, don’t worry. Instead, do tell the examiner about it. Importantly, tell them why you thought it didn’t go well, and what you have learnt from it. Also, do assess whether you felt your original plans were appropriate. During the planning of your project, thinking about risks is important. Did you go overboard on your risk planning?

LO6: Make effective use of a variety of information sources

This outcome is linked to LO4, but it is more about your reading, and how what you have read has informed what you have done. You also need to demonstrate that you have drawn on sources that have academic credibility. Whilst blog posts (such as this one) can be useful, they don’t hold as much weight as books or formal articles. An element of the project report is to demonstrate not only your practical skills, but also your academic skills. In turn, you need to make sure you reference everything clearly. 

LO7: Communicate clearly

The full title of this outcome is: communicate information, ideas, problems and solutions clearly. In other words, you must demonstrate that you’re able to write a well written report that describes what you’ve done. A really useful bit of advice I was once offered was: “make sure what you write is as interesting as it can be”. Academic writing, whilst formal, doesn’t have to be boring. Put a bit of yourself into your writing, especially when it comes to the reflection section.

LO8: Learn independently and reflect on what has been done

This outcome is all about reflection. When looking back across your project, it is okay to get a bit more personal. This outcome is all about saying what you felt went well and what went badly, what you have learnt, and whether there were any surprises. Also, do you now know something new about yourself and how you work, than you did before?

LO9: Plan and organise your project work

The full outcome is: plan and organise your project work appropriately, and keep systematic records of plans, progress and outcomes. This outcome is linked to learning outcome 3, which is about resources, activities and risks. In your report, is there evidence of creating a plan? A practical tip is to great a Gantt chart, but break it down into a fair amount of detail. This said, don’t make it too detailed, as otherwise you’ll spend too much time updating your plan and not doing any project work! A further practical tip is: do begin a project log, and put this as an appendix. This will help you when it comes to the learning outcomes that are all about reflection.

LO10: Ethics, equality and diversity

A more detailed heading for this outcome is: identify and address the legal, social, ethical and professional issues (LSEPIs) and the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) concerns. Since computing systems can have real impact within society, and to individuals, it is important to consider what these are. There should be a section within your report that addresses this, and concerns about ethics should inform what you do, and how you approach the different stakeholders.

LO11: Analyse a practical problem and devise and implement a solution

The full learning outcome is: Analyse a practical problem and devise and implement a solution, which should be within the area of your chosen specialist route, if applicable, building on, and extending, the knowledge and skills developed throughout your earlier OU studies and experience. Put another way, you should demonstrate what you already know, what you have learnt, along with what skills you have gained from earlier study, and what skills you have developed during the period of the project. You should do all this through your project report. 

Summary

TM470 is very different to OU modules that teach a particular topic, since so much of the decision making about what you do, and what you write about is up to you. The module begins to make sense if you think in terms of producing ‘something’ (a project report) that demonstrates your skills and abilities. I often tell students that TM470 is all about showing off your skills and abilities, i.e. showing off to the examiners what you have learnt, and what you can do. The module learning outcomes help you to understand what you need to focus on to show off in the best possible way.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the TM470 module team, and the follow tutors that I work with.

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Ethics support for projects: HREC and SRPP

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On 24 January 2024 I attended a bit of a professional development session that shared an overview of two important points, and organisational units, which relates to research and research ethics. The session was facilitated by Alison Fox, Steven Bond, who was from the data protection team, and Bart Gamber, who was from the Student Research Project Panel (SRPP).

Introducing HREC

Research ethics is important. To help OU researchers and doctoral students, there is something called Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) which provides services to researchers, and provides an ethical approval mechanism. 

Ethical approval needs to be taken really seriously for a number of reasons. Approval ensures the safety of researchers and safety of participants. A further check of your research aims can also improve the quality of your research. My argument is that articulating your research to others can only improve its clarity and purpose. Also, when it comes to publishing your research, some journals will insist on a detailed summary of how you have approached ethics, and some journals will directly ask for evidence of whether you have gained formal ethical approval as a part of a study.

There are, however, some projects that might not need HREC review or approval, such as an evaluative study that takes place within a course, or a study which is feeding back into a university service, for example. Also, research that is designed to inform a work practice, market research, or research with data that has already been collected (where that data set has been gathered through a process which ha been subject to its own ethical approval).

HREC offers links to other teams and groups that can offer help and advice, such as the library and information security teams (if not using core university systems). You might, for example, gather a lot of data. If you think that other researchers might want to use your data, the library will be able to offer advice and guidance about how (and where) to make that data available. Also, knowing how to secure your data is also an important part of the ethics process.

Submissions are made to HREC through something called the ethical review manager tool (which reminds me of the name of another tool: the postgraduate research manager tool).

If anyone has any questions about the process, the facilitators encouraged anyone to get in contact. To help everyone navigate through all these practical questions and challenges, it was interesting (and useful) to learn that HREC run research monthly drop in sessions, which typically take place on the 3rd Tuesday of the month.

Introducing SRPP

A related unit goes by the abbreviation, SRPP, which is short for the Student Research Project Panel. The way that I understand it, SRPP has a couple of interconnected aims. It can help to identify potential students who might be able to participate in research. Equally, it is there to make sure that students are not ‘over-research’, which means ‘contacted unnecessarily regularly’.

Like HREC, submissions to SRPP are made through a form. Some practical tips shared were: plan early, and apply early. These things can take a bit of time.

Resources

Just before the session, a PowerPoint resource was shared. After the session, I noticed that it was packed filled with useful links, many of which can be accessed externally. Here is a summary of what I took to be the most important links:

Reflections

A useful session! It was also one that was very timely since I have been awarded a small amount of funding to carry out a pilot project to explore the connection between stories, storytelling, and the professional identity of software engineers. My next action is to attend one of those drop-in sessions, and then to review all the forms. Whilst I do usually hate form filling, I do recognise that these forms relate to a process that is there to protect everyone.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Alison Fox, her co-facilitators, and everyone who is involved with the HREC and SRPP units.

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A233 Journal - December 2023

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Apr 2024, 09:49

11 December 2023

I’m surprised that so much time has passed since my last note. 

I’ve done a couple of things, and one thing has happened.

Technically, I’m up to date with the block reading (but I’ve read through the blocks quite quickly), and I’m behind with the online activities. I’m also ahead with my reading of my book club preference, The Age of Innocence, but I’m behind on all my quizzes.

There is a tutorial this morning, which I’m hoping to attend, along with another one that takes place this evening. I think I’m remaining committed to Blunden, since I feel frustrated with both The God of Small things, and Hotel World. I’m drawn to the Blunden TMA 2 question.

The thing that has happened is that I’ve got my TMA result back. I’m happy with the result, but I would have liked to get a higher score, of course. My tutor has given me some helpful pointers about my writing, which I’ll try to integrate into my writing. Two practical tips I remember are: always italicise titles (I thought I had done that), and make sure that you don’t end a paragraph with a quote. The point here is: if you do this, what is the point?

My next steps: back to the module materials – but mainly the online materials. But before I go there, I need to do my own TMA marking. There are always things to do!

15 December 2023

I try to attend an online tutorial, but I was scuppered by technology.

I gave the OU IT helpdesk a ring, and it was all about a clash of cookies, but I suspect it could have been resolved really simply. Essentially, bits of the OU websites was getting muddled with my two accounts: my tutor account, and my student account. When I logged into the module page to access a tutorial, it wouldn’t let me in to the live version, or let me view any of the recordings.

After deleting all my cookies, everything seemed to start working again, but by then, my tutorial had passed.

I’ve realised that similar things can occur if I don’t close my browser between browser sessions. Now I’m a lot the wiser.

Anyway, I attended a tutorial that covered Blunden, Smith and Roy all in one session. I made a whole bunch of notes. Although I’m ahead on my novel reading, I’m a bit behind on the online materials.

17 December 2023

A day of two halves: the first was listening to a tutorial about Blunden (where I made a bunch of notes), and then I got back to the module website. What I really liked about the tutorial was the focus on the close reading, which will stand me in good stead for the TMA. When it came to the website I cheekily ticked off the module materials that are related to Roy and Smith (although I have read the block chapters), and realised I’m up to week 10.

Here's a note to self: I must complete the online activities that relate to Blunden. There is an activity question which is about memoir, which I think I know how I’m going to answer. I need to look at all the other ones, of course.

19 December 2023

I’ve completed my three posts for TMA 2! I picked up a trick, which was the ability to search for fragments of text, in the ePub for Far from the madding crowd, and within the downloaded version of the Blunden text, which I have on my Kindle. This made it a lot easier to pick two passages.

I quickly eyeballed the assignment question again. For some reason, I though it was about memory rather than what was being asked. This makes me question my own memory.

I have a plan of action: to re-read the block materials that I’ve worked through, to complete the online activity about reviews (there might be something interesting in there I might be able to use), and then do a close reading of Blunden again, whilst referring to the online map which a fellow student has mentioned. There’s also something called a 2015 edition which the module team recommends.

I think I’ve got all my Christmas reading all sorted.

26 December 2023

Boxing day. I found a bit of quiet time in the morning where I did a bit of reading. There’s quite a lot to a chapter I’ve been reading in Undertones of War. I made quite a lot of highlights using my Kindle.

27 December 2023

Reading the online materials for Week 11, and watching the short video about Blunden. I’ve also started to look at John Greening’s 2015 edition of Undertones of War, and I’ve noticed a comprehensive notes page, cross references to the text, and a comprehensive introduction. I’ve sent the notes pages and the introduction to my Kindle. I made a note of a point that the presenter made which struck me as being quite useful, and relevant to the TMA question.

I did try to complete the activity that was about book reviews, but I didn’t get very far. I only found a couple, and none of the ones that were mentioned in the module materials. I found the library instructions pretty confusing, and I was wondering whether I was pushing the wrong buttons. This said, I’ve never really thought of the significance of book reviews. A point was made was that they were written in the context in which a book appears. This means that they offer a particularly useful perspective.

One of my other actions of the day was to ask my tutor a question. I think I’m happy with the passage that I’ve chosen, but I wanted to get a feel for whether I’ve chosen something that is too big, and whether I should choose a couple of paragraphs, rather than a whole chapter. I am, however, mindful that there is quite a big word count.

I’m starting to feel a bit more confident, even though I have a long way to go before putting the broad structure of the text in my head, but I don’t think I need to do this for the TMA.

28 December 2023

The notes pages from Greening is pretty useless without the actual text. I go to the Week 10 online materials, download the PDF version, and email it to my Kindle.

I’ve also found the online map, which I need to look at. This resource reminds me of a similar resource that was used with The Custom of the Country.

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Software engineering podcasts

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 16 May 2024, 09:45

On the TM354 Software Engineering module forum, the following question was posed: ‘does anyone know of any software engineering podcasts?’  TM354 tutor, Tony Bevis gave a comprehensive reply. With permission, I am sharing selected elements from Tony’s post, listed in no particular order.

SE Radio

This SE Radio (se-radio.net) is pitched as the podcast for professional software engineers. The following sentences are drawn from the SE Radio about page: ‘The goal is to be a lasting educational resource, not a newscast. …  we talk to experts from throughout the software engineering world about the full range of topics that matter to professional developers’. It is interesting that this podcast has a formal link to a recognised publication: ‘SE Radio is managed by the volunteers and staff of IEEE Software, a leading technical magazine for software professionals published by the IEEE Computer Society. All content is licensed under the Creative Commons 2.5 license’. Episodes appear to be quite long; an hour or so.

What the Dev?

What the Dev? is a podcast from SD Times magazine. It is said to ‘cover the biggest and newest topics in software and technology’. The magazine has an accompanying weekly email newsletter which contains a summary of current technology news items and a weekly podcast. Each podcast appears to be relatively short. The ones I have listened to were approximately 20 minutes.

Agile Toolkit Podcast

Agile is an important software development approach. The Agile Toolkit podcast 

aims to share ‘conversations about agile development and delivery’ through an archive that runs from 2005 through to the current day. They appear to be pretty long, so if listening to podcasts to learn more about agile, it is important to be selective in terms of the podcasts that are listened to. 

Open Source Podcasts

Open Source technology is an important subject to software engineers. When doing a bit of internet searching, I discovered something called the Open Source Podcasts last.fm channel which aims to share ‘conversations and advice from Open Source technologists on a wide range of topics’ and summarises links to a range of different podcasts.

A quick search for the term Software Engineering on last.fm takes me to a podcast channel called Software Engineering DailyIt really does appear that there is a topic or a technology made available practically every day. These podcasts range in length between half and hour and an hour.

Hello World

Hello World is a magazine published by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. It is free for computer science educators. I am regularly send email updates about new episodes. The focus is primarily about computing education in schools. The Hello Word podcasts are a good and interesting listen, especially if you're interested in moving towards computing education.

Reflections

There are a lot of resources out there. There are so many podcasts and recordings, that I feel overwhelmed. I have yet to establish a regular podcast listening habit, and I have yet to find a convenient way (that works for me) to access these different channels.

I quite like What the Dev? since the episodes are quite short; I can be listening to a couple of these whilst getting on with other things. It is good to note that the first one mentioned on this blog is recognised by the IEEE Software magazine, and this deserves a more detailed look. The daily software engineering podcast looks to be of interest too. 

What is surprising to me is how many bits of technology that feature in these podcasts that I don’t recognise; a lot is new to me. I’m hoping that some of these podcasts will enable me to learn more about new technologies, understand their role and purpose, and how software engineers might use them.

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Tony. I’m going to be doing a lot of listening!

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Applying to carry out doctoral research: some practical tips

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 17 Jan 2024, 14:37

I was recently contacted by potential PhD (and EdD) candidates who were expressing an interest in carrying out doctoral research within the university. What follows is a short article which pulls together the different links that have been shared with me be one of our postgraduate admissions tutors. It is important to note that these notes have a computing (and education) feel, since these reflect my research interests. This said, much of the advice shared here is quite generic, and could apply to different schools and universities.

This blog sits alongside a number of other blogs I have written about doctoral level research. If this topic is unfamiliar to you, you might be interested in reading the following summary: Doctoral research: a short introduction

Consider this post to be a combination of questions that you must ask, and things that you need to do. There is, of course, a bit of overlap between the two.

Consider your interests

There are a couple of really important ‘starter’ questions, which are: what do you want to do research into? And why do you want to do doctoral level research? An important point to bear in mind is that doctoral research requires considerable amounts of time, energy and money. 

A doctorate is, essentially, a formal recognition of your ability to carry out original research, and be able to make a contribution an academic debate on the subject. Passion is important: you must be passionate about your interest, since it will take up (as mentioned) time, energy and money.

Consider your experience

As well as passion, prior academic experience is important. Here is an excerpt from some guidance shared on the School of Computing and Communication's website: 'applications will be considered from students with, or expecting to gain, a first degree in any of a wide range of disciplines including computing, information systems, data science, mathematics or similar disciplines at first or upper second class level'. Put another way, a postgraduate degree isn't essential, but a good undergraduate degree is. International students should also be aware of an English language requirement.

It is also important to ask the question: "what do I know about the subject I want to carry out research into?" 

Although 4 years of determined research sounds like a lot of time, there will be only a limited amount of time available to learn about new topics and subjects. A lot of the time you spend will be spent reading, writing, engaging in academic communities, learning about research methods, dealing with ethics, and carrying out your actual research. If you would like to do some research into, for example, ethics and artificial intelligence, it is important that you know something about ethics and artificial intelligence. 

Make sure you have a good level of familiarity with your topic before making an application. 

Consider funding

Let’s say you are committed to the idea. The next question is: how are you going to do it? A fundamental question to ask is: are you going to do it part-time or full time. A related question is: where is your money for fees going to come from? If you’re hoping to study full time, you might be able to get a scholarship, either through a university (the OU’s School of Computing and Communications currently has one doctoral scholarship per year), from industry, or from scholarship providers. 

If you’re a part time candidate, you need to pay an annual fee, which covers the cost of administration, access to university systems, access to an academic community, and supervision meetings. More information about the fees is available through the OU research degrees fees and funding page.

At the time of writing, in the UK it is possible to get something called a Doctoral Loan. Do bear in mind that these loans have quite a high interest rate.

Consider your time

If you’re committing to doing it full time, you might be able to gain a little extra money by doing some teaching (or demonstrating) on the side, but don’t expect to be able to commit too many hours to a part time job. A full time doctorate will take at least 3 years.

If you are carrying out research part-time, you will be committing something like 17.5 hours per week to your study. A part-time doctorate will take anything between 4 and 6 years, depending on what it is. (An EdD might take slightly less time than a disciplinary doctorate).

Look for an academic community

Let’s assume you know what you want to research, and you know why you want to do it, and you’re happy with how much time it takes, all this leads to the question: where would you like to do your doctorate?

You might know of a university that has a good reputation, or you might know of some people who are working in a particular field. The choice of where you go may well be guided by your own research. You might, for example, find out whether there are academics who have published articles that reflect your own research interests. 

Another thought is: why not approach current doctoral students, to ask them about their experiences? You could do this by asking an admissions tutor whether they might be able to help Whilst doctoral research can be quite a solitary activity (depending on the subject, of course), research can take place within an academic community. Knowing more about that academic community can be useful. 

The OU School of Computing and Communications tries to make it easy for prospective doctoral researchers by sharing a list of potential research projects.

Review the guidance

Let’s say you have chosen a university, and have chosen a school, academic, or academic community you would like to join. What are the next steps? It is now time to gather up as much information you can about how to find your way through the administration. Don’t apply just yet; just gather up information.

Here the School of Computing and Communication's application page which explains how to apply.

Candidates need to submit a form, which contains a research proposal (I’ll come onto what this means in a bit). To help candidates, there is some guidance about how to write a research proposal.

If you’re considering doing an EdD (which is at the same level as a doctorate), the OU WELS faculty offers some useful background information about the EdD doctoral programme. This site also shares some detailed information about the EdD application processTo help to prepare an EdD research proposal, the OU has prepared a free OpenLearn resource, Writing your Research Proposal that may be useful.  This resource may well be useful for candidates preparing a disciplinary (PhD) proposal.

Write down your research questions

It is important that your research proposal is as clear as possible. A big tip is: make sure that you write down some clear research questions. What are you going to be doing research into? The more specific they are in terms of what they are asking, and in what context they relate to, the clearer they are. Present them in the form RQ1, RQ2 etc. Do, break them down into sub-questions if you need to, i.e. RQ1.1, RQ1.2. They don’t have to be perfect at this point, but you need to give your potential supervisor the idea that you’re not going to be asking impossible or unrealistic questions. Over time, and during the supervision process, your questions will become refined.

Also, start to think about how you might answer these. Do you have any ideas?

If it looks like your question might need a team of researchers, and require a hefty travel budget, you might want to rethink your questions. A doctorate is all about showing what you can do. This said, in some cases you might be working alongside others who might help you.

In the earlier section, two different types of doctorate were mentioned: a PhD and an EdD. An EdD is known as a professional doctorate, and they typically relate to research carried out within a specific context, such as education, or health and social care. If your research questions touch on the topic of education, you might want to have a good look at the EdD. On the other hand, if your research questions address an important theme within an academic subject, it is likely that the disciplinary doctorate is more appropriate.

Talk to some academics

You have chosen your university, and maybe even read through the profiles of one or more academics. You have now sketched out an idea of series of connected research questions. With all this prep work completed, it’s time to share your research question, to test it out. Speaking with others will enable you to test your understanding, and also to determine whether what you have in mind is sensible.

Send an email to a potential supervisor, sharing your research questions. Since you'll want to impress them, do consider sharing evidence of your reading (as well as your enthusiasm). They will be much more disposed to your research project idea if you come across as being reasonably well formed. Ask to have an informal discussion with them. It is also okay to be cheeky: ask them questions about funding, and whether they have capacity to help you with your research aims and ambitions. 

The final step: make that submission

In some situations, writing a research proposal can become a collaborative process between a candidate and a supervisor. Here are some practical tips with writing a proposal:

  • Make sure you have a compelling and interesting title which relates to your research.
  • Make sure yous research questions are clear.
  • If there is a word count, don’t go over it.
  • Ensure your submission is as readable as possible. A useful tip is: if you’re thinking of using a long word, would smaller words be just as good?
  • Get one of your friends to proofread your submission. Can they understand it?
  • Be aware of the submission deadline; sometimes there is a submission window. If you submit something outside of a window, or outside of a deadline, your proposal may not be considered, and you might have to wait for another year.

The exact processes will differ between institutions. In the OU School of Computing and Communication, your proposal will be reviewed by a small committee, who will assess your proposal (which is why clarity is so important). Depending on what they think, they might then speak with potential supervisors, asking what they thought about your idea.

Related links

Here is a link to a useful article that was shared earlier: Doctoral research: a short introduction.

In terms of the OU, doctoral research (both disciplinary and EdD research) is supported by an academic unit: The OU Graduate School.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Patrick Wong and Soraya Kouadri for all your continued help and support, and for patiently answering all my questions. Many thanks to my friend, Akin Oladimeji, who is currently working through this process.

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