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Christopher Douce

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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Christopher Douce

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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Christopher Douce

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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Christopher Douce

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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Christopher Douce

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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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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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.

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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TM470 Literature review: further tips

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 19 Dec 2023, 18:20

This blog offers some more practical tips on completing the TM470 literature review section. In some ways, it follows on from an earlier blog on the same subject.

Three points are shared. The first is some techniques about how to think about and consider papers. The second presents some useful resources about academic writing. The third offers some suggestions about how to structure your literature review section.

The literature review section of your project report does a number of things. It shared with the reader something about your reading. In doing this, it helps the reader to understand what your project is all about, and what it relates to. It also primes the reader for some of the topics that will feature within the body of your report. If you use module materials, books, articles, or software, they should be referenced within the literature review section. The reader shouldn’t be surprised, and think: “where did that come from?”

If your project report is all about showing off what you are able to do, the literature review section is all about showing of what you know.

PROMPT

The PROMPT framework that can be useful when preparing a literature review. It is introduced in an online resource called Being Digital.

PROMPT is an abbreviation for: Presentation, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Provenance, and Timeliness. It offers a structured method that can be used to evaluate any information that you find online. What follows is an edited summary of the key elements of the framework, which have been drawn from a PROMPT Checklist (PDF)

Presentation: Is the information presented and communicated clearly? Consider the language, layout and structure of the resource that you’re evaluating. Does it look ‘academic’?

Relevance: Is the article relevant to the topic you are researching? Look at the introduction, abstract or overview to find out what it is mainly about. When reading an article, to get a quick feel for it, you might also want to have a read of the concluding paragraphs. Do these relate to the aims of your project?

Objectivity: Is the article biased, or motivated by a particular agenda? Is the language emotive? Are there hidden, vested interests? In some articles, there is a section which might highlight any potential conflicts of interest, or how it is funded. This criteria is, of course, link to relevant, and to the thought of ‘does it look right?’

Method: For research articles, ask yourself whether it is clear how the data was collected. Given what you know of both the paper and the topic, were the methods appropriate and can you trust it? When evaluating a method, do have a look out for research questions. Do they match?

Provenance: Is it clear where the information has come from? Can you identify who the authors are, and who they work for? Can they be considered to be trustworthy?

Timeliness: Articles can lose their relevance. Important questions to ask are: how up to date is the material? Is it clear when it was written? Also, does the date of writing meet your requirements, or would it be obsolete? This is particularly important with fast moving areas, such as Computing and IT.

Another approach: the wheel

Ideally, the literature review chapter should be a story about your reading, sitting within a bigger story, which is your whole project. There are different ways you can present your findings: you can present it in terms of chronology (the order in which you read articles and papers), or you can structure it thematically. 

For TM470 where there is a limited word count, the thematic approach can work really well. It gives you an opportunity to highlight the connections to module materials, and then to share evidence of further reading, allowing you to show how you have ‘dug deeper’ into the subject.

A more sophisticated approach to discussing and presenting the materials that you gather during a review is expressed in the ‘the wheel approach to literatures’ blog. It adopts a model known as: And, But, Therefore.

The Wheel goes beyond what is required for TM470. You should aim at highlighting what you consider to be important, and why. The Wheel may well be helpful for students going onto postgraduate study, or students from disciplines where writing takes centre stage. The point amongst all this is: writing and structuring complex and detailed documents is a graduate skill, irrespective of what you study.

Types of resource

When working on a project that involves creating a solution to a problem, there is often a temptation to use blogs, reports or articles found on the internet. These types of articles are known as ‘grey literature’, which means they are not formally published in the way that books or academic articles are. This means they are subject to a lower level of scrutiny. When working with grey literature, a good question to ask is: is there another, more formal source? If the answers is ‘yes’, then please refer to the more formal source. By doing this, you acknowledge the articles that are contributing to academic discussions and debates that relate to a particular topic.

A good example of a resource that is really useful is, of course, Wikipedia. A reference should be something that is static and does not change over time. Since Wikipedia pages can easily change, a recommendation is to avoid using them as formal references. Instead, use them as a way to find more formal references. Look at what Wikipedia references, and then go and find those articles in the OU library.

Referencing

If something exists in the world, it can be referenced.

When writing a formal report, the most common type of references will be, of course, books and articles. You should also, of course, include clear references to module resources. Arts students can reference physical artifacts, photographs and paintings. Students studying computing and IT can, of course, reference software and technical standards.

To find out how to reference anything, visit the CiteThemRight website. The OU makes use of the Harvard referencing style, which takes the form: Author, Initial (year) Title of item, where it was published, and any page numbers (if appropriate). 

Academic writing

Every part of your TM470 project report should be written in an academic style. More information about what this means can be found by visiting the following article: Academic writing in TM470

A disclaimer: this is guidance from a TM470 tutor, rather than from a member of the module team. Always refer to the official module team guidance to really appreciate what they are looking for.

Further guidance about writing can be found in the Core Skills section of the Study Skills website and the Open Learn Write it right: seven common writing resource.

Reflections

The TM470 project module is all about showing off in a number of different ways: it is there to show off your ability to pick a sensible project idea, it is there to show off your technical skills, and it is there to show off how you go about planning a non-trivial project, and it is there is show of both your reading and your writing skills. The literature review section is a really important part of a TM470 project report, but it is very often a part of the report that isn’t done as well as it could be. It is important because it sets the scene. It tells the examiner what you know.

Here are my tips: 

  1. In your literature review, mention earlier module resources, and dig a little further.
  2. Unless you’re referring to software, do your best to use and refer to academic resources.
  3. Make sure that you spend quality time looking in the OU library and make notes about what you’ve been looking at. Use PROMPT to interrogate (or figure out) what you’re looking at.
  4. If you reference something in the literature review section, it should ideally be used or applied in the body of your report in some way or another.
  5. When you write everything up, structure your literature review in terms of themes.
  6. It is all about showing off. Because this is important do make what you write as clearly possible.

On this final point, I recently heard the following bit of advice from a fellow tutor, which was shared on an OU forum: “why choose a complicated word when a shorter word would work”. The easier your report is to read, the more secure the examiner will be in making their decisions, and awarding marks.

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Computing pedagogy notes

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I subscribe to a magazine called Hello World which is all about computing teaching and pedagogy. Last year, I read a message about a special issue, which was called the big book of computing pedagogy (BBoCP), and would I like to order a copy? I would, and I did.

What follows is a set of notes from that ‘big book’ (which is approximately 157 pages), beginning with the broad summary that is featured at the start of the book. I’ve then pulled out techniques and approaches that relates to the topic of physical computing. At the end of the post, I offer some reflections which may (or may not!) be useful.

Principles of computing pedagogy

What follows is a really high level summary, which begins on p.12. I’ve annotated key principles with some of the pedagogies and ideas that appear to get to the heart of a particular principle:

Lead with concepts: use concept maps, create learning graphs.

Structure lessons: adopt a scaffolded approach, apply universal design, use frameworks.

Make concrete: socially and culturally relevant pedagogy, learning through making, and manipulatives with computing.

Unplug, unpack, repack: semantic waves, go unplugged (don’t use a computer).

Work together: peer instruction, pair programming, collaborative problem solving and programming.

Read and explore code first: code tracing and read before you write.

Foster program comprehension: the block model.

Model everything: worked examples and live coding.

Challenge misconceptions: addressing misconceptions, use metaphors, tackle naïve conceptions.

Create projects: project-based learning.

Get hands-on: physical computing.

Add variety: apply variety in teaching and assessment, consider using art and storytelling.

Learning through making

Following on from the notion of culturally relevant pedagogy, is the idea of learning through making. This approach is about building things as a “way of learning and understanding the world” (p.36). Some key headings to note are: from concrete to abstract, affective learning (which is related to experiential and feelings based learning), and learning as becoming.

Learning through examples

A couple of related pedagogies that are worth emphasising are: the importance of worked examples, live coding, and the use of videos to demonstrate principles and ideas. I’ve highlighted these approaches with respect to physical computing since ‘watching and learning’ is an undeniably helpful approach when working with ‘bits of computers’, whether those bits are bits of physical equipment, or bits of code.

Project-based learning

The BBoCP describes project-based learning as “an approach to teaching computing in which the learning activities are organised around the design, creation and evaluation of a digital artefact”. In some cases, this digital artefact could be an element of physical computing – or, it could be a bit of code that solves a particular problem. Examples of potential problems are mentioned within the book, and this leads me to an important reflection, which is: the problems chosen should be inclusive, and be attractive to different groups of students. This links back to an important point about inclusive pedagogy.

Physical computing

There is a whole section about physical computing, which can be found on page 130. In addition to sharing a reference to a useful taxonomy of physical computing devices, four benefits are highlighted: “it provides a holistic experience …, it develops broader skills, including collaboration and design and prototyping, it connects to subjects beyond computing” (p.131). Some practical pedagogic tips are shared, which include provide interesting themes, integrate creative methods, and provide scaffolds. A reference to further reading, a doctoral thesis by Przybylla, entitled From Embedded Systems to Physical Computing: Challenges of the “DigitalWorld” in Secondary Computer Science Education is shared.

Theories

In education theories can be thought of tools to understand and think about learning.  In turn, they can be used to guide particular activities, or underpin pedagogies. What follows is a list of some of the theories that I’ve identified. I haven’t picked out everything, since there can be, of course, debate about what is (and isn’t) a theory:

Cognitive load theory (CLT) (p.20): learners have a limited working memory, which means that educators need to bear in mind when they introduce and teach new principles to learners.

Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) (p.46): help learners to move from being novices to experts.

Other theories (and theorists) that have been mentioned include the notion of the mental model (an understanding how something works), the work of Piaget (stages of development) and Papert (constructivism).

Frameworks

In computing, there are loads of software frameworks. In pedagogy, there are also a fair number of pedagogic frameworks. Think of a framework as a set of ideas that are potentially useful, and less formal than a theory. Theories can be used to potentially predict, whereas frameworks can be used to make sense of something.

Here are some of the frameworks that are highlighted in the BBoCP, along with a summary of some of their key elements:

The PRIMM approach (p.22): Predict-run-investigate-modify-make (Primportal.com); a series of steps in a lesson.

UDL framework (p.26): multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression.

Four Cs of the 21st-century learning framework (p.28): coding and critical thinking, coding and collaboration, coding and communication, coding and creativity.

Arena Blended Connected (ABC) (p.30): acquisition, collaboration, discussion, investigation, practice, discussion.

Misconceptions to understanding science (p.104): preconceived notions, non-scientific beliefs, conceptual misunderstandings, vernacular misconceptions, and factual misconceptions.

Physical computing device taxonomy (p.131): a taxonomy is an ordered set of categories. Hodges et al. (2018) attempt to make sense of a range of different physical computing devices that can be used by students.

Read, act, model and program (RAMP) (p.146): a pedagogic framework that draws on the use of storytelling and children’s literature. 

Other concepts, which might fall outside of the category of a framework, includes the notion of the metaphor.

Models

A good question to ask is: what is the difference between a model, a framework, and a theory? In some instances, a model can be a theory, in the sense that it can help you to understand something, but might lack an element of predictive power. Another difference is that a model is more descriptive, whereas a theory (in an educational sense) can be more interpretive. 

A model is different from a framework in the sense that a framework allows you to ‘do things’. A model, on the other hand, can help you to understand. All these, of course, link to and connect with pedagogy, which is what you do when you teach.

In the BBoCP, the following models that are mentioned:

The Block Model of program comprehension (p.79; p.86): this splits programs into four levels, which are (1) atoms, (2) blocks, (3) relationships, and (4) macros structure. It is interesting to compare this model with something called the Stores Model of Code Cognition (PPIG.org).

Reflections

What I really like about this magazine sized book is that in addition to being really accessible, it contains very clear references to research articles that underpin the ideas that are presented. Each of the pages are complemented with a set of hyperlinks, which often takes readers directly to the relevant article. I also really appreciated that it presented all the ideas (which were a mix of practical and theoretical articles) using a set of helpful principles. In addition to the helloworld.cc website another site to look at is csedresearch.org. If you’re doing research into CS education. When it comes to the topic of physical computing, I was struck by a few things: the taxonomy and the link to a dissertation on that explores physical computing and secondary school teaching.

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A233 Journal – November 2023

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 11 Dec 2023, 08:02

1 November 2023

I went to a tutorial about Wharton that was led by a member of the module team and a tutor. It was fabulous! We looked at some close reading skills, which I sense is something that I need to get better at. I asked some questions about the TMA, and got quite a few tips. What I need to do is to edit my TMA template, and get started with reading, and re-reading the passages that we have to analyse.

The presenters mentioned that it is a good idea to complete the module team’s version of the study log, which offers some guidance about reading, and gives us spaces to make some notes. I need to look at this. I also need to look at the activity for week 6, which I think is coming up soon. I’m not adhering to the study calendar as closely as I feel as I ought to; I’m in a situation where I’m trying to get ahead, but ‘life’ and ‘work’ things keep setting me back.

Another comment I’ll make is that I’m nearly through reading the Blunden text for the first time. There was an interesting comment in the tutorial that Wharton also wrote about WW1.

Just to remind myself: I need to edit up a TMA template, get my coloured pens out, and complete those Week 6 activities.

Back to the day job… 

11 November 2023

I’ve done quite a bit of reading. I’ve finished reading Blunden, which I found quite heavy going, and I’ve nearly found my way through The God of Small Things

This is my second time reading The God of Small Things. I first read it when it came out. I only got about a third of the way through before completely losing my way. Although I’m finding it quite a difficult read, I am getting into it, and its description. Since we have a choice in the next bit of the module, I think I’m still drawn to Blunden, but I will, of course, make my way through the module materials, just in case I change my mind at the very last minute.

It's time to prep for the writing of my TMA. 

I’ve already created a blank document with the title. My next step is to transcribe some of the headings from my tutorial notes onto the TMA document, so I remember what is important. When I’ve finished doing that, I’m going to go onto the close reading. My approach is to scribble on a printout of samples of text, with different colours of pen. I am to do my best to get a feel for the text, and hopefully come to a view about similarities and differences.

In between doing all of this, I’m going to go to the gym!

I did have a quick look at the study log files, which have been produced by the module team. I’m a bit worried that my study approach at the moment is predominantly strategic, rather than systematic. I have a lot on in my day job, and outside of my day job, which is why I’m a bit time poor at the moment. 

I need to follow my own advice, which is: “make an appointment with your own studies”.

16 November 2023

It’s TMA submission day!

After proof-reading a printout of my assignment, I make some last minute changes, and make a submission. 

My TMA is slightly under the word count, but I’m pretty happy with what I’ve submitted. I guess I’ll find out how I’ve done in a couple of weeks.

22 November 2023

Almost a week has passed and I’ve hardly done anything!

The last thing I’ve done, which was a couple of days ago, was to look at a book club activity, which was to listen to interviews with various academics about their favourite text, and why they should choose it.

Amongst all the options, I remain drawn to The Age of Innocence, for the simple reason that I really enjoyed The Custom of the Country. I don’t know whether comparing the book club text with a book by a different author would be a good idea. I guess this is a question for one of the tutorials, or to go directly to my tutor. Either way, I need to find some time to do some serious reading of The Age of Innocence.

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Degree apprenticeship: DTS Themes

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 19 Nov 2023, 12:19

The Open University offers a Computing undergraduate degree apprenticeship for England and Wales. The English degree apprenticeship is known as the Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship.

The current version of the standard, which is defined by the institute for apprenticeships is version 1.2 (Institute for apprenticeships)

Students a degree apprenticeship need to pass two elements: their degree bit (the academic element), and the apprenticeship (the work based learning element). Both of these elements are broken down into smaller parts. The academic bit is broken down into academic modules. The apprenticeship is defined in terms of knowledge, skills and behaviour (KSB) attributes which are, in turn, grouped together into sets of themes. To gain their apprenticeship apprentices must provide evidence of being able to satisfy all the KSBs which make up the themes. 

Passing the apprenticeship bit is a two-step process. Apprentices must demonstrate competency across these themes before entering what is called a ‘gateway’ process, which takes them to something that is called an endpoint assessment (EPA). The EPA is a professional conversation where the apprentice speaks with an assessor.

What follows is a summary of the themes for both parts of one apprenticeship pathway: the software engineering professional pathway. Some themes can only attract what could be called a pass grade, whereas others can attract a distinction grade. For concision, only the criteria that relates to the pass are highlighted here. A further note is that the themes are split into two bits: a core set of themes, and themes that relate to a specific pathway. For detailed information, do refer to the DTS standard.

A further note is that all the themes highlighted here, and can be found within the standard, are also mentioned within the apprenticeship ePortfolio tool (which is known as MKM). Where there is a heading, there will also be a space to record evidence.

Towards the end of this summary, there is some guidance about the recording of evidence. This is important; without evidence it is not possible to pass through the gateway process, or to complete the final end point assessment.

DTS apprenticeship themes

Core themes

The Organisational Context

Reviews the roles, functions and activities relevant to technology solutions within an organisation. (K7)

Core Technical Concepts

Critically evaluates the nature and scope of common vulnerabilities in digital and technology solutions (K11)

Explains core technical concepts for digital and technology solutions, including:

  • The approaches and techniques used throughout the digital and technology solution lifecycle and their applicability to an organisation’s standards and pre-existing tools. (K6)
  • Data gathering, data management, and data analysis. (K12/K14)
  • Computer networking concepts. (K16)

Applied Technical Solutions

Demonstrates the use of core technical concepts for digital and technology solutions, including:

  • Initiate, design, code, test and debug a software component for a digital and technology solution. (S4)
  • Security and resilience techniques. (S9)
  • Initiates, designs, implements and debugs a data product for a digital and technology solution. (S10)
  • Plans, designs and manages simple computer networks. (S12)
  • Applies the principles of data analysis for digital and technology solutions. (K13/S11)

Leading and Working Together

Explains how teams work effectively to produce a digital and technology solution applying relevant organisational theories using up to date awareness of trends and innovations. (K8/S7/B4/B6/B7)

Describes the concepts and principles of leadership and management as they relate to their role and how they apply them. (K9/K10/S8)

Social Infrastructure - Legal, Ethical and Sustainability

Applies relevant legal, ethical, social and professional standards to digital and technology solutions considering both technical and non-technical audiences and in line with organisational guidelines. (K19/S15/B1/B2/B5)

Explains sustainable development approaches within digital technologies as they relate to their role including diversity and inclusion. (K20/B8)

Software Engineer themes

Underlying Principles

Describes scenarios covering all stages of a development lifecycle, identifying techniques and methods are applied in each case. (K21/SEK1)

Explains the principles of a range of development techniques, for each stage of the software development cycle that produce artefacts and the contexts in which they can be applied. (K22/SEK2)

Explains the principles of a range of development methods and approaches and the contexts in which they can be applied. (K23/SEK3)

Technical Solutions

Describes. how to interpret and implement a design, compliant with functional, non-functional and security requirements. (K24/SEK4)

Describes how tools that support teamwork can be used effectively. (K28/SEK8)

Innovation and Response

Describes how they respond to changing priorities and problems arising within software engineering projects by making revised recommendations, and adapting plans as necessary, to fit the scenario being investigated. (S20/SES5)

Explains how they determine, refine, adapt and use appropriate software engineering methods, approaches and techniques to evaluate software engineering project outcomes. (S21/SES6)

Legal, Ethics and Landscape

Describes how they extend and update software development knowledge with evidence from professional and academic sources by undertaking appropriate research to inform best practice and lead improvements in the organisation. (S23/SES8)

Preparing for the End Point Assessment

Towards the end of the apprenticeships, apprentices need to complete a significant work-based project. As well as writing a 6k word report, there must be evidence collected that relates to the following themes.

Core themes

The Organisational Context

Identifies the role digital technology solutions play in gaining a competitive advantage by adapting and exploiting them (K1)

Explains the principles of strategic decision making concerning the acquisition or development of digital and technology solutions. (K2)

Project Requirements

Analyses relevant evidence to produce a proposal for a digital and technology based project in line with legal, ethical and regulatory requirements whilst ensuring the protection of personal data, safety and security (S3/B3)

Project Planning and Resources

Produces a project plan which estimates risks and opportunities and determines mitigation strategies. (K3/S2)

Evaluates appropriate techniques and approaches that are used in creating a business case (K4)

The project applies techniques to estimate cost and time resource constraints. (K15)

Researches information on innovative technologies/approaches and investigates and evaluates them in the development of a digital and technology solution. (S14)

Solution Proposal

Analyses the business problem behind the project proposal to identify the role of digital and technology solutions. (S1)

Project Delivery

Carries out the identified solution proposal utilising a range of digital tools and standard approaches. (K5/S5)

Manages the project delivery to achieve digital and technology solutions. (S6)

Project Evaluation

Justifies their methods of research and evaluation which determined the selection of digital and technology solutions identified for the project. (K18)

Presents an overview of the project to appropriate stakeholders using appropriate language and style. (K17/S13/B5)    

Software Engineer themes

Technical Solutions

Analyses the factors affecting product quality and the approaches controlling them throughout the project development process. (K25/SEK5).

Selects and applies software tools appropriate to the Software Engineering project solution. (K26/SEK6)

Outlines approaches to the interpretation and use of artefacts. (K27/SEK7)

Innovation and Response

Identifies and defines a non-routine, unspecified software engineering problem. (S16/SES1)  

Recommends a software engineering solution that is appropriate for the project brief. (S17/SES2)

Selects and applies analysis methods, approaches and techniques in software engineering projects to deliver an outcome that meets requirements. (S18/SES3)

Demonstrates how they implement software engineering projects using appropriate software engineering methods, approaches and techniques. (S19/SES4)

Evaluates their selection of approach, methodology, analysis and outcomes to identify both lessons learned and recommendations for improvements to future projects software engineering projects. (S22/SES7)

Evidence for the themes

Evidence for all these themes must be uploaded to the apprenticeship ePortfolio. There is two types of evidence: witness statements, or evidence through the academic study. For the apprenticeship element, witness statements are considered to be a stronger form of evidence than completing tutor marked assessments. 

Witness statements can be prepared by a line manager, or a delegated mentor of colleague. They present a narrative summary of what an apprentice has done or achieved and should be anything between 100 and 150 words. These statements should be uploaded to the apprentice’s ePortfolio tool by the apprentice.

Acknowledgments

The key reference for this post is, of course, the DTS standard. The text for some of these headings have been drawn from the MKM ePortfolio.

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Figuring out Visual Paradigm

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One of the tools (or languages) I learnt as a graduate student was UML; the unified-modelling language. UML is a standard that describes a group of related diagrams. Different diagrams describe different aspects of a software system. UML is used for design, but it can also be used to document requirements, and can help with communication between developers and engineers. If you are able to use UML, you’re able to share ideas about code and software with others more fluently.

One of the tools that I learnt about was a graduate student was Rational Rose, which is now called . At the time I thought it was witchcraft. You could sketch out a diagram using a drawing tool and it would be able to generate some computer code for you.

The postgraduate module M813 Software Development introduces students to a tool called Visual Paradigm which is a tool that I’ve never heard about before. This said, it does bear some similarities with other graphical software design tools that I’ve had the opportunity to have a play with.

The aim of this post is to share some notes and weblink that I’ve collated about Visual Paradigm and other related tools.

Looking at Visual Paradigm

After installing a trial version of Visual Paradigm, I’m taken to a training page: Visual Paradigm Essentials.

From here, I’m taken to an Udemy course, Visual Paradigm essentials where apparently there are 27 hours’ worth of video lectures to attend. The introductory course is intended to help users to “learn all essential skills of software design and modeling including, UML, BPMN and SysML”.

I picked up the following points from the introduction: it can be used to create use cases, business process diagrams, user stories, and a whole host of other diagrams. It also links to agile software development practices, and can play a role in user experience and customer experience design. 

Here is an abbreviated list of diagram types it supports: user experience diagrams (wireframes and sequence visualisation), customer experience maps, software system design diagrams (UML and cloud architecture design diagrams), entity relationship diagrams (database designs) and business design diagram diagrams (such as business process tools and organization chart tools).

It was also mentioned that it could generate and reverse source code from diagrams, and could be used to generate basic code. Database creation scripts could be generated from entity relationship diagrams.

Other tools and environments

In TM354 Software Engineering students use a tool called NetBeans, a Java integrated development environment. 

After a bit of internet searching about NetBeans and UML, I found there was a NetBeans plugin called easyUML. EasyUML makes it possible to convert Java code into class diagrams. 

Whilst digging around, I found a related bit of software called PlantUMLRelated to this project, there is also a NetBeans plugin called PlantUML-NB. The interesting thing about PlantUML is that is can generate UML diagrams from relatively small bits of text which is not too dissimilar to code. The textual basis of this utility reminds me of a tool called UMLet  which I’ve written about previously

It wasn’t too long until I discovered this page: Visual Paradigm IDE integrationThis page suggests it is possible to connect Visual Paradigm and NetBeans together; potentially facilitating that bit of witchcraft that I alluded to earlier. To substantiate this suspicion, I found an accompanying video clip called Perform UML Modeling in NetBeans with Visual Paradigm (YouTube).

Whilst looking at UMLet, I noticed that there was a reference to a Microsoft product called Visual Studio Code. When I was a developer working in industry, I used Microsoft Visual Studio every day. It turns out that Microsoft Visual Studio (Wikipedia)Microsoft Visual Studio (Wikipedia) is different to Microsoft Visual Studio Code (Wikipedia)Microsoft Visual Studio Code (Wikipedia) despite having a very similar name. Clearly things have moved on since I was a full time developer. There are a few things I need to catch up on.

Whilst reminding myself about bits of the Microsoft developer toolset, I found this article, which was all about Visual Studio and Visual Paradigm Integration.

Reflections

Different modules use different bits of software. Across the computing curriculum, computing students will be exposed to Python, Java and JavaScript. This will mean that they will be exposed to different programming environments and toolsets. Getting to grips with different environments and tools is a necessary graduate skill. What I will say is that when it comes to software engineering, graphical tools are likely to be important, along with other tools. The exact make up will, of course, depend on the context of software, and the problems that they are required to solve.

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A233 Journal – October 2023

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 11 Dec 2023, 08:06

1 October 2023

The last thing I did yesterday was read though the first bit of the chapter about Wharton. I then had a cheeky look through some of the later chapters. I’m looking forward to the bit about Blunden.

I had a look at the learning journal document. I like how it is structured, but some of the headings need to be formatted.

It’s only a few more days to go before the official start date!

3 October 2023

Yesterday I got a bit ahead of myself, and started to read the introduction to the Blunden text, as well as a couple of the first section. I quite liked what I read. I’m also reminded to a recent BBC film; a biopic of Siegfried Sassoon.

Anyway, I’ve managed to get a printout of all the TMAs. For some weird reason, the printed text for TMAs 1 through 4 is smaller than the text for TMA 5. I have no idea why. I’ve also printed out the passages that form the basis of TMA 1. Another thing I’ve done is that I’ve emptied out an old A4 file.

4 October 2023

I’ve received an email notification of my place on a special study day that the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences are running at the London School of Economics in a couple of weeks’ time. It is quite curious since there is a frustrating pause on face-to-face tuition at the moment.

27 October 2023

Quite a bit of time has passed since my last entry! I have been busy, though. I’ve attended a tutorial, and have written a bunch of notes. I attended the Arts and Humanities day school and have written a summary of what happened at that event

I’ve also managed to do quite a bit of reading of the module materials. I’ve got as far as the first chapter which is about Blunden, and I’m just about halfway through the Blunden text. I’m really appreciating it (I’m using this word, since ‘enjoying’ doesn’t really seem to be the right word, given the subject matter).

I’m managing to snatch various bits of time to commit to my studies, but I feel that my day job (it is a nuisance having a day job) seems to be always pulling me in various directions. There are all these reviews and consultations that present perpetual and frustrating challenges.

I’m hoping to attend a tutorial tomorrow if I can find the time.

I also need to commit to writing a few more forum posts about Hardy. I’ve written one, which I think counts for the TMA, but I’m finding it quite difficult to engage. I think it is because the forum activities are forcing me to do a bit of work, which I think is the point.

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Arts and humanities day school 2023

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 27 Oct 2023, 20:54

On 14 October 23, I went to part of an OU Arts and humanities day school, organised by the Faculty of Arts and Social Science (FASS) which took place at the London School of Economics.

There are a couple of reasons to write this short piece. The first is to remember what happened during the event and to be able to share some of the points from the session with fellow students. The other purpose is to share with other faculties and schools what the FASS faculty has managed to do.

Although the session was run for the whole of the day, I only attended the afternoon session, which was all about literature. The morning session was all about study skills. For students who need advice of study skills, I do recommend the OU skills for study website.

Part 1: Things to know about literature

There were two parts to the English Literature strand. The first session was all about discussing what literature was all about, what is it for, and how is it studied. It was facilitated by staff tutors and cluster managers, Tim Hammond and Liz Ford.

During this session, we were asked some questions, and were encouraged to speak with fellow students to attempt to answer the question, or arrive at some definitions.

What follows is a summary of those questions, and some of the key bullet, or takeaway points that emerged from both the group and plenary discussions.

What is literature?

It is about storytelling; there are characters, plots and narrative.

It is about words, texts and the structure of language, but it can also be about oral communication, such as drama and plays.

It is also about responding to and interpreting texts. Also, a point of view is important.

Literature can be used to create new worlds.

It can also be used to develop and maintain culture.

Also, the notion of THE CANON was mentioned. There will be more of this a bit later.

What is literature for?

To entertain, to educate, and to suggest or facilitate change, to consider different worlds, and to make a record of something.

There are also some negative reasons: it can be used for propaganda.

Literature can be used to share experiences, and to expand horizons.

One point was emphasised: entertainment. Although it sounds frivolous, entertainment is important!

Why do we study literature?

To understand different ways of communication, to understand what is considered to be important (which links back to The Canon).

Through studying literature, we become more critically aware, become better writers, and can more readily contribute to academic debates.

It allows us to gain a deeper understanding of texts, and how they are constructed.

Understand different points of view.

How do we study literature at the OU?

The OU approach is to have interpretive journeys through texts. I made a note of something called reception theory, which will be explored in level 3 modules in more detail.

During the modules, there will be texts that you have never heard of, and texts that have been translated.

Students will understand how books (text) may come into being, in the sense that books exist within a context and within an economy. Texts now exist within a digital world.

Within the modules, there is a lot of optionality and choices when it comes to the assessment, leading to more flexibility in level 3.

What can you do with literature?

One of the points made in just was: you could (potentially) become a bestselling novelist! (This was made in jest, since it is very difficult to become a best selling novelist).

Due to time was short, a key point was made: do speak with the careers office; they have a wealth of advice to offer.

Part 2: Evaluating negative responses to reading in life and in fiction

The second bit of the day, presented by Shafquat Toweed, who is the chair of A334 (and has written some of the materials for A233, which I’m currently studying) had the feel of being a research talk.

Shaf’s research is all about reading in literature (which does gets mention in A233). In an EU project he mentions, members of the public are invited to send in post cards that relate to their experiences of reading.

I found Shaf’s presentation fascinating since I have never been to a research talk about literature before. I have heard that ‘presenting a paper’ in the discipline of literature is a little different to ‘presenting a paper’ in the sciences.

I learnt that there is something called the UK Reading Experience database. Shaf also mentioned an EU project, called Read-it: Reading Europe Advanced Data Investigation Tool.

Towards the end of his presentation, he took us through the plot of a story, where reading of fiction led one of the main characters to an untimely demise. One must emphasise that this was fiction, about fiction, and this isn’t anything we should be unduly worried about.

Reflections

I went to this event since I needed to give myself a motivation boost.

I have a lot on at the moment and I worry about my studying of A233 will become subsumed under everything else I need to do. I’m studying literature for a number of reasons: it may add something to the other work I’m doing, it is something that I’ve always wanted to do.

During the first session, I won an OU pencil! 

Admittedly, I won it for being “arrogant”, and was encouraged to “join the scientists” for claiming that I was able to define, without any difficulty, what literature was all about.

Upon reflection, the answers that everyone shared in the plenary discussions were a whole lot more nuanced than the answers that I gave. Whilst I do predominantly align myself with the scientists, I am aware that I need to be more comfortable with nuance and opinion.

There was a real buzz about this face-to-face event. It was also something that got booked up really quickly, which suggests that there was a lot of demand for events like these. It was also notable that these events only take place in two locations: London and Glasgow. I really liked that I was able to chat with fellow students; we spoke about levels and texts, and shared some practical study skills.

It was also notable that students who were not able to attend this event have been asking what happened during the day school. In some senses, this blog aims to act as a bit of bridge. Sharing online what happened during face-to-face sessions underlines my belief that face-to-face, when done well, has the potential to help all students, irrespective of whether or not they are able to attend.

Well done FASS for running such a useful event. One day, I hope that I will be able to run an induction session for all our new computing students. Face-to-face is important. We need it to come back.

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Christopher Douce

Bibliometrics, Altmetrics & DORA

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On 2 October I attended another of the OU’s professional development events. This time, it was an event organised by the OU library. Facilitated by Chris Biggs, Research Support Librarian, the session aimed to outline three things: “common bibliometrics, and their use and misuse”, “what are Altmetrics and where they can be found” and DORA, which is an abbreviation for the “Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)” along with the “responsible use of metrics”.

I was particularly interested in this section since I’m a co-editor of an international journal called Open Learning. Bibliometrics are sometimes discussed during the annual editorial meetings between the editors, the members of the editorial board, and the publisher, who is Taylor and Frances. During these meetings, various numbers are shared and summarised.

When I saw the title of the event, my main thought was: “I should go along; I might pick up on a point or two”. What follows is a set of notes that I made during the session, along some of the useful weblinks that were shared. One thing that I should add is that the structure of these notes come from the facilitator, Chris, and his presentation. Towards the end of these notes, I share a set of reflections.

Citations

I missed the first couple of minutes, joining just at the point when Chris was talking about the ‘the social dimensions’ of citations. Citations are all about giving credit. A useful link to look at is the page Citing Sources: What are citations and why should I use them?

One view is that the more citations an article has, the more popular it is. Subsequently, some might associate popularity to quality. An interesting paper that was referenced had the title Citations, Citation Indicators, and Research Quality: An Overview of Basic Concepts and Theories

Retuning to the notion of the social dimension of citations, one metric I noted down was that self-citations account for 12% of citations. A self-citation is where an author references their own, or earlier work. Whilst this can be used to guide authors to earlier research, it can also be used to increase the visibility of your research.

A concept that I wasn’t familiar with but immediately understood was the notion of a citation circle or cartel. Simply put, this is a group of authors, typically working in a similar field, who regularly reference each other. This may have the effect of increasing the visibility of that group of authors. Chris shared a link to an interesting article about the notion: The Emergence of a Citation Cartel

A further notion that I hadn’t officially heard of, but was implicitly familiar with, was the notion of the honorary citation. This is where an author might cite the work of a journal editor to theoretically increase chances of their paper being accepted. As an editor, I have seen that occasionally, but not very often. On a related point, the publisher, Taylor and Francis has published some very clear ethical guidelines that editors are required to adhered to.

Something else that I hadn’t heard of is the Matthew effect. This means that if something has been published, it will continue to be cited, perhaps to the detriment of other articles. Again, we were directed to an interesting article: The Matthew Effect in Science.

It was mentioned there are interesting differences in between academic disciplines. The pace and regularity of citations in the arts and humanities can be much less than, say, a busy area of scientific research. It was also mentioned that there are differences between types of articles. For example, reviews are cited more than original research articles, and methods papers are some of the most cited papers. (It was at this point, I wondered whether there were many articles that carried out reviews of methodologies).

An interesting reflection is that articles that are considered to have societal benefit are not generally picked up by bibliometrics. This immediately reminded me about how funders require researcher to develop what is known as an impact plan. I then remembered that the STEM faculty has a couple of impact managers who are able to provide practical advice on how researchers can demonstrate the impact and the benefits of the research that they carry out.

All these points and suggestions lead to one compelling conclusion, which is that the number of citations cannot be directly considered to be a measure of the quality of an article.

An important element is all this is, of course, the peer review process. Some important points were made: that peer review can be slow, expensive, inconsistent, and prone to bias. As an editor, I recognise each of these points. One of the most frustrating elements of the peer review process is finding experienced and willing reviewers. During this session, I shared an important point: if an author holds views that are incompatible or different to the reviewers, it is okay to have a discussion with an editor. Editors are people, and we’re often happy to chat.

Bibliometrics

There are a few different sources of bibliometrics. There is Scopus, Web of Science, Dimensions, CrossRef and Google Scholar. Scopus and The Web of Science offer limited coverage for social sciences and humanities subject. In contrast, Google Scholar picks up everything, including resources that may not really be academic articles. A link to the following blog, Google Scholar, Web of Science, and Scopus: Which is best for me? was shared.

There are, of course, different types of metrics. Following on from the earlier section where citations were mentioned, there is the notion of normalised citations, percentiles, and field citation ratios. Normalised citations (if I’ve understood this correctly) is the extent of an article being over a time period. Percentiles relate to how popular, or widely cited an article is. There is, of course, a very long tail of publications. Publications that appear within, say, the top 1% or top 5% are, of course, highly popular. Finally, the field citation ratio relates to the extent to which an article is published within a particular field of research.

There is also something called the h-index, which relates to the number of publications made by a researcher. During Chris’ presentation, I made the following notes: the h-index favours people who have a consistent publication record, such established academics. For example, a h index of 19 means 19 papers that have been cited 19 times.

Moving beyond metrics that relate to individual researchers, there is also something called the journal impact factor (JIF). Broadly speaking, the more popular or influential the journal, the higher its impact factor. This has the potential to influence researchers when making decisions about how and where to publish their research findings. It was mentioned that there are two versions of a JIF: a metric that includes self-citations, and another that doesn’t.

Metrics that relate to official academic journals isn’t the whole story. Outside of ‘journal world’ (which you can access through your institutional library) there are an array of ever changing social media platforms. Subsequently, there are a number of alternatives to citation based bibliometrics. Altmetrics, from Digital Science, creates something that is called an attention score, which consolidates different ‘mentions’ of research across different platform. It can only do this if there is a reference to a a persistent digital object identifier, a DOI.

Previews of AltMetric data can be seen through articles that are published on ORO, the university’s research repository. Although I’m risking accusation of self-citation here, an interesting example is the following excellent paper: Mental health in distance learning: a taxonomy of barriers and enablers to student mental wellbeing. Scrolling to the bottom of the page will reveal a summary of tweets and citations; metrics from both Altmetric and Dimensions.

There are a couple of other alternative metrics that were mentioned: PlumX, which is from Elsevier, and Overton, which is about the extent to which research may be potentially influencing policy.

Responsible metrics, the OU and DORA

Towards the end of the event, DORA, Declaration on Open Research Assessment was introduced, of which the OU is a signatory. One of the most salient point from the DORA website is this: “Do not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions”. There is also a case study that relates to the OU which can be found on the DORA website

This final and important part of the session, which had the title ‘The Idea of Responsible Metrics” was covered quite briefly. The topic of DORA is something that I really do need to look at in a bit more detail.

Reflections

I learnt a lot from this session. One thing that really grabbed my attention was the h-index. As soon as the session had finished, I asked myself a question: what is my h-index? It didn’t take too long to find it out.

After finding my h-index figure, I made a mistake; I wondered what the h-index for some of my immediate colleagues were. I found this unnecessarily and seductively interesting. I looked up h scores for professors, some fellow senior lecturers, and some newly recruited members of staff. Through various links, I could see who had collaborated with who. I could also see which of the professors were really high ranking professors.

I then stopped my searching. I asked myself another question, which was: “does any of these numbers really matter?”

It takes different kinds of people to run an academic department and a university. Some colleagues are excellent at research. Some colleagues are excellent at teaching, and some colleagues are even excellent at administration. In my own role as a staff tutor, I do a lot of academic administration and quite a bit of work which could be viewed as teaching. This means that I don’t have a lot of time to do any research. Broadly speaking, central academic staff have a much higher h-index metric than staff tutors, simply because they have more time. What research I do carry out is often applied research. This research can sometimes be labelled as scholarship, which can be considered to be research about the practice of teaching and learning.

It was interesting that one of the important points I took away was that societal impact can’t be directly measured through bibliometrics. I also found it interesting that different types of articles attract a greater number of citations. One of my biggest academic hits (I don’t have very many of them) has been a review paper, where I studied different ways in which a computer could be used to assess the quality of computer programming assessments. The articles that I have published that relate to pure research have certainly attracted less attention.

All this comes back to a broader question: in academia, what is valued? I think the answer is: different types of work is valued. Pure research is valued alongside effective and engaging teaching. The bit that ties the two together is, of course, scholarship. 

Bibliometrics are, in my eyes, are a set of measurements that attempt to quantify academic debate. It only ever tells a part of a bigger and much more complicated story. Metrics are not, in my opinion, surrogates for quality. Also, academic fashions and trends come and go.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks are given to Chris Biggs for running such an engaging and interesting session. Many of the links shared in this article were shared during Chris' presentation.

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Christopher Douce

A233 Journal - September 2023

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I’ve read four of the set texts over the summer: Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (which maddened me a bit), Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (which I loved), Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (which I was a bit ambivalent about), and a collection of stories from Anderson (which I quite enjoyed).

9 September 2023

I’ve been reading Ali Smith’s Hotel World. I have three sections to go.

10 September 2023

I finished Smith’s Hotel World. Whilst I really liked the opening chapter, I found the stream of consciousness chapter annoying and difficult. Whilst it might have been thoroughly rewarding to write from the author’s perspective, it makes the reader really work, and I just didn’t have the patience. I know we’ll get into looking at this, but it felt indulgent. I have mixed feelings, but we’ll see what is said in the module materials.

Talking of module materials, I open the first book and start reading the introduction, and the first chapter about Hardy and characterisation. I really like how the introduction is written. I must start to have a look around the module website, and to find if there is any on demand printing service for the study guides.

I keep looking at buying another second hand e-reader; one that has a bigger screen, so I can read the block PDFs more easily whilst I’m travelling; whilst my current e-reader does the job, I’m getting older – bigger screens are better screens!

22 September 2023

I realised that there were some books that I didn’t have, and I might need to read, so I went on eBay to look for a few. I was particularly intrigued by the science fiction book that was on the reading list. I used to be a huge sci-fi fan when I was a teen.

Yesterday I started to book onto tutorials for the entire year, guessing what direction I would like to go in terms of the book club choices. Over the summer I really enjoyed the Wharton text, so I’m really looking forward to The Age of Innocence.

Another thing that has happened: I’ve exchanged messages with my tutor! I’m not sure, but I think I recognise her name from A230.

Next step: to pick up reading of the block materials, and to try to get printouts of the study guides. The only thing: I don’t have access to a printer at the moment!

Looking back over this blog: I wasn’t keen on Hotel World. I really liked the start, but it didn’t do it for me. I look forward to learning more about how the module guides us through the text.

23 September 2023

It’s back on the module block again, and a bit of directed reading from Far form the Madding Crowd. I’m stuck by how closely we have to do the close reading! I have one more chapter to go (I shall revisit those two that I have read) before getting to the chapter about Wharton.

27 September 2023

My new books have arrived! I’ve put them in a pile. I think I’m going the read the science fiction one first, and The God of Small things last, if I don’t get distracted.

Talking of being distracted, I have again been looking at large screen e-readers so I can put all of the texts (module materials, and the books) on a single device. I need to stop procrastinating and get on with some reading.

30 September 2023

I did a bit of reading of the block, skim reading the final chapter of the last Hardy chapter. I liked the section that discussed the serialisation. This was giving me another perspective on the text. I also liked the question about whether the text had any subplots. 

After doing a bit more reading in a local café (and then bailing out when a group of noisy cyclists came in), I started to go through the module website properly, ticking off all the resources I looked at. So far I have: read the welcome letter, read the letter from the lead cluster manager, module guide and the audio clip that can be found in the studying literature page. I also had a look through the two bits of the English Literature Toolkit: how to study English Literature, and how to write an English Literature essay.

One thing I learnt about was the time planner. When I was a social science OU student, my tutor ran exactly the same activity, which I found really helpful. Reflecting on this, I need to do an hour (or so) of study in the morning, after breakfast, before doing my day job, just so I can keep on top of everything. 

Two other sections look helpful: the ‘being critical’ section, and the ‘practising headings for notes’ which suggests a number of handy headings to keep in mind whilst you are reading a text. I also hadn’t heard of the study diamond approach, which is completely new to me. The headings being: effects, meaning, techniques and context. (I think I forgot to write about context, when it came to my A230 emTMA).

The section on essay writing was useful, which highlights the following keywords and phrases: analyse, assess, compare, contrast, describe, discuss, examine, explain, how far … ?, synthesise, and to what extent … ? I also remember the PEAL approach to writing essays: point, evidence, analysis and evaluation, and linking sentence back to the question. Another suggestion (in the materials) is to have a three part structure: an argument, an opposing argument, then a compromise solution.

Here's some tips about close reading: what is the passage doing?, how is it doing it?, for what reasons?, and how does the bit of text relate to the wider text?

I’ve also noticed that all the TMA questions are available. When I get home, I’m going to print them all out. I’ve noted that TMA 5 is an emTMA which accounts for 40% of the overall module score, with all the other TMAs accounting for 15%. There is a threshold of 30% on the final TMA. I’ve also noticed that we have to make some forum posts. One thing I must remember is that the assessment guide also says how the module materials can be referenced.

I had a look at the module forum, and they appear to be pretty busy (one thread has over 100 posts), so I don’t subscribe to them. I’ll subscribe to the tutor group forum when it opens.

The final bits: a very brief study of the week 1 reading guidance (noting what I need to return to), and a quick look at the careers page and the learning journal document; it looks so long! Last of all, after checking off all the bits of the block I had read, was to eyeball the OU subjects and qualifications website https://learn2.open.ac.uk/blocks/subjectlist/ which I have never seen before.

Now that I’ve got into the module website, and I’ve seen what some of the key resources are, I need to start to go through everything properly, and a bit more slowly.

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Christopher Douce

Working with the SST

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On Friday 14 July 23, I spoke with colleagues who work within one of the OU’s student support teams (SSTs) with the intention of learning more about what the SST does. I also wanted to learn about what messages or words of advice they would like to share with tutors.

The aim of this post is to highlight some of the great work the SST does, and to share some practical advice to tutors. This post is intended to be one of a series of posts that aim to offer tutors some practical guidance.

Introducing the SST

Tutors are the academic face of the university. You represent the collective views of module teams, and help students to find their way through the materials they have prepared. Whilst you are expected to answer academic questions, you’re not expected to respond to questions that go beyond the boundaries of the module that you are helping to deliver.

In you are ever asked questions about the next module a student should study, what to do if a student find themselves struggling with changing personal circumstances, of have concerns about student fees, there is another group of colleagues who can help: members of the student support teams who work within what is called the Student Recruitment and Support Centres (SRSC).

It is helpful to think of us all members of an SST: tutors are a member, as are staff tutors and module team members. The SST colleagues located within the SRSC carry out a number of different roles: they may be educational advisors, senior advisors, or enrol students to modules. 

One of the roles and responsibilities of a tutor is to proactively refer students to the student support team if it looks like they need help.

At the time of writing, an article on TutorHome describes the SST as “provid[ing] specialist support such as module choice, transferring credit, regulations, disability and can make referrals for careers guidance.” It goes on to say that tutors “can refer students to the SST for detailed advice and guidance. Support teams may occasionally approach Associate Lecturers to undertake Individual Student Support Sessions (ISSSs) with students.  Referrals are made using the electronic Student Referral Form (eSRF).”

What does the SST do?

The SST provides non-academic support and information to students. The SST provides information about different modules, how study takes place, and what the various options might be for student fees. After a student has enrolled, the SST may help a student to think about how to approach their study, and even their study workload. 

The SST uses a model known as Information Advice and Guidance, or IAG, for short. IAG is a model that is applied across higher education, and in situations where learners need information and guidance about learning choices. 

Consider IAG to be a funnel, or an inverted pyramid. Students may begin by asking for information. In turn, they might have further questions about different curriculum choices, and may end up speaking with a senior advisor or an educational advisor who will be specialised in providing different types of advice and guidance.

Seventy percent of queries that the SST handles relates to study intentions. These can include changes to registered qualifications, or increasing or decreasing of study intensity, which refers to the number of modules a student might be studying at the same time. 

Other queries that the SST respond to might be about offering information about assessment and examinations, helping student to navigate university policies, and to offer guidance about reasonable adjustments for disabled students. Advisors will also help with study postponements and fee credits (after postponements), and signpost additional resources such as the student assistance fund.

SST roles

To learn more about how the SST works, it is useful to know a little more about roles of colleagues who work in a SRSC, and how these roles relate to the IAG model.

Advisors (I)

The main role of the advisors is to provide information. An advisor can be thought of as being “a bit like a GP; we need to know a bit about everything – there are specialists we can refer students to”. The advisor acts like the first stage of a filter, passing student queries onto other teams if more detailed responses are needed.

There are often a lot of queries close to, and after a TMA cut-off date. In many cases students are referred back to their tutor and sometimes queries as passed onto the faculty, which will find their way to the staff tutor. If students ask about TMA questions, these will, of course, be referred back to the tutor, and possibly the faculty.

In this first stage of the IAG model, advisors are not meant to offer advice, or guidance or discuss in depth issues that relate to student finance, but they can direct students to information that they may find helpful.

Senior advisors (A)

After the information (I) stage, an advisor might pass a query onto a senior advisor, for the advice (A) stage. It is always worth remembering that senior advisors can only provide advice about study. They can only make students aware of different options that are available to them, perhaps signposting them to different resources to help them to make decision. What they cannot do, of course, is to provide solutions or answers to students: they can only provide them with tools that help them to make decision.

Senior advisors can do a number of things: they can share information about what modules might potentially be useful to study, they might also help students to understand whether any there are any pre-requisites that need to be completed before students choose a particular path of study or module combination, and they can also say something about what is involved with OU study.

Senior advisors also make telephone calls to students if there are any concerns about their progress that may have been raised by tutors with an aim to find out if there is anything they might be able to help with. They often follow up with an email, if necessary, making records to the university student-relationship management system.

Educational Advisors (G)

Education advisors get involved with more complex issues. For example, if there are potential or persistent barriers to learning. If a barrier relates to a disability, they will work with other teams, such as the Disability Support Team. They may also refer students to specialist mental health advisors, or even to a safeguarding team.

It is worth noting that there are some differences in what happens in England, and what happens in the other UK nations. In England, the Disability Support Team works with students to write a support profile, which is available to tutors through TutorHome. They may also help students to begin to claim for the Disability Support Allowance (DSA), to help students to get their right support for their studies. In the other UK nations this support is provided by educational advisors.

Educational advisors may also gently challenge students if there is a sense that someone is taking on too much. They may also offer practical advice about how to catch up with their studies. They may also speak with students if they are finding it difficult to decide whether to continue with their study, and will offer advice about options. They can also help to manage student expectations in terms of the form and extent of support that they are likely to receive, either from tutors or, more broadly, from the university. In this sense, educational advisors can proactively help students to develop the academic relationship they have with their tutor.

The SST always aims to work in the best interests of the students. They are there to make sure students have the right information to enable them to make the right decision, that matches their needs and circumstances.

When should I refer students to the SST?

There is a simple rule: tutors respond to academic queries, and non-academic queries should be referred to the SST. An academic query can be thought of anything that relates to the study of a module. 

There are also grey areas between academic and non-academic support that tutors can proactively help with. For example, if a student is considering stopping studying of a module due to the difficulty of the module materials or the scores they are getting, a tutor should try to speak with a student to find out whether there is anything they can do to help. Sometimes an additional support session might be enough to get a student back on track. On other occasions, a discussion about their TMA feedback might help them to put their work and progress into perspective.

Tutors can also help if a student queries their marks, or asks for study advice within the context of a module. Whilst the SST is able to offer general advice about student, a tutor is best placed to offer detailed practical study advice about what a student might be able to do to maintain steady progress during a module. In a computing module, for example, this might be making sure a student is aware of the importance of getting better through practice. If you are asked some academic questions that you can’t immediately answer, consider seeking advice from the tutor’s module forum, or your staff tutor.

If a student is experiencing difficulties, and feel their personal circumstances may affect either their TMA or exam performance, tutors can and should refer students to the special circumstances form, which can be accessed through the university help centre.

You should refer a student to the SST if there is any non-academic problem that you cannot solve, or a student is asking questions that are not related to the academic elements of the module that you are teaching, or you are unable to get in contact with your student. The earlier you refer the student to the SST, the better.

You should also refer students to the SST if a student has disclosed a disability. The act of a student telling a tutor they have a disability means that they have told the university they have a disability, and tutors are obliged to pass this information on to the SST.

The SST will “usually try to respond within 2 working days, and then 5 working days during very busy periods. That is the same across the I, A and G”. When a referral or request for information or support is passed between different teams, the respond time begins whenever a new service request has been created.

How should I refer students?

Referrals can be made to the SST in a number of ways. There are two main ways that tutors need to be aware of.

TutorHome

The primary way tutors can refer students to the SST is through their student list, which is available through TutorHome. From your student group summary, click on the name of the student you wish to refer. Under the heading ‘referrals’ you should see a link that has the title: Refer to Student Support team. This will open a form which gives you a number of different options. Always ensure that you provide as much detailed information as you can, also saying what you expect to be done with the referral. If you wish to be contacted by the SST, if you have further information to share, please mention this.

Responses to a referral will either be sent by email, or you can see if there are any updates if a ‘C’ (contact history available) flag is displayed next to the student’s name in the student group summary. You can view any updates by clicking on the student’s name, and then clicking on the ‘Show contact history’ link, which provides a summary of the most recent interactions between the university and our student.

If you wish to share some additional information with the SST after a referral has been made, you can use the ‘Update record’ link, which can be found on the right of the student group summary. 

Staff tutors

Whilst working with a student, you might contact your staff tutor for support. In some situations, your staff tutor might ask you to refer a student through TutorHome, or they might get in contact with the SST to ask them for help, by sending a referral through the university systems.

Other approaches

If an issue is really urgent, tutors can also directly call the SST, but it is advised that on some occasions, the extent of actions that might be possible might be limited, due to data protection limitations. The SST finds it easier to handle written requests, since it enables them to make decisions about priority, identify who should be attending to an issue, and gives the SST time to formulate a response.

What do tutors need to know?

The most important point to reiterate is: if a query from a student is considered to be an academic query, tutors should take the initiative and respond to it as best as they can. Although colleagues within the SST know about modules, they don’t know the details of modules, or know the details of what is contained with their assessments. They do, however, know about when assessments take place and the policies that relate to assessments.

When there is a query that may sit within a grey area, such as whether a student wishes to continue with a module, tutors should feel confident enough to ask some probing questions about the extent to which an issue is one that is academic, or needs SST support. If you are unsure about where the boundaries between tutor support and SST support lie, the best thing you can to is to contact your staff tutor for guidance.

Early referrals to the SST are important, since there are dates known as fee liability points. This means that in some situations, if students defer early, they will be eligible have a percentage of their overall student fee returned. If a student is paying for their studies through a series of student loans, this will reduce the amount a student is liable for had they deferred later. From the student’s perspective, if you are unsure whether a student is engaging, it is always better to send in a referral than to hope they will return to their studies.

If a tutor has referred a student to the SST since they are having difficulty getting in touch with a student, this may mean that the SST may also have the same problem. If a “no contact” referral is made, the SST will always try to contact our student. Attempts will be always recorded, and these should be visible through the contact history part of TutorHome.

If students require advice about module choice, whilst tutors can refer students to the SST, one practical suggestion is to refer students to the OU’s subject sites. Subject sites are available for all students who are registered, and offer useful summaries, and pointers to other resources and events. SST advisors direct students to explore the subject sites.

A frequent request that will come to tutors through the SST are requests for TMA extensions, since TMA extensions are an academic and faculty issue. If there is a request for a particularly long extension which is to be approved from the faculty by your staff tutor, tutors are encouraged to speak with their students. In these cases, tutors should work with their students to establish an informal plan to ensure that they submit their TMA by the date of their new next extension, but also catch up with their study.

The following very practical point is important: since such a lot of the communication between the SST, tutors and students take place through email, it is important to remember to ensure that your Out of Office reply is turned on when you are unavailable.

Acknowledgements 

Many thanks are extended to Felicity Howe, Jamie Ireland, Anthony Short, Matthew Protz and Alexis Lansbury.

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Christopher Douce

Book review: Two novels about DevOps

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When I started to do some background reading into how TM354 Software Engineering might need to be updated, I was guided towards two curious novels. 

From October 23 I start to study A233 Telling stories: the novel and beyond, as a part of my gradual journey through a literature degree. For quite a while, I have been thinking there have been very little to connect novels and software engineering, other than obvious: the development of Word processing tools that can be used to write novels, and the Amazon cloud infrastructure used to distribute eBooks.

What follows is a very short (and not very through) review of two books that are all about DevOps: The Phoenix Project, by Gene Kim (and others), and The Unicorn Project, which is also by Kim. 

The Phoenix Project

I shall begin by sharing an honest perspective: the idea of a novel about software development did not excite me in the least. The text has a subheading that seemed to strengthen my prejudices: “a novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business win”. This is no crime drama or historical novel. The closest genre that one could attribute to The Phoenix Project is: thriller. I feel it occupies a genre all of its own, which could be labelled: IT business thriller.

The main protagonist is Bill Palmer, who has the unenviable job title of “Director of Midrange Technology Operations”. Bill works for a mysterious American company called Parts Unlimited. A lot happens in the early chapters: Bill is invited in to have a chat with a manager, who gives him a promotion. He is then asked to take a lead in getting the Phoenix Project, a new mission critical software system to work. Failure means the business would lose any potential competitive advantage, and the IT infrastructure might be outsourced, which means that people would lose their jobs.

Before Bill can get settled, he is hit by a payroll outage, which means the employees and unions are angry. He also quickly realises that the whole IT setup is in a complete state. Kim and his co-writers do a good job at attempting to convey a sense of paralysis and panic. The reason for this is expressed through the notion of ‘technical debt’, which means that existing IT infrastructure has become increasing complicated over time. Quick fixes now can, of course, lead to further problems down the line. Parts Unlimited has not been ‘paying down’ their technical debt.

An important element of the novel is the division between the Ops (operations) bit of IT, and the development division. There are other competing teams, which also play a role: there is the QA (quality assurance), and the security team. Security is important, since if an organisation doesn’t keep its auditors happy, the directors may face legal consequences.

I think I would be mean to describe the characters as one dimensional, since plot clearly takes precedence over characterisation. The main protagonist Bill is the most richly described. His organisational skills and sense of calm in the face of chaos is explained through his military background. 

Ubergeek Brent plays an important role, but I really wanted to know what made him tick. Erik Reid, an unofficial mentor to Bill plays the role of a Yoda-like mystic who provides insightful advice, who draws on his extensive knowledge of lean manufacturing. A notable character is Sarah Moulton, the Senior Vice President of Retail Operations, who takes on the unenviable role of the villain.

What struck me was the amount of technical detail that exists within the text. There are references to services, languages, and source code management. There is also the important notion of the ‘release’, which is a persistent problem, which pervades both this text, and its follow-up. Whilst I enjoyed the detail, I’m unsure about the extent to which the lay reader would grasp the main point that the book was making: to gain efficient business value from IT, it is best to combine together operations and development. Doing this enables the creation of tighter feedback loops, and reduces operational risk. Along the journey, there are these moments which raise an eyebrow. An example of this is where there is unambiguous contrition from a security manager once he sees an error in his thinking.

Bill identifies barriers and instigates change. After a “challenging” release of Phoenix, he ultimately prevails. During the updates, there is the emergence of a ‘side project’, which makes use of new fangled cloud technology to deliver value to the business. In turn, this generates income that makes shareholders happy. Political battles ensue, and Bill then gets on a fast track to a further promotion.

Apparently, The Phoenix project was popular amongst developers when it first came out, but I’ve been peripherally distant from the domain of software engineering, which means I’ve been a bit late to the party. Before providing further comment, I’ll move onto the sequel: The Unicorn Project.

The Unicorn Project

When I read The Phoenix Project, one of my criticisms was about the identity of the main protagonist. Novelists can not only use their craft to share a particular reality, but they can also have the potential to effect change. Whilst I liked Bill and the positive role that he took within the novel, given the clear and persistent gender disparities in the sector, I did feel that a female protagonist would have been more welcome. This unarticulated request was answered through The Unicorn Project in the form of Maxine Chambers, the lead protagonist in Kim’s follow up novel. 

Maxine is collateral damage from the payroll failure. Despite being hugely talented, she is side-lined; temporarily reassigned to The Phoenix Project. Her starting point was to try to get a build of all the software that was being developed, but faced persistent complexity, not just in terms of software, but in terms of finding out who to speak with to get things done.

Whilst the main project was saturated with bureaucratic burden, Maxine gradually found “her people”; smart like minded people who were also frustrated by the status quo. She also spoke with the business mystic and mentor, Erik Reid, who was very happy to share his words of wisdom. Ubergeek Brent also makes an appearance, but his backstory continued to remain opaque.

A really interesting part of the text is where Maxine ‘goes into the field’ to learn what happens in the Parts Unlimited stores. Drawing on the notion of ethnographic observations, she learns first-hand of the difficulties experienced by the store workers. Another interesting element which occurs towards the end of the novel is the movement towards embedding institutional learning, and drawing upon the creativity that exists within the workforce. In comparison to The Phoenix Project, there is more emphasis about culture, specifically, developing a no blame culture.

A key theme of The Unicorn Project is shared with The Phoenix Project: it is important to combine development and operations together, and it is helpful to perform continually integration since users can gain access to the new features more readily. A notable section highlighted the challenge of carrying out code merges during marathon meetings. If code is continually integrated, then there isn’t the need for all those uncomfortable meetings. Significantly, the Unicorn project also goes further than The Phoenix Project, since it is also about the power of teamwork, collaboration and the potential of smaller projects positively affecting and influencing others. Like Bill, the formidable Maxine is successful. 

Reflections

My initial scepticism of these novels comes from my view that novels are made from story and character, not technology. What is very clear is that although technology plays an important role, people are, by far, the most important. The novels foreground the role of teams and their organisation, the importance of sharing knowledge, and the importance of collaboration and leadership. It is clear that soft skills matter for the simple reason that software is something that is invisible; developers must be able to talk about it, and to each other. This is also why organisational culture is so important.

An important reflection is that both Bill and Maxine have difficult and very stressful jobs. They are both shown to work ridiculously long hours, often over the weekend. In the novels, IT is depicted as a difficult occupation, and one that is far from being family friendly. The families of both protagonists are featured, and they both suffer.

Although both of these novels are stories about the success of heroes battling against impossible odds, the hyperreality of the chaos within Parts Unlimited makes their success difficult to believe. Conversely, the hyperreality that is expressed through the impossible administrative burdens of the ticketing systems offers a warning to those who have to work with these systems on a daily basis.

The mystical mentor Erik is, of course, difficult to believe. He is a device use to share the pragmatic business and manufacturing theories that are central to the themes that are common to both books. I didn’t mind Erik. Like with Brent, I wanted to know more of his backstory, but with a limited work count and a lot of themes to work through, I understand why creative trade-offs were made to foreground more pressing technical topics.

Whilst I found the broader context, automotive spares, mildly interesting, I found myself becoming bored by the theme of IT being used to gain ever increasing amounts of money through the persistent and relentless pursuit of the customer. Although I accept that IT can be thought of a product of capitalism, there are more interesting ways that IT can be used and applied. Technology can be used to reflect humanity, just as humanity is reflected in technology. Whilst capital is important, there are other subjects that are more interesting. I think I would like to read an IT business thriller about cyber security, as opposed to one about a business that has found a new way to sell engine monitoring apps.

To conclude, these two novels were fun. They were also informative without being overly didactic. Although IT business thriller books is not my favourite genre, I can say that I enjoyed reading them. I’m more a fan of Victorian romances.

Epilogue

In 2004, I was working as a Software Engineer in a small company that designed and manufactured educational equipment used to teach the principles of electrical engineering and computing. 

One day in April, the manager director bounded into the office where I worked.

“We’re selling our e-learning division! This means that we won’t be able to sell our flagship learning management system anymore. We need to find a solution. We had been working on an earlier project, but that didn’t work out. So, we need you to head up the development of a new learning management system”.

That new learning management system was given an internal codename. It wasn’t very original. 

We called it Project Phoenix.

References

Kim, G. et al. (2014) The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win. 1st edition. Place of publication not identified: IT Revolution Press.

Kim, G. (2019) The Unicorn Project. IT Revolution Press.

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Christopher Douce

Digital Technology Solutions Professional 1.2 briefing (England)

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In addition to being a staff tutor, I am also a degree apprenticeship practice tutor for the OU DTS scheme, which is an abbreviation for Digital Technology Solutions. This is a standard which has a number of pathways, which takes apprentices 56 months to complete.

On 17 July 23, went to a briefing which aimed to summarise updates to the DTS programme, which has now moved to version 1.2. What follows is a summary of that briefing. An important point to note that is that all these notes only applies to England, since Scotland and Wales have their own schemes (there is no equivalent scheme in Northern Ireland).

What follows is information about the new DTS apprenticeship standard, followed by a summary of changes and a recap of the OU modules that contribute to the DTS scheme. More details are then provided about the end point assessment which ties everything together.

Where possible, to make this blog as useful as possible, I have also provided links to module descriptions. Within the OU apprenticeship scheme, module codes that contain the letters XY are used to identify which modules contribute to a degree apprenticeship programme. For practical and study purposes, there are no differences between apprenticeship and non-apprenticeship modules, other than apprenticeship modules being supported by both a practice tutor and an associate lecturer (who is an academic tutor).

It should be noted that this blog only relates to a programme that is run from the School of Computing and Communications, and is not relevant to other apprenticeship schemes run by other schools. 

The apprenticeship standard

The DTS apprenticeships are defined in terms of the duties that apprentices carry out in their workplace role, and the Knowledge, Skills, and Behaviours (KSBs) that they require to fulfil those duties. The OU provides teaching to apprentices to enable them to gain the necessary KSBs needed to fulfil the DTS standard. 

During the course of the apprenticeship each apprentice is expected to demonstrate during their normal work that they are competent in each of the KSBs. This will be recorded in an ePortfolio system, known as My Knowledge Map, and assessed through an End Point Assessment (EPA).

Apprentices, practice tutors, and employer representatives working with apprentices should be familiar with the current apprenticeship standard. One of the roles of the practice tutor is to signpost these standards to these stakeholders.

Another key role of the PT is to make sure that the apprentice and the employer (and other people who may well be supporting an apprentice) are aware of the KSBs, the learning outcomes of the different modules. They are also to facilitate the discussion of opportunities to make sure the apprentices gains sufficient learning experiences to enable them to fulfil the requirements of the KSBs. In some cases, the employer will be responsible for providing the apprentice with additional training and mentoring in the specific KSBs that apply in their workplace.

The PTs will be responsible running regular review meeting, working with employers to make sure that the apprentice has sufficient work-based opportunities to enable them to demonstrate their KSBs, and ensure that their ePorfolio is regularly updated. Regarding the ePortfolio, there are two important elements that need to be remembered: the recording of off-the-job time (to demonstrate engagement with the academic content), and the saving of assessments and materials which relate to the KSBs. The practice tutor also has a responsibility for ‘marking’ that materials have been submitted.

Main changes

The following points highlight the key changes:

  • All the KSBs have changed from the previous version of the standard. The new KSBs, however, cover the same ground.
  • Cyber specialism improved, with a module change (TMXY352 Web, mobile and cloud technologies, replaced by TMXY256 Cyber Security)
  • EPA project report is shorter, but the ePortfolio is now assessed.
  • Employers will need to ensure apprentices have the right opportunity to demonstrate KSBs in the workplace.
  • EPA date and results moved a month later to allow for modules results.
  • Rewording and enhancing of KSBs in the standard, but delivery is very similar (improved content on mobile communications added to networking specialism, new module for cyber)

Compulsory modules

What follows is a list of all the compulsory modules that an apprentice will work through, summarised in terms of the aim of each module:

During TMXY476 the apprentice should work on a substantial project (during their on the job time) which makes a positive impact on the operation of the business. This project should be substantial enough to allow the apprentice to illustrate their competency in the KSBs assessed within the project.

The programme has three modules that are intended to relate to work-based learning that takes place: TXY122, TXY227 and TMXY350, which are studied in parallel with the other modules. For TXY122 apprentices need to prepare a CPD plan which should be related to their pathway. Working with their employer and practice tutor, apprentices should aim to secure work experience that adds depth and relevance to the academic modules.

Apprenticeship pathways

The DTS scheme has four pathways. Apprentices study the following modules, depending on the pathway:

Practice tutors need to have some knowledge of all these pathways. If further information is needed, practice tutors can gain support from other colleagues who know more about specific areas.

End Point Assessment (EPA) requirements

The End Point Assessment (EPA) has become a more formal requirement. Apprentices are expected to demonstrate competence through applying the KSBs in the workplace, where their manager or a mentor confirms they are working at the expected level. Evidence is collated and stored in their portfolio. The practice tutor will help apprentices to prepare, collate and submit their best evidence through the MKM ePortfolio.

To complete the EPA, apprentices must:

  • Submit a record of six workplace experiences related to the apprenticeship to demonstrate what has been achieved. These can be examples from TMAs produced from the work-based learning modules.
  • Complete a 6000 word project report and deliver a 20 minute presentation. This is accompanied by a 40 minute question and answers session, and 60 minute professional discussion supported by the portfolio. The grading criteria for the project module will be tightly aligned to the apprenticeship grading criteria.
  • Provide a portfolio of completed assignments for all modules that have been studied, which have been approved as ‘marked’ by the practice tutor.
  • To have a clear record of off-the-job time, which is the equivalent of one day a week dedicated to study that complements the work-based element of the apprenticeship.

My knowledge map: the ePorfolio

All new apprentices will be enrolled to the MKM ePorfolio. PTs should take both the employers and the apprentices through MKM and emphasise its use. 

MKM will contain the following information:

  • Background information and documentation, such as the chosen pathway and the apprentice's skills scan document, which is a knowledge assessment of skills possessed by an apprentice at the start of the programme.
  • Details of four progress reviews that are scheduled throughout the year. A practical suggestion for practice tutors is to set them all up at the start of the year with an expectation that they might be change if necessary. One of these meetings will be face-to-face; the rest are virtual.
  • Records: of off-the job study time, which is to be recorded by the apprentice. Records of successfully completing the assignments for the academic elements.

New PTs are able to view screen share recordings to become familiar with the tool, and how it works. All PTs should have access to the tool when they are assigned a group of apprentice students.

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements are given to Chris Thomson who prepared and delivered this briefing. Much of this summary has been drawn from the PowerPoint resource that he prepared, and many of his words have been edited into a form that is more easily presented through this blog. Any errors or misunderstandings are likely to be mine, rather than Chris’s.

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Inclusive Student Engagement in Level 1 modules

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 31 Jul 2023, 15:31

On 20 July 23 I attended a short one hour seminar that was all about inclusive student engagement in level 1 modules. The seminar had the subtitle: “a supportive framework designed by current/recent students”. The session was prepared and presented by Catriona Bergman, Olivia Brennan, Norain Imtiaz and Owen Lucas, who were also OU student virtual interns.

The seminar had a bit which shared their framework, followed by a discussion activity. I’ll begin by sharing an abridged version of the framework, and then I’ll go on to sharing a couple of points from the discussion, then concluding with a set of reflections.

Engagement framework

If I understood this correctly, their framework shared a number of themes that relate to the student/tutor relationship. There are six key points, each of which was complemented by a suggestion, or a prompt. For brevity, I’ve edited these into a form that works with my own practice.

  1. Addressing the power dynamic: address the difference in status between tutors and students. What do you do to encourage students to reach out to gain support?
  2. Consistency of communication: regular support and timely responses. How often do you communicate with your students?
  3. Proactive communication: tutors taking the initiative to interact with students. Do you contact students before their assignments are submitted?
  4. Humanising tutors: providing an opportunity to build a relationship. Do you feel comfortable in sharing your own personal experiences?
  5. Assessing communication and support needs: in the opening letter encourage disclosure. What opportunities are there for you to discuss individualised study needs with students?

Tutor and students are unknown to each other: a two-way relationship is important. What opportunities are there for icebreaking activities for students and tutors to get to know one another?

The Hidden Curriculum

There was another useful slide during the first section which was all about the notion of the hidden curriculum. I have come across the idea through the notion of academic literacies. Put another way, this is all about knowing the hidden conventions that relate to study, a discipline, and academic communication.

  • Students might not have necessary skills from their earlier education experience. Tutors can direct students to resources that can be used to develop skills (e.g. numeracy, academic writing skills, critical thinking, IT literacy, etc.).
  • Encourage students to reflect on the skills they may need to develop, and provide (or signpost students to) appropriate resources.
  • Encourage development of TMA writing skills and inform students about the importance of good academic conduct.
  • Encourage students to develop their own study habits to support their learning, and embed this within tutorial and one-to-one sessions. Consider the environment in which study takes place.
  • For the module that you are tutoring, highlight, discuss and critique ideas and practices that can contribute to the hidden curriculum.
  • Ensure students are aware of the different avenues that could be followed to gain support (from the tutor, from the module forums, or from the student support team).

Breakout rooms: what do you share, what don’t you tell them?

It was onto a breakout room discussion, where we were asked what we share with our students, and whether we share any of our own vulnerabilities. The intent behind this was to think about the extent to we may disclose something about ourselves, to engender trust and to demonstrate empathy.

Rather than focussing on sharing of vulnerabilities, the group I was assigned to primarily discussed what information we might disclose to students when we contact them for the very first time. Some key points to share include: our qualifications, whether we have been a tutor on the module before, and something about where we are based in the country. There was also some discussion about the importance of tone, and the phrase ‘professional informality’ was shared.

Reflections

I felt this session offered me some reassurance that I have been doing (roughly) the right thing. One way to formalise some of the points mentioned in the framework would be to devise some form of communication plan. This might mean a summary of what is sent to students and when. It is, of course, important to be aware of what module teams are doing, since they may well have their own communication plan, and sets of reminders and messages scheduled.

I was drawn to the session due to the mention of inclusive engagement, since I didn’t really know what this was, or how to describe it. I found it interesting that the focus lies on facilitating inclusive engagement through sharing, and putting oneself, and sharing aspects of one’s identity to others. The aim of doing this is, of course, to attempt to remove potentially perceived barriers, such as power differences between tutors and students.

Reflecting on this further, I have certainly disclosed more personal information. When tutoring on a module about accessible online learning, I have, for example, disclosed a hidden disability. My view is that context is always really important, whether context relates to the subject, or the tutor-student relationship.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the AP student virtual interns who facilitated the session and shared their framework. I hope that the version that appears in this blog matches with its original aims and intentions.

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Christopher Douce

TM470 Project Report as a journey

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 25 Jul 2023, 08:55

The main output from the TM470 project module is a project report. 

The report shares what has been done and what has been learnt. The ‘things done’ bit relates to the planning, the reading (and any research that has been done), and the actual work that has been carried out. The ‘things learnt’ bit is shared in a section which is used to share reflections, or thoughts about all the work that has been carried out.

One of the bits of advice I offer students is: think of the TM470 project report as a “technical story”. When sharing this view with fellow tutors, another tutor, Kawal Banga, shared another metaphor: the TM470 project as a journey. 

Kawal shared a list of 13 really useful points which relate to actions that take place on the journey of completing TM470. The links to the module learning outcomes are, of course, associated with each of these points:

  1. You identified a real business/social problem that could be solved through an ICT solution (LO2), engaging with sponsors/users who needed a solution to the problem. 
  2. You project managed (keeping evidence of records, plans, outcomes) the delivery using a suitable project/process lifecycle (LO9). 
  3. You identified and managed risks (LO3) on the way and identified and utilised skills, resources and people you needed (LO3). 
  4. You made use of technical concepts and principles (LO1) from your Level 3 modules. 
  5. You analysed, designed and developed an ICT solution building on and extending skills from your Level 3 and other modules (or equivalent professional skills), and using any additional skills you needed (LO11). 
  6. You took into consideration any LSEPIs (Legal, Social, Ethical, Professional issues) and EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) issues and modified your project and your behaviour to deal with such issues (LO10).  
  7. You carried out a literature review using quality, credible and relevant sources in which to ground your work, and supporting your decisions (LO4, LO6). 
  8. You worked independently as much as possible and learned new skills and knowledge that you applied to your project (LO8). 
  9. You reflected on things (processes, tools, resources, studying, etc) that worked or things that didn’t work (LO5), and lessons and skills (technical, professional, academic, organisational, project management) that you learned through the project.  
  10. You replanned and rescheduled your work when things went wrong (LO9, LO3, LO5, LO8). 
  11. You communicated effectively through TMAs/EMA, reports, emails etc with your tutor and other project stakeholders (LO7).  
  12. You engaged the sponsors and/or users throughout the project journey, where appropriate, seeking feedback on interim deliverables and they evaluated your final artefact. 
  13. You can prove all of the above with solid evidence that you collected over the project journey, and can communicate this effectively to your tutor and other stakeholders.

It's really helpful to reflect on his list. 

Another thought is that the notion of stories and journeys are compatible with each other. In some respects, my advice for the TM470 Project Report Structure reflect both perspectives. This structure intends to take the EMA examiner on a journey from the start of the project to the final summary, which should clearly highlight the learning that has taken place.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Kawal for giving permission to share his list. Thanks also to fellow tutors who responded to my post about the notion of the project report being a story.

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