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Christopher Douce

Don’t close our regional centres

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 24 Sep 2015, 19:45

The Open University has twelve regional centres that are located throughout the United Kingdom.  After the closure of a regional office in East Grinstead, which served the South East of England, the university embarked on a review of its regional centres.  On Tuesday 15 September 2015, the university announced that a locations analysis project, as it is called, was to recommend the closure of seven out of the nine centres in England.

This blog post is, essentially, my own personal response to the recommendation.  One thing that I will say is that I do work in a regional centre: in the London office.  I should also say that I’m not a manager (in the sense of what happens in a regional office), but my perspective is informed by having seen a lot of the great work that happens in London.

The university review states that the closures are primarily motivated by a noble desire to enhance the student experience and the closures are not related to money.  As someone who is on the ground, I find it very difficult to see how students experience will not be affected.

What follows is a set of views about what the regional centres actually do.  These points are, of course, my own opinions.  What I could also do is write loads more about the concept of student support teams (SSTs), activities that relate to associate lecturer alignment with SSTs (and these also directly relate to the closure of regional centres), but I’m keen to keep this all pretty simple: I don’t want to slip into baffling OU jargon.

So, here goes.  Here are my points and observations.

The London office is a busy place

I’ve heard it said that the regional centres are underutilised. From the London perspective, this is just not true.  There is always stuff going on, and the vice chancellor would see it if he took the time to come down and have a chat with some of his staff who work there.

Granted, some of the desks for the faculty people are sometimes lightly used, and this is because they’re either travelling to and from Milton Keynes (the OU’s head office), or have got their head down at home writing module materials at home.  

But, if you look a little bit closer, they are there and they do come in, especially to work with their academic assistants in associate lecturer services to sort out a whole range of different issues, such as associate lecturer recruitment, interviews, appraisals, timetables, tutor-student allocation actions, emergency and illness cover for tutors…  There’s a whole long list of these things.

There are three floors in London.  On the ground floor: there are a bunch of meeting rooms.  These are often occupied by central academics from Milton Keynes who run meetings and projects.  On the day of the locations analysis announcement, there was actually a music conference that was running in the next room.  Plus, the rooms are heavily used as tutorial rooms.  The meeting rooms (on all levels) are so heavily used, you are encouraged to book very early.  Sometimes, there just isn’t the space.

On the first floor, we have the advisors and learner support people for the student support team.  You have people sorting out examination arrangements.  You have people sorting out disability issues.  You have people sorting out examinations for people who are held in secure units or prisons.  You have people offering careers advice.  You also have a number of faculty staff.

On the second floor, there are the associate lecturer support staff: these are the really important people (who should be celebrated and cherished) who actually do the job of putting students in groups.  There are also people who book venues and sort out timetables.  There are people who help to organise interviews (as mentioned earlier) and reassure students and tutors.  

Associate lecturer (AL) services are a really important aspect to the university for the simple reason that associate lecturers are fundamental to the university’s success.  The AL services people also play a valuable role in helping to support associate lecturer development activities, but that is something that I’ll come onto later.

There are two other things worth mentioning: there are two projects that are hosted in the London region: a literary magazine, and a music research project.  These seem to be forgotten about.

In essence, the Camden office is buzzing.  It always has been.  It serves the most populous part of the United Kingdom.  To consider its complete closure (which is what has been announced) is, in my view, madness.

Supporting disabled students

The Open University has a social mission: its slogan is that it is open to people, places, and ideas.  If it loses a substantial link with place, it will lose its link with people too.  One really important dimension is the importance of supporting disabled students.  Supporting disabled students is, of course, a legislative imperative.

Here’s an interesting fact.  The university has nineteen thousand students who have declared a disability, and this number is increasing (SeGA project).  A disability can mean anything from a temporary condition or illness (where a student can become temporarily disabled), a chronic condition (such as diabetes), a physical impairment or mental health issues.

And here’s an example.  On a number of occasions students have visited me at the London regional centre to have a chat (and I’m sure they drop in to chat to advisors and learner support people too!) In these instances, I’m able to offer reassurance and think about which tutor might be best able to support the needs of an individual student.  I would then be able to facilitate the development of a tutor-student relationship.

Would I be able to do that if a student couldn’t visit me?  No.  Does the suggested changes help to enhance the student experience?  No.  Would I be able to head over to the specialist disability advisor who works in the region for some advice about how to approach a particular student?  Again, the answer is no.   Would everything become a whole lot more difficult if I had to do everything by phone: yes.  Plus, some students might not wish to use the phone, or have a disability that prevents them from using the phone effectively.  This isn’t just an argument that I’ve just slotted in here: I used to be one of those people.

There are lots of different issues that link to the issue of students with disabilities, such as the importance of associate lecturer staff development and the accessibility of rooms.  Another really important role that the region performs is planning home exams for students who have disabilities.  The staff in the region work hard to match local invigilators with local students.  Regional staff also need to consider personalities: sometimes a student may be more comfortable with a known invigilator than a stranger.  Knowing this depends on local knowledge: knowing the students, knowing the invigilators, and knowing where everyone lives.

There is something else that the London office does: disability assessments.  If a student applies for the disabled student’s allowance, they will be invited to be a part of a disability assessment.  This is where a professional assessor helps a student to choose a set of assistive technologies and tools that can best suit the study needs.  If the London office closes, this facility will also have to close.  This will, without a doubt, affect students.  I’ll again emphasise a really important point: there is a legislative imperative that the university needs to adhere to.

A final thought on this section is that the project teams has been asked for a document called an equality analysis.  This is a document that is to describe what the university will do to mitigate against the impact that the changes will have to students who have disabilities.  Key points will be: how can associate lecturers run special sessions (more of this point later), and how can the university best guarantee the accessibility of rooms where venues can be hundreds of miles away from centres?   I’ve also heard it said that any closure of a regional centre will affect more women than it will men, due to the number of women who work in these centres. 

Offender learners and students in secure units

I’ll go back university to the mission: people, places and ideas.  A really important aspect of the university’s provision is the ability (in some situations) to offer distance education to people who are located in secure units or prisons.  The distinction between the two are important: secure units might be psychiatric hospitals, for instance.

I hold the liberal (and human) view that education is a right and we should strive to offer it to all.  From what I understand from colleagues within the university, the regions do a huge amount of work to help education in different kinds of institutions happen.  A point is that secure units, whatever they may be, have to be located somewhere.  Also, the relationships between an institution, their education officers and the university have been built up over a considerable period of time.  Plus, when people move on, new relationships need to be built, and the best way to do this, and to understand the challenges is to have opportunities to visit institutions and meet staff.  HMP Swaleside in Kent is a very long way from Milton Keynes or Nottingham.

I’ll make the point again: local knowledge about tutors, institutions, education officers and individual students are important.  This is knowledge that has been built up over considerable time.  Destroying it by dismantling the regional structure is a profound risk to the good work that the university does. 

I’m not directly involved with tutoring students who are held in secure units, but a really important aspect of my job is connecting people together.  One thing I do is keep a rough list of tutors who might be prepared to work with students who are located in different types of institutions.  Although I haven’t had many opportunities of tutoring these students, this is something that I would certainly do.  I would do it because it’s important.  Plus, I feel supported by the regional structure, and by colleagues who know the ins and outs of different institutions.

I’ve hinted at the issue of exams here again, so let’s tackle this issue head on (bearing in mind that I only know a little of what happens in this part of the region).

Exams

Exams has been mentioned earlier.  It is something that is so important, that it deserves its own heading.  In the university, you cannot meddle with exams, and for a very good reason: if you do, you mess around with academic integrity.  As mentioned earlier, the regions play a fundamental role in getting exams sorted out.

Will someone drive all the way from Manchester to check out an exam centre in Cornwall?  Will there be someone who will travel from Milton Keynes to Hastings to make sure that an exam centre is accessible and is appropriate according to academic guidelines?  How will the university go about organising and recruiting invigilators?  Will the university outsource invigilation to some other organisation?  (I admit to not knowing how this exam stuff happens: it just happens, and it seems to happen very well)  My point is the devil is in the detail, and the university has said that the detail was out of scope.

Here’s an interesting example of how the London regional centre (and presumably other regional centres) are used.  At a number of different points of the year the London region hosts exams (again, expect that other regional centres do this too).  Why? I guess there a couple of reasons: but two reasons are to cater for people who have additional requirements (disabilities), or people who have been unable to take an exam in another location, perhaps due to licence restrictions, having been released from a prison.  A regional centre is a really good place to run these exams, since there is support, it’s a controlled environment, and the university can be confident that the examinations are well run.  As every academic (and administrator) worth their salt knows: you don’t mess with exams.

Here’s something else that I’ve learnt.  I’ve heard that following the closure of the South East Region in East Grinstead, the London region has had to take control over a huge amount of exams for a part of the country that I’ve mentioned has a pretty big population.  In terms of administration, this has been a big challenge, but the staff have done the best job they can.

As suggested earlier, the regions also organise and run home exams, where students have to be matched with invigilators.  In fact, when we’re talking about invigilators, we’re not talking about, say, sixty or so.  We’re talking about six hundred invigilation contracts, and to set up each contract requires an experienced administrator to complete a whole bunch of different forms. Also, these really important exam arrangements are managed by a very small group of people in every region.  I’ve heard it say that you need to go through at least two administration cycles (or, two years), to get a handle on what needs to be done.

The point to this section is that the regions play a fundamental role in the management of exams for all students.  These also include students who have disabilities, students who have been in institutions, vulnerable adults, and students who have had to contend with illness.

Associate lecturer recruitment, induction and appraisal

I’ve already mentioned that associate lecturers are really important to the university’s success. There are a couple of elephants in the room, and one of these are: in a world where everything is virtual, how do you go about interviewing associate lecturers?  

I do quite a lot of interviewing, and nothing beats seeing the whites of their eyes: if an AL comes across as being friendly, personable and knowledgeable, then there’s a good chance that they’ll be the same with our students.  Plus, how do we check their degree certificates and passports?  Due to government worries about immigration, we’ve got to scrutinise AL documents really carefully – and I can’t emphasise how important this is.

I’ve heard it said that perhaps the post office or solicitors could authenticate documents on our behalf, but I think that is a nonsense solution.  Our associate lecturer services people see a lot of degree certificates and can spot a fake a mile off.  Do we expect some operative in a post office to see fakes?  I don’t think so.

My point is: we need physical space to interview people, and we need people to check documents.  If someone is considered to be appointable, will they have to send off their documents to one of the two remaining regions?  Will there be a new role where someone has the job of eyeballing passports and degree certificates all day?  I would personally feel very uncomfortable sending my passports and certificates in the post.  Invariably the worst will happen: things will get lost.  In fact, I have personally not accepted a consultancy contract for the simple reason that I didn’t want to be separated from my passport, and I expect many tutors will feel the same.

Another point is the importance of induction of new associate lecturers.  It takes time to get up to speed and nothing beats a face to face chat. The last induction sessions I have personally run have taken place in the London centre, and I’m sure they take place across the country. Inductions are also an opportunity for a staff tutor (their line manager) to get to know their associate lecturer: it’s an opportunity to create the important ‘social glue’ that makes everything work.  It’s our opportunity to learn more about their skills, motivations and experiences, and when we do this, we’re able to help more.  An induction session cannot take place over the phone or on-line.  If you did this, personal line management relationships would be significantly impoverished.

A final point in this section is about appraisals, or CDSAs.  Now, it is true that most of my appraisals take place over the phone, but I understand it that tutors can also request to have a face to face appraisal.  In fact, if an associate lecturer has a disability, there is no reason why this can’t be requested as a reasonable adjustment.  I remember that two of the most useful appraisals I have conducted have been face to face.  It’s easy to say, ‘we can all go virtual’, but if this happens, we will lose those important moments of human connection which makes doing the job so important.  A corollary of this is that many of us choose to teach or tutor precisely because there is such a human aspect to our role.

Associate lecturer development

One of my roles is to help on a committee that run these associate lecturer development events.  These are great opportunities to get tutors together in the same place to share war stories and teaching practice.  It’s also a great opportunity to reconnect with our tutors, for tutors to reconnect with each other, and to share updates about the university.

To date, all the associate lecturer development conferences that I have been to have been connected to individual regions, and this remains to this day.  If the regional structures go (as invariably they will), I fear for the continuing level of staff development that we can offer our tutors.  I learnt to teach through the AL development conferences; I learnt how to run face to face tutorials, and how to provide effective correspondence tuition.  I have also learnt through stories that other tutors have shared with me.  Face to face associate lecturer development is of fundamental importance.

Like so many of these comments, my point here is simple: removing all but two English regional centres runs the risk of significantly impoverishing the training and development opportunities that we offer our essential associate lecturers.  In turn, this will invariably have an effect on the quality of teaching that is offered by our tutors.

I can anticipate a counter argument along the lines of: ‘we have no plans to stop AL development’, but this answer just isn’t good enough.  There has been no comment about any alternatives about how to arrange or plan for an alternative.  A decision that is not based on any consideration of implementation issues is a decision that is foolish.

Implementation of the group tuition policy (GTP)

The group tuition policy is a plan to enable students to have access to a wider range of learning events.  These might be on-line events or off-line events.  I’m one of the fans of the policy.  In fact, in the London region we’ve been running a version of it for some of the high population computing modules. 

Planning for the GTP is especially important, since staff tutors (along with module teams) need to figure out a programme of events that will be delivered throughout the presentation of a module.  Some tutors might have specialisms in aspects of a module; the GTP allows tutors to play to their strengths, which can (in theory) help with student learning and student experience.

There is one thing that we need to do to plan effectively: and that is to have discussions; to learn about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and our personal timetables and abilities.  In the current world, we can all have meetings in the regional centre, but I would have no idea what would happen in the new world.  Again, a huge amount of detail is lacking, and this isn’t good enough.

Tutorial venue booking and management

I don’t know as much about this subject as some of the others (since it’s not my role), but I’m willing to take a punt on the importance of place when it comes to booking tutorial venues.  Plus, I’ve also heard the VC talking about the face to face tutorial provision is going to remain important, which is something that I’m very relieved about.

I’m going to go on a slight diversion: I’m a great believer in face to face tutorials for a number of different reasons.  I’ve heard people saying that the attendance can be quite low for some sessions, and I’ve witnessed this first hand.  Some tutorials can have very few students, but others (if they are planned properly), can have very good numbers.  Even before the planning of something called the Group Tuition Policy, the London region have been running tuition events that have attracted good amounts of students (of course, each region is different: in terms of geography, London is very different to, say, Wales or Scotland). 

Here’s a point that I would like to make (and I’m making it to pre-empt any potential management decision to say ‘we can do everything on line’).  Face to face tutorials are important for all students, whether they come along or not.  When a tutor delivers a tutorial, they have to know their stuff.  Also, those students who attend tutorials are likely to be highly motivated, which means that they are likely to ask difficult questions.  Face to face is important because it forces tutors to be at the top of their game.

So, on to the point of the venues.  Successful events are created through successful relationships.  In London, we know the chap who runs the London School of Economics Centre. He’s a really nice guy, and will do whatever we can to help, and he is really responsive to all the requests that come his way.  Can we build same relationships between the venue manager and those mysterious ‘venue booking people’ who may end up working in Milton Keynes, Manchester or Nottingham?  I can’t answer this question.  Plus, it will fundamentally hinder our ability to respond to one off requests to cater for people who have additional requirements.  As mentioned above, this isn’t just a nice to have: it’s a legislative imperative.

As suggested earlier, the devil is in the detail, and we haven’t see any detail.

Special tutorial sessions

Sometimes, students need a bit of extra help.  What tutors can do sometimes is have a chat with a student over the phone, offering something that is known as a ‘special session’.  Sometimes, this just isn’t enough, especially if a student is suffering from anxiety or has a disability, for instance.  In London, tutors can contact their staff tutor and asked to book a meeting room to hold a one to one tutorial session.  The London centre is, of course, a safe space for both students and tutors alike: there are always staff milling around, and the area may well be familiar to both students and tutors alike.

Will we be able to have the same kind of flexibility to support students if the regional centres close?  I suggest not.  It could be the case that we might be able to rent temporary office space somewhere to run special sessions, but can we guarantee that they are safe, or guarantee that they are accessible?  This necessitates a whole new set of administrative procedures, protocols and processes: venues would be need to be scrutinised, and venues may well change – and it may not be possible to guarantee both privacy and security in office space that is rented by the hour.

I’ll come back to my earlier point: the devil is in the detail.  All I can see is problems and issues. 

Degree ceremonies

Twice a year I help out at the London graduation ceremony, which takes place at the Barbican centre.  These are always great events, and it’s a pleasure to be there.  London regional staff always play an essential and important role in these events. Before the day, staff accept registrations and answer questions that are asked by students.  On the day, regional staff man the registration desks and work closely with qualifications and ceremonies team to make sure that everything run smoothly.

If the regions were to close, there would be an obvious knock on effect: colleagues at Milton Keynes would have to take up a lot of the slack.  They would have to find people to man the registration desks, find graduate presenters, and hall ushers, and have extra people who help to make the day what it is.  

The point here is simple: a lot of work would have to be moved and transferred, and there is no indication about how this would be done.  There has only been a nebulous statement that everything has to be done within a year. 

Outreach and widening participation

During a faculty committee meeting, I spoke up and said: ‘we are a national university, we’re not just a university that is based in Milton Keynes’ (which, of course, connects back to the ‘places’ bit of the university mission).  My point is that reducing our national coverage would also reduce our reach.

Widening Participation is something that I have to confess that I don’t know too much about, but it is something I personally believe is really important.  I don’t come from a well off background, and I’m thankful of the opportunities that have come my way.

I have a colleague in the London regional centre who runs these events for students who are interested in study.  She recruits experienced tutors to go and have a chat to potential students about what it means to become an Open University student.  She has press ganged me into participating into these events too!  I have even ended up tutoring one of the students that I have spoken to.

The regions are brilliant bases for co-ordinating outreach activities into the local community.  A point that I would like to raise on this issue is that we could be using our regional centres a whole lot better when it comes to this subject.  In the last four years I’ve been subjected to perpetual change in my role.  I also feel that outreach activities (which should be a much more important aspect in the OU’s current work activities) are not valued as much as they could be.  I would personally like to do more of this kind of work, and to do this, my first port of call would, of course, be my colleagues in the regional centre.

With fear of sounding like a broken record: dismantling the regional structure in its entirety would damage our collective ability to do outreach work that is fundamental to the university’s mission.

Walk-in enquiries and regional reputation

I mentioned earlier that the London regional centre is busy.  It’s not just busy with staff, it’s also busy with students too.  There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t see a student in the reception area, using a telephone to speak with someone in Milton Keynes.  Sometimes, regional colleagues come down stairs to chat with students, to offer them impromptu advice.  

This is something that I’ve done too: I’ve spoken about various computing modules, and I’ve taken them to the regional library to show them the module materials.  (I understand that other regions have a library too).   A counter argument is, of course: ‘oh, but there are not very many people who come in to the offices’.  This is a fair point, but a response to that is: ‘should we really aspire to go with the lowest common denominator?’

Regional centres are advertisements in their own right: they mark the presence of the institution, but these are locations that also have functions that can’t be relocated with lots of extensive thought and planning.  They have taken decades to put together, and we won’t know for certain about the impact of their loss until they are gone.

Institutional risk

London is now the home of the remnants of the East Grinstead office.  I’ve heard it said that there have been very few people who have transferred from one office to the other.  One colleague has told me that over half of the academic staff have left, and ninety percent of the administrative support staff have gone.  Decades of experience has, quite literally, walked out of the door, and it’s impossible to put a price on the loss of this expertise.

As yet, we are not yet fully aware of the impacts on the student experience that this closure has had because of the timing of the recommendations.  It is also arguable that it could take a couple of years of the true impacts of the closure to be felt. 

From my own perspective, I know that my regional colleagues are under extreme pressure due to the constant changes they have had to work through.  If people are put under pressure, mistakes will inevitably happen, and everyone will make sure that everything is put right to the best of our abilities to ensure that students are not affected.

Here’s another personal reflection: I’m a pretty young guy.  I can deal with stuff.  I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for stress, but I’m beginning to suffer from change fatigue.  I’m beginning to get tired and have started to think ‘what have I got to do now?’ and ‘when will thing settle down to a steady state?’  The issue of change fatigue was something that was mentioned by another colleague.  I’m feeling the strain, and I’m getting tired.  But what keeps me going is the knowledge that I’m doing a good and important job. 

I’m really worried that people are going to break; that people are going to get sick, and that people will be confused by complex IT systems.  Plus, all the timescales to make all the changes are extraordinarily extreme. 

I’m no management consultant, but from my position ‘in the trenches’, I’m shaking my head partly out of desperation, but also out of fear for the forthcoming administrative apocalypse if the current recommendations are ever implemented.

Here’s my most important reflection, and one that is directly related to the student experience: I can see that this proposed reconfiguration is going to push people to their limits; people will leave; there will be endless mistakes; there will be confusion, and the net effect is that the students will be substantially affected. 

Some fundamental concerns

I’ve read somewhere that the locations analysis project has seen no alternative visions for the regions.  I do know that there has been a period of formal consultation about the project, but I’ll like to give a personal opinion about this.

For me, the locations analysis has been just one of very many initiatives that have been thrown my way.  By and large, I’m doing what I can to keep up.  I’ll put it like this: I have been too busy with day to day admin and issues to have a moment to consider how things are run differently, and perhaps other people have the same views.

Have I been invited to a workshop to consider the different ways in which the university might imagine a regional structure that would serve the university in, say 2020?  No.  Would I go if there was one?  Yes.

There is one main concern that I’ve mentioned before that I do find astonishing.  It is this: how can a recommendation be suggested without any thought about how it could be achieved?

In conclusion

Although all of these thoughts, opinions and comments relate to my own experience of a staff tutor in the London region, there may well be lots in common with many of the other regions: Oxford, Cambridge, Gateshead, Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds.  (Not to mention also Nottingham and Manchester regions, which would be irrevocably changed if these proposals do go ahead).

Here’s an important concluding message: I personally challenge senior management to come up with some more sensible thinking.  I also urge management to dispense with the current plan.  In my opinion, the current proposals are an uncomfortable combination of folly and vandalism.  Plus, they don't seem to take into account many of the essential functions that take place in the regional centres.

We’re not just talking about what is good for the university, we’re talking about bigger issues: we’re talking about reducing the extent to which we collectively fight and work for social justice.  The current recommendation suggests that we’re talking about reducing the mission of the university, which has always been about open to people, places and ideas.  Let’s not have an idea that attacks places in such an outrageous way.  This idea, of course, will directly affect people. And the people I’m talking about are, of course, our students.

Acknowledgements: many thanks to two colleagues who took the time to quickly proof read this blog post during what is the busiest and most intense time of the year – I really appreciate it!  Also, any remaining grammatical mistakes, operational misunderstandings or tryping mistakes are entirely my own.

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Christopher Douce

Using the cloud to understand the user experience

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In mid-July I went to an event at University College London that was all about interaction design and the user experience.This blog post is a quick summary of some of the key points that I took away from the event.

The theme for the evening was all about how to do remote user testing.User testing is a subject that is covered in the Open University M364 Fundamentals of Interaction design module. Interestingly, the evening also had connection with another module that I have a connection with: TM352 Web Mobile and Cloud.There were three talks during the evening.For the purposes of this blog, I'm just going to say something about two of them.

Remote user testing

The first talk of the evening was by a representative from a company called WhatUsersDo (company website).Here's a quick summary of the business: if you've got an interactive product and you need to test it with real users, you can contact this company who have a bank of on-line testers.These testers can then be videos and recorded using your products or interfaces.When the testing has been completed, analysts can review the data and send it back to you in a neat report.

In essence, you can get lots of qualitative data relatively easily.You also don't have go through the challenge and drama of recruiting participants and organising lab sessions.Lab sessions, it is argued, are expensive. Instead, remote testers can their laptops (and smart devices) which have embedded video cameras and microphones.

The thing is: how does a recording find its way from a research participant to a user experience analyst?The answer is simple: the cloud helps them do it.Apparently the WhatUsersDo infrastructure is undergoing continual change (which isn't too surprising, given the pace of change in computing).Apparently, the business uses Amazon EC2, or Elastic Compute Cloud (I think that's what it's an abbreviation for!)Other bits of interesting technology include the use of Angular.JS (Wikipedia) and MongoDB (Wikipedia).

SessionCam

SessionCam (company website) also helps users to do user testing, but adopts a somewhat different approach to WhatUsersDo.Rather than to ask users to talk through their use of a website (for instance), SessionCam actually records where the users look when the move throughout a website.

I was very curious about how this worked.The answers seemed to be pretty simple: through the use of 'magic tags' that were embedded in a web page.It also works through the magic of cookies.I also had another question, which was: if the system is tracking user 'movements', then where does all this data go to?The answer was also pretty simple: to the cloud.Like WhatUsersDo, SessionCam also makes use of Amazon cloud storage.

A really interesting aspect to all this, is that the company was able to gather and store information about thousands of user interactions.The company could then create what was known as 'heat maps'.These were rough pictures of where users go to on a website.

Reflections

This event has taught me two things: the first is the interesting ways that cloud technology can be used to create a niche business or service.Secondly: the unassailable fact that I need to always keep up with changes in software technology.

I've seen Angular mentioned on an increasing number of job adverts.A quick skim read about it mentions some bits of tech that I have used at various times: HTML, the DOM, Javascript and JSON - but I haven't used Angular in anger.In fact, I know hardly anything about it.The same applies to MongoDB: I know what it is, and I know what it does, but I have never found the time to mess about with it.This is something that I really ought to do!(And the same applies with the use of Python, and this might well become a subject of another blog post).

In some respects, these companies represent two mini case studies about the use of cloud technologies.A couple of months back, I went to a talk about a company that shared financial data 'through the cloud'.There are loads of other examples out there.

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Christopher Douce

The perfect OU Live session

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 1 Sep 2015, 11:25

This is a quick summary of a meeting that occurred on Saturday 27 June 2015 at the university's London regional centre.  The aim of the meeting (or session) was to think about a thought experiment, namely, 'what should the perfect OU Live session look like?'

If you've stumbled across this post via a search engine, then I should (perhaps) say something about what OU Live is: it's a tool that tutors can use to deliver on-line tutorials to their students.  Think of it a bit like Skype with a whiteboard and a bunch of other useful controls (such as a 'happy face' button).

This session was attended by around twelve experienced associate lecturers, all of whom had used OU Live quite extensively with their students. 

This, in essence, is what they said a perfect Computing/ICT session might look like.  (One point to bear in mind is that other disciplines might run slightly different sessions - but more about this later!)

Setting the scene

Firstly, the moment we click on our OU Live room, OU Live should open in an instant.  There should be no delay!  We don't have to download anything extra (or enter any really annoying administrative passwords).  The Java software, which we need to run to use OU Live, should always work perfectly.  We should never have to upgrade it!

With the perfect OU Live session, not only will we have a perfect internet connection (which will never go down), our students will have a perfect internet connection too!  Our connection will be really fast (with little or no latency), and none of our students will be connecting up to our session whilst travelling by train.  An important point is: there will be no delays. 

We should also assume that all students have their own microphones and headsets, all of which are perfect.  This means that there is absolutely no feedback.  Of course, our own audio setup works perfectly, and there are no other software products battling to use our computer's audio channel.

The perfect time, length and group

We decided that the perfect time for the perfect OU Live session would be towards the middle of a module presentation (or, roughly half way through).  This means that, of course, everyone is making pretty good progress, and all students are now familiar with the OU Live interface.  Also, everyone has, what I call, good 'mic hygiene'. This means that students don't leave the microphone switched on (so other students can't speak!)

One important thing to say about our 'perfect group' is that they're all willing to interact; they're all engaged.  No one has kids in the background vying for attention, and there are no cats jumping on keyboards.

A 'perfect size' for an OU Live group would be considered to be around 10-12 students.  Since there would be no technology problems, there won't be any drop outs.  Also, everyone arrives exactly on time.  There will be no one arriving half way through the session asking, 'what have I missed?', or 'could you just go over that bit?'

Ideally, all the students who turn up would belong to our own tutor group.  This way, we know who they are and what their learning needs might be.

Our view was that our perfect session should last anything between 60 and 90 minutes.

(One thing that we didn't talk about was the best time to hold the perfect tutorial)

The perfect preparation

Preparation can be considered from two different perspectives: the tutor's side, and the student's side.  A tutor might prepare by, perhaps, doing a practice run through.  A tutor could also post a copy of a draft agenda on a tutor group forum.

Of course, in a perfect situation, all students would read the OU Live session agenda, and take the time to prepare for the session, which might mean having read sections of module materials, and having some questions to ask the tutor at the OU Live session.

Another thing that we could do to help with our preparation is to ask all our students in advance what topics they would like you to cover.  Since every student reads every message you post on the forum, you're able to design a session that is just for them.

The perfect OU Live tutorial structure

Since we're running 'the perfect session' in the middle of a module presentation, we can dispense with the idea of running any icebreakers: all the students should know each other already.

In our perfect session we would present a short introduction which relates to a set of really clear learning objectives.  This would be followed with a series of short interactive activities (say, around three).  These activities, of course, would be entirely appropriate for OU Live.

Since we (of course) would have planned out everything (and have a backup plan!) we would know how long each activity should take (also, in a perfect world, we would have run the session before, so we know what to expect!)

Towards the end of our tutorial, we would ask all students if they had any questions about what has happened.  We would then do a quick recap of what has happened, and remind everyone about the next TMA cut-off date.  We would also say something about what is going to happen in the next OU Live session (or module activity).

The perfect use of OU Live features

During our session, we chatted about the perfect use of various OU Live features.  One thing we discussed was the importance of polling, i.e. asking our students to respond during a session; students clicking on the 'tick' or the 'happy face' icon.   One suggestion (which was apparently given as a part of Blackboard training, the company that has created OU Live) is to poll students every 20-30 seconds.  Polling will allow you to keep the students engaged; it enables you to check whether everybody understands all the points that you are making (which is important since there's an obvious lack of visual cues).

Even though all students will have perfectly working microphones (with no crackle, delay or feedback), the text chat channel is still considered to be useful.  Students can ask for clarifications.  It can also be used to share links and other resources.  (Such as links to the OU study guides).

During our activities, we might want to use breakout rooms.  Of course, all our breakout rooms will work perfectly!  (There won't for example, be a situation where one student has a microphone and another hasn't)  We would be able to set a timer and move between different rooms, checking on what is happening in each of the sessions.

One of the things that we can't do in breakout rooms is to make a recording.  A related question is: 'should we record our perfect OU Live sessions?'  Different tutors have different opinions about this.  On one hand, a recording of an OU Live session becomes a useful (perfect) resource (that could be potentially referred back to, perhaps during the revision period).  Alternatively, if we record a session, students might argue that they don't need to turn up.  Also, if students know they're being recorded, they would be reluctant to speak.  (This is clearly an issue that is going to be debated for quite some time; there are clear arguments either way).

All tutors have used the application sharing feature of OU Live to show students how to use features of the programming tools that they need to use.  In the case of TU100, this is the Sense environment.  In the case of TM129, this would be RobotLab.  Sharing an application can allow the tutor to ask students some questions to determine whether they understand certain concepts.  It can also be used to demonstrate what happens when you run some code, and also how to begin to use different debugging strategies.  You might also give control of the application to students, so they can demonstrate their skills.

Of course, in a perfect world, the application sharing feature is really responsive!  (One comment was that, in the real world, we might use quite a small window, since this uses less bandwidth)

After the perfect session

At the end of the session, you would post a copy of the slides to your tutor group forum, and share any other resources.  A tutor might also post a number of follow up questions or activities, and the date and time of the next session.

Closing thoughts and acknowledgements

Before running this meeting I had never explicitly asked myself the question of 'what does a perfect OU Live session look like?'  Instead, I had worked on instinct: trying something out, and then reflect on whether it seemed to work or not. 

I found it really useful to hear everyone's opinions and views about what makes a good session.

During our meeting, I remember there was a conversation about OU Live examples.  I've managed to dig out the resource I was once told about.  It's called:  Teaching with online rooms (OU VLE). The page contains a set of different OU Live examples that have been created by tutors who are working in different disciplines. For those who teach programming and computing modules, the 'writing and running simple code' is a really interesting link.  The other resources about level 1 and academic referencing, and study skills are useful too.

I would like to personally hank all the tutors who attended this session for their contributions: everyone who was at the London region on the afternoon of Saturday 30 June contributed to discussions and ideas that led to the writing of this quick blog.  Thank you all!

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Christopher Douce

Scholarship, CALRG and SST

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Going to three events in two days, between 15 and 16 June, was pretty intense but also pretty good fun.  The first event was all about the scholarship of teaching and learning.  A different way of understanding this is: how to go about figuring out how to best do teaching and learning?  It's important to do research into this area not because 'learning' has changed, but the ways in we learn (and the technologies we use) continually changes and evolves: we want to know that we're doing the right thing.

The second event had a similar theme.  It was the Computers And Learning Research Group (or CALRG, for short) conference.  CALRG is a long-running research group in the university's Institute of Educational Technology.

The final event was at the Birmingham regional office, where the MCT learner support staff are based.  During this event, I learnt about a range of different things - but more about this later.  Actually, there was a forth event, an associate lecturer staff development conference, which was organised by the Oxford regional centre (but there isn't the time to write about this!)

Scholarship event

Linda Price opened the event by presenting a definition of scholarship: it is a term that describes research and research action.  Scholarship regarding teaching and learning is activity that uses information relevant to our learning and teaching to inform and enhance our practice.  She also went on to emphasise the importance of evidence.  Linda told us that scholarship was a strategic priority to the university.  She spoke of an internal university project called SHARE, which is intended to help regional staff with the research activities.  An interesting and thought provoking line that Linda gave us was: 'doctors save lives, but we can change them'.

The next part of the event was a series of twelve five minute 'lightening talks' about different research project (I think there were around twelve!)  First up was my colleague Ann from Manchester who talked about 'perceptions, expectations and experience of group tuition'.  Her project was to explore different perceptions and opinions about tutorials.  This research then has the potential to inform a new Group Tuition Policy.   

Next up was a talk that had the title 'What drives scholarship?' I seem to recall that the research was looking at the use of language in assignments, tutor guidance and feedback.  A really important subject is, of course, retention.  I also remember references to Y031 Arts and Languages, Y032 People Work and Society, and Y033 Science Technology and Maths access modules (which help to prepare students for undergraduate level study).

This was followed by: 'A levels based approach to referencing and information management'.  Apparently, some students may drop out, or become demotivated due to the challenge of appropriate referencing.  The national student survey apparently said that different students are given different advice.  The following talk was all about investigating engagement with on-line library services.

An interesting question, from a colleague in the business school was: 'why do we keep failing our Japanese students?'  One of the reasons could be attributed to differences between HE in the UK and Japan.  Understanding and being aware of cultural differences can allow us to gain an understanding of how to support different groups.

Rob Parsons, an associate lecturer colleague from the South East region spoke about peer assessment.  He argued that the student-tutor relationship can be improved.  Themes that Rob's short talk addressed included active learning, learning communities and engagement and retention.

The university is, of course, a big consumer of technology, and there is a perpetual need to figure out how to use new technologies and whether a technology is appropriate for students.  One talk that explicitly explored this issue had the title: Going Live with Google hangouts.

It was then my turn.  I talked about a project that was about the gathering of tutor experiences of tutoring on a second level computing module, TT284 Web Technologies (I horrified to discover that, in front of over sixty people, all of my PowerPoint animations were messed up!)

The talk that went after mine had the title: 'how to get students to do your iCMA and why that is good' (An iCMA is an interactive computer marked assignment).  This was followed by 'investigating one to one tuition: initial findings'.  This project was from the faculty of health and social care.  The research involved interviewing students and carrying out focus groups with associate lecturers.

Sometimes low technology solutions and approaches can be really useful.  An interesting talk was 'an evaluation of the effectiveness of student buddies', which I think focussed on languages and business modules, specifically L185 English for academic purposes and LB160 Professional communication skills for business studies.  The presentation told us about student buddy training through OU Live and a shared 'student buddy forum' on L192 Bon départ: beginners' French.  This reminds me that some of the materials for these modules are available for free through the Open Learn website.

The final 'lightening' presentation of the morning had a slightly different flavour; it was entitled, 'smarter than the average ebook'.  It was given by a colleague from Learning and Teaching Solutions, part of the university that provides some of the technical infrastructure.  We were taken on a journey through different digital formats, ranging from PDFs, epub (Wikipedia) and epub2 files, and then onto OU anywhere.  Some experiments have been performed with ePub3.  These are becoming 'websites wrapped as an off-line experience'.

An interesting point was that 'students are frustrated about being sent away from the text'.  This is a comment that resonates strongly with me.  I found it difficult to study 'off line' even though I wanted to: I printed off lots of on-line materials, but I found myself being directed to various websites and on-line resources.  This is also a comment that arose during my own TT284 research.

One comment I noted was: 'ebook readers are tricky things'.  Different readers do different things.  To close this presentation, we were shown a demonstration entitled 'how to build a methane molecule'.

After a lunch, it was time for the keynote speech.  The keynote was given by our PVC in learning and teaching, Belinda Tynan.  It began with a question: what does scholarship look like across the university.  There are, apparently 15 groups that 'play in the space' that is called scholarship, and that's just the research groups that belong to faculties (not to mention the research that takes place in the library, student services and other departments).  An important question is: 'how is the scholarship impacting the university, and how is it being focussed and directed?'

Moved on to talking about the different methods that can be used in education research. A related question is: how do we learn from each other, how do we share with each other, and how do we cross boundaries and disciplines?  Another really important question, from an institutional perspective is whether we are getting value for the effort that we institutionally put into scholarship.  It was a thought provoking keynote and it really set the scene for the afternoon session (but this was a session I had to duck out of because I had another commitment: to attend one of those fifteen scholarship groups that were mentioned about).

CALRG event

The CALRG conference is a three day conference, which means that I've missed loads of talks.  In case you're interested, the organisers have published a conference programme (CALRG website).

The first talk I attended was entitled: Building understanding of open education: an overview of OER on teaching and learning.  OER is an abbreviation for open educational resources.  The institute of educational technology hosts a research group that is known as an OER hub (website).

The second talk was all about mobility technology and had the title: Conducting a field trial in Milton Keynes: Lessons from the MApp.  I originally thought that MApp was some kind of mapping device, but it seemed to be something rather different.  It seemed to be about helping different people from different cultural backgrounds (or languages) to connect to each other.  I have to confess to being a bit lost at the start of the talk, but then I discovered that the research was using some really interesting methods to gather up some qualitative research.  (This reminded me about a 'diary study project' that I've been mulling over for quite some time, but I haven't managed to get around to doing anything about it yet!)

The third talk was a longer version of the same 'lightening' talk that I gave earlier in the day.  Talking at CALRG allowed me to talk a bit more about the methodology, and some really tentative findings since the analysis is still on-going!  (This, I think, is one the challenges of qualitative research: when do you stop!  One answer is: when you see the similar findings and themes emerging time and time again).

The next talk had the title: Improving language learning and transition into second language learning, through the language learning support dimensions (LLSD).  This talk used an instrument (also known as a survey) to help learners understand more about how they carry out language learning.  Since this wasn't my subject, I struggled to connect with this research, but I appreciated the idea of using a self-directed too to help learners to reflect on how they approach a problem.

The final talk of the CALRG session was 'diverse approaches to using online 'studio' based learning in Open University modules'.  In some respects, the 'studio' can be considered to be an in-house version of the photo sharing website Flickr.  I seem to have a memory that it was used with a digital photography module, to allow students to share examples of their work.  It was interesting to hear that this module was going to be re-launched as a non-credit bearing module (which will have the module code TG189).  Modules such as U101 use a version of this tool called Open Studio.  I learnt that it has now found its way into a total of thirteen different modules, and the Open Studio tool now goes by different names and has a range of different uses. There is also a blog about OpenStudio that is hosted by the university.

The talk led onto an interesting discussion about accessibility.  Whilst an on-line environment might itself be technically accessible, the materials that are transferred to an environment might be fundamentally inaccessible.  One thought about how to remedy this is to try to facilitate collaborations between students.

SST event

The final event I'll mention was held in Birmingham, which is the home of the Computing and IT student support team.  The SST comprises of associate lecturers, learner support staff, advisors and academics.  The purpose of the meeting was to allow the learner support people to meet academic colleagues (and visa-versa) to learn about how we can work more closely with teach other.

There were three rough parts of the day.  The first enabled staff tutors (the academic staff) to learn more about what was going on from the learner support perspective.  The second was a short talk about 'the day in the life' of a staff tutor.  The final section was an update from the faculty Media Fellow.

During this final session I learnt about a project called JIFL, also known as Journeys from Informal to Formal Learning (which remains a bit of a mystery).  There are also a number of FutureLearn MOOCs (Massively Open On-line Courses) that are either currently being delivered, or are in the process of being developed.  These have the titles: 'Introduction of Cybersecurity' and 'Programming one line at a time', which uses the Python programming language (which is used in M269 Algorithms Data Structures and Computability).  Other MOOCs will include one about smart cities and another about renewable energy.

In other news, there is going to be an update to the OpenLearn site, where potential students can gain access to samples of OU materials.  There is also going to be a new programming module, which is intended to help students transition from the first level modules, such as TU100 My Digital Life and TM129 Technologies in practice, to the second level modules, such as M250 Object-oriented Java programming and M269.  This transition module will draw upon materials from an earlier module, M150 Data Computing and Information, and have a focus on problem solving.

In terms of forthcoming media productions, there was a lot of exciting news: there is going to be a programme about Algorithms (and how they relate to our lives), a programme about the life of Ada Lovelace (which contains a bit about gambling), and a documentary called Game Changer, which is about the developers of the Playstation game, Grand Theft Auto.

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Christopher Douce

Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 5 Jun 2018, 11:56

This is the second in a series of two blog posts about the 2015 Open University Disability conference. 

Keynote: the disability delusion

The first keynote of the day was by Tom McAlpine OBE who is a chair of a charity called Moodswings (charity website). Tom’s talk began by taking us into the history of the current disability legislation, highlighting that there has been (and continues to be) a stark difference between attention given to physical and mental health disabilities. 

He presented the audience with an interesting yet important question which was: ‘who is disabled?’  This question was linked to two philosophies which are connected with the social model of disability; the view that ‘either everyone is disabled, or nobody is disabled’.  Another interesting point was about the link between welfare and disability, and extent to which ‘austerity’ is affecting the lives of people who have disabilities: ‘it’s going to be worse than everyone imagined’.  The point was made that there should be a ‘proper use of resources’.  Individuals, it was argued, should only take as little from the state as they need. 

During Tom’s talk, I made the following note: ‘if we’re going to be fair, we shouldn’t pretend that everyone is disabled’.   I don’t think this is what he said word for word, but instead, it might be more of my impression of the point that he was trying to get across.  It is a view that I, fundamentally, take issue with.  It is a view that equates disability with the consumption of resources, and I think that the whole subject is a whole lot more complex.  You can have a disability (or an impairment of some kind), and get on with living your day to day life, and may have no recourse to need additional resources.  All you might need to get by is a bit of respect and understanding from others who are around you.

Tom’s talk was pretty provocative, and led to quite a bit of debate amongst colleagues who I spoke to.  This, I felt, was a sign that the keynote had done its job (irrespective of whether or not I personally agreed with some of the views that were expressed).

Workshop: Student mental health – whose responsibility?

The first workshop I signed up for on the second day was also by Tom.  Tom opened by stating that mental health issues may manifest themselves during study, due to change of circumstances or due to things that happen during life. He also mentioned that it is important to consider the difference between pre-existing mental health issues, and that sometimes the pressures of studying may make some students (who may be predisposed to illness) unwell.

Another point I remember was the importance of appropriate boundary setting.  This is linked to the point that there are limits to what the university can do: it can only provide help and guidance regarding study and academic issues.

During the talk I made the note: ‘wellness is a continuum’.  This was a theme that was highlighted during the London region diversity day that was specifically about mental health issues.  This part of Tom’s workshop offered a reminder that everyone can move between and onto different parts of a mental health continuum.

During the workshop, Tom also offered some controversial opinions about certain illnesses and also the roles of some tutors.  It was clear that he had particularly strong opinions, and my own opinions (which were also pretty strong) were somewhat different.  Education can be difficult whilst at the same time being transformative.  My own view is that a positive relationship between a student and a tutor is important (if not essential) to facilitate the exploring of different perspectives and views that can lead to a transformation.  I doubt very much that Tom would disagree with this view.  Our difference of opinion relates to judgement as to whether a tutor is doing something wrong if a student feels compelled to contact a tutor for support for unexpected issues.  My role is then to support that tutor, and to do my best to work with other colleagues to communicate boundaries.

In some respects Tom’s session was more of a chat than a workshop.  It was different to what I had expected, but is no better for it; there were many colleagues who were very free to express their opinions about a range of different issues.

During the session, we were reminded of a useful resources, a OU published booklet that is entitled: Studying and staying mentally healthy (OU website).  I heard that this resource is going to be made available to all students, not just students who may have disclosed a mental health issues.

Workshop: Universal design for learning – built in accessibility

The final workshop of the conference was facilitated by Heather Mole, who I managed to have a good chat with during the conference.  Heather is currently working on a really interesting PhD, which she might have mentioned during her workshop.  She has been looking into the privilege of sign-language interpreters, since they cross the boundaries of two different cultures: the Deaf culture, and our hearing culture.  This made me reflect about the connections between disability studies, other subjects, and other civil rights areas.

Heather began by playing an excerpt from a short film by Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor called An Examined Life  (YouTube)  As the film played, I made notes of the terms ‘normalising standards of our movements’, ‘disability as a political issue’ and ‘talking of language’.

I then remember some discussions about the different models of disability: the social model and the medical model.  Heather also mentioned the work of Tom Shakespeare, who is both an activist and a scholar.  Another philosophical model that was mentioned was the interactional model, which is an acknowledgement that an actual impairment is important.  I understand this model to be a combination of the social and medical models.  As Heather was speaking, I realised that I needed to do some reading!

I made an interesting note that accessibility can be thought of in two different ways.  There’s the accommodation approach, where there might be the need for an alternative way of doing things.  This could be thought of a ‘consumable’ approach.  For instance, a module team or a teacher might make a resource that was specific to an individual learner.  Another approach is universal design, which can be considered, broadly, as more ‘sustainable’: accessibility is considered from the outset and is considered at the design level.

We were told that a chap called Ron Mace created what is known as seven principles that guide ‘universal’ architectural design.  These principles are: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, tolerance for error, low physical effort, size and space for approach and use, perceptual information (i.e. alarms that offer information through different modalities: they emit a sound and flash at the same time).  

These principles can be applied to an educational context; educators can consider both the universal accessibility of their learning resources, and the systems, products or devices which allow the learning resources to be consumed (we might think of ‘products’ in terms of a series of web pages, an ebook, or a physical paper based book).

During this final workshop, we were directed to a couple of websites.  One of them was called the Centre for applied special technology group (CAST website).  Another organisation that was mentioned was the National Centre on Universal Design for Learning (UDL website).

Final keynote: an accidental comedian

I’ll give a cheeky admission at this point: it was yours truly who gave the final keynote.  The keynote had two parts: a story, and then a performance.  My point was simple: we can achieve more than we ever thought possible if we offer other people encouragement.  In some respects, this is exactly what so many people within the university try to do: academic staff, support staff, and associate lecturers; we do our best to offer encouragement and support for those who are studying.

Final thoughts

One thing that always strikes me about these conferences is the range of different subjects, workshops and speakers.  This year there were keynotes that delivered different perspectives, and workshops that presented a broad range of topics.  I personally found the workshop about the ‘tech’ particularly interesting (I think because I’m a ‘tech’ sort of guy), and I also found the talk on autism interesting, if only to remind me that there is a wealth of advice and resources that I can draw upon. 

There was an implicit theme and an implicit concern that seemed to run throughout the conference: the sense that things have become more difficult for people who have disabilities, and things are going to continue to become even more challenging.  The underlying story that catalysed the expression of these concerns was, of course, the recent change in government.  Resources, it was argued, are limited, and it’s important to ensure that they are used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

After the conference, I asked myself a quick question, which was: ‘what else could there have been?’, or ‘what would I find really interesting?’  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been increasingly aware of an emerging academic subject called disability studies.  Whilst the objective of the conference has strong and really useful practical focus, I can’t help but feel that a more academic perspective might add something to aspects of the conference.  Disability studies connect to different civil rights movements, the role of the media, analysis of barriers, and how the situation for people with disabilities is different across the globe. 

One thing that was really great, and has always been great, is the presentation of personal perspectives: the student voice is, of course, really important.

Finally, PowerPoint and other resources from the conference (conference materials) are available to internal university people, but if you’re reading this from outside the university, if there’s anything that is of particular interest, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Christopher Douce

Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 1

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:38

Every year, the university runs an internal conference for staff who are directly involved with supporting students who have disabilities.  This is a series of two posts which aims to share my ‘take’ on the 2015 conference.

I think this must have been either the third or the fourth time I’ve been to this event.  In some respects my involvement (and attendance) is slightly accidental since the conference isn’t technically open to academic staff.  Instead, it’s open for those who help or advise students, or help academic module teams to make sure their modules are as accessible as they could be.

I’m very grateful that the conference organisers have allowed me to attend.  In doing so, I can not only share some of the conference themes to the tutors in the London region that I help to support, but also some of my students who study H810 accessible on-line learning (OU module summary).

Opening Keynotes

There were two opening keynotes: one by David Knight, and another by Tony O’Shea-Poon.  Unfortunately I missed David’s presentation, since I fell asleep on the train from London and ended up in Coventry.  I did, however, catch the end of Tony’s presentation.  One of the things that I took away from Tony’s presentation was that there are on-going changes to rules due to government policy.  Those that are affected by disablement can be the hardest hit by change.

Workshop: Improving accessibility for all

The first conference event I went to was facilitated by Adam Hyland, Atif Choudhury and Tim Blunt.  They all help to run an organisation called Diversity and Ability (website), or DNA for short.  DNA is a social enterprise created by and led by disabled and dyslexic learners for the sole purpose of providing support, strategies and assistance.

During the workshop we discussed how different apps could be useful and how students could gain an awareness of different study strategies.   We were directed to a resources page on the DNA website which presents a summary of different types of assistive technologies.   Students can uncover different ways of doing their research, composing text and answers, carrying out proof reading and taking notes during class. 

It isn’t all about technology – it is also getting people involved, and helping learners to make the best use of technology that is available to them.   It’s also about empowerment and building self-esteem.   It’s also important to connecting different aspects (or issues) together, such as the choice and use of assistive technologies and the development of study skills.  I made a note of an elephant in the room’: there are inherent anxieties that accompany working alone.

A significant part of the workshop was dedicated to looking at different tools such as Evernote and Zotero (which was recently highlighted by JISC, an organisation that supports universities).  Another tool mentioned was Calibre, which I think I might have mentioned in an earlier post that was about using the Kindle for studying.  There was also something called Orato,  an application that allows users to select a portion of text, which is then read out loud by your computer.

Different tools can be used to do different things.  Students are, of course, regularly asked to write assignments and compose essays.  To help with this there are a number of composition tools, such as iThoughts (toketaWare website) and XMind, which are tablet and Mac based.

Another important task, is proofreading.  One tool that could help with this is a product called Grammerly which can be built into Chrome or Firefox browsers.   You might also could also use Google Docs (since iOS devices have text to speech functionality), and CereProc Voices to listen to what you have written.  Apparently you can download two high quality voices: one male, another one female.

Writing and editing is all very well, but is there anything to help with the making of notes in class?  Apparently, there is.  We heard about Sonocent Audio Notetaker, which allows you to visualise different sections of a recording and add annotations sections, so you know where to find stuff.  (I can’t help but think that this might be a really useful research tool for social scientists).  Another tool is called Audionote (Luminant software).

You’ve made notes during your class and have completed all your assignments.  An inevitable part of study is, of course, the exam.  There are, apparently, tools that can help.  The presenters the workshop mentioned a number of flash card tools, such as Studyblue, Quizlet and Anki.  The one they talked most about was Quizlet, since apparently this has a text to speech feature.  Interestingly, some educators have been known to create StudyBlue decks.  As these products were described, I thought to myself, ‘why didn’t I think of creating these tools?’

Revision takes time, which means that time management is important.  To help with this Google calendar was recommended.  It was interesting to hear that Google Calendar could, apparently, be synchronised with Outlook calendars, but this isn’t anything that I have ever tried. 

Students also need to organise their files and records.  We were told of a tool called Alfred (Alfredapp website), a productivity tool for Macs.  Other tools that were mentioned included cloud storage tools, such as Google Drive, Drop Box and One Drive.

The remainder of the session was about the referencing tool Zotero. We looked at how to download a reference template (there is one for the OU Harvard format), and apply it to web links, books for which we had the ISBN number for, books that we found on Amazon, and papers from jstor.org, a ‘a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources’.

There was a lot to take in during this session.  I had heard of some of the tools and products before, but not all of them.  One really useful aspect of the session was to learn how Zotero could be used, and also to be talked through the different sets of tools that students could use.  A really important ‘take away’ point was that assistive technology, in whatever form it takes, is always changing.  There is also great value in the ‘free’ or low cost products that exist.  I began to realise that assessors (those people who offer advice for students with disabilities) have a tough job in terms of keeping up with what might be the best tools for learners.

Keynote: Autism and Asperger’s in Higher Education

The second keynote of the conference was given by Lyndsey Draper from the National Autistic Society.  Lynsdey kicked off by giving us an interesting and surprising statistic – that over the last 10 years, disclosure of autism increased by 100%.  Another interesting fact was that autism is the only disability in the UK that has its own specific legislation.

After briefly describing what autism and Asperger’s syndrome is, Lyndsey spoke about some different theories about it.  From what I remember, I understand that there is now a consensus that there is a genetic component. 

We were also given some interesting statistics: it affects 2.8 million families and 1.1% of the population.  The diagnosis of women is apparently increasing, but a diagnosis can also be masked by other conditions, such as the eating disorder anorexia, for example.  (I remember reading some research by Simon Baron-Cohen a couple of years ago about a potential link between anorexia and autism; the systematising and food obsession represents a behaviour trait that has parallels with some behaviours that can be observed in autism).

A further interesting point was that how differences can manifest themselves may depend very much on the environment.   Lyndsey made the point that the term Asperger’s syndrome was being replaced in favour of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, for short.

As Lyndey was talking, I remembered a phrase from a session that I went to the previous year.  It was: ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met only one person with autism’; the point being that everyone is very different.

So, what might the challenges be when it comes to higher education? Students may struggle with social communication, or, specifically, understanding the unwritten rules of communication.  Smalltalk, it was said, can be considered to be illogical or complicated.  Students also might find it difficult to understand the perspectives of others.

These things said, people who have ASD are known to have some key strengths: attention to detail, a methodical approach, good memory for factual information, problem solving skills, numerical skills, and are reliable and resourceful.  As well as having a different way of thinking to others, another strength can be deep specialist knowledge and skills.

From the academic perspective, we need to acknowledge the significance of the social perspective.  There is also an obvious necessity to provide clear unambiguous feedback (which should, of course, be offered to all students too!)  In terms of adjustment, an important activity could be to try to facilitate contact between students and staff, interpret academic speaking and writing, using of checklist and offer clarifications as to what is required.

Workshop: Supporting students with autism in higher education

In addition to the keynote, Lyndsey also facilitated a workshop (which I had signed up to go to).  Like her keynote presentation, it was also filled with really interesting facts.  Apparently, students who have a diagnosis of autism are less likely to drop out than other students, i.e. 6.9% versus 10%.

In terms of the disabled student’s allowance (which is funding from the government to help students to study), students who have ASD may not benefit from the use of technology than other groups of students with disabilities.   Instead, students with ASD benefit from mentors and study support.

In the workshop, we were again given a little bit of history.  We were told about Kanner or ‘classic’ Autism, and Asperger’s syndrome, and the differences between them.  We were then asked about our perceptions and understandings.   A key phrase I noted in my notebook was: ‘everyone is completely different’, and that what is ‘good practice for autism is good practice for everyone’.

In terms of training: clarify roles, such as turn taking and eye contact.  We were offered a challenge: ‘can you imagine how much effort it would be to continually control eye contact all day?’  There is also the challenge of metaphor and idiom.

Other issues that can emerge include anxiety, depression, perfectionism, single focus or attention on something.  Some students might need prompts on how best to manage their own time. 

It was time for an activity.  We were asked a question: what difficulties might students have and what strategies might be used to overcome them? On our table we chatted about getting students to talk to each other, the challenge of choosing a module, and the ambiguities of language.

A number of points were mentioned during a plenary discussion.  These were the importance of clear feedback and the need to be consistent and specific, the sharing of good practice, and how some students may need transition support between different institutions and levels of study. At the end of the session we were directed to the National Autistic Society website, should we need more information about anything.

Keynote: Education for a new me

Steve McNeice was once a triathlete.  He took us back to a day when everything in his life changed.  He was out on a swim when he realised that he wasn’t very well.  He told us that he had acquired a profoundly serious bacterial infection.  He went to hospital and fell into a coma.  He woke up seven weeks later, with both legs amputated above the knee.  Apparently 95% of double above knee amputees don’t walk.  Seventeen months later, Steve told us that he walked out of the hospital.

I won’t even try to do justice to Steve’s presentation and the effect that it had, both on myself and others who were in the room.  Here was someone who was talking about how his life had changed dramatically.  He went from being active and able bodied, to having to learn how to walk again.  Despite all this, and as he told us his story, he exuded positivity and good humour.

Apparently some people who use prostetic legs can use up to 300% more energy than able bodied people.  As he talked, he walked up and down at the front of the presentation room.  ‘I swim three times a week, and you see all kinds of people at the pool.’ Steve said.  ‘Some of them look and they think, ‘oh, what a shame’, and then I lap them’.

He told us about the seemingly innocuous challenges of going down stairs, navigating escalators and stepping over things.  All these activities that so many of us take for granted, Steve had to re-learn how to do them.  He shows us numerous video clips where he fell over, negotiating a hill.

‘While I was going through rehab, I was studying for a degree’, he told us.  He studied German.  A part of his illness meant that he became deaf in one ear, and partially lost hearing in another.  An adjustment was the request to sit on a certain side of a room.  One thing that he said he needed to work on was listening: so, he studied German.

‘I used the OU to learn about my condition.  I studied T307, designing for a sustainable future.  I designed some sockets for my prostetic limb’.  He told us that he took ownership of his lifelong condition by setting lots of educational goals.

Through these OU conferences, I’ve come to seen that having a disability can open doors to new experiences, rather than close them.  Steve told us that he has contributed to events at the house of commons and is a member of the all-party parliamentary limb loss group.

He told us that he is now studying Italian.  He also lectures at different universities to give something back to physiotherapists, the occupation that offered him so much help.  I also noted down the following words: ‘rehabilitation is an on-going process, and something could change at any point’.

Like so many of us at the talk, I was struck by his spirit of determination.  I also took away the thought that, perhaps, I ought to do slightly more to ‘give back’ to the profession that has tried to help me with my own condition or situation.   His talk also emphasised the transformative effect of education.  I couldn’t help but worry that the increase in higher fees this might potentially prevent or deter some students from studying modules and subject that may influence their lives for the better.

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Day in the life of a MCT staff tutor

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 17 Mar 2020, 08:26

I’ve written this blog post to complement a presentation that I have given (or are just about to give!) at a faculty student support team meeting on 17 June. The aim of the presentation was to share something about what staff tutors do on a day to day basis. Since I thought that other people within the university might find the presentation (and this summary) of interest, I’ve decided to share it more widely.

I’ve written this summary from my own perspective; other staff tutors within the Open University (and in other faculties) are likely to have very different days simply because of how their role might be split between central academic work and regional academic work.  There will be, of course, common themes: working with module teams, working with student support teams and working with tutors (and doing research, when time permits!)  We also, of course, can and do speak with students.

If you’ve accidentally discovered this post, you might not know what a ‘staff tutor’ is.  It’s a job that is half academic, and half management.  The management bit means we manage tutors.  This management bit can and does directly feeds into the academic bit: we represent the interests of the tutors during module team discussions.  A staff tutor is what is known as a ‘regional academic’. We are currently spread across the whole of the UK, and we might do a whole bunch of different things, ranging from outreach, working with local industries (if time and opportunity permits), and playing a role in marketing events.  I’m based in the London region, and work for the MCT faculty (which is the faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology).

Before I go on and describe ‘a day’, I should perhaps make a quite note on how I wrote this somewhat eclectic summary.  I began by writing what I got up to during an entire day.  I then thought about other important tasks that hadn't cropped up during the day that I sampled.  In fact, the below narrative is a collage of aspects from different days.  I’ve written it this way so give a sense of the diversity of things that we do.  It’s not representative, since every day is different, but it does give a taste of what kind of things a staff tutor gets involved with.

Blitz the inbox

I usually get up between 7 and 8 in the morning, depending on what I’ve got on.  If I’ve got to travel to Milton Keynes (the head office) I usually set my alarm clock for 6.30pm so I can comfortably catch a couple of trains.  Most of the time, however, I tend to work either at home, or in the Camden regional centre. On this day, I was up at around half seven, had some breakfast, and was in my study around three quarters of an hour later after quite a bit of early morning faffing about. 

When I boot up my laptop in the morning I usually have a single objective: to get though as many inbox messages as I can, as quickly as I can; this way I can figure out what is important and what is not.  I delete unnecessary calls for papers and scan through a ‘geek newsletter’ looking at new tech headlines.  I then delete a load of messages from Milton Keynes.  This might be: fire alarm notifications, messages about cakes and something about a pathway diversion. There is some stuff that I just don’t need to know about.

It’s important to keep everyone in the loop about what you’re doing, so one of the first things I did was to email our London faculty assistant to tell him what I’m doing.

I have a load of folders to manage my email load.  I see one email that corresponds to an on-going issue (a complaint).  I open up a folder that corresponds to the presentation of a module that I’m looking after, and I drag it in, to create a ‘virtual paper trail’ of an issue.

I see a university conference announcement that relates to an eSTEeM project.  This is a university scholarship initiative; I’m becoming increasingly interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning and I received a bit of funding to run my own project.  I read the conference call and wondered: could this conference be useful for dissemination?  Perhaps it might, but I then decided the timing didn’t work: I needed to concentrate on finishing the project which is about understanding the tutor experience of TT284.  I’ve got loads of other ideas; the challenge, of course, is trying to find the time.

One message reminds me that I need to send a message to all TU100 14J students.  One of my roles is to support the level 1 computing undergraduate tutors.  One thing that I’ve been doing is trying to encourage as many students to come along to the face to face tutorial sessions.  To do this I send them neat, concise messages about their day schools – this means they have all the information they need: information about the venue, information about travel information, and information about the room that they need to go to.  I compose a message to our faculty assistant, asking him to send it out later that day.

One email is interesting: can I help out with postgraduate events (because apparently I was some kind of IT curriculum programme lead?)  This was news to me!  I used to be a postgraduate computing student, but I’m certainly not a curriculum lead.  I sent an email to the regional marketing contact (who is always lovely) agreeing to run a ‘demo tutorial’ for any prospective students who might be interested, suggesting that we had a face to face chat when I’m next in the London office.

A colleague sent me a message that demands a response: Could I contribute to an associate lecturer’s CDSA (or, appraisal)?  Yes, I can!  He’s great!  But there isn’t much to say at the moment since he’s currently on a year out, but I’ll happily write a couple of paragraphs that might be useful.

One thing that I do in the region is help out with the associate lecturer development conferences which offer all tutors on-going professional development and training.  These events are very important: they give tutors an opportunity to meet each other, help tutors become familiar with new educational tools and approaches, and help the regional academics to more readily appreciate any of their worries and concerns. I’ve been helping to organise a session where the tutors would work with two actors who are running a session on dealing with difficult telephone calls.  After sending and receiving a couple of messages, it has been decided: the actors are going to invoice the region.

Releasing monitoring reports

It doesn’t seem like there are any really urgent crises to deal with this morning, so I decide to set another objective: to sign off all off on ALL the associate lecturer monitoring reports that have arrived into a faculty inbox over the last week or two. 

I’ve always held the view that signing off on monitoring reports is an important job.  I hold this view for two reasons: firstly, it’s a really useful way to get an understanding of the correspondence tuition that is delivered to students and secondly, as a tutor, I really welcomed the personal comments that used to come from my line manager.  Here’s what I do: I look at the comments of the monitor, and then the PT3, and then the script, and then add some ‘mediation’ comments.  Some monitoring for other staff tutors who are located in another part of the country has ended up in the London inbox, so I emailed it them a colleague who looks after those.

After a couple of hours of work, I decide it’s time for a well-earned cup of tea.

Academic stuff

During my break I idly browsed the BBC technology pages and discovered an article about a new computing initiative that uses something called the ‘Microbit’.  This takes me down the path of looking at (briefly) some of the history about the BBC’s computer literacy project that ran in the 1980s.  I start to read about someone (who is now a fellow of the royal society) who had helped design the ARM chip instruction set.  Since I often help at the London degree ceremonies in the Barbican I started to idly wonder whether this could be someone to put forward for an honorary degree. From my perspective, their contribution to computing is pretty clear.

I decide to park this, since I’ve already said I would recommend someone else to the honorary degree committee, but haven’t (yet) managed to find the time to write a biography of the candidate that I was thinking about.

A few weeks earlier I had attended an event that was run by the Higher Education Academy (HEA website).  The event was all about teaching introductory computing (personal blog), which is an interest of mine.  I also have an awareness that the faculty will soon start to consider how to replace TU100 My Digital Life (which will take a couple of years).  I’ve got this habit of writing ‘blog summaries’ so I can keep notes of interesting events and share these notes with colleagues.  I finally find the time to finish writing my summary, and I upload it to my personal OU blog after a bit of editing.

Dealing with a module issue

I receive a call from a fellow staff tutor about a student who is persistently unhappy with aspects of a module. We swap student ID numbers, and I look up the student record.  We have a chat about the student, and by looking at the student record, we figure out a way forward.  We both manage the tutors who are delivering the module in question, and between each of us we figure out what needs to be done: my colleague agrees to speak with the student to try to offer some further guidance and explanations.

I send my colleague copies of some emails that I had safely filed away.  I remember that after starting as a staff tutor, I soon realised that effective record keeping is really important.

Working with the student support team

The computing and IT student support team is located in Birmingham.  The members of the Birmingham team respond to student’s learner support queries and help students choose their next module on a programme of study.  When it comes to helping students with certain issues, we sometimes ask students to ring the SST, or we create what is known as a ‘service request’, asking the SST to give students a call: there are things that they can do that us staff tutors can’t do.

I receive a call from a colleague in Birmingham about a particular module, TT284 Web Technologies. My colleague has a very precise question about the module, and it’s a question that I can easily answer (since I work with the tutors who deliver that module, and have worked with the module team).  From my own perspective, it’s great to have that contact with someone who is offering advice to the students.  Also, I feel that due to changes in the way that tutors are managed (staff tutors are now managing smaller number of numbers), we’re able to specialise a bit more, and this will help us to more easily respond to detailed academic queries.

Towards the end of the day

As well as being a staff tutor, I’m also a tutor.  In MCT I tutor on M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  In the previous presentation of M364, I ran a module wide revision tutorial.  I didn’t have to do this (this isn’t something that the M364 module team explicitly ask tutors to do), but I thought it would be a good thing to do; plus, it would help me to get more OU Live experience.  I decided to do the same for the current presentation. 

When I announced that I was running a session, another tutor said that she would come along and help out, which was great news. After quite a few email messages, we chose a date and time. There will be two sessions, and we agreed that we would work together on both of them. Our two sessions will tackle the subject of revision in different ways.

After a bit of a delay, the first stage of the Locations Analysis is out. I discover there are a huge number of documents to read through.  I skim through the main document, which seems to be over eighty pages in length. I quickly become tired.

When I get back I check my email again. There an extension request from a fabulous T320 tutor. I’m very happy to accept their judgement, and I appreciated that they asked me about it.  I offered a couple of suggestions about what to say to our student.

It’s the end of the day.  It has been a busy one. I make something to eat, and then caught a train to the middle of London to meet up with some friends.

On the way back, at Charing Cross train station, I noticed that I had missed a call.  There was a voicemail.  It was from a student of mine. I called the student back and we had a chat.  The student was asking for an extension. I agreed to the extension, and highlighted some sections of the assignment so our student could just focus on completing what he needed to do. I also emphasised a really important point: that there are no extensions to the final TMA. 

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Associate Lecturer Development Conference – LSE, April 2015

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This is a quick blog about an AL development conference I attended on 25 April at the London School of Economics.  I was looking forward to this event because I helped to put together parts of the programme.  Plus, I foolishly volunteered to run a session and facilitate the Mathematics Computing and Technology session.  It was destined to be a busy day.

The keynote talk was by my colleague Pat Atkins who presented a summary of some of the changes that were happening across the university.  These included a gradual alignment of associate lecturer contracts to various student support teams, and the introduction of a new group tuition policy, which is likely to substantially affect both tutors and module teams.

Other sessions

I helped to ‘pull together’ three AL development sessions during this conference.  After being inspired by ‘acting’ sessions that had been organised by colleagues from the South East region, I discovered that I knew someone who offered training to deal with difficult telephone calls.

Another session was about working with different pieces of technology (which was facilitated by two experienced technology associate lecturers). 

The third session was about working with students who have visual impairments.  I remember that the tutor, Richard Walker (who ran a similar session last year) saying that there is likely to be a high probability that every associate lecturer will have to work with a student who has a visual impairment at some point. 

Other sessions at the conference were about working with students who have English as a second language and a session about the role of the advisors in the London region.

The main purpose of this blog is, however, to present a quick summary of the session on OU Live Pedagogy that I ran.

The pedagogy of OU Live

For the uninitiated, OU Live can be thought of a bit like a version of Skype that has a whole load of other features, such as a shared whiteboard, and tools that enables a tutor to ask students different questions.  It also enables tutors to share portions of their screen, so students can see exactly what a tutor sees.

I think I was inspired to run this session by going to a number of other similar sounding sessions over the last few years.  A thought was, ‘what could I add to the debates about OU Live that I haven’t already heard’.  I had two objectives for my session.  The first objective was to share some of my own views about what it means to teach (or to facilitate learning) through OU Live.  The second objective was to share experience and practice.   Or, put another way, to learn about how different tutors use it to teach different modules.

A big part of the session was drawn from an earlier blog post where I wrote about the different ways to use OU Live.  For this session, I renamed a couple of the approaches.  The approaches that I talked about were:

  • Traditional tutorial: which is similar to a face to face session
  • Demonstration tutorial: where a tutor demonstrates something, such as a set of pages or some software.
  • Practical workshop: a session where a tutor puts a lot of focus into a product, tool, system, or activity.
  • Debate: an interactive debate between two tutors.
  • Recording a lecture: a short lecture which potentially augments materials provided by the module team, or to offer further explanations.
  • Drop-in session: an informal scheduled time where students can interact with a tutor and ask questions.
  • Student session: a scheduled but unfacilitated session that allow students on the same module to chat to each other.
  • Special (or additional support) session: a one to one session between a student and a tutor.

These ‘types’ are very informal.  I’ve created these types by trying to summarise all the different ways I’ve heard people talking about how they use OU Live.  It isn’t systematic, and it isn’t informed by theory; this rough taxonomy (of you could call it that) is more informed by the sharing of practice.

An important point that I made during the session is that, in some ways, technology moves a lot faster than pedagogy.  Tools such as OU Live offer us tutors a lot of different features.  The challenge is trying to figure out how to use them in the best possible way to make sure that students can learn efficiently.  It’s tempting to use these tools to just deliver dry lectures, where there are sets of PowerPoint slides.  The real challenge (from where we can create really engaging learning experiences) is to understand how to apply these tools to enable active learning.

Final thoughts

I always enjoy coming along to AL development events, and this one was also fun too: I enjoy running sessions!  The next conference is likely to take place in November 2015 in the Camden Town centre.

There’s going to be a couple of months off, before the conference planning group starts thinking about the next event.  (And, in the meantime, I’m going to take the liberty to visit the Oxford region to see what they’re doing).

 

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eSTEeM annual conference: TEL in practice

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On 16 April, I went to the first day of the Open University’s eSTEeM conference.  eSTEeM is an Open University initiative to bring ‘together academics in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to promote innovation, scholarship and enterprise in open and distance learning’.  The eSTEeM website offers loads of information about the different projects that are funded through the initiative. Before trying to summarise my ‘take’ on the whole event, I should also add that TEL (which is in the title of the event) is an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning.

Opening keynote

Due to travel timing, I missed the opening address, but I managed to get to the opening keynote, which had the title ‘Using technology in teaching and learning: it is scholarly?’ by Linda Price from the Institute of Educational Technology. My immediate instinct to this question was to say ‘yes’, but the point to Linda’s talk was to encourage us all to think about what scholarship means when it comes to TEL.

An interesting point was that educators and institutions used to be the gatekeepers of knowledge, but technology has enabled some information (and knowledge) to become open.  Two examples of this is with the availability of Open Educational Resources (or OERs), and the increase in the number of open access journals.

Linda’s talk offered us a useful caution, that ‘technology will never save us from poor teaching, it will make things worse’.   Another point was about the importance of learner motivation, and that if technology is not properly integrated into a module then there’s a likelihood that it isn’t to be used (or, used poorly).

Another thought is that technology might not be the problem, but pedagogy might be.  Or, in other words, we need to develop our understanding about how best to use new.  Three important questions are: How do we make choices (of what technology to use)?  What evidence is there? Are we looking at opinion based practice or evidence informed practice?

Connecting to the ‘scholarly’ part of her title, we were told about a number of scholarly principles.  These were: the importance of goals, preparation, methods, results, presentation and critique.  These can also be connected with different scholarly approaches, such as the need to thoroughly analyse a problem, understand the context, review the literature, setting aims and objectives, designing of teaching and learning interventions, evaluation methods, and sharing of findings.

A final point that I have made a note of was that we need to think about how theory can relate to and drive our research.  This left me with a question: which theories are important and relevant?  This, of course, connects back to the importance of being aware of current debates, issues and, of course, the literature that relates to a particular area of research.

Workshop: what do you mean by tuition?

The university is introducing something called the Group Tuition Policy which is to affect both on-line and face to face tuition.  The aim of this workshop (which was one of many different events I could have chosen) was to facilitate discussions about how we might begin to plan and implement the policy (which is something that I’ll have to do as a part of my day job).

The workshop was split into two different activities and related to two different perspectives.  The first was to discuss what is meant by the term tuition, from the tutor’s perspective.  The second activity was all about what students should expect from tuition.  For this second activity we were encouraged to draw a ‘rich picture’.

At the end of each section, we shared different perspectives.  Points that I noted down were, ‘we need to up our game when it comes to on-line [tuition]’, ‘you can’t describe on-line as tutorials’ (which was an interesting perspective), and that there is ‘no difference between watching a recording and being on-line (or, participating in an on-line tutorial)’.  It was obvious there were a number of interesting, slightly conflicting, views.

How students learn in Massive Open Online Courses

The third session that I went to was all about MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.  Allison Littlejohn, from the Centre for Learning and Teaching (and the Institute of Educational Technology) began by asking everyone how many had taught or learnt through a MOOC.  A good number of members of the audience put up their hands.

Allison spoke about a topology of learning.  This included dimensions of formal/informal, intentional/unintentional and recognised/unacknowledged.  She then went onto mention a study at Duke University which analysed 75 different MOOCs in terms of whether they adhered to good instructional design.  If I remember correctly, the results were not very positive.

 A key research question that was asked was: how do students learn in MOOCs?  A related question is: do people who are highly motivated behave differently?  To answer his question, a researcher called Barry Zimmermann was mentioned (with regards to his work on self-directed learning), and three case studies.

The first case study was about a ‘connectivist MOOC’ called SRL-MOOC (Glasgow Caledonian University) (I’m not sure what connectivist in this context means – I think I’ve made a note of the term correctly!)

The second case study was an introduction to the data sciences, and was from the University of Washington.  It ran using the Coursera platform, and had forty thousand learners.  We were introduced to an instrument called SQLMQ which was used to analyse learner behaviour, and could connect with factors such as student motivation.  (There was a lot of detail here that didn’t make a note of since this was all new to me!)

After this second case study there was an opportunity to discuss a question: how would we create a MOOC that could help self-regulated learners?  This was an interesting question that led onto quite a bit of debate, about the business models of MOOCs, how you might engage learners that were not ‘self-regulated’, and worries about their terrible completion rates.

 Allison found something interesting about self-regulated learners.  Low self-regulated learners sometimes engaged with MOOCs with the objective of getting a certificate, whereas high self-regulated learners took a more strategic approach, choosing to carry out learning that relates to a job, role or task.  Simplistically put, some high regulated learners tended to dip in and out of a MOOC, gain what they need, and then move on.

I can relate this finding with my own experience.  I have signed up to three different MOOCs, but I haven’t finished any of them.  The first one was about the history of the internet.  I completed the assessment, but then became a bit grumpy about the comments that were coming back from my ‘peer’.  Plus, I was finding there was a bit more reading to do than I expected (so I dropped out!)  My reasons to take the two other MOOCs were all about ‘checking to see what other institutions were up to’, and finding out whether I was missing anything in my teaching.  I dropped out of the first interaction design MOOC when I realised that the content was solid, and offered me some reassurance that my teaching was ‘on target’ with the overall aims of the discipline.  I dropped out of the final MOOC when I realised that the course was pretty baffling and didn’t seem to be teaching the subject in a very satisfactory way.  This relates, in part, to Allison’s opening comment about the importance of effective learning design.

The third case study was a module about clinical trials, and was hosted in the Edx platform.  I didn’t take any notes of this third case study, since I was probably still thinking about the distinction between ‘high self-directed learners’ and ‘low self-directed learners’.

A final activity of the day was to think about some form of recommendations about either MOOC design, or learning design.  Our table chose, instead, to discuss other issues, including the role and importance of face to face tuition.

Short paper session

The next session contained three short ‘paper’ presentations. 

The first was by Clem Herman, and her presentation was entitled ‘putting gender on the agenda: why gender should be a threshold concept for STEM educators’.  Clem spoke about the university’s involvement with an initiative called Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit).  

Two of the key objectives of the initiative is to ‘address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation’ and ‘to tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation’.  To be recognised by the initiative, institutions have to go through an audit process, enabling the university to gain an understanding of the state of gender representation in individual departments. 

It was interesting (and alarming) to hear that the number of women enrolling in the first level undergraduate computing module has been dropping (in comparison to Maths and Statistics, which was reported as being okay). Postgraduate registrations, apparently, have always been low.

During the question and answer session, questions were asked about engagement with external organisations (which have similar objectives), and there was a discussion about unconscious bias and the ‘stereotype threat’.  I think what is means being aware of gender related expectations when it comes to subject specific performance.

The next presentation of the day was by ‘yours truly’.  I briefly spoke about a university funded project that has been carrying out some research into the tutor experiences of teaching on a second level computing module called TT284 Web Technologies (Open University).  I won’t go into the fine detail, but a description of the project is available on the eSTEeM website, with an accompanying project poster (PDF).

The final talk of the day was from Martin Reynolds, who gave a talk entitled, ‘Designing a learning system for postgraduate recruitment and retention based on systemic enquiry’ (I may or may not have made a proper note of his title).  During his talk I remembered him telling us something about a university LinkedIn ‘systems thinking’ alumni forum, where students are continuing to share knowledge and experience beyond the boundaries of the postgraduate modules that they have been studying.

Closing keynote

 The closing keynote, entitled ‘getting data into your eye: live in the field, life in the lab, and augmented reality’ was by Peter Scott, who was from The Open University Knowledge Media Institute (KMI). 

Peter talked us through a series of EU funded projects that KMI had been involved with; I recognised the name of some projects, but not all, such as WeSpot (EU project website), The Open Science Laboratory (Open University website) and Engaging Science (EU project website) which might have been mentioned into an associate lecturer development event that I went to at the University of Sussex.  Another project was called the Field Network System (Open University website), which was about creating a portable network infrastructure for scientific fieldwork.

A big part of Peter’s talk was about applications of something called ‘augmented reality’; a topic that is featured in a module that I tutor called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design (OU website).  Augmented reality is where digital technologies can add additional information to a digital scene.  An interesting point was made is that AR can become really useful if we use it in combination with people, which leads us to the term ‘socio-technical augmentation’.

An interesting example of this can be found in a project called TellMe (EU project), an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning Living Lab for Manufacturing Environments.  We were shown a demo where a computer tool offered engineers visual guidance about how to assemble and work with components.   Another perspective is that you could potentially be guided by another engineer who is working at a distance.  During these demonstrations I thought about my own interests in teaching computer programming, and wondered about how these tools might be used in this somewhat different context.

Towards the end of his talk, we were shown a demonstration of a virtual volcano (that was spewing lava) that popped out of a text book.  We could only see the ‘virtual volcano’ is we viewed it through the screen of a smartphone, which hinted at the wide variety of different ways that technology can be used when it comes to teaching and learning.

Final thoughts

There was a lot going on during the day, and I felt that I missed out on quite a few things.  I like days like these, since they force you to sit down, listen and learn.  They are also opportunities to help you to understand what is going on, and to gather up gently clues as to how the teaching and learning of science and technology may be changing.  A connected challenge is to try to find the time to investigate what happened in the other sessions and continue to keep up with the various developments that you are introduced to.

During conference I became involved in a couple of conversations about research about introductory programming, and there was even some talk about organising what might become a mini conference.  The bulk of the talk was an objective for a couple of us (who were interested in similar topics) to try to get our heads together; to try to understand more about where the ‘state of the art’ was heading.  In some respects, this was an outcome that was as just as useful as learning about new projects.  The reason for this is that these new connections and discussions have given me a bit of much needed and welcome motivation.

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Using the cloud to get to the OU campus

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 21 Nov 2019, 11:25

I get to visit the Open University campus in Milton Keynes with alarming regularity and getting there is always a bit of a trauma; I need to take three trains and then a shuttle bus.  After doing this journey for about two years, I’ve managed to get the timing down to a fine art, but sometimes things don’t go as smoothly as you hope:  I sometimes miss the shuttle bus and I have to catch a taxi. 

I can’t help the feeling that catching a taxi, on your own, is an extraordinary extravagance.  About a year ago, when my train was delayed, I got chatting to a fellow train traveller who was sat opposite me in the same carriage.  I noticed that he was rifling through some papers that contained the unmistakeable university logo.

‘Are you heading to Walton Hall?’ I asked.  It turned out that he was, and my fellow traveller, like me, was planning to catch a taxi to the campus.

‘Fancy sharing a cab?’ I asked.

I turned out that my fellow traveller, who I had never met before, had pretty much the same job as I had: he had the job title of staff tutor, but was based in Wales and worked in the Health and Social Care faculty.  He had travelled up to Milton Keynes after spending a night out with friends in London.  If I hadn’t nosily spotted his university papers, we would have incurred double the amount of expenses, and missed out on an opportunity for a nice chat.

Sharing lifts

Hundreds of people work at The Open University campus in Milton Keynes.  There are so many people travelling between the university and the train station that the university puts on a shuttle bus at peak hours - but what happens if you travel outside of peak hours?  The answer is you either catch a cab (which is costly), or you try to catch a local bus which takes ages and is pretty infrequent.

I don’t mind sharing taxi rides with colleagues.  The problem is that because there are so many of them that I don’t know who they are!  Even if I did know who they were, they might be in another carriage and have hailed and taxi and left the station forecourt before I had a chance to catch up with them.

One solution might be to loiter around the taxi rank and bellow: ‘is there anyone here who is going to THE OPEN UNIVERSITY? Does anyone WANT TO SHARE A CAB?!’ and see what happens.  The problem is that since I’m exceptionally English and doing things like this instils in me a morbid fear of being arrested.

Connections

When I was travelling to the campus one morning, an idle thought went through my mind.  I thought: ‘wouldn’t it be good if I could just take out my mobile phone, start an app, and push a button that says “I’m on the train from London to Milton Keynes – and I would be happy to share a lift to the campus if anyone is up for it…”’ 

This imaginary app would then tell me whether there was anyone else who was on the same train as me, or offer me an alert if anyone on the train would like to share a ride to my destination.  Another variation of this would be to try to find strangers to share journeys with, who might be going to roughly the same part of the city that you were travelling to.  To keep it simple, I thought, ‘no, that would just increase the complexity – let’s just think about this in terms of a single organisation’.

I imagined my app would be able to display the first name of fellow travellers, the faculty or department that they were in (which would be really useful in terms of facilitating a conversation), and also have a picture – so you know what a fellow traveller may look like when you get to the taxi rank.

There would be two obvious wins and one positive side effect.  The two wins were economic (it saves the university money), and environmental (less fuel is burnt to get to the campus).  The side effect is that you might be able to have some great chats, which might help you to keep up to date with what’s going on across the university.

Technical questions

So, how might we make this idea a reality?  Well, we need to figure out how to write an app.  Secondly, we need to figure out how to save data (so we can make a record of who is travelling on which train).  Thirdly, we need to get some data somehow (so we can get information about different trains).  Finally, we need to do a bit of ‘data crunching’ somewhere so we can be alerted as to whether there are other people on our train that we could share a lift with.

Creating an app

So, how do we go about creating an app?  The answer is: there are loads of different ways.  You can either create ‘native apps’ or you could create ‘web apps’ using HTML 5 and Javascript. 

When it comes to native apps, you might want to create an app for either an Android phone, or an iPhone.  If you’re thinking of developing an app for an iPhone, you might use xCode, which is a toolset from Apple (where there is a fancy new programming language called Swift). 

If you’re thinking of developing for an Android phone, you might consider using Android Studio, NetBeans (NBAndroid) or MIT AppInventor (I’m sure there are other tools out there!)  The problem, of course, is that some OU staff use Android phones, and some use iPhones.  To attempt to take the pain away from the nightmare of different platforms, there’s something called PhoneGap (but I don’t know too much about that… it’s all new to me!)

Storing data

Assuming that we build an app, then how do we store (and share) data?  This is where the cloud comes in.  The problem is that I don’t want to spend any money setting up services.  Plus, it’s been an absolute age since I’ve done any of that stuff.  Another solution is to make use of services from existing businesses that have already done all the hard work for you.

There are a quite a few different providers.  One of the biggest is Amazon.  Amazon offers a service that allows you to ‘plug into’ their existing computing and network infrastructure, allowing you to create and use your own virtual machines, which then can store data (since these virtual machines can host databases, like MySQL).  Rather than having to pay, host, and power a whole server (which, arguably, is likely to remain idle for quite a lot of time), you can instead pay for how much processor time, network capacity and data storage you consume.  It’s as if a server has become a utility.  Rather than having to worry about backups and whether you need to buy more processing power, this can all be looked after by a third party: you pay for what you use, allowing you to concentrate on the task of writing code and solving your problem.

Of course, you might not want to use Amazon.  If not, there are loads of other cloud data and service providers you might use.  Two of them who come to mind are that of Rackspace and Microsoft.  The interesting thing about Microsoft (and providers who are similar to them), is that you can choose where your virtual servers live.  If most of your customers are located in North America, it probably makes sense (in terms of network performance) to have your virtual servers served from that part of the world.  If more of your users are located in Europe (such as users who are travelling to and from Milton Keynes), you’re likely to want to host your virtual machines in data centres in Europe.

Another thought is: perhaps you don’t want to store your data in machines that are managed by Amazon or Microsoft.  If so, another approach could be to set up your own private cloud (providing you have your own infrastructure to do this, of course).  You might want to do this if your organisation has already invested quite a lot of capital into IT resources, or government or institutional policy dictates that you wish to make sure that your data is only within the remit of a particular jurisdiction.  Everything in life is always a compromise.  You might want to use your own private cloud as opposed to using a public cloud, but a private cloud is likely to cost in terms of hardware, power and administrative overheads.

If I were seriously writing this app, what would I do?  I would ask the IT people in The Open University to see if they have got a cloud system that I could use.  Whilst I wait for them to get back to me (which can sometimes take quite some time) I also might try to experiment and create a prototype using a public cloud provider, since some of them can give you ‘trial accounts’.

Getting data

Let’s say I’m going to a module meeting in Milton Keynes and I’m sat on the 8.46 train from London Euston.  There are two things I need to do: I need to say ‘I’m on this train’, which means storing a record so other people (meaning: other Open University colleagues) can see that I would be up for sharing a taxi, and also recording which train I was on.  The problem is: I don’t want to go through the trouble of entering ‘8.46 from Euston, London Midland’, since I’m lazy and I don’t have too much patience.  Plus, we need to iron out any ambiguity.

One way to solve this problem is see what trains are currently running (because, what happens if my train is delayed?)  Thankfully, Network Rail provides loads of data feeds (Network Rail), which we could use to choose the right train (and, I’m wondering whether we might be able to use the magic of GPS positioning too!)

As a brief aside, being a London resident, I’m a great fan of an app called CityMapper  (CityMapper website).  It gives you loads of information about different bus routes, trains, underground stations, and hooks up to Google Maps so you can see where you’re going.  An interesting question is: how does it work?  One answer lies with the availability of different data feeds, such as the data feeds that Transport for London provides (TfL data feed summary page).  

Why do TfL provide all this data?  The answer is: that TfL are in the business of providing transport, they’re not in the business of creating new apps for new-fangled computing devices: that’s not their core business.  Once feeds are made available, they can be used in new and creative ways.

Back to our ‘taxi ride sharing’ scenario: let’s say we’ve got a group of four people on the train that are prepared to share a ride to the campus, then what happens?  Who is going to make the call to the taxi company?  One thought is that the colleague who instigated a ‘taxi share request’ could do that job.  Or, alternatively, the taxi app might do it for us (if our chosen taxi company has some kind of mechanism to accept taxi bookings from recognised apps). 

Other issues

When we start to think about all this, we come up against questions of user identity and what it means in terms of a mobile device.  Some of my mobile apps make use of my Google+ account, whereas others make use of Facebook.  This can make things a whole lot easier, but it does worry me a little, mostly because I don’t know the extent to which my data is being used (we’re again back to the question of compromise: convenience traded off for ease of use).  One thing that we might want to do is to create our own ‘identity’ management system.

Another issue is that we’re beginning to step into is the currently fashionable area of smart cities (Wikipedia); the possibility that journeys through urban environments can be aided and abetted by the use and sharing of data.  (Not to mention costs and communications).

Final thoughts

Just as I was finishing this blog, the following email popped into my inbox: ‘would anyone like to share a taxi from MK station tomorrow?  I have a choice of trains, the first one arriving MK at 10:02, if that fits with anyone else’s plans?’

I remember this other time when I was travelling to the University of West of England from Paddington to Bristol Parkway train station.  When I got to Bristol Parkway, I had to catch a taxi from the station to the campus.  When I arrived on campus and started to walk where I needed to go, I recognised someone.  That someone was the gentleman who was sitting on the next row along from me.  Again, if only we had known, or had talked, or hadn’t been so English about our early morning journey, we could have shared a taxi together.

A final question is: given all the things that I’ve found out, am I going to go ahead and create this app?  Sadly, I’ve got a whole load of other deadlines to attend to, which means that I can’t afford to invest the time – but I would really like to, and I hope that someone does go ahead and creates it!  I, for one, would really like to give it a try.

In the meantime, what I have decided to do is to make more of an effort to chat to the people who catch the same shuttle bus as I do.  This way, if the train ever gets delayed, I might have more of a clue about who I could share a taxi with. 

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Workshop: using technology for communication and to support learning

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 10 Apr 2015, 17:03

On 26 March, I went to two seminars: one about the history of computing, and another one about augmentative and alternative communication.  This is a quick blog summary about the latter event (which can be viewed through YouTube); it’s not a subject I know too much about (and I thought it might be of interest to anyone who might be taking the H810 Accessible on-line learning module which is a part of the MA degree in on-line and distance education).

This event also relates to an internal project called SeGA, which is short for Securing Greater Accessbility.  SeGA is a university initiative that aims to thoroughly embed accessibility practice within the Open University.

Assistive technology

The seminar (or workshop) was presented Marion Stanton from Candle AAC (website). As far as I understood things, Candle AAC a not for profit organisation that offers help and advice about communication technologies for people who have difficulty with movement and communication.  Her talk was focused on technology and approaches that could help people (primarily those who are aged 5 through 18) who have complex needs.  Also, her focus was on general technology rather than the capabilities of specific products.

One of her early presentation slides presented a range of different tools and technologies.  These ranged from low tech communication aids, eye gaze technology, alternative pointing devices (which could be used to replace a mouse), alternative keyboards, optical character recognition, voice recognition, idea mapping software, word prediction and software that can offer support to people who have dyslexia.

An important point that I noted is that everyone is different.  This reminded me of a phrase I heard at another Open University event, that ‘when you’ve met one person who has autism, you’ve met one person who has autism’.

A significant area of focus of the morning was the subject of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (Wikipedia), or AAC for short.  Augmentative means that a technology can be used as well as (or to supplement) speech, and alternative means that a technology can be used instead of speech.  AAC can also be sometimes used as an alternative to writing.

Marion exposed an interesting (and misplaced) assumption, which was, ‘if you give someone an alternative way of communicating, then surely there will be less incentive to use other forms of communication?’ Research suggests that this certainly isn’t the case.  In fact, we were told that it can actually help and can encourage other forms of communication.

During this section of the workshop, we were given what amounted to a brief history of AAC.  (In H810, there is also a section where students are told something about the history of assistive technologies).  We were told about really low tech approaches and shown photographs of incredibly bulky technology. 

Activity and links

We were all asked a seemingly simple question: what is communication?  After some debate in our workshop (sharing views that it was about connection and emotion), we were told that, essentially, there is an expressive side and there is a receptive side.

A related question is: what does someone actually need?  This was a question that connected to the earlier point that everyone is different.  This led us to being briefly introduced to Makaton (Makaton charity website), Signalong (Signalong website), and Paget Gormon (Paget Gorman Society).  It was also interesting to hear about the different levels of technology, i.e. there are low, medium and high technology aids.  High technology aids, we were told, were invariably computing devices or PC based.  An another dimension to high technology aids is that they might be potentially linked to environmental control systems, such as systems within a ‘smart house’, to assist with independent living.  One example might be an interface to open and close curtains, or to control and to set heating levels.

Another links I made a note of was Talking Mats, which has now become an app, Minspeak, Sensory Software, and Widgit.

Choosing the right technology

Given such a wide variety of tools and technologies a difficult question to address is: which one should we choose, or which one is the most appropriate?  Not only does the choice of tools matter, but also how tools are set up and configured for individual users.  A tool might be very suitable but configured inappropriately.  Uncovering the correct settings (and choosing the right tools) requires experienced and expert assessors not making assumptions.

The choice of technology is, of course very dependent upon individual circumstances, and different experts may well give different recommendations.  An important point was that it’s not possible to be an expert in everything.

During the session, we were told about AAC technologies, but also the importance of subject specific learning was also briefly addressed.  One company was mentioned, Splash Software which developed software to help with the learning of mathematics.  (The accessibility of mathematics is also a topic that is briefly covered in H810).  This implicitly points to the complexities inherent in making the important details of academic subjects accessible.  Technology isn’t going be solve everything.  Pedagogy and the selection of appropriate support are important too.

Time is also very important.  A task that might take someone an hour to complete might take another person, using an assistive technology, a whole day to complete.  Assistive technologies permit access and aim to ‘level the playing field’, but all students have to work according to the same module calendar.  This also relates to a point that I picked from colleagues who used to work in JISC TechDIS.  The point was that even if something is technically access, the usability constraints might cause something to become practically inaccessible.

Final thoughts

At the start of the workshop, tablet computers were mentioned.  A point was made that although they’re very useful, tablet computers (or ‘apps’) don’t solve everything: it very much depends on the needs of an individual.  Towards the end of the session, I made a note of another website:  Apps for AAC. 

I found the time to have a quick look at this site and I found it pretty astonishing since it describes a total of over two hundred and sixty different apps of different types.  This, in some way, highlights the challenge.  There are loads of choices, and making a choice (and being aware of what is out there), isn’t easy.  Although I have known of this as a subject (and research) area for quite some time, it is clearly one that is a lot bigger and more wide ranging than I had ever imagined.

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South East region: Associate Lecturer Development Conference, March 2015

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On 2 March I went to the South East region associate lecturer development conference.  Although the regional office has been closed, it still exists as an important administrative unit within the university.  This time, the conference was held at The River Centre, in Tonbridge, which was a conference venue I had never been to before. 

This blog post aims to summarise the different sessions that I attended during the day, and has been written using notes that I made during the day.  I hope it is useful for those who came along to the event, and other colleagues within the university who might be seeking ideas for their own sessions.

A collaborative approach to teaching a level 1 module

The conference had two workshops; a morning workshop and an afternoon workshop.  The first workshop I went to was by Bill Adler, who tutors on L161 Exploring Languages and Cultures.  The aim of the workshop was just to share some experience of teaching as collaboration. 

L161is a compulsory level 1 (first year equivalent) language studies module that addresses intercultural skills and awareness.  It consists of four different books (one for each block) and a module web site.  Approximately one thousand students at any one time might be studying the module.  Interestingly, the module makes extensive use of on-line forums.  To make this work, tutors are allocated to a number of clusters (which is an idea which immediately made me think of the group tuition policy).  The reason for this is that one thousand students contributing to a single group of discussion forums is clearly too many; some students could be overwhelmed with posts.  A cluster that comprises of around 250 students is likely to be a lot more manageable, and there’s always something that is going on to make it sufficiently interesting.

Bill talked us through two different activities that can take place through his module.  The first was an autobiography of intercultural encounters (Council of Europe website).  We gave this a go, and this led to a reflection about our own cultural identity and what it meant.

The second was how to develop reading skills in a foreign language.  A challenge with this module is that everyone might be learning a different language (you might have students studying French, Spanish, or German, for instance).  A way around this was to choose and activity and a language that isn’t likely to be too familiar to students who are taking the module.  Our challenge (which we accepted) was to try our best to decipher a menu that was written in Welsh, without knowing anything about the language.  After having a go, we swapped strategies, and we discovered that, actually, we could figure out quite a lot!  Different participants used different strategies.

During the session, I made a couple of other notes.  One note was that: different students mean different backgrounds, which mean different skills and perspectives.  Diversity creates richness, and this is a point that is reflected in the module. 

Another note that I made was about the concept of peer monitoring.  Since tutors are working in clusters, there was an opportunity to allow tutors to work more closely together with each other.

The closing activity was to reflect on our own collaborative practice.  I remember the point that working together isn’t too difficult, but true in-depth collaboration takes time to facilitate and develop, since you have to know and trust the other people who you’re working with.

Also, collaboration can mean the sharing of materials.  If one tutor is particularly busy, another one can help to share the load. The broad point of the session was: there are quite a few opportunities for tutor collaboration.  It is, however, important that the staff tutor (or line manager) and module team work together to facilitate that collaboration.

Yet again on correspondence tuition: how do we teach through marking?

Correspondence is a perennial subject in AL development conferences, but I haven’t been to a session about it for quite a while.  In fact, the last one I went to could have been at an event for design ALs over two years ago.

This session was facilitated by Vicky Roupa, who spoke about the research that she carried out as a part of her OpenPAD project.  OpenPAD is a university ‘professional academic development’ programme, and leads to fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. 

Vicky mentioned the Supporting Open Learners reader, a book that I remember reading when I first joined the university.  Vicky made the point that correspondence tuition is, of course, the main form of teaching.  Other points that I noted was that it was important to engage in a dialogue with the student, and that correspondence tuition is an action that is student led.

We were asked a number of questions: what do we teach?  How do we encourage students to engage?  How do we develop writing so it becomes a major key to learning?

An important point was that students don’t always read (or, indeed, know about) the correspondence teaching that they have been given.  Also, students might not understand the feedback that they have been given, or be able to use the guidance.

To try to engage students, one approach is to choose the most important points to focus on.  Our challenge is to choose which comments are best placed to move a student along.  One other tip was to add links to useful resources within the script comments, such as a link to certain sections in the Skills for Study website.

Another point was that receiving feedback from a tutor can be sometimes tough and involves lots of different emotions.  Vicky’s research was all about trying to gather ‘feedback on feedback’.  Her point is that tutors often mark assignments, return them to students, and then never hear back from them.  Closing the feedback loop can have the potential of helping a tutor to learn more about how to improve their teaching practice.  This was connected to an earlier project (which was mentioned at an earlier South East conference), where students are encouraged to talk through their views about feedback.  Information about this project is available from the Languages Open Resource Online repository.

Towards the end of the session, I made a few final notes (and questions) which might resonate with fellow tutors.  These were: ‘are we assessing or are we teaching?’ (it does depend on the design of the module) and ‘avoid judging too much and too powerfully’ (so we can engage in a meaningful dialog with students).

Reflections

This AL development conference seemed to be smaller than other that I’ve been to.   For some reason, the autumn events seem to be a whole lot busier than the spring events.  I would have (personally) liked to have gone to one more session, to see what else was going on, but I do appreciate that timing is always going to be a challenge (tutors, of course, give up a lot of their Saturdays already!)

The biggest take away points of the day came from interactions with the other tutors in the sessions.  I found the activity in the morning session interesting (and fun!), and found the sharing of views about correspondence tuition useful and reassuring.

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HEA new to teaching workshop

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On 19 February 2015, I went to something called the HEA new to teaching workshop which was a part of a larger HEA ‘transitions conference’.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not new to teaching, but there was a bit of the workshop that I was really interested in: a section that was about how to teach introductory programming.  The reason for my interest is that teaching programming is pretty difficult: some students excel, whereas other students struggle.

The session was facilitated by Karen Fraser from the HEA.  I’ve met Karen numerous times before, but I have never been to a session that Karen ran entirely on her own.  Instead, her role has been always to facilitate and introduce other speakers.

The aims of the day were to think about and reflect on our teaching practice, consider different ways of teaching, consider what things we are doing well, and share practice between each other.  This is a quick blog summary of the event.  I’ve written it for a number of reasons: it’s a set of notes that also contains links to useful resources, a way to tell my line managers what I’m getting up to, and to share some personal reflections about the event with Open University and other colleagues.

Professions

Karen opened the session by asking us a couple of questions: ‘is computing a profession?’ and ‘is academia a profession?’  My immediate response to the first question is: yes, because there’s a body called the British Computer Society (BCS.org) which aims to develop the professionalism of those working within the computing and IT industry.

I noted down that the purpose of the HEA is to enhance professionalism in higher education.  There are a number of issues that it addresses: reward and recognition, career progression, and continuing professional development.  In some respects, these areas can be connected to something called the Professional Standards Framework (PSF) where HE professionals can apply to gain different levels of professional recognition.  Karen briefly summarised the PSF, telling us that it contained six aspects of core knowledge, five areas of activity, and four professional values.

Returning to the original question, did we hold the view that higher education is a profession?  From memory, I believe the consensus was that higher education should be viewed as one.  It was also interesting to hear that the HEA has applied for a charter to become a professional society in the same way that the BCS is.

Teaching and learning

It might sound obvious, but one of the key aspects of professionalism in higher education is the need to foster and continually update knowledge and understanding about how students learn, both generally, and within their subject or disciplinary areas.

These key points led us to a discussion about the different types of teaching techniques that we could use in our discipline.  These ranged from the use of role play, applying a technique called action learning and demonstrating, such as showing students what code looks like in a debugger.  At this point I had a thought about the virtues of animations.  When I was industry I learnt a lot when I watched another more experienced programmer at work.  This short discussion was immediately making me think about what might help students to get to grips with the fundamentals of computing.

In my notes, I made the comment: ‘pair programming: advantages and disadvantages’.  I’m not exactly sure what I meant by this, but gently picking apart this theme immediately suggests a broad range of different issues: the importance of continuous learning within the computing and IT industry, the question of what skills industry is looking for and what universities can do to help, and the importance of soft skills in subjects such as IT and computing.

Teaching introductory programming

The next part of the session moved from considering the academic as a profession to the specifics about teaching of introductory programming.

We discussed some of the problems and challenges: students need to know about different programming languages and tools, and there is also the necessity to develop problem solving skills and increase student’s awareness of strategies of programming design and implementation.  A key point was that programming is a creative exercise; it’s all about the solving of new problems.  A perpetual challenge is how to map (or translate) real world problems into code.

Karen showed us a slide that asked a single question: ‘where do students struggle and what do you think their problems are?’  During the resulting discussion, I made a note of the following points: as lecturers we can’t teach programming, we can only help students to learn it; students need to put ‘the hours in’ (since programming is like any skilled activity).  Also, the context for learning is important: we need to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Other key points were: the importance of expectations, inexperience and confidence; the importance of how to decompose problems, and asking students whether they are fundamentally interested in the subject.  An interesting question (to students) could be: ‘are you prepared to be confused?’ and asking students to reflect on their own experience with computing devices and their knowledge of hardware and software.

Some other interesting points related to the activity (or exercise) of ‘making a cup of tea’, to learn the idea of problem decomposition (this, incidentally, is an exercise that some of our Open University TU100 tutors use at a programming day school).  Other skills might include the ability to identify sequences, patterns and steps (along with understanding how to do, and translate into computer code basic arithmetic).  Finally, MOOCs (free on-line courses) were mentioned as possible way to allow students to acquire background knowledge.  One thought was that perhaps a MOOC might help students transition between A-level and degree level study.

Another question was introduced: why is teaching (or learning) programming so difficult?  Some tentative suggestions were that programming is a skill, and it is something that is learnt by doing, and also programming isn’t a prerequisite for computing modules.  There is also the challenge of dealing with the syntax (or structure) of programming languages, and that students might not have experience of important concepts, such as data typing.

We were taken through two other slides: thoughts about problems with students (a lack of analytical, reasoning and planning skills?), and thoughts about problems with lecturers (a disconnect in terms of communication and issues surrounding instructional materials, teaching methods and teaching strategies). These problems can have impacts.  These might be students becoming disillusioned and the waning of enthusiasm which could lead to a failure to attend practical classes.   But what could we (as lecturers or educators) do?  Some thoughts related to the importance of learning design, early identification when students get lost, the importance of fast feedback, and the encouragement of reflection.

All this led to a discussion that had the title: ‘what delivery techniques could we use to engage students and help them understand difficult concepts?’  The group came up with the following thoughts (amongst others):  Use of the institutional virtual learning environment and flipped classrooms (Wikipedia),  the use of small groups, facilitated debates, use of media stories, the creation of animation to demonstrate ideas, translation of algorithms into ‘physical theatre’ (pretending students are different values based on height), use of robots, the idea of ‘code as a performance’ (as something the lecturers, or students create front of others, potentially also demonstrating failure), application of peer assessment, use of in-class question and response systems, helping students to create their own resources, and inviting students to present different ideas to each other.

An important point was made: research (I’m not sure which research!) has shown that students have a hierarchy of pedagogical preferences when it comes to learning programming: students like programming lab sessions more than they like working on projects.  Lectures, it seems, isn’t viewed as an effective way to teach programming.  Thinking back to my own experience as an undergraduate (when I had to learn a programming language called Pascal), I can completely relate to this.

On the subject of peer assessment, we were introduced to a system called Peerwise (University of Auckland).   I hadn’t heard of this system before.  We were shown a brief introductory video about the system (Peerwise website).   I have heard of other peer assessment systems, such as WebPA which (I understand) used to be funded by JISC.  An idle thought is that it would be interesting to do a comprehensive review of these peer assessment systems (since I seem to think there are a few other systems out there).  

After lunch…

A provocative question was posed in the first session after lunch: should programming be taught in the first year of a degree?  An alternative perspective was that perhaps we ought to first teach other subjects, such as data structures and algorithms before moving onto programming.  This way, students get the opportunity to understand more about some of the fundamental concepts of software and computing.  My own view is one that connects back to earlier discussions, namely, that since programming is a fundamental skill, and it’s something that takes a long time to master, we need to give students the experience of what is meant by programming early on in the curriculum.

The next session was about sharing good practice in lecturers.  One of the biggest take away tips from the day was the idea of changing something every fourteen minutes: divide an hour lecture into different sections that are punctuated by videos, run discussion activities or question and answer sessions, get willing students to come to the front of the class, or change the entire tenor (or tone) of a lecture by telling a story or an anecdote, or take a bit of time to introduce other resources, such as MOOCs.   Another thought is to ask students to prepare something for a tutorial (but always remember that you’ve done this! On the subject of videos, we were offered an example: a clip entitled The Friendship Algorithm (YouTube) from the comedy series The Big Bang Theory.

The workshop ended with a chat about a range of different issues.  We chatted about the importance of reflection so we can understand more about our performance as lecturers, and also the importance of reflecting on what our students have learnt from our teaching practice.  Another topic was the importance of feedback, and how feedback is perceived by students. 

A final take away point was a reference to a paper by Chickering and Gamson entitled Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (Washington news centre, PDF).  Although there isn’t anything in this paper that struck me as substantially new (which was published around twenty five years ago), it does represent a neat set of principles that can be fairly easily remembered and internalised.  When I was looking through the paper, one thought was: ‘how might these principles be translated or adapted to the on-line distance education context?’ or ‘what attributes of a module design might adhere to these principles?’

Final thoughts

Not long after I joined this session, Karen said to me, ‘you’re not new to teaching, are you Chris?’ In some respects this question was a challenge.  It was also a challenge that immediately led to a reflection.  The answer was: ‘I’m not new to teaching, but I’m here to see if there is anything new I can learn’.  

I was there for two reasons.  The first reason is that one of my jobs is to help to induct new tutors to the university and to help to run associate lecturer development sessions, which means it would be useful to know how the HEA does things.  Secondly, as mentioned earlier, I have an interest in the teaching of introductory computing and programming.

The whole day turned out to be useful: Karen’s discussion about the professionalisation of higher education was interesting and informative, and the day turned out to be a useful opportunity to share teaching practice and to learn about new resources.  By the end of the day I ended up coming out of the session with more questions than I went in with.  This, of course, is a sign of a good day.

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Christopher Douce

Experiencing a T216 Cisco day school

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 20 Feb 2015, 14:13

On 17 January I found the time to attend a T216 (OU website) day school that was hosted at London Metropolitan university.  T216 is a module that is all about Cisco networking and, in some respects, it’s a little bit different to other OU modules, but it’s different in a good way. 

Students who study T216 can gain credits towards their degrees whilst at the same time taking a set of vendor exams that allows them to gain a widely recognised industrial qualification.  You study one module, and have the potential to gain two different outcomes.

Labs

Another way that T216 differs to other OU modules is that students are required to attend a number of compulsory lab sessions.  These lab sessions are opportunities for students to get their hands on real Cisco equipment: the same type of equipment that powers much of the internet.

I have to confess that I’m not a network engineer, but have been a student of networking in the past.  I first studied it as an undergraduate (when things were very different) and then briefly went down the Microsoft systems engineer certification route, but I’ve always known that the official Cisco certifications are a whole lot more demanding.

When I worked in industry, I once made a case to develop a product that could be used to help to teach the fundamentals of computer networking, using a set of tiny PC-like computers.  When I was heading to this event, I remembered these old ideas and I had two questions in my mind. The first was: what is the Cisco way of teaching networking and, secondly, what might happen in a Cisco lab.

The teaching bit

I met my colleague in the foyer of the university and I was quickly taken to teaching lab where a lecture was taking place.  I found a seat at one of the empty workstations and started to listen, hoping I would understand something.

‘How do switches learn mac addresses?’ our instructor asked.  The class was still pretty quiet: the students hadn’t yet warmed up yet.  I knew what a ‘mac’ address was: it’s a unique id that is used to identify a network node.  You can have them on either Ethernet cards and are used by wireless devices (as far as I know), but in this context, the lecturer was only talking about wired networks.  I also knew what a switch was too: it’s a device that decides where different signals (or frames) should be transmitted to.  Switches have ‘ports’, which are linked to physical cables (if I’ve got this right!)

The answer was: the switch populates the CAM tables, and if it doesn’t know where to send something, the switch transmits everything on every port by doing a broadcast, so it gets to behave a bit like a ‘hub’.  Broadcasting also happens if a CAM table gets full, and this is something that hackers can exploit.  To deal with this, there’s also something called port security.  To make things even more complicated, there are different types of port security too.

Within fifteen minutes, my head was exploding with in-depth technical detail.  I was also reminded about the different layers of the ISO 7-layer networking model (‘a switch is a layer 2 device whereas a hub is a layer 1 device’): I was being reminded about parts of my undergraduate studies.

During the teaching part of the day, we were introduced to the concept of a VLAN and its benefits, and the concept of ‘VLAN trunks’. I also made a note of the glorious phrase ‘a router on a stick’. 

On the subject of packet routing and routers (which was a ‘level 3’ device, apparently), other concepts were introduced, such as a ‘routing table’ and different types of dynamic routing protocols, which had names like: EIGRP (enhanced interior gateway routing protocol), OSPF (open shortest path first) and RIP (routing information protocol).  These protocols were different in terms of the extent to which they were connected to vendors, and the way they approached ‘cost’.  Cost, in networking terms (it seemed) could be considered in terms of networking distance, or state (or quality?) of a link.

I appreciate all this sounds pretty hard-core technical, but what does all this mean?  Routing protocols (as far as I understand) are important, since they convey the status of the network to the other magic devices that keep the internet working.  If there is a bit of the internet that stops working, it’s important that other devices know about it, so they can channel packets around the bits of it that are having problems.

During this part of the class, I had another flashback to my undergrad years, where I studied different types of computer algorithms.  One of those algorithms, called Dijkstra’s Algorithm, was all about finding the quickest path through a network.  His algorithm can be used to help your satnav to find the shortest route to a destination, or to find your way around the London Underground Tube map.  It can also be used to direct internet traffic.  If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, I recommend you have a quick look at M269 Algorithms, Data Structures and Computability.  In computing (as with networks) everything is connected (in one way or another!)

Other ‘teaching bits’ included information about something called an ‘access control list’ (which allows for network filtering), DHCP (an abbreviation for Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) and NAT (network address translation).  This connected to the point that there are two different internet standards: IPv4 and IPv6.  Please don’t ask me about IPv6, because I don’t know too much about it, but what I do know is that NAT is like a ‘fix’ to get around the problem that there are more internet enabled devices in the world than there are IPv4 internet addresses.  There’s also something called PAD, or port-address translation (but I don’t know too much about).

In essence, we were being taught about the nuts and bolts of the internet and how it worked.  It’s all very well hearing theory, but nothing beats actually playing with physical hardware.  That’s when the lab session comes in.

The playing bit

We had a task to do: we had to connect three different routers together, configure them, and get them talking to each other.  The routers (along with ancillary hardware, such as racks of switches and cabling) were situated in different parts of the lab.  After our tutors described our task, we were all encouraged to go up to the racks to try to figure out what was what: we had an opportunity to eyeball and touch real physical Cisco hardware.

I followed the cables between the different devices and asked some questions about the various interfaces.  I could see how it was set up.  I was also informed that the hardware was set up in ‘a raw state’ that meant that we had to send commands to them, to try to get them speaking to each other.

I sat down at a computer workstation.  I then figured out that a workstation had a link to one (or more) of the routers.  Each workstation was pretending to be a really old ‘dumb terminal’, which was the kind of interface you needed to use to talk to the router.

Our tutors gave us a handout, and a glossary of commands, and it was left up to us to figure out how to get the routers working together.  Thankfully, I was paired up with someone who knew how to issue the device with instructions.  Between us, we figured out how to send a ‘reset’ command and give it a name.

After quite a bit of head scratching, asking questions and mild cursing, I suddenly understood what was going on.  There were three routers.  Each router was connected to a separate terminal (or workstation) where we had to issue different sets of commands.  I was trying to be clever and think that you could do everything from a single computer – but, there were clear pedagogic reasons why it was designed this way: to keep it simple, so we could more easily figure out what was going on.  (Or, at least, this was my hypothesis!)

Half an hour later, we had all the routers (pretty much) talking to each other, which was our first assignment (which was what everyone would have done at the end of the previous day school).  Other groups in the lab session (who were more familiar with the commands that they needed to issue) were storming ahead, spotting mistakes in the script, and forging a path to the next assignment.

Since I was there just to observe and to learn, and I was becoming increasingly confused (and I had another appointment), I decided to call it a day.

Final notes

The teaching bit was great, and the lab bit was good fun, but there was a huge amount of detail to take in over a very short period of time.  I managed to understand some stuff, but quite a lot of the detail passed me by – especially when it came to working with the actual hardware.  This, of course, relates to the importance of the labs.  Nothing really beats an opportunity to work with real kit (and also to work with other students who are going through the same learning process that you are).

Although I left early, I did feel that I would be able to master a lot of what was being covered during the day school.  This made me wonder: I wonder if the other day schools might be different.  Also, since I found the stuff so geekily interesting, I had another question, which was: could I find the time to officially study this module? 

At the moment, time, is a challenge.  I’m currently embroiled in writing up three different teaching and learning research projects.  Once I get these out of the way (and another couple of side projects I’m working on), I’m sorely tempted to give T216 a go.

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Christopher Douce

Psychology of Programming Interest Group : work in progress meeting: Day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 10 Jul 2023, 16:43

Teaching programming at a distance

The first presentation of the second day was by yours truly.  I gave a short talk about a university funded project that aims to understand more about the teaching experience of Open University associate lecturers who are tutoring on the TT284 Web Technologies  module.

One of the purposes of the project was to understand issues particular to the learning (and teaching) of programming.  An area of particular interest is the transition between the first level modules (which use some visual programming language) to the second level modules which require students to pay more attention to other issues, such as language syntax.

I wasn’t able to present any firm findings at this stage (since I keep getting sucked into the idiosyncrasies of my day job), except that three themes that were emerging were that some students can struggle with understanding what PHP is and how it works, confusion about Javascript, and the perpetual battle to understand regular expressions (which is, I believe, an issue that pretty all developers, expert or novice, seem to have)

The question and answer session was interesting.  There was some chat about a coding DoJos (group coding sessions), the use of MOOCs (FutureLearn and the Kahn Academy), and how get students talking to each other.

Holistic programming teaching at Middlesex

Franco Raimondi’s talk was rather different to all the others: he showed us some robots (real hardware!) that he used in his teaching.  They had an interesting design, using both Raspberry Pi devices that were connected to Arduino microcontrollers.

One question was: why use both?  The Arduinos are used to control analogue input, but the heart of the control is managed (as far as can understand it) by the Raspberry Pi devices.  Students then have the challenge of how to design and implement a communication protocol between the Pi and the sub-component.  I personally think this is a great approach: students are exposed to different devices and learn more about their purpose.  When I had a job in industry, one thing that I had to do is figure out how to get one embedded controller talking to another: Franco’s robots would have helped me a lot to figure out how to do this.  More information about the robots can be found by taking a look at the MIddlesex Robotic plaTfOrm: MIRTO website

Okay, so there is an interesting robot, but how are they used in practice?  Franco described a series of lectures, design workshops, programming workshops and physical computing workshops.  In the workshops (if my notes are correct!) students are asked to solve different problems, such as to write a line following algorithm where the robot has to cater for 90 degree turns, and to complete different line circuits as fast as possible.  Students could also implement control algorithms, such as PID controllers (Wikipedia) (which again takes me back to the days when I worked in industry for a while), remote control and managing the taking of cameras by controlling the Raspberry Pi.

What I found really interesting was that the platform (and the workshops) made use of a programming language called Racket (Wikipedia).  Racket is a language that I had not heard of before, but apparently it has roots in the Lisp language.  In some respects, I commend the choice (because it’s great to expose students to different programming paradigms), but on the other hand, there is something to be said for getting to grips with tools that are used in industry.  I guess this just goes to show that whenever you come along to workshop like these, you always learn new stuff.

Towards the end of Franco’s session, he spoke about a system to record Student Observable Behaviours, which then led onto a discussion about learning objectives.  Apparently, the use of ‘observable student behaviours’ is something that Middlesex use, perhaps as a part of their assessment strategy.  We were shown a web-based tool that lecturers can use to gather evidence of student engagement and activity.

I don’t know what this relates to, but I also made a note of a place called The Crystal  (Crystal website), which was also described as the Siemens technology centre.  As soon as I looked into it, I realise that I had once seen it before: on a cable car ride across the Thames.  I now know how to get to The Crystal if ever I need to visit it!

I enjoyed Franco’s session: he covered a lot of ‘tech stuff’ in a very short time.  Students at Middlesex are clearly challenged and are clearly kept busy! 

One thought is that different computing courses and degrees cover different topics and perspectives.  When I was heading home from the workshop I remembered that The Open University covered a bit about robots too on a first year undergraduate module that has the code: TM129 Technologies in Practice (OU website).  Students are also presented with the challenge of creating a line following robot.  Rather than using real robots, a simulated one is used (but, students can get to see real ones if you come along to an engineering day school).

Measuring programming achievement after a first course

The next presentation was by Ed Currie who presented what were described as ‘thoughts and preliminary research’.  One of the key thoughts (and one that I found most interesting) was why some students find programming so difficult.  One note that I have made is that we can’t teach it, students can only learn programming.  It’s not up to us; it’s up to them, and our job (as lecturers and teachers) it to facilitate the learning.

Ed mentioned the idea of Threshold concepts (Wikipedia) by Meyer and Land.  I’ve made a note of the point that ‘sequence is a threshold concept’ (when it comes to programming).  I remembered hearing the phrase before from a colleague who was doing what I think was some research to see what happened when students grappled with key ‘threshold concepts’.

Two great phrases that I’ve noted down are ‘neo-piagetian stages’ and ‘flip classroom’ (Wikipedia).  In some respects the OU has always been doing ‘flipped classrooms’, i.e. students study some material and the go to a face to face tutorial to apply what has learnt, either in terms of solving a problem, or through facilitated discussions.

I don’t know what the context was or where this came from, but I also made the note ‘sharing of learning stories’.  This might have just been an idle idea during Ed’s talk, or something that Ed had said.  When it comes to learning how to do computer programming, I’ve got my own story (which might well be insufferably dull!), and I’m sure that other people have their stories.  Perhaps something could be gained (in terms of learning strategies and approaches) if we find the space to discuss and share how we know what we know.

Reflections on teaching design patterns

The final presentation of the day and final presentation of the workshop was by Carl Evans, who is a lecturer at Middlesex.  Carl talked about his work on an MSc module and his experience of creating and presenting a module about software design patterns.

In computer science and software engineering, Design Patterns is one of my favourite topics.  A couple of points that Carl made really resonated with me.  One was that ‘industry needs architects, not just programmers’.  Another great point (and one that I totally subscribe to) is that there is an increasing expectation (from industry) that graduates can work with frameworks as well as know how to use programming languages. In some ways, this point connected up with Thomas’s keynote.

Carl mentioned Sun/Oracle certifications, the use of layered architectures, and frameworks called Spring (Wikipedia) and Hibernate (Wikipedia) that I have heard of, but have never used in anger.  A quick look into these frameworks quickly shows that design patterns feature pretty prominently.

A really questions are: how do we best teach patterns, and where do we start?  Is there a pattern about how to teach patterns?  I noted down that a refresher about the object-oriented approach is useful, before taking students through different categories of patterns, such as object creation patterns, enterprise patterns, data access patterns, and compound patterns (I was writing everything down pretty quickly at this point, so I might not have managed to the nuances of everything that was said).

Carl also told us about a site called Design Patterns Library which I don’t think I’ve seen before.  One book that was referenced was Head First Design Patterns by O’Reilly.  There seems to be a claim going around that says that these ‘head first’ books are based on ‘neuroscience’ (but I’ve yet to find out exactly what exactly this means: claims like that immediately make me sceptical!)  Either way, anything that helps to make important technical concepts understandable is a good thing.

Final thoughts

I don’t know how many Psychology of Programming Work In Progress events I’ve been to, but it’s been quite a few.  This might have been my fourth or fifth.   I have enjoyed every single one, and I enjoyed this one at Middlesex University too.  It was well organised, friendly and thought provoking.  The talks were really interesting, covering distance learning, errors, notation, robots, challenge of teaching object-oriented programming and a whole load of other subjects too.  The great thing about these events is that you never know what you’re going to get, which means that you never really know what you’re going to learn (and this can be, invariably, a very good thing too).

From my perspective, the event helped to strengthen an opinion I have, which is that we need to figure out how to help students (and practicing programmers) how to best understand and work with software frameworks.  This issue is not only a computing education issue, but also, significantly, a psychology of programming issue.  The first subject that I studied when I discovered this subfield of computing (or of psychology, depending on your ‘home’ discipline) was the topic of program (or software) comprehension.  It’s clear from this short workshop that this continues to be (for me) an important topic. 

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Christopher Douce

Psychology of Programming Interest Group : work in progress meeting: Day 1

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 10 Jul 2023, 16:42

On 8 January 2015 I went to a mini-workshop: the Psychology of Programming Interest Group (PPIG) Work in Progress meeting.  I’ve had an affiliation with PPIG for what must be at least fifteen years and I try to visit their meetings whenever I can.  In some sense, returning to the PPIG meetings is like returning to a comfortable academic home: you regain enthusiasm for the research interests that you once held (and have an opportunity to say hello some familiar faces too).

This 2015 WIP event (as it is colloquially known) was held at the University of Middlesex in Hendon Town Hall and skilfully organised by Richard Bornat, who is a PPIG community regular. This short series of two blog post aims to summarise what were my own highlights.

Keynote talk: Thomas Green

The opening keynote was by Thomas Green, who is one of the founders of the group.  Thomas told us what the group was about and emphasised the point that the group doesn’t just discuss research into programming, but also the activities that surround programming (and psychology too).  Subjects for investigation have involved pair programming and explorations into the sociological and anthropological.  Other research subjects have included computer science education and pedagogy, and studies into the relationship between personality and programming.

Thomas is known for creating (or discovering) the cognitive dimensions of notations framework (Wikipedia).  His framework can be used to help us think about programming language design and user interfaces.  Thomas described it as ‘ambitious in scope, [and a framework that] addresses any kind of information artefact’. Simply put, Cognitive Dimensions is a set of principles that helps us to think about stuff.

To explain, Thomas gave us a couple of examples. One of the dimensions is viscosity (which is my personal favourite!)  Viscosity is, of course, an attribute of liquids: the higher the viscosity, the harder it is to push you hand through a liquid (for example) – I think I’ve got that the right way round!   When it comes to the dimensions, this can be understood in terms of ‘changes’ to something (or, to move a system from one state to another).  To make one change (to an information artefact), you might have to do a whole bunch of smaller changes before you get to your desired outcome.

Another dimension is: hidden dependencies. An example of this is the links or connections that might exist between the different cells of spreadsheets. You can’t immediately see what the connections between different cells might be, but you need to understand them if you’re going to understand and work with a spreadsheet.

This is all very well and good, but how does this relate to programming that we find in the real world?  Thomas gave us a number of examples of computer code used with a content management system (CMS).  Why study content management systems?  Thomas had some good answers: they were widely used, often are pretty difficulty to get your head around (which is certainly true!), and they haven’t been studied very much.

If you’re interested in content management systems, this Wikipedia page presents an amazing list of different content management systems (Wikipedia).  On the same subject of geek lists, this is another favourite of mine: comparison of web application frameworks (Wikipedia).  You can spend hours looking though these different pages.  These two summary links clearly show how big the ‘CMS space’ is.  (As an aside, if you have too much time on your hands, there’s also a List of Cakes and a List of Lists)

An interesting point that Thomas made (which is one that resonates with my own experience), is that they all claim they are ‘easy to use’.  Two examples that were spoken about were Wordpress (Wikipedia) and Drupal (Wikipedia).  For the purposes of Thomas’s presentation, we looked at the Perch (CMS website), a CMS that I had never heard of before.  The point was clear: Thomas’s framework can be used applied to study CMS’s and web frameworks.

After being mildly baffled with screens filled with code that used lots of angle brackets, there was a brief question and answer session.  I think I made a comment that I chose a CMS based on the quality of the on-line tuition videos.  My decisions were not based on language efficiency, but how easily I could see how to create something that similar to what I wanted to do.  (I’ve often wondered about whether we could look to the murky world of media studies to learn about why some tools become more popular than others: there’s a whole other dimension of CMS systems that could be explored).  There was also brief discussion about design patterns, since many of them make use of the model-view controller pattern.

It was pretty thought provoking stuff.  When it comes to content management systems, I can’t help but think there’s an opportunity to use them as a vehicle to conduct research into the creation, development and sustainability of software communities.

Active error: examining error detection and recovery in software development

Tamara Lopez gave the first talk of the day, and within minutes of starting her talk, I had started to remember some research I looked at over fifteen years ago.  Tamara’s research was all about human error and programming.  As Tamara was speaking, I thought to myself, ‘I wonder whether she has heard of a researcher called James Reason.  The answer came within minutes: of course she had.

Reason wrote a book called Human Error and carried out research into active errors (mistakes that happen in ‘real time’) and latent errors (which remain undetected within a system or product for considerable time).  Have you ever bought a chocolate bar, unwrapped it from its wrapper and then thrown the chocolate bar away?  Have you ever walked into a room and immediately thought, ‘why am I here?’  I recently put my keys in my fridge for no apparent reason.  These, I guess, are examples of active errors.

The aim of Tamara’s research was to perform a naturalistic observation of error in programming, and gather reports of error occurrence.  Understanding the characteristics of error can, of course, allow us to understand more about it and why error arises.

Tamara used a great method.  She was studying pair programming data videos that had been published on the internet through a website called Pairwith.us (website).  The developers were working on a project to adapt some kind of testing tool.  Tamara analysed the errors in terms of incidents and themes.  Some keywords that I picked up from Tamara’s talk were temporal, material and social.  A good talk and interesting research.

Visual Analytics as End-User Programming

The second research talk was by Advait Sarkar who had travelled from the University of Cambridge.  Advait gave a demonstration of some software that he had put together.  The focus of his prototype appeared to relate to the area of data analytics, specifically, how the area of machine learning might be connected to a spreadsheet environment.

Following this session (and Advait’s demonstration) there was there quite a bit of discussion about different machine learning approaches such as decision trees and neural networks; subjects that I hadn’t really touched on or explored in any great depth since I was an undergraduate.  Advait’s presentation wasn’t really in my area of expertise but it’s good to be exposed to different areas.

SQ and EQ and programming, revisited

The next talk was by Melanie Coles from Bournemouth University.  I remember Melanie from other PPIG events, so it was great to see her again.  It was interesting to hear that her talk related to some earlier research that she presented at PPIG back in 2007 (if I’ve understood this correctly).

The title of her talk was: ‘SQ and EQ and programming’ So, what exactly does SQ and EQ mean?  I understand them as rough and broad measures of personality.  EQ is an abbreviation for Empathy Quotient. Simply put, EQ is a measure of someone’s drive to identify with other peoples’ feelings and emotions. SQ, on the other hand, means Systemising Quotient. It is the extent to which people have a drive to understand rules governing things.

I’ve made a very rough note that Melanie related both measures to work carried out by Simon Baron-Cohen, who works in the area of autism research.  I’ve made another note in my notepad that there are tensions between these traits, along with the sentence, ‘scientists score higher in AQ than non-scientists’.

Some studies seem to suggest a correlation between the role of programming and these traits.  Other studies, on the other hand, don’t show anything.  The message coming through is that you don’t have to be high on the AQ scale to become a programmer.

I don’t know that this means, but I’ve made another note that reads ‘polite grumpiness about sterotypes’ which might have been scribbled down during the question and answer session.  I have no idea who was expressing polite grumpiness, or which stereotypes were being discussed.  I do, however, feel that this expression should still stand and has some validity.  A sensible rule is that if you’re going to take issue with stereotypes, you’ll go a lot further if you politely disagree rather than go around shouting about them.  I should also add, that I have no idea how this paragraph relates to Melanie’s very good (and very clear) presentation.  All this said, some really interesting ideas and (some exceedingly polite) discussions.

A great end to the first day!

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Christopher Douce

Accessibility training away-day

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This is quick blog post about an event that I went to in November 2014.  I know that this feels like a long way away, but I haven’t forgotten about this event: it was one that was pretty memorable (but more of that later).

The event was an away day for the Faculty of Arts; it was a training day, and the afternoon (which was the bit that I went to) had a very particular focus: accessibility and disability issues; specifically, what certain members of the university could practically do to help students.  Although some of the fine details are now a bit sketchy (due to the relentless passage of time), I did make some notes, so here’s a quick summary of the sessions that I (sort of) gate crashed.

Barriers and reasonable adjustments

The first afternoon session was by Heather Kelly and Laila Burton.  It began with some numbers: about 12% of students in the Open University have declared a disability (for the faculty of arts, this number is slightly higher, at 15%).  In terms of raw numbers, I think we’re looking at around ten thousand students.  To put things into perspective, other universities can have that same number of students across every faculty.

Every university is legally required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to educational materials to ensure that they can be consumed by students who have disabilities. 

The presenters asked us an important question: who is responsible for making these reasonable adjustments?  There were a number of answers: the module team, associate lecturers, the securing greater access team, and others too!  An important principle (from what I remember from another presentation) is that those people who are in a position to make an adjustment should just go ahead and do it.  This is a principle that relates to tutors, those who line manage tutors, and those support the delivery of a module, and members of a module team.

All this said, what actually does ‘reasonable adjustment’ actually mean and when we do we have to make one?  There are a number of things that need to be taken into consideration: is the student at a substantial disadvantage because of their disability? Is it practical and effective to provide an adjustment?  Is the adjustment something that could be provided as a part of the disabled student’s allowance?  If not, can an adjustment be provided that is reasonable in terms of costs and/or resources?

To understand the concept of reasonable adjustment further we were asked to discuss a number of scenarios in small groups.  Our group looked at two scenarios: the case of students using the library website, and the question of whether a different assignment question could be offered if a student objected on religious grounds.  By discussing these scenarios I learnt that the library can offer a service to help students with literature searches.  When it came to the assessment issue, an adjustment was not considered to be reasonable if it meant that a fundamental learning objective would not be assessed.

Towards the end of the session we were told about different sources of advice and support.  The university has a number of accessibility specialists (some of whom work within each faculty).  There is also the disability resources team, and a group called the accessibility referrals panel (ARP).  The ARP is a university body that comprises of a number of experts who can offer some advice on accessibility issues.  For instance, if anyone isn’t sure about whether an adjustment is appropriate, it can be referred to the panel, which can then form a judgement about the best course of action.

A final point was about the importance of recording decisions.  This is important during module production or module presentation, or put another way (in non-OU speak), when a module is being designed or written, or when it is being delivered to students.  Recording your decisions has two purposes.  Firstly, the university has a trail of what has been done should reasonable adjustment decisions ever be challenged.  Secondly, it allows experiences and cases to be shared with others.

Disability advisory service

After a short break, we had an option of choosing from a number of parallel sessions.  I went to the session that was facilitated by Julie Young, manager of the disability advisory service.  Julie spoke about the support for disabled students and the role of the service. We were told that the service can offer specialist advice for dyslexia, mental health issues, visual and hearing impairments.

During the session I made a note of the term ‘assessment’.  Assessment, in this context, isn’t an assignment that a student has to complete or any kind of exam.  Instead, an assessment is (as far as I understand it) is a discussion that enables a professionally trained assessor to understand the impact of one or more impairments on study.  Assessments can lead to recommendations of assistive technologies, and also the creation of a useful record (or disability ‘marker’) which can then offer information for tutors, helping them to understand what reasonable adjustments might be necessary.

Visit to the access bus

After another break, it was time to brave the elements and head outside to ‘the access bus’.  Despite this event being more than a few months ago, I have one overriding memory of this part of the day: it was bitterly cold.  A large van was parked in the hotel car park.  The van had been converted to what is, essentially, a mobile office that was is packed with different types of technology.  This mobile office can be used to carry out assessments: it is where students (and potential students) have opportunity to play with and learn about different types of assistive technologies.

During our short time on the bus we were shown different types of keyboards, different types of assistive software (such as screen readers and screen magnifiers), and some speech recognition software.  I have played with screen magnifiers and screen reader software before, and some other software called Read and Write that can be useful to some students who have dyslexia.  I was, however, quite fascinated by the speech recognition software and I was impressed by its performance.  (This said, it was demonstrated by a skilled operator, and had been pre-configured so that it could recognise a particular voice).  I left the session thinking, ‘I wonder whether I could ever use voice recognition software’.  I’ve never tried to.  I have deliberately avoided it.  But perhaps I ought to pluck up the courage to give it a go.

A personal tale

The final session of the day was by a member of the university who also does a bit of stand-up comedy on the London open mic circuit.  The comic started by confessing that he had a hidden disability: a speech impediment, a stammer.  He told a short story about how he started on the open-mic circuit, and he told us a little about who inspired him: a friend who is now eighty, and a professional comic who gave a performance at the Disabled Student Services conference three or four years ago.  This then led to a ten minute stand-up comedy routine that was about the day to day challenges of dealing with that particular hidden disability.  There is a huge risk with doing things like this: it could either go terribly, or it could go well; telling jokes in the workplace could get the presenter getting into all kinds of trouble.

My confession is that I was the comic. 

Had anyone told me four years ago I would be at that event, giving a talk to the arts faculty about my weird hobby, talking about my struggles with talking, I would have said they were delusional. 

The story and my performance connected to a point that I wanted to make: when given sufficient support and motivation by others we can surprise ourselves by doing things that we never thought we would be able to.  By considering issues relating to disability, the design of modules and what reasonable adjustments we might be able to make, we all collectively learning what needed to be done to make things easier for all learners. 

In some ways, the event was about what we could do, both individually and collectively, to help others to achieve.  In other respects, the away day was also about connecting to others, and getting a little bit of motivation too.  I was glad to be a part of it.

Final thoughts

There were a couple of key points that I took away from the day: a reminder about the principles of reasonable adjustment and a reminder about who to ask when you need help about something.  It was also a reminder about how seriously the university treats these issues.  It was also interesting to look around the access bus.  I remember from this session that the faculty staff that went along to this event had loads of questions about different bits of technology, what they did, and how they worked.

Another useful part of the day was, in essence, a reminder.  A reminder that if you don’t know how to tackle a particular problem, then there colleagues within the institution who might be able to offer some useful help and advice.

 

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Christopher Douce

Mental health awareness day: London regional centre

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 28 Feb 2019, 12:08

Every year the London region equality and diversity group runs an event.  Over the last two years we’ve run an event about ‘place, location and travel’, and have held an event about creative aging.  This year, the group ran an event on 13 November 2014 about mental health and well-being.  The day was split into two parts.

Part 1 : Participative display

A couple of months before the event we erected two display boards in the university café area.  These boards were to form what we called a ‘participative display’.  Each board had a slightly different purpose.  One board was all about sharing stories, experiences and acknowledging the contributions that people who have mental health issues have made to society.  The second display board was all about ‘resilience’; things that we can all do to ensure that we maintain good mental health.  The rear of this first board was also used to share more factual information about mental health issues.  We put up papers and articles.  I remember there was one article from Science magazine about the prevalence of depression.

When the boards had been put up, the group sent an email around the office telling everyone what the boards were all about, and how everyone might contribute.  To get the whole display, a couple of group members ‘seeded’ the display by adding some broad headings, some thoughts and some initial ideas.

The email messages and the ‘seeding’ did the trick.  As the months passed, different contributions were made.  The contributions included information about writers, academics and performers.  Other contributions had a slightly more personal tone; these were stories of people who had been touched, in some way or another, by mental illness.  The board became a catalyst for sharing.

Part 2 : Mental health and wellbeing

On the day of the event, we had asked a university colleague, Emma Greenstein, to come and speak to us.  Emma works for the university disability advisory service as the university mental health adviser.  Her job is to work with staff to help to offer support for students who have mental health difficulties.  I’ve had to chat to Emma a number of times and she has helped me out on a number of occasions.

Emma intended that her talk was to be interactive.  A part of her talk was to bust some myths, introduce us to some facts and terminology.  Emma introduced us to a model called ‘the mental health continuum’.  This was a simple model that had two axes: one axis that goes from 'diagnosis of mental illness' through to 'no diagnosed mental illness' (I should also mention that the model is about rating the severity of a mental illness).  The other axis goes from 'flourishing mental well being' through to 'poor mental well-being'.  (I have read that this model comes from a paper from Tudor entitled, ‘Mental Health Promotion’).  Here's a diagram that is pretty similar to the one that Emma used on the day:

Mental health model diagram

The model enables us to think beyond diagnostic labels, which can easily over simplify things.  A really interesting point that was raised was that we can all experience mental health difficulties.  The term ‘difficulties’ can mean feeling worries or anxiety, through to the experience of feelings of grief or loss.

Another interesting point that was made (and also emphasised) was the differences between people.  Emma said: ‘If you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia, you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia’.  It was a phrase that I’ve heard before, but in relation with students who experience different conditions.  Its use in this context emphasised the importance and need to treat and consider everyone as individuals.

During the session we were shown a short video:  I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube).  The video comes from a book that one of my favourite friends had once shown to me.  It’s a book that one of my colleagues had also brought along to the session.

We returned to the mental health continuum where we were asked two questions: ‘where are you now?’ and ‘where have you used to be?’  It didn’t take me too long to identify two points in two different places.  There was an important point here: that we can move between different points on the continuum.

On the subject of change, we were introduced a series of three short films that were made as a part of the recent Time to change campaign (campaign website).  The first film has the title speaking up (YouTube).  There are two other clips: you can recover (YouTube), and stronger, better, person (YouTube).  These videos are pretty short and pretty watchable too.

If we can place ourselves on a continuum, then a related question is: what can we do to promote our own resilience?  We were directed to a site called Mind Apples (mindapples.org) which I understand was created by a web developer.  The idea is really simple: there’s a lot of talk about the importance of eating five fruit and vegetables per day.  (I do struggle to do this, mostly due to the overabundance of cake that there seems to be at the OU office in London, but I’m not complaining!)  If we consider doing five good things for the body, why shouldn’t we consider doing five good things for our mind?  The idea is: what five things make you happy? Or what five things should you be doing that could make a positive difference to your mental well-being?  The website phrases it in a better way by asking: ‘what do you do regularly to take care of your mind?

A point I noted was that our actions and choices are important.

Final thoughts

At the end of Emma’s session, something really interesting happened: colleagues who had made contributions to our participative display were asked whether they wanted to say something about what they had added.  This gave way to a series of amazing impromptu talks about a range of different issues, worries, concerns and experiences.  Everyone took the time to listen. In that space and situation, what was said was both important and interesting. In an atmosphere of respect and mutual support, we began to talk about mental health, mental well-being and resilience.  Suddenly, these subjects didn’t seem so hard.

After the talks, we all broke off for some lunch. The equality and diversity group had made a special trip to the supermarket to buy some bread, cheese, salad, some juices and other goodies to accompany awesome home-cooked food that some of our colleagues had prepared. There seemed to be a consensus amongst those of us who helped to run the event: this had been the best, most challenging, and most useful event that we had run. Our participative display worked.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Emma Greenstein who commented on an earlier version of this post, and all my colleagues who worked on the event and made amazing contributions.

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Christopher Douce

AL Development Conference: University of Sussex

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 12 Apr 2021, 18:33

On 8 November 2014 I attended the South East region (region 13) associate lecturer development conference held at the University of Sussex.  I felt that this was a really important event to attend, since it was to be the ‘final’ conference that was organised from the regional centre in East Grinstead.  All future conference would be run from the London region that has been re-christened as ‘London and the South East’.

One of the main reasons I wanted to go was to meet some of my colleagues who were leaving the university.  In some ways, it was a really sad day, but in another way, it presented an opportunity for the AL community to offer loud and vociferous thanks for all the great work colleagues from the region had carried out over very many years.

MCT session

The first session of the day was spent in our faculty groups.  The MCT session addressed three topics.  Other than details about the impending closure, the first topic was about changes to AL line management.  The second was about the development of a Group Tuition Policy.  The third and final section was a talk from an AL colleague about a research project about the use of language.

Changes in line management

A really important item was that the line management for some associate lecturers is changing.  What this means is that a line manager for a tutor might be located in a different part of the country.  The reason for this change (which is taking place in the Engineering and Innovation and the Computing and Communications department) is that a line manager will become increasingly specialised in terms of the subjects and topics that they look after.  I view this as a really positive thing: it has the potential to allow line managers (staff tutors) to respond to both student and tutor queries more quickly and efficiently, and enable them to develop more expertise in a smaller number of courses.

Group tuition policy

The university has been working on something called a ‘group tuition policy’.  From my reading of the policy, it seems to have two main objectives.  The first is to offer students flexibility and choice, i.e. they can choose to attend either on-line or face to face tutorials.  The second is that by grouping different sets of students together, it is hoped that tutors end up with more busy tutorials, and this can have a positive effect for everyone: more students means more opinions, which then can mean more learning.  One of the ideas is that students are given information about learning events before a module begins.  To make the policy a reality the university has to make some changes to its tutorial finder system.

During the session we looked at the policy and had a discussion about what we thought about it and how it might potentially impact on our tutoring.

Language use and retention in TU100

The final part of the morning session was presented by Associate Lecturer Heath Morris who tutors on TU100 My Digital Life (OU website).  Heather has been working on a university funded project that has been looking at the use of language in correspondence tuition, in particular, the summary comments that are provided by tutors.  TU100 is a particularly important module since it places quite a bit of emphasis on the development of skills, such as numeracy and academic writing.  OU students can come from very different background, which makes this aspect of teaching and learning all the more important.  The main question is: how do tutors use language and in what way might this language affect students?

Heather mentioned something called an ‘appraisal framework’, which I think is a framework used to assess the types of language used in assignment feedback.  I’ve made a note that it comprises of three different aspects: affect (which conveys emotion), judgement (which is an evaluation of behaviour or work performed) and appreciation (evaluation).  Other key words that I’ve noted from Heather’s presentation include student tenacity (which relate to the evaluation of effort?), and student capacity (which relates to the evaluation of capability). 

A set of questions for the research project are: does the use of language affect performance and retention?  Do those who score low leave?  To what extent would more positive feedback be useful?  Would it helped if we had just decided to give students a ring on the phone to have a chat with them?  What tools or checklists might be useful?

My own view on the language question is that surely good language and detailed explanations can have a positive effect on student retention, but there’s a big difference between having a gut feeling about something and actually showing something empirically.

I thought Heather’s presentation was great.  I would really like her to run a similar session in the London region.  Another thought was: perhaps we could run an AL development event that is specific to TU100 that covers the use of language and also lets us discuss the group tuition policy.  The underlined a simple outcome from attending these AL development conferences: they expose us to new things and help us to come up with new ideas that will help both tutors and students like.

Workshop: Scientix: the community for science education in Europe

The first workshop I went to was ran by Richard Walden.  Richard’s session was split into two parts.  The first was about an EU funded project called Scientix (project website) that he was involved with.  The project is described as an initiative to create a ‘community for science education in Europe, promotes and supports Europe-wide collaboration among STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) teachers, education researchers, policymakers and other STEM education professionals.’  Scientix offers training resources, access to research, information about applications and opportunities for networking.  There’s also a link to something called the European School Net (EUN website) which I had vaguely heard of before.  If you’re interested in STEM teaching, both sites might be worth having a quick look at.

The second part of Richard’s session was all about how to improve student’s scores in tests without doing a lot of extra work.  To prepare us for this section, he split us into two groups: one group was asked to write about what we did on holiday, and the second group was asked to write about the anxieties that we might feel if we had to go ahead and complete a time limited quiz.  We were then all given a quiz to complete.

The idea was simple, and draws on research by a researcher called Gerardo Ramirez (UCLA website) : by writing about our exam anxieties, we explicitly articulate them, and this can help them to be reduced.  High levels of exam anxiety, can, of course, drastically affect exam performance.  There is an equally simple theory:  if we’re anxious, we occupy our short term memory with our anxieties. Since our short term memory is strictly limited, this will impact on our ability to understand and work through exam questions.  Short term memory, we were also told, is really important when it comes to retrieving essential information from long term memory.  (Having studied aspects of cognitive psychology many moons ago, I found all this especially interesting).

If you’re interested in this subject, I’ve also dug out the following YouTube lecture (YouTube) by Sian Beilock (who Ramirez’s co-author) who talks about some of the science behind this research.  (It’s quite a long video; there may well be some shorter videos out there).

Richard’s reason for sharing this research was simple: perhaps it’s worthwhile telling our students about this research, and the potential benefits that writing about fears and anxieties may provide.  I think it’s a great idea.

Modelling reflexivity in the teaching-learning relationship through distance learning tools

This final workshop of the day, facilitated by fellow tutor, Emily Skye, was rather different to all of the others.  I was attracted to it due to the word ‘reflexivity’ in the title; it was a term that I first came across when I was studying some social science modules, but my memory of it and how it could be used was a bit rusty: I was looking for a refresher.  Straight away, I discovered that the workshop had a very different structure: it was more of an open facilitated discussion rather than a formal ‘talk’.  All participants sat in a rough circle and shared something about ourselves, why we found this particular session of interest, and also something about our understanding of the term reflexivity.

I soon learnt that it might well be one of those terms that has different definitions based on the context it is used.  In essence, I understand that it is about understanding and thinking about yourself and how it relates to a particular context; it is about being self-aware.  It also relates to your own identity.  You can, for example, very easily hide behind a label that is attributed to a role or profession.

Being self-aware, and thinking about our effect on others (and how we are thinking about others) has the potential to help to inform our teaching and learning.  Through selectively sharing, we have the potential to build up trust, which can help us to encourage learners to look at new subjects, issues and areas.  Also, being reflexive also allows us to acknowledge the difficulties of learning, to be empathetic towards the challenges students face and connect with the emotional perspective of learning.

One of the big challenges in the distance education context is the extent to which we are able to relate and understand our students, especially when our interactions may be limited to only key points during a module presentation.  I introduced a term from computer (or, perhaps human-computer interaction) which was: emotional bandwidth.  When we interact with each other through on-line tools such as discussion forums we can easily misunderstand situations and expressions of emotion.

I found this session especially interesting because it was so different to the other sessions I had been to before.  Although I was initially rather worried by the layout of all the chairs, I quickly became relaxed.  It was also great to learn a little bit more about some of my associate lecturer colleagues.

Final thoughts

Like many AL development conferences that have been run by Region 13, this one went very smoothly.  Delegate packs were organised, there were clear signs on rooms, and it was exceptionally well attended.  One part of the day stood out for me, and this was when the Associate Lecturers gave the staff at East Grinstead a standing ovation to both thank them for all their hard work, and to recognise the work that they have given to the university.  There were tears.  I’m glad I was able to be there.

Not only did I learn new things, I took with me some idea that I then transferred to the London AL development conference that was running the following week.  This just went to emphasise my view that regional difference and diversity was (and is) a good thing.

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Christopher Douce

Different ways to use OU Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On-line tutorials

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

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

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

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

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

Demo tutorials

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

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

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

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

On-line debate

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

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

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

Recording a lecture

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

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

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

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

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

Focused Demo

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

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

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

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

Drop in session for students

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

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

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

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

Additional support session

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

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

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

Session between students

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

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

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

Final thoughts…

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

Recordings

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

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

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

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

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

Module teams

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

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

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

Using OU Live for research

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

Group Tuition Policy

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

Concluding points

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

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

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Christopher Douce

Using the Kindle for research and studying

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Nov 2014, 15:03

I have to confess, that when it comes to some technologies, I am a bit of a laggard.  It was only very recently that decided to get to grips with understanding the mysterious world of eReaders.  I have two excuses: the first is that there’s just so much ‘tech’ to keep on top of, which means that it’s difficult to know what to do next (which is actually a pretty lame excuse), and secondly, I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the screen quality of eReaders.

About a month ago, I requested a new book from the University library to do some preparatory reading for a new course I’m involved with.  The library turned around my request pretty quickly, but they also sent me an email that suggested that I’ve got some figuring out to do.  It was: ‘we only supply that text book in eBook format’.  No dead tree variety?  No, apparently they don’t do that anymore.

Back at home, I searched around for a box that contained a discarded Christmas present that one of my relatives had received and had then given to me after a couple of months; it was an Amazon Kindle.  After figuring out how to give it some power, the first thing I did was connect it up to my Amazon account.  I was gradually finding my way into being a ‘contemporary reader’.

This blog might be useful for anyone who has to use these eReader devices for their studies.  It might also be useful for any of my colleagues who have to battle with the mixture of convenience and frustration that accompanies the use of eReaders. 

I say ‘eReaders’, what I actually mean is ‘Kindle’, for now.  And when I say ‘Kindle’, is actually the really old ones with keyboards and black and white screen, and not any those new-fangled colour models.

The first section is all about figuring out how to read a text book.  The second section is all about how to download Open University on-line materials to your device (so you can read it on the go).  Some of the OU courses are presented entirely on line.  Two examples of this are: TT284 Web technologies, and H810 Accessible on-line learning: supporting disabled students. I describe how you might (potentially) go about downloading an on-line course to your device, so you can get ahead with your studies.

The third part is a bit of useful fun.  I asked myself the question, ‘I wonder what books I can get hold of for free?’  The answer is, ‘actually, quite a few’.  In the final section I share a few tips about how to download books that are out of copyright.  I, for one, haven’t been a great reader of the classics (I’ve been too busy messing around with computers; another lame excuse), but there are loads that are clearly available.

Working with text books

Apparently, the OU has a website called Mobile Connections, which offers some guidance about the use of mobile devices (OU website) and pointers to mobile strategy documents.  This is all very well, but how do I get a text book onto my device.

After clicking around the university library and attempting to access the text book that I wanted to ‘take out’, I was presented with the following message: "Patrons using iPads, iPhones or Android devices can download and read EBL content via the free Bluefire reader app. "  Now, I don’t have an iPad or an iPhone, and I’ve explicitly made a decision not to read any textbooks on my Android phone simply because my eyes are not up to it.  I haven’t heard about the Bluefire app, but the Bluefire website may or not be useful.

Another part of the library message was that "Downloaded EBL ebooks can also be transferred to any portable ebook reader that supports Adobe Digital Editions (ADE). There's a list of these compatible devices on the ADE website"

I had never heard of Adobe Digital Editions before but I’ve managed to find an Adobe website that offers a bit of information.  I had a good look on the ‘compatible devices’ list and my Kindle device wasn’t listed, which was pretty frustrating (to put it mildly).

All this frustration highlighted a division between two different formats: one called ePub and another called mobi.  Apparently ePub is an open standard, whereas mobi is owned by Amazon.  I soon saw that you couldn’t put ePubs on my Kindle, which was a bit rubbish.

 I asked myself two inevitable questions: ‘is it possible to convert an ePub to a mobi, and if you can, how do you do it?’  Thankfully, the internet is a wonderful thing, and I soon found a product called Calibre (website).  Calibre is described as a ‘free and open source e-book library management application developed by users of e-books for users of e-books’.  It’s a tool that you can download onto your PC, put an ePub in one side, and get a Kindle mobi book out of the other (with a bit of clicking and messing around in between).

 One thing that Calibre can’t do is take account of DRM.  DRM, or digital rights management, is used to protect media from being copied between different devices (which is why you need software like the Amazon Digital Editions).  If your ePub is protected by DRM (or, someone has said that you can’t copy it), then you can’t convert from one format to another.

For sake of argument, let’s say you’ve got a freely available text book that is useful with your module.  How do you go about transferring it to your Kindle?  In my naivety, I thought I could use the ‘old school’ technique of plugging it into the USB port of my computer and dragging files around.  Unfortunately, due to local OU system policies, staff cannot to write data to external USB devices due to an information security management policy.   As soon as I connected up my Kindle, I was presented with a message that read, ‘do you want to encrypt your device?’  If you’re ever asked that question in response to any e-reader you have, say ‘no’ straight away.  Thankfully, I did have the foresight to say no, as otherwise my Kindle would have probably been rendered useless.

Since I was unable to transfer my mobi files directly from my PC to my Kindle, how should I do it?  The answer came from a colleague: you email the books or any files that you want to read through your device to your Kindle account.  When you’ve done this, and you turn on your Kindle, magic happens, your document is downloaded.  If you’re interested, Amazon have some helpful pages (Amazon website).

Working with OU resources

More and more OU resources are being made available in Kindle and ePub formats.  This, I believe, can only be described as a ‘very good thing’ since some of the OU books can be pretty bulky.  When you’re working with an eReader, you can sometimes put all your module materials on your device.  When I go to tutorials, I tend to bring all the OU books with me – but rather than carrying them, I have them all preloaded on a Kindle.  This said, I am a great fan of paper; you can do things on paper that you can’t do with electronic devices and visa-versa, i.e. you can search for a term in an eBook, and you can scribble in your books with different coloured pens (and stick things between pages).

Not long after starting to mess around with my Kindle I realised I could do exactly the same with the other module materials I need to work with from time to time. I quickly realised that there would be a problem: things would start to get pretty confusing if I had all the different eBooks in one place on my Kindle.  Thankfully, there is a concept of a category.

After emailing a load of different mobi books to my Kindle, I noticed that my ‘TT284 category’ (I thought it was a good idea to group resources based on module code) became quickly overloaded, and I noticed that the default display order was the order in which the books were downloaded in.  Although this was useful, I got myself into a bit of a muddle with the download sequence.  I soon realised that it’s possible to change the ordering according to the title which made for a really nice sequence of module materials.

I’ve now got categories for all of the different modules I have downloaded resources for: H810, TT284 and M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  For M364, I have a mobi version of the assignment booklet, and PDF copies of the four blocks.  I don’t, however, have a copy of the set text. 

The M364 set text is huge, and it’s a real pain to carry around, and students have regularly asked whether there are electronic versions that they could download.  Unfortunately, publishers are only just beginning to catch up with the new ways in which institutions and students consume their materials.  For now, we’ve got to battle on with a mixture of paper text books and OU materials which can be provided in a digital format.

Free books!

After months of it being in a box on my shelf, I’ve finally figured out how to use my Kindle.  Now that it’s jam packed with learning resources and I’m getting used to its screen (which isn’t too bad), I started to think about how I might use it to read stuff ‘for fun’, i.e. using it to read novels and non-fiction.

I quickly remembered Project Gutenberg which was a project dedicated to digitising books that were out of copyright.  I took another quick look at this and discovered that they now had books in eBook format, which was great news.  A quick look around took me to an interesting page called the Best Books Ever Listings (Project Gutenberg) I also discovered all these different ‘bookshelves’ organised by topic.  I really recommend that you have a good look around.

Another really good source of free (or really cheap) books is Amazon.  Within minutes of looking around I found a number of classics that I had never read before.  I clicked on a ‘buy’ button, and these new books were delivered to my device.  (Plus, since an eBook doesn’t have a cover, you can download some particularly racy books and read them when you’re on the train and no one would be any the wiser…!)

And finally…

As I said earlier, it sometimes takes me a while to get on top of a technology; I used to be someone who always wanted to mess around with the latest technologies and gadgets.

I don’t really know why it’s taken me so long to get to grips with eReaders.  I’m someone who likes the feel and smell, and flexibility of physical books.  This said, I’ve come to see that eReaders can give learners a flexibility that they never had before; an ability to carry everything around easily, and the ability to search for terms and phrases.  When a lot of material has moved ‘on-line’, eReaders can help us to access content in a convenient way without being always tied to a computer.  I think this is a really good thing.

I’m someone who loves to make notes.  One thing that you can’t do (very easily) is make scribbly notes on eBook pages, but that is okay: I’ll just have to figure out some new study strategies.

The more that you look at something, the more you think about different possibilities.  Looking at the Kindle has caused me to ask myself a further question, which is: how might you create an eBook from scratch?

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Christopher Douce

Chris’s Exam tips – Part 2 : During the exam

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 8 May 2022, 14:41

This is the second in a series of two blog posts about revising and taking exams.  The last post was about exam revision tips.  This post is slightly different: it’s about how to tackle the exam on exam day.  Some of these might sound to be mind-bogglingly obvious, but sometimes it’s good to say stuff that is obvious.

1. Read the exam paper

This first tip is certainly one of those ‘school of the blindingly obvious’ tips, but it’s also one that is blindingly important, especially if you’re going to use some kind of strategy to work through the exam paper. 

A really important bit of any exam paper is the examination rubric; the instructions at the front of the exam that tells you which questions to answer.  Ideally, you should be in a situation where you know exactly what it is going to be (since you’ve already had a good look at a number of past exam papers).  The rubric shouldn’t change (it would be very surprising if it did), but it’s always a good idea to read it carefully to make sure you know what it is asking of you.

Reading the rules is really important: what you don’t want to do is to spend too much time answering questions that you don’t need to answer.

If you’re someone, like me, who hates exams, one thing to do is to spend a couple of minutes looking over some of the questions.  This way, you get a feel for what you have to do.  Also, when you see questions you can clearly answer, this will start to put you at ease (and you will know how to answer some questions, since you’ve been revising hard).

2. Pick an easy question to start with if you are stuck

Exams can be pretty stressful.  When we’re under stress, we can experience that feeling when our minds go blank, where we think that we can’t remember anything.  The reality is that we can remember everything that we’ve revised - we’ve just got to find a way to access it.

A really good way to ‘get going’ on an exam is to start with an easy question; a question that you know that you can answer.  As soon as you’ve started to write an answer, you usually start to remember things.

3. Think about and apply your strategy

Time is really important.  Three hours can pass in a flash.  One approach to exams is to try to gather up as many ‘easy marks’ as you can as possible.  This strategy can help you to free up more time to focus on the tougher questions that could take a whole lot longer. 

One good question to ask yourself is which questions you’re going to tackle in what order.  There is no reason why you can’t tackle questions in a different order to the sequence that they are presented in (unless there is a very good reason, of course!)

When I was an undergrad, someone told me that you could ‘break the exam rubric’, which means that there are these instance where you might want to answer more questions that are asked of you.  If there is an exam paper that says ‘answer two out of the five questions that are given’, there’s no reason why you can’t go ahead and answer three, for example. You might choose to ‘hedge your bets’ by perhaps choosing two of your strongest questions, followed by another question that you think you might do well at (providing you have the time, of course!)

If you ‘break the rubric’ what usually happens is that the examiner has to mark everything, and you get the marks for the questions that you do best at.  Don’t worry about making the examiner work.  Make them sweat.  It’s your exam, so you should feel free to answer as many questions as you can answer.  

4. Try to get into the mind of those who wrote the exam

Ask yourself the question: what is it that they’re trying to get at?  The module team will invariably looking for evidence that you understand a particular concept or idea, so try to communicate your knowledge and understandings as clearly as you can.  Write full sentences, use keywords, or leave bullet points.  If it helps, draw a diagram of make a table.  Underline some of the key concepts, for example.

If you’ve revised well, you should be able to see echoes of the module learning objectives within each exam paper.  Working through past exam papers helps you get into the dark and devious psyche of those who wrote the exam paper.  Look at the questions carefully: are they trying to assess your knowledge of a concept, or are they encouraging you to apply your knowledge in some way to solve a particular problem?

5. Write anything

This bit of advice sounds a bit crazy. If you find yourself in a situation where you are not sure how to answer a question, write down anything. What I mean is write down concepts, ideas, or keywords that you think might relate to the question that is being asked. The process of writing down ‘anything’ may trigger other thoughts and memories that may help you to connect with the question that you’re answering.  Plus, if you write down ‘anything that might be connected to the question’, there’s a chance that you might get some marks.  Writing ‘anything’ says to an examiner that you know ‘something’.

The reason why I think this bit of advice is important comes from my experience of being an examiner.  The role of an examiner is always to give you marks, not to take away marks from you.  There are these instances where I’ve seen exam papers that had big sections that were empty.  I always find it sad when I see blank spaces in an exam paper: a blank space or an empty question is a missed opportunity.

Even if you’re not sure what the question means, or what the exam team is looking for, put something down. If you put something down, there’s a chance you might get some marks. If you don’t put anything down, you certainly won’t get any marks. It’s always worth the risk.

6. Use all the time that you have available

The time that you have in the exam hall is your time, so do feel free to use all of it.  Call me weird, but I’ve always sat out an exam to the end.  In the time that you have, don’t miss sections out, take time to check through what you’ve written and ask the question ‘is there anything that I could add to this question to convince the examiner that I know my stuff?’  Sometimes you can discover that there is another way of answering a question, or it’s possible to add a further perspective.  Like I mentioned earlier: make the examiner work!

If you need another couple of answer booklets to present your knowledge and understanding, that’s fine: these should be available.  Put up your hand and ask the invigilator for some more paper.

7. Never cross out big sections

Sometimes you need to make some notes, do some rough working out for a maths or engineering problem, or write a short essay plan.  If need to make some ‘notes’ about anything, never cross them out.  Instead, leave a comment to tell the examiner how your notes are connected to a particular question.

If you put a line through a section of writing on your exam script, this tells the examiner that you don’t want a particular section to be considered as a part of your answer.  Let the examiner decide what is important and what is not: give them the opportunity to give you marks.

8. Go celebrate!

Do you remember that I mentioned ‘goal setting’ in the last blog?  Set a goal to do something after you’ve completed an exam.  Exams are stressful and take up a lot of time and energy.  When you’ve finished, go and do that something special that you promised yourself: you deserve it!

And finally…

These tips work for me.  Different people, of course, will have very different tips.  Why not ask other students what they do?  Also, there are some really good resources out there that you might find useful. 

One resource that I really recommend is The Good Study Guide by Andrew Northedge.  If you have access to this book, check out chapter 12, ‘preparing for examinations’.

Another set of really good resources is the Revising and Examination section of the Skills for Study website.  Do take a bit of time to go through these resources.  It contains some really good ideas.

Once again, good luck in your exams!

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Christopher Douce

Chris’s Exam tips – Part 1: Revision

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 8 May 2022, 14:44

I hate exams, and I’m sure there are many people out there who have exactly the same view, but I’ve come to see them as a necessary evil.  The more exams I’ve taken in my life, the less I’m fazed by them.

This series of two blog posts represents a summary of all the bits of revision advice and exam related tips that I have used and discovered during my career as a student, both within the Open University and at other institutions. This first post is all about revising.  The second post offers some tips for when you take your exam.

If you’ve got an exam in the not so distant future, I hope these two blog posts are useful!  Also, feel free to print out, share, or do whatever you want with these tips.  If you find them useful, that’s great!  Do feel free to send me a message; it’ll be great to hear from you.

1. Get organised

The moment you know the date of an exam, put it in your diary so you know when it is.  The very act of recording it will help you to remember it.  This date is usually immutable; it cannot be moved.  Locate all your study material, and find a good place to study.  Also, have a think about the times and places when you can study.

2. Make notes of module materials

When you’ve sorted everything out, you might be a bit surprised with how much course materials there is.  Make notes of the key sections in a module.  The process of making notes will make things go into your head.  A really good technique is to paraphrase (or rephrase) concepts; putting things in your own words is an invaluable skill, and it’s exactly this kind of skill that you will need to use in an exam.

If you have a set of notes for a block, or section of a module, try to makes notes of your notes.  Try to make notes so you can represent the entire module on a single A4 sheet of paper.  When you’ve done this, all the other details will be in your head (so you won’t need any more materials).

If you’re doing that commute, considering writing some of the key ideas on cards.  Create notes in whatever form works for you.

3. Little and often

I remember being told this tip when I was preparing from my GCSE exams: don’t try to cram, instead, try to revise in ‘chunks’.  This is great advice.  Cramming, or trying to desperately to learn everything the night before can just leave you worried and tired.  If you’re tired from reading course materials at 3am in the morning, the likelihood is that you’re not going to give your best exam performance.

Instead, try to revise when you can.  Figure out what ‘dead time’ you have in your day, and try to use the time that you find. 

When I was revising, I always set myself an overly ambitious goal of, say, revising for an hour.  If I’m being honest, I never really managed to do an entire hour: my mind would start to drift away from the subject I was studying; I would start to look out the window, think about my shopping and wonder whether I ought to do my hoovering.   It’s at that point you need to get away from the books because your brain is telling you something: you need a break.  A good break, where you do something different, will help you to remember more stuff.

4. Find the best time (and place) that works for you

Some people are early birds, other people are night owls.  Which are you?

Knowing what time of the day works best for you can really help you to get on top of everything.  If you find that you work best in the morning, one thought is to make sure that you’re ready to ‘hit the books’ in the morning when you wake up.

Finding a good revision space is really important; find somewhere that is quiet and free from distractions.  Let your friends and family know what you’re doing so they know not to disturb you (except for the times when they pop in to deliver a supportive cup of tea or coffee).

5. Think about creating a revision timetable (or habit)

This really is one of those ‘take it or leave it’ tips.  My own view is that life is too short to make a timetable, but what is important is the creation of a revision habit.  I used to try to revise at exactly the same time every day, between 10 and 11 in the morning.  I didn’t do this because I was obsessive or weird (although some people might argue otherwise!), it was because I knew that that this was the time when I was more likely to remember and understand things.

The thing with creating a timetable or creating a habit is that when you have either of these, not doing what you said that you would be doing has the potential to make you feel guilty (and guilt, of course, can be a motivator to prevent you from doing the same bad things again).  Another idea is to tell other people that you’re doing revision at a particular time, so they can then ask you the inevitable question of, ‘shouldn’t you be doing the revision that you told me about?’ when your housemate or partner catches you watching some game show on the television.

6. Find as many exam papers as you can stomach

Can you get access to past exam papers?  If so, try to get hold of a good number of them.  Don’t go too mad and download loads.  If you get hold of too many, there’s a good chance you might lose the will to live and start to judge your own sanity. Instead, go back between 3 to 5 years, depending on the module.  If you go back any further there’s a possibility that your module or course might have changed, and you wouldn’t want to waste your time looking at exam papers that are not going to be useful.

When you’ve got a past exam paper, give it a read through; get a feel for its structure and how it’s laid out.  The last thing you want is for the exam paper to surprise you on the day of your exam – this could happen if you don’t take the time to prepare.

When you’re looking at the papers, ask the question, ‘what learning do you think the examiners are trying to look for?’  If your module has published any learning outcomes, try to relate or connect these to the outcomes.

Work through a number of past exam papers from beginning to end, but hold one back (you could use one exam paper as a ‘timed exam’, which you could time yourself).  When you’re working through the exam paper, refer to the module or course materials – try to write the best answer you can.  If there’s something that you don’t quite understand, try to take this opportunity to learn what it is the exam questions are asking about.

If you get stuck, ask your tutor for help and guidance.  They don’t mind answering questions.  In fact, they’re paid to answer your questions, so feel free to use them as a resource.

7. Figure out your personal exam strategy

Now that you’ve got a whole bunch of exam papers, ask yourself what bits of the exam are you most comfortable with.  What does the rubric at the front of the paper say?  (The text at the start of a paper that tells you what questions you should answer).  Do you have to answer every question, or do you have a choice?  If you have a choice about what to answer, this might suggest what aspects of revision to concentrate on.

If there’s a part of an exam paper that you find either confusing or boring, think about whether there are other parts that might be a bit more interesting.  Think about what questions motivate you.  The more motivated you are, the better your revision will go.

Time in the exam hall is limited.  This means that you might also want to think about which questions you might be able to answer more quickly than others.  If you think about your ‘exam answering strategy’ before you see the real exam paper, you’ll feel a whole lot more comfortable on the day.

8. Seek out examination preparation tutorials or events

I’ve got a confession to make: it takes me ages to read things, and when I do, I don’t always take in what is written down.  I find that I can learn a whole lot better if I listen to either audio recordings or, better still, go to lectures.

If your module has got any examination preparation or revision tutorial events scheduled, then do what you can to go to them.  They are invaluable.  Also, the fact that you choose to sit down in a room with a bunch of other people for a few hours means that you can’t easily escape: you have no choice but to concentrate on what is happening within the tutorial or day school.

Another benefit of going to revision preparation sessions is that you can often be motivated by other students who are in a similar situation as you. 

Use your tutor; ask him or her as many questions as you need to.  Tutorial revision sessions can be invaluable.  Even if you have to travel quite a long way to get to one of them, do your best to get to one.

9. Invent your own exam questions

Each module is divided into a number of different blocks.   Each block usually contains a set of learning objectives.  These objectives are really useful since they are connected to both the assignments that you complete, and your end of module exam.

If you’ve worked through all your past exam papers and you’re starting to become thoroughly bored, why not look at the learning objectives and try to invent your own exam questions?  This is a really great thing to do; you stretch not just your creativity but also your knowledge of the concepts that are presented within your module.

10. Set a personal goal

When you’re revising, set a goal.  When you’ve achieve a goal, reward yourself with a treat.  The treat could be just about anything, but make sure that it is personal to you and your life.  Your treat might range from a walk to your local park, or perhaps as something as simple as a cup of tea and a biscuit after you’ve waded through a whole chapter on Java programming, for instance.

The bigger the piece of revision, the bigger the treat could be.  If you’ve finished going through an entire block from beginning to end, then choose something that makes you feel happy.  Revision is work, and it’s hard work, right?  If you have something to look forward to, it might become slightly easier.

11. Make time for yourself

I think this tip is really important: be good to yourself.  Taking exams is a tough business, and you’re the only one who is going to get through them; it’s really important to take care of yourself.   Don’t forget to have fun.  You’re not going to be able to revise to the best of your abilities if you’re always stressed or worried.

I remember this time when I was a second year undergraduate student.  The second year results are, of course, really important when it comes to your overall degree classification.  I had been revising hard, and if I’m honest, I was pretty sick of it.  There was some parts of my studying that wasn’t going very well, and I was getting a bit frustrated and taking it out on other people who were around me.

In the middle of the revision period, I decided to go out to the student union to have a bit of fun.  It wasn’t as busy as it usually was (because everyone was revising), but it turned out to be a brilliant night.  The next day, I felt a whole lot more relaxed: I needed a bit of time out.

I guess what I’m trying to say is remember to find time to relax; try to forget about all your revision for a bit.  Do whatever it is that you need to do so that you can relax.  We all do different things, so find that thing that works for you.  It helps you gain a bit of perspective.

12. Prepare for the day

Taking a bit of time to look into the practical issues that surround your exam is going to take a lot of stress away when it comes to the day.  A big question to ask really early on is: where is your exam going to be taking place?  Follow up questions are: how can I get there, and how long is it going to take me.  Since I hate being late for things, I usually plan to get a train or a bus that is a before the one that I should catch if I wanted to arrive on time.  Usually, it means that I get to places ridiculously early!

There are a couple of advantages about being ridiculously early: you, of course, add a bit of contingency into your journey if things go wrong (if the train is delayed), plus, it gives you time to check out the exam centre and become familiar with the place.  Being early (but not too early!) can give you some precious relaxation time.

If you’re someone who needs to do some last minute reading before the exam, it’s okay to do this, but do constrain yourself to your notes, rather than huge text books (which are just going to stress you out).

Also, make sure that you’ve got everything you need: make sure that you’ve got all the pens, pencils and erasers that you might need.  A really good tip that I was told once was: ‘always take a spare pen with you; the last thing that you want is to start panicking if your pen stops working when you’re in the exam hall’.  Make sure that you have a bottle of water and maybe even something to each.  One of my guilty secrets is that I’ve taken a chocolate bar into some exam halls so I can get an energy boost.  One word of advice is: don’t take crisps into exam halls.  Invigilators get very unhappy about crisps!

And finally…

These are my tips, and other people will say different things and give different advice.  Also, some people will, no doubt, disagree with some of these thoughts – but, that is okay: we’re all different, and we all study in different ways.

I’ll leave with a question: what is your favourite revision tip?  If someone asked you for the single biggest tip that you would give someone, what would it be?

Good luck with your revision!

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Christopher Douce

First MCT Student Support Team Conference

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I drafted this blog post some time ago, but it got temporarily shelved due to the reality of day to day work.  I never forgot about it, though!  I still feel it’s important to share, since it relates to an important (and on-going) change within the university: the development and implementation of the Faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology (MCT) Student Support Team (SST).

Introductory bit

Nineteenth of July 2014 was the date of the first ever Faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology (MCT) Student Support Team (SST) conference that was held at The Open University campus in Milton Keynes.  Although this blog is written primarily for my colleagues, fellow tutors and students might find this summary useful since everyone has been subject to different amounts of change within the university.

The SST comprises of learning support staff (who are based in Birmingham and Nottingham), associate lecturers and central academics.  The idea behind an SST is to create a grouping of people who have more detailed knowledge of how to support students who are studying a particular subject, so we can improve the way that students are supported.  The ideas behind SSTs predate the increased focus on programmes of study due to the availability of student loans for part time students.

Although the SST staff for MCT are based in two regions, all the other Open University regions remain fundamentally important to the operation of the university: they remain centres from where tutorials and day schools are run, outreach events are facilitated, and students can have additional support sessions with tutors (and students can drop in to look at module materials).  They are also essential places from where continued AL development and training occurs.  Without these centres, tutors would not have sufficient training to allow them to offer excellent teaching and learning experiences to their students.

This blog starts with a summary of the plenary or introduction session, and is then followed by a session about retention.  There is then a brief description of session that was specific to the department of Computing and Communications.  This is then followed by an AL development session about disabled student services (this might be of interest to some students who study H810).  The day ends with a session about ‘tutor staff development’.

Introduction plenary

Our former Associate dean for regions and nations introduced the conference and welcomed us all to the SST.  We were shown a bunch of graphs that gave us a bit of context.  I remember that one of the graphs was about the number of students who are studying at a study intensity that is equivalent to full time students (which is a way to allow the OU to be compared to other institution).  In terms of full time equivalent (FTE) students, the number of students in MCT is broadly similar to the number of students in the Faculty of Art and the Faculty of Social Sciences.

An important point is that undergraduate computing and IT modules currently represent the biggest group in the faculty with 60% students registering for a BSc in Computing and IT.  By way of perspective, there are 13K FTE students in the whole of MCT, whereas Birkbeck (as a whole institution) has a total of 17K students.  We were given even more mind blowing stats: there are 1,200 associate lecturers in MCT, who teach a total of 2,900 contracts.

Retention and progression (of students between different modules) is considered to be an important strategy.  One figure that I made a note of was that there was a target of 75% of all students moving to the next module (unfortunately, I didn’t note whether this was related to level one modules only).

Our associate dean also spoke about other university priorities, such as helping to design student interventions (to make study easier), the student induction process (to help students become more familiar with the process of studying) and the development of the OU virtual learning environment (to make smart use of data).  On the subject of interventions, one great intervention that I heard was the SST proactively calling students discuss their study intentions if they have registered for an excessive number of modules.

One of the most important elements of OU study is the relationship between a student and their tutor.  The situation used to be that a student was left to their own devices at the end of a module.  The SST can now talk to a student between modules.

We heard about future plans.  Apparently there is some work afoot to improve the induction process.  For quite a while, I’ve heard about a new induction website, but I really do think there’s an opportunity to do more to help students become familiar with how to ‘survive’ when being a distance learning student. 

Future university activities include an attempt to diversity income, and continuing alignment of associate lecturer services to student services.  Also, quite recently, there has been internal debate regarding a new group tuition policy (which I hope to share some information about to ALs as soon as the details have been defined).

MCT Level 1 retention review

The next part of the day was by a colleague who spoke about a retention review project.  A really interesting fact I learnt was that module presentations that start in October have slightly higher retention figures than modules that begin in February.  I have no idea why!

I’ll do my best to summarise some of the key points that were made.  A really important concern was how well students are prepared for study.  If a student comes to the university without have any prior qualifications, this means that they less likely to complete.  There might be a range of different factors that influence this, such as available study time, workload, and other points, such as a lack of confidence (writing from experience as a former OU student, it takes time to ‘figure out’ how to consume the learning resources that we get from the university.

The one really important point that that has made the difference is: our tutors.  Proactive contact with an associate lecturer can really help to improve retention.

I’ve made a note of some recommendations: it’s important to have consistent module advice, we need to have effective subject specific advice, and have a solid induction programme to incorporate the development of on-line study skills.  The characteristics of a module and its design can make a different too: module teams to consider workload, to carefully consider assessment, and study events should be designed in to the module structure.

According to my notes, the review also offered some really practical suggestions, such as the SSTs could explicitly contact students without previous qualifications (but there’s also a tension between balancing the need to answer the phone in response to incoming student queries, and the willingness to initiate positive interventions: everything has a cost, and everything takes time).

I also made a note of the importance of student support:  AL development is to prioritise soft skills training for ALs (and perhaps points such as using the phone).

Over the last year, the university has made available something called a ‘student support tool’, which brings the associate lecturer closer to the systems that the university uses.  Whilst such tools are great, there is a question which needs to be asked, which is: how can any tool be used effectively.  Again, it’s back to the importance of helping to train and develop our brilliant associate lecturers to make sure that they are as well-equipped as they can ever be to support their students.

Computing and IT session

The next session in the day was by John Woodthorpe, academic lead for Computing and IT.  John opened the question by asking us a question:  ‘Put up your hands if you’re a member of the SST!’  His point was simple: we’re all members! We all have an important role to play.

John asked a rhetorical question about what the members of the SST in Birmingham and Nottingham are doing.  He answered this by providing a long list of activities.  The helped to book and organise exams at different venues, offered study and course choice advice, wrote disability profiles, and were always developing relationships with different members of the faculty.

During the session I made note of the phrase: ‘pre-emption, proactivity, prevention’, which seems like a good way to encapsulate different important aspects of study support.

One gap that has been identified is the need to develop a more comprehensive and structured approach to resubmission support, i.e. what happens if a student doesn’t pass an exam.  At the moment, students could call the SST and request a special session, but not all students know that they may be entitled to this support.  The SST is trying to tighten up resubmission support, aiming to offer more support for students beyond the boundaries of individual modules.

Disabled Student Services

After the faculty session, we were offered a number of different session choices.  I chose a session which was all about disabled student services.  I was interested to hear how the new SST would help MCT students who have disabilities.

We were introduced to different models of disability: the medical model and the social model.  A really interesting point was that people who have disabilities can have a ‘fluid sense of identity’.  What I think this means is that some disabilities may be transitory (such as a physical injury, such as a broken leg), and others may be episodic (such as ME).

We were also introduced to the Equality act 2010, which identifies a number of protected groups.  We were also told about different types of discrimination.  These are direct and indirect discrimination (which I had heard of), but there is also discrimination by association, i.e. discrimination might arise against someone if they have significant caring responsibilities.

We had a discussion about on-line tutorial materials, reasonable adjustments, and the provision of advice and guidance (of which, module accessibility guides play an important role).  We also spoke about the importance of contacting students directly to enquire about the extent of any adjustments that might be necessary, and also the role of examination boards.

Another area that was covered was the Disabled students allowance (DSA).  The DSA covers three areas: ergonomic furniture, personal support (such as non-medical helpers), and travel.  The DSA no longer funds standard electronic devices such as computers since they are now deemed to be an essential part of academic life, but funding for upgrades are permissible.  One really important point is that DSA is only available for students who are studying 30 points and a registered for a qualification (in Scotland this is 60 points).

Non-medical helpers can be really helpful for some students; they can make the difference between a module being accessible and a module being inaccessible.  A non-medical helper always works on behalf of the student: there is a contact between the student and the helper; tutors (or the university) are not able to speak directly to a helper – this relationship is fully controlled by the student.

AL Staff Development: The art of the possible

This final session of the day was all about how we should collectively think about associate lecturer development now that we’re in the new world of the student support team.  This session was facilitated by fellow staff tutor and tutor, Frances Chetwynd.

Associate lecturer broadly takes on two types: generic development (which is about how to perform teaching and learning, to make use of technology, and to be aware of university initiatives and developments), and module specific (sharing good practice about teaching certain subjects).  Now that we’re moving into broad teams, there are opportunities in terms of large subject (or, even programme) specific events.

Like all good tutorials, Frances’s session was very interactive.  We were given sets of post it notes to propose new ideas.  Pink post-it notes were about face-to-face AL development ideas, orange post it notes were about on-line (or other) types of development sessions.  When we had written down our ideas, we stuck them on different sheets of paper that had broad different category headings.

Frances also gave us ten stickers (which were in the form of ‘gold stars’), allowing us to collectively vote for the ideas that we liked best. 

The ones that I’ve noted down are: a session about ‘coding at different levels’ (which could be like some kind of internal symposium), Teaching Sense on TU100 (apparently there is a 10% tutor churn on TU100), making sure that we Record module briefings, and sessions about qualification overviews (or, future plans for modules).  There were loads more ideas, but I haven’t noted them all down.

Reflections

It was a busy day!  One thing that was really good about the conference was that it put the work of the SST and the MCT faculty in context (I had not heard of some of the numbers that our associate dean mentioned) and also helped to emphasise how much change has been going on within the university in the last few years.  It almost allowed us to ‘take stock’ of where we were. 

The session on AL staff development really got me thinking.  I came up with a number of ideas about different types of events that might potentially help tutors from across the UK who tutor on specific modules.  One thing that keeps coming to mind is that there is also more potential in terms of how the student support team members can feed directly into module teams.  I can’t help but feel that these new structures can help different bits of the university to work closer together, and that can only be a good thing.

All this said, it’s still very early days for the student support team and I guess I’m one of many who are still finding their feel in terms of what we do, how we work, and how we communicate with each other.  It also strikes me that although the university has been reorganised along slightly different lines, the notion of a geographic region or ‘place’ remains very important.  The development sessions that are run within our regional centres for our associate lecturers are invaluable.  Developments in information and communication technology has made the SST possible, which means now it’s up to us to figure out how to best take advantages of the opportunities it offers us.

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Christopher Douce

TM354 Software Engineering: briefing

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 11 Sep 2023, 16:27

On Saturday 27 September I went to a briefing for a new OU module, TM354 Software Engineering.   I have to secretly confess that I was quite looking forward to this event for a number of reasons: I haven’t studied software engineering with the OU (which meant that I was curious), I have good memories of my software engineering classes from my undergraduate days and I also used to do what was loosely called software engineering when I had a job in industry.  A big question that I had was: ‘to what extent is it different to the stuff that I studied as an undergrad?’  The answer was: ‘quite a bit was different, but then again, there was quite a bit that was the same too’.

I remember my old undergrad lecturer introducing software engineering by saying something like, ‘this module covers all the important computer stuff that isn’t in any of the other modules’.   It seemed like an incredibly simple description (and one that is also a bit controversial), but it is one that has stuck in my mind.  In my mind, software engineering is a whole lot more than just being other stuff.

This blog post summary of the event is mostly intended for the tutors who came along to the day, but I hope it might be useful for anyone else who might be interested in either studying or tutoring the module.  There’s information about the module structure, something about the software that we use, and also something about the scheduling of the tutorials.

Module structure

TM354 has three blocks, which are also printed books.  These are: Block 1 – from domain to requirements, Block 2 – from analysis to design, and Block 3 – from architecture to product.  An important aspect to the module is a set of case studies.  The module is also supported by a module website and, interestingly, a software tool called ShareSpace that enables students to share different sketches or designs.  (This is a version of a tool that has been used in other modules such as U101, the undergraduate design module, and T174, an introduction to engineering module).

Block 1 : from domain to requirements

Each block contains a bunch of units.  The first unit is entitled ‘approaches to software development’, which, I believe, draws a distinction between plan driven software development and agile software development.  I’ve also noted down the phrase ‘modelling with software engineering’.  It’s great to see agile mentioned in this block, as well as modelling.  When I worked in industry as a developer, we used bits of both.

The second unit is called requirements concepts.  This covers functional requirements, non-functional (I’m guessing this is things like ‘compatibility with existing systems’ and ‘maintainability’ – but I could be wrong, since I’ve not been through the module materials yet), testing, and what and how to document.  Another note I’ve made is: ‘perspectives on agile documentation’.

Unit three is from domain modelling to requirements.  Apparently this is all about business rules and processes, and capturing requirements with use cases.  Prototyping is also mentioned.  (These are both terms that would be familiar with students who have taken the M364 Interaction Design module).  Unit four is all about the case study (of which I have to confess that I don’t know anything about!)

Block 2: from analysis to design

Unit five is about structural modelling of domain versus the solution.  Unit six is about dynamic modelling, which includes design by contract.  Unfortunately, my notes were getting a bit weak at this point, but I seem to remember thinking, ‘ahh… I wonder if this relates to the way that I used to put assertions in my code when I was a coder’.  This introduction was piquing my interest.

Unit seven was entitled, ‘more dynamic modelling’, specifically covering states and activities, and capturing complex interactions.  Apparently the black art of ‘state machines’ are also covered in this bit.  (In my undergrad days, state machine were only covered in the completely baffling programming languages course) .  Unit eight then moves onto the second part of the case study which might contain domain modelling, analysis and design.

Block 3: from architecture to product

This block jumped out at me as being the most interesting (but this reflects my own interests).  Unit nine was about ‘architecture, patterns and reuse’.  Architecture and requirements, I’ve noted, ‘go hand in hand’.  In this section there’s something about architectural views and reuse in the small and reuse in the large.  During the briefing there was a discussion about architectural styles, frameworks and software design patterns.

When I was an undergrad, software patterns hadn’t been discovered yet.  It’s great to see them in this module, since they are a really important subject.  I used to tell people that patterns are like sets of abstractions that allow people to talk about software.  I think everyone who is a serious software developer should know something about patterns.

Unit ten seems to take a wider perspective, talking about ‘building blocks and enterprise architectures’.  Other topics include component based development, services and service oriented architectures (which is a topic that is touched upon in another module, and also potentially the forthcoming TM352 module that covers cloud computing).

Unit eleven is about quality, verification, metrics and testing.  My undergrad module contained loads of material on metrics and reliability, and testing was covered only in a fairly theoretical way, but I understand that test-driven development is covered in this module (which is a topic that is linked to agile methods).  I’ll be interested to look at the metrics bit when this bit of the module is finalised.

The final unit takes us back to the case study.  Apparently we look at architectural views and patterns.  Apparently there are also a set of further topics that are looked.  I’m guessing that students might well have to go digging for papers in the OU’s huge on-line library.

Software

I’ve mentioned ShareSpace, which is all about sharing of software models with other students (modelling is an important skill), to enable students to gain experience of group work and to see what other students are doing and creating: software development invariably happens in teams.  Another important bit of software is an open source IDE (integrated development environment) called NetBeans.  I’m not sure how NetBeans is going to be used in this module, but it is used across a number of different OU modules, so it should be familiar to some TM354 students.

Assessment

TM354 comprises of three tutor marked assignments, a formative quiz at the end of every unit (that students are strongly encouraged to complete), and an end of module exam.  The exam comprises of two parts: a part that has questions about concepts, and a second bit that contains longer questions (I can’t say any more than this, since I don’t know what the exam looks like!)

Tutorials

Each tutor is required to deliver two hours of face to face tuition, and eight hours of on-line sessions through OU Live (as far as I understand).  In the London region, we have three tutors, so what we’re doing is we’re having all the groups come to the same events and we’re having each tutor deliver a face to face session to support students through every block and every TMA. 

We’re also planning on explicitly scheduling six hours of OU Live time, leaving two hours that the tutor can use at his or her discretion throughout the module (so, if there are a group of students who struggle with concepts such as metrics, design by contract, or patterns, a couple of short ad-hoc sessions can be scheduled). 

All the OU Live sessions will be presented through a regional OU Live room.  This means that students in one tutor group can visit a session that is delivered by another London tutor.  The benefit of explicitly scheduling these sessions in advance is that all these events are presented within the student’s module calendar (so they can’t say that they didn’t know about them!)  All these plans are roughly in line with the new tuition strategy policy that is coming from the higher levels of the university.  A final thought regarding the on-line sessions is that it is recommended that tutors record them, so students can listen to the events (and potentially go through subjects that they find difficult) after an event has taken place.

A final note that I’ve made in my notebook is ‘tutorial resources sharing (thread to share)’.  This is connected to a tutor’s forum that all TM354 tutors should have access to.  I think there should be a thread somewhere that is all about the sharing of both on-line and off-line (face to face) tutorial resources.

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