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STEM Postgraduate AL development conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 28 Nov 2017, 14:08

I attended my first ever STEM AL development conference that took place at The Open University in Milton Keynes between 10 and 11 November 2017. 

At the time of writing, I have been helping to support a combination of networking and data security postgraduate modules for just under a year. I think I became involved in with these modules since I had been a former OU PG computing student, studying three modules: project management, data and information security and digital forensics. I briefly toyed with studying for a MSc, before I became distracted and studied a couple of social science modules which helped me to learn more about methods that were applied in the interaction design module that I used to tutor.

What follows is a brief summary of my own take on the conference. These notes, of course, reflect my own personal interests; I accept that there was a lot more going on within the conference than am able to describe here. 

Tour and talks

The conference began with a series of talks about the new OpenSTEM lab (OU centre for STEM pedagogy) which gained a Times Higher Education award (OU website). The OpenSTEM lab is a set of online digital resources that students can use as a part of their studies. A key aspect of the lab is that it enables students to access to real scientific and engineering equipment allowing them to gather data, work together and share experiences. In some respects, the OpenSTEM lab represents a development of a ‘home experiment kit’ that was once shipped out to OU students, but with the advantage that it facilitates collaboration.

We were introduced to different aspects of the lab; we were told about an electron microscope and told that students were introduced to the idea of robotics through the use of a humanoid like robot called Baxter, and that science students could use a mock-up of a mars rover. We were also shown experiments that used agitated pendulums. There were some obvious challenges that needed to be addressed, such as the effect of network latency when gathering results from experiments. I also expect that students were asked and encouraged to book time on these different instruments.

After the talks, we all wandered over to our accommodation at the nearby Kent’s Hill conference centre. After dinner, we were treated to a talk by Mark Brandon from the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences. Mark is a Reader in Polar Oceanography. He shared experiences of working on module teams, working with associate lecturers and working on Frozen Planet, a BBC/OU co-production. Mark also emphasised the importance of the role of associate lecturers and the contributions that they can and do make to module teams.

School of Computing and Communication Session

The following day was split into two sections: the first part was a school specific session (associate lecturers are now, of course, primarily affiliated to a school rather than to a region); the second part of the day was comprised of two parallel sessions that addressed topics that were relevant to associate lecturer practice.

During the school of computing and communications session, I made some notes of some topics that were discussed and points that were highlighted. One of the themes discussed was the concept of degree apprenticeships; as well as undergraduate degrees, there are also postgraduate degree apprenticeships. As well as having an associate lecturer, there is also the role of a practice tutor. There was a comment that students might have to create a portfolio, and there was a question of how this might be carried out or managed.

Discussion points included broadband and internet connectivity amongst tutors and students, and the use of teaching tools such as Adobe Connect. This led to a short discussion about tutorials and tutorial practice; one idea is to always try to have two tutors at every online tutorial – not only does this offer redundancy if the internet for the presenting tutor goes down, but it also takes load off the main presenters and opens up the possibility of using some interesting pedagogic approaches, such as debates.

Another point I noted was that for some students postgrad study can represent a step change. For some students, the expectations of postgraduate study might be unclear; there is an increased emphasis on reflection, the use and application of literature and critical practice. One area that I think is fundamentally important is the induction period for new students. Whilst there are some induction materials, the university also has a free Badged Open Learning (BOC) course called Succeeding in Postgraduate study (Open Learn website). In addition to this there are, of course, some more generic study skills resources that are available, including a set of useful Booklets, including one that is called Thinking Critically (pdf).

During the school session, we also has a discussion about ideas that could feed into the computing curriculum update (or ‘curriculum refresh’, as it is otherwise know). Some interesting comments were: perhaps there needs to be some modules about research methods, or perhaps more materials about academic writing. It was commented that the science curriculum had a research skills module, but the computing curriculum didn’t. Another thought was that perhaps there could be a series of short 10 point modules that could be used for continuing professional development.

Parallel sessions

Tutors could choose between four different sessions. I remember what three of these were: there was a session about using and working with Adobe connect, a session that I ran about dealing with challenging situations, and another session about efficient and effective correspondence tuition.

The session that I ran was, essentially, a structured discussion which drew upon university resources and guidelines. The main objective of the discussion section was to share stories and experiences. I ran the session twice and everyone who attended participated.  

Reflections

Despite being a staff tutor for six or seven years I was interested to hear that these AL development events for postgraduate tutors run every few years. I couldn’t help but feel that there was a lot of cross over between the national AL development events and the events like this one that has a clear and distinct focus. This said, many of the important themes are shared between different tutors: everyone has to use Adobe Connect, and everyone has to offer effective correspondence tuition.

I found the school specific approach really useful: this session (and the conference as a whole) represented a really useful opportunity to get together with colleagues who we regularly work with through online rooms and virtual forum spaces. I also really enjoyed running two sessions with the postgrad students. If I could change something, it would be to, perhaps, add a bit more emphasis on the sharing of stories and how we respond to difficult situations. In some ways, this links to an idea that I was recently introduced to when I was studying at Birkbeck: the notion of the critical incident.

A final point is a series of acknowledgements: Mark Slaymaker, staff tutor of Computing and Communications, put a huge amount of hard work into organising the conference. Thanks are also extended to Mark Brandon from the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences and the STEM AL services team for their support and assistance.

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