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1st Computing and Communications AL development conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 5 Dec 2018, 12:20

Associate lecturer development events generally take two different forms: they are either large multi-faculty ‘generic tutoring’ events that are run at different venues across the UK, or they are small module specific focussed events. From time to time, the university runs a larger events (I remember running a computing and IT event in the London office a few years ago), but these are the exception rather than the rule.

What follows is a summary of what has been called the 1st Computing and Communications AL development conference, which took place at the university student recruitment and support centre (SRSC) in Manchester. Just as with other blogs, this is a personal summary of the event (different colleagues may, of course, have very different experiences and memories!) I’m sharing this summary just in case it might be useful for someone, and also because it will help me remember what happened when I come to do my annual appraisal...

By way of background, the event was for tutors who teach on Computing and IT modules. One of the reasons for running the event is that the subject of computing can pose some interesting tutoring challenges and it would be helpful to share experiences between tutors who teach on the same undergraduate programme. There’s also the importance of community; in recent years the link between tutors and the university department (school) to which they are related to has become more important.

Manchester was chosen as the location for the conference, since it is also home to the Computing and IT student support team (SST). The conference took place over two days: Friday 30 November 2018 and Saturday 1 December 2018. The agenda for each of these days was roughly the same, and tutors were encouraged to sign up for the day that best suited them.

Looking forward: curriculum and school updates

The conference began with a short keynote and introductory presentation by our head of school Arosha Bandara and David Morse, director of teaching. Arosha mentioned the mission and vision of the school: that it aims to ‘empower our students, industry and society, to leverage digital technologies to address the challenges of the future’ and ‘be a world leader in open, innovative distance teaching of computing and communications, founded on excellent research and scholarship’. I noted that the undergraduate degrees were accredited by the British Computer Society, that the school ran a premier Cisco networking academy, and it is playing an important role in an organisation called the Institute of Coding (IoC website). Arosha also touched on research areas that are important within the school, such as technology enhanced learning, software engineering and human-computer interaction (amongst others).

David presented a summary of the computing curriculum and degree programmes, which ranges from introductory level computing through to postgraduate MSc degrees. In collaboration with Maths and Stats, the university will be introducing a new Data Sciences qualification, and the school of Computing and Communications will be introducing a new level 3 Machine Learning and AI module. Looking further to the future, the school is currently recruiting for Cybersecurity lecturers, which might see the emergence of new modules at levels 2 and 3. 

Spot the difference: sharing your practice 

After a brief break to meet and chat with colleagues, there was a series of short 5 minute presentations by tutors about different aspects of their OU teaching. What follows is a summary of the notes that I made during those sessions. 

Some tricks to establish early contact with students 

Charly Lowndes is a very experienced tutor and former OU student who teaches on a range of different modules. One of his tips was: “send them a 2 line email, and tell them to send you a reply to say that they have got it; when you do that, I’ll send you some useful stuff”. Charly also makes an introductory video that he has recorded and uploaded to YouTube; he said that “it’s nice for them to know what you look like”.

Another tips include: if you don’t hear from a student, send them a SMS; populate the module forum with messages; use email rules to process emails (I do this too, filtering on module code). Charly also said “I don’t get stressed if they never get back to me; I had one student who was on his honeymoon” – the point is that the student support team is able to help. Another comment was: “use a range of methods; everyone is different” and use different bits of information provided by the university to try to create a picture of your student.

A strategy for recording student contacts

The second presentation in this session, given by Helen Jefferis, complemented Charly's presentation really well. Assuming that you had made contact with your student, then what? Helen offers a suggestion: use a spreadsheet. Helen begins by downloading a list of students from her TutorHome website, and then adds a set of headings, which includes a simple notes section. I noted down the sentence: “if they reply, things are ticked off; ticks to show that they’re active”. Other approaches may include using tools such as Microsoft OneNote. Also, further information about student interactivity and engagement if available from the OU Analyse tool (which is entire topic all of its own).

Teaching methods on TM470

Jay Chapman gave a brief summary of what it was liked to be a TM470 project module tutor. I found Jay’s session especially interesting since I’m also a TM470 tutor. Jay began by outlining TM470. The module isn’t about teaching technical stuff, it’s about helping students how to write a technical project, and demonstrating how they can build upon the expertise and skills they already have. An important point is that TM470 students can take on different roles: they may be the project leader, the client and the stakeholder. Also, every project is different, but there are some common challenges: planning is important and students can easily fall behind, and a big challenge is the importance of academic writing and critical reflection.

I noted that Jay sends his students an email, then a SMS (if he hasn’t heard from them), and he runs tutorial sessions using video Skype. During these sessions, Jay mentioned that he uses an agenda, and then sticks to it. An important sentence that I noted down which resonates with me (as a TM470 tutor) is: “you have to show me what you did, and how you thought about it”. 

Approaches to working with under-confident students

Jean Weston shared some tips about working with students who might not have high levels of confidence. One tip was to tell them things that they don’t have to do. One suggestion was that with some modules, students don’t need to go outside the module materials. I noted down some practical tips: read the introductory and summary sections first, and it’s certainly okay to read something several times.

When it comes to exams, Jean shared some really great tips. One tip was: write down the blindingly obvious (since the examiner might well be testing whether a student knows the blindingly obvious). Another tip was: “answer the question, the whole question, and nothing but the question”. Also, successfully completing examinations requires you to balance two resources: your brain (what you know and can apply) with the time that is available, and “and answer is better than no answer”.

Other tips are worth remembering, such as: “learn to pick the low fruit, and apply that throughout your study” (or, in other words, ‘it’s okay to be strategic if you need to be’). Also: do get help if you need it, do take the time to talk to somebody if you need to, and take time to understand the vocabulary and complete the activities (since these can directly relate to the assessment questions).

PG teaching: what's the difference?

Joan Jackson gave the first short presentation on the morning of the 1 December. Joan is a tutor on a number of modules, such as M815 Project Management, T847 The MSc Professional Project and T802 Research Project.

One of the big differences that Joan emphasised was the level of skills that can be applied. From her slides, Joan reported that “undergraduate study provides the ‘grounding’ within a field or subject and academic skills” whereas “postgraduate study allows the subject to be explored further to attain a higher level of proficiency through independent study, scholarship, research and professional practice, emphasising critical thinking, synthesis, reflection and effective academic writing”.

An important question is: how do you learn to do all these things? Thankfully, the university has some resources that can be used. I’ll highlight two free OpenLearn courses that may be useful: OpenLearn course: Succeeding in postgraduate study and OpenLearn course: Are you ready for postgraduate study

A further question is: how can tutors develop postgrad skills once the module begins? I made some notes that suggested that there are opportunities: forums can be used to run activities. Students can explore the library to uncover research or discussion papers, than sets of papers can be compared and contrasted. Also, as a brief aside, there are also some resources on the OU Skills for Study pages, such as a resource about Critical Reading.

Cisco accreditation and teaching on Cisco modules

Phil Irving tutors on a number of Cisco modules, such as TM257 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 1, an undergraduate module, and T828 Network Security a postgraduate module.

Phil gave us a bit of history about the OU Cisco Academy (and Cisco as a company) before beginning to talk about the link between Cisco material and the OU approach to study. One of the benefits of the joint approach is that students have the potential to gain an industrial qualification whilst also learning important academic skills, such as academic writing. Students are also incentivised to pass the industrial qualifications. I didn’t know this, but if students pass their Cisco exam, they get back some of their test fees.

Practice tutors: a new approach for apprentices

The final short presentation of the conference was by Christine Gardner and Alexis Lansbury who spoke about the university’s involvement in degree apprenticeships and the role of a practice tutor. Since apprentices have a lot of study to do over quite a short period of time, practice tutors can offer some advice about how to manage their workload. Practice tutors are just one of many people involved with apprentices: there are also module tutors, and functional skills tutors, and the student support team. Practice tutors visit apprentices four times in a year, typically at a student’s workplace, and they will be a consistent contact across four years of study.

An important thing to remember is that degree apprenticeships differ across the UK. There are different programmes in England, Wales and Scotland. There is also something called higher apprenticeships, which can be linked and connected to postgraduate study.

What makes a good online session?

The first of two longer presentations was given by Shena Deuchars. Shena’s presentation was all about the use of breakout rooms in Adobe Connect. A personal confession is that I’ve only ever used breakout rooms twice. The first time was using Blackboard Elluminate (or, OU Live, as the university called it), which seemed to go very well. The second time was using Adobe Connect, and didn’t go well at all (I remember a few voices in my headset saying the words: “what’s going on?!”) and feeling quite embarrassed!

Shena gave us some tips about creating some layouts that we could use to manage breakout rooms. A sequence of actions were suggested: (1) create a new layout, (2) add content to pods, and (3) create rooms. Then to get things going, (4) tutors need to click on the ‘start breakout’ button. Finally, there is the step at the end to end the breakout rooms and to bring everyone back to the plenary space.

Some of the tips were very helpful, such as: try to get people who are willing to use microphones in the same room as each other (you can do this by asking everyone to give you a green tick). Also, in anticipation of a session, a thought is to email everyone to tell everyone that they will get more about of the session if they are prepared to speak (and have a headset).

I found Shena’s session useful, and it was great that she managed to encourage everyone to login to the shared room that she had prepared so everyone could get a feel for how things work. 

During her session I thought about my own recent experience as a current OU student who was recently put into a breakout room. Initially, I wasn’t happy, especially when all of my fellow students volunteered me to summarise all of our discussions during the plenary session. This said, it was really helpful to hear how other students were getting along with their reading. One fellow student made me realise that I hadn’t read some aspects of the module materials as thoroughly as I ought to have done.

One thought I will add about breakout rooms is they take time. I’ve heard it said that a breakout room activity can or should take at least 20 minutes. This means that if you’re doing a number of things in a tutorial, it’s important to pay close attention to timing. In the case of the tutorial that I attended, I found the breakout rooms so useful, and I became so engaged, I was surprised that the tutorial was over so quickly. In retrospect, a thorough debrief or summary after my time in the breakout room would have been useful to help me return to the physical world!

Teaching of problem solving and algorithmic thinking

I’m not going to summarise Friday Jones’s presentation on algorithmic thinking directly, partly because I don’t think I can do it justice. Friday’s talk was one that encouraged us tutors to think about what it means to teach algorithmic thinking and also how we should (or could) respond to students. From my perspective, it contained a number of themes, such as whether we should teach top-down or bottom up, and how students might understand the notion of abstraction.

Some interesting phrases I noted down was: “I teach by epiphany…”, “I taught them that they could solve the problem” and “I don’t want to make tea anymore; I want to question why we do this”; ‘this’ means “they need to ‘get’ why we do what we’re doing”.

Friday’s talk reminded me of another talk that I went to that I saw at the Psychology of Programming Interest group back in September 2018. Friday said that she learnt to program ‘bottom-up’, as did Felienne. Some thought provoking words from her presentation were: “sensimotor level is syntax”, and “motivation leads to skills”. And skills, of course, can be linked to the ability to develop (and implement) abstractions.

Working with the Computing and IT student support team

This second half of the conference was opened by John Woodthorpe, our school student support team lead. In addition to a series of short presentations, tutors were able to have a tour of the SST to learn more about what happens within the Manchester office.

The first presentation was about the Careers and Employability Service (OU website). Next up was a presentation by the colleagues from the Student Recruitment and Fees team. This was then followed by another talk by the SRSC continual improvement and change acceptance team, who look at how to enhance existing student support processes. During the first day of the conference, Claire Blanchard concluded by speaking about the role of the SST from the associate lecturer perspective. Claire also emphasised the role that ALs can play in the school by applying to sit on the computing board of studies.

One thing I got from this session was an understanding of something called the Information Advice and Guidance model (which is referred to by the abbreviation IAG). Although I had heard of this before, I hadn’t really grasped its significance. 

In some senses, IAG can be understood as three progressive stages. Whenever a student calls up the SST, they may first speak with a front line advisor, who may be able to provide some general information. If the query is more complex, such as the need for study advice, the student will then be passed onto a senior advisor (the ‘A’, or ‘advice’ part of the model), who will be able to answer more specific queries. Finally, if the query is one that is both detailed and complex, the student might then begin to receive ongoing detailed guidance from an educational advisor.

Simply put: there are a lot of calls about information, and not so many calls that are about guidance (and some guidance calls can take a lot of time to resolve). 

Activity: Working through student support scenarios

For the penultimate part of the conference, Alexis Lansbury, Computing and IT staff tutor, divided the room up into tables, and gave us a series of student support case studies. Each table had a combination of associate lecturers, staff tutors, and advisors. 

For each case study, we were asked to “discuss how you would respond, what actions you would take, what you are aiming to do to help the student, and whether you would involve other people (ALs, Student Support, Employability Specialists, Staff Tutors) in both the decisions you take, and, the help that you offer”. The case studies covered all levels of study (first year through to final year equivalents), and issues ranging from requests for very long extensions through to catastrophic technical problems. This activity emphasised the importance of taking time to gather information and the need to thoroughly understand different perspectives.

AL development in the school: priorities, needs and opportunities

During the final session, I asked everyone the question: “what would associate lecturer development activities or events would help you to do your job?” Some points that I noted on a whiteboard were: 

  • How to best maintain the student-tutor link
  • Understanding, mitigating and influencing the impact of the group tuition policy (GTP) and learning event management (LEM) system
  • How to best work together in cluster groups
  • How to tailor a session to suit a module and also take account of local geography
  • More discussion and less presentation during AL development events
  • More information and further discussion about the new tutor contract
  • Information about the ‘bigger picture’ (either in terms of the university or the discipline)
  • Discussions and information about how programming is addressed across and between study levels
  • Degree apprenticeships and the potential impact on the tutor role and tutor practice

Reflections

Over two days, over 90 colleagues attended the conference: associate lecturers, staff tutors, central academics, and members of the student support team. A colleague said to me: “it’s a sign of a good conference if you come away learning something new”. I certainly agree! One of the things that I’ve gained from the event is a more detailed understanding of what the SST advisors do, and how important and essential their work is, and what IAG means. I felt that it was a thought provoking and useful event, and I hope that everyone else found it useful too. Fingers crossed we’ll be able to run another one soon.

Acknowledgements

This conference was very much a team effort (with multiple teams)! The main organising and planning group included: Frances Chetwynd, Christine Gardner, Alexis Lansbury, John Woodthorpe and Ann Walshe. Many thanks to Saul Young (and colleagues) and Jana Dobiasova (from ALSPD). Thanks are extended to all presenters, and to Shena Deuchars and Friday Jones who ran the longer sessions, and to Arosha Bandara and David Morse from the school. Thanks are also extended to Stephen Rice, Claire Blanchard, Vic Nicholas, Dawn Johnson and everyone in the student support team who were able to spare their time to come and speak to us; we really appreciate your time!

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