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Reflections on M250

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I’ve just finished tutoring my first presentation of M250 Object-oriented Java programming.

I first applied to tutor on the predecessor to this module back in 2005. At the time I was a full time Java programmer working in industry, writing software that drove some equipment that was used to teach telecommunication principles. 

I wasn’t offered a contract on M250, but I was offered a contract on M364, which was called Fundamentals of Interaction Design. I tutored M364 for a little over ten years. It was a great module; it was well designed, it had a clear structure, and gave students some practical experience of carrying out some really simple usability evaluations.

In 2019, I heard from a colleague that there was a M250 vacancy in the London region. I hesitated; I’ve a lot on. I also tutor on the project module, TM470, and have a few other OU responsibilities. Since my research at university was about object-oriented programming, I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to play a part in teaching people about object-oriented programming. I applied. I was interviewed and considered appointable.

Books

In the post I was sent three glossy looking books. In the very early stages of tutoring, I sat down and started to read them, skimming over the activities; a lot of what I was reading was already familiar to me, and I could understand the concepts that were expressed through the amphibian-related activities (frogs and toads were used to introduce the concept of objects and messages).

Through the module website, I found that there were PDF and ePub versions of books. I downloaded the ePub versions onto my eReader, just so I could carry them around with me a bit more easily.

Getting everything going

At the start of the module, I set up some introduction threads on the tutor group forum and wrote to each student telling them to subscribe to it. I also asked students to get in touch with me to say hello. For those who didn’t reply, I chased them up with a text message and a quick phone call or voicemail. 

My first tutorial

My first ever M250 tutorial took place in a seminar room at the University of Westminster. I was there to support my fellow tutor, Lindsey, who has been allocated to me as my mentor.  Two things struck me: she knew terms to describe Java that I had forgotten, and carried out almost all of her teaching using a combination of whiteboard, and pen and paper. This method of teaching programming was a method that I approved of; it forces everything to move a whole lot more slowly.

My first solo tutorial

My first ever online introductory tutorial was fun. I prepped for it by looking at what other tutors had done, using sections of the module material and sharing bits of the TMA question. 

During the first tutorial, I tried my best to emphasise the fundamental concepts of object-oriented programming. I asked everyone who came along to look around their immediate environment. We made classes out of those objects, and gave them attributes. I also compared non-OO programming to OO programming, to really emphasise why it’s an important subject. I also recorded the tutorial and did two things to follow up: I posted a link to the recording on the tutor group forum, and also sent an email to all student to let them know they could find a link to the recording by visiting the forum.

Whenever I can, I try to connect different things together; tutorials with module materials, and forums with recordings.

My first TMA

The first TMA of a new module means that you never know what you’re going to expect. I always knew that there would be a lot of support behind the scenes. I subscribed to the tutor forums (in M250, there was one support forum for every TMA), printed out all of the tutor notes (which were comprehensive), along with the TMA question. I also made liberal use of my highlighter to identify bits that I needed to pay attention to.

I quickly realised that students were asked to submit their TMAs in two parts. Firstly, there was the written part (presented within a Word document), then there was some programming code, that was submitted in a zip file. The code in the zip file was also presented in the Word document, and could add teaching comments into the Word document.

Another thing that was new to me was the BlueJ Java programming environment. I soon figured out how it worked: projects were contained within directories, and these directories contained a project file. I easily found the compile button, and figured out that there were another bunch of tools that had been created by the university: something called the OU workspace which presented a graphical display, and a way to dynamically work with Java code.

There was something that really helped me to get going in the very early days, and that was a testing tool that had been created by the module team. Essentially, you run a Java program that then compares a specified Java program (i.e. a student’s submission) against a predefined definition or specification. Essentially, it’s a tool that tells you whether a student’s code is right or wrong. The tutor’s job is to interpret everything: the tool output, the student’s submission and the tutor notes and provide some sensible teaching comments, along with a mark.

I soon realised that I could apply a familiar tried and tested marking approach to M250: I could mark one question (or question section) at a time, for all student submissions. The advantage of doing it this way is: (1) consistency, and (2) speed. When you’re doing this, you can put quite a lot of the marking guide into your head and also make sure that you provide consistent comments and feedback for each of the student submissions.

My first additional support session

After marking the first TMA, I noticed that a couple of students may be struggling to understand some of the fundamental concepts of OO programming. A tip off for this was how some of the Java code was expressed. It might have been things like students not quite understanding the purpose of member variables and how they related to member functions (for example). 

I emailed all the students who might be struggling to ask them whether they might be interested in a one to one session. A couple of students agreed.

During one of the additional support sessions, which took place in a tool called Adobe Connect, I used screen sharing. Rather than telling students what they needed to do, I asked questions to probe their understanding of some of the fundamental Java and OO concepts. I then used screen sharing, in combination with the BlueJ environment, to do what is usually called ‘live coding’. Essentially, during the tutorial, we co-created some code which explored similar concepts that were explored within the TMA questions.

I had never done any live coding before. I had certainly never done it using BlueJ and Adobe Connect. In some respects, I was taking quite a few risks, but everything seemed to work okay. Object-oriented concepts were communicated and shared through a combination of English and Java.

My first examination preparation session

During my first presentation of M250, something unexpected happened; a global pandemic. What this meant was that the expected M250 written exam was cancelled. This mean that the final assessment score was going to be calculated from the scores of all the TMAs. This was possible, since the TMAs assessed all the key learning outcomes from the module.

Exams are useful, since they enable learners to consolidate their earlier learning. Rather than running an examination preparation session, I’m going to be running what I can only call a module consolidation tutorial. During this final tutorial I’m going to be talking about what was going to be assessed, why different questions were to be asked, and how they may relate to studies on other modules. 

Reflections

I’ve enjoyed tutoring my first presentation of M250.

Tutoring the module was a bit of a surprise, in the sense that I didn’t expect to become a tutor on M250; I thought the opportunity had passed. I applied, since I felt that I had some hidden skills (knowledge of OO programming and Java) that I could use. 

I enjoyed realising that I remembered how to code and how the key parts of the language worked. I also enjoyed working with the new bits: collection classes and iterators; bits of the language that had been introduced after I had stopped using it on a daily basis.

Although the marking was hard work, it was looking at something that was familiar, which meant I was able to get into the swing of it relatively quickly. I soon learnt to accept that wasn’t going to understand everything that was in the tutor notes (tutor marking instructions) straight away. Understanding, of course, came by playing with code, and looking through the answers that students had submitted.

The real fun bits were the tutorials and the one-to-one sessions. It was in these sessions that I felt that I could really add something as a tutor.

If asked whether there was something I would change for the next presentation, it would be: I would take even more risks during tutorials. Programming has the potential to be a really fun subject. I have the tools to make it fun. It’s going to be up to me to make it so. 

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