When deciding between the MU123 and MST124 maths modules for my degree, I put a fair amount of weight on the diagnostic “Are you ready?” quiz for MST124.  It said my results were good, there were a few areas I should brush up on, but overall I should be just fine on it.

I won’t start the module until 7 October, so I’ll have to wait until then before I throw their pants doused with lighter fluid onto a telephone wire and chanting, “Burn, liar!  Burn!”

I just don’t know how prepared I really am.  See, the OU have opened up a “revise and refresh” website for MST124.  It’s amazing that they even do that.  It has diagnostic quizzes with typical questions one might encounter on various MU123 blocks.  Depending on how well you do on that, they have some cheat sheets for reminding you how to solve certain problems.  (It keeps referring me to read blocks from MU123 … Uh … probably not worth it to buy the books on eBay.)

When I do those, I perform a bit better than I did on the MST124 AYR quiz.  I note my weak areas, I study the sheets, and I do better.  But it kept feeling like it was only checking a very, very narrow section of maths at that level.

So I went to my original plan for MST124 preparation: Khan Academy!  (I can’t say enough good things about this site.  My older son enjoys it about as much as he enjoys Roblox.)  I’ve been working over there for about a week, now, shoring up as many weak spots as I can find, but that list keeps getting longer, and longer, and longer.  The site can hone in on your weaknesses the way painkiller commercials claim their product can.  And the areas of study can be very, very specific.  Like … “Sinusoidal models word problems“.  I have to decipher it before I can decide whether or not I know it and/or need it.  (I apparently do know it.  But good luck ever getting me to recognise it.)

They’re not that difficult to study, it’s just that there’s SO MANY OF THEM!  I’ve “mastered” something like 650 identified skills, and have more than 500 to go.  Granted, that’s for all the maths they can currently teach and evaluate on Khan Academy.  I won’t need anywhere near all of them by the time I start MST124.  But the skills can sometimes take an entire night.  I’ve got a hundred and thirtysomeodd days until the module starts, and a lot of those are on holiday.  In a lot of ways, the pre-study preparation feels harder than TU100 was.

Unlike TU100, though, I’m learning tons, not just practising.  And the practise is definitely necessary to get me into fighting shape again for the module.  And more practise.  And some more.  And it’s also fun.  But that part isn’t different from TU100.  I’ve really enjoyed my journey so far.

I won’t know until after I’m in the middle of it which was better for preparation: The OU MST124 preparation site, designed specifically for it, or Khan Academy, which is pretty much drinking from the fire hose.  Or Niagara Falls.  We’ll see how it goes.

One final bit for today: Results for TU100 will be in on 19 July.  My tutor will give us a cheeky heads-up if we passed or not before that, but nothing more.

With my (first draft) final assignment in the can long ago and myself recovered, I can put TU100 firmly in my rearview mirror, much like a fox run over when you’re late for the airport.  I only have to talk about it again when I get my results, which will take a while.  How did I do on my de facto EMA?  Well, let’s take a look at what it covers:

  • A four page report on concepts relating nominally to “appropriate technology” for different socioeconomic landscapes, but in reality it’s … any report ever.  I’ve definitely nailed the structure, speaking to the right audience, defining my terms, and referencing.  But it’s arbitrary and my confidence lacks any justifiable source.  In a worst-case scenario, I could lose 10 out of 30 marks, but realistically probably 5.
  • A 200 word snip from a job application cover letter.  These are essentially free points, so I’m expecting the full 10 marks, but maybe 8.
  • Sense activity, full 50 marks, ‘nough said.
  • Understanding and normalising relational databases.  The technical side of this I’m very confident with, so this is more about my ability to describe the process, and present information in an appropriate form (in this case some tables).  I’ve defined every technical term within an inch of its life.  Maybe I’ve missed something and I’ll miss 2 of the 21 marks available.
  • A task involving understanding the Data Protection Act 1998, and security and encryption.  This task is possibly the best marriage of its explicit and implicit goals, as the explicit goals mentioned are highly relevant, and the implicit goals of tailoring your message to your audience appear to be equally weighted.  I’m again unduly confident here, but we’ll hedge another 2 out of 19 marks available.
  • A page of maths and the creation of a spreadsheet, full 40 marks.
  • Argument mapping.  This one’s difficult, as there’s lots of moving parts.  There’s logic, there’s reading comprehension, there’s technical detailing … It’s specifically stated that there’s no one answer, but that’s whatever the nice version of a lie is.  A fib?  It’s a fib.  The structure and progression of the questions give the game away.  The worst part is that we’re analysing what appears to be an Italian text that’s been run through Google Translate.  I re-did this portion completely three times, so I’m not excessively proud of my chances.  Maybe 25 out of 30 marks.
  • Risk analysis and the data security CIA triad (mentioned briefly in a MOOC review roundup).  So here’s the problem: I think this one is really about presenting information in an easy to understand format.  I’ve therefore shot for the moon on this one and presented it in a non-standard but easy-to-understand format.  This could backfire like a Chevy in winter.  Worst case is maybe 6 out of 10 marks.  On the other hand, I love the irony of taking an unnecessary risk in a task about risk analysis, so I’m not changing it.

This leaves 185 marks in a worst-case scenario from 210 non-skills marks.  That’s 88%.  If we assume that I do similarly dismally on the 40 skills marks (which would be 35), that’s still comfortably in the distinction range.  How likely is my worst case scenario?  Unlikely.  Realistically, I would mark it at 93-95%.


So how do I feel about TU100?  I don’t feel overwhelmingly like it was a waste of my time, but it’s a waste of money.  That much outdated and poorly constructed material is worth maybe £500.  I had a good tutor and good support from other tutors, but not really in line with the amount of money which was spent.  It did, however, give me an excellent chance to practise my skills.  And remind me how much I hate group tasks.  It’s for the best that it’s coming to an end, and I hope they A) pull the plug on Sense, and B) stop telling people not to take Scratch courses ahead of the module if they use Scratch going forward.

And studying at the Open University?  It’s brilliant.  It’s perfectly suited to my lifestyle.  I’m glad I’m taking it slowly, as I hit quite a few personal challenges and had to keep scaling things back over and over, but I was consistently able to keep up with the work.  I’m quite happy with the study prep I did, as it worked well.  I know the rest will be harder than this year, but I’m really looking forward to the next short five years.


Onto the greener pastures of TM129 and MST124, part-time student finance loans for the next academic year opened sometime in the last few days, so that’s sorted.  Much quicker this year than last in many ways.


And that brings me to … The first year of this blog being complete!  And I’ve written a lot.  I have no idea of what I’ll write about during the summer this year, but I’ll find something to keep me busy and learning.  Certainly I’m going to tackle as much of maths as I can before MST124, and somehow I don’t think that OpenLearn is going to be of much help.

By the calendar’s reckoning, I still have five weeks of TU100 left.  By my sanity’s reckoning, I checked out about three weeks ago.  I’m going to split the difference and have everything wrapped up in about a week.

My poor sanity.  It just didn’t have what it takes.  It saw Block 5 Part 5 and Block 6, and it locked itself into a cage and started gibbering like a monkey and flinging … Well, it wasn’t happy.  TU100 gets progressively more condescending and less relevant as it goes on.  Session 1 of Block 5 Part 5 had such insultingly bad activities that it took me two weeks to swallow the bile and deal with it.

What’s wrong with the activities?  Much the same as what was wrong with OpenLearn’s Taking Your First Steps Into Higher Education.  I fear that asking for exploration but having “right” answers is going to be a theme with the OU.  By which, of course, I mean that the emperor is a kind and benevolent emperor, and his robes are as resplendant as he is wise.  And totally exist.  (Dissenting with the wisdom of the module isn’t popular with many tutors or fellow students.)

Block 6 wasn’t infuriating, for which I now rejoice.  (Yay.)  It was, however, boring and completely irrelevant.  I couldn’t even recognise it as belonging to the same module.  Session 5 is pretty much a travel blog from a trip to Nepal.  Without pictures of monkeys.  How do you write a travel blog from a trip to Nepal and you don’t include pictures of monkeys stealing wallets?

Anyhow, that’s the bad.  The great is that I’m done with the studying!  I’ll do a more proper wrap-up on that sometime next month, I expect, but for now, I want to rest for a long, long time.  But I’m going to finish up the last odds and ends of the final EMA/TMA06 first, which should be by the end of the week.  (Tutorials and tutorial-inspired rewites notwithstanding.)

My iCMA57 (the only one which contributes to the module results) came in at a 93%, and would have been higher if I’d followed my own advice about looking through the other iCMAs before hand.  It leaves my OCAS (Overall Continuous Assessment Score) at 97%, so I certainly can’t complain.  Well, clearly I can.  But not about that.  I’m really pleased with that, having come from where I came from.  Anyway, back to TMA06.

Ah, I love the smell of TMA due dates in the morning.  It smells like … Desperation.

This morning’s desperation is caused by the due date of TU100’s TMA05, which requires input from others to complete.  I hear there’s actual collaborative work going on in TM129, so this isn’t as bad as that, but it’s still enough to have some rocking back and forth and drooling.

So what’s going on?  What’s the big deal?  As mentioned previously, TMA05 requires us to create a video (or audio) presentation.  This is enough to get under most people’s skins, but they probably should have been prepared for it.  The more insidious part is that we have to offer feedback on two other presentations, and we have to evaluate the feedback given on our own presentation.  Which means that we’re at the mercy of other students to complete the assignment.

I love the impossible position educators are put in with this type of thing.  There’s no way out of it for them.  It’s the Circle of Strife:

Huh.  I thought that would end up being a circle.  Okay, it’s the Linear Sequence of Strife.  Yes, it’s unfair.  Yes, your performance will end up partially based on what others around you do or don’t do.  Educators can choose to set you up for failure in the real world by either not including group work, or by including it but not marking you down for other people’s suckitude.  Or they can help you get used to it early.

So what are you supposed to do?  Well, learn how to cope.  Here are some coping mechanisms I’ve seen used both in schools and work:

  • The Apprentice
    • With the Apprentice mechanism, you don’t worry so much about the overall end result.  In fact, the brighter the flames are in which it goes up, the less attention will be drawn to you.  As we’ve all learned by leaving the TV on when this show comes on, the plan here is simply to look for the nearest bus, and figure out which of the people around you is lightest, and therefore easiest to throw under it.
  • The Ostrich
    • Ostriches don’t actually stick their head in the sand.  That doesn’t fit my narrative, however, so Imma ignore it, and pretend they do.  You can likewise just stick your head in the sand, ignore the fact that everybody else is doing as much on the project as Simon Cowell’s girdles are to fool anyone, and just get your part done.
  • The Atlas
    • Time to take the entire project on your shoulders, and hope you don’t get squished
  • Save the Cheerleader, Save the Project
    • You could just try to rally everybody else into doing their part.  Good luck.  We’re all behind you.

My personal mechanism is the Facilitator.  I get my part done as early as humanly possible, and hope that makes things a bit easier for everybody else.  If they’re not waiting on me, it’s one less excuse they can kick their legs up and rest on.

In reality, you’re likely going to have to hope for the Tag Team.  This one holds out for the chance that there’s at least one other person on the project that’s in the same position.  Together, you start early, play the Cheerleader, take the whole thing on your shoulders, ignore what isn’t being done, and when all else (and the project) fails, you check your phone for bus schedules.

The Tag Team worked well for me this time.  I got the TMA in about two weeks ago after three or four of us all commented on each other’s presentations.  I’m expecting one or two points off for including a chart in landscape instead of portrait orientation, which someone has said got them marked down in a previous TMA, and probably two points off because my presentation expanded from the maximum allowed 90 seconds to 91 seconds when it was processed through the module’s transcoder.  So hopefully between 94 and 97 this time.  I’ll know in one or two weeks, and then I’ll post the presentation with my personal details scrubbed.


2017/3/31 Edit: I thought I’d have at least a week to redo my title page before posting up the presentation.  Nope!  I got my TMA back in just three days.  Clearly my tutor has gone a bit loopy from trying to get it all done so quickly, so I ended up with another generous full 100 marks.  I’ll take it!  As usual, it came with some great feedback for future reference.  I’ll discuss what the numbers look like now when I’m ready to move onto the de facto EMA.

This was my presentation.  As with the Shakespeare video linked above, that’s just my voice on the video, and not a speech synthesiser as was suggested in my feedback.  Heh.

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After five days of websites, phone calls, and emails, I’m finally enrolled on my next modules for Q62.  I’m finishing out Stage 1 with TM129 (Technologies in practice) and MST124 (Essential mathematics 1).  Enrolment for October 2017 opened on the 9th, and it finally got completely sorted this morning.  The website wouldn’t let me register on the first day, because it thought I was trying to take the modules in America from a UK address.  I don’t even know what that means, but I had to call the next day to sort it out.  Once they corrected that issue, they said I hadn’t sent in proof of residence in the UK.  Finding it pointless to argue what had or hadn’t been done, versus what had or hadn’t been lost by their IT systems, I sent in more proof.  The next hurtle was that they registered me on the phone for the modules, but didn’t tie those modules to my degree, so they wouldn’t count toward it.  (In the long run, this isn’t an issue, but it would have required more fuss next year, since my Stage 1 wouldn’t be cleared, even though I’d taken all the required modules.)  Student Finance England should start taking applications for part-time studies in the 2017/2018 academic year in around mid-May, but putting my SFE CR number in now switched me from just reserving the spot in the module until 20 April to being fully registered in it.

As with TU100, I will be on one of TM129’s final presentations.  The module’s final run is October 2018, but I think it has a February 2018 run before that.  It covers three main areas: Networking, Linux, and Robotics.  I’m glad that the degree is rounding out the ICT experience of its programme with these areas.  I’m extremely familiar with the first two, and a very poor hobbyist in the third.  My six year old son helped me build little toy robots last year, and this year he’s been working with a brilliant snap-together circuitry kit his auntie in America got him for Christmas.  Even though the practical portions of the robotics section is entirely virtual, I’m certain he’ll enjoy sharing those parts together.  It also comes with a copy of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, which was one of my favourite books in seventh grade.

MST124, I’m not ashamed to say, is a bit outside my abilities.  I will not be receiving a distinction on this module.  As only a bare pass is required and the specific outcome does not impact my degree classification in the slightest, I’m using this to full advantage and studying something I know I’ll only do about average on.  The trade-off is that I should learn and grow the most with this module.

I’ve finally found the block descriptions for MU123 and MST124, so here’s what you learn:

MU123

  • Basic maths review
  • Vocabulary and notation
  • Types of numbers
  • Statistical summaries (types of averages, significant figures, etc.)
  • Algebra
  • Graphs
  • Inequalities
  • Geometry
  • Advanced algebra
  • Quadratics
  • Statistical pictures
  • Trigonometry
  • Exponentials
  • “Maths everywhere” (which I’m guessing is making it practical, which means story problems)

MST124

  • Algebra review
  • Graphs and equations review
  • Functions
  • Trigonometry review
  • Coordinate geometry and vectors
  • Differentiation
  • Differentiation methods and integration
  • Integration methods
  • Matrices
  • Sequences and series
  • Taylor polynomials
  • Complex numbers

Now, why the OU can’t just put this list side-by-side someplace and let people choose is beyond me.  Looking at this, I can see that I had cleared MU123 by the ninth grade, including the level of trigonometry taught there.  I’m about halfway up the MST124 list, having done some differential calculus, but in dire need of a refresher.  I would be bored to tears on MU123.  So even though I’m quite certain I’ll get toward the lower end of between 40% and 84% on my end-of-module exam, MST124’s my route.  (I’ve heard the exam is multiple choice, though, so anything’s possible.)

It also has a revise & review site that opens up next week for early registrants to prepare them in case we’ve forgotten as much maths as we’ve learned.

Between this week and last, the final two assessments have been opened for us to view and get started on.

The first is TMA05.  On the surface, this is about online communications, particularly Web 2.0 methods.  In reality, the first section is about creating multimedia presentations and a structured plan to any presentation, and the second section is about giving and getting constructive criticism.  I couldn’t even tell you what the third part was about.  It’s the Sense section, and when I went to set up my folders for TMA05, I found that I’d already set them up and completed the Sense program.  I didn’t remember doing it, but the comments which were in it were clearly my comments, everything worked correctly, and the written portions of the answer even seemed correct.  I haven’t had any alcohol for the last six months or so, so it wasn’t my drunk self chipping in.  I must have done it after a long study session when I was half asleep.  (My drunk self commonly chips in with projects, but it’s typically not so helpful.)

Having already had to do a multimedia presentation for a previous MOOC, I was prepared for this one, and got it down with a minimum of fuss.  (I did cheat, however, by deciding that the module’s outdated and unsupported tool of choice, Picasa, sucked rotten eggs, and used PowerPoint, instead, which still sucks rotten eggs, but for entirely different reasons not relating to it being generally unusable.  The cheating was clearly documented in my TMA, for those worried about it.)  There’s a lot of complaining going on over this task.  Like, a lot a lot. A lot.  Bunch of whiners.  Close your eyes and think of Student Finance England, guys.

Multimedia presentations are the modern world’s version of oral reports: Nobody likes doing them, nobody likes watching them, and nobody likes marking them, but there’s a limited amount of creativity in the world of education, and while it’s a half-arsed attempt at something different, at least it is a little different.

I don’t have the ability to get on with the feedback bit yet.  I’ve had my presentation up for a week, now, and am still the only person in my tutor group with it done.  I have to wait until after two others finish theirs, then catch up to the point where they can critique mine.  Here’s hoping there’s enough criticism to go around come the due date.

The EMA is also TMA06 for this presentation of TU100.  Instead of a 40% passing mark, it’s actually just a 30% pass, so long as my total average for the module is 40%.  If I didn’t submit iCMA57 or TMA05 and got a 30% on TMA06, I’d still finish the module with 73%.  Since TMA06 has 250 marks (with 40 of them being “at large” skills points), I only need to scrape together 75 marks to pass, and a distinction is a bit less than three times that.  The Sense and maths/spreadsheet portions combine for 90 marks, so I could pack the module away if I wanted at this point.

The other 120 marks are spread out over summarising and report writing, study reflection in the context of comparing learning outcomes to employment, and two questions which are really nothing more than regular TMA questions on Block 5 (about database storage and arguing academic points).  I’ve got somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 marks to blow and still get a distinction, so I may as well give it a shot.  But it’s frankly a bit like what my dad called weeing in a dark suit.  I’ll get a warm feeling, but nobody will really notice.

At the last tutorial I went to, we received an update on the Stage 2 modules for Q62 (and Q67) which are being retired within the next few years.  Some changes are excitingly small, and others are large enough to make me change my plans.

Probably the biggest news is what isn’t changing.  M250 – Object Oriented Java Programming is almost certainly being replaced with another Java module, and might even still be called M250.  This is good news for me, because I was worried after taking the Learn to Code for Data Analysis MOOC on OpenLearn and the news that TM112 included Python that a new Python module would be replacing M250.  I don’t care one way or the other if they teach using Python or Java, object-oriented is object-oriented to me at this point, and the skills seem fairly transferable.  But I’d prefer to have a more mature module than a complete tear-down which would be required by switching to Python.  Hopefully they’ll be able to preserve quite a bit of the existing material and give it a good update in the process.

The largest change is probably happening to the Networking path for Q62.  T216 currently takes 50% of the Stage 2 modules, and is reportedly very difficult.  There are so many great things to study at Stage 2 that I had recently made the decision that I just couldn’t justify the full 60 credits required for it, and so was going to take four programming and developer based modules, instead, and just certify in networking on my own time.

That’s no longer necessary.  T216 is being split into two 30 credit modules, with the first half being taught in Stage 2, and the second half in Stage 3.  Given the effort level reportedly required, this seems like a good idea.  Most importantly, it makes the networking path much more flexible. (Outdated, see edit below.)

It’s not the only module being shrunk, though.  T215, which was the only other 60 credit module in Stage 2, is also becoming a 30 credit module.  The other 30 credits aren’t be replaced, however, as there was apparently a lot of redundancy already with an existing Stage 3 module.  This updates the module and removes the redundancy.

Another largish change is that a new TM254 – Software Engineering module is being introduced.  (Final module code is pending … And everything else, really.)  This includes parts of both M256 and M258, and I imagine replaces both of them … But I’m not entirely clear on this last part.

So here’s the summary of changes:

Stage 1:

TU100 My digital life – Final presentation being taught now, being replaced by TM111 Introduction to computing and information technology 1 (30 credits) and TM112 Introduction to computing and information technology 2 (30 credits)

Stage 2:

M250 Object-oriented Java programming – Final presentation October 2017, replacement also probably M250, or another Java module

T215 Communication and information technologies – Final presentation October 2017, replacement an unnamed 30 credit module

T216 Cisco networking (CCNA) – Final presentation October 2017, replacement an unnamed 30 credit module at Stage 2, and TM357 at Stage 3 (Outdated, see edit below)

M256 Software development with Java – Final presentation February 2018, full or partial replacement by TM254 Software engineering

M258 IT project and service management – Final presentation October 2018, full or partial replacement by TM254 Software engineering

Stage 3:

Currently unknown, aside from the addition of TM357 as the second half of the Cisco networking module.

As I’ve said, all this will change my plans.  I had been expecting to take M250, M269, M256 and TT284 (Web technologies, which I think is also just going to be refreshed similar to M250) at Stage 2, and self studying the CCNA.  Now I think I’d like to take M250, M269, TM254 and whatever the 30 credit T216 replacement is.  Stage 3 is nearly half a decade away at this point, so I’m not going to worry about it just now.


Completely unrelated, I’ve got my TMA04 submitted.  The topics covered are statistical analysis, creating graphs, determining averages, personal/professional development planning, loops and lists in Sense, and report research & writing.  And probably also referencing.

In US terms, I’d give my report all of a solid C-, but that’s difficult to translate into the OU model.  I also intentionally broke the rules for the PDP section, as I’m not going to lie and pretend the ticky-box method of self reflection is useful for me, so I expect to lose a huge chunk of points for that, but it’s only worth 10 marks anyway.

If it were me grading, I’d take 10 marks off my report, 5 marks off my PDP, none off the Sense stuff, and I’ve probably forgotten 2 marks worth of stuff on the statistical analysis.  Additionally, my tutor seems to take points off the 20 skills marks in direct proportion to marks taken off the rest of the assessment, so that’s another 2 marks off.  All together, I’d score me an 81 on this one.  It makes me wonder how badly I’d have to do in order to fail an assessment.


Edit 2017/2/24: TMA04 results came back last week.  Somehow I scored another 100%.  I can’t really say that this is good news, though, because it highlights how vastly different my expectations are from my tutor’s expectations.  I can’t truly calibrate my expectations with the OU’s until the EMA comes back, but it seems as though there needs to be a large shift.

Edit 2017/4/3: T216 module descriptions now indicate that T216 is being split into TM257 and TM258, both at Stage 2.  As networking once again requires half of the Stage 2 modules, there’s no flexibility to it, and frankly no point to me taking it.  Books off eBay it is!

Several students on the TU100 module right now are doing their best to work to the study planner.  Some are right on track, some are slightly behind, a few have fallen a fair bit behind.  They all might be headed for something of a wall.

In the early weeks of the module, each part of each block gets a nice, clearly defined week on which to work, then there’s a lengthy, roomy week on which to work on the TMA that covers that block, and then the next part starts the same week the TMA is due.

Then things accelerate a bit, and there’s a bit of a compression to this timing, where the TMA is due just four days after the end of the study week for the relevant parts.  This is mitigated, however, by having two weeks of Christmas Break in the middle to sort things through if you’re particularly under it.

But this TMA, I think, is going to leave some people gasping for air.  TMA04 is due four days before block 3 is finished.

If they pay a lot of attention to the Learning Outcomes, students should notice that nothing in TMA04 is based on part 5, it’s all based on parts 1-4 of block 3.  That means that they should put off starting on part 5 until after their TMA is submitted.

In fairness to the study planner, that is the order in which it shows the module progressing, but I think it’s going to catch out more than a handful.  Additionally, that still only gives a few days to sort out the TMA, and around half of the points of the assignment are covered in part 4.

If you can at all help it, get a few weeks out ahead of the study planner, stay ahead, and don’t trust the study planner.  (I say this having only barely gotten ahead again, and looking forward to the next block which says, basically, under no circumstances attempt to start this block early, due to collaborative project purposes.  Good luck on your time management!)

Hoo-boy.  Working ahead of the module schedule.  That’s great, isn’t it?

On one hand, it’s awesome.  I submitted TMA03 on 12 December, and couldn’t begin any other study, because block 3 didn’t open until I was on an extended trip in America.  There was snow on Christmas morning, and enough food to reassert my waistline as an American.  I had over a month off with no studying to do, and I didn’t have a single worry in the back of my mind on holiday.  And then I was able to pick it back up right on schedule with the other students doing TU100.

On the other hand … Wow.  I’m finding it so hard to get traction on my studies that I think I might still be snow driving.

First, my tutor dropped a hint that she thought that one of the TMA questions was asking for basically paragraphs of information, when I had interpreted it as a short-form answer, as it had no word count and could easily be answered in a single sentence.  So it took me until the last day to find the motivation to change my answer and re-submit.  The entire section is only worth 6 marks out of 100, so having a correct answer be too short wouldn’t have impacted my score a great deal, but that’s exactly the kind of thinking that has been killing my motivation.

Aside from motivation, the other big problem is sleep.  I’m still dealing with jet lag, and my youngest hit toddlerhood the very day we got back, and he’s decided that bedtimes are utter BS.  He hates them more than I hate ticky-box evaluation.  The bedtime is a parenting issue, which is the subject of another blog entirely, and one I’ve handled well before.  But for this week …

It means that just four days in, I’ve fallen behind two days.  It’s going to be an uphill struggle.  Going to be hard to get it in gear.  Gotta put the br– Okay, sorry about the car analogies.  My car also gave up the ghost and I had to get a new one.  Like I said, rough week.

But next Tuesday I’ll have TMA03 back, I should be through at least one and a half parts of block 3, and should even be halfway done with TMA04.  Here’s to wishful thinking, and hoping my study prep has grounded me well for time management when it counts.


Edit 2017/1/27: TMA03 results in.  Very happy with my 93 on this one, but I really don’t know where the marks came off, as my tutor didn’t really state it.  There was a definition missing from one question which I can agree with, and a formatting issue in another location which I do agree with, but was made because the tutor warned against using fancy formatting.  Still, can’t argue much with the score.  My OCAS for the module so far is 46, and I need a 40 to pass, so I could quit handing in TMAs and doing iCMAs and still pass the OCAS portion of the module.

I’ve heard it said that uni students don’t have opinions, only references.  I’m already starting to feel that.

My last TMA came back marked this morning, just as I finished off my second draft for TMA03.  (I gave it an early submission just in case something happens and I forget to submit my final draft later.)  The last one had its own share of references, which I did by hand, and it took me ages to get them formatted correctly into the OU’s particular flavour of the Harvard referencing model.  This time, the references section was literally the largest portion of my TMA, and there’s no way I could do it without quitting my job and saying goodbye to my children for a few months a year.  Enter reference management software.

On one of the multi-module Facebook groups I’m in, someone asked what reference software everybody used.  I had no idea what they were even talking about, so was very interested in the discussion.  Somebody mentioned that they used CiteThisForMe, so I gave it a look.  It was like Christmas, but if you had super boring parents.

Different reference management software packages have different functionality, but in general they try to identify a source (typically by being fed a URL or by clicking a browser plug-in button when on a cited page) and extract information from that source.  This includes things like the author’s name, the date of publication, journal titles, volume numbers, etc.  It then plugs that information into a template for your desired reference model, either letting you copy-and-paste it, or inserting it for you with a word processor plug-in.

I tested CiteThisForMe with a reference I’d done for my last TMA, which took me three or four minutes to write with the OU Library’s help page up on the Harvard referencing FAQs.  It took a single cut and paste of a URL!  Everything was more or less correct, but the formatting was slightly wrong.  That’s when I noticed that I could refine the Harvard reference to Harvard referencing for Open University.  Sadly, it still wasn’t quite perfect, as it had formatting for a previous year.

I soon discovered that most reference management software get their formats from an open source program called BibTeX.  BibTeX itself is hard to use, but other fantastically easy tools make use of it as a resource.  Not all tools kept their formats updated regularly, though.

I tried out a few other tools, and was happy using RefME for a few days before I was approached by the head of an academic institution asking for assistance in assessing and choosing a reference managagement tool.  Coincidentally, she had also recently been exposed to them for the first time, and wanted to know how the one she saw, Zotero, stacked up to the rest of the field.

In her case, Zotero turned out to be the best fit due to its browser plugins, Word plugins, and ease of use.  If I had my summer of pre-uni study prep back, though, I’d heavily invest time into figuring out how to make Docear work for me.  It’s an entire suite for academic writing, and in addition to a decent (if slightly unweildy) reference management tool, it also includes things like mind mapping, PDF annotating, and other things.  For many, it would be perfect for the TMA notes document of my last post.

You can’t just leave your references to the software.  They get the references slightly wrong often enough that you have to go over each one and tweak them.  But it takes a three or four minute job down to just half a minute.  That makes a large difference when you’re writing a TMA and cycle between eight web sources before finally deciding on two and tossing the other six away.  After you’ve already re-written that section four times.