The waiting is over, the official launch date is tomorrow, and all my ducks are in a row.  Well, I have no ducks, so I’ve neatly arranged my stationery just so, instead.

I have little to add to my status from the last post.  I did finish with all of Block 1 before the start date, our tutor forums have opened, and nearly all communications with fellow students outside the Facebook group has stopped!  I hadn’t really expected that last one, so it’s just lucky that I jumped into the FB group, even though I’ve stopped using FB apart from that.  The Early Bird Café forum was always going to close before the module started, but I’d assumed that student chatter would migrate over to the students association forum for TU100, instead.  Apparently it’s a bit tough for some to find.  (That site makes my kitchen junk drawer look like a hospital.)

I’ve used that forum to revive another student’s great idea.  (I don’t want to post the student’s name, as I haven’t checked if it should be broadcast all over the internet for no good reason.)  The idea was to have some programming challenges in Sense.  Someone runs into a problem while writing code, finds a creative solution for it, then challenges other students to see what solutions they can come up with to satisfy the same problem.  Students who get stuck can then check the challenger’s code to see what they did.

The original challenge involved adding SenseBoard functionality to a number guessing game, which was awesome.  (A SenseBoard is an Arduino-based input/ouput device for Sense.  They’ve stopped selling them, but the Digital Sandbox for Scratch is the closest I’ve found for it.)

My first challenge involved making a custom score counter of arbitrary digits, which was probably the most difficult part of my Jet Bike Steve game.  In Scratch, I used cloned sprites and a lot of modal maths for the digits.  Sense doesn’t allow this solution, so I have to stamp the digits, instead.  My initial solution used the maths from my Scratch solution, held individual digits in a list, and then stamped the list.

Within one or two hours, somebody had completely bested my design by using string slicing, which I didn’t even know was available in Sense or Scratch!  How did I not know that!?  (Because I hadn’t finished reading the programming guide, I later discovered.)  But once he mentioned he did it without maths, I realised I could split my score digits into a list without any maths.  This next revision of the challenge solution was much more optimised than my first, but still not as slick as string slicing.  But the student who used it is already on his final year of the degree (and probably read the guide at some point), so I don’t feel too bad at being shown up, and I learned two great techniques thanks to him.  And that’s the idea of the challenges.

One reason I felt this was necessary was the dismal state of the Sense Programming Guide that comes with the TU100 materials.  And ‘dismal’ may be generous.  In fact, the fiery hellish abyss of computational programming pedagogy might be generous.

It’s not actually bad, I suppose, as it isn’t wrong.  It just doesn’t fit the brief.  According to a paper presented at a symposium detailing the reasons for TU100 and Sense’s existance (Richards et al, 2012, p. 584), one of the main failings of previous OU introductory programming modules was failure to engage students with experimentation.

What they’ve done is assembled a great tool box in Sense and the SenseBoard, and then forgot to actually encourage experimentation, or put another way, to teach the students how to experiment.

Much of the Programming Guide is direct instructions of which buttons to push.  When it comes for explorative activities, the exercises are only open so far as to find the “correct” answer to a limited scenario.  There are no open-ended exercises of any kind in the guide.  It actively discourages experimentation.

It does, however, go over string slicing, so I didn’t have to discover that on my own.  It was more fun, engaging, and easily remembered that way, though.

Reference: M. Richards, M. Petra, and A. Bandara (2012) ‘Starting with Ubicomp: using the senseboard to introduce computing’, SIGCSE ’12 Proceedings of the 43rd ACM technical symposium on Computer Science Education, pp. 583-588.

As some have said in my TU100 forums, it’s my last week of freedom!  After this, it’s all deadlines and regret.  (Which isn’t a huge lateral step, as it would have been mostly regret if I hadn’t started the degree.)

Before the big start, let’s take stock: Where am I?  Well, mostly I’m done.  Okay, not with the whole module, but I’m on track to being finished with the first block (of six) before the first day of the module.  In a word, that’s terrible!  For oh so many reasons:

  • I honestly didn’t want to get very far ahead.  I was thinking that being about a week ahead would help me smooth out any emergencies that came up.  (I’ve got a wife with a medical condition that sees me in A&E for about twenty hours a year, typically on a Friday night, doing my best to worry more about her being doubled over in pain than laughing at the drunks who can’t keep from sliding out of their chairs, I’ve got a baby who wants to practice parkour before he can walk, and a six-year-old who very commonly needs emergency snuggles.  Unavoidables happen.)
  • I’m kind of running out of things to study.  Problems worth having, right?  But my study habits have proven effective, so the last thing I wanted to do was to destroy them by letting up.  I might not be able to find this steam again for this module if I take my foot off the … Petrol?  Do you guys even have that saying over here?  I’ll settle with accelerator.  I didn’t want to take my foot off the accelerator.  I don’t know how that makes it steam, but that’s what I don’t want to run out of, so acceleratoring it is.
  • What happens if I actually do run out of things?  If I’m “done” by, say, February, but there are little bits and pieces that aren’t available until May, how will I find the motivation to go back and do them?  For example, TMA02 requires you to use TMA01’s tutor feedback.  So before I can put TMA02’s first draft down, I have to have submitted TMA01, waited for its deadline to pass, wait for it to be assessed and marked, and then I can start it.  And then draft, draft again, and then maybe a draft or two.  And then draft.  And finally submit TMA02.  And then wish I’d given it a few more drafts.  But all the material for it will be ages out of mind again.

And keep in mind, all of this is while doing other computer science MOOCs on the side.  Those ones, in fairness, I’m not really giving my full attention.  I’m watching the lectures, I’m doing the activities and exercises, I’m handing in the assessments, but I’m not taking notes, doing extra reading, researching questions I have, or studying them, I’m just doing them.  Like high school.  Just showing up and doing what I’m told.  (I have a nagging feeling that didn’t turn out so well …)

So one solution I’m thinking of is increasing my study intensity.  Which one do I worry about more?  Burning out by taking on too much, or losing interest by getting bored with insufficient materials?

I have a feeling in a few years I’m going to think back on this decision quite wistfully, that my biggest study problem was not having enough to study.

Okay, then, what have I done?

Block one is allegedly about “Myself” in relation to a digital world.  I don’t recall reading anything about me, really.  I may have missed it.  I haven’t been asked my opinion on much, either, except how much more awesome the writing skills of teenagers have become due to digital technologies.  (Err …)

The first part is allegedly about making students aware of the digital nature of our world around them, but is really about making sure we can simultaneously read and think.  Go me!

The second part is allegedly about the history of computers from a curiously narrow context: The four generations of computer hardware, spanning their entire history … From the mid 1940’s to the late 1970’s.  (Also some maths about exponential growth and binary counting.) Really the second part is about taking notes.  (Mental note: NEVER AGAIN WITH THE SPRAY DIAGRAM! IT IS THE DEVIL!) (Mental notes are not covered in this part.)

The third part is allegedly about HTML and markup, but is actually about … Well, no.  It’s actually about HTML and markup.  Well done, guys.  (It also has a critical process for evaluating sources.)

The fourth part is allegedly about how digital communications technologies make the world smaller, but is really about forcing you to play with a terribly dated Java applet that someone is waaaaaay too proud of, that basically amounts to a graphical TraceRT and a minor security violation all in one!  Yay!  (There are other and better tools.  Good luck to all the tutors who have to fight with students to disable their Java security settings!)  There’s a very (very) bad primer on TCP/IP, as well.

The fifth part is part of the programming guide.  The less said about this here, the better.  I’m not a fan.

And the sixth part is … Well, I’m supposed to find out tonight.  It’s allegedly about wireless and mobile networking, but is probably really about … Iunno, maybe someone’s recipe for guacamole.  It’s hard to keep track.

I’ll have to write more about the programming guide tomorrow.  As this is the second-to-last presentation of this module, it won’t really benefit anybody, but my recommendation is to skip it and study a children’s Scratch MOOC, instead.  (See previous blog entries.)

I had finished part 2 of TU100’s first block quite a while before ‘putting it to bed.’  After completing the material and activities, one is supposed to fill out a Learning Outcomes template for each part.  It is a vile thing.

The format of the template is that you’re supposed to take each one of the part’s ‘learning objectives’ and answer a few things about it.

What I’ve done to get through these is to ignore the “How far acheived?” question, since this is a meaningless question that assumes a linear structure to what may be an abstract notion, and instead concentrated on the other question in the box, “Examples of TU100 activities?”  I can then just flip through my activities notebook and match up which ones speak to the learning objectives.

The progression field is often completely meaningless, as the learning objective may not be a continuum, but rather have a nature that is accomplished or is not accomplished.

The ‘Skills’ field is probably the must infuriating. For each learning objective you need to compare it against 36 alleged skills to determine which ones you’ve developed by reading a book.  Most of these skills are not actually skills, and many of them don’t even have any substantive meaning.  So as much as I’m against the tick-box mentality, as much as I love self-reflection for personal development … I’m afraid the tick-box mentality of the template’s designer has forced me to just jot down a couple of relevant skills and try to live with myself for not giving an activity my all.

That I have to do this nearly every single week just doesn’t sit well with me, but the above tips will at least help me get through them.

While the TU100 module doesn’t actually start for nearly three weeks, I’ve gotten a fair head-start on it, so that I could learn more about how I’m currently learning.  The Good Study Guide hits the concept of self-evaluation quite hard, and I agree with it.  Six years is a long time, there’s an enormous amount of work ahead, and I want to give myself the best possible chance.

One problem I have with this is that once I start, I’m finding it difficult to put down.  First of all, it’s fun. I really enjoy this limbo of structured independent study.  Second, I’m desirous to prove to myself that I can make this a habit, and stick with it.  I find myself making excuses so that I start working as soon as the children go to bed so that it becomes second nature to me. (For example, last night I spent ALL my down-time in the kitchen, but with the door open so I could still share snarky comments about the TV with my wife, and didn’t even realise I hadn’t had any relaxation time.)  So the end result is that I’m a good deal further ahead than I’d really wanted to be.

I’d finished Block 1, Part 1 (‘Parts’ seem intended to basically take a week) after a few days.  I’m now in the middle of Part 2, but have also already completed my first TMA.  So that people understand what I mean when I say ‘finished’ a part or session, I thought maybe I’d describe some of the techniques I’m putting into effect so far.

I have difficulty concentrating while reading text, and I don’t think I’m alone there.  I can read the same passage of text about a dozen times without concentrating well enough to absorb any meaning, or even remember what I’d just read.  The most useful active learning technique that I’ve found to counter this is taking notes while reading.  Basically, it just makes sure that my brain engages in comprehension at every thought along my reading.

I use a 10″ tablet to flip open to my reading material (so far in e-books), then go online with my laptop to fire up OneNote Online to take notes in the cloud.  My notes then progress paragraph-by-paragraph, because I often find that doing so retains the clustered ideas found in each paragraph, and linking from paragraph to paragraph serially helps the flow of my notes.  (I said this much more succinctly in my TMA, and may be back to edit this section after the TMAs are marked, but I’m leaving my exact words out in case someone else subconsciously uses similar wording on their TMA and it triggers the OU’s anti-collusion software.)  I then write out a simplified bullet-point outline of the text.  So by the time I get done with a section of reading, I’ve re-written that section with a handful of words.

Then when I need to revise, I can read just my notes, which bring up the memories I associated when taking the notes, and I retrieve the entire meaning in a fraction of the time.  So how much writing am I doing, and how much time am I saving during revision?  Good question.  Let me check my numbers.

TU100 My Digital Life Block 1 Part 1 is roughly 14,000 words long.  Reading all of that and taking notes on it took approximately 6 hours (including activities), and condensed it down to roughly 3000 words (not including activities).  3000 words may seem like a lot, but I can barely keep birthday cards down to 3000 words.  (Imagine how I feel when a TMA says I have 200 words to say something!)

But that’s an excellent example that I have to do better.  I’ve cut down what I’m reading a lot, but 1 in 5 words still leaves a loooot of words behind.  On the other hand, it doesn’t take me much time to type the words, and the result is that I can recall them and their meaning very easily.  It might take MORE time to try increasing brevity beyond what I’m already doing.  If retyping every word would help me learn the information better (which, it won’t) I’d probably do it.

On a completely separate note, I’m also concurrently doing the MIT Introduction to Computer Science & Programming Using Python course on edX.  I really want to complete the entire course, but worried that I wouldn’t have enough time for both that course and my actual university course.  But it seems I needn’t have worried.  The MIT course takes about a night of my time a week, and the TU100 stuff (so far) takes about 4.  But we’ll see, as they’re both likely to ramp up.  As it stands, though, I could stop working on TU100 entirely until a week and a half before the end of the MIT course before I had to do any more work.

The module website opened two days ago, and wow, what a difference between expectations and reality.

Although the OU website feels cobbled-together from a lot of different initiatives over the last several years, the individual componant parts are usually quite high quality.  For example, the OU online library is a thing of absolute beauty.  The ease with which I can come up with nearly any peer-reviewed study is astonishing.  (Not to mention so interesting that I’m seriously looking at the cost of 10-credit modules to retain access to it after I finish my degree.)

The module website for TU100 is likewise high quality.  Though some things are a bit difficult to find (normally because something has been renamed since directions to it were created), it’s over-all a great way to organise the huge amounts of data I’m going to have to assimilate this year.

The best news is that I don’t have to wait for any of my materials to arrive before my soft start.  All texts are available online, as well as nearly every other resource.  There are only two things that are not entirely available online: the SenseBoard itself, and some full-length TV episodes from an OU/BBC collaboration.  The Sense software, however, has a virtual SenseBoard so that the actual one isn’t strictly necessary, and there are clips of the TV episodes relevant to our studies online.  I could do the entire module with what’s available now.

The module site is broken down into three columns: Assessment and Support information, the planner, and resources.

The most important of these is the planner.  It defaults to showing 5 weeks ahead, but can also show the entire module, broken down into a week-by-week guideline of what to study when.  In addition to being a to-do list, it also has tick-boxes to track your progress, and links directly to the relevant resource for each step.

The assessment and support information column has the names, due dates, and results for the various types of assessment: TMA (Tutor Marked Assignment) and iCMA (Interactive Computer Marked Assignment) are the only two for TU100, but TMA6 is also an EMA (End of Module Assignment).  Contact information for your Tutor (and tutorials information) or Student Services is also displayed.

The final resources column is almost as invaluable as the planner.  It has any news relevant to the module, discussion forums, and then links to pages where resources have been grouped by type or use.  So what’s a resource?  It could be an online or eReader book, a diagram, a questionairre, a hand-out, software download, or basically anything else you need to get your module done.  Obviously as one of the things we’ll be studying is the Internet and accessing things there, you’ll have to visit other sites for that, but otherwise, it’s a great self-contained collection of information.  It almost wouldn’t require you to leave the site to complete the module if it wasn’t specifically teaching you about other parts of the Internet.

Also, I found out that my materials were shipped out yesterday, so even though I don’t technically need them, they should be here shortly.