## TM129 Early Start: TMA00 and exploring the ePortfolio

My TM129 materials finally showed up yesterday.  I’ve already described the box contents, there was nothing unexpected.  I’ve had fun re-reading I, Robot though.

TM129 has one TMA for each of its three blocks, but they won’t be visible to read until closer to their due dates.  (My experience on TU100 tells me that it’s possible the module team isn’t done writing them, yet.)  I gave TMA00 a glance, expecting it be along the lines of write something about why you’re taking the class, and make sure you know how to zip and upload.

On the one hand, I was right: Those things are part of TMA00.  But the second half of it wants us to explore the ePortfolio.

TM129’s ePortfolio is nominally a record of your learning on the module: Activities that are somewhat more involved than practice exercises, and somewhat less involved than TMA questions.  After completing them, you’re asked to discuss the activity, particularly focusing on what skills it demonstrates and what avenues of study it opens up.  The pitch is that you could even show it to prospective employers to show them how much you’ve learned! (Pro tip: Never, ever show the ePortfolio to a prospective employer.  Or anyone.  Ever.)

In reality, the ePortfolio appears to be a tool meant to tie your study to your learning objectives.  And that’s cool!  Because it tells you how to get top grades on your TMAs, EMA, and the module.  The better you can sign-post how your answers match the learning objectives, the better you’re going to do.  In fact, the ePortfolio extra guidance essentially spells out how you can get top marks on your ePortfolio entries and therefore your TMAs.  (It also makes it very, very clear that if you want to half-arse it and just paste a screen shot and a three-line summary, you’re still going to pass TM129.  Welcome to university!)

So how does this fit into TMA00?  You’re asked to make an ePortfolio entry.  Not a fake one, and not a TMA00 specific one.  You’re supposed to read through the ePortfolio and choose any one activity to give a go.  I’d like to shake the hand of the genius who dreamed that up.  It’s a brilliant way to engage the students in A) familiarising themselves with the types of activities contained therein, B) the relative effort levels required, and C) give some thought as to what will be required to complete them.  If they’d asked students to do those things, about a quarter would probably actually spend any thought on it.

I chose an activity from the networking block (of course) and it was something I’d done a million times before: Diagramming my home network.  The trouble with this (and I suspect most things in the networking block … and the Linux block … and possibly the robotics block …) is that if I’ve done those things a million times, how am I going to learn anything, and how am I going to tie not learning anything to my learning objectives?  (Without lying, I mean.  I could take the coward’s way out, but there’s no challenge in that.)

I’m keen to see how my tutor responds to my solution.  To paraphrase Kirk, I changed the conditions of the TMA.  I set myself a challenge that yielded the same result as the proferred activity, but did it in a different way than directed.  (I also did it the way that I was directed, just to cover all the bases.)  I then tied the learning outcomes to the self-created task, and wrote about that, instead.  I highly suspect this will work, but I’ll let you know.

(To be clear, though, students are told to discuss the skills and knowledge displayed by the activity, not to discuss what was learned.)

Anyway, it’s not the only TMA work I’ve done this week.  I’ve also done half of MST124’s TMA01.  I’ve decided to use Word for my TMAs, since that’s likely the only place I’ll need to use written maths skills in the future.  I’ve finished Unit 1, and will complete the rest of the TMA after the module starts and I get through Unit 2.

## MST124 early start

Whilst many of my TM129 peers received their module materials yesterday, I’m still (sort of) waiting for mine.  I’m only sort of waiting, because A) the James May show on the DVD is on YouTube, B) I already have an e-copy of the Microsoft Networking Essentials book, and C) the I, Robot book was a favourite of mine in junior high school.  As these are the only three things in the box, I can probably stop worrying.

I’ve looked a bit at the TM129 online materials, which starts on the Robotics block, but I’m not really bothered by it.  My studying will be very similar in style to TU100 (active reading through bullet-point notes, combined with activities stored in a OneNote notebook on the cloud), so while I probably will start the study a bit early, it’s not really necessary.

MST124, on the other hand … I can’t really figure out how to study this.  The first half of the module or so is going to be revision.  (That’s “review” to any other Yanks in the audience.)  I’ve spent a few hours this weekend trying to “study” it, but all I’m really doing is glancing over the descriptions, then working on the activities.  As it’s all review, I haven’t come across anything that I can’t do, yet, so I don’t know what to do when that happens.

I’ve got two weeks to study each unit, more or less, and there are twelve units.  In that time, I need to get through around 100 pages of text, a few hundred exercises (or at least several dozen), possibly sit through a tutorial, and get through either half of a TMA or an iCMA.  There’s probably more than a few exercises in Maxima thrown in, as well.  It’s not bad at all, it’s just not obvious where to put my time, especially when I’ll have to split it with TM129.  (Thank goodness there isn’t much actual learning to do in TM129.)

I think the first thing I’ll do is hope for recorded online TMAs.  If I can watch a recorded online TMA, I skip the roughly 30% of the time that the tutors give over to sitting around waiting for people to work on examples.  I watched two revision boot-camp tutorials this week, and easily saved 40 minutes on each of them by skipping over empty sections, and more time skipping parts not relevant to me.  The only questions I ever ask during tutorials anyway are those to do with policy.  I mostly sit in because I know the tutors will drop TMA-specific hints.

Next, until I get to differentiation, I’m going to work backwards when necessary.  I’d like to do all the activities in the books to make sure there are no blindspots, and because practice is the best way to retain maths skills.  If there is a blind spot, I’ll back up and run through it, encorporating external resources as necessary.

Finally, once I get to and past differentiation, I think I’m just going to wing it.  Read without notes, try exercises, and practice, practice, practice.  Taking notes just doesn’t make sense to me with maths.  The closest I’ll come is following along the examples with a pen in hand.  I may alternate weeks between MST124 and TM129, as splitting days may throw off my rhythm.

We’ll see how it goes.  My intent is to stay one unit ahead throughout the module.  I’ve fallen afoul of getting too far ahead before, and the motivational issues that causes.  It can also make it a headache for revision.

## 17J modules open: TM129 and MST124

The school I work at is in its second week of the year, things are held together with Sellotape and bailing wire and just about functional, so of course I spent most of my morning dodging in and out of the new module sites for TM129 and MST124.

The nearly-default Moodle theme I familiarised myself with last year has been reskinned with a flat theme.  It’s easy on the eyes and extremely usable on mobile platforms, so thumbs up from me.  (Actually, the high level of usability makes the rest of the OU site a bit embarrassing, really.)  Great UX planning.

MST-124 is about what I expected: A solid university course translated to an online medium.  TM-129 is also about what I expected: Chaos and insanity doled out as if to children.  Well, no, that’s what I expected.  It seems to be more like watered down squash.  It’s what you asked for, just less of it in the same sized glass.

MST-124 (Essential mathematics 1) isn’t bad.  It’s an obviously mature module which has honed its methods over decades.  There’s just the right amount of hand-holding (to me) for things like preparing assignment formatting, progressing from unit to unit, checking knowledge, and asking for help.  The ragged screams and buckets of tears from students in years past have obviously not gone unnoticed, and the result is a very logical, almost soothing trip through intermediate maths.

TM-129 (Technologies in practice) is like someone had a dream about being taught the perfect module, but got it a bit wrong when they woke up and tried to write out all the details before the dream slipped away from memory.  I’m sure somebody thinks it’s highly logical, but it’s really a bit weird.

There are three blocks in TM-129: robotics, networking, and Linux.  The only other organisation to the tutelage is by breaking it into weeks.  So there aren’t units, sections, or sessions, as such.  Just Robotics week 1, Robotics week 2, etc.  It’s my first day with it, but it seems difficult to learn the concepts in a flowing way.  Concepts appear to be explored and limited based on time, rather than a balanced or comprehensive understanding of it.

Thankfully, I’m not here to get an understanding of the topics.  As with TU100, I’m here to gain practice in learning.  I can’t see the networking information, as that’s entirely in a Microsoft book that has yet to be shipped (I hope Microsoft Press isn’t as bad as their edX team), but I don’t see any glaring omissions from the other two topics.  They’re only meant to be introductions, so it’s possible they’re as useless as OpenLearn MOOCs, or they could be dead useful.  I probably won’t be able to offer much of an objective view even after the module’s over, due to my familiarity with all three topics already.

Mostly I’m excited that I can study again.  I enjoy the process.

## LaTeX TMA template

Despite what I said in my last post about how difficult LaTeX was to learn compared to how much use I’d probably get out of it … Well, I’d already invested the time in learning it, so why not give it a proper go?

I decided to make a proper template based off the ideas in MST125 Unit 2 (which is available for OU students to view, but they must be logged in).  For any experts out there who are bothered by the methods used, please keep in mind that this was literally my first day with LaTeX.  It gets the job done, and looks pretty … well, prettier.  Some features of the template:

• Put your name, personal identifier, and TMA number in once, and the title section and footer on every page is updated from it
• Typing \section{} will not just give the new section, but type Question # for you, with # being the next section number
• Subquestions are likewise auto-incremented on every \item
• The text font is a Helvetica sans-serif clone, but the maths font is still serif, making it easier to read

Obviously some parts will need to be cut and pasted, or otherwise modified to your needs.  The actual template I’m using, for instance, is slightly different in that it has a multi-line header instead of a footer, and it’s greyed out rather than having a delineation to match my Word template from last year. (Well, it was.  I’m starting to like this template more.)

Anyway, here’s the template I’m using for MST124.  I’m not taking MST125, so I don’t know whether or not this is part of a TMA question in and of itself.  If it is (or, frankly, even if it isn’t), please keep OU academic integrity practices in mind.

\documentclass{article}
\usepackage{amsmath}
\usepackage{amssymb}
\usepackage{enumitem}
\usepackage{fancyhdr}

\def\identifier{F0000000} % change this to your OU personal identifier
\def\tmanumber{TMA 00} % change this to appropriate TMA number or TMA title
\def\presentation{MST124-17J} % change to module presentation or TMA subtitle

\pagestyle{fancy}
\lfoot{\myname}
\cfoot{Page \thepage}
\rfoot{\identifier}
\renewcommand{\footrulewidth}{1pt}

\author{\myname, \identifier}
\date{} % remove this line to have date printed on title section
\title{\tmanumber\\\bigskip\normalfont\large{\presentation}}

\parindent 0pt % remove for paragraph indent
\parskip 4pt % also remove this for paragraph indent

\usepackage{titlesec}
\titleformat{\section}{\normalfont\Large\bfseries}{Question \thesection}{0em}{ }

\usepackage{nimbussans}
\renewcommand*\familydefault{\sfdefault} % remove for serif font

\begin{document}
\maketitle
\thispagestyle{fancy}
\section{} % writes Question and incremental number
\begin{enumerate}[label=(\alph*)] % auto-formats item decoration
\item First subquestion.
\item Second subquestion.
\item Third subquestion.
\end{enumerate}

\newpage
\section{}

\end{document}