My revision plan has been … untenable.  I had hoped to start with a practice of the entire exam, find my weak spots and get a sense of time, and slowly work away at those, then do another full practice of the entire exam maybe a week before the actual exam time.  I liked this plan because the weak spots identified this way would be exactly the types of questions to show up in the exam, as the exam questions seem to (mostly) follow similar types of question year after year.  The practice exam before the real exam would hopefully work as a confidence builder going in, or at least a road map of where to start cramming in the last week.

Unfortunately, this plan requires two uninterrupted blocks of three hours several weeks apart.  I can’t seem to get any block of time that large while working full time, caring for little ones, and other responsibilities.  I’ve been so good with time management for studying over the last two years that it’s completely escaped my attention that I normally handle small day-to-day home life responsibilities a few times an hour between blocks of concentration.

So instead, I’ve been revising … everything.  All twelve units.  I got through the last one a couple of nights ago.  I’ve been tracking my progress using MST-124’s Revision Quiz.  This is a quiz with just 12 questions, one random one from each unit.  I’d have thought that this structure would make it very uneven for a battery quiz, but it proved to be quite effective.  No matter how many times I took it prior to revising, it took me one hour (with a variance of 7 minutes).

After three weeks of revision, it’s down to under 25 minutes.  I’m pretty sure that’s as fast as I’ll be able to get, so the rest of revision will be all about accuracy.  It’s a shame my revision time is nearly half up already.  Most students are starting their revision period today, though (as our final TMA was due last night), so I’ve given myself a large advantage.

More good news comes in the form of realising how much I actually have to remember.  A pass is 40% and the exam is made up of multiple-choice questions with five possible answers each.  If x is the percentage of the exam I can remember from revision, then assuming I get 1/5 of the remaining answers correct from the things I don’t remember, then in order to pass, I need

x + 0.2(100 – x) ≥ 40
+ 20 – 0.2x ≥ 40
0.8x ≥ 20
≥ 25.

So if I remember 25% of the material covered by the exam, and I get 1/5 of the remaining 75% (or 15% of the total) questions due to probability, that should combine to see me through to the 40% needed to pass.  Although making assumptions based on probability isn’t wise, at least I know my basic algebra is sufficient.

I’m done with the OCAS portion of MST-124!  That means that all my assignments are submitted, and the only the left is my certain doom the exam.  Thanks to the bewildering array of rules which make up the OU’s assignment substitution policy, I didn’t really have to submit my last assignment, TMA04, and would still have achieved a distinction level on the OCAS portion of the module.

It’s in, though, and I’m done!

Oh, wait, no.  There’s still that doom exam I mentioned.  Erm.  Imma talk more about the TMA.

The last TMA was by far the most difficult.  At least two, and maybe three questions aren’t directly referenced by the module materials at all.  And one other question is quite possibly a trick question.  I found three distinct and justifiable answers to it, so we’ll see how the one I picked goes.  (I liked maths because there wasn’t a subjective nature to the answers.  What are you doing to me?)

There’s one sub-part to a question which … Goodness.  It looked darned near unsolvable.  In fact, I thought it literally was for a few moments hours, because the modules basically only state that this type of thing exists, and doesn’t describe it at all.  Other websites also didn’t go into very much detail about the topic, so for once that didn’t help at all.  After trying very, very hard to crack the nut, I randomly selected the right nutcracker and found that … well, it was really all very simple all along.  (Except that it specifically asks you to do it in a way that makes it look impossible.)

I tried to make that last paragraph more vague, and I think I just about got it perfect.

So … Guh.  Revision.  I have a plan.  I’ve glanced at enough past exams papers to note that the majority of questions come from a set of very specific types of questions.  If I only revise those types of questions, I’ll probably come out with a Pass 2.  I’m starting to think a Pass 1 will be impossible due to how slow I am, and not all questions are from that specific set.  But we’ll see how it goes.  I’ve managed to give myself two extra weeks of revision time by finishing the study materials early.


2018/05/17 Edit: The mark on TMA04 for MST124 was the same as all others: 100.  I really would have liked some kind of feedback on my TMAs, and really only got tick marks on the answers.  I’m sure there were different approaches I could have used which could have been faster, or easier to remember, or in some other way preferred.  At least I can say I’ve been happy with my effort level all year long.  My practice exams are all coming within 3% of a distinction, so I’m really going to have to get that up about 10% to be confident under exam conditions.  I’ve got two and a half weeks, so here’s hoping!

It just wouldn’t be OU enrolment if it went smoothly, would it?

Open University FB account: 2018 Enrolment down

I went through enrolment last night.  Not because I stayed up to enrol.  Of course not.  Who would even do that?  I just happened to be awake because … Imma go with working on a TMA or something.

Anyway, I didn’t get any kind of confirmation last night.  Considering how “well” things went for me last year, I decided to ignore it and get some sleep.  Sure enough, I found the above post from the OU’s Facebook account in the morning.

After going through enrolment a second time, I got all the proper confirmations, and all my OU tools (the StudentHome page, my study record, my student loan page …) properly showed my new modules.

So, what am I taking?

The new Q62 Computing & IT structure changes the various former paths to the following four routes:

  • Broad route
  • Communications and networking route (and here I thought networking was communications)
  • Communications and software route
  • Software route

The Broad route further breaks down into the following focuses:

  • Communications and networking focus (here we go again …)
  • Computer science focus
  • Software development focus
  • Web development focus

You have to choose a route (and potentially a focus) for selecting modules at Stage 2 and above.  Since I’m starting my Stage 2 study in October, I have to choose.

My first requirement in choosing second stage modules is that I want to study M269, which is called “Algorithms, data structures and computability”, but is pretty much just the computer science module.  M269 has M250 (Object-oriented Java programming) as a prerequisite, so that’s two modules selected.  I don’t particularly want to do two programming-heavy modules at the same time, so I’ll split up M250 this year and M269 next.  (This is the OU preference anyway, though I’m relatively confident of my ability to convince them to allow simultaneous study if I needed to.)

My other requirement is not taking TM255.  It looks like TU100 part 2.  Any actual “communications” study will take place in the networking module TM257.  The description of TM255 makes it pretty clear that what you’ll really be studying is how to do office work.  (Also, I’m not that keen on TT284 (Web technologies) as the student reviews paint it as a shallow tour of technologies I already have a decent familiarity with anyway (PHP, HTML, JavaScript, MySQL, and SubVersion), and the satisfaction survey makes it look as satisfying as the springtime snow we’re currently getting.)

So what about my other two modules?  Well, the choices are:

  • T227 (Change, strategy and projects at work – looks harmless enough, but it’s really intended to be taken by students of x15, the Computing & IT Practice foundation degree),
  • TM257 (Cisco networking CCNA part 1 – ideally I’d like to get my CCNA in my spare time and avoid spending a module studying it),
  • TM254 (Managing IT: the why, the what and the how – basically project management including software project management),
  • and the two above, TM255 and TT284.

The best of these is TM254.  Project management is a skill set used constantly in IT, and most other office roles.

So that’s what I’ll be doing this year, M250 and TM254, on the Broad route with a computer science focus.  Next year I’ll be doing M269 and … Something else.  I don’t really know yet, but I’m hoping my enthusiasm grows over the next year.


Quick note on my current modules: I’m completely, totally, and in all other ways done with TM129.  (EMA submissions went live today.)  The questions on the EMA were more vague than I could hope, so I don’t really know if I’ll do as well as I did on TU100 last year, but I’m fairly confident of a distinction.

I’m only studying MST124 now, and I’ve only got two units left: Taylor polynomials (which isn’t written very well, so I’m looking for external resources again) and complex numbers.  I’m hoping to be done with both by the end of the Easter break, and I’ll have most of April and all of May for just revision for the exam.  I don’t think I have much of a shot at a distinction there, but halfway through the module, I found that I really wanted to try for one.  So we’ll see how revision goes.

Thanks to the quick pace of studying matrices, MST124’s TMA03 was handed in early, putting me a month ahead of schedule in both modules.  I’ve decided to concentrate on just maths revision for the last few months of the academic year, so switched back to TM129 to complete the last block, Linux.

The first few weeks have many inconsistencies, typos, and factual errors, but then the block improves.  Actually, despite working professionally with Linux, I came to enjoy the block.  The materials weren’t personally challenging, but the ePortfolio again provided fun avenues for self-directed learning.  (Bonus: I picked up many tips.)

A minor issue was the ePortfolio back loading.  The ePortfolio works best if you work on it as you go.  This both checks current understanding, and distributes the workload.  The Linux block has small, mundane activities at the beginning, and several large, interesting ones after completing the final week of study.  This results in students crushed with many longer ePortfolio activities, then the final TMA, then the EMA, in consecutive batterings.  I feel the module team may have missed this perspective.

The TMA is also a bit questionable.  Several marks aren’t covered at all in the materials … which isn’t necessarily bad.  Independent research is clearly indicated, but methods of evaluation weren’t discussed, so it’s testing students’ innate ability rather than understanding of the learning objectives.  Some marks probably test checking Linux man pages … an answer does appear in a man page, but not the related page, giving me ambiguous feelings.  One question involves Intellectual Property law, entirely absent from module materials (and learning objectives), which I feel entirely inappropriate given the complexity of IP law.  Difficulty linking assessment questions to learning objectives has been a consistent issue with this presentation of TM129.  (Another question confuses “Linux” with “Ubuntu” …)

I’m already working on the EMA’s notes.  I doubt I’ll complete it this week as hoped, though.  TM129 TMA02 still isn’t back, but I’m hoping for that this week, too.  I hope to switch back to maths while I’m still ahead there.


2018/05/17 Edit: TMA03 for TM129 back: 96%.  As that’s the lowest mark of all TMAs across my modules this year, I’m pretty happy with my effort level.  All four marks came for the same point: My testing strategy for an impossibly complex task with only 400 words wasn’t robust enough.  I feel that this one failure couldn’t possibly have been worth 1/3 of the points of a section that had four subsections, particularly when some parts of my testing were quite good considering the ridiculous word count.  So in this instance, I respectfully disagree with my tutor’s assessment.  There were only 3 marks reasonably at stake for the testing section, and I definitely secured at least one, so my score should have been a 98.  But what’s two marks, especially when it’s the first and only time I’ve had a strong disagreement with a marking?  (As I’ve had initial disagreements with other markings, but come to see them from my tutor’s perspective over time, there’s a very real chance the same will occur with this.)  On the other hand, his feedback was insightful and useful!  And who could ask for more than that from a tutor?

Just as I was starting to despair ever seeing TMA02 again, it popped up in my inbox in the middle of the night, about a week late.  I had a stern talk with it, let it know how nervous I get when it stays out till all hours.  I’d like to say that it wouldn’t happen again, but I think we all know that it will.

The results were again too good.  I didn’t get full marks, as I had half a mark deducted for an amazingly obtuse error on my part, but it rounded back up to full marks for the result.  I don’t think later stages will be so forgiving.  It was, of course, on the one part of the TMA that I couldn’t bring myself to proof read, because it was ages since I’d done it, and barely remembered how.  (The exam’s going to be a real treat at this rate.)  Still, aside from that one mistake, I’m very pleased with how well I’ve been doing.  I’m understanding much more than I thought I would, but that’s often due to seeking resources external to the OU for assistance.

After the slog that was differentiation and integration, studying matrices as an absolute sleepwalk.  They weren’t immediately obvious, but I didn’t have to practise too much before they were second nature.  In fact, I found them downright logical and useful.  The mathematics for linking input and output networks have never been that difficult, but they’re messy, and matrices tidy them up nicely.  I tore through the whole unit in two days, and got to work finishing up TMA03.

I submitted my first draft at about 2:30 AM this morning – just half an hour after I got TMA02 back!  I submitted my second draft at about 10:30 AM.  I’ve given it a decent read through, and it’s probably the best I can do for this round, but again I think I’ll do well with it.  As difficult as calculus is, I feel I’ve done a good job grounding myself with it.  And to do it more than a month ahead of the due date is an unexpected relief.  I thought I’d be struggling for time after the way calculus started off.

Part of TMA03 is a practice section for an exam.  It’s only three questions long, and it took me half an hour to get through it.  (The last question was of a form I’d only practised twice before, so it took me nearly all of the half hour to complete.)  At that rate, come exam time I’ll need a little more than four hours to complete the exam, and they only give us three.  I foresee a lot of practice in my future.


2018/03/29 Edit: MST124’s TMA03 back: Full marks again, no comments from the tutor again.  This one was returned only 20 minutes overdue.  I was really pleased with my effort this time, though, and feel for once that the high marks were deserved.

 

You know how teenagers seem to know absolutely everything?  That’s how I feel today!  I just submitted my iCMA43 (MST124’s quiz for the calculus modules) and got full marks.  I’m absolutely insufferable right now.

There was a tutorial last night for calculus, which I was late for.  (My phone is … Well, it’s hard to describe without swearing.  But I’m blaming the phone because the alternative is to accept responsibility for my own choices, and forget that.)  The tutorial really built my confidence.  I made all the same arithmetic and algebraic errors I always do (so no chance of doing well at the exam), but my understanding was where it needed to be the whole way through.

I still have one or two days worth of calculus to get through, and I need to finish up the calculus parts of TMA03, but I can get back to a normal study schedule.  (I put TM129 to the side to concentrate on calculus.)  So sometime next week I’ll start handling two modules simultaneously again.  Since I only have the Linux block to do there, and I already run dozens of headless Linux virtuals (and one physical Raspbian box), I should be able to complete TM129 long before revision for MST124 starts in May.

My TMA02 results are overdue by a day, now, so I’m doing my best not to be impatient about it.  I get that my tutor is busy, and I’ve been in that situation.  On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that there really was a problem with my submission and there’s nothing to mark.  I’ll probably edit this entry once it’s back.  I’ve spotted a few unimportant mistakes in it, so it probably won’t be as good a result as my last one, but I’m not expecting it to be too much worse.

I almost admitted defeat.

Let me amend that.  I admitted defeat.  Like, forty or fifty times.  On one activity.  (Activity 17, combining differentiation rules, if anybody cares.)  But I also went back for more the same number of times.

I finally conquered it confidently and moved past it, with some help from Sal Khan.  But I wasn’t the only one that was nearly completely derailed by that single activity.  Every few hours, somebody in the Facebook group will say that they’re really struggling with Unit 7, or just about to give up on maths completely, or feel like they understood maths until one activity made them feel like an utter moron.  Practically without fail, they’re all staring at activity 17 in panic.

When I go from understanding everything well (or well enough) to understanding nothing, I typically assume that I’ve skipped a major step without realising it.  But when nearly everybody has the same experiences, I feel more comfortable thinking that it isn’t just me.  There was either a foundational piece left out, or simply too steep a learning curve.

It highlights the importance of not relying solely on one source for information.  The Open University often seems fanatical in its defence of its material always being individually sufficient and superior to all other sources.  (This is only my opinion from anecdotal observation.)  For example, any suggestion in the official MST-124 forums to check out an external resource on a topic is swiftly refuted by tutors on the course, and original OU materials are reiterated.  Without fail.

In my experience, no one source has all the right answers, and no one way of learning is right for everybody.  When doing assignments, it’s important to prepare them based on the information you’re instructed to peruse.  But for understanding, make sure you find whatever resource you can find that helps you understand.  If there’s something fundamentally different from what’s in the OU materials, it’s an excellent opportunity to open a dialogue with the tutor and gain a considerably deeper understand of the nuances involved in the reasons for the difference.

It took me five. days. to get past activity 17 using OU materials.  It took me about two hours on Khan Academy.  Find what works for you.  Self-reflection on how I learn is one of the most valuable skills I’ve developed so far.

Last year I was in the States for Christmas, and I had run out of things I could study, anyhow.  (I needed to study an online-only section of the module, and it hadn’t yet been opened.)  By the time January rolled around and the new material was available, I had all the enthusiasm of a slug eyeing up a saltine.  Motivation was … well, it just wasn’t.

This year, on the other hand, was great for study!  As MST124 had hinted that it might be more difficult than anticipated (it may not be, it appears to have been one poorly written unit), I had been putting off the networking block in TM129 until a couple of days before the Christmas break.  I was able to catch up during those few days, and then I remembered how difficult it was to start studying again after a break last year, so I carried on with TM129 over Christmas, particularly the week after.

I wrapped things up on New Year’s day, and cut through all but one question on the TMA yesterday.  So that’s the networking block done, and I’m free to wrestle with maths until just about March.  This should see me through the calculus stuff, so I’m pretty happy about the convergence of events.  I feel there should have been a prophecy to give me a heads up.

So, to the rundown of TM129’s networking block!

The OU didn’t really prepare any of the material for this.  There was an outdated textbook from Microsoft with OU commentary on the chapters, and activities that were also mostly taken from the textbook.  I’m of two minds about the activities.  They were exceedingly simple tasks, that took the form of, “Type this line exactly, and copy down the response you see,” and there wasn’t any thinking involved, even for students who had never run the utilities before.  On the other hand, these are tasks that I perform day-in, day-out for my job, and it’s pretty essential that someone saying they’ve studied networking has had some hands-on experience with it.  I just think that, given the unbridled simplicity, there should have been some beefier assignments on the side.  (Trying to write my ePortfolio’s section reflecting on skills demonstrated, when all I was asked to do was type an exact command and copy-paste the results, was the biggest challenge I faced.)

Significant portions of book discussed dial-up networking.  You’d have to try really hard to still find a dial-up ISP, so while it may help someone pass a certification exam, it’s not going to help anybody do anything useful going forward.  (My condolences to anybody disagreeing, you’re obviously still dealing with dial-up and deserve my pity.)

A section on subnetting had the subnetting wrong in an example.  I was working from an updated release of the book where the mistake had been identified and fixed, except it was still wrong after being fixed.  (The OU staff have found the problems and fixed it properly in the module’s errata section.)

Other than that, the textbook was decently fit for purpose, though it could use some updating about speeds, technologies that are available and prevalent, there could be a lot more time spent on VLSM (variable length subnet masking, which is how subnetting typically exists in the wild, though may not be considered a best practice as not all routing protocols support it), and of course Windows Server 2008 hit End of Life status three years ago this month.  Students were mainly asked to ignore the Windows Server bits, though, so that’s not really an issue.  It’s a decent, if slightly outdated, grounding in networking.

I’m a little concerned about the TMA, though.  In the first section, the number of points allocated appear to disagree with the number of statements I need to correct, so I may need to take a closer look at either the assumption I’ve made about the statements, or the assumption I’ve made about the scoring.

Another problem is that the author of the last question seems to misunderstand the word “scalability”.  The author seems to think that it means the ability to cope with a very large scale.  It means, however, the ability to change the scale with which it can cope, typically from very small to very large.  Crucially, it deals with change, or the ability to be upgraded to handle more capacity with increasing demand without a total redesign.  So I’m going to have to spend some of my very precious 200 word count defending both a system’s ability to handle a large scale, as well as its ability to increase capacity based on increased demand, which I’m pretty sure was not the author’s intent when the word count was set.  So I’ll have to leave out some other parts and will lose points here, as well.

Still, I’d be very surprised if my TMA came in lower than 90%-95%, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut and soldier on.

So that’s a very long winded post for today, but it does represent eight or nine weeks of study compressed into two.  Also, Storm Eleanor is blowing buildings around here, right now, so long-winded seems appropriate.


2018/3/9 Edit: TM129 TMA02 finally came back.  It received a 97.  Missing marks were because the tutor felt I was being redundant at an aspect I felt I was being thorough in (fair enough), and two marks off because I didn’t discuss the history of a technology, which wasn’t expressly asked for.  This is not a bad thing.  It looks at first blush like saying, “You didn’t guess the colour I was thinking of,” but realistically, that’s part of the job.  We’re not given full context in our questions.  It’s up to us to discover or create context, or (failing that) to give a complete answer despite not having full context.  It’s a skill I’m normally good with, and I fell short this time.

I had temporarily halted all work on TM129 so that I could get back out ahead with MST124.  That’s because after the disaster that was Unit 3 (functions, which should be much easier than MST124 made it), I thought I’d have to work through the Christmas break just to keep my head above water.  As I just finished Unit 6 (differentiation, which was mindbogglingly easy) and TMA02, I have a few days to head back to TM129 and pick up a bit of what I’ve stepped away from.

For MST124, it’s definitely easiest to work on the TMA after each unit to finish up the questions for that unit before carrying onto the next.  I ended up putting a whole tonne of unnecessary graphs in, particularly for vectors.  I thought of vectors as Applied Trigonometry, and thoroughly enjoyed them.  The whole thing came out at 3400 words and 27 pages.  My EMA for TU100 was 3500 words and 16 pages.  Who knew there was so much writing in a maths module?

TM129 is being picked up at the networking block, which is a large portion of my job.  It’s basically asking us to read portions of the Microsoft Windows Networking Essentials book, and then do OU activities around it.  I imagine this to be very, very similar to T216.

I mentioned on a tutorial last week that I’d done a MS computer-based training module for networking essentials about twenty years ago, and I swear there are entire paragraphs in this book which haven’t changed from that CBT in all that time.  I’m really not a fan of MS training.

The tutorial was a fun one.  Over the last two or three weeks, I’ve spoken on the mic extensively in four tutorials (two each from TM129 and MST124), and I’m getting a lot more out of them.  It’s even worth looking a bit stupid in the ones that get recorded.  It often feels as though the tutors come wanting a lot of interaction, but end up reading a slide show because it’s difficult to get much give and take.  It’s much easier with voice chatting than typing messages.

I mentioned last year that trigonometry had been my mathematical Achilles heel until I finally got it smoothed out by Khan Academy in preparation for MST-124.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, it was that I’d have to re-invent it every time I saw a triangle.  And it turns out there are a lot of triangles.

I’m now officially on the far side of Unit 4, which is trigonometry.  By the time I opened up TMA02 and saw the trigonometry stuff, I caught myself saying, “Well this is easy!”  And I wasn’t even punished by the maths gods for my hubris!  It felt really great to be so at ease with the concepts in it.  I can no longer blame not properly learning trig for my failures, and will have to admit to not being that bright, instead.

I also finished the iCMA42 for MST-124 (which covers units 2 through 4) with full marks.  I managed to avoid making the silly, silly mistake I did on the last one, by forcing myself to triple check my answers with a calculator if I got confused by anything.  On the other hand, it took me 9 days and 10 hours to complete, so I can’t necessarily use the same techniques when it comes time for the exam.  A two-week exam would be just about right, though.


Even though I’ve put TM129 away for the time being, I had a chance to attend a last-minute online tutorial with my tutor last week.  He’d had a face-to-face scheduled about forty miles away (and about sixty miles from where he lives), and literally nobody signed up for it, so he sent out an email and did it online.

In the end, there were only three of us on it, but it was just him and me chatting by voice for the first fifteen minutes or so.  Obviously, we didn’t cover much of the actual module material, but we talked a lot about TMA strategies and general study skills.  It was good motivation, as well.  I haven’t yet attended any face-to-face tutorials, but am starting to think it could be quite advantageous.  It’d mean an entire evening away from my children, though, and that’s something I want to avoid after my father’s part-time associate degree left us practically feral for four years.