Even more pre-study studying!  This MOOC was the first I took on FutureLearn, an endeavour of the Open University which, so far, has been far superior to OpenLearn for me.  I have since taken a further two MOOCs there, and I’ve got at least six more in the pipe-line to finish before my course begins in October.

Course Title: Begin Robotics
Provider: University of Reading via FutureLearn
Price: Free
Level: Introductory
Effort: 12 hours over 4 weeks, commencing on set date
Prerequisites: None
Completion awards: Certificate of Achievement (£49 + shipping) for completing 90% of course content, or Statement of Participation (£39 + shipping) for completing 50% of course content

About the course:
This was my first foray into FutureLearn, and it was a great experience.

FutureLearn has all students start together on a course, but they can then progress at their own rate.  You can access all weeks’ content on the first day, and the course remains open for reference after the last day.  But by starting together, there’s a community of others along the way, with each article, discussion, video, or other step accompanied by its own forum thread. If you’re struggling with something, there’s probably someone else who is, too, and collaboration is available.  (This being about robotics, I spent most of my time sharing links to interesting solutions to challenges encountered in cybernetics.)

The first week of Begin Robotics introduced the glossary of terms used, a brief robotics timeline, and robotics simulations.  This last one captured the attention of most of the students.  A variety of robotics simulations have been programmed by the Reading team to allow you to interact with a virtual robot’s programming to test changes and observe results. The interactive nature of it was great for focusing learning, and the community of students comparing results helped even further.

The second week introduced sensors and actuators, for cybernetic observing and affecting the world around it.  Robotic ‘anatomy’ was a topic of discussion, now that sensors and actuators could give such discussion context.  More simulations followed, of course focused on utilising sensor information.

The third week was about robot-human interaction.  This included haptics, interface, psychology, and more.  The fourth week was about robotic learning, and artificial life.

The best thing about this course was its pacing, combined with its multi-track learning.  A beginner could start this course, and feel that they’ve learned a lot by the end of the course, with each week being more challenging.  A serious hobbyist could likewise start this course and feel that they’ve learned a lot by the end of the course.  The two would have learned vastly different things, and never been bored.

For beginners, though, they’ll possibly be left a bit wanting at the end of the course, however, as there’s no big, “Here’s how to start,” moment for them.  It’s just a lot of great information to keep in mind once they do start.  For hobbyists, though, there are a lot of general ideas and specific solutions to some real challenges, and very much worth the time effort.

The real time effort, however, is nowhere near the estimated 12 hours.  It was closer to five or six, and I completed it in four days or so.  I keep going back, however, to participate in the online discussions, as they’re quite good.

As with the previous MOOC review, I had signed up to these courses to help prepare myself for university study.  When doing this, I’m hoping for useful content, but am willing to walk away with just reinforcing good study habits, as well.  These didn’t tick either box.

Course Title: Succeed with maths – Part 1, Succeed with maths – Part 2
Provider: The Open University via OpenLearn
Price: Free
Level: Introductory
Effort: Self-paced, 24 hours, estimated 8 weeks
Prerequisites: None
Completion awards: Statement of Participation, Open Badge

About the course:
I didn’t honestly get very far into the first course before I realised that this was an especially remedial maths course.  I hadn’t really expected the first one to be too much more involved, so I just took the quizzes to make certain I wasn’t going to be leaving a gap in my knowledge, and got through it.

The second course, though, I thought would at least have some kind of intermediary maths in it.  Instead, it advances to the level of reading graphs.

The problem with MOOCs like this is that anybody who is disciplined, organised, and educated enough to be able to learn from such a MOOC has already far outstripped the content of this MOOC.  This is to say that there is essentially a non-existent target group for this MOOC.  Here’s my Venn Diagram describing this:
Success with maths Target Students

[Source: My arse (2016)]

This makes it a useless course.  As a result, the content is useless, and it’s useless to use to develop study habits.

Thankfully, there ARE solutions out there.  One of the solutions is so fantastic that it’s shifted a portion of my study plan for my degree.  I’ll review this other solution at a later date.

As I stated in my last post, I’ve been using free MOOC resources to prepare for university-level learning.  I logically thought this free course would be a good place to start.  Here’s my review of it:

Course title: Taking Your First Steps Into Higher Education
Provider: The Open University via OpenLearn
Price: Free
Level: Introductory
Effort: Self-paced, 24 hours, estimated 8 weeks
Prerequisites: None
Completion awards: Statement of Participation, Open Badge

About the course:
This course draws material and inspiration from the Open University’s Access modules, Y031, Y032, and Y033 for content on Arts & Humanities, Social Sciences, and STEM subjects, respectively.  The full Access modules give a small and non-threatening taste of higher education study, to help you determine if it’s right for you.  This MOOC is, then, really a taster course for a taster module.  In theory, it’s meant to help you evaluate which of the general subject types you might like to study, and if you think you might enjoy (or be capable of) studying in higher education.

In reality, it comes off more like a commercial for the Open University, but one with its heart firmly in the right place.  It does do what it says it will do, but it’s a bit rhetorical in that it assumes and then insists that the answer is always that if you’re at all interested, then its right for you, and tries to convince you of this.  But this is only for higher education in general.  It’s a bit of a cheerleading exercise rather than an objective view giving both positive and negative views.

It does an excellent job of preparing those who have not studied at higher levels for a fundamental shift in learning philosophy, the change of focus from led instruction to self study.  It doesn’t do much for giving you tools for overcoming this shift, but does impress its importance.

The arts and humanities discussion was the most surprising for me.  I came into this module with a prejudice against the very nature of art history, evaluation, and appreciation. But within just a few short questions, Dr. John Butcher had shifted my world in response to art, particularly contemporary art. He had also done it in the section on poetry evaluation. I was able to access a poem I’d studied earlier and instantly recognise values in it I had never seen before, found an obvious meaning I’d never considered, and even uncovered additional subtext relative to modern philosophy that was shouting out for me to share my experiences with others.

The social studies sections were just the opposite.  Dr. Jonathan Hughes felt patronising and dismissive in his lecture. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that he was the lead on the project for this MOOC, with its rhetorical approach and cheerleader enthusiasm. It’s a terrible shame, too, because I’m deeply passionate about social sciences, particularly social psychology and development.  But he would repeatedly invite discussion, only to then give the ‘right’ answer. At one point, he invited the student to compare their personal answers to his … Only to have his answers (and not even his exact answers, but a specific interpretation of them) be the basis for quiz questions later.  I found it quite insulting.

Finishing things up with reliable STEM subjects was a relief.  Dr. Laura Hills certainly knew how to lecture and prepare learning materials. Her approach quickly invited independent thought and provided the confidence (to me at least) that I felt the course should have been promoting all along.

Over all, I feel that the MOOC lacked substance of useful content unless you A) want to go to university, and B) don’t know if you’d rather take humanities, social sciences, or STEM subjects. Which should bring the total number of humans on this planet who would actually find the course useful to … Zero? Nobody wants to go to university without at least having an idea of what kind of studies they want to pursue. Sure, they might not be able to decide between two or three degrees, but to have no clue?  Whatever.

I do feel that I gained a lot of personal insight from this however, especially thanks to the amazing questions from Dr. Butcher.  It just wasn’t the insight I was expecting.  The warnings about the pitfalls of self study and few other revelations scattered throughout the sections are useful and appreciated, and will be remembered, but possibly not at the cost of the 10 real hours or so I spent with it.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was going to do some preparation for studying at the Open University. It’s a distance learning university, which I’ve struggled with in the past due to poor communications tools before technology improved them.  I’ve been out of formal education for over 20 years, though I have spent a few years employed as a trainer for computer and network troubleshooting.  (I also was assigned one class to train people how to take care of flowers. It was a fun job.)

I initially tried by studying materials for a CCNA in hopes that it would make T216 easier and faster. I made decent progress in learning, but realised that I was only reading the materials. I wasn’t taking active notes, I wasn’t practicing anything hands-on, and while I was absorbing the concepts very well, I wasn’t likely to be able to retain details which would be necessary for the CCNA exam.

So far as my original goal, this was great. Being comfortable with the concepts when I take T216 will indeed make it easier.  But it underscored that my method of study wasn’t going to cut it at university. I realised that I had a golden opportunity between now and the course beginning in October to study how to study, to raise my abilities of learning to get the most I can out of my degree course.

After some doing some online searches, talking to a few people (only online, goodness that would be an awkward conversation for me in person), and heavy doses of self evaluation, here’s my plan for university study preparation:

Resources:

  • The Good Study Guide by Andrew Northridge, published by the Open University
    • This was the first recommendation to me, specifically to help with writing essays at university level.  I am not reading it as a book; I am using it as a study resource and practically the basis for my own self-taught module. I initially devoted about an hour a night to study with it, and now go back to it as necessary to do some activities and reflection.  Though I started with it, I couldn’t complete it without finding other things to study, because it works best with real examples of your work on courses.  The Open University no longer sells this book, but it’s available through Amazon or other avenues.
  • OpenLearn badged courses
    • After the Good Study Guide stalled because of lack of coursework, I moved to MOOCs. I started with badged OpenLearn courses.  I’ll evaluate these courses at a later date, but they’re of varying quality and usefulness to study preparation.  In general, they’re better for experience than they are for what you actually get out of them.  For example, I was hoping to get some maths refreshers or maybe push myself a bit, but the badged courses for maths are well below university level and can be done fairly easily by anybody who stayed awake through GCSE or high school maths.
  • Other MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for fun
    • Realising that the experience of the modules were more useful than the knowledge in the modules, I expanded to FutureLearn just to find courses that looked interesting.  I’ll evaluate these later, too.

Method:

  • My strategy is to treat what I’m doing as seriously as I can. When I enroled to the Open University, I determined I could set aside about 16 hours a week.  Thanks to The Good Study Guide, I’m now closer to being able to set aside about 24.  During my study preparation, I’m taking half of the initial figure and devoting that to my studies.  For an hour an evening and a couple of extra hours on the weekend, I go to the study space I’ve set up, close the door, and do some serious studying.  Most of the time is on the MOOCs, but I also devote a fair amount to the Good Study Guide so that I’m sure my skills at studying are actually improving.

Outcome:

  • I’ve been extremely pleased with the results of this initiative so far.  Perhaps the best thing to come out of it has been the boatloads of confidence that it’s given me.  I’ve proven that I have at least half the time that I’ve set aside for study, and that I can stick to it at least for a few weeks.  I’ve also learned that I really, really enjoy studying. If I were to cancel my degree course right now, I’d be quite happy to continue to do the MOOCs with the same level of consideration and seriousness.

If anybody is considering going back to learning, I highly recommend this method.  You don’t have to use the Good Study Guide, but I would recommend finding some specific guide, and preferably one that helps you analyse your own strengths and weaknesses in relation to course goals.

Oh, for the sake of Saint Eff. You know, I thought I’d done a fair amount of looking into what TU100 would entail. I read the OU documentation, I chatted to a few former students … At one point I said to one, “Sense seems to be a lot like Scratch.”  The response was that it was “similar.”

It isn’t similar. It’s Scratch.  It’s an old version of Scratch which was modified slightly to have inputs and outputs to the Senseboard.  These modifications have changed the structure of the .sb save files significantly enough so that the two can’t load each other’s programmes, but it’s the same thing.

So, if you’re looking to get a tiny bit of a jump on TU100 before the start of the module, head over to Scratch and check it out. It’s pretty cool.  My five year old son loves it.  I think I’ve mentioned it before.  You use drag-and-drop tiles to build a programme using conventional coding logic structures.  And you can make a cat fart.  (Which is where the part about my five year old son loving it comes in.)  You can do a lot more with it than that, but that’s pretty much how far he’s gotten.  It’ll run on just about anything, including a Raspberry Pi. (I’m already talking about the Pi too much, aren’t I? Fair enough.)

(I imagine it will get worse.)

Scratch is a good enough introduction to coding concepts for my son in Year 1, but it’s going to drive me a little batty.

I just think that it’s interesting that the OU is so uptight about making sure its students give so much attribution to original authors, but they’re pretty quiet about MIT’s input to their Sense environment.

Student Finance marked my student loan application as approved and my declaration form as received this morning, even though it was in the same envelope as my identity and residence evidence.  The student loan process took just under three weeks to complete, and the entire enrolment process took almost exactly a month, even though I had to wait a good while for part-time student loans to open.

Since I applied for the loan, a few more dates have filtered to me from the Open University.  The module website for TU100 will open on 6 September.  The initial shipment of course materials will be shipped out on 9 September.  (I’m fairly close to Milton Keynes, so it shouldn’t be more than a couple of days before they arrive.)  These materials will include the Senseboard, which is a microcontroller with various inputs and outputs which can be programmed using a drag-and-drop programming environment called Sense.  I didn’t realise until today that I could download Sense ahead of time and play around with it.  The rest of the materials (books, apparently) will be shipped out on 25 November.  I’ll be ripping any DVDs I get so that I can load them onto tablets for easier access.

The first group of materials are for use beginning 1 October, which is the module start date.  This being distance learning, I don’t know how much that start date matters.  My initial hope was to have read through all the initial course material once by the “first day” of the module, so that I can focus my actual studies where they need to go.  I haven’t seen how much course material there is, though, but it does seem unlikely I’ll be able to get through it in only two weeks.

The second group of materials are for use beginning 17 December.  As I don’t reeeaaally think they’re going to have us start on a new block the Friday before Christmas holidays, I suspect that means the materials are really for use beginning the beginning of January.

When I look at the six different blocks, I am a bit nervous about how quickly they’re going to move.  It’ll be one TMA to the next to the next, and I hope that I can keep up, even though it’s an introductory module.

I think my next step is to have some fun playing with Sense.  I’m pretty sure that I can use it without the Senseboard to make some terrible games.  I’ve also got a hold of a Cisco switch (a Catalyst 3750) which will help with prepping for the CCNA.  I’ve managed Ciscos quite a bit, but most organisations I’ve worked for have used Netgear.  It’ll be nice to have one in my home lab for testing.

The only thing I regret is that I’d rather be taking the modules which are going to replace TU100 next year, TM111 and TM112.  Though if they also use the Senseboard, then it’s probably not all that different.

Two or three days ago, the Part-Time applications for Student Finance opened up.  It turns out that my order for applying was fine, and probably even intended:

  1. Sign up for Open University account
  2. Begin enrolment
  3. Apply for SFE account and CR number
  4. Complete enrolment at Open University, using CR number from SFE, choosing course and modules
  5. Wait however long it takes to open Part-Time applications at SFE
  6. Complete application at SFE
  7. Send in evidence and declaration form (I used the same envelope sent First Class Signed-for post)

The online application took about 15 minutes, and only that long because I had to check with my father-in-law and brother-in-law that they wouldn’t mind being contacts in case I skipped out on the country.  (Seriously though, after immigration, all paperwork is easy by comparison.)

I’m probably more nervous that my biometrics residence permit is in the post than anything else. (Also that I just realised I didn’t inform them of my change of address for my BRP when I bought my house two years ago. Hrm.)

Looks like I’ll be paying on the loan (quite heavily) while I’m still on the course, as it takes longer than 4 years to complete. I could pay out of pocket, but would rather just smooth out the rough patches so I only have to worry about one thing at a time.


Just a quick edit to show a timeline:

  • SFE application filled out online: 18/5/2016
  • Evidence and Declaration posted: 20/5/2016
  • Signature confirmation received: 23/5/2016
  • Evidence marked as received on account: 25/5/2016
  • Declaration marked as received on account: 6/6/2016
  • Evidence returned: 26/5/2016 (was returned registered post, though I had not asked or paid extra for it)
  • SFE Application approved: 6/6/2016

I wonder how often this occurs. There are a lot of people trying to sort out their EMA (End of Module Assessments) right now. If it always crashes when EMAs are due, it’s going to be a very stressful time of year. For the next. six. years.

As an aside … Who are the two guys who liked this?

ou-down

The pre-studying for T216 has already been very useful. I had a question on Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) path costs. A scenario came up where the two ports of a network segment had different port speeds. I thought that logically, the two ports would auto-negotiate to the slower speed, and the cost of the path would be based on the new, lower port speed. The documentation I was reading, however, disagreed, and said that only the port speed of the root port mattered. So if it was higher than the designated port of that network segment, the cost would be lower and therefore more likely to be preferred when determining a blocking port further down the line.

It turns out that I was right, and the documentation was wrong. (At least for Cisco, which is what I need to know about.)  Further, somebody here was kind enough to not only quote proof, but attribute it for me, too:

On Cisco switches, the STP cost is based on the actual speed of the interface, so if an interface negotiates to use a lower speed, the default STP cost reflects that lower speed. If the interface negotiates to use a different speed, the switch dynamically changes the STP port cost as well.

-[CCNA ICND2 640-816 Official Cert Guide, Third Edition By: Wendell Odom] P.89 {Per-VLAN Port Costs}

Well that’s just about perfect.  I can actually use that at some point for T216, I’m sure, if they ask for an example of something something difficult something.

With the current course paths that the OU has in place, I won’t be able to take T216 (basically the only networking module in the Computing & IT department right now) until October 2018 at the earliest.  However, it’s one that I’m a bit worried about it time-wise based on reviews and blogs I’ve read on the course from others who have taken the module.

T216 uses Cisco’s own Cisco Network Academy (NetAcad) course curriculum (and online resources) for this module, but they do it in their own way.  That own way, of course, involves (apparently) brutal TMAs that take a lot of time.  As an example, Cisco estimates that the four sections (Introduction to Networks, Routing and Switching Essentials, Scaling Networks, and Connecting Networks) should take roughly 70 hours each, or 280 hours total.  Open University estimates that a 60 credit module should take about 600 hours — but every student that I’ve seen talk about it says that it takes more time and is tougher than any other module that they’ve taken by Stage 2.  That does, though, include four hands-on day classes.  (To sum up: if you want your CCNA, there are faster and easier ways to get it.)

My focus on this degree has to be: Do it the easiest way possible. I know that’s not what I’m supposed to say, but I have to be honest with myself. Spending time with my family is my absolute priority, and I’m going to stretch as much as possible to fit a degree in around that. (Seriously, I’m practically aiming for third-class honours on my degree, because nobody will ever ask.) When I first saw how difficult T216 apparently was, I was resigned to having to cut it from my degree path. But I think I’ve come up with a better plan.

Since the course is really just about CCNA topics, I don’t need to wait until 2018 to get my hands on study material.  There are thousands of resources, many of them free.  There are books, videos, practice tests, courses, all about the same material covered in T216.  So my plan is to study that now, during this summer and next, to be more familiar with it come time to start the module.

If I find any resources (likely free) particularly useful, I’ll put them in my Recommended Pages links list.  I’ve already gotten a lot of great reference notes that I expect will be quite useful.  (It will also help me gauge my current level. While I’m certain I’d fail horribly if I took the CCNA right now, I have been configuring their routers for years with no organisation-crippling mistakes yet.)