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.)

Well, I’m officially enrolled. That step’s over. But my impatience may bite my behind later on.

I signed up for the course and the first module, TU100 – My Digital Life. It’s a requirement for the degree, but it’s being discontinued at the end of this academic year.  It’s being replaced by two 30 credit modules.  (Frankly, the two smaller modules sound more interesting, but what are you going to do.)

At the same time, I signed up for a student finance account.  I couldn’t sign up for an actual student loan, because it’s the first week of May, and apparently you can’t do that until the last week of May.  Because if the United Kingdom’s governmental services are anything, they’re arbitrary. Which I think should be the Civil Service’s slogan. “We’re nothing if not arbitrary.” Because in addition to being true, it’s also particularly difficult to parse. Like them.

Anyway, since I had the student finance account, and it asked me for my student finance account number when I signed up for the TU100 module … Erm … I think they think I’ve already been approved for the loan and now won’t be able to apply the actual loan to the module without a fistful of emails? That’s just how things typically go for me: I do what I’m supposed to do, which is absolutely not what I’m supposed to do.

Long story short (for me) I got an email confirming enrolment from 5/5/2016. Which is great for me, because it’s the same date in English and American.

Oh, one other thing. Since I’m a resident alien with ILR (Indefinite Leave to Remain, meaning I’m a permanent resident), Open University wants proof that I’m legally here.  Except they put the requirements of what I’m supposed to send on one page that I can’t find. And I’m not entirely sure who to contact.  I’m just going to ignore it until after I’ve proven identity for the student loan, though, as I’m sure it will require the same evidences.

I’ve basically said why I’m getting a degree, and why I’m getting it from the Open University. So then why a degree in computing when I’m already a network engineer?

The last time I was looking down this path, before the company I was working for went bust and before my wife became pregnant with our second son, I was asked this question outright by a coworker. He had a degree in history from Ireland, and more than ten years later he was a mid-level engineer for a cloud services company. (Though due to the company falling apart, he was trained up quickly and was helping me do senior level work.) His argument was that I was paying money to study, and could get any education I wanted with that money, but using it to get a degree that people normally use to work for someone at my position was throwing the money away on a piece of paper. Or maybe parchment. Probably paper, though. Like, fake age-yellowed paper.  Fake age, not fake paper.  Because fake paper would be parchment, again.

It’s a fair question. With the whole of the Open University course list in front of me, I could pick out anything I want to study, and go down that path. I could learn history, myself. Business administration, psychology, law, and anything else are all possibilities, and I could just pick the most interesting one.

Except I have already picked the most interesting one.  I picked it twenty years ago. I like computers. I love networking. I like the career, the people, the fact that every year there’s more things for me to learn. I love that no matter what organisation I’m with, I can use my skills to invent a solution to something that’s keeping someone from being satisfied with their job.

What would I do if I got a history degree? I’d still be working in IT. I don’t think there are any IT Historian positions that need filling. You know what I’d be doing with a history degree? The same thing my coworker is doing with his: Letting it sit on the wall and ignoring it while I worked in IT.

In the meantime, it’s not like I’m even close to knowing everything about computing. When I started at the school I work in now, there was a student intern who taught me things about PHP that I now use every single week. He had no degree or work experience, and I learned real world job skills that I’ve constantly used for the year and a half since from him.

Think how much more I’ll use after a current higher education degree course? In a field I already know that I love, have experience in, know I can find work in and will enjoy? Surely that’s worth a few quid here or there.

Also, let’s be honest, I’m already a full-time dad and a full-time employee.  I’m also a part-time semi-professional geocacher and drinker. These things take dedication. To say nothing of all the time I spend avoiding work on the allotment.

Getting a degree in my current field will certainly optimise the time I can devote to study. I know it won’t be easy, but it will certainly be easier than, say, an accounting degree would be, unless I were an accounting clerk.

As an example, I’m going to have a large leg-up on things like coming up with assessment project ideas. I even have a potential idea for my final project of the degree already, integrating our school’s student management system with an open source VLE to give teachers the option of using the VLE without any setup work on their behalf. (I’ll probably end up doing this in a year or two anyway, so I’m not worried if someone swipes this idea. I’ll come up with a thousand more ideas between now and then.) And certainly the CCNA module will be easier for someone who can already figure out networking subnets in his head.

If I can shave off a few minutes here or there because I’m already scripting solutions, and spend them with my kids, and still get a degree, that’s worth it.

And finally, it’s going to give me the chance to explore other parts of Computing & IT than my current little kingdom. I’ve already decided to switch my degree focus from networking to web development. Currently a lot of the solutions I’m providing to the school are bespoke web applications, and I’m really enjoying it.  Before my previous employer imploded, I was starting to design a new cloud services platform. This degree will let me convince future employers to let me keep playing with these technologies, which I love.  I almost wish I could just take forever and take all the modules.  (Considering how often they have to retire modules due to the speed of change in the industry, that’s potentially literally impossible.)

So that’s why. Oh, and I’ve always, always wanted a degree in computing.  Maybe I could have just left it at that.

I had the mixed experience of using distance learning to obtain my high school diploma after dropping out. I was successful, and it was nice that such an option existed, but to call it a drag on the soul like a million demons trying to yank me into hell would understate it.

Even though it had a positive outcome, it was an overwhelmingly negative experience.  It soured me on distance learning like soaking Tangfastics in pickling vinegar.

I thought advances in technology would change my mind, but after becoming more familiar with the ethos of the Open University, I realised I was wrong. It’s less about the medium of communication, and more about the quality.  And the structure.  And even the intent.  Okay, look, it’s that there is communication.

It’s really not appropriate to say why I chose the Open University, as I wouldn’t be doing this without it.  The Open University convinced me that I could do this.  (Okay, I probably would try it again at some point, as I started in California, but I was dreading it.)

Here’s what helped convince me:

  • Support
    Mostly I mean the tutors. Previously, when I had questions, I basically talked to an administrator who could help insomuch as telling precisely where I could place my study materials.
  • Study Materials
    Look, I don’t care if they’re online or in a book, what I care about is that I don’t have to go around finding them myself, whether at the bookstore, the library, the school’s office, or lost in the post.  People bang on about the quality of the study materials, but I currently don’t know anything about that.  All I know is that they provide all of them.
  • Part Time Student Financing
    Not really anything to do with the Open University, but the UK government allows part-time students to arrange for student loans, now.  Okay, it may have been better a few years ago when the tuition fees were a fraction of what they are now. And yes, I could pay out-of-pocket, the fees are definitely low enough. But it’s nice that I can put it into a manageable payment and eliminate a barrier that would otherwise exist for me, but not an 18 year old.
  • Everything can be done online
    I know a lot of Open University students like that it doesn’t have to be online, that you can go to tutorials and get face-to-face help. But I just want to put my head down and get on with it. I’m pretty anti-social as it is.  As in withdrawn and introverted, not as in ASBO and Stella Artois. But I mean TMA submission and such. Aside from 4 day schools if I choose the networking route, I don’t think anything can’t be done online.
  • Structure!
    Not just structure, but what appears to be a scientifically created one.  Each module has a number of credits (typically 30, 60, or 120), which generally map to 10 hours of study, over 8 months.  So the recommended 60 credits per year at part time study is 600 hours of study over 8 months (or 36-38 weeks), or about 16 hours per week. The module is then mapped out according to these 16 hour weeks to provide for time to study materials, prepare Tutor Marked Assignments, and so on. So you know exactly how far ahead or behind you are at any point in the module.
  • Feedback
    Closing the other end of my biggest problem with distance learning is that you get feedback on any assignments within two weeks. And I’ve seen some examples of the feedback. I’m sure it will often be down to the ability of my tutors to convey, but the structure for the feedback is good. It’s useful.

All of that’s great, but it does (of course) still leave the biggest problem of distance learning up to me to solve: Motivation.  Finding and keeping that is a constant struggle in distance learning. Many future posts I’m sure deal with this.