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  There was an outdated textbook from Microsoft with OU commentary on the chapters, and activities that were also mostly taken from the textbook.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.

At the last tutorial I went to, we received an update on the Stage 2 modules for Q62 (and Q67) which are being retired within the next few years.  Some changes are excitingly small, and others are large enough to make me change my plans.

Probably the biggest news is what isn’t changing.  M250 – Object Oriented Java Programming is almost certainly being replaced with another Java module, and might even still be called M250.  This is good news for me, because I was worried after taking the Learn to Code for Data Analysis MOOC on OpenLearn and the news that TM112 included Python that a new Python module would be replacing M250.  I don’t care one way or the other if they teach using Python or Java, object-oriented is object-oriented to me at this point, and the skills seem fairly transferable.  But I’d prefer to have a more mature module than a complete tear-down which would be required by switching to Python.  Hopefully they’ll be able to preserve quite a bit of the existing material and give it a good update in the process.

The largest change is probably happening to the Networking path for Q62.  T216 currently takes 50% of the Stage 2 modules, and is reportedly very difficult.  There are so many great things to study at Stage 2 that I had recently made the decision that I just couldn’t justify the full 60 credits required for it, and so was going to take four programming and developer based modules, instead, and just certify in networking on my own time.

That’s no longer necessary.  T216 is being split into two 30 credit modules, with the first half being taught in Stage 2, and the second half in Stage 3.  Given the effort level reportedly required, this seems like a good idea.  Most importantly, it makes the networking path much more flexible.

It’s not the only module being shrunk, though.  T215, which was the only other 60 credit module in Stage 2, is also becoming a 30 credit module.  The other 30 credits aren’t be replaced, however, as there was apparently a lot of redundancy already with an existing Stage 3 module.  This updates the module and removes the redundancy.

Another largish change is that a new TM254 – Software Engineering module is being introduced.  (Final module code is pending … And everything else, really.)  This includes parts of both M256 and M258, and I imagine replaces both of them … But I’m not entirely clear on this last part.

So here’s the summary of changes:

Stage 1:

TU100 My digital life – Final presentation being taught now, being replaced by TM111 Introduction to computing and information technology 1 (30 credits) and TM112 Introduction to computing and information technology 2 (30 credits)

Stage 2:

M250 Object-oriented Java programming – Final presentation October 2017, replacement also probably M250, or another Java module

T215 Communication and information technologies – Final presentation October 2017, replacement an unnamed 30 credit module

T216 Cisco networking (CCNA) – Final presentation October 2017, replacement TM257 at Stage 2, and TM357 at Stage 3

M256 Software development with Java – Final presentation February 2018, full or partial replacement by TM254 Software engineering

M258 IT project and service management – Final presentation October 2018, full or partial replacement by TM254 Software engineering

Stage 3:

Currently unknown, aside from the addition of TM357 as the second half of the Cisco networking module.

As I’ve said, all this will change my plans.  I had been expecting to take M250, M269, M256 and TT284 (Web technologies, which I think is also just going to be refreshed similar to M250) at Stage 2, and self studying the CCNA.  Now I think I’d like to take M250, M269, TM254 and TM257.  Stage 3 is nearly half a decade away at this point, so I’m not going to worry about it just now.

Completely unrelated, I’ve got my TMA04 submitted.  The topics covered are statistical analysis, creating graphs, determining averages, personal/professional development planning, loops and lists in Sense, and report research & writing.  And probably also referencing.

In US terms, I’d give my report all of a solid C-, but that’s difficult to translate into the OU model.  I also intentionally broke the rules for the PDP section, as I’m not going to lie and pretend the ticky-box method of self reflection is useful for me, so I expect to lose a huge chunk of points for that, but it’s only worth 10 marks anyway.

If it were me grading, I’d take 10 marks off my report, 5 marks off my PDP, none off the Sense stuff, and I’ve probably forgotten 2 marks worth of stuff on the statistical analysis.  Additionally, my tutor seems to take points off the 20 skills marks in direct proportion to marks taken off the rest of the assessment, so that’s another 2 marks off.  All together, I’d score me an 81 on this one.  It makes me wonder how badly I’d have to do in order to fail an assessment.

Edit 2017/2/24: TMA04 results came back last week.  Somehow I scored another 100%.  I can’t really say that this is good news, though, because it highlights how vastly different my expectations are from my tutor’s expectations.  I can’t truly calibrate my expectations with the OU’s until the EMA comes back, but it seems as though there needs to be a large shift.

Edit 2017/4/3: T216 module descriptions now indicate that T216 is being split into TM257 and TM258, both at Stage 2.  As networking once again requires half of the Stage 2 modules, there’s no flexibility to it, and frankly no point to me taking it.  Books off eBay it is!

Edit 2017/8/29: T216’s replacement is now showing as Stage2/Stage3 again.  TM257 and TM357.  Boy do they like change!

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.)

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.