With my (first draft) final assignment in the can long ago and myself recovered, I can put TU100 firmly in my rearview mirror, much like a fox run over when you’re late for the airport.  I only have to talk about it again when I get my results, which will take a while.  How did I do on my de facto EMA?  Well, let’s take a look at what it covers:

  • A four page report on concepts relating nominally to “appropriate technology” for different socioeconomic landscapes, but in reality it’s … any report ever.  I’ve definitely nailed the structure, speaking to the right audience, defining my terms, and referencing.  But it’s arbitrary and my confidence lacks any justifiable source.  In a worst-case scenario, I could lose 10 out of 30 marks, but realistically probably 5.
  • A 200 word snip from a job application cover letter.  These are essentially free points, so I’m expecting the full 10 marks, but maybe 8.
  • Sense activity, full 50 marks, ‘nough said.
  • Understanding and normalising relational databases.  The technical side of this I’m very confident with, so this is more about my ability to describe the process, and present information in an appropriate form (in this case some tables).  I’ve defined every technical term within an inch of its life.  Maybe I’ve missed something and I’ll miss 2 of the 21 marks available.
  • A task involving understanding the Data Protection Act 1998, and security and encryption.  This task is possibly the best marriage of its explicit and implicit goals, as the explicit goals mentioned are highly relevant, and the implicit goals of tailoring your message to your audience appear to be equally weighted.  I’m again unduly confident here, but we’ll hedge another 2 out of 19 marks available.
  • A page of maths and the creation of a spreadsheet, full 40 marks.
  • Argument mapping.  This one’s difficult, as there’s lots of moving parts.  There’s logic, there’s reading comprehension, there’s technical detailing … It’s specifically stated that there’s no one answer, but that’s whatever the nice version of a lie is.  A fib?  It’s a fib.  The structure and progression of the questions give the game away.  The worst part is that we’re analysing what appears to be an Italian text that’s been run through Google Translate.  I re-did this portion completely three times, so I’m not excessively proud of my chances.  Maybe 25 out of 30 marks.
  • Risk analysis and the data security CIA triad (mentioned briefly in a MOOC review roundup).  So here’s the problem: I think this one is really about presenting information in an easy to understand format.  I’ve therefore shot for the moon on this one and presented it in a non-standard but easy-to-understand format.  This could backfire like a Chevy in winter.  Worst case is maybe 6 out of 10 marks.  On the other hand, I love the irony of taking an unnecessary risk in a task about risk analysis, so I’m not changing it.

This leaves 185 marks in a worst-case scenario from 210 non-skills marks.  That’s 88%.  If we assume that I do similarly dismally on the 40 skills marks (which would be 35), that’s still comfortably in the distinction range.  How likely is my worst case scenario?  Unlikely.  Realistically, I would mark it at 93-95%.


So how do I feel about TU100?  I don’t feel overwhelmingly like it was a waste of my time, but it’s a waste of money.  That much outdated and poorly constructed material is worth maybe £500.  I had a good tutor and good support from other tutors, but not really in line with the amount of money which was spent.  It did, however, give me an excellent chance to practise my skills.  And remind me how much I hate group tasks.  It’s for the best that it’s coming to an end, and I hope they A) pull the plug on Sense, and B) stop telling people not to take Scratch courses ahead of the module if they use Scratch going forward.

And studying at the Open University?  It’s brilliant.  It’s perfectly suited to my lifestyle.  I’m glad I’m taking it slowly, as I hit quite a few personal challenges and had to keep scaling things back over and over, but I was consistently able to keep up with the work.  I’m quite happy with the study prep I did, as it worked well.  I know the rest will be harder than this year, but I’m really looking forward to the next short five years.


Onto the greener pastures of TM129 and MST124, part-time student finance loans for the next academic year opened sometime in the last few days, so that’s sorted.  Much quicker this year than last in many ways.


And that brings me to … The first year of this blog being complete!  And I’ve written a lot.  I have no idea of what I’ll write about during the summer this year, but I’ll find something to keep me busy and learning.  Certainly I’m going to tackle as much of maths as I can before MST124, and somehow I don’t think that OpenLearn is going to be of much help.

After five days of websites, phone calls, and emails, I’m finally enrolled on my next modules for Q62.  I’m finishing out Stage 1 with TM129 (Technologies in practice) and MST124 (Essential mathematics 1).  Enrolment for October 2017 opened on the 9th, and it finally got completely sorted this morning.  The website wouldn’t let me register on the first day, because it thought I was trying to take the modules in America from a UK address.  I don’t even know what that means, but I had to call the next day to sort it out.  Once they corrected that issue, they said I hadn’t sent in proof of residence in the UK.  Finding it pointless to argue what had or hadn’t been done, versus what had or hadn’t been lost by their IT systems, I sent in more proof.  The next hurtle was that they registered me on the phone for the modules, but didn’t tie those modules to my degree, so they wouldn’t count toward it.  (In the long run, this isn’t an issue, but it would have required more fuss next year, since my Stage 1 wouldn’t be cleared, even though I’d taken all the required modules.)  Student Finance England should start taking applications for part-time studies in the 2017/2018 academic year in around mid-May, but putting my SFE CR number in now switched me from just reserving the spot in the module until 20 April to being fully registered in it.

As with TU100, I will be on one of TM129’s final presentations.  The module’s final run is October 2018, but I think it has a February 2018 run before that.  It covers three main areas: Networking, Linux, and Robotics.  I’m glad that the degree is rounding out the ICT experience of its programme with these areas.  I’m extremely familiar with the first two, and a very poor hobbyist in the third.  My six year old son helped me build little toy robots last year, and this year he’s been working with a brilliant snap-together circuitry kit his auntie in America got him for Christmas.  Even though the practical portions of the robotics section is entirely virtual, I’m certain he’ll enjoy sharing those parts together.  It also comes with a copy of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, which was one of my favourite books in seventh grade.

MST124, I’m not ashamed to say, is a bit outside my abilities.  I will not be receiving a distinction on this module.  As only a bare pass is required and the specific outcome does not impact my degree classification in the slightest, I’m using this to full advantage and studying something I know I’ll only do about average on.  The trade-off is that I should learn and grow the most with this module.

I’ve finally found the block descriptions for MU123 and MST124, so here’s what you learn:

MU123

  • Basic maths review
  • Vocabulary and notation
  • Types of numbers
  • Statistical summaries (types of averages, significant figures, etc.)
  • Algebra
  • Graphs
  • Inequalities
  • Geometry
  • Advanced algebra
  • Quadratics
  • Statistical pictures
  • Trigonometry
  • Exponentials
  • “Maths everywhere” (which I’m guessing is making it practical, which means story problems)

MST124

  • Algebra review
  • Graphs and equations review
  • Functions
  • Trigonometry review
  • Coordinate geometry and vectors
  • Differentiation
  • Differentiation methods and integration
  • Integration methods
  • Matrices
  • Sequences and series
  • Taylor polynomials
  • Complex numbers

Now, why the OU can’t just put this list side-by-side someplace and let people choose is beyond me.  Looking at this, I can see that I had cleared MU123 by the ninth grade, including the level of trigonometry taught there.  I’m about halfway up the MST124 list, having done some differential calculus, but in dire need of a refresher.  I would be bored to tears on MU123.  So even though I’m quite certain I’ll get toward the lower end of between 40% and 84% on my end-of-module exam, MST124’s my route.  (I’ve heard the exam is multiple choice, though, so anything’s possible.)

It also has a revise & review site that opens up next week for early registrants to prepare them in case we’ve forgotten as much maths as we’ve learned.

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!

Several students on the TU100 module right now are doing their best to work to the study planner.  Some are right on track, some are slightly behind, a few have fallen a fair bit behind.  They all might be headed for something of a wall.

In the early weeks of the module, each part of each block gets a nice, clearly defined week on which to work, then there’s a lengthy, roomy week on which to work on the TMA that covers that block, and then the next part starts the same week the TMA is due.

Then things accelerate a bit, and there’s a bit of a compression to this timing, where the TMA is due just four days after the end of the study week for the relevant parts.  This is mitigated, however, by having two weeks of Christmas Break in the middle to sort things through if you’re particularly under it.

But this TMA, I think, is going to leave some people gasping for air.  TMA04 is due four days before block 3 is finished.

If they pay a lot of attention to the Learning Outcomes, students should notice that nothing in TMA04 is based on part 5, it’s all based on parts 1-4 of block 3.  That means that they should put off starting on part 5 until after their TMA is submitted.

In fairness to the study planner, that is the order in which it shows the module progressing, but I think it’s going to catch out more than a handful.  Additionally, that still only gives a few days to sort out the TMA, and around half of the points of the assignment are covered in part 4.

If you can at all help it, get a few weeks out ahead of the study planner, stay ahead, and don’t trust the study planner.  (I say this having only barely gotten ahead again, and looking forward to the next block which says, basically, under no circumstances attempt to start this block early, due to collaborative project purposes.  Good luck on your time management!)

Blank page syndrome does not only hit creative writers.  I learned in the Systematic Program Design MOOC some great ways of attacking it when it hits programmers.

It can also rear its head when sitting down to a new TMA.  Okay, so it pretty much always rears its head on TMAs.  Or not so much rears its head, but just kind of stares at you expectantly since it never put its head down since the last time it reared away.

For me, a plan of what to do before, during, and after studying a block has been a good way to attack a TMA:

  1. I skim the TMA questions for low-hanging fruit.  These are questions which require no planning, little thinking, and generally a lot of button pushing.  On TU100, the Sense programs fall into that category for me, but they won’t for everybody.  It might be the maths questions, or a library searching exercise, short-form answers, or something else.  But look for some low-hanging fruit, preferably that you can do before even studying the associated block.  Even if it’s wrong (for now), it’s in the TMA, the TMA isn’t blank, and you’re off to the races.
  2. I create a TMA Notes document.  I start by taking notes on each question itself.  For example, I highlight specific words I need to address in my answer.  If I know the OU has a specific definition for something it’s asking for, I might put that definition in these notes.  (The OU drills students on indentifying “Content” and “Process” words in TMAs, with the process words being the required tasks central to the TMA question.  It’s a good idea to use the OU’s definitions of these words when considering how to answer them.)
  3. While going about my study, if something jumps out as relevant to a TMA question, I’ll quickly jot it down in the TMA notes.  I don’t work on it at all, so as not to interrupt my study flow.
  4. After finishing the block study, I next finish up my TMA notes.  This may (okay, almost certainly will) include writing notes on articles, finding tools I’ll need to use and linking to them, gathering references (using online tools), or other necessary planning.
  5. I attack the actual TMA.  If I’ve done my planning right, I shouldn’t need to consult any other source at this point than those in my TMA notes.  All the work should have been done by this point, so it’s just a matter of writing it out, and wrestling it into the word count.  I label this as my first draft.

If I did step 4 right, I don’t have to worry so much about the blank page.  Sometimes I’ll literally just write a line from my notes to get me started, knowing I’ll have to go back and write something that makes sense later.  Heck, once I just re-wrote my bullet point notes into paragraph form because I was so desparate, and went back to edit it later.  It was ugly, but it got me past the blank page.

If anybody’s interested in the rest of my TMA plan, after the blank page is gone, here it is:

  1. I wait at least 24 hours, then open up the original TMA questions (not my notes) and go over each question part, making certain that I’ve answered the question.  I tidy up what needs tidying, correct what needs correcting, then label the result as my second draft.
  2. I then forget about it (or try to) until the tutorial in which the TMA will be discussed.  I’ve been lucky thus far to have my second draft done by the time that rolls around, but I don’t know if that luck will hold.  Anyway, I ask questions about anything I’m not certain of, fix what needs fixing, and finally have my final draft.
  3. After all that, I still don’t submit quite yet.  I give it another 24 hour cool-off period, give it a final read-through, and then dump it into the submission site.

These final steps don’t always work ad consilium, but my tutorials have thus far come just before the TMA cut-off date.  It does mean that I need to finish up my studying a minimum of half a week before the TMA due date, but I think the plan spreads the work as well as it can throughout the planner.

On a related note, TU100 TMA02 is in the can.  It’ll probably be about two weeks before it comes back.  I’m expecting the result to be on par with the last one.  It’s certainly more ambiguous than TMA01, so it could come in lower than expected.


2016/12/12 Edit: TMA02 returned: 100!  Though no marks were deducted, I was still given a lot of great feedback for future TMAs, such as using comments in Sense and avoiding the Word formula builder.

As the due date of my first ever Open University TMA passed last night, I feel nearly comfortable talking about it in very broad, generic terms.  Even typing that out loud makes me nervous of somehow being stamped as colluding, perhaps the very worst thing I can be.  Or that’s how I feel after actually doing the TMA.

I can’t actually find a single university policy telling me not to post every question and every answer from the TMA.  Rumour has it that his is a no-no, as the questions might be recycled, so it’s odd that they don’t tell people not to do it.

Anyway, I’m not going to do that.  But I am going to shed some light on the content, regardless.  So if the OU police come knocking at my door, you’ll know what happened.  Remember me fondly as you accept your degree.  Or probably not.  Remember me with a “What happened to that guy?” when someone mentions annoying bloggers.

If you haven’t sussed it out, yet, what you’re supposed to learn on a module isn’t necessarily what you think you’re getting into from the module title, or possibly even the description.  What you’re supposed to learn are the items in the Learning Objectives.  So as annoying as their template is, make some kind of peace with the Learning Objectives themselves.

As the TMAs … actually all the assessments … are testing how well you’ve grasped the content you’re supposed to, that means that the TMA questions will fundamentally be tied to the Learning Objectives.  In TU100, the first half of Block 1, that means various study skills (such as taking notes and active reading), netiquette, good academic practice (re: plagiarism), remote collaboration, number bases, binary, computer history, exponential notation and growth, and basic web design concepts.  You can make a few guesses as to what might show up on the first TMA.

Additionally, there’s a bit with the SenseBoard telling you what buttons to push and recording the response.  Which may or may not be testing your ability to copy and paste spreadsheets.

As you can probably tell from the length of most of my blog entries, my biggest difficulty with the TMA is getting the word-count down.  Most sections have a maximum word-count.  There may or may not be a 10% leeway on the upper bound of the word-count, depending on your tutor.  I certainly wouldn’t count on it for an EMA, which will be marked by someone other than your tutor.  Word count tallies, at least on this module, should accompany each section with such a limit.

I finished my first draft about a week before the beginning of the module presentation.  I later decided that my entire third question had to go, and I tweaked question one several dozen times, as well.  Even so, I still put it up on a proverbial shelf to sit for several weeks before submission.  I wanted confirmation on a referencing question, and so waited until our tutorial on the TMA less than a week before the submission due date.

The response to my question was that she didn’t really care.  She didn’t really care if I even attempted a reference, so cheers for trying.  So I changed one word (no hints) and submitted it that night.  And then wrote half of TMA02 for kicks.

The tutorial was great, by the way.  Less than a handful of us showed up for it, and all three of us were done with our TMAs, and one had even already submitted it.  (A fourth showed up half an hour later, which was either late or bang on time, depending on which message from our tutor one decided to read.)  Okay, so my tutor isn’t extremely aggressive with communication, or organisation details like when tutorials are, and she insists that purple Comic Sans is a professional font due to its legibility, but she’s actually very experienced in her role, and it shows.  What she lacks in protocol she more than makes up for in being able to describe complex concepts directly, simply, and quickly.  And, I imagine, is probably good at easing nerves of those less confident with the processes.

Indeed, I found her tutorial much more useful than my previous experience.  Even though I’d be able to stumble through TMA01 and TMA02 without the tutorial, I was made much more confident of the process, as well.

I’ll update this post later with my TMA results, but I’m expecting just below the 90-mark point.  We’ll see how closely calibrated my expectations are.


2016/11/07 Edit: I got my TMA01 results back: 94 !  I lost two marks (of fifty possible) for something cheeky that I did intentionally: I left off the full title and author of an article, and just saved them for my references.  I was pretty much at the very limit of my word count, and the title was some ridiculous twelve words!  That’s six percent of my total allotted word count!

I don’t really know what the last mark was off for.  It was part of the “Relevent skills from the unit” which aren’t specified.  Frankly (as I hinted) I would have taken off another two or three marks if I were to mark it, so I’m hardly going to worry over it.

As I’ll probably detail the reasons for shortly, this is likely the only place I’ll share my results.  It is, however, nice to know that my dedication over the summer has paid off.

All of the people with whom I’ve interacted on this journey, both in my first module and on the way to getting there, have been genuine, helpful, and friendly people.  Nowhere is this more true than my tutor group.  Which is a shame, since I can’t find a way to make fun of them.

A couple of weeks before the module started, I logged into my preferred Facebook discussion group (meaning the only one where anybody ever actually talked).  The group had practically exploded with a bizarre new game.  Someone would post a full name and title, like Mr. Edward Nitworth or Dr. Candace Merryweather, and other people would either whole-heartedly agree with said name (“Me too!” or “Yup!”) or completely ignore the thread, and find a different random name with which to agree.  The agreements were occasionally supplemented with a town name.

After about ten minutes of confusion and trying to decide if I was enough of a follower to just post name at random to see what would happen, I finally saw the word ‘Tutor’.  Ah!  We’d been assigned tutors, and people were finding their fellow tutees.

I was pleasantly surprised when I checked my tutor’s name on the module website and then checked back on the FB group.  Most of the half-dozen or so fellow students with my tutor were fairly well known to me, and on par with my activity level pre-module.  I’d hoped that this activity level would continue through to our tutor group.

That … That hasn’t happened. At all.  I have dreams of another tutor group where the students crowd-source help from the other students, and clarity is offered by the tutor as necessary.  Of information from one source not being contradicted twice by the same source. Of a forum that feels in some way more like a virtual learning environment than a virtual bank lobby.

Sadly, that tutor group is not mine.  If I had to, I’d guess that mythical tutor group was in Scotland.  Those guys seem to be having a blast.  And free wall planners.

It’s actually not bad, as I prefer getting my head down and getting on with it.  It’s just much more isolation than was implied in the brochures.  Certainly I think others will have difficulty engaging as a result.  As an example, only three students aside from me have started any threads in our forum.  Only one other student and I have started more than one thread.  Something certainly seems to be missing.  Any hopes that things would pick up after the face-to-face tutorial have gone unrealised.

I worry a bit about the students who are not engaging.  I try to read all of the blogs of students on this presentation (I’m following 24 of them), and a lot of them are struggling with little things.  For many, it’s concepts of binary or base maths.  For others, it’s something much more basic, like where to even begin the TMA.  Everybody struggled a bit starting with those concepts, so we can all help by talking about what helped us.  But nobody’s asking.  All I can do is keep trying to engage, and see who follows suit.  It’s going a bit better on the Facebook forums, at least.

It does remind me of something I saw someone say on The Student Room, though saber if I can find it again.  It was that the Open University was specifically designed so that anybody can start a degree, but that doesn’t mean everybody will finish it.  That just seems such a shame, because I think it’s attainable for everyone.

My first OU (… and TU100) tutorial was last night.  I had intended to go to a face-to-face tutorial for my first one.  The trouble is that my tutor group’s introduction to the module isn’t until about two weeks after the beginning of the module, and I’m about nine weeks ahead at this point.  So online it is!

Now, I’m not going to characterise the tutorial as worthless.  I will, however, say that it held no worth to me.  Or, really, anybody who can read.  Because basically, they just read to us a very few select snippets from the TU100 guide.

And it took. two. hours.  Weeeell … Okay, it took like one hour, and a whooooole lot of dead air between tutors asking, “Any questions?”  It may have gone on longer than two hours, but by then my options were to log off or stab my hand to alleviate boredom.

The tutors were able to add value by making pie charts that added visual data to the written data, so again, great for those who can’t read … Except it was inaccurate.  iCMA 57 is the only Interactive Computer-Marked Assessment which will impact our final score.  It counts for a grand-whopping total of 4%, but the pie-chart listed it at 3%.  I asked for clarification on this and whether or not iCMA 57 must be passed at 40%, even though it only accounts for 3% or 4% of the final score, and they went off to seek clarification.  (They later returned to re-read what I had read them, and clarification was not achieved.)  I’ll talk about the iCMAs a bit later, but the student reaction to them has been kind of disheartening.

There were 36 participants.  I can’t remember if that was 34 students and 2 tutors, or 36 students and 2 tutors.  But the point is, it wasn’t a whole lot.  Or at least it doesn’t seem like a whole lot for the only online introduction tutorial for a module with 2500 students.

There were no tea breaks, which I found unacceptable.  Indeed, it’s entirely possible that my question about iCMA 57 was answered, but I was heating up the kettle at the time.  So apologies if that’s the case.  You know what?  No.  This is tea.  No apologies!

So will I be back? You betcha!  At least to the TMA01 tutorial.  If that’s equally devoid of new content, I’ll be giving the rest of them a miss.  Indeed, I’ve already decided there’s no amount of content worth me hopping on a train or searching for parking, so f2f’s are right out.  Actually, if it involved searching for parking, the entire degree might just be right out.  The OU’s motto shouldn’t be “Learn and Live”, it should be, “No parking required.”

The waiting is over, the official launch date is tomorrow, and all my ducks are in a row.  Well, I have no ducks, so I’ve neatly arranged my stationery just so, instead.

I have little to add to my status from the last post.  I did finish with all of Block 1 before the start date, our tutor forums have opened, and nearly all communications with fellow students outside the Facebook group has stopped!  I hadn’t really expected that last one, so it’s just lucky that I jumped into the FB group, even though I’ve stopped using FB apart from that.  The Early Bird Café forum was always going to close before the module started, but I’d assumed that student chatter would migrate over to the students association forum for TU100, instead.  Apparently it’s a bit tough for some to find.  (That site makes my kitchen junk drawer look like a hospital.)

I’ve used that forum to revive another student’s great idea.  (I don’t want to post the student’s name, as I haven’t checked if it should be broadcast all over the internet for no good reason.)  The idea was to have some programming challenges in Sense.  Someone runs into a problem while writing code, finds a creative solution for it, then challenges other students to see what solutions they can come up with to satisfy the same problem.  Students who get stuck can then check the challenger’s code to see what they did.

The original challenge involved adding SenseBoard functionality to a number guessing game, which was awesome.  (A SenseBoard is an Arduino-based input/ouput device for Sense.  They’ve stopped selling them, but the Digital Sandbox for Scratch is the closest I’ve found for it.)

My first challenge involved making a custom score counter of arbitrary digits, which was probably the most difficult part of my Jet Bike Steve game.  In Scratch, I used cloned sprites and a lot of modal maths for the digits.  Sense doesn’t allow this solution, so I have to stamp the digits, instead.  My initial solution used the maths from my Scratch solution, held individual digits in a list, and then stamped the list.

Within one or two hours, somebody had completely bested my design by using string slicing, which I didn’t even know was available in Sense or Scratch!  How did I not know that!?  (Because I hadn’t finished reading the programming guide, I later discovered.)  But once he mentioned he did it without maths, I realised I could split my score digits into a list without any maths.  This next revision of the challenge solution was much more optimised than my first, but still not as slick as string slicing.  But the student who used it is already on his final year of the degree (and probably read the guide at some point), so I don’t feel too bad at being shown up, and I learned two great techniques thanks to him.  And that’s the idea of the challenges.

One reason I felt this was necessary was the dismal state of the Sense Programming Guide that comes with the TU100 materials.  And ‘dismal’ may be generous.  In fact, the fiery hellish abyss of computational programming pedagogy might be generous.

It’s not actually bad, I suppose, as it isn’t wrong.  It just doesn’t fit the brief.  According to a paper presented at a symposium detailing the reasons for TU100 and Sense’s existance (Richards et al, 2012, p. 584), one of the main failings of previous OU introductory programming modules was failure to engage students with experimentation.

What they’ve done is assembled a great tool box in Sense and the SenseBoard, and then forgot to actually encourage experimentation, or put another way, to teach the students how to experiment.

Much of the Programming Guide is direct instructions of which buttons to push.  When it comes for explorative activities, the exercises are only open so far as to find the “correct” answer to a limited scenario.  There are no open-ended exercises of any kind in the guide.  It actively discourages experimentation.

It does, however, go over string slicing, so I didn’t have to discover that on my own.  It was more fun, engaging, and easily remembered that way, though.

Reference: M. Richards, M. Petra, and A. Bandara (2012) ‘Starting with Ubicomp: using the senseboard to introduce computing’, SIGCSE ’12 Proceedings of the 43rd ACM technical symposium on Computer Science Education, pp. 583-588.

As some have said in my TU100 forums, it’s my last week of freedom!  After this, it’s all deadlines and regret.  (Which isn’t a huge lateral step, as it would have been mostly regret if I hadn’t started the degree.)

Before the big start, let’s take stock: Where am I?  Well, mostly I’m done.  Okay, not with the whole module, but I’m on track to being finished with the first block (of six) before the first day of the module.  In a word, that’s terrible!  For oh so many reasons:

  • I honestly didn’t want to get very far ahead.  I was thinking that being about a week ahead would help me smooth out any emergencies that came up.  (I’ve got a wife with a medical condition that sees me in A&E for about twenty hours a year, typically on a Friday night, doing my best to worry more about her being doubled over in pain than laughing at the drunks who can’t keep from sliding out of their chairs, I’ve got a baby who wants to practice parkour before he can walk, and a six-year-old who very commonly needs emergency snuggles.  Unavoidables happen.)
  • I’m kind of running out of things to study.  Problems worth having, right?  But my study habits have proven effective, so the last thing I wanted to do was to destroy them by letting up.  I might not be able to find this steam again for this module if I take my foot off the … Petrol?  Do you guys even have that saying over here?  I’ll settle with accelerator.  I didn’t want to take my foot off the accelerator.  I don’t know how that makes it steam, but that’s what I don’t want to run out of, so acceleratoring it is.
  • What happens if I actually do run out of things?  If I’m “done” by, say, February, but there are little bits and pieces that aren’t available until May, how will I find the motivation to go back and do them?  For example, TMA02 requires you to use TMA01’s tutor feedback.  So before I can put TMA02’s first draft down, I have to have submitted TMA01, waited for its deadline to pass, wait for it to be assessed and marked, and then I can start it.  And then draft, draft again, and then maybe a draft or two.  And then draft.  And finally submit TMA02.  And then wish I’d given it a few more drafts.  But all the material for it will be ages out of mind again.

And keep in mind, all of this is while doing other computer science MOOCs on the side.  Those ones, in fairness, I’m not really giving my full attention.  I’m watching the lectures, I’m doing the activities and exercises, I’m handing in the assessments, but I’m not taking notes, doing extra reading, researching questions I have, or studying them, I’m just doing them.  Like high school.  Just showing up and doing what I’m told.  (I have a nagging feeling that didn’t turn out so well …)

So one solution I’m thinking of is increasing my study intensity.  Which one do I worry about more?  Burning out by taking on too much, or losing interest by getting bored with insufficient materials?

I have a feeling in a few years I’m going to think back on this decision quite wistfully, that my biggest study problem was not having enough to study.

Okay, then, what have I done?

Block one is allegedly about “Myself” in relation to a digital world.  I don’t recall reading anything about me, really.  I may have missed it.  I haven’t been asked my opinion on much, either, except how much more awesome the writing skills of teenagers have become due to digital technologies.  (Err …)

The first part is allegedly about making students aware of the digital nature of our world around them, but is really about making sure we can simultaneously read and think.  Go me!

The second part is allegedly about the history of computers from a curiously narrow context: The four generations of computer hardware, spanning their entire history … From the mid 1940’s to the late 1970’s.  (Also some maths about exponential growth and binary counting.) Really the second part is about taking notes.  (Mental note: NEVER AGAIN WITH THE SPRAY DIAGRAM! IT IS THE DEVIL!) (Mental notes are not covered in this part.)

The third part is allegedly about HTML and markup, but is actually about … Well, no.  It’s actually about HTML and markup.  Well done, guys.  (It also has a critical process for evaluating sources.)

The fourth part is allegedly about how digital communications technologies make the world smaller, but is really about forcing you to play with a terribly dated Java applet that someone is waaaaaay too proud of, that basically amounts to a graphical TraceRT and a minor security violation all in one!  Yay!  (There are other and better tools.  Good luck to all the tutors who have to fight with students to disable their Java security settings!)  There’s a very (very) bad primer on TCP/IP, as well.

The fifth part is part of the programming guide.  The less said about this here, the better.  I’m not a fan.

And the sixth part is … Well, I’m supposed to find out tonight.  It’s allegedly about wireless and mobile networking, but is probably really about … Iunno, maybe someone’s recipe for guacamole.  It’s hard to keep track.

I’ll have to write more about the programming guide tomorrow.  As this is the second-to-last presentation of this module, it won’t really benefit anybody, but my recommendation is to skip it and study a children’s Scratch MOOC, instead.  (See previous blog entries.)