I almost admitted defeat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The modules I’m studying this year, MST124 and TM129, are certainly not balanced.  TM129 is a casual Stage 1 module, and is in the vicinity of an appropriate amount of work for Stage 1.  (It’s definitely a bit more light than I’d have expected, but not outrageously so.)  MST124, on the other hand, does seem lighter than I’d expect from a 60 credit Stage 1 module … but not by much.

My brain isn’t extremely multi-track.  If I can think about one thing at a time, I’m much happier than having to switch back and forth.  For some reason, I’m finding this true with studying over the span of a week.  I’d rather study an entire section of one thing, then an entire section of another, than read a bit from one section one night, then a bit from another the next, then switch back.  It doesn’t get absorbed as well if I’m re-compartmentalising as I go.

For now, I’m going to stick with my initial solution, which is to spend one week on MST124, then the next on TM129.  But this did cause some trouble.  In MST124, Unit 3 took me the full three weeks allotted to it in the study guide for me to get through it.  Actually, three weeks and two nights.  It’s just rough reading.  And I can’t just bail halfway through a unit, or I forget everything.  Reading from a book is just not a good way for me to learn maths, and it’s killing me to try.

Anyhow, now I’ve got to catch up as much as I can in five days in TM129 before switching back, because if I take longer than that, I’m going to fall behind in MST124.  I should hopefully be able to pick up an entire three weeks worth of study guide time in that five days, but it’s not going to be easy.

Studying two 30 credit modules is way more work than studying one 60 credit module.

My TM129 materials finally showed up yesterday.  I’ve already described the box contents, there was nothing unexpected.  I’ve had fun re-reading I, Robot though.

TM129 has one TMA for each of its three blocks, but they won’t be visible to read until closer to their due dates.  (My experience on TU100 tells me that it’s possible the module team isn’t done writing them, yet.)  I gave TMA00 a glance, expecting it be along the lines of write something about why you’re taking the class, and make sure you know how to zip and upload.

On the one hand, I was right: Those things are part of TMA00.  But the second half of it wants us to explore the ePortfolio.

TM129’s ePortfolio is nominally a record of your learning on the module: Activities that are somewhat more involved than practice exercises, and somewhat less involved than TMA questions.  After completing them, you’re asked to discuss the activity, particularly focusing on what skills it demonstrates and what avenues of study it opens up.  The pitch is that you could even show it to prospective employers to show them how much you’ve learned! (Pro tip: Never, ever show the ePortfolio to a prospective employer.  Or anyone.  Ever.)

In reality, the ePortfolio appears to be a tool meant to tie your study to your learning objectives.  And that’s cool!  Because it tells you how to get top grades on your TMAs, EMA, and the module.  The better you can sign-post how your answers match the learning objectives, the better you’re going to do.  In fact, the ePortfolio extra guidance essentially spells out how you can get top marks on your ePortfolio entries and therefore your TMAs.  (It also makes it very, very clear that if you want to half-arse it and just paste a screen shot and a three-line summary, you’re still going to pass TM129.  Welcome to university!)

So how does this fit into TMA00?  You’re asked to make an ePortfolio entry.  Not a fake one, and not a TMA00 specific one.  You’re supposed to read through the ePortfolio and choose any one activity to give a go.  I’d like to shake the hand of the genius who dreamed that up.  It’s a brilliant way to engage the students in A) familiarising themselves with the types of activities contained therein, B) the relative effort levels required, and C) give some thought as to what will be required to complete them.  If they’d asked students to do those things, about a quarter would probably actually spend any thought on it.

I chose an activity from the networking block (of course) and it was something I’d done a million times before: Diagramming my home network.  The trouble with this (and I suspect most things in the networking block … and the Linux block … and possibly the robotics block …) is that if I’ve done those things a million times, how am I going to learn anything, and how am I going to tie not learning anything to my learning objectives?  (Without lying, I mean.  I could take the coward’s way out, but there’s no challenge in that.)

I’m keen to see how my tutor responds to my solution.  To paraphrase Kirk, I changed the conditions of the TMA.  I set myself a challenge that yielded the same result as the proferred activity, but did it in a different way than directed.  (I also did it the way that I was directed, just to cover all the bases.)  I then tied the learning outcomes to the self-created task, and wrote about that, instead.  I highly suspect this will work, but I’ll let you know.

(To be clear, though, students are told to discuss the skills and knowledge displayed by the activity, not to discuss what was learned.)

Anyway, it’s not the only TMA work I’ve done this week.  I’ve also done half of MST124’s TMA01.  I’ve decided to use Word for my TMAs, since that’s likely the only place I’ll need to use written maths skills in the future.  I’ve finished Unit 1, and will complete the rest of the TMA after the module starts and I get through Unit 2.

Whilst many of my TM129 peers received their module materials yesterday, I’m still (sort of) waiting for mine.  I’m only sort of waiting, because A) the James May show on the DVD is on YouTube, B) I already have an e-copy of the Microsoft Networking Essentials book, and C) the I, Robot book was a favourite of mine in junior high school.  As these are the only three things in the box, I can probably stop worrying.

I’ve looked a bit at the TM129 online materials, which starts on the Robotics block, but I’m not really bothered by it.  My studying will be very similar in style to TU100 (active reading through bullet-point notes, combined with activities stored in a OneNote notebook on the cloud), so while I probably will start the study a bit early, it’s not really necessary.

MST124, on the other hand … I can’t really figure out how to study this.  The first half of the module or so is going to be revision.  (That’s “review” to any other Yanks in the audience.)  I’ve spent a few hours this weekend trying to “study” it, but all I’m really doing is glancing over the descriptions, then working on the activities.  As it’s all review, I haven’t come across anything that I can’t do, yet, so I don’t know what to do when that happens.

I’ve got two weeks to study each unit, more or less, and there are twelve units.  In that time, I need to get through around 100 pages of text, a few hundred exercises (or at least several dozen), possibly sit through a tutorial, and get through either half of a TMA or an iCMA.  There’s probably more than a few exercises in Maxima thrown in, as well.  It’s not bad at all, it’s just not obvious where to put my time, especially when I’ll have to split it with TM129.  (Thank goodness there isn’t much actual learning to do in TM129.)

I think the first thing I’ll do is hope for recorded online TMAs.  If I can watch a recorded online TMA, I skip the roughly 30% of the time that the tutors give over to sitting around waiting for people to work on examples.  I watched two revision boot-camp tutorials this week, and easily saved 40 minutes on each of them by skipping over empty sections, and more time skipping parts not relevant to me.  The only questions I ever ask during tutorials anyway are those to do with policy.  I mostly sit in because I know the tutors will drop TMA-specific hints.

Next, until I get to differentiation, I’m going to work backwards when necessary.  I’d like to do all the activities in the books to make sure there are no blindspots, and because practice is the best way to retain maths skills.  If there is a blind spot, I’ll back up and run through it, encorporating external resources as necessary.

Finally, once I get to and past differentiation, I think I’m just going to wing it.  Read without notes, try exercises, and practice, practice, practice.  Taking notes just doesn’t make sense to me with maths.  The closest I’ll come is following along the examples with a pen in hand.  I may alternate weeks between MST124 and TM129, as splitting days may throw off my rhythm.

We’ll see how it goes.  My intent is to stay one unit ahead throughout the module.  I’ve fallen afoul of getting too far ahead before, and the motivational issues that causes.  It can also make it a headache for revision.

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!

The Facebook groups took a turn the other week.  A few people had been asking for help, a few people had been giving help, everything seemed copacetic.  And then things got weird.

There are a few people who are genuinely struggling with the material.  My hope is that those who are doing well will be asked for help, and they’ll be able to share what helped them when they were at that position.  Because we were all at that position at some point, even if it was years ago.

Instead of people trying to help by finding out what was causing the struggles and overcome them, however, they mostly attempted to help by shaming those in the group who had admitted to doing well.

At one point, the atmosphere was so nervous over this, that nobody with a TMA score above 90 dared to post their results, though scores below this were posted.  This gave an unrealistic picture of how difficult the assignment was, as though any amount of effort were not enough for high marks.  The result, to me, seemed to discourage more effort, if such a goal were unattainable.  Eventually, someone ventured to give their score in an encoded format, and many other high scores followed, dramatically shifting the picture of the assignment’s difficulty.  It was now clearly possible to attain the high marks, encouraging more effort if it was just out of reach.

If someone isn’t doing well, ridicule is extremely unhealthy for the advancement of the group as a whole.  The same is true if someone is doing well.  We all need to know where we stand so we can advance.

Those who are struggling need the group to advance.  Those who are doing well likewise need the group to advance.  That advancement can’t happen if nobody can admit to doing well, and ask for help from those having the same types of problems.

Edit 21/11/2016: Pretty much never mind.  A few days after I wrote this, there was a bunch of actual bragging on one of the groups, and I have to side with those against it.  In the long run, the difference between my opinion on it and theirs is just how much discussing your current status counts as bragging, and I can’t fault someone for having a more severe opinion on it than mine.

I had finished part 2 of TU100’s first block quite a while before ‘putting it to bed.’  After completing the material and activities, one is supposed to fill out a Learning Outcomes template for each part.  It is a vile thing.

The format of the template is that you’re supposed to take each one of the part’s ‘learning objectives’ and answer a few things about it.

What I’ve done to get through these is to ignore the “How far acheived?” question, since this is a meaningless question that assumes a linear structure to what may be an abstract notion, and instead concentrated on the other question in the box, “Examples of TU100 activities?”  I can then just flip through my activities notebook and match up which ones speak to the learning objectives.

The progression field is often completely meaningless, as the learning objective may not be a continuum, but rather have a nature that is accomplished or is not accomplished.

The ‘Skills’ field is probably the must infuriating. For each learning objective you need to compare it against 36 alleged skills to determine which ones you’ve developed by reading a book.  Most of these skills are not actually skills, and many of them don’t even have any substantive meaning.  So as much as I’m against the tick-box mentality, as much as I love self-reflection for personal development … I’m afraid the tick-box mentality of the template’s designer has forced me to just jot down a couple of relevant skills and try to live with myself for not giving an activity my all.

That I have to do this nearly every single week just doesn’t sit well with me, but the above tips will at least help me get through them.