I’ve received two emails from the OU this week in relation to two of the modules I’m starting in October: TM257 and TT284. Their titles were nearly identical, but their content was rather different.

For TM257, which I happened to read whilst on holiday, it had an offer to prepare for the module by creating a Cisco NetAcad account, logging in and downloading the Cisco Packet Tracer network simulation environment, and taking a short course on its use. I thought this was cool, created the account, and put it out of my head for a while. I figured the TT284 email would be much the same, and I made a note to check both of them out in more detail after I got back.

I did the Packet Tracer course today. I’m quite happy to get my hands on Packet Tracer, to have a bit of a play with it before the module. I know how slowly things are going to move at the module’s start, but it’ll help at least a little. I had fun trying to do a Packet Tracer Activity without watching the accompanying video. I thought I’d completed it in just about five minutes, but it was slightly over half an hour before I’d gotten the activity to agree that I’d completed all the tasks it was asking for.

The course itself wasn’t terribly helpful, as it’s mostly going to be over the heads of non-networking people, and fairly basic for any networking people. As is so extremely common with OU materials, it’s a solution without an actual audience. They really need to work on serial development from one year to the next, so these gaps don’t engulf the majority of the intake. It took me just over an hour (due to taking an inordinate amount of time on that one activity, which ideally should have only taken 7 minutes, but I wouldn’t have learned as much), so it was cheap in terms of my investment. Over all, I appreciate the offer and the effort. (It’s rewritten for last year’s TM257, but is already outdated as the CCNA paths no longer look at ALL like it did a year ago. On one hand, it’s not the TM257 team’s fault that it’s changed so drastically so quickly. On the other, everybody in this industry knows how often this happens, and we know not to plan anything that depends on it being static. I hope they’ve got better clarity on the road map by the actual start in October. I know Cisco is willing to help them if they reach out for specific help.)

TT284, on the other hand … Well, despite the similar title of the email, it had nothing at all to do to help students prepare for TT284. It was a link to the Are You Ready For quiz for TT284, along with an explanation that it was a student’s fault if they didn’t do well on the module, despite students being assured they’ve been prepared if they’ve passed all the courses leading up to TT284. And that’s it. And the questions in the AYRF quiz boil down to, “Are you able to write HTML by hand, and have you written a lot of programs outside of OU study?” It’s frankly insulting and reads like a disclaimer. If students aren’t getting enough out of their previous years’ study to do well on this module, it should be addressed at the end of those modules. And real resources should be offered to the students, rather than a general, “You suck at HTML. Good luck sorting it out!”

I get that university study is learning how to learn at a deep level, rather than being spoon-fed knowledge, but the OU has convinced its students that they’re ready for something they’re not, and then told them it’s their fault for not being ready. Again, this would be better handled were there better serial links from one module to the next in both materials and assessment/feedback. At the very least, TT284 could learn a lot from the TM257 staff.

My results for M250 are back, and it’s a strange combination of the best and worst outcomes. The “worst” part comes from my worst fear being confirmed. I did, indeed, skip the last two parts of question 2 in the exam, having not even seen them somehow. One of the ironies of this is that I practised an exact answer to one of the two over and over and it should have been worth the easiest marks on the whole exam for me. But I was rushing because of not wanting to answer the call of nature.

Exam tip: If you gotta go, you gotta go.

The “best” part, however, is that I picked up all other marks. I’d have ended with a 100 OCAS and 100 OES if I’d seen those questions, but I’d feel good about my 100/90 even if I hadn’t skipped anything. It really makes all that time revising at the kitchen table feel worth it.

Just a quick note about TM254 … Only 4% of those who took the exam ended up with a distinction on it. The exam looks like it was as abysmal as the rest of the module. I’m so glad I dumped it.

So between not having my M250 results affected by accidentally skipping a couple of exam sections to bailing out of TM254 before their bin fire of an exam, I feel like I dodged my share of bullets.

This 2019/2020 academic year, I’m going not going to be able wing it. I’m taking three 30 credit modules, which the OU recommends might take from 24 to 27 hours of study a week. Realistically, I read and study slowly, and this is stage 2, so that might be underestimating it. Unfortunately, there’s really not another gap in my schedule that I can maintain for more than a few weeks.

For a few weeks at a time, I’ll be fine with finding extra time here or there, but just to get TMAs out, and possibly exam revision come next May. (May is always insanely busy at work, though, for some reason, so we’ll see.)

I’ve squeezed an extra half hour into my schedule at night, and I have my extra hours on Wednesday back, but I’m just barely in the green zone, now.

Study schedule

SatSunMonTueWedThuFri
20:30 – 23:30 15:00 – 17:00 20:30 – 23:30 20:30 – 23:30 17:00 – 20:00 20:30 – 23:30 20:30 – 23:30
20:30 – 23:30 20:30 – 23:30
3533633

Total: 26 hours

(The OU academic week starts on a Saturday.)

I know that this is the absolute limit of my self discipline. Anything more is just going to crash out. The hours aren’t the best for my brain being active, but my family comes first. So everything has to happen after bedtime, or when the boys are with their grandparents.

I’ve also been able to plan for what the week-by-week looks like, making some assumptions about breaks in the OU’s schedule next year:

M269TM257TT284
Week 614/11 TMA01
Week 94/12 TMA01
Week 1012/12 TMA01

Break 21/12/2019 – 3/1/2020

Week 1530/1 TMA02
Week 1820/2 TMA02
Week 2112/3 TMA03
Week 2325/3 TMA02

Break 11/4 – 17/4

Week 32ExaminationEMAEMA

M269 also has 7 iCMAs throughout the year, but they’ve never caused me to rush in the past. There’s a near miss in weeks 9 and 10, but they’re first TMAs, which tend not to require as much work as later assignments. Finishing two EMAs and revising for an exam all at the same time does seem like a crunch, so I’m glad I’ve got about two months to sort that out, along with studying the final module units.

At some point there will also be a residential / day school for TM257. It will probably be around the Easter break, and there’s an evaluated network configuration task that’s worth 30% of our EMA, and an exam on the day which I think is worth another 30% of the EMA. (I don’t have access to the assessment strategy, yet.) Revising for that might be very, very tight on time, so I hope it goes alright.

I won’t officially have my results back for M250 for another five weeks or so, but the exam question paper’s been released, so I have a pretty good idea of how I did. I’m not 100% sure if I missed one of the sections. I practiced my exact answer to that exact question so many times, that it’s difficult to remember if I actually wrote the answer on the answer book, or am just remembering one of the times I practised it. Note to future self: If you gotta visit the loo, visit the loo. Don’t rush to finish early and decide not to double-check that you’ve answered all the questions.

Anyway, if I answered that question, I’ve definitely got a distinction. If I didn’t, I think that I probably got between 86 and 90 (possibly even 94) marks, and still got a distinction. (I definitely dropped at least two marks, and six if I didn’t answer that one question part.) The worst case scenario is that if I’m very harsh in marking myself, and I assume a few mistakes I didn’t realise on the day (like reversing a greater-than sign, for example), I mark myself an 84, which makes me an edge case that the results team will have to consider. Considering my OCAS is 100, I feel I’d do pretty well in such a circumstance. So it’s a very, very narrow path to me not getting a distinction, but it’s possible, and I guess I’ll see.

How do I feel about the course itself? First, it’s very well laid out. Rather than subdividing every section as much as possible, they break the learning into two-week chunks, and allow the students to manage their time appropriately. This is much better than smaller one-week chunks, as it gave me the ability to focus on my other module (while I was still pretending I cared about it) when I had to without feeling like I was slipping behind.

Having also taken Helsinki University’s MOOC.fi Object Oriented Programming with Java I & II, Harvard’s CS50: Introduction to Computer Science, MIT’s OCW Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Java 6.00.1x, and UBC’s Software Construction: Data Abstraction (we’re going to ignore Microsoft’s shambles of a DEV276x Java offering), I have quite a few OOP study introductions to compare M250 to.

It compares very favourably. Most importantly, this is the most academic offering of the lot, which was surprising with so many universities in that list. However, aside from UBC, the others are all introductory level courses, whereas the OU module is for second year university students who are in the habit of studying. While the Helsinki module is very good at teaching coding skills, and both the Harvard and MIT offerings take the red pill and show the maths and memory calls that make this stuff work, M250 is the best at explaining logically (as opposed to physically) how this stuff works. It borrows the concept of message sends from the Smalltalk programming language to explain how objects interact to form complex code. That one tiny way of looking at objects shifted my entire approach to the OOP paradigm, and it’s much, much more natural for me to use than it was after the previous courses. Whereas before I was following rules I was told to follow, now I’m letting my code communicate using what feel like natural tools. The instruction is absolutely rigid in definitions and boundaries between any two related principles (for instance, between data hiding and encapsulation, between substitutability and polymorphism, etc.), and this gives a much better language for discussion about how and why OOP works.

Previous courses I’ve taken haven’t all been exclussively about the OOP paradigm, but some have. While I’ve been able to use OOP better after each one of them, M250 is the first time that I really feel like I get it. It’s an excellent course, well structured, plainly explained, gives both academic and practical views of the subject in an understandable way, and is fairly assessed (despite finding an impossible question on an OU exam for the second year in a row). It is the exact antithesis of TM254.

Beware that it is not a coding module. It is a module about Object Oriented Programming concepts, and happens to go over how to use Java as an example of how OOP works. If you want a Java coding module, I recommend the excellent MOOC.fi course mentioned above.

Well, that’s another exam in the can. How’d I do? Weeeeell, if the memories of a couple of other people are accurate, then I missed an entire part of the exam. So not extremely well.

The parts of the exam that I did happen to read were, by and large, trickier than the past papers, but I had notes jotted down in my handbook for all but two of the trickier parts. One of the two I think I did alright on. The other … Well, the only people who will have gotten it right will be people who wrote the exact example of that method down in their handbook.

Between last year and this, the OU cut back on the number of exam centres drastically. Instead of driving across town from where I work, they wanted me to drive another 30 miles, to a town with horrible traffic, and a total of about 50 miles from my house. So … No.

I switched centres to one the opposite direction of my work. The downside is that I have to take a whole day off instead of just a few hours from work. The upside is that it’s on the sea front and gorgeous. The downside of that is, of course, I was trapped inside taking an exam and not able to watch it. The upside, though, is that it was miserable weather and I was glad to be missing it. The downsi… Forget it.

Anyway, I took the train (which was 15 minutes late) this time, and brought the following: A few wrapped breakfast pastries, the same boiled sweeties as last time, a water bottle, my handbook (as permitted by the exam arrangements booklet), my wallet (with photo ID), my phone (I get nervous about journeys I have no direct control over so can’t convince myself to leave my phone behind), the exam invite (never necessary or glanced at), some painkillers, and two pens. All in my backpack, which went up against a side wall during the exam.

The painkillers were because I’ve developed tension headaches from revision this year. They start around noon, and get worse until about five or six o’clock, then start to back off. They can be quite bad, and make walking difficult. As I backed my revision off this last week, though, they’ve been fading in intensity. I took some just before the exam as I started to feel one coming on, and it backed it off through the entirety of the exam.

Writing for three hours, I need something I don’t have to grip hard and I don’t need to use pressure for. So I used a gorgeous fountain pen that holds a tonne of ink and glides on paper, and a backup that, well, gets the job done. Both were filled with a waterproof ink just in case I spilled while hydrating. (Note to self: don’t hydrate. I spent the last twenty minutes rushing so I could get out and visit the little students room. The invigilators allow you to have bio-breaks, but they also scare you first with tales of students who were never heard from again. Or something like that. I stopped listening.)

The new venue was much better than the last. In addition to the seafront location, there were posh padded chairs to sit in, and the desks were high enough that I didn’t have to bend in half to write. There were no signs pointing the way for OU students like the last hotel, so I had to argue with the concierge that his directions sucked for two minutes before I finally found the right way. Then I saw others start the same argument with the concierge so I went and grabbed them and led them back. (They did NOT want to start any small talk. Absolute focus.)

I got there just one minute before they opened the doors into the exam hall. There were about eighty exam desks lined up, and sixty or so of them had exams waiting on them. Over two dozen were devoted to M250. I was on the front of a row, which was nice. It gave me more leg room, and I didn’t get nervous seeing people in front of me finishing faster. (The guy behind me took about half the time I did, though, and left.)

On the desk was my exam question paper, a desk record, a plastic clip, a metal paper clip, and an answer book. I was allowed to sign my desk record, but nothing else until the exam started. When it did, I wrote my personal identifier on the answer book, copied the exam number onto it from the desk record, and was off.

I won’t get into specifics for now on the exam, as others still might not have taken it. It threw me a few times, I know I missed marks for at least two sub-parts, and apparently I didn’t see an entire section, but can’t be sure of that until the paper is released in a few days. Regardless of missing that, I’m fairly optimistic for a distinction.

I had to rewrite one method at least three times, and I had to restart another more times than that. It had some very subtly tricky questions. The definitions and prose answers were my weak spot, and I feel confident with my performance on those.

You can’t leave during the last 15 minutes, and I was very close to being done with half an hour to go. I rushed my last two sub-parts, clipped everything together, and left. It felt like I was there for twenty minutes.

If I get a Pass 2, that’s okay. I’m very pleased with my effort level and understanding level this time around. I’ve got another exam next year and two EMAs, so we’ll see how much time I can find to revise for that.

I’m at that magical part of revision where full-blown panic starts to settle in and become normal. Suddenly finding motivation to sit down with my notes isn’t hard. It finds me, instead. No matter where I’m hiding from it. It’s not as bad as with the maths exam last year, because I’m more comfortable in general with the source. But I’m also convinced that means I won’t do as well because I’m not panicking enough to motivate quite enough revision.

Such is my mind. Or lack thereof, because I seem to have lost it somewhere.

Here’s some tips for revising M250 from what I’ve found so far. If you’re not me, then your style of learning probably isn’t mine, making these tips worthless. But they might be adapted to something useful for yourself.

  • Do as many past papers as you can.
    • I’m going to guess this is the top tip of any Open University exam where there have been exams previously. I don’t know what to do about inaugural module presentations … I don’t ever plan on taking another one at the OU as my first was … Well, not a literal disaster, but I’d rather eat my own foot, so somewhere between the two. Anyway, I’ve cut my answer time in half by doing this, and that alone would make it worth it. I’ve also found gaps in my knowledge that I’ve done my best to shore up.
  • Of course, hand-write the exam papers.
  • Start with the oldest past papers.
    • The earlier exams were based on a different structure. There were more questions, but not all of them are relevant to the current exam. So if you cut out the irrelevant ones, the remaining questions are quite a bit easier. So it’s harder to judge if you’ve progressed enough toward the end of revision.
  • Split up the questions.
    • If you don’t do a lot of handwriting (I’m doing it constantly these days just for the pleasure of a gorgeous buttery-smooth fountain pen nib on paper), you’ll want to practise writing for a three-hour stretch a few times. But other than that, it’s hard to find that much time at once in your day, and you can’t just save revision for the weekends. (Or maybe you can. I envy you. And am jealous of you. And probably hate you a little.) Just give yourself one hour per question, and do them when you can squeeze them in. You don’t even need to do them grouped together from the same paper.
  • Transcribe your answers into BlueJ. Or an IDE that’s actually usable.
    • We’re not given the answers (or answer examples) from past papers, but we can get some idea of how well we’ve done by seeing how much has to be changed just to get it to compile. We can also test the code and see if its execution matches the specification. In a few cases, testing can require coding a LOT of “assumed” classes that the code says will be provided in the scenario, but not literally given to the student. Implementing these requisite classes can be their own exercise in revision.
  • Submit your (corrected) answers to the M250 revision forum.
    • Having another set of eyes can help identify blind spots. I’ve had numerous such weaknesses in my code identified, and really help me get a better grasp of what’s possible on the exam.
  • Look over your TMAs and consider treating them as practice exams, too.
    • One thing my tutor has mentioned a few times is that at least one question on the exam for the past few years has borne a striking resemblance to one from the TMAs that year.

If I find anything else is really helping, I’ll come back and add to this later.

One thing I tried that didn’t seem to help was a revision tutorial the other night. It provided one example question for the exam, so that was nice (though I expect I’ll encounter the same one on a past paper in a few days), and there were some multiple-choice questions that highlighted that I haven’t memorised the module materials (there was one question where the answer is literally mentioned once in the assessed materials) … But it wasn’t anything that will help me either on the day, or with the rest of my revision. I’ve typed up notes for the tutorial that puts it into a format which would have made a nice handout, but that’s really about it.

Anyway, my result will be entirely down to my exam score. I got my TMA03 score back, and got the full 100 marks. That also means that my combined OCAS for the module is 100, so I’m very pleased with my effort levels. As always, my tutor provided excellent, insightful notes on how I can progress, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I hope I end up on a third module with him.

First, I’m a little way into revising for M250. My first step was to tackle the most recent past exam paper under exam conditions, to get a feel for where I’m at, so I know where I need to be.

It wasn’t pretty. I’d definitely have gotten a Pass 2 result based on this performance, and the knowledge has been (mostly) retained through my primary study of the module. But what’s missing is speed. By the time I finished my first question (of three), I noticed that an hour and a half had passed. By the time I finished my second question (in a rush), I only had 45 minutes left. And as much as you can pretend to do things in “exam conditions” for practising, you don’t get things like proctors coming up and fumbling with your paperwork and ID, trying to sort out the answer booklets, asking for new answer booklets, bolting all your materials together for marking, etc. The truth is, you’re possibly going to lose 5 to 10 minutes of the exam just to … well, paperwork. But that’s how narrow my margin for error is.

So I do need to brush up through the glossary a bit, and I do need to go over my notes a bit, but what I really, really need to do is to practise hand-writing code with a clock ticking down. No comments, no design principles, and possibly no helper methods. I just don’t have time for them. (I’m going to make an attempt to write helper methods using HTDP‘s wish list, which might work very well with hand-written code.) I hope I can find enough practice questions to get this down.

Second, I’ve started module planning for next year. I was surprised to see that preliminary due dates for major (and some minor) assignments have already been scheduled for the modules I’m enrolled on. The great news is that I don’t have any TMAs due within one week of each other. Two are due within eight days of each other, and another two are a fortnight apart, but that’s as much of a crunch as I’ll get, EMA notwithstanding.

M269 has two TMAs, an exam, and no fewer than seven iCMA quizzes. The other two haven’t got their iCMAs listed yet, and each has an EMA assignment at the end. TM257 has two TMAs, and TT284 has three.

Well, despite my misgivings on the course from the terribly written TM254, I’ve finally decided to press forward on Q62 Computing & IT from the Open University. I’ve enrolled about two months later than I normally would, because I was strongly considering switching over to a joint-honours maths degree. I think I’d have to brake too hard to make that turn right now without some serious consequences, so instead I’ll just make some small course corrections.

The first consequence of my decision is that next year is going to be a bit of a crunch. I’m going to tough it out with three modules, to catch up with where I’d have been without dropping TM254. The second (and strongly related) consequence is that I’m enrolling in easier modules related to my current job.

The first module I’ve enrolled for is not going to be easy, but should be fun: M269: Algorithms, data structures, and computability. This is real meat-and-potatoes computer science stuff: Data structures like binary sort trees, search and sort algorithms like bubble sorts, and algorithm efficiency analysis like big O notation. In my pre-university preparation, this is the stuff that’s really lit my mind, kind of like a digital landscape for mathematics. It’s the module in the Computing & IT course that I most wanted to take.

The next is TM257 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 1. The second part of this is a stage 3 module. I’d been contemplating doing the CCNA in my spare time over a summer, but now that I’m crunching three modules into one year, I’m going to take it as an official module now. Many people may find this one rough, and I may be silly for thinking it’ll be different for me, but it’s what I do professionally, and I’ve got a Cisco router in my loft for labbing with. (It should be two, but I’m sure I can use a Netgear to connect to in most instances.)

Finally, I’ll be taking TT284 Web Technologies. This is another big portion of what I do at work, and have a fairly good grounding of HTML, CSS, PHP, SQL, SSL, firewalls, etc. I don’t do much JavaScript yet, but don’t expect to be memorising much for the module. This one is a strong cop-out module for me, but there’s really slim options for modules at stage 2 if you don’t want to take the horror that is TM254.

The best part for my time is that the last two modules have end-of-module assignments, rather than exams. The last two years, I’ve had all of my assignments in from March or earlier to focus on exams. I hope that means that I’ll have enough bandwidth to work on the assignments next year.

There’s a very good chance I’ll regret this, but even if I have to defer, it’s not like it’ll set me back anything but time. With the ridiculous interest students are charged on their loans in the UK these days, it’s not like I’ll ever pay it off either way.

TMA03 is due soon for M250, and I’ve got a line fault in my DSL connection. It’ll take at least a week to fix. One of the hazards of online study is that you’re at the mercy of the technology. I’ve arranged my study plans to allow for outages, but that just deals with my initial study of the material. It’s not robust enough for either preparing assignments for a module that requires coding in an IDE, or revising for them across all the various media on which I have notes and materials.

I got the TMA in over a month ago, but this is really making revision awkward. Not impossible, but I find I’m wasting a lot of paper on printouts.

I shot my final TMA of the year off to the submission service last Thursday, but just finished with the proof reading and resubmitted it. (I’d rather have an unproofed version marked than forget to proofread and submit.)

The TMA was really enjoyable, and there was a lot of room for creativity, more creativity than I’ve experienced at the OU so far. I do pity the tutors having to mark submissions which can basically come from anywhere. I was, perhaps, a little too free with the specification. There are times when it informs a specific order of steps to be taken, and I change the order and do the seven-step process in two (well commented) steps, instead. I’m pretty sure that I will lose marks for it, but I’m extremely confident of this assignment. I expect to get better than 90 marks, but even if I did spectacularly poorly, I’m unlikely to get anything but a Distinction on the OCAS portion of my results.

(Wow! Look at me be all cocky. I’m normally hedging every prediction I make. It feels good to be completely confident, for once.)

The OU and I both agree that one of the best things that students can do is reflect on their study methods to discover the most effective way for them to learn. Because of my own reflection, I’m not going to start my revision for the exam quite yet. If I were to do so, I fear I’d burn out well before June, and forget half of what I’d revised.

Instead, I’m currently making small programming challenges for myself, and trying to code them by hand. (An example from last night is to parse a maths problem written in text, such as “28 × 17.04”, along with some error handling and resiliance.) I’m not having much luck witing code by hand, though, because I don’t design programs from top to bottom. If I’m writing a method, and realise I need a helper method, I normally jump to my helper methods section of a class, and put a method outline there, including proper header and an appropriate (but wrong) return line, then jump back to the method I was writing. I can’t do that on paper. I’ll have to learn how to plan every single detail before I write anything, and I just don’t know that I care to train myself how to do something I never plan to do. I’ll take a lower result if I have to, I think.

Anyway, we’ll hit up revision some time toward the end of April, I think.