This year’s Get Ahead Early & Stay Ahead (my #1 advice for the OU) is restricted entirely to TM352: Web, Mobile and Cloud Technologies. (My other module this year, TM357: Cisco Networking (CCNA) Part 2, won’t have its Cisco NetAcad materials released until after I have a tutor in a few weeks.) And yet, I still caught myself asking if it was worth it to start early. It always is.

If TM352’s title of Web, Mobile and Cloud Technologies sounds a lot like TT284’s title of Web Technologies, there’s a reason for it. They’re strongly related modules that cover a lot of the same material, ostensibly at different levels. One of the things that got under my skin about TT284 was a lack of clarity about the differentiation of Cloud Architecture as it applied to systems infrastructure and program design. The module guide indicates there will be practical experience working with both this year, so that seems like a difficult aspect to repeat.

Another positive is that there are weeks set aside just for working on assignments. Assignments in TM352 have a strong practical component, so it can be extremely useful to have study time devoted to getting those practical portions working correctly. With any luck, it’ll help me if there are any rough patches in TM357, as well.

Mostly what I’ve been doing this month, though, is chatting away on the OU STEM Club Discord. Well, no, mostly lurking. About one in every twenty comments I make actually manages to get past my internal filter, so mostly I’m just reading. It’s been remarkably busy this month, but I’m told it will be a bit quieter soon. It’s been nice to be able to chat with others who are going through the same things I am, and has really enhanced the entire OU experience.

Anyway, I’ve managed to get my customary 2 weeks ahead, at least for the one module I can, so I’m going to go back and lurk. And maybe see some of you there.

This is going up at least a month later than I wanted it to. But I’m just having difficulty figuring out what to say about TT284. That’s because there’s precious little to review.

I just didn’t feel like there was enough in this module to be considered a Stage 2 module. I don’t know if it’s because I already know and use a lot of the technologies the module references. Maybe it’s because I have my own practices for the planning and specification phases. Or it could be that it’s just light on content.

The module materials encourage students to interact by visiting the forums and writing about specified topics. This doesn’t actually garner any (well … much) diaglogue. It’s mostly just a graveyard for scraps of students’ notes. The best way I found to use this was to look for alternate viewpoints to my own, but spending my precious study time combing through poorly formed and poorly informed thoughts had a low return on investment.

What really did work for me was the assessment for the module. Assessments were split down the middle with practical activities and academic (or, rather, academic-dressed-up-as-vocational) reports. I really felt like it did a good job of allowing students show that they could both perform and understand the details from the module’s learning objectives. The feedback from my particular tutor was insightful and constructive.

The module doesn’t teach much, though. It exposes. It gives a whirlwind tour of web-building technologies, and approaches to designing web applications. There’s a whole lot of copy-and-pasting intended. You’d come out of this module knowing what you don’t know, which is a good starting point, but that feels more like a first stage module to me. In fact, that sort of seems like the intention of the web design portions of Harvard’s CS50, but you definitely learn more on that module. And that’s just a very small section of a free-to-all introductory course.

Of course, CS50 only teaches the practical, technical side of web design, and none of the design, specification, or non-technical details. It doesn’t cover wire frames, specification gathering, accessibility considerations. It only briefly considers architectures. But it’s also only a few weeks long.

I guess my bottom line for TT284 is that it’s just not advanced enough for Stage 2. It would be an ideal module in place of TM129 … Or maybe even just one of its three blocks.

Since TM257 is kind of a non-module, a non-review seems appropriate. And the great thing for me is that a non-review seems like it should be rather quick to not write.

As stated many places, the content for TM257 comes from Cisco’s NetAcad course environment. It comprises NetAcad courses for CCNA R&S: Introduction to Networks and CCNA R&S: Routing and Switching Essentials. You read very, very dry web pages that are like a Flash website-book, check understanding through a variety of drag-and-drop exercises, a very poor syntax checker, and a very awesome virtual network lab called Packet Tracer. (Okay, so the UI for Packet Tracer needs some remedial attention, but its functionality is excellent.) There are glossary flash cards, quizzes, and chapter exams after each portion, and a “final” exam for each of the two constituent courses; one is taken at home, and one is taken at the day school when there isn’t a global pandemic.

NetAcad has all this as a lovely pre-packaged unit, and though dry, it’s very good. The pacing, the knowledge, the checking, the repeating, the practising … It’s a great package. But for it to be an Open University module, it needs more.

It needs learning outcomes. It needs summative assessment. It needs TMAs. And frankly, I’m not very keen on TM257 in this department. The learning outcomes aren’t what NetAcad designed their module to provide, but rather a combination of what it’s observed to provide, and to a degree what it’s hoped to provide. The module team has made it very difficult to compare notes, but it seems that the evaluation fit so poorly this year that possibly nobody scored a distinction-level percentage on one of the EMA questions, and possibly only a couple of people even scored above 70% on it. Which is more or less fine, but it’s less fine when the items being evaluated must have been informed by what was taught by someone else. Either the learning outcome doesn’t match the materials, or the evaluation doesn’t match the learning outcomes. Because it seems a fair stretch to think that the materials did teach what was in the learning outcomes, the learning outcomes were appropriately evaluated, and nobody lucked into a distinction-level answer. Especially when you consider how many certified industry practitioners were on the module.

I mean, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I’m beginning to guess why it might be that we can’t get straight answers about how people did on that question.

Anyway, that aside, I suspect we’ll see similar numbers of people with distinctions this year as we did last year, and that seems to fit more or less with other Stage 2 modules. So, over all, in the broad view, it feels like the evaluation is in the right ball park.

So that’s kind of my evaluation of the module, too. It’s got dry materials, great information, and evaluation that’s more or less fine.

I’ve been putting off a review of these modules because covering all three is a lot of work. And a great way to make that worse would be to split it into three different posts. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. First up will be M269, with a breakdown of what’s encountered on the module, how I feel about the various sections, and then an overall reaction to the module.

Note that I’m not going to discuss actual programming here. M269 happens to use Python as its language of choice, but that’s just a vehicle to demonstrate algorithms. University is not the choice place to learn a progamming language, and the concepts in M269 are language-agnostic.

M269 starts by considering the concept of abstraction, and multiple ways it can be used in computing. This is excellent, and fills a major gap in M250 caused by the language choices employed by Java. It’s a gap that made M250 more difficult to study, so that might be a reason to consider taking the two simultaneously … But then you’d have two different programming-heavy modules using different languages, and that could prove confusing, especially come exam time. The conventional wisdom is to take M250 the year before M269, and I wouldn’t disagree with that.

From abstraction, it considers (abstract) data types. I think a lot of the instruction here implies without stating that there’s a natural link between the shape and definition of your data, and how you can use that data. It’s explored more explicitely in some MOOCs I’ve done, and it feels useful. Still, students who pay attention will find the connection. Using the data leads to solving problems (such as searching and sorting) using algorithms, and then evaluating between multiple useful algorithms. This provides the context for discussion of algorithm complexity. So far, so good. This is covered in many introductory-level computing MOOCs from other universities. Frankly, I didn’t find the OU model particularly compelling, aside from laying the foundations of abstraction. But it wasn’t much worse than other methods I’ve encountered, except that it’s rather dry. It’s not as fun or entertaining as MIT-OCW, HarvardX, or UBCx MOOCs, and contextless programming challenges (aside from the iCMAs) aren’t engaging as they’re encountered in the materials. On the other hand, I found the Big-O (being changed to Big-Ω for future presentations, and the module actually explains the difference) discussion more academic than I’d encountered, which I found really useful.

The module also covers formal logic, and it does this beautifully. My dad used to lament that Geometry was the closest that students got to formal logic in school, and thanks to computer science that’s no longer the case. The largest, gaping problem here is that there’s no feedback to students on this portion of the module. Along with computability, this is assessed only in the exam, and detailed feedback is unavailable. This does a disservice to students, but one that’s likely welcome to both the majority of students and tutors alike … It seems like a lot of work for everybody.

I never got a word from my tutor, aside from a bizarre marking on a TMA. The TMA asked for changes to an existing function, and I was able to get the job done without changing the inputs and outputs, which is essential in a multi-programmer environment. She criticised me for not making a completely different function which couldn’t be used as a replacement. Fair enough. But I was able to get help from other tutors, and the tutorials from these other tutors were always engaging and enlightening.

I think there’s a lot that M269 does right, but there’s a lot that freely available MOOCs do better at an introductory level … M269 was a bit basic for a second-stage module. It does some things, like formal logic, abstraction, and complexity, better than those MOOCs, but it’s not as engaging. And for an eight month module, engagement is critical. It’s a good and important module, but it could do with some fresh, colourful paint.

Results have come in for the 2019/2020 academic year. This is a strange year for results, because they’re not necessarily based solely on the efforts of the students. For modules with cancelled exams (as opposed to those which substituted an EMA or did a home-exam alternative) students got an adjustment to their OCAS score in line with how module students have done on their OES relative to their OCAS over the last three years. As students typically do worse on their exams than on their coursework, in practice this means that students get a deduction of their OCAS based on previous years’ students.

It hasn’t been pretty. There are a lot of unhappy students, and some quite understandably so. Students of M250 are reporting deductions against their OCAS by as many as 10 marks, so you may have needed an OCAS of 95 to get a distinction. (Note that these figures are not verified, just social media chatter.)

My only module to fall into this category was M269. My OCAS was 95, and I got an adjustment down to 93.1 for my module result. Somebody else said a 5 mark difference cost them a distinction.

For TT284 and TM257, I had a standard EMA (with TM257 being informed by a very non-standard day school alternative). I didn’t do as well as I’d have liked on either (91 and 89 OES respectively) but I just couldn’t focus for anything in lock-down. And to paraphrase someone on the OU STEM Discord server, it reflects my effort level fairly.

Anyway, long story short, I’ll take three distinctions and run this year. It was never going to be easy doing three modules in the same year, so I’m grateful to have done it during a pandemic.

With Student Finance England opening part-time applications today (as distance learning, all OU tuition is classified as part-time), I’ve completed enrolment and finance applications for next year. Normally, I’ve sailed past enrolment by March. Honestly, I’m impressed that I can fix myself a sandwich most days in lock down. This is positively high-functioning for me this year.

Next year will be the opposite of last year’s slog. It’s practically a cake walk. Except no cake at the end. Alright, I’ll probably have cake. And definitely rum. Anyway, I’m giving myself the easiest start to stage 3 study that I could. I’ll certainly be regretting that I said this by next February or March, but it might be the most relaxing year I’ve had since the lazy days of TU100.

Instead of the three module crush of last year, I’m back down to just two this year. And I’m only carrying on two of last year’s modules. I’m following up TT284 Web Technologies with MT352 Web, Mobile, and Cloud Technologies. I’m not great with web development, but I’m not awful. I imagine the mobile stuff will mostly involve converting web applications to mobile apps, with accessing phone I/O and environmental considerations thrown in. But it’s just a guess and I could be in for a rude awakening. As for cloud technologies, I used to build and deploy IAAS platforms, so I’m happy to get a more academic view of that. At least I’ll have plenty of practical context for the discussion. Based on some hints dropped in the TT284 materials, I’m also expecting to play a bit with SOAP and REST, and also JSON and more XML. All of which seems interesting, so clearly I’m missing something. (Okay, so it will mostly be report writing again, probably. So I get to whet my procrastination skills.)

I’m going from TM257 Cisco Networking (CCNA) Part 1 to TM357 Cisco Networking (CCNA) Part 2. This is really just the second half to what used to be a single 60 credit module, except the second half has been updated from V6 of the CCNA materials to V7. I’m not going to lie, TM257 was hard work, and there was a lot of it, but it was doable. In fact, the amount of confidence I got was not insignificant. Which has been something of a recurring theme with OU study.

And that’s it. Please don’t shake my obvious self-denial about the workload differential between stages 2 and 3. If I thought for one minute that two stage 3 modules might end up being tougher than three stage 2 modules, well … My lock-down-defeated self just probably couldn’t take it.

Good luck to everyone else gearing up for next year.

I’m not overly enthusiastic on the portmanteau “Coronacation” as it implies that by working from home to keep ourselves and others safe during a pandemic, we’re not really working. We’re working. We’re pulling double time. There’s no longer any difference from our work and home lives, so work seems to intrude at all hours. Those who aren’t able to work are also working trying to get work. Plus we’re nearly all inadequate educators, now.

But I’m using the word differently, to describe trying to have a vacation from university while still in the latter part of the full (or nearly?) lockdown stage. I’m done with uni for this academic year! In fact, I submitted all my EMAs last week and have been recovering. And with three modules, I need a lot of recovering! I’m not ready to do full module reviews, yet, but figured I’d get this part out of the way.

I only gave myself a few days to do the TM257 EMA because it’s halfway done by the time the day school (or alternative thereof) is completed, and it’s in my wheelhouse, to boot. Mistake! Well, I mean, not a huge mistake. I got it done with a week to spare. But it was surprisingly tough.

The research question was shockingly broad. Like, people throw the phrase, “How long is a piece of string?” around, but imagine that was an actual exam question. Yeah. It was that broad. By the same token, though, it was great from both the perspective of learning networking details, and self-education. Regards to the module team, it was a top-notch question, and I enjoyed it. I also would still be in a blind panic over it if I hadn’t reached out to my very excellent tutor. I have never been so supported by a tutor as I was over that question.

The last question wasn’t difficult, but it fooled me! After I submitted it with some niggling questions at the back of my head, I was just gathering some documentation on the solution for my own notes, and something jumped out at me. My allegedly systematic approach had pole-vaulted over a step, and it would have cost me at least 4 marks and possibly a couple more.

All told, I’m happy with my submission, and am expecting somewhere in the neighbourhood of 84 to 97 marks on the EMA. The worst-case scenario is that I’m a border case.

(For the record, I finally figured out what I’d done wrong on the day school scenario. The question was written in an “okay” manner, it was really on my own shortsightedness that I missed it … And if it were me, I’d have deducted 4 marks instead of just 3.)

For TT284, the EMA was fairly straight-forward. The practical stuff was dead simple if you’ve done it before, and definitely doable if you hadn’t. In fact, if you can get an HTML form to work with a reference book beside you, you should do well on the EMA. The report side was mostly difficult in making choices; about what to discuss, which aspects to put forward, that sort of thing. In fact, I possibly didn’t answer the question for 1b, so I may resubmit that, but I did hit many points that an answer should have.

I feel I did somewhere between 86 and full marks on this one, but we’ll see.

Technically, I’m not quite on my Coronacation yet, as I’m going back now to look over M269 materials for units 6 and 7. On one hand, I’m glad I didn’t have the exam, because I don’t know how much time I would have had for primary study and revision this year. On the other … I’m really loving these blocks! I’m glad I’ve got a few months to catch up on them without deadlines, and can just enjoy the learning.

Within things that are in my control, my module results on M269 will be based entirely on our OCAS marks, but will not simply be our OCAS results. They’ll be applying an adjustment based on previous module cohorts’ exam results relative to their OCAS results. Regardless, I’d be surprised if I didn’t get a distinction from this module.

None of which matters! I’ve crunched the (fairly complex) numbers, and realised that so long as I get two distinctions at stage 3, nearly every path leads to the same degree classification. As long as I pass my three modules this year, it’s all the same in the end.

So many people seem to be struggling under Coronavirus Lock-down situations across the globe. And I’m one of them. My mental health is taking a battering. Not a start-to-tidy-up-my-affairs-and-post-a-youtube-goodbye kind of battering, more a I’m-going-to-throw-away-all-my-socks-because-wearing-socks-is-a-social-construct-and-besides-then-I-can-buy-and-wear-all-new-socks kind of battering. There may be only the slimmest of margins between the two, frankly.

But really, overall, I’m bossing it. My children are doing beautifully under their home schooling curriculum. My four-year-old has finally taken the strides from letter recognition to confident word reader. (His older brother learned to read at two, for which YouTube and he receive absolutely all of the credit. This one is all me his mother, though.) My older son has gone up several months in his maths. I don’t really know what else a nine-year-old who’s been reading since he was two needs to know, though, so he’s honestly probably falling behind in absolutely everything else. But whatever, he’ll smash those year 6 SATs next year. Which is what education is all about. (Don’t worry, I had to clean up the mess after I said that and was sick. I’ve paid for it.)

At work, we’re leading the charge. I’m not likely to go into much detail, but an IT department in a school is doing exactly the kind of rewarding work I envisioned when I chose to step out of the commercial sector.

And now, at the OU, I’m absolutely on top of things. (Note: By “on top of things” I mean I’m not drowning by having a cliff dropped on top of me. Right now, it feels like being on top of things.) Both of my modules with EMAs are continuing mostly as normal, and both of them have sub-projects to complete next week before the actual EMA.

For TM257, instead of the day school, we’re getting a packet tracer activity, instead. I’ve submitted it and got full marks except a single portion that … doesn’t make any sense as written. It’s been made clear to the module chair that marks are being dropped because the question is unintelligible, rather than assessing the learning outcomes, but that didn’t seem to reach. Still, 90% isn’t bad, and I’ve still got half the EMA to go.

For TT284, there’s a (very small) portion of a project plan that needs to be submitted several weeks early. Whoever thought of this, my hat’s off to them. Because there are marks for it, students will take planning their project seriously. Because there are so few marks for it, their success or failure won’t hinge on the quality of the plan. It just drives home the importance of actually having a plan to complete on time. It’ll be hard to argue that we weren’t prepared for how much effort we’d need to put in.

The one thing that’s really getting me, though, is how little time I have left over. Parent, employee, teacher … We’re all struggling with fulfilling all these roles right now. But there’s a deadline on self-improvement for some of us, and that deadline was determined when nothing like this seemed possible. It’s just … Much.

And while I was thinking about that, I realised that there are tens of thousands of others doing exactly what I’m doing at the same university. So I reached out to some of them. There’s a Discord server that acts as the home of the OUSA’s STEM club. I guess. Iunno. It’s not on the OUSA’s list of clubs. Maybe they’re rogue. Either way, I went to see if they understood what I’m going through, and realised that I understand what they’re going through. I found my peoples. I didn’t know I had peoples.

If I’m honest (which … probably not) I’m probably going to stick around just until I get the green light to leave my house again. Which I won’t do, I love being stuck in my house. But I can then send my family out of my house and have a few minutes to breathe and I can stop sharing my study desk with my work. But it’s really helped my stress levels this week to run into others who are going through it, too. Their invite link is at http://oucr.club/ if anybody else wants a very relaxed, friendly chat with people who get it.

I got news over the weekend about the OU’s decision regarding what to do about module results for modules with cancelled exams. Results will be based solely on the OCAS (or coursework assignments) portion of the module’s assessments, and not the OES (or exams and end-of-module assignments) portion. Since I’m done with all of my TMAs for the module (all of my modules, really), that means I’m done with the M269 module, apparently, as that was my only module with an exam this year.

I had my last TMA marked and returned last week, too. It came back at 93%, and I think it was marked quite fairly. I disagree with the interpretation of refactoring code versus changing the inputs required for a hypothetical modification to a function in a question, but it’s not a big enough deal to challenge on. (My opinion is, if you’re asked to change something, you only refactor the code unless it’s made explicit that different inputs and/or outputs are required. It should be able to behave in the exact same manner under normal operation unless it’s specifically stated that it’s okay for it to behave differently. I thought that expressing this in my answer would be enough, but it wasn’t.) And I definitely got away with some minor definition inconsistencies.

As the TMAs all have equal weights applied to them, my OCAS, hence my M269 result, is 95.5, so a distinction.

I woke up yesterday nearly ready to end my whole degree. I just couldn’t see any path forward to study five chapters of my networking module (TM257), a block of my web design module (TT284), get an online final exam done for TM257, a plan for my EMA done for TT284, all in two weeks, and then finish up an EMA for each TM256 and TT284, and revise for an exam for M269. You’ll note that only the very last item is removed from this list, now, but it’s enough. It will give me the breathing room I need to get the whole thing over the line.

I still haven’t enrolled for next year, though. I don’t know if I can take it, yet. I’ll have to see where I am after results for my other two modules come through.

Or: Taking working in isolation to a whole new level

Since some updated governmental guidance on the COVID-19 response, and a new (but completely normal) cough from our nursery-aged child, my family has been in self isolation, about a week and a half. Then last Friday most of my coworkers joined me as the schools were closed, then finally on Monday basically everybody did.

When the schools closed, there were major upheavals for all the universities in the nation … Except the OU. It had some small changes to make, such as the cancellation of face-to-face tutorials and day schools, email-only support from student services, and paper TMAs sent in the post rather than electronically won’t be marked until after schools are opened again.

But for the most part, it’s business as usual for the Open University. It is always. Open. Which is good and bad. Good that my studies won’t be directly impacted, but bad because they are now being severely indirectly impacted. I’ve gone from being a full time parent, full time employee, and part time student to being a full time parent, full time employee, full time home schooler/substitute live-in teacher, and 3/4-time student. And it’s brutal. I have no time for anything. Work is especially difficult, as I’m keeping remote-working resources running which were never intended to support absolutely everybody working from home.

And, of course, if something has to give, it’s university. It’s important for many people, but for me it’s literally just a hobby. (I’ve had more expensive ones which weren’t as fulfilling.) I gave myself a week to get through the TMA for M269, which would normally take a day and a half. I was up until 2 AM last night finishing it up for a due date of noon today. And I never went back to polish it up. It might just garner me a mark of 80, which would be an all-time low. For a subject I’m really good at. That’s how difficult it is to find a spare moment to focus on anything right now.

Other new hobbies include worrying where our next meal is coming from (in a literal sense, as I’ve struggled to find food delivery slots while isolating, and even family members helping have been unable to find basic provisions for us) and playing Which Civil Liberty Is Being Revoked every evening.

On the reals, though, people are running headlong into protecting everybody’s physical health due to a very real danger of death. Nobody seems to be mentioning that mental health is being completely ignored, and it can be just as deadly to some people. Take asking for help as seriously as you take washing your hands if you’re one of those people. And treat emotional security blankets as valuably as actual toilet roll.