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.

The biggest reason I keep this blog is so that people taking future versions of these modules have some clue as to what to expect from them. I’d planned on having a pretty detailed description of the day school experience, excluding the content of the activities and questions.

Due to measures aimed at slowing contraction of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, the OU has cancelled all face-to-face tutorials for the time being, including day schools.

The alternative learning experience (ALE) in place for people who couldn’t attend the day school for exceptional circumstances, such as disability, can’t be scaled to the necessary size required to accept all students for practical considerations. What we’ll be getting instead is just another Packet Tracer activity to run through. It also appears that we’ll be working on the activity individually, rather than in a group in real-time.

It’s a real shame that some people will be getting through this experience without ever having touched a non-consumer router or switch, but it’s certainly the right thing to do at this time. It’s also rather sad that students won’t experience group dynamics in network troubleshooting, as this is an excellent way to learn for both inexperienced and experienced network technicians. Teaching somebody is a great way to cement knowledge, and for me it makes sure I know it 100% as I don’t want to give out potentially bad information. Having incomplete information is fine if the worst case scenario is that I have to redo some work, it’s terrible if I’ve caused someone else to fail.

If anybody is taking this module and has a bit of cash lying around, you might want to look on eBay for Cisco test equipment kits, use it, then sell it on afterwards. It still won’t be the same, as you won’t be troubleshooting, for example, somebody using the wrong cable between two devices, but it will be better.

(Also, I can’t help but mention that I was going to be in Disney World the week after the day school for the first vacation I’ve been able to plan without extended family since before I got married 14 years ago. Disney World is now closed a couple of weeks before Easter, and will probably be closed over Easter when we were planning to go, too. My kids are disappointed, we’ve lost a few hundred pounds already, but hopefully it won’t be a few thousand, and we’re going to try again for Halloween. And we’ll definitely find a way to make it up to the kids.)

Anyway, if I don’t take a break next year, hopefully I’ll get a run-down of the day school then. Good luck all, stay safe, and wash your hands you filthy animals.

TMA03 for TT284 is due today, and I just started it on Tuesday. Nothing like blind panic to keep your coding skills keen. I’m not really satisfied with how the assessment lined up with what the materials taught, but it did line up with the learning outcomes. It seems as though this block intended more robust independent study, which is fine, but the schedule was exceptionally tight if that was expected. If anybody reads this prior to a future pesentation of TT284, be aware that if you don’t already have a healthy grasp of JavaScript, coding for streams, or both, the TMA could take a considerable amount of time. (The module team estimates the time required at 10 hours. That’s probably close to how long I took, but I may have just been lucky.)

How did I do? On the coding front, I ran into two stumbling blocks. The first was due to my confusion over the difference in JavaScript between using a function as an argument, and using a variable which references that function. (It took me about an hour of research later on to realise how I’d fixed the problem and why it was necessary, which led to me tidying up the code.) The second was because I had read through a practical activity in the materials rather than running through it to save time, so I was leaving out a step in the TMA. So I think I did alright on the practical portion of it.

The report section is much weaker than my normal efforts, and it’s mostly because I couldn’t really force myself to care. This TMA is worth 34% of my OCAS, and the other 66% currently has full marks. So long as I get a mark of 55, my OCAS will round up to 85 or higher, and that portion of my result will be a distinction. Assuming my coding is perfect (it’s not, but I should get most marks), I only need 5 marks from the report. Heck, the diagram I put in there ought to be worth 5 marks, so I’m just not going to stress about it. I think I might get a 90 on this one.

So now I’m hastily rushing back to M269 which has its second and final TMA due in two weeks. I was a little concerned over how much work there was to do in it until I opened up my TMA template for M269, and saw that I’d gotten a decent start on it all the way back before Christmas, when my best self was still diligently ignoring how tough three modules were next to full time employment and full time parenting. It’s rough, but I might pull through it after all.

I haven’t been able to increase my motivation since last month. I’m keeping on top of assignments, but just barely. For March and early April, I’ve got TMAs due in TT284 and M269, and my day school with a final exam for TM257. I don’t know how I’m going to get it all done in time.

I got marks of 100 and 98 for my TMAs in TT284 and TM257 in February, but that required tackling all my subject material covered from the beginning of the year in one week for each of those. I’m roughly where I should be still with those to modules, but I’m way, way behind in M269.

To top it off, the database on this server failed two days ago, and I didn’t catch it until this evening. I’ve been having more frequent problems with it, so I may be migrating this blog over to my main server. It’s a lot more powerful, but has several other sites running on it.

I haven’t failed anything yet, but switching between three modules is really kicking me. I think I’m going to take a year off next year, after all, and see if I can catch my breath.

After taking off most of December, I ended up taking off most of January, too. I think three modules was a bit more stress than I was prepared for, and having that stress off my back just felt way too good. I just couldn’t force myself back to my study desk.

So I didn’t do anything this month until I had the first NetAcad exam for TM257 last week. Not being in study mode, I couldn’t really force myself to revise before hand, and had to take the exam without preparation. Luckily I came out of it with a 94%, but it could easily have been much, much worse.

Similarly, I have TMA02 due for TT284 due on Thurday, and I hadn’t even really looked at the TMA before the weekend. I did all the practical work on Sunday, half of the report on Monday, and the final half today. I’m confident about the practical portion, which accounts for 50% of my mark. The report part hits all the required points, but how I do really depends on whether my tutor and I agree on certain interpretations. I’m fairly confident on this part, and should come away with 90% or better, I think.

But I’m really behind in M269 now, and that’ll be a difficult one to catch up on. Even TM257 will require a bit of overtime. So it seems like a really bad idea to take two months off of uni in the middle of the year … Except it felt really good. We’ll have to see how much it ultimately costs me.

Wait, no, I mean Christmas break. As of this weekend, I’m caught up on the module planners through to the Christmas break, and I’m trying to decide if I should work up to it and then break, or just take the break now.

What I don’t want is to have zero motivation to start studying again whenever I pick it back up. I’d rather work straight through Christmas and Easter and finish a month early. But doing this causes problems with tutorials, and module teams very often notice errors in their TMAs only closer to the deadline and change them, requiring faster students to redo some questions. (I’ve already been the cause of this multiple times.) Also, there’s a slightly worrying trend in module teams not to make module materials available until very shortly before the module planner gets to that part. This is frustrating for students trying to properly manage their time knowing when their scheduling problems will occur.

I’ve accidentally gotten a week ahead in TM257, anyway. I didn’t notice that it gave a week to complete the first TMA, and I sailed right past it. And that’s a module which, for unfathomable reasons, they’re not opening the second half until the module planner is ready. Other module teams have the excuse of writing/updating curriculum right up until they make it available, but the TM257 team are just making the Cisco materials available. Maybe it’s a licensing issue, and Cisco’s pretty strict about how long the materials may be available to students. It just makes “Get ahead early and stay ahead” difficult, which makes dealing with emergencies difficult, and generally makes time management difficult. Oh! But I just realised that the OU team caches a copy of the Cisco materials. I can jump into that.

Anyway, I’ve already decided to fill the time to the start of the second block with revising using external sources. Unfortunately, I’ve chosen some Udemy courses which, upon opening them and looking, aren’t well written, make pedagogically questionable choices, and have information in them directly contrary to Cisco teachings (and therefore won’t be in line with Cisco exams). It’s like studying at Oxford with a Merriam-Webster on your desk.

But for the other two modules, I’m not really sure yet. Somebody suggested that I try my hand at a Christmas coding challenge, but that type of thing can quickly make me obsessive. That’s no good for anybody. This break is what caused TM254 to really kill the last dregs of motivation last year, so I need to find a good solution, and definitely can’t let myself be idle.

The first TMA for TT284 Web Technologies takes the form of a report detailing standards, usability, and accessibility in web pages, with practical elements in HTML and CSS. Or at least that’s the form it took this year.

It’s a difficult one to coordinate time-wise, because you can’t really write it in bits and pieces, then put it all together when you’re ready. You have to mostly wait until you’re ready to write the whole thing and then start. The study planner does nothing to help students crank this out in week six, with six weeks of reading necessary prior to getting underway.

The materials themselves, however, I thought were good preparation for such an assignment, and the assignment itself was good. As boring as listening to podcasts about electing a treasurer for a club you’re not in, it’s exactly the type of document I’ve been called on to produce for work. Not all the things you’ll need to know are in the materials, but they give excellent external resources for independent study. I had to find my own resources for accessibility concerns, however, as neither the OU materials nor the referenced materials were really good enough for anything other than highlighting their importance.

The biggest road block to the TMA was determining how much to do. There was a very broad scope of work, but a very tight word count. The challenge was in forcing yourself to do too little so you’d stay in the word count, but choose the things with the best impact, in terms of demonstrating the learning outcomes of the module. (Always keep learning outcomes in mind when writing assignments! That’s what the assignments are supposed to assess. Except in TM254, where they’re essentially random questions that might not relate to this plane of existence.)

Due to this challenge, I felt the best I could come away with as a marking was 92, and wouldn’t have been shocked to get as low as 80. I was extremely happy to have received the full 100 marks. My tutor gave great, specific feedback about what she liked, so I know what’s working. I also feared I’d get called out for having a page and a half of references for a 2000 word report, but that seemed to be one of my tutor’s favourite parts.

I won’t receive my first TMA back from TM257 or M269 for a while (they’re not due for another two or three weeks, so may hear back by Christmas), but I have more optimism for those than I had for this TMA.

I can’t believe it’s only been five and a half weeks since my modules started. I feel like I’ve been going flat-out for nearly half a year. I’m caught up through the first 8 weeks of study in all three modules, and have the first TMA submitted for each of them, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

There’s a bit of a time crunch in TT284 trying to finish up the end of the first block and submit the first TMA at the same time. The module team claim they don’t have recommendations for how long a block section will take to study so that students can better manage their time. If the module materials were printed, it would be easy to know at a glance roughly how long it might take to get through a section. But when it’s just a series of web pages that are of varying lengths, it’s quite a task to estimate the effort. There are also a lot of external reading recommendations that are only partially signalled ahead of time, so you can’t estimate these at all until you come upon them in the primary reading.

Anyway, none of that would have been a problem, but I promised my sons that I would make them Halloween costumes this year. Doing that alongside three modules and a TMA not accounted for in the module planner just about did me in. It wasn’t until Halloween was actually underway and I had one less thing on my plate that I was finally able to relax.

After that TMA was done, though, the two for the other modules tumbled out quickly. I’d done bits and pieces for all three all the way along, but TT284 (Web technologies) was one big essay-style report. You can do all the prep you want for something like that, but eventually you have to sit down and write it, and you basically can’t start any of it until you’re ready to start all of it. While it’s a pain of a TMA, and boring as imaginable, it’s also quite like a piece of work I’d actually be asked to produce for my day job, referencing excepted. So I can’t fault it. It’s a quality assessment. It’s difficult to gauge how well I’ve done on a monolith report. I expect I will have fewer specific examples of one or another classification than the tutor wants, and I only summarised some results rather than documenting them explicitly. I’d say it’s in the 85-92 region. I’d be disappointed but not surprised if I got something in the 80-85 range.

My TMA for M269 (Algorithms and data structures) was obviously a lot more fun, as it involved writing code and solving problems. The first time I wrote it, I gave a page and a half mathematical proof for a question worth just 3 marks. After all, it said, “Explain your answer.” In the end I just showed practical steps rather than the maths that would make it applicable to any problem. Anyway, if I’ve missed something on that TMA, it will be because I misread something, not because I understood it wrong or explained it poorly. I’m almost certainly above 90 marks on that one.

The TM257 (Cisco networking) assignment was great. A full 70% of the marks comes from stuff you do studying on the module anyway, and there’s very little room for the tutor to change the marks there. I’m confident I have the full 70 marks. For the other 30, I’ve done a great job with a 20 mark question, and expect full marks for that one, too. For the last 10 marks, I’m really not sure. It’s a diagram. But it’s a diagram with … Well, a lot of information on it. I emailed my tutor to explain my approach to the diagram, and that 10 marks didn’t seem like nearly enough for the question. He said that my approach was fine, but that 10 marks was possibly overly generous. So we’re clearly speaking two different languages. There’s scope to wipe out about 25 marks from mis-annotation on my diagram, so it’s difficult to believe it could be worth less than 10. So that one should come out above 90 marks as well, but I don’t know by how much.

Anyway, I’m caught up with TMAs until basically the end of January, so I’m going to crack on with my heavier-than-normal courseload. School Christmas fairs might do me in, though.

Much to my surprise, I’ve made a fair amount of progress in each of my three modules, and I’m not hating any of them. I’ve even gotten into the first TMAs already. Rationally, I know this means that I simply don’t understand how little I must understand. Things going well typically means that I’m not really paying attention.

I’ve been through two tutorials, for TT284 and TM257. Neither one added much beyond what was already in the module guides, but it was nice to ‘meet’ my tutors. (Since my weakest area isn’t in learning the material, but in guessing what the tutors want to see in evaluations, this is sort of important … If I care much about the assessments as anything more than a callibration of my own self-evaluation. And I try not to care … but then revision lands me with two months of tension headaches because I’m desperate for a clear distinction.)

I’ve got a tutorial next week for M269, but my tutor won’t be doing any tutorials this year. At all. She’s also thus far been entirely absent from the tutor group forum. History at the OU has taught me that these are ill portents. Or maybe it’s my inner (and outer) pessimist. As the module seems so well written, though, I imagine it might be much like the MST124 maths module, where all my feedback was late, consisted of, “That’s correct,” but it didn’t matter anyway and I learned loads more than I thought possible.

I’ve got myself a few days breathing room. I’m caught up through the first three weeks in all modules, and don’t want to go further than two weeks ahead. That can cause a lot of problems when I slack off later in the academic year because I’m so far ahead, and it’s difficult to renew my efforts. So last night, tonight, and tomorrow, I don’t have much to do. Enjoy it while it lasts, right?

I’m halfway through the first TMAs for TM257 and M269. There’s a question in M269 to evaluate a hypothetical paper that I could probably get out of the way tonight. At first glance, it looks like a waffle piece, but it’s really about viewing your own assignment answers through the eyes of a tutor. This helps your own self-evaluation skills, as well as callibrates your view of work with your tutor’s, so it’ll take the place of a first tutorial in my mind. I’ll talk more about that later when I’m done with the TMA and evaluate my own effort on it.

You basically need to have the first six weeks behind you for the first TMA in TT284. Since I’m not skipping that far ahead, it’ll have to wait. It seems poor planning to me to have essentially a single question on a TMA, because going by the way the module was designed, you’d have negative-two days to write your entire TMA. My tutor was explicit that students should not make an effort to get ahead, so they might have some very bad nights ahead of them if they’re not paying attention. I’ll say it again: Get ahead early, and stay ahead. (Just maybe not too far ahead.)

I haven’t mentioned anything about the TM257 Cisco NetAcad materials, as they hadn’ t opened by my last post. They have, now, and they’re brilliant. I’ve always avoided buying Cisco materials in the past, because they’re just so expensive. But I’m not going to worry about price any more. These materials are written in a way that is completely compatible with my brain and my learning. They build proper context in the proper order, rather than jumping right in the deep end of telling to memorise abstract layers of an abstract model of networking that is so abstract that it doesn’t actually apply to anything in the real world that wasn’t intentionally built to reflect it. I’ve never even come across another networking course that taught the TCP/IP model before the OSI model, when that seems obvious to me.

It also helps that my tutor knows this stuff cold. And better than that, he seems able to communicate it to the students who haven’t had much (or any) experience. One negative, though, is that he hasn’t updated his first tutorial materials to discuss the changes to Cisco CCNA certification process. He was still telling students there were two tests, and didn’t mention that the evaluated material in the modules (as they stand) might not cover the WiFi and other new parts of the exam. (The module isn’t really about certification, though: There are cheaper and faster ways to get that.) Anyway, after over twenty years in this industry, just the three weeks I’ve already been through have managed to give me that mental tweak I’ve been needing to see networks through the perspective of Cisco. It’s a really helpful module.

I’ll probably post next when I’ve got a TMA out of the way, or possibly after my next tutorial.

My characteristic advice for Open University study is always: Get ahead early, and stay ahead. This is because real-life considerations invariably impede study at some point during the year, and it’s easier to absorb these if you’re ahead. It’s much more difficult to catch up if you fall behind. Because of this, I like to get one or two weeks ahead of the schedule before study begins in earnest.

This year, I nearly didn’t make it. I’ve just now finished getting a bit ahead after the module websites have been open for two full weeks. I tried switching to hand-written notes to aid in memory retention. The result is that I accomplished in a week and a half what normally takes me three days to do. And when I think about it, memory retention is not a study problem I have. My weakest point is guessing what tutors want to see. New strategies for dealing with this are where I should be spending my planning time.

Anyway, I’ve swapped back to digital cloud-based notes, and finally caught up to where I wanted to be. Or maybe just a bit ahead. I’ve still got nearly two weeks to go before the official beginning of my academic year, so I have time to make any other adjustments that are necessary. With three modules going simultaneously, I really need to concern myself with speed and the best results with the shortest effort.

M269 appears to be just what I thought it would be: It’s a very mature module with a well-planned structure and resources that make sense for the subject matter.

TT284 is slightly less encouraging. There’s a requirement to misuse forums as group engagement which is obviously wrong-footed. If the goal is engagement, you need a problem more engaging than throwing words at a wall which nobody will ever read. It appears to be endemic of the module, so far: Short-sighted decisions based on ticking boxes handed down from above. This weak structure will make the module a bit annoying, but shouldn’t affect the quality of its content.

TM257 is a mystery. As it’s based nearly entirely on Cisco’s NetAcad curriculum, most of the structure really lies with Cisco, and will be unavailable until I have a tutor. The content should be very strong, though. The module team got a bit lazy with the assessment strategy, only saying that some activities contribute to different aspects of assessment. They haven’t expressed how much they contribute, which is rather the point of the assessment strategy. But I think they were just a bit rushed to press. They’ll probably correct that in time. (They’ve probably got their hands full rewriting every paragraph that mentions the obsolete CCENT.)

TM257 also doesn’t appear to allow students to work ahead (though it could just be poorly phrased descriptions). For the reasons detailed above, this seems short-sighted to me and better suited to classroom study than the realities of distance learning.