Life of a student – the first 4 months of my Open University course

Back in October I wrote my first post about my studies, before the first module had started. It was exciting, and in some ways I didn’t know what to expect. My previous experience with the same university, but a different subject area, had not been great in terms of accessibility for visually impaired students, so I guess I was a bit apprehensive, even though it seemed a lot of progress had been made in terms of accessibility.

Now it’s four months later and I’ve nearly finished two out of three blocks in my first module. So how’s it been?

The topics

The first module that I chose is called Introduction to computing and information technology, which, as the name suggests, gives you a basic foundation in a number of topics, that you can then go on to develop, depending on which path through the degree you choose.

Block 1 was really varied and interesting. Some things were more familiar to me, such as writing basic HTML and recording and manipulating sound. These are both things I do all the time at work, even if the sound production for the podcast is done using different software. It felt nice to know that I wasn’t completely starting from scratch in these areas!

Other things included a basic introduction to how computers have developed over time – not at all technical, but I didn’t know much about the history, so that was good.

Some of the maths gave me a headache, but I discovered quickly that it was more the way some concepts were being explained and not that I was just too stupid to be able to do it. More about the maths in my do I really hate maths? post.

We also looked at considerations for product design and then usability testing for websites, which is something I offer with a specific focus on accessibility. Some of the design concepts were a bit harder for me to visualise as someone who doesn’t know things that most others take for granted such as what certain icons look like (I just care about what they do and that they have been labelled properly) But this didn’t prevent me from understanding the concepts or answering the questions.

We also had an introduction to databases – the ideas for which weren’t new, but the writing of basic queries was.

Block 2 was less enjoyable for me because it focussed on programming, in itself not a problem, but it was taught using a horrid visual programming language, which involves dragging blocks of code around with your mous and assembling them to create programmes. I can’t use a mouse and neither can I see animated characters moving around on my screen.

I really wish we could have started with something less visual and more applicable to real life, but you have to wait for the next module before you start learning textual programming languages. This made me sad, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that at least the theory and concepts would be useful, even if the practical stuff required me to rely more heavily on a sighted assistant than I would normally want to.

I told my assistant what I wanted them to do and they gave me feedback about what happened visually, because the resulting programmes only run in the inaccessible software where you create them.

I went into the module knowing what I was getting in to, but all of the routes through the IT degree begin with these first two modules, so there was really no way round it. On the plus side, the most inaccessible part of the whole degree is done, because if there’s another module with such a high content of inaccessible material, I’ll just choose another – the advantages of choosing an open degree where you pick all of your own modules!

This module has three distinct blocks and block 3 is about networking. It looks a lot more interesting than block 2, although the main reason I didn’t enjoy block 2 was the programming language itself, not the concept of programming, which if written in a textual language, should be very accessible. And after all, I’m a linguist. I like languages and the rules that govern how you can use them. These rules are adhered to even more strictly in programming, than in languages such as English with its many exceptions to grammar rules, so there’s even less room for error.

Keeping on track

You get an online planner on your student home page and you can see what content you’re supposed to cover each week. It seems some people like getting weeks ahead and then showing off about it in the forums. I’ve no problem with getting ahead, but do you really need to keep going on about it?

Anyway, for most of the weeks, I set aside some time each day in my calendar and did part of that week’s work. I treated it like any other task I have to get done throughout the day and built it into my weekly planner. This worked well, although it took more effort to get my act together and stay motivated during block 2 because I wasn’t enjoying it as much.

Over Christmas I just really wanted to be done with it, so I got ahead of myself, finished the block and submitted the assignment relating to it.The end of the block wasn’t as bad because it looked at some of the concepts we’d been learning in the horrid visual language, and compared it with the same code in Python and Java – only simple things, but they made much more sense to me and gave me hope for the future!

The materials

I get printed books like everyone else, but I can’t use these, so I have been using the online versions of the books. They’re great! You can have the whole block appear on one page, which makes it really long, but then it’s easier to navigate the book using Jaws and jump around the document via the headings.

There are also downloadable or audio versions for people who want to learn that way, and it’s definitely good that more options are available now than there were when I was first looking at studying

a different module many years ago.

At first the image descriptions were missing, but afterI flagged this, my tutor was quick to help me track them down.

Working online

For me, working online is the best part. You don’t have to go anywhere. You don’t have to shift a load of access technology somewhere. You don’t have to rely on inaccessible printed books, or stacks of Braille books like I had at school. Braille books are great, but they take up a lot of room!

As someone who is self-employed, I’m lucky that I can set aside some time for study, but not having to go to physical lectures means that I can fit the work in when I have time for it, andI don’t have to work around a preset schedule. I love that!

This kind of course means that you spend a lot of time working on your own. Some people might miss the company, but I don’t. I can work collaboratively, but I don’t need other people to be around for me to stay motivated. In fact, working on my own in my quiet office is my favourite thing!

There are a couple of tutorials in each block. There’s a range of dates and you book in for the ones that you want to attend. I only want to attend online ones and whilst it’s easy to book them, the system used for accessing them is not very accessible for screenreader users.

In fact it’s the worst kind of inaccessible – the flaky kind. Sometimes it works and other times the screenreader loses focus and then you’re done for unless you leave the meeting and come back. The app didn’t seem that good either, although I haven’t tested it with an active meeting room link.

Basically I can attend and hear everything that’s going on, but due to issues with my screenreader losing focus, I can’t access the chat window reliably. To be honest I don’t care much – I can email any questions in at the end. It would be nice to participate more, but the tutorials aren’t really used much for discussion or working on projects – it’s more about the tutor explaining things. At school I was often that kid who knew the answer, but never put her hand up, so although I’d be happier if they switched to something more accessible, I don’t feel it affects my overall experience too much.

Also, my tutor has a list of all the tutorials I booked in for, and he contacted the other tutors to ask that they send me their slides in advance so that I can read them outside of the conference software. Usually the slides are made available afterwards.

In more general terms, my tutor has been quick to respond to emails, answering questions or chasing things up when I haven’t had what I needed.

Contact with others

Most of the time, you work on your own. That’s not to say that there is no contact with others, but you have to be a bit proactive and hunt it out. Still, there are plenty of opportunities to find others on your course.

There is a list of forums on the main website, with a specific one for each module. I’ve also found some Facebook groups (one for each module, and also some more general interest ones). There’s a Slack channel, which isn’t used heavily, but it’s there. There’s a Discord channel, which I honestly haven’t bothered with much because the app was a bit annoying, and I don’t think much is happening there. At the other end of the scale, there’s a WhatsApp group that I had to leave because it crashed my phone and I didn’t want to download 250 messages each time I wanted to look at it.But yes, anyone who’s looking for more contact with other students can join the Whatsapp group and their phone won’t stop buzzing with social interactions!

I attended a face-to-face meet-up too, which was nice enough, but there was no one there from any of the IT courses. So whilst it was nice to have a chat, it wasn’t that beneficial in terms of the course.

If there’s a problem, you have to be more direct about addressing it than you perhaps would in a face-to-face setting where people can see you.

These past few weeks have been tough, not so much because of the inaccessibility, but because of how being more dependent made me feel. I tend to withdraw if I’m not ok, find a solution, maybe hunt out one person that I trust to talk about it with, and then come back and be more sociable. That’s fine for me, but if someone really needed help or support, they would need to be upfront about it, because otherwise people wouldn’t know. So you need to be able to communicate somewhere, either to your tutor or in one of the groups, if something isn’t ok and you need help with it.

Assessments

I’ve completed two online assessments, received 1 assignment back, and submitted the second one. I’m not going to go into my marks here, but I’m happy with them – apart from some points I needlessly dropped by not double-checking something – grr!

Overall thoughts

Overall I’m enjoying both the online study experience and the introduction to computing and IT module. I didn’t enjoy the last block, and if any blind person who uses a screenreader is planning to do this module, they will need to bear in mind that they’ll need sighted assistance for the practical tasks in block two. All of the actual work needs to be your own, but you’ll need someone to move your mouse to drag the code blocks around and describe what they see.

If I hadn’t had such a good assistant with whom I can work well, my experience would have been much worse!

But I want to focus on the positives, because the theory and concepts I picked up in block 2 will help me when it comes to the introduction to Python in the next module. Also, block 3 looks a lot more accessible, so in accessibility terms, I think the worst is over.

In more general terms, I think it’s natural that for whatever reason, whether it’s to do with accessibility or just what you like and are good at, you’re going to like some parts of a course more than others. That’s life. Yes, it would have been better if a text-based alternative had been available to the visual coding language, but it wasn’t and I kept plodding on through. Sometimes you just need to get things done so you can move on to something else.

I’ve basically got a week off now because next week people are supposed to be working on their assignments and I’ve already finished mine. So I’ll enjoy that and then I’m looking forward to starting the networking topic.

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Good things in November

I’m trying to get my November favourites in before the end of November because tomorrow is the beginning of Blogmas! It’s a bit shorter this month because some of the things that I’ve been enjoying will get their own post as part of my Christmas content. I’ve been enjoying getting ready for Blogmas over the last couple of weeks, so I suppose that is a kind of favourite before I’ve even started!

1. Mango products!

We went for dinner with some friends who clearly know me very well! We hadn’t seen them for a while and I was given my birthday present – some delicious mango chocolates, which are not in the picture because by the time we got round to taking it, they had already been opened or eaten, and a selection of products from the Body Shop’s mango range. I think someone has been reading my blog!

There were firm favourites such as the mango shower gel, the mango body butter, and the mango body yoghurt – all of which I can definitely recommend. I also got the mango lip butter, which contains mango oil and smells good enough to eat, and the mango body scrub, which I hadn’t tried before, but which is a soluble sugar scrub. I don’t usually use physical scrubs, but if I do, this is the best type because it’s grainy and you get the scrubbing action, but because you’re using sugar particles, they dissolve and don’t stay around.

So all in all I’ve been walking around smelling like a giant mango!

We talk a lot about the Body Shop®’s festive scents, but if you know someone likes a specific line from the Body Shop, you can just as easily put together a lovely gift from that line.

2. Feelunique pick ‘n mix

I won’t talk about this at length because I wrote a post about it, but I enjoyed finding another way to try out some new products to test on the blog!

3. Toffee apple

This is really random and I hope my dentist isn’t reading this – but S brought me home one of these after bonfire night and I was intrigued to try it because I’d never had one before. The sweetness of the sugar and the crunchiness of the apple – I don’t want to think of how many calories were in that, but I’m glad I tried it!

4. New shampoo

I usually try out new shampoos and conditioners together, but on this occasion I just got the Aveda almond cherry shampoo when I was putting through a Lookfantastic order to claim my Glossy points. I thought I’d give it a go and had been meaning to try something from the brand for a while. I should really get the conditioner as well, but I was happy with Its performance and love the cherry scent!

5. Tili Urban Jungle

I don’t usually shop at QVC, but from time to time they bring out beauty boxes. The Urban Jungle box costs £20 and contains 11 products. The shower gel alone can cost £10 when it’s not on offer, so provided you would use most of the things in the box, it’s a good deal. I gave away the dry shampoo and the eye shadow, but even so, it was still worth my while and a chance to discover some new brands.

6. Completing the first part of my first module

I couldn’t bring myself to write that getting my first assignment in was a favourite, but we covered an interesting range of topics in the first module from website design to databases to creating sound media content. Some things weren’t new to me, whereas others really made my brain work (yay for binary and hexadecimal calculations), but all in all it was a good block and I passed my first two assignments!

The current block is not as much fun for me, but I am just focussing on getting it done so that I can move on to something more interesting and relevant.

7. More work on the house complete

It’s a work in progress and we have more plans for things that we want to do, but after my accident in the Summer, getting a bannister for the stairs came higher up the priority list. I didn’t have an accident on the stairs, and I can walk around unaided most of the time, but the leg is weaker and I don’t trust it yet, so having a bannister instead of the open stairwell makes me happy!

8. Shout out to our postman!

I do a lot of my shopping online, which only increases as Christmas approaches. Most of the delivery drivers are fine – apart from the ones that don’t knock even though you’re in, or the ones that leave a card saying “We left your package either on your property or with a neighbour” – very helpful!

I guess our postman sees more of me than many of his customers, but it’s the little things – he knows I have to make a dash down the stairs and also that this is harder for me at the moment, so he doesn’t just drop the parcels and run – or even worse, take them back. Time is money, but he waits. He also knows I’m visually impaired and usually says how many packages there are, rather than just handing me the bottom one and hoping I’ll realise it’s actually a stack of boxes. Just little things that make life easier.

What have you been enjoying this month? Let me know in the comments!

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Student life – do I really hate maths?

This is a new section on my blog to talk about my experience of being a part-time student. It’s not going to be subject-specific, so you don’t have to be interested in IT, but studying for my degree is part of my life now and there are going to be things that I want to say about it!

One of the things that I’ve had to revisit in my studies is my relationship with maths.

Maths was never one of my favourite subjects at school.

I passed my GCSE, and it was a decent enough grade, but it was not as good as the other subjects that I really enjoyed and did well in.

I spent years 10 and 11 at the bottom of the top set. I even begged my headmaster to put me down a set, because I was tired of being the last to understand things, but he wouldn’t! Because my results showed that I could do the work, even if I didn’t find it as easy as subjects like English and languages.

But everyone else in the class got things first time – or it seemed like that to me – and the only way I passed was learning a set of instructions like a parrot, but not really understanding the reasons for each step. I don’t learn well that way, but it got the job done.

I spent a lot of time feeling that I was missing the point. It was illogical to me. Half the time I couldn’t even work out why we would ever want to do those calculations in real life.

Now I’m an adult. I use maths all the time in the context of running my business. Working out sales figures. Working out what percentage of the year’s income came from each marketing activity. Working out how much people have left on their account or by how much web traffic increased when compared to the last month. I use maths all the time. I love numbers and have sooo many spreadsheets.

In fact sometimes friends and family members laugh because I have a spreadsheet for most things – but if they need that information, they know I’ll have it!

Anyway – back to maths. I began to suspect that maths wasn’t the problem. Maybe I just need to se why we have to know something. I have to understand the practical reason before I can see the point or how we could apply it. I’m not good with abstracts.

But then last week there was an exercise on my course and I just couldn’t do it (binary to decimal conversions if anyone’s interested, but it’s not relevant to what I’m trying to say!) I read the explanation several times, but it was just words and numbers swimming around on the page. Reading it again didn’t help. Reading it really slowly didn’t help. Going for a coffee and coming back to it didn’t help. Not a good sign as there was an assessment coming up and I was sure it would be in there somewhere.

I asked S to explain it to me without showing him the book. He did. I got it. I could answer the questions on the test (and get them right!), but not by using the explanation in the book. It didn’t work for me.

Someone else on the course had the same problem as me. Others didn’t. I don’t think the book is bad – it’s just that people learn in different ways.

Then today there was another exercise. This time I did understand the point and when I did the self-study exercise, I got it right as well – but the explanation seemed strange to me. Why would you do it that way? It’s not logical. Maybe my brain’s just wired differently from the person who wrote it, but at the end of the day, if you get to the right answer and understand how you got there, who cares?

Except – I care, because I left school thinking I just wasn’t that good at maths. How many other young people are leaving compulsory education thinking that they’re not good at something, when really they just weren’t being taught the skill in a way that made sense to them?

I work mainly with German-speaking adults. Some of them say they’re not good at English because they never understood the grammar at school.

Some English teachers hate teaching grammar. I don’t actually mind teaching it. Most of the time there are patterns and rules that you can follow, and these rules can be your friends because as long as you understand them, they help you not to make mistakes. Of course there are always exceptions. But I’ve seen that people leave my lessons with a better understanding than when they came in, and that makes me happy! People have told me it’s not actually as bad as what they learned at school, and it makes more sense!

In terms of my relationship with maths, I’ve had to revisit it, because it’s part of my course. I’ve elected not to do half a year of pure maths, because I don’t think I could take it, but it pops up throughout the other modules that I’m taking. It’s still harder than the other parts of the module, but not because I don’t get the concepts. Sometimes I just need to find a different person to explain it or a different way to think about it. That’s ok.

Maybe young people today are at more of an advantage. If I don’t understand something or I want to know something, I ask a friend that might know, or I look for the answer online. Ok, there’s terrible information out there too, and you need some degree of internet literacy to work out what’s going to help, and what will just confuse you more. That’s a problem in the language teaching space too. But if what your teacher is saying makes no sense, or you need the information in a different way, it’s much easier to do that now than when I was at school and Google wasn’t my friend.

Sometimes it did happen when I was at school. I had a friend who would ask me to explain what we did in German class, and she said I made it easier to understand than the teacher. Maybe that was the beginning of my teaching career – who knows. But essentially we were giving her the same information, just in a different way. I never did my friend’s homework for her, but she had the tools to do it herself, rather than thinking she couldn’t even attempt it.

So now it’s made me wonder – are there other things that I thought I was rubbish at, that might not be all that bad? I just didn’t have the right teacher! We’re not all going to be good at everything, but I do think it’s sad if people give up on things when really what they need is just a different approach or a different way of learning.

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Back to school – it wasn’t like that when I was at school!

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make you feel old, it’s looking at how the education system or life as a student has changed from when you were at school.

Ok, I’m only in my 30s, and I’m not actually going back to school! But stay with me here!

I don’t even know if I mentioned this on the blog, but I’m starting a course with the Open University in October. I’m doing an IT degree, which will last for 6 years, because I’m doing it part-time around my other work.

This is not my first attempt to study with the OU, but the first time didn’t work out because unfortunately the materials for the course I wanted to study could not be provided in an accessible format. I don’t really want to dwell on that, but things do seem to have moved on in terms of accessibility. It’s not 100% accessible – things rarely are – but we are working on strategies for me to get round the problems that I’ll encounter. On occasions, a sighted helper will take instructions from me to interact with graphical interfaces and do things that I can’t do because I can’t use a mouse. Diagrams will be provided with descriptions. I will work from online copies of the materials, rather than printed books.

I’ll probably write more about the course when it’s started – I know that some of my readers will be more interested in what we’re doing than in my beauty product posts, so it will add a bit more diversity to the blog. I plan to make it a regular feature.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

The Open University students’ Association is active on Facebook and Twitter, so I decided to follow their page. I then had an idea that there may be other groups out there – local groups, special interest groups, or course-specific ones.

In terms of networking for business, online networking is my thing, much more than face-to-face, so I thought this could be a good idea.

I joined some groups. I got accepted. Suddenly I had the chance to virtually meet up with others setting out on the same path as me.

That doesn’t mean I’ll never go to a face-to-face event, but I just find online easier – unless of course I’m in a group where all people do is post pictures that I can’t see. Then it’s not fun.

But if people are talking to each other, I’m on more of a level playing field. I don’t have to worry about eye contact, finding my way around, or noise sensitivity. Messages can be answered one at a time, rather than feeling that people are talking to me from all sides. Some of it’s blindness-related. Some of it’s sensory sensitivity-related. But either way, online is great!

But when you join groups like that, people can get a snapshot of you – where you are – who you are as an individual – what makes you really you. I don’t share my heart and soul on Facebook, so it’s probably not that revealing, but I’ve chosen to link to both of my sites, so you can get a fair idea of the kind of person I am.

My profile picture with the wolves is maybe not the most glamourous, but it’s also unique to what I love – how many people have a genuine picture of themselves casually hanging out with a couple of massive wolves?!

Some of my articles are set to public, because they are in the public domain anyway and might drive traffic to my sites. But still, you can get some idea of who I am without even exchanging a message with me.

That never used to be the case. When I joined a new school in year 12, I didn’t know anyone and had to build up a picture of who was around, whom I wanted to try and befriend etc, all based on our interactions.

If anyone starts talking to me in one of the groups now, I can click on their profile to see who they are, or at least the version of themselves that they want people to see.

Then it got me thinking about schools.

When I was at school, we didn’t have social media networks. What would I have posted if I had? I was the Hermione Granger type, so probably a lot of stuff about learning and school that others didn’t care about! Or horses. Some of it would probably make me cringe now. I’m no less opinionated than I was then, but I choose my battles more carefully!

But children nowadays? If they have a Facebook account, it means they’re never really away from their friends, or people who definitely aren’t their friends. I can see the advantages of staying in touch, but there’s also this idea that you never really get away from people whom you haven’t chosen to share your life with. As an adult, it’s easier. As a child, I imagine that must be quite tough at times.

This is a pressure, and a challenge that people of my generation never had to deal with, so we don’t really know what it’s like. That struck me today as I was signing up to Facebook study groups!

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