Life of a mature student – technologies in practice module

TM129 (technologies in practice), is the 3rd of my Open University IT modules, following TM111 and TM112. Actually, there are only 3 IT modules at level 1. Most of the other students did a solid module of maths, which would not have been my idea of fun! As the degree is for my own personal development and I’m on the open degree route, I chose something from the language faculty to finish off my first year. But more about that in another post.

This is my summary of the module from the October 2019 presentation. If you’re planning to study it in the future, there may be some differences.

The content

As with the other level 1 IT modules, the course is split into three blocks.

Probably the most interesting part for me was the networking block. Not all of the knowledge was new to me, but I found it useful to consolidate and build on what I knew already. The Cisco materials almost felt like PowerPoint slides, with very little text on each page, so I was forever clicking next. I’m one of those people who’d rather a solid block of text, but I know some students prefer the bite-size chunks. Anyway the information was well-structured and apart from a small part that was very Cisco-centric, the knowledge can be applied to networking across the board.

Robotics – I enjoyed exploring the social and ethical questions in this part in terms of how we use robots and AI, how it affects our life already, and how future developments might look. I thought it was interesting to look at some practical activities for programming a simple online robot, though I would have preferred it if we’d done some more tasks that weren’t so focussed on using the light sensors. This is useful for explaining other concepts, but a bit frustrating for any user who is blind or unable to distinguish colours. I think there are concepts that I can take from this block though and apply to other programming problems, so overall I felt that was useful.

Linux was new for me, so I was glad to have an introduction, especially as it focussed a lot on command line commands, (which is what, as a screenreader user, I would have had to do anyway) as opposed to using a graphical interface. In some ways we just skimmed the surface, but I think as an introduction it was easy enough to follow and understand.

The assessment

Things were a bit different this year because the final assessment was cancelled due to the coronavirus restrictions. I don’t really understand why, because it was all online, but that’s what happened.

On one hand it was quite nice not to have to write the final assessment, but I think a number of students wish the process had been explained a bit better. There was clear information about the fact that the assessment had been cancelled, but I hadn’t appreciated that the marks wouldn’t only be based on my previous work. My overall average ended up lower than the average of my previous marks. Apparently this was because the final averages were adjusted down due to the fact that historically students had done worse on the final assignment. I was ok, but anyone on a grade boundary may not have got the final grade that they were expecting.

So I can’t talk about the final assessment, but the other 3 were written tutor marked assignments.

The part that worried me most was one assessed activity within the networking part. I hadn’t realised that there would be a timed assessment that contributed to my overall mark. My biggest fear was that I would run out of time, but I didn’t and my worries were unfounded. I needed to make sure I’d revised properly, because it’s not like the project work where you can take as much time as you like to double-check everything, but on the day I did end up with time to spare. The worse thing you can do is see something you’re not sure about, panic, and then forget everything else you know!

Accessibility – studying the module as a blind student

The main take-away for me is that I did it, as someone with no vision. Yes, there were some challenges, and yes, I did need some sighted assistance at times. But this module was enjoyable for me and I learned a lot.

All of the module materials were provided as downloadable or online copies – in fact I think everybody was reading the materials online. There was also a book and a DVD. I sourced my own copy of the book, though an alternative was available. The DVD material was also available from the module website, so it was just as easy for me to get it from there.

I noticed some people grumping about the lack of textbooks on the forums, but I think no obligatory printed textbooks is a step in the right direction – think of the trees!

The Sisco materials in the networking block were accessible, and even included some image descriptions. Unfortunately the level of accessibility was a bit inconsistent in terms of the practical learning activities – many of these involved dragging things around with a mouse and had no accessible alternative for keyboard users. I focussed on the theory as learning the concepts were more important to me, and the exercises were just to supplement the learning.

The Packet Tracer software also caused some problems in terms of accessibility, and a sighted assistant was needed to assist me with these practical parts.

Despite these challenges, I found this block the most interesting.

Having said that, if the OU continues to buy in content or work in partnership with other training providers, it needs to ensure that those other organisations are held accountable to the same accessibility standards. I feel there is some room for improvement here as I did encounter some missing image descriptions in the 3rd-party materials.

The robotics software did work surprisingly well with Jaws (my screenreader). However, some of the practical tasks relied quite heavily on being able to see in order to assess the outputs of the programmes, so again, some sighted assistance was required.

The Linux part didn’t pose any accessibility problems.

Final thoughts

Out of all the IT modules I’ve done so far, I enjoyed this one and TM112 the most (OUBuild ruined TM111 for me, but there is other interesting material in there)!

The module gives you an introduction to three distinctly different areas, particularly useful for those who are still deciding which route to take when it comes to their level 2 modules.

My tutor was helpful, always replying quickly and being available to discuss issues relating to accessibility or alternative ways to meet the learning outcomes.

Adobe Connect continues to be an accessibility nightmare for me as a screenreader user, though that has nothing to do with TM129 as such, and I still prefer this to face-to-face learning. Tutors did what they could to help me, either answering questions or making slides available in advance for me to access.

I do wish though that the Open University would use a more accessible conference platform.

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August 2020 – chocolate owls, neck fans, results, and cheese bread!

Good things in August 2020

Well, August isn’t usually holiday month for me. It hasn’t been for as long as I can remember. When you don’t have children, taking holidays outside of the school holidays often feels like a smart move! It’s hot! It’s sometimes a bit much! But generally there’s a holiday vibe and I like the long summer nights where you can eat in the garden and spend more time outdoors.

We are still being careful and shielding, so you won’t see a lot of staycation posts this summer, but there are still good things, and things to be grateful for. I think in some ways I’ve socialised more this year than I have before, even though I’m not saying “yes” to any face-to-face socialising right now.

New course

Since I’ve been working for myself, August is often a quieter time because many of my customers go on holiday. This year was the launch of my pilot programme for a new course though, so it was actually quite busy – getting things ready and starting off the programme. I have a really lovely group and I’m enjoying working with them. It’s good to try something new!

University results

This actually belongs in July, but I didn’t write this kind of post then!

The end of the university year was a bit different because two of my final assessments were cancelled. With so much else going on, it was quite nice to not have to do them, but nobody really knew what would happen in terms of the results. We knew the previous results would probably become more relevant now, but it wasn’t really clear what would happen. I think an opportunity for better communication was missed there.

As it happened, I got my two distinctions, but as I understand it, the calculations were all adjusted down because they also reflected previous students’ performances on the final exams. I wasn’t on the threshold, so I got what I was aiming for, but some people dropped down into the next bracket, through what felt like no fault of their own. If you screw up an assessment, ultimately it’s on you, but if it happens because generally other people don’t do as well in that assessment, it doesn’t feel fair.

Overall I was happy – year 1 took me 2 years because I’m part-time, but I did it! Posts about the final two modules are coming soon – I don’t like to write them until I’ve properly finished.

Next module booked

There were some questions about the accessibility of the module I wanted to study next. That took a bit of time to resolve, but it feels as though we have a better process in place now, and a way to make sure that the transitions to future modules go more smoothly.

I’m looking forward to writing the code for web pages – less so to the reliance on diagrams to communicate ideas about how said web pages should turn out! But at least we have a plan now to make it more accessible!

New products

The Body Shop has come out with some new hair and body mists. Body mists are nothing new, but not all of them are suitable to be used on hair – some ingredients can dry your hair out – but these ones are fine .

There are 5 in the range – apricot and agave, lime and matcha, pomegranate and red berries, pink pepper and lychee, and coconut and yuzu.

I got the apricot one and the lime one. My favourite is the apricot one, but both of them are good!

Not quite so new, but I also enjoyed the new zesty lemon range of products – they were a special edition, but if they come back, I can definitely recommend them if you love zingy citrussy scents. I enjoyed the zesty lemon body yoghurt. It’s made with lumpy lemons, which presumably wouldn’t be up to the normal standard for selling and eating.

Portable neck fan

I turned up to an online meeting during the heatwave and a friend was wearing one of these! It’s a great idea – you take your fan around with you wherever you go! It’s like three sides of a square. The side opposite the open side goes behind your neck, and the two arms sit on your shoulders, facing forwards. You have to be careful with long hair, but I push mine back and I haven’t caught it yet! The arms blow out air onto your face and neck, and there are multiple settings for how intense you want the fan to be. This is the neck fan that I got.

New platform to try

I was involved in an accessibility research project throughout August. I probably can’t say a lot about that at the moment, but one thing it also gave me was the opportunity to try out Microsoft Teams with Jaws and VoiceOver (the two screenreaders that I use on my laptop and my phone).

I was impressed! It’s so much better than what we use at university! I mainly use Zoom and other conferencing tools at work, but it was interesting to try something new. It’s more involved than Zoom, but it also has more features for working collaboratively.

Chocolate owls

These are the owls featured in the image for this post. They were delicious – some were with orange essential oil and others with peppermint. (If you intend to try this, make sure the essential oils you have are suitable for internal use – not all are).

The owl moulds can be bought from Amazon – this is one of my owl mould sets.

They were amazing – both sets were good, but I think my favourites were the orange ones! I’m going to try dark chocolate tnex.

New Turkish friends

I know my biggest weakness in learning a language is speaking. I hate it. I don’t want to do it until I’m really good – but the only way to become really good is to do it!

Especially if you’re living in a country where you’re not being exposed to the additional language every day, you need to be more proactive.

So I went to a language exchange site. You have to be a bit careful, because especially if you are a woman, you can get inundated with messages, some of which are quite annoying. I started chatting with a few people. Some fizzle out straight away, so it’s good to not only rely on one or two right at the beginning. I’ve found two people wit whom I’m meeting regularly online now for English and Turkish practice. It’s hard for me – I would much prefer to write – but they are both really friendly and having a real person to speak with definitely gives you a reason to do it!

Duolingo

I wrote before about improving my Turkish on Duolingo.

I saw that this way of strengthening the connection between language pairs was also really good brain training. A lot of activities for training your memory involve pictures, and therefore don’t work for me. But I love languages, so I decided to use my subscription to this app to work on my active languages, refresh a couple that I used to speak, and also try a couple of new ones.

I want to write a more in-depth post about this and what I’ve discovered. At the moment I have 12 courses, which are combinations of 8 languages!

Baking bread

I haven’t jumped on the sourdough train, but we have been trying out some bread recipes. Yesterday we made cheese and onion bread – something I’ve never had before – but it has cheese in it, so it must be good, right? It was amazing! Random internet recipes can be a risky business, but I can recommend this yummy cheese and onion bread! Not an affiliate link – just something we found and enjoyed.

So, that’s a round-up of my August! Tomorrow is September – I love autumn!

How was August for you?

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Life of a mature student – 8 things not to do if you have an exam

I thought exams were a thing of the past, but I’m doing a part-time IT degree at the Open University. Much of the assessment process is around submitting assignments – I wrote about this in my post about getting assignments done and submitted, , but some of it does actually involve timed exams.

At school I didn’t mind exams too much – but as adults it’s easy to get out of practice, and when the time for the exam drew closer, I worried about it far more than I used to at school. Seems I don’t like exams very much! I don’t like that feeling of the time slipping away – time that I will never get back! I’d much rather take my time to do something well, than feel under pressure to get the questions answered. But sometimes you just have to get on with it and do the exam.

So, whatever it is that you’re studying, if you’re preparing for an exam, here are 8 things that you shouldn’t do. Most of these are from my own experience.

1. Don’t keep looking at the clock

Yes, you need to know what the time is so that you can plan out your time and divide it between the questions. There’s no point doing brilliantly in one area if you lose a whole bunch of marks because you didn’t get round to an important section of the question paper. But it’s also not good if you waste time because you keep checking the time, or letting the clock make you anxious or nervous.

It’s good to be aware of the clock, but try not to focus on it so much that it stops you thinking about the questions and how you are going to answer them.

2. Don’t focus on the things that you don’t know

There’s plenty that you do know. There may be something that you’ve forgotten or can’t quite remember. If you let yourself go down the rabbit hole of worrying about that, it’s a sure way to start feeling negative about yourself, getting annoyed that you didn’t revise that particular thing, panicking, and then it’s really hard to think clearly. Sometimes it’s good to focus on the things that you do know. Answer those questions that will be easy for you. Come back to the things that you’re not sure about. Don’t even think about them to start with. You can use the time that you have left to address them, but make sure you first get down all of the things that will help you to get the points.

3. Don’t leave multiple choice answers empty if you won’t be penalised for a wrong answer

I struggle with this one because whether I’m doing an exam or someone is just asking me a question, I don’t like to commit if I don’t think I have a good chance of being right. So, if I’m doing a quiz, I’ll either say I don’t know the answer or I’ll give you the 100% right answer. There’s no middle ground.

This strategy might be ok for pub quizzes or life in general, but it doesn’t help with multiple choice questions. Unless you know you will be penalised for wrong answers, it’s worth putting something in the box. Usually there’s a 25% chance of being right, so really you have nothing to lose.

4. Don’t forget that with multiple choice, sometimes you can eliminate answers

Following on from point three, if you can discard one or two of the other answers, you increase the percentage chance you have of getting the question right. If you get rid of two out of the four, you have a guess with a 50% chance of being right. Even if you don’t know the right answer, can you find any answers that are definitely, or likely to be wrong?

5. Don’t panic and give up too soon

It’s tempting to see a question that you hadn’t expected or that looks complicated and then think “I can’t do this” or “I don’t know anything about this”. This can then set you on a downward spiral where you begin to doubt yourself and your abilities. Sometimes it helps to read the question again, breaking the task down into the individual parts that you need to complete. Sometimes it helps to move on and come back to the difficult question. Sometimes it helps to take a few deep breaths and resist the urge to make a run for the door or close the exam window and cry!

6. Don’t keep revising until right before the exam

In my school days, sometimes I didn’t even look at my notes the day of the exam. If you’ve revised thoroughly, trying to learn just before the exam can actually make things worse because you start to panic. What you really need is a clear head. Everyone works differently, but trying to do too much immediately before the exam may make you feel more stressed out, so in the long run it might not be what you need.

7. Don’t get so carried away that you go way over the word count

Essay type answers with word counts can feel quite restrictive if you’re used to writing a lot. Some markers are very strict and they’ll just disregard all of the extra words. This doesn’t help you if you’ve got so involved in the topic that your answer is much longer than it should be. Try and make a plan for the structure of your answer before you start writing it. This way you’re less likely to get carried away and write too much.

8. Make sure you know exactly what the question is asking

There are all kinds of ways in which you can lose marks if you don’t do this. It can be as simple as putting your answer in the wrong unit of measurement, or as complicated as misreading the entire task. It’s not enough to know something about the subject – you’re being assessed on how well you apply the knowledge that you have to the question or task that you’re being asked to do. Sometimes it is worth rereading the question to make sure you know exactly what’s expected of you. Have a look back over your answer and see whether you have addressed all the points in the question. Sometimes the number of marks available can give you a clue as to how this will be calculated. Don’t waste time answering a question that hasn’t been asked – even if what you write is correct, if it’s not relevant, it won’t help you to pick up points.

I hope these tips have been helpful. Are there any more that you would add?

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Guest article for the Open University – why the open degree gives me the flexibility to design my own curriculum

I wrote a guest article for the Open University Open Degree blog –
find out why I enjoy the flexibility of an open degree curriculum here!

Life as a mature student get that assignment finished and submitted

Due to the way that my courses work, I’ve had to submit two assignments in the last two weeks. One a week. One was considerably longer than the other, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier – being allowed to write fewer words when you have a lot to say can be such a pain.

I see plenty of tips about starting early and not procrastinating and they don’t really resonate with me because generally I don’t procrastinate. As a child growing up, I wasn’t allowed to. Homework had to be done when I got it. Chores had to be done before I could do fun things. That was the rule, but even when there was noone there to enforce the rule, it had become part of my mindset. Don’t have the thing hanging over you if you can get it gone and out of your life. Start the day with the thing you’re dreading so that it won’t be taking up brain energy for the rest of the day.

But there are other things that I’ve learned – some of them more general, some of them specific to studying at the Open University, so I decided to share them here while TMAs (tutor marked assignments) are still fresh in my mind.

1. Give yourself time

I don’t just mean time to do the assignment, although that’s important. Think about the way you work and which things you find easier or more difficult.

For example, I know that I can write pretty quickly, but maths-related problems always take me longer. If you have a look at what you’re going to need to do, you might be able to break it down into parts, and then work out which parts will take you longer. That will help you when you’re planning out how much time you’ll need, and you can go easier on yourself by leaving more time for the things that you naturally find more difficult. You might have other strategies too, like doing the easier parts first, or starting with the more difficult ones to get them out of the way. Or you might be like me and find that it offends your sense of order if you don’t do things in the order on the question sheet!

2. Check the forums

Sometimes they can generate a lot of traffic, but particularly your cluster or tutor group forum may give you useful information. It’s true you can’t ask direct questions relating to the assignment, but tutors may post up handouts from their sessions, useful materials, or information relating to the assignment. It’s also good to keep an eye on the news section of your home page because if errors are found in the assignment questions, updates will be posted there.

Also, your tutor is there to help if you have questions, but they’re in a better position to do so if you don’t approach them half an hour before the final cut-off date! All the tutors I’ve had so far have been approachable, helpful, and responsive.

3. Make a plan of what you want to say

My problem is often the word count, especially for essays or essay-based tasks.

It’s not so much that I waffle, but I like detail, and I like to be thorough. This sometimes works against me and I spend more time reducing the word count than it took me to write the essay or answer in the first place. This is tedious.

I’ve still not found a way around this completely, but I find it helps to make a list of the key points and start fleshing them out afterwards. This helps me to see whether I need to cover less ground, or cover more points with less words. It gives me a framework to work with, which in turn cuts down on my editing time, or prevents me from trying to include more detail than the question requires.

4. Try to look at the deadline and work backwards

I don’t like working under pressure if I can avoid it, and sometimes you can’t. But I try to get my assignment in at least one day before it’s due, because you never know what’s going to happen. This week on the deadline day I went to the dentist and came back feeling awful. I had to write the rest of the day off and spent most of it in bed, unable to feel my face or think straight. The following day wasn’t much better. I was so glad I hadn’t left it to the last minute.

Sometimes it’s possible to finish early and get the assignment in. I did this last Christmas when I really wanted to be finished with a block and forget about it during the Christmas holidays. So I submitted early. However, this isn’t always possible, especially if you have to show evidence of group activities that are in the timetable the week before the assignment.

The way that works best for me is to try and have my documents finished one or two days before the deadline, preferably with the chance to come back to them one last time with a fresh mind. I always find last-minute changes that I want to make during the last read-through, and it’s hard to get some mental space from what you’ve been writing if you don’t have the chance to step away and come back before it has to go off.

5. Understand the different types of marking

I’m doing different types of modules, and this is something I’ve had to learn this year. Last year I only did IT modules. Of course you can’t know how the tutor will mark the assignment before you get it back, but if it’s a programming question and your programme does what it’s supposed to, you have a pretty decent idea that you’re on the right track. The language faculty is a bit different. So far I’ve had to write two essays and it’s more about whether you’re answering the question in the right way, referring to key concepts, and arguing in a way that’s in line with the marking criteria. I actually find it harder, because it’s not a clear “right” or “wrong” like with a maths question, where there are definite right or wrong answers.

So, if you’re doing a module that’s marked slightly differently from what you’ve been used to, use your first TMA to get to understand how the TMAs for that faculty work, and try not to worry if it’s very different from what you’ve done before.

6. Be careful what you say online

At the beginning I thought I’d have lots of contact with other students, but to be honest I haven’t found myself being particularly sociable. I read through the forums and the Facebook groups are very quiet. I think it’s because people prefer to use WhatsApp, but the big WhatsApp groups tend to get on my nerves more than they help. I find them frustrating, because it’s a big stream of comments, with no way of threading or sorting them. Each to their own though, and if people like them, that’s cool.

If you go outside of the university forums though, the channels aren’t monitored, and some groups are self-monitored better than others. I’ve become aware of problems where people were found to be discussing answers to questions, sharing work, or crossing the fine line that puts you on shaky ground if you want to prove something was all your own work. This isn’t a smart thing to do, especially on public social networks where anyone can take a screenshot and use it against you!

perhaps I err too far on the side of caution, but at the same time I’ve seen people doing things that could put their qualification at risk because I don’t think people really consider how what they do and say online can be traced back to them! I’m sure it happens all the time with face-to-face meetings at universities that people attend in person, but with distance learning, pretty much everything is online and you don’t really know who the other people are in your WhatsApp chat or Facebook group.

I’m not saying don’t use the groups, but I am saying be careful when it comes to conversations about TMA questions that stray into discussing the answers.

7. Don’t make any important decisions about your future if you’re stressing about a TMA

Last week I was having the “why am I putting myself through this” and “did I make the right module choice” discussion with myself. Some things are naturally going to be harder than others, but in the same way that it’s best not to make any important decisions when you’re upset, angry, or under the influence of alcohol, it’s also better to wait till after the TMA goes in before you make any decisions about your future. It could be that you do need to change direction, but thinking about it when you already feel stressed can make everything feel worse and the problems feel bigger.

I managed to figure out that what was really causing me problems was the way the TMA was structured differently from the last two modules I’d done. Sometimes I don’t respond well to change, or when things happen in a way that I don’t expect, or that doesn’t seem logical to me. I realised this was affecting how I felt about the assignment and the module overall. After realising this, it was easier to work out what I was going to do about it and then it didn’t feel so bad.

Sometimes you don’t feel good just because nobody likes assessments, but it’s worth trying to figure out if there is something else that’s bothering you so that you can fix it and move on.

8. Word count – be careful not to chop too much

I usually get my word counts right on the number – because I’ve reduced a longer text down to exactly the right number of words. This may be by chopping out bits that weren’t essential, taking out filler words, or finding ways to say the same thing with fewer words.

It’s worth running through the text again though, because even if your word count is now right, chopping sentences or paragraphs can affect the flow of the text and make it feel a bit disjointed if you’re not careful.

Reading the text aloud can help you to see whether this has happened.

9. Get it gone!

It’s good to be thorough. I’ve definitely had students who could have got more marks if they’d just reread their work and fixed the typing errors or things that didn’t quite make sense.

However, sometimes you get to the point where you’ve done all you can. Rereading the answers, swapping out words or rewriting paragraphs stops adding value if you’ve been at it too long. In fact, you could end up tying your brain in knots and making the text worse than it had been half an hour ago.

It’s good to know when it’s time to say “I’ve done my best. This is as good as it’s going to get. I need to send it off now!” Even if that means sitting there hovering over the “submit” button until you finally just have to click it and be done with it!

10. Stop thinking about it

Some people find this easier than others, but once it’s with the tutor and you’re waiting for it to be marked, there is really nothing more you can do. Yes, I know it’s possible to resubmit work, but just as there is a cut-off date, there needs to be a cut-off date in your mind too, because worrying about it past the point where you can do anything to improve it won’t actually help.

Sure, there are things that you can learn for next time, but it’s like going to a job interview – you do the best that you can do on the day, and then it’s out of your hands. Worrying about what you could have said or should have written will just keep your mind going round in circles, and it may not actually be as bad as you think.

Any more?

There’s more I could have written here, but these are the things that I’m going to remind myself after Christmas when my next assignments are due in because they’re most relevant to me.

Do you have any more assignment tips? Let us know in the comments.

Also, if you enjoyed this post, you might also like how to get study done when you don’t have a fixed timetable.

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Life of a mature student – TM112 – introduction to computing and IT

This is the next in my series of posts about the modules I’ve completed at the Open University.

TM112 is the second level one introduction to computing and IT module. It follows TM111, which I wrote about earlier this year.

Anyone who is planning to study TM112 in the future should check the Open University’s website because there may have been some changes since I completed it, but this post is about my thoughts on the module.

The first thing to say is that this module starts in October and April. I did it in April, after TM111, but not all modules have a version that starts in April. Some start in February and some only start in October, so when you’re planning for the year ahead, it’s good to bear this in mind.

The content

Block 1 – essential information technologies. This module took a closer look at the hardware components of computers and mobile phones, how data is stored, and what happens to data when it is deleted.

The most interesting part for me was a case study that showed how some of this knowledge can be used. It brought the theory to life and although the dialogue was a bit over-simplified in places, it showed how someone might apply the theory to a real problem.

My least favourite part was probably using latitude and longitude information to look up locations on online maps, but that’s probably because this part was not very accessible to me as a blind student.

There are a number of maths questions, but you can see why they are relevant, which I feel makes it easier to do them. I really struggle when I’m just asked to work out a calculation and I can’t figure out why anyone would want to know that particular answer!

Block 2 – problem-solving with Python. This was an introduction to writing programmes in Python, to draw images, perform calculations, or analyse data. There’s plenty more you can do on the subject, but it is an introduction, and it gives you a good feel for what you can do, how the language works, and practical ways to test your knowledge and understanding.

I sometimes found myself writing the actual code and then writing the pseudo-code afterwards (breaking down the problem and basically making your thought processes understandable for others). I don’t recommend this – it’s very bad and you’ll probably come unstuck when you get to more complex problems – but when you can already see in your mind how the code should look, it’s really hard not to try and skip the planning steps! This is why I was always getting in trouble in maths lessons for not showing my working out!

Overall I enjoyed this block though and I really wish we’d had it in TM111 because in terms of writing code, it was a lot more logical to me than OU Build!

Block 3 – information technologies in the wild. This was about securing data, threats posed by hackers, surveillance, digital freedom, access to information (including government restrictions and search algorithm bias), and the law.

This was a more theory-based block, but I think it’s important to discuss these issues, take a critical look at the information we are exposed to rather than just taking it on face value, know what’s legal, and come to informed conclusions on questions that affect our online experience or what we do with our data.

The assessment

The module is assessed by means of three tutor-marked assignments.

There are also interactive quizzes to do –they don’t contribute to your marks in the same way that electronically-marked assignments do, but you do need to include screenshots to prove that you have worked through the materials. This is where you show things such as your ability to code by writing or amending programmes. There are also multiple choice questions, some of which were harder than they looked if you’re a literal thinker who can think of reasons why a statement might be false if you understand it exactly as it was written. Sometimes I overthought them. You can try most of them more than once, but you lose marks by attempting things a second time.

The tutor-marked assignments are spread throughout the course and follow the training materials. After each week, you’re guided to which part of the assignment you should look at or attempt. I thought this was standard OU procedure, but it isn’t, and now I see how helpful it was! If you can, it’s a good idea to do the quiz and assignment questions as you’re going along because then you just have to check through everything and make any final improvements before sending it off.

Accessibility – studying as a blind student

Although I enjoyed bothTM111 and TM112, I have to say that TM112 is more accessible to someone working with a screenreader. Some sighted assistance is still required, but the nature of the programming element makes it a more level playing field because you’re writing code in Python, a language that you can type on your keyboard as well as any sighted student can, rather than asking someone to drag things around with a mouse on your behalf as I needed to in TM111.

Some of the activities are visual in nature – the drawing ones were a bit dull for me and I still needed someone to check that my outputs were what I expected them to be. Still, if you read the code with a screenreader or Braille display, it is possible to find your own errors and work out what the programme is likely to do, much more so than with OU Build, which was used in TM111.Not all of the Python programming activities involve drawing – there’s also calculating and number crunching, giving you examples of programmes that do something useful or that you could adapt and implement elsewhere.

Students are encouraged to use the OU’s IDE, but this isn’t accessible with Jaws, the screenreader that I use, and I didn’t test it with others. After speaking to other blind programmers, I decided to use Eclipse. It has more functionality than the OU’s simplified IDE, but it works with Jaws, and that was my main consideration.

Figure descriptions were provided for all diagrams. Most of the time, this was fine. On a couple of occasions, some concepts were explained through diagrams, and I think tactile diagrams would have been more useful. In the end I got someone to trace my finger round the diagram in the book. Eventually I understood it, but not all concepts need to be communicated visually, and if it’s just a concept explanation that’s driving you crazy because you’re not a visual thinker, sometimes the easiest way is to do what needs to be done in the activities and then find another explanation of the concept online.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed this module and was glad that I did it. I think it fits well with TM111, and taken together, they introduce you to a good range of areas that you may want to pursue in greater depth at a higher level.

As a result, you are likely to find some things easier than others. Some will be straightforward and others will have you reading the same thing multiple times! I accepted this was normal.

I liked the fact that different people wrote different parts of the module, because it exposed you to different writing and explaining styles. I think there were less oversimplified and sometimes overstretched analogies than there were in TM111, and this made me happy.

I was happy with my result and I would recommend this module to anyone who is either on the IT route, where it’s a mandatory module anyway, or anyone who is doing an open degree and thinks it looks interesting.

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Life of a mature student – TM111 – my first module

I wrote some thoughts about my first module in this post about the first four months of my degree, but my idea is to write a summary post about each module once I’ve finished it. So here are some thoughts about TM111.

As the title says, it’s an introduction to computing and IT. I had some prior knowledge in a few of the areas that we covered. This definitely helped me, but I don’t think it was necessary as all of the information should be in the materials. This didn’t mean that I didn’t go elsewhere on occasion, but that was more about my learning style than a lack of information. Sometimes when you’re stuck, you just need to find someone who can explain it in a different way.

The content

The module is split up into three very distinct blocks. This is great in terms of helping you to focus on one thing at a time. A bit less great if you really don’t enjoy one of the blocks, but if this is the case, you do feel a sense of achievement when you get it finished and know you’ll never have to see it again!

Block 1 – the digital world. This was probably the most varied block because as well as a basic history of how computers have evolved, you get an introduction to some quite different activities from creating and manipulating sound, to designing a simple web page. There’s also an introduction to databases and some content on what you need to think about when designing new products. Each of these sections is fairly short and you get an introduction rather than a deep-dive, but I like the way that the material is varied, giving people the chance to try new things and start thinking about what they may want to focus on in later modules.

Block 2 – creating solutions. Normally I would find something like this really interesting – it was all about solving problems through designing simple programs. I’m a linguist, so learning how new languages work is right up my street. The only thing was that these concepts are introduced within a graphical programming environment that is inaccessible to blind people. So, learning the concepts was a valuable experience for me because I’ll be able to apply them in other programming contexts, but as I couldn’t do any of the practical work independently, it was less enjoyable.

I understand why things are done this way – people can get up and running and start producing programmes quickly without having to bother much about understanding how a text-based language works and the grammar rules that will break your programme, but for me, it really wasn’t fun.

Block 3 – connecting people, places, and things. This was an introduction to networking, wireless communication, and the internet of things. It also looked at some of the social aspects of the way in which we use technology, as well as data security, biometrics, and the advantages and disadvantages of increased connectivity in our everyday lives. As someone whose business is carried out entirely online, I was interested to look at how people interact online.

I think some of the networking concepts could have been explained in a more straightforward way – I just looked up the information elsewhere because it felt that a lot of space was given to drawing analogies with things that we already know, whereas I just wanted to know about the thing we were supposed to be learning about and how it worked. That’s a learning style thing though. I’m sure some people would have been happy that someone took the time to try and make the concepts more relatable.

Things are changing all the time and I imagine it will be difficult to keep this really up-to-date, but I think the module raised some questions that are relevant to us today and the case studies helped us to think about people whose experience of using technology is different from our own.

Some concepts, such as maths, run through all of the blocks. Others are dealt with individually in one of the three blocks.

Assessment

The marks come from three tutor-marked assignments, which include activities to demonstrate what you’ve learned throughout the course, and three electronically marked assignments, which you complete online by answering multiple choice questions or typing specific values in the box.

I had a really helpful tutor who responded quickly to questions, made sure I had everything I needed if I was going to attend a tutorial run by someone else, and chased up some accessible materials when they went astray.

I worked hard – extra hard in some ways – but in the end I was happy with my mark and it was all worth it!

Learning as a blind student

I want to be positive because I did really enjoy doing this module, but for me it wasn’t an easy introduction into studying with the Open University as I believe the initial courses are intended to be. For me, even though the content will get harder, this was probably one of the most difficult and frustrating modules I’ll take due to the inaccessibility of a large chunk of it. Only my helpful sighted assistant and the knowledge that we’d soon be going onto other programming languages and never have to see OU Build or Scratch again kept me going – along with all the positive vibes around Christmas (because this was block 2)!

On the plus side, I could access all of the material, either as downloadable documents or as web pages on the site. Descriptions were provided for the diagrams in the material. There was an active community on the forum, which is run by the Open University, as well as a student-led Facebook group where students can socialise or ask questions.

But, even if you’re doing an open degree as I am, if you want it to be an IT-based one, there’s no getting past TM111. In many ways you wouldn’t want to either, because a lot of basic concepts are introduced that you will be building on in later modules. If you can’t use the visual programming environment because you are blind, you need to be prepared to work with a sighted assistant as there is really no other way round it if you want to complete that part of the course in its current form. The work will need to be your own, but you will have to have someone carrying out tasks for you with a mouse, and also giving you feedback about what the programmes actually do when you run them, so you can check that this is what you wanted or expected.

Most IT modules do have a degree of inaccessibility, but when comparing percentages, this is one of the highest I found, so in this respect, things will only get easier.

All information is correct at the time of writing, though of course things may change when the module is run again. If you are interested in studying it, it’s best to get the most up-to-date information directly from the Open University.

The next post I wrote in this series was about TM112. I have also written some more general ones about getting TMAs written and sent off” and getting study work done when you don’t have a fixed timetable.

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How far should we really go when fixing other people’s problems?

It’s one of those rambly posts with more questions than answers, so be warned if you’re not a fan of those!

People wear me out sometimes – in a way that my dog never did!

Not all people – although having a job, which I love, but which involves a lot of people contact, I do get to the point where I’m all peopled out sometimes and just want to be left alone in the bath or with my book. This doesn’t include S – but sometimes if I’m feeling overstimulated, the last thing I want is more social interaction.

But no, I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about the comments I read on social media or blog posts.

“You should cut her out of your life”

“Demand that they”

“You need this right now…”

“You’ll never feel better unless you”

“Your problem is that you…”

“you need to eat more/less/try … and then you’ll feel better/then your medically diagnosed condition will be gone! I know that, even though I have no qualifications and don’t actually know anything about your problem or medical history!”

You get the idea.

When did we all become such experts about what complete strangers should do with their lives, and why do we have to be so emotionally charged and demanding? How can we sound like we have the definitive answer when we might not fully understand the problem? We go straight in there with our solutions, without even fully understanding the context or what consequenses our great advice might have. Hey, it might even make the problem worse – but never mind. The main thing is we were seen to contribute somehow!

It makes my head hurt!

It’s not that I haven’t fought for my rights or put people in their place or made sure that someone did their job properly. But all this advice about someone else’s life? Is it really justified, when we can never completely have all the facts from a few lines on Facebook? Isn’t there a better way to show we care?

Ok, there are stories online that just make me angry or incredibly sad. There are stories that make me want to get involved and offer up a suggestion of something that I’ve tried. There are times when I see a way out of a situation, or just want to tell someone to hang in there because I don’t actually have anything useful to add, but I equally don’t want to just click on past as ifI hadn’t seen it.

But sometimes people aren’t actually asking for our advice. They just want a place to offload their feelings, or someone to listen in a world of people growing gradually worse at doing just that.Listening. Without interrupting or offering well-meaning, but unqualified advice.

Paper, or rather a laptop keyboard, is patient. It doesn’t judge. It doesn’t chime in with “yes I had a vaguely related but completely different situation like that and I…”

I’m not saying we shouldn’t empathise, but so often people don’t even get a chance to finish their story because someone else is champing at the bit to add their input, give some advice, or share how they felt in a similar situation. But it’s not about them right now. It’s about the person who wants to share.

I wasn’t going to write about this today. It wasn’t on my list of blogging ideas. But it just kind of hit me as I was reading the comments on someone else’s post. I felt a bit sorry for her.

If any complete stranger starts a comment with “you’ve got to” it immediately makes me want to say “no I haven’t”. Childish? Maybe. But I don’t like being told what to do at the best of times! Never mind by a complete stranger! You win me over with reasoned arguments. There are a couple of people who I’ll listen to just because of who they are – I value their opinion whatever it is – but that kind of respect has to be earned and that list isn’t very long!

Have you considered …? Do you think it would help if …? Have you heard about …? Did you know that …? … might help. You could try …

Sometimes I think people just want to be seen as publicly helping, or an expert on a particular topic, and it’s not even about the one who wants help.

Also, the thing I did before reading random blog comments involved offering up suggestions on a Facebook post – one that was written by someone whom I don’t know, whose child I don’t know, and who lives in a country with a completely different school system to the one I know. She did actually want advice, and hopefully mine helped, but I hope I didn’t boss her around like some of the other comments I’ve seen today.

I think most of the time we want to help. When it’s our friends, we want to be seen to be giving support. We genuinely care. Sometimes it makes us rage to see friends being treated badly or taken advantage of.

I know how that feels to want to charge in and put a friend’s world to rights. But sometimes you can push people further away if you do that. Nobody wins. As long as that friend knows they can come to you for help when they need it…

We can’t make other people’s decisions for them.

Then there are the Facebook rants where people want all their friends to agree. We only ever get one side of the story.

If a friendship falls apart and someone starts ranting on social media – is the other person really to blame, or just a bit more classy because they’re not up for a Facebook mud-slinging match? Is the person who shouts the loudest always right? How much fake news is there in our own newsfeeds because people only present the part of the problem that doesn’t make themselves look bad? How much do we question what we read so that we can get the full context before jumping on the bandwagon and condemning people who have no right to reply because they’re not even aware of what is being written about them?

I’m just churning out questions here, but it’s something I’ve kept noticing, so I decided to write about it.

It’s not that I’m anti-social media either. Yes, there are some bad practices that need to be challenged, but ultimately social media is just a tool that we can either use well or badly. The choice is ours.

People have been giving unwanted or really bad advice for years and years – think of some of the crazy wives’ tales. But social media does give us a microphone to reach further than our immediate circle of friends, and that is something new.

So yes, go and help people, give them advice if you can, show you care, encourage people to stand up for themselves when others want to keep them down. But don’t tell people how to run their lives, what diet they should try, what they’re doing wrong, or the only thing that will work if they want to fix their problems. Often there are many solutions and what worked once for you might not work this time. Offer suggestions, but the final choice is not yours to make.

The daft part about this is that people who read my blog probably aren’t the people who would do any of these things. That’s the other problem.

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Life of a mature student – how to find time for studying when you don’t have a fixed timetable

When I was at school, it always filled me with dread – that first week back when you got your timetable. I was fine once I knew what was happening, but the thought of whether my Monday morning would be full of my least favourite things such as maths and PE always made me a bit anxious – until I knew what my week would look like for the rest of the year, and then it was ok.

Generally I enjoyed school. But I felt better when I knew how it would all fit together. Which rooms I’d have to go to and when. Which homework tasks would be set on which days. Then there was order to the chaos!

Sometimes people seem to think that I was just born organised, but there’s more to it than that. As human beings, we generally take the path of least resistance, and being disorganised stresses me out way more than planning a bunch of systems and processes does. I know we’re not all the same.

So, with no lectures to attend, how do you get organised and plan your study time for a long-distance degree course?

How does it work at the Open University?

The Open university is different in that you don’t attend weekly lectures. Most learning happens when you’re working through the materials on your own. Some may find this lonely – I find it liberating because you can set your own schedule and are not restricted by what others are doing.

There are tutorials, which in a way can be like lectures, but there is a list of them for you to choose from, so you’re never tied to having to be in a specific place at a specific time, unless you want to attend a particular face-to-face event, or to go to all of your own tutor’s tutorials. The tutorials are not mandatory, but they can be useful when you’re planning your assignments or if you don’t understand something.

I opt for the online ones, and so far there have been tutorials available on weekday evenings, so I can just hop on to the call from my desk after work. That works well for me because I don’t actually need to take time out of work to do it.

There are some deadlines, such as assignment deadlines. In my last module, there were six to do.

Some people leave them to the very last moment, but again, that would stress me out too much – what if I got ill or something? So I did most of mine around a week before the cut-off date.

Otherwise though, you don’t have someone sitting there telling you what you should be doing, and you don’t have a group of people sitting in a physical space together, working through the materials together. There are forums where you can ask for help, and most modules have a Facebook group, but you really need to be responsible for your own learning strategy and time management.

The weekly planner

I don’t know whether everyone uses it, but I find the weekly planner on the student home page really useful. Ok, there is a certain satisfaction to ticking off tasks and sections of the book once they’re complete. This makes the percentage bar go up and you feel as though you’re getting somewhere!

More than that though, the content is broken down into weeks. I found it really helped to follow this plan and pretty much stuck to it all the way through the first module. I find it bizarre that the week starts on a Saturday, but I just choose to ignore this and pretend that it starts on the Monday!

There are no penalties for not following the planner though – nobody checks – and you’d only have problems if you missed one of the assignment deadlines.

Some people will try to cram everything in at the end. Others will steam off ahead and ask about things that nobody has even seen yet! What people do is really up to them, but if you’re doing a collaborative activity, complaining about the fact that nobody else is participating when it is in fact you that is 4 weeks ahead of everyone else is not going to make you any friends!

General tips for staying on track with your studies

Whether you’re at the Open University or doing other distance learning courses, these tips might help you to work through your study materials.

  • Don’t leave everything till the last minute. Your brain can only absorb so much information at once, and cramming is a risky strategy, especially if unexpected personal circumstances come up, there are technical difficulties, or you discover there’s something that you need more help with.
  • If your course provides a timetable, try to use it. It can make three big books of information and tasks feel a lot more manageable. If you don’t have the material broken down for you, invest the time in making your own weekly planner, taking into consideration any holidays or weeks when you know you’ll have less time.
  • Understand that you’ll be able to sail through some sections because it’s something you know already or something that comes naturally to you. Other things will take a bit more time. With me, it’s always the maths, but I know that and can plan in extra time for it.
  • Once you have your weekly plan, try and break it down further. I generally try to do a bit each weekday and then finish off anything I didn’t manage at the weekend. I’m lucky because I’m self-employed and can set aside some time for this during working hours if I need to. But whether you do it in your work day or a bit each evening – you need to work out what works best for you. You may find it better to have two longer sessions at the weekend – but then bear in mind that there is less time for slippage. Blocking out time in your diary can help – I put mine in like meetings that I have to attend. There will always be other things that need our attention, which is why it’s useful to schedule study time in advance.
  • Find somewhere that feels like a place for working, and try to work there. Set it up in a way that’s comfortable, with less distractions, and try to make it somewhere where you won’t be disturbed. Keep all of your books and materials there, so you won’t waste study time hunting around for them. Try to limit distractions there. I just use the desk in my office, but if you don’t have that, try to identify a place where it will be easy for you to work.
  • Focus on what you’re doing, not what everyone else is doing. I understand that some people feel more relaxed if they can get themselves a few weeks ahead and hand in their assignments as soon as possible. That’s cool. But some people like to brag about it, which is not so cool. The people on your course can be good allies – you can help one another, have interesting discussions, and be there on days when either of you has had enough. But ultimately you are never going to see these people again unless you come across them on another module. So sure, be inspired by them, but don’t let them make you feel inadequate if someone is boasting about how quickly they did a task or how easy something was for them. What’s really important for your success is how you’re doing.
  • Don’t leave it too late to ask for help. I can’t move on to the next section if I don’t understand something because it will keep bothering me. I won’t be able to stop thinking about the thing until the thing has been resolved! In some ways this serves me well, but I have seen other people really struggling alone with things and only admitting it very late in the module. There are so many places to get help – tutors, other students, friends, the internet. Some of these people will be under more pressure as exam or assignment deadlines get closer, so it is often better to get your questions in as they come up. Sometimes rereading the same thing multiple times won’t make it any clearer – you need to find another strategy to understand the concept.
  • Know when to take breaks. I’m better at this if my partner is around. When he isn’t, I’ve been known to still be sitting at my desk at stupid o’clock trying to get something finished! But generally that’s a one-off. We aren’t machines. We need basic things like sleep, food, water, exercise. It’s tough because distance learning students often have a whole bunch of other stuff going on such as jobs, family commitments etc, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It won’t help if you burn yourself out because you overestimated how much you could do in one sitting.
  • Expect to have good and bad days. I wasn’t fond of one section in my last module. My motivation levels were down. I couldn’t wait to see the back of it! But that’s normal. Each module covers a range of information and some things will be easier for you than others. Some things will be more interesting than others. Don’t let how you feel about yourself and your ability to do the whole course be determined by how you feel about one particular task.
  • Celebrate the small wins – it makes you feel good before moving on to the next assignment or chunk of learning. Who doesn’t like a celebration? But seriously, breaking the material down into more manageable pieces can certainly help if at first you feel a bit overwhelmed.

Do you have any more tips? Let me know in the comments!

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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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