Life as a mature student series – L161 – exploring languages and cultures

As I mentioned before, I’m doing an open degree. Not so much because I love the idea of studying an eclectic mixture of modules. More because I hate the idea of doing an entire semester of solid maths, and that’s what I’d have to do if I took one of the conventional IT routes. And as I’m doing the degree for myself and my business, I want the flexibility to set my own curriculum.

So last academic year I did two modules – TM129, which I’ve already told you about, and L161 – exploring languages and cultures.

Why I chose the module

For a start, it’s relevant that I did choose the module. I know for many who are studying towards language qualifications, this module is mandatory. I got the impression that some STUDENTS felt THE SAME WAY about it as I do about the compulsory maths, but at the same time, if you decide you’re going to hate something before the first week is even up, you probably will.

That may have changed – I did my usual thing of not lasting too long in the Whatsapp group. It was friendly and supportive, but there were soo many messages. At least with something like Facebook you have threading of sorts and you can se what’s interesting for you. WhatsApp is just an enormous snake of messages, and maybe I’m just too old for it! Over 1000 emails in one of my (information)inboxes doesn’t stress me out as MUCH AS 200 WhatsApps every time I open the chat! Anyway I digress – but I just wanted to make the point that attitudes towards the module may have changed as it went on.

My overall thoughts

I teach English to adults, mainly in other parts of Europe, and I thought that this module would be good for me because it looks at questions around how our culture and use of language can shape the way we see the world, do business, and interact with others. You don’t have to speak other languages to do the module, but I found that it helped. I can’t say that much of the material was completely new for me, but it was interesting to look at other people’s experiences. I think people are really interesting, so enjoyed reading case studies and listening to people’s experiences.

The cultures and communities content reminded me a bit of my sociology A-level, and it’s probably the area in which I learned most, because we looked at resources and personal accounts from parts of the world with which I was not as familiar.

The intercultural communication section gave me some more ideas for my podcast, as this is something that I like to discuss with guests there, so as to help my learners communicate more effectively, and understand some of the often subconscious thinking behind how they or others interact and behave. So that was good.

As someone who works in online adult language education, I felt some of the material didn’t explore fully what is possible nowadays, and how people are choosing to use technology to support their language learning. I didn’t get the chance to explore this final part further though as our final assessment was cancelled due to Covid19.

Accessibility as a blind learner

The books were made available digitally. There was more reading involved in this than some of the other modules that I’d done, but it was also probably one of the most accessible. As long as I can read the text in an accessible format, I’m in the same position as everyone else. Diagrams were mostly given text descriptions for those who could not see them.

The assessments were text-based, so again, no accessibility problems there.

My tutor was really good, taking time to find out about my additional learning needs and how she could support me.

The two areas where I’d like to see improvement are the accessibility of the platform used for tutorials, though this is a university-wide issue, and better accessibility of video content. Transcripts are invariably provided for those who can’t hear the audio, which is great, but I’ve yet to see audio description for 3rd-party video. A lot of the time, these videos are explaining something or relating information, so it doesn’t really matter what people are doing. However, if you’re going to study non-visual communication and use video, there should be another file or at least a document to give blind students an understanding of how the characters are communicating non-visually. This affected my ability to complete a couple of the tasks independently, but not my overall mark.

The assessment

The TMAs were harder than I had expected them to be, which surprised me a bit. I don’t find writing difficult, but you really need to tune in to the expected structure for the essays, and to be able to cram a lot in to very few words. Most f my blog posts are longer than the maximum word allocation for the essays, and as someone who enjoys detail and exploring concepts, this was a challenge!

The other thing was that prior to this, I’d been studying IT modules. Does your code work? Yes? Well then you’ve probably got a decent mark. Could you do the maths? There’s a right and a wrong answer for maths. If you lose individual points, it’s easier to look back and see where you screwed up.

Writing an essay is more subjective than that. I don’t mean the markers are subjective – they have a set of criteria to work to. We did get the chance to look at these criteria, though I think it would be more useful if this section came earlier in the module.

Also, it’s marked on a sliding scale. So there are levels, and the level you get determines the number of points, and ultimately the percentage. There is no half-way between these levels. It’s either one or the other.

Yes, you can look at the information for the TMA, but I certainly didn’t have the same sense of how good the TMA was likely to be as I do with most of the IT modules, where the allocation of points is broken down a lot further and it’s more about wrong or right answers. I actually prefer this, but I am glad that I tried at least one module from the language faculty and I was happy with my distinction!

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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!

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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