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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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 – 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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