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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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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