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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