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Overworking the essay assignment and getting stuck in mental concrete aggregate

From E-Learning V

Fig.1. Over doing the reading

I’m trying to put to bed what might be my 27th assignment: the last three have been non-OU but the same rules apply: whether tutor marked assignment, end of module assignment or an essay.

Have I ever been cut out for this?

Clearly, getting from TMAs in the 50s and a couple of EMAs in the 40s to TMAs in the 80s (and beyond) and EMAs in the 60s and 70s (though never beyond) indicates that I’ve learnt how to provide what is required … and by default, that I have also learnt something (though my brain will complicate, and bury everything that goes in so fast that it’s like putting rotten tomatoes onto the compost heap).

This is what I prefer by far: ‘writing from the hip’ I call it, or ‘jazz writing’ where a stream of consciousness, or drivel, fills the page.

I am taking a moments break from the nightshift.

This nightshift, awake at 2.00 am and writing by 2.30am has, over several years, become my default position whenever I need a three hour run at something; even the dog is asleep. I have to struggle to hear much more than a buzz in my head and either the tapping on this keyboard or scratching away of pen on paper.

Can I bring to some kind of conclusion this ‘learning journal’ in relation to writing ‘the perfect essay’?

Despite my best wishes I am NOT a strategic worker or thinker: my curiosity is too much of a pull. I do exactly what I was warned against a year ago – ‘vanishing down rabbit holes’. I am the White Rabbit and Alice combined; an intriguing reference enthrals me so off I go. If I can I will source the paper, even get the long out of print book – I may even read the thing, take notes and then pop my head of this hole and wonder what the feck I’m playing at.

An essay needs a copse, not a forest. Imagine what it is like trying to turn an forest into an essay: too much wood (far too much paper). Not simply tough to digest, but any intrinsic pleasure from the act of writing at last is diminished by my knowledge of how much I will have to leave out.

In the dead of night.

Giving up alcohol and coffee has not helped.

In every respect the alcohol was by far the easiest thing to cut back and cut out – just the conclusion to a ten year minor skirmish that ultimately was or is a medical irritant (allergic to it). Last week I managed 48 hours, or as it 36 hours without coffee. Hardly an achievement given that I was comatose, walking wounded or asleep for the duration. A mug first thing since has found me taking an afternoon siesta and still sleeping for seven + hours. I am sitting with the requisite jug of coffee now.

I’ll get to the end of this and do it justice

‘On reflection’ the couple of EMAs in the 40s I received was because having done the work, and got reasonable TMAs I blew it with this last struggle and deadlines ending up submitting the latests draft as the seconds disappeared. This time I have had months, really, months and even now I have another three days. I just want to do what I know has to be done: get a good draft finished a few days before, then do the re-read and edit. Nothing less will do and only then can I feel I’ve done all that I feel I am capable of. The truth is this does not, nor never has come naturally to me. I prefer being up on my feet doing and taking part with a team of people.

Take a nap, then, trusting to my wits and the fresh sea air, I’ll be bobbing around offshore by mid-morning taking part in some global sailing charity event.

SWOT analysis on forums used for e-learning as a mindmap

Fig. 1. The strengths and weaknesses of online forums for learning

Forums are a core component of the Open University’s Masters in Open and Distance Education (MAODE), both for the tutor and student forums that are used through-out – the course is entirely online – and as a tool or process that we have to use and be assessed on using.  33 months in I have been a student in six forums, many break out forums, even moderated some when our tutor was unavailable for a period of weeks (we took it in turns). I’ve seen them work well, fail completely and muddle along.

 

Fig.2. The ups and downs of our tutor group activity in H800: Technology Enhanced Learning: practices and debates

It’s a strange business, like a high street with a dozen cafes and restaurants – some buzz, some buck, some expand, some close. In the above example there was excitement and universal participation when we said hello and later said goodbye. As each Tutor Marked Assignment approached everyone got busy composing their essay. Other peaks will include where we HAD TO take part in a group or sub-group activity in order to complete a task that we then wrote up in the assignment.

In 2001 I did an early module of that was then the Masters in Open and Distance Learning. Experimental. More of a bulletin board. A message every other week for the novelty factor with little sense of how it would break out into the social networking, peer group, live and as live, synchronous or asynchronous hub that they can be today.

Damned Soul and other distractions …

Fig. 1. Benzi, after Gianlorenzo Bernini. ‘Damned Soul’, 1705-07

It has taken me 33 months, my fifth module and 16 assignments and for the first time three things have happened:

  • The first draft is written with two days to go.
  • The word count is only 100 or so over the limit.
  • I enjoyed writing it.
  • It’s on access to learning and e-learning by competitive swimmers who are disabled and by coaches with disabilities.

    Then I went to the Royal Academy for the ‘Bronzes’ Exhibition. I plan to return with a sketch pad and draw in awe. I couldn’t help but reflect that all my visits of the last few years my mother would come down from Lincolnshire while I came up from Sussex – having studied Fine Art and gained an MA from Durham she had been my guide.

    Finaly then a presentation in the evening – ‘Use of video in e-learning’ at an IVCA meeting.


    The mindmap’s a page or so back.

How to use your blog for Tutor Marked Assignments

This is my approach, it works for me.

Everything goes in here: notes from what I read or come across, sometimes so I didn’t lose track of them, course related comments I post on people’s blogs too.

A good deal of this remains hidden (private), however I will sometimes ‘expose’ notes and cryptic thoughts in case someone can make sense of it for me, or chivvy me along to construct some rounded thoughts and sentences with the stuff.

There’s some random stuff too.

Tagging matters immensely.

‘Search’ leaves it to chance, which might help you serendipitously to come across a thought or note you had, but is scrappy and can be time wasting, rather be tag happy and have a system.

Everything gets the module reference, if there is an activity reference this is added as a single word such as ‘h807activity3.4’ or some such so that it can be searched for and found with ease.

Come TMA time I revisit all the content from that block and start adding the tag, for example, ‘h807tma2’, or as I’m currently doing ‘b822tma3’.

Gathered in one search list I then go through each relevant post refining my thinking.

At some stage I may add further tags to identify arguments or to give it a chronology if that isn’t apparent. I then cut and paste to a word document.

I MAY assemble in PowerPoint simply to help shuffle ideas around.

A system?

Hardly. Each to their own. I panic like anyone else over an assignment but know the stuff is here and having done the reading and activities and having shared my thinking and had this coloured and shaped by others that I ought to be able to assemble a cogent case.


Tags are strategic, Search is more random.

I switch between the two when revisiting note

 

How to use a blog to prepare an asignment

Fig.1. The tutor at work

This is my approach, it works for me.

(At The OU they are called Tutor Marked Assignments or TMAs)

Everything goes in here: notes from what I read or come across, sometimes so I didn’t lose track of them, course related comments I post on people’s blogs too.

A good deal of this remains hidden (private), however I will sometimes ‘expose’ notes and cryptic thoughts in case someone can make sense of it for me, or chivvy me along to construct some rounded thoughts and sentences with the stuff.

There’s some random stuff too.

Tagging matters immensely.

‘Search’ leaves it to chance, which might help you serendipitously to come across a thought or note you had, but is scrappy and can be time wasting, rather be tag happy and have a system.

Everything gets the module reference, if there is an activity reference this is added as a single word such as ‘h807activity3.4’ or some such so that it can be searched for and found with ease.

Come TMA time I revisit all the content from that block and start adding the tag, for example, ‘h807tma2’, or as I’m currently doing ‘b822tma3’.

Gathered in one search list I then go through each relevant post refining my thinking.

At some stage I may add further tags to identify arguments or to give it a chronology if that isn’t apparent. I then cut and paste to a word document.

I MAY assemble in PowerPoint simply to help shuffle ideas around.

A system?

Hardly. Each to their own. I panic like anyone else over an assignment but know the stuff is here and having done the reading and activities and having shared my thinking and had this coloured and shaped by others that I ought to be able to assemble a cogent case.

Tags are strategic,  search is more random.

I switch between the two when revisiting notes to keep the ideas flowing.

Why it matters to watch your blog stats

Average page views by month. Why not by week? Why not the daily figure. And how does viewing change during the day? (It’s fairly obvious to get a fraction overnight compared to late afternoon and evenings when OU folk are online). As my tutor says repeatedly when it comes to marking a TMA he does not wanting to be asking himself ‘so what?’

In WordPress you have a myriad of ways of understanding what is being read, how often and by whom. You know where people have come from, the search terms used and even what takes them away from your pages. And people leave comments, or subscribe or like.

Here you get a current no. of page views. Nothing else. No indication of which pages are being read.

This makes fascinating viewing.

The rhythm in a Tutor Group session on the MAODE. I doubt other courses get a fraction of this kind of activity. I also know tutor groups in H800 that are moribund by comparison, while others still get double the activity. It’s down to the tutor, as well as the mix and ambition of the participants. It helps that many are ‘digital residents’ too, folk like me who are online for several hours a day in any case.

Applied or practice-based learning

Odd how I can treat a TMA like an essay, research it to death and build towards an essay crisis. Having to write the TMA equivalent, a strategy paper on Social Media, I find I am a couple of days ahead with the first draft written, expectations of a meeting where expert colleagues will have input before finalising and presenting in a week.

Applied learning, or practice-based learning … action learning, they’re all the same idea that attracts a good deal of interest; it increasingly makes sense for people, especially if they are settled in a position that they enjoy and need, to study as the work, the learning occurring alongside what they do, rather than separately from it.

In some respects this is the immersive learning that game-like learning environments are supposed to re-created; but why do that when you can have the real thing?

I had thought of creating it as a wiki, password protected for contributing stakeholders. As long as we’re on the same wavelength from experience of doing this in the MAODE I’d trust the end result to be better as a result, the equivalent of lifting something from the 70% mark towards 85% and beyond.

Blogging here My Mind Bursts more than here, where the audiences have far more choice and haven’t the focus of hear of learning with the OU.

Its been an interesting environment to hone some more advanced blogging habits and skills, not simply the generation of regular content, but how it is linked, where it is linked and the important of tags which I’ve used simply to identify content, but of course of search engine optimisation purposes too.

If you have a moment and can put the right hat on, perhaps you’re an Open University Faculty of Business and Law student anyway, then do please visit our website as I will be listening to all comers on valuable enhancements we can make here.

To ‘blogify’ is my mission.

Divided we sit – the MAODE student and Social Media Manager

I’ve got a doppelgänger: he’s sitting opposite me.

We’re on a see-saw.

At the moment I’m trying to get on with a Tutor Marked Assignment (H800, Masters in Open and Distance Education).

I’ll be writing on the tutor and learner choices in relation to:

  • Visualisation of Learning Designs
  • Blogging
  • New Technologies in Learning (mobile)

while weaving in

My doppelgänger is at work and eager for me to dip repeatedly into Linkedin.

There is some urgency here for me to identify and research a number of Open University Business School stories, always extraordinary narratives, in this case outside the UK. I’m using Linkedin to get in touch with the many associate lecturers who support our learning programme around the world.

So a bit of both.

By Tuesday I need to have the TMA written and would hope even to have a couple of stories coming through. (It may be Sunday morning but I’ve had one Associate Lecturer already reply).

What is the compulsion for some of us to use Social Media?

I wonder if it is the easy reward? I like listening to people’s stories and we as humans love to tell tales. Personally is is low levels of dopamine in my mind that favours the novelty of the new relationship as it forms?

Need to write an assignment or exam paper?

I bought this in 2000 when I was thinking about an OU course. In February 2001 I signed up for the Masters in Open and Distance Education. We used First Class, it was loaded from a disk I think. Using a Mac might have been a problem, I was rarely online to follow the independent, spasmodic asynchronous threads.

Anyway, a decade later I am heading towards the finish line.

2001 wasn’t a good year for many of us … I did the first TMAs but was made redundant a couple of months before the TMA would have been due and had by then decided that doing less for a couple of years rather than more would be a good idea.

Anyway … despite having successfully negotiated two modules and six-eight TMAs and a couple of ECAs I find myself turning to Chapter 10 of the above.

‘Writing essays and assignments’

I love the way the book is laid out. I reads like is was designed to be web friendly with short sentences and paragraphs and bullet points galore.

We may be floating around in cyberspace 12 years on from the last edition of this book (first edition 1970), but is remains relevant, not just for preparing for an ECA, but for writing at all.

I like lines like this,’ After we’ve read, heard and talked about a topic, our minds are awash with ideas, impressions and chunks of information. But we never really get to grips with this experience until we try to write down our own version of it. Making notes is of some help, of course. But there is nothing like the writing of an essay to make us question our ideas, weigh up our impressions, sort out what information is relevant adn what is not – and, above all, come up with a reasoned viewpoint on the topic that we can feel it our own’. (Rowntrree. 1999:170)

  • I will be probing
  • I will develop a critical argument
  • I will start tonight and write 500 words a night over six nights, then revist/redraft and pull it all together.
  • I will have the evidence
  • I will have the references in place
  • I will plan, weigh up and select from the work that I have done (and that has been done in my tutor group)
  • These will back up whatever themes or viewpoints or arguments I am putting forward
  • I WILL write and outline and stick to it
  • I will not become bling to better approaches that suggest themselves (which happened for one ECA and had me heading towards a 40 mark)
  • And I will ‘write like I talk’ (which is what I’ve always done)

(62435)

Deeply disappointed and feeling let down by the OU … or the course

Somehow despite my best efforts to understand fully what was required for TMA03 I still didn’t follow the question apparently … frankly fellow students and I tied ourselves in knots trying to understand what was required of us. Coming away from this I eventually felt sure I had understood what it would take and with confidence pressed on.

Coming down to the reflection, this is what I did. Eleven drafts, constantly checking back against the TMA and tutor’s messages … yet still, apparently, I am way off brief. This is my reflection, not my tutor’s. This is what I think, what I took from the exercise … my view and it should have been recognised as such.

Earlier in this course I described a TMA as ‘making a tapestry.’ I thought at least it would be MY tapestry, as I have no desire to make someonelse’s . This has reduced academic thinking to playing puppet with others pulling the strings.

Considerably demotivated as a result and not at all happy.

TMA03 doesn’t work. It is demonstrably complex and specific in its requirements, yet a simple request to see an example answer, probably the only way to understand what was expected was turned down.

A futile exercise on which I expended a vast amount of effort collating 34 messages to get down to 10, and sifted through the 300+ points/references collated in MyStuff.

The ultimate failure is the system. Pure e-learning is NOT to be recommended if it is a the price of poor communication. Because this is what it is. A face to face meeting with my tutor would have resolved the issues … maybe I cannot understand anything unless I can read the person and their mind as well as their words.

I recall in various workshops asking questions and finding that both the tutor and I are left befuddled; seeing this a fellow student steps in, sees where there is a breakdown in communication and offers and answer that makes sense. On reflection, I should have pressed on, despite the failings of the system, and kept saying …

But I don’t understand. What I didn’t need is do this, say this, and join the dots. I needed to understand WHY? What was TMA03 driving at? Is it indeed even possible to answer the questions … which isn’t a question at all.

Ultimately far too much of it is a value judgement by the person reading the TMA and I believe a very different mark would come from a second or a third reader – all higher.

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