Reflecting on my Open University Computing Studies

I’m studying towards a Degree in Computing with the Open University and have just finished a nine month Visual Basic course. Because I have to combine my studies with a full-time job and a family, sometimes its not until I have finished a course that I can stop, take stock and assess the experience.

With that in mind, I thought I’d write a short post about the courses I’ve done so far because it might encourage others to study with the Open Uni or help them choose a suitable course.

Comparing the Open University to ‘real’ universities

I already have a 2:1 degree in Digital Art & Technology, previously called MediaLab Arts, from the University of Plymouth so I’m well placed to compare the Open Uni experience with a "real " university.

Studying with the Open University is much the same as any other university: courses are assessed by coursework and a final examination. The main difference is that much of the studying is done on your own and over the internet through the OU’s online forums. Each student is assigned a tutor who you can contact by email or phone and they are generally very responsive and knowledgeable.

During a course, there will normally be four or so regional tutorials on a Saturday where students can meet up with their tutor. These are similar to the kind of tutorials you would get at a bricks and mortar university. They are not compulsory but students do tend to do better if they attend the tutorials. I haven’t attended every tutorial (mainly because I don’t want to devote all my time to work and study!) but have found them beneficial. I think they aid motivation as much as anything because of the physical interaction with other students and staff.

Studying with the OU is certainly not an easier option than studying with a "real university". The courses have to adhere to the same standards as any other university and I would say the quality and depth of course materials is just as high, if not better. Employers generally view Open Uni degrees as being extremely valuable and I would agree with this. They are excellent academically but if you have completed a degree whilst working full-time then you have also demonstrated character, determination and a great ability to learn and these are traits that I feel are valuable to any employer.

In comparison to my time at Plymouth University, I’m older and more experienced technically, professionally and emotionally, which makes a difference in terms of time management and motivation. I’m not sure I could have completed an Open University course when I was twenty because you do need to be quite strict with yourself. Apparently most Open Uni students that drop out are under thirty and the reason given for this fact is that they lack the life experience they need to manage their motivation and time.

All courses are either level one, two or three and this corresponds to the type of course you would do in your first, second or third year at a bricks and mortar university i.e. a level three course is most difficult. Here is a brief assessment of the courses I have completed so far:

Designing applications with Visual Basic (MT264)

This course teaches how to write applications in Visual Basic using Object Oriented programming and is the most recent course I completed. I don’t expect to use VB professionally but the concepts here are applicable to other languages. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the Java courses, partly due to the way the course teaches a simplified design language for the concepts and VB for the practical exercises. I found this unnecessary because the VB syntax isn’t complicated enough to warrant using a simplified design language to explain the basics.

However, this course has given me more programming experience and from a software perspective as opposed to the web development work I do professionally.

Relational databases: theory and practice (M359)

This was the first level three course I had done and was by far the most difficult. I’m fairly experienced with databases (I’m MySQL certified, have been a database admin for Microsoft SQL Server DBMS and developed sites with PHP and MySQL) but I found elements of this course hard going. It is heavy on the theory and that made some of the learning materials quite dry. I prefer a lot of practical work in the OU courses because that has a direct benefit to my professional work.

It was very thorough and in-depth though. I certainly finished the course with a better understanding of advanced SQL topics.

Putting Java to work (M257) &
Object-oriented programming with Java (M255)

I’ve grouped these two Java courses together because they follow on from each other. I really enjoyed both courses and they were very well run. A few years earlier, I had taught myself PHP and covered Object Oriented Programming in the Zend PHP exam so I was familiar with a lot of the concepts but these courses made it all a lot clearer.

I have found that much of what was taught in these courses relevant to PHP programming and the syntax is very similar.

Microsoft server technologies (TM128)

I start this course in October and it is a bit different to the others I have taken because it isn’t a programming course. I do have a fair amount of Microsoft Windows Server experience having managed NT, 2000, 20003 and 2008 servers but the syllabus is close to the Microsoft Server Certification so I aim to pass this course and get Microsoft certified.

It is also a level one course and with a new baby due in July I hope it won’t be too challenging…

Certificate in Web Applications Development

Before I started my Open Uni degree, I completed this qualification. It is an Open University course that covers the web application development process, including PHP programming, database design and open source development and versioning tools.

It took two years to complete and was a lot of work considering it is not a diploma or a degree. It was an excellent course, packed full of great practical experience combined with strong theory. It consisted of:

Web applications: design, development and management

An introduction to web application design and development. The practical side covered usability, HTML and CSS.

The client-side of application development

Designing and developing client-based applications using JavaScript. That’s real, proper JavaScript, none of that jQuery stuff!

The server-side of application development

Exploring the role of the server in web applications and using ASP to create dynamic Web pages.

Databases within website design

This covered database design using entity-relationship diagrams and SQL. The practical work used MySQL and Cold Fusion. I’d heard of Cold Fusion years earlier so it was interesting to finally get my hands on it.

Open source development tools

The origins and aims of open source software, and its principles of software development and distribution. The course provides practical experience of CVS, PHP, MySQL and Apache.

Web server management, performance and tuning

The role of server administration and its contribution to planning, deployment, and management of a web application. It introduces tools and techniques to assist with capacity planning, monitoring of workloads, identification of performance bottlenecks, and security failures.