Tag Archives: Open University

Open University Exeter Plymouth

It’s been about six months since I completed my Open University degree and with the year coming to a close, I’ve been reflecting on how I have benefited from my studies.

My Open University education started with a Certificate in Web Application Development. This was a diploma-like qualification which covered different aspects of web development including client side scripting with JavaScript, server side languages like PHP and web server management. At the time I was doing some freelance web design work and this was an angle I wanted to explore further. I enjoyed the experience so much I decided to continue my studies by progressing to a degree in computing.

As my career progressed, I found that the computing modules were becoming less relevant to my work goals so I switched to an Open degree. This is one of the Open University’s most popular courses with students in full time employment because it gives students the flexibility to study modules from different subjects. This degree took six years to complete so its fair to say I’ve invested quite a bit of time (and yes, money) with the Open Uni.

Reflecting on my personal development

Looking back at where I was before I started distance learning, I am sure that my studies have improved my employability and career. From a personal development point of view, I have become more confident in my abilities. After all if you can juggle a full time job, family and a degree then you should be able to cope with most things work throws at you. I would like to think the modules, particularly the technical ones, have improved my analytical thinking and problem solving skills and this is something that transcends different roles and jobs.

Perhaps most importantly, it has honed my time management skills. As a part-time student and full-time worker, you have to be able to plan your schedule, prioritise and re-adjust when the inevitable difficulties arise, whether that is illness or simply finding part of a course harder and more time consuming than you expected.

To complete a distance learning course requires commitment, self motivation and a strong work ethic. These are qualities that employers should value and I believe my Open degree demonstrates these characteristics. Most people couldn’t combine work, family and studies or perhaps simply wouldn’t want to.

Life long learning

My studies tapped into a desire to learn and I think this is something that will stick with me throughout my life. Reports and studies often tell us today’s workers will experience more career variety and changes than previous generations. Even if this were not true, the changing nature of technology and the role it plays in most industries shows that not being afraid to learn new skills and being able to adapt is important in the workplace.

To successfully complete a university level education, you need to be able to formulate and express opinions and arguments and communicate these both verbally in tutorials and concisely in essays and assignments. Skills like these are transferable to the workplace too.

Practical skills

I learnt a diverse range of skills from the modules I studied. Modules in database design and object oriented programming mean I can understand technical difficulties in projects and communicate with both “techies” and “normal” colleagues.

Modules in Windows server technologies and web server management have proved invaluable in supporting the organisation I currently work for. Even if the versions of operating systems change, the underlying fundamentals often remain the same.

A module I completed in “design thinking” proved to be one of the most enjoyable and creative. It developed further my understanding of design and what is involved in solving problems creatively by developing a portfolio of work and collaborating with other students online.

“Change, Strategy and Projects At Work” developed project management skills and had a strong vocational aspect that used a workplace project for the coursework.

I was able to take something from each module and see how it could relate to my work at the time.

A credible university

People know and respect the Open University and what is required from its students. My graduation ceremony meant more than when I graduated from the University of Plymouth because of the amount of effort it required to get there and the realisation that I was following in big foot steps.

The Open University was founded in 1969 by Prime Minister Harold Wilson with the laudable goal of providing a high quality university education to all through innovative open learning systems and progressive technology. In my experience the Open University compares extremely well with other universities. I had a very positive time at the University of Plymouth, graduating with a 2:1 in Digital Arts and Technology, but the quality of learning materials providing by the Open University is second to none. At a “standard” university, you are directed by tutorials and lectures and you obviously have a community of students and tutors that keep you motivated. With the Open University, the experience is a lot more remote because that is the nature of distance learning. Yes, there are face-to-face tutorials, online forums and conferencing to help. But you are still very much reliant on your own drive. The standard of the exams and coursework is no different with the Open University than any other uni.

Continuing my studies

It was a relief to finish my studies and get back some free time. I went swimming and mountain biking more. I watched more TV in the evenings. Now my thoughts keep returning to whether I should do another course or qualification. I don’t want to commit to another Open University course but my Google Adwords and Google Analytics certifications have expired so I might consider renewing these next year. Another option I’ve been considering is a digital marketing qualification. I haven’t decided what would be most worthwhile but I think I will start something new in 2016.

I’m studying towards a degree in computing with the Open University and TM128 Microsoft Server Technologies was the 11th course I have taken with the OU. I completed TM128 a couple of weeks ago so now is a good time to reflect on my experience of it.

The course is made up of three blocks:

  • Networking Fundamentals, which uses the CompTia Network+ learning materials for much of it.
  • Windows Server 2008 Network Infrastructure Configuration, which closely follows the syllabus of the Microsoft exam 70-642.
  • Windows Server 2008 Active Directory Configuration, which is similar to the Microsoft exam 70-640.

Practical Windows Server experience

The course is a very hands-on, practical course and students use the Microsoft Official Academic Coursework (MOAC) books and virtual machines to gain real experience of configuring and troubleshooting Windows Server 2008. I used Oracle’s Virtual Box for my virtual machines because I had experience of it and this is the supported OU environment.

Microsoft certification

The course content is similar to the Microsoft Windows 2008 Server exams and although the goal of the course isn’t to prepare students for taking these exams, students do use the official MS books and have access to Microsoft Labs if they want additional study materials. When I started the course, I intended to take both Microsoft exams but found the OU course took up more hours than I expected and didn’t really leave me with enough spare time to do the additional studying required for the exams.

I was disappointed not to sit the exams but extra preparation is definitely required on top of your OU studies if you want to be confident of passing 70-642 or 70-640 first time. TM128 is a level one course but is still quite challenging. I’ve got plenty experience of configuring Windows 2003, 2008 and Active Directory and found it was the amount of work you were expected to do and how long some of the practical exercises took to complete that was the main challenge.

TM128 – Blocks 1,2 and 3

I found block 1’s “Networking Fundamentals” was a dry start to the course and too heavy on the theory for my liking. Other students found this section more enjoyable than me. I found I knew most of what was covered and it just didn’t excite me.

Blocks 2 and 3 were more enjoyable, mainly because of the practical exercises. Large chunks of blocks 2 and 3 were already familiar to me from the experience I have gained from work but there were areas of Active Directory and Windows networking that I hadn’t touched before. Despite my knowledge, I found I still had to complete most of the practical exercises to do well in the written assignments.

Good…but not a shortcut to Microsoft Server certification

The course provides a thorough understanding of Windows Server 2008 and a solid introduction to networking. I suppose I viewed it as a shortcut to achieving Microsoft certification, effectively killing two birds with one stone by getting some more credits towards my degree and gaining another qualification, but the course isn’t really that. TM128 is good, well run and as detailed as I have come to expect from the Open University though.

At the start of this year I set myself several objectives.

The first was to complete the latest Open University course I am studying, “TM128 Microsoft Server Technologies”. This shouldn’t be too difficult as I’m now used to combining a full-time job with distance learning, having completed many Open University courses over the years.

I had deliberately got ahead in my studies and completed blocks 1 and 2 so I had spare time before the third and final block of TM128 started. I had planned to use this spare time to complete my second objective, which was to become Microsoft certified.

Having worked in IT for many years, Microsoft certification was something I had always intended to achieve but had never got round to. TM128 follows the syllabus of the Microsoft Exam 70-642 “Windows 2008 Network Infrastructure Configuration” quite closely. My Microsoft knowledge is pretty good anyway (I’ve already deployed one Windows 2008 Server this year) and I am doing well on TM128 but for some reason I’m struggling to build up any momentum during my revision for the Microsoft exam.

Having experience of Windows 2008 and networking in the real world is a big advantage when studying for 70-642 but the exam still requires some revision to be confident about passing first time.

I think I’m struggling to stay interested in the study materials because it is all a bit familiar. New topics are exciting to learn and it feels like you are making progress rapidly. Familiar topics can feel a bit dull and uninspiring in comparison.

In the back of my mind is another one of my objectives for the year: working towards Google Adwords or Analytics certification. I feel my time would be better spent working towards these as the digital marketing side of my job is something I really enjoy.

Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day and perhaps the effects of having a 6 month old baby and an active three year old are also having an effect!

When your motivation drops, the best thing to do is take same time to recharge your batteries and remind yourself why you set yourself the targets you did. Break the objectives into smaller, more achievable tasks and steadily work towards them, rewarding each milestone that you get to.

I’m still going to work towards Microsoft certification but I may have to accept that it will take longer than I anticipated. Studying with the Open University whilst holding down a full-time job is more than most people attempt anyway so sometimes I just need to remind myself I’m already achieving more than I expected.

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.

One of the big benefits I have gained from my Open University studies is improving my time management and self motivation. These skills will continue to benefit me long after I have finished my studies and they have been really useful in my work too.

In a web development or IT role, emphasis is often placed on the individual’s technical skills. However, in my career I have found that effective time management, motivation and the ability to learn new skills are just as vital.

Dividing my time between studying for an Open University degree, a full time job and parenthood isn’t easy but I find its a lot simpler with the right approach. Here are some tips that help me during my studies and can also be applied to your work life.

Enjoy it

No matter what you are doing, its easier if you are genuinely interested in it. You will put more effort in and will get better results. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing then it is difficult to do it well over a long period.

Break it up

If I focused on the end goal of achieving an Open University degree then I would have become disillusioned because it is not something that can be achieved quickly. Instead I focus on individual modules and achieving a good mark in the next assignment. This breaks the big task into smaller chunks that I can achieve within a couple of months.

The same approach can be used for large projects. It can be daunting if you focus on the end product but manageable if you divide it into sub tasks.

Reward yourself

When you achieve a target it is important to reward yourself. I find its good to celebrate the little achievements as well as reaching big milestones. The rewards don’t have to be very much. Sometimes the reward might just be watching a film or a night off but it gives me something to work towards and another incentive to do well and get the work done.

Life is more rewarding when you have something to aim for.

Remind yourself why

It can be easy to get bogged down with deadlines and piles of work and you forget why you are doing something in the first place. Reminding yourself what your ambitions are or why you originally wanted to do something can help you get back on track.

Sometimes it is possible to turn frustration or failure into positive motivation. For example, you can use a difficult time at work to drive yourself on so you do well outside of work. That is much more productive than moaning or letting yourself feel frustrated.

Stay organised

Achieving any long term goal can be difficult so why make it even more difficult for yourself by being disorganised?

Some people appear to thrive on panic and pressure and use that to motivate themselves. Personally I find this counter productive and a waste of energy. It can be disruptive in a team environment too where not everyone works in the same way. I’d rather be organised, plan what needs to be done and work an extra half an hour a day than spend the weekend rushing to meet a deadline.

Make lists

I make a lot of lists to help me. I prefer to have them written down on a pad of paper, rather than in digital form. Having a visible reminder of my tasks or targets focuses my mind on what needs to be done and makes it easy to change my To Do list as my priorities change.

I start with a short list for today and I put anything that I know I won’t get done today on the next page. I amend the list as I complete tasks or new tasks arise. That way I know how much I have to get done and I can set myself a target for what I want to achieve before the end of each day.

At the end of the day, I review the list and update tomorrow’s list on the next page. Then I’m able to start the following day organised and feel in control of my work.

This works well for my studies too. I only have a limited amount of time each evening so it is important to spend that time productively. I set a target for what I want to achieve in each study session and that prevents me spending too much time on Facebook or Twitter! Its only a target though so I try not to get frustrated if an evening’s study goal turns out to be impossible, for example if an exercise is more difficult than I predicted or I’m feeling tired.

Get ahead and stay ahead

I aim to start each Open University module a week early and get ahead of schedule at the start when the course content is generally easier. This means I am not playing catch up and gives me time to spare in case I struggle, get ill or something unexpected crops up.

Assignments are usually available long before they need to be completed so I complete them as I go along rather than leaving it until a week or two before the deadline. If an assignment tests your knowledge of four units then you can normally complete the first couple of questions before the end of the fourth unit.

Whether its study or work, don’t leave it too late to meet your deadlines and don’t underestimate how long something will take. I have seen so many people say something will be easy and not take into account the extra time required if a problem occurs.

Find what works for you

These approaches work for me but they might not work for you. I find that short amounts of regular study in the evening suits me but someone else might prefer to spend 8 hours studying at the weekend instead.

Having a routine makes studying easier because subconsciously I know that I will be sitting down to work at the end of the day.

A quiet environment is a must for me, whether I’m studying or at work. Having music playing or the TV on in the background means my attention will wander.

A clean work area also helps me. My workspace starts tidy and then over a couple of weeks its gets more and more cluttered. Stopping to tidy up and organise my desk makes me feel less distracted and more in control.

Whatever your approach, review your progress regularly. Ask yourself whether your approach is working and if not, change it.

Be positive, not stressed

Think positive and don’t worry about failing. Recognise that you can’t do it all and it is inevitable that you will be disappointed with your results at some point.

Personally I don’t find my Open Uni studies stressful. It really doesn’t matter if I don’t do well. I already have a degree and a job and my studies are separate to my work. Maybe if my employer were paying towards it then I would feel under pressure to pass or do well but they are not so I see my degree as a welcome distraction rather than another thing to get done.

Find positive people

Surround yourself with positive people, particularly when you are finding it difficult to motivate yourself. Their positive demeanour will rub off on you and you can use this to motivate yourself.

If you have a vision of what you want to achieve then that helps too. If you picture yourself failing or a project not being a success then the chances are you won’t succeed.

Take a break

If you have a young child, the amount of sleep you get will inevitably be reduced! Combine that with a job and study and it can be easy to not realise just how tired you are. This can really affect the quality of your work. You become less effective because it is difficult to retain new information when you are tired.

Sleep is really important to staying sharp and feeling positive. Its amazing how much of a difference a few early nights can make to your mood.

I find that if I really lose motivation then spending a few days doing something completely different and catching up on sleep helps me regain it. After a couple of days I normally get impatient and restless, I start getting new ideas and want to get back to whatever I was doing. That is a sign that I’ve got my energy and motivation back.

I find it important to have some quiet time at the end of the day too. If I’m working on the computer and then go straight to bed, I find it difficult to switch off and sleep. Because of this, I have a rule to not work beyond 10pm. But rules are made to be broken of course, particularly if I’m in the zone and making really good progress!

Prioritise

If you are a perfectionist then it can be difficult to recognise that you can’t do everything as well as you want every time. You will have to learn to prioritise and accept that not everything has equal importance. Its OK to put off some tasks or partly complete them if it means a more important job is done well.

Keep an open mind

Be open to new ideas and ways of working. Maybe you work in a certain way because that is how you have worked in the past. Perhaps you have ideas that would change how I work and study?

And remember, life is more rewarding when you have something to aim for.