Educating Verity the OU way
'The skin of my C++ custard remained unruffled'
Stob I think I mentioned that I was doing an Open University PGDip course in software development. (For those not familiar with the institution, the Open University has rightly been described as a sort of mental gym. You join with great enthusiasm; then, after three months, having attended just twice, you can drop out and ask for the balance of your subscription back.)
Well, after four years at it, I have finally finished, and want to share.
One of the skills we were encouraged to develop was the writing of highly compressed summaries. So here is the essence of all eight modules, 23 homeworks and any number of learning outcomes, bullet points, bolded key terms and self assessment questions – zipped up into one Reg article.
You may not learn quite as much as from the real thing; on the other hand, my version is £8k cheaper.
Oh, and I have carefully included cover illustrations from each of the modules, to enable you not to judge the content by them, and in support of a theory of my own viz that graphic designers as a profession don't half put out some rubbish when required to portray software development procedures.
Forget about Michael Caine and Julie Walters and all that. There are no cosy, one-to-one tutorials in book-lined studies, with Johnnie Walker bottles hidden behind the TS Eliot. Nor yet are there 2am lectures on BBC2, presented by black-and-white professors wearing '70s sideburns and kipper ties.
Nope, there are three main planks to an OU PostGradBizCompSci course:
- reading the text;
- doing the homework; and
- suffering the exam.
All this with not much interaction with anybody, although you do have the right to email your tutor, and to participate in rather desultory online forums. The OU is not an alternative to social networking: more CutOff than LinkedIn.
The modules available to us D69 students divide into two broad categories: "hard" technical topics (OO, databases, web), where you get to dirty your hands with code; and "soft" humanity-oriented topics (UI, requirements, management), where you don't.
As a hater of essay-writing, I was drawn to the cheerful, puzzle-solving ground of the "hard" subjects. But actually, excepting the SQL module, there really isn't much puzzling. I exaggerated with that "dirtying your hands" back there: the most you can expect is a light smearing. Java is adopted as the lingua franca, but never in sufficient depth as to ruffle the skin of my C++ custard.
But it was on the "soft" courses that I learned the most. For example, the software management module M882 included the following nugget which, shamefully, was quite unfamiliar to me (and shame on Wiki too, for doubting its notability). Meir M "Manny" Lehman's Software Uncertainty Principle possesses that strong indicator of a top-notch insight: once explained, duh, the thing is obvious.
Brutally summarised, Lehman says: as you code, you weld into your program certain assumptions about the universe. Osmium is the heaviest metal, VAT is 17.5%, Windows stores custom properties of files in alternate NTFS data streams, night follows day. As time passes, some of these assumptions inevitably fail, and so, equally inevitably, the once-reliable program ceases to work properly. Of course, if you are aware of a dodgy assumption at the start, you can protect yourself or hoick it out; but the universe is infinite and your program isn't, so you can never get them all.
Next page: The text
CASE STUDY: GCSE Physics
Nuffield may have been all about films of falling apples etc but it wasn't as bad as what I'm seeing in my sons GCSE physics papers (admittedly he's only done modules 1,2,3 so far which would also be done by "single science" pupils and I'm assured later modules are more "physicsy"). In GCSE it would more more along the lines of:
Helen has just seen a film about gravity causing apples to fall from trees. Helen also knows an apple counts as one of her "five-a-day" target.
Q1: Helen wonders if gravity causes all "five-a-day" items to fall out of trees - give examples of one that dont
Q2: Helen thinks it might be dangerous if gravity causes an apple to fall from a tree onto her head. Give examples of two ways in which she could keep safe.
Q1 award a mark for any root vegetable or for a fruit such as rasperberry if accompanied by explanation that they normally need to be picked and don't fall off. Also award a mark for Tomato Ketchup if accompanied by explanation that Tomato Ketchup counts as a vegetable and doesn't grow on trees.
Q2 award 1 mark for each of "avoiding sitting under apple trees" and "wearing a protective helmet". Do not award marks for "cutting down all the apple trees" as this would increase greenhouse gases.
Might be of an exaggeration but I think not by much!
We'll miss it when its gone...
8K for a post grad course is a bargain and will be looked at with nostalgia compared to the future costs of a getting higher education.
Anyway what's the alternatives for someone who has already a career in IT with family and mortgage. Go to a university full time? Assuming you can find a place, what are you and your going to live on for the 4 years? Company sponsorship, maybe but difficult to arrange when companies are more likely to looking to lay off than support your educational ambitions.
Exams - A necessary evil and at least it does force you to learn the stuff. Compare that to other "professional" courses where the only requirement is that you look half awake for a few days before being given a certificate that is not worth the paper its written on.
The courses. Yes the update rate could be quicker, buts its costs a lot to print those books you like putting your post its on and even more to rewrite them. I found most useful the "soft" humanity-oriented topics because it was a gap in my IT education and these areas do not change as much as some of the others.Maybe in a few years time when we will be given a complimentary iPad to read our material on it will be better, however until then....
My only real criticism of the courses is that the OU is becoming a Java monoculture. I know the OU is not the only university to suffer this, but it would be nice if there was at least a nod to some of the fringes of computer science such as functional programming languages, etc
Anyway I'm glad like me, Verity enjoyed the experience. The OU is one of those British institutions that shouldn't work but does. It is a greater then the sum of its parts. That's of course until the this government gets its hands on it and sends it to the education market forces grave yard.
>Yup, these are definitely the boys to go to if you want to learn how to make great software.
I find that you can pick that up as you go along. I fully expect to know everything and be perfect the day after I retire :)