back to article Educating Verity the OU way

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 …


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  1. AndrueC Silver badge


    >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 :)

    1. .stu

      design patterns

      So you've reinvented the wheel a dozen times already?

  2. This post has been deleted by its author

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    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.

    Marking guidance:

    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!

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge


      There is nary a reference to gender equality or race issues in these questions!

      WTF were they thinking?

  4. Bob Dunlop

    Open or shut?

    Do they still insist M$ is the one and only true software as they did a few years ago ?

    Open software didn't get a look in on my geology course. The only software support they would give me was "Well use a M$ PC at the local library". Ironic given the name of the institution.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      They kind of still do.

      There's a board where all OU courses are rated by mac-accessability/pc-necessity.

      E.g., on PGCE courses, it's all autorun pc disks, but you can identify the individual files with any linux/mac/pc and run the little videos as needed. Only at the very begin there's for Math a self-diagnosis proggy that's MS-only (for no good reason -- a multiple questions thing).


      The website and courses contain a good number of contradictory parts, and you usually get quick unhelpful responses to questions. E.g., you have to learn "how to observe pupils" before going in, but it takes a long while to figure out it's a reference to a retired module, and even longer to get a pdf (from a costudent, in the end) of that module.

    2. Tony Humphreys
      Thumb Up

      Well, sort of

      I have just completed the pop quiz (sorry Designing applications with VB MT264) to get that degree everyone else has, but does not hold me back one jot. I expected to use MS, as one would, but instead they decided to use some hand writted 'design code' that resembled the syntax of VB - and then claimed it would be useful with proper languages like Java and C (somehow the syntax similarities ended there).

      So even when MS is part of the course, they choose something else.

      Easy course though, even if it is just an introduction to .net - Google can fill in the conversion to C#.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Much more open

      Much more open these days - pretty much all of the teaching is delivered via the web so platform independent. There's probably still a lot of legacy software around that will never be re-written, just retired when the courses are updated every few years. They recommend a lot more free or open source software now - OpenOffice, Eclipse etc

      Unfortunately they are cutting down on the use of Flash just so it can be viewed from iOS devices (to the detriment of everyone else - HTML5 does not yet replace all the Flash functionality, so courses have much less interesting interaction).

    4. Elmer Phud


      I did some of my stuff on Framework - on an XT

      cue other 'when I were a lad' anecdotes

  5. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    Ahhhhhhhhh brings back happy memories

    and the bad ones 3 years of vodka based therapy failed to erase

    Can always remember 1 OU course, 5 hulking great textbooks, a book of practical stuff, a flashy light gizmo you plugged into your serial port.

    And what did 10% of the exam mark depend on... knowing 1 poxy page of Java in all that lot.

  6. Verse

    Spot on, Miss Verity

    So, not much change in the 6+ years since I suffered through the same courses then.

    Are you going to do a dissertation to make it into an MSc? No programming required there either, just 30-50K discussion of why software application X is not anything like software application Y, with meaningless metrics to provide an inconclusive conclusion of which is better.

    I'm not bitter!

  7. Jon Double Nice

    Wood Green eh?

    Certainly not a fun place to be

  8. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    "Programmed" study text *look* infantile

    Until you have to re study graduate maths on your own.

    Suddenly those fill in the blank questions on every other page don't seem quite so dumb.

    There's something very special about some realising it's a closed book exam on the eve of doing it.

  9. AndrewHancox

    I came out feeling a lot more positive

    I did several of the same courses as you and I think you've been a bit harsh.

    I emailed questions to my tutors and got quick responses but on top of this (and more importantly) participated in the online seminars where good tutors gave strong advice and facilitated good discussions between students. On top of the online seminars I went to a few face to face ones in London which were invaluable. Besides the contact with the tutor I was involved in a study group that met on skype once a fortnight for a couple of hours - as a developer doing courses in management it was brilliant being in a discussion group with experienced high level managers.

    I agree that the programming courses were dated but the university states the date that the courses were developed so you can make a decision based on that.

    My conclusion was that the soft skills, business school stuff and timeless concepts were well delivered but for raw technical skills I'd go elsewhere.

    1. nyelvmark
      Meh a developer doing courses in management it was brilliant...

      So, you were a "developer". Processing the snap-happy mug's amateur shots into prints? Oh, wait... maybe you mean a Software Developer? Is that the same as a computer programmer? Yes or no, please. Inquiring minds, and all that.

  10. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    As it happens, I've just drawn a line

    under twenty years off and on with the OU, terminating with an MSC Computing for Commerce and Industry - distinction, no less.

    And so many of Ms Stobs' observations are spot on.

    In particularly the MSophile tendencies: all submissions to be in MS compatible formats, though the final dissertation is required to be in PDF - whereas in the real world, one uses Latex or at least Lyx and does the job properly. Hence every submission got comments about poor formatting... mostly because I just did a huge cut'n'paste.

    It's interesting that the technical subjects - while perhaps out of date a little - are detailed and generally quite wide ranging. And you either know the answer or you don't, unlike the 'opinion' courses - say, System Engineering or Interface Design - where you seem to be judged mainly on your ability to draw pointless diagrams that are no use in real life, simply because they are never used by anyone who knows what they're doing.

    I did manage to get a significant slab of programming in - in C, no less, my advisor objected to machine code - for the dissertation, but it was clear that the programming was a sideline; most of the work was actually on the statistics of English spelling. The final submission contained exactly no source code, just some screen grabs of the software in operation. From memory, my last OU course that included actual programming was TM222 in 1990 - real live 8080!

    Oh, and if you're wondering: "The text contains its own lexicon: Extracting a Spelling Reference in the Presence of OCR Errors."

    1. nyelvmark
      Thumb Up the real world, one uses Latex or at least Lyx...

      You're pulling our legs, yes?

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Pulling our legs, no...

        If one wants consistent style with decent typography, illustrations that come where they should, and correct numbering of sections, pages, diagrams - not to mention appendices, an accurate and complete bibliography, and all that other boring academic stuff, one chooses Latex or Lyx. There is at least the chance that your readers will all read the same thing, irrespective of OS or choice of pdf viewer.

        If one prefers such things to be inconsistent, with random changes in formatting and different views depending on which version of word processor your reader has, feel free to use Word or Open Office.

        To be fair, there is one hell of an uphill struggle with Lyx, and Latex in particular, when it comes to defining the look and feel of the thing, and it's not obvious at all if you wish to stray from the default templates. Whereas Word and OO allow you to make every imaginable typographical error you choose with great ease...

  11. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    SuperMemo seems quite mad.

    But I'd give it a go.

  12. Naughtyhorse

    so you are telling me that in all those years...

    gonks have changed into squonks

    I guess any major dude could have told me that :-)

    (just pretzel logic i guess)

  13. hammarbtyp Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    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.

  14. Richie 1

    Mnemosyne is a FOSS SuperMemo alternative

    Quite good too.

  15. Douglas Smith

    It doesn't stop there

    Year after year you will get the begging letters from the OU - strangely they are the only ones who use the MSc

    Shame you did not get to go to a study centre or mini-summer school - I heartily recommend the soggy days at the Sheffield campus

  16. Jonathan Evans

    SAQ - Seldom Asked Question?

    Read the SAQ on the first page as "Seldom Asked Question". It turned out, later on, to mean something far less amusing.

  17. Simon Barnes

    giggles :)

    Thanks Verity!

    I loved the "Do you suffer fools gladly" checkbox to bits :o)


  18. Ellis Birt 1

    Where are your references?

    Come on verity, after four years, you must have learned about the Harvard referencing system. Where are you references (after all, you don't want to run the risk of fallign foul of the plagarism police!)

  19. Anonymous Coward


    SAQ: What is the main practical use of a photo of someone dressed in mortar board and gown?

    If ithey are wearing the mortar board then its an indication that they didn't go to a proper university - i.e. Oxford, where Uniform regulations (at least 30 years ago) specifically stated that the mortar board was carried and not worn!

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Or Imperial College

      Where 150 years on we were still in official mourning and hence not allowed hats.

      1. nyelvmark

        in official mourning

        for what?

    2. DavCrav Silver badge


      "Oxford, where Uniform regulations (at least 30 years ago)"

      And today (well, last Saturday at least).

    3. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Just an observation - the OU doesn't use mortar boards

      And is therefore a proper university!

  20. Anonymous Coward

    I enjoyed it but don't bother if you only want qualifications, not worth it

    My girlfriend at the time ( now my wife ) both studied the same OU courses back in the early 90's, had a really good time, especially on the summer schools!

    My parents couldn't afford for me to enter higher education so I left school with a handful of GCSEs and no prospects. I managed to "finagle" my way into IT jobs with a lot of personal experience but kept hitting walls that demanded qualifications. OU is still seen as a poor man's univeristy, despite you having to learn some serious discipline with your time, the number of jobs on offer did increase afterwards. Although I must admit I still have a serious chip on my shoulder when people who prove to me they're thick as two short ones, look down their noses at me because they have "red-brick" qualifications.

    Glad I made the effort, the qualifications are pretty useless but having been a bit useless at school to start with, the writing and thinking skills I gained during the courses really helped me to focus on what I should have done in the first place at school.

  21. ElReg!comments!Pierre


    I believed that SAQ meant Seldom Asked Question 'till the middle of the article and I found it amusing. Too bad.

    On a related note, where I live SAQ means Société des Alcools du Québec*, and I prefer it that way.

    On a totally unrelated note, I get that the OU is perhaps not the best place to go if you want to acquire real-world-ready IT skills** but I still have 2 questions:

    -will the OU-acquired skills allow me to woo that new cutie in the lab next door, say with delicious UML goodness? Or something.

    -is it possible to use relational algebra to find a way to avoid the catastrophic consequences of the above, such as the missus finding out about it?

    *booze above the strenght of beer is a state monopoly here.

    **the best place for that is often said real world

    1. nyelvmark
      Thumb Up


      Best reply so far - I wish I could upvote it twice.

      I will have some comments of my own below.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wait, which gyms give you your subscription back?

    Cutting the bastards off at the source by cancelling direct debits seems to be the only way to cease the cash haemorrhage, and even then you don't get a refund.

    I have fond memories of watching OU programmes on BBC2 early on a Sunday morning when a) I couldn't sleep and b) there was nothing else on. I like to think I learned at least something.

  23. Neil Hoskins


    After two whole years of Java, when they still hadn't shown us how to write and deploy an actual program that would run on an actual computer or other device, I decided it was time to jack it in and buy a book about Android.

  24. Chris Miller

    Hardly just the OU

    Has there ever been an academic CompSci course that produced degrees more valuable than the paper on which they were printed? I'd far rather employ someone who'd done a 'proper' degree - preferably science, but I wouldn't discount Classics - and teach them how to develop computer systems. Their degree should at least reassure me that they're capable of independent thinking and learning, and their minds won't be cluttered with the irrelevancies taught in CompSci.

    Computer science is to science as plumbing is to hydraulics. "The Devil's DP Dictionary" (1981) Stan Kelly-Bootle

  25. Diogenes

    At least YOUR OU is a proper uni not like OUA

    I did my BAppSci(IT) through open uni australia - actually RMIT awarded the degree , Open uni took me money.

    OUA is owned by 7 or 8 real unis and the idea seems to be to have you do your units across all unis - so when I went to apply for entry to a GradDipEd I had to get transcripts from all 7 (at $20 a pop) as they would not accept the OUA transcript as it is not a degree conferring institute :-(

    Verities experiences seem to mirror my own wrt course content , feedback etc etc

    Icon : he looks like me & I never bothered attend the graduation for either degree

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I'm surprised...

      that Australia's OU is as organised and has a standard of quality as high as the UK one.

      I would expected it to be at least as bad as a current BArch.

      After all, I didn't see the word 'epistemology' or 'palimpsest' used anywhere in VS' work.

  26. nyelvmark
    Thumb Up

    A very nice piece, Verity

    Especially for this:

    "... an iPad on which I could pour scorn, or vice-versa..."

  27. Tom 7 Silver badge


    That's not a bag of sweets - each one has a colour coded wrapper with a chapter of the course book in matrix barcode format to be read by the android device repacked in an old casio calculator case.

    Its no wonder my IT dept cant fix any computer problems (its always wait till next windows sp/release ...) - they all went to Uni ignorant of their field and came out worse!

    Do yourself and the world a favour - Creative Commons license your homework (preferably in free flow HTML so you can actually read it on the computer when you need it and not have to print it out so you CAN work in a park!) and make sure Google knows where it is. There are a million teachers and lecturers out there desperately rearranging the same information into different formats and adding their own typos/ignorance. When I was young the computer was hailed as a labour saving device - which fuckwit thought that up I wonder!

  28. akicif

    I saw what you did there....

    "which in your case you do not have"

    Oh, neatly done....

  29. Juan 1

    I'll never know

    I enquired about an OU math module (with an eye to completing a degree) and was told it will cost me £890 instead of the advertised £400, because I'm "not from here", after which I told them to stuff it where the sun don't shine.

    Who will give me a hand designing a DIY course based on stuff like MIT Open Courseware?

  30. Chris Mitchell

    MSc in retro computing

    About 10 years ago, just after the cretinous Carly Fiorina had DVed my employment history by killing HP computing, I thought I'd re-skill and learn the latest, state of the art development skills from the OU (I was a contractor, so everything was DIY). The MSc in software development beckoned, I paid the money, the books arrived and the first inklings that something was wrong began to arrive. The first unit enthused about the the go-ahead and state-of-the-art technique that I was going to use to analyse a business situation, so lo and behold, I was taught to use SSADM.

    Turns out that as far as the OU is concerned, the art they were talking about was pottery. I still keep the books as a reminder that the OU are rubbish...

    Chris M

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Oh god, nuffield physics.

    The PTSD has flared up again, I'll be having flashbacks for the next month. It was an absolutely insane idea, DIY physics without standing on the shoulders of giants - hellish.

  32. Eddie Johnson

    Peripheral to the article but...

    Advice to consider modem speed when designing web pages is hardly dated. There are quite a few sites today which probably look good over the designers 100Mb Ethernet but fail badly on a 1Mb cable or DSL line. And yes, there ARE still 4kbps dialup users even if you think they aren't your target market. Some rural US users have no choice - and when I say rural I'm not talking about Wyoming - I'm talking about outer suburbs of major cities where cable doesn't go and you're 3 miles from the phone office - too far for DSL.

    Verity should certainly know the more things change the more they stay the same.

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