Too much study, not enough time

I never went to university after my A-levels, unlike most of my friends, so I have no idea how much stress is involved with doing a proper degree. However, I can say from experience that doing a part-time degree with the Open University can be an immensely stressful experience.

I’m finding it a bit tough at the moment. I’m having to overlap modules due to the OU making the decision to withdraw my named degree at the end of 2014, and this is leading to intense crowding of assignments. I’m managing to get through my work, but I’ve had to ask for several extensions this year and I’m having to cut back on other things in order to make time for family.

I have just finished M257 but I hardly concentrated on it at all. I was hoping to get to grips with Java in a proper sense but T306 is my priority module this year and something had to give. I will be lucky to get a grade two pass, but my time is limited and it got just enough time for me to pass it. The exam was difficult but I’m fairly sure that I did enough to get over 55% and a grade 3 pass, but I would have loved to have done better.

I have a full time job and a family that I like to spend time with. Doing this is hard. I don’t go to band as often as I’d like, my evenings are often spent studying and I don’t spend as much time with my wife as I should. It’s tough, but enjoyable. I do enjoy the study and I’m doing this  degree to give me the kick up the arse I need to get on with my career. I should have done this years ago, but here I am in my 40s making life difficult for myself.

I have something to aim for, something to achieve. I want to do well and I’m finding it difficult, but I’m not going to give up now. I will pass and I will learn something useful along the way. The Systems Thinking material is life-changing stuff and the technical modules may give me sufficient programming chops to hop into a slightly different career path. We shall see. I do know that despite the stress and the sacrifices that I am finding this whole thing rewarding and worthwhile. It is worth it.

I know I don’t say this to Jo enough, but the support she gives me during my studies is very, very much appreciated. I’m sorry it cuts into our time but it’ll all be worth it in the long run. Love you very much!

T306 Block 3: Activity 3

For the organization that you used in Activity 2, what are the changes in its environment that it can tolerate, i.e. for which it is viable?

One thing that has affected our band is the current economic situation. We used to have a sponsor but business became more difficult and he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide further funding. The band can survive on a surprisingly small amount of cash but we lost quite a large amount of income when that happened and we’ve been losing money ever since.

Similarly, the economic situation affects concert goers. If they can’t afford to go out quite so often there is less opportunity for us to put on (or be invited to) concerts. We may also be paid less for the same job. The local council has less money to spread around and so park jobs are more scarce.

Another problem facing many brass bands is the prospect of losing players to other bands, or players generally losing interest in playing at all. Quite a few bands have folded due to this. If the quality of music being played isn’t very good then you can’t attract the better players, or the players you do have may be tempted to go elsewhere.

Brass bands are also becoming more and more old fashioned. Concert goers tend to be older people and it’s difficult to persuade the younger generation that brass band music is something worth listening to, or playing.

These are just a few of the problems that affect our band (and others). Funding is hard to come by but is possible through having a dedicated committee trying to find different sources. We have lost and gained players in the past – and will continue to do so – but we do seem to be able to maintain a generally high level quality of music. Having a good MD helps, and we do.

Attracting a wider range of audience involves having an eclectic mix of music to play. We do try and play a selection of more modern and traditional music, including quite a few jazzier pieces that might attract younger people.

T306 Block 3: Activity 2

Select one of the organizations that you identified in Activity 1. For that organization:
(a)   describe your main relationships within the organization;

I’m going to choose my band for this as I think this is likely to be the source of my project for T306.

Principally, I’m friends with the people at band. They’re not my closest friends, but I’ve known the majority of people there for quite some time now. I’m friendlier with some more than others of course, but there isn’t anyone there that I don’t like or have personality clashes with.

(b)   make notes of the power structure within the organization;

There is a committee that runs the band and a musical director (MD) that conducts us. The MD does not have any power to run the band – he’s an employee – but does have the final say over what we play and our musical direction.

The “leader” of the committee is the Chairman but decisions are made by the whole committee, and any decisions that have large repercussions (such as the appointment of a new MD) are generally opened up to the whole band. The committee is appointed every year at an AGM and it’s all very democratic. The organisational structure isn’t flat – more like a flattened hierarchy, with the committee members elevated just a little bit. Other people’s perspectives are generally taken into account.

(c)   describe its purpose from your perspective.

From my perspective? To provide a platform for playing and enjoying music, and to create an enjoyable social atmosphere. We are self-supporting and so need to raise money from subscriptions (we all play to pay) and from concerts, so another purpose might be to raise money in order to provide this musical platform.

I just want to play music and I enjoy going to contests. I also enjoy the social aspect, but perhaps some of the others may have different ideas about what the band is all about.

T306 Block 3: Activity 1

List all the organizations of which you consider yourself a part.

Well, I have a full-time job and so I’m a member of my work organisation. I could probably break that into two organisations or more; the wider company organisation (over 80,000 people worldwide) and my local project organisation, plus there’s also the UK-centric part of the company that seems to “compete” with our European counterparts.

I’m also a member of a brass band – Carlton Brass. I’ve been with the band for over ten years and have spent some time on the committee, although I’m currently taking a break from that due to my OU studies. There are around 50 or so members of the organisation (two bands).

I might be able to include other social organisations, like my collection of Facebook, Twitter or Google+ friends, but I’m not entirely sure that this is relevant to my studies (but you never know). These do seem to be an autonomous collective of individuals with a purpose (staying in touch, amusement etc), so these may come into future discussions.

T306 Block 2: result

I’m not entirely sure how I managed it but I achieved a somewhat miraculous 93% for TMA02, an enormous improvement on the 70% I got for TMA01. I would have been happy with another 70% but it looks like I happened to hit on quite a few more of the marking points for this assignment.

I’m surprised (and pleased!) about this because I didn’t feel that I was being particularly systemic with my answers. I used the soft systems method for my analysis, but this provides a systematic approach – complete with stages and flowcharts – and I didn’t really come up with any emergent properties. What I did do was constantly look back at previous stages and state in my answers that I was attempting to look from different perspectives. I applied the method well and at least gave an impression of a systemic approach.

My tutor gave me some great feedback too. I tend to try and look at the whole system/problem rather than try and dig into it a bit, and while the “helicopter view” of a situation is helpful I do need to try alternative systems definitions to extract hidden issues. My root definition was was all-encompassing when I should have tried something a little smaller in scope. However, I am trying to think holistically so I was trying to include everything. Perhaps I need to try moving a few more subsystems into the environment for my definitions.

Still, I’m very, very pleased with this result. I benefited from having some time off work and I spent two solid days working on the TMA. I crammed in the whole block in a short period, didn’t really do any of the activities and still did well. Perhaps it was all still fresh in my mind.

Block 3 looks shorter in length but more difficult in application. Viable System Model (VSM) by the esteemed Stafford Beer. Another systematic approach by the looks of it, but this time derived from cybernetics. There is software that won’t run on my Mac. In fact, it won’t run on most Windows machines without a lot of effort – it was written for Windows 3.1! Thanks for the up-to-date software Mr Open University…

T306 Block 2: TMA02

I’m not entirely sure how I managed it but I actually submitted TMA02 on time. Well, it was 9 minutes past the official entry time but within the 12 hours leeway they give us, so I’m called that “on time”.

I was over two weeks late submitting TMA01 and only managed to get this one in due to having some time off work. We were going away but decided to save money and shelter from the appalling weather forecast. Instead of enjoying an icecream or fish and chips in Whitby harbour we ended up putting Ruby into nursery while I worked on my T306 assignment. Not the kind of week off I was thinking about.

Anyway, it is done now, even if I only completed one activity and worked through the TMA after a cursory read through the module notes. Not ideal, however I was fairly happy that I covered enough of the material to get a reasonable mark, and even if I didn’t do that well I did get some good, useful feedback from TMA01 so I’m sure that my tutor will do the same for this one.

TMA03 could be problematic too. I have two assignments to hand in next month; one for M257 (Putting Java to work) and my T306 assignment a week later. Doing two modules at once sucks, especially as I’m also working full time. There are people doing three modules at once and I have no idea how they do it!

Anyway, back to my M257 work. I’m running late on this one (surprise surprise). Real life will resume in 2015.

T306 Block 2: Activity 19

Note the main things you have learned in Part 1

I’ve skimmed over most of the activities in this block so far out of necessity. There’s been some interesting material and the course notes have made me consider aspects of IS that I wouldn’t have thought about.

For instance, I thought I had a good grasp on the difference between data and information. Previous OU courses have covered this: data are facts or bits of knowledge that are offered without context (like “16″ or “Dave”) and information is data with added context (within conceptual frameworks). So, information would be, perhaps, seen on a page that collects together bits of data and displays it in a way that a user can understand it.

However, this block considers the difference between abstract data and data of interest. If someone collects together bits of data for consideration – in a database perhaps – then this is called “capta”.

Capta are a subset of data deemed to be of interest to a specified group of individuals who share the same theoretical and conceptual frameworks for
these items and also have some interest in them.

I’d never heard of capta before and I’m yet to be convinced of its usefulness as a term and concept, but we’ll see. I don’t have a problem using data and capta interchangeably but I think there may be issues with definitions later on during analysis if I’m not aware of the difference.

It’s important to consider information in context, so perhaps this extra definition will be helpful.

The rest of Part 1 of the block was very interesting and gave me some extra meat to my IS sandwich. I will now consider other aspects of a system to be part of an IS – development teams etc – that I might not have considered before. The course materials also pushed looking at stakeholder biases during analysis, which is something I really need to work on. I will also need to work on understanding how I know things from my own experiences. Our experiences colour our views on things. This is something that is being covered quite a bit in the course and I lost marks in TMA01 due to me not mentioning this.

That will do for now. Onwards with Part 2.

T306 Block 2: Activity 5

Describe an Information System with which you are involved

This activity requires me to construct a system map of an IS. Due to my prior tardiness I’m going to miss that bit out, although I’ll come back and revisit it if necessary.

I’m going to describe an ancient IS from a previous employment. This was back in the ’90s before large-scale computer systems were the norm. The site where I worked had a collection of “dumb” terminals – there were visual display units that had a rudimentary screen and keyboard and only had enough on-board processing to display information from a central computer mainframe. Each dumb terminal was connected to a local telephone point using a technology called “data over voice” (DOV). There was a DOV box on each end of the telephone line.

In the computer room was a BT Krone frame where these telephone lines ended up. The data from the connected DOV box was fed into the core of the IS in some fashion (I can’t quite remember this aspect of it) so that the dumb terminals could connect to the mainframe. The mainframe itself stored this data on some utterly ancient Winchester disks. There were two computer guys that maintained the mainframe and I was involved in the maintenance side of the dumb terminals (among other things).

Some of our more remote locations used a modem to connect to the mainframe. Comms guys may be impressed by the ultra-fast 2k4 modems we had at our disposal. I’m never going to complain about the slowness of my 10Mbps Internet connection at home, that is for certain.

The IS had a purpose – it supported the work of the various locations – and it did it well. For 1990.