Conference season online

October has always been a super busy month for me. I’m usually starting a new OU module and travelling around speaking at conferences and meetups, all while doing my day job, spending time with my family and enjoying my hobbies. Sometimes I’ve not got the balance right! 2019 I remember was particularly hectic. I optimistically submitted conference sessions at the start of the year on a variety of different topics and, as the year went on I was invited to speak at various meetups in the UK and even stepped in to do some last minute presentations where other speakers had dropped out. This time last year I had just finished 8 weeks where I had a week’s holiday, spoken at 5 conferences, 2 breakfast briefings and 8 meet ups, all of which were on slightly different topics!

I really enjoy speaking at these events, otherwise I simply wouldn’t do them! As an attendee I get to learn from my peers and be inspired by steps forward in areas that I just don’t have time to keep up to date on. As a speaker, I get to pass on some of the things I’ve learned over the years in what I hope is an entertaining way, and I always love the conversations after the talks.

This year has, inevitably, been very different. February was my first event, where I spoke at The European Information Security Summit in London on the risks that Deep Fakes pose to the security sector. I spoke to a lot of security professionals at the event who were unaware of how AI was progressing in both voice and face cloning. As an attendee, I learned a lot about the state of security in many of the systems we take for granted. If you can justify the time and cost, attending a conference outside of your area of expertise can be incredibly informative.

A mere few weeks later, and I had several sessions at Big Data and AI World. I had a panel session with the amazing Sue Daley and Vitaliy Yuryev on why basics are often overlooked in data projects, followed a few hours later by my main presentation on learning from projects that go wrong. This was the 12th of March. While the organisers were doing everything they could, practically all the international speakers and attendees had decided not to attend. The sessions were reorganised to prevent large gaps in the program and many of the sessions I had been personally looking forward to were no longer happening. I really enjoyed both my sessions and got some great questions after them, but it was clear that people were nervous about the crowds and conferences and meetups would be on hold from that point onwards.

As I headed home on the train that afternoon I knew I wouldn’t be back in London for a while. My company was considering a trial of homeworking for a few days a week1, but I’d already decided to swap to home working for the foreseeable future and told my team to do the same if they wanted. My team had been at the conference with me and I didn’t realise then that it would be the last time I’d see them2.

March and April would normally be the time that I would be submitting keynote suggestions for the Autumn conference season and spending my evenings talking to University students at meetups and I really missed those interactions.

While I was interviewed over the summer (Humans of AI, Agile Data Science), I really did miss the chance to interact with a wider audience. You can’t respond to questions in a pre-recorded video.

I was delighted when Barclays Eagle Labs asked me if I would rerun a talk on Deep Fakes that I had given in person late in 2019, as a series of three online events. Despite the strangeness of talking into a camera without the feedback of the audience’s faces and the ever present anxiety that one of my neighbours would start noisily doing DIY during the session3, it was great to see so many people take 30 minutes out of their day for three consecutive weeks to learn. After the final session, I got a lot of messages from people who had made their own fakes and really understood both the positive and negative aspects of the technology and thanking me for making it accessible. It’s this type of interaction that makes these events worthwhile. Sadly these sessions were not recorded, but the slides are on my slideshare (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) and a variation of the talk that I gave at Tech Exeter in 2019 is available on sitepoint.

At the end of September, one of the events that was cancelled from March was resurrected as an online event sponsored by DevelopHer. I had 5 minutes, which is both an eternity (if you’ve ever heard Just a Minute) and the blink of an eye (if you have more than a single thing you want to say)! I managed to condense the 25 talk on getting into Data Science and AI into (just over) 5 minutes alongside an amazing line up of other women in AI.

What really stood out to me from this event is how many people attended who may not otherwise have been able to go to an in person meetup. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to stay late after work, or travel in for these events, or may not want to even if they could. One of the huge benefits of everything moving online is that it has made many of these events far more accessible, and I hope that this continues in some form.

Post by Bethan Reeves watching my talk at home in comfort πŸ˜€

Last week I spoke at the online version of one of my favourite conferences, Minds Mastering Machines. The invite advertised me as one of their veteran speakers :D. I’ve done some heavily technical talks at their event over the past few years, but for 2020 I decided to be a bit lighter and given world events I’m glad I did. One of the things I’ve noticed in all the projects I’ve led, advised on, or done due diligence for, is that testing never seems to be a priority for data science and AI. This is something that drives me crazy so I thought I’d approach it in a light hearted way and try and convert the attendees to testing thinking with a talk titled: Your testing sucks – what should you be doing? I paired seven best practises of testing thinking alongside examples (mostly) from spacecraft. I think it went down well and hopefully it was memorably enough to make people want to make time for testing by remembering the various missions.

My presentation from MCubed. Don’t coerce your data.

While I’ve nothing else planned for this year or even 2021, I intend to speak at more conferences. Even when large gatherings are safe again, I hope that there will still be online streams for those that cannot attend. Let’s keep tech accessible.

Thinking of studying with the OU? What you need to know…

It’s been seven years of studying while working full time (and in some cases nearly double full time hours!) and I’ve now finished the degree I started for “fun” because I wasn’t being intellectually challenged in the job I had at that time. I was sceptical of all aspects of the Open University but thought I’d give it a go, knowing that without a cost to me and an exam, I would never make the time to study. While I’ve been blogging about individual modules over the years I’ve had quite a few conversations with many of you reading this blog about the pros and cons of study with the OU and one of the comments on my last post was from Korgan, who suggested I do a post about this and I’ve combined their questions with all of the others I’ve had.

Having studied at both the OU and traditional universities (Oxford and Sussex), I feel I can comment on the differences between the two different types of study so you know what you are signing up to. There’s a week left to confirm your modules if you want to start with the OU.


Unlike traditional unis, there are no formal entry requirements. If you didn’t do as well as you hoped at school or college, or it’s been a while since you studied then this is no problem. The OU will strongly recommend that you are at a certain level, with modules stating any pre-requisites that are assumed. Some modules have quizzes so you can assess whether you’re ready, but at the end of the day, it is up to you. I would strongly recommend that you read through their “Am I ready?” section. If you feel that you’re not quite there yet, have a go at one of their many free courses (some of which are extracts from some of the main modules) so you can get a feel for the level of the subject. There are also no limits on the number of students doing any particular course, so you’re not competing to apply against anyone.

  • No entry requirements
  • No competition for entry


This close to the start date you will need to pay your fees in full upfront. For a UK student studying “full-time” you can expect to pay Β£6192 per year for 3 years. Most will study part time and so pay half that each year for 6 years but the total cost for the degree will be about the same. Costs are creeping up year on year – my first modules were Β£2400 for part time (60 points per year, equivalent to Β£4800 full time) Compare this to to the “up to” Β£9250 that traditional universities charge for UK student fees1. You can get loans and grants but you need to apply well in advance for these and with the modular nature of the course each module needs its own application. I don’t know how this works if you are eligible for funding for your course.

Included in your tuition fee are the study materials you need – these are mostly printed books and DVDs although as modules are being updated the DVDs are being replaced with online videos and the books with PDFs. If you’re the sort of person who needs a physical book for study you might want to check this on a module by module basis. For the maths courses, everything you needed was provided. For some of the other courses there are extra books you will need to read and sourcing these could be an issue or extra cost. There is a scheme where you can access the library of your nearest physical university but this is not an option for many for a whole host of practical reasons.

Some modules also have mandatory residential schools. None of these were needed for the modules I took, but if you are looking at some of the science courses then this is something that you will have to consider for both time and money. Residential courses allow you to undertake practical activities for your course that cannot be taught or assessed online, and the cost of this is not part of your course fees.

You will also need to consider travel costs and time for face to face tutorials. These are not mandatory but can be very useful. Sadly, the location of these will depend on the geographical distribution of students compared to the tutors and this won’t be known at the time you sign up.

  • Cheaper than most UK universities
  • Funding and loans not as straightforward as for normal UK university applications
  • Books included
  • May need to pay extra for travel/group activities
  • May need to pay extra for additional books
  • Cost of getting to tutorials can vary dramatically


This is the biggest difference for me. When you are studying you are alone. In traditional universities there is the buzz of other students, study groups in rooms, conversations after lectures, discussions about assignments. With your OU study you can feel disconnected. There are groups on facebook, whatsApp etc, each module will have its own forum for discussion, your tutor will be available to answer questions, and there will be tutorials (either on line or face to face). This is not the same as the immersion in a university full time. Depending on your personality you may find this fine, or a struggle.

There are fewer tutorials at higher levels. For example, my first few modules I had a 3 hour tutorial face to face 30 minutes from my home about every six weeks. By level three this had dropped to only three tutorials, and for my last module there were no face to face tutorials at all. This is partially down to the number of students and their locations not making in person tutorials feasible, but if you’re the sort of person who needs to bounce ideas around to help get a subject to stick then be aware you will need to be very active in the forums and social media groups and possibly have to start your own study groups. The quality of tutorials will also vary greatly with the tutors. I left some of mine feeling inspired and exciting about the subject and others practically the opposite. This is down to the presentation style of the tutor and you do get a similar problem in traditional universities!

Many people choose the OU to fit around their existing lives and it is perfect for that, but you need to be determined and stubborn. The OU expects 6-10 hours study a week for a 30 point module. If you are working full time and have a family, you will need to find a way to make the time work for you. I did it mostly while commuting and when my daughter was at soft play, so that when I was home I didn’t have to make time for study. This didn’t always work. There were times that I had to spend the weekends catching up. I made sure that every time I was away from home I crammed in as much study as I could rather than socialising at conferences or enjoying the location I was in. Recognise that something in your current life will have to go to make way for study. You need to be honest with yourself where you will make the time and can you dedicate yourself to that for the next three to six years.

Nobody will be pushing you to study except yourself. At a traditional uni, the other students and your tutors are there – they will pick up if you are falling behind and help you. With the OU, you need to raise your hand and ask for help. Many assignments can be delayed (usually all except the last) as long as you give your tutor notice. Modules can be deferred if necessary. But you need to ask. If your assignment isn’t in on time or you don’t turn up to the exam then you will fail unless you can provide a very good reason quickly. If you are the sort of person who needs constant encouragement and pushing to study then the OU is not for you2.

Conversely, as soon as you have your books you can get started and get ahead (I never managed this!) and plenty of people are on the hunt for second hand books straight after their exams so they can start their next module before they receive the new materials in September. You won’t be able to access the assignments until the module starts in early October, but nothing is stopping you from doing all the study before the course starts, particularly if you know you have a busy year ahead.

  • Can feel isolating studying remotely
  • You won’t be pushed into study
  • You won’t be held back if you want to get ahead
  • Tutorials are variable in quality and quantity
  • Fewer tutorials at higher levels
  • Need to be honest with yourself about what time you can commit


Modules have a combination of tutor marked assignments (TMAs), computer marked assignments (CMAs), extended assignments (EMAs) and exams.

TMAs are most common. You can expect 3-4 for a 30 point module and 4-6 for a 60 point module. These are submitted as PDFs online through the OU student home website3. Your tutor will mark and return to you with comments. For the maths modules you can expect one TMA per book and a question on each chapter. Tutorials are usually scheduled a week before the TMA due date and the tutor usually will go through similar problems. TMAs can take anything from a few hours to days depending on how quickly you write and how well you understand the questions. I’d always recommend hand writing TMAs so you practise your layout for the exam. Getting your results varies by tutor and can be anything from next day to weeks after you submit.

CMAs are online quizzes with multiple options for each question. You do not have to do these in a single session and can go back and change your answers as often as you like until you submit. Some of these you can do more than once and subsequent attempts will give different questions. These are a great way to check your understanding with immediate feedback. I’d recommend saving any feedback as once you’ve exited the CMA it’s difficult to get the feedback screen again.

EMAs are rare in maths but some modules do have them. These are basically longer versions of TMAs or CMAs and can be double or even more. They are usually part of the final assessment. During 2020, the remote exams were submitted as EMAs for the modules.

Depending on the module, the results from the assignments may or may not impact your overall grade. I have seen the following combinations across the modules for the BSc Mathematics:

  • Assignments have no impact on your score and are solely to help you gauge your progress and understanding
  • Assignments have no impact on your module score but you have to complete a minimum number of assignments and achieve a passing score to be eligible to enter the exam
  • Assignments contribute a percentage of your overall module score
  • The lower score from your exam or assignments is taken as your module score

Which of these is in play is not always clear from the module selection page and can change, between years. I’d always recommend treating assignments as if they count and do them all.

  • Assignments are regularly spaced throughout the course and related to where you should be in your study
  • Questions are not always worded in a similar way to the study materials
  • Feedback on TMAs is variable in both time and quality depending on your tutor
  • Impact of TMAs varies between modules – if you are short on time, prioritise the ones that count toward your final score

Revision and Exams

Exams are usually scheduled for the first two weeks in June for modules that start in October. The exact date will be confirmed in January, so keep these weeks free before you commit. If you do get a clash then you can defer but you must contact the OU straight away and have a good reason.

Modules will generally give you two revision weeks before the exam so it’s easy to lose this time if you fall behind with study. You will need to find your own way of revising. I’m definitely not the right person to give advice here as I usually find myself cramming before each exam due to work commitments! Exam papers can differ from the course materials and TMAs so be prepared for this and do as many past papers as you can as part of your revision. You can get past papers for free from the OU shop. The answers to past papers are usually posted on the module forums a couple of months before the exam. I would recommend making sure you can do as many past papers in exam conditions as possible. I used the local library and coffee shops4 as I found doing this in the house was too distracting. Mark yourself, harshly. Anything you got wrong, write out the answer and re do some similar problems and then tackle the next past paper. You’ll get a specimen paper and answers with your course materials as well. Different modules may allow you a calculator or the handbook so check during revision so you’re prepared!

If you’ve not sat an exam in a long time, it can be difficult to know what to expect. It’s exactly like school πŸ˜‰ Single desks, exam papers and silence. You can take food and drink but please nothing noisy! There will be invigilators walking around and giving you time checks and extra answer booklets. They will also check your ID so you can’t send someone else to sit the exam for you πŸ˜‰

Because of COVID, this year’s exams were sat remotely. For my last one we had a 24 hour window to access the paper and complete the computer marked part (presented as a CMA) and the hand written part (presented as an EMA) and submit both. Other students are now saying that the window has been dropped to 4 hours, 3 for the exam and one for the submission (although you can use submission time to finish off). This may change again in future.

If you fail an exam then you can take a resit but you will be awarded a maximum of a grade 4 pass (the lowest) which may impact your overall degree result. If you want to take it again then you will have to pay to retake the entire module. Talk to your tutor early about your options if you don’t think you will pass.

After the exams, you usually get a report of how you did on each question and how the rest of the students did on each questions. While the precise marks are not exposed you get which percentage groups had which number of students. From memory, there are always pretty much a bell curve as you would expect for a few hundred students of mixed abilities, but there were no fixed amount in any one grade. This makes me feel that there is not standardisation occurring across the board. However, should a question turn out to have a misprint or be judged unfair then I would expect some measure of results change to be applied5. Every year you will get people happy with the exam and people unhappy with the exam, even before the results come out. People who are unhappy with an exam paper or their results tend to be the most vocal and a common complaint is the difference to the TMAs or books – it’s critical you do past papers before the exam or you will get surprised.. I’ve certainly not seen any results that had been forced into a standard distribution or experienced questions that I thought were not representative of previous exams on the modules I took.

  • Not enough revision time is allocated
  • Most modules do not have revision tutorials
  • Limited support for revision and exams
  • Items allowed for an exam vary considerably by module
  • Answers to previous exams are student submitted and may be wrong
  • You can resit an exam, but you won’t get more than the lowest mark

Is it viable?

Before I started this degree I was sceptical of the quality – how could the OU provide something that could match the attainment of Oxford or Sussex? I’m pleased to say that I am now one of the biggest advocates for the OU and life long learning.

Somebody with an OU degree immediately shows me that they have resilience and commitment to a goal. I like to hire people with these skills!

There have been changes in the OU in recent years and with new leadership comes new ideas. One of the negatives I’ve seen is the decrease in tutorials – these were essential for providing support to many students and it’s something I’d love to see brought back. I’ve not noticed any other changes.

The OU modules count for credit transfer if you want to switch to a full time course and similarly if you feel you can’t continue full time you can get credit transfer to skip modules within the OU.

If you don’t want to do a full degree then you can convert modules to graduate diplomas, and many people do the “Open degree” where there is (nearly) complete freedom to choose modules from the full range available without being forced into a smaller set for a specific degree.

  • Decrease in tutorials recently
  • No major impact on students due to leadership change
  • Recognised qualifications and quality
  • Flexibility to study what you want


The OU works really well if you are self-motivated and determined and need light support. It’s cheaper than other options, no barriers to entry and you are in complete control of when and where you study.

On the negatives, the support you will get and the feedback from your tutor can vary enormously and has dropped noticeably in recent years. You may have to seek out additional support if you cannot learn from the materials (although this is completely possible).

If you have any other questions please do comment and I’ll answer based on my experiences!

Data visualisation – did you see what you think you saw?

There are a lot of people interested in data right now and there are a lot of visualisations to make that data easier to consume for people who are not data scientists. However, like any branch of statistics, visualisations can easily mislead. We are programmed to see patterns. If we are presented with a graphic that supports the surrounding text then we are more likely to believe the argument presented without further research1. I wrote about this on the Royal Statistical Society Data Science Section Blog in May, where reversing the colours in successive graphics can cause confusion. I’ve seen further examples and one caught my eye this month because it was being called out.

Continue reading Data visualisation – did you see what you think you saw?

Maths degree for fun? Done!

Seven years ago I was in work bored and desperate for a new challenge. My daughter had recently been born and I had decided to stop playing World of Warcraft. Needing a new challenge, I had toyed with an MBA but really wanted to do something for me. So I signed up for a BSc in Mathematics with the Open University, which I knew would take about 6 years part time while working. This week, I got the results for my final module and it was confirmed I had earned a first class honours degree. But why didn’t I do maths the first time round?

Screenshot from my OU account confirming I was eligible for a First in Mathematics
Confirmation of the results of my hard work
Continue reading Maths degree for fun? Done!

WSL2 and GPU powered ML

It’s been possible to run Linux on Windows for a few years now. Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) was released in 2016, allowing native Linux applications to be run from within Windows without the need for dual boot or virtual machine. In 2019 WSL2 was released, providing a better architecture in terms of the kernel and improving the native support. A few weeks ago, Microsoft and NVIDIA announced GPU support on WSL2 and the potential for CUDA accelerated ML on Ubuntu from within Windows. Before I dive into this in detail, I want to take a quick aside into why you might want or need to do this…

Continue reading WSL2 and GPU powered ML

STEM toy review: hydraulic robot arm

While it’s no secret I love Lego and tech in general, I also love the educational STEM toys that are released. Sometimes, the ages on the toys don’t always make sense for their complexity, leaving a child who is either frustrated at something too tricky or too simplistic. Both can leave a young person slightly disengaged with STEM, the exact opposite of the idea of these toys!

Robot Arm DIY kit, suitable for ages 10 and up.

Christmas 2019 I was given this Hydraulic Robot Arm kit, suitable for ages 10+1. With work, OU study and general life I’ve only just got around to building it2. So, let’s take a look – is it suitable for ages 10 and up for both build and principles it teaches?

Continue reading STEM toy review: hydraulic robot arm

My first remote exam experience

This week I was due to be sat in a large hall with about 200 other Open University students taking my exam for module M347, the last of the modules for the BSc in Mathematics I started for “fun1. As with students in traditional universities, March 2020 gave a lot of uncertainty2. While some modules were switched to be coursework based assessment, mine was confirmed to be a remote exam with the originally planned exam paper. The paper would be accessible as a PDF on the day of the exam and then submitted in two parts: a multiple choice computer marked section and then a human marked second section. We would not be time limited (other than by the 24 hours in the day!) So how did I feel about this and how did it go?

Continue reading My first remote exam experience

How to be a Rockstar Neural Network Developer

There’s a trend in job descriptions that the company may be looking for “Data Science Unicorns”, “Python Ninjas”, “Rockstar developers”, or more recently the dreaded “10x developer”. When companies ask this, it either means that they’re not sure what they need but they want someone who can do the work of a team or that they are deliberately targeting people who describe themselves in this way. A couple of years ago this got silly with “Rockstar” to the point that many less reputable recruitment agencies were over using the term, inspiring this tweet:

Many of us in the community saw this and smiled. One man went further. Dylan Beattie created Rockstar and it has a community of enthusiasts who are supporting the language with interpreters and transpilers.

While on lockdown I’ve been watching a lot of recordings from conferences earlier in the year that I didn’t have time to attend. One of these was NDC London, where Dylan was giving the closing session on the Art of Code. It’s well worth an hour of your time and he introduces Rockstar through the ubiquitous FizzBuzz coding challenge.

Recorded at NDC London 2020

After watching this I asked the question to myself, could I write a (simple) neuron based machine learning application in Rockstar and call myself a “Rockstar Neural Network” developer?

Continue reading How to be a Rockstar Neural Network Developer

M347 – Mathematical Statistics – preparing for the exam in the “new normal”

Today I submitted the last assessment ahead of the exam for my tutor to mark in my Mathematical Statistics module. For once, I’m actually on track with my study but it’s not been without difficulty. If you’ve been following my OU journey then you’ll know I work full time and have a family, so dedicated study time can often be a low priority. Up until the second week of March this year1 I had a reasonable routine: I’d spend the two hours I commute Monday to Friday going through the course materials and then this extra maths wouldn’t impact work or home life.

Continue reading M347 – Mathematical Statistics – preparing for the exam in the “new normal”

Remote Data Science – Interview

Last week I was interviewed by Keith Robinson of Ammonite Data, with a topic of managing data science teams remotely and all the challenges this brings. We had a much more wide ranging conversation where I looked at challenges of communication and even the impact on models that the current extraordinary events will have.

Part 1: Where I discuss communication and mental health while isolated
Part 2: Where I discuss the current data blip, security and consent, and prioritising work in crisis mode.

I hope you find these enjoyable and helpful.