Studying mathematics at the Open University

Quite some time ago (in 2011) the Open University was just about to introduce their new fee arrangements. This was going to take a typical course from ~£400 to £1250. I always had a desire to return to tertiary education and on a bit of a whim decided to register for a Mathematics Degree (B31) and several years later here I am still working through it.

Studying with the OU has been immensely rewarding but at the same time incredibly difficult. I put much of the difficulty down to simple time management - working full time and having a number of side projects there's never really enough time to do everything. You very much end up avoiding going out, staying up late in the evenings, cutting out gaming and reading 'fun' books. It's tough but at the same time you feel committed to seeing it through.

One phrase particular to the OU is TMA this stands for "Tutor Marked Assignment" and they form the main continuous assessment method for courses before you do an exam. If you're taking things seriously you'll sink hours and hours into them.

On the way to Germany On the Eurostar to Brussells - TMAs wait for no-one!


There are a number of required courses and a free choice too.

  • MST121 - Using Mathematics (Autumn 2011)
  • M248 - Analysing Data (Spring 2012)
  • MS221 - Exploring Mathematics (Autumn 2012)
  • M336 - Artifical & Natural Intelligence (Spring 2013)
  • M208 - Pure Mathematics (October 2013)
  • M140 - Introducing Statistics (October 2014)
  • MST210 - Mathematical methods, models and modelling (October 2014)

In the coming years I'm aiming to the following
in this order (availability permitting):

  • MT365 - Graphs, networks and design (October 2015)
  • SM358 - The quantum world (Spring 2016)
  • M381 - Number theory and mathematical logic (October 2016)
  • M336 - Groups and geometry (Spring 2017)


Here I am at Colossus recently at
the National Museum of Computing.

me at colossus

Software used

Throughout the courses various software is mandated. I've worked with as part of the course the following:

  • Minitab - I really dislike this; this is a statistics program (so used on M248, M140) and it has a binary, non-portable format MTW (minitab worksheet) that the course instructors insist on using instead of MTP which is at least ASCII. Nothing FOSS or otherwise but Minitab will read this - not R, not Py*, not even Mathematica. The software itself is OK to use but it's ridiculously locked down.
  • JavaNNS - a neural network simulation software that is used in M366. This is actually quite a lot of fun and is almost magic.


  • Mathcad - a CAS and analysis software; it feels out of date and old (the version used on the courses is Mathcad 14 which is to be fair behind the latest release). Users on the forums tend to complain about it's syntax, I put this down to the non-WYSIWYG handling of spaces - Mathcad, like LaTeX for example, cares only about the first space, you can't just keep hitting it to 'format' your work.

    I think once you get that things are a lot easier. That said I'd really much prefer to avoid it all together and use Scipy.

  • Maxima - for MST210, a mechanics focused module, rather than propietary software the choice is made to use Maxima. Lots of students seem to hate this but I love it - in asmuch as it's freely available on all my computers, it has zero licensing issues on account of being totally open source and the syntax is something I'm used to.

All that said, as a Linux (and these days OS X on account of work) & long time Python user I tend to do most of my work using scipy
within pylab. In addition I make use of sympy. When writing up my assignments I always use Lyx. For what I need it to do it's the easiest and most productive way for me to create LaTeX output. Friends have critiszed it's code output (a bit like me complaining about Dreamweaver's generated code back in the early 2000's) but I'm purely interested in the mathematics and not how nice my LaTeX code is. I'm often working on these things late in the night.

Encouraged by MST210 to draw more of my diagrams using LaTeX though I've been attempting to learn Tikz - it's by far the defacto standard and produces beautiful output. I'm very much a beginner with this so the most complicated it gets is a simple force diagram.

force diagram

To keep everything organized I've used Git to create a repository with everything I need in it - TMA work, course PDFs, notes and source code. This only takes up a few hundred megabytes and is well worth it for the ease of working and backup.

I try to produce mindmaps when taking notes but due to time pressures I'm often playing catchup and end up working on these during study sessions towards exam time. For these I use the free and slightly quirky Freemind.

part of a mindmap for M366