Categories
Edtech Moodle online course Tertiary teaching

A not so ordinary semester

Bryan Alexander: cat cuddles laptop (CC BY 2.0)

I honestly expected I would be writing this post sooner, even though the frequency with which I normally produce new posts probably should not have led me to expect this. At the very least, I expected I would write something during the lockdown because, for some reason, I thought I might have more time. And here we are, at what currently looks like the tail end of the pandemic in Croatia, and I haven’t written a thing. So I figured I’d better hurry up, if for no other reason than to have a sort of record of what this semester has been like. It’s almost over.

Drum roll… It’s actually been very much like any other semester over the last couple of years. Readers of this blog know that I teach writing skills to undergrads, asynchronously, in Moodle. Each semester we spend about 3 and a half months in an online environment and we don’t see each other from the introductory sessions on campus to the final exams. We never have synchronous sessions. I’ve been planning to have one or two of these per semester since the beginning of the course, but the course is structured so that there is no real need for synchronous elements and I haven’t yet gotten around to it. 

I know you’re probably thinking it’s easy for me because I teach writing skills and of course you’re right. It wouldn’t be as easy if I were teaching regular English classes at elementary school, say. Or if I was running a language school, like the last time the recession hit.    

I didn’t think this post through in terms of deciding what to write about except vaguely that it would be about “the COVID semester”. So maybe it would be best to just note down random observations and see where that takes me. Some of them might be fleshed out to form a paragraph and some might not.

  • We had our usual introductory campus sessions over the first two weeks back in February/March. My favorite part of these was a new twist on the getting to know you activity.
  • My class is usually the only one my students take which is delivered fully online. Even for those who are entirely uninterested in writing in English, the delivery format lends it a touch of novelty. Obviously, this semester’s class did not get to experience the novelty factor, which is making me worry I’m boring them out of their skulls. I worry none of them will see any of the advantages of online learning because it’s being stuffed down their throats.
  • Over the first week or two of everyone transitioning online, the system was glacially slow. Everyone was trying to replicate their standard working hours online and you could not get anything done in the morning. I remember telling the students to log on in the evenings/early in the morning (before 8) in order to avoid frustration. Things improved after a while; now it’s fine.
  • There was the earthquake. We had an earthquake a few days into the lockdown. It’s been almost 2 months and only recently have I begun to catch myself realizing that I’ve actually gone without thinking about it for a couple of hours.
  • There were/are the exchange students. Three are still on the course and one was repatriated before the earthquake. I sent one of them a couple of emails asking how they were and if there was anything I could do to help. I felt that was the least I could do – it really didn’t seem particularly thoughtful or considerate – and was told that my emails were the most compassionate the student had received. It made me think about exchange students in general and how most of the time they must have wonderful learning (and other) experiences but then they could go on an exchange in a semester like this one and end up feeling lost and needing support. I was surprised at the impact of a small message of support and was very glad I had reached out to the student. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we sometimes have no idea how something that to us seems like a small gesture will end up helping someone.
  • I tried out Flipgrid, which did not turn out as I’d hoped. More on this in a separate post (partly in the hope of pushing myself to tentatively plan another post and partly because I feel this topic could be fleshed out a bit).
  • Despite the challenges of the semester, the students have been observing the deadlines more faithfully than in most (perhaps even all) previous semesters. I may feel I experienced these disruptions to a far lesser degree than most teachers but doing all their classwork online has been new to my students. I was (and still am) prepared to be more flexible than usual in terms of accepting work submitted late, but there has actually been very little of that. 
  • I am as late with my feedback as ever. I have focused on feedback on those tasks where it takes on a significant formative function, and students have received this more or less on time. But there are tasks where the feedback is primarily summative and these I have yet to address. 

There are other details that come to mind but I’m going to wrap things up and post this. Just for the record, the last couple of paragraphs were not written on the same day (or even week, for that matter) as the first few, so it’s probably best not to procrastinate. 

I hope your online semester has been good or at least okay. I hope you and your families and students are doing well. If you’d like to share any thoughts or observations re the topics in the post, I look forward to hearing from you in the comments!  

Categories
online course Tertiary teaching

Exam tourist

andeecollard: Exam (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s that time of year again. I think I’ve written before about how much I dislike having to administer exams and if I had any choice in the matter, my students wouldn’t have to take exams at all, but it’s not up for discussion in a university setting where I live.

Today I wanted to vent a little about something I find particularly annoying: a practice we jokingly refer to as “exam tourism” in Croatian. Students show up for the exam having previously done virtually zero prep on the off-chance that they’ll pass, or if not, at the very least they’ll get to see what the exam paper looks like, so they’ll be more likely to get a better grade when the next exam date rolls around. They have 4 attempts at taking the exam before they need to retake the course, so they (probably) figure they’re pretty safe and aren’t wasting an attempt. 

I can see how from the students’ perspective this might be a win-win situation, but from where I’m sitting it’s a sad waste of time. I don’t know about other courses but “tourist” exam papers that get handed in to me are usually either only half filled in or show the student hasn’t read (or perhaps put in effort to understand) the instructions, and the scores are pretty dismal as a result. I suspect the students aren’t that concerned because they may not even have expected to pass, but I think I can be excused for feeling fairly resentful at having to waste my time grading papers whose authors haven’t bothered to put in the least bit of effort. I’m sure some would say that’s my job. 

Lest you should be thinking, well maybe students wouldn’t need to resort to this if they only had a chance to practice for the exam a bit in class, let me say that there is an entire unit aimed at practice and revision on our online course, plus there’s a screencast walking the students through the exam paper, describing each exercise type and recommending what to focus on during revision.

I’m curious whether this is a common practice in other countries as well? A Croatian colleague purportedly tells their students that they aren’t allowed to do the tourist thing; if I understand correctly, should a student do this and happen to scrape through, they’ll have to accept a lower grade overall. Normally, once a student passes the exam, their exam grade is added to their other grades from the semester (coursework, etc.) and their final grade is how all this averages out. This is a bit simplistic, but essentially how it works. But the student needs to formally accept this average as their final grade, which means that those who aren’t happy with the exam grade pulling their average down can retake the exam, in theory 3 times. They may not wish to bother with the third attempt because that involves a panel of three examiners, as it’s the “last strike before you’re out” exam.

If you teach in a university setting, how many attempts do your students have at doing the final exam? Do you ever get the impression that students show up at the exam as “tourists”? Does 4 attempts seem like a fair number to you? 

Categories
Edtech Moodle online course

Should your online students (want to) talk to you?

Photo “headphones” taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/mzn37/ by Michael Newman, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license 

This is a follow-up post on the one from earlier this month, on the audio files I’ve been adding to the online course this semester.

Because several of the students had made the point in their learning journals that they were finding it challenging to focus on longer stretches of audio, I decided to try out Neil’s suggestion of adding shorter comments to the H5P Course Presentation content type.

This now pretty much looks like your typical PowerPoint slide with blue play buttons next to each bullet point. I add the Course Presentation to the relevant unit and choose the “available but not shown on course page” option so that I can embed it into the unit guide which is organized in the Moodle Book resource. I do this so that the students will access it in the order I’d like them to, i.e. that will (hopefully) make the most sense. 

I did say the students were free to comment on what they thought of this change – if they thought it made processing the audio any easier – in their learning journals, but as I haven’t had any takers yet, I’m not sure what they think. 

From my perspective, it’s definitely easier and quicker as far as planning goes. I haven’t opened the document in which I used to plan what I was going to say since I last made a longer recording. I jot down the ideas in a notebook and it’s just a couple of words for each point I plan to address. I’ve only done two units this way and the average is 7 recordings per unit, which I think overall adds up to a little more than the 15 minutes the single recordings per unit would take, but I make sure to state clearly that the students don’t need to listen to these in one go. 

I also find it much easier to record a 3-minute comment in the sense that I feel very aware it’s much easier to re-record if I go off on a tangent or if a text message comes through and distracts me. I just need to remember to say at the beginning of each recording what it’s going to be about, so those listening are sure which file goes with which bullet point.

In the last unit I did this for I also added a slide with links to a couple of video resources and websites, which I then expanded on in the audio comments, so right now Course Presentation is looking like a far more versatile resource than just audio files.

You know when you get excited about something and figure everyone will be just as thrilled about it as you are? Despite writing about the audio files as an experiment, I’d already made up my mind that they added something (valuable) to the course and expected the students to feel the same way. Halfway through the course I added an optional activity which involved the H5P Audio Recorder content type and instructions for students to record an audio comment no longer than 2 minutes – I called the activity “Checking in” – and share the recording on a Padlet wall. 

Only one student took part in this activity, which was a bit of an anticlimax. Maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise as it was optional, but 2 minutes – okay, probably more like 10 minutes if you factor in prep time (there were prompts), downloading and sharing to Padlet – didn’t seem likely to discourage the entire group. Clearly I miscalculated here but I’m not sure why.

In earlier course runs I used to offer the option of recording some learning journal audio entries and very few students ever took this up, which I attributed to the probability that these entries were likely to take more prep time. But there might have been an additional factor: some students said they hated the sound of their voice and couldn’t bear to listen to themselves. 

I thought hearing other students’ voices would make their online presence more evident and therefore have a bonding and motivating effect, but the whole thing fell flat. Apart from feeling a tad disappointed – the students don’t seem uninterested in the course overall – I’m not sure if I should consider this a chance development and repeat the experiment or just drop it. 

If you have any ideas re why students may not be as excited about the opportunities afforded by audio as I am, I’d love to hear them!

Thanks for reading and I hope you’re having a lovely holiday season! Thank you for being around this year. 🙂