Some observations on blended learning

Some of you may have seen on Twitter that I am back to classroom teaching this semester. I have two other courses that are entirely classroom-based, but as I liked teaching my writing skills course online for the past four years, and thought this mode of delivery was useful for the students, I was reluctant to let it go completely. So I decided I’d teach it as a blended course this semester. Maybe this sounds like I’d planned it all out before the course even started, but I actually wasn’t sure if it was going to be online, offline or blended until a couple of weeks into the course.

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Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Linda Pospisilova, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

One of the course components while it was online was the portfolio, or to be more specific, a learning journal in which the students reflected on various aspects of the course and commented on each other’s entries. An important purpose of the journal was to encourage interaction between students in a relatively informal setting. Students could – and did – write things like, “I thought this unit was pretty cool / useless because …” (Okay, maybe no one actually said ‘useless’.) In the early stages I read and commented on all the entries (yes, that was insane kind of time-consuming), then I had the students start commenting on one another’s entries, and finally I introduced assistant moderators (click through to read an earlier post on that).

Because we meet on campus at least once a week, there is no longer a need for regular learning journal entries, or at least no more so than in any other course. Besides, insisting that the students reflect on each unit in addition to both classroom sessions and online assignments would probably take their workload beyond the requirements for 4 ECTS (although, to be honest, I haven’t checked). However, I thought it would be interesting to ask them to reflect on their learning halfway through the course – this shouldn’t be overly taxing.

As the students are doing this, I figured I could do something similar and describe what differences I’ve noticed between the course when it was run online and in its current, blended format. Here we go, in no particular order.

  1. I have the impression that we are covering vocabulary more thoroughly. Although the course focuses on writing skills, it’s also ESP in that we’re supposed to cover a certain amount of vocabulary targeted at communication science students. This is why the units on various aspects of writing are interspersed with those on vocabulary for journalists. There are a couple of ways the online course requires students to practice this key vocab, but these mostly rely on the students making an effort and going a little further than the minimum required to get a check mark next to the activity. Which, of course, many students don’t do, at least not until the night before the final exam. Whenever I thought about this – while teaching online – I was torn between the little devil saying, “But they’re university students; it’s up to them if they revise regularly or not,” and the little angel piping up, “Oh no, but it’s up to you to create opportunities for them to study; you’ve just got to work a little hard to make it interesting and they will!” As we now meet on campus, I simply incorporate a bit of vocab revision into each session and feel that they are more comfortable with the new vocab as a result. The doubt as to whether this is primarily my responsibility or theirs (at university level) remains.
  2. Speaking of vocabulary, it also feels like we get to have more in-depth discussions of some topics because this happens both in the classroom and online. The online course has opportunities for discussion in almost every unit, but there are three, sort of meatier discussions during the semester, all linked to the vocabulary units. These are discussions all the students are expected to contribute to and they have instructions on how to interact rather than simply respond to the opening post (which tends to happen unless you specify a different set of expectations). This semester we’ve continued the online discussions in the classroom, and I felt that went quite well. I guess that makes sense as they’d already thought about the topic while contributing online.
  3. In the classroom I can introduce extra practice to target specific language areas because I can respond more quickly. Sure, you can do this online. The problem is, it’s often harder to spot specific problems because you don’t see the students’ immediate reactions, and you rely on the students being adult enough to say, “Look, I’m not really sure about this – can you explain?” I get it, I do. It’s hard to admit you don’t know something – maybe you missed the part when someone was explaining? Maybe they’ll think you’re stupid? Maybe everyone knows the answer but you? – and then you have to post your question online for the whole class to see. In the classroom, when you see that something seems to require extra explaining or practice, you can either address it immediately or in the following session. Online you can point the student who asked the question to a specific resource, but you have no idea if the student has followed up on this. Or if anyone else has. Or if you should maybe tweak/redesign that part of the course in case everyone is having the same problem … and if you do, that will be in effect as of next semester, and that group of students may not have that same problem.
  4. I feel comfortable walking the students through some sections. And we’re back to what I said before – I feel their learner autonomy should be more in evidence and it sometimes annoys me that it isn’t, but if I go with them through some of the stuff they can mostly cover on their own I won’t feel guilty for leaving them to their own devices. A good example here is the unit on punctuation, which involves a bit of background reading, some practice and checking their answers, and asking questions if something isn’t clear. In an ideal world.
  5. At first, I thought that I wouldn’t even make all the online materials available this semester, so as not to confuse the students. I’d only let them access those that we didn’t cover in class. However, that turned out not to be such a great idea, because a substantial amount of the content would have to be rewritten. If I hide one chapter, then the next one inevitably starts with, “As you have seen in the last chapter… ”. This is because the chapters are written in unit guide format. Ideally, I’d have to have two separate courses: one for the fully online version and one for the blended version. Then it occurred to me that I was probably overestimating the potential for confusion and it might be useful to have all the materials available online anyway. Some students will have missed some of the classroom sessions, and will probably want to go through the material in their own time, but even those who didn’t may want to revise. In an ideal world.
  6. Some practical things which are more skills than language-related are more easily demonstrated in class. Here I mean, for instance, showing the students how to work with proofreading/tracking tools in Word. I don’t know if all the students feel comfortable using these. If in more than half of their submissions the language hasn’t been set to English to pick up on spelling errors, I’m going to assume a quick demonstration might be helpful. Again, this is something you can do online, of course; there are plenty of videos you can just pop into the course as an additional resource or you can do your own screencast if those are too general or otherwise unsuited to your purposes. But you can’t be sure everyone’s going to watch the video, or if they watch it and something isn’t clear, that they’re going to ask for clarification. You could set up activity completion so that they have to click through to the video in order to get the check mark, but you still don’t know if they’ve seen it and there is a point at which you risk coming across as dictatorial and a tad obsessed.

Reading back over these points, I think I may have a problem reconciling the belief that autonomy should be encouraged and probably should already have fully developed by the point students get to tertiary education, with the suspicion that this is unlikely, and that it is up to the instructor to make sure the work gets done. What do you think? Is this (at least partly) determined by my teaching context (Croatia, undergrads)? At which point are the learners at risk of getting spoon-fed?

#CorpusMOOC – take two

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S B F Ryan: #edcmooc Cuppa Mooc (CC BY 2.0)

I’m doing the Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation course on Futurelearn – it started on September 26 and runs until mid-November, so there’s still time to join. It’s my second time on the course; I first did it in 2014 and have been planning to retake it ever since. There are a couple of reasons: I started late the first time around and felt I was playing catch-up the whole time, and also, for someone who’s new to CL, there’s a lot to process if you’re going to do it properly. Readings, videos, software installation… they say 3 hours a week (if you don’t count the supplementary materials) and that sounds about right, but 3 hours a week is what I expect my undergrads to spend online for a 4 ECTS course (albeit over a 16-week period), so it’s not a completely insignificant time commitment either.

The good thing about doing the course again is that the content is making more sense and going through it is faster, which means I’ve been able to watch some of the supplementary stuff as well. Compared to the 2014 run, it does seem like there are fewer people enrolled, or at least fewer of those commenting in the forums. I seem to recall up to 200-300 comments on individual activities, whereas this time I think getting to 100 is good going. Which I guess makes sense – if this is the fourth time the course has run in as many years, I would imagine it’s likely the number of CL enthusiasts who haven’t done it yet is going to taper off. Also, there seem to be rather a lot of comments of the thanks-for-the-useful-content variety, while in 2014 I think perhaps more people offered their interpretations of the various results they came up with in AntConc. These took longer to read and while I know I can’t (and am not supposed to) go through all the comments in all the forums in a MOOC – at least not if I want to eat and sleep – I seem to almost be able to do that this time. Obviously, these are just my impressions.

I can’t help looking at the course through my course designer/online instructor lens. It’s well-structured, the tutors (mentors) respond promptly (strong online presence🙂 ) and there are numerous opportunities to engage with the content, mentors and other course participants. Which I don’t do much, apart from with the content. But I’ve taken things a step further this time – I’ve added a profile pic, liked a couple of comments I thought were particularly helpful (and might be helpful to others, in case anyone is sorting comments by “most liked”) and even asked a question. All the time I thought about how I nag my students to add profile pics and ask questions in course forums as opposed to emailing me. A brief digression: I just remembered there was an interesting post on the topic of not always being eager to interact with other students over on Alastair Creelman’s blog. It took a little while to dig it up, and here it is.

I guess if I were nitpicking, the only thing that I’m a little surprised at is that the videos don’t have that slick production feel of some Coursera videos, but maybe it’s a question of cost? I’m not saying this is a problem, though.

Lest it should appear that I am dwelling too much on course design and moderation, I should note that I have also spent quite a bit of time on the AntConc screencasts (and a little less on the GraphColl ones, but there are fewer of those). I did watch the AntConc ones in 2014, but as it’s been a while since then, this time I watched them once to see what each step was about – and was happy to realize I hadn’t forgotten everything – then I watched each one again, pausing every few minutes to go through each step with my own corpus. Another brief digression – I remember hearing at the EDEN conference in 2014 that many MOOC participants don’t actually watch videos but prefer to read the transcripts. I just want to go on record here that I really appreciate the videos and like hearing a friendly voice.🙂

I did say “my own corpus” in that last paragraph. Yes, I know that sounds kind of pretentious, but it’s a teeny-tiny (for a corpus) collection of words which I converted into a text file and tagged the last time I did the course. So I like to call it a corpus. It’s actually a collection of posts from an online forum – more on that in this post which I wrote at the beginning of 2014, when it hadn’t occurred to me yet that I could do anything corpus-related with it. It has 1238 word types and 7660 tokens. I didn’t find anything terribly interesting, possibly owing to the size limitations but also to the fact that I haven’t formulated any kind of hypothesis.

I’m going to stop here and hopefully get around to doing another post later on in the course. I’m also hoping I’ll be able to focus more on CL rather than on possibly quite unhelpful observations about random stuff not directly to do with CL. I am enjoying the course, and think it will eventually prove tremendously useful. If you’re doing the course as well, I’d be interested to hear what your experience is like and if you have access to the stats I’d be curious to know if I was anywhere near right about the enrollment figures.

You’ve got about five minutes left…

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Sean MacEntee: google exam (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve just had an exam and have some time to kill, so I thought I’d start a new post. Normally I type them up in Word and only add them here when they’re pretty much done, so I never have anything in my drafts folder. But today I’m using the university computer.

When I say I’ve just had an exam, I mean my students have, and I was babysitting supervising  sitting and watching them. Today is the first time I’ve done something a little crazy – I listened to my audiobook for about half the time. Does that seem crazy to you? I’ve heard stories of teachers supposedly supervising exams, but actually reading newspapers or marking test papers/assignments instead of watching the students. I can totally understand that. Watching students scratching away with their pens in (almost) total silence for an hour or more is incredibly boring. However, unless you keep an eye on what they’re doing, I’m pretty sure they’ll find a way to cheat. I don’t know if that sounds terribly mistrustful, does it?

It occurred to me that I’ve never had any input/training on how to administer/supervise tests/exams. Maybe that’s fine and it isn’t necessary, because, I mean, how difficult is it? We’ve taken a bunch of exams when we were students; it’s all pretty straightforward.

I thought I’d briefly describe what I do. Now that I teach in a university setting, I’m less flexible than I used to be in a language school. I try to put together the questions a couple of days before the exam date, so I can read through them with fresh eyes on the day before/of the exam. It’s really embarrassing to catch typos and questions that have more than one correct answer – unless I’ve deliberately planned it that way – when a student asks you to explain something in the middle of the exam. Plus, you’re likely to get flustered (okay, I’m likely to get flustered) and will miss the two students in the back row having a chat.

On the day itself I make enough photocopies for the students who have signed up – I check this online – and always a copy or two extra for the students who didn’t for whatever reason. I don’t have to let them take the exam if their name isn’t on the list, but I usually don’t mind.

When we’re all in the exam hall, I make sure they’re not sitting too close together, and their bags, etc. aren’t too close to them. I don’t ask them to leave their bags and books on the desks in the front row because I rarely have more than 15 or so candidates, and I can easily see if someone is sneaking glances at their open bag. Or something. If I know there are going to be more students than can comfortably sit so that there’s an empty chair on either side of them, I’ll have version A and B of the paper.

I hand out the papers and tell the students how much time they have. At the language school I used to go through the instructions for each task with the whole group, and warn them about common mistakes or what to watch out for, but I’ve come to realize that when the student gets their hands on the exam paper, they just want to get started. Putting them through reading the instructions together would be torture for most.

So, they’re all scribbling away and I start off by sitting behind the teacher’s desk (the instructor’s desk?) – definitely the only time I’ll be sitting down in the classroom unless I’m teaching 121 or a really small group. Then as time goes on, it’s like in a movie when they want to show time is going by – the scene is the same, but I’m behind the desk, then I’m sitting on the desk, then I’m standing at the back of the room, then by the door, and finally by the window. Then behind the desk again. It’s more to get exercise, really, than to check if anyone’s looking at anything other than their paper.

Time drags by. Occasionally, someone asks a question, and I go up to them and answer quietly so as not to disturb the others. Around halfway through, I say half their time is up, and it seems like everyone wakes up for a second. I warn them when they have around 5 minutes left as well. I usually wait for everyone to hand in their papers themselves – I can’t bring myself to say, “Pens down, everyone!” If that means waiting 5 minutes longer, that’s fine. I might say something like, “Okay, Martina, your hour’s up now, so you should be thinking about finishing off that last sentence in the next couple of minutes.” As the students leave, I tell them when they’ll be getting their results.

When I taught at the language school, I was more helpful (flexible) in the sense that I would watch out if anyone had problems completing a particular task and try to nudge them in the right direction. I wouldn’t do that with undergrads. Also, if, say, most people wanted to listen to the recording (in the listening part of the exam) more than twice, we’d do that. There really is no point – I felt – making adult learners who’re paying for their courses feel as if the whole structure is really rigid.

24 hours later – I didn’t have time to finish yesterday, but on the plus side, I can confirm that the drafts folder didn’t do anything rash, like go ahead and publish on its own accord, so I may yet use it again.

So, greater flexibility in a language school – there’s one more thing I wanted to add. I would sometimes have students who had difficulty keeping their eyes on their own paper. These would as often as not be students who were less accurate in terms of grammar than the rest of the group and probably had a more restricted vocabulary when it came to production, but they didn’t really have a hard time keeping up with the others or following what we were doing. I would then have to decide – especially if we were using a B2 coursebook, for instance – if it was worth it making those people feel bad for getting very few points on the future continuous vs future perfect task (or something equally unlikely to prove indispensable in everyday conversation) and possibly failing the exam. Which they would then have to take again with all the attendant stress; there would be little improvement in accuracy, and they would still continue with the group next semester. I would often pretend I didn’t see them peeking at their neighbor’s paper.

What about you? How seriously are exams taken where you teach? Do you ever multitask as you supervise? What do you do if see/catch students cheating?