Should you talk to your online students?

Alice Bartlett: speech bubble (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This came up in my Twitter feed the other day. 

Substitute “researchers” with “teachers” and it seemed such an obvious question. But it wouldn’t have been just two months ago. You might remember that I recently wrote about a tweak I was planning to introduce to my online course this semester – that’s tweak three in this post – and I was pretty excited about it. I was finding it hard to believe that prior to this semester I’d never even considered talking to my students on a regular basis (because we were doing a writing skills course, so why would I??) and I was itching to start making up for this. 

My initial vague idea was to add an audio file to each unit of the course (that’s 8 in total) and to use this way of communicating to address what the students were doing well and give them a couple of tips on what to focus on in the unit with a view to the final exam. What I’ve found happens with some learners is that they don’t have the motivation to revise material online as they would have to in class. In a traditional classroom environment I’d work in some kind of vocab revision activity every time we met. It’s different online: they’re responsible for revising and even if I made them do revision exercises (in the sense of making this a prerequisite to qualifying for the final) I couldn’t be sure if everything was clear – I’d have to rely on them asking questions. Which they don’t always – or even often – do. But I digress.

As I was saying, so that’s one audio file per unit. I started with unit one and because we’re now halfway through the course, I wanted to do jot down a couple of observations. They’re going to be completely random; basically these are just things I mull over as I walk to work (another thing I’ve recently started doing). 

The recordings are getting longer every time.

The first one was a little over 5 minutes, while the last one was just over 16. This is definitely due to the fact that I don’t use SpeakPipe, which cuts you off after 5 minutes (possibly this wouldn’t happen if you were logged in; I haven’t checked). I’ve written about using SpeakPipe for audio comments when students request feedback on specific areas of their writing and I actually like the time limitation because it forces me to be succinct. I guess I could be less focused and then go back and edit bits out but being succinct seems like less work. I figured, however, that these recordings were going to be a bit different and I’d probably have more ground to cover, so having to stay under 5 minutes might be too challenging and not worth the effort. So I use 123 Apps’ voice recorder, which doesn’t require me to log in, plus I can talk as long as I like. Apparently.

I still have to plan what I’m going to say.

This is “still” as in expressing contrast to being able to talk as long as I like, not as in I’m likely to stop planning what I’m going to say at some point. I’m a pretty recent convert to podcasts and listening to them is generally an excellent way of passing the time, unless someone is very obviously thinking through what they’re saying on the spot. I don’t like hearing the same message delivered three different ways; I mean, I understand that this is what happens in natural speech (digressing, rephrasing, making sure the other person gets what we’re saying) but if I’m listening (and not taking part) I don’t necessarily need or want the conversation to be quite so natural.  

So what I do is make a note of what I want to address in the recording. For the last two recordings these notes have taken up about half an A4 page and I think this makes what I say sound more structured (if not exactly succinct) and thus hopefully easier for the students to process. 

I really should get some decent equipment.

In spite of having been planning to get a decent microphone for the last couple of years, I still haven’t gotten around to it, so I use the built in one, trying to convince myself that the sound quality doesn’t have to be great: the students are only likely to listen to the recording once. However, as I’m usually aware of the change in sound quality when podcast hosts happily announce they have new mikes, I’m pretty sure students would appreciate this too. If you have any recommendations for something that is both affordable and good quality, please let me know in the comments.

Maybe I should keep track of how many people actually listen anyway. 

I first got the idea of adding these recordings to the course when I saw audio files in other people’s courses – if you’re interested in more detail on this, check the post on tweaks linked to in the first paragraph – and they seemed to be very prominently displayed as in this image. 

Screenshot from mobile app

I liked this as I had the impression it stood out and drew course participants’ attention, so I thought I’d add mine the same way. In my course the units are unhidden one by one, so when they see a new unit, the students immediately see the audio is there. I also recommend that they listen when I post the announcement of each new unit. 

However, the disadvantage of adding audio content to a Moodle topic this way means I have no way of telling if anyone has actually played it. I could add it as a resource instead, so I’d have some indication of whether someone clicked on it, though, of course, this doesn’t mean they listened to it all the way through. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of turning it into another resource the students feel they have to click on; I want it to be optional. I’ve added a question on the recordings to the reflection prompts at the end of the current unit, so maybe some will address this in their learning journals.


I’d written most of this post up a couple of days ago but on adding that last sentence, I thought I’d wait until we were done with unit so as to have the opportunity to look at the learning journals and round the post off with student reactions, if any.

It turns out quite a few people commented on the recordings, which was reassuring as they’d clearly listened to them. The overall impression seems to be that they are helpful in terms of clarifying what to focus on and compensating somewhat for lack of F2F contact. At least one person liked the fact that they cover what was done well in the unit before, which I was pleased with. I sometimes worry I don’t adequately acknowledge all the effort the students put in.

On the other hand, some people felt the recordings were too long and found it difficult to focus for a longer stretch of time. As someone who is exposed to audio content in my L2 every single day, be this a podcast or an audiobook, I think I may have underestimated the level of difficulty for students, given the absence of a transcript or visual cues. A couple of problems were noted: an inability to focus for so long, difficulty remembering the main points and the lack of visual support (at least one person said they found it easier to be able to go back over a sentence in order to process it, as they would when reading).

I think this’ll be very useful in planning subsequent recordings. Which changes would you make? Apart from watching out for the length. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

Digital citizenship education (DCE)

I’ve discovered the title is a tongue twister, especially if I try to say it in Croatian. And I had to say it quite a few times over the last few days because I delivered a workshop on the topic at the CARNET Users’ Conference a few days ago. This is an annual edtech conference organized by my institution and it’s very well attended by Croatian standards, with over 1100 delegates this year. 

I guess I had an idea of what digital citizenship entailed prior to becoming a little more involved in the topic earlier this year and if pressed, I suspect I would have defined a digital citizen as… someone who is equipped to function in a digital society? I suppose that kind of rules out my dad, who lives in complete denial as far as the internet is concerned (except for the weather app that he uses religiously). 🙂

In April I attended a training session on DCE on behalf of my institution and tweeted about it a tiny bit – apart from generally not being very good at tweeting live from events and focusing on what people around me are saying at the same time, I wasn’t sure what the extent of our involvement in DCE promotion in Croatia was going to be. The training session was organized by the Council of Europe and was aimed at familiarizing the participants with the DCE project as well as some of the materials which had been produced therein. One of these is the Digital Citizenship Education Handbook, which you can see in the tweet.

My very recent workshop was a general one, aiming to introduce the 10 domains of digital citizenship as identified by the DCE expert group and briefly present the project, with a focus on the project outputs that the workshop participants can use in their teaching. 

In preparing the workshop I used another project output: the trainers’ pack, which had been in its final prep stage in April and is, I think, close to publication now. The materials in the trainers’ pack have been designed specifically for the purpose of running workshops to familiarize teachers and other potential participants (whole schools, parents, students) with the concept of DCE. The workshop was held in Croatian.

Because this was a workshop, a significant amount of participant input was envisaged, which is why there are relatively few slides (which also often contain references to offline materials). What you can see at a glance are the 10 DCE domains and links to the project website and the handbook (these last two are available only in English). 

On a personal note, this was the first (I think) workshop I ran entirely on my own in Croatian, so I was pretty pleased with how it went. Perhaps not surprisingly, if you present or run workshops which are ELT-related, this is usually done in English. As this was an edtech conference, there may have been expectations on the part of some of the participants that there would be greater emphasis on the digital in the title, but participant contributions were great and very useful.

I think I’ll stop here and possibly revisit this topic somewhere down the line if I do some more presenting on it or otherwise promote it in my context. Thanks to Jonathan for prompting me to write this up as I thought the slides might benefit from a bit of context (in English). 

Three tweaks

Sarah Horrigan: Listen (CC BY-NC 2.0)

That’s tweaks as in non-earth-shattering changes I’ve introduced to the course this semester. In case you were wondering if I was still teaching, yes, the online writing skills course is still going strong, despite the reservations I’ve been having about teaching it for the seventh (gulp) year in this format. I toyed with the idea of giving up tertiary teaching completely and finding a course at a language school. Then I thought I might give up the writing skills course and take up the presenting skills one again (for graduate students) – I’d really enjoyed teaching it a couple of years ago. Eventually, inertia did its thing (plus a busy schedule which means I’d find it really hard to teach F2F regularly for a sustained period of time plus the fact that I’m actually very fond of teaching online)… and here we are.

Tweak 1

Normally, I hand out the course guidelines at the beginning of each semester and we go through them in the (introductory) campus sessions. This is a document in which you’d bury the instructions for the students to send you a picture of an alligator. Dinosaur? Wait a sec. Yup, dinosaur. I don’t call it a syllabus because that’s what I call another document where we have the breakdown of topics which are going to be covered in the course. The guidelines are about things like deadlines, grading, referencing, tips on how to manage the online component, etc. Reasoning that time spent discussing the course guidelines is essentially wasted because they have nothing to do with writing skills, I used to set the pace for going through them point by point and clarifying anything I thought needed clarification.

This time around I asked the students to read through them (in one of the F2F sessions) and to come up with 1-2 questions they wanted me to answer. I thought this went really well. I’d initially said everyone *had* to come up with at least one question, figuring that if questions were optional, I’d be lucky to end up with 2 in total. In the end, more than half the students didn’t have a question (or someone had already asked the same one) but some people had more than one, so a very useful discussion developed. I thought the way we did it this semester was possibly more useful to the students. Following up on this, I asked the students to note down their questions and am going to add a FAQ section to the online version of the guidelines. 

Tweak 2

I’ve written previously about our use of Mahara for the students’ learning journals. The way this is set up is that the students join a closed group (a new one every semester) and create their own pages which they share with the group. Each student’s journal is then accessed by clicking on their page. 

What I used to do before was share my own page with the group, which was meant to show students if they were on the right track as regards the page setup. On this page I would have a sample journal entry – in the early iterations of the course I tried to add reflections regularly but was unable to keep this up – the slides on reflective writing which I also wrote about at one point and often other resources (linked to writing skills). The idea was partly to demonstrate what a portfolio page could be used for apart from sharing a learning journal. I suppose this would be sort of useful if there was a reason for students to check my page out regularly, but as mine was the only one which wasn’t updated past the sample journal entry there was really no reason for students to visit it later on in the course.

This time I didn’t share my page with the group, but added my resources directly to the group homepage. I figured it would make the environment look more friendly and accessible (and useful) because everyone would be able to see the resources right away. Besides, this will be more effective at pushing me to share new resources, even if I haven’t figured out how often I’ll be doing this yet. I really like online learning environments where additional links are available for people to explore in their own time. 

Tweak 3

This is the one I’m looking forward to most, although I haven’t done anything about it yet. Like a lot of ideas that come to me as I scroll through my Twitter feed, this was also triggered by others’ ideas. Here I remember seeing two courses in which audio recordings obviously featured – I can’t remember how exactly but I got the impression that these were recordings of the tutors speaking. One was the TBLT course by SLB Coop and the other a course shared by Andrew Porterfield (I think it was part of a project). I thought they’d made use of the H5P content type called audio recorder. Then Sandra A. Rogers shared one of her courses in which she had a video welcoming students to the course. These bits of info came together like jigsaw pieces in that they made me realize I wasn’t talking to the students as much as I could/should be. So I decided I’d be adding an audio recording (these take less time to prepare than videos) to each unit. I’m still not entirely sure what they’ll be about or even if they’ll be about the same thing each time. Right now, I’m thinking I’ll focus on aspects people have found tricky and maybe point out what they should focus on as they prepare for the exam; it seems to me it wouldn’t hurt to start addressing potential pitfalls early on. Much as I’d like to be able to ignore the exam completely, this isn’t an option. Another thing that I’d like to speak about in the recordings is what the students are doing well and draw attention to examples of good practice.

So, that’s it. Nothing major but still, changes for the better, I think. If you were taking a writing skills course, what kind of resources would you like/expect to explore (the optional kind)? What would you address in the audio recordings? Would you even do them or do you think video is better?  

Thank you for reading!