One step forward, one step back

I was recently tagged by online teacher and blogger Joanna Malefaki from Greece in the sandwich reflection (#sandwichreflection) blog challenge. For those of you who find reading about food makes them head for the fridge: it’s not that kind of post.

The idea of this snack-inspired reflection is based on the concept of the sandwich feedback, which entails alternating praise and suggestions for improvement, somewhat like layering sandwich fillings. My preferred feedback technique is less sophisticated and closer to a slice of bread spread with a single topping: I offer all the positive comments first and then move on to constructive criticism. I suspect this bread analogy will not stretch any further, so I’d better move on…before it goes stale (sorry, couldn’t resist) :P.

Anyway, the challenge is to reflect on the past academic year by listing an accomplishment, followed by a weakness, followed in turn by another achievement. This serves to prevent us from focusing overly on what we perceive to have failed at. An action plan should be drawn up at the end, describing how we intend to address the weakness(es).

And so…it’s been a little over a year that I found myself officially unemployed for the first time since university (which wasn’t exactly yesterday). Really, I hear you saying, is that supposed to be starting off on a positive note? True, unemployment is not much of an achievement in Croatia – sadly, countless people are managing this with apparently very little conscious effort – but happily one year on I’m almost as busy as I used to be in the days of Octopus. This is mostly due to my foray into online course design and instruction; see this post for more detail. Prior to moving to Belgium my knowledge of online learning was predominantly theoretical, which is why I’m all the more pleased with having made the transition more or less successfully.

Life would undoubtedly be boring if everything was perfection (or so I’ve heard people say often enough), and as much as I am enjoying teaching online, this past semester I’ve committed the ultimate teaching transgression – neglecting the students. It wasn’t intentional nor was it really for lack of time, though this certainly played a part. I think I was mostly burned out from the winter semester. I had designed the entire course, which meant creating and uploading all the materials. I created visuals, made videos, designed quizzes…the works. I also commented on all the students’ learning journals entries (when I say all, I mean that quite literally), and made podcasts and screencasts with feedback on their assignments. It was fun, challenging, and fulfilling. I collected feedback (that I wrote about here), which convinced me that I was on the right track and provided ideas on what to focus on in the next semester. The summer semester wasn’t supposed to be half as time-consuming. There were fewer students. All the materials were there in Moodle, and all I had to do was focus on moderating discussions and giving feedback. But I didn’t do as much of that as I should have done, and for this reason I feel as if I’ve failed the students.

It’s only now that I’ve put this down in writing that I can see the value of the sandwich reflection. Instead of obsessing over feelings of guilt, you’re required to come up with something you feel went well. Therapeutic, this. And since there’s obviously an underlying theme of online learning, why not stick with it. I sent in a proposal earlier this year for the EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) annual conference, which was, by coincidence, going to be held in Zagreb while I was going to be in town. I was pleased and honored to be able to present my online course at a poster session the week before last. Perhaps I run the risk of sounding conceited or worse when I say that when I submit a proposal for an ELT conference I have relatively high hopes that it will be accepted, but I think this is not an unreasonable way to feel if you’ve been teaching for over 15 years. EDEN, on the other hand, has nothing to do with ELT. This time I had no absolutely clue as to whether my proposal was relevant, interesting or good enough. And so, when it was accepted, it felt a little as if the gods of online learning had benevolently nodded in my direction and winked. You know, if they existed.

eden
Benefits of a June conference – enjoying a coffee break outdoors!

Action plan

So, to go back now to failing the students’ expectations. How can I be sure it won’t happen again next semester, or the semester after that? A large part of the problem here is lack of institutional support. A well-designed and run asynchronous online course is not meant to be a one-(wo)man show. The course designer does his/her part of the work, the tutor does their part. Ideally, more than one tutor. Everyone is adequately financially compensated for their efforts.

That is the way things should play out, but they don’t. The institution is not unhappy with the way I teach my course, but I’m not going to get a course designer to collaborate with and there will be no other tutors. In an economy where everything that can be cut has been mercilessly pared back, it would be laughable to expect otherwise. So burnout is something that I can safely expect to have to cope with next semester.

How do I minimize the damage? I’m not really sure at this point, but think the answer may lie in organizing my time more efficiently. That is, working from home, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that your day need not consist of discrete time slots dedicated to particular activities as it would be if you were teaching in an offline environment. And, of course, greater flexibility is often perceived as an advantage. However, right now I’m thinking it might be helpful to draw up a schedule as specific as Wednesday, 9:00 – 12:00 feedback on journal entries, 12:30 – 2:30 moderating discussions, etc. Committing to an obligation in writing means I’m much more likely to get to grips with it when I originally planned to, if for no other reason than the feeling of satisfaction when I cross it off my to-do list.

Another thought I’m toying with is to drop the notion that the instructor should be the one to provide feedback on absolutely every student learning journal entry, and instead involve students in commenting on others’ entries to a greater degree.

Last thought: finally start using the Moodle gradebook now that I’ve figured out how to adapt it to my course. We’ll see how all of this will work out. If you have any other suggestions, I would love to hear them in the comments.

A very warm thanks to Joanna for including me in the #sandwichreflection challenge. Make sure you read Joanna’s reflection here, and see who else she’s tagged as well .

 

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6 thoughts on “One step forward, one step back

  1. I loved reading your reflection and your action plan. I like the idea of spreading out the journal feedback. I too found it hard to give feedback to all my sts and for every single journal entry!! Thanks for sharing Vedrana : )

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    1. Hi Joanna,

      Thanks for coming up with the #sandwichreflection tag idea! I was pretty disappointed with myself for not being consistent with the feedback, but devising an action plan in writing made me feel much better. I guess we all slip up now and then, but it’s important to stay on the right track. I think spreading out the feedback should help with that.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  2. Hana Tichá

    Hi Vedrana.
    I really love reading your posts. I think it’s because you work in a slightly different ‘field’ of ELT – online teaching – which makes the reading so exciting for me. But as it turns out, most of your joys and sorrows are equivalent to what a ‘traditional’ teacher like me experiences in a brick and mortar school. The question of time management, for example, is what troubles most of us, no matter where or what we teach.
    One of the problems you describe reminds me of something I experienced as an MA student a couple of years ago: we had a great teacher who set up a methodology Moodle course for us. It was fascinating, fun and new. The teacher interacted with us on a daily basis at the beginning, so we became really motivated. However, gradually, she turned up less and less and finally she disappeared completely from the online environment, and we were left to our own devices. It looked as if she did that on purpose to help us become more independent and autonomous, but I suspect (and you’ve just corroborated my story) that it may have been due to lack of time or maybe a kind of burnout as well that she started ‘neglecting’ us students. I imagine it’s extremely time- and energy-consuming to set up and run a Moodle course and you’ve actually pointed to a danger related to on-line teaching in general – the lack of personal contact, which may, in effect, remain hidden because the teacher simply believes that everything is all right because the course is running smoothly.
    Anyway, your action plan sounds great. The idea of drawing up a schedule sounds feasible. However, personally, I’m not very good at setting myself deadlines – I prefer the Sword of Damocles hanging over me 🙂 This reminds me, I haven’t done my sandwich reflection yet.
    Hana

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    1. Hi Hana,
      Thanks for the lovely and thoughtful comment – always a pleasure to read your words! It definitely sounds like your Moodle tutor might have found herself in a similar situation to mine, although if you google Gilly Salmon’s five-stage model of e-learning (maybe you’re familiar with it) the tutor/moderator has a more active role to play in the first two stages (at the beginning of the course), while in the last two the course participants take center stage and responsibility for their own learning. So, maybe your tutor was simply applying this model, especially if, as you say, you got the impression she was doing it to foster your independence. (Damn, I should have thought of this while I was writing my reflection! 🙂 )
      But, no, the tutor isn’t supposed to disappear altogether. When I was writing this post, I was actually thinking just in terms of this one course (I suspect it’s the feelings of guilt!), but thank you for pointing out that a lack of personal contact definitely presents a threat to any successful online course. No matter how well-designed it is, without the tutor’s regular engagement and feedback the students may feel lost and lose motivation. In fact, they may lose motivation even if the tutor bends over backwards to prevent it – the joys of online teaching! I still have to do a post on the drawbacks.
      I’m glad you like my action plan; we’ll see how it goes. I’ll probably blog about it!

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      1. Hana Tichá

        Thanks for telling me about Gilly Salmon’s five-stage model of e-learning; I wasn’t familiar with it. I think our tutor might have chosen the procedure deliberately then. Actually, she specialized in online learning so it sounds plausible. But I think it would be a good idea to let the students know that this model will be applied – they’d definitely feel more comfortable.

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  3. Pingback: With a little help from my mods | After Octopus

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