Making the most of face time

Campus where I teach, photo taken from srce.hr
The campus where I teach, photo taken from srce.hr

The winter semester at the institution where I teach my online course started two weeks ago*. As has by now become somewhat the norm, we had a couple of F2F sessions – six hours this time instead of the usual eight because one of the days we were supposed to have class inconveniently turned out to be a public holiday. Inconveniently – ha! I guess most people consider holidays a blessing, but I still can’t shake the attitude that is ingrained after years of work in the private sector where for a language school every holiday means less money, especially in (the second half of) June, when Croatia practically comes to a standstill owing to the rich combination possibilities afforded by two secular holidays, a religious one, and the law stipulating that the previous year’s vacation days must be used up by June 30 of the current year. But I didn’t start out to talk about holidays.

I thought I would describe what we did in our F2F sessions prior to starting a four-month online course. A little bit of background: the course is a compulsory one aimed at second-year communication science majors, there are roughly 15 people in the group (although the exact figure varies each semester) and we have a sprinkling of Erasmus students as well. The online part is carried out, mostly asynchronously, in Moodle, hosted and administered by Zagreb University’s Computing Center.

When you know that you will be spending most of your time in an online environment, with no possibility of meeting F2F before the final exam, you realize that you need to give very serious consideration to what you want to cover during the limited classroom time. My current position is that anything content-related can be introduced online and that face time is best spent on fostering a group atmosphere and getting the group to gel as best it can. Of course, you’ll continue to work on this throughout the semester, but if you get a good start offline, it’ll be that much easier in Moodle.

The first time I met this semester’s group I knew I would be doing – wait for it – some kind of getting-to-know-you activity. A very brief digression: do see the third graph in this post by James Taylor for alternatives to getting-to-know-you activities with a new class, guaranteed to make you smile. During the summer I’d come across the idea of using selfies as an ice-breaker in this post by Jill Walker Rettberg, and immediately knew I wanted to try it out. Okay, I’m not teaching a module on digital self-representation, but it is a topic future journalists and PR majors can reasonably be expected to encounter at some point during their studies. More immediately relevant to my course is the belief that having everyone share a selfie with the others will increase their feeling of group belonging a least a little. As the course is online, for some this will be the only opportunity to see their classmates’ faces (they don’t take all of their on-campus classes together). And, yeah, let’s not forget it’s fun! Unless you’re pathologically averse to selfies, but I wasn’t going to force anyone to take part if they really didn’t want to.**

I got everyone to line up according to height (to split them up into random groups) and sent them out for five minutes to take selfies. They could have just stayed outside in the hall, but they all left the building and took the pics outdoors. When they came back, they uploaded these to a Padlet wall I’d prepared the day before, and added a caption. Before starting on the activity, I’d also checked that we had a sufficient number of smartphones, and I’d added my selfie to the wall to demonstrate how Padlet works. When all the pictures were up, we viewed them on the projector screen and the students shared some more details about themselves. Later, I added (a link to) the selfie wall to a prominent spot on the online course home page, inviting those who missed the first session to add their pics. I can already see I’ll be checking it out increasingly often as exam time rolls around to remind myself of what the students look like.

We followed this up with an activity designed to see how the class feels about writing. Normally the students get a somber black and white handout, as opposed to the tequila sunrise color combo pictured here, but that’s what comes of wasting time playing around with PowerPoint backgrounds.

Raising awareness about writing
Raising awareness about writing

I like to get a discussion going – if that is the right word to apply to undergraduates being asked to exchange opinions on a topic such as writing, in the morning, in a foreign language, while the jury is still out on just how much effort they’re going to have to put into the class. Still, I make sure everyone gets to say something, as this is also a good chance to see what their spoken English is like. In addition to checking to what extent they enjoy writing, if they proofread their work, etc., I use the opportunity to explain how correction and feedback will be dealt with online, and prepare them for something they will be doing quite a bit of – reading their classmates’ writing. This is something they wouldn’t normally do in an offline environment.

If there are no time constraints, I like to do an activity designed to raise awareness about text quality as well, but this time we had to skip it.

Raising awareness about text quality
Raising awareness about text quality

Our second session was devoted to demonstrating how Moodle and Mahara work. As I have by now repeatedly discovered that first steps in the online environment are not as intuitive as digital native proponents would have us believe, I’d decided that this semester I would book the computer room so that I could walk everyone through logging on and creating an e-portfolio page for the course. Unsurprisingly, it then turned out that not only was the room unavailable, I also couldn’t for some reason copy last year’s course – an activity that takes all of three minutes and doesn’t usually require admin assistance, so I’d perhaps somewhat thoughtlessly left it until the night before the demo session.

Change of plan. I listed all the important steps in a Google Doc and took the group through these together, using last year’s course to illustrate. Thinking about it now, I probably should have included screenshots too. The trickiest step for most seems to be creating and sharing a portfolio page, and this time was no exception. I subsequently recorded a screencast on how to do this and added it to the course – something I probably should also have included in the Google Doc right from the start. Ah, well, there is always next semester. Of course, the document was shared after the session with everyone enrolled in the course.

Finally, in the third session I opted for two activities – not exactly bonding experience material, but important to cover face-to-face nonetheless. The first was freewriting. I like to get an idea, at the beginning of the year, of what the students can do without the help of the internet and assorted reference materials. It’s not exactly scientific, but it does usually give me a pretty accurate impression of what I can expect throughout the semester. Some people find it really hard to get started, so this time I included a couple of sentence beginnings – vague enough not to require the students to stick to any particular subject – to help along those who weren’t feeling particularly inspired.

I decided we would also cover the basics of formal writing in the last session for a very simple reason. This is the one section of the course content that I haven’t transferred online, and I figured I would avoid doing this if at all possible. Yes, this is content-related and not about fostering a group atmosphere. Yes, I know what I said at the beginning. But adapting offline materials for an online course takes time. And I have this presentation which has been tweaked and polished over the last couple of semesters, perfect to use with a class about to start on a writing course. Incidentally, when I say formal writing, I don’t mean EAP, but rather things like reminding students that linking words other than ‘and’ or ‘but’ exist and that people do employ them occasionally.

This was as much face time as we got this semester. I feel we managed to squeeze in everything we really needed to before moving online, and paved the way for a more or less successful course. As I write this most of the students have completed the introductory online activities and made a start on the course content, so all is well. Almost all, at any rate. But that is material for another post.

* three weeks ago, actually, by the time I finally got around to wrapping the post up

**at least one of the students who missed the first session and added their pics later explained that she is alone in the picture because her classmate doesn’t like selfies

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8 thoughts on “Making the most of face time

  1. Hana Tichá

    Hi Vedrana,

    While reading this post, some sweet memories of my university days emerged. It was during my MA studies when I encountered the concept of online courses for the very first time in my life. We had a couple of courses of the sort you describe, i.e. F2F first, then online. We also had courses which didn’t include the F2F part at all; which actually meant we never met the teacher in person, neither before nor afterwards. So the most curious of us just looked up the profile photos and basic info to get a vague idea of who the people we were about to correspond with for 5 months were (not that it was terribly important anyway). I can claim with absolute certainty that the former version was much better, for reasons that are more than obvious. I believe online courses are great if they supplement rather than replace F2F sessions.

    I absolutely relate to the following line: “I still can’t shake the attitude that is ingrained after years of work in the private sector where for a language school every holiday means less money”. Having been trough similar experience, I know how difficult it is to get rid of this particular mindset. The question is if one should dispose of it at all because this type of attitude actually means working harder and being more responsible.

    I really love that you tried to approach your adult students in such a playful way. I think it makes a difference if you know who is on the other side of the line, both for the teacher and for the learner. I remember with even did some warm-ups in the online environment and it was fun because it got really interactive. But it was a methodology course so it was also meant to be a resource of useful tips and ideas for our future career.

    Anyway, good luck with your course. You know what? I sometimes catch myself wanting to be one of the participants 🙂

    Hana

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    1. Hi Hana,
      As always, thanks for the lovely, long comment! I really liked the final sentence. 🙂 I’d love to have you on the course!
      About the other things you said – having worked for so long in the private sector, I don’t think twice about working at weekends, for instance, or automatically saying yes if an opportunity for work comes up, and yes, I believe this does mean I work hard and am responsible. Most of the time. However, I sometimes think that I should draw clearer boundaries between work and play and learn to enjoy the idea of a holiday coming up. Plenty of people who work in the public sector in Croatia certainly seem to! I don’t want to be unfair, though; I know several who often “enjoy” working weekends.
      Regarding online learning, while I agree with your point about this mode of delivery working really well in combination with F2F, I think a crucial requirement in online learning is achieving a good tutor-student balance. If students get enough of the tutor’s (or tutors’) attention and if there is sufficient interaction between the tutor(s) and students, I believe an online course can be as successful as a blended one. How many students and tutors did you have on your MA courses?

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      1. Hana Tichá

        I confess I can no longer draw clear boundaries between work and play :-). For me they’re in the same box and I’m grateful for that. For example I consider PD both work and play and I mostly engage in PD in my free time.

        Regarding your question, I think there were normally up to 20 Ss in a group. It was actually a huge online methodology course (continuation and supplementation of the previous F2F courses) divided into sub-groups. I knew some of the students – those who studied the same track and the same form of the studies (methodology/linguistics, combined). There was also an online course aimed at MA thesis preparation, where I corresponded with the tutor but never actually met her in person or other Ss of hers, so I didn’t even know how many people there were in the group. But again, I was familiar with some of the faces so we could consult each other and discuss things now and then on a personal level.

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        1. Hmmm, I’m not sure I’d consider PD work any longer. Maybe because I’m currently not doing any of it for an employer or a certificate. I guess it’s not in the same category of play as seeing a movie is, but I enjoy it all the same.
          Twenty students in an online course definitely sounds manageable in terms of creating a good group dynamic and making sure students get plenty of interaction with the tutor(s), assuming that’s what they want. I wonder if you could be persuaded to blog about your online experience some time; I’d love to read more about it. Unless you already have and I’ve missed it?

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  2. Hi Vedrana,

    I read this post last weekend and meant to reply sooner, but here I am. I appreciate reading your reflection on things you’d do differently and how to scaffold the online learning experience. Like you, I also believe digital natives don’t just get it so quickly and we do need to give people a chance to learn how to use the tools we plan on using in our course.

    So I take it you are using Mahara for their portfolios? Do you have any samples I could see to get an idea of how that works? I’ve been playing with the idea of a writing portfolio for a while.

    Also, I’m curious about your presentation on the basics of academic writing. Would love to learn more about what you address and how students respond to it. I think it’s a great idea to set a common understanding of what academic writing is, but I wouldn’t know where to start if I tried to give a presentation.

    Hope I’ll get to read more about your class soon 🙂

    Laura.

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    1. Hi Laura,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Yes, we use Mahara, and it’s not the most intuitive of environments to say the least. Some people get the hang of it right away and some struggle a bit. My class use it primarily as a learning journal, although they _can_ add items not directly related to our course. Most choose not to, though. I remember a student last year shared hers under a Creative Commons license; let me check with her and if this is still how she feels, I’ll email you the link. I might do a post around it as well – now you’ve given me an idea! 🙂

      The presentation covers some of the features of a formal writing style, and incorporates the points addressed in one of the books on the reading list: Hugh Cory’s “Advanced Writing with English in Use”. I should probably upload that to Slideshare; I’ve been planning to anyway, as it’s easier to share with students than emailing it. Right now I ask them to download it from my Mahara page to encourage them to explore Mahara more and to demonstrate some of the things you can do with it, but the page can only be viewed by group members.

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