Ok, that’s it. No more putting it off. This post has been waiting for me to get around to writing it since June and if I don’t get it done…well, we’ll never find out, will we? Because I’m going to get it done. Now.
Last June I wrote in this sandwich reflection post about the challenges of running an online course on your own. By this I mean being the course designer – you might argue that’s only the first time around, but there are always tweaks – moderator, troubleshooter in case of technical queries, sole provider of grades and feedback, etc.
I was also past the initial stage of satisfaction that I was capable of doing this and the novelty was gradually wearing off. This made it easier to step back and see objectively that of course I should be interacting with students online, but there should actually be more interaction between the students themselves in the forums and the portfolio. That would also automatically free me up for some of the time so I could, for instance, give (hopefully, timely) feedback behind the scenes.
October arrived and I was eager to try this out. The winter semester isn’t the focus of this post, so I’m not going to go into detail now, except to say that the tweaks had to be carefully engineered. I don’t know about you, but my experience has so far been that you can’t rely on second-year undergrads, generally taking an online course for the first time, to jump into forum discussions with boundless enthusiasm, especially as they’re being asked to do it in their L2.
Overall things went well, the students engaged more with each other, and my general plan was to carry on in this vein in the summer semester.
Classes had already started and we’d had our F2F sessions – if you like, you can read more on what those are like here – when I was told I could have a teaching assistant. A brief digression – in Croatia this is not a paid position for undergraduates. They’re chosen on the basis of their grades (which presumably also reflect a certain level of maturity and responsibility), and are usually asked to help out with assorted admin or paperwork-related tasks, such as correcting portfolio assignments or possibly proctoring exams – to my knowledge they’re rarely required to do any teaching.
My knee-jerk reaction to this was to say, no, thank you, what would I do with an assistant? Then it hit me – in Croatian they’re called demonstrators – and of course I knew what to do with one! They could demonstrate successful patterns of online interaction! And I could take a back seat and focus on giving feedback! I remember getting so excited I almost dropped the phone as I was calling a colleague to check if this was a totally mad idea.
The idea was actually brilliant, if I do say so myself. I was leaving for Belgium the very next day, so I couldn’t talk to my assistants in person, but we skyped and set everything up. At first I only had one student in mind, but because the semester had already started I thought they would probably turn me down, and so I asked four if they would be interested, figuring it would be safer to cast the net a little more widely. Somewhat to my surprise, they all wanted to be involved, so mulling it over, I decided – why not, let’s have all four. I wasn’t sure how time-consuming their contribution to the course would eventually turn out to be, and didn’t want to overload them. Last semester’s group had 20 students, which is a bit larger than usual.
Looking back, it was a stroke of luck I ended up with four assistants. I quickly settled on calling them assistant moderators, because neither demonstrators nor teaching assistants sounded quite right, and each was assigned 5 students to follow more closely.
The assistants had two main tasks. One was to monitor and guide forum discussions, and the other was to provide feedback on learning journal entries in the portfolio. All four completed the course last year, so this was familiar ground to them. The idea was also that students would get in touch with them if they had any practical questions – if the assistant mods couldn’t answer these they’d pass them on to me – but I don’t think this happened much.
This actually wasn’t – I hope! – as overwhelming as it may sound. There are three units that involve discussions, and these are evenly spaced throughout the 4-month course. The discussions last around ten days. At first I thought I’d see how the mods were doing and was prepared to jump in if they seemed to be out of their depth or if students didn’t respond to their posts. It turned out I had almost no jumping in to do and I was hugely impressed with both the content and quality of their writing! I realize this may sound somewhat strange, considering I read quite a bit of their writing last year and so you would think the quality wouldn’t come as a surprise. It doesn’t, and yet, there’s this feeling you get when you read a well-crafted piece of text by a student of yours. It’s a nice feeling. Since the mods were helping me so much keeping the discussions going, I was, for the first time, able to summarize them – good practice in terms of online course facilitation.
We also agreed that the mods wouldn’t comment on every single learning journal entry – a mistake I’d made last year. Maybe ‘mistake’ is a little harsh. I mean it in the sense that it was bit of a Sisyphean task, and also didn’t exactly encourage the students to comment on each other’s work. In the end the mods commented on about half of the entries of their five students. Here I was also ready to step in if I was needed, but in the end I was able to focus on those entries that really required my attention, since the mods handled the rest without any difficulty.
Of course, all this took some coordinating. Apart from the first Skype meeting, we had another one around a month into the course, and the rest of the time we talked on Facebook. The initial hitch of setting up a group that didn’t include any of my friends – something Facebook apparently doesn’t think anyone would want to do – was successfully overcome and this turned out to be a very quick and practical way of keeping in touch. Now that I think about it, this could have been done in Croatian but wasn’t. This wasn’t a conscious choice at all, but a good one I think. Here’s a sample conversation.
Maybe you think this means I was on time with all the grades and feedback last semester – unfortunately not. But I might finally be next semester; all four mods have said they’re interested in working on the course again and now that we’re used to working as a team maybe I’ll be able to keep up with the grading. Gotta have something to plan towards anyway.
Do you have any experience with students (undergraduate or any other) helping you with online moderation and/or modelling online interaction?