It’s as if it was yesterday that I arrived in the classroom with a toilet roll in my bag (amongst other things, happily) meant for a GTKY activity with a new group of students.* In reality, it was last year. Yet another academic year has rolled around and, to be honest, for a long time I wasn’t sure if I was going to carry on with my online writing skills course because my non-teaching job seems to have turned into a slightly less temporary arrangement. Eventually, I decided I would, for a couple of reasons, an important one being that I would otherwise probably not be teaching at all.
We spent the first two weeks having classroom sessions on campus (for those who weren’t readers of this blog four years ago, I wrote about these sessions here) and have just moved online. I wanted to write about the session we had in the computer room last week.
We can by no means count on securing the computer room (I don’t like the word lab; it sounds a bit pretentious for what are essentially four rows of desks with desktop computers). It’s been two years since I was able to book it at a time my class was scheduled, so I was a bit taken aback at this good fortune.
Practically all the students who had signed up for the course turned up. I felt reasonably confident because this is my sixth year teaching the course online and the computer room session is meant to walk the students through the basics. Prior to the session I’d checked everything I could think of: I’d opened a new course in Moodle and copied the content from last year, hidden everything the students shouldn’t be able to see straight away, checked the links and deleted some outdated resources. The system’s been upgraded again, as it is every September, and while this is exciting because everything looks somehow fresh and updated, it’s also annoying because you end up looking for things you know you used to be able to find far longer than you should. It’s like when they rearrange the shelves at the supermarket. In the e-portfolio system (we use Mahara) I created a new group and checked if creating a page still involved the same steps it did last year (not exactly, because of the upgrade, but close enough).
Unless you’re comfortable troubleshooting common (and less common) hardware and software issues, I would definitely recommend booking the computer room when the university’s IT person is in attendance. Our session took place when this person had already left for the day. Some of the exchange students couldn’t use a computer at all because they couldn’t log on. The login details they’d been given didn’t seem to work. I consoled myself thinking it didn’t matter as much because they could sit next to a Croatian student and there are always more Croatian students. Then one entire row of desks taken up by Croatian students reported their login details didn’t work either. My troubleshooting repertoire extends to “Have you tried a different browser?”, which obviously is slightly inadequate if you haven’t yet gotten as far as a browser. Luckily, a student suggested they use their mobile phones.
After this less-than-ideal start, the students found the right address, the majority logged into the system and I added them to the course manually. There are never more than 20 per group, so it doesn’t take long. We then went over what the course home page looks like and what resources are available. Most (Croatian) students are already familiar with Moodle because it’s used in many courses now, if only as a content repository – a stark contrast to just five years ago when most of the students wouldn’t have used a learning management system in their first year (or probably any other year for that matter, at least not at my institution).
We then moved on to Mahara. The idea there was to add the students to the group I’d created for the course and have them set up a page which they’ll be sharing with the group. The page will primarily be used to display their learning journals. This is apparently the trickiest part of the whole process and every semester, digital natives notwithstanding, there are a couple of students who I end up having to ask to go to the Moodle admin for assistance. This I usually do in desperation, halfway through the semester, when everything else has failed and my hair has begun thinning. This actually says as much about Mahara and its lack of intuitiveness as it does about supposed digital natives. Things proceeded relatively smoothly – I created a new page for myself as I do each semester, on the spot so the students could follow – until we got to the sharing step. I couldn’t find where the sharing settings were. They’d been moved since the upgrade. I’d been able to locate them the evening before, but that had probably been sheer luck. Another student came to the rescue after a suitable chunk of time had elapsed and I’d run out of options to click on (with all the attendant feelings of discomfort and embarrassment).
By this time we were into our last half hour, so I showed the students a page from a couple of years ago, to give them an idea of approximately what their page would look like by the end of the semester – I imagine they’ll find it useful to know roughly how much writing they will need to do.
We rounded the class off with – and this didn’t require everyone working on their own computer – an introduction on how to reflect on learning. I’ve actually found this to be quite useful not just for reflective writing. It seems to be difficult for students, at least when writing in English, to move beyond generalizing, so we did a brief awareness-raising activity to highlight the importance of being specific and providing examples for the reader. I might go into a bit more detail on this activity in another post, as this one is turning out to be rather longer than I planned.
Anyway, now that I read through what I’ve written I see that we managed to cover most of what I’d planned. This is not a feeling I had when I was leaving the campus that evening; possibly because of the initial trouble with the login details. I guess the reason I wanted to write about it was to share what can happen when you use tech in the classroom, even when you’ve been teaching online for a while and are supposedly prepared to deal with tech issues. Whether the students will think you’re entirely competent to be teaching online is another matter. 😛
Do you (have to) use the computer room/lab with students from time to time? What do you use it for and how do you deal with any problems that come up?
*For ideas of what else teachers carry in their bags please see this post by Zhenya Polosatova (and in the comment section there is a brief account of how the toilet roll activity worked in my class).