Categories
Thoughts and reflections

There shouldn’t be a crack in everything

One of the ELT related podcasts I listen to more or less regularly is TEFLology – A Podcast about Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics.

I’m going to digress briefly right at the start because I’ve been meaning to say for a while now that I enjoy and very much recommend this podcast. It’s informative and interesting – I find my mind rarely wanders – and the presenters seem to get on really well, as if they’ve been working together for ages. Which I think they have. So if you aren’t already following them, you should definitely try an episode.

wintersoul1: cracked brick wall3 SQ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recently I listened to a February episode from this year in which the topic discussed in the TEFL News section was teacher wellbeing. The presenters talked about an article called  Language teachers’ coping strategies during the Covid-19 conversion to online teaching: Correlations with stress, wellbeing and negative emotions. Before going into more detail about the article, they did (what would be) a little pre-reading activity (if this article were shorter and you were doing it in class with students) and discussed two questions. 

I found myself wishing I could join in and answer the questions, and then it occurred to me I could do it here on the blog. So here we go.

Question 1: Do you feel that your mental health has changed over this past year since we’ve had to move to remote emergency teaching? Do you feel that you’ve noticed any differences in your mental health, your mindset, things like that?

(I should note here that even if the idea was to talk mainly about teaching, the discussion ended up being quite a bit broader, so I’m not straying too far from the topic.) 

Yes, my mental health has been affected by the past year but not so much by the pandemic nor by the move to online teaching. Readers of this blog know I don’t teach full time anymore and the teaching I do is all online anyway, in the sense that it was online for years before covid.

The event that has had the biggest impact on me since the pandemic started was the earthquake in Zagreb. And then 9 months later another earthquake pretty close to Zagreb. Prior to these, earthquakes were something you covered in science class and so in theory must be happening somewhere, only this wasn’t where I lived. Then the first one almost knocked me out of bed on a Sunday morning in the middle of the lockdown and there have been very few moments that I haven’t thought about it since. 

Actually, last year it took me a lot less time to get back to my regular daily routine, for instance, not going to bed fully clothed or charging my phone obsessively so I was ready in case it happened again. It only took a couple of weeks, possibly because we knew so little about covid at the time and I was more worried about that. And it was easier to convince myself that if it hadn’t happened in the ∗coughs, clears throat∗ decades since I was born, it wasn’t likely to happen again soon. 

In December things were different because it did happen again and it had only taken nine months. Like, what the…?! Also, I’d had covid in the meantime and thought I was relatively safe from catching it again in the next six months, so the earthquake could take priority. Getting back to normal has been much more challenging this time around. You can’t tell just by looking at me or talking to me – I hardly ever talk about it because people tell you you’re overreacting. They are willing to be patient with you for the first couple of weeks but then it’s, “You’d better pull yourself together; how old are you – 5?”. And by now everything is fine on the outside: I sleep okay, I can go into the city center with all the old buildings and ride on elevators. But when I cook I can’t wait to be done so I can turn off the gas, I rarely shower if I’m home alone and I think about when the next one is coming all the time. I do think about other things, of course. I couldn’t function otherwise. But every day, many times a day, the thought of the building collapsing around me pops into my head. 

I’m guessing it *will* eventually go away but in the meantime it’s been exhausting. I keep thinking how I would give anything to be able to know with certainty that I can relax for a couple of days – just a couple of days during which someone could guarantee that there will be no earthquakes and I could go back to the way life was before, when it was just a topic in science class*.

Question 2: How have you been coping with professional challenges (but could be personal too)? What have you done to cope or pay attention or keep an eye on your wellbeing?

Perhaps I haven’t done as much as I could. For instance, about a month after the December quake, while I was still having trouble sleeping, I decided I would take herbal sleeping pills. I bought them and then, just as I was about to take the first one, I thought, “What if there’s another earthquake and you’re too drowsy to wake up?” So I never opened the packet and it’s still gathering dust in the living room. 

I did consciously give myself time to start doing things again. For instance, I slept fully dressed for about a month and I didn’t beat myself up over it; I knew that there would come a day when I would stop doing it and so I did. I experienced phantom earthquakes for a long time and so I kept a glass of water on the desk to be able to tell if the shaking was real. 

I realized I felt most anxious and sort of trapped in buildings (as opposed to outdoors) and so one reason I’ve been walking to work so often in the past year is because I’m able to go back to that pre-earthquake state of mind when I’m at ground level. At the same time, I listen to a podcast or an audiobook, so these are the times when I’m practically guaranteed to forget about the quake.

It’s also helped that we have moved back into our old office. I was in another office for a couple of months, including when the December quake struck. In the old office I find I’ve been thinking about it a lot less, although I suppose this is also partly due to time doing its thing. However, I was asleep in my bedroom when the first quake struck and there isn’t much I can do about that – moving to another flat so as to avoid reliving the experience is not an option. 

I suppose the reason I think I may not have done as much as I could is because I didn’t seek anyone that I could talk to in a professional capacity. Mostly this was because the prevailing view seems to be that anything other than shaking it off and getting on with your life would be beyond childish and, well, peer pressure works on me. 

After these opening questions, the podcast episode went on to discuss the article, which as you noticed from the title is about dealing with covid & online teaching and not earthquakes, so this seems like a good place to wrap up this post. 

I did want to briefly note one more thing: the article described coping strategies that teachers adopted to deal with the stress they were experiencing due to the transition to remote teaching, and it’s my impression that these coping strategies could be adopted in many stressful situations, including the one I’ve been describing. The article lists 14 coping strategies and they’re divided into two categories: approach and avoidant. 

I was pleased to see that the strategies I unintentionally seem to be using are of the approach category: acceptance and to an extent active coping. The emotional support and instrumental support strategies also seem to be useful – maybe it’s simply by writing this post that I’m using the emotional support strategy. Using the instrumental support one would be, for instance, asking you to tell me in the comments if you have any advice. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

*I actually did go on holiday after writing up most of this post and noticed that I felt much better, i.e. dwelled a lot less on earthquakes, probably because I was in an entirely different setting which I don’t associate with moving buildings.

Categories
Edtech Moodle online course

Type little and give extensive feedback

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @sandymillin, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

It all started on Twitter, as these things do. I had covid and was stuck at home, so it was as good a time as any to do some marking. Then I came across Neil’s tweet.

I recommend you click through for the answers because quite there were a few suggestions and several people mentioned text expanders, which is useful for context, but the answer that caught my eye was this one:

I don’t use Linux, so I’m not entirely sure why I decided to try espanso out. Now I think about it, I’m pretty sure Neil tweeted an update on how well it was working out for him. Anyway, espanso works on Windows and Macs, although I use it on Windows most of the time.

I did need a little bit of help installing the program but I probably would’ve been able to do it myself if I’d put in a little effort. The point is, it’s pretty simple and quick. (To be fair, it was more complicated to install on a Mac.)

The idea of this post is to reflect a little on the past 6 months of using it and note down some pros and cons. 

First of all, this is what it looks like in practice. Please ignore the huge gap between the top and the bottom comment; it’s my first attempt at a gif.

User types "main idea" and this is automatically expanded to This seems like a new main idea and might be best in a separate paragraph. 
User types "meaning" and this is expanded to I'm not sure what you mean by this (in this context), so consider the possibility that other readers may not be sure either.
Demo of how a text expander works

And it works everywhere. If I typed :main idea it would expand like in the gif regardless of whether I was commenting on a Word doc, typing in a Google doc, in the Moodle gradebook… 

My initial reaction was – this is bliss! My days of spending ages on marking are over! All I need to do is add the comments which are already in my comment bank to espanso and I’m all set. 

This is why in the end it wasn’t as easy as that. 

I have a huge number of comments in my comment bank. I’ve written about the comment bank I have in Google Docs in this post and in Google Keep in this one. At first I thought it would only take a long time to transfer them all to espanso, but then I realized that I would have to come up with as many triggers as there are comments. (The trigger is the combination of : and the word or letter combination that gets expanded.)

It probably wouldn’t be that taxing to come up with a long list of triggers, but eventually I didn’t because it became obvious I couldn’t remember them all. In my comment banks the comments are categorized by unit and activity (in Google Docs) and by aspect of writing like punctuation or formality (in Google Keep). Categorization isn’t possible in any meaningful way in espanso, so you’re probably best off if you choose a trigger that will most easily remind you of the longer comment you wanted to add (or vice versa). 

What tends to work best (for me) is if I add a whole word or word sequence, like “comma splice”. Great, I hear you say, so do that. But the longer the trigger is, the more likely you are to mistype something and then you need to delete what you’ve typed and start again (at least if you’re using Windows). Also, if you want to use “comma” as part of a trigger for anything other than comma splice comments, you can’t. Say you wanted to use “comma not needed” as a trigger. The nanosecond you type :comma, espanso expands it to your comma splice comment. You could use “unnecessary comma” as a trigger, but it’s not what I think of first when I see one – when I start typing, my brain has already categorized that as a comma-related error, and “comma” is the word that first comes to mind, not “unnecessary”. So if you’re old and forgetful, you’ll catch yourself going through the espanso bank, muttering “Why did I ever think I’d remember “unnecessary comma”?!” You get the idea. This is just an example, incidentally; I’m not that concerned about commas.

In order to really save time and reduce the potential for confusion, the triggers need to be short. Ideally, just a few letters. But the shorter they are, the easier they are to forget. Did I say old and forgetful? Add stressed out over a million things. Coming up with a trigger like “spe” for spelling sounds easy enough to remember… okay it is. That one is. But when I have a comment which is essentially just positive feedback on participating in a discussion in unit 4, that is quite tricky to reduce to a three-letter combo that I will remember longer than a day. Yes, you are right to wonder how I deal with PINs. 😛

What I tend to do now is work with up to 20 triggers. I always open up espanso before I start to remind myself of the triggers and attendant comments. Then I mark everyone’s work in the unit I am currently grading, where I won’t need that many different comments because the mistakes and the things done well tend to be quite similar. When I move on to the next unit, I prefer to work with the same triggers and update the expanded feedback in espanso. I won’t be needing the comments for the unit I’ve just marked until next semester anyway. Then the trigger for my positive feedback can always just be “yes” and for negative comments/suggestions for improvement it can be “no” – definitely easy to remember.  

What I’ve also decided works for me is adding as much text as possible to one single trigger. In other words, instead of thinking up three different triggers for three variations of positive comments, I add all three to the same trigger, delete the unnecessary/non-applicable comments when the text expands (and then customize further if needed).  

In short, the tool isn’t as ideal as I’d initially expected it to be, but it does speed up the feedback process considerably once you’ve figured out how it can best serve you. I still use the comment banks and, of course, a large number of comments are personalized and context specific anyway, so nothing really helps there.  

What do you do to speed up the marking and feedback process? If you have any tips, either on how to use text expanders more efficiently or which other tools have been useful to you, I’d love to hear them! 

Categories
Edtech MOOC online course

Some (new) observations on peer review

I recently completed a MOOC called Elements of AI. Let me first say that I am privately (and now perhaps not as privately) thrilled to have managed this because I’m highly unlikely to commit to a MOOC if it looks like I might not have time to do it properly (whatever that means) and it often looks that way. I enjoyed the course and definitely learned a bit about AI – robots will not replace teachers anytime soon in case anyone was wondering – but I couldn’t help noticing various aspects of course design along the way. This is what this post is about, in particular the peer review component. 

S B F Ryan: #edcmooc Cuppa Mooc (CC BY 2.0)

Most of my experience with peer review is tied up with Moodle’s workshop activity, which I have written about here, so the way it was set up in this course was a bit of a departure from what I am used to. There are 5 or 6 peer review activities in Elements of AI and they all need to be completed if you want to get the certificate at the end – obviously, I do. *rubs hands in happy anticipation*

Let’s take a look at how these are structured. To begin with, the instructions are really clear and easy to follow – and despite reading them carefully more than once, I still occasionally managed to feel, on submitting the task and reading the sample “correct” answer, that I could have paid closer attention (the “duh, they said that” feeling). The reason I note this is because it’s all too easy to forget about it when you’re the teacher. I often catch myself thinking – well, I did a really detailed job explaining X, so how did the student not get that? 

Before submitting the task, you’re told in no uncertain terms that there’s no resubmitting and which language you’re meant to use (the course is offered in a range of languages). I read my submissions over a couple of times and clicked submit. In the Moodle workshop setup, which I am used to, you can then relax and wait for the assessment stage, which begins at the same time for all the course participants. Elements of AI has no restrictions in terms of when you can sign up (and submit each peer review), so I realized from the start that their setup would have to be different. 

The assessment stage starts as soon as you’ve made your submission. You first read a sample answer, then go on to assess the answers of 3 other course participants. For each of these three you can choose between two random answers you’re shown before you commit to one and assess it on a scale of an intensely frowning face to a radiant smile (there are 5 faces altogether). You are asked to grade the other participants on 4 points:

  1. staying on topic
  2. response is complete/well-rounded
  3. the arguments provided are sound
  4. response is easy to understand

The first time I did this, I read both random responses very carefully and chose the one that seemed more detailed. This was then quickly assessed because the 4 points are quite easy to satisfy if you’ve read the instructions at all carefully. However, I did miss the fact that there was no open-ended answer box where I could justify anything less than a radiant smile. I’m guessing this was intentional so as to prevent people from either submitting overly critical comments or spamming others (or another reason that hasn’t occurred to me) but I often felt an overwhelming urge to say, well, yes, the response was easy to understand, but you might consider improving it further by doing X. Possibly those who aren’t teachers don’t have this problem. 😛

It was also frustrating when I came across an answer that simply said “123” and another that was plagiarized – my guess is that the person who submitted it had a look at someone else’s screen after that other person had already made their submission and could access the sample answer. Or maybe someone copied the sample answer somewhere where others had access to it? The rational part of my brain said, “Who cares? They clearly don’t, so why should you? People could have a million different reasons for signing up for the course.” The teacher part of my brain said, “Jesus. Plagiarizing. Is. Not. Okay. Where do I REPORT this person? They are sadly mistaken if they think they’re getting the certificate.”

Once you’ve assessed the three responses an interesting thing happens. You’ve completed the task and can proceed to the next one, but you still have to wait for someone to assess your work. This, you’re told, will happen regardless, but if you want to speed up the process, you can go ahead and assess some more people. The more responses you assess, the faster your response will come up for assessment. I ended up assessing 9 responses per peer review task, so clearly this incentive worked on me, though I have no idea how much longer I would’ve had to wait for my grades if I had only assessed 3 responses per task. I only know that when I next logged on, usually the following day, my work had already been assessed. 

For a while I was convinced that either whoever had assessed my work had been very lenient or else all responses were automatically awarded four radiant smiles. My work hadn’t been that good, I thought. Then in the very last peer review I got a less than perfect score, so I assume there was at least one other teacher taking the course. 🙂 

In theory then, once your work has been assessed by two of your peers, you’re completely done with the task. However, at the very end of the course, you’re told that in addition to the grades you received from your peers, your work will also be graded by the teaching staff. Happily, your tasks are still marked as complete and you can get your certificate nevertheless. I suspect I’ll be waiting a while for that grade from the teaching staff and it seems a bit irrelevant, to be honest. It would make sense for someone other than other course participants to check the responses if this were done before course completion was officially confirmed (so those who submitted “123” wouldn’t get their certificate, for instance) but now I think of the course as finished and my work as graded, I’m not likely to go back and check whether I received any further feedback, especially if it’s only emoji. 

There were other interesting aspects of the course but I’ll stop here so as not to mess up my chances of posting this soon. In short, the course reminded me of why l like peer review (if everyone participates the way the course designers intended them to) and has given me some new ideas of how similar activities can be set up.

Have you completed any MOOCs or other online courses lately? Did they include peer review? What do you think makes a good peer review activity?