Edtech Thoughts and reflections

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.

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 .


Edtech Thoughts and reflections

Some perks of teaching online

Recently I had the occasion to read Joanna Malefaki’s comprehensive (and occasionally tongue-in-cheek) overview of the advantages of being an online teacher. I also had the privilege of meeting Joanna in person earlier this year at BELTA Day. As soon as BELTA started with their “Meet the Speaker” series, I knew I was going to attend her talk “Do’s and Don’ts of teaching Business English online”…until I discovered that Marek Kiczkowiak and Chris Holmes were going to be speaking about NNEST-related misconceptions in the same slot! In the end, I opted for the latter, using the time-honored scientific method popularly known as eeny meeny miny moe.

The topic of Joanna’s talk appealed to me because it was the only one, apart from my own, to address some practical issues of online instruction that day. I don’t think of myself primarily as an online instructor (or an offline one, for that matter), but as I’ve been teaching almost entirely in an online environment for the past year, I find posts, articles and talks on the subject increasingly relevant to my situation.

Having read Joanna’s post, I thought I’d throw together my own list of perks. Although there will undoubtedly be similarities, it’s worth noting that, unlike Joanna, I teach in an asynchronous environment. More specifically, I teach a semester-long undergraduate course in writing skills in Moodle. So, what do I like about it?

This isn't what I see when I look up from the computer - but it could be!
This isn’t what I see when I look up from the computer – but it could be!

Advantages applicable to online teaching in general

  1. You can sleep in. Possibly this sounds self-centered or frivolous, or both, but I’m dead serious. The fact is, I’ve worked for private language schools since 1997, and that means…well, that means your schedule is often crappy. You teach in-company courses in the mornings, so you have to wake up at 6 and put on your bright and perky smile as you wait with the surly security guy for your students to show up at 7:30. Which they do, late, yawning and saying they haven’t done the homework. “That’s okay,” you say, contemplating various forms of torture, careful not to drop the smile. (It’s not always like that, but you know what I mean.) Then you teach again in the afternoon and evening, and when you come home, you prepare for the class you have the following morning. Sunday evenings are also reserved for Monday morning lesson plans. That’s a whole lot of Sunday evenings since 1997. So being able to sleep until a more decent hour, followed by breakfast and a coffee during which I don’t have to smile if I don’t feel like it, feels wonderful.
  2. Your schedule is less stressful. I don’t spend half my day in public transport, going from client to client, lugging books around, missing lunch, waiting around twiddling my thumbs for the one-to-one student to finish their meeting/phone call/email before they’re ready to settle down to English class. Oh, yes, I almost forgot the thrill of one-to-one clients cancelling at the last minute!
  3. It’s cheaper. All you need is a computer and broadband connection. I definitely spend less on public transport, unhealthy on-the-go snacks, book bags or folders, as well as clothes and makeup.
  4. It’s challenging and fun. I’m not saying I know everything there is about classroom instruction, but after 17 years of teaching there’s a certain element of déjà vu when I walk into a class. There is obviously comfort to be drawn from this, and there are always different activities you can try out to avoid getting stuck in a rut, but online everything is new to me. I enjoy designing the course and moderating it: selecting the activities, making podcasts and screencasts, designing quizzes, reading and commenting on the students’ learning journals, and more.
  5. You gain a new set of skills.  A lot has been written over the past month about the future of teachers and whether they will eventually be made unnecessary by tech advances. This is not the topic of this post, but I do recommend that you watch the excellent eltjam IATEFL talk on what educational technology means for ELT. As someone who has struggled to keep a small business (a language school) afloat through the (aftermath of the) global economic crisis, I can only see advantages to being open to whatever is going to allow you to keep your teachers employed.
  6. It permits you to carry on working for your institution even if you no longer live in the same town/country where the institution is based. This flexibility may, of course, not be important to everyone, but if, for instance, moving abroad was not your career choice, it counts for a lot. Hopefully, this uninterrupted collaboration will allow me to continue teaching face-to-face at my institution when I return. I can practically guarantee this wouldn’t happen if I dropped off the radar for a couple of years; someone would take over my course, and that would be that.
  7. Your professional engagement isn’t (temporarily) over when you move to a new country. Like the previous point, this one assumes particular importance when you may not have a job lined up, and as a NNEST you may have difficulty securing one. I’ve heard of the term trailing spouse used to describe someone moving from place to place at the whim of the personnel decisions of the company their partner works for, but this is not a designation I feel comfortable with.

Advantages applicable to teaching writing skills online

  1. Students actually get to do a lot more writing than in a face-to-face environment. When I taught the same course offline, we did a range of interactive activities in class: presentations, discussions and games, and the students did most of the extended writing at home in their portfolio, which they would hand in three times per semester.
  2. More authentic written communication takes place. The instructor was the sole audience for the students’ writing efforts in the face-to-face class; hardly conducive to getting them to exert themselves beyond what was strictly necessary, for instance, write 250 words on a given topic, include a topic sentence for each paragraph, etc. By contrast, online everyone can see almost everything an individual student writes – in forums, wikis and learning journal entries – so they’re writing for a wider audience. Wider than just the instructor, at any rate.
  3. Less outgoing/weaker students participate more than they would in a traditional class. If you’re discussing a topic in class, talkative students will often dominate the discussion, even if you try hard to make sure most people get to say something. On the other hand, if everyone is required to participate in an online discussion, they will. Or they won’t get a grade.
  4. You can consider the feedback you want to give more carefully. In class teachers are sometimes asked questions they don’t know the answer to. This is absolutely fine; after all, it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate that the teacher is not the ultimate vessel of all knowledge, but that some responsibility for their learning lies with the students. However, you sometimes do wish that you’d known the answer to a question because it would have been pertinent to the subject under discussion or useful for all students to know. You sometimes want to point the students to a useful resource which they can use for further research. It is certainly possible to bring up the point at the beginning of the next session, but it may not seem as relevant any more. Online, you can highly personalize the feedback and tailor it specifically to a student’s needs.

My experience with teaching online has been positive overall, though I wouldn’t be in a hurry to say that an online course is inherently worse or better than a face-to-face one. While I was putting this list together, I considered a number of points I didn’t like so much, but finally decided to leave those for another post. The list isn’t meant to be exhaustive and is definitely determined in large part by the context I work in, so do by all means let me know of any advantages I’ve overlooked.


Customer satisfaction

I’m a firm believer in student feedback. My institution carries out an instructor evaluation survey each semester, but as it takes a while to process the data, we rarely get the results in time to actually do something about them the following semester. This is why I always ask my students to complete a course satisfaction survey that I can use immediately. (Incidentally, I’ve not noticed before that the names seem to indicate the institution primarily wants to know if the students are happy with me, whereas I’d rather know if they’re happy with the course – or maybe the institution sees us as one and the same?) 

When I first started teaching my writing skills course, I used paper-based feedback forms, then I moved on to Google Forms, while last semester I used the Moodle Feedback activity for the first time and was very pleased with the presentation/analysis of the results. Even though I chose not to record user names when gathering responses, I waited until the exams were over before looking at what the students had to say as I wanted to a) not have anything prejudice the grades, and b) wrap up the course with their comments and suggestions.

The new semester started last week and a new group of students will be taking the course, so it seems to be the perfect time to indulge in a (hopefully) brief analysis of the results and bring some order to my initial impression – enthusiastic, but not particularly insightful – that there is a lot of useful information in there.

A satisfied customer about to take a nap
A satisfied customer about to take a nap

I included 15 questions in the feedback form. My first impulse was to include about three times as many, but I nipped that one in the bud, reasoning that this would probably result in random clicking just to get the questions over with. Besides, the students had been reflecting on each unit of the course in their portfolios as the semester progressed, so I already knew how they felt about some aspects.

I tried to strike a balance between Likert type (7), multiple-choice (3) and open-ended questions (5). Here they are in the order they appeared in the form, each followed by a comment on the answers.

1. The required level of English in the course was too advanced for me to participate easily.

Sure, it stands to reason that I would know this after four months of reading their writing. It’s also a course requirement that students are at least B1 and they were given a placement test at the beginning of the course (which showed that the majority were B2 or even C1). So, yes, I was reasonably sure that nobody would agree completely with this statement, but as the course was entirely in English (we had Erasmus students), and quite a lot of authentic materials were included, I wanted to see hard numbers.

On a scale of 1-5, most chose 1 (to indicate they disagreed completely), but not everyone, which puts me in a bit of a dilemma. If it’s a course requirement that students are B1, surely those who are at that level shouldn’t be made to feel at a disadvantage. On the other hand, if the great majority of students are B2/C1, they won’t be challenged by B1 content.

2. The required level of technical knowledge was too advanced for me to participate easily.

Again, the majority disagreed, but this time only 50% did so completely. Most of the rest opted for “mostly disagree”, which would indicate that the technical difficulties weren’t serious enough to prevent participation, but still, (lack of) technical knowledge was apparently a greater obstacle than the required language level.

This was not entirely unanticipated, as we’d dealt with various technical issues throughout the course, so next came an open-ended question:

3. Which technical problems did you experience and could the instructor have done anything to help you overcome these?

There weren’t many answers to this, possibly also because I’d set it as optional. Most referred to a lack of familiarity with online courses – only two students said they’d taken such a course before – but problems with videos were mentioned. There were a few videos in the course, which worked fine when embedded, but I’ve heard suggestions that it’s better to upload videos directly into Moodle. So I did that, but it didn’t work very well; the videos were viewable, but apparently not without a separate set of instructions. Sorting this out is one of my priorities this semester.

Luckily, the instructor got positive reviews in the second part of this question, which I was particularly pleased with, especially after I saw students in another course were simply instructed to contact the admin in case of technical difficulties.

4. The activities in the course were very time-consuming.

The answers to this were quite diverse. A small number (15%) mostly disagreed – no one disagreed completely – 20% neither agreed nor disagreed, 40% mostly agreed and 20% agreed completely. (The numbers don’t add up to 100; I rounded them off for convenience.) This question was actually intended as a lead-in to a more specific one, namely:

5. On average, I spent the following amount of time on the course each week:

If the class were held on campus, students would spend 3 hours in class weekly, plus any additional time on homework/portfolio assignments. As this is equivalent to a certain number of ECTS points, there wasn’t supposed to be a noticeable discrepancy between the amount of time spent on the course f2f and online. And, in fact, there apparently wasn’t. 50% of the students said they’d spent 1-3 hours working online, and 50% claimed to have spent 3 hours or more. From this perspective, I should have provided the option of saying how much more.

6. If you did not participate regularly in the course – if there was any period apart from the Christmas break when you did not log on for 3 weeks or more – why was this? Could the instructor have done anything to make you participate more actively?

Perhaps not surprisingly, those who took part in the survey had participated regularly, and so, even though I would have very much liked to hear what those who hadn’t would have given as reasons, there wasn’t much in the way of clarification here. Two answers hinted at the difficulty of getting back on track once some activities had not been done on time, but were careful to absolve the instructor of any blame. 🙂

7. The instructions and updates on the course noticeboard were clear and timely.

Happily, most students completely agreed with this (only one mostly agreed). In a previous post I mentioned that I’d written roughly 5800 words on said noticeboard, so I think I wouldn’t have taken kindly to disagreement. 🙂 On a more serious note, I spent a lot of time wording particular posts just so, trying to be as precise and detailed as possible, and predict every possible doubt and query, so it was good to see that this had apparently been achieved.

8. The course content will prove useful in the future.

Another question that I liked the answers to. 60% agreed completely and 40% mostly, although now I wish I’d included the option of saying which parts students felt might not prove so useful. The course is based on selected chapters from two course books, chosen some years ago (not by me). I think I can see which parts might not seem so relevant from the students’ point of view, but I’d like to know for sure as maybe it’s more of an issue of how the content is being presented, rather than the content itself. Then I could do something about it.

9. When I addressed the instructor directly with an issue, my questions were answered quickly and satisfactorily.

Everyone agreed completely with this statement, although purely from the point of view of questionnaire construction I overlooked the possibility that some students didn’t need to contact me directly with an issue, so this question shouldn’t have been compulsory. Anyway, I expected most to agree here because I checked my email regularly and answered queries in the evenings and at the weekends. There really weren’t many of these overall, and I used to do this when I taught f2f as well, so it wasn’t as if it required any extra effort.

10. I found the feedback (from the instructor) in the portfolio relevant and useful.

The instructor is important here because the students also commented on one another’s journal entries in the portfolio. A high rate of agreement (85% agreed completely and 15% mostly) indicates that all the time spent on various feedback modes – error correction for some assignments, and podcasts and screencasts with more general comments – was worth it. However, I felt that despite doing my best to cover as much ground as I could in the feedback, there were still aspects that I wasn’t able to touch upon because it would have meant going into too much detail. I think this could be remedied by using the Moodle gradebook and I plan to do this next semester.

11. I would recommend the course to other students.

This question offered a choice of three answers: ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘don’t know’. Looking back, I should have included the option of saying why. Most did opt for ‘yes’, but 20% said they didn’t know, and it would be helpful to know whether their answer would have been the same had this not been an online course. Happily, no one went for ‘no’.

12. I have noticed an improvement in my writing skills in English over the past semester.

This was another multiple choice question, with the same answers as #11. Everyone answered ‘yes’ here, which I’m particularly happy with because I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. With some people the improvement was obvious, but with some a little less so, especially those who had strong writing skills to begin with (those whom the placement test showed to be at C1, for instance.) I always worry a little, with advanced students, that they might feel they aren’t being challenged enough, particularly as many have been learning English for years.

The last three were open-ended questions and listing all the answers in this post would make it tediously long, so I opted for a random selection which I think illustrates well what the students found important.

13. List three things that you liked about the course and say why.

Not having to attend classes on campus and being able to complete tasks in pajamas was appreciated by a number of people. Students didn’t feel pressured as they progressed through the course and found it interesting to read one another’s reflections on individual units. Interactive activities and online memo boards got a lot of positive feedback as well. Some students particularly liked the fact that the course was online – they described this as modern and innovative – and liked learning about new technologies.

14. List three things that you did not like about the course and say how they could be improved.

I always ask for suggestions as to how something that a student didn’t like could be improved upon, but I don’t often get them. I don’t know whether this is because people feel it wouldn’t be appropriate if they suggested improvements, or simply don’t feel inspired?

Several people noted the course was time-consuming. Reflecting on the work done in individual units was also often seen as a little too much (yes, it is apparently fun reading other people’s reflections, but not writing your own. 🙂 ) Vying for the title of least popular were the unit on punctuation – I’m planning some serious revision of those materials – and the glossary activities. I found it particularly interesting that at least one person was annoyed at being faced with a new online tool in each unit and having to figure out how it worked. I guess I might have overdone it a little.

15. Do you have any other comments, suggestions or any other feedback? Perhaps you wanted to elaborate on an earlier (multiple choice) question?

I thought it was interesting that the majority of the answers here focused on the method of delivery rather than the content. Those who commented on the online aspect said that online learning is the future and that more courses at their institution should incorporate educational technologies to some extent. And it seems fitting to end by quoting the person who said, “It was definitely an experience!”

Do you include any of these questions when asking for feedback? If there is a question you think should be included or if you have picked up on something in the results which I didn’t address, I would love to hear from you in the comments!