Categories
Edtech Moodle online course

On talking to your online students

Graffitied brick wall that says "Listen".
painteverything: listen (CC BY 2.0)

I’ll skip references to the fact that I haven’t posted on this blog for months now and dive right in, shall I?

Right. Four semesters ago I wrote a post on how I’d decided to start adding audio recordings to the online course I teach and a follow-up post on the topic soon afterwards. In the meantime I kept working with audio recordings and adding tweaks, so I wanted to write down some observations.

A brief digression: have you noticed how it sounds almost strange to be describing students/courses as ‘online’? It’s like all courses now have some kind of online component and it’s hard to even imagine a time – just four semesters ago! just four course iterations ago! – when teaching a semester-long course online wasn’t exactly routine and it seemed important to note that for context. Or maybe it’s just me?

Anyway, the way my audio files are structured and presented has developed over time into a Tips on what to watch out for chapter in each unit guide (a Moodle book resource). The tips are divided into Things that were done well over the past week or so and Things to watch out for in the current unit. The ‘developed over time’ bit makes it sound as if a whole lot of development has been going on but this setup has in fact been in place pretty much since I started using the H5P course presentation (see the second link above for a more detailed account of how that came about). 

One thing that became obvious pretty quickly was that a lot of the recordings in the Things that were done well category needed to be recorded over again each semester, as each group was slightly different in the things they did well and it was tricky to stay neutral in these recordings. What I mean by ‘neutral’ is avoiding any mention of something group-specific. I knew that I should strive for this in theory, if I wanted to be able to reuse the recordings, but in practice it’s surprisingly difficult to speak to a group of students without references to that particular group. Try it and go back to the recording in six months’ time. I guarantee you’ll find phrases that will make you groan. For instance, you’re commenting on forum activity and you hear yourself saying, “I can see that several people have added comments to this thread…”, whereas this semester, with your luck, no one has added anything to that thread. 

The Things to watch out for in the current unit files were easier to reuse because they’re basically general advice on what to keep in mind as you complete a particular activity, so aren’t linked to any individual group. An example would be how to approach a glossary activity: if there are any areas students commonly slip up on, what to watch out for with regard to the final exam and so on.

The most time-consuming aspect of working with these files is that you have to listen to them again every six months before you re-record. I guess what you could do is just assume that all the Done well recordings need to be re-recorded and not waste time listening to those from last semester but I always hoped that I could at least use some of them again, possibly dealing with minor differences by adding an explanatory text box as in the screenshot. 

Tips on what to watch out for: Before you start on the tasks in this chapter, I recommend listening to the audio comments. They need not all be listened to at once; instead you can listen to them as they become relevant to the task you are completing. Things that were done well over the past week or so: communication, Hypothes.is app, Jobs of the future forum. To the right of each topic there is an icon indicating audio content can be played. An arrow is pointing to the audio file icons, suggesting the following text refers to all the audio files: "I've recorded these with a different device, so the sound is lower than in the two recordings in the "Things to watch out for" section below. You'll probably need to turn the sound up."
Screenshot from course

Also, those in the Current unit category would sometimes need to be re-recorded as well because there would be changes to the way some activities were set up or some advice was too specific. For instance, only today I realized that advice on pair work included a 2-minute segment on how to make sure exchange students were not left out but this semester we don’t have any exchange students. This segment was somewhere in the middle of the recording, so I used 123 Apps’ trim audio and audio joiner to excise the bit that was no longer relevant. 

When I’d first introduced audio files to the course, I was really curious to see what the students thought, so I added this as a possible reflection topic for their learning journals. It was actually student reflections that helped me realize one longer recording might be demanding to stay with and might be more easily processed if broken up into shorter files. Although student perspective was key to this change, I didn’t add audio as a reflection topic for the next two semesters. Then last semester I added this poll.

How do you feel about the "Tips on what to watch out for" chapter in the unit guides? Possible answers: a) I listen I listen to the comments and generally find them useful, b) I listen to the comments but they don't contribute to my successful completion of the course tasks, c) I listen to the comments but have no opinion about them, and d) I don't listen to the comments. View 14 responses.
Screenshot from course

Just over half the group opted for “I listen to the comments and generally find them useful” and out of the rest only one person chose “I don’t listen to the comments”. The way the poll was designed basically only told me whether students listened to the audio and to some extent if they saw the comments in a positive light. I planned on following this up with a reflection topic but didn’t. The results didn’t seem overly negative, i.e. most students said they listened to the comments, so I probably didn’t see a pressing need to get more feedback, although it would definitely be useful to know more about why some felt the comments didn’t help them.

This semester I introduced another tweak, partly brought about by the fact that since I’d started recording audio comments I was aware of the fact that there was no transcript and that ideally there should be one, both in accordance with accessibility guidelines and also because it’s okay, I think, not to force people to listen at a certain speed (or even twice that speed) if you can offer them the option of glancing at a transcript and picking out the main points. The other reason for the tweak was, as is so often the case, Twitter.

I started using the tool in the tweet with the Done well comments. I realize now that it says this particular tool is aimed at social media use, which I don’t recall being in focus that much back in February. I suppose it may have been and another reason for choosing it may have been the (subconscious) idea that anything to do with social media would appeal to students. Anyway, using it didn’t address the transcript issue because what you do is add captions, which should make it easier to follow what the person is saying but you still can’t process the information the way you would with a transcript available. Also, I have since learned that screen readers can only read transcripts, not captions. This wasn’t an issue for the students I’ve had these past semesters but if you’re making a recording for a larger group of students (on a MOOC, say) it would definitely be important. 

An upside I noticed is that recordings made with this tool are definitely shorter, which is great as I tend to ramble the minute I don’t prepare notes on what I want to say. The captions are generated by the software, so that’s done quickly but I still need to clean them up and it’s much quicker and easier if there isn’t much waffle. In fact, compared with the first screenshot above, in which there are three topics in the Done well section, this semester I only had one topic/video per Done well section. I really did plan on checking with the students if they noticed any difference between just audio and these recordings with a visual component, but the end of the semester is here and I don’t seem to have done that. Maybe next semester.

What are your thoughts on audio in courses which are mostly delivered asynchronously online? Do you think you would prefer engaging with the audio as opposed to going through transcripts? What strikes you as the ideal length for audio recordings?

Thanks for reading!

Categories
Edtech Moodle online course

Should your online students (want to) talk to you?

Photo “headphones” taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/mzn37/ by Michael Newman, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license 

This is a follow-up post on the one from earlier this month, on the audio files I’ve been adding to the online course this semester.

Because several of the students had made the point in their learning journals that they were finding it challenging to focus on longer stretches of audio, I decided to try out Neil’s suggestion of adding shorter comments to the H5P Course Presentation content type.

This now pretty much looks like your typical PowerPoint slide with blue play buttons next to each bullet point. I add the Course Presentation to the relevant unit and choose the “available but not shown on course page” option so that I can embed it into the unit guide which is organized in the Moodle Book resource. I do this so that the students will access it in the order I’d like them to, i.e. that will (hopefully) make the most sense. 

I did say the students were free to comment on what they thought of this change – if they thought it made processing the audio any easier – in their learning journals, but as I haven’t had any takers yet, I’m not sure what they think. 

From my perspective, it’s definitely easier and quicker as far as planning goes. I haven’t opened the document in which I used to plan what I was going to say since I last made a longer recording. I jot down the ideas in a notebook and it’s just a couple of words for each point I plan to address. I’ve only done two units this way and the average is 7 recordings per unit, which I think overall adds up to a little more than the 15 minutes the single recordings per unit would take, but I make sure to state clearly that the students don’t need to listen to these in one go. 

I also find it much easier to record a 3-minute comment in the sense that I feel very aware it’s much easier to re-record if I go off on a tangent or if a text message comes through and distracts me. I just need to remember to say at the beginning of each recording what it’s going to be about, so those listening are sure which file goes with which bullet point.

In the last unit I did this for I also added a slide with links to a couple of video resources and websites, which I then expanded on in the audio comments, so right now Course Presentation is looking like a far more versatile resource than just audio files.

You know when you get excited about something and figure everyone will be just as thrilled about it as you are? Despite writing about the audio files as an experiment, I’d already made up my mind that they added something (valuable) to the course and expected the students to feel the same way. Halfway through the course I added an optional activity which involved the H5P Audio Recorder content type and instructions for students to record an audio comment no longer than 2 minutes – I called the activity “Checking in” – and share the recording on a Padlet wall. 

Only one student took part in this activity, which was a bit of an anticlimax. Maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise as it was optional, but 2 minutes – okay, probably more like 10 minutes if you factor in prep time (there were prompts), downloading and sharing to Padlet – didn’t seem likely to discourage the entire group. Clearly I miscalculated here but I’m not sure why.

In earlier course runs I used to offer the option of recording some learning journal audio entries and very few students ever took this up, which I attributed to the probability that these entries were likely to take more prep time. But there might have been an additional factor: some students said they hated the sound of their voice and couldn’t bear to listen to themselves. 

I thought hearing other students’ voices would make their online presence more evident and therefore have a bonding and motivating effect, but the whole thing fell flat. Apart from feeling a tad disappointed – the students don’t seem uninterested in the course overall – I’m not sure if I should consider this a chance development and repeat the experiment or just drop it. 

If you have any ideas re why students may not be as excited about the opportunities afforded by audio as I am, I’d love to hear them!

Thanks for reading and I hope you’re having a lovely holiday season! Thank you for being around this year. 🙂 

Categories
Edtech Moodle online course Tertiary teaching

Should you talk to your online students?

Alice Bartlett: speech bubble (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This came up in my Twitter feed the other day. 

Substitute “researchers” with “teachers” and it seemed such an obvious question. But it wouldn’t have been just two months ago. You might remember that I recently wrote about a tweak I was planning to introduce to my online course this semester – that’s tweak three in this post – and I was pretty excited about it. I was finding it hard to believe that prior to this semester I’d never even considered talking to my students on a regular basis (because we were doing a writing skills course, so why would I??) and I was itching to start making up for this. 

My initial vague idea was to add an audio file to each unit of the course (that’s 8 in total) and to use this way of communicating to address what the students were doing well and give them a couple of tips on what to focus on in the unit with a view to the final exam. What I’ve found happens with some learners is that they don’t have the motivation to revise material online as they would have to in class. In a traditional classroom environment I’d work in some kind of vocab revision activity every time we met. It’s different online: they’re responsible for revising and even if I made them do revision exercises (in the sense of making this a prerequisite to qualifying for the final) I couldn’t be sure if everything was clear – I’d have to rely on them asking questions. Which they don’t always – or even often – do. But I digress.

As I was saying, so that’s one audio file per unit. I started with unit one and because we’re now halfway through the course, I wanted to do jot down a couple of observations. They’re going to be completely random; basically these are just things I mull over as I walk to work (another thing I’ve recently started doing). 

The recordings are getting longer every time.

The first one was a little over 5 minutes, while the last one was just over 16. This is definitely due to the fact that I don’t use SpeakPipe, which cuts you off after 5 minutes (possibly this wouldn’t happen if you were logged in; I haven’t checked). I’ve written about using SpeakPipe for audio comments when students request feedback on specific areas of their writing and I actually like the time limitation because it forces me to be succinct. I guess I could be less focused and then go back and edit bits out but being succinct seems like less work. I figured, however, that these recordings were going to be a bit different and I’d probably have more ground to cover, so having to stay under 5 minutes might be too challenging and not worth the effort. So I use 123 Apps’ voice recorder, which doesn’t require me to log in, plus I can talk as long as I like. Apparently.

I still have to plan what I’m going to say.

This is “still” as in expressing contrast to being able to talk as long as I like, not as in I’m likely to stop planning what I’m going to say at some point. I’m a pretty recent convert to podcasts and listening to them is generally an excellent way of passing the time, unless someone is very obviously thinking through what they’re saying on the spot. I don’t like hearing the same message delivered three different ways; I mean, I understand that this is what happens in natural speech (digressing, rephrasing, making sure the other person gets what we’re saying) but if I’m listening (and not taking part) I don’t necessarily need or want the conversation to be quite so natural.  

So what I do is make a note of what I want to address in the recording. For the last two recordings these notes have taken up about half an A4 page and I think this makes what I say sound more structured (if not exactly succinct) and thus hopefully easier for the students to process. 

I really should get some decent equipment.

In spite of having been planning to get a decent microphone for the last couple of years, I still haven’t gotten around to it, so I use the built in one, trying to convince myself that the sound quality doesn’t have to be great: the students are only likely to listen to the recording once. However, as I’m usually aware of the change in sound quality when podcast hosts happily announce they have new mikes, I’m pretty sure students would appreciate this too. If you have any recommendations for something that is both affordable and good quality, please let me know in the comments.

Maybe I should keep track of how many people actually listen anyway. 

I first got the idea of adding these recordings to the course when I saw audio files in other people’s courses – if you’re interested in more detail on this, check the post on tweaks linked to in the first paragraph – and they seemed to be very prominently displayed as in this image. 

Screenshot from mobile app

I liked this as I had the impression it stood out and drew course participants’ attention, so I thought I’d add mine the same way. In my course the units are unhidden one by one, so when they see a new unit, the students immediately see the audio is there. I also recommend that they listen when I post the announcement of each new unit. 

However, the disadvantage of adding audio content to a Moodle topic this way means I have no way of telling if anyone has actually played it. I could add it as a resource instead, so I’d have some indication of whether someone clicked on it, though, of course, this doesn’t mean they listened to it all the way through. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of turning it into another resource the students feel they have to click on; I want it to be optional. I’ve added a question on the recordings to the reflection prompts at the end of the current unit, so maybe some will address this in their learning journals.


I’d written most of this post up a couple of days ago but on adding that last sentence, I thought I’d wait until we were done with the unit so as to have the opportunity to look at the learning journals and round the post off with student reactions, if any.

It turns out quite a few people commented on the recordings, which was reassuring as they’d clearly listened to them. The overall impression seems to be that they are helpful in terms of clarifying what to focus on and compensating somewhat for lack of F2F contact. At least one person liked the fact that they cover what was done well in the unit before, which I was pleased with. I sometimes worry I don’t adequately acknowledge all the effort the students put in.

On the other hand, some people felt the recordings were too long and found it difficult to focus for a longer stretch of time. As someone who is exposed to audio content in my L2 every single day, be this a podcast or an audiobook, I think I may have underestimated the level of difficulty for students, given the absence of a transcript or visual cues. A couple of problems were noted: an inability to focus for so long, difficulty remembering the main points and the lack of visual support (at least one person said they found it easier to be able to go back over a sentence in order to process it, as they would when reading).

I think this’ll be very useful in planning subsequent recordings. Which changes would you make? Apart from watching out for the length. 🙂

Thanks for reading!