Some observations on blended learning

Some of you may have seen on Twitter that I am back to classroom teaching this semester. I have two other courses that are entirely classroom-based, but as I liked teaching my writing skills course online for the past four years, and thought this mode of delivery was useful for the students, I was reluctant to let it go completely. So I decided I’d teach it as a blended course this semester. Maybe this sounds like I’d planned it all out before the course even started, but I actually wasn’t sure if it was going to be online, offline or blended until a couple of weeks into the course.

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Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Linda Pospisilova, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

One of the course components while it was online was the portfolio, or to be more specific, a learning journal in which the students reflected on various aspects of the course and commented on each other’s entries. An important purpose of the journal was to encourage interaction between students in a relatively informal setting. Students could – and did – write things like, “I thought this unit was pretty cool / useless because …” (Okay, maybe no one actually said ‘useless’.) In the early stages I read and commented on all the entries (yes, that was insane kind of time-consuming), then I had the students start commenting on one another’s entries, and finally I introduced assistant moderators (click through to read an earlier post on that).

Because we meet on campus at least once a week, there is no longer a need for regular learning journal entries, or at least no more so than in any other course. Besides, insisting that the students reflect on each unit in addition to both classroom sessions and online assignments would probably take their workload beyond the requirements for 4 ECTS (although, to be honest, I haven’t checked). However, I thought it would be interesting to ask them to reflect on their learning halfway through the course – this shouldn’t be overly taxing.

As the students are doing this, I figured I could do something similar and describe what differences I’ve noticed between the course when it was run online and in its current, blended format. Here we go, in no particular order.

  1. I have the impression that we are covering vocabulary more thoroughly. Although the course focuses on writing skills, it’s also ESP in that we’re supposed to cover a certain amount of vocabulary targeted at communication science students. This is why the units on various aspects of writing are interspersed with those on vocabulary for journalists. There are a couple of ways the online course requires students to practice this key vocab, but these mostly rely on the students making an effort and going a little further than the minimum required to get a check mark next to the activity. Which, of course, many students don’t do, at least not until the night before the final exam. Whenever I thought about this – while teaching online – I was torn between the little devil saying, “But they’re university students; it’s up to them if they revise regularly or not,” and the little angel piping up, “Oh no, but it’s up to you to create opportunities for them to study; you’ve just got to work a little hard to make it interesting and they will!” As we now meet on campus, I simply incorporate a bit of vocab revision into each session and feel that they are more comfortable with the new vocab as a result. The doubt as to whether this is primarily my responsibility or theirs (at university level) remains.
  2. Speaking of vocabulary, it also feels like we get to have more in-depth discussions of some topics because this happens both in the classroom and online. The online course has opportunities for discussion in almost every unit, but there are three, sort of meatier discussions during the semester, all linked to the vocabulary units. These are discussions all the students are expected to contribute to and they have instructions on how to interact rather than simply respond to the opening post (which tends to happen unless you specify a different set of expectations). This semester we’ve continued the online discussions in the classroom, and I felt that went quite well. I guess that makes sense as they’d already thought about the topic while contributing online.
  3. In the classroom I can introduce extra practice to target specific language areas because I can respond more quickly. Sure, you can do this online. The problem is, it’s often harder to spot specific problems because you don’t see the students’ immediate reactions, and you rely on the students being adult enough to say, “Look, I’m not really sure about this – can you explain?” I get it, I do. It’s hard to admit you don’t know something – maybe you missed the part when someone was explaining? Maybe they’ll think you’re stupid? Maybe everyone knows the answer but you? – and then you have to post your question online for the whole class to see. In the classroom, when you see that something seems to require extra explaining or practice, you can either address it immediately or in the following session. Online you can point the student who asked the question to a specific resource, but you have no idea if the student has followed up on this. Or if anyone else has. Or if you should maybe tweak/redesign that part of the course in case everyone is having the same problem … and if you do, that will be in effect as of next semester, and that group of students may not have that same problem.
  4. I feel comfortable walking the students through some sections. And we’re back to what I said before – I feel their learner autonomy should be more in evidence and it sometimes annoys me that it isn’t, but if I go with them through some of the stuff they can mostly cover on their own I won’t feel guilty for leaving them to their own devices. A good example here is the unit on punctuation, which involves a bit of background reading, some practice and checking their answers, and asking questions if something isn’t clear. In an ideal world.
  5. At first, I thought that I wouldn’t even make all the online materials available this semester, so as not to confuse the students. I’d only let them access those that we didn’t cover in class. However, that turned out not to be such a great idea, because a substantial amount of the content would have to be rewritten. If I hide one chapter, then the next one inevitably starts with, “As you have seen in the last chapter… ”. This is because the chapters are written in unit guide format. Ideally, I’d have to have two separate courses: one for the fully online version and one for the blended version. Then it occurred to me that I was probably overestimating the potential for confusion and it might be useful to have all the materials available online anyway. Some students will have missed some of the classroom sessions, and will probably want to go through the material in their own time, but even those who didn’t may want to revise. In an ideal world.
  6. Some practical things which are more skills than language-related are more easily demonstrated in class. Here I mean, for instance, showing the students how to work with proofreading/tracking tools in Word. I don’t know if all the students feel comfortable using these. If in more than half of their submissions the language hasn’t been set to English to pick up on spelling errors, I’m going to assume a quick demonstration might be helpful. Again, this is something you can do online, of course; there are plenty of videos you can just pop into the course as an additional resource or you can do your own screencast if those are too general or otherwise unsuited to your purposes. But you can’t be sure everyone’s going to watch the video, or if they watch it and something isn’t clear, that they’re going to ask for clarification. You could set up activity completion so that they have to click through to the video in order to get the check mark, but you still don’t know if they’ve seen it and there is a point at which you risk coming across as dictatorial and a tad obsessed.

Reading back over these points, I think I may have a problem reconciling the belief that autonomy should be encouraged and probably should already have fully developed by the point students get to tertiary education, with the suspicion that this is unlikely, and that it is up to the instructor to make sure the work gets done. What do you think? Is this (at least partly) determined by my teaching context (Croatia, undergrads)? At which point are the learners at risk of getting spoon-fed?

7 things students expect from an online writing skills course

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Jeffrey Doonan, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/
Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Jeffrey Doonan, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

A new online semester started two weeks ago. This is the sixth time around that I’m running my compulsory writing skills course for (predominantly) communication sciences majors in Moodle. I have my assistant mods helping me out again, for which I’m truly grateful, and this time we have seven exchange students out of a total of 22, so even people with dismal math skills such as my own can immediately see that a third of the group aren’t Croatian. This is pretty unusual (for those teaching in Croatia) and quite exciting (for me).

One of the first things I get each new group to do as soon as we start online is set up their e-portfolio page in Mahara. A brief digression – you can read more about what we do in the couple of F2F sessions before we move online here. Mahara is not the most intuitive of environments, but it’s the e-portfolio of choice for the University of Zagreb Computing Center. We primarily use it to share learning journals, which works reasonably well once everyone has figured out how to share their page with the group, made sure their journal is showing up on the page and comments are enabled – experience has shown managing all three steps without instructor intervention can be tricky, even with detailed instructions. Did I say Mahara is not the most intuitive of environments? Oh well.

Anyway, before we start on the course proper, I ask the students to write an entry on their expectations from the course. These are inevitably tinged with the experience of the F2F sessions, so there’s a fair amount of reference to the content I said we’d be covering; still, it helps me get a better picture of what the group as a whole expects to happen over the course of the semester. I always share my own expectations entry as well; apart from believing it’s only fair, this post is meant to help break the ice and to demonstrate roughly the length and tone I expect of student posts.

I try to respond to these first posts myself, although the assistant mods have been a great help here too. When I go through the posts I watch out for any expectations unlikely to be met, as those are probably best addressed straight away. I confess that I sometimes wish they were a little more creative exciting; for instance, that someone would say, “I would like to be able to write for the New York Times someday, and hope that this course will help me get there”, but that does not appear to figure on their list of priorities.

I thought I would go through the expectations from this semester, similar to those from previous years, in the hope of categorizing them in some way. I don’t expect anything revolutionary to happen as I do this, but it might give me a different slant on what the students consider important (or think the instructor wants to hear – there’s always that).

1. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most students say they expect to improve their writing skills. See, that’s what I mean when I say I wish they were a tad more exciting – is this merely playing it safe or is imagination completely absent here? Or am I underestimating the lack of confidence in their writing skills?

What I say in response – Normally nothing, partly because the statement is vague enough to depend on a whole range of factors: level of English, level of writing as a productive language skill, effort each student will put in, etc. Of course, the advantage of this vague phrasing (for the instructor) is that no one can complain they didn’t get what they thought they would; in four months it’s quite likely there will be some improvement somewhere, even if simply by chance.

To be fair, there are some who narrow their goals down a little; for example, they want to be able to structure a piece of writing or produce a formal piece of writing. You could argue these are still pretty vague, but I try to acknowledge them as specific and usually include a comment about how the more specific goals are, the more likely it is they’ll be met (and the student will be able to tell if they’ve been met).

2. The second most oft-repeated target is vocabulary expansion, usually without regard to any particular area. This could be at least partly due to one of the introductory activities I ask them to do.

What I say in response – This is another vague target likely to be met to some degree just by going through any L2 course content. We do, however, have three vocabulary-based units, built around general topics but with a focus on the vocab that might be used to report on these in the media, so I sometimes mention these. These units include links to a number of articles and videos (authentic materials), which I now realize I almost never mention (perhaps assuming students will take it for granted something like that will be part of the course?) and I probably should.

3. Some say they expect their grammar to get better.

What I say in response – Here I usually try to stress that if that does happen, it won’t be because it’s part of the course syllabus. It is assumed that the students are B2 and any explicit grammar instruction is limited to the passive voice (function, not form) and a brief mention of relative clauses. I keep an eye out for recurring mistakes, especially those that tend to cause Croatian speakers trouble – present perfect vs past simple, for instance – and will point this out if there seems to be consistent confusion, but apart from that, grammar is not on the menu.

4. Quite a few say they expect the instructor to correct (all) their mistakes.

What I say in response – I try to nip that one in the bud. However, as for Croatian learners the idea of the all-knowing, red-pen-wielding instructor is quite common, I try to strike a balance. There are a couple of pieces of writing where I’ll go all out and do what they expect me to do (for which I use Kaizena, which I cannot recommend highly enough), but I stress that the idea is to get them to become aware of what to look out for in their writing, catching errors on their own. I should probably note here that when I started teaching I was an ardent believer in jumping on a mistake the moment I spotted one, whereas by now I’ve mellowed considerably.

5. Some expect to improve their digital skills. This is often accompanied by a comment on their lack of experience with online learning, and some even profess to being anxious about how they’ll cope.

What I say in response – The majority won’t have taken a semester-long course almost entirely online before, and finding their way around, particularly around Mahara, can seem intimidating. I explain that digital skills are transferable to outside our LMS (so applicable outside the course), and try to alleviate any anxiety by stressing that the environment will become more familiar as they progress through the course.

6. There are some who focus on the learning environment and its attendant benefits. These include not having to go to campus, learning what it’s like to work from home, possibly even help with organizational skills (in the sense that there are deadlines, but between these the course is self-paced, so discipline will be required).

What I say in response – Not much, normally; sometimes I sympathize with having to go to campus because it _is_ quite remote, and this can be hard on those from out of town. I usually suggest that those who wonder if their (absence of) organizational skills might affect successful course completion schedule their time as if the course were actually held in the classroom, and log on twice a week at a fixed time. It isn’t ideal as you obviously would like as much engagement as possible, but beats logging on half an hour before the deadline each week.

7. A smattering say they expect the work to be fun, not difficult, and that they look forward to the course.

What I say in response – Well, that sounds good, doesn’t it? Yes, except for the ‘not difficult’ part – obviously I don’t want students spending hours logged on, but ‘fun’ and ‘not difficult’ are usually not the first words that spring to mind when you describe your university courses. Or are they? It’s not that I think a course should be ‘not fun’ (yawn-inducing? scary?) or difficult to be a proper course, but… I think, actually, I’m concerned they might not see it as one of the ‘real’ courses. By this I don’t mean offline, but – it’s just English, you know? Not something I’ll need in real life when I look for a real job. But I don’t normally say anything about this at the beginning, because a) I might be reading too much into it, and b) it seems like it could be a little off-putting at the beginning. Anything approaching enthusiasm should not be discouraged.

Reading back over the list, I realize it’s been helpful putting it together. I wasn’t aware that I generally respond in more detail to expectations that probably won’t be met (fully). On the other hand, I seem to subconsciously file those that are likely to be met (to some degree) as uncontroversial, and don’t see a need to comment on them as much, which is a pity because the students who voiced those expectations can’t know what I’m thinking. Moreover, it now appears obvious that students who think in terms of vague goals might eventually formulate more concrete ones if I responded with specific questions. There are two students who haven’t shared their expectations posts yet, which means I’ll probably have a chance to try this out before next semester.

With a little help from my mods

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Csilla Jaray-Benn, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/
Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Csilla Jaray-Benn, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

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.

Writing in englishMaybe 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?