Making the most of face time

Campus where I teach, photo taken from
The campus where I teach, photo taken from

The winter semester at the institution where I teach my online course started two weeks ago*. As has by now become somewhat the norm, we had a couple of F2F sessions – six hours this time instead of the usual eight because one of the days we were supposed to have class inconveniently turned out to be a public holiday. Inconveniently – ha! I guess most people consider holidays a blessing, but I still can’t shake the attitude that is ingrained after years of work in the private sector where for a language school every holiday means less money, especially in (the second half of) June, when Croatia practically comes to a standstill owing to the rich combination possibilities afforded by two secular holidays, a religious one, and the law stipulating that the previous year’s vacation days must be used up by June 30 of the current year. But I didn’t start out to talk about holidays.

I thought I would describe what we did in our F2F sessions prior to starting a four-month online course. A little bit of background: the course is a compulsory one aimed at second-year communication science majors, there are roughly 15 people in the group (although the exact figure varies each semester) and we have a sprinkling of Erasmus students as well. The online part is carried out, mostly asynchronously, in Moodle, hosted and administered by Zagreb University’s Computing Center.

When you know that you will be spending most of your time in an online environment, with no possibility of meeting F2F before the final exam, you realize that you need to give very serious consideration to what you want to cover during the limited classroom time. My current position is that anything content-related can be introduced online and that face time is best spent on fostering a group atmosphere and getting the group to gel as best it can. Of course, you’ll continue to work on this throughout the semester, but if you get a good start offline, it’ll be that much easier in Moodle.

The first time I met this semester’s group I knew I would be doing – wait for it – some kind of getting-to-know-you activity. A very brief digression: do see the third graph in this post by James Taylor for alternatives to getting-to-know-you activities with a new class, guaranteed to make you smile. During the summer I’d come across the idea of using selfies as an ice-breaker in this post by Jill Walker Rettberg, and immediately knew I wanted to try it out. Okay, I’m not teaching a module on digital self-representation, but it is a topic future journalists and PR majors can reasonably be expected to encounter at some point during their studies. More immediately relevant to my course is the belief that having everyone share a selfie with the others will increase their feeling of group belonging a least a little. As the course is online, for some this will be the only opportunity to see their classmates’ faces (they don’t take all of their on-campus classes together). And, yeah, let’s not forget it’s fun! Unless you’re pathologically averse to selfies, but I wasn’t going to force anyone to take part if they really didn’t want to.**

I got everyone to line up according to height (to split them up into random groups) and sent them out for five minutes to take selfies. They could have just stayed outside in the hall, but they all left the building and took the pics outdoors. When they came back, they uploaded these to a Padlet wall I’d prepared the day before, and added a caption. Before starting on the activity, I’d also checked that we had a sufficient number of smartphones, and I’d added my selfie to the wall to demonstrate how Padlet works. When all the pictures were up, we viewed them on the projector screen and the students shared some more details about themselves. Later, I added (a link to) the selfie wall to a prominent spot on the online course home page, inviting those who missed the first session to add their pics. I can already see I’ll be checking it out increasingly often as exam time rolls around to remind myself of what the students look like.

We followed this up with an activity designed to see how the class feels about writing. Normally the students get a somber black and white handout, as opposed to the tequila sunrise color combo pictured here, but that’s what comes of wasting time playing around with PowerPoint backgrounds.

Raising awareness about writing
Raising awareness about writing

I like to get a discussion going – if that is the right word to apply to undergraduates being asked to exchange opinions on a topic such as writing, in the morning, in a foreign language, while the jury is still out on just how much effort they’re going to have to put into the class. Still, I make sure everyone gets to say something, as this is also a good chance to see what their spoken English is like. In addition to checking to what extent they enjoy writing, if they proofread their work, etc., I use the opportunity to explain how correction and feedback will be dealt with online, and prepare them for something they will be doing quite a bit of – reading their classmates’ writing. This is something they wouldn’t normally do in an offline environment.

If there are no time constraints, I like to do an activity designed to raise awareness about text quality as well, but this time we had to skip it.

Raising awareness about text quality
Raising awareness about text quality

Our second session was devoted to demonstrating how Moodle and Mahara work. As I have by now repeatedly discovered that first steps in the online environment are not as intuitive as digital native proponents would have us believe, I’d decided that this semester I would book the computer room so that I could walk everyone through logging on and creating an e-portfolio page for the course. Unsurprisingly, it then turned out that not only was the room unavailable, I also couldn’t for some reason copy last year’s course – an activity that takes all of three minutes and doesn’t usually require admin assistance, so I’d perhaps somewhat thoughtlessly left it until the night before the demo session.

Change of plan. I listed all the important steps in a Google Doc and took the group through these together, using last year’s course to illustrate. Thinking about it now, I probably should have included screenshots too. The trickiest step for most seems to be creating and sharing a portfolio page, and this time was no exception. I subsequently recorded a screencast on how to do this and added it to the course – something I probably should also have included in the Google Doc right from the start. Ah, well, there is always next semester. Of course, the document was shared after the session with everyone enrolled in the course.

Finally, in the third session I opted for two activities – not exactly bonding experience material, but important to cover face-to-face nonetheless. The first was freewriting. I like to get an idea, at the beginning of the year, of what the students can do without the help of the internet and assorted reference materials. It’s not exactly scientific, but it does usually give me a pretty accurate impression of what I can expect throughout the semester. Some people find it really hard to get started, so this time I included a couple of sentence beginnings – vague enough not to require the students to stick to any particular subject – to help along those who weren’t feeling particularly inspired.

I decided we would also cover the basics of formal writing in the last session for a very simple reason. This is the one section of the course content that I haven’t transferred online, and I figured I would avoid doing this if at all possible. Yes, this is content-related and not about fostering a group atmosphere. Yes, I know what I said at the beginning. But adapting offline materials for an online course takes time. And I have this presentation which has been tweaked and polished over the last couple of semesters, perfect to use with a class about to start on a writing course. Incidentally, when I say formal writing, I don’t mean EAP, but rather things like reminding students that linking words other than ‘and’ or ‘but’ exist and that people do employ them occasionally.

This was as much face time as we got this semester. I feel we managed to squeeze in everything we really needed to before moving online, and paved the way for a more or less successful course. As I write this most of the students have completed the introductory online activities and made a start on the course content, so all is well. Almost all, at any rate. But that is material for another post.

* three weeks ago, actually, by the time I finally got around to wrapping the post up

**at least one of the students who missed the first session and added their pics later explained that she is alone in the picture because her classmate doesn’t like selfies