Copy and paste for teachers

Photo taken from ELTpics by @mk_elt, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Last week I finally got started on grading and feedback in the latest iteration of my writing skills online course, and thought I’d do a brief post on my comment bank. Note to self: see if you can come up with a catchier title than “My comment bank”.

Last summer I was listening to an episode of the Professional Adjunct podcast, in which the hosts, Beth and Jim, discuss an article called “Ten Tips for More Efficient and Effective Grading”, originally published on Faculty Focus. I’m not a regular subscriber to this podcast, but the couple of episodes I’ve listened to have addressed various aspects of teaching online – the asynchronous kind, which I do.

When they got to point 2 – comment banks – I remember it only then dawned on me that I had in fact been creating a comment bank for a few semesters without having expressly set out to do so, or even realizing that was what I’d been doing. I mean, I teach English. I’ve used coursebooks with text banks in the back of the TB, so the concept is familiar. And yet the idea of a comment bank came as a surprise – not the I-didn’t-think-anyone-else-had-come-up-with-this kind of surprise, but more of an oh-I-have-something-like-that-who-knew kind.

I find this type of resource especially useful for asynchronous online contexts or whenever you need to give feedback on work submitted electronically. Once you’ve designed a course in an LMS that covers a whole semester, it’s likely to maintain a more or less similar structure for at least a couple of semesters. For instance, there will be a discussion forum in unit 1 – it may differ in terms of the reading the students need to do to take part, or in terms of the opening post – but they’ll still be taking part in a discussion and you’ll probably want to give them a grade and feedback on that.

I originally used to add comments under headings like “Unit 1, discussion 1” to a Word document, but after a while I switched to Google Docs as I can access the bank across devices. This morning, for example, I had an hour to kill on campus, so I used the office computer to add feedback – pretty convenient.

I have a rubric for each activity that I give feedback on, so if it’s a discussion, I’m looking for a minimum number of posts, minimum number of words per post, participation by deadline, relevance to topic – this is not in order of importance – and so I will usually first comment on how successfully the student has followed the rubric. This can be taken straight from the comment bank and requires minimal adaptation. Then, if there is anything specific to a particular student that I would like to address, I will add a personalized comment. I tend to end with suggestions on what to watch out for in the next discussion, and these are often from the comment bank as well, since they come up more often than you might expect. A case in point would be encouraging them to run a spell check on their posts and pointing them to a resource we have in the course where they can find more information on how to do that, should they need to.

A more recent addition to the comment bank has been marking sections of the text in different colors for convenience. There are at least 5 or 6 comments that I will be using and/or building on for an activity, so it’s far easier to find my way around if each is a different color. I wish I could say I was color coding them – it sounds more organized – but it’s nothing as sophisticated as that; I just mark them in different color so each comment stands out from the ones above and below.

So that’s it, really. It’s a significant timesaver, relatively simple to do – okay, it does take up a bit of time the first time around, but you’ll be tweaking it every semester anyway, so it doesn’t need to be perfect – and is very convenient if you’re doing your grading via an LMS. Plus I think it makes me look at student work more objectively and fairly, although that may just be wishful thinking.

Do you use a comment bank? Any tips you’d like to share? I’m particularly interested if anyone uses anything similar in a classroom environment.

A student’s learning journal

"And so, what we did in unit 3 was this..."
“And so, what we did in unit 3 was this…”

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about what we cover in our limited F2F time in preparation for a semester online. In a comment on this post fellow tertiary teacher Laura Adele Soracco wondered if it would be possible to see a sample of the students’ portfolios in Mahara. It then occurred to me that this might also be interesting to other teachers, and well worth sharing in a separate post, but I felt a bit reluctant about asking the students to share what they’d thought was going to be read only by a group of classmates with…well, anyone, really. Then I remembered one of last year’s students, who had added a Creative Commons licence logo to her portfolio page early on in the course.

Luckily, it transpired she hadn’t just been experimenting with the logo and was still willing to share her portfolio page. A few words of context first. The portfolio is part of a compulsory online course in writing skills for second-year communication science majors, whose L1 is for the most part Croatian. They were required to keep a learning journal and record their expectations at the beginning of the course, as well as their reflections after each of the eight units over a four-month semester. It is perhaps worth noting that this particular student had prior experience in running her own blog, which I think was not the case with most of the other students. I leave it up to the reader to decide how much of an impact this might have had beyond the initial couple of entries.

I should also note that some of the text is in Croatian – very little, true, but this could be confusing if you are looking for earlier entries. You can click through to the second page at the bottom of the first, directly above the Creative Commons licence logo.

And so, without further ado, I present the e-portfolio page of Ms Beatta Lovrečić! I want to thank Beatta for allowing me to share her page on this blog and hope that it will be interesting to those of you who are (considering) working with e-portfolios.

Please click here to view the journal.

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.

eden
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 .