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Moodle online course Tertiary teaching Thoughts and reflections

It’s been a privilege

Those who have been following this blog a little longer (as in 5 years or so) since the dawn of time may remember this post in which I talked about the first semester I had assistant moderators: (mostly) graduate students who helped me moderate forum discussions and comment on student learning journal entries. It was the first time I’d involved students in this capacity in an online course, although, to be fair, I hadn’t been teaching the course for very long at that point. It was in its fifth run. A brief digression right at the start: involving students this way online seems completely natural, yet doing a similar thing in class is much more difficult to imagine, for me at least. 

Photo “Team Work” taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/jerixthekid/ by mønsterdestrøyer, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

The original four-mod cast only stayed together that one semester, but running the course with the help of moderators has remained a permanent feature. Twelve semesters on I can say that I have had the privilege of working with twelve incredibly communicative and motivated young people (says she, sounding about ninety-three 😛 ) who I have learned a lot from and who have been hugely helpful. Here I was, all overcome with warm and fuzzy feelings and then it occurred to me that it would be really interesting to do a post in which they would talk about their moderator experience and what it meant to them. 

So I set up a Google doc and added a few questions plus the option that they add their own questions if they felt there was something more they wanted to say. Of course, I told them the answers would be shared on this blog and that they could remain anonymous if they liked. This all happened in the first half of November, so by now I’m feeling guilty for not getting the post out sooner. One lovely (partly) unexpected benefit of the whole endeavor was catching up with some of them and finding out what they were up to professionally. 

Without further ado, I’m adding the questions and answers below. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them! Oh, and if you have any questions for the mods I’ll pass them on.

Q1. How many semesters (roughly) were you an assistant mod for Writing in English? (my comments in italics)

Beatta: 1 semester (Actually, it was two now I’ve checked my records. Then you went on a semester abroad.)

Ivana: Huh, 4 i believe (Three, actually.)

Marija: This would be my 5th, but I am not certain 🙂 (Yes, you’re right!)

Dora: I believe 4 but could be more 🙂 (It was four.)

Q2. What made you decide to “accept the challenge” – it could be argued that being an assistant mod is just more work for students with already busy schedules?

Beatta:  I just really like expressing myself in English so thought this would give me an opportunity to expand my vocabulary and get a better handle on the language. It was not so much about the actual work – as challenging as it may have been sometimes, but rather just talking to other people in English 🙂

Ivana: I liked the concept of online courses, which was completely new for me at the time. Plus I looove writing and expressing myself in that way so this was a perfect way to match my passion for writing, helping students and learning some new english 🙂

Marija: To be completely honest, it just seemed like something I would actually enjoy doing that would look good in my resume 🙂 What is great about this specific course is that all of our work is online, and that I could (and I have) be active anytime, day and night. So, on top of all my other activities, it seemed like a good challenge to take on.

Dora: I always liked being an assistant, helping other students as well as professors. I didn’t mind the additional work, it wasn’t too much for sure. Also, this additional stuff in college always look good in CV and you definitely learn a lot.

Q3. How would you describe your assistant mod experience? Is there anything you’d single out as applicable outside of the course (here I’m not referring to the course content but the work of assistant mods)?

Beatta: I do not remember many details, but I remember having fun. As I said, some tasks were more challenging (i.e. getting the students to “debate” you) or boring than others (i.e. checking their homework) but all in all, I have positive memories regarding it. I really think the assistant mod experience upped my English game – I became more fluent in both speaking and writing, I expressed myself easier and my “ear” and instinct for the language developed further. Regarding some hard skills I may have developed from my mod experience, I think it pushed me to be more/better organised with my private time.

Ivana: It was a long time ago but I remember feeling amused and it really was not a problem for me to work on the tasks we had to fulfill. Sometimes I was looking forward to reading the tasks other students have done or to read about their opinions connected to the subject (and the themes that we were talking about were always rather interesting and current). I also feel like it prepared me for some future obligations that I had (doing some work online). Also I got a job because of the recommendation of prof. Vedrana 🙂

Marija: It is not so hard or too time consuming, but it makes a big difference for the students – I remember having really bad and indifferent assistants in other courses and I felt like I could contribute and make other students’ experiences better. I would like to single out the “leadership” aspect of it. We are only assistants, but we manage student communication, give instructions and directions and provide much needed feedback. It was a new field for me personally and a great practice.. It made me really improve myself and my communicating abilities which I am sure I will use later in life.

Dora: I liked the whole experience and that is why I was an assistant for all those years. We didn’t have many English classes as I would have liked, so it helped me stay fluent and learn even more. Also, it was really interesting to see what other students are thinking, how they do the assignments and how I actually got to know them without ever knowing them 😃 for my future it helped with keeping to the schedule, having obligation to other students to help them when needed and somewhat mentor them.

Q4. How do you see the work of assistant mods as contributing to the course?

Beatta: I think assistants can be of great help, not only to the professor but to the students as well. They can lessen the workload of the professor and help students open up in the debates as well as their assignments (especially blog entries).

Ivana: Sometimes students might feel more open towards the assistant and therefore open themselves in writing also. Plus, I remember that sometimes me or my mods colleagues were needed to direct the debating in a different way that was needed for the course.

Marija: My main task, I believe, is to help the professor manage all the aspects of the course (from portfolio entries to forums and debates), but also to be the link between professor and student – students tend to hesitate in asking for help and directions, but we reassure them and help them realise it is OK, even welcome.

Dora: They can help with work overload for the professor but also students might be “less afraid” to ask assistants some questions.

Q5. Is there anything about being an assistant mod that you found challenging (and how did you address that)?

Beatta: As I already mentioned, it was quite some time ago, so my memories are a bit faded, but I don’t remember it being too challenging. I remember there were lessons where the workload was heavier and/or more demanding (be that in volume or in the type of task – for me the grammar always got me :D). I addressed it by just taking more time to go through it.

Ivana: Nothing challenging about it as far as I am concerned, but it wasn’t boring either. Maybe sometimes I had a lack of time to do some tasks, but then I wrote shorter answers, simple as that. Would recommend this kind of assistance in class anytime because at the end of the day, you do your own schedule.

Marija: Everything was really well organised and I managed to stay on top of things, but sometimes I had too many other responsibilities in order to assist as well as I wanted to. It was such a terrific experience for me because of professor Estatiev too, because every time I felt pressured or thought it was too much, all I had to do was let her know and she would help out – which was greatly appreciated.

Dora: Can’t remember honestly. Just know I enjoyed it!! 🙂

Questions you wish I’d asked (add your suggestions below – possibly to be addressed in another post)

Marija: Would I recommend it and why? Absolutely! Having a great mentor who gives you responsibility and trust you do serious work is such a valuable college experience. It helps you work on yourself, come out of your student comfort zone and makes you work closely with other students and, in the end, do beneficial work for those students who really need assistance in tackling new course concepts. Plus, it sounds really good when you mention it during a job interview (I speak from experience).  

Categories
Edtech Moodle Tertiary teaching

Three tweaks

Sarah Horrigan: Listen (CC BY-NC 2.0)

That’s tweaks as in non-earth-shattering changes I’ve introduced to the course this semester. In case you were wondering if I was still teaching, yes, the online writing skills course is still going strong, despite the reservations I’ve been having about teaching it for the seventh (gulp) year in this format. I toyed with the idea of giving up tertiary teaching completely and finding a course at a language school. Then I thought I might give up the writing skills course and take up the presenting skills one again (for graduate students) – I’d really enjoyed teaching it a couple of years ago. Eventually, inertia did its thing (plus a busy schedule which means I’d find it really hard to teach F2F regularly for a sustained period of time plus the fact that I’m actually very fond of teaching online)… and here we are.

Tweak 1

Normally, I hand out the course guidelines at the beginning of each semester and we go through them in the (introductory) campus sessions. This is a document in which you’d bury the instructions for the students to send you a picture of an alligator. Dinosaur? Wait a sec. Yup, dinosaur. I don’t call it a syllabus because that’s what I call another document where we have the breakdown of topics which are going to be covered in the course. The guidelines are about things like deadlines, grading, referencing, tips on how to manage the online component, etc. Reasoning that time spent discussing the course guidelines is essentially wasted because they have nothing to do with writing skills, I used to set the pace for going through them point by point and clarifying anything I thought needed clarification.

This time around I asked the students to read through them (in one of the F2F sessions) and to come up with 1-2 questions they wanted me to answer. I thought this went really well. I’d initially said everyone *had* to come up with at least one question, figuring that if questions were optional, I’d be lucky to end up with 2 in total. In the end, more than half the students didn’t have a question (or someone had already asked the same one) but some people had more than one, so a very useful discussion developed. I thought the way we did it this semester was possibly more useful to the students. Following up on this, I asked the students to note down their questions and am going to add a FAQ section to the online version of the guidelines. 

Tweak 2

I’ve written previously about our use of Mahara for the students’ learning journals. The way this is set up is that the students join a closed group (a new one every semester) and create their own pages which they share with the group. Each student’s journal is then accessed by clicking on their page. 

What I used to do before was share my own page with the group, which was meant to show students if they were on the right track as regards the page setup. On this page I would have a sample journal entry – in the early iterations of the course I tried to add reflections regularly but was unable to keep this up – the slides on reflective writing which I also wrote about at one point and often other resources (linked to writing skills). The idea was partly to demonstrate what a portfolio page could be used for apart from sharing a learning journal. I suppose this would be sort of useful if there was a reason for students to check my page out regularly, but as mine was the only one which wasn’t updated past the sample journal entry there was really no reason for students to visit it later on in the course.

This time I didn’t share my page with the group, but added my resources directly to the group homepage. I figured it would make the environment look more friendly and accessible (and useful) because everyone would be able to see the resources right away. Besides, this will be more effective at pushing me to share new resources, even if I haven’t figured out how often I’ll be doing this yet. I really like online learning environments where additional links are available for people to explore in their own time. 

Tweak 3

This is the one I’m looking forward to most, although I haven’t done anything about it yet. Like a lot of ideas that come to me as I scroll through my Twitter feed, this was also triggered by others’ ideas. Here I remember seeing two courses in which audio recordings obviously featured – I can’t remember how exactly but I got the impression that these were recordings of the tutors speaking. One was the TBLT course by SLB Coop and the other a course shared by Andrew Porterfield (I think it was part of a project). I thought they’d made use of the H5P content type called audio recorder. Then Sandra A. Rogers shared one of her courses in which she had a video welcoming students to the course. These bits of info came together like jigsaw pieces in that they made me realize I wasn’t talking to the students as much as I could/should be. So I decided I’d be adding an audio recording (these take less time to prepare than videos) to each unit. I’m still not entirely sure what they’ll be about or even if they’ll be about the same thing each time. Right now, I’m thinking I’ll focus on aspects people have found tricky and maybe point out what they should focus on as they prepare for the exam; it seems to me it wouldn’t hurt to start addressing potential pitfalls early on. Much as I’d like to be able to ignore the exam completely, this isn’t an option. Another thing that I’d like to speak about in the recordings is what the students are doing well and draw attention to examples of good practice.

So, that’s it. Nothing major but still, changes for the better, I think. If you were taking a writing skills course, what kind of resources would you like/expect to explore (the optional kind)? What would you address in the audio recordings? Would you even do them or do you think video is better?  

Thank you for reading!

Categories
Moodle Tertiary teaching

Reflections on reflective writing

Photo taken from ELTpics by Ian James, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Often when I’m writing a blog post I realize there’s something I could go off on a tangent about and then I vaguely decide I’ll come back to that in another post, which I don’t very often do – I guess this is due to my irregular blogging habits. This is one of those other posts: when I blogged about our introductory campus sessions earlier this semester, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to say a few words about the learning journal component of the course, or more specifically, about reflecting on learning in an online environment and possible attendant issues.

A learning journal can be very helpful in a semester-long asynchronous course. Apart from giving students an opportunity to think through and reflect critically on the material they’ve covered, it gives the instructor an insight into how everyone is coping in a different way than student assignments do. I might find out, for instance, how students feel about the time they have available to complete tasks, what they find useful about the feedback they receive, or what they think about task types that perhaps aren’t very typical in their offline courses, such as peer review (which I wrote about in more detail in this post). If the course were held on campus, I would probably be able to find much of this out in class.

The course has included this component since I first moved it online and has undergone a couple of tweaks in the meantime. Initially, the students had complete freedom re what they chose to reflect on after each unit, in that there were only some broad suggestions on the type of information they might want to add. The problem with that, it soon transpired, was that although some students clearly did not lack inspiration, there were others who found reflecting challenging, felt they didn’t have much to say or failed to see the point of the activity. Whatever the reason, students in this category wrote exceedingly brief comments whose sole purpose, I suspect, was to tick the “post a reflection in your journal” box.

At first, I tried to address this by posting questions on these students’ entries, hoping they would respond in greater detail, which met with varying degrees of success. After a couple of semesters, I added questions that could serve as writing prompts after each unit. Looking back, I have no idea why it took me so long to do this – I guess it was probably because I thought these were questions students should actually be asking themselves and they needn’t be the same for everyone. I still think so, but learning journals aren’t common practice in the Croatian education system and given that I was aware of this from the start, I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me sooner that students might find model questions useful. The semester I introduced questions student journals became noticeably more focused overall.

Some time after this, I began covering reflective writing in the introductory face-to-face sessions as well, the idea being that this would help students see the learning journal as more than just an afterthought. I begin by explaining what this component entails and show the students a sample journal from an earlier semester, to illustrate what the final product looks like. I choose one at random, although I think I’ll have to start checking with ex-students if I have their consent, on account of GDPR. Afterwards, we take a look at one of those exceedingly brief comments from one of the early iterations of the course, discuss what seems to be lacking at first glance and how each point could be expanded on. This is followed up by a few general good practice suggestions on reflective writing.

What I try to do in the session before this one is set aside 15 minutes for students to answer 2-3 questions of the type they will be addressing in their learning journal entries. This can be at any point during the session. I simply ask them to answer the questions however they think they should best be answered in the next 10 minutes or so. At this point I don’t want students to think about reflective writing as a genre, so there is no guidance nor are there any constraints apart from the time they have available.

I collect these and in the next session, after we’ve talked about how a very general comment can be made more specific, I show them a few examples of how this has been achieved in the pieces of writing they handed in in our last session. These are anonymized but I hope people recognize what they’ve written and that it has a motivating effect. Some terms are marked in red because they are still a little vague and we discuss how these parts of the text could be rendered more specific.

This in combination with the questions to reflect on after each unit generally produces good results. There are still students each semester who struggle with what to write about but after they’ve received personalized feedback on their first reflection, suggesting how they could expand on areas that may be overly general and thus possibly not so useful, their reflections generally become more detailed and specific.

One thing I’m not as happy about is the fact that since the questions have been introduced, the majority of students rely on these and rarely choose other aspects to reflect on, even though the instructions always stress that the questions are only there to provide inspiration and don’t (all) *haveto be answered.  This tends to make the reflections a tad predictable in structure, and to an extent in content. 

Another thing I sometimes feel I could use some help with are the questions themselves. I tweak them most semesters, adding new ones and removing those which don’t seem to have been helpful or produced much engagement. If you know of any resources that provide suggestions on how to structure reflection questions or which aspects of learning to target, they would be much appreciated!