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!

Advertisements

A class in the computer room

It’s as if it was yesterday that I arrived in the classroom with a toilet roll in my bag (amongst other things, happily) meant for a GTKY activity with a new group of students.* In reality, it was last year. Yet another academic year has rolled around and, to be honest, for a long time I wasn’t sure if I was going to carry on with my online writing skills course because my non-teaching job seems to have turned into a slightly less temporary arrangement. Eventually, I decided I would, for a couple of reasons, an important one being that I would otherwise probably not be teaching at all.

We spent the first two weeks having classroom sessions on campus (for those who weren’t readers of this blog four years ago, I wrote about these sessions here) and have just moved online. I wanted to write about the session we had in the computer room last week.

Photo taken from ELTpics by Kip Boahn, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

We can by no means count on securing the computer room (I don’t like the word lab; it sounds a bit pretentious for what are essentially four rows of desks with desktop computers). It’s been two years since I was able to book it at a time my class was scheduled, so I was a bit taken aback at this good fortune.

Practically all the students who had signed up for the course turned up. I felt reasonably confident because this is my sixth year teaching the course online and the computer room session is meant to walk the students through the basics. Prior to the session I’d checked everything I could think of: I’d opened a new course in Moodle and copied the content from last year, hidden everything the students shouldn’t be able to see straight away, checked the links and deleted some outdated resources. The system’s been upgraded again, as it is every September, and while this is exciting because everything looks somehow fresh and updated, it’s also annoying because you end up looking for things you know you used to be able to find far longer than you should. It’s like when they rearrange the shelves at the supermarket. In the e-portfolio system (we use Mahara) I created a new group and checked if creating a page still involved the same steps it did last year (not exactly, because of the upgrade, but close enough).

Unless you’re comfortable troubleshooting common (and less common) hardware and software issues, I would definitely recommend booking the computer room when the university’s IT person is in attendance. Our session took place when this person had already left for the day. Some of the exchange students couldn’t use a computer at all because they couldn’t log on. The login details they’d been given didn’t seem to work. I consoled myself thinking it didn’t matter as much because they could sit next to a Croatian student and there are always more Croatian students. Then one entire row of desks taken up by Croatian students reported their login details didn’t work either. My troubleshooting repertoire extends to “Have you tried a different browser?”, which obviously is slightly inadequate if you haven’t yet gotten as far as a browser. Luckily, a student suggested they use their mobile phones.

After this less-than-ideal start, the students found the right address, the majority logged into the system and I added them to the course manually. There are never more than 20 per group, so it doesn’t take long. We then went over what the course home page looks like and what resources are available. Most (Croatian) students are already familiar with Moodle because it’s used in many courses now, if only as a content repository – a stark contrast to just five years ago when most of the students wouldn’t have used a learning management system in their first year (or probably any other year for that matter, at least not at my institution).

We then moved on to Mahara. The idea there was to add the students to the group I’d created for the course and have them set up a page which they’ll be sharing with the group. The page will primarily be used to display their learning journals. This is apparently the trickiest part of the whole process and every semester, digital natives notwithstanding, there are a couple of students who I end up having to ask to go to the Moodle admin for assistance. This I usually do in desperation, halfway through the semester, when everything else has failed and my hair has begun thinning. This actually says as much about Mahara and its lack of intuitiveness as it does about supposed digital natives. Things proceeded relatively smoothly – I created a new page for myself as I do each semester, on the spot so the students could follow – until we got to the sharing step. I couldn’t find where the sharing settings were. They’d been moved since the upgrade. I’d been able to locate them the evening before, but that had probably been sheer luck. Another student came to the rescue after a suitable chunk of time had elapsed and I’d run out of options to click on (with all the attendant feelings of discomfort and embarrassment).

By this time we were into our last half hour, so I showed the students a page from a couple of years ago, to give them an idea of approximately what their page would look like by the end of the semester – I imagine they’ll find it useful to know roughly how much writing they will need to do.

We rounded the class off with – and this didn’t require everyone working on their own computer – an introduction on how to reflect on learning. I’ve actually found this to be quite useful not just for reflective writing. It seems to be difficult for students, at least when writing in English, to move beyond generalizing, so we did a brief awareness-raising activity to highlight the importance of being specific and providing examples for the reader. I might go into a bit more detail on this activity in another post, as this one is turning out to be rather longer than I planned.

Anyway, now that I read through what I’ve written I see that we managed to cover most of what I’d planned. This is not a feeling I had when I was leaving the campus that evening; possibly because of the initial trouble with the login details. I guess the reason I wanted to write about it was to share what can happen when you use tech in the classroom, even when you’ve been teaching online for a while and are supposedly prepared to deal with tech issues. Whether the students will think you’re entirely competent to be teaching online is another matter. 😛

Do you (have to) use the computer room/lab with students from time to time? What do you use it for and how do you deal with any problems that come up?

*For ideas of what else teachers carry in their bags please see this post by Zhenya Polosatova (and in the comment section there is a brief account of how the toilet roll activity worked in my class).

Behind the scenes online

Yamanaka Tamaki: seat at theater  (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Since the semester began my days have been a blur of office work, proofreading and translations, and my online course. Note these are three separate categories: proofreading and translating has always been a side gig (only it used to be in addition to teaching) and now the online course is a side gig too. Although… if you were to go by the financial compensation, I’m not sure if it qualifies as an actual job or a hobby. The main reason I’ve hung on to it for now is that my office job isn’t permanent and maybe more importantly, I couldn’t imagine not doing any teaching. Period.

I finally have a bit of time to blog without feeling like there is something else I really should be doing (or at least feeling too much like there is something else… you get the idea) so I thought I would tell you what it’s like to run an online course that’s in its tenth iteration. More specifically, what this involves on part of the instructor.

First things first – the course needs a thorough overhaul. Its glory days (when it won an award) are long gone and it is scary how quickly material dates. By this I mean, for instance, the visuals I did back in 2013 (and which it must be said had a distinctly amateurish air even then) really need to go. We’ll see if and when this is going to happen: my feeling is that if I continue to teach next year and if it’s online, the course will need to be revamped.

Regardless, you might think that if all the material is up there, there isn’t much for the instructor to do. A quick reminder for those who may be new to the blog – this is a 4-month course run entirely in Moodle apart from the introductory two weeks and the final exam, which take place in a classroom environment. The course comprises 8 units, all of which take roughly 10 days, plus a revision unit at the end. If you’re thinking, no, she cannot do math, don’t forget the 2 offline weeks plus another 10-day orientation period online.

Moodle

At the start of the semester, I copy the course materials from last year into a new course. I always forget exactly how to do this; it’s not terribly complicated but it’s been a year since I last did it and it could be a tad more intuitive. What actually gets copied (in my case) is everything but the student interactions. Specifically, this means that a forum, for example, will be copied but it won’t have any contributions, including the opening post(s), which are generally mine.

Each unit is made visible to the students when the last one is over (which, I can’t resist saying, means it’s not a self-paste course – those who saw that tweet yesterday will know what I mean 😛 ). Fast finishers need to wait. It’s easier on the instructor insofar as I don’t need to go through all the units at once in September. Before I unhide each one, I read all the materials again and adapt anything that needs adapting. I realize this is vague. For instance, last year there was quite a bit of adaptation because the course was delivered in blended format, so several chapters had to be hidden and as a result the text in the remaining ones had to be rendered coherent overall and not as if something was obviously missing in between. This year a lot of the stuff that was left out has gone back in.

There’s usually something new in most units, like two years ago I redid all the screencasts which had previously been on Present.me – which I have no idea if anyone uses anymore – using Screencastomatic and uploaded them to YouTube (which I should’ve done in the first place) and added subtitles/captions – what’s it called if it’s in the same language but doesn’t include stuff like *door closes* or *phone rings*? Incidentally, that *will* happen as you’re recording, but I digress. This year I made some new visuals in Canva – okay, one so far and am planning to make more for the next unit – and I created punctuation quizzes using the cloze test question type. I was very excited about this because I learned how to do it on a course in June and … well, I was mainly excited by the fact that I was able to still figure it out in November.

I then check if the external links all still work and make sure that any activity that requires student interaction is set up properly, like add opening posts to forum discussions, links to new Padlet walls, and instructions to new wikis. Then when I’m sure we’re good to go, I add the deadline to the course calendar. I usually set one day aside when I have a couple of hours and do this for each unit.

In the meantime, while the students are working on the unit before the one I’m finishing up (the last one they can see), I keep an eye on what is going on – the pace they’re progressing at, if there’s someone who hasn’t logged on for a while and needs to be contacted, and deal with any questions. Ideally, I will also be grading and giving feedback, and have written a post about how this can be done more quickly and effectively.

Mahara

When the course is run online as opposed to blended delivery, there’s a learning journal component as well. I have written about this previously and continue to get a lot of help from my assistant moderators (usually graduate students). What I do here in terms of setting things up is limited to the beginning of the course when we need a new group that everyone can join and share their journals in a safe environment. We could argue whether the journals should be private or not; right now the course is designed so that they can be read and commented on by anyone in the group. I’m free to read student reflections and respond if I want to, or if I think a post needs responding to – not always the same thing.

Facebook

This isn’t mandatory if you run a Moodle course, obviously, but I have been using it for communication with the assistant mods. I like the option of having a private group and getting feedback on whether the mods have seen a post – normally this isn’t a problem as they are very prompt to respond – but the puppet master in me likes to think she’s got it all under control. Like the Mahara component, this requires less time as the course progresses, and mostly involves letting the mods know if an activity is coming up I’m hoping they’ll contribute to. This is defined beforehand, so the mods know at the start of the semester how much work they’ll be required to do. Of course, other questions crop up, usually to do with particular students and issues they might have experienced, and how the mods should respond.

That’s more or less it. I’m happy to be able to say that even in the tenth semester I still very much enjoy running the course and there’s always a rush of excitement when people start joining, getting to know the environment and finding their way around. As opposed to almost 5 years ago, a lot more instructors use Moodle at the institution now and so the students will generally be familiar with it, but mostly as a content repository and/or a place to submit assignments. I *am* looking forward to designing something quite new though.

Do you find that there’s a point at which an online course needs a makeover and what does that depend on?