Categories
Edtech Moodle online course

Type little and give extensive feedback

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @sandymillin, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

It all started on Twitter, as these things do. I had covid and was stuck at home, so it was as good a time as any to do some marking. Then I came across Neil’s tweet.

I recommend you click through for the answers because quite there were a few suggestions and several people mentioned text expanders, which is useful for context, but the answer that caught my eye was this one:

I don’t use Linux, so I’m not entirely sure why I decided to try espanso out. Now I think about it, I’m pretty sure Neil tweeted an update on how well it was working out for him. Anyway, espanso works on Windows and Macs, although I use it on Windows most of the time.

I did need a little bit of help installing the program but I probably would’ve been able to do it myself if I’d put in a little effort. The point is, it’s pretty simple and quick. (To be fair, it was more complicated to install on a Mac.)

The idea of this post is to reflect a little on the past 6 months of using it and note down some pros and cons. 

First of all, this is what it looks like in practice. Please ignore the huge gap between the top and the bottom comment; it’s my first attempt at a gif.

User types "main idea" and this is automatically expanded to This seems like a new main idea and might be best in a separate paragraph. 
User types "meaning" and this is expanded to I'm not sure what you mean by this (in this context), so consider the possibility that other readers may not be sure either.
Demo of how a text expander works

And it works everywhere. If I typed :main idea it would expand like in the gif regardless of whether I was commenting on a Word doc, typing in a Google doc, in the Moodle gradebook… 

My initial reaction was – this is bliss! My days of spending ages on marking are over! All I need to do is add the comments which are already in my comment bank to espanso and I’m all set. 

This is why in the end it wasn’t as easy as that. 

I have a huge number of comments in my comment bank. I’ve written about the comment bank I have in Google Docs in this post and in Google Keep in this one. At first I thought it would only take a long time to transfer them all to espanso, but then I realized that I would have to come up with as many triggers as there are comments. (The trigger is the combination of : and the word or letter combination that gets expanded.)

It probably wouldn’t be that taxing to come up with a long list of triggers, but eventually I didn’t because it became obvious I couldn’t remember them all. In my comment banks the comments are categorized by unit and activity (in Google Docs) and by aspect of writing like punctuation or formality (in Google Keep). Categorization isn’t possible in any meaningful way in espanso, so you’re probably best off if you choose a trigger that will most easily remind you of the longer comment you wanted to add (or vice versa). 

What tends to work best (for me) is if I add a whole word or word sequence, like “comma splice”. Great, I hear you say, so do that. But the longer the trigger is, the more likely you are to mistype something and then you need to delete what you’ve typed and start again (at least if you’re using Windows). Also, if you want to use “comma” as part of a trigger for anything other than comma splice comments, you can’t. Say you wanted to use “comma not needed” as a trigger. The nanosecond you type :comma, espanso expands it to your comma splice comment. You could use “unnecessary comma” as a trigger, but it’s not what I think of first when I see one – when I start typing, my brain has already categorized that as a comma-related error, and “comma” is the word that first comes to mind, not “unnecessary”. So if you’re old and forgetful, you’ll catch yourself going through the espanso bank, muttering “Why did I ever think I’d remember “unnecessary comma”?!” You get the idea. This is just an example, incidentally; I’m not that concerned about commas.

In order to really save time and reduce the potential for confusion, the triggers need to be short. Ideally, just a few letters. But the shorter they are, the easier they are to forget. Did I say old and forgetful? Add stressed out over a million things. Coming up with a trigger like “spe” for spelling sounds easy enough to remember… okay it is. That one is. But when I have a comment which is essentially just positive feedback on participating in a discussion in unit 4, that is quite tricky to reduce to a three-letter combo that I will remember longer than a day. Yes, you are right to wonder how I deal with PINs. 😛

What I tend to do now is work with up to 20 triggers. I always open up espanso before I start to remind myself of the triggers and attendant comments. Then I mark everyone’s work in the unit I am currently grading, where I won’t need that many different comments because the mistakes and the things done well tend to be quite similar. When I move on to the next unit, I prefer to work with the same triggers and update the expanded feedback in espanso. I won’t be needing the comments for the unit I’ve just marked until next semester anyway. Then the trigger for my positive feedback can always just be “yes” and for negative comments/suggestions for improvement it can be “no” – definitely easy to remember.  

What I’ve also decided works for me is adding as much text as possible to one single trigger. In other words, instead of thinking up three different triggers for three variations of positive comments, I add all three to the same trigger, delete the unnecessary/non-applicable comments when the text expands (and then customize further if needed).  

In short, the tool isn’t as ideal as I’d initially expected it to be, but it does speed up the feedback process considerably once you’ve figured out how it can best serve you. I still use the comment banks and, of course, a large number of comments are personalized and context specific anyway, so nothing really helps there.  

What do you do to speed up the marking and feedback process? If you have any tips, either on how to use text expanders more efficiently or which other tools have been useful to you, I’d love to hear them! 

Categories
Edtech Moodle online course Tertiary teaching

Practice makes perfect?

This has been sitting in my drafts folder for about a year. If I don’t post it now, I’m not sure I ever will, so here goes. 

danna § curious tangles: words (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
March 2020

I recently tweeted this.

It then occurred to me that the tweet could be construed as a promise of a blog post, so I thought I should do something about that.

I’ve previously written about H5P activities in our online course here, here and here. I like the versatility of the tool and the fact that it’s available as a Moodle plugin, so I can use it free of charge. There are many content types (activity types) you can use and so far I’ve only been able to test out a relatively small number: drag and drop, interactive video, audio recorder and course presentation.

I was pretty confident H5P would be useful for tasks more obviously associated with vocabulary learning (probably primarily because I’d noticed a content type called Fill in the blanks), so at some point I thought I should look into it as a possible substitute for Textivate. 

I’ve been using Textivate for several years now and really like it, but if you want to use it in combination with your own resources – to practice specific vocabulary, for instance – you have to get the paid version. Which I completely understand and *have* renewed my subscription a couple of times, but as I’m an adjunct and get paid comparatively little, I’m always on the lookout for free versions of apps and such. 

I decided to revamp our revision unit with the help of H5P content types and made the following changes.

  1. User-defined gapfill (Textivate)Fill in the blanks (H5P). For vocab revision. In the Textivate version, once you define the words students need to add to the text, they conveniently and automatically appear below the text and you drag them to where you think they should go. In the H5P version, you define where the missing words should go and get blank boxes where students need to type these words. It’s not incredibly flashy or exciting in Textivate either, but in H5P it’s really bland, so I decided to jazz it up a little by creating an image in Canva and adding the missing words to it. Then I added the image above the text. When you have a go at the activity in student mode, the image shows up as much smaller than it is, but you can click on it to enlarge it, which I thought could be convenient for practice. If a student was doing the activity for the first time, they could click on the image and view the words, but if they wanted to try it again, they could see if they recalled any of the words without first clicking on the image. Incidentally, you could also add a video instead of an image to the activity, which wasn’t suited to my purpose but could work well in other contexts. 
February 2021

So, here we are, back in the present. It’s a little more difficult now to identify the type of activity I used in Textivate because I can only make a guess based on what the activity looked like in earlier iterations of the course. I knew there was a reason I should have done this sooner. 

  1. Shuffle? Multimatch? (Textivate)Fill in the blanks (H5P) For joining sentences. The point here was to practice joining sentences in a highly controlled way, with relatively little creativity and thus few unexpected outcomes. (No, it’s not one of my favorite activities either, but it’s useful for exam practice.) When I used Shuffle, students were instructed to rewrite the sentences in a separate document (which is not the happiest of solutions and I’m doubtful whether anyone ever actually did this, especially if they revised half an hour before the exam) and then do the Shuffle activity where they matched the two sentence halves and checked if they corresponded (in terms of punctuation, etc.) with what the students thought was correct. I’m happier with how it works with Fill in the blanks (H5P) because you can add hints to the blank boxes. The students have to type out the sentences in order to check if they joined them correctly and if there’s anything you want them to watch out for (something that might cause them to slip up at the exam) you add it as a hint. Now, you might think well, maybe Shuffle/Multimatch wasn’t the best choice of activity for joining sentences and you’d be right, but as I already had a Textivate subscription I sometimes used it in ways that were not ideal. 
  2. User-defined gapfill (Textivate)Mark the words (H5P) For identifying parts of text that need alteration. This was a really convenient change because it made me break the activity up into two steps, which I think is easier to process. Again, in the Textivate version the students were instructed to type the changes they would make in another document and then drag and drop the suggested answers into the correct gap. If they skipped the first step, the activity was deceptively easy compared to what it would be like at the exam. With Mark the words (H5P), they first need to highlight the parts of the text that need to be changed (and can check if they were correct), then there is another Fill in the blanks with hints where they focus on making the actual changes. 

And that’s it as far as H5P in the revision unit goes. There are also a couple of Quizlet sets and Moodle quizzes, so the H5P activities are just part of what students have the opportunity to complete if this is how they wish to practice. The unit is entirely optional, although I sometimes think perhaps it shouldn’t be, but that is material for another post.

If you teach online (synchronously or asynchronously), do you have materials that your students can access in their own time and practice, say, for an exam? What (tools) have you used for this and are these activities optional?

Categories
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).