It’s been a good (online) year

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Thanks to everyone who was part of this – I couldn’t have done it alone!

Last week I somewhat unexpectedly spent a couple of days in Zagreb. I say unexpectedly because I hadn’t planned on going back before the end of the winter semester, which is in early February at my institution.

Rewind to sometime in September, when I sent in my application form for the Online Course of the Year Award at the University of Zagreb. My students can testify to the fact that I’d been hinting I would do this since last November. Last year’s winter semester was the first time I had taught practically the entire course online, and was so pleased and encouraged at the way it had turned out – the way I’d been able to handle the instructional design and tech-related issues, the way the students had responded – that I thought I might as well apply and see where it would get me (us). At the very least, I figured I would get some useful feedback.

Despite this, I procrastinated with completing the application form to the point of finding myself hunched over my laptop at 1 am on the morning of the deadline. I guess it was probably part procrastination and part trepidation at the thought of someone from the outside going through the course and passing judgment. It’s like being observed, only with a really bright flashlight and a magnifying glass. And for more than 45 minutes.

I was assigned a panel of five judges, who were given login details so they could access the course, and one day in October a webinar was organized whereby I could present the course to the panel and answer their questions. In early November I was notified that Writing in English had won one of the three awards given this year – the one for the use of web 2.0 tools (or social software). To put this into perspective I should note that there were around 3,000 courses registered in Merlin (Zagreb University’s Moodle-based LMS) at the beginning of the current academic year. This may seem like a pretty big number, but either the majority of the course designers/tutors are uninterested in awards, or find the application process a hassle, because only 11 applied. Perhaps they missed the deadline? Anyway, in addition to having your hard work publicly recognized and praised, which is no bad thing, there is also a cash prize – not a sum that means I’ll never have to work again, but not entirely insignificant either.

I was thrilled to learn the good news, but it then turned out that the award ceremony would be held in Zagreb in December, and I was expected to show up. I was also expected to give a short presentation of the course on the day, and to record the presentation so it would be available on the website afterwards. That’s in Croatian, and can be found here.

The ceremony took place at the Zagreb University Rectorate, in a room which looks a bit like I’ve always imagined Dumbledore’s office – lined with portraits of rectors past.

It was all right. I’m not exactly a fan of presenting, but have found that I can create a credible impression of knowing what I am talking about if I write down the text accompanying the slides ahead of time – complete with jokes/anecdotes and functional phrases, just as if I were transcribing my talk – and then rehearse. I never memorize it word for word, of course, but I feel confident enough, which makes all the difference. Plus I find that I don’t keep looking back afterwards, thinking, “Drat, I should have said this and that and the other”.

I’ve been thanking a lot of people over the past couple of weeks. My institution for giving me the opportunity to design and run a Moodle course. The University of Zagreb Computing Centre for helping me solve tech dilemmas. My students for enthusiastically (for the most part) taking part in the activities. My colleagues for their unflagging support. Friends and family ditto. But I realize there’s one group of people I haven’t said thank you to, and I really want to – because they taught me so much about Moodle. I did the first official Moodle MOOC in September 2013. I think a key factor was that it came along at just the right time for me; I wasn’t a complete novice, but knew just enough to feel challenged and not overwhelmed. It was a fantastic experience. The tutors and the more experienced Moodlers who unreservedly shared their tips and advice will never know how much I learned from them – unless they read this, obviously. 🙂 Anyway, they’re running the same MOOC the second time around this coming January and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

And on that note, I’ll finish off and return to the feedback and grading I’m shamefully behind on, partly as a result of the whole award hoopla. Looking forward to the break, I can tell you.

That’s AMORES

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed an occasional tweet tagged with #amoresproject, such as this one I had pinned to the top of my profile page for a while.

I doubt anyone’s been wondering what that’s all about to the point of losing sleep, but I thought I’d enlighten you anyway. Okay, not the most inspired of openings, I know. It’s not meant to sound flippant as the AMORES project is actually built around an incredibly worthy cause – especially to a die-hard bookworm like me.

How I got involved

If you’d asked me a year ago to comment on the reading habits of kids today I would have probably said they’re always on Facebook (or whatever social network is popular among a particular age group) and read very few actual books – paper books, that is. Or books in any format, for that matter. I would’ve mostly based this on media reports read or heard in passing, and I wasn’t overly concerned with the issue, to be frank. I don’t teach kids, so I was hardly in a position to do anything about it anyway.

Then last fall, when I’d already moved to Belgium, I was asked by the Croatian Academic Research Network (CARNet) to join AMORES. Which is CV-speak for badgering my current boss to let me join the MOOC team, who eventually went on to design and run the first Croatian MOOC earlier on this year…oh, how I do get sidetracked. Sigh. As it turned out, she didn’t need me on the MOOC team, but asked if I would be interested in working on AMORES, which was starting soon, as they needed a researcher.

What is it already?

You’re probably wondering by this point if you should just go and google it yourself, but no need – AMORES stands for An Approach to Motivating Learners to Read in European Schools. You will no doubt have noticed that the acronym doesn’t fit to the letter, but it’s close enough. The main aim of this EU-funded project is to spur kids on to greater engagement with literature with a little help of ICT, specifically through the creation of digital artefacts. Besides CARNet as the lead partner, there are eight partner organizations from a total of six countries: Croatia, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and the UK.

I could tell you more about the rationale for the project, about the partners, the aims, stats on kids’ reading habits and so on, but the website will do a better job of this. Instead, I thought I would share snippets of what I’ve been doing since the project started. You know, a kind of behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it’s like working on an EU-funded project, from the viewpoint of someone who is doing this for the first time.

February

Things officially got under way in December, or at least we had a Skype meeting to get to know each other and talk about the first steps, what everyone’s role was going to be, and so forth. But I wasn’t actually required to do anything much until February. To be honest, when I talked about how I saw my role in the project during the Skype meeting, I wasn’t quite sure what it would entail. I understood that my experience with online learning (designing and moderating my Moodle course), and my pedagogical training would play a part, but was a little vague on how exactly. I went through the project description, a 100-page monstrosity, which wasn’t unhelpful, but it was a tad abstract. Of course, when I’d talked with my boss about what my responsibilities would be back in September, things had seemed clearer. Almost five months later, not so clear.

February was spent in the office. My main task was to assist the head of work package 1 – there are 8 of these work packages, or WPs for short – in preparing the foundation for the remainder of the project: compiling a literature review which describes the way digital content creation is being used (or not), specifically in teaching national literature, and conducting a needs analysis to determine the situation at each of the five schools taking part in the project, in terms of the learner context and learner and teacher needs.

Enter another project management term which had seemed abstract before – deliverable. The person who did most of the work on putting together the two deliverables of the paragraph above was the WP1 leader, but most partners were involved to some degree. In the meantime, work on some of the other WPs had commenced as well, and as I was conveniently in the office – seated right across from my boss (the overall project coordinator) – I helped out with whatever was necessary. For instance, at the time we were running a contest to choose the project logo and contributor guidelines had to be drawn up.

Winning logo
Winning logo

One of the things I remember most vividly from the period is how draining I discovered sitting a whole day in the office can be. I had used to spend a considerable amount of time in the Octopus office, so I thought this couldn’t be any different. Get yourself a decent chair, that helps. Another thing I recall was to what extent I came to identify with the project. Most of the other partners were going about their jobs and contributed some of their time to AMORES – all in line with the project plan. The teachers would start getting more actively involved after the teachers’ workshop in March, for instance. I, on the other hand, was spending almost every day amoresing and eventually felt very disappointed I wouldn’t be going to Athens for the official kick-off meeting, since I wasn’t a member of the steering group. How could I not be?? How would they even get on without me there?? 🙂

May

The steering group met in Greece in early March and I returned to Belgium. Soon afterwards the teachers met for a workshop in the UK, marking the start of WP2. The idea was to have the teachers develop as a team a draft of the methodology which would eventually be used in the pilot implementation stage (WP3), when the new school year started. March and most of April were quiet for me. There was less to do in my researcher role, and not entirely surprisingly, once I was away from the office, other things surfaced which needed to be taken care of.

Then the online course for the teachers began. During the workshop the teachers had decided on the technologies they wanted to introduce into their literature lessons, in order to encourage pupils to create digital content and collaborate online. The course was meant to allow them to develop a familiarity with some of these tools and gain confidence, particularly with more challenging ones such as videoconferencing, so that they could easily incorporate them into their lessons.

The eight-week course was held in Moodle. Now I’m no Moodle expert, but I am pretty familiar with it by now (and enjoy using it), so during this stage I was able to help with the syllabus design, and also in terms of adding course content and moderating discussions. We actually haven’t analyzed the feedback forms yet to see how satisfied the teachers were with the course, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say improvements are in order. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it would be not to run an online course for teachers at the end of the school year. It is just lousy timing. In any case, some revisions might have to be made taking the teachers’ heavy workload into account.

June & July

June saw me back at the Zagreb office – this time I got the desk right next to the boss. 🙂 The online course only finished in the last week of June, so that took up most of the month. The rest of the time was spent finalizing various WP1 and WP2 deliverables, some of which will eventually be published on the AMORES website. Yes, we are a little behind with some of these – summer holidays and all that.

The other area I’ve been dabbling in over the past two months is dissemination. In fact, it has a work package all of its own; dissemination is apparently a serious business. I didn’t expect to contribute much to WP6 initially, but that changed when the project website went live and AMORES got its Facebook page. A brief digression here – while I was at Octopus, I managed the school Facebook page. It drove me mad at times because I’m not a trained community manager, and I also feel distinctly uncomfortable publicizing my product or service (which is a whole other story). But at least the page content was regularly updated and people could see the school was still in business.

The AMORES page was a tad neglected over the first couple of months, and I often found myself itching to post something. Towards the end of May we agreed that I would play at being community manager for a while, since disseminating project news on Facebook is part of the project plan. The thing is, you can’t just occasionally post updates on the project (we don’t exactly have news breaking on a daily basis) – it’s a good idea to include other content as well.

To be continued…

That would refer to the project. The post is done – goodness knows it’s long enough. How is it that I can’t manage a short post? Maybe the secret is in writing more regularly? Anyway, I hope this has been at least mildly interesting if not exactly useful – especially if you were expecting something to do with language teaching, which I guess would not be entirely unreasonable, given the tagline. 

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.

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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 .