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Edtech Moodle online course Tertiary teaching

A not so ordinary semester

Bryan Alexander: cat cuddles laptop (CC BY 2.0)

I honestly expected I would be writing this post sooner, even though the frequency with which I normally produce new posts probably should not have led me to expect this. At the very least, I expected I would write something during the lockdown because, for some reason, I thought I might have more time. And here we are, at what currently looks like the tail end of the pandemic in Croatia, and I haven’t written a thing. So I figured I’d better hurry up, if for no other reason than to have a sort of record of what this semester has been like. It’s almost over.

Drum roll… It’s actually been very much like any other semester over the last couple of years. Readers of this blog know that I teach writing skills to undergrads, asynchronously, in Moodle. Each semester we spend about 3 and a half months in an online environment and we don’t see each other from the introductory sessions on campus to the final exams. We never have synchronous sessions. I’ve been planning to have one or two of these per semester since the beginning of the course, but the course is structured so that there is no real need for synchronous elements and I haven’t yet gotten around to it. 

I know you’re probably thinking it’s easy for me because I teach writing skills and of course you’re right. It wouldn’t be as easy if I were teaching regular English classes at elementary school, say. Or if I was running a language school, like the last time the recession hit.    

I didn’t think this post through in terms of deciding what to write about except vaguely that it would be about “the COVID semester”. So maybe it would be best to just note down random observations and see where that takes me. Some of them might be fleshed out to form a paragraph and some might not.

  • We had our usual introductory campus sessions over the first two weeks back in February/March. My favorite part of these was a new twist on the getting to know you activity.
  • My class is usually the only one my students take which is delivered fully online. Even for those who are entirely uninterested in writing in English, the delivery format lends it a touch of novelty. Obviously, this semester’s class did not get to experience the novelty factor, which is making me worry I’m boring them out of their skulls. I worry none of them will see any of the advantages of online learning because it’s being stuffed down their throats.
  • Over the first week or two of everyone transitioning online, the system was glacially slow. Everyone was trying to replicate their standard working hours online and you could not get anything done in the morning. I remember telling the students to log on in the evenings/early in the morning (before 8) in order to avoid frustration. Things improved after a while; now it’s fine.
  • There was the earthquake. We had an earthquake a few days into the lockdown. It’s been almost 2 months and only recently have I begun to catch myself realizing that I’ve actually gone without thinking about it for a couple of hours.
  • There were/are the exchange students. Three are still on the course and one was repatriated before the earthquake. I sent one of them a couple of emails asking how they were and if there was anything I could do to help. I felt that was the least I could do – it really didn’t seem particularly thoughtful or considerate – and was told that my emails were the most compassionate the student had received. It made me think about exchange students in general and how most of the time they must have wonderful learning (and other) experiences but then they could go on an exchange in a semester like this one and end up feeling lost and needing support. I was surprised at the impact of a small message of support and was very glad I had reached out to the student. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we sometimes have no idea how something that to us seems like a small gesture will end up helping someone.
  • I tried out Flipgrid, which did not turn out as I’d hoped. More on this in a separate post (partly in the hope of pushing myself to tentatively plan another post and partly because I feel this topic could be fleshed out a bit).
  • Despite the challenges of the semester, the students have been observing the deadlines more faithfully than in most (perhaps even all) previous semesters. I may feel I experienced these disruptions to a far lesser degree than most teachers but doing all their classwork online has been new to my students. I was (and still am) prepared to be more flexible than usual in terms of accepting work submitted late, but there has actually been very little of that. 
  • I am as late with my feedback as ever. I have focused on feedback on those tasks where it takes on a significant formative function, and students have received this more or less on time. But there are tasks where the feedback is primarily summative and these I have yet to address. 

There are other details that come to mind but I’m going to wrap things up and post this. Just for the record, the last couple of paragraphs were not written on the same day (or even week, for that matter) as the first few, so it’s probably best not to procrastinate. 

I hope your online semester has been good or at least okay. I hope you and your families and students are doing well. If you’d like to share any thoughts or observations re the topics in the post, I look forward to hearing from you in the comments!  

Categories
Edtech Moodle online course

Should your online students (want to) talk to you?

Photo “headphones” taken from http://www.flickr.com/photos/mzn37/ by Michael Newman, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license 

This is a follow-up post on the one from earlier this month, on the audio files I’ve been adding to the online course this semester.

Because several of the students had made the point in their learning journals that they were finding it challenging to focus on longer stretches of audio, I decided to try out Neil’s suggestion of adding shorter comments to the H5P Course Presentation content type.

This now pretty much looks like your typical PowerPoint slide with blue play buttons next to each bullet point. I add the Course Presentation to the relevant unit and choose the “available but not shown on course page” option so that I can embed it into the unit guide which is organized in the Moodle Book resource. I do this so that the students will access it in the order I’d like them to, i.e. that will (hopefully) make the most sense. 

I did say the students were free to comment on what they thought of this change – if they thought it made processing the audio any easier – in their learning journals, but as I haven’t had any takers yet, I’m not sure what they think. 

From my perspective, it’s definitely easier and quicker as far as planning goes. I haven’t opened the document in which I used to plan what I was going to say since I last made a longer recording. I jot down the ideas in a notebook and it’s just a couple of words for each point I plan to address. I’ve only done two units this way and the average is 7 recordings per unit, which I think overall adds up to a little more than the 15 minutes the single recordings per unit would take, but I make sure to state clearly that the students don’t need to listen to these in one go. 

I also find it much easier to record a 3-minute comment in the sense that I feel very aware it’s much easier to re-record if I go off on a tangent or if a text message comes through and distracts me. I just need to remember to say at the beginning of each recording what it’s going to be about, so those listening are sure which file goes with which bullet point.

In the last unit I did this for I also added a slide with links to a couple of video resources and websites, which I then expanded on in the audio comments, so right now Course Presentation is looking like a far more versatile resource than just audio files.

You know when you get excited about something and figure everyone will be just as thrilled about it as you are? Despite writing about the audio files as an experiment, I’d already made up my mind that they added something (valuable) to the course and expected the students to feel the same way. Halfway through the course I added an optional activity which involved the H5P Audio Recorder content type and instructions for students to record an audio comment no longer than 2 minutes – I called the activity “Checking in” – and share the recording on a Padlet wall. 

Only one student took part in this activity, which was a bit of an anticlimax. Maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise as it was optional, but 2 minutes – okay, probably more like 10 minutes if you factor in prep time (there were prompts), downloading and sharing to Padlet – didn’t seem likely to discourage the entire group. Clearly I miscalculated here but I’m not sure why.

In earlier course runs I used to offer the option of recording some learning journal audio entries and very few students ever took this up, which I attributed to the probability that these entries were likely to take more prep time. But there might have been an additional factor: some students said they hated the sound of their voice and couldn’t bear to listen to themselves. 

I thought hearing other students’ voices would make their online presence more evident and therefore have a bonding and motivating effect, but the whole thing fell flat. Apart from feeling a tad disappointed – the students don’t seem uninterested in the course overall – I’m not sure if I should consider this a chance development and repeat the experiment or just drop it. 

If you have any ideas re why students may not be as excited about the opportunities afforded by audio as I am, I’d love to hear them!

Thanks for reading and I hope you’re having a lovely holiday season! Thank you for being around this year. 🙂 

Categories
Edtech Moodle online course Tertiary teaching

Should you talk to your online students?

Alice Bartlett: speech bubble (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This came up in my Twitter feed the other day. 

Substitute “researchers” with “teachers” and it seemed such an obvious question. But it wouldn’t have been just two months ago. You might remember that I recently wrote about a tweak I was planning to introduce to my online course this semester – that’s tweak three in this post – and I was pretty excited about it. I was finding it hard to believe that prior to this semester I’d never even considered talking to my students on a regular basis (because we were doing a writing skills course, so why would I??) and I was itching to start making up for this. 

My initial vague idea was to add an audio file to each unit of the course (that’s 8 in total) and to use this way of communicating to address what the students were doing well and give them a couple of tips on what to focus on in the unit with a view to the final exam. What I’ve found happens with some learners is that they don’t have the motivation to revise material online as they would have to in class. In a traditional classroom environment I’d work in some kind of vocab revision activity every time we met. It’s different online: they’re responsible for revising and even if I made them do revision exercises (in the sense of making this a prerequisite to qualifying for the final) I couldn’t be sure if everything was clear – I’d have to rely on them asking questions. Which they don’t always – or even often – do. But I digress.

As I was saying, so that’s one audio file per unit. I started with unit one and because we’re now halfway through the course, I wanted to do jot down a couple of observations. They’re going to be completely random; basically these are just things I mull over as I walk to work (another thing I’ve recently started doing). 

The recordings are getting longer every time.

The first one was a little over 5 minutes, while the last one was just over 16. This is definitely due to the fact that I don’t use SpeakPipe, which cuts you off after 5 minutes (possibly this wouldn’t happen if you were logged in; I haven’t checked). I’ve written about using SpeakPipe for audio comments when students request feedback on specific areas of their writing and I actually like the time limitation because it forces me to be succinct. I guess I could be less focused and then go back and edit bits out but being succinct seems like less work. I figured, however, that these recordings were going to be a bit different and I’d probably have more ground to cover, so having to stay under 5 minutes might be too challenging and not worth the effort. So I use 123 Apps’ voice recorder, which doesn’t require me to log in, plus I can talk as long as I like. Apparently.

I still have to plan what I’m going to say.

This is “still” as in expressing contrast to being able to talk as long as I like, not as in I’m likely to stop planning what I’m going to say at some point. I’m a pretty recent convert to podcasts and listening to them is generally an excellent way of passing the time, unless someone is very obviously thinking through what they’re saying on the spot. I don’t like hearing the same message delivered three different ways; I mean, I understand that this is what happens in natural speech (digressing, rephrasing, making sure the other person gets what we’re saying) but if I’m listening (and not taking part) I don’t necessarily need or want the conversation to be quite so natural.  

So what I do is make a note of what I want to address in the recording. For the last two recordings these notes have taken up about half an A4 page and I think this makes what I say sound more structured (if not exactly succinct) and thus hopefully easier for the students to process. 

I really should get some decent equipment.

In spite of having been planning to get a decent microphone for the last couple of years, I still haven’t gotten around to it, so I use the built in one, trying to convince myself that the sound quality doesn’t have to be great: the students are only likely to listen to the recording once. However, as I’m usually aware of the change in sound quality when podcast hosts happily announce they have new mikes, I’m pretty sure students would appreciate this too. If you have any recommendations for something that is both affordable and good quality, please let me know in the comments.

Maybe I should keep track of how many people actually listen anyway. 

I first got the idea of adding these recordings to the course when I saw audio files in other people’s courses – if you’re interested in more detail on this, check the post on tweaks linked to in the first paragraph – and they seemed to be very prominently displayed as in this image. 

Screenshot from mobile app

I liked this as I had the impression it stood out and drew course participants’ attention, so I thought I’d add mine the same way. In my course the units are unhidden one by one, so when they see a new unit, the students immediately see the audio is there. I also recommend that they listen when I post the announcement of each new unit. 

However, the disadvantage of adding audio content to a Moodle topic this way means I have no way of telling if anyone has actually played it. I could add it as a resource instead, so I’d have some indication of whether someone clicked on it, though, of course, this doesn’t mean they listened to it all the way through. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of turning it into another resource the students feel they have to click on; I want it to be optional. I’ve added a question on the recordings to the reflection prompts at the end of the current unit, so maybe some will address this in their learning journals.


I’d written most of this post up a couple of days ago but on adding that last sentence, I thought I’d wait until we were done with unit so as to have the opportunity to look at the learning journals and round the post off with student reactions, if any.

It turns out quite a few people commented on the recordings, which was reassuring as they’d clearly listened to them. The overall impression seems to be that they are helpful in terms of clarifying what to focus on and compensating somewhat for lack of F2F contact. At least one person liked the fact that they cover what was done well in the unit before, which I was pleased with. I sometimes worry I don’t adequately acknowledge all the effort the students put in.

On the other hand, some people felt the recordings were too long and found it difficult to focus for a longer stretch of time. As someone who is exposed to audio content in my L2 every single day, be this a podcast or an audiobook, I think I may have underestimated the level of difficulty for students, given the absence of a transcript or visual cues. A couple of problems were noted: an inability to focus for so long, difficulty remembering the main points and the lack of visual support (at least one person said they found it easier to be able to go back over a sentence in order to process it, as they would when reading).

I think this’ll be very useful in planning subsequent recordings. Which changes would you make? Apart from watching out for the length. 🙂

Thanks for reading!