7 things students expect from an online writing skills course

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Jeffrey Doonan, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/
Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Jeffrey Doonan, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

A new online semester started two weeks ago. This is the sixth time around that I’m running my compulsory writing skills course for (predominantly) communication sciences majors in Moodle. I have my assistant mods helping me out again, for which I’m truly grateful, and this time we have seven exchange students out of a total of 22, so even people with dismal math skills such as my own can immediately see that a third of the group aren’t Croatian. This is pretty unusual (for those teaching in Croatia) and quite exciting (for me).

One of the first things I get each new group to do as soon as we start online is set up their e-portfolio page in Mahara. A brief digression – you can read more about what we do in the couple of F2F sessions before we move online here. Mahara is not the most intuitive of environments, but it’s the e-portfolio of choice for the University of Zagreb Computing Center. We primarily use it to share learning journals, which works reasonably well once everyone has figured out how to share their page with the group, made sure their journal is showing up on the page and comments are enabled – experience has shown managing all three steps without instructor intervention can be tricky, even with detailed instructions. Did I say Mahara is not the most intuitive of environments? Oh well.

Anyway, before we start on the course proper, I ask the students to write an entry on their expectations from the course. These are inevitably tinged with the experience of the F2F sessions, so there’s a fair amount of reference to the content I said we’d be covering; still, it helps me get a better picture of what the group as a whole expects to happen over the course of the semester. I always share my own expectations entry as well; apart from believing it’s only fair, this post is meant to help break the ice and to demonstrate roughly the length and tone I expect of student posts.

I try to respond to these first posts myself, although the assistant mods have been a great help here too. When I go through the posts I watch out for any expectations unlikely to be met, as those are probably best addressed straight away. I confess that I sometimes wish they were a little more creative exciting; for instance, that someone would say, “I would like to be able to write for the New York Times someday, and hope that this course will help me get there”, but that does not appear to figure on their list of priorities.

I thought I would go through the expectations from this semester, similar to those from previous years, in the hope of categorizing them in some way. I don’t expect anything revolutionary to happen as I do this, but it might give me a different slant on what the students consider important (or think the instructor wants to hear – there’s always that).

1. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most students say they expect to improve their writing skills. See, that’s what I mean when I say I wish they were a tad more exciting – is this merely playing it safe or is imagination completely absent here? Or am I underestimating the lack of confidence in their writing skills?

What I say in response – Normally nothing, partly because the statement is vague enough to depend on a whole range of factors: level of English, level of writing as a productive language skill, effort each student will put in, etc. Of course, the advantage of this vague phrasing (for the instructor) is that no one can complain they didn’t get what they thought they would; in four months it’s quite likely there will be some improvement somewhere, even if simply by chance.

To be fair, there are some who narrow their goals down a little; for example, they want to be able to structure a piece of writing or produce a formal piece of writing. You could argue these are still pretty vague, but I try to acknowledge them as specific and usually include a comment about how the more specific goals are, the more likely it is they’ll be met (and the student will be able to tell if they’ve been met).

2. The second most oft-repeated target is vocabulary expansion, usually without regard to any particular area. This could be at least partly due to one of the introductory activities I ask them to do.

What I say in response – This is another vague target likely to be met to some degree just by going through any L2 course content. We do, however, have three vocabulary-based units, built around general topics but with a focus on the vocab that might be used to report on these in the media, so I sometimes mention these. These units include links to a number of articles and videos (authentic materials), which I now realize I almost never mention (perhaps assuming students will take it for granted something like that will be part of the course?) and I probably should.

3. Some say they expect their grammar to get better.

What I say in response – Here I usually try to stress that if that does happen, it won’t be because it’s part of the course syllabus. It is assumed that the students are B2 and any explicit grammar instruction is limited to the passive voice (function, not form) and a brief mention of relative clauses. I keep an eye out for recurring mistakes, especially those that tend to cause Croatian speakers trouble – present perfect vs past simple, for instance – and will point this out if there seems to be consistent confusion, but apart from that, grammar is not on the menu.

4. Quite a few say they expect the instructor to correct (all) their mistakes.

What I say in response – I try to nip that one in the bud. However, as for Croatian learners the idea of the all-knowing, red-pen-wielding instructor is quite common, I try to strike a balance. There are a couple of pieces of writing where I’ll go all out and do what they expect me to do (for which I use Kaizena, which I cannot recommend highly enough), but I stress that the idea is to get them to become aware of what to look out for in their writing, catching errors on their own. I should probably note here that when I started teaching I was an ardent believer in jumping on a mistake the moment I spotted one, whereas by now I’ve mellowed considerably.

5. Some expect to improve their digital skills. This is often accompanied by a comment on their lack of experience with online learning, and some even profess to being anxious about how they’ll cope.

What I say in response – The majority won’t have taken a semester-long course almost entirely online before, and finding their way around, particularly around Mahara, can seem intimidating. I explain that digital skills are transferable to outside our LMS (so applicable outside the course), and try to alleviate any anxiety by stressing that the environment will become more familiar as they progress through the course.

6. There are some who focus on the learning environment and its attendant benefits. These include not having to go to campus, learning what it’s like to work from home, possibly even help with organizational skills (in the sense that there are deadlines, but between these the course is self-paced, so discipline will be required).

What I say in response – Not much, normally; sometimes I sympathize with having to go to campus because it _is_ quite remote, and this can be hard on those from out of town. I usually suggest that those who wonder if their (absence of) organizational skills might affect successful course completion schedule their time as if the course were actually held in the classroom, and log on twice a week at a fixed time. It isn’t ideal as you obviously would like as much engagement as possible, but beats logging on half an hour before the deadline each week.

7. A smattering say they expect the work to be fun, not difficult, and that they look forward to the course.

What I say in response – Well, that sounds good, doesn’t it? Yes, except for the ‘not difficult’ part – obviously I don’t want students spending hours logged on, but ‘fun’ and ‘not difficult’ are usually not the first words that spring to mind when you describe your university courses. Or are they? It’s not that I think a course should be ‘not fun’ (yawn-inducing? scary?) or difficult to be a proper course, but… I think, actually, I’m concerned they might not see it as one of the ‘real’ courses. By this I don’t mean offline, but – it’s just English, you know? Not something I’ll need in real life when I look for a real job. But I don’t normally say anything about this at the beginning, because a) I might be reading too much into it, and b) it seems like it could be a little off-putting at the beginning. Anything approaching enthusiasm should not be discouraged.

Reading back over the list, I realize it’s been helpful putting it together. I wasn’t aware that I generally respond in more detail to expectations that probably won’t be met (fully). On the other hand, I seem to subconsciously file those that are likely to be met (to some degree) as uncontroversial, and don’t see a need to comment on them as much, which is a pity because the students who voiced those expectations can’t know what I’m thinking. Moreover, it now appears obvious that students who think in terms of vague goals might eventually formulate more concrete ones if I responded with specific questions. There are two students who haven’t shared their expectations posts yet, which means I’ll probably have a chance to try this out before next semester.


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.

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 .


Customer satisfaction

I’m a firm believer in student feedback. My institution carries out an instructor evaluation survey each semester, but as it takes a while to process the data, we rarely get the results in time to actually do something about them the following semester. This is why I always ask my students to complete a course satisfaction survey that I can use immediately. (Incidentally, I’ve not noticed before that the names seem to indicate the institution primarily wants to know if the students are happy with me, whereas I’d rather know if they’re happy with the course – or maybe the institution sees us as one and the same?) 

When I first started teaching my writing skills course, I used paper-based feedback forms, then I moved on to Google Forms, while last semester I used the Moodle Feedback activity for the first time and was very pleased with the presentation/analysis of the results. Even though I chose not to record user names when gathering responses, I waited until the exams were over before looking at what the students had to say as I wanted to a) not have anything prejudice the grades, and b) wrap up the course with their comments and suggestions.

The new semester started last week and a new group of students will be taking the course, so it seems to be the perfect time to indulge in a (hopefully) brief analysis of the results and bring some order to my initial impression – enthusiastic, but not particularly insightful – that there is a lot of useful information in there.

A satisfied customer about to take a nap
A satisfied customer about to take a nap

I included 15 questions in the feedback form. My first impulse was to include about three times as many, but I nipped that one in the bud, reasoning that this would probably result in random clicking just to get the questions over with. Besides, the students had been reflecting on each unit of the course in their portfolios as the semester progressed, so I already knew how they felt about some aspects.

I tried to strike a balance between Likert type (7), multiple-choice (3) and open-ended questions (5). Here they are in the order they appeared in the form, each followed by a comment on the answers.

1. The required level of English in the course was too advanced for me to participate easily.

Sure, it stands to reason that I would know this after four months of reading their writing. It’s also a course requirement that students are at least B1 and they were given a placement test at the beginning of the course (which showed that the majority were B2 or even C1). So, yes, I was reasonably sure that nobody would agree completely with this statement, but as the course was entirely in English (we had Erasmus students), and quite a lot of authentic materials were included, I wanted to see hard numbers.

On a scale of 1-5, most chose 1 (to indicate they disagreed completely), but not everyone, which puts me in a bit of a dilemma. If it’s a course requirement that students are B1, surely those who are at that level shouldn’t be made to feel at a disadvantage. On the other hand, if the great majority of students are B2/C1, they won’t be challenged by B1 content.

2. The required level of technical knowledge was too advanced for me to participate easily.

Again, the majority disagreed, but this time only 50% did so completely. Most of the rest opted for “mostly disagree”, which would indicate that the technical difficulties weren’t serious enough to prevent participation, but still, (lack of) technical knowledge was apparently a greater obstacle than the required language level.

This was not entirely unanticipated, as we’d dealt with various technical issues throughout the course, so next came an open-ended question:

3. Which technical problems did you experience and could the instructor have done anything to help you overcome these?

There weren’t many answers to this, possibly also because I’d set it as optional. Most referred to a lack of familiarity with online courses – only two students said they’d taken such a course before – but problems with videos were mentioned. There were a few Present.me videos in the course, which worked fine when embedded, but I’ve heard suggestions that it’s better to upload videos directly into Moodle. So I did that, but it didn’t work very well; the videos were viewable, but apparently not without a separate set of instructions. Sorting this out is one of my priorities this semester.

Luckily, the instructor got positive reviews in the second part of this question, which I was particularly pleased with, especially after I saw students in another course were simply instructed to contact the admin in case of technical difficulties.

4. The activities in the course were very time-consuming.

The answers to this were quite diverse. A small number (15%) mostly disagreed – no one disagreed completely – 20% neither agreed nor disagreed, 40% mostly agreed and 20% agreed completely. (The numbers don’t add up to 100; I rounded them off for convenience.) This question was actually intended as a lead-in to a more specific one, namely:

5. On average, I spent the following amount of time on the course each week:

If the class were held on campus, students would spend 3 hours in class weekly, plus any additional time on homework/portfolio assignments. As this is equivalent to a certain number of ECTS points, there wasn’t supposed to be a noticeable discrepancy between the amount of time spent on the course f2f and online. And, in fact, there apparently wasn’t. 50% of the students said they’d spent 1-3 hours working online, and 50% claimed to have spent 3 hours or more. From this perspective, I should have provided the option of saying how much more.

6. If you did not participate regularly in the course – if there was any period apart from the Christmas break when you did not log on for 3 weeks or more – why was this? Could the instructor have done anything to make you participate more actively?

Perhaps not surprisingly, those who took part in the survey had participated regularly, and so, even though I would have very much liked to hear what those who hadn’t would have given as reasons, there wasn’t much in the way of clarification here. Two answers hinted at the difficulty of getting back on track once some activities had not been done on time, but were careful to absolve the instructor of any blame. 🙂

7. The instructions and updates on the course noticeboard were clear and timely.

Happily, most students completely agreed with this (only one mostly agreed). In a previous post I mentioned that I’d written roughly 5800 words on said noticeboard, so I think I wouldn’t have taken kindly to disagreement. 🙂 On a more serious note, I spent a lot of time wording particular posts just so, trying to be as precise and detailed as possible, and predict every possible doubt and query, so it was good to see that this had apparently been achieved.

8. The course content will prove useful in the future.

Another question that I liked the answers to. 60% agreed completely and 40% mostly, although now I wish I’d included the option of saying which parts students felt might not prove so useful. The course is based on selected chapters from two course books, chosen some years ago (not by me). I think I can see which parts might not seem so relevant from the students’ point of view, but I’d like to know for sure as maybe it’s more of an issue of how the content is being presented, rather than the content itself. Then I could do something about it.

9. When I addressed the instructor directly with an issue, my questions were answered quickly and satisfactorily.

Everyone agreed completely with this statement, although purely from the point of view of questionnaire construction I overlooked the possibility that some students didn’t need to contact me directly with an issue, so this question shouldn’t have been compulsory. Anyway, I expected most to agree here because I checked my email regularly and answered queries in the evenings and at the weekends. There really weren’t many of these overall, and I used to do this when I taught f2f as well, so it wasn’t as if it required any extra effort.

10. I found the feedback (from the instructor) in the portfolio relevant and useful.

The instructor is important here because the students also commented on one another’s journal entries in the portfolio. A high rate of agreement (85% agreed completely and 15% mostly) indicates that all the time spent on various feedback modes – error correction for some assignments, and podcasts and screencasts with more general comments – was worth it. However, I felt that despite doing my best to cover as much ground as I could in the feedback, there were still aspects that I wasn’t able to touch upon because it would have meant going into too much detail. I think this could be remedied by using the Moodle gradebook and I plan to do this next semester.

11. I would recommend the course to other students.

This question offered a choice of three answers: ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘don’t know’. Looking back, I should have included the option of saying why. Most did opt for ‘yes’, but 20% said they didn’t know, and it would be helpful to know whether their answer would have been the same had this not been an online course. Happily, no one went for ‘no’.

12. I have noticed an improvement in my writing skills in English over the past semester.

This was another multiple choice question, with the same answers as #11. Everyone answered ‘yes’ here, which I’m particularly happy with because I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. With some people the improvement was obvious, but with some a little less so, especially those who had strong writing skills to begin with (those whom the placement test showed to be at C1, for instance.) I always worry a little, with advanced students, that they might feel they aren’t being challenged enough, particularly as many have been learning English for years.

The last three were open-ended questions and listing all the answers in this post would make it tediously long, so I opted for a random selection which I think illustrates well what the students found important.

13. List three things that you liked about the course and say why.

Not having to attend classes on campus and being able to complete tasks in pajamas was appreciated by a number of people. Students didn’t feel pressured as they progressed through the course and found it interesting to read one another’s reflections on individual units. Interactive activities and online memo boards got a lot of positive feedback as well. Some students particularly liked the fact that the course was online – they described this as modern and innovative – and liked learning about new technologies.

14. List three things that you did not like about the course and say how they could be improved.

I always ask for suggestions as to how something that a student didn’t like could be improved upon, but I don’t often get them. I don’t know whether this is because people feel it wouldn’t be appropriate if they suggested improvements, or simply don’t feel inspired?

Several people noted the course was time-consuming. Reflecting on the work done in individual units was also often seen as a little too much (yes, it is apparently fun reading other people’s reflections, but not writing your own. 🙂 ) Vying for the title of least popular were the unit on punctuation – I’m planning some serious revision of those materials – and the glossary activities. I found it particularly interesting that at least one person was annoyed at being faced with a new online tool in each unit and having to figure out how it worked. I guess I might have overdone it a little.

15. Do you have any other comments, suggestions or any other feedback? Perhaps you wanted to elaborate on an earlier (multiple choice) question?

I thought it was interesting that the majority of the answers here focused on the method of delivery rather than the content. Those who commented on the online aspect said that online learning is the future and that more courses at their institution should incorporate educational technologies to some extent. And it seems fitting to end by quoting the person who said, “It was definitely an experience!”

Do you include any of these questions when asking for feedback? If there is a question you think should be included or if you have picked up on something in the results which I didn’t address, I would love to hear from you in the comments!