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?

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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.

eden
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 .