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 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).  

Edtech MOOC

Can you get everyone to like your MOOC?

My last post started out as an idea for a compilation of random observations on course design, based on the Introduction to Linguistics MOOC on FutureLearn – a brief digression: I only just realized that the spelling seems to be with a capital L mid-word – but then it turned out to be a sort of introduction to the topic and an overall comment on what it felt like to be doing a course which you’ve joined when it’s practically over (spoiler alert: alone). I feel reasonably confident that this post will achieve what the last one was meant to because I already have a list of observations; I just have to flesh them out.

A bit of context first: this was apparently this MOOC’s first run. It’s a three-week course and the study time estimated per week is three hours, so not very demanding and overall in accordance with the course aims:

On this course, you’ll get an introduction to the main approaches used in linguistic research, including linguistic experiments and discourse analysis. You’ll find out about the key methods used in linguistic descriptions, and some of the everyday ‘myths’ about language. You’ll discover how linguistic researchers turn our ideas about language into linguistic knowledge.

There seemed to be two mentors/moderators – one lead educator and one educator, as FutureLearn calls them (or is it just this course?). Perhaps there were more, but I could only find the lead educator’s bio. They obviously kept an eye out on what was happening on the course, as there were several responses to participant comments; however, I got the impression that most of the commenting was done by the lead educator and am thinking that this is probably an indication that strong moderator involvement had not been planned, which again would be in line with the course aims.

Something to keep in mind as I move on to the observations: some of the features I comment on are present in other FutureLearn courses as well. Also, I should stress that this is in no way meant to be a dissection of the instructional design involved; just thoughts that popped into my head – in no particular order – from the viewpoint of having recently helped coordinate MOOC development.

Photo taken from ELTpics by @mk_elt, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

  • Most were of the length that ensures you won’t drift off. Only one was around 9 minutes (and another one was 7), which I feel is too long although I have included a screencast of similar length in my own online course. This MOOC is heavily video-based and the videos are only occasionally interspersed with some other activities – for instance, one activity required participants to analyze two similar websites in the context of a theoretical framework presented in the previous step. Possibility: add some readings and tests (T/F, MCQs), but this could make the course appear more heavy going (arguably not in line with the course aims).
  • There were several presenters in the videos and I liked the fact that for the most part they weren’t reading a prepared script – I thought it made them appear more passionate about their subject. Side note: if you read, you reduce the risk of getting mixed up or forgetting something and your delivery is likely to be smoother. I generally read in my own screencasts, but as the focus is not on me – I’m not on camera – I think I don’t sound too wooden.
  • There is a transcript accompanying each video (in addition to subtitles), which is of course necessary for accessibility purposes (screen readers). What I thought wasn’t strictly necessary (but was definitely helpful and I liked it a lot) was that each transcript was broken up into a couple of paragraphs and the time was marked at the beginning of each one so you could navigate it more easily.
  • Transcripts can also be downloaded as PDFs but the download isn’t forced – a pet peeve – so definitely thumbs up for this. Side note: I’m not a fan of transcripts because I find that if I read them, I’ll skip parts. If, on the other hand, I watch the video, I’ll force myself to slow down and focus on what the person is saying. This is also why I like audio books; they force me to adapt to the narrator and relax.
  • Each video is followed up by the option to discuss (as are all other activities). I think I like this – as opposed to, for instance, separate forum activities like in Moodle – because you end up with all the comments neatly sorted by activity. However, I did wonder what happens if you have a question or comment that would be better suited to a sort of general housekeeping forum. For example, if you’re wondering what the official starting date of the course was. 🙂 Or if software you were instructed to use in an activity didn’t work.
  • Comments can be sorted by oldest, newest and most liked (my most frequent choice). If I think a comment would be useful to other participants I like it in the hope that this will make it visible to more people. You can also bookmark comments and follow mentors and participants, but I didn’t on this course.
  • External links open in the same window, which I understand is a requirement of guidelines for web content accessibility. I think I will now stop advising people to tick the “open in new window” box – which I have sometimes done unsolicited to ELT bloggers, purely for the reason that I personally don’t like having to click back to return to the page I started from (I prefer to close the new window).
Activity completion
  • Participants can mark each activity as done when they wish to; there are no requirements, for instance, to post a comment before a discussion activity is considered complete. This seems fair because, well, you may not have that much to say about a subject; however, what happens if someone decides to mark all their activities as done without having even looked at them? I wonder if that is any different if you upgrade – because I understand that you are then entitled to a certificate of completion. On the other hand, there are students – I speak from experience here – who have done the F2F equivalent of marking their activities as done with no engagement whatsoever (suffered through the sessions in silence) and they still got the final mark. But they had to take an exam.
  • I’ve already noted that as opposed to some MOOCs I’ve done, there wasn’t strong moderator involvement in this one and I assume this was intentional. I liked the way the moderators handled an issue that came up: the participants were asked to analyze a couple of extracts of spoken language. These extracts were almost completely punctuation free. The participants found this confusing and said so in the comments, so a note was added in a prominent place, explaining the thinking behind this. Side note: when I came along, the explanation had already been added, so as soon as I noticed the lack of punctuation I read the explanation and thought it had been there from the start. I found this small detail very helpful and reassuring, as it indicated the moderators’ online presence, even if they were keeping a low profile.
  • The moderators’ responses to the participants’ comments were thoughtful and positive, which wasn’t a surprise. The reason I mention it is because I wonder if there’s some kind of bank with (beginnings of) responses to comments, especially if the participant seems to be upset about something and you’d like to set things right as quickly as possible.
Other activities
  • A couple of activities were described as articles – as opposed to videos or discussions – but they’re a single paragraph in length, so this seems like a slightly odd choice of word.
  • In already noted this in a response to Marc’s comment on my last post, but thought I would include it here as well because I was quite taken aback by the critical attitude of some of the participants. One of my firmer beliefs – not just related to course design – is that Croatians on the whole are more likely to criticize than offer unsolicited praise. You can imagine my surprise when I saw critical comments directed at some aspects of the course – and they hadn’t been posted by Croatians! I’m sure the course designers and/or moderators did not expect universal agreement and praise but I think disagreement or doubt can be expressed in a neutral tone, leaving room for the possibility that you’ve overlooked something. If nothing else, whoever it is you’re engaging with is more likely to offer a constructive response. (But that’s just me; I don’t have any research evidence to back this up.) For instance, if you notice that there is a spelling error, I think it’s more productive to simply point this out, rather than suggest that no one bothered to check the spelling. (This example from participant contributions has been modified to protect the overly direct). Anyway, I suppose this is my message to all course participants everywhere – if you think something has been overlooked, could’ve been explained more clearly or is unnecessary/incorrect, etc., please try to point this out in a constructive fashion. Thanks from course designers and moderators everywhere. 🙂

That’s it for this run of the course. A final observation I’m going to add is that FutureLearn has a very extensive FAQ bank, so some of the questions that participants may have and aren’t sure where to post them might already have been addressed there.

Although this topic isn’t related to language teaching, I hope it’s still useful to some extent. I’m hoping to be able to do another MOOC via a different provider, and possibly add to the observations here.

I’m curious what your perspective is on MOOC moderation. Are you happy to just get on with things, with only occasional moderator involvement, or do you prefer a stronger moderator presence? Thanks for reading!


With a little help from my mods

Photo taken from by Csilla Jaray-Benn, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,
Photo taken from by Csilla Jaray-Benn, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

Ok, that’s it. No more putting it off. This post has been waiting for me to get around to writing it since June and if I don’t get it done…well, we’ll never find out, will we? Because I’m going to get it done. Now.

Last June I wrote in this sandwich reflection post about the challenges of running an online course on your own. By this I mean being the course designer – you might argue that’s only the first time around, but there are always tweaks – moderator, troubleshooter in case of technical queries, sole provider of grades and feedback, etc.

I was also past the initial stage of satisfaction that I was capable of doing this and the novelty was gradually wearing off. This made it easier to step back and see objectively that of course I should be interacting with students online, but there should actually be more interaction between the students themselves in the forums and the portfolio. That would also automatically free me up for some of the time so I could, for instance, give (hopefully, timely) feedback behind the scenes.

October arrived and I was eager to try this out. The winter semester isn’t the focus of this post, so I’m not going to go into detail now, except to say that the tweaks had to be carefully engineered. I don’t know about you, but my experience has so far been that you can’t rely on second-year undergrads, generally taking an online course for the first time, to jump into forum discussions with boundless enthusiasm, especially as they’re being asked to do it in their L2.

Overall things went well, the students engaged more with each other, and my general plan was to carry on in this vein in the summer semester.

Classes had already started and we’d had our F2F sessions – if you like, you can read more on what those are like here – when I was told I could have a teaching assistant. A brief digression – in Croatia this is not a paid position for undergraduates. They’re chosen on the basis of their grades (which presumably also reflect a certain level of maturity and responsibility), and are usually asked to help out with assorted admin or paperwork-related tasks, such as correcting portfolio assignments or possibly proctoring exams – to my knowledge they’re rarely required to do any teaching.

My knee-jerk reaction to this was to say, no, thank you, what would I do with an assistant? Then it hit me – in Croatian they’re called demonstrators – and of course I knew what to do with one! They could demonstrate successful patterns of online interaction! And I could take a back seat and focus on giving feedback! I remember getting so excited I almost dropped the phone as I was calling a colleague to check if this was a totally mad idea.

The idea was actually brilliant, if I do say so myself. I was leaving for Belgium the very next day, so I couldn’t talk to my assistants in person, but we skyped and set everything up. At first I only had one student in mind, but because the semester had already started I thought they would probably turn me down, and so I asked four if they would be interested, figuring it would be safer to cast the net a little more widely. Somewhat to my surprise, they all wanted to be involved, so mulling it over, I decided – why not, let’s have all four. I wasn’t sure how time-consuming their contribution to the course would eventually turn out to be, and didn’t want to overload them. Last semester’s group had 20 students, which is a bit larger than usual.

Looking back, it was a stroke of luck I ended up with four assistants. I quickly settled on calling them assistant moderators, because neither demonstrators nor teaching assistants sounded quite right, and each was assigned 5 students to follow more closely.

The assistants had two main tasks. One was to monitor and guide forum discussions, and the other was to provide feedback on learning journal entries in the portfolio. All four completed the course last year, so this was familiar ground to them. The idea was also that students would get in touch with them if they had any practical questions – if the assistant mods couldn’t answer these they’d pass them on to me – but I don’t think this happened much.

This actually wasn’t – I hope! – as overwhelming as it may sound. There are three units that involve discussions, and these are evenly spaced throughout the 4-month course. The discussions last around ten days. At first I thought I’d see how the mods were doing and was prepared to jump in if they seemed to be out of their depth or if students didn’t respond to their posts. It turned out I had almost no jumping in to do and I was hugely impressed with both the content and quality of their writing! I realize this may sound somewhat strange, considering I read quite a bit of their writing last year and so you would think the quality wouldn’t come as a surprise. It doesn’t, and yet, there’s this feeling you get when you read a well-crafted piece of text by a student of yours. It’s a nice feeling. Since the mods were helping me so much keeping the discussions going, I was, for the first time, able to summarize them – good practice in terms of online course facilitation.

We also agreed that the mods wouldn’t comment on every single learning journal entry – a mistake I’d made last year. Maybe ‘mistake’ is a little harsh. I mean it in the sense that it was bit of a Sisyphean task, and also didn’t exactly encourage the students to comment on each other’s work. In the end the mods commented on about half of the entries of their five students. Here I was also ready to step in if I was needed, but in the end I was able to focus on those entries that really required my attention, since the mods handled the rest without any difficulty.

Of course, all this took some coordinating. Apart from the first Skype meeting, we had another one around a month into the course, and the rest of the time we talked on Facebook. The initial hitch of setting up a group that didn’t include any of my friends – something Facebook apparently doesn’t think anyone would want to do – was successfully overcome and this turned out to be a very quick and practical way of keeping in touch. Now that I think about it, this could have been done in Croatian but wasn’t. This wasn’t a conscious choice at all, but a good one I think. Here’s a sample conversation.

Writing in englishMaybe you think this means I was on time with all the grades and feedback last semester – unfortunately not. But I might finally be next semester; all four mods have said they’re interested in working on the course again and now that we’re used to working as a team maybe I’ll be able to keep up with the grading. Gotta have something to plan towards anyway.

Do you have any experience with students (undergraduate or any other) helping you with online moderation and/or modelling online interaction?