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.


Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Puffin Ganin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/
Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Puffin Ganin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

I have this friend. Let’s call her S. She teaches undergrads online. A couple of weeks ago we had a conversation that went something like this.

S: You’ll never believe what happened the other day!

Me: Mhm?

S: I caught this student plagiarizing!

Me: Oh? Yeah, there’s always someone who copies something off someone else. And sometimes, you know, they don’t even know what they’re doing is plagiarism. What was it?

S: Yes, but this wasn’t just something! She copied the entire course!! (her voice rises)

Me: What do you mean ‘the entire course’?

S: Well, you know I teach online, right? She got all the assignments off a student who took the course last year and posted this student’s work as her own!!! (her voice is almost a screech)

Me: Okay, wait a second. Hey! Breathe! Like, what, literally all of it??

S: Yes, ALL of it! She copied the assignments, the forum posts, the glossary entries…even parts of the journal entries! (she takes deep calming breaths) Just saying it out loud makes me freak out again, and it’s not like I’ve been doing much else since I found out!

Me: Oh, wow. How…I mean, how did that even happen??

S: I don’t know. I guess the student last year saved all the work she did and emailed it to her. (her voice is more subdued now) I don’t think she knew it was going to be copied, like, with no modifications whatso–

Me: But why would she even do that?! The one from last year? Why would she think someone this year would need…I don’t know, her journal entries?

S: Maybe just to see what the course is like? I don’t know. Remember when we were at university? We gave our notes to people.

Me: Yeah, but those were notes. I mean, you could use them to study, but you’d still have to do the actual studying yourself. Not the same thing.

S: Yeah, I know.

Me: So, but…wait, I’m still…the whole course?? Did you give them the exact same assignments this year?

S: What, you’re saying it’s my fault now?!?! (she starts turning bright red)

Me: What?! God, no, of course not!!

S: Yes, I mostly set the same assignments!  I…I just designed the course last year – I didn’t see this coming!! 

Me: Okay…

(Short silence)

Me: Ummm, your course lasts four months, right? Are you saying you didn’t notice till the end that she’d copied it all?

S: Oh, and you would’ve picked up on it in week one, I guess? 

Me: No…look, I’m not the one who copied the course. Stop biting my head off!! I’m just trying to figure out what happened here! Obviously you’re upset

S: Upset?! Why would I be upset?! I’ve only been made to look like an idiot, I’m probably all they talk about in their Facebook group! Why would I–

Me: Wait a second! Reality check! You say you caught her. Did you tell her?

S: Of course I told her!

Me: Well, then. You’re not an idiot, you’re a teacher who doesn’t let kids get away with copying. Plagiarism. Whatever. What, d’you think it’s not gonna spread? That you figured it out?

S: Oh. Well. Maybe. I don’t know.

(Another short silence)

Me: Well, what happens next?

S: What do you mean?

Me: With the student? Can she still take the exam? What are you going to do? What did you do?

S: Well, I talked to the head of department. First of all, she’s my boss, so I’d have to do that anyway. Second, she’s dealt with this kind of thing before. I didn’t think it would be fair for the student to take the exam, what with all the others who didn’t copy.

Me: Okay, so what did she say? The head?

S: Apparently, this student has done this before. It’s not the first time she was caught.

Me: Oh, wow.

S: Yes. And last year, well I’m guessing it wasn’t this serious, because she was made to apologize and that was enough, I guess. 

Me: Apologize? That’s really effective. That’ll stop them copying, having to apologize! Did she apologize to you?

S: Yes. But I don’t give a… I mean, I know she’s not really sorry. Of course she’s sorry she got caught. That’s the only reason she’s saying she’s sorry. That and hoping that I’ll buy the apology and let her take the exam.

Me: So…she has to take the class again then?

S: Well, it’s a compulsory course. She’ll have to, I guess.

Me: But then you’ll have her in your class next year!

S: You know, I’ve thought about that. I feel sick to my stomach every time I think about that. She thinks I’m stupid, she thinks my course is so boring there’s no point contributing one single original piece of writing…I don’t want her back in my class.

Me: But if it’s a compulsory course, there’s nothing you can do.

S: No, I know that. Maybe I just won’t teach the course next year.

We left it at that. I think S had grading to do.

It’s been a good (online) year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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