Attendance woes

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Mandias: Perfect Attendance (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I thought I’d write this up as a post and see if anyone has any suggestions as to what I could do.

As the semester at my institution draws to a close, I’m supposed to go through the attendance records and see if there are any students who shouldn’t be allowed to take the final exam. A brief digression – when I taught at language schools, we were also required to keep attendance records, but these were then passed on to the language training coordinator at the company that paid for the classes and I have no idea what they did with them, or if there were ever any repercussions for those who didn’t attend classes regularly.

This is how it works in the setting I currently teach in (compulsory undergrad courses): three strikes and you’re out. These three times you can miss class – 6 hours out of 60 – you don’t need to justify/excuse your absence in any way. Some students manage that – not sure how many, but they’re generally in the minority. Many don’t. It would be wonderful if I could make a list of those who’ve only been absent three times or less, and tell all the others they’ve got to take the course again next year, but that’s just unrealistic.

So I try to be flexible and accept a couple more absences, and that usually works well. I’m left with a handful of students, which actually prompted this post.

This handful can usually be divided into two categories: those that missed 50% of the classes or more (and I have no qualms about telling them to come back next year) and those that are somewhere between those who toed the line attendance-wise and those I couldn’t safely say I recognize because I’ve seen so little of them. I don’t want to be too vague, so let’s say those who missed around 30% of the classes.

They were around often enough for me to feel that they should be entitled to take the exam, and will probably catch up on what they missed easily enough, so it would serve no purpose to make them sit through the course again next year. However… However, the group that were regular may feel a little stupid if they were to learn that they didn’t actually need to be quite so regular, because other people who missed 2 or 3 times as many classes as they did will also be able to take the exam. Yes, I know their motivation should come from within and not from a familiarity with someone else’s attendance record. I’m not taking that chance.

The usual thing to do, from what I understand, is to give these missed-more-than-they-were-supposed-to-but-the-instructor-still-knows-what-they-look-like students an extra assignment. Sounds fine to me.

This is where the problem lies, though. I hope I don’t come across as unreasonable when I say that I don’t want this extra assignment to be mine. I want it to be the student’s. I don’t see that there’s any reason that I should have to work harder because the student couldn’t be bothered to make the sessions regularly. An example of this would be a seminar paper – a typical extra assignment to make up for absences. I need to assign the paper, i.e., come up with a topic, and I need to at least read it and grade it, but I’ll probably want to give some kind of feedback and I’ll want to check for plagiarism. So, this is definitely at least a couple more hours of work for me, per student.

I was hoping that there’s something I can assign that requires a minimum amount of work on my part. Let’s not pretend that this is going to be viewed as a learning opportunity. I’m looking for an assignment that:

  • will take me no more than 5 minutes to check
  • will leave me in no doubt that the student spent a certain amount of time working on it
  • I can easily check for plagiarism (or dismiss the possibility straight away)
  • requires little or no feedback
  • will not scream “this is primarily punishment”, but will rather say “true, you are doing this because you were lax about attendance, but it’s not a complete waste of time” (optional)

If anyone is/has been in a similar situation, or has any ideas on what assignment would tick all the boxes above, I would be really grateful if you could share your suggestions in the comments.

Oh, right, and let me just reassure everyone that this doesn’t apply to your typical diligent student who was absent for a couple of weeks due to legit medical reasons. Those usually email as soon as the legit medical reason becomes evident and apologize in advance for the two weeks they’re going to miss.

Making the most of face time

Campus where I teach, photo taken from srce.hr
The campus where I teach, photo taken from srce.hr

The winter semester at the institution where I teach my online course started two weeks ago*. As has by now become somewhat the norm, we had a couple of F2F sessions – six hours this time instead of the usual eight because one of the days we were supposed to have class inconveniently turned out to be a public holiday. Inconveniently – ha! I guess most people consider holidays a blessing, but I still can’t shake the attitude that is ingrained after years of work in the private sector where for a language school every holiday means less money, especially in (the second half of) June, when Croatia practically comes to a standstill owing to the rich combination possibilities afforded by two secular holidays, a religious one, and the law stipulating that the previous year’s vacation days must be used up by June 30 of the current year. But I didn’t start out to talk about holidays.

I thought I would describe what we did in our F2F sessions prior to starting a four-month online course. A little bit of background: the course is a compulsory one aimed at second-year communication science majors, there are roughly 15 people in the group (although the exact figure varies each semester) and we have a sprinkling of Erasmus students as well. The online part is carried out, mostly asynchronously, in Moodle, hosted and administered by Zagreb University’s Computing Center.

When you know that you will be spending most of your time in an online environment, with no possibility of meeting F2F before the final exam, you realize that you need to give very serious consideration to what you want to cover during the limited classroom time. My current position is that anything content-related can be introduced online and that face time is best spent on fostering a group atmosphere and getting the group to gel as best it can. Of course, you’ll continue to work on this throughout the semester, but if you get a good start offline, it’ll be that much easier in Moodle.

The first time I met this semester’s group I knew I would be doing – wait for it – some kind of getting-to-know-you activity. A very brief digression: do see the third graph in this post by James Taylor for alternatives to getting-to-know-you activities with a new class, guaranteed to make you smile. During the summer I’d come across the idea of using selfies as an ice-breaker in this post by Jill Walker Rettberg, and immediately knew I wanted to try it out. Okay, I’m not teaching a module on digital self-representation, but it is a topic future journalists and PR majors can reasonably be expected to encounter at some point during their studies. More immediately relevant to my course is the belief that having everyone share a selfie with the others will increase their feeling of group belonging a least a little. As the course is online, for some this will be the only opportunity to see their classmates’ faces (they don’t take all of their on-campus classes together). And, yeah, let’s not forget it’s fun! Unless you’re pathologically averse to selfies, but I wasn’t going to force anyone to take part if they really didn’t want to.**

I got everyone to line up according to height (to split them up into random groups) and sent them out for five minutes to take selfies. They could have just stayed outside in the hall, but they all left the building and took the pics outdoors. When they came back, they uploaded these to a Padlet wall I’d prepared the day before, and added a caption. Before starting on the activity, I’d also checked that we had a sufficient number of smartphones, and I’d added my selfie to the wall to demonstrate how Padlet works. When all the pictures were up, we viewed them on the projector screen and the students shared some more details about themselves. Later, I added (a link to) the selfie wall to a prominent spot on the online course home page, inviting those who missed the first session to add their pics. I can already see I’ll be checking it out increasingly often as exam time rolls around to remind myself of what the students look like.

We followed this up with an activity designed to see how the class feels about writing. Normally the students get a somber black and white handout, as opposed to the tequila sunrise color combo pictured here, but that’s what comes of wasting time playing around with PowerPoint backgrounds.

Raising awareness about writing
Raising awareness about writing

I like to get a discussion going – if that is the right word to apply to undergraduates being asked to exchange opinions on a topic such as writing, in the morning, in a foreign language, while the jury is still out on just how much effort they’re going to have to put into the class. Still, I make sure everyone gets to say something, as this is also a good chance to see what their spoken English is like. In addition to checking to what extent they enjoy writing, if they proofread their work, etc., I use the opportunity to explain how correction and feedback will be dealt with online, and prepare them for something they will be doing quite a bit of – reading their classmates’ writing. This is something they wouldn’t normally do in an offline environment.

If there are no time constraints, I like to do an activity designed to raise awareness about text quality as well, but this time we had to skip it.

Raising awareness about text quality
Raising awareness about text quality

Our second session was devoted to demonstrating how Moodle and Mahara work. As I have by now repeatedly discovered that first steps in the online environment are not as intuitive as digital native proponents would have us believe, I’d decided that this semester I would book the computer room so that I could walk everyone through logging on and creating an e-portfolio page for the course. Unsurprisingly, it then turned out that not only was the room unavailable, I also couldn’t for some reason copy last year’s course – an activity that takes all of three minutes and doesn’t usually require admin assistance, so I’d perhaps somewhat thoughtlessly left it until the night before the demo session.

Change of plan. I listed all the important steps in a Google Doc and took the group through these together, using last year’s course to illustrate. Thinking about it now, I probably should have included screenshots too. The trickiest step for most seems to be creating and sharing a portfolio page, and this time was no exception. I subsequently recorded a screencast on how to do this and added it to the course – something I probably should also have included in the Google Doc right from the start. Ah, well, there is always next semester. Of course, the document was shared after the session with everyone enrolled in the course.

Finally, in the third session I opted for two activities – not exactly bonding experience material, but important to cover face-to-face nonetheless. The first was freewriting. I like to get an idea, at the beginning of the year, of what the students can do without the help of the internet and assorted reference materials. It’s not exactly scientific, but it does usually give me a pretty accurate impression of what I can expect throughout the semester. Some people find it really hard to get started, so this time I included a couple of sentence beginnings – vague enough not to require the students to stick to any particular subject – to help along those who weren’t feeling particularly inspired.

I decided we would also cover the basics of formal writing in the last session for a very simple reason. This is the one section of the course content that I haven’t transferred online, and I figured I would avoid doing this if at all possible. Yes, this is content-related and not about fostering a group atmosphere. Yes, I know what I said at the beginning. But adapting offline materials for an online course takes time. And I have this presentation which has been tweaked and polished over the last couple of semesters, perfect to use with a class about to start on a writing course. Incidentally, when I say formal writing, I don’t mean EAP, but rather things like reminding students that linking words other than ‘and’ or ‘but’ exist and that people do employ them occasionally.

This was as much face time as we got this semester. I feel we managed to squeeze in everything we really needed to before moving online, and paved the way for a more or less successful course. As I write this most of the students have completed the introductory online activities and made a start on the course content, so all is well. Almost all, at any rate. But that is material for another post.

* three weeks ago, actually, by the time I finally got around to wrapping the post up

**at least one of the students who missed the first session and added their pics later explained that she is alone in the picture because her classmate doesn’t like selfies

Some perks of teaching online

Recently I had the occasion to read Joanna Malefaki’s comprehensive (and occasionally tongue-in-cheek) overview of the advantages of being an online teacher. I also had the privilege of meeting Joanna in person earlier this year at BELTA Day. As soon as BELTA started with their “Meet the Speaker” series, I knew I was going to attend her talk “Do’s and Don’ts of teaching Business English online”…until I discovered that Marek Kiczkowiak and Chris Holmes were going to be speaking about NNEST-related misconceptions in the same slot! In the end, I opted for the latter, using the time-honored scientific method popularly known as eeny meeny miny moe.

The topic of Joanna’s talk appealed to me because it was the only one, apart from my own, to address some practical issues of online instruction that day. I don’t think of myself primarily as an online instructor (or an offline one, for that matter), but as I’ve been teaching almost entirely in an online environment for the past year, I find posts, articles and talks on the subject increasingly relevant to my situation.

Having read Joanna’s post, I thought I’d throw together my own list of perks. Although there will undoubtedly be similarities, it’s worth noting that, unlike Joanna, I teach in an asynchronous environment. More specifically, I teach a semester-long undergraduate course in writing skills in Moodle. So, what do I like about it?

This isn't what I see when I look up from the computer - but it could be!
This isn’t what I see when I look up from the computer – but it could be!

Advantages applicable to online teaching in general

  1. You can sleep in. Possibly this sounds self-centered or frivolous, or both, but I’m dead serious. The fact is, I’ve worked for private language schools since 1997, and that means…well, that means your schedule is often crappy. You teach in-company courses in the mornings, so you have to wake up at 6 and put on your bright and perky smile as you wait with the surly security guy for your students to show up at 7:30. Which they do, late, yawning and saying they haven’t done the homework. “That’s okay,” you say, contemplating various forms of torture, careful not to drop the smile. (It’s not always like that, but you know what I mean.) Then you teach again in the afternoon and evening, and when you come home, you prepare for the class you have the following morning. Sunday evenings are also reserved for Monday morning lesson plans. That’s a whole lot of Sunday evenings since 1997. So being able to sleep until a more decent hour, followed by breakfast and a coffee during which I don’t have to smile if I don’t feel like it, feels wonderful.
  2. Your schedule is less stressful. I don’t spend half my day in public transport, going from client to client, lugging books around, missing lunch, waiting around twiddling my thumbs for the one-to-one student to finish their meeting/phone call/email before they’re ready to settle down to English class. Oh, yes, I almost forgot the thrill of one-to-one clients cancelling at the last minute!
  3. It’s cheaper. All you need is a computer and broadband connection. I definitely spend less on public transport, unhealthy on-the-go snacks, book bags or folders, as well as clothes and makeup.
  4. It’s challenging and fun. I’m not saying I know everything there is about classroom instruction, but after 17 years of teaching there’s a certain element of déjà vu when I walk into a class. There is obviously comfort to be drawn from this, and there are always different activities you can try out to avoid getting stuck in a rut, but online everything is new to me. I enjoy designing the course and moderating it: selecting the activities, making podcasts and screencasts, designing quizzes, reading and commenting on the students’ learning journals, and more.
  5. You gain a new set of skills.  A lot has been written over the past month about the future of teachers and whether they will eventually be made unnecessary by tech advances. This is not the topic of this post, but I do recommend that you watch the excellent eltjam IATEFL talk on what educational technology means for ELT. As someone who has struggled to keep a small business (a language school) afloat through the (aftermath of the) global economic crisis, I can only see advantages to being open to whatever is going to allow you to keep your teachers employed.
  6. It permits you to carry on working for your institution even if you no longer live in the same town/country where the institution is based. This flexibility may, of course, not be important to everyone, but if, for instance, moving abroad was not your career choice, it counts for a lot. Hopefully, this uninterrupted collaboration will allow me to continue teaching face-to-face at my institution when I return. I can practically guarantee this wouldn’t happen if I dropped off the radar for a couple of years; someone would take over my course, and that would be that.
  7. Your professional engagement isn’t (temporarily) over when you move to a new country. Like the previous point, this one assumes particular importance when you may not have a job lined up, and as a NNEST you may have difficulty securing one. I’ve heard of the term trailing spouse used to describe someone moving from place to place at the whim of the personnel decisions of the company their partner works for, but this is not a designation I feel comfortable with.

Advantages applicable to teaching writing skills online

  1. Students actually get to do a lot more writing than in a face-to-face environment. When I taught the same course offline, we did a range of interactive activities in class: presentations, discussions and games, and the students did most of the extended writing at home in their portfolio, which they would hand in three times per semester.
  2. More authentic written communication takes place. The instructor was the sole audience for the students’ writing efforts in the face-to-face class; hardly conducive to getting them to exert themselves beyond what was strictly necessary, for instance, write 250 words on a given topic, include a topic sentence for each paragraph, etc. By contrast, online everyone can see almost everything an individual student writes – in forums, wikis and learning journal entries – so they’re writing for a wider audience. Wider than just the instructor, at any rate.
  3. Less outgoing/weaker students participate more than they would in a traditional class. If you’re discussing a topic in class, talkative students will often dominate the discussion, even if you try hard to make sure most people get to say something. On the other hand, if everyone is required to participate in an online discussion, they will. Or they won’t get a grade.
  4. You can consider the feedback you want to give more carefully. In class teachers are sometimes asked questions they don’t know the answer to. This is absolutely fine; after all, it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate that the teacher is not the ultimate vessel of all knowledge, but that some responsibility for their learning lies with the students. However, you sometimes do wish that you’d known the answer to a question because it would have been pertinent to the subject under discussion or useful for all students to know. You sometimes want to point the students to a useful resource which they can use for further research. It is certainly possible to bring up the point at the beginning of the next session, but it may not seem as relevant any more. Online, you can highly personalize the feedback and tailor it specifically to a student’s needs.

My experience with teaching online has been positive overall, though I wouldn’t be in a hurry to say that an online course is inherently worse or better than a face-to-face one. While I was putting this list together, I considered a number of points I didn’t like so much, but finally decided to leave those for another post. The list isn’t meant to be exhaustive and is definitely determined in large part by the context I work in, so do by all means let me know of any advantages I’ve overlooked.