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?



Photo taken from by Puffin Ganin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,
Photo taken from by Puffin Ganin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

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.


Making the most of face time

Campus where I teach, photo taken from
The campus where I teach, photo taken from

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