Now that the fall term is over and I’ve (finally!) finished marking the tests, assignments and essays that were submitted during the last week of classes, I’m ready to sit down and write a few blog posts about my experiences in the (virtual) classroom over the past 13 weeks. Among the courses I taught this term were two that were offered online: one, a practical specialized translation course for undergraduate students, and the other, a theoretical Translation Studies course for graduate students. Although they were designed and delivered in a similar way, I thought the undergraduate course was much more successful. In this series of posts, I’ll be discussing why the two courses had such different results.
In this post, I’ll focus on two aspects the courses: content delivery and deadlines
1. Content delivery: Video vs. audio
As a platform for the two courses, WordPress worked out better than WebCT or Moodle, both from my point of view (creating and uploading the content, managing discussions, organizing information, etc.) and from the student’s (finding information, accessing videos, leaving comments, etc.). In the undergraduate, practical translation class, I mainly uploaded a series of two to five 5-minute videos every week to go over the homework and/or briefly lecture on the week’s topic. In the theoretical master’s course, I mainly uploaded an .mp3 file each week with a 10-15 minute recorded lecture.
In my last post about tools for the classroom, I mentioned that I was using Screenr to record the 5-minute videos, and now that the term is over, I can say that I’m happy with the results. The videos were easy to record and upload, and with the WordTube plugin for WordPress, I could integrate a video player onto the relevant webpage, and organize the videos into playlists so that each video focused on one short segment of the week’s lesson (e.g. one part of the translation homework, one or two slides from a PowerPoint presentation) and they were arranged in a relevant order. Here’s an example of a video I posted in the first week, describing the requirements for submitting assignments and tests:
Feedback from students about these videos was generally positive, thought they did point out some shortcomings as well. Here’s what some of them had to say:
I wasn’t a big fan of the fact that the videos were short and that there were many of them. However, as the course went on, I found it less bothersome because if you are trying to go back to a video to reference material within it, it is much easier to find what you are looking for in multiple […] 5-minute clips as opposed to one long clip. I was also glad that the videos were not removed from the course website, allowing me to go back and watch them again at my convenience or if/when I needed them.
I am glad you posted videos because I prefer listening to lessons instead of reading them on a screen. However, I feel like if we had in class time I would have learned more and feel like I was improving more as the semester went on.
What I disliked about the class was the weekly videos. I’m sure they work well for some people but I like having notes I can reference as opposed to go back and listen to the video every time I forget something.
I liked watching the videos because you could always go back and watch something over again if you didn’t understand something too well or if the discussion question was relevant to something in the lectures, it was always a good option to watch it again.
I liked the videos, however, I would have loved to have a podcast option I could take with me anywhere. The videos required both an Internet connection and Flash, which limited their portability. I would have loved to have listened to the audio while following the PowerPoint on my iPad on the train.
If I taught this course again in an online format, I would definitely integrate a podcast option–probably a downloadable .mp3 file. It was something I had thought about but just didn’t have time to implement. But the videos were a good fit for the course, allowing me to verbally and visually illustrate points much more effectively than I could have with just written notes.
In the theoretical master’s course, I didn’t use the videos because the 5-minute limitation was too restrictive. In addition, I didn’t really need the visuals in this class, since I wasn’t going over homework or pointing out relevant websites. The disadvantage to the audio recordings is that I wasn’t able to see how often they were accessed, unlike the videos, for which I could access viewing statistics. Moreover, I found it difficult to sync up audio with a PowerPoint presentation, so I ended up just providing the audio recordings each week. I don’t know whether students found these hard to follow, although some did tell me they found the recordings helpful. In the future, if this course is offered online again, I would probably make a greater effort to match up the lecture with slides so that students could download the recording if they wanted to listen to it on the go, or they could listen to it while flipping through the accompanying slides.
Teaching these two courses helped me learn about the importance of set, enforced deadlines for online courses. When preparing the syllabus for my undergraduate course, I decided to encourage weekly participation by setting strict deadlines on when work could be submitted: almost every week, students were expected to respond to a discussion question, submit a short translation, and comment on one other student’s translation. They were awarded one mark for completing each of these homework components, and together, these participation marks were worth 25% of their final grade. If they submitted everything, every week, they would earn a full 25%, which just over half the 26 students did. However, they were not allowed to go back to previous weeks and make up missed participation: I wanted to make sure students were keeping up with the course on a weekly basis, so I didn’t award any retroactive marks. Even so, only a few students earned 15/25 or less on this aspect of the course. The mean participation mark was 21.62/25.
By comparison, in the master’s course, I set aside 15% of the final mark for participation, divided evenly among three tasks: responding to weekly discussion questions, providing feedback to other students when they submitted a critical summary of one of the theoretical texts, and responding to the feedback they received from other students. In this course, however, I did not specify that no marks would be awarded retroactively, as I had assumed master’s students would be more motivated to keep on top of the work. The result? On a weekly basis, participation could best be described as abysmal. Only 2-3 of the 7 students originally enrolled in the class regularly posted their responses to the discussion questions, and no student responded to all 10. In some cases, students answered none of the discussion questions until the final week, which of course prevented other students from engaging with these responses. Because I had offered too much flexibility around the deadlines, participation was lacking, despite my weekly emails to the students reminding them about the work to be completed. (The flexible deadlines may not have been the only reason, but they certainly played a part).
As students in my undergraduate class noted, an online course requires much more self-motivation than one taught in the classroom:
You also have to be somewhat more self-motivated in an online class, because I find that while you’re aware of the submission dates, you might not set aside the same time for it each week, since you don’t have to be there. So it can feel disjointed, in terms of “did I pay enough attention to that material” before answering.
I understand that participation marks are required and I know it definitely motivated me to stay engaged in the course
I really enjoyed the discussion questions as well, which you don’t always get to in the classroom when you only have an hour and a half to take up a translation. I think I got more out of this delivery method than I would have from a classroom experience where you painstakingly go through a text line by line and everybody asks about all their word choices. for my learning style, I found this method more engaging and more stimuating. That being said, it did definitely require a lot more self-motivation, so I think the participation marks were essential.
I really didn’t like the fact that the course was online. I’m a lot more involved when I go to a classroom and discuss course material as a group. In fact, I missed many of the participation marks because since I didn’t have to go to a physical classroom, I would sometimes forget about this course for a few days. I’m usually a better student than that!
These comments, along with the differing participation in my two classes, have really clarified for me the importance of encouraging student participation in online courses by setting clear, enforced deadlines for any work that needs to be submitted. It may also be helpful to remind students early on about the importance of keeping up with the coursework. Encouraging them to meet in person, perhaps in small study groups, might also help them remember to complete the homework each week.
In my next post, I’ll look more specifically at feedback to/from students and how it differed in each class, and I’ll discuss some of the suggestions students offered for future courses.