A Tale of Two Online Courses, Part II

In my last post discussing my experiences teaching two online courses in the Fall semester, I looked at audio vs. video delivery of content, as well as strict vs. flexible deadlines. In this post, I’m going to discuss the various methods I tried for giving feedback to and getting feedback from students, and I’ll also look at some of the suggestions students offered for future online courses. I hope either (or both) of these topics are useful for others who may be preparing to teach an online translation course in the near future.

1. Feedback
Over the past few years, I’ve attended conference presentations by instructors who have integrated online feedback mechanisms into their classes. I blogged about Philippe Caignon’s presentation at CATS in 2010 and Barry Slaughter Olsen’s presentation at the Monterey FORUM in 2011. Both talks were very helpful while I was planning out how I would have students provide feedback to one another in the online courses, and how I would then mark this feedback.

First, the online undergraduate specialized translation course. Student participation marks (25% of the final grade) were broken down into three components: responding to discussion questions (10 marks), posting translations of the weekly homework assignment (8 marks), and leaving feedback on another student’s translation (7 marks). Marks were awarded based on completion, although I did include a few stipulations in the course outline. Students were expected to provide one negative and one positive comment about another student’s translation, and were asked to be respectful of other students when posting comments. I suggested that criticisms be constructive but also highlight something good about the translation (e.g. “I like how you tried to capture the oral nature of the source text, but I don’t think your translation of the word “québécois” works here because it doesn’t reflect the speaker’s separatist leanings”). I also indicated that no marks would be awarded for rude or irrelevant comments. As long as a student’s comments meet these fairly broad criteria, the student was given a mark for participation.

Initially, I did try to suggest specific aspects of the translations students could try to comment on, but as the semester went on and I got busier, I often forgot to provide those suggestions, and students were mainly left to try to find something to discuss when providing peer-to-peer feedback, which can be challenging, as several students noted:

While I understand it’s difficult to measure participation in this class, I didn’t really like the “comment on other people’s work” aspect, because we’re all very Canadian and as such unlikely to really criticize or say anything too strongly (not that anything needs to be said necessarily, but it’s all touchy feely as a result).

I felt that there was a few too many participation marks focused on giving feedback on others’ translations. I felt a bit forced to search through others’ translations and find something wrong with them, and I wasn’t comfortable with that. I also wasn’t comfortable with posting my discussion questions for all to see as I generally prefer to keep some parts of my work private, especially those that involve opinions, reflections and analysis. I personally would have preferred to submit my answers to discussion questions directly to the professor. At the same time, I did like the fact that we posted our homework translations and could see the translation work of others because it was helpful to see the countless other ways that students translated source texts. These, to me, are the downsides of this course and probably many other online courses.

The concept of giving feedback on our peers’ translations was a good one, but I don’t think the method was as effective as it could be. Personally, I feel that some of the comments I received (and gave!) were not that helpful. Perhaps many of us, in commenting, had to search the translation for good/bad elements to report that otherwise would not have stood out to us. I don’t think this method was as effective as our classroom discussions on our peers’ translation (when you showed them on the screen projector via WebCT) because here, there was no obligation for us to read through multiple translations—we found one, commented on it, and forgot about. Also, I never received a notification telling me when someone had commented on my translation, so there was no incentive (or reminder) for me to look back and see what the other person wrote.

Overall, I did feel the feedback aspect of the course worked, although not perfectly. First, it took quite a few hours to mark this aspect of the course. Although I had a teaching assistant to help, she spent about 60 hours over the course of the term adding up participation marks and leaving comments for students who had not received feedback from their peers. I’m very grateful for her help, because that meant I was able to focus on other aspects of the course, but if I’d been doing this on my own, adding up the marks would have been very time-consuming. Second, as the above quote illustrates, the limitations of the forum plugin I was using meant that students did not get notifications when someone left a comment on their homework. Thus, some of the comments may not have even been read, particularly if they were posted four or five days after the translation was submitted. Finally, some students felt a little lost as they were commenting, so they probably would have appreciated more regular guidance from me about what specifically they should look for. Here are some of the suggestions students had for resolving some of the peer-to-peer feedback problems:

One improvement I might suggest is to try a different method for us to comment on other students’ translations. Maybe you could post two discussion questions per week, one would be the same type of question you usually post and the other would be an exerpt of our translation work for the week (from maybe three students). Then, all students could post a comment on this translation in the same interface as we currently use for the discussion questions.
If you retain the current structure for commenting, another suggestion would be to have notification messages sent to us (if possible) to let us know when someone has commented our work. As for the incentive, you could require students to physically click on the response they receive on their translation (if this can be tracked in the current interface) before they receive their participation mark.

This might be difficult to coordinate, but in the future I think it might be a good idea to pair people up to review each other’s work. Let’s say we all get a partner for three weeks and we review each other’s work, that would also give us good exposure to someone else’s style. As opposed to picking a random person every week, which can be a little less personal.

While I like the first suggestion because it would provide a way of focusing the discussion on specific problems, the second suggestion would be a little harder to coordinate. I had considered pairing students up, but I wondered whether it would end up causing too many headaches since one of the partners might not post their homework on time (or at all), which would inhibit the second student from commenting (and receiving their participation marks for the week). Assigning students to groups of 3-4 might help solve this problem, but it would still require coordination on a regular basis–something I’d be ready to do in the future, now that most of the course material has been prepared.

As for the feedback in the theoretical master’s course, it didn’t work out as well because of the deadline problem I mentioned in my previous post. I asked students to respond to weekly discussion questions (10 questions worth 5% of their mark), to leave feedback for their peers on the critical summaries they were required to post on the course website (3-4 comments worth 5%), and to respond to any feedback they received (5%). Unfortunately, because I hadn’t set deadlines for submitting the critical summaries (students were required to prepare 3 of them over the course of the term), most students didn’t post their summaries until the last week of class. This meant, of course, that students didn’t post feedback for their peers (since virtually no summaries were posted) and that it was therefore not usually possible for them to respond to the feedback. To really have peer-to-peer feedback work, I think it requires set deadlines, and significant percentage of the final mark earmarked for the participation. Otherwise, there isn’t much incentive to participate, particularly given the extra self-motivation an online course requires compared to a course that takes places in a classroom.

2. General suggestions for future online courses
While I didn’t get the detailed feedback from my master’s students that I got from my undergraduate, I think many of the suggestions the undergraduates made could apply to various online courses: several students asked whether future students could be automatically notified by email about new posts and other important content. The fact that several of them raised this same point and no one mentioned that they had subscribed to the website’s RSS feed made me realize I will have to more clearly point out this feature in the future. I’ll also have to look for a discussion forum plugin that provides more notification options than Mingle Forum, the plugin I’m currently using.

Another suggestion that came up was for more collaborative homework assignments, such as when I asked students to contribute to a Google Docs spreadsheet glossary one week. These take a while to plan, so I didn’t include many, but it’s definitely an area that could be improved, and it would help take advantage of the online format of the class, allowing students to collaborate on their own schedule.

Another student suggested having students comment on their own homework periodically so they could explain how they were trying to apply the theories and strategies we discussed in class. That would provide a good way to extend the discussion questions for each topic.

Overall, I think the online undergraduate course went well. Most of the student comments about the online experience were positive. Only a few students said they still would have preferred to have had learned in a classroom. The others were happy about the flexibility the online option offered them to fit another class into schedules that already included full- or part-time jobs, family and other courses. The master’s course was less successful, and I think if it is offered online again, I will adapt some of the suggestions and successes (particularly those that apply to deadlines and peer-to-peer feedback) from the undergraduate course for use in this one. Has anyone had similar experiences in the virtual classroom?

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