Another term teaching online

Now that I’ve had a chance to get caught up on the first few weeks of prep for the courses I’m teaching this term, I thought I’d post a few thoughts about the online course I taught time last term. I’ve discussed my experiences teaching online before, but when I taught Specialized Translation into English again last term I tried a few new things, with mixed results, so I think it’s worth writing another short post about the experience. Here are a few reflections on the two main tools I used to deliver course content last term: Twitter and WordPress.

Twitter

One of the comments I received from students I taught online in 2011 was that they wanted to receive notifications when the course website was updated, new content was added and responses were posted in the homework forum. WordPress does, of course, have an RSS feed, but not many of the students took advantage of that feature, either because they didn’t know about it, or because they didn’t have an RSS reader. So last term, I decided to integrate Twitter into the class. I created new account for the course, and let students know they could follow the feed to receive updates throughout the semester. Of the twenty students enrolled in the class, though, only 1 had a Twitter account. However, I had installed a WordPress widget so that the Twitter feed also appeared on the course website (more on that in a minute), so the rest of the class was still able to see the messages, even if they didn’t get instant notifications. Despite the low participation rate, I would still use Twitter again for the next online course. It allowed me to post not just notifications about new content, but also announcements about events on campus, job vacancies, and graduate programs. Although I had posted those kinds of announcements on the course homepage in previous years, it required more time and effort, since I had to cut and paste notices from emails, PDF files, and websites. With Twitter, I was able to just retweet the announcements I’d received that I thought might interest students, and they could then click through for more details. And the 140-character limit on tweets was actually perfect for making sure announcements were short and easy to read. They usually sounded something like this: “Nov 22: Just posted: videos (week 13), corrected homework (week 13), new homework+discussion question (week 14). Test 3 on Nov. 29!”

I’m hoping in future years that more students will have their own Twitter accounts so we can use it for exchanging questions and answers as well. (I planted the seeds for this last week, when I told my Introduction to Translation students about several Twitter accounts, such as @anglais, that Tweet helpful translation-related tips. Ideally, these second-year students will sign up with Twitter now and still have accounts next year when they enroll in the Specialized Translation course). Kathleen Hughes, a PhD candidate in educational psychology at Carleton University, has a good blog post with a lot of ideas about how to use Twitter in the classroom, and I enjoyed following her Twitter feed last term to see how students interacted with her during class.

WordPress

Last summer, I came across an article in The Chronicle where a journalism professor reflected on some of the mistakes he had made teaching online with WordPress for the first time. Because of that, I thought other instructors might be interested in hearing about how I use WordPress in my online classes, as I’ve generally been happy with the results. Two widgets that proved useful this term were Private Only and Twitter Goodies.

Private Only allowed me to require users to log into the course website in order to view or access any of the content. Last year, I had required students to create user accounts to post material, and I had blocked search engines from indexing the site, but I was looking for a little more privacy, since blocking search engines wouldn’t stop students from sharing course website URL with someone outside the class, nor would it prevent last year’s students from coming back to the course website, since I was using the same URL this year. The plugin worked well for two of my three courses, but it did cause some problems in the online course (a conflict with the video player plugin I was using, perhaps?). Some students–particularly Mac users, it seemed–could log in, but not download any of the content. I ended up uninstalling the plugin, and that seemed to solve the problem. The version I used for the course website, though, was older than the one I’ve mentioned here. So I’m going to try out this new version next year and see if I have better luck.

Twitter Goodies allowed me to post our Twitter feed on the course homepage. I put the widget in the middle of the page, so it would display a rolling list of the most recent tweets, letting students read what updates I had made recently. Another advantage was that I was able to add a second widget that displayed tweets with the hashtag #xl8n or #xl8, so students could also read translation-related tweets posted by Twitter users around the world. A few students complained that the rolling display of the tweets was distracting and/or confusing, so if you agree, you could instead try the Twitter Feed plugin, which just displays the last three (or more, if you like) tweets. This is the plugin I used for the Twitter widget you see in the right sidebar.

So as I said, I had some mixed results with WordPress and Twitter, but overall, I was happy with the results. Has anyone else tried using WordPress in their classes? What plugins have you found helpful?

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