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.


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.


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?

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?

Electronic tools for the classroom

In the lead up to September, I spent quite a bit of time tweaking the course websites for the three classes I’m teaching this semester. And as I resolved last year, I’ve stopped using WebCT and moved to WordPress instead–not just for my in-the-classroom course (Introduction to Translation into English), but also for my two online courses (Specialized Translation and Translation Studies). Thus far, I’m happy with the platform, and I think it will work well, but I’ll be sure to post a follow-up article in April, once I’ve had a real semester to test out the websites.

For this post, I wanted to share some of the tools I’ve been using for my online specialized translation course, in case other instructors are looking for solutions they can apply to their own courses.

I found this online tool when I was looking into options for posting audio or video recordings for my two online courses. Powerpoint, of course, allows you to create narrations to accompany a presentation, but what happens if you want to show students how to use the course website or an online tool? It’s a lot easier to do this if you can simply record what happens on your own computer screen as you demonstrate the process. Screenr allows you to record screen-capture videos, along with your audio commentary, and has several advantages: first, you don’t need to create an account to use it, since you can log-in using your Google, Yahoo, Twitter or Facebook account. This means you can start recording screencasts almost instantly. Second, it allows you to either link to the video hosted on screenr, post the video to YouTube or to download the .mp4 file (and, if you want, to delete the video from the screenr server).

There are, however, several restrictions. First, you can record a maximum of 5 minutes for each video, second, the videos need to be uploaded to the screenr server before they can be used, and third the videos are automatically shared with the community, whether you want them private or not. I’ve been able to work around these restrictions with very few headaches though. In the first case, I just record a series of videos on a topic and then load them up in a playlist. The students may even like being able to commit to watching just five minutes at a time… I’ll have to ask later in the term.

The uploading problem is a little more annoying. Every time I record a five-minute video, I have to upload the 8-10MB file to the screenr server just so that I can download it to my own computer and then re-upload it to the course website. Total prep time for a finished 5-minute, 8-12MB video posted onto the course website: about 15 minutes–or more if I need to re-record the video a few times to get it right. I just do some other prep work while I’m waiting for the uploading/downloading to finish. Of course, if I didn’t mind sharing the videos, I could just post a link video stored on the screenr server; other people may not find this problem as much of a hurdle as I do.

As for the third problem (automatic sharing of videos), I just download the video as soon as it’s finished uploading to the screenr server, and then I delete it from the screenr site. It’s generally available to the public for 30 seconds to a minute (though of course it may hang around on the screenr servers for a little longer… I’m mainly interested in ensuring the videos aren’t available for public viewing.) Other instructors may have different preferences, so maybe this particular screenr feature isn’t seen as a drawback by everyone.

A few months ago, I came across a very interesting blog post on showing how wordle takes a text, removes common words like “the” and “a”, and creates an image that uses different font sizes, according to the frequency with which each word appears in the text: the larger the font, the more frequent the word. While the original blog post discussed how to use Wordle to visually represent word frequencies in historical or political texts to help show changes in political vocabulary over time, the application can be used for translation classes too. For instance, here’s one I generated using Jean Charest’s February 23, 2011 inaugural address in French and in English:
jean charest-discours d'ouverture-23 fev 2011
jean charest-inaugural address-23 feb 2011

As you can see, the images (which can be generated in just a few seconds, with no need to create an account) help show differences in the most common words from the two versions of Charest’s address. Some of the largest words in the French image are Québec, développement, québécois and gouvernement, just as largest English words are Québec, development, Quebecers and government; but words like new, future,and better are different sizes in the two texts, though this is also due to the fact that wordle does not distinguish between variations on a root word (e.g. “nouveau,” “nouvelle,” “nouveaux,” etc. are treated as two different words, but they could all be translated by “new”). Obviously a corpus-analysis tool like WordList would give more accurate results, but wordle offers a quick visual representation of word frequency that could be used to help students look at a source text in a more analytical way. It allows them to do this very quickly and without needing to purchase or learn how to use any specialized software. I’ll be using some wordle-created word clouds of political manifestos that we’ll be translating later this term to have students think about the importance of lexical choices in the ST and to look for trends. But I can certainly think of other applications. For instance, students could use it to compare adapted texts to see what keywords have changed between the ST/TT versions. They could also use it to look at texts on the same topic to see how keywords change over time, from one organization to another, from one language to another, etc. For an undergraduate class, this tool could be a helpful way to get students to start reflecting about text function and lexical choices, which would then allow them to think about how to deal with these choices when translating.

Has anyone already used wordle in a translation course before? I’ll update in a few weeks, once I’ve had a chance to try it out with a group of students. What other tools have you found useful in translation classes?

Goodbye WebCT, Hello WordPress

For several years now, I’ve been using WebCT as the online course environment for my translation classes, first at the University of Ottawa, and now at York University. While the University of Ottawa has discontinued WebCT in favour of Blackboard, York still offers only WebCT or Moodle as course environments.

When I first starting using WebCT, I found it easy enough to organize my classroom material: I could post PowerPoint presentations and the documents we translated in class, along with the tests and assignments students needed to complete. I could also add links to glossaries, term banks, corpora and other tools we would use throughout the semester. As for the students, they could post their homework online via the discussion board I’d set up.

But then I started teaching more than one course per term, and I also started teaching the same courses over again. That’s when I began to get annoyed with the limitations of WebCT. I had a lot less time for fiddling around in the system and just wanted to get course material up online as quickly and painlessly as possible; WebCT just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Let’s say, for instance, that I need to upload a significant number of files all at once. The WebCT interface forces me to select and upload them one at a time. Or, maybe I want to quickly double-check whether I’ve uploaded a particular file or added a link to a new resource. I need to log-in to WebCT, then click through four or five pages just to get to that information. And what happens every single semester when I want to create a course website, even if the site is supposed to look exactly the same as it did last year? I need to email a request for each course (and each section) to the IT department so that they can create (either from scratch or from a backup copy) a course for me in the system. If I make a course request close to the beginning of term (as many other professors do, I’m sure), it can take a few days before one of the support staff is able to respond. I want to be able to create the site right away, when I’ve got the time and inclination to work on it. Which leads me to my first resolution of 2011: ditch WebCT altogether and migrate to WordPress by September.

WordPress offers enough plugins and customization options that I should be able to offer my students everything they were getting via WebCT:

  • Course material: I can post the course material each week as part of blog post, which also gives me the possibility of providing students with a few details about my expectations for the upcoming week and my thoughts on the previous class–something I can’t do with WebCT.
  • Student submissions: Students will be able to use the commenting function to submit homework or share their thoughts about topics we’ve discussed in class. I think this will provide a better environment for interaction between me and the students, as well as among the students themselves.
  • Links: I plan to include links to resources in the sidebar, which means no one will have to click through three or four pages just to get to the list of links, and I’ll be able to group the various types of resources more effectively.
  • Privacy: With WordPress, I can choose whether I want to make the course accessible to people who are not registered in the course, but the course website does not have to appear in search engine results. WebCT users are generally limited to York students, staff and faculty, so WordPress will give me more flexibility about who can read, download and respond to course material.

Has anyone else tried to use tools like Blogger or WordPress to post their course material? What were your experiences like? I do plan to post more about my switch to WordPress as I work on the new sites over the summer, but I’d appreciate feedback from anyone who has tried something similar in another course. Leave a comment or send me an email to let me know what you think.