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?

On online learning

An editorial I came across in the Toronto Star earlier this week, via a Tweet from Marco Fiola,* pans a discussion paper recently released by the Ontario government. Heather Mallick, the Star columnist who wrote the piece, criticizes various aspects of the discussion paper. She objects, for instance, to the paper’s openness to the Bologna Process, which helps ensure university credits and degrees can be easily recognized by institutions in various countries but which also sets the length of time required to complete an undergraduate university degree to three years. More particularly, though, she is extremely critical of the discussion paper’s emphasis on online learning:

The greatest danger is the report’s warm welcome to online study. It’s one thing to get an online degree if you live in Yellowknife but quite another for the rest of us. You learn from the hard slog of long afternoons spent in classrooms with brilliant people. You learn to read and understand and read further. You learn to evaluate and criticize and think for yourself.

You won’t get this fast, alone and on the cheap, but that is precisely what the government is planning and what employers are hoping for: dumbed down labour for underpaid jobs. Professors should fear it, but students should fear it more. If you want to sit alone in a room for years “studying” online and come out pale, shaky and Fifty Shades of Dim, this report is for you.

But it is not for anyone who values genuine education. […]

I have to say that I was disappointed to see Mallick express such a negative view of online learning. I’ve spent the summer working as an e-learning coach at York University’s Glendon campus, where I teach translation during the fall and winter terms. At the moment, the School of Translation is launching a two-year Master of Conference Interpreting program, the first year of which will be offered online. As the e-learning coach, my job has been to research best practices for online learning and to collaborate with the IT department, a dozen course developers, and the program director to help find ways to adapt exercises, tests, assignments and course content to an online environment. This means I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months researching online learning, and I’ve learned a lot about both its strengths and weaknesses.

So I was disappointed first that Mallick’s editorial didn’t offered a more nuanced critique of the government’s positive view of online learning. After all, the discussion paper recommends:

online degree and diploma options to serve students who prefer to learn online, lifelong learners, and students with dependents who are unable to easily and physically attend campuses

In other words, the discussion paper acknowledges that online learning is not for everyone; however, online courses can be very advantageous for those who enjoy technology, who are looking for a more flexible learning schedule and environment, who may live far from a university or college campus that offers a particular program, etc. Many of the students in the online course I taught last year at Glendon were thrilled to be able to commute to campus one fewer time each week, to be able to (re)watch lectures whenever they wanted, and to submit their homework and responses to discussion questions within a set but flexible deadline. Some, of course, said they would have preferred to have been taught in a traditional classroom, but that just supports the discussion paper’s recommendations to encourage online learning where possible and where desired; some people will always want face-to-face interaction, while others don’t mind, and may even prefer, virtual meetings.

Moreover, taking online courses (and even online degrees) does not, as Mallick contends, prevent students from “learn[ing] from the hard slog of long afternoons spent in classrooms with brilliant people.” (As if brilliant people are not to be found in online courses). Mallick ignores the fact that online learning can take place both synchronously (i.e. with instructors and students meeting together at the same time in a virtual classroom) or asynchronously (i.e. with students and instructors not meeting together at a pre-set time). While both methods allow students to interact with one another, synchronous learning allows students to engage in discussions with their instructors and their peers in real-time, just as they would in a traditional classroom, but with the advantage of being able to do so from home, the office, an Internet café, a park, or anywhere else with a wi-fi connection. Even an online course taught mainly asynchronously allows students to reflect on the course material and engage with their instructor and peers via text (e.g. discussion boards) or audio and video (e.g. podcasts or recorded responses); however, they can do so from home at a time that is most convenient to each student. While it’s true that a discussion that unfolds over the course of a week is very different from one that takes place in person for fifteen minutes or half an hour, this doesn’t mean that online learning is disadvantageous or that online students are not learning to read and think critically. In fact, asynchronous discussions allow a student to reflect on his or her responses for a longer period of time before responding. They also allow a wider range of voices to be heard, since time in the classroom may be limited and not everyone will get a chance to speak.

Mallick also ignores the fact that online and in-the-classroom teaching can be combined into what’s known as blended or hybrid learning. In fact, a 2010 report on online learning published by the US Department of Education concluded that blended learning was often more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction. Although the report cautioned that instructors and content, rather than the method of delivery, largely determine the success of a course, and that blended/hybrid learning was preferable to entirely online courses, it did note that online courses were generally more effective than those taught in person “when students in the online condition were engaged in instructor-led or collaborative instruction rather than independent learning; and when the curricular materials and instruction varied between the online and face-to-face conditions” (2010: 72). I think this conclusion offers a good summary of what is wrong with Mallick’s sweeping condemnation of online learning for “the rest of us”: when an instructor is engaging, students are encouraged to collaborate with their classmates, the course content is intellectually stimulating and the material is delivered effectively, students should be able to “learn to evaluate and criticize and think for [themselves]”, regardless of whether they are studying in a virtual or an online classroom.

*As an aside, I’ve finally started using the Twitter account I had created last year but left dormant for months. I’m @jmdolmaya, in case anyone is interested in following me there.

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?

A Tale of Two Online Courses, Part I

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:

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

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.

Audio recordings
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.

2. Deadlines
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.