Going Blended: If I can do it, so can you! Part II – Time for feedback

23 06 2013

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In my previous post, in which I focused on my IATEFL 2013 talk, I described my process of learning about blended learning and MOODLE and transforming a traditional writing course for teachers into a blended one. Using a unit on Narrative Essays as an example, I explained the choices made regarding what to do online and what to do in class so that both types of teaching modes would be logically interconnected and form a coherent unity.

Now it’s time to focus my attention on how students reacted to the blended version and the feedback given.  In the two semesters that I piloted the program, I had 15 students, none of whom had ever taken an online or a blended course, so they had to learn how to navigate the MOODLE platform and acquire a new type of autonomy and self-direction in order to do the asynchronous online activities required for each week.  Of the 15 students, two had serious difficulties performing the online work on time; one managed to complete the program because she was given an extension, while the other one dropped out at the end, saying she would like to take the course again, and perform all the activities.

Feedback from the students about the blended course was provided in two different ways. The first one was by way of their final assignment – an argumentative essay in favor or against implementing the blended course in the Teacher Development Course. This assignment was preceded by a heated debate in which students were given a viewpoint and had to think about arguments to defend it. Then they were asked to choose the point of view they would really like to support and write an argumentative essay.  Of the 14 students who completed the course and, thus, wrote this final essay, 12 defended the blended format for various reasons, as the excerpts below taken from their essays show:

  •  Society is constantly changing as technology keeps evolving every day. The learning environment should follow this process and take the best aspects of it without ignoring the more traditional methodologies. The blended format takes the best of both face-to-face and online formats to offer a complete, contemporary course.
  • Since learning is a lifelong process, a blended approach respects individual differences and helps students become more independent as they make these adjustments gradually.
  • As part of the vision of Casa Thomas Jefferson is to empower students to fully develop their linguistic skills, this course can offer these future teachers the opportunity of exploring new pathways of learning by experimenting the traditional face-to-face classes and becoming familiar with the innovations available in the online environment.
  • In a face-to-face class, many students are not comfortable voicing their opinions because of shyness. However, this issue can be easily resolved by the use of online media like forums, written tasks and portfolios, where students can post their ideas. Conversely for those students who have a better performance by interacting with teacher and colleagues in person, face-to-face classes will meet their needs of socializing and engaging through hands-on exercises and group activities performed in the classroom.
  • In a blended writing course, the student can improve his/her writing skill because there is more time to reflect about what was taught in class. Having a face-to-face class only once a week instead of twice is great because it allows the student more time to assimilate better the content given in class. Besides, the student will have more time to reflect and to research before doing his/her homework.
  • The students who shared this newly divided module were able to do certain activities following their own pace instead of being pressured to write in an unnatural speed. Most of these students also managed to interact online almost as much as they would in class through the use of comments and spontaneous student-created discussions instead of only keeping to what they were formally instructed to do.
  • Many (if not all) of the students in this course are already employed, and job obligations often get in the way of class attendance. The possibility of transferring activities from one day to the next, or simply doing them during the night, is excellent for the students to participate more and better. As a result, very few students miss class, since the face-to-face activity only takes place once a week.
  • Online classes develop knowledge of the Internet and the ability with computer tools which will aid students in their lives. Furthermore, a blended learning environment brings a sense of commitment on each one’s part to learning and this builds self-confidence and encourages students to take responsibility for their learning.

 

Two students, however, had mixed feelings about the blended format and argued that it really depended on the learner’s profile, as the excerpts below show:

  • The last difference is the concentration needed when trying to learn through these methods. A student inside a classroom is already inside his studying environment, a place that is expected to be learning-friendly. Nevertheless, if a student is seated in front of his or her own computer, there is a universe of possible distractors around him or her. People are ready to learn inside a classroom, but not in front of a computer. No matter how much they are used to using this tool, many people can’t find the concentration necessary to forget about all the different possibilities around them and just focus on what is necessary.
  • Another aspect a student may want to consider is the workload involved in an online class versus that of a face-to-face class. Since a face-to-face teacher has to budget time for students who may be slower, or for students who may have questions, they end up developing activities that take those factors into consideration. On the other hand, teachers in an e-learning environment can assign more work since students have a longer time period in between grading periods or classes.

As shown above, the greatest advantages pointed out were flexibility, self-regulated learning, attending to different learning styles, opportunity for deeper learning and better writing production, and student-teachers’ need to become familiarized with new technologies and online learning environments. Students also rebutted the argument that there is no interaction online. On the other hand, two students argued that blended or online learning wasn’t a good fit for every learner, only for the more disciplined and autonomous ones. One of them went on to argue that teachers may create more demanding and time-consuming online activities than face-to-face ones, resulting in more work for the students.

Students also completed a survey about the course which contained specific questions about the online activities. Here are the responses of the 13 students who completed the survey.

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All in all, the piloting experience was shown to be successful, but there is still a lot to work on, especially regarding facilitating students’ navigation on the MOODLE platform, providing clear instructions for the online work, and balancing even better the face-to-face and online activities.

When is there NOT a lot of room for improvement in our courses and our teaching, right? That’s what keeps us going!

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Going blended – if I can do it, so can you! Part 1

27 04 2013

Going blended cover

I’ve just returned from the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool, where I gave the talk Going blended – if I can do it, so can you. I hope I’m not being overly optimistic, but it seems that the participants enjoyed the talk, in which I explained how I transformed an existing 100% face-to-face (F2F) Writing Course for EFL teachers into a 50/50 blended variety.

I started out by providing contextual background: the Composition Course is a 32-hour module that is part of a five-semester, 360-hour Teacher Development Course, similar to a TEFL Certificate, attended mostly by prospective and novice teachers, but also by more senior ones seeking professional recycling. The main goal of the TDC Writing component is to:

  • Improve student-teachers’ writing and provide an authentic experience with the process approach – focus on multiple drafts and peer revision

In order to reach this goal, the course enables the students to:

  • Read authentic texts critically, identifying and explaining how a text’s style, structure, and context contribute to its meanings and implications. (discussions, journals, essays).
  • Identify the major types of academic essays and their rhetorical features (Organizational structure; types of cohesive devices; typical vocabulary).
  • Produce different types of well-organized, clearly written essays and texts in the genres that they will need to produce as teachers, based on needs analysis.
  • Use low-frequency, powerful vocabulary and discourse markers.
  • Develop metacognitive awareness of own writing process and skills.
  • Follow the different stages of the writing process, applying strong drafting and revising techniques.
  • Assess content, organization and language use of peers’ paragraphs and essays.
  • Develop a repertoire of relevant web tools to support the teaching, learning, and showcasing of ESL/EFL writing.

One of the reasons for transforming the Teacher Development Course into a blended variety was the fact that most of our own novice teachers weren’t able to attend it due to their busy teaching schedules, which we felt could also be the case of our student-teachers in our ELT community. In addition, we hoped to reach teachers from neighboring cities, where there aren’t so many professional development opportunities. Having face-to-face classes only twice a month, rather than every week, would be beneficial to both busy teachers and teachers living far away. Above all, though, we wanted to experiment with an online component in teacher development, as we have been working with online courses since 2008.

I prepared myself to develop online activities on MOODLE by exploring a myriad of tutorials about MOODLE on YouTube and Slideshare, reading books on online course development, such as Vai and Sosulski (2011) and also taking an online course myself, through a U.S. Department of State E-Teacher scholarship program with the University of Oregon. These experiences were essential in providing me with the necessary expertise to attempt to create a rich and effective online learning experience for my learners that would also be closely connected to the face-to-face ones.

going blended - references

The crucial aspect in developing a blended course is choosing the blend, that is, deciding what is to be done in class and what is to be done online. In the writing course that I piloted, half of the course work hours were to be done online and the other half in class.

We decided to continue using the same coursebook used for the F2F class – Greater Essays by Keith Folse and Tyson Pugh. However, just as in the previous F2F-only course, we didn’t restrict ourselves to the book, but rather, used its organizing structure as a springboard for additional, authentic resources. As the blended-version piloting teacher, I decided to focus the writing topics on learning and teaching EFL, one that unified the group. Authentic models of the different types of texts discussed in the course were provided.

Going blended - the blend

For my thirty-minute talk, I selected a lesson on the Narrative Essay to illustrate the choices of F2F and online activities. Theoretical material and more mechanical exercises, such as reading the introductory remarks on Narrative Essays, checking topics appropriate for narrative essays, and suggesting additional topics don’t need to be done in class and are perfect as independent tasks. Thus, the students were asked to read the introductory pages, take a quiz on the topics appropriate for narrative essays, just like the exercise in the book, and post additional topics on a Forum. They were also asked to read an authentic narrative – How I Became a Teacher – and relate it to the information in the book and in an additional resource on narrative essays, also provided on their course page. Specific guidelines as to what to comment on in their post and minimum and maximum number of lines were also provided.

In the following F2F class, we started out by commenting on the Forum posts regarding the narrative text read and reflected upon, then moved on to an analysis of the suggestions of topics for narrative essays, provided by students in another forum post. Following that, students selected their narrative topics, performed a “free-talking” activity aimed at generating ideas for the essay, and wrote an outline of their essay, with a view to organizing the ideas that had been previously generated. Next, students gave feedback to each other on their narrative essay outlines, using a form provided in the coursebook. They were thus ready to go home and write their essays.

One of the next online activities consisted of a peer review of the narrative essays, using the wiki on MOODLE. Students received an essay by e-mail with a number and had to post their answers to the questions in the peer review form in the book. In the end, there were as many responses in the wiki as there are students in class and each writer was able to identify the response about his/her text by the content of the answers, as neither the reviewer nor the writer knew each other’s identity.

Thus, the work with narrative essays began online, continued in the F2F class, and culminated in their again online work,writing the essay and giving feedback to each other. The online and F2F activities were closely connected and interrelated, forming a course unity. The coursebook and the authentic online resources were weaved into the online and F2F lessons and complemented each other.

Going blended - interconnectedness

In addition, all levels of thinking in the revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy were included in the course activities, as shown below.

Going blended - blooms taxonomy

In my upcoming post, Going Blended – If I can do it, so can you! – Part 2 – I’m going to discuss what my learners in the three blended Writing Course groups I’ve taught say about this type of learning. Stay tuned!





Ten best practices in online teaching from the standpoint of a student-teacher

9 12 2012

 

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“Lessons Message On Computer Screen Showing Online Education” by Stuart Miles – courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

 

We usually read about best practices in online teaching from the standpoint of distance education specialists and course instructors. I just finished a ten-week online course that I chose to take for two reasons: to update my knowledge on the topic – assessment; to be a student in an online course and observe how the course is set up and delivered.

Here are what I was able to identify as best practices in online teaching from the point of view of a student-teacher:

 

1 –  Make sure people know each other well so they can become a true community of learners

Any teacher needs to know their students well and make sure they know each other well, too. In a face-to-face class, this is easier because you know your students not only by what they say but also by how they act and react. In an online environment, more thorough descriptions are needed. It is also of paramount importance that the students get to know each other well, too, so that they can interact accordingly.  For some cultures more than for others, images are very important to aid communication. In the course I took, for example, I resented the fact that we couldn’t see people’s photos next to each of their posts. Some of us had posted pictures to accompany our introductory remarks inside a folder called “Week 1”, but they were uploaded as documents and difficult to retrieve on a daily basis. Ideally, the LMS should have a sidebar with the participants’ profiles so that they can be consulted easily throughout the course. Instructors might also place so much emphasis on having students introduce themselves that they, the instructors, forget to do the same.

 

2- Assess students’ background knowledge and needs and tailor the course to these needs

The first thing we did in the online course was to answer a needs assessment questionnaire. In it, we were asked to rate how familiar we were with each of the assessment topics to be covered in the course. We were also asked to explain what our role in our institution was regarding assessment and what we expected to gain from the course. I noticed that the instructors used this information to gauge what to emphasize during the course and what could be dealt with more quickly, based on the group’s experience, without losing sight of the overall outcomes.

 

3-  Clearly state the learning outcomes for each week and the activities and resources related to each outcome

Learning outcomes need to be clearly stated in any course. In an online course organized around weekly activities, which is usually the case, the learning outcomes and the tasks associated to the outcomes need to be clearly laid out each week. What I liked about the course I took was that the instructors  explained the outcomes and the activities for the week, as well as the resources to be used. Thus, when each week was opened, I was able to clearly visualize the work ahead and organize myself to do it.  

On the other hand, this introduction to each week was sometimes very wordy and would have been more practical if the information had also been organized in a visual, hierarchical format: 

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4-  Whenever possible, use a variety of media and resources

In the course I took, the content was delivered by way of articles, blog posts, and videos. This diversity of genres and media made the content more interesting and balanced theory and practice. However, the instructions and interactions were always in writing. I understand why because there were participants from all over the world, some perhaps with internet limitations. However, it would have been even more stimulating if we had had the chance to listen to each other or perhaps watch a video with the instructors explaining the week’s tasks or wrapping up the week’s instructions.  Images and videos give life to a virtual environment and tap into different reception modes.

 

5-  Vary the types of activities and discussions, but be careful about small, pre-assigned groups

Most of the course was based on discussions inspired by the rich materials we had to read and explore. Sometimes the discussions were among the whole group, sometimes in smaller, pre-assigned groups, and sometimes in self-selected groups based on topics. In the pre-assigned groups, there were times when the discussions didn’t flow because participants worked on the course at different moments, some at the last minute. Since the week always opened on a Monday, there were participants who didn’t have time during the week to work on the course, only on weekends or even on Monday, jeopardizing the ongoing nature of the discussions. After a while, it was easy to perceive the patterns of participation: the early birds, the mid-week participants, and the weekend-only participants. Perhaps these groups can be assigned only after a few weeks and based on the participants’ typical behavior. People have different schedules and life and work demands, so it shouldn’t be expected that everyone will access the course multiple times during the week. Alternatively, if this is a course requirement, it should be clearly stated when students sign up.

Another useful type of activity besides discussion threads is jigsaw reading. In this activity, students are responsible for researching different pieces of information, which is then shared among the group.

 

6 – Limit the number of words that can be used in a post

This was a real plus in the course. Our posts couldn’t be longer than 350 words. Thus, we had to learn to synthesize our ideas. This made student participation more balanced and straightforward. I tend to write too much, so it was a great exercise for me to delete unnecessary information or convey the same idea in fewer words.

 

7- Intervene in the discussions when necessary and wrap them up at the end of each week

Sometimes participants lose sight of course objectives during the discussions and digress. Other times they can make wrong or misleading assumptions. This is when the course instructors need to intervene, making clarifications and getting the group back on track. Also, it’s important that instructors wrap up the weekly discussions, even if briefly, so the participants can have a clear idea of what was accomplished and how the week’s discussions advanced the group’s knowledge on the subject.

 

8– Make sure all students receive a balanced amount of attention

I’m sure everyone in the course felt supported by the group and by the instructors, whose online presence was remarkable. However, participation could have been balanced even better. In our discussions, we had to produce a post based on clearly-defined guidelines, and then respond to a peer. The result was that some peers received more feedback than others. My suggestion, then, is to encourage participants to first respond to a peer who hasn’t been addressed by a colleague yet. Then, the other responses can be directed to whomever the participant wants.

 

9- Include a hands-on, formative project for assessment

One of the highlights in the course was the project we had to develop little by little along the course and then present in an e-portfolio format. In our case, we had to revise an assessment instrument, based on the principles learned. The instructors organized a google site for our e-portfolios, which made it very practical for each of us to upload our portfolio contents and also see each others’ portfolios. Our final assessment was based, then, on our course participation and on the portfolio.

 

10- Set clear performance criteria and provide weekly feedback on student performance

In the beginning of the course, we were provided with instructions for the discussion threads and rubrics for rating our participation. Each week, we received feedback on our participation and the number of points we had gained based on the rubrics. Likewise, we knew from the start what the portfolio assessment criteria were. We were also given the chance to assess our own performance. At the end of the course, there were no surprises.

 

 

Having taught a blended course and taken two online courses, I am more and more convinced that it is much more challenging to take and to teach an online course than a face-to-face one! Students can’t hide as they sometimes do in a large classroom, and instructors need to be accessible on a daily basis, rather than once or twice a week in class! But I can say it is more rewarding, too!!!








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