Diary of an online course: part 2


In my previous post, I talked about how we set up our online course in learning technologies for EAP teachers and the thought processes we went through in choosing our participants, deciding on the platform and selecting the course content. In this post I’d like to talk about the nitty gritty of how the course went by focusing on some of the key features. I’ll also mention some feedback we got from the teachers as we asked them to comment after each module.

The module structure

We’d done a fair amount of research into online learning and a couple of things we knew were important from the start: making sure that all the participants could easily access the course and the technology was clear and easy to understand. So right from the start, we made sure there were clear video or photo guides for all steps of the course, from how to log in to how to add your profile picture to the site. This seemed to work well as there were very few issues with teacher access and a change of browser tended to solve those that did have any.

We also knew it was important to establish a strong social presence on the course and for the participants to feel they were part of a group, tricky when they are dispersed across multiple countries. Getting them to put a photo on their profile was an important first step, particularly useful as our course front page was set up to show the photos of recently active and online members and I personally found that a reference point when I logged on and others said something similar.

recently active members lt in eap

you can see the recently active list on the right, here the photos have been blurred as I haven’t asked for permission to use their images.

To help them get to know each other, we also set up a Padlet page where everyone could introduce themselves. You can see from below (with pictures/names blurred out) how popular this proved with lots of pictures and text and participants commenting on each other’s profiles.

padlet in lt in eap course

The Padlet introductions page was a good example of the experiential learning cycle we took teachers through. After adding their info to the page, we then got them to go to a forum to discuss how Padlet could be used in an EAP classroom. Again, the forum discussions worked reasonably well and teachers engaged with them actively. We tried to structure the forum tasks so that there was something specific for them to answer or respond to. So, for example, rather than just asking them to go to the forums and discuss Padlet, we’d set it up with specific questions or sentence stems for them to answer or complete. Just to give you one example, for the Padlet forum, we asked these questions:

1) Apart from introductions, how else could Padlet be used in the EAP classroom? Think specifically about tasks that would fit into a wider lesson, such as a listening or reading task.

2) Do you think it would be better to use before the lesson (e.g. for homework in preparation for the lesson) or actually during the lesson? Why?

Forums can be a tricky area to moderate as we didn’t want to go barging in there ourselves and responding to everything the participants wrote as we hoped they would first interact with each other and then we could summarise at various key moments. Of course that didn’t always happen quite the way we hoped and sometimes in our eagerness we would jump in and ‘kill’ the conversation. But most of the time they kept the discussion going for quite a while and it was encouraging to see participants coming back to the forums to respond to other teacher’s postings.

Course Timing

We knew that having one topic per week was a slightly artificial limitation but we really didn’t know how much content we’d have available for each so we left it that way. In reality, some modules clearly needed more time than others, the ones on cloud computing and Corpus linguistics were particularly meaty and we could have probably spent 2–3 weeks on these no problem. This is something that came through in some of the feedback and it’s definitely something that we’ll adjust when we run the course again.

Gamification

Well, it is one of the edtech buzzwords at the moment so I thought it would be worth adding a little to the course! This was done in a fairly subtle way through the use of digital badges. Basically, we set up our site so that every time that a participant on the course did something significant such as respond to a forum post, create a new thread or complete a module, they were rewarded with a badge that had a certain number of points attached to it. These were then visible on their individual profiles

digital badges on profile

digital badges were displayed as thumbs up and points shown just above

To try to add a competitive edge to this, we created a leaderboard on the site where they could see who had the most points. We thought this might motivate participants to engage more with the course. Not really sure if it did or not. In the feedback we got a few positive comments and a few bemused ones, largely because the scoring system seemed somewhat arbitrary and it wasn’t clear why people were getting points why others weren’t. It also didn’t help that the tutors couldn’t be excluded from the leaderboard and we were miles ahead because of all the content we’d created on the course. Still, I think the basic idea was sound but we need to learn a bit more about the technical implementation before it can become an integrated part of the course.

Creating interactive content

We had a very positive response to the interactive content we created for the course. Within each module there was one section where we provided substantial input on the module topic through videos and interactive buttons, quizzes and drag and drop activties. This was where we brought in the recordings of lessons we had done in the previous term of us teaching EAP with technology in front of real students. We felt it was useful to have this in there otherwise – at least in our own experience from taking online courses – they can feel a little insubstantial or passive when all you do is watch videos and then take part in forum discussions.

To give you an example of this content, you can click here (it will open in a new browser window). This particular example doesn’t have any teaching in it simply because public display was not part of the agreement with the students when we originally made the videos. This was probably the most labour intensive part of the course as it meant integrating many elements of the course. Firstly, selecting and editing the teaching videos we’d made takes quite a while. Then we had to create the interactive content to go around those videos. This was done using a programme called Storyline Articulate 2. This is a fantastic piece of software for creating elearning content but there is a little bit of a learning curve and it took a while for us to work out how to create the interactive elements. It would take me a solid day – normally the one before we had to release the module – to create the finished content For this section.

Creating a practical task

Within each module we wanted to have a concrete task for teachers to do with their students in class. We knew this was always going to be a tricky thing to happen consistently across the participants. In selecting teachers for the course, we did prefer teachers who were actually teaching during these eight weeks so they could experiment in class. But it’s not always easy for them to do it every week, the technology we were demonstrating may not link in easily with the lessons they are teaching That particular week. So we were reasonably flexible about this, we gave them options for what to do if it wasn’t possible for them to do it with their group that week (it often involved doing the same activity with colleagues or family!).

We tried to give them as much guidance as possible before the task, particularly in the earlier modules. We gave fairly detailed instructions and suggestions for what they could do with a particularly technology. As an example for the module on cloud documents, we gave these suggestions

  • Brainstorming: As a homework task to brainstorm ideas round a particular subject you are studying
  • Vocabulary curation: from a reading or lesson, create a table with the words in it and ask different students to find definitions, collocations for each of them
  • Collaborative essay writing: works better with shorter essays, once they have finished brainstorming ideas for an essay, a student can be assigned a different part of an essay (introduction, main body 1, main body 2 etc). Since they are working on the same document they have to constantly negotiate meaning with the others to make sure the essay is coherent and cohesive. Later they can share their essays with other students for them to make comments.
  • Error Correction: during a lesson, note down any common errors on a Google Doc and then either at the end of the lesson or for homework, share it with them. Set the sharing settings to only comment and they can make margin comments making suggestions for the correct answer.
  • Textual Analysis: Copy and paste an article into a Google Doc and then set questions in the margin for students to respond to. Responding to questions can be a jigsaw activity so only certain groups or individuals answer questions. Alternatively, everyone answers all questions and the responses can be compared. Make sure the share settings are set to comment.

Generally this worked pretty well and most of the active teachers managed to do something with their class or their colleagues and reported back to the forums. Again we tried to focus their reflections so that we didn’t just ask them to talk generally about their lesson, but instead gave them focus questions to report back on. We felt this worked well and kept the discussion a lot tighter.

Assessment

We decided not to have any kind of formalised assessment on the course, we very much saw it as a developmental thing so felt that adding assessment would make it unnecessarily stressful. We also felt that there was no easy way to integrate assessment into the course, the subject matter didn’t really lend itself to quizzes or essays. The only thing we added was to ask each participant to give a short presentation at the end of the course in a virtual classroom setting, just a few minutes and it could be a PowerPoint slide, a picture or short video. We haven’t actually done this yet so we’ll let you know how it went later.

Overall impressions

We were really impressed just how many teachers engaged with the course. We know that drop-out rates on MOOCs are pretty high and while this isn’t technically a MOOC as it only had thirty participants, it was a free course and so had a low barrier to both entry and exit. Of the thirty who started the course, about 20–22 have continued to be active participants throughout.

Just a few bits of feedback from them about the course, some positive, some less so:


 

“It made the technologies really accessible even to a technophobe like me!”

“Great blend of theory and practice with easy to understand explanations.”

“I came away with new ideas. I had most hoped to learn about Google Docs, which I did. It didn’t exceed my expectations because some of it was not relevant for me – that is not to say it wasn’t for others!”

“The course is very well designed, but I think it needs to be more embedded in teaching methodology. The classroom videos were not convincing.”

“I wanted the course to introduce me to some tools I could use and give me confidence to try it – and I feel the course has done exactly that.”


 

All feedback is useful and we’ll take on board some of the constructive criticism and implement in our next iteration of the course. .

 

Future of the course

We feel that the course has been successful enough to warrant running it again in the future. The feedback we got from the participants suggests that this is something that is genuinely useful and would benefit other teachers as well. There are certain things we plan to change about the course, in its current format it’s a little short, one thing that came through from teachers was that they felt a bit rushed to get each module done every week and I think some of the meatier topics could have been extended into a second week. The plan would be to extend it to 10–12 weeks.

We also need to start charging for it as well, we did this pilot course for free simply because we needed to test out the content and get feedback from the participants but we can’t do this forever! This course is not designed to be any great money spinner for us, we’re probably looking to charge a few hundred pounds, which we feel is reasonable for the length of course, number of hours and tutor commitment. Our plan is to use the money we charge to subsidise free places for EAP teachers who normally wouldn’t be able to afford such a course. So, if we get 25 paying participants, that could fund an additional 5 free participants, though we still need to work out how to select those who get the free places (any suggestions welcome!).

This was a fascinating experiences for us – and I hope for the participants as well – as it was the first time we had complete freedom to create the course we wanted using the tools we were comfortable with. We couldn’t complain that we were limited by our VLE or by the university as neither of those exerted any influence on us. And it’s certainly made us very bullish for doing similar things in the future. We’ve even been thinking that we might run a MOOC in this area, though I’m sure there’s a lot of red tape to get through before we can do that.


Profile photo of David Read

About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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