Monday, October 23, 2017

Can I get my online students to voluntarily interact with each other?

One of the struggles that a number of my online teaching colleagues and I have discussed over the years is getting students who are separated by both time (asynchronous course format) and space (geographically spread out) to interact with each other in meaningful ways. After all, learning happens in community, and the more students realize that they're part of an entire community of online learners, perhaps the more they'll feel connected to their online course experience and the subject they're studying.

One thing I tried with my summer French 1 students this year (a very small class) was giving them an opportunity to share via a Padlet after the first or second week of class. I asked them questions about what interesting things they're learning about French as well as how to navigate class, what they're surprised about, and what's currently challenging. I wanted this to be both a way for them to see they're not alone but also get them talking about their experience. I was pleasantly surprised by the meager yet enthusiastic participation I witnessed in this activity. My favorite part was the response echoed by a few different students about what surprised them the most about their online course (taken from a copy to take out student names and comments):

So, students were surprised at how much they would be communicating with each other! I found this surprising, as, like I said earlier, the students don't have a ton of opportunities to communicate with each other. It seems like my goal for this type of activity was met... the very nature of this activity seemed to contribute to students feeling like they're able to communicate with each other.

Doing something like this in the summer is pretty easy, but when it comes to the larger class sizes we accommodate in the fall or spring, I knew I would have to be a bit more strategic to get this to actually work. So, I wanted to release a Padlet for this week (we're at about week 8 in our semester), giving students an opportunity to share similar pieces of information as this summer experiment.

Here are some things I did to elicit student participation (and even recognition that we were doing this), as this is not a required activity, nor can it be (not worth points or an official part of the course design):
- I let students know the week before (via Remind) that "something" was coming. I tried to build a little anticipation by keeping it somewhat a mystery. :)
- I gave myself plenty of time to think through all of the "systems" type of details on Friday that would go into a successful posting and management of the Padlet for 2 different courses.
- I created the Padlet, made clear directions for exactly what I wanted students to post, created a sample post for them to follow as an example, and then made a quick YouTube tutorial for how to post.
- I replaced the normal Google Slide announcement with the embedded Padlet to make it "front and center" in the course landing page (pretty tough for anyone to miss it).
- I also encouraged students to share a picture of themselves (and shared a picture of myself in my example post to get things started). This can sometimes be a controversial move with minors in the online setting, but it certainly isn't required, nor should it be a true security issue within our closed online environment.

The results? So far a lot of really great participation. I've also been able to comment on some student posts to answer questions, and I'm seeing the students comment a bit, too.

My hope is that in the future I'll perhaps do one or two more Padlets this semester, next time mostly or completely in the target language (French).

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Getting ready for Fall 17-18

Bonjour à tous!

As I've been preparing my online courses for a new group of unique learners from across the state, I've tried to combine the best of last year's strategies with some hopefully helpful upgrades in both aesthetics and function.

In general, I have been on a journey over the past 5 years of continually identifying the activities that offer the greatest impact on student engagement and seeking to direct the most energy toward said activities. I am always eager to find ways to increase efficiency in day-to-day tasks so that I can spend the most energy possible on the highest impact areas of my role as a teacher and lead instructor. Therefore, when it comes to implementing something new in a school year, it often has to do with completing a familiar task more efficiently so that I can do the things I already know are really effective in the online environment (such as relationship building, developing engaging supplemental content, creating systems that allow students to interact with one another appropriately, and so on).

Announcements & Whole Class Communication

Many of my online teaching colleagues have been using an embedded Google Slides presentation as their announcements within Blackboard. What's nice is that the announcements are visually-stimulating and can be easily read by a screen reader. Having both a rich visually presentation and an adherence to principles of universal access is a complete win-win!

In my Google Slides announcements this year, I'm using a really sharp-looking template developed by my former colleague Tyler Morkin (and very willingly shared with our team) that provides lots of options for recurring "sections", kind of like a f2f teacher's bulletin board or whiteboard might have:
- Weekly quote
- Pacing reminders
- Feature of the week
- Ongoing reminders

As I post these weekly slides, I plan to email out the announcement each week, being sure to include a hyperlink to the slides deck (otherwise it won't display in the Bb-generated email... embedded content doesn't show up). Additionally, I plan to share the announcement slides with those students, parents, and mentors who are signed up via my Remind class so that all audiences are getting these same key messages.

One of my misgivings about this form of announcements in the past is not being sure if students are readily viewing the new announcements each week or accessing previous weeks' announcements if they're enrolling late (such as the all important "welcome announcement"). To hopefully counteract this, I have my welcome announcement as a normal Bb text type of announcement (not in Google Slides), and it has very clear steps on exactly what students need to do on the first day of class to get started.

Additionally, above my embedded Slides is a note that directs students to the bottom-most (welcome) announcement when they're accessing the course for the first time. I'm hoping these little details will provide both quickly-progressing students and newly-enrolled students with the best content for their current situation. I also provide them with a Getting Started Guide that walks them through the first few steps to get started in class, including viewing the "welcome announcement".

Finally, I learned that emailing out this particular slideshow was rendering a really small view (as the page properties are set to a really long page). In my email text, along with providing a link to the Slides presentation, I provided a quick screenshot that shows directions for how to magnify the slide for ideal viewing. :)
Click here for a link to the announcement slides. If receiving this announcement via email, click here for a quick tip on how to magnify the size of the slides on the screen.
I really try to avoid anything that could seem annoying or inconvenient for my students, mentors, or parents, as it's really easy for simple things like this to simply turn someone off of learning.

Aesthetics & Engagement in French Culture

In addition to using this new format for announcements, I created a new course banner incorporating pictures I took on a recent trip to France:

In most things I post in class, I tend to focus on the online course functionality (such as Bb tips and tricks) to the neglect of really cool French stuff. I hope to incorporate more images, videos, interactives, etc. that has to do directly with my course content.

Access to the Most Needed Information

Along the lines of being efficient so that I can spend time on what's most engaging, I try to anticipate the most common areas of confusion with regard to starting class, navigating our LMS, course policies, and the like. The more I can have well-articulated, student-friendly answers to these common questions, the less time I spend answering the same questions over and over (and, ideally, I place the resources in the students' hands before they even know they have the question).

I was greatly inspired by my online German colleague Freda Jackson, who created a "How Do I...?" menu item within her courses. She would post really useful tips in a visually-stimulating way. I have been doing similarly for about a year, but I found that it would take me a while to recreate this section of my course each semester, for each course I was teaching. Additionally, if I wanted to share one of these resources with a parent or someone outside of Blackboard, I'd have to go and pull a screenshot or look up the URL for a particular video. Why not throw the entire "How Do I...?" collection into a Google Slides presentation and embed it in class? That way I can quickly and easily share the entire collection to anyone, regardless of their access to Blackboard.

Next Steps

There are a number of previously-used or completely-new things I'd like to try in the coming weeks, such as:
- Using Padlet to get students to share (with each other) how the first weeks of class have been going, what they're surprised about, what they're learning, what's challenging, etc.
- Class contests with leader boards (such as getting students to post a video of themselves speaking French)... this one might be out there, but I'm highly considering it.
- Regular (perhaps weekly) video announcements in which I'm curating a bit of the course for them, letting them know some things in the content that are coming up / providing some additional tips or practice.