End of Semester musings…

I have taught at UMass Boston since 2004 and I have to say that this has been one of the best semesters ever. I know that this sounds strange especially since we are still teaching remotely due to Covid-19, but I had the most amazing students this time around. They worked a lot, did not complain (mostly), were up for whatever activities and/or assignments they had to complete for the week. I am amazed that my courses just flowed so well that the semester felt effortlessly. I am not saying that my students and I didn’t work, but everything seemed to go so much better than previous semesters. I did not teach differently, nor was the amount of work less than other semesters. Yet my students were eager to complete each week’s work.

As I finish reading their last blog reflection, in which they need to tell me what they liked and didn’t like about the course. I am taken aback at how positive they are.  Here are a couple of my students’ comments:

 “I really enjoyed the material that was covered in the class and appreciate the effort put into it. Even though this is an online course, but there never was any confusion on an assignment which is always a plus.”

“Overall, I appreciated the structure and layout of the course. Comparing this experience with many other online courses using blackboard, I feel like the extra effort put in to setting up weekly sessions made for a smooth experience each week. Some classes don’t utilize the format used in this course and I think those that do not could benefit from trying it.” 

 “I had a great semester in this class. From the get-go the instructor was fully transparent with students of what to expect in this course. The world was going to a tough time, but the instructor made it easy for us to have enough time to complete assignments and she also went beyond to find a quick way to communicate with students. I’ve learned a lot in this course, from how to write a professional email to how to write a short report or business report. Didn’t find anything challenging, just I had to make sure to manage my time wisely so that I can have time to do my assignments. I guess that’s a surplus this course has brought to my life. Overall great semester and now hopping to pass the final exam.”

Usually, their comments are not this encouraging or positive as they always find something to complain about as students tend to do. I am not saying that everything was perfect or that I am flawless teacher as I have my moments, but my students’ comments did make me feel like I was doing something right.

To be honest I am not used to getting so much sanguine feedback from them, so I am wondering if after a year of remote classes, have the students come to appreciate a well-organized online course as they had to take so many of them lately and understand what makes one better than another. Or it might have more to do with the fact that there is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel rather than how well I design, create, and teach my courses.  If that is the case, I have no doubt that they will be back to normal by the end of fall semester. Or maybe not, time will tell.

Katherine

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Katherine

Blackboard: The Digital Teaching Symposium Spring 2021

Last week I attended Blackboard’s symposium. What a refreshing conference! Even though it was remote it had so many interesting sessions. I wish I was able to listen in on all of them, but that is always the case with conferences, you can’t be in two places at once. In the past when I used to go to conferences with colleagues we would split up and go to different sessions so we could then meet up and share what we learned. The other plus of online conferences is that you can go back and listen to the recorded sessions. So I am hoping to go back and listen to a couple of the sessions I wish I could have listened to, but overlapped with the one I was participating in.

Despite the fact that I have been using Blackboard for over a decade now, I still learned a lot during this conference. I liked how other faculty from all over the world are using this platform. As well as the different tool/apps they use with Blackboard. Looking back in the last 10 years Blackboard has evolved into an amazing teaching platform. It has gone from a very static interface to a fluid and flexible one. It allows the educator to customize it to reflect his/her course requirements as well as the students’ needs. I am not saying that it is perfect, but it has come a long way since I began using it. I have come to appreciate how it helps me to create a very organized course full of information that my students can view and learn from.

During the conference I learned about how to better engage students during the Covid-19 Pandemic. I listened to two educators talk about an app called Padlet, which is an online notice board where instructors can use it to post notes, links, images, videos, document files, etc.  I have not had the opportunity to use Padlet, so I don’t have a real opinion about it, but it seems like an interesting app to use. If you want to find out more about it you can go to: https://padlet.com/

I also learned that I can add video comments to my feedback which is a pretty cool feature as it can make me more accessible, and it gives students the opportunity to get to know me better. The educators that presented in this session were saying that students really like the video feedback as it helps them feel like they are having a real conversation with their instructor. Students compared it to feedback they used to receive when they came to their instructors office hours.

In a different session the speakers talked about was how to organize a Blackboard course, some of the tips they gave were:

  1. Make content easy to find
  2. Give students a checklist
  3. Group content by week or unit
  4. Set intermediate deadlines
  5. Use learning modules for content that must be completed in a set order.

As I was listening, I was happy to see that I do most of what they talked about. The only thing I don’t do is intermediate deadlines. Which I am thinking might be a good idea for large groups assignments to make students accountable.

The other topic I really liked was the session that was all about badges and games. I am not sure how I can incorporate that in my courses, but I will spend part of the summer thinking about this because I believe it is important for students to get small rewards for their work that has nothing to do with their grades.

In one of the sessions, they talked about highlighting exemplary work. The presenter said that it makes the student whose work is highlighted feel rewarded and it also shows to the rest of the students what their teacher considers a representation of good writing. Although I see the value in doing that, I don’t like posting the best assignment because I believe that writing is subjective and personal so if I post what I consider to be the best version of that assignment I feel that I am not allowing my students to be creative and to explore their own writing. Having said that this idea did make me stop and think about it and why I wouldn’t use it.

My favorite session was the one that the presenters talked about how to facilitate group assignments as this is a difficult area for me to manage. I seem to have a difficult time motivating students to work together.  I appreciated the tips they gave. I really loved the contract that each group has to sign and agree to, which makes them accountable to each other as well as me. In addition it assists them in completing the work. I also liked the rubric they had created as it laid out the expectations for the assignment.

The other interesting idea that came up during this session was groupthink. This concept occurs when a group of people begin to constantly agree with each other without using critical reasoning or evaluation. This happens when the group is trying to avoid conflict thus stifling creativity and individuality. The way the presenter got around this problem was by using De Bono’s six thinking hats. This method is used to augment the conversations between group members. The way I understood it, this method frees team members to be more open and, in some instances, critical with each other. If you want to read more about this method you can go to : https://www.debonogroup.com/services/core-programs/six-thinking-hats/

Image copied from https://mgrush.com/

All of these concepts about how to approach group work were very interesting to me and I will be digging deeper and trying to find way on how to use all or some these ideas and I will be writing a post at some point about how I implemented these ideas as well as what happened  

Finally, I have to say that this symposium gave me a lot to think about as I will be reevaluating my courses for the year as well as I prepare to go back to on-campus teaching. I can’t wait to go back and explore and unpack all of this new knowledge.

Katherine

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How Are You Really Doing?

The title of today’s post comes from the workshop I attended last week which discussed how faculty and staff are doing mentally and as well as how their wellbeing is while working remotely during a pandemic.

It was an interesting workshop because we were able to express how we are doing and feeling. In the small group that I was in the main theme of the discussion was anxiety, stress, and adjusting to being home all of the time. On the positive side my other two members talked about how they feel that education and learning as well as the way we work is changing. That what the pandemic showed us was that we don’t need to be chained to our desks or classrooms and that we can do as good of a job if not better with a more flexible work schedule as we did when we work 100% on campus. It showed us different way of living and working. One that allows as to balance our lives better. Being able to go to campus once a week to teach and touch base with the students instead of 2 or 3 times a week is a big change. Of course, I have been saying this for years and have been talking about hybrid courses and the benefits that come with this type of teaching mode.

Even the staff that I spoke to were hoping to go to campus as they had missed interacting with colleagues and students, but also hoped be able to stay home a couple of days a week and use zoom to communicate with faculty, staff, and students. They felt that it offered a better way to balance work and home life especially for people raising children. Once we finished the small group discussion, we all came together again and talked about what themes came up. Which you can see above in the word cloud I created.

The other thing that surprised me was that the majority of the faculty and staff were women. I guess I shouldn’t be as women tend to be more in touch with their feelings and emotions. Having said that you would think that we would take care of ourselves better and yet as most of the women there admitted (me included) that they put themselves last on their daily to do list. As mothers, wives, and educators, most women make sure that everyone else’s needs are taken care of before they even get to the point where they can take care of themselves or ask for help. Giving ourselves permission to look after oneself is important in order to take care of everyone else. As well as learning that it’s ok to ask for help.

Overall, the workshop ended on a positive note with the promise to continue the discussion and inform the university about how we are feeling and doing. I see this as first step towards good mental health and overall wellbeing as well as bringing the university into the conversation.

So how are you feeling today?

Katherine

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In-Class, Online, Hybrid, and Remote Teaching. Which is better?

I have been teaching for about 25 years at this point and I have taught in class, online, hybrid and remote classes. At this point, I have been teaching online, in-class, and hybrid courses for over 10 years, but I hadn’t taught a remote class, however because of the pandemic and Covid-19 I had the opportunity to teach remotely for a year. This gave the opportunity to reflect and realize that I don’t actually like teaching all modes of teaching.

Until 2010 I predominately had been teaching in a classroom. From the beginning of my teaching career and until the early 2000s I didn’t know that there could be a different way of teaching, but once I began teaching at UMB I discovered online teaching, not because the university was offering online courses at the time, but there was a lot of talk about online and online education. And well, that was pretty much it.

So, I began looking around and searching the internet in order to understand what that meant and wrap my head around it. I have to admit that because online education was in its infancy there wasn’t much out there at the time. Long story short I was able to begin teaching a version of a hybrid course (which had no name at the time) in 2007 and I was the only faculty in my department to do so. I was the odd one for a while as the only NTT (Non Tenure Track Faculty) that wanted to teach using online tools. I really thought that teaching online could eventually be a big deal and I wanted to learn early so I dived in. By 2010 I was creating and teaching my first online courses and that was so much fun and exciting for me because I was able to push education and learning to a different level. It also offered a lot of flexibility as far as not having to be stuck physically in the classroom. As a result, I ended up teaching exclusively online courses for 6 years and it was an interesting time for me as it gave me the opportunity to complete a second master’s degree in Instructional Design and raise my infant son.

In 2017 I was asked to come back to the university and teach in the classroom and as much as I love teaching face-to- face I did not want to give up my online teaching practice. So, decided to go full circle and teach a course that combined both online and in-class teaching techniques and tools, i.e., a hybrid course

and that is the way I taught until March 2020 when the whole world turned upside down and the majority of educators in the US ended up teaching remotely. We all thought that this way of teaching could work but it doesn’t really work because you get on Zoom and most of the students don’t like to show up at all unless you make it part of their grade, their cameras off, they don’t participate, and I ended up trying to teach or have discussion looking at black screen with students’ names on it. This ended up being a super difficult way to teach because no one was participating, and I didn’t know if students were even listening to me. It kind of felt like when I first started teaching English as Foreign language in Greece and as I spoke my little 2nd grade students did understand what I was talking about and just stared at me. Of course, after a year of teaching remotely I have managed to teach using Zoom, but it was my least favorite way to impart knowledge.

If I had to choose my favorite way to teach is the hybrid course, were I get to see my students in class once or twice a week and then the rest of the work is completed online. I love it because it combines both my strengths, in class discussion and personal communication with my students and online which allows me to use tool like Videoscribe by Sparkol to create e-learning videos and free material for my students to practice their grammar as well as expand their knowledge so much more that I could in a traditional classroom.

Katherine

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Reflections and Lessons Learned from the Fall 2020 Semester and the Pandemic

When I took a break in August, I actually thought I would be back in September writing and blogging away, but that didn’t happen. I think that for one thing I was more tired than I realized, and I was experiencing a bit of COVID lockdown fatigue. Then of course we had our presidential elections and everything that ensued from that in conjunction to teaching 78 students for the semester as you can imagine pushed blogging to the bottom of my list.

Now that things have kind of settled down and I had break from work I spent a lot of time think and reflect about the fall semester. I am ready to start writing and blogging. Luckily I am able to take such big breaks from blogging because I make my living as a professor not a blogger, so I treat my blog as a place for me to reflect on what is happening while I teach as well as have a writing outlet.

As I was thinking about what the topic of my first post would be for 2021, I read a few of my previous posts and in one of them I wrote that I believed that I would be back on campus teaching for the fall of 2020 or at the latest by spring 2021 but here we all are still in a pandemic that does not want to go away and stuck working from home. Yes, we have not one but four vaccines, two are on the market and slowly being used and two maybe three that are almost ready to be approved by the FDA, but there is still no sign that anything in our daily lives will improve any time soon. Last week I read an article on Bloomberg.com that said that their “herd immunity calculator shows that at today’s vaccine rate, it could take the world more than 7 years to achieve herd immunity.” Of course, it did say that in the U.S. it would take until the end of 2022 to reach herd immunity, but it also pointed out that if the other two vaccines come on the market that the time estimate would dramatically the amount of time we would have to wait until we got back to normal. Nevertheless, the point here is that in the U.S we have at least one more year before we can go back to where we were in the winter of 2020. That to me is so crazy. By no means am I trying to be pessimistic because I am an extremely optimistic person who always sees the bright side of things no matter how difficult or bad a situation becomes.

So, here I am in the second week of February 2021 and I am feeling continuously tired and depressed partially because of Covid-19 fatigue from the lockdown, and the other part is from seasonal depression. Although I am American born, I did not grow up in the U.S. as my parents moved back to their home country, Greece, when I was young. As a result, I grew up in a country that has at least 300 sunny days a year and despite of the fact that I have lived in the U.S. for more than 15 years I still have not gotten used the gloomy weather which is predominant in New England during the winter months. Over the years one thing that I have learned is how to recognize it and work through seasonal depression so at about March I am usual back to normal, this year I decided to work on it earlier and that is why I starting to feel better so as a result I am more optimistic and have things I want to talk about.

Going into the fall semester I thought that teaching/work would be better because the student would be more adept to remote learning. Boy, was I wrong! Not only was it not better, it was actually worse. Many of the students were extremely negative towards having to take courses online and were coming up with all sorts of creative excuses as to why they had not completed their homework on time.  Most of the excuses involved Covid-19 and yes even if I thought that there was a chance that the student was lying, I took it with a grain of salt because I kept thinking what if they are telling me the truth. Would I want to be that teacher? The one that in the middle of the pandemic were millions of people all over the world have died didn’t give students the benefit of the doubt.

What bothered me the most was when students thought that if they could not submit the homework by the due date, they would email me to tell me that there is a possibility that s/he had contracted Covid-19 and needed to go get a test and was not sure if the assignments would be submitted on time. One student in particular emailed me on four separate occasions using the same excuse, sigh… Finally, after the third email I realized that the student was using it as a buffer. Despite my annoyance to the constant emails with the fake excuses, I decided not say anything to the specific student or the rest of the students. Mainly because I felt that the students must have a reason for this behavior. They must feel overwhelmed, stress out with everything that was going on and perhaps were procrastinating. I think that the procrastination came from the fact that they were home and felt that they had a lot of time to complete everything and well as we all know that have been in their place before, they didn’t. It happens to everyone when they work and study from home. You sit there is your sweats sipping your coffee with nowhere to go so there is no feeling of urgency to complete things and no real schedule. But I will talk more about the importance of creating a schedule and sticking to it in a different post.

Although the semester seamed to last forever, and it felt like I was Bill Murray in the Groundhog Day movie where he keeps reliving the same day over and over again. Thankfully the semester did finally come to end with students trying to pull themselves together long enough to take the final exam so we can all put 2020 behind us with the hope that 2021 might prove to be a better year for all of us.

So, with this post I am back to blogging in 2021. See you next week!

Katherine

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