Where teachers meet and learn

ETAS Journal Editors' Choice, Number 14 (November 2016)

Three features of a MOOC that can help your online writing course

Vedrana Vojkovic-Estatiev

ETAS Journal, Volume 33 Number 2 (Spring 2016), pp.27-28

The title of this article by Vedrana Vojkovic-Estatiev in the Spring Journal 2016 immediately caught my attention. I'll explain why I couldn't resist flicking to page 27 straightaway. First, I've participated in several MOOCs over the years and absolutely love this mode of learning.  I've found that if you're a motivated learner and willing to engage in the forums provided then it can be an extremely enriching learning experience. Not to mention the opportunity you have to meet interesting people from around the world. Second, some of my English language courses are fully online or have an online element integrated into them. To add to that, writing in diverse genres plays an important role in many of my classes and is in some cases part of my students' formal assessment. Hence, I was looking forward to reading about what attributes of a MOOC Vedrana felt could be utilised or adapted to help an online writing course and whether I could adopt some of these in my own teaching contexts.

Rather than giving Vedrana's tips away, I'd like to comment on why I feel this article deserves to be nominated for Editor's Choice. Despite the interesting content, it's the reflective process that she describes that I believe deserves to be commended. As you will see when you read her article, she begins by giving us some details about her working context and the reasons for wanting to move her English writing course online. Despite some initial uncertainties on the part of the University that she mentions, she was successful in designing and initiating the course. Not totally content with getting her course off the ground, she pondered whether there was something else she could do to improve it in order to provide her students with a better online learning experience. Instead of just sitting back, she took part in a MOOC that she felt was in some ways comparable to her course. Vedrana comments that she was primarily concerned with the structure of the course and its design elements. According to her article, she did feel that some features would help enhance her course and consequently, took action and integrated them.

In my opinion, this is an excellent example of how we could all approach our teaching practices. I particularly like the way Vedrana speaks openly about the entire process, the challenges she faced, and the critical lens she adopted when reflecting on what features could be appropriate for her online students. It illustrates how through critical reflection, motivation, and the willingness to take action we can improve our teaching practices. If this has a positive impact on our students' learning experience, then it’s certainly something to aim, for don't you think? Enjoy the read!

Patricia Daniels

ETAS Journal Editorial Board

Three features of a MOOC that can help your online writing course

Vedrana Vojković Estatiev

MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses are turning out to be one of the most discussed topics at present. However, this article isn’t about the possible impact of MOOCs (whether they will spell the end of higher education as we know it), but rather is an overview of how teachers can adapt certain features of a MOOC to enhance their own online writing courses.

I have been teaching a course called Writing in English to university students in Croatia for the last four years. Until recently, I worked in a traditional classroom environment, attempting on occasion to introduce certain elements of blended learning into the lessons. I thought wikis in particular lent themselves well to practising writing skills, so my classes used a wiki to share resources and do certain writing assignments. However, it wasn’t until last semester that this evolved into a blended course. When I moved from Croatia to Belgium, I realised I would have to take the course online if I were to continue as the instructor.

The university was quite supportive if a little uncertain regarding the concept of e-learning. They agreed I could teach part of the course online, which was a considerable leap of faith given their initial assumption that the teaching would be done via Skype. While Skype certainly has its merits as an online teaching medium, I wanted to design a course with Moodle as I had previously had the opportunity to see how it works[CB1]  and believed it was very well suited to my purpose, which was primarily to teach writing skills to a small group of Communication Science undergraduates.

Soon after the online part of the course had begun, I found myself wondering whether I was doing a satisfactory job. While it is natural for a teacher to be gauging students’ reactions and their level of satisfaction with the class, it is much easier to observe this in a face-to-face environment. In class you immediately see how the students feel and can respond accordingly – if an activity isn’t working, it can be modified or cut short. Conversely, if students react enthusiastically, more time may be allotted for the activity or it may be repeated in a future lesson. In an online course, on the other hand, it’s quite tricky to ascertain how students feel. They are highly unlikely to tell the tutor this unprompted (particularly as this would have to be done in writing), and the end-of-course survey might roll around by the time you get any useful feedback.

It was at that point that I decided I would really benefit from observing another online course, preferably one on writing skills, and seeing how it compared with mine. I had been planning to enrol in a MOOC for several months in any case, and, luckily, Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade was just starting on Coursera. Overall, once I completed the course, I was more than satisfied with the cost-benefit ratio as my only investment was time (my internet bills weren’t affected), and it proved to be an excellent means of professional development. I have to emphasize that my primary focus was not the course content, but the way that this content was structured and presented, in which I was not the typical MOOC student.

There were three course components or features which really stood out for me, and I believe these have the potential to enhance any online writing course. They are presented here in the order students were introduced to them in the MOOC.

1.    An introduction to online learning

The first week of our five-week MOOC was devoted to explaining in more detail what online learning entails and what sets it apart from classroom-based learning. Many of my fellow MOOC students were unhappy with this as they had attended other MOOCs, knew what to expect, and wanted to make a start on the course content. From a methodological point of view, however, the idea appeared to have some merit. The media and numerous education experts keep telling us that children and young people today are technologically savvy and have enjoyed referring to them as “digital natives” ever since Marc Prensky (2001) coined the term.

As a result, I had expected every one under the age of 25-years-old to be juggling at least five social media accounts and to be able to jump into an online course with no preparation or guidance. It turned out, however, that not a single one of my students had ever attended an online course before. They were unfamiliar with Moodle and Mahara (the electronic portfolio we used) and didn’t automatically know, for instance, how to display journal entries on their walls nor what the rules of good practice in forum posts are.

This doesn’t mean that the orientation period has to last a week, but pursuing a course conducted entirely online is not quite the same thing as using a Facebook account, and I think any online training can only proceed more smoothly if the tutor ensures that everyone is aware of how the basics of the course function. I believe it is particularly useful if this is done online so that everyone can refer back to these basics (as in the MOOC I attended).

 2.    Videos

The use of videos has often been mentioned in a negative context in articles on MOOCs, but as this was the only opportunity in our MOOC to see the tutors and hear their voices, I saw the videos as playing a humanizing role of sorts – quite important in a course with 24,000 students! My own course contained a classroom component, which meant that the students had met me and knew I was more than just an avatar in Moodle. Also, the group was small enough for me as the tutor to interact with each student and provide feedback as we progressed through the course.  Consequently, I didn’t consider recording a video at all; there didn’t seem to be any real need in a writing skills course. However, watching the MOOC videos prompted me to record and upload an end-of-course video. At the time, I viewed it merely as an experiment, but at the end of the semester the feedback from some students was that this was the part they had enjoyed the most because they could hear my voice and it made them feel as if they were in a ‘real’ class. I would subscribe to the notion that a judicious use of videos ‘starring’ the tutor can contribute to making the students feel more at ease in a new learning environment.

3.    Peer review

The concept of peer review in MOOCs has been perhaps the most widely criticized aspect of these courses. I also felt highly skeptical of how effective it would be and was initially quite reluctant to participate in peer review activities. In the MOOC I attended peer review was a potential minefield for an additional reason – native and non-native speakers were required to review each other’s work. Language proficiency (surprisingly!) was not a course requirement and judging by the forum posts some students were at an intermediate level (B1), so it was obvious that the term ‘peer’ was being stretched to the breaking point. Nevertheless, I put in the required effort in the peer review activities and as we progressed from one week to the next I became aware of how much one could learn from this approach even in a situation that was far from ideal.

One of the reasons peer review is often criticized in MOOCs is that very few students take it as seriously as a tutor would, leaving the majority with inadequate feedback on the assignments they have worked hard on. In a traditional online course, where the number of students is far more manageable, I find peer review invaluable. At first I didn’t feel comfortable incorporating it into my course because it is quite difficult to let go of the preconceived notions of the tutor having to read and assess all the assignments. A little voice in my head kept saying, “Well, they expect you to! You’re the tutor, after all! If you start relying on peer review, they (the students) will take you less seriously.” But today, as teachers increasingly take on roles other than the traditional one of simply dispensing knowledge, it is incredibly important to make students in a writing course aware that they can and should: a) write for an audience other than their teacher; b) be able to think critically and reflect on the work of their peers; and c) give thoughtful and constructive feedback to these same peers. I believe that peer review can be a highly effective tool to help students achieve these goals, and in a traditional online course, if some students are not taking it as seriously as they could be, the tutor – unlike in a MOOC – can intervene and point them in the desired direction.

Thanks to MOOCs (or possibly just the one I attended – I can’t claim that I would have gained the same insights from all the other MOOCs out there) my online writing course has already become richer. Students have responded well to the video and the peer review (in combination with tutor feedback, of course). The next time around I will definitely make sure to include a brief introduction to online learning as well.

If you have attended a MOOC, are there any aspects which you think could be incorporated into a traditional online course?  [CB2] Please email here, as I’d be delighted to hear from you: vedrana@octopus-jezici.hr

References

MOOC. Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_Open_Online_Course
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the horizon, 9(5), pp. 1-6. Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

About the Author

Vedrana Vojković Estatiev is DoS and part owner of a Croatian-based school called Octopus Language Services. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Zagreb. Vedrana has been working with adult learners since 1997 and has also been a teacher trainer for a number of years. In addition to BELTA, she is a member of HUPE – the Croatian Association of Teachers of English. She has recently moved to Belgium, where she currently teaches online and enjoys any and all opportunities for continued professional development in the field of ELT.

 [CB2]If we kept this conclusion, we can add an email address so responses can be communicated?