In the Online Environment, Nothing Is Until It Is
J. Williams

I, as well, felt a bit befuddled by the scope of the accommodation discussion.  There is a lot that needs doing.  I am happy to see that I have many successes, according to the best practices we have been introduced to in the reading, in addition to the improvements I am committed to making.  I do well with making my course easy to navigate and the information easy to consume for many kinds of readers.  I don’t hide information behind a cascade of clicks, I don’t wall it off in ways that might confuse a screen reader, and I label links in descriptive ways.  I need to be better at communicating feedback in multiple modalities.

Reading through the first two articles we have been presented with for this week’s thinking, I was reminded, again, of a topic that came up in our last session of Writing with Machines: In the online classroom, everything must be manufactured.  One way to consider this is in terms of our online persona.  As instructors in a traditional classroom, our persona emits as a function of our presence.  We don’t really have to consciously create it.  We are who we are.  Mannerisms, tone of voice, the way we walk a room, our handwriting — these all communicate something about us.  In the online environment, these cues don’t exist, for the most part.  If we want to have a personality when teaching online (and all of the literature suggests we do), then we have to manufacture it, quite consciously, in addition to teaching, rather than as a byproduct of teaching.  Community was another element that required manufacturing.  Whereas in the classroom there are opportunities for community building that just happen because we all inhabit the same space once or twice a week, in the online environment, neither the space nor the inhabiting exist unless they are manufactured by the instructor.

I find this discussion relevant when considering accommodation, as well.  In the traditional classroom, there are elements of accommodation that are, in essence, automatic, either through institutional support or the ease with which the accommodation can be met in person.  I recall a student I had my first semester as a teacher … er, some number of years ago.  She was, essentially, deaf, though she could make out some sounds.  She stopped me after class one day and told me that she could do without an interpreter if I would make sure to face the class, rather than the white board, when lecturing.  I, at times, like to scribble while I talk.  Turns out she was a top-rate lip reader.  In the span of time it took to have the conversation, the accommodation had been made.  Now, in an online environment, if I post a PowerPoint, for example, with a voice over lecture, I need to manufacture the accommodation by captioning the presentation.  And, when I read through the list of effective practices in this week’s reading, I see that, for the most part, accommodation requires manufacturing, and the manufacturing is largely left to the instructor.

Accessibility is a compelling topic.  We have moral and legal obligations to meet the accessibility needs of our students, and I believe that, as educators, this is something we are committed to doing.  However, the online environment creates both opportunities and perils for students in need of accommodation — and for instructors trying to meet those needs.

Our reading appropriately acknowledges this, and acknowledges the strange situation that most online instructors face when moving from on-the-ground teaching to online: that when they leave the comfort of the classroom, they also leave behind a suite of institutional support for ensuring that students get the accommodations they need.  Such inequities exist across numerous forms of needed accommodation in the online environment, and in most cases sorting them out falls to the instructor, where the same wouldn’t be true in a traditional, on campus teaching assignment.

Why this is, I do not know.

Time, place, and manner.
J. Williams

I definitely want my students to collaborate.  Two reasons, primarily: 1) I see this kind of interaction as a fundamental remedy for the distance in distance education, and 2) it’s also a key component of my on-the-ground courses.

However.

In the spring I often inserted a caution into my discussions of online learning whenever the conversation drifted toward synchronous tasks/learning, and I think that the topic of collaboration certainly knocks on this door.  The text, in part, discusses the topic with this in mind.  And, my first reason above for wanting to integrate collaborative learning into the online environment — drawing down the distance between online learners — would certainly benefit from a little synchronicity.  Yet, I feel like students sign up for online course to take advantage of the flexibility the courses offer, and that contract begins to erode when instructors establish time, day, and place requirements.  I often have students in the military taking my online courses from distant time zones or on submarines, which really limits their ability to participate synchronously.

Yet.

I like my on-the-ground group assignments.  They rock the course outcomes.  And they definitely need synchronicity — in their current form — to maximize their benefits.  Small groups that can set their own schedule for synchronicity begin to address the issue I mention above, but they, too, make impossible demands on some of my online learners, which is why, in the past 10 years, I have assigned no synchronous work in my online courses.  I have made some on-the-ground group assignments into individual assignments, but I have mostly scrapped the collaborative work that needs synchronicity in favor of other methods.

The collaborative assignment I’d most like to migrate is a group quiz I offer in my on-the-ground English 100 courses.  The quiz is assigned to groups of three to four students and takes a full meeting to complete (1:50) if the students are diligent, know their stuff — and collaborate effectively.  The students are presented with an article to read that articulates a position on an issue of the day, then the quiz requires that they demonstrate competence in critical reading, writing, researching, and MLA Style.

I know that in Canvas you can create quizzes and assign them to particular cohorts of students, so that is not difficult.  However, in class (I just administered one of these today) the students delegate, huddle in pairs or triplets over computer screens then jump to another computer and compare, check each others work, teach each other, separate the pages on the quiz and pass them around, scribble, cross out, use scratch paper, reference multiple web sites — in other words, they collaborate, and they do it in a messy, real-world way that is hard to translate to the online environment.  (I would say this parallels the issue I discussed two weeks ago with translating my written feedback to the online environment.)

To approximate this on-the-ground experience, I think they’d need a live video chat/conference, to be able to see each other’s screens, and to be able to all work off of the same live document (the quiz) — to start.

Oh, and they all need to be able to schedule a time to collaborate.

Thoughts?

Group Work in a Digital Class
Group Work in a Digital Class avatar

                As an instructor who builds his class around group work, I am excited for the possibilities that the digital classroom opens. In my F2F class, I always have an activity that allows the students to put the idea we just discussed into action. We always follow these activities up with a discussion about how the idea came through in the activity. While this structure has worked well, I have always thought these group activities would benefit from a slower and longer application of the idea.

 I think the main benefit in transferring these group activities online is time.  For instance, in my class today, I had students work in groups to write a brief speech on any topic they wanted (I urged a light-hearted topic given the sad events of last night). The rules for this assignment were simple: write a professional speech you could deliver to fellow students and sneak in a few logical fallacies. While the groups had an amazing time trying to mask fallacies with professional language and logical support, the discussion and sharing portion of the assignment had to be trimmed due to time constraints. If this activity was translated for an OWC, groups could collaborate on a google doc and in chat; this collaboration technique would also afford agency to those students who often get steamrolled in group conversations. Not only could students spend more time incorporating logical support, but other groups could visit and see how their peers are approaching the activity. The discussion/decompression aspect of the assignment could also be developed and allow more time for students to reflect prior to responding. I imagine all the wonderful conversation that could arise in the class discussion of these speeches, but I also wonder if that hilarity I witnessed in the classroom today would still be there.  With a creative activity like this, it is those rapid-fire conversations students have that make the activity so effective.  If I desynchronize an activity that is supposed to be fun—by my definition of fun—will those funny moments where students wittily respond to and build upon each other disappear? It is difficult for me to know for sure until I actually implement this activity online, but I guess I could always require a synchronous meeting or Zoom for the brainstorming portion.

I am also intrigued with how peer review will translate into the OWC.  I enjoy having a Q&A before each workshop, and I really enjoy hearing students have an honest “state of affairs” about their work. I know these conversations could be pushed into the digital space, but the synchronous nature of the F2F workshop is so appealing. I love hearing students give meaningful feedback; it feels like validation (they remembered my lecture!), so maybe this concern is more selfish. However, the one thing that I think will improve in this switch is the participation rate. I have noticed that my attendance seems to dip when it comes to workshops in my course. I imagine this is because students procrastinate and bail on class to avoid the guilt (even though I recommend they come regardless), but in the asynchronous online workshop, students could give feedback over the course a few days. This wider window could help those procrastinators catch up, and could facilitate a much higher participation rate. With how ubiquitous technology has become, and with so much of our daily communication happening in a digital space, it will be interesting to see how successful these conversations turn out to be.

Feedback with a face
Feedback with a face avatar

It is ironic that feedback is the discussion topic for this week as I am using this discussion to take a much needed break from grading. I had a very difficult time with grading my submissions through Canvas as I did not know I could still grade through Turnitin’s feedback center (where my comment bank lives), so I had to type out all of my comments in canvas and did not realize my mistake until half way through my second class, but it was too late. However, one of the positives of this mess up is that it did allow me to rethink my comment bank.

I was part of an online feedback learning community at CSUSM a few years ago, so I have a comment bank I have been using for a while. While that has seemed to serve me well the last couple years, I do worry about the comments not being…. Legitimate? I am blanking on a good word to choose here, but “cookie cutter” comes to mind as well. A comment bank is obviously extremely helpful for in-text comments, but I do worry that a student could see those cut and paste comments as laziness on my end. I give a decent end of paper summary/response/justification which tends to be more personal and specific, but there is also the issue of managing time. What good is a page of feedback if a student is not getting it back in time to use on his/her next paper? So I can see how the comment bank is good, but I worry about how impersonal it may sound.  Honestly, I would prefer to grade all of my papers by hand as I love to use symbols/shorthand to help speed the process along, but the logistics of managing/handling 100+ physical papers make me nauseous.

If, or when, I transfer into the OWCourse, I definitely foresee using the video/voice comment tools. I love discussing a student’s paper face to face during office hours, and while a video comment section won’t necessarily be synchronous, I imagine it could produce a more authentic discussion on my end. My voice/face in conjunction with those dangerous, bordering on cookie cutter, comments/annotations could fix my worry about sounding lackadaisical. I think it would be helpful to reinforce the idea of reading/responding to a paper out loud as opposed to just skimming it. Students could hear their errors, and would hopefully see the benefit of breaking away from the screen for the revision process.

I am also very intrigued with the peer-review section Warnock discussed as online peer feedback is something I am trying in my f2f course this semester (with the help of Google docs). While I would love to eventually cobble together something like Chad’s video response activity for peer feedback, I am fascinated to see how taking the peer review discussion online is going to pan out.

In the end, I think the concept I am most excited for when it comes to feedback is to make the process less digital and incorporate more of my lovely face into the mix (with the help of the best webcam money can buy).

Without my illegible handwriting, how will they learn anything?
J. Williams

I’m going to open with — I like my illegible handwriting in the margins of student papers.  I find it difficult to capture the same kind of flourish in the online environment.  And, I have, through years of repetitive thinking, convinced myself that my students find the scribbles endearing.

That said, I really do prefer to scratch it out on a physical surface.  I find that I can leave a more dynamic comment that way, literally drawing connections between disparate parts of a paper by … drawing.  I am also faster at leaving feedback in this format — at least, at this time I am — which our author brought up as a legitimate concern just in case some of us have a hundred or more students making similar mistakes in their writing.

To this end, I have been eyeing the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro, thinking that I might be able to approximate the physical grading in the electronic environment by using a stylus to write on the electronic copies students send.  I have been teaching online for 10 years, and I have spent a lot of time waiting for this moment when technology would finally catch up and allow me to return to a pre-technology form of grading.  Yet, last spring, during the first leg of this prep, we spent some time considering whether we should be trying to force our on-the-ground practices into the online environment unchanged or whether what we are really talking about is a translation of those practices.  In other words, we should be taking our best practices from our years of on-the-ground teaching and re-imagining them in the online environment.

So, I should be asking myself, How does my handwritten feedback translate to the electronic grading environment?

And, I think the answer is — it doesn’t.  What does translate is my commitment to substantive feedback.  So, what tools are available in the online environment that might not only facilitate the communication of feedback to students but enhance it?

One strategy I will use will be to reduce the amount of time I spend on low-end, repeated comments through macros.  If I can auto-fill the comments I make a million times across student papers, like those associated with punctuation and in-text citation formatting, I can spend more time on high-end feedback.  I have resisted this move because it has always felt like, well, cheating.  However, if I am writing the same comment fifty times in a single grading session, what’s the difference between my repeated handwritten note and the one that the computer fills in automatically?

Legibility.

Another tool that I plan to make use of is combining typed comments with voice comments.  The opportunity for this has existed for a while, but not the ease of it.  I trained in Canvas in the spring, and I am teaching my first two courses in this CMS this fall, and including voice comments while grading is integrated into this system and easy to use.  I like the opportunity to explain a comment I make with a quick verbal elaboration, rather than getting into typing out a lengthy response.  It’s what I would do if a student approached me in class to go over a bit of feedback he or she received.  I can also see using this feature for my global, end comments on papers.  Video feedback is also pretty easy to use through Canvas, but I am not convinced that it will provide something essential that I can’t accomplish with a combination of typed and voice feedback.

I don’t know that these strategies really affect my philosophy about providing feedback so much as begin to satisfy my concerns that feedback in the online environment has the potential to be less than the student needs.