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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Thornhill

Back to School - Reflection 1 (1.4)

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

So, for the first time in 20 years, I am taking a legit class! A friend of mine and I were chatting about it, and here were some things that came up.
Were you nervous?

At first, but there was a thorough orientation. These activities were essential for a smooth beginning to the course. Since we cannot talk in person, and we as students have such varied experience with online teaching (perhaps no experience at all with it from the student perspective), it was crucial to guide us this way. And that guidance was quite effective. Ambiguity would have caused us to waste valuable time, with floods of messages exchanged and some students feeling discouraged from outset. That is no way to start a course. The orientation is key.

My team typically does a student orientation that provides information on how the courses are structured. This includes how to access our Session Guides (introductions we have for each lesson), how find and submit assignments, how to sign up for tutoring, and how to use the synchronous teleconferencing platform we have. We own this orientation, so we can add or subtract anything we want from it. So, for instance, we can implement a syllabus quiz and discussion forums covering FAQ and encouraging more social presence.

Did the professors take your previous experience into account at all?

Yes, we definitely talked about our readiness to teach online. I have more than 20 years of experience teaching hybrid classes, so I did not have many concerns about my readiness. But just because you have been doing something a long time does not mean you have been doing it in the most effective way. The activities in 1.1 served to validate many of the practices and tools we have been using, and added some to the list (Audacity, Edpuzzle, and Padlet, for example). Having the brainstorming of different tech tools was particularly interesting to me, as there is always more to know.

My main question after the first week was about learning management systems (LMS). Our program uses an in-house LMS that has evolved over time. Evolution is messy, though, and inefficient. Evolved systems end up resembling one of those riduculous Rube Goldberg machines. So, which LMS are the best? I have worked with Blackboard, Desire to Learn, Schoology, and now Canvas. So far, Canvas is by far the best looking one with the most functionality. I would like to know more about we going to dig into how to evaluate LMS.

What is something new you got to try out?

After assessing our readiness for online teaching, we worked on ways to make our courses accessible to all through Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL goes beyond providing accommodation for those who require it; it seeks to remove the barriers that trigger the need for accommodation in the first place. This is the essence of design. Instead of merely rising to meet challenges as they appear (which is an evolutionary mindset), UDL zooms out and examines the roots of problems. This is the only way to solve issues, by addressing their causes.

Many programs have no UDL recommendations or accommodations in place (and therefore no support to teachers in this regard), especially in privately run institutions. For example, I have worked with students who have to pass rigorous physical and intellectual tests in order to enter their career fields, so their leadership did not think accommodation was necessary. Nevertheless, many of them had dyslexia and hearing loss. Now, we have ways to implement captioning, transcripts, and the Dyslexie font for Latin alphabets for students like these in future classes.

Nevertheless, identifying these students who required these accommodations is another issue. Many of them become deft at concealing their needs for fear of being stigmatized. Some have been doing so since childhood. In the past, we observed the students and then discreetly asked them about their needs. Stories like this are all the more reason to employ UDL principles from outset, making this kind of delicate, uncomfortable conversation obsolete.

What have you been surprised about?

My experience with face-to-face courses was more than 20 years ago at this point, and our educational culture was different then. Professors were not expected to take any responsibility for student engagement. Students were free to engage however much they wanted and they demonstrated their knowledge in writing. This stands in stark contrast to today’s educational culture, which takes a firmer stance on student engagement and requires professors to consider their students’ needs and preferences. This wasn't surprising as much as eye-opening, now that I am experiencing it from the students' perspective.

It was amusing too when it dawned on me that face-to-face and online courses do not differ from one another all that much today. For example, the more varied methods of engagement and assessment we currently embrace are present in both face-to-face and online courses, as both types of courses regularly use multimedia content aggregation tools like ePortfolios. So far, the idea of an ePortfolio is intriguing. It was the reason I made this website, in fact. This is going to be my ePortfolio.

It seems like a lot of work [laughs]. Is this something you would recommend for language study?

Yeah, totally. I'd market it as a kind of “permanent record” - a file that would accompany each student throughout their career. Students often have multiple instructors over the course of their careers, so having an ePortfolio would be an effective way to track their progress in the long term and give each new instructor a window into their language learning trajectory.

I remember you being skeptical of online language classes...

I kinda still am. The biggest difference between face-to-face and online lanugage courses is the lack of real-time interaction to practice speaking. The relative anonymity and heavy use of reading and writing (easier skills) makes improving interpersonal speaking skills more difficult. And, it would seem based on disussions with my classmates, that this lack of synchronous interaction violates the expectations of at least some students, who sense this deficit in speaking practice and conclude that it does not fit with their goals to speak another language. Though, as I look back on my own face-to-face courses, which regularly had 20 to 25 students, there was not all that much speaking practice in those either. Perhaps this is a general area for improvement in academic language instruction, regardless of venue.

So, what's the final verdict?

Five stars so far [laughs]! I really am enjoying it, though. Looking forward to the next week for sure.

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