Friday, May 28, 2010

Swamped by the semester

Wow, where did February, March, and April go! I checked my notes and found I had started a couple new blog posts but never finished. That's what happens when you teach four writing classes a semester!

Now that I've had some time to decompress from the semester, here are some highlights for the middle part of the semester:


This semester, I've required students to use voice in order to share drafts of essays for composition courses and drafts of poems/stories for the creative writing course.

I hope for most writing instructors, the reasoning is self evident: having students hear their writing helps them to discover aspects of their expression that they will not realize when simply reading silently. The value is mostly for the writer, though it can also be beneficial for the listeners/respondents.

Having an oral reading component in online writing classes has always been problematic. In the early years of teaching writing online, I didn't even try. I considered it as one of the limitations of the delivery method that had to be abandoned. A few years ago, though, around the time when I began to teach creative writing online, I decided I had to have an audio component. Students who write poems and stories had to hear their writing. So I began to use WIMBA, which was supported by the college and accessible through Angel LMS. I would have students read and record their drafts and then asked group members to listen while reading before they responded.

It was all done asynchronously. WIMBA does have a synchronous voice chat, but it is rather clunky, and the archiving it does of mixing text and audio clips is hard to follow. So I stuck with asynchronous posting of oral drafts. I could determine whether or not students recorded drafts, and score accordingly. I couldn't really do so with the listening part. Participation over the years was never one hundred percent (little is!).

SL voice seemed to be a better solution. Students could read drafts, and share text copies in notecards. They could take turns reading their drafts, and elicit discussion, just as I would have them do in a f2f class. And the sense of space and presence would be superior to the bodiless voices of WIMBA or even something some students are more familiar with, Skype.

When it worked, it was great. Several students in their reflective essays at the end of the semester mentioned voluntarily how much they found voice presentation of drafts helpful. But SL voice proved to be buggy. Too often students couldn't get it to work, and one student never did even though she was pretty computer savvy (I suspect network congestion on her end). I think next semester I'll have them use Skype as a back up.

Which brings me to two other issues: too many apps and tech help inworld.

Too many apps

I've found that students get app overload pretty quickly. I lost a scad of students because they didn't read the schedule book concerning using SL, and the computer needs to take this course. Some dropped, or stopped working, right away. Those who stuck it out either were pretty tech savvy or very tenacious. But even among those who stayed, I could tell that having to juggle Angel LMS (including uploading/downloading files, discussion forums, reading web page assignments, looking up grades), Word or OpenOffice, Second Life, Twitter, AIM, and Diigo became difficult, especially for those who were doing online classes the first time. Next semester, I think I'll drop Twitter, even though I found its use quite valuable for quick communication and sharing between students and with me for those who tweeted frequently. However, I found too many ignoring it even though keeping a Twitter log while working on their essays was required.

Also, I plan to use Skype instead of AIM so that I'll have a back up voice chat should SL voice not work, and a back up text IM all in the same app. And for the first semester comp, I may also drop Diigo, though, since I don't use it until later in the semester, I may keep depending on how the group's competency pans out.

The point is that I have to juggle between making a rich online class experience and making it too opaque for weak tech users. As I've mentioned before, I will always lean towards a rich experience, and chance losing students, but I don't want to make it accessible for only the highly proficient tech user. Those with a moderate familiarity with the web and computer use should have no inordinate problem with the course, as long as they set aside enough time to do the work!

Tech help in world

The other issue is finding tech help in world. Students at LCC can get help with software and applications supported by the college, such as Angel (well, usually--they've not been very helpful with WIMBA!). But not with apps that are not supported currently by the college, such as SL or Twitter. Therefore, I have to do the heavy lifting of helping students solve technical problems, which I've done for many years. But I'm not available at all times, nor am I as technologically proficient with VW problems as I'd like to be (though I'm learning!). So I really need to find some places/people that students can contact when having problems in world.

This is really essential. Whether or not SL is effective as a place of learning for online students is directly affected by whether or not they can have a relatively trouble-free experience while in world. Problems will arise, but they need to be solved. Yes, those who try to do SL with underpowered machines or on weak home networks (wireless or Ethernet) or without purchasing enough RAM or a headset will find SL clunky and frustrating. But that shouldn't be the case for those with the right equipment/connection. Too often it is.