online learning

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ideas and best practices for using D2L in english courses

Last Friday (Nov. 11) was our first technology/pedagogy event of the semester, “Using D2L in the English Department.” This roundtable discussion raised many questions, provoked lively conversation, and also stirred up a wealth of knowledge and best practices related to using D2L in writing and literature courses.

Panel participants were Diane Unterweger (who teaches composition online and face-to-face), Kristi Prins (who is the English 101 coordinator and teaches composition and media studies online and face-to-face), Adam Pacton (who teaches composition, and is teaching online for the first time this semester), Rebecca Dunham (who teaches creative writing and literature online and face-to-face), Paige Conley (who is the English 095 coordinator and, while she has never taught online, had valuable comments about being an online student), Kris Terwelp (who is the English 101/102 online coordinator and has taught online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses), Laretta Henderson (who teaches online and face-to-face literature courses in the School of Information Studies), and Dylan Barth (who is a composition instructor, D2L systems administrator, and online learning guru). Adam Andrews and Sandy Brusin also contributed much to the discussion.

We covered a wide range of topics, but the primary strands I noticed were:

Discussion Forums
Peer Review and Conferencing
Navigation and Linking
Delivering Content
Time Management
Instructor Persona
Student Identity
Creating Community and Engagement

Discussion Forums

Unsurprisingly, the use of D2L Discussions for English courses was a major topic in the roundtable. Adam P. talked about instructor presence in a discussion forum and how he minimizes his voice as “the authority.” He treats the discussion forum as a place for students to talk. When he contributes, he tries to link different threads into a larger narrative of discussion, so that he doesn’t appear to be saying “you students missed ideas and here they are.” He writes a “discussion narrative” to recap the points that students discussed and to have the opportunity for discourse analysis. These discussion narratives then become course texts students use to get information.

Kris and Anne Wysocki picked up on this thread later in the conversation. Anne said that a benefit of having the class discussions written out online is that students have transcripts to go back and analyze. She has found it productive to ask students to re-read the discussions and look at how their ideas have changed over the course of the semester. Interestingly, Kris observed that composition students seem to write better reflective essays when the class is online. She suggested that one explanation could be the fact that students have all the class discussions as archived resources to retrace and reconsider, which is particularly valuable for reflective work.

Echoing Adam’s strategy of leaving the Discussion forum to the students, Kris quotes students in the D2L News or Announcements page rather than highlighting points within the discussion forum itself. This allows Kris to have a voice in the discussion and pull out useful comments, but she can still leave the Discussion forum to the students and avoid interfering in that space. Kris mentioned that her Discussions grow very large, sometimes with over 90 posts in one forum. In contrast, Laretta does contribute to the actual Discussion forums. She participates by asking questions and pushing students to be clearer or re-think a response. The questioning format is less didactic than making “you got this wrong, here’s the answer” types of statements in response to student posts.

Rebecca uses Discussion forums a lot in English 233 (intro to creative writing). In this course, students read model texts and talk about them, and then students generate their own work as a subject of discussion. Rebecca uses the Discussion forum to recreate the workshop environment. She tries to make it a space to give feedback, and a space where students feel like they can contribute freely. Her discussions often grow very large, as students get interested in each other’s work and become comfortable with their classmates. She said that she is fortunate to have taught Education students online, since they are eager and willing to participate in discussions. Many instructors agreed that we need to push some students harder than others, depending on whether or not the students are interested in the course. Diverse groups of students have different needs for guidance and assessment.

As far as encouraging and assessing student participation in discussions, Laretta is consistent and clear about her expectations. She uses an A-through-F grading scale and a rubric. Each week, students get points for the level of discussion. She has detailed descriptions about what students must do to get specific grades for discussion; abstract guidelines don’t work, she said. It takes more time to assign points every week, but it makes a difference in how much people actually use the discussion. Katie Morrissey (who teaches film and media studies online) agreed. She said that when she first taught film studies online, her guidelines were more abstract and she was more lenient. Now, she uses a more detailed rubric, and she reports improvement in the quality and quantity of discussion posts.

One final best practice related to discussions: for online classes of 25 or more students, breaking them into discussion groups is a great idea. Laretta suggested putting students in groups as “teams” writing responses to each other. This teamwork can make a discussion more manageable. She also advised the use of “conditional releases” which permit only students in certain groups to see and respond to certain topics. Adam A. stressed the importance of peer response groups, especially in blogs, which to him seem more interactive than the D2L discussion feature. Adam uses a multi-author blog outside of D2L, and then assigns students into response groups of 6. This way, every post gets at least six responses and the responses become part of the participation grade. Adam A. here emphasized that it is a student space, and he saw major pedagogical pay-off just by requiring them to get in there and talk to each other.

A good size for discussion groups is about 7 people, according to Laretta, and responses to classmates are part of the students’ grade. Some instructors advocated varying the groups and getting students to talk to different classmates throughout the semester. Rebecca said that, in creative writing workshops online, that becomes difficult because students like to build up trust. Sandy Brusin waits to learn about her students’ interests and writing abilities before assigning the groups, and then (like Rebecca) she keeps those groups the same all semester.

Peer Review and Conferencing

For the purposes of online-only peer review, Diane puts her students in groups and creates a group submission folder in the D2L dropbox. Students in the same group can retrieve each other’s papers.

Instructions to create a group dropbox

Kris said that a point of frustration for her is group conferencing. She appreciates the value of getting students into groups so they can hear from more than one person, but she advised that D2L doesn’t work well for group conferencing. She has tried Skype for conferencing as a group, which works well as long as students have a microphone and a headset. She is also using Scriblink with some success this semester.

Navigation and Linking

A good tip Kristi offered is the ability to customize links on the navigation bar of your D2L site. As an alternative to the group dropbox for peer review, she uses GoogleDocs. Kristi creates a link to “GoogleDocs” in her navigation bar to give students quick access to that website and to make it part of the primary web interface of the course. Dylan mentioned that customizing the navbar can be tricky.

Instructions to customize the navbar

Instructions to add an external link to a non-D2L site

Instructions to re-use a custom navbar you created for a previous D2L site

Kristi also uses the D2L Links page to point to other things, such as research blogs that she asks her students to keep in English 102 online. Adam P. uses images in his links page. For example, to link to the library homepage, Adam uses the library’s logo as the link, rather than just linking text. It gives the Links page a less intimidating, more inviting look.

To help students navigate the announcements, Dylan recommends using large text for the title of the announcement (for example, “Week 1”) and putting the most recent things at the top so they are not hard to find.

Delivering Content

Kristi discussed her use of D2L as an assignment archive and learning storehouse for documents. She structures the “Content” area of her D2L site to facilitate students’ reading and responding. Adam A. and Dylan mentioned the option of using an HTML editor to upload assignments, however they both concluded that the HTML editor is not reliable and they both prefer to upload PDF files of all their documents. Adam said the PDF works for him because he is assured that nothing about the appearance of the document will change once it goes online.

Instructions for uploading content

Help with the HTML editor

Kristi uses primarily text to deliver her course content. Many instructors agreed that they relied mostly on text, whether in announcements, emails, PDF files, or discussion posts.

Anne raised the issue of “reading overload” that often plagues students in online-only courses. There comes point when you just want to stop reading. She asked if any instructors use visual, audio, or other multimedia to deliver content. Katie said that she delivers her lectures in text, though (if she had more time) she would like to create slideshow lectures or video lectures. Matt Trease concurred that writing lectures for online delivery takes a lot of time, though he said it might be easier to deliver a lecture as a podcast or video. Speaking out loud to students is less formal and requires less calculation than crafting a written lecture.

Paige stressed that, when she was a student in past Art courses online, the weekly video lecture was so welcome. She recalled how it made her feel like she was part of a face-to-face class, she appreciated having the ability to pause the lecture when needed.

Laretta mentioned her use of Camtasia lectures, but advised us that students don’t necessarily like too many of these lectures. She said that a Camtasia presentation is good once in a while, but it’s best not to use too many. In her experience, students prefer to have the information in writing. Kris agreed that her students mostly like plain and simple text, though Adam P. said he’s gotten positive feedback about his informal video messages to students.

The Learning Technology Center (LTC) has workshops on using multimedia to deliver content in D2L.

Here are instructions for inserting a YouTube video into D2L

I could not find instructions for using video within D2L, as far as clear direction about the preferred file type, or any guidance on how to upload the video directly to D2L. If you know how, please add a link or some tips in the comments.

Time Management

Rebecca mentioned that it seems more challenging to get through the material in an online class compared to a face-to-face class. She said that everything seems to take more time online, and she advised us to remember that it is true for the students as well as for the instructor. It’s not just a matter of being concise, but also covering less. Many participants in the roundtable agreed with her. They said they have had to eliminate activities and lessons from a course when they move it to an online-only format.

One practice that Rebecca has adopted for her online classes is the use of a textbook. Though she usually doesn’t use textbooks in her face-to-face creative writing and literature courses, using a textbook in the online class is helpful and gives students a place to go to “fill in the gaps” for content that was skipped or rushed online.

Laretta advised us that, if you are teaching multiple sections of the same course online, it can be pedagogically and practically useful to combine the D2L course sites. For pedagogical reasons, Laretta says that having more students on one site adds a more diverse range of responses and more options for creating student groups. Practically, it saves Laretta a lot of time since she only has to update one D2L site instead of three. She mentioned that, if you have combined multiple sections into one D2L site, you can sort the email list by section and then email specific groups in each section.

You can use this online form to request that two sections be combined in one site.

Instructor Persona

Kristi uses the Announcements area of her D2L site to add some personality and humor to her updates. She posts photos, YouTube videos, and random links so that her D2L site might be a place students enjoy checking.

One potentially negative aspect of instructor persona on D2L is the “Big Brother” feature that allows instructors to track and monitor students in an online course. Instructors can see how many and how often students have read discussion posts, opened course content, or checked into the site. Though, a few instructors agreed that the Big Brother feature can backfire, since technically it’s not perfect and also it can be deceptive. It can tell you a student has read fewer posts than he/she actually has.

Student Identity

When Laretta teaches about race, she prefers the online environment since students are anonymous and they are inclined to be more open to issues of race. In a face-to-face discussion, students are not as open to commenting on sensitive issues, and I’d imagine gender, religion, and ethnicity also fall into a similar category. Sandy mentioned that D2L can put students on the same level and give them a neutral space to feel protected and free to be honest/open. The more silent students will be more likely to talk if they are online – it equalizes the students who never stop talking online. Another benefit is that students can take their time and compose their responses rather than feeling rushed to say something in a face-to-face class.

Another point Laretta mentioned about student identity is the creation of profiles and avatars on D2L. Students can create a custom profile and add a photo. This can help instructors feel like they really know students.

Does anyone know how to make avatars appear in the discussion threads? Laretta implied that was possible, but I am not sure how. If you know, please leave a tip in the comments.

Creating Community and Engagement

Paige, who has taught face-to-face courses for the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), uses D2L as an archive and a way for students to keep up with the class if they need to be absent for legitimate reasons. Given the interests of students she encounters at MIAD, she uses D2L as a way to extend the conversation visually. She uses the announcements page to do a lot of visual work, which is a simple way to engage students without overcomplicating the site with an extra space that students have to deal with.

A tip for student engagement that Dylan offered is the mobile D2L. There is no “app,” but students can access content and discussions on their smart phone. The mobile D2L is limited, but still could be useful for students on-the-go. Dylan also recommended trying to build your syllabus as an HTML document, rather than simply uploading it as Word document. The HTML format would make it easier for students to access the syllabus on a mobile device.

That wraps it up for me. Thanks to all who attended and participated!

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