So, here it is, my finished reflective journal, documenting my one month journey as an e-moderator on a self-created online course.  I hope my journey can provide other practitioners with an insight into the process of e-moderating for the first time.  I now need to analyse the data captured in this journal and include this analysis in my dissertation.  Here’s hoping I manage to complete it on time and successfully pass (fingers crossed).  I would be delighted if this journal can benefit other researchers, practitioners or MSc students.  I also hope it will provide a document for others to reflect on and critique.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.  Any comments and/or advice would be greatly welcomed.

Andy

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The task this week required students to explore SL further and write a blog post about their experiences.  One student was frustrated with her experience because she could not find the place she was searching for.  On the other hand, another student really enjoyed visiting some places and even created a slide show of his exploration, however like the other student he couldn’t find anyone who wanted to engage in conversation.  Encouragingly one student had fully embraced second life and expressed that she felt very comfortable interacting with others.  During conversation she referred to a few residents as her best friends in SL, with whom she meets on a regular basis on a variety of sims.

This task encouraged students to be reflective and critical of their experience which was evident in their blog posts.  Unfortunately one student was unable to access the course this week due to not having any internet connection and therefore couldn’t attend the SL meeting.    I can imagine he must have been really frustrated.  Due to having similar problems myself  last week, I can empathise with his feelings of detachment.  In light of this, I sent him an encouraging and reassuring e.mail, which I feel is important.

This weeks meeting in SL again showed that the strengths of using this virtual platform for educational purposes greatly outweigh the weaknesses.  Initially there were problems with students logging on and with the voice chat slowing down or breaking up throughout.  Apart from these disturbances, the session was really worthwhile and the students appeared to be enjoying the experience.  I also felt more relaxed in this environment and tried to strengthen my facilitation skills through listening carefully to what students were saying, asking them to expand on statements, encouraging everyone to share their views and making sure that I chose certain topics to develop conversation.

The conversation  flowed nicely, but I needed to be aware of the time in order to cover the topics planned, but at the same time encourage interactions which students were engaged with.  Within the conversation, students frequently reflected on their experiences in SL.  I drew on a student who was becoming more familiar with SL to advise students on the best way to interact with other residents in SL.  This really benefited the others as they were apprehensive about interacting in SL.  The advice this student offered was encouraging.  I suggested that the same student take the others on a quick trip to a place of her choice.  The idea was to exploit the immersive environments potentials for conversation.  After ten minutes of exploration I teleported them back to the classroom to discuss their experiences with which they were very enthusiastic about.  I believe that this session in SL was reflective and students took more control over the process.

At the end of our session I asked students to offer their opinions about the course.  All students mentioned that expressing their feelings and interacting in English through their blogs and in group meetings in SL had increased their confidence in such away that they felt more encouraged to take their IELTs test so they could study in other countries.  Positivity was expressed for both blog writing and using SL and they explained that they would continue to use these platforms in the future.  I was especially pleased to hear this, as one of my main objectives was to improve their confidence expressing themselves in English and also to introduce different WEB 2.0 tools which could encourage autonomous and constructivist learning.

The month has not been as successful as I would have liked it to be, but I believe that the students have benefited overall from taking part in the online course.  I made sure that the requirements to complete each task were clearly outlined and provided examples of what was expected.  Although, while this can be highly time-consuming I firmly believe it made the process more understandable for the students and reduced any problems occurring during the week.

My course has come to an end and its now time to reflect on the process and use this as a basis to improve future practice and redesign the course to offer future participants a more beneficial experience.  This has been an insightful experience into the complex role of the e-moderator and I’ve truly benefited from this process.  The course has now finished but it’s just the start for both myself and the students to continue learning within such a stimulating and evolving environment  with endless opportunities.

Keep Calm & Carry On

June 20, 2011

This week could have ended in a disaster but after a successful lesson in Second Life I started to feel that things were not as bad as I thought.  My dependence on the internet really hit home last week.  I suffered with no connection for a week due to ‘technical difficulties in the area’.  Every time I phoned my supplier they advised that the problem would be sorted very shortly but very shortly turned into what seemed like an eternity and I slowly felt that the online course was falling on its face.   I thought that it would just be a small glitch but when it was still not working by Friday I started to really panic as the SL meeting had been planned for Saturday morning.  Fortunately my family helped out and they were able to find me a quiet place with internet connection(and some strong coffee) in order to conduct the lesson.  I realise that I can’t fully depend on my internet connection and always need to consider what to do if the connection fails.  Luckily during this time I was able to use the free internet in the University library however, if I was not at Uni it could have been very costly using internet cafes and I don’t really want to intrude on anyone to borrow their internet.  I managed to inform my students that I was having trouble with my home connection just in case they needed  prompt responses to questions.  Thankfully the students did not require any quick advice during this time.  I suppose this inconvenience really made me consider how much I rely on the internet as I felt like I was coming down from a technological dependence and realised how much I was addicted to social networking online, never mind my whole Master’s degree depending on it too.

Before meeting the students in second life I spent time planning a lesson and put a poster on the course blog to advertise the session and to provide students with some information of what was required for the lesson.  The poster as well as the one-on-one induction session made sure that the students were fully prepared for the meeting in SL and I believe that this was necessary to make sure that the meeting would run as smoothly as possible.   I have to say, I was a little nervous as to how the session would work but this was short-lived, because when the lesson started everything seemed to flow really well.    I came prepared with discussion questions and made sure that there was a warm up and cool down activity.  I feel that the students made the lesson such a success as they were really enthusiastic and comfortable in sharing their points of view and expressing themselves.  The questions and topics chosen provided the needed spark to engage students in meaningful conversation. Each student was willing to provide their own opinion which added to the other students contribution,  whereby a range of views were provided resulting in construction of knowledge together.  I did not really teach and instead I became a facilitator and manager of the discussion.  I decided to use a more learner-centred approach  where the students could practice their English and use it to share their own experiences and knowledge to interact with other students in a way that was personal and meaningful to them.  I really felt that students were very involved in the discussion and I was inspired by their contributions.  At the end of the session the students were extremely grateful for the experience and expressed enjoyment and positivity with the lesson.  They thought that it was very relaxed and different to more conventional lessons.

Students produced some great blog posts this week and it seems that they are becoming more comfortable writing the posts and have started to add images and provide hyperlinks.  This is really encouraging.  At the same time, however, interaction between the students and the initial excitement to meet each other has reduced.  Although students are not interacting as much as I would like to see on their blogs I think that the gathering in SL really injected some much-needed energy and provided a platform for students to interact synchronously in a supportive environment.  It is uncertain what will happen each week and I need to understand that certain things are out of my control will occur and instead of becoming stressed I will have to remain calm and carry on.

This week has been extremely frustrating and I feel that my initial enthusiasm has burned out.  I need to pick myself up and continue with positivity.  I find it difficult to write a blog post when I’m feeling lethargic and I don’t feel that it can fully capture my feelings.  As stated in my previous post there was an uncomfortable absence of communication around the course recently and students did not appear to be contributing to the task.  I decided to send a motivating e.mail to students asking if I could assist them in any way and informed them that they should not hesitate to contact me with regards to any problems or queries they were having.  From this e.mail I received replies from two students who were unable to continue with the course.  They were extremely apologetic and explained that due to personal circumstances, could no longer participate.  I felt that the course was starting to crumble around my feet and I searched inside for an answer to why this was happening.  I thought that my course was not working and that the reason students were stopping the course was because it was too time consuming or unsuitable to their needs.  I need to realise that it is uncertain what will happen during the course and I can’t make myself fully responsible for students dropping out.    On a more positive note the remaining students were starting to contribute to the task which included finding a blog/website of interest to them and luckily interaction was flowing again.  However, most students made me aware that they were very busy and could not dedicate as much time to the task as they had initially intended.  I was also made aware that they were finding it difficult to find a blog/website which interested them enough to share with others which contributed to them being unable to complete the task earlier. I need to realise that students may find certain task more difficult to complete than others and rather than imposing my own ideas it is important to create tasks which are flexible.

A further concern is that interactions may become lessened between the students because there are only four left. Also, my initial proposal of creating a multicultural community is not taking shape and perhaps I set my sights too high.  It is difficult to install autonomy in students and perhaps I should have made sure that each student had a personal plan/time schedule to follow during the week where they would make sure at designated times to contribute to the course.   Maybe students are dedicating more time to the course than I think, however it is really difficult to gauge how much time they are actually spending.  My main priority is to encourage students by providing continual positive reinforcement and make them aware that I am available.  I’m unsure how much attention I should provide and whether this will create too much reliance.  However, I do feel that due to the nature of teaching online and the lack of physical presence that it is extremely necessary to engage with students and install a humanistic element so that they realise that even though there is a cyber-barrier created there is still connection and support available.

I decided to meet students in Second Life instead of skype this week for a 1-2-1 session because I have organised a group meeting in SL this Saturday so I wanted to make sure that initial SL anxieties could be alleviated and offer them a brief orientation to prepare them for communicating with others through voice and text chat.  This was the perfect opportunity to find out how comfortable they were using Second Life and to assist with practicing the basic functions.  Students were very receptive and appeared to really enjoy and learn from the experience.  They all expressed that they were really looking forward to meeting the other students in SL.

This is my first blog post this week as I have encountered problems with my internet connection which has meant that I have been unable to be fully available for corresponding with the students.  It could not have happened at a worse time and I’m really hoping that the connection will be fixed in time for the SL meeting.  I was concerned that my students internet connections would be weak but never expected that my own connection would interfere with the course.  Conducting a course online relies on a consistently strong network connection and it is extremely frustrating when technological problems occur which are out of my hands.  I’m half way through and I need to make sure that both the internet and my mind are healthy and strong enough to continue positively with this process and avoid burn out.

Searching for a spark

June 11, 2011

I was encouraged by the first weeks task and very excited for the students to start task two.  However, It’s been such contrast to the first week and I feel that the magic and buzz of the initial excitement  has diminished and  a strange quietness has emerged.  I feel a little deflated by this and I’m hoping that things start to pick up otherwise I fear that the course is going to rapidly grow cobwebs and the tumbleweed is going to pass through my empty virtual town.   Last week I mentioned that two students did not seem to be participating with the task or interacting with the other students.  I sent some personal e.mails to them asking if everything was okay and if I could assist in anyway.  One student was very apologetic and explained that due to personal reasons could not take part in the course.  I managed to talk to the other student over Skype and they stated that they were very enthusiastic and excited about the course but due to starting a new job they could not find the time to start the first task but would try their best over the next week to start interacting with other students and dedicate more time to the course.  I need to realise that students are very busy and will not be able to dedicate all their time to the course.  I feel that I should encourage them and make sure I’m available for any advice or assistance but there is only so much I can do and if they are too busy then I should understand and try not to impose the course on them.

I encountered several technical problems this week which hindered the progression of the tasks and created unneeded frustration with students.  One student was unable to publish her new blog entry and sent me several e.mails detailing her frustrations.  I could tell from the messages that she was very frustrated and really wanted to publish her new post.  She gave me her blog password to see if I could assist with publishing it.  I was concerned that she gave me her password but it meant that I could see what was wrong and make sure that her post was published.  I can imagine how frustrating it must be to spend a long time writing a post and then not be able to publish it.  I hope that this will not demotivate her to publish more posts.  When talking with her on Skype she shared her screen with me and I was able to advise her how to publish the post and we eventually sorted out the problem.    Talking on Skype has proved successful as the students are able to voice their concerns and also their excitement with the course.  There are however frequent problems with the clarity of sound and it can prove to be frustrating when the voice cracks up and the reception slow down.  Along with this any background noises can be an interference and adds to the frustration.  Students expressed that they understood the task but did not feel it was easy to locate an English blog to share with other students.  Also the link I provided on my blog did not work and Chinese students were unable to view the youtube videos which I posted.  I wondered if the task was not meaningful for them and suggested that they share a website/blog which they follow even if it is not in English and then share their thoughts about it with the rest of the group.  I thought that students would enjoy discovering new English blogs/websites but maybe this is not the case and they do not see the purpose for carrying out this task.   According to Salmon stage three, information exchange should provide an activity which requires students to share information which they have gathered.  It is important for students to think about how this information can benefit themselves and others.  The task instructions should be clear and the purpose made explicit so that students can understand why they are carrying it out.  Perhaps my instructions are unclear and the purpose of the task may be vague.  These are things I need to think about and consider when planning my tasks.

I planned to meet students in second life so that they could become familiar with the basic functions and it would provide an induction before meeting with the other students.  I encountered several problems in SL.  Firstly I teleported the student to where I was and then I explained the basic function such as flying and sitting down.  I then explained how to text chat and use the voice chat.  For some students their voice chat was very distorted and it became very frustrating for both of us so we had to resort to typing messages.  Another students voice was good however they expressed that they would prefer to talk on Skype as it was clearer.  It took a long time to explain the basic functions in SL and I have to say it was difficult to explain how to do things without seeing their screen.  The time scheduled to meet in SL was also problematic as the time in China appeared to be a peak time for people using the internet which made it very difficult for students to log on.  Although there were several unavoidable problems the students did express excitement about using SL and realised how it benefits for networking.  One student told me that they really liked using SL and in particular liked shopping and talking in English with people from other countries.  I was very encouraged by this.

I realise that this post has been longer that I initially expected but I feel that I need to document these frustrations.  I find it difficult to write regular posts due to a busy schedule during the week and I can completely understand how students must feel about writing regular posts.  I need to make sure I can encourage students to continue with the tasks but at the same time I need to understand that there needs to be a spark so that students feel it is worthwhile to engage.  Learning online means that students can easily hide and if they see that other students are not contributing then they may feel less encouraged.  It need to continue to be positive and try my best to motivate and engage students through encouraging e.mails and making myself available.  I also need to lower my expectations and evaluate the tasks provided.

I recently talked to Heike Philps on second life about using second life as a component for my online course.  We talked about the logistics of attempting to schedule a group meeting with students from different continents.  It is not easy to make sure that students can meet together at a convenient time when their time zones are very different.  She suggested that students maybe overwhelmed at first by such a new environment and instead of creating complex tasks it is preferable to lower my initial expectations and instead try to create a relaxed atmosphere by just sitting down and chatting.  Heike is very encouraging and her calm and relaxed persona on SL makes it comfortable to interact.

Task one has been a great success.  The students have really made an effort to create their blog and have written some very insightful blog posts.  The interaction has been enlightening with students commenting on each others post and writing very encouraging and supportive replies.  I’m very fascinated by the buzz of interaction and the students are sharing their thoughts and interests as well as their frustrations.  Some posts in particular have created a surge of responses with some very personal and heartfelt communication.  I’m delighted that students are engaging with each other and I didn’t imagine it would be so productive in the first week.  The initial skype chats proved to be very worthwhile with students expressing their excitement about the course and sharing any concerns they had so far.  I used the time wisely to talk about any problems they were encountering with interaction and technology and emphasised that the course would work most effectively if everyone continually supported and interacted with each other.

It has not all been successful as two students have still not started the first task and I’m concerned with whether they will contribute to the course.  I have tried to encourage them and sent e.mails reassuring that I can assist with any difficulties whether it be technological problems or anxieties related to interacting.  I hope that they can still participate with the course but I’m unsure whether they will continue.  I am aware that they may be following other students interactions and may feel intimidated by sharing their own points of view and interests.  This is known as lurking and although they appear to not to be participating they could still be showing an interest in the task without anyone knowing.

Students all stated that they were initially nervous about starting the course but felt more relaxed after talking over skype and starting the first task.  For several students this was their first time creating an online blog and although anxious at first they were able to successfully create one and start writing blog posts.  Initially some students were unsure about publishing their writing online but realised the benefits and were excited about sharing their thoughts with others.  I reassured students and explained that the most important thing about writing a blog post is the content and they don’t need to worry as much about making mistakes.

Most of the students also expressed anxiety about using SL.  Again I tried to reassure them that it takes time to get used to this new virtual environment and showed empathy by expressing that I’m also very new to SL and understand their anxiety.  One student in particular stated that they had already tried to communicate with others in SL but had a very unsettling experience.  They only wanted to practice conversational English but were frequently harassed and unsettled by some very explicit propositions.  I was naively unaware of this happening in SL and from this found out that their can be a problem with griefers  who can make the SL experience very uncomfortable.  I reassured the student and advised her to be careful as some places should not be visited in SL.  I will make sure that students are aware of this and point them in the direction of places where they can safely practice conversation.

All in all its been a very encouraging and eventful experience.  I’m excited to continue and look forward to seeing how task two develops.In accordance with Salmon’s model it seems that students are ready to start stage three; Information Exchange, where students will find and exchange meaningful information with each other which should provide a spark to encourage interaction towards forming a community of practice.

Pheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew! The course has gone live and I’ve reached the weekend with no disastrous stories to tell(touch wood).  I hoped to find more chances to express my thoughts during the week but this is the only time where I’ve found I can sit back and  reflect.  Prior to the course starting I wanted to make sure that the students chosen for the course were able to access second life and had enough time during the week to dedicate to the course tasks.  Students were chosen from different cultures so that there would be a more global atmosphere where students would have the opportunity to interact with others who they would otherwise not have had the opportunity to meet.  The initial e.mails I received from students ranged from excitement to apprehension about what the course would entail.  I really want make sure that everyone has a worthwhile experience.

The prior induction and first task incorporate the first(Access and motivation) and second stage(Socialisation) of Salmon’s model.  Students are greeted with a welcoming page and clear instructions are provided about how to take part with encouragement  provided for students to engage with one another and interact.  I was dubious whether I had provided enough information or even too much and wanted to get the right balance so that students were well-informed but at the same time not overwhelmed.  Before releasing the first task I provided students with the course outline and netiquette and asked for them to introduce themselves.  The first task requires students to write a blog post introducing themselves to the other students.  Students are encouraged to read each others blogs and make comments on any posts which they find interesting.  I wanted the task to be manageable so that students could become familiar with collaborating and comfortable creating their own blog.  Salmon’s model seems to only mention a Computer mediated conference(or forum), however I wanted to make sure that students could produce something which was self-directed and at the same time encouraged them to visit other students blogs rather than just sharing the same platform.  At first I was encouraged to see that students were using the comments boxes to introduce themselves but they did not seem to be interacting with each other.  I need to realise that it will take time for students to socialise and I can’t expect it to just happen.  Therefore,  I need to try my best at this early stage to encourage students to engage so that they can form a rapport with each other which can motivate students to support each other throughout and feel that they are not alone.  A problem I noticed with using a blog for the course meeting place was that students were unsure where to put their comments.  I need to make it clearer that the comments should be posted at the bottom of the corresponding task.  I also feel that maybe having lots of different student blogs to look at may prove to be time-consuming and I wonder if it would have been better just having one platform like moodle which has everything in the one place.

I have decided to incorporate a face-to-face synchronous component each week via Skype so that students  can ask any questions about the course and express their feelings.  At first I was apprehensive about talking over Skype and I was unsure whether this would be effective and worthwhile.  After talking to three students I became more reassured and encouraged about using it.  The students were very enthusiastic and expressed excitement about learning online and talking with me over Skype.  Sharing my screen with the students was helpful in showing and talking them through the course blog and  reassured them what was expected for each task.  At the end of the conversation I issued each student with an mp3 recording of our conversation for them to reflect on what was said.  Talking over Skype gave students an opportunity to  talk about their feeling with regards to interacting with other students and the usage of technology.  All students seemed to be comfortable with making their own blog and requested to be corrected if they make any errors.  It was very effective to talk with students and I was able to gain an understanding of how they were feeling at this early stage.  After talking to the students on Skype I noticed that they started to  comment more on other students blogs and they also made more blog posts.  It seems that the Skype chat made the course feel more  personable and engaging due to the face-2-face element.  At the same time students could practice their speaking and listening skills and share personal anecdotes.

I have to say that I really enjoyed talking with the students but at the same time I’m completely exhausted.  I have to make sure that I continue this blog as well as conduct the course and at the same time read relevant literature and start to write the dissertation.  It’s going to be a full on couple of months and I will just need to learn to juggle without dropping any vital components.  Let’s hope I become a competent juggler by the end of August.