Distance teaching from a (not too) distant teacher

Last #IntJC was dedicated to distance teaching. Now it may sound as if I’m only blogging about #IntJC topics, but hey, if the topic is good…

When I took up my PhD post it involved teaching an introductory course in interpreting. I’m commuting to Bergen so I wanted to plan my course in blocks. The idea was to have for instance four blocks of teaching, each one over a couple of days displayed evenly over semester. But there was another problem too, students taking French in this BA program had their Erasmus exchange the same semester as I gave my compulsory course. And those students were supposed to follow my course, although they were in France for seven weeks.

The solution was to teach on a distance platform. I cut down the on site teaching to two times two days, and the rest has been given on internet for the past three years. As said, #IntJC was discussing distance teaching last time and I’ll take this opportunity here to dwell on my experiences from these past three years.

The course has first and foremost been a theoretical course. It’s an introduction to interpreting. We have had a few hours of practice, but it has been done on site. The course schedule included two days in the beginning of the term with lectures and introduction to interpreting and note-taking, then a lecture series over seven weeks on internet, and a last meeting of two days at the end of the term. Parallel to the lecture series students also had practice in dialogue interpreting.

The fact that we do it on distance has many advantages. Obviously, students (and teacher) can participate regardless of location, but since we also record it and put it on our intranet, every lecture, with power points and discussions is available for students afterwards. When they prepare their exam paper or other compulsory tasks, they can access all the lectures they need. This is very powerful compared to only relying on your own notes or hand outs from the teacher.

I have planned my courses fairly traditionally, a text to prepare before the course, sometimes with questions, sometimes without. Then, during the lecture, I started with introduction to the text and after that hopefully a discussion. I say hopefully, because the discussion part has been the most challenging every year. In my experience I usually get a few questions via chat during my presentation, but when we come to the discussion part both chat feed and demands for microphone are troublingly silent.

Obviously, I have thought about what may be the reason behind this. Presumably, the learning experience will be better if we have (preferably animate) discussions about the topic. I have a few ideas, but so far I have not managed to overcome the lack of discussions.

First, the tech problems; although most students of today are labeled digital natives (I’d say average age of the group I teach is 20-25, I must admit that the tech side is challenging. I dedicate one hour at the start up, on site, seminar to introduce the platform. We have used the Adobe Connect platform which I find a fairly easy to use and straight forward platform. We don’t use the video-mode in order to minimize tech problems. And in order for everyone to have easy access to the lectures we keep one of the computer rooms on site open so that all students should have easy access to a computer. Still, we spend at least half an hour of the first class overcoming different tech problems, the most common being problems with sound.

Second, the medium; maybe the fact that we are on the Internet and that the simplest questions will be recorded is intimidating. We record all the sessions, and they are saved in its entirety – chat, audio, power point, notes, and so forth. This is put on an intranet server only accessible to our students, but still… Maybe it’s hard to have the impression that you ask stupid questions, come with “wrong answers” or just speculate when it’s on tape and can, and probably will, be viewed by teacher and fellow students.

Third, the power balance; when we chat over #IntJC we are all equal. Some are seasoned professionals, some are students, but we gather there to discuss a text that one of us chose and everyone is curious to hear everyone’s opinion, no grades are given, there is no right or wrong answers. Whereas, at my online course, I’m the teacher, I grade their papers, and although I don’t want to see it that way, they seem think that I have a final judgement on what is right or wrong and they probably feel they need to produce the “right answer”.

I’m not sure what the course will look like next term, but I have a few things I would like to test from #IntJC;
a) I will systematically produce a couple of discussion questions for every text.
b) I will dedicate part of the class to chat discussion only.
c) I will try to couple my texts with other material (other texts, you tube videos, news articles of films).

When I started teaching this course three years ago, I was desperately seeking the Internet for examples, background, things to deepen my students understanding. I think it’s safe to say that there was not much around. I found some good stuff, but it was by no means evident. Since then I’m happy to say that interpreting discussions on Internet has exploded. Every year I have more stuff to choose from and since #IntJC and #EPT started, together, of course, with a lot of great blogs (by all means go through my blog roll), I can safely say that I will have great material for my background readings and contrastive texts.

So, I’m excited for next version of the course. I’ll keep you posted.

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