Today marked the last day of my online summer source. Hurray! I actually did find most of the content appropriate, interesting and useful. I need some time to digest a few things before I look, again, at my teaching plans for next year. But I do have a few quibbles with the format and structure of the online setup Western is using.
In no particular order, my high points and low points are below.
1. Textbook vs. No Textbook
I actually enjoyed not using a textbook this time around. I liked being able to open the “Content” tab and just click a link to read something. It meant I could truly pack my laptop with me and go work for an afternoon—no need to remember to bring books with me, or to navigate yet another horrible proprietary website like I did the year I used an online textbook. I liked, too, that I could save some of the articles for later. I can clip any browser-based content to Evernote with one click, where I can annotate, search and sort it at will.
2. Computer vs. Tablet
The course website, to my surprise, was iPad friendly—this was fabulous, because I am currently using another online learning portal that is not, and I have fallen very behind because it is such a pain to access. On the minus, the course was in French and I did need Google Translate to help me make accents. The mobile browser version is not that robust and I found it easier to work on my computer. But the good news is, this course was part 3 of 3, so it will be the last French course I need to complete my specialist certification. Any further additional qualification credits I take through The University of Western Ontario will be in English—I won’t need Google Translate, and I’ll be able to work on a tablet.
3. Forum Software
There is no way to sugarcoat this: It continues to suck. I have never taken an online course that had good forum software. I like the way this one was set up with a tabbed interface—you could open the content in a second window and go back and forth between the readings and the message board—but the message board part was simply awful to use. It didn’t have a sidebar with a message list (it was all one pane) so you had to reload the whole forum, and scroll back down to find your spot again, any time you read or replied. It might only cost a few extra seconds, but as for the annoyance factor, when you had to wade through this badly designed architecture over and over again, this was a big deal for me. What I need is a feed reader-style interface where you can load it and at once see what you haven’t read yet, so you can work through the new messages one-on-one, and reply.
4. The Workload
It was fine, but very vanilla. In every ‘module’ (aka week of the course) there were five primary tasks: start a conversation based on a reading which the instructor assigns you to be in charge of; do the same for a discussion question; reply to the conversations started by others (using citations from the readings to prove that you did them); participate in a badly run group project; and do one essay-type assignment which usually had very specific criteria (specific word count, broken down into 250 words for this, 300 words for that and so on). Nothing to set the world on fire here!
I did like having a predictable setup for the week. Given how quickly things moved during a summer session that was only four weeks, there wasn’t really time to reinvent the wheel every week. But many of the message board conversations were by design stilted since you had to make sure to put in the blasted citations, and the group project’s fortunes rose and fell on how good that week’s assigned ‘leader’ was. It felt, more often than not, like the leaders in my group were just as happy to, for example, put together the PowerPoint themselves, rather than assign it out to people.
I felt like I contributed as best as I could given the setup and the few designated tasks the assignment gave us. But I also feel like I dodged a bullet by never getting assigned to be the leader; I think they worked much harder than I did.
5. The Instructor
She seemed fine. But I’m not exactly sure what her role in this was supposed to be. We got course evaluation forms from the university that had things in it like, “led stimulating discussions” and “engaged with students on a personal level,” and I don’t think ours did any of that. Her primary tasks seemed to be to assign who had to be the leader and post about which reading, and mark our assignments. I think one time she replied to one of my conversations and said something nice, then posted a question to further the discussion. Nobody took her up on it. With twenty people all posting assigned questions and readings, it was hard to keep up with every conversation in only a week.
6. Final Thoughts
So, would I do it again? Probably. I do think that, during the summer at least, I would have rather taken this course in person. But they tend to be going online for this stuff more and more, and the next one I take will be during the school year where I am just as happy to do it online, on my own time.
I’m debating between Library/Media Specialist and English as a Second Language for my next three-part specialist qualification. Both of those I can take in English, which I think will make things easier. And the fall/winter terms stretch the course out over two months, not one, so that’ll make things easier too. I am not jumping for joy with excitement over the whole thing, but these are useful courses for me, and if I max out one more three-parter, it’s equivalent to a Master’s degree on the pay scale if I ever get a unionized job.