A Difficult Challenge

virtual-classroomThis is about the most difficult challenge I faced when our university switched to online teaching due to the COVID-19 crisis. I had not much trouble with the technical aspects and logistics. I may not be a digital native but I know that the ability to create, evaluate, and effectively utilize information, media and technology are required 21st century skills that teachers are expected to possess. So, I tried my best to acquire them.

What’s the difficult challenge then?

Online teaching is still teaching. This is what I reiterated in a previous essay that I wrote. Teachers should find a way to achieve the objectives of the course/s they are teaching, cover the topics enumerated in the syllabus, discuss the lessons, give assignments, and assess learning. They should find a way to motivate the students and elicit their participation even if it is through online that they are teaching. Of all these things that teachers need to do when teaching using the online platform, what I found most difficult to do  is assessment. Determining whether or not students learn and measuring the extent of the learning they had is very challenging.

And here is how I navigated around that difficult challenge…

The university where I am teaching now provided us with two platforms to use for online teaching – Cisco Webex and E~Class.

We meet our students online through  Cisco Webex.  In addition,  the E~Class, a part of the university’s portal, allows professors to upload course materials in whatever electronic format, give assignments and tests, and communicate with students. It has functions that allow the submission of students’ assignments and other graded course requirements and the corresponding marking/grading of the same.

During the first week of (online) classes, I tried to check an assignment submitted by one of my students through E~Class. Going through the many steps to open, mark/check, and grade the assignment took time. With me handling more than 140 students and if each of them, in a particular week, will have an assignment or two, the checking/marking would be time-consuming. I figured it would be better and easier if the students write whatever course requirements I assign using MS Word  for the reason that the said word-processing application has an “Insert-Comment” function that would allow me to directly mark/check  the students’ paperwork without clicking on too many buttons.

So, I asked my students to use MS Word when doing their assignments instead of doing them directly in the assignment section of the E~Class.

After that, I directed the students to send their assignments to me through email and not through E~Class anymore.

Then I discovered that such was not a wise move.

During the first week, my G-mail account was flooded with emails from students and I found it too difficult to organize their assignments and sort them per class. A few of my students  even used HWP and PDF. I had to tell them to use MS Word only for I could no longer find time to find out if HWP and PDF have that “Insert-Comment” function that MS Word has.  I got worried that I probably made the process of marking/checking course requirements and returning them to students more difficult than just doing everything through E~Class.

I summoned the gods and goddesses  of creativity and resourcefulness.

They responded.

I recalled that a friend sent to me some documents before through Google Drive. That was the first time I used Google Drive. I called that friend and asked if it is possible to share with a person a Google Drive folder/subfolder  and both of us (only) could access that folder/subfolder. The answer was yes. My problem was solved.

I created a Google Drive folder for each of the classes assigned to me this (spring) semester. After that, I created individual subfolders for each member of the class. It was tedious but it is the best way I could organize the assignments (and other requirements) of my students.

Individual Class Folders

Individual Class Folders

In the process, I had to require them to create Gmail accounts  so creating (and accessing) the Google Drive folder would be easier. As a result, starting the second week of the semester, they were not sending their assignments to my email anymore. The flood of e-mails in my G-mail account subsided. All they need to do is to open their Google Drive folder and drag and drop to the subfolder we are sharing whatever I require them to submit.

If they want to know their scores and whatever feedback I had for them regarding their assignments, all they need to do is to open the subfolder (we are sharing) in their Google Drive folder. I realized then that I just created something similar to a digital student portfolio.


Individual Student Subfolders Inside a Class Folder 

In the past, I require students to maintain a portfolio. I asked them to submit to me a folder (South Korean students call it “file”), with their name, student number and class code. In those folders, they keep the results of their quizzes, exercises, tests, and other graded activities. I keep in my office those folders and bring them to class when we meet so they could check their own scores and see how are they performing. It enables them to track their own progress. They can literally determine weekly how many of the 100 grade points they need for the course they already have. That’s possible  because at the beginning of the semester I give my students a grade checklist/guide  and transmutation tables and teach them how to manually compute their own grades. So, I make sure that I mark/check  their quizzes, exercises, and whatever I require them to submit before our next meeting. If I also need to communicate something (related to our course) to specific students, I would insert notes in their individual folders.

With the Google Drive folder/subfolder, my portfolio system just turned digital.


Contents of an Individual Student Subfolder

I next tried to figure out how to give those quizzes and tests online.  The challenge is how to make the results of such quizzes and tests valid and reliable given the fact that it would be very easy for the students to open their notes while taking quizzes and tests because I am not there beside them to watch what they are doing.

It’s easy (and difficult at the same time) – create test items that require comprehension and analysis. Avoid creating questions or test items they could easily answer by simply glancing at their review guides. The quizzes and tests should prompt the students to apply what they learned and not simply write down in their answer sheets things they have memorized.

I initially thought of giving the quizzes and tests through the Survey Monkey, the online survey tool that I am using when I conduct  online surveys for my research works. The tool (Survey Monkey) would do the checking and all I need to do is generate a summary report for the scores – the same things I did when I want to get the summary results of the surveys I conducted in the past. But during the 2nd week of classes I had an epiphany that I could actually give quizzes and tests through Cisco Webex but had to require them to immediately drag and drop their answer sheets to their Google Drive folder/subfolder in order to maintain the integrity of the testing. It’s a process simpler and more practical than what I thought doing through Survey Monkey.

I tried it. I gave my first quiz through Cisco Webex. Through the “shared screen” of the application’s environment, I opened the PowerPoint file that contains the items for my first quiz. I jokingly told myself then that it was something historical – it was my first quiz in the COVID-19 era. I gave them 10 minutes to finish the 10-item vocabulary quiz. That’s the same amount of time we give our students for their quizzes during regular classes. That’s a very long time for my “advance” students but just enough for the “not-so-advance” among them. For the dragging and dropping of the answer sheets to their Google Drive folder, I gave them an additional 3 minutes, although I know that the process of dragging and dropping files to a Google Drive folder could be done in a minute or less. It was a trial of sort,  so I was a little bit generous with the time allotment. And yes,  it was a success.

What if they attempt to change their answers? They can do that easily because they have access to their own folders. But my students know that if they change anything on the answer sheets they drag/drop to the folders we are  sharing, the Google Drive folder has features that would allow me to see the exact date and time changes were made. No changes are allowed after beyond the time allotment I gave for dragging and dropping. I told them that changing anything in their quizzes and tests beyond the designated time of submission will be considered cheating.

To prevent my students from sharing with their friends in my other classes the information about the quizzes and tests I am giving them, I made sure that I prepare different sets of quizzes and tests for every class. In addition, I am not using quiz/test items from the item bank  that the department where I belong created for the quizzes and tests of expat ESL teachers like me. I created my own quizzes and tests.

Now, all of my students have their own Google Drive folders where all of their assignments, short and long tests, and their projects are put together. There they can check their scores and read my feedback anytime they want.

Now, which is easier to check/mark, the digital copies or the hard copies of  students’ assignments, exercises, quizzes, and tests. The answer is – the hard copies. The digital copies take longer to check/mark. This is the other reason I consider assessment as the most challenging part of online teaching.

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