09 November 2010

Online teaching tools and resources

Among the many hats I wear, one is part-time, adjunct lecturer. I teach two classes in the Autumn at Middlesex University in London: one called Empirical Investigations of Language and one called Research Methods for Language Teachers. Part of the problem of being an adjunct, part-time lecturer is having to teach without access to your own office on campus and, in my case, having to use two university libraries (the one at Middlesex and my home library at the OU). Things get mixed up all the time, especially in terms of the computer. I can take my laptop to Middlesex, but as I don't have it set up to access their network, I can't print anything out, so I have to use one of the Middlesex computers anyway. They also don't have Wifi, so I had to do work on one computer, remove the LAN cable and work on the other one. Last year I was lugging my laptop in and using a flash disk to shuttle between the two. It was a mess. I would also upload handouts to OasisPlus (which is the Middlesex name for WebCT), but every time I made a change, I had to re-upload the files. I was also e-mailing students about class activities, but that never worked properly because I could never ensure that people actually checked their e-mail.

This year, I am solving the problems in a new way, sans my laptop and using only online tools that I can access anywhere:
Google docs. Although not a great interface and not easy to work on, it does allow continues web publishing and provided you are okay working within the limits of the document, it works well. When you can make changes, the document is automatically published back to the web, saving the hassle of uploading it again. I can also tweak the module guide and other documents without having to print everything out.
Wordpress blogs. I keep blogs for both classes (ELT4123 and ELT4101), posting all the handouts and everything from the class. As I am teaching Research Methods for the second time, I kept all the posts from last year (made them drafts) and now I can go back through them and repost the relevant ones. This saves a ton a time and allows me to offer content to the students throughout the week, not just when we meet. I do a lot of scheduling of blog posts as I tend to be really interested in doing it at on one day at one particular time and then forget about it when I start thinking about my thesis. If I can schedule five or six posts in a sitting, the students can have new content for a couple of weeks and I only have to put in 10 minutes of work. Also, as all the links to documents go back to Google docs, I can change the document without worrying about the link. I also never e-mail my students anymore. I tell them the content is on the blog and they are required to check it at least once a week. No more 'I didn't get the e-mail' excuses, as it is now their responsibility to check the blog.
×Dropbox. I still use Dropbox for my own work, but it is less helpful when I'm working on a computer that's not mine as it requires that you download the program and then allows that computer access to all your files in the dropbox folder. I like the public link feature for Word documents and use that when I have something stable that I'm not changing and is too complex for Google docs, but as you can only make those changes on computers that have Dropbox, it's not especially helpful in my current situation.
Facebook. Three of my five students use Facebook regularly, so I set up a group for them. I have my privacy features set so that they can't see any information about me beyond my picture and name, and I encouraged them to do the same for me (although no one has so far). I do not add any new or different content to the Facebook group, but I do try to post the blog entries there and, more importantly, deadlines for assignments. I still prefer the blog for adding real content (especially as I can reuse it over the years), but this is a good way to deliver the blog content to the students.
UPDATED: I acutally think Firefox portable might be the solution to this problem. I am going to use it this week and let you know.
Xmarks and Firefox. I installed Firefox on the two computers I tend to use at Middlesex and downloaded my bookmarks using Xmarks. This makes a big difference in the ease and quickness I can access things when I am using another computer. I have left the links on the computers, as I believe they are limited to my login and password on those computers, although even if someone did access them, there is really no issue as the computer doesn't save your password or login names and all my bookmarks are pretty boring. It makes accessing all the materials for class so much easier.
So far I have been successful in leaving my laptop at home, which makes the mile walk from the train to campus much more pleasurable. In the 18 months I've been at Middlesex, I have also not had any problems with the Internet being down when I go to the school, although if that were to happen, I still have my textbooks to teach from and I could have the students look at the handouts after class, as they would still be online.
Happy technology using everyone!