For about two years now, I’ve been touting the value of the grading conference in teaching writing to anyone who will listen. I’ve found that meeting students one-on-one to grade their work, in addition to the more traditional “draft” conferences has had enormous positive effects on my students’ work and my own work as well. I started the practice in my face-to-face classes in order to stop procrastinating on grading papers, and I found as an unexpected outcome that the quality of the interaction is greatly improved. I’ll be happy to discuss it at length if you ask . . .
Anyway, about a year ago I decided to find a way to do the same technique with online courses. I always felt if I could just sit down with students and talk that the results would be so much better. I began using Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro in order to do that, with wonderful results.
Connect Pro is a web conferencing software. If you’ve ever attended a webinar (love those neologisms) you know what kind of software I am talking about. Conferencing software allows for lots of interaction: two-way audio, chat, sharing documents, live polls, etc. What makes Connect Pro work well in this case is the ability for the presenter to share his or her computer screen.
Here’s how it works in my course:
A few days before conferences are scheduled to begin, I post a sign-up sheet on FerrisConnect (I use the Group Manager and create one-person groups with times listed on a sign up sheet). Prior to the meeting, I’ve collected their work via the Assignments tool, and have the file open and ready to go.
At their alloted time, a student follows a web link to the meeting space and then calls me on the phone. There’s no software to download or accounts for them to set up. Once we get the meeting going, I share my screen and we read through the document together. I use Track Changes and Comments to record notes from our discussion (whether it is a draft session or a grading session), and when we’re done, I convert save the file as a PDF and post it back on FerrisConnect for them.
There are many advantages I found to conducting online conferences. First, they are efficient. Because we have a conversation, I can reduce a lot of the bypassing that happens in online courses. I can explain an issue and they can ask questions. At least I know that they’ve heard me.
Second, the experience is personal. Many students really enjoy these sessions, and I do too. I get to know them much better, and they get to know me. I use a webcam from my end, so they know my face and can see non-verbal cues as well. My “disappearing” rate among online students is lower with this personal connection, and we have better working relationships.
Third, the writing is better. Students have a better understanding of my feedback when I add the live conversation to the typed notes. I see fewer instances of students repeating the same kinds of flaws in their work, in part due to the conferences forcing me to stay on schedule with my feedback!
I’ve developed some specific practices to help things along. For example, I’ve learned to be flexible with time. I do conferences on afternoons, evenings, and weekend. I balked at doing weekend conferences at first, but then I remembered I would be sitting around Saturdays staring at a stack of (virtual) papers anyway. I also give students opportunities to reschedule if they need to, in order to meet as many of them as possible.
I schedule the conferences on the half hour. It doesn’t take half an hour to do a conference, but there needs to be that leeway for technology hiccups and students arriving late and early.
The conference room has a virtual door, and I use it. I lock the door when a student comes in, because sometimes the next student pops in early or at the wrong time.
I have students call me directly, rather than the built-in voice conference. With one student that’s easier. If I were meeting a group, I would use the built-in audio. I set up a Skype phone number so I could use a headset and the same number at home or at work.
I tell students to maximize their screen and ask them often “Do you see that?” when I’m highlighting something. There is a small time lag with AdobeConnect, and I have to be careful not to go too fast.
Overall, the time invested in grading this way is worth the return for me. Despite my years of trying, I am still very slow at grading papers on my own. This method is not for everyone; a lot of hours are eaten up doing these conferences. I do them seven or eight times a semester with each student.
In order to get started with Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, you can contact the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. I also recorded a demonstration of the software at work. You can find that here: http://tinyurl.com/jontaylorconf