Zoom Pedagogy

Reading this week:

  • Small Country by Gaël Faye

The pandemic hit and all my grad school classes went from being in-person to being on Zoom in the middle of a semester. I feel like this wasn’t as bad as it could have been (this is not a comment about the pandemic, which I don’t want to try to adequately address in a parenthetical). Since all of my classes had met in-person for half a semester, we all knew each other and so I think transitioning to seeing those same people on Zoom was pretty okay and you could maintain some of the same class dynamics. There were a lot of downsides, and frankly I couldn’t pay attention to online classes (I mostly just surfed Instagram in another tab), and my internet was pretty shitty then which made it difficult to attend class sometimes, but then again I had a pretty good excuse to simply not be in a class.

I dreaded the fall semester being online. I was pretty excited when Yale announced that we would be “hybrid,” which meant and as of this writing means a host of things, but I was excited for the chance to not be on Zoom. However, my internship over the summer was remote, so I got a lot more used to Zoom, and the prospect of being on Zoom all day no longer felt as bad. Plus my at-home setup improved significantly (I got a better chair and a second monitor), and now whenever I have to actually walk anywhere to go to an event it feels downright burdensome. All this is good, because all of the classes I am taking this semester are online anyways, so while some people are going to class in-person, I am not one of those people.

However, this has me thinking a lot about Zoom, and I think I have been to most versions of a Zoom class at this point, and so I think I have some authority to pontificate on the Dos and Don’ts of teaching over Zoom. My biggest regret on behalf of virtual students everywhere is that we missed a huge opportunity over the summer to really think through how an online class should work. The number one lesson we should all get out of this is that a Zoom class is not a regular class. I think a teacher that just tries to do their normal thing except into their webcam is not going to have crafted a particularly good experience. I also don’t think it would ever be easy to simply switch back and forth, because the kind of class you teach in person must be so different than the one on Zoom.

Other people have thought about this, but I don’t think we have thought about it enough. I particularly enjoyed this article about what videoconferencing could look like, and I think all the points are spot on. Zoom itself is probably a terrible way to classes in every scenario, and it is unfortunate that was what was ready to go when we all needed it. A quick google search for “zoom pedagogy” will also get you a number of articles giving you some tips, but I don’t think a lot of people have done that Google search. At the beginning of one of my classes this semester, the professor asked us to think of some ways to make sure the class was productive, and people were suggesting things like respect and making sure you do the readings. I was googling Zoom tips as fast as I could and people seemed surprised to be thinking about the idiosyncrasies of the Zoom format. All of which is to say we need to think more about how to teach a class over Zoom before we start barreling in! I shall now barrel into my thoughts:

An absolute minimum amount of time should be spent on Zoom. Staring at a computer screen is way shittier than staring at a teacher in real life, so I think lectures should not be held on Zoom. I think they should probably be pre-recorded, with automatic transcription added and then also posted in such a way that people can speed them up or slow them down. Then, class should be reserved for actual discussion and questions. Some teachers I know ask you to watch the pre-recorded lecture, and then just hold the lecture again. This is unhelpful and dumb.

Teachers need to make a much larger effort to make the class interactive. I think any class without time in the breakout rooms is an entirely wasted class. Even in a class of 15 people I hate trying to pipe up with everybody, but throw me in a breakout room with 3-4 people and suddenly we can actually have a conversation about a topic. Then maybe we can report back to the class or something, but have your students spend time actually being able to interact with people. I also think teachers should incorporate polls or other interactive things to just make students have to focus back into the class once again. There are also plenty of game platforms teachers could use to help students interact.

Make sure to enforce breaks! For serious, take a five-minute break every hour. Staring at Zoom sucks.

Teachers need to radically modify their expectations for presence. I think almost all of my classes at least state that students should be on-camera “as much as possible,” with a potential exception for bandwidth. I think this is a bad expectation and needs to be eliminated. There is an equity issue here, where students might not have the space at home where they can feel comfortable presenting themselves, even with virtual backgrounds or whatnot. It also helps with bandwidth, and although like I said many make an exception for it, once it is the class norm to be on-camera people feel pressured to be on-camera. I personally also find it very distracting to have myself staring back at me, and I suspect that builds anxiety for a number of people about how they look and how they’re presenting themselves. I realize people are visible in a classroom, but it’s a much different environment when people are largely focused on the teacher and the students are just another member of the “audience.” On Zoom, everyone is on equal footing, and everyone can be watched, and given that you can see yourself you are very aware of this. Just eliminate this expectation to be on camera. Zoom is never going to be a good substitute for the classroom, and so it will take some getting used to but we need to establish different norms for that presence. Also in here should be a point about being very flexible about whether people can show up to class at all.

Teachers should call on people. As a guy who will pipe up readily in real-life class, I find it awkward to say anything in a Zoom class. It feels more like a performance I have to get ready for when I’m framed on a camera, and it’s just awkward to figure out who’s trying to talk or who is about to unmute or who has their virtual hand raised or their real hand raised or whatever. Teachers should be in charge of calling on people and coordinating who is speaking when. My super amazing girlfriend teaches a section with few enough students that they can all see each other on one Zoom screen and everyone can see who wants to talk, but Zoom can quickly scale to where that’s no longer really possible, and that changes too if someone is screen sharing. This is probably also a great opportunity to ensure equity in the classroom, and making sure it isn’t just white guys dominating a conversation. So just call on people.

These are just technology complaints. I don’t think you should try to play a video over Zoom. You run into bandwidth issues and it becomes choppy half the time and the other half of the time you listen to it without the audio because the teacher didn’t click the right button. My super amazing girlfriend thinks there shouldn’t be any videos in a class anyways, so there. Also please teachers double-check the breakout rooms. I spent part of a Spanish class in a breakout room by myself, which was kind of relaxing but not very helpful.

Overall, I actually think it is a really great thing that the world has become much more adept to videoconferencing. A year ago, if you wanted to meet someone virtually, that would have been difficult to coordinate. But now, I am able to ask a whole range of people all over the world for a Zoom call and that is a perfectly normal request people are adept at handling. I think that radically changes the ability to network and connect with people, because instead of dragging someone out to a Starbucks you just need to ask them to click a Zoom link, and you could be in say, Connecticut while they are in DC. I also was able to conduct an internship remotely that in other years would have been in DC. It was much different than an in-person internship I think, but I really really hope the world retains this capability. That would open up internships and other opportunities to all sorts of people who would not otherwise be able to move themselves to DC or New York for the summer, or who need to be able to take care of a child at home or any other reason they can’t sit in an office 9-5.

I really hope there are a lot of people out there really thinking through how to improve the online presence and online teaching paradigm, in ways that aren’t just improving the camera quality. Now that we’re all comfortable with the concept of having classes and meetings online, we can really think through a new paradigm to make it as good and equitable an experience as possible. A boy can dream.