Zoom-out or Zoom-in? Teaching in the time of Covid.

One short month ago (or long, depending), I had just one class period to talk face-to-face with my students about what we hoped we could retain in in the change to distance-learning. On that last f2f day, I asked students (a) If they’d taken an on-line class before, what they liked/ hated about online learning; (b) What they most hoped we could preserve in our distance-ed class-space; and (c) What they were most worried about. Across three undergraduate classes, their responses were nearly unanimous. The gist of it:

    • We like Zoom! We only like slides if you talk (screencast)
    • We hate discussion boards where we have to reply to at least two posts
    • We love your lectures and want to ask you questions
    • We are worried about forgetting to come to class; if it’s synchronous we think we’ll more likely remember
    • We are worried about forgetting assignments; please send us lots of reminders!

With these responses in-hand, my university generously gave us two weeks (one week + spring break) to get ourselves re-situated on-line. While managing my own anxiety about the situation and juggling family demands, I got to work. The first challenge? How to reconcile the fact that what my students emphatically wanted was counter to the recommendations for best practices in on-line teaching and learning. That is, they wanted synchronous zoom meetings. What to do?

Understanding that students don’t always know what’s good for them when it comes to “best-practices” in teaching and in learning, I first toyed around with screen-casting and all that entails. It didn’t take long for me to realize that completely transforming my interactive f2f class formats to the “screen-cast-flip-discussion” style I was reading about would take a massive amount of effort on my part and would be met with a massive amount of disappointment by my students. That style of learning is not what they signed up for, when enrolling in a small liberal arts college known for it’s student-centeredness. Indeed, I didn’t think I really had the personal bandwidth to pull it off. So, also keeping in mind the fact that the current pandemic is deeply distressing and we need to give ourselves and others as much grace as we can, I decided to give my students what they asked for, and to give myself a break in the process.

So I decided on Zoom or bust. Relative to screen-casting (in my estimation anyway) the learning curve for fiddling with Zoom features was manageable, and was made all the more fun with the addition of a green screen. It didn’t take long for me to see how I could use polling, break-out rooms, and the chat feature for active engagements. I can still show videos, and I can still digress when a student asked an engaging question. Regarding workload on the students’ end, I made some adjustments too, given their stress levels and learning curves are quite high, as well.

At the end of the first week, I was heartened by my decision. I had excellent (near-perfect) attendance, despite the fact that many students had returned home thus we are now collectively scattered across three time zones. A sampling of student remarks about how the first few class periods went follows:

    • Excellent! This was perfect!
    • It felt like we were back in class
    • It felt mostly regular, like I was in class again
    • I loved it! I thought it was just as informative as our regular class
    • I think today went good! I liked how we are able to still discuss and see you!
    • I liked being able to see the PowerPoint and watch you talk at the same time. I liked the use of the mouse to point at things on the screen!
    • Felt like a more normal lecture than expected. I like this set-up!! thank you!
    • Today went well. It is easier to take notes now on the computer because I can take pictures of your notes and just listen more than have to worry about the notes I am writing. Felt like a normal class, loved it. Thank you

I am writing this now at the end of the second week and attendance has been great (not 100%, but it’s not 100% in f2f classes either), student compliments and positive remarks continue, and I am finding reasonable work-arounds for students with scheduling and wifi issues that prevent smooth engagement. What have I done, to make this happen?

 

Honestly, just “little things.” I hesitated to buy the green screen, but my husband knows me well and bought it anyways. I am so glad he did! The backgrounds for each class period are thematically related to the course topic of the day. The screen becomes a jumping off point for the material, and so we start off on a positive note. In-class review quizzes (something my students really like) are easy to do with polling. Think-pair-shares are easy to do with break-out rooms. Accountability is easy to do with the chat window. Students can still raise their hands whether in video feed or not. They can chat privately or publicly, and so we’ve retained what students wanted — the personal feel of our actual classrooms. I can’t do everything I had planned in the f2f environment (I teach Cognitive Psychology and enjoy doing in vivo demonstrations in class, and I have pulled off some via Zoom, but not all, that I’d originally planned).

Other changes are also, to my mind anyways, small. In-class exams are now, of course, delivered through the LMS system. But to reduce stress (we have enough of that already), they are open-note and available for 24 hours. The learning is in the doing, after all. Rather than comprehensive finals, students will be revising unit-papers. This gets them back into the material again with a fresh eye, and with a purpose. That is, I have promised each class that I’ll take their revised essays and create class e-books. Each class book has a theme and student essays will make up the chapters. I’m calling it the Covid-Keepsake Project. I am honestly excited about this new development.

With all this, rather than “zoom out,” I am finding that many students are actually “zooming-in.” Students who had not interacted much in my f2f environments are actually coming to our Zoom-room early to have a chat. Students who hide behind their computer screens in f2f class are showing me their faces in Zoom. Students who never raise their hand in class are writing in the chat window and sending me emails. As weird as it is to see many students in their bedrooms, as far as I am concerned, the semester is saved by the Zoom.

I understand, at the same time though, that it’s working well because I had a positive f2f relationship with my students before “college in the time of Covid.” I am under no illusion that what I am doing will always work this well. With the distinct possibility that our on-line learning situation may carry out into the next academic year I expect I’ll need to take the best-practices with remote learning in-hand and give them more careful consideration. For the current time-being though, as imperfect as f2f synchronous learning can be, it was the right solution for me and my students this semester.

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