For my first "Teaching Tips" post, I offer a few small considerations that helped me adjust to the impromptu, unplanned shift into remote and online learning this past semester.
For each of my three courses, the weekly routine was organized differently (more on that later), but there were some structural elements to our synchronous sessions that overlapped, ones for which students expressed particular appreciation.
In presenting these tips, I do not want to imply that "live" video conferencing should be considered the best or only option for online teaching, nor that these synchronous sessions can even be the most equitable or viable option. Given the likelihood, however, that, at some time or another, we each may be teaching using a video conferencing format, with at least some of our students, during a synchronous session, here are some pointers:
3 Teaching Tips for the Zoom Classroom
Use Time Blocks ~ Watch the Chat Box ~ Check In
USE TIME BLOCKS
No matter how long a video session lasts, or what platform it is held on, split each meeting into discrete segments of around 15 minutes.
Provide students with an agenda of these segments a day or two in advance so that they know what to expect. Attending classes online can produce anxiety for many, so having a sense of the lay of the land beforehand can help to mitigate any added concerns.
Each Time Block should be designated to last for anywhere from 10-20 minutes. The blocks can be mixed and matched to organize a full session. Here are some examples of Time Blocks that I used this semester:
DISCUSSION STARTER - Two students did a bit of extra preparation for each class (and only had to do this one time). Each wrote a thoughtful post for Moodle which they explained during the first few minutes of the Zoom session. Allowing students to write out their ideas beforehand gave them greater confidence when presenting, and the presentation meant that peers who did not have a chance to read the Moodle post would still be able to engage with those thoughts. This activity also grounded us in the questions students were actually having, rather than just my own prompting thoughts.
PERSONAL REFLECTION - Offer a few minutes for students to write and think on their own with their videos on Mute. This way, they aren't being asked to respond without adequate time to process what they are hearing. It requires more cognitive energy to follow along with a Zoom conversation, so give students the space to digest.
BREAKOUT ROOMS - Divide students into groups of 3-4 to have smaller conversations with each other, ideally with some form of prompt that they need to consider, whether a textual quotation, a set of questions, or a general topic. While we can't walk around the room chatting with these groups in person, you could choose to "join" each breakout room in turn or simply let them unfold as they may before returning to the main session. I asked each group to keep record of their conversations, then posted these notes to the LMS, which allowed other classmates to read what other groups talked about after class.
BREAKS! - I almost forgot this bit, but a student gently reminded me that they had been in back-to-back Zoom meetings all day and, sometimes, in a 2 or 3-hour class, just needed a bit of time off the screen. For a 2-hour seminar, we did a 10-minute break in the middle of our meeting so that everyone could step away. For a shorter class, even 2-3 minutes could be helpful.
2. WATCH THE CHAT BOX
Students can use the Chat function to "raise" their hand or ask a question, but it can be easy to become so absorbed in the 16 little boxes of faces that we forget to even turn on this feature or, if it is on, to pay any mind to it. Try to make a conscious effort, even posting yourself a reminder note if you need to. Explain to students how they can use this chat box function for your class. Do you want them to ask questions during a lecture? Do you want them to post questions that follow the discussion being had, but which they don't want to articulate aloud? Do you want them to only use it for the Raise Hand function? Think about these offerings and choose what works best for your class's flow and style.
3. CHECK IN — AND CHECK OUT
Something my students particularly appreciated was that I spent the first 3-5 minutes of every synchronous session "checking in" with them. This wasn't easy, of course, and there were many moments of what I came to term affectionately "the Zoom silence."
When you ask a general, open-ended question to the class at large, awkward pauses seem to reign, as students fear pushing that "un-mute" button and accidentally trying to speak over someone else. But for that first few minutes of each Zoom meeting, I persisted, simply asking how people were doing, letting one or two voices chime in, and sitting with the silence an extra few nanoseconds to allow anyone else to speak up if they chose.
Even if most students felt they couldn't say anything, they appreciated not diving in immediately to material, nor pretending that this was the same as meeting together in person. I recognized and respected these differences, all the while wanting them to know that I was still there, available for them, and witnessing and experiencing them as individuals—even as they had become tiny boxes on my home computer.
Simple questions that demonstrate you care bout their wellbeing as well as their academic progress:
How is everyone doing today?
How's the workload this week?
How are you finding your other classes are going?
Do you have any suggestions for our class moving forward?
Do you have any questions about this week's work?
What's new on Netflix?
Remember to close the class out, too. Towards the end of your meeting time, take a few minutes to pause, ask if there are any questions, and be sure to give extra time for people to decide to raise their hand or speak up.
We need to connect with students as much as we might when they were walking in and out of our classroom space, moments when we might simply smile at one another and exchange a quick pleasantry.
Despite today's social distancing, this virtual socializing can help us feel less distant.