Tip: Zoom & live class meeting options
Think about Zoom meetings you've attended - how have they worked for you? When they have been engaging & productive, what made them so? When they have been ineffective, what went wrong?
We - mostly - have survived the spring pivot to remote learning. If teaching over the summer, you’re probably trying to figure out exactly what that will look like. In the urgent pivot of the spring, we each did our best to meet our students where they were, with not a lot of time to reflect. Now is the time to take a moment to explore different interpretations of what “remote delivery” looks like, and make the most informed decisions possible.
Why is everyone using Zoom? Synchronous online classes provide definite benefits, the greatest of which is student-instructor and student-student relationships. (Here’s an excellent literature review outlining many of the benefits.) In the end, our hope is that getting everyone in a “room” together will mimic the on-campus classroom experience with the most fidelity.
I would ask, however, that you think about the many Zoom-facilitated meetings and webinars you’ve attended over the past two months. How have they worked for you? Have they really mimicked an in-person meeting or training? When they have been successful - engaging and productive - what made them so? When they have been ineffective, what went wrong? We can reflect on these questions from the point of view of the instructor, but it’s also helpful to see things from the participant (student) side as well.
What is wrong with Zoom (and multitasking while Zooming)? Multitasking, or “rapid task switching” is inefficient for a variety of reasons. These constant switches of attention negatively impact studying, doing homework, learning and grades. Technology makes these impacts worse: students tend to have lower class performance when they have email and the internet available to them. We know that distracted students in class don’t perform as well: this is why so many of us try to ban cell phones and add language to our syllabi about what it means to be an active participant in class. Now the students are at home, and we must add to the typical sources of in-class distraction a whole new layer of family and other home life disruptions. We have to acknowledge that sustained attention is going to be a constant concern.
Research shows many negative impacts on of distraction on memory and especially among students attempting to multitask - even among graduate students. When we try to use too many technology tools, student confusion and over-stimulation can interfere with learning. The “continuous partial attention” required by Zoom (and other video conferencing media) is also - as you can probably attest - just plain exhausting.
What can we do about Zoom fatigue? Harvard Business Review has a helpful article on how to reduce Zoom/screen fatigue, including using plain backgrounds, hiding your video of yourself, avoiding multitasking during calls, and turning off video when you aren’t talking. (Another article about K-12 virtual classrooms and another article about Zoom/screen fatigue in a hybrid environment.)
What can we do that isn’t live virtual class meetings? Daniel Stanford of the Center for Teaching and Learning at DePaul University has a great article explaining how synchronous sessions are high-bandwidth, high-immediacy forms of teaching and his graphic (below) is a clear way to visualize some alternatives.
I really need to Zoom with my students - but how long should my classes be? Resist the urge to meet on-camera with your students for the exact amount of time that you would be in the classroom. Any time when you would be talking in a in-person class meeting - not answering questions, but outlining assignment instructions, lecturing, explaining, providing examples - should probably be either an announcement or a video that students watch on their own time. Turn a two-hour class into a 1-page outline of instructions, a 10-15 minute video, a task students work on for 30-45 minutes, a live chat or live video session of 10-15 minutes for answering questions about the work, and then a 15-30 minute reflection activity the student completes on their own time. Within Canvas there is a chat function you can use to answer questions “live” while your students read, watch, and work.
Research supports breaking up your class time in this way: this article suggests having synchronous classes of 30-45 minutes (and further suggests that chat functions work best when limited to under 7 students), and this article suggests that synchronous class be a complement other course activities.
Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University, has a google doc that contains some tips based on best practices in web-conferencing (including minimizing expectations for attendance at sessions).
How long should we estimate a task will take? As we re-think our course design, we have to consider the fact that we are no longer sitting in the classroom with students, able to observe their progress and easily adapt instruction. We need to be much more deliberate about the amount of time it will take a student to complete a task - we won’t be in the room with them, won’t able to give them a few more minutes based on how the class is progressing, or tell them “stop here, we will finish the rest next time.” Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence has this excellent blog post on this topic, along with a calculator to help faculty estimate how long it will take students to complete various tasks.
So, what’s the big picture? In the end we each have to do our best to meet our students’ needs while protecting their - and our - health. Given what we do know about potential negative impacts of too much screen time in general, and “Zoom time” in particular, I would suggest that we (1) seriously consider how much time our students will spend in synchronous sessions, and (2) do what we can to minimize negative impacts on students.
What are your thoughts on course design for the fall?
PS: Next up - advice for online course improvements…