Is there a platform that has become more ubiquitous in education than Zoom? What was a relatively unknown video conferencing software suddenly became the lifeline of educators and students across the world. While it’s far from a perfect program (much less a perfect solution to a bad situation), it is what many teachers, professors, and students have come to rely on over the summer and as classes resume around the country.
There are plenty of guides on how to get started on using Zoom, the basics, frequently asked questions and more found on the FSU ITS website, which is a great resource for all of your general Zoom needs. However, this post focuses specifically on Zoom in education settings and offers some tips to address the very specific needs of teachers. In part two, we will offer advice and tips for students.
Rethinking Class Time
During the pre-pandemic times, every teacher ran their class differently. Whether you gave lectures, encouraged discussions, or introduced activities (or, most likely, some combination of different learning approaches), Zoom has caused every educator to think more deeply about how they will deliver information to students. Undoubtedly, certain formats will be easier than others, but that doesn’t mean teachers need be limited in what they can do. The situation just demands additional consideration on class time.
For instance, take the concept of group discussions. While in a traditional classroom setting it is easy to have an open discussion, if you try and have a discussion on Zoom with a large group of students, chaos will ensue. In-person discussions rely on social cues both verbal and nonverbal, which are severely hampered by the video conference format. If you ask for students to give their thoughts on last night’s reading, you will have a long pause followed by multiple students talking all at once followed by students apologizing to one another. It’s a small hiccup, but it can also discourage conversation.
An easy solution is to use the reaction feature baked into Zoom. These simple gestures can be used as substitute for important mannerisms that do not translate well to the online format. For instance, you can ask students to raise a hand to indicate they have a question or that they want to talk next. You can also ask them to use the clap reaction if they agree with students or nod along if they have video enabled.
Lights, Camera, Learn
Speaking of enabling video, what might seem like a trivial decision is actually deceptively important. While we understand that many teachers would probably prefer to see their students faces, there are a few things to weigh.
The first and foremost is a technical issue: bandwidth. Some students may not have access to quality internet access, and turning on the video can cause connection problems. For this reason, let students know that if they cannot use video to reach out to you privately explaining why. Alternatively, you could ask students to post in the chat if they are unable to turn on video or are having connection issues in general.
Another aspect to consider is the student’s home life. Not every student has access to a private space or an environment they may be comfortable sharing on a Zoom video. For older students, they might have roommates or limited work spaces that they don’t want on camera.
While no one can fault teachers who want to be sure students are paying attention, there are plenty of reasons why students might not want cameras on. Having a conversation with students might be a good idea, and if students need to deviate from class policy, have them private message you during class or afterwards. In fact, the private messaging feature in Zoom is a great way to reach out to students on issues, whether it’s a turned off camera or other problems.
Technology seemingly has a mind of its own sometimes, and what works one day might not work the next. As discussed in the previous section, sometimes the factors are even out of your control, like if your internet service provider has an outage or congestion during class time, causing your video and audio to distort. While you cannot control everything, there are some things that you can check before your Zoom class sessions.
One of the most important things to check is your microphone. By default, Zoom automatically adjusts your microphone’s sensitivity, which is helpful in a lot of situations but might not be ideal for teachers. For instance, if you let a student talk for a bit, your microphone will automatically increase in sensitivity as it searches for your voice, even though you’re not talking. The next time you talk, your voice could pop in at a high volume. An alternative then is to set the microphone sensitivity at a fixed rate by finding your natural speaking volume.
Once you have that set, test yourself doing a variety of things—basically, do a practice lecture. We all have little quirks that we may or may not be aware of, and while fidgeting with a pen or shuffling a piece of paper does not have much impact with in-person class time, you want to be sure that your microphone isn’t picking up either. In fact, getting a basic microphone (as opposed to relying on built-in microphones on a laptop) can greatly help Zoom focus on your voice and not ambient noise in the immediate area.
While the focus of this post has been primarily on the technological considerations of Zoom for teachers, it should be stated that the current situation is still new and there will be kinks. The most important thing is to be honest, gracious and remember that we’re all human. Problems will pop up, things will not always go smoothly, and the most important thing to do when you encounter a snag is to be calm. Planning ahead and having backup plans in place for when you encounter problems can greatly smooth out the experience not only for your students, but for you as well.