This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large.
“Here’s an unpopular opinion,” wrote Viet Thanh Nguyen, professor of English, American studies, and comparative literature at the University of Southern California, in the New York Times in February 2021. “I like teaching on Zoom.” Although many professors were nervous about moving online in March 2020, after a few semesters of teaching through the Internet, reports are in, and they’re much less catastrophic than some people predicted. Here, from faculty with a few semesters under their belts, are a few key upsides of Zoom.
Human connections are different, but for some people, easier
Vikki Katz, a professor of communication and information at Rutgers University, surveyed thousands of undergrads about their remote-learning experiences and found that what was the most important for students trying to learn online was the accessibility of the faculty. “Whatever you can do to reduce that sense of distance…and keep the connection strong between you and them,”she said to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “is going to pay dividends.”
Liza Kaufman Hogan, a journalism professor with online teaching experience who wrote an essay to encourage colleagues new to the art at the beginning of the pandemic, said that although it was hard at first to connect with introverted students, “I looked for ways to connect with all the students on a personal level—and it paid off.” She described her efforts to engage with a particular student, who she thought ended up speaking “more in class than she might have in an in-person course.”
For some shyer students, the occasionally asynchronous nature of online connection, a mode they are accustomed to from their non-academic lives, really worked—especially when professors came up with creative ways to make it happen. Law professor Julian Davis Mortenson recommended on Twitter “asking students to record intro videos at the start of the semester.” He used “goofy ice breaker questions” that he also answered in a video, then left the option to respond open to those who were interested. “The results,” he wrote, “are delightful.”
More students may participate.
Nguyen mentioned that in a lecture he taught online to a hundred undergrads, he helped break up his lectures by asking six students per class to serve as his interlocutors during each class section. They’d be prepared ahead of time to speak, and he’d ask them questions throughout. “It turns out that the students are much less shy speaking on video than they might be before a live audience,” Nguyen wrote.
Then there’s the Zoom chat function. Veterans of workplace meetings that are silent on video but have lively chat rooms will recognize the advantage Zoom holds for online teachers who have students who are shy about speaking, but happy to type. This textual backchannel gives students a place to ask questions they can draft ahead of time, and allows professors the chance to respond to feedback as they go.
Breakout groups are better.
Students and professors noted that the practice of putting together “breakout groups”—little pods of five to ten students who exit the larger class to address a specific question, discuss a document, or do some finite amount of work—is much better online. In a big classroom, people must shift around physically, and then the room is full of the noise of other breakout groups. In Zoom, a small group is easy to form, and discussion can be clear for all to hear.
Guests can come from anywhere.
Money for flying in guest speakers to your average lecture course can be scarce, and it can be awkward to ask a subject-matter expert to virtually “attend” a live lecture, where they might be projected as a giant talking head on a screen to a room of restless people. On Zoom, for an online-only class, everyone is a head on a screen. The expert, who can appear between other obligations with minimal need to arrange time away from regular life, can relax a bit, and the playing field is leveled.
Although many campuses are back to in-person instruction this fall, given how uncertain everything remains, it’s good to know that teaching on Zoom is not only possible, but sometimes—given the right combination of students and professors, and everybody’s willingness to play along—better.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusion or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Interfolio.