Tales from the Zoom

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This article was originally published on University Affairs.This article was originally published on University Affairs.

I was scheduled to teach a course about joy and positivity this spring in Cortona, Italy. Spoiler alert: it was cancelled. I was lamenting not only the loss of seeing how students would apply course concepts to their lives, but also the forfeiture of sipping cappuccinos together at a nearby café after class, when, like an angel, my vice-dean sent me an email inviting me to consider teaching my Communication Skills and Strategies course online this spring.

People who know me might tell you they don't know anyone who loves being in a classroom with students more than I do. I was both thrilled by the opportunity and concerned about how to migrate such an interactive course to "fully remote delivery." Truth be told, I also felt that the reputation of the course was on the line. (Last fall, this course had a waitlist equal to the number of spots.) Is it possible to live up to the hype when I'm reduced to pixels?

I had a few weeks to mobilize. I jumped in with both feet and began reading and watching videos about teaching online. Ugh. I can operate the learning management system and I'm sound on pedagogical foundations, but I had specific questions. Fortunately, I've got educational developer buddies across the country and sought out their expertise. God bless Memorial University's Gavan Watson (see this interview with him in University Affairs, June 16), who generously video-chatted with me to address my queries and give me reassurance.

It quickly became clear that one of my fundamental foundations for teaching remained true online: People don't care what you know until they know that you care. Thank you Karen Costa (99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos) for ideas to build relationships and show my humanity. I created a welcome video and I began to engage with students individually via email before the course started. I began making short videos for content delivery. I must apologize and admit, I deviated from Ms. Costa's "simple and sustainable" and got tutored in Final Cut Pro by my son, Michael, who is studying TV and radio production (added bonus: we had some of our longest conversations in years, over screen shares).

As the core of the course was feeling reasonably solid, a terrifying question hit me: What about snacks?! Some years ago, I began a practice of bringing snacks for everyone on the first day of class and then inviting students to take turns bringing snacks. Last fall, a student did a speech about what makes my fourth-year Communication Skills and Strategies such a great course and I can still picture his pie chart that read, "90% snacks, 10% Billy's teaching." I set that aside for the moment.

I nervously greeted the students on the first day. My favourite moment at the beginning of the term is to memorize and then address each student by their names, but I was thwarted by the fact that their names were already included with their Zoom faces. I quickly found, however, some real advantages of this environment: students got to see all of each other's faces instead of the backs of heads; and instead of typically sitting in the same place and interacting with the same few students, the breakout rooms introduced them a greater diversity of partners for learning activities.

Much of the course focused on public speaking. Students and I both faced the challenge of trying to offer "eye contact" by staring at a webcam, or imagining the experience of speaking to an audience by gazing at the gallery of Brady Bunch-like faces on screen (if the '70s TV reference is lost on you, please click here). Given students' pandemic-induced stress levels, I found giving them the option to share a video instead of presenting live worked well. They will get the full learning experience of standing in front of a room full of people post-COVID.

Although my classes have had relatively little "lecturing," it was a real adjustment to create 10-minute videos to deliver content asynchronously. I was pleased that I could check views on YouTube or in the LMS diagnostics to see that students were actually watching. One of the challenges of "flipping" the class was creating student engagement with asynchronous components. In the absence of seeing the quizzical looks during class, I played with ways to have them ask their questions.

A few weeks into the term, one of my colleagues posted on our staff association forum, "we simply cannot do as good a job online as we can in person, for countless reasons." This comment stoked my fears for a moment, but I replied both from my background in social psychology and my personal conviction. Expectation effects are powerful. If people assume, like my colleague did, that we are stuck with an inferior situation, we won't produce the results of approaching online as a developmental opportunity. Hey, I would trade my iMac for a classroom on campus in a heartbeat, but if this is the game we are playing, let's approach it with wonder and see just how awesome it can be.

I sought feedback from students during the term about various course elements, including if the "high-production" videos were more desirable than the little-floating-head-in-the-corner. Pro tip: you are probably fine sticking with "simple and sustainable." I've learned to be skeptical of my own perceptions of how a course went, so the many positive unsolicited messages from students were essential in convincing me that great quality is possible online.

I'll admit that I missed little things, like the organic conversations that happen before and after class, or my habit of playing songs from a student-generated playlist pre-class. And, dammit, I haven't found a way (yet) to share snacks.

Billy Strean is a professor in the Faculty of KSR and a 3M National Teaching Fellow at the University of Alberta.