When I hear people talking about college teaching on Zoom, I sense the unspoken assumption that Zoom is a poor substitute for classroom instruction most of the time. But as teachers, we must think critically about that assumption. If all we do is point a camera at ourselves doing what we do in the classroom, it’s true that the result can be second best. But when we plan our teaching from the ground up for Zoom, it can be a setting for outstanding pedagogy.
As a full-time faculty member at Northwestern University, I teach marketing and social science to students in the integrated marketing communications program. My key qualification, aside from my Northwestern master’s degree in psychology, is a few decades of experience as an advertising executive. As an ad man, I learned some valuable lessons on how to convey complex information in such a way that it will be understood and remembered.
In the ad business, we talk about “using the medium”: the notion that you can’t take material from one medium, like a Coca-Cola sign, and slap it on another medium, like Instagram. You must rethink everything when starting on a new medium and redesign the content for the medium. When ad agencies started making websites — and later apps and social media campaigns — a story some of us recounted to dramatize the differences between media was about a phrase from almost 100 years ago: that television is “radio with pictures.”
In historical hindsight, it turned out that television is not radio with something else added — television has its own requirements and offers its own possibilities. In the early days of television, Jack Benny stood in front of a microphone and did his radio act on camera, which did not fully capitalize on the new medium. But when Lucille Ball manufactured bonbons on camera and the conveyor belt went out of control — that was television.
And so it is with Zoom. When I started using this platform to teach last quarter, my students said they would much rather be in a live classroom but were willing to give online instruction a chance. Throughout the quarter, I asked them for feedback on the way we were using Zoom. Based on their input, together we evolved the course.
The first thing they asked me to change was to stop talking so much. They said it was hard for them to concentrate on a long lecture on Zoom — in other words, they were telling me, we need to use the medium. Zoom lectures felt more detached to them than ones delivered in person, which made it hard for them to focus. As a result, I tried last quarter to limit my Zoom lectures to a short opening monologue, plus a few brief interludes of explanation to introduce new activities. Before class, I assigned students to read booklets of four to 10 pages in length on each topic area. The booklets were time-consuming to prepare, but my students thought they were a great way to learn. And in addition to the other assigned readings, they could watch my series of short video lectures on the course website. During our Zoom class time, I recapped the main points, giving a fresh take the most pertinent material. This allowed me to express my excitement about the ideas, instead of giving a rote explanation.
What my students liked best on Zoom was having small group discussions in breakout rooms. Many felt shy about speaking up in front of a whole checkerboard of 24 classmates on Zoom, but in the small breakouts, they felt comfortable thinking out loud and testing out ideas on each other. And when it came time to reconvene the larger group, they were ready with something to say about what happened in the breakout.
What did all this do for the learning process? Zoom became a way to implement active learning, the style of instruction in which students participate in the process rather than playing the role of passive audience. Active learning can make it easier to learn, and easier to remember what they have learned. To make this happen, this was my checklist:
- Talking less. Zoom was just not friendly to a talking head. I thought of my mini lectures not as events in themselves but as introductions or kickoffs to small-group work sessions
- Motivating students to come to class prepared. We can’t ditch live lectures without replacing them. My students loved the booklets I handed out, which basically enabled them to take in quickly the material that I would have explained if I had done a conventional lecture. When students encountered the material in several forms throughout the course, it helped make the concepts stick. I could have quizzed them on the reading before each class, but it turned out not to be necessary — they made it clear in the discussions they had done the reading.
- Using Zoom rooms. To apply Andy Warhol’s adage, on Zoom everyone is famous for 15 seconds. In small breakout rooms, they can take ownership of the ideas, identify what’s not clear to them and what they disagree with, and test how far they can run with the material on their own. They can think critically and build their skills, applying the ideas to solve problems.
- Varying the rhythm and structure. Zoom is the ultimate in low production values, but we can compensate with variety. So, I emulated the structure of a television variety show, but rather than using this structure to deliver jokes, I delivered a canon of social science theories. After each major idea, I asked students to go into a breakout room to apply the concept to analyze a situation or solve a problem. For example, when we studied cultural anthropology, I asked them to teach the others about a personal experience they had as a member of a cultural group such as an ethnic, racial or religious group, or a gender or gender identity group. I tried to keep each breakout discussion to about five minutes, because students told me the conversations tended to be less productive if they went on for much longer than that. As they said in vaudeville, “Leave them wanting more.” With this format, I was able to move on to something else before Zoom fatigue set in.
- Adopting the right mind-set and attitude. If you believe Zoom teaching is inherently worse than classroom teaching, it will be. If you can wrap your mind around the exciting possibilities of Zoom — or just give it a fair try — you’ve taken the first step. There are many ways to cultivate Zoom enthusiasm and make it infectious. For example, think: Why do I love this field to begin with? How can I express that on Zoom?
- Continuing to evolve the format with input from students. Throughout the quarter, I asked the class what was working best on Zoom. Aside from just asking, you might consider using polling tools like PollEverywhere.com or Slido (which is at sli.do). Speaking of trying things out and evolving, if you’re not comfortable with the technical aspects of how Zoom works, seek help!
Zoom has its drawbacks. It is not very welcoming to students who lack a good internet connection or a private place to study. It can leave everyone feeling disconnected, and it can trigger Zoom fatigue. But when used thoughtfully, Zoom can be the setting for transforming a class into an active community of teacher-learners.
This remote learning platform does not have to be a pale imitation of a live classroom. If we use the medium for what it does best, Zoom teaching can be great on its own terms.