This is an opinionated collection of thoughts gathered and collected through 5 years of teaching online classes in several online platforms. These thoughts are built around a 15-person classroom, which is where we have the most experience. However, any of the limitations that are present in a 15 person classroom are going to be greater in a larger classroom. (I suspect the difficulties increase superlinearlily vis-a-vis the number of people in the classroom.)
Require your students to turn their video on. Without any exception. Students without video will hide, will not participate, will be cooking a meal, etc.
Having a video on a person does two things. First, it serves as a commitment mechanism to actually participate in class, and only in class. But, more importantly, it sends a publicly observable signal to the other students in the class that each other person is participating.
Even if class is scheduled to start at Berkeley time, show up on the hour and open the classroom. Just as is the case with in-person classes, students cannot get into class without us there. But, unlike in-person classes where this time presents an opportunity for students to bond over the last problem set or essay, in the online setting, if we aren’t there the students have nobody to talk to.
Just as you would in-person, acknowledge each student when they arrive at class. When students arrive at class, their videos will most likely be turned off; this is a default setting on the part of Zoom. At this point, students will take a moment to compose themselves, find their headphones, and when they’re ready to be a part of class, they will turn their video on.
At this point (and probably not before) it is a great chance to simply say, “Hi Amrit!”, “Hey Nick.”, “Howdy Tanvi.” I was surprised to receive end-of-semester feedback about how much students appreciated this acknowledgment.
Be an absolute stickler about the mute button. Because everyone’s audio is mixed together into a single stream, even small amounts of background noise produce a cacophony that breaks the learning environment. Here, I have two recommendations.
First, require students’ default audio behavior to be “muted”. This will forstall most of the concerns about background noise being combined together into a problematic audio feed.
Second, tell students to unmute when they would like to make a contribution. This action serves effectively the same purpose as raising one’s hand in class.
In Zoom, as the host of the meeting, you have the ability to mute students. Inside each student’s video panel, on the upper-right is a “mute / unmute” button that you can click. If any of the students are not muted, this is your lever to pull.
Conversation as a whole class requires care. If you pose a question in a seminar of graduate students, there are a series of non-verbal cues that the students use to prioritize who is going to take a swing at answering your question — glances around the room, leaning forward in a seat, dodging an answer by furiously acting as though an answer exists in notes — but, these are harder for students to send to each other online. This causes students to be more willing to sit back and shirk.
Additionally compounding the difficulty of a whole-class question is some amount of delay through the very literal transmission of audio and video data. As a result, when a student does hazard a response, they will frequently end up responding on top of another student who is also responding.
When asking a question in a general classroom conversation, I like to first identify a set of students by name, and then pose the question to them. This reduces the number of people who are navigating the set of norms around answering. And, it does so without the direness of cold calling. I’ve typically identified about 5 students to include in a single batch.
To organize this, I typically work down the rows of my screen. (An important note, the arrangement of students’ faces is different for everyone; so, the arrangement of students that you see is not the same as the arrangement that someone else sees.) Once I’ve worked through all the rows; then I’ll pivot to work through all the columns.
After working through each of these rows and columns, you’ll have a keenly-attuned sense for who is talkative and who is relatively quiet in your classroom. As you continue to ask questions, you can provide space for the less forthcoming students to answer by structuring your name-callout to include these students.
LIke greeting students when they arrive, I was surprised to receive positive feedback in end-of-semester reviews.
Breakout rooms are great for group discussions. But you need a way for students to get your instructions into those breakout rooms. When we run breakout sessions in 202 and 210, we either write on the board, or broadcast onto the screen what we would like students to accomplish while they are in the breakout. This isn’t possible in Zoom.
Instead, providing students with a link (to a Google doc?) in the whole-class chat, asking them to “Click this link before you join the breakout” and then sending them into breakouts is quite effective.