Thoughts and Tips on Teaching with Zoom

My reactions from, and recommendations for, distance learning

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Wednesday evening, the South Texas College of Law Houston announced that it would immediately halt all in-person classes. We had less than 24-hours to prepare for distance learning. This afternoon, I taught my first class using Zoom. This post will offer some thoughts and tips on the process.

1. Maintain normal appearances to preserve normalcy

My goal with distant learning is to preserve normalcy, as much as possible. Even though I was recording the session in my home office, I wore a suit and tie. I positioned my camera so there would be a neutral backdrop.

I encouraged my students to also attend class wearing the same sorts of clothes they would attend class with. Please, no pajamas, or worse. (One of my colleagues told me that in the past, a student dialed in from bed, and didn't realize his camera was on). Students also should try to keep a neutral backdrop. This cleanliness is not always possible with different types of living arrangements. Zoom also students to use "virtual backgrounds." The technology is sophisticated, and allows students to use any photograph as their backdrop. Use it.

You can see my YouTube Stream here. (I will not post the Zoom video, because I do not want to put my students' video feeds online.).

 

2. Put on a show

Make the audio has high fidelity as possible. I use a Blue Snowball USB microphone, which costs about $70. The quality is much, much better than the standard earbuds that come with a phone. (You can see it to my left in the video.) Students will have a tough time following along. At least make the audio sound better.

Also, look directly at the camera. When you are reading your notes, or glancing at another screen, your eyes drift around. This movement is very disconcerting. If you watch any effective television personality, he or she will have his eyes glued to the camera. I've practice this technique when I appear on TV hits. You should do the same. During the virtual class, I wasn't able to look at my notes as much as I would have liked to. As a result, I had to commit my lecture to memory in ways I usually would not have to. We have to adjust.

3. Call on students in alphabetical order

In class, I usually call on students by going up and down the rows. I can usually call on 40-50 students in a given class. Other professors may select a number of students who are "on call." Some professors may call on students who raise their hands. Some professors use a random number generator, or pull cards from a deck.

My plan for Zoom: call on students in alphabetical order. I sent each student a copy of the roster. They know where they will appear. And I call on each student, starting with last-name "A" and finishing with last-name "Z." I made through about 35 students in 90 minutes today.

At the outset of class, I mute everyone. (This muting avoid feedback). When I call on someone, I ask him or her to unmute. When you call on a student, "spotlight" or pin their video to the front. That way, classmates can see the student who is speaking. As you are talking with the student, manually switch between you (the professor) and the student. This back-and-forth creates something approximating a natural conversation. When they are done, I mute them and ask the next person to unmute himself or herself. (Zoom does not allow the host to unmute someone.)

Alphabetical ordering has a concrete benefit: students know when they are next. And this structure gives them time to get their mics and cameras ready. Random cold-calling will create problems. One related tip: ask students to register with their last names first. Smith, Bob, rather than Bob Smith. Last-name-first allows Zoom to easily sort people.

4. Avoid keeping the camera on screen-share mode for too long

I also discourage keeping the view on a screen-share the entire class. Students are used to watching video, and live interaction can keep people engaged. Looking at slides for 90 minutes will be tough to engage. Switch back and forth between scenes as much as possible. When I produced our videos for our ConLaw series, I tried to change scenes every 8-10 seconds or so. You should not be looking at the same scene for more than a sentence or two. This rapid change helps to promote engagement.

Easier said than done. I realize this sort of on-the-fly editing may not be feasible for most professors. I get it. Teaching online will require practice and flexibility. Maintaining the camera on the professor 90 minutes will get very, very boring.

5. Check the chat feature often

In Zoom, students can "raise their hands." But others may more willing to type questions in the chat. Students are used to texting. Keep an eye on the chat window, and answer the questions in the same fashion as you would in class. Repeat it, so everyone knows what the question is. Then answer it. And ask the person, by name, if their question was answered. If not, you can call on them.

6. Virtual Office Hours

I haven't done virtual office hours yet, but I plan to. My goal: keep the live room for an hour, and let people come and go as they need. Zoom also allows for private meetings. This may be helpful for confidential discussions.

7. Use Zoom to proctor final exams

Many students have asked about final exams. My strong, strong priority is that we return to classes by the end of the semester. But if not, Zoom can be used to proctor, and prevent cheating. That is, students will have to keep Zoom running while they take their exam. This presence ensures (to the extent possible) they are not asking others for help, or leaving the room. This solution is not perfect, but it helps to preserve some of the strictures of proctored exam taking.

I'll post more thoughts as I teach more classes.

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  1. If you do this for too long, I’d say you should get rid of the wired headphones and pick up a wireless (probably Bluetooth) headset with headphones and microphone both. Being tied down by a cord is workable in short terms, but eventually it’s going to be too easy to accidentally rip it out, put strain on it, etc.

  2. Use Zoom to proctor final exams

    Of course, you can also do an open book final exam.

    The best final I had in law school was a 24 hour take home. You picked up the exam, and had 24 hours to write up your answer (or word-process it) and then email it to the professor. Open book, open everything. IMO, that was a much better test of the material than the proctored exams.

    1. Counter-argument to take-home exams:
      During my law school experience (88-91), I had take-home exams of 4 hours, 8 hours, and 24 hours. (The vast majority were traditional in-the-classroom exams, with notes allowed but not hornbooks, etc) In each case of a take-home exam, there seemed to be a strong correlation between students “with advantages” (ie, students who had access to friends/family who were lawyers) and grades. I strongly suspected cheating…there were students in my first-year study group who barely knew the material when we studied together as a group. But managed to get all A’s on their take-home exams.

      I agree that, in a vacuum, an extended take-home exam is a better test of knowledge than something done with no notes/minimal notes allowed. But as someone who–at the time I was in law school–knew absolutely no lawyers, and who had no intention of cheating, I felt at a decided disadvantage. It was my impression that, regardless of honor codes, the easier it was for students to cheat risk-free, the higher the number of students who were willing to do so.

  3. Good points all, professor. I was in a staff meeting by Zoom today, at Univ of Texas Austin, the meeting both as an information session, and an experiment in the technology for how we can operate thru this. A couple of thoughts to add, from that experience.
    – apparently the first person to log in to the meeting, on zoom, by default became the ‘moderator’. That meant that the Director, who was conducting the meeting, didn’t have the controls to mute all or un-mute all. That might have been a function of the set-up for the particular meeting, and features of the license for Zoom. My unit is a small student-facing section with 20+ employees with one license for Zoom; by tomorrow UT will probably have an unlimited site license with different features. In any event, test that.
    – yes, use chat. And acknowledge that you are holding questions to the end, or to the appropriate time. It’s just like any other talk where you ask people to hold their questions, but it’s much better, because participants can see what questions have been queued up. At appropriate intervals, field the questions, by citing them from the chat queue. In your classroom setting it makes sense to ask the individual, with sound on, if your response has satisfied. In the office/staff setting, if the answer wasn’t clear enough, others will follow up in the chat.
    – as far as information about UT’s response to COVID-19, we are under very clear instructions, from the top down, that we do not give speculative answers. Do not go beyond the official communications which are being updated hourly. A student asks, what do you think is likely to happen? Do not get ahead of the official messaging. You point them to the links, and you refuse to be drawn further into guesses and opinions.
    – keep a sense of humor, and maintain optimism among colleagues.

  4. I’m not an instructor, but I’ve been doing online meetings for years, and you hit on a lot of good points.

    I disagree a bit with point 4, however. It probably depends on the subject, but I’ve found that well-prepared slides carry a lot more important information than video of talking heads. As a viewer, there are few things more frustrating in the remote experience than seeing a clear summary list or an interesting diagram of a process on the screen for a few seconds, only to have the camera return to video of the speaker. It’s okay to cut away, but if you’ve got something interesting to show, give your viewers plenty of opportunities to see it again. (Making the slides available later is not quite the same thing because they don’t have the context you gave it during the live presentation.)

    And if you’re going to be doing this a lot, invest in a good set of call-center quality headphones. The difference between a $40 headset and a $400 headset is very noticeable if you have to start using it for six hours per day.

  5. A lot of points are good, I am using zoom for our daily meetings and for online classes also.

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