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“I don’t use Zoom at all!” a colleague enthused during a Zoom meeting about teaching strategies during the pandemic. I clicked on the Raise Hand button, not to state the obvious (that he was currently using Zoom), but to share my positive experiences teaching without videoconferencing tools.
“I use Canvas Conferences instead!” he continued.
I unraised my hand.
The limitations of Zoom as a learning tool have been discussed at length. It is exhausting. It places low-income students at a disadvantage. It is disheartening to gaze into a sea of black boxes. It is generally terrible.
Joshua Kim has written prolifically and sagely in these pages about the use and overuse of Zoom in higher education contexts during the pandemic. Widely distributed strategies to combat Zoom fatigue among professors and their students include asking students to turn their cameras on or off, building in breaks, focusing on the Zoom meeting at hand, positioning your computer screen in a certain way and positioning your camera in a certain way.
Those perspectives and tips are valuable. But they take for granted the need for videoconferencing in online college teaching.
A higher ed teaching koan holds that we do not use technology for technology’s sake -- see, for example, Michelle Miller, Flower Darby, Derek Bruff. This piece of wisdom is all the more relevant in exclusively online courses. Bruff, for example, has coined the term “intentional technology,” meaning “knowing what kinds of learning experiences you’re interested in creating for your students, then finding technologies that help support those experiences.”
During the early stages of the pandemic, Zoom found us. Higher education instructors adapted their courses to Zoom midstream last March, and many of us remain dependent on Zoom or similar videoconferencing tools as we continue to adapt traditional learning models to accommodate social distancing, students in high-risk groups and temporary school closures and campuswide quarantines.
But you can support your students and their learning in other ways. And depending on your course goals, your students’ needs and your own needs as both a person and an educator, videoconferencing might not be the best-suited technology.
Risks Worth Taking
At the rural, small liberal arts college where I teach a 4-4 load consisting of first-year writing, creative writing and other writing courses, students bring to their coursework motivation to build skills that will support them in future careers. Faculty members are motivated to impart to students values like critical thinking and lifelong learning. Over the past two semesters, I’ve found that synchronous Zoom courses do not serve either my goals for the students or students’ goals for themselves. In Zoom, no matter what tips or tricks I try, my students are passive, and I leave sessions exhausted.
It feels like a risk to teach without Zoom -- and students have also told me that learning that way feels like a risk. But in my writing courses, I task students with taking risks in their writing, so a course that presents students with new ways of learning suits the course’s goals.
So what can you do besides Zoom?
Here are some of the technologies I have experimented with in both synchronous and asynchronous courses.
- An advanced poetry seminar where students work together during the scheduled course times each week, communicating on Google chat as they do, to create a website that features a deep dive into one significant American poem each week. They collaborated to provide background, context, close readings, writing prompts based on the poem and more.
- A business and professional writing course taught entirely on Slack, providing students experience with a new-to-them workplace application. Students communicated with me and one another on channels devoted to course topics and through direct messages.
- An introductory creative writing course where students maintain individual blogs in which they explore course texts and their own writing processes throughout the semester. A page on the learning management system shares every students' blog address. Students create a community of writers by reading and commenting on each other's blogs.
- A course about the publishing industry conducted entirely on a Google Doc, where students collaborated during the scheduled course times each week to research, write, design, edit and publish an entire book about publishing.
- A first-year writing course, focused on building information literacy and civil communication, that tasked students with listening to the New York Times podcast “The Daily” and analyzing the week's episodes on Canvas discussion boards.
Each of these technologies served the specific goals of each course in which we used it and left students -- and me -- energized rather than depleted.
Although my courses focus on writing, the lessons I have learned by teaching without Zoom are applicable to other disciplines. Given the always-increasing number and variety of discipline-specific technologies, courses that are partially or entirely online offer instructors the opportunity to give students direct experience in how disciplines actually operate. Some examples:
- The famed Harvard University computer science course CS50 is hosted on the course’s own open courseware, supporting the course goal to “create an intensive, shared experience, accessible to all students.”
- A post on the National History Education Clearinghouse site suggests that instructors view Omeka, an open-source platform of digital archive and collections, “as a way to teach students how to think and act like a museum curator, historian or archivist.” Nicole Riesenberger's course in 15th-century Italian art at the University of Maryland takes place entirely on Omeka, placing students among the collections they are learning about.
- The mythology and folklore courses Laura Gibbs has taught asynchronously at Oklahoma University since 2003 center on student choice, with reading assignments from an enormous “UN-Textbook” curated by Gibbs. “I would say that work you choose to do based on your own interests is likely to lead to much deeper learning; that's why I prefer teaching online,” Gibbs says in an interview.
Videoconferencing software wasn’t an essential part of higher education before the pandemic. It doesn’t need to be one during the pandemic, either.