By now my institution, like thousands of others around the country, has finished up one term with remote instruction and managed to pull off final exams without too many mishaps. Now we’re fully into redesigning 1,900 courses for spring remote delivery. We have one week.
Lots of fantastic commentary has been circulating nationally and internationally that considers technical and pedagogical problems that may be arising: students and instructors with inadequate access to internet, students in other time zones, the pedagogical drawbacks and possibilities of videoconferencing as a primary mode of instruction, and just about every other dimension of this great shift.
What I’m not yet seeing are some small but important practices and safeguards instructors and institutions might want to put into place to avert small- and large-scale mischief that can ensue when we use a videoconferencing tool like Zoom for instruction. There also doesn’t seem to be a lot circulating yet about how we set up principles of community or community agreements for how we communicate with each other in this new platform.
Here, in no particular order, are a few dangers as well as a few important practices that have emerged in the past week, some in discussions around course redesign and some in the (endless) Zoom meetings I myself have been attending.
- Instructions: Give your students detailed instructions about how to use Zoom. This can be an existing campus guide or something you put together that reflects the way you’ll be using the platform. Make sure they know where video, microphone and audio settings are; how to use the chat box; how to set up their profile (see below); how to annotate; how to use breakout rooms; and so on. You may still want to run through this when you meet with the group for the first time.
- Phone numbers: Ask your institution’s technology team to remove the phone number identifier in Zoom. This is not appropriate for instructional usage and could raise privacy concerns for students and others in your campus community who may need to attend classes or meetings from their phone. If you set up your profile correctly, the same name and avatar should appear across all devices, but it’s worth globally disabling the telephone number function in advance.
- Profiles: Send instructions to your students as soon as possible giving them clear instructions on how to set up a profile in Zoom with their preferred name. Images or avatars that appear when the video is turned off can be incredibly helpful for building a sense of intimacy, as we all get used to constantly shifting internet capacity that may necessitate going video-free. There is plenty of robust debate happening about whether students should be asked to use video always, sometimes or never, but regardless of where you or your institution stand on this debate, having correct names and some form of recognizable profile image for all students in your class is a great place to start, especially given that some students may not want their homes to be visible or may not have the bandwidth to keep video running.
- Passwords: If your learning management system doesn’t already password protect meetings of your class, remember to do so if you are planning to use Zoom. There have been reports of Zoombombing, where random individuals “drop in” on public Zoom meetings to post porn or otherwise disrupt events. Given the rapid adoption of Zoom by so many institutions simultaneously, there is also concern about students or others typing in mistaken or random meeting IDs and paying a visit to someone else’s meeting. Your institution may already have safeguards in place for this. Find out.
- Sharing settings: You’ll want to quickly get very familiar with the “preferences” section of Zoom. I’d recommend a few precautions before you meet with your class for the first time. 1. Turn off the default setting that anyone can share their screen. That could get messy. 2. Turn off the default annotation capacity for the class as a whole to annotate the screen that is being shared. Again, you can turn it on as you get more familiar and flexible with the tool and as needed.
- Chat: There is a setting in Zoom to turn off the chat function where one meeting attendee can chat with another. Consider turning this off unless you need it for a particular purpose. The chat box is an incredibly useful tool for keeping communication open between you and your students or meeting attendees, but having a whole backchannel person-to-person communication system is probably an invitation for some chaos. I won’t deny there’s been some real time digital note-passing going on in plenty of Zoom meetings I’ve attended over the past week.
- Get help fielding questions: You’re going to need some help with monitoring the chat box and keeping track of raised hands. It’s just too hard to do this while teaching and/or running a meeting. If you’re lucky enough to have a teaching assistant, that can be one of their contributions, but it also seems more than possible to have two students per class meeting who perform the roles of chat moderator and “stack keeper” (keeping track of the order of raised hands). You could make these two people “hosts” of the meeting so they can lower hands and otherwise help out, or you could keep these functions to yourself, depending on how large your class or meeting is. Bottom line: having pop-up or ongoing assistance in running a meeting on Zoom is essential.
- Facilitation: If you’re the instructor or moderator, be intentional about calling on people. I’ve attended more than a few meetings in the past two weeks that opened with something like, “Why don’t we do quick introductions?” and then a crushing silence while everyone waited for someone else to jump in. As moderator of the meeting, you need to figure out how to quickly and efficiently go down the list of attendees. The same will happen in instructional settings unless you set up a system for calling on people. Think about this in advance -- it might involve raised hands, the chat box, a Google Doc or some other method of communication -- but don’t expect the transition to a digital platform to work like in-person meetings, where so many of our cues that someone needs or wants attention are nonverbal.
- Communication: Be explicit and intentional about talking with students about the difference between the chat function on Zoom and other messaging systems or social media platforms. Perhaps spend the first class meeting (if you’re going into a new term) talking about how people will communicate with each other on chat, message boards, digital discussion platforms and so on. Students may need explicit guidance about how Zoom and the LMS differ from social media and messaging platforms. The more explicit you can be about this, and the more you can encourage your students to come up with community agreements, the better. For instance, refraining from using the Zoom chat function for unnecessary chatter makes it much easier for the moderator or co-facilitator to see an actual question there.
- Scheduled breaks: Finally, and this has more to do with meeting culture than instructional culture, stop scheduling hourlong Zoom meetings. Encourage your colleagues to transition to meetings that are 25 minutes long (for a half hour meeting) and 50 minutes long (for an hour meeting). The back-to-back Zoom meetings eight to 10 hours a day that many of us have attended for the past couple of weeks are taking a heavy toll on our capacity to stand up, stretch, eat, step outside or otherwise take care of basic needs. Working from home, we have lost the expectation that people need “travel time” between meetings, and yet we still do need physical, mental and emotional breaks. Consider when scheduling that we all need short pauses throughout the day to stay healthy and stay sane.
Over the next weeks, many more sophisticated guides will emerge with information regarding the transition to life on planet Zoom. These are just a few of the potentials for mischief that have come to light in the first days of this transition, assembled in an effort to help others in higher ed avoid some common or impending difficulties.