To Zoom It May Concern

Lessons from an online course amid Covid-19

Countries with countrywide or localized educational institution closures as of April 1, 2020. (Source: UNESCO)

Why Synchronous over Asynchronous Delivery?

In the synchronous mode, delivery is fully live and interactive and involves the use of a videoconference software. Recordings of online classes can be made available for students who cannot attend live transmissions due to time zone differences for instance.

Online Teaching Setup

The basic setup required for synchronous teaching consists of a computer either a laptop or an all-in-one computer connected to the Internet using an Ethernet cable, WiFi, or to some extent 4G/LTE.

The basic teaching setup for online teaching consists of a computer connected to the Internet. Some internal peripherals can be upgraded to external ones to improve teaching delivery.

Picture-in-picture Effect

An external usb-connected webcam or a camera pointing downwards, on top of a desk can be used for paper-based teaching. This webcam will show the instructor’s hand writing notes on paper. When used in complement of the computer’s internal camera, the video captured by the external camera can be used to create a picture-in-picture layout where the notes are shown in a thumbnail playing over the main window, showing the instructor talking on the main camera.

Virtual Whiteboard

Videoconference softwares allow for screen sharing from a tablet connected wirelessly or via cable to the main device. Coupled to a digital pen, the tablet can be used as a digital whiteboard or to show and annotate presentation slides. This way, the main purpose of the computer is to run the videoconference software. Such setup can improve the monitoring of participants’ feedback.

Dual Monitor Display

Instead of screen mirroring, an exterior monitor can be configured to show the shared content while the main monitor displays the list of participants or the participant thumbnail videos arranged in a grid layout. Such setup can improve monitoring of the participants including their nonverbal feedback.

Videoconference Platform

Zoom is a tech company that provides videotelephony and online chat services through a cloud-based peer-to-peer software platform launched in January 2013. Their platform is designed for teleconferencing, distance education, and social relations.

Zoom Application Window

User is presented with a main window surrounded by a control bar across the bottom, the participant panel, and the chat panel. In gallery view, the main window shows the video thumbnails of all participants equally-sized and arranged in a grid layout. In active speaker view, the main window shows the video of the active speaker while the videos of other participants are shown in thumbnails below the active speaker’s video. In screen sharing, the video thumbnails of all participants move to a free-floating video panel.

Capture of Zoom application window. A: Gallery View, B: Control Bar, C: Participant Panel, D: Chat Panel.
  • Start Video: control user video output.
  • Participants: display the participant panel.
  • Chat: show the chat panel.
  • Share Screen: share user desktop or specific app window.
  • Record: start recording the meeting locally or in Zoom’s cloud.
  • Reactions: select one of two emojis.

Participants’ Controls and Feedback

Zoom provides different levels of feedback to meeting participants. Zoom’s feedback features can be classified depending on whether the feedback is visual, verbal, textual, or click-based. Each feature can be used to serve different purposes during online classes depending on the type of class.

Classification of Zoom feedback features. Features with an asterisk (*) can be enabled or disabled by the host prior to or during a meeting.

Verbal Feedback

When scheduling a meeting, the host can mute all participants upon entry. Once in meeting, participants can unmute their audio or be requested to do so individually by the host. The host can also mute all or individual participants. By default, participants to Zoom webinars are view-only attendees. Combined to nonverbal feedback, verbal feedback recreates common in-classroom interaction patterns such as the “raise hand to speak” implicit rule.

Visual Feedback

Visual feedback refers to any feedback received from students without any interruption. These features come in handy especially in large class meetings. They allow instructors to receive quick feedback while avoiding participants talking over one another.

  • Unsolicited: Raise Hand, Go Slower, Go Faster, Applause, Coffee, Clock.

Textual and Click-based Feedback

Textual and click-based feedback require participants to use their keyboard to enter some text or emojis and their mouse to answer multiple choice questions.

Recording

Zoom allows the meetings to be recorded either to Zoom’s cloud or locally on the user’s computer. User can be the host or a participant if enabled by the host. Cloud recordings include four files: the video recording of the active speaker with the shared content (mp4 file), the audio only file (m4a file), the audio transcript (vtt text file), and the chat file (txt file). These files are available for download under the recording section of the user’s Zoom account. The video recording can also be played in any web browser. Zoom provides analytics regarding the number of views and downloads for each recording.

Reporting

Zoom generates two type of reports after a meeting. The meeting report lists the information of registered participants including their full name, their email address, the time they joined and left, and their attentiveness score. The poll report lists the participants’ answers and the date and time they were submitted for each poll question.

In-Class Transposability of Online Tools

Can the features offered by a videoconference platform be transposed to in-class physical face-to-face teaching? In the table below, I list the Zoom features relevant to online instruction. Each feature is checked in the last column when they can be transposed to in-person instruction. An asterisk indicates what features require additional hardware or software. In the following, I will assume the same setup as described in above with the addition of a video projector and a whiteboard.

Transposability of Zoom features in a classroom setting. Features with an asterisk (*) require installation of additional equip- ment, devices, or softwares.

Managing participants

Managing students attending physical classrooms can be done in a similar way compared to participants attending online meetings. The class instructor can unmute participants by giving them the floor. Though there is no definitive way to keep students silent, signaling the class is usually enough to make a noisy class quiet. Hiding the video of students is obviously not possible unless students are asked to leave the room. A physical class can also be organized in groups for group discussions or activities though the same level of isolation as Zoom’s breakout rooms cannot be achieved unless each group can move to separate rooms. The instructor can then apply different rules to each room in a similar way as with Zoom.

Feedback

Getting verbal feedback from students is identical during online classes and regular face-to-face classes. Nonverbal feedback such as thumbs up or clapping emojis is obviously also available to students in classroom setting. However, Zoom provides students with more visual options since they can use one of the in-meeting icons to express more meaningful feedback without interrupting the instructor. Students can also interact by sending chat messages to the class or in private to the instructor. Private chat messages can improve students’ engagement, especially for those subject to peer pressure. To implement textual feedback in classroom setting requires participants to install an instant messaging application either on their computer or on another device. The latter will let the instructor check for incoming messages without interrupting the slide show during a lecture.

Recording

It is widely agreed that recording face-to-face classes is cumbersome and complex. It requires to equip classrooms so to turn them in recording studios if video is desired. Sharing the recordings also requires to upload them online while restricting access and dealing with storage limits. Most popular or free hosting solutions also come with limits with regard to engagement or audience analytics.

Reporting

Taking attendance in classroom setting may be time-consuming for large classes. Seating charts or sign in sheets passed around can help save up some time but come with some inherent challenges or limits. Digital alternatives to traditional roll calls exist but requires the use of biometric identifiers such as fingerprint or RFID ID cards in classrooms equipped with scanners or reader boxes. For classes where students are assigned with a computer, software-based alternatives using GPS and Bluetooth can verify if student signing in are physically present in class. These alternatives can also track the amount of time each student spends in class. These alternatives come with similar concerns regarding privacy as Zoom tracking tool.

Final Words

During the COVID-19 outbreak, universities and schools moved to online education on short notice, leaving little time for preparation. Giving the spike in the usage of popular videoconference platforms, synchronous teaching appears to have been the preferred choice among instructors. Videoconference platforms such as Zoom offers some feedback features that may remain in use as schools and university campuses are re-opening and students return to physical teaching. Zoom presents the advantage of offering a wide variety of tools all available in the same place. To be transposed in face-to-face classroom setting, some of these features will require additional hardware and software.

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