To Zoom It May Concern
During the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities worldwide implemented the closure either countrywide or localized of schools affecting 91.3% of the world’s student population¹. As of April 1 2020, 194 countries had ordered national education institution closures. Faculty members were left with the choice of synchronous or asynchronous online delivery or a mix of the two modes.
The boom of videoconference platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Microsoft Teams suggests that synchronous delivery has been favored over asynchronous delivery. This trend can also be explained by the short time frame under which the shift from face-to-face to online teaching was expected to happen.
Now that schools are on the brink of reopening, a question remains for all instructors:
Is synchronous online teaching adequate only in situations of emergency and crisis or is it here to stay?
Videoconference platforms such as Zoom have brought improvements in the way classes are delivered that, to some of us, it will be hard to live without or to transpose in physical classroom setting.
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.
Asynchronous delivery relies on course materials prepared ahead and made available for students to access on their own time, during a time frame set by the instructors. Such materials include videos, recorded lectures, or discussion boards.
Synchronous delivery presents the advantages of instant feedback from instructors and fellow learners. It also provides students a regular schedule and a sense of community. However, the limitation of synchronous instruction is equity in access to computers and reliable Internet access. It also requires students to feel comfortable about sharing their surrounding environment on camera. It may also not address individual preferences if instructors and students are scattered across different time zones.
At the other end, asynchronous delivery comes with the challenge of creating engaging content and ensuring student offline engagement.
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.
Though most modern computers come with integrated webcams, microphones, and speakers, each of these internal peripherals can be replaced or supplemented by external ones. Upgrading to external peripherals allows for different setups, each helping improve teaching delivery.
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.
A similar effect can be obtained by replacing the external camera with a drawing tablet, not to be confused with a computer tablet, which can be used as a virtual whiteboard. The drawing tablet can be used as an input device that enables the presenter to hand-draw images and graphics or to annotate a document with a stylus.
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.
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.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom established itself as one of the world leaders in the business of videoconferencing. It saw a major spike in the usage of their platform: As for April 1, Zoom added 2.22 million monthly active users, while in 2019 it added 1.99 million². At that time, their platform was used by 90,000 schools in 20 countries and its usage increased by 67% between January and mid-March 2020³.
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.
The control bar contains the following clickable icons:
- Mute: control user audio output.
- 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.
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 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.
Video sharing. When scheduling a meeting, the host can let participants join with their video off upon entry. Once in meeting, participants can start or stop their video or be asked to do so by the host. By default, participants to Zoom webinars are listen-only mode and cannot share their video.
Screen sharing. In a Zoom meeting, the host and the participants if enabled by the host can share their screen. During a lecture, screen sharing should be enabled only for the host. Presentations shared in slide show view can be shared either in full screen or in a window. The latter allows the presenter to keep other meeting features on screen, including the video panel, the participant panel, or the chat panel. Presentations can also be showed in presenter view but this requires a dual monitor setup with one monitor showing the slide show and the presenter’s notes in the second. Screen sharing can be enabled for participants when scheduling office hour meetings, tutorials, or labs in case the instructor needs to view students’ screen to better address their questions. Host and participants can share either the entire desktop, a portion of the screen, the window of a specific application. They can also share the screen of a smartphone or tablet and the video captured by a secondary camera, either stand-alone or embedded in a smartphone or tablet.
Screen annotation. The host and participants if enabled by the host can annotate the content shared on the screen. The annotation tools include text, draw (lines, arrows, and shapes), stamp (icons like a check mark or a star), spotlight (presenter’s mouse pointer is displayed within the area being shared to help point out parts of the screen). The host can save the screen with all annotations which will be captured as screenshot images.
In-meeting reactions. During a meeting, a participant can give visual feedback by sending a thumbs up (👍) or a clapping (👏) emoji that will be shown for 5 seconds in the participant video thumbnail. This feature allows instructors to keep students engaged or draw their attention at specific moments of the class. Instructors can also solicit students’ feedback to monitor their attention or understanding by asking checkpoint dual-choice questions.
In-meeting icons. Zoom provides participants with a less intrusive way to give their feedback. Participants can select through a list of icons to express different types of unsolicited or solicited feedback. The list of available icons goes as follow:
- Solicited: Yes, No, Agree, Disagree, Thumbs up, Thumbs down.
- Unsolicited: Raise Hand, Go Slower, Go Faster, Applause, Coffee, Clock.
Participants can use the unsolicited icons without being prompted or asked by the host. Once clicked, the icon will be shown in the participant panel next to their name. Icons can be removed either by the participant or the host who can remove one or all icons at once. The host also has access to a summary indicating how many participants have selected each icon.
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.
In-meeting chat. The in-meeting chat allows the participants to interact by sending instant messages during a meeting. Messages can be sent either to one or all participants. Participants can also send files other participants can choose to download from their chat panel. The host of the meeting can disable this feature or choose who the participants can chat with or to disable chat entirely. The host can select to have all chat messages saved in the meeting settings before the start or during the meeting. Private chat messages can help raise student willingness or motivation to engage, especially for those feeling under peer pressure.
Live polling. A host can submit single choice or multiple choice polling questions during a meeting. Questions are created before and launched during the meeting. The answers are presented to the host who can decide to show the polling results to meeting participants. The host can also save the results by downloading a report available after the meeting. Polls can be conducted anonymously to strip participant information from poll reports.
The polling feature provides a similar tool as classroom clickers, also referred to as classroom response systems without requiring any additional hardware or software to be installed.
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.
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.
The attendee attention tracker was a feature enabled while a host was sharing its screen. The rationale behind this tool was to give an alternative way for a host to monitor the attention of the participants. The main way for monitoring a class is through video though some students may be reluctant to disclose their surroundings. Monitoring students’ attention while sharing a presentation is somehow challenging even when students are sharing their video. In screen sharing mode, most of the Zoom window is taken by the presentation, leaving little or no space on the screen for the video panel which contains the video thumbnails of the students.
Attention tracker. Zoom had a feature that allowed the host to monitor the attention of the participants. If Zoom was not the application in focus on a participant’s computer for over 30 seconds, Zoom showed a clock indicator next to the participant name in the participant panel.
Attentiveness score. A summary of the tracker activity was included in the meeting reports through the attentiveness score. Each participant was associated with a score representing the percent of time the participant had Zoom in focus during the meeting.
As of April 2, 2020, the attendee attention tracker was removed from Zoom⁴. The attentiveness scores were retroactively scrapped from all meeting records. The only way for a host to monitor participants’ attention is via their video provided that they are willing to turn on their camera.
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.
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.
Putting a Zoom participant on hold or in a waiting room can be used to organize online office hours as instructor can let students join the meeting one by one to have one-to-one discussions. Using a whiteboard in a classroom is straightforward though whiteboard implemented in Zoom using a tablet and a digital pen offers a similar or even better experience. In Zoom, students can easily share their screen. In-class screen sharing may require classroom video projector to be wireless.
From the above, managing participants can be achieved with a similar result online and in-class but the latter requires multiple physical rooms available at the same time. Some features such as mute or hide video may be not called for during in-person classes.
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.
Click-based feedback refers to Zoom live polling feature. Such feature can be transposed to in-class setting through classroom response systems. These systems require hardware including one clicker per student and a receiver connected to the instructor’s computer. Clickers and receiver can be replaced by a software if a computer can be assigned to students during classes. To launch the questions, collect, and process the answers, the instructor needs to install a specific software which requires the instructor to switch application while presenting slides in slide show mode. Some plugins can be used with most popular slide show applications to launch questions and show the results from inside the presentation slides without interrupting the slide show.
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.
Zoom offers cloud storage and recording analytics to its paid subscribers. A transcription of the audio recordings is also made available which requires a specific software and high-quality audio recordings in classroom setting.
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.
In addition to tracking attendance, monitoring student attention provides instructors with crucial feedback to adjust lessons according to the students’ needs in near real-time. If instructors can rely on physical observation, monitoring attention becomes cumbersome for large classes preventing instructors from taking informed on-time actions. The same issue arises in online classes. In classroom setting, sensor-based attention-aware systems have been proposed by collecting behavioral information through cameras, motion and eye-tracking sensors, or physiological signals including ECG (Electrocardiogram) and GSR (Galvanic skin response). Due to their intrusive nature, these systems have yet to be rolled out in schools and universities. Similar concerns forced Zoom to remove its attention tracking tool.
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.