Remote Learning A-Z: Z is for Zoom

In a matter of months, the pandemic has made Zoom one of our primary means of communication for work, school, and even happy hours. I mean, you know it’s getting real when even Hogwarts is using it for remote learning.

In preparation for this post I conducted a research-validated, longitudinal study on the effects of Zoom from the student perspective. (More accurately, I sent a mass email to all my friends and begged them to respond). In this email, I asked kids what their teacher does on Zoom that they like, do not like, and wish for or would change.

Not surprisingly, the student opinions were illuminating! Also as expected, the feedback about Zoom varied with grade level. Here are some common threads:

Games and Routines Win

From TK to High School, students appreciated a predictable daily routine. From our intern’s post about remote learning, even college students feel this way.

Daily activities like a morning warm-up, Calendar, and games are big hits with students. One first grader specifically called out games like Simon Says, Mystery Kid, and Charades as her favorite thing.

TAKEAWAY

Think about ways to set daily or weekly routines, and infuse a little fun into some of your regular activities. Check out our Yay! post for ideas on little ways to celebrate with kids remotely, and How are you doing? post for ideas on checking in with students.

More Breaks and More Snacks!

Even students are feeling the fatigue from too much onscreen time. Many students appreciated when teachers notice the wiggles setting in and give students a quick break.

In all student surveys I’ve given and reviewed over the years, it really all just comes down to snacks. As educators we have to just accept it: snacks are paramount. All of our young learners would like more time to eat their snacks and their lunch.

TAKEAWAY

Being online all the time is exhausting. Work in brief breaks off screen, as well as breaks to stretch, breathe, and jump around together. Try some of these stretches from Web MD. (And you’ll never hear me arguing about time for snacks.)

To Mute or Not to Mute?

Most students did not like the tyrannical power of the teacher to mute and unmute.

While the teacher in me defaults to saying: “Those are the breaks,” it does give us educators a little food for thought. In a traditional classroom, students talk to each other all the time. They ask questions, turn and talk, discuss, and make comments. In a Zoom environment, the chatter is far more distracting than in a classroom, leaving students without those little moments to dialogue with their peers.

TAKEAWAY

Class management over Zoom is different from face-to-face instruction. Consider the systems and expectations you have in place to maintain mutual respect and still allow for discussion and sharing of ideas. Talk with your students about problems and brainstorm solutions together.

Zoom Cameras: On or Off?

For younger students (who primarily always have their cameras on) this didn’t come up. With older students, the camera preference varied, though some preferred when everyone’s camera is on.

Video conferencing does hinder our ability to read the physical and social cues we used to in a classroom. When cameras are on, at least we get more information about student wellness and attentiveness than a name on a black screen.

On the other hand, read our intern’s opinion on this. She reminds us there are many legitimate reasons students may not want to be on camera, and that we should be respectful of that.

TAKEAWAY

For secondary students, consider a compromise to hard and fast camera rules. Even better, discuss this issue with students and come up with a solution together.

Breakout Rooms are a Bummer

The biggest complaint from secondary students was their overwhelming dislike of the Zoom breakout rooms, which were repeatedly described as “awkward,” “horrible,” and “unproductive.”

Many students reported sitting in silence in these rooms for the first few minutes before resorting to hastily dividing up the work, turning off cameras, and then hoping everyone did their part.

Argh…this is the exact opposite of what we want from groupwork!

As educators, it makes perfect sense to use breakouts for small group instruction and collaboration activities. However, student feedback makes it clear our classroom structures don’t always translate well to remote learning. Today, students haven’t established the connections they would have formed in a traditional classroom. In addition, teachers are unable to circulate as before during collaborative time to observe, facilitate, and redirect.

I can’t imagine teaching without small groups, but I recognize the struggle for our students is real. So consider some of these takeaways to make breakout rooms more effective and less painful:

TAKEAWAYS

  • Kids need explicit instruction: presenting the assignment and sending kids off in groups doesn’t always work over Zoom. Students need modeling and guidance on your expectations for working in a remote group. Consider collecting feedback from your own students and defining these norms together. This article from Forbes is about ground rules for remote business teams, but still has a lot of applicable advice.
  • Roles might make things less awkward: I’ve never been a big fan of group roles jobs like Timekeeper and Notetaker. However, in the Zoom environment, I’m reconsidering. Until students are more comfortable, it may also help to provide them with a defined structure: task, time frame, deliverable, facilitator. For teens, where everything is a profound embarrassment, having set parameters can dissipate some of the awkwardness.
  • Consider group size: One student commented he felt breakout rooms work better when only two students are together. Until students feel more comfortable, perhaps rotating partners won’t be quite as awkward or intimidating. You might even consider some collaboration activities solely focused on connecting with others. See our post on Interviews for more ideas.
  • Timing is important: Several students mentioned breakout rooms lasted far too long, reporting the longer they went on, the more counterproductive they became. Overall, it seems smaller chunks of breakout time are better.
  • It always comes down to the design: I believe I’ve now said this in four separate posts: In a true collaborative task, the task itself cannot be completed without the thinking and work of everyone on the team. Make sure your activities require group thinking, discussion, and analysis and not merely proximity. Tasks that students can slice into four equal parts and never interact are not collaboration. (And if that hasn’t convinced you, additional rants on collaboration are available for you here.)

Ask Your Students about Zoom

If you got this far, you might have discovered a common theme running through this post. If you’re thinking about making changes to your Zoom world, think about making them with your students. I highly suggest posing these three questions to your own class and problem solving the results together!

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