Using Zoom to Replicate Face-to-Face Instructor Support in Hands-On Digital Skills Classes
Moving Online with Zoom in a Hurry
My move from teaching blended, but primarily face-to-face skills-based classes, to 100% online teaching happened over a hectic weekend in March 2020. My university announced Friday evening that the campus would close for in-person classes until further notice, and the next Monday I was teaching my first completely online class using Zoom.
The level of student engagement in the first few video-based classes was noticeably lower than in our regular campus-based classes. That said our students were also very understanding of the occasional technical hiccup in spite of being stressed out over COVID-19. Fortunately, over the past six weeks I, with the help of my colleagues, have learned how to make the virtual in-person portion of my flipped digital skills classes and workshops more interactive by using Zoom’s simultaneous desktop sharing which allows me to more easily assist students who are struggling (skip to the bottom if you’d like a summary of my recommendations).
Muted – The Default Silent Active Classroom
One thing I noticed immediately in my first few virtual classes is that during the hands-on activities it was completely silent. In my campus-based classroom there was a nice background chatter as students worked together and individually to solve problems and learned how to use new digital tools. By contrast, my Zoom classroom was mostly silent with the very occasional student asking a question or requesting help.
This reluctance to ask questions persisted even after I reminded my 32 students several times during the class that they could either un-mute their microphones or send a private chat message to ask questions. For some reason, the students who normally didn’t hesitate to ask questions during our in-person classes were much more reluctant to speak out during our online classes.
In addition to students not asking questions, I was unable to wander around my virtual classroom, as I was accustomed to doing while I teach. In pre-COVID-19 classes I would walk around the classroom during the active learning portion of classes to check in with students, which was the other way I typically assisted students at the point of need. In my first few virtual classes, I could see their faces on my laptop, but couldn’t casually look over students’ shoulders to see if they were struggling, or hear them asking a classmate for help.
Teaching Methods & Zoom Features that Facilitate Engagement
Welcomes & Introductions: To help encourage students to speak out in class more often and share their screen with me, I now welcome each student as they arrive in my online classroom, and chat with them in order to build a rapport. This also helps them become more comfortable with the video conference software and allows them to practice muting and unmuting their microphones. Once the class has started, if I am teaching a drop-in workshop, I ask each student, in turn, to introduce themselves in order to help me understand what they want to get out of the workshop and to give them practice speaking in the online classroom. This seems to encourage a few additional students to speak up on average when they have a question or need assistance later in the class.
Asking Questions & Breakout Rooms: After a short orientation to the technology and skills that will be learned in the class, but before the hands-on activities, I remind them that they can not only un-mute themselves to ask questions, but that I monitor the built-in chat for questions as well. I also remind them that if they need a longer consultation to answer their question, I can create a private breakout room during the class where I can assist them individually, after which we return to the main virtual classroom.
Simultaneous Desktop Sharing: If the class is covering a computer-based technology, I then review with the class how to share their computer screen so that I can more easily check in with everyone during the class. I strongly encourage everyone to share their computer desktops and discuss how helpful this is to me as an instructor and to them as a learner in an online classroom. At this point, while still sharing my screen, I ask everyone in the class or workshop to start sharing their screens. Typically about 50% to 60% of students in our drop-in workshops will share their screens. If at least half of students share their screens, this is enough for instructors to get a sense of how students are progressing through the activities.
Checking In with Students: Once everyone is engaged in hands-on activities, I check in with students by toggling through their shared screens. If I notice multiple learners struggling with similar problems, I will get the class’s attention and talk them through how to solve the problem. In the first few Zoom classes I taught, I would share my screen once or twice during the class to demonstrate how to solve the problem (like I would normally do in in person classes), but found that after I finished demonstrating, very few students would start sharing their desktops again (they have to stop sharing their screens in order to view my shared screen). To ensure that as many students as possible share their screens throughout the whole class, instead of sharing my screen to demonstrate a solution to a problem, I now simply talk them through the solution.
Using Breakout Rooms: If a student asks for help for a complex problem either via voice or chat, and I don’t think any other students are experiencing a similar problem, I will ask the student if they’d like to go to a private breakout room to get some help. This allows some privacy for the student with the question and does not distract other students as I help the student with a more complex problem. Once in the breakout room, I ask the student to share their screen so I can see the problem, and then verbally walk them through how to solve it. Occasionally I will ask the student to give me control of their desktop to do some testing or show them a solution, but only do this as a last resort as students almost always learn better when they are fixing the problem themselves. Keep in mind that having a Teaching Assistant (TA) to monitor the main classroom while you are in a breakout room is desirable for university classes and almost certainly essential for K-12 classes.
While not ideal, using Zoom is a solid backup for coming together as a class when a face-to-face classroom is not possible, especially when teaching computer skills-based workshops. Because of the Breakout Room functionality, and more importantly, in my opinion, its Simultaneous Desktop Sharing feature, Zoom is a better tool for Virtual Flipped Classrooms compared to the current group video competitors like Google Hangouts, BlueJeans, WebEx, and BlackBoard Collaborate. This could change as new features are added to those video conferencing platforms.
If you are teaching non-computer based technology classes, like my Sketchnoting class which uses pen and paper technology for example, the desktop sharing feature was not nearly as useful. That said, for the types of classes and workshops I teach, Zoom’s Simultaneous Desktop Sharing is an indispensable feature that currently no one else can match. Please let me know what your experiences have been like in the comments below.
Quick Tips for Flipped Digital Skills Classes in Zoom:
- Password protect your Zoom room and do NOT publicly post the room URL to prevent Zoom bombing. Instead, email the URL to students, or post it in a password-protected webspace (e.g. Google Classroom or Moodle).
- Welcome students as they enter your virtual classroom to make them feel more comfortable speaking online. Encourage students to ask questions by un-muting their microphones or post their questions in the chat.
- If learning a computer-based skill, just before the hands-on portion of the class, encourage everyone to share their screens so that you can virtually check-in with students. Here are instructions on how to enable the sharing of multiple screens simultaneously in the Zoom settings. Once everyone is engaged in hands-on activities, start checking in with students by toggling through the screens they have shared, and assist as needed.
- Answer short questions publicly or via chat. It’s very helpful to have a TA or colleague to help monitor the chat, especially during the instruction at the start of class.
- Answer longer questions by inviting students with those questions to use a private breakout room so that you don’t distract the rest of the class. A Teaching Assistant is essential in K-12 so that there is someone to monitor and answer questions in the main virtual room while you are in a breakout room.
- When students ask questions during the hands-on portion of the class, don’t share your desktop to demonstrate a solution as many of the students will not start sharing their desktops again after you are finished.