Saturday, April 4, 2020

Reflections After Three Weeks of Zoom

By Josh Blackman - April 04, 2020 at 03:30PM

On March 12, I posted my tentative thoughts on teaching with Zoom. The following week, I shared my thirty-minute webinar on using Zoom. That video has more than 11,000 views.

I have now been using Zoom for more than three weeks. On the whole, the experience has been more positive than I expected. My students have been remarkably agile and flexible. They have quickly accommodated to the online learning environment, as best as they can. Attendance is roughly the same as it was for in-person classes.  And my general sense is that students are well-prepared for class. The majority of students are not directly affected by COVID-19. Some of them told me they now have more free time to devote to studies, with fewer distractions.

So far, the biggest frustration has been bandwidth. I have a premium internet package from Comcast with very high upload/download speeds. During off-peak times, my throughput is blazing fast. However, during my 2:00-3:30 p.m. class, my connection drops about two or three times. Fortunately, Zoom handles disconnects quite well. Usually, before my signal drops, Zoom displays a message that says "connection unstable." At that point, I will usually say "my connection is dropping." Last week, a student was answering a question when my signal dropped, and she heard silence in response. She thought I was deliberately staying quiet! I felt quite bad, but explained after what happened. A few times, I was actually kicked out of my own Zoom room. I had to re-enter. All of the students were waiting, and they understood.

Students are also kicked out of the room; sometimes when they are on call. There is little I can do to help. Students may not have access to reliable broadband. Also, the wifi hotspots on their phones may be spotty. To address this problem, I simulcast my lectures on YouTube. (I use the Mevo Start camera.) If a student is knocked off, she can quickly catch the time she missed online. But my strong preference is they participate live.

I have not had issues with "Zoombombing." I activated the "Waiting Room" feature. I manually admit every student into the classroom. Occasionally, I noticed that students with names I did not recognize were seeking attendance. I denied their entry. I recognize that interlopers can spoof the name of a student in my class to fool me. That level of chicanery requires more coordination. Even then, I do not allow students to share their screens. And I "spotlight" the person speaking. In other words, I control what people are looking at. At worst, a tiny window in the gallery mode will display inappropriate content for a few moments before I expel that user.

What about zoombombers who start talking without permission? I can immediately see if someone unmutes their microphone. I can quickly mute them, and expel them from the room. Policing zoombombers takes more effort, but it is feasible.

There is one cost to the waiting room. If a student disconnects (perhaps due to poor wireless connections), he has to be readmitted. In other words, with the waiting room activated, the professor has to constantly be on guard to ensure that registered students are not locked out.

Zoom does require a level of multi-tasking that may uncomfortable, or unfamiliar for some professors and students. I recognize this reality will be difficult to adjust to.

In time, we will all become more acclimated to Zoom. I suspect this form of distant communication will not dissipate when the current crisis ends. Universities will demand more classes to be taught virtually, even by full-time tenured faculty. Conferences that required expensive travel will be replaced by virtual conferences. And social gatherings will continue online.

This world is our new normal. We are not going back.

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