The global pandemic has caused emergency shifts in how we teach. Online learning is nothing new, but transitioning a once-dynamic in-person class to a screen in a synchronous format poses some challenges for “new to synchronous” teaching faculty. As two department chairs at a mid-size community college in California, we found a number of similar themes emerged through our discussions with faculty on how to make the classroom environment transition effectively. Faculty made many of the decisions about curriculum and behavior expectations and attendance in the emergency shift on the fly. The faculty discussions about issues and strategies created a deep conversation about what needs to be included moving forward when thinking about synchronous teaching and how best to present expectations to students up front.
Here we examine the four major topics that faculty need to address to ensure effective synchronous learning environments.
The question of whether to password protect meetings was decided in favor of password protection by press accounts of Zoom bombing. While the primary concern is disruption by others, a password also allows students to assume that only other students will see them in the conferences. The digital format makes it possible that they will be recorded and their image displayed outside of the class. Instructors should prevent this possibility by turning off the recording option for students as well as by clarifying the policy of not allowing recording of online class sessions.
But what about students’ privacy during the event? Should faculty require students to show their faces? On the one hand, students can see each other in face-to-face classes, so a videoconference is not relevantly different in this respect. Plus, many faculty want to ensure that students are fully participating in online events where it is easy to turn on the videoconference and switch to something else.
On the other hand, the video background can reveal parts of a student’s personal life that are not on display in their face-to-face classes, such as their bedroom, home, or family. For this reason, some faculty require students to show their faces during the event to ensure participation but allow them to use virtual backgrounds—a function in Zoom and some other video conferencing systems. Students unable to work with virtual backgrounds could put up a blanket or other temporary background. Another option is to allow students to post photos or themselves or an avatar, but use frequent interactions such as questions and polling to ensure attention. These frequent interactions are a good idea anyway to improve learning and retention.
Whatever decision you make, clearly state your expectations up front. Include a section in your syllabus labeled “class time” and information about how students should present themselves and what should be behind them.
It’s a good idea to email students the week prior to the start of the course and offer a tech-check as part of the first class (or a pre-class). Offering this option early and doing mike and audio checks are critical to synchronous classrooms that need student participation, such as in breakout rooms during class or for student presentations.
In any videoconference with a sufficiently large group, at least one person will leave their microphone on broadcasting background noise. Worse yet is when people don’t realize that if they type on a laptop keyboard, the vibrations will travel through the casing and shake the highly sensitive mic, making it sound to others like someone is playing the bongos. For these reasons it is important to instruct people to mute themselves until they speak. Students should opt for the use of a desktop, if available, as these computers produce better sound and are not known to have the same feedback loop issues that laptops have. Many students have access only to laptops, including those borrowed from their institutions, however, so instructors should expect to work with the equipment students have.
Sleeping, eating, and lying down while on screen in the virtual classroom were frequent student behaviors that instructors reported. We do not allow these in face-to-face courses because they are disrespectful to the speaker and distracting to other students, and for this reason faculty can forbid the behavior in videoconferences. Students need to know what is permissible from the outset. After all, they are learning from the comforts of their own homes with greater opportunities for distraction, and it may be unclear that the expectations of your virtual classroom mirror those of your physical classroom.
Students often do not realize how their behavior might distract others in a videoconference, and so it is a good idea to tell students not to engage in activities that will be of interest to and thus distract others. For instance, a student playing with their cat will elicit the attention of participants while the instructor or a student is speaking and so should not be allowed. “Don’t do what you would not do in the face-to-face classroom” is probably a good rule to establish at the beginning of a videoconference within reason. We too are all in extreme circumstances, and some level of compassion and flexibility, within reason, will need to be accepted. It is hard to prevent animals from coming into a room during a videoconference, but students should know not to bring those distractions into the videoconference. Guidelines need to be set, and students also need to know that if their dog barks in the class, it will be OK.
All major videoconferencing systems come with chat, which can be a double-edged sword. The backchannel consists of the private conversations between audience members happening by whisper, text, or Twitter during a live talk, and there have been some examples of speakers broadcasting this backchannel during their talks by giving the audience a chatroom that was projected live during the event on the auditorium screen. The idea was to broaden the range of discussion by giving all audience members access to the thoughts that were previously shared among only a few people.
But this practice faded away when people realized that the backchannel splits people’s attention and causes them to miss the talk. Similarly, faculty need to determine how students will use chat during their events. Students are used to communicating by chat, and so allowing an open use of chat will very likely generate more questions. But at the same time chat splits participants' attention such that they will likely miss material. In particular, it is very hard for a speaker to both talk and read chat at the same time. If questions are asked during chat, the speaker is not likely to see them until later, and so there should be no expectation that questions or anything else posted to chat will get an immediate response.
For an American Sign Language course at our institution, a heavily visual course with no audio, the chat feature in Zoom was not allowed at all due to the already high level of visual concentration needed. But for other courses that had teaching assistants, chat was the preferred method of questions because the teaching assistants could monitor and respond to chat without disrupting the presentation.
One thing faculty firmly agreed on was that students interrupting with questions at random times was not preferred. One option is to require students to use the “raise hand” function to ask any questions and to stop the presentation every few minutes to read and respond to questions. These pauses also allow the instructor to read the chat messages and amplify any of them to initiate a new discussion, aiding in additional time for student reflection and retention.
Overall, think about the online classroom as you would in-person courses. How will you communicate best with your students with the virtual tools at your disposal?
Sami Lange is the former chair of the World Languages Department and Jessica Pardoe is the former chair of the English as a Second Language Department at Santa Rosa Junior College.
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