Three reasons why swapping out face-to-face class meetings for online Zoom class sessions is a spectacularly bad idea.
By Joshua Kim
Higher ed is gorging on Zoom. It's time to go on a Zoom teaching diet.
I'm talking about Zoom University. Or Zoom Class. Or whatever you call the instructional "strategy" of one-to-one replacements of face-to-face class sessions with Zoom meetings.
The possibility that professors would swap out scheduled in-person class times for scheduled remote Zoom times is not one that our online learning community envisioned. It seems like such a spectacularly bad idea to insist that students sit in front of a web meeting for hours at a time that few of us thought this would ever come to pass.
How naïve we were. This is 2020, after all. We are living through peak bad ideas. A wholesale shift from the physical to the Zoom classroom may be as crazy as holding a superspreader event on the south lawn of the White House.
So for the record, let's be very clear on some things about teaching, learning and Zoom:
Zoom Sucks Energy
Participating in a synchronous online class is not like attending a physical class. Zoom is way more exhausting. The mental reserves, and hence the ability to learn of our students, will be drawn down quicker on Zoom than when in person. Why Zoom (and all synchronous online classroom/meeting tools) is such an energy suck is not fully understood. This effect likely has something to do with how our brains process screen versus physical presence.
The lack of any physical mobility between classes likely contributes to Zoom fatigue. So do our brain's inability to differentiate Zoom meetings from everything else we do on our screens, drawing down the same reserve of focus. Whatever the reason that Zoom tires us out, we should all start listening to our bodies and begin making some adjustments.
Zoom Is Bad for Lecturing
The fastest way to lose the attention of students on Zoom is to talk at them. Don't get me wrong. A bit of lecturing is fine. The first 10 or 15 minutes of a synchronous online class is a great time to synthesize information and go over muddy points. The vast majority of Zoom classes, however, should be about conversation.
Class conversations on Zoom are not like class conversations in a physical classroom. They don't scale all that well. And these conversations need to be more carefully orchestrated and directed. A freewheeling discussion with more than just a few students is almost impossible to have go well. Inevitably, a few students will dominate the conversation. Quieter learners will be shut out. I recommend that instructors be very directive on Zoom. Say out loud that you are going to call on folks. Give them some warning that you are going to ask them to speak. And then be willing to cut some students off (diplomatically) and bring others into the conversation.
ZoomU May Be Good for the Course, but ZoomU Is Bad for the Learner
Every professor knows that Zoom is exhausting. They are exhausted by all their Zoom meetings also. And most every professor knows that Zoom is suboptimal for lecturing. So why does ZoomU seem to be spreading? The answer is that substituting in-class sessions for Zoom sessions is a reasonable and defensible choice at the course level. For each individual course, all things being equal, the more Zoom time, the more learning. The problem is that this equation breaks down when every course (or almost every course) follows this Zoom-centric strategy. What is good for the course (lots of Zoom) becomes terrible for the learner (too much Zoom across all her courses).
Zoom is presenting higher ed with something like a tragedy of the commons. Individual instructors benefit from running lots of Zoom classes, but if all (or even most) instructors follow this strategy, then all the students lose out. What is needed is some combination of education and institutional guidance. My advice is to follow a three-to-one strategy. For every three hours of class, hold one hour of Zoom. Make that time more conversation-based. If you teach a class of 45 that usually meets three times a week for 50 minutes, then use those time blocks to hold three separate Zoom sessions. Let students sign up for the sessions, distributing attendance across the three meetings. Require only that students attend one discussion per week.
Look, nobody is going to learn as much this year as in non-pandemic years. We are in the midst of a global crisis. The priority should be to get us all through this period more or less intact — 2020 is not the year to optimize for anything.
Accepting that our current reality is COVID-19 shitty, and will likely be for some months to come, can free us from any number of self-imposed burdens. You will not cover as much content in your course. But you can maybe dive more deeply into fewer things. When you assess your students this year, focus on highlighting strengths rather than correcting for weaknesses.
Yes, I know that this strategy will not work for every course in every subject. Many foundational STEM classes build toward essential knowledge and skills in a major. Some content must be covered and assessed. If, however, you can give your students a break this year, please do so. The easiest way to encourage learning and support our learners' wellness is to throttle back on Zoom classes.
When it comes to Zoom and teaching, less is more.
Joshua Kim is the Director of Online Programs and Strategy at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) and a CNDLS Senior Fellow for Academic Transformation, Learning, and Design at Georgetown University.
This editorial was first published November 8, 2020 in Inside Higher Ed.