I just logged off after spending 2 hours with my class of 7 students, all of whom were online learning with zoom. I have to admit, I think some of my students learned more than others. This was a live online class, where every student had the same teacher and the same zoom technology. So why would it be a good experience for some and not as much for others?
About my synchronous zoom class
First, let me tell you a little about my class. I teach SAT and ACT prep as a synchronous online class. This means that the students and I are all on zoom at the same time and seeing and hearing the same things. We are all in the same virtual classroom. As compared to asynchronous learning, where the students watch videos, read online material, and complete assignments at their own pace, synchronous classrooms have better learning outcomes. John Dewey provided an excellent reason for this when he said, “learning is a social activity.” There is something about the give and take of human interaction that helps cement information in our brain. Simply reading information or even watching it in video form doesn’t seem to make the same impression. The relationship between student, teacher, and other students really does make a big difference, even if that interaction happens over zoom!
In addition to following the synchronous model, there are a few other things I do to maximize online learning with zoom. I email each student the day before class and attach a pre-work activity and copies of the activities I plan to use during class time. I check my email frequently and make sure to get back to their questions as quickly as possible. During class, I use a video camera and microphone, so the students can always see and hear me, a document camera, so they can see anything I am physically writing on a sheet of paper or demonstrating from a book, and an xp-pen, so that I can annotate any digital information we are using in real time. After class, I send another email following up on any great questions my students asked and reminding them of their homework assignment.
If all seven of the students I had in class today got this same treatment from me, why would they have seven different experiences? It’s because what the students do is just as important as what I do! If you are a student in an online class, this is what I recommend you do to help the teacher teach you as best as she can:
1.) Print out any materials that were sent to you before the class
Sometimes the length of the document makes this unreasonable, but when your teacher sends you a relatively short class activity, print it out before the start of class. For instance, reading comprehension activities have both a passage and a set of questions, and it’s not always possible to display both on the screen at the same time. Students who have a printout of the passage and questions do a better job of staying engaged with both the material and the class discussion. Plus, if I am describing a strategy about how to annotate the passage, that is best done with paper and pencil.
This is also true with math. If we’re working on a set of challenging SAT math problems, students who have a printout of the questions can actively try to solve the problems for themselves. Students who don’t have the printout are far more likely to passively watch the teacher, and as a result, won’t develop their own understanding of the problem.
2.) Communicate with your teacher often
Some teenagers are surprisingly reticent to “bother” their teachers by emailing a question or request. As a teacher, I would like to say, PLEASE SEND THAT EMAIL. I take my job as a teacher seriously, and I take it personally if you don’t have a good experience in my class. If you don’t know what time class is, or lost the zoom link, or don’t understand what I wanted you to do for pre-work, or are going to be 10 minutes late, I want to have the opportunity to help you.
3.) Log on from a desktop or laptop rather than from a tablet or phone
When you are online learning with zoom, you will usually see your teacher and other students on the right part of the screen and the class material in the center of your screen. This is a lot of information for one screen, so you should use the biggest one you have available. Phones are the worst. Tablets are a little better, but still not ideal. As your teacher, I will be using a computer. If you have a significantly smaller screen than I do, there’s a good chance that information that looks great on my screen will be too small for you to read.
4.) When online learning with zoom, keep your camera turned on
When I’m teaching a class of smiling faces, I smile too. I am more animated in my presentation and more responsive to your reactions. When I’m teaching a bunch of black zoom rectangles, it can feel pretty awkward on my end. When I ask my students to try a short activity, it’s the video feed that lets me know whether they’re finished or need more time. I’ve heard lots of reasons why students won’t turn on their video cameras, from messy hair to an unmade bed. Please comb your hair, make your bed, and let your teacher know you’ve shown up to class by turning on the camera.
5.) Keep your microphone on mute, but be quick to hit the spacebar and be heard
It’s best to keep your microphone on mute when you are online learning with zoom, so the other students aren’t distracted by your barking dog, ringing phone, or noisy family. However, the mute button isn’t there to silence you! If you are muted on zoom, you can hold down the space bar and be temporarily unmuted. It’s important to participate in discussions because expressing your thoughts helps you and all your classmates learn better. Don’t let the mute key silence you into becoming a passive learner.
6.) Let your teacher know if you can’t see or hear something
Your teacher works hard to prepare high quality lessons, but they can easily be derailed if there is a poor audio connection or if the screen is unreadable on your end. The only way for the teacher to know if these problems are interfering with your learning is if you tell her. When screen sharing on zoom, it’s especially easy to forget that when you change from one window to another, you have to share the new window. If this happens to your teacher, let her know right away.
7.) Let your teacher know when you have finished an activity
Even when you have the video running, the teacher can’t usually see your paper. Because of this, he or she can’t always tell when you’ve finished. Help your teacher out by displaying the thumbs up icon or by posting “I’m done” in the zoom chat room.
8.) Use your smart phone to share documents
Every once in a while, a student holds up his or her paper to the video camera, so I can see their work in the zoom window. This almost never works. Instead, if they need to show me something they’ve written down, I ask my students to take a quick photo and text it to me.
9.) Do the homework, and follow up if you have questions
Just like in all other classes, what you get out of online learning with zoom is directly proportional to what you put into it. The teacher can plan the lesson, present the information in an engaging manner, and invite you to participate in discussions, but none of that will help you learn if you don’t do your part. You need to show up on time, minimize distractions in your room, stay engaged for the whole lesson, ask questions when you don’t understand, and for goodness sake, do your homework. If you need clarification or help with the assignments, don’t hesitate to ask! Remember, the teacher is only successful if you are successful, so he or she will be happy to answer your questions and help you have a great online learning experience.