My tips for conducting an online Zoom class amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Phew, what a semester! I ran a section of our Programming Usable Interfaces course here at Carnegie Mellon University, and I mentored several student assistants and two research associates for our HCII Social Cybersecurity research project – all while taking a required course (Social Web, roughly a survey of Computer-Supported Collaborative Work and Social Computing) and an elective (Computer Science Pedagogy). Oh and finished all of this AMID A PANDEMIC, while WORKING FROM MY CRAMPED APARTMENT with TWO INCREDIBLY FUSSY CATS.

It has been a steep learning curve to work out how best to use Zoom and other tools when carrying out university work. I found the following practices helped our sessions to work best:

  • Be very explicit in what you want students to do. I wrote out a script where I would verbally tell students to post in the Chat window, raise their hands with the icon or just unmute in order to ask questions or make a comment.
  • Use breakout rooms to facilitate discussion and social connection. No one will be able to see the discussion prompt slide once in the room, so it is best to keep it general or re-post the prompt via message once students have joined the groups.
  • Accept that you only get half the attention as in an in-person class – typical user is multitasking with in-home activities and distractions (in bed or cooking or managing kids/pets or doing laundry) – this includes me, when I’m not the lecturer, so I have empathy for this user persona!
  • No one will share screens or audio if the group is too big to fit in gallery view. This unfortunately amplifies the already present distancing of the video screen interface in any such conversation.
  • Rather than sharing links for additional material in Zoom chat, create a Slack workspace or use Piazza threads. Both are persistent and searchable, and Slack allows for lightweight engagement such as emojis. However, I also would upload to Canvas the (edited) chat transcript with my encoded mp4 file at the end of lab, for students who were not able to attend synchronously. I do not think a Canvas discussion thread is going to be useful for this, because the UI seems primarily designed for required discussion posts on assigned readings, but you could post it as an Announcement, which will be front and center for students.
  • Streaming videos can still be a fun and useful break in lecture – I had a lot of success showing a video demonstration of the Bootcamp.js grid system amid a lecture on using it for web design – but keep in mind you need enough bandwidth to stream multimedia and also need to configure your sharing settings properly: Turn off the video background or even your in person video altogether if needed, and check on Share Computer Audio when starting the screen sharing.
  • Stick with one persistent Zoom link for each type of meeting. It was a lot easier for me to simply create one repeating calendar item with a persistent Zoom URL, rather than constantly have to hunt for whatever the new Zoom link was for that day’s class or meeting. I saved my personal Zoom link for office hours and other activities that were likely to have happened in-person in my office. Use the waiting room feature or enable the password as part of the URL itself, if you are concerned about securing the meeting to only those unlikely to cause trouble. For one-off events, use a registration form to collect and vet attendees, then send a separate email with the actual Zoom link to the approved attendees.

Let me know in the comments what other practices you found helpful – or share on social media!

Author: Cori

Cori Faklaris (aka "HeyCori") is a PhD researcher at Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Faklaris is an social media expert and longtime journalist who brings this expertise to her work in usability for privacy, security and emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things.

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