Zoom

Active Learning in the Online Classroom

With the arrival of the pandemic, my day job as the Academic Manager at SAE Institute Paris has essentially transformed into one of my part-time jobs, online teaching. While I’ve already posted about the administrative side of this shift a few weeks ago (feel free to read it here), I figured that another post about actual pedagogical strategies might be helpful to all the other teachers out there who might have to stay online in the fall and would like to prepare new types of classes that are designed specifically for the online classroom. Since I’m most familiar with Zoom, I will structure this post as a series of lists, each one corresponding to one of Zoom’s many functionalities. While not by any means exhaustive, I hope these tips and tricks that have been very useful in my online classroom will help others!

Share Screen

Just like in a traditional classroom, it is often helpful to mix it up. With Zoom, you can share your traditional PowerPoint, for sure, but you can also share videos (be sure to click “share computer sound” first!), websites, different software, and more. In certain types of classrooms, sharing something particularly interactive (even if you didn’t have to prepare it in advance) can be far more beneficial for the students. Indeed, unlike a traditional classroom (unless you’re in a computer lab or allow your students to bring their computers), in the Zoom classroom, students can have the software or website open themselves and practice themselves. For instance, in my work with ViaX, I teach students text encoding in XML-TEI using the software Oxygen. Opening Oxygen in the class and having students help me (either orally or in the chat) tag a document is much better than showing them what encoding looks like on a PowerPoint slide or having them try to do it without the appropriate tools. At SAE, teachers have been incorporating a wide range of software and media into their online classrooms, which has been essential to continuing the students’ creative media education.

Annotations

Let’s say you don’t have any interactive software or websites that you could do with your students based on your specific subject matter. For instance, I’ve been teaching academic writing to video games students at SAE for the past few months, and Microsoft Word isn’t a particularly exciting or interesting software to use in class. In this case, a traditional PowerPoint can absolutely be the backbone of your course, just as you would use one in a traditional classroom. That said, to encourage students to participate more, there are certain ways that you can design your PowerPoint to make use of other Zoom features, specifically the annotations. For instance, the other day, I was teaching one of my ViaX students how to perform a close reading on an excerpt I had chosen. While we could have just had a discussion about the text, this task was greatly facilitated by Zoom’s annotations feature. I was able to have her highlight repeated words and sounds, underline sentences that she found particularly meaningful, and even place stars, checks, and more directly onto the slides to keep track of our observations. While these annotations aren’t saved on the PowerPoint slides themselves, you can save the finished product to send to your student(s) and/or post in your LMS as an additional course document, and if the class has been recorded, students can rewatch the line of reasoning that went into those annotations.

Chat

The chat serves a very obvious purpose: students who are more reluctant to speak in class (or perhaps who don’t have a microphone) can post their questions, comments, or concerns in the chat. If there are more than 10-15 students, I would highly encourage using the chat during more lecture-oriented parts of your class to avoid being derailed by endless questions. You can even make it so students cannot unmute themselves, reserving actual conversations for moments you predefined. If the class is recorded, you will have a copy of the chat transcript, but if you want to encourage students to view this textual conversation as a more important aspect of class, I would also encourage you to put the link to a Google Doc in the chat, where students can take notes collaboratively, beyond just asking questions. This sort of strategy works better if you have a second screen, so you can keep track of what students are finding most useful during your class and also point them in the right direction. The Google Doc strategy also works well with the next functionality I will discuss.

Breakout Rooms

As all teachers know, the oldest trick in the book is to put students into pairs or small groups for directed learning activities during an in-person class. However, in the online classroom, this might seem impossible if Zoom did not have the breakout room feature! The breakout rooms can be used very effectively, but proper preparation and explanation are necessary for the students to stay focused in these separate rooms (since you can’t be in all of them at once). The way I have found to make productive use of the breakout rooms is also by leaning on the collaborative nature of Google Docs. Before class, I create the Google Docs, set up the groups, and include in each Doc the rules to the exercise. At the start of class, I explain the group assignment, share the Google Docs with the assigned group members, and split them into their breakout rooms. Then, I can bounce back and forth between the different groups, but can also make sure students in the other rooms are staying on track. Instead of Google Docs, you can also consider using Google Slides and having students end the breakout rooms assignment with a group presentation. A final way to keep students on task is to push messages to all breakout rooms at the same time (for instance, tips or time limits).

Poll

At SAE, we have used the poll feature in our open days to ask participants in these very large marketing events anonymous questions about their interest and appreciation. That said, the poll can also be used for sporadic checks that students have understood the material, as well as to see how students are appreciating the classes to get live feedback. I know that I’ve used the polls a surprising amount to get quick student feedback at the end of classes so I make sure that students are responding to the various activities the way I’d like. You can even use the polls as a way to incite conversation — for instance, in an English-language workshop I run with my French-speaking games students, I gave them polarizing questions related to common debates surrounding video games (for instance, do video games have the potential to make children more violent?). This led to lively debates in English, even though many of the students are not necessarily the first to participate in a different language.

Whiteboard

While there are certainly more functionalities and strategies, I think I will end this post with the whiteboard. Now, I know it’s hard to draw/write properly with the trackpad or even a mouse (not everyone has a tablet/stylus that they can use, for sure), but thankfully the whiteboard comes with the option to type. I’ve found that the whiteboard greatly facilitates group brainstorming activities, mind mapping, as well as helping students work collaboratively in the breakout rooms. Just as with the annotation function, it is easy to take a snapshot of the final result to then share with the students in their LMS, via the chat, or by email.

Conclusion

While online teaching is certainly difficult, hopefully these tips will help you. I know that at first, online teaching was a task that I spent hours and hours prepping for because I was very nervous about how students would react in the online classroom (since I was much more familiar with in-person classes). That said, the more I taught, the more I realized that these types of strategies that make use of the distinguishing features of the online classroom can help reduce prep time and improve student satisfaction. It can certainly seem scary to let more unknown variables into the online classroom (in addition to the typical ones — student and teacher internet connection, being the most important), but I can honestly say, fostering active learning in the online classroom has been the only way I have found to make it so I am not completely drained at the end of a long day of teaching on Zoom. Hopefully they work for you as well! Feel free to leave a comment or share your own strategies below! Together, we can get through these trying times and virtually support each other!