Sunday, February 7, 2021

Zoom lessons



The first semester of the 2020-2021 is thankfully over. I, like most teachers worldwide, used Zoom from the first day to the last day and never actually met my students. After the shock and confusion of the previous semester, both teachers and students began this semester with awareness of the situation and the understanding of the technology. Thus, an intuitive analysis of this Zoom semester has merit in terms of grasping the impact of Zoom on material selection, student-teacher interaction and student performance.

As a matter of background, I teach advanced English (Levels B2 and C1) to engineering students at the Braude College of Engineering in Karmiel, Israel. I taught two groups of 30 students from all departments. I am thoroughly familiar with the material as I have taught the course for more than a decade. Most of my students are in their first year, with their ages ranging from 19-27. A few of them are even married with one soon becoming a father. They come from all sectors in Israel, including Jewish, Muslim and Muslim as well as native-born and immigrants. Consequently, the background English level is very heterogenous. Despite falling into certain level categories, they have varying degrees of proficiency in specific language skills, with writing generally being the weakest and reading the strongest. Thus, my two groups collectively are a fairly representative.

The limitations of Zoom required an adjustment of the course tasks. First, online teaching does not allow the teacher to see whether students are truly paying attention or learning. For the most part, all see a series of gravestones (names in the grey background) or unclear headshots without facial expressions. Thus, online teaching is like throwing a line in the river and hoping the fish will bite (often with the same success rate). Therefore, explanations were minimized and breakroom session maximized to allow students to actively learn and teachers to better assess actually understanding. Furthermore, it is effectively impossible to prevent students from sharing knowledge during quizzes and tests, especially in regards to objective answers. Consequently, the grading emphasis switched from a statistically important final with an unseen to a minor element involving a seen text with interpretive questions and a writing task. During the semester, more time was invested in writing and, curiously, speaking as they involve individual student activity as compared to general learning. The result for the teachers of the staff was significantly more time work.

Student-teacher interaction on Zoom is defined by the technical limitations that only one person can speak at a time and the time required to get from one break room to another. In a normal classroom, the teacher can ascertain which students wish to participate and encourage others to join them. In Zoom, the first to speak controls the microphone. In practice, I heard very few students while I was in the general group mode, an unacceptable situation in normal times. Moreover, even when I broke them up into small groups, the time and effort required to switch from one room to another is significantly greater than that of moving around a room, where it is also possible to monitor which groups are on task, unlike in Zoom. Given the lack of communication with the vast majority of my students, I invested more time outside the lesson. First, I always opened the session 15 minutes before the start of the lesson and stayed online until the last student left, giving them a chance to ask questions. I also provided much specific feedback on their writing assignments and initiated email where I felt that the students were “out of it” based on their performance. Timely, detailed written feedback partially replaced the personal contact typical of effective teacher-student interaction.

That said, albeit the academic results reflect only one semester, performance was noticeably below the level of previous years. The number of failures was higher but that may be just a statistical anomaly. More seriously, the number of students whose final paragraph reflected a complete or significant lack of comprehension of the course material was unusually high and very distressing to both parties. I had the impression that I truly had been too often teaching to gravestones. Granted it may be one of the causes is my explanations. Also, these students were clearly less advanced having lost most of the previous year. However, it is highly probable that the most important cause is that the 30+ hours that students spend on Zoom, not including their HW, reduces their capacity to absorb, especially given most have none enjoy the reinforcing effect that actual social interaction with their fellow students provide. Not only that, the home environment poses much more threats to their concentration. Clearly, the attention issue must be addressed in some way.

As said, these conclusions are entirely intuitive. Yet, as Zoom will continue to serve as the medium of teaching for the next semester if not longer, it is vital to analyze and strive to overcome the limitations of the tool. These are my Zoom lessons from the previous semester.

* Give access to the blind by providing captions to pictures.

Picture: Image by <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=995558">Gerd Altmann</a> from <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=995558">Pixabay</a>

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