Zoom me up, Scotty

100 students, 5 time zones, 10,000 miles apart.

This summer, I got to teach a distributed-systems class in a distributed-systems (online) setting. My class was at 930pm ET at night. Some students were waking up while others were just going to bed. Some would be thinking breakfast, while others dinner.

When I was first asked to teach my distributed-systems class online, I wasn’t quite sure if I would be able to replicate the magic of in-person teaching and bring it into an online medium. I thought that the online medium would feel sterile compared to the immediacy of human interaction in a classroom.

I’m very much of an in-person teacher. I love being in the classroom, a physical classroom. I love seeing students walk in. I love seeing students all serious and suited up, on the mornings of their job interviews. I love seeing students on the morning of major in-class demos. I love lingering in the classroom after class, to talk to students. I love walking around the classroom, gesticulating with my hands when I teach, when I am excited about explaining something. I love filling all of the classroom white-boards with my chicken scratch. I love the butterflies every time I walk into a classroom to teach. I love the sense of drained contentment every time I walk out of the classroom after a lecture. I leave everything out there in the classroom when I teach.

Live online teaching via Zoom changed the way I taught, and made me realize how much fun a classroom could be through the right interactive platform.

Here’s what I grew to love.

  1. Live, in-the-moment, Q&A. In live online teaching, students post questions in the Zoom chat window throughout the lecture, and I am able to answer the questions in real-time. I think that it’s far less effort for someone to type in a quick question in a chat window than to raise their hand to get noticed in a physical classroom. I can’t get enough of this live-chat feature. It allows me to process questions as students are mentally questioning what I just said or when I have failed to convey something clearly. It’s far better to solve doubts in the moment that let them linger in students’ minds. From my own experience as a student, a lingering doubt would make it difficult for me to grasp the next new thing the teacher uttered because my mind was still trying to grapple with the previous thing I wasn’t sure of.
  2. A private forum for quieter students. Quieter students have a way to pose questions in live online teaching. They can post them via a private chat with me, and that means that I can answer their questions in public, in real-time, but without name-checking them. This allows quieter/shy students the safety of asking questions, but without having to speak in public. As a faculty member, my job is to reach every student. I always worry about students who might not speak up, who might have questions but are unafraid to ask. As a shy student myself, I know that I have never had the guts to ask questions in class, because I was afraid of looking foolish in front of my peers with what I thought were silly or simple questions. This, of all other things, is a game-changer.
  3. Knowing students by name. The power of one’s own name is priceless. As a student, I loved when my teacher knew and called out my name when I raised my hand to answer a question. As a student, my class often had 60–80 students in it, and the fact that my teacher knew my name felt special. I felt seen. In live online teaching, because students’ questions are annotated with their names in the Zoom chat window, it’s easier for me to address students by name when asking or answering questions (unless students ask a question privately, in which case I say, “Oh, I just got a private question.”).
  4. Transcript of live commentary. As a faculty member, the transcript of the Zoom chat window (the running live commentary of the lecture) is priceless. This transcript gives me a list of all of the questions that the students raised, the debates that we had in class, the detours that we took. When I am teaching in person, in a classroom, I don’t keep a running list of all questions that have been asked and answered in class, nor a list of all the detours that we took or the debates we had. The Zoom chat transcript allows me to reflect on a lecture, to understand where the rough spots were (the places where students raised the most doubts), and to plan my next lecture better.

Live online-teaching technology has made me a better teacher. It allowed me to reach students who may be reticent to ask questions in class. It has allowed me to understand the collective train of thought of the entire class in real-time, and to course correct (pun intended) in real-time.

Real-time running feedback. What every teacher wants. That’s what I now have.

I continue to ache for in-person teaching. Online teaching, even when live, is no substitute for the energy of being in a physical classroom. I miss the spontaneity of a conversation after class when students are hanging out in the hallways outside a classroom. I miss seeing students nod their heads at something I say. I miss seeing students frown when they don’t understand what I just said. I miss seeing students together, laughing. I miss seeing student gathering around a cool demo. I even miss watching students fall asleep during my lectures. I simply miss seeing the students.

But I was surprised by how much I took to live online teaching, how I’ve started to look forward to my Zoom lectures, and how I’ve changed up my teaching style to take advantage of this real-time feedback from students. .

I will rejoice when we get back to in-person teaching.
But, Zoom’s coming with me.

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