Teaching in the Zoomiverse

What students wish their professors knew about online education.

EDUCATORS CAN TALK ad nauseam about the best practices they’ve discovered for teaching online, but some of the most helpful information comes from the source: students.

My university’s Center for Teaching Excellence recently hosted a webinar with student panelists who offered insights around the theme “what students wish their professors knew about teaching during the pandemic.” I found the takeaways surprising.

For starters, I learned a new term—Zoomiverse—which refers to the online world we live in as we collaborate and learn online. But more important, I learned that educators might be overlooking several opportunities to meet the needs of students during the pandemic.

These nuggets of information are counterintuitive and unlikely to make the university-derived list of pedagogical best practices. But they represent some of the best pieces of advice students can offer their professors.

DON’T MAKE EVERYTHING SYNCHRONOUS

Many professors assume that, online, synchronous sessions are better than asynchronous activities. If students can’t see the instructor, what’s the point? But students say that how the class is run is exponentially more important than the modality.

Working adults confess that Zoom fatigue has delivered unexpected hits to their psyches during the pandemic. Students are no different. While students in the webinar acknowledged that, pre-pandemic, they enjoyed the structure of attending scheduled classes, they said that the situation has changed now that they are spending much of their days staring at their computers.

Students noted that just because a class is scheduled for 80 minutes doesn’t mean the entire 80 minutes need to be synchronous. They recommended that content such as definitions, models, and theories be posted as asynchronous videos. They suggested that professors use synchronous sessions only to give students opportunities to apply the material and interact with others through polls, breakout rooms, or interactive content.

CAPITALIZE ON ASYNCHRONOUS ADVANTAGES

Students stated that, when done right, asynchronous can be superior to synchronous learning—and even prepare them better for the workplace.

For instance, online discussions mimic the way working adults do the bulk of their communicating—via email. But these discussions must be done well. Multi-day posts with regular professor intervention and feedback are key.

STUDENTS LEARN THAT TIME IS A VALUABLE ASSET THAT SHOULD BE CAREFULLY MANAGED.

Students also pointed out that a go-at-your-own-pace, asynchronous learning model replicates the way they will operate when they’re in the real world, where they will be responsible for their own learning and their own schedules. One student eloquently explained that the mixed modalities of online learning had forced her to be a “better and more professional” independent learner. In asynchronous learning environments, students are learning that time is a valuable asset that should be carefully managed.

Professors might worry that asynchronous education doesn’t lend itself to applied and experiential interactions, but there are ways to create those opportunities. For instance, professors can hold regular meetings with small groups of students. During such sessions, it’s much harder for students to zone out or shut off their videos (always excepting those who have valid reasons for doing so). Small-group meetings can be refreshing to professors who typically present to a screen full of 30 or more miniature black boxes filled with the users’ names.

DON’T FORGET TO BE A REAL PERSON

One student made a comment during the webinar that resonated with me: “Be a person first, and a professor second.” Just like working adults who are feeling isolated during the pandemic, students are craving support from and connection to people other than their roommates or family members.

Professors no longer have random encounters with students before or after class. We no longer see them in the halls. But that doesn’t stop students from wanting to know who we are, beyond our academic identities.

BE A PERSON FIRST, AND A PROFESSOR SECOND.

For whatever reason, when we’re teaching remotely, professors have a tendency to get down to business. Students stated that they would be happy to hear about anything—our weekend activities, our hobbies, our pets—to get to know us more on a personal level.

Students also gushed about how meaningful it was when their professors emailed to ask about their well-being. Such inquiries might have felt forced or intrusive in a prior life. But today, professors need to be socially aware enough to notice when something seems off with some of their students, and they need to know when and how to appropriately inquire.

FOCUS ON THE BIGGER PICTURE

As a consequence of the webinar, I’m re-evaluating my material. I have higher standards for what I’ll include in the synchronous format. Yet, ironically enough, I just posted ten minutes’ worth of video about what’s going on in my world. None of it was class-related.

I know that changing the material for my classes will be time-consuming. And making the personal video was awkward. These minor discomforts are just part of the new Zoomiverse, I guess.

I also took away a higher-order realization from the webinar. The pedagogical recommendations we have relied on in the past can still be helpful now, but they don’t fully address the context of teaching during the pandemic.

While I found the students’ recommendations somewhat counterintuitive, I also found them enlightening. My hope is that professors and administrators will continue to ask students what they want, and why. While context always dictates the ideal solution, it’s essential to get feedback from the source.


Scott Dust is an assistant professor of management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is also the chief research officer at Cloverleaf, a team-building technology platform. The content of this article was drawn from a webinar coordinated by Ellen Yezierski and Gregg Wentzell of Miami University’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

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