Zoom as the Default Tool for the Online Classroom?


Bryan Alexander’s prompt about Zoom’s dominance made me think a bit more deeply about our needs in higher education for synchronous tools. I could have made this a reply on Bryan’s post, but I felt I needed to dust off the good ol’ blog to write something more meaningful.

All the big players out there (Zoom, Teams, WebEx, Google Meet) are basically competing for the same goal: attract the largest user base of people with general videoconferencing needs. It is not quite a winner-take-all, but definitely a market that’s hard to penetrate for a newcomer. You need the best compression algorithms, the best cloud infrastructure, the most relevant feature set, the easiest integration with 3rd-party tools, the best mobile experience, etc. It’s an arm’s race, basically, and their audience is wide and global.

Those tools cover the broadcast and the some-to-many options. Many people will chose them for the small group or one-to-one experience as well by default, but many of us are not that loyal. If I’m in Teams and I need to speak with a colleague that I see is online, I’ll fire up a Teams meeting. If I’m in Discord, in Slack, in Facebook, in LinkedIn… Same thing.

In broadcast situations, the host or panel controls what goes out to an audience. In Zoom webinars, for instance, the host can decide to cut off all communication channels between participants (chat) and even with the host (Q&A) if they feel they can’t or don’t want to interact with the audience. Many of us social creatures hate getting force-fed a presentation (we’d rather watch it on Youtube afterwards, if that’s what this is about). In cases like these, savvy extroverts will turn to Twitter and have a public backchannel discussion, mostly complaining about the missing chat in the webinar (if we’re persistent enough to not just shut down the webinar).

There is a spectrum between these two extremes (broadcast vs one-on-one). But I feel there is also another axis to consider. That axis is around planned (and unplanned) engagement with participants.

Participant Engagement

Of course, smaller events should generate more chances for engagement. It’s pretty easy to see what happens when you have a meeting with 4 people vs 12 people, for instance. As soon as you start to scale up, you also need to set up rules of engagement to allow for everyone to have a chance to intervene. There are also ways to break people up in smaller groups to allow for teamwork to happen. All of the big videoconferencing tools have ways to create these experiences.

But the flow between the large group and small group experience can be disorienting and frustrating. I compare the breakout room experience in Zoom to an alien abduction. You get put into a room with strangers without warning, are expected to make the most of the time you have in small groups to solve a problem, and usually run out of time before really reaching a conclusion before being abducted and cut off from your peers back into the main room.

The tool that I’ve seen that has the least disruptive small group experience is Engageli. Since you get into the tool at a table by default, all the instructor has to do for group work is to stop talking and set a timer onscreen. Participants naturally start interacting at their table and work until the instructor starts talking again, just like you would see in a real classroom or conference room.

Choosing the Right Tool vs Doing Our Best With What We Have

COVID has accelerated the trend towards cloud infrastructure for higher education institutions. Of course, campuses still have to invest in physical spaces, but they also have to compete for remote students and serve their hybrid workforce. The cost associated with this SaaS transition is hard to swallow for many institutions. ListEdTech (Justin Menard) just reported some of these approximate costs.

Some campuses decided to use what they already had, such as Google Meet or Teams, because they were already bundled in their current productivity suite (Google Suite and Microsoft 365, respectively). Unfortunately, some of these suites also come with licencing restrictions or firewalls imposed by institutional policies or local laws. And their feature set might not serve your needs, or look a bit wonky next to the best-of-breeds tools available today. For the campuses that decided to invest in yearly commitments to services like Zoom, that’s a new expense they didn’t have before, but they still have to heat up their empty campus building to make sure the pipes don’t freeze.

You might find the tool that does it all, but you might also consider combining tools that allow you to cover all your use cases. We’re seeing more and more webinars taking advantage of collaborative tools, covering whiteboards (Miro, Mural, Jamboard, etc.), surveys and quizzes (Wooclap, Mentimeter, Nearpod, etc.), and collaborative documents (Google Docs, OneDrive). Beyond (or combined with) the internal features of videoconferencing tools, they make participant engagement easier at scale. These affordable add-ons add a layer to what you already use.

The Informal/Small-Scale Videoconferencing Tools

Videoconferencing tools cover most of our needs when it comes to running the “business of higher education classes”. I mean, it allows for the instructor to connect with students and for students to communicate with one another, right?

I work for a college of business. We know for a fact that our classes aren’t the only facet of what it means to have a college experience. We have a vibrant student government, student clubs, social activities, networking events, inter-university competitions, common spaces people use to socialise and study together, etc. These high-impact practices are not well suited by videoconferencing tools alone.

At TOPKit Workshop 2022, Jenille “Jeni” Lopez, Maikel Alendy and Johana Perez at FIU Online presented their toolset for online learning, and it something clicked in my head.

We need support for different tool categories that can make synchronous events more engaging and, therefore, feel more intimate. They presented their use of Kumospace (other tools of this type are Gather and InSpace) to support office hours, informal gatherings, or group work. If you design your learning experiences accordingly, moving form one of these spaces to the next can allow you to have it all. But it requires us to start thinking more deeply about the synchronous experience, to design it with intent as a part of the broader learning experience. Focusing exclusively on the course website isn’t enough anymore.

In short, you don’t need your videoconferencing tool to do it all, and you can find a mix of tools that can serve your purpose without breaking the bank. What’s your strategy?


Persona Worksheet Assignment

I stumbled upon this tweet by Laura Pasquini, and it got me thinking about this learning activity I have in my USFSM EME6613 course related to personas and accessibility. I had not documented this publicly, so I thought this would be a good time to revive my stagnating blog.

The way I approached this activity was by tackling two concepts at once: empathy and accessibility.

After having been exposed to Universal Design for Learning and Accessibility, I gave my learners the following prompt:

Now that you have a better understanding of who’s on the other side of the screen, this activity is intended to let you create a typical student profile you deal with on a regular basis in your teaching assignments (or as student peers of yours if you don’t teach).

This fictitious persona (this is a creative assignment, don’t use real names) should represent a segment of the student population you have in your courses. For example, if you teach in a community college, you could decide to create a persona around a first-generation college attendee, a single mother, or an Army veteran. If you’re teaching adults in a professional setting, the persona could represent a mid-career middle manager, the person who’s forced to be there because their boss told them, etc.

Try to describe someone who could be challenged in succeeding in your class, throw in a disability in there just for good cause.

I provide them with this Google Docs worksheet to guide the creation of their persona. Once learners have submitted, I go through one round of peer review so that different people can review the work of others but also get exposed to the reality of different types of learners, the overarching goal being to stop blaming learners for not following your narrowly defined prescribed learning path.

Anyway, feel free to use and remix any part of this, it is shared under a CC By licence! Let me know if you do, and share your learning activities related to accessibility or personas in the comments or ping me on Twitter!

Post-semester reflection about #EME6613

This summer, I taught EME6613 Design of Tech-Based Instruction online for the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. This course is a part of the Master of Education, and prepares students to design and facilitate online classes (it’s very meta, since the class itself is online and can be used as an example). As a compressed 6-weeks course, it’s very fast-paced (syllabus). Here are some reflections on the experience.


Experience matters

It was the third time I taught the class, so I was more comfortable and felt on top of my game. Instead of building the class from the ground up (like in 2014) or being stuck in the middle of flood central (leak in my house) and a 4 month-old baby killing my sleep (2015), I was actually able to focus on improving the class and switching some assignments around. I believe my class is now in a good spot to require minimal revision the next time around.

William Horton, in E-Learning by Design (pages 44-45, first edition), describes the process of designing e-learning as a cycle consisting of analyzing, designing, building, and evaluating your course, over and over again. The more cycles it goes through, the more polished it becomes.

The mind-mapping exercise worked

Instead of yet another discussion board, I asked my students to create a mind map of their vision of what online learning is. The maps I received were diverse and interesting, and helped clear some misconceptions the students had. Most students were able, without much effort, to use a software product, like PowerPoint, or an online tool, like LucidChart, to create their map.

Video feedback in Speedgrader is the bomb

Canvas provides so much value with video comments. Grading is personalized, and students actually watch the feedback when it’s done that way. Who knew?

I must integrate more peer-review

The peer review process I set up for the mind-mapping exercise was well received and demonstrated the power of sharing with your peers. Many students were glad to be put in the position to dive more deeply into a colleague’s lens. I would like to do at least one more peer-review for the course the next time. I might also try to force a group project as well, so students can experience collaborating online.

I must re-balance the gradebook

Some items have too much weighted value in comparison with others. I think attendance to the weekly Hangouts on Air (currently 4%) should have more value than accomplishing the chores (10%). Also, the mind-mapping assignment requires as much effort as the screencasting one, but yet is only worth 8% vs 20% for the latter. This is because I was trying not to mess up my point value for the projects while adding another one.

I need to rethink the instructions for the capstone project

I wish more students spent more time doing something meaningful as their capstone project. Right now, it is focused on creating a Google Site and populating it with content of different nature (links, images, videos, etc.). I think I could introduce the capstone project earlier and have students build it as a decent learning portfolio by the end of the semester, something they would be proud of and use beyond the course.

Did I miss anything?

If you participated in the course, please let me know in the comments if I missed other biggies for EME6613 version 4.


Reflection: Teaching openly is all I have #openeducationwk

Since it’s Open Education Week, here is a rare blog post of mine. Disclaimer: Opinions below are my own and do not reflect my employer’s view.

I’ve been reflecting lately about why higher education faculty members don’t embrace open education (and open teaching practices) as much as I do [in the time I took to write this post, I stumbled upon Martin Weller’s one that clarifies some of these issues as well]. This post is just some sort of brainstorm of reasons why I think the task at hand is harder that it seems to be. (Warning: I’ll be jumping around from a faculty perspective to a student perspective, and discussing the issue from and adjunct instructor’s point of view).

Can I use this opener on your teaching practices, please? Photo credit: CC-BY-NC Stephen Downes on Flickr.com

It hasn’t been around long enough

Even though the open education has been around for 15 years or so (I’m using MIT’s Open Courseware initiative as the start point), many people had not paid attention until recently, when Stanford-branded Massive Open Online Courses got some press. Academia is a very stable industry that rarely jumps on bandwagons without carefully looking at evidence.1 Not much literature has come up to my attention to really demonstrate the idea that open education is better for student learning, but, more importantly, better for tenured and tenure-track faculty members doing their every day job, which brings me to my second point.

Open education doesn’t appeal to full faculty

Many higher education institutions are composed of research faculty members, who were selected by colleagues for their accomplishments in a specific discipline. Those faculty have built-up their reputation through research, scholarship, and presentations at disciplinary conferences that value pushing the discipline, not the transfer of its basic principles to undergraduate students. Full faculty members already have promotion channels for what they do, so open education is not something they are looking for in terms of spreading their knowledge.

If they have any interest in teaching, one of the ways they have found to promote it is to write a textbook for one of the 4 or 5 big publishers. This also helps them get additional income if the title becomes popular (and if they assign it to their own students, they already have a niche for it). A chunk of full faculty do not want to support open education for fear of losing revenue generated by textbook sales, same goes for campus bookstores (which are usually co-owned by the universities).

Students are also a part of the issue. They are familiar and have become desensitized to the fact that they need to buy learning materials, no matter the cost, and no matter what the learning outcome for them is (and Daddy pays for it anyway). The real cost of textbooks is not as bad as the retail price suggests though, as Phil Hill has demonstrated in the past.

Course evaluations are private

Most institutions have a formal course evaluation made of online surveys taken by students near the end of the semester. Those usually measure satisfaction with your class, and sometimes contains nice messages about how good of a teacher you are. Unfortunately, that data is private, and can only be seen by you and your department chair. You cannot use that to promote yourself that much, outside of your current department.

Openly available course evaluation information, like Rate My Professors, is generally frowned upon by higher education as a whole.

Faculty are shielded from the real cost of textbooks

The deal is done between the publisher and the faculty. Faculty get free copies of the textbook and all the ancillaries, and forward the ISBN to their campus bookstore. The bookstore then packs the shelves with the assigned textbook, padding the price enough to justify their own existence.

In the end, the students are the ones coming out of pocket for the textbooks, and they figure out creative ways to lower the cost by reselling, renting, getting digital versions, etc., or they simply take a chance and go without, thinking that faculty will lecture the content of the course that will be covered in the exams anyway.

Faculty don’t pay enough attention to their online footprint

When you Google someone’s name, a lot more than academic articles comes out. In general, departments put out some sort of short bio and list and of academic papers (that is usually outdated). Conferences also leave traces of the faculty’s presentations and such, but again, those become outdated pretty fast. And like most of us, faculty use social media for social needs, not so much for developing their professional network.

But what about adjuncts?

If, like me, you have a day job and teach once in a while on a short-term contract, open education should be on your radar. Why? Because that’s all you have to show for all your work.

You don’t publish in academic journals. You don’t attend academic conferences. You might attend professional conferences, but those rarely make it on department chair’s radar. Unless you have the freedom to do research in your free time, the traditional promotion and tenure channels basically work against you.

So, what can be done?

I believe adjuncts, as much as possible, should consider themselves education free agents. We are most likely rooted in one institution, one physical area, but teaching is not. As an example, I teach for the Social Media Marketing Strategy certificate at the University of Delaware, a hybrid program, and for the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee in the M.A. in Education program. I have never set foot on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, but teach online for them.

As a free agent, you want to make sure that you leave a trace when you teach. I usually ask my employers if I am allowed to make my slides available online, if I can assign a Creative Commons license to my work, etc. It’s not always granted, but one way around it is to create or assemble a personal OER collection in advance (Laura Gibbs’ one is fricking impressive). One way I have done this is on Slideshare, another way was to run a webinar for Open Education Week about a class I taught in 2012. Once you have created and openly published content online, all you have to do is link to it from your walled garden also known as the LMS, or reference your own content under the Creative Commons license it was originally produced under. Participating in the Open Education movement is therefore a great way to “bypass” institutional legal firewalls.

Also, besides Rate My Professors2 (which I personally encourage my students to honestly complete because I know that’s where students will find information they trust), there are other ways to make sure people who find your profiles also know what your courses are like. For instance, writing recommendations for deserving students and displaying theirs on your LinkedIn profile or blog can be a great way to increase the transparency of your teaching philosophy.

Also explore other “opennesses”, as Martin Weller suggests. Open access, open textbooks, open data, open government, social media-powered personal learning networks, working out loud, etc. Whatever works for you to increase your value as an expert in your discipline, but also as an educator, will increase your chances of people finding you and wanting to collaborate or teach for them.

In the end, as an education freelancer, my online footprint is all I have, so it better be abundant, it better be current, and it better reflect who I am.

1. Although some might argue that the MOOC movement has been one of the most bandwagonish behavior seen in higher education for quite a while.

2. Here are my UD and USFSM profiles on Rate My Professors.

Optimize Your Professional Online Presence #UDSFI15 @10:30am

The multiple facets of your digital stampOn June 3, 2015, the always awesome Holly Norton (@NortonHolly) and yours truly (@mathplourde) will be moderating a discussion centered around academic digital presence during the University of Delaware’s Summer Faculty Institute. This post is the home base for the links and artifacts from the session.

You can catch the live stream from Gore Hall room 104 starting at 10:30 a.m. EDT form this link, and interact with the live audience using the #UDSFI15 hashtag on Twitter.

Links to platforms and examples are listed in the following Google Doc.