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Guest Post Teaching and Learning

Adventures in the Zoom Trade: Reigniting the Spark in Our Students

By Florencio Travieso - Professor - emlyon business school, France

10 post-corona ideas for professors…

“Adventures in the skin trade” (1953) is Dylan Thomas’ posthumous, unfinished novel.

In it, the main character, escaping from his comfortable rural context, seeks a new life in London, though nothing seems to happen the way he planned, as events constantly divert his original idea. Even in the midst of confusion and despair wherein the character strives for answers and resolutions, there is a sense of hope. At a certain moment, a man tells him:

“There’s sense in everything. There is bound to be”

It has been more than a year. The way we teach and even the way we interact with people has been impacted by the pandemic.  Throughout these months, we’ve tried to rethink and redesign the way we teach, the way we communicate, the way we connect.  We’ve shared best practices and thoughts with colleagues, as well as ways to reignite the interest of our students in what we teach.

A few weeks ago, I penned a few ideas for students to cope in the current context to help them understand that these times can also be the source of innovation and of new ways to appropriate ideas.

This time we celebrate professors, teachers and instructors: here are some thoughts and methods that we’ve come to test, adapt and test again.  It’s probably time to find sense in everything.

 

Interactivity is key

One of the things that has been lost as a consequence of distance learning (or distance teaching) is interactivity. Students feel no connection with the professor, and they strive for interactivity.  This is evidenced by the “cameras-off syndrome” and the reduced participation overall in class. The class dynamic has lost a lot of non-verbal language that are inherently present in a classroom, while a professor is seen, heard and moves through the classroom triggering (indirect, direct) reactions from the audience.  The first goal of the professor is to break that wall.

 

Ice-breakers

Trigger an informal conversation at the beginning of the lecture. Talk about yourself. Ask them general questions. An open discussion on general topics can reduce that distance, asking them how they are doing, what has been happening, how are they feeling.  Get to know your students. Try to find out beforehand their backgrounds, their current projects.   Connect with them in their context (they are probably in their parents’ house, siblings might be circulating). Make them feel comfortable.

What is invisible…

An interesting fact is that many of the “camera-off” students usually turn their cameras on when in breakout rooms with peers. This signals that there is a distance issue with the instructor that has to be worked. Students can have concerns about the way they look on the camera for many reasons, however, creating a comfortable environment will help to put students at ease and increase participation and a sense of community.

 

Professors are human

Be authentic.  Professors are also teaching from home in many cases. They are also in their “unnatural habitat.” Connect with your students by reminding them of those circumstances. I am sure one of my kids has paid a visit during one of my lectures.  Nothing bad happened. Probably the contrary, it brought a breath of fresh air, of renewal.  Show flexibility –and patience-, as it will bring you further into that connection with the audience.  There is no need to push people to talk or participate. The context of comfort will do magic.

 

Maximize effective communication

We used to be able to have longer and more ample conversations in the classroom (we all miss our physical cues). We could move around in the classroom and prompt a question, move your arms, even invite someone to participate just by looking at them. In the online mode, it’s often recommended to get engagement from students by asking them to pick a side facing a statement. Prof. Michael Sandel uses this technique, as a quick survey method that also allows the audience to maintain interest.

A sort of ‘raise your hands’ procedure, as a simpler question will make them engage more. Later they might give longer answers, boosted by those micro participations. Another idea:  Suggest a question and give two minutes to write an answer. Then you may choose someone to start answering, and then the student can suggest another student to read their answer. This creates a positive ‘tension’ (who is she/he going to call next) and a certain level of gamification in the class.

 

Less is more (shorter sequences)

There is a reason why people watch TED talks so often. They last between 15 and 20 minutes, and they analyze a punctual topic from a very experiential perspective. Back in a ‘traditional classroom’ I’ve realized that when we develop topics that last 20 minutes, students engage much better than a longer presentation. In the distance learning mode, for a 3-hour lecture, each sequence should last about 50 minutes, allowing a 10-minute break to decompress and allow everybody (student and professor) to relax and reset.

 

A Clear Path

Students sometimes feel lost in the ‘classroom’. In distance format, there is no contextual difference (temporal or physical) between the morning class and the afternoon class.  Professors need to give students a sense of place, but also a mood, a sense of destination in terms of theme and topics.  Guide your students into each of the “stops” in the trip, and remind them frequently of the path and the stops along the way.

Make it interesting

I always encourage students during presentations to “make it interesting”. Well, it goes both ways. Our obligation as instructors is to also make our lectures interesting.  One way is to use more rhetorical questions in preparation of each slide of your presentation. This repetition, and cyclical rhythm will prepare students with increased interest, potential answer and eventual questions to clarify what we’re discussing.

 

Make zoom surprising again

You may want to mix your synchronous and asynchronous experience with recorded sessions or with third party documents.  If the ‘recorded’ material is to be viewed prior to the lecture, use that material as a trampoline to go further during the class. The lecture will be the experimental context where ideas will be tested. Allow space for guided brainstorming and verification of the understanding of reading and viewing material.

 

Stand in the place where you live

Lectures should be as dynamic as possible.  Try teaching standing, instead of a sitting-down position. Standing up will allow you to concentrate on one thing only: the audience and the topic. This -I know- requires material, logistics, space and a dose of luck. David Malan has detailed his “zoom via crucis,” teaching from his kitchen and boxes keeping the computer elevated to recommending microphones and green screenshttps://cs50.medium.com/teaching-from-home-via-zoom-c3b336446fbc. Don’t despair:  there is a reasonable scale for everything.

 

If there is something we will have learned once this pandemic has receded, it is that we can prove to be resilient. We have continued the best we could and we have endured. Online teaching will be used as it has proven to be a valid method. It will be up to us to up our game in order to make it worthwhile for our students, and satisfactory for ourselves.

 

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