Suddenly Teaching with Zoom?

This blog post expresses the wisdom of two colleagues who are thinking about the challenges of suddenly teaching with the online meeting technology Zoom. First, Steve Klee, an associate professor at Seattle University, shares his recent experiences transitioning suddenly to teaching with Zoom and wanting to maintain small group work. Then Anne Ho offers a checklist for faculty ramping-up to using Zoom derived from her experiences as chair of the (online) masters of mathematics program at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

While the content of this blog post is not directly connected to PRIMUS, we are confident that these pieces will help meet the needs of our readership.


Guest post by Steve Klee

In this post, I will share a few experiences from Seattle since you might be in our shoes in the next few weeks.  On Friday, March 6, I was told that I would be delivering content remotely beginning on Monday, March 9.  We are on the quarter system, and my students’ final exams were scheduled for March 17 and March 19.  The online delivery window covered the last week of class for the winter quarter. Our spring quarter starts on March 30 and we teach through early June.  Presently, we are anticipating that we will be teaching online for some, if not all, of the spring quarter.  In light of the time frame in which I had to make plans, together with the uncertainty of many aspects of our everyday lives, I decided to cancel my final exams and give the students the grades they have earned through the last week of the quarter. [Editorial comment: I’ve had lots of questions about exams. Dear reader, would you like to share a blog post about strategies?]

I started teaching remotely with Zoom on Monday.  There was a learning curve, as with anything technology-related, but I’ve found it to be pretty intuitive to use. I had very low expectations but have been legitimately impressed with it.  I’ve been using it for classes of about 30 students. I spent about 4 hours learning to use Zoom over the weekend, which involved practice sessions with my colleagues where we took turns setting up and facilitating meetings.  I felt very comfortable after doing that and highly recommend it.  Sitting through a meeting that someone else has initiated lets you see what things will be like from the student’s perspective. [Editorial: See Anne Ho’s post below for a plan here.]

My students have taken to it pretty easily as well, which has been a relief.  You can integrate Zoom with Canvas so that you can schedule your class meetings/office hours on Zoom through Canvas and the students can join from Canvas. 

For my teaching style, the best thing about Zoom is a feature that lets you place students into breakout groups (think, sub-conference calls) with the click of a button.  As the facilitator, you can hop from group to group to check in and answer questions, just as you might in class.  Students can raise a flag to get your attention if they have a question, and there’s a button you can press to call everyone back to the main meeting area with a 1-minute timer for them to wrap up their work. 

I’ve been using Canvas to distribute materials and post pre-class assignments, then Zoom to facilitate group work.  I’m teaching precalculus and integral calculus, so I’ve been able to find a lot of decent existing videos on Khan Academy and YouTube, which has been a huge time saver. Students watch videos before class and solve some pre-class concept check problems, then we spend time in class answering questions and working on problems in groups.

There are a few challenges with group work in Zoom: It takes more time for students to get going on tasks, it’s not as easy to make an announcement to the whole class while they are in groups, and many students opt to work with their webcams turned off (for example, I have a 7:45 am class and many of them do not feel presentable at that hour).  But overall, it works pretty well.  Also, most students already knew one another after being in class together for 9 weeks, so they weren’t being thrown into groups with complete strangers. [Editorial: This point about prior bonding seems huge. I’d love for people to comment about building that online when it’s not already in place.]

Zoom also has a nice polling feature, where you can pose a question for students to respond.  It’s basically like having clicker technology.  I didn’t have experience using clickers previously, but I have been using the polls to get a sense for what my students understand.  It’s been extremely useful, especially since it’s so difficult to get feedback from nonverbal cues (more on this below).  It also lets me ask non-mathematical questions as students join the meeting each morning so I can get a sense of how they are feeling on a given day.

I’ve also found it easy to connect my iPad to my Zoom sessions.  I use the Notability app and a stylus so that I can write on my iPad like a whiteboard and project it for the students to see.  There’s an added bonus here, which is that I can export my board(s) at the end of class as a .pdf and upload them to Canvas, giving the students then have a record of what I wrote.  If students have similar technology, they can share their boards with the class or with groups, and it’s possible for everyone to work on a common whiteboard (this is also a feature that can be disabled!)

Students even have the option to record the class so that they can go back and watch it later.  My understanding is that Zoom will even add subtitles to the video automatically and you can go through and edit the transcript to make sure all your math/mathematical mumblings have been transcribed correctly.  I haven’t had time to investigate this yet.  I’ve also scheduled Zoom meetings with myself where I share my screen + iPad and record mini lectures or solutions to problems.  The video is then exported and I can load it into Canvas.

I had some concerns about how Zoom would work for students with low-medium quality internet connections.  On Tuesday, I had a meeting with a group of faculty and students where one student joined us from an airplane! His connection had too much lag when he spoke, but there is a chat feature where he was able to participate.  In class, students have been more likely to ask questions through the chat room than using their microphones.  This has worked well most of the time, but there isn’t a chime when someone writes in the chat room.  On Monday I made a mistake while I was writing on my iPad and only realized a few minutes later that the students had been trying to get my attention in the chat. 

To sum up, there are certainly challenges with Zoom, and there has been a learning curve for all of us.  I mentioned that most of my students opt to have their webcams off, and when most students keep their webcams off it leads everyone to keep their webcams off.  This means I can’t rely on nonverbal cues from my students, which makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.  Next quarter I will be teaching a smaller, upper-division class, where I plan to set an expectation at the beginning of the quarter that we will all have our webcams on during our meetings. [Editorial: I agree with the benefits, but I hope Steve will adapt if this turns out to be an equity problem.]

Overall, I’ve been pretty happy with the robustness of Zoom as a teaching tool.  It isn’t perfect, and it does not serve as a complete substitute for the human-to-human interaction we all experience as teachers and students.  But given the challenges we are facing as people who might be untrained in remote delivery who are being given hours or days to develop a plan for online teaching, I’ve personally found Zoom to be a worthwhile tool. 

As a closing note, I want to take a moment to acknowledge my students.  The past week has been a challenge unlike anything most of us have ever faced.  Many of them are living away from home for the first time.  They are faced with tremendous amounts of uncertainty as we all scramble to make plans, both academic and non-academic.  They are scared and confused and alone.  And somehow, they are finding the courage to keep working.  I’ve had 80% attendance in all my online classes this week.  Students are asking questions and engaging with material.  Some of them have gone home to Hawaii and still Zoom into a 7:45 am class, which is 4:45am in Hawaii.  They are resilient and strong. Let’s remember that.


I was planning to host an exploratory Zoom session with other mathematics educators, and I posted about it on Twitter. Anne Ho saw the thread and offered me this excellent checklist of features that I should try out before trying to teach with Zoom. With her permission, I’m sharing it here.

Guest post by Anne Ho

The main points are in bold face.

  1. Check Available Zoom Features: If needed, have individuals check their Zoom accounts to see if there is a distinction between types of accounts at their institutions. At UTK, we have the default Zoom Basic account (which is only for 40 minutes), and we have Zoom Pro accounts (for longer meetings)–we do actually have to request Zoom Pro upgrades from IT here.
    • I think some institutions pay for Zoom live captions, but I don’t have it available here.  What I do instead is use Google Slides and its closed-captioning option (in presenter mode). Edit: See this page for Zoom closed captioning info (https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/207279736-Getting-started-with-closed-captioning?mobile_site=true).
    • [Editorial: On one hand, Zoom recently announced that two-person meetings will not have this 40-minute time restriction during this pandemic. On the other, people have pointed out that sinking labor into a tool that is only temporarily free is not always the right choice.]
  2. Establish Norms: Think about which norms need to be discussed in an online environment.  Example: My current online class (33 students) has agreed that everyone is muted during whole class discussions until they want to speak.  When they want to, they don’t need to “raise their hands,” but they un-mute themselves, state their name (since we might be looking at another screen instead of each others’ faces), and then share their thoughts.  In the small groups (breakout rooms), they tend to all stay un-muted the whole time.  So far, I haven’t had any issues with people interrupting each other on purpose, and when it happens on accident, they sort it out very quickly! Edit: Another logistical process is to remind your students to check the time zone for synchronous classes!
  3. Try the Host vs. Participant Views: Take turns seeing what the “host” vs.”participant” views look like (the meeting host can assign someone to be a “host” through the “Manage Participants” menu). Highlights:
    • The host can open breakout rooms, which is super useful for group work!  The host can also record meetings.  In general, they can grant people permissions on the “Manage Participants” menu (e.g. to record, to become a host, or to become a co-host).
    • The participant has a slightly different menu under “Manage Participants.”  The main difference is the hand-raising button.  
  4. Utilize Breakout Rooms: If you have time, have everyone try out being the host for breakout rooms. If not, at least have everyone participate in the breakout rooms once. Highlights:
    • The host can manually assign or automatically assign groups.
    • The host can move from room to room.
    • All participants can share their screens.  In particular, there is a built in “Whiteboard.”  People who aren’t the owner of the whiteboard have an annotation option (see menu at the top of the screen on a PC).  Warning: explicitly save the whiteboard before the breakout rooms end otherwise they may lose their work!
    • Students can ask for help in a breakout room if the host isn’t present.
    • The host can send messages from their breakout room window, but it has a character limit and just flashes the message on the participant screens.  I’d recommend using this sparingly.
    • When the host closes the breakout rooms, there is a countdown timer (default 1 minute), so that people can wrap up their discussions before going back to the main room.
  5. Logistics:
    • If you want to do group work, I highly recommend sharing any slides/worksheets/task-lists ahead of time, so that students can choose to print materials, upload it to their tablets, etc.  Using a Google Doc or other collaborative editing space is great too.
    • I also recommend students come prepared to class with paper/pen since many of them find it helpful to write things down in math.
    • Post the Zoom info in multiple places that students can easily find (e.g. I post it on my homepage in Canvas and in email and in the virtual syllabus).

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