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It was a year ago today . . .

We posted the following item: “We taught a class using Zoom yesterday. Here’s what we learned.”

I was full of earnest thoughts. If you’d asked me whether I’d still be teaching on Zoom a year later, what would I have said? I’m not sure.

The most relevant piece of information I can share with you is that my classes have got worse and worse since then. We’re all much more used to zoom, but the initial excitement and enthusiasm level has gone way down.

Here’s the last paragraph of my post from 10 Mar 2020, overconfident and full of hope:

I’ve probably missed a few things. So far I’ve been happy with the remote teaching experience. The challenge will be keeping the students engaged. I have a horrible feeling that half of them are texting or reading the news on the web while half-listening to the class. I appreciate students’ patience with our technology struggles, but going forward I want them to be even more engaged. I don’t want to be wasting their time and attention. Any suggestions?

Read it and weep.


  1. Rahul says:

    I wonder if the online class experience would be grossly better if we invested an equal amount on money on the technology.

    I mean, look at the expense of constructing an average classroom,
    : the facilities, projectors etc and the operating costs of hVAC, electricity, janitors etc.

    If we were to invest that sort of money into the online teaching experience would we be teaching with a display wall where we could see all students large enough. Maybe VR goggles.

    Who knows?! I just think we are not at an apples to apples comparison yet.

    Based on money spent the current online classroom is peanuts compared to what we would have spent on the physical version.

    • Joshua says:

      Do you have any features in mind that you’d add?

      • Rahul says:

        For one, larger displays. Imagine the instructor had a wall to wall display I am sure we could mitigate some of the lack of student feedback complaints.

        Of course this would also mean higher bandwidth and processing power.

        Also the ability to annotate with a stylus. Sure, you can already do that but try to pack a typical blackboards worth into a typical tablet.

        So also at the students end: one problem is the limited field of vision: typical laptop displays cannot have as much text as they would be able to see in a real classroom.

        Perhpaps ultimately some sort of VR pod ( when they get good enough) would help.

        Ultimately, it’s about providing a resolution-distance product comparable to conventional whiteboard workspace. Mostly we are there in terms of resolution but not in terms of sheer area.

  2. Michael J says:

    As someone on the other side of that equation, I gotta say I’ve been loving zoom classes. It’s such a time saver to not commute and be able to do minor chores like eat or clean the cats’ litter during lecture. The ability to read the news or whatever and pay half attention to class is also nice for the classes that I would otherwise just not go to if in person. And for the classes that I actually do want to pay attention to, it’s been easier to.

    I also don’t think I’ve personally been less engaged – probably the opposite actually. There are a lot of times I have a comment or question but don’t want to interrupt the class so having the chat option is nice. Also helps when I need a little extra time to phrase my question/comment more carefully. But this is only for classes where discussion is part of the course.

    The recorded lectures are also really helpful. There are some instructors for whom it’s helpful if I put them on 1.5 speed. In regular time my mind drifts too much and it can be difficult to follow along closely.

    I know the majority of students and instructors don’t like online classes and are suffering from it but just wanted to add my viewpoint, even if might just reflect my idiosyncrasies.

  3. What I miss most with zoom is the visual feedback I used to get while talking, looking at the faces of the students. Everyone turns off their cameras; I feel like I am talking to myself. Also, if I make a joke, there is no reaction at all, really disconcerting.

    I also wish students would interrupt me like they would in real life. My conclusion is that we need clearer rules of engagement. Right now, nobody knows how to behave, so to speak.

    Overall, though, I like using zoom. I’m currently severely disabled due to ongoing dialysis-related problems, and being able to teach and providing recorded lectures has been a huge relief. At one point I was in hospital for two months, but I was able to record and deliver my lectures from hospital.

    I should mention that I did, over four years (2011-2015), an MSc in Statistics, this was completely online, at Sheffield (UK). There was hardly any video contact. I got assigned readings, HW and projects, and a mailing list for questions. This worked really well. Lectures are great, but not needed if lecture notes are comprehensive and reading lists are comprehensive, as was largely the case in Sheffield. I got more out of this kind of work than listening to someone talk. The only time I found watching a video useful was when a statistician derived some pretty complicated results in real time on the blackboard. Just watching the story unfold was amazing. This was a video recording they provided towards the end of the entire course.

  4. Dale Lehman says:

    My experience has also bee quite different – but I was already teaching with Zoom (or alternatives) for 10 years prior to COVID. A lot depends on the students (level, maturity, etc.), the subject, and most of all, how much you’ve committed to a new model of teaching. If you flip your classroom – and if students are mature enough to take considerable responsibility for their own learning – then I have found that (1) they keep their cameras on, (2) that breakout rooms offer at least as much interaction as a physical classroom, and (3) that recorded videos are far superior to anything resembling real time lecturing.

    I don’t mean to diminish the in-person experience. I still like that, but it does not need to be all or nothing. In person can be considerably shortened and focused on small group work and a constructed “lecture” (really more like a performance). But the model of a student sitting in a classroom for 3 hours per week has seemed archaic to me for a long time now.

  5. Paul Hunchak says:

    I recall in my days in a “small” engineering school in the early 80s (now it is called Kettering University), I was a mechanical engineering student that my interactions with professors with classes of 50-100 students was much less than what students experience in zoom classes. Perhaps my instructors were an anomaly but it class instruction was very rote, they lectured using an overhead project for big rooms or chalkboard for smaller ones. We could have been miles away for all they cared. Tests were usually SCANTRONS which they could simply give to the departmental secretary to grade using the SCANTRON scanner.

    The only classes in which the instructor might know your name were labs.

    I guess things may have changed, but I still received my degree from a school with supposedly an excellent reputation which claimed a 10-1 student ratio (I think they counted all administrative staff and instructors on leave of absences ;)

  6. Jeff says:

    A friend has been teaching a digital anthropology course this semester and has been experimenting with conducting classes in Minecraft. Like many here, he’s been thinking about how to take advantage of the strengths of remote instruction instead of accepting it as a watered-down version of the traditional experience. He’s been blogging about it at

  7. ssp3nc3r says:

    I’ve been using two monitors, one a 27-inch screen using the whole screen for student video feeds, and a second video (laptop) as my presentation device, showing visuals, code, etc. And I do often remind students to turn on their videos so that I can better facilitate discussion.

    One important component I haven’t mastered is the use of breakout rooms for discussion because it can take 1-2 minutes for students just exiting to the breakout rooms and another 1-2 minutes entering back to the classroom. That makes short peer discussion inefficient with time.

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