The Differences Between Teaching in the Classroom and Teaching Remotely During the Pandemic: A Teacher’s Perspective
I have been teaching English Composition at a community college for years. Due to the pandemic, I have taught classes traditionally (in-person), remotely (via zoom), as hybrids (which contain an in-person component as well as an online or remote component), and online all within the past year.
Last semester, two of my six classes were hybrid, so I taught in-person every Monday and Wednesday. I was one of the few instructors on campus, and there were strict protocols in place to ensure my students and I remained safe: we were required to wear masks at all times; students sat at long tables, six feet apart from one another; hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes were provided so students could wipe down their areas before and after class; and the College performed random pooled Covid testing for all students and faculty. This semester, most of my classes meet via zoom, and while zoom is the best substitute for in-person instruction, the classroom is still a more effective learning environment, even when everyone in the room is wearing a mask and must remain six feet apart.
Facial Expressions and Body Language
Instructor and student engagement is vital for an effective learning environment. Despite masks and social distancing, I could monitor overall student engagement much more easily in the classroom. Even without seeing their mouths, I could tell when students were smiling by looking at their eyes. Body language is important in keeping their attention, and I often moved around the front of the room during instruction. Zoom sessions force me to sit in a chair for the duration of the class period.
I will admit, it is nice to see students’ entire faces when I am speaking to them, which zoom obviously allows. Of course, not everyone has camera capabilities, so there are usually a few black squares in each zoom session. However, even when in gallery view, I often cannot see more than three or four students at a time because many of my lessons require screen sharing. I am constantly clicking on and off screen-share in order to gauge student reactions and participation. Students can use the raise hand feature in zoom, but to see the hand while screen sharing, I must scroll through the gallery. Sometimes it was difficult to hear students through their masks in the classroom, but often during zoom, student screens will freeze or the sound will cut out while they are speaking, and I won’t understand their comment or question at all.
One of my goals is to foster connections between students — a much easier task when they are physically together in the same room. Collaboration is vital in achieving this goal, so many of my lessons include group work. Last semester, my students worked with one another while social distancing. They did not move from their seats; they simply twirled their chairs around to face and share ideas with those behind them. While maintaining my own distance, I monitored groups visually, all at once, gauging which may need help and how much more time was necessary for all groups to complete the activities.
I have been using the zoom breakout room feature for group work with moderate success. Assigning students to breakout rooms is easy, but it takes time to monitor the rooms since I must join each breakout session individually, going back to the main room in between. Sometimes when I join a room, I will find that nobody is speaking, and I will have to jump-start the conversation. Designating a lead for each group helps, though it can still be tough to monitor participation from those I cannot see unless they happen to be speaking when I visit the room.
The Zoom Time-warp
I noticed as early as the first week of classes that I only get through about two-thirds of my in-class lessons via zoom (despite taking time out at the beginning and end of each in-person class to wipe down the tables and chairs last semester). I call this the zoom time-warp, and I have uncovered some contributing factors.
Taking attendance can be tricky since zoom squares are constantly shifting as students come through the waiting room. It is easier to have students put their names into the chat so that I can get started sooner and mark attendance later. Sometimes, students will get logged out during class time and re-join the zoom session shortly after, which means I have to pause to let them in from the waiting room once again.
Beginning and exiting screen share, plus screen sharing mishaps take up time as well. In the classroom, I can go through a PowerPoint slide while scanning the room to see if anyone has questions or comments. Zoom makes it much more difficult to do these things simultaneously. Breakout rooms contribute to the time warp similarly, since getting in and out of them takes longer than simply walking around the room to monitor students’ progress.
The chat feature is extremely helpful for those who are shy but still want to contribute to class discussion or for when a student needs to send me a direct private message. However, getting through lessons takes longer when I am also monitoring the chat.
What Non-educators Should Know
After four hours straight of zoom classes every Monday and Wednesday, I am much more exhausted than if I had been on campus teaching in-person and holding office hours. Though my course objectives and goals remain the same, the route I must now take to attain them is much different. Every lesson requires multiple adjustments as I consider mode of delivery, feasibility, and timing.
I have always felt that teaching is part improvisation —which has become the most valuable skill in maintaining student success despite Covid roadblocks. Most of the teachers I know are hoping to be back on campus next semester, but if not, we will continue to adapt to create the best possible learning environment for our students.