Radwan: Make Zoom classes work for you

Aziz Radwan, Contributing Columnist

How efficient is Zoom schooling? Are students learning as well as they would in traditional in-person schooling? Some educators think virtual schooling via Zoom comes with flaws that impede the quality of education. Nonetheless, virtual schools are still better than no schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For this reason, both instructors and students must live with virtual schooling until we all return to normalcy. While I agree with this to some extent, it’s important to not just focus on Zoom’s flaws but also discuss how it can be student-centered, especially for college students.

College students have a tendency of being more disciplined compared to middle or high school students, so if both instructors and students used Zoom properly, they could make virtual schooling work in their favor. As a student and teaching assistant at Case Western Reserve University both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am well positioned to consider some pros of Zoom schooling and some frequently talked about cons that can be mitigated.

First, Zoom classes can save time. Suppose you have three in-person classes on a typical school day. Whenever you have to go to an in-person class, you have to wake up early enough to get dressed in the morning, pack your backpack and plan your trip. If you live on campus, it could take you an average of 20 minutes each way to walk to and from class and probably a few minutes if you need to make your way towards a different building on campus. Add up these minutes and you will realize you spend at least one hour of your day commuting. Attending a virtual class on Zoom can save you this hour—think about what you could do during the time you save and how you can be more productive.

Secondly, Zoom learning increases flexibility. You are no longer tied to a classroom chair—as long as you have internet connection, you can join any class from your laptop, tablet or cellphone. Should all your classes be taught remotely, then you can even stay with your family at home. 

Flexibility can work for instructors as well. Many instructors previously had to cancel classes to travel out of town for conferences. But with Zoom teaching, instructors can still deliver live or recorded lectures even if they have to travel for personal or business reasons. In short, Zoom teaching can minimize conflicts and save time for university instructors as well as students.

Up to this point, Zoom schooling sounds like an awesome learning tool; however, it is not without imperfections. A common issue is a lack of engagement during class time. In an in-person classroom setting, students are expected to sit back, mute their cellphones and maintain eye contact with the instructor. This method minimizes any possible distractions because students are ready to be fully engaged with the instructor. As a teaching assistant, I was able to read facial expressions of my students in classrooms, labs and one-on-one office hours. I could tell if a student was excited, bored, stressed, sad or happy. To me, these nonverbal cues were important messages since underlying emotions can be linked to student comprehension. 

Conversely, in a Zoom class, the virtual environment is not as stringent. Last semester, I prepared and delivered some lectures on Zoom for a class size of nearly 30 students. It was difficult for me to tell if they had comprehended the information because I wasn’t able to observe their facial expressions while sharing my screen. To mitigate this, I told my students to feel free to stop me anytime they wanted by talking or writing a message in the chat box. I also frequently asked students if they understood the material.

Moreover, there is minimal interaction among students on Zoom, especially if they don’t know each other. During an in-person class session, some students show up a few minutes early and they might use this time as a way to get to know their classmates. They may like each other and even become friends as the semester goes on. Normally, students don’t get the same opportunity to socialize in a Zoom class. Zoom classmates are akin to Facebook friends that you’ve never met before. 

In a face-to-face class, when students are asked to work in groups, classmates who are already friends quickly form groups, without thinking twice. But classmates who don’t know one another need a few minutes to interact before they decide to form a group. In a Zoom class setting, what can a Zoom instructor do if he or she wants students to interact with each other? I think the instructor must be aware of, and utilize, the Zoom Breakout Rooms, which can be managed with the help of a teaching assistant. 

Students moved to breakout rooms will be in smaller groups and, thus, will likely feel more relaxed to interact and engage with each other virtually.

On the whole, Zoom schooling is beneficial and can be successful when both students and instructors use this conference tool to its fullest. Despite its technical issues and the limitations of virtual class environments, it is an indispensable tool for learning, especially when the class is––or has to be––physically distant. Instructors need to be cognizant of Zoom technical limitations in order to prepare well enough for each online class. Students, on the other hand, should understand Zoom features and benefits in order to make the most out of Zoom classes.