With social distancing required to help flatten the curve of new COVID-19 infections, the business world has essentially moved online. This includes educators. And for many university faculty members used to teaching in a classroom, the move to a virtual teaching environment understandably created considerable anxiety—and not just because of the need to master a new tech platform like Zoom.
Delivering classes online in a significant way is a first for many educators, and a certain amount of stress naturally follows whenever someone is forced to change by uncontrollable events. Uncertainty, of course, was the major driver of anxiety. Teachers care about outcomes, and the mass move to online education initially raised very real concerns about performance.
When initially moving online as professors at Western University’s Ivey Business School, we were asking ourselves, “Can I deliver a high-quality educational experience that students will find interesting and engaging?” We were also wondering, “Will my teaching evaluations be dragged down by the vagaries of the online format, potentially harming my career?”
These concerns remain real and valid, so nobody should dismiss them. But after experiencing weeks of teaching online—every day to a total of 175 students across three courses and two programs (undergraduate business and Executive MBA)—we came to a surprising conclusion: teaching online is actually better than doing so face-to-face in some ways. Don’t get us wrong. We are not arguing that the advantages of moving education online offset all the disadvantages. In our view, in-person education remains better. That said, our experience with virtual teaching has been far from all bad.
Obviously, it is too early to answer critical questions about the overall learning experience for students. This article simply offers a “supply-side” view of online teaching specific to Zoom, the platform chosen by our school, based upon our experience as teaching faculty (although it should be noted that many of the supply-side advantages that we identify benefit students as well).
Specifically, we focus on the following five areas in which Zoom teaching is—to quote U2—even better than the real thing: managing student participation, using breakout groups, classroom polling, content sharing, and introducing class guests.
Managing Student Participation
This one surprised us, but our experience has shown that managing class participation is actually easier when not in the same room.
Using Zoom’s “Raise Hand” feature, you can either watch the Video Gallery to see who has a virtual hand up (blue hand icon next to their gallery image) or check your Participant box to see a list that you can cross-reference with your own list of students that you want to make sure get into the discussion on any particular day. While using the latter, you can see the order in which students have raised their hands—a feature that creates opportunities to strategize around.
When asking questions, for example, you can call on the first hand up to introduce quick thoughts about a specific topic or select a latecomer who has perhaps reflected on an answer a bit more or is more likely to build on an earlier comment. In other words, with Zoom, you can improve engagement by managing the sequence of participation as you wish.
To some extent, the “Raise Hand” feature also helps improve class inclusion, since everyone is empowered to be seen and heard equally in an environment not dominated by pick-me strategies, like aggressive front-row handwaving or a modern variation of the Horshack move. If you are unaware of the classic Horshack call for attention, you are probably under 55 and have never seen TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter, so check the “Ooh” clip below:
Better yet, Zoom has a “Lower Hand” feature. In the physical world, telling students to put their hands down can be difficult and awkward. In our experience, students eventually learn to lower their hands on their own, although it can require training, encouragement, and rewards (a few of these will do it: “Good job lowering your hand, Justin, I’ll get you back in later”). But using Zoom allows both faculty and students to lower hands with a discreet click.
There is also a “Clear All” function that lowers everyone’s hand at once, which allows you to focus a discussion or quickly move to a new topic pasture. For example, if you want to build on a key point just made by a student, simply click a button to lower all hands previously raised and tell the class, “Raise your hand again if you are on this point.” Think about how many times you have wanted this ability during in-person classroom teaching.
Finally, we found it very beneficial to be able to see a person’s name next to their face in the Zoom Video Gallery. This is a fairly mundane benefit, but it allows faculty to connect a face to a name more easily because, well, their name is literally beside their face all the time. More important is the benefit of having students able to rename themselves on their Video Gallery (easy to do on Zoom) to fit in-class roleplays, for example as “Buyer” or “Texoil Rep.” But this advantage requires Video Galleries to be turned on, which for both of us quickly became non-negotiable for Zoom teaching sessions.
Zoom’s breakout feature is terrific, fast, and flexible, with plenty of logistical advantages. In Ann’s negotiations class, she uses 22 physical breakout rooms, often daily, to run student exercises and simulations. Doing this in the physical world often requires a lot of advance planning and sometimes leads to compromised locations. Sometimes, for example, the rooms that Ann needs for her class aren’t available or get double booked, forcing her to stash multiple pairs of students in the classroom, where they can overhear one another, or leave them to negotiate amidst the din of an open space or hallway. For obvious reasons, compromised locations are not ideal for real negotiations or running negotiation exercises. But with Zoom, breakout groups are a click-and-create experience.
Flexibility is another advantage that comes with using online breakout groups. You can either manually place students into learning teams, or let Zoom automatically create random groups for you. Group size is selectable and adjustable: want two-person groups for one class segment and six-person groups for another? Just click “Recreate Breakouts,” specify the group size, and click “Open Rooms.” Off they go.
Faculty can visit breakouts much more easily and efficiently on Zoom than in real life. Just click “Join,” select a group, and drop in. Watch, listen, interject (or not)… then move on to another group with a simple click. No wasted time walking between rooms. No need to knock on doors and interrupt student conversations so they can let you in. No need to disturb them again as you leave.
You can specify timings for any breakout activity and automatically bring everyone back to plenary at the specified time. No more herding everyone back to the main classroom or running around yelling “five minutes, five minutes!” And no one is late because of an impromptu Starbucks stop on the way back to class.
You can also send broadcast messages to breakouts much more easily with Zoom than in live settings, which is great for introducing new information in breakout discussions (e.g., “FYI teams, the price of oil dropped from $145 per barrel to $41 during our discussion”) or ensuring that student groups consider key points that might be missed or downplayed (“Make sure you consider the interests of the client, not just your own!”).
Literally, none of these things works better in real life. For breakout-room work, Zoom dominates.
Conducting in-class polls is a favourite faculty technique for stimulating discussion and debate. And when using Zoom, polling is easy to execute. In fact, it is so easy that we have often used several polls in a single class, not to mention deployed some polls more than once to gain a before and after class discussion perspective.
Simply put, polling is more powerful and flexible via Zoom because there is no counting of hands (slow and often inaccurate). You just launch your poll, and the collected votes immediately show the tabulated results to everyone—down to a decimal point.
Zoom polls also allow the use of more complex scales than you can deploy in the live classroom (Binary, Likert scale 1–10, Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree). You can run single-choice or multiple-choice polls. You can even ask students to name a Top 3 list of priorities from a list of seven options.
“Introducing outside professionals from industry and government into our classrooms is a hugely valuable feature of all Ivey programs. But doing this in the physical world can be difficult to execute for lots of obvious reasons that Zoom eliminates.”
The ability to share content virtually turned out to be a huge advantage for Tony’s macroeconomics course, where students are required to use a basic supply-and-demand model of the economy to understand current events more deeply, including, for example, the impact of COVID-19 on the Canadian economy.
On Zoom, students would work in breakouts (pairs or trios) to compare and revise their models, decide on the best version, and then come back to plenary for discussion. Tony would ask a group to share its final model using Zoom’s “Share Screen” feature and the students would walk through their modeling approach and supporting story. Then, on to another group for confirmation (or not) of the first group’s model, more elaboration, and perhaps a set of follow-on questions posed by Tony that could be illustrated by the group in real time for the whole class. This worked really well, and it was much faster and easier for everyone in the class to follow along when everyone was using the same template versus the live in-class norm of having each group draw their own idiosyncratic model on the whiteboard.
A related feature that works better on Zoom than in a live class is “Send File.” Since everyone is online, you can’t have rules (as some schools and programs have) along the lines of “no computers in class.” So, sharing files simply becomes part of the norm. Again, to use Tony’s class as an example, before students were sent off to breakout groups to work on their model, Tony would send a file to everyone through Zoom’s “Chat” function with the assigned scenario and perhaps a bonus chart or two with some data. Afterward, once breakouts were closed, all groups could be asked to send their model back to Tony with just a couple of clicks. Faculty can use this approach either for accountability purposes (after all, you might just check their work) or for actual grading and feedback, if that is desired.
Using Class Guests
Introducing outside professionals from industry and government into our classrooms is a hugely valuable feature of all Ivey programs. But doing this in the physical world can be difficult to execute for lots of obvious reasons that Zoom eliminates. For example, the “ask” is much lower for a virtual visit. Normally, a class visit is a big, cumbersome operation, and you wouldn’t even consider bringing in a CEO or government leader for only 20–30 minutes, which would be considered rude, considering the travel commitments alone. Not with Zoom.
During the course of our teaching, Tony reached out to three CEOs to ask if they might be willing to drop in for 20–30 minutes to share their insights on the impact of the coronavirus on their companies, and two agreed to do so within 30 minutes (the other did not respond, but we’re not judging you as an executive of a major Canadian insurance company). The head of one of Canada’s most global corporations dropped into Tony’s class and walked through his organization’s experience, then fielded a few questions from students, and departed with some big-picture thoughts on the future of capitalism—all in 30 minutes. The students were blown away. You cannot do that live; you can do that on Zoom.
Finally, and you knew this was coming, the online world offers dress-code flexibility. We’ve all heard stories about how news anchors wear “full business” on top and gym shorts below. Well, as we have been teaching online, we haven’t even sported “full business” on top, but we did wear shorts while working from the comfort of our home with PB&J sandwiches during breaks.
And we’re not going to lie: that’s definitely “even better than the real thing.” Cue U2.