By Teresa Bruno
Remember life before zoom? We were students then, in the classic way, unfettered from our small laptop screens. We interacted with each other like students, too. This is before we were all reduced to the confines of our individual, tiny, Brady Bunch boxes.
We are still students, of course, but those were the halcyon days when we were free. Free to mingle and to meet and to have unmuffled class discussions. A time when campus was teeming with events and happy hours. When we convened in small groups, within 6 feet of each other, in KMC and we could eat in class (which, as a Langoner, helped keep me awake).
Zoom came into our lives abruptly last Spring, and I daresay it has been quite a ride. Students and teachers alike were scrambling to adapt. Pass/Fail arrived to save us. During the Summer 2020 semester, each new course loomed with a big question mark – can the professor make this work?
The answer – some did better than others. One professor was an excellent facilitator, encouraging both live and chat discussions and adeptly synthesizing them into a robust dialogue. Another, whose class was primarily lecture based, fell into a kind of chat purgatory where students communicated solely through the chat box. Verbal question, chat answer. I’ve never seen a class of MBAs fall so silent in my life. It was sad!
Mastering Zoom instruction is an art as well as a science. Student engagement is critical for the magic to happen. It is as much our responsibility to make it work as it is our professors’. However, the deck is stacked against us; our virtual environment is ripe with distractions. Zoom fatigue is real, and paying attention for 3+ hours with limited breaks, as a spectator into 30 other students’ living rooms, requires herculean effort.
Let me tell you what doesn’t work. One fellow classmate took class primarily laying down in the dark, his face illuminated by the screen. I often wondered if he took it from his iPhone, watching TV in the background. It was unbelievable! Another student spent each class regularly rotating through a myriad of fresh Zoom backgrounds. Worse, how about the dreaded “silent student” in the breakout room who sits and stares but never makes peep? Not even a “hello” at the top of the fifteen minutes! It’s mindbogglingly awkward.
I recently experienced the other side first-hand when working as a Teaching Fellow (TF) for an intensive course. I learned some things. I was impressed by NYU’s “Learning Science” team, a group of intelligent individuals dedicated to the murky intersection of classroom and technology. This earnest team helps our university professors squeeze every last drop of best practice tech goodness out of the metaphorical toothpaste tube.
The Learning Science team is, in my limited experience, on the ball. They offer resources that are both succinct and varied, and the scientists (not sure if that is the official title…) are highly available. One scientist, I will call him Bob, promised to get back to me within a day and, sure enough, by 10:00 PM I had my answers. That’s commitment and dedication; Bob made me look good.
No matter how good the Learning Scientists are, technology cannot measure up to the learning experience that we originally signed up for. Zoom is substandard and, as you might expect from how difficult it is to simply change your NetID password, it does not connect seamlessly to our other antiquated systems at NYU.
In fact, if you have been remotely paying attention to your email recently, you would realize that the university has been politely urging us, at an increasing cadence, to sign in to Zoom before logging in to class. As a TF, I learned that not doing so creates some nuisance and inaccurate analytics for professors on the back end. I had to manually admit all of the non-signed in students (over 50%) into class, during every session.
It’s small examples like this that are infuriating, but I still understand why students don’t do it. It’s not intuitive at all, but it should be. And don’t even get me started on creating polls. There are so many tedious steps to pre-creating a poll in Zoom that one of the Learning Science best practices is to use a Google form instead.
Here we are at the advent of a new school year. Just when MBA2s and pre-existing Langoners have begun to adapt to Zoom, we are all being thrown another curve ball – “blended learning.” By the time you read this, the Full-timers will already have had the chance to experience its unique challenges – our new, new educational reality. As one of the first to experience blended learning as a TF, I can tell you that it takes nothing short of conductor-like coordination for our Professors to orchestrate all of the parties in the virtual and physical room. It’s hard, and we should take a moment to preemptively applaud them for the effort.
We’re stuck with Zoom and all its inefficiency, at least for a while. Will do the best we can. We will continue to adapt. We are the business leaders of tomorrow, after all. Here we go Fall 2020, bring on the spit tests, mask breaks and small sips of water in class to keep me awake.