Another dot in the blogosphere?

Lessons from a Zoom webinar

Posted on: October 18, 2020

I am more often on the teacher end of a Zoom connection than on the student end. So I took in as much as I could as a participant at a recent research webinar.

First I took the time to examine the Zoom interface in webinar mode. It had a green tick on the top left to indicate the quality of the connection. By clicking on the tick, I was able to get connection details, e.g., the session went through the Singapore data centre. I found it reassuring to be on a fast local connection instead of being routed elsewhere.

Zoom webinar tools.Image source

The webinar interface was simple with Chat, Raise Hand, and Q&A options only. There was no option for video or audio interaction nor indication of how many people were present. Only the moderator appeared on screen and was replaced by each speaker in turn.

Even if participants cannot interact with one another, just knowing how “crowded” the room is provides a sense of social space. Zoom can learn from so many other existing systems that have learnt to recreate social presence. One way to do this with low bandwidth overhead is to represent each participant as an icon or with an avatar. This is like the Anonymous Animals that appear at the top of shared Google Docs or the bubble avatars in group chat tools.

Google Docs anonymous animals.
Image source

A seminar makes it easy for a participant to not actually participate, i.e., be a passive recipient. I had to listen activity, take notes and screenshots, and think of questions.

Zoom’s Q&A tool is not interactive, i.e., cannot ask a question and then follow up. If I wanted to follow up, I had to ask another question but the text was not threaded so this would have been visually messy. I found this tool to be rudimentary and very poorly conceived and implemented.

One simple way to overcome this issue and also simulate social presence could be to provide the option to use voice or video for participants. This would recreate a conference-like environment by providing immediacy.

The Q&A tool seemed to work on an embargo system of storing and queuing questions. The questions seemed to go to the moderator without appearing in the chat or the Q&A window immediately. How do I know? There was a lag between a question being asked and appearing on screen.

Participants do not see what questions the others have because of the same embargo system. Again, Zoom could learn from tools like Google Slides where everyone can see the questions and vote up the ones that matter to them.

Google Slides Q&A.
Image source

While I liked the fact that some questions were answered ‘live’ while others were answered in text, I wondered if the speakers could indicate their preference for the moderator to see. That way they would know where to focus their energy. More than once the moderator asked a speaker to answer a question and the speaker had already answered in text, was in the process of typing their answer, or had to repeat the answer verbally.

I conclude with a statement from the session. One speaker said the pandemic was opportunity to push for changes in teaching, but what mattered more was the quality of the change. That sentiment could have been applied to the Zoom session given better quality tools and strategies that work both online and off.

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