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As soon as Zoom enables, it also disables. What do I mean?

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One feature that Zoom has that other major video conferencing systems do not have is rooms (online spaces) that students can choose to enter instead of being randomly assigned to one.

The breakout rooms have both affordances: A facilitator can create, say, ten rooms and have Zoom randomly distribute students to each room. This form of heterogeneous grouping is convenient, but it does not allow students with shared interests to choose to meet. Most major video conferencing tools have this function.

This is where the other type of breakout room is better. A facilitator can create the same ten rooms, but label each with a theme or topic. Instead of then assigning each student one by one based on their focus area, the students can form more homogenous groups on their own by choose to enter their topic rooms. This simulates a form of station-based learning.

I used the latter breakout rooms as soon as the feature became available and was glad that Zoom enabled a feature that created learner choice. However, during modules I just concluded, I discovered that there was an additional setting that I had not encountered before.

Previously, all I had to do was create the rooms and open them to my students. They would then make their choices and start topical discussions in their own groups. This time I discovered that I had to toggle a setting hidden behind a gear menu to “allow participants to choose”. 

Student choice used to be the default and a non-issue. I do not see the point of creating choice and then blocking it with such a setting. It is not as if students can rush into the rooms prematurely; I have to open them first. This reeks of a programmer’s or administrator’s thinking instead of pedagogical rationale.

Before I started using Zoom, I tested it by creating dummy sessions. It was then that I raised questions about odd default administrative settings.

By conducting dry and actual runs with my class, found answers to most of my questions. However, I also discovered one bad setting. This was the default deactivation of participants’ video and audio after returning from breakout rooms.

The default setting of initially muting audio and video is like walking into a classroom blindfolded and wearing earplugs. Thankfully each user can undo this manually so that we see and hear each other.
 

 
However, if I break a class up into smaller groups and then return everyone to a class discussion, everyone’s video and audio turns off again. I was not aware of this and one participant had to ask me to unmute my mic.

Who operates a class with constant blindfolding and earplugging? Again this is a reminder that administrators rarely understand or empathise with pedagogues.

On Saturday my class and I conducted a dry run of using Zoom for synchronous video conferencing. The experiment went well and I got answers to some of my questions.

We used the Zoom client instead of a web interface, so I found out that all our video cameras projected our faces despite the administrative lock. Another feature that worked was gestures (e.g., thumbs up) despite the missing setting on my dashboard.

However, I am still sore about the fact that only two online calendars are enabled administratively — Outlook and Yahoo. Who really uses the latter anymore? Why is GCal not enabled even though this is a setting?

No Google Calendar in Zoom?

I am taking a calculated risk. My contingency should Zoom not work is to fall back on Google Hangouts. We did not practice this because I think that Hangouts is a much simpler tool to use. I have my participants’ Gmail addresses, so I create an invite quickly should I need to.

In the meantime, I am sticking to my plan of dividing our four-hour session into two. The first half is asynchronous via a Google Site, and the second is synchronous via Zoom.

I am still redesigning some of the content and experiences to make them suitable for asynchronous learning. But my overall strategy remains the same — simplify and do not blindly replicate what might be done face-to-face.

This semester I had to resort to something I might have done as a classroom teacher 21 years ago. I had to manage expectations with a warning prior to a cooperative learning activity.

Some context: I model and teach assorted pedagogical strategies to future faculty. One of these strategies is a variant of the jigsaw method. This is a cooperative learning activity that replaces a long and boring lecture on even more pedagogical strategies and theories.
 

 
I have done this for many semesters, but I something changed last year. During the jigsaw, a few individuals would resort to selfish behaviours. I vividly recall three individuals at separate sessions: One shopped online, another used social media to chat with people outside class, and another played a mobile game.

An outsider might baulk at the actions of these three. They are Ph.D. students who are privileged to attend a well-respected university. Most students at this level are also sponsored for their studies, so this raises the privilege ante further.

I confronted these individuals to let them know they had responsibilities to their group — in a jigsaw cooperation, they were individually accountable and yet dependent on one another.

I realised I was reacting to this instead of preventing it. So this semester I set expectations like I used to as a classroom teacher. I told my learners that I would give them a verbal warning if they engaged in selfish behaviour, and if they persisted, I would ask them to leave the class.

No one crossed that line this semester even though a few were tempted. But I do not think that it was the threat of being confronted that led to positive behaviours. I also emphasised the rationales managing one’s self for the good of a group. The social pressure to conform and cooperate did the rest.


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