Like many faculty members, my professional obligations sometimes take me away from campus — guest speaking invitations, data collection for research projects, professional development workshops for science teachers both in Alabama and nationally, and conferences. All of these commitments require I leave Tuscaloosa for two or more days at a time.
While these types of faculty activities raise the profile of the University and engage faculty with the broader community, such opportunities often conflict with our teaching schedules. This is particularly problematic for those students who are in classes that only meet one day a week. Rescheduling a missed class can be a futile effort, as both we and our students have a multitude of other obligations. And, there are many faculty, myself included, teaching large numbers of students who are currently in the workforce and cannot reschedule missed classes during their remaining daytime hours.
In the past, my solution to this problem was to hold a “virtual class,” where students completed an online module, or a “work day,” where students could meet to work on large assignments without my presence. While these solutions were better than canceling class, I often remained unsatisfied. These activities were tasks that were isolated from both social interaction and from the general flow of the course. I was not interested in having my students “taught” in ways not necessarily informed by best practices for online learning. And so I was searching for something better.
My solution was this: I could use a video conference for my students to meet a colleague on my research project!
When faculty are required to travel for work-related reasons, we often interact with experts in our fields. These experts can be faculty at other institutions or leaders in the professions our students will enter upon graduation. Instead of canceling class or providing busy work, we can engage our students with a broader range of ideas than we alone are able to provide.
During the fall 2018 semester, I was required to travel for a week in order to collect data for a research project. I decided to try something different. I asked a colleague present for the research project whether they were willing to guest speak to my class. This particular colleague was recently named the high school teacher of the year for their school district of over 80,000 students. I realized their expertise in using online apps (e.g., Google Classroom, Newsela, Plickers, and Remind) might be a benefit to my students, since they regularly present on this topic at conferences for practicing teachers.
I met the teacher at their classroom after school (my class meets from 5:00-8:00 p.m.) and set up a Zoom conference. Why Zoom and not some other “free” video conference platform? Zoom not only supported by the University of Alabama System, but it is far more reliable and easier to use than the well-known “free” options. The sound and image quality is excellent. The best thing about Zoom is this:
I can invite people to join with a link. There is no software for them to download. They simply click and join.
To simply “click and join the meeting” minimizes the burden on everyone. My guest and the students all joined the video conference from a location of their choosing. I had students joining from campus, from home, and from local coffee shops. There are two things to note for the best experience: firstly, a wired connection is always a better experience than wifi! Secondly, I recommend that students use headphones with integrated microphones, especially if they are in a noisy coffee shop!
Zoom has several features that make online interactions particularly useful for teaching:
- My guest speaker shared their computer screen with the students, such that the students saw how to use the apps from both the student perspective and the instructor perspective.
- To ask questions, they used the Zoom chat function to send a question. This allowed my guest to see a queue and anticipate some of their responses.
- Finally, we used the breakout room feature of Zoom to place students in small groups to work out the guest’s ideas together.
- This was a much better use of everyone’s time. And, to thank my guest, I took them out for a drink afterward!
Todd Hutner is an Assistant Professor of secondary science in the College of Education.