The case for keeping Zoom teaching simple

Image by Th G from Pixabay

In the lead-up to a fall semester that will look very different from past fall semesters, I’ve seen a lot of librarians wondering how to translate the active and engaging instruction they’ve designed for one-shot sessions to a platform like Zoom. If we have to teach it this way, how do we make it more than just a boring lecture/demo combination?

Now, I’m generally in favor of using active learning to engage students in the classroom. In my own one-shot sessions, I like to use simple improv games to keep things lively and fun. Some of my colleagues use much more elaborate escape room-type activities to help students learn about research and the library. It’s fun to spice things up and it makes the experience a little less boring for both ourselves and the students.

But when it comes to finding creative ways to engage students over Zoom, I can’t help but feel like what’s needed is a simpler, more straightforward approach rather than trying to find a way to translate the fancier more fun approaches that we might use in person.

I think this feeling comes from my past experiences with teaching online.

When I first started teaching online, I went for the fancy approach. I’d had some success with Larry Michaelsen’s Team-Based Learning model in my in-person classes and I wanted to see if I could get similar results by adapting the model and all its moving pieces to an online environment. I had enough success with what I came up with that I got my first peer-reviewed article out of it but it’s not an approach I would take now or even necessarily recommend to others.

That’s because I don’t know if the model actually helped student learning or if I just did it to make myself feel like a creative and innovative teacher while needlessly complicating the online learning experience for my students. And it was needlessly complicated. There were so many moving parts for me and the students to keep track of, so many little things that kept going wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if my students’ primary memory of my class (assuming they remember it at all) was of how stressful it was rather than what they actually learned.

After two mildly disastrous semesters of this, I dropped the TBL model and instead focused on simplifying the structure of the course. The structure I have now is one where each module follows a similar, predictable pattern so that after the first week or so students know exactly what to expect. I believe following a simple structure has enhanced student learning because now they can focus on what I’m trying to teach them rather than trying to figure out how to navigate their way through a lot of unnecessary bells and whistles.

Now, the online teaching I’ve done has all been asynchronous rather than “live” through a platform like Zoom. But I think the basic lesson—that keeping things simple enhances student learning in an online environment—still applies. Because the more time and mental space students have to devote to figuring out what it is you want them to do and how to do it, the less they have to actually learning what you want them to learn.

If you don’t believe me, think of all of the professional webinars you’ve intended where the presenter inevitably paused for a moment to ask for participation from the audience, whether in the form of a poll or through chat or some other tool. I’ve used techniques like this myself as a way to engage the audience because they’re often a required part of the webinar experience (at least if you want to give a webinar through ACRL) but for me as an audience member, they take me completely out of the moment. Suddenly, I’m not focused on learning what I came to learn but instead on figuring out where I’m supposed to click or waiting while the presenter figures out some inevitable bug that’s related to using one of these engagement-related features. Even once the webinar continues, it usually takes several minutes for me to get back to the learning headspace where I would have stayed if not for the interruption.

The same is likely true for students.

Unfortunately, in a Zoom-like environment, taking out any attempt at active learning means having to resort to the lecture/demo combination that many of us dread so much. I’m not about to argue that this is the best way to learn information literacy or any other subject but there are ways to make this format more engaging without disrupting the flow of student learning with unnecessary interruptions and complication in the name of active learning. The easiest way is to be an engaging speaker, which is certainly easier said than done. Toastmasters and improv classes (both of which can be found online) are great ways to learn some techniques for how to do this but really it can be as simple as just being yourself. For example, when I talk to students, I tell them about some of my own research woes, like the time I had to convert 80+ APA citations to Chicago style by hand because I hadn’t read the author instructions for a journal I wanted to submit to closely enough. It’s just a small anecdote but it always gets a reaction from students.

Anyway. I’m sure conversations about creative approaches to Zoom-style teaching will continue. I’m equally sure that there are some brilliant librarians out there who will find wonderful and creative ways to deliver their instruction and connect with students while maintaining social distance where needed. But I wanted to take some time to argue for the value of simple approaches too because I think they can be just as effective when it come


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