Higher education is one aspect of contemporary life that has been significantly impacted by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. With a need for people to observe social distancing protocols, universities everywhere have had to quickly close campus. This meant that suddenly online learning became the norm of the day and zoom, a video conferencing service, which was relatively unknown became the go-to technology for meetings, education and social activities. My use of zoom is unique because it is connected to my first experience with teaching literacy online. Thus, it is an important aspect of the technological dimensions of my learning to teach in digital settings. In addition, my positionality as a teacher-scholar-administrator in transition also provided an opportunity to use zoom with educational clients in mainly two locations, North America and Africa, a situation that provides me with some transnational insight into my zoom usage. I have also used zoom for three purposes: writing center tutoring, tutor training sessions and finally, online writing instruction. Here, I detail my experience using zoom as a first-timer, reflecting on what I consider to be the affordances and constraints of using this technology for online literacy.
As a platform that allows people to join a meeting in real time, zoom is popular with synchronous learning situations. Zoom allows one to set up a designated time for a meeting and provides a link with which students can join the meeting. Most importantly, zoom allows one to select whether a meeting could continue over a period of time. This feature has been useful in helping me provide one permanent link for my class for the rest of the semester. Zoom can also be linked to google (and other) calendars, a feature that is useful for reminding participants of future meetings. Besides synchronous learning, the technology can also be used to support asynchronous and hybrid online literacy education. For instance, zoom can be used to screencast feedback for students’ writing– a feature that is also useful for writing center work or recording powerpoints for an asynchronous class. Indeed, many of the features of zoom are useful for online literacy education specifically. Some of these include breakout rooms, nonverbal feedback, whiteboarding, chatbox, recording and annotation features.
One of the fundamental aspects of literacy education is the emphasis on collaboration. In a typical face to face class, students could easily be divided into groups for a collaborative reading or writing activity or sometimes the entire class can contribute ideas for a topic being discussed, often with the board serving as an inventive template. While online classes complicate this situation the features of zoom enables some of these experiences to be replicated online although questions of access impact how this works. The breakout rooms, for instance, allow one to divide students into groups. This can be done automatically or manually. I have used this feature to get students to collaboratively analyze a text or discuss ideas for revising their multimodal projects. An instructor can assign breakout for a period of time and while in those breakout rooms, the instructor can move between the various rooms to check on students or to find out if the technology is working well or someone was misassigned. Students can message the instructor when they encounter a problem and the instructor can send a message to all groups. Once we return to the main section, the various groups then have the opportunity to share with the entire class some of the ideas discussed.
Another feature that helps with collaborative work is the whiteboard. I often use the whiteboard as any physical board in the classroom to write down some key concepts that come up during class discussions. But I have also used it as an inventive resource to brainstorm together with the class on a topic. The whiteboard comes with several features that makes this possible: you can draw objects, write texts or evaluate information on the board. Most importantly, the whiteboard indicates names of contributors which makes it possible to determine who is contributing to the collaborative exercises. Knowing the authors of ideas is helpful because it allowed me to know who specifically to ask for further clarification of a concept. I find this tool a great resource for not only personalising online writing instruction but also for encouraging participation. Most importantly, I noticed that the whiteboard can be used together with the chatbox to overcome some unexpected problems. For instance, during a tutor training session, some students who could not necessarily type on the board because of the device they were using typed their ideas into the chat box. I was then able to copy and paste these ideas into the chat box for others to see. Also, just as face to face context, instructors can write down ideas spoken by participants. In that sense zoom provides several opportunities for participation to happen in online literacy education.
Literacy education is writing intensive but this is further complicated when it is happening online, especially in asynchronous contexts. With zoom’s recording feature, other kinds of modalities could be used to enhance the educational experience and increase access. The recording features allows instructors and students to record during zoom meetings. Meetings of synchronous class sessions, together with slides, could be shared with students. In my classes, I noticed that this feature has been very useful to students especially in sessions where we discussed difficult concepts. Making the zoom recording and other resources available deals with some of the challenges of disability and different learning styles. In other words, the recording can provide an opportunity for improving accessibility in the OLI classroom. In an asynchronous tutoring situation, an instructor could use the recording function to screencast the paper, highlighting the most important comments for the students. Both the written version and the screencast version could be shared with the student.
Since the absence of social presence is one of the limits of online learning, the presence of nonverbal cues on zoom is crucial. This allows participants in a classroom situation to react at some point in the discussion. This has been especially useful during class discussions and during multimodal presentations where students, for instance, can use the clapping emoji to evaluate a particular presentation.
Figure 1: Screenshot of nonverbal communicative tools in Zoom
Also the chat box also helps with increasing social presence. Often, students have conversations regarding some aspect of the discussions which is great especially when everyone cannot speak at the same time or in situations that all students cannot speak. From a literacy perspective, I have noticed that the language of the chat box tends to be informal , further providing an opportunity for students to discuss the content of the course in a register they feel comfortable with.
While my experience with using zoom in literacy education has been generally positive, there are few problems that I have encountered. In a few instances, students have missed a point I made because of low bandwidth, which means that to use this technology effectively, students must have high internet access, which could be a problem for many of my students in Ghana, for whom internet connection is not always reliable.
Instructors must be mindful of privacy issues. Early on, the problem of zoombombing became the subject of public discourse and zoom has provided settings for managing such a situation. While this is crucial, I am especially concerned with privacy issues related to recording zoom sessions. While zoom tells participants that classes are being recorded, it is also important to remind students of this. This is because literacy classes are often related to identity issues and while students may share with the class how aspects of their identity links with their literacy practices, they may not necessarily be interested in sharing this information with the world. If you plan to share recordings with students, set some rules. For instance, let students know whether or not class recordings can be circulated. Never assume that students will automatically refuse to do this.
If you share a video, be sure to click on “share computer sound” otherwise participants would not hear the sound from the video. Because this information is located at the very bottom of the screen, an instructor can miss it.
Never assume that students know the zoom interface very well. If possible, work through the interface with students on the first day of classes. While some aspect of the first week of my class was spent on other technologies (e.g., google docs, canvas), this was not done for zoom. Some of the challenges we had, especially at the beginning of class, could have been avoided if students had been given some tutorials on how zoom works.
Instructors who plan to circulate zoom recordings should ensure that this comes with other resources for learning the same concepts. Not all students might have the necessary bandwidth to play recordings. Also, if this is for asynchronous sessions, instructors might want to ensure that recordings are shorter for easy downloading etc.