Teaching remote classes using Zoom - Tips from the trenches

Omri Allouche
Cloud Computing
June 13, 2020

Teaching remote classes using Zoom - Tips from the trenches

The Corona (COVID19) virus outbreak led many academic institutes to change regular f2f classes to online ones. In recent years MOOC's (Massive Open Online Courses) have proven to be effective in bringing high quality content to a large number of students, but building an online course requires a lot of preparation and planning. In the current state of affairs most lecturers have only a few days to prepare for the change.

Credit: Petter Pentilä @framesequence

Yesterday I had the dubious pleasure of teaching a class of 100 students for 4 hours, using Zoom... This was part of a Deep Learning course that I teach in the Y-Data program. Surprisingly, it went much better than I anticipated - the 100 participants actively participated, asked smart questions and bravely stayed awake and stuck around until the end of the 4 hours session. The decision to hold the course online was made just the night before, so I had very little time to prepare for the change, but I thought I'd share a few points that made the overall experience quite fun actually:

1. I sat in a large room (used an empty large conference room at the Gong office). I can't imagine being locked in a small room in my house for 4 hours... I also made an effort and made sure that I was connected to the meeting room 20 minutes before the session started, and did a sound test with another person, to make sure everything worked

2. Except me, everybody was muted (the kids are at home...). Students asked questions using Slack, and added emojis to "upvote" a question. It worked much better than unmuting and jumping in talking using audio.

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3. Personally, I love having open discussions in class. I don't have the source at hand, but I heard of a large research studying what students actually remember from lectures - the first 5 minutes? The last 5 minutes? The videos or animations? The researchers tested many alternatives, and one thing stood up above all others - students vividly remember what they've said themselves :) There's great content online on Deep Learning. The added value I bring as a lecturer is those discussions, that get the student to use the data they gather from my lectures and other resources, and apply it to challenging situations and non-obvious tasks using group discussions. In a f2f class, I ask a question and students attempt to answer it, leading to a discussion that often includes 5-10 students talking about each point. To facilitate this in a remote session, I explicitly declared in relevant places during the lecture that we're going to have a discussion about a topic, and asked people to unmute themselves if they feel they will participate. Students knew they are expected to take an active part in these short sessions, and this helped handle this.

4. A moderator (the wonderful Kostya Kilimnik) kept track of the questions and discussion and made sure I'm still in touch with the class.

5. I used one screen for the presentation (shared on Zoom), and another with slack + a gallery of the Zoom participants. I asked everybody to turn their cameras on, and was able to simultaneously watch ~20 of the participants. This helped a lot - they indicated understanding with thumbs up/down, and I could see when they yawned or buried their face in their hands when I made another unfunny joke.

6. After a short session, we stopped and students gave feedback to improve things. Among other things, this led to switching my microphone, and me making sure I explicitly state the question I'm answering.

7. I recorded the session, and shared it with the students. In these days, many can't attend the session itself, and the recording allows them to keep up. The students requested that they could also record the session themselves using Zoom (the meeting host needs to enable this) - so that during the break they can go back and review points that weren't clear on a first listen - a great idea IMO.

8. During the break the students kept posting questions - I only answered them during class, but had time to gather a longer list and see how I address all of the questions in the best way.


Credit: https://www.tots100.co.uk/2015/04/24/fresh-five-five-blogs-that-do-things-differently/

There are obviously things I'd try to improve for next time - here's a few points for improvements:

1. we made only 2 15-min breaks - students actually pay more attention during remote sessions, as people are focused on the big screen in front on them, while in physical lectures I work hard to make sure they focus on me and aren't distracted by the 100 other people near them.

2. I set the camera to record both me and a big whiteboard. I think it's better to have the camera capture the lecturer, as it helps students stay connected with the lesson and its flow.

3. I sat down during the entire session, but see value in actually standing up and even walking around. Standing up helps convey energy and enthusiasm, that are in short supply during remote sessions.

4. There are software tools that are more suitable for online courses than a Zoom meeting. They include features like sharing thumbs up/down by the students to convey their level of understanding, easy creation of quizzes and polls and more. As I wrote, we decided to hold the class online just a night before, and I didn't want to try a new platform before I thoroughly test it myself. For future lectures, I will check other tools - I hear good things about Unicko, for example.

Omri Allouche

Head of Research @ Gong.io, Data Scientist and Lecturer

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