Engaging Students: An Approach to Solving the Zoom Conundrum

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It’s been just over a year since we started this journey into a fully online framework for teaching. Within the University of Portsmouth, we adopted what we called the Blended and Connected Learning approach. This was adapted from the ABC model developed by UCL and we approached it with the Active Blended Learning (ABL) framework in mind. 

If you are unfamiliar with either concept, the ABC model splits ideas into learning types (not to be confused with learning styles that are hotly debated within the education community as to their validity). 

1. Acquisition

2. Collaboration

3. Discussion

4. Investigation

5. Practice

6. Production

These areas work to help academics look at their course materials and plan activities that meet the range of learning needs for students—essentially helping learning progress through Bloom’s Taxonomy and scaffold a learners’ personal approach to the material. ABL is a learner-centered approach to teaching that gets the student involved with the material. This blog post and definition from Ale Armellini are great resources for anyone starting to look at Active Blended Learning. 

So, with a little context to our approach, this article is going to pivot towards a challenge that we will have all faced in our current teaching practice: that of the Zoom (or whichever chosen video chat platform you are using) ‘wall of names’. This wall comprises the names and initials of students attending your lecture or seminar with their cameras off. While it may feel like that isn’t a big issue per se, I think that by now, we have all found it is much more disconcerting than we initially thought.

This article will be broken down into three sections. First Expectations, followed by Challenges and finally, The Future, with the aim to provide you with some insights into how students are feeling and how we can proceed with this knowledge.

Faculty and Student Expectations

When teaching a new class of students, we have an expectation that they are there to learn, to engage, and develop within your field of expertise. Should this not happen, we can feel let down or cheated that all the work we put into preparing online materials, creating resources, and teaching “face-to-face” (be that actually in person or online) has been a waste of our efforts and that students are not living up to our expectations. 

This is understandable, but also somewhat short-sighted to some degree. While we are experts within the room, we are not all-seeing and all-knowing. We have our own limitations and blindspots—whether we want to admit it or not. We need to start considering not just our own preconceptions, but also the fact that we are teaching a group of others who will have their own set of values and ideas on what they are expecting, and as of yet we don’t know what that is!

So breaking down what I mean by expectations, with Zoom in mind, this can be split into three areas:

1. Our expectations of the students.

2. The students’ expectations of us. 

3. The students’ expectations of each other. 

Each of these factors plays into the success of our current online environment and our engagement with Zoom (and will continue when we head back to campus). 

I recently had a conversation with some academics and students within the Science faculty of the university. The academics had hit upon the issue that when they ran group work as a breakout session within Zoom, they were seeing a large proportion of the students just leaving the class completely. Obviously, this was not ideal, so what could be done? The students I spoke to provided some interesting insights into the situation. I will discuss these in more detail within the “challenge” section, as the insights demonstrate how to maximize the value of breakout rooms.

The point about expectations is central to it all, and my recommendation would be to challenge yourself and your students to have a conversation about all aspects of teaching. This should cover the three areas I mentioned above:

     1. What You Expect From the Students

When you start teaching a class, it can be easy to highlight who you are and what you might intend to cover over the course of the module. It might also be less often that you explicitly tell the students what you are expecting from them. Even if you do, do they explicitly agree to your “demands” on them? This is where a conversation can help shape what is to come throughout the entire teaching block. If you are explicit about your standards and why you approach things the way you do, there can be no recourse from the students about why they have not held up their part of the agreement. Or you to yours.

     2. What the Students Are Expecting From Us

Although I have listed this as the second point, I would lead with it as the foundation of any discussion. Make it clear to students that you will let them know what you are expecting from them, but first, find out what they are hoping to gain from you. It will be an interesting insight into what they hope to achieve from their studies. It may also reveal some aspects you never thought of that will help inform your teaching approaches. 

     3. What the Students Expect From Each Other

As teaching is now predominantly online in the current climate, students are afforded less of the conversation they may have had in-between lectures. Before, students would have the opportunity to discuss their own feelings towards the teaching and each other. Of course, they have their social networks (through social media) but that is not quite the same, as it is that much more public and permanent. 

I believe it’s important that we try to facilitate some of that conversation into the expectations of the teaching, as they need to be able to vocalize their desire to learn to others (which may be through an anonymous process), but one where they are all setting out a code of conduct.


So the challenges we face to capture the range of expectations are obvious. If the students are turning up with cameras off and not engaging with others, how can we expect them to engage with this process?

For me, it is about outlining as clearly as we can, why certain levels of engagement are important. Demonstrating why group work, breakout rooms, or class discussions are paths to achieving a rounded understanding of the materials which will ultimately benefit their assessments. 

There are many Audience Response Systems that offer free versions of the tool that will help with this. Within the University, we have Padlet, Nearpod, and Vevox, as well as a simple forum board within the VLE or LMS. Essentially, it’s about providing the students a safe space to answer questions about what they expect in this new and difficult learning environment we face. For instance, an anonymous Padlet grid will allow the students to post their thoughts, which can be rated and grouped to build a picture of which areas are important to them. 

It can be a chance to challenge them with statements like:

“Having my camera on is…”

“Actively participating with a group activity during a lecture is…”

They are then tasked to fill in the blanks and make their case for why they should not follow the model you are trying to implement. The key here is really giving them a voice in the discussion and the feeling that they have shaped the process. If the students have a level of “buy-in” for attendance, then when they are there, they fully understand the reasons for it.

I appreciate I often have a utopian view of these sorts of activities. However, by providing them with a starting point where you populate the interactions with examples, statements, and expectations, it is for them to agree or disagree with, rather than creating something from scratch.

It might also be a good idea to allow them the ability to build in a reward/privileges part to all of this. If there is a reward, there must also be a consequence. Often people devise much more stringent and punitive restrictions themselves than you could have dreamed up. If they create those and agree on them, you can have them invested in being present and learning. It might be as silly as starting the sessions five minutes later, but there should be guidelines they need to adhere to and work towards as a group.

Some of the feedback surrounding the breakout room migrations that some academics faced came down to the design of the task. The activities the students engaged with most offered a level of independence to the entire group activity. The group was a support network while working through something. It helped promote smaller discussions and focused on the questions set by the academic. There was also a real challenge to the task, and while initially, it may have raised some of the students’ anxiety levels, by completing it in the safe learning space, they realized and appreciated the opportunities that the tasks provided when it came to the actual final assessment.

Thomas Langston, Digital Learning and Teaching Specialist at University of Portsmouth

One of the activities that “failed” was a role-playing scenario, where the students had to read a scripted exchange surrounding a “real-world” medical encounter. There was no deviation, no challenge to solve, but a simple base-level task that was trying to help explain a part of the material. The students saw no value and opted out. 

Another challenge came with how groups are divided up. In class, it is easier to mix friends up and just create “random” allocations. This is easily done from the technical perspective in a Zoom breakout room, but what this actually did was kill the conversation. No one wanted to speak up and in this kind of online environment, a comfort zone is an important thing. 

Talking with the students prior to the activity might help you structure the groups. A suggestion would be that students pair up with someone they are comfortable and happy to work with, and then those pairings are mixed with another group. It might take a little more time to prepare, but if people are happy to chat with at least one other person in their group, it’s easier for them all to jump in and have that conversation. This will allow them to share ideas and complete the tasks that are set by the academic.

The Future

So what does the future hold? It’s a question none of us can really answer, but something that we have the opportunity to shape. My vision would be a much more blended approach: a VLE full of rich, interactive materials, with challenges and opportunities for the student to investigate the subject.

Students miss the campus (maybe more than they realized), and I would hope this will translate going forward to them actually attending lectures. It is only through such a world-changing pandemic that our students might reevaluate the value of face-to-face teaching. As singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell said, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”

Face-to-face time is a precious commodity for both teaching and for our own mental well-being. Social interactions are great on Zoom when people are engaged, but with a mixed economy of campus-based and online-based, the face-to-face element is being met with in-person meetings. This will help define the value of what we can do online and what we can do in person. Obviously, this will be assuming that we can help them (and they can help us) to see the value we can create within the lecture space. I am an advocate for activities in class that allow everyone to have a voice and a chance to challenge our own understanding, as well as the views of everyone else. 

I think an explicit code of conduct is a perfect place to start from. One that is created by all parties involved so that we can maintain a high level of teaching and learning throughout the entire module.

Of course, these rich discursive events won’t happen each lecture (I mentioned that I am a utopian visionary when it comes to students wanting to engage with everything). However, I believe the conversation both online and on-campus is a key part of putting our best foot forward. We have to appreciate the challenges that the students face, even more so now.

Students are not just attending university to learn from books; they are attending to get life experiences that they never got while at home or as a child. They are “finding themselves” in a very broad sense and many of the challenges universities face are not just educational. From the conversations I had with the Science students, they liked the fact they can sleep in and do the pre-recorded lectures later in the day. They liked being able to control their learning and pace through the activities that were housed in the VLE. This approach doesn’t mean they suddenly won’t have questions or want the face-to-face time that helps them scaffold the material to meet their requirements. 

Ultimately, the challenges we face now are nothing new, especially being in an incredibly new situation no one could have imagined. While I barely mentioned Zoom outside of the first paragraph, I think that is because we feel Zoom is the new problem we are facing, and it isn’t. It is the same old problem with a brand new bow on top. The biggest differences are that in class we can see their faces, we can know if they are really there, and if they are, they can’t just get up and walk out on group work. 

With in-person group work, I think the main difference is that they start to see the benefit through “force”, as they don’t have the option to leave that they do with Zoom. The conversations we have need to open up their eyes to the benefit and value that it brings before we start the task. They need to see the advantages of the different tasks we might try to bring to their learning, but equally, we as educators need to find out what values they hold. Finding that delicate balance is going to be a key part of how we blend together future teaching and learning within Higher Education and how we can solve that Zoom conundrum.

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