Teaching with videoconferencing just got easier because of Zoom. Gone are the days of frozen screens, dropped connections, echoes, jagged videos, and time lags. Zoom can be used for lectures, student presentations, discussions, student polls, virtual office hours, or a place to meet with students. What’s more, there’s no need to train students to use Zoom. They just click on a link and they’re in your class after being prompted to download a small app. No Zoom account is required for students. And, if students happen to arrive early, you can allow them to join without you being present or they can can stay in a waiting room. If you want to know how to get started with Zoom and learn about some of its advanced features, read on.
Getting started with Zoom
To begin, you should first check with your institution to see if it has a Zoom license. If so, you are in luck and probably can access most of its advanced features. If not, no need to worry as Zoom is available in a free version. This version has most of the key features and allows you to host an unlimited number of classes with up to 100 students. Don’t let your classes run for more that 40 minutes though, as that is the maximum time permitted with the free version. The good news is the free version allows you to have an unlimited number of one-on-one meetings with students. The free version requires you to create an account at http://zoom.us, but if your institution is licensed, you’ll likely just sign in with your institutional single sign-on credentials.
Once logged in, you’ll need to download the Zoom desktop app and then you’re ready to set up your class meeting. At the most basic level you only need to obtain the login link from the Zoom app and distribute it to your students. You can begin the meeting right away, or you can schedule a meeting for a future date and time. When you set up a meeting you can also get a telephone number to allow students to join by audio only, for instance, if they are travelling and don’t have an Internet connection. Zoom provides national phone numbers for over 90 countries. With one click in the app you can also create a calendar invitation with the meeting link and phone numbers to email to a distribution list.
Zoom start-up screen
When you start your meeting, you see the plain uncluttered screen shown below with a control toolbar at the bottom. Tools from left to right:
- The mic tool is used to select your mic source, test your mic and speakers, and mute/unmute your mic.
- The video tool has similar options for controlling your camera, as well as options for changing to a 16:9 widescreen and HD, a handy feature for touching up your camera appearance, and adding a virtual background.
- The invite tool is used to email participants by your default email service in case you forgot to invite someone; or you can use it to invite all your participants instead of using the app.
- “Manage participants” allows you to mute all participants in case someone has annoying background noise that’s interfering with your session. There is also the option to display icons on the screen to signal the presenter to speed up, slow down, and raise a hand to ask a question.
By understanding these few tools, you are well on your way to hosting a meeting. Next, we’ll look at the remaining tools that allow you to enhance your meeting pedagogically.
Zoom start-up screen without video started
Additional features of Zoom
To the right of the “manage participants” tool is the polling tool. Zoom allows you to set up anonymous or identifiable respondent polls in advance or on the fly during the meeting. This tool is handy; for example, to ask students to evaluate your class before leaving the meeting, or to poll students’ knowledge, or opinions during the meeting. The green sharing tool is one you’ll likely use often in class. With this tool, you can share your entire screen, such as a PowerPoint presentation or share any open window on your desktop. You can also share a white board for drawing sketches or writing mathematics formulas. When you move into sharing mode, all participants’ video windows reduce in size and move to the side, while the control tool bar moves to the top. If you want students to share their screens, you simply ask them to click on the icon. As the host, you can stop the sharing if a student is unsure how to do this. Next to the right of the sharing tool is the “Chat” tool. “Chat”, which opens a window on the right-hand side of the screen or in a pop out window, allows everyone in the session to share brief text messages with the group or privately. You will find this tool helpful to provide comments to your class during a presentation or sending private messages to students about some aspect of their work. A unique feature of “Chat” is the ability for participants to transfer files to the group or privately.
Screenshot with instructor video and chat room
After “Chat”, you’ll see three more advanced Zoom tools: “Record”, “Closed Caption”, and “Breakout Rooms”.
“Record” permits you to record all or parts of your session. The free version of Zoom allows only saving the file to your local drive, while the licensed versions additionally allow saving to the cloud. If you are using the free version, distributing the file to students is more cumbersome as the file may be too large to e-mail, so you’ll have to upload it to your course site or other cloud repository. In contrast, saving to the cloud with the licensed versions is very convenient as Zoom e-mails you a video viewing link, which you can readily share with students. Another feature of the cloud version is that Zoom can provide a written transcript of your session, the quality of which will naturally vary depending upon the clarity of the presenters. Most instructors will want to take advantage of the recording function, particularly if awarding grades on participation, as there will be a permanent record of students’ work.
“Closed Caption”, located to the right of “Record”, promises more than it delivers; yet some may find it useful. You will need to have someone type the conversation in progress for captions to appear on the screen or you can obtain a link to provide a simultaneous captioning service. My suggestion if you want to have closed captions on a recording of your class is to upload the video to YouTube and use its auto captioning function. Once processed by YouTube, you can distribute a private YouTube link of the captioned video to students.
“Breakout Rooms” allows you to do virtually what you do physically when you want students to have small group discussions. You can ask Zoom to automatically assign students to virtual groups or you can do it manually. By default, Zoom numbers groups with the option to rename them. Time limits and a countdown timer can be set for groups and, as meeting host, you can drop in on groups to participate or observe. This Zoom feature is especially helpful for large blended courses where lecture halls typically are not conducive to small group discussions. After participating in Zoom breakout rooms, students can report back on their discussions in the same meeting, or at the next virtual or face-to-face meeting.
Screenshot showing breakout rooms and setup options
The remaining tools across the bottom, found by clicking on the three dots at the rightmost of the screen, provides for live streaming your Zoom session on Facebook or YouTube. This is a very attractive feature if you plan to give a lecture to a very wide audience beyond your class, or if you want to have an open panel discussion, or have your students share their work more broadly. Viewers of your live presentation can comment via Facebook or YouTube chat tools; however, this feature is only available with the licensed versions of Zoom.
Lastly, on the top right of the Zoom screen, you’ll see a button to toggle between active speaker and gallery view. As the names imply, active speaker view makes the speaker appear in a large window on the screen with the other participants appearing in thumbnails at the top; gallery view displays all speakers in equal-sized windows. Active speaker view is normally used for presentations, while gallery view is used during group discussions.
Active speaker and gallery views (Source https://support.zoom.us)
Tips for teaching with Zoom
Once you’re comfortable with the operational features of Zoom, you’ll need to focus your attention on making your class engaging. First and foremost, you should avoid thinking of Zoom as just another medium for delivering a lecture. You will likely lose student attention quickly if you do so. A rule of thumb is to limit your presentations to about 10-minute segments. Share PowerPoint slides making ample use of the Zoom markup tools to emphasize key points during your presentation. Then create opportunities for students to discuss topics or make presentations before continuing with your lecture. Enable “Chat” to provide a backchannel for students to post questions and comments about what is being presented. If your class is large, consider using breakout rooms and having one person from each group report back to the whole class on their group’s discussions. Use polling to check students’ understanding of your presentations, then review topics they may not have grasped as well as expected. You may not be ready to follow up on all these suggestions at your first meeting, so consider them as future targets.
Drawbacks and overall assessment of Zoom
Perhaps one of the most confusing aspects of Zoom is some tasks are accomplished within the app, some are done by logging into your account at the Zoom website, and yet others can be carried out with either. The app allows you to start a new meeting, schedule a meeting, or join a meeting. You can adjust most settings with the app, although clicking on some of them launches your website account. All the app functions can be accomplished at the website, so the app merely serves as a convenience. You may find the website menus vague when trying to change a setting. For instance, there are menus for “Account Profile”, “Profile” and “Settings”, and you often may have to guess which one to try. Rather than exploring the items under the menus, simply search Google to discover how to change a setting.
Other than this quibble and after using many other popular web videoconference systems, Zoom is one of the top tools in the market today for educators. Its availability for Windows, Mac and other Apple iOS, and Android solves the problem of students not having the proper device to participate. Students seldom have difficulty connecting and, if they do, rebooting their computer usually solves most problems. If they have a slow connection while making a presentation, ask them to turn off their video to reduce bandwidth requirements, especially if they are using screen sharing. In conclusion, Zoom’s reliability and many valuable pedagogical features make it a tool well worth integrating into your online and blended teaching.
For more tips and tricks for teaching with Zoom click here.