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C'est la Z

Limitations Of Remote Teaching

While tools like Zoom, Slack and others are a tremendous boon as we're forced to do all our teaching remotely the limitations become apparent as we settle in and try to go beyond the basics of an offsite meeting.

Today was code review day in my CS1 class. It's a lesson that I enjoy teaching and I think my students get a lot out of it. Today we had to do it remote. The mechanics were largely the same:

  1. Pair off the kids.
  2. Have them write out a commentary on their partners code without discussion
  3. pair off again
  4. Have one review the others code but this time via discussion and note taking.
  5. Get everyone together and discuss

Zoom supported all the basics. Splitting the class was pretty easy via the breakout room interface and students were able to flag me when they wanted to bring me in to their breakout. It was also pretty easy to move newcomers into a room. There were some interface nits that Zoom has to address like how when I entered and left a breakout room I ended up losing part of the breakout window interface but I figured out a workaround.

The big difference and limitation was that I couldn't just lurk. In a live in person class, I get a top down view. I can basically see what all the pairs are doing. I can't get the details from a distance but I can basically see what's going on. I can also sidle over near a group to see how they're doing without being obtrusive. I can also see some of the students screens and notebooks to get the gist of what's going on and focus in on individual conversations.

You can't do these things with Zoom and I daresay you can't with any remote conferencing platform. When I wasn't in a breakout room I was alone in the main room. When I was in a breakout room it was obvious I joined and that in and of itself changed the room dynamic. I also couldn't see anything the kids were writing on paper or on screen unless they explicitly shared it.

All of this changes the dynamic big time and limits my effectiveness as a teacher.

Don't take this to mean I'm down on Zoom. I'm really loving the tool and without it or similar products my students would be getting much less during this crisis.

It's just a reminder that teaching is a contact sport and as much as some people will tell you otherwise the best instruction is in person in a small class with a knowledgeable dynamic teacher. We're not getting back there this semester but here's hoping that we get back by Fall.

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