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The Bright Side of the Virtual Classroom

A Personal Perspective: Taking stock of the unexpected advantages.

A calamity to be endured – this was how I first reacted to the idea of teaching to rows of faces inside squares on a screen. It was March of 2020 when my university shut down in-person classes. Almost two years later, I find myself thinking about aspects of the virtual classroom that I am going to miss. Has something about me changed? Has my comfort with face-to-face contact eroded with so much isolation? A few weeks ago I paid attention as I taught what was to be my last class on Zoom. What was I actually enjoying?

On a practical level, I’ve been able to learn students’ names with greater ease. Having a name under each square has been a pleasure, accompanied with preferred pronouns that I didn’t have to struggle to remember. The raised hand symbol has been a great boon, along with the way those using it were lined up in order on my screen. I could call on students by name, rather than nodding at them or pointing. I didn’t have to worry about which student was next, making my moderating of discussions much more fluid and fair. Those who are good at just jumping in had to wait their turn because they could see who had been waiting to speak. Paradoxically, the virtual necessity of one person speaking at a time had opened up the discussion space more widely to everyone.

The value of the class recordings must be emphasized here. Many students have told me they like to replay portions of the class session, having gotten distracted by a train of thought the discussion had evoked or anxieties robbing them of their concentration on the subject at hand. My students for whom English is a second language would often replay sections that they hadn’t understood the first time around. One international student described how she kept a dictionary ready and paused the recording often to look up words that were new to her, becoming more confident about what she was learning as a result.

Wendy Lustbader
Squares lit up
Source: Wendy Lustbader

For me, the recordings contained the added treat of getting to see students’ faces filling the entire screen when they spoke. While leading discussions, I had to keep Gallery View going so that I could keep track of the whole class – was engagement evident in the faces or did I need to inject further provocation? Later, when the recordings arrived from Zoom in Speaker View, I could get a close look each student who had told a personal story or recounted an insight that had influenced their view of life. All along, students choosing Speaker View had been able to see the nuances of their classmates’ facial expressions and gestures, amplifying their knowledge of each other.

Yes, I also got to see my own face blown up there on the screen. Of course, I first had to overcome an excessive focus on the details of bad hair days, but then I was able to see when my passion for a subject had come through or when I had managed to convey complex ideas in ways students found useful or even inspiring. I was also able to replay my blunders that I had barely handled adequately but still weren’t as awful as I’d feared. I can only hope that when my students saw themselves in the recordings, they were able to see moments of fine articulation and strength.

More than anything else, hearing from the shy students on Chat has been transformational. Like having a microphone placed in the ocean depths, what these silent students were thinking had become audible. When they typed their remarks into the box at the side of the screen, visible to all, I would find the right moment to read aloud what they had written. Thanking them by name and calling out their observations, I was able to bring them directly into the exchange of ideas as never before. I loved when their fellow students would later refer to these contributions, sometimes reading the Chat remarks out loud again for emphasis.

In that magical box, I often watched my students pull each other out of isolation. Praise and gratitude went back and forth as they commented on each other’s thoughts, spoken or written. One particularly reticent student told me that hearing the ideas she'd put in Chat quoted in class had reawakened a sense of self-worth that had slipped into a prolonged state of dormancy. “It blew me away that my classmates were bouncing off of what I had said, that it became such a rich tangent for the whole class. It amazed me that something valuable had come out of my head. A weight lifted off my chest.”

Now I have to re-think the ways my teaching has been augmented on the screen. I didn’t know that certain advantages would take hold of me as a teacher or expand the options students had for being heard and seen. To my surprise, there were times when it felt like we had been together in a real room. When we are in-person again, I hope to make actual some of these discoveries from the virtual classroom – or at least the spirit of them.

Copyright: Wendy Lustbader, 2022

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