Not sure whether this Thing is extremely timely or utterly redundant. By now most of the world has moved to Zoom or Skype, so virtual supervisions, meetings and workshops have become the norm. ...or we might be heading back to face-to-face at some institutions, or trying to develop hybrid ways of working. In any scenario, online teaching technology has never been more important, or more accessible.
Since COVID-19 entered our lives in 2020, many of us have been a participant or a facilitator in a Zoom session. Either way, you have probably developed some ideas of what constitutes an effective online presentation and what it’s like to be involved in a not-so-effective online session.
This Thing will offer some ideas about how to prepare for and give an effective and engaging virtual presentation – a process sometimes referred to as “hosting” an online event. So, this blog will share some top tips on using Zoom for academic purposes, including meetings, teaching and hosting online sessions. If you use another online video conferencing platform, besides Zoom, we think the advice below can be easily transferred to other platforms.
Our guides for this Thing are Dr Sarah Stein, Director, Distance Learning at Otago University, and Prof. Maria Northcote from Avondale University. The suggestions below have been adapted from Sarah’s guide for teaching on Zoom and Maria’s professional development materials that are focused on using Zoom.
Probably the first thing to remember is that a video conference, or Zoom meeting, or online learning, are very different experiences from meeting face-to-face, and should be treated differently. For example, an online presentation at a conference doesn’t need to be thought of as a conversion of a face-to-face presentation; instead, an online presentation is a genre all of its own. By thinking of an online presentation in this way, we don’t get into the trap of continuously comparing the two. This guidance runs through some key elements of successful virtual meetings, from getting set up to finishing the session without half an hour of awkward waving.
a) Test your equipment before you commence your meeting.
b) Be aware of where you will be sitting when you run the session. What is in the background behind you? Are there distractors around you such as noise, a lot of movement, bright lights, colours, other people? Generally, children and pets make a welcome intrusion into informal meetings, but ongoing background commotion can break participants’ concentration. Virtual backgrounds can screen any distracting mess behind you, and add a hit of the exotic and context to your meeting. If meeting with participants from varied parts of the world, showing a local scene in your virtual background can become a talking point.
c) Check to make sure that you are in the light (an overhead light is good) and that your camera is not facing a bright window. When there is bright light behind you, your participants will only see a silhouette of you – in which you resemble a person in the witness protection program! Position the camera at your eye level so that the participants in your session are not looking up your nose.
d) Plan your session. Have an agenda that includes opening, middle and closing phases. Include clear plans for how to engage your participants through interactions, activities and question-and-response tasks. Some facilitators find it useful to work with a co-facilitator who can check chat messages, assist participants with technological issues and remind the main facilitator of approaching deadlines.
e) Plan the use of your time and put it in your agenda. Ensure all participants are aware of the agenda before or at the beginning of the meeting. Map out how the phases will be planned. Start and finish times need to be clear and adhered to. When the close of the meeting is approaching, facilitators should flag this upcoming deadline so that abrupt endings can be avoided.
Running the session (with a focus on using Zoom for teaching)
a) Set some ground rules or agreed upon ways of engaging. Work on developing and setting realistic expectations. For a one-off session, this can be fairly quick and made part of the introduction. If you are planning a series of meetings with your participants, it is worthwhile spending some time in the first session (or even before the first formal session occurs) to set some ground rules with the participants. This is especially important if you are planning to teach using Zoom, though ground rules of some kind are important in the meeting context too. You will be wanting your participants to engage in a variety of ways, often on a number of occasions, and not simply sit passively and watch/listen. Those who teach on Zoom find it useful to set the expectation that all participants will have their cameras on but mute their microphones unless they are speaking.
b) Ground rules to consider may include:
a. Be on time.
b. All in the meeting need to be “present” and actively engaged throughout the meeting.
c. Do not multi-task, seem bored or have conversations with others around you.
d. Do not leave the conference without letting the facilitator know.
e. Mute yourself when you are not speaking. Top tip: you can hold down the space bar to unmute yourself temporarily, which can be the quickest way to make a short contribution and then revert to being muted.
f. Speak up! Make sure that your microphone is working well and is well positioned.
g. Make sure that you are visible on screen for all participants to see you.
h. Check that there are minimal distractors in the room around you.
i. A roll will be called each time you meet; greetings are essential.
j. All participants should use their real names, making sure to check this in their settings beforehand. If you have a group of people from many different places, it can be useful (and interesting) to also indicate where they are logging in from.
k. Video should be on, except when instructed otherwise (because a particular activity does not require visuals, or because there are issues with the stream). If video is off, you can upload a profile picture so that other people are not staring at a blank box.
l. *All videos are on, microphones are muted, and real names are used* is the default starting point of any session. (As has been said by others before, "Students do not come to physical class with a paper bag on their head and so should not attend virtual classes hidden".)
Expectations for different roles
1. The session leader’s role
a. You are the primary facilitator so generating interaction and activity among the participants is an essential task. Remember that teaching does not just involve the facilitator talking. The more talking the facilitator does, the less engaged and active the participants are. Aim to include an activity every 10-15 minutes to ensure you are engaging the group.
b. Be aware of how the role may vary - expert input, or facilitating expert input from someone else, coaching, or leading activities.
c. Build in opportunities for student-led presentations or discussions. Encourage question-asking as well as question-answering.
d. You control the sharing of audio-visual material, PowerPoints, documents and files, online clips and videos using Zoom’s Share Screen function. At times, you may invite others to share their screen or resources.
2. Different approaches:
a. Are you running a tutorial, suitable for small groups with discussion and activities?
b. Zoom is ideal for online teaching but it’s important to build in breaks, interactions and visual content so that participants are not bored or unengaged. The more activities you can incorporate into the teaching session, the more active your learners will be.
c. Asynchronous learning is a good model: provide the material to be learned (e.g., readings) and set tasks to complete before the session (e.g., through a discussion board), and use the Zoom meeting for discussion and questions.
d. Use the session to assist students in interpreting the material.
e. Acknowledge the experience and knowledge of your group. Draw in everyone’s formal and experiential knowledge.
f. Encourage participants to ask questions and encourage other participants to answer the questions. As the facilitator, you do not necessarily need to ask and answer all the questions posed.
3. Typical tutorial activities include:
a. working through a problem or case study;
b. discussion about readings;
c. small group discussions held in break-out rooms with subsections of the whole group;
debriefing/reporting back or building on outcomes of the small group discussions;
d. students asking questions, seeking clarification, and comparing their interpretation with others;
e. individual or group presentations followed by class discussion;
g. reflection on practical activities; and
h. role plays.
4. Dealing with ‘under-contribution’
Sometimes there is a lot of silence during a web conference. This can be caused by a whole range of factors, one of which can be the nature of the activities that students are asked to engage in. Under-contribution may also be a result of:
a. reticence with the video conference technology, especially if the set-up is imperfect, such as poor sound and images;
b. lack of preparation by the students, due to living through the apocalypse, perhaps;
c. the material for the conference being difficult, and participants feel underprepared or unable to discuss it;
d. that you have not given them enough specific guidance in the course materials or about what to do;
e. that they have not understood the question;
f. that the group of students simply contains few talkers.
5. What to do?
It is helpful to try to determine why there is reticence to contribute. This may lead to a quick solution.
Ways to encourage discussion:
a. Say that you are going to have one minute (or longer) of silence (time it), in which you'd like everyone to think about the question/task at hand. Ask them to jot down a few thoughts during the silence, and tell them that after the silence is over you would like someone in a particular location or someone who has not contributed yet, to start off the discussion.
This can give those who are not quite so quick to respond to a question the chance to gather their thoughts.
b. You could ask students to volunteer to answer a question, or to respond to a reading at the next video conference. This gives them the chance to prepare thoroughly. Zoom’s ‘raise hand’ function can let people volunteer without having to talk over each other.
c. You can address particular questions to particular people directly.
d. You can pose a question or provide a prompt and then ask that someone who has not spoken yet during the session gives a response to it.
e. You can set up a debate like this: Pose a question, and then say that you would like two people to argue for it, and two against (for example). Ask for volunteers, and then give everyone a few minutes to prepare. You can put them in their own Zoom break-out room. Then bring everyone back together and hold the debate. After it is over, ask for additional points from others that the debaters have not covered. Or you could say you wanted a debate during the next session (or better still, put it in your course book as part of the "Agenda") and ask for volunteers.
f. Remember that silence can also be very helpful, so resist the temptation to jump in and respond to your own question if no one else is talking. As teachers, we are often advised to wait at least five seconds before we speak again after we ask a question. This ensures that we give students the chance to think before they offer an answer to our question.
6. Dealing with over-contribution by a few students
Sometimes a handful of students (or just one or two) dominate a video conference. Other students will quickly tire of the over-contributors, particularly if they are not giving relevant responses. Students who dominate online discussions can dampen the enthusiasm of other students and can cause other students to become passive, annoyed or just plain bored. Some strategies to address this issue include:
a. Say that for this next question, you would like a response from someone who hasn't contributed yet during the session.
b. Or be more direct, saying something along the lines of: "Thank you to those who have contributed a good deal to our session thus far. But perhaps those people could refrain from answering the next few questions so that others have the chance to contribute."
c. If the problem becomes really acute, over a series of meetings, you may need to contact the person concerned outside the conference, explain the difficulty you are having as a teacher (e.g., "I'm concerned that others are not getting a chance ...") and ask them to refrain from speaking for a good while.
d. Using Zoom features such as the chat function and whiteboard can make it easier for participants to contribute if jumping in verbally is not their forte. They can send a chat message to the whole group (or just to you). If using this option, make sure that you stop and acknowledge chat contributions as well as verbal ones.
e. Give the person who is dominating the conversation a task (e.g., note taker for the session).
7. Other tips for facilitating web conferencing sessions.
a. Really listen to everyone’s responses. Because we don't have the same visual cues that go with in-person teaching, you sometimes need to really ‘listen between the video-sound lines’ to pick up underlying issues people may be facing. Perhaps they are really lost, perhaps the discussion is at the wrong level for them, or perhaps they are facing some pastoral issue that needs to be addressed (perhaps by a call from you outside the session).
b. Keep your web conference to an hour at the most. If you have to spend more time, it is important to have a break halfway through, to revive energy levels (yours included!).
c. Time management is crucial. If you only get through half of the agenda for the session, then in the next sessions some participants may only prepare half the material or leave early. Give yourself a timetable for how you will cover what you would like to cover in the session and endeavour to stick to it.
d. Getting participants to present their ideas, or a summary of a reading, or an essay at a web conference is worthwhile, particularly at advanced levels. Remind everyone that can meet with their fellow participants to prepare presentations in between scheduled classes. (Depending on your institution, you may have access to Zoom Pro, Skype for Business, or a more basic free version of these.)
e. Ask a more experienced web conference teacher to come along to give you some feedback about how you are doing in the conference session or to work with you as a co-facilitator for a session or two .
f. Be honest in your answers to questions, or when giving feedback. Encourage participants to respond to comments/questions from others, so that you are not always the ‘conduit’ for information. Have a coordinated and understood way of allowing that to happen (perhaps make this part of one of your ground rules). Because you can't always see participants, or can only see the video image, the temptation is to be neutral to answers that are simply wrong (i.e., to say "That's an interesting idea … what do others think?", when the answer is totally inadequate). It is probably better to be frank - "Actually, no that's very unlikely/wrong, because ....".
8. Ending meetings
Like any meeting, marking that it has finished and that everyone can relax can feel awkward. As the facilitator it’s important to announce that you have covered everything you had planned, leaving a space for any final questions, and reminding people of the next meeting. People can be reluctant to sign off on their own initiative, in case they miss something or seem rude, so you should usually take the lead. Some facilitators find it more efficient and less stressful to use a few moments at the beginning of the session to remind participants of the date and time of the next meeting. This avoids the mad rush that can sometimes occur at the end of a meeting or at the end of a teaching session.
In Zoom, as the host, you can end the meeting for everyone, but you also have the option to exit the meeting and leave it running for others. This option can be useful if participants might like the opportunity to chat informally afterwards, or arrange when they will meet up to prepare for the next session. The meeting will automatically end when everyone has left.
1) Arrange a Zoom or Skype meeting with your pod for this week. If you have not already met, this can be an introduction session, and a chance to share how you’re getting on with 23Things and what you hope to get out of it. If you have already been in contact, consider meeting to discuss an article of shared interest from the resources below. Please share a screenshot of your meeting on the forum to prove you have met – and to show off your favourite coffee mug / cat / background.
2) If you are having a supervision meeting in the next couple of weeks, consider how the advice on this blog might benefit your sessions. Do you have an agenda in place, and are you using the technology to share materials in the best way?
** Make sure you have considered the time differences when setting a meeting date, and have considered everyone’s responsibilities for childcare, teaching etc. **
Other advice and guidance
1. Information about the University of Otago Zoom Desktop Videoconferencing, includes contact details for support -
For Surrey, TEL have information on different teaching platforms:
For Swansea University guidance and support contacts:
The staff at Avondale University have created a set of resources for educators, higher degree research (HDR) candidates and students that provide guidance on preparing for a Zoom session:
And here are two lists of skills that you may develop as you use Zoom as a student or a facilitator:
2. Some videos providing some advice about running video conferencing sessions for teaching and/or meetings:
a. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb-EdzF9Vlc (TAFE NSW)
c. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epeUqraaJCc (Dept Education, South Australia; good for those of you who are dealing with different sites, or with students present in the room with you as well as others logging in from other sites)
d. Online Discussion Boards - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxzipYOGaoE (COFA Online NSW)
Acknowledgement: Some material in this document is based on advice from Penny Field and Paul Trebilco who, during the early 2000s, wrote about Using Audioconferencing for Distance Learning at Otago University.