Monday, September 21, 2020

An Op-Ed from the L.A. Times: Why learning via Zoom is hard and what we can do to make it easier

The Op-Ed author, Professor Daniel Willingham, is a cognitive scientist at UVA (and wrote Why Don't Students Like School, among other books). He talks about some of the points I raised in an earlier post - that for both teacher and students the lack of physical cues while teaching via a videoconferencing platform like Zoom makes it more taxing and difficult to discern meaning. Teachers rely on visual cues and the body language of students to figure out whether they're following the material and students rely on the teacher's body language to learn. Because teaching by Zoom lacks the physicality of classroom teaching, everyone's working harder to learn and is more fatigued by the end of class. One of Professor Willingham's suggestions is something I started doing after a few unsatisfying classes at the start of the semester which is to use an actual, not virtual, whiteboard next to my desk that I write on, diagram, point to, and generally try to employ as much physicality in my teaching as the format allows. My students tell me that they appreciate a less slide-centric approach to online teaching since they're pretty fatigued by looking at screens all day. 

Here's an excerpt from Professor Willingham's Op-Ed:

Op-Ed: Why remote learning is hard — and how to make it easier

We knew in March that students wouldn’t learn much during lockdown, and they seem to be in for more of the same this fall. The problem isn’t just that teachers lack experience with remote instruction. For reasons scientists only partially understand, it’s demonstrably harder to learn via video than in person. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the rest of the Trump administration maintain that because online learning is hard, healthy kids should be in school. But research points to another solution to the video learning problem.

. . . . 

Different learning tasks capitalize on different social cues. We can make some reasonable guesses about when video makes learning difficult.

A class discussion requires conversational turn-taking, and eye movements play a central role. For example, if you are speaking and I break eye contact, that indicates I want a conversational turn. If I’m speaking, a prolonged gaze signals an intention to yield the floor.

These signals are lost in videoconferencing, both because internet lag disrupts their timing and because computer equipment makes eye contact difficult. I see your eyes when I look at my screen, but you see my eyes when I look at my camera. The disconnect is part of why Zoom meetings brim with interruptions and awkward pauses.

During lectures, eye contact matters less than gesture. Instructors support explanations with their hands, as when a math teacher unconsciously mimes a pan balance scale to explain equivalence. Gestures aid student comprehension, but they’re usually absent from videoconferencing. Teachers sit near the computer to control their keyboard and mouse, which means students see only their faces.

Many lectures require demonstrations, with the instructor and student directing attention to a graph or an online laboratory simulation. During these tasks a teacher tends to use another type of gesture: She’ll point, or as she gives the instruction “turn it,” she’ll gesture to show which way. Unlike the balance example, these gestures require having the other person’s perspective on the object. Researchers have found it challenging to give users this sense of shared space during videoconferencing.

Overcoming these obstacles is usually possible. If I can’t point with my finger, I’ll “point” verbally: If I want students to look at a large, blue section of a graph, I can say, “Look at the big blue section.” Devising such workarounds is trivial in a two-minute Zoom call. But the costs accumulate over hours of video expounding difficult academic content.

That’s one reason 80% of adults who start non-credit online courses fail to complete them. And it’s a reason a lot of students simply didn’t show up for remote lessons last spring.

So now what?

We can guess at some fixes. For example, instead of sitting at a desktop while lecturing, a teacher might stand and step back from the camera so that gestures are viewable. But researchers don’t know enough to guarantee solid learning improvements. The summer, which the federal government might have used to organize a “Warp Speed” effort to find solutions, has instead passed in a narcotic dream that fall would bring students back to school — the vision Secretary DeVos still hopes will triumph.

. . . . 

Continue reading here.


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