Zoom Advice for Big Classes

During the spring semester, I taught two classes on Zoom after the March dispersal from campus: Gov 1005: Data with 119 students and Gov 1006: Models with 38 students. Here are some notes (mostly for myself) on lessons learned and plans for next semester, when I will be teaching Gov 50: Data, a renumbering of 1005.

Any class with less than 20 students can ignore this advice. If the class is small enough that you can see all the students at once — and they call all see each other — none of this is really necessary, although it may be useful.

  1. Everything is 10x harder on Zoom. In a physical classroom, I can improvise, judge student reactions, take the class in whatever direction seems most promising. None of that works in Zoom. You need a script, a precise plan to follow, prepared ahead of time. Winging it is impossible.

  2. Faculty have varying perspectives on how “interactive” their lectures courses should be, and different ways of measuring interactiveness. I want to maximize the number of words that the typical student speaks. If a student knows that she will be speaking a lot, she can’t avoid but to be engaged. The only way to do that is to make extensive use of Zoom breakout rooms. This is Zoom’s killer feature. The single best way to improve the student experience is to spend more time in breakout rooms.

  3. Breakout rooms are best used when you specify who is in each of them. This is a giant bother in Zoom. Indeed, for me (and many others) the single feature we most want from Zoom is the ability to have all students automatically be designated as co-hosts so that they can move to a breakout room on their own. In the absence of that, I will have no choice but, before each class, to set up the csv file with breakout room assignments. The mechanics of this process are my single biggest worry for the fall.

  4. I want my students to meet lots of other students. I also want them to get comfortable with their breakout rooms. The tension is unavoidable. My plan is to organize students into Groups of size 15-20 based on housing. One Group might have all the Eliot students. Another might include all the Quadlings. Each class, you are “randomly” assigned to a breakout room of 4 from your Group. (It might not be perfectly random, since I would like you to be in “meet” all the students from your Group relatively quickly.) You spend all class with in that room, but next class you are in a new room. You meet lots of people, but you aren’t always stuck with 3 strangers each class, which is too overwhelming for most students. Depending on how things go, I might mix up these Groups midway through the semester, but probably not. In the final third, I will allow students to request being assigned to a breakout group with their friends

  5. After a couple of weeks, I will probably pull out the strongest students and place them in breakout rooms of their own. I did this in the spring and it was amazing.

Ran out of time to write this up! Hope the above is helpful to some people . . .

David Kane
Data Scientist
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