NOTE: The following video has extremely offensive language in it. It is posted here only to demonstrate the kinds of things people have had to put up with as a result of Zoombombing. Viewer discretion is advised. So are headphones.
During a discussion of how best to serve our students in this time of forced distance learning, a journalism professor in a discussion group made the following statement:
“I don’t understand why people would not be synchronous while also recording for asynchronous if they have a tool that does it easily…”
The glorious world of the internet answered that pretty well for us this week, as instructors everywhere were introduced to the concept of “Zoombombing”:
Like many professors across the country who’ve been displaced from college campuses because of the coronavirus pandemic, Lance Gharavi suddenly found himself teaching his spring semester courses at Arizona State University online using the Zoom meeting platform. His first Zoom session for an approximately 150-student Introduction to Storytelling course went terribly wrong.
Right off the bat, he said, one of the participants used a Zoom feature that lets a user display an image or a video in the background in order to show a pornographic video.
“I didn’t notice it until a student on chat said something about it,” said Gharavi, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theater. Participants were using fake screen names, some of which he said were very offensive. “The chat window became incredibly active. Most of the comments were not on topic. They were vulgar, racist, misogynistic toilet humor. I would barely even call it humor.”
Instructors aren’t alone in this issue, as a friend of mine noted regarding a Society for Professional Journalists digital meeting:
On Friday, SPJ’s executive director hosted a Zoom meeting with members. But they all saw a member no one wanted: A random man logged on and put his genitals right up to the camera.
Apparently, this is a side effect of the pandemic shutdown. It even has a name: Zoom bombing.
In case it’s not obvious, there’s a reason people get in more trouble on live air than they do when they record a program and run it on air after its been edited. It should also be obvious that you’ll run the risk of having to redo the whole thing instead of just archiving it if some twerp decides to use “Debbie Does Dallas” as a background during class discussion on Zoom.
To prevent Zoombombing, Zoom offers several hints and tips for people setting up their classrooms and meetings, including locking the room, using the waiting-room function and controlling screen sharing. If you are looking at using this tool to teach in a virtual setting, these are great bits of advice and they aren’t that hard to enact.
This approach to teaching feels like whack-a-mole: A problem pops up, we hammer it down with a solution and then, bam, another problem pops up. This is likely the nature of online learning for us for a while as we try to figure out how best to do this as classes progress. It’s like fixing a car while we’re driving it at 100 mph down a bumpy road.
Whether you’re going synchronous or asynchronous, using Zoom or posting lecture notes, well-prepared or running around like Beaker with his hair on fire, consider these three key points in how best to make your classes successful:
MINIMIZE FAILURE: One of my favorite stories about legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks was the one told in “One Goal” about his first national championship at Minnesota. After his team won it all, his players were celebrating loudly in the locker room, having a fantastic time. A friend went looking for Brooks, whom he later found sitting along in a hallway, completely drained. The line in the book said it all:
“They had succeeded. He had avoided failure.”
This may seem to be a dark and depressing way to look at life, but when it comes to trying to launch a series of online classes in the middle of a semester with almost no lead time for them, it’s actually the best way to look what you need to do.
This isn’t the time to break out six new digital platforms you’ve never used before in hopes of “jazzing” things up or because everyone else out there is yammering about what they’re doing. It isn’t the time to build a new educational philosophy, based on some BS eLearning journal article you read out of desperation. It isn’t the time to prove that you’re better, stronger, faster, cooler or whatever else because you’re terrified that your whole class is going to hell in a speedboat and you have no control over it whatsoever.
Now is the time to rely on the bedrock principles and simple teaching techniques that got you here. If you have platforms that work and have always work, use them. If you have been successful with certain types of exercises, tweak them a bit and stick with them. Be honest with your students and tell them that you’re going to do X, Y and Z but that’s about it.
You don’t have to hit a grand slam here. A base hit wins the game, so choke up on the bat and protect the plate.
RIGHT TOOL, RIGHT JOB: As I struggled to learn statistics, Steven Osterlind of Mizzou was a godsend. He looked like the uncle who showed up to Thanksgiving and would do that magic trick where he pulled a quarter out of a kid’s ear. He was always smiling and helpful, even as students like me were as dumb as a brick.
I kept trying to use more and more complex statistical measurements to find answers to my research problems. This guy, who knew more about stats than any 15 people I know, pushed me in the other direction: Simpler tools, better results. His motto was one in which the simplest tool was usually the best.
I like the theory of “right tool for the right job,” and I’m a huge fan of simplicity when it comes to those tools. If I want to hang a picture in my living room, a hammer and nail works just fine. I don’t need to fire up my air compressor and load up a nail gun.
When it comes to thinking about the tools at your disposal, consider this theory. Some classes need video because they require you to show process and activity. Others could get by with audio podcasting only. My students don’t need to see me and I can get away with still images.
I saw someone in a “COVID teaching discussion group” discussing PowerPoint and how to find ways to get student free copies of it. Do they need access to your PowerPoints for any reason or could a set of PDF’ed slides do just as well?
As we talked about with assignments before, try to find the essential elements of what is most important for your students in your class. Then, use the tools best able to deliver those elements with the least amount of complexity.
Another thought? Ask the students what they have and what they would like to get. Several faculty members did email surveys or Doodle polls to find out what made sense for their classes.
(I asked my students once about moving to video and a student told me, “I like the audio podcasts. I put them on right before bed and after an hour, I’m ready to sleep.” I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that…)
THE HAM STORY: I swear this came from a priest in a sermon, but after all these years, my memory has blurred a bit. Still, it’s the story I tell all my students when the time comes for them to learn how to think for themselves:
“A newly married couple is having dinner together at home for the first time. The woman is making ham and before she does anything else, she cuts two inches off of each end of the ham.”
“The man asks, ‘Why did you do that?’ The woman replies, ‘It’s my mama’s recipe and you always loved mama’s ham so I’m following the recipe.'”
“Later that year, the couple is at the woman’s parents’ home for Christmas dinner. The mother is making ham and she starts by cutting two inches off each end of the ham.”
“The man asks, ‘Why do you do that?’ Mama replies, ‘It’s grandma’s recipe and everyone loves grandma’s ham so I’m following the recipe.'”
“Grandma arrives for dinner and the man asks, ‘Grandma, your recipe says to cut two inches off of each end of the ham before you start. Why do you do that?'”
“Grandma replies, ‘Oh! I never had a big enough pan to hold a whole ham, so I wrote that down to remind myself to cut two inches off each end so that it would fit the pan I had.'”
The lesson? Sometimes, something makes sense at the time, but it outlives its usefulness, even as people blindly continue to do it.
I asked people who use Zoom to do their lectures why they use it and I got a lot of “That’s how I was taught in grad school” kind of responses. The same was true of going synchronous for learning, using specific reporting lessons and other similar things. I have no idea if Zoom is the best tool or not. I also don’t know if those approaches were any good or not.
The problem? It didn’t seem like the folks answering the questions did either.
As much as now isn’t the time to break out a whole new approach to things, it doesn’t hurt to question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If you come to a satisfactory answer, you’re in great shape.
If not, maybe it’s worth a second look.