Zooming into online teaching and learning: An interview with Marisa Mori and Mirko Reithler

By Patrick Bijsmans

After weeks of online teaching and learning, you may be totally Zoompt and perhaps you have even developed a case of Zoomophobia. Inversely, you may have become a Zoomophile who looks back at the pre-Zoom age with a smile. In both cases it remains important to reflect on what we are currently going through and to learn from each other’s online teaching and learning experience.

A few weeks back I wrote that I would be sitting in with tutorials of Marisa Mori and Mirko Reithler. I observed two tutorials with two great tutors. Everything seemed to work pretty well. But I also noticed a few differences in the way Zoom was used and integrated in the tutorial.

So, I asked Marisa and Mirko a few questions. Marisa is MM, Mirko is MR and PB is me.

PB Overall, from what I’ve seen, things actually seem to work relatively well given these strange circumstances. Why do you think this is the case?

MR So far, online tutorials have been going amazingly well. The main reason is that we are blessed with students who are intrinsically motivated, who know how to work independently and are great communicators and team players.

MM I agree, most students are quite adaptable. A lot of the time, the concerns are even the same, such as focusing too much on the whiteboard worker, or certain students speaking more often than others. These issues are perhaps more confronting online though, for instance if the note-taker is sharing his/her screen, or there is the virtual version of an intake of breath before someone wants to speak – an unmuting – that might get overlooked.

PB So, have you seen students struggling?

MM Some do, yes. Some dislike staring at the screen for “so long” or find it much easier to get distracted in their own spaces; some have also mentioned that they feel less of a responsibility to the group in terms of showing up and participating because they don’t feel they ‘know’ the others if they didn’t really know them in pre-Zoom life.

MR Plus, there are some students who are facing challenges like unstable internet connections, increased anxiety, being stuck in Maastricht without a job or at home with parents and siblings.

PB I noticed that both of you tried to communicate with students in a non-verbal way. Do you think you sufficiently manage to do so, given the screen as a possible barrier?

MM Not really. I still use a lot of facial expressions and now seem to gesticulate a bit more, but I have very little sense of who actually sees these. Sometimes students react with clear signals, such as nodding or shaking their heads, or giving thumbs up, but when there is silence, it’s not really possible to nudge the group along non-verbally.

The chairs often seem to struggle without non-verbal feedback, too. As a result, one of my groups has opted to be more directive and have the chair ask a specific person to start answering a learning objective. This seems to work well for the more factual information questions, and then the structure loosens up a bit for the discussions.

MR In my experience, the limits to non-verbal communication in an online setting can be quite frustrating. Particularly because it usually can be very helpful to invite and encourage hesitant group members to participate in the discussion. As a tutor it is so much part of what I am used to doing, that I automatically find myself smiling and nodding all the time. Like Marisa, hand gestures like waving hello and goodbye and thumps up have now been added.

PB Do you have any other tips to try and make online teaching as personal as possible? To support students who may be struggling.

MR Students have created WhatsApp groups to be able to stay in touch with each other outside of group sessions. There are weekly open office hours and students can always email questions and concerns. Arrangements like these are more important now, to make up for the loss of opportunity to meet and speak informally and personally during breaks or before and after meetings.

MM Another thing that seems even more important now is making sure there is space for a feedback round. Since there is not really a ‘standard operating procedure’ in the current situation, this gives students a chance to discuss what they’re having trouble with individually, what they find challenging, and what else we can try as a group in order to make the best of the circumstances.

I’m also trying to make up for the lost informal moments by starting the groups early and highlighting the option for students to ‘stay in the room’ during breaks. In any case, I always start by asking them how they’re doing. Also, as part of the introduction round at the start of the period, I asked them to tell the group where they were and to show us something funny, weird, or meaningful from the room each of them was in. This not only provided some fun insights, but it was also helpful to know of different circumstances that might affect the students, such as being in a different time zone, or as Mirko mentioned earlier, staying with a particular relative or parent, or in a student house with five other people trying to Zoom at the same time.

PB When observing the tutorials, I noticed that Marisa had a student taking minutes, whereas Mirko opted to take minutes himself. Could you explain why you decided for the respective options?

MM I’ve tried to keep as much to PBL as possible, including it being student-led. Notetaking is something that students do anyway, so I didn’t feel the need to take over this responsibility.

MR My expectation was actually that the tutor might need to do some more moderating to ensure that the online tutorials would be efficient. Taking notes on the whiteboard allowed me to bring together input from the group while indirectly providing some feedback and guidance without having to speak. After three sessions, students volunteered to take over notetaking, and they do an excellent job.

PB Related to this, whereas Mirko used the Zoom whiteboard, Marisa used Google-docs. How do you consider the integration of online tools to work?

MR Apart from occasional glitches, Zoom has been working smoothly. Managing multiple screens simultaneously is tiring, but I am getting used to it. One student uses the Microsoft whiteboard application via screen sharing and that works beautifully.

MM I actually didn’t find the Zoom whiteboard very handy, and there’s much more versatility in sharing one’s screen since it’s possible to share whatever is useful, which is usually a Word or Google doc, but could also be slides, webpages, or a mind map app. I find screen sharing needs to be purposeful and brief, however, especially during the post-discussion. For the pre-discussion – which I’ve heard some have opted to skip online – it is helpful to have someone to share the screen, but for the most part, there seems to be better communication when students are able to see each other in Zoom. Then perhaps they have a shared document open in a different window or device, but they can still engage with the group.

PB That’s interesting. Are there also other benefits to online teaching?

MM It’s easier to share content, for example, by quickly sharing a link to a news story. It’s also been useful to highlight to students how tutorials can be more discussion-focused, even in heavily fact-based courses, such as EU Politics, which I am currently teaching. Students seem to find less value in just reporting and actually focus more on their questions or points they want to discuss.

MR Some features are convenient, for instance, showing slides, text passages and other materials through screen sharing, distributing files through the chat, flexibility to rearrange notes on the whiteboard, names of every participant being visible to everyone at all times. One benefit would be that we can all add ‘experience with productive online teamwork’ to our resume now.

PB Is there anything else we can take away from this that we should take into account when ‘normal’ teaching resumes?

MR For me, the online adventure has shown how important it is to have well designed courses, with clear intended learning outcomes, engaging assignments and interesting readings and a healthy balance of fixed content and space for students to find their own way.

MM It’s perhaps a bit early to tell… but to build on what Mirko said, it’s also important to reflect on how these components work differently when we design ‘normal’ courses versus (deliberately!) online courses.

About Marisa and Mirko

Marisa Mori is a member of the faculty’s Politics department and mainly teaches in the Bachelor in European Studies. Mirko Reithler is a member of the Department of Society Studies and mainly teaches in the Bachelor in Arts & Culture. Both can now add ‘experience with productive online teamwork’ to their resumes.

DISCLAIMER: this interview was conducted in writing rather than through Zoom, because perhaps we do not need to organise online meetings for everything?