In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced students at Redlands Community College to switch to online learning, Zoom and other group communications technology became a part of daily life.
For students, learning the ins and outs of Zoom was hard enough, but Professor of Communications Elise McCauley Row soon discovered even professional adults were making critical mistakes and goofy errors when engaging with others on such platforms.
“I teach public speaking and composition, so when our work shut down and we went to Zoom, some of the students didn't know what to do or how to behave,” Row said.
“I thought it was their age. But one of my best friends is the executive director for Oklahoma AmeriCorps, and she is in charge of the whole office. When they went to Zoom, I remember her hitting the table and saying, ‘For the love of all good, would you PLEASE teach your people how to show up on Zoom properly.’ She told me adults in their 30s and 40s had such inappropriate behaviors on Zoom, too.”
In response to that request - and viral videos of people making embarrassing mistakes on video platforms, Row started teaching “Fundamentals of Speech: Zoom Speeches” in her Fundamentals of Speech course. Row received the college’s Innovation in Teaching Award for her project that helps students understand the importance of professionalism and etiquette on online conferencing platforms.
“In a world where in-person face-to-face interactions are limited, we meet on Zoom or other video-conferencing platforms for classes, meetings, gatherings, etc. We have all seen and heard stories of people who make embarrassing errors during these meetings, and we have all experienced more subtle signs of online ineptitude,” Row said. “Students and people in general need to be made aware of suitable online etiquette and learn how to present themselves professionally in a video-conference setting. Appropriate online presence is now a necessary and fundamental communication skill.”
Row and her friend thought that common sense would win the day when it came to online etiquette. They were wrong.
Both had students or employees Zoom from bed, hide their heads under blankets or show up completely disheveled.
“If you dress up for work, dress up for Zoom. Brush your hair. Don’t Zoom from bed,” said Row. “We teach our students study skills, we go over classroom etiquette and what's expected for attendance and how to show up in class and all of that. They need to know how to do this on Zoom as well now. Our world shut down, and we know that can happen again. So I thought, as a public speaking professor, I have the opportunity to be able to not only tell them how to do this, but enforce it with their speeches.”
While most faculty made concessions and tried to be understanding, casualness like eating on camera or not wearing pants is often not tolerated in the workplace. Row instituted her “Fundamentals of Speech: Zoom Speeches” assignment and the critique as part of her classes and added a one-day Zoom Play Day that she uses in each class she teaches.
While an assigned speech is required only in her Fundamentals of Speech classes, Row runs a Zoom Play Day in all of her courses at the beginning of each semester. The exercise encourages acceptable Zoom presence as well as gives students a chance to practice practical engagement such as sharing a screen, participating in a chat, experiencing breakout rooms, etc.
The Zoom Play Day is a completion grade, and Row helps students through any glitches. The only time any student has not received 100% on the Play Day is because they did not show up; otherwise, every student has completed every component of the requirements.
“I discovered the Zoom Play Day also reduces on-camera communication apprehension. My students are more likely to take advantage of my online office hours, and they are not as timid to request a Zoom session to go over an assignment or ask questions,” Row said. “In addition, Zoom Play Days have greatly enhanced online attendance, attention, camera-readiness, and assignment sharing. A few obstacles have popped up, but most are easy to overcome. I still have to remind a few students to turn on their microphones or to keep their cameras focused on their faces or to stop talking to their friends or watching TV, but those instances are rare.”
When limited Internet was an issue for some students, Row offered suggestions such as finding a restaurant or a friend’s house or a classroom; ultimately, however, the problem falls on the student to resolve, as is the case in life outside the walls of Redlands as well.
“I plan to continue assigning Zoom Play Days and Zoom speeches even when the world is back to primarily face-to-face and on-site communication because, as 2020 and 2021 have proven on multiple occasions, we never know when our world will change,” she said.
The Innovation in Teaching Award was established in 2018 to recognize effective and original teaching practices implemented by Redlands faculty. Professor of Chemistry and Sciences Zachary Gutmann pitched the idea to Redlands President Jack Bryant, who suggested he carry it out.
“I wanted to reward creative, out-of-the-ordinary teaching styles that have proven effective among students,” Gutmann said. He modeled the award after a similar award offered through the Oklahoma Academy of Community Colleges.
The award includes a $1,500 stipend and plaque for the winners. Submissions are assessed according to utility, creativity, effectiveness, challenges and transferability of the practice. Entries needed evidence that the particular teaching method helped to solve an issue common throughout college courses.
The top two scoring submissions are selected to receive the award each year.