Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Zoom as a complementary teaching tool in DiploFoundation’s online courses

29 September 2020

In recent years, DiploFoundation has received a growing number of calls from course participants to include video interaction in our online courses. This post reflects briefly on the use of Zoom meetings in Diplo’s online learning activities, and aims to inspire a wider discussion within Diplo’s community on the use of video chat.

This year, Diplo implemented interaction via Zoom in both the 21st Century Diplomacy and the Multilateral Diplomacy courses, either by substituting or complementing our traditional text-based online chat sessions. In our courses, the traditional chat sessions consist of weekly one-hour text-based discussions between the lecturers and the whole class, where we usually discuss a set of three topics. These sessions have several pedagogical benefits as they allow participants to present their thoughts in a structured and written manner, to participate and reflect on the topics at their own pace, and allow several participants to share their views simultaneously. Furthermore, making the chat transcript available after the session allows participants to return to the discussion topics at any time, and deepen their reflections by adding comments to the transcript. However, despite these benefits, online text-based chats still cultivate a certain ‘distance’ between lecturers and participants. This shortcoming, combined with the growing interest of participants in video interaction, led to the use of Zoom meetings within our courses.

In the 21st Century Diplomacy course, Zoom tutorial sessions were introduced as an addition to our regular online chat sessions which take place on different days of the week. We held two tutorial Zoom sessions during the course, respectively in weeks two and seven of the course. In Multilateral Diplomacy, we substituted weekly text-based chats with Zoom sessions in weeks five and eight of the course. Similar lessons can be drawn from both experiences.

First of all, it is clear that Zoom interaction should be understood as a complementary tool and not as a replacement for Diplo’s traditional weekly text-based online chats. Zoom sessions have very different characteristics from traditional chat sessions. Text-based sessions, which sometimes have a frenetic pace, still permit participants to discuss topics in a deeper manner, particularly because participants can all type at the same time, thus participating more frequently throughout the session. Zoom sessions, on the other hand, only allow one participant to speak at a time. This means that speakers have to keep their interventions shorter and cannot discuss a topic in as much depth. Additionally, Zoom sessions permit more spontaneous responses, both from participants and lecturers, which is usually not possible in text-based chats. They also help create a feeling of connection with the lecturer that is not so easy to nurture via text-based interaction. However, the fact that Zoom discussions are more superficial clearly underlines that, while they are important for creating a sense of connection between the participants and lecturers, they cannot completely replace online text-based chat sessions. They should be understood as an increasingly essential, but still a complementary teaching tool.

More practical lessons can also be drawn from these experiences, in particular on the topic of how to conduct Zoom sessions. One of the most evident is that, during video chats, some participants tend to be shyer and less willing to participate in the discussion compared to interacting via text-based chat.

Our course team has applied several techniques to help overcome this hurdle. One of the more interesting ones is asking participants, prior to each Zoom session, to propose a topic they would like to be discussed in the session. Although this does not always work (and when it doesn’t, the lecturer must propose the discussion topics), it is evident that this is a good way of making sure the Zoom session will discuss topics participants find interesting. Asking participants to suggest the topics also helps make Zoom sessions feel less formal than traditional text-based chats, letting participants interact with the lecturer in a more relaxed manner. This not only helps increase the bond between the participants and the lecturers, but reinforces participants’ feeling that they are an active part in the development of the course, thus contributing to their overall enjoyment of the experience. Of course, even when discussing topics proposed by participants, some class members continue to be shy and fail to participate. In these cases, the lecturer should directly encourage them to participate, with the aim of helping them overcome their hesitation. This can be seen as an important element in the students’ personal growth, similar to what happens in in situ classes.

Another lesson we drew from the Zoom sessions is the importance of technical support throughout the session, both from our course co-ordinators and the Diplo staff. The lecturers tend to focus their attention on the participants with whom they are interacting, meaning they often cannot keep track of other participants who have raised their hand to intervene, or of the activity going on in the Zoom chat window. Course co-ordinators play an important role in these sessions as they keep an eye on these activities and call the lecturers’ attention to the topics raised in Zoom’s chat window, as well as to participants who want to contribute to the discussion.

Furthermore, Zoom participants often experience technical problems, be it a microphone that does not work, the inability to hear the discussion, or connection issues. A technical support person (who communicates with the course co-ordinator and addresses these issues while the session is ongoing, either via e-mail with participants, or a private chat in the Zoom meeting) can resolve these problems without disrupting the ongoing discussion between the lecturer and the participants.

Having in mind the clear difference between Zoom and traditional Diplo text-based online chat sessions is fundamental in making the most of these new interaction tools. For the reasons discussed, Zoom is perhaps best used as a complementary teaching tool in Diplo courses rather than a substitute for text-based chat sessions. These sessions have their own significant strengths which have become obvious to participants who have also taken part in the Zoom sessions. However, Zoom also offers important innovations, namely the possibility of more informal and direct contact with lecturers and a greater opportunity for participants to provide input on the choice of topics being discussed. As such, Zoom constitutes a valuable complementary tool that can reinforce the overall experience with Diplo courses, and contributes to learning and the overall satisfaction with the Diplo experience.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog