Mar 22, 2020

3 ideas for synchronous online lessons on Zoom

Now that many schools around the Coronavirus-stricken globe have been closed, teachers have had to come to grips with the idea that many have heard about or maybe even experimented with, but never really implemented in earnest - teaching online. I've lost count of how many webinars and online tutorials on various online tools and platforms I have attended in the past week. Most of them were organised by various institutions I work for with each one choosing to use a different synchronous learning platform. The fact that most of these webinars were delivered by tech people exemplifies pretty much how you should not go about implementing edtech: instead of inviting (and paying!) a teacher experienced in remote teaching to do the job, let's ask the college's Moodle guy!

On the other hand, teachers have taken to Twitter sharing activities, ideas and advice that is more pedagogy- rather than technology-driven. In a matter of a few days, the somewhat morbid hashtag #coronavirusteaching has gone viral (pun intended!).

So consider me jumping on the bandwagon. In this post, I'd like to share some activities that have worked well for me in this past week under a partial lockdown.

Zoom for synchronous lessons: 

Until this week I had only been invited to Zoom meetings as a participant; I had never hosted one. When it comes to other video and web conferencing platforms, I am fairly proficient with Adobe Connect, which I have used to conduct webinars in the past. I don't know if the Adobe Connect licence is too expensive or it's just falling out fashion, but most of my employers opt for cheaper alternatives. Having tried a few of these, I'm pleased to inform you that Zoom is the most user-friendly tool out there for 'live' online lessons. It has even certain advantages over Adobe Connect. For example, when screen-sharing you can still see the chat in a pop-up window. And you don't have to share all of your screen - you can choose what tab you want to be visible to the participants. Said that, Adobe's breakout room feature is better by far. On Zoom you can only be in one breakout room at a time, whereas on Adobe breakout rooms can be placed side by side allowing the teacher to monitor discussions in all of them simultaneously. On to some ideas now...

Activity 1: Student presentations

Of course, students can prepare PowerPoints just like they would do in a regular class, but online lessons (via Zoom) offer a glimpse into your students' lives because they are connecting with you from their homes. Why not take advantage of that? Here are some topics which are particularly suitable for online presentations, which I have collected thanks to crowd-sourcing on Twitter (do click on the links for longer descriptions):

Using camera

  • give a tour of your apartment/house 
  • show your bookcase and tell us about your favourite book(s) - courtesy of Helen Legge
  • walk us through a recipe - courtesy of Marek Kiczkowiak
  • introduce your pet and describe them (physically & routines); in case of not having pets, describe any toy which you have at home which is an animal - courtesy of Cares Diaz   

Via screen-share

  • give a virtual tour of a website you use 
  • tell us about a memorable trip using Google photos / Flickr or Google Map
  • go through an article you've recently read summarising the main points and highlighting the bits you agree/disagree with (using Annotate) - adapted from Marek Kiczkowiak's idea
These ideas are suitable for different levels (e.g. tour of the house for A2) and ages (e.g. pet for young learners) as well as for both one-on-one and group scenarios. In group sessions, students can be given a choice of topics.

Activity 2: Guess the word/chunk

This is an activity for reviewing lexis I came up with on the spot. It is suitable for group lessons. Using the chat box send one student a private message with one word/lexical chunk from a list of lexical items you would like to review. The student will see the message in the chat box with the word 'privately' next to it. The student - with the mike unmuted - defines the word for other students to guess. Other students - with the mikes on mute - write their guesses in the chatbox.

After a couple of students have had a go, up the ante a bit by making them come up with definitions - or rather examples - that contain hmmm for the target item. For instance,

The airline went bankrupt, and thousands of passengers couldn't return home - they were hmmm.
[left stranded]

Humming the target word (hmmm) encourages learners to rely less on the paradigmatic dimension, i.e. defining a word using antonyms or synonyms; and move towards the syntagmatic dimension, i.e. providing a definition that contains co-text.

Activity 3: Whole class gap-fill

For this activity you will need the Annotate function. Make sure it is enabled in the settings.

Prepare a slide (PPT or Google Slides) with a few gapped sentences. In the slide below I use sentences for some AWL words (Sublist 5), which I already have on Quizlet, so the students should - in principle - already know them. Usually 12 sentences fill the slide well. Display this slide - this could be part of a longer presentation - via screen share.

Gap-fill sentences with words from AWL Sublist 5.
See the set here:

Zoom's Annotate function allows you to annotate anywhere, not only on the whiteboard - in fact, I suspect the whiteboard may be of little use to language teachers. The Annotate button can be found at the top of the screen (the toolbar can be moved to the bottom of the screen, if necessary). When you click on Annotate, a new toolbar will open underneath with various options.

Students can enter missing words by drawing or typing text (preferable). If you click on three dots (More), you will find some additional options which might be handy. One is disable participants annotation - when you want students to stop. Another useful option is Show Names of Annotators - although names flash only for a few seconds when students start typing.

For better classroom management you can assign numbers to students so that they don't all type answers to the same question at the same time. As such, this activity is probably not suitable for very large classes. Alternatively, you can ask students to write the answers (with a corresponding number) in the chatbox.


What activities have you tried? What worked well for you? Please share your ideas for using Zoom or other platforms in the comments below.

And to finish off, some words of encouragement from Tyson Seburn, who tweeted this earlier this week (you can see the whole thread with 2 more tips HERE):

Wise words I should heed myself!


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