We can Bloom with Zoom

by Prof. Dr. Catherine McBride (The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

As I write this blog, the world is in chaos. I am an American who works in Hong Kong, and my husband is Swiss. For us, as for you, 2020 has presented unprecedented challenges, both locally and globally. Indeed, this is the only time in my lifetime when most of my colleagues and friends range from feeling mildly sad to very depressed; few are particularly happy. Yet things are improving in some ways in some areas, and we all have hopes and dreams about what the world will be like post-Corona. In the following, I describe my short and intense journey with Zoom. This is in no way an endorsement of the product. Moreover, there are several excellent platforms that have similar functions and features. I am writing about Zoom for two reasons. First, this is the platform we use in Hong Kong, so it is my lived experience. Second, Zoom rhymes with other words I wished to use in my title and headers. Here goes:

My Life: Cancellations of All Things Academic in 2020

 On January 29, 2020, my workplace, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, announced that second semester classes would be postponed by a couple of weeks and that teaching would henceforth be conducted on Zoom. I had never heard of Zoom before that day. Now, a little over four months later, I routinely use this platform several times per week.  Around the same time, as President of the Association of Reading and Writing in Asia (ARWA), I had to announce to colleagues worldwide the postponement of our planned meeting in Beijing in February, 2020. At the time, given the virus, I had no idea when we would actually be able to hold the meeting, but given various logistical concerns (e.g., a nice grant we had to support the meeting would only be available in 2020, but we needed enough time on the other side of the meeting to complete the paperwork by the end of this year) we “made up” September 2020 as a “guestimate” and a vague hope.

Zoom as another Technological Disruptor

In parallel, I made the teaching online journey that most of us academics worldwide had to make at some point in 2020. I was not gracious about it. I began, figuratively speaking, kicking and screaming.  I am historically dated.  To wit, I began my university career writing assignments using an electric type writer and white out. In the middle of my undergraduate university studies, some friends introduced me to a new concept called email.  Our first emailing attempts involved sitting side by side at separate public computers in study carrels in the library and writing messages to the adjacent person; we could not understand this technology much beyond our daily interactions. As I earned my Bachelor’s degree, I had started to use a computer to write papers, but this was not intuitive. The concept of Zoom was similarly jarring and disruptive initially. 

Four months later, I see the future of teaching and meeting post-COVID-19 as integrally involving Zoom or other platforms (we could discuss the intricacies of each—I have also gotten to know WebEx and a few others—here is a song devoted to early struggles of teachers in teaching online, at first amusing and now perhaps most of all historically important “I Will Survive”).

Not All Gloom and Doom: Zoom and Committee Meetings

What will the post-COVID future hold vis-à-vis online communication? One fact became clear last week when our university academic personnel committee briefly considered the possibility of meeting face-to-face again given the relatively low current risks of COVID-19 in Hong Kong. Our committee took approximately 30 seconds to agree that Zoom meetings are convenient and we would prefer to continue meeting this way. At these meetings, I love the fact that I can cut the video briefly to grab a coffee or turn on or off the lights; I am expected to mute myself except when talking and this also cuts down on disruptions. One clear benefit of Zoom for all of us is the ability to meet with more convenience and from more different places and time zones.

We Resume: Teaching with Zoom

Zoom also forced me to teach differently. I would not characterize this teaching as uniformly better or worse but merely novel and mixed. The most difficult aspect for me is seeing few or no faces, just squares with names of students peering back at me. This is good for saving of bandwidth but very difficult for gauging reactions. A colleague complained that she discovered her student was playing mahjong during her lecture. This was a bit disheartening.

In contrast, a real strength of Zoom teaching is the fact that one can write messages to the whole group or directed to a single individual during the meeting. This is very good for asking questions. Chinese students, who are sometimes particularly reluctant to speak up in class, seem more empowered to ask questions via this texting mechanism.

I also realized how much my teaching is constrained by previous conventions and expectations. In my weekly scheduled three hour class, I will fill the three hours with activities in a face to face meeting.  However, this way of teaching is less sustainable online, leading to different innovations. I now estimate amounts of time across activities and assign about half of this class on average to offline activities, completed at the student’s convenience. The course activities ended up being about 40% different from previous years simply because the medium was so different.

With Whom? Zoom as a New Medium for Meaningful Interaction

Looking toward the future, I appreciate very much some unexpected joys of online meetings. On a personal level, I have scheduled a number of family gatherings with Zoom. Some of my family members are probably more tuned in to one another than they were before because of these online gatherings. We have never all lived in the same city, so this is quite important for us. I also attended a FRIAS talk online and was delighted to see some of my old friends. Seeing people, in addition to simply hearing them speak or just emailing, is, at least for me, particularly exciting. It’s nice to have the full experience of the person’s essence, albeit for a limited amount of time. I was even emboldened recently to schedule a reunion of my graduate school classmates, some of whom had not seen one another in 25 years. We had all been Ph.D.s in developmental psychology; interestingly, several of us were astounded, from a lifespan developmental perspective, by how similar we all seemed to what we remember from all those years ago (vis-à-vis temperament, time management, degree of chaotic interactions during the meeting, etc.).  A single Zoom meeting revealed a lot!

Meetings Boom: Conferences with Zoom

The existence of Zoom now also means I think about conferences differently. Before the pandemic, I had sometimes hoped to see colleagues at yearly academics meetings.  I live in Hong Kong, and most conferences I have attended in the past two decades were typically held in North America or Europe. However, given various time/life constraints, I often would have to wait years to run into a given person at such meetings.  I now realize that smaller meetings are possible and now a bit in vogue. I see potential for joint lab meetings to be held online in a way that I never imagined previously. The international meeting of ARWA I mentioned above will indeed be held in September of 2020 on Zoom. This is sad in some ways given some researchers’ desires to travel. However, at this point, a Zoom meeting seems like much more a blessing than a curse, at least short-term. Our costs for holding the meeting are low, so our organization can build up its resources somewhat with this event. We also find more people worldwide wanting to attend the Zoom meeting than in the past. Our participants are from a broader range of locations because people are hungry to present and to get feedback on their work. Finally they can do so with an online platform. We can also program in virtual coffee breaks where we randomly assign small groups to break out rooms to simulate random socializing in a larger conference. (This is a social experiment I plan to conduct; results will likely be mixed.)

Conclusion: Room for Zoom

Is this a perfect solution to face-to-face meetings? Absolutely not. I have not met anyone who is 100% comfortable with social distancing in academia such as it is. Many of us miss travel, casual socializing, and gossiping with friends. Zoom meetings feel more deliberate and planned. Almost by design, they have to be more serious, focused, and well defined. At the same time, post-COVID academic interactions will include more possibilities for learning and for interacting through this and similar media. The pandemic has probably hastened our awareness of the possibilities of online teaching and learning by several years. With better bandwidth and more experience, we all have the possibility of opening up the world to global collaboration and learning in ways the majority of us had little or no idea of until 2020.

About the Author

Professor Catherine McBride is Professor of Psychology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She was a Senior Fellow at FRIAS in 2017-2018, during which time she wrote Coping with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and ADHD: A Global Perspective (Routledge, 2019).

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