Zoom? Zoom! Online college teaching puts my communication skills to the stress test

Updated November 5, 2023

The room 235 classroom clock never changed during the Covid-19 lockdown. Photo by Kevin Swayze

The clock on the wall showed 14 minutes to 11.

That’s what I remember from March 12, 2020.

That was the last day I stood in classroom 235 at Conestoga College in Kitchener. I said goodbye to my business communication students, complained about the broken clock and walked out the door. 

My first winter teaching contract was over. I was looking ahead to returning to that room in May.

The world had other plans.

On Friday the 13th, 2020, Ontario Premier Doug Ford started talking about how Ontario would respond to something called COVID-19. Four days later, the province was locked down.  Everyone was ordered to stay home.  My wife and oldest daughter started sewing surgical masks from cotton fabric originally planned for wall hangings and quilts. 

The first time I went for groceries wearing a floral green mask, I snatched the last two packages of toilet paper from the shelves of my closest Food Basics store.

Coveted Covid toilet paper in March 2020. By Kevin Swayze

And stood in line for an hour to get to the checkout. It felt like I was in a store in Florida under a Hurricane watch.

Lockdown learning

I did return to teaching in May 2020. Call it lockdown learning: My classroom reopened on Zoom.  Thirty international students and me managed the stuttering “high-speed internet.”  I was in my basement. They were jammed in little apartments and basements across Waterloo Region.

Nobody turned their cameras on.  Little black squares for students.  I was teaching into the abyss.

I was learning how to communicate all over again. I was learning and modelling business communication in the new online world.

I thought I was an effective communicator before.  Now, I was a drill sergeant in a supportive communications boot camp. No yelling. No pushups. No 20-mile marches.

I poured on patience and empathy.   Laughed a lot.  Commiserated.  Modelled effective communication tactics, like active listening and open questions.  I offered what felt like decades-long pauses after questions, offering addled students space to reply through audio distortion.

How much impact?

I now wonder how much difference my efforts actually made, considering how unfriendly zoom is for inter-personal communication.

My personal dislike of video communications came through, as my anxiety increased. I can only wonder what three hours of a talking head filling the screen for students did to their stress and anxiety.

Now, after I’m back to teaching in-person classes all the time, I see more research into the profound differences between in-person and online communication.

Researchers tracked brain activity when two people interacted, in person and online. The results didn’t surprise me: it’s harder to connect with someone online.

“In this study we find that the social systems of the human brain are more active during real live in-person encounters than on Zoom,” said Hirsch, the Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry, professor of comparative medicine and neuroscience, and senior author of the study.

“Zoom appears to be an impoverished social communication system relative to in-person conditions.”

When I’m teaching, it’s all about inter-personal communication. Without trusting me, socially, I doubt students – or anyone – will consider what I share.

My communication style

After I completed a Toastmasters International communication style survey, it was no surprise how I responded to online teaching stress. Here are my results, all scored out of 10.

  • 9 – Supportive – patient, cooperative, and sympathetic. Active listening. Calm and steady – I don’t like tension! (There’s also anegative aspect to the score: I am sometimes indecisive).
  • 2 – Analytical – cautious, precise, and disciplined. Diplomatic. (negative: I can be a perfectionist).
  • 1 – Initiating – sociable and enthusiastic.  Easy communication. Respond to praise (Negative aspects: I tend to talk more than listen).
  • 0 – Direct – results-oriented, focused and competitive (Negative aspects: impatient and demanding)

Confirmed: I am a supportive communicator.  

I don’t push technology to solve problems. I rarely order people around.

Instead of struggling with my class PowerPoint, I tend to talk more about prefer talking Poutine and burritos to keep student attention. Sharing favourite recipes!

I ask questions.  I want to hear about a student’s life experience before logging into the classroom.

Minimal lectures.  I encourage students to share their knowledge.

Their success is my success. 

Online connections

Over six Covid semesters, students respond out of the ether, from overcrowded apartments, or using iPhones while riding a bus home from work on a winter night.

Even during the most stressful online days of Covid, students gave me more than 90 percent positive results in school-wide class experience surveys.  

And I thank them all for teaching me how to improve.

My new normal  – teaching in real and virtual – is all about doubling down on collaboration and conversation.

Classroom 235 looked pretty well the same before Covid lockdown, as after. By Kevin Swayze

I was zooming again in September 2022, but one of my three classes was in person. In the same classroom, I walked out of two and half years ago.  Weird. Very Weird.

The clock on the classroom wall still showed 14 minutes to 11 as the students walk in and I greet them wearing a paper surgical mask.

A lot happened in the 914 days since I last walked back into room 235 – and a lot stayed the same.

This post is based on a speech presented – online – at Cambridge Toastmasters Sept. 15, 2022.

Are you ready to use Ai to build your public speaking and leadership skills?

Robot Technology” by Alex Knight/ CC0 1.0

So, how will you use generative artificial intelligence to help you improve your next speech or presentation?

That’s the question I asked in an Ai-themed education session at my Cambridge Toastmasters Club meeting on Aug. 17, 2023.

Some people replied they were already experimenting with it, while others were curious.  I remain open to exploring it, with a wary outlook. Yes, I do worry about how generative Ai will impact student – and faculty – learning in my business communication classes at Conestoga College.

Whatever you do, I encourage you not to trust whatever answer an Ai tool like ChatGPT delivers to you.  It efficiently delivers what appear to be facts, but it doesn’t really know anything. Things don’t always go well, even when you ask it to share its sources and references.

How ChatGPT Ai works

Sometimes, Ai chatbots don’t know what to say and “hallucinate” to complete the task. They make stuff up, kind of like the way humans do.

Keep all your fingers

So stay in control of the tool – don’t let that tool control you. As someone who’s used to using power tools in woodworking, control is a good thing.  I still have all my fingers. 

In my experiments with Ai, it often felt like magic. Other times, it was brilliantly stupid.

I’ve sometimes received wrong information in a chat response. Or the words looked pretty, like an empty crystal vase: all packaging and nothing inside.

I’ve found the more precisely I frame a question, the more accurate the response.  Prompt engineering is a thing.  Learn more about how to ask Ai effective questions in this free online course offered by The University of Michigan.

Trying on Ai for size

Yoodli is an Ai company that records your speech or presentation on video and offers speech coaching. Toastmasters International partnered with the startup company, offering a custom interface as part of your membership. Here’s the Toastmasters Yoodli FAQ list.

I used Yoodli to help me prepare for the speech. I found it helpful, offering me a tally of my filler words and reviewing my word choices. I’ll keep experimenting with it.

In 4 Ways to Use ChatGPT in Toastmasters, Mark-Shane Scale of Talbot Trail Toastmasters suggests using Ai to help with Toastmasters club meetings:

  • Generating or Brainstorming a Theme for the Meeting
  • Speech Writing Brainstorming Support
  • Impromptu Speaking Prompts/Questions
  • Word of the day suggestions 

I encourage you to experiment with Ai and explore your comfort level with the technology I believe is here to stay.

Proceed with caution

Sign up for ChatGPT at openai.com. The basic tier is offered at no charge, but be aware that your data will be used to help the Ai service improve.  So, effectively you’re paying use of the tool with the data you share, and you’re nudged to sign up for the paid version ChatGPT Plus for $US20 a month (as of July 2023).  

Or you can sign up for the Microsoft version of ChatGPT that’s cooked into the company’s Bing online search engine.  You ask questions in a chat, and it offers summarized answers with links to source websites.   Microsoft is also pitching its Edge internet browser as a “copilot for the web.” 

Google’s Bard Ai tool is not yet available in Canada.

To minimize exposing your personal data to any online service or email list, consider creating a “burner” email account. It’s essentially a throwaway email account distanced from your personal or business accounts. Even then, I won’t share any personal or copywritten information with Ai. I don’t know where or how it will be used.

And if you use Ai generated content in a speech, ethically, I suggest you make your research source clear – just as if you quoted a book or a movie. It’s the ethical and human thing to do.

Authentic Italian meals, a favourite pet, and a dash of history – Neighbours of West Galt magazine January 2023 edition

Daniela Sfara’s stories of visiting Italy and regional food made me hungry as I edited the January 2023 edition of Neighbours of West Galt magazine.

She came to town and fell in love with the architecture in Cambridge, Ontario – especially on the west side of the Grand River. She’s now a private chef creating and serving gourmet meals in homes across West Galt. Photographer Stan Switalski provided the cover and inside images to accompany the story.

The monthly magazine is published by Best Version Media and delivered by Canada Post to mailboxes in my neighbourhood.

For 17 years, I worked as a journalist, photographer, and editor at the former Cambridge Reporter newspaper. Now, 20 years since it closed, I continue to put my local news and writing skills to work as a content coordinator for Neighbours of West Galt. It’s an analog anomaly in the 21st century: a print-only, local magazine.

I’m always looking for news, event, and photo submissions about West Galt, at this email.

Stories and photos submitted to the magazine in the January edition included:

Another book published: Tara Mondou released another of her fiction novels, entitled Tara’s story.

Sculpture Garden enhanced: The Cambridge Sculpture Garden announced it enhanced the outdoor arts area along Grand Avenue, beside the Grand River. Included in the $30,000 project were new signs, lighting, banners, and a bench.

Galt Railway history: Local historian Trevor Parkins-Scibarras shared one of his Transit Time Warp photo comparisons. It shows a train crossing the Grand River in 1900 and again in the same spot in 2022, using the landmark Canadian Pacific Railway bridge over the Grand River.

Pet of the Month: Bubbles, a Labradoodle dog who greets customers entering Molloy’s Soap at 7 Grand Avenue South.

Season of stage performances: Drayton Entertainment, with it’s main theatre in Cambridge, announced an ambitious 2023 season of dramas, musicals, and comedies planned for its six stages across southern Ontario.

2022 Community Awards: The Cambridge Chamber of Commerce announced its 2022 winners of the Cambridge and North Dumfries Community Awards.

New, high-tech hospital equipment: Cambridge Memorial hospital shared news about opening a new endoscopic ultrasound surgical clinic.

Connecting with international students using farmer’s markets and food

Every semester I teach at Conestoga College, I use food to get the attention of my business communication students. There are always foodies in my classes of international students.

The Cambridge Farmer’s Market is one of the oldest in Canada. Photo by Kevin Swayze

That means I’m always planning how to share recipes, restaurant recommendations and places to visit and experience food in the Waterloo Region area. In each class, I create an online discussion forum in the eConestoga online learning platform, provided by D2L.

I think of it as an applied business communication exercise. The students are my customers for the information and local expertise I share. I see plenty of evidence about how food builds trust with students facing a new culture, climate, and educational environment.

At the start of a class in January 2020 – before my teaching moved online – I ordered in an urn of coffee to share with my students before we started talking about communication theory.

I’m now teaching students living in Brantford, along with Kitchener, Cambridge, and Waterloo. Brantford is the latest addition to by geographic teaching roster. Now I’m learning what food information I can share in that city, too

I always start by sharing videos about the local farmer’s market.

The St. Jacob’s Farmer’s Market, on the northwest edge of the City of Waterloo, also gets students’ attention.  It’s Canada’s largest farmer’s market and a busy place with lots of local fresh farm food and prepared food on open days.  There are also lots of vendors with a range of clothing and household goods.

Here’s info about the smaller Cambridge Farmer’s Market, which runs every Saturday morning near my home. It’s the closest farmer’s market to the Doon and Cambridge campuses.

And the downtown Kitchener Market. That’s just around the corner from the new Downtown Kitchener campus of Conestoga.

What other food information do you suggest I share with the students new to the Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Brantford areas?

Hand-written thank you cards remain powerful connection tools in my digital world

A hand-written thank you note in this card grabbed my attention.

When was the last time you received a handwritten note in your mailbox?

And, no, I’m not talking about all those “personal” advertising flyers in faux handwriting asking to buy my house. Some of them look like they are written by primary school students. Others have tiny, perfectly printed characters that reminded me of notes left behind by a serial killer in movies.

I’m talking about a genuine, handwritten thank you card. Or a personal note.

Yes, I’m talking about analog communication in a digital world.

It happened to me last month. I donated money to a local charity, and they replied with a handwritten note thanking me. Wow!

It made me feel fantastic on a day when more than 100 new emails stuffed my inbox — most of which I probably won’t read. 

I read every word of this thank you, written in flowing script writing that took me back to a time before the internet, when letters, notes and cards were commonplace in my life. 

Handwritten cards

Back to the farmhouse where I grew up, to when my mother with write and mail send letters to her mother in London – Ontario.  When she sat at the kitchen table night after night in the first week of December, sending out Christmas cards with thought notes included inside.

Back to a time of writing essays in pencil on foolscap paper in primary school.  

Back to when I started writing my class notes in a fountain pen in high school, because I enjoyed the experience.

Back to the late 1980s, when I worked at the Cambridge Reporter newspaper. I vividly remember when readers — occasionally — dropped a thank you note in the mail about a story they liked. Or offered me a story idea on paper.  I don’t think I saved any of them when the paper closed in 2003, as I was waded deeper in to my bottomless email inbox. 

Thank you cards are powerful

The fact I was so taken — indeed, pleasantly startled — by a thank you card in the mail last month would be no surprise to researchers in this 2018 study: “Undervaluing Gratitude: Expressers Misunderstand the Consequences of Showing Appreciation,” published in the journal Psychological Science.

The study found that people expressing gratitude underestimated how pleased people would be with a handwritten note. And they overestimated the potential awkwardness that someone might feel receiving a heartfelt thank-you note.

The exchange of a handwritten thank you note also brought emotional benefits to both the sender and recipient.  

And it’s more than just saying thank you to a neighbours for watering your garden while you are away on holiday.

I found business coaches promoting the power of hand written thankyou cards on the business website Forbes.com.  They’re highlighted as glue to build personal networks for career success.

It’s a good idea to write a thank you note to an interviewer, even if you didn’t get the job.

Handwritten cards are also used to support mental patients during recovery after hospitalization, Psychology Today notes.  Caring Cards are written by groups of patients who meet to create one-of-a-kind cards. They’re given to peers struggling with mental health concerns, offering extra, personal support.

The simple act helps both card creators and recipients, reduce the risk of suicide, because researchers believe it builds a sense of purpose and social connections.  At the very least, the cards are enjoyable to create, send and receive.

Thank like you speak

But what to say? Hallmark, the greeting card company, of course, offers advice at hallmark.com.  Basically, saying thank you is easy if make it easy.  Be yourself.

“Writing tip: If writing a thank-you takes you back to high school and turns your writing awkwardly stiff or formal, then relax and try to write like you speak. If you’re a person who would say, “Thanks so much for watching our dog!” then say, “Thanks so much for watching our dog!” Just exactly like that.”

And here’s another tip sheet: The Seven Steps to a Great Thank-You Note, from Michigan State University Extension Service.

I last sent a thank-you card sometime last summer. I think. Or maybe it was the summer before?

That’s a foolish practice to continue, if I want to nurture my personal and business networks.  And to gain the positive personal. emotional benefits of purposeful gratitude.

Now, it’s time for me to start practicing my penmanship. Buy a box of quality cards at my favourite writing tools store, Phidon Pens in Cambridge. And remember to pick up stamps at the post office.

Join me in a challenge I’ve set for myself: write and mail one thank you note every month for the rest of 2022.

Or, perhaps, make that a note once a week.

This post is adapted from a speech presented March 13, 2022 at Cambridge Toastmasters.