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

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.  Modeled good communication tactics, like active listening and open questions.  I offered decade-long pauses after questions, offering addled students space to reply through audio distortion.

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.

Free holiday light shows at the Old Post Office digital library in downtown Cambridge

The Christmas light display is about to start in the 2020 show at the Old Post Office IdeaExchange Digital Library in Downtown Cambridge, Ontario. Photo by Kevin Swayze

Throughout the year, animated light shows are projected on the historic Old Post Office IdeaExchange in Downtown Cambridge. Christmas-themed shows continue on the half hour between 8-10 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sundays until Jan. 5, 2023.

You can drive and park in the parking lot across the street and watch the show from the warmth of your car. Tune your car radio to FM 92.5 to listen to music choreographed with the show.

Here’s a video of a show from last year.

For my COMM8450 Conestoga College students living in Kitchener, the light show is one block away from the Grand River Transit Terminal on Ainslie Street in Cambridge

Taking the bus from Kitchener, use the Route 57Route 206 or Route 302 (with onboard Wi-Fi) directly to Ainslie Street terminal. The Old Post Office library is one block west, at 12 Water St. S. Look for the clock tower.  

If you’re taking the bus or planning to watch the light show on foot, I suggest dressing warmly and bring along hot drinks.

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?

Cambridge Fall Fair an easy bus ride for Conestoga College students Sept. 8-11, 2022

The Cambridge Fall Fair runs in Dickson Park, Cambridge, on the second weekend of September.

I teach international students business communication at Conestoga College and regularly hear questions about what events and festivals happen in the Cambridge-Kitchener-Waterloo area.

Fall fairs are events I always mention in September. They usually include demolition derbies, animal displays, a midway, and live entertainment. And lots of food.

The easiest fall fair for Conestoga students to reach without a car is the Cambridge Fall Fair, Thurs., Sept. 8 through Sun., Sept. 11, at Dickson Park in Cambridge.

Dickson Park is on the Grand River Transit bus Route 57, which runs between the Doon and Cambridge Campuses of Conestoga College, and the Ainslie Street GRT bus terminal at 35 Ainslie St. in Downtown Cambridge.

Thursdays and Sundays offer free admission, but there is always a charge to take midway rides. Admission is $10 on both Friday and Saturday when most events are scheduled.

Route 57 buses run Monday through Saturday, morning, afternoon and evening.

On Sunday, you’ll have to take a bus to the Ainslie Street terminal and then walk about 10 minutes to Dickson Park through the old Galt Downtown area. (If you’re heading to the fair in Cambridge on Sunday from Kitchener or Waterloo, your probably best to take the Route 302 or Route 206 express buses to the Ainslie Terminal).

There are other fairs in the Waterloo Region area, but they’re not easy to reach by public transit. Here’s a link to all the fall fair dates in Ontario.

The Wellesley Township Fair runs on Sept. 13, at the Wellesley Community Centre, 1000 Maple Leaf Street, Wellesley, ON. That’s a 20-minute car drive northwest of Waterloo.

The New Hamburg Fall Fair runs Sept. 15-18, 2022 at 251 Jacob St. in New Hamburg Fairgrounds, west of Kitchener. To reach that location by public transit from Kitchener or Waterloo, you can take the GRT Route 77, but only on weekdays mornings or afternoons. That doesn’t work well to visit the fair in the evening.