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.

Put social media storytelling to work to help your job search

Social media job search tips

I believe social media best thing that ever happened to your job search – and perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to your job search.

Anymore, finding a new job isn’t about how many cover letters and many resumes you email to as many job postings you can find while searching at online employment sites.

Today, it’s probably never been more important to build relationships with people online – and in-person – to find the job you’re looking for.

And it’s about ensuring your social media activity doesn’t scare away potential employers. Or get you fired from a job because of what you posted online. Cybervetting by employers is now the norm.

As a communications coach and former online journalist, I cringe when I see and hear some of the things people post online.  Things that wouldn’t make me want to hire that person – and perhaps prompt me to fire that person.

Please join me on May 31, 2021, for a free webinar where we can talk about social media and your job search in a free webinar hosted by IdeaExchange.org.  That’s what we used to call Public Library in Cambridge, Ontario.

We’ll talk about how to tell your story and present your personal brand online. How to build it.  How to protect it. 

We’ll talk about ways of using social media to tell the story about you as the ideal employee to your ideal employer.

And we’ll talk about how to use social media tools like TikTok, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to find jobs that were never advertised — and how to connect with people who can help you find a job.

Please join me for the free webinar starting at 10:30 a.m. so we can share our ideas and talk about telling your story to help you find the job you want.

Please use the form below to contact Kevin Swayze, so he can put his business storytelling experience to work helping you find, shape and share your message with impact.

Contact Kevin by email or contact him by mobile phone: 226-924-4237.