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.

Become a more effective writer by reading The Elements of Style, by William Strunk

My copy of The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.

I just call it Strunk and White, but the book’s proper name is The Elements of Style.

There’s no better writing guide I’ve seen for preparing stories, speeches, news releases or pretty well any English-language business or personal communication. After 40 years of writing for money as a freelancer, newspaper journalist, editor, teacher and communications consultant, it remains a go-to reference. It offers me essential advice as I continue learning and practicing my craft.

The 95-page book is a century old and still offers rock-solid advice to be heard and understood in a noisy digital world.  Write with active verbs.  Use simple words where possible.  Put short, direct sentences to work.

I’ll warn you: writing shorter takes longer.  Creating effective written communication is hard work. There’s no app for that — yet.

There is, however, an Elements of Style rap music video.

Here’s a link to the original The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, as a no-charge ebook offered by Project Gutenberg: www.gutenberg.org/files/37134/37134-h/37134-h.htm

An updated, paperback version remains in print and a copy belongs on your reference shelf. For any writer, I suggest it’s the best $9.10 (CAN) you can spend on Amazon today:

My steps to health usually top 15,000 every day, Fitbit says

I wear out running shoes. Often.

I have a secret to share with you.

Well, it’s more of an obsession, truth be told.

You see, for years – for decades, really – I’ve been sneaking away from home every day. From work at the office, too.

Sometimes, when I’m on family outings, I quietly step away, attracting as little attention as I can.  Then 15 or 20 minutes later, I return as if nothing happened.

Sometimes, I get sideways looks as sweat drips from my forehead.  I expect some people wonder what’s going on.

I know better, but I still catch myself pausing and hoping nobody notices my repeated absences. 

Some days, I joke about it.  Some days, I might call it my 10K compulsion.

I’m talking 10,000 steps.  Every day. That’s what many “medical experts” online say everyone should walk daily to boost their health. There’s now research suggesting around 5,000 steps a day is an effective minimum daily walking goal.

Usually, I log triple that number by bedtime: 15-K a day. 

Sometimes I top 20,000 steps by midnight.  What a rush!

I own my daily pace.  Honestly, I can’t say my Fitbit made me do it.

Walking the land

I’ve been a serial walker since I was a teen. I’ve never seemed to be able to take a step back.

I remember walking the concession roads around the farm where I grew up, sun or rain.  

Swayze farm near Elfrida, in Hamilton Ontario
The Swayze Farm at Elfrida, in rural Hamilton, Ontario, around 1995

Or I walked the laneway to the back forty on sultry southern Ontario summer evenings.  

I must have known every rut and ditch as I walked through the fields.

In summer, I’d have Blue Jays baseball games playing my knock-off Walkman. 

Sadly, I wasn’t one of the cool kids sporting my iPod of the ’80s.  

I always bought a portable cassette player with an AM radio in it. 

In winter, my cheap headphones — the ones with orange foam ear pads— were tucked under my toque.

I listened to the Maple Leafs lose games while watching for patches of ice underfoot.

Me and my running shoes – we have always been a great pair.

This battered old Fitbit is a constant walking companion.

Today, I am taking steps to validate my compulsion. Normalize it, perhaps.

There are two dogs at home that need walks.  Lots of walks.  Long walks. 

They don’t bark when they are tired. 

Nor do I, so it appears.

I proudly walk by my own path today, knowing that medical science vindicates my obsession. 

Here’s what Prevention Magazine says about regular walking.

Improve your mood

Not only does a walk help me cool off after an argument, walking also helps me manage the dark days of winter.  

If I don’t walk, I notice the world drags me down.  And that’s my cue to grab the dogs’ leads and poop bags—and saddle up for a long walk.

Or return an overdue library book to the night drop slot, a 30-minute round trip from home on foot.  

After the walk, I’m not even bummed by the overdue fine.

Or the fact the Leafs lost.  Again.

Creative juices start flowing

I like to walk first thing in the morning, before breakfast.  Ten minutes around the block wakes me up. It gets me thinking constructively about the day ahead. 

Later, if I hit writer’s block at work, I leave from my desk for a stroll around the neighbourhood.  

As I wander, I let my mind wander. Like writer and artist Austin Kleon, who is an avid walker.

Walking works wonders for my creativity.

Lower risk of chronic disease

Regular walkers have lower blood sugar levels. 

They have lower blood pressure levels. 

And a 30 percent lower risk of cardio-vascular disease.

I’m counting on that.

The Cleveland Clinic praises walking to help you lose weight, too.

You’ll be more ‘regular

Ahem.

Yes, I do think walking helps keep my bowels working like clockwork.  

Thank you for asking.

Ahem.

And here’s a walking bonus I never thought of before…

Your goals become reachable

It’s all about routine, Prevention says.  Once you have one healthy routine, you’re more likely to continue it and adopt other healthy behaviours.  

And that will help you reach other personal goals.

But I wonder.  

When I don’t have an overdue library book or the dogs hide from me behind the furniture, 

Oh.  Excuse me for just a second.  Let me tap my Fitbit.

Hmmm—only 8,903 steps.  

Please excuse me. I’ll be right back.

Anyone like to join me for a little walk around the block in the fresh air?

But first, can someone direct me to the nearest washroom?

Please?

Thank you.

This is adapted from a project speech presented on Oct. 12, 2018, at Cambridge Toastmasters.

Speech writing: Audience first, then tell your story

Man speaking in front of a seated audience
Man speaking in front of a seated audience in a lecture hall.

If you want to be a better public speaker, start by listening.

Effective speech writing is all about knowing who you are talking to, and giving them what they want – or need – to hear.

It’s a hard lesson for me to learn – especially when there’s a police officer in plain clothes staring you down.

One day, somewhere back in mid-2002, I was asked to speak at a lunchtime Rotary club meeting about journalism and the news business.  Easy enough, I thought.  At that point, I just received my 20-year pin serving the trenches at the Cambridge Reporter newspaper. I was the newly appointed editor and feeling pretty good about myself.

Great stories are good, but

With all those years a reporter, photographer and editor, I knew I had great stories.

I cobbled together a speech about how I approached the news business, how I made a living asking questions. How I found stories.  How I shaped those stories for my audience.  And, of course, What was the weirdest thing I ever wrote about?

(It was a guy who brought a potato into the newsroom one day, looking for a story.  The spud looked exactly like former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s face and head.  Seriously.  Photo and story for the front page, please).

Anyway, my speech went well enough. I told few more stories while neglecting to delve deeply into why one story gets published and another doesn’t. 

I had my speech all written down – and kept reading from it behind the podium.  No point-form notes to I could keep my eyes on the audience. I droned on for 10 minutes. I didn’t vary down my tempo and use inflection to emphasize important points.   

I didn’t think through who was in the audience. Who might put their hand up in the question and answer session?

Be prepared

I broke a basic rule of journalism: be prepared.

Rotarians? What could go wrong? All I had to do was call the organizer and ask who the club members are.  Or more accurately, remind me who was likely to be in the audience.  I knew most of them from writing stories about what they’ve done in town over the years.

Local business leaders who have learned how to ask good questions, because their livelihood depends on good information.  The crowd gathered in the Galt Country Club meeting room was also salted with other community leaders, people who also knew how to ask good questions. After all, nobody builds credibility for their personal brand by talking all the time.

None of that was in my mind as set myself up as the target in the question-and-answer session.  I started to recognize the faces as they asked me about stories I had covered, softball questions about why the media does what it does and why I like my job.  (Answer:  I love asking questions).

Then she stood up and greeted me politely.  I wished I remembered she was a one-time homicide investigator and was now commander of the local police detachment. Super friendly.  With a detective’s mindset.  I didn’t see it coming.

“I’ve heard there’s a Code of Ethics for Journalists – so why didn’t you talk about that in your speech.  What do you say to people who don’t think journalists have any ethics?”

Busted.

Answer obvious questions

I wasn’t ready for an obvious question.  I stammered and wobbled at the podium, before making a half-hearted explanation. It was ugly.

I wasn’t ready with a story to tell a personal story around the never-ending public discourse of ethics in journalism. Something everyone seems to have an opinion on.  Something that’s been simmering for centuries, long before people started accusing the media of creating “Fake News.”

I learned.  Always remember: audience first is the smart way to approach speech writing.

Listen to what they say — and imagine what they are likely to ask.

Adapted from a speech presented at Cambridge Toastmasters Dec. 13, 2018.


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