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.