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Friday, January 22, 2021

The ups and downs of Zoom’s comment section

Filled with intense arguments or helpful questions, class comments can trend in either direction

Zoom’s chat feature presents both faculty and students with positive and negative elements. Image courtesy of Zoom.

By Jason Upton

Attending virtual classes comes with many potential distractions: texting a friend, surfing the web, gazing out the window. Add a lively debate among students in the comment section, and paying attention to that important lecture can become challenging.

When Zoom established itself as the primary video conferencing medium for students when the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year — increasing from 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020 — its comment feature at the bottom of each meeting became a subject of controversy. With videos surfacing on social media of comment sections gone rogue at the hands of students, some people began to question whether the feature offers a constructive role in classes.

Since its burst in popularity, Zoom has added security measures to combat meeting disruptions. One new feature, added in early November, gave hosts the ability to suspend certain participants from all activities, including audio and chat privileges. 

Zoom also gave participants the option to report other users, something that would be useful if the host is distracted or unable to read the chat.

Tom Moore, an instructor in Western’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, has had two very different experiences with the chat section between spring quarter and this current fall quarter. 

Moore taught a myth and folklore in religion class last spring where the class’ chat got out of hand. Though Moore did not immediately notice the controversy while he was lecturing, it was brought to his attention soon after class.

“There was a student who had some very unique ideas about religion and about Christianity in particular,” Moore said. “This person was not at all hesitant about expressing those views, and I don’t think this person was trying to be provocative. I think he was just saying what he believed, and, nonetheless, what he believed offended some people.”

After finding out, Moore quickly contacted the student and asked him to stop, which ended the chat mishap. 

“My regret is that I just didn’t pay attention to the chat earlier, and that’s a potential problem with chat,” Moore said.

This quarter, Moore has adapted and made changes to his use of the chat in a way that benefits both him and the class. After each Zoom session, he has a student send him a copy of the day’s chat transcript and reads through it. Moore addresses the questions he finds in it at the beginning of the next class.

After adding this new method of using the chat to his teaching, Moore’s views on the feature have shifted to a more positive light.

“With the chat, you get this interesting relationship among students, and in an interesting way it feels like more of a learning community that way,” Moore said. “Students learn from me, I learn from students, and then with a chat, students are learning from each other, which I think can be really valuable.”

Instructors have been coming up with creative ways to use Zoom’s chat, said Justina Brown, the instructional designer for media and faculty development at Western. Brown has seen professors use the chat to clarify ideas or areas of confusion, have students “shout-out” responses, share online resources and many other methods to get the most out of the chat.

Still, the new world of virtual classes comes with challenges for instructors.

“Not only do teachers need to reinvent every lesson for the platform they are using, they need to pay attention to security and attendance in ways they haven’t in the past and figure out ways to keep students engaged and ‘see’ that engagement,” Brown said in an email.

Faculty are not the only ones whose opinions of the chat differ between experiences. Second-year students Alec Robinson and Kyle McCormick have seen two different sides of what the chat can contribute to a class.

McCormick, whose accounting class of 32 students meets twice a week over Zoom, said he has only seen positive aspects of the chat so far this year. He noted how the class’ professor answered questions straight from the chat that McCormick was often wondering himself.

“It makes your voice heard,” McCormick said. “I think that the people who think it’s distracting would be pretty far and few between, but I guess just don’t look at them if you find it distracting.”

Robinson, who enrolled in a 140-person anthropology class, has a much different perspective on the topic. The chat seems to go unnoticed by both the professor and the class’ teaching assistant, Robinson said, which led to completely random conversations during the lectures.

“It’s stupid; people just talk in it all the time and don’t accomplish anything,” Robinson said. “They get off on tangents and it’s just a notification bubble that keeps coming up, and I’m just trying to pay attention to the lecture.”

The difference in class sizes between the two is a likely factor in their differing experiences, but it gave each student a strong opinion on the chat feature.

“I think it distracts. It’s like passing notes,” Robinson said.

Despite the wide range of opinions on the chat feature,  Moore still welcomes the range of outcomes that the chat brings.

“It kind of opens up new areas of dialogue that were unexpected, and I’m so far pleased,” Moore said.

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