Zoom in the time of COVID-19: Setting up Zoom for classes and office hours at the U of L

The University of Lethbridge is moving to an ‘alternate delivery model’ for classes as of Wednesday March 18. Mostly, this seems to me subscribing to Zoom, a widely-used teleconferencing system, and encouraging faculty to use it. Since the University of Lethbridge has not previously subscribed to Zoom, this means that a lot of faculty members will be doing two new things starting on Wednesday: using Zoom and teaching on Zoom.

I’ve used Zoom a lot in the last couple of years for my research (in fact my lab has a subscription of its own). The following are some tips and hints for faculty that are using it for the first time to teach. They are based on my experience running workshops and meetings, rather than teaching. I’ll update them as I get tips and experience. They are not meant to replace online guides to using Zoom (such as this one from UC San Diego). Just things you might not think about or see in such guides.

An quick orientation

First thing to do after you sign in, is get an orientation to the meeting window. Once you are logged in, there is a small drop down box in the left hand top menu bar: “host a meeting.” Click on that and choose either “with video on” or “with video off” (I’d recommend “with video on” since that’s the where the power comes from).

Once you’ve done that, this UC San Diego page will help orient you to the meeting window. Pro tip: The controls at the bottom disappear when you move your mouse away from them. Moving the mouse to bottom of the meeting window brings them back up.

Some settings to watch out for

Another thing I’d recommend before you do anything else is adjusting some of the settings. There are a couple of default settings in Zoom that, while normally sensible, may be less optimal when everybody in a class, from the instructor to the students, is using the system for the first time.

You get to the settings from the page you land on after you sign in. On the left hand side, you’ll see a number of links: Profile, Meetings, Recordings, Settings. Choose Settings. The settings page is then divided into several sections:

  • Schedule meeting
  • In Meeting (Basic)
  • In Meeting (Advanced)
  • Email Notification
  • Other

Meeting Scheduling

Here are some settings I’d recommend changing from the default:

  • Host Video —> On. This is a minor thing. Zoom recommends leaving it off, but my own view is that you want to be visible when people first come to your meeting space, rather than have them wondering what’s going on. This is especially true with students who are unfamiliar with the technology, in my opinion).
  • Participants Video: You can decide whether you prefer Participants video on or off: I leave it off for meetings, because I don’t see it is my place to decide whether a attendee is ready to be seen. I could see turning it to “On” for a class, since otherwise it means that every student has to find the video on button in the meeting window, and you might want students to be visible (e.g. for discussion sessions). Currently I leave it off.
  • Join before host —> On. I turn this on, because this is the behaviour that happens in a real classroom: students come in as soon as the room is free. If you leave it off, they get a dialogue that tells them they are waiting for the host to join.
  • Require a password when scheduling new meetings —> Off. This is an important one. I strongly recommend turning the password requirement off for your classes. If you don’t, then you will have problems with students who can’t figure out how to log in, can’t see the password, and so on, and you will lose a fair bit of time dealing with these problems. The cost of turning it off is that anybody with the link or meeting ID can join your class. But since you are unlikely to have a lot of problems with that, and you will certainly have trouble with people losing the password if you turn it on, it is far better off.
  • Require a password for instant meetings —> Off. This makes even more sense off, since instant meetings are ones you arrange on the spot with people — i.e. you are already communicating with them. The chance of an interloper is even smaller, and the issues with lost passwords even greater.
  • Mute Participants upon Entry —> On. For meetings, I leave this off. But for class you may want to turn it on, since it might mean that you have the floor immediately. Probably not important.

In Meeting (Basic)

These settings control the meeting experience and what happens to things like chat. Here are the ones I consider the most important.

  • Autosaving Chat —> On. Zoom handles chat in what seems to me to be a counter-intuitive (but privacy-oriented) fashion. This posted to chat are visible only to those in the meeting at the time it is posted (i.e. people who come late, won’t see any links to agendas that you put in chat at the beginning of a meeting), and, when the meeting is closed, they vanish unless you do something about it. Changing this to “on” means that the chats are saved. You can always delete them if they aren’t important.
  • Co-host —> On (if you have a TA or want somebody else to act as a moderator); leave it off if you don’t have somebody else who you want to run the meeting.
  • Polling: I’ve never used this. Might be useful in a class if you use polls.
  • Allow host to put attendee on hold: This might be useful if you ever have discipline issues in class (i.e. disruptive students); you might also be able to use it for virtual office hours (though I use waiting rooms for that). I leave it Off.
  • Screen sharing: I leave this All participants, since the next option allows me as host to override anybody else. If you don’t want students to be able to share their screens, turn this to Host only.
  • Remote control —> Off. I don’t know why you’d want your students to be able to control your screen while you are sharing.
  • Attention tracking: This is a creepy one. It shows you whether somebody has the Zoom meeting window in focus or not (i.e. whether they are paying attention to you or doing their email/scrolling through Facebook). I leave it off.
  • Waiting room: You should leave this off for classes; but you might want to turn it on for office hours (you can turn it on and off in the settings for individual meetings. If this is on, people who join the meeting are put in a waiting room, and you invite them to see you one-by-one. You don’t want to have to do this for everybody in your class, but it does allow you to run first-come-first-served virtual office hours.
  • Show a ‘Join from your browser’ link —> On. A major concern right now is students who do not have easy access to the technology required for online streaming. Turning this on, means that students can join your class who are trying to access you from a computer at work or in the library (where they may not have sufficient rights to install the required software). The disadvantage is that students who do have the right rights and equipment may also use it because it is easier, even though it is a less complete experience.

Email notifications

These control what Zoom sends you when different things happen. I turn a lot of them off, because I don’t want more email, and I find it really difficult to care about most of these events.

  • When attendees join before host —> Off. The only reason I can see for this is because you think you might forget you have a class, and you want to be reminded. The real downside to leaving it on is that students might visit your meeting space to try it out and then you get an email saying they did.
  • When an alternate host is set or removed from a meeting —> Off. Don’t know why I need this, since I presumably did it.
  • When the cloud recording is going to be deleted —> On. This gives you a chance to download a recording if you think it is important.

Call in numbers

One of the great features of Zoom is that it allows people to call in to teleconferences, either instead of using the computer or while they are using the computer (i.e. with the telephone providing the audio).

This is particularly important for teaching, since it helps reduce the digital divide: students who do not have good broadband at home, or access to a computer, or access to a computer with a microphone, can call in instead of or alongside accessing your class with a computer screen. Given that we live in a rural area and draw on students from nearby reserves, both of which can involve less-than urban access to broadband, this would seem to be a pretty important feature to us.

Unfortunately, the University of Lethbridge’s set up doesn’t let students know the numbers they are supposed to call if they want to take advantage of this. It provides the option (i.e. you are asked if you want to join by telephone or computer audio, and you can control options like access by computer, phone, or both). But the invites don’t show the telephone numbers and I can’t see anywhere where you can set this. I really don’t understand why this is.

The fact that our system doesn’t advertise what the numbers are, however, doesn’t mean that your students can’t call in. The numbers to use for Canada are widely available on the internet and they work with our system (I’ve tried it). Since they aren’t toll free (more about that in a second), students who use them are not costing somebody else, either.

The numbers

Here are some of the numbers you can find on the internet for calling Zoom in Canada (this particular list comes from Stanford, but they are the same everywhere, as far as I can tell):

  • +1 778 907 2071
  • +1 204 515 1268
  • +1 438 809 7799
  • +1 587 328 1099
  • +1 647 374 4685
  • +1 647 558 0588

I’ve tried a couple of them with our system and they seem to work. These are not toll free from Lethbridge, but since many cell phone plans have same-as-local calling rates for Canadian long distance, there shouldn’t be too much of a hardship for many of your students.

How to use these

To use these numbers, your students need to know the nine-or-ten digital meeting ID (that’s the number part of the URL you use for the meeting). When they dial in using one of the above numbers, they will be asked for this.