When my college went online in March, the overarching education philosophy was Let’s try to keep things normal. Of course none of us knew what that would look like, including me. I’m an undergraduate who works as a writing fellow—a cross between a peer tutor and a TA—in an introductory writing seminar. My “normal” had been walking around a classroom as students worked on their projects, answering questions and giving feedback, while the professor took aside small groups in another room.
When the professor and I translated this structure online, some of it worked: We could keep the small group/large group dynamic with a breakout room and a main session. But in that main session, I struggled to help students the way I could in person. I had no way to look over someone’s shoulder at her draft or gather the three students who were having problems sourcing research. More than that, I couldn’t address individual students without the discomfort of the entire class looking on. I couldn’t walk over to a student who’d been having trouble understanding the literature review genre, and ask him if he’d been able to emulate the model lit review’s style of reasoning. In a physical classroom, that’s a routine check-in; in a Zoom meeting, it’s a public shaming.
So our first few online classes were very quiet. Students couldn’t sort themselves into groups or partnerships in the main room, and I didn’t know how to talk to them beyond asking, “Any questions?” at the beginning of each session. And eventually we all realized something I was experiencing in my own classes, too: The least effective virtual classrooms are the ones that attempt to imitate physical classrooms.