By Elena Cotza
Let me start giving you a bit of background about myself and my work at the Centre.
I have been teaching Italian at the SPLC for over a year, and I tutor four classes at the moment. The majority of my students have been with me from the beginning, and I have always been in touch with most of them with my weekly emails and text messages.
This means that, when the first concerns about the Covid-19 started to arise, we were already very well connected, and, at an early stage, I had a chance to discuss with them the different options to keep our lessons going during the quarantine; we were proactive, and that allowed us to complete the term in the scheduled dates.
The average age of my students is probably 60, but some of them are well in their 70ies, so they fall into the categories at higher risk of contracting the infection.
When the concerns about the pandemic became more consistent, around week 4-5 during Term 1, a few of my students decided to self-isolate for different reasons, and that is when I introduced the video calls in my lessons, to allow those who were at home to participate, while the rest of the class and myself were still at the Centre.
I decided to use Skype, as most of my students had previously used it and had an account.
As the situation of the pandemic progressed, more of my students decided to attend my lessons from home, until the last two weeks of the term my sessions became completely online.
The transition to online lessons was not easy nor always smooth, but our enthusiasm and determination helped succeeding, in the end.
Many students hadn’t used Skype for years, couldn’t remember their account name or their password, nor were able to recover them without assistance. Others had to install or update the app on their device, and couldn’t do it by themselves. Thankfully, at that time, the quarantine restrictions were not very tight yet, so some of those who had issues could seek assistance from a relative, while others relied on Didi or myself.
The first issue for me was to “find” my students on the app and connect with them, which was sometimes time consuming and frustrating. I spent a very intense couple of weeks exchanging emails, texts and phone calls with some of them; I also sometimes virtually met their partners, who were helping them (and that was nice), sent a few connection requests to random people that had the same name as my student’s (and who, of course, never replied!), and when I finally managed to have a video call with them, it was a big relief on both sides… and on their partner’s side, as well!
Sometimes, instead of searching for my students’ accounts on Skype, I asked my students to find me, especially when their name turned up to be very common and there were hundreds of people with the same name. To make things easier, I sent them a screenshot with my Skype details and my icon, which was easy to recognize.
Activating our connections was just one of the problems we had using that app: apart from the poor quality of the calls, only partially due to the overloaded lines, what mostly affected my lessons on Skype was a very loud background noise. To reduce it, I introduced the use of earphones, that definitely improved the quality of the audio, and asked my students to use any device but their phone for their Skype calls.
A major issue with Skype, especially for online lessons, is the fact that it only shows on the screen four of the people connected in a video call, while the others appear in a small circle or are not visible at all; the worst situation is when the tutor is not visible to the students.
This makes it hard to interact with each other, especially in larger classes.
A couple of times I had to interrupt my lesson and wait for my students to leave the call and come back, which seemed to be the only way they could see me again.
If you find this exhausting, well, you’re not alone! I’ve found this interesting article: www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens
With time, I learned to use Skype in ways I had never considered nor needed before, like sharing my screen and introducing audio and video files in my online classes.
Apart from the issues mentioned above, overall, Skype is a good app, and has most of the functions I need for my classes.
But there is always room for improvement, so later I decided to try Zoom, as it I had heard great things about its versatility and its quality in terms of audio and video.
Getting connected with my students was somehow easier than with Skype, as our accounts were brand new so there were no issues with updating the app or recovering forgotten passwords, but, as with Skype, it was not a flawless process.
I can say that I was positively surprised at my students’ attitude towards going into this process again.
As expected, the quality of our video calls with Zoom was another level: there was no background noise and the quality of the video was excellent.
During our video calls, I had all my students visible on the screen, I could use a virtual board to write, and shared video and audio files with them.
I didn’t have issues to include in my call all the students with whom I had previously established a connection (the ones that had downloaded the app, activated a free subscription and had created an account), while there were some glitches with those who hadn’t installed the app and created an account.
We were aware of the 40 minutes time limit that Zoom has for the free subscriptions, and were ready to have two short breaks in the lesson instead of the usual one, but luckily enough, our time allowance was extended.
Because of tha Covid 19, Zoom has lifted the time restrictions for the schools, and hopefully we’ll be able to take advantage of that offer for our Centre as well.
In our last lessons, in spite of our positive experience with Zoom, we decided to move back to Skype, after the news on its security issues reached us and a few of my students (and myself) were concerned.
These issues have been, at least partially, fixed in the last version of the app, the 5.0, released in these days, with a further update scheduled for the end of May. At this stage, the app should ensure security levels appropriate to our needs.
If you would like to know some more info in regard, I suggest reading this article, where you can also find useful hints as how to make your Zoom calls more secure: www.tomsguide.com/news/zoom-security-privacy-woes.
There is a section on the Zoom website on this topic too, of course: blog.zoom.us/wordpress/2020/03/27/best-practices-for-securing-your-virtual-classroom
In conclusion, after the latest developments, I am going to move back to Zoom for Term 2, updating the app and strictly following all the measures to make our video calls as secure as possible.
But, in the end, in these uncertain times, choosing which app to use is only a secondary problem, as, after all, what is most important is to make sure we are able to reach our students, engage them and offer them a pleasant experience that can distract them from other problems.