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Teachers take lessons from boring to blockbuster with wild Zoom backgrounds

“Let’s go on a trip. Come with me. Grab your book bag, get your passport, ear muffs, a hat, swimming goggles, sunglasses, some sunblock. You might also want to put some snacks in there, gloves, and a heavy coat. Alright, guys, get ready and meet me there,” science educator Lainie Clowers-Gwynne told her middle school students while donning a lab coat in front of a mural of the inside of the Millennium Falcon.

No, Ms. Clowers wasn’t inviting her class on a real field trip in the middle of a pandemic. Instead, she was taking advantage of Zoom’s virtual backgrounds to record more entertaining and engaging classes — coupled with a few props and drama.

As the coronavirus pushes schools and universities toward remote learning, teachers have struggled to keep their students focused from their homes.

Over the last few weeks, however, some teachers have figured out a better way to educate remotely: Zoom backgrounds.

Making lessons fun with Zoom backgrounds

For Clowers’ session on “living things and habitats,” she switched between multiple backdrops of different environments such as the ocean and forests. One moment, students watched her shiver and rub her hands in warm clothes, and in the next, she complained about the heat wearing a cap in a desert.

Similarly, Dr. Daniel Russell, an acoustics professor at the Pennsylvania State University, appeared in front of his 49 graduate students over Zoom in a Batman costume with a picture of a Batcave as the background.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

While many students are still adapting to the pedagogy of telecommunication tools, others have simply found it challenging to connect with everyone as they would in a traditional classroom.

In an Angus Reid Institute study, more than half of kids aged 10 to 17 surveyed said they were “unmotivated” and didn’t like the learning arrangements brought on by distance learning.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“Many teachers are finding that engaging all students and keeping them engaged during remote learning is hard. I would guess that more students and teachers are struggling with remote learning because they are new to it and because they did not choose it. The first action teachers can take to keep students’ attention is clear, consistent, and caring communication,” John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group, the parent organization of The Digital Learning Collaborative, told Digital Trends.

Zoom, the video-conferencing platform that has been dominating headlines, allows users to virtually set pretty much any image as their backgrounds during calls without a green screen. The feature has grown into a cultural phenomenon. With practically no physical contact for weeks, people have turned to Zoom backgrounds to express themselves and their interests.

Clowers-Gwynne, a science teacher for the Orange County Public School System in central Florida, employs Zoom to pre-record her video lessons and later plays for our students over BigBlueButton, the school’s web-conferencing tool of choice.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

In addition to projecting charts and diagrams to compensate for the absence of a whiteboard, she alters her Zoom backgrounds to match the subject she’s teaching. For a lesson on habitats, for instance, she would travel between pictures of a desert, snowscapes, and more.

“We need to keep in mind that for some students, the teacher’s live, online distance learning hours may be the only thing right now that they have to look forward to. Seeing their teacher’s face and the faces of their classmates is the comfort that they need,” Clowers-Gwynne told Digital Trends.

Dr. Russell, on the other hand, pairs backgrounds from TV shows and movies with costumes to bring “some humor and levity” into his lectures.

“Some educators might find this approach to be frivolous and less professional — but it was a huge, necessary, morale booster for me and for my students. The feedback from the graduate students taking my class suggests that they also really enjoyed it — several telling me that it was something they looked forward to for every class lecture and that it greatly helped make the online experience much more enjoyable as a student taking the course from home,” Dr. Russell told Digital Trends.

Dr. Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia, switches the virtual background to the topic his students have been talking about of late like a new Netflix series. The feature, he said, gave him a “chance to have some fun and helped depressurize things, too, when everyone was under a lot of stress.”

Schools in the United States aren’t expected to resume anytime soon with mounting COVID-19 cases. On Tuesday, the California State University system said it would cancel nearly all of its in-person classes across its 23 classes for the fall semester.

Since the majority of students will soon enter their summer breaks, teachers won’t have to endure the stress of online learning for long. But it remains unclear in what capacity institutes will return to normal if they will at all in the fall.

Until then, like Ms. Cowell or Dr. Russell, teachers will have to go out of their way to educate and turn to features such as Zoom backgrounds to enliven their online classes.

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Shubham Agarwal
Shubham Agarwal is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad, India. His work has previously appeared in Firstpost…
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