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Humans and technology

Kids are sick of Zoom too—so their teachers are getting creative

Doomscrolling takes on a whole new meaning when your class is on Instagram.
December 12, 2020
Young girl attending online school

A few times a week, Vincent Buyssens’s students in Mechelen, Belgium's Thomas More University College get on Instagram while he’s lecturing about creative strategy. They swipe through stories, add posts to their profile, and get lost in rabbit holes. But they’re not being surreptitious about it; in fact, Buyssens requires those taking his college course to use the app. The more they scroll during his lecture, the better.

“I teach social media storytelling,” he says. “There’s no way I was going to teach Instagram via Zoom, because it didn’t feel right.”

Buyssens is not the only teacher now moving beyond Zoom to reach out to students during this very strange school year. 

Zoom fatigue, after all, is real. Staring at boxes of yourself and others on a screen has been shown to induce not only eye strain but the flight-or-fight response; it’s not natural to have someone staring at you just a few inches from your face. After nine months online, the novelty has worn off.

So it’s no wonder that teachers across the world are trying to spice up their virtual lesson plans by meeting their students where they spend their free time and attention: on social media platforms and games. Subreddits devoted to education and teaching are frequently peppered with questions about how to integrate games and social media into teaching. Minecraft, the popular city-building video game, has a launch page devoted to teachers who want to use the game in their classrooms.

Beyond pedagogy, teachers are seeking to rekindle their connection with their students. One kindergarten teacher told the New York Times that TikToks keep her students “engaged and looking at me.” This fall’s hottest breakout mobile game, Among Us, has been integrated into lessons as well, with one student telling the Times that it can “help students to be emotionally patient with their classmates and understand different perspectives.”

Buyssens says his students are engaged and active in class discussions, which occur in the chat while he’s on Instagram Live. If a student misses class, no big deal: he uploads notes to be saved as stories, each slide carefully done in a template to optimize space in portrait mode.

“For me, it’s very important that it’s not a gimmick,” Buyssens says. “The students will see through it if they know you’re just doing it to get them on Instagram. You have to show that the subject you are teaching works on Instagram or TikTok or Twitch.”

Using Instagram might seem logical for Buyssens: he’s a millennial teaching Gen Z students how to use social media for advertising and creative strategy. 

But many teachers remain skeptical about fully embracing platforms that haven’t conventionally been associated with work or school. A survey conducted in June by the Education Week Research Center found that 63% of English teachers and 57% of math teachers considered Zoom and Google Docs to be effective. When it came to video games, however, educators were more wary: 27% of English teachers and 46% of math teachers reported them to be effective.

Still, teachers of old-school subjects are experimenting too. Philip Williams, a librarian at a Singapore school, has used games on Roblox, a popular platform for the preteen set, to teach physics concepts.

“The students had just been making Rube Goldberg machines when we went into covid lockdown,” Williams says. “It was a natural connection to explore the Roblox physics engine by creating a chain-reaction simulation.”

The experiment was so successful that Williams figured he'd keep using Roblox to teach into the new school year, saying one big advantage is that the kids look forward to class.

When using games, “I do very little direct teaching,” he says. “Instead, I aim to create a lively community of practice. I join in when support is required to maintain constructive interactions, to ask questions to stretch their thinking and to encourage them to continue to extend their skills in new ways.”

What works for kids could work for adults, too. Are Zoom meetings really the most productive way to share ideas? Some companies are willing to bet that that the new work-from-home dynamic will require newer ways to meet. Microsoft Teams is pushing its Together Mode, which transposes digital cutouts of individuals into settings as varied as classrooms or coffee shops (with holiday avatars to boot). Some companies, like Teeoh, are attempting to gamify the traditional office meeting; other workplaces are nixing Zoom calls for video-game get-togethers like those in Red Dead Redemption 2.

For both adults and kids, the key to a productive group session is engagement, and as the safety precautions surrounding the pandemic continue into the new year, group leaders of all types will increasingly seek new routines to keep people of all ages interested as they take part from home.

And after seeing response from students, many teachers don’t foresee going back to normal. “The learning opportunities are in front of us,” says Williams. “We just need to pay attention and support [students].”

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