ZOOM Lessons: Sometimes We Love Our Virtual Classrooms & Other Times We Want to Play Hooky

Early in the pandemic, when we were eager to fill hours, replace an in-person activity with an online version and enjoy quasi-face-to-face contact and conversation, we signed up to test the waters of live virtual classes. Some of our kids and grandkids were learning this way, so we figured why not try, too?

During the past 14 months, we have engaged in exercise sessions from rooms throughout our homes, carefully craning our necks to look up at a screen to see how the instructor did this or that pose, and sometimes switching off the camera when we were tired or couldn’t do another downward dog or side plank. Screen versus real life offered the advantage of magically disappearing by flipping the “turn off” video switch.

Sally (St. Louis), who started online exercise classes during the pandemic, says, “At first I was skeptical whether I would get a good, solid workout. Now, many months later, I love my workouts. They are very challenging, convenient, time saving and a lot of fun! I plan to continue my workouts from home even after the pandemic is under control.”

Margaret took a few technology classes, two on how to maximize the uses of Zoom and one on password protection that was a snooze. She found most technology classes to be more prescriptive than spontaneous. Translation: boring and dull.

She found the key to understanding technology’s ins and outs was difficult to learn in a group of people with so many different levels of ability. If the classes had been in person, the participants could have helped each other with some of the obstacles. Even one-on-one virtually might have been better. She tried a one-on-one lesson with a digital marketing expert whom she was interviewing for work. She asked the woman if she could offer a few pointers on how to use Twitter. They screened shared on Zoom where the expert showed her some tricks of the Twitter trade. She’s also sat in on some lectures and book talks offered by the NYC Historical Society and the NYC public library.

For art classes Barbara had missed as a break from her writing, she tried to find substitutes that would teach new techniques, composition lessons and color combinations or critiques about her and other students’ work. After taking from four different teachers, she has found the experience generally disappointing with a few exceptions, especially a travel-and-sketch drawing and watercolor class.

She’ll keep trying but with lowered expectations for different reasons. One teacher presented challenging assignments but only in written emails rather than through live Zoom conversations. Critiques also were by email, so she missed being able to engage in a give-and-take with other students, an important part for her of real classes. Another teacher shared a helpful slide show of several artists’ paintings each class and detailed critiques of each student’s work. But again, there was no give and take among students and not enough demonstration of new techniques.  

During Covid-19, Andi (St. Louis) took an online drawing "class" with a friend that was taught by a dear friend from high school who teaches art in Boston. “We did this for maybe four or five months; I found it really challenging because I hadn't worked on drawing in years and really needed to get my skill levels back up. But, despite the difficulties I had personally, it was really beneficial, and I loved being together with these girls on Zoom every Monday. I am signing up for some of the MasterClasses and will start when I get a few other things done first. I know they are really top notch,” Andi says. 

Cooking classes represented another mixed bag for Barbara (and for Margaret, too) with some a discussion of technique, some demonstrations with attendees cooking along with the teacher and a few adding a history lesson of different dishes and why and how they began. Those Barbara liked best included a series of cooking classes started by a friend’s son who has turned it into a nonprofit project that he plans to continue and expand after the pandemic ends. He was great at engaging the teacher and viewers in a lively dialogue.

Many of us also took travelogue- and history classes that took us to far-off places we hope to visit some day or transported us back in time capsules to eras long ago. One of the best Barbara took with a couple friend in Saratoga Springs, NY, made the two couples feel they were sitting together and learning in unison about “tulipomania,” which represented the first major financial bubble in the 17th century after investors purchased tulips, pushing up prices so high that they reached unprecedented levels that then collapsed. The instructor was terrific, and the two couples hope to visit Dutch gardens in person someday. Because of enthusiasm for this teacher, Barbara signed up for another on Japanese architect Tao Ando, which later proved disappointing for its content.

Online classes were in the cards for Susie (St. Louis) who took virtual bridge classes with Larry Cohen who is considered one of the top bridge players in the world. He has a library where participants could go back and review the lesson. Plus, there was a chat button to ask him questions. “I recently watched a game between Bob Hamman (considered one of the best) and Cohen. They analyzed the hands. What was so cool is these guys have no attitude and are very low key. Negative, they are not tech savvy and yes there will be technical difficulties, but I don’t care,” she says.

To do a refresher Algebra class, a subject Susie says she never learned well in high school, she bought a beginning Algebra book and for each lesson there is an online teacher to explain it. “Lessons are easy to understand and I’m learning. Negative, I am not disciplined to do it every day.” She also took an online soil compost class offered by the St. Louis County Library. “In fairness to the teacher, she was very knowledgeable. I did learn. However, it was snoozeville,” she adds.

After considering why we and some of our friends enjoyed certain classes and others we couldn’t wait to end, we debated if there were common denominators that the best, most engaging instructors relied on. Here’s what we decided makes a class appealing and may help guide you in your choices during the weeks and months ahead or until “real” classes resume. Before you sign up, heed the advice of one friend of Barbara’s friend Lauren (Chicago), who has taken many, “Check out the profile lecturer by looking for critiques of his/her previous talks,” she recommends.  

  1. Makes it fun. Because we’re not taking any of our classes for school credit or grades (though one friend of Barbara’s does get graded on photography assignments), we want first and foremost to enjoy the session. We like instructors who have a sense of humor, though also a firm grasp of their material. They keep us engaged with the combination. A class on modern portraits, which included the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, wasn’t what Barbara expected.
  2. Points out errors or gives important tips. Although a Pilates or yoga instructor may not be able to see our Lotus pose, they might know that many new to the practice focus too much on stretching the outer hips and forget to open the other muscle groups that make up the hip joint. Share that, we say. Same goes for cooking. Know that beating a batter too much may zap all the air and fluffiness out of it so point that out in advance if it’s a common mistake.
  3. Uses props to engage. We loved show and tell when we were in grade school. We’re still kids at heart and enjoy seeing the “toys” that help—whether a huge Cuisinart one cooking teacher recently used in a class on Jewish Persian recipes, good blocks and mats for Pilates and certain paint brushes and watercolor paper, from cold to hot press and the weights that are best. Margaret imaginatively taught one of her reading classes to a second grader with the use of props: cooking essentials and other tools such as mixing bowls, utensils and flash cards of the ingredients.
  4. Offers just enough information. We’ve taken classes where we felt overloaded with information and couldn’t properly absorb what was presented. After all, we’re old and have limited space in our brains most day for new information. We prefer one or two recipes, a few new exercises and maybe a handful of painting tips rather than so many that our brains get tired and confused. We haven’t yet had a class where too little information was presented.
  5. Doesn’t make us nod off. Again, we love learning but have a limited ability to concentrate—usually 40-45 minutes is our max. More than one hour is too long and our minds start to wander to check out others’ hairdos, outfits, lipstick colors, artwork and bookshelves in the backgrounds. An exception for Barbara was a three-hour art class where the teacher broke up the lesson into three parts. She presented a lesson, let the students paint and then came back for questions and follow-up.
  6. Shares stories to draw us in. We love connecting with those who offer their take on this or that—maybe, they’re presenting their biscuit recipe as part of a class on Southern cooking because it was handed down by their great-grandmother. We’d rather hear that tale and see the stained recipe card than watch another b-o—r-i-n-g power point that lacks a warm human touch.
  7. Speaks slowly, clearly and loud enough. Sometimes, the volume doesn’t work well on their computers or ours. Many of us are beginning to have hearing problems and are even investigating aids. In fact, we’d love a class on that! In the meantime, we like for the instructors to speak up so we can take in all their words rather than strain and keep saying to ourselves, “Huh? What did they say?” Margaret had this problem when she was trying to learn on Zoom some conversational Spanish from the mother of someone she tutors. It was impossible to grasp what she was hearing as the mother spoke too quickly and softly.
  8. Saves us time from traveling to a class. Peggy (New York area) has found some of her Zoom classes a game changer during Covid-19. She had immediate access to a New York City camera club weekly meeting. “I have reaped the benefit of participating in shoot competitions, instructional classes and much more without having to drive 25 miles each way,” she says. The same has been true for her fitness classes. “I don’t have to go anywhere (always half the battle), and I’m able to keep them short and sweet." But the caveat, she says, is that any class involving hands-on skills works better for her in person. She’s also taken cooking classes, lectures through MOMA and participating in political forums, all thanks to Zoom.
  9. Brings together a far-flung group. Lynn (Philadelphia) takes a daily yoga class led by her son, 3,000 miles away, who has brought together his high-school friends across the country. “It’s been a wonderful way for these old friends to be together while the world has turned upside down, and they get exercise at the same time,” she says. “We do yoga and then there’s a brief check-in time.” In another class she takes, a coach of a dragon-boat team for breast cancer survivors leads a twice-weekly exercise class for survivors who are on other dragon boat teams in this country and Canada. “It makes the world seem very small,” she says.
  10. Offers regular sessions to get out of bed for, including sometimes out of our PJs.Lynn is also part of a book group that has zoomed every week since lockdown. During one weekly meeting each month, they discuss a book, and the other three weeks members catch up with one another. “We are together much more than we were pre-COVID-19.,” she says.
  11. Sets a limit on numbers who attend.Marianne (Nashville) takes several classes, has found them all enjoyable and mostly because of the small numbers, which offers a sense of intimacy and ability to talk and be heard, she says. In one yoga class with an instructor in a city where she used to live, only 10 generally participate so it has become a very personal experience. “The instructor is phenomenal,” she says, “and gives us meditation lessons, is soft spoken and also asks if anybody wants to focus on one part of the body or another.” She also likes that everybody wants to visit before and after class. In another class, a book club, usually only five or six attend, so they have time to discuss the book and then digress to other topics.
  12. Doesn’t set a limit on numbers. In contrast, Lynn, a lawyer, loves teaching a class on law via Zoom. “An advantage,” she says,” is that “we can bring in more top-notch speakers who might not have the time to come speak in person. And we don’t have to limit the class to 100 seats which was the classroom capacity where she taught in person. Instead, nearly 450 people signed up. They participate by asking questions in the chat room, and I consider the questions as I moderate,” she says.
  13. Saves time for questions. One of the advantages of the Zoom link is that there’s a chat box that allows participants to send questions. We want instructors to save time to answer them, from spelling names of artists or gardens they mention to names of books and their authors they tout so we can buy or take them out from a library later.
  14. Shares a link, if possible. Because many lectures are video recorded, they can be listened to again…and again. That has made great sense for many of us, including Barbara and Margaret, who find themselves easily distracted—in Barbara’s case by texts on her cell phone, which she knows she should put aside during the Zoom. Others, like Margaret, are less able to sit still for long periods of time.

Share your favorite Zooms and why; we’re not venturing totally out into the world, yet!

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