Seemingly ages ago, when we finished coffee, snacks, and warm conversations in room 305, we walked down the hallway toward classrooms. As we sat down with old friends or new members, presenters stood before us and shared their knowledge. Some presenters walked back and forth, our eyes focused on them and a projection screen. Others walked up and down the aisles, and members bathed in a personal warmth. When he or she said they’d “welcome questions any time, please don’t wait until the end,” hands and minds flexed in preparation for those moments.
Zoom is Now
That was yesterday. Zoom is now. Our learning environment flipped upside down, and Bard LLI rose to the challenge on two fronts. One was technical, in what started as learning a new language. An extraordinary team, headed by Carmela Gersbeck and Susan Christoffersen, addressed nearly every imaginable challenge. Then smaller teams put together guidelines for presenters, session managers, and members. Dozens of meetings (via Zoom, of course) kept objectives and timetables on track.
Since presenters are the heart of Bard LLI volunteers—indeed, we would not exist without them —here’s how they adapted to Bard LLI online, or “Zoom 101.”
“As our fall semester unfolded,” says Bard LLI President Nanci Kryzak, “class members became key partners in the online learning effort while we settled into front-row seats. Each week brought a deeper sense of being one on one with the course material, as if the class had been prepared specially for each of us, yet in a new medium. The presenters grew more personal and focused as they came to recognize us, and we pulled for every session manager and presenter through the inevitable Zoom glitches.”
Mark Lytle, veteran LLI presenter and distinguished Bard Professor, says, “I’m sure almost everyone would agree it is easier, more rewarding, and more effective to present in person. My preparation is about the same for either. My session managers, Donn Critchell and Jackie Olivet, could not have been more supportive with their time and efforts. The bottom line for me is that Zoom, for all its limits, is a worthy alternative to not presenting at all.”
One surprise of Zoom is being able to put a name to a face. In a classroom, the audience is looking at the back of the person in front of them. In Zoom, the presenter has the advantage of seeing faces at equal perspectives, eliminating the “back row” syndrome.
“From the first day,” says Barbara Danish, presenter of “Who Us? What White People Can Do to Face Racial Injustice, “we asked that we converse as though we were all in the room together, watching for a space to talk, backing off if two people started at the same time. In some ways, this has worked even better than in person, because it has slowed down our conversation and left room to think. Our conversations are comfortable and intense at the same time!”
“The challenge of presenting on Zoom,” says Victoria Sullivan, “is to achieve a lively discussion that involves the whole class. One way to do that is to keep the class quite small, as we did. What is exciting about giving ‘Talking about Literature’ is to get people to talk, and at a level that stretches perceptions. So far, so good. We’re reading several short stories, and this group really knows how to knuckle down in the Zoom environment.”
Large classes can easily experience the same learning experience as small classes. It doesn’t matter if you have 50 or 100 viewers, says Jon Bowermaster, environmental filmmaker, writer, and activist. “It’s been fun to look forward to Fridays these past weeks because I’ve so enjoyed the combination of reviewing my short films focused on a theme of ‘Hope on the Hudson,’ some of which I haven’t watched for a couple years — and then getting immediate feedback from an audience of 80+ participants.”
Indeed, thanks to chat, raised hands, and other Zoom audience connection choices, questions and comments are easily disseminated to the presenter as well as the audience. Chuck Mishaan, known for rich audiovisual content on campus (and now via Zoom), adds, “I sometimes felt like I had my own TV show, streaming into so many lovely homes.” Chuck’s “Opera as Politics” series attracts sizable classes, whether on campus or online.
But he adds what most of us are thinking, “I miss the campus, and the many social interactions. I can’t wait to see old friends and meet wonderful new members in person.”
The audience watching and learning through Zoom often forgets the time and energy presenters invest in adapting classes for Zoom. Often more slides must be created, combined with videos and links to websites. Some classes are more difficult to produce than others. My own “Strong Women, Strong Stories, Strong Storytellers” consists of over 800 slides and video clips.
Michael Simpler, one of the most knowledgeable masters of Zoom techniques, shares his experiences. “Everyone agrees that in-person classrooms are the best, but when not possible online learning is the next best system and a genuine gift of technology that was not possible on this scale even 8 or 10 years ago. This technology will be with us in the future and long after the pandemic, in education, health, and business. Therefore, it is a technology that needs to be learned by all.”