Ehsan Hoque: Keeping students engaged online

Ehsan Hoque, assistant professor of computer science and the Asaro Biggar Family Fellow in Data Science, is an expert in Human Computer Interaction. Even he is learning new things about how to set up Zoom for classroom instruction as the University transitions to online learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ehsan Hoque“I knew Zoom had really nice features to enrich a group conversation, but I assumed they were part of the default setting,” Hoque says.  “They’re not. You have to enable them.”

Breakout is one of the features he strongly recommends. “I always like to give students in my classes a task, where people have a couple of minutes to work with each other, and then check back in.” Breakout allows that to happen with a virtual classroom, creating individual “rooms” for groups of students. “You can check in on each room, find out what they’re talking about, maybe nudge the conversation, and after a few minutes bring them all back together.”

This will be part of his strategy for addressing one of this biggest worries about teaching remotely – how to make sure everyone is actually paying attention.

“I consider myself a good lecturer,” Hoque says. But even in a traditional classroom setting, he says, “I have to compete really hard with students’ inclination to open up their phone or laptop.

And teaching in Zoom I’ll be at even more of a disadvantage. That’s why I’m thinking of how, every couple of minutes, getting students to do something, engaging them.  I want to make sure they are paying attention. That’s my number one focus.”

There are 60 students, ranging from undergraduates to PhD student in the Human Computer Interaction class he is teaching this semester. Hoque says he was pleasantly surprised the other day when he surveyed feelings about learning remotely. Most disagreed with statements like “I am a skeptic about online learning” or “I will not learn by online instruction as much as I would in a physical classroom.”

“I may have a biased sample here, because they are computer science students. They grew up with Snapchat, Facebook, and making video calls. So, I think they might be more prepared in terms of helping us navigate through this stressful time.”

Hoque encourages faculty members working from home to be sure they have a stable internet connection and bandwidth. “And maybe spend 20 dollars to get a good quality microphone, because if your audio quality is not great, even though the content might be rich, nobody is going to pay attention,” he says.

The videotaping of lectures the rest of this semester will provide Hoque with some exciting opportunities to apply software to recognize facial expressions that his lab has developed for analyzing when students are engaged, and when they aren’t. This could provide valuable feedback so faculty can continue to improve the use of online platforms like Zoom as a complement to traditional classroom lectures, even after the coronavirus has faded.

Can remote learning be as good as a traditional learning experience on campus?

“That’s a loaded question,” Hoque laughs. “You know, I was thinking about this scenario that back in the days people used to eat raw meat, and then maybe someday some of the food fell on the fire, and after that they started eating the burned food and it tasted so good they never went back to eating raw meat.”

“So, I’m thinking online learning might be one of those things where it works out so well that we realize this is something we never fully leveraged.”