Zoom In: Keeping In Touch with Video Conferencing

Senior man connecting with his family through a Zoom video conferencing app on his laptop
© yalcin.sonat, Bigstock.com.

By KEN LEVY

When Covid-19 slammed the door on live musical performances and rehearsals, Becky Browning decided she wasn’t going to let her chorus die.

Becky is the artistic director of Boise-based Common Ground Community Chorus. The largely senior, 50-odd member chorus sang its last concert in February 2020 to a standing-room-only crowd, one of its largest audiences in years.

It was also its last. The disease not only shut down at least four major performances—so far—it also put an end to further in-person rehearsals.

Becky turned to Zoom Meetings, one of the more popular online video conferencing apps for groups. As moderator, she creates an online meeting and notifies chorus members of the meet-up date and time via emailed links.

Users can simply click the link and sign on, or download the Zoom app directly and open it when notifications appear.

“Last spring, we held a handful of Zoom meetings to maintain some connection as we waited to see how things would evolve,” she said. “We agreed on a blended approach, which is divided into segments of social time, singing simpler or familiar songs, and singing choral repertoire.”

But Zoom has its limitations for those hoping to sing in unison, due to audio delays between computers, called latency. To compensate, she mutes all the singers but herself. Each can hear her and themselves, but not the other members. Between pieces, participants’ microphones are unmuted.

“In terms of singing together, it is obviously far from ideal and will never be able to replace the real thing,” Becky said.

But even while it can’t compare with in-person choral rehearsals and events, “gathering and singing via Zoom is still uplifting, at least with our particular group of folks, because it still provides some sense of togetherness,” Becky said. “I generally leave the Zoom session feeling positive and more ‘fueled’ than when it begins. Other members have expressed feeling this way, as well. Just seeing others singing along with you, even though you can’t hear them, somehow seems to help one feel less alone.”

Feeling less alone seems to be what pretty much everyone wants. Apps like Zoom provide a world of outlets, especially useful for the challenge of having to provide educational entertainment.

Gail Shuck, a professor of English at Boise State University, said one of her longtime college friends, Donna May, created the game “Quarantrivia” almost immediately after Covid-19 shut things down.

“Donna is a big fan of trivia games,” Gail said. Soon the game evolved into a series of team trivia competitions among friends all over the country and as far away as London.

The game consists of five rounds every week. About six teams play, ranging from two members up to 12 or more. Donna usually serves as quizmaster and sends out the questions. Team players communicate via email, but they are not allowed to cheat: Google and other research methods are out.

Questions range from having to name mythological creatures based on photos Donna posts, to cartoon villains, to matching people with their accomplishments, to virtually any other topic imaginable. Players get 15 minutes to answer the 10 questions per round, with answers sent via email. Games can run about 90 minutes, and the points are tallied.

“It’s a fun way to get together with our friends once a week,” she said.

But Zoom isn’t just fun and games for Gail. She uses the program extensively as a teacher specializing in second-language writers who are writing in English.

The program gives teachers the flexibility to break their remote classes into work groups, which meet separately online to discuss aspects of an assignment or topic.

“It’s like having a big conference room and sending people off to separate tables,” Gail said, “and we come back together as a whole class” to share thoughts and ideas.

About two-thirds of her students participate in Zoom classes.

“I made Zoom optional, because I can’t know if students have difficulty with their Internet, or they share their computer, or there are little kids at home,” she said.

Students who opt out of Zoom get alternative assignments using learning management software.

But those who participate, she said, are often clamoring for some kind of social time with people outside their household and seem to enjoy the time shared on the program.

While some classes at BSU are offered in person, the experience is relatively impersonal: Everyone is masked, and instructors lecture behind shields.

Gail said she welcomes the time when all can come together in person again, without masks, in a normal classroom setting.

“But if we still have to have masks on for any length of time, I’m going to prefer Zoom over being in person,” she said, “just because I can see people’s faces.” ISI