Whether you’re now confidently using Zoom or still stuck on mute in a breakout room, it’s likely both you and your students may be getting Zoom fatigue in the remote teaching and learning environment. One way to increase engagement in a potentially more distancing online environment is to use a virtual background – or even take it a step further by dressing up in costume. I chatted to Dr Scott Chadwick, who has been delivering classes as new personas every week and has been posting the results on Twitter.

It all started when Scott started playing around with the virtual background feature on Zoom. “I was just wearing my ‘Jurassic Park’ shirt that day and thought it would be good to try and match the background to my shirt,” explains Scott. “After that, I noticed it got the students talking a bit more at the start of class – asking questions about the dinosaur behind me, those sort of things. So, because I had only met the students once before the classes went online, I thought this might be a good way for them to loosen up and get them to start talking to me in the class.”

This started a weekly trend of sourcing increasingly elaborate costumes and settings to greet his students with. I asked if the students knew which version of Scott they’re getting before they attend the Zoom class.

“Students are completely unaware which Scott they are getting. I like to keep the surprise. I also will sometimes try to do an introduction to the class that relates to the character – for instance, when I dressed up as Dwight (Schrute, from the US version of ‘The Office’), I played the show’s theme song before the start of class.”

Having a lighter, fun element to the video classes has been positively received by the students. “They all seem to enjoy the effort that I am going to to try and make it a bit more fun for them’, says Scott. “One of the students wrote in the EFS that ‘Scott’s weekly dress-ups bring them so much joy’, which was really nice to hear and also made me want to keep it up. I think it definitely helps students open up to me a bit more – they are more open to asking questions of me when I am dressed as Tiger King or Dracula than they would be if it just me.”

Sound like too much extra work and planning? The good news is that there are some quick and easy ways you can enhance their Zoom sessions.

“A lot of the zoom backgrounds have been set up without using a green screen – I have a UTS laptop and it allows the use of a background without a green screen for a lot of them. In terms of enhancing the sessions, I think any opportunities to inject some fun or some of your own personality into the class the students really respond to. I have had some colleagues bring their pet’s into the start of class. If you are thinking of dressing up, some of the simplest costumes (Dwight for instance was a suit and some $3 aviators with the lens popped out) was really popular with the students.”

Tiger King (Scott Chadwick) confronts his nemesis Carole Baskins (Jacqueline Melvold)

So, while working from home on a daily basis and attempting to engage with students over a screen was no-one’s plan for teaching at UTS in 2020, the challenges and restrictions it imposes on us can open up the creative ways we can connect with each other, making the most of the current experience.

“A big part of why I do this is that I think a lot of people, students in particular, are struggling during this time” says Scott. “A lot of them have been out of work since it started, they are lacking motivation, they are missing out on a big part of their uni experience. Studying and taking classes at home is very different to coming into uni and taking classes.”

“During the semester, I have had students emailing me saying they did not want to turn their mics on during class because their family members were fighting and they didn’t want their classmates to hear it, or a student had to leave a class for ten minutes to help make lunch for his younger sister because he was the only one home. So, if I can make the students day a bit brighter or the class a bit more enjoyable by dressing up and bringing a bit of fun to the class then it might make this whole situation a bit easier on the students.”

Note: Zoom 5.0 has now been released, with improved security measures and more – previous versions of Zoom won’t work after May 30th, so update to Zoom 5.0 today.

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