How to Teach Hybrid with Zoom and Almost No Money (Short Version!)

Allan Chochinov
12 min readJul 7, 2021

I couldn’t find a reasonable starting point online. Here are a few “homegrown solutions” to consider.

This draft is version 7.0 in an ever-evolving article. Huge thank-yous to all the subject matter experts, technologists, and educators who helped to inform this piece: Marko Manriquez of MFA Products of Design, Becky Stern of same and Instructables, Eli Forsythe and Jesse Kohn of Saint Ann’s School, Elia Chesnoff of Kagan, Sarah Murphy of Professional Children’s School, Fred Deakin of University of the Arts London, Tom Igoe of ITP, Cameron Tonkinwise of University of Technology Sydney, Craig Alun Smith of Savannah College of Art and Design, Joe Jones of Snottie Studios, David Long and Amanda Edwards of The Galloway School, and Doug Hinko of the Williamsburg Northside School. Additional thanks to Kristina Lee, Elspeth Walker, Yuko Kanai, Stephanie Gamble, Hui Zheng, and Bart Haney for their patience and ideas while co-creating in our initial prototyping session, and thanks to Terrence Masson, the OLT, IT, A/V, and SysAdmins of the School of Visual Arts!

Allan Chochinov is the Chair of the MFA in Products of Design program at SVA in New York City, and a partner at Core77.com.

A couple of months ago I researched and published a long article on “How to teach concurrent-hybrid” using homegrown technology and almost no budget. This is very tricky to do—both from a pedagogical perspective as well as a technical one—and I’d highly recommend going through it all, especially if you are a tech person or SysAdmin or someone involved with A/V at your school. The article explains the challenges, the nuances, and the necessary compromises of trying to simultaneously teach local and remote students from a technology perspective with a very limited (or no) budget. (If you have money to spend, I’d seriously look at Swivl. I haven’t tried it, but it looks like the smartest solution out there.)

BUT: If you are a teacher or a department head who’s freaking out, looking down the barrel of a new semester with the mandate to teach in-person and remote students at the same time, have no budget for new technology, and are dreading the idea of doing more pandemic-related faculty training—particularly around technology—then this shorter version should cover the essentials and get you started. Let’s break this down into 6 clear steps:

The charming terminology for local and remote students is “ROOMIES” and “ZOOMIES.” Let’s use those terms.

STEP 1: Everyone is Still in Zoom

We are still going to use Zoom. Both teachers and students know how to use the platform, and it works really well. For concurrent-hybrid learning, local students (we’ll call them “roomies”), remote students (we’ll call them “zoomies”), and the teacher (either local or remote) will all still log into the same Zoom room—just like last year. But now, the roomies and the teacher will bring their own laptops (or loaned Chromebooks or mobile device) to the classroom and log into the Zoom. A laptop in front of every roomie means that zoomies will have perfect views of each and every student and teacher in the physical classroom. (And since the zoomies will be on their laptops remotely, the roomies and the teacher will have perfect views of them as well.) I know what you’re thinking: “Why are we still on zoom if we’re finally in the classroom?” Well, because we are looking for the most equitable solution here. But stick with me a bit further, ’cause there will be some alternative setups down below.

STEP 2: Give Your Zoomies a Good View of the Classrooom

Let’s sweeten the deal for those who can’t be in person: You’ll want to give your zoomies two good “wide-angle” views of the classroom so that they feel more part of the action. These two “additional classmates” will also log into the same Zoom room as everyone else.

Set Up a “BackCam Roomie”

You may already have a couple of webcams around, and perhaps an old computer or laptop. (If your classroom already has a “podium laptop” then we can use that one since your faculty will be bringing —and touching!—their own laptop during pandemic times.)

Set Up a Front Cam Roomie

This will be the “teacher’s view” camera, and will allow the zoomies to see the faces of the roomies (instead of the backs-of-their-heads view provided by the BackCam Roomie). *If you only have enough equipment for one digital roomie, experiment with frontcam or backcam and see what your zoomies best respond to.

STEP 3: Give Your Teacher a Good View of the Zoomies

Let’s call this the “BackCam Roomie Deluxe”! If you have an extra monitor or flatscreen TV, you can REALLY make things nice for your in-person teacher by attaching it to the BackCam Roomie laptop/desktop. On this monitor, you can display all your zoomies so that the teacher can keep their eyes up, looking out to the students’ faces —both roomies and zoomies! (See the Zoom trick below for how to get your zoomies’ faces on the top rows.)

STEP 4: The Teacher’s Laptop Runs the Show

We want to let Zoom do all the heavy A/V lifting, so if your classroom has a projector or sound system, we’re going to plug those into the teacher’s laptop. (If you have a “podium computer” that all teachers use, turn that into the Front-Cam Roomie.) With the teacher’s laptop driving the show, you’ve got the Zoom meeting on the big screen, and if the teacher or any roomie or zoomie wants to share their work, they simply “screenshare”—and everyone can see: it’s big on the projection screen for the roomies, and for the zoomies it’s business as usual. NO fancy A/V hacks in the classroom at all.

So now we’ve got everyone in a Zoom room, with a couple added room-views as a bonus for the zoomies. Now for the tricky part.

It’s not perfect, and it may take a bit of getting used to. But it’s FREE. And it requires no new equipment, and no new training.

STEP 5: Choose Your Audio Setup

The audio in all of this is the hard part, and you may need to try a couple of options in order to decide what compromises you are willing to make.

There are two audio challenges here—feedback and latency—and you can learn all about them in the longer version of this article. But for now, your variables in deciding which setup is right are these:

  • class size
  • classroom acoustics
  • the ratio of roomies to zoomies
  • teaching style
  • class format

There is no perfect solution here, but the following options are free and require no teacher training.

Bottom line: You are choosing between whether your zoomies can see and hear each and every individual roomie…or not.

AUDIO SETUP A: Half Roomies/Half Zoomie with Class Discussions

Scenario: “I have several Zoomies and several Roomies, and it is important for my zoomies to see and hear every individual roomie since we do a lot of discussions in class.”

Solution: Choose Option A: Each of your roomies (and the teacher) brings their laptop or Chromebook (or mobile phone) and logs into the same Zoom room as the zoomies. In this setup, you will need to turn off any loudspeakers in the room because of feedback.

Have the roomies use the “U.N.-Style” Mic & Earbud. This means dropping one earbud out of one ear and keeping the mic nice and close. (Wireless earbuds will of course work as well, but lots more $$$.)

Benefits: This the best and most considerate setup for the zoomies, since they can see and hear everyone perfectly. Also, students and teachers who operated online are already used to being in Zoom, so there is no learning curve whatsoever.

Challenges: The first challenge is technical. Depending on your internet connection, there may be some latency (a delayed echo of the sound) in the students’ earbud when anyone in the classroom talks. There are three ways of managing this: Turning down your laptop output volume; muting-and-unmuting your laptop output volume when someone in the room talks; and popping your earbud in and out. Now there may be some people who are not bothered by the latency, and some who really are. So you’ll have to experiment. (The simplest solution is to turn down the earbud volume low enough where the latency is tolerable, but high enough to hear when a zoomie or remote teacher speaks.)

The second challenge is cultural and behavioral. For the roomies, being “back on zoom” with their laptop in front of them will seem to negate the entire point of returning to the classroom. But if we want to have an optimally-equitable experience for all students, we’re going to have to make some accommodations: Here are a couple of suggestions: After a week, roomies may learn to split their attention between the in-person attendees above the screen, and the online attendees on the screen. (They can experiment with turning down their screen brightness, since they’ll still be able to see the zoomies on the big screen—remember, it’s showing the Zoom room, and I’ve got an upcoming suggestion about how to see the remote students easier on the Zoom sidebar). This will take patience and practice, but it will be worth it. Another option is for roomies to use their mobile device (if they have one) to log into the Zoom—setting it down aimed at their face, reducing its screen brightness, and then learning to ignore it. And again, when they want to look at the zoomies, they can see them on the big screen. There is no perfect solution here, but your zoomies with thank you and your roomies will adapt. Plus, again, this setup is free, and everyone already knows the technology.

AUDIO SETUP B: Primarily a Lecture Class

Scenario: “I have very few Zoomies, and my class is more or less a lecture class anyway. It’s important for the zoomies to be able to hear and see the teacher, but the students don’t really need to hear or each other perfectly. If there is a question from one of the students, it will be fine for them to get up out of their chair and move to a microphone.”

Setup: Choose Option C: Buy a good microphone and set it up in the middle of the room. Then buy the simplest audio mixer you can find, and place it near the front of the room next to the teacher’s laptop (the teacher is still bringing their laptop, and still logging into the same Zoom meeting as the remote students.) Have the teacher use their own “Makeshift Lapel Mic” and plug it into the mixer. Then plug the middle room mic into the mixer. (You can add multiple mics around the room, but they all need to go to the same mixer, and you’ll need to optimize their input volume on the mixer; you probably have a student who would LOVE to do this.) Finally, plug the output from the mixer into the teacher’s laptop, along with the projector and the speakers. As long as the laptop that is driving the screen and the room loudspeakers is the same laptop receiving the audio from any microphone(s), you will be all set.

Benefits: This solution is the simplest, and a mic stand (or two) in the classroom can stay there permanently with its cord taped to the floor on its way to the mixer. Similarly, the mixer can be taped to the podium with its levels set. All teachers need to do is to remember to plug their microphone into the mixer instead of their laptop. One great benefit of this solution is that you can have the room loudspeakers on. So if you have a very large classroom, or if there’s a lot of noise from open windows, etc., this can be a plus.

Challenges: “All teachers need to do is plug in their microphone” comes with a caveat. Depending on what kind of earbud the teacher is using, it may or may not work. So: You can always buy a microphone and tape it to the podium/desk on a stand, or, depending on safety protocols, you can let them go handheld if they’ve got the personality for it :) You may also need a simple jack adaptor depending on what mics and mixer you are using.

What about asking questions in class? This is also problematic. In some instances, students will have to get up out of their chairs and walk over to the mic in the middle of the room to ask a question so that the zoomies can hear. For dynamic discussions, this will be a dealbreaker. But as a kind of “talking stick” some teachers could make it work.

The bottom line with this set up is that the zoomies won’t be able to see or hear the individual roomies. Still, with a BackCam Roomie, a FrontCam Roomie, and the teacher’s own laptop camera view of them, it’s better than a single “Zoomcart” shoved into the back of the room. (And about $10,000 cheaper too.)

STEP 6: Use These Three Essential Zoom Tricks

Since we are staying on Zoom for these setups, it will be key for you to know about 3 Zoom tricks that you may not be familiar with. (Almost nobody knows about the first one.)

Zoom Trick #1: See more people during screenshares.

When someone “screenshares” their computer, the content of what they are sharing takes up a huge amount of your screen on the left, resulting in just a “strip of 4 or 5 faces” down the right side. In addition, sometimes it’s not so interesting if the presenter remains on the same slide for too long and just talk and talk and talk, and you’d rather be looking at the faces in the group. Or how about after someone has stopped sharing something — and it’s time for the participants to “discuss it” —and then they unshare and it disappears? It’s often really important to reference what was presented during the discussion, so that’s a bummer. Plus, it’s really important for the group to see eachother during the discussion portion of a presentation. Here’s how:

When someone is sharing their screen, mouse over the vertical bar between their content and the vertical strip of faces. Do you see the “two little lines” there? Great. That’s actually a handle. Click your mouse on that handle and then drag it to the left. Magically, the shared content gets smaller, while the number of faces increases! Now you can see everyone.

If you are using a “Back Cam Roomie Deluxe” with a flatscreen at the back of the room displaying the faces of the zoomies, it may be much more valuable to see their faces than the shared content.

**Pro Tip: If you are using “dual monitors” Zoom has a way to tell one of your displays to only display the zoomies. Check it out here.

(Also remember that if you have more than 25 participants in your Zoom meeting, you’ll need to increase the number that Zoom will display by selecting the “49 participants” radio button in the Zoom video preferences.)

Zoom Trick #2: Move your zoomies to the top rows.

With everyone in the Zoom — both zoomies and now roomies — there will be a lot of Zoom tiles to look at. So how do we pay more attention to them on our screens if everyone is in the zoom room? Well, it turns out that you can click and drag people around in the Zoom grid, so go ahead and move the zoomies to the top two rows so that you can better “focus” on them. (Also critical if you are rocking the “BackCam Roomie Deluxe” setup.)

Zoom Trick #3: Turn on live transcription.

It is not unlikely that the people in the room will be wearing masks, so it will be extra hard for everyone to understand what they are saying. Zoom (and Hangout) have excellent live transcription, but it needs to be deliberately turned on. This should be a requirement for all classes—and for all meetings—all the time, but for accessibility, language learners, and masked participants, it will be a huge benefit.

CLASS BEGINS!

Okay, thanks for reading; now, let’s run this thing! Try some of these setups out and see what fits you best: Your number of roomies and zoomies; your room style and your room acoustics; your teaching style and pedagogy; your tech savvy-ness and systems support availability; your budget; and exactly which behavior compromises the students are willing to make. Maybe find your own hacks and be sure to share your learnings with everyone at your school!

--

--