You’re letting us take our SoG talks right into your home

Be totally honest. Did you think ‘zoom’ was just a verb? Or maybe an adjective, as in ‘zoom lens’. But in the last couple of months we have all discovered Zoom and it’s given us some of our brightest moments.

Here at the SoG, we have wanted to put some of our talks and courses online for a long time. We tested various platforms but found it a challenge to find a way that really suited what we wanted to do. The Zoom app has been around since 2011, with the company name Zoom Video Communications, Inc since 2012. At that time, most of us were getting used to Skype, FaceTime and maybe WebEx at work. Then during March, everyone ‘found’ Zoom. Schools, universities, businesses and family and friends needed an app that was free to download and seemed to work on almost any device. The SoG joined the 200 million users during March and April.

Our first one or two online Zoom talks were an amazing experience for everyone. Our early speakers, Mia Bennett and Else Churchill, were incredibly brave in my opinion. As one of the co-hosts, it was just insanely busy as we admitted more than 80 participants and tried to help many of them, as first time users, get their sound and vision working. It felt like really, really hard work.

Then someone, I think it was Mia, asked ‘Where are you all today?” The answers came pouring back at us: “Scotland.” “Chicago.” “Melbourne.” “Wales.” “Yorkshire.” “South Africa.” “Wellington.” “London.” And I relaxed – we were throwing a worldwide get-together and it was going to be fine. All family historians, some awake in the middle of the night, some coming in from the heat of the day, all of us reaching out from our couches or dining tables.

I wanted to find out what other people thought about our Zoom classes so I spoke last week to half a dozen Participants who had been on our early talks.

I first asked them whether they had used Zoom before. Only two people had. One to meet up with family during the lockdown; the other for meetings.

“When we Zoom with family, it takes ages while we get everybody connected, and everyone with their audio on, and then someone won’t know how to get their video going – we spend most of the time just getting started”, said one person.

In contrast, he thought it was amazing how effortless it seemed as 80 plus people came into our talk and the speaker started. (It never feels effortless to us – but I’m pleased we can fake it so well.)

For those who had used Zoom for the first time for one of our talks, I asked how it felt:

“Pure panic”, admitted one. “I came in and I could see all these people in little squares. Then I coughed and suddenly there was this huge image on my screen of me! I felt naked – was everyone looking at me?”

“Loved it”, said another. “It feels like I’m there with everyone, I can see them, I can ask questions.”

“Wonderful”, said a third, “although I still haven’t found the Chat.”

I asked everyone whether they had done other sorts of online learning before. Most of them had. They had attended talks and classes on Facebook, YouTube, the Future Learning website, one person had even done his degree online. They all thought our Zoom talks were really different because they felt collaborative and alive.

I was very interested in understanding what they liked best about attending our Zoom courses. I couldn’t find a great deal of evidence for the quality of learning during a Zoom class, although I’m sure there will be loads of studies by the end of this year. I did find a number of educators who are using Zoom because they find it engages students. It allows collaboration, especially with its screen sharing function. And it isn’t a passive experience. During Questions sessions, everyone can see the person asking a question just as they would in a physical lecture room. They can read the Chat and see the Host reading questions from it. They can raise their hand, just as they might in a physical lecture room.

Thinking about what they liked best about our Zoom talks, here’s what everyone said:

“It’s very different but I liked it. I could put my questions into the Chat when they occurred to me. I sometimes forget what I wanted to know when there’s questions at the end.”

“A live speaker and everyone in the room is so much better than looking at a set of slides online.”

“I found it easier to concentrate in my own living room, with a cup of tea and my note pad.”

“Your speakers are really great. But keep on with hosts to help as that makes a difference. I went to another talk where the speaker had to do it all and they kept being sidetracked by other things going on.”

“I have a hearing problem and sometimes I can’t really see the slides in a physical lecture room. With Zoom, that’s all gone.”

“I think you’ve pitched the level of the talks just right. I liked the way you do a bit of basic for beginners then on to the parts where we can all learn things.”

In addition, everyone appreciated that no travel was involved for them. Of course, if you live in the US, Australia or elsewhere that’s a huge plus. But even in Britain, our Zoom talks are so inclusive. People who aren’t able to travel at any time for whatever reason feel they can take part. “Distance is no object!” claimed one person.

And everyone is appreciating the copies of slides and/or handouts. “I can sit and listen and concentrate”, said one person, “so much better than madly taking notes”.

And, on a final note, let’s hear it for pets – now living full time with their humans. We see glimpses of so many cats in particular, don’t we? Well, more than a glimpse of Else’s – who probably think the whole enterprise relies on them.


I would like to thank all the people who made time to talk to me last week. And I want to assure you all that I have recorded all your suggestions in an email for new ways of using Zoom and connecting us online.

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