Zoom University: Lessons from our Senior (Citizens)

What makes Zoom events or classes so unappealing to us? Maybe it’s the awkward silence, or the feeling of self-consciousness we get from feeling everyone’s eyes on us. However, like it or not, online events are here to stay in the near future. How, then, can we make them a more enjoyable experience?

[Photo: lucas law on Unsplash]

By Hazel Lye

Believe it or not, our senior citizens are better at using Zoom than us.

I’m sure that many are familiar with the awkward silence that comes with video-conferencing. In the Q&A section of a class or a briefing, a characteristic pause lingers for a few seconds, before the first person even speaks up. At times, no one volunteers at all. 

Such is the standard for an average Zoom call — or so I had thought.

I recently volunteered as a facilitator for an online event organised by community kitchen Good Life! Makan, a programme by Montfort Care. Our participants were senior citizens who lived alone, and the event was to help them have fun and socialise, even from home. All the volunteers were university undergraduates in their 20s, just like me.

Upon entering the call, I was surprised to be greeted with enthusiastic “good morning’s” from the participants — a far cry from the awkward silence that fills university Zoom classes until the professor starts talking. The atmosphere was cheerful as the seniors exchanged greetings and chatted about their breakfast. Us volunteers hung back, silent and awkward, hesitant to join in, even though the host had encouraged us to chat with the seniors too.

Through the session, I realised there are many things we can learn from how our seniors behave on Zoom, which would hopefully make our own video-calls a little more enjoyable.

Don’t be shy, just say ‘hi’!

It’s natural to be a little more self-conscious on camera. You feel like someone’s always watching you, and when you speak, everyone in the call hears you. What if you say something silly? Worse, what if you get ignored? That’s probably why many of us feel too awkward to say anything in a Zoom call full of people.

In contrast, there’s something to be said about how easily the seniors conversed online, even though we’d expect them to be a little less familiar with the technology. They were their regular outgoing selves and caught up with each other freely despite being in a room full of other seniors and facilitators they did not know. Not only did every senior greet us with a cheerful “good morning” the moment we entered the call, they responded actively to others too. 

In our individual breakout rooms, while playing games, the seniors weren’t shy in volunteering their answers. There were fewer awkward pauses that might be typical of the average Zoom call, because they weren’t worried about saying the wrong things.

Upon reflection, what I’ve realised is that most of the self-consciousness we feel is unfounded. Our peers are not going to judge us for speaking up; in fact, they’re probably glad that someone got the ball rolling and may feel more comfortable contributing afterwards. I, for one, would be thankful! The more people are willing to speak up, the less scary it becomes to join in and be part of the group.

Are you having fun?

It may be a simple thing, but a change of mentality may be all we need to have a little more fun online.

As an undergraduate student, I know all too well that Zoom events are, objectively, less fun than face-to-face events. Having to both conduct and participate in orientation programmes on Zoom is an unfortunate reality, especially when we compare it to the fun and excitement of meeting face-to-face. However, it doesn’t help when we go into the event expecting the worst.

Many of us are guilty of that — I too went into the befriending session with low expectations. However, while I was facilitating the games, it was hard not to get sucked into the seniors’ infectious energy. They participated enthusiastically and put equal effort into each challenge, even though some were as simple as completing a puzzle displayed on a powerpoint slide. Not only did they have fun in the end, being part of their excitement made me feel satisfied that I was able to take part as a volunteer. I also felt grateful to the participants for being so enthusiastic and open-minded to the online format —  something I did not expect.

The event’s success was as much due to the good material we had to work with as the seniors’ positive attitudes. It was apparent that they had approached the event expecting a fun morning, and got exactly that out of the experience.

It was truly a learning experience for me. It’s common to dread Zoom events and go in with preconceived notions about them being boring, especially when we compare them to the more engaging face-to-face activities of yesteryear. However, living with our ‘new normal’ means that we have to work to integrate online events into our long-term reality. Perhaps a shift in our mentality is in order — it’s time to start thinking about online events more positively!

“How to share screen ah?”

Video-calling as the new norm is a whole new ballgame for everyone, much less for the elderly, who are less familiar with technology. Most of us have had to learn along the way, figuring out new features through trial and error. This has perhaps made us dread using technology a little more, finding it a pain to set everything up. 

Although the seniors I worked with weren’t accustomed to using Zoom as a platform, anytime they encountered something they didn’t know how to do, they asked for help with no hesitation. Over time, I could also tell that they were getting more comfortable with using Zoom — for instance, knowing when to rotate their devices to get a better angle or view. Furthermore, they were also offering advice to each other and helping to troubleshoot! They weren’t shy or hesitant to try and fail.

Good Life! Makan [Photo: I Feel Young SG]

This eagerness to learn and adapt is something we should apply not just to Zoom, but also other aspects of our daily lives. Our lives are ever-changing and we have to evolve with it, and not blindly stick to the status quo we’re so comfortable with.

As a university student myself, I know that part of the reason why online events or classes — or anything over video-conferencing platforms — feels so disconnected is because we can’t socialise like we would be able to physically. However, if we could take a second to apply some of these lessons from our senior citizens to our own behaviour, we can make the best out of a bad situation and have fun, regardless of the platform we’re on.

So the next time you get to be a part of an event conducted on Zoom, take the opportunity to be a little more open, and a little less afraid.