Digital Teaching Alternatives to Zoom

LTF Hour Discussion: Digital Teaching Alternatives to Zoom
Event date: November 20, 2020

LTF Hours are one-hour, informal discussions among graduate students on a range of teaching-related topics. Each LTF Hour session is facilitated by two Lead Teaching Fellows (LTFs), who serve as liaisons between the English department and the Center for Teaching & Learning at Columbia.

For this LTF hour, we were joined by Jonathan Reeve, a fellow doctoral student in the English department, who shared with us alternatives to Zoom and Canvas in integrating digital technologies into the classroom for literary studies. Tools discussed included Zulip and, as Jonathan took us through his course site. An edited summary of the workshop follows below, with questions from participants organized under headings.

JR: I am currently teaching a course called “Introduction to Computational Literary Analysis.” The course page looks like a simple webpage. There are only two components needed to launch this: have a website, and enable on it. Any website works, including Canvas; other options include Squarespace and WordPress. I prefer to avoid Canvas and make my course site into a one-stop shop, so to speak, so that students are not spread over too many platforms. is an open-source annotation resource that you can build into any webpage, like I have for my site; you can also use it as a bookmark function. You can look through all public annotations. It works as a browser plugin for Chrome or Firefox, and you can enable it any time for any website that you visit.

*Note: is not, at the present, directly integrated into Canvas for Columbia users.

Annotations, with an example of the text of The Moonstone

JR: This page, which is a part of my course website, was built using the Project Gutenberg text of The Moonstone. The source code for the text is just plaintext, written out in Markdown. But PDFs work too—anything does, as long as it’s not locked down behind a log-in. You could even enable directly onto Project Gutenberg, but then the general public could access that if they also have installed.

The assignment I give my students is to annotate 3-5 segments or passages of the text each time they have a reading assignment—as a quasi-formal thing—and I tell them it should be about the length of a Tweet: thoughtful in content, but not like a whole essay. The tagging function for the annotations means that they can see similar annotations that have the same tags. Students can also have conversations through the commenting function, in the margins of the text, about a given passage—this is a perfect platform for literary study in the digital medium! It replicates, virtually, what happens in a seminar when we discuss a particular passage together, and makes that kind of thinking accessible and fluid online.

Another good assignment is to have the students analyze their own annotations. A lot of information can be derived from this—tracking what time of day their notes tended to be written tells them about their work habits, etc.


JR: For assignments not completed directly on the course site, I ask my students to email them in, and I’ll reply with my comments. This is nice for the students, because they can sometimes miss feedback when it’s delivered via Canvas, and it adds a personal touch to read a direct email reply.

No Zoom! Chat via Zulip

JR: There is no Zoom use for my course at all. Our chat platform is through Zulip, which is an open-source, Slack-like platform, but it’s threaded in the way that email is threaded, so that there is a stream of conversation. For example, a thread can have a subject line—just like in email—that you can rename and go back to, and students are good at using threaded conversations for helping each other out and answering questions amongst themselves. This also saves emailing labor on the instructor’s part, as students help themselves.

Zulip allows for conversations to be linear and non-linear at the same time, through multiple conversation threads. Students also enjoy using its diverse emoji function, which mimics the nods and subvocal cues that we’d have for in-person social interactions in the classroom. Such cues are often lost or limited in a lot of other platforms commonly used these days.

For one hour a week, we have a synchronous session. Otherwise, discussion continues throughout the week.

Why Zulip, rather than Slack or Discord?

JR: My number one criterion for such questions is whether a platform is open-source or not. If the software is owned by a particular company, you don’t know what problems may happen—you are totally at the mercy of that company. If something goes wrong, you have to wait for the company to step in and fix it. We see it happening with Zoom and Zoom-bombing. With an open-source site like Zulip, if there is a problem and you’re a programmer, you can go in and fix it right away—or, if you are not a programmer, work with someone who has the knowledge to address the issue. Glitches therefore get fixed faster for open-source tools than for platforms that are owned by a single corporation. Also, Zulip is free—you don’t have to pay for it!

The other nice thing about Zulip is that you can insert code snippets. It’s all Markdown-compatible, so in the Markdown, you can also attach images and add quotes.

Privacy considerations

JR: You can put Zulip threads behind a log-in. Anyone can sign up to join, but I do have some control over access as the administrator. After a certain amount of time, once the course is over, I can delete the organization and all of the content will disappear. is a bit different, but you can also go in and have the option of deleting your individual posts.

Resources for building a webpage

JR: The CUIT LinkedIn Learning program, which you can access with your SSOL log-in, takes you through photoshop, website creation, and HTML classes. Other useful sites include:

Author profile

Ami is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature, specializing in American literature. Her research sits at the intersection of nineteenth-century literature, history of science, and environmental studies, with a particular focus on poetry and poetics. A current Lead Teaching Fellow with the Center for Teaching & Learning, she has taught classes in Columbia's undergraduate college as well as in its School of Professional Studies.

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