This post is an addendum to my guest appearance with dave on 4/6/2020; the Online Learning in a Hurry episode about equitable video calls. Much of my thinking on this has been influenced by my work with Virtually Connecting and our approach to Intentionally Equitable Hospitality.

In the rush to put all of our courses online with minimal prep due to the COVID-19 crisis, many turned to video conferencing. Afterall, if you are used to meeting from 9am-11:45am in room 303 every Wednesday, and suddenly room 303 is not an option, your first inclination might be to just hold on to Wednesday’s from 9am-11:45am for dear life.

And of course it is more than just Wednesday’s from 9am-11:45am, it is also facial expressions and intonation in voice; its body language and being able to react to those looks of Ah Ha! as well as confusion.

But here is the thing: sync sessions are horrible for equity. And in a shift to online learning in an emergency it is even worse. Your students may no longer be in the same time zone if they had to return home to another province, state, or country. Signing up for a face to face class in the first place could have had something to do with the fact that they don’t have good internet at home. Or maybe they did have good internet at home until everyone in their household was then asked to do sync video calls for work and for school. And then there are the sad realities of the emergency itself – that maybe your student has lost their job and now they are doing gig work such as food delivery to make ends meet, or maybe they (or a family member) has become ill and they need time for self care. All of these scenarios are very real possibilities and all of them make sync video calls a burden in some way.

Alas, like many things that feel good but may not be the best in terms of systemic impact – people are going to do what they are going to do. And so here I’m offering some tips on how to approach video calls more equitably.

  1. Consider the benefits of async tools and pedagogies and balance sync and async based on their affordances and limitations.
  2. Don’t require attendance in your sync session
    • Sync means we all have to be present at the same time and that just may not be possible. It is fine to offer optional sessions or even give points for attending but have alternative options for those who can’t make it at that time.
  3. Stay flexible in terms of what students share
    • Respect students’ concerns for privacy which are often being compromised by simply logging into these technologies. Some may also not want to share video or screens because of privacy concerns. Another reason why alternatives are important.
    • Working in low-bandwidth environments may mean that audio a student hears or shares from the session is broken and not understandable when they share their video – because video takes more bandwidth to share. Let students turn off their video so they can at least hear the material and share their audio if they desire.
    • I’ve heard of some turning off the text chat because it can be distracting but for some students with really bad bandwidth issues this is their only way to interact. Consider turning off audio notifications of text messages (often a little ding or bomp every time someone sends a message) if the tech you are using is doing that.
      • Also, consider inviting a student or two to rotate holding a “text moderator” role. These folks will pay attention to the chat and notify you of pressing questions/contributions.
  4. Invite and plan interaction
    • Note here from #3 – while requiring students to share their video can create problems, inviting them to share their video because you find it helps with class dynamics and humanizing the online environment, are two different things.
    • Sync is great at providing that human element and allowing collaboration… in theory. But the truth is this doesn’t really happen on its own.
      • Try these techniques with small groups:
        • Round robin – call out individuals and have them each take a turn answer a question, introducing themselves, or recapping their approach to homework
        • Pass the ball/baton – like round robin but rather than you calling out individuals, when each person finishes they call on someone who has not gone yet. This also keeps people engaged as they need to pay attention to who has gone and who has not.
      • And with large groups
        • Answer in text chat – Ask a question that can be answered in a sentence or two and invite students to respond in the text chat. During this time you need to pause (maybe the hardest part about this technique for some) and read the responses as they roll in. If you miss some that is okay but call out students with particularly interesting responses by name and address what they are saying to the whole class.
        • Breakout rooms – If the technology you are using for your sync session allows for break out rooms consider some uses for these. One of the ways of dealing with a large group is to make smaller groups.

Feature Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

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