I See You!

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July 16, 2020 by Dr. Robbie Barber

This post is week 5 of 8 in the #8WeeksofSummer Blog Challenge for educators. The prompt is: “What technologies enhanced/reduced your effectiveness this past spring?”

The number one technology used during the pandemic shutdown of Spring 2020 was video conferencing software and equipment. And it turned out to be more exasperating and confusing and funny(!) than anyone expected. One of the most successful things I did during that time was to take some teachers on a tour with my learning buddy, Ms. Poole. We started on a school district-approved MS Teams meeting, moved to a free personal account Zoom meeting, and ended with a school district-approved Google Meet. The dozen or so teachers who joined us on our romp through technology enjoyed it and learned about the strengths and weaknesses of different softwares. (Of course, that was a moment in time and the software companies are constantly fixing and updating!)

Thanks to information and images from Andy Segal, we included information in our weekly faculty newsletter. (During the pandemic, it was sent via email instead of hanging in the staff bathrooms which explains the name.) In any communication, be aware of what will help the most. In this case, the images showcase the issues of backlighting and framing pretty well.

Additional advice includes making you aware of your background and what might cross into view. I am very careful to put my back to an outside window so that no one else in the household has to worry about being caught on camera. Even if you use an artificial background (and I love backgrounds), you need to be aware that your hands or face may come in and out of the image. Remember, the background in Zoom/ MS Teams is just an attempt by the system to toss a virtual green screen behind you. It does work, but it is not perfect.

Equipment matters. I started the pandemic period using my computer’s speakers and microphone. That didn’t last long. The sounds are distorted and picked up the fans running or the dogs barking, but not my full comment which was partially muffled. (Turn off things around you like fans – the sounds really do get picked up easily.) I switched to a cheap plugged-in headphone with microphone set which worked better for controlling the audio but still not great. In the end, I “borrowed” my husband’s airpods and got microphone and speakers in one. You need to take some consideration for how the audio and speakers will work on your system and what your students are using. If we cannot understand what you are saying, then this conversation – video or otherwise – isn’t going to work well.

“Can you hear me?” Every video chat I’ve been on, someone asks that and 20 people (or more!) reply. Some unmute and respond. Many others fill the chat with a long line of “yes.” Sigh. If you’re actually using your chat to have a conversation or monitor questions, that long line of “yes” just made it harder. I now start my video chats with assigning (or randomly calling on) a person to answer a question about my screen or sound. It has the added bonus of making students stay alert during class.

Time and body language need to be part of your planning session. It is much harder to focus on a screen for extended periods of time, than in person. Body language is missing from the video call unless you do a couple of things. First, push back from the computer. Just enough so that you are not a large head in the screen but that your arms are visible. Now if you move your hands when you talk, it becomes part of the video. Second, leave your video on even when showing a presentation (PowerPoint, Google Slides, etc.). Most of the products let you show the speaker to the side or bottom while sharing your screen. Is it important? Yes, because the phrase “zoom fatigue” has joined the lexicon this Spring talking about how exhausting it is to watch the screen, especially with a slide show taking the screen.

No matter what pattern the new school year brings, I suspect that video conferencing is part of the new normal. Therefore, invest in a good microphone / speaker system. Take control of your environment so that neither you, nor your students, are embarrassed. And, please, share good advice with your students on how to manage a video conference. It’s a teachable moment.

Postscript: One teacher reported that he had a student take the entire class on an unintentional tour of her house including up and downstairs. The teacher tried contacting the student to ask them to turn off video. Everyone was getting a little seasick. Lesson learned: Tell students to sit down for class, especially when the video is on.

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