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The last year has seen the rise of Zoom for teaching and learning. It has also seen proponents of faceless Zoom.

Photo by Blue Bird on

Faceless Zoom is allowing students to not have their cameras on. A teacher might do this is to respect the privacy of his/her students. 

Zoom captures what happens in the students’ backgrounds. Since some students might not have conducive learning environments outside the classroom, what happens in the background could become distracting to everyone. These backgrounds also provide insights on the students’ socioeconomic statuses and these can heighten divides.

One way to mitigate this issue is for students to use artificial backgrounds or to blur their backgrounds in Zoom. However, these backgrounds interfere with movements or demonstrations on camera. Video algorithms attempt to hide anything that is not a relatively still head and shoulder, so anything that you or your students hold up will get blurred or hidden.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

This is another reason for faceless Zoom. Stanford reported four factors that could contribute to Zoom fatigue (my summary). One possible contributing factor was seeing so many faces so much of the time. The same article went into why this might be psychologically and physiologically tiring.

But I counter with this: If you are only conducting classes online where faces are optional, you might be doing it wrong. 

When are faces optional? When you do not really need them, e.g., teacher-centred and non-interrupted lectures. What is wrong with such lectures? See the image quote below.

The danger of lectures is that they create the illusion of teaching for teachers, and the illusion of learning for learners.

Zoom need not and should not be faceless. As educators, we should create the need and desire to see and work with others. 

This goes beyond the technological mitigation of replacing real backgrounds with digital ones. Such a strategy is quick and convenient — some old-school folks might call this technical savvy — but it does not address the desire to remain faceless.

Students can remain faceless in a large Zoom class or lecture. They have no incentive to show their faces because they are talked to but not listened to. They are not asked for comments, questions, or feedback. If they are, such interventions are so sporadic as to not require constant face time.

Lectures are not just teacher-centric because they focus on the one-way flow of information. They can be teacher-centric in Zoom if the teacher insists on seeing student faces just to get affirmation, e.g., nodding heads.

But even the best lecturer will subject students to Zoom fatigue of a different sort — one lecture after another. You might as well rely on a playlist YouTube videos instead. Then students can watch asynchronously at least.

We can avoid lectures and faceless Zoom with pedagogical redesign. I do not mean lesson designs that require students to show presence. This is administrative attendance taking or gamified being-there. I am about lessons that are designed for being present.

What circumstances require students to be present? Lessons that value their queries and inputs. Classes that are dominated by cooperation or collaboration. Sessions that are driven by problem-seeking, problem-solving, peer teaching, and meaningful project work.

The easiest thing to do is identifying sessions where these approaches can lead lesson design. The most difficult is changing teacher mindsets towards taking that first easy step.

Now that my teaching commitments for the semester are almost over, I reflect on some Zoom habits I practiced.

I continued using fill-in lights, particularly for evening classes. I had two gooseneck LED lamps that I used on either side of my iMac to project even lighting on my face.

I also used a second camera option in Zoom. I connected my iPhone to my iMac with a cable and chose the advanced option of screen sharing. When I enabled this, I could demonstrate the ‘live’ use of apps. This option also meant that I could also provide another camera view, e.g., a top-down view of my table top.

Zoom advanced screen sharing.

Before I started the teaching semester, I was worried that my Zoom account (which was affiliated with one education institute) would have different rights or features compared with another organisation. I discovered that it was more important who the host was.

As a holder of a Pro account in one institute, I had many options and settings. Video recordings and chat transcripts of the session automatically saved to the cloud and to a folder on my iMac. This was because I was the host of each session I facilitated.

With another institution, an IT staff was the host and that person had to transfer hosting rights to me. However, the IT folks and administrators there chose not to allow recordings and transcripts. But other benefits, like holding sessions longer than 40 minutes, persisted. If there was no initial IT host (with the Pro account), our online sessions would have been short.

Zoom is still not made for basic but empowering classroom strategies like station-based learning. I shared my experiences on the new Zoom tool that attempted this and it was rudimentary at best.

I hope that competitors like Google Classroom and Meet provide better designed conferencing and cooperation. The feature in Google Workspace for picture-in-picture Meet in Google Docs, Slides, and Sheets will be a powerful enabler of cooperative activities. These are more valuable than listening to talking heads!

Sadly, Google and its suite of tools lost some ground to Zoom. There were already rumblings of discontent in the few years before all of us had to school and work remotely. I met folks who were almost irrationally dead set against it!

The only good thing I can say about Zoom is that it has given Google a kick in the pants it needed to up its game. I look forward to the competition.

Bums on seats measures the wrong end of the learner. -- Donald Clark

I recreated (image above) an older version of an image quote I made in 2015 (below). It was based on something that Donald Clark wrote about in 2013.

Bums on seats measures the wrong end of the learner.

After watching this video on the claims of a startup wanting to get kids to Zoom in the era of COVID-19, I realised that the quote needs to be updated.

Video source

With classrooms and lecture halls, the administrative measurement of learning is attendance, i.e., bums-in-seats. Online the measure is also attendance, but it is now faces-on-camera.

Now I get that attendance and attention can be the first step in getting student to learn. But that is the low hanging fruit. Learning does not happen just because students are present and accounted for.

Most teachers get that and will use strategies to engage and empower their students. But technologies like the one featured in the video appeal to administrators and to teachers who can only think inside the classroom box.

Learning that is a result of enforced attendance is likely to be fleeting or superficial. Why? The learner does not want to be there and the class does not connect with the student.

Solutions do not lie in forcing attendance even though this might be important administratively, financially, or for policy. They lie in better teacher-student relationships, more progressive teaching strategies, and heightened expectations of the learner.

One change that incorporates all three is well-designed asynchronous learning — they are trust-building exercises, they focus on the teacher meeting the students where they are at, and require students to be more independent.

If we do not change the way we teach or the shift the expectations of what it means to learn, we will not change the way we use technology.

I did not have a reason to shoot slow motion videos on my iPhone until recently.

When I finally did last week, I discovered what scores of people already knew. The slow-mo effect stays on the phone. The video runs at normal speed when exported to another device.

But I discovered one way of transferring the slow-mo videos and retaining the effect.

Video source

At first I thought the slow-mo effect would be retained if I worked within the Apple ecosystem. I imported the videos to my iMac’s iMovie application directly via a USB cable, but the videos ran at normal speed.

After a bit of Googling, I found out that I could manually import the videos via AirDrop from iPhone to iMac and then to iMovie. This retained the slow-mo effect. Then it was a simple job of adding titles and transitions.

I could have also edited the video directly in iMovie for the iPhone. But the interface is too small for my liking.

Like my complaint about Google Photos, developers need to focus in user experiences (UX), not just the usability of user interface (UI).

If you work on UX instead of just UI, you focus on what people need. You help the technology get out of the way instead of creating a barrier to creating or learning.

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