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Posts Tagged ‘zoom

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One basic skill a new teacher is taught is maintaining strategic eye contact with students. You might do this to make a point, prevent misbehaviour, acknowledge a student, etc.

However, this is more difficult to do in Zoom. If you want to give the impression of maintaining “eye contact” with students here, you have to look straight into the webcam. As the webcam is typically at the top of a desktop or laptop computer, the rest of the screen, e.g., the gallery view of students or shared resources, are relegated to your peripheral vision. 

If you do not look into the camera and focus on the gallery instead, you look like everyone else — dealing with items on a screen. You might seem distracted or even disinterested instead of focused and involved. So an educator might have to establish different expectations and/or create different classroom rules.

The first part of what I described happened to me this semester. After I took attendance, I started outlining the session. An administrative/technical support person was still in the online space and noticed a student in distress. 

I did not because my eyes were on the camera. I could not spot that student in the sea of faces nor could I monitor the chat area. I was thankful to the support staff for pointing that student out so that I could take action.

So now I reflect on two things: Pedagogical change and technological innovation. 

If an online educator is to be effective, s/he might establish a different expectation of less artificial Zoom eye contact. The online class might also need at least one other teaching assistant to monitor behaviours. The former is easy, the latter is not.

As for technology, I see a place for Apple’s FaceTime Eye Contact to be implemented in Zoom. With this technology, an educator can focus on other parts of the screen but users of iOS 14+ (and iPhones X+) will still appear to be looking someone in the eye. This is thanks to Apple’s real-time augmented reality (AR).

That technological future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed. How long more before this form of AR becomes the norm?

The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed. -- William Gibson
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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.

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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.

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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.

I discovered a few things during and after two recent Zoom sessions.

Some background first. During these sessions, a systems administrator starts the session as host. When I sign in, they make me the host and I assign them as co-hosts. This might seem unusual because most instructors or facilitators should be provided with paid accounts that start sessions as hosts by default. My guess is that this collaborator is trying to keep costs down by having fewer paid accounts.

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But here is one downside of that strategy. During one session, the administrator as co-host decided to record the session because one student had an emergency and had to sign out. When the video recording started, my system became sluggish. I could not activate any function in the tool bar, e.g., I could not start sharing my screen, activate the text chat tool, etc. It took about a minute before things returned to normal.

I work with another organisation where I am the host by default. The sessions are also by recorded by default and there is no performance lag at my end. I thought this was the norm until I experienced the problem I described above. 

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Here is another downside. At another session, the administrator asked me to start the video recording. The rationale: The co-host recordings do not include what happens in the breakout rooms when I enter them. That is where the most valuable interactions and learning happens!

I did this and did not experience any lag, thank goodness. But the video file for an almost two-hour recording was just under 1GB in size. Not only that, I had to manually convert the Zoom proprietary format into an MP4.

I double-clicked on the video files (there were two) and Zoom started converting and combining them. Slowly. Very slowly. I left my computer to the task, had a late dinner, watched Netflix, and returned to find an MP4 in place of the two files.

I would not ordinarily have to do this because the file capture and conversion should have been done on a server elsewhere. I would only wait to be notified to download the video. Instead, I had to upload and share the video I had prepared. 

I record this here to outsource my memory. If I need to do this again, I can refer to the experience so that I will be better prepared. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Want a tiresome argument based on superficial evidence? Consider this headline and article.

The linked article reported: 

Eric Yuan… the founder of the video conferencing tool, admitted to experiencing Zoom fatigue. At Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit, the 51-year-old said that at his peak, he once had 19 Zoom meetings in a row in a single day.

The argument: Meetings on Zoom are bad because they are exhausting. The evidence: Even the founder of Zoom says so. The argument and its evidence is tiresome and lazy.

I am not saying that Zoom fatigue does not exist. It does.

But attending 19 meetings a day, whether over Zoom, in person, or a mix, is exhausting. As a former appointment holder at a university, I had to attend an unfair share of meetings. Just one a day was enough to wear me out.

Meetings are what career administrators do in place of email or actionable work. Most are pointless and long because they mistake quantity for quality. 

Poorly designed and frequently implemented meetings tire people. They also do not guarantee productive actions. These apply to meetings both offline and online. 

So a news agency that gleefully tweets such a headline is not telling you anything new or sharing information of worth. It is merely repeating a mantra from the book of autonomous technological determinism. It reduces the underlying cause of problems (tiredness) to technology (Zoom) in order to reinforce the idea that technology is out of control.

We create our technologies. We need to manage, at the very least, two aspects of our creations: 1) how we create them, and 2) the expectations for their use. If we fail to do either, it is easier to blame the technology than to reflect on who really is responsible — us.

A news agency with a wide reach can shape expectations of use. Instead of leading with a headline that blames tiredness on the technology, it could provide insights how to have better meetings. Such meetings can include enabling technologies like Zoom, but they have to be redesigned to be meaningful and timely.

I will not tire to make arguments that have a systemic and reasoned view of technology-mediated change. Such change may be in the wider world, but I focus in the smaller one that is the edu-sphere. 

I recently tweeted a Stanford press release about a research publication on Zoom fatigue.

The Stanford study suggested four reasons why video conferencing tire us out and offered remedies.

Reason 1: Looking at too many faces all at once in your personal space. This puts us in an alert state for an extended period. Remedy: Reduce the size of the video conferencing window to minimise the size of faces.

Reason 2: Seeing your own face is like facing a critical mirror all day. Remedy: Hide the self-view by right-clicking on your image.

Reason 3: Video conferencing reduces our visual mobility and range. Remedy: Use an external camera to create distance from the screen to “pace and doodle” like in a normal classroom.

Reason 4: Video chats require greater cognitive loads because participants need to put in effort to exaggerate cues that are nuanced and natural in person, e.g., showing agreement. Remedy: Identify segments that do not require non-verbal cues so that you do not require video.

The first three remedies have technical solutions and the last is part of pedagogical design. The first two are relatively easy for all to perform (reduce video conferencing window size and hide self-view). The third requires a special set up that not all can afford or take advantage of.

The fourth approach offers more promise, not just in minimising cognitive load during a video conference, but in online teaching and learning in general. Pedagogical redesign to only use video conferencing when necessary is key. One such design is to rely largely on asynchonous individual work, and rely on synchronous work for strategies like peer teaching or one-on-one coaching.

Zoom fatigue might be real, but the term is a misnomer. What might actually contribute more to teacher and student fatigue is poor pedagogy.

Such is the pedagogy of uncritical and uninformed transfer — the attempt to simply recreate a classroom dominated by teacher talk and constant monitoring. This focuses on what a teacher needs to do. It does not necessarily focus on the learner and learning.

Learning is what matters, often takes place outside the classroom, and is difficult to measure. There is a long tail of learning and what happens in a classroom — a physical or an online one — might only be the start. So why put all your eggs in one basket only to see them crack?

This online interviewee decided to use a fake background of books in bookcases. But she got got owned when people spotted creases in her backdrop.

So what is the big deal? Some might point out how the fakeness mirrors the fake personality and responses. I leave that to the social commenters and armchair philosopers.

In schooling and education, however, appearances (or not) on Zoom matter for a different matter. They might reveal more about students and teachers than both are comfortable with. So the backdrop could be a legitimate tool.

But there are degrees of fakeness. The bookshelf backdrop is an attempt to be real when it is obviously fake. If audiences can see through it, it might not reflect well on you — what else are you trying to hide?

So I say you own how you appear in the foreground and what happens in your background. Be your most organised self or be messy, and bear the consequences of being anywhere along those two points.

Alternatively, do not appear at all if privacy and/or security are issues. This means that you cannot recreate some social elements or that you lose some ways of signalling your peers. But you own that, too.

Own your approach or be owned by it.

I am more often on the teacher end of a Zoom connection than on the student end. So I took in as much as I could as a participant at a recent research webinar.

First I took the time to examine the Zoom interface in webinar mode. It had a green tick on the top left to indicate the quality of the connection. By clicking on the tick, I was able to get connection details, e.g., the session went through the Singapore data centre. I found it reassuring to be on a fast local connection instead of being routed elsewhere.

Zoom webinar tools.Image source

The webinar interface was simple with Chat, Raise Hand, and Q&A options only. There was no option for video or audio interaction nor indication of how many people were present. Only the moderator appeared on screen and was replaced by each speaker in turn.

Even if participants cannot interact with one another, just knowing how “crowded” the room is provides a sense of social space. Zoom can learn from so many other existing systems that have learnt to recreate social presence. One way to do this with low bandwidth overhead is to represent each participant as an icon or with an avatar. This is like the Anonymous Animals that appear at the top of shared Google Docs or the bubble avatars in group chat tools.

Google Docs anonymous animals.
Image source

A seminar makes it easy for a participant to not actually participate, i.e., be a passive recipient. I had to listen activity, take notes and screenshots, and think of questions.

Zoom’s Q&A tool is not interactive, i.e., cannot ask a question and then follow up. If I wanted to follow up, I had to ask another question but the text was not threaded so this would have been visually messy. I found this tool to be rudimentary and very poorly conceived and implemented.

One simple way to overcome this issue and also simulate social presence could be to provide the option to use voice or video for participants. This would recreate a conference-like environment by providing immediacy.

The Q&A tool seemed to work on an embargo system of storing and queuing questions. The questions seemed to go to the moderator without appearing in the chat or the Q&A window immediately. How do I know? There was a lag between a question being asked and appearing on screen.

Participants do not see what questions the others have because of the same embargo system. Again, Zoom could learn from tools like Google Slides where everyone can see the questions and vote up the ones that matter to them.

Google Slides Q&A.
Image source

While I liked the fact that some questions were answered ‘live’ while others were answered in text, I wondered if the speakers could indicate their preference for the moderator to see. That way they would know where to focus their energy. More than once the moderator asked a speaker to answer a question and the speaker had already answered in text, was in the process of typing their answer, or had to repeat the answer verbally.

I conclude with a statement from the session. One speaker said the pandemic was opportunity to push for changes in teaching, but what mattered more was the quality of the change. That sentiment could have been applied to the Zoom session given better quality tools and strategies that work both online and off.

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.

The implementation of any educational technology is a sociotechnical endeavour and Zoom is no exception.

Whether a plan to integrate technology with lessons works well depends largely on the human factor, not the technology factor. If people have a can-do attitude and come prepared, the effort is more likely to go well than not.

When I tried Zoom’s September release of Breakout Rooms, I did a trial run before using it for real. Despite my reminders that students update their Zoom clients, a few did not. So instead of all my students choosing their own stations, I had to manually assign the few who could not use the Breakout Rooms function.

October 2020 class in Zoom.

I noticed something else between classes. At my first online session, I noticed that my students names did not appear underneath their video thumbnails when they moved from the waiting area to the main room. There was a three to five minute lag before their names eventually appeared.

I highlighted this issue to a techie who was there to hand the hosting role over and the problem did not appear at the second session. Might there have been a switch of dashboard setting or an update at the server end? Again, this was a human move.

Both examples illustrate how using Zoom is a sociotechnical system. It is one thing to learn how to use it technically, and this is the easy part. It is another to negotiate its use socially and to preempt human issues on the same.

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