Although video conferencing tools are not new, the global pandemic has resulted in a dramatic expansion in faculty use of this technology in their learning environments. In this episode, Rick McDonald joins us to discuss ways in which we can use these tools to create productive and engaging learning experiences for our students. Rick is an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University who has extensive consulting experience in higher education and in K-12.
- Beatty, Brian (2014). “Hybrid Courses with Flexible Participation: The HyFlex Course Design” in Kyei-Blankson, Lydia, and Esther Ntuli, Practical Applications and Experiences in K-20 Blended Learning Environments. IGI Global, 2014.
John: Although video conferencing tools are not new, the global pandemic has resulted in a dramatic expansion in faculty use of this technology in their learning environments. In this episode, we focus on ways in which we can use these tools to create productive and engaging learning experiences for our students.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Our guest today is Rick McDonald, an instructional designer at Northern Arizona University, who has extensive consulting experience in higher education and in K-12. Welcome, Rick.
Rick: Hello, how are you today?
Rebecca: Great, thanks!
John: Today’s teas are:
Rick: I am a coffee drinker myself, but at least this early in the morning tea is more later in the day for me. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I have Irish breakfast tea today,
John: And I’m drinking ginger peach green tea. We came through a really challenging spring semester, where people suddenly had to move online, and we’ve gone through a really difficult summer. We want to talk a little bit about video conferencing. In general, I think everyone’s become familiar with some form of video conferencing software. Zoom has suddenly become known by pretty much all faculty, one way or another, but there’s Collaborate and other tools as well. How can faculty become more effective in using video conference tools?
Rick: Well, I think, to start, we can all just relax a little bit but teaching with the video conferencing doesn’t have to be tremendously different. There are a few things that are absolutely different, and a few things to just consider that aren’t really such huge problems. First of all, when we’re teaching on video conferencing, we really need to know the software. Some schools are using multiple kinds of software. And I would choose the one that you know best. I would, again, relax and keep a nice and slow pace when we’re teaching over video conferencing, sort of frenetic pace can be very difficult for the remote student to stay engaged with, and at the same time making the class engaging, just like you would in your regular classroom. So, when we’re teaching, we try and engage the students in the classroom. When we’re teaching with video conferencing, we need to find ways to engage those remote students as well.
John: In terms of getting comfortable, one thing I’ve recommended to a lot of people is that, if they’re new to using video conferencing, they should work with other people in their department who may also be new with that, and take turns hosting meetings, so they get to play with all the tools. And if people do that a little bit, there’ll be a whole lot more comfortable, I think, once they arrive at their classroom. Is that something you’d recommend, too?
Rick: Absolutely. And really, I would recommend that those partnerships go on past the preparation stage, if it’s possible to find a faculty member who you can either team teach with, or you can assist when they teach their class and they can assist you when you teach your class. That can be really useful because, let’s say we have a very large classroom, we’re probably going to mute the mics of the remote students so that we don’t hear every dog barking and train going by 100 times. So, as we have been muted, somebody, if they have a problem during the class, we have to have some way of knowing about it. And generally that’s going to be through the chat. So, most of these applications have a chat that can go on simultaneously. And again, in larger classes, it’s not going to be very effective to be monitoring the audio and video of all of the remote students. So, if we use the chat and say, let the students know, “Hey, if you’re simply confused, put a bunch of question marks into the chat. If you have a question, ask it in the chat.” But if you have a partner who’s working with you, and monitoring that chat, that keeps you engaged, and you focused on your teaching, but the person monitoring the chat can say, “Excuse me, Rick, you know, I really didn’t understand that last point you made, could you please go back over it?” or “I didn’t hear it,” or as a partner can say, “Somebody online didn’t hear it” or “There’s a lot of confusion online right now. Could you please go back over that point?” I think that’s really useful. And if you can’t do that with a partner, it’s useful to try thinking about rotating it as a student role. I know there’s some negative issues with that; there’s some problems in that you’re adding something to a student that may have some difficulty keeping up with the content and monitoring the chat at the same time. But, I think it is really important to have a way to monitor and check for understanding and check for technical problems while you’re teaching, and it’s difficult to do that yourself.
John: If faculty want to keep tabs on how things are going with their students, what else can they do besides monitoring the chat?
Rick: In smaller classes, you can keep an eye on the videos as well, just like you would in your regular classroom. If you have a seminar or discussion-based class that’s smaller, then you’re probably going to have enough room to see the students and keep an eye on them and scrolling through them and just visually checking for understanding. Then there are other things that we can do. We can do live polls, we can do quizzes in our LMS and other activities that will help make sure that students are getting the materials that we want.
Rebecca: I’m newer to video conferencing and have been experimenting with recording so if I needed to share something with a student that was sick, one thing that I realized, for example, in using Zoom is that the polling doesn’t show up in a recording automatically. So, there’s things that, if you don’t test it ahead of time, you might not know how to do it or how to set it up. So, I really found being able to practice with colleagues in advance really helpful, because I’ve discovered some of those stumbling blocks that I didn’t realize were going to be stumbling blocks.
Rick: Right? Well, and that’s key. The technology and where we’re going to be teaching, it might not be our own technology. It’s easier for us to practice on our own computers and our own systems in our own homes in locations where we plan on teaching. But in this case, we are probably going to be teaching in a classroom, and that classroom is going to be designed and laid out by, depending upon the school, somebody in IT or in a teaching and learning center, something like that. And we don’t know how it’s set up. We need to go in there and test it. We need to know how to change the camera if we’re going to use a document camera, for example, we need to be able to switch back and forth. We need to know how to do all those things. And that practice is beyond us becoming familiar with it. Like you were saying there, where you did a recording, I really recommend that people go to every room that they’re going to be using and record a session. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full lecture, but test what it’s like when you’re speaking at the podium and how you need to speak to be clear, make sure that the levels are right on the microphone for your particular voice. My voice is deep and loud, and it carries very well. So, generally, people can hear me, even if I’m a bit aways from the microphone, but that’s not true of everybody. You really need to know where the mic picks up and how well it picks up. You need to know where the frame is in your video. So, if you like to move around a little bit and walk back and forth from one side of the room to the other, that is probably not going to work in this environment. So, if you want to do it, you need to know where you are in the frame, so that you stay in view for those remote students. If you tend to walk around… and this is something that we’ve been taught to do as teachers, or have learned to do… that we want to walk around and engage the class. We want to make sure that people are paying attention. And we can really do that by moving around. Unfortunately, if we’re teaching to a group of remote students, when we move around, they might not be able to hear us as well. But they’re also then staring at a blank wall or the chalkboard or the whiteboard. And that makes it a lot harder to pay attention for those remote students, and even more so for anyone watching a recorded session.
John: And all that’s good advice, not just during a time of pandemic, but before any semester because one of the worst things you can do is go into class for the first day and set the example of fumbling with the controls and not being able to get this class started well, and that negative impression can have a pretty significant impact on how students see you and your class. So, you want to have a really good strong start, however you’re starting, and working with either the classroom or your computer controls, I think is really helpful, as you said,
Rick: I think we can expect some healthy skepticism from the students too. So we want to try and alay those by being prepared. It’s difficult for people who have never done this before, didn’t plan on doing it, would never have agreed to teach using this modality in any other circumstances. I think, fortunately, most people recognize that this is a big issue today and understand why schools are doing this. We may not all agree with every step that our administrations have taken, but I think we all do agree we’d like students to be able to learn this fall. My daughter’s starting college this fall in California in an art center, and he didn’t want to wait another year to start college. Personally, I would have been super happy to take another year. I would have just taken a year off. I’d be in, like Costa Rica or somewhere far away from here, if I was eighteen, [LAUGHTER] but there’s all kinds of life circumstances. People want to keep their careers moving on and it’s also a very different world today than it was when I was in school.
John: I think it’s a very different world than any of us were in school. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Indeed. For faculty that are having to teach from home or from their offices, and they haven’t done that before, can you talk us through some ways we might want to think about setting up our workspaces to be more effective and efficient.
Rick: I think, first off, we want to try and find a room that is relatively quiet and well insulated, sound wise, or isolated. That can be difficult. When we’re teaching at home, our children are at home too. Ideally, if you’re in a lucky situation, there are other people to help keep the chaos away from the room while we’re teaching, as much as we can. Secondly, I think finding a room that is well lit is a good thing. And then go ahead and start your camera, set up the room, turn on the lights the way you think they’re going to be, and then see how it looks. In the room I’m in right now, there’s an overhead light, and if I turn that light on, it’s not actually going to light my face better, because the way the lights going to come down, it’s actually going to hit the top of my head, and then put most of my face in the shadow. So, in that case, it’s actually better for me to have the natural light coming in from the window. But, we need to sort of think those things through in a way that we haven’t before. So, it’s good to bring up any video app really, and look at it on your computer and then adjust the lighting. So, the computer itself is going to provide some lighting, but then you might need to bring in an extra lamp to put on one side or the other to sort of balance the light. The other thing you can do is, if you have a light that directional and adjustable that you might normally use for reading or something like that, if it’s bright enough, you can actually turn it away from you and face it towards the wall or towards a lightly colored object if your wall is dark, and what that’ll do is that’ll bounce the light off of the wall and onto your face, and a light like that can otherwise be too harsh, but that way it can light it and sort of balance your light, keep your face well lit. Things like that can be really useful. And then again, just making sure that your mic is going to pick you up. Generally, the mics aren’t a big problem when we’re teaching at home in our rooms. Sometimes a headset can be useful. Testing and finding what works best for you, I think, is key in just making sure that the video appears in a way that everybody can see well and clearly.
John: And this was implied in your discussion, but having a natural light is really good, but you don’t want that natural light behind you because then you get more of that shadow effect. If you have a bright sunlit window behind you, which I’ve seen in so many faculty at webinars, you just see a dark blur surrounded by this bright light and you want to arrange it so, if possible, that light is facing you. I had that problem in my office and I had to put up a blackout curtain over the window so I didn’t get washed out that way.
Rick: Right, if you can’t change where your desk is facing and the light is behind you, that’s not gonna work. Even if it’s in front of you, if the way the sun shines at certain times of the day is straight in, it’s gonna make you squint, you’re gonna end up washed out, so the details on your face will get washed out. So, then you might want to think about curtains in that case. We want to work on the lighting so that we’re clear, that people can see our faces and our mouths. That helps people understand what we’re saying, but it also helps them convey all the nonverbal communication that’s part of the way we speak, that nobody can see in this podcast. But when we’re doing our video conferencing, they can absolutely pick up all kinds of clues on whether we’re smiling, on how serious we are when we’re speaking, based upon our facial expression. And you can’t really see that if, like you said, you’re backlit, whether it’s from the window or whether it’s from where the lights are in your room. So, we really just want to straighten out the lighting as best we can right from the beginning.
Rebecca: Also thinking about time of day is key and remembering that in the fall, we’re gonna head into shorter days. So, you might have really good sunlight at the end of the day right now, that lighting is great, but it might actually be much darker. [LAUGHTER]
Rick: That’s absolutely true, especially for those of you up in New York. [LAUGHTER] It’s a little less of an issue for my friends south in Tucson or Phoenix or Corpus Christi. [LAUGHTER]
John: I noticed behind you there’s a painting and some artwork on the wall, but there’s nothing that’s really distracting, that’s taking the attention away from you. Is that something perhaps that faculty should also do? Not have something really distracting in the background?
Rick: Absolutely. Anybody doing any video conferencing, whether it’s for anything that besides your friends, it’s not only going to matter because it’s distracting, but you might have things that… I’m looking around this room and right now I think everything… over the past four months, we have made sure that everything behind us is non-controversial as well. Because you may have artwork in your home that’s beautiful and wonderful, but we don’t necessarily want to begin religious discussion at the beginning of our computer science class, or something like that, right? So, we want to just keep everything nice and clean and neat.
Rebecca: Like my bland gray walls behind me. [LAUGHTER]
Rick: Yeah, exactly. The bland gray wall works really well. [LAUGHTER] So does a nice piece of artwork, I think is perfectly fine… and really any artwork is fine. I don’t mean to be too prudish on these things, but especially if we’re teaching 18 to 22 year olds, sometimes they can be a little bit more easily distracted by things like that. Well, actually, really anybody… You see something that’s gonna upset you, it’s gonna upset you. So let’s think about that and just make sure that the room is welcoming, and, and ready for you to focus on your coursework and not on the room.
John: In a lot of ways, the easiest environment to teach in that sort of framework is when you’re in a room where you get to control all that, to control the sound and so forth. Many colleges are going to be using a system in which there is some type of a hyflex structure, without much flexibility in terms of how students choose to engage, where some students will be present in the classroom in reduced numbers and spread out across the room, while other people will be participating online synchronously. And some other people might only be available asynchronously because of other issues, maybe because of healthcare issues, maybe because they’re back at home taking care of relatives, or they themselves are perhaps in quarantine somewhere, and may not be able to always participate at the same time. in that environment. What are some of the challenges that faculty might face in trying to engage in say, active learning type activities, which require some interaction among the students in person, among the students online, and perhaps even between the online and the face-to-face students?
Rick: Let’s take that last example first. From a teaching standpoint, that’s ideal. We’re mixing our in-class students with the remote students. It’s helping us build community. And it’s great. And that can work really well. But, we need to think about the environment. So, if we do one person locally with one or a few students remotely, then the local student needs to have a computer, or perhaps they could do it through their telephone. And we probably want them to have a headset on because, if everybody in the classroom has a computer open, and is communicating with people from off site, we’re going to just sort of have a bit of chaos in all the sound coming from the speakers. But, if we can find a way to do that, if the room is suitable, or if there’s easy ways to break students out, that’s sort of the ideal. Otherwise, I think we’re looking at building breakout sessions within the remote students so that the remote students and… you mentioned Collaborate earlier… students can make their own Collaborates and then work together there and then come back to the central Collaborate that the class is in and we can do sessions like that and then have them present the results of their group breakout. They can communicate that back. That’s another way of doing it. And then the local students can obviously just meet in groups within the room.
In the LMS, we may find that the group tool is something we need to use for these video classes, though, because some schools are not actually doing the work of dividing the section up. So, if I’m going to have a third of the class come on Monday, a third of the class come on Wednesday, and a third of the class come on Friday, I’m going to need some way to decide that. And since most of the LMS tools do have groups, I can either randomly assign students or I could put signup sheets for the days. And then I could also use that group rule to do breakouts, whether they’re asynchronous or synchronous, it will help to have them set up. And so I can, again, either do it randomly or through sign up. And then there’s all kinds of group activities that people can do once we get into that asynchronous realm. In the synchronous realm, they’re meeting, they’re speaking, they’re coming up with a plan and then they’re reporting it back to the group and the asynchronous it might be different. They might meet, come up with something, and then post their work to the LMS. for everyone to review.
Asynchronous environments can still be very interactive and active through discussions, through group work online. There’s lots of different tools that you can use for that. And we can also engage the students with polling. There’s Kahoots!, I’m not sure everybody’s familiar with those. But in, Kahoots!, there are ways of doing polls and you don’t necessarily have to have your institution on board. So, if your institution doesn’t have a polling system, or it’s not built in… like Collaborate has a built-in polling system… I believe Zoom does as well. But, if you can do some kind of polling that can help the students stay engaged. You can also do little quizzes in a similar way with the polling… and just sort of checking for understanding, I think those are great ways of helping students stay engaged.
John: And in terms of Kahoot!s, you can do it synchronously for the people who are in the room and remote, and then you can have some discussion of their questions after you go through them. But, you can then set it up so that you can share the quiz online so that students, at least, would have the option of participating at asynchronously as well. They wouldn’t have the same real-time discussion capabilities of the students who were there synchronously, but at least they would have the same type of retrieval practice as an exercise with Kahoot!.
Rick: When you talk about the recorded version of your video conference or your streamed lecture. That is not an ideal way to learn or to teach, to watch a recorded session of a bunch of other people. People are going to tend to zone out and not be able to follow everything that happens. They’re going to be distracted by the other things going on and there isn’t going to be anything pulling them back in. Because when you say, “Okay, everybody do this poll…” well, on the recorded version, and they’re gonna do it whenever later, they may not pause it, they may not even notice that you told them to do something right away. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think people should record their classes. I absolutely think we should. But, I think if we have a substantial number of students who are not able to attend live, then we are much better off with a very strong online learning component. At least in my opinion. A lot of these ideas that sort of flex idea came because people read work by Brian Beatty from San Francisco State where he coined the term HyFlex. When I was researching this when I started at NAU, I found that there is HyFlex, but there’s also been other people who’ve done very similar types of teaching, calling it different types of things, but it hasn’t been widely used. But, when you look at what they did, if you read the articles and research around this, which is relatively scant. But, what there is pretty much shows that all of the previous experiments with this involve having somebody there to assist the faculty member, whether it was a partner or a learning assistant or an educational technologist, somebody was there helping. And then the other thing that they really all did is build extremely good and strong online components. And in the San Francisco State one, they didn’t necessarily have to show up in person at all, they could do it entirely through the learning management system. And in my ideal world, schools would give faculty options so we would be able to teach one day a week live, and we would stream that for anybody who wanted it and everybody would have, say, one live session. And then in my ideal world, there would be an online component for the other half of the course for that week. And that would, I think, give students more actual flexibility in learning, but it would also, because the strong online component is so important, it would give them real incentive to create that strong online component.
John: And that would also have advantage if schools have to shut down at some point because if they do shut down, the face-to-face component will go away. And having that ready would make the transition a lot smoother, I think.
Rick: Absolutely. And if you are counting on everybody showing up every week, in the middle of a giant pandemic, you’re probably going to be disappointed. So, if you’re hoping to pass out papers, the one day a week that the students come to class, I think you’re going to find yourself with a lot of headaches. So, I think having your materials online… that’s the whole thing with an online learning course or a video conferencing course. And we didn’t really get into my background with that. I ran, for 13 years, a video conferencing system at a community college here. We’re the second largest county in the country and more rural than the largest county. And so at one point, we were teaching students over video conferencing who were living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. So, those students, they’d have to hike out 12 miles or take a helicopter and then drive for four hours to get to our main campus. So, that was why it made so much sense for us and why we had a video conferencing program that went on to 2015. And that’s why it was like that. It was because there was this real reason to do it. But, when I was managing it, I would tell faculty, we have to build online components. And the reason is, the plan that had been made by the academic leadership was… well, we had this complicated system of faxing papers and collecting things through fax, we were already building online components. We started with WebCT and I said if we use WebCT for this we can do low-stakes testing through WebCT. We can distribute papers. When the students lose those papers, we don’t have to worry about finding a secretary or an administrative assistant, or another professor who’s at the other campus to run and print it out. And in the cases where we were working in even more remote areas, we didn’t have those types of resources. So, we really needed to use the online component. And that’s even more true if your students are going to end up staying at home or if somebody gets exposed and has to self isolate for a few weeks, they’re not going to be in person. So, having that online component really is going to make your life easier. And as you said, right now, when all these plans were being made, our state looked fine. But our state now is one of the highest rates of infection in the world. So, I don’t know what it’ll be like in a month. Nobody does.
Rebecca: I didn’t want to follow up a little bit on this conversation. We’ve talked a lot about what it’s like for faculty in planning, but not really entirely about the student side of remote learning, like what their systems might need to be like or what kinds of rules we might have in place? Or what kinds of expectations we have about participation in terms of a synchronous video component. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Rick: I think one advantage we have that this is happening in 2020 is that, if we’re looking at engaging in something that’s primarily video and audio, our telephones really today can do a lot of that, and even answering short polls we can do on our phones. So, the students do have that possibility. But, ultimately, a computer is a little bit more effective. And one of the things I am worried about, actually, is access to that technology for some students who may normally rely on computer labs at our schools. And when we’re thinking about it as faculty members, it’s tricky for those of us in instructional design and educational technology, who have been doing this our entire careers to remember that not everybody has all the tools that we do. And so I’m really hoping that schools are either making socially distanced labs available, or ideally having equipment that is available for checkout for their lower-income students who may not have all the equipment. And I think the other problem that we’re going to have for students is going to be quiet learning environments. A lot of students live with multiple people living in the same room. A lot of students live in environments that are a little bit noisier, and we’re gonna have to adjust to that and figure out, based upon the size of our class, like I mentioned earlier, do we need to mute them? How are we going to check for their understanding if they’re muted? Are we going to have all the video available? You mentioned what the students have at home. What is their internet connection? Do they have a strong enough internet connection? It probably needs to be at least in the megabit realm for this to work at all. And I think the other problem is that sometimes students are going to be on shared connections. And what I found in the spring, that we had switched from the telephone company, because I was able to get a much higher bandwidth to the cable company, which generally has been great. I’m working at home, my partner works at home and that really hasn’t been a problem. But I tell you what, when my two daughters were both participating in Zoom conferences, my spouse was on a Zoom conference, and I was on a Zoom conference, we were not all doing video, it just didn’t work. And so we had to mute some of those sections. And really, some students may not even want their video on. And so I think we’re gonna have to be open and accomodating for those types of questions that students might have. Because they may be a privacy issue. It may be a technology issue, and if they don’t have their video on, I don’t think we need to spend a whole bunch of time talking to them about their video and why isn’t it on, whether it should be on. I really feel like there’s so many different reasons that are valid for the camera to be off, that we should probably let some students participate without video feeds.
John: And the same argument can be made for audio because if they’re in a noisy environment, they may not be able to even speak without a lot of background noise. It’s one thing to invite students to turn on their video and audio if they can, but we probably shouldn’t require it.
Rick: I think you’re right. I think it’s also one of the real key differences between that built video conferencing environment that was pretty popular a good 10 to 20 years ago. Those rooms were purpose built. Every single room was purpose built, whether it was built for somebody teaching or whether it was built for the student receiving the mat. rials. Everybody went into a room that was, ideally sound isolated, that had a good mic setup. And that’s just not going to be the case when everybody’s at home.
John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”
Rick: I think what’s next, globally… what a lot of us in instructional technology and instructional design really hope is that this fall is gonna go better than last spring. Because I can’t tell you how many, what I personally think are bogus, articles came out saying, “Look, it proves that distance learning doesn’t work.” No, it proves that distance learning needs preparation, and you can’t do it with a day’s notice. So, hopefully this fall, people will have much better experiences. I really hope people contact all the resources that are available at their schools. If they have instructional designers, those people can really help you build that online component. There are people who have been working in video at your school. I know there’s a number of people at Northern Arizona University with extensive experience. Reach out to those people, they can really help you. They can make sure that the room is the way you need it to be. I would say really reach out. But, as far as what’s next, I hope that what’s next is that people say, Wow, building an online component really made my life easier. And that they’ll start building online components all the time every year. And I’ve been pushing that to the point of obnoxiousness…. sorry, folks who worked with me… for decades now, that it’s more work that first semester you set it up, but every subsequent semester, using your learning management system, even for your in-person classes, is going to help. And now we’ve seen that it helps if there’s a global pandemic, but we can also see that it could help if there was a massive forest fire that went through your town, and everybody had to evacuate and you didn’t want to call this semester a loss. And there have been some, more in K-12, but some experiences where that really did happen. People were able to do it, and it’s also really critical. I don’t know how much you guys talk about K-12. But, that’s an environment, too, where preparing for emergencies is easier to see now. But, also where college students may sometimes forget things, 12-year olds and 13-year olds forget things a lot. And so having the work online for them can really help them. So, I’m really hopeful. That’s what I think is next. What I hope is next is that we have a much better experience this fall under such trying circumstances.
Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for your insights and some thoughts about preparing for the land of video moving forward.
Rick: Thank you so much.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.