What’s the best role for synchronous teaching and learning during a pandemic?
Over the past few weeks the switch to wholly online learning has been represented by live video meetings. Screenshots of students and faculty in their Hollywood Square boxes are the emerging icons of the new post-secondary order.
Zoom University is a nickname I’ve seen pretty widely. Already a casual glance turns up all kinds of ZU merchandise, even stickers. “We live in Zoom now” claims the New York Times Style section. Too much Zoom experience has a nickname: being Zoomed out.
(I am mildly curious about why Zoom blots out any mention of the many other video tools out there: Blackboard Collaborate, Skype, Google Hangouts (Meet) or whatever it’s called now, Shindig, Adobe Connect, various Cisco offerings, Lifesize, etc. I know people don’t want to mention Microsoft Teams because it’s Microsoft. I don’t have good enough stats to know what Zoom’s market share actually is in higher education.)
This discursive emphasis on video in education is based on some reality. Campuses have taken to videoconferencing for classes at unprecedented levels during the pandemic and it’s easy to see why. Most instructors who’ve never taught online can find live video to be a closer analog to their classroom practice than asynchronous tools. I would bet many instructors want to feel a connection to their students, and the active video feed counts for much more than an email reply or a Blackboard discussion post. They want “conversational spaces” for teaching and learning (Diana Laurillard; cited by Tom Haymes).
Meanwhile, many faculty and students own or otherwise have access to hardware capable of capturing and displaying video. Plus a lot of colleges and universities purchased licenses for one or more videoconference tools. And – less widely discussed – there are decades of scholarship on how to teach with synchronous technologies.
However, over the past week I’ve been seeing and hearing stories of pushback. There’s a current of thought which holds that students would be better served by dialing back the Zoom and shifting instead to a greater emphasis on asynchronous tech.
What’s the reasoning here?
First, requiring live video means assuming students have access to infrastructure. Not everyone has the right hardware. Worst, not everyone has sufficient bandwidth. Those that do might struggle with limitations of data caps or competing with folks thrust together in a lockdown and each hungry for broadband. Heading out to an academic or public library is not an option, and the same goes for setting up shop at a Starbuck’s or McDonald’s.
(I’m not sure how strained national and local infrastructures are by this. Any problems they have will worsen things for all.)
Second, time zone issues can become a real problem in scheduling a simultaneous event. This is especially true for international students.* It can also be a problem for people within sprawling nations, such as Russia, Canada, or the US. For the latter I recently heard of Hawaiian students having to cope with meetings scheduled for early mornings on the mainland’s east coast.
I am on the west coast. There is a student down the street who goes to Cornell and is now doing online classes. She has instructors who are doing synchronous classes… which means she is up and online at 5 AM to attend lecture.
I am strongly advocating for the asynchronous approach with my colleagues, and most of them get it thankfully.
Third, scheduling becomes harder for many people under quarantine. Think of parents with children now staying at home, or people balancing limited bandwidth: multiple students and professionals. Those who still have jobs may see schedules shifted. Those working directly to address the pandemic – nurses, surgeons, first responders, etc. – will also run into scheduling problems.
Fourth, turning on a camera for an hour or more might be a problem for people suffering physical health issues. They might be sick from any number of ailments, not to mention the coronavirus itself. Those enduring mental health problems, possibly exacerbated, may not want to present themselves to other people. They may also (or additionally) be caring for other people and not want to show that on screen.
Fifth, as with any other technology, faculty and students have to learn how to use it competently. Anyone who’s ever used videoconferencing knows the many ways users can run into tech problems: camera not picking up, mic not recording, speakers not playing. Then there are accidental ways we can look foolish or embarrass others, from bad camera angles to not muting oneself. These are all problems corrected by practice over time, especially with the help of skilled folks… but we haven’t had that luxury this past month,.
When I wrote “competently” I was only speaking of the technical side. The pedagogical dimension – the whole point of the exercise! – runs into versions of these problems as well, especially for faculty just using the tech for the first time.
EDITED TO ADD: Sixth, live video is not always comfortable for people with a range of non-neurotypical profiles. (thanks to Sue Scheibler for the reminder)
There are also challenges with Zoom in particular. Recent criticism of its security practices (cf those from The Intercept: 1, 2) have given some campus IT leaders – and their associated lawyers – pause.
I’ve raised this topic with a range of academic audiences and heard a lot of assent. If I’m right – and, as ever, am happy to be corrected by evidence – we’re seeing a nationwide reaction to a first wave of videoconferencing practice and policy. I don’t have enough information about other nations to go on.
Are you seeing this, or experiencing it in your own practice? Are there other rationales in play? And is anyone using this switch – if they have the time – to follow Haymes’ advice to reflect deeply on what actually works best?
*Yes, for years I have considering setting up a counter-clock Future Trends Forum to serve Asia, as well as being easier on Australia and parts of Africa and Europe. Let me know if you’re interested.
(thanks to many friends, including a slew on Facebook and this Reddit thread)