Saturday, February 27, 2021

Avoiding Zoom fatigue and finding new ways to collaborate online

Photo by Surface on Unsplash

Many of us spend several hours a day in online meetings and the term Zoom fatigue has become a popular topic of discussion. Our extreme dependence on video meeting platforms is of course due to the exceptional times we live in and when we are able to meet face-to-face again the number of online meetings will no doubt decrease, though still much more frequent than before the pandemic. But what is missing in these online sessions? We can certainly see each other, smile, laugh, gesticulate and interact but what makes it all so tiring and rather repetitive?

A new study by Jeremy N. Bailenson of Stanford University, Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue, has investigated the factors behind Zoom fatigue and offers some remedies (see also a summary of the report in an article in New Atlas, Stanford study into “Zoom Fatigue” explains why video chats are so tiring. Bailenson highlights four main issues:

  • Eye-gaze at a close distance. We see a gallery of faces, many complete strangers, looking at us all the time. This would never happen in a physical meeting and can be rather disconcerting. Are they really looking at me and what are they thinking? Do I look all right or do they notice that my hair is a bit untidy or there's a pile of junk on the desk behind me?
  • Cognitive load. We often exaggerate our non-verbal signals to make them clear, like nodding very deliberately or looking straight into the camera. It's impossible to turn and smile at a colleague or exchange a knowing glance when a common issue is mentioned. We also have chat messages and other communication tools to deal with.
  • All-day mirror. We spend a lot of time looking at ourselves and being very aware of our appearance. This is a distraction and something we never have to deal with in physical meetings. One remedy for this is to cancel the self-view option in the platform. 
  • Reduced mobility. In physical meetings we sometimes stand up or stretch our legs for a few minutes but in online meetings we generally sit still for long periods, gazing at faces or slideshows. We also tend to sit very close to the computer camera and this adds to the strain. Maybe if we sometimes switched to audio-only we could all move around while we discuss and thus take a break from the gallery gaze.

But with Zoom, all people get the front-on views of all other people nonstop. This is similar to being in a crowded subway car while being forced to stare at the person you are standing very close to, instead of looking down or at your phone. On top of this, it is as if everyone in the subway car rotated their bodies such that their faces were oriented toward your eyes. And then, instead of being scattered around your peripheral vision, somehow all those people somehow were crowded into your fovea where stimuli are particularly arousing (Reeves et al., 1999). For many Zoom users, this happens for hours consecutively.

We also need to realise that we all need some recovery time before entering the next meeting. Although you can feel super-efficient by stacking online meetings one after the other, you will be much more efficient if you schedule at least 10 minutes between those meetings to simulate the time you would spend walking from one physical meeting to the next. Get up, go outside for a few minutes and mentally tune in to the next task.

So what's the alternative to the talking heads format? Maybe we need to stop gazing at each other and do things together. A post by David WhiteSpatial collaboration: how to escape the webcam, introduces the concept of spatial collaboration, where we focus not on our faces on the screen but on interacting in a shared space such as a whiteboard, collaborative documents like Google Drive or a storyboard like Padlet, Mural or Miro. We can all write or draw on these spaces and the focus is more on the activity and collaboration than our faces. One simple but effective method is how to create a discussion with the help of a simple drawing of a table and names around it.

My suggestion was to draw a very simple diagram of a table (just a square) and place each of the participants’ names around it for each group. We then shared this simple ‘map’ into the non-space of the platform and asked the groups to go clockwise around the table. This was an easy way to establish the order the discussion should go in, but I also noticed that there was suddenly a greater sense of togetherness and place. You could imagine who you were sat next to or opposite, and while this didn’t change the functionality of the technology it did change the psychology of it. It didn’t take much to help people imagine themselves into a shared location.
This spatial collaboration does not have to be noisy to be effective. You can have very rewarding silent collaboration (see my earlier post on this), at least for a few minutes, thus providing variation and reducing fatigue.  

Of course it's great to see each other, but maybe not as much as we do now. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Keynotes on demand

I have been invited to speak at many online conferences and webinars over the past year and although I always try to adapt my content to the audience, I often feel I'm just playing variations on a theme. I can imagine how it feels for the major speakers in the field and how many invitations they get each week to speak on much the same theme each time. In the past this meant extensive travel to international conferences, but today you can tour the world from the comfort of your own home.

One of the experts in demand just now is Tony Bates and he has announced an innovative approach to keynoting. He has an impressive track record in digital learning and despite "retiring" a few years ago he has maintained an impressive level of production with a very valuable blog, reports, lectures and one of the best books on online education, Teaching in a Digital Age (available as an open access book, practising what he preaches). Being in such demand it becomes hard to say no even if such appearances sometimes demand very uncomfortable working hours. You have to draw the line somewhere, but how to do that without disappointing?

So his innovative solution, described in a post, Five free keynotes on online learning for streaming into virtual conferences, is to record five different keynote speeches and offer them to any conference organisers under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA). They can be accessed from Commonwealth of Learning’s online institutional repository for learning resources and publications, OAsis, and can even be downloaded. This means conferences can include a major speaker as keynote without any live links, though he can make himself available for a personal Q&A session afterwards, either synchronously or if the time is inconvenient, asynchronously.

Here are direct links to the lectures:
Could this become more common in the future? Of course there are advantages of appearing live but since the purpose of a keynote is for inspiration it is feasible to use recorded lectures and focus the live sessions on discussion and interaction. An on-site conference has high profile keynote speakers as a major incentive to attend with the attraction of possibly meeting that person in a mingle session later on. In an online conference that advantage is largely lost so maybe we'll see more virtual keynotes that act as catalysts for more active discussion instead.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

You are being watched - the rise of educational surveillance

The use of artificial intelligence in education seems increasingly to be more about surveillance and control than fostering learning. During the past year there has been considerable concern about the ethics of remote proctoring where students were subject to constant surveillance by webcam, microphone and analysis of keystrokes and mouse clicks during online exams, see for example an article in Inside E-learning, Learning or surveillance? What students say about edtech and covid-19. Any unexpected activity in the student's behaviour (eg "abnormal eye movement") or movement in the room is detected and may lead to disqualification. Not only are such methods highly intrusive it is unclear what happens to all the data collected by the responsible companies. There must be better ways of assessing a student's ability than this.

If remote proctoring raises concerns then the next example sends shivers down the spine. An article on the site Rest of the worldChina is home to a growing market for dubious “emotion recognition” technology, describes how classrooms are equipped with face recognition technology and each student's facial reactions are constantly monitored. 
Every second, the surveillance cameras installed in each classroom at Niulanshan First Secondary School in Beijing snap a photo. The images are then fed into the Classroom Care System, an “emotion recognition” program developed by Hanwang Technology. It identifies each student’s face and analyzes their behavior: a student rifling through their desk might be labeled “distracted,” while another looking at the board would be labeled “focused.” Other behavioral categories include answering questions, interacting with other students, writing, and sleeping. Teachers and parents receive a weekly report through a mobile app, which can be unsparing: In one, a student who had answered just a single question in his English class was called out for low participation — despite the app recording him as “focused” 94% of the time.

Imagine then coupling this with analysis of every mouse click and keystroke and we have total control, or rather the illusion of control since the conclusions made by AI may be based on in-built biases (like the student called for low participation in the example above). The idea that algorithms can accurately assess a student's emotions by analysing facial expression is ridiculous. We all know how hard it is to read another person's face. But once you get AI making decisions it becomes almost impossible to question them since we tend to see computers as impartial and infallible. No matter how questionable such technologies may be there's big money to be made. The article claims that the emotional recognition market may be worth more than $33 billion by 2023. Money talks. For further serious concerns about facial recognition, see an article in Mashable9 scary revelations from 40 years of facial recognition research.

There are, of course, positive applications of AI in education but the key question in all cases is who owns the data, on what terms and do the students have the right to be forgotten? We all need to be very cautious about letting these technologies into the classroom.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Turn down the volume - Silence as a vital element in online teaching

How silent are your online classes and meetings? Probably not at all. We fill our synchronous meetings with talk and noise and feel awkward when no one wants to speak. But silence can help communication and stimulate reflection and has an important role to play both in the physical and digital classroom. In classroom teaching we often ask the students to work silently for a while but somehow in online sessions we feel the need to fill every moment with activity. After all the hectic online meetings and classes of the past year it's time to think more about how we can refine our online meeting skills and learn to embrace the power of silence. I've written about this theme several times in the past but it's always worth revisiting.

The simplest use of silence is to ask the class to switch off their microphones and cameras and spend a few minutes writing ideas on paper before starting a discussion. In this way all participants must try to formulate their ideas and everyone has something to say in the following discussion. For example, after such a silence they can be put into pairs in breakout groups where each person reads or explains what they have written in silence. Then they can form larger groups for a more structured task. In this way, everyone has contributed to the activity, not just those who raise their hands and are not afraid of speaking.

The concept of silent meetings has been around for some time in the business world, as explained in an article in The startup by David GascaThe Silent Meeting Manifesto v1: Making meeting suck a little less. This was designed for on-site meetings but can apply equally well to online meetings and even in education. The idea is to start a meeting by letting the participants read a short document (3-4 pages) outlining the topic for the main discussion and spending the first half of the meeting silently reading and commenting on the document using a collaborative tool such as Google Drive or Office 365 etc. Everyone can comment and reply to comments and there is often a very high level of activity even if the room is silent except for the pitter-patter of keyboards. The moderator or teacher monitors these comments and identifies the main points to be discussed when the "noisy" part of the meeting commences. In this way everyone has actively contributed to the discussion instead of only the most vocal members. The moderator's job is not easy especially if there are lots of comments and discussion in the document so you have to follow the comments very closely and try to narrow down the points of discussion. This could of course be achieved before the meeting as part of a flipped classroom approach but as we all know it is very rare that everyone gets involved in this way and there will always be participants who turn up without having had time to prepare. This way everyone is on the same page from the start.

I have tried this in some classes asking the students to write ideas and reflections on a shared document during an online lesson and it is always a fascinating experience. No cameras or microphones but lots of writing and you see the discussion in real time as the page gets quickly covered in comments in different colours. As a teacher this gives you time to identify themes for discussion later on or misunderstandings that require explanation. Most importantly you can see that everyone is contributing, in contrast to a regular speech-based discussion. A similar approach to silent meetings in education is described in an article in the Chronicle of Higher EducationTo Spark Discussion in a Zoom Class, Try a ‘Silent Meeting’. An added value of the method is that the collaborative document becomes a useful resource for the students and teacher after the class is over and the discussions and comments on the document can continue for days afterwards.

The students’ notes in the silent-meeting documents offer a transcript we could return to for guidance and inspiration as we prepared for exams, developed paper ideas, and guided future discussions. Threads in the margins of the main discussion often invited further exploration, as students noted areas of the course material that they found interesting and wanted to explore further. This record from the silent meetings was at once a set of discussion notes for students and a built-in survey for me as I sought to understand what excited students about the course.

Of course this method is not always appropriate but there are surely many other ways of using silence in online meetings. It's really about creating balance in our meetings, reducing stress and giving people space to think. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Radio as an educational lifeline for those without internet access

Living in a developed country like Sweden it is so easy to take internet access and ownership of digital devices for granted, but in many parts of the world the majority of the population has neither. In times of crisis when schools and colleges are forced to close there must be other channels for education that are accessible to as many pupils and students as possible. Broadcast media are an often forgotten channel for education in edtech discussions but are still thriving all over the world. For example, in the UK the BBC has recently increased its educational broadcasting to support schools during the lockdown (Guardian: BBC to expand educational shows in response to UK Covid lockdown). Many open universities around the world broadcast educational programmes on state or private television and radio channels, both as part of their regular courses but also as a service to lifelong learning since the programmes are freely accessible to everyone with a radio or television.

The value of radio for education is shown in an article on Rest of world, Why radio stations may be the real “e-learning” revolution. It describes how radio is used to provide teaching when schools are closed due to the pandemic. In sub-Saharan Africa over 85% of households lack internet access and many have no reliable electricity supply so even if there are many initiatives offering online education it is simply inaccessible for the majority. On the other hand most people have some kind of battery radio and can therefore benefit from school broadcasting.

In both urban and rural areas, battery-operated radios broadcast information to entire households. As cheap as $5, a radio is less energy-intensive than a television and can be shared more easily than a smartphone. The infrastructure was already there. All that educators needed was to adapt content.

Teachers have been busy broadcasting on existing channels or creating new radio channels and some are also offering educational content to mobile phones via sms. The response has been impressive and in Sierra Leone 58% of pupils listened five days a week.

Mary Phiri, a 36-year-old farmer in Joel Village in eastern Zambia, has five children in grades two to 12. Her work keeps her so busy that making sure her kids continued their schooling during the pandemic had to be a family-wide effort. Her older children would also tune in to assist their younger sibling with her schoolwork. With radio lessons, her children, normally shy at school, could ask their parents or siblings the difficult questions that might have gone unasked in the classroom.
Even in developed countries we should not underestimate the power of broadcast media in both formal education and lifelong learning. The future of education will involve a blend of both digital and traditional methods and we need to ensure that noone is excluded. Radio still has a lot to contribute!

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Learning together - the importance of ice-breakers in online learning

Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

Developing social connections and a sense of community in education has never been more important as most of us head into yet another term of online teaching. I've written before about the importance of the spaces in between the lectures, workshops and discussions; the spaces for developing relationships and a sense of common purpose that is normally achieved in the corridors, cafes and parks of the physical campus. This can be done online but it requires effort and attention.

I was inspired this week by a blog post by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Self-affirming Icebreakers, where she examines the value of simple ice-breaking activities to help students connect with each other and build that community feeling. It is not enough just to ask students to introduce themselves with the usual CV details, we need to reveal something personal and meaningful. The teacher's role here is crucial and she recommends sharing something personal to create a sense of shared vulnerability and inviting students to do likewise. This could take the form of sharing a photo of an object that has meaning for you and explaining why. Or recording a short introduction video taken at a location that you love (favourite cafe/park/view). She views this as a kind of collective effervescence, where a common thought or emotion forms a common bond. But it is essential that the teacher takes the first step in this to show that revealing a certain degree of vulnerability is acceptable.

I see a correlation with collective effervescence and successful ice breakers in online courses. Designing an ice breaker that elicits shared vulnerability amongst a class is a powerful way to highlight the interconnectedness between all humans.

By sharing something personal we can begin to relate to each other as people rather than as students and teachers in an educational setting. This helps build a group solidarity that is essential for collaborative learning and shifts the focus towards helping each other to achieve the learning objectives rather than competing to get the best grades. But such ice-breaking activities are not only useful at the start of the course, they need to be a regular feature. to compensate for the isolation of lockdown learning we need to offer more opportunities, both synchronous and asynchronous, to interact and build the community outside the confines of the curriculum.

Human connection is essential for community to develop – in a seated course or in an online course. But connection does not come through enabling a webcam, assigning a discussion, or rolling out a group project. Connection is established through relational trust and empathy. And when you take the first step to share and be vulnerable with your students, they are more likely to be willing to lean in and do the same. And, for the record, yes, community can be fostered asynchronously.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

2020 - the year education went online

Photo by Yasmina H on Unsplash

Everyone seems to be writing reviews of this crazy year so here's my attempt. At the end I include some really good articles for deeper insights.

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 caused a sudden and unplanned shift to online education in almost every country in the world. Universities, colleges and schools were forced to close and all activities switched to online mode almost overnight, with very little time for planning or redesigning courses that were designed for traditional classroom delivery. The fact that this sudden transition was managed surprisingly well in most countries was a tribute to teachers’ adaptability, creativity and dedication. However, it would be wise to differentiate between what is now termed as emergency remote teaching and well-designed online education and when the crisis is over we need to spend time redesigning our courses to the required standards of quality online education.

Institutions that managed the digital transformation well have a number of common factors. Firstly they had experience in online course delivery and a strategic approach to digitalisation with a good digital infrastructure including a learning management system, media platform and anti-plagiarism tool. Teachers were already trained in designing and running online and blended courses, often with the support of educational technologists, media specialists and course designers. Furthermore, they used a mix of synchronous and asynchronous interaction forms to ensure student engagement.

At the same time the crisis revealed many problem areas, though some were societal rather than educational issues. Many students were marginalised due to poor internet access or not being able to afford a digital device, whilst others did not have a suitable study environment in their homes. Since they had enrolled on a campus-based programme, many students lacked the necessary study skills to learn effectively online and became isolated from colleagues. Even when students have been satisfied with the online teaching they received, they found the lack of social interaction extremely demotivating. Teaching online is not just about delivering course material and tests, it is vital to create a community of trust and opportunities for social interaction and informal discussion. Building relationships is an essential part of learning. Future course design teams must take these factors into consideration and build in more support structures.

However, there have been many positive effects of the crisis. Firstly, it has placed an unprecedented focus on online education and forced all institutions to rethink their operations. This involves offering teachers training programmes and workshops to share good practice and develop a coherent approach to online education. Institutions have discovered the need to employ educational technologists who combine technical and pedagogical skills and can help teachers manage the transition in a structured manner. Teachers have also begun to create a culture of sharing by forming, for example, social media communities where they can ask questions, discuss, share good ideas and resources with teachers from other institutions around the country. There has also been a wave of guidelines, resources, online courses, webinars and digital conferences offering support to teachers and students on how to teach and study effectively online.

What lessons can we learn from this experience and what conclusions can we make?
  • Online and distance learning requires careful planning and new skills. Institutions need to implement strategies for digital development and provide necessary competence development for teachers.
  • Courses must be reviewed and redesigned to fully integrate digital elements. This demands teamwork between different competences: teachers, educational technologists, media production, librarians. Digital platforms and tools are integrated into campus teaching.
  • New forms of assessment and examination are needed in the digital space. There will be increased focus on formative assessment, oral examination, project and problem-based learning.
  • Greater flexibility of how students access their courses with greater integration between online and on-site as well as more blended learning solutions. The digital campus will become an established concept with a variety of platforms to facilitate networking, socialisation and collaboration as well as teaching and learning.
  • Online conferences will continue to thrive, largely replacing expensive and unsustainable international on-site conferences.
  • Virtual mobility programmes will become the most widespread internationalisation strategy as physical mobility becomes more restricted due to sustainability concerns and travel restrictions in the wake of covid-19.
Further reading
A global outlook to the interruption of education due to COVID-19 Pandemic: Navigating in a time of uncertainty and crisis. Asian Journal of distance education, Vol 15 Issue 1, 2020.

Bates, T. (2020) A review of online learning in 2020. Blog post.

Downes, S. (2020) Lessons from the pandemic. Blog post.

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020) The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning, Educause Review.

Martin, F., Polly, D., Ritzhaupt, A. (2020) Bichronous Online Learning: Blending Asynchronous and Synchronous Online Learning, Educause Review.

UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank (2020). What have we learnt? Overview of findings from a survey of ministries of education on national responses to COVID-19.Paris, New York, Washington D.C.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Learning is a bumpy road

Failure is an integral part of learning. New information, ideas, models and theories take time to sink in and there are many bumps on the way to understanding and mastering. But somehow we feel that everyone else has understood while we are still confused. In today's world where image and competition are so important and your Facebook or LinkedIn feeds are crammed with everyone else's success stories, it's easy to get depressed about your own imagined shortcomings. I think many of us recognise the imposter syndrome, the fear of some day being revealed to be incompetent or a fake. The common dream of turning up to work and realising you forgot to put on your trousers comes to mind.

However, the truth seems to be that most people feel anxious about their struggles to grasp new knowledge and if we could only drop the mask of self-confidence that we feel obliged to wear, we could learn so much more. We advertise our successes and hide our failures; very understandable but we could gain a lot by being more open, at least in trusted circles. This theme is discussed in an article on, Why failure should be normalized and how to do it

All of your heroes have failures under their belts—from minor mistakes to major disasters. Nobody knows how to do everything automatically, and the process of learning is usually a messy one. So why is the perception that everyone but you knows what they’re doing so common? Why do we externalize our successes but internalize our failures?

A learning community can thrive on being able to admit failure and confusion and helping each other to find solutions. This demands a sense of trust and a spirit of collaboration and teamwork, something that takes time and careful facilitation to develop. If a class of students see themselves as a team and work together to make sure everyone learns from the course, then this spirit is achievable. But sadly the education system is based on competition between individuals and therefore this team spirit can be hard to achieve even if both teachers and students agree on the advantages. Finding ways to assess and grade both individual effort and the overall teamwork could help shift the focus away from simple competition.

Sometimes we can learn more from discussing failures than listening to best practice but first we need to create a context where it's acceptable to admit your shortcomings. I've seen several interesting failure conferences that invite speakers to describe less successful projects and then get feedback from colleagues on how to improve. I find this idea more attractive than best practice conferences that often have the opposite effect. Listening to impressive descriptions of successful projects often make me feel so inadequate rather than inspiring me. I remember a keynote from an extreme adventurer (triathlons are for kids etc.) that was meant to inspire us to greater efforts but left me feeling exhausted and completely useless. The problem with academic conferences is that they are primarily celebrations of success and a conference paper about a failed research study or project might not look so good on your CV.

So the challenge is to create a climate of trust, sharing and mutual support in a class, project or department where asking for help is expected and welcomed. We're are after all human and perfection is unattainable. The article concludes: 

Most importantly, we need to normalize that it’s okay not to know everything, that it’s okay to still be learning, and to ask for help. Setting an example for new or more junior engineers is important. In our industry, we deal with extremely complex systems that can interact with one another in strange or unexpected ways. In many cases, it is simply not possible for one person to know everything. Being open about our learning processes and our mistakes can lead to tighter bonding.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Who's afraid of group work?

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Many webinars and online conferences today try to increase engagement by sending participants into small breakout groups, giving everyone the chance to contribute to the discussion. Evaluations show that most participants appreciate the opportunity to talk with colleagues and exchange ideas rather than simply listening to guest speakers. However, every time I set up a group activity I notice that some participants simply leave the meeting. Many colleagues have noticed this behaviour and it seems that for some people the prospect of group discussion is not appealing. Working in groups is an important skill and a vital part of the student experience, but is it always essential in webinars and conferences where participants are attending voluntarily and are not being assessed in any way?  

I have read comments that group work can be stressful when you are suddenly thrown into a group with total strangers and expected to have a meaningful discussion in only 20 minutes. Sometimes there are group members who dominate the session giving no room for other contributions. Other times there is an awkward silence when no-one really has a strong opinion about the question posed by the organisers. A few have commented that they attended the webinar to learn about a subject they knew very little about and therefore wanted to listen to the experts rather than discussing with other people who also knew very little about the subject. Some group members do not have a microphone or camera and cannot contribute at all or others have a very poor internet connection resulting in poor audio, echo or other strange noises. And some people just don't like group work and prefer to reflect alone.

What can we learn from this then? Here are some ideas but I'm sure there are more.

  • Zoom's new function that allows participants to choose which group they join or even to change group can help. At the same time, it can lead to confusion as people move from one group to another and thus disturbing potentially good discussions.
  • Offering an opt-out option before group work. Those who do not wish to join a group can stay in the main room and simply mute and switch off cameras and use the time for quiet reflection. Make it clear that this option is just as valid as joining a group. What they do with that time is up to them but maybe they will still be there when the groups return. 
  • Don't overdo the collaborative elements in a conference or webinar. Many people really enjoy just listening to an expert and have no need to discuss all the time. There is always a risk that group work is included without any real purpose other than just to make the session look interactive. Too many polls, breakout sessions, word clouds etc can get very tiresome.
  • Group work takes time to be useful. Explain why you're doing it, "sell" the benefits and give them at least 20 minutes to discuss, preferably longer. Less time is generally pointless. Remember that six strangers who land together in a room need a few minutes for introductions and ice-breaking before starting the discussion.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The spaces in between - the intangibles of education

Even when a course is well designed with committed, inspiring teachers and plenty of support to students, there are some students who simply don't connect. While some are inspired, others lose interest and drop out. Some students simply can't find their motivation, maybe due to relationship problems, worries about family, finance or health. You can't please all the people all of the time but sometimes it's hard to work out what is missing. The keys to successful course completion are often connected with intangible factors such as mood, confidence, resilience, empathy, intuition, security and trust. These are very personal and hard to address but they have a greater influence over education than we might think. 

Tony Bates discusses this in a new post, The importance of ‘intangibles’ in teaching and learning. Sometimes a teacher gets a gut feeling that something is wrong or that a particular student is not fully engaged, even if there are few, if any, outward signs. The ability to recognise these feelings and react accordingly is crucially human; an element that cannot be replicated in the realm of artificial intelligence and analytics.

... I believe that we need to respect the ‘intangibles’ in teaching and learning. They draw on a uniquely human ability to recognise something that is not defined but recognised as important. Intangible knowledge indeed may turn out to be the singularity that separates humans from artificial intelligence. Thus the ability of teachers to recognise important ‘intangibles’ may be the main reason to keep them employed as such in a highly automated future.

These intangibles are part of the concept of social presence described in the community of inquiry model (Garrison 20112). Social presence covers factors that contribute to creating a sense of community in a course with trust, respect and open communication enabling collaboration. Without these elements, even the most carefully designed course and enthusiastic and competent teachers will have problems engaging the students. A further element in the community of inquiry model is that of emotional presence (see Cleveland-Innes & Campbell 2012) where a student's emotions towards a certain type of teaching, course design, teachers and fellow students play a major part in determining the student's ability to fully engage in the learning process.

These intangibles are also a major factor in the current discussions of hybrid and distance education in the wake of covid-19. Even when the online courses are well designed and the video meetings involve plenty of group work and student engagement, something is missing. This is even clearer in the hybrid teaching currently being employed at many institutions where some students are in the classroom with the teacher and others are connected via Zoom. The online students get the same content as their campus colleagues and are involved in group work, but once the meeting is over they are alone, whilst the campus students can continue discussing and interacting afterwards. This reveals the importance of the social spaces between lessons where students form their identity both as a student and as part of an institution. Without these meetings it is impossible to feel any sense of belonging to a community and developing loyalty. The online students who lack these opportunities will feel disconnected and more inclined to drop out. We lack a digital campus that offers students safe spaces to socialise and discuss across subject and faculty boundaries. 

Feelings of isolation and a lack of social interaction that can lead to health issues and drop-out are reported in a recent UK student survey, described in an article in Wonkhe, Anti-social learning – the costs of Covid restrictions on students. An interesting feature here is that the majority of students are satisfied with the quality of the online teaching but are suffering from the lack of social interaction between classes. The issue is not so much with online teaching but the spaces in between. Increased feelings of isolation and inadequacy lead to lower levels of motivation, lack of confidence and disengagement with the learning process. 

Meanwhile those happy with online teaching praise the individual support they get from academic staff or interaction with peers. Even where students do express being unhappy with online teaching, they often contextualise that as problematic because they have moved unnecessarily to the local area to experience it, rather than the online teaching itself being of poor quality. The findings remind us how important the social aspects of learning are – and how difficult they have been to experience for many students so far this term.

Many courses have extremely tight schedules where an enormous amount of content needs to be covered with a limited amount of time. Extra time for socialisation activities is hard to find but without it there will be the danger that many students will suffer as the pandemic crisis continues to unfold. How can we offer students more digital spaces for interaction and relaxation that in turn will increase their feeling of belonging and create a university identity? 


Cleveland-Innes, M., & Campbell, P. (2012). Emotional presence, learning, and the online learning environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(4), 269-292.

Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge/Falmer.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Hiding behind our mobiles

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

I read a short thoughtful post by Anne-Marie Körling (in Swedish, I skydd av mobilen – något om de ensamma i skolanProtected by the mobile - about the lonely pupils in school) about how some school pupils use their mobile devices as a refuge when they feel threatened or excluded. There's a touching quote from a pupil who pretends to be checking important messages when classmates ignore her or to avoid getting into a confrontation. This also adds a seldom discussed element to the eternal discussion of whether or not to ban mobiles in schools. The option of hiding behind your mobile was only possible before the start of the school day. After that the pupils had to hand in their devices until the end of the school day and this meant that vulnerable and lonely pupils had no hiding place during break time.

This applies to all of us. We hide behind our mobiles to avoid contact, to protect our space and above all to look busy. I have been in many situations where I feel alone and awkward (conference mingle parties for example) and, as camouflage for my insecurity, I take out my mobile and pretend to be busy since it's much more acceptable than standing there looking lonely and bored. We live in a society where being busy gives you status and doing nothing is seen as weakness or laziness. So we fill our empty spaces with pretend activity, like checking our mobiles. In the past we hid behind newspapers or books, again giving the impression of doing something valuable. I remember commuting by train in a sea of newspapers every morning just as today's commuters are all immersed in their mobiles. It doesn't matter what you do there, a game, cat photos, scrolling down your Twitter feed, but the point is that you could be doing something important. I'm not bored or lonely, I'm answering important mails or reading brushing up my project management skills. 

We search our mobiles for some kind of contact, recognition or reassurance that we can't find in the physical space. Of course we can see them as distractions and substitutes for real life interaction but they also have a therapeutic value and offer us shelter from an often harsh reality. Simply banning them is schools can have unexpected side effects.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Accessible online meetings - work in progress

Photo by Daniel Ali on Unsplash

In almost all synchronous meetings, either on-site or online, there are people who are in some way excluded. Whatever time you choose it will not suit everyone and even if the meeting is recorded the absentees can only be spectators with little or no opportunity to affect the outcome. Often there is no time to let everyone speak or the discussion is dominated by a vocal minority. In online meetings there are always participants with poor internet connections or older devices that don't support the latest versions of the software being used. A further dimension to the exclusivity of synchronous meetings is how well they offer support to participants with special needs. How well can people with hearing or sight impairments follow your webinars or conference sessions and how can we improve the experience?

An article from Drake MusicAccessibility in Video Conferencing and Remote Meetings, gives some good suggestions for making online meetings more accessible. For those with hearing difficulties, automatic subtitling is obviously the best option, but at the moment this is not available in all platforms. Zoom for example, offer the option of adding a third-party app for automatic subtitling or enabling a manual service if you have a colleague who can type very quickly. I suspect this feature will soon become default but the accuracy of speech to text apps will vary greatly depending on language. As ever they work best in English and other major languages. An interesting idea when showing slides is to share the slide preview page instead of the full screen slide. The reason for this is that your slide notes will be very useful for those who have trouble following your speech. 

Another option is employing a sign language interpreter. New features in Zoom include the option to spotlight several people in the video view and so you can spotlight both the speaker and the interpreter. Taking this concept a little further how about being able to offer simultaneous interpretation into other languages? This would mean having separate voice channels and allowing participants to listen to an interpreter rather than the speaker. I don't think any platform offers this facility but it would really increase the accessibility and reach of international webinars if they could be available in different languages, as well as in sign language.

For those with sight impairment good audio is essential and that means strictly muting everyone other than the speaker to eliminate background noise. Speakers should also make sure they use a good headset or desktop microphone for best audio quality. Speaking clearly and slightly more slowly gives everyone time to follow you and any visual material must be described. In addition it is a good idea to identify yourself when you want to speak. In this context the webinar becomes more like a traditional telephone conference where the role of the chair is vital. Small breakout groups can be more spontaneous and group notes can be uploaded as audio files to a common work space.

Another approach to greater accessibility is to reduce the importance of the synchronous meeting and learning to meet and collaborate asynchronously. Here the input can be recorded in advance with good subtitling and text manuscript and discussion can be curated in a community that allows text, audio or video comments and a format that is in line with relevant accessibility requirements. Bandwidth requirements are much lower for asynchronous platforms and participants can even submit text responses from a mobile. We may be surprised at the greater response levels compared to a traditional video conference. Maybe we need to ask ourselves when we really need a synchronous meeting and how much we can achieve in other ways.  

I will admit that I have not been very aware of these issues until recently and I have a lot to learn. I am keen to learn more.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The problem with prizes

Photo by Joshua Golde on Unsplash

Most universities and schools have annual polls to find the best teacher of the year. This is a great honour of course and the idea is to reward good teaching and provide inspiration to other teachers. We have a great fascination for prize winners in all areas of society; from sporting awards to Oscars and Nobel prizes. Everyone loves a winner. The problem is that the focus is so often on individuals rather than the teams behind them and it is often unclear what the selection criteria are.

I started thinking about this after hearing a presentation at a Swedish online conference this week. The authors, Jeanna Wennerberg, Klara Bolander Laksov och Tore West, presented results from a study of nominations for best teacher awards at Stockholm University and examined in particular gender issues. The paper has not been published yet so I will not reveal too many details, but the study showed a clear bias in favour of male teachers (77% male 23% female). Interestingly, female students overwhelmingly nominated male teachers. The students' nominations were accompanied by criteria to justify the choice and there were clear trends there such as female teachers being seen to be better at building good relations with students and being more inclusive. However in general male teachers were seen as meeting a greater number of criteria for nomination. When we celebrate  a winner we need to consider what biases and preconceptions lie behind the nomination. What makes a great teacher?

I think most of us can admit that during our education we have had a teacher who we hated at the time. They worked us hard, challenged us, nagged and made us uncomfortable. They never gave us the right answers we needed for the exam but forced us to work things out for ourselves. But later on in life you realise that this teacher was the one who really taught you valuable lessons. They will never win any awards because their effect is only visible at a distance. How do we capture this in our best teacher awards or in course evaluation forms?

This backs up many other studies about student evaluations of teachers and raises many questions about the validity of these subjective and spontaneous assessments. Gender is one of several variables where unconscious bias and prejudices play an important role; accent/dialect, socio-economic background, nationality, ethnicity etc. How far do stereotyped ideals affect nominations and evaluations? 

Given that teaching today is becoming increasingly a team effort where several teachers design a course in close collaboration with educational technologists, librarians and media specialists, is a focus on the teacher as soloist still a valid strategy? Even if we see that teamwork is such an important factor and that the less visible members are just as important as the front figure we still revert to the urge to nominate individuals. It's similar in examination where we assess an individual's ability and seldom assess and reward a team.

I am not criticising the hard work of the teachers who do receive best teacher awards. They do a great job and deserve their award. But we do need to think a bit more deeply about how we define good teaching and how it is evaluated and judged. It's much more complex than a simple spot poll. Interestingly, the Nobel prize winners this year feature several research teams and the peace prize went to a collective, the UN World Food Programme

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Zoom and beyond - new variations for online meetings and conferences

Videoconferencing has now become an everyday feature in virtually all forms of education and the there has been a rapid development of new platforms and collaborative features over the last few months. Zoom has been in the forefront this year but there are now alternative solutions that offer wider opportunities for educators, some built on Zoom and others with alternative solutions. Like many platforms and tools used in education, Zoom was originally designed for business rather than education. When I first started using it, I found it frustratingly focused on presentations and one-way communication with the chat function added as an afterthought. However, Zoom have been very active this year in adding features requested by its extremely large customer base in education, but many educators still feel that it still isn't fully adapted to an educational setting. Luckily, Zoom offers other companies the opportunity to build new apps that plug into Zoom and that has allowed niche players the chance to build interesting adaptations.

So now there are a few interesting Zoom-based platforms that are more adapted to class teaching or educational conferences as described in an article in Inside Higher EdInnovators Seek Zoom University 2.0. Building on Zoom, Class for Zoom, offers a more flexible environment for class teaching featuring more flexible arrangement of the class video streams, easy one-to-one sessions, built-in tests, quizzes and assignments, examinations, attendance and performance monitoring and so on. The platform is still in a beta version and is not yet commercially available but it is a sign of a new wave of more specialised spaces for digital meetings. The features of Class for Zoom can be seen in the following short promotional video.

Another Zoom-based solution that I see great potential in is QiqoChat. This is designed for online conferences and combines Zoom with Google Drive and other tools to support asynchronous conferences featuring working groups that collaborate on drawing up reports, documents and proposals. You can offer plenary sessions where all participants can listen to and discuss input and then divide into groups, each with a different task, who then discuss and collaborate over a period of days or weeks using collaborative documents interspersed with group video meetings. Platforms like this offer new horizons for online conferences, escaping the confines of the physical conference and becoming more asynchronous and inclusive.

An interesting alternative to Zoom is InSpace, offering a new visualisation of online meetings and class interaction. The usual features for screen-sharing and interaction are all there but the interaction is much simpler and more intuitive. Here the participants can move their photo avatars around the screen to talk to each other and you have to stand beside someone to be able to talk to them. The article in Inside Higher Ed interviews one of InSpace's founders, Narine Hall

One of Hall's biggest frustrations with Zoom was that as an instructor, she couldn’t easily move between breakout discussion groups. With InSpace, Hall can create multiple breakout rooms, which appear as squares on the screen. Move your avatar inside the box, and you can hear the conversation that takes place inside it. Move outside the box, and you can no longer hear the group.

This features enables conference mingling and group discussions in a more intuitive way than in Zoom and the other standard platforms. 

On a similar theme there is also Shindig, a platform that has been around for a couple of years now, that enables participants to form spontaneous groups and interact with other participants as you would in a physical setting. 

One vital feature of all these platforms is how they deal with accessibility issues such as built-in automatic subtitling. In Europe we now have demands that videos used in educational should have subtitles to help especially those with hearing difficulties. I was recently involved in a meeting in Google Meet and was very impressed by its built-in speech to text function that was almost fault-free for me (at least in English). Hopefully all platforms will soon be able to offer this.

Online meetings are here to stay and the race is on to find the ultimate platform. Each of the platforms I have mentioned here has very useful features and we can hope that there will soon be one that joins all the dots. I haven't even mentioned the use of virtual worlds and virtual reality (see earlier posts on that theme). However, as with all educational technology there will be terms and conditions that apply and educators will have to be careful to check where all the data is stored and what the company plans to do with it.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

What if ...? Planning for uncertainty

Photo by Nick Bolton on Unsplash

Many discussions about the digital transformation of the past months centre around whether online is "better" or "worse" than the physical classroom. These either/or discussions seldom lead anywhere since it is not about any form being better of worse but about how we teach and learn in different environments and circumstances.Of course many teachers and students long to return to the familiarity and convenience of the campus because that has been the norm for so long that it is seldom questioned. The digital transition was a stressful time and many teachers and students will therefore associate online education with feelings of isolation and good enough solutions. However, the digital element is here to stay and most if not all universities will need to learn how to blend online and on-site teaching in a more seamless way. Of course there will always be advantages of meeting, working and discussing in a physical space, when possible and applicable. That qualification is so important to stress. Digital spaces can extend the reach of education and be so much more inclusive than the physical space. The physical and digital can complement each other. It's not a competition.

But what if everything went online forever? That is the topic of an article in Inside Higher Ed, What if Everything is Online Forever? Many activities simply cannot be done online, but those that can may stay that way. It is very likely that a lot of university staff have discovered that they can work more effectively at home and be reluctant to return to the office, especially as long as the threat of covid-19 remains. Will the role of the campus diminish as more activities move online? What if there is no return to "normal"?

What about online learning? Here is what I think. As soon as possible, face-to-face learning will return. Everyone -- students and professors -- misses the classroom. Residential learning, however, will be forever different. Post-pandemic, what we will see in higher education is a new integration of residential and online learning. Face-to-face classes will come back, but online will not go away. The new residential class will have digital components. The line between face-to-face and online will blur.

How do we plan for such an unpredictable future? Another post in Inside Higher EdHigher Ed’s Next Black Swan? speculates further. We fondly hope that a vaccine for covid-19 will be available in the coming months but it may take years to develop a vaccine that really works. During that time a new virus could take off. We all need to develop plans A, B, C and D and realise that a combination of online and campus is the best we can hope for in the coming months and maybe even years. How many universities are asking this question, for example:
What would we do differently if we knew that the next four years will look -- from a public health perspective -- much like the fall of 2020?
What happens if international student mobility becomes impossible? What about climate issues? The future is impossible to predict and therefore we need a greater sense of resilience and flexibility to be able to meet whatever comes our way.