Saturday, August 22, 2020

Visibility in online meetings

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

What do you look at during all those video meetings? Many of us spend a lot of time watching ourselves and becoming very aware of what we look like on the screen. That's a major difference between physical and digital meetings; we become much more self-aware and concerned with our appearance and gestures. We are also unaware of who is watching us Since we can all choose gallery view or speaker view you never know who is watching you, even if you are not actively involved. Many people forget that they are visible and will behave in a less than focused manner. Some check out physically but are still digitally present: an empty chair, camera pointing at the ceiling etc. I imagine most of us have done this at least once. The point is that if your camera is on you should probably assume that someone is looking at you.

Then there are the participants who choose not to switch on their cameras. There are many reasons for this, such as poor connectivity and privacy concerns, but unless you can create a very strong sense of community and trust in a group you cannot expect everyone to want to be visible at all times. However, even if we accept this and understand why some people are wary of being constantly on show, this affects who we interact with in the session and how we value the participants. This is a fascinating topic that is described in a post by Autumn Caines, The Zoom gaze

She writes about the power dynamics of being visible and not being visible in video meetings. Visible participants can attract attention more easily (waving, physical hand up) and are more obviously engaged; even if they may be doing something else they are looking at their screen and camera. Invisible participants have difficulty attracting attention and have to rely on the chat to make a contribution. This is a problem for those with low bandwidth.

It is wonderful to give students the option of turning their cameras on or not but are there underlying power dynamics (unconscious, implicit, and unintended) of being seen that still create inequities in these environments? Are teachers unconsciously tuned in to faces, expressions, body language in such a way that privileges students who are privileged to have fast bandwidth, nice cameras, and good microphones? My gut tells me yes.

I have written before about the inequalities of hybrid webinars where the teacher has a studio audience as well as online participants. Here the on-site participants have direct contact with the teacher whilst the online group has to make significant efforts to be heard or seen at all. It seems that the division between visible and invisible participants in a completely online setting has a similar imbalance.

It is not just the lack of visibility that can lead to inequalities. Names are also important. A participant with camera on but a cryptic name will be accepted more than the combination of no camera and an anonymous name. After all the fuss about Zoombombing earlier this year people are naturally suspicious of participants with generic or nonsensical names and no video. Anonymity may be vital for vulnerable people but the risk of being taken as a potential spammer and being ejected from the meeting are high.

How can we try to address these inequalities? There is no clear answer to this but one aspect of online meetings that we need to develop is using different media and spaces so that everyone can find a channel for their voice. This means having parallel spaces for collaborative writing (collaborative documents, whiteboard, forum, chat etc) and including group work. It also means extending the discussion asynchronously so that there is a space for those who like to reflect first before they contribute. Maybe we should use the synchronous meeting time for input and inspiration and then allow participants to discuss and collaborate on their own terms, in their own online group discussion or as asynchronous discussions. Then gather everyone together again to examine the results. Focus on a task rather than visible online presence.

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