By Chris Bell (Senior Learning Technologist – Digital Practice)
Every student should feel that they can participate and contribute, irrespective of the mode of study in which they find themselves. However, adopting a policy position on this can be problematic; what is deemed comfortable and reasonable for one student may feel very different for another, and as an Institution we need to respect the decision-making process behind these choices. One of the areas that many students and tutors have been hotly debating since the beginning of the pandemic is whether we need to ‘show our faces’ online; what are the pedagogic and/or social benefits of having our cameras turned on and should we seek to adopt a cohort-wide approach in answer to this question?
Through the University’s DELTA provision and wider Digital Learning Baselines work, the Digital Learning Team have been advising academic colleagues on effective approaches to tackle many of these emerging issues. The following points summarise the most important aspects of that advice.
- Give students the choice as to whether to turn their video feed on in certain situations. Where possible seek a cohort consensus on this during induction. Discuss the possibilities of blurring your background, or where possible create or use a standard (Institutional) background for all. There are many third-party tools that can be used to blur or create a ‘stock’ background for Blackboard Collaborate and whilst we await native functionality for this purpose, the use of third-party tools may be something that we use as part of an induction activity.
- Provide opportunities for ‘real-time check-in’ in synchronous online sessions and set the expectation and ground-rules that all students will contribute. For example, ask questions to ascertain levels of understanding but give students a variety of way to respond (Text chat (never block capitals), non-verbal emoticon responses, polls, and microphone). If we are encouraging students to use emoticons, ensure that they understand how certain non-text responses can be misinterpreted and misrepresented.
- Discuss with students some of the benefits to you of them having their camera turned on. For example, it can be a good way to build affinity with others and demonstrate empathy, it can also demonstrate non-verbally that you understand key concepts. If, at least for some of the time, we can make ‘camera on’ established practice it can benefit individual members of the cohort and thus the wider cohort. It is important to convey this to students such that they can make an informed choice.
- Discuss with the whole cohort why in certain circumstances not revealing your background, or not having your camera switched on is a decision with strong connections to the development of ‘digital capabilities’. Setting boundaries around privacy, including different home/work/study environments and dress code are important skills for students to understand and develop, particularly as they move into their professional lives.
- There may be circumstances where we want to encourage students to speak about their backgrounds, both literally and figuratively. This may be a useful ice-breaker activity, but we must also be aware that there may be cultural sensitivities for some students in this area and if some students remain quiet, or don’t wish to participate, we should pick this up with them in a one-to-one scenario where possible to protect their dignity. It is important to note that even if we are discussing concerns, issues or interests that are important and personal to us, no personal data (phone numbers/addresses) should ever be shared across any of our virtual classroom environments.
- Think about how we give students equal attention. Don’t always be drawn to those students with their camera on and always speak directly to individuals by using their name (seek clarity on pronunciation, if required). It is often the case that we must wait a little longer for a response in an online environment, so don’t rush to fill the silence! If responses are through text chat, try to ensure that acronyms and text-speak and one to one breakout chats (which may form small cliques) are minimised. Again, we can set these expectations through induction at a cohort level.
- If students have accessibility needs, or perhaps don’t feel that they can contribute during a particular session, ask them to direct message you at the start of the session to clarify this.
- Where possible, keep expectations consistent across different tools and modes of study. For example, if students are in a ‘live’ Blackboard Collaborate session, they should be able to quickly orientate themselves with baseline expectations of engagement because they’ve ‘done this before’.
- Ensure that students are aware if a session is being recorded. The University position is that this will be the norm, but if for certain sessions recording isn’t appropriate, let students into the decision-making process behind this and provide a follow-up summary recording.
- Group work and collaboration is an essential aspect of making online sessions ‘active’. Opportunities to debate with peers within the cohort in a digital environment is a vital digital capability. However, contribution to discussion and debate should always be constructive and respectful. Disagreeing with a point that somebody has raised is different from disagreeing with the person who has raised it. This is particularly important in online environments, where moderation of debate may not always be as instant and straight-forward because of the irregularity of non-verbal cues.
- If students aren’t speaking, encourage microphone etiquette. Mute should be the default, unless in an active discussion where free-flowing ideas and reflections are being shared.
- In Blackboard Collaborate, the expectation should be that students will actively ‘leave’ at the end of the session. Where possible, we should wait behind until all students have ‘left the room’. Often students are unsure how to do this, so make sure that this is covered in induction.