Inclusive Goals and Strategies for Co-Learning Using Video Conferencing

Here, we simply offer some of our thoughts on video conferencing as a medium, focusing on three topics:

Kate Joranson and Alison Langmead

On creating an environment that encourages sharing ideas as well as listening

  • Greet everyone upon entry to the co-learning encounter, whether there are side conversations happening or there is silence.
    • Acknowledging the physical presence of the co-learners early in your time together can help them feel valued, more ready to share ideas, and see themselves as part of the co-learning community.
  • Share the plan or agenda at the beginning of the co-learning encounter, letting everyone know when there will be opportunities to participate, and what the expectations are for this. Invite them to suggest changes. 
    • This is important, even among colleagues who perceive themselves as equals. People appreciate knowing what will happen next, and can mentally prepare accordingly. Moreover, inviting them to suggest changes starts to build shared ownership of the co-learning experience.
  • Share your expectations for, or have a discussion about, group expectations for using the chat feature. For example: Are we all comfortable using this feature as a place for side conversations and sharing resources? 
    • Using the chat for such side conversations can provide people with alternative ways of connecting with one another, acknowledging one another’s comments, asking follow-up questions, and pursuing multiple conversation threads. 
    • Chat also can allow people to take up small amounts of space in the discussion when that feels appropriate to them.
    • Because video conferencing does not make an effective space for simultaneous sound from multiple participants, spontaneous utterances of affirmation, confusion, joy, etc. are lost. Chat can provide a place for people to share these affective responses, especially if that is a shared practice of the group.
    • Chat can also be overwhelming to some; an unwelcome extra demand on their already-strapped attention.
  • Because video conferencing is not real life, we lose a lot of the social cues about when it is our turn to speak. One of the most fundamental components of our own CLE environment, therefore, is how we navigate this fundamentally disruptive change in human communication strategies. The following example uses features particular to Zoom, but we anticipate modifications can be made to suit your own environment.
    • Co-learners are not invited to speak without signaling in advance their desire to do so.
    • We ask that co-learners raise their virtual blue hand when they would like to offer a new comment, or if they would like to take the conversation in a different direction from where it is at the moment.
    • We ask that they use the green “yes” check mark when they would like to add on briefly or follow up on what is being said. By signaling with the green check mark, we note that the co-learners are committing to keeping their comments brief and directly related. 
    • The host(s) of the convening are in charge of keeping track of the list of co-learners who have asked for the floor, and their reasons for so asking (that is, new subject or follow-up). We have found it best for the host to both verbally announce the current speaking queue, as well as to maintain an updated list in the chat for reference.
  • Our “raise hand/check mark” system is designed to make more visible modes of human interactive communication that are obfuscated or destroyed by videoconferencing, but it also has numerous other ramifications, both intentional and, we are sure, unintentional.
    • The system can help people speak who might not feel comfortable jumping in, whether online or face-to-face.
    • This system can help the group, especially those who speak frequently, to feel assured of their time to speak, and can allow them to better listen to their colleagues while waiting “in line” to speak.
    • This system prompts people to use metacognitive communication skills. Before they speak, they need to decide whether their comment is taking the conversation in a new direction or not, and whether their comment is brief or lengthy. 
    • Crucially, this system also requires that everyone, especially those accustomed to speaking whenever they wish, take turns speaking and listening.
  • We wish to emphasize that the “raise hand/check mark” system requires a lot of attention and care work on the part of any host, and if possible, it is ideal to have co-hosts who maintain the community’s work together: one monitoring the participation pane and the chat conversation, one actively engaging in the conversation.
  • We find that, even for groups that know one another well, if there are more than six participants, the “raise hand/check mark” system becomes important for maintaining equity, and it is the job of the host to ensure that the system is in place.

On our public and private selves

  • Invite people to hide their self-view. Express to the group that self-monitoring can contribute to video conferencing fatigue. Some may not know this, and others may simply appreciate hearing it as they feel it. 
  • Acknowledge that we are engaging with one another in an online space, but also in one another’s domestic spaces.
  • While keeping video on is important for community cohesion, encourage people to turn off their video if it will help them participate, due to privacy concerns, caregiving responsibilities, etc. Acknowledge also that others in the group may feel a sense of loss or unease without the visual feedback of facial expressions.

On cultivating unstructured communication: small group discussion and “hallway chats”

  • When possible, the hosts should make efforts to let the co-learners know that they will remain in the video conference for a while after the meeting has ended, and welcome others to stay and chat or ask questions. 
  • As mentioned above, consider encouraging the use of the written chat feature for side conversations. 
  • Break-out rooms can provide an alternative, less structured space for discussion, with no direct need for a host or hand raising and check marks, that is, unless the smaller group wishes to continue that work.
    • Open-ended, small group conversations provide opportunities to support the social-cognitive dimensions of learning. 
    • Note that it can be disruptive for the hosts to pop in and out of breakout rooms. It is better for them to join in as co-learners in one group.
    • Because of this disruptiveness, when using breakout rooms, it is especially important for the hosts to articulate any prompts for conversation clearly, since they will most likely not be able to visit/participate in all of the small groups.
    • Ask the participants for feedback on the prompts both before and after the breakout sessions.
  • Transitioning from breakout rooms back to the large group can be awkward – we postulate that this is, in part, because of a shift in the level of intimacy required.
    • Some might also (mistakenly) feel that their ideas should not take up the small amount of synchronous time we have.
    • Yet others may need to be prompted to remember that, what may feel like repetitive reporting out to them, can in fact be quite generative for others who did not participate in their particular small group.