A chat bubble made of yellow note cards

Connecting Online

By the time this post is published, we’ll be past the halfway mark of the fall semester. Adding the spring semester to this fall, that’s around a full semester of mostly online, virtual synchronous, and blended/hybrid instruction. These are instructional modalities that some instructors and students are disinclined to use. But here we are, nonetheless, making the best of things. Students are continuing their educational journey in what are for many new and uncomfortable environments, while instructors are wrestling with providing an equitable learning experience through technology and perseverance.

Illustration of a giraffe with text which reads "Giraffes have enormous hearts" and a speech bubble from the giraffe saying "I care too much."It is perhaps because of the focus on providing remote students all of the same information and activities that we can sometimes forget to include “us.” Online  education can often devolve into a series of tasks that one checks off. We meander into holding virtual correspondence courses, silently reviewing student homework, assessments, and discussion posts and assigning scores.

When we’re teaching in-person, having a side conversation with students before or after class or an informal chat during group worktime can be a trivial task to complete and also be rewarding for students and instructors at the same time. Office hours, although perhaps underutilized, provide another opportunity for ad-hoc in-person engagement with students. But what happens when we don’t actually see our students? Where do ad-hoc and interpersonal conversations go? Some people may argue the lack of that type of engagement with our students and them with us is part and parcel of online instruction.

Online students choose this environment.”

—Made-up instructor used for narrative purposes

Even if one does subscribe to that approach, the nature of our current educational environment includes many remote students who did not choose their current learning environment. They prefer in-person education, talking with their peers and instructors, and a structured educational experience. Online students prefer personal interactions with their instructors as well! In fact, it’s been shown to positively relate to student grades (Jaggars, S. & Xu, D., 2013)

So how does one recreate the feeling of connectedness, ad-hoc conversations, and interpersonal engagement with remote students? We’ve provided some examples of how instructors can do this while increasing their “there-ness” in courses, below.

Provide timely feedback on student work

Assignment and assessment feedback can serve double duty for instructors. First, feedback allows students to correct misconceptions, assess the amount of effort they’re putting into the course and perhaps increase it, and be better prepared for subsequent assessments. Second, feedback allows instructors to form an interpersonal connection with students. Depending on the subject matter and the course, feedback may be the only personal connection instructors form with students. Feedback can provide an opportunity to provide personalized instruction to students that may not be available through other means.

Consider including the student’s name when providing feedback, even if the feedback is somewhat canned. It personalizes the feedback, lets students know they’re “seen,” and communicates nonverbally that the student is “part of the community of people…” (Willemsen, 1995, p. 15). As Kent Syverud (1993) points out, “who is the one teacher in your entire life who made the biggest difference for you — who taught you so well that you still think about him or her as your best teacher. I bet that for almost all of us, that best teacher was someone who knew you by name” (p. 247).

An animated GIF of Fred Armisen in character toasting a bird on to a piece of bread.
“We put a bird on toast.”

Put a bird face (or voice) on it

Although not for everyone, instructors can add presence to their course through the incorporation of brief videos. We’re not referring to hour-long PowerPoint presentations, but rather short webcam recordings. These recordings can be used to introduce units, particularly challenging topics, or to serve as a way to deliver announcements to the class. In an example below, Prof. Matt Mooney (History at Santa Barbara Community College) uses videos at the start of a new modules to help students through sticky topics. Mooney visually communicates a historical phenomenon included in an upcoming module that students are known to struggle with.

An additional or alternative way to reinforce your course presence is through “video postcards.” The example below is from Fabiola Torres, Ethnic Studies professor at Glendale College, who uses video postcards to communicate with her students when she’s not readily available. In the example provided, Dr. Torres is at a conference and using her smartphone to record a brief message to her students.

Recordings like Dr. Torres’s reinforce to their students that their professor is in fact a real person and their course is not led by a robot. This process of “humanization” is shown to increase positive traits like trust and psychological safety in student-instructor relationships, which can help keep your students engage with the course long-term (Gehlbach et al., 2016).

For those disinclined to recording video of themselves, recording just audio may provide a happy middle-ground. Besides providing a human connection that written text cannot, audio recordings can also help prevent misinterpretations in tone that reading text can lead to. Because of this, audio recordings are often paired with feedback to students on their work. However, audio recordings don’t need to be restricted to feedback. Some experienced online instructors choose to use audio recordings throughout their courses to introduce topics, explain difficult concepts, and provide and additional way learners can engage with content.

Communicate regularly

Another way to engage and build rapport with remote students is through regular communication and announcements. This messaging can help students not accustomed to being in a less structured learning environment to stay on track, and also allow for ad-hoc responses from students that may be silently struggling. Irregular communication was identified as a large problem by students following the spring semester and is often over-looked as a simple way to address student disengagement and feelings of disconnection.

Some areas that can lend themselves well to regular communication are introducing new units or topics, shining light on a difficult concept or something that came up in discussion or through private communication, kudos to share with the class to call out quality student work and call out what quality work looks like for those that aren’t quite there yet, and recapping units that the class is finishing up to reinforce critical concepts.

Message students who…

When working with students in-person, it can be fairly trivial to let students know it would be in their best interest to contact you regarding their graded work. However, when teaching remotely this can seem much more challenging. Did they read the feedback that was provided? Who knows?

Regardless of whether they read your feedback, you can still make it clear they really ought to get in touch. This can be accomplished through the Message Students Who feature in Canvas. This feature allows instructors to message any students in their classes that meet certain criteria for a particular graded activity. Options include students that have not submitted anything for the graded activity, those that haven’t been graded yet, and those with scores lower or higher than a specified threshold. More information is available here.

Office hours

Although instructors aren’t likely to be offering office hours in-person this year, it’s still possible to hold “live” office hours through virtual meetings. Consider providing a recurring virtual meeting to your students during your scheduled office hours. This can allow your students to take advantage of the focused help that office hours provide, along with the non-verbal cues a video call can provide and include the tone missing from textual communication.

The meeting could be set up as a Collaborate Ultra meeting in Canvas, an open Teams or Zoom meeting link provided in your course, an Outlook Calendar invite to your students containing the room link, or through some other method.

If Discussions are used, use Discussions

The discussions area of Canvas can be another place where instructors can engage with their students. If you’re already using Discussions in your course but don’t participate, consider how you could. This provides another opportunity for students to connect with you as sage or guide and gives you an opportunity to turn the discussion in the proper direction when needed and correct misconceptions.

Sound like more work than you’d like to take on? It can be. That’s why it’s important to manage the time spent in discussions. Set aside twenty or thirty minutes a couple times per week with the intent of replying to discussion posts. In the time you’ve set aside,  post where you feel you’ll have the greatest impact, not in response to every student.

Two people looking at a digital display of information on flight times.

Make a schedule

Veteran online instructors often integrate a to-do list for their classes into their own weekly schedules. This can help in keeping oneself accountable and on task and help segregate class-time from other responsibilities. A schedule might include things like, ready/post in weekly discussion, make weekly announcement, contact at-risk students, send encouraging email, etc.

How do you “connect” with your students?

The information above is far from an exhaustive coverage of methods to make oneself visibly available and connected with one’s course. What methods do you implement? What has and hasn’t worked well? Questions about implementing something above or seen elsewhere? Drop by the Solidarity Café and share.

Person rowing a small boat on calm waters

Re-Engaging Students Mid-Semester

Are you having a hard time reaching all of your students through your usual communication channels or are you unsure of ways to re-engage students who haven’t been turning in work? In our blog post last week, we collected resources about how to get feedback from your students at mid-semester to figure out what’s working and what might need to shift. This week, we want to give you some strategies for engaging with your students when they may be difficult to reach mid-semester. 

Here are our strategies for leveraging technology and tools to re-engage students: 

  1. Use transparent and consistent messaging strategies. Letting students know how you’re going to contact them early in the semester can help set this expectation, but if what you decided to use isn’t working as expected, try reaching out to the whole class with a duplicate message either:
  2. Use the “Message Students Who” tool built into the Canvas Gradebook. This feature allows you to just message students who haven’t submitted to an assignment or based on some other criteria. See how to do this here: https://community.canvaslms.com/t5/Instructor-Guide/How-do-I-send-a-message-to-students-from-the-Gradebook/ta-p/741 
  3. Record short, just-in-time-videos to help direct students to the things they should focus on for the week and in the upcoming weeks. Here’s how you can create videos using Kaltura My Media: https://uknowit.uwgb.edu/89306 
    • Consider also creating a page or schedule where students can see with all due dates listed for the course if you don’t have one already.
  4. Add due dates to assignments, discussions, and quizzes so that students are reminded via the “student todo list on the course homepage. 
  5. If you use conferences or ask your students to meet with you during the semester use the Canvas Scheduler to create appointment groupshttps://community.canvaslms.com/t5/Instructor-Guide/How-do-I-add-a-Scheduler-appointment-group-in-a-course-calendar/ta-p/1021
  6. If you used Navigate to create progress reports for your students around week 5, you can still create “ad hoc alerts” to help your students, who may need some additional assistance, to connect with their advisors.

What other scalable tips and tricks you can share to reach students? Let us know either by commenting here or sharing in the Solidarity Café. 

"Test pattern" bars and text covering an LCD screen.

Using Video Responsibly

Article by Scott Berg

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” If that saying is true and one second of video is 30 pictures, then it could be said that a minute of video is worth 1.8 million words! While it is not likely that students glean that much meaning as a video flashes onto their screen, there’s no denying the great power of the moving picture for conveying information and demonstrating technique. But, to repurpose another saying, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Harnessing the power of video in your courses comes with a cost. These days, it’s possible to quickly and cheaply produce video content on nearly any device, but video carries it’s high cost in the data, bandwidth, and hardware requirements necessary for students to access or produce their own. Because video is resource-hungry, it’s important to provide alternative paths for your students in addition to video options. This article aims to describe why it is important to keep this “cost” of video in mind and suggest some strategies you can implement to ensure that your course content is accessible to all students. 

The slings and arrows of outrageous file sizes 

Video files are huge! To help demonstrate how large videos files are in comparison to other types of web content, I ran an experiment. I returned to “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but considered it through the lens of file size instead of knowledge conveyance. I started with 1,000 words and generated a text document containing 1,000 words of Lorem Ipsum. Next, I took the old saying too literally and took a screenshot of those same 1,000 words on my screen and saved it as an image file. Next, I decided to make a video of myself reading 1,000 words using the Kaltura webcam recorder. In a move that will call into question both my scientific and humanities bona fides, I realized that I cannot read Latin, so, for my video dictation, I swapped the 1,000 words of Lorem Ipsum with four consecutive readings of the first 250 words of Hamlet’s soliloquy. The last step of my experiment was to use a free program called VLC to extract the audio from my video recording to create an MP3 audio file. After each step of the experiment I recorded the size of the resulting file. 

Here are my results: 

File Type  Size (Kilobytes)  times larger than text  N downloadable w/ 1GB data 
Text (TXT)  6.58  N/A  159,358 
Image (PNG)  209.07  32  5,015 
Audio (MP3)  4,693.88  713  223 
Video (MP4)  17,327.98  2,633  60 

As you can see, each file type is roughly an order of magnitude larger than the one that precedes it. The 5-minute video recording of me reading 1,000 words of Hamlet is a whopping 2,633 times larger than the 1,000-word text file, 83 times larger than the image file, and nearly 4 times larger than the audio file. Another way to frame this data is to think about how many of each file type could be downloaded with one gigabyte (GB) of cellular data, which is the limited amount of data I thriftily pay for each month with my cellphone plan. My monthly data would be exhausted after watching the video 60 times. I could listen to the audio recording over 200 times, view the picture over 5,000 times, and load the text file nearly 160,000 times in a month without exceeding my data plan! Hopefully, this comparison illustrates just how much larger video files are than pages made up of text and images. My experiment even used perhaps what is a best-case scenario for video files, as Kaltura was able to compress my video’s size to be about 5 times smaller than the raw video file during playback! The results obtained from using a higher-quality or less-efficiently compressed video in this experiment would have been even more evocative. 

Having your cake 🍰 and eating it too 🍴

So, is all this intended to scare you away from using video in your courses? No! Video is a great instructional tool! A September 2020 survey of students who completed the UWGB Impact MBA online bootcamp revealed that 69% of 13 respondents preferred course presentation types that included video. Instead of arguing against using video, I have chosen to demonstrate video’s demanding file sizes to argue that you should use it responsibly by taking steps to ensure that lessons and assessments are accessible for all students, and not just those with easy access to unmetered broadband internet. In a survey of UWGB students conducted in May 2020, when asked to describe the technology the they had to complete their coursework since UWGB shifted to remote instruction, 20% of respondents reported that they had regular access to a computer but not high-speed internet. That’s a significant segment of our student population who would struggle to keep up in a course that used video as the sole medium of instruction. Providing additional lower-bandwidth (i.e. text-based) means to access course lessons can help the students who have wound up on the wrong side of the digital divide achieve positive outcomes. 

A pie chart showing the results of the UWGB Impact MBA online bootcamp survey.
Results of the “Presentation Types” question on the UWGB Impact MBA online bootcamp survey.

Beyond accommodating students with limited internet access, providing additional ways for students to access lessons beyond watching videos will help them learn on-the-go whenever they have a quick opportunity to study on their smartphone. Text-based lesson alternatives can help a student study while away from a solid Wi-Fi connection at home, traveling, or in a break room at work. Another reason to provided additional alternatives to video learning materials is that not all students share the same learning preferences. This practice of providing multiple paths for a learner to access and consume a lesson is one of the central recommendations of the universal design for learning (UDL) framework. UDL revolves around the idea that courses should be designed so that all learners can access and participate in learning opportunities. While universal design is often thought of solely as an accommodation for learners with disabilities, according to Thomas J. Tobin, a leading proponent of UDL, “Universal design goes beyond just assisting those with disabilities and offers benefits for everyone involved in the online learning environment.”

Tobin illustrates the benefits of using UDL in your course design by imagining a lesson where “students can start by watching a short video clip of their professor, print out the text-only version while they are working on an assignment, and then watch the video again with captions turned on while they are studying after the kids have gone to bed” (Source: “Universal Design in Courses: Beyond Disabilities” from the book Planning and Designing Your College Course).

Using video responsibly by incorporating these principles of UDL will not only lessen the effects of the digital divide in your course, it can keep your students engaged in course materials and help them make use of every opportunity they have to study and keep up in your course. 

+1 for captioning 

Retrofitting UDL principles into an existing course can seem like a daunting challenge, but there are some relatively easy and enriching techniques you can use to add additional paths to your video lessons. In his article, “Reaching all learners through their phones and universal design for learning,” Tobin writes that, instead of being overwhelmed by the consideration of every possible alternative format that could be added to each element and interaction in a course, instructors can adopt a “plus one” mindset to identify a single alternate format for multimedia that can be consistently provided throughout a course. The “plus one” mentality can help divide the work of adding UDL design principles to your courses into manageable chunks. 

One potential “plus one” to focus on in your courses using video would be to add closed captions to your videos. Within the Canvas course at UWGB, machine-generated captions can be quickly added to videos created with or uploaded to the Kaltura My Media service at no additional cost to you or the University. The procedure to add these captions to a video can be completed in under a minute and requires only a handful of clicks within Canvas. While the machine generated captions won’t be 100% accurate, even imperfect captions can help your students with their note-taking and comprehension. Whenever you have the time to work on it, the captioning files can be edited via the intuitive captioning editor that is built-in to the Kaltura service to make them 100% accurate and suitable to fill a potential future need for disability accommodations. 

Captioning your Kaltura My Media videos has become even more powerful with a recent addition to the My Media service in Canvas. UW-System has released a new “Transcript” video player that can be used to easily insert a searchable, printable, and downloadable text transcript underneath your videos when they are embedded in Canvas. The transcript video player automatically generates its transcript from your video’s captioning file, so, if your My Media video is captioned, embedding it with the transcript player is easily done through the advanced video embed options. The transcript player makes it simple for your students to download a text version of your video lesson and take it with them on-the-go to study offline. 

Beyond captioning 

Providing captions and transcriptions are far from the only ways to “plus one” your video content and provide additional paths for your students to access and be engaged by course content; podcast-like audio-only versions of course lectures cut down on screen time. You can provide them for students to learn during a commute. A collection of available articles on a lecture topic could provide yet another means for students to engage with a topic. There is also more to using video responsibly than providing alternatives to video content.

Based off of our knowledge of supportingstudies, CATL has long recommended creating videos that are not… long. Another video “responsibility” is to produce multiple short (under 10-minute) videos instead of one long lecture-length video. That strategy helps with the internet bandwidth concern by keeping individual video file sizes down, but it also helps combat the attention and retention problems seen with long videos. Using multiple short videos also provides the opportunity to sprinkle interactions between videos. Imagine creating a Canvas module for a lesson that contains five short videos (with transcriptions) and placing formative quizzes and/or discussion opportunities between them. You can even add interactions right to the video playback experience by using the Kaltura Quiz tool (or, for Fall 2020, by taking part in our pilot of PlayPosit, a new interactive video platform—just ask CATL to join!). Whether added to the videos themselves or included in the structure of a module, those interactive breaks can help your students stay interested in a lesson and help prevent an “ugh, another video!?” feeling. 

We’d like to hear from you

So, do you think you are using video responsibly in your courses? If so, what strategies are you using? If you suspect your video use is an area for growth, what ideas do you have make your use of video more responsible? Do you use tools other than Kaltura for video? What features can you use to help make your courses accessible for all students? What resources would you like CATL to provide? What other ideas do you have for implementing UDL principles in the design of your course content and assessments? Please sound off in the comments or share your questions and ideas in our Solidarity Café.

Until then, as you harness the great power of video in your courses, please remember to wield it with great responsibility! 

A sign pointing one way to "awesome" and the other to "less awesome"

Collecting Mid-Semester Feedback from Your Students

We want to hear from you…

How have you collected feedback from students at mid-semester? Do you have some advice to share about how to increase student engagement with the process? What has been effective when you do make changes? Have you found students are responsive to those changes you are able to implement? 

For those of you who’ve done self-reflective work with students—have you found certain techniques (like those below) particularly effective? Are there others we’re missing? We’re sure of it—please share!

Feel free to drop a public comment below, or, if you’d prefer a closed conversation with colleagues (on this topic or any other), UW-Green Bay instructors and staff can join us in the Solidarity Café.

… and we’re here to help!

Have you been wondering if the ways you’re engaging your students in the first half of the semester have been effective from the student perspective? Collecting feedback from your students is a great way to find out! To do this we have a few models that may provide useful insight into how you can help students meet the course learning outcomes.  

Why might you wish to collect feedback now? 

This semester is unique, so you may find that what you’ve done in the past isn’t hitting its mark—gathering feedback at mid-semester allows instructors to: 

  • make sure that course lessons connected with students 
  • find out where students need support 
  • discover the impact of instructional changes you’ve made this semester before summative course evaluations 
  • uncover changes that you may yet want to make for this semester 
  • avoid surprises in end-of-semester evaluations 

What are some of the best practices for collecting feedback from students, mid-semester? 

CATL interviewed Kris Vespia, Associate Professor in the Psychology department to answer this questionAdditionally, Todd Dresser reviews how to create a survey within Canvas. 

How should I ask students for this kind of feedback? 

We have a few models and sample surveys you can download and import into your Canvas courses. Surveys in Canvas are a special kind of “quiz” that has unique options available. If you’re unsure how to import Canvas resources into your class, see these instructions. For information on how to retrieve survey results in Canvas, see this resource. 

Feedback focus groups 

CATL is currently refining a process that allows for instructors to benefit from feedback generated through a small group discussionThis process involves a neutral third party, a CATL staff member, conducting a form of a focus group with students. This would likely take 15-20 minutes. The feedback from the students is then synthesized and communicated to the instructor. 

Process adapted from Northeastern University’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research 

The steps in this process are: 

  1. The instructor and CATL staff member meet virtually to discuss goals and agree on questions for the session. 
  2. The consultant visits the class or a group of students from the class virtually. The instructor introduces the CATL staff member and explains that they have asked them to gather feedback, then leaves the virtual meeting. 
  3. Students are asked to compile responses to one question. For large classes, students are divided into small groups. The groups then report out while the CATL staff member records responses. This process is repeated for each question. 
  4. The CATL staff member synthesizes the feedback and reports back to the instructor. Themay discuss how the data can inform teaching practices at this point. 

The benefits of this process include: 

  • The feedback is being gathered by a neutral third party, which may encourage honesty among students. 
  • The consultant can help you shape the questions asked of students and interpret results. 

If you’re interested in piloting feedback focus groups, or would like more information about designing or implementing mid-semester evaluations, please email CATL@UWGB.EDU. 

Helping students self-reflect 

Mid-semester is also a time in which you can help your students critically self-reflect on their own actions for their performance at this point in the course. Here are some questions to help frame the ways you’d like students to think metacognitively about their choices throughout the semester: 

  • What do students have the ability to change going forward in the course?  
  • Where might students improve their time management? 
  • Might there be a place for peer-to-peer feedback that could help build community and increase personal responsibility? 
  • What types of assessments might students need to better prepare in order to be successful in the course?  

Borrowed Strategies 

What are some strategies you can provide to students to help them get back on track? Self-reflection, metacognitive exercises, and exam debriefings are a few of the strategies that other teaching and learning centers have created resources around: 

For any of these methods, you could create an assignment that doesn’t count towards the final grade or could be an opportunity for extra credit. Here’s how to set up extra credit in a Canvas course. 

Person working on a laptop.

“Should I ask my students to turn on their webcams?”

Article by Kate Farley

This question has come into the CATL inbox a few times since the start of emergency remote teaching back in Spring 2020 and has resurfaced since the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester.  

We call on the experience of instructors who teach in the Virtual Classroom modality over the Fall semester to inform how we respond to this question—many thanks to Taskia Ahammad Khan, J P Leary, and Jen Schanen-Materi! At UW-Green Bay, “Virtual Classroom” means that students have enrolled in courses where they attend synchronous web meetings facilitated by tools like Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, Microsoft Teams, and others. In the schedule of classes, students see something like this: 

screenshot of the details schedule of classes for a virtual classroom course
Details from the Schedule of Classes for a course offered through Virtual Classroom

Note the “Meets” column with days and the “Time” column with times while the “Room” column lists Internet. Some instructors have brought up points about how this modality can better signal to students the requirement for using web meeting technologies like having a device that can share audio and video. 

What some instructors teaching in “Virtual Classrooms” are finding, however, is that not that much has changed for students between Spring 2020 and Fall 2020. Students still have similar living situations and challenges to what the COVID-19 pandemic made more visible. Students are living with family members or roommates—they’re sharing spaces for classwork, devices, internet bandwidth, and the frustration when technology doesn’t cooperate.  

These challenges make it difficult to encourage students to share their video and audio while balancing equity, access, and internet bandwidth.  

  • Many students feel some level of anxiety about sharing their camera and audio for a variety of reasons.  
  • Many students do not have a dedicated home office or a door that they can shut to decrease background noise.
  • Many students don’t have the ability to curate their space to decrease the “visual clutter” that may accompany a web meeting. 
Image of person wearing headphones joining a web meeting on a laptop
Photo by Wes Hicks via Unsplash

What should we do? 

So, what is the answer to our central question: “Should we ask students to turn on their webcams?” if we know that it increases community building for some students, but not all? We have collected some advice from UW-Green Bay instructors. A few suggestions from all three of our interviewees: 

  • Make sharing video and audio optional. 
  • Try to make calling in an option if your web conferencing tool has this functionality. 
  • Ask students to mute microphones unless they’re speaking. 
  • Tell students how you want to handle questions that may arise—raise your hand using the application tools, type the question in the chat (see Luke Konkol’s blog post about using Chat tools effectively). 
  • Use breakout groups or smaller groups to manage internet bandwidth if students must share audio or video. 
  • Normalize using virtual backgrounds. 
  • Be transparent with your students about why you chose this medium for the course and why you chose the web meeting tools that you did. 

Advice from Jennifer Schanen-Materi 

Jennifer Schanen-Materi teaches in the Social Work department at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Over the Summer, Jen was a co-facilitator for a few of CATL’s advanced trainings around learner-centered discussions and pivotal pedagogy. In our interview, she shared that she doesn’t have a formal written policy about when students should or should not share their video or audio during synchronous meetings, but she has found that, when she asks students to share their video, it makes for a much smoother discussion because it’s easier to see non-verbal cues similar to those that make communication in person more clear. Jen uses Zoom, for which she pays for a license to use premium features. On the first day of class, she explains that she wants to use Zoom for meetings where all students are on screen so that she can see everyone’s “Brady Bunch” square, and Zoom offers her the tools and the medium she needs to help manage the class. For example, Jen asks her students to keep their mics muted but to raise their hand, and then she calls on the student by name to respond. In Blackboard Collaborate Ultra this is one of the built-in features of the tool, but it does take a little bit of habituation to remember to click a button to raise your hand rather than just simply doing so. Jen has also made it explicit in the first few web meetings that if students don’t feel comfortable sharing their video for any reason, they don’t have to. Here are a few other suggestions from our interview:

Advice from JP Leary

J P Leary teaches in First Nations Studies, Education, Humanities, and the First Nations Education Doctoral program. At the start of the semester, his classes typically begin with some very smooth, tried and true, community building techniques that he’s used many times in a physical classroom, but those same methods don’t transfer seamlessly when the course modality is “Virtual Classroom.” On the first day of class, J P joined his students for a web meeting in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. He chose this tool specifically because it’s web-based (doesn’t require students to download an application) and it has breakout groups which allow him to move from the main room to the smaller groups; he can use this tool to foster small group community building. In a brief drop-in session, J P and I discussed how the power dynamic of Collaborate Ultra doesn’t allow him to run his class how he normally would. Collaborate Ultra prioritizes the meeting speaker over seeing everyone in the room. That’s something that J P specifically calls out in his own pedagogy—his students would normally sit in pods or in circles—there isn’t a “front” of the room—there also isn’t an application that forces your video and your audio over other students in a physical learning environment. J P talked to his students about the expectations for sharing their video/audio to address this inherent choice the technology makes for instructors. Ideally, J P said he would prefer everyone be able to share their video all the time, but internet bandwidth makes it difficult to do this for him and for his students.  

“Bandwidth is an issue for all of us…we have our cameras off and mics muted in large group unless we are speaking. Because it is not engaging to see a screenful of silhouettes and initials, I have asked everyone to post a photo of themselves (appropriate, recognizable) [as their Collaborate Ultra profile photo].  There is a constant “are you muted? I think you are muted? Can you hear him?” happening in the chat, but I think as we get used to the platform, we will figure it out.” 

J P also shared a few other statements that are compelling reasons for engaging with this question of asking students to share their video: 

“There is an overriding concern for privacy and consent—are we consenting to allow the entire class into our space? It may not be possible to limit access as the sights and sounds of our lives enter the frame. Our students come from a variety of circumstances—some are parents, some are attending to the needs of siblings, some are engaged in one of many simultaneous virtual classes in the same household, and so on.  (I think of that BBC clip where the speaker’s kids come in, followed by another adult who tries to discretely get them out of there). Not all of our students have the same ability to keep the realities of their lives “out of frame” and free from scrutiny.

“I recently learned from a follow-up conversation with a student (remotely joining an in-person class) that there are performative elements associated with having the camera on.  She felt pressure to wear makeup to look less tired on camera, to be hyper aware of her body language and facial expressions, and to be ‘on’ in ways that diverted energy from engagement and learning.” 

For J P’s classes, the balance of equity, access, and bandwidth is somewhat struck when he positions interdependent learning from the small groups against the larger, full-class discussions. In the small groups of three to four students, J P asks students to consider turning their mics and cameras on, but also makes clear that if internet bandwidth makes this more difficult for the group, that they can rely upon their mics to work in those smaller groups. 

Advice from Taskia Ahammad Khan

Taskia Ahammad Khan, in the Engineering department, teaches two courses that are asynchronous, and online, and those two courses have accompanying labs taught via Virtual Classroom. For those labs, Taskia turns her camera on or shares her screen to provide some brief instructions and to review what students must do for the lab during the week. This part of the web meeting takes about thirty minutes: reviewing the week’s lab manual instructions, short demonstrations, and some key points to keep in mind for the week’s activities. Taskia also records these meetings via Microsoft Teams and makes the recordings available to students via Canvas for those who may have missed class. Taskia offers some advice about using virtual backgrounds when instructors do share their screen, but also says that instructors can choose to be selective about showing their video when appropriate. She also has some practical tips about how to manage sharing a screen and soliciting student questions without having multiple screens from which to present.

And now we put it to you…

Should I ask my students to turn on their webcams?” Do you encourage or require webcams in your synchronous sessions? What challenges have webcams posed? Have you found solutions to those challenges? We want to hear from you.

Feel free to drop a public comment below, or, if you’d prefer a closed conversation with colleagues (on this topic or any other), UW-Green Bay instructors and staff can join us in the Solidarity Café.