Privileging screen space in virtual meetings

I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to make virtual classes and meetings as useful as possible. Certainly that’s what’s behind all my work with my synchronous dashboard (see here and here). These days I’m part of a team helping people prepare their fall classes (in person, hybrid, and online types) and I’m on a team planning a fully virtual New Faculty Workshop for Physics and Astronomy this fall. I’m also super excited to be meeting with an informal team put together by Stephanie Chasteen looking at virtual professional development. In this post I want to try to organize my thoughts around what I’ve been calling “privileging video” in virtual meetings.

I’ve been hearing and learning about a lot of really cool digital tools people can use in virtual meetings. But there’s always the thought that creeps into those conversations about how hard it is to both see people and interact with those tools. Certainly some people have multiple monitors and don’t have issues, but that’s not the majority of people that I interact with. That’s what I mean by “privileging video.”

Seeing people is great! You can tell if they’re really engaged and you can see the normal unspoken signs of confusion, amusement, frustration, etc. It’s the main reason colleagues of mine don’t like using my dashboard tool (especially when I force them to). It’s also the easiest way to take true attendance (as opposed to just seeing someone has logged in).

But the problem is that video takes up so much space on your screen, it crowds other tools out. Certainly most video meeting software venders allow for tools other than video (chat, hand raising, polling, etc) but it’s very clear that all of them privilege video. Just look how chatting in Zoom or Google Meet has to take an active click from the user. Or how the chat window can so easily be lost or covered whereas they take great pains to ensure that the videos have primacy, or at least a clearly protected region of the screen.

Compare that to audio: If you’re using an online audio tool (or just using the audio of a video meeting) that tab doesn’t even have to be front and center. It doesn’t take up any screen space.

Not sure if an audio-only conference can be productive? Spend 5 minutes some time watching teenagers using Discord to solve problems in a video game. You’ll see that they are both engaging with each other and solving problems in the stuff that is taking over their screen. Discord provides easy audio, chat, and emoticons. And that’s it! They assume you’re using your screen for something else. That’s why it got built in the first place. I happen to live with three of my own children who do this all the time. In fact, as I was developing my dashboard they kept telling me to just use Discord. They were probably right.

Sometimes folks will share their screen, shoving the vids of the participants to the side. That’s a better use of screen space, but it still severely limits collaboration. The rest of the folks can only watch and hope to occasionally interrupt the presenter. It’s interesting to look at the difference between when a presenter shares their screen showing a google doc and when, instead, everyone just logs into the google doc. Depending on what the group is trying to accomplish, each approach has its merits. The latter, however, gives much more agency to all the participants.

When thinking about teaching, it’s interesting to note that while teachers are used to seeing everyone’s face, students really aren’t. They see the teacher and perhaps their small group members (I’m talking about in person here) but they don’t normally have the ability to stare at the faces of all their classmates.

So I think I’m a little down on “privileging video” but I wanted to get my thoughts out there so, as usual, I can refine my thinking by bouncing some ideas off you.

Here are some starters for you:

  • I think I’m down on privileging video too. My biggest issue is . . .
  • I love privileging video. What you’ve forgotten about is . . .
  • Why do you sometimes not capitalize google?
  • I love your dashboard tool. Can you help me with it?
  • I hate your dashboard tool. When are you out of the dean’s office so I won’t have to use it any more?
  • Wait, your school is going to have in person classes?
  • Wait, your school is going to have online classes?
  • I think sharing my screen does give the rest of the participants agency. Here’s how . . .
  • If it weren’t for cool Zoom backgrounds I’d stop doing video meetings right now
  • Wait you mentioned Zoom, so can we use it?
  • I’ve used Discord and you’re right about . . .
  • I’ve used Discord and you’re way off base. What you don’t seem to realize is . . .

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in online class, teaching, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Privileging screen space in virtual meetings

  1. Irina says:

    Sasha uses discord all the time and is actively pushing against video in her WebEx classes in school. So I see your point. I also used Google docs for collaboration and they work great! However, I am super frustrated when students turn off their video (and sound) and I don’t even know they are there. Calling on them is sometimes unsuccessful and always takes a lot of time in a large group. I feel that I have a conversation with a small group out of the whole class. I would love to have a system where I can see them all, while they can focus on a small group actively working in their Google docs.

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      What would you think about something where they have to check in (maybe an emotion button or something even simpler) every 2 minutes or something? I know it sounds a little weird, but it would recover screen space.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    I agree completely. The Art of Problem Solving (https://artofproblemsolving.com/) have been doing remote teaching of mathematics for years, and they do not have any video in their interface.

    I think that some amount of video is useful, but not for large groups. Video does make things more personal, which is a huge benefit. But you don’t get that benefit when there are 25 people in the class and Zoom can’t even show all of their faces. I want to create short videos explaining assignments/ideas/whatever so that they get to know me a bit, and I want them to create videos explaining their work so that I can get to know them. Video for office hours is pretty good, too.

    I want something like Discord for large group meetings (bigger than 8 students) and Zoom for small group meetings (less than 9). I want the right tool for the right job.

    • Andy Rundquist says:

      Yeah, size definitely matters. I like your proposal of assignments/structures that allow folks to get to know one another, including their faces.

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