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Software for synchronous online face-to-face teaching (#1090)

Topics/tags: Teaching, long

In the spring, as Grinnell moved online, one of the primary mantras was technological minimalism. I get it. Students were stressed enough with leaving campus and having to become online learners was a huge challenge, having to master (or even understand) multiple software packages added to that stress. But that mantra has continued through the summer as we plan for the fall. I must admit that I, and many others, feel that our new mantra should acknowledge that even similar software has different capabilities and that our primary goals should be pedagogical excellence and the privacy and security for our students and ourselves. There are, of course, other appropriate issues to consider, such as cost and difficulty of support. But if we want to live up to our promises to our students and ourselves about the quality of Grinnell online teaching, we need to acknowledge that we should be focusing on the software that best supports great teaching and great teaching practices and not just relying on the software that we happen to have purchased for other reasons, such as compatibility with existing systems.

As someone who not only relies on technology for their teaching but also teaches discipline-specific technology and even teaches students how to develop their own technologies, these are issues close to my heart and closer still to my professional identities [1]. I care that students use best practices in software development, which include particular technologies. I care that they be able to use the software they have developed themselves, even if it has not gone through an approval process. I care that they have the opportunity to compare different approaches, particularly as we discuss issues of usability and accessibility.

But for now, I’m staying away from the particulars of my professions. Instead, I’m going to focus on the kind of software we can use for synchronous, remote, face-to-face [2], teaching experiences. Some people call such software videoconferencing software. I will admit that I do, too [3]. However, our focus is teaching, not conferencing. Videoteaching calls to mind those old broadcasts or videotapes or DVDs. Perhaps Educational Videodialogue Packages. In any case, the terminology is less important than the intent, at least for the purposes of this musing.

When you talk about such technology, at least in summer 2020, most people think of Zoom. Zoom seems to have achieved a near-genericism, similar to that of, say, Kleenex and Xerox. But there are other technologies. Since, at Grinnell, we are told not to host our own Zoom sessions [4], it is necessary to consider those other technologies.

Despite its insistence on technological minimalism for teaching, the College has provided us with four different solutions for cases in which we want to communicate with our students and each other using video [5]: Cisco Webex [6], Microsoft Teams, Blackboard Collaborate (BBC), and GoToMeeting. The last is a remnant of the DT revolution at Grinnell, and we are told it will disappear this summer. Hence, in my discussions, I will consider only the first three: Webex, Teams, and BBC.

What are the features I want as an online teacher of small, synchronous, personalized, modern, face-to-face classes? There are a lot. I’m pretty sure that no one piece of software supports them all. Nonetheless, it’s worth considering them and how well each Grinnell-approved [8] platform supports them. I’ve listed features in no particular order, perhaps guided most by what came to mind when I was sketching, drafting, or editing this musing.

Grid View (aka Brady-Bunch View). You’ll note that I’ve been using face-to-face in my descriptions of the kind of teaching I plan on doing and that I expect most of my colleagues plan on doing. I know (we know) that the best teaching reacts to the people in the room, their facial expressions, their twitches, their attention, or lack thereof. Just yesterday, in a discussion of online advising, we were told Don’t just pay attention to their words; pay attention to their faces and their posture.

Our students also want to see each other. I still recall the joy I felt upon seeing my classmates in The Craft of Creative Nonfiction after spring break. I love the ability to see my research students’ faces each weekday morning. And I think they feel the same [9].

So the ability to see all of the faces in a class (at least a class of twenty-four or fewer students) is an essential feature of any synchronous, video-enhanced, remote, teaching environment. Of the three platforms Grinnell currently supports [10], only Webex provides a grid view. You can get a row of six or so faces in Teams. I think it’s three on BBC.

A Robust Infrastructure. If the system isn’t up, you can’t teach. But it’s more than that. Although each platform performs similar tasks, particularly with regards to video sharing, they seem to do so with different adaptions to, say, bandwidth or latency. If you can’t send and receive video, the grid doesn’t matter. I’ve rarely had a problem with Webex, including Webex sessions with hundreds of people [11]. I’m not sure I’ve ever attended a BBC session in which I didn’t drop out regularly. Teams seems to break up a lot. I’ve even found Webex to be better than Zoom in this respect. Webex, at least the Webex application, is also pretty good at letting you turn off things like incoming video, if necessary.

Background Privacy. Students should not have to show their living arrangements to other students (or show that they are sitting outside the library or in a car because they have no home Internet or even no home). Faculty shouldn’t either. An ability to mask your background contributes to the equity that Grinnell promotes as essential. Yet of our three platforms, only Teams seems to allow you to mask your background. It may be that add-ons, such as Snap Camera can help. However, as far as I know, no add-on is approved, endorsed, or supported. In some situations, one might be able to hang a sheet or blanket in the background. However, that doesn’t hold in every situation. Students can turn off their video. But that leads to the problem that their teacher and their peers can’t see them. Hence, the ability to remove your background is necessary for equity, and should not be considered optional.

I’d also recommend that we provide every student with a headset so that they don’t have to worry about background noises, such as loud siblings or information on where/how they live. And I’m assuming that we’ve ensured that each student has enough bandwidth and computing power. But I’ll treat those issues as separate from the software platform, perhaps a topic for a separate musing.

Breakout Groups. Most modern methods of pedagogy include both small-group and full-class work. If we’re doing that in an online situation, students and faculty must quickly and naturally transition from the full class to small groups and back again. Faculty members must also be able to check in with each group. As far as I know, of Grinnell’s three platforms, only BBC has a feature for breakout groups [12]. You can simulate it on Teams by having students start separate video chats with assigned groups, but that’s less natural and less efficient than a platform that pre-builds breakout groups.

Recording. Not all students will be able to make it to class. Even those who do may find that a recording provides a useful mechanism for reviewing topics [14]. I’m pretty sure that every platform provides such mechanisms. One difference I’ve seen is how long it takes for the recording to become available, since a lot of post-processing seems to be necessary, and most platforms did not have the infrastructure to scale up for the change in usage after our the spring break that led to the broken spring.

Privacy from recording. Not everyone in a class wants to be recorded. Many certainly don’t want their image, voice, or name recorded. You should, therefore, be able to opt out of recording, having your image, voice, or name hidden or replaced by another image, an obscured voice, or a different name. I’ll admit that I’m not sure what the status is of such features. I recall being told that BBC only records the instructor’s image and screen (if shared), but I could be wrong about that. I wonder if Grinnell has this documented anywhere. I wonder if that’s something I should push on. Someone should. Maybe an Associate Dean reads my musings and will reflect.

At least most platforms seem to notify users that their session is being recorded, even if it’s not immediately obvious what is being recorded.

However, I’ll note that I’ve seen a recent event that gives me some concern. A colleague was in a Webex session and had turned their microphone off. Their muted button was visible on their system. However, their background sounds were also playing to everyone in that Webex session. Fortunately, the session was not being recorded [17,20].

Broader support for privacy. At the very least, I’d like to see clear and sensible privacy policies for the products and platforms we use. I’ve yet to find any.

Application and other screen sharing. Moving in the opposite direction, it should be possible for the leader of a class to share an application or their whole screen with some confidence that they know what is being shared. I’d like to share a tab, rather than a whole browser, or a browser, rather than my whole screen. I’d like to let my students share, too, although I’d prefer to have a chance to preview what they are going to share [21]. I haven’t played enough with screen sharing to be sure, but I don’t think preview other is available. There are also times I’d like keyboard and mouse sharing. As far as I can tell, that last feature is only available in Teams and doesn’t always work particularly well there. Sharing of PowerPoint decks also works poorly in Teams, which makes absolutely no sense to me.

Shared whiteboards. It’s nice to have a place that everyone can write or comment. I’m pretty sure that every platform has some kind of shared whiteboard. However, I also know that they are not equivalently intuitive. Is it BBC whose erase button erases everything on the screen? I forget. It would probably be nicer (and even more minimalist) to have a common, high-quality, shared whiteboard application.

Shared control. As an instructor, I should be focusing on teaching, not on using software. Hence, I want to be able to designate someone else in my class to do some of the administrative tasks: Booting people who don’t belong (those are rare in my experience, but I know it happened a lot in Zoom), silencing those who did not silence themselves, keeping track of raised hands. things like that. When I’ve participated in meetings, the most successful ones have been those in which different folks had different roles. I’m pretty sure that Webex lets you shift control around, but I’m not sure if you can shift it to students, who are not permitted to host meetings. In Teams, it appears that only the leaders of a Team can take on these roles, but no explicit shifting is necessary. I’m not sure that I want to make students Team leaders. I have no idea what is or is not possible in BBC. I guess that’s something to explore.

Wide platform support. The software should run on all the major platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux), including on older machines and older versions of the software. Ideally, it also runs on other kinds of devices, such as tablets or phones. I’m pretty sure that most major systems work on any Web browser. Well, maybe any Web browser on some operating systems [22]. I’ll admit that I haven’t checked these aspects of any of our platforms. But it’s something I want to see.

Anyone can host meetings. Not all meetings happen during class time. Ideally, students would meet and collaborate with each other on the same platform they use in class. Ideally, teaching assistants [23] can also run sessions using the same platform. This past spring, the College didn’t seem willing to provide Webex accounts to our teaching assistants [25], let alone our students. I’m pretty sure that students can only host meetings on Teams. But that shouldn’t be the reason to choose a platform.

Chat! It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Or maybe it doesn’t. Side conversations can be bad. But we all know the benefits of being able to make a few side comments, even a few snide side comments. I’ve learned that some active learning strategies take advantage of chat features. I’m not sure that any system stands out. Teams probably gives the most freedom, since Teams Video is integrated into Teams Chat. But it also requires switching screens, as it were.

Usability. I expect systems to be easy to use and easy to navigate. Since I keep seeing people having to teach others, including those who supposedly know about the platforms, about features, I’m not sure we can say that about any of the platforms. I’ve seen, for example, that few people know how to turn off incoming video in Webex, even though doing so is useful in low-bandwidth situations.

Anyway, that’s my preliminary list. No platform supports it all. Still, it feels like we can do better, that we can find a platform that supports active teaching and learning, that is to use, that provides a wide variety of resources, and that students, faculty, and staff can all use equally. That would give us both technological minimalism and some form of pedagogical maximalism. It just won’t be any of the platforms we’ve chosen [25].

Postscript: I thank the many colleagues whose conversations, comments, and statements have informed my thinking on these issues. Feel free to claim credit, but not blame, for my statements.

[1] Among other things, I’m a computer scientist, a software developer, an educator, and an educator of computer science and software development. Right now, I focus on those last two identities.

[2] Sometimes face to face is used to mean in person. Here, I mean able to see each others’ faces.

[3] I even called an early draft of this Videoconferencing software.

[4] Some faculty members find it amusing that most of the external training we receive on teaching online happens through Zoom. Others use different adjectives than amusing. I’ll let you fill in your own.

[5] I suppose that when employees (staff and faculty) meet with each other, we can call it videoconferencing.

[6] No, not WebEx. While it may deliver stuff (video), it’s unrelated to FedEx [7]. Also not Web X, as I’ve seen it written. It is not the tenth Web, although perhaps it is a mutant.

[7] I believe an earlier version was called WebEx. Perhaps Cisco renamed the product when it purchased it.

[8] Or maybe endorsed. I can never get administrative terminology straight. I wonder if there’s a guide out there.

[9] Well, they may not want to see my face. But I’m pretty sure that they appreciate seeing each others’ faces.

[10] Support, endorse, approve, …. I’m never sure which term is appropriate in which location. As I said, I need a guide.

[11] You can only see twenty-five or so at once.

[12] Zoom does, too, but it’s not under consideration.

[14] Some may find that their subconscious benefits from listening to class recordings as they fall asleep. Or is it that class recordings put them to sleep? I can never get that straight. I just know that I always felt smarter after putting my textbook under my pillow at bedtime. Or perhaps I used my textbook as a pillow in the library. Maybe both [15].

[15] I understand that some Grinnell parents have started to read my musings. I wonder what it must feel like to read a comment like that, not be sure if I’m joking, and then worry about having someone like me teach their children. Dear Parents: I may be snarky and sarcastic, but evidence suggests that (a) I teach well and (b) most students appreciate my approaches to education [16].

[16] Not all students do. But few students appreciate any particular pedagogy or pedagogue.

[17] Well, the host wasn’t recording it. Who knows what Cisco is doing with all the meetings flowing through its platform. Does it count as insider training if your system learning things through, say, the tenor of conversations (something you might study for improving the platform) even if you don’t listen to the content? [18]

[18] I do not believe that Cisco intentionally records things without making people aware. The damage to their reputation would be too great if such behavior were revealed. But there are people out there with less faith in companies than I have, and they’ve proven to be right more than I’d expect [19].

[19] The NSA would never compromise Americans’ security to ensure that they can read messages. Then we hear about their contributions to https and other protocols.

[20] I was told that this seems to have been a one-of-a-kind occurrence. However, I recall faculty meetings in which our Dean or President had a sign that their mic was on and found that it was off, or vice versa.

[21] There were too many Zoom-bombing incidents across the country this spring.

[22] Requisite anecdote: Earlier this summer, I graded AP Computer Science Principles Exams. Grading required training. But the training software didn’t work everywhere, even though it was supposedly Web-based software. The solution for those on Macs? Upgrade to Catalina. Do they not know how long that takes?

[23] Class mentors at Grinnell [24].

[24] There are some new terms for the position, too. Because of some mistakes and miscommunication, some forms of mentor ended up at a lower pay scale than they should have received.

[25] In case it wasn’t clear, I put we in quotation marks because it does not feel like faculty were closely involved in any of the decisions, except, perhaps, to add Blackboard Collaborate (BBC) to Blackboard.

Version 1.0 of 2020-06-27.