What I learned from 9 hours of online training (beyond the online training content)

Computer showing video conferencingOur Dean arranged for three days of Faculty of Science-specific workshops this week to help with preparing for our completely online Fall term courses. It’s great to have upper administration support for our teaching (also from CTL , OOL & ITS), and given the turnout and discussions that happened each day, there was clearly a lot of interest. We had the chance to discuss and learn about many tools, key considerations (pedagogical and technological), and express some worries/concerns that many of us have about our upcoming virtual term.
Additionally, we got to experience online learning from a student perspective in an intense way – we had three days of workshops, each with a three hour session in MS Teams or Adobe Collaborate Ultra. I had already some participant experience in the oCUBE Virtual UnConference, webinars, and online MSc defenses over the past few weeks, but this was particularly intense in terms of the amount of content covered, and the time spent in virtual meeting systems. So, in no particular order, here are things I learned (or had reinforced) this week:

  • There are lots of points of failure with video conferencing/collaboration systems. Some can be anticipated and potentially prevented, but others are outside participant/presenter control.
  • Redundancy is good. Chat + voice facilitate broad participation.
  • That being said … trying to pay attention to a presentation and the chat window is incredibly difficult (not surprising, according to cognitive load theory).
  • Sharing is good – having access to the slides (beyond the screen shared by the presenter) was helpful.
  • Building in accessibility has so many benefits (extending beyond an accommodation context) – in particular, live captioning works surprisingly well, if occasionally amusing (and is super helpful if the presenter’s audio cuts out).
  • All video systems have advantages/disadvantages and potential for technical problems – in a large enough group, someone will have issues (often with mic or camera).
  • And … technical issues are tremendously frustrating. So frustrating. It’s easy to blame the person experiencing the issues (or others, depending on where you are in the problem space). We’ll all need to try to cut each other some slack (students and instructors both), and that is going to be challenging.
  • Long sessions absolutely need to have breaks.
  • With large groups, entry/exit notifications can be annoying/distracting. (This is also true for numerous people announcing their departure during the sessions, even though their likely intention is to be polite …).
  • Clear instructions for breakout room activities are necessary – otherwise, it’s just several minutes of awkwardness for participants.
  • FAQ from participants can be annoying but it’s hard to come up with answers that can be “sticky” within the system.
  • Zoom/Teams/Collaborate fatigue is real. After 3 hours of training + a few other video meetings/appointments, my brain was mush at the end of each day.
  • Everyone forgets to unmute their microphone at some point. 😀
I was also lucky that I also had the presenter experience, and although I’m not new to using Teams/Collaborate, I still found:
  • Practise is good but won’t completely protect you from problems/glitches. (Why does Teams sometimes not show you all your open applications when you go to share your screen?!?!?)
  • It’s hard (or impossible, in Teams) to monitor chat while sharing your screen. (This is much easier to do in Zoom, which we don’t have an institutional license for.)
These experiences have already helped me make some decisions, though I need to think about these things some more before my Fall courses begin. I would be interested in hearing other people’s perspectives on these points, too!
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

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