George Mason University
As universities move fully online to slow the spread of COVID-19, instructors may consider keeping the same schedule and simply moving their courses online using a video conferencing tool such as Zoom. In a live video session, all students and instructors can still see each other and engage in rapid exchanges. Polling and breakout rooms can also replicate common instructional strategies used in person. While live video calls can be helpful to replicate some aspects of in-person teaching, they can be difficult for some students to schedule. Even if you hold calls during the original class time before school closures, students may no longer be available during that time because their home situation has changed--especially now when childcare and K-12 schools are closed. Instructors and students may also find that their home WiFi is insufficient for smooth video streaming. Available WiFi bandwidth will be especially limited if others at home are also using the internet for their video calls or--let’s face it--Netflix/Disney+ streaming. Individual student participation can also be limited in large video calls. While polling and grouping features can be important tools for engaging all students, it can be difficult for instructors to hear each student’s voice (a common problem found in in-person courses, as well) and students’ attention can drift, especially when Instagram is only a browser tab away.
One workaround to students’ unavailability or inability to participate in live video calls is to simply record the session and provide the link to students who did not attend. While watching a recorded video call is better than missing it completely, these students will be unable to participate in any of the interactive elements (if they were included in the first place) and breakout group activities are unlikely to be recorded at all. It’s also possible that seeing their peers interacting in the video recording without them may actually make them feel more isolated.
Despite these challenges, students are still being asked to attend long video calls, sometimes multiple times in a day. This, on top of students’ social time on video calling tools such as Zoom, leaves students feeling exhausted with “Zoom hangovers.”
One possible cure for the Zoom hangover is reducing the amount of time in live video sessions and replacing it with video messaging (or asynchronous video communication). Using a video messaging tool, students and instructors can post video recordings for others to view and respond to when it’s convenient for them. That flexibility gives all students the opportunity to participate equally and results in a more active learning environment. The instructor can also hear and respond to any student comment. Video messages are also less prone to technical difficulties because, if WiFi is slow, it will simply take more time to upload or download a video comment. Where live video sessions allow for rapid exchanges, video messages allow for more thought and reflection before commenting.
Instructors can create more effective enjoyable learning experiences by using live video sessions more strategically and leveraging the affordances of video messaging. The following are three approaches that can provide guidance on how to effectively blend video messaging with live video sessions. These approaches were developed using insights from approaches that blend in-person learning with online learning. However, in times like these when in-person is not an option, live video sessions can take the place of in-person time.
The Bookend Approach
The bookend blend typically begins with a “substantive and meaty learning experience” (Rossett & Frazee, 2006, p. 11) using a live video session. This allows students to quickly develop relationships, form teams, and get excited for upcoming work. The instructor can also give teams time to get to know each other as they work in breakout rooms. Following the live launch, students’ learning and communication can occur with more flexible text and video messaging. For instance, students can post weekly videos sharing what they have accomplished and any challenges that they are facing. The team can also meet in another video call near the end of the project to tie off any loose ends and finalize their work. The instructor may also choose to hold a whole-class video call to allow teams to present and celebrate their projects.
The Flipped Approach
In some courses, students spend their live video sessions listening to the instructor lecture, and then apply what they learn by themselves in homework assignments. This is problematic because students typically need help on the assignments when the instructor isn’t there. When students get stuck on homework and can’t access their instructor, they can feel helpless and may cut corners or even cheat just to finish the work. To address this problem, some instructors have flipped students’ experiences. Rather than attending a live video session to listen to a lecture, the instructor records their lectures and asks the students to watch them before attending the live video session. Then when students are with their instructor in the live video session, students do what would have been the “homework” together and with instructor guidance. This results in a more active and supportive learning environment.
Just be aware that research has found that when students are watching a video lecture, their attention tends to drop off after about six minutes (Guo, Kim, Rubin, 2014). As a result, it’s best to chunk longer lectures into segments. Instructors could even create these lectures using a video messaging tool and require students to post responses to hold them accountable. Students’ comments can also help to inform what occurs in the live video session.
The Flex Approach
The Flex Blend approach can also be adapted for the fully online environment. Before COVID-19 closures, students in the flex blend would learn largely online while still on campus. Instructors would then make themselves available for students when they needed in-person help. Instructors could also require students to meet with them as needed and could even provide support to groups of students or the entire class when they recognized a need was more widely spread.
In order to adapt the approach for the fully-online environment, courses can be designed so students are allowed to complete learning activities asynchronously, including discussions. To create and maintain a sense of community, students can participate in regular discussions using a video messaging tool. When students require additional support, they could have a choice to receive help either using the video messaging tool or email. The instructor could also provide synchronous support using live video calls. For instance, the instructor could schedule specific times during the week when students could attend optional live video office hours. Alternatively, instructors could use a tool such as Doodle to create and share a bookable calendar that students could easily use to see when the instructor is available to schedule a time for a live video call.
While live video calls can be effective at replicating some aspects of in-person learning, if it is used too frequently or for too long it can leave students distracted, fatigued, and frustrated. Rather than using live video sessions for all instruction, a more effective approach is to use it strategically in combination with video messaging. Not only does video messaging provide students with more flexibility, it can make students’ learning more active and personalized. Video messaging also provides students with equal opportunities to participate. Guided by principles found in the blended learning models shared above, instructors can strategically combine live video calls with video messaging.
Jered Borup is an Associate Professor in the Division of Learning Technologies at George Mason University. Prior to Mason, he earned his PhD at Brigham Young University in Instructional Psychology and Technology. He has taught online and blended courses since 2008 and his research focuses on online and blended student support systems. He has published seven peer-reviewed journal articles (four award-winning) and two book chapters on the use of asynchronous video communication. Additional information on his research and teaching can be found on his website: https://sites.google.com/site/jeredborup/