Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Disabling video may be better for online teaching and collaboration

It is often assumed that online collaboration, teamwork and communications is inferior to face-to-face equivalents as we miss the visual cues, facial expressions, body language and so on. This would suggest that collaborative teamwork or meetings may be better with VIDEO ON, as opposed to JUST AUDIO.

Yet, this fascinating paper from Tomprou et al. (2021) at Carnegie Mellon, who looked at group ability to solve a range of different problems, found something quite counterintuitive. Visual cues have no effect on collaborative work. In fact, teams without visual presence were more successful, not only in synchronising their vocal cues but also speaking in turns and solving problems. The authors rightly claim that this calls into doubt the conventional wisdom that you need video support.

So it may be worth disabling video during Zoom, Teams or Google meetings and teaching, as audio cues seem to be better than visual cues for synchronising and turn taking. Taking 198 people, in 99 pairs, doing 30 minute sessions and six tasks, they found that video dampened or impaired then ability to speak in turns and get the problems solved. One could argue that pairs are not groups but my suspicion is that the effect would be worse in groups, where the exchanges are more complex.

I have long argued that the talking head is often superfluous in recorded lectures, apart from very specific instances, such as introducing oneself or for specific social purposes. When teaching mathematics, indeed any subject, the idea that the teacher's head needs to be on the screen is, I think, simply a carryover from the classroom. Khan Academy has taken this approach for 15 years, across a range of subjects and it remains their model. Yet most online teaching during Covid rushed to the talking head approach, such as Oak Academy in the UK. You also save a ton of bandwidth, making comms more reliable - less screen freezing.

The astounding rise and popularity of podcasts adds to the case. In discussions on abstract topics, we seem to enjoy the absence of the visual, talking head. It allows us to take an almost intimate role in the conversation, as if we were there in the group. It leaves the mind to focus on the arguments and frees our imaginations to reflect and understand. It also reduces cognitive load for novices, a major inhibitor in learning.

The paper suggests that in online learning, we’d be better off leaving our videos muted. I think there may be an arguments for leaving the chair, tutor or teachers image on, but this is, nevertheless fascinating.

Maha Bali claims that her students and students of other teachers from K12 and Higher Education, repeatedly claim they prefer cameras off. She reports they felt self-conscious, anxious about their surroundings and uncomfortable. Others reported the cost and induced unreliability of their Internet connection when video was on. Some felt it was simply an expression of authority, surveillance and even punitive. She reports long 3 hours lectures where the lecturer demanded the camera was on, threats to reduce grades even recorded as being absent. An alternative can be a photo of the student and their name.  

Engineering students, where there was no discussion, as it was largely maths, felt that cameras were completely unnecessary. The assumption that there even is a social component to the learning is, of course, open to question. She also reports students being comfortable with audio and text chat only, as they were affair with those modes of technology. What is interesting here, is the mismatch between faculty and students in terms of expectation of technology.

Teachers having video on is very different. Even there it is not a golden rule. 

Other evidence for changing the way we see video used in learning here.

Note that this and many other design issues will be included in my forthcoming book. Learning eXperience Design, published later in the year.

Tomprou M, Kim YJ, Chikersal P, Woolley AW, Dabbish LA (2021) Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0247655. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0247655

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