During the Covid pandemic, videoconferencing technologies offered universities a crucial lifeline. For me, as for millions of students and teachers around the world, the pandemic brought a sudden, massive, and intense experience of online meetings. This article is an attempt to constructively reflect on that experience. I discuss some of the challenges that online meetings have posed to me as a university teacher and outline a set of potential interaction design solutions that I think would help address these challenges. In other words, the article presents a sort of "teacher's wish list."
There is a strong history of HCI and CSCW research into videoconferencing and virtual meetings (e.g., [1,2]). Recently, the research has turned to the pandemic experience as a rich source of insights about social interactions being supported and transformed by communication technologies (e.g., [3,4]). The wish list is not intended as an alternative to, or a substitute for, these studies. Instead, it adopts a different, less academic perspective, in the hopes of stimulating an inclusive discussion engaging people of different backgrounds and roles. The underlying idea is that suggestions for specific design solutions are likely to make sense to, and evoke positive or negative responses from, a wide range of technology users. A discussion focusing on desirable design solutions can, therefore, help teachers, students, designers, and researchers find common ground, understand one another, and engage in a meaningful dialogue about future online meeting technologies for education.
→ This article is an attempt to constructively reflect on a sudden and intense personal experience with online meetings, brought about by the Covid pandemic.
→ In online classes, a teacher's challenge is not only to perceive and understand students but also to understand what students perceive.
→ An inclusive discourse focusing on desirable design solutions could be a way for users to say, "This is how we want our technology."
The wish list is organized around key areas of teachers' practical concerns related to online classes . A brief general discussion of problems in each area is followed by an outline of potential design solutions to the problems.
CHALLENGES. From a teacher's perspective, a key downside of online classes is the difficulty of maintaining continuous awareness of the students. In contrast to physical classes, online ones offer much more limited possibilities for perceiving subtle cues, such as facial expressions or body language. The students may not be visible because their cameras are off, and even when the cameras are on they typically only show "talking heads" in small video panels. In addition, these panels tend to change their location on-screen from time to time in a somewhat confusing way.
To be fair, what videoconferencing technologies lack in conveying subtle awareness cues, they make up for in supporting clear, explicit ones. In online classes, students can post various types of comments and responses, such as emojis or chat messages, without interrupting the speaker. Unfortunately, a student's response can be easily missed by the teacher, either because the student is not shown in the visible part of the class overview (i.e., the teacher needs to scroll to see the student) or because the response is displayed outside the teacher's focus of attention.
In contrast to physical classes, online ones offer much more limited possibilities for perceiving subtle cues, such as facial expressions or body language.
In addition, videoconferencing systems provide limited support for fluid feedback. Preparing poll questions means doing a separate task, so typical polling functions, while in general undeniably valuable, are not immediately useful as tools for instant, on-the-fly elicitation of students' responses. Using nonverbal responses, such as "yes" and "no" icons, to answer teachers' verbal questions, is a more lightweight option, but linking the responses to questions and manually deactivating them afterward requires additional effort, which may be small but is not insignificant. Student-initiated nonverbal feedback, such as "slow down," is typically limited to just a few criteria and does not allow for differentiated responses (e.g., should the teacher slow down a little or a lot?). The students may also avoid this type of feedback because of its perceived impoliteness.
POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS. A glanceable class overview. As much as possible, the system should provide a view of the entire class, without the need for the teacher to scroll. If the available screen space is not sufficient for simultaneously displaying full-size video panels and full details of all students, the size of individual students' images should be adjusted accordingly. The images can be made smaller by scaling them down or excluding some details. For instance, a participant's video view can be squeezed into a smaller screen area or even omitted altogether, and a participant's name can be displayed in a smaller font size or substituted with initials. Except in the case of very large classes, key status cues, such as "raised hand" or a recent chat message notification, could continue to be displayed. The teacher may get an expanded view of selected students by zooming in on them.
Superimposing class overview over the shared image. The display area, available for showing a class overview, is especially small when an image, such as a presentation slide, is screen-shared. One way to deal with this lack of space is to superimpose a class overview on the centrally located shared image. A class overview can be, for instance, visible through a semitransparent image of the shared presentation slide, to make it possible for the teacher to monitor students' reactions without the need to look away from the slide.
Stable shared structure of the class overview. A relatively stable spatial screen layout of students' images would help the teacher more efficiently distribute attention between the students. Making sure the layout is shared by all meeting participants would also allow for using shared spatial references (e.g., "someone in the back") and, in general, support what Thomas Erickson and Wendy Kellogg call "social translucence" . The students may be assigned their spots or choose them (e.g., "take seats").
Lightweight polls combining verbal questions and standard response templates. The teacher should be able to conduct lightweight polls in a streamlined way, by verbally asking a multiple-choice question and directly activating a standard response panel (such as "Yes/No"). The panel would be displayed on students' screens and disappear when the students select their responses.
Enabling customizable continuous assessments. The teacher should be able to define certain assessment criteria (e.g., "unclear," "not new," or "disagree"), as well as the range of responses (e.g., a 1-to-10 scale) for each criterion. A corresponding response panel, which can be used at any point, would be displayed on students' screens. The feedback, aggregated and preferably anonymized, would be displayed to the teacher in real time.
CHALLENGES. In physical classrooms, teachers can use their everyday social skills not only to perceive and understand students but also to understand what students perceive. Teachers usually have a rather accurate, if imperfect, idea of how students see them and the material they present. In addition, the setup of a typical physical classroom is intended to prevent interruptions caused by unrelated activities, so the teacher usually does not have to deal with such interruptions in front of the class.
In online classes, successfully conveying information to students can be more complicated. Using the feedback provided by the self-view, one can relatively easily learn how to place oneself in front of the camera (and then the self-view can become detrimental ). More problems arise when the teacher uses the screen-share feature. First, the teacher may forget to share a document image and assume that it is visible to the students when in fact it is not. Second, it is easy to select the incorrect document to share, which can be confusing and even embarrassing. Third, if the teacher, when sharing a document image, switches to a different window or tab, it may not be immediately obvious whether the shared document has changed too.
In addition, if something in the teacher's physical environment requires urgent attention, and the teacher needs to temporarily disconnect from the meeting, it is difficult to do so without attracting attention. Simply switching off the camera is likely to be noticed, as it will show a different image of the teacher, and it may also change the position of the teacher's image on students' screens.
POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS. Providing visual feedback on the shared image. When sharing a screen or a document image, the teacher should be able to control whether this image is actually displayed to the students. A possible solution is to display a scaled-down picture of the image as an optional part of the teacher's self-view. By comparing the document displayed in the active window with what is shown in the self-view, the teacher would better understand whether or not the document is actually screen-shared. The system may also send a notification or require a confirmation, or both, when the shared image changes.
Prelinking resources to online meetings. The teacher should be able to select the documents to be shown to the students using the screen-share feature and link them to upcoming online meetings. During a meeting, it should be possible for the teacher to choose to share only the preselected documents. In addition, links to the files that the teacher wants to share with the class can be made available to the students so that the students themselves can access the files, without the need for the teacher to deliberately send them.
Enabling quick, quiet "sneak aways." A potential way to allow a participant to sneak away from an online meeting, offered by the FreezingCam app (https://freezingcam.com), is displaying a fake "frozen" camera image. A more "candid" alternative would be to use a participant's image from the current videoconference session as a placeholder displayed when the participant turns off the camera, and explicitly, albeit unobtrusively, mark it as such. It could be implemented, for instance, as a one-click time-limited display of an image, taken by the participant's camera shortly before the click, with an added nonsalient visual cue, such as a small reverse progress bar.
CHALLENGES. When it comes to organizing small-group discussions, the breakout rooms feature makes online classes superior to physical ones. In physical classrooms, it takes time and effort to form small groups and position them in their respective communication spaces. In online classes, it is a breeze. A problem with breakout rooms, however, is that when the students return to the main session, the group structure is typically no longer supported. It may not be what the teacher and the students want, since in follow-up discussions in the main session the students often need to continue acting as a group (e.g., when presenting their group work reports to the rest of the class).
POTENTIAL SOLUTION. Supporting persistent student groups. When the class is divided into groups, it should be possible to identify and manage the groups not only during small-group discussions but also during whole-class sessions. The teacher should be able, for instance, to view, select, chat with, and mute or unmute particular groups. The students should be able to see what group they are in and who the members of their group are, beyond breakout room sessions.
CHALLENGES. Moderating interactions in the classroom—for example, detecting students' questions and conversational floor requests, remembering their order, and trying to fairly distribute the floor among the students—can be a demanding activity. In physical classrooms, where teacher and students interact directly, possibilities for delegating the moderation tasks to technology are limited. In online meetings, where the participants are connected to one another only through technology, there are rich opportunities for algorithmic floor control. These opportunities are largely unexplored, even though there are already some good examples, such as placing meeting participants who "raise their hands" in a chronologically ordered, automatically updated queue.
POTENTIAL SOLUTION. Supporting scripted floor management. Teachers should be able to define (create or select) floor-management scripts and let the technology implement the scripts. For instance, the teacher could initiate a round of students' comments by simply issuing a "Round" command, in response to which the system would assign the floor to one student at a time, in a certain order. More-advanced scripts may support complex session structures, such as multiple presentations followed by a Q&A, manage free discussions, and employ optimization criteria (e.g., an even distribution of the floor among the speakers).
CHALLENGES. A rather technical but still quite annoying problem with online classes is the cluttered teacher's screen. The use of a videoconferencing technology adds a set of new windows and panels to the teacher's digital workspace, which may already be crowded by the tools and documents needed to teach a class. It is not uncommon for the teacher, especially when using several videoconferencing features at the same time, to constantly move panels around trying to view obscured objects or get access to obscured screen controls. To deal with screen clutter, teachers sometimes create ad hoc configurations of displays, but there is limited system support for managing such configurations.
POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS. Making all application panels easily hidable. The teacher should be able to temporarily hide or minimize rather than close the panels displayed by the videoconferencing system.
Supporting the distribution of windows and panels among several colocated displays. Teachers should be supported in assigning some of their computers' panels and windows, including panels and windows of the same videoconferencing application, to displays of other collocated devices.
Two disclaimers are due here. First, since the wish list is based on personal experience, it inevitably focuses on a limited range of educational practices. In particular, different technological solutions may be suitable for teachers and students with special needs, for example, those who are visually or hearing impaired. Second, the wish list should not be understood as a set of design requirements or specifications. While some of the envisioned solutions could probably be developed into proposals for new features, other ones may turn out to be unhelpful or unfeasible, currently in the process of being implemented, or even already available and simply needing to be made more accessible. What is important here is that, whatever the case, the wish list does reflect certain real-life problems and actual teacher experience, and, if the experience proves to be representative, the problems need to be dealt with, in one way or another.
A way to find out whether the experience is representative is to bring together multiple individual perspectives. Arguably, the format of a wish list—that is, suggestions for specific design solutions—can be a suitable facilitating device for doing so. By directly appealing to one's own user experience and work practices, such suggestions invite constructive responses, for example, challenging or supportive arguments, shared life hacks for using existing features, or more proposals for design solutions. The responses may result in an updated wish list, based on a wider range of user experiences, which, in turn, may invite even more responses. Ideally, an inclusive discourse focusing on "desirable design solutions" could be a way for enabling teachers, students, and other users to say, "This is how we want our technology" and thus urge the designers to either implement new features or make the existing ones more accessible.
It seems safe to expect that online meeting technologies are going to evolve and, sooner rather than later, be quite different from what they are now. Employing user-generated lists of desirable design solutions is just one of many possible strategies to envision the future of these technologies. But, given the stakes, it is probably a possibility worth exploring.
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Victor Kaptelinin is a professor in the Department of Informatics at Umeå University, Sweden. His research interests include HCI theory, activity-centric computing, robotic telepresence, and social perception of intelligent agents. He teaches a wide range of university courses in HCI and related fields. [email protected]
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