Video Presence

By | April 24, 2017

Education as Conversation

There is a tempest of development and marketing activity these days around what I would call video presence. It goes by various nicknames: virtual classroom, video conferencing, e-learning. A web search, for example, on any of these three subjects will turn up dozens of companies that will happily sell you systems for gathering remote web users into the promised land of seamless web-enabled communication environments, even links that gather other links for your convenience as a potential shopper in this arena.

Two years ago, I reported on my grandchildren’s experiences with audio- and text-only online virtual classrooms at Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia. Neither Jason nor Ryan was an enthusiastic proponent, with the lone exception being Ryan’s class in Pre-Calculus. His teacher used the format effectively by creating small chat rooms of students, assigning them a problem to work on collaboratively via text and conversation, then reviewing the outcome with each subgroup. In other words, the online format, when adapted to stimulate peer-to-peer conversation followed by teacher-to-student conversation, worked well. (Do you sense a theme of mine here?)

Now I want to look more carefully at how video might add to this arena. As noted in Ora Smith’s comment to my post on “The Weakness of the Online Lecture,” there are many variants of online video: pre-recorded no-audience one-way viewing (the EdX model); pre-recorded live-audience one-way viewing (the TED Talks); live one-way viewing with no feedback option (some Webinar set-ups); live one-way viewing with a texting option for submitting questions in real time (the model I experienced when taking classes at the Harvard Extension School and the format used by most Webinar products); full duplex two-way live viewing, either with one view per classroom (as in my experience in simultaneous teaching at MIT and in Singapore), or one view per participant (like a multi-person Skype interaction, but with higher-bandwidth video and a shared screen for graphics).

When I gave guest lectures in a joint MIT-Singapore graduate-level class, I had a live room-facing view of the Singapore classroom and a live audience in the MIT classroom. The students in Singapore had a view of me and my slides, and they could ask questions in real time by pressing a button that alerted me to their query and turned on their microphone. The technology was complicated and expensive, but, technically, it worked. I believe that the Singapore students felt that they were, indeed, part of the live class, partly because they could participate via questions, and partly because their behavior was on view to me, as lecturer. I could, to some degree, sense their attentiveness and ease of digestion of what I was presenting, albeit less well than for the students in the MIT classroom.

In Beth Datskovsky Ben-Abraham’s comment on “The Weakness of the Online Lecture,” she reported on a success at WebYeshiva in Israel, writing that “classes are interactive, in that students can ask questions of the instructor (either aloud or by text), and can text each other during class. The class is also recorded. I generally attend class, and review the recorded session. I’ve found it an ideal way to learn because it has many of the advantages of the live classroom, but also the advantage of my being able to review (or make up) the class.” What Ms. Ben-Abraham suggests is that there are educational benefits to allowing texting among students and adding recording and replay options to the live class (making it no longer recordless, a weakness in Clark’s list of the properties of live conversation).

These examples demonstrate positive aspects of video presence. In the hopes of further fleshing out this subject, I have begun contacting various practitioners in the video presence field, viewing it, as I always do, through the lens of live conversation as the cornerstone of meaningful communication. My first example will be from an entrepreneur whose start-up company was recently purchased by a large corporation. I will be interviewing him next week about his experience in using extremely high-quality two-way live video communication as he integrates his small enterprise into the larger corporate framework.