Helping students grow as citizens of the world can seem challenging when confined to school campuses. As many teachers and students have experienced during the COVID-19 outbreak, videoconferencing technologies offer an interactive means to communicate with people beyond school walls, but this communication technology doesn’t guarantee experiences will always go as envisioned.
Whether you’re videoconferencing with a class across town or a guest speaker across the planet, a lot can go wrong. Our research team surveyed 117 educators who use videoconferencing to find out how others might improve their experience with this technology. This study was completed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and consisted primarily of teachers who video conferenced alongside students who were physically in their classroom, but we hope these findings offer insights and flexible guidelines, not truths or hard rules, for various contexts.
Prepandemic, educators said they integrated videoconferencing into their classes for a variety of reasons. For example, as Kenneth Carano and I explain in an article in the Journal of Social Studies Education (bit.ly/39MZkGm), if teachers want to encourage intercultural understanding, they might organize videoconferences to learn from others, participate in curricular projects that encourage cross-cultural relationships or learn about cultures from an expert.
Our sample of educators said they used videoconferences to bring in experts, conduct virtual field trips, increase cultural understanding, discuss live events and engage in student-to-student collaborative projects and other forms of distance learning.
Advice from educators
Our participants offered a range of videoconferencing advice related to instructional, technological, logistical and dispositional issues.
Always do a test call ahead of time. One rural educator suggested: “Share info about your class with your presenter (special needs, amount of time their attention span lasts, etc.), prepare your students ahead of time with possible questions, building prior knowledge, videoconferencing etiquette, practicing with another class in your school and/or your principal.”
Prepare your technology. Ensure students are in the camera’s view and coordinate with tech support or experienced peers. Because technology problems can occur even with preparation, educators should prepare backup plans in case there are videoconferencing delays or rescheduling is necessary.
Establish student expectations and prepare questions.
Some teachers explained that asking students to raise hands or fulfill different roles like notetakers, question askers, intro-ducers or photographers was particularly helpful with large classes.
Be aware of logistical issues. Double-check scheduled times that span time zones, get permissions from parents/guardians and ensure support from administrators.
Orient your remote presenter. Teachers should provide information about students (linguistic repertoires, disabilities, attention spans, background knowledge, etc.) and not presume an adult has experience communicating with students. For example, teachers might encourage presenters to define academic vocabulary and provide wait time for questions.
Adopt a problem-solving disposition. Numerous educators emphasized this as there are bound to be setbacks, glitches and disruptions when videoconferencing in schools and across the world. Educators should expect some hiccups, remain calm and use supports if needed.
Avoid noise distraction. For example, one teacher assigned someone to mute their mic while their partners spoke to avoid noise distraction.
Prepare for students’ needs. One elementary teacher set up a station with STEAM and mindfulness activities for students who might require a break.
Reflect following the call.
While fewer teachers mentioned it, we also appreciated the suggestions to include reflection time after the call and integrate students’ prior experiences.
Perceived outcomes and a word of caution
Educators who responded to the survey believed that students gained an array of skills, knowledge and dispositions during videoconferencing, from networking and questioning skills, to content or cultural knowledge, to heightened respect for differences.
However, educators should recognize that videoconferencing with classes across cultural, linguistic and geographic boundaries can also be miseducational. For example, students from communities of wealth and privilege can easily leave videoconferencing experiences with deficit and savior mentalities where they presume they know best how to help those they perceive as less fortunate.
That’s why we recommend that teachers should be attentive to the culturally relevant teaching approaches from researchers like Django Paris, who can help move toward engagements that are mutually beneficial, attend to power dynamics regarding language or race, and delve deeper than surface-level differences. Educators should avoid romanticizing diversity as something exotic to be consumed. Instead, educators should recognize cultures in our classrooms and across the world as complex and shifting. Developing cultural competence requires an ongoing commitment to equity and growth.
About survey respondents
Our sample primarily consisted of K-12 classroom teachers (60%), but also included teacher educators, librarian/media specialists and educators in other roles. Participants were disproportionately white (88%) and female (69%).
We hope the wisdom of videoconferencing educators and critical scholars will help you as much as it has helped us.
Daniel G. Krutka is an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of North Texas. Kenneth T. Carano, Western Oregon University; Leigh Cassell and Melissa Lavoie, Digital Human Library; and Karin Davidson-Taylor, Royal Botanical Gardens, also contributed to the original research.