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Making Zoom a Better Place

As so many of us have experienced over the past year, video conferences are not only emotionally draining, they can also exacerbate unconscious bias. So what is it about video conferences? And, more importantly, can we make them better?

By Chris Batchelder, Creative Director of Bon Education, with Mary Ames

Virtual classrooms have been a hallmark of education technology since we first started following the space in the late 2000s. Indisputably, the potential for educators to connect with students in remote classrooms has ushered in new opportunities for youth in underserved communities across the globe.

And yet, as so many of us have experienced over the past year, video conferences are not only emotionally draining, they can also exacerbate unconscious bias. So what is it about video conferences? And, more importantly, can we make them better?

An Imperfect Reflection. Human conversation is an intricate art that relies on our brain's ability to parse the myriad tonal, gestural, postural and emotional cues that we give and receive when speaking to each other. Video conferencing platforms support most of these cues, but as a facsimile of in-person conversation, they fall short. The brief overlap between speakers in a natural conversation becomes disruptive; the minute gestures that we use instinctively to clarify meaning go unnoticed; even affirmative utterances (“yep,” “mmhm,” “okay”) are more likely to derail rather than encourage the primary speaker.

As the anthropologist Dr. Susan D. Blum notes, "All the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible. Yet we interpret them anyway." The result of this imperfect reflection is mental and emotional fatigue.

As the vaccine roll-out spreads across the globe, we are excited about the return to in-person gatherings. However, from emerging variants to simple convenience, video conferencing will be with us for a long time to come. With this in mind, we offer five tips to experience better virtual gatherings:

  1. Gather with Purpose. Even in the real world, poorly managed gatherings are draining and the effect is amplified in video conferences. Following these best practices shared by Priya Parker is a sure-fire way to improve your next virtual gathering. Clearly defining the purpose for the gathering, limiting participants, communicating the format and expectations beforehand, and planning your “backdrop” will ensure participants stay engaged and leave feeling refreshed.

    When it comes to video conferencing, a little goes a long way. For hosts and participants, simply following the standard rules of virtual meeting etiquette can alleviate hiccups and set the stage for a productive gathering!
  2. Take Time to Connect. To counteract the flattening effect of video conferencing, create opportunities for participants to get to know each other as embodied individuals. As program leaders, we routinely use icebreakers to quickly establish a sense of shared purpose and trust among program participants. In a virtual setting, we become fully reliant on icebreakers to establish fellowship. We are excited to try these seven activities to build community in the classroom recommended by the New York Times Teaching Project. Or, if you're looking for a more out-of-the-box icebreaker, you might consider hiring a herd of goats!
  3. Keep it Real. Another way to facilitate a shared experience, and inject a dose of "realness" into the world of video conferencing, is to invite participants to bring craft supplies to a meeting and then work together actively to do or build something during the call. Participants will end the call with a physical object in hand, irrefutable evidence that an interaction really did take place! The Bon team also regularly uses Miro, an online collaborative whiteboard platform, to facilitate remote brainstorming sessions. Hello, virtual post-it notes!
  4. Use the Tools Provided. Most common video-conferencing platforms also come with built-in features to facilitate collaboration and social connection. At Bon, we routinely use break-out rooms, which allow participants to discuss a topic in a small-group setting before rejoining the larger group for an open discussion. Another feature to improve connection and communication is the chat function, which can be used to check for understanding without interrupting the workshop flow. It also creates a safe space for self-conscious participants to share their ideas with the group or to seek additional support in a private chat with the instructor.
  5. Gamify it - Literally! Video conferencing reduces gatherings to two dimensions. As Dr. Blum noted, it is this flattening effect that disrupts the sense of togetherness that we feel when we gather in person. With this in mind, some companies have taken a zany approach to meetings. Rather than video conferencing, employees meet up in the fully realized virtual world… of video games! By interacting as video game characters, employees are able to “see” and interact with each other in three-dimensional space. Anyone up for some Red Dead Redemption 2?

    For the non-video-game-inclined among us, Teamazing has designed a collection of team-building games tailored to video conferencing. We are excited to try the Remote Chain Reaction challenge!

Video conferencing will never be a true reflection of the classroom, but by being intentional about creating connections among participants using facilitation techniques and digital tools, we can design meaningful learning opportunities from (virtually) anywhere 🏖️!

Chris Batchelder is Creative Director of Bon Education and Co-Founder of interstory. He has designed and led programs for clients across the Middle East, Asia and North America. Chris is a dedicated, life­long multiculturalist and art lover, and he resides in the UAE with his wife and three children.