Online Micro-Choices in Remote Seminars, Teaching, and Learning

Online Micro-Choices Shaping Remote Seminars, Teaching, and Learning

The move to online education has been a huge shift, dramatically hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the existence of technical options, such as online meeting platforms like Zoom and Teams. For decades, handwringing and resistance over moves toward more online instruction, seminars, and lectures has collapsed as universities not only accept this shift but are supporting if not requiring it. In many respects, the move online has saved many educational institutions and the new normal – whatever that ends up being – is almost certain to incorporate more online teaching and learning. 

However, after participating in many online seminars, lectures, and conferences, I sense that it is time to focus far more attention on the micro-choices being made about the conduct of online teaching and learning. Not focus on on or off-line, but how to do online teaching and learning. 

There are books on teaching tips for graduate students and instructors, but fewer for the online world. That said, I imagine that most academics tend to follow the examples set by their own best teachers. Unfortunately, in the online world of education, there are fewer great examples on which developing teachers can model themselves. Moreover, I believe I am seeing so many problematic examples and trends emerging that the micro-choices underpinning them merit more critical discussion. 

Take for example, the decision on whether or not to mute the audio and turn off the video of the audience – whether students or fellow colleagues. The convenor of an online session, such as over Zoom, can mute everyone but the speaker and turn off everyone’s video but the speaker’s video, or they can simply ask everyone but the speaker to mute their own audio and turn off their video while the speaker or teacher is presenting. Who has permission to share their screen is another micro-choice of a convenor. 

Screen sharing enables people to show a slide or a graph or any image or text that they can put on their own screen to the group. For a small seminar with known participants, everyone can be enabled to share their screen. If open to the public and if a larger group is brought together, screen sharing needs to be restricted to avoid problems such as Zoombombing, such as a malicious user sharing a vulgar image. But it is easy to keep the meeting link to those invited, use passwords to join, and restrict screen sharing to avoid such possible problems.

Muting everyone’s audio during a presentation seems to be good practice as well. You avoid unplanned sounds in households, like the sounds of barking dogs and crying babies, from interrupting a seminar. And individuals normally have a means to raise their hand to ask a question or make a comment, so they can be unmuted when speaking. That said, if it is a small group discussion, such as following a lecture, I think individuals should decide on their own whether to mute, such as if their dog starts barking, but generally remain unmuted to be as interactive as possible during the discussion. When education is being socially distanced in so many ways by going online, any opportunities to enhance sociality and interaction online should be seriously considered. 

In contrast, in my opinion, stopping everyone’s video is not a good practice. Unfortunutely, I see this a becoming a trend. In the earliest weeks and months of the pandemic and online meetings, people tended to be visible online all the time even when their audio is muted. With my video on, you could see if I was on the call and that I was listening or if I was multitasking. If I had to leave or take a break, I could switch to a still photo of me or my initials, until I was ready to engage again. More importantly, the speakers would know that they were speaking to real, live, human beings, rather than talking to themselves in a dark room. 

Doing it Right: Video ON

Over time, it is clear that more universities and conferences are moving to shut off the video of the audiences, and only have video streaming on for the speaker or the panelists. Often this means that no one is visible as the speaker is presenting slides – such as when talking behind the slides occupying center stage. Once a critical proportion of the audience starts shutting off their video, then others feel pressured to as well, lest they be accused of perceiving themselves as too self-important. But it is for others, not for yourself, that it is good to be seen.  

I have taken issue with this minimalist approach to limiting video on the basis that it takes social distancing to an unacceptable and unjustifiable limit. Of course, I’ve heard justifications, such as maintaining the focus on the material on the slides and keeping people from being distracted by the images of audience members. Protecting the privacy of individuals and households is another. There are many ways to protect privacy of the listeners, such as by using a virtual background or sitting in front of a blank wall. Nevertheless, I find such justifications to be weak rationales for avoiding social interaction.

Teaching or lecturing is not simply about transferring information. If that were so, a reading or video recording would be superior to a seminar. Most importantly, teaching or lecturing is about motivating the audience – students or colleagues – to see your topic as important and interesting and worthy of reading and learning more about. That means you need to engage them in the presentation and make sure they are engaged. In the classroom, you can tell if students are not engaged, even if – as was the case in many in-person classes – many are pressed against the back row of seats. You can see if the audience is engaged online as well, but only if you keep the video going both ways. 

Also, you need to motivate the lecturer. Unless you are very shy or nervous about public speaking, I can’t think of what could be more deflating that speaking to a set of initials or a blank screen or simply reading your own slides. Cut off the video and you risk disengaging the speaker as well as the audience. 

Obviously, I am a cranky, old colleague, easily annoyed, and opinionated. Fine if you disagree with my suggestions, but you should really think through these many micro-choices you make in presenting and speaking and listening online. Discuss them with those convening any seminar where you are presenting. 

I accept and defend the right of teachers to present material to their classes in the ways they choose – assuming they are within an increasing set of rules and guidelines set by educational institutions. Similarly, lecturers or speakers should be free to present in ways in which they are comfortable. But be careful that you don’t undermine your ability to engage, educate, and entertain your audience simply by following bad practices set by colleagues that are too cautious or conservative about the issues that might arise from social interaction. Don’t handicap yourself by speaking to an invisible audience or supporting any idea that being invisible is a good idea in online teaching or learning that is engaging.

In Praise of Academic Engagement

I am just back from a stimulating symposium at Northwestern University focused on rethinking scholarship on online news, which led me to reflect on the value of such events, and a related seminar series we have an MSU for the Media and Information Department. Of course, the Quello Center that I direct organises many seminars, roundtables and lectures as well. While I appreciate these experiences, their very success leads me to worry about how to sustain a culture of academic engagement in the face of a developing – what should I call it – production culture. We might not fully appreciate and need to continually reinforce the significance of such opportunities for academics to engage each other face to face in constructive debates about issues and research.

Academics continue to enjoy a wonderful work environment, in my opinion, but we sometimes take these opportunities for listening to our colleagues, and discussing issues, theories and methods as just another event on our calendars. Instead, these occasions are an important part of the lifeblood of a university – something that makes the university and its academic units worth their existence. When academics are facing metrics on a number of fronts – publications, citations, outreach, impact, course evaluations, papers delivered and more – it is easy to view the seminar or conference as a distraction from the real work. You can almost hear colleagues thinking: ‘I better stay in at my computer screen and work on my paper / book / review / lecture.’


The last thing we need is another metric for participation in seminars. That would kill the real payoffs of academic engagement, which are largely tacit learning that stimulates and broadens your own thinking about your research and teaching. The traditional Oxford colleges can bring their fellows together everyday for lunch. A social scientist will be sitting by a physicist or Buddhist scholar, and explaining their work to each other. We don’t have such regular opportunities as most American universities, but we do have the department seminars and related academic events that bring us together to engage with colleagues from different perspectives.

Fight against the academic metrics of the production culture by pushing away from the computer screen to sit down with other colleagues and discuss, critique, support and otherwise engage with their work. The more distant from your own focus, the better to connect with ideas you never imagined to be of value to you and whatever sits waiting for you on the computer screen.

Lisa Nakamura's Lecture
Lisa Nakamura’s Lecture

Thanks to my colleagues for organising the events that provide such opportunities.