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.

A Virtual Professor: Putting Herself in the Hands of Others

The Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University had one of its (now) annual retreats on a beautiful Friday in the clubhouse of a local golf course. One of our faculty members, Professor Carrie Heeter, was in San Francisco, but she worked with colleagues to create a means for her to participate virtually. Her explanation of the approach and how she experienced the day might be very useful for others experimenting with blending virtual participation into real meetings.

They used Zoom, a video service like Skype or Google Hangouts, to connect Carrie in San Francisco to an iPad mounted on a portable stand, and to a laptop, both present in the retreat room. Essentially, the laptop on the stand became Carrie’s virtual presence in the room.

As Carrie wrote, when the retreat moved into about 6 breakout groups, someone in Carrie’s group ‘agreed to “take care of” Carrie’.  As Carrie put it: ‘When Jeremy [Bond] took care of me, he actively turned the iPad to face whoever was speaking. It was amazing. It felt like I was right there at the table, but also weird to not be turning my physical head, while I was virtually looking all around. I also felt bad that he was working so hard thinking about what I was seeing.’

They planned to use a Mini-jam box speaker/microphone to enable Carrie to be heard by the larger group, but it did not work on the day. So it was hard to hear Carrie speaking when we were assembled as the whole group. However, she could hear others very well, even in the big group. Carrie notes: ‘we used the Zoom chat and I would type, then my caretaker would speak for me. A few times I wrote on a piece of paper and held it up to the camera. When I went to lunch I used the share screen function of Zoom to show a word document with big letters saying GONE TO LUNCH BE BACK SOON. I also occasionally Texted room participants. … I used the spotlight function of Zoom to control which of the three window’s was the main one on the iPad.’

Professor Robby Ratan took the table and stand to the flip chart in discussing the notes from his breakout group. Carrie noted: ‘When Robby took notes for our breakout session; he went to Share My Screen mode, which meant I couldn’t use my computer. But I could see really well.’

Carrie joined the retreat at 6am California time, and was “at the retreat” for 7 hours.

The departmental secretary, Heather Brown, carried the portable stand and tablet downstairs and outdoors for a photo of the retreat participants. I’ll post the photo here. As Carrie describes it: ‘When Heather carried me down the stairs and out onto the lawn, there was a visceral feeling of being carried.’ You can see Professor Heeter on the tablet in the front row of the photo, but in another use of virtualization, Carrie had to Photoshop her picture onto the tablet’s screen. Nevertheless, the WiFi was quite good at the retreat center, and even out onto the grass, letting Carrie virtually participate in the photo session, even if invisible [due to the bright sun] in the photo without the touchup on Photoshop.

Photo of Retreat Participants and the Virtual Professor
Photo of Retreat Participants and the Virtual Professor

Carrie’s evaluation of the experience is also useful. She argued: ‘That it “worked” is due in part to the good will, tolerance, and helpfulness of physically present folks, and to the resolve of all of us to make it work. The iPad on the stand was much better than being on someone’s laptop. It was more like having my own place at the table and in the room.

Connecting through both the laptop and the iPad provided continuity (when the iPad turned off or needed to be recharged) as well as providing a second window on the meeting.’

Carrie concludes with a fascinating observation: ‘I was very much in people’s hands — they would raise and lower me to choose the height.’

Professor Carrie Heeter
Professor Carrie Heeter

More Challenges to Informing Voters Online: Lessons Learned by Tracy Westen

[After posting our blog on ‘A Dirty Dozen Reasons ..’, Tracy Westen followed up with an email detailing additional challenges learned during the 1990s when he worked through the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) in Los Angeles to improve voter information. His note was so informative, and useful, that I have posted it here with his permission.)

Tracy Westen:

“I’ve been thinking about other deterrents to Internet debates that we did not cover, partly because I didn’t think they applied to Presidential candidates, but upon reflection they might.

You’ll recall that I was involved in developing formats for cities that wanted to use video to present their local candidates. We were able to get LA to enact this approach into its ordinances, and every election, all candidates for city office get a chance to videotape a short presentation on why they should be elected. These are available on the City’s municipal access channel and website. It’s now been running for perhaps 8 years or so. We also worked with Santa Monica to do it, and they’ve experimented with a number of formats: videotaped presentations, short debates, rebuttals, Q&A videotaped from an audience, so the user could click a question and see any answer, etc. New York hired us as consultants for two election cycles and gave all their local candidates — close to 200 — a chance to come to a studio, with professional lighting, makeup and a teleprompter, and video two versions of a statement of up to two minutes, and then pick the one they wanted to be used. They were broadcast on the city’s TV channel and I believe, but am not sure, were available on the city’s website. We also persuaded Time Warner to do the same thing one year on its Channel One, a dedicated NY news channel for cable, and in 1996 we developed the nation’s first digital, interactive, on-demand presentation of Presidential candidates for cable TV on Time Warner’s Full Service Network in Orlando, Florida.

What did we learn? Several things:


In these early trials, my first suggestion was to require candidates to video tape at least two minutes! My idea was that they would have to get substantive to fill the time, instead of just using platitudes. To my dismay, I discovered that many candidates couldn’t fill two minutes: they typically didn’t have enough to say and ran out of ideas. Depressing! In addition, I found that viewers didn’t want to sit through two minutes — it’s actually very long, when you look at current TV editing techniques. So we had to drop that requirement and say “up to 2 minutes.” Almost no one ever taped anything that long. Saddening!

Lack of Experience

Local candidates (for city council, etc.) usually had little or no experience with TV. Their videotaped statements were, often, not very good: they read mechanically, didn’t express much feeling, and droned on.

Lack of Familiarity with TV Production

Our first trials with the City of LA offered candidates a chance to videotape their own statements and bring them to the City for airing on the city’s cable TV channel. We thought they would jump at the chance. At first, nothing happened: no one participated. So I arranged to have Time Warner Cable in West LA offer them a fully staffed studio, with makeup and camera operators, and all they had to do was call up, book an appointment, show up, and have the statements prepared for them. Only about 50% of the candidates participated — still that showed us that you have to offer them full service production, because none of them knew how to get a short video produced. We also did the same thing with presidential candidates in 1996: we offered them the opportunity to send us short video statements on 5 issues, and said we’d put them on Time Warner’s Full Service Network (the first interactive digital system) in Orlando, Fla. We only got a few responses and then had to hire camera crews to go to the candidates and get them to prepare statements: only a few did that.

Our lesson: at least in the early days, when streaming wasn’t any good, when YouTube didn’t exist, and candidates, especially at the lower levels, weren’t used to TV, we had to do everything for them. That’s probably still the case with lower races — city candidates through many state legislative races. I suppose, also, candidates didn’t see the benefits, since Internet traffic was so limited at that time. At the Presidential level, however, my assumption has been that the candidates are comfortable with TV and know how to produce short spot announcements. Still, while they may be willing to produce TV commercials (typically, they don’t contain the candidates except for a voice over at the end to qualify for lowest unit rate), they may not spend much time actually taping appearances in those ads – often they’re narrated by a third person and either attack their opponents or tout their records, without much candidate video. So, in short: Many candidates may not be comfortable with TV, or with the short video statement, and may not have easy access to recording facilities — so we’ve found we have to make arrangements for them (actually, like a debate, where all the candidate has to do is show up).


At first, we tried to get spontaneity. We asked them questions and taped their answers for their statements. But some fumbled around and didn’t have very clear answers. And were nervous. So we used a teleprompter, and that seemed to work much better — but many, most, had never used one, so they looked a bit awkward: their eyes moved around, etc. Still, that was better.

Comfort with a Debate Format

Presidential candidates are generally used to sound bites and TV interviews and have the know-how to handle themselves in that format. Yes, they have to “practice” and “train” before a debate, but that’s a back-and-forth discussion, with a camera, and experts coaching them. Then all they have to do is show up and “perform.” Telling them they have to prepare, say, 5 to 10 video statements, then rebuttal video statements, then answers to voter questions also on video, over a period of time, perhaps months — that may be logistically more difficult for them.

One of my early ideas was that candidates would just sit down in front of a computer with a camera in the monitor, read a few voter questions, videotape a few quick answers, and transmit them into a central website, where they would be inserted in the right place. Probably naive – many didn’t have that capability, at least in the 1990s, and their campaign managers might not want such off-the-cuff statements inserted into the video stream. So there are logistical problems that may deter candidates from participating, including lack of familiarity with the format, lack of experience in making the videos interesting, and probably resistance from campaign managers who want to control everything but don’t have the time to spend doing it and not seeing the payoff.

I once had a very experienced campaign manager say to me, about Project VoteSmart — which sends a questionnaire around to all federal candidates, asks them to answer the questions [developed by reporters and polling], and posts them on the web — that the first thing he tells his candidates when they get the VoteSmart questions is to “throw them away.” He said his candidates gain nothing from answering specific issue questions: they only risk losing voters. Rather, he wants to control the message on themes his polling shows work best for that candidate. Project Vote Smart periodically ran into trouble because only small percentages of candidates bothered to answer their questions and get the free postings on the website.

More Experience but Challenges Remain

There’s more — I helped write a book, “Video Voter,” on this subject*, with recommendations to cities and others wanting to build voter information websites — but it was pretty upbeat and didn’t go into all the negatives. We’d need to think this through, in light of todays’ candidates’ experience with and access to video, to design a contemporary format.

Finally, as I think you know, I concluded several years ago that, rather than try to persuade the networks to develop websites like the Democracy Network (DNet) for candidate debates, I’d try to persuade Secretary of State websites to do it. I co-authored a book for the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS), “Voter Info in Digital Age: Grading State Election Websites,” in which we started by grading all 51 state (and DC) election websites on their presentation of substantive voter information. We developed a list of about 30 criteria and examined every website. We also made suggestions for what Secretaries of State should do to improve their websites and adopt contemporary web techniques, with an emphasis on video. This is worth thinking about, since (a) the networks probably won’t see any profit in what we’re proposing, and (b) Secretaries of State already have websites they can adapt, and doing so wouldn’t be that expensive. I have encountered problems with this, however, and can go into them separately. (I also put together a funding proposal for a foundation to fund our working with 3 test states to get them to upgrade their voter information websites but the foundation didn’t accept the proposal.)


So, at least two options: Persuade the news media or other Internet sites (Facebook, Google, others?) to develop online candidate debates (I tried to persuade TiVo to do it, and suggested the name “TiVoter” for them, but they didn’t adopt it), or persuade Secretaries of State to modernize their sites and offer many of the features we’ve proposed. Perhaps there are more. Apple, with it’s new Apple TV coming out in the fall?”

Tracy Westen
Tracy Westen

Tracy Westen

Dallas, Texas

From email to Bill Dutton


Voter Info in Digital Age