We’re now living in a pandemic driven world. Social distancing will continue to be an important social obligation. We must distance ourselves from others if we hope to manage this pandemic and its impact. In this new world, video connections have taken on new importance, ... and pose new challenges. This paper takes the position that most group social connections are ill suited to video connections, but that leaves an important range of information sharing opportunities which are appropriate. And it leaves social one-on-one video connections. The future impact on 3rd age English course providers could be severe.
The social challenge was nicely highlighted in an article in last week’s New York Times (“Why Zoom is Terrible” by Kate Murphy, April 29, 2020). That article focused on Zoom, but something similar could be said about all group video connection services. The problem is that we depend on multiple small visual clues to be able to read the emotions and feelings behind the people with whom we interact. One-on-one video connections, when properly set up, can provide many of those important visual psychological clues. Such is not the case for group social connections. A video group social meeting is not at all the same thing as a physical group meeting.
It’s important to pause a moment to describe what it should mean for a video connection to be “properly set up”? The image projected should be properly illuminated, with no large shadows hiding portions of your face. The camera should be positions so that it provides a straight-on view. You should not be positioned in front of a bright window with your face in shadow. And a camera focused up your nose is guaranteed to be distracting. The use of clever background images or background blurring is, almost always, distracting. You will appear with a visual halo surrounding your head. Hands and arms will pop in and out of the image as the computer attempts to separate what should be in focus from the made-up background. Unless the participant really has a green screen behind them and is using a powerful computer, all of these clever “enhancement” should be avoided. The goal should be to project an image that is as natural as possible.
In my experience, one-on-one video interactions, while never as good as face-to-face, can be socially rewarding. In a properly set up one-on-one connection, many of those important visual social clues can be recognized. With a moderately good Internet connection, two-person video images stutter very little. Push the number of participants up to a half dozen or more and visual stuttering will be all too common. A two-person video connection is not as good as face-to-face, but you can still get many of the clues on which we depend to read the other person.
I’ve found that video one-on-one connections have allowed me to reach out to friends and relatives in a socially satisfying way. Indeed, the pandemic has brought me closer to several friends, and it’s largely thanks to video one-on-one connections. I cannot say the same thing of any group video social gathering. A video group can work its way through an agenda or carefully consider a variety of topics from a range of perspectives. But a group social connection is almost always a weak imitation of what is possible in a group face-to-face meeting.
Where does this leave group video gatherings? They’re ill-suited to achieving group social interaction objectives. They can, however, be an effective way to reach decisions or to review important information. By all means, use a video meeting when a physical meeting isn’t practical or prudent. A video lecture can be an effective way to present information. Many people seem to prefer to listen to, and watch, a lecture rather than just read the words that are being spoken. And there are sights and sounds that cannot be properly conveyed using just the printed word.
A webinar or video course has proven an effective way to convey information to a potentially large audience. It can be cost-effective, but considerable investment is required to present an effective webinar or video course. The kind of instant feedback loop that happens naturally in the classroom is absent. In my experience, preparing for an on-camera presentation is similar in effort required to that of preparing to give a talk to hundreds or thousands. You have to get it right the first time, there’s no familiar human feedback loop that allows for simple on-the-fly corrections.
Video courses have proliferated. There were literally thousands of institutions offering video course, even before the current pandemic. I’ve been involved with 3rd age courses for most of the previous decade. Most such courses succeed or fail based on whether they deliver intrinsic rewards to participants. The experience is a vital part of what is deliver in such courses. This is as opposed to the traditional credit course which can offer significant extrinsic rewards in the form of valuable credentials.
To the extent that 3rd age English courses go online, a global marketplace will emerge, and such courses will succeed or fail in what is likely to become a cut-throat global marketplace. The weak social dimension of video classes is going to be a major problem for many 3rd age organizations that want to take their courses online. That social dimension is a critical part of what local 3rd age organizations deliver to local 3rd age classrooms. Will a handful of globally dominant 3rd age video course providers emerge? That’s one not unreasonable projection from all of the current pandemic drive 3rd age English webinars and video courses.
It’s going to be an interesting future for 3rd age English course providers.
I am using regular video calls with two groups during this isolation period. The calls involve 6 to 10 people. One group is family. The other is composed of people who, in better days, often met at a local coffee shop. In some ways, these online gatherings work better than in-person ones. The conversations are less likely to break off into pairs or small groups, leavings some people out. I can see everyone's face, not just the person directly across from me. I don't know how well these positives could be ported to pedagogical use.
I agree that recording a session for an imagined audience would be difficult. I want to have someone to actually talk to. Maybe one option would be to have a few people onscreen, representatives of the collective, so to speak. It would help if the instructor has a large screen with good resolution so that faces are large enough to see details.
You focus on English courses. I am not sure that the subject is as important as the instructor's natural style. If the instructor is a dynamic speaker, roaming the stage and using expansive gestures, the restrictions of a fixed camera would be deadly. For someone used to standing at a lectern, the new medium might not make a lot of difference.
When social distancing as a regulated activity is history, there may still be a place for online courses. Introverts may still like them. Busy people or people with mobility issues may find they offer ways to connect that are not otherwise available. But most of us will want to get back into classrooms as soon as we can. I miss those conversations with the person beside me and with the people who wander into Balzac after class.
Thinking further about this subject I'm reminded of my business committee experience from years ago. When a committee established itself using face-to-face meetings, it was often possible to continue the work online by a voice conference call or even by a shared discussion board. The pre-existing social connection was an important factor the subsequent success of the virtual continuation. That's in line with what Dennis pointed out. When the participants in a virtual meeting already have an ability to "read" the other participants, going virtual can be a cost-effective way forward. That pre-existing social knowledge is important, at least it has always been important for me. Something similar may also apply with 3rd age participants. Use virtual to extend, but be wary of virtual as the initial point of social contact.