Could your Zoom meeting be a phone call?

Regular readers know that I’m very cautious about synchronous online teaching using video and think it’s unethical in classes that were advertised to students as in person but end up being taught online. And I feel the same about online video meetings. I’ve written extensively about the privacy and equity issues of live online video, as well as the way that live online sessions can diminish learning. Additionally, online video may make our meetings less productive because we’re focusing on the camera, not the content. For example:

  • Live online video are physically tiring; they require us to sit still even beyond what in-person meetings do because our cameras so narrowly focus on our faces.
  • Live online video may be especially challenging for those with anxiety and some other social or mental health struggles.
  • Live online video is exhausting because we cannot easily read nonverbal communication in online video. Because anyone and everyone may be looking at us at any moment, very up close, we may try to convey interest and positivity in a way that is exhausting for us. We may fear allowing our faces or body to relax because we’ll be caught looking like we aren’t paying attention. And it is hard to show that you’re paying attention, since looking at the screen will not produce the effect of looking people in the eye; that requires looking at the camera, which isn’t where faces are visible to you.
  • Live online video is too intimate for most conversations. In real life, we simply aren’t up in each other’s faces that much unless we actually are engaged in a physically intimate relationship with someone, like our partners, children, or close friends. It’s overwhelming to be that close to so many people at once and to have them that close to you.
  • Live online video is harder on women, who are judged more on their appearance than men and have to navigate a whole new world of being “professionally presentable” on video, thus placing one more irrelevant task on on their to-do list, or else results in more judgment for women than for men. (And if you are part of a workplace where this isn’t an issue, you’re lucky.)

Before you schedule another online meeting, consider if the work that will be done in the meeting could easier be done via phone, a quick text, email, or another digital tool. A Zoom or Google Meet meeting is needed if there are many participants who might otherwise speak over each other (or not speak at all for fear of speaking over each other) or if participants need to see the same document, object, etc. In either case, offer the option of calling in or leaving cameras off and using the chat or the hand raise function to indicate a desire to speak. If participants are focusing attention on a shared document, then we don’t need to see each other’s faces at all. And if we’re discussing something in a smaller group or talking about something that doesn’t require looking at something together, skip Zoom or Google Meet altogether in favor of the phone.

Above, an illustration from Ramona and Beezus by Beverly Cleary shows the grumpy face of little Ramona. Beneath, the words say “‘I am too a Merry Sunshine,'” insisted Ramona, but she got down from the table and ran out of the room.” I’ve crossed out the r in room and replaced it with a Z.

And remember: if you are tired after teaching 9 class sessions a week via live video and attending 3-4 meetings a week that way, imagine how tired your students are from showing up to 15 live video class sessions each week.

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