Some like it hot: don’t forget to warm up online learning spaces

‘Warming up’ the screen needs to become a priority for educators, especially for video-based tutorials and seminars, says Lucinda McKnight

February 12, 2021
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As we’re all learning, the digital classroom can be a cold and lonely space. But even the most reluctant students and academics must remember that online learning has the potential for rich and meaningful interactions.

The lack of “temperature” is one reason why many students prefer to learn face to face, meaning that “warming up” the screen needs to become a priority for educators − especially for video-based tutorials and seminars via platforms such as Zoom.

This does not just mean warmth in tone of voice. It’s about designing spaces, educator performances and learning programmes that make students feel welcome and included.

THE Campus resources: advice on creating welcoming online learning environments

First, looking at the camera when speaking, or when students are speaking, makes a huge difference to connecting with an audience. Various strategies can help: sticking two life-sized eyes cut from a photo on either side of the camera and making eye contact with them; placing a photograph of a supportive colleague or mentor’s face next to the camera and addressing this image. To keep the camera at eye level or slightly above, laptops may need to be elevated and used with a separate keyboard.

Texture is another important element of warmth. This can be achieved by designing the mise en scene (screen contents) to avoid elements that are harsh or severe, whether in personal presentation or background.

This can be tricky, as interior designers know. Books and bricks both denote warmth (despite actually being cold, hard and sharp). Trying to achieve a visual sense of textual richness and diversity, without creating distractions, is a good way to think about it.

Including items that have stories creates opportunities for sharing anecdotes and personalises learning. I like to wear my #FEAS (Feminist Educators against Sexism) T-shirt. As “feas” also means “ugly” in Spanish, it creates a lot of discussion – as well as learning for my diversity unit students.

Distance from the screen needs to be judged carefully. Sitting too far away feels cold and distant. Sitting too close can discomfit the audience. Proximity is necessary for participants to see facial expressions and for sharing material objects that contribute to personalising the online space (try asking students to draw a quick emoji on a piece of paper showing how they feel about an idea or to return from the break with a drink in the quirkiest cup they can find). Finding the right distance needs to be trialled.

Being generous with gesture and expression for sensitive and positive reinforcement enhances “warm” pedagogy. Smiling, raising eyebrows, nodding, miming clapping and giving thumbs up all contribute to a sense of being present and engaged. Theorists of visual design know that movement has the most salience on screen: it draws the eye, communicates energy and brings the static screen to life.

THE Campus resource: how to create human connection when teaching online

Participants need to feel that they matter. Educators can achieve this through welcoming them at the beginning of sessions and when returning from breaks or breakout rooms. Using names frequently and referring to what people have contributed are vital. Showing courtesy by being prepared and punctual, starting on time, giving regular breaks exactly when promised, ensuring that every single person − whether there are five or 500 participants − has a chance to speak (either in the plenary or through set activities in breakout rooms) and closing in a timely and meaningful way are also important.

What platforms such as Zoom have added to this basic good practice is the potential to use the chat function for warmth. Educators can find out, for example, where everyone is coming from, the best and worst things that have happened that day, what participants hope to gain from the session.

As answers appear, educators can skim read and verbally comment on the posts − this is a very powerful means of achieving cohesion and inclusion. Educators should post responses to any questions or tasks themselves, too. We teach trainee English teachers that when students are writing, they should be writing as well, and also sharing aspects of themselves to enhance trust.

Above all, educators need to be empathetic and responsive and limit their own talking. Everyone watching themselves speak risks the Zoom loop of endless repetition. I use a timer and set frequent one-, three-, five- or 10-minute breakout room activities, sending messages into the rooms when it’s time to change speaker. On return, all should share what they have learned in the chat, while I provide (or delegate) chat commentary, then ask participants who they would like to elaborate. Active listening generates warmth.

Along with the above, many supports are becoming available for creating online warmth, from the remote work coach suggesting “warm-up” activities, to the online stylist advising how to dress for rapport. Warming online spaces is the result of careful planning and strategic intervention and makes an enormous difference to digital learning.

Lucinda McKnight is a senior lecturer in education (pedagogy and curriculum) at Deakin University, Melbourne.

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