Videoconferencing has been the most significant trend in pandemic times, and these fast-growing platforms have helped people work from home and connect with loved ones. However, they need to be harnessed carefully when it comes to digital education. Here are the five lessons we’ve learnt.

2020 has been the catalyst for major change across a variety of industries, but there has been one undeniable trend: videoconferencing. It has been brilliant in helping people to reconnect with friends and family, manage teams remotely in lockdown, and in fostering some togetherness during the pandemic. The rise in videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Google Meet has been astonishing, and it has proven to be an essential digital tool for many in the forced transition to work from home (WFH). With the ban on international travel, videoconferencing has also provided a lifeline for organisations and workers whose main work comes from providing in-person training and development workshops.

However, these digital tools have real-life limitations. This is especially evident when you narrow down the market to educational needs and traditional face-to-face education and training. Thousands of schools, universities, capacity-building organisations, and course-providers have been forced to pivot quickly, and many have swapped in-person lessons with videoconferencing sessions. These videoconferencing platforms seem to have worked as a short-term solution for several educational institutions and course providers; albeit with several shortcomings for teaching and learning that need to be taken into account. Here’s our take: if you want effective digital learning opportunities you should consider platforms like Zoom, but you need to implement them carefully and use them in the right context. Here are our five reasons why:

  1. Videoconferencing platforms can be data-heavy.

Real-time video feeds require fast download and upload speeds, and unfortunately, not everyone has fibre or high-speed internet to guarantee reliable access. In countries with limited broadband and fibre penetration and high data costs, this is a massive problem. It’s incredibly frustrating and demotivating if you can’t hear properly, or if you keep losing the connection. This experience entrenches the feeling of disconnection during the course rather than creating a feeling of cohesiveness and engagement. Even worse, the prohibitive data costs can deepen the digital divide and widen, rather than shrink, the capacity gap.

A secondary consideration is timing: if you’re offering world-wide learning solutions to global students, then time zones start becoming a logistical issue with synchronous classes.

The lesson: Instead of relying purely on real-time, video-based group chats for lessons, you can create experiences and teaching materials which have smaller file sizes, and which students can download in batches. This also suits students who access the files from their offices or free Wi-Fi zones on their schedule. A blended strategy of synchronous and asynchronous activities could also offer a solution which gets the best of both worlds.

  1. It doesn’t replicate the in-person teaching experience as much as we want it.

Videoconferencing tools were built to replace face-to-face meetings and to save on travel costs and time. They were not developed as educational tools. While they may offer a few features that are similar to those found in a physical classroom, it’s a mistake to think of them as a virtual classroom.

In this sense, it is the same as the parallel between traditional print magazines and digital versions. There was a growing trend in page-turning software which tried to replicate the experience of turning magazine pages. Even though the publishers wanted to recreate the same experience for their paper-based customers by directly transferring the content from print into pixels, the digital ‘magazines’ didn’t work as they weren’t built for purpose. These digital magazines couldn’t mirror the original physical experience of holding a magazine in your hands. The successful publishers soon realised that to engage users truly, they needed to harness the benefits and opportunities of being a digital medium, and not mimic a traditionally print-based product.

For Zoom to be used correctly in digital education, you need to understand why and how your students will use it. It can’t replace a classroom – it’s merely a digital tool that teachers can use to supplement the learning process. A well-equipped and beautifully decorated lecture hall or classroom used by a poor educator will create poor educational experiences. In contrast, a good educator can transform a drab grey room into a hive of learning. Videoconferencing tools are no different.

The lesson: This comes down to how you use it, and how much time you use it for. You need to accept that it’s a teaching resource, not a standalone answer to online learning. To use videoconferencing as a digital education tool, you need to understand how your students will perceive, how they’ll use it, and how they’ll respond to it emotionally. It’s also critical to see this as part of a more significant learning journey.

  1. Video chats can be draining.

It even has a unique description: ‘zoom fatigue.’ And now that we’re doing video calls for both social and work needs, they’ve become a standard, calendar-filling fixture in our diaries. Research by Harvard Business Review and National Geographic shows that video calling is more draining mentally because there are fewer non-verbal cues to process. The multi-person gallery screens challenge the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker, or teacher in our case. The cognitive load is increased when you’re only meeting online, and this needs to be taken into account, both in business meetings and in this case, when creating curriculums and education programmes. Research also shows that prolonged eye contact can be threatening, or come across as overly intimate if held too long. It’s also important to remember that many people find being on camera very intimidating and stressful, and as a result, teachers need to consider these effects on the students.

The lesson: A variety of offline and online training methods need to be used in the curriculum to reduce this pixel pressure. Some content is better received in text format, and it’s usually easier and quicker to consume and offers a better student experience. Video-based lectures should only form a small part of that – video conferencing as a tool shouldn’t be overused.

You should also use functions like quizzes, polls, and the typed chat function within the software to create engagement and connection between participants. Teachers should make the synchronous time of video conferencing to be about multi-directional exchanges, and not simply the presenter pushing content.

If video is not needed for every call, then students should turn the cameras off. When it comes to ‘social’ catch-ups, customers and students need to learn how to politely decline video calls so they can reduce the number of calls they get.

  1. Video-based courses don’t offer flexibility and don’t suit all personality types.

If the whole curriculum is based on lectures through group video chats, there are pros and cons. The students can work remotely, as long as they have the time and data (see point 5). However, this set structure doesn’t offer flexibility, as lessons can’t be structured to suit work and lifestyle schedules. It can work as a short-term solution for the students, but it’s not on their terms. That’s a crucial point for students who are working full-time.

The secondary consideration here is that not everyone is suited to studying and interacting solely with video calls. Students can be easily distracted during video calls by other programs, email, social media notifications, and news updates. Some will habitually zone out on video calls as it’s hard for them to maintain attention. Introverted students will feel negatively pressured to answer and face their instructor and classmates, and to come up with answers and feedback while on the spot. Not every student feels comfortable speaking publicly, or providing their opinion freely while on camera. Also, it’s not easy to have a natural group-based discussion on these platforms: people are unsure when to speak, and end up talking over each other. Not all voices are heard easily and equally.

And lastly, research is now showing this kind of video-based learning is forcing your brain to multitask between listening and watching the lecturer while still trying to pick up visual and audio cues from classmates. This forced attention split can overwhelm your mind and derail your concentration – which then sabotages your learning experience. You end up focusing on several things but never entirely devoting yourself to one task, which psychologists call continuous partial attention.

The lesson: While real-time lectures can work in teaching in the traditional sense, it doesn’t offer all the digital resources that a student needs to study effectively. For example, customised chat functions and group-based text tutorials work better in encouraging all students to provide input and to grasp concepts. Not only are these options less stressful for introverted students, but they also provide more depth of information and allows students to research and formulate answers on their own time.

  1. There are privacy and safety issues to keep in mind.

Many of the prominent videoconferencing brands have experienced data breaches and account hacks. Zoom, in particular, has come under pressure and has faced bans for certain organisations and educational institutions due to the risks caused by being vulnerable to malware, identity theft, and other cyber threats. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shared warnings about VTC hijacking, also known as Zoombombing, where hackers have hijacked Zoom classes without permission. Zoom isn’t the only culprit; the other platforms have faced similar issues.

The lesson: If digitally-led educators are going to use external videoconferencing platforms, they need to have clear-cut privacy guidelines and an action checklist when it comes to the protection of their students’ data.

In conclusion, these videoconferencing apps and platforms have changed the way we do business, how we communicate and socialise, and also how we teach and learn. There are undeniable benefits, but unfortunately, they fall short. The main reason, as superbly explained by Nadya Rousseau, they are simply not immersive enough for teachers and students to forget they are staring at their peers as floating digital squares. “These traditional digital online learning methods tend to isolate students,” says Hosni Zaouali, CEO of Tech-Adaptika, an EdTech startup based in Toronto; one of many that are transforming the industry during the pandemic.

Just as the lecture hall is only a small part of your university experience, videoconferencing should only form part of your digital learning experience.

To succeed as a remote student, you need a purpose-built, digital-first education provider with a proven track record and access to innovative end-to-end teaching tools. The courses need to be bespoke, designed with the end user’s needs in mind, and they need to be versatile enough to suit the student lifestyles and global locations. If you’re wondering whether you need to study, keep this statistic in mind: the World Economic Forum has predicted that by 2022, over half of all employees will require significant upskilling to do their jobs – and that was before Covid-19 and the record unemployment numbers. It’s time to find your classroom of the future.