Tech tips for remote meetings & education

CoE-GameCult director, professor Frans Mäyrä shares some tech tips for conducting remote meetings and distance education, during the epidemic. (Crossposted from www.fransmayra.fi.)

The global coronavirus epidemic has already caused deaths, suffering and cancellations (e.g. those of our DiGRA 2020 conference, and the Immersive Experiences seminar), but there are still luckily many things that go on in our daily academic lives, albeit often in somewhat reorganised manner. In schools and universities, the move towards remote education is particularly one producing wide-ranging changes, and one that is currently been implemented hastily in innumerable courses that were not originally planned to be run in this manner at all.

I am not in a position to provide pedagogic advice, as the responsible teachers will know much better what are the actual learning goals of their courses, and therefore they are also best capable of thinking how to reach those goals with alternative means. But since I have been directing, implementing or participating in remote education over 20 years already (time flies!), here are at least some practical tips I can share.

Often the main part of remote education is independent, individual learning processes, which just needs to be somehow supported. Finding information online, gathering data, reading, analysing, thinking and writing is something that does not fundamentally change, even if the in-class meetings would be replaced by reporting and commenting taking place online (though, the workload for teachers can easily skyrocket, which is something to be aware of). This is particularly true in asynchronous remote education, where everyone does their tasks at their own pace. It is when teamwork, group communications, more advanced collaborations, or when some special software or tools are required, when more challenges emerge. There are ways to get around most of those issues, too. But it is certainly true that not all education can be converted into remote education, not at least with identical learning goals.

According to my experience, there are three main types of problems in real-time group meetings or audio/videoconferences: 1) connection problems, 2) audio & video problems, and 3) conversation rules problems. Let’s deal with them, one by one.

1) The connection problems are due to bad or unreliable internet connection. My main advice is either to make sure that one can use wired rather than Wi-Fi/cellular connection while attempting to join a real-time online meeting or get very close to a Wi-Fi router in order to get as strong signal as possible. If one has a weak connection, the experience of everyone will suffer, as there will likely be garbled noises and video artefacts coming from you, rather than good-quality streams.

2) The audio and video problems relate to echo, weak sound levels, background noise, or dark, badly positioned or unclear video. If there are several people taking part in a joint meeting, it might be worth thinking carefully whether a video stream is actually needed. In most cases people are working intensely with their laptops or mobile devices during the online meeting, reviewing documents and making notes, and since there are challenges in getting a real eye-to-eye contact with other people (that is pretty impossible still, with current consumer technology), there are multiple distancing factors that will lower the feeling of social presence in any case. Good quality audio link might be enough to have a decent meeting. For that, I really recommend using a headset (headphones with a built-in microphone) rather than just the built-in microphone and speakers of the laptop, for example. There will be much less echo, and the microphone will be close to speakers’ mouths meaning that speech is picked up in much clearer and louder manner, and the surround noises are easier to control. But it is highly advisable to move into a silent room for the period of teleconference.

Another tip: I suggest always first connecting the headset (or external microphone and speakers), BEFORE starting the software tool used for teleconferencing. This way, you can make sure that the correct audio devices (both output and input devices) are set as active or default ones, before you start the remote meeting tool. It is pretty easy to get this messed up and end up a with low-quality audio coming from the wrong microphone or speakers rather than the intended ones. Note that there are indeed two layers here: in most cases, there are separate audio device settings both in the operating system (see Start/Settings/System/Sound in Windows 10), and another, e.g. “Preferences” item with other audio device settings hidden inside most remote meeting tools. Both of those need to be checked – prior to the meeting.

Thus, yet one tip: please always dedicate e.g. 10-15 minutes of technical preparation time before a remote education or remote meeting session for double-checking and solving connection, audio, video or other technical problems. It is sad (and irresponsible) use of everyone’s precious time, if every session starts with half of the speakers missing the ability to speak, or not being able to hear anyone else. Though, this kind of scenario is still unfortunately pretty typical. Remote meeting technology is notoriously unreliable, and when there are multiple people, multiple devices and multiple connections involved, the likelihood of problems multiplies exponentially.

Please be considerate and patient towards other people. No-one wants to be the person having tech problems.

3) The discussion rules related problems are the final category, and one that might be also culturally dependent. In a typical remote meeting among several Finnish people, for example, it might be that everyone just keeps quiet most of the time. That is normal, polite behaviour in the Finnish cultural context for face-to-face meetings – but something that is very difficult to decode when in an online audio teleconference where you are missing all the subtle gestures, confused looks, smiles and other nonverbal cues. In some other cultural setting, the difficulty might be people speaking on top of each other. Or the issues might be related to people asking questions without making it clear who is actually being addressed by the question or comment.

It is usually a good policy to have a chair or moderator appointed for an online meeting, particularly if it is larger than only a couple of people. The speakers can use the chat or other tools in the software to make signals when they’d want to speak. The chairperson makes it clear which item is being currently discussed and gives floor to each participant in their turn. Everyone tries to be concise, and also remembers to use names while presenting questions or comments to others. It is also good practice to start each meeting with a round of introductions, so that everyone can connect the sound of voice with a particular person. Repeating one’s name also later in the meeting when one is speaking up, does not hurt, either.

In most of our online meetings today we are using a collaboratively edited online document for notetaking during the meeting. This helps everyone to follow what has been said or decided upon. People can fix typos in notes in real time or add links and other materials without requiring the meeting chairperson (or secretary) to do so for them. There are many such online notetaking tools in standard office suites. Google Docs works fine, for example, and has probably the easiest way of generating an editing-allowed link, which can then be shared in the meeting chat window with all participants, without requiring them to have a separate service account and login to do so. Microsoft has their own, integrated tools that work best when everyone is from within the same organisation.

Finally, online collaboration has come a long way from the first experiments in 1960s (google “NLS” and Douglas Engelbart), but it still continues to have its challenges. But if we are all aware of the most typical issues, dedicate a few minutes before each session for setup and testing (and invest 15 euros/dollars into a reliable plug-and-play headset with USB connectivity) we can remove many annoying elements and make the experience much better for everyone. Then, it is much easier to start improving the actual content and pedagogic side of things. – Btw, if you have any additional tips, or comments to share on this, please drop a note below.

Nice meetings!

Photo of a headset.