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Teleconferencing in the Writing Classroom

Teleconferencing, whether it includes voice, video, or both, can be a useful tool for teaching remotely. It can even be used for in-person classes if, for instance, students cannot come to class, students need to collaborate outside of class, or teachers want to hold a virtual study or workshop session that can be recorded for students who can't attend. This resource discusses a number of ways to use teleconferencing in your classes.

Choosing a Tool

Many teleconferencing platforms are available. While some teachers can't choose the tool they use because their institution subscribes to a particular service, if you are in the position of needing to pick one, there are a few important factors to weigh.

Accessibility

If the teleconferencing platform can't be procured for free, cost will likely be the greatest barrier to accessibility for students. Among free tools, a likelier issue is device compatibility. Classroom teleconferencing platforms should be able to run on many kinds of computers and operating systems, as well as mobile devices, since students learning at home may need to use a range of devices to complete their work. If a tool constantly drops out when there are more than a few people on a call, or if a tool demands a great deal of computing power, it may not be a good choice. Remember that many students may have older or lower-spec computers.

Privacy

Some web conferencing providers have been criticized regarding privacy issues, so the degree to which a platform protects students' data is an important consideration. Also, if your calls may involve discussing FERPA-protected information such as grades, you'll need to be able to ensure your call is private and protected from unexpected intrusions by other users.

Affordances

What will you need to use your teleconferencing software for? Sharing screens? Marking up documents or writing/drawing on a "whiteboard" together? Will you need to control students' mics? Will you need chat, voice, video, or a mix of the three? Most web conferencing platforms have similar features, but it's worth testing a few options prior to their classroom debut to see how well they work for your course. Ultimately, if your priority is simply being able to talk to your students face to face while you are teaching online or remotely, you may not need the most feature-rich platform. On the other hand, if you plan to do collaborative work that mirrors activities you do at the whiteboard or on a shared piece of paper in class, these tools may be your deciding factor.

  • It's also worth checking whether any help documentation is available for the platform you're considering. Be sure to make this information available to your students even if you consider the platform easy to use. Remember that some students may struggle with computer skills you consider elementary. 

General Tips

  • All participants should wear headphones and/or mute themselves when they are not speaking to avoid echo and excess noise on the call.
  • Don't require students to use video unless truly necessary. Video puts greater stress on the platform than audio alone. This effect can be considerable for large groups. Also, students may not feel comfortable showing teachers or other students their home or living situation. Making it clear up front that students can opt out of using video helps ensure calls go as smooth as possible for students and teachers alike.
  • Know that some students (especially in large group calls) may want to avoid speaking aloud. This may be because they do not have access to a quiet, private place, because they do not have the necessary equipment, or for some other reason. If possible, use text chat in addition to voice/video to help these students participate. You or a student who is speaking can read out text question/comments for the group.
  • Set clear guidelines for participating in teleconferencing meetings beforehand so that students understand how the meeting will run and what they can do to help it run smoothly. For instance, students will be more likely to help raise comments from a text-chat for discussion over audio if they know beforehand that this is something they can and should do.
  • Ensure you don't have anything private or embarassing running in your computer's background or in a web browser tab before beginning the call. This includes FERPA-protected information like student grades. If possible, close every program other than what's necessary to complete your lesson. You never know when you might need to share your screen.

One-on-One Teleconferencing

One-on-one teleconferencing is a good replacement for in-person office hour meetings or student conferences. It's a good way to give feedback on a particular student's work between drafts or before a draft is completed. 

Some specific things you can do one-on-one include:

  • Have students bring a specific piece of work or questions about an assignment.
  • Use screensharing to model strategies students may be struggling with such as finding sources or revising sentence-level issues.
  • Use screensharing or collaborative mark-up to discuss a reading or other text together.
  • Help students make a plan for beginning an assignment or starting a revision.

Some tips for conducting one-on-one teleconferencing meetings include:

  • Set an agenda beforehand. Approximate the time the meeting will take when you're setting it up by including an end time as well as a start time. You can always go over if you need to, but creating a discrete meeting slot will help protect your time.
  • Tell students how they should prepare so they have the appropriate documents on hand when it's time to meet.
  • When you wrap up the meeting, take a minute to go over what you did with the student and what their next steps are.

Small Group Teleconferencing

Small group teleconferencing can work like small group conferences, in writing classes with a conference portion, or like group activities in a classroom setting where teachers might assign an activity to a whole class and then work with each group in turn.

Some specific things you can do in small groups include:

  • Discuss a reading or another text with discussion questions.
  • Discuss progress on a longer project.
  • Conduct peer review or workshopping on a specific exercise or piece of a longer project.
  • Complete a collaborative activity.

Some tips for conducting small group teleconferencing meetings include:

  • Use text chat in addition to voice/video so that students can ask questions while someone is speaking (like raising their hand in class). For instance, if you are giving directions for a collaborative activity and all students have their mics muted, a student can type a question that you can then read out and answer without interrupting the call by unmuting themselves.
  • Use gallery mode (which displays all participants at the same time in equal-size boxes) if possible, and encourage students to do this too. Many teleconferencing platforms display footage from the loudest participants by default, making it hard to see quiet students and therefore easy to ignore or miss them.
  • Directly address students by name when possible and invite them to participate.  Students rely on tacit social cues to determine when to jump into a conversation in a classroom where they can all see each other. This is obviously much more difficult on a web call, so do what you can to make things easier.

Large Group Teleconferencing

Large group teleconferences are not always the best or most useful choice for writing classes, but they can be necessary and productive if managed properly. While they're more logistically complicated than smaller conferences, they're good for delivering information to all students at once and for mimicking whole-class meetings.

Some specific things you can do in large groups include:

  • Use the platform's group function to break students into small groups for an activity and come back together to discuss (as in think-pair-share, etc).
  • Introduce a unit/text/etc.
  • Give short lectures.

Some tips for conducting large group teleconferencing meetings include:

  • Make sure to be extra clear about the meeting's procedures. The larger the group, the greater the chance for misunderstandings or technical problems, and the more important these clear procedures become.
  • Record the meeting (and tell students you are doing this beforehand) so that those who cannot attend can watch afterwards.
  • Use text to maximize participation, as noted in the small group tips above.
  • Avoid highly collaborative work in the whole-group setting, as this can become chaotic and very difficult to manage.
  • If possible, use break-out groups and visit the various smaller groups to minimize whole-group time but maximize your own time. It takes less time to visit small break-out groups in one large meeting than it does to hold several small meetings with each group individually, which is important especially for teachers with heavy teaching loads.