The missing link in e-conferences

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Society

The missing link in e-conferences


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Summary

  • Although the realities of 21st century work life mean many of us have more virtual meetings than face-to-face ones even before the pandemic, personally I find online meetings to be less fulfilling.
  • There is no doubt that online events have great benefits such as efficiency, speed, savings on travel and isolating people, as is the case in the current pandemic.
  • But there are problems associated with this paradigm shift in human behaviour.

I belong to a group that used to hold a breakfast meeting every Friday at one of Nairobi’s oldest golf clubs before outbreak of coronavirus in March last year. However, since then our meetings have been held on Zoom in line with Covid-19 protocols.

Although the realities of 21st century work life mean many of us have more virtual meetings than face-to-face ones even before the pandemic, personally I find online meetings to be less fulfilling. There is no doubt that online events have great benefits such as efficiency, speed, savings on travel and isolating people, as is the case in the current pandemic. But there are problems associated with this paradigm shift in human behaviour.

I find that the bonding, which naturally happens when people meet face-to-face and size each other up, find mutual interests, and like each other, is lacking. You cannot read the body language of the other person and the all-important eye contact is missing as a result of which commitment and trust are fragile.

Our unconscious mind handles the chores of sensing other people’s attitudes and intents from body language, and since the way the brain remembers things is to attach emotion to them, if there is no emotion or intent, we don’t remember much. Without that second stream of information our unconscious mind which feeds us about intent and emotion, it is very hard to remember anything from virtual communication.

I also observe that most virtual meetings start late as less experienced participants struggle with technical challenges on joining which means time is wasted before everyone comes on board. Sometimes internet connections are not very stable, and participants have to keep on reconnecting, holding the others up.

The other problem is that you don’t have social cues that show when your audience is puzzled, lost, interested, or bored. Attention spans are getting shorter; some scholars think it is as short as 10 minutes. With virtual meetings usually scheduled in hour-long segments, they are outstripping our attention spans. A good meeting chairperson will constantly sense the atmosphere in the room and react accordingly in a face-to-face meeting, but that is impossible in a virtual situation.

When social cues are absent, misunderstandings easily develop. For example, does the silence in response to what you have just said mean that everybody is in rapt agreement, or everyone is tuned out; or people are on mute so that they can have a party?

For educators and their students, Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms, however imperfect, were indispensable in powering remote instruction for the remainder of the 2020 school year.

Here in Kenya, as in many other developing countries, the first problem was that a vast majority of children simply did not have access or could not afford the technology, meaning that they missed out altogether for the rest of the year as physical learning was not taking place.

The optimistic view was that videoconferencing would for the most part be left behind as things returned to normal. A year after the pandemic broke out, many educators continue to teach and interact with their students, parents, and colleagues via online software, either as part of a hybrid or full-time module even as students returned to physical schooling in January 2021. More recently at the beginning of this week, some schools have gone back to online learning as Covid-19 infection rate has spiked again.

It should be no surprise that “Zoom fatigue” has and will continue to be a serious challenge for many of these educators.

Zoom fatigue occurs when we feel tired after overusing videoconferencing. It is not, however, merely a case of tired eyes, a stiff neck, or an aching lower back. Dr Brenda Wiederhold, a clinical psychologist tells us; “Our brains are used to picking up body language and other cues, not to mention increases of dopamine, that are experienced during face-to-face communication. On a video call, something is off, and our subconscious brain is reacting to that. Communication isn’t in real time, even though we might think it is.”

Despite high-speed internet connections, there is a lag, maybe a millisecond delay and that can trigger the brain to look for ways to overcome that lack of synchrony. The brain begins to fatigue, causing us to feel tired, worried, and anxious.

Teachers especially value seeing their students’ reaction in real-time and being able to pick up on various subtle cues, micro-expressions, body language, distractions, that are more visible in a classroom setting. The fact that most videoconferences frame only the person’s face eliminates many of the non-verbal cues. In addition, speakers on videocalls can appear too large on the monitor which many individuals find uncomfortable, even intimidating.

To alleviate the effects of videoconferencing fatigue, Wiederhold advises educators to find time to take those all-important breaks, even if it just for a few minutes. She also suggests five minutes of diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation exercises to help “reset your baseline” before and after sessions.

Of course, children also miss out on physical exercise in the outdoors and also the very important aspect of social interaction with other students.

We have also experienced the unsolicited hijacking of virtual meetings by hackers who then proceed to post unsavory material in the middle of ongoing sessions. In addition, sometimes sensitive data is shared accidentally for example, when switching between documents and tabs whilst screen sharing.

Whereas online meetings are the way of the future, offering significant efficiency and savings, the human element is still a vital component for effective communication. In as far as online schooling is concerned, children need the social interaction and outdoor physical exercise for their wholesome development while teachers need to observe the body language of students for effective learning. Perhaps what would work best is a hybrid model of virtual learning and physical classroom instruction.

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