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Schools Need an Education-Specific Video Conferencing Tool

Amid COVID-19, video conferencing is an integral component of remote learning for students at all levels, but so far it’s only been a marginal success. What tools can educators use to improve at-home learning?

Though the current school year is still in its beginning stages and more COVID-19 motivated changes will certainly occur, it’s now obvious in education — as well as business, health care, and our personal lives — that one particular tool has become the go-to pandemic solution: video conferencing.

Video conferencing isn’t new. It’s been around in some form since AT&T introduced its Picturephone at the 1964 World’s Fair. And since then, it has morphed into what we know today as Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, and others.

Since the early days of video conferencing, education has attempted to put it to good use for a range of distance learning and training solutions. And though it may work okay for static instructor-led lectures and courses, it can’t capture many of the critical elements that take place in high-functioning classrooms. “Good enough” may suffice while education remains in its pandemic-induced punt mode and tries to figure out how best to do virtual learning. But there are real opportunities for video conferencing to improve and better support effective classroom instruction. And moreover, to provide both teachers and students with resources they don’t have in physical classrooms.

Any discussion of video conferencing for education must begin with bandwidth. I’ve written about this, and the title of a recent Education Week article, Internet Access Is a Civil Rights Issue, pretty much sums it up. Bandwidth remains priority one, and getting high-speed Internet access to all students’ homes will require a historic coordinated effort by government and industry.

So, with that said, what does education need from video conferencing today? And how can educators leverage these tools to advance their instruction and better meet students’ needs?

What education needs from video conferencing tools
Education-specific applications. A purpose-built educational video conferencing tool is sorely needed. Such solutions have been created for health care and other sectors that require secure data and private access. And the market now hopefully recognizes education is equally fertile ground. Though Zoom has shrewdly offered its application free to educators (on a temporary basis during the pandemic), education requires a video conferencing solution built specifically to its unique needs.
Ease of use. To meet the requirements of K-12, video conferencing must be scalable, making it easy enough for a second grader to use without parental assistance, yet sophisticated enough for high schoolers working together on collaborative projects.
Integrations and features. Picking up on the purpose-built and ease-of-use themes, having a fully functional video conferencing app integrated with a core classroom tool — like a learning management system (LMS) — will help address education’s requirements. And having features incorporated into the tool for whiteboarding, closed captioning, transcription and translations, while linking to productivity applications, will also be key. As will video storage with searchable archives that allow students to find and replay video segments — such as one where a teacher is explaining a complex math function. Interestingly, per EdSurge, a former CEO and founder of the Blackboard LMS has co-founded a new company that will build an LMS atop the Zoom platform.
Collaboration supports. Just as they do at school, students need to collaborate remotely in their virtual classrooms, sharing screens and having conversations apart from the rest of the class. And this needs to occur both at the students’ instigation and also their teacher’s, essentially allowing them to oversee their whole class while some students are working alone, some are working in small groups in breakout rooms, and all while they meet individually with other kids.
Security and privacy. Schools are legally responsible for securing and protecting student data, so any video conferencing solution not focused on doing this well won’t fly for educators. Also, for students’ privacy, it’s important their video conferencing app have a “background blur” feature.
Assessments. Teachers need resources that allow them to remotely administer assessments, and in such a way that prevents potential trickery.

How educators can better leverage video conferencing
Know when and when not to use it. As I recently wrote, with remote learning many students are now spending far too much time staring at screens for their classes and homework. Teachers should break up their virtual class time and have students working asynchronously offline, and preferably off-screen, for a healthy portion of each day. And it’s also important for teachers to use their synchronous, face-to-face time to connect with students individually or in small groups rather than simply doing whole class instruction.

Some schools, in a dubious nod to “accountability,” are requiring students be logged in to their video conferencing app for most of each school day, but this shouldn’t mean students are actually in front of their screens the whole time. Teachers can remain online for questions and support, while students move away to do other work and off-screen projects. A recent Education Week article provides some good tips for teachers on how to reduce screen time during remote learning.
Make best use of instructional expertise. Some teachers enjoy and are especially good at teaching in remote learning environments and using video conferencing. Others not so much. So as schools move into hybrid learning, provisions should be made to ensure the teachers who continue teaching remotely are the ones who excel at it. Likewise, schools should take advantage of video conferencing to remotely bring in experts to present on particular topics — which is much easier for these folks to do for an hour or so from home or work, rather than carving out the time to physically visit classrooms.
Encourage student collaborations. Kids are missing out on a lot of social interactions these days, so teachers should take advantage of any and all available resources to get their students connected to each other and working together on class projects. And then have them present to the class using the video conferencing application. The chat feature built into most video conferencing apps can also provide opportunities for students to work together, and for teachers to communicate discretely and directly with individual kids.
Get to know your video conferencing tool. As with all technology tools, most of us only use a portion of a tool’s functions — we do what we know how to do. So it’s important for teachers to take the time — and for their schools to offer trainings and coaching — that help them take full advantage of their video conferencing tools’ features.

With the educational spotlight currently shining on remote learning and video conferencing, one expects that some improvements will appear in the near future. E-learning product developers certainly see the opportunities and are hopefully hard at work building robust video conferencing applications that will provide schools with the tools needed to take better advantage of remote learning. Because education has turned a corner, and from here on, schools will depend on remote learning — powered by video conferencing — as a viable instructional model.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.