Five Tips for Designing Excellent Video Calls

Student-teacher discussions are a centerpiece of any learning experience, regardless of the environment. Seasoned educators are familiar with the basic expectations of in-person discussions, but what happens when conversations move from a classroom to video calls online? How does the new format affect how to design an effective discussion? What’s important to remember and communicate to students as you establish expectations that keep everyone feeling connected, safe, and comfortable?

Below are GOA’s five tips for making these conversations work for you and your students:

1. Know your goals.

Know why you are meeting on video. Just because most of your discussions in a brick-and-mortar class are synchronous does not mean that you should strive to replicate that same approach online. Video calls, whether one-on-one or in small groups, should be about connection.

As GOA’s free course, Designing for Online Learning, recommends, educators should decide in advance which elements of each learning experience will be synchronous (happen in real time) and which will be asynchronous (happen at different times). Asynchronicity allows students time to work at their own pace, to take time to compose ideas, and to express themselves in ways that might not be possible in real time. In addition, asynchronous work allows students to absorb content, prepare assignments, and complete projects offline: it’s a way to avoid hours of staring at screens.

The key questions to consider are these:

  • What types of learning experiences require synchronous connection?
  • Which synchronous experiences can be turned into asynchronous experiences?

Part of knowing your goals is also choosing the right tool. Start with what you know and what your school will support. In the Designing for Online Learning course, teachers mentioned Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams, among others. If your whole school is moving to video, try to use the same tool across teachers and courses. You do not want students to have to master multiple tools just to learn. If you’re on your own, find out which tools best support group conversation, have strong and stable technology, are accessible to all students, and are user-friendly.

2. Plan your pre-call and post-call logistics.

Setting up the call is the first step. If a designated time to meet has already been established, send students a calendar invite (with instructions for how to join the call) so they have a calendar notification on their devices as well. If you need to find a mutually available time, save yourself the back-and-forth of email and use a scheduling tool. GOA teachers and staff like and for setting up one-on-one meetings (some GOA teachers use these tools with campus-based students for booking “extra help”) and and Doodle for group meetings. If you and your students are in different timezones, make sure to investigate if the tool you use needs you to “enable different time zones.”

If there are students who cannot attend a large group call, consider how they can learn from the experience afterwards. Will you record the full call to share with those not in attendance? If your school has a business account with a platform like Zoom, will you share a transcription of the call? Or, will you ask students in attendance to capture and share their key takeaways for others to review?

3. Review your school’s communication policies.

You and your students are still in school even if your location for learning has changed.

Now is a good time to review your school’s policies on student-teacher communication practices regarding social media, texting, and calling. Assume your school’s policies have not changed and check with an administrator if you’re unsure. Be aware that there may be gaps in your school’s communication policies because distance learning was an unanticipated scenario for your school. For example, if your school has a policy that there are no closed-door private conversations with students on campus, it would be best to ask students to attend video calls in a communal space where others are present.

4. Be intentional about environment and conduct.

Being mindful of one's environment and conduct are key to establishing a comfortable and safe environment. Remind students that, just as we do at school, we aim to bring our best selves to video calls and all online learning environments. All video call participants should be considerate of what their environment is communicating to others.

Before the call, ask students to:

  • Be punctual and prepared. Keeping on a schedule can be difficult. Do your best to keep track of your meeting times.
  • Be focused. While it may not always be possible to find a completely quiet place to have your meeting, try to find a place that will be least distracting to you and other attendees.
  • Be seen and heard. Position yourself near strong wifi, in a front-lit space so everyone can see your face, and stay in one place for the conversation. Movement can compromise your connection with others on the call as well as your wifi!
  • Be respectful. Wear clothes that adhere to your school’s dress code, sit or stand at a table rather than lounging on a couch or bed, find a neutral background, and remember that everything in your camera frame is visible to those in your meeting, so be mindful of what you’re communicating.

5. Name it.

Video calls can feel awkward at first. You and your students may be used to using video for calls in social settings, but using video calls in a professional, academic context might be new. Expect that the beginning of the call may feel a bit strange, expect that people will fumble with the audio and video settings the first few calls, expect that your first conversations will include some co-navigating of the features your chosen tool offers (ie. screen sharing, text chats, break-out rooms, etc.). Being a bit vulnerable and naming the fact that everyone is figuring this out together goes a long way in mitigating awkwardness.

Finally, remember that having a video meeting means you’ve identified connection as a top priority. Take a few minutes at the beginning of the call to check in with students the way you normally do when they trickle into your classroom. Don’t underestimate the value of this time to connect; it establishes the tone for the whole conversation and the learning that follows. Most importantly, it’s what you’ve done naturally at school all along. Keeping that routine (whether it was intentionally designed or not) is a comfort for students and aids the goal of maintaining strong relationships. Skipping this step and immediately “getting down to business” can actually undermine your efforts to connect.

Finally, remember that everything you’ve read here aligns with guidelines you have followed as an educator your entire career. While the format and location for student-teacher discussion may be new, the skills to design and facilitate meaningful, relationship-based conversations are ones you already possess.

How are you approaching video calls? Tell us on Twitter. For more resources on online learning, visit our COVID-19 resource page, where we have collected articles, infographics, and online courses for educators and students related to remote learning.

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