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When it comes to the move online, the medium is the message

Online teaching requires learning new skills, as well as acknowledging the types of audiences they are attempting to engage.

BY HOWARD RAMOS & MARK C.J. STODDART | JUN 03 2020

As academia has been forced to move online, universities and academics have scrambled to deliver conference presentations, lectures, meetings, and everything else virtually. This creates a lot of anxiety for professors who are used to having live audiences and in-person feedback. Our recent experiences as attendees of virtual presentations has been mixed at best, providing a showcase for the good, the bad, and the boring. Distancing measures are going to continue into the next academic year and many changes are likely going to be part of the post-pandemic era as the “new normal.” Learning to live with the disease means learning to live with online presenting and holding events in virtual environments. Here we think much can be learned from technology, communications, and performance studies.

Successful adaptation to online presentation means taking the affordances of the technology into account and having the humility to recognize this requires a change in how academics perform and present. To this end, navigating the shift means taking Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the “medium is the message” seriously, and turning to insights from media and performance studies. If this is done, it will move academia into the 21st century and will present bold new opportunities to exchange ideas, generate scientific discovery, present information, and mobilize knowledge to a broad set of audiences.

Academics can learn much from YouTubers who offer shorter, more visually and orally dynamic styles and presentations that create interaction by leveraging online chat or reactions tools. Reading a paper, using wall-of-text power points, or not using dynamic voices or movements does not work well.

From an audience perspective, one of the affordances of virtual presentations is that it is even easier to multitask and become distracted by email or scrolling through a Twitter or Facebook feed. Getting on Zoom and reading a paper as though you are proofreading it out loud to your cat is unlikely to keep your audience engaged. Instead, it is useful to think about presenting in shorter segments and taking advantage of being able to integrate gifs, video, or other linkable options.

Thinking about affordances also means thinking about issues of lighting, sound, and internet connections. Is the camera positioned below or above a presenter? Is the lighting in front and muted to illuminate a person’s face, or behind them to overexpose the presenter to make them look like the Godfather or the heavy in a classic film noir? Presenters also need to consider how a mic is used to pick up sound and consider using a headset or external mic that can isolate the voice and eliminate background noise. Also worth considering is how video conferencing technology freezes and doesn’t allow for talking over one another and being prepared for both to occur during the presentation.

At the end of the day, academics also need to think about their audience. To that end Josh Bernoff’s “iron imperative” of writing comes to mind, and can be extended to communications more generally. It is: treat your audience’s time as more valuable than your own. It is all about giving a modicum of thought to our audience. Presenters need to ask themselves, what is the most important thing this particular audience needs to learn about their work in order to change their thinking about a topic, or help improve their own academic practice? If that is done, it means recognizing not only the affordances of presenting but also those of the audience. This is at the core of performance and much can be learned from it.

In video conferencing performers do not get the same feedback response cues as with a live audience. This means that presenters need to pace their talk and presentation in the spirit of who they think the audience is and what they will react to. This is similar to performing comedy on television, or the transition to social-isolation performance that comedians have made during the pandemic. The story-telling dynamic of good podcasting is also a useful model here. It means having the confidence to imagine the audience and imagine that material has landed and keep the energy of that moving forward. What does not work is dead space, dead time, and delay. For these reasons, it is important to keep the energy and momentum moving.

To this end, navigating the shift to online academia means recognizing that ultimately like papers, presentations, media hits, reports, and other academic deliverables, online presentations are their own distinct genre, which requires unique skills and practice. Virtual presentations are not interchangeable with their offline counterparts. Instead, they will demand new skills and recognition of the new affordances and types of audiences they are attempting to engage.

The analogy of music genres helps stress the point. You might be an awesome jazz guitarist, but if you have not put the time into understanding other genre conventions, you will struggle in those genres. Famed Rush drummer Neil Peart, for instance had the humility to take lessons with jazz teachers long after most already considered him one of the best rock drummers ever.

What does this mean for academics? Who should they turn to for learning about the affordances and performative repertoire of online academia? We suggest turning to those who dominate the medium and have transitioned to it most successfully: Generation Z, YouTubers, podcasters, comedians, storytellers, and those who use the mediums the most.

This means as academics we need to invest our collective time and energy in tackling the learning curve for creating high quality and engaging virtual presentations. Unless we are willing to make the collective effort to adapt to the affordances of online academia, these virtual spaces will continue to feel like a poor substitute for offline communication. However, if we can successfully navigate the virtual transition, this also has potential long-term benefits for creating lower-carbon, more inclusive academic spaces that can become an invaluable part of the repertoire of academic communication.

Howard Ramos is a political sociologist and professor at Dalhousie University. Mark C.J. Stoddart is a professor in the department of sociology at Memorial University.

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