Taking turns to talk… in video conferencing

I have been reading a LOT on the use of video in work and education since we are all forced into using the format for everything due to the pandemic.

Some of the more interesting ones pertain to online education, the topic of the year! The ones below also offer a good contrast – one is an opinion of a Nobel Prize winner, while the other is by a Grade 8 student!

And then this news!

In both work and education, video definitely helps gather people together and impart information in real-time.

The problem arises when we try to also include conversations and discussions in real-time, using video.

As someone who has conducted multi-party video calls for brainstorming (for clients) and delivering training sessions, one of the biggest impediments I find is with regard to taking turns to talk!

In an offline meeting of say, 10 people, in a room, this turn-taking happens effortlessly because we already have imbibed the social rules around it. We scan the body language of people in the room and wait for our turn. If someone interjects, one of us gives way and the other talks. The scanning of body language and other non-verbal cues (like a drop in pitch/volume at the end of an utterance, or eye contact) becomes all the more cumbersome to identify when each participant is a tiny window on a laptop screen with bad background lighting, and the audio is dictated more by bandwidth than human potential! The result is a totally clumsy and exhausting conversation experience when there are more than 2 people.

With video turned off, it is impossible, relying only on audible cues already deteriorated by bandwidth and software!

This was something we eventually mastered in written text. It was cumbersome earlier, in the form of CC-all email. But inside a WhatsApp Group, for instance, we know reasonably well how to scan the responses and then add something in context, instead of going back and forth or repeating what is already said. The availability of what is already said, right on top in that window really helps. Plus, there is no specific expectation of synchronicity in online groups anyway, when they use text to communicate.

Video conferencing has a long, long way to go, in terms of UX. At present, we are forced to use it, as a distant second choice to offline meetings. Understandably so.

In education, children learn these turn-taking skills when they sit offline with other kids. Turning that whole activity into video calls robs them of a lot of social skills that others before them are better conversant with. Education is not basic information being imparted alone – there’s so much more children learn in a school that we have to find many other ways to emulate through technology.

Credit for the featured image on top: Delaney Williams/TheRed&Black



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