Three elements create awkward spaces in the streaming video classroom.

#1 Latency

The first is the latency. That’s the gap between when the person speaks and when it’s heard. To test this, try reading in unison in a videoconferencing session. You’ll see that your results will vary. You can try this next test without participants. Just open a Zoom room and stare at yourself. Then blink. You’ll see yourself blink—after you’ve blinked.

In a physical room, we experience zero latency. As amazing as streaming video has become, it only takes a fraction of a second of latency to impact conversations. In college, I studied video production, and during an editing project, I noticed that it only took a fifteenth of a second of audio latency for lips and sound to get out of sync. A fifteenth of a second! Knowing this, it’s almost miraculous to me that Zoom sessions have such low latency. This is one of my top reasons for using Zoom over other providers. However, the lag we experience ultimately depends upon the bandwidth available to each user and upon the quality of their hardware—something neither we nor any videoconferencing provider can control.

#2 The Tiny-People Dynamic

The second element is kind of humorous. I call it the tiny-people dynamic. With streaming video—unless we’re using a costly, massive, immersive video setup—our students appear much smaller than in real life. This isn’t unique to the online classroom. The learners in a physical classroom sitting thirty feet away will appear quite small. It’s just a fact of human vision, but the videoconferenced classroom intensifies this visual challenge.

To illustrate this, imagine a face-to-face classroom. The students in the front of the room take up three to five times more visual space when compared to those in the back row. This capacity is made possible by the beautiful power of depth perception.

Now, imagine your videoconferenced students on your monitor. Every student shows up the same size on the screen. However, all of them appear tiny. And their little arms and hands and facial features are smaller yet. This tiny-people dynamic makes the visual cues that make up much of our communication more difficult to perceive—for both you and your students. (This is another excellent reason to invest in a large monitor when teaching with Zoom). When our visual cues are on a miniature scale, it’s more challenging to pick up the signals necessary for a conversation to feel natural. And it creates its own form of nonverbal lag. It also means that our brains are having to do more heavy lifting to understand and communicate. All of this contributes to why we experience “Zoom-fatigue.”

#3 New Skills are Needed

The third reason for this awkwardness is that our students lack the skills needed for academic conversations in this virtual space. Almost all of our students have used streaming video in different settings, but they probably have not participated in more complex learning conversations. Moreover, they are likely to have picked up some bad video-based conversation habits by attending meetings and webinars as observers.

These three elements, latency, tiny-people dynamic, and conversing in an unfamiliar space, add up to create those awkward stutters in conversation students mention as the critical challenge to trying to learn in this environment.

Consequently, we have to teach differently in this space. It’s like the difference between teaching in a small classroom and teaching in a large auditorium. In the auditorium, we have to project our voice, perhaps exaggerate our expressions, and move about the stage to address different segments of the audience. Different spaces demand different approaches. The primary solution for this clumsiness that comes with the videoconference classroom is to become more assertive in how we lead our students.

In Online Teaching with Zoom, I unpack some of the skills associated with assertive leadership in this space.