Top tips and benefits for using video in lectures and seminars

Jenna Davies, Birkbeck’s Enterprise and Employability Consultant, encourages students to keep their cameras on whilst attending online lectures or seminars by outlining the benefits and addressing the most common barriers.

Among the various changes that 2020 has brought – our ways of working, studying, even socialising – there is one piece of equipment that has enabled us to retain our connection to others: our cameras.

While we have been unable to physically meet and see our colleagues and peers, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to maintain a level of connection through our screens, be it our phones, iPads, laptops or computers. In our online lectures and seminars, we can replicate the classroom as best as possible through the technology that we are able to access, providing a unique experience in a challenging environment where everyone can benefit from the virtual teaching space.

However, there are a number of barriers that may prevent us from fully embracing the online learning environment; to switch our cameras on, use our microphones to speak up, and be as present as possible, as we would in person. We may not feel comfortable being on video in front of our tutors and peers, we may have distractions in the background that we don’t want to risk interrupting the sessions, or we may feel we can still get the same from the session by not being on video. To overcome these challenges and reap the benefits of having our videos on in our online lectures and seminars, there are things we can do to make sure that we maximise our learning.

“I’m not comfortable being on video in front of my tutors and peers”

The transition to remote studying and working this year has meant that our home and work/study life are much more intertwined. Our homes are our study spaces – and although it’s only our head and shoulders in shot, we may feel more exposed on video compared to in-person.

Consider how you feel when you see someone on video in an online lecture, or meeting for example. Often, we’ll feel more of a connection to that person because we can see them. If we’re in an online meeting with three other people, two of whom have their videos on and one doesn’t, we feel less of a rapport with the person we can’t see.

If we have our videos off, we may be impacting the connection that others have with us and their experience in the virtual learning space as well. Birkbeck’s Disability Service Manager, Mark Pimm, recently reflected on his experience in virtual meetings: “I’m blind, and I have become so conscious of how much I miss out on being able to see everyone in the virtual meeting. This has made me wonder if when you leave the camera turned off in your online lectures and seminars, whether your fellow students are missing out on you.”

If everyone in our online lectures embraces the virtual space and switches their videos on, we’ll feel more connected to our peers and tutors. We’ll be more engaged and avoid potential distractions because we will be more present in that space. This will positively impact our experience and the goals we may have set when we enrolled onto our courses – to learn, to meet new people, to progress our careers, to graduate.

“I have distractions in the background that could interrupt the sessions”

There will often be occasions when we can’t avoid interruptions while we’re online – we may have children to look after, someone might be at the door, we might not want to show the space around us on video. The resistance to be on screen can come from a number of reasons.

If we consider how we feel when we have seen someone else on-screen experience interruptions during a lesson or a meeting, often there isn’t an impact on the session for others. We have all become far more understanding of what it means to study and work from home, and this comes with the acceptance that people will be in different spaces and have things going on in their homes that they can’t control.

If a distracting background is the difference between turning our videos on in lectures and making the most of the lesson, having a screen behind you may be a useful option. This could be a room divider or something in the home that you can use as your background.

“I’m not sure how I should position my camera”

Whichever device you use for your online sessions, try to have your head and shoulders in the shot. This will ensure that you fill the ‘frame’ without being too close or too far away from the camera.

Aim to have your device’s camera at the same height as your head, which will help to avoid looking down at the camera lens and it will also ensure that your posture is in a good position.

There are some useful tips in this video about setting up your cameras and making more impact on video.

“I’m still getting the same level of teaching with my video off”

There are numerous benefits of being part of a group and studying alongside peers who share the same interest in the topic you’re studying. While we have transitioned from physical classrooms to virtual classrooms, this doesn’t mean that those connections with your peers should disappear.

Being able to learn from your tutors as well as your fellow students is hugely beneficial and enhances your learning experience. The more engaged and present you are in your online sessions, with your videos on and speaking up to contribute to discussions, the more you will benefit from the session.

As we continue into the academic year, embrace the virtual learning environment and the opportunity to connect with your peers and tutors by making use of the technology we have, to benefit your studies as well as your peers’.


4 thoughts on “Top tips and benefits for using video in lectures and seminars

  1. Mary Brown

    Dear Jenna Davies,
    I’m afraid your piece on the benefits of using the camera for online classes was like the blithe sprinkling of salt on a festering wound. Last spring, after a difficult and highly stressful trawl through all the madly over-priced webcams on offer (which involved the panic-stricken purchase of one costing nearly £200, which luckily I was able to return), I managed to buy one for my desktop computer that was only moderately over-priced. It worked fine, because our classes during the summer term were on Zoom. This term, it emerges, Zoom cannot be used, and we have been palmed off with Collaborate (dire) and Microsoft Teams (better than Collaborate, but not a patch on Zoom). When attending an online class through Collaborate I am FORCED to turn off my camera and use only the microphone or I will have no connection. It is the only way I can keep hearing what people are saying. Collaborate has reduced me to tears on several occasions. Microsoft Teams has been very problematic to download and install. It slowed down my computer, then it stopped working and had to be uninstalled and reinstalled (and that needed help from the IT team, and they were flummoxed too for a while, by what turns out to be a common problem). My camera appears to work on Teams but my view of other people flashes on and off constantly. Sometimes I have a screenful of grey rectangles with perhaps one rectangle containing a face – not because they have their cameras turned off but because something is wrong with the connection or with Teams. Sometimes all the rectangles flash green on and off. It started a migraine once. Even in its best moments you cannot see everyone who is in the class. The presence of many in the class is only indicated by initials at the bottom of the screen. In Zoom WE COULD SEE EVERYONE. We have been told that Birkbeck cannot use Zoom because of ‘security issues’. Really? The prime minister uses Zoom, and the primary school where I used to work uses Zoom.
    As I write I can see how you conclude your piece ‘ The more engaged and present you are in your online sessions, with your videos on and speaking up to contribute to discussions, the more you will benefit from the session.’ Exactly! I couldn’t agree more! And I hope you will agree with me that the technology we are being offered at the moment (for our £9,000 fees) is not good enough. And I hope you will join with me in demanding a better medium (Zoom, with enhanced security, if necessary) for the excellent modules our teachers have prepared for us.
    With best wishes,
    Mary Brown
    (2nd year Creative Writing BA student)

    1. Birkbeck, University of London

      We welcome feedback on the IT services we use so that we can ensure they work best for students and staff. We’re sorry to hear that you have experienced problems using Microsoft Teams. We do not encourage the use of Zoom for seminars because we have concerns about the collection and ownership of data broadcast using it.

      Unfortunately, a number of factors can affect the way that different video conferencing platforms perform across different devices. However, on the whole, we have found that Microsoft Teams performs well across a large number of devices and internet connection speeds.

      We are continuously evaluating and improving our IT services and would ask that you contact the IT support for students again if you are still experiencing problems with Teams so that we can try and resolve them.

      1. Mary Brown

        Many thanks for your reply. There are two things in it I’m not quite clear about. First, regarding your first sentence, it would be good to know how exactly you intend to use my feedback to ensure the IT services ‘work best for students and staff’. Second, would it be possible for you to clarify what you mean by ‘because we have concerns about the collection and ownership of data broadcast using it’? Perhaps I am being obtuse but this and similar explanations remain something of a mystery to me.
        Thanking you,
        Mary Brown

  2. Andrea Powell

    I have the extreme good fortune to be in possession of a decent internet signal, and a working laptop with a decent webcam. However, I am aware that some students do not have any or all of these facilities (as evidenced above), and I can imagine the frustration.
    But I would like to echo the appeal to all who are able, to make improved efforts to get themselves on camera. It does affect everybody’s experience if out of 10 students barely 3 people are visible and only 2 more are contributing by mic or on the chat. We all managed, earlier this year, to drag ourselves out to seminars 3/4 times a week and to interact and CONTRIBUTE to those, and I think it is not much instead to ask to switch on your webcam if it works, skew it at a funny angle if your room is a mess, and just go for it!


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