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How we communicate

Next time you are having a conversation with a friend or you are watching the presenter on the nightly news, stop and have a think about how that person is communicating their message.

Communication is more than just what you hear, but rather includes a range of nonverbal factors. It’s hard to quantify the breakdown, but a 1971 book by Albert Mehradian, ‘Silent Messages’, argued that communication is about 50% of what you see, 40% the tone of what you hear, and 10% the meaning of the words themselves.

Nonverbal communication and online teaching

When you are speaking to your friend or watching the newsreader, try to become self-aware and make a note of what you are looking at. Most likely you’ll be staring at the person directly into their eyes. You might be looking at the way they lift their eyebrows to emphasise meaning, the way their lips move to enunciate words, and the way they move their head to assure certainty. Then there’s other gesticulations like how they move their hands and shift their body.

When it comes to online teaching, I see little advantage for students in having pre-recorded lectures where it is just spoken words over the top of PowerPoint slides. This approach straightaway ignores 50% of the way we normally communicate.

Despite being more than two years into the pandemic, I still see some teachers use that approach. It’s no wonder that students struggle and turn-off in droves.

Thinking about your audience

If you have no option but to teach online, I always think that it’s best to do it live and with your webcam switched on. Things are always more interesting for the audience if you can engage with them directly and break down the ‘fourth wall’.

When you are teaching, consider the position of your webcam and what it shows. Having the webcam facing to the side of your head while you read from notes on your second monitor is a good way to disengage from your audience. So don’t do that!

A better way is to ensure that your webcam is facing you directly. Make sure that you haven’t cropped-off the top of your head. Set it up so that it shows you from the shoulders up. You don’t need to fill the entire webcam feed with your face, but be sure that you don’t pan too far out either.

A simple way to set things up is to position your presentation slides or your notes immediately below your webcam. If you’re like me and rely on the slides to prompt you to remember to say particular things, it’ll still look like you’re directly looking at, and engaging with, the audience. You’ll maintain eye contact and they’ll get much more out of the experience than just listening to the words themselves.

Final thoughts

Online teaching is hard, don’t get me wrong. I totally get if pre-recorded lessons suit teachers better than going live, especially if they are stuck in isolation or have other pressing duties.

But to borrow a parlance from Australian Rules Football, a one-percenter such as better positioning your webcam can help make-up the 50% nonverbal communication deficit that is often lost when it comes to online teaching. It’s easy to do and will increase engagement with almost zero extra effort.

About The Author

Dr Gilbert Price

...or Dr G to his students, is a multi-award winning lecturer at The University of Queensland, Australia. He teaches introductory Earth Science and second year Palaeobiology, as well as supports several other courses behind-the-scenes. He teaches by instinct and knows what works to inspire and engage students. Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, his teaching has thrived in the digital classroom and he is pleased to be able to share his experiences with other educators.

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