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Dispatches on academic freedom

Avoiding communications snafus in the era of COVID-19

Is this thing on?


“Is this thing muted? Can you hear me? Sorry, I forgot to unmute.”

As thousands of academics worldwide shift to virtual meetings and technology-mediated learning, these phrases have become ubiquitous. While many of us need to do a better job of remembering to unmute before we speak in our new Zoom and Teams reality, we also need to learn when to mute – or at least modulate – some of our communications.

Marshall McLuhan famously declared that the medium is the message. It is a good lesson to remember in the era of COVID-19. Whether we are teaching, participating in a meeting, or just grousing about stuff with our friends and colleagues, online modes of communication affect who we are communicating with, how they understand what we’re saying, and the downstream consequences of what we say. Combine this with some colleagues’ unfamiliarity with how online platforms work and you have a perfect storm.

Consider the good-hearted U.S. prof who last week tweeted out a compassionate thread detailing the hardships her students were experiencing because of COVID-19 and pleading for colleagues to be compassionate with their students. The overall message was a good one, but Twitter was the wrong place for the private details about students’ poverty, mental health and family deaths that she included in the thread. When the thread went viral, she realized her mistake and deleted the thread, but not before several people had screen-capped it. Now, that version is all over the internet, despite the original poster’s efforts to pull the thread.

While physical distancing might tempt us to talk on social media in the same way that we would at the water cooler, your social media remarks can attract a much larger and much different audience than you predict, and once your comments are public, there is no way to reel them back in.

This is true, by the way, whether your comments are shared by friend or foe. Sometimes sexist screeds (for instance) get screen-capped and shared because they make people angry. But the compassionate Twitter thread I discuss above got shared because people liked it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether your social media post was shared in agreement or disagreement. Shared is shared, period.

Before posting any comments on social media, ask yourself if you actually want them available in perpetuity to thousands of strangers (and perhaps even journalists!). If not, rethink the post.

The proliferation of web meetings also requires some new cautions. You are by now no doubt aware of the security issues with the video conference platform, Zoom, which continues to be used in university teaching and meetings despite its vulnerabilities. But even a more secure platform, like Webex or Teams, requires extra caution.

Depending on the type of web meeting you are participating in, the various roles people in the meeting have been assigned on the tech platform, and your own interface with the platform, it is not always easy to know who else from your team (or, in some cases, the public) is able to watch and listen to the discussion. I’ve been on at least two meetings in the past couple of weeks in which some of the participants forgot who else was on the line and had sensitive discussions better reserved for a smaller group.

Similarly, most web conference tools have chat functionality, where it is really easy to end up chatting on the wrong thread and in front of the wrong eyes. On at least some of these platforms, chats (apparently even deleted chats) are archived automatically. And most of the platforms have recording and transcription functions.

All of this adds up to a situation in which meeting participants can be lulled into carelessness by videoconferencing in their comfy chair and sweatpants, and speaking far too frankly for the various new (and not always salient) modes of surveillance that come along with web conference platforms.

Importantly, these risks are borne not only by faculty but by students, who are in many ways more vulnerable than (tenured) professors. Instructors who opt for synchronous tech-mediated learning activities need to remember that anything a student says could be recorded. In COVID-19, our classrooms are always potentially public, even if we can’t see an audience in the room. Our instructional design needs to take this risk, and the need to preserve student privacy, into account.

Notice that the risks I have described here do not in any way depend on malice by audience members. They are serious risks, nonetheless, and require us to slow down and be more cautious than usual in our communications.

At the end of the day, some conversations are better had over an old-fashioned phone call than over a web interface, and some are better not had at all.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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