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Playing with the Zoom Gaze: a facilitation guide

Playing with the Zoom Gaze: a facilitation guide

I was thrilled to have been asked to present at the American University in Cairo’s CLT Virtual Symposium this past week to consider virtual facilitation in the light of the Zoom Gaze. I was honored to present alongside of four other amazing facilitators, our plenary session was entitled: Touring the Many Worlds of Virtual Facilitation, and my portion was called: Playing with the Zoom Gaze.

I attempted to use play as a frame for looking at the very different experiences that each of us have in synchronous video environments. I framed this as something that teachers could do themselves in their own classes as an orientation to better understand the experiences of their students but it can be hard to both experience a technique and harness that technique yourself so I promised a facilitation guide that broke down and reflected on some of the elements of how I facilitated the session. I’m also making my rough notes available to anyone who cares to dig that deep.

Playing with the Welcome

One of the first things I do is simply ask everyone how they are. This may just seem like a thing that one does as a facilitator. An expectation. A basic out of the box or from the book hospitality move. But I’m being intentional about this little question and paying particular attention to how people naturally react. Who can I see nodding their head. Who chooses to use the emoji reactions? Who does not respond at all? Who uses the chat?

I can tell so much in these few seconds and with this simple question. This is the lowest bar of interaction for the whole session but the key is to withhold judgement and just observe. It is not a bad sign if someone does not respond – perhaps they don’t want to compete for response time – but it is very interesting to see how people respond when they are not specifically told how to respond.

Playing with Presentation

The Zoom Gaze makes explicit the power dynamics of the software itself and one of the most jarring experiences on Zoom specifically, for me as a participant, is the screenshare. I talked to the group about this and pointed out how it kind of hijacks your screen taking over your computer. I did have some material that I wanted to present to the group at the beginning but rather than use the screenshare function I hacked the virtual background feature by simply covering my camera while using it. This results in my image disappearing and the virtual background being the only thing shown. Participants can choose to stay in gallery view or use speaker view if they want to see my visuals bigger. Yes they could choose to look at another screen too but they choose, and their choice is more important to me for this kind of session. The background images I used for this are mostly to set the mood around the things that I’m saying – they are not bullet points or graphs. They are just beautiful CC0 images from Pixabay, Unsplash, or a similar site.

The content of this presentation is important in that I am setting a baseline for the fact that it only feels like we are together but that the togetherness is to some degree an illusion. It is during this little talk that I’m calling out the many differences that we each could be experiencing. I’m inviting people to come and play with the environment but also letting them know that it is okay if they don’t want to play – you can’t force someone to play. You can read the text of my little presentation in the rough notes.

Playing with Interaction

At this point in the presentation I really start prompting people to participate. One of the first things I do is have them answer a question verbally all at the same time. It has to be a simple question – even just your name and where you are from. This results in an audible mess of the mics cutting out and the camera focus jumping around and it makes the point that audio is not so equitable. We do the same question in the chat and everyone’s responses come rolling in kind of fast but at least you can make some sense of it. I think this is a basic interaction demo that most people have from doing multiple sessions but it is fun to tease it out. I then continue to ask them and prompt them about different ways of interacting. From the rough notes:

  • Playing with Audio –
    • Ask a simple question – What are the ways you can express yourself in zoom.
    • Ask everyone to turn on their mics and respond at once
    • Note the power struggle when everyone tried to talk at once
      This sets up the need and importance of non-verbals
  • Playing with non-verbals
    • Text – chatterfall – ask another question (maybe how did it feel when everyone was talking at once) one word in chat hold before hitting enter
    • Zoom reactions (virtual)
    • Physical reactions – gestures, facial expressions, sign language


Playing with the intersection between the physical and virtual environments

Some of this we did not get to in the session but here are some prompts for leading this kind of play. From the rough notes:

This feels like a shared space but we are actually each experiencing a virtual environment just a little different.

There is a real possibility that our spaces and ourselves are not as they appear in zoom.

Ask these questions – take answers in chat, reactions, physical, audio 

  • Who is in grid view/who is in speaker view?
  • Who has self view on – who has it off – who realized you could even turn self view off?
  • Let’s talk about grid view – go there if you would like – if your camera is on where do you appear in the grid? Who is to your left/right? Everyone is actually looking at a different order. What does this mean for the idea of “eye contact”?
  • Play with virtual backgrounds. How far back can you go before the background takes over? How far forward?

Playing with Physical Environment

  • “Touch” the boundaries of your “identity box” with your hands. The square that surrounds you. Where are the edges? Where are the edges in the physical space?
  • Move your whole body in and out of frame – what happens to audio when you do this? How is this impacted by the kind of microphone you might have?
  • Play with light levels

Your physical environment says something about you and is part of your identity

Playing with Identity

I really wish that we had gotten more time to get to this and there was a little of it but I think that there is a real opportunity to go deeper here.

  • Play with virtual filters on the body
  • Play with some kind of physical avatar or puppet 
  • Play with costumes, masks, or some kind of physical adaptation of self


Final Thoughts and Shout Outs

Preparing this workshop was a challenge for me. The Zoom Gaze article is a rather critical article as it shines a light on the many inequities that exist in synchronous video environments. How to use it to bring everyone together and to talk with educators about how to harness it in their own facilitation?

My work with Maha Bali and Mia Zamora around community building activities was recently referenced by Sarah Rose Cavanagh in How to Play in the College Classroom in a Pandemic, and Why You Should and this helped to remind me that perhaps play was part of the answer here. With Virtually Connecting I had the opportunity to co-author the idea of Intentionally Equitable Hospitality where we explore hospitality in inequitable spaces and the importance of informality in learning.

Huge thank you’s go out to several folks. Heather Pleasants met with me on two occasions to play with this weird environment, ask questions of it, and consider its effects on togetherness, space, and identity. Mia Zamora, Alan Levine, and the entire NetNarr and Equity Unbound communities provided me an initial playground. George Station taught me how to disappear into the virtual background. Maha Bali has been teaching me (and learning with me) about these virtual spaces for several years now.

My deepest gratitude goes out to all the folks who have worked with me in virtual environments over the last several years and especially those of the last year when these virtual rooms became one of the only ways we could connect.

Feature Image by beate bachmann from Pixabay