An Always Engaged Audience

Some background: For those in other parts of the world who may not know, this fall has been unusually rough when it comes to the bugs that have been floating around here in North Carolina. Like most parents, my wife and I have a working arrangement — subject to change based on the needs of the day — as to who will stay home with our daughter when she has to stay home from school. Since we are both professors, this pattern generally aligns with the Monday-Wednesday-Friday (MWF)/Tuesday-Thursday (TR) split. 

This semester, I have the MWF shift. This is counterintuitive, as my classes this semester are on MWF. She, however, has classes with more in-class assignments on MWF than I do. As a result, my MWF schedule is more open to alternate approaches.

I have been using Periscope to stream classes when I stay home. It is an imperfect vehicle for what I am attempting[1], but it gets the job done. 

In a strange way, I have noticed that I find it a surprisingly comfortable experience to hold class via Periscope. And after class today, I think I have settled on why this is. 

For those of you who have never taught, facing a room full of students can be a depressing task. I know that my students are more engaged than they look. Their questions and comments have, on more than one occasion, proved that just moments before I was about to succumb to despair. But if you know the semi-blank look that people assume when they watch television, you know what you will see looking out at a room full of students. Not all of them look like this, of course. Some are more animated and some are less. Nevertheless, there is a passive look that pervades the room. This can be true with the most engaged of students. If one is taking notes, for example, you do not get to see the animation in their face because they are looking down.[2]

When you broadcast on Periscope, you look at yourself. It is a feature that lets the broadcaster know what his audience is seeing. So, when I am talking about Mark Twain and H. G. Wells,[3] I am looking at someone who is actively engaged — not a classroom of students who are paying attention and trying to process what is being presented or discussed.[4] 

I know that when I present, I feed off of those who are actively engaged. Most people in front of an audience do. When that is happening, I feel like I am doing a better job (Whether I am or not is a different question.). With Periscope, I provide myself with a positive feedback loop.

As a result, classroom performance, in the literal sense of the nature of what is presented rather than its content, could (Let me stress: could.) improve on the in-room experience with access to this technology, if it can be successfully linked to a mechanism for student participation, as discussed in footnote one below. It might also be worth considering and weighing for those running experiments with classroom delivery, as can be seen at Minerva University or through on-demand services like Kahn Academy.  

[1] If you want to see what can be done with a streamed class that functions very much as an interactive seminar, I would highly recommend that you tune in to one of Signum University’s open classes. You will find me sitting in on “Exploring Lord of the Rings” most Tuesday evenings, beginning at roughly 9:30 PM Eastern. Professor Corey Olsen simultaneously broadcasts via Periscope/Twitter, Twitch, and Discord while being “present” in Lord of the Rings Online. The online version of Middle Earth allows for the classes to take field trips to locations of note every week. (The broadcasts are then made available on YouTube, as can be seen in this randomly chosen example.) He manages to juggle three chat areas (Discord is the primary location for the comments and questions.), where people ask questions and offer comments.

Since this blog is about the iPad in the educational space, I will let you know how I attend. I run  Twitch (which contains the video and audio stream I use) and Discord (where I am present in the chat) in split screen mode on my 10.5” iPad Pro. I find it quicker to type my comments on the Smart Keyboard but often use the onscreen keyboard. To get a fuller picture and sound, I AirPlay the Twitch stream to my Apple TV. That, however, is a creature comfort and allows me to avoid resizing the split screen view to see more of the slides presented on the screen and/or type. It is possible to have a decent experience doing it all on the iPad.

[2] In case you are a student and are wondering, your professors can tell when you are writing about their class rather than another. The rhythm of your engagement in the class and the engagement with the page are either aligned or are not.

[3] Today’s 9AM class, which is on the way people understand time and how that is expressed in art and society, wrapped up A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and started The Time Machine.

[4] For those who might want to offer a well-meaning critique here and talk about active learning, let me offer a quick distinction: The look on a student’s face is a function of what they are doing rather than the pedagogical structure they are existing within. The same look will pervade on the faces of students during the kind of discussion or activity you might suggest I try. There is a material difference in the look worn by a student when they are “on” — when they have the floor or are talking — and when they are not, whether they are in a lecture or working in a small group. As a practical matter, it is impossible for everyone to be fully active at once. It is a question of how often they are fully active, how often they are partially active, how often they are passively active, and how often they are disengaged.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at