Video conferencing tools have a Virtual Background feature that allows users to replace their physical environment and display an image as their background during a videoconference. There is usually an option to blur the physical background instead of replacing it. The main purpose of a Virtual Background is to limit visual distractions in a user’s video and to provide privacy. But this feature can also be used for active learning.
- Play an alliteration/onomatopoeia game to help students learn each others’ names. During your first few class meetings, give students 2-3 minutes to find an image of something that has a similar-sounding first syllable to their name, save it to their device, and display it as their Virtual Background. Call on each student to introduce themselves by name and briefly explain how their virtual background can help others remember their name. Later, practice name recall and rev up everyone’s energy by having students throw around a virtual “onomatopoeia ball” to their classmates. To throw the ball, students have to make a sound (e.g., “whoosh,” “zzzzz,” “vroom”) then say one of their classmate’s names. Anyone who has not been called should have their hands up in their video, to indicate that they’re ready to catch the virtual ball.
- If you make use of teams or group projects, have students display a Virtual Background that represents their team. For example, everyone on Team A uses a predominantly green colored background, everyone on Team B uses a background that displays a mountain, etc. The class will be able to see team relationships easily when viewing the grid layout of everyone’s video thumbnails.
- Ask students to choose a Virtual Background that answers a “what is your favorite…” prompt. The prompt can be just for fun, or relate to your subject (e.g., Astronomy: “What celestial body or astronomical event most excited you when you were a child?”; Statistics: “What statistic has most surprised/informed you in the past week?”). Give students 2-3 minutes to locate an image that “answers” the prompt and upload it as their Virtual Background. Discuss responses in breakout groups or as a class. Consider a follow-up in Canvas: create a discussion with the initial prompt as the directions, and ask students to post their images with their explanation and then respond to at least 2 other posts.
- Assign students to create a text-based image that answers a “top-5” prompt about a course topic (e.g., “what do you think are the 5 most misunderstood communication theories?”) before coming to your next class meeting. An easy way to create an image is in PowerPoint using the widescreen format: PC users can save a single slide as an image; Mac users can take a screenshot. Inform students that they will need to set their “top-5” image as their virtual background at the start of class. During class, send students to breakout groups to discuss for 2-3 minutes why they chose what they did. End the breakout groups and ask students to find similar responses in their classmates’ backgrounds and discuss as a whole class. Consider a follow up in Canvas: create a discussion where everyone will post their image and explain their choices.
How to Use
Make sure students know how to change the Virtual Background in your videoconferencing tool in advance of your activity. Consider posting the information in your Learning Management System. You can also provide the link to the tool’s technical guide in chat. Provide clear instructions and expectations for your specific activity, and give students a few moments to change their Virtual Background.
Virtual backgrounds and inclusivity: A Virtual Background works by using the camera to detect the difference between a well-lit subject and a comparatively shaded background, so there is an algorithmic bias that sometimes hides dark hair and skin. Also, the feature requires a newer operating system and CPU (central processing unit) on the user’s computer or mobile device. Users with older equipment may not be able to display a Virtual Background. Evaluate these variables for your specific group of students and plan an alternative way to participate (such as sharing their image choice on-screen or linked in chat) if necessary.
Google Meet comes with a predefined selection of available virtual background images. Users of G Suite for Education can’t upload their own image but can choose from the existing selections. Adapt the Teaching Ideas above accordingly.
Webex Meetings comes with a predefined selection of available virtual background images. Users can also upload an image of their choice from their device. The .jpg and .png file formats are supported.
Zoom comes with a predefined selection of available virtual background images. Users can also upload an image or video of their choice from their device. The .gif, .jpg, and .png image file formats are supported, and .mov or .mp4 video file formats are supported.