Maintaining student’s attention is one of the constant challenges in virtual teaching. But that doesn’t appear to be an issue for gamers, who can regularly engage with audiences for long periods of time — sometimes upwards of 12 hours.
So educators struggling with Zoom fatigue in the classroom might be able to learn a thing or two from them, at least that’s according to one Ryerson University professor, who teaches his classes on gamer havens – the streaming platform Twitch and instant messaging service Discord.
“Twitch, Discord, YouTube live streaming, this is what we’ve been doing for how many years? It’s just now, that the pandemic has forced people to be like, ‘this is the thing?’ Yes, of course, it’s been a thing,” Kristopher Alexander, a communication and design assistant professor who teaches video game design, told CTVNews.ca in a video interview.
“I do know that gamers, and I also happen to be one, we know that this is the platform [to use],” said Alexander, who’s recognized among some of the best gamers in the world. “I actually haven’t seen anybody in my immediate [teaching] circle do it, to be honest… I wish more people would give it a shot.”
Using partial green screens to show slides and clips during lectures, he relies heavily on Twitch’s live chat feature, traditionally used for gamers to “engage with the person on the other side of the screen.” Through it, students can interact with Alexander, instead of formally stopping the virtual class to pose questions or make comments.
He said the integrated chat features on Twitch, Discord, and YouTube Live allow students to be active participants, not just passive observers. Alexander said these platforms are more conducive to an engaging teaching environment than Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
“Sometimes, [students] try to make me laugh, but this affords them during the lecture to be like, ‘wait, what did you mean by that?’ And immediately you can see who it is, you can call them out and you can chat with them. And the chat goes nuts,” Alexander said.
He noted class streams and chats are closed to the general public to prevent strangers from harassing the class.
Twitch’s live-chat feature could be used as a substitute for virtual classes, in which students constantly need to keep their eyes focused on the screen to show they’re paying attention. Experts have noted that staring so closely at someone’s face for an extended period would be completely unnatural in an in-person setting and could create anxiety in both shy and not-shy students alike.
“The genesis of all this was I was in a meeting one time and it was suggested that we couldn’t captivate students over Zoom for more than 30 minutes. And I was like, ‘have y’all ever seen a Twitch stream?’” Alexander recalled, referencing the sometimes 12-hour marathon sessions streamers do to raise money for charity.
“Of course, humans can sit in front of a screen for a long period of time if they’re afforded the ability to engage,” he said. “The benefits to Twitch is that it affords the consumer the ability to interact if and when they want.”
Alexander, who is helping Ryerson bridge the gap between academia and the video games industry, acknowledged the platform isn’t for every lecture, subject or teacher, but its greater possibilities haven’t been tapped into yet. In his case, the app has been a massive help in lieu of people being physically together.
“In a game design class, I allow the students to take control of a game that’s on my machine and play it in front of their peers — as we dissect it relative to the game design readings that we’ve done that week,” Alexander said.
The medium, which educators choose to interact on, shows the extra mile they’re willing to go to reach students, he said, adding, “the one thing that I found in teaching… is that students need to know or believe you want to be there.”
TEACHING SKILLS SHOULD INCLUDE TWITCH: PROF.
Alexander is no stranger to the Twitch platform, streaming under the username Videogameprof. He’s globally ranked among some of the best in the world in the arcade video game Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and the digital collectable card game Lightseekers.
A veteran teacher, he spent seven years as a lecturer at Ryerson University, and five years at Humber College in Toronto building up their collegiate eSport infrastructure alongside educator Geoffrey Lachapelle. Two of their collegiate eSport teams went on to be in the top eight in North America, with their Call of Duty: Black Ops team recently winning $25,000.
But even though he’s well-versed in the “level of engagement [Twitch] affords its users and consumers,” he urged other educators to take it up too. Alexander explained just how they’ve had to pivot to virtual classrooms on a dime this past year, Twitch should also become a part of their repertoire.