Cameras Off? Compassion On!

Recently, we had a full-faculty Zoom meeting at my school to discuss best practices for student inclusion. The meeting was actually run by students – they talked about their needs and what instructional strategies they felt made the most impact on their learning. 

At the end of the presentation, a faculty member asked the students about Zoom classes and whether they thought cameras should be on or not on. The responses were very interesting. 

The first student to answer said that one of the main reasons she didn’t like having her camera on was because she was anxious about seeing her own face on the screen. The other student participants concurred with this idea, adding that sometimes they turned off their camera because they were eating, or they were hiding the fact that they were working in a position/location that the teacher would object to, such as lying down in bed. 

These responses reflected the results of a student survey outlined in a study published in January 2021 by Cornell University. Two professors at Cornell, Frank R. Castelli and Mark A. Sarvary, surveyed hundreds of undergrad students to get to the bottom of why so many of them did not turn their cameras on during online classes. The number one reply, representing 41 percent of the total feedback, was that cameras were turned off because students were “concerned about their appearance”. 

It seems that our attitudes about camera use, based on concerns about student social and emotional well-being, were a little off base. Nevertheless, the debate over the use of cameras rages on.

Erring On the Side of Compassion

On one side of the debate are the “Maslow before Bloom” people. They argue that students should have the option to keep their cameras off because they are dealing with pandemic-related anxiety and that forcing them to have their camera on contributes to that anxiety. Also, being forced to maintain eye contact for long periods of time, it is argued, can be psychologically uncomfortable. Some also believe that screen-on policies are detrimental to disadvantaged students, exposing their inadequate wifi and/or revealing their normally private living conditions. Others write about the fatigue associated with spending so much time in front of a screen. There are even fears that “Zoombombers” might infiltrate school chats in an effort to acquire personal details about students.

My own students, here in Myanmar, face unique challenges that may impact their use of cameras and audio in the Zoom classroom. The noise from protests may interfere with discussion. There are even concerns that classroom discussions are being monitored by third parties. 

On The Other Hand…

Other educators, who are no less compassionate than their peers, had strong feelings about the use of cameras. To them, the camera off signaled a lack of student engagement. Furthermore, these teachers felt that they needed that face-to-face connection to strengthen learning and to help in assessing comprehension. 

While discussing this camera on/off conundrum with colleagues, a common argument that camera-on proponents employed was: “If school returns to the in-person model, would we allow students to come to class with a bag covering their head? Would we permit students to sit and face the back of the room while we teach? Then why would we allow students to attend a Zoom class with their camera off?”

And while the jury is still out in terms of requiring a face on the screen to ensure learning is occurring, there is very strong evidence that having the camera off does, in fact, result in lower engagement. 

I reviewed my student engagement logs (daily records of student participation in class) and discovered that the students who had their cameras on were averaging 9 participation events per class (such as asking a question, answering a question, making a comment, signalling a response with a gesture or using an emoji, etc.). Meanwhile, students who had their cameras off participated, on average, about one time per week. In addition, the students with their cameras off were also responsible for the majority of the late or missing work. For the first time in my career, I had students – none of whom turned on their cameras – who literally submitted zero work (summative or formative) for an entire quarter. 

So, how do we ensure we are addressing the social and emotional needs of our students, while ensuring they are also learning and growing?

Moving Forward – Building Engagement

Setting up classroom norms surrounding camera use is an important starting point. In the Cornell study outlined above, Castelli and Sarvary recommended making camera-on a class norm from the first day of class: 

The most frequent “Other” reason students provided for not having their video on was some form of if not being the norm set in the online classroom. For example, “no one else had it on so I shut mine off as well,” “[our class] kept ours off,” and “everyone else had theirs off and I felt awkward having mine on.” This suggests that unspoken social norms are at play and that some portion of students experience the social pressure to follow what their classmates are doing.

Once the cameras are on, teachers then need to ensure their class is a safe and positive space for students. A February 2021 article entitled The Camera-On/Camera-Off Dilemma listed a number of excellent suggestions, including: 

  • surveying students to determine their perspective on camera usage and identify any concerns they might have about turning them on, 
  • allowing students to use a virtual background to shield their actual living spaces, and 
  • endeavoring to build trust with your students and help to build trust between students. 

You could also have students reduce their onscreen anxiety by showing them how to “pin” the screen of the teacher, so that it becomes the dominant window during the Zoom call, and not those of the students. 

And, teachers could provide their students with a wide variety of ways to demonstrate engagement, beyond appearing on screen. For instance, students could share insights, ask questions, or answer questions verbally. They could interact similarly using the Zoom chat function – either publicly or privately. As well, daily formative assessment activities could be employed to continually check on engagement and understanding. Small group discussions using Breakout rooms are another avenue for students to showcase their understanding or seek assistance. The more modes available for student-teacher interaction, the better.

For many educators around the globe, virtual learning has been a reality for more than a year. And, throughout this experience, the debate over cameras has raged without any sign of resolution. By the time a definitive answer is produced, COVID-19 might be history. 

In the meantime, the bottom line for me is to push for cameras on, but to avoid hard and fast rules. This wasn’t always my perspective on this issue. Earlier in the pandemic, I was all-in about enforcing a camera-on policy. I talked tough at faculty meetings about the subject, and put up a hardcore front in my Twitter PLN. But, then I realized that although I talked a good camera-on game, I was actually doing the opposite in my online classes. I reflected on this disconnect between my ideas and my actions. What I began to understand is that we cannot be 100 percent certain about the challenges that individual students are facing in their learning environments. Without such certainty, our only guide must be compassion. 

So, I plan to regularly – yet gently – cajole my students to have their cameras on, using humor and positivity. And if they opt to keep their cameras off, I will be okay with that.  

Ed X!

One thought on “Cameras Off? Compassion On!

  1. Frank Castelli says:

    I want to applaud your self-reflection and publicly sharing your personal growth. We all have room to improve our ideas about teaching and learning. Hopefully others will also change their views in response to evidence. I also want to provide to your readers a direct link to our free-to-access paper: Cheers, @DrFrankCastelli (twitter)

    Liked by 1 person

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