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061: Lights! Camera? Action! The Case for 'Cameras Turned Off' Classrooms

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

A regular weekday morning in my new workspace looks a little different now than it did pre-pandemic. I have my laptop, notebook, and phone as I’ve always had, but I’ve added a rambunctious dog, a sticks-her-head-in-the-toilet-on-a-regular-basis curious two-year-old and an often understimulated-and-craving-interaction-with-kids-her-own-age four-year-old.

In great part due to my husband taking care of any and all household tasks before he leaves to teach his students in person, my sister-in-law Facetime-sitting from the UK and the fifth member of our family, Netflix, I’m able to get about 2-hours of work done before chaos ensues. The rest of my daily professional work gets done in small sips throughout the day and then in a more focused state after the kids go to sleep. I don’t say this for you to feel any sense of pity for me (we’re in a very fortunate situation in which I’m able to work from home and have the choice to keep my kids with me); I say it to set the stage for anyone who is on a video call with me during the work day.

Virtual Reality

The way many of us interact and communicate has changed, virtually overnight. We know that. We now use tools like Google Meet and Zoom to communicate on a daily basis with colleagues and clients, friends and family, students and teachers.

The debate around whether or not all participants should keep their cameras on during these interactions is, in my experience, a hotly-debated topic. When first using video conferencing software for professional purposes, I was in adamant agreement that all participants should keep their cameras on. I had a quiet, nicely lit space in my home… so why wouldn’t everyone else on the call be in the same situation? Hindsight is 2020 (no kidding!) and I now have a much different understanding of the how, what, when, where and why students may choose to keep their cameras on or choose to turn their cameras off.

My stance on the mandatory ‘cameras on’ debate has taken a complete 180 degree turn. After having taught eight university-level courses in the past year, as well as having had candid conversations with colleagues and having read and heard a diverse range of viewpoints about the ‘cameras on’ debate, I’ve changed my opinion. I know it makes many instructors happy to see the faces and reactions of students, which is great and completely understandable but through my experience I have found that it’s not necessarily a measure of engagement or active participation in a meeting. Environmental factors, paired with emotional and mental health realities, as well as differences in the way people learn, have converted me to a ‘camera optional’ advocate, through and through.

Simply, cameras don’t equal connection.

I don’t have all the answers and I’m continuously learning. This is in now way an attack on anyone who has used cameras in the past (I have too!) but I encourage you to keep an open mind and an open heart if you feel strongly about participants keeping their cameras on during virtual synchronous sessions. I will provide you with three reasons why you may wish for your next meeting to be ‘cameras optional’ or even encourage a ‘cameras off’ meeting. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong choice, so much as there is a less informed and more informed choice.

The 3 reasons are as follows:

Reason #1: Keeping Cameras Off Levels the Playing Field

Reason #2: Keeping Cameras Off Removes Distractions For All

Reason #3: Keeping Cameras Off Encourages Participants to Tap Into Their Unique Learning Styles

Reason #1: Keeping Cameras Off Levels the Playing Field

You’re attending a party with 200 people. You don’t know most of these people, their personalities or their intentions. The party is in 30 minutes… at YOUR house. This would be stressful for anyone and this is not unlike what students may feel attending a classroom where they’re asked to keep their cameras on.

When in a physical classroom, we’re all on more neutral ground; a space that doesn’t belong to anyone in the room. In a virtual classroom, we’re entering into students’ personal spaces. We know that all students do not have this same quiet space in their home, or a safe space at home or even a home at all. Asking students to keep their cameras on can be a very vulnerable situation that undermines the feeling of psychological safety in the classroom. Proactively asking students to keep their cameras off is respecting each students’ unique circumstances and removing unnecessary anxiety about inviting you into their space.

This idea becomes that much more important if you’re recording classes to allow students access to them later. I haven’t found an easy way in Zoom to record a meeting without showing students’ faces, while at the same time being able to see students’ faces during the live class. Therefore, asking students to keep their cameras off is an act of respecting students’ privacy.

It also helps create a more equitable environment for students who are simply having a bad day. Some have bad days a lot more often than others, but the great thing about virtual classrooms is that these students can choose to show up even if they were not able to physically attend if it was in-person learning.

Furthermore, some students and instructors have a lack of bandwidth or internet connectivity issues can be avoided if the number of videos streaming on screen are kept to a minimum. Asking students to keep their cameras off can be as much about technological accessibility and inclusion, as any other type of inclusion.

Reason #2: Keeping Cameras Off Removes Distractions For All

I think that participants’ keeping their cameras on in small group settings and/or if everyone is able and willing to turn on their cameras is a powerful way to connect with classmates. But even in these small group settings, it can make for a very distracting experience. Students not appearing actively engaged, checking their phones, someone’s dog makes an appearance, the realization that two students in the class are looking down at their phones and giggling at the exact same time. Are they sharing a meme about your style of teaching, commiserating in a gif-able moment or perhaps it has nothing to do with me? It’s like passing notes in class, but literally right under my nose.

As an instructor, it’s very challenging to actively engage pages and pages of students’ video screens because video conferencing software only allows the viewing of so many at a time. It can be easy to miss individuals physically raising their hands or hoping to engage in meaningful ways when there are so many screens needing viewing at once.

Sometimes the argument for asking students to keep their cameras on is that we can all see one another in an in-person classroom setting, so why shouldn’t we be able to see everyone in a virtual setting? When students are rarely asked to look at other students in the class; they are facing forward, focused on the instructor. Asking everyone to keep their cameras on during a virtual class is a similar setup to having a single student in the lecture hall facing the front of the room, focused on the instructor, with all of their classmates up there at the front with the instructor, looking right back at them.

Reason #3: Keeping Cameras Off Encourages Participants to Tap Into Their Unique Learning Styles

This is the most exciting of the three reasons. Relying on participants keeping their cameras on as the primary method of engagement, trying to mimic sitting in a physical classroom, misses the opportunities for different ways of engaging virtually.

For example, for visual learners, the presenter’s camera on and being expressive with body language and facial expressions helps with effective communication. Additionally, highly visual slides and other interactive visuals, as well as use of the chat feature, polls feature and collaborative Google Docs, and sharing software like Kahoot, Menti or others, I’ve found to be effective ways to engage visual learners in virtual classrooms.

Furthermore, auditory learners will benefit from expression and enthusiasm in the presenter’s voice, as well as other participants’ voices when appropriate. Even music and sound effects incorporated into presentations can enhance engagement.

And for kinesthetic learners or anyone who has a hard time sitting still, moving and listening may be a more effective way to connect with and solidify content. (Call me strange, but interpretive dance was a regularly used tool in my undergraduate test prep tool kit!) If cameras are expected to be on, an instructor may take a students’ ‘on-the-go walking classroom’ as a sign of disrespect or not caring about the class, when it may, in fact, be the opposite.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Let's talk about the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for a minute; a framework that seeks to optimize teaching and learning in a way that minimizes barriers for all students.

As part of the UDL framework, providing multiple means of engagement that will create learning environments where all learners feel engaged and motivated, is essential. Minimizing threats and distractions is part of this strategy. This includes varying the level of sensory stimulation through background noise and/or visual stimulation, as well as varying the social demands required for learning, including any demands placed on learners for public display.

Final Thoughts

We’re still living through a pandemic; an upside down, strange and scary world, where we’re all weathering the same storm but in very different ships. Demonstrating empathy and understanding for individual situations is a great reason to offer a ‘cameras optional’ meeting. My teaching philosophy has shifted during this pandemic in an important and powerful way that I believe will stay true for a long, long time: I see my role as creating content for, and speaking to, those who are ready and willing to learn and I'm playing a supportive role to everyone else who has the best intentions but is in a place that makes it difficult to engage fully.

When I’ve spoken to friends and colleagues about teaching online, the most common answer is: “I find it frustrating teaching a group of students who I can’t see”.

Instead of seeing ‘cameras off’ as an obstacle, I choose to see it as an opportunity. An opportunity for me to know that students feel psychologically safe in our shared classroom. An opportunity to shift focusing my emotional energy away from worrying about what students are doing behind the screen that I have no control over and into more productive activities I can control. An opportunity for me to reach a little further into my teaching tool kit and find engagement techniques that don’t require cameras. An opportunity to see this not as a compromise, but an entirely new style of teaching for me to grow into and develop that promotes inclusion and engagement.

Educator, author and keynote speaker, Maha Bali, from an article in Times Higher Education says it best: “Remember that you need to connect with (participants’) voices and thoughts, not their faces.”

Cameras don’t equal connection.

Music (public domain via Podington Bear - Moodswing

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

Episode Cover Art: Canva (remixed by Diana Varma)

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