Ironically, one of the suggestions I made was to always keep your webcam on when teaching and to encourage students to do so also. Keeping your webcam on reduces the disconnection and distance which can be felt when teaching online. It also enables students to see your facial expressions, animations and energy that you bring to the session and students really appreciate it too.
So, in my session, I was practicing my own advice, but I would have really valued seeing the faces of the participants, to help me feel as though I had met them, to facilitate their contributions and to help gauge their reactions to some of the points I was making.
So, should I have insisted up front that participants turn their webcams on to help facilitate their engagement in the session? Should you consider doing the same when teaching students online?
Before you do, read on to find out more about some of reasons why that might not be such a good idea.
Reasons to be camera shy
There are a multitude of reasons why a student might not want to turn their camera on and indeed several studies have sought to identify the specific reasons why (Castelli 2021, Gherhes, 2021). Just a few of the many reasons can include concerns about appearance (of either themselves or their surroundings), concerns about privacy, social anxiety and bandwidth issues.
Students are often, quite reasonably, concerned about unexpected events being broadcast by them, such as others in the household walking into shot behind them or being heard over the webcam. Who hasn’t seen, and likely laughed, at the very public examples of this shared widely on social media?
Some students may be concerned that everything they are doing is recorded and may be shared and others may be concerned that screen recorder tools could be capturing their image without permission.
In some cases, students don’t turn on their webcams simply because others don’t, and they feel that this is the norm.
The benefits of switching off
Most of us will have experienced online meeting fatigue at some point in the past year or so. Certainly, we have learned just how challenging it can be to maintain focus and attention when in virtual meetings versus in real life.
With cameras off, students can more easily concentrate on the instructor, listen and make notes with less cognitive load and without concerns about being seen to be making notes or struggling to understand.
Staring at a small mirror image of yourself, can also be quite disconcerting, especially when speaking. While you could switch this off, there is some reassurance in knowing what you are broadcasting to others.
Dos and don’ts
Though there are a number of excellent research articles and discussions on this subject already (Castelli, 2021, Costa 2020, Terada 2021) we present our suggestions for some dos and don’ts when it comes to the use of cameras in live sessions to support an inclusive and supportive experience.
- Encourage webcam use by modeling good behavior and asking politely - but also be clear that it is choice.
- Set expectations ahead of the session and encourage students to prepare to be able to engage with cameras on to enhance the experience - if they feel comfortable to do so.
- Encourage students to utilise institution provided images or backgrounds, that you also use. This can help provide a sense of community and equality as everyone appears on the same surroundings.
- Break up your live sessions into smaller breakout room sessions, where students may feel more comfortable turning their cameras on.
- Make use of non-verbal interactions such as polls, voting and emoticons along with regular questions and interaction points to support engagement.
- Insist that all students have their cameras on when in live sessions.
- Suggest that using a filter or background blur will solve all issues - they do not always work 100% of the time and do not hide bandwidth issues.
- Plan interactions that rely solely on students using their webcams and or microphones as this can be a barrier to engagement.
Don’t give up
It can be tempting, and simplest, to insist that all students switch their cameras on and assume that they are then more ‘switched on’ and engaged as a result, but this may not be so, much as having all eyes on you in the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is engaged.
I would suggest putting yourself in the shoes of students and think about the wide range of potential reasons why they might want, or need, to keep their cameras off. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt and if at first you don’t succeed, try again. Restate your encouragement and the value of seeing their faces, help students get to know each other better and encourage risk-free expression and maybe you’ll see more cameras on as the course progresses.
By John Roberts, Online Learning Consultant at Pearson
Castelli, FR, Sarvary, MA. Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecol Evol. 2021; 11: 3565– 3576. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.7123
Karen Costa- Cameras be damned- https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/cameras-damned-karen-costa/
Gherhes, Vasile & Şimon, Simona & Para, Iulia. (2021). Analysing Students’ Reasons for Keeping Their Webcams on or off during Online Classes. Sustainability. 13. 3203. 10.3390/su13063203.
Youki Terada- Camera on/Camera off dilemma- https://www.edutopia.org/article/camera-oncamera-dilemma