Teaching into the Abyss: Addressing Students’ Camera Usage (or Lack Thereof!) in Zoom

Teaching into the Abyss: Addressing Students’ Camera Usage (or Lack Thereof!) in Zoom

By Virginia Pitts, Director of University Teaching

If you’ve ever had the experience of teaching to a screen full of black boxes in Zoom, you know it can feel like you are teaching into an abyss.  It can be hard enough to “read a room” when you are not physically present with your students, and when they have their cameras off during a Zoom session, it’s sometimes hard to even know if they are there!  Furthermore, if many of your students have their cameras off and their microphones muted, it can be challenging to build that sense of connection and community that is top of mind for so many of us during these times when connection feels more important than ever. And speaking for myself at least, in synchronous situations, even if I am the only one speaking it feels like more of an “exchange” when I see others’ non-verbal responses or hear their subtle verbal acknowledgements of what I am saying, and it’s often through these exchanges that I come into my best teacher-self; when I cannot see or hear the people with whom I am engaging, it’s much more difficult – and at times impossible – for me to show up as my full, best self in my teaching.

Why Students Don’t Use Their Cameras

I wish there were a simple, straightforward answer to the question of whether – and how – we can get students to keep their cameras on during Zoom sessions, but the truth of the matter is that it’s complex.  On the one hand, we know that when students keep their cameras off it can have a detrimental effect on engagement, connection and community in the virtual classroom.  Yet, on the other hand, there are some legitimate reasons students may choose to have their cameras off; in fact, there are times when having one’s camera on, particularly for extended periods of time, can negatively impact learning, engagement, and well-being, at least for some students. As Tabitha Moses explains in her blog on “5 reasons to let students keep their cameras off during Zoom classes”, students may choose to leave their cameras off because of:

  • Increased anxiety and stress due to prolonged eye contact, the feeling everyone is watching, and the ways in which large/up-close faces can trigger the body’s “flight or fight” response leaving students feeling on edge (this, of course, at a time that is already so anxiety and stress-filled for so many of our students!)
  • Zoom fatigue from, among other things, having to work harder to interpret non-verbal cues and focus more intently on verbal cues, all while paying attention to multiple faces – a form of multitasking that can make people feel drained and less engaged
  • Competing obligations such as caring for siblings or other family members
  • Their need for privacy, including cases where student may be living with undocumented relatives or someone who is fleeing an abusive situation. There is also, of course, the fact that having a window into students’ homes may expose/highlight inequities in living conditions that student may not want exposed, and that may result in students’ peers or professors viewing/treating them differently as a result (note that while using a virtual background in Zoom can be a workaround for this in many cases, not all students have computers that meet the system requirements to support these virtual backgrounds)
  • Lack of financial means and other kinds of access which may limit access to highspeed internet and/or their ability to have video and audio on at the same time. In an earlier blog on The Connectivity Conundrum, I talk about some ways to address this, but still there are going to be times when students are unable to connect.

Approaches for Addressing this Challenge

I do not take the above reasons for lack of camera use to mean that, for classes that take place entirely or partially on Zoom, we should resign ourselves to facing a screen full of black boxes.  But I do think it means we should keep this all in mind as we decide how to proceed, and that, perhaps rather than asking, “How do we make sure that every single student has their camera on all of the time?” we ask “How can we encourage camera use in a way that best supports learning, engagement, and well-being for all members of the classroom community (including ourselves)?

We are of course all still learning here, and this is a question we all will continue to explore.  But some approaches to consider as we lean into this question include:

  • Establishing clear expectations up front – even prior to the start of your course and certainly at the beginning of it – regarding kind of environment/culture you’re hoping to create, the ways in which you expect/invite students to participate in Zoom meetings, and why (in syllabi, learning community guidelines, etc.)
  • Engaging students in the conversation, as this is something they are likely grappling with too. In particular, you might invite your students into conversation around questions such as:
    • What is the culture/community we want to create here, and how can we do that? And when it comes to Zoom, what guidelines/norms/practices do we want to create to support that?
    • What is the effect when we don’t have cameras on? What is the effect when we do?
    • What would make you more comfortable/likely to turn your camera on?
    • How do we normally show each other that we’re paying attention and that what others are saying matters to us? If we have cameras off, most of our usual “I’m listening” signals won’t work, so what should we do instead? (this question was suggested by Anna Lännström in her blog “Should we require students to turn their cameras on in the Zoom classroom?”)
  • Establishing clear policies/guidance around camera use (consistent, of course, with your own teaching philosophy/approach to attendance requirements), such as:
    • Allowing a certain number of “camera off” days per person
    • Having students let you know ahead of time if they plan/need to have their camera off (and/or telling them to message you – or put a note in the chat – if they need to unexpectedly step away)
    • Treating it as an absence if a student has their camera off, you ask them if they’re there and they don’t respond, and they haven’t communicated that they are stepping away (though I would encourage caution here, as I imagine all of us have had the experience of a momentary distraction that pulls away unexpectedly – but if this happens repeatedly it is a concern)
    • Requiring that they show a profile picture in Zoom if they are not there
  • Supporting students in minimizing anxiety/stress/fatigue due to Zoom usage, by:
  • Increasing the likelihood that students will want to have their cameras on in Zoom by working to build trust, connection and community.  And yes, I see the paradox here: The very thing that lack of camera usage can impede – this trust, connection, and community – is also the thing that might be required to get students to want to use their cameras in the first place!  You might:
    • Consider showing your own surroundings, at least some of the time (even if – maybe especially if – they are messy/imperfect), as demonstrating that you are willing to give students a window into your imperfect space may make them more willing to give you a window into theirs (in his blog “How to Get Students to Turn on Their Zoom Camera“, Michael Linsin even suggests you give a tour of your messy space!)
    • Encourage students to join the class meeting a few minutes early to casually chat with instructors or other students, and test that their audio and video are working (from Stanford CTL’s “10 Strategies for Creating Inclusive and Equitable Online Learning Environments“)
    • Create individual connections with students, as the better they know you, the more likely they may be to want to “show up” in Zoom. Some ways to do this might be having one-on-one meetings with students (even a 5 or 10 minute Zoom call can help make this connection!), or one-on-one email exchanges, or assigned times for each student to drop into virtual office hours (these examples also come from Stanford CTL’s “10 Strategies for Creating Inclusive and Equitable Online Learning Environments“)
    • Follow up with students individually if they have their camera off the whole time, e.g., “I noticed your video has been off; how can I help you be present in this online community?” (this question was a suggestion in this Edutopia article on “Engaging Students in Virtual Instruction with the Camera Off”)
    • Creating opportunities for students who have their cameras off to still engage and connect with others in the class, as if they get to know other students that way, and begin to feel more a part of the community, they may eventually be more willing and wanting to “show up” on their cameras. You can do this through the use of Zoom tools such as chat, whiteboards, and annotation tools; collaboration tools such as Teams or shared Word Documents; chats in Canvas, etc.

This is not an exhaustive list of course, and which ones of these have the most potential to work for you will depend upon your context, your students, and your own teaching philosophy/approach. And, I suspect that regardless of what you do, you may still have situations where some students will simply not be able to have their cameras on (the Connectivity Conundrum blog has some ideas for how to address that).  But the hope is that, as we learn together to address these new challenges raised by our current teaching context, we can do so in a way that contributes to the engagement and well-being of our students and ourselves.  

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