In Spring 2020, instructors worldwide quickly converted their in-person courses to a fully remote delivery model in response to the public health crisis surrounding COVID-19. During this time, instructors were also left searching for strategies to maintain the human connection with their students in a virtual learning environment (Kalman, Macias Esparza, & Weston, 2020). Synchronous remote instruction conducted by way of Zoom aims to mimic face-to-face interaction and counter the health implications of social isolation precipitated by the pandemic (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021; Lin & Gao, 2020; Aleman & Sommer, 2020). Despite instructors’ well intentioned use of video conferencing to close the distance and improve the remote learning experience, there can be unintended consequences when instructors require students to turn their video cameras on during synchronous sessions (Castelli & Sarvary; Lee, 2020; Kalman et al., 2020; Lin & Gao). This newsletter addresses the benefits and risks of student camera use, offers engagement alternatives, and offers advice to instructors who wish to encourage cameras to be on.
Pedagogical Rationale for Cameras
There are several pedagogical factors supporting student use of their video cameras during synchronous Zoom sessions. Such sessions provide a consistent means of communication with others during an isolating time, and they allow participants to engage with each other in a manner that simulates in-person interactions (Lin & Gao, 2020). Students are able to speak with one another and the instructor, unencumbered by masks and social distancing, and receive an immediate response. When instructors and students can see one other, there is an added layer of human connection, strengthening students’ feeling of motivation, sense of belonging and community in the course (Lin & Gao; Kalman et al., 2020; Nicarando, Khandelwal, & Weitzman, 2020). This may be especially pertinent for first- and second-year students who are still developing learning habits and social networks that their upper-level peers have already established (Kalman et al.). Additionally, when instructors can see their students in real time during synchronous class sessions, they are able to respond to nonverbal cues that might indicate confirmation or confusion around concepts being taught. In this way, instructors can provide timely feedback, ask probing and clarifying questions, and adjust their instruction to meet the learning needs of their students (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021).
It is in the context of community building that I frame the need for cameras to be on. I usually follow this up with a quick list of features that will make the class less stressful — regular breaks, small group discussions, my availability for informal quick chats — and also that these features are as much for them as they are for me, because I am experiencing the prevailing difficulties as well…. I also let them know when my camera may be off, creating a ‘sense of occasion’ around it.
—Colin Channer ( Literary Arts)
Because of the immediacy of response to verbal and nonverbal cues that occurs when video cameras are turned on in video conferencing, students can experience greater levels of trust and rapport (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021). The increased social interaction and real-time collaboration among peers with video cameras turned on parallels the in-person learning experience and works to mitigate the negative cognitive consequences associated with loneliness (Castelli & Sarvary). The benefits of students having their camera on during synchronous sessions are not limited to the students. Instructors also report greater feelings of efficacy when they were able to see their students and express a discomfort with teaching into the void of blank boxes of students who have their cameras turned off. These feelings of efficacy and rapport shared by both instructor and students can strengthen the class community and promote a dynamic learning experience in which all participants can be engaged.
My experiences both this semester and last semester have been that students are eager for interactions and want the cameras on.
—Ruth Colwill (Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences)
Risks to Student Learning
Despite the potential benefits, instructors risk unintentional exclusion or introducing new levels of stress and anxiety for some students by requiring camera use. During the initial transition to remote online learning, college students reported feelings of increased anxiety, fear and depression consistent with responses to traumatic events (Huckins et al., 2020; Kalman et al., 2020). These feelings of fear and anxiety can be exacerbated for some students by a mandate to turn their cameras on during synchronous sessions for a variety of reasons.
Students may be uncomfortable sharing their home learning environment, may not have a private space to work free from distractions in the background, or may be self-conscious about their appearance and being seen by classmates (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021; Nicandro et. al, 2020; Jackson, 2020). As Castelli and Sarvary present in their survey of undergraduates enrolled in an introductory biology course at Cornell in the spring of 2020, these concerns were shared more by students from historically underrepresented groups. Along these lines, there is an increased potential for “videoclassism” that can occur when students see one another’s living situation in the background and, thus, infer their socioeconomic status (Jackson). This fear of being judged by peers or having to share parts of one’s life that were previously kept private can result in students feeling more anxious and unmotivated to attend the class (Jackson; Jiang, 2020).
Students participating in the course from outside the U.S. may have additional concerns with appearing on camera in the class. Legal restrictions on certain platforms in their country may preclude their participation in meetings or limit access to documents and activities, while restrictions on free speech and the potential for monitoring by the state may expose them to risks if the topics discussed are politically sensitive (Fischer, 2020). For details and strategies, see the Digital Learning & Design (Sheridan Center) guide on Inclusive Technology Practices for Internationally-Located Students.
“Zoom fatigue” “describes the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with overusing virtual platforms of communication” (Lee, 2020). Transmission delays, technology glitches, or natural pauses in conversation can make classroom interactions feel inauthentic to engaged participants (Jiang, 2020; Lai & Widmar, 2020; Schoenenberg, Raake & Koeppe, 2014). Video conferencing complicates the subconscious processing of posture, body language, facial expression, and tone of voice in face-to-face interactions (Lee). While eye contact improves connections and makes interactions “organically rewarding,” this mutual gaze is “compromised over video” (Lee). The constant gaze required by participants during video calls in order to process nonverbal and verbal cues leads to brain fatigue (Jiang; Fosslien & West Duffy, 2020; Lee). Unconscious and nonverbal elements of communication, which convey a great deal of information and help prepare our responses, are difficult to visualize in a virtual environment, making video conferences low reward and high cost. As a result, students can be left feeling cognitively overloaded, thus negatively affecting their performance and ability to focus during the class meeting.
Finally, students risk increased technological issues when video camera use is compulsory in remote learning. Sharing a video image increases demands on a computer processor, (laptop) battery, and network bandwidth. Thus, inadequate access to reliable, high-speed Internet and hardware limitations may leave some students struggling to comply with this requirement. Many rural areas lack access to the high-speed Internet required to effectively run a Zoom video conference call. In lower-income households that may be facing financial stress compounded by the pandemic, it may not be an option for members of the household to pay for the broadband Internet required for Zoom video conferencing (Lai & Widmar, 2020). Even in households with access to high-speed Internet, speed can be impacted during peak hour usage or when multiple users need to access at the same time, thus negatively affecting connectivity (Lai & Widmar). This is of particular concern when students must attend synchronous sessions at specific times and days.
Students may also prefer to join synchronous sessions using a mobile device, such as a tablet or smartphone. This allows students the ability to move around while on a Zoom call, and may deter them from turning on their cameras. Additionally, like many applications, Zoom’s mobile app functions differently than the desktop client, thus limiting the video capabilities for students who access meetings on their mobile devices (Lekach, 2020). Students who do opt to turn on their cameras for Zoom meetings may inadvertently have their cameras turned off based on their interactivity during the meeting. As students toggle to the Zoom chat or shared documents, their video camera turns off and they can no longer be seen.
Options for Student Engagement
An inclusive approach to video conferencing prioritizes the diverse learning needs of students and provides options for interaction and engagement (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021). Instead of using the video camera as a means to evaluate engagement, instructors can build engagement opportunities into the course by providing varied options for communicating and interacting during class. This can include encouraging use of the chat feature in Zoom to ask questions, facilitated by a teaching assistant or the primary instructor.
One really good thing about a Zoom lecture is that students can chat live during the lecture, asking each other, “What the heck is he talking about?”
—Stuart Geman (Applied Mathematics)
Similarly, polls can be used to increase student engagement in lectures or discussions by gauging understanding of new concepts being taught or illustrating positions on an issue (Castelli & Sarvary). Neither chat nor polls require student camera use but do represent active learning strategies.
Options to Limit Distractions
Some students report that seeing themselves or classmates during a synchronous class meeting can be distracting to their learning (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021; Nicandro et al., 2020). Because of Zoom’s versatility, instructors can encourage students to select “Speaker view” during the whole class portions of the synchronous meeting, which would allow individuals to focus on the content of the instructor’s presentation. Instructors can also take time to encourage students to “Hide self view” in Zoom, which would serve to minimize the distraction that students experience from seeing themselves. Finally, to address issues relating to background distractions, instructors may also encourage students to use a virtual background to hide what would otherwise appear in their background (Castelli & Sarvary). Instructors should note, however, that hardware and software limitations may prevent some students from using the virtual background feature.
Part of what we do in this class is sing—so it's also helpful to see the students. I was also just honest with them—that as the instructor it's incredibly boring to look at a screen and not see any student faces. I wanted to make it as real as possible.
—Mark Steinbach (Music)
Transparency of Norms (the “Why”)
Many learning contexts may rely on seeing one another, and in those cases it is helpful to explicitly tell students when and why cameras should be turned on for the course (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021). By explaining to students the rationale behind recommending camera use during synchronous class sessions, the instructor helps to set the norms for the course and maintains transparency about the ways in which camera use will enhance the learning experience (Castelli & Sarvary). The open dialogue with students specifying when cameras should be turned on and when they should be turned off helps set expectations with students around various aspects of the course.
I have periods during every class meeting when students work independently. For example, ‘turn off your audio and video and brainstorm this idea by yourself and come up with some questions for the group … this should take us 15 minutes.’ This works really well.
—Colin Channer (Literary Arts)
At the heart of the debate around students’ video camera use during synchronous class sessions is the collective aspiration for building and maintaining an inclusive class community. While seeing one another may help decrease students’ sense of isolation, synchronous class policies that make video use compulsory could marginalize students who are already experiencing symptoms of trauma, including fear, anxiety and depression. To strike a balance, instructors can offer students options for engagement during class sessions and provide a rationale around when camera use is most appropriate based on the learning goals.
As instructors, we need to be flexible for [students’] personal reasons. These are extraordinary times. We need to create community but not at the expense of accommodating students and their unique needs.
—Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve (Sociology)
According to Brown academic policies for Spring 2021, instructors are encouraged to allow students to choose whether to have their cameras on during class sessions.
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