This chapter was first published as an EDUCAUSE blog article on September 10, 2020, under a Creative Commons license (BY-NC 4.0), with the title Dear Professors: Don't Let Student Webcams Trick You. It is reprinted here with the permission of the authors.
During the spring 2020 semester, when higher education quickly shifted to remote online teaching in response to the coronavirus pandemic,1 faculty and leadership didn't have much time to think carefully about the many details of teaching online. Now that the spring and summer semesters are behind us and we are facing remote teaching during the fall semester and possibly beyond, some faculty members may question whether to require all students in live online classes to be on webcam all the time. As experienced online educators, our answer is no for four reasons.
First is the issue of equity. Online classes with heavy webcam use require faster internet connections and newer computer equipment, and not every student is on equal footing in this regard. For example, some students report tech access problems such as "slow, rural internet." One student said, "[My] internet connection isn't strong enough to support me using my video. When I do, I am often kicked out of the Zoom classroom and have to reenter." Another student described the following untenable situation: "If I need video, I have to set up my decade-old personal computer, which is old and slow and acts like it is going to die any day now." In addition, requiring students to broadcast their homes to their classmates can bring socioeconomic differences to light, including details that students may prefer to keep private.2
Second, constantly being on webcam can detract from student learning. Having all students on webcam invites many distractions that can split students' attention, including a preoccupation with looking at themselves on screen, feeling pressure to perform for the instructor, watching other students' behavior, and looking at other students' home environments. It's difficult to focus on the instructor when classmates are doing things like eating messy meals, constantly shifting and moving, managing children, picking their noses, using the restroom, or sitting in a glorious sunny backyard. There's a reason many of us are tired of Zoom. According to an article published in The New York Times, "the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making you feel isolated, anxious, and disconnected."3 In addition, if students don't want to be on webcam and are forced to do so, they may feel resentment, and if students are required to be on webcam while experiencing illness or grief, they may feel dehumanized. One student noted that the instructor "often tells us to turn on cameras without citing [a] reason. I don't think it's necessary because there are things that may occur in my remote experience at home that may be distracting to me, and I want to limit that to myself (for example, parents and pets often barge in, there's decoration in my childhood home that is rather embarrassing and unprofessional, and there is no option to go to a library or other setting, etc.)." Feelings of resentment and embarrassment can distract from learning. Conversely, allowing students to choose whether or not to be on webcam is an example of trauma-informed teaching—"an approach to college curriculum delivery that involves adopting a set of trauma-informed principles to inform educational policies and procedures."4
Third, requiring students to be on their webcams during class poses risks to good teaching. Instructors risk cognitive overload if they try to pay attention to all of their students' webcams while simultaneously focusing on teaching the class. If the instructor incorrectly perceives passive student webcam presence as interaction, they may focus less on incorporating meaningful interactive learning activities because they think that there is no need to do so. This is not exclusive to remote learning. Carl Wieman—a Stanford University professor who is a leader in the use of experimental techniques to evaluate the effectiveness of various teaching strategies for physics and other sciences—said that approximately one thousand research studies confirm that active learning strategies consistently result in greater learning and lower failure and dropout rates than lecture-based teaching.5
Fourth, requiring all students to constantly be on webcam does not provide the benefits that proponents imagine it would, as human instructors cannot monitor twenty or more webcam images at once. Students as young as ten years old know how to fake their webcam presence, making it unreliable for enforcing attendance.6 Requiring students to be on webcam is not a reliable way to make sure that they are paying attention, as not everyone looks the same when they are learning, and instructors may have paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal biases regarding what counts as learning behavior.7 For example, each image in figure 1 could be interpreted differently.
Figure 1. These examples show why interpreting a student's body language (as seen through a webcam) can be difficult.
Figure 1 Alt-Text. This figure includes four images of one of the authors on webcam; they demonstrate the difficulty of interpreting body language on webcam. The first image is the author looking down, with the text "Texting or taking handwritten notes?" The second is the author looking up with eyes shut, with the text "Listening deeply or napping?" The third is the author looking to the side, with the text "Not paying attention or trying to listen & avoid distracting webcam images?" The fourth is the author staring closely at their their computer screen, with the text "Paying close attention or reading on-screen email?"
For those who would point out that there are many benefits to using a webcam, we agree. Students in online programs feel like they are part of a community when they are able to see each other face-to-face, and pet appearances on webcams are what carried many of us through our spring web conferences.
Furthermore, students who are attending remote online classes from locations all over the world can bring their disparate locations into the classroom every day. This new experience of place can energize the curriculum. A pedagogy of place can be used to build on the critical work we must do to counter structural racism and exclusion. But cameras are not the only way to bring student presence into the online classroom.8 One student suggested that educators "encourage people to put on cameras during the group breakout sessions and facilitate discussions so that all members participate. Otherwise, it ends up being the TA and one other student with their camera on working on what is supposed to be a group project while everyone else is silent."
We recommend that instructors stay on their webcams throughout the class and plan selective use of students' webcams for activities such as group discussions, role-play activities, debates, panel discussions, student presentations, and any other interactive activity that would be enhanced by seeing the students who are speaking. Even in those cases, if a student cannot be on webcam, participation via microphone or typed chat can suffice. Allowing these less bandwidth-intensive forms of participation is essential for equity. For example, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice surveyed 38,000 students this spring and found that 11 percent of white students and 17 percent of Black students do not have sufficient internet access.9
To get the most out of webcam use, instructors should be thoughtful about their webcam setup and optimize their lighting. Good lighting is just one of the tools instructors can use to enhance their online presence and make their classes more engaging.10 Instructors should ask students to be ready to activate their webcams as needed. We also recommend incorporating a variety of interactive elements—such as typed chat, formal and informal polling, on-screen drawing, live note-taking pods, and breakout rooms—to help ensure that live online classes are so engaging that instructors don't need to see students on webcam to know that they are present and learning.11
Instructors who are planning to use student webcams in live online classes should consider the following questions:
These types of questions should also be applied to decision-making about presence for in-person classrooms. Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of how instruction is delivered. For example, passive student presence in any context may detract from teaching and learning, as described above. As educators who are beginning a fall semester that requires the flexibility of remote teaching, we should all reflect on the underlying rationale for what may be ingrained teaching habits rather than sound pedagogical practice.
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