Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

About That Webcam Obsession You’re Having…


Image from Pixabay (woman looking away from laptop that has hearts coming out of it)

About that obsession you’ve got with students turning on their cameras during class. I understand why you’ve got it. I’d like to help you deal with it. I say “deal with it” because many students complain to me that they don’t like being forced to turn their cameras on. Got a minute?

Why you’re obsessing over cameras on

Here’s what I think. It is quarantine-ish times. You are either not seeing many people outside your family, or going out and seeing masked faces. Just like babies focus on human faces, it’s probably essential to our wellbeing to see human faces. As a teacher and presenter and facilitator, seeing facial expressions and reactions of audience/participants makes a huge difference. I get it. I get that you need to know someone is listening, and see those reactions. I get it. I recently gave a keynote and asked a few friends to be on webinar panel so I could see their smiling faces. However, when I am in a position of power like in the class, I never ask students to turn on their cameras. And my students were *almost always all engaged* last semester in our Zoom calls.

Btw, you think you are making eye contact but you are not. You can’t make eye contact online. You would have to look straight at the webcam which entails getting your eye off the screen. As soon as you start seeing more than 2-3 people on the other side, you’re really not seeing anyone eye-to-eye.

Why Obsessing Over Cameras is Problematic

I’ve been hosting virtual conversations with a very high degree of regularity for over 5 years now and I have always encountered people who never like turning their cameras on, or people who circumstantially prefer to keep their cameras off. Equity is paramount to me. Reasons why people want to keep their cameras off include:

  1. Discomfort or shyness with showing their faces online. This is real, people. For most people, it gets better with time, but not always and not in every context.
  2. Noisy or busy home environments e.g. spouse or kids or siblings moving about. I have occasionally had to mute and turn camera off in the middle of a webinar I am personally giving for those reasons! Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to kids and spouses not respecting their work/learning time
  3. Not being dressed for company (for me personally, I often don’t want to cover my hair for a meeting where I’m not presenting, I want to lounge around in comfy clothes). Or your home not being tidy enough for company. This is a thing.
  4. Slow/unstable internet connection. Turning off webcam can be the easiest way to get better quality audio
  5. Discomfort over recording

What Can You Do Instead?

I am assuming having camera on is mainly a proxy for engagement, but you need to consider other ways of gauging and maintaining engagement. Examples:

  • Ask questions and ask everyone to respond in the chat. You will know if they are focused and engaged by their responses and every single person can participate
  • Ask questions for them to answer orally. Either call on people round robin, or call out some people from the chat (also keeping in mind some people are voice shy, and some people have noisy home environments)
  • If you can divide students into smaller groups go talk to each other and you can move between them like a butterfly, this can help some people engage/talk more and occasionally even turn their cameras on
  • Use things like Annotation or Google docs to have folks contribute
  • Ask students to have a profile picture up when their camera is off. This helps sometimes.
  • You might learn to distinguish student voices as you would close friends on the phone (remember life pre-caller ID where close friends and family would expect that?) and use them as proxies for how they are feeling. You already have this skill, but are not expecting to use it.
  • If you record, consider having an unrecorded portion. You will be surprised how much some people participate or are willing to turn cameras on in the unrecorded portion.

Writing this, I see that I am interpreting engagement as contribution rather than head-nodding. I know. But honestly, it seems a lot to ask people to turn their cameras on so you can see them smile and nod their heads. And it seems we need to consider ways of allowing people to “be there” in alternative ways that they are comfortable with and that tell us they are really listening to us and responding in more explicit ways.

What do you think? Have you tried something else that worked for you?

If you still feel the need for this seeing students’ faces thing (it’s too common for it to be a fad, especially as next semester is likely to start online), here are some other tips to feel like you know your students’ faces:

  • Early on in the semester, ask students to post introductions to themselves with video or photos. So you can put a face to the name. They can also have profile photos up on various spaces you see them like Slack or LMS or their blog gravatar
  • Have individual meetings with students during office hours or similar. Invite each student for one of these early in the semester to get to know them. (If you have larger numbers of students, you could invite them in smaller groups or maybe skip this whole thing).

(Side note: I did my masters degree fully online in 2003 and we did not have a single video conference with our colleagues or tutors. I have stayed in touch with two of my tutors and one of them is still a good friend today – we have since met on video a few times, and I have met a few people from my course in person).


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  2. Pingback: Voices First, Faces Second: Beyond the Tweet – Media and Learning

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