Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

About That Webcam Obsession You’re Having…

| 22 Comments

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).

22 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this! I did encourage my students to turn on their video several times, but made sure they knew it was completely optional. Very few did. But I got very good engagement in the chat.

  2. Wow, good question!!! I hadn’t thought of it.

    I guess initially, it is like, students have right to feel shy to speak in front of class, but teachers don’t have that right, you know??

    But given racist issues… I can now see how teacher having camera off can be empowering!

  3. Yes! Exactly! But I deal with it ✊🏼💪🏼

  4. Thanks for this perfect analysis. Actually I enjoyed reading it. During reading, I remembered people who do not put their real photos on social media. I think there a relation. Do you agree?

  5. Maha, thnx 4 writing about this. Personally I’m dealing w/ self-image due to ELT’s (English Language Teaching) racism & I think that’s why I never forced my Ss to turn their cameras on.
    How about Ts? Do they have the right to turn off their cameras during their online classes?

  6. Initially I never asked my students to turn the video on. The chat option fell flat for me and I felt like talking to an empty classroom. Then I noticed my 4yo online class where these concerns weren’t expressed or thought of. I think everyone thought of keeping the video on (1/)

  7. …as the norm and I, as a teacher and an onlooker, felt that it’s more meaningful to see at least a few faces, know what they are up to and all. So, for my later classes I insist on keeping the video on. But, in a large class of 60+ like that of mine even if a handful (2/)

  8. …keep their videos on the session window comes alive and the rest non-videon participants I let them be. Your post, however, made me (re) think of my strategy. Thank you. (3/3)

  9. Great post!

    I’ve delivered lots of commercial training where nobody has a webcam. I don’t really feel I have the ability to read reactions in faces while also keeping an eye out for questions on the chat channel and focussing on what I’m presenting.

  10. But are also quite good at making faces without realising everyone can see them … 😉


  11. Another place I’ve seen Webcam Obsession is online briefings by senior managers/CEOs, who also seem to have a bit of a thing about seeing faces paying attention to them…

  12. That’s weird! My answer to Scott’s post appeared before his question; yet I’d already seen it I wrote mine!

  13. Thank you for this! I have a hard time concentrating when I’m on video. I would hate to have to be on camera in a class.

  14. I agree pretty much. It’s easier to read lack of comprehension in faces, in response to me or a classmate’s speech, when cameras are on. It can be helpful for a lot of people, but I understand that others have issues. Making it compulsory is terrible. Personal choice, yeah?

    • Depending on the tool you use (like in Zoom) you might have the option to gauge comprehension in other ways (like by having the class give a thumbs up if they understand, or giving a poll (either through Zoom or through some other tool like PollEverywhere or Kahoot).

  15. Great post! So important to consider learner anxiety and the different situations students are in. I did an online MA with a newborn where I was often breastfeeding during group tutorials. I never needed to explain why my camera was off!

  16. Me, too! I have started turning off my camera when I need to pay attention. I find it really distracting to look at myself and at other people at times. Thanks for the thought-provoking read, Maha!


  17. It is an interesting dilemma. What cameras on does is contribute to a better feeling of social presence in the classroom. I find that if I set the expectation than the majority of students will have cameras on. I’m ok with people turning them off if they are sick or have a reason for not wanting to be on. If someone is consistently off I ask them to put up a profile picture. I do ask when people have their cameras off because often they don’t realize it. They mean to have them on but are not aware that the camera isn’t working. So just like checking that audio works, I check for cameras – but my students know that if they have a reason for them being off, then we turn them off.

    If kids or cats/dogs show up on screen I smile. I wave to kids in the background. I had guests in my class the other day and got to see two of his young daughters for the first time. If a few are willing to be vulnerable in this way, other members of the class feel less alone in the world they are living in. It helps them realize that they have something in common with their colleagues. It is that type of connection that rarely happens when the camera is off.

    But there are good reasons for not having the camera on. If people are having connectivity issues, I’ll recommend that they turn their cameras off. It is nice to see them for a few minutes at the beginning, but once the class gets started it isn’t necessary – as everyone recognizes voices – note that I have small classes. One reason that you didn’t mention is safety – some people may have concerns about their personal safety. Those who are in that position are often not willing or wanting to have their cameras on.

    On a note of pictures, I tell students they can also choose to use avatars or something that represents them – so it doesn’t need to be a picture of them – but a picture of something provides more of an emotional connection than the written name.

    I feel like I’ve written a full blog post in these comments – I’ll need to write something up 🙂

  18. I had an audioconference today and I found it unreasonably awkward compared to videoconferences. But that was 90% because we were doing it over the telephone, with dubious sound quality, and because it wouldn’t connect to my noise-canceling headphones. So much better on the computer! And yes, I also like to be able to look at the other participants. But Maha Bali is correct here – it should be up to the other person whether or not they turn on their camera. Even if they’re students. “Honestly,” she says, “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.”

  19. For me the camera should always be a participant’s decision and never a requirement. I do like seeing faces but it’s never essential. We can have presence in audio, text, places where we can write. There is nothing sacred about the camera as being the ultimate level of presence.

    In the most recent Networked Narratives course with Mia Zamora, we’d have most of the time half the students without cameras. Others likes showing us when the went outside or their pets or their nieces and nephews. We had a student who was without internet for 3 weeks, and that student came in by telephone. I have to say chat is very effective, a number of students prefer commenting, sending support, looking up resources that way. It makes it a richer experience to me because only one person can speak at a time, but many can type.

    As a tangent, I have worked on 2 projects over the last 14 months with a colleague and we always communicate on the telephone. It’s rather simple, and I’ve been able to meet while driving or walking. My colleague and I in fact know each other only via text, email, and telephone. We recently had a zoom call because we needed a 3 way meeting to do screen sharing. It was a bit funny to finally see each other, but the camera did not add anything significant. We’ve resumed phone calls.

    The phone is a highly underrated technology. When I remotely advised a group of MA students at Kean, we just called each other. There was no fiddling with software or dealing with internet flakiness.

    Relying on the camera for participating is fraught with the problems you outlined, but also is fraught with assumption of it being a superior form of communication. Not in my book.

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