Reflecting Allowed

Students Talk to Me About Webcams

This post is co-authored with students in my CORE 2096 Spring 2021 class. I suggested we do not tie each quote with each student’s name, so as not to put them at risk in any way, but I am collecting names of people who want to be identified as co-authors of the article as a whole. They voted on where they wanted it published, and my blog was the one place they wanted it out there first (but I’m also working on internal venues). I’ll keep adding student names as they submit them to me, but there are about maybe 8-10 of my class of 20 who contributed to this article, including:

Abdelrahman Abouzeid, Yasmina Halbouny, Rawan M. Ibrahim, Islam Ibrahim, Adham, Heidi Aref, Nora, Mostafa, nadine, Mazen & other students in CORE 2096

Listen to what my students say about webcams

Many people’s preferred online teaching/learning mode in this emergency/pandemic has been synchronous online teaching. Although not common best practice in online education beforehand, it was preferred by both teachers inexperienced in online teaching and students missing a socioemotional connection. Many, including at AUC, have been using Zoom regularly. And as widespread as the use of Zoom, or some other videoconferencing tool, has been, I have also constantly been hearing teachers (K-12 and higher ed) complain that students tend to prefer to have their cameras off (my 9 y o included). I have written often about why students having their cameras on does not truly indicate engagement, and that students have many reasons why they prefer having their cameras off. I understand how important it is for teachers to feel the students’ responsiveness and to feel the students are participating, but I have also written about different ways of engaging students and making sure they focus and participate, including asking questions frequently in the chat, asking students to unmute, polling, taking notes in Google docs or Google slides, and using breakout rooms in small groups before bringing students back to the main room to discuss with the rest of the class. Advice from AUC faculty on how they engage students without cameras is towards the end of the article.

This article is going to begin with and focus on listening to students on their preferences with cameras. I always survey students before semester starts on their preference, and the overwhelming majority prefer having it off. At least those who come to my class (who are mostly in their second, third or fourth year, and come from a variety of majors from engineering to business to literature). On March 18th, I asked them how they feel when required to turn their cameras on, and to share positive and negative experiences of cameras on or off.

How does it make you feel when faculty require you to turn your camera on?

Among the words students said in response to this question are “uncomfortable and unfocused” (Freshman), “Distracted because I keep focusing on my surrounding and the way I look” (Engineering student), “Anxious, worried, like I am being watched” (Engineering student), “can’t concentrate” (anonymous) and “uncomfortable/stressed”.

One really important aspect a sophomore highlighted is how it feels to have camera on when class is being recorded:

“Anxious and uncomfortable. It feels like I’m being watched by someone and it’s really distracting. It’s even worse when the camera is required and the session is being recorded because then most of my attention is wrapped up in how I’m going to look in a recording that the class can access at any”

We should never forget the internet connectivity issue and the cost of using 4G if home wifi is unreliable, even if it is for a minority of our students:

“If using a hotspot, opening the camera finishes my internet since ADSL internet is unreliable” (Unreliable WE customer)

Finally, two comments from students who feel it is an expression of authority and is being used in a punitive manner sometimes:

“Turning the camera is pointless in an engineering class. Feels more punitive than caring. If I go to use the toilet, get a charger, get some food, you are held accountable if you go missing for 3 minutes whereas the latter would have been normal onground.” (Engineering senior)

“Some professors just ask us to open our cameras because they have the higher authority not because they will see us, I have that feeling because they share the screen and keep talking non stop during the whole class and they keep asking who’s talking when anyone else starts talking…I also expected the psychology department to be more understanding most of the time, but this wasn’t the case in (spring 2020) as we were even proctored on respondus during the exam in one of the courses.” (PSYC student)

Share a negative experience of online learning with cameras on

Students shared the following negative experiences:

Student were frustrated when they were being counted absent if cameras are off, or if their participation does not count unless their camera is on, even if they wanted to participate in other ways (Junior). One engineer student says the professor told them “if your camera isn’t on she might not remember your participation (hence you may lose grades)”. They didn’t feel it was fair to make camera on part of participation grade, and were especially frustrated by faculty who “randomly ask to turn the cameras on without a notice” (Engineering student). One architecture student says:

“A professor in the architectural engineering faculty used to ask the students to open the cameras on the spot, and some students may not be camera ready and it’s just very anxious. I used to get up and run around the room just to wear my headscarf and open the camera for the professor. Its just very stressful.”

One architecture student talks about a TA who is overly vigilant about cameras on:

“3 hour lecture with cameras on (students not dr) and if you step away TAs will note that and ask you where you were. When we ask the dr why l, he said I don’t really care, it’s the TAs choice”

An engineering student reminds us of the privacy considerations that become important when having cameras on is not really supporting learning: “It feels needless in most of classes, the professor shares their screen and there is no class interaction at all to warrant having the camera on. In addition to this, the camera feels like a way to monitor us by the professor, other than a way to facilitate interaction. It feels like being watched. Also, I live in an environment where other people are constantly walking past me, or entering into frame.” (Note: using virtual backgrounds does not solve this problem – people walking behind you closely will appear in the frame).

A business student reminds us again of how turning the camera on can affect the quality of the call:

” professor used to take attendance by checking if students are opening their cameras and if you’re not opening the camera, you are recorded as absent. Even though you might have technical problems which force you to watch the lecture lagging just to ensure that you’re taking attendance”.

Share a positive experience of online learning with cameras on

Note in the positive experiences how the students qualify their answers. Only three students responded to this question. All three were engineering students.

One small benefit is it helps some students focus more “I feel like having my camera on (although its very uncomfortable) can help me focus a little bit more”, but remember it still makes them uncomfortable, and there are many more students who feel the camera on actually distracts them.

“Helpful only in discussion based classes. Engineering classes are merely professors sharing slides and explaining concepts thus no need to feel under constant monitoring. Recording while cameras to be on is unacceptable.”

Another student said something similar, “If it is a discussion based class, its helpful to have the camera on, but its a small benefit”.

Share a negative experience of online learning with cameras off

Only two students  contributed here. Both in engineering. Both of them talking about focus: “Sometimes I do lose focus slightly, but I do also lose focus as well sometimes with the camera on” and “Very easy to get sidetracked and lose focus.

Share a positive experience of online learning with cameras off

Four students contributed here. A psychology student said “I feel more comfortable and I can participate more” and an engineering student said something similar, “Was comfortable during class and managed to participate and concentrate the most as I didn’t have to think about the camera all the time and check how I look”.

Another engineering student again brings up privacy: “In all my classes with cameras off, there is still participation in class, and in addition to this, I don’t have to worry about how my environment looks or if people are passing into frame behind me.”

Finally, a freshman student describes their experience in a class with cameras off as follows:

“The class was very engaging and mostly everyone in class participated regularly in different ways (chatting or unmuting). Thus, the students were comfortable engaging in the way they feel comfortable and were focused and participated more than while opening the camera”

Advice from AUC Faculty to Engage Students

The following quotes are extracted from the Fall 2020 special edition New Chalk Talk:

Ramy Aly (SEA) writes: “Students can participate verbally, via Zoom chat or via Padlet (which is a great tool), I am also using all the features I can on Zoom to manage participation turn taking. I should say that most of them are speaking during Zoom to my surprise, there are a handful who are not engaging using any of these options even though I have sent them many reminders that participation is key and that they can choose their mode of participation. These students will have low participation grades – but there is no way that they don’t know that and in any case that happens whether or not we are online. ”

Tarek ElSayed (PHYS) has a simple way of quizzing students during the live lecture: “I scattered throughout all my slides many MCQ quizzes in the content of the current slides. I ask students to write down the answer in the Zoom chatbox, and then I can see the answer of each student and select one to discuss the quiz with him/her. It is the same idea of clickers, done on Zoom.” Tarek also highlights student achievements in a “hall of fame” Padlet to encourage them.

However, as a teacher, keeping your camera on, at least some of the time (when your connectivity allows) can help students feel connected. Students like seeing your face. “All lectures are synchronous but also recorded for those who are not able to attend – my camera is always on” (Ramy Aly, SEA).

“When students don’t want to turn on their cameras, it can be a challenge to get to know them.  I awarded a badge to students who created an avatar or put a photo up on their Zoom profile.  The avatar or photo doesn’t always show up depending on how students access Zoom, but it does help them build a sense of connection to the others in the class. Plus, I learn a bit about them from their photos and avatars. One of my undergraduates has a photo of him leaning on a fence in Germany. Another is at Hurghada. Several of the students’ avatars show a playful side that is hard to project in virtual environments.” (Thomas Wolsey, GSE). 

Other professors such as Sophie Farag (ELI) have students write their thoughts on Google slides. This allows everyone to participate at the same time, and ensures everyone contributes in ways that cannot be easily done in regular oral interaction.

And a note from me, Maha. I have had many class sessions where every student camera was off but almost all students engaged throughout the session. At the end of one such class, a student told me she felt like we were back on campus together. I have noticed that profile pictures on Zoom make a huge difference, and that students tend to turn their camera on in office hours when it’s just me and them alone. My graduate students usually have their cameras on all the time unless they have connectivity issues, but they’re also adults and teachers, and it’s different from undergraduate students.

If having cameras on is really important to you as a teacher, ask yourself if you need them on for every single student, every moment of every class session, or if you can make it a preference for whoever can do it, or for particular portions of the class or some class sessions. Let students know ahead of time if you’re planning to ask them to have their cameras on that. Occasional cameras on means they may be able to manage a more private setting or to be camera-ready that day, without the stress of trying to achieve that every single class session.

But remember that to know that your students are focused with you, to know their thoughts on what you’re teaching and discussing, you want to hear their voices or read their thoughts on chat. They may participate more, and be more comfortable sharing with their cameras off. Ask them what they prefer.

Featured image by StockSnap from Pixabay:

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