Jul 20 2021

The Pros and Cons of Requiring Students to Turn On Their Cameras

Dive deeper into concerns on each side of the debate and find solutions to make videoconferencing less stressful for the next school year.

Across the nation, schools plan to open buildings for the return of full-time, in-person learning come fall. Students and teachers will be able to see one another outside of the tiny windows they’ve grown used to on Zoom. That is, if they really ever saw one another at all.

The question of whether to require students to turn their cameras on for online learning has been a hotly debated one over the past 15 months. Despite the return to classrooms in the coming school year, many districts plan to retain their virtual learning technologies. Some schools are even planning to open permanent virtual options for students who found success in an online environment. It’s safe to say videoconferencing software won’t be leaving the K–12 space.

To that end, what will educators require from online participants in the fall? Proponents of mandatory cameras for videoconferencing cite class engagement and social-emotional learning as their top concerns. Those in favor of allowing students to keep their cameras turned off cite videoconference fatigue, socioeconomic differences between students and bandwidth issues.

The concerns on both sides have merit. Here’s what advocates have to say and what schools can do to mitigate some of these worries for future virtual learners.

Educators Make the Case for Keeping Cameras On

Those in favor of requiring that students keep cameras turned on say it increases engagement, strengthens social relationships and more closely simulates in-person instruction. Many teachers prefer teaching to visible student faces rather than empty or unmoving boxes on Zoom, and 77 percent of educators — including district leaders, principals and teachers — say they require cameras to be kept on during virtual learning, according to an Education Week Research Center survey.

“Educators are constantly paying attention to many, many things. And whether in person or when teaching virtually, such high levels of attentional demand can be draining,” says Andrew Bennett, an assistant professor at Old Dominion University who led a study on videoconference fatigue and the effects of leaving cameras on or turning them off.

The positive social benefits of visualizing students when teaching remotely is also noted in a research article from 2000, long before COVID-19 and mandatory online instruction. The study found that educators felt more effective and more satisfied when they were able to view and evaluate students’ nonverbal responsiveness to their teaching. It also benefitted the intrapersonal connections between the teachers and the students.

Ed Tech Solutions Can Alleviate Camera Concerns

When students don’t keep their cameras on, teachers can still measure engagement and strengthen social bonds using the chat windows and reaction icons in videoconferencing software, Trevor Toteve tells EducationWeek. Toteve, an Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher at Alief Independent School District in Texas, tells the publication that he also uses polls and breakout rooms to see how closely students are engaging with lessons.

Social-emotional growth has been a concern for many families and educators over the course of the pandemic, but educators have found ways to build relationships with their students — with or without cameras.

WATCH NOW: Educators discuss ways to foster social-emotional learning in K­–12.

For instance, Laura Boyd, a Spanish teacher at Franklin Special School District in Tennessee, uses the polling feature in Google Classroom to do a daily social-emotional check-in with her middle school students. She says she lets the students choose from options like “good, bad, happy, nervous or sad.”

“Middle schoolers don’t always express feelings like, ‘I’m doing great today,’ or ‘I’m feeling sad,’ so it gives me some relationship-building with the students,” she adds.

Educators Make the Case for Keeping Cameras Off

On the other side of the debate, advocates who say students should be allowed to keep their cameras turned off cite videoconference fatigue, student economic inequities and unreliable connectivity. A recent study by the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab reignited the conversation around student camera requirements. This research found “four consequences of prolonged video chats” that lead to the sensation known as Zoom fatigue. (The researchers stress that this phenomenon can occur on any videoconferencing platform.)

“Being on camera, just like being in person, can also be more taxing because we can feel like we’re always being watched, and therefore we’re paying more attention to our own movement,” Bennett says.

Andrew Bennett
We can feel like we’re always being watched, and therefore we’re paying more attention to our own movement.”

Andrew Bennett Assistant Professor, Old Dominion University

Indeed, watching oneself on camera was one of the four causes of fatigue found in the Stanford VHIL study. The other three included “excessive amounts of close-up eye contact,” reduced mobility when sitting in front of a screen and a higher cognitive load trying to send and receive nonverbal signals.

There are also concerns over student economic inequities when it comes to requiring cameras be turned on for class. In an academic article published in Academic Practice in Ecology and Evolution, a survey conducted by researchers found that more students self-reported visual appearance and elements of their background as reasons for leaving their cameras turned off than students who claimed to leave the camera off because they weren’t paying attention.

Finally, low bandwidth can make it difficult for some students to connect to online classes reliably. Internet connectivity remains a problem for K–12 students and families when learning from home.

DIVE DEEPER: Connectivity is key to inclusive technology options for students.

Ed Tech Solutions Can Alleviate Camera Requirement Concerns

In citing the four causes of videoconference fatigue, the Stanford study also includes ways to mitigate the problem. Of those recommendations that didn’t suggest participants turn their cameras off, some included minimizing the videoconference window or hiding one’s own video feed. While the former may be difficult in a classroom setting where students must pay attention to the on-screen class material, there are other ways to decrease the number of faces staring back on many videoconferencing platforms. Students can pin their teacher’s video feed to limit the number of staring eyes they see.

“Fortunately, in our research, we found that feeling a higher sense of connection with individuals on the videoconferences can alleviate some of that fatigue,” Bennett says. He recommends making time for small talk before or after meetings to reduce the weariness that can come from socializing through a screen.

Inequity concerns with regard to home learning environments can be aided by virtual backgrounds. Virtual backgrounds can help to obscure a student’s surroundings or minimize the distractions in a home where other family members are present.

While there may be no universal solution to the camera debate, students and educators can take steps to make videoconferencing easier after more than a year of learning remotely in emergency mode. The new year offers an opportunity for schools to take a step back and find better ways to provide online instruction.

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