There has been much discussion recently about what works well in synchronous remote learning. When learning at a distance, effective connection can make all the difference to student engagement in learning, feedback, collaboration and community. So what do we do when our students’ faces are missing from the conversation?

An ongoing debate – cameras on or off?

With growing awareness of the need for inclusive pedagogy and a deepening digital divide among certain populations, it’s clear that being ‘on camera’ isn’t always an option, whether due to technical challenges, accessibility reasons or personal/privacy issues. However, as UTS graduate Bettina Liang pointed out in her recent blog, keeping cameras off can cause accessibility issues, especially for hearing-impaired students reliant on lip reading and visual cues.

There are undoubtedly benefits to cameras being on during a video conferencing session with a class group, outlined in a recent study examining common reasons why students choose not to. The nonverbal cues, for example, help teachers to pick up on smiling faces and furrowed brows, nods of agreement and frowns of confusion, and to adjust pace, delivery and interactions accordingly.

Likewise for students, there are benefits in ‘reading the room’ during collaborative learning, to see each others’ reactions and adjust. For teachers and students, getting a more ‘complete’ view of other individuals in the learning community helps build trust and rapport, contributing to an important sense of belonging which helps both learning and wellbeing.

One US community college teacher notes that it might be useful to shift our perspective from rule-making to community-creating:

Instead of asking, ‘Should I require my students’ cameras to be on?’ we should ask, ‘How do I create a learning space where students feel safe and comfortable turning their cameras on, where students want to see and be seen?’

Whether you’re an experienced Zoom-wrangler or just getting started with your first online classes, there’s always something new to learn. If you’re ready to refresh your approach, take a look through the tips below:

1. Have a conversation about cameras

Take the opportunity when you can to talk with your class about using cameras during sessions, and invite them to contribute to the discussion. Talk with them about what cameras add, and in what learning situations they are most valuable. Leave space for students to share reasons why they might not want cameras on and be clear about when and why you would like them on too.

2. Tackle basic barriers head-on

Some barriers suggested by students are easier than others to tackle: not wishing a bedroom or family space to be seen, for example, or being uncomfortable seeing themselves on camera. Take time to show students how to use a virtual background if they haven’t done this before, and how to turn off their view of their own camera.

Students can also upload a profile picture to Zoom, which helps keep those human faces in view, even when cameras can’t be on. Share this UTS guide to customising a Zoom profile with your students and make sure you have your own profile picture updated, too!

3. Model behaviour – and take a break, too

Whilst most teachers will already have their camera on, ensuring you are modelling the behaviour you want to see – as well as what you don’t want to see – is important. UTS Senior Lecturer Caroline Havery suggests teaching for a while with your camera off, then inviting students to discuss what that felt like for them.

Having breaks when cameras are off is also a useful strategy, both to reinforce the value of them being on, and to offer camera-free time during longer interactive sessions. Activities like brainstorming can be suitable times for this, where students may be making notes or writing away from the screen, for example.

4. Set expectations and establish norms

Cornell University researchers Frank Castelli and Mark Sarvary noted the importance of setting expectations and being consistent in your approach:

if you don’t explicitly ask for the cameras and explain why, that can lead to a social norm where the camera is always off. And it becomes a spiral of everyone keeping it off, even though many students want it on.

You may have noticed this in your own webinars and meetings, too. How many keep the camera off out of habit or because most other participants are invisible, too? The simple act of being politely asked by the teacher or facilitator can be enough to bring the faces back, without any drama.

5. Keep it active and authentic

Most importantly, as this visual summary from Appalachian State University points out, cameras need to be part of a considered approach to learning. Activities like ice-breakers, group work, and interactivity in breakout rooms show the value of visual engagement through the camera, and can help to build community and consensus among groups.

When cameras are not an option

There will always be circumstances where, for whatever reason, students can’t be on camera. Whether it’s a technical issue or personal circumstances which mean it’s just not okay to be on camera today, forcing every student to have their camera on in every class isn’t the best way to build trust and understanding.

Other options for class connection and engagement include polling tools like Mentimeter and survey forms which can be shared in the chat. These can be used to check understanding of lesson content and concepts, but also to check in with students; a simple poll asking how learning is going with options from ‘great’ to ‘not good’ can open up space to talk and shows our students that their wellbeing is just as important as their academic progress.

Shared online spaces like Padlet and synchronous, collaborative writing tools like google docs can also be used to encourage live discussion and problem-solving with anonymity, if needed. Introducing a common problem and inviting others to suggest solutions for each other in a shared document like this not only encourages participation, but also fosters empathy and connection across class communities.

If you’ve been teaching or learning online and have some suggestions of your own to share on this topic, we’d love to hear them! Add your ideas in the comments below.

With thanks to Caroline Havery and Rosalie Goldsmith from IML for sharing their ideas, experience and practical suggestions for engaging students in online classes.

Further reading and resources

  • Nice advice but perhaps its the kind of discourse that should happen with students prior to semester starting and prior to any specific lectures rather than end up being repeated over and over between lectures and across subjects creating more angst with different views? One lecturer may not care about cameras and another does so the first makes the second almost impossible to manage without building resentment no matter the wordplay.

  • There is now a blur function in Zoom. So anyone (including me) who is reticent about showing others their background (physical) environment no longer needs to worry. This may help with students who have what might be called ‘screen hesitancy’. Having participants present online is vital. (1) Feedback from students tells us that they dislike blank screens in class; they want to engage with faces, as in a tactile setting. (2) Unless tutors can see who is in class – from week to week – it’s difficult to be confident about participation. For international students that is especially important: universities are required by CRICOS rules to ensure that internationals attend class on a regular basis. A weekly blank screen does not allow for that monitoring process.

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