As instructors look at blank squares during a Zoom class session, it may feel less personal, disconnected and disconcerting. It doesn’t allow us to “read the room” to gauge students’ understanding. We may even be uncertain if students who aren’t joining with their video cameras on are engaged at all. Will class policies requiring students to turn on their webcams support students’ learning and engagement?
The easy answer is ”no”: requiring students to turn on their webcams will not lead to more active engagement or better learning, and the negatives are far more likely to outweigh the potential benefits (Costa, 2020). The use of webcams as part of synchronous class sessions is not, however, wholly negative and does offer opportunities to create a sense of connection and community, to establish accountability, and to mirror face-to-face instructional contexts (Oregon State CTL, 2020). Below we offer guidance for positively encouraging students use of webcams and strategies for actively engaging students during synchronous Zoom sessions.
Access, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. There are many reasons why students cannot or may not want to turn on their camera: internet and other technology issues, problematic home situations, Zoom fatigue, anxiety, mental health issues, etc. We can always encourage students to use their cameras but should not force them. Rather, offer students multiple and flexible means of engagement (see Strategies & Examples below). For additional considerations, see our Keep Teaching page, How Do I Support Students Who Are in Circumstances Where Their Speech and Privacy Might Be Limited?
Trauma-aware teaching. Many of our students may enter our virtual classrooms carrying trauma and the toxic stress of a world in crisis. They may not want to show themselves on camera after a sleepless night, because they are having a bad headache, or simply because they think they look horrible. For some students the thought of having to see themselves on camera may even be terrifying and could lead to a panic attack. Read trauma-aware teaching expert Karen Costa’s blog on Cameras Be Damned or check out her Trauma-Aware Teaching Checklist.
STRATEGIES & EXAMPLES
Setting Norms and Expectations for Camera Use
Establish camera “optional but encouraged” policies. Be proactive early on and include an ‘optional but highly encouraged’ webcam policy in your syllabus. Send a reminder message before class during the first weeks of the semester. Students may assume that they don’t need to turn on their webcam so they are not prepared to do so. Let students know that they should dress for class as they would for a physical classroom, and show how they can ensure their privacy by blurring their background or by using an appropriate virtual background.
Tell students how to communicate during synchronous sessions. Create a Housekeeping Slide, which you can reuse in all of your courses. This slide reminds students of best practices for videoconferencing, such as muting themselves, using the chat as a backchannel for questions and comments, and turning on their video if they feel comfortable doing so (or at least when speaking). You can use the Zoom’s “Ask to Start Video” feature to invite students to turn their cameras on (click on “Participants” and “More”).
Let students know when and why to turn on their webcam. Seeing each other humanizes the online learning space, allows us to connect with each other, and cultivates a sense of community. Certain learning activities, such as breakout room discussions, debates, student presentations, problem-solving, or any other interactive activities are enhanced by students seeing each other. So, encouraging students to turn on their video makes sense but your students may not know why. So, tell them!
Make turning on the camera fun! Students are more likely to show their faces if they know each other a bit. Take a moment at the beginning of class for regular warm-up activities and have students do an icebreaker in their breakout rooms before jumping into the task. This builds trust and rapport. Here are some icebreakers that work well on Zoom. Read more on how to cultivate a sense of belonging in our Flexible Course (Re)Design Module on Inclusive and Equitable Teaching.
Engaging your Students Actively during Zoom Sessions (beyond webcams)
Provide multiple means of engagement. Offering options for students to engage in your class supports accessibility, diversity, equity and inclusion. Zoom offers students many different ways to actively participate in a class session that don’t require the use of cameras. Allow your students to choose whether they want to speak on camera, use just audio, or contribute comments and questions through the chat. Regularly use the chat and polling activities for student engagement. Let students know how they can use the “Reactions” button in the toolbar for non-verbal feedback. Ask students to contribute to collaborative online whiteboards or online note catchers during class. For further information, see our Keep Teaching page, How Do I Use Note Catchers to Support Online Active Learning in Groups?
Design your Zoom class around meaningful interactive learning activities. Avoid lengthy lecture periods – try keeping lecture segments brief and intersperse lectures with breaks for active learning. It helps to connect pre-class work to in-class work. Use breakout rooms for discussions, collaborative tasks and problem-solving activities. For more ideas, check out our Keep Teaching pages, How do I best engage students during synchronous class sessions? And, How Do I Keep My Students Engaged in Large Online Courses?
Use structured note-taking templates. Guided fill-in the blank notes or graphic organizers promote active engagement, help students identify and organize important content, and serve as a study guide for quizzes or exams. Ask your students to fill in key concepts, facts, definitions, labels, formulas, problem-solving steps, etc. during the synchronous class session. Check out Amanda Woerman’s Faculty Success story, Keeping Students Motivated and Engaged in Large Online Classes, where she explains her use of fill-in study guides.
Use Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs). Without the non-verbal feedback (facial expressions, nodding, posture, etc.) that we get from students when we see them, instructors may feel literally left in the dark about how things are going during a Zoom class session. Regular use of CATs offers ways to quickly assess students’ knowledge, understandings, skills as well as reactions to class activities, assignments and activities. You can use CATs at the beginning, during, or the end of class depending on your purpose. Ask students to identify a confusing or “muddy” point or what they think were the most important things they learned during that class session and submit it through chat; use Zoom polling for quick checks of understanding; or, have students develop concept maps that illustrate their abilities to synthesize information in break out rooms. 50 Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) provides additional ideas to assess students’ understanding while also engaging them in reflecting on their own learning.
Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at firstname.lastname@example.org.
References & Further Readings
Costa, K. (2020, May 27). Cameras be damned [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/cameras-damned-karen-costa/
Costa, K. Trauma-Aware Teaching Checklist. Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/document/d/13yiEXjdErGoaOEh1M2hZtaq2tyfL8woY3tfYI3s30ng/edit
Marquart, M., & Russell, R. (2020, September 10). Dear Professors: Don't let student webcams trick you [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2020/9/dear-professors-dont-let-student-webcams-trick-you
Niess, A. (2020, October 25). How does camera usage affect the Zoom learning experience [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://arbiteronline.com/2020/10/25/how-does-camera-usage-affect-the-zoom-learning-experience/
Oregon State University, Center for Teaching and Learning. Zoom camera pros & cons [Infographic]. Retrieved from https://oregonstate.app.box.com/s/j6vcszazsgaq3ikyqkcxc4s51pueb53h
Terada, Y. (2021, February, 5). The camera-on/camera-off dilemma [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/camera-oncamera-dilemma