Cameras On or Off?
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Alicia Sartori
Curriculum Designer, Knovva Academy

With many schools around the world using remote learning, we are still figuring out how to conduct school for the best educational standards. As much as possible, teachers want the experience to be like school was before, so they can engage students and get them involved in the learning process. To do this, many teachers have relied on taking what works in the classroom and translating it to remote learning. This has raised some questions on what can translate, and what should evolve with new learning circumstances.

One major conflict that comes up is the question of students having their cameras on while they are in a virtual class. This requirement makes sense if we consider that a teacher in a classroom can usually see all of their students at any time. They can see if a student is playing with their phone, sleeping, or paying attention to something else. This is necessary for proper classroom management, and making sure students are engaged. 

For some students, this works well. It makes them accountable for their actions, and keeps them on task. Seeing their classmates’ faces can also add a social element, making them feel like they are present and with their friends, much like they would be in the classroom. With their cameras off, some students confess they might get up and leave, since the teacher can’t see what they’re doing. 

While having cameras on makes sense, there are some growing concerns about this requirement. The impact of having the video on while learning is causing problems for some students that may be unanticipated by teachers. 

1. Privacy

While teachers are usually able to see a student when they are in a classroom, they do not usually get to see into the student’s home. With cameras on, everyone can see into each other’s private homes, and whatever may be happening there. Some students are lucky enough to have a private place to study with a closed door. But not all are. Some students may be sharing space with siblings and other family members who don’t want to be on camera. In the case of poor students, having the camera on in their home may reveal something about their situation that they don’t want their classmates to know. With cameras off, students can maintain a level of privacy about their home, just like if they were in a real classroom.

2. Emotional Health

Having cameras on poses two problems for students from a behavioral standpoint. The first is that it adds to what is now being called “Zoom fatigue,” a sort of exhaustion that occurs from constantly using a computer screen, and especially in virtual meetings. Having a camera on during a virtual meeting increases this fatigue, because interpreting body language is already exhausting, and students have to do it with many faces at once. If students are allowed to turn their cameras off, this exhaustion can be reduced.

The second behavioral issue involves anxiety and stress from looking at screens with cameras on. Since each student is looking into the camera, some students have a constant feeling of being watched by everyone else in the class. In a physical classroom, students can turn their attention anywhere, and are not usually all looking at one classmate for the whole period. This constant feeling of being watched can make class time very stressful. Having the camera on is also like looking into a mirror all day. Again, in a natural setting, students do not look at themselves for hours on end. This unusual experience can cause high anxiety and self-esteem issues for some students.

3. Technical Issues

As remote learning has become necessary, we have found how essential it is to not only have access to the internet, but fast internet. However, not everyone in the world has access to the internet, and it may be some time yet before that gap is closed. Students with slower internet connections simply may not be able to have their camera on when trying to listen to a lecture. Their video may lag, or even freeze, preventing them from participating at all. In situations where a teacher requires that all students have their cameras on, but one student is given permission to not have their camera on, teachers risk exposing the student’s situation and causing embarrassment. 


Since there are many good reasons to allow students to keep their cameras off, some teachers might be wondering how they can recreate what they need from the cameras without requiring that students have them on. How can we engage with our students and know they are fully present when we can’t see them? The key here is to dig deeper into the technology that has made remote learning possible. Rather than looking at remote learning as a constriction against what we would normally do in the classroom, we should look at what technology can allow us to do that we could not do before. 

Similar to in the classroom, teachers can still check for understanding with their students, asking simple questions to make sure their students are “there.” They can have students respond verbally, or check in using virtual meeting tools like chat boxes, polls, and emojis, like a thumbs up gesture. Students who don’t respond could be marked as absent, or lose participation points.

Teachers may also dislike teaching to a screen of black squares. This is where they can allow students to be creative and express themselves in fun ways. Instead of requiring cameras to be on, they can require a profile picture. It could be an image of the student, a collage of some of their favorite things, or even a cute picture of their dog. As long as there is nothing inappropriate, this can be a fun visual for everyone to look at, and it can be used to easily identify students when their cameras are off.

Finally, it’s OK to ask students to turn their cameras on without requiring it. Teachers can make the environment encouraging for them to do so, and explain why having cameras on may be important for some specific tasks. If a student is speaking, they can be encouraged to turn their camera on so other students will pay more attention to them. Teachers might incorporate more small presentations where students can have their cameras on for short periods to help them get used to it. If more students turn their cameras on, others may feel more confident to do so, while the students who can’t turn their cameras on will have the freedom to keep them off. It is best to be flexible and continue learning about how best to approach online learning for students.

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