March 28, 2020 11:24 pm

Person on laptop
Norman Eng

Last week I conducted classes virtually and in real time on Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Collaborate Ultra (Blackboard’s videoconferencing feature). And the whole time all I could focus on was the sea of blank avatars—rather than actual faces—staring back at me.

Why did it matter? Why had students decided to turn off their camera? To be honest, I took it a bit personally. I wanted to duplicate the rapport we had in the classroom. Students used to bounce ideas off each other and seemed at ease conversing. Yet two-thirds of them now didn’t even want to be seen.*

So I surveyed students the next day, using Google Forms. In total, 45 responded. The first question I wanted addressed: How comfortable are you showing your face on camera?

Almost 45 percent felt comfortable; they chose either a 4 or 5. That surprised me. Still, a quarter of them (24.4%) were not. The rest (31.1%) fell somewhere in the middle.

The next question: WHY do you think students are reluctant to show their faces?

Their responses boiled down to three overlapping reasons, listed below (each followed by a selected quote):

  1. Privacy: Off the top of my head it’s probably due to feeling like [students’] privacy is being invaded. It’s not only the professor seeing them, but the whole class. Like for me, [the] best WiFi connection is in the family room . . . Everyone walks around there. The females in my family cover up so it’s a hassle for them not to comfortably walk around. Since people are home and not looking as presentable they normally would outside, they feel either shy [or] embarrassed to show themselves. [Me] included.
  2. Self-conscious: On FaceTime, people tend to be comfortable being judged by just one person but when there is a possibility to have more than one pair of eyes simultaneously on you, unknowing of who is “staring” at you, you don’t know how you’re being judged by multiple people at a time. 
  3. Not camera-ready: It could be [because of] appearance . . . Since we are in the comfort of our own home we don’t put effort to look presentable as if it were a classroom setting or social setting.

The final question I asked in the survey: What is one solution you think may help students feel more comfortable turning on the video/camera? Many of the solutions, listed below, gave me hope.

Having other students in the class use their camera makes me more comfortable to use mine

Turning on the camera often definitely will help me getting used to it, but it needs time.

I think as time goes on people will start to feel more comfortable. I think [the] more people start using the camera feature [the] more people will follow suit.

Building a “classroom environment” (even though it’s online) of having a judgement-free zone and instilling confidence in the students. I think this would happen naturally with time.

May be if [students] are told to dress in casual clothes rather than pajamas and attend the class in a more professional way that might work

I feel this is personal for each individual, but I think mindset goes a long way. I think of it as me participating in a community where I’m professional and that I’m committed to what’s going on within the class.

Maybe it will take some time for [students] to get used to it. Since this all is new.

Encouraging students to do the video and the more people that do it, students are more likely to show their faces.

Tell them they have to lol… comfortability [sic] comes after familiarity

If everyone else turned on their camera or if you made it mandatory

i think we need to make each other comfortable when we are meeting virtually. What I mean is that, we need to compliment each other certain time. This can happen like if we were given a 5 min free time to just talk to each other personally as a group maybe; without talking about class work.

Have everyone turn on their cameras. Sometimes it will only a few people with the camera on. It’s a little awkward. I know if everyone did it then, I would feel comfortable.

Having students get ready as if they were going to go to their in-person meeting

While there were many more answers, they can be summarized as follows:

    1. Require students to use the camera, and over time they will get used to it
    2. Professionalize the class experience
    3. Cultivate a respectful and comfortable learning environment

I think I will need to set the tone early on. Tell students that my course is a professional environment for learning. That I don’t consider it “learning from home,” which means I expect them to show up on camera the same way they show up to face-to-face classes. For some it means wearing makeup or doing their hair. For others it means putting on their “outside clothes” (as opposed to wearing pajamas).

Regardless, I won’t require students to show their faces. Many issues that aren’t a big deal to me are to others. I want to balance between getting students accustomed to showing their faces online (in a closed, class environment) and respecting their concerns. At the very least, I’ll ask students to upload an actual picture of their face. It’s better than seeing a blank avatar.

A couple hours before the last class of the week, I sent this text to students:

text message

Guess what happened in class? About three-quarters of students ended up turning their camera on—a promising start! Let’s see what happens the rest of the term. I’ll make sure to report back.

Your turn. What have your experiences been so far with students turning on their video camera? Please share!

* A few had legitimate problems with their laptop cameras.


  • Access to bandwidth is an issue for some students

    We keep our mics off until speaking to help with this.

    But video can take a lot of the bandwidth. Have to be flexible to help folks be able to participate as they are able

  • Many of my students have gone home to less robust internet connections. Leaving the camera off means they can participate in class as they aren’t trying to stream video both ways without the bandwidth to support it.

  • Norman, this is certainly a very interesting and timely post – for the record my students haven’t voluntarily turned on their cameras and I haven’t asked them to. While I agree with the points you make above, I think another highly likely (but unspoken) reason is that they are “multi-tasking” – reading their phones, visiting websites etc. I remember in a working situation (not college) a former CEO of a major company would make us turn on cameras in a telepresence room so that he could see we were all paying attention to the meeting and not doing other stuff!

      • Hello,

        I’ve been looking into zoom fatigue. I want to try a round of check ins with video on. Then, encourage them to turn video off. I’ll be presenting a slideshow anyway… if they decide to multitask is that troubling, yes… but I’m putting the accountability on them. Plus, I will require verbal responses or via the chat for participation. What do you think? I’m all for recreating class time, but its really not the same!! (Privacy, tiredness of sitting in one spot, looking at everyone, self consciousness).

        • Really nice idea, Noellie! I like this idea of breaks in terms of turning off the webcam. One practice I like is to ask them to turn it on specifically for breakout groups. That seems to work well!

  • Very helpful to know! I think that many students are just not used to having the video on and the more the use it the more they will get accustomed to it. Keep us in the loop! Thanks

  • I appreciated reading about this possibility. Tomorrow is our first class using zoom, and I know we will have issues. I was also comforted by the replies that reported other problems as well. Good luck to everyone as we move ahead doing the best we can.

  • Norman, Very good information. I noticed this during my class last Thursday. I found it a little odd because I have been using Zoom for the first 8 weeks of the 16 week semester. The bandwidth comments are very valid. Many of my students are from rural areas and they depend on college resources and don’t have hardware or high speed internet at home. I also noted that most of the students who did not use their cameras were from my other college campus. I do zoom broadcasts from the main campus to two other campuses and observe that students at the receiving end are usually quieter and this is true regardless of the campus I teach from. I’ll try your recommended comment and see if the camera use/non-use ratio improves.

  • Yeah, I have a hard time if I can’t see students like faces and I find that being honest about that gets most of them to turn on their cameras. .

    • Hey Tim, I definitely felt like honesty is important. I asked students what they liked about our f2f classes and when they said the back-and-forth discussions, I suggested that one way is to see each other via videos. That helped.

  • Norman, I also agree with how a colleague of mine shared her approach to teaching online by changing how ‘we’ describe it. Rather than online learning or online teaching, we are working to socialize terms like Remote classroom and Virtual instructor led lecture discussions.
    This helps normalize our efforts to make our classes seem more like a class conversation. I understand the students’ reluctance to share their video, so while I don’t require it (yet), I do strongly encourage it for all the reasons you and others have shared.

  • Despite the many extremely valid points made in the article & comments above⬆️- it really boils down to:cultivating an authentic and accepting learning platform- When the tone is set from day 1 that we are all individuals with different experiences/ life circumstances and that through embracing those differences we can bring something valuable to the table and enrich the learning environment – we can then transition into a type of pedagogy that is facilitated by the instructor yet dependent on students participation / collaboration and project engagement/ thus showing one’s face becomes a crucial integral part of those aspects of learning and somewhat of an unspoken requirement. – Especially if we are to prepare our students for a globalized workforce where virtual meetings/ conference calls / virtual trainings are to be expected of every day work productivity-
    Of course the reality of various Internet connectivity issues are to be acknowledged and helped if possible – but for the most part once the instructor puts themselves out there and show their face while instilling a sense of humility and decency for all, students should also be required to show their face-

  • Hi Norman,
    I just watched your video on Blackboard Colaborate Ultra, taped on my birthday. Ironically my wife got me your book for my birthday too!
    I did my first video on Thursday with my college class and did OK. But, now I feel like I can do so much much more after watching your video. Thank you so much for doing these. Before I did my video I was wondering if I should have my students have their video on. You helped me with that question this morning. It seems my questions are your questions too.
    My college students don’t like moving to an on-line platform for class, but we’ll do the best we can.
    Thanks again for helping me! Stay safe!
    Gary Schubert

    Delaware Water Gap, PA

    • We definitely lose something when we move online, but I hope we–both instructors and students–will find a way to continue deepening that bond! Keep us posted and happy birthday.

  • Other factors may be that not everyone has a webcam. I don’t, and I’m the professor. I personally find it distracting to watch myself on video; I have some appearance anxiety issues and am not comfortable being photographed or recorded. In a f2f room, I know everyone is looking at me, but I don’t have to look at myself. Maybe some students feel the same way? Since we are all holding classes online mid-semester, everyone knows what everyone looks like already; for me it’s not an issue whether I see them or not. Through keeping my eye on the participant list and chat, we are doing okay on mostly audio only. If students want to have their videos on, great (unless bandwidth is an issue), but if not, forcing them to do so seems to go against what you otherwise endorse as good teaching.

  • I enjoyed this. I’m much less comfortable being on video as a passive listener than when presenting. I would definitely have been a student with video off. There are also things people like to do while listening (doodle, knit, etc.) that might be considered rude or distracting with everyone on video. I love that when you asked students to turn on video for next class and why, many of them did. I’ve had the same experience where re-sharing an expectation really helps. Thanks!

  • I just finished my MSN through a distance learning program. We were told the expectation was to have our cameras on and that we had to be dressed as if we were going to a classroom for a class. As someone mentioned above, if they are not on camera they can be doing other things including not even being there if they are not required to verbally participate. Granted, I knew my program was a distance learning program and I was prepared for that but with this new situation, I think they should be required to be on camera unless there is a particular situation such as low bandwidth. I would take that on a case by case basis. During one of the lectures in my program, the professor was in an area that was getting ready for a hurricane to hit and she wasn’t able to be seen because she had no electricity. She was using her cell phone for the meeting so we were all able to hear her but not see her. It worked out.

  • I was struggling with this issue for the past few weeks. It’s harder in my case because the module I’m teaching involves a group of facilitators with varying expectations on whether students should turn on their video. What shocked me most was last week—when I had the class break out into groups. There was one group that was not seeing each other nor talking to each other: they were relying on chat/text entirely!

  • The big question for me, is why do you need to see them to lecture? I’ve been working with remote conferencing for over 25 years, and have never even owned a webcam, let alone been on a video conference. And while others on calls have used webcams, in every case, I have always closed, minimized or otherwise removed the video from showing. It’s distracting, annoying, and a waste of space on my monitor. I have no need or desire to see a video of them at any point during a meeting, lecture or presentation.

  • There is a teacher in our district that requires kids to turn on their webcam during zoom sessions. I would think this would be against FERPA. Can they legally make their students turn on their webcams?

  • I am looking into this topic because I am an education specialist as well as a parent of 2 teens with IEPs. As a teacher I know the frustration of not being able to see my students and how that hinders communication and knowing what the students are doing. As a parent, I know my kids. My son has autism and flat out refuses to turn on his camera. My daughter is very shy, never raises her hand in class and was refusing to even attend her classes until I told her she didn’t need to turn on her camera or microphone. I told her to think of it as a youtube video and she was able to cope. We need to remember that students are all different and treat them as such.

  • Today is the first day of school. And my Art teacher keeps asking the class to open there camera for attendance, so every time he asks that I feel more scared, and I dont know why. I’m a little insecure and I would only turn on my camera if it was only my friends in the zoom meeting. In real school, If I can choose not to show my face, I would choose that . But because in zoom you have that option, I just turn off my camera in every meeting. I hope you teachers understand me, and consider not asking us shy students to turn on our camera.

    • Thanks for giving us a peek into your mindset. I do agree that this should Not be mandatory, something I state clearly here. Hope this post helps profs work through the reasons.

  • I agree that it should not be mandatory to show faces because I am a type of person that just likes to lay down and do my work, so even if I had my camera you would not be able to see me. I also don’t want to get up and feel confident and get all ready just to show my face on an online class. I still do my work even though my camera is off, frankly I work better because I don’t have to be focusing on what I look like or what facial expression I’m using.

  • As a researcher who studies behavior and the brain, I have found the evidence suggests that online instruction can pose a range of challenges for students if they are required to keep their cameras on during class. Here are five reasons why I believe students should be allowed to keep their cameras off instead. Online, students are often expected by their teachers to look at the screen for the entire class and stay focused on the video feeds of their classmates. This can result in feelings of prolonged eye contact, which can feel threatening and uncomfortable. Feeling as though everyone is watching can be distracting as students focus on how they may appear to others.

  • I feel uncomfortable turning on my camera because of the way that people may be staring at me. It is mandatory in my zoom classroom and I feel that it tells me that I don’t have the right to privacy in my own home. We don’t have a uniform at my school, but they started making me wear one in my own home. I have to wear a black collared shirt and dress pants. My own personal views: I don’t believe that I should have to turn on my camera especially if they expect me to wear a uniform even though we never had to wear one when we went to school. I respect everybody else’s views on this matter, these are just my personal views. I don’t mean to start an argument with anybody, I’m just hoping that they will fix this problem.

  • There is a state requirement where I live to keep the camera on if possible. Occasionally, someone will have bad internet and not be able, but usually people can keep their camera on. Students only unmute when they have something to say, and it works pretty well for my classes. Of course, every person is different, and every area has different approaches, but having the camera on shows that you are engaged and helps build a school environment.

  • You absolutely have a right to not activate a camera, which is pointed directly at you and in your home.
    Your home is your private space and is also the private space of others that share that space in that household. When you turn your camera on, you are sharing your personal space with all the other individuals on the platform as well as any other individual that can also peer through the camera from all of the other households. This is a completely different situation than a closed classroom or a closed work environment. There are many reasons why a person does not want to share their private space with people they would never invite in their home. In fact, those reasons are also private. Your home is where you can be yourself. But to state a few, for many people, being watched through a camera on a laptop gives the impression that you are 12 inches away from other persons, which can be unsettling as you would never be standing this physically close in a school or work setting. I also know some people who connect their laptop to a huge tv screen. Your face is now blown up to a 52 inch tv in a stranger’s home. There are some people that have had unfortunate experiences with cameras of a very serious nature (voyeurism, harassment, bullying, etc.). There are others that are trying to respect the privacy of others in their household. An individual can be camera shy to the point that this causes serious anxiety and effects a person’s mental health. In any event, if a student feels remotely uncomfortable sharing part of their personal life, it is never conducive to learning anyway. Moreover, you should never have to provide any of the above reasons or have to seek permission to protect your privacy in your own home. This is ridiculous.

    No private or public institution should be permitted to make this mandatory. I am extremely disappointed to see that there are educational institutions that make this mandatory for students. It is most unfortunate. It should be their choice. The camera on is simply the teacher’s or professor’s preference and should never trump an individual’s right to privacy in their home or wherever their private space is. Students do not have a choice to attend classes virtually and it is not their fault we are going through a pandemic. Forcing this requirement also reinforces the power balance between a teacher and a student. Trying to encourage them to do so when they are not comfortable doing so is disrespectful. The pandemic is not a reason to impose a person’s own preference to see a person’s face with no regard to whether this makes a person uncomfortable and requires that person to invite you into their home virtually.

    I finished my education many years ago and cannot imagine anyone forcing me to turn on a camera in this way. In fact, I was very satisfied with our workplace directive published in November 2020 that makes it clear that the choice to turn on the camera when meeting remotely belongs to the employee:
    We thank those DOJ members who brought up the issue of feeling unduly pressured into using video settings during business video calls. The AJC raised the concern with management and is pleased to report that DOJ management sent messages to all its employees to reiterate the importance of respecting individual choices. Please know that when holding business meetings online, the choice of whether or not to use video is yours! https://www.ajc-ajj.ca/en/a

    This respects a person’s privacy and those living in that household (close proximity, private conversations) and for many people, will also keep their mental health in check. Marie.

  • All valid points. That being said, there is an overwhelming pressure from the Blackboard community and posts such as these to conform to a form of online education that attempts to mimic in-person learning. Instead of encouraging camera use in a attempt to approximate traditional learning, I have focused on adapting my teaching skills to the mode of communication I am now using. I have paid extra attention to my voice, in the choice of microphone I use, and in modulation and tonality. I have also attended to and modified the lesson narratives in order to make them more interesting and engaging. This approach has also freed us from the social awkwardness (some grounded in economic concerns) that can come with having everyone turn their cameras on. This approach has not hurt engagement in my classes. In fact, the opposite is true. It has allowed students to speak up without the anxiety that can come with being the focus of attention on everyone’s screens. I have also received feedback of students gathering their friends (outdoors and socially distant) to listen to the lessons and of roommates sitting in to listen to what I have to teach that day.
    By no means am I implying that you or others suggest there is only one way of doing things, but the “cameras on” approach seems to be the overwhelmingly dominant way of thinking. It can be a bit overwhelming when we receive posts like these from the administration. I very much appreciate the effort to aid in our online teaching, but felt the need to present this alternative and effective method.

  • I get the fact that it is hard to see faces, but one thing I as a student hate to hear on zoom is the teachers complaining how terrible it is to see blank screens and not faces. My favorite teachers are the ones who don’t really care, who are fine with our cameras off. Sometimes, we genuinely feel bad for the teachers not seeing our faces, that’s why I turn my camera on at times. But I am very insecure and self-conscious, I’m still recovering from my body dysmorphia. So I believe teachers need to understand that we as teens and as children aren’t confident, we feel ugly, and we don’t want to be the only face in a crowd of blank screens, which is often the case for me, because then we are the center of attention. And teachers complaining about not seeing faces every day is basically asking students for pity when the students’ circumstances are unknown to you. I know it’s hard for teachers, but it’s hard for us too. I have tried my absolute hardest to put myself in your shoes, and I realize the lack of social interaction today is extremely strange, foreign, and difficult. Especially for teachers. But I also ask you to try to put yourself in the shoes of a 14-year old, a 17-year old, or a 5-year old, who is just as lost and confused, if not more so, than you are.

  • I’m glad you feel this way about the cameras. During the pandemic, engagement and attendance was low and if I had a student log on even if it was a blank screen I was happy they were taking the time. Why would I sour the moment to nag about the camera?

  • i agree we shd not force them to turn on their cameras.

    Putting up a profile pic of their face/honestly any unique picture they like is a great idea that ive implemented too!

    Wanted to comment that i feel “discussions” over the microphone are almost impossible over zoom because u never know whrn someone is gonna speak and you dont dare to talk unless u know its 100% your turn. Thats why i never ask students to do so except when directly calling on them to answer qns. Any advice/thoughts on this fact?

  • I teach in a small Islamic School, so camera on was a big question for us.
    Our administration decided to make three rules:
    1. Students must dress professionally, no sweatshirts with hoods, no pjs.
    2. Students must open their camera for at least the first 5 minutes of class so that we can confirm attendance.
    3. If students are closing the camera, the avatars must be a “head shot” image of themself.

    It was a pleasant surprise to experience very little push back against these three rules.
    In a schoolwide survey we found 90% compliance from our students!
    Interesting to note that of those who wear hijab and veil, only a very few close their camera after the 5 minutes. When asked, students said that at first thought the 3 rules were too much, then they discovered that they appreciated the more personal engagement compliance with the rules provides.
    For me, as a teacher, seeing the actual students is key for knowing how engaging the class is (or isnt. 😬)

    • Carol, this idea of requiring students to keep the camera on in the first 5 min, and to use an avatar are intriguing! Something I will consider. Thanks for sharing.

  • My classes are mostly of grad students in their 20s and 30swho zoom in from home. Sometimes, their young children wander through in the background or even come up to the camera because they’re curious what mom or dad is doing. If the students seem embarrassed by this, I make sure to show by my friendly comments, and even saying hi to the child, that I don’t mind. This has encouraged my students to leave their cameras on.

    • That’s great, Philip! Once during an online session my toddler “escaped” her room, found me, so I introduced her to my students. They got a laugh out of it. For me, it was a community building moment!

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