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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Require students to use the camera, and over time they will get used to it
- Professionalize the class experience
- 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:
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.