George Lucas Educational Foundation
Online Learning

The Value of a Camera-Optional Policy

Allowing students to choose whether to turn their camera on for online classes enables them to take ownership of their learning.

September 24, 2020
High school student doing homework at home on her laptop
Polina Panna / iStock

Should teachers require students to appear on camera during video calls? As schools begin the year with remote learning or hybrid approaches to school, video class is becoming the norm. As we adjust to this format, teachers need to develop expectations and guidelines for our students.

There are many arguments for establishing a camera-on policy: Some teachers argue that it’s difficult to assess students’ engagement levels without seeing their faces. It’s also just disheartening to teach a sea of black boxes or static profile pictures.

However, from a policy standpoint, many signs point to a camera-optional rule. There are concerns about equity and bias, internet bandwidth, and privacy that make a camera requirement problematic.

A Question of Framing

Framing the camera question as being about rules and policies can pull our focus away from a more important question. 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?”

Instead of mandating that students turn on their cameras, we should focus on creating a caring community where students can choose to turn their cameras on or off without shame or pressure.

Here are a few strategies for creating this environment in your classroom.

Let Go

The truth is, we cannot control what students do in their own homes—and control doesn’t lead to student engagement anyway. Attempting to limit students’ bathroom use or ban them from snacking is more likely to breed resentment than build relationships.

When we feel stressed, it’s normal to reach for control as a way to make things feel predictable. But when we let go of the need to control our students, we become better able to join together with our students in the very human experience of living through uncertainty.

Rethink What Participation Looks Like

What does engagement look like? One assumption behind camera-mandatory policies is that teachers can tell whether students are listening by looking at their faces, but this simply isn’t true. For some students, staring directly at the screen may indeed demonstrate that they are listening. But a student who is looking down or away, doodling or taking notes, may also be engaged.

Help students reflect on what works best for them. Encourage students to experiment with having their camera on or off, or taking notes on a Google doc versus on paper. This helps boost students’ self-knowledge as learners.

Check In With Students

In addition to checking in on our own expectations and emotions, we need to ask our students how they feel about being on camera.

College instructor Karen Ray Costa reminds teachers that students may feel anxious about appearing on camera or simply unsure what they should be doing while onscreen. She recommends normalizing those anxious feelings and hosting a Zoom practice session to help students get familiar with the tools and expectations for online class.

Consider surveying your students and/or their families and caregivers to assess comfort with cameras, concerns about bandwidth, and availability of quiet spaces in the house. We know we cannot mandate that students join online class from a quiet desk space, because many of them don’t have that type of space. Instead, we can try to better understand the types of spaces our students will be learning in and then plan accordingly.

For example, if I realize that many of my students will be joining class from the same room as siblings and it might get loud, I might build in more quiet, chat-based activities so that students don’t have to mute and unmute as much. If I learn that many of my students are anxious about bullying or being judged by peers, I can address that by intentionally building community, being mindful that it takes time to cultivate trust.

Get Creative

Now that you have a sense of what your students need, it’s time to get creative. By thinking flexibly, we can find multiple ways to engage students—whether cameras are on or off.

Use the chat feature to gather student questions or ask for quick responses. Use breakout rooms for small-group discussions, where students may feel more comfortable interacting on camera. Try technology tools like Padlet or Jamboard to work on collaborative writing, note taking, or mind maps.

You can also make a cameras-off environment more friendly to look at: Teach students how to add a profile picture so that students’ faces are still present even when the camera is off. You might encourage younger students to aim the camera at a favorite stuffed animal or toy when they need a break from having their face onscreen.

Also, don’t forget the power of one-to-one check-ins. Not every minute of a live class needs to have talking. Don’t be afraid to use part of your synchronous class for students to read or write with cameras off. You can use this time to conference one-on-one or in small groups in a breakout room, or use the private chat function with one student at a time.

Be Real

Finally, teachers can support students by being authentic and modeling that it’s OK to just be yourself on video. Don’t worry about sounding rehearsed or making your space look Instagram-perfect. Embrace the fun and silly moments when pets and family members make guest appearances.

Create an environment where students recognize that turning cameras on means laughter, making silly faces at friends, and being seen for who they are. When students feel safe and connected in our online classes, we move from compliance to community.

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