A thoughtful and equitable approach to webcam use allows students and faculty alike to benefit from the sense of presence that webcams can provide during remote instruction while preserving student privacy.
With the return to remote learning at many colleges and universities during the January 2022 surge in COVID-19 cases, many educators have begun to wonder just how much of education in the future will take place remotely. As instructors continue to look for ways to help students accomplish their learning goals in the two-dimensional landscape of Zoom rooms and learning management systems (LMSs), it seems clear that approaches used for face-to-face teaching don't always work the same online. This understanding has led to an ongoing search for new and better ways to teach, maximizing the affordances of the technology that we and our students suddenly find ourselves immersed in while simultaneously focusing our attention on the ways this technology-mediated form of teaching interacts with learning and with equity and inclusivity.
One of the basics of face-to-face teaching is the ability of instructors and students to be co-present, to come together in the same classroom or lecture hall and engage in the activities of teaching and learning. With this comes the ability to see one another, to interact, to speak and work together, to read facial expressions and gestures—behaviors that, even in a large lecture hall, play a significant role in the process of learning. Conversations students have with one another in the moments before class starts, a passing chat with the instructor as they walk into the room, a student's ability to engage with peers in learning activities—all are consequential for the activities of teaching and learning. In the last academic term, many students were able to return to that mode of learning; however, in the wake of a new variant of the coronavirus, many educators find themselves once again faced with moving back to a remote teaching environment that fundamentally changes the social context in which teaching and learning occur.
One of the tools we use to mediate our interactions in a remote environment is, of course, the webcam. On my campus, one of the questions often heard is, "Should we require our students to use a camera?" I propose that the answer to this question is, simply, no, with the key word in the question being "require."
Promoting Equity and Inclusion in Remote Teaching
Torrey Trust, an associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has identified three critical concerns that need to be addressed in the shift to remote teaching: student privacy, issues of accessibility introduced by technology, and inequitable access to technology.Footnote1 How these factors play out regarding webcams seems clear: students might not have a camera on their devices, or they might not have reliable internet access. Some students might be able to access classes only through their phones and might have limited data plans. Such obstacles to learning highlight existing inequities in education and may deepen them if students are required to use cameras to demonstrate attendance, earn participation points, or complete assessments such as exams or presentations.
Beyond access, another concern is student privacy. For many, the shift to remote learning has set off a search for a quiet and distraction-free location to work and/or study at home. Such a space may not be available to all students—many students share their living spaces with other family members or with roommates or friends, all of whom have space needs. In other cases, students may need to set up their computers in living areas that they would prefer not to show on camera, and not all devices can display a virtual background. Further, Rebecca Barrett-Fox, an assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University, notes in her blog Any Good Thing that students may have any number of compelling and concerning reasons to want to keep their cameras off, which can include circumstances related to documentation status, disclosure of disability, and even abuse.Footnote2 Barrett-Fox advocates for a change in the way we think about remote teaching that takes more of these issues into consideration.
Clearly, requiring camera use can be problematic, but other approaches can take equity into account while still obtaining the benefits of being visually present in live class sessions. One such approach is to invite students to use their cameras, making it very clear that if they don't use their camera, the instructor will know that it is for a good reason. If students choose to share their reasons for turning off their cameras, the instructor can have an "open door" approach that allows students to share this information without requiring that they do so. Such an approach, in which students are encouraged but not required to use cameras, can promote learning while giving students the option to decide for themselves how much they are comfortable disclosing.
A number of reasons illustrate why being visible is important in remote teaching and learning, all with the caveat that issues of equity and privacy must be attended to. These benefits are discussed below, followed by some recommendations for how to balance the need for equity with the need for visibility. This article discusses webcam use from the perspective of sighted users. However, a variety of resources specifically geared to remote instruction are also available for supporting students who are blind or have low vision.Footnote3 Campus disability centers are another important resource for supporting such students during remote instruction. The use of teaching practices that meet the needs of the full diversity of students is fundamental to an equitable approach to remote instruction. This topic is certainly worthy of comprehensive treatment on its own, in ways that are beyond the scope of the present article.
Enhancing Remote Communication
One reason to remain visible in live remote learning and teaching, when possible, arises from the fact that much of our communication is accomplished through visual means, such as gestures and facial expression. As we know, nonverbal signals are significant carriers of information in human interaction, a fact that has been widely established in the field of nonverbal communication.Footnote4
Particularly relevant to the current discussion is the research of the late linguistic anthropologist Charles Goodwin, which established the importance of mutually seeing one another to the accomplishment of action in everyday human affairs:
A primordial site for the analysis of human language, cognition, and action consists of a situation in which multiple participants are attempting to carry out courses of action together while attending to each other … [t]he visible bodies of participants provide systematic, changing displays about relevant action and orientation. Seeable structure in the environment can not only constitute a locus for shared visual attention, but can also contribute crucial semiotic resources for the organization of current action. [italics added].Footnote5
In other words, when possible, seeing those with whom one is engaged in a particular action is crucial for accomplishing that action. One can readily see how this applies to the activities of teaching and learning—a place where multiple participants (students and instructors) carry out courses of action (learning and teaching) together while attending to each other (conversing, asking and answering questions, and listening). The value of having a visual connection to others in such cases is to provide access to the signs and symbols that allow students and instructors to go about the business of teaching and learning. In short, being able to see those with whom we interact is an important condition, not only for working together but for human social interaction, writ large.
Building Trust in a Remote Environment
Seeing those with whom we interact is also an essential part of building trust. Nathan Bos, Darren Gergle, Judith S. Olson, and Gary M. Olson studied the development of trust, in the form of cooperative behavior, among participants in four conditions: face-to-face, video, audio, and text chat.Footnote6 Using a "social dilemma task," they studied the degree to which trust developed and found that face- to-face groups reached optimal levels of trust early in the task and maintained that level of trust throughout. Individuals in the video condition also developed trust, though it took longer to achieve. The audio-only group showed less trust and less consistent levels of trust, and the text-chat group did not achieve the same levels of trust that the face-to-face, video-only, or audio-only groups did.
Trust is an important component of classroom climate. When students trust their instructor and one another, they are more likely to take the kinds of risks that are an integral part of learning: asking and answering questions, participating in discussions, and interacting fully with other class members to participate in discussions, learning activities, projects, and study groups. When students can see one another, there is a greater opportunity for trust to develop, and trust enhances the learning experience. It is not surprising that meaning-making and trust-building are reasons why we might want to see one another in the remote environment. The abilities to see one another, trust one another, and make meaning together are vital parts of community building.
Building Active Learning into Remote Classes
Enhancing communication and building trust are also important for active learning. Multiple studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of active learning, which situates the student not as a passive recipient of information but as someone who participates actively in the learning process. Scott Freeman and his colleagues, in their 2014 meta-analysis of 225 studies of active learning in STEM, found that involving students in active learning resulted in increased exam scores and a decreased likelihood of failing. For the purposes of their study, Freeman and colleagues defined active learning as learning that "engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert" in a way that "emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work."Footnote7 Although it is possible to engage in discussions without seeing others, seeing one's conversational partner provides meaningful cues that facilitate the interactions implicated in active learning. It seems fairly straightforward, then, to link the use of a camera with many of the benefits that come from active learning.
Considering Students' Views on Camera Use in Remote Learning
Where do students weigh in on the issue of camera use in their classes? Data obtained through a remote-learning survey administered by my university's teaching center showed that 53% of students who commented on cameras supported their use in remote learning. Some students who preferred the use of cameras cited greater participation as a reason for camera use. However, students who were not in favor of cameras (47% of students who mentioned cameras in these data) noted that not all students have access to webcams and quiet spaces in which to engage in remote classes.Footnote8 Such concerns underline the importance of keeping equity and inclusivity at the forefront when making decisions about camera use. Formulating a policy for camera use, therefore, requires careful consideration of the implications and possible unintended consequences of the policy.
Recommendations for Camera Use in Live Remote Courses
Given the need to balance equity concerns with effective teaching practices, the following suggestions might be helpful in articulating an approach to using cameras in live remote teaching sessions. This list is not exhaustive; these suggestions are offered as a starting point from which to begin thinking about this issue.
- Explain your policy on cameras in your syllabus. Regardless of the policy, transparency will help students understand your expectations for camera use. If you adopt an approach that encourages, rather than requires, camera use, you can explain the benefits of camera use in terms of positive effects on student learning. If you tell students you prefer that they use cameras, let them also know they are not required to give you a reason for not using their cameras. It may also be helpful to let students know that if they choose not to use their camera, you will not make assumptions as to why. This allows those students who want to use their cameras to do so while destigmatizing those who prefer not to appear on screen.
- Take steps to proactively build community in the class. Give students opportunities to share information with one another through icebreakers that can be done asynchronously in your LMS or synchronously in a live session breakout room. Implementing icebreakers that are purely social in nature and not related to course subject matter can pay dividends later by giving students opportunities to interact in ways that build trust. As the term progresses, you can make the icebreakers more content-related to reflect what students have learned.
- Remind students of camera alternatives. Let students know they can use a photo of themselves or an avatar if they prefer not to appear live on camera. It may be helpful to give guidelines for what you consider to be classroom-friendly images so that students have the freedom to choose their images, supported by a framework provided by the instructor.
- Be selective about in-class camera use. Students, as well as instructors, can experience camera fatigue when on screen for long periods. Alternatively, students might prefer not to be on screen when in front of large groups but feel fine being on camera in smaller breakout groups. Consider a flexible "on and off" policy that encourages camera use during periods of interaction but allows for a break during longer stretches of lecturing, for example.
- Let students know you have an open-door policy and are committed to helping them with any aspect of the class, including camera use. This can encourage students who feel uncomfortable using their cameras to bring up any concerns they have. This will help students feel comfortable and safe in your class throughout the term and can help you ensure your approach is sensitive to your students' needs.
- Gauge participation in ways that don't involve camera presence. If your concern is attendance or participation, have students respond to a prompt via Zoom chat at various points during the session. For example, you could ask students to brainstorm on a topic in chat just before you begin a particular portion of your lecture ("What are the purposes of higher education?" is one that I ask in a seminar on college teaching, for example, before beginning a class session on the topic). This can be done in the middle of a lecture as well, as you transition from one topic to another. Just let students know you are using the Zoom chat to gauge participation so they can understand your expectations.
Given what we know from research about interaction, active learning, equity, and inclusion, one possible philosophy is this: if we believe that some students are not using a camera because of privacy issues, because they lack a quiet space in which to learn, or because of inequitable circumstances, we can let our students know that we are available if they need help and that, although we can't solve all problems, we may be able to help students get the support and resources they need.
To support students, we need first to know they are there. When we are invisible to one another, we lose an important part of equitable learning and teaching and of ourselves—our ability to interact socially. For those students who study under challenging or inequitable circumstances, the stakes may be even greater.
It has become increasingly clear throughout this challenging time that being kind to ourselves and to our students is a vital part of educational and personal success. One student who responded to our center's survey left this message for faculty that perhaps says it best: "Overall, please know that we know you are doing your absolute best and are answering to a multitude of chiefs. So are we. Be patient with us, with yourselves, with the process. We will look back on this time in 5 years and not remember if we got through 9 units or 10, but instead remember how we treated each other, how we reached out to each other, and how we got through this together. Thank you for your efforts. We see you, we see all you are doing."Footnote9
Many thanks to Deborah Poole and Kem Saichaie for their comments on early drafts of this article.
- Torrey Trust, "The 3 Biggest Remote Teaching Concerns We Need to Solve Now," EdSurge, April 2, 2020. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Rebecca Barrett-Fox, "A Reminder of Who Is Hurt by Insisting That Students Share Images of Their Personal Lives," Any Good Thing (blog), April 6, 2020. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- See, for example, American Foundation for the Blind, "Remote Instruction and Services for Blind and Low-Vision Participants," n.d., accessed February 20, 2022; Colorado Department of Education, "Visual Impairment, Including Blindness COVID-19 Resources," n.d., accessed February 20, 2022; Illinois State Board of Education, "Remote Learning for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired" (April 2020); and "Virtual Learning Tips for Visually Impaired Learners," Perkins School for the Blind, August 24, 2020. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- Judith A. Hall and Mark L. Knapp (eds.), Nonverbal Communication (Berlin, Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2013). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
- Charles Goodwin, "Practices of Seeing: Visual Analysis—An Ethnomethodological Approach," in Handbook of Visual Analysis, eds. Theo van Leeuwen and Carey Jewitt (London, Sage Publications, 2000), 157–182. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
- Nathan Bos, Darren Gergle, Judith S. Olson, and Gary M. Olson, "Being There versus Seeing There: Trust via Video," proceedings from Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI EA 2001, Seattle, Washington, March 2001: 291– 292. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
- Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth, "Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 23 (June 10, 2014): 8,410–8,415. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
- Center for Educational Effectiveness, UC Davis, "Spring 2020 End of Quarter Remote Learning Survey: Campuswide Results," comments from students, 2020. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
- Marco Molinaro, Meryl Motika, Tiffany Hodgens, and Young-A Son, "Insights from Spring 2020 Remote Instruction: Results from Surveys on Remote Learning and Teaching," UC Davis Center for Educational Effectiveness, September 5, 2020. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
Patricia Turner is an Education Specialist at the University of California, Davis.
© 2022 The Regents of the University of California, Davis campus. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.