Pro-Con: Should Students Turn Their Cameras On In Class?
February 4, 2021
A message from the authors:
The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, and you never know what someone’s dealing with behind the screen. We can all stand to be a little more compassionate and understanding toward others, and even a little kinder to ourselves too. If you’re struggling with your mental health, there’s always someone who cares about you and wants to help—whether it’s a family member, close friend, classmate, teacher, or counselor. If you don’t feel like there’s anyone you can reach out to, the Colorado Springs Crisis Services hotline is 844-493-8255, or you can text “TALK” to 38255. It’s never too late to get help.
We Have To Start Turning Our Cameras On
With the anniversary of our online school endeavor rapidly approaching this Spring semester, students and teachers alike adapted to the “new normal” of learning in a pandemic. Doherty High School adopted an asynchronous hybrid model where—COVID conditions allowing—students attend in-person classes on a block schedule two days a week and join classes remotely the other two days. Alternatively, students may opt to attend all classes virtually from home. Although we’ve grown accustomed to spending at least half the week taking classes remotely, the new environment we learn in has posed its own challenges.
Dispute between efforts to replicate normalcy and preserving mental-emotional wellness while social distancing culminates in one button: the camera icon at the top of your class call. While both are crucial for maintaining good mental health, we all have to be willing to compromise and be receptive to the needs of others to make online school as cohesive as possible— even if it means making ourselves vulnerable.
I’ll be the first to admit that WebEx classes are much more comfortable when I’m splayed out on the couch in sweats, shoveling Lucky Charms into my mouth. But I also know that wouldn’t be fair to myself, my teachers, or other kids in my classes who show up every day and put themselves out there by turning their cameras on.
This past year has been rough on all of us in one way or another, and feeling unmotivated is something we can all relate to. Ms. Classen, AP Seminar, AP Research, and Capstone teacher at Doherty, reflected on her struggles with online classes: “I recognize that feeling of ‘Oh my god, I hate teaching this year. I hate teaching online.’ And I stepped back and had to start questioning myself, [asking,] ‘Why is that? I love teaching.’”
Classen notes the stark difference between a regular classroom atmosphere and that of an online call, saying, “There’s this thing that happens in the classroom when you’re a teacher, there’s this buzz, and it’s almost palpable. You can feel it. It’s energy…And what I identified as really missing this year was that energy. [Online,] I showed up every day and I felt like I was a little monkey doing this dance trying to get a reaction, and I got no reaction whatsoever.”
Many classmates have identified feeling that shift as well. Junior student at Doherty High School, Angelina Hanon, noted that being seen on a screen is harder than showing up in-person, saying, “I have a cat who tends to cause a lot of trouble, so I don’t want to distract others when I get up to stop him. And the lighting in my room isn’t the best, so I don’t feel confident having [my camera on]. I don’t want it to affect my work.”
That face-to-face connection is one of the biggest aspects of school that we’ve lost.
Kinesics and communication expert, Ray Birdwhistell, estimates that 60-70% of communication is reliant on nonverbal cues like body language, facial expressions, eye contact, and hand gestures. Feeling connected to others plays a crucial role in staying engaged in classes as students, as well as gauging understanding for teachers.
Srta. Hogue, a Spanish teacher at Doherty High School, noted, “Part of being a teacher is [wanting] to get to know your students and building relationships with them because it helps the learning. But all those same issues go into learning too; if I’m going too fast or people are getting lost and I don’t know [because] I don’t hear from students. Right now, a lot of the time I’m in the dark about how students are actually doing, and I don’t have that real-time [interaction] of students in front of me to see where they are in an activity.”
Ms. Montague, an AP Language teacher at Doherty High School, shared that sentiment, saying, “This is just my own personal experience, but I know a lot of teachers agree with me, that they wish cameras were on just so we can read your eyes and faces…Even if I only have 5 or 6 of you, it still helps me get a feel for how you guys at home are doing. It’s just the personal touch that you need in teaching.”
Turning on our cameras makes classes more comfortable for our classmates and teachers, which ultimately makes online lectures flow better and much easier to pay attention to. A research study on teachers’ use of non-verbal communication and cues found that certain behaviors like frequent eye-contact, being expressive, and being animated with hand gestures were proven effective at maintaining student involvement. We all have the same goal in mind: to get through classes as efficiently and painlessly as possible.
That said, no matter how much normalcy we do maintain, there are days where online school is just mentally draining. Deemed “Zoom fatigue,” (or in our case, WebEx fatigue) people across the nation report feelings of exhaustion after a few hours of sitting through conference calls. Paired with the widespread mental health epidemic, sometimes the last thing we feel like is being present and presentable for class.
“I’ve done a lot of research this year on reasons why our students are disengaging from their learning. We’re seeing much higher failure rates not only at our school but across the board. Across the country, failure rates are higher than they’ve ever been and suicide rates for students are increasing significantly. There are quite a few variables, but the big ones that stand out to me are the impacts of that social isolation. For those people who are very much like me—who feed off that energy transfer [of being in the classroom]— that’s very soul-crushing. It really impacts your emotional state,” said Ms. Classen.
No matter the circumstances, maintaining good mental health and advocating for ourselves is something we have to prioritize. There are going to be days where you don’t have it in you to get ready and turn on your camera, and that’s totally okay. We’ve all been there, and I strongly encourage you to take that liberty if you need to. At the end of the day, your well-being is the most important thing to teachers.
“When you see a whole row and nobody has their camera on—and I tell them every day that I really want to see their faces— and I have to take a step back and not allow myself to feel disrespected…This whole thing is hard for everyone. A lot of the time it’s easy to see things from our perspective and we don’t take a lot of time to step back and see wonder what someone else is struggling with. I think we need to talk about it. I think it needs to be a common point of discussion,” Classen agreed.
Srta. Hogue explained why she asks students to turn cameras on, and how she navigates those difficult days: “I made the decision just a couple weeks into school that I was going to ask students to have videos on. I can’t require it, obviously, but [it was] in the spirit of making classes feel a little more like a normal classroom. And students can send me a chat message if they’re having tech issues or if they’re having a bad day—I get students who tell me that sometimes. And I’m always okay with that, I’m not going to force that.”
Montague shared a similar outlook, saying, “If students’ cameras are on, I can definitely tell the mood. And then I can text [students] to check in with them when it looks like they’re sick, or bored, or tired, or anxious. It’s very important for gauging the social and emotional wellbeing of students”
The key is communication; teachers can’t know what circumstances you’re in or how you’re doing if you don’t let them know. How much you’re comfortable with disclosing is up to you, but the general consensus is that they need to know why your camera isn’t on to be receptive to your situation.
Mutual understanding from teachers then allows for those days where you need a break. Angelina described her ideal camera-policy, saying “I like the way most teachers are going about it, [with] encouragement to turn it on and acceptance that some don’t always feel comfortable with that.”
It’s a balance. If we try our best to show up when we feel up to it, we act as a buffer for those who are having a rough time. Conversely, when we aren’t feeling so good, others have their camera on and cover for us. Either way, teachers have students to interact with and teach to, which makes classes better for everyone. But it has to be a collective effort to work. It’s the narrative we’ve all grown accustomed to in a regular year at Doherty High School: “We Before Me.”
Requiring Cameras to be on Isn’t Such a Good Thing
While there are certainly a number of reasons to have everyone leave their cameras on, there’s also quite a few to let students turn them off.
The biggest reason of all for this: anxiety. Quite a few members of the Doherty student body are no stranger to anxiety, and often struggle with it daily. This isn’t so much of an issue in person – in fact, for these students, being in-person is a huge benefit. They have the support and engagement of their peers directly, whereas when in front of a camera, it starts to feel as though we’re putting on a sort of performance. As Psychology Today puts it, being in front of a camera can pressure students to be “witty, or entertaining, or compassionate,” whereas being in-person allows us to be more relaxed around our peers when we’re working.
However, it’s not just the anxiety – though that does play a major role. I asked Sylvia Gonzalez, a Doherty Junior who has struggled with needing a camera on for a lot more than just her daily anxiety, how she felt about whether or not requiring cameras is a good thing, and she had a lot to say.
She explained that having cameras on can be very hard for her. For starters, having a camera on can be invading for anyone, but especially for people with social and other anxieties. You’re showing your room, which can be messy, to your classmates, and that can start to feel invasive when, for some people, their bedroom is their safe space. That and it can eat at you sometimes when you don’t know who’s looking at you. It can feel like there’s always eyes on you because, unlike real life, you can never tell where someone’s eyes are.
Sylvia brought up some other valid points, too, that I hadn’t realized about the camera issue. Her room is in their house’s basement, and her mother works remotely for a call center upstairs, which causes issues when the lighting of her dark basement isn’t enough and she has to travel upstairs and risk not only a caller’s private information being leaked, but her own words to be heard by whoever’s at the other end of her mother’s phone call.
While this can seem like a single-case scenario, it applies to a lot of things. Some people have crowded homes full of many students, all answering questions for their teachers and conversing with peers, and it can get really noisy and hard to hear who’s speaking when several different people are chattering at once. We’ve all had it happen at least once in a class. So, is it more valuable to have a camera on, or to have a quiet space of solitude for the sake of everyone’s ears?
Plus, some people have smaller internet bandwidths, or have poor signal strength in some areas of their home. Sylvia also has this issue. In her basement, having video on, as well as receiving it from everybody in a class that can have upwards of 20 people at once can be really taxing on her internet, and has caused her to lag out of more than a few classes.
Gonzalez and I discussed some more on the potential issues of having cameras on, and it starts to add up. Consider the idea of having siblings around, sometimes younger ones that have to be taken care of, as well as animals or other household things that are time-sensitive. It can reflect badly on the student when they’re trying their hardest to take care of their younger brother or sister and they have to be gone from their cameras several times during a class.
A lot of these matters are really private, as well as a student’s home life, and requiring cameras all the time can reveal things that a student would rather keep private, of any matter or degree. Sometimes we just don’t need the whole class knowing that our younger brother zooms around the house at a hundred miles an hour and hugs us every 5 seconds – plus, it can be distracting for everyone. Think about a time when you were having a mid-day snack or finishing your lunch and your teacher asked you what you were eating and drew the attention of everyone towards you, or maybe noticed that younger brother I mentioned earlier and it stopped the whole lesson.
In short, cameras can not only be invasive, but they can be troublesome, tricky, and sometimes risky.
Jacob Clark and Marynn Krull
There are incredibly valid reasons on both sides of the spectrum, whether it be requiring everyone to have their cameras on, or making it optional everywhere. But, as with most things, the solution lies somewhere in the middle. The best thing we can do, especially in times like these, is to understand each other. We as students and teachers should realize that some of us need to have our cameras off for entirely valid reasons, such as anxiety or a hectic home life with responsibilities. At the same time, it’s important to know that it’s a group effort from everyone. While there are some people that truly do need their cameras off, there are others that should keep them on so that the majority of virtual classrooms feel like the group is engaged and ready to learn.
In short, cameras should not be required of everyone, but we should all do our part to turn them on if we can and make online school just a little more bearable.
If you have any thoughts on why we should or shouldn’t turn on cameras, or have your own experiences to contribute, don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Stay safe and happy!