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Help!! I have creepy Zoom classes!!!

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

For most teachers globally, the sudden and urgent switch from the traditional face-to-face to the synchronous online class in response to the pandemic COVID-19 is a hurtful experience even though it has been more than a year now. In addition to the lack of preparation in terms of psychology and technology, teachers find it hard to deal with classroom management when teaching remotely. One of the questions that I am usually asked by teachers is how to make students turn on their cameras. Well... IT IS TRUE that it's no fun at all when talking with, let alone teaching, a sea of black and creepy screens with no familiar faces, monologing during the whole session, not knowing who they are talking to and what they are doing, or even if they are there to listen to them.



But why do teachers need students to turn on their cameras? Why don't students want to do so? And what should we (teachers, school officials) do about this?

1. Why should students have their cameras on?

According to the new Education Week Research Center survey, more than three quarters (3/4) of teachers and school leaders believed in the benefits of and confirmed the necessity of students having their camera on during live remote learning sessions. This is actually not only a request of any local groups of instructors, but becoming a global issue recently as well. But, according to experts, what are those benefits?

It helps teachers constantly notice what is going on and make necessary adjustments.

It has long been believed that nonverbal cues from students such as smiles, frowns, head nods, facial expressions, etc. can help the teacher evaluate their teaching and adjust accordingly to improve student learning (Miller, 1988; Mottet & Richmond, 2002; Meister, 2020), of course, making the lessons more effective. For example, if you notice looks of boredom on students' faces, it's better for you to have some games immediately or if your students show confusion, you know that you need to explain something again.

It improves teacher-student and student-student interactions.

Is it true that, if possible, you prefer talking with somebody in person instead of over the phone or chat messages? It's also true for online classes. The quality of class interactions between teacher and students and between students will be enhanced when one can see one another while interacting. The conversations are more engaging, and students can practice their speaking skills (such as delaying, hesitating, reading faces, guessing, etc.) more effectively.

“When there are cameras on, it gives me a boost of energy and a sense of normalcy. When it’s just a blank screen, it sometimes feels like no one’s listening,” said Kaitlyn McSweeney, an 8th grade English/language arts teacher at Anthony Wayne Middle School in Wayne, N.J. (Will, 2020).

It helps build a sense of belonging and community within the classroom.

In face-to-face classes, students belong to a group "living" and "playing" at the same close space and time. They play together, they talk together, they share together, and they know what the others are doing, which makes them part of a "family" and feel engaged and motivated to learn. In an online lesson, where everyone is at their own places, not seeing each other means they are totally apart. No one knows what the others are doing, even no one cares about others.

It helps students focus.

When it comes to someone is watching you, you have to behave well :). Turning the camera on helps students focus and pay attention to the lessons. Also, when appearing in front of the classmates, students will automatically set a learning mode for themselves: dressed neatly, room cleaned, staying focused, careful note-taking, etc.

To sum up, student turning on their cameras obviously enhances the lesson quality and effectiveness, maximizes class interactions, and improves student engagement and learning motivation.

2. Why don't students want their cameras on?

I was concerned about my appearance.

Surprisingly, that was the number one reason why students don't like to turn on their camera - 41% of students surveyed, to be exact, in the study by Castelli & Sarvary (2021). Students are worried about their messy hair, not-smart clothes, or sleepy eyes. This reason will be more true with teenagers and university students who are very aware of their appearances.

I was concerned about other people seeing what behind me.

This reason is also from the above study. The students are not confident to show their surroundings to others - maybe the room isn't tidy, or they have strangely-decorated wall backgrounds, or they live in poor-condition places. This is also a privacy-related reason. Some students don't like their personal ways of living or lifestyles to be exposed during live lessons. That can cause privacy-violation and discrimination or even danger to themselves and their family.

I don't want to be watched.

Some students don't want to be observed by the teachers or other friends as they can't do what they want during the lessons. If they want to take a toilet break, they don't need to let others know if they turn off their cameras.

No rules enforce me to turn on my camera.

It's true, and no educators, researchers, or policymakers dare to force students to turn on their cameras during online lessons.

Briefly, students don't turn on their cameras because they don't want their personal lifestyles to be harmed or invaded.

3. What should we do?

TWO THINGS should be done to promote students turning on their cameras.

For PARENTS/ STUDENTS: Preparing (for them) before they turn on their cameras during virtual classes.

  • Provide adequate equipment: webcam, or laptop/ tablet with a camera.

  • Prepare a clean, clear and neat learning space which they can happily and proudly show to their teachers and classmates.

  • Assist them and monitor their online sessions. Assure that they well prepare before joining the class both mentality and appearance.

  • Make them understand the importance of being "physically" present and getting connected with teacher and friends during online sessions.

For TEACHERS: Encourage the use of cameras during their online classes.

  • Establish a norm on having camera on during class. Let them know the advantages of "seeing" each other when learning together. No norm - nobody will do it.

  • Survey your students to see how affordable and comfortable they are to have their camera on and accommodate accordingly. It's best to let them know that turning on camera is for building a positive community, not for surveillance (Terada, 2021).

  • Instruct and remind them to use virtual background or blur background if they are not comfortable to share their surroundings.


  • It's not necessary to have camera on for the whole session. There should be "rules" when to have it on (for example when discussing), when off and what alternatives should be used when the camera is off (such as chatbox, Padlet, Google Forms, etc.).

  • Prepare some activities with cameras like having them find something and show it to the class or guessing games using actions.

4. Conclusions

Despite the cons, it's true that most teachers require students to have their cameras on during virtual classes as it is an effective tool for them to manage their lessons. It allows them to easily check students' levels of understanding and engagement and adjust accordingly. It is the responsibility of both teachers and students/ parents to effectively promote camera-on during synchronous lessons if they want to improve student learning outcomes.

*****

References

Castelli, F. R. & Sarvary, M. A. (2021). Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecology and Evolution. 11. 3565-3576. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ece3.7123

Meister, C. (2020). Pros and cons of keeping your camera on during distance learning. [online]. Baronnews.com. [Viewed May 13, 2021]. Available at: https://www.baronnews.com/2020/09/25/pros-and-cons-of-keeping-your-camera-on-during-distance-learning/

Miller, P. W. (1988). Nonverbal communication. Third Edition. What research says to the teacher. Washington, D.C: National Education Association Professional Library.

Mottet, T. P. & Richmond, V. P. (2002). Student nonverbal communication and its influence on teachers and teaching. In J. L. Chesebro & J. C. McCroskey (Eds.), Communication for Teachers. (47– 61). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Terada, Y. (2021). The camera-on/camera-off dilemma. [online]. Edutopia. [Viewed 14 May, 2021]. Available at: https://www.edutopia.org/article/camera-oncamera-dilemma

Will, M. (2020). Most educators require kids to turn cameras on in virtual class, despite equity concerns. [online]. Education Week. [Viewed May 12, 2021]. Available at: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/most-educators-require-kids-to-turn-cameras-on-in-virtual-class-despite-equity-concerns/2020/10

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