A Pandemic Instructional Challenge: Cameras and Little Black Squares

Allyson McGrane

Author

Allyson McGrane

Affiliation

Memorial University

Email

amcgrane@mun.ca

Abstract

Many post-secondary instructors who moved online due to the global pandemic were not experienced with teaching remotely and thus aimed to replicate their physical classroom despite it being completely different. Due to the speed required for the initial transition to remote learning due to COVID-19, many instructors initially chose to set up an online learning environment which closely reflected their typical in-person learning environments. But when they moved to remote online learning using blended synchronous classes, a common change from seeing and hearing one’s students in a classroom was instead having a screen filled with little black squares. For many reasons from concern about personal appearance to wanting to engage in an activity other than class to simple Zoom fatigue, students chose and are still choosing to avoid using their cameras while attending synchronous learning sessions. This challenge of determining whether students are participating and learning without visual cues has led to exploration of more flexible approaches which align with the principles of Universal Learning Design as well as those of diversity, equity and inclusion. These approaches include establishing new norms to encourage but not mandate camera use, offering audio and text-based alternative means to communicate, sharing through visual involvement such as collaborative whiteboards, bringing in real-time feedback using emoticons, facilitating small group learning in breakout rooms and opening up possibilities for individualized check-ins and workspaces. As a result, instructors may now wish to examine these alternative possibilities of how to engage post-secondary students who attend synchronous online classes rather than mandating the use of video cameras. By exploring new technologies and fully exploiting the existing features of video platforms, many teachers could learn that seeing their students is less necessary than they originally believed.

Keywords

camera use, Zoom, COVID-19, post-secondary synchronous learning,

Overview

Video resourceA Pandemic Instructional Challenge: Cameras & Little Black Squares (05:18).

Introduction

For post-secondary instructors, a common experience in moving to remote online learning due to the global COVID-19 pandemic was the change from seeing and hearing one’s students in a classroom toward an experience of a screen filled with little black squares. Though two years into this crisis many students are now returning to in-person classrooms, some programs are retaining online options due to the uncertainty of the pandemic as well as student preferences and expectations. This chapter will explore how instructors can successfully teach students who prefer to keep their cameras off and typically provide minimal feedback during online learning offered via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom. It will review the current literature on this topic in order to draw relevant conclusions about why students are often not turning on their video cameras during blended synchronous classes, the challenges this poses to instructors and the opportunities for teaching remotely without video participation.

Literature Review

According to a recent study by Castelli and Sarvary (2021), key reasons why students do not use their cameras include concern about personal appearance, concern about other people and the physical location being seen in the background, having a weak Internet connection and implied establishment of social norms. In another less formal survey conducted and reported by educational technology professor Dr. Leigh Zeitz (2021) on his own blog, he found similar reasons for lack of camera use plus noted that the students surveyed sometimes wanted to engage in an activity other than class (such as eating, doing other things or not paying attention). These two studies both missed one more potential reason for lack of camera use which was the excessive amount of Zoom fatigue experienced by students due to attending online meetings for extended periods of time (Toney et al., 2021).

Many post-secondary instructors who moved online due to the global pandemic were not experienced with teaching remotely and thus aimed to replicate their physical classroom despite it being completely different. Perhaps the biggest challenge for these inexperienced teachers was how to get feedback in real time. Though they had previously relied on visual and audio cues from students physically in the classroom, these types of cues became either non-existent or much less effective in a Zoom call where students stayed hidden and muted (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021). Such cues may also serve to assist students who are then able to see how their other classmates are reacting as was reported in a study by Olson et al. (1995) about the positive use of video in addition to audio for small group discussions.

Use of synchronous blended learning has been found to be helpful in building community among students. In a study by Lin and Gao (2020) of nearly 1,200 students in a northeastern Chinese university, the researchers determined that the students’ sense of community was increased through synchronous sessions where they were able to interact with each other and their instructor by having real time discussions, as well as the sharing of ideas and resources. Such interactions can be assisted by the use of video conferencing which helps to build trust and rapport among students who are attending these synchronous online sessions as well as between those same students and their instructors (Falloon, 2011).

Through interactive classroom sessions, it may be possible to encourage students towards an environment conducive to peer learning and helping each other. Use of video during online synchronous meetings has become more normalized during the pandemic, up to the point of it now becoming an integral part of everyday life for studying, working and socializing (Massner, 2021). In post-secondary education, the use of cameras in classrooms is a way to encourage students to learn how to behave professionally for their future careers which will almost certainly now involve meetings and communication using video conferencing on a regular basis.

The simple fact is that teaching a class where the students do not turn on their cameras may be considered to show disinterest which can lead to frustration and disappointment for the post-secondary instructor (Lemelin, 2020).  It is indeed challenging to determine whether students are participating and learning without visual cues which are well-known to classroom teachers who can read micro-expressions to determine when to move on or when to explain a concept more thoroughly (Terada, 2020). Nevertheless, it is both possible to read a virtual classroom and to begin to consider why the students are not using their cameras to connect with them which can lead to meaningful engagement (Lemelin, 2020; Terada, 2020).

Application

Flexible approaches to working with post-secondary students in synchronous, online sessions fall in line with the principles of Universal Learning Design as well as those of diversity, equity and inclusion (Costa, 2020). There is potential for engagement with such students in many alternative forms including audio, chat/text functions, polling, and collaborative document sharing. In a recent study of award-winning online instructors (Kumar et al., 2019), all of those interviewed reported using authentic and relevant course material plus a variety of multimedia resources while most also sought to encourage student creation of digital content individually and collaboratively. Working online synchronously also permits students to deepen their own understanding by simultaneously looking up materials on the Internet which they can connect to the class as it is happening.

Establishing New Norms

With respect to the use of cameras for synchronous online sessions, it may be best practice to establish a new norm which encourages cameras but does not require students to always appear via video (Castelli & Savary, 2021; Costa, 2020). Such an approach allows for respecting the various reasons why students choose to keep their cameras off as discussed earlier in this paper. Instructors can create a class policy, offer encouragement to use cameras, model desired behaviours and teach about virtual backgrounds but ultimately the decision of how to engage during synchronous online classes should remain with the individual students (Terada, 2021).

Audio and Text-based Alternatives

As an alternative for camera use, students may choose to participate in synchronous online class sessions either by speaking through their microphones (audio contributions) or by entering text into the online chat function (text-based contributions). These audio and text-based contributions are perhaps the most prevalent alternatives to video cameras as a means to engage students and provide feedback to the instructor teaching in real-time. As for participation by students through the online chat function, researchers reported that it was an excellent means for communication which benefits all students including those who do turn on their cameras (Castelli and Savary, 2021).

Visual Involvement and Tools

Beyond audio and text-based contributions, instructors can encourage the use of visual involvement by students such as the use of collaborative whiteboards during a synchronous online session. During a recent teaching and learning symposium for university faculty, the author collaborated with another instructor to co-deliver a workshop called “Whiteboard Action, Shapeshifters & ZOOMbies!” designed to explore successes and failures of using the built-in Zoom whiteboard (Capilano University Centre for Teaching Excellence, 2021). Beyond whiteboard tools existing within video conferencing platforms, instructors may choose to invite students to participate visually using external whiteboard-style tools such as Padlet (n.d.) or concept mapping programs such as Miro (2022).

Real-time Feedback Using Emoticons

In terms of real-time feedback more analogous to seeing the faces of students, there can be encouragement of using built-in emoticons. For example, Zoom (2021) reaction emoticons can allow students to raise their hands, to give a thumbs up or down, to smile or celebrate. Instructors can solicit this feedback or simply encourage students to share their current status in response to their teaching or other things happening in the classroom. As explained on the Zoom support forum, there are six standard meeting reaction emojis (Clapping Hands, Thumbs Up, Heart, Tears of Joy, Open Mouth and Party Popper) but an instructor acting as a host can enable students to use any emoji available in Zoom chat as a reaction during the meeting (Zoom Support, 2022).

Small-Group Learning in Breakout Rooms

To help build community and take advantage of the synchronous online class structure, an instructor may choose to use exercise-based learning where students can work together in small groups using the breakout room function. Within these smaller groups, it may be possible to encourage students to share their camera feeds which may enhance their experience and learning (Venet, 2020).  Another strategy might be to ensure that students are in the same groups throughout the course to build deeper connections with some classmates and potentially build more trust over time.

Individualized Check-ins

Similarly, it is possible to engage in regular one-on-one check-ins with students by using the breakout rooms as private spaces where students can concentrate alone but still have access to their instructor if questions arise (Venet, 2020). By offering each student a quiet, personal space for reflection and working time, it may provide a break to prevent Zoom fatigue and possibly encourage camera use when students return to the larger group session. In addition, it could allow for individualized check-ins where an instructor can determine more accurately how a student is doing within the course, which builds on the ideas proposed by Burke and Larmar (2021) about how a pedagogy of care can deepen and enhance the online learning experience in higher education.

Conclusions

As explained by Weller (2020), constructivist learning theory is the foundation of many courses; such an approach means that learners need to interact with their peers and instructors to build knowledge aided by scaffolding. Due to the speed required for the initial transition to remote learning due to COVID-19, it is understandable that instructors initially felt a need to set up a blended synchronous learning environment which closely reflected their typical in-person learning environments. However, students for many reasons have often chosen to attend synchronous online classes without their video camera on.

Challenges for teaching and learning online without video participation are significant. Post-secondary instructors feel like they are teaching with a minimum of visual or auditory cues and that their students may have difficulty in building a sense of community. In addition, it is highly likely that learners will need to be able to fully participate in meetings through video camera for both their personal and professional lives. And instructors themselves may become discouraged with teaching synchronous online classes if expectations for camera use are not met.

Using Zoom to teach is “like teaching through a keyhole: with some awkward straining, you can sort of see and hear what’s happening on the other side, but it’s not really conducive to meaningful conversation” (Reich, 2021, p. 21). As a result, instructors may now wish to examine these alternative possibilities of how to engage post-secondary students who attend synchronous online classes rather than mandating the use of video cameras. By exploring new technologies and fully exploiting the existing features of video platforms, many teachers could learn that seeing their students is less necessary than they originally believed.

References

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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(8), 3565–3576. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.7123

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