A guest blog post for #HEblogswap by Dr Emma Kennedy, Lecturer in HE Learning & Teaching at University of Greenwich | @EmmaKDev 

Is it ever okay to compel students to turn on their webcam? It’s a question many have asked, and answered, and many great arguments have already been made (here’s one by Rebecca Barrett-Fox). However, it’s still coming up a lot – just the other day, a colleague was asked in a meeting to turn on her webcam for ‘accessibility’ reasons. I’m against forcing people to turn on their webcams, and in this blog post I’ll explain why: I think it’s exclusionary, invasive and encourages a poor student-teacher relationship. I won’t address the lipreading/accessibility issue here except to say: if one of your students or colleagues is lipreading, turning the camera on won’t be enough, and you should discuss with them the level of clarity and video quality you can achieve, as well as other solutions.

Arguments for webcams-on policies include that it’s hard to teach to a sea of blank screens, and that it makes tracking (ew) engagement much easier. I’d agree with both, actually; one of the things I miss most is being able to respond to people’s faces and to adjust my teaching according to how many people are actually looking interested. It’s not wrong in and of itself to point it out; but for me, neither of these, nor anything else, are justifications for what feels like a fundamentally exclusionary, invasive practice.

When we’re in an online session, unlike a classroom, we make our private spaces public. Family members or housemates walk past and make noises; our classmates or co-attendees can see into our homes. We show everyone the strength of our wifi connection. This is a bigger ask for some than others. To me – living alone in a studio flat – it’s not much of a problem. To someone with a housemate who’s been stalked, or with children who they don’t really want being displayed online, it’s more. To a student forced back to a parent or guardian’s house, in a childhood bedroom, it can be asking them to display something intimate; more so if it’s identifiably less affluent than their classmates’. Many people feel less than confident in front of the camera (contrast a posed, filtered selfie with an hour of candid video, on a dodgy webcam) – and of course this is even worse when the session is recorded. Asking students to do this puts people under unequal levels of pressure, and seems to me fundamentally unfair. That’s my most obvious reason for not enforcing webcams.

Another, slightly more subtle reason, relates to the attitude of the teacher. To me, a ‘webcams on’ policy equates to demanding students change the way they engage with learning in order to make my life slightly easier. Teaching without cameras isn’t impossible, it’s just different – and for those of us new to it, slightly trickier. If I viewed this as more compelling than the reasons for keeping the webcam off above, I’d be putting my preference (and it is just a matter of preference) above my students’ need. I wouldn’t be treating them as equals, but as people whose needs mattered less than my own. That’s an unacceptable attitude in a teacher.

Finally, a word on technology. If a student has a dodgy connection, the best thing they can do is to turn off their outgoing and incoming video, to ensure they can hear properly and be heard. Not all teachers will have great bandwidth – quite the opposite – but your students are likely to be sharing the connection, either with housemates (many of whom may also be trying to learn online) or with family, of whom those working at home will naturally want precedence over your learning.

So what to do?

  1. Ask students to upload a profile photo. This will help you see a wall at least of faces, rather than blank screens. It also means that if/when you see them in person, you’ll have some idea of how faces relate to names.
  2. Create opportunities for students to show engagement. Check in; offer a chance to speak or type in chat. Unlike in the physical classroom, the chat allows multiple students to speak at one time. If you’re using Zoom or something else that allows students to set a ‘status’, you could also ask them to use this to indicate whether they’re following along. Teams has a ‘Hands up’ feature that you can ask them to use too. I tend to narrate what I’m doing – e.g. ‘I’m just going to pause for five minutes; can you let me know in Chat how you’re doing? Totally OK to say just ‘fine’, but also let me know if you need me to explain something again’. It’s different, but it provides an explicit window to check in with students, as well as just pausing in anything you’re ‘delivering’.
  3. Offer – don’t demand – webcams-on moments. For example, if there’s a time you’re not sharing a screen, you could say ‘now would be a great time to put your webcam on if you’d like’. That way, those who are OK with sharing but hadn’t been sure about it have an opportunity to do it. You could also offer students the chance to put on their webcam just while they speak. Videoconferencing is likely to be a big part of many people’s working lives, so helping your students get a sense of how they prefer to do it will help them in the longer term, as well as in your classroom.

Ultimately, as in the classroom, your rapport with students is a two-way street. The only way to create this rapport is to work with them, and with their needs; anything forced will kill rapport, even if it helps create the appearance. To get some more constructive advice on facilitating learning online, check out my colleague Dr Alison Gilmour’s blog post on facilitating online sessions: Avoiding Being the Sage on the Screen. And good luck!