There is a lot of debate about whether students should be made to put their cameras on in a Zoom/Teams etc. remote lesson. In higher education, students can’t really be forced to do so, which leaves most tutors exasperated at the lack of interaction and thus engagement from those who choose not to have them on. However, it is my belief that the majority of those who don’t turn them on are actually sitting on a ‘should I/shouldn’t I’ fence, and in fact can be persuaded to make a sensible learning decision.
It’s not enough to just say to students that it is better to have the camera on. There is also this excellent advice whose focus is to build trust and community as a means to naturally encourage positive camera decisions, but I also think that unless learners truly understand the learning benefits of doing so, then they are less likely to make positive learning decisions. Therefore, it would make sense to teach them about the processes of learning. Improve their metacognition, and be persistent in explaining the benefits of cameras being on. Of course there are some occasions where students legitimately can’t have their cameras on, but once you also explain to students how to blur their backgrounds as a way to avoid any embarrassment of background clutter etc., the number of those who can’t benefit from the interactions enabled by the camera being on will be dramatically reduced.
Here’s what I would tell your students are the benefits of having their cameras ON:
- To retrieve past learning – Every time you are asked to recall information from previous learning, and you can successfully do so, the strength of the memory increases. It is an accepted understanding that the brain needs several interactions with content to not only secure it into the long-term memory, but for that memory to be able to be retrieved effortlessly. It is this effortless retrieval that mitigates exceeding intrinsic cognitive load in future learning contexts. If you don’t engage in answering questions in class, you miss an opportunity to strengthen memory – you can’t strengthen memory by passively looking on. If your camera is on, the tutor will more likely engage with you and ask you retrieval based questions.
- To learn new content – Thinking and discussing and demonstrating what you know about the new information begins the process of making connections to existing knowledge. The tutor will find it hard to discuss a topic with you if your camera is off, simply because it is a really unnatural thing to passionately engage with a blank screen. When learning something new, involving yourself in discussions about the topic and being forced to evaluate your thinking based on answers to the discussion creates a situation where the brain either assimilates the content and makes connections to existing knowledge, or accommodates the content and adds the knowledge as a new point of connection. Or sometimes, but just as importantly, it decides it doesn’t understand it at all, and experiences cognitive dissonance. The reason why this is important is because now you are in a position to do something about the knowledge gap, where as if you don’t go through the process of the discussion you might think you know something when in fact you don’t, and don’t find out until it is too late (exam time).
- To interact with peers – Needing to evaluate your thoughts with peers forces the brain to pay attention to what you think you know, which facilitates learning. The rationale is similar to above, but peers can provide another opportunity to help you understand something, because sometimes a peer is able to provide an analogy or explanations that you can relate to more easily. If your camera is off, most of your peers won’t make some effort to engage with you. They will likely ignore you, which means you won’t be able to test yourself against their knowledge.
- To increase attention – It’s easier to concentrate and easier to not get distracted when the camera is on. Both of these enhance the learning opportunity. When the camera is off, you can look at your phone without anyone noticing, you can get up and walk away from the learning, you can make a sandwich etc. All of these things take away your attention from the learning, which means that the content can’t begin the process of moving into the long-term memory. This has large implications for future learning connected to the topic.
- To improve the teaching – The teacher will teach better if they are teaching to a person and not a screen. Again, it comes back to the natural inclination for humans to want to engage with humans. It won’t even be a deliberate choice the tutor or your peers will make to not engage if your camera is off – they will naturally gravitate and engage with those whose cameras are on.
- To be professional – It’s important to make professional mature decisions about the optimal learning situations you put yourself in. You wouldn’t walk into a classroom with a bag over your head. You most certainly wouldn’t walk into a meeting in a workplace with your face hidden. Sitting in a Zoom/Teams meeting with your camera off without a legitimate reason is like hiding – which is an unacceptable learning choice. If you legitimately can’t have your camera on, it is a responsibility and polite thing to do to inform the tutor. Not doing that and avoiding the responsibility isn’t professional adult like behaviour.
Clearly for the above to make an impact, there needs to be plenty of opportunity in the session for active learning to take place, where students get the chance to interact with the content. I’ve written before about active learning in Zoom/Teams, and not much has changed. It is also important to be clear and explicit about the expectations for learning, and that you repeat these every time there is resistance. Be clear as to why you have the expectations: that ultimately you have the learners’ best interests at heart – because you know and understand how learning best happens.
I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger
Thanks for this post, Paul.
It’s a clear and comprehensive list of the reasons why I should have asked ALL my students to ALWAYS turn the cameras on. I guess I was aware of most of the items on your list but I feel I didn’t have the courage and strength to insist. I’m only human after all. Also, I probably gave up too soon since I understood the psychological reasons behind their reluctance. Actually, one of them is mentioned in your post: “If your camera is on, the tutor will more likely engage with you and ask you retrieval based questions”. Some students simply prefer not to be engaged with and this is probably why I think the shy ones, for example, used the opportunity to remain hidden. Anyway, no more excuses. I hope I will do better next time (but hopefully, there will be no such time).
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Thank you Hana for this insight into your experience. Yes, that’s a really common scenario you talk of: students not wanting to get involved so choosing the easy option. But I genuinely think that if we give them the education as to why that’s not a good choice rather than just telling them it’s not a good choice then I’m hoping we get more participation. It’s certainly something that could have some more research, I admit
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