Person working on a laptop.

“Should I ask my students to turn on their webcams?”

This question has come into the CATL inbox a few times since the start of emergency remote teaching back in Spring 2020 and has resurfaced since the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester.  

We call on the experience of instructors who teach in the Virtual Classroom modality over the Fall semester to inform how we respond to this question—many thanks to Taskia Ahammad Khan, J P Leary, and Jen Schanen-Materi! At UW-Green Bay, “Virtual Classroom” means that students have enrolled in courses where they attend synchronous web meetings facilitated by tools like Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, Microsoft Teams, and others. In the schedule of classes, students see something like this: 

screenshot of the details schedule of classes for a virtual classroom course
Details from the Schedule of Classes for a course offered through Virtual Classroom

Note the “Meets” column with days and the “Time” column with times while the “Room” column lists Internet. Some instructors have brought up points about how this modality can better signal to students the requirement for using web meeting technologies like having a device that can share audio and video. 

What some instructors teaching in “Virtual Classrooms” are finding, however, is that not that much has changed for students between Spring 2020 and Fall 2020. Students still have similar living situations and challenges to what the COVID-19 pandemic made more visible. Students are living with family members or roommates—they’re sharing spaces for classwork, devices, internet bandwidth, and the frustration when technology doesn’t cooperate.  

These challenges make it difficult to encourage students to share their video and audio while balancing equity, access, and internet bandwidth.  

  • Many students feel some level of anxiety about sharing their camera and audio for a variety of reasons.  
  • Many students do not have a dedicated home office or a door that they can shut to decrease background noise.
  • Many students don’t have the ability to curate their space to decrease the “visual clutter” that may accompany a web meeting. 
Image of person wearing headphones joining a web meeting on a laptop
Photo by Wes Hicks via Unsplash

What should we do? 

So, what is the answer to our central question: “Should we ask students to turn on their webcams?” if we know that it increases community building for some students, but not all? We have collected some advice from UW-Green Bay instructors. A few suggestions from all three of our interviewees: 

  • Make sharing video and audio optional. 
  • Try to make calling in an option if your web conferencing tool has this functionality. 
  • Ask students to mute microphones unless they’re speaking. 
  • Tell students how you want to handle questions that may arise—raise your hand using the application tools, type the question in the chat (see Luke Konkol’s blog post about using Chat tools effectively). 
  • Use breakout groups or smaller groups to manage internet bandwidth if students must share audio or video. 
  • Normalize using virtual backgrounds. 
  • Be transparent with your students about why you chose this medium for the course and why you chose the web meeting tools that you did. 

Advice from Jennifer Schanen-Materi 

Jennifer Schanen-Materi teaches in the Social Work department at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Over the Summer, Jen was a co-facilitator for a few of CATL’s advanced trainings around learner-centered discussions and pivotal pedagogy. In our interview, she shared that she doesn’t have a formal written policy about when students should or should not share their video or audio during synchronous meetings, but she has found that, when she asks students to share their video, it makes for a much smoother discussion because it’s easier to see non-verbal cues similar to those that make communication in person more clear. Jen uses Zoom, for which she pays for a license to use premium features. On the first day of class, she explains that she wants to use Zoom for meetings where all students are on screen so that she can see everyone’s “Brady Bunch” square, and Zoom offers her the tools and the medium she needs to help manage the class. For example, Jen asks her students to keep their mics muted but to raise their hand, and then she calls on the student by name to respond. In Blackboard Collaborate Ultra this is one of the built-in features of the tool, but it does take a little bit of habituation to remember to click a button to raise your hand rather than just simply doing so. Jen has also made it explicit in the first few web meetings that if students don’t feel comfortable sharing their video for any reason, they don’t have to. Here are a few other suggestions from our interview:

Advice from JP Leary

J P Leary teaches in First Nations Studies, Education, Humanities, and the First Nations Education Doctoral program. At the start of the semester, his classes typically begin with some very smooth, tried and true, community building techniques that he’s used many times in a physical classroom, but those same methods don’t transfer seamlessly when the course modality is “Virtual Classroom.” On the first day of class, J P joined his students for a web meeting in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. He chose this tool specifically because it’s web-based (doesn’t require students to download an application) and it has breakout groups which allow him to move from the main room to the smaller groups; he can use this tool to foster small group community building. In a brief drop-in session, J P and I discussed how the power dynamic of Collaborate Ultra doesn’t allow him to run his class how he normally would. Collaborate Ultra prioritizes the meeting speaker over seeing everyone in the room. That’s something that J P specifically calls out in his own pedagogy—his students would normally sit in pods or in circles—there isn’t a “front” of the room—there also isn’t an application that forces your video and your audio over other students in a physical learning environment. J P talked to his students about the expectations for sharing their video/audio to address this inherent choice the technology makes for instructors. Ideally, J P said he would prefer everyone be able to share their video all the time, but internet bandwidth makes it difficult to do this for him and for his students.  

“Bandwidth is an issue for all of us…we have our cameras off and mics muted in large group unless we are speaking. Because it is not engaging to see a screenful of silhouettes and initials, I have asked everyone to post a photo of themselves (appropriate, recognizable) [as their Collaborate Ultra profile photo].  There is a constant “are you muted? I think you are muted? Can you hear him?” happening in the chat, but I think as we get used to the platform, we will figure it out.” 

J P also shared a few other statements that are compelling reasons for engaging with this question of asking students to share their video: 

“There is an overriding concern for privacy and consent—are we consenting to allow the entire class into our space? It may not be possible to limit access as the sights and sounds of our lives enter the frame. Our students come from a variety of circumstances—some are parents, some are attending to the needs of siblings, some are engaged in one of many simultaneous virtual classes in the same household, and so on.  (I think of that BBC clip where the speaker’s kids come in, followed by another adult who tries to discretely get them out of there). Not all of our students have the same ability to keep the realities of their lives “out of frame” and free from scrutiny.

“I recently learned from a follow-up conversation with a student (remotely joining an in-person class) that there are performative elements associated with having the camera on.  She felt pressure to wear makeup to look less tired on camera, to be hyper aware of her body language and facial expressions, and to be ‘on’ in ways that diverted energy from engagement and learning.” 

For J P’s classes, the balance of equity, access, and bandwidth is somewhat struck when he positions interdependent learning from the small groups against the larger, full-class discussions. In the small groups of three to four students, J P asks students to consider turning their mics and cameras on, but also makes clear that if internet bandwidth makes this more difficult for the group, that they can rely upon their mics to work in those smaller groups. 

Advice from Taskia Ahammad Khan

Taskia Ahammad Khan, in the Engineering department, teaches two courses that are asynchronous, and online, and those two courses have accompanying labs taught via Virtual Classroom. For those labs, Taskia turns her camera on or shares her screen to provide some brief instructions and to review what students must do for the lab during the week. This part of the web meeting takes about thirty minutes: reviewing the week’s lab manual instructions, short demonstrations, and some key points to keep in mind for the week’s activities. Taskia also records these meetings via Microsoft Teams and makes the recordings available to students via Canvas for those who may have missed class. Taskia offers some advice about using virtual backgrounds when instructors do share their screen, but also says that instructors can choose to be selective about showing their video when appropriate. She also has some practical tips about how to manage sharing a screen and soliciting student questions without having multiple screens from which to present.

And now we put it to you…

Should I ask my students to turn on their webcams?” Do you encourage or require webcams in your synchronous sessions? What challenges have webcams posed? Have you found solutions to those challenges? We want to hear from you.

Feel free to drop a public comment below, or, if you’d prefer a closed conversation with colleagues (on this topic or any other), UW-Green Bay instructors and staff can join us in the Solidarity Café.

Chat Bubbles

Let’s Chat about Chat: Using a “Side Channel” during Synchronous Sessions

The chat box on the side of your meeting platform of choice is a deceptively complex zone. Not in the sense of technical use, necessarily—most of the time you can just type what’s on your mind and hit [Enter] to send it. But that’s exactly what makes it such an interesting tool. So much so, I find myself asking “What is chat, anyway?” I set out to write this blog post with this in mind. Chat can be overwhelming, but it can also be a valuable community-builder. It can be distracting, but it can also help to steer and focus the session on the whole. Why is this? And what can it tell us about best practices around chat? As it would turn out, the word chat itself can tell us a lot.

What is “chat,” broadly speaking—even outside of the web-conferencing context? Importantly, it’s an informal conversation. It’s unstructured. It changes quickly. It’s responsive to the situation. Compare the statements: “Let’s discuss our plans over coffee” and “Let’s chat over coffee.” So why do I and so many others struggle with “chat” online? It turns out the term and the practice followed us into the remote environment, but—as happens so often in the digital world—it began to serve new purposes and took on new meanings along the way. I’m suggesting we take a quick step back on chat. In this post, I’ll run down some of the key considerations of using chat as we look at how doing it “the old way” might not be bad thing.

A cup of coffee

The term “side channel” in the title of this post comes from the term “back channel” (itself a term borrowed from computer science). If you’ve ever attended a conference or presentation with colleagues and texted or messaged them throughout, you’ve used a back channel. The advantage to back channeling is that it helps keep the distractions low for the primary channel (the presentation) but also provides a community space for another layer of engagement. The backchannel is often where what’s said in the “front channel” is first put to use. It forms a space for collective remembering, brainstorming, and clarification. A side channel is a back channel that’s not separated from the main form of communication. For our purposes, this is the chat.

What is it good for?

Breaking the silence, not the flow

Imagine a situation where you’re lecturing and a student loses their place in the text. The side-channel offers support. Student 1 writes in the chat: “What page are we on?” and others in the class can quickly respond without derailing the main flow of ideas. This also makes the chat an informal support system.

The chat can also be a place for more reserved students to get their thoughts out into the space where ideas are flowing. It can also be a space for you as the instructor to quickly gauge agreement, confusion, or loss of steam—is the chat so far afield that students are discussing the cat that entered the frame in the first two minutes of class ten minutes in? Time to regroup! Just like coffee shop “chat,” the chat is informal, but it’s not without its environment—it’s reflective of the times and context.

Adding democracy

Bubbles on the surface
Sometimes it’s about what bubbles up…

It sometimes happens that a key topic will spur an exciting train of thought that everyone wants in on. Especially with mid- to large-sized classes, it can be impossible to get every voice on video. When you pose a question to the group, consider doing so and letting chat flesh out where the next few minutes of attention should be directed. This works especially well if what you’re looking for are “suggestions” and can be strengthened by employing a “raise your hand” feature (or convention).

Navigating controlled chaos

not just junk
There’s probably something useful amongst this “junk.”

If you read through the chat from a session that used it well, it might seem like an exercise in intellectual entropy. The spurts and starts of confusion, passion, frustration, and excitement are better contained within the chat than spilled into the time you’ve devoted to more full-blown discourse. Remember—“chat” (informal) and “discussion” (more structured) can co-exist thanks to this tool! I like to think of the chat as my kitchen junk drawer. The main channel of conversation is your utensil drawer of carefully separated forks, knives, and spoons. The side channel is next to it with that corkscrew, stray fridge magnets, and half a pizza cutter.

Forming Community

SpongeBob took 8 Days of Philosophy
Sometimes SpongeBob knows his stuff.

Forewarning: as you begin relaxing the tension of the chat, students might go farther afield than you are ready for. This is a double-edged sword and something you’ll need to balance. On the one hand, you will want the conversation to stay more or less on track and not become a distraction. On the other, students sharing memes of how that complex discipline-specific concept you just explained reminded them of a line from SpongeBob Squarepants helps to both build community and reinforce the knowledge! Much like our everyday lives, these moments of low-stress “chat” are often what “stick” the best.

And how do I use it? (In three helpful clichés)

“Let it be.”

There’s an adage that multitasking is just doing two things poorly—this is at least true for chat. Don’t try to engage in the video conference and engage in the chat. You won’t be able to devote your full attention to them both. Instead, make a point to check in on where chat is every few minutes or at transition points. Just be up front with students that you’ll be using it in this way. Students, like many of us, have gotten used to chat being just like simultaneous discussions. Let them know that you’re not explicitly watching for questions. Allow students to self-regulate and be transparent that you’re doing so. Tell them directly: if a question or idea bubbles in chat, raise your hand. Consider asking a student to share the “highlights” from the chat when there’s a natural break, and rotate who you ask to share out.

“Go with the flow.”

It’s an oversimplification, but you do have to follow your nose when it comes to using chat. Nothing I’ve said here is a hard and fast rule. All I can suggest is that you do go with the flow. If your glances at the chat reveal that a small set of students are wildly adrift, treat it much as you would in a face-to-face situation. If your subject matter allows and you feel prepared to do so, you might even comment on the uniqueness of the circumstances. Moreover, going with the flow means being willing to use the chat to the effect your lecture/class session allows. If students are dwelling on a topic you thought you could gloss over, feel free to dissect that a bit. That SpongeBob meme above? Feel free to go with it! Use connections like that to your advantage as much as possible.

“It is what it is.”

In my experience, chat works best when we let it be chat. I’ve been in meetings and courses where chat was used as a sort of discussion board, a place for collective note-taking, and everything in between but chat—and it never quite works. In those cases, it always feels like we’re bending it to our will when it wants to be something else. Where chat shines, for me, is when it’s reserved for informal conversation in the context of a larger session. That is, after all, what “chat” is. Where chat is most effective is when you can pair that with other tools. I mentioned above using the “raise your hand” feature. That’s a great way to build a conduit between chat and discussion or between chat and lecture. Some platforms have additional “reactions” participants can use. Those are great for this, too. If what you’re looking to do is collective note-taking there are other tools out there as well.

What am I getting at?

I’ve been in sessions on both sides where the chat was overwhelming. I’ve also been in sessions on both sides where the chat was a phenomenal way of building community and drawing connections to the larger material. The former were always cases where the chat was really trying to do something else—when the chat was “too” something: too structured, too formal, or too off-topic. The best experiences were when the chat was just “chat.” One didn’t need to worry too much about well-structured sentences and punctuation—it was about firing off ideas and seeing what stuck. Emoji were common. While the better chats certainly strayed from the focus on the main stage along the way, they always remained tethered to its context.

In some ways the challenge of chat is that it’s a tool that doesn’t have a direct analogy to face-to-face instruction. We wouldn’t stand in the front of a lecture hall and say, “Alright, class. Get out your phones and hop into the group text, we’ll be looking at chapter six today”—at least, this isn’t typical practice. And yet, when we’re thrust into the synchronous online environment, it’s just assumed that the chat will be there—and that we know how to use it and use it well. We don’t. We want to catch every word and end up trying to multi-task. We want to add structure to it and end up stifling the very flow it’s great for creating. We don’t know what it’s good for, so we try to make it something it’s not—but  we don’t have to. It’s been telling us all along what to do with it: just chat.


So let’s chat!

Okay, not really. But let’s have a conversation around this!

Do you like what you see here? Do you disagree? It’s all fair game. How do you use the chat in your sessions? Or not at all? Do you find chat to be a helpful guide or relentless distraction? We want to hear from you.

Feel free to drop a public comment below, or, if you’d prefer a closed conversation with colleagues (on this topic or any other), UW-Green Bay instructors and staff can join us in the Solidarity Café.

Tough Talk: Gender Bias in Big Data

We’re going to run our “Tough Talks” a little differently this semester! Please sign up to be enrolled in a Canvas course, through which we’ll host asynchronous discussions covering readings and resources our co-facilitators find of value for this topic. We’ll leave the discussions open for about three weeks, and then those of us who are able meet, will convene to discuss some actionable, tangible strategies or steps we can take to affect change at UW-Green Bay.

Our first “Tough Talk” is about gender bias in big data which will be co-facilitated by Dr. Christine Smith, Psychology & Women’s and Gender Studies. We’ll discuss chapters from the book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez as well as some other resources—all of which are available via the Canvas course. This course will have “rolling enrollment” but the discussions for this event will run between Oct. 1–Oct. 21. Our synchronous meeting will be held Oct. 22 from 3-4 p.m. via Microsoft Teams. Sign up for this event series here.

Foundations of Teaching with Canvas: On-Your-Own Edition

CATL has a new self-paced course available!

Learn about how Canvas can support your in-person, hybrid, blended, or online course in this on-your-own, asynchronous course. After completing the course, you’ll be able to:

  • Use the core tools of Canvas – discussions, quizzes, assignments, grades, pages, and modules – within the context of how you’d like to teach your courses.
  • Use the communication tools bundled in Canvas – discussions, announcements, chat, Blackboard Collaborate, and Kaltura – to stay connected with your students.
  • Use Canvas to present course materials and assess student learning.

You’ll engage with these topics as you work through the Foundations course, applying them to one of your own concluded courses or an empty “master” course for future use. Participants that choose to confirm their completion of the training course by submitting their work will be eligible for a digital badge indicating their professional development efforts as well as opening further advanced training opportunities.

Signing Up

To sign up for the Foundations of Teaching with Canvas course, follow these steps:

  1. Open this link, https://uws-td.instructure.com/enroll/6GACEA.
  2. Sign in with your UW-Green Bay username and password.
  3. Once signed in, click on the [Enroll in Course]
  4. You’re now enrolled in the course as a student. Click on [Go to the Course] to begin immediately.

If you enroll in the course and can’t find it later, refer to this guide from Canvas on adding courses to your Dashboard.

Drop-in Sessions Continue through Oct. 2

As you embark on the semester, CATL is here to help. We’ll continue to offer drop-in session office hours to answer the questions that the start of the semester has likely raised. We’ve shuffled the times around in an attempt to accommodate as many folks as possible, so see the full schedule under the calendar of events at https://blog.uwgb.edu/catl/calendar/. We’ll be hosting these sessions via this Blackboard Collaborate Ultra room. Can’t make it? You can also view recordings of various CATL webinars here or request a consultation by clicking the button on the CATL homepage.