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.

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