Thursday, March 25, 2021 | 1PM – 2PM
Dr. André Mazawi, Professor, EDST
Olabanji (Banji) Onipede, MA student
Simone Hausknecht, Learning Designer, ETS
Shur Lim, Learning Designer, ETS
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
In our first Viewpoints session, “Cameras on, Cameras off”, we welcomed observations and reflections from faculty, staff and students as they discussed the many dynamics of using cameras in online classes via synchronous video-conferencing. In this session, we were joined by Professor André Mazawi, sociologist of education in the Department of Educational Studies, Faculty of Education and Olabanji (Banji) Onipede, an M.A. student in Educational Studies with a focus on migration and refugee education.
Banji shared his personal experience as a remote student at UBC while living in Ireland and after moving to Vancouver. Time zone differences posed the biggest challenge as it required logging on at odd hours or waking up in the middle of the night with the pressure of performing at the same level. Having cameras on in a shared accommodation raised privacy issues with the added concern of inconveniencing others, all while juggling the social dynamics that came from his screen and real-life environment simultaneously. That being said, having cameras on afforded a sense of supervision which he appreciated. He notes: “Knowing that my face is out there means I’ll pay more attention”.
Professor André Mazawi
Professor André Mazawi acknowledged how challenging the transition to emergency remote teaching has been. He expressed that it has brought up questions relating to the psychological effect of such an experience with regards to social contexts, privacy, and cognitive load. The idea of physical embodied presence in the classroom as being synonymous with a good educational encounter was abruptly disrupted. Many things that were taken as evident in the teaching experience such as the shared tactility of classroom objects and the ability to read a room peripherally were no longer present.
Dr. Mazawi described the culture shock of going online and the difficulties of navigating the ‘small’ and ‘large’ squares on Zoom. Getting a sense of who your students are became a challenge, and you couldn’t always tell whether students were on the other side of the technology. However, he noted that he would never require a student to have their cameras on or off. He opened the floor by posing the question: “At UBC, we come from different parts of the world with different cultures, norms, expectations, even different constructions of private and public. How do we think of the camera as a piece of technology in relation to cultural diversity? ”
Over the hour, participants interacted with panelists and explored a wide range of themes. Below is a summary of the ideas generated by the group.
It was suggested that instructors can be honest about the challenges of teaching online and make known to students that they need feedback: instructors need social cues to know how to conduct themselves just as much as students do. Students can be encouraged to use emoji reactions during a lecture to add energy to the speaker (with this suggestion, many of the attendees used emojis for this purpose from this point on).
It was brought up that in maintaining the viability of one's teaching, the issue of cameras being on or off appears secondary. Instead, the conversation turned to how what we are facing is the challenge to create a new 'sign language' in the online classroom that is nobody's specifically, but can be understood by everybody. Old ways of facilitating instructor-student interaction cannot persist because the sense for 'context' in the conventional sense of the word has disappeared. Both sides need to make the consideration: How do I make myself at least charitable to the extent that I communicate some element of context to the person speaking so that it's not a one-man show?
Memory cues relating to the pedagogy of space were also considered. What does it mean if we're just sitting there and seeing the same space all the time? What kinds of challenges arise for teaching and learning when all a student is doing is just engaging in a box that looks very similar each day? As instructors, how do we project ourselves differently for different courses in helping students create virtual memory cues?
At one point, the conversation turned to how cameras presented us (to others and to self). When a public figure goes on television, they are prepared by a team to be their most presentable self. For the rest of us who join video meetings with different backgrounds, light conditions and so on, we are unsure if we can control the projections of ourselves anymore which triggers a fear of judgment. Paradoxically, shutting off our cameras might be perceived as a kind of ultimate protection of the self.
An attendee raised the idea of Bakhtin's (1990) concept of exotopy: the tendency to turn one’s gaze onto one’s own image. This presents very particular challenges for a speaker during a video meeting. It was pointed out that when we see more of others than we see ourselves, it poses an ethical responsibility to be present to the 'other'. In this case, not seeing the other is an issue while seeing too much of one’s self is another. The question was posed: Does speaking to your own image change the practice of pedagogy?
This led to considerations of how seeing your own face when speaking is a most unusual social dialogic circumstance. It is an ontological given that we do not see our face – we always see our faces refracted through somebody else's presence. The mirroring of our self on video-conferencing platforms poses itself as an ontological predicament. From a pedagogical perspective, this unusual phenomenon affects not just our performance but the coherence and articulation of our ideas.
"Sometimes I have to shut off my screen just because it's too much to handle. You get stuck in an egocentric bubble and begin studying all your actions. (…) It is as if you asked a centipede how it walks on all of its legs. It will soon trip on itself when it tries to explain its every movement." – Professor André Mazawi
The paralanguage of an online environment is affected by technological mediation. If you tried to make it look like you were speaking to an audience, you stare at the camera lens rather than at any individual box. However, when you're looking at specific people, you come off as looking away.
The group also considered the ways the self is constricted or augmented in these environments, and questions about individuality arose. Take this interesting observation: The enhancement of the self is still evident amidst a season of covering up with masks. Just observe the fashion that has developed around them. It is interesting that even in the midst of covering-up, perhaps akin to shutting off your camera on a screen, there is not really an effacement of the self. There are always new ways of expressing individuality one way or another. Over time, a difference will be one that makes absolutely no difference at all. Perhaps, in the long term, there would not be a loss of individuality in the profound sense of the word.
These are but a few of many aspects we still need to reconcile. It is critical that we not only understand how to behave with these technologies that come with tremendous capabilities, but also perceive the equally significant psychological and sociological impact on our being that goes beyond pedagogy. There is a false assumption that all of this will end 'once the pandemic is over'. In reality, we are moving into dynamics that are still playing out.
Bakhtin, M. (1990). Art and answerability: Early philosophical essays (V. Liapunov, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
It was brought up that there was a tendency for us to idealize long withstanding practices. However, as Dr. Mazawi pointed out, when we consider the face-to-face environments that we have taught in, often times there might be the noise of maintenance work going on in the background or the sound of chatter when students gathered in corridors between sessions. Our conventional spaces were not pristine, fully-controlled situations. Some of the classes were uncomfortable with no air conditioning in the summer or insufficient heating in the winter, some halls had echoing issues and so on. In a way, our current situation gives us a bit more control i.e. you can set up your background or environment differently, you can mute yourself if somebody is banging in the background etc.
It was brought up that the agency that we now possess can be translated into new freedoms for student expression in learning. Students can find creative ways to show things they want in the perspective that they want. We are in the midst of a huge transition – an existential, psychological and institutional transition into new modes of being and new modes of exhibiting ourselves in the public sphere through technology. It will take bit of time for us to get a sense of how to behave in this new reality. Perhaps the most important thing now is not to enforce more rules but to create room for discussion so that people become aware of these emerging realities. We have to be extremely patient and open to the current situation. There might be opportunities that we may be missing if we just force a certain way into these technologies. Blindly policing behaviour would be unjust for the complexity of our situation now.
On a wider note, these technologies are creating different situations for different settings. Participants noted that universities are just one of them. Teachers, doctors and many other professions have needed to adapt to this emerging phenomenon. It was noted that a trans-professional situation is emerging where there can be many variations and 'local dialects' of using a particular technology and engaging with it in meaningful ways.
As we develop our way of being and interacting with these new tools, it led participants to the question: how can we make sure to keep our focus on the foundational things that are important for society – for solidarity, for justice, for equity? There will always be the distinctive difference that gives a technology a kind of advantage over another. The matter of keeping cameras on or off might transpire as such that we might one day adopt a normative outcome. But for the moment, we should not forget to care about the fundamentals of society before determining the case. What we are going through is a silent revolution in many ways. What is awaiting us is more unknown than known. Cultivating patience, presence, and a critical attitude is a good place to start.
Explore other views on having cameras on or off in the classroom
Nowak, Z. (2021). Creating Compassionate Video-On and Attendance Policies. [weblog]
A lecturer from Harvard briefly reflects on changing attendance records in the classroom since the onset of COVID-19, from jump-shaped attendance curves to huge falloffs. As an instructor, he proposes complementary Zoom and attendance policies that balance tone-setting and compassion.
Marquart, M. & Russell, R. . Dear professors: Don't let student webcams trick you. [weblog]
This article addresses both the limitations and benefits of camera use in online teaching and learning. Limitations are interpreted through the lens of equity and inclusion, cognitive overload, compliance vs. engagement, and trauma-informed teaching. Benefits include opportunities to nurture a sense of community as well as promote a new experience and pedagogy of place. The authors close with useful questions instructors can apply to decision-making with regards to cultivating presence in the classroom.
Ramachandran, V. (2021). Stanford researchers identify four causes for ‘Zoom fatigue’ and their simple fixes. [news]
This article provides a brief overview of Bailenson’s (2021) study, the first peer-reviewed article to systematically deconstruct Zoom fatigue from a psychological perspective. The author highlights Bailenson’s four main arguments in relation to how the current Zoom interface can lead to psychological consequences; namely, excessive amounts of close-up eye contact, the state of seeing oneself constantly in real-time, reduction of one’s usual mobility, and higher than usual cognitive load. Four supporting solutions are provided along with the mention of Stanford University’s ‘Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue’ (ZEF) scale that seeks to better understand how to create best practices for video-conferencing setup and how to come up with institutional guidelines to alleviate Zoom fatigue.
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. [journal]
While adapting to emergency remote instruction during COVID-19, instructors from an introductory biology surveyed students to better understand why they did not turn on their cameras. This information was used to develop strategies to encourage — without requiring — camera use while promoting equity and inclusion. Broadly, these strategies are to: not require camera use, explicitly encourage usage while establishing norms, address potential distractions, engage students with active learning, and understand students’ challenges through surveys.
Rodriguez, J. (2021). Turning cameras off can help the climate. [news]
A new environmental study from Purdue University, Yale University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found turning off the camera during Zoom or video meetings helps reduce a person’s carbon footprint of the call by 96 percent. The authors explain how the carbon footprint is largely due to how internet data is stored and transferred which in turn has carbon, water, and land footprints. Accordingly, they urge internet companies and their regulators to keep refining the “unintended consequences” of their actions, especially in the internet age when more people are connecting online.
We invite readers to continue the discussion in the comment area below. Share your thoughts and experiences in relation to the use of cameras for synchronous classes.
If you would like to attend the next Viewpoints session, please see our upcoming events.