Cameras on, Cameras off?

Cameras on, cameras off primary image

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.

Opening remarks

Olabanji Onipede
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? ”

Discussion themes

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.

Participants discussed a range of issues related to camera use and social presence. The lack of non-verbal cues that came with a disembodied learning experience posed a specific challenge for international students and non-dominant English speakers.

"I haven't really picked up on accents and things like that, so I relied more on visuals and lip reading to an extent to be able to tell certain things. I didn't want to pressure my classmates to keep their cameras on, but it was necessary that I saw them when they were speaking." – Olabanji Onipede

For instructors, not being able to gain detailed knowledge of their students came as a significant loss. With individuals showing up as small boxes on a screen, instructors had to choose between shifting between the close-up Speaker view (largely impractical for large classes) or seeing a miniscule version of the room. When teaching a new group for the first time, not being able to have a sense of who your students are poses a big pedagogical question.

Within the discussion, it was noted that 'rites of passage' foundational to the classroom experience have dissipated. Coming to class is in itself an institutional rite independent of what you learn in class. An instructor observes how the premise that you have to manifest yourself in the classroom, the expectation to 'show up' in a certain way, no longer applies. A new culture is emerging in the way that we conduct our dialogue online e.g. individuals who show their profile pictures while keeping their cameras off could be akin to one standing in the back of a room so other voices could be heard.

Some strategies were shared to navigate the changing dynamics of social presence in online environments:

  • Inferring engagement: Call out a student's name during an activity and leave room for a response. Have students manually return to the main meeting room following activities in breakout rooms.
  • Facilitating interaction: Model the interactions you want to take place e.g. if you want students to introduce themselves, start by introducing yourself then 'tag' the next person and have the class take it from there.
  • Building relationship: Allow students to ask questions even after regular class hours. Apply compassionate approaches where students can reach out 'just to talk', you never know what they are going through. Connecting on screen is only one of multiple ways to communicate and build a connection.

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?

An area that came up in the discussion was how we might think of the camera as a piece of technology in relation to cultural diversity. It was noted that the academic community is globally diverse. We come with different cultures, norms, expectations, even different constructions of the public and private. All of that now collapses on our screen. To enforce a vision of projecting the self in a disembodied situation can be quite a brutal experience. For many female instructors, the collapsing of contexts augments gender dynamics when working from home.

Ironically, where it might appear that our lives are now collapsing into the framed space of a screen, what the medium shows is not fully reality. It was pointed out that each of us choreograph ourselves and our environment in a different way. Educational technologies that have been introduced to online environments can be powerful. For the deaf community, they rely on cameras being turned on to communicate. As an affordance, this technology is empowering. And yet, while these technologies can support particular kinds of communities, they cannot face the choice of an individual choosing to 'shut one of its buttons'. Moreover, the reality of each person behind the screen functioning from their own 'suspended' cell and bubble is unprecedented.

It was suggested that the agency to present and project ourselves in particular ways is now within our hands. An attendee posed the question: how does that create a differential in power dynamics in learning environments? In a conventional theatre hall, the instructor is standing up while the students are sitting down. Whereas on Zoom, the playing field is somewhat equal with everybody's boxes being the same size. Even more, everyone now has the power to control the size of the boxes to make whoever is speaking (or not speaking) the 'largest' in the room.

Some instructors shared strategies to navigate issues of equity in the online classroom:

  • Avoid commenting on what you see on the screen. If people show their room, whatever they show is not there. There is no need to make positive comments because by implication somebody else would understand negative things about their situation.
  • Students can be taught how to use virtual backgrounds or background blurring filters to maintain a distance between their public and private spaces. A student commented that this is not common knowledge. Such strategies need to be communicated. Students feel more comfortable when practices are formally established.

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. [2020]. 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.

6 responses to “Cameras on, Cameras off?”

  1. Reetika Khanna

    Thank you for sharing this very valuable conversation and I wish I had attended the live session as well, if I had known about it. I am an alumnus of EDCP , UBC and a teacher at a college downtown, Vancouver. I have been looking for resources and conversations on Zoom classes. As a teacher, I feel in a Zoom class I am in front of a wall with holes. I can see but not fully. I can get a sense of ‘the other’ but not in an engaged way. I feel it takes so much more of me and from me now than ever before. And while that may be, I remember a student sharing in my first fully online class in April 2020, he said,” I feel I want more from you”. Those words still haunt me.

    1. Simone

      Hi Reetika,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. You are not alone with struggling with engagement and connecting through the Zoom lens. I have worked with a range of instructors who have described similar experiences. For example, Dr. Mazawi described the initial experience as a complete culture shock and that he couldn’t always tell if students were on the other side. It has been a difficult time for many. Instructors and students suddenly being thrown into remote learning, with neither choosing this approach, leads to a lot of new and challenging experiences. Have you found ways to connect? One thing Dr. Mazawi mentioned was he gets students to use emojis to respond and uses the chat. Another way is through breakout rooms and having students engage with each other, then you can go into each room and connect with a smaller group.

  2. Neil Bassan

    This is a fascinating discussion and I regret having missed the live session. The points on perception of self are really interesting in these contexts. In the online interfaces we can see ourselves looking into a mirror but also others looking into theirs. We can track live reactions, even eye movements, in an unnatural way. One can’t help but look at oneself when their own image appears unnaturally always in relation to all the other competing images. Some have elaborate set-ups with pristine lighting and large book collections, others come in and out of frame, some are having dinner with their families, some contort themselves into corners for there is nowhere else to go. Being forced to take on such a perspective of voyeur is more than distracting at times.

    1. Simone

      Hi Neil,

      Sorry you missed the session. This is definitely one of the aspects I also find fascinating. Your point about the dual experience of not only looking into your own mirror but also others is an interesting (and accurate) way of describing it. I have often caught myself looking at my mirrored self in detail, and at times, getting distracted with how my background appears, the lighting, whether my hair is okay, etc… Dr. Mazawi said he learned early on to not mention people’s background (even as a compliment). Funnily, the moment he said this I became ultra aware of my background.

      There is an option to hide self view which was one of the recommendations for reducing cognitive load. I wonder how many people will do this? Has seeing yourself on the screen as if you are a third person watching yourself interact with others now become a part of the Zoom experience?

  3. Blessing Onuigbo

    Bringing a funny but real and interesting side to this, for students joining from some developing countries where electricity supply is erratic, “I will leave my camera on but sorry, all you’ll see is darkness – you see nothing”. Haha, this would be the case if the electricity goes off and the student does not use power generator or cannot excuse themselves in the middle of the lesson to put on the generator. I think there should be some form of flexibility here.

    1. Simone

      Hi Blessing Onuigbo,

      I agree, flexibility and understanding of different situations is key. There is no one size fits all (accessibility is so important), as your story highlights. Thank you for sharing.

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