The great debate: cameras on or off

Since last spring, teachers everywhere have been debating cameras. Should students be mandated to have them on? Does such a requirement cross the line?

I think this debate has died down a lot in recent weeks, but it’s still out there. In the fall, I heard teachers openly refer to this issue as a “fight” that they were not going to lose. I’m sorry, but it’s highly disturbing that the word “fight” was actually used to describe this situation. A solution they had was calling home in the middle of class anytime a student’s camera was not on and insist that it be turned on (or be given a legit excuse from their parent as to why it’s not on). Some colleagues didn’t feel this way in September, but do now. My school even made cameras being on a school policy for remote learning. The policy failed. (Personally, I would have liked an acknowledgement of this, but that’s another issue.)

Given all the variables that have dominated our students lives’ over the past year, many of which I will never understand, I’ve found requiring cameras to be on to be a wee-bit obsessive and authoritarian. Colleagues have told me that they find it useful to observe crinkled eyebrows when a student doesn’t understand something. It enables teachers to connect with their kids because they can see their faces. They’ve also mentioned that some students are sleeping in class and having their camera on would help these students be more engaged.

I get the fuss behind it all, I just don’t buy it. I’m not saying that seeing my students wouldn’t be valuable. It would be, I’d love to see them. I just don’t know if it’s worth the tradeoff of all the energy (and class time) spent trying to demand compliance on something that’s largely out of my control. Besides, I’m already balancing enough…I’m trying to ensure all my Chrome windows are open, manage breakout rooms, make sure that I’m unmuted, and keep my computer from falling off its stand — let alone facilitating learning around math! And don’t let me get started on the workload outside of class and how that has at least doubled my grading and planning time.

Of the energy I have left, I’d much rather spend it finding creative ways to reach students that meet them where they are. I’d rather work towards building trust with my kids to the point where they want to be seen on camera. (It’s still not working, but hey.) And, for what’s it worth, I’m not sure that having my students cameras on would impact my “teaching” all that much. I use quotes here because I don’t consider what I’ve been doing to be worthy of being considered teaching in any sense of the word.

I also think that requiring cameras to be on disregards students’ social and emotional development. It’s a very teacher-centric policy. It overwhelmingly benefits me, not my students. For young people, there’s a heavy social risk to comes with having the camera on — especially for middle and high school students. For these kids, image is everything. This is true with their in-person interactions, let alone those that happen online, which is an even bigger deal for many of them. Requiring students to have their cameras turned on — even in a controlled setting like a Zoom session — fails to honor this. It ignores the steep vulnerability comes with being seen online. It fails to consider the fear that kids have of being screenshotted by a classmate they don’t know and turned into a meme that goes viral.

I would close there, but there’s another aspect to all this camera talk that I find utterly fascinating…and it has nothing to do with the feasibility or morality of the camera on or off debate. It’s how losing my ability to see my students has affected my other senses. For example, I feel like I’ve been able to pick up on the slightest variations of voice when a student decides to speak in class. Did they just pause? Are they speaking slower than they did two days ago? Why? The same is true for the chat. I’ve never paid more attention to my students’ writing than I have now. My other senses have definitely piqued because I can’t see them.

I’m probably over-reading my sparse interactions with students these days, but can’t help it. It’s all I have. To drive this point home further, I do wonder how my implicit biases have surfaced as a result of not seeing my students. Despite my over-analysis and lack of research into the matter, I feel there are very real implications for my teaching in this area. Given that I’ll never actually get see some of my students, I may never know how my biases have shifted in the virtual world. It’s interesting to speculate, though.


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