Uni teachers and students discuss if switching zoom webcams on affects participation

As the school year progresses, students and teachers have been forced to adapt to using Zoom and other online means in place of a classroom. With the use of this new technology comes the issue of Zoom cameras and if they should be turned on or not. According to a survey given to Uni High students, around 45% of students have their cameras on in zoom less than half of the time. While some say that it depends on the group of students, others believe participation is strongly tied to if a student keeps their camera on or not.

Q: As a student/teacher, do you think that having a webcam on contributes to class participation? Why?

“I firmly believe that having your webcam on contributes to class participation,” University Laboratory High School Biology Teacher Cynthia Smyser said. “I always keep my camera on because I feel like so much of our communications are nonverbal and I also feel like it’s gonna be really hard for the students not to tune out if they don’t feel connected to me,”

University Laboratory High School Sophomore Lili Tiouririne remains unsure if there is a direct link between the two. “I feel like there are some students who use the fact that their camera is not on to just go do other things and not really pay attention in class. But, that’s also really rare. I don’t really think it makes that much of a difference from what I’ve experienced. There’s a lot of people who have their webcams off that still participate a lot and there’s people who have them on that don’t participate.” she said.

University Laboratory High School Math Teacher Emily Buhnerkempe believes it affects the class atmosphere more than it does participation. “I get a lot of cues by their facial expressions. So when students are confused they kind of give you this blank stare or this confused look to their face” she explained, “So, when cameras are off, it’s really hard for me to pick up on that.” Like Buhnerkempe, Smyser also relies on facial expression.

Q: Do you feel a difference in how students are engaged depending on if their cameras are on or off?
Students’ and teachers’ opinions on if cameras affect the level of engagement differ. Tiouririne thinks that having a camera on doesn’t affect her classmate’s participation. “Some people are less engaged when their webcam is off and other people are just normal about it,” she said. She believes that it depends on the person, and not on if a camera is on.
Smyser believes that it’s hard to measure levels of engagement when cameras are off. “I always keep my camera on because I feel like so much of our communications are nonverbal and I also feel like it’s gonna be really hard for the students not to tune out if they don’t feel connected to me,” Smyser said.
“If you know the camera is on, it helps you kind of put yourself in a school space and concentrate more fully on what you’re doing instead of being distracted by other things going on in the house, or other tabs that you have open.”

Q: As a student/teacher, how do you feel in class when a lot of your students/peers have their cameras on compared to when they don’t?

Teachers and students will often find themselves in classes where very few, or even no other students have their cameras on while they do. Tiouririne and Buhnerkempe both find this situation to be lonely. “I honestly see why they asked us to make a profile picture because with all the black screens it does kind of feel awkward,” Tiouririne said.

“It makes it a lot harder to pay attention to make sure that every student is participating if they’re just this little black square,” Smyser said. “I just feel like also seeing each other’s faces, even if it’s on a computer, is just more mentally healthy.” When Smyser was conducting check-ins with students, she found her mood lifted when they were willing to turn their cameras on. “I think it’s good for students to see other students too. I don’t think that anybody’s gonna be hypercritical if you keep your camera on,” she said.

Q: Why do you think a student/teacher might not feel comfortable having their webcam on?
Both teachers and students agree that there are a variety of reasons for someone keeping their webcam off. Students worry about distracting their peers or their teachers with their background. Tiouririne said, “When I need to eat in class because I didn’t get my lunch period free, it can be a distraction to just sit there eating on a zoom call so then I turn my camera off.”
“I think some students might not want other students or their teachers to see the environment that they’re in,” Buhnerkempe said, explaining that some students may have siblings or parents behind them in their household.
“You can kind of forget that other people are looking at you when you’re walking around in the world. If you’re just sitting in class, you don’t feel like somebody is staring at you,” Smyser said, “but, when you are sitting in front of your own projection, at the very least you’re staring at yourself and it just kind of reminds you that people are looking at you and it’s hard to stare at your flaws for an extended period of time.”

Q: Zoom has a recording feature and some teachers choose to record their lessons. Students who have their cameras on can pop up on the recording. As a student, how do you feel about being recorded during class?
Tiouririne doesn’t have a problem with teachers recording class periods, “They’re not recording just to record. They’re using it as a teaching method.” She also notes that if a student was to go back to watch a recording, it would feel like a class period was taking place.