Most Educators Require Kids to Turn Cameras On in Virtual Class, Despite Equity Concerns

By Madeline Will — October 20, 2020 5 min read
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The issue of whether students should turn their video cameras on during remote classes has been heavily debated among educators. On one side, cameras can foster student engagement and make teachers feel less like they’re speaking into an abyss. On the other, teachers say requiring cameras can make some students feel vulnerable or exposed.

A new Education Week Research Center survey found that more than three quarters of teachers, principals, and district leaders whose schools or districts provide live remote instruction say that if students have working cameras on their devices, they must keep them on during class. (The nationally representative, online survey was administered Sept. 30 to Oct. 8. A total of 790 K-12 educators responded, including 251 district leaders, 169 principals, and 370 teachers.)

Of the 77 percent who say cameras must be kept on, 42 percent say they might make exceptions based on the age of the student, the preference of the student, and other considerations. An additional 17 percent report stricter rules in which cameras must be kept on unless parents request an exception. And 18 percent say cameras must be kept on, no exceptions allowed.

Sixty percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say students face consequences if they turn off cameras during class. Parental notification is the most common consequence, followed by losing participation points or facing a lower grade, and being marked partially or fully absent.

Elementary teachers and principals are significantly more likely to require that cameras be kept on when compared with their high school peers—88 percent vs. 60 percent. Sixty-two percent of middle school teachers and principals require cameras.

Many teachers have expressed concerns that requiring cameras would disproportionately affect students from low-income families or students of color. Students might not want their classmates and teachers to see inside their homes, especially if they don’t have a private work space. There are also cultural considerations: Students who wear hijab don’t typically cover their heads in the privacy of their homes—but they would have to put on the covering before turning their cameras on. And some students might not be able to use their cameras becuse they have low bandwidth or unstable internet connections.

However, the Education Week survey found that school districts with larger percentages of students of color have stricter policies than majority-white districts. Cameras are required—no exceptions allowed—by 15 percent of educators in districts where 80 percent or more of the students are white, compared with 31 percent of their colleagues in districts where the share of white students is 30 percent or less.

‘A Sense of Normalcy’

Oregon State University’s Center for Teaching and Learning created a list of the pros and cons of requiring students to turn on their cameras during virtual classes. The pros include: creating a sense of connection and accountability, fostering community, simulating in-person instruction, and making it easier for the teachers to identify students by name. The cons include: invading students’ privacy, making students feel self-conscious, and feeling exhausted by staring into faces at close range for a long period of time.

Many teachers say that while they understand the cons, they do want their students to turn their cameras on if possible. It allows them to easily check if students are engaged, following along, or confused. It also holds students accountable. It can be draining to talk to a collection of black boxes, teachers say.

“When there are cameras on, it gives me a boost of energy and a sense of normalcy,” said Kaitlyn McSweeney, an 8th grade English/language arts teacher at Anthony Wayne Middle School in Wayne, N.J. “When it’s just a blank screen, it sometimes feels like no one’s listening.”

Her school, which is completely remote on Wednesdays, does not require students to have their cameras on. As a result, McSweeney said, usually only one or two kids have them on. Otherwise, she said, her class only turns them on when she begs.

One day, she asked her students, “Does anyone want to show me their face today?” The students started turning their cameras on, and McSweeney “started going crazy,” she said. She tweeted later that when her students have their cameras on, her “heart is full of sunshine.”

Still, McSweeney said she understands why her school doesn’t require cameras to be on. Middle schoolers especially are at the age where they are self-conscious or overly conscious about everything they do, she said.

“Would it be easier [if students have cameras on]? Yes, but I love the fact that my school takes into account the mental health of the students,” she said.

And she doesn’t want her students to feel worried about putting their homes and private lives on display. Many educators have warned that requiring cameras—and especially imposing punishments when they’re not turned on—can be a major equity concern.

Trevor Toteve, an Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher in Houston, said many of his students are economically disadvantaged or live in a home with multiple generations. His school was initially fully remote this semester and is now partially back in person, but students are still completely remote on Wednesdays. Toteve doesn’t require cameras, and most of his students don’t turn them on.

“Not all of my students have an office or a room available ... to just turn the camera on and let the world in,” he said. “There’s other ways where you can show or prove that students are engaging without forcing them to turn their cameras on.”

He encourages students to ask questions and talk in the chat box and use reaction emojis on Zoom. He also uses many polls throughout the lessons as checks for understanding, and sets up breakout rooms where students can participate in small groups.

Of course, it would be easier if he could see students’ faces, Toteve said. There have been times when he’s set up a breakout room and a student’s blank screen stayed put, not responding to his reminders to go into the breakout room. When he called home to check in, a parent said the student was sleeping.

Still, Toteve said students can be disengaged in person, too. “You have to find alternate ways to get them engaged. ... I don’t think the camera is the end all, be all,” he said. “That’s part of our responsibility as teachers to keep checking on them.”

Image: iStock/Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.