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Why Students Go Dark in Zoom Classes  

FILE - University of California, Berkeley Professors Lisa Wymore (L) and Greg Niemeyer look at the Zoom screen showing students in their online Collaborative Innovation course in Berkeley, California, March 12, 2020.
FILE - University of California, Berkeley Professors Lisa Wymore (L) and Greg Niemeyer look at the Zoom screen showing students in their online Collaborative Innovation course in Berkeley, California, March 12, 2020.

Peering out into the void of online learning, both teachers and students often face a virtual classroom of black squares and static photos of classmates.

Two Cornell University instructors have discovered that most students don’t like to appear on video during online classes because they are concerned about how they look.

Mark Sarvary and Frank Castelli studied why a majority of students — 90% of the 276 students they surveyed — kept their video cameras off during class. More than 41% of students said it was because they were concerned about their appearance.

Sarvary and Castelli are on the staff at Cornell’s Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories, where Sarvary is the director of laboratories and Castelli is the co-instructor and active learning initiative postdoctoral researcher. They were designing their own online course when they wondered how video use would be embraced by their students.

Their study results — “Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so,” published in Ecology and Evolution in January 2021 — found that self-consciousness was key.

Among Black, Hispanic or Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Natives students — defined as underrepresented minorities (URMs) in the study — 38% said they “were concerned about people and their physical environment being seen behind them,” compared with 24% of non-URMs.

“Everyone else had theirs off and I felt awkward having mine on,” one student in the study stated simply.

“I am able to focus more in Zoom class/meetings if my camera and mic are turned off,” tweeted Rahul Raman, a Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University, on Twitter about camera use. “In the in-person class, we 'see' our instructor and vice versa, we don't 'stare'. Online thing is more like staring than seeing.”

From their survey results, they recommend that educators explicitly encourage camera use, but don't mandate it. Most times, encouragement worked with students, they said, noting that students also told them they were grateful it was not required.

“Another important strategy is to explain to the students why — so students have better buy in ... if they understand why you're asking for these things,” Castelli said.

Teachers can better pace a lesson when they can see students’ faces, he said. They can receive nonverbal feedback if students look bored or confused. Students benefit from seeing each other. And when instructors see faces, they do not feel like they are talking to the void and have higher satisfaction — in turn, making them better instructors, Castelli said.

“Research has shown that having an instructor who's doing a poor job is a leading reason to leave STEM. So, you want an instructor to do a good job,” he explained.

FILE - Harvard Business School Professor Bharat Anand demonstrates an online classroom that allows real-time discussion between professors and students from around the world.
FILE - Harvard Business School Professor Bharat Anand demonstrates an online classroom that allows real-time discussion between professors and students from around the world.

Using video camera has its downsides, too.

“This pandemic itself is causing stress on people. And that the sub-categories of people — which show even higher increase in stress — are those who are more likely to be our college students, young adults, and then also demographic groups that are more likely to be URMs in STEM,” he said.

“So, it's stressful out there and having to force someone to put on their camera when they're in an environment that's embarrassing or not comfortable would just contribute to that stress,” Castelli explained.

For those who do not use their cameras — either because they are unable or unwilling — the instructions have recommendations for participation, including speaking with the microphone, answering polls that instructors use and engaging in the chat function.

Sarvary also said mandating video use can backfire.

“That never works out well, especially not in large, diverse courses like ours, because the different students face different challenges,” he said. Challenges included being in an environment where others are sharing space, as well as difficulties unrelated to the pandemic.

Student privacy experts say that a camera use mandate could violate the Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable government searches and seizures.

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With federal student aid delays, students aren’t sure what college will cost 

File - Students make their way through the Sather Gate near Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley, campus March 29, 2022, in Berkeley, Calif.
File - Students make their way through the Sather Gate near Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley, campus March 29, 2022, in Berkeley, Calif.

The U.S. Department of Education’s federal student aid form (FAFSA) experienced serious glitches and delays this year.

Now, many students have been admitted to college, but don’t know how much money they’ll need to attend.

Read the story from Susan Svrluga and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel for The Washington Post. (March 2024)

Senator draws attention to universities that haven’t returned remains

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks with reporters as he walks to a vote on Capitol Hill, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks with reporters as he walks to a vote on Capitol Hill, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington.

More than 70 U.S. universities continue to hold human remains taken from Native American burial sites, although those remains were supposed to be returned 30 years ago.

Jennifer Bendery writes in Huffington Post that one senator has been using his position in an attempt to shame universities into returning remains and artifacts. (April 2024)

COVID forced one international student to go hungry

FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.
FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.

When Samantha (not her real name) enrolled in community college in the U.S., her family at home in South Africa scrimped and saved to support her.

But the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the family’s finances, and at one point Samantha had four on-campus jobs just to make ends meet. Many in the U.S. believe international students are wealthy sources of funding for universities, but stories like Samantha’s suggest otherwise.

Andrea Gutierrez reports for The World. (March 2024)

Tips for paying for a STEM degree as an international student

FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.
FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.

For US News & World Report, Melanie Lockert describes how to calculate the cost of a STEM degree, and where to find funding. (March 2024)

NAIA all but bans its transgender college athletes from women's sports

FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.
FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, announced a policy Monday that all but bans transgender athletes from competing in women's sports.

The NAIA's Council of Presidents approved the policy in a 20-0 vote. The NAIA, which oversees some 83,000 athletes at schools across the country, is believed to be the first college sports organization to take such a step.

According to the transgender participation policy, all athletes may participate in NAIA-sponsored male sports but only athletes whose biological sex assigned at birth is female and have not begun hormone therapy will be allowed to participate in women's sports.

A student who has begun hormone therapy may participate in activities such as workouts, practices and team activities, but not in interscholastic competition.

"With the exception of competitive cheer and competitive dance, the NAIA created separate categories for male and female participants," the NAIA said. "Each NAIA sport includes some combination of strength, speed and stamina, providing competitive advantages for male student-athletes. As a result, the NAIA policy for transgender student-athletes applies to all sports except for competitive cheer and competitive dance, which are open to all students."

There is no known number of transgender athletes at the high school and college levels, though it is believed to be small. The topic has become a hot-button issue for those for and against transgender athletes competing on girls' and women's sports teams.

At least 24 states have laws barring transgender women and girls from competing in certain women's or girls sports competitions. Last month, more than a dozen current and former college athletes filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA, accusing the sports governing body for more than 500,000 athletes of violating their rights by allowing transgender women to compete in women's sports.

The Biden administration originally planned to release a new federal Title IX rule — the law forbids discrimination based on sex in education — addressing both campus sexual assault and transgender athletes. But earlier this year, the department decided to split them into separate rules, and the athletics rule now remains in limbo even as the sexual assault policy moves forward.

Hours after the NAIA announcement, the NCAA released a statement: "College sports are the premier stage for women's sports in America and the NCAA will continue to promote Title IX, make unprecedented investments in women's sports and ensure fair competition for all student-athletes in all NCAA championships."

The NCAA has had a policy for transgender athlete participation in place since 2010, which called for one year of testosterone suppression treatment and documented testosterone levels submitted before championship competitions. In 2022, the NCAA revised its policies on transgender athlete participation in an attempt to align with national sport governing bodies, following the lead of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

The three-phase implementation of the policy included a continuation of the 2010 policy, requiring transgender women to be on hormone replacement therapy for at least one year, plus the submission of a hormone-level test before the start of both the regular season and championship events.

The third phase adds national and international sport governing body standards to the NCAA's policy and is scheduled to be implemented for the 2024-25 school year on August 1.

There are some 15.3 million public high school students in the United States and a 2019 study by the CDC estimated 1.8% of them — about 275,000 — are transgender. The number of athletes within that group is much smaller; a 2017 survey by Human Rights Campaign suggested fewer than 15% of all transgender boys and transgender girls play sports.

The number of NAIA transgender athletes would be far smaller.

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