University of California, Berkeley Professors Lisa Wymore (L) and Greg Niemeyer look at the Zoom screen showing students in…
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.

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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