Should we Require Learners to Keep their Cameras On?


Last week when teaching my class, Online and Blended Learning Technology for Landmark College, we were discussing synchronous learning strategies (especially with diverse learners in mind). The question came up, should we ask learners to leave their cameras on? And a good discussion ensued. Very quickly, the professionals who are learning with me in class got away from “black and white” yes/no type answers to recognizing the opportunity for– and need for– shades of grey. Not, “no, we should not, because…” or “yes we should, because…” but “no, but…” and “yes, but…”. And the difference is very important!

This week, delightfully, my friend and colleague Katie Novak responded to the same question in her blog. Should we ask learners to leave their cameras on in class? She answered “no,” or rather, “no, but…”. I appreciated that she began with giving the rationale for the “no” part. For her, this was a way to help ensure equity, noting concerns regarding:

  • Variability in learners’ internet bandwidth and other tech issues
  • Privacy with regards to environment (homes, etc.) 
  • Shared living space with others and pets 
  • The required energy to participate with video that could be spent elsewise

These are all highly relevant and valid points. 

Then the “no, but…”. Katie modeled using design thinking, framing her response in terms of the UDL principle, “provide multiple means for engagement.” If our goal with turning cameras on is to engage the learners, then how can we accomplish that goal without making them turn the cameras on? This is exactly the kind of thinking we need as educators, all the time. And she did a great job offering practical suggestions for how to support engagement sans camera (check out her full commentary). 

Yes, but...

I want to add to this conversation by taking the position of “yes, but…”. Should everyone, teachers and students, be required to have their cameras on so that everyone can see (and hear) everyone else? As a UDL practitioner, my answer is, “yes, but…”, and I want to share why.

For most of the teachers I work with and have worked with over the years, teaching is a highly social activity. We thrive on engaging with our learners and interacting with them in multiple meaningful ways in the classroom, which includes seeing them and their expressions throughout the learning process. I know a lot of teachers struggle to teach to blank boxes and a lot of learners struggle to feel socially “present” in the same. It can feel exhausting to not get the perpetual visual/auditory feedback from each other that we so rely on in the classroom.

Zoom display with one teacher and 15 blank screens

I agree with Katie that this issue can be framed primarily as one of engagement and affect. I feel like the visual/auditory absence of teachers and learners in the learning environment (digital or otherwise) is a detraction from engagement. Most specifically, we could point to checkpoint 8.3 (foster collaboration and community), which may most readily be done with social presence (though, again, Katie offers some excellent additional ways to help support this in absence of video). But also relevant is learner action/expression (e.g., 5.1, use multiple media for communication) and representation from teacher to learners or learners to learners (e.g., 1.2 / 1.3, offer alternatives to audio / visual information and 2.5, illustrate through multiple media).

But the UDL guidelines shouldn't be used as a conversation stopper. They should be the start of a conversation. The fact is Katie is right to say that we shouldn’t force learners to turn cameras on for all the reasons she gave. But I think that I am also right that it’s very important to have people have their cameras on to maintain a highly social learning environment. This seems to be an impasse, but it isn’t. The “buts” are really important for navigating the nuanced in-between from “no” to “yes.”

Addressing the Barriers 

Just like Katie first used rationale to arrive at her “no,” then provided strategies to address the barriers that that “no” will inevitably create, if we are going to require that “yes, cameras must be on,” how do we address the inevitable barriers that this will create?

  1. Check your motives. Requiring cameras to be on as a way to “keep an eye” on your learners to “make sure” they are paying attention isn’t going to work. This will quickly become a game of cat and mouse and itself will become a distraction for you and your learners. Rather, think about if you need cameras on to support engagement, expression, and/or representation. That is a far better reason for such a mandate. In absence of that, it would be better to allow learners choice. 
  2. Check the learner's motives. In some settings, learners themselves could do this, too, reflecting on their own needs and motivations for wanting cameras on or off. This would provide great insights for instructors who are working through these issues. 
  3. Make the implicit explicit. Talk to your students about the experience of teaching and learning online with cameras on vs. off. Allow them to voice their opinions and feelings about it either way, without critique. Share your own, and why it’s important to you (this is where your motives will really be important). 
  4. Offer tech solutions. Virtual backgrounds are a great way to maintain privacy while sharing video. Personal hotspots can enhance bandwidth in many cases. Can the school help provide these to learners in need? Show learners who are distracted by their own “reflection” how to turn off self-view.
  5. Allow for flexibility. Set up policy and procedure for “going dark” for various reasons. For examples, request a private message to the teacher noting the need to use the restroom or to take a quick break, allow learners to have self-timed camera breaks for any reason. 
  6. Consider an Essential Agreement. Invite the class to be part of the decision to create a mandate or not or something in between based on this discussion. Talk about what conditions someone could turn their camera off and how they will need to engage in that condition.

This approach acknowledges and empowers learners, but also helps support the common good of the class as a whole. It approaches engagement not only as formal cognitive engagement with the content/curriculum, but also informal social engagement with one another. 

All About the But

At the end of the day, I understand that there are times in which learners just can’t be expected to have their cameras on. The difference between the “no, but... “ and “yes, but…” is that they represent different value emphases, resulting in different strengths to be utilized and barriers to be addressed. Regardless of the position I take for the purpose of this blog, the truth is that I think there is absolutely room for both “no, but…” and “yes, but…” in the variety of classrooms and environments in which we all teach. 

Making thoughtful, intentional design decisions to meet the needs of your learners and yourself in context of your environments and learning outcomes is where the “D” in UDL comes from. Let’s move away from focusing on the “yes” or “no” and home in on the “but.”

1 thought on “Should we Require Learners to Keep their Cameras On?”

  1. I appreciate your solutions to the difficulties that students might have in keeping their cameras on. Certainly some of those are excellent — but almost all of them ultimately put the onus on students. Technology solutions aren’t reliable. And the issue I have is really with the word “require” which for me is a very non-UDL word. I do think that facilitating, encouraging, even incentivating camera use are excellent and do make for greater options for interaction and therefore more dynamic learning. But anytime we require something that is likely to create barriers and don’t give options to avoid those barriers, in my view we come too close to going against core philosophical principles of UDL.

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