Remote Learning: Cameras On or Off?

by Dr. Will Henson

As many districts have started off the year with remote instruction, we’ve been asked: Should students be required to have cameras on for distance learning? This is a complicated subject with many factors. This topic brings into questions of student engagement, as well as privacy issues.

Many things can be true at the same time. For instance it can be true that students may encounter zoom fatigue, and or social anxiety, by looking at cameras all day. And this is a real problem that we are going to have to deal with if this remote learning continues for a lengthy amount of time. But it is also true that students who turn off their cameras are more likely to be distracted, disengage, multi-task, and play video games. 

The questions about privacy should be able to be mitigated. There could be instruction for students on how to prepare their environment to maximize privacy. Districts, schools, or teachers can provide approved digital backgrounds to students, or students might use physical screens, or orient their computer in such a way that the background feels acceptable. This should be an ongoing conversation.

Students who experience inequity in living situations should be our first priority. Perhaps there are ways to get exceptions for students who want to turn off their camera for specific reasons that are cleared with the staff & administration. Those situations could also be related to special education/504 exceptions (such as anxiety). Educators might need to step in on behalf of a student or family who cannot self-advocate and allow it.

It would be important that expectations and rules would be clearly stated, and routinely repeated by educators. Students should be made aware that, while the expectation is that all students have their cameras on, they might notice that some classmates may have their cameras off. Educators should explain that exceptions are only made with the teacher’s permission. 

The question is, which problem would we rather have: cameras off with more disengagement, or cameras on with some of these other issues to work around? There is no easy answer.

I believe that categorically allowing kids to turn off their camera will result in mass disengagement. Having that face to face interaction is so important. I’d much rather see people working around the challenges than categorically turning off cameras. 

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