Brown DLD Faculty Guides

Student Camera Use During Zoom Class Sessions

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Many instructors working with Digital Learning & Design (DLD) ask for guidance concerning expectations of students in a synchronous class meeting, such as on Zoom. Specifically, they ask if they can require or recommend that students have their webcam on during the session or while talking. We recommend faculty do not require students to have their cameras on.

Research suggests that...

  • Instructors encourage students to turn their cameras on if their context allows but not require the practice unless seeing students is central to key course objectives (e.g., to give feedback on technique). 
  • Instructors communicate their specific expectations for synchronous meetings at the start of term so students can make informed choices.
  • Instructors message an individual student to privately discuss a turned-off camera, rather than publicly call out a student.

As an alternative, students could... 

  • Turn their cameras on only while speaking or while conducting a performance that requires visual evaluation (e.g., lab demonstration, art performance, sign language, etc.).
  • Upload a photo of themselves to their Zoom profile (as they are encouraged to do for their Canvas profile). This image will appear when their camera is off.

Reasons instructors may want cameras on

  • To better simulate the face-to-face classroom experience (Bauer, 2020)
    • evaluate student performance of a task;
    • get a sense of student engagement;
    • get a sense of student reactions to what is being said;
    • place a face to a voice;
    • retain a sense of normalcy and not talk into a dark void.

Concerns with requiring cameras on

  • It can expose a lack of privilege in terms of housing arrangement or access to reliable high-speed Internet and newer computing equipment.1
  • It risks “videoclassism” where others make socioeconomic assumptions about someone based on what’s visible in their video background (Jackson, 2020). 
  • While the virtual background option in Zoom may seem to alleviate some equity concerns, this option has high technical requirements, thereby creating another equity issue in itself.

1 In a survey Brown conducted in Spring 2020, 68% of student participants stated they have reliable internet access for Zoom; 75% have access to high-speed internet; 53% have quiet spaces for class meetings; 32% expressed wanting to use audio only for live class meetings. 

Inclusivity and access
  • Students may find being on camera anxiety-inducing based on personal needs or history (autism, trauma survivors, etc.). 
  • Students may feel they need to request explicit SAS accommodation to exempt themselves from mandatory camera policies in class (Nicandro, et al., 2020).
  • Students may feel discomfort letting others peer into their home, may fear their image or video being recorded and inappropriately shared on social media.
  • Some international students may be concerned with participating in politically sensitive discussions and being visually identified while potentially being surveilled by their government (Fischer, 2020). 
False indicator of engagement
  • Seeing students on camera doesn’t reveal what they are focusing on (their own appearance, their peers, another task entirely).
  • If students aren’t engaged it might be because the format isn’t engaging, such as a long lecture or presentation without discussion or other student involvement. “Reserve class time for participatory work that requires collaborative discussion” (Ringel, 2020). 
  • For non-interactive content (e.g., lectures), instructors could instead pre-record video or a podcast. This enables students to engage with the content when they are ready to listen attentively and reserves the synchronous session for class interaction. 
  • “Cold calling” students with their cameras off to check for attention uses fear instead of sound design to produce engagement.
  • The pandemic is heightening anxiety, making learning more difficult (Imad, 2020).
  • Seeing oneself on camera can increase anxiety. Studies show we spend more time looking at ourselves than others—a phenomenon new to video conferencing (Fosslien, 2020).
  • Encouraging students to turn their cameras on “if your context allows” without intentional communication about the pedagogical reasoning may apply a form of peer pressure.
  • Watching other students on camera may distract students further from the instructor (Nicandro, et al., 2020), and the “constant gaze” of so many faces tiled on the screen may be exhausting (Bailenson, 2020).


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