Shifting towards a #CamerasOff Paradigm

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Many faculty prefer to require students keep their cameras on, even though it can have a massive negative impact. This session will discuss the problems with that, strategies for #CamerasOff engagement, and a collective discussion for all to engage on this topic.


I have been in the Instructional Technology field for 10 years, focusing online course design and faculty collaboration. I am currently an Instructional Technologist and Designer at the Queens College Center for Teaching and Learning, I received my MA from TC, Columbia University in their Instructional Technology, Media and Design program after focusing on the various macro and micro factors that are essential to successful online course design, as well as a mechanism for collaborative faculty development. This work is essential to my work with collaborators. It was remarkably timely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which this framework was utilized in part as we moved hundreds of faculty online. I am a firm believer that online learning and education must be designed with the modality in mind- one cannot just copy and paste in-person materials into an online frame. We must take into account the limitations and affordances of a modality, and how that works in concert with the human element- prior knowledge, cognitive load and the like. I also believe that for design to be successful-one must be flexible with the mechanisms. For today’s learning to be successful, we must analyze and utilize the most effective learning framework, modality, and methodology. Each circumstance should take into account the goals, prior knowledge, motivation, affordances and limitations of the modality, and learning framework. We must adapt and change as we collaborate.

Extended Abstract

The shift towards emergency remote education in Spring 2020 led many higher education institutions to scramble to recreate in person experiences online. Of course, as those who research quality online education know, the highest quality online learning is one that is directly designed for that modality- not copied and pasted from face to face. The nature of cognition and learning means that requiring students to stare at a screen for hours on end (as they may have listened to lectures), means the students will likely disengage, and content won’t come across effectively.

While on the surface this logic may seem merely ineffective, in reality- it’s harmful and damaging to our students; particularly the most vulnerable. In an attempt to “replicate” the face-to-face environment as closely as possible, institutions are actually decimating student mental health and discriminating against lower income students, and students of color. 

Requiring cameras to be on for students has proven to be draining for students, who feel like they constantly have to monitor how they may look engaged, which by definition detracts from the attention they have to actual engagement. Students who are reliant on mobile data for course work (such students tend to be lower income), will be priced out of learning, and if they are sharing a connection with multiple members of their family- it is likely they will miss out on vital content that an audio only connection would not. Faculty are often unaware of how damaging this can be, making this an issue of misunderstanding as much as a technical one. 

These issues are compounded with the overreliance on remote proctoring solutions. Remote proctoring solutions are so problematic that just listing the ways would consume the word limit for this proposal. This therefore is a very broad overview that is by no means comprehensive. Remote proctoring solutions, particularly ones that require cameras on have all of the problems as above, with the additional anxiety of being monitored during a test. Students must give full view of all of their surroundings, and ensure they are not in a place shared with any other person. This is particularly an issue for our institution, located in a densely populated metropolis, but we have heard similar issues from others as well.

These softwares by and large have difficulty recognizing students of color, marking their behavior as more suspicious and requiring additional measures to avoid being seen as suspicious. Given all these immense problems, it is even more egregious that these softwares are easily subverted by cheaters, making their invasive harmful presence even worse. 

The presenters will discuss how they found this attitude manifested on their campus, and the steps they took to resolve it. First, they coordinated with campus administrators to define what “pedagogically necessary” measures would require cameras to be on. They collaborated with faculty on a one-on-one basis when they wanted to require cameras on/use of remote proctoring solutions. Unfortunately, this methodology, while effective, was not reaching the volume of people we needed. Further, a common struggle during collaboration was a misunderstanding of pedagogical necessity. Many faculty felt their problems that required cameras to be on were unique and thus they should merit an exception to the rule. For this reason our Center for Teaching and Learning launched a dual part workshop on engaging ones class with #CamerasOff

Engaging your class with Cameras Off Workshop

The workshops open by polling faculty about “why” they want their students' cameras to be on. The vast majority of the responses we have heard from faculty were someone along the lines of “I feel more engaged”.... “I want to see if my students are paying attention”... “I hate talking to the void.” Of course the common undercurrent of all these statements is they are all focused on the comfort of the faculty (I...I…I) and not on improving the learning or understanding on the part of the students. 

We then show the direct harmful impact these attitudes have had on our students through a combination of broad experiences from other institutions (to show this is an endemic issue) and responses from our students that have had to attend such classes. The workshop proceeds to give quality engagement tools and techniques to not only mitigate the loss of cameras, but truly engage the students beyond making sure there are faces on screen. These include uses of aggregate engagement tools (ie: PollEverywhere, Mentimeter), how to utilize the chat to engage the class, using collaborative resource documents (ie: Google Doc, Padlet) etc.. The workshop also discussed how to effectively engage one's class using asynchronous methods, which removes the necessity to have #CamerasOff in the first place.

After presenting this as a broad problem, the session will spend a large chunk of time in breakout rooms discussing the inherent problems with requiring cameras be on in the online environment. The audience will have a joint collaborative resource shared (using Padlet), to share respective challenges, solutions and resources that they have found to be effective in these cases. My ultimate hope is this joint shared document, combined with effective alternatives can be brought back to participants' individual universities to both illustrate the issues with requiring cameras on, and a tool to offer better suited options.

Level of Participation:

This is a highly participatory session. Throughout the session the presenters will have participants share their experiences on how a “cameras on” mentality has impacted students and faculty alike. We will ask the audience if they have specific anecdotes related to Cameras on teaching and use those to frame the discussion at large. 

 Following presenting the broad problem and some solutions we have found effective; participants can move to scaffolded engagement breakout rooms. Essentially, after presenting the problem at large audience members will have the option of moving into a breakout room guided by a presenter focused on one following topics:

  • General Discussion Boards 
  • Integrating Discussion Boards into STEM based questions.

These breakout rooms will discuss the overall theme through the lens of the specific topic, collaborating on a joint resource document that discusses specific challenges, solutions to those challenges, and resources that can support those solutions. 

Throughout the presentation the presenters will have participants share their experiences on how asynchronous discussions are utilized in their institutions courses. Participants can choose to interact with the session during the presentation and during the breakout rooms through the chat, audio/video, in the shared resource document, or just listen and not directly interact with the presenter and other audience members. This presentation allows all levels of engagement, depending on what the audience members prefer.

Session Goals:

Participants who attend this session will emerge with: 

  • Knowledge of how and why requiring students to keep their cameras on is problematic.
  • Strategies to avoid feeling like one is “talking to the black void of names”
  • Strategies to use with faculty to convince them to adopt a #CamerasOff pedagogy. 
  • Alternative methods of engagement, and ensuring your classes attention without requiring a camera to be on