Lights! Camera!…Cameras? Navigating the Complex Issue of Visual Connection in Zoom

Frank Castelli and Mark Sarvary love to teach. At a research institution well known for its groundbreaking disciplinary research, this duo is also hard at work in the classroom applying best practices in active and inclusive learning for a large Investigative Biology course. The class illuminates the process of science through life science topics. It is a big class: typically, over 300, mostly Freshmen, students.  One hour of lecture per week prepares students for a three-hour lab.  Sarvary (the course’s Director) and Castelli (co-instructor and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Active Learning Initiative educational research post doc) have worked closely over several years, implementing iterative changes in the face-to-face classroom in an ongoing quest to improving learning outcomes. The team – including another post-doc, 12 graduate TAs and an equal number of undergraduate TAs – strives to keep students active and engaged with each other and the course content: the way learning happens best. Suddenly, COVID-19 hit.

What they Saw

Things changed dramatically. In their course, as in many others, COVID-19 meant shifting to emergency remote (online) teaching. “Engaging” with students took on a whole different meaning. Teaching an experiential lab-based course requires interaction and involving students with each other and with course materials. It wasn’t long until Castelli and Sarvary and their team of teaching assistants realized that students appeared to be ‘turning off’ (cameras). How much of that included ‘tuning out’ was unclear.  In spring of 2020, few students knew how to navigate this new Zoom learning space, and the teaching staff were in the same uncharted territory. Those who had their cameras on were frustrated at being among the few visible in internet space, and the teaching staff were challenged to intuit understanding through the few visual cues available across computer screens – limited in the online environment, even when cameras are on! Building connection and creating inclusion enhances learning. Seeing the faces and expressions of those in one’s learning community has benefit for teachers and learners.

What They Did

Rather than waiting-out COVID in hopes that the pandemic would end quickly, they decided to get out in front of it and gathered information in Spring 2020 that could be used to understand factors that influenced students’ camera-use behavior.  Gathering data from students would help them respond in an evidence-based way in the Fall semester. Data is power, and for Sarvary, it is peace of mind. “That’s why I personally appreciate the outcomes of this study…because now we know something about this…and we can move it a bit to the side because there are still so many unknown elements” he said.  While being clear that they didn’t have all the answers yet, Sarvary added “but at least now we can use evidence-based teaching to improve the situation.”  Since December of 2020 when their resulting paper was published, it has been flying off the virtual shelf. Castelli noted a lot of interest in tweets, blogs, various news outlets and interest in interviews.   The publication (Castelli FR, Sarvary MA. Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecol Evol. 2021;00:1–12) is rich with background literature and practical suggestions for their teaching staff and others looking for support for the same, common, challenge.

In a nutshell, the reasons that cameras are turned off are complex. Some of the reported challenges are those that teaching team can help with, and others not so much. As the authors say in the paper, while the general categories that emerged in their research are instructive and can likely be fairly broadly inferred, the relative importance of these different reasons will vary from student population to population, and teachers should begin the quest of improving online interaction by gather their own student feedback.

What They Found

For this Investigative Biology course, 276 students responded to survey questions (88% of the class). The largest percent of students were concerned about their appearance, being distracted by seeing their own image, or the feeling of being in a visual spotlight, as reasons for keeping cameras off.  Novice remote learners may not have considered the best practices of ‘remote workers’ who keep routines that include dressing for work and good hygiene. For some, the intense feeling of scrutiny by a camera and seeing themselves reflected on the screen is disconcerting. Among the next most common reasons were related to the possibility of having other people or things appear behind them and being concerned about who or what is in the background in the remote location. Castelli and Sarvary’s data show that some of these concerns were more common in underrepresented minority (URM) students.  The authors used the National Science foundation definition of URM which includes historically underrepresented in science and engineering: African Americans, Alaska Natives, American Indians, Hispanic Americans, Native Pacific Islanders.

Table 3. Excerpted directly from Castelli and Sarvary, 2020.

These findings cast light on potential inequalities in a forced remote learning world. Thus, the recommendation is that students should neither be required to turn on cameras, nor be made to feel shame if they choose not to.  Next, some students reported not wanting to distract their teachers or be disrespectful to their teachers or classmates by having their faces appear on screen.

Communicating the hope that students will keep cameras on, using humor and providing reasons, can go a long way in improving camera use.  Finally, 28 students offered the perspective that cameras off was the ‘norm’. Normalizing camera use in students, for whom this is the only reason to have them turned off, might go a long way in getting a critical density of visible faces in the online learning space.

How They Used the Research Outcomes

Now, past mid-spring semester 2021, the team has one and a half fully online semesters under their belts. Sarvary reflects that “Right when this whole switch happened… I remember how much we struggled and were stressed – can we really do this?” he added, “now looking back, I am super surprised where we are and how the technology existed, but we just had to start using it.”  In answer to a question about which strategies they have tried, Castelli’s answer is “Everything, we are trying everything that we suggest in the paper.” This team has been working hard to walk the fine line between encouraging and pressuring students. “It can be hard for anyone to request without demanding or without putting unnecessary pressure on students” says Castelli who now provides his teaching team with a slide for the start of each lecture with a different humorous meme and a message encouraging cameras on, including some rationale. He does this because it “provides a script so instructors can read and not make mistakes that might sound like pressure.”

Two example message are “teachers can better pace when they can see your face” and “students report that having cameras on makes class more enjoyable.”  When students were invited to make the memes themselves several different students used the familiar ‘Bernie Sanders once again requesting donations meme’ in the creation of their memes – imploring students, with humor, to consider turning on cameras.

 

Changes to the Canvas course website (course learning management system) include information and etiquette for online learning including suggestions for preparing one’s-self and a location when taking an online class. A section on ‘How to Add Privacy to your Zoom Calls’ includes links to local familiar virtual backgrounds and natural areas in town and information about how to use them in Zoom.  These suggestions can help alleviate some of the anxiety for students who don’t have places to feel comfortable or private when they are in class.

Other ideas the authors are considering include asking students to have a profile picture on file in zoom to add warmth. If a student is not comfortable turning on a camera, at least the person’s image fills the otherwise empty black box.  In short, the new practices seem to be working, and without the data yet to back it up, the lab instructors are reporting higher camera use than last semester and positive changes in the online environment!

Long-term Lessons: What to Keep?

And so we come to the million dollar questions, as campuses wrestle with how and when to transition back to a face-to-face learning model: What have we learned that we can carry forward to improve learning outcomes? After all the worry and work and acclimation to this new model for learning environments, Sarvary and Castelli are emphatic about the silver linings that have resulted from the process. They are starting even now to turn their attention to returning to face-to-face instruction with a new model that includes remnants of the COVID online experiment. “The thought I wake up with every morning is, ‘what are we going to keep from this when we return to in person teaching?’” Sarvary says the answer to this question is the work of the whole team as they anticipate the return to face-to-face teaching in the fall. “We (all the instructors who had to face these challenges) came up with so many great ideas. We need to learn from this… to really sit down and evaluate if there are some elements here that we can use to make our teaching better going forward?”

“This experience reinforces the idea that being explicit is a valuable thing in teaching,” says Castelli. “Our research really showed that social norms play a role in what happens in the classroom, and that students have different lives and challenges and we must consider them.” The opportunity to create inclusion in any classroom should become a greater focus in all learning environments.  Even those who love to teach can find a place for recorded lectures to use as a time-flexible resource. Online chats and discussion boards can create a way to link students to each other and course material between face-to-face lectures, get feedback on how a class went or where students were confused, or can be a component of a ‘flipped’ teaching model so that students come to class prepared to work together with the material.  A remote option for student check-ins with the teaching staff, or group meetings, might be a convenient and efficient option on a large campus.

This unplanned exercise in trial-by-fire, has brought to the forefront some very important aspects for every type of classroom. “And these are something we think about all the time now,” said Sarvary. “I told my staff: ‘Thinking hard about what we have learned and what we can keep, this is your homework!’”

 

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