Lights, Cameras, Learning: Differing Views on Students Putting the Camera on or Keeping It off in Remote Learning

In late September and early October, the fascinating world of fully remote learning took effect in Everett Public Schools – and many teachers reported looking at an empty screen as students, particularly the older students, kept their cameras off in Zoom classes and made it impossible to tell what was happening.

Whether to turn on the camera or turn it off – mandate it to be on or let kids make the decision – has become a focal point for remote learning in Everett and other school districts. There has been no set, perfect solution, but a handful of teachers in Everett said their position has evolved as the classrooms have settled in.

Those teachers said they aren’t so hung up any longer on whether or not kids are watching them, or whether the screen is blank. In fact, most said they prefer to let the kids make that decision as long as they are participating and doing their work. It is, after all, a very personal space whereby teachers are being invited into student homes and bedrooms – places they had never gone before to teach lessons.

Everett High EL teacher Marissa McQueeney said one thing she realized right off the bat is teachers are – in a way – invading student personal space with remote learning if the students are at home. Never before have teachers been beamed into a student’s living room to go over word problems.

“Maybe they don’t want you to see their background, or maybe there’s a lot going on around them they don’t want their classmates to see,” she said. “If I was a teen-ager, I may not want my teacher and my entire class looking at my bedroom.”

Jackie Fallon, a Keverian 7th grade teacher, said she doesn’t require cameras to be on, though she prefers it. Forcing kids to turn it on, she said, doesn’t usually work out well. However, as time has gone on, she said kids at the middle school level will begin to warm up to the idea.

“Slowly they are beginning to let us in at this grade level,” she said. “At first no one had it on, but then they saw that my dog also barks while I’m trying to teach just like their dog or their siblings disturb them. As they’ve begun to turn their cameras on, I’ve learned who has music blaring behind them, who dances in their chair, who has a cat, a dog or a bird. I have a student that comes to class with a ferret on his shoulder and is constantly annoyed by his little brother.

“I had one student who had a lot of anxiety about it, and I tell my students if it’s possible, please do turn it on,” she continued. “I do prefer it. I 100 percent celebrate it when they turn it on. Then one day that student did turn it on, and later in the day I saw him at Market Basket. That helped me to know him and we could talk about onions in class. I love when they turn it on, but I have an incredible amount of empathy and understanding for students that it doesn’t work for.”

Keith Spencer, who teaches on a team with Fallon at the Keverian, said they now have about 75 percent of their students turning on their cameras. That is different, he said, at the high school level, but he said he in no way wants to force the issue as a teacher – even if he were faced with looking at a blank screen.

“Sometimes it will be off and maybe they turn their audio off too,” he said. “That’s when we have the opportunity to pull a student into an online breakout room one-on-one and ask ‘What’s up?’ You have to be a hype man about it with our age group, but you have to have understanding and not push it too much. I’m not on the side of demanding it.”

That’s because in a city like Everett, the pandemic might have changed living situations severely. Some students may have lost their living situations, or their parents might be working, or they don’t have an ideal place to set up for remote schooling in what might be a crowded living situation. All that requires patience, innovation and understanding.

McQueeney said there is also a technological reason for her strong feelings on not requiring cameras to be on. She said uploading speeds on the Internet take far more bandwidth than downloading, so putting the camera on might tax the Internet capabilities in a home – especially if there are additional siblings trying to do remote learning.

“If four people in the same house are trying to upload a video, you’re going to have problems,” she said. “As a result of that, cameras need to be off because if the camera is on, there’s a chance the audio will cut out and the student won’t hear you.”

Fallon said the cameras are really a false sense of security for teachers, as she believes students can prove their engagement in other ways – whether it’s in the chat, doing their work, collaborating with other students off-line or speaking when asked a question. The need to see the students has been less necessary, she said, as students have learned how to prove their engagement – a totally new concept in education.

“I can tell who is engaged and who is not engaged in the in-person classroom,” she said. “With virtual learning, we’re putting that on the students to prove they’re engaged to us. That’s a huge shift. We don’t harass kids about cameras as long as they are proving they are engaged…It’s up to the students to prove they are there, and there are several different ways to do that which don’t include the camera being on.”

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