It is useful to consider whether students and staff should be required to keep their cameras on, or have the option to keep their video feeds off when participating in live online teaching sessions.
Students can often find themselves working in spaces that does not afford them much privacy. Perhaps there are family members or flatmates sharing the same area, or they can only use their bedroom as their study space.
Similarly, staff teaching online will want to maintain the boundary between work and home - an important aspect of keeping professional relationships with students - not to mention avoiding an invitation for students to scrutinise their living spaces.
Keeping cameras on does have a positive impact too. It can help foster better connections and rapport with students, at a time when a feeling of isolation can take over. It is also beneficial for better visual communication; what cannot be expressed using only words can be supported by video.
Some of the below points can help you find the balance between keeping cameras on or off, and offer some practical suggestions on how to create an environment of comfort for yourself and your students, as well as reflecting on what this can mean for your pedagogy.
Keeping cameras on helps negotiate the shift from in-person to online-only teaching with fewer experienced differences. It can also maintain a level of social comfort for both you and students if you are not yet used to online-only interactions; you don't have to imagine the people you are speaking to, you can just see them.
Visual cues are an important component of effective communication. Being able to see students will help you assess their level of engagement, helping you to continuously adapt and improve your teaching. Students will have a similar perspective; keeping your camera on while teaching can enhance the quality of students' education through facial gestures, clues, and tone by giving a focus to attention. Consider any students that lip-read or whose first language is not English, they may depend on your camera staying on to understand your teaching delivery.
At times when we feel more isolated from everyone, keeping cameras on can create a sense of closeness. Being able to see who you are talking to makes for more natural interactions and enables access to a dynamic image of your conversation partner. This can be helpful for students, especially first years; if they are seen and heard through their camera, it can be an opportunity to ask more relevant questions and to have more engaging conversations with their peers.
Building and maintaining a sense of community has never been more important. Keeping your camera on will establish a connection to your classes and may help personalise your connection and cultivate more of a rapport with your students. Where appropriate, it can help improve informality and the feeling of "virtual co-presence", in seminars or small-group workshops, for example.
For many of us, our workstation may also be our lounge, study and bedroom all at once. Keeping your camera off can help you maintain the boundary between traditionally "private" spaces and your work, which can be important in keeping professional relationships with students. You may also find that being exposed to the gaze of a whole class emotionally difficult, especially if it means opening the virtual door to a noisy home environment. Students still living at home could certainly share this feeling, especially if you are recording the session.
Consider the equipment you have available to you. The chances are that no student or fellow colleagues you are working with will have the same technological setup as you, perhaps due to lack of resources. This makes the experience and workload of designing and hosting teaching online, as well as learning online, unique to each of us. Pre-pandemic times made it easier for both staff and students to access communal computers and have more "standardised" working setups. Now we may all be struggling against incompatible learning apps, poor bandwidth, and connectivity. Having the option to keep cameras off when the technology is not on our side can lessen the stress that digital inequity poses.
Video introduces a new dimension of self-awareness where we can think about ourselves in relation to others, especially if our video feed is another building block of a screen of faces during a live classroom. Being able to see yourself in this sea of faces might prompt anyone to begin self-analysis, how our facial expressions look on camera, and constant re-adjustment to favourable camera angles. The distraction this offers is also familiar to students, adding to an unfounded worry that a cameras-on mandate is only used to monitor behaviour.
If you are using your camera, we suggest blurring your background or using virtual backgrounds in Teams or Zoom for your students. If you set the example yourself, this may well put them at ease about using them too.
Start a session by setting some ground rules or norms such as having cameras on for the first 10 minutes and then having the option to turn them off for the rest of the session. This can personalise your session at the start without a mandate for keeping cameras on.
Consider balancing the use of cameras against the cohort size you are teaching. Ease the social pressure of being on display to larger audiences by only requiring students to keep their cameras on only in smaller groups or breakout rooms.