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Digital accessibility guide

Explore how to create, design and structure your content to ensure that is is accessible to your students.

Camera considerations for students

The below sections outline guidance about students using or not using their webcams during live online sessions. The importance of choice, understanding their surroundings and context, and being familiar with the technical options and wide range of participatory modes is key for student success. Refer your students to information about using their webcams which includes guidance about how to develop confidence about having one's camera on. You may want to include optional technical familiarity exercises (i.e. competition for best virtual background) in any induction/getting started activities to increase student confidence in camera use. 

There are a range of ways that students can participate and show engagement in live sessions even if cameras are off, and make sure to remind students of these ways of participating in order to increase student engagement. This guide includes examples and suggestions on ways of incorporating these kinds of engagement activities in your teaching.

Why might students not turn their cameras on?

Students may not ever feel comfortable turning their cameras on, or may have them on in some sessions and off in others. Consider your own use of cameras in meetings with colleagues, and what kinds of considerations and decisions you and colleagues may make. Students may have cameras off for a number of reasons, including:

  • Lack of sufficient internet/technical capabilities - bandwidth is a huge challenge, with geographic, socio-economic, and other demographic correlations that is often to a large degree beyond the control of an individual student. Turning off one's camera is often one of the most effective ways to still be able to participate in live sessions with reduced bandwidth abilities, and so this decision is often a student's way of seeking to prioritise learning, as the alternative may be not attending a live session at all. 
  • Lack of sufficiently private space for study - students may live in shared and/or family accommodation where there is no quiet or private space for participation and study. Whether it is to reduce distractions, for safe-guarding reasons, or other privacy-related aims, students may not have space to be on camera without others also be visible in the frame. Virtual backgrounds can resolve some of these concerns, but is not possible to put in virtual backgrounds on all devices/apps, so this may not universally be possible. 
  • Learning differences and/or disabilities - For some students, sitting in front of a camera for a sustained period of time may be physically challenging, for example if students are mobility impaired, or have chronic pain issues where frequent movement is necessary. For some students who may be neurodiverse or have learning differences, such as variable attention stimulus trait (VAST), concentration may actually be aided by being able to pace around, or fiddle/doodle, neither of which are conducive to being on camera. Finally, some students with learning differences or who are neurodiverse, such as autism or VAST, may find it challenging and distracting to concentrate on the content while also seeing their own faces, and worry about their non-verbal body language. 

Tips for engaging students without cameras

  1. Consider why you prefer students having their cameras on. Is it a preference for non-verbal communication? Is it a hope of replicating the face-to-face environment? Is there a distinct educational/content-related functionality? Research shows that online learning cannot fully replicate the face-to-face environment, and that expectation management is important for both teachers and students (Mottet, 2000). 
  2. If you do want students to have their cameras on, if possible, explain what your preference is for student use of cameras, and explain why (Seidel & Tanner, 2017). This helps students understand where you're coming from and how cameras on/off fits into the academic environment. 
  3. Avoid assuming that a student's camera being off automatically means they are not paying attention and engaging.
  4. Consider an anonymous poll or survey towards the beginning of a module to assess student preferences and need around camera use.
  5. Explain how else you'd like students to participate:
    • Do you want students to use microphones to ask questions at any point, or wait until you specify? 
    • Do you want students to use the chat to ask questions at any point, or wait until you specify? 
    • Do you want students to use temporary emoji reactions to signal their responses throughout?
  6. When asking for written responses in the chat, be sure to:
    • Give students a designated amount of time to reply during which they can concentrate on writing (not also listening to content). This makes it much easier for students to concentrate and produce a response.
    • Clarify when and to what degree perfect spelling, English language capacity, and grammar are or are not relevant.
    • Clarify the amount of detail you're expecting in the responses
    • For example, "What questions did you have after watching the lecture? Spend the next 3 minutes, I am setting a timer, popping any questions in the chat. They do not need to be more than a sentence long, and as long as I can understand what you mean, don't worry about spelling/grammar!"

Ideas for engaging students without cameras

  • Quick straw poll of opinions on a statement, for example to gauge whether there is a debate to be had, or whether students are ready to move on to the next thing:
    • Teams: Post a statement in the chat, ie "Global warming is the biggest crisis the world is facing" or "I am confident I understand this process" and give students 60-90 seconds to attach an emoji reaction to this statement to show whether they agree or disagree. For example, thumbs up for agree, and sad face for disagree. Teams will automatically show a count next to the emojis of how many students have voted for each option, giving you an immediate straw poll of the room. 
    • Zoom: Ask students to vote similarly using emoji reactions at the bottom of their screen to give you a sense of student opinion on the topic. Zoom will not count the reactions for/against for you, but this can still be used to get an estimate.
  • Designate a student note-taker to collate questions from the chat for a Q&A at the end of the session. This means  you don't have to keep track of all the questions while you are talking through a lecture or presentation.
  • Use ice-breaker questions at the beginning and/or end of sessions to confirm student engagement and participation. The questions should be able to be answered in a few words. All students must put in an answer and have a short time (60-90 seconds) to do so. Emphasise participation over perfection or complexity. Use "silly" questions to get everyone engaged, make sure the chat is working, and lower the barrier for further participation by ensuring everyone "succeeds" in this first instance. Sample questions:
    • If you could only keep one object in your house, what would you choose?
    • If you could only eat one thing, what would you choose?
    • What stationery item do you most identify as and why?
    • What skill or quality do you most wish you had?
    • What ice cream flavour sums up your mood right now?
    • What's your favourite plant?
    • If you had to be a type of bread, what bread would you be?
    • What is your favourite drink?
    • What is your favourite mode of transport?
    • If you had to choose, what age group would like to stay in forever?
    • What is your favourite breakfast meal?
    • If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

Further resources & references

Castelli, F.R. and Sarvary, M.A., 2021. Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecology and Evolution, 11 (8), 3565–3576.

Huckins, J.F., Dasilva, A.W., Wang, W., Hedlund, E., Rogers, C., Nepal, S.K., Wu, J., Obuchi, M., Murphy, E.I., Meyer, M.L., Wagner, D.D., Holtzheimer, P.E., and Campbell, A.T., 2020. Mental Health and Behavior During the Early Phases of the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Longitudinal Mobile Smartphone and Ecological Momentary Assessment Study in College Students (Preprint). Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Mottet, T.P., 2000. Interactive television instructors perceptions of students nonverbal responsiveness and their influence on distance teaching. Communication Education, 49 (2), 146–164.

Seidel, S.B. and Tanner, K.D., 2013. “What if students revolt?”—Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 12 (4), 586–595.

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