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To Screen or Not to Screen; That Is the Question

Distance learning has been taken to a whole new level in the past year, with many schools going completely remote in the spring, while some in the fall have been virtual or offering some sort of hybrid. Although I have been out of the classroom for the past few years, I have been teaching a lot of online classes, some with students all the way from China. I am even teaching some synchronous classes for gifted students who are participating in our virtual learning academy. The dilemma I find myself in is whether to require students to have their cameras on or not. I have heard arguments from both sides, some good, some bad. 

Here are the arguments for and against this practice and then my thoughts on which is best for kids. 


1. Zoom fatigue – like most of us, students have been staring at a screen for entirely too long lately. By the end of the workday, I walk outside, and it takes my eyes a good couple of minutes to refocus and see normally. I get it, and I would be lying if I said on my fourth Zoom meeting of the day that I didn’t turn the camera off so that I could put my head down and not look at the screen. Wouldn’t it be OK at the end of a long day or during a two-hour lecture, for students to turn their camera off so that they can rest their eyes?

2. Anxiety – in a regular classroom setting, the teacher and students are not staring at each other all of the time. In an online meeting, everyone is staring at everyone, and this can be unsettling. Some students like to fade into the background and thus feel uncomfortable being put in the spotlight. There is a feeling that everyone is watching you, and because the image is large, students may be worried about how they appear to others. School can be tough enough with people judging you, being blown up on a computer screen just makes this worse. 

3. Home life distractions – it is difficult to find a space in your home where you are not going to be bothered by the everyday goings-on in a household. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to stop class to yell at our dog barking at the Amazon driver delivering his umpteenth package. It could be anything from pets, brothers or sisters, to nosy parents and televisions in the background. These distractions could bring your classroom to a grinding halt. Try getting a class of 2nd graders back on task after a cat walks by someone’s camera. Wouldn’t it just be better to turn the camera off and not have these potential distractions playing in the background?

4. Technology not supported – some virtual platforms have bandwidth requirements for video sharing. You might think a student is being obstinate when you ask them to turn their camera on, but they simply might not have the Wi-Fi power to do so. Imagine a family of three children all doing virtual learning. You have three people, plus probably the parents, pulling from the same source, making it difficult to get reliable service. Or they might be using a device that does not have a camera. Make sure you figure out the situation before chastising a student for leaving their camera off. 

5. Socio-economic reasons: some students might be embarrassed about what their home looks like. While at school, students have equal access to their teacher, the playground, and the cafeteria. However, once students go home, the equity ceases to be as some go back to a house that might look very different than someone else’s. While you are in school, you can cover this up, but with everyone looking into your home, it would be difficult to hide. Students might be worried they will be judged by other classmates. 

These are all legitimate concerns as to why students should be able to leave their cameras off. However, there are arguments for leaving them on as well. 


1. Replacing one screen for another – there are times when students are not showing themselves because they have become bored and are playing on their phones or iPad. If the student is claiming to have Zoom fatigue, they should not be shutting the camera down only to give their attention to another screen. If a student truly has issues from staring at the screen all day long, they should be resting their eyes. 

2. Compliance – raise your hand if you have been in a meeting at school and have checked your email, looked at your Facebook or Twitter page, or been shopping for shoes on Amazon? The temptation to get off task when a computer is sitting in front of you is mighty. Imagine you are a 4th grader or a sophomore in high school. Teachers make the argument that they want to see their students because they want to make sure they are on-task and being compliant rather than napping or trying to see how many pretzel sticks they can fit in their mouth at one time. 

3. Engagement – it is easier to engage with a person when you can see them. Think about your engagement levels when talking to someone on the phone where you cannot see their body language or facial tics. Phone conversations can oftentimes turn into one person talking at the other, and the same goes for classroom discussions when you cannot see the faces of those participating. By being able to see the faces of students, you see whether they are getting something or not, whether they are genuinely excited about something, or whether they are confused and need help. 

4. Safety and SEL – within the confines of our own classroom, we can keep children safe. When they are at home, though, we do not have as much control. I have seen an older brother hit a younger brother, a child playing with a sharp object, and one who was precariously leaning back in his chair. There are horror stories of some of the things teachers have seen and reported to authorities to keep children safe. There are also more subtle issues, such as when a child looks dirty or haggard or just appears to be sad. Seeing our students enables us to identify when a student might be struggling with social and/or emotional issues. One of the biggest clues to there being a problem are the actions and appearance of the students. If we cannot see them, it is going to be much more difficult to pick up on these, and given that there might be even more stress given the global pandemic, it is important to catch these things before they become a larger problem.  

5. Connection – at a time where we seem to be putting further and further distance between us, it is important to make connections so that we seem closer. My students in China are nearly 7000 miles away from me, but I work very hard at making personal connections with them so that it seems like they are in the room with me. I would not be able to do this if I couldn’t see them and be able to identify what they look like or how they are reacting as I talk with them. This connection is one of the greatest things students miss about not physically being in school, so it is very important in your virtual setting to try to achieve this. 

As you can see, there are good arguments for and against students having to have their cameras on during remote learning. Which side makes the most sense? Like most things in life, there is no clear right or wrong response to this problem. My college professor who taught educational law always said when it came to a ruling, “it depends.” 

I think it all comes down to your motive as the teacher and what you are trying to accomplish by having their cameras on. There is a clear distinction between having students turn on their cameras to monitor and have them turn them on so that you can engage them. A monitored live classroom is not very authentic, so imagine how much worse it is in a virtual setting. If you are lecturing to a bunch of students and just want to ensure they are paying attention, this is not a compelling reason for cameras to be on. However, if you want to see faces because you are having a discussion or are having a one-on-one conversation with a student, that is a good reason. 

In my class, I ask students to turn their cameras on while discussing something or conferencing with them in one of the breakout rooms. While we are watching a video or if they are working independently, I allow them to turn them off. 

I also have private conversations with students who do not turn their cameras on regularly rather than call them out. I had a girl who was not turning on her camera after I asked the class to do so. We went into a breakout to talk about it, and it turned out she had had surgery on her eye and was embarrassed to be seen with the bandages on her face. Just like in the regular classroom, you have to take it on a case-by-case situation. 

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