Blog Post

Cameras Optional, Please! Remembering Student Lives As We Plan Our Online Syllabus

Online learning, Remote Learning, Video, Cameras

As I prepare for my day of Zoom, WebEx, and MicroSoft Office meetings, a guy stands outside my bathroom window. My meeting starts at 9:30. It is 9:00 now. So much for that bath--or even a quick shower ahead of my meeting. Another guy happens to be outside my living room window, exactly 1 foot from where I will be on camera in my makeshift Zoom office. He has a drill.  The camera is about to roll. By the way, I live on the 9th floor.

Admittedly, this is not a typical day. These men happen to be point tucking the brick today. They are suspended (terrifyingly!) in metal baskets, with lots of guide ropes. While men in baskets suspended nine stories up is not a usual occurrence, disruption is.  Our makeshift home offices--and those our students cobble together for their online classes--are fraught with distractions if not outright peril. Besides the men with drills, my partner is in the kitchen grinding coffee, preparing for his own Zoom meeting (also taking place in the kitchen). Our always-shaky, overloaded urban bandwidth has "reloaded" twice in the brief time it has taken me to write these paragraphs.

All these things are exactly typical.  And they are some of the reasons why, as you plan your Fall courses, especially if you and your students are learning online for the first time, it is crucial that you make cameras optional, not required.  As you are planning your syllabus, if your institution allows it, think about making some of your course (if not most or all) asynchronous not synchronous.

The "edupreneurs" who are telling us a lot right now about various online technologies--and selling them to our university at top dollar--too often ignore the human costs of the emergency situation we all find ourselves in. I'm a fan of online learning when online learning is what one wants---and when it is done well.  But we are not in a situation of choice for most students.  We are in a global pandemic that requires emergency action. Unlike those who choose to take an online degree (and many of my HASTAC colleagues over the years have completed excellent online degrees while working full time and parenting), students now are going online whether they like it or not, whether they have an ideal home situation for learning, and with no more prep or predilection for online learning than their profs.

So I repeat my one small but crucial piece of advice (more than advice: it's an admonition): Make cameras optional.  

We should treat video presence in our online Fall emergency distance education courses in the way we treat all accessibility, building in digital accommodations in the way one would physical.  If you or your institution requires presence, offer alternative forms for students for whom presence means disenfranchisement, hardship, shame, or lack of participation (ie. bandwidth--I had to turn off my video yesterday at our FI staff meeting in order that we could hear better).  This is an opportunity for digital literacy and for demonstrating your concern for learning. What are your system's capacities? Perhaps, if a student doesn't want to be seen or cannot be, subtitles are the answer.   Maybe chat. Maybe blogs before class or texting.  There one that matters most: how can you, as an educator, find an open, equitable way to help students learn what you most want to offer them.

If your administrators disagree, feel free to share this blog with them.  They may simply not have thought this through. Their IT team and the faculty already doing distance learning (there are typically experts on every campus) will help think this through.

There are many reasons students can rightly object to being on camera. Privacy is one reason. Among other things, no one really knows what will happen with all the data from all these student videos. Edtech companies have grabbed our words and our private information in the past, for marketing or harassment.  They have grabbed our faces for new (racist) facial recognition AI. What will they do with video of the inside of our homes?

There are many inequalities in the classroom. Those exist and are magnified and potentially retained and reused for other purposes online.

Here is a list of just some of the complex issues students I know first hand have had to contend with in this emergency teaching situation:

--Bandwidth (not enough, spotty, multiple people in a household having to work or go to school from home at once)

--Bandwidth #2 (a whole neighborhood or town unable to keep up with bandwidth requirements--this is frequent in peak hours in NYC and also in many rural areas)

--Lack of a specific, designated home broadcast/study space perfectly soundproof and set off from the rest of one's family or roommates (NB: even I do not have that; how many students do?)

--Small children (bad enough to be going to school as a working parent and having to contend with childcare but to do that live, online, on camera is impossible; for traditional age students, the kids might be siblings.)

--Older children (can any 13 year old resist pranking an older sibling or a parents' Zoom screen?)

--Relatives ("Gramps! Put on your shirt! I'm in class!")

--Shame about revealing one's economic status in a less than perfect home setting (and, yes, a digital or paper background can help this)

--Unwillingness to have classmates see one's juvenile bedroom (the Marxist feminist who once was totally into K-Pop)  (NB: I was recently criticized for my bookshelf--when I was staying in a home that was not my own). 


--Illness (students with Covid did not want to be identified as such)


--Cognitive differences that made a bunch of Zoom faces a confusing and even frightening experience

--Poor grooming (no haircut in weeks, roots showing, etc; a guy working on the brick outside your 9th story bathroom so you have to go on camera not looking your best, etc.)

I could go on but you get the point. There are many great ways to make community without requiring that students be on screen for every class--or any class. As always, I would suggest you ask the students what they prefer and why. If they cannot be on camera or don't wish to be, find another way they can contribute to community. Ask them for ideas.  I assure you they will have some great ones.

One more time:  make cameras optional, not required. 







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