Including the Invisible Student
As teachers and students attempt to navigate the ever-changing world of education in 2020, the only thing that seems certain is that distance or virtual learning will remain essential. Teachers have produced herculean efforts in adapting to new modalities, and students are no less worthy of credit. They have bravely, even if not willingly, embraced the challenges of an abrupt shift.
Though many schools are experimenting with asynchronous models and options, most schools will continue to use web conferencing tools to run synchronous sessions. This means teachers and students will be spending a lot of time in front of a screen, and in front of a camera.
Teachers have already noticed that some students are hesitant to keep their cameras on. They opt instead to sign into the session muted and with cameras off. For many teachers, this feels like the equivalent of a student taking a nap in the middle of class – head down, eyes closed. And for some students, this might be true. Keeping the camera off might be a sign of disengagement. But for other students, it is something else entirely. They want to be engaged in the learning, but having the camera on is intimidating.
Let’s try to understand this phenomena. After all, for most of their schooling, being ‘visible’ is the default. Why would a student feel hesitant to turn on their camera? The response of teens to this question is eye-opening. I have heard the following idea from a number of students: “When your camera is on, everyone can see you and you can’t tell when they are looking at you.” Especially for adolescents and teens, in their most self-conscious years, this can feel threatening and even scary. Many schools have adopted a ‘cameras on’ policy wherein students are required to keep their cameras on during live sessions. For the most part, this ensures that students are not signing in and then leaving their computers unmanned. But mandating ‘cameras on’ will not help to ease this anxiety for students who, justifiably, want to keep their cameras off. Other factors may also contribute to students wanting their cameras off. Students may also feel a lack of control over their ‘backgrounds’. It might be messy, there might be a lot of movement from parents or siblings that could be distracting or even embarrassing. They also may simply not have the bandwidth to carry a zoom call with their camera on, especially if other family members are simultaneously using web conferencing platforms.
Clearly, this year we will need to examine how we can include students who want to be ‘invisible’. The easiest, and most obvious solution is to limit the amount of time spent on Zoom. This means allowing students to have brief whole class meetings on Zoom and then engaging them with non-direct instruction. (Incidentally, this is also the most pedagogically sound approach to online learning!) This could be collaborative work groups in breakout rooms, this could be individual work with one on one meetings, or this could be asynchronous whole group work. If students know that they will have a 15-minute morning meeting and then an afternoon check-in, they are more likely to be willing to leave their cameras on for that limited amount of time. This also helps to alleviate both Zoom fatigue and Zoom ‘traffic’ (too many devices logged on at once!).
But how do we assess student engagement if we can not see them? We are used to relying on facial expressions and ‘in person’ participation for these clues. This year, we will need to expand our assessment toolbox. Luckily, many online learning tools, platforms, and curricula have been thinking about this for years, and teachers need not reinvent the wheel.
We can get crucial feedback from students without seeing them. When we build asynchronous assignments and materials for the students, we gauge engagement through their completion of the tasks. Students who submit or finish tasks on time and completely are showing a high level of engagement. Students who are lagging behind may be having trouble with the material, or may not understand how to submit their work. This would be an indication that the teacher should reach out to the student to troubleshoot. In a one-on-one meeting, the student may be more willing to keep their camera on.
We can also create collaborative synchronous activities that either do not require cameras to be on, or encourage students to keep cameras on. Some students will give it a try in a breakout room when it is a smaller group. Alternatively, you can use platforms like Padlet, Jamboard, or Flipgrid where students can control what they share and how they share it.
This year may allow us to rethink our approach to student engagement overall. Showing up to class and being “visible” is one step, but meaningful engagement is achieved through consistent and substantive discussions, feedback, and reflection. This rings true in all classrooms – virtual or in-person.
Many teachers are tempted to ask students to turn their cameras on – and sometimes it is warranted. We would certainly not advocate a scenario where a teacher never sees their student. But it might behoove us all to take the challenge of creating an environment where students feel safe and seen – even if their cameras are off.