Please, let students turn their videos off in class

June 1, 2020, 8:04 p.m.

In the face of the current global pandemic, professors around the world have had no choice but to migrate their teaching environments to Zoom. While faculty adjust to a new way of teaching, students have had to adjust to a new way of learning. In the meantime, at Stanford, students have begun requesting a new type of accommodation from the Office of Accessible Education: a letter that allows them to turn off their camera during class. 

Carleigh Kude, the Assistant Director for Disability Advising at OAE, reported that this type of request has come from students in a variety of circumstances — not just students with disabilities: 

“We have students who are parents, whose children need homeschooling. We have students who don’t have a room in which they can close the door. We have students who are couchsurfing, or students with very personal home environments, and students across the world 13 hours ahead of time, who would wake up their family if they talked. There are really an infinite number of reasons why a student would be struggling through this [pandemic] and with engagement requirements right now.”

The need for these accommodation requests stems from mandatory video policies in individual classes, instituted by professors who are hoping to retain some level of normalcy in this very abnormal situation. When asked why their professors defended such policies, students quoted a variety of reasons. 

Ryan Lewis, a junior at the University of Southern California, notes, “My professor says seeing student faces is more conducive to a teaching environment that fosters collaboration. He also says he misses us.”

Joey Schwartz, a junior at Pitzer College, recounts, “I think it’s to check our behavior during class. Since classes at Claremont Colleges are small, we’ve had to turn on our video during sections and language classes for a participation grade.”

Most students report that their professors justify mandatory camera policies with some form of surveying the classroom for participation, attention and sentiment check. But mandatory video policies in class are not an appropriate solution to student attention — especially amid a global pandemic, when the negative effects of such policies are clear. We ran a survey of 46 students across the country, and two-thirds of our respondents reported they have been in a situation where they felt uncomfortable having their camera on in class. When asked why, respondents said they were self-conscious about being seen in class, weren’t in private spaces and/or didn’t want to show their current living situations.

Petrina Kuo, a senior and international student at USC, reported a confusion we’ve seen from several other students regarding the consequences of turning off her camera: “No one knows what the punishment is to have our video turned off. I guess the professor is going to reduce our participation grade, or maybe they’ll call us out during lecture.” Kuo also believes that having video turned on is counterproductive to the goal of learning in class, stating, “I find myself distracted with all my friends’ faces when I have my video turned on, especially since it’s been months since I last saw them in person.” 

We saw this sentiment further reflected in the experiences of a diverse range of  students. Anu Khandelwal, a sophomore at Ashoka University in India, finds herself constantly peeking at herself or her classmates during online lectures. “It is quite hard,” she says, “to not instinctively pay attention to all the people I haven’t seen in months.”

With this transition to online everything, students have been forced to uncomfortably blend the academic, professional and social worlds, and they now spend time in front of their screens much longer than they normally would.  This unprecedented amount of time on video has led to a phenomenon called “Zoom fatigue.”  

Zoom fatigue is exacerbated by the fact that video calls are very different than in-person communication, and humans aren’t used to relying on video-based calls so heavily. Dr. Scott Debb, the chair of the M.S. program in cyberpsychology at Norfolk State University (NSU), explained to us that over Zoom, a large amount of body language is lost, draining energy from students.

“We’re spending a lot of mental energy filling in these non-verbal blanks, and it’s using up our mental resources to pay attention, to figure out what we can contribute to the meeting,” Debb said.

In addition to the effort to fill in these “blanks,” students’ Zoom fatigue is intensified by the feeling of being looked at while also looking at themselves. In an article for The Wall Street Journal, Stanford communications professor Jeremy Bailenson reports that the “constant gaze” put on students in Zoom settings can lead to heightened attention, but at a cost. Referencing an experiment at Stanford, Bailenson notes that “the learners reported being very uncomfortable getting stared at for an entire lesson.” 

Other educators agree: in a recent Twitter thread, online learning and trauma expert Karen Costa quoted research on stress induced by self-perception, stating that “Zooming with the camera on is like having to stare at yourself in a mirror while also seeing everyone else stare at you. It’s like a mirror squared.” The “mirror squared” experience can cause difficulties for those with anxiety, body dysmorphia and trauma. With trauma even more widespread today due to the crisis, Costa emphasized to us that it is especially important now to be sensitive and flexible with students. 

Debb added that students who are scared to publicize their disabilities are especially vulnerable. Debb is a professor himself, and he has never enforced camera usage in his class.

From the lens of equity, enforced camera usage in class can be especially problematic for those from low-income backgrounds. Not only might they be in a space they don’t want to broadcast to their peers, but they might have existing responsibilities, especially during the crisis. Debb has specialized in researching the digital experiences of minority students in particular, since a large percentage of the student body at NSU is first-generation. He notes that “it’s a privilege to be a student that can dedicate every waking moment to their studies,” which limits students with side jobs or other financial or family priorities from fully investing in class attendance during the pandemic.

Guides published by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford emphasize the need to “normalize the many reasons students might prefer to keep their video off, such as poor bandwidth, not wanting visual distraction, or not wanting to share their current environment.” Unfortunately, this recommendation isn’t echoed in any resources or guides published by the Vice Provost for Technology and Learning, nor has it been adhered to by all professors. From the survey, we’ve identified cases in which professors called out students who didn’t have their video on, singling them out in front of their fellow classmates.

Let us be clear: we’re not asking for a one-size-fits-all solution. There are classes where a lack of video wouldn’t support a class environment, like small discussion-based sections or art practicums. However, we strongly encourage professors to have empathy and understanding when it comes to students’ situations, and we discourage mandatory camera policies whenever possible. 

When designing your course, ask yourself: What do I want students to get out of the class? Are videos essential or even helpful to the learning objectives of your course? Can I do it some other way? Costa recommends a range of other ways to keep students engaged, from using Zoom features like chats and polls to foster discussion and feedback, to running asynchronous activities which can be submitted by students without the use of a camera.

“We recommend gracious and flexible behavior from professors while we address case-by-case accommodations. Be gracious to your students, but be gracious to yourself, too. This is hard on everyone, faculty and students alike,” Kude advocates. “But students should also recognize that they are adults, and should take a break when they need to.”

Melody Yang, Stanford ’21, agrees. “It’s not fair for us to be compelled to turn our video on, but no one wants to be in this situation right now,” they said. “But when you have five-plus hours of classes and club meetings in front of the camera, at the end of the day I’m so tired and don’t want to be here. I stop processing.”

Although nothing is set in stone yet, departments are already anticipating a fall quarter that may be partially or completely remote like this one. For this summer (and whether fall is remote or not), we can only hope that we learn from our mistakes this past quarter so that everyone can have a better experience in the future.

Contact Vincent Nicandro at nicandro ‘at’, Alex Weitzman at alexwe ‘at’ and Aditya Khandelwal at akhand ‘at’

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