To Video or Not to Video: That Is the Question

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Welcome to the world of Covid-19 and online teaching! Do you like teaching this way? Is it working for you? Are your classes synchronous or asynchronous? At the University of Guelph, we’re using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous EAP classes. This means that every week I meet my class online at a set time while they are located in Guelph, in Korea, in Japan, and in China. These students have never met me or one another face-to-face.  Is it ethical, therefore, for me to require them to turn on their video and show their face to the class?

Last term, this was an on-going issue.   When I asked students to turn on their cameras, some turned them on and left them on for the entire class; these tended to be the extroverts, and generally the strongest English speakers. Other students either turned on their videos for a few seconds before turning them off again, or left them facing the ceiling, or didn’t turn them on at all.

I’ve been reflecting on this situation and asking students and colleagues for their opinion about having cameras on or off during synchronous class time.

There are some compelling arguments for asking students to turn on their cameras.  For example:

  • I find it easier to give instruction to a group of faces than to an empty computer screen. I’m always looking for visual cues to see if my students understood the concepts and I can move on, or if they look puzzled, and I need to give more explanation;
  • it’s easier for me to build a positive relationship with a student who shows their face in class;
  • it’s easier for me to interpret students with poor pronunciation if I can see their mouths and watch their expressions; and
  • it’s easier for the students to get to know one another and to develop friendships, or at least acquaintanceships if they can see one another’s faces.

However, I’ve also begun to understand that there are many reasons why students prefer to leave their video off. For instance:

  • some students’ homes don’t have much bandwidth and their computers run more smoothly without the video turned on;
  • the white board on our screen gets progressively smaller and therefore, harder to read with each additional face on screen;
  • a student might be having a bad hair day, or might still (or already, if they’re overseas) be wearing pajamas or other unsuitable clothing;
  • a student might be embarrassed about an unruly roommate, sibling, child, or parent that may appear on their screen;
  • a student might be tired of staring at their own image on the screen; or
  • a student might feel safer speaking in English if the whole class isn’t staring at them.

In this coming term, I’m going to take a different approach.  My plan is to ask students to turn on their cameras at the beginning of each class to say, “Good morning.” This seems like a courteous and friendly way to begin each class.  After that, they’re free to turn off the video if they wish. We’ll see if this works.

If you are reading this blog, then you’re probably familiar with my world, a world that spins around teaching, grammar, pronunciation, sentence structure, Canadian culture, and all things English. I’m fascinated by the places where cultures intersect: when Asia meets America, South touches North, and desert dwellers converse with snow shovellers. I see these things every day in my class, and they are the things I want to post about. After teaching EFL in China, and computer skills in LINC, I started teaching EAP at the University of Guelph, and sixteen years later, I’m still at it. I earned a BA in English literature from the University of Waterloo, and a B.Ed from Western Ontario University. I also have my ESL Part 2 and TESL Certification.


7 thoughts on “To Video or Not to Video: That Is the Question”

  1. Hi Eve,

    Thank you for this! I am about to start teaching a short EAP course with synchronous and asynchronous elements, and the camera question is giving me a bit of anxiety for all the reasons you so well explained.
    I am going to try your new approach! I will let you know how it works!
    Thanks again!

  2. The camera issue came up frequently in my UOIT Masters of Ed course, with some professors demanding 100% cameras on, and others leaving it up to the students. One prof would deduct participation marks if you chose to turn off your camera. (Having the appropriate equipment and bandwidth was a requirement for entrance into the program).

    The argument for mandatory in-camera participation was that one could not build community without being able to see faces. It was hard to argue against Roland, the prof, as he had been doing some major research on this very subject. So if you were in his class, you came prepared, and camera-ready.

    With our language learners, their circumstances are different, and I can see why some would not want to be on camera. We don’t know what’s happening in their homes so we need to be flexible. That said, I agree that for a synchronous session, the connection is much better when we can see faces. Community can also be built, to a lesser extent, inside of other collaborative activities (shared docs, chats, discussion forums).

    I am conflicted about requiring our adult learners to be on cam during the live classroom sessions because it is not the same thing as the requirement for F2F; i.e. the argument is that if the student is supposed to be in class from 9-3 in person, then they need to be on camera for the online course. We risk isolating learners that can’t commit to this because of issues happening in their homes, and they are the ones that need this connection and learning the most.

    As for my own experience, I’m not exactly an extrovert. I will go on camera but I’m self-conscious about it. I’ve become an expert in camera placement (looking down is more flattering so I have my laptop perched on a milk crate, and angled down). I’ve had to be part of Microsoft Live Team meetings over the past few months – and I live with my hubby and teenage son, who are accustomed to roaming about in their underwear. I had to make a sign indicating I was “LIVE” so as to avoid this potential disaster.

    My advice for our audience of language learners is to offer choice, to encourage them to be on camera if they can. Phrase it in a way that emphasizes the online classroom as a safe space, and a place for the students to create community. Advise your learners to contact you privately if they will have challenges with this.

    1. All good points, Jennifer. However, I have noticed that after this term, when students only turned on their cameras to say hello and answer the question of the day at the start of class and then generally turned them off for the remainder of the class, after a while I forgot that the cameras were off and I just taught as if I was speaking to their faces.

  3. Hello Eve,

    Your article was helpful! I will keep your experience in mind when I start teaching a summer EAP/ESLA university course next week.
    Thanks, Beth

  4. Hi Jennifer,
    I found your comment extremely compelling. I am quite careful when it comes to privacy and online safety, and being forced to keep the camera on would make me a bit nervous.
    I feel a connection and a sense of community even as I am communicating with you and others on this blog. I too completed an online degree, but we were not forced to appear on camera. I felt a sense of kinship with Professors and peers alike even though I never saw them.
    I do not want to belittle your Prof’s research, but I am convinced the sense of community I felt while completing my degree was given shared values, passion about education, and the willingness to cooperate with others.
    Thanks for sharing your comment.

    1. Hi Daniela – I agree with you about the camera use, and I don’t think it made our sense of community any more, or any less. It was just really difficult to make that point with Roland, his being the Director of the program and all! I think a good, timely interaction coupled with mutual respect goes a lot further in building classroom rapport than forced video conferencing.

      1. Hi Jennifer,
        I’ll have to agree with you! You have said it perfectly: it is the quality and the timeliness of the interaction that makes the difference.

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