You’re leading a seminar about this week’s topic. You’ve gone through the arguments, counterarguments and the fine details forgotten by the textbooks. You conclude, sit down and ask for the thoughts of the students. Silence.
If you’re a lecturer, you may know this experience all too well. A promising opportunity for intellectual discussion becomes “another hour I’ll never get back” as you prod and poke students just to splutter a word or two.
In an age of virtual learning, where lectures and seminars are now group video calls, academics face a new version of this problem. Not only do some students go unheard, but they also go unseen. As lecturers and their classes have discovered, a number of those attending virtual gatherings decline to turn on their cameras.
Some students complain to their module leaders that their peers don’t appear on screen. Not all academics think it’s down to them to sort it out. As one PhD student and tutor told me, if the academic has worked their socks off to design a cracking online seminar, it’s surely now the students’ job, not to mention their courtesy, to turn up.
In the past, some students insisted that they and their peers were marked according to their contributions in class – now, they ask that someone gets everyone in the call to show their face. Students are here to learn, after all, and how can they do this if their peers are not willing to put forward their own ideas?
Facing up to it
Everyone would prefer to be teaching and learning in person. When the cameras are off, virtual learning feels impersonal. The relationship between the students and their tutor wanes. With many students reporting that they are struggling to build relationships or do not feel part of a learning community, getting them to see and meet each other will help their academic wellbeing.
A faceless, voiceless seminar hampers the learning environment, but for students on drama, music and performance degrees, a good education is downright possible. You have to display something to get any value out of your work.
There are also linguistic benefits to seeing someone’s face as they speak to you. When you can see someone in front of you, you can read their face and likely get a better understanding of intonation, tone and intended meaning. For students whose first language is not English, or students with aural difficulties, the chance to read someone’s lips can make or break the quality of their education.
For these reasons, a policy to compel the use of cameras in virtual learning seems tempting. Those yearning for the pre-pandemic days to come back will be pleased. Finally, a seminar that’s something like it’s meant to be: a gathering of intellectual minds, working through problems and learning from each other.
I don’t doubt that most of us miss the pre-pandemic days. Most of us think classes in person beat classes online too. A policy might force a change back toward “proper” seminars, but it won’t tell us anything about why students have reacted to online teaching in this way.
Sorry about the mess
Roughly a year ago, most students were attending their classes in person on campus. Barely anyone had heard of Zoom – video calls were associated with businesspeople in teleconferences, families speaking to relatives abroad and candidates attending virtual job interviews. You had relative control over who would have the freedom to peek inside your home.
Now, almost every class is virtual. Whether you’re starting a new module, a new degree or new lecturing job, or carrying on your studies and work, students, lecturers and SU staff across all universities have had to suddenly let total strangers see into their homes, where all of their possessions and personal effects are on show.
We all know the joys of working from home. On several video calls with students, colleagues and academics, I have had to move to my bedroom to sit as close as I can to my router – in exchange for a better connection and a complete meeting, I have to show everyone my most private space.
Students have to put up with the same exchange. As Emily Johnstone, a PhD student, writes for Epigram, “In one click, your student house – complete with the piles of coffee cups, takeaways and a hungover housemate roaming around in their dressing gown – is on view to your entire cohort and lecturer.”
Do you have a credibility bookshelf? What does your video background say about you? We know from summers of interviews, political speeches and Zoom quizzes that the folks in your video call don’t just wait to tell you when you’re on mute; they like to look over your shoulders and make judgments about your tastes, self-discipline and even your intelligence. If you don’t have the complete works of Dickens or an immaculate studio behind you, you may prefer to stay anonymous.
With classes now digital, “It’s almost impossible now to sit on your phone paying zero attention to what’s going on” a Liverpool student writes for The Tab. What a shame, the student argues, as it deprives them of their chance to slack off and cover up their gaunt countenance following a night on the town.
You may have this sort of student in mind as you plan your camera policy. The sleepy students of old haven’t gone away, though they may well now attend virtual classes from under the covers. (Some lecturers have caught a glimpse of a guest in the study bed with them.) But the stereotype of the partying, scatterbrained undergraduate laggard, while idolised by The Tab, is not only far removed from student life today, but it’s also no basis for a policy on cameras in virtual classes.
Think past the student cliches. What about students who are looking after someone else while at home? Between 3 and 6% of students are carers, the NUS estimated in 2016. Students who care for others are four times as likely to drop out of education as other students without those responsibilities. Also looking after others may be mature students with their own children. They may not want to put themselves on camera, as they may be with someone who needs their attention, someone who might be in a more vulnerable position in an international pandemic or a national lockdown.
What about the students who have left care themselves? Or the students who come from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds? Some of the members of our learning community do not have the money to keep up with the technological requirements. In pre-pandemic times, there were communal computers and laptops on loan for these students. Now they may be doing their three-year undergraduate degree at a prestigious university using just their thumbs against a phone screen, struggling against incompatible learning apps.
There will always be exceptions to the rules, you may say. Poorer students and those attached to the care system need more support than most, but they are in the minority, just as they’ve always been. Think instead of the thousands of students who find themselves cramped into box-like, dimly-lit rooms, or those who find themselves in difficult circumstances, perhaps paying extortionate rents (whether in private digs or halls), living with strangers or in isolation, likely at the expense of their mental health? Some of them simply can’t leave their rooms because they’re self-isolating. For them and for so many others, their workstation is also their lounge, study, bedroom and something of a prison. If everything has to be on show or nothing, some will choose to show nothing.
For students taking their degree in their pyjamas, spending this year at home with Mum and Dad, the requirement to go on camera is a minor inconvenience. But for other students, from parents and carers to those for whom virtual learning and confinement to a tiny room in a massive student accommodation are all too much, the freedom to learn “anonymously” makes a huge difference to their wellbeing, privacy and, ultimately, commitment to their studies.
In these trying circumstances, what should we reasonably expect from students? Every university will be different. If, like at Cambridge, you told your students well in advance that their classes would all be online, then it seems fair to expect them to virtually “show up”. If, however, you gambled, promising in-person teaching and squeaky-clean campuses, only to shift all teaching online and lock your students up, you can understand why your seminar team, especially the Freshers cooped up in a small room somewhere in an unfamiliar city, don’t feel as keen to put themselves on the screen.
Finding the perfect policy will be a difficult balancing act, trying to deliver a quality virtual education while respecting wellbeing, privacy and comfort of all involved, especially those taking part in difficult conditions. The first step towards a policy is to ask why students don’t want to show themselves. The reasons aren’t as strange as you think.