On 5th November, a number of the ELU attended the London e-Learning Reading Group’s discussion about the use of cameras in webinars. Joining colleagues from different London institutions, we explored the issues around expectations of camera use including privacy, anonymity and emotional wellbeing.
Although there is, as yet, limited academic literature on this topic, we started our discussion by looking at contrasting view expressed in education blogs:
- Maha Bali’s About that Webcam Obsession You’re Having,
- Doug Lemov’s Cameras On: A Response to the Outrage.
The second key reading is specifically about school education, not HE, but we agreed that the videos included give inspiring examples of great teaching. In these cases, cameras are shown to create an inclusive and effective learning environment. With an awareness of the different HE context, we used this text as a jumping off point for discussion about how interactive tools, like chat and polls can support such interactive teaching. The student-centred text encouraged us to explore who cameras are for – are they for the teacher to see the students, the students see the teacher or the students see each other. One key take-away was the importance of reflecting on this question before deciding on ‘best’ camera use in a given teaching scenario. For example, Bali’s blog post suggests that the desire for ‘cameras-on’ often comes from teachers rather than students and is used as a proxy for engagement. The idea that you can ‘see’ engagement was critiqued in our reading group. Along with Bali, we agreed that it is much less isolating for a teacher to see engaged faces during a webinar or lecture, but the idea that you can gauge learning through facial expression was felt to be highly problematic.
In the reading group, we nearly all kept our cameras on for the whole time, though some people chose to turn theirs off on occasion, for example, because of bandwidth issues but also to take a walk after a long day of sitting in front of a computer. One colleague’s reflection that they personally did not always feel ‘camera ready’ for 9am meetings, especially given the over-time and stress involved in working in Learning Technology during lockown, stuck a chord with all. If this was a barrier for professionals, many of whom work in educational technology, we agreed it should be assumed to equally apply to students. Adding complexity however, was the isolation of working and studying during the COVID crisis. While acknowledging the valid reasons for not wanting to share cameras, we also discussed the problems of loneliness that camera use could alleviate.
The key takeaway from the group was reached through sharing of current or observed best practice. It was inspiring to learn how, in some settings, the question of camera use in webinars was used to help students and staff take joint ownership in creating the online learning environment. Explicitly discussing webinar ground-rules with students at the start of a session or course can diffuse tensions caused by different expectations of online classroom behaviour. Such ground-rules can be flexible, for example, using cameras during discussions but not during presentations, or turning cameras on when you talk, but not when you are listening. They can also be revisited later on in a course as people learn more about preferences and work habits in these challenging times.