Against compelling video in on-line class meetings

In the previous post, I lamented that most of the students didn’t use video in my seminar this semester. It came at a cost of making conversation and genuine interaction harder— and also of souring my own experience of the class meetings.

Commenters here and on Facebook consider the possibility of requiring or at least strongly encouraging students to turn on video.1 I think that adopting that kind of policy would be a mistake, at least for me. Here are some reasons why.

  • Some students were self conscious about having their video on, and I get it. When you’re in a face-to-face meeting and just listening, it’s probably the case that nobody’s looking at you. So you don’t have to worry about how you look while listening. In an on-line meeting with all the faces shown as a gallery of thumbnails, you’re presented more directly to everyone else all the time.2
  • As Cathleen Fry tweets, “it’s not just their face showing. It’s their background, their living space, sometimes chaos.” By requiring students to turn on video, you make them reveal where they live and what’s going on behind them. Some will be lucky enough to have a neutral-looking room to themselves, but others will have messy shared spaces.
  • Users who have hiccups in their internet connectivity are advised to turn off their video. Even if having the video on were just extra credit, some students would endure stutters in connectivity so that they’d get those points— and I’d rather they be able to hear everything even if it means not seeing them.
  • Every user in the on-line meeting streams the video, so more more students using video means higher bandwidth requirements for everyone.
  • I had a student who couldn’t get audio to work.3 Maybe his computer didn’t even have a microphone. I’m betting it didn’t have a camera either.

A number of these factors weigh less on students with greater socioeconomic privilege. They’re more likely to have a room to themselves at home, to have a higher end computer, and to have a stable broadband connection. The flipside is that video will be more of a burden on students who are already at a disadvantage.

  1. Hi Holly! Hi Dan!
  2. This might not be a big deal for everyone, but consider a student who suffers from social anxiety at the best of times and now has their stress level cranked to eleven.
  3. Except by calling in. One nice feature of Zoom is that participants can participate in the audio stream by telephone. It was a useful fallback option that got used several times.

2 thoughts on “Against compelling video in on-line class meetings”

  1. Hi PD! I definitely agree with all this about not making it a firm requirement. I was thinking, though, of something more like the clarification of a norm, or a ceteris paribus expectation: when it is possible, please consider that the default state should be video on. I may instead just have a discussion, or a bit in the syllabus, about this. I would clarify how important it is to me as the person up front that I get meaningful feedback in the form of puzzled looks, aha moments, nods when people get things, etc. That this actually changes the pacing and direction of the lecture, and that we are in this together, the students and I.

    This will be for a ~80 person course in the fall term. I worry about lectures or discussions starting to feel like watching regular youtube videos, where there is no acknowledgement of you the viewer by the actual person in there. I want to find ways to avoid having that distance and one-way interaction, reminding them that when I say things like, is that clear? or, any questions on this? or, should we go over that one more time? It is not like Dora the Explorer where she will just pause then do whatever she was going to do anyways.

    Per your other post, I think mostly asynchronous is the way to go. I am thinking about it as a flipped classroom model: most of the time going through well-prepared material at their own time and pace, but with periods of synchronous interaction. I want them to actually *feel* that there is a class, with other people in it, and a professor they can actually interact with. So that is why I am inclining towards some norm of, turn the camera on when you can, with recognition that you cannot always do so, and a note that at any given time in synchronous discussion, I as the person “up front” need to have some predominance of cameras on, maybe half or so, in order for this boat we are all rowing with excruciating slowness to go forward.

  2. Norms and expectations are subtle. One of the students in my asynchronous class commented that they thought that optional Zoom meetings would have helped. I had open hours on Zoom twice a week during the scheduled class time— but I called them “virtual office hours”, and only a few students ever dropped by.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.