We’ve written before on this site about how ‘cameras on’ can be transformative in online teaching. Classrooms are most inclusive when they make as many students as possible to feel seen–literally and figuratively. That said getting cameras on isn’t always easy. TLAC Team members Jen Rugani & Dillon Fisher spent some time thinking about this challenge and put together this how to guide to getting cameras on whenever possible.
Remote teaching has left many of us feeling disconnected, so nothing beats the joy of seeing your students faces log onto your classroom via video. In most cases it’s the same for them. Seeing faces builds emotional connection, fosters classroom community, and can help us see how our students are really doing, both academically and personally, throughout a lesson. Yet, as we navigate the world of remote teaching, there are a host of valid challenges for both students and teachers being visible on camera.
Whether or not there is an explicit camera policy in place at your school or district, here are some ideas to help you establish classroom cultures where students feel safe and comfortable turning their cameras on.
Rolling out a school or grade-level cameras-on norm:
Creating strong norms for technology usage requires thoughtful planning and patience, no matter when you start. Here are four anchor beliefs to ground your thinking:
- Implementing a norm of cameras on should be done in partnership with students and families: Turning on a camera from home is an unfamiliar ask. We’d be remiss to make assumptions about what may prevent students from doing this successfully. Even (and especially) if this hasn’t been an expectation all year, take time to work with families and students before you expect a dramatic turnaround in camera culture.
- Share your why with families broadly: We believe that students are more likely to feel connected and engaged when they can see and interact with the faces of their peers and teachers. Sharing this rationale (with specific examples) with students and families can help create a shared understanding that makes it easier for everyone to work towards the same end-goal.
- Conduct opportunities to hear from families: Partnering with families is critical. Create opportunities to hear from your families regarding comfort level with norming cameras on, create spaces (e.g. virtual coffee-chats) for families to share their thinking. One network that did this was surprised to find that only 8% of parents were uncomfortable expecting cameras-on during live lessons.
- Create opportunities to hear from students: Being aware of and responding to student voice will help your team create norms tailored to your community. As with families, we recommend schools create space (perhaps in advisory or via survey) for students to ask questions and share their own feelings before determining camera-usage norms.
Having specific data around your school community can help your team plan for the best solutions that support students and families in feeling safe and comfortable turning on their camera and engaging in class.
The more widespread the better: Once a shared norm of ‘cameras on’ develops among most students, the resulting culture often encourages more students to want to join in. Policies alone won’t create a shared norm; gaining momentum by building an initial critical mass of students with cameras on in class is important. School teams can outline specific strategies to help nudge classrooms towards such a critical mass. These might include:
- A process for family follow-up: Check in with the families of hesitant students via phone or text but decide who, how, and when outreach will happen to avoid family call overload. Focus on finding collaborative solutions that meet families where they are.
- Brainstorm a few “back-pocket solutions” that respond to the needs of your families:
- Could you create a few school-specific virtual backgrounds to offer?
- Do students need a poster / science board to create a “private” learning space?
- What are in-the-moment ways for teachers to non-invasively reach out to students whose cameras are off?
- Could you provide notification about especially important lessons for cameras-on in advance? (Ex: Student presentations on Friday)
Normalizing cameras in your classroom:
Within an online classroom, it’s important to take intentional steps to create a classroom culture where students feel comfortable being visible with their camera on. Purpose over power is key; we’re asking students to turn their cameras on not to monitor them, but to help build engagement and community so that discourse and learning are deeper. We’ve seen teachers do a few simple but powerful things to help gain student buy-in to a cameras-on culture:
- Keep It Positive: Warm, low-stakes opportunities for cameras on can help create safe and positive online culture. You might do a quick community-building activity like Show and Tell to open class, give some cameras-on social time during a transition, or highlight creative virtual backgrounds (if technology allows). Acknowledging and expressing appreciation for students who turn on their cameras (“Thanks for that camera on! It’s great to see you;” “Love the nods I’m seeing during discussion;” “I just saw some jaws drop at this dramatic part of the book!”) can go a long way toward fostering a learning environment where faces visible is the norm and students can appreciate the benefits of seeing each other.
- Strategic Toggling: While preparing a lesson, consider: When will it be most important for us to see each other, and, as importantly, when is it not a priority to have cameras on? Making transparent for students when and why being visible is expected helps clarify the purpose and increase buy in.
“This section of the novel is really rich, so we’ll need to have a deep discussion about it. Let’s turn our cameras on so we can give our full attention and respect to our peers.”
Similarly, intentional moments of cameras off can help to counter fatigue and promote independent focus.
“This is a longer stretch of work time, so feel free to turn your camera off. I’ll be popping into your Google Classroom work to give feedback, and I’m available in the chat if you need me.”
- Non-Invasive Follow-up: Keep in mind that there are numerous factors beyond students’ control that might be preventing them from turning on their camera. Avoid giving in-the-moment consequences (especially public consequences) to students for having their camera off; if the norm of cameras on becomes a punitive tool for monitoring instead of a vehicle for community-building and learning, students won’t buy in and it will lose its benefits. Follow up with students in a way that is private, positive, and supportive. Chat, email, and/or make phone calls to students and families to develop collaborative solutions that enable students to participate actively in class.
Private Chat: Hey [__], I noticed your camera is off today. Is everything okay? Would love to see you, let me know if I can help.”
- Normalized Exceptions: Sometimes when we make time to listen, we learn there are very valid reasons for a student having their camera off. When that’s the case, use positive framing to let the student with their camera off to know that you still see them through their work engagement and to send the message to other students that it’s safe to communicate with you openly if they run into similar issues in the future. Intentional framing allows you to reinforce the existence and value of the norm while still meeting students where they are.
“Des, I know that you can’t have your camera on today, so I’m extra grateful to see your thoughtful ideas in the chat.”
Be sure your positive framing language validates the student’s engagement while keeping the details of their exception private.