Lights. Camera. Fractions?
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned teachers into videographers and content creators. To teach at a distance, they’re filming themselves, futzing with their backgrounds, perfecting their lighting.
But it’s hard to keep up the enthusiasm when your audience looks like a sea of black boxes.
Just ask Brian Murphy, a teacher at Interlake High School in Bellevue, who has tried everything, anything to get his students to show their faces. His experiments include: Telling students they’ll get less homework if more than half of them turn their cameras on (it worked) or teaching them to hide their faces with Post-its if they simply don’t want to stare at themselves all day.
But Murphy and many other educators agree that forcing all students to turn their cameras on would be unfair, for reasons ranging from background to bandwidth.
Many local districts are keeping rules intentionally loose, to enable teachers and families to make the best choices in wildly different situations. These decisions are still important, as about 78% of Washington’s students were learning completely remotely as of late January.
Do students learn less when their cameras are off? That’s an open question, although some researchers believe that simply being on camera doesn’t mean students are engaged. As for educators, there’s no doubt that it’s hard to teach to a black screen, said Ellen Dorr, Renton School District’s chief technology officer. “Cameras on doesn’t mean engagement, just like cameras off doesn’t mean disengagement.”
When a student appears on camera, the setup raises privacy concerns and exposes a child’s home environment in ways that can be embarrassing. Parents or siblings in various states of dress. Surroundings like the back booth of a family restaurant. Homeless shelters. Some are struggling with their mental health so acutely in ways that can show up on screen.
On the other hand, when teachers can’t see their students, they may miss important clues to a student’s well-being: Maybe they logged in and went back to sleep. Maybe they’re exhibiting the signs of distress that, in person, would cause a teacher to call protective services.
Because of cameras, school districts nationwide have experienced new problems. In Florida, a mom accidentally flashed her daughter’s first grade class. Sometimes, the stream takes a turn for the tragic. In December, as a California sixth grader died by suicide, his sister’s computer broadcast the sound of the gunshot to her class.
“We were forced into this situation without a lot of prep,” said Kristina Ishmael, a former teacher who now works as a senior research fellow at New America, a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank, and a consultant. “It makes us ask a more existential question about education in general.”
She’s kept a close eye on the way districts handle the camera question, and knows of schools that require kids to be on screen from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. She’s also found teachers who hang posters that try to control the uncontrollable: One of them says “no pets” and “no food or drinks.” Another asks students to find a quiet sibling-free space, an impossibility in many cramped homes.
To Kristen Mattson, a former teacher who now consults schools on such topics as digital citizenship, that’s not surprising. “When we’re looking at battles over cameras, it’s a symptom of some foundational root cause problems with our education system,” she said. “Don’t put that hood on, don’t slouch, don’t lean. We do all of this weird policing of children.”
Instead, she and 10 other experts and educators said, let the students make the choice — and engage them as the stewards of their own educational journeys.
A teacher’s view
Last spring, Murphy found himself teaching history to those dreaded black boxes. It was deflating. “Teachers are social beings,” he said. “We are not designed to operate in isolation.”
Even when most cameras are on, teachers’ brains have to work harder to observe and absorb student behavior than when they’re in the same space.
“The way online learning is happening now is exhausting,” said Penelope Moon, acting director of online strategy at the University of Washington, Bothell. “Simply knowing we’re being observed is exhausting. We’re then performing, all the time. … It’s a higher cognitive load.”
And it takes a lot of energy for teachers to present material, monitor student work and flit their eyes between the boxes that fit in their Zoom gallery.
Murphy tried different things in his Microsoft Teams classroom: If you grasp this point, put a heart up. Raise your hand if you can use evidence to support your answer.
“Distance learning presents an opportunity to let us reevaluate a lot of those important indicators,” he said. “A lot of it has been really retraining my brain to look for different ways that students are responding.”
Robert Hand, the 2019 Washington Teacher of the Year who teaches family and consumer sciences at Mount Vernon High School, also started the pandemic with few cameras on. But at least he had met his students in-person before last spring.
In person, he focuses on the look and feel of his classroom: the lighting, hanging pieces that represent students from all backgrounds. This year, he made his home office visually appealing and welcoming.
“I know for myself as a visual learner, things like that matter,” he said.
He encourages, but doesn’t require, students to turn on their cameras. He tells students he’s happy they’re there.
One thing that’s helped: He’s had his students upload profile photos onto their Zoom accounts. They may be static, but at least they’re faces.
How students see it
When school was in-person, Charlie Nunes, 16, followed a daily pattern: Wake up, get dressed, get ready for school. But “for online classes, it’s really easy to just open your laptop while you’re still in bed and click the link,” she said.
A Woodinville High School student, Nunes is also taking college classes through Running Start. With the exception of her American Sign Language class, which relies on visual cues, most of her teachers don’t mind whether students are on camera.
Mostly, she doesn’t turn it on. “It’s an added pressure,” she said. “If they can see me, I feel like I have to respond to everything they’re saying.”
Sometimes it’s easier to focus when you know people are watching. “When you look engaged and look like you’re learning, it’s easier to actually be learning. With cameras off, you could literally be doing anything you want and no one would know.”
Issaquah School District surveyed its high school students, and found that just 4% said they used their cameras all the time, compared to 11.8% who used them most of the time, 28.3% who used them some of the time, 38.5% who hardly used them, and 17% who never did.
The district also asked students why they chose to turn their cameras on. Of the 1,163 answers, over 700 mention teachers: They either perceive their teachers as requiring them to turn them on, or they simply feel bad for them. (Issaquah teachers aren’t allowed to mandate camera usage.) Other responses: “For Attendance and tests.” “I think I look presentable enough.” “To say hi, and to feel a little more realistic.”
A few said camera usage reflected their mental health. Or they stayed visible “because I like to show my pretty little face” and “cuz I’m sexy.”
In Renton, administrators conducted “empathy interviews” and found students were more ready to appear on camera for teachers they liked, who made them feel “like it’s OK to be a little messy and human,” Dorr said.
Concerns are different in college. “Our students are adults,” said Amy Kinsel, a history professor at Shoreline Community College. “We don’t have the attitude that we’re minding them or watching them. They’re making their own choices.”
Districts in the Puget Sound region are largely steering clear of formal camera policies. Some, like Bellevue and Tacoma, don’t have policies, but prompt teachers to encourage students to keep their cameras on.
In Seattle Public Schools, a technology FAQ says “educators can request, but not require, students to have their video camera on,” and students shouldn’t be penalized for leaving them off.
In Tacoma, “I wouldn’t describe it as policy — formal or informal,” said spokesperson Daniel Voelpel.
Auburn School District took a proactive approach, said Vicki Bates, the district’s assistant superintendent of technology. The district published digital learning guidelines, and does not require students to have cameras on.
In some grades, Auburn educators are trying to place more of an emphasis on student work — asking students to show their paper or whiteboards instead, for example. “It centers the work, or the learning,” she said.
But the meme and screenshot culture of the internet can also change the nature of bullying, making it feel more permanent from a distance. Hand said that’s why students told him they’d be more comfortable if they were able to share their cameras just with him.
“We’ve had some discipline issues,” Bates said. “But it’s not much.”
Kindergartners just want to have fun
Throughout the pandemic, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing over whether technology is appropriate for early learners.
In some cases, once they (or their caretakers) learn the tech, they’re eager to show themselves off.
At least, that’s what Heather Lippert, a kindergarten teacher in Edmonds, has found. “They want to be seen, and they want to see what the other kids are doing,” she said.
While there’s limited research on distance learning, research on in-person learning points to several critical factors that drive children’s engagement, said Kristen Missall, a professor and school psychology program director at the UW’s College of Education. They include giving kids more time to engage with the material, and having them practice it without making mistakes.
“If cameras are on, kids are more likely to plug into what’s being said to them,” she said. “They can hear and see it, probably more likely to be on task.”
On the flip side, Missall acknowledged, being on camera can create anxiety or distractions.
Lippert has gotten used to teaching her students from the Zoom screen. She’s developed strategies to flip through their boxes. She tries to be more laid back, because “I want them to still love school when they come back in person.”
This school year has allowed her to forge a different kind of connection with her students: Since she’s in their homes, they tell more specific stories and share objects that are important, like family heirlooms.
Another thing she’s noticed: Kindergartners spend lots of time telling each other nonsensical jokes:
“There’s chicken in the oven!”
Everyone started laughing.