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Using Zoom for Teaching

Teaching with Zoom is common in many of VTSU’s modalities that involve synchronous interactions with remote students.

While it’s important to learn the technical aspects of Zoom, there are also pedagogical, legal, and ethical factors to consider.

One common question is whether instructors can require students to keep their cameras on while in class on Zoom. The answer to this question is more complicated than a simple yes/no.

Are you recording the Zoom session?

The Vermont State Colleges has a Classroom Recording Policy that requires instructors to gain students’ consent for recording the class and that students must have the option of opting out of being included in that recording. Therefore, if you are recording the Zoom session, you must give students the option of turning off their cameras.

Are you NOT recording the Zoom session?

If you’ve chosen to not record the Zoom session, you no longer have the concern about required consent, but other issues come up:

  1. Bandwidth. Remote students in Vermont (and across the nation and globe) have varied options for connecting to the internet. Some places in rural Vermont still have speeds closer to dial-up, and upload speed (the part of the connection that allows a student to share their video) is usually slower than the download speed. On a slow connection, having one’s camera on can make it difficult to hear the audio and see the video coming through Zoom. In this case, the best way to increase the quality of the Zoom session is for the person with low-bandwidth to turn off their video feed.
  2. Equity & Access. There are a host of reasons a student may feel uncomfortable turning on their camera from a remote location. That discomfort could significantly detract from their ability to focus and learn. A student with few financial resources may not want to show their instructor and peers the room in which they’re learning – perhaps they’re sharing the space with roommates and don’t have control over who walks through – and they may not have a computer with enough power to blur the background in their video feed. Or a student experiencing domestic abuse may have bruising on their face and not want others to see it. Or a student with a disability or an injury may be in pain while sitting and prefers to lie down, but has difficulty finding a reasonable camera angle in that position (or may sometimes have a facial expression they don’t want others to see when the pain is bad).
  3. Zoom Fatigue. If students are using Zoom a lot for remote classes, they could be sitting on Zoom for hours each day. Having to project a positive expression on Zoom for hours can be exhausting. Even if you turn off having to see your own video feed, you know that others can see you. Maybe a student knows that closing their eyes to give them a break after hours on a screen and listening helps them concentrate, but they also realize this will look to the instructor like they’re sleeping. Having the respite from their camera could alleviate this challenge and allow them to be more present for their learning.

Sensitivity to these issues is important as an instructor. Have a conversation with your students early in the semester and talk about the benefits and challenges of having video on. Seeking their input is important – they will have greater buy-in to the expectations that are set.

If you strongly request cameras, explain why that matters to you and also explain how you want students to seek an exemption if there are reasons why it may not be possible for their cameras to be on. Also assure students that you’ll create multiple ways for them to engage during each class session. Another solution is to propose an agreement that remote students will generally commit to keeping their cameras on during discussion but can turn them off during lecture. You may also want to request that students upload a picture to their Zoom profile so that even if their camera is off, you and their peers can build an affiliation with them.

What are some interesting findings from recent research?

Many of us likely assume that nonverbal facial expressions increase the effectiveness of communication and group cohesion. However, a recent study discovered that voice-only communication leads to more accurate perception of emotional intent than voice + video communication (Kraus, 2022). And in a study about small group work in a business setting, researchers found that being able to read non-verbal cues over video actually decreased “collective intelligence”—the efficacy of that group’s problem-solving (Tomprou et al., 2023). While these studies don’t tell the whole story, nor do they necessarily represent the experiences in a college class, they provide some food for thought about the assumptions we bring to the importance of video feeds.

What are some practical recommendations for engaging students without video?

A frequent instinct to require cameras is to ensure that students are engaged and also not lost. Below are a couple of ways to keep students engaged using tools that don’t require the use of a camera.

  1. Lean heavily on the chat. If a free-flowing chat is hard to keep up with, build in “chat & question breaks” to the class (maybe every 10 minutes) to allow students (both remote and in-person) to ask questions or share ideas. A punctuated lecture is a more structured way of doing this that also promotes student metacognition.
  2. Use shared documents. If you want students to contribute to a brainstorm, submit a question, or add to the conversation, consider creating a shared document using the Microsoft 365 suite that they can contribute to.
  3. Rely on emojis and reactions. If you share out instructions or a question and you’re met with silence, it may be that students understand what you’re asking or want, but need some time before they can respond. Get in the practice of asking students to submit a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” emoji or reaction to indicate their understanding of the prompt.