This isn't going to be me wading into the Great Camera Debate of 2020 but is instead me processing strategies for getting more students to turn their cameras on during whole-class, synchronous instruction.
But Dave, why?
Way back in the day, I wrote a post describing how humanization is only possible in spaces where we are known and where that being known is okay. (Here's that post.) Human beings are mostly hidden creatures — you and I have thoughts, emotions, histories, and social lives are invisible to those we meet. There's a fullness to human life that the eye can't see.
But man: once you teach a few Zoom classes where the majority of your students have their videos muted, you realize that the inherent invisibility of our students can increase!
So look — if I had my druthers, I'd see all of my students during every day of remote instruction. I'd teach them how to create virtual backgrounds, mute their audio, sit with their backs to a wall, and so on. I wouldn't ask that cameras be on at all times, and I when I did ask for cameras I'd not be doing it for the sake of micromanagement or coercion.
So why, then? Because I like to see them. Because I think they like to see one another. Because seeing them helps me know what they might be thinking or feeling or wondering. Because I want to help them stay focused just like they help me.
It's not about me stealing student autonomy or micromanaging student bodies or depriving children of privacy. But I do desire to teach and know my students, and seeing them helps me in that work.
So: how do I as a teacher encourage camera use for all of my students?
15 ideas from Liz Byron Loya, examined one by one
In the rest of this article, I'd like to process through Byron Loya's list of ideas with you. As I go, I'll share which ideas I'm going to try, which I'm going to pass on, and why I think some of them are especially likely to help. (Credit where it's due, Byron Loya's ideas are bolded and in quotations in the list that follows.)
- “Root the request in the language of community, not compliance.” I love it. As soon as you start using the language of compliance or consequences, you're trading behavior for motivation. Behaviors can be coerced, but motivation can't. What we want as remote teachers is to create an environment where we show ourselves because that is what we do. Coercing camera use is a short game.
- “Build relationships…. focus[ed] on trust.” Yes. I use moments of genuine connection for this, most frequently completed during the independent work segments of my lessons in independent breakout rooms or via audio/video feedback on student writing. These are simple but effective methods when undertaken genuinely.
- “Survey students.” I was a little scared to try this, as I've noticed that surveys sometimes teach the survey taker more than they enlighten the survey giver, and I really didn't want to suggest to my students that cameras off or on is some kind of a huge thing to stake one's identity on. But: when I noticed more and more of my students turning their cameras off, I needed insight. So, I took Byron Loya's advice and I surveyed them.
- Here's a copy of the form I made — let us know in comments if you add or change any questions and what you discover with your students. The most remarkable thing that I found in my survey is that the most common reason cited by my students for not wanting their cameras on is that they don't like how they look. That one made me quiet for a few days.
- Byron Loya points out another value of a simple survey like this: you're implying to your students that this is a collaborative issue. We're in it together.
- “Use icebreakers.” Bleck. Us introverts have better names for the things people call icebreakers. Personbreakers. Soulbreakers. Inner-world-invaders. 🙂 I'm only kidding. Sort of.
- BUT — staring at a screen full of black squares all day long is ALSO a bit of a soulbreaker, isn't it? So, with great trepidation, I'll try Within Reach one day for a warm-up. One time!
- “Play games.” I can't do it. C'mon, I already said I'd try an icebreaker. Now games? Rock-paper-scissors during class time…? That's just too far.
- Then again… maybe I could try this during one of our breaks between classes? “Hey ya'll, stay after if you want to participate in the first weekly rock-paper-scissors tournament?” That's not a terrible idea for an experiment one day…
- “Encourage students who have social capital to use their cameras.” Calculating student social capital is too intricate for me. I don't want to hyper-analyze the social influence of the students in my class. This isn't a bad idea, but I'll pass on it for the sake of simplicity.
- “Be empathetic.” I love how she describes this tip. (It reminds me of how I talk to my students about their fear of public speaking.) Take a look:
- “Share with your students times when you haven’t felt like being on camera in a meeting.”
- “Talk about how you prepare yourself to turn on the camera, even when you’re not in the mood.”
- “If you’re self-conscious about looking prepared or about multitasking while on camera, talk about it.”
- “Admit students into class one by one.” This one only works if you're using software with a waiting room feature (e.g., Zoom). I am, so I do try to do this. Byron Loya explains, “As students arrive, admit and greet them individually, and check in with them about camera use. You might be able to check in with only a few students before needing to ‘admit all,' but those who arrive early and have their cameras on will gain comfort from being in a small group to start. Plus, as the other students enter, they will register that some cameras are already on.”
- That last line is the real deal. I attended a PD webinar recently, and there were two reasons that I turned on my camera: 1) the presenter asked us to, and 2) lots of other people had theirs on. I'll try this with 1-2 students per day — and I'll also attempt an MGC while I'm at it.
- “Use the ‘Ask to Start Video' option.” Zoom has this feature where you can click on the person's name and ask them to start their video. They get a little pop-up that says that the host asked them to turn their video on. I'm surprised I haven't tried this. I will give it a go.
- “Send a private message in the chat.” This one's the same as #9 — I've used private chat to say hi and ask students how they're doing, but never to encourage them to turn their video on. Kind of silly not to try this — so I will.
- “Encourage virtual backgrounds.” I'm grateful that Byron Loya doesn't make the sweeping assumption that students might not feel comfortable sharing their home environments on camera — this is surely a factor for some of our blank boxes, but not all of them. If my survey (#3) comes back indicating background discomfort as a leading cause for cameras off, teaching students how to create a virtual background might be a good idea.
- “Brainstorm with your class times when it is fine to have the camera off and when it’s best to have it on.” This is worth 5-10 minutes of warm-up writing/discussion for sure. Check.
- “Allow students to show only part of their body or space on camera.” Here's another one I hadn't thought of. She recommends asking reluctant students to consider having their camera on but just their arm or shoulder showing or pointing it at their wall. This reminds me of the way I encourage my highly shy or anxious students to push themselves as public speakers. The earliest thing I encourage them to do is to simply stand up in a pop-up debate before I call on them. We build from that small success. (Psst… there's all kinds of stuff on pop-up debates and fear of public speaking in the argument and speaking/listening chapters of These 6 Things.)
- “Provide options for rubrics that include camera usage.” Too many complications here. I won't end up trying this one. (By the way, the best spot to see my thoughts on rubrics is in the writing chapter of These 6 Things.)
- “Have students submit a prerecorded video demonstrating a skill or objective.” In my setting, this would mean me taking the periodic Flipgrid debates that my students have and using these as building blocks into cameras on during Zoom. I hadn't thought of connecting the two; I like this one.
Here's what's so great about Byron Loya's list
Normally, I say that we teachers need more techniques and strategies like we need lobotomies: not much. Instead, we need clearer thinking and a deeper understanding of the work that matters the most. We tend to be strategy- and idea-rich but time- and clarity-poor.
But in these odd times, novel circumstances abound. In this case, I've got a novel problem called the Great Ghost Plague of Zoomland, and so I'm looking for efficient means through which I can gain insight into the problem (e.g., the survey in #3) and run small experiments on solving it (e.g., one day I'll try #9 and only #9 and see what happens). My hope isn't in any one strategy, and I don't have a problem tossing a strategy or two or seven out if they don't fit my style or my theories about how solving the problem works.
I'll try to keep this post updated in the comments section about how it all goes. Cheers.
Huge thanks to Liz Byron Loya for her Edutopia article — so many helpful ideas.
This post riffs on themes included in my two-hour webinar, “We've Gone Remote: Here Are Ten (Or So) Things That Are Helping.” That webinar is yours to enjoy for whatever price you'd like. You can learn more and purchase it here.