Camera Shy in the Time of COVID-19

Camera Shy in the Times of COVID-19

This blogpost describes how an instructor engaged in inquiry to better understand why students do/do not turn on their webcams in class. The instructor shares a personal reflection informed by student survey feedback that will be of interest to other instructors encountering students who may be “camera shy in the time of COVID-19.

Teaching full-time over Zoom is new for everyone. Most of us have been doing this for less than a year. My first semester teaching over Zoom was this past fall and I felt like I and my students had adapted quite well. However, this winter semester, after a few weeks, I noticed my students were nearly all keeping their cameras turned off during our meetings. This, despite the fact that at the start of the semester, I spoke at length about the benefits of having our cameras turned on. I also let them know that I would not make cameras mandatory, but that I strongly encourage their use during class time.

As part of my teaching practice, I try to regularly encourage students to provide feedback to me regarding my teaching and the classroom experience. Recently, I received feedback from two students. One had noted at the end of the Zoom class that I was speaking too quickly and they found it difficult to follow along. I noted that this is fair and I am aware that I do this, but in the absence of feedback, I presume I’m moving at a good pace (yes I do pause and ask folks to respond and ask questions). I also noted that in a face-to-face classroom, I can read the room and that it is much more difficult to do this over Zoom, even more so when the majority have their cameras turned off. This led to some additional discussion and another student noted that they felt the classroom experience would be more positive if everyone had their cameras on. This led me to realize that I had not been soliciting feedback about the specifics of my teaching and the classroom this semester, and the use of cameras had totally escaped me in this regard. I did some reading about reasons students decide not to turn cameras on as well as good reasons for doing so. Then I put together an anonymous online questionnaire using Microsoft Forms to survey my students about the use of webcams in Zoom meetings so that I could learn more and use their feedback as a point of departure for discussion and to make a case for turning their cameras on during class time.

The Survey

Once enough responses had been submitted, I started my next class in each section by going over the results. I noted this article ( about good reasons for not making camera use mandatory and for folks to have their cameras off. I also situated these in relation to the survey results and discussed ways of mitigating concerns for privacy, anxiety/stress (we are under constant observation in a classroom setting too), and that everyone should expect to get up in the morning and be dressed and ready just as they are for regular classes. I emphasized that bandwidth and computer performance problems are likely the most legitimate reasons for having cameras turned off consistently, and that at the very least, folks can turn their cameras on during breakout room activities or when responding to questions if they are concerned with privacy or have reasons for otherwise having their cameras off. Finally, I noted that in some sense they have waived their right to privacy by signing up for face-to-face classes in the midst of a pandemic. Yet, others in their household have not and that legal argument ignores the practical reality of trying to earn a credential in a pandemic. The alternatives are to delay one’s education or to do fully asynchronous learning, which is not helpful for some types of learners.

The survey results (rr=71%), shared below, indicated that the majority of students are comfortable with having cameras on, but did not want to have their cameras on if no one else did. Suggestions for managing camera use that were offered by students were fairly evenly split between making camera use mandatory and strongly encouraging or reminding people to make use of them. Given these results, I said to my students, “let’s all agree to have a classroom culture where we have our cameras on and are prepared to participate and help our colleagues in our learning and at the count of three let’s all turn our cameras on”. Sure enough, in each section I taught after this discussion nearly everyone had their cameras on.

This exercise has reminded me that it can be productive to request honest feedback from students and to help engage them in the cultivation of classroom culture conducive to learning. I suspect over time camera discipline will wane and that it will also vary with the time of day my classes are held and the style of the lesson, a lecture will lead to fewer cameras being turned on whereas I will see more faces during engaging dialogue and breakout room activities. I always say that there are no guarantees in life other than death and technological failure (many people find ways to avoid taxes). The success of technology has a human component and ongoing reflection on how we interact with technology can contribute to ensuring our success in its use.

Survey Results - The Case for Camera Off

If you don’t regularly have your camera on, please share reasons why you choose not to have your camera on.

44 responses. Following a quick review of student feedback, I developed four themes. For each theme I’ve selected two illustrative quotes.

Theme 1: No one else does

  • “If nobody else turns it on I won’t turn mine on.”
  • “It feels really weird to turn on my camera if no one else has it on. I’d feel like the odd one out, or maybe I’d be called on the most because I’m the only one you can see. I know this isn’t the most valid argument, but it’s just the way I feel. Also, I do not want everyone to be looking at my room while my camera was on.”

Theme 2: Judgment/anxiety

  • “I find it easier to take notes with my camera off as I am not constantly looking at myself and focusing on my appearance. I also have problems sitting still and have to move around my house regularly throughout class.”
  • “I often feel awkward and shy on camera.”

Theme 3: Privacy

  • “I do not enjoy people viewing my private residence. I do not have a private office to go to.”
  • “At the beginning of the class I usually keep it on, but then I have to get ready for work so it’s easier to listen to the lecture with my earphones on and get ready for work.”

Theme 4: Bandwidth/lag/tech

  • “My internet. It’s often too slow to let that happen.”
  • “I have a bad camera and I rather it off then on.”

Survey Results - The Case for Camera On

If you have any ideas to encourage folks to turn their cameras on during class time, please share them here.

26 responses:

Make it mandatory

  • “Us students know which classes to turn on cameras and which ones not to. It depends of what the instructor say. I do not believe it is enough to say they are “encouraged” because then no one will turn them on. Perhaps a handful will for the first couple of days, but then less and less people turn them on until no one does. For me, the more people with their cameras on, the more comfortable I feel turning mine on. I just don’t want to be the center of attention by me being the only one having it on. Honestly, I think the only way to ensure a regular habit of turning on cameras is to make it mandatory. I only have one instructor who makes cameras mandatory and everyone has no problem turning them on. However, as soon as we go to a different Zoom class where the instructor doesn’t have cameras mandatory, no one really turns them on — even if it was the same students from last class who turned them on for the requirement of the instructor.”
  • “Some other classes do have mandatory cameras and I do not have a problem when everyone has them on; However, some days I am not feeling up to it and like to have the option to turn off camera.”

Why I do keep my camera on

  • “I engage better with the course material with my camera on and it allows open communication back and forth between myself and Gary. This way if I have questions or do not understand it’s easier to get things clarified.”
  • “I found that when I have my camera on, I am focused on the content and what’s going on.”


  • “Kindly ask people to have their cameras on for the lesson.”
  • “Just by saying that it’s easier to teach to a class instead of black screens. And remind the students that it’s also easier to pay attention when the cameras are one.”
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