Cameras Are Off, and Student-Learning Is Suffering

by Kate Diuguid ‘22

Remote learning during a global pandemic has meant attending classes via Zoom and completing assignments on My MCPS Canvas. During this daily routine of logging onto virtual classes, it has become starkly clear that, more often than not, students do not turn their cameras on. Evidence is emerging that virtual classes in which teachers cannot see many of their students’ faces and students do not see each other is having a detrimental effect on student learning and engagement  

Students and teachers both have noticed a downward spiral in engagement when students don’t turn their cameras on. The Washington Post reported that 36 percent of MCPS ninth-graders failed the first marking period in English, whereas only 6 percent of the same demographic failed last year. Students are struggling to maintain focus without the threat of punishment for distractions.

“I think having the option to turn my camera off lessens my engagement with the class,” said junior Adriana Bohlmann. “I know that in my two classes that I don’t turn on my camera, I have a harder time concentrating on the class and I get distracted by my surroundings easily.”

English teacher Christopher Goodrich would like if his students have their cameras on during class. “I connect better to students when I see them and can read their body language,” said Goodrich. “I think we all do. And I think students know it will benefit them, even though for the most part, they don’t turn on their cameras. So, it doesn’t bother me that some students have it on and others don’t. I tend to think the students with cameras on are real leaders and can help the others who are more reticent.”

Although the energy and enthusiasm that Goodrich brings to his teaching has not changed during virtual instruction, he notes that the platform has made it much more difficult for him to connect with his students. “Certainly, the lack of faces has affected my teaching. I can no longer see if people understand what I’m saying, or the assignments given,” Goodrich explained. 

Spanish teacher Michelle Bloom also misses the connections with students that are easier during normal in-person instruction, and she sometimes puts students in individual breakout rooms to have opportunities to better get to know them. Bloom believes that student learning is hurt by cameras being off and at the beginning of the school year, she asked the school administration if teachers could make students turn their cameras on. Bloom was told that teachers were not allowed to do so, even though she is aware of other MCPS schools that do make it mandatory for students to turn their cameras on during class. “I do think that NOT having the camera on does affect student’s learning,” said Bloom. “I think that if students have their cameras on then they will be more engaged in the class and then they will be more successful.” 

Principal Tim Britton states that teachers only can highly encourage students to turn on their cameras. He recognizes the value of students having their camera on during class. “When cameras are off, it’s hard to see or know if a student is engaged with the class,” said Britton. “Participation is still a strong indicator that a student is able to grasp the concepts being taught.” According to Britton, the school will continue to encourage students and send messages to parents on the importance of having cameras on during classes over Zoom. 

Many students base their camera-usage off of how they look on any given morning, looking in the mirror and asking themselves “do I want to be seen today?” The option to not be viewed and judged on outward appearance has been nice for many students. “Time of day definitely matters!” said junior Peyton Sokol. “Sometimes I don’t love the way I look in the morning so my camera stays off as I am more tired.”

However, some students also see this exemption-from-being-seen as something that actually aids their learning. Without the worries of peer judgment, a student might be less distracted by social pressures or anxiety. Freshman Hannah Siansky stated that having her camera off helps her focus more on the teacher’s screen and worry less about other things. 

Another factor that impacts whether a student turns on their camera is how many others in the class have turned theirs on. “I don’t turn on my camera because it makes me uncomfortable being the only one,” explained sophomore Mia Rohan. “I always feel like people with their cameras off are watching or judging me. When everyone’s cameras are on, though, it feels natural and helps me stay active in class.”

When students are unable to engage with each other and their teachers visually, focus and learning in class is not only lost but also vital social skills. Without the day-to-day interaction with those a student may not know quite well, interpersonal relationship skills are diminished. Susan D. Blum, a Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame, wrote that in Zoom when students aren’t seeing eye to eye with others, they lose the ability to pick up on minor visual social queues, a skill that is critical throughout their lives. 

“I think cameras not being on hurt social connections and our learning abilities,” said junior Emma Dorsey. “When my camera is off I often find myself not giving 100 percent of my attention to the class. Also, during regular school years I build friendships with people in my classes that usually I never would have, but now with no one in-person and with cameras off, it’s next to impossible to do so.”