A Blank, Silent Wall: Why You Should Turn Your Camera On During Class

Tod Grobey feels like a Youtuber. “I’m talking into space,” says the Franklin Spanish and German teacher. “[I feel like] I’m preparing something, but yet I know there’s a live session… I want to say, ‘Thank you for joining Patreon.’”

Srule Brachman, an Art teacher at Franklin, feels frustrated and upset. “I cannot really communicate to my students because so much of teaching is face to face and eye to eye, and there’s so much in terms of empathetic response that I have with my students, and if I can’t see their faces, and I can’t see how they’re looking… it’s very difficult.”

Franklin student Sitka Schmidt-Pilgrim (10th grade) estimates that at the beginning of the year, about half of her classmates used cameras to show their faces during class.. However, that number has since trickled down to about 10 percent, according to Grobey, and Schmidt-Pilgrim thinks that she could only recognize the faces of a few students out of more than 100 classmates. The lack of connection is an inevitable part of online learning, but when the students decide not to show their faces, even when they can and should do so, the entire educational system suffers.

This year, Portland Public Schools took an aggressive approach toward improving attendance. Rather than Office Hours, students were given Asynchronous Classes, in which they would have to show a sign of presence, from contacting a teacher to completing an assignment. In Synchronous class time, pupils would be given direct instruction from their teachers, as if they were in an in-person classroom. Attendance returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to estimates by administrators and students: after as few as about a fifth of students attended some classes during Distance Learning last year, the vast majority of people began to go to class each day, and this excellent attendance has remained consistent for most of the year.  However, there is a large difference between logging onto an online class (which qualifies as attendance) and paying attention or learning (which is not measured in attendance statistics at all), a fact that has become more and more apparent throughout the year.

Even if students tried their best to pay attention and stay present, teenagers would still have needs unfulfilled by distance learning, says Dr. Rebecca Hicks, a Bend pediatrician. “Adolescents have a need to be face to face with their peers. This is something that is in [their] DNA. It’s something that every adolescent shares,” she says. “…The character trait of wanting to be in person…was selected for in the evolution of our species.”

Communication hinges not only on words but on body language as well. Much of what we as humans interpret in conversation hinges on the actions of the person we’re speaking to. A smile conveys happiness. A frown,the opposite. If the eyebrows turn in toward the nose, forming a V shape, the person we are speaking to must be angry. Facial expressions convey emotion and language just as well as words do. This is only possible, though, if we can see the other person’s face. While it’s possible to have a conversation without body language—people have for a long time—education thrives on communication and connection, which is largely missing in distance learning.

While no online class can fully replicate the experience of a classroom, cameras are a pathway to a decent replacement. The face is the most important part of the body when it comes to communication, and a camera can show it nearly in full detail. Students rarely do show their faces, however, and even the microphones go unused for full class periods.

The school has decided not to require the use of cameras, putting it in the national minority — more than 3 in 4 American schools require them as long as the student has a functioning camera, according to a survey by Education Week Research Center. “We want to honor [the students’] dignity, and we want to honor their circumstance, and the best way that we feel that we can do that is by not requiring students to have cameras on,” states Franklin Principal Chris Frazier on the school’s decision. “Of course it’s encouraged. We recognize the benefits of cameras, both for our students and our staff. However, we will always err on the side of supporting our students.” There are many reasons for students to keep cameras off. Some have inadequate internet access and need to conserve bandwidth. Others live in a space in which it is difficult to turn on cameras, as there is too much happening in the background. These students should not be forced to show their faces. However, many students have other reasons to hide.

In the first weeks of the year, Schmidt-Pilgrim was using her camera. Then she stopped. “I noticed that less and less people were turning their camera on and I didn’t want to be one of the only ones with my camera,” she says. Schmidt-Pilgrim was not alone; Frazier reported hearing the same thing from students. Because almost nobody wants to be the only one with their camera on, almost everybody turns it off. Tearale Triplett, a counselor at Franklin, says that he’s been told by students that they hide because of a bad hair day or because their room was too messy and they feel afraid to reveal it, but he added he’s “sure part of it” is that they “want to do something else.”

Like with masks, turning on the camera is beneficial for others, since it helps to recreate some of an in-person experience, but having them off can also be detrimental to one’s own education. When I have turned off my camera, I’ve quickly become distracted. It’s much easier to use a phone when no one can tell. “I [try] to pay attention…but if I get a text for somebody, or if it gets really boring, then I tend to go on my phone and kind of tune out to what the teacher’s saying,” admits Schmidt-Pilgrim. She adds that she would be less likely to use her phone if her camera was on.

When one knows that they can be seen not paying attention, the fear of being caught often overpowers the temptation to turn on the phone. The anonymity of the distance learning experience means that students need not fear: they can use their phones during class with no immediate consequences. This may be the most damaging part of online learning.

While not all are affected in this way, many students are “not as motivated, for whatever reason, to do the things online, because of distractions, or because of the lack of community,” says Triplett. “Those are the students I’m concerned about, because they’re the ones who I think need that extra support in-person that can be spontaneous; I could run into a student like that in the hall and say something encouraging to them that may motivate them to finish the day strong, but I can’t do that virtually,” he says. Triplett said that, in the long term, the students are “going to be resilient” and “will bounce back,” then trailed off.

Grobey has no idea if his students are listening to his teaching or glued to their phones. “Why would it surprise us that a student is going to say, ‘Well, I get in trouble when I’m not attending, because that’s what the school is tracking, is attendance, and so what I do is I sign in on time but then I just ghost’?” he asks. This is known as Goodhart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure as people figure out how to cheat the system. The school enforces physical presence but not attentive presence, which is reasonable, but as a result of the policy, students meet the bare minimum requirements without really learning.

The most effective solution would be a return to in-person schooling. However, as Dr. Hicks points out, cases of COVID-19 would need to drop. “If I could make the decisions, what I would do is shut things down a bit for several weeks, maybe a month, and get control of our case counts, get control of COVID-19 disease transmission…and then the absolute first thing that I would open would be schools. Because children and teenagers do not deserve to suffer the brunt of this burden,” she says.

Even if the cases plummeted, opening schools would be a difficult task. Multnomah County has exceeded 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents two weeks in a row, according to county-provided data, and the curve only continues to rise. With a student body near 2,000, it is statistically likely that at least one Franklin student would have the virus, and because it can be spread among asymptomatic carriers, an outbreak is possible. Links between schools and coronavirus cases have been disputed, according to NPR, but children could spread the disease to their parents, causing a potential wave of cases. The risk is likely too great to justify reopening, and Triplett believes that many students would likely opt out of even hybrid learning, let alone a full in-person schedule. We need to change our practices during distance learning itself.

Schmidt-Pilgrim believes that the peer pressure is all that’s holding her back. “If I saw more than a couple people, like more than five or six people, turn on their cameras, I would definitely turn on my camera, because turning on my camera helps me be less distracted and be more engaged and learn more,” she says. The vicious cycle caused when too many people don’t want to be the only one with their cameras on can be reversed. If hiding is contagious, then openness is contagious, too.

Teachers cannot force students to show their faces. The issues surrounding equity and mental health are too great for such strict enforcement. It is up to the kids to do it themselves. If a student can turn their camera on and pay attention to the class, they should.

A screenshot of a Distance Learning class in which just 2 of the 26 students are using cameras to show their faces. The ability to see the other person’s face is essential to most communication. Photo by Luke Ramsey

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