Professors and students both face challenges trying to maintain a high quality of education at virtual university. But while Zoom lectures have the benefit of simulating a live in-person class, students should not be required to turn their webcams on.
The pandemic has introduced an onslaught of changes to university education, including students’ living situations. Students now attend classes from their childhood bedrooms with their families in the next room working from home, or they might be back in London — in a house with six roommates.
Not everyone has a perfect family life or their own room to participate in Zoom calls with privacy, and when professors require that students have their cameras on, they’re putting those vulnerabilities on display.
Forcing the entire classroom into students’ homes is classist — it exposes socioeconomic differences between those who can afford high-end accommodations and those who live with several others, have unstable internet connections, limited space and more distractions.
Zoom backgrounds often aren’t the answer either — many profs see unique backgrounds as a distraction or “goofing off.” Even in classes where profs set pre-approved backgrounds for their students to use, the use of these backgrounds often becomes just as much a sign of class as a students’ actual surroundings would. Not to mention software on older computers often can’t support the backgrounds feature to begin with.
Some students may not even have computers with cameras. Computers were once available in university libraries, but accessing those during the pandemic is both difficult and risky. Students are now forced to own specific technology in order to not be penalized by professors.
Classes can certainly function without mandated cameras — some profs already ask that students turn off their cameras in especially large lectures to ensure more reliable audio.
There are benefits to asking that students have their cameras on, even in larger classes. Turning on the camera during class can mimic the real-time lectures students are accustomed to and students may find it easier to participate in smaller Zoom tutorials if they can see their classmates. Plus, it can be understandably uncomfortable for professors to lecture to a bunch of black boxes with names.
But, none of this justifies mandating students put their private lives on display.
If students don’t want to pay attention, they won’t, even if they can be seen on camera — which rang true even when lectures took place in actual lecture halls.
Turning on webcams may provide a better learning experience, but the concerns that result will make the experience worse for some — and student privacy and safety should remain a top priority in the classroom.