Why don’t students turn on their webcams on Zoom?

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Photo of a webcam, taken by Tanner Steele (‘22)

Zoom has made itself right at home in the majority of our lives since the pandemic began, whether it be school, family “get-togethers,” or even a way to catch up with some friends. Although when it comes to school, there is a very common theme in lots of classes: There is almost no one with their cameras on. In many of my classes there are, at most, 6 or 7 students who actually turn their cameras on, otherwise, it’s just profile pictures or names in a black box. My teachers always urge the class to turn their webcams on, but they’re not allowed to force or mark down students who decide not to. Will some teachers never get to know what some of their students look like? 

I got the chance to talk to Bothell English Teacher, Mrs. Lineman, about her thoughts on never seeing most of her students, and the effect it has on her and possibly the students. When asked about the reason she thinks no one turns on their cameras she sounded like it was something she had thought about before, “I think the reason students don’t turn on their cameras is out of self-consciousness, but I always wonder if they’re doing homework for other classes or paying attention to their phone instead of my teaching.” She also spoke about having more cameras, and what it could do to form a better community, as “normally students see each other every day and form the classroom community, but now forming that community is difficult.” And to go along with the community aspect, she talked about being able to form a better connection to students when she is able to actually see them. “I see them [students] as more of students when they do have their cameras on, but when they’re off it’s like I’m talking to no one.” 

I was also able to speak to a couple of juniors here at Bothell, Adam Smith (‘22), and Sean Johnson (‘22), about their thoughts on classmates not turning on their webcams, and why they think students don’t have them on. Johnson was able to support Mrs. Lineman’s assumption about students not having their cameras on saying, “By not having my camera on, I am able to just do what I want, like eating.”  Although Johnson did point out something interesting saying “I definitely think teachers favor students who have their cameras on, as one of my teachers only calls on a certain student who has their camera on every day, so by having mine off I don’t get called on.” Smith agrees with Johnson that teachers are favoring students, “Teachers might respect or favor students who have their camera on because they’re normally talking to what seems like a brick wall most of the time.” 

Both Smith and Johnson used their cameras differently as the school year has progressed, Johnson said he had his camera on in a few classes to begin with but started just never having it on, whereas Smith rarely had his on to begin with, but now has it on in every class because “I focus and engage more with the class, without it on I know I get distracted and it shows the teacher I’m trying to learn.” I asked Johnson if he thought it was weird many teachers may never know what their students look like, and he said, “That is definitely a weird thing to think about, in a few of my classes the teacher doesn’t try to put voices to names/profile pictures, they just respond and don’t try to recognize who it is.” 

There are a few of my classes where I’m sure in-person it would be a very social and enjoyable class, but never being able to see/socialize with friends/classmates makes having your camera on means almost nothing when a majority never has it on. Breakout rooms during Zooms are already awkward, and I think most teachers see them as a substitute for table groups/partners, so when students who don’t know each other are able to just mute and never show their face, it’s an easy solution to make group-work into a solo thing. I’ve always wondered what a class with everyone having their cameras on would be like, but I doubt I’ll ever get to experience it.

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