ITHACA, NY – When the semester moved online amid the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, Cornell University instructor Mark Sarvary and his faculty decided to cheer – but not to force the students to turn on their cameras.

It did not turn out as they had hoped.

“Most of our students had their cameras turned off,” said Sarvary, director of the investigative biology teaching labs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

“Students like to see each other when working in groups. And instructors like to see students because it’s a way to gauge whether or not they understand the material,” Sarvary said. “When we switched to online learning, that component got lost. We wanted to know the reasons for this. ”

Sarvary and her co-instructor Frank Castelli, postdoctoral education researcher at CALS’s Active Learning Initiative, interviewed the 312 students in the class at the end of the semester to find out why they weren’t using their cameras – and to try to find ways to reverse this trend.

They found that while some students were concerned about lack of privacy or their home environment, 41% of 276 respondents cited their appearance, and more than half of those who chose “other” as the reason for turning off their phone. camera explained that it was the norm. This suggests that explicitly encouraging camera use could boost participation without unwanted effects, the researchers said.

“We felt that it would create an undue burden and add stress in an already stressful time of requiring the cameras to be on, and we found that this could disproportionately affect certain groups of students, such as minorities under -represented, ”said Castelli, lead author of“ Why Students Don’t Turn On Their Video Cameras During Online Classes and A Fair and Inclusive Plan to Encourage Them to Do So, ”published Jan. 10 in Ecology and Evolution.

In the survey, Castelli and Sarvary found that among underrepresented minorities, 38% said they were concerned about other people being seen behind them, and 26% were concerned that their physical location is visible; while among unrepresented minorities, 24% worried about the people behind them and 13% about their physical location.

“It’s a more inclusive and fair strategy not to require cameras but to encourage them instead, such as through active learning exercises,” Castelli said. “This has to be done with care so that you don’t create an environment in which you make those who don’t have cameras feel left out. But at the same time, if you don’t explicitly ask for cameras and explain not why, it can lead to a social norm where the camera is always off. And it becomes a spiral where everyone keeps it off, even though many students want it. ”

Establishing the use of the camera as the standard, explaining why cameras improve the classroom, and using active learning and icebreaker techniques, such as starting each class with a show and tell, are techniques that could stimulate participation, the authors suggested in the study.

“Active learning plays an important role in online learning environments,” said Sarvary. “Students may feel more comfortable turning on their cameras in breakout rooms. Survey software or Zoom chats are alternatives that can help the instructor assess student learning even without seeing a nod, smile, or confused expression.

The authors also suggested that instructors deal with potential distractions, give breaks to help maintain attention, and quiz their students to learn about other potential barriers to camera use or participation.

Although they have not yet formally studied the effect, instructors from all 24 sections of the lab class all observed improved camera engagement when they used some of these strategies last fall.

“We wanted to develop an engaging and inclusive virtual learning environment, using the best teaching methods,” said Sarvary. “That’s why we wanted to know why students don’t turn on their cameras, rather than just assume or, as some instructors do, force them to turn on their cameras. We wanted to take an educational research approach and determine the best practices .”

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The research was funded by the CALS Active Learning Initiative grant program.


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