Cameras on. Cameras off.

Silvie Šmardová

A tiny survey on a big topic was held among future teachers at the Educational Faculty of Brno.
Future teachers, who are partly university students and partly newbies at schools, hear this nearly 24/7. Turn on your cameras, please. We are either kindly asked in our seminars on a weekly basis or we are the ones who sit behind our computers praying to see at least one friendly face on the screen. This duality puts us in the perfect position for introspection since we are experiencing online learning together with our learners and our continuing university education provides us with the other perspective. We can ask ourselves and our learners a lot of questions. But do we?

It must have been sometime in the fall semester of 2020. We had a very intriguing seminar in English didactics wrapped in a Halloween theme, so all my classmates were dressed uniquely and had their cameras on as they competed for the prize for the best costume. The next day, the same classmates, but a different seminar. There were zero cameras and there was also zero activity. This experience made me ponder cameras a bit more. The issue is not simply having them in class to control our study performance. It is also about the activity behind it. I wondered many times why my learners did not want to turn on their cameras and was not able to find an answer. But I was simply asking the wrong question. They didn’t want to turn on their cameras when there were no incentives to do so. So I changed my question. How could I stimulate and motivate my students to turn on their cameras?
Before I try to answer that question, I would like to share some of my findings concerning cameras in the learning process. I have asked several of my colleagues who are all studying for their Master’s and have direct experience of teaching at schools during the Covid pandemic. The survey was short, consisting of five mostly open questions. I collected data from ten future teachers and spoke with three of my colleagues personally to ask a few additional questions.

A tiny survey results

70% of respondents teach at least four online hours per week. A minority have teaching practice experience from the current or a previous semester. Most students are required to have their cameras on in more than 50% of classes, while a few respondents have their cameras on for most of their classes
(75% and more) and only a few are asked to turn them on in around 50% of classes. Zero respondents went for under 50%. Another interesting result is that over 60% of respondents did not feel any strong emotion connected with cameras during their learning. In other words, it does not bother us very much.
When asked whether they would require cameras to be on in their lessons, a majority of my classmates answered that they would certainly ask and motivate their students to have their cameras on but wouldn’t make it obligatory considering it cannot be required for several reasons. The reasons, notably lack of equipment, privacy issues and an unstable internet connection, are perfectly appropriate. On the other hand, survey participants also underlined the need for cameras. Teachers naturally prefer to see what is happening beyond the screen, because it allows us to react immediately and appropriately to learners’ responses, facial expressions, and other nonverbal messages.
All respondents agree that having cameras on can improve our lessons greatly. We take control of the class, learners are aware of their classmates and so able to socialize, creation of a friendly atmosphere comes more naturally, and on-screen connection is more effective.

Castelli & Sarvary

Since I did not have time to perform a proper study among my fellow future teachers, I turned to a similar study conducted elsewhere. Castelli and Sarvary studied this matter last year among university students at Cornell University, though with a different sample of respondents. Their respondents were all biology majors, and, of course, there were many more of them. Let us take a look at the findings.
According to Castelli and Sarvary (2021), the vast majority of students (90%) had their cameras off at least some of the time during their Zoom meetings. We should consider differences in majors, age and culture if we want to compare our two samples. Some findings correspond with my tiny survey, but some do not, especially the question of why. Why do Americans turn off their cameras? Almost half of them, 44 %, worried about their appearance. Only 1 in 10 respondents in my survey mentioned some kind of anxiety, and it was not connected with their appearance but with their setting. Another factor that I would like to stress here is technical issues. 22 % of Cornell university students gave this as a reason for not having their camera on all the time.
All of these reasons are perfectly reasonable, though there is one major distinction for us, the teachers. We can work with anxiety, low self-esteem and fear, but we can hardly be expected to tackle an unstable internet connection. Castelli and Sarvary (2021) came up with a guideline for online learning. Its strategies include:

  • Do not require video cameras to be turned on and do offer alternatives
  • Explicitly encourage camera use, explain why you are doing so, and establish the norm
  • Address potential distractions and give breaks to help maintain attention
  • Use active learning techniques to keep students engaged and promote equity
  • Survey your students to understand their challenge


More or less all the strategies listed above were mentioned among the responses from my colleagues teaching at schools during the pandemic. Mostly, they enhanced the importance of having cameras on without requiring it, by simple motivation and the setting of an example. By engaging warm-up activities and games, and with quizzes and whiteboards, we can create an effective online class in which all our learners can participate, with or without cameras on.
Finally, I wish to state that most of us have our cameras on when we teach, no matter how many black boxes there are in are front of us – because one day this black box will transform into a familiar face, and the next day there will be two of them. If we encourage, motivate and listen to the needs and struggles of our pupils, there will be an answer. I would like to thank all participants for their contributions and also for a very pleasing discussion.

Castelli, FR, Sarvary, MA. Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecol Evol. 2021; 11: 3565– 3576.