Cameras on or cameras off?

How to balance community, engagement, and learning with student privacy and equity.

During the pandemic many classes moved to “Zoom”.  There were diverging viewpoints on whether students should keep their cameras on or off. Instructors felt unmotivated teaching to a bunch of black squares and felt it hindered their ability to read their students’ facial expressions and gestures and were concerned with disengagement and lack of accountability. Students often turned their camera’s off for a variety of reasons which included privacy around their surroundings, dissatisfaction with appearance, poor internet access, “Zoom fatigue”, size of class, eating, anxiety, fidgeting, or simply because it was the norm in the classroom.   

What has changed post-pandemic?

  • Zoom fatigue may be less likely a factor unless taking multiple online classes at once. 

  • Background images and blurring are much better so privacy concerns are reduced. 

  • Security features have been enhanced to prevent “zoom-bombing.” 

  • Some students may have trouble with their internet bandwidth but are less likely to have to share their bandwidth with the entire household. 

  • Most individuals have gained practice in online environments. 

What does the research show?

  • Students are often reluctant to turn their camera on. 

  • Students are influenced by what their classmates do.  

  • “Cameras on” increases student engagement, accountability, community, and connectedness 

  • Students regard dissatisfaction with appearance as a major factor. 

  • Anonymity is a critical factor that affects students willingness to participate in class exercises  

  • International and undocumented students were more likely to be concerned about privacy.

  • Cameras can be a false indicator of engagement.

Strategies for instructors

  • Explain your camera policy in your syllabus.

  • Avoid a strict "Camera's always on" policy. Offer alternatives such as asking for photo to their profile.

  • Explicitly encourage camera use,  explain why, and establish the norm.

  • Offer active learning alternatives such as text chat, polling questions, breakout rooms, collaborative documents, or solo work time.

  • Address potential distractions  and provide breaks to maintain attention.

  • Survey students to understand their particular challenges, including accommodations.

References and further reading
  1. Revisiting Camera Use in Live Remote Teaching: Considerations for Learning and Equity. Educause Review. March 14, 2022
  2. Cameras On or Off? It Depends! What We’ve Learned from Students about Teaching and Learning on Zoom. Faculty Focus, September 12,2022
  3. 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.
  4. Meishar-Tal, H., & Forkosh-Baruch, A. (2022). " Now you see me, now you don't": why students avoid turning on their cameras in synchronous online lessons?Interactive Learning Environments, 1-14.
  5. Matin Yarmand, Jaemarie Solyst, Scott Klemmer, and Nadir Weibel. 2021. “It Feels Like I am Talking into a Void”: Understanding Interaction Gaps in Synchronous Online Classrooms. In Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '21). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Article 351, 1–9.
  6. Schwenck, Chanel M., and Jessica D. Pryor. "Student perspectives on camera usage to engage and connect in foundational education classes: It's time to turn your cameras on." International Journal of Educational Research Open 2 (2021): 100079. 
  7. Wu, Yanting, Yuan Sun, and S. Shyam Sundar. "What Do You Get from Turning on Your Video? Effects of Videoconferencing Affordances on Remote Class Experience During COVID-19." Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 6.CSCW2 (2022): 1-21. 
  8. Remote Instruction and Services for Blind and Low Vision Participants. American Foundation for the Blind.
  9. Research Supports Making Video Optional in Zoom-Based Classes. Duke Learning Innovation. JANUARY 25, 2021 BY KIM MANTURUK, PH.D.
  10. Zoom Camera Guidelines. DePaul Teaching Commons.
  11. Student Camera Use During Zoom Class Sessions. Brown Digital Learning and Design.
  12. Collegian, Quincey Reese |. The Daily. “Why You Should Leave Your Computer Camera on during Class Lectures on Zoom | Opinion.” The Daily Collegian, 31 Mar. 2020,