What’s the issue with switching on our cameras?

Why students don’t switch on their MS Teams cameras, and why we should maybe reconsider; and ask students what they think

“Can you please switch your camera on?” Those dreaded words that every student cringes at when their lecture says them. But why? We wouldn’t, in normal times, cover our faces or hide behind an opaque screen while sitting in a lecture theatre. So why do we have such an aversion to showing our faces when it’s through an MS Teams meeting?

During this first week of the semester, all of my lectures and seminar leaders spent a good few minutes talking about the benefits of having your camera on. They told me about how it keeps them engaged and feeling as though they are imparting knowledge onto real people rather than inanimate grey squares. I’m sure we have all heard this from our lectures this week.

However,  here is also a real benefit to the students. If we see other faces when we log in for our teaching sessions it would make us feel part of a group, a team. It would reduce the feeling of isolation that so many of us have suffered from during the last year. It would also encourage us to get out of bed, have a shower and put on some proper clothes. We all know that these things make a huge positive impact on our mental health, self-esteem and our ability to work efficiently and retain information.

And yet, despite all of this, when the lectures beg us to switch on our cameras, the sea of grey tiles remains; and we have to sit through the cringe-worthy moment when the lecture realises that no one’s image is going to flash up on their screen. Why do we so hate to show our faces?

So, I asked some students what they thought.

First I spoke to Sam, who does not switch on his camera. I asked him under what scenario he might reconsider, he said: “if six or so people, a critical mass, were to switch on their cameras first, then I would be happy to have mine on”.

This sentiment was echoed by Erin and Niamh. Niamh, who is on a male dominated course, said that she would feel happy to switch on here camera if enough of the other girls did so; she wouldn’t want to be the only girl in a sea of boys.

Erin spoke about trends online where people look for ‘fit girls’ in their lectures on Teams. Obviously having this in the back of your mind would be distracting during lectures.

Both Erin and Niamh agreed that in principle it would be more productive and engaging if everyone had their cameras on, but understood why most people don’t want to. Particularly in the morning, “no one wants to see what people look like at 9 am on a Monday”.

I also spoke to Nish, who does switch on his camera in most sessions. He says that the main reason he does this is to be nice to the lecturer. He said that he “feels bad for them sometimes”, and accepts that this must be a lonely and hard time for lecturers just as much as it is for students. Nish also said that when most people have their cameras on it allows people to engage in non-verbal communication. Studies have suggested that as much as two-thirds of all human communication is undertaken in a non-verbal way, so this is surely vital.

Sure, I get that it can be awkward to switch on your camera, but it would be better for everyone if we started to from time to time. Maybe give it a thought for your next lecture, particularly in smaller sessions.