How does camera usage affect the Zoom learning experience?

Photo courtesy of The Arbiter

Like many other universities, Boise State was confronted with tough decisions regarding the dynamics of the new 2020-2021 school year. Most of Boise State’s population was welcomed back to school via Zoom, a video telecommunications platform that has presented a new and challenging adjustment for both students and faculty.

When COVID-19 initially struck campus earlier this year, students and faculty anticipated a turn of events, but perhaps not to this degree. Muffet Jones, coordinator for the Foundational Art 100 program at Boise State, had a difficult time adapting her curriculum to accommodate the new virtual environment.

“Developing the Art 100 class for everyone over the summer was really grueling, but it did make me look at the assignments I have been using and to add things I think will make the class much better and more valuable to students in the long run,” Jones wrote in an email.

This year has involved a lot of trial and error for both students and faculty, according to Jones. However, this fluctuation enables students with more freedom to adapt to the virtual classroom in ways that fit their busy schedules. But for some, that means attending class with an inactive camera. 

[Photo demonstration of a professor lecturing to a Zoom meeting of blank screens from students not using the camera/video option]
Photo courtesy of The Arbiter

The transition to online learning has created many loopholes that have made it more difficult for professors to encourage participation from their students. On the first day, students “came to” class with their cameras on, eager to learn.

Now, students have discovered that they can turn off their cameras while still receiving credit for attendance. Jones said that one result is feeling a less personal connection with her students.

“It does make it even a little less personal, but I can still hear students’ voices, and if there

is a photo it seems okay,” Jones wrote. “Since I have so many students it is difficult to be really personal in any case.”

In March of 2020, the Boise State community rapidly went from learning in a physical classroom to learning in a virtual classroom in less than a week due to the arrival of the new coronavirus. However, when cases began to spike across the country, it was expected that students would be returning to campus virtually. 

Dr. Eric Landrum, a professor of psychology and department chair, noticed the classroom environment changing drastically at the start of the 2020 fall semester as a function of no longer being able to see his students in person.

“As a teacher who’s used to teaching face to face, I love getting [positive and negative] feedback from students listening,” Landrum said. “So when you’re connecting with students, you get facial feedback and you get head nods and agreement.” 

In a virtual classroom, where cameras are turned off and microphones are muted, it is difficult to receive any emotion or feedback from students. Without that feedback, professors are often left in the dark

“That facial feedback is really important […] and when someone has their camera muted, you don’t get that now,” Landrum said. “I think there are lots of good reasons for students to not want to have their camera live and so that’s why I respect that.”

For Jones and Landrum, their classrooms moved from in-person to online instantaneously, which forced them into a whole new and strange environment alongside their students. They were tasked with navigating Zoom while also encouraging students to participate in the conversation through the use of their cameras and microphones.

Dr. Patrick Lowenthal is an Associate Professor of Educational Technology, where he teaches doctoral courses and graduate students. He has been using virtual meeting platforms since 2006, given that most of his students are from out of state or even out of the country; therefore, this transition to virtual learning didn’t drastically impact his teaching experience.

“In my world, we, for years, have been interested in how we train teachers to use technology more effectively in their classes,” Lowenthal said. “And me specifically, my area of research is on learning; it’s better we train teachers to teach online.”

Lowenthal has also been able to use his research and knowledge regarding virtual learning to create “happy hour” sessions with his students as an effort to connect and ask questions in a more relaxed manner. Finding motivation in a virtual classroom can be difficult during this time, but Lowenthal has found a method that works for him and his students.

“I still find that the majority of the ones who show up [to optional Zoom sessions called ‘happy hour’] is because deep down, they’re motivated, or they’re extroverted in nature,” Lowenthal said.

Zoom has been challenging for everyone to adapt to, but to Landrum it is important for students and faculty to have a mutual understanding regarding the implications of camera use and how they influence participation and engagement. 

“I think it’s about rapport between the instructor and the students,” Landrum said. “If the students and the faculty trust one another and if a student has to step away to deal with something at home [during class] then hopefully the instructor can trust they’ll be back as soon as they can.”

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