Zoom University will be in session soon. I suspect many faculties are grappling with one problem: should students be forced to turn on their cameras during class?

I can see several arguments for students needing to turn on their cameras. First, if students know they are being watched, they are more likely to stay in one place and pay attention. With the cameras turned off, students can "listen" to the class while they are moving. Second, a professor can better gauge a student's understanding by looking at their face. I think facial features are generally overrated, but some students make it very, very obvious when confused. That frustrated look doesn't get through with an avatar.

Third, the camera helps ensure the integrity of the rules of presence. You can imagine a student logging into class and then walking outside. The camera helps the professor to see that the student has taken a seat for the entire class. But what if a student has to go to the bathroom for a minute? If the professor sees an empty chair, should the student be marked as absent? I've never bothered about students going to the bathroom, but some professors forbid it unless the student has a medical excuse. I suppose the same professors could ask a student to sit in front of the computer for the entire class without having a place to stay.

There are several arguments against requiring students to turn on their cameras. First and foremost, it's about privacy. There is no easy way to prevent a Zoom meeting from being recorded. And everything that's recorded on Zoom can be instantly published on social media. Some students may not want their voice and image to be broadcast on the internet for various reasons. I suspect that such acts could violate FERPA. As I understand it, class records where a student can be identified are considered educational records. Therefore, posting a record from a class may very well violate federal law as well as other possible state laws.

Second, students may not want their backgrounds to be visible to others. I've heard the phrase "space shaming". Some students may need to take a Zoom class out of a closet, bathroom, or other setting that is not suitable for sharing. They don't want to be embarrassed by their classmates, or worse, by a professor who asks, "Why are you sitting in a toilet?" I think this concern is legitimate. Virtual backgrounds may help, but they are not perfect. When the student moves, the real background sometimes appears. Maybe a green screen could help? However, these are not always installed. Students should be able to choose not to turn on the camera.

Third, there is a technological problem. In general, most Internet connections have faster bandwidth for downloads than for uploads. Watching a streaming video is easier than streaming a video. When students have their cameras on, they upload and download data at the same time. Last spring, many professors and students had to turn off their cameras so they wouldn't be separated. This problem is likely to occur again. There is a way around this problem. With Zoom you can process audio and video separately. You can listen to and speak to the call over your normal phone line. This connection is stable and does not depend on WiFi. If for any reason your internet connection goes down and the video drops, you can continue listening and speaking. I will recommend my students with bandwidth issues to use this hybrid approach: dial the local phone number on your phone and watch the video from your laptop.

I can see the pros and cons. I think the general policy should be for professors to have the discretion to ask their students to turn on their cameras, but students can ask the professor to sign out. If there are concerns about attendance, a professor may drop an "Easter egg" at a specific point to ensure the student is watching the entire class.

To update: Here is a photo of the "green screen" I mentioned:

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