Earlier this year, we quickly pivoted our in-studio program offerings that teach kids how to code and build with technology to virtual classes at Digital Adventures
. One of the big considerations that we had when making this shift is how closely we would be able to replicate the high quality in person educational experience that we had perfected over the years with thousands of kids earning 200+ 5 Star reviews (100% 5 Star) for our programs.
To solve for this challenge, we digitized our project overviews into convenient, easy-to-use walkthroughs that focused on encouraging student independence. We also established ‘rules of the road’ for how our virtual sessions would be conducted. During this learning process, one of the biggest distinguishing factors for instructor and student engagement was whether or not students had their cameras on. So, we required that participating students in our classes turn on their cameras.
Although this was initially a big lift for our instructors because they had to not only lead the lesson but we also had them focus in on students' faces and their projects to make sure they were understanding everything that was being communicated. Eventually, the instructors mastered the additional information stream and our classes were better off for it.
In my kids school district and others around the country, it’s been disappointing to learn that in many virtual classrooms that cameras are not required. As you might imagine, this leads to the majority of kids turning their cameras off during instruction. Even those who might want to have their cameras on don’t because they feel like they might be ostracized by other kids who think it's not cool to have your camera on. Who needs anymore stress during a global pandemic?
During parent-teacher conferences this week, many of the teachers at my kids school lamented the fact that it feels like they are now teaching in an empty classroom. They are craving any feedback on how the lessons are going through either emojis or chat. However, this is insufficient.
Not only is it challenging for the teachers but it can also be socially isolating for students. When you stare at a blank computer screen all day only seeing voices but not seeing faces, you don’t get to experience the richness of engagement that is a hallmark of true educational environments.
Is having cameras off equitable?
Not only is online learning a less rich environment than in person but we are now accepting a lower quality version of online learning to supposedly promote equity. The idea being that perhaps not every kid has a home environment that they are willing to share with the classroom.
While this might be the case, video conferencing tools do offer virtual backgrounds as an option that can entirely eliminate this issue. As long as the school provided computer meets the hardware and software requirements, students can turn on a virtual background and then no one knows what their home looks like. In fact, one could even argue that this technical solution is superior from an educational standpoint as they can change their home environment into whatever they like.
When teachers can’t monitor students, it is also more likely for students to get distracted by cellphones or switching to another tab to play games or browse the internet. With cameras on, teachers can pretty quickly tell if a student keeps looking down at their phone or if their eye movement doesn’t match what is being discussed during the lesson.
Is having cameras off safe?
Within the last few weeks, we’ve also learned that having cameras on can help protect the most vulnerable among us, kids, from terribly abusive situations. In Chicago, we learned that an 18 year old predator was accused of having a 7 year old perform a sex act on him during virtual learning
. Since the camera was on, the police were able to quickly arrest this individual. Had it been the other way around (camera off), it is quite likely that this child would’ve continued to endure unspeakable abuse for nearly the entire school year.
In the online space, you can potentially have someone befriend a child under the guise that they are another student by learning their name, their behaviors and what they look like. This information is extremely valuable for someone who might seek to do children harm. Especially when you consider the practice of placing children in breakout rooms unsupervised throughout the instruction day, the opportunity for abuse increases.
While the camera off due to a focus on equity is well intentioned, I believe that it creates a less engaging instructional environment and can potentially make kids more at risk since the teacher is not able to monitor what is going on in the home classroom or see who is actually on the videoconference. As a result, when we move into the next phase of virtual learning, we should require that all cameras are on so that students are not further disadvantaged from an educational engagement and safety standpoint.