Virtual Learning: Cameras

After 8 months of mostly virtual learning, I find myself wanting to capture some of my thoughts and experiences about camera use in a virtual classroom setting. This has truly been a journey that I’ve varied my position on during the COVID learning situation.

March (cameras – whatever works for you)

We found ourselves plunged into working from home from a situation where we didn’t use technology very much in our classroom. I had been recording and posting my lectures and materials in Google Classroom every day, but the intent was simply for students to have access if they were absent. Our use of this tech was limited to substitute plans and those daily recordings. Enter the pandemic and in our sudden forced time at home we were expected to “deliver content” but not to necessarily hold synchronous classes. If we did have a class the expectation was that it was not required and that we record it so that students could watch later if they were unable to attend.

I spent 4 days creating and posting videos and having students submit work. I was so sad after those 4 days that I knew I had to change something and FAST. What if this went on for a long while? You can read about that journey here, but let’s sum it up and say that we moved to synchronous classes quickly and suddenly cameras came into play.

April – June: The rest of spring (cameras – whatever works for you)

It took me several weeks to have the courage to turn on my own camera. I didn’t have a webcam and my laptop was positioned off to one side while my external monitor was in front of me. I also had a Chromebook from the other side. My class was a mix – some kids had theirs on, some off and some off and on rather regularly. One day I turned mine on and one of my kids said, “oh there you are!!” We went on to talk about cameras a bit. I kept mine on after that – it was clearly important from our exchange to the kids to see their teacher. I honestly didn’t concern myself with cameras too much. I began to feel connected to the avatars and got more comfortable with video. One thing to note about this situation was that I in my 2nd year of teaching the same group of students because I had looped with them. We were pretty comfortable with each other by this time.

Summer PD (cameras – it makes sense to have them on)

Over the summer I had the chance to take some classes and lead some sessions. One session was done with a high school teacher in our district. We had a lot of chats about cameras and attendance and the general expectation at the high school was that students have their cameras on. I started to delve more into student opinions and also sought parent opinion. My parents said that it was kind of pointless to hold class if you didn’t require a camera. They heard lots of stories of students logging in and just walking away. Some students said they would just not come to class if they had to have their camera on. The reason they showed up was that they didn’t have to be dressed nicely and out of their pjs. Some admitted to eating breakfast while in class while others said their mom kept popping in and they’d be embarrassed if their camera was on and their peers could see that. Some shared that their internet connection was just not very strong and it couldn’t handle the camera being on. (and back in the spring we weren’t doing a whole lot of interactive things yet – it was mostly direct instruction with some activities). Just as with in-person learning there are so many facets to consider. I was only hitting the tip of the iceberg in my questioning.

September – October 2 – Class norms (I’d really like the kids to have them on)

I started off the year naively thinking that I could just set up my class norms and expect that the students have their cameras on. But with no schoolwide norms, our slightly whacky schedule (two of my classes were combined so we had one very large crew that made cameras/mics tricky at best), and the fact that students were used to not having live class in the spring or having no camera requirement if they did resulted in the planned norms not working quite so well.

October 5 – Nov? – Hybrid learning (I don’t have to think about cameras)

I admit I don’t even remember the date we went abruptly virtual again. I just remember thinking I was so glad I got birthday cookies handed out to most students before we went virtual. We got a little break from thinking about cameras for a while when our hybrid learning kicked in at the beginning of October. Suddenly I got to see my students in person and we finally got a chance to get to know each other. Wow – I think we got about 5 weeks where we didn’t have to think about cameras in the classroom. I had optional opportunities to log into class, and I did have a second screen so I could see the kids if they came to class and had their camera on, BUT in general, kids didn’t and we mostly relied on audio for the interaction between in-person and remote students.

Once we went remote – (cameras – please turn them on)

This was an interesting time for us all. We were suddenly used to seeing each other in person and I respectfully asked the kids to keep their cameras on as a class norm. It made me feel human. We had switched to following our bell schedule which meant we’d interact as we would in normal school from 8-3 with the exception of lunch, study hall and homeroom. It would be a long day for kids and teachers. Teachers aren’t used to a traditional desk job and students aren’t used to sitting at a computer ALL day long. I thought actually seeing each other would help.

And I succeeded … for awhile. I felt really connected to the kids in these first weeks home. Most students had cameras on and the vibe was positive. I looked forward to school and I was having fun trying new things for virtual learning. And then something happened with the students. I don’t exactly know what (teachers don’t often get the full story) but I do know that it involved kids feeling unsafe on camera because of their peers. I felt powerless to fix it and the dominoes started to fall. They fell on one day actually.

It was the best of classes … it was the worst of classes – (I give up)

One day I went from my period 5 class (every single student had their camera on) and our class went really great to my period 6 class (suddenly and abruptly the kids didn’t have their cameras on). I don’t know exactly the reason but I chose to pick the fight and engage that day. I repeatedly reminded kids of class norms and respectfully and continually asked them to turn them on. Some did and some did to turn them right back off again. It was a terrible class. When I went downstairs for lunch my kids said, “oh man mom that sounded awful.” I said it was awful and I really wasn’t sure what to do. I was already starting to struggle with staring at a screen all day and that was when kids had cameras on. Now I was going to have to accept staring at avatars all day long. I couldn’t fight the kids. I didn’t have enough kids with them on to start to try to change the culture. On that day I just decided to scrap the norms. I didn’t feel up for the fight that I didn’t feel I could win.

And we have a couple weeks back in school (no camera worries)

Now when we went back to school we had switched to requiring students to attend their classes on their virtual days if they were hybrid. Our virtual students attended every day online too. Again, no camera concerns. Our connection was by Google Meet but we didn’t focus on the virtual kids having cameras on.

Another month of virtual (and it is back to the beginning)

And this time my class that used to have everyone with a camera on has reverted to no one with their camera. The classes that used to have no cameras have hit a middle ground with some on and some off. We had “bring your emotional support stuffed animal to class day” and “holiday outfit” and “hat day” and even an online ice cream party. On those days more cameras were on. We now have breakout rooms and cameras are on sometimes there and sometimes not.

I feel like I’ve come full circle on this. As someone who just does what anyone in authority tells me to do I spent much of the fall just wanting a school directive. If you ask me to do something I will so if the school says “we have cameras on” most of the kids will. When we vary it teacher by teacher it is tricky. It becomes something of a class culture.

As we enter 2021 my thoughts on cameras

I stepped back from this and started to observe my own behavior. At faculty meetings, I turn my camera on if other people do. In a training, it is the same thing. If I can get away with it off I often leave it off. I get distracted by seeing myself. I am more productive and focused if it is off. But I feel more connected to the leader and my colleagues when it is on. I have grown to love the avatars the kids choose and I definitely notice when they change them. I wish I could use cameras as a symbol “turn your camera off as you work” and I could do this for a while back when the kids were with me on the norms I set. Thankfully Google Meet has evolved as we’ve been virtual as well. I can use their hand raise setting to do this same thing.

I miss the kids. I miss seeing them and interacting “in person” with cameras. But, I can recognize their voices and I know their avatars and we do know each other. I still think a class runs better when cameras are on and I would welcome a top down directive, but I’ve settled in and I’m ok with where my kids and I are right now.

We head back into in-person hybrid schooling Monday so at least for a bit I can stop thinking about cameras.