OPINION: Mandating the use of Zoom’s camera function is detrimental to student education

A computer runs the application Zoom with a notebook and pen to the side.
Sam Hernandez PO ’24 argues that professors should let students turn their cameras off in class for mental health and equity reasons. (Regan Rudman • The Student Life)

I wake up every morning, roll out of bed and take a shower. Then, I get dressed and grab a bite to eat before heading to school. The thing is, by head to school, I mean I walk back to my room, sit down at my desk less than five feet from where I just slept the night away and log in to class by clicking the Zoom link in my Outlook Calendar.

Zoom classes suck, no way around it. But for myself, and many of my fellow students that I’ve talked to, the online learning experience is made even worse by knowing that we’re on camera for everyone in our class to see. The solution: let us turn them off.

For many of us students, having our Zoom cameras on forces us into a sort of performance for the duration of class, as being on display makes us feel like we’re being watched at every second. In an in-person class, it’s much easier to find moments where you don’t feel as though you’re being examined by the rest of your classmates and get a respite from being performatively attentive and happy.

Moreover, for students that deal with image issues, constantly seeing themselves on screen — and knowing that everyone else can too — can be anxiety-inducing and can severely diminish the learning experience. 

I get why professors prefer when students are on camera. It’s much easier and more enjoyable to teach students you can see instead of a bunch of black boxes on a screen. Professors also may want to see that students are paying attention and understanding the material being discussed, which is entirely understandable. 

However, I think most professors would agree that the most important thing is for students to be intellectually present and engaged during class time, which for many students is much more possible when they aren’t obligated to be on camera. 

For example, in my Gender & Sexuality in Ancient Rome course, we are allowed to have our cameras off at any time for as long as we would like. Surprisingly, students have their cameras on most of the time, especially during class discussions. Being able to see our fellow students when we talk to each other absolutely does enhance the class experience and helps us feel like we’re all together instead of hundreds of miles apart.

The key difference, though, is that our visual participation is voluntary. If anyone feels uncomfortable being on camera, they can turn it off, no questions asked. Sometimes, I turn my camera off for a few minutes to just take a break, and a few times there have been entire classes where my camera was on for less than five minutes because I was just having one of those days.

If anything, making camera participation optional has helped us get more out of the class, because we don’t have to stress about being on camera and can instead focus on what we’re actually learning. In fact, that class is probably my most active in terms of class discussion and camaraderie, because my professor has created a very comforting and safe atmosphere for students.

Furthermore, mandating the use of Zoom cameras can exacerbate existing inequalities in learning environments. For students that share a space with other people or feel uncomfortable displaying their background environment, being on camera can add more discomfort to the already strenuous task of learning online.

For those with poor internet, turning off their camera can help stabilize their connection to Zoom and, in some cases, is the only way they can reliably hear audio during class at all. Allowing students to keep their cameras off can help mitigate internet deficiencies and increase class accessibility for students who may already be struggling with online classes.

Professors, please let us keep our cameras off in class. I understand and empathize with those of you who prefer that students have their cameras on. I think in many cases, it can help with engagement and facilitate class participation. However, mandating that students keep their cameras on can, at the same time, place an undue burden on students that diminishes their learning experience.

This semester, everyone at the 5Cs is getting used to an online learning environment, and professors and students alike are dealing with the difficulties Zoom entails. But by removing Zoom camera requirements, we can all breathe a little easier when we log in to class.

Sam Hernandez PO ’24 is from San Antonio, Texas. Sometimes he wakes up late for class and doesn’t want to share his bedhead look with his classmates.

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