When it comes to Zoom cameras, professors should respect student boundaries

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Many professors are using live Zoom calls to replicate in-person lectures. But no matter what technology we have at our fingertips, online classes will never live up to in-person ones. Mandating students turn on their Zoom cameras won’t change that.

Students and professors alike are adjusting to a remote year they never anticipated. In a perfect world, everyone would turn on their cameras and engage in a lively discussion of the course material.

But that’s unlikely to happen. While professors might worry the students they can’t see aren’t paying attention, that doesn’t warrant a requirement to turn on cameras.

Whether students don’t want to show their surroundings, don’t like how they look, or simply don’t have the energy to do more than lay in bed and watch the lecture—they shouldn’t have to turn on their cameras. Any of these reasons are valid and shouldn’t require an explanation to the professor.

More generally, having a Zoom camera trained on you for a full hour of lecture can be uncomfortable. In-person classes give a certain level of anonymity, especially in large halls. On Zoom, everyone can see you up-close, leaving many more self-conscious than they would be during an in-person class.

At the end of the day, mandating video cameras be on won’t force people to participate or pay attention. Controlling that in a lecture hall is hard enough. Professors should respect that students are accountable for their own learning; if they choose not to pay attention, that’s a choice that will only hinder them later on.

If professors really care about participation, they can find creative ways to do it. For instance, many online classes use discussion forums where people can share their thoughts before or after class, engaging with the course material independently. There’s also a chat function on Zoom, so students can participate without turning on their cameras. Professors could even do polls in real-time.

Sitting in class with a bunch of empty black boxes isn’t ideal, but nothing about this year is. Instead of trying to replicate in-person settings to a tee, professors should respect student boundaries and make Zoom classes as comfortable as possible.

There’s nothing wrong with professors encouraging students to turn on their cameras. But considering the diverse range of student circumstances, that encouragement should never become a requirement.

Students have gone through enough this year; we don’t need to encroach on their comfort levels, too.

—Journal Editorial Board

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