Zoom on, Zoom off: Virtual class camera debate

Students and professors are in a lose-lose situation. Graphic by Presley Fletcher.


Over the past year, the transition to online and hybrid college courses has presented a unique set of challenges for students and professors alike. Decisions on classroom atmosphere have been left up to the professor, leading to inconsistent expectations for students in Zoom school — specifically, varying degrees of virtual-class camera policies.

Classroom dynamics, teaching styles and course structure vary greatly from course to course, so it makes sense that camera policies do too. Thus, Zoom schools face the decision: mandate student camera use while possibly risking student comfort, or allow students to leave cameras off, thereby potentially encouraging a lack of participation and focus? 

Both policies promote imperfect learning environments, and many impacted students are left feeling frustrated either way. Associate psychology professor Brian Giesler lets his students decide whether to leave their camera on during lecture. He believes this policy fits his course material and teaching style.

“Whether you have policies that mandate the camera being on or not really depends on the class and the instructor and what is being taught,” Giesler said. 

On one hand, I understand why students may be opposed to leaving their video camera on during an entire 50-to-150-minute class.

For starters, it’s distracting. I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend 50 minutes of my day staring at myself in the mirror — after a while, your hair starts to look bad, or your ears look weird, and you start focusing more on what others will think of your appearance than the professor’s lecture. Not to mention, your classmate’s needy cat or delicious looking parfait could make an unexpected and incredibly distracting appearance at any time. Gabby Hakes, a sophomore biology and multilingual double major, stresses how peers’ cameras can cause sidetracking.

“It is very distracting,” Hakes said. “A lot of people are fidgety, it is just hard for me to focus.”

In hybrid classes this issue is exaggerated because some students are online while other students are in the classroom. Personally, I’m not a fan of my face being projected on the wall in front of 15 of my peers. In a classroom setting, everyone is typically facing one direction, which means you aren’t actively staring at the furrowed brow of a single classmate. This puts virtual students enrolled in hybrid classes in an awkward position: not only can everyone see their face magnified at the front of the room, but they often can’t see their in-person classmates.

The mere fact that classmates can closely watch your every move throughout virtual and hybrid classes is daunting; it creates unnecessary pressure on personal appearances. My rumbling stomach cannot be quelled if 30 pairs of eyes watch how I chew, and I can’t keep up with notes if judging eyes are watching my frantic pen. Without spring break this semester, I would much rather spend time sleeping than doing my hair and applying my makeup in the morning — just to spend another 10 minutes of class time fiddling with my ponytail.

In some instances, enforcing a “camera-on” policy could become ethically questionable if there are others involved. For students who live with other individuals — whether that be a shared dorm room, in a family household or Greek housing — sometimes it is impossible to find space for classes where they are entirely alone.

If your roommate is in the back of your Zoom call doing their morning routine, or your little sister is playing a video game, are you unintentionally invading their privacy? Did they consent to being on a video call with your 20 or more classmates? Chances are, any house or roommate will be made uncomfortable or forced out of their living space for the entirety of your class time.

However, even with all of the anti-camera rationale, I personally leave mine on during virtual lectures — even when there is no policy in place mandating that I do so.


Because I feel for the professors. These incredible people have spent years studying and perfecting their lessons with the goal of passing their important knowledge on to a younger generation. If I were in their shoes, I would be disheartened having to teach to a blank screen.

Blank screens likewise discourage participation. If I know a professor can see if I’m taking notes or paying attention in general, I will be more attentive. Ben Varner, a junior mechanical engineering and economics double major, believes students should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to turn their camera on during class. However, Varner also stresses the importance of self-responsibility in college.

“I understand that the decisions I make have consequences,” Varner said. “I realize that if my camera is turned off, I will not pay attention in class. With my camera on, I’ll pay attention, I’ll take notes because everyone can see me.”

Setting grades aside, the camera also acts as extra motivation to ensure I don’t look absolutely lost during lecture. Not to mention, those confused facial expressions — and many others — are important to professors. 

In a classroom, a professor can look out over students and gauge their level of comprehension. If half the class looks confused, they’ll go back and explain it another way. If the entire class is scrambling to get notes written down, they will slow the pace of their lecture. 

Seemingly insignificant cues like these can make or break your experience in a class. Associate biology professor Philip Villani indicated the importance of facial responses during lecture.

“As faculty, I feed off of interaction,” Villani said. “When I see students starting to yawn and get tired, it energizes me. I have the opposite reaction. I try to get more animated, I try to get more excited, I think of another example or something.”

The art of teaching is a two-way relationship between the individual teaching and those being taught. Maintaining nonverbal communication pathways during a lecture fosters a strong relationship on both ends. Besides, don’t you want your professor to recognize you when you walk in for office hours?

Now, I realize there appears to be no great answer here. I feel for the professors that have to make a decision between mandating camera use or losing important aspects of teaching.

What we desperately need is a compromise. A way to have your camera on but off at the same time.

In an ideal scenario, I would be able to turn my camera on for my professor, but not my classmates. This would allow the professor to read student facial cues and motivate me to be attentive in class while also avoiding added pressure and distractions from classmates.

Zoom is a fantastic tool for bringing groups of people together. However, educational classes are not family reunions, small business meetings or sorority recruitment — therefore, Zoom schooling requires different features. What tools a lecturer might require varies dramatically from those a lab professor might need. Our current platform for virtual learning lacks these much-needed features, leaving much to be desired.

So, Zoom, if you’re reading this, help us college students out. We need more options.


Related posts