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Alternatives to Mandating Webcam Usage

by Christa Miller, Director of Inclusive Media Design, TLOS

Winter of 2020 created a shift in education that will have a lasting impact on how we define learning, teaching, engagement and assessment. The rapid transition to remote teaching and learning has left us struggling to learn new ways of accomplishing tasks that used to require no effort. While some tasks can be accomplished by a one-step change, others remain hotly contended. Among those still in debate after many months is the use of web cameras (webcams) in remote teaching. The number of recent articles explaining why mandatory webcam usage is a poor solution has grown rapidly (Dear Professors: Don't Let Student Webcams Trick You). The solutions and alternatives however remain unsatisfactory for many types of courses and instructional models.

At its most basic level mandating webcam usage is a way of striving to achieve a similar level of engagement as face-to-face interactions. There are at least two fallacies here. One is the belief that seeing another human being is equivalent to engaging with them. Two is that vision is required for deep and meaningful engagement. To the first I say, the glazed-eye look from students is proof that eyes can be one place and the mind another. To the second I say there are four other bodily senses that are equally viable to sight just ask anyone who is blind. In the accessibility field we know that everything should be conveyed using more than one sense or modality. We also learn that universal design for learning (UDL) empowers instructors to design across a wide range of abilities in a way that fosters purposeful, motivated, and resourceful expert learners. How then can we use these two ideas to achieve the goal of engagement in remote learning without mandating the use of webcams?

Within the UDL guidelines, the pillar of multiple means of engagement offers us a powerful alternative. In the most recent guidelines, engagement is the first pillar. This acknowledges a crucial truth that learners have a complex collection of experiences that influence what and how they are motivated. Requiring eyeball contact does not in and of itself spark excitement or curiosity. However, providing structured activities where students can make some self-directed choices recruits interest. It helps to give them some stake in the conversation and helps to optimize the relevance of the content. 

In the current remote teaching and learning environment, this feels and often is more difficult. Whatever video conferencing tool you use, a kind of wall is created between instructor and learner. A UDL response to this wall is to scaffold the engagement of the learners such that it minimizes the threats and distractions (principle 7.3) that the technology presents. The UDL guidelines have a number of great ideas for how to accomplish this. None of them require the learners to use or have a webcam. A few options for doing this in Zoom that I have used include:

  • Open the engagement with a non-threatening, low risk, optional engagement. Zoom polling is a great way to do this. I like to combine these with get to know you type questions early on in my engagement (What is your favorite animal? Color? Dessert? Reading Genre?). By making it optional, you demonstrate that you desire engagement but are not going to force it. Zoom Polls are also only partially accessible to screen reader users. Making it optional or allowing people to answer via chat if preferred maintains accessibility. In a larger class, monitoring the chat might be a task given to a teaching assistant or a duty that passes from student to student each class.

  • Build-in time for small group activities to foster collaboration and community (principle 8.3). I favor a flipped classroom style of teaching already, but even in lecture style teaching breaks for small group activity are crucial. I like to use Zoom breakout rooms for this. I also like to scaffold these activities to reduce the threat potential of collaborating with new people. Early on in my class, I’ll break them into groups of 3 and ask them to exchange a get to know you type preference (What has been your favorite class at VT so far?). Then as we progress, I work my way up Bloom’s Taxonomy in the tasks I assign. Again here, I try to design these activities such that I am still optimizing individual choice and autonomy (principle 7.1). Early on I will ask them to do things like make a list of the three facts they found most surprising from the reading. As they progress, I will give them a scenario or case study and ask them to identify the specific way the principles we are learning are applied correctly or incorrectly. I also let them know ahead of time if I will be joining the rooms and how many minutes they will have independently before I start making my rounds. All of which are intended to lower the big brother like feelings that our tools sometimes induce. Depending on the group size, each group can report out via chat or audio when the breakout is over.

  • Include time and means for students to self-assess and reflect. I like to use the Zoom chat, Zoom nonverbal feedback, and Zoom reactions for this. As before I try not to assume that my students have used these before, so I make the first use something non-threatening like, “use the nonverbal feedback in the participant’s pane to tell me if you like ice cream”. That way when I ask them a knowledge question, they are already familiar with the type of engagement. You can use either the nonverbal feedback or the reactions to have them self-assess confidence, did they have adequate time to study, etc. My last type of self-assessment is usually to ask them to provide an exit comment in the chat. I’ll ask them something like, what is your next step going to be? Which topic so far would you like more information about?

If you are now thinking to yourself, “that’s great but I still cannot get my students to engage with me.” I echo that feeling. Each learner must choose to engage, our task as instructors is to lower the threats, scaffold the challenge and facilitate the use of our tools such that learners feel motivated and able to engage. Students can find the technology just as overwhelming as we do.

Reflecting on the last year, some of the most difficult and most rewarding classes I taught and presentations I gave had very little direct engagement with my participants. It was only possible because I used UDL. I believe part of the challenge here is letting go my need for stimulation from the audience to boost my confidence. Previously, my confidence as an instructor relied on eye contact, head nodding and the number of questions I received. Now, I accept that my confidence comes from knowing that I have done my best to implement multiple means of engagement. The nonverbal feedback, Zoom reactions, and chat messages serve as confirmation that it's working or not working. I can honestly say that I’ve received more personal emails of thanks and follow-up now than I ever did face-to-face.

Consider enjoying one of the following resources if you would like to dive deeper into ways and means for improving your remote teaching experience. 


Why UDL is Necessary for Remote Learning | Katie Novak
Now What? Adding Accessibility Midstream | AAUP
Remote Learning Resources |
Creating Community and Engagement in Online Learning Environments | Virginia Tech School of Education
Distance learning: 6 UDL best practices for online learning | Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, EdD
Supporting Students with Disabilities COVID-19 Resources | Association on Higher Education and Disability
How to Make Your Teaching More Engaging | Chronicle of Higher Education
Can I Require My Students to Turn on Their Webcams? | Dale Pike, Virginia Tech