The student squinted through the fluorescent light from her computer screen, trying to ward off a migraine from the lack of sleep she got. Rolling out of bed hardly five minutes before, she fully expected to return to sleep after her meeting had finished. She clicked through the different screens, arriving at one that prompted the use of her camera and audio. She hesitated, quickly skimming over the reflection of unbrushed hair, new blemishes, and swollen eyes in the pale light before flipping her camera to the off setting. Rubbing the fatigue from her eyes, she joined her 8:15 Calculus class.
“How is everyone’s morning so far?” The teacher half-heartedly prompted his students with this routine question before beginning his Calculus class. He paused to wait for a response from the sea of initials staring back at him, but received no such reply or acknowledgement that any student was actually present in his class. He was frustrated, as the aspect of teaching that he enjoyed most was seeing his students and having thoughtful conversations with them. Disheartened, he proceeded to the lesson.
These experiences with remote learning are very common at Oyster River High School. As a student, I have become accustomed to the “camera culture” that we have developed on Microsoft Teams meetings, the video conferencing platform used at Oyster River. When joining remote class meetings, I expect to see the initials of my peers instead of their faces. This is because rather than activating cameras so that the class is able to see a student’s face, our “camera culture” pushes many kids to display the default image of their initials on the screen. Though there are some inherent downsides to allowing this option for students, teachers should not be able to mandate cameras during remote learning meetings.
During these remote meetings, students will opt to have their cameras off in some classes, and on in others. Kate Domaleski (‘21) described that, “if the majority have their camera on, then there’s more of a pressure to do the same.” In her scheduled classes, she expressed that generally fewer than half of students activate their cameras, but why is this? There are so many reasons why students wouldn’t want to be in the spotlight while learning from home, whether it relates to privacy, appearance, or home situations.
One of the most important issues that would accompany a mandate of cameras in Teams meetings is the violation of student privacy. If our policy required the use of cameras, I would feel uncomfortable with the idea that the school would be surveilling me in my own house. Todd Allen, Assistant Superintendent of the Oyster River School District, made it a point that “in NH, there is a very high standard on individual rights and privacy. Your individual right to privacy outweighs the school’s ability to say ‘turn your camera on and pay attention in class.’” By requiring the use of cameras, it would deny students the right to privacy in their own household and violate the national Data Privacy Act.
Especially during a first-period class, I’m not too enthusiastic about turning my camera on so that every student and teacher can observe exactly what I’m doing throughout the class. As an athlete with a heavy course load, I’m often working late into the morning hours to complete assignments, write essays, and keep up with earlier classwork. When I endure these late nights, it’s safe to say that I don’t usually feel the most presentable when I wake up for an 8:15 class the next morning. I truly appreciate the choice of whether my camera is on or off so that I maintain some control over how others see me, especially in the age of social media use.
Social media platforms have proven to be a major influence on why some students, including me, prefer to turn their cameras off. It’s not uncommon to encounter a Snapchat story where a student has captured an unflattering angle or video of their peer and posted it for a social audience to see. “When you turn that camera on you’re really exposing yourself to everyone. You have to be really careful about what’s around you or what you’re doing, even the expressions you make.” Arianna Alcocer (‘21) commented. This exposure can be harmful, as a student shown in a negative way may be subject to bullying and teasing from peers. This is a factor that not many teachers may not consider, but it’s important to protect students from this form of negative social exposure by not requiring the use of cameras.
Relating to the idea of appearance in a remote setting, Domeleski argued that having cameras on can actually distract students from the material; “it can be hard to focus if you know that someone can see your face.” I find that when learning material through Teams meetings, I tend to focus more on my own appearance over the teacher or other students. It’s difficult to concentrate on anything else when a reflection of my face is shown on-screen and can be seen by anyone in the meeting. This idea of appearance is less stressful in a physical classroom since I am equally as visible as everyone else is, but on an online platform I feel that I am spotlighted at times, especially when only half of students have their cameras activated. Because of this, the choice of activating my camera should continue to be my own.
When considering a mandate of camera use, it’s also extremely important to think about the diverse home situations of students. Some kids may experience a difficult homelife and wouldn’t want to share evidence of that with a remote classroom of other students and teachers. An instance of this would be that the student is in an abusive relationship with their parents, or fled from this situation and needs to protect information about where they are. A student may be impoverished or homeless and doesn’t want to share that information, or may lack privacy in their household and wouldn’t want to expose information about the people who live with them. There are so many complicated reasons that students would choose to turn their cameras off that relate to their home circumstances. Because of this, I feel that the school has a moral responsibility to protect the privacy of these students.
In relation to homelife circumstances, I know many students who have a consuming obligation to care for younger siblings while their parents are at work. Alcocer, the oldest child of four, stated that “it can be hard sometimes to balance taking care of my siblings with paying attention to what’s happening in my class… having my camera off takes some of that pressure [away] when I have to help my [siblings].” Like Alcocer, some students may want to protect the privacy of their home environment and the personal information of their siblings. This is why they might opt to deactivate their camera while moving about the house and tending to the needs of a younger brother or sister.
Of course, there are also reasons that students would have their cameras off that affect their learning in a negative way. The concept of student engagement is a major argument for why teachers should be allowed to require cameras for Teams meetings. This is understandable, as I will occasionally choose to turn off my camera during a meeting and attempt to multitask by scrolling through my phone or doing other classwork. When I do this, sometimes I miss important information about a lesson because I was so immersed in the other task. I know other students that will routinely join a meeting, turn off their camera, and just leave the space entirely; but requiring camera use is not the only solution to this issue of student engagement. A practical way that teachers can confirm if students are paying attention would be to ask a comprehension question and request a response in the Microsoft Teams chat feature. This way, teachers can check for engagement while still respecting our student privacy.
While there are many arguments supporting the claim that mandating cameras is a violation of privacy, I feel that it is important to consider the contrasting opinion of some teachers. “Some teachers are really struggling when they’re just speaking to a bunch of grey circles,” said Celeste Best, Oyster River science teacher. She described that at the last faculty meeting she attended, teachers were “distraught” about the lack of personal connection they had with their students. I think that many students don’t often consider how deactivating their cameras might affect the mental health of teachers since they are used to the spotlight being on them. If we, as students, take a moment to consider what these teachers might be going through, especially since some are in the profession because they love to interact with kids, then it would make sense that many would want cameras to be a requirement. However, this wouldn’t be fair to the privacy of students.
Lisa Hallbach, Oyster River math teacher, expressed that, “as a teacher, cameras provide me with feedback. A lot of those facial cues that I would look for in a classroom I don’t get to see if I’m looking at a sea of initials.” Hallbach explained that the feedback she receives in a physical classroom allows her to know what material she needs to reteach or further elaborate on. Not turning on cameras therefore adds complexity to teaching, where the student is then more responsible for reaching out separately if they are confused about the material. This is a clear downside of allowing the option to deactivate cameras, but I feel that teachers should take responsibility to inform students on benefits like feedback from this form of student engagement. Making students aware of a teacher’s perspective may encourage the use of cameras, but to go as far as to mandate them would be unfair to students.
Another point that Hallbach made was that activating cameras “helps in terms of building a classroom community and feeling more connected.” She continued to describe that this is difficult to simulate on an online platform, where many students now have the option to abstain from interacting with their peers or teachers. By mandating cameras, it obligates students to engage with others and in the learning, which eventually leads to a more connected classroom environment. Hallbach claims that this climate helps kids feel more comfortable asking questions, participating, and engaging in the material. This is a valid argument, but the concept of classroom community can be achieved in other ways, such as using the chat feature on Microsoft Teams.
Above all, I feel that student privacy should be prioritized in the decision of whether teachers should be allowed to require cameras. No student should feel that their right to privacy within their own home is violated by a school policy. Currently, the student senate is developing a sub-committee to focus on this issue and the decisions on potential policy changes around it. I believe that considering the student voice is essential, should Oyster River decide to change the current policy regarding the requirement of Microsoft Teams cameras.