Require Presence in Virtual Classes, but Keep Cameras Optional

The question of presence in online classrooms is so interesting.

Do we require students to have cameras on or off? How can one be virtually present online, when all they need to do in an actual classroom is show up and breathe—precisely what we want to avoid during a pandemic! Requiring cameras turned on in a virtual environment is an easy equivalent to just sitting in class, and does make students accountable for at least the minimal engagement of showing up. Without a visual aspect, class members immediately disappear. Without additional effort, their virtual presence in class may quickly erode.

I want to require cameras, and yet I am very ambivalent about the digital surveillance apparatus that has accompanied the shift to remote learning. I fundamentally don’t think that we should force anyone to be more available to surveillance than they agree to tolerate. Just like not being compelled to vote is part of a democracy or allowing people to not answer a question should be built into any good survey, not being visually surveyed in class should be an option for everyone.

And yet…

If a student signed up for a class they must be present for class. They must be there to get the content for which they are borrowing or paying tuition. Students must be present to share with the others in class to reap the value of shared intellectual engagement. They must be accountable to the class.

So how does one allow for cameras to be off and yet demand presence in the virtual classroom? I don’t have an answer, but my answer last semester and this semester is to make it a problem for the class to solve both collectively and individually. If someone wants to keep their camera off that is their choice and it should be respected by the others in class, but then establishing and maintaining presence becomes more of a burden that they need to take on.

In an attempt to thread this needle, I have posted the following text in my syllabus that I thought I’d share. I’d love to get feedback.

Technology and Media Policy For the Virtual Classroom

Use of technology has developed more rapidly than our culture and shared community habits have yet adapted, and the pandemic has really magnified this. This semester, the use of technology to deliver this course remotely online raises concerns for academic freedom and risk-taking in the classroom. For this reason, I have the following policy concerning technology use in this class.

  • During class time, please make every attempt to stay focused and present in our class across your devices. Please limit mobile phone use to class-related tasks.
  • Use of laptops or tablets for taking notes is discouraged. As we will discuss in class, the best way to take notes is always by hand, even though we are in class online!
  • Class content is the intellectual property of all participants. In order to maintain an environment where everyone in class will feel comfortable trying new ideas, engaging in critical discussion and making mistakes, any audio or visual recording of class content is prohibited. Of course, special accommodations for specific class periods may be made with prior notice. Occasionally it may be useful for me to make screen captures or record parts of my lectures or commentary to archive and share with the class on the Canvas site. Before beginning and upon concluding a recording or screen capture, I will notify the class and offer everyone the opportunity to turn their cameras off. While recording, a member of the class may ask me to pause to ask a question. There will be no surreptitious recording.
  • As with any class, it is polite to be present for our classroom community. During online classes, maintaining presence is a challenge because muted audio and video basically results in a “disappearance” from class. Being in our online class should not be like listening to a personal podcast, rather we are joining together at the same time from different locations. While having our online classes I expect everyone to be present for one another in class, and this is most easily established by simply having your camera turned on. If you have your camera off you will be expected to establish and maintain your presence in class by other means, which may involve more consistent and creative efforts on your part. Of course, remote learning comes with its own challenges and we should respect the various tactics that we—both collectively and individually—are creating for dealing with pandemic life. I encourage everyone to share these. In the meantime, I will assume if your camera is off it is a valuable tactic that contributes to the learning environment of everyone in the class. Please do contact me with questions or concerns.

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