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Embracing Cameras Off in a Virtual Classroom

By Drew Bent | Friday, October 29, 2021

If you’ve never attended a schoolhouse.world tutoring session, you’re probably wondering what it’s like.

First of all, feel free to go attend one. It’s free and open to everyone. Sessions happen around the clock.

The first thing you may notice, if you do, is that the learners usually have their cameras off. These are small-group sessions over Zoom — often 5 or so learners with one tutor. They should be intimate enough for everyone to have their cameras on. Yet the learners are nothing but black squares on a screen.

What “cameras off” looks like in Zoom.
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How could this be an effective environment to learn in?

A journey…

That was exactly my question when getting started on schoolhouse.world over a year ago.

Some of the first global sessions we ran on the platform were a disappointment. Few learners showed up. Those who did rarely turned on their cameras. And even when they eventually did, it felt like we were pulling teeth.

Coming from an educator’s background, I knew this wasn’t an ideal learning environment. People need to see each other to connect and engage. At the time, I was also teaching virtually at Khan Lab School, and every student had their camera on there. Why couldn’t this be the same?

Khan Lab School, where even when classes were virtual, students had their cameras turned on.
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I also knew norms are very important in classrooms, and I was set on making “cameras on” a norm at schoolhouse.world.

Sure, there were challenges with making this the norm. Our learners were coming from dozens of countries, with varying levels of internet connections. They were strangers to one another, not fellow classmates. They worried about their privacy.

But clearly “cameras on” was better. Shouldn’t we strive for better?

Unless… I was wrong.

…Ending in a discovery

Rather than us educating students on the virtues of having their cameras on, something interesting happened: they educated us.

We were forced to reckon with the norms of the next generation of internet users, namely the high schoolers using our platform.

With time, I started to see that a world with “cameras off” is not inferior. It’s different. And it even has some of its own advantages.

It’s time we take notice.

1. More inclusive

One of the first ways “cameras off” differs from what we’re used to in typical virtual classrooms is in its inclusivity. It places everyone on the same level, whether they have the best internet connection or the worst.

At schoolhouse.world, we have learners tuning in from remote Indian villages on their phones with spotty data plans. For them, cameras off is not a norm. It’s a necessity.

But it’s more than just internet connections. Implicit bias is something we all have to counteract, and it’s a lot harder when video cameras are on. People’s skin tones, genders, religions, and nationalities are often made abundantly clear. Even the resolution of one’s camera can affect how people are treated in virtual settings.

With cameras off, all of that is muted. Implicit bias is not gone, of course, but it’s lessened. And perhaps just as important is the solidarity that comes with seeing everyone with the same black box in Zoom. No matter what country or income level you come from, you are there, one and the same. The focus is now placed on how you engage, not who you are.

2. More intentional engagement

When you watch high schoolers tutor other high schoolers in a largely audio and text-based virtual space, something interesting occurs. They are intentional about how they engage with each other. And the reason is simple: because they have to be.

Tutors will still screenshare and usually have their own video cameras on. But without visual cues from the learners, whose cameras are off, tutors need to come up with intentional mechanisms for assessing if their learners are following.

This can take several forms, such as:

  • Emoji reactions from learners in Zoom (thumbs up, raised hand, etc.)
  • Regular check-ins where learners rate how they’re feeling about the material on a scale of 1–10 in the Zoom chat
  • Practice problems followed by direct messages in the Zoom chat where learners share their answers and get personalized feedback from the tutor
  • Regular breaks to see if the learners have any questions, either over Zoom chat or by unmuting themselves and asking verbally

The infamous emoji reactions in Zoom.
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Whereas in a classroom environment a tutor or teacher might be deceived by learners’ head nodding, tutors on schoolhouse.world don’t have that luxury. They need to intentionally insert modes of engagement and active learning into their tutoring sessions to make sure they’re not just lecturing to a grid of confused black Zoom tiles.

The dynamics that emerge are often fascinating. Unlike a regular in-person or Zoom classroom environment—where everyone is following along with the same lesson plan—a schoolhouse.world tutoring session can often be more dynamic. The tutor might assign 3 practice problems from Khan Academy and then let the learners work at their own pace. Once the learners are ready, they’ll privately DM the tutor and the tutor will send them back personalized feedback in real-time. Based on how they answer, the tutor might break the learners up into two groups and assign them different problems of varying difficulty levels. When the tutor then brings the whole group back together, they will know who to call on for what to explain the key concepts. And if while during an explanation, a learner is confused, they are just a private DM away from asking the tutor their question. This happens so seamlessly that the tutoring won’t need to stop for everyone else, and even the most conscious of learners won’t be afraid to ask their questions over private DM.

It’s not that cameras prevent these interactions from happening, of course. It’s simply that in the absence of cameras, these interactions often flourish.

3. More intimate?

This last advantage is the most intangible but also perhaps the most significant. It’s the one you’re least likely to be convinced by unless you try it out.

If it were not for podcasts, Discord audio channels, Clubhouse audio rooms, Slack huddles, and the like—in other words, the rediscovery of audio communication—you might not buy this at all.

But let me go out and make the bold claim: audio-only is often more intimate than audio + video.

Whatever the reasons—whether it’s our video call fatigue or the suspension of judgements that come with audio-only—there is a certain mystique and charm to audio-only communication. It focuses in on what matters, and removes all the noise around it. What’s not to like?

In things like math tutoring, audio-only might be too constraining, so what I’m really referencing is audio + tutor screensharing + tutor camera + text-based chat + annotating. Also add in interactive games like Kahoot! and Poll Everywhere. Basically everything but learner’s cameras being on.

And in some cases, even tutors’ cameras may be off.

I myself had a surreal experience with this. I was in the middle of tutoring a session on schoolhouse.world when a few startled learners came in from another session that they had just attended together. They were clearly moved by it, so I asked them what had happened. They mentioned that the session had been going slowly until the tutor, Joy, asked them if they felt uncomfortable with her being the only one having her camera on. They said yes. She decided to turn off her camera in solidarity. Then all of them unmuted themselves simultaneously. They all spoke at once.

This sounded unreal—how could this have worked out so well like these learners claimed it did?—so I asked all the learners in my session to recreate the experiment. I turned off my camera (I having been the only one with it on). One by one, we started to unmute ourselves.

Then it happened. The 7 or 8 of us were all in the Zoom room together, cameras off, microphones on. And it felt like we were infinitely closer than we had been before. No longer were we separated by mute buttons and some cameras on, some off. We were nothing but a screen of black tiles, but all present. Background noise and coughs, even breathing, could be heard.

We were there. We were present. It felt electric.

“Cameras off” is worth trying.
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Is this surprising?

My friend Efe recently reminded me of the Lincoln-Douglas debates—held live, then transcribed and quickly turned into pamphlets many pages long and distributed across the United States.

When most people consumed these debates, they did it in written form only. The words spoke for themselves. There was no other option.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
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An important side effect of this was that these words were often valued more. Without TV, people scrutinized and memorized words, quotes, expressions. There were no distractions. In the absence of other types of media, the medium that was available meant more.

This is not about litigating the merits of visuals in society, but rather about recognizing the limitations of certain media.

In a world where more is always better, “cameras on” may seem like a clear win. However, that is not the world we live in. As we know, less is often more.

Ultimately, “cameras on” and “cameras off” are two different ways of seeing the world. Both work. We’ll probably continue to experiment with both at schoolhouse.world.

What’s more important than deciding between the two is how we make the most of whichever one we choose. Just like we saw how tutors on schoolhouse.world made the most of audio only, there are advantages in both. We just have to find them.

Huge thanks to Elysa Kohrs, Efe Akengin, and David Rikert for providing feedback on this post.

Written by Drew Bent, COO of schoolhouse.world. [email protected]

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