Monday, March 7, 2022

Students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes because learning is not synchronous

Frank R. Castelli
Cornell University
Castelli and Sarvary (2021) have investigated why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and suggest ways to encourage them. More useful they offer alternative ways for students to show their involvement in an online course. I suggest these support my assertion that "synchronous" online learning is a myth (Worthington, 2013).

The researchers analysed results of survey of  283 undergraduate US biology students. Of these 41% had their camera off some of the time due to concern about their appearance, 26% concerned about people in the background, and 22% having a weak internet connection. I suggest the last of these could be addressed by providing a low bandwidth video option, which maintains audio quality, but sacrifices video. A lower quality video, perhaps being cartoon like, might also help with the other concerns. 

Castelli and Sarvary suggest not requiring camera use, but instead encourage it, with the instructor detailing why it is important for communication. They also suggest the use of active learning techniques. I suggest is good advice: if you are providing a boring old fashioned one way lecture, the students might as well be watching a recorded video.

More significantly, the authors also suggest allowing students to provide input by polling, discussion boards, shared documents, and the text chat feature in the video conference system. I suggest these options need special attention, as they challenge the idea that a video conference is best for learning, as it emulates a face to face classroom.

I challenged the assumption that videoconferencing provides synchronous learning in a 2013 paper, arguing that neither face to face or video conference provide "synchronous" learning, nor is this best. Just because students are hearing and seeing the save thing at approximately the same time, they are not necessarily learning that. The approach I suggested was "synchronized", where occasionally the instructor checks where the students are up to. Tools such as polling, discussion boards, shared documents, and the text chat feature in the video conference system exhibit these features.

In the case of polling, the instructor will usually give students a deadline by which to complete the poll, and at that time report the results. While they are completing the poll the students are studying asynchronously, on their own. At the deadline, the students synchronize with the instructor. The same approach is commonly used with discussion boards, shared documents, and text chat. Students submit their contribution up to a deadline, then the contributions are summarized.

Rather than see students not wishing to appear on video as anomalous, and attempt this behavior, I suggest designing courses which assume asynchronous participation as the norm, and synchronous as an occasional adjunct.


Castelli, F. R., & Sarvary, M. A. (2021). Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecology and Evolution11(8), 3565-3576.

Worthington, T. (2013, April). Synchronizing asynchronous learning-Combining synchronous and asynchronous techniques. In 2013 8th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (pp. 618-621). IEEE.

1 comment:

  1. I was honored to see Stephen Downes take me to task, for my assertion that "synchronous online learning is a myth":

    My point was that students interacting with a teacher, or each other, are not necessarily learning the same thing at the same time, in a classroom, or using a video conference. Academics used to lecturing worry if there is not a Brady Bunch of faces all looking at them on Zoom, then the students are not learning. But a student could be looking up something the teacher said a few minutes ago: they are still learning but not "synchronously".