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Cameras and Masks: Sustaining Emotional Connections with Your Students in an Age of COVID19 (Part 2 of 2)

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Just as with other aspects of classroom norms and expectations, instructors should explain the basis for rules and expectations at the beginning of the term and ask students for help in supporting them.


Folks: The posting below, the second of two parts, gives some excellent tips on how to connect effectively with your students both in-person and online.  It was written by Howard Aldrich, Kenan Professor of Sociology, Dept of Sociology @ UNC Chapel Hill and you can find out more about his work at:


Regards, Rick Reisreis@stanford.eduUP NEXT: Looking Beyond COVID-19: Crisis Leadership Implications for Chairs  Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning ---------- 2,410 words ---------- Cameras and Masks: Sustaining Emotional Connections with Your Students in an Age of COVID19 (Part 2 of 2) July 1, 2020

Several colleagues mentioned that when they arrive at a point in their synchronous class where they want to have a full class discussion, they request that students turn their cameras on, if they are not on already. They report their participation rates go up when they do this. After the discussion is over, students can turn the cameras off again. But be prepared to lose some participants. A teaching assistant told me, “this semester, we had an online quiz (~10 min) which students had to be present for. Almost all 90+ students were present. After the quiz, there was a lecture, but about 15-20 students (out of 90+) immediately left the Zoom call after the quiz.” A few colleagues even suggested, tongue in cheek, that they preferred the old days, when student disengagement was not so obvious!

An instructor told me that he was “struggling somewhat to get more than a couple people to talk during the Zoom sessions. It was suggested that instructors give students the option to turn their cameras off, so I told the students that while I prefer their cameras to be on, they can go dark if it slows their internet too much. After I announced this policy during class, there was a steep drop in the number of students whose faces I can see. The main problem is that it’s now very hard to tell if they’re paying attention unless they speak up, but I’ve also found it somewhat disconcerting. It’s a bit like screaming into the void when I’m lecturing. And I find the long pauses before people speak up to be significantly more awkward than they would be in person, since I can’t even tell if people are physically present. If I were to do it over again, I’d tell them they can let me know if they have a reason they need to have their camera off, but otherwise we learn best when we can see each other.”

The same instructor offered another cautionary comment about the possible cascading effects of a small number of students having their cameras off: “For an online class, students who log in but perceive low opportunity cost to turning off their cameras can easily feel they can have their cake and eat it too. I would imagine that turning off cameras virtually guarantees a worse learning experience, even as it seems relatively innocuous to students themselves. If the instructor fails to convince students of the importance of cameras … there is a further risk of contagion where declining camera use becomes difficult to reverse without establishing a policy that could’ve been in place from the start.” This comment again highlights the importance of discussing your camera-on/off policies with students at the outset and working toward a collectively-agreed policy.

Another instructor told me that she’d found a way to stress the benefits of cameras to her students by using methods of instruction in which face to face communication played a key role.  She said, “I had a book discussion day (no lecture component) where I really stressed to students that the day was going to be discussion-based (rather than lecture/small group activity) and we needed to have our cameras on to facilitate communication. I had near universal camera use that day and all other “book discussion days.”  During lecture days, I do have less camera use.

However, I started putting in more discussion questions (rather than just polls) mid-lecture which has improved participation a lot too. I also make sure to state that I’d like to hear from people who haven’t talked that day. I think it’s also going smoother because students know me and their fellow classmates better now too.”

To show students in smaller classes why you would like cameras on, at least some of the time, you might experiment with turning facilitation over to each of them periodically.  Asking them to run a discussion for some amount of time may help them build empathy for why you would like to have as many cameras on as possible.

Several instructors found “cold calling” helpful, but only after explaining to the students why they were doing it.  Research shows that cold-calling can be done fairly extensively without making students feel uncomfortable. For example, when instructors employ cold-calling, more students voluntarily answer questions and the number rises over time. As one instructor explained, “I think the cold-calling worked so well with students accepting it because I gave advance warning and explained to students why I was doing it. I think students are also sometimes seeking “permission” to participate in an online setting (maybe all settings?), where they know they’re muted and so forth. Plus, when they’re called on, they have to answer, and I think it potentially reduces some of the negative consequences of getting an answer wrong or partially wrong, since they were cold-called rather than volunteering.”

But, to repeat what I’ve said above, students should always have the option of keeping their cameras off throughout the class. They can show their engagement in other ways, such as by posting comments in the chat or “raising their hand” in a Zoom meeting.

Asynchronous classes: some considerations

I suggest that instructors look for ways to remind students that behind the seemingly impersonal flow of assignments and reports, there is a human instructor, not a robot.

First, although email is a good tool for handling student questions, I strongly suggest that instructors hold office hours using Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or any other tool that includes video. But note that for apps like FaceTime, you and your students must have others’ mobile phone numbers, raising privacy concerns. The objections students raise about turning the cameras on during class may not apply if it is just you and the student in a conversation. But you should check with students on whether they are comfortable with a “camera on” virtual office meeting. As another avenue for keeping in touch with students, consider becoming active on social media platforms

If you have groups or teams assigned in the class, then I suggest holding virtual office hours with the entire group or team. Such meetings will be a good way for you to assess the state of group functioning, replacing the feedback you would otherwise get if you were in a physical classroom and directly observing interactions among team members.

Second, when you create videos, such as short presentations that demonstrate key principles or show PowerPoint slides, use a video recording app that lets you put yourself on the screen.There are many such apps and they are proliferating as online educational technology explodes. WarpwireLoomZoomScreencast O-MaticCamtasia, and other apps allow you to control where your image appears on the screen and add a personal touch to the video. Some software is already configured to work with other platforms, such as Warpwire with Zoom. Be sure to use software that lets you add subtitles, for added clarity and to accommodate students who are hard of hearing.  Some software does subtitles automatically if you speak clearly when doing the recording.

Similarly, when you create assignments that ask students to embed pictures or voice in their work, use a tool such as Voice Thread. The tool not only lets students embed their own pictures and voice but also allows peers to make comments, using the same technology.

Third, if you always use group assignments, continue them. If not, consider adding some. Before assigning any group work, of course, you’ll need to make sure that your students do have the tools and the skills to “meet” in their groups.  I’ve discovered that students are very adept at using digital technology and they know about digital apps you have never seen, such as the suite of tools from Google (Google Hangout, Meet, and Duo). Design an assignment and then allow the students to decide for themselves how to execute it, specifying only that it needs to be multimedia. This gives them a chance to interact around a focused objective and get to know each other through the sharing of tasks.

A colleague issued a note of caution regarding group work, as she is concerned that the extra effort involved in group work will add to students’ stress. She recommended doing group work only for in-class activities, not for work outside of class. However, I am reluctant to give up the flexibility of out of class activities, as well as the chance it provides for social contact among them. As with other teaching tools that have not been tested during a pandemic, be prepared to pivot away from outside of class group work if you discover that it is adding to students’ burdens. Seek feedback frequently from students to gauge how things are going for them, not only through “check-ins” but also online polls through your learning management system.

Fourth, consider exploring other assessment formats, rather than the ones you have typically used: open book exams, crib sheets, take-home exams, collaborative testing, student portfolios, performance testing, small stakes quizzes and tests, briefing reports, presentations, reflective papers, student-proposed projects, experiential learning activities, poster sessions, fact sheets, game of vacation and game-based learning, and service learning. You will find many variations on these formats through a quick internet search.

Maintaining civility in synchronous and asynchronous classes

The chat function provides a channel for communication that has no counterpart in face to face classes, as students can not only broadcast messages to everyone while class is underway, but also engage in private chats with selected peers.  Students may be tempted to make unintentionally or even intentionally inappropriate (racist, sexist, etc.) remarks, saying things that offend others and undermine the civility necessary for a well-functioning class. The risk of incivility increases when people feel anonymous and instructors don’t quickly intervene. Colleagues recommended setting strong ground rules about appropriate online classroom behavior and stepping in immediately when students violate them. Just as with other aspects of classroom norms and expectations, instructors should explain the basis for rules and expectations at the beginning of the term and ask students for help in supporting them.


The COVID 19 pandemic has transformed the teaching and learning environment. We are still discovering the many ways in which student and faculty interactions are affected by being mediated through facial coverings and spatial distance. Although faculty and students are now moving back into the classroom, they have lost a key piece of information that humans rely on to understand others’ meanings and read their emotions. We are accustomed to encountering masked others mainly in situations that make us anxious or afraid. Now, it is the new normal. Similarly, online teaching and learning can deprive us of the facial expressions and body language that helps us assess whether others understand and agree with us. Online teaching cannot replicate what occurs in a classroom, even when participants are unmasked. So, we have our work cut out for us!

In this blog post, I’ve shared some thoughts on what instructors can do to establish and sustain connections with students. Based on what I’ve learned so far from Blogposts, research articles, and my own experience, we are discovering solutions to many of the problems posed by the new realities of our teaching and learning environment. But there is still much to learn, and I invite you to share what you’ve learned with the rest of us. Online education requires an even more dedicated commitment than usual to engagement with students through active-learning participation. All the usual problems we face with student non-participation are still there, on top of the new distance-learning challenges.

Remember to be flexible and empathetic. As one commentator noted, “College students taking classes this fall are likely to be unusually vulnerable and will need lots of support as they navigate financial, health, and safety concerns.” The students who were most disadvantaged before COVID are also most likely the students who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-related deaths and illnesses, financial challenges, and other stresses due to unfolding political events.

Thanks to the following people for their helpful comments: Alexis Dennis, Andy Andrews, Arne Kalleberg, Barbara Entwisle, Bob Hummer, Charlie Kurzman, George Hayward, Jessica Su, Kathleen Fitzgerald, Kelly Hogan, Ken Kowalski, Lisa Pearce, Madeleine Straubel, Melissa Manzanares, Reed Deangelis, and Viji Sathy,