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Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so

Frank R. Castelli and Mark A. Sarvary – Ecology and Evolution |

Enrollment in courses taught remotely in higher education has been on the rise, with a recent surge in response to a global pandemic. While adapting this form of teaching, instructors familiar with traditional face‐to‐face methods are now met with a new set of challenges, including students not turning on their cameras during synchronous class meetings held via videoconferencing. After transitioning to emergency remote instruction in response to the COVID‐19 pandemic, our introductory biology course shifted all in‐person laboratory sections into synchronous class meetings held via the Zoom videoconferencing program. 

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Out of consideration for students, we established a policy that video camera use during class was optional, but encouraged. However, by the end of the semester, several of our instructors and students reported lower than desired camera use that diminished the educational experience. 

We surveyed students to better understand why they did not turn on their cameras. We confirmed several predicted reasons including the most frequently reported: being concerned about personal appearance. Other reasons included being concerned about other people and the physical location being seen in the background and having a weak internet connection, all of which our exploratory analyses suggest may disproportionately influence underrepresented minorities. Additionally, some students revealed to us that social norms also play a role in camera use. 

This information was used to develop strategies to encourage—without requiring—camera use while promoting equity and inclusion. Broadly, these strategies are to not require camera use, explicitly encourage usage while establishing norms, address potential distractions, engage students with active learning, and understand your students’ challenges through surveys. While the demographics and needs of students vary by course and institution, our recommendations will likely be directly helpful to many instructors and also serve as a model for gathering data to develop strategies more tailored for other student populations.


Castelli, FR,  Sarvary, MA.  Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecol Evol.  2021; 00: 1– 12.

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