The Zoom Black Box Blues: Building a Flexible Camera Policy

Kyle Vitale & Jeff Rients

The question of whether or not to require that students keep their Zoom cameras on during synchronous online classes can be fraught. On the one hand, we use faces to help gauge participation, presence, and even the flow of conversation. On the other hand, a variety of legitimate concerns can keep students from turning their cameras on. As we enter a new semester, here are some ideas and strategies for crafting a course policy that respects your students’ needs while ensuring effective and rigorous class participation.


Let’s start by acknowledging that students have a lot of good reasons for turning off their cameras. These reasons can range from social (anxiety over being constantly seen by the rest of the class) to familial (sharing a small room with other zoomers) to technical (Zoom optimizes bandwidth, so turning off the camera may be the only thing keeping them in class when using a subpar internet connection). It is better to assume good faith on the part of the students. They logged into the Zoom room, after all, so let’s find ways to honor that decision.


Zoom is a communication tool and we recommend using it to communicate! Talk to your students. If the array of black boxes on the screen is impacting your ability to teach, discuss that fact with the students. As with all things, relate to them as human beings first. You might provide a flexible camera policy in your syllabus, and be sure to discuss your camera policy throughout the semester.


Also, please keep in mind that a live camera is not necessarily evidence of student engagement. Have you ever been in a meeting where you appeared more attentive than you actually were? Even in physical classrooms, presence does not always equate to attention. A robust participation policy will ensure engagement more than any hard rule about camera usage. Also, consider that the Zoom classroom is not a perfect recreation of a traditional classroom. Prior to the COVID lockdown, we did not spend our entire class time looking every single student in the class directly in the eyes from mere inches away. Now we spend all day doing exactly that! Meanwhile, we have no idea what students are looking at on their own screens.


With these facts in mind, you can take some simple steps to mitigate the issue. First of all, ask students to add a profile picture. This can be done by going to the profile section of or, in a live meeting, using the video settings tool to navigate to the profile settings. Some smiling faces, even still pictures, may help you feel more comfortable teaching in the Zoom environment.


Second, begin Zoom sessions with a breakout room activity. Students are more likely to turn on their cameras when doing a small group activity like discussing a question, reviewing prior material, or completing an activity. Some of those students may leave their camera on when they return to the main room, and regardless, students will have had a chance to warm up to class time.


Third, consider warm-calling. This strategy lets students know that they are expected to participate during class. In warm-calling, students reflect quietly on a question or chat together, before the instructor randomly calls on names. While reducing stress by giving students time to sort their thoughts, this strategy also maintains the expectation that students be focused and attentive to class lecture or discussion.


Fourth, practice screen rest. For long synchronous classes, consider a “screen break” or encourage all students to turn their cameras off during a reflective moment. This practice helps students suffering from Zoom fatigue and can reenergize everyone’s focus and attention.


Finally, we acknowledge that different types of courses require different levels of camera use. An acting instructor, for example, needs to see the faces of students performing a scene. If you need cameras on, make your case to the students. Explain how the camera helps them achieve the learning goals of the course. Specify when cameras must be on--such as when giving a presentation--and when it is okay to have them off. Review this policy with the students early in the course, remind them of it regularly, and incorporate these rules into your syllabus. Whatever approach you take to Zoom, make sure the students know what to expect from the beginning of the course.


The resources below offer more ideas for navigating Zoom camera policies. As always, feel free to reach out to the CAT with any questions!


Kyle Vitale and Jeff Rients are Associate Director and Senior Teaching & Learning Specialist at Temple's Center for the Advancement of Learning, respectively.

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