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Designing for Social Connectivity (Not Everyone Likes Webcams)

By William P Lord / April 2021

TYPE: DESIGN FOR LEARNING
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These are interesting and challenging times for educators and trainers on multiple levels. COVID-19 has forced vast numbers of educational institutions to shift their operations from being delivered face-to-face to being delivered online. As of December 2020, almost one billion students have been impacted by the pandemic. For many students, parents, educators, administrators, and support staff, distance education is a new and uncomfortable form of education that presents challenges requiring immediate solutions and can serve as a source of anxiety [1]. As an educator prepares to teach online for the first time, he/she must consider how to best meet the needs of instruction, content, student motivation, relationships, and the mental health of participants [2]. Academic institutions have had to scramble to find complex solutions that meet systems-wide related needs [3, 4].

One of the crucial keys to distance learning success is dependent on the quality of interaction that occurs between the educator and the student [5]. As such, part of the challenge to developing a successful and satisfying online experience is figuring out how to communicate in a virtual world with unique audiences [6]. Faced with an immediate unanticipated need to transfer vast numbers of courses from face-to-face to online delivery, one may think a logical solution to maintaining effective and socially satisfying means of communication may be through the use of synchronous, webcam-based technologies. However, not all parties are aware of the importance and necessity of factoring for numerous technological, cultural, historical, personal, financial, psychological, and emotional issues that are associated with webcam usage in online educational applications.

Webcams For Everyone?

A key question for educators to explore is how do we best establish and maintain effective virtual learning and social connections in the online learning environment? How do we ensure there is a quality social connection from student-to-student, student-to-educator, or educator-to-educator? More specifically, how and when should we establish this connection using webcams?

When webcams were in their infancy, I became an early champion for using them to establish virtual international educational partnerships. In 2005, I partnered with a like-minded faculty member. Together, we used webcams to connect a class of local high-school students in North Carolina with a junior college class of students located in a “sister city” in Germany. Webcams connected through one of the first iterations of Skype allowed for the program to realize tremendous success. Students and educators from both facilities not only learned a great deal on an educational level, but they also learned about each other’s cultures, challenged each other ethically, forged international friendships, and truly enjoyed the virtual experience. In fact, at the end of the school year, students and educators from the U.S. flew to meet their newfound friends face-to-face in Germany. The following year, students and educators from Germany flew to the United States to reciprocate.

It is relatively easy to compile a list of potential benefits derived from using webcams during educational computer-mediated communications. In synchronous learning environments, there are opportunities to accommodate real-time, multi-directional interactions between any combination of educators and students [7]. In addition, synchronous learning has been shown to facilitate opportunities for social interaction [8] It is perhaps more challenging (and perhaps a less obvious need) to come up with a list of conditions as to when you should not attempt to communicate using webcams [9]. In many cases, student preferences not to use webcams are due to personal reasons that fly below the educators’ radar. The arrival of COVID-19 and the need to teach virtually demands we reevaluate our communication strategies and course design.

I know a distance learning graduate student who has a fear of speaking in public: Being forced to learn via webcam feels as though she is on stage under a spotlight, while everyone is focused on her every move, appearance, and word. She is so stressed about communicating synchronously with her professors and peers via webcam; she turns her webcam off and participates in class using only her microphone. Having her webcam switched off, gave her an additional layer of invisibility to work behind, which frees her emotionally to be an active and effective participant. Rather than worry about how she comes across on camera, she can focus on the learning and is able to answer questions with increased accuracy and more confidence. This case correlates with research findings that suggest one of the reasons students may prefer not to use a webcam is due to self-imposed stress that results from worrying about how one appears to others on the camera in a virtual learning environment [10]. In fact, in a study conducted by faculty at Cornell University, the number one reason students reported as to why they prefer not to use their webcams was due to concerns over their appearance. Their data also indicate while 36 percent of all males reported appearance as a concern, 43 percent of all women reported it as a concern. They also looked at the data from an underrepresented minority (URM) perspective and found 45 percent of all URM are concerned about their appearance on webcam [11].

Due to a list of variable concerns, choices, and philosophies, it has become commonplace for students to participate in virtual synchronous learning with their webcams turned off. This leads to educators teaching to a bunch of blank video windows with names in them and no faces, which to many educators is off-putting or unacceptable [12]. Striking the right balance of when to impose the use of webcams, then, can be challenging.

Social Distancing, Distance Learning, and Social Isolation

Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic can serve as a catalyst for the innovative use of communication and e-learning technologies [13]. When educators and students are required to teach and learn online, these virtual mandates are frequently accompanied by feelings of isolation where participants feel as though they are disconnected from each other [14]. Research indicates failing to address a lack of socialization in online learning negatively impacts students’ performance.

Unfortunately, it is common for online learners to experience a sense of isolation [15]. One may incorporate webcams into online learning environments as a way to meet social presence needs while building a sense of community in online environments. However, it is important to consider numerous other factors while negotiating this complex scenario [9].

Considering Cultural and Other Influences

Language may present barriers to online learners and learning, whether learners are native or non-native speakers of the host language [16]. (Not everyone communicates or prefers to communicate the same way [17]. In fact, each of us has a personal preference for the Internet-based communication technology we prefer and choose to use [9].

History, cultural influences, one’s level of comfort with technologies, linguistics, access to broadband and related technologies, financial considerations, or even a person’s mood on a given day may influence how someone might prefer to communicate [9,17]. For instance, let’s say you are an educator teaching an online course with a U.S.-based university. Typically, the expectation for students is they will communicate using the language of the host institution, which in this example is English. It is incumbent on the educator to be capable of successfully communicating with all of their students [18]. They must also provide a satisfactory socialization experience [19].

If you are a non-native English-speaking person who speaks English with a heavy accent, you may prefer to see a person’s face to receive visual cues. Visual cues might provide you information that indicates whether the person you are communicating with understands—or does not understand—the point you are trying to make [20]. Or, if English is not your native language, it might help to see the lips of those you are communicating with to assist in understanding what they are saying [20]. Research has shown webcams to be effective in online non-native language speaking educational settings to enhance the ability of participants to understand one another’s meaning through the webcam’s ability to deliver non-verbal gestures used in communication [21].

What if you are uncomfortable communicating via webcam because you don’t like the way you come across visually on camera? What if being visible in real-time on a webcam makes you psychologically uncomfortable? I once worked with a larger person who confided she was subconscious about how others perceived how large she looked on a webcam. As a result, she chose to attend team meetings with her camera turned off. There are a variety of influencers that cause learners stress when forced to communicate via webcam [9].

In another example, I experienced an interaction with an Indigenous student who not only did not want to appear on a webcam, the student did not want to communicate synchronously using any form of available technology. The student wished to exercise his right to silence which, in his culture, was a perfectly normal and valued practice. From a cultural perspective, the concept of silence is embraced in a variety of cultures and means different things to different cultures [22]. This can pose obvious problems for an educator who is looking to actively engage with their students online. It can pose additional challenges to scholars or students conducting virtual interviews for research or focus group purposes.

Recently, during the COVID pandemic, I engaged with associates who preferred to keep their webcams off because they had not had a haircut in months. In fact, to be honest, there are days when I am having a bad hair day and I too am hesitant to make my visual appearance to my peers known. How we appear to others makes a difference to us [10]. These are real-life scenarios where the prospect of communicating via webcam has caused significant levels of discomfort or anxiety for people for a variety of reasons.

There are other influencers that impact how people choose to communicate online.

Getting Personal

There can be a number of highly personal reasons why students do not want their webcams on during learning with anxiety being a leading concern. A high school in Georgia has a “webcam optional” policy in place for their students, and a large percentage of students are choosing not to turn on their webcams [23]. The school conducted a survey to explore why students did not use their webcams and the results are indeed varied. Some students are uncomfortable with the fact that others may be staring at them without their knowledge. Some students declared they do not have a quiet space they can go to. Others do not wish to show their peers what their personal living space looks like. For instance, one student shared how they display flags in the family home that reflect their sexual identity. “I can (display these flags) in my room because that’s my personal space, but I may not be comfortable with everyone focusing on that aspect of me (during class).”

The matter of social class enters into the equation as well. In one online post, a contributor noted, “Our background shows others our living conditions. When others see this, our social classes may be revealed to our entire class. Where before we were equals… now, you are the student who lives in a trailer park” [12].

An article published by Stanford University’s Stanford Daily, reports Stanford students are requesting a letter of accommodation from Stanford’s Office of Accessible Education allowing them to participate in Zoom classes with their webcams off [24]. Those who have disabilities and may be sensitive to not wishing to publicize their disabilities are placed in a particularly vulnerable position. However, while students with disabilities make some of these requests, many requests are due to other reasons. 

“We have students who are parents, whose children need homeschooling. We have students who don’t have a room in which they can close the door. We have students who are couch surfing, or students with very personal home environments, and students across the world 13 hours ahead of time, who would wake up their family if they talked. There are really an infinite number of reasons why a student would be struggling through this [pandemic] and with engagement requirements right now.” Personal reasons for not using a webcam are many. 

Unexpected Findings: Influencers on Personal Communication Preferences 

As part of my research, I was surprised to discover how religion and gender can play a significant role in personal communication preferences [9]. In one instance, a male graduate student in Morocco was asked to collaborate with a female graduate student in Sri Lanka via a webcam. Both parties were uncomfortable with my request. In their cultures, when a man initiates communication with a woman over a webcam, this action may be perceived as inappropriate and pose a question of motives. Their religious doctrine states when a man or woman initiates communication with a member of the opposite sex, it is imperative they reach a mutual understanding of why such a contact was initiated. My request for these students to work as a pair via webcam, then, became a source of stress that had to be negotiated.

Along with gender and religious influences that impact if a webcam is suitable for communication, there were also some discoveries about misinterpreted signals of “shyness” or students’ lack of desire to engage via webcam. Finnish people are known for not saying something unless they believe they have something really worth saying [25]. As mentioned, Native American people place value on listening, and in fact, silence is considered a valuable practice [26]. People from these, and other like-minded cultures, may be perceived as shy, but this may not be the case. Practicing quietude may just be the way people from their respective cultures choose to communicate. Or, perhaps there is a cultural respect component in play, where a younger person will not speak unless spoken to [27]. Some reflective thinkers prefer to communicate asynchronously. Reflective thinkers utilize the gift of time to think through what they are going to communicate before they contribute to the conversation [9]. I have experienced how some students who may be hesitant to communicate via webcam open up and communicate freely over text-based asynchronous means such as email.

In addition, it is also imperative to recognize there are those with visual or hearing impairments. Someone with a hearing impairment may benefit from communicating virtually over a webcam [28], while someone who is visually impaired will be limited in the level of information others convey via visual cues transmitted over the camera. I believe it is fair to speculate there may be some learners who have other physical reasons contributing to a personal preference to use one form of communication over another.

Also, social norms influence the choices we make. For example, with the previously mentioned Georgia high school students, peer pressure comes into play [23]. When students see their friends opt not to turn on their webcams, some feel socially pressured to follow the lead of their peers by choosing to keep their cameras off.

Establishing a Sense of Social Presence With Webcams

To this point, we have considered various reasons why a person might not want to use a webcam while communicating online. We also need to consider how we can best provide a sense of social presence for participants as establishing social presence is an essential component of online learning [29]. How can we best create a perception that communication is occurring between real-live human beings using digital technologies such as Skype, Zoom, and Google Meet?

Social cues may be defined as verbal or non-verbal signals transmitted by the face, voice, and body that leave an impression on others [30]. Communication transmitted over text-based technologies lacks the ability to convey many essential verbal and nonverbal social cues [31]. When a learner has the ability to see the gestures, appearance, and facial expressions of their peers, they experience a greater sense of presence [32]. Communicating via webcam conferencing technologies enhance our ability to send and receive social cues, and elevates a sense of social presence [33]. Access to these cues humanizes the virtual communication event.

Research also indicates when learners participate in synchronous webcam sessions they actually “feel” the presence of others [34]. Students who experience an online sense of social presence perform at a higher level than those who do not [35]. With numerous potential benefits that may be realized through the use of webcams, it is unfortunate that there are some reluctant to incorporate the technology into their learning and virtual learning experiences.

Transitioning To Webcam

There may be ways to shift a person’s lack of desire to communicate with a webcam [9]. One such approach is to allow a webcam-averse individual to use a still photo or an avatar to represent their visual likeness during webcam-based sessions.

When people assume the shape of a virtual avatar in a synchronous live computer-mediated communication session, participants feel “closer” to other communicants than when they communicate with just voice, or text [32]. Thus, an individual may assume the form of something mythical or cartoonish and achieve a higher level of connectedness in synchronous communication than if they had no visual representation of self at all [36]. Over time, the hesitant person may build a sense of comfort with the video conferencing technology while establishing a sense of trust with those around them. Building trust is an important part of the equation here. With comfort and trust established, the anti-webcam user may be willing to make the jump, turn off their avatar, and turn on their webcam.
 

Other Benefits of Webcam Usage

While webcam conferencing has been shown to have a positive impact on student performance [37], webcams may also enhance student motivation [38], and improve user affect [39]. Displaying participant images via videoconferencing enhances cognition and understanding in communication [21]. The ability for learners to see each other’s image over webcam, hear each other’s voices, and even add humor lends the impression that communication is occurring in a natural way and in a natural setting [40]. In fact, online courses can be further humanized by having the instructor provide asynchronous videos that incorporate elements of emotion, humor, and self-disclosure [41].

Recommendations

COVID-19 has forced many of us to learn and communicate virtually, whether we want to or not. If you are an educator and have never taught using synchronous technologies, ask for help from an instructional designer who knows how to design virtual courses and communication solutions for successful and satisfying online teaching and learning to occur.

I highly recommend exploring the use of webcams as a way of maintaining our connectedness to each other. Well-designed use of webcam technologies has the potential to allow people to perceive they are more connected than they would be in face-to-face settings. However, we must always be mindful of the needs and preferences of our students. When considering whether to mandate the use of webcams, base the decision primarily on the needs of the course and the needs of your students. 

But, before mandating the use of webcams, provide an opportunity for student input/buy-in and provide them with communication options while offering personal choice [9]. Be mindful of their emotional, cultural, holistic, and technical needs. Once you have achieved buy-in and discovered what your learners’ communication preferences are, try to accommodate those requests. This can be tricky and may require you to incorporate the use of a variety of computer-mediated communication technologies in an attempt to meet everyone’s preferences, but do the best you can with what is available.

A summary of recommendations is as follows: 

  • Consider if the course learning objectives are dependent on the use of webcams
  • Establish the use of webcams as being the norm and explain the reasoning and benefits for the use of webcams
  • Per student-centered practices, conduct a pre-course survey to discover the needs, preferences, limitations, and challenges each student has pertaining to computer-mediated communication, webcams, and online learning
  • Students learning from home may be balancing raising a family or providing care for an elder or loved one. Be generous and understanding with the unexpected appearance of kids on screen, pets jumping in laps, or the need for a student to quickly tend to an immediate need presented by a dependent
  • Do not implement communication practices that may result in student embarrassment, discomfort, or stress
  • Invite students to contact you directly with any issues of related concern
  • Meet the needs and preferences of each individual student by offering alternatives to webcam use such as synchronous audio, text chat, polling, and asynchronous communication options such as discussion boards
  • Allow students to post a static photo or avatar to represent their likeness in lieu of using a webcam
  • Apply active learning strategies and keep learners engaged during learning
  • Periodically apply the use of small breakout rooms
  • Offer a short break to students in the middle of class where they can step away from their computer monitors
  • Provide relevant technical support resources for students
  • Gather course formative and summative survey data to discover what is working and where there are needs for improvement
  • Provide equipment and technical solutions that address Internet broadband connectivity and technical equity issues

Applying these strategies will help ensure rich, quality, satisfying, and engaging virtual communication, community building, teaching, and learning experience. It is equally important to note extending a personalized effort signals you see each person as an individual and encourages the thought all participants are being treated equally and with dignity.

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About the Author

Dr. Lord is the founder, Executive Director and President of Maryland-based nonprofit, The Global Z Recording Project. He holds a Doctorate in Adult Education, Training & Development ??? International Communication and has a M.A. in Educational Media, Media Production ??? Distance Learning. He grew up and began playing music at the age of five in Woodstock, New York. He has performed in regional bands, has extensive experience with audio production equipment and processes, and is an award-winning commercial/ fine art photographer and songwriter. Currently, Bill is employed as a Senior Training Specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Previously, he worked in the field of higher education for almost 20 years where he consulted with faculty on matters pertaining to instructional design, multicultural online learning, distance education, and educational technologies. In all capacities he has produced multimedia-based support materials and developed international partnerships via internet-based communication tools. Research interests include exploring the use of computer-mediated communication technologies in the multicultural, multilingual online learning environment, cross-cultural bridge-building through music, and Cultural Historical Activity Theory.

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