Does Being Off Camera (Still) Matter?

Posted in: Academic staff development, learning and teaching, learning technology

As we return to in-person teaching, the desire for retaining the benefits of inclusive online practice has created a rise in hybrid/hyflex sessions. Hybrid teaching provides a different type of space which decolonises the classroom, enabling traditionally othered students to engage on their terms. But what hybrid teaching also enables is a continued discussion on how we measure presence and engagement in teaching and learning.

The enforced move to online teaching during the pandemic led to initial reactive complaints across the sectors of business and HE around being faced with blank screens rather than often blank faces. A new discussion emerged around how our old ways of measuring engagement – through bodily gestures, eye contact, and physical presence – might be false assumptions and actively not inclusive. Often definitions of ‘accessibility’ begin with the physical needs. Are there lifts, wide corridors, hearing loops etc. Encountering hidden disabilities, or ‘abilities, is more involved. We negotiate between disclosure and assumptions.

In these new online learning spaces, we began again. We learnt about how to connect to others and engage in a disconnected, unfamiliar world. When presented with people with their cameras off, these weren’t blank screens. We knew they had people behind them. People could choose to appear present or not. That disconnect meant we had to think about how we measure presence and absence, how we think about engagement and what it might ‘look’ like online. Using tools like polls, MCQs, interactive games etc helps us to know that learning is happening.

Woman on an online meeting.

Our awareness of the reasons people might want to switch their cameras off became the focus of practice. We learnt that students and co-workers had other lives which being off camera strangely made visible. They had adopted children who couldn’t appear on cameras, lived with unregistered migrants, they had caring duties, were multi-tasking, they lived in areas of low signal, they had no money for broadband. And they had other differences – ones which would still be invisible and come with them once we returned to in-person work. Mental health would mean they struggled to be dressed or showered every day. Neurodiversity was amplified by seeing multiple faces staring directly at them on a screen. Anxiety triggered by working in groups. Body dysmorphia at seeing themselves on screen – the term ‘zoom dysmorphia’ has appeared in the last month to define the dissociative symptoms of seeing yourself for prolonged periods on screen. All of these students might not have been able to come to a physical classroom. But they could feel a sense of belonging in the decolonised online community.

So the question here is: what happens to inclusivity now we are transitioning into hybrid spaces? Can we preserve the best of inclusive practice alongside the in-person experience through hybrid spaces? Initially, we have focussed again on how hybrid learning reduces the physical barriers to learning. But how do we navigate the double disconnect between physical and online/off camera presences? This time we are more in control of the transition and have the experience of the last two years to draw on.

Numerous companies are instigating a ‘cameras-on policy’ to enable all co-workers to be seen in the same space during meetings. They argue that these policies create a sense of belonging, reconnecting faces in the office spaces. If you can’t come in, you are still part of the meeting as your face is there, creating an equal presence. But is this really equitable and should HE respond in the same way?

students gathering around table with laptop

Again, we are beginning with the idea of the visible, physical world. It grounds us. We can see and touch it. People in spaces are familiar. We think we can read them, though often we misread gestures and words. Accessibility is about more than the seen, it’s also about what cannot be seen. Look at the spaces and silences in a room. What or who is missing and why? Have we enabled or excluded them? We know it’s not just about bodies in a room to deliver knowledge. Students are co-creators. Whilst noting their absence might enable us to spot patterns of learning and make interventions in learning, what we should do is create a truly inclusive baseline so these trends in absence/presence don’t emerge.

Retaining the engagement tools of polls, debates, smaller breakout groups and accessible materials will support learning. But also think about the dynamics of presence and absence – how do we encourage work on/off camera? Having points in the hybrid session where everyone has cameras off/works back-to-back would support closer listening. Creating a space where engagement isn’t about visibility is key. How we model and co-create learning spaces frames our approach to accessibility and inclusivity. Hybrid spaces have the potential to continue the work begun during lockdown and open up wider debates on the diversity of assessment needed to promote difference and inclusion.


Dr Kate Mattacks is a Curriculum Development Officer within the Centre for Learning & Teaching and is currently working on a TDF-funded project, led by Dr Steve Cayzer and Dr Edward Elias, focusing on peer-peer assessment in hybrid learning.

Posted in: Academic staff development, learning and teaching, learning technology


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