Cameras and Masks: Sustaining Emotional Connections with Your Students in an Age of COVID19

Creating an environment that enhances student learning requires up-to-date content, pedagogy based on the latest research in teaching and learning, and an emotional investment in positive student learning outcomes. Students need to feel that instructors care if they succeed, and they prefer those who demonstrate authenticity in their teaching style. In traditional classes, there are several ways instructors can show their commitment: learning students’ names, revealing personal details about themselves, listening carefully to what students have to say, and so forth. But this well-researched advice has always been premised on a model of in-person face-to-face classes, in which instructors and students are in the same room and can see each other’s full faces.

The COVID 19 pandemic has changed all that. For the foreseeable future, our connections and communications will be mediated by facial coverings and spatial distance. In classrooms, faculty and students will be wearing face masks. For remote instruction, faculty and students will be watching each other via webcams and smart phones.

Under these conditions, what can instructors do to establish and sustain connections with students? Based on what I’ve learned so far from blogposts, research articles, and my own experience, I have some suggestions for adapting to the new realities. My colleagues at UNC-CH were particularly helpful in sharing their teaching experiences during the transition to remote emergency teaching this past spring. Although I have drawn on many sources, the views expressed here represent my own perspective on some very complex issues.

In Classrooms

In the meetings I have observed, facemasks change the interpersonal dynamics in some unexpected ways. Several recent classroom simulations paint a very disheartening picture of classroom interactions when current physical distancing guidelines are followed. Instructors need to be prepared to adopt a very different presentation style than the one they’ve used previously.

For example, it is much more difficult to read others’ emotions when half of their face is covered. Advance preparation, however, can mitigate some of the unintended effects.

First, instructors should make a virtue out of obeying local rules regarding facemasks and distancing. Many people have expressed reservations and even anxiety about wearing facemasks, but evidence shows that it is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID 19. Accordingly, instructors can become role models for their students. Acknowledge the situation but don’t complain. Instead, emphasize the communal benefits of protecting everyone’s health and remind them that community health is a public good. It can only be sustained if everyone cooperates.

Buy well-fitting masks and wear them properly: the mask should cover both your nose and mouth. Don’t just put your mask on before you enter the classroom. Instead, rather wear it as you walk across campus. Arrive early to check out seating arrangements and stand near the door so you can stop students entering who are not wearing their masks. It will be up to you to make sure that students feel comfortable in your classroom and recognize that you are taking steps to keep them safe.

Second, practice! Try out the different types of masks until you find one that you’re comfortable with and learn how to clean it for reuse if that’s practical. Make sure you choose a type of mask made of material that doesn’t “fail” when it becomes moist. Practice talking with the mask on in front of a mirror or record yourself with your Webcam or smart phone. Practice until you’ve learned how to be heard and understood through your mask. Read these four tips for communicating while wearing masks, from UNC Health Talk. If you are naturally soft-spoken, consider asking your IT department for a lavalier microphone that can be connected wirelessly to your classroom’s audio-visual system. At our university, a growing number of classrooms are now equipped with the latest AV technology, but you may have to request such a room if you weren’t assigned one.

Third, lecture less. Remember, students will no longer be able to see your lips and for some of them, that’s a big loss. For people who are hard of hearing, not being able to see your lips makes it much more difficult for them to check whether they’ve understood you properly. Even people who have not been diagnosed as hearing-impaired nonetheless subconsciously enhance their understanding of spoken words by watching a speaker’s lips. Thus, even for those who are not hard of hearing, straining to follow along when they cannot see your mouth will eventually become tiring. Use this as an opportunity to ask more questions, do more structured discussions, show short in-class videos, and find other ways of replacing yourself as the “chief talker” with other activities. Use technologies such as PollEverywhere to check students’ understanding as you move through discussions. Can everyone hear you and each other?

Fourth, work on improving your listening skills. Remember, you won’t be able to see your students’ lips either. Here are some practical suggestions for how to handle the situation. Ask students to raise their hands if they want to ask a question, so you can pinpoint who is doing the talking. Remind students about turn-taking and acknowledging comments that others have made previously. It will probably be more difficult than usual for discussion leaders to keep a thread of accountability going through the discussion unless students can associate words with faces.

Give up some of the control you’ve exercised in the classroom: listen and let the discussion be more guided by the students than by your preset plan. Because you’ll be spending extra energy in monitoring and sustaining student discussions, it might be harder to keep to a highly structured lesson plan. Focus on the bigger picture, which is achieving your learning objectives for the day, which will probably need to be kept simpler than the last time you taught the class.

Fifth, consider revealing more about yourself. Your comments don’t have to become deeply personal but do share how you’re feeling about the constraints under which you’re teaching. Explain how you set the course goals to accommodate the new reality. This might take the form of having a brief “check-in” at the start of every class, during which students can share some of the difficulties they’ve encountered in learning under the constraints imposed by COVID 19 restrictions. Some instructors do not set a time limit for this, arguing that such activity is essential information for you and the students. 

Online Classes

I am still discovering the many subtle differences between synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning, but I have learned a few useful tips from my own experience, my colleagues, and online posts and articles.

Synchronous classes: what to do about your camera

First, show yourself, regardless of what you ask students to do. Keep your camera on so that students can see your face as much as possible. “Open” class early, before the official starting time. Be there to listen to those who arrive early, join their conversations, and otherwise act as you would if you had arrived early for an in-person class. Some of the most useful information I’ve received about course issues have come from hearing what students have said to one another before class begins. One of the great advantages of an online class is that no one is in “the back of the room.” There can be no “side conversations” (unless students use the chat room for private notes).

Second, when screen sharing documents or PowerPoints, keep your camera on. Most platforms have an option of displaying your face somewhere on the screen while at the same time also sharing what’s on your laptop or desktop computer screen. Let students see your enthusiasm about the material you are presenting. Displaying your face on the screen also removes the temptation for you to try to multitask and then lose touch with your students. (Those of you who have tried this know what I’m talking about!)

Third, be animated! People tend to flatten out, emotionally, when they’re not in direct conversation with others. You may have to exaggerate your body language to convey your feelings as you are presenting material or responding to comments and questions. Showing yourself on camera gives one more signal to the students that you’re engaged with the class material. A colleague suggested she would encourage instructors to “focus on generating their own energy for the material, then draw on small-group and class-wide discussions and activities as much as possible.”

Fourth, in smaller classes, use a “gallery view” so that you can see the faces or the avatars of all the students in attendance. For those who turn their cameras on, you will be able to see their level of engagement. For those just showing their avatars, you will at least know they are “in the room” and available to be called upon in the discussion.

Synchronous classes: what to do about students’ cameras

In my discussions with colleagues, I found no issue more difficult than deciding what to do about students’ use of their cameras. Some were insistent that cameras be kept on, others took a contingent view, and still others said it was totally up to their students. There are several important considerations to keep in mind.

First, students have many reasons for opting to leave their cameras off, often caused by the extreme degree of inequality among college students. An instructor pointed out to me some of inequality’s consequences: limited band width, screen size, and access to video; unsafe and unsupportive home lives; uncooperative housemates and family members walking around in the background, and so forth. If instructors aren’t proactive in asking about internet connectivity issues, they may not realize that students have resorted to sub-optimal workarounds. A colleague remarked that “this semester one of my very diligent students had to do her schoolwork in her car in the parking lot of the local library because it was the only place where they could access WiFi.”  We may not know the full extent of unequal access at this point, but as online instruction becomes pervasive, instructors should take the initiative, such as working with students to help them find local access points.

Some students, such as those with body dysmorphic disorder, may feel extreme discomfort in finding themselves “on camera” because, unlike in a physical classroom, they can be seen, no matter where they are sitting. By contrast, in a physical classroom, students who are reluctant to feel themselves under scrutiny can sit in the back row or find a dimly lighted spot.

Accordingly, I strongly suggest that instructors make “camera on” completely optional, giving students the choice of whether to turn the camera on or just display an avatar.

Second, however, there are some sound pedagogical reasons for turning cameras on. Thus, I suggest sharing those reasons with the students before giving them the choice of what to do about their cameras. Explain why you are making your request. For example, being able to see students’ faces gives instructors a quick and easy way to discern whether students are finding the material engaging, at least in smaller classes. One instructor told me that “I asked students to turn their cameras on to say hi to their classmates at the beginning and end of class, and those were the best moments of the class.”

A colleague who would like students to keep their cameras on described her contingency plan to me: “I will not create a hard and fast rule about keeping cameras on but I will try to set a norm about engagement. At the beginning of the semester I always create ground rules with the class (I set some and I ask the class to create some together). One of my rules is always that students should expect to contribute to the class for the good of the order. In other words, we are in a community and everyone should be prepared to do their part to foster our collective learning. I think that having cameras on would fall under this and I would explain the reasoning. Of course, some students will still have their cameras off, but I would rather err on the side of making the class accessible to all students.” Her comment reminds us that turning a camera on is an invitation into a student’s home environment and thus we need to explain to students why we are asking for that invitation.

In larger classes, monitoring students’ faces is probably going to be impossible. Indeed, in very large classes, instructors will probably want to mute video and audio, except during Q&A time, to minimize disruptions. In those classes, instructors can use alternative tools for keeping students engaged, such as the chat function, working in groups on Google docs, using polling tools such as PollEverywhere, and creating breakout rooms. One instructor found that encouraging students to use the private chat for questions increased their participation/engagement, particularly for those who might not have asked their questions otherwise.

An instructor noted that she did not enter the breakout rooms, preferring to remain in the main room to answer questions from students that arose during discussions. She indicated that students were vocal about wanting to have private conversations, out of her hearing, and that students did excellent work in the breakout rooms, when left alone. I suggest that if you want to join breakout room discussions, you should ask students ahead of time for their preferences.

For those students who do not wish to turn their camera on, you can make several suggestions. If they are concerned about the sharing of private details about their room or home, they can pick simulated backgrounds from the app and thus show themselves against the skyline, an ocean view, and so forth. Or they can download and use a favorite photo as their background. You could make available a custom background and encourage all students to use it. However, a colleague cautioned that virtual backgrounds don’t work in some situations and some computers and mobile phones don’t have hardware powerful enough for simulations. Thus, I recommend only suggesting, rather than requiring, that students use simulated backgrounds.

If students don’t want to personally appear, suggest that they pick an avatar to stand in for themselves and make sure that their full name is associated with the account they are using for the course. By using an avatar and their full name, you will be able to call on them and keep them involved in the discussion.

Several colleagues mentioned that when 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 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. Warpwire, Loom, Zoom, Screencast O-Matic, Camtasia, 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.

Conclusion

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,

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