One-quarter of freshmen don’t turn on their cameras in virtual classes, Paw Print survey finds

By Bridget Galibois, Staff Writer

Only 15% of Freshmen respondents feel comfortable turning on their cameras during virtual learning no matter what teacher or class they are in.

After almost a year of since the Coronavirus shutdown forced remote learning, Payton students are experienced with online school. During Google Meet instruction, students can turn on and off their microphones and cameras to interact with their classmates and teachers.  However, according to a new Paw Print survey of 39 freshmen, roughly 15% of freshmen feel comfortable turning their cameras on, regardless of the class or teacher.

“Being the only [student] with my camera on… discourages me [to turn it on], because I feel like everyone can be watching me very closely and I don’t know it,” says Julianna Mokaya ‘24.  “I feel that if a group of people all agreed to turn their cameras on during a certain class, it would make many people, like me, feel more comfortable having theirs on.” Many freshmen echoed similar sentiments of being alone in turning on their cameras, with roughly two thirds of form respondents saying it depended on the class for them to be comfortable with leaving their cameras on.

Two-thirds of freshmen respondents to a Paw Print survey said that it depends on the teacher and class for them to feel comfortable turning on their cameras.

Additionally, roughly a quarter of freshmen say that they don’t turn on their cameras in virtual classes at all, and another 20% of freshmen who responded said that they only turn on their cameras in one class. Of all the form respondents, eight said that they used their camera in three or more classes, with only one freshman saying that they turned it on in all classes. “Whenever I do put my camera on, it’s really not that bad of an experience at all, but for some reason I just never want to anyways,” Oliver Kirk ‘24 said.

Only 20% of freshmen respondents said they turned on their camera in three or more classes, with the majority of respondents saying that they turn on their camera in only two classes.

Since the current freshman class at Payton has never experienced in-person learning, many students have never seen their classmates. Freshmen P.E. and Health Education teacher, Ms. Annunzio, thinks that the virtual gap is even harder to overcome because Payton is a selective enrollment school. “If … y’all went to a neighborhood school, you know people going in and so … forming relationships might not be as important because you knew kids from grammar school and things like that,” she said. “I think coming into a selective enrollment school, it can be really difficult because it’s hard to form a bond with somebody … when you see people, you can find common interests or you can find something about them that … you like, or you can open up conversation, but if you never see a person it can be really difficult to try to build a bond with somebody, so … it’s got to be really hard for the freshmen.”

Many teachers often remind and encourage students to turn on their cameras, and more than 60% of freshmen who completed the survey said that teacher encouragement did make them feel more inclined to turn on their cameras. When commenting about how some teachers strongly encourage keeping cameras on, Miriam Itta ‘24 noted that sometimes these situations can leave students feeling “intimidated and anxious.” While many students might feel motivated by their teachers to use their cameras, a little more than 20% of respondents said that teacher encouragement was instead having a negative impact on their decision to turn on their camera.

Currently, the freshmen are in the P.E. semester of the P.E./Health I class, and are required to submit visual proof of assignment completion for their grade.  Typically, they have the option to turn on their cameras during class or to submit a video of them exercising afterwards.  In a given class, Ms. Annunzio says that she “find[s] that … 50% to two-thirds [of students will use their cameras when they will be graded]. [If it’s not a] requirement, then I would say I only get one or two kids per class that will turn their camera on,” Ms. Annunzio added.

Roughly 65% of freshmen surveyed said that teacher encouragement to turn on their cameras during virtual class made them more likely to turn on their cameras, while approximately 20% of freshmen surveyed said that teacher encouragement made them less likely to turn on their cameras.

“I think when I have people’s cameras on, I feel more engaged. I feel like I can see their faces [and] see if they’re engaged, [then] I know what to do next,” said Ms. Jackson, a freshman geometry teacher. “It’s a part of teaching, seeing people’s faces … it helps significantly for me, figuring out if people are… understanding, [whether] they’re giving me head nods or… if they’re looking confused.” Over 80% of freshmen students who filled out the survey said they were more motivated to turn on their cameras if other students had them on too, but currently only a small percentage of students have the level of comfort where they feel confident turning on their cameras. 

With this cycle of being afraid to turn one’s camera on for fear that nobody else will do so, many freshmen feel stuck while not wanting to make the first move. “I’m usually fine with turning my camera on but I really only do it if I’m in a breakout room with people I know or multiple people in the class have their cameras on,” Sarina Levy ‘24 said. 

Both students and teachers acknowledged that breakout rooms are challenging, because “not having [students’] cameras on in groups makes it more challenging [for them] to want to participate in groups, and share [their] words in groups,” Ms. Jackson said.

Over 80% of freshmen surveyed are more encouraged to turn on their cameras when they see other classmates turn their cameras on.

Over 85% of freshmen surveyed are discouraged to turn on their cameras when there are no other classmates with theirs on already. “Most of you all don’t know each other by face,” Ms. Jackson said. “I think, because [students in my classes have] had [their] cameras on … some people know who other people are, and maybe there are more cameras on in other classes. I think [that] I’m just tired of asking people to turn their cameras on, so I don’t know what’s happening in other classes.”

Close to 90% of Payton freshmen who rescinded to the survey feel more discouraged to turn on their cameras when their classmates have their cameras off.

Of the classes students felt most comfortable using their cameras in, the three subjects with the most respondents were math (20 responses), English (16 responses), and world languages (15 responses). Some factors considered in these choices included the teacher, the classroom environment the teacher builds and the class size. Typically, math, English, and world language classes have roughly 20-25 students, whereas some bigger classes such as P.E./Health I have around 40 students in their biggest classes. P.E./Health I had nine students say they felt comfortable using their cameras, which also could be due to the fact that students are required to show their faces in some way to receive their participation points for the week.

Of the 39 respondents, Payton students felt most comfortable turning on their cameras in math, English, and world language classes.

Teachers are also feeling the burden of not seeing their students, and not seeing their reactions.  “It makes it a little harder, like I don’t know if people are actually there and you know when I’m asking questions, typically in the classroom or if cameras were on you can see [that] the wheels are turning and so I know to wait because people are thinking about something, but without cameras on, it’s like you try to give proper waiting time, but you don’t know what [the] proper waiting time [would be], or if people aren’t even thinking or if they’re off doing something else [or that] type of thing,” Ms. Annunzio said during an interview. “So that can be a little difficult to navigate.”

Getting students to turn on their cameras is a struggle, according to Ms. Annunzio.  “It has to be required, it isn’t just like ‘Hey, how about everybody turns their cameras on today’ … it has to be a requirement, otherwise kids don’t want to do it.” For a freshman class where many peers have never seen each other before, there are many outside factors that contribute to camera use, such as background noise and distractions, space constraints, keeping a positive mental health, body positivity, and distractions when people turn on their cameras.

“I think it’s really hard in this remote setting,” Ms. Annunzio said. “I know everyone’s got their own stuff going on at home and … I know from background noise and things that [there are] siblings sitting at the table and so it’s just so hard to find this perfect balance of how we make people turn on cameras, because I think it makes the learning environment much better and much richer. But at the same token, [taking the action of] protecting people that might not be in a place to … engage that way, and not making them feel singled out. [It’s] like a lovely tightrope dance.”

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