Instructor implements controversial mandate involving Zoom cameras


Joshua Staley

Students and teachers connect via Zoom.

Joshua Staley, [email protected], News writer

Despite the shift from online to in-person classes, some teachers insist on hosting classes via Zoom. This creates a new problem between students and teachers, with the latter pressing the former to keep their cameras on during class meetings. 

“Seeing the confusion or the clarity on a student’s face surrounding a topic is so valuable. In-person students do not have the option not to show their faces,” said UNC Asheville Environmental Studies Lecturer Ashley Case. 

As an adjunct instructor, Case teaches a class via Zoom, and said she believes by showing their faces, students can better engage with classmates, keep focused on the tasks in front of them and feel like they are a part of the class.

“I don’t know what students are doing if their camera is off. They could be very attentive or they could be doing something completely unrelated to class. I only know if students are being somewhat engaged if their camera is on,” she said.

Because of that uncertainty at the start of the semester, Case said she was forced to mandate a rule about having cameras on during her class, and enforced a penalty to those who didn’t comply with the syllabus. 

“The syllabus handed out before class started had my Zoom policy clearly stated. Students are expected to have their video camera on and participate in group discussions,” she said.

According to Case, she only deducts half a point for each Zoom meeting, adding up to a total of four points. In a class that provides the opportunity to earn up to 504 points, having the camera on or off only accounts for 0.79% of the final grade earned.

“I attempt to provide each student a grade they earned in the class. I deduct not even a whole point for not having your camera on. It’s just to let students know it’s important to me, but I also don’t want it to affect their overall grade intensely,” she said. 

For the students that have reached out to her for various reasons regarding having their cameras off, Case said she has granted them full credit for participation and is happy to make exceptions.

“I have not received any pushback. I understand some students cannot turn on their cameras for various reasons ranging from slow internet, older equipment or even high anxiety levels,” she said. 

Lecturer of Languages and Literature Karsten Olson said he greatly prefers it when students have their cameras on, and believes classroom learning greatly depends on the interaction between student and teacher.

“I often rely on visual cues to gauge how a lesson is going. Do the students look anxious or confused? Are they smiling and engaged? There is no substitute for the wealth of non-verbal feedback we are all constantly reading from each other when we are face to face,” he said. 

While the lecturer said he does understand why his colleagues might consider a mandate, he isn’t a fan of enforcing one.

“Enforcing this kind of policy feels more like high school and less like university. I think I spent too much time at German universities, where students are entirely independent and responsible for their own learning,” Olson said. 

Sophomore Alex Parker said she disagrees with Case’s assertion that students aren’t as engaged with their cameras off, and said she feels the mandate is pushing the boundaries of student privacy.

“You can be just as engaged in an online class with your camera off. Some students are more engaged with their cameras off because they are more comfortable in their environment and can focus all their energy on the material,” Parker said.

Although she disputes the idea of a mandate, Parker said she does understand the motivation behind it.

“The instructor likely wants to be sure students stay engaged, but it’s ultimately that student’s decision to engage in the material and focus on their grades versus letting their grades slip,” she said. 

Sophomore Damen Riordan expressed his dissatisfaction with the idea of a mandate and agreed it would be an invasion of his privacy. 

“I can reason with them suggesting to turn on cameras and if it came down to a mandate, I would oblige. However, I would expect them to understand if I’m in a situation where I can’t have my camera on,” he said. 

After inspecting the policy sent out by the provost, Case learned the provost’s office requested students not to be penalized for having their camera off due to privacy issues.

“I dug deeper into the new policies. I’m removing any penalty for not having your camera on in my Zoom class, but I still strongly encourage students if they feel comfortable and are able,” she said.

Administrative Assistant to the Dean of Students Linnea Conway said it should be up to the student if they wish to turn their cameras on or not.

“They’re obviously going to take issue with being forced to do it. It would likely make many students uncomfortable and I think that would hinder their ability to focus on what was actually being discussed,” she said. 

Parker said she believes if more professors approached the issue in a more sensitive and sympathetic way, they’d see a better response from students. 

“I’m glad those students aren’t going to get penalized anymore. I think the professors appreciate it when students speak up in class and they enjoy teaching more when they aren’t lecturing to empty screens,” she said.

The mandate was an attempt to increase engagement and learning for students, and Case said she’s happy to discuss the issue of the mandate with students. 

“I am passionate about environmental science and I want to share my passion with others. Hopefully, that can help to decrease the sense of isolation students can feel during these trying times,” Case said.